Sulla stood near giving his report. “Every village surrounding Carthage is completely empty. No people, no supplies, no... nothing.”
“What now Caesar?” asked Crassus.
Strength of the army now stood at some 170,000 men. Caesar had Xena to partially thank for that number. Her brutal execution of Antonius had been instrumental in him gaining volunteers. Rome’s pride had been injured by Antonius death, cries of vengeance rose from the people. Well, some of the people, he still had to forcibly draft soldiers. Problem was the well had begun to run dry, so many men, involved in so many conflicts had lowered Rome’s available manpower. Well, lowered – good - manpower. Now many in the legions were from Rome’s poor and downtrodden. As a result, they were scrawny, underfed examples of humanity. Under normal circumstances he’d have rejected them, but now Rome needed every man, weakling or not.
Julius clasped his hands behind his back, his gold and red cape shifting with the breeze, his armor glistening in the African sun. When the army had landed along the coast, he had planted his purple and black standard in the earth in great show, proclaiming a new province, Africa Vetus. The fields here would supply Rome with a bounty of grain.
“It is clear what the Carthaginians are up to…”
“And that is?” Old Sulla asked drawing Caesar out of thought.
“They have pulled back to Carthage proper; we shall have to lay siege my friends. Crassus when we arrive at the city, I want our troops hard at work building the machines necessary to overcome the walls of the city.”
“It will be done, Caesar.”
For long moments, Julius watched his troops march past.
“I did not want a siege, but that is exactly what Hasdrubal and his generals have planned. Evidence of that are these empty villages. He knows they cannot defeat us in open combat on the field so he sets up a final apocalyptic battle with Rome, forcing us to take the city.
“It will slow us, having to take Carthage via siege Caesar, but it will be taken.” Crassus was firm in his conviction.
“Time needed to get the army in place, and seal off the city from resupply?”
“At least three fortnights Caesar,” Sulla estimated. Plus time to build the siege equipment.
“Very well,” Julius sighed. “We do what we must.”
The heat was oppressive, from sun up to sun down, day after day, the Army had marched.
“Makes you miss the cold of the German lands doesn’t it?”
“It does, Meleager.” Sevastian took off his red helmet and slung it over the saddle horn, before taking a scrap of linen and wiping his brow.”
Behind them both, the thousands in Meleager’s engineer group marched. The other army groups were both ahead and to the flanks, ahead Siri’s Amazon’s scouted. Every day of the march, Xena chose a different army group to ride with, ordering Sevastain to do the same. Today was his day with Meleager’s troops, far better duty than riding along with Adamis.
The second wore his older lamellar armor of red, what he had worn when first joining Xena’s army. Though of lesser quality than the black armor gifted him by the Empress it was slightly better in the heat.
At the crest of the pass pleasantly cool air swept against his face. Cool Mediterranean air blowing up from the port of Ephesus below.
“Thank the gods.” Meleager muttered before taking a long drink from his water skin. “It appears we’ve finally made it to our destination.”
In moments the army was marching through the main gate and past the city walls guarded by Siri’s Amazons. Sevastain’s attentions moving from Empress’ standard fluttering above the city gate to the Roman Insula lining the road, the concrete and brick apartments the ordinary peasants lived in. He had to give the Romans credit for their practicality, the buildings were essentially fireproof. The apartment blocks were impressive, but that was not what most drew his attention.
From every window, every small balcony wide strips of linen were attached. By the hundreds they swayed as the sea breeze caught them. On each a crude “X” was drawn, in whatever pigment the townsfolk could find.
“They show their loyalty?” asked an amazed Meleager at the sight of the hangings.
“Fearful loyalty, more like,” answered the second, while watching the terrified townsfolk dip their heads then skitter away as they passed.
Ahead upon a huge marble dais stood a statue, the likeness of the Roman Proconsul Marcus Perperna, least that is what the chiseled inscription stated. Slashed across the inscription in black tar was the “X” of the Empress’ given name, proof enough that Ephesus belonged to Rome no more.
“Set up your camp.”
“Gladly, Lord Commander.”
Pulling Gisela aside, Sevastain watched for a moment as the foot soldiers, with Meleager in the lead, continued to march past; they had already gone many leagues into Asia.
They would go hundreds more.
“You’ve done well Pompeius.”
“Thank you Empress.”
Xena picked up the slender Egyptian crook admiring its stripes of blue interspersed with bands of pure gold, before slowly twirling the object, this symbol of the Power of the Pharaohs, between her fingers. It was part of the treasure haul brought to her by Pompey. She would hold onto it for safe keeping, it would come in handy later.
“Greece thanks you for your… large contribution…. of Egyptian gold seized in your expedition to Alexandria.”
“I am happy to contribute to Greece’s coffers, knowing the gold will be put to good use.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” She purred while smiling down at the kneeling man. She casually hiked one long leg over the arm of the chair she was seated in. “The Amazon Queen will want to thank you for paying for the reconstruction of the temple of Artemis here in Ephesus.”
Pompey wisely chose to remain silent, knowing better than to express his opinion on the matter.
“You ready to sail to Sicily Pompeius?”
“Quite ready, Empress,”
“Here you were all puffed up mad that I didn’t allow you to land while Caesar was in Hispania, now do you see why I had you wait? Caesar is across the sea, the bulk of Rome’s army with him. The way to the capital is clear for you Pompey.”
The Roman dipped his head shifting a bit on his knee as she still hadn’t yet bid him to rise. “I should have never doubted you Empress, many apologies for my being so stubborn.”
“Now, when you get to Rome, and you sit your ever widening butt in the consul’s chair I think it would be wise for you to recall who it was that put you there.”
“I shan’t forget that it was you that enabled my return, Empress.”
“A small bit of advice Pompey,” Xena began in a seductive velvety tone. “When you land on Roman soil, present yourself as a man of the people. Promise the lowest of the low that they shall have peace, tell them their sons will come home from war. Then offer them land to farm, land you promise to take from the upper classes. Pay to give them bread so they may eat.” If you do so, the plebeians will love you and lend their support to your cause. That will give you the upper hand against the Aristocratic Senate.
“But I come to conquer Rome.” Pompey expression was dubious.
Xena closed her eyes, willing herself not to unleash her tongue for the man’s ineptness. How a man so stupid managed to become a consul of Rome staggered the mind.
“Pompey, there is reality and then there is image. Yes, you come to take Rome, but you must cloak your actions in the guise of being a man of peace. Tell the masses, you have seen war, seen death, and now wish to follow the...” Xena smiled darkly... “Ways of peace.” she finished scornfully. “The masses will lap that rhetoric up, faster than a man dying of thrust who finds water. You will be placed in power, without the need of even one soldier fighting.”
As he watched, she shifted a bit in her chair.
“Now as to the Roman Senate, be their friend Pompey.”
A sneer marked the old man’s features “Friend!” he shouted, they turned against me, favoring Caesar when I lost at Pharsalus “I’d sooner see myself in the underworld then be friends with those dogs!”
Must I explain everything? The thought caused her to let out a pained sigh.
“If you don’t, you will see yourself in the underworld! Think clearly Pompey, lock up your emotions for a moment. The Senate could do no less than side with Caesar. Words do not stop swords. If they had spoken against Caesar, the whole lot of them would be dead now. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct; everyone wishes to stay alive as long as possible. You know this! Were you not on the run when captured by Talmadeus?
“Yes...” muttered Pompey.
“Pardon?” She asked while leaning forward in the chair.
“I said yes!” Pompey growled.
Xena leaned back again in her chair. “Mind you, I did not say to forgive them, I advise you to appear to forgive. Lull the senators into a false sense of security. Have great plans for them Pompey, allow them to run the now peaceful Roman provinces of Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania. Let the Senate mete out monies from the treasury, listen to their advice on affairs of state, and make them feel important.”
“The Senate, how many legions do they have?” asked Pompey contemptuously.
“Listen!” Xena shouted. Pompey was about as sharp as a bag of wet leather. “They don’t need legions Pompey! The Roman Senate has the support of the people, you kill them and you will be next!”
“So... you say by... lulling the Senate into feeling secure when...I... strike....” He paused for so long in thinking that Xena was about to give up and finish his thought for him. “My task will be made easier?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed in triumphant exasperation when he finally make the connection.
“If you play the game as I suggest, you control the time and manner of their deaths.” he watched as she raised the crook of Egypt to point it directly at him. “You see Pompey, to choose ones victim, to prepare ones plans minutely, to stake an implacable vengeance, there is nothing sweeter in this world.”
“I will attempt to do as you say.”
“Not attempt, Pompieus, you will do it.”
“Good, I look forward to seeing you in Rome.”
The Roman general looked on in astonishment as Xena moved to stand. “Why so shocked?” she asked softly while gliding forward to tower over his kneeling form. “I desire good relations with Rome; as such I will be glad to accept your gracious invitation to visit Pompeius.
“I… Rome would be honored to host such an important ally.”
“I thought so, Get up, be on your way.”
The rotund Roman moved to stand groaning a bit as he did, and then retreated from the chamber.
She walked to a position behind a large desk, which once belonged to the Roman proconsul of Ephesus, taking a seat; Xena cracked the wax seal, and then opened the missive reading though the first of many dispatches, starting with those from her chief spy Autolycus.
Within the halls of the governing palace Autolycus paced Hippolyta at his side, Praxis slightly ahead. Hippolyta had settled into her position as governor of Attica. Praxis appointed governing regent of the Greek Empire in the Empress’ absence.
“How goes the road building Praxis?” Autolycus asked casually.
“Good Your Grace, while the network of roads is in its infancy, I can report the quality is excellent, and the thousands of slaves constructing it are gaining proficiency in building. This will surely increase the speed of future road construction.”
“The Empress will be pleased to hear such.”
“I am relieved that she will be pleased. I must add, that to maintain the speed of construction the Empress desires, I must have more men.”
“Oh, you’ll have them soon enough Praxis, spoils of war will be coming your way by the thousands.”
“The revenues, how does the treasury fare?” Auto asked as they neared the stairs leading down to the dungeons. As they passed, the guards to either side braced at attention, clicking the heels of their boots together.
“We’ve had major expenditures with road building, as well as procuring items for the army and navy. Then we have the cost of constructing of a new palace complex in Corinth, plus several other grand fortresses scattered throughout the countryside at the Empress’ behest After all that, well, you’d think we would be out of money, yet the treasury is filled to bursting.”
“Be sure to give me a written accounting for the Empress before I depart.
“Of course, she will see all is precisely as it should be.”
“The peasants grumble, your grace. They say they bear a heavy yoke in surrendering so much to the Empress’ tax collectors.” Hippolyta spoke with conviction.
“Too bad,” Auto replied tersely. “The Empress puts her life in jeopardy to save Greece; these peasants would do well to remember that.”
Down they stepped into the vast complex under the courts of law.
“How’s the family Praxis?” Asked Auto.
“Good, your grace. Eirene looks forward to seeing the Empress again.
“Ah, yes.” Auto smiled. “As I recall, Her Majesty was quite taken by your youngest child.”
All three took the next set of stairs down to the lowest level.
“This… lead... your men found had better be worth my coming all the way back to Athens Hippolyta.
“You will find out in moments, he seems to have some knowledge of the one you seek.”
Stopping, Autolycus looked through the iron bars, appraising the chained figure within.
“Praxis, a good evening to you,” The man gladly bowed and then beat a hasty retreat.
“Hippolyta, a good…”
“I will stay, spy.”
Autolycus stared up at her for a moment. “I do my best work alone.”
“I will try to be as inconspicuous as possible then.”
“It is not possible for Amazons to be inconspicuous.” Auto opened the iron door.
The man chained against the wall, looked up at their entrance.
“Enjoying your stay?” Auto asked flippantly. A very tall woman walked in after him and moved to stand against the wall in the tiny cell.
“I am innocent! Why have I been imprisoned?”
“Because the Empress wishes it,” answered Auto.
“You can’t just imprison someone!”
“You operate under the illusion that you have rights, let me dispel that notion right now.”
“But I’ve done nothing!”
“All true, you are quite innocent of any wrong doing. In fact, I’d say you are quite a boring fellow. What I want is...information.”
“Information?” Now the boy was confused. What could I possibly--”
“That’s what we are here to find out.” Auto cut in. “Tell me about... Gabrielle.”
“Gabrielle?” After speaking the name, the boy fell silent for just a moment. “I don’t know any Gabrielle.”
“That’s the best you can manage? I expected you’d at least try to be convincing. I already know you had some kind of marriage contact with the girl, tell all you know, beginning with your name.”
“You aren’t going to hurt her are you? I won’t help---“
“The girl won’t be harmed; I can assure you of that. However, you will be, should you not cooperate.”
The boy’s breath hitched as Auto moved slightly allowing him a view of an iron stand being set up by a guard. Within, were contained glowing coals and torture irons of different shapes set to heat.
“Your name?” Autolycus asked most pleasantly.
“Autolycus has reason to believe she may be here, in this city.”
As Xena spoke, Sevastain glanced over the missive she had given him.
“This Perdicus, Gabrielle told him that that Iolaus, her owner, was taking them east to Ephesus?
“Yes, yes...” The Empress replied impatiently. “It would seem, this Perdicus was betrothed to Gabrielle by her late father. Draco raiding the town, then selling the peasants into slavery put a real damper on the wedding plans.”
Sevastain looked up for just a moment; his mistress had a singular wit about her, a dark sense of humor.
“He is very determined, tracking Gabrielle to Athens.” Having never been in love before, Sevastian was nonetheless impressed by Perdicus’ determination to fiding his bethothed.
“Yes, Autolycus writes that he is kind man, dreadfully dull, but that is beside the point.
Xena moved near, Sevastain bracing at attention as propriety demanded. By all the Eastern Gods, she was fearsome in demeanor; it was enough to give a man the shakes.
“I want this city searched, my Lord Commander. Her voice was low, dangerous. “Tear it apart if need be. I want every single fair-haired, green eyed peasant girl you find in these worthless hovels brought to me. Understood?”
She took the missive from his hand.
Sevastain bowed low, backing away, bowing once more before pivoting on his heel to leave the chamber.
Solari bowed to her in subservience.
“You are a Commander in the Army of the Conqueror, and moreover a leader of Amazons, therefore I willingly show respect.
Siri nodded, uncomfortable that her mentor Solari was bowing to her.
“Would you have believed such a thing possible?” Siri spoke, as the two Amazon’s looked about the destroyed temple. The light of the setting sun shone through the ruins, the fiery sky visible though the collapsed roof. “Our temple of Artemis is to be rebuilt, the sacred statue of the goddess placed back in its place of honor.” Ahead of them was the dais on top of which the golden statue of their goddess once stood. Chiseled into the beautiful block of marble was simply... Artemis.
Siri with Solari behind stepped reverently to a position in front of where the statue once stood Both bowed low, before Solari as the elder Amazon spoke the invocation. Something which had not been heard within this temple for many cycles...
Hail Artemis Diana
Lady of the Beasts
We rededicate ourselves to you.
May our path honor Thee
May our spirits celebrate Thee
May our life force Magnify Thee.
Goddess help us to know what is right.”
“If only our Queen were here.” Lamented Siri.
“Someone has to do the hard work of running the nation.” Solari replied.
Steps running up behind caused both to turn and grasp weapons.
Stopping, Sevastian realized in his haste, he had trespassed on sacred Amazonian ground. Immediately he bowed low to the dais in respect. “A thousand pardons for the intrusion.” His words were rushed, breathing heavy, “Siri, with me.”
“Solari, call your guard up. I want them stationed on the walls surrounding the Proconsul’s residence and in the street below in case things get ugly.”
“You will see my reasoning in due time, now please, move your Amazons into position.”
Even in haste, decorum must be satisfied. “Forgive me goddess for daring to step foot within your temple.” Sevastian bowed once then again, while backing away. “Siri!” her name called with some urgency while Sevastian ran back the way he came motioning her to follow.
Bowing to the dais momentarily, Siri turned to follow at a run, leaving a puzzled Solari behind.
Outside, the commanders of the army were grouped.
“Listen, and listen well.” Sevastian began. “I want the guards round the city wall tripled, close the gates, no one leaves this city. All public buildings are to be searched and closed for the duration. I want a perimeter set around all apartments as well as the fine homes of the wealthy no one enters or leaves the perimeter while we conduct a search.”
“I know you’re going to get to it, but what exactly are we searching for?” Virgilius asked for the group.
“We search for a young girl, she is slight in stature, light haired, with green eyes. I want all who fit that description rounded up and taken under guard to Xena.”
“You must be putting us on. Is this a joke?” Adamis crossed his arms over his chest while letting out a huff of indignation.
“This is no joke, we must fulfill this task to perfection, or the Empress will cause heads to roll.”
The various commanders of the army straightened their bearing now more serious. The second was not prone to exaggeration.
“Virgilius, your men being the most rested will conduct the building to building search. I want all 50,000 combing every single structure in this city.
“Siri, I want your Amazon’s on horseback in full regalia, a show of force to back up Virgilius’ foot soldiers.
“Meleager, the light of day is waning, Get torches ready for use by the troops. Your men, having just arrived will stand in reserve along the outside of the city wall to catch anyone who manages to get past the inner ring of soldiers.
“Adamis, your men will search the outlying villages.”
“Mercer, have your scouts out ahead of Adamis’ men, make sure no ambush is in the offing as we are in unfriendly territory, many still have loyalties to Rome.
“Menticles, your men will search the docks and ships moored within.” Sevastian pointed toward the harbor, “Gods above man! Upon your life do not let any ship leave this harbor until the search is completed!”
Silence from the commanders.
The damp scrap of linen within his hand wiped the large black boot. He made sure the surface was absolutely clean of any clinging dirt, or debris.
The action was repeated with the other boot while the first was set to dry.
Next to him sat a small can filled with a mix of lanolin, carnauba wax and black carbon pigment. Dipping the pig bristles of a small round brush into the mixture; he meticulously worked the polish into the leather of the boot moving in a circular pattern as Xena had taught. As before, he set one boot aside, to do the same with the other.
Picking up a rectangular horse hair brush, he used it to buff the excess polish from the boot. Then with a clean square of cloth in hand, he began to gloss the boots to a brilliant shine. When finished, he carefully cleaned then polished the silver X that would adorn the boot clasp.
Kodi found that if he put all his concentration into the task, he could almost ignore the terror going on outside.
“Dipping hands into the bowl, Sevastian splashed the warmed water onto his face, taking the cake of soap held up to him, he scrubbed dutifully before placing it the soap back into the hand of the slave. Cupping his hands into the water again, he rinsed the soap off his face.
“This night is unending.” he complained while taking hold of the linen offered by the slave.
Within the apartments, screams could be heard as girls were wrenched from their families. Outside, soldiers stood guard, the entire city locked down; the darkened streets empty save for the troops.
Another gaggle of peasant girls were shoved out into the street, the men inside the apartment completing their search. Above, families leaned out of window openings, wailing at the loss of their daughters. The cries were constant, pleas, questions, and accusations being yelled by a multitude of voices.
Grabbing a torch from a soldier, Sevastian stepped to the terrified girls, who immediately backed away only to be held fast by the men surrounding them.
Holding the torch close, he inspected the first.
She had brown eyes.
The large bearded man stepped forward quickly.
“What color are her eyes?” Sevastian voiced inner frustration.
The giant ex-warlord leaned over, causing the girl to whimper in fright.
“They are brown, Lord Commander.”
“Correct, what color are we searching for?”
“Green eyes, Lord Commander.”
“It is the dark of night, my men have trouble seeing.” Virgilius defended hotly.
“No excuses! Results!” Sevastian shouted. “Do I need to pile furnishings from these apartments into the streets and light bonfires for your men to see?”
“No, Lord Commander.”
“I want the task done right, Virgilius! If I need to light fires, I will do so and cut off that long damned beard of yours to use as tinder to get them started!”
Siri, standing close, had never seen Sevastian so irate, apparently neither had Virgilius. Though the man was easily twice Sevastain’s size, he cowered back while muttering profuse apologies.
“Yes?” Sevastain stated crisp as he turned to her.
“A large crowd of townsfolk are gathering at the proconsul’s residence, Solari worries her guard may be overwhelmed.”
“The perimeters were set up so as not to allow such a thing to happen, another failure.” Sevastian sighed, tamping down his anger as it did no good in the present situation.
“Move your warriors to back up the guard. Until the last, use non-lethal means to assert control. I don’t want people harmed if we can help it.”
“Hold on.” Sevastain touched her arm gently, giving her pause. “Alistair!”
“Lord Commander?” the Old Guard Captain rode forward. Sevastian looked up at the man as he spoke. “I want your guard, to form a perimeter behind the Amazons guarding the proconsul’s residence, draw swords, and make it clear to the mob that if they manage to get past the Amazons, they will be killed.”
“If...” Siri said in annoyance.
“Just a backup,” Sevastain placated.
As Siri and Alistair departed, Sevastian stepped forward and taking torch in hand inspected another frightened group of peasant girls.
Moments later, he felt a presence near. Turning quick, he looked up expectantly.
“A problem?” he asked Siri.
“I will stay here.” She said in a tone which was soft yet firm.
“I told you to go to the Palace of the Proconsul.”
“I have sent word; Solari will take charge of the Amazons for the duration.”
Sevastian’s anger was up at her disobeying his order. “I told you--”
“You told me to move my –warriors- to back up the guard. You did not tell me to go.”
Sevastain stood in silent disbelief, only able to shake his head.
Siri remained silent as she gazed down at him.
“I shall have to be more precise in my orders. Very well, come with me, I want to search the field of the condemned, just in case.”
“You don’t think the girl… the crosses?” Siri felt such inward horror that she could scarcely finish the thought.
“That’s what we go to find out, I would not think she’d be up there with the former town leadership and other such riff-raff, but we must make sure.”
“Virgilius!” Sevastian yelled. “Continue the search and be diligent!”
“Yes, Lord Commander!”
“Despite your parsing of my order, I am glad to have you near.” He said low. The honesty of his words caused Siri’s expression to soften as she moved to follow him.
Slipping out of her indigo silk robe Xena dove gracefully into the cold waters of the frigidarim.
Roman’s may be dogs... but they do know how to enjoy life. The former proconsul was proof of that, residence he once occupied had running water and his own private bath house.
After some time she stepped up from the huge pool, allowing the water to skirt off her tall frame for a moment before entering the tepidarium with its pool of warmed water Walking to the metal tray positioned over a fire, she grabbed a ladle of pure silver, dipping then repeatedly pouring water over the stones piled atop it to produce clouds of steam.
Next a bit of olive oil scented with juniper was poured into one elegant hand; slowly she rubbed the mixture over her skin. Starting with her feet, she then worked upward, pausing only to pour more into her hands when needed. Grasping the strigil, the curved metal scrapper, Xena cleaned her skin.
Taking a soft bit of smegma, in hand, she swished the soap though the warm water, building up mountains of bubbles smelling of lavender. With a sigh, she settled in closing her eyes for a time enjoying the luxury of it all.
Sitting up slightly, she got down to the business of bathing, running a cloth made of course muslin over tanned skin.
“Get in here boy.”
The kid stepped into the bath, averting his eyes, even with the steam filling the room, she could see his blush. Kodi and Sevastian were different in countless ways, but alike in their innocence concerning women.
He paused to place a towel of Egyptian cotton over the press, along with a pair of dark black woolen trousers, having decided to let the humidity in the room relax any wrinkles left after the ironing he had given them. Once he had made the mistake of letting the iron sit near the fire for too long before using it. Xena had been most displeased with having a scorch mark left on one of her tunics.
With eyes cast downward, he stood near.
“Wash my hair.”
This was new, but he did as bid, kneeling behind; he waited a moment for her to dip beneath the water. Once she resurfaced, he worked the soap into lather with his hands, before running fingers though the stands of her black tresses. Sifting her dark locks aside, Kodi let out a small gasp at seeing the plumed helmet and bloody spear burned into the nape of Xena’s neck, the mark of Ares.
“Polished to perfection, Xena.”
“Good, there is a bit of a chill in the air. I will wear the dark crimson cloak of silk. You know, the one lined with black wolf fur?
“I’ll have it ready for you.” he replied She leaned forward a bit and gestured to the boy. He figured out what she wanted, clean warm water was gently poured over her hair, to rinse all remaining traces of soap away.
With a flick of her hand, she dismissed him. Gathering her woolen trousers, he disappeared into the clouds of steam.
Leaning back and closing her eyes, Xena paused a moment to enjoy the warmth of the water. The lavender sent was most relaxing. She lazily debated walking to the Caldarium, the room closest to the furnaces.
The corners of her dark lips slowly tipped down into a scowl as ears picked up on the cries wafting in from outside the chamber, cries which marred her otherwise peaceful bath.
The thought struck her... Was she preening in hopes of being suitable in appearance for Gabrielle?
“Line them up, two rows.”
The Amazon guard did just that. 50 girls, fair-haired, slight of stature, green eyed, Sevastian now wished he had gotten a better glimpse of Gabrielle from the docks of Pireaus.
Despite reassurances from the Amazons the girls whimpered in fright. Sevastian figured having women near, rather than uncouth men would help calm the girls... No such luck, Amazons were intimidating, not suited for nursemaids. He did note that their tone of voice had softened as they spoke to these girls, a plus.
The surroundings hadn’t helped either. The courtyard of the proconsul’s residence was a walled off space with high imposing iron strapped gates. Beyond the walls, the townsfolk had gathered, their cries floating over the parapet lined with soldiers. As the goddess Nyx reined, torches jammed into sconces cut thought the darkness, casting a flickering glow across the space.
Shouts rang out, all coming to attention as the Empress appeared in the main entranceway.
The peasants within the courtyard began to weep at the sight of what was striding towards them.
Xena’s attention was solidly on the line up. Walking forward, her blood-red cloak billowed out as it caught the breeze. The edges were trimmed in white, black piping to either side of the white strip, inlaid on the white was the meandros, a decorative border made from a single line, shaped into a continuous motif. The flowing silk of her cloak draped all the way down to the heels of her boots. Black trousers were tucked into those knee high black boots, around her waist a tooled back belt, with silver studs lining the edge, and silver buckle shaped in the form of a rising phoenix overlaid by the “X” of the name That “X” was embossed and repeated in the leather of the belt. The black leather top she wore, tied in the front with black laces. To either side of her torso, the leather pieces had been tanned blood red and ran from hip to under her arms. In the center a strip of red, an attachment point for the black laces running through silver eyelets. On one hip, was her ever present chakram, on the other, her sheathed sword was attached.
“Station, Lord Commander.” Sevastain thought to politely request a torch from the Amazon nearest, and then moved to be at Xena’s side at the end of the lineup.
“Report.” she ordered, her gaze never leaving the girl she towered over by many a span.
“Majesty, we have searched the town thoroughly, as well as the docks and outlying regions. Based on the description given, these here,” he gestured briefly to the lineup, “are ready for your inspection.”
Her hand clasped his, pulling the torch nearer to the first of the peasants.
“Quit crying girl!” Xena growled in annoyance; while her gauntleted hand left Sevastian’s to roughly grab the girl’s chin. “No one has harmed you.”
The girl cried all the more.
At the pronouncement by Xena, Sevastian motioned and one of the Amazon’s stepped forward, spiriting the girl away and out of the gates of the courtyard.
A cry of relief went up from the crowd beyond, no doubt questions being asked of the girl to learn of her ordeal.
Xena continued walking, he following. Down the line they moved.
One by one the girls were dismissed, cries of joy erupting outside from the crowd as each appeared outside the gates of the compound.
“This is all of them?” Sevastian swallowed hard as an irate Xena whirled about, to face him.
“You searched every cubby, every corner?”
“All searched, Majesty.”
Her hand suddenly slapped against her thigh in vexation, spooking him.
“Dismiss the troops, commend them on their work, let them sleep tomorrow, we march the day after.” Before he could respond, she departed, walking briskly to the grand entranceway, disappearing within.
Sevastian let out a sigh. “Virgilius!”
The burly man shuffled over.
“Send word to call the troops back to the barracks, and open the port once more. Tell the men the Empress is pleased with the work done this night. Let em’ sleep in tomorrow morn. Oh, and ah, leave a small guard in the streets in case these peasants harbor the desire to create mischief.”
“As you command.”
“I must apologize to you for my foul disposition this night.”
“None necessary, your temper is understandable given the circumstances.”
“Very charitable of you to say that, to your duties, we shall speak again in the morrow.”
Sevastian, placed his hands on hips, dipping his head he regarded his boots momentarily, his mind lost in thought.
He turned, nearly running into her.
“Stop that!” he barked.
“Stop what?” she asked innocently.
“How do you constantly manage to get behind me without...never mind!”
Siri smiled again, twice in the same night, a record.
“Have your Amazons disperse the crowd outside,” Sevastian continued “and then--”
“Already done.” she cut in.
“Go get some sleep; you’ve all more than earned it. Pass the Empress’ thanks on to your warriors for their excellent work this night, won’t you?”
Stepping forward several paces, Sevastian stopped and turned. “Why are you following me?”
“To see you safely to the residence commandeered for you.”
“I think I can find my way.” annoyance shone in his voice.
“Then my skills in direction will not be required.” she replied, with a firm undertone, making it clear she would follow him.
“I am armed and proficient in the use of a blade.” he snipped, while walking forward.
“Of that I have no doubt, Lord Commander. Is my company so terrible that you would rather walk alone?”
“I...” Sevastain closed his mouth, with an audible click of teeth.
Siri smiled smug behind him, three times now she had smiled, a new record was set.
“Have it your way.” he muttered in defeat.
“Someone has to make sure you eat and not fall asleep in your chair whilst taking off your armor.” She nettled.
“You know, I did manage to survive before we met.”
“The gods surely were looking out for you.”
Those last words being uttered by Siri as the two walked through the courtyard gate. As they passed, the Amazon guard to either side braced at attention.
“They fight like married elders.” Antandre spoke with mirth after the two had passed.
“Hush it!” her compatriot Clete, urged from the other side of the gate while peeking nervously to see if the two commanders had heard what Antandre said.
Her cloak was caught by Kodi as she tossed it aside.
“Wine, be quick about it.”
“Yes, Xena.” he scampered off as she sat behind the desk near the grand fireplace.
“Moments later he returned, serving her with trained elegance.”
“That will be all.”
He retreated from the room, leaving her alone to stare absently at the empty chair opposite.
“Gabrielle...” The name now voiced, was loud in the silence of the chamber.
After a long draught from the silver chalice, Xena took quill in hand, marking the parchment precisely. A few drops of wax and the impression of her signet ring and the document became official.
A writ of execution was thus created for this worthless Perdicus.
For a moment she thought... taking another sip of wine. It was time to change tact, if one avenue of attack fails, another can be opened.
Drawing out more parchment, she began writing another in what would become a series of missives to be copied and posted throughout her Empire.
Bounty hunters would need to be enlisted to find Gabrielle.