A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. He said this warrior was going to change the world, and he saw me helping this warrior. Greece is just such a land - its people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you.
A year ago, I left my home in Potidaea and joined the army of Xena the Conqueror as General Xena's personal assistant. I thought my fate had been fulfilled - that I had found the mighty warrior I was meant to help. Over time, I became Empress Xena's Civilian Affairs Advisor, trusted friend, and so much more. It's when I fell in love with Xena that I realised the deeper meaning of the seer's prophecy: love had the power to change the world, and I was meant to love Xena and help her to trust her heart.
If someone had asked me when I was growing up whether I would be excited to attend a reception for the Roman ambassador to the court of the Empress of Greece, the answer would have been a resounding 'Yes!' But as I mingled with the cream of Greek society at a reception for Ambassador Brutus, all I could think about was Xena, and the night before as we lay in each other's arms and made love for the first time.
Xena was so sweet. She was almost as nervous as I was, which surprised me, since she was the experienced one. She was very gentle, not at all demanding; instead she let me know that our first time was about my comfort and pleasure. It was more wonderful than anything I had ever imagined. The softness of her lips and the reverence of her touch awakened my soul to the joy of sharing my body and my heart with her. It was as though we were both discovering the true gift of love. I didn't want the night to end, but it did, and now I couldn't wait for the reception to be over so Xena and I could be alone again.
I did my best to act the part of the Empress' advisor, but I teetered on the edge of failure all afternoon. Everywhere Xena went, my eyes followed. She'd meet my gaze and my knees would go weak. She smiled and my insides felt like a thousand butterflies had shed their cocoons. Xena, on the other hand, appeared composed and in control, attracting guests like bees to a flower wafting its sweet-scented nectar on the summer breeze. She was, in a word, magnificent.
"Magnificent," a male voice behind my left shoulder concurred as though he had read my thoughts.
"Yes, isn't she," I said dreamily. I wasn't paying attention to the person addressing me.
"I meant the ceremony, the reception, the day, but yes she is magnificent as well."
I twirled around to see who was talking in my left ear. "Oh, Governor Braextus!"
I knew Braextus from my days as personal assistant to then General Xena. He had been one of her most trusted commanders, and Xena rewarded his service by making him Governor of Thessalia.
It had been at least six months since I had seen him. His hair was a bit greyer around the temples and his girth was a bit more ample. Braextus was never fastidious about his uniform or bathing when he was in the army. How he had changed. Judging by the fine linen of his tunic and all the precious gemstone and gold rings adorning his fingers, Thessalia had become one of the most prosperous regions of Greece.
"You are doing well, Governor."
"And you, Gabrielle," he replied, in his deep voice and amiable manner. "I hear congratulations are in order," Braextus continued.
"Huh?" Suddenly the gift of the gab deserted me and I stood there, tongue-tied and flustered. Had Xena said something to him about us or did he guess from the way my eyes followed her every move? I wondered.
"Your promotion?" he offered.
"Oh, that!" I laughed to cover my confusion. "Yes, thank you."
"The Empress must like what you do."
Again, words deserted me, as I tried to discern his meaning. I had learnt that politicians never say anything without it meaning something else.
He continued without pausing for my reply. "So, tell me, how does it feel?"
I heard what the governor was saying, but all I could think about was the previous night and how it felt to have Xena exploring the uncharted territory from the hollow of my neck to the soft flesh behind my knees and everything in between.
"To be the Empress' most favoured?" he offered again.
"It felt so good," I replied. The burn of embarrassment swiftly ascended my neck and cheeks when I realised the governor and I were talking about two very different things.
The amply girthed man chuckled. "I'm not sure Darnell shares your feelings, but between you and me, he needed to be brought down a peg or two."
"Governor, would you excuse me?" I interrupted. "I must see Empress Xena about an urgent matter."
This time it was Braextus who was confused, until he followed my gaze and saw the Empress looking directly at me from across the hall. "Oh, yes. Certainly. Perhaps we can meet later to discuss funding for capital improvements."
The rest of Governor Braextus' comments faded into the background as I made a beeline across the banquet hall full of dignitaries to Xena. All my senses were focussed on reaching her and convincing her to leave the reception early, even if it was only to steal a kiss in a secluded alcove somewhere.
When I finally made it to Xena's side, she greeted me with a look of excruciating boredom and relief.
"Are you ready to go?" Xena asked me.
I wanted to say 'of course!' but I maintained my courtly demeanour. "If it is your wish, My Liege."
"It is my wish," she replied with equal formality for others to hear, but her implied desire was for my ears alone.
Without ceremony, Xena and I left the banquet hall by the back door. I felt like a newlywed slipping out of my wedding reception. As we passed the throne room, Xena suddenly remembered she had left her sceptre and wanted to go back and get it. She told me to go ahead up to her chambers and that she would follow shortly. I wasn't too happy about it, but I obeyed her without complaint.
When I got to Xena's chambers, I tried to set the mood by pouring two glasses of wine and arranging some pillows on the floor near the fireplace. I made myself comfortable on the pillows with a glass of wine and waited.
Even a minute seemed like an eternity, so by the time Xena arrived, I was feeling more anxious than aroused.
"Does that feature in any of the plans you have for this afternoon?" I asked in a tone more sarcastic than provocative.
"What?" Xena seemed a little distracted.
I nodded at the object she was holding. "That thing," I replied. I hadn't meant that literally; I only meant that I was hoping we would have time alone together and other things wouldn't become a distraction.
"Then why did you go and get it?" I took the sceptre from her hand and studied it. The sceptre was made of the purest gold from Chalcidice and fashioned like a torch with a rare green gemstone that sat atop like a flame, "It's still an ugly rock," I muttered and tossed it on a nearby chair.
Xena's eyes followed her sceptre as though she wasn't complete without it somehow. I didn't want it to become an elephant in the room. I closed the distance between us and gently touched her face with my hand. "You don't need that." I moved her hand from her face and placed it over her heart. "This is where your power lies. And it's a beautiful thing."
Xena started to speak but I hushed her with a tender kiss. She took over and kissed me as though she had been gone days instead of minutes. All thoughts of receptions and sceptres vanished - I was left with only one thought, one desire.
"How are you feeling?" Xena asked.
"Like I'll perish if you don't touch me," I replied.
Xena took pity and lay me down onto the bed of pillows, the smile never leaving her face. "Well, we can't have that."
I never knew I could be so wet and wanting. It didn't take long for her to make my insides clench in a wave of delirious release. I responded by gliding my hand along her muscled curves, though still a little uncertain of what to do. Xena made sure I knew what felt good to her, and that made me feel more adventuresome. I copied her every move until we both came together - our love overflowing like a heaving fountain.
We stayed in Xena's chambers and made love until pleasant exhaustion overtook us. Xena pulled me to her and held me while I blissfully listened to her heartbeat slowly ease back into a regular and steady rhythm. It made me feel, well, proud in a way to know that it was I who'd made her heart pound so hard and fast just a short time before.
"How are you feeling now?" she asked. The timbre of her voice vibrated against my cheek.
"Hmmm, much better," I purred softly. "And you?"
"Exhausted," she replied, "you're insatiable!"
"And that's a bad thing?" I asked.
"No, that's a very good thing."
As we lay together in quiet contentment for several more minutes, feelings of insecurity began crowding out the sweet memories of our lovemaking. I had no reason to doubt Xena's love for me. However, this niggling fear had crept into my mind that I would wake from this perfect dream and find out I was just another notch on Xena's belt.
"Are you all right?" Xena asked gently.
"Sure, why do you ask?"
"Your breathing changed and your back muscles tensed."
"Oh," I replied flatly. "Well, there is - it's nothing."
Xena turned a little so she could meet my eyes. "What is it? Second thoughts?"
"No! Gods, no." I countered quickly. "It's? I'm?" I fumbled for a way to broach the subject.
"It's okay Gabrielle. Don't try to find the right words, just say what's on your mind," Xena reassured me.
"Xena, I'm afraid."
"Afraid? Afraid of what?"
My eyes slowly lowered. Everything had been so perfect a few moments before. Why ruin such bliss to talk about my silly insecurities? I admonished myself silently.
Xena lifted my head up and kissed me tenderly. "You're afraid of what happens next, where our relationship goes from here. Am I right?"
"Yes, how did you know?" I was surprised that Xena would know exactly what was troubling me.
"Call it an educated guess. My track record for long-term relationships isn't that good and then there's my reputation as a 'love them and leave them' kind of person. So let me calm your fears, Gabrielle. I love you and I've said that to no one else before you. Please believe me."
"I do believe you, Xena. But I can't help wonder why - when you could have anyone - why me? I bring nothing but myself to this relationship. I'm afraid you'll soon tire of me."
"Gabrielle that will never happen. I may have shared my body with others and maybe even my heart with one or two, but you are the only one who has shared my soul - only you."
"Oh, Xena." I joyfully threw my arms around her neck and started hugging and kissing her. "I love you so much, I can't wait to tell the whole world that I am yours and you are mine forever and ever!"
Xena's muscles suddenly flinched and her mood turned subdued. She pulled away from me and sat up. "Look, Gabrielle. That's something we need to discuss."
My heart fell. That troubling insecurity gripped me again and words began tumbling out of my mouth like apples out of a bushel basket. "I'm going too fast, aren't I? You said you loved me. You didn't say you wanted to spend the rest of your life with me. It's just that I've always believed 'you meet, you fall in love, you get married', but that's silly, two women can't be married, can they? What was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. You probably just want to take it one day at a time and here I am going on about forever. I'm okay with taking it one day at a time, if that's what you want. Of course, I hope it does last forever, but you don't have to feel that you have to feel that way-"
"Whoa, Gabrielle! Slow down." Xena grabbed my hands. "Take a breath."
"I'm sorry, Xena." I paused to allow my emotions to settle down. "You were saying?"
Xena reached up and moved a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes. "It's complicated," she said eventually.
"Complicated? What do you mean?"
"Our relationship. You can't say anything to anyone - not even your family. We have to keep it a secret."
"A secret?" I almost squealed in a high-pitched voice. This was doing nothing to lessen my insecurities. I didn't understand why we had to keep it quiet.
Her eyes conveyed the seriousness she felt about the matter. "No one can know that we are together as a couple."
I was confused and a little hurt. "Why? Are you ashamed of me? Of us?"
"No, of course not. It's just that?" Xena paused to consider her words before she continued in a softer voice. "We have to be discreet."
Insecurity and lack of sleep ruled my emotions and I didn't take it very well. I wanted to shout 'Hey World, I'm in love with Xena!' from the palace roof. It crushed me to hear that she wanted to keep it - keep me - a secret.
"I guess I'm just another one of your conquests, eh Xena?" The words came out before I had even thought.
Xena looked as if I had slapped her.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"You know how I feel about you, Gabrielle, but now is not the time."
"I don't see the problem," I countered. "We are two people who love each other. It's that simple. How could anyone have a problem with that?"
"If we were just two ordinary people, then perhaps it would be that simple, but we are not, are we?"
"No," I grudgingly acknowledged.
"Right." Xena cradled me in her arms. "So I need to protect you from my enemies."
I drew back from Xena's embrace and looked at her. "What enemies? Caesar is dead."
"Someone in my position has many enemies, Gabrielle, enemies who would stop at nothing to see my head on a pike and their head wearing my crown. The last thing I want is to put you in danger. No one must know about us until the time is right. Understand?" She finished with an anxious rush of words.
I suddenly felt ill. "Xena, I, um, I've sort of already told someone." I chewed my lower lip. "I told Galates." I paused and waited for Xena's angry response. She sat there, stone-faced, but said nothing. "I'm sorry. I had to tell someone! I was so happy after last night and Galates is a friend and he's going away and I'm going to miss him and I just wanted him to know I'll be all right and, and?"
I completely missed the amused look on Xena's face and continued babbling. "?Galates has been a good friend, a true friend and he's always been reliable, and he understands that if I confide anything in him it's to go no further - like my sister, Lila. She was my best friend growing up and we could tell each other anything and we'd know our parents wouldn't find out, like the time I let the pig escape after trying to ride him and fell off and he just ran away and that's what it's like with Galates. Please don't have him flogged or killed or?" I finally took notice of the knowing smile on Xena's face. "Why are you smiling?"
"I already know you spoke to Galates. I spoke to him this morning."
"You did? You did! You let me apologise and blather on, when all the while you knew! You?why you." I launched myself at Xena. We both knew Xena could've easily broken free from my hold, but she was laughing too hard. "You will pay for that!" I tried to sound threatening, but even I couldn't take me seriously and fell over laughing.
Suddenly I remembered that we had been talking about Galates. "Wait, why did you go see him?"
"I knew you would tell him about us. I wanted to strike pre-emptively."
Her words 'strike pre-emptively' filled me with apprehension. The last thing I wanted to do was get Galates into trouble. "Xena, it wasn't Galates' fault. It was mine. If you are angry then take it out on me, not him. Please."
Xena gave me a puzzled look and then put two-and-two together. "Did you think I went there to silence him or something?" She chuckled and kissed me on my forehead. "Galates is a loyal friend, but more importantly, he is the only one I can trust to look after you," Xena explained.
Now I had the puzzled look.
"I gave him his new orders," Xena explained. "I put him in charge of the Palace Guards."
It took a moment for Xena's words to sink in. "In charge of the Palace Guards? Does that mean he's not going away?"
"He will be staying right here," Xena confirmed.
I pushed Xena backward onto the pillows again and smothered her with grateful kisses. "Oh, Xena! Thank you!"
Xena finally held me at arms length so she could finish. "But he must be the only one who knows," she said firmly. "I mean it."
"Yes, of course. I won't tell anyone. I promise." I kissed her again.
"We will have to maintain a strictly professional relationship in public, and it would be best if you keep your own quarters."
"What about your servants? They'll work out what's going on between us, if they haven't already."
"Then I'll just have their tongues cut out," Xena said sternly.
"You can't be serious! Are you serious? You're not serious." I still couldn't tell when Xena was joking - only the gleam in her eyes gave her away.
The sun caused the tiny ripples on the carp pond to flicker as it beat down from the cloudless blue sky. It warmed my back like a lover's touch. I closed my eyes and imagined the warmth of Xena's hands caressing my bare shoulders. It made my body shiver. Thinking about Xena had that affect on me.
I had escaped to the courtyard to grab a few moments peace before my next meeting. This was not how I envisaged my role in Xena's court would be - one tiresome meeting after another - but at least some good was coming out it, albeit slower than I would've liked.
I heard soft footsteps approaching and opened my eyes to see a servant carrying a pitcher and goblet.
"Ma'am." The servant bobbed a well-practiced curtsey as she stopped. "Would you like some juice?"
"Yes, thank you, Helena." I know it wasn't necessary to thank the servants for performing their duties, but that didn't stop me expressing my gratitude.
Helena poured the sweet orange liquid into the goblet and handed it to me.
"Thank you," I said as I accepted it.
"Ma'am," she replied with a slight uncomfortable tone.
I still wasn't used to being waited on by servants and being called 'ma'am', but it came with the territory.
"Leave the pitcher and I'll bring it back when I've finished."
"Ma'am!" The poor girl appeared shocked at the suggestion.
"It's okay, Helena. I can manage."
"B-but, ma'am? th-the Empress?"
"The Empress, what?"
"The Empress ordered me to bring you the juice, ma'am."
"And you've done that, so what's the problem? I'll tell the Empress you performed your duty to perfection."
"But I can't let you take it back, ma'am, the Empress would have me flogged."
I had to bite my lip to prevent a giggle escaping. It could've been very amusing if it wasn't for the apparent distress the servant was feeling. The poor girl was near to tears. "Helena, I can assure you the Empress won't have you flogged for leaving me to enjoy this juice in peace."
"Okay, I'll leave the pitcher here for you to collect later, if that makes things better."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am." She sighed with relief, bobbed another perfect curtsey and scurried away.
I settled back on the bench, sipped the cool drink and tried to enjoy the peace once more. Yet more footsteps disturbed me.
"Have you been upsetting the servants? I just saw one running back into the palace in a state." Galates stepped into view and tipped his head by way of greeting.
"Oh, you know me. If I haven't crushed the spirit of at least one servant before lunch I'm grumpy all day."
Galates rocked back as he laughed.
"What brings the Commander of the Palace Guards into the gardens on this pleasant morning?" I asked as his laughter subsided.
"It's time for your next meeting."
I gave a resigned nod and allowed Galates to help me to my feet. The meeting room I was going to use wasn't particularly stuffy, but after taking a few steps I reached a decision.
"Galates, would you escort Larrius out here, please? I'm sure he'd appreciate holding the meeting outside."
Galates nodded. "Of course."
"Oh, and ask Helena to bring a goblet for Larrius. That is, if she's over the trauma of me thanking her." We both laughed.
"No, that's it. Oh wait! I'll need my quill and parchment from the meeting room. And my seal."
"Quill, parchment and seal, got it." Galates repeated. Before departing, he quickly added, "and before you say it - 'you're welcome'."
A few minutes later Galates returned with Larrius and a servant in tow. I gestured for Larrius to sit on the bench next to me as the servant poured him a drink and Galates handed me my work tools. Once Larrius was settled, the servant left and Galates retreated to a discreet distance.
"I thought you'd prefer being outdoors after spending so much time inside," I said to the former dissident.
He allowed himself a forced smile before unrolling the scroll he had brought with him.
After they had served their sentence, I made Larrius and his two friends, the twins Cerne and Malcus, special assistants to the Office of Civilian Affairs. Their job was to act as facilitators for various new social programs and public works.
Cerne had taken the job of overseeing the redevelopment of Corinth that I had started; he was planning schools, hospices, theatres, libraries and a new market place. Raising the money was not going to be easy, but the plans had received Xena's seal of approval.
Malcus was responsible for the provinces. Xena's empire extended well beyond Corinth and the entire population fell under my responsibility. Therefore I had sent Malcus to travel to the main cities, for a start, and find out their needs.
Larrius had proposed the idea of a civilian peacekeeping force to maintain law and order among the citizens. Xena was strongly taken with this idea, though I suspect she liked it because it would free up soldiers to protect our borders and expand her empire. Since this was a civilian peacekeeping force, it fell under my authority.
I appointed Larrius to oversee the planning and development of the new Civil Protection Force, however, Xena appointed Lieutenant Darphus to act as its commander. Right from the start, Larrius and Darphus disagreed over the exact role of the Force. Larrius wanted it run as a community-based scheme, whereby one or more officers would be assigned a particular neighbourhood. This would, Larrius claimed, allow the community to effectively protect itself with only the more serious matters being brought to the attention of a superior officer. Darphus, on the other hand, wanted it run from a central command, like a small army ready to move where it was needed and crush any political opposition, criminal activity, or troublemakers in the process.
I liked Larrius' idea, but I knew Xena would prefer Darphus' approach. This left me in a bit of a dilemma. As much as Xena said that I could run it as I saw fit, I didn't want to create any conflict between us - especially considering the recent change in our relationship. I was faced with having to come to some sort of compromise. I wasn't concerned; after all, I had persuaded Xena to give me a job and to accept my advice. Getting Darphus and Larrius to compromise should've been easy compared with that.
"So, Larrius. How are things progressing?" I asked.
"The pilot program here in Corinth is still in the early stages, but every day there's at least one volunteer willing to join up," Larrius reported. "Lieutenant Darphus has taken charge of billeting and training the new recruits."
"That's good," I said.
"You know that Darphus wants the officers to carry swords," Larrius grumbled without preamble.
"Well, it makes sense if they're dealing with armed robbers," I responded.
"But that's only going to be part of their job. Their main job is to help form neighbourhood watches, help resolve disputes peacefully, and watch over their neighbourhoods like a shepherd tends his flock. And to do this, they must gain the trust and cooperation of the citizenry. How can they gain the people's trust if they carry a weapon?" Larrius asked with a stymied huff. "The Empress is turning my idea into some kind of heavy handed militia."
"The Empress is doing no such thing!" I didn't mind a frank exchange of views, but when he criticised Xena, I got defensive. "The Empress has put me in charge and I decide how things are run," I chided.
Larrius didn't say another word. I immediately regretted losing my composure like that.
"It's early days, Larrius, we are going to get things wrong. That's the whole point of these meetings. You've raised your concern over Darphus wanting to arm the officers. I'll have a word with him and see if we can reach some sort of compromise."
Larrius ran a hand through his shoulder length red hair, slurped the last of the juice in his cup, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I still don't trust her. There must be an ulterior motive behind this apparent concern she's showing for the people."
His cynicism angered me and I counted to ten before replying. "The Empress has the welfare of her people foremost in her mind, and her support for the Civil Protection Force is proof of that. I had hoped that your time working with me would've moderated your opposition to Empress Xena. If you think you can better champion the people's cause by circulating obscene pictures of the Empress, then be my guest. But the next time you're caught, I won't be so lenient!" My ire boiled over again. I should've counted higher.
Larrius cringed at my outburst. "Sorry," he muttered.
"My job is to make sure the people are happy, healthy, and safe and that's what I'm going to do. I want? no, I need your help, Larrius. So work with me and forget about ulterior motives where none exist."
An awkward silence fell between us. Eventually he spoke. "Slavery."
"What about it?" I was a little knocked off centre by his sudden change of topic to something as profound as the issue of slavery.
"Slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished. If you can get the Empress to abolish slavery then I'll believe that she's as benevolent as you claim."
This was something I certainly had thought about, and personally I abhorred slavery. But most landowners as well as Greece's aristocracy owned slaves. I seriously doubted Xena would want to deal with the political consequences from such sweeping social change while she was planning a war against the Persians. Still, Larrius was right - slavery was morally wrong and should be abolished - and it was something worth pursuing.
"I'll put the idea to the Empress," I replied with more confidence than I felt.
After my meeting with Larrius, I headed over to the armoury to speak with Lieutenant Darphus. As I approached the main doors, a soldier was coming out in a hurry and nearly knocked me over. I recognised the soldier as Lucon, the officer who had accosted me at my first meeting with Xena's senior staff. Xena had him flogged and demoted for his indiscretion. The last I'd seen of him was when we left Larissa. He was part of the garrison left behind. Obviously he'd been transferred to Corinth since then.
"Pardon me, ma'am," he began until he recognised me. "Oh, it's you." He regarded me with a contemptuous look. "What's your business here?" he challenged.
"I'm looking for Lieutenant Darphus, I was told he was here."
I made a move to step around Lucon, but he countered it.
"Do you have the authority to enter the armoury? Only senior members of the Empress' military staff are allowed to enter." He emphasised the word military as if to suggest that I was somehow less important. "Those are the Empress' orders, and I wouldn't want to disobey them. Would I?"
He stepped closer, the smell of the leather and armour barely masked the rank odour of stale sweat.
"What's going on?"
I looked beyond Lucon to see Darphus coming out of the armoury. Lucon stepped back and stood to attention.
"I was just explaining that she was not allowed to enter the armoury, sir."
Darphus gave the soldier a stern look. "This is Gabrielle, a senior member of the Empress' Council of Advisors, you idiot! Report to me after your watch. A week of cleaning out the privies should help you remember."
"Yes, sir!" Lucon answered smartly. He continued to stand rigidly at attention, not daring to move a muscle or even blink.
"Well, don't just stand there. Dismissed." Darphus ordered.
We both watched as Lucon hurried off towards the palace.
"I guess he was just doing his job," I said. "Anyway, I was looking for you, Lieutenant. We need to discuss the Civil Protection Force."
Darphus nodded and signalled that I should lead. The Lieutenant looked quite intimidating with his scarred face, but he nearly always had a smile. Other than Galates, Darphus was the only member of Xena's senior staff that had always treated me like a person. I think he did it initially because it upset Darnell. And the more upset Darnell was, the happier Darphus was. Since my promotion to Advisor, he treated me no differently. He probably still saw me as nothing more than Xena's servant, but at least there was no opposition to my position, and he always seemed ready to listen.
"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.
"Larrius tells me you want to arm the officers."
"He thinks it's a bad idea. He wants to build trust between the force and the people, and feels that weapons are a barrier to that."
Darphus snorted. "You can't expect someone to defend the people if they can't defend themselves."
"I agree. However, I can also see the point Larrius is trying to make." I stopped walking and turned to face the Lieutenant. He pulled up before walking into me. "What if we compromise? Train the men to use weapons, arm them if the need arises, otherwise they can be unarmed."
Darphus considered my words and shook his head. "That won't work. What if an officer needs to confront an armed man?"
"Then we'll split the force between an armed and an unarmed section. We use unarmed officers when dealing with the public in order to build trust. We use armed officers when confronting a dangerous situation."
"So, you are suggesting officers go unarmed and if a dangerous situation comes up they what - run back to get their weapons? The Empress would never agree. If there's one thing I've learnt from Empress Xena it is you never compromise your tactical advantage."
"Yes, but Empress Xena also knows when it is a tactical advantage to use words instead of weapons," I reminded him. I could tell Darphus remained unconvinced, so I tried a different tack. "Look, the idea for this force came from Larrius. He needs to see it working his way, otherwise he might walk away and start stirring up trouble."
"If he does, I'll have him arrested by his own civil officers before he utters a word of dissent!" Darphus sneered.
I sighed. Darphus was just as opinionated as Larrius and he was making me earn my pay. "Let's try my compromise first. If it doesn't work, Larrius will see that, and then we can try it your way."
Darphus frowned and then said, "I still think you're making a mistake, but you're the boss. If that's the way you want to play it, that's the way we'll do it."
"And I appreciate that, Lieutenant. I do value your opinion."
"Yeah," he said without conviction. "Is that all?"
I nodded. "For now."
Darphus turned on his heel and walked back to the armoury.
"This is cold," muttered Xena, looking at her plate. She looked up at me. "Is yours cold, Gabrielle?"
I poked at the meal in front of me with a fork, skewered a carrot and put it in my mouth. "It could be hotter," I observed after swallowing it.
"Well, I will have that chef flogged if he ever serves me cold food like this again."
"Uh, sweetheart," I said.
"Yes?" she replied.
"The food wasn't cold when it was served - half an hour ago!"
"Oh. Right." A knowing smile spread across Xena's face as she remembered why the food was left to get cold.
We finished the rest of our meal without further comment or complaint, but a lot of smiling.
"By the way, thank you for thinking of me this morning."
Xena barely looked up from her plate. "Huh?"
"Sending Helena out with the juice."
I swear Xena almost blushed, but she recovered quickly. "It is my job to order people about."
I reached out for Xena's hand and said, "Still it was very thoughtful and much appreciated."
She gave my hand a gentle squeeze and then went back to eating.
We ate the rest of our meal with only a smattering of small talk. It was an unwritten rule that we would wait until after the meal before any serious conversation took place.
When the table had been cleared and the last of the servants had left, Xena settled onto the couch with a glass of port. I sat down next to her with a glass of wine. Xena waited until I was settled before putting an arm around me and pulling me closer.
"How is your Civil Protection Force coming along?" she asked.
"Fine. We should get the first officers on the street in a few days."
"And how is Darphus doing?"
I considered telling Xena about the disagreement Darphus had over the direction the force was taking. However, it was only a minor a thing and I wanted to work it out myself. I didn't want to be seen as running to the Empress every time there was any difficulty. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was a capable administrator.
"He's doing a good a job," I said. "We're still finding out how to work with each other, but it's going okay."
"Good. If you do have any problems, tell me. Darphus is a good fighter, but I am not convinced about his ability to command. I assigned him to the Civil Protection Force to see how he handles it. If he does a good job, I will consider promoting him. But don't tell him. I don't want him over trying in order to impress."
"I won't," I replied. I waited until Xena had drunk her first after-dinner port before broaching another topic.
"Xena," I began sweetly. When Xena looked up from her second cup of port, I continued. "There is something important I need to discuss with you."
"Uh, oh. I recognise that tone. How much is it going to cost me?"
"No, this is something different," I replied.
Xena could see I was being earnest, and so she sat up attentively. "Yes? What is it?"
"What do you think about abolishing slavery?"
"Slavery - would you consider abolishing it?"
I left the statement standing alone and waited for Xena's reaction.
"Why?" The question was delivered simply.
"Because people shouldn't be denied freedom for being born into the wrong family. No one should be able to own another person. It's just not right."
"What you are asking is not something I can just snap my fingers and have done. People have owned slaves for generations. They are not going to want to give them up just like that. Besides, most slaves count themselves fortunate: at least they get two meals a day and somewhere warm and dry to sleep."
"No one should have to sell their children into slavery just to put bread on the table. Everyone deserves the freedom to choose their own destiny. Slaves have no choice but to serve at their master's pleasure."
"You are talking about doing away with an institution upon which our society was built. How will the patricians manage without slaves to run their households or work their farms?"
"They can start by hiring their former slaves to do those jobs and pay them a liveable wage," I offered.
Xena put her port down and contemplated the idea for a few moments before replying. "It's not that simple," she explained without condescension. "The money to pay them has to come from somewhere." Xena paused again and then said, "To abolish slavery outright tomorrow is impossible, but it might be possible to do it gradually."
I was stunned! I was certain Xena would dismiss the idea outright. That she would even consider the possibility was more than I had hoped for. "How do you propose to do that?" I asked.
"Anyone born in my Empire will be free born, even if they are born of slaves. That right may be taken away if they commit a crime or fall into debt. The trade in slaves will be brought under strict guidelines to ensure that they are treated fairly. No more raiding villages for slaves. No mass transportation of slaves. No chains. No beatings. Once the number of slaves starts to decrease we can increase their rights. Eventually it will become easier to abolish it outright without causing economic upheaval."
I was very impressed and proud of my love that she would put the welfare of the people before the status quo, but to reel off that little speech after I introduced the subject out of the blue was a bit suspicious. "You came up with all that right now?"
Xena offered me a reflective smile. "I too came from humble beginnings and have seen families and villages torn apart by warlords and slave traders. So I had given the matter some thought before you mentioned it this evening. It's just that I have had other priorities."
"But you'll consider it?" I asked.
"I will do better than that. I will issue an edict as soon as possible. Will you help me draft the language?"
"Yes, of course!" I put my arms around her waist and gave her a grateful hug. "I love you."
"I'm not just doing it for you. Though that is a good reason."
I gave Xena a gentle nudge. "You're supposed to reply with, 'I love you, too'."
"You know that. I don't have to keep saying it."
I let my arms fall, a little disappointed that Xena was still guarded about sharing her feelings. "Yes, but sometimes I need to hear it."
"I know." Xena looked away. "All this is still a bit strange to me. I don't mean to be unfeeling, it is just that I am finding? what I mean is?" She threw her hands up. "I don't know what I mean."
"It's okay." I reached for her nearest hand and pulled it to my cheek. "It's all new to me, too. And you're not unfeeling, never think that."
Xena cupped my cheek in the palm of her hand and gazed lovingly into my eyes. "What I said about keeping us a secret - it is not because I don't love you. It's because I do." Xena looked at me with a seriousness I'd never seen before. "I am a target for my enemies; I can live with that. But if they know about you, about us, then you will become a target as well, and that I could never live with."
"I understand," I assured her. I didn't like it, but I understood.
"That's my girl. Now, that brings me to the next subject. I am assigning you a bodyg-"
"No," I interrupted. The topic had come up several times since we came to Corinth. Each time I had objected and Xena had relented. Each time, however, she had taken a little more persuading.
"Xena, we've been through all this before. I can't affectively do my job if I have a squad of soldiers surrounding me everywhere I go."
"But, Gabrielle. No matter-"
"Let me finish!" Xena exclaimed in her 'severe imperial tone'. It was what I called the tone she used when her patience was wearing thin and the other person had better agree with her or find themselves on the sharp end of her temper.
I fell silent immediately, not because I feared she would lash out at me, but because she felt strongly enough about this to use that tone.
Xena took a deep breath to cleanse away her ire before continuing. "No matter how discreet we try to be, our relationship will eventually become public knowledge. As you pointed out, the servants aren't blind and there are spies everywhere. It is only a matter of time before word gets out, so it is better that we have seen to every contingency before that happens. And since I cannot be with you every moment of the day, I must take precautions to assure your safety."
I tried once more to argue the point. "None of your other advisors have bodyguards. If you assign one to me, wouldn't it draw unnecessary attention towards me? And if that were the case, wouldn't it take more than one bodyguard to protect me? How many bodyguards would it take to make me safe - two? Ten? One hundred? Is that what you want?" It was a tenuous argument, and I felt awful for using it, but there were already too many restrictions on what I could say and what I could do as it was.
"No." Xena reluctantly agreed once more. "No, I don't." Xena cast her eyes downward at her hand as her fingers caressed my leg in ever decreasing circles just above the knee. In a wistful whisper she said, "You mean more than anything else to me, Gabrielle, and I am not prepared to lose you."
I captured her gaze and said, "You're never going to lose me, I promise."