“The heart was made to be broken.” Raia looked up knowing her Queen was most melancholy.
My Queen, what may I do to cheer you?” the girl asked.
Cleopatra chucked mirthlessly. “Defeat the Persians.”
“I wish I could.” that statement earned Raia a sad smile from Cleopatra.
“By my actions, you must think me cruel, but I tell you I loved him truly.” Raia understood her queen referred to Antonius “Unfortunately, I must love Egypt more.”
“Must it always be so?”
“For a ruler, yes,” Cleopatra straitened in her chair. “Send my council in, Raia.”
The girl bowed, and moved across the spacious cabin, to exit out the door. For some moments, the queen sat silent, the only sound coming from the beating of drums, meant to keep the oar men in time.
Then one by one, they filled in to take a knee before her.
“Rise, and tell me news of the Persian attack.”
“My Queen,” Bahadur spoke first. “Alexandria, by last accounts sits upon the brink, her defenses shattered, fighting raging in the streets, the dead in their thousands lie unburied.”
For a long moment, Cleopatra pondered his words, steepling her fingers, one digit gently taping plush lips.
“Size of the Persian force?”
“Some 200,000 my Queen.”
“And how were we blind to their approach?!” The Queen stood her anger on display. “200,000 men don’t just traipse across the expansive desert then load on ships to attack! It is clear the Persians waited until this force had departed Alexandria! So clear even a blind man could see it!”
“Well?” she yelled. Only receiving silence from the men.
“We have been betrayed, I tell you. When this fight is over and won, I will show no mercy in delivering justice.”
“All our hearts wish for that justice my Queen.” Eban dared to add.
“But first we must deal with the present danger, Cleopatra walked to the long table, the men parting before her. “The message which arrived this day says Xerxes, throws his entire force into the attack, leaving little behind to guard the his army, if so he gambles no army will suddenly appear at his back.”
“Do all agree on this point?” she queried. The men round the table nodded.
“Now that the situation is stated, my astute generals, what is to be done?”
“If Xerxes believes no one able to approach from behind, then logic would have us land troops here, Senefru, pointed to a point upon the map, “Ephesus, being a port, gives us the best chance to land our force quickly then march inland...” his finger traced down the map, “and to Alexandria, catching our foe off guard.
“That will be a march of hundreds of leagues,” Eban, pointed out. “Surely Xerxes will be aware of our presence long before we arrive.”
“Not so” Senefru countered, the people who live here...” his finger retraced the line of proposed march, “are loyal to the Persians only because they are forced to be, they will gladly welcome us and keep knowledge of our approach secret.”
“No sizable army can approach completely unseen.”
“Correct my Queen, but if we move swiftly,” Bahadur counseled, “by forswearing supply, our army will pounce before the enemy can react.”
“We would take many risks, the army without supply, trusting peasants to not run and tell the Persians of our approach.” Cleopatra paused. “And what of the fleet, since they will not be used as a point of supply for the troops, where does it end up.”
Her generals all glanced at each other. “The fleet sails to Alexandria my Queen, and will corner the Persian fleet in the harbor.” Senefru slid his finger over the route stopping at the carefully drawn lines which marked Alexandria on the map. “A pincer attack, troops to one side, our fleet to the other.”
Cleopatra brooded over her general’s plans for long moments.
“No.” there will be no invasion at Ephesus; the fleet will carry me and my men directly to Alexandria. From the docks we move into the city. House by house, street by street we will drive the invaders back. She could see her generals were dismayed, favoring the plan to march overland and strike. “Time is a luxury we do not have,” Cleopatra used one finger to tap the representation of Alexandra on the map “Each moment we delay, the enemy uses to reinforce his position, and therefore we must take direct action. As one mighty fist, the whole of this army will strike the enemy and… I shall lead them.
“My Queen,” Eban pursed his lips.
“My place is with the men.” she stated, knowing his argument before he spoke.
“You are the living symbol of our people my queen, think of what may happen should you, however unlikely,” Eban made sure to state, “be struck down in battle.”
“Our people would lose all hope, as you are the last of your line,” Bahadur spoke, “should you fall, Egypt will be plunged into another civil war over the throne. Please take heed of this fact, and appear before the people after the danger has past. You will be seen as the Phoenix rising from the ashes to claim victory.
The queen closed her eyes. Oh Antonius, my love, how I wish you had been man enough to give me an heir.
“You would have me hide in the palace?” Her eyes opened, her tone incredulous, all knew to tread carefully.
“Never my Queen!” Eban pounded the table once with his fist for emphasis. We only think of the continuity of your rule.”
Her generals spoke truth, she had no heir and Egypt would suffer civil war should she die. “I will...” the queen made it a point to look at each directly. “Go to the palace during the battle.”
The men round the table visibly relaxed.
“Let them go.”
“My lord, you mean we should.”
“Yes, Alistair, let these girls go, we have a more pressing matter to attend to.”
Sevastian, stood in the center, the captains of the old guard surrounding him. “Listen well; I want 200 men to search this city anew, the other 200 split into two groups riding along the coast both East and West.”
“This time we look for Romans.”
“Romans?” Alistair’s voice rose on the word and was filled with amazement. Sevastain’s eyes narrowed just a bit as he wondered why the man kept rubbing the back of his head.
“There was a battle off this coast, the Empress having personally shown me its remnants. It makes sense that any survivors would make land fall here. Break your men into several detachments; have them sweep all parts of the city.”
“How are we to know who is a Roman?” asked Alistair, voicing a question Sevastian knew many held in their thoughts. “Our peoples do appear to be similar.”
“Oui Latine Loqui” The wide eyed looks of the men gave Sevastian cause to smile. “They speak Latin.” he translated. “Tell your men to ask questions of those they deem suspicious, their name, where they are from, what they do for a living. If Roman, I wager that they will be sorely lacking in use of our tongue and knowledge of our land.
“There are other signs they may look for,” he continued after a pause to ensure the men understood. “While a smart man would have cast off armor to float, the garments worn underneath will have telltale signs of Rome. The sandals they wear are far different than that of the ordinary Greek; the vestments they wear under their clunking metal plates are usually a deep red. Their hair is dark, eyes brown, skin tanned from much time under Helios’ rays.”
“You know much about them.” Avra spoke from behind.
“I have run into them a time or two.” Sevastian’s devious smile caused the men to chuckle.
“Lastly, remember, the Romans are shorter men, the height Greeks possess eludes them, same as it does me.” he added, causing a full laugh to erupt from the men surrounding him.
The men moved to stand at attention, their silence indicating they had none.
“Be through in your search; bring all you find to the main square.”
As the group dispersed he was left alone for some moments. Standing around like some egoist did not appeal, so he moved to search as well. Stepping forward, he picked the first of many of the luxurious town-homes in the city center. Walking up the stone steps, Sevastain raised his fist, meaning for pound on the door, and then halted mid motion as long shadows fell over him. Whirling round, he grabbed the hilt of his sword.
Looking up caused him to relax. “Siri, it...” he bungled a bit “it... it is good to see you.”
“Amazons,” Sevastian dipped his head politely to the female warriors behind her.
Siri, said nothing, stepping round to bang her fist upon the door. “You will not search alone, Lord Commander.” The words were more pronouncement than asking permission.
He thought about making the point that he was entirely capable on his own. “Alright.” he said simply. One should always choose battles wisely; Sevastian knew this was one he would not win.
“Well...well…well...” she intoned.
Those within the tavern had stopped their quarrel, the moment her imposing visage had blocked the light pouring in through the open door.
“What have we here?”
Silence greeted her question, the few men still standing too terrified to answer for their actions. The little tavern keep peeped up from underneath the bar, now that the commotion had abruptly ended.
Slowly, Xena moved to pull off her gauntlets, and then tuck them over the leather belt around her waist.
Stepping forward, she took the steps down and glided into the tavern, unknowingly taking the same steps down that Lilla and Gabirelle had bounded up on the way to the dock. Xena’s cape billowed out slightly as she walked. That same cape flared out to either side as her elbows hooked into it. Placing hands on hips, she looked down upon those lying about unconscious.
Behind, her Amazon guard filled the doorway.
“Take these to the stocks in the main plaza.” She gestured to the men still standing. Perhaps the humiliation of a day spent in chains in full view of their neighbors will dissuade them from starting another fight in a tavern. Those lying, upon the floor, drag to the magistrate’s dungeons.”
The Amazons moved, corralling those standing, lifting those upon the floor.
She stood for long moments, just taking in the space, a tavern like many across Greece. Wattle and daub walls with small windows. Wooden beams overhead holding up what looked like a mishmash of decking salvaged from various ships. In the corner stood a hearth, a fire blazing for both warmth and light. A smattering of cheap tallow candles about the place. It was much like the tavern her mother ran. However, Cyrene had wisely used the profits from the tavern to build an adjacent inn to double the family income. Many a night her family worked long hours to deliver food and drink tavern patrons or to take care over the many guests of the inn. After the tavern patrons had gone, they cleaned late into the night in preparation for the next day.
Most who frequented mother’s tavern were good folk, grabbing a simple meal before heading out to work in the fields, perhaps meeting to celebrate some personal good fortune. Xena had been witness to countless marriages, anniversaries, and to the many festivals marking the seasons.
Of course, some nights were not joyous. Too much drink clouded men’s thinking, no more so than on the harvest festival. Peasants with coin earned from selling crops always used some of it, others all of it, to buy spirits.
Drunkenness invariably leads to fights.
First her mother dealt with the odd ruffian, or broke up a drunken brawl. As they got older, she and her brothers were enlisted to maintain order in the tavern. Even with their best efforts, the occasional fight would wreck the tavern, much as the one today had destroyed the furnishings of this one. As she had gotten older, taller, and far stronger, the fights at her mother’s bar had mysteriously slacked off. Xena allowed herself a slight smirk thinking of it.
She and the sad looking little fellow behind the bar, Xena reflected, were different from one another in in so many ways, but alike in this shared experience.
“Members of my guard tell me they may have...unwittingly... started this fight.” She stated, once the last of the brawlers had been removed.
“Dest...ah... Great Xe...Empress...” the tavern keep sputtered, unsure of etiquette when addressing her.
“Xena is sufficient for the moment.” There was neither the need nor the desire on her part to stand on ceremony here. These were her people.
“Xena yah see,” the bar keep began as means to explain. “Those soldiers came in there,” he pointed toward the door leading from the kitchens, “shoved a man here. Then the damned fool, ah…” she watched the man’s eyes widen in shock as he realized he had just swore in front of her.
“Well,” the man swallowed nervously. “The dang fool lost his temper at having his drink spilt, grabbed a jug sittn’ there,” another gesture from him indicated a particular spot at the long bar, “An, bashed it on the head of yore soldier there. Boy dropped like a stone.”
“Then?” she prodded.
“The fella who baught the jug, punched the fella who used it on the soldier bein’ rightly upset as he paid for the wine within it.
“Wuh—well... then the man, punched by the fella who was mad bout’ the wine, fell back onto a table full up with men breakin’ their fast.”
“And then the fight started.”
“Right.” The man sported a very satisfied smile, which faded as he watched Xena close her eyes while one of her elegant hands moved up so that fingers might rub the bridge of her nose.
“Name?” she asked.
“First things first Talak,” A long sigh left her lips. “Why were my soldiers in your bar?”
“Oh!” he exclaimed brightly, “I plum forgot that part.”
“You did.” she stated in mild vexation, her hand dropping down, her eyes showing some small hint of amusement as she looked upon him again.
“They was chasin’ two girls, slaves by the look of it.”
She raised one sculpted eyebrow as she looked down at the man.
“Y-yes,” he began hesitantly, sensing the change in her demeanor, “see they blew through here and up them stairs and out the door.”
“Well, best I could see, the taller one had brown hair and was wearing a long brown skirt and yellah top. The other was lots shorter, lots thinner, with golden hair an’ wearing boots and brown trousers with a green top.”
Gabrielle a slave…How callous, must the fates be to allow that to happen to such a sweet girl.
Had events aligned only slightly differently Gabrielle would be hers. No matter, she would find the girl and see to it she was cared for. That much was certain. It was the least that she could do to repay the kindness Gabrielle had once shown her.
She never forgot a debt.
“The Empire compensates you for your losses.” A thick gold coin was slapped upon the bar.
“Many thanks Xena!” Talak had never seen such wealth. Gingerly he reached for the coin. For a moment Xena fought the temptation to slap at his hand as he did. She resisted doing so, even though it would have been enjoyable to startle the man. Instead she leaned in a bit, causing him to lean back while clutching the precious coin tightly to his chest.
“I could use a drink.”
“Of course!” he smiled timidly. “What’s yer pleasure?”
“Anything… Tulak... Anything.”
“Right, ale it is Xena.”
Turning from him she walked across the deserted tavern to a corner nook set against a far wall and took a seat. Certainly she could be out within the city, bashing in doors, terrifying peasants, and so forth. However, she had learned much from her failures. Experience, Xena mused was a poor teacher, first giving the test, then the lesson afterward.
The idea to delegate responsibility never crossed her mind when she first put on the mantle of warlord. An army, like an empire needs one undisputed leader, but she had learned that it also needs good leadership at all levels. Certainty she could take full command of the search, and all would follow her orders to the letter. Problem is that if everyone is thinking alike then someone isn’t thinking. Better to let Sevastain take this task she had given and run things his way. She had grown to like seeing his original thinking.
A terrified serving girl slowly approached, depositing a large wooden mug on the table near her. Before the girl could depart, her wrist was held tight and she yelped in fright.
“You know the town reeve?”
“Bring him to me, do so quickly and this...” Xena raised a silver piece with her free hand. “Will be yours.”
She let go, and the girl immediately departed at a run.
“What do you do?” Xena asked the man sitting still as a statue atop a stool by the hearth.
“I, I’m a bard.” he squeaked.
The boy nodded.
The kid watched as the Empress leaned back, and then propped one boot up on the table, casually placing one hand upon her raised leg.
“Well bard, entertain me.”
“Lord Commander, Must we go?” Alistair whispered. “Vengeful spirits of the underworld roam below looking for souls to steal for Hades.”
“What are you afraid of, a fate worse than death?”
“No,” Alistair responded firmly, “Just death, isn’t that enough?”
“Capitan, we must. We have searched the town, we are searching the countryside, and we must search here.” Sevastian pointed to the entrance. Looking about he noted the various captains of the guard crowding close round him. Even the big Germans looked spooked.
A nudge at his back caused him to turn his head and look up.
“You too?” he said soft
The usually unflappable Siri nodded just enough to let him know she was uncomfortable. “Isn’t right, tossing the dead in a hole in the ground, she whispered near his ear, “they should have been given a pyre.” The feel of her warm breath, drove Sevastian to distraction for a moment. Regaining his composure, He turned, facing the group, bunched near each other. “You all passed the supreme test of combat, yet you fear ghouls in catacombs? I tell you there is nothing down there but bones!”
“Let’s go!” he ordered while stepping forward, stopping when it became apparent that the men were not following easily, the notable exception being Siri. Those Amazon’s took their oaths seriously. She was determined to stay by him come what may.
Time to change tact…
“If there are ghouls below, they can only give fright, our Empress metes out death.”
The captain’s looked at each other for a moment and came to an unspoken consensus, walking forward, they moved to follow him into the tombs, their men behind.
“Light those torches!” Sevastian commanded as the group strode down the steps. Raising the torch Siri passed to him, he proceeded to lead the group past row after row of tombs hewn into the rock walls Sevastian considered having the men split up, as it would make the search go faster, but based upon the current mood of those surrounding him, decided not to push it.
He followed a path which widened as it lead up to a huge underground temple clearly dedicated to Hades. Once through the entrance portal, he raised his touch high to take in the massive space that Piraeus, as a wealthy port city, could well afford to bore out of the rock. A vaulted ceiling high above, impressively carved stone columns rising up some several stories into the darkness. Behind, the men shuffled about, using torches to light tapers held in tall circular shaped iron candelabras. Ahead Sevastian could make out the altar, a huge shadowy figure looming behind it. Walking forward, the flickering light of his torch illuminated an intricately carved figure of Hades. In this depiction, the god looked much like his brother Zeus, having a full beard and long curly locks. Standing guard next to the god was the three headed Cerberus.
Turning slowly, Sevastian lifted his torch higher, the shimmering light illuminated the side wall, and the haggard Romans pressed up bodily against it.
“...and thus our Empress will lead Greece to greater glory!”
From behind the bar, the tavern keep clapped vigorously until a stern look from her silenced him. Picking up the wet rag, he resumed wiping its surface.
Her gaze returned to the bard, who was clearly nervous, if the sheen of perspiration upon his brow were any indicator.
“Empress did you like the tale?” the Reeve sitting near asked hesitantly. For a moment she took the man in, Wiry and tall much like Toris, older than her brother as evidenced by the flecks of gray in his hair. “Certainly the boy is wise enough to know who his audience is.” She conceded, the comment directed more to the bard, than the Reeve.
“Not bad.” At hearing her praise, a grin spread upon bards face. Casually reaching to the small felt bag attached her leather belt, she retrieved then flicked a sliver piece to him.
“Thank you Empress!” he stated enthusiastically, eyes locked on the beautiful piece of silver on his palm. When he looked up, she gave him a brief genuine smile in return, which cheered the boy even more. With a gesture, she dismissed him.
“Praxis, it seems we do nothing but impose upon you.”
“How so Empress?”
“Here we have disrupted your harvest festival and invaded the privacy of your homes. I wish it known to all that the Empire apologies for the many hardships imposed upon the people of Piraeus.
“All know now that you search for Romans. Any grumbling will be muted by the fact that they are enemies of Greece.” The man responded tactfully.
“Tell me Praxis, what do you know about these Romans.”
“We heard tell stories of a sea battle in the gulf, involving Rome.”
“And, did your townsmen, happen to aid those Romans who made it to shore?” she watched him wither under her stern gaze. “Perhaps taking them in, hoping to later ransom them back to their families?”
“I should hope not!” he declared adamantly. She expected him to say as much. But there were reasons as to why those ships had left the harbor in such haste.
“I agree with you Praxis, as any such actions would be considered traitorous by me.” She let him stew a moment while finishing her mug of ale. “It would be a shame if the Empire were forced to investigate the matter further. I would hate to need to leave a garrison here.” She left him an opening which he soon took. “Empress,” the man shifted nervously. “Allow me to take the lead in any such investigation you desire, I shall see to it that the guilty are rounded up.”
“Good, I look forward to reading your findings Praxis.” The damage was already done, having him round up a few townsmen for punishment would serve as a warning to others in the future. Best of all she wouldn’t need to waste the time of her men in the investigation.
“Will that be all Empress?” he asked softly.
“No.” she leaned back in her chair again after setting her empty mug upon the table. “I require provisions for my troops as well as a place for them to be billeted for the night. See to it.”
“Of course Empress.”
“Good and I require your home, as well as the local magistrate for use by my top commander.”
She could tell he was less than pleased at having to surrender his home, but had the sense to not give voice to his thoughts.
“We shall be glad to host a dinner in your honor Empress. The town--”
“No, unnecessary, just see to it that my troops are taken care of. I, and select members of my command, will dine with you and your family tonight Praxis”
All color drained from the man’s face.
“We would be honored!”
He didn’t look honored.
“Good.” she waved the man off.
Standing the Reeve bowed low to her before departing.
“Conqueror,” Solari spoke from the doorway of the tavern. Xena couldn’t help but smile slightly. Ever since Ephiny had used that particular honorific, all the Amazons had begun to use it in her presence. As she eyed the commander of her guard, Xena’s thoughts turned toward, seeing that Talmadeus procured better winter clothing for the Amazon’s. Tough was one thing, but leaving yourself exposed to the wintry elements due to inadequate clothing did nothing but court sickness.
“Your second wishes an audience, as well as the one named Autolycus.
“Hold a moment Solari.” she commanded while turning her attentions to the bar keep.
“Talak, might I have use of you tavern the rest of this day? Perhaps you could give those in your employ some time off paid for by me?”
“Sure thing Xena.” he responded, causing Solari to raise both eyebrows in surprise when the man used the Conqueror’s given name.
For a moment, silence between them, until the little guy figured she meant starting this very moment. Scampering away he darted into the kitchens to clear out the staff. Sliding her leg off the table top, Xena moved to stand, slowly rising up to her full daunting height.
“Autolycus, you smell of horse sweat,” Stated Sevastian bluntly, albeit with a smile, to take the edge off his words.
“Imagine that, seeing as I did ride a horse to get here.”
“What brings you to Pireaus?
“If I told you I’d have to kill you.” the spy master answered curtly. “Is that?” Autolycus looked past Sevastian.
“It is, least he said he was.” the second shook his head in disbelief of how it had all transpired, “You see we found Roman’s hiding--”
“The Empress grants you an audience.” Both men looked to the Amazon.
“After you,” Sevastian gestured.
The moment Auto passed through the door a hand balled the fabric of this fine tunic and he was roughly slammed against a support pillar.
“Worthless!” Xena growled. “There was a battle fought directly off this coast, and thanks to your ineptitude, I knew nothing of it!”
“Xena, please...” Auto gasped out as she effortlessly raised him higher, his back sliding along the pole. “Please what?” she snarled. “Please don’t kill you? Tell me why I shouldn’t?”
“Please understand,” he gasped. “Information can only travel as fast as the fastest means! As soon as I had scrolls in hand I rode as fast as possible to reach you!”
“What problems you have getting information do not concern me spy, I pay you handsomely to ensure I get information, before events happen, not after! You had better have considerable news of this battle, or you will not live to see the end of this day!” the hand gripping him tightened round his throat.
“Much on the recent battle,” Auto attempted a smile, tough to do when being choked.
In the next moment, he was roughly shoved into a chair. “Well?” Xena asked, while placing hands on hips.
Her spy coughed for some moments. “The battle,” he wheezed trying to regain his voice “involved Rome.”
“Yes, yes, that much I surmised. Tell me something useful.”
“Very well,” Auto continued quickly knowing Xena’s patience with him was thin. “As you know from previous reports, there is an alliance between Antony and Cleopatra. Those two fought this sea battle against young Octavian Caesar. Curiously, Egyptian forces never entered into the engagement. Cleopatra abandoned Antony to his fate, pulling her fleet back just as Octavian had been on the verge of defeat.”
“Why would she abandon Antony? Xena asked pointedly, “At your last report, the two were busying themselves playing horse and mare.”
“That is correct Empress,” Auto stated while straightening his tunic and attempting to regain his bravado once more, “However, it seems Antonius was... lacking.... in certain respects. His eyes darted downward suggestively. “Cleopatra being much frustrated at gaining no heir.”
“You imply she abandoned him, simply because he was unable to fill her with child?” The disbelief within Xena’s thoughts, translated to the inflection of her voice. It was one thing to be disappointed by not gaining a child, another entirely to abandon a carefully culled ally in the midst of a battle. Cleopatra’s actions made no practical sense.
“While, hearing about the escapades of Antony and Cleopatra is titillating, how does it relate to the events of the coast of Greece?”
“Antony and Cleopatra fought Octavian, only because he stood between them and Rome, their main thrust was always an invasion of Rome herself.
Xena, who had begun to pace while listening paused to look upon her spy once more. The information Autolycus gave corroborated Salmoneus’ reports. “Those two planned to unite Rome and Egypt as one, their heir ruling a combined Empire.”
The puzzle pieces are coming together. She thought while resuming her pacing to and fro
“My spies say that they planned the attack to occur while Caesar was busy putting down rebellions in Gaul, and Hispania.” She smiled wryly at that bit of news.
“Still...” she continued pacing, crossing arms over her chest. “You haven’t told me why Cleopatra abandoned Antonius?”
“The Persians have attacked Alexandria.”
Xena laughed unexpectedly.
“Don’t you realize?” she asked a bewildered looking Autolycus, “Cleopatra has a traitor in her mist!” The Persians attacked only after her ships loaded with troops had left Alexandria! This has all the hallmarks of Caesar! Divide and conquer, is always his anserine maxim. She divided her force defending Egypt in order to invade Rome, and Caesar’s minion’s made it known to the Persians that Egypt was ripe for attack!”
“And Octavian? What of him?” she asked.
“Unknown, I have no reports as of yet.”
“Octavian is young,” Xena spoke after some moments. “But the boy is no fool from all accounts. I wager he would do much like I and try to press the attack somehow. There may be an opportunity here...” the last remark being muttered, aloud more to herself, than to those in the room.
“And what of Antony?” she asked, “Killed in battle? Taken as Prisoner?”
“I believe your second, knows his whereabouts.” Auto’s gaze turned to Sevastian, who braced at attention as Xena’s eyes followed.
“Report, Lord Commander.”
“Empress, we have concluded our search of the town as well as the catacombs beyond. In the main square, we have now some 200 Roman prisoners. That number could change as members of the guard are still searching the coastline outside the city.” Sevastian allowed a short pause.
“We have captured their commander.”
One of the empress’ sculpted eyebrows rose at the last remark a smug grin began to show upon her lips. “Taking that as his cue, Sevastain gestured and the man was brought in, two Amazon’s positioned on either side.
“Lo! The great Marcus Antonius himself!”
Antonius haughty demeanor abruptly deflated upon seeing the barbarian leader as she stepped towards him. He being slightly taller, only because Antony stood on the top of the steps while Xena the bottom.
“The Amazon Siri captured him, Mistress.” Sevastian made sure to place credit where it was rightly due.
“Where was he found?”
“Conqueror,” Siri straightened realizing the question was being directed at her. “Upon seeing the top of a crypt ajar, I looked within, finding this man hiding amongst the bones.”
“Coward!” Xena spat the word at the Roman general, “Abandoning your men to their fate, while you run and hide like some scared child.” she watched amusedly as his nostrils flared, signaling ire at her words, yet he chose to remain silent in the face of truth.
“Good work, Amazon,” she looked to Siri, “You are a credit to your people.”
“Turning from Antony, Xena’s eyes darted first to Auto, then Sevastian, before settling directly upon Siri. “You three will dine with me tonight, we have much to discuss, and you…” she pointed to Auto, “will complete your report.”
“Yes, Empress.” “Sevastain spoke for the group, when no answer was immediately forthcoming. Certainly no answer would be given by Siri, the Amazon looked stunned at being invited to dine with the Empress Rightly so, thought Sevastain, it wasn’t long past he was in her place, being shocked when Xena requested his presence at table.
“Call back the Guard from their search Sevastian,” Xena looked to Antony once more. “We have our prize.”
“As you command.”
“Have the Guard, form up in the main square with the prisoners, I shall be there shortly. “And…” All watched as Xena walked over to Sevastian, pausing to lean over, whispering into his ear.”
The second silently nodded his understanding of her words, and then dipped his head low in deference to his Empress.
“Dismissed, save you Solari.”
Xena waited until only Solari, she, and Antonius were present within.
“A drink Antonius?” she asked while stepping round the wooden bar.
The fellow said nothing.
“Greece is buying” she added, the corners of her beautiful lips quirking up into a smile. Still the man remained silent even as the wooden mug was set before him.
“Even… barbarians… know to say thank you, after all it’s only polite.”
“Thank you.” Antonius stated flat. Thirst caused the Roman general to quickly drain the mug. Another was set before him.
He eyed Xena for a moment. She was much changed. Once being hesitant; young, new to the game of war, and uncomfortable wearing the mantle of warlord. No longer, Xena had grown into a formidable warrior, comfortable with leadership, and possessing a most daunting persona.
Caesar, do you know your enemy?
Antonius believed the truthful answer would be, no. Caesar remembered her as the brash young woman he ordered crucified, not understanding what she had become since.
This was no simple reunion; this would be a battle of wits he couldn’t afford to lose. Antonius steeled himself, preparing to do battle, and in battle it was always best to land the first strike.
“With offerings of drink you attempt to ingratiate yourself with me, you think I can be bought with so little? If so I do fear you waste your time, savage. I shall not tell you what you seek!”
“Oh Antonius…” Xena began; the words intermixed with a sigh. She leaned back against the large wooden ale kegs behind the bar, and crossed arms over her chest. “How important you believe yourself, I need no information from you. I already know your plans.”
“I doubt that.” Antonius scoffed at the suggestion, “Women know little of the intricacies of war.” reaching for his mug, he drank again.
“You and Caesar…” Xena shook her head dismissively, “what ego you possess.”
“You speak as if you are pure as a Vestal Virgin. He countered with a grin. “I know you better Xena, you possess some considerable pride.” He finished his ale, only to have another set before him.
“Ah, but at least I can back it up,” the glib smile she wore incensed him. “Shall I have the Amazon here fetch a map so that you may point out what territory you rule?”
“You are nothing more than a harlot, leading scum! Rome shall wipe her feet upon your Greece!” Antonius’ ire was up, his face red.
“You wound me Antonius.” Xena mocked him, feigning deep hurt with her expression, her hand moved up mimicking stabs into her heart with an invisible dagger. “Especially when you took such care to woo me, not so long past, flatteries flowed from your lips, the like of which I have not heard since... My hair like silk, my eyes having more depth than the Aegean, my lips softer than---”
“Please, you only flatter yourself by speaking such,” he grunted, “You treat the bedroom like a battlefield. Making love is art you know nothing about.
“Old Antonius still!” she laughed. “And you make love like you eat, with a great deal of noise and no subtlety!”
“Be honest Antonius,” Xena continued, “you only direct your vitriol at me because I turned down your offer to partner against Caesar. First you use your charms to try and get me to ally with you, and then you run to the arms of Cleopatra attempting to do the same!
“I did not!” he bellowed. “At least not this this time, she suggested it” he finished meekly.”
“I care not who suggested it, were you man enough, you’d do the deed yourself!
“You make my failings the size of your Mount Olympus.” The Roman moved to lean heavily upon the bar. Draining his mug of ale
“They are the size of Mount Olympus!” she retorted.
“We could have ruled the known world Xena.” He lamented watching as she filled his mug again. “You, then Cleopatra, blithely threw the opportunity away! She turned tail and ran leaving me to face Octavian alone! I tried to follow but…” he voice trailed off.
“You tried to disengage your fleet from Octavian to follow her?” she asked.
“No…no, I jumped overboard to follow.”
Xena couldn’t hide her reaction at his words leaning forward to place her hands upon the bar she began to laugh. “You idiotic love sick fool! Like a puppy running to its master!”
“I cannot speak for the Egyptian,” she set a refilled mug before him, “but as for me, why would I rule with a halfwit like you when I can do so alone?”
“We could have a child that would rule the known world!” he whined.
“I doubt that” she said flat.
Antonius took several large gulps of the heady ale, “All great men, fall by the treachery of those around them, so it is with me.” he bemoaned.
“Antonius, you won’t be killed by a traitor, unless you kill yourself!” She rebuked.
“What would you do with me then Xena?” asked the Roman “Besides getting me drunk and using me for your mirth?” He grabbed the mug again, drinking the rest of the ale held within.
“Good, drink up.” she encouraged. “It will help later.”
“I know not what you mean by that.” He challenged.
“Antonius, let us go on gently, her words soft. “Tell me true, of Caesar’s plans.”
“I knew it!” he laughed, she not joining him. “You are plying me with drink in hopes that I’d tell you of his game!”
“You are a known masker and reveler Antonius; I am not forcing that brew down your throat.”
“True…” his voice trailed off, Antonius was silent, keen observation of his features told her he had come to a decision.
“It matters little now anyway.” He muttered dejectedly. Inwardly Xena smiled. Alcohol had always been Antoinus’ weakness; the man could not hold his drink. He would tell all and she hadn’t the need to torture him to get it.
Looking up he met her gaze. “Caesar wanted to attack Greece from both East and West. I was to use Egypt’s armada of ships to ferry my men and those of Egypt to the shores of Greece while Caesar struck overland and by sea. A skirmish with the Persians delayed the plan. My alliance with Cleopatra ended it. Caesar was so angered by my betrayal that he sent troops under Octavian to stop me.” Antonius let out a pained sigh. “Hindsight being what it is, I should have moved first to help Caesar defeat you, and then attacked him after the battle was won.”
She nodded. Salmoneus was worth his considerable weight in gold! The tubby little chatterbox had told her well of Caesar’s intent, the proof of that now given from three different sources, Autolycus, Salmoneus, now Antonius himself!
While she liked Autolycus well enough, even he did not know of her spy masquerading as Caesar’s Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
“Pardon me if I say I am glad events unfolded as they did.” she smiled wry.
“I’m sure.” he stated bitterly. “You gained control of Greece.
The Roman leaned towards her, “I can still be of some use, let me join you Xena.”
“Only a fool would trust you Antonius, besides, I already have one Roman General in my employ, I have no need of another.”
“Pompey...” he whispered in shock, “It is Pompey you refer to.”
Xena said nothing, only a slowly growing smile on her beautiful lips confirmed to him who it was.
“Have you met the captain of my Amazon guard, Solari?” she asked changing subject abruptly. “Certainly she knows you Antonius.”
“How so?” the Roman answered after some long moments, looking to Solari who remained silent, but narrowed her eyes in seething anger.
“After the battle of Pharsalus, men under your command attacked a small contingent of her people. You did nothing while your men repeatedly used them against their will.”
“Ad Victori Spoila” he responded blithely, feeling the effects of the ale he had consumed.
Xena’s features hardened in anger, “And so it is with you Antonius. You are my spoil of victory and will serve as a mere taste of what is to come for your beloved Rome.”
“Xena--” he began gently trying to pacify her sudden anger.
“There are many things I can forgive Antonius, but you have committed offenses that I cannot abide.” First and foremost you are a coward, that alone condemns you, but you also are a traitor, a most terrible combination of faults. Like cowardice, I’ve found once a man has a taste for treachery, he goes back to the well time and again. Then there is the matter of you fighting Roman wars on the soil of my Greece, killing my people, pillaging my cities.
“And worst of all!” Her voice rose causing him to fall silent, “You allow rape!
A gesture from her and Solari moved to grab Antonius roughly.