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Invitations - Part 6
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 graphic....steamy..yes... graphic... no. <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!>>

SEND IT TO: xenabard@hotmail. com

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by Gin

Part 6

The soft sound of rain hitting the balcony woke the Conqueror slowly.   Sleepy blue eyes looked around the room and then down at the woman in her arms. 'Now this is how I like to wake up. ' She thought. The warm arm draped over her stomach tightened and she smiled as misty green eyes opened.

"Mmmm... I love waking up like this."Smiling up at the warrior, she laughed."How long have you been awake?"

Taking a deep breath, Xena hugged the small woman."Not long."  She leaned down and kissed the tip of the Amazon's nose."I was just laying here listening to the rain, thinking about how much I love you."

With a wry grin, Gabrielle playfully slapped her lover's stomach.   "You are just being sentimental because the wedding feast is tonight."

"Nope."Xena grinned."It's not always raining, but every morning when I wake up I think about how much I love you."Running her tongue over her teeth, she her blue eyes twinkled at her love."I'm just feeling really... connected to you this morning."

"I always feel connected to you."Gabrielle snuggled closer.   The rain splattering on the balcony made her shiver.

Xena rubbed the Amazon's arm briskly."I would get up to get you a blanket... but I can't right now."

Propping herself up on her elbow, Gabrielle looked at the woman next to her."What are you talking about?"

Licking her lips and grinning, Xena reached between them and pulled lightly on the chain around the Amazon's neck. Following the links to the pendant, she laughed as Gabrielle realized the charms were still connected."To get up, the halves have to be separated."

"Mmmm... then stay. I'm warm enough here anyway."She burrowed in next to the warm tan body and sighed, soaking in the feeling."Can we stay here all day?"

Laughing, Xena brushed golden locks from the Amazon's eyes."We have a lot to do today. Aren't you hungry?"

Gabrielle shook her head, feeling the chain around her neck tug on its connection."Nope. I would rather stay here."

"Well, as much as I would love to stay with you all day, I do still rule the world. I have things to do today."The Empress grinned at Gabrielle's disappointed look and continued."Not the least of which is setting things in order so we can spend some time on a honeymoon."

"Ohhh..." Green eye's twinkled."Where are we going?"

"Oh no...." She tapped the Amazon's small nose and then kissed it. "You will have to wait and see."Xena evaded the question because in reality she hadn't yet decided the destination.

Sighing, Gabrielle gave in to the inevitable and reached up to the pendant connecting them, reluctantly snapping the halves apart."Okay. I trust you."She wiggled away from the warm embrace and made her way across the room.

The sound of the pendant snapping apart sent a sharp stab of pain through her and at a loss for words Xena could only watch the little Amazon walk away from the bed. 'She trusts me. ' The Conqueror glanced at the journal on her desk. 'But for how long?' When she realized Gabrielle was headed for the balcony she grabbed the small woman's robe and, pulling her own robe around her shoulders as she walked, went to join the Amazon."Um..Sweetheart... this rain is awfully cold."  She draped the white silk around the small woman."And... um... I really don't want a riot on my hands...."She indicated the thin but growing crowd milling about the festival booths, thankfully realizing that none of them were paying attention to the balcony or the naked woman standing there."... I suggest you come back inside."

Sighing, the Amazon reluctantly complied. Xena knew, of course, but it wasn't a well known fact that Gabrielle loved dancing in the rain.   Warming herself by the fire, she became lost in memory. The day, not long after she began her Amazon training, came back to her in vivid clarity. It had been warm that day and she was bathing in a small secluded pool when a sudden rainshower had started. She was dashing for her clothes when a sudden urge swept over her and she stopped, allowing the drops to fall on her unhindered. A glorious feeling had swept over her as the rain washed away the last vestige of her village persona, leaving only the Amazon in her to dance in the rain. 'That was the day I truly became a Amazon. ' She thought.

"Hey."The Conqueror jostled the silent woman, worried for a moment she had upset the younger woman.

"Oh sorry."She smiled at the worried woman."Memories."

"Okay....."The sudden withdrawal had started Xena's heart beating faster. The Amazon's dazzling smile had calmed it almost immediately.   "Good one's I hope."

Laughing, Gabrielle reached up to stroke the warrior's cheek."As good as they can get without you being involved."

"Oh."Feeling herself drift in a sea of green, Xena floated for a moment in the Amazon's gaze. She smiled at the woman and returned the laughter."Are you hungry?"She knew she should put in an appearance atleast one breakfast. It was hard to check the time with the storm going on but she knew it was a little after dawn."Breakfast will be served soon."

"I guess we really should be sociable."Stretching up, Gabrielle kissed Xena's right cheek."I'll go change."Xena's hopeful voice stopped her in the doorway of the bathroom.

"Need any help?"Blue eyes twinkled at the slowly turning head.

Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder, coyly."Are you offering?"

Closing the distance between them quickly, Xena tangled her hand in the reddish-blonde hair and leaned down finding the perfect ear she whispered. "Yes."

Chuckling with a slight smile, Gabrielle reached up to lace her fingers behind the warrior's neck."We are going to be late for breakfast aren't we."It wasn't a question but Xena rumbling answer sent shivers through her.


Solan supported himself on his elbow and watched Karis peacefully sleeping.   Although beautiful when she was awake the weight of her duties aged her appearance. In sleep it became obvious that she was only a few years older than him. Unable to resist, he reached up to brush her dark hair away from her now blackened eye. He was, for once, glad of the restrictions placed on him, leaving the bed to ask a guard for breakfast had been bad enough. He wasn't sure if he would have been able to leave long enough to go to the kitchen himself. Smiling at Mirriam's quiet entrance and exit, Solan looked over the morning meal. When he spotted her favorite it was all he could do not to wake his love right then.

Karis heard the rain beating down on the balcony but refused to open her eyes. It was much too warm in her dream to wake up and spoil it. Plus, she could almost smell the berry muffins. Her dream mother always baked berry muffins for her. In reality, her mother was not a baker at all. She took a deep breath, regretting the thought of reality breaking the lovely dream and furrowed her brow. Cautiously opening her eyes, well the good eye anyway, she saw Solan contentedly sitting next to her eating a berry muffin.

"Morning, Sleepyhead."He grinned and tore a bit of the delicious breakfast from it's place and offered it to her.

"Mmmm.."The bite nearly melted in her mouth and she sat up in the bed. The bruises on her ribs and stomach, although dark, were no longer hurting. Spotting the basket, her deep brown eye's twinkled. "Gimme."

Laughing, Solan passed her the basket."So I guess you are feeling better huh?"

With her mouth full of muffin, Karis mumbled her response."Mphhff. Much better."She grinned at the boy and grabbed another muffin.

"You have been hanging around Mom too much... Her appetite is rubbing off on you."He grinned at the young woman's rolling eyes.

"Very funny."The guard playfully slapped his arm."I don't see you slowing down. I guess the herbs have worn off."

Chuckling, he patted his stomach."Yeah, I'm gonna have to do double drills to work it off."

Karis shook her head."I'm really not in any shape for a training session."  She hated to disappoint him.

"Aww... don't worry about it."He patted her arm."Jamie will spar with me."

A surge of jealousy narrowed her eye."Jamie?"

"Yeah."He carried the empty basket back to the table."We sparred yesterday for a bit."Holding up a tumbler he asked."You want a drink?We have...." He looked in the pitcher."... grape juice."

"Sure."She tried to control her unreasonable feeling. Just because she wasn't around didn't mean he couldn't practice what she had already shown him. A knock at the door drew her out of her thoughts. Solari entered slowly.

"I don't want to disturb you."The second in command hesitantly took a step toward the bed."I kind of need to talk to you."

Solan's usual smile was absent at the woman's entrance, but his courtesy training kicked in."Do you want something to drink?"

Shaking her head no, Solari continued toward the bed."I thought you should know that Xena and Gabrielle have set the wedding feast for tonight."

"What!" Karis started to get up.

"Ohh No..."Solan was by her side in a instant."You stay put until the healers say you can move."He shot a glaring glance at Solari."You are hurt."

"You'll never know how sorry I am for that."She pleaded with Solan."I didn't want to do it."

"Sure."Courtesy forgotten, Solan nearly yelled at the guilty guard."I guess she just ran herself into your fist huh?"

"Solan."Karis spoke softly."I ordered her to. She wouldn't do it otherwise."She looked from the speechless Prince to her second in command and sighed."We have a lot to talk about."Gesturing for Solan to sit next to her, Karis began to outline the basics of the original plan and the changes that they had made in light of the new circumstances.

By the time the Royal couple got to the dining hall the other dignitaries had eaten and excused themselves. Breakfast was not a formal affair so they were all free to come and go as they pleased. Xena led Gabrielle to their chairs at the head of the table. She smiled as the Amazon realized all the centerpieces were lilacs.

"You requested lilacs?"The gesture was touching.

Xena simply sat in her throne and replied."They are your favorite."  That fact was all the motivation she needed to do anything. It was a simple rule. If Gabrielle wanted it, then it happened.

Gabrielle leaned down to kiss the Empress on the cheek."Thank you."  She sat in the chair next to Xena. Most of the food along the tables had been eaten but several bowls of fruit and a few baskets of rolls and muffins remained in the proximity of the throne.  The Amazon's eyebrows nearly reached her hairline."Were they expecting me?"

Laughing loud enough to echo through the room, Xena reached for a roll. "I don't think so."Blue eyes twinkled as she tore off a bit of the bread."Otherwise there would be more." Popping the bite into her mouth she ducked the playful slap aimed at her shoulder.

"Ha Ha."Gabrielle's sarcastic reply caused a twinkle in her eyes too. She grabbed one of the muffins from a handy basket. Her first bite was only half chewed when her motion stopped.

Xena followed her gaze to the door and she swallowed the bite she had been working on."Greeting's Lao Ma."She stood as Gabrielle did and nodded to the other new arrival."Ming T'ien."She watched Gabrielle approach the eastern leader.

"I was disappointed to miss you last night."Gabrielle stopped a few feet from the woman."I wanted to thank you for helping my son's guard with her injuries."

"When the Empress informed me of the nature of the injuries, I could do nothing less."Lao Ma tilted her head to acknowledge the gratitude demurely.

Gabrielle's response to the woman's words was cut off by Ming T'ien's sharp voice."Your son?!"

Turning ice green eyes on the young man, Gabrielle responded matter-of-factly. "Yes. My son."She watched as the arrogant Prince realized Solan was the same rank as he was.

"I would be most interested in that story."The only indication Lao Ma gave to curiosity was slightly raised eyebrows."It is not often one hears of an Amazon Prince."

Laughing at that, Gabrielle gestured for the eastern leaders to follow her back to the head of the table."If 'not often' means 'never' then you are right."Reclaiming her seat, to the left of a now rather tense Xena, Gabrielle passed a basket of rolls to Lao Ma at her left.   Picking up the muffin she had begun to eat earlier, the Amazon Queen began the story regarding the adoption of her unlikely son. It was harder than she thought to censor some of the information but once she started the altered story wasn't far from the truth.

Solari looked at her superior in open mouth wonder. The audacity of the statement was nearly incomprehensible."You told him you would be the next Queen?"

Karis grinned."Yu..p. and he bought it."

"Are you sure he is smart enough to be a leader in the resistance?"  Solari immediately regretted the tone of the question."I mean...."

Karis held up her hand to stop the apology."I know what you mean."  The chance of her being named Queen was remote at best, but the possibility was enough to make the story believable."There isn't much chance in their believing Xena would let anything happen to Gabrielle after that double arrow catch."

Solari's strategic training kicked in."At least not until after the wedding."She smiled as Solan shook his head, confused and Karis explained.

"They don't understand the way the Nation is governed. They think it's the same as all the other Kingdoms in the Realm. The scenario I gave Iolaus is really only valid if Gabrielle is not joined at the time of her death. They will think that if Xena marries the Queen and then she dies, Xena will control the Nation. That is how it would be in other places....."Solari took up the explanation.

"..... but in the Nation it's different. A new Queen would be chosen until the Heir is old enough but since Ephiny is already named Regent she would simply assume the Mask until Brie is old enough. In the Nation joining with the Queen has nothing to do with governmental control."It was a matter-of-fact assessment of the traditions that had been passed down since the beginning of recorded Amazon law. Taking a deep breath, Karis reached out to hold Solan's hand.

"They believe Xena is planning to kill Gabrielle. She has her best carpenter working on a secret project. They think it's a sarcophagus."  She laughed at that idea.

"What is it really?"Solan found the idea of Gabrielle dying quite unnerving.

Karis had her suspicions about that but kept them to herself."I don't know."Sensing Solan needed a good thought to hold on to, she smiled and ruffled his hair."But knowing how much Xena loves Gabrielle..... It must be something wonderful."

"That was quite a story."Ming T'ien's disbelief was evident. "Centaurs raising an orphan boy?Why would they?"

Glancing at Xena, Gabrielle carefully elaborated on that point."They believed he was the son of their ally."

Snorting at that, the Chinese Prince sneered."That's all?"

"That is enough for a Centaur. They are a very honorable race."  The patient Amazon was surprised to hear Xena's voice. The warrior had been silent throughout the story.

"Were."The Warrior Princess corrected. As all eyes turned toward her, the Conqueror agreed."They WERE a honorable race, before I killed them all."

Compassion filled eyes studied the guilt ridden woman and the Amazon made a decision."Xena, I think I would like to check on Karis now."  She turned to the Chinese leaders and bowed as she stood."Thank you for listening to my son's story. I look forward to talking with you later about the philosophy you follow."

Lao Ma smiled at the storyteller."I will look forward to that as well."  It surprised her to realize it was true. Despite her previous feelings of jealousy and loss, the simple fact was, she liked Gabrielle. She smiled as Xena too made her excuses and followed the young Queen out of the dining hall.

The Conqueror was surprised when Gabrielle stopped at their room.   "I thought you wanted to check on Karis?"

"Later." Gabrielle dismissed the interior guards and regarded Xena a moment before repeating her statement from the breakfast table."Centaurs are a very honorable race."

"Gabrielle."The warrior's warning tone should have been enough to stop the discussion, with anyone else it would have. Gabrielle, however, continued speaking. Her melodic voice disguised the seriousness of the topic.

"You didn't kill them all, Xena."She smiled a bit sadly.

"Gabrielle." Running her fingers through her jet black hair, the Conqueror sighed."Phantes is not enough."She thought of the little lone Centaur.   "When he is gone......"Gabrielle's shaking head caused her thought to trail off."..... What?"

Gabrielle took both Xena's hands in her own and led her to one of the big chairs next to the fireplace. Urging her to sit, Gabrielle knelt at the warrior's knee. Never breaking eye contact, the Amazon spoke quietly."He is not the last Xena."She smiled at the narrowing blue eyes."There aren't many who escaped the war but the few we have found are now living in a settlement on the northern border of the Nation."

Both the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror were speechless at the news. Finally, the Warrior Princess found her voice."I had heard rumors that Athens would accept any refugees, but when none showed up I thought....."  Gabrielle's twinkling eyes again dispersed her thought.

"I started that rumor."She laughed softly at Xena's reaction to that."The refugees were intercepted before they reached Athens and directed to the village site."Watching her lover closely, Gabrielle added."Survivors are still being found."

"They aren't all dead?" The weight of her guilt was eased slightly at Gabrielle's answer.

"No. The last count I had there were fifty-six grown Centaurs living in two villages and the surrounding caves. Half of which had wives."She grinned at the widening blue eyes and continued."And half of those were pregnant or had children."

"I didn't kill them all."The Conqueror was incredulous.   If anyone else had told her this she wouldn't have believed them and probably killed them for lying to her, but this was Gabrielle. Gabrielle wouldn't lie to her. She knew what she had to do."Who is their leader?  I have to talk to him. I have to apologize....."This time it wasn't Gabrielle's eyes, but her lips that stopped the thought from finishing.

Sliding into the warrior's lap, Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the dark head and kissed the breathless woman thoroughly before answering.   "Your son is their leader."

"WHAT!"Xena had seen enough of Centaurs to know they didn't take orders from young boys.

"Well......he will be." She amended."When we return to the village he is going to go North and assume a position of governmental responsibility for the group. At the moment they really don't have a leader."  Covering Xena's protest forming lips with her fingers, Gabrielle continued. "When they found out he is sixteen, they asked him, as the son of Borias and the ward of Kaleipus."Smiling at the dubious warrior mother, the Amazon continued."They know he is young. He knows it too.   He convinced them not to make a hasty decision. He will go and live with them for the summer, as a trial period."Gabrielle had recently began to doubt the boy would be able to handle it. His recent behavior was not exactly leadership material but he seemed to be settling down now.   Taking responsibility for his decision to leave his room, instead of letting Jamie take the blame had been a proud moment for her."It will be good training anyway."

'Training?'The Conqueror didn't like the idea of Solan being away from Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess was more practical. 'If he can learn to be a good leader for the Centaurs, he should be able to step up and learn to rule the world when we step down. 'Snorting at that thought, the Conqueror spoke."I don't plan on stepping down anytime soon."

"No of course not." Gabrielle laid her head on the broad tan shoulder. "but he has to start somewhere. Even you started somewhere."

The story of her infamous rise to power was not exactly well known.   Gabrielle knew, of course, from the journals, but the memories of those desperate days in Amphipolis when Cortese attacked were still painful to the Warrior Princess. It had taken everything she had to rally the townspeople. 'But when the real fighting started, I came to help. '  The Conqueror reminded her and sneered. 'I've done all your dirty work ever since. 'She didn't get a response to her remark as the Warrior Princess buried her face in the Amazon's soft hair and for the first time in her life wept quietly at the loss of her own innocence."Let's hope he doesn't have it quite so difficult."Her choked whisper barely escaped her lips."I never want him to experience that."

Gabrielle held the dark head to her chest and spoke gently."There is a very old Amazon saying."Two fingers under the warrior's chin raised the sad blue eyes to meet her loving green."That which does not kill us makes us stronger."She traced the strong jawline and smiled sadly."You have experienced so much pain in your life. I think you must be the strongest person in the world."
She snuggled in, wrapped her arms around her love, and laid her head on the broad tan shoulder.

Xena felt the Amazon's warm breath against her neck and soaked in the closeness surrounding them."You are my strength."

A quick knock followed by the door opening put Solari instantly on alert.   Before the new arrival was identified, the second in command had placed herself between the door and the young people sitting on the bed.

Karis laughed at Solari's defensive stance."I don't think an attacker will knock."She winked at Solan as the guard relaxed.   Redirecting her gaze to the door, her smile disappeared."Hello Jamie."

The western guard smiled at the small group."Hello. Oh Solari.   Good. I'm glad I don't have to track you down."The messenger quickly crossed the room and stood at attention until Karis' 'Report' command prompted her to speak."Norin and Ria have been released from the infirmary."  She smiled and looked at Solari."Jana is awake."

Solari felt her heart jump at the news. 'Thank Artemis!'The relief from that thought washed over her and the silent wish she could run to Jana's bedside closed her eyes briefly.  They reopened quickly at Karis' words.

"Solari. Go to the infirmary and see if Jana remembers anything about the attack."Karis nearly smiled at her second."And be sure to tell her we are all glad she is awake."She did smile quietly after the anxious guard had gone. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch when the object of a person's affections didn't feel the same. Sighing at the inevitable end to that scenario, Karis looked back at Jamie."Have Xena and Gabrielle been informed?"

"They weren't in their room when I stopped."Jamie shuffled her feet nervously. She knew she should have tracked the Royal couple down first before informing Karis, but she was already so close to the Prince's room it seemed a waste of energy not to go ahead and inform the head guard.

Karis nodded. 'Probably at breakfast. ' She thought."Anything else?"

Glancing at Solan, the messenger hesitantly admitted."Iolaus was released this morning too."It was very strange to be telling Karis about the man she was with last night, while the head guard sat with their Prince in his bed.

Sighing again, Karis squeezed Solan's hand."I should go give the Queen a status report and I suppose I should go find Iolaus."

"No."Solan's protest was almost contested until he amended."Not until the healer's say you are okay."He looked at Jamie."Please bring Amanda or Sandi to check her out."He silently wished Salla was here, but he was glad that his grandmother had the best care too.

Bowing at the order, Jamie replied."Yes, my Prince." A glance at Karis let her know the head guard had nothing further to say and she left quickly on her appointed task. She had hoped to give Queen Gabrielle the good news herself but Karis' status report comment made it clear that her obligation to deliver that report was over. Her new orders from the Prince took precedence.

Gabrielle had no idea how long she had been holding Xena and the only reason she loosened her grip now was the slight sound of stone scraping stone that came from the closet. Looking toward the dark opening, she heard Xena's slightly menacing voice rumble beneath her.

"Who's there?"The Conqueror was not happy about being interrupted.

"It's just me."Solan walked into the room.

Gabrielle jumped off of Xena's lap to meet Solan. She ran her fingers through his hair and forced him to look her in the eye."What's wrong?Are you okay?Where's Karis?"

"Whoa!"The young Prince held up his hands to fend off his Mom's concern."She is fine. Sandi gave her the okay."He looked at the floor."She went to find Iolaus."

Ducking to catch his gaze, Gabrielle spoke gently."She has to do that you know. If nothing else just to discuss security for the feast tonight."

Taking a deep breath and running his hand through his hair, Solan tried to smile."I know."Then he brightened considerably."Ria and Norin were released too, and Jana is awake."A sudden thought hit him. "Hey, yeah....the feast..." He spoke almost to himself."... that is a great idea."

Xena narrowed her eyes and dropped her voice."What is a good idea?"

"Well. Karis has been trying to think of something to do for Bennett, since he helped find me and all."He looked hopefully at the couple. "I thought we could invite him to the banquet. I know he likes that sort of thing."

"Not like you huh?" Gabrielle's eyes twinkled at her son. The news about Jana and the guards was such a relief, giving in to her playfulness was a natural by-product. She knew he didn't like formal dinners at all.

He rolled his eyes at that."You know I'd rather sit with the guards."

"Not this time."Xena was firm."As Gabrielle's son it is your right to sit with us at the main table."She regarded him with a slight smile."As a Centaur leader it is your duty."

"Aww... Mom...."He shook his head."You told...."He saw the serious look on Gabrielle's face and understood that she wouldn't have told anyone, even Xena without a good reason. He continued seriously. "That hasn't been decided yet. They may hate me once I start living with them full time."

"How they feel has nothing to do with it."The Conqueror spoke evenly."Nearly everyone hates me..... but I am the Ruler wherever I go."  Gabrielle's quiet opposition shocked her.

"I disagree."Green eyes traveled from Xena to Solan and back again."The people you rule should like you. Everything is so much easier when your subjects are agreeable."

Blue eyes locked on to the Amazon's gaze."You disapprove of my ruling techniques?"

"Forcing people to do what you want is not usually a good idea."  Gabrielle noticed the tension in the Empress but wasn't about to back down from her beliefs.

The Conqueror was stung by Gabrielle's words. Her retort was born of childish anger."Well, it's worked just fine so far."

Gabrielle cautiously moved closer to the upset woman."I never said your methods didn't work."She reached out to slide her arms around the upset woman's waist."I just think it's easier if people like you and aren't trying to kill you all the time."

"It wouldn't matter."Although popularity was one reason, it wasn't the only reason for assassination and usually wasn't the main reason."Anyone who wants power would still try to take it."The strong arms around her waist calmed her. The Warrior Princess circled the small shoulders with her arms. The Conqueror laid her cheek on the honey-fire silk. "My death would cause chaos, every petty warlord and king would see it as his chance to rise in my place."

Turning in place, to keep the strong arms around her and face her son, Gabrielle chuckled."I guess we'll have to make sure the next ruler is ready for when you step down then."Green eyes twinkled at the wide eyed young man.

Laughing, Xena rested her chin on top of the Amazon's head and thoughtfully agreed."Yes, I'd say so."She hugged the woman tighter and reassured Solan."But I don't plan on stepping down anytime soon."

Tilting her head to look back at the warrior, Gabrielle smiled."Of course not."She knew Xena would never give up control of the world until Solan was ready for it, until the world was ready for him. 'We have a lot of changes to make in the world before that happens. ' She thought and looked at her unlikely son. 'He will have to change some too. '  The thought of that made her a bit sad. With a deep breath she reached up to hug the arms around her and voice her thoughts."There are too many changes to be made first."She winked at Solan and indicated the secret door with her eyes, smiling when he got the message and waved goodbye.   The Amazon watched her son disappear into the closet and turned to face the love of her life."But after the changes are finished....."She reached up and brushed the raven hair back over Xena's shoulder."..... You are all mine."

Sliding her hand behind Gabrielle's head, Xena meshed her fingers into the silken tresses."Wrong...."With the gentlest of pressure, she held the little Queen in place and leaned down to capture the perfect lips. "....we are already yours."

Breaking the kiss and smiling, Gabrielle asked."Do we have time to go see the lambs this morning?"

Xena glanced at her desk and saw the pile of reports Mirriam had left there while they had been gone to breakfast. She knew she should stay and go over the days business before she did anything else but a little voice in her head piped up and wanted to see the lambs too. Smiling she shook her head."Sorry, not today."Seeing the disappointment on Gabrielle's face she laughed."They wouldn't be out in this weather anyway." At that moment a loud rumble of thunder rolled through the room, grinning at her love she whispered."Not everyone loves to dance in the rain."

Rolling her eyes at the gentle tease, Gabrielle laughed."Okay."  She kind of liked the idea of the little baby animals all snug in their barn."I'm gonna go check on Jana."

Nodding, Xena leaned down to kiss the Amazon on the cheek."Okay.   I'm gonna try to get through these reports. I'll meet you down there if you like."

"Hmmm...."Eyeing the stack of parchments as she quickly checked her formal leathers, Gabrielle changed the meeting place."Why don't you just meet me in the dining hall for lunch?"

Sighing, Xena glanced at the desk and nodded."Yeah, that will probably be best."She sat at the desk and reached for the first parchment.   Gabrielle's warm arm around her neck distracted her for a moment.   She shivered as the Amazon's warm breath tickled her ear.

"I will miss you." She tugged gently at the conveniently positioned earlobe and breathed."I'll show you how much..... later."

The Conqueror watched as Gabrielle walked away and sighed as the door closed. Later could not come soon enough for her. Shaking her head to clear the thoughts of later, Xena tried to concentrate on the writing in front of her, scowling as the words registered in her mind.

Solan walked through the dark passageway, lost in thought. 'The next Ruler..... Gods. 'He ran his fingers through his hair. It was amazing to him that the thought hadn't really occured to him. He knew with Xena as his mother he could have or get anything he wanted, but he never really thought about what would happen after she stopped ruling.   His recent behavior struck him like a fist in the gut. 'Gods I have been so childish..... 'That thought was cut off by the realization he had missed the entrance to his room and was now quite lost in the maze of secret corridors. For a moment the darkness closed in on him and he panicked, then logic took over. 'Okay, there are entrances everywhere... I'll just explore until I find one I can use and take the real hallways back to my room. 'He knew both his Moms would be angry but there was nothing else he could do. Feeling very much like a large rat, Solan began to look for a way out of the labyrinth.

Karis was told that Iolaus had gone to the guard's room of the dungeon.   The very existence of the place was creepy. The Conqueror had a whole prison to deal with criminals, so Karis knew the dungeon was really just for the Empress' own amusement. As she walked down the dank corridor, the Amazon instincts she usually listened to were screaming for her to run back to the Queen and get her as far from the evil, dangerous woman who created this place as possible. The battle with her instincts made her jumpy, but she knew that the Xena with Gabrielle would never hurt the Queen. It was a trust born of observation and also oddly enough of Amazon instincts. She trusted her Queen's judgment. Light pouring into the corridor and Iolaus' voice slowed her advance.

"She shouldn't have taken the boy like that."Iolaus knew their leader was out of control."She is going to ruin everything."Taking courage from the agreeing murmurs he continued."We have to go to her and tell her she has to stop her personal vendetta."

The utter silence that followed that statement made Karis bite her lip to keep from laughing. 'Looks like you're on your own there bud. '  She thought and decided she had heard enough."Iolaus?"She called out."Are you down here?"He appeared immediately in the doorway.

"Hey, what are you doing here?"He rubbed his hands together and unconsciously glanced back into the room.

Forcing a laugh, Karis rolled her eyes."Well it's nice to see you too."  She closed the distance between them and ignoring the turning of her stomach, gently stroked his cheek."Do I have to have a reason to want to see you?"

Even with a black eye she was very beautiful. He wished he didn't have duties tonight, but he figured she would be pretty busy herself."No, of course not. I was just surprised to see you that's all."He grinned and wrapped an arm around her waist."Com'on, meet the gang."

Karis took it as a good sign that he was going to introduce her to others in the resistance. She had hoped that their meeting with Callisto would have been rescheduled for today, but she would take what she could get. Two of the ten people in the room she recognized from the camp in India. 'Those two are going to be trouble. ' She thought as she studied their suspicious looks from the corner of her eye. 'I may as well get it over with now. ' She thought and twirled to face them."Do you have a problem?"

"Yes."One of them spoke up."This is no place for a woman."

"Really?" Karis smiled at the middle-aged man."Why?"

"Because, this is the dungeon lady. Man stuff goes on here."  He pointed at her well defined biceps."I don't care how much muscle you have you're not a man."

Smiling, Karis laughed."I don't want to be a man."

"All Amazon's want to be men."He began to tick the items off on his fingers."You 'go for' girls, you hunt with weapons, you fight.... and no matter what you say, I don't think any of you can beat a man in a fight."

Shaking her head and chuckling, Karis taunted him."Tell you what, you show me a man and I'll beat him."She sidestepped his flying body as he lunged for her."Oh I'm sorry."She knelt next to him and patted him on the back."Can I help you up?"

With a cry of frustration, he rolled to try and grab her and bring her down with him. Instead he found himself locked, with his arms pinned behind him, face down on the floor. Karis' low voice found his ear.

"If you EVER attack me like that again, I will kill you."She released her hold and looked at Iolaus. Using the little display to her advantage she spoke sharply to the curly headed guard."I'm tired of fooling around with 'the gang'. When do I get to meet her?"

Iolaus smiled a bit sadly."Soon, but not today or tonight."He looked around the room."There are preparations to be made for the feast."

Karis nodded, that was true."So let's get on with it."Linking her elbow with his she guided him into the dark corridor without a backward glance at the remaining group of resistance members.

Gabrielle waited almost patiently while two of her guards checked out the infirmary. She leaned over to speak with Bekka."Do they think the sick people will attack me?"

"We have our orders my Queen. We are to take no chances with you or the Prince. It's better to be safe than sorry."Bekka knew the restrictions were getting to the Queen. Even when there had been only three guards assigned to her in the village Gabrielle had begun to chafe against the protection.

Snorting at that comment, Gabrielle grinned."Not to mention the wrath of Karis if anything should happen to me."

Rolling her eyes, Bekka agreed and added."Karis would be bad enough..... but we have to think about Xena too."

Before she could comment on that, the infirmary door opened and the guards gave the all clear sign. Sighing at how misunderstood Xena could be sometimes, Gabrielle tried to think of the words to adequately describe the depth of her gratitude to the guard. She knew they all took an oath to die for her, and Solan, but when a guard demonstrated that loyalty to such a degree 'thanks' just didn't seem to be enough. Arriving at the foot of the injured guard's bed, the Queen realized there were no words for what she wanted to say. Smiling at the guard she wiped away a tear of gratitude and, as Solari moved back, silently moved to the side of the bed where she knelt and kissed the woman lightly on the cheek, whispering. "Thank you."When Jana's brown eyes locked with her green for a moment, she realized there didn't need to be any more words than that. Gratitude expressed and accepted, Gabrielle continued in a lighter mood."You gave us quite a scare there. For awhile we thought we were going to have to haul you back to Salla before you would get better."

Smiling at that, Jana rolled her eyes."Please, anything but that!"  The last time she had been hurt on duty Salla had lectured her for several candlemarks on proper safety, of course the circumstances were very different.

"I just want you to get the best care and get better soon."Gabrielle glanced at Solari and out of sight to the second in command, winked at the injured woman."We all miss you."

"I have been getting pretty good care here."With a glance a Solari she smiled back at the Queen."And it doesn't seem that I'm left alone for too long."It had been a shock to wake up to a roomful of healers.   Then when she slept for real and woke to find Solari with her head resting on the bed next to their interlaced fingers, she had been speechless.   Jana had no idea the guard felt so strongly toward her."I'm just glad Solan is okay."

Smiling at the injured woman, Gabrielle spoke quietly."Me too."

Solan continued his journey behind the walls of the palace. 'No wonder Mother wanted these built in. ' He thought as he passed yet another room and listened to the occupants talking. 'This is the best way of gathering information ever. 'He had also discovered, quite by accident that some smaller stones could be moved to allow a glimpse into the rooms in question. It was all very interesting but he knew he had been gone a long time and should really get back as soon as he could. After he passed a few more rooms, that were full of people, he finally found one that was empty. Slipping out of the secret door he was just about to exit the closet when the main door opened. Shrinking back into the shadows of the closet he watched a cloaked, hooded figure pass a pouch of something to a familiar looking woman. He stopped trying to place the other woman when the cloaked figure threw back her hood. Clenching his jaw, he listened to Callisto giving her orders.

"Tonight send a few pitchers of wine with some of this in it to the Amazon guards and at dinner, put some in the Empress' tea. Be sure you get some in the Amazon Queen's drink too, and if you can the little brat Prince."Callisto was not thrilled he had been found so quickly.   She had assumed he wouldn't be found until he woke on his own. Iolaus had told her the stableboy had led the Amazons to the cave."And for a little appetizer before the main course, I'm gonna take care of the little stable rat that ruined my plans."She almost spoke to herself."With everyone attending the feast it will be easy to get to the stables unnoticed."  The look on the conspirator's face made her stop her thoughts of revenge. "What?"

"Umm...."She was hesitant to question her leader."I was just wondering what this will do to them."

Rolling her eyes at the concern, Callisto sneered at the reluctant woman. "It's just a bunch of sleeping herbs."She laughed at the relief registering on the woman's face."I want to be the one to kill them.... and I want to look in their eyes when I do it."She moved very close to the shaking accomplice."If you can't do it, I'll find another servant who will."

'That's it!' Solan thought. 'She was a serving girl at the dinner the first day we arrived. 'It was a dreadful thought. He had been warned by Xena and Gabrielle not to eat any of the food unless he knew it was prepared by the Amazon cooks. 'But if the server is the one poisoning the food then it doesn't matter who makes it. '    The leader's sneering voice brought him out of his thoughts.

"I was going to wait until after the joining ceremony, but now I know I don't have to."She sounded like she was going to be sick."I have been watching them and it doesn't matter if they go through the ceremony or not. They are a family..... they are Xena's family......and I want them dead."

It was all Solan could do to keep still at the threat to his family.   Clenching his hands tightly, he waited for the women to leave the room before quickly getting his bearings and running back to Xena and the guard's room.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, she had visited with Jana for quite awhile now and knew the guard was getting tired."Well Jana, I'm glad you are feeling better."She got up and motioned to Sandi.

The healer was by her side immediately."Yes my Queen?"

"I wanted to ask you to come by Solan's room later and check him again.   I know he says he feels fine but he has never tolerated those herbs very well. I'd rather be sure."She smiled at the healer's nod. "Thanks."Gesturing to Bekka, Gabrielle walked toward the door and discussed her next destination with the guard."I want to go to the training room now."She felt like sparring for a bit and she had some time before she was supposed to meet Xena in the dining hall.

Xena looked at the parchment in her hand and laughed, adding it to the large pile on the floor next to her."Unbelievable."The next sheet was from a different person but was worded practically the same.

Congratulations on your impending joining to the Amazon Queen.   Please consider our kingdom at your disposal should you choose to visit during your honeymoon. We are happy to offer any services you want to make your stay pleasant and carefree.

The Conqueror snorted."They spend years trying to keep us out of their countries and now they are inviting us in."Laughing at that the Warrior Princess quietly wondered what the royal families would do if they were actually taken up on their offers. The Conqueror laughed at that. 'Well after they changed their underpants, they would be scrambling to make everything ready for our arrival. 'Her laugh was cut short by the words on the next parchment. 'Damn. As if they didn't have enough trouble. 'She continued reading about the growing religious movement in Britannia when a frantic Solan burst into the room.

"Mother!Callisto is going after Bennett."Solan knew he was dirty from the secret passages but he didn't care."We have to stop her."

"Whoa!Calm down...."She saw the state of his clothes and frowned."You've been in the passages again."Her accusation was cut off by his frantic waving.

"I got lost....... but that doesn't matter..... listen... Callisto is planning on drugging our food tonight at the feast and she is going to get Bennett... We have to help him."He grabbed her hand, pulling her toward the door."Please. I don't want him hurt because of me."

"Wait!"Brushing past him she opened the door and ordered the closest guard to bring the stableboy Bennett to her. With those orders given she turned back to their now calmer son."Tell me what you heard and where you heard it."

With a deep breath Solan told her how he had gotten lost and then the conversation he had overheard between Callisto and the servant girl.

Xena gripped the arms of the chair tightly as their son related the story. It was heartstopping to think that Solan almost confronted the woman. Xena considered the new information. 'This is a personal fight for her. 'The Conqueror wasn't thrilled at the development.   'That is good for us though. 'The Warrior Princess knew they had advantages now. 'She won't be as covert as before. 'The fact that the woman seemed to come and go as she pleased in the Palace was not comforting at all. 'I wonder how she plans to take us?' The Conqueror knew she wouldn't just stroll into a room full of royalty and carry off three unconscious people no matter how many conspirators she had. Solan's concerned voice drew her from her thoughts.

"What about Bennett?"He didn't like to think of the boy being in danger.

"As soon as Anya finds him, she will bring him here."Xena knew there were several options the boy had. She wasn't sure which one he would choose though."We will fill him in on the situation and let him decide how he wants to handle it."She smiled at her son and remarked. "You will make a great leader one day. Concern for your people is something I am only now learning."

"He is my friend." Solan was a bit confused."You care for your friends.   Don't you?"

With her senses on hyper-alert, Xena heard footsteps outside the door.   Rising to put herself between the entrance and Solan, she placed a reassuring hand on her son's shoulder briefly. Smiling sadly, she looked down into his big brown eyes."I've never had any friends to care about before."  Leaving her speechless son to ponder that, she turned to face the opening door, relaxing when Bennett entered.

"Ummmm... Hey Xena."Bennett didn't know why he had been brought here to....His eyes grew wide as he looked around."Wow!Is this your room?"It was bigger than a lot of barns he had seen.

Chuckling at the boy's reaction, Xena dismissed Anya with a wave and returned to her big comfy chair by the fireplace. Gesturing for Bennett to join her, she answered his question."Yes. This is my room."

Solan was occupying the other chair so the stableboy sat on the hearth and tentatively asked."Am I in trouble?"

Glancing at Solan, Xena smiled."Not from me."Chuckling at the boy's visible relief, she added seriously."But Callisto is very angry at you....."She watched Bennett's eyes grow twice their normal size.   " seems you ruined her plans. She wanted us to be scared for Solan longer than we were."

Bennett looked at Solan and back to Xena in surprise."Now what do I do?"

Resting her elbows on the arms of the chair, Xena leaned back and laced her fingers over her stomach."Funny you should ask."

The boy's eyes grew wider with each passing word as Xena explained the situation in detail and gave him his options.

The storm had not yet passed so the training room wasn't really well lit from the skylights. The royal guard watched as their Queen practiced with her chosen weapon, weaving in and out of the dim patches of light.   It amazed them all that the woman could make even standard staff drills look like a dance.

Gabrielle ran through her warm up drills quickly and with a wicked grin glanced at the seven watching guards."So who will it be?"  She twirled the weapon in her hand absently."Which one of you will be unlucky enough to spar with me?"

They all looked at each other in surprise and they were all thinking the same thing. 'Unlucky?'Facing off against the Queen was more than many Amazons could ever hope for.  They all took a step toward her, then hesitated as they deferred the honor to each other.

Laughing at their reluctance, Gabrielle gently taunted her protectors.   "Okay, if you're scared...." She laughed louder and turned her back on them, twirling the staff easily between two fingers." I guess I'll just have to ask Karis to assign someone else to guard me."

Bekka laughed."You should decide who gets the honor, my Queen."  She swept her open hand to indicate their little group."None of us feel worthy."

Laughing at that, the Queen tilted her head and smiled."Well then maybe there is safety in numbers....."She gestured for them to come at her."Com'on."

"But there are seven of us."Ana was as shocked as the others and Bekka agreed.

"Seven against one would not be fair, my Queen."Bekka knew Gabrielle was the best in the Nation with a staff but seven to one was a little extreme, especially when some of them had swords.

Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle grinned at the guards shock."Don't worry, I'll take it easy on you."Beckoning them on she seemed to drop her guard for a moment."And cut the 'my Queen' stuff... my name is Gabrielle."  She planted the end of her staff firmly on the floor and not so gently taunted the reluctant women."I have never seen Amazon's so reluctant to fight before. Are you sure you are Amazons?"Bekka pulled her sword at that and Gabrielle's eyes twinkled."Yeah...."She grinned, stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose at them."Com'on."   That was too much for them and they quickly formed a circle around the taunting woman.

This was only sparring so once a person was disarmed or knocked down they were 'out' and moved to the side to make room for someone else to attack. Gabrielle was ready for the first attack and swept her opponents legs out from under her. The second attacker, Ana, almost swept the Queen's feet but Gabrielle jumped the staff, arcing her own weapon down and connected wood to wood, disarming the startled guard. Next was a sword wielder, Gabrielle blocked several blows from the metal weapon before disarming the woman. The next three attacked almost simultaneously and the watching guards were amazed to see their sisters losing a three against one battle. They had all known their Queen was good but this was really unexpected. Sweeping one opponent and sending the other two's weapons flying, Gabrielle turned to face the only person left in the group, Bekka."How 'bout it Bekka?Think you can take me?"  She grinned as the guard charged.

This fight lasted the longest. 'She is good. ' Gabrielle thought. 'But she has a disadvantage. 'It was the same disadvantage everyone had when fighting sword against staff. 'She thinks swords are better. '  Performing a sweep, she knew Bekka would jump Gabrielle continued to roll with the arc of her staff and before the guard could land, raised her foot to push Bekka's momentarily useless feet out from under her so instead of landing on her feet, the guard ended up being dumped on her butt.   Laughing at the expression on the suddenly seated woman's face Gabrielle offered her a hand up."Good fight."She grinned as the guard accepted the help and swept her green gaze across the group of watchers."All of you, good fight."She felt the hair matted to her head and sighed. "I should go back to the room now. I don't want to show up for lunch all sweaty."

Xena studied Bennett's wide eyed face."Do you want to discuss it with your mother before you decide?"

He frowned at that idea."Nah....I don't want to pull her out of the fields for that."There were still three ewes that were close to having babies, he didn't want to worry her.

"Your father?"Xena wasn't sure it was a good idea to bring Spiros in on it, but Bennett was his son.

"Me and my Dad don't really talk much about important stuff, besides he's out hunting right now."Bennett still didn't trust the man who suddenly appeared in his life.

Solan glanced at Xena, subtly correcting the boy's grammar and giving him some almost advice."My father and I never got the chance to talk at all. I think you are lucky to have the chance."

"I guess so."Bennett looked from Solan to Xena and gave her his answer."I'll do whatever you want me to."

The Warrior Princess smiled."Okay. The first thing we have to do is get you some clothes."She smiled at his fallen face."You're clothes are fine for working in the stables, but for a formal wedding feast you will need something a little less, um... worn."She grinned at Solan."Take him to your room and see if you have anything he can wear."

Nodding to his mother, Solan stood and gestured to the boy."Com'on Bennett. I think I know what you can wear."

Gabrielle walked in just as the boys were leaving. She smiled at the wide-eyed boy."Hello again Bennett."

"Uh... hi..." He was tongue tied and nervous.

Laughing, Xena joined the group at the door. She put her arm around the Amazon's shoulders."The boys were just leaving."Nodding at them to proceed, she guided Gabrielle on into the room."We've got a lot to talk about."

"Okay."Gabrielle was a little concerned at the tone of that last statement but Xena seemed fairly relaxed."Can you tell me while I wash up?"

Immediately altering her path, the Conqueror guided the Queen to the washroom."I think that can be arranged."

"Ah Ha!"The young prince held up the garment. It had taken longer than he thought to find it."Here. Try this on." Solan tossed a finely embroidered tunic to Bennett and smiled at the boy's sigh.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea."Bennett discarded his shirt and reached for the tunic Solan just offered.

The Amazon Prince sat on the edge of the bed and spoke seriously to the stable boy."If you are having second thoughts, now is the time to tell us."

"No, I want to help."He pulled the tunic over his head and turned to Solan for approval."It's just that there will be so much royalty there..... I would be nervous even if we weren't going to catch Callisto."

"We hope to catch her."Solan gestured the boy over and cinched up the belt a bit tighter. Standing he turned Bennett toward the mirror and adjusted the shoulders of the garment slightly."That's not too bad a fit."He nodded approvingly and sat back on the bed, thinking about the boy's earlier comment."Royalty really makes you that nervous?"  He furrowed his brow at Bennett's affirmative nod."But M....Xena is royalty.   You aren't nervous around her."

"She's different."Bennett shrugged."She has always been very nice to me."

Solan was fascinated."Really?How long have you known her?"  Most of the rumors and stories about his warrior mother were terrible renditions of the evil actions she had taken to gain power over the world. To hear someone talking about her like a nice person was a refreshing change.

"All my life."He shrugged."Mom has always worked for Xena."

"And your Mom?She's not nervous around Xena either?"Solan was curious about the boy and felt close to him. He guessed it was because they were both adopted.

The stableboy pulled the tunic over his head and put his own clothes back on."I think she is a little but they really don't talk very much. My mom stays in the field, with the herd, most of the time."

"Your Mom is the best shepherd woman I have."Xena smiled as both boys jumped, startled by her voice and sudden appearance. She indicated the garment he just removed."That one will be good for tonight."  She grinned as the stableboy's black curls shook."Are you still sure you want to do this?"

"Yes."He managed to put a scowl on his face."Let's get her."

Laughing at such a fierce phrase coming from the normally gentle boy, Xena draped her arm around his shoulder."Let's get lunch first, huh?"  Draping her other arm around Solan's shoulder's she led them both out the door, back to her room.

Karis pushed her plate away from her and looked across the table at Iolaus. She had been surprised when he suddenly became courteous and went to fetch their plates and drinks from the overworked waitress.   "Well now that lunch is over, I guess we should get back to planning the security for the feast tonight."They had, after several candlemarks of arguing, finally agreed on the amount of guards to be present.   Iolaus had not wanted to pull his people from crowd control at the festival, claiming the royal feast wouldn't be that troublesome. Now all they had to do was decide the placement of the guards."You have plans for the dining hall in your office, right?"

Iolaus popped his last bite of bread into his mouth and grinned."Yup.   But before we get back to work, let's get dessert."He rose and gestured her to follow him."Com'on."Holding her hand, he dragged her down the main 'road' of the Festival. It was nice that the rain had ended.

Dreading what his idea of 'dessert' was, Karis rose and followed the pig of a man. She ignored the turning in her stomach and was pleasantly surprised when he led her to the baker's booth. 'This is the one Gabrielle likes so much. ' She thought and took a deep breath of relief.    The air surrounding the booth was filled with the smell of baking pies and cakes. 'Mmmm... no wonder she likes it. '

Iolaus paid for two of the small hand-held pies the baker was famous for and handed one to Karis."Try one of these."He urged her to take a bite."Go ahead....they're great."

The guard bit into the pastry and was mildly surprised that the filling was warm. 'Apple. 'It was her favorite fruit, but as good as the treat was she knew it would be a hundred times better if she were here with Solan instead of Iolaus. She complimented the man on his selection and tried not to think about how often Solan was appearing in her thoughts. "Yum. These are very good."

The blonde man's eyes twinkled."I knew you would like it."He began walking back toward the Palace."Com'on. We can eat and talk on the way."Seeing her sway a bit, he supported her by the elbow and smiled."You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm......ugh... no..." Karis broke the grip he had on her and bolted between two booths. Once out of the main traffic area, she dropped to her knees and began to retch uncontrollably, continuing even after her lunch was purged. She barely heard Iolaus' half-hearted assurance.

"I'm going to get a healer."The guard only watched her for a moment before leaving to find a healer. 'Damn that Callisto.   She told the servant girl it was just sleeping herbs. ' He clenched his jaw and his hands as he walked. 'I didn't even use that much. 'He had only wanted her drowsy and more....receptive, not unconscious and certainly not completely ill.

Now that the most violent of her spasms had passed, Karis could feel the darkness coming for her. 'He poisoned me. ' She thought and tried to push aside the whirling in her head.  She felt the cool, moist dirt under her cheek and hoped Iolaus really was going for a healer.   The certainty that the poison wasn't only meant for her forced her eyes closed and she battled the coming darkness, focusing on the smiling face in her mind's eye. 'I have to warn Sol....... ' She didn't get to finish her thought before the darkness won.

Solari sat in the quiet infirmary. She looked at Jana peacefully sleeping and knew that she should leave. 'She is going to be fine now. ' She reassured herself. Any other thought was dismissed as the door was opened quickly and a couple of Xena's guards entered, carrying a unconscious woman on a stretcher, followed by Iolaus. A glimpse of the patient's face made Solari's heart jump. 'Karis. ' Immediately Solari took control of the situation, calling for the Amazon healers that were in the storage room."Sandi!Amanda!"The women were at the door in an instant and quickly moved to the sick guard's bedside.   Solari concentrated her attention on Iolaus."What happened?"

"We just finished eating lunch and she got sick."He shrugged casually."Maybe the stew didn't agree with her."

Solari summoned all her will power and barely avoided slamming her fist into the smug man's face. She looked at the healer's still attending the guard and caught Sandi's attention."I'm going to inform the Queen."  Iolaus caught her by the elbow.

"Why?" He didn't want the Queen and her entire entourage coming down here. He hoped Karis would get better before the banquet. If the Amazon Queen delayed her appearance at the feast for any reason Callisto would be very upset that her plans were ruined. She was going to be upset enough that he had taken some of the herbs without asking her. He really, really didn't want Callisto upset with him."There is nothing she can do....and she has her wedding banquet coming up tonight."

Solari pretended to think about it for a minute."You're right." She lied."We shouldn't bother the Queen."Sighing she ran her fingers through her dark brown hair."I'm second in command though so you had better fill me in on what arrangements have been made."

"Sure."He gestured for her to follow him."Com'on to my office.   We were just getting ready to decide placements."

'Good. 'Solari thought. 'When I go to give the guards their stations I can tell Gabrielle about Karis being sick. 'She narrowed her eyes at the man's swagger and was impressed that Karis had managed to let the pig touch her.

Solan grinned and rolled his eyes at Bennett as Gabrielle moved to sit on Xena's lap."Com'on... Let's see if we can find some polish for your boots."He rose from his seat. Picking a final bite of bread from the remains of their lunch, he motioned for the boy to follow him, widening his grin when Bennett hastily rose at the gesture. He glanced again at his mothers, each so absorbed in the other that everything around them could go up in flames and they wouldn't know the difference.

Bennett walked into the main room, only a step behind the Prince and tentatively asked."Are they always like that?"He really wasn't used to seeing anyone kissing but Xena and the Amazon Queen went beyond anything his inexperienced imagination could have shown him. After the details for tonight were worked out, the two women had become almost completely interested in each other.

Solan snorted."Pretty much."He dug through a large chest and practically disappeared before his muffled cry of triumph could be heard. "Ah Ha!"Holding up the small vial, he gestured for Bennett to take off his boots."Com'on. We'll shine up yours and then we can do mine."

The little stable boy traded his left boot for a cloth with some polish on it and began to shine his right boot. He stole a few glances at Solan as they worked and marveled at the older boy's attitude. 'He acts like he shines stable boy boots everyday. 'Bennett knew that none of the other Royalty would do that. None of them would take the time or energy to get to know a lowly servant and he realized he didn't know anything about the Prince."When were you adopted?"

Solan stopped polishing for a heartbeat and then resumed, speaking casually. "When I was a baby I was adopted by my first family."He stopped polishing and looked directly into Bennett's eyes."When they were killed in a raid, Gabrielle adopted me." With a half smile he began polishing again."That was about three years ago."

"Oh."Bennett had about a thousand other questions for the Prince but instead of asking simply went to work polishing his boot. Everything had to be perfect for tonight.

Gabrielle lightly traced her lover's jaw."I think we ran the boys off."  When her fingertips stopped at the warrior's lips, she replaced them with her own lips.

"Mmmm...."Xena tasted the soft Amazon lips and gestured inside the room absently."They're fine."The Conqueror concentrated on the woman in her arms. Sliding her hands up the Amazon's arms, she cupped both sides of the young Queen's face and pulled her in for another taste of softness. Regretfully breaking the kiss, Xena sighed."We do need to make sure Karis is informed though."

Gabrielle rested her forehead against Xena's and sighed."Yeah, you're right."Grinning with mischief, the Amazon slowly slid off her lover's lap. Circling around behind the motionless warrior, she brushed aside the long dark hair and whispered in the perfect ear she found there."We can finish this later."

Xena sat still for a moment and watched as Gabrielle walked into the main room. Taking a deep breath, the Conqueror tried to calm her pounding heart and grinned. 'I do love... later'. She quickly joined the others in the main room. Just in time to hear Gabrielle send for Karis and a messenger."Why do you need a messenger, love?"

"I have to tell Ephiny about the ceremony we are going to have here."  Gabrielle was sorry she had waited this long to send a messenger out.

Xena laughed."Why don't you just get Hermes to deliver it for you?"  She had forgotten to ask about the messenger God and how Gabrielle had managed to procure his services.

Blushing slightly, Gabrielle grinned."I can only ask him to deliver really important messages, like to Artemis."Holding up her hand to stall the next question she smiled."But he is very nice and if he is already delivering something for me he will take others too....I got him to bring our acceptance to the Festival, when I sent Artemis a message about Brie being the Heir to the Mask."

"And when you said you were going to be delayed?" Xena was curious what was important enough to send to Artemis then.

"That was when I informed her of Ephiny's joining and asked her to come and bless the couple. I couldn't go to the temple for that because there were too many people that would have known."She grinned at the memory."I wanted it to be a surprise."

Xena widened her eyes."I'll bet it was."

Solan laughed."Yeah. You should have seen the looks on all the Amazon's faces when Artemis showed up."

Bennett had completely forgotten his polishing and was now alternately staring at the three people he had just had lunch with."You have met the Gods?"He swallowed hard at the thought, that would be even more nerve wracking than royalty.

Xena and Gabrielle just grinned at the boy's question but Solan actually answered him."I saw Artemis when she came to Ephiny's wedding....."  He rubbed a spot he had missed on the boot in his hand and sighed."..... but I haven't met......"

Both women held out their hands and yelled "Don't say it!" too late.

"....Ares."Solan looked up confused at the women's outburst as a bright light suffused the room. He was amazed to see a man dressed in black leather appear in the center of the room and stood up at the unknown threat to his family.

"Go away Ares."Xena's growl filled the air."We don't want you here."

Ares frowned and shook his dark curls, placing his hand over his heart. "I'm hurt, Xena... The boy called for me, so of course I'm wanted."  He walked over to Solan, draping one arm over Solan's shoulder and grinning at Xena.

"Get your hands off him."The Conqueror snarled and took a step forward. She barely felt the tug on her arm or Gabrielle's soft voice.

"Xena don't....please."Gabrielle pleaded with her love not to confront the God of War.

"Listen to her Xena. She is a irritating little blonde but she fights well, albeit with a staff."He released his hold on Solan and walked toward the Amazon."If only you weren't an Amazon and you fought with a sword."He reached out to touch the reddish blonde hair."Then you would be mine too."

The Conqueror moved to intercept the touch, grabbing his wrist and flinging his hand away from Gabrielle."Stop it Ares."

"Really Xena...." He scoffed at her attempt to stop him from doing anything. "... Do you want to fight me over this piece of..."

"You don't wanna go there Ares."She could feel the darkest among them waking. Touching Ares even for a moment was enough to rouse his Chosen.

He laughed."You think you can beat me?"

"I know I can't."The Conqueror managed to answer before the darkness consumed her."But I know I can."The room fell away and there was nothing but her and the threat to her family. She could feel the low growl rumbling in her chest but really didn't care. Slowly circling her prey, she taunted the now placating God."Do you want to try me?"

"Now Xena, just calm down."He held up his hands in defeat."We don't have to do this."Ares knew his Chosen when he saw her.   He had created her and given her the ferocity and skills necessary to win against her enemies, even if the enemy was him. He knew that if they started to fight even though he couldn't be killed he would be an a world of hurt before it was over. He also knew that for it to be over he would have to kill her. That was not something he wanted to do, yet. "The boy called for me, you know....and he is a warrior in training."

She spit in his direction."He is not yours Ares."

"Any warrior who fights with a sword is eventually mine."The God argued calmly."You know that."He glanced at Gabrielle when she gasped at the statement.

Seeing the glance, she moved close enough to feel the heat radiating from the War God andwhispered."And if you ever try to touch Gabrielle again, I swear by any God you name, I WILL kill you."

"Okay, okay... Hands off....I got it...."He took a deep breath and looked her in the eye."But the boy will be a warrior..... someday....." He grinned and stroked his beard."....just like his mother."  His laughter floated on the air for a moment after he had disappeared.

Gabrielle's soft voice broke the silence."Solan take Bennett back to your room."She smiled as Bennett moved quickly to comply and she prompted Solan's departure with the silent signal for 'I'll be fine'.   Turning back to Xena, she moved cautiously closer.

Seeing the slow careful movement nearly broke Xena's heart."I frighten you."It wasn't a question, she could see the fear in the Amazon's eyes.

Slowly shaking her head side to side, Gabrielle answered."Not really.   I just didn't want to startle you."Without further hesitation, she moved closer and slipped her arms around the leather clad waist.   "I know you won't hurt me."

Xena rested her cheek against the top of the Amazon's head and with infinite care embraced the smaller woman. She knew it was time to go. Gabrielle's strong arms around her soothed her and she murmured. "They were right to trust you."

Gabrielle wasn't exactly sure what that meant but she felt the arms around her soften and looked up into loving blue eyes. She reached up and stroked the tan cheek with the back of her fingers. "Are you okay?"

The Warrior Princess held the hand still against her face and smiled. "We're fine."


To be continued in Part 7

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