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Invitations - Part 3
by Gin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goddess of Grammar, however, can Bite Me!

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

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


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by Gin

Part 3

Solan looked at his Mom sitting on his Mother's lap and marveled at how opposite they were.  Mother, dark and almost menacing without even trying, the firelight casting shadows across her face.  Mom, light and smiling almost always, the firelight picked up the highlights in her hair and seemed to make her glow.  He was fascinated how the black silk of his mother's robed arms surrounded his Mom's waist and looked as though they were meant to be there.  He remembered some puzzles he used to have in one of the Centaur villages that's what they looked like, two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly.  He was shaken out of his thoughts by his Mom's uncertain voice.

"Solan?  What do you have to tell me?"  The way Xena had dismissed Karis and now Solan's hesitation to begin began to worry her.  She was grateful for the warm arms around her and snuggled in, grinning when the arms tightened slightly.

"Well....."  He truly had no idea where to begin.  "I.... It's just...." Shaking his head he looked to his mother for help.

Xena took a deep breath and spoke quietly. "Why don't you show her?"

Solan swallowed hard and nodded.  Rising from his seat on the couch, he crossed to the bed and reached under it.

Gabrielle was becoming increasingly worried with each passing moment.  She watched Solan reach under his bed and retrieve a object. 'What is that?' She thought and then gasped, feeling the arms around her squeeze briefly in support. 'Gods it's a sword.'  She watched as he unsheathed it and ran through a quick drill routine.

Xena heard Gabrielle's gasp of recognition when the weapon was taken from it's hiding place.  Tightening her arms in reassuring support, The Warrior Princess wished there was a easier way to tell her.  Some way that would ease the pain it would cause in her love's heart.  The Conqueror too wished that she could ease what was sure to be feelings of hurt at her son's lies but quickly became fascinated by the drill he was doing and especially the move he completed at the end.  'I don't believe we taught him that.' The Warrior Princess concurred. 'No we didn't.'  That however was a secondary concern as she felt the stillness in the form on her lap.

Once he completed his exhibition he quietly resheathed the sword and sat on the couch to wait his punishment.  He tried not to look at Gabrielle and he simply sat studying his hands intently.  It was impossible not to look up when the soft voice, choked from keeping back tears, drifted through the room.

"You lied to me."  The sheer disbelief in her voice was enough to start tears spilling down Solan's cheeks.

Xena saw that Solan was very sorry for lying and started to explain. "Gabrielle..."

Turning quickly on the warrior, Gabrielle spoke sharply now. "NO... " Wriggling out of the supportive arms she stood to face the seated woman.  "I trusted him and he lied to me."

"Please Mom." Solan's choked plea whirled her around in time to see him drying his tears. " I never meant to lie... " He looked at Xena. "Mother...can you explain...."  Gabrielle's response cut off his plea to the warrior.

"Hold it." Gabrielle was fast becoming furious. "You leave Xena out of this.  I'm the one you lied to..... I'm the one you answer to."  She took a deep breath. With emerald color eyes that were diamond hard, she asked. "How long?"  His puzzled look prompted her to expand her question. "How long have you been lying to me?"

Now he knew how to begin the story. "I've had the sword for as long as I can remember." He glanced at Xena. "All my life.  Uncle would never let me use it.  He said I was too little, or too young but I watched the other's training and practicing." Not daring to look into those hard green eyes he continued. "When you found me, after I recovered, I went through the stuff the Amazons had brought back from the destroyed Centaur village.  When I found the sword there I hid it."  A glance up gave him hope.  His Mom's eyes had softened considerably. "You said I was too young so I just watched Poni training the recruits.  When I found out though....."

Pulling her thoughts from his recovery, Gabrielle finished for him. "When you found out you were sixteen you decided you were old enough.  So when we got back from Potidea you began to actually try some of the moves you had been observing."

Solan sagged his shoulders. "Yes."

"I don't ever want you to lie to me again."  She softened her voice. "and I don't want you to use a sword."  She held up her hand to quiet his protest. "I will have to decide a punishment for your lies.  We will have staff practice tomorrow afternoon.  I'll tell you my decision then."  The tone in her voice left no room for argument, she saw his pleading look to Xena and closed her eyes when The Warrior Princess spoke.

"Solan. Do you know how to get to the stables?"  She nodded when he indicated he did. "Go and find Bennett.  Tell him I sent you for his mother's report and bring it back to me."  She watched him as he left and felt sorry for the boy.  He looked so sad.  'How would we feel if we hurt Gabrielle like that?  If we lie to her it will hurt her.' The Conqueror sighed. 'I know.'  A slight shaking in Gabrielle's shoulder's pulled her from her conversation with the Conqueror and the Warrior Princess closed the distance between them.  She gathered the crying Queen in her arms and rested her chin on the top of the Amazon's head.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and let herself enjoy the supportive arms around her. Then she took another deep breath and wiping the tears from her face, turned to face the taller woman. "How did you know?"

Xena smiled and wiped away a lone tear with her thumb. "When you arrived and Iolaus recognized you I saw Solan reach to his side.... like he was going to draw a sword.  Then when I hugged him and held his upper arms I could feel his right biceps were more developed than the left."

Gabrielle interrupted the explanation. "I had noticed that but I just thought it was a flaw in my training and he was using his right hand too much in the drills.  But how did you know... for sure?"

Tapping the smaller woman's nose with her index finger Xena grinned. "I asked."

That put the twinkle back in Gabrielle's rolling eyes. "I'm sure you were so polite about it too."  She laughed at the mock dismay on Xena's face. "I can see it now, you taking Solan by the hand and saying, 'Now son, Will you please tell me if you have a sword hidden away somewhere?'"

"Actually." Xena grinned. "It was more like...." She cleared her throat and dropped her voice to a growl. "Were is it?"

"Yikes." Gabrielle wasn't sure even she would want to face Xena when she spoke in that tone.

Laughing, Xena ran her fingers through the silky hair. "I told him he had to tell you tonight or I would tell you tomorrow."

"Uh huh... and then you showed him some moves didn't you."  Gabrielle's accusation was said with a grin so Xena defended herself playfully.

"Only a few basics.... so he didn't cut off his own leg or something."  Smiling, the Conqueror reached for another hug.  Her smile vanished when Gabrielle turned serious.

"He asked you to teach him didn't he."  She knew he would have so it wasn't a question but it was important to know how Xena had responded to his request.

Never breaking eye contact, the Warrior Princess answered the question. "I told him that I wouldn't unless you said it was okay."

"Well it's not okay. I hate bladed weapons, they make it too easy to kill."  She dropped her eyes to the ground and whispered. "I don't want him to be a warrior."

Xena didn't want to argue so she just held the little woman in her arms and swayed a bit. "I know."

Solan hoped that Xena would talk to his Mom about teaching him to use the sword.  He knew that if Xena taught him then no one would be able to hurt him and he could protect her and Karis better.  Glaring at Bekka, who followed him as he exited the room, he signaled her to back off.  To his surprise she did fall back a few steps, he always felt more comfortable with a distant escort.  He was therefore a little perturbed when she pushed past him into the stables.  It was an annoying habit the guards had adopted since they had gotten to Corinth, the guards always entered first and then he and his Mom could go in.  His annoyance melted away when he saw Bekka's serious expression when she returned. He nearly laughed and schooled his expression into mock seriousness too. "Are the horses secure?" He broke into a grin, hunched his shoulders and wide-eyed, wiggled his fingers. "I wouldn't want any of them to get me...."

She rolled her eyes and took her place next to the door. Gesturing to him that it was okay to enter.  Bekka managed to keep a grin off of her face until he had entered the building.  Despite her traditional training she liked him.

He looked around the darkened room and saw a light spilling out from behind a door.  He walked to the door and knocked.  When a young boy opened it, he smiled. "Are you Bennett?"

"Yup. That's me." He looked suspiciously at the uninvited guest. "Who are you?"

"My name is Solan."  He smiled at the boy. "Mo.....Xena sent me to get a report from your mother. Is she home?"

"No she's not home. " He opened the door wider and walked across the room to a desk. "It's springtime you know."

Solan stepped in the room and saw that it was very small.  The whole room was almost as big as the bathroom in his suite in the Palace.  It was nice though, cozy, the fire warmed the room evenly and everything was very neat and clean.  Bennett's voice drew him out of his evaluation of the room.

"Here you go."  He handed the older boy a parchment.

"Thanks."  Solan absently took the report and couldn't contain his curiosity. "Do you live here with your parents?"

The question took the shepherd boy by surprise but then he just shrugged. "My mom and I live here."

"Where's your father?" Solan knew it was very personal and rude to ask but he was fascinated by the idea of a father.

Bennett shrugged again. "I never knew him much.  My village was destroyed when I was little and Mom adopted me. I always thought he was dead, 'til he showed up here a few weeks ago."  He looked sad and confided. "I think Mom was afraid he was going to take me away from her."

"Take you away?" Solan was totally confused at that. "How could he?  She's your mom."

"I heard her talking one night to the lady that tends the chickens.  She said sometimes when a kid is adopted and then their parents come back... the parents get the kid back and the kid doesn't even get to say if they like the adopted parents better or anything." Bennett was deadly serious about this. "But Xena said she wouldn't let him take me and gave him a job as a hunter so he could stay in Corinth and do stuff with me."

Solan folded the parchment and stuck it in his pocket.  "Thanks."  He turned to go but looked back. "Hey maybe I'll see you at the Festival, huh?"

A huge grin split the younger boy's face. "Yeah, maybe."

Solan smiled and headed back through the darkened stable.  He wondered what waited for him in his room.

Bekka stood by the door of the stable and waited for Solan to return.  She saw a figure moving through the shadows and watched it intently.  'No weapon.' She thought, so she patiently waited for the person to make himself known and acted surprised when he 'appeared' next to her.

"Hi."  Iolaus was pleased he had snuck up and surprised the Amazon.

"Hi." Bekka put her hand over her heart as if to calm down it's racing.

"What are you doing out here?" Iolaus was suspicious of the Amazons in general.

"Waiting."  She indicated the stable with her thumb.

He nodded like he understood. "Waiting?"

"Uh huh. " She pointed backwards with her thumb again. "Solan's in there."

"Solan." Iolaus repeated the name questioningly. "Solan?"

"Uh huh."  Bekka was enjoying this.  She wondered how long it would be until he got tired of her short answers. A horse moving in the paddock took her attention for a moment and she chuckled. 'I guess it didn't take as long as I thought.'  She watched him slink back through the shadows and stop. 'He's gonna follow us back.'   Her first thought was to try and lose him but then she thought 'Why bother.'  It wasn't like Xena or Gabrielle made any big deal about hiding where Solan was staying and she assumed that soon everyone would know he was Gabrielle's son too.

When Solan returned he looked very thoughtful. Bekka signaled him that they were being followed and he acknowledged.  When they got back to his room, he saw that Karis had taken Bekka's place and when she saw him coming almost smiled.  Bekka and Solan both signaling they were being followed stopped the smile cold.  When he was close enough Karis opened the door and preceded him into the room.  Bekka remained outside, taking the space Karis left.

When the head guard walked in to the large room she stopped dead in her tracks.  What she saw took her breath away.  Xena and Gabrielle, black and white, stood in front of the balcony window.  The full moon sent it's rays down on their shoulders as they stood locked in a loving embrace.  Xena's cheek rested on the side of Gabrielle's head and the large weapons worn hands stroked her Queen's silky hair, turned blonde in the moonlight.  Karis looked at Solan who just grinned and cleared his throat.

"Ahem...."  He smiled when his parents broke their embrace and looked a bit embarrassed. Taking the report from his pocket he handed it to Xena. "Here you go."  His eyes flickered briefly to the sword that had been moved to the table.

She grinned and took it. "Thanks."  Unfolding the page she read it quickly and smiled. "Thanks alot."

Karis couldn't stand it any longer. "So who followed you back?"

He grinned at the curious guard. "I only got a glimpse of him once, but I think it is Iolaus."

That made Karis and Xena very happy.  If he was interested enough in the Amazons to follow Bekka and Solan back then they knew Karis would soon be the topic of discussion among the guards and after that the Resistance was sure to come.

"Well I guess our plan is as close to on schedule as it can be." Xena grinned at the head guard.

"Yeah." She grinned back. "I wasn't sure it would work."  Her word work turned into a yawn and she grinned again as everyone else yawned too. "I guess it's past my bedtime."  She hugged Solan and started to walk to the door when Xena stopped her.

"Karis."  The Conqueror looked at her intently before motioning her over. "Follow me."  Xena led her to the clothes closet and went to the wall opposite she and Gabrielle had gone through. "Push that stone."  She indicated the stone and saw the guard's surprise when it opened. "Come on.  I want to show you something."  The dim light from the still open secret door was enough to navigate the narrow corridor and when they got to the other end Xena indicated quiet. "Shhhh...." She pulled the lever and opened the door slightly.

Karis was amazed to hear the guards talking.  She could identify some of the voices, Norin, Ana, Solari, Ria.... This was their room and it had a secret entrance to Solan's!

Xena closed the entrance and retraced their steps back to Solan's room.  Closing the door on this end she looked at Karis. "I thought you should know, just in case."

Karis became too aware of the fact that she was standing in a closet with Xena.  The warrior's proximity was enough to make her dizzy. 'Gods, girl, get a grip. She's Solan's mother.'  To cover for her lapse in attention Karis repeated the last part of Xena's statement. "Just in case?"

Laughing, Xena threw her arm around Karis' shoulder. "Yeah you know if we are attacked or he needs to get away for some reason."  She paused to consider her words then sighed. "Or maybe just if he can't sleep well."

The young woman's eyes flew open at that addition and she swallowed hard. "Sometimes, he can't sleep very well unless...."

"...unless you're there to hold him?"  Xena grinned when the guard nodded. "I know."

"How do you...." Karis would never understand Xena.  The woman knew everything.

She leaned closer to confide a secret to the Amazon. "Because I don't sleep well without Gabrielle."  She tightened her grip briefly then dropped her arm and walked back into the main room.

Karis grinned and blushed at the confession. "Oh."  She followed right behind the warrior, not quite allowing herself enough time to stop blushing.

Gabrielle saw the rosy cheeked guard and felt a rare surge of jealousy. 'They were in that closet a long time.'  She thought and then chided herself for being jealous. 'Xena won't hurt you like that stupid. She loves you.'  She took a deep breath and yawned.  "Well I'm headed to bed."  She gave Solan a significant look. "Tomorrow is a big day, with the Festival's opening ceremonies and all."  She slowly walked to the table and picked up the sword, handing it to Xena. "You ready?"

Xena gave Solan an apologetic smile and took the sword. "Yeah, I've got some stuff to do in the morning too.  I should get some sleep." She looked at the young couple and smiled. "Sleep well."  Putting her hand automatically on Gabrielle's back when they walked, Xena guided her sleepy love to the closet and through the secret door.

Solan watched them walk into the closet and looked at Karis. "Where are they going?"

Karis ran her fingers through her hair and shrugged. "Back to Xena's room I suppose."  Laughing at his confused look Karis promised. "I'll tell you later."  She hugged him tightly. "Get some sleep okay?"

He returned the hug, kissed her neck and whispered in her ear. "I'll try."

Smiling at the implied 'it won't be easy without you', Karis kissed him quickly on the cheek and tried not to think about his sad face as she left.  Pulling the doors closed behind her she got an idea.  She spoke louder than necessary to Bekka. "Hey I'm going to the kitchen to see if I can scrounge up some food for the guards.  I know some of you didn't get to go to the lovely dinner tonight."  Grinning at Bekka, she rolled her eyes as Jana chimed in.

"Yeah I would have loved to see that."  Jana looked at Bekka jealously.

Karis slapped Bekka on the shoulder. "Well Bekka was there.  I'm sure she will tell you all about it."   Walking down the hall toward the kitchen she passed by Iolaus' hiding place, knowing she had more of Xena's perfume on her than her own and knowing that he would stay to listen to Bekka tell her version of the dinner incident with added speculation on why Karis was so 'brave'.

Xena put Solan's sword in the weapon's chest she kept at the foot of her bed.  She touched the hilt once more and closed her eyes against the memories.  She closed the lid and stood, sighing deeply with regret for many of the things that happened back then.  Then she sighed with contentment as Gabrielle's arms around her drove away all the bad memories.

"You showed Karis a secret passage to the guard's room didn't you."  Gabrielle realized that was why they went into the closet.

"You know I did." Looking down at the smaller woman she brushed the hair back over her ears.  Uncovering the very kissable ear, Xena leaned down and smiling, whispered. "Thank you for being jealous."

"I know it's silly of me... but when I see you hug her and then she comes out of the closet blushing well I sort of just......" She didn't want to say it.

"Lose it?" Xena supplied and grinned. Gabrielle nodded and rested her forehead against Xena's chest.  The warrior chuckled.  "It's not silly."  That brought the blonde head up quickly.

"It's not?" She could think of a few other words that might fit, petty, juvenile, selfish.  Xena's chuckle pulled her out of her alternate word list.

"No. It's not silly." She leaned down to kiss her love's fears away. "I think it's cute."

Gabrielle's eyes widened significantly. "CUTE!"  She wriggled out of the embrace and took a couple of steps back. Raising her chin, and stretching to her full five foot four inch stature she replied haughtily. "I am the Spider Queen of the Amazons."  Dropping her voice very low she continued. "I am not cute!"

The Warrior Princess held up her hands in defeat. "Okay fine you're not cute."

Gabrielle deflated slightly. "I'm not?"

Closing the distance between them the warrior answered. "Nope."  She gently tugged on the belt of the robe and smiled as it fell open to reveal the skimpy nightdress Gabrielle wore. "You are beautiful." She slid her hands up under the edge of the robe and pushed it off her shoulders, sliding the straps of the nightie down. "Gorgeous."  She kissed the now bare shoulders, letting the robe fall to the floor. Pulling down ever so slightly the remaining garment joined the puddle of clothing at their feet and Gabrielle stood before her, naked. "Breathtaking." She traced every curve with her eyes, a path closely followed by her hands.  "Lovely."

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sensation of Xena's hands exploring her body then she realized there was something wrong with this picture.  Taking half a step forward she tugged on the belt of Xena's robe, smiling when it fell open. "And you my dear warrior are magnificent."  She reached up to push the robe off the broad shoulders and added it to the clothes at their feet, sliding the straps of the leather outfit down. "Exquisite."  She kissed the now bare shoulders and with a slight tug down, leather joined the silk at their feet and Gabrielle caught her breath at the vision before her. "Stunning."  She traced every curve with her eyes, then traced them again with her hands. "Glorious."

Desire blocked out all the million other words that Xena knew didn't do Gabrielle justice by half and she was left with only one thought.  Four words that burned crystal clear behind her eyes. "I love you, Gabrielle."

Forcing the warrior to walk backwards, Gabrielle smiled as Xena's calves hit the edge of the bed and the dark warrior sank back into the soft bedding. She climbed onto the bed, stretching her full length against the warm, tan warrior. "I love you, Xena."

Several candlemarks later they remembered how tired they were and contentedly curled up around each other.  Xena  thought about how wonderful it was going to be to wake up with Gabrielle in her arms and she felt the little Queen chuckle. "What?"

With a sparkle in her eye Gabrielle looked into the blue eyes of love and said. "I think it will be wonderful waking up in your arms too."  She rested her head on the tan shoulder, closed her eyes and thought. 'I love you, so much.'

Xena felt the smaller woman's breathing even out and chuckled.  Kissing the top of her blonde head, she whispered. "I love you too."  Closing her eyes she drifted off into what was sure to be the best sleep she had in.....well, five days.

Karis walked down the wide hallway and made her way to the kitchen.  She was pretty tired but wanted to give Bekka and Jana time to give Iolaus an earful of rumor.  She found the kitchen in a general state of ordered chaos.  It was something she had never really thought about until their trip to India but it took alot of people to make meals for a large group of people, especially if they are spoiled brat royalty.  She grimaced at the memory of the Prince from Chin.  She didn't remember any of the people here being in the camp in India but she did spot a couple of Amazons diligently working near a smaller fireplace.  She ambled over and tried not to scare the person peeling vegetables. "Can I get a tray of snacks for the guards?"

The cook smiled at that polite request and moved to assemble the snack. "You could have sent one of the others to get it.  You didn't have to come down yourself."  Looking up at the dark haired young woman, her eyes twinkled. "We heard about what you did at dinner."  She leaned in to whisper. "None of the cooks like him either."

Karis grimaced at that. Her mother had taught her long ago that it was important to stay on a cook's good side.  'A good leader has to be the brains and the heart of a army.'  She remembered her laughing voice. 'But everyone has to eat.'  Laughing at the cook's last comment she spoke to the previous one. "Yeah, well I wanted to give everyone a chance to talk about me behind my back." She grinned as the cook winked and replied.

"Yeah, I would imagine they are doing that now."  She handed the tray to they younger woman. "Guards are such gossips."

Laughing at the truth of it, Karis took the tray.  "Yup." She winked. "Almost as bad as cooks."  Ducking the playfully slow slap, she laughed. "Send a couple of trays up for breakfast, okay.  I figure we'll be busy tomorrow."  Karis smiled at the cooks nod and made her way back to the guards room.

Solan looked around the big lonely room.  He sighed and went to wash his hands.  Seeing the large bath he changed his mind and pulled the lever to let the warm water start flowing into the tiled pool.  He stretched out and floated on the warm water, letting it seep away his tension.  Sleeping was not really an option for him tonight. He was way too worried about what his mom was going to decide.  He knew it wasn't a good sign when she took the sword.  Sighing, he stood and toweled off.  Changing into some soft nightwear Ephiny had given him for Solstice, he went back into the main room, blew out the candles and crawled into the huge bed.  Curling up in the middle of the bed he looked at the wall opposite the fireplace.  Watching the flame's pattern dancing on the wall helped him drift into a light sleep.  He wasn't far enough on his trip to Morpheus' realm to miss the warm body sliding into bed next to him or to wonder how he would explain the sword to her.  He was however close enough to the land of dreams to be unable to acknowledge her presence any more than shifting his position and returning the loving embrace.

The cool morning breeze ruffled the curtains on the balcony doors.  Xena woke slowly, savoring every moment of waking with Gabrielle in her arms.  The soft breath at her neck warmed her better than any blanket ever could.  She smiled as the arm draped over her waist tightened and the sleepy voice drawled.

"Mmmm.. I never thought I could enjoy waking up so much."  Kissing the shoulder she had been using for a pillow, Gabrielle raised up on her elbow and grinned at Xena. "Until I met you."

Xena laughed and gave her a quick kiss good morning. "I'm gonna take a ride this morning...." her eyes twinkled. "...come with me."  She got up and prompted by the cool breeze dressed quickly.  Finding some warm leggings and a nice thick tunic she sat and pulled on her short boots.  Xena looked back at the bed and stuck out her bottom lip, raising both eyebrows. "Please?"

Gabrielle sighed and began to move, unable to resist a pouting Conqueror.  Shivering in the open air she too dressed quickly, taking Xena's cue to wear warm clothes and laughed when Xena grabbed an apple she had saved from last nights dinner tray.  It wasn't going to be their breakfast and she knew it. "Forget Karis...." She grinned. "....I think I should be jealous of Argo!"

Tossing the apple up and catching it with her left hand Xena reached out with her right hand to take Gabrielle's.  "Let's go!"

It was very early.  The Palace halls were deserted except for a few guards and none of them would ever tell anyone they had seen Xena LAUGHING with the Amazon Queen.  Who would believe that?

When they reached the stable, Xena greeted Argo with an affectionate pat and rested her forehead on the muscular neck, while she gave her the treat.  Argo loved apples, and Xena had saved the juiciest looking one for her best horse.

Gabrielle stood back and watched as Xena murmured to the horse and smiled when the golden animal tossed her head and whinnied back. 'I almost believe they are talking.'  With her concentration so focused on Xena she nearly didn't hear the boy walk up next to her.

"Hello." He was suspicious of newcomers.  Sometimes during the festival new people would come to town and not all of them were nice but his face brightened when he saw Xena. "Oh, hey Xena!"

The warrior grinned at the boy's enthusiasm.  "Hey Bennett. How's it going?"

"Great!" He glanced at Gabrielle. "I brushed her down for you. I figured you'd wanna be taking a ride this morning, since you got the report last night."  He pointed behind her. "Oiled your saddle last night."

She looked at the familiar tack and smiled. "Thanks."  She pointed her finger at him and alternated it between him and the woman next to him. "Bennett this is Gabrielle.  Gabrielle this is Bennett."  She left them to talk while she saddled Argo.

"Hello Bennett. It's nice to meet you."  She held out her hand in greeting.

"Hi. " He shook her hand. "You have a pretty voice.  Where are you from?"

Glancing at Xena, she grinned and said. "Potedia."  Narrowing her eyes at his knowing nod, she continued, still shaking his hand. "But I live with the Amazons now."

She felt the grip on her hand release, as his eyes grew wide. "Amazons." He squeaked out the word and swallowed hard. "You mean..." He shot a look at Xena. "You're her aren't you..... you're the Queen."  He was suddenly very conscious of the stains on his shirt and wiped his palms on his thighs. "Wow."

Deep low chuckling drew their attention to Argo's stall. "You've gotta hand it to him Gabrielle.  The boy knows his stuff."  She led the now saddled horse through the wide stall door. "I rule the entire known world and get a 'Hey.' "  She jumped into the saddle and leaned down to offer the smaller woman a hand up. "But you, my dear, rate a 'Wow' "

Gabrielle laughed and took the hand, settling herself in front of the warrior. "So where are we going?"  She didn't see Xena wink at the boy but thought she could feel it.

"You'll see."  Was the only response she got before, Xena gave Argo the signal to move forward. Slowly at first, as they walked out of the stables then when they reached the open road, Xena urged the large yellow mare faster.  She couldn't wait for Gabrielle to see her surprise.

The little Amazon was barely able to watch the ground as it flew by.  She understood that the low stone wall to the right of the road marked a boundry for a very green field.  Xena slowed Argo's gait and enjoyed the waves the morning breeze created in the field of winter wheat.  It was the next block of land she was interested in.  Reining Argo to a halt next to a slightly higher stone wall, she helped Gabrielle step from the back of the horse to the top of the wall, then joined her.

This had been one of those mornings when the sunrise was barely visible.  The sky had turned from inky black to a beautiful spring blue in a matter of moments.  Xena took a deep breath and looked up at the fluffy clouds floating in the blue sky, then back to the clover pasture and the fluffy animals grazing there.  She held her breath until Gabrielle spotted the first one, releasing it with a smile that the Amazon's voice always brought to her face.

"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle couldn't believe it. "Lambs!"  She watched the little babies running through the field and laughed as they jumped and played with each other. "Xena they are adorable."  She sat on top of the wall and watched the gangly little ones running around the huge field as the mommas rolled their eyes and grazed some more.  She saw two of the little ones in a mock fight, butting their heads together again and again. "They are going to hurt themselves."

"Nah... it's fun for them."  Xena watched the two little rams play for a moment. "Besides, they have to know what to do when they get horns."

Gabrielle knew they weren't talking about the lambs anymore and sighed. "I don't want him to be a warrior."  She watched the playful animals for a while longer before she leaned her shoulder against Xena's and sighed again. "But I guess he should have the chance to choose."

Xena watched the little white additions to her flock romp and answered. "Yes I think so too."  They sat for a while longer on top of the wall, watching the lambs and Xena could tell that deep inside her a little girl, who was almost three, was very happy.

Karis supported herself on her elbow and watched Solan's face while he slept.  She was worried about him.  Last night even her presence wasn't enough to keep away the nightmares.  She wasn't sure why he was mumbling about swords and lies, she just held him and whispered that everything was okay.  That seemed to calm him but she was still concerned.  Smoothing out his forehead, she kissed him lightly and made her way back to the guard's room.  It would be dawn soon and they all needed to be ready for the day.  Sneaking back through the secret passage allowed her to enter the room unnoticed.  She took the opportunity to quietly inspect the guards.  She was pleased at the neat and orderly way they had arranged the room, much like the barracks back in the village, but not really impressed.  This was the Royal Guard after all, they were expected to perform above standard.  They were all so peaceful she let them sleep long enough for her to change from her sleeping shirt to formal leathers.  Standing in the middle of the room, smiling as a mother would for a child she watched them sleep a moment longer before she took a deep breath and began yelling at the top of her lungs. "OKAY YOU LAZY LAYABOUTS.  WE HAVE A JOB TO DO!  GET YOUR BUTTS OUT OF BED!  COM'ON MOVE!"  She laughed as they all scrambled out of their bunks and glared at her.

The sky had just finished turning blue by the time the guards were dressed and had the room straightened with all the bunks made.  Karis leaned against the door and watched the orderly operation with satisfaction.  A knock on the wood at her back put them all instantly on alert.  Smiling at their caution she turned to open the doors, thinking it was the breakfast trays she had ordered last night.  The individual standing in the doorway put her instantly on alert too.  He didn't have a breakfast tray, but he did have a scroll.  She put a hand behind her back.

"Karis, Head of the Amazon Royal Guard?" He wasn't sure the person he was looking for was as young as this woman seemed to be.

"Yes?"  She smiled, not only at him but also because Solari had come up behind her and now pressed the handle of a knife into the hidden hand.

"Message for you."  He handed her the scroll and jumped when she brought the hand with the knife in it around to accept the offered message.

Chuckling at his nervous departure, she cut the ribbon around the rolled up parchment and read the very official looking note.  "That son of a...."  She reread the words just in case her eyes were playing tricks on her.  Nope, she read it right. "Damn."

"What is it?" Solari had been watching Karis closely since they arrived in Corinth.  She was as proud as any of them at their leader's display of loyalty at the dinner last night but she also knew that Karis had not slept here.  She was still trying to sort out Xena's perfume on the young woman last night.  Xena wasn't exactly the touchy feely type.

She looked up at the expectant faces of the others and grimaced. "Seems I've got a inquiry to attend.  Apparently Mr. guards-can't-talk-to-me-like-that Prince of Chin has requested a audience with Xena to 'decide my punishment.'"  She scoffed at the thought and tossed the scroll to her bed.

"That sounds serious." Solari glanced at the partially open message lying on the bedroll and noticed that nowhere did it say 'Xena' it always referred to 'The Empress' or 'The Conqueror'.  'It was Karis who translated the official title to the friendlier casual name.' Solari wasn't sure what to make of that revelation.

Waving off the concern, Karis grinned with false confidence. "Nah.... Xena won't fault me."  She noticed the effect that statement had on them and smiled. "I was, after all, protecting the Queen."  She saw them all nodding slowly and actually heard someone mutter. 'The first rule.'  A glance at Solari told her that her new second had not figured it out yet. 'But she will.' Karis thought. 'and soon I hope.'  Xena had told her not to tell Solari the plan but if the woman figured it out she was under no restriction whatsoever regarding confirming her second's suspicions.

Another knock at the door heralded the arrival of the much-appreciated breakfast, although now, Karis didn't feel much like eating.

Xena walked into her rooms and began stripping out of her warm clothes almost immediately.  The cool of early morning had quickly given way to the sun and now it was unseasonably warm.  Grabbing her robe, she turned to head for the bath that Mirriam surely had ready, only to find Gabrielle a mere handspan away from her.  "Gabrie...." The Conqueror's voice trailed off as she realized that the Amazon too had shed her warm clothing.  Twinkling green eyes, crinkled at the corners with sly mock innocence made her heart skip a beat.

"Where ya goin'?"  A lazy finger traced one of her particularly favorite curves on the warrior's oh so muscular body.

Swallowing hard against the unexpected attack on her senses, Xena took a deep breath and smiled. "I thought I'd wash off the dirt from this morning's ride."

Tilting her head to look up, the Spider Queen grinned wickedly and raised an eyebrow.  Her low sultry voice made The Conqueror shudder. "Need any help?"

Xena doubted that Hades himself had anything that could compare to the heat being exchanged between them.  Sliding her arms around the smaller woman's waist she pulled her closer, one eyebrow raised in question. "Are you offering?"

Gabrielle slid her arms around the muscular shoulders and linked her hands behind Xena's neck.  Pulling the warrior's head down until she could feel the warrior's hot breath on her lips, she whispered. "Yes."

The guards were just finishing their breakfast when the door burst open.  They all looked up to see a very upset Solan.  His hair was disheveled and he was still wearing the light colored baggy pants he had slept in but he was at the moment shirtless.  Karis' voice stopped him in his tracks.

"Solan! We could have all been naked." Karis joined in the laughter as they watched his reaction to that.  She saw the scroll in his left hand and sighed. " I guess you've heard the news."

Distracted by the first comment, Solan ran his fingers through his hair and looked puzzled for a moment then brightened as he waggled the scroll absently. "Oh yeah, that."  He tossed it on her bunk, next to the other summons and flirted shamelessly with the closest guard, who happened to be Karis. Raising his eyebrows, he smiled. "Tell me again when this naked thing happens." Pointing his thumb behind him, he looked around the room and continued. "'Cause I can come back...... if you all need a minute."

"Well you are already halfway there." Karis indicated his bare upper half and smiled. "What's up with that?"  She tried to control the surge of desire that swept through her when he moved his flattened palm against his rather well defined stomach muscles.

"Oh yeah."  Solan got back to the reason he was there. "A messenger delivered that scroll for mom this morning."  He gave Karis a slightly worried look. "I was just changing when it arrived."

Karis heard one of the guard's mumble. "Lucky us."  She was glad her back was to them because if she had been able to identify the speaker jealousy would have gotten the woman some type of horrible job to do.  She took a deep breath and spoke quietly. "You read a message for your mom?"  The slight blush that rose to Solan's cheeks made him even more attractive and she gritted her teeth at more mumbles from behind her.  His voice pulled her out of plans for drill practice.

"It wasn't sealed, only tied.  I wanted to know if it was important enough to track her down or if I could just wait 'til breakfast."  He glanced at the remains of their breakfast and smiled as his stomach rumbled audibly.

Rolling her eyes, Karis picked the last whole roll off the tray and handed it to him.  "Here."  She smiled as he bit into it gratefully. "We can't have the Prince starving now can we?"  Retrieving the scrolls from her bunk she pushed him out the door. "Go finish changing, I'll meet you in a minute and we can try to find your Mom."

"Sure."  Sticking his head back through the door, his eyes twinkled at the room in general and Karis in particular. "But you will tell me when that naked thing happens right?"  He ducked back out as various soft objects, mostly pillows, were thrown in his direction, and laughed at the laughter coming from the room.

"Well." Solari watched Karis closely. "He has certainly grown up."  Mumbles to the affirmative swept around the room. Mumbles that intensified as the second in command continued her observations. "His sword arm seems to be filling out nicely."

Karis laughed at that. "Sword arm?" She thought about how Gabrielle hated bladed weapons and laughed. "Oh, no... That's just from chopping wood."  She had noticed the buildup in his right arm but had explained it away as a by-product of his regular chore. "Gabri...... The Queen hates bladed weapons.  She won't let him use a sword."  She knew that for sure because she was there the day Eponin received the order from Gabrielle herself not to teach him techniques of any bladed weapon.

"Well that is a shame then."  Ria spoke up and continued quickly as Karis glared at her. "I'm just saying with as nice a sword as that is.... it's a shame the owner can't use it."

Now Karis was totally confused. "What are you talking about?"

Ria stammered a bit. "The sword..... It's real nice..... "

Karis interrupted the nervous woman. "What sword?"  The head guard was beginning to get a sinking feeling in her gut.  Solan had shown her a sword once, he said the Centaurs had given it to him and that it was his fathers.  He swore to her that he didn't use it.  He kept it hidden under his bed and never used it, only looked at it and thought about his father and the Centaurs that raised him.  He knew how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons.

Ria went into report mode and gave her the facts. "Well I was in charge of the weapon's wagon during the trip.  Every other day or so Solan would come and get the sword, check it for rust spots, oil it and put it back.  I don't think he knew I saw him."

'Gods.....' Karis thought back to the previous night. Gabrielle handed a sword to Xena...... suddenly the pieces fell into place for her, the long disappearances from the village, his nervousness during the trip here, last night's nightmares.  All the guards saw her knuckles go white around the scrolls she held, and a bit of anger in her eyes. 'He lied to me.'  Clearing her throat she spoke through her anger. "I'm going to find the Queen."  She looked back into the room. "Standard rotation." She ordered and looked at her second. "Go to Solari if you have any problems.... I'll be busy today."

The guard's stationed at the door of Solan's room exchanged significant looks as Karis paced down the hall.  They actually leaned away from her as she walked through the door and mouthed 'Yikes' to each other as even the slamming door couldn't hide her bellow.

"SOLAN!"  Karis had gone from angry to furious on the short trip from her room to his. The fact that he was practicing with the sword meant not only did he lie to her, but he could be hurt.  She had seen many warriors hurt during training exercises.  That was why a healer was always present during drills.  For him to practice enough to build up his muscles so significantly he would have had to be alone somewhere and he would have had to practice to nearly the point of exhaustion.  That was dangerous even for an experienced soldier.  The thought of him being hurt made her catch her breath, then she gasped for a different reason.

The heels of his short boots echoed on the tiled floor of the bathroom as he quickly ran to the door and looked into the main room. "What's wrong?"

For half a heartbeat Karis forgot she was angry.  Solan had changed all right.  His hair was now combed and held in place with a golden headband, His mid-thigh length green vest was set off by the billowing arms of a black silk shirt and matching leather pants.  The buckle of the thin belt that held his vest closed at the waist gleamed the same color as his headband.  He looked every bit the Prince.  His innocent question made her think again of the nightmares he had suffered last night and her anger returned at the thought of him continuing to lie to her.  Taking a deep breath she spoke low and even. "That is a nice outfit."

His brows drew closer together in puzzlement and he held his hands out in front of him examining his sleeves. "Uh...yeah?"

She nodded. "Yeah."  She tilted her head and examined the clothing again. "It's missing something though."

"Huh?"  He ran his hands down the front of his vest and looked down his length, puzzled. "What?"

She forced herself to sound casual. "A sword."  She watched the blood drain from his face and couldn't quite keep the anger out of her voice. "That was your sword Gabrielle took away last night wasn't it?"  Her accusation made him feel as though he had been kicked in the gut.

"I was going to tell you....." He reached for her.  His explanation and move toward her were both cut off by a rebuking arm and very angry look.

"When?  When were you going to let me in on your secret?"  She saw him shaking his head. "When you felt like it or maybe never?" She didn't let him answer. "Or maybe you were just going to wait until you got hurt?"  That thought started a tear down her cheek.

He was within arms reach of her now and gently cupped her face with his hand, wiping away the tear with his thumb.  "I won't get hurt."  He looked her in the eye and spoke softly. "I was going to tell you."

She swatted his hand away from her face. "But you didn't."  She wasn't ready to forgive him for lying to her and she wasn't ready to talk about it anymore.  Waving the scrolls in front of her she changed the subject. "Lets go see what your mother has to say about this."  She only glimpsed his hurt expression as she turned to leave and her own hurt feelings prevented the stab of pain his sad sigh would have caused her at any other time.

Solan knew he was wrong to lie to her and he also knew he deserved any punishment she chose to deal him.  He sighed and followed her out the door, hoping against hope that Gabrielle would help Karis cope with his deception.

The guard at Xena's door was asleep at his post so Karis and Solan slipped by him quietly.  Both rulers exited the bathroom at the sound of the door closing.  Karis noticed that their hair was damp but they seemed to be ready for the day, Gabrielle in her formal leathers and Xena in the short-skirted warrior leathers she commonly wore.

"I told the guard to knock when someone was coming in." Xena was glad to see Solan but wondered why he was dressed so formally.

Karis smiled. "Oh we didn't want to bother the dear." She leaned forward and whispered loudly. "He's sleeping."

"WHAT?!"  Xena went to the door and opened it quietly.  She looked at the guard that stood so peacefully sleeping by her door and sighed.  'Damn.' The Conqueror was disappointed when she saw the scar on his face. 'This is the one Karis found loyal at the camp.  I can't kill him.'  The Warrior Princess agreed but she was angry at his sleeping on the job. 'But we can scare him enough so he will never sleep on the job again.'  Laughing at that the Conqueror took his weapon and moved closer, until her nose was nearly touching his.  "WAKE UP!"

If the wall hadn't been directly behind him the man would have fallen backwards in fright.  The proximity of those blue eyes caused him to reach for his now missing weapon.

"Looking for this?" Xena stepped back and twirled the sword casually, resting it on her shoulder as she studied the pathetic excuse for a guard.

"Ummm..... I ... Uhhh...."  He knew he was dead.

The Conqueror moved forward with the intent to scare him witless.  Gabrielle's voice stopped her advance.

"Don't kill him Xena."  Gabrielle stepped between her love and the guard. "Please."

Taking one more step to wrap her free arm around the small woman in her path Xena looked over the blonde head at the guard. "This must be your lucky day."  She jerked her head to the side. "Leave.  Now."

Leaving his post was infinately worse to him than sleeping at it.  "That will leave you unguarded."

Xena looked at him like he was insane for questioning her. "What's the difference?" When the impact of her words hit him she repeated her order. "Now GO!"

He knew better than to ask for the sword back and took off down the hall.  They all watched him go and heard Xena mutter. "Moron."

The tall warrior looked at Karis. "I don't guess the Amazon's could oblige with a few guards at my door could they?"

Karis grinned at the couple. "I think that can be arranged."  It had worried her that no Amazon was guarding their Queen.   She handed the scrolls to Solan. "You explain this.  I'll be right back."  She headed back toward the Amazon guard's room.

The trio walked back into the main room and Xena regarded the scrolls in Solan's hands. "What's that all about?"

Solan handed her Karis' scroll and gave the one intended for Gabrielle to the little Queen. "We received these this morning.

The women read the parchments in their hands then exchanged messages and read those.  Xena's face grew darker by the moment and Solan was surprised to see his Mom too becoming very angry.  Xena was the first to speak.

"I haven't heard anything about this."  She was outraged that messages had been sent to the Amazons without first informing her.

Karis walked in.  She handed a scroll to Xena. "A messenger just delivered this."

Xena ran her tongue over her teeth and opened the message. Although this one was slightly more formal than the others, it spelled out the charges clearer.  Ming T'ien was offended by the way Karis spoke to him at dinner and he wanted his honor restored.  The scrolls requested an audience with her this afternoon but Xena was much to angry for that.  She gripped the message tightly and stalked out of her rooms.

Gabrielle, Karis, Solan and the two Amazons at the door followed her as she made her way to the rooms assigned to the leaders of Chin.

"She is perfect for us." Iolaus was excited to finally find someone who could execute their plan.  Xena would die and the world would at long last be out from under her strict control.

"Why?"  The leader of the resistance felt compelled to listen to his ramblings but was under no obligation to agree with him.

She leaned back in her chair to study the man.  This was not the Iolaus who saved her from the burning barn.  This one would never risk his life for a stranger, they did look exactly alike though. 'It would help if you cried.' He had said.  'Ha!' Callisto's response to that advice was born from the numbing reality that her parents were gone but time had not softened her resolve. 'I will never cry.'   It had been many long years since the burning of her town. Her uncle had tried his best to raise her but nothing could console the young girl.  Nothing but Xena's demise.

"She has opportunity.  She is with Xena alot....." His explanation was cut off by maniacal laughter.

"Opportunity!?"  She rolled her eyes. "Tell me Iolaus. How many other people have opportunity?"  She tested the blade of the knife in her hands. "Motive is what she needs to be perfect."  She licked the trace of blood from her thumb and smiled. "Make friends with her.  Let's find out if she really is the perfect one for us."  She watched a slow smile spread across the blonde man's face.

"Yes my Queen."  He looked forward to making friends with the guard and left quickly to begin his new mission.

"Queen."  Callisto spoke to the empty room. Sniffling, she rubbed her nose briefly. "I like that."

The thick carpet lining the corridor muffled even the angry footfalls of the warrior.  She was barely aware of her followers as she seethed with fury at the audacity of the charges.  The little procession passed a couple of guards just getting off their shift and as the drew near the rooms assigned to the representatives of Chin the new guards on duty could be heard talking.

"She is going soft."   The man leaned his shoulder against the wall. "He was asleep, for Zeus sake, and she let him live just because the little Amazon bitch asked her to."

The other guard saw Xena coming up behind his outspoken companion and he knew the Conqueror heard the comment.  Trying to save his own hide he argued with his associate.  "Xena will never go soft and I don't think she would like hearing you call the Amazon Queen that."  He grew very nervous as Xena stopped right behind the first speaker and crossed her arms.  Her low voice shocked them both into total stillness.

"You know what sound I do like to hear?" She smiled as the guard in front of her turned around and she recognized him as one of Iolaus' friends. With a satisfying crunch her fist connected with his stomach and the whoosh of air escaping him raised a eyebrow. "Ohh that's a nice one."  He sank to his knees, gasping for air.  The Conqueror leaned against the wall and crossed her arms again, waiting for him to recover.  Forgetting for a moment that it was Xena he faced, the man drew a knife and lunged at her.  Quickly uncrossing her arms she knocked the knife out of his hand then put her right hand on the back of his head, her left hand on his chin and before anyone could say anything the man's neck was audibly snapped.  The Conqueror closed her eyes briefly then smiled at the remaining guard and growled. "That one is good too."  She dropped the man and grinned at the muffled thud. "That's not a bad sound either."  She looked at the shocked expression on the remaining guard's face and laughed. "Get him out of my sight."  Indicating behind her she said. "The Amazons will stand guard until you return with his replacement."  Unwilling to turn and face Gabrielle, the Conqueror pushed open the door and went to set the one they call The Green Dragon straight on a few points of conduct in HER Palace.

Ming T'ien jumped to his feet as the door to his room unexpectedly opened.  He suddenly felt like a small boy when he saw the angry woman enter.  He swallowed hard as Xena stood a few feet inside the door and the Amazon Queen, her insolent guard, and the boy that arrived with them arranged themselves behind her.

Xena looked at the row of guards standing along the wall and rumbled. "Leave us."  When they hesitated she took a step toward them and growled. "NOW!"

Much to the Prince of Chin's dismay they did not hesitate a second time.  He was about to say something regarding her treatment of his guards when Lao Ma appeared from the bathroom, her long hair damp from her morning bath caused dark patches on the shoulders of her robe.

"Xena.  How kind of you to address my son's concerns in person."  She smiled demurely at the angry Empress and glanced at the rest of the concerned party, ending with and holding Gabrielle's intense green eyes.  "It is unfortunate that our first meeting has to be under such difficult circumstances."

Pushing aside the death of the guard outside, Gabrielle stepped forward to stand next to Xena.  She smiled and with a slight tilt of her head spoke softly. "Circumstances are only as difficult as we make them."  Gabrielle went into full Spider Queen mode and shifted her gaze to Ming T'ien. "It is unfortunate that we didn't have the opportunity to settle this among ourselves before we involved Xena."  She couldn't quite help a little sideways smile up at the warrior. "The Empress is very busy."

His nostrils flared as he frowned and exhaled loudly. "You expect us to believe that you would be an impartial judge for one of your own people?"

Laying a hand gently on Xena's arm to calm the warrior, Gabrielle kept her voice soft. "I expect to be allowed to discipline my own people as I see fit.  I am sure you feel the same."

"Of course." Ming T'ien wasn't sure what this woman was getting at. "But none of my people are so ill trained as to address a member of royalty in such a rude manner."

Gabrielle saw that Lao Ma was going to stay out of this and a quick glance told her that Xena was actually enjoying it.  Trusting Karis and Solan not to interfere, she stepped closer to the Prince of Chin and continued her questioning. "I believe my guard called you a insolent boy.  Is that correct?"  Her face was a mask of non-emotion.

That term pulled another nostril flaring exhalation from Ming T'ien. "Yes."

"I see."  Gabrielle clasped her hands in front of her and stepped even closer to the young man.  "And what do you think a sufficient punishment would be for that particular insult?"

"To set an example for her peers, public whipping.,  five lashes."  He thought that was quite lenient.  He didn't want to risk making the punishment too severe or the Amazon Queen might discount it immediately.

Gabrielle seemed to consider this. "And who should administer this whipping?"

He smiled at the thought of restoring his honor. "As the insulted party, I should."

"You? Really?"  Gabrielle raised one eyebrow in surprise and from the corner of her eye saw Lao Ma shaking her head.  She glanced back at Xena then regarded the smiling Prince seriously. "Would that be before or after I whip you for calling me a whore?"

He was stunned at the idea of being whipped. "You can't whip me." The thought was ridiculous. "I'm a Prince!"

Laughing at his shock, Gabrielle shook her head. "You're right... I won't whip you." The turned and winked at her companions. "But if you persist in your charges against my guard, I will not hesitate to turn you over my knee and give you a good spanking."  She moved to within a half a step of him. "Because that is what we do with insolent boys in the Amazon Nation."  Intense green eyes dared him to challenge her use of the very term that started all this.  Lao Ma's soft voice drew their attention.

"I don't believe my son will be pursuing this matter any further."  The head of the House of Lao moved to stand next to her speechless son.

Gabrielle smiled at Ming T'ien. "Good.  I'm glad we could settle things peacefully."  Turning her back on them to walk to Xena's side. "I would hate for our first meeting to end in hostilities." She returned her gaze to the eastern rulers. "Beginnings are such delicate times."

"You sound like a philosopher."  The Chinese leader was impressed with the small woman's handling of Ming T'ien.

With a smile that touched her eyes, Gabrielle responded to the implied compliment. "I have made quite a study of many different philosophers and their beliefs."

"That is very interesting." Lao Ma kept eye contact with the Amazon. "I would very much like to discuss it with you, sometime."

Nearly laughing as Xena heard the invitation and tensed, Gabrielle inclined her head and answered. "Of course, I would love that."  She slyly grinned at Xena. "Perhaps we can discuss it over dinner tonight?"

Before Lao Ma could answer Xena broke in. "Tonight is the opening ceremonies for the Festival."  She alternated her gaze between the two leaders. "I don't think the atmosphere will be conducive to philosophical talk."

Lao Ma smiled at Xena's attempt at keeping them apart. "Perhaps some other time then?"

"Of course."  Gabrielle half-bowed and turning, signaled Solan and Karis out the door.  She wasn't thrilled at the hateful look her son directed at the Prince of Chin but wasn't surprised.  Neither was she unprepared for the return glare from the haughty ruler.

Xena watched as her son and the Green Dragon locked eyes for a moment then she drew the eastern ruler's attention. "I don't expect to be bothered with anymore petty problems or grievances."

Ming T'ien watched the door close behind the Amazons he hated before shooting a glare at Xena and sweeping out of the room.

Xena looked at Lao Ma, uncomfortably aware that she was now alone with the eastern beauty.  After a long moment of silence Lao Ma spoke.

"How have you been, Xena?" Her hair was dry now.  She picked up a brush from the table and began brushing the long dark hair.

"Fine." Xena thought of Gabrielle and smiled. "Better than fine."

Lao Ma regarded Xena seriously, placing the brush back on the table she sat and crossed her legs.  Her robe fell open to reveal smooth slightly tan limbs. "She is a lovely girl."

The Conqueror didn't want to deal with this situation at all. The Warrior Princess answered. "Yes she is a beautiful woman."

With her hands folded demurely on her lap, Lao Ma regarded Xena seriously. "How will such a lovely young woman take it when you leave her?"

"I won't leave her."  Xena didn't really want to talk about her relationship with her former mentor but decided maybe it was for the best.  "Profound loyalty remember?"

"When I looked into your soul all those years ago, I saw such great potential."  Lao Ma stood and crossed the room.  She stopped within a handspan of her former lover.  The power Xena exuded drew her now as it did then and she reached up to touch the warrior's cheek.

Xena's firm grip around the delicate wrist stopped the motion. "I have changed since then.  Look into my soul now."  She released her hold and bored her eyes into the eastern leaders. "You will find her there staring back at you."  Lao Ma's eyes grew wide when she realized that Xena was correct.  The Warrior Princess rumbled. "I will not discuss this with you, anymore."

Lao Ma took a step back and bowed slightly. "As you wish, Empress."  She managed to hide the pain in her heart until the door closed behind Xena and even then only one tear rolled down her cheek.  She whispered to the empty room.  "I will miss you."  She wiped away the tear at the same time she wiped away any hope of being with Xena again.

The Conqueror sighed as the door closed behind her.  Her first thought was to go to Gabrielle but then she looked at the spot where the guard had fallen and shuddered. Instead of heading back to her rooms she walked slowly to the stables.

Karis worried that something was wrong with her Queen.  Gabrielle was very quiet on the walk back to her assigned room.  'She could just be thinking about the guard.' The young woman shuddered at the speed Xena had dispatched him. 'He did come at her with a knife though.'  Once inside the rooms, the guard cleared her throat. "I'm going to go check on camp."  Even though the royal guard was housed in a room nearby the rest of the Amazon caravan, the cooks, healers, hunters and laborers were setup just outside the city in a small camp.

Gabrielle barely acknowledged the guard's plans and headed straight for the secret door and Xena's rooms.  She needed to be alone.  She had always known that Xena killed people, she knew the stories, she had seen the aftermath but actually seeing Xena snap the guard's neck with her bare hands was disturbing at best.  She knew at a glance that Mirriam had been there, the bed was made and the fire was burning high.  Grateful for the solitude, Gabrielle stretched out on the large bed and closed her eyes.  The image of the dark warrior and the guard continued to dance behind her eyes.  Sighing she conceded that sleep was not an option at the moment and she looked around for something else to take her mind off the event.

Karis was satisfied with conditions at the camp.  It was almost funny to think that no one wanted this site.  It was perfect.  There was a stream nearby with clear running water, and trees all around for cover.  The other Royal encampments were all on the wide-open fields slightly east of here.  She shuddered to think about camping in the open.  'I guess they want to see if anyone is coming to get them.' The thought was quite amusing. 'Their guards are too lazy then.'  The thundering hooves of a horse drew her out of her thoughts and she saw Xena ride past the camp at a nearly breakneck speed.  From the way she was pushing her horse there was something definitely bothering the Empress.  Karis ran to the stables and grabbed her horse, not bothering to saddle it, jumped on and rode after the reckless warrior.  She wasn't aware of the eyes following her, but would have been thrilled at the raised eyebrows her sudden departure caused.

Solan rattled around the big room for a little while.  He thought about going for a walk and decided against it.  He really couldn't handle the guards following him around right now.  He walked out onto the balcony and looked down at the throng of people gathering for the festival.  Merchant's booths were already being set up and he could smell wonderful exotic foods being cooked for the noon meal.  This aroma combined with the fact he had only one roll for breakfast prompted him to action.  He knew there was a secret door to Xena's room, maybe there were others.  He changed quickly from his formal outfit, briefly wondering if anyone, even noticed how princelike he looked in it, into a pair of nice but worn leather pants and a equally worn coarsely woven shirt.  Dipping into the small pouch Gabrielle had given him, he pulled out a handful of dinars and slipped them into his pocket, he would count them later.  Lighting a candle he carried it into the closet and looked around.  Pushing on a stone that looked slightly different than the others Solan smiled as the door swung open.  "That is so cool."  He whispered to himself as he walked into the secret passageway.  Seeing the lever he pulled it and saw the door close behind him. "Excellent."  Careful not to let the candle go out he walked slowly down the corridor and began to explore the secret palace.

When half his candle was gone Solan started to get worried.  Every room the tunnels had led him to were full of people.  He couldn't just appear in their rooms and he wasn't exactly sure how to get back to his own room.  Finally he found a door that led to a large empty room and he left the dark secret tunnels for the wide well lit corridors of the Palace proper.  As it turned out he was near the kitchen but bypassed the familiar smells for the more exotic ones outside.  He knew a bit about festivals from the Amazons. There had been two or three since he had started living in the village.  This was twice as big though and it wasn't fully set up yet.  He made one circuit of the booths and tried to decide what to try first.  A unfamiliar voice caused him to search the surrounding crowd.

"HEY, Solan!"  Bennett waved furiously and beckoned the older boy over.

Solan spotted the waving boy and smiled.  Walking over to the table, the stableboy and his friends occupied, he smiled at the others seated there.  "Hey there, Bennett.  No horses to tend today?"

"Nah... Argo is the only one I take care of special and Xena took her out a little bit ago." He stuck his tongue out at his tablemates groans. "I'll brush her down later."

"Bennett I swear you are getting a swelled head."  A large boy with curly brown hair reached out, pushed the boy's shoulder lightly and grinned. "You and your name dropping."  He paused long enough to loudly clear his throat then begin speaking again in a very good approximation of Bennett's voice. "Xena said this... Xena said that.... I met the Amazon Queen..."  Rolling his eyes the large boy laughed and returned to his normal voice. "Sure you did."  The other two boys joined in the laughter.

Bennett looked like he was going to beat the others into the ground but before he could say anything Solan flopped down across from him and gaped. "You met the Amazon Queen?  WOW!  Where?"

The brown haired boy shook his head. "In the stables of course."  He laughed. "EVERYTHING happens in the stables, according to Bennett."  He had fun teasing his friend but now wanted to know about the new arrival. "You're not from around here huh?"

Suddenly wary of the somewhat personal question, Solan evaded as best he could. "Nah..... I just came in with my Mom for the festival."

Bennett helped out his new acquaintance.  "He got a job at the Palace as a runner." He looked at Solan for confirmation. "Right?"  Sighing when the older boy hesitantly nodded.

"The Palace...whooo hoooo...." The boy's brown curls shook again as he pushed off from the table. "Maybe you and Bennett can trade Xena stories.... I'm gonna go find something fun to do."  He motioned for the other two and they all walked away from the table.

Solan watched the three disappear into the crowd. "Do they always bother you like that?"

With a casual wave and a grin Bennett dismissed the thought. "They don't bother me.  They were just kidding around."  He looked at his new friend. "Com'on, I've been saving some dinars, I'll buy you a treat."  He looked at the shaking head. "Hey, you couldn't have been paid yet, you just started.... you can buy next time."  He grabbed the larger boy's hand before he could protest and dragged him through the crowded stalls.  When they finally stopped the aroma from the booth cut off any protests he was going to make.  The smell of baking pies was wonderful, small pastries of all sorts lined the counter set up across the front of the booth.  Bennett smiled at the baker. "Hey Josh.... any berry pies yet?"

The large man wiped his hands on his apron, his eyes twinkled at the youngster. "You know there are you scamp.  Your nose told you when you were five booths away."

Bennett laughed and tapped his nose."You're right."  When the man went back to his ovens to get the requested treats, the stableboy turned to his cohort. "Josh is the best baker in Corinth.  He sets up a booth every year but the rest of the time runs a little bakery on the edge of town."  His large brown eyes gleamed as the man reappeared with four gently steaming small pies. "How much."

"Four coppers for the lot." He grinned at his little friend's immediate response.

"FOUR COPPERS!" Bennett rolled his eyes. "You've gotta be kidding..... I mean I know you are good but gimme a break!"

"Bennett... I've got some..." Solan fished in his pocket for the dinars he had grabbed.

"No way.... I told you this would be my treat..." Bennett was indignant at the idea of Solan paying for what he had promised.

Dropping the coins, Solan pulled his empty hand out of his pocket. "Okay fine.... I just thought I would help."  He looked around the other stalls to find something to occupy himself while Bennett haggled. "I'll be over there." He pointed to a merchant laying out several deadly looking weapons.  It was a very interesting display.

Karis signaled her horse to stop when she saw Argo grazing next to a stone wall.  Riding up to the patient animal she saw Xena sitting on top of the wall.  The guard stepped easily from the horse's back to the top of the wall and sat, not too close but next to the brooding warrior.  "Hi."  She looked out on the pasture and smiled at the lambs cavorting around the field.

"Hi."  Xena worked a small stone loose from the wall and threw it into an unoccupied section of the pasture.  Suddenly she stiffened as a cold chill raced down her spine. Turning to straddle the wall, she pulled Karis closer to her, pressing the guard's back against her.  Finding the Amazon's ear she whispered. "We are being watched."

The sudden assault on her senses was almost too much to manage but Karis finally found her voice to answer the observation. "We are or I am?"  Xena's low chuckle against her ear started her heart pounding.

"Good point.... probably a bit of both."  Xena rested her chin on the Amazon's shoulder.

Karis closed her eyes and let herself drift in the comforting embrace.  "So I have to pretend like I'm enjoying this right?"

Xena ran her hand down Karis' arm and chuckled. "Aren't you?"

"More than I should." The warm hand on her arm was giving her goosebumps. "I'm pretty angry at Solan right now."

"Ahhh... " Xena settled into a more comfortable position on the wall. "Told you about the sword did he?"

Karis twisted to face the warrior. "No he didn't.  It wasn't 'til Solari saw him without a shirt and commented on his sword arm that I figured it out."

Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, Xena rumbled. "When did Solari see him without a shirt?"

Grinning at the protectiveness of the warrior mother, Karis rolled her eyes. "This morning, he was changing out of his sleepwear when a messenger delivered that stupid scroll from the Prince of Chin.  You should have seen him busting into the guards room half dressed."

"Where is he now?" Xena suddenly needed to know where her son was.

"I left him in his room to go check on the camp, then I saw you nearly fly by and tracked you here."  She sat back against the warm warrior and watched two little rams butt heads. "Why?"

"You stayed with him last night."  It wasn't a question.  Xena knew the guard would as soon as she showed her the passageway.  Karis nodded affirmative anyway and Xena continued. "And this morning when he woke up you were gone."  Another nod from the guard, pulled a sigh from the warrior. "How long do you think it will take him to find the hidden doors on his own?"

Karis groaned and started to get up. "He is probably walking around the festival booths unprotected."

"Probably."  Xena moved slowly.  "I'll go first.  You follow in a moment, slowly, go back to the Amazon camp first.  I want to see if it's me they are watching or you."  She stood on top of the wall and whistled for Argo. "Meet me back in my rooms.  We can look off the balcony and see if we spot him."  Stepping from the wall to Argo's back Xena galloped off.
Karis stood for a moment to watch her go.  Hugging herself, she sat back down to see the babies play a moment longer before heading back to the camp.

Xena stalked around the empty rooms and wondered how long Solan had been gone.  She tried not to stomp as she made her way back to her own room but her boots echoed loudly through the stone corridor.  She got the definite sense that she had done this before as she pushed open the large door.   She tried to take comfort in the familiarity of her quarters pleasantly warmed by a roaring fire.  Silence pervaded the room save for the crackling fire and quiet sobs of the blonde woman sitting at the desk. Xena wanted to comfort the crying woman but found herself unable to move.  Rooted to the spot she could only watch helpless as Gabrielle closed the journal she had been reading.  'My horrible past.' The Conqueror thought. 'It's our dream.' The Warrior Princess was stunned at the similarity.  Without a word Gabrielle rose from the desk and walked toward the warrior.  Xena opened her arms wide to embrace the crying woman nearly bursting into tears herself when she felt the warm arms surround her waist.  Finding her voice she asked quietly. "What's wrong?"

"He hurt you."  The Amazon's warm tears wet her lover's shoulder. "I knew he double crossed you but I had no idea..."  She looked up and whispered. "... he broke your legs."

The memory of that time sent sharp pains through her legs and Xena gasped. "Caesar."  The reality of Gabrielle's words penetrated her senses. "You were reading my journals?"

The Amazon sniffled and moved her cheek against the strong shoulder. "Yes.  I was waiting for you to come back and thought it would be a good way to pass the time."  She looked up, suddenly. "You're not mad at me for getting into your desk are you?"

The Warrior Princess nearly laughed at that. "For your information I could never be mad at you." She hugged the relieved bard. The Conqueror sighed. "I thought you were mad at me."

"Why...." Gabrielle thought for a heartbeat and answered her own question with a question. "Oh... because of the guard?"

"Yeah. Him...." The Conqueror hated that she lost control like that in front of Gabrielle.  She just meant to punch the guy and scare him, but when he came at her with a knife, reflexes had taken over. ".....And I thought maybe something in the journals......." Gabrielle's small hand over her mouth stopped the rest of her thought.

"Xena, NOTHING I read in those journals will make me mad at you."  She smiled. "I prom...." Now it was the warrior's hand stopping her own speech.

"Don't."  Xena shook her head and whispered. "Please don't....promise that....not until you've read them all."  The Conqueror sighed and the Warrior Princess knew that eventually Gabrielle would get to the entries about the Amazons.  Right now however there was a pressing problem.  She stroked the silky hair and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head.  "We can talk about this later okay?  Right now we need to find our wayward son."

"Huh?  Solan?!" Gabrielle nearly panicked. "What's wrong with Solan?"  She headed for the door.  Xena's grip on her elbow stopped her.

"It seems he takes after you in his urge to wander unattended."  She laughed at the widening green eyes.  "Don't even try to deny it.  Let's look out here first."  She dragged the reluctant Amazon toward the balcony.

Gabrielle twisted and broke the grip. "Xena listen to me.... If he has gone to the festival, I know where he will be."  She rolled her eyes at the warrior's puzzled look then smiled when comprehension appeared.  Her voice joined Xena's as they told each other.  "The weapons booth."

They left a message for Karis with the guards one of which ran for Solari and the other followed them as they quickly made their way to the door closest to the festival's main thoroughfare.  Neither leader was surprised when a group of Amazon guards had joined them by the time they reached the outer gate.


To be continued in Part 4

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