~ Ephiny and the New Princess ~
by AJ Marks

Disclaimers: "Xena: Warrior Princess" is not owned by me, but by Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal.

Disclaimer 2: This story is written entirely in Ephiny's point of view. Yes Gabrielle is a slave to the Conqueror, but in name only. Nudity, you bet, sex, no, mentioned yes. Enjoy, send any comments to AJMarks01@aol.com

This story takes place several months after the end of "Ephiny and the Conqueror's Treaty"

Ephiny glanced over at where Eponin and Princess Terreis appeared deep in conversation. She still tried to get over the fact she would enter Corinth as a guest. The Nation had been busy over the past couple of moons, with increased trade already blossoming between the Nation and Patrii. Through many villagers she learned of the Conqueror's defeat of the Horde. A few days later Erika returned to the Nation. The elder only said they were victorious, and vengeance done once more. Eph decided not to pursue that any further.

The mine work force arrived a few moons ago, building a small compound outside the village. No Amazon expected the process to go so smoothly, perhaps Gabrielle had. Eph made a mental note to ask the small slave/advisor of the Conqueror.

The mine itself had only started to become profitable. The smiths back in the Nation now had more metal to work with than ever before. That would allow more goods to be traded, meaning more money. Eph realized that the increase in money meant more could be spent on food, and other needed supplies.

She had also noticed a reduction of soldiers in Patrii. The Conqueror probably moved troops around to more vital area in Greece. The Nation hadn't yet reduced the patrols between the two nations, still waiting to see how the new treaty went.

The rising sight of Corinth slowly came into sight. She briefly thought about what the upcoming couple of days might mean to the Nation. Eph noticed a guard walking towards them. Signaling to Eponin they walked up to Terreis and waited for the guard.

"Welcome Amazons, the empress said you'd be arriving. We have a place outside the palace for you to set up, that is if you don't mind being near the representatives from Chin," the guard said.

Eph glanced over at Terreis who glanced back at her, wanting her opinion. She shrugged her shoulders before Terreis turned back to the guard.

"Nope, don't think that will be a problem," Terreis replied.

"Very well, if you'll follow me then," the guard said. Eph watched the man say a few things to the others guards before looking back at them.

They walked not that far to a secluded place, within easy distance of the palace. She glanced around noticing the area to be easily defended by their small group.

"I hope this is acceptable to you," the guard said.

"Yes," Terreis replied.

"The Chin delegation is just though those trees. Lao Ma is peaceful. She only asks her privacy is respected, as she will respect yours," the guard told them.

"Shouldn't be a problem," Eph replied, glancing in the direction the guard had pointed. Though the trees she could barely see the tents of the Chin delegation.

"I'll inform the empress of your arrival, shall she expect to see you at dinner tonight?" the guard asked.

"Yes, three," Terreis said, looking over at Eph and Eponin.

"Very well," the guard said, with a slight bow. He then turned and walked towards the palace.

Eph quickly ordered the group into groups to help set up the camp. She wondered who else would be at dinner tonight. She figured someone from Chin probably would be there, but aside from that, she didn't know who else had arrived. She would find out later on tonight.

Ephiny walked into the dining area of the palace marveling at the size of it all. Of course, walking though the town had also been an eye opening experience. She saw people she never saw in Patrii, ranging from the nobles to the different type of slaves. She now understood a bit better why Gabrielle didn't feel the need for clothes. The lack of clothing on many slaves seemed typical of the town.

Eph shook that thought from her mind again, instead looking at the large dining hall. She thought it appeared as large as the dining hut back in the Nation. Already smells from the kitchen wafted into the dining area tempting her stomach. She followed Terreis to a seat before looking over the rest of the groups.

"Seems like quite a few people are here already," Eponin remarked.

"Romans," Eph said, nodding her head in the direction of a group of men wearing the recognizable armor.

"You'd think they'd wear something more comfortable to a dinner," Eponin stated.

"You'd think that," Terreis said. Eph looked past the Romans to see who else had arrived.

"I think they're from Chin," Eponin said, nodding to a group of people nearby.

Eph glanced over seeing a group of people dressed in what appeared to be robes, or togas, or some combination. She noticed right away who the important person was in that group, a woman with long dark hair. The woman made eye contact with Eph, and for a brief second thought that the woman could read her mind.

Before she could say anything else the head guard announced the Empress' arrival. She glanced at the front of the dining hall where a curtain had been drawn back, allowing the Empress to step though. The Conqueror wore a black sleeveless shirt, to go with the black skirt, which went almost to the floor, but with slits in it going almost up to her waist. Eph realized that while the outfit looked formal, it allowed a degree of flexibility for fighting.

A glint of metal on the Conqueror's waist revealed the chakram. The circular weapon never seemed far away from the Conqueror. Of course in her hands, it proved to be a deadly weapon, in Eph's hands, she might lose some fingers. Something she really had no desire to try anyway.

Slightly behind the Conqueror Eph noticed Gabrielle. The small blonde woman seemed different than before. Maybe Eph realized, it had to do with the fact there were other slaves, equally as naked as Gabrielle.

Eph watched the two make their way to the table, aware that both scanned the room, and while everyone expected the Conqueror to, she doubted many expected Gabrielle to do so. She wondered if the Romans were aware of the small slave's intelligence, or if they ignored her because of her standing as a slave.

"Interesting don't you think?" Ephiny said.

"Seems like there's no love lost between the Romans and the Conqueror," Eponin replied.

The Romans, Eph noted, had switched their focus to the Conqueror. She could feel the hostility so heavy she felt surprised it wasn't physical. A part of her wondered why the Romans even came. She knew the two empires didn't like each other, but to see first-hand how they acted in each other's presence. She felt a new level of respect for the Conqueror and Gabrielle. To Eph, she thought the Conqueror acted better than the Romans.

The Conqueror reached the head of the table silently demanding everyone's attention. Eph noticed when the Conqueror felt everyone finally appeared looking her way she made her announcement. "I wish to thank you all for coming, the third conference of empires, nations and other concerned parties for the sake of trade, now underway."

Music softly started up and the servants started bringing out trays of food for the people to eat. Eph watched the Conqueror sit down motioning for Gabrielle to sit down. The small slave gracefully sat next to the Conqueror, making eye contact with Eph, before continuing to scan the room.

"Ya know I'm not sure who's more dangerous, the Conqueror, or Gabrielle?" Eponin whispered.

"Both," Eph replied. She would have said more but a male voice cut her off.

"I see Amazons are in our midst, don't know why though?" a voice said. Eph looked in the direction of the voice, seeing a small man looking their way. She didn't recognize the dress of the man, but returned his none too favorable look.

"We were invited," Terreis replied slowly. "And you are?"

"We supply your grain, show some respect," the man said, not answering Terreis's question. Eph realize from the accent where the man came from, and the sneer on the man's face made even more sense, a Roman trader.

"Not anymore," Eph replied before anyone else had a chance to say anything.

"The the Amazon Nation will starve, good riddance to bad rubbish then," the man said.

"I doubt that, we're buying our grain from Greece this year. Made us an offer we couldn't refuse," Terreis said, Eph noticed a slight smile on the princess's face.

The man glanced over at the Roman delegation before turning back to them. She realized the man probably didn't hear about the new treaty agreement, and the fact the Nation no longer had one with Rome. Curious, Eph noted to herself.

"I doubt Rome will allow such a treaty," the man huffed, and then headed for the other side of the room.

"Well, bye-bye," Eph said, waving slightly at the man's back. She scanned the room again stopping at the head-table. Gabrielle, and it appeared, the Conqueror witness the scene. Eph noticed no smile, or gloats, only a deep thinking gaze from Gabrielle before the two turned to each other and back to their food.

"I get the feeling that we're a battlefield between Greece and Rome," Terreis said.

"I guess it's better than a physical battlefield," Eph said, jokingly. At that moment several servers approached their table.

She watched Eponin nod before several plates were set in front of them. Eph decided she'd worry about that later on, when she had tasted some of this tasty looking meat and side dishes.

Eph, Eponin and Terreis decided to head back to camp for the night seeing how the dinner appeared to be winding down. A servant made his way over the moment they rose.

"The Empress has asked if you'd join her in her quarters," the servant said, glancing back at the Conqueror then at Eph and the group.

Eph looked over at Terreis waiting for her reply.

"I guess we can," Terreis said, then they followed the servant towards a different door of the dining hall.

Eph wondered what the Conqueror wanted this time. Walking into the room she realized that the artwork on the walls were actually quite tasteful, not the scenes of battlefields which she expected. She figured that a small, blonde-haired slave named Gabrielle picked the artwork out.

"Please, have a seat," the Conqueror said. "I noticed a problem with the Romans during the meal, they didn't do anything stupid?"

"No, only gave us a bit of information we didn't know," Eph said.

"So, tt appears that the leaders didn't tell the traders about the new treaties the Nation signed with Greece," Gabrielle said. Eph had to admit an honest respect for Gabrielle's ability to read other people, even from across the room. Gabrielle's statement had been the same conclusion she had reached after talking with the merchant.

"You might say that," Terreis answered.

"Very interesting," the Conqueror stated, tapping her chin in thought. "Maybe old Caesar is over confident in his relationship with the Amazons."

"Why do I have the gut feeling that the Nation is about to become part of a larger war," Terreis said, echoing a comment the three had mentioned briefly during supper. "I will say this, the Nation will not get involved in any actions between Greece and Rome."

"No, but I get the feeling that Rome might have been using you to gain a foothold on Greece. A weak Amazon Nation didn't help Greece at all," the Conqueror stated. "A strong Amazon Nation actually helps Greece by preventing Rome from gaining a base of operations on Greece soil."

Eph had to admit the arguments made sense, but she waited to see what else the Conqueror had to say.

"I fear you might be right though. I wouldn't put it past Rome to try something, to divide the Nation against itself. That, I cannot help with," the Conqueror said. "If Rome actively tries anything against the Nation, you will have Greece support."

"I think the Nation can handle any intruders," Eponin said. Eph could hear the defiance in her lover's tone of voice, but Eph understood the truth in the Conqueror's words.

"No, I think the Conqueror is right in this," Ephiny said. "Caesar has more soldiers than the entire Nation's population. We might hold off an attack or two, but against one or more Roman armies, we'd lose Poni."

She saw the scowl on her lover's face. She also saw the slight reluctance at the fact Eph had spoken the truth.

"Only if the Nation requests it," the Conqueror said. "The Amazon Nation might not have the armies to fight Rome, but Greece does."

"If that day comes we'll decide then," Terreis finally said.

"Fair enough," the Conqueror said.

The group fell into silence. The Amazons still a bit nervous around the Conqueror. Eph imagined few people were not nervous around the Conqueror. She could only think of one person, Gabrielle. Glancing over a sudden question came into her mind.

"So, can you read lips as well," Eph asked Gabrielle.

"Huh, oh, no, never learned that trait," Bri replied, though she glanced quickly over at the Conqueror.

"Could've fooled me then," Eph said.

"Nah, no lip reading, but body language is very easy for me," Gabrielle stated. "He appeared a bit confrontational to you, so I brought it to the attention of Xena. I don't think he felt any better even after talking to the Romans."

"I wouldn't be either if they forgot to tell me something that important," Terreis said. "Makes me wonder if something is going to happen."

Eph watched her friend take on an strange look, before looking over at Gabrielle. She had a strange feeling about everything.

"I guess we'll find out sooner or later then," Eponin said, breaking Eph's train of though.

"Whatever it is, Rome isn't ready for a conflict with Greece, not after the last fight," the Conqueror stated. Eph could understand that, the last battle between the two armies didn't go well for Rome down in Egypt.

"Well, I'm sure whatever will happen, will happen. I doubt they'll try anything here," Terreis said.

"They are Romans, if they can make a move and either not get caught or blame someone else they will. Of course no one said they were intelligent either," the Conqueror said.

"So, what do we do next, just wait for them to make the first move?" Eph asked, not sure she could actually do such a thing.

"Exactly," Terreis said. "We keep our eyes and ear open to anything out of the ordinary, and carry on like normal."

Eph didn't know about that, but she'd keep her eye open for anything unusual, that much she could promise.

Eph, alongside Eponin, slowly made their way back to the camp. The two were quiet and Eph realized they both probably thought about the same thing. In Eph's mind, something didn't add up, and that worried her. Add in the strange look Terreis gave Gabrielle, and Eph felt for sure something would happen.

"You all right Eph?" Eponin asked.

"Huh, oh, yeah, just thinking. I can't help thinking something seems strange," Eph replied.

"I know what you mean. I think it's the Romans," Eponin replied.

"They did give me the creeps at dinner," Eph said. The camp had come into sight as one Amazons came walking up towards them, or actually Eponin.

"Report?" Eponin said the moment the other Amazon came close enough.

"Camp is set up, and the scouts reported a strange man wondering around but no one got a good look at him," the scout said.

"Chances are it's a curious stranger, but keep a guard up anyways. The last thing we need is some damn man to think he's needed in our camp," Eponin said.

Eph shuddered at that thought. Such an advanced wouldn't be welcomed by anyone in the camp. "That would dampen our meeting with the Conqueror."

"Or improve it, depending on the person," Eponin replied.

"Brat," Eph responded. "Gabrielle had a lot of questions about Amazons and our way of life. There are probably others out there who think the same way, and might actually believe them."

"Yuch," Eponin replied sticking out her tongue. "I'd like to know who makes up these stupid rumors in the first place."

"Probably some guy feeling threatened by a strong woman," Eph stated. "I don't hear those type rumors about the Conqueror."

"Nah, that's cause she's sleeping with Ares or drinks only blood or something like that," Eponin said.

"Thought it was only human blood," Eph said, pulling back the flaps to their tent.

"I highly doubt that, she looked like she was enjoying that meat too much," Eponin replied. "I mena besides, if she drank blood Gabrielle would be a lot paler or dead by now."

Eph had to agree and it made sense. Of course that thought brought another one to her mind. Gabrielle and the Conqueror seemed such an odd, yet so right mix. She wondered if one could even exist without the other.

"That reminds me, do you think you can get though tomorrow without staring at her?" Eponin asked.

"Me, what about you? " Eph asked in return.

"You're the one who gets all gaga around her," Eponin replied. "If I didn't know you better I might be jealous over her."

"I'll be fine, caught me off guard a bit that's all," Eph said.

"All right," Eponin said, looking skeptically at Eph.

"Keep that up and you'll be sleeping outside," Eph said, glaring at her lover who now smirked at her.

"Then who will keep you warm?" Eponin asked.

"It's a warm night, I'll do just fine," Eph said turning to get ready for bed.

"It's warm all right, but it might get hotter still," Eph heard Eponin say before closing the tent flap.

Ephiny walked back into the main hallway the following morning for the promised mid-day meal. The night had passed rather quickly and now the Amazons, as other nations were, making an appearance in the main hallway. She noticed the Romans already there, and a few from Chin. There already were a few more there that hadn't been there last night.

"Well, this all looks cozy," Eponin said.

"Yep, the Romans don't appear to like us too much right now, of course, thinking about it, I'm not sure they ever did," Eph said.

"Probably pissed we made a deal with the Conqueror," Eponin said.

"I wish they didn't appear so hostile with everyone, it gets annoying, and makes me want to know what they're planning," Eph said.

"You think they really are planning something?" Eponin asked.

"Yeah, I do," Eph replied. She sat down with Eponin next to her when the Conqueror and Gabrielle made an appearance.

"You're staring," Eponin said, giving Eph a nudge.

"I know, but I can't help it. There's something about her, almost as if, well, she's touched somehow," Eph said.

"Yeah, I thought we concluded she was touched by Aphrodite," Eponin said. "Or are you saying she's touched by someone else as well?"

"Yeah, I can't explain it, it's familiar somehow," Eph said.

The servers arrived placing the breakfast food in front of them interrupting anything else Eponin would have said. Instead Eph turned her attention back towards Terreis, who had engaged in conversation with someone from Chin, the same woman she'd seen last night.

She looked over towards the Conqueror watching for a brief second the interaction once more between the two. The sight of the Conqueror hand feeing Gabrielle made her wonder just who the predator was, the Conqueror or the slave.

"So, you're Amazons," a voice said. Eph turned to see a slightly overweight man sitting down next to them. She recognized the man from last night, but did not talk to him. From the accent she assumed him to be from Greece though.

"Yeah," Eponin replied for them.

"Ah, good, good, I'm Salmoneus, but cal me Sal," the man said. "I'm sure we're going to be doing business then, I'm the Trade Overseer for Corinth. I've been hounding the Empress for a treaty with the Amazons for seasons now."

"I see, how long have you been in this position?" Eph asked.

"Ah, well, let's see," Sal said pausing to think for a second. "Five, no six, yes six seasons, and wouldn't have made that far without the little one there. That's a new mantra around here the past couple of seasons, but a good thing."

"She's made that much of a difference," Eph asked, looking over at Gabrielle then back to Sal.

"Around here, we mark the empire as pre and post-Gabrielle," Sal said. "Eight seasons ago I'd never thought one person could make such a difference, but she did in a way almost no one noticed. In some way when you talk to the Empress, you're talking to two people now. The little one calms the Empress' temper allowing longer communication which usually solves more problems."

"Doe's the Conqueror know about how others think about her?" Eph asked, not sure she'd want to have that knowledge about her if the positions were reversed.

"Yeah, at first, I think the first couple of years the little one was here the Empress fought it. I wasn't here at the time, but over time she gradually realized how much easier things became for her," Sal said. "One day about five years ago I thought for sure the empress would end my life. I had bad news about trade with Britannia. A trader I trusted cost the Empire a lot of money, something I didn't want to report. I even saw her reach for her sword, but the little one intercepted her hand. I don't even know if they said anything, only looked at each other for a few moments before the Empress finally backed down. I received a verbal beating, something I didn't want to go though again anyways."

"So, the Conqueror can still be violent," Eph said.

"Hun, oh no, the Empress didn't say a word, the little one did. At the time I thought being killed would have been the easier way out," Sal said.

"So Gabrielle berated you," Eponin said.

"Yeah, she's very good with words, and the wisdom she states, well, some of us think she's touched by the goddess," Sal said.

"Aphrodite?" Eph asked, she wondered if others had seen that as well.

"Huh, no, Athena," Sal replied.

"More than one," Eponin said. Eph and Eponin shared a glance of common knowledge.

"What do you mean more than one?" Sal asked confused.

"We noticed she has the mark of Aphrodite on her," Eph said.

"Hmm, that, yes, I seem to recall something about that," Sal said.

"Aphrodite, Athena, wonder who else," Eponin replied, asking a silent question which she didn't expect an answer to.

"Don't know, enjoyed talking to you, I'll probably see you around later on for more trading, if not sometime in the future,' Sal said. He excused himself and headed across the room engaging another person in conversation.

"Well, that was informative," Eph said.

"Yeah, and look who's on their way over here," Eponin said.

Eph glanced over to see Gabrielle heading towards them. She stopped by Terreis asking a question that Eph didn't hear. Terreis turned towards Eph and Eponin before replying.

"No, shouldn't be a problem," Terreis said.

Eph wondered what Gabrielle had asked. Gabrielle then walked back to where she was sitting before Eph turned to Terreis.

"She wants to see our camp," Terreis said.

"I don't see why not," Eph replied, looking over at Eponin who shrugged her shoulders.

"Probably curious about it," Eponin said.

The meal had begun to wind down with many of the guest leaving or making it known that they were leaving. Eph glanced over noticing the Romans had already left. She spotted Gabrielle walking towards them, along with two guards.

"Are you ready," Eph heard Terreis say.

"Yeah," Gabrielle said. Eph looked at the small slave noticing she appeared like a child at Solstice the way her eyes lit up. "I learned so much while visiting your Nation, but I still want to know more, and the only way is to actually spend some time with the people."

"I'm surprised then you haven't visited the other camps," Eph replied.

"Oh, Chin has been here all three times, I go when they arrive, fascinating to watch them set up their camp, sorry I missed yours," Gabrielle said. "Though I did manage to see the Centaur camp-"

"The Centaurs are here? I haven't seen any," Eph said interrupting Gabrielle.

"Well, that's because their camp in on the opposite side of the city, to ensure no problems happen between the two groups," Gabrielle said.

"I hope you have enough guards," Terreis said. "There's no love lost between the two groups."

"All the more reason to begin the healing process," Gabrielle replied. "I rarely see such animosity between two groups. A small, innocent mistake could start a war, costing both nations greatly, especially if no dialogue is present."

"I doubt that could ever happen Gabrielle," Terreis said. "I guess you could say it'd take a small miracle."

"You forget who I share my life with," Gabrielle replied.

Eph thought that over for several seconds, hearing only the echo of their steps in the corridor before that was replaced with the soft sounds of boots on dirt. She noticed a few additional guards now that they were outside. She easily realized who they were guarding, not that it took a goddess to figure out. A quick glance also indicated each would be able to easily defend the small slave if anything happened.

Eponin edged over closer to her and they watched Gabrielle and Terreis move ahead of them, both engrossed in a conversation that Eph didn't understand. Something about politics and psychology and something like that. She had stopped listening and now observed the small slave a bit more. She walked with a combination of strength, and seductress.

"Now what are you thinking about," Eponin whispered to her. "And stop staring at her butt."

"Huh, oh, sorry," Eph said realizing that she had been staring, and a slight flush worked its way up her cheeks. "Just thinking about her walk, a bit of warrior and seductress."

She watched Eponin study Gabrielle for a few seconds before Eph said anything.

"Now you're staring," Eph said.

"Nah, doing some research," Eponin replied. "But you're right, very interesting."

"Oh, so when I'm staring it's something else, but when you stare its research?" Eph replied back.

"Uh-huh," Eponin replied not looking over at her.

Eph shook her head about to say more when a sudden sense of danger overwhelmed her. Her training took over but she had allowed herself to distance herself too much from Terreis. Terreis slumped forward almost in slow motion. The guards reacted quickly to a perceived threat. She noticed though that Gabrielle had covered Terreis with her own body, something Eph hadn't expected to see.

The guards formed a circle around the small slave but allowed Eph and Eponin in. The sight before her caused her to fall to her knees. A single arrow stuck out of Terreis' chest. Eph saw the wound, understanding what it meant, a fatal shot.

"Terreis, hang in there, we'll get you help," Eph said, her voice shaking slightly with fear, and anger knowing that someone had shot their princess.

Eph turned around hearing the guards part along with the sound of running. She barely managed to move when the Conqueror descended on the scene automatically taking over.

"Are you all right?" the Conqueror said, looking at Gabrielle. Eph saw the slight hint of amusement in Gabrielle's eyes at the Conqueror's question, but concern for Terreis.

"I'm all right," Gabrielle said, reaching out and touching the Conqueror's arm before looking down. "Terreis was hit."

Eph watched the Conqueror look down at Terreis, then at the wound then back up to Terreis. Eph saw the look of understanding pass between the two before the Conqueror stood back up whirling on the guards.

"I want this person found, NOW! Escort Gabrielle back to the palace."

Eph jumped a bit at the intensity of the order, realizing that the Conqueror feared Gabrielle's life might be in danger. The Conqueror and Gabrielle appeared locked in a silent battle of wills so she concentrated on Terreis. With the knowledge of how bad the wound was, she wondered if Terreis would even pass on the Rite-of-Caste.

Leaning down she noticed Terreis, while no longer in pain, seemed to be listening to someone else, watching someone she couldn't see. She blinked and her eyes met Eph's. She had a strange feeling, and felt sure she didn't want to know what would come next.

"Gabrielle," Terreis said, weak, but strong enough to break the battle of wills going on between her and the Conqueror. Gabrielle switched her attention to Terreis, holding her hand.

"I-I've seen t-things many c-can't unders-stand. I need you to take my r-right of caste," Eph heard Terreis say. Eph almost fell over hearing what Terreis said.

"Terreis, you can't, she 's not Amazon?" Eph asked quickly. She had to make sure Terreis understood what she had, was going to do, giving the Right of Caste to a stranger?

"Artemis has t-touched you Gabrielle, please?" Terreis asked once more.

Eph glanced back and forth between the two before Gabrielle finally said anything.

"If it will give you peace, then I will," she said.

"It will," Terreis replied, a slight smile coming to her face. She turned towards Ehp and Eponin, who had joined them. "Tell them, it's Artemis' wish."

Eph had to strain to hear Terreis' words. She shared a look with Eponin, then glanced over at Gabrielle, a slave to the Conqueror, and yet no one stood above her in power in the empire except for the Conqueror. Now it appeared that the young woman would add another title to her list, Amazon Princess as well. Some days, Eph thought, just didn't go well at all.

Eph stood in the great hall, alone except for Gabrielle who had stayed with them. Terreis had died shortly before the healer had arrived. Eponin had gone back to the camp to inform the rest of what had happened. Eph now felt slightly awkward standing next to the Nation's newest princess. The fact the new princess was also nude did not help Eph's situation.

"I'm sorry about your friend, I wished I could have known her better," Gabrielle said, finally breaking the silence between the two. The only problem, Eph had to face Gabrielle to talk to her without appearing rude, or letting her gaze drift too far downwards.

"Thanks, it's strange though, now that I think about it. I think she knew this day would come," Eph finally said. True, for several seasons she tried to pursue Terreis, but nothing had ever come from it. Perhaps she'd seen this day coming. It would explain why Terreis never challenged Valaska, or why she always kept things light and fun, never serious.

"She told me something while we were talking, she considered you a good friend, and she knew you and Eponin would become lovers, and get married. She also said she was alone that night and said you'd understand," Gabrielle said.

Eph couldn't hide the shock she knew he face held. She'd gone to Terreis' hut to try again, only to be told she had someone else inside. She wondered if Terreis knew who'd comfort Eph that night, and that Eponin had been trying for years for Eph to notice her. That night had been the beginning of her and Eponin's relationship.

"Explains a few things," Eph finally said. The thought Terreis did that, perhaps with the knowledge, then she might have known a lot more and never said. Eph thought about saying something about it, but Eponin and the rest walked in. Eph, looking at Eponin's face, realized they had bad news.

"I can confirm the arrow to be Centaur, and some Centaur tracks were found in the general area," the Conqueror said, holding up a hand forestalling anything Eph could say. "However, I'd like to keep this information quiet until we have real evidence. An arrow isn't evidence, anyone can get a Centaur arrow, or a Roman, or Greek arrow. I'd like time for my men to work."

"I won't hold this information forever," Eph finally said.

"You won't have to, but this happened on my soil, if this happened on Amazon land wouldn't you want to know who did this," the Conqueror said.

Eph thought about that for several seconds. Glancing up she noticed the anger apparent in the woman's eyes barely noticing when she stepped back a step. Gabrielle, however, didn't seem fazed by the Conqueror, in fact the small blonde walked right up and put an arm around her.

"Hey, Xe, I'm all right," Eph heard Gabrielle say.

"Yes, but you're a target now, especially as the highest ranking Amazon here," the Conqueror said, glancing down at Gabrielle.

"Um, oh yeah, forgot about that," Gabrielle said, scratching her nose.

"I'd like to visit the nearby temple of Artemis," another voice said. Eph glanced over noticing Airlea. She had forgotten all about the priestess with everything that had happened, and she wondered why she hadn't spoken before that. "I'd like for you to be there as well princess."

Eph looked back over at Gabrielle who appeared locked in silent conversation with the Conqueror. Finally the younger woman slumped her shoulders a bit before looking back up with a slight smile on her face.

"All right, I'll take the guards," she said.

"And some Amazon guards as well, we don't want a second princess killed today," Eponin stated. Eph glanced over noticing the look from the Conqueror, approving the action.

"Autolycus," the Conqueror said. Eph watched a handsome man appear from the shadows. He had dark hair, with a dark moustache and dark eyes walk forward. "I need as much information as possible about this. While it's possible the Centaurs are responsible, or one?hmm, let me think about this for a while. Go do your search and come back, by then I'll have my thoughts worked out."

"Of course Empress," Autolycus replied, before melting into the shadows of the room.

"The 'King of Thieves' works for you," Eph said.

"I hire the best," the Conqueror replied.

Eph nodded in agreement. The myths surrounding Autolycus extended even the Nation. One said he could get in and out of even Mount Olympus without being noticed.

"Go on ahead to the temple," the Conqueror said. "I've got something to work out a bit."

"All right," Eph said. The group, now with a couple of extra guards made their way out of the palace and towards the temple.

Eph looked around not sure when, or if, she'd ever get back to Corinth to the temple. She hadn't expected to see such a large, and well, beautiful temple to the goddess. She figured with the history between the Conqueror and the Amazons such a temple wouldn't be built.

"Bigger than I expected," Eponin said, as they entered the temple.

"The temple complex is actually quite extensive here. If Corinth wanted visitors from around the empire, then we needed a place where they could worship. Every major god or goddess has a temple, and several of the more obscure ones have a temple as well," Gabrielle said to them.

"Didn't think the Conqueror would have allowed that," Eponin said.

"She was, persuaded, to see the beneficial aspects of such a complex," Gabrielle said, with a slight smile.

Eph understood what Gabrielle did not say, the complex had been her idea. She looked towards the altar noticing the similar design in the back that also hung in the temple back at the Nation. A priestess walked out stopping at who had entered.

Eph watched while Airlea and Gabrielle walked towards the priestess. She took the opportunity to look over Gabrielle's guards. Each appeared competent in their appearance, and seemed to take their assignment seriously.

"So, do you have a name?" Eponin finally asked breaking the silence to the nearest guard. The one who she thought seemed in command.

"Paleamon," the man replied. "Head of the Royal Guard."

"Royal Guard, shouldn't you be guarding the Conqueror then," Eph asked, not able to stop herself. She looked over at him at the chuckles from him and a few others.

"The Empress doesn't need our help with normal assailants," Paleamon said. "No, we're guarding the 'Little One' there."

Eph noticed the way he said 'little one', like a term of endearment.

"A slave with her own guard," Eponin said.

"She's much more than that, but don't let her appearance fool you, she can fight like the best of us," Paleamon replied.

"She can fight?" Eph said, a bit surprised at that.

"The Empress taught her how to fight using a staff, the Little One won't pick up a blade," Paleamon said.

"The Conqueror would have taught her how to use a sword?" Eponin said, speaking Eph's shock at such a thing. Gabrielle might be many things, but she was still a slave.

"Yep, happened shortly after Drafus tried to overthrow the Empress about six seasons ago," Paleamon replied.

"I see," Eph said, digesting that news. She looked over at the figure in question who had assumed a proper stance. A sudden flash of light caught everyone by surprise. Blinking, Eph had one hand on her sword already anticipating trouble, even taking a few steps forward. Her vision cleared up enough to see a second figure near the altar. Her eyes widen in recognition, Artemis.

"I see you've finally come to grace my temple," the goddess said, looking at Gabrielle.

"Artemis," Gabrielle said, bowing to the goddess.

"Well, you have more respect than Xena," Artemis said. She turned towards Eph and Eponin before saying anything else. "Terreis understood, and is being rewarded in the afterlife."

""She did know," Gabrielle said.

"Yes, she did, at least the important parts," Artemis said. "And I'd have taken you as my Chosen, however you're path lies on a different road, or should I say someone."

"If you knew, then why make me a princess?" Gabrielle asked, slightly confused.

"Your path might not be what I wanted, but in any path you take, you will affect the Amazons, for that I needed to be part of it," Artemis answered.

"If you couldn't take me as your Chosen, then, someone else did?" Gabrielle asked slowly.

Eph turned to look at Artemis, who appeared to have anticipated this question.

"That information, well, it isn't for me to say," Artemis replied, then smiled. "For now, follow your heart, it's never let you down yet. You have my blessing as Amazon princess, but you've always had my blessing and mark."

Eph watched Artemis touch Gabrielle on the forehead before disappearing once more. She turned to see how the others had reacted.

"Well, should've seen that one coming," Paleamon said.

"What do you mean?" Eph asked. She wanted to gain his insight in what had happened. Few people outside the priestesses had ever seen Artemis.

"Well, a person like her, she seems to be able to stand up to the Empress that takes a lot of courage. The daughter of Ares, only someone touched by the gods could be equally as strong," Paleamon said.

Eph thought about that, then about what Artemis had said before leaving. Something about following her heart, the phrase made Eph wonder about something.

"Paleamon, has Gabrielle ever been to the temple of Aphrodite?" Eph asked.

"Um, don't think so, generally slaves are not allowed in the temples. Artemis's priestess' are a rare exception. The priest of Aphrodite's temple really adheres to that one," Peleamon replied.

"I think we should stop in, it might be interesting," Eph said. If she thought correctly, the goddess wouldn't mind one bit that a slave had stopped in her temple.

"Are we ready," Gabrielle asked, walking over to the group.

"Whenever you are princess," Eph replied. "Though, if we could, I'd like to stop in and see the temple of Aphrodite."

"I guess we're not pressed for time," Gabrielle replied, looking outside at the sun. "Why do you want to go there?"

"I thought I'd thank her for Eponin, I'm not sure when I'll be here next," Eph said, thinking quickly. She noticed the raised eyebrow that Eponin gave her but shrugged it off before Gabrielle could look at her.

The group stopped outside the temple where Eph had to think quickly to get Gabrielle inside, where she could test her theory.

"Why don't you come inside with us," Eph said. "It'll make me feel better while we were in there. We've lost one princess, I don't want to lose another one, and I'm sure it'd be easier to make sure you're all right."

The group watched an internal struggle in Gabrielle's mind. For all the young woman's abilities, she sometimes seemed insecure about some things.

"I agree," Paleamon said suddenly. "It will be easier to guard you inside than outside. The Amazons have lost one princess, they might try again."

"All right," Gabrielle finally said, relenting to them.

"Let's go," Eph said. She and Eponin led the group up the stairs and into the temple. She thought she felt a slight stirring in the air, but dismissed it. The statues and paintings almost made Eph blush, and a few she didn't think were even possible, at least humanly anyways. The sounds of footsteps indicated the priest had noticed them, and by the rapid sound of it, he probably knew Gabrielle had come in with them.

"Ah, Amazons, I bid thee welcome, but, I'm afraid slaves are not welcome in the temple, she'll have to leave," the priest said, pointing at Gabrielle. Even if Gabrielle hadn't been a princess of the Nation, the man's attitude needed a serious adjustment.

"I think she stays," Eph said suddenly, suddenly doubting the path she'd taken.

"It goes against the laws of this temple, set forth by Aphrodite herself," the man replied firmly.

"By Aphrodite, herself, really," Eph said, an idea popping into her mind.

"Of course, I am the High Priest of her temple here in Corinth, the greatest of her temples," the man said, boasting his position.

"Then you also know about Chosen's," Eph said, raising an eyebrow at the man.

"Pah, of course I do, are you saying you're the Chosen of Aphrodite, an Amazon, doubt it, Artemis maybe, but not the goddess of Love," the priest said.

"Then you're also aware it only takes saying the god or goddess' name for them to appear to their Chosen," Eph replied.

"I know what it means for a Chosen," the priest said.

"Then I'd like for you to meet Aphrodite's Chosen," Eph said, pointing to Gabrielle.

"A slave, you must be joking," the priest said, chuckling a bit at Eph. "I'll not suffer the disgrace of a slave being Aphrodite's Chosen."

"I don't think that's for you to decide," Eph said, looking over at Gabrielle. She had a look on her face that she had never seen before, one of humiliation.

"I'll go outside and wait," Eph heard Gabrielle quietly say.

She wanted to say something, and she felt a bit sorry she had even brought Gabrielle into the temple. She turned to the priest.

"I thought being the priest of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, you'd be more compassionate," Eph said.

"Maybe, but I speak for Aphrodite here in this temple," the priest said.

"Gabrielle, stop," a voice suddenly said. Eph glanced around to see who spoke, and found herself looking at a beautiful blonde, wearing an almost see-through dress. "You are welcome in my temple anytime."

"Aphrodite," Eph said, knowing the woman couldn't be anyone else.

"Like, in the flesh babe," the goddess said, making her way over to where Gabrielle still stood. Eph wondered what the priest thought now that the goddess, herself, had shown up personally telling Gabrielle to wait. "Now, we finally meet after all this time, my Chosen."

"My goddess, I must protest, she's but a slave?"

"Silence," Aphrodite said. Eph didn't think the goddess of love could become angry, but she appeared to be right now. "I've been watching you, and I'm not pleased."

"My goddess, I've only tried to serve you," the man said.

"No, you've only served yourself, leave my temple, now! You are relieved of your position," Aphrodite said.

Eph watched the startled, now ex-priest stumbled out of the temple.

"You didn't have to do that Aphrodite," Eph heard Gabrielle say.

"He's been double-crossing me for a while now, keeping tribute meant for the temple, he knows it," Aphrodite said. "I just hadn't been here long enough to do anything about it."

"Um, I don't mean to sound rude or anything, but I'm your Chosen?" Gabrielle asked in a child-like voice.

"Huh, oh, like of course, who else would I choose? Like, you and the Empress there give a whole new meaning to love," Aphrodite said, smiling while giving a little wiggle.

Eph watched Gabrielle blush a bit at that thought.

"But, you must know by now Bri, you've been touched my many gods and goddesses," Aphrodite said. "Artemis wanted you to be Queen of her Amazons, but other factors interfered with that."

Eph glanced over at Eponin at that news. An outsider becoming Queen of the Amazons, that would take some time to adjust to. She could see even Gabrielle wondered about that.

"For that path, you would have been saved by the Amazons when you were taken as a slave, but, the price would have been at an older age," Aphrodite said.

Eph glanced over at Gabrielle, who had a strange look on her face, almost one of acceptance. She knew there had to be story there for sure.

"So, what factors interfered with that?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well, like for one, Xena. You must know you and she are soul-mates, even Ares understood that at an early age," Aphrodite replied.

"Ares, is that why I can fight so well?" Gabrielle asked.

"Um, yes and no, you've been touched by Athena, where you get that particular part, and your wisdom," Aphrodite said.

"And if Ares had touched you I'd have known it," another voice said. Eph turned to see the Conqueror walking towards them stopping beside Gabrielle, putting her arm around her waist.

"Now that's love, it's beautiful," Aphrodite said, making a small sigh. Even Eph had to admit the way the two acted around each other could make many people jealous.

"Wait, what do you mean you'd have known it?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at the Conqueror.

"I can sense Ares, or anything touched by Ares, part of the fact I'm his daughter," Xena said. "If that had happened, I might have killed you before knowing who you were."

Eph jumped slightly when another figure appeared. She noticed the Conqueror didn't flinch, almost as if she'd been expecting the god to show up.

"Hello Ares," the Conqueror stated.

"Xena, Gabrielle," Ares said walking towards the group. Eph noticed Ares did indeed look similar to the Conqueror, tall, dark hair, and the same imposing stance. Eph watched Ares look right at Xena and Gabrielle before saying anything else. "I had Aphrodite search for your soul-mate."

"You?' Eph said in a squeak.. Eponin nudged her a bit for the outburst.

"Yes, me, I may be the God of War, but I do care for my daughter, even if we don't see eye-to-eye," Ares said. "I only intended to watch over her, but it seems others had plans for her."

"What others?" the Conqueror said, her eyes narrowing at the mention that so many gods might be involved.

"We know about Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear Apollo's name," Gabrielle said.

"Yes, Apollo blessed you, even Zeus and Hera," Aphrodite replied. "I've never known another mortal so blessed in our history."

"Why?" Gabrielle asked. Eph had to admit, she found herself curious about this as well, and leaned forward a bit to hear the answer.

"Sometimes, a rare mortal comes along, once in a thousand lifetimes maybe less, and they deserve to be blessed," Aphrodite answered. "If you ever need me, call my name and I'll be there."

With that somewhat vague answer Eph watched Aphrodite vanish, followed by Ares leaving on the small group standing in confusion.

"I think they do that on purpose," Gabrielle stated, pushing a lock of blonde hair behind an ear.

"Well, now that the major epiphanies are done, let's get back to the minor ones," the Conqueror stated.

"You have something," Eph asked, hoping that she did.

"Yes, though I think we should talk about this back at the palace though," the Conqueror said.

Eph glanced around knowing that while the temple appeared quiet, who knew who lurked nearby listening in. She only hoped the mystery of who did it had been answered, or if this puzzle was about to get complicated.

Eph watched the way the Conqueror and Gabrielle walked after such revelations. The Conqueror wrapping an arm around Gabrielle's waist, neither saying a word. She briefly wondered if they could read each other's mind.

"So, you think she's actually got something?" Eponin asked, whispering.

"I, well, I don't know, but I hope the Centaurs didn't do it," Eph replied. The evidence seemed too convenient for her.

"Who else would do it?" Eponin asked. "You know they've never liked us, and who else would have a reason?"

"I know all that, but doesn't everything seem too convenient," Eph replied. "Almost too well laid out."

"I guess, but wouldn't put it past the Centaurs to have done it," Eponin replied.

Eph really couldn't blame Eponin for her thoughts. Her first thought had been the Centaurs even before seeing the arrow. Now that she had time to think about it, everything seemed too wrapped up, too easy to lead to the Centaurs. Why assassinate a princess unless you're ready for war? The last reports from their spies indicated the Centaurs had been under pressure from Rome, her thought ended. Rome? Could it really be, and if so, then what?

"You all right?" Eponin asked.

"Yeah, just thinking," Eph said.

Walking through the doors into the interior palace she noticed Autolycus standing nearby. She hoped he had found something so soon, but looking at where the sun stood, several candlemarks had passed already. They still had to tell those at the camp what had happened, and who the next princess was. Shrugging that thought off she turned to hear what the investigation had turned up.

'While there were signs of Centaur prints, it's highly unlikely they came from the Centaur camp. No Centaur has left the camp yet," Autolycus said.

"The prints are Centaur, are they not?" Eponin asked.

"Yes, I first thought of the possibility of a rouge Centaur hoping to stir trouble up, but, well, the prints didn't look right to me," Autolycus replied. "So I had the Empress take a closer look at them."

"I looked at the prints myself, and as Autolycus said, they didn't seem right, so we followed them," the Conqueror said. "The tracks first headed towards the Centaur camp, placing more suspicion on the Centaurs, but short of the camp the prints changed, into horse prints, causing me to believe the Centaurs didn't do it."

"Horse prints?" Eph asked, a bit relieved yet disappointed in the fact Terreis' death would remain a mystery a bit longer.

"I had Autolycus follow the tracks, I think you'll be surprised where they led," the Conqueror said.

"Romans," Eph said.

"Right on," he said.

"Roman, why would Romans be behind this?" Eponin asked. Eph could hear a bit of confusion in her voice.

"Our treaty with Greece, even the Centaurs have been having trouble with Rome. Remember the merchant who seemed surprised by our news," Eph said.

"He did seem rather upset," Eponin said. Eph could tell by her lover's face she had thought of something else. "How well do you know Kori?"

The question took Eph back a bit. She had to think for a second about the dark-haired Amazon. She didn't usually associate with that group, but they had never caused any trouble either.

"Not that well," Eph replied. "Why?"

"Before the meeting with the Conqueror in the winter, I overheard her and someone else talking. I don't think they expected anyone and I remember hearing Rome mentioned several times," Eponin stated, her eyes taking a distant view. "And they mentioned Roman soldiers, and I've got a bad feeling about all this."

"An invasion?" Eph asked. The possibilities of such an attack occurring, though slim, would devastate the Nation.

"Rome is foolish, but usually not stupid," the Conqueror finally said. Eph watched her pause to think. "Perhaps we can use this to our advantage."

"Advantage, you want to turn this to an advantage?" Eponin said. Eph could hear the shocked tone in her lover's voice, not that Eph blamed her.

"Actually, yes, it's the perfect time for this," the Conqueror said. "Caesar thinks he knows everyone, perhaps it's time to show him he doesn't know the Amazons like he thinks he does."

"What do you mean?" Eponin replied. Eph remained quiet wondering what the Conqueror had in mind, and noted that even her lover seemed a bit more willing to listen, for now.

"Well, the Romans believe they have an advantage, and they are extremely egotistical when they think this way. With a proper plan we can keep them in the dark for a long time."

"That may be, but we still have to inform the Nation of Terreis' death, and the fact that Gabrielle received the Right-of-Caste," Eph shook her head at the thought of explaining that one.

"Oooo, that's going to go over soooo well," Eponin said, "not."

"Ugh, the fact that Gabrielle's a slave, that's a problem," Eph agreed.

"Am I the Queen?" Gabrielle asked, surprising Eph with the question.

"No," Eph replied.

"And who's next in line, me or someone else?" she asked.

"Well, Valaska is, so I guess you're in third," Eph answered.

"Even with Artemis's blessing, this is going to take a small miracle," Eponin said.

"We should be able to use that to our advantage, at least a bit," Gabrielle said.

Eph really didn't feel like even thinking about that right now. Terreis's death, Gabrielle an Amazon princess, the Amazons to tell, then the Queen and the Nation, and add in the fact that the Centaurs or the Romans might be involved Eph felt a slight headache come on.

"We need to go back to camp and tell them what happened, not all of it, but the basics," Eph said, not liking the task one bit.

Eph glanced over to see what the others were doing. The Conqueror appeared talking to one of the guards, Airlea stood with Gabrielle, who waited to see what their decision would be.

"You realize someone is going to have to stay and guard the princess," Eponin said, breaking Eph's thoughts.

"I'll stay," Airlea said.

Eph glanced over at Eponin before looking back at the priestess. She realized that Gabrielle had more guards than most Amazon royalty.

"I'd suggest keeping the part of who gained the Right-of-Caste a secret for now," the Conqueror said. "If Amazons are part of this plot some might not be trusted with such knowledge."

Eph groaned to herself, but the Conqueror had an annoying habit of being right. She found it hard to believe that a sister Amazon would endanger another's life. She had a job though to protect the princess, whoever that might be. If Rome, indeed, was involved, then silence might be the wisest course of action. Dealing with the fact the new princess was also a slave that would be difficult to explain.

"I don't like it, but I have to agree," Eph finally said. With that she walked out with Eponin beside her.

Eph found herself with several Amazons asking questions wondering what had happened.

""Silence!" Eph finally shouted. Waiting several seconds for things to quiet down she noticed almost everyone from the camp stood around her. "Okay, by now, word has probably spread that Terreis was killed, assassinated actually. We're working with Greece officials the identity of the attacker is still unknown, but we're getting close."

"I heard the Centaurs did it, when do we strike back?" one Amazon, Jana, asked. She always spoke quickly without thinking, but always with her heart.

"No, we tracked the prints back, and while originally Centaur tracks, they changed into a set of human and horse prints headed towards the Roman camp," Eph said. The Conqueror or Autolycus mentioned nothing of human prints, she decided to add that. Saying Rome might be involved also quickly quelled any irrational thoughts of an attack that might lead to unnecessary blood-shed.


"Yes, they might be involved due to our new trade agreement with Greece, but for now we stay calm," Eph said.

"Who go the Right-of-Caste," Jana asked. Eph felt slightly relieved for the change in topic.

"We," Eph glanced over at Eponin receiving a nod, "felt that due to the conditions of the assassination and until the investigation is over, to keep the new princess' identity a secret for now, in case they try again."

"Or they might try decide to rid the Nation of two more Amazons," another voice said.

"Are you sure about that?" Eph replied.

"Remember the priestess isn't here either," Eponin replied.

Eph watched the group absorb that information. She also glanced over at who had made the comment. She continued on to her tent having answered most of the questions. A few Amazons continued to pester her and Eponin for information.

"We don't know the real motivation, and the investigation is going on right now. I do know whoever did it they wanted to make sure the Centaurs were to blame," Eph finally said.

"What if they did do it?" Jana asked.

"Then I'll allow Queen Melosa to deal with it," Eph replied. "My job now is to give her all the information she needs to make that decision. I also know that unless the Centaurs have an accomplice, they can't fake human footprints."

"I see, not a good thing then," Jana said.

"Now you see the need for some secrecy," Eph said. She also understood that if the Romans, indeed, had become involved things might get very dangerous for the Nation. "I need a volunteer to head back to the nation with the news."

"I will," a young Amazon said.

"All right, I'll give you a note to give the queen," Eph said. "Make sure only the Queen receives it."

"I will," the Amazon said.

"Get ready for the trip, I'll write the note," Eph told her. She watched the Amazon leave realizing she had to now write something for their Queen and soften the blow. She also had to inform the Queen about who had received the Right-of-Caste, and keep it a secret for now.

Eph walked into the tent looking at Eponin who already had laid down.

"Ya know, it's strange not being able to trust our own sisters like this," Eph finally said.

"Strange, I'd also go for weird," Eponin said. Eph watched her glance over at her before continuing. "I keep shutting my mouth before I say something about who did receive it. I think I'm still in shock."

"I know," Eph said. The fact Gabrielle, Princess Gabrielle, seemed strange to comprehend. Artemis's blessing on that fact made it all seem even stranger. "I guess we should start accepting it. Not sure how the Queen will accept it though."

"You warning her about a possible Roman involvement in this, and maybe some Amazons?" Eponin asked.

"I don't see how I can't," Eph replied. "The Romans have become too pushy lately for me."

"There's a possibility this has been planned for a while?" Eponin asked. "After all, we didn't have a meeting with them this year for trade after we accepted the Conqueror's offer."

"Could be," Eph said lying down next to Eponin. "I say let's take this one step at a time."

Eph turned her attention to the scroll in front of her, and what she might say to assure the Nation would not be at war when they returned with new information.

"Ephiny, you're wanted at the palace," Jana said, interrupting the short nap Eph had been taking.

Groaning a bit Eph rolled out of her bed and walked out the tent. She managed to write the message to the Queen, and the messenger had left back to the Nation and she had hoped to catch up on some sleep. However, it appeared the gods conspired against her for a nap.

"All right, what is it?" Eph said. Eponin stood next to Jana and a palace guard.

"The Empress asked you come quickly. She has some information about the death of your princess, she said time was important," the guard answered.

"All right," Eph replied. "Ammira, you're in charge until we return."

"Do you need anyone else to come along?" Ammira asked.

"I think the less people involved right now, the better," Eph said. "At least until we find out who did this, and why?"

"I don't like this," Jana said.

"No, neither do I," Eponin replied. "But this isn't for the new princess's safety, but the Nation's as well."

"Let's get this over with," Eph said motioning for the guard to head back to the palace. She could only hope the Conqueror had found something worthwhile.

Eph entered the room seeing the Conqueror, Gabrielle and Airlea sitting at the table. Eph glanced over at the Conqueror noting a strange look, one that made Eph feel a bit nervous.

"You wanted to see us?" Eph asked.

"I've received some rather disturbing information," the Conqueror said. "Whoever is involved, they are meeting to finish payments."

Eph glanced at the Conqueror wondering how the woman had received that information. Doubt flared in her mind again at the thought of the Conqueror having something to do with Terreis' death.

"And how did you get that information?" Eponin asked before Eph could.

"From me, and I got it straight from a Roman," a male voice said behind her. Eph turned to see Autolycus walking towards her.

"I highly doubt the Romans said out loud," Eph said.

"No, they didn't, but when you know where to find information, things become easier. And it isn't the Roman leadership who said it, but some merchants," Autolycus replied.

Eph felt the shock of that go though her. She felt sure that if Rome interference meant Caesar. Now she thought about the latest news. Roman merchants, the ones who seemed surprised at the fact the Nation stopped trading with them decided on revenge. Perhaps hoping to stir up a war where they could sell war goods to both sides. The theory actually had a lot of merit.

"I think we should be present at this 'meeting'," Eponin said, looking over at Eph.

"I thought you would, but we should get moving then," the Conqueror said to them. Eph watched her turn towards Gabrielle. "You, stay here until this is over."

Eph watched a pout develop on Gabrielle's face at that.

"I never get to see any excitement," she said.

"And for good reason, I don't think this needs to get any more complex than it already is without you trying to find more trouble," the Conqueror said.

"I try not to cause any trouble," Gabrielle said. Eph noticed the Conqueror's face soften a bit as she walked back over to Gabrielle.

"I know love, but, you do attract trouble, and I don't need any more trouble with this situation," the Conqueror said. "Stay here with the guards, for me."

Eph almost laughed at the pout the blonde gave the Conqueror reminding her of a child deprived of her favorite toy. She noticed Autolycus standing nearby, a slight smile on his face. Quickly looking around she noticed most of the guards smiling slightly. She turned back to the two women before saying anything.

"Princess, the Conqueror is right, you should stay here. We've lost one princess, and they might try for a second one, especially if the meeting goes wrong," Eph said. She waited a few seconds before Gabrielle said anything.

"Fine, I'll stay," Gabrielle said. Eph noticed Gabrielle's face appeared one of resigned acceptance to her position.

"I'll stay behind as well," Eph said. "An Amazon guard should be here, no offence Airlea."

"None taken Ephiny," the priestess replied.

"And I'll go with the Conqueror," Eponin said. "Well, lead on, you said they were meeting soon, right?"

Eph watched the group walk out, Autolycus, followed by the Conqueror, Eponin and two other guards. Turning to the others still in the room she noticed Gabrielle sitting down looking at her.

"My skills are good, but hers are better," Eph said.

"I didn't say anything," Gabrielle replied, smiling a bit. Airlea smiled as well making Eph wonder about some inside joke. "I think this will take some time to get used to."

"Huh, time?" Eph replied, not sure what Gabrielle was talking about.

"Um, Amazon princess, me, remember," Gabrielle said, raising her eyebrows.

"Oh, right," Eph said, sitting down, hoping that might help prevent her from staring at Gabrielle's breasts.

"Xena and I talked about it last night, and I do want you to know, I don't plan on living anywhere but Corinth with Xena," Gabrielle said.

"That's about the only thing I'm sure about in all of this," Eph said. "There's time to discuss that when you come back for the ceremony for a new princess."

"Um, this isn't one of your all night long orgies, is it," Gabrielle asked.

Eph, coughed a bit having swallowed wrong on that, looked back up at Gabrielle, then over at Airlea, who shrugged her shoulders. She looked back at Gabrielle wondering if the woman was serious about the question. She found only interested green eyes looking back at her.

"You see, that's more of an exaggeration than anything else," Eph said, deciding that to be the safest answer.

"Oh, oh well," Gabrielle replied. For a small second, Eph thought she saw disappoint in the answer.

"Ah, so, how'd you and the Conqueror meet?" Eph said. "I mean I've heard about how you met, but how'd you and she become, well-"

"Lovers," Gabrielle replied, supplying the term Eph had a hard time saying, especially about the Conqueror.

"Yeah, something like that, I mean it's not every day a slave and a ruler become lovers like you two did," Eph said.

"It's a complex, yet actually very simple story. I like to say its love at first sight," Gabrielle said. "Of course Xena would deny that, she always does, but that's just her. Besides, I know better."

"Now I'm curious, how that happened," Eph stated. She tried to wrap her brain around the fact a slave and master could have love at first sight.

"The first time I ever saw Xena, she looked magnificent, a goddess," Gabrielle said. Eph watched the younger woman's face take on a dreamy, far-away look. "She'd killed my owner at the time, for which I felt grateful. She strode though the household taking command of everything and everyone. I remember our eyes meeting, and something inside me wanted to go with her, be with her."

"You wanted to be with the Conqueror?" Eph asked. She'd heard many things and rumors, but almost never a slave wanting the Conqueror as their master.

"Yeah, I know, foolish, but that's what I wished for. Even I understood my position, a lowly slave, I'm surprised she even noticed me that day," Gabrielle said. "But our eyes did meet, and I think that changed everything. I'd heard about how Xena treated her slaves, especially her pleasure slaves, which is what I was."

"So, the Conqueror took you as her slave then?" Eph asked.

"No, I was sold, but a short time later my new owner sold me. That day, she bought me. I remember being scared, terrified, and a small part of me, happy," Gabrielle said. "I think my heart knew then what it already knows now, I love her, and she already loved me."

"The stories I've heard of the Conqueror don't involve love," Eph replied.

"I think she needed someone to teach her how," Gabrielle said. "I think that's why she paid so much that day. She wanted to make sure no one else could buy me."

"So, after she bought you, was she as bad as the rumors?" Eph asked, not really able to help herself.

"Yes and no, I think a part of her feared the perceived weakness of being in love. She tried to show me she didn't care, and many times in that first year, I did fear her, but never my life. It turned out to be the piercings, they were the turning point," Gabrielle said, flicking one of the rings in her nipple making the chain jingle a bit. Eph struggled to look back up into Gabrielle's face and not stare. She noticed Airlea continued to stare, but Gabrielle looked back up at her instead of over at the priestess.

"How would the piercings change anything?" Eph finally managed to ask.

"The pain I experienced got though to her heart in a way I had yet to do," Gabrielle explained. "Knowing her now, she hates seeing me in any type of pain."

"I'll never say you don't have courage," Eph said. She opened her mouth to say more when Eponin and the Conqueror returned. Eph frowned wondering if they even went to this meeting. "What happened?"

"Ugh, what didn't," Eponin replied flopping down into a chair next to her. "This is really tangled."

Eph glanced over at the Conqueror hoping for a more detailed answer instead of the one her lover gave her.

"It appears that Amazons are involved in this," the Conqueror stated.

"It's true," Eponin stated before Eph could say anything. "Seems a few Amazons still hold a grudge against the Conqueror, and they don't like how Queen Melosa is ruling the Nation, want her replaced."

"Who?" Eph asked. A threat like this required action.

"Well, I thought I heard them calling themselves, Valaska's Chosen," Eponin said.

"Valaska, doesn't make any sense," Eph said, frowning at that.

"I know, but here's where it gets interesting, I thought I heard Tanis's voice," Eponin told her.

Eph thought the name sounded familiar. "Tanis, hold on, oh, yeah, she was banned for, oh goddess, you don't suppose?"

"I do," Eponin replied.

"Um, she was banned for what?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes locked on Eph's.

"Tanis is Valaska's older sister, and when Valaska received the Right-of-Caste, Tanis went, well berserk," Eponin said.

"She tried attacking Queen Melosa, Valaska and Terreis at the same time, had a nutty idea if she could kill all three, the Nation would make her Queen," Eph said.

"Did she have any close friends, lovers?" the Conqueror asked.

"Ligeia, rumor was they were lovers, but no real proof," Eph said.

"Do Ligeia and Koni know each other?" Eponin asked.

"Yes, they are part of the same small group. Always hanging around, thinking they're better than the others," Airlea said, speaking up for the first time in a while.

Eph felt relieved at the fact they had sent a message back to Melosa, but wished this information had come in before the messenger had left. A guard walked in pushing another man, who wore a scowl on his face. Eph guessed him a Roman merchant.

"Also, this Roman merchant confessed to the assassination of Terreis," the Conqueror said. "I'll release him to the Amazons."

"Um, wait for that, we don't have any way to hold a prisoner at the moment," Eph replied.

"We'll hold him in the dungeon until the Amazons are ready to leave," the Conqueror said.

Eph walked up to the man, recognizing him. The same man who had spoken to them the previous night about trade between Rome and the Amazon Nation. "So, what did you hope to accomplish?"

She looked right in his eyes knowing he had no intention of answering her. She did see a spark of resentment directed towards her.

"It doesn't matter, the Amazon nation will be no more anyways," the man finally said. "I only wish I'd taken out more of your filth."

"Take him away," the Conqueror said. They watched the guard remove the prisoner.

"This still seems too easy," Eph replied.

"If Rome is involved, and I feel they are, exposing them so soon is a disadvantage," the Conqueror told them. "Caesar likes to think he knows his enemy, but this time, we have a bit more knowledge than he'd like."

"Are you saying Rome is going to invade Greece," Eponin said. Eph turned to see what the Conqueror thought. In this type of political battlefield she had no skills.

"That's exactly what I'm thinking. He never told the merchants, probably telling them if they removed a princess and blame the Centaurs they'd be selling the weapons. However such a war opens new possibilities for him, easy prey," the Conqueror said. "He'd eliminate three nations in one swoop."

"So, Rome's going to get away with this!" Eponin's voice said. "They go, kill Terreis and all we get is a lousy merchant!"

"Stand down Eponin," a sudden voice said with authority. Eph turned to see Gabrielle standing up looking right at Eponin.

"I think we all know who's side you're going to take in this," Eponin replied.

"No, I understand more than you do," Gabrielle answered, holding a hand up in the direction of the Conqueror. Eph glanced over to see the Conqueror watching very carefully, making sure no physical harm might come from this argument. "For now, the Nation, except for certain trusted members, will think this 'merchant' did everything on his own."

"While you what, sit and play politics with Rome," Eponin said.

"No," the Conqueror said. "While Greece and Rome go to war!"

Eph had hoped for a different comment from the Conqueror. Looking around she had the feeling that such a war had almost been inevitable.

"Paleamon, go tell the seventh army to quietly mobilize, we head towards the Amazon and Centaurs after the dignitaries have left. I want them ready to go the moment the last one has left following me and Brie to the Amazon Nation," the Conqueror said.

"At once Empress," Paleamon said, saluting then left to carry out his orders.

Eph felt small compared to the whirlwind of activity that had just happened.

"I think Gabrielle and I should visit the Amazon Nation, for two reasons. One, and the official reason, Gabrielle is the new princess of the Nation, so she probably has some, 'duties' to learn, and two, to scout for a possible invasion by Rome," the Conqueror said.

"Won't this plan be a bit obvious when you bring an army with you?" Eponin said.

"The seventh army is a small one, and I have a garrison already near Amazon territory, guarding the prisoners," the Conqueror said.

"Perhaps a few more warriors, in the disguise of prisoners?" Gabrielle said.

"Might work, along with the entire Royal Guard, add in Amazon warriors, and Centaur warriors, and I think we have enough," the Conqueror said.

Eph only raised her eyebrows at that. War with Rome somehow never even entered her mind a season ago, and now they appear poised on the verge of that very war.

"Somehow, I wish I had stayed home for this trip," Eph finally said. She looked over at Airlea who shrugged again.

"I'm not a warrior Ephiny, only a priestess," she said.

"Whatever we decide, Queen Melosa needs to be informed about all this, otherwise, while I have Artemis's blessing, I doubt she wanted me to be Queen," Gabrielle said.

"I doubt that as long as the Roman delegation is still here they'd try anything, isn't their style. No, they will observe, then report back to the attacking force," the Conqueror said. "That's where we hold the advantage."

Eph hoped the Nation would survive.

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