“I cannot believe you side with him. Can you not see the danger our family has been placed in!?” Kodi yelled out his anger in full control.
“Lower your voice; it is your mother you speak to.” Sevastian scolded.
The four were ensconced within the great room of the massive house. Xena was as good as her word; the estate within the heart of Athens was of the finest quality. Tapestries hung from every wall, beautiful paneling of stained oak in every hall and room. In every room were fireplaces of carved marble, furnishings of polished wood. The kitchens alone in this grand home seemed large enough to feed the Army of the Empire, the estate as a whole, having enough servants to populate an Army Group.
“I know to whom I speak!” Kodi raged. “And, you, you!” he stormed toward Sevastian poking one finger repeatedly into the armored breastplate of his brother. “You are nothing more than her butcher cleaver man, having no scruples at all! When the Empress says do this--”
“It is performed!” Sevastain finished hotly.
“And what about you, Kodi?” Despite his considerable control, Sevastian was quickly loosing grip upon his temper. “You denigrate the Empress, yet you are more than willing to accept her largess at every turn!” He grabbed the boy by the shoulders roughly, “Fine clothing, private tutoring at her behest. His hands smoothed over the silk tunic Kodi wore. “It would seem to me that you protest too much Kodi!”
Maeja stepped between the two, pushing them apart gently, understanding their anger was quickly nearing a flash point. “I am getting too old to be playing arbiter between you.” Maeja gazed at each for a long moment in silent warning. She ran her fingers through gray hair in frustration once the two, of their own volition, moved further apart.
“Why couldn’t you two ever get along?” She asked, while adjusting her overlaying blue chiton fastened as it was by a large diamond and gold broach at her shoulder.
“If your brother had not taken advantage, what would have become of you?” All looked to Maeja’s husband, Chariton who was seated in a push chair.
“Dead in the siege of Olynthus,” Sevastian said flatly.
“Are you one of the fates now?” asked the boy with scorn, “because I thought they were all female.”
“Kodi.” Maeja chastised.
“He is not omnipotent mother; our Lord Commander does not know what would have happened.”
“You speak of me being given vanities, brother,” Kodi attempted to turn the tables. “What of you? Fine armor, luxurious accommodations--”
“Kodi, your brother never craved luxuries, you know that.” Chariton said soft.
“Could have fooled me,” the boy muttered loud enough for Sevastian to hear.
Elderly Chariton moved to stand; a life spent in labor on the land had worn upon his body. Maeja moved to help her husband from the chair, straightening his knee length tunic as she did so.
“I...” Kodi was defiant. “I will continue to speak against her, she being a tyrant!”
“By the Gods, lower your voice!” Sevastian hissed.
“Think of what you do, if we lose favor with her we lose everything!” Chariton urged the boy to consider the consequences of his stance.
“Then say goodbye to it all!” Kodi shouted.
“Her Imperial Majesty.”
The announcement by Siri, abruptly ended the conversation. All looked to the entranceway to find Xena standing silent by one of the marble pillars.
The entire family, save Kodi, quickly took a knee at the sight of the Empress. A moment later Sevastain’s arm whipped sideways, taking the boys knees out, causing him to tumble forward into a kneeling position
“I was so anxious to meet you, that I came unannounced.” Xena swept into the room. “I do apologize for not visiting sooner, but my days are quite busy of late.” As the Empress had been heavily involved in training her men, she did not wear her finer armor; Instead Xena dressed plainly, brown leathers, with worn bronze armor and high boots with battered knee guards. Even without finery, the Empress was an impressive sight.
As Xena moved near, Maeja gently clasped her right hand, touching her lips to the signet ring the Empress wore. Another custom the people of Athens insisted upon and Xena tolerated. “Remarkable boys you breed madam.” she gave Maeja a lopsided smile. “One fights with a sword, the other with his tongue.”
Amid nervous laughter, the Empress bid all to rise.
“Sevastian, the Amazons await, be on your way.”
He bowed low to her before departing thought the entranceway.
“You have duties boy.” A snap of her fingers caused a grumbling Kodi to take his leave as well.
“Please sit, be comfortable.” Xena gestured for both to take a seat before she did.
“Empress, I must apologize, Kodi and Sevastian, those two—“
“Are very different people,” Xena responded gently, cutting Majea off, “and have different visions as to the way the world should be.”
Xena leaned back in her chair. “We have some matters to discuss.”
Sevastain stormed thought the grand hall towards the entrance way, not wanting to speak one word to Kodi who was two paces behind. Instead he focused on pulling on his black leather gauntlets, trying to tamp down his anger at the boy.
“Where are you off to?”
“That is none of your concern! Abruptly Sevastian slowed his pace, realizing he’d forgotten his black fur lined cloak. “Thank you.” he muttered, as a smirking Siri handed the garment to him.
Once outside the grand villa, Siri’s voice rose up, yelling out the command and 250 Amazon’s on horseback came to attention. This was new, the warriors were not fond of horses, but Xena had commanded it, and so Sevastian had been assigned to teach horsemanship... well, riding skills. The next lessons would be even more challenging, instructing these women how to aim and fire arrows from horseback. Behind the Amazon warriors, stood a large wagon train, and 1,000 soldiers on foot.
“You and all these beautiful savages riding off to who knows where.” Kodi’s tone was grating on the nerves. “Another perk of being the Lord Commander I suppose.”
Sevastian refused to take the bait. “See to mother, and your father Kodi.” he instructed, striding down the steps he halted for a moment. “If by word or deed you jeopardize the position of this family, may the gods help you, because I will not.” he then continued walking toward his mount.
The kid took a breath to yell out a retort when a hand grabbed his shoulder roughly, looking up he held that same breath as the towering Amazon guard captain gazed down upon him. “Be careful, or that mouth of yours will surely lead you to trouble.”
“I do not need advice for a beast such as you! Your people live in the forests and pray to trees!”
“Beasts are we? Well, we beastly Amazon’s have a saying. “Watch your thoughts, they become words, watch your words, they become actions.”
With that Siri left him, to follow Sevastian.
“Gabrielle!” Lilla huffed, walking back to clasp her sister’s hand. “Quit stopping to gawk, or we will become separated.
The wagons carrying the various trunks containing the master’s possessions had gone ahead into the city. Gabrielle pleaded; that they walk through the city to see the sights and Iolaus agreed, as a walk would them all good after being confined on board ship. Their final destination was the new townhouse on the far side of the Tiber. In the lead, Iolaus walked with his Steward, Alexandros.
“I’m sorry sister it’s just...just...”
“Overwhelming?” Lilla smiled briefly. “One-Million people in Rome sister, I can scarce believe it.”
The press of people was constant as the group made their way down the raised stone sidewalks which kept them from having to wade through the waste left behind by the many animals pulling conveyances through the streets.
In the street proper, were raised blocks of stone, set just right so that carts would need to slow in order for the wheels to pass thought the narrow spaces between them People also used them to cross the thoroughfare. Most ingenious thought Gabrielle by using the blocks they wouldn’t have to step in animal waste. Along the sideway were all manner of merchants selling wares from street level shops which she had learned were the front part of their homes.
Every so often wonderful smells wafted from corner bakeshops. These bakeries were used by the poor. For a copper coin, they could have their bread cooked in the wood-fired stone ovens. Several shops they passed sold a fowl smelling sauce which smelled of rotten fish, Garum ex Pompeii the sellers yelled over and over. Gabrielle wanted none of that sauce, not ever.
“Look at that! Will wonders never cease?” Lilla tugged at her sister’s tunic. “Water runs out from fountains!” Gabrielle watched as people filled buckets from spigots of carved stone. “No need of a well sister! Sorcery must be at play to train water to flow as such!”
Around them the glory of Rome... Gabrielle longed to know the names of all these magnificent structures in what the Romans called the Forum. Although she was knew a few Greek letters, she did not know any Latin, and so the great inscriptions on buildings and monuments were alien.
“There upon the hill is the temple of Jupiter” She caught the voice of Alexandros ahead. Pulling Lilla forward, Gabrielle moved so that she might better hear. “To the left, is the temple of Castor and Pollux where the Roman Senate meets, the temple of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home, the great Basilica Julius were the courts are housed. There--”
“What is that?” Gabrielle blurted, halting the men’s conversation. She then quickly fell silent as it was not her place to interrupt.
“That my young impertinent slave is the great Amphitheatrum Flavium or Flavian Amphitheater in your Greek tongue. The Great Arena where you will find all manner of bloodletting.
“Bloodletting!” Lilla exclaimed fearfully.
“Oh yes,” Alexandros replied with a wiggle of his brows. “During the day, the Venatio or animal hunt occurs. The crowds watch all manner of beasts from within the borders of the Republic and beyond, huge elephants, lions, leopards, bears, and even ostriches.”
“We have never heard of nor seen such beasts.” Lilla was amazed.
“Doesn’t seem fair to kill animals within an arena, they have no place to run to.” Gabrielle mumbled soft so that Lilla might hear, but not Alexandros.
“At intermissions, criminals are executed and just before sunset, the great Warrior Gladiators fight to the death.”
“Heaven forfend!” Gabrielle exclaimed in shock.
“Alexandros, my stable girl Gabrielle,” Iolaus introduced, “Her elder sister Lilla my housemaid.”
“They are new.” Alexandros commented while scrutinizing both. The man was short, but still taller than Gabrielle. She was much used to that, being everyone was taller than she. He was stocky, having a rounded face. Eyes of the darkest brown matched his hair. His clothing was clearly utilitarian, but still he was well dressed in the Roman style. Over a thick toga, he wore a heavy brown woolen cloak which was tried to his left shoulder with a metal broach. The Roman’s donned their cloaks differently than the Greeks wrapping the long cloth repeatedly about the upper body for warmth.
“No, not new I’ve had them for some time, you’ve just been in Rome far too long Alexandros. “I purchased them both in Athens, they being part of a slave train on its way to the east from what I gathered, Northerners both.”
“From the backwaters of Greece, farm folk then, Least that explains why the fair-haired one--”
“Gabrielle.” Iolaus corrected, she is not a thing, and she has a name.”
“Certainly, my lord.
“You were saying?”
“Well, I just couldn’t help but notice that she wears leather breeches, odd for a female slave.”
“One cannot care for stables in a dress, Alexandros.”
“Gabrielle, a very unusual name you chose.”
“I did not choose it.” Iolaus shook his head as they resumed their walk.
“You did not name them?” Alexandros was shocked. “Allowed them to keep their given name?”
“My lord, you are much too kind, it will be the ruin of you.”
“So be it then,” Iolaus replied while looking about at the scenery, “While they are slaves and without rights, I refuse to rob them of dignity. Lilla, Gabrielle, and all the rest that I own are still people like you and I Alexandros. ”
“You will not find many in Rome who would agree with your views my lord.”
“I do not care what others may think.”
“Very well,” Alexandros paused thinking a moment. “I do have something to show you, that you may well find most interesting.”
“I am tired; perhaps another time after all we’ve just braved the voyage from--”
“It is worth seeing and is also on the way to your townhouse.” Alexandros gestured, showing the way he wished them to walk.
“We Romans, have a new edifice for sport my lord, a place for racing horses in chariot teams.”
“The Circus Maximus, I have heard of it. An arena just to race chariots?”
“Among other purposes, it is a gift from the great Julius himself! The arena is being paid for by the spoil taken from the new provinces of Gaul and Britannia.
“Gods above!” Lilla shouted as a stone structure shrouded in scaffolding loomed ahead.
“May we enter?” Iolaus now found his own curiosity piqued.
“Of course, we may. I have spoken too many of means about the exquisite quality of your horses,” Alexandros continued, “If you entered a team in the races and won, the upper classes would line up at your door with coin in hand to purchase the results of your breeding.
“That is my plan.” Iolaus said matter of fact.
“100,000 slaves from Gaul and Britannia work both day and night to complete the arena which Caesar himself named the Circus Maximus.” The four walked into a dark tunnel with a high barrel vaulted ceiling, which soared over their heads. “Within these walls will be stables for the chariot teams, shops, tiled mosaic walks in which to recreate, places to dine, even public lavatories and baths rivaling even the great bath complex commissioned by Senator Caracalla.” Alexandros continued.
Exiting the tunnel, the four stepped into the light of day, and what they beheld caused both Lilla and Gabrielle to stand silent with open mouthed awe. Even the master himself, said nothing for long moments. Alexandros also remained silent; giving time for all to absorb the grandeur of what surrounded them.
The track itself was in the shape of an elongated ellipse at least a quarter of a league long with two equal straight paths and two rounded end turns on either side. Surrounding the dirt track was a high stone wall at least 8 times a man’s height, rising above that were marble covered seats. Thousands of seats rose up on all sides meant to accommodate the multitudes wishing to see the races. The lower seats being completed, higher sections were under construction. The height was such that the slaves toiling away looked much like bees swarming over a hive.
To the far end, two equally proportionate temple looking structures were being completed, sitting side by side massive columns far thicker than that of Athena’s great temple held up massive carved pediments. At the peak of each were gigantic gold Roman styled eagles, with wings outstretched.
“The stables,” Alexandros pointed to the temple like structures.
In the center a high stone median rose dividing the track to force the chariots to run all the way to the rounded end of the track, on top a mezzanine for still more patrons to watch the race from the center of the track. On one end a massive statue of a kneeling god rose.
“Poseidon.” Gabrielle said to Lilla
“Neptune.” Alexandros corrected.
“But why have the great god of the seas in an area for horses?” Lilla asked.
“Sister, do you not recall the tale?”
“Obviously not,” Lilla snarked with an eye roll. “Or I wouldn’t have asked Gabrielle.”
“You see,” Gabrielle’s continence brightened, she excited to tell a tale. “Poseidon was much in love with the goddess Demeter, to forestall his amorous advances; she bid him to spend his energies creating the most single most beautiful animal in the world for her. After many attempts in which he created many different animals he made the perfection we know as horses in hopes of winning her love.”
“Did she fall in love with him?” Lilla asked.
“No she spurned him for another.”
Iolaus laughed. “Typical!”
“With your pardon, sir may I ask what that is?” Gabrielle pointed to a large structure which looked very much like a grand town home set into the stands. It rose up two full stories, the top level being offset back to provide a high wide balcony. The front and upper portions of the building being held up my many ornate columns.
“Young slave that is the grand box for the first consul of the Republic and members of the Roman Senate. Only the very elite of Rome will even see the inside.”
“My lord,” Alexandros turned to address Iolaus. “What do you think of our little arena?”
“To say it is grand is an understatement, when will it be completed?”
“By the end of the upcoming warm season, Caesar has ordered it to be finished quickly so that the populace may enjoy the races with him in celebration of his defeat of the barbarian Greek.”
“Barbarian Greek?” Iolaus challenged.
“Present company excluded of course.” added Alexandros hastily. “By that I meant Xena, the one you Greeks call the Destroyer.”
“She is not a barbarian.”
“Gabrielle hush!” Lilla elbowed her sister.
“So say you slave. I’m sure Xena would be heartened to hear you defending her honor.” Alexandros looked to Iolaus, “Is she always this mouthy?”
“Yes, I find it to be her most endearing quality.” Iolaus replied with a smile.
“I see... well...” Alexandros clasped his hands together momentarily. “Shall we tour the stables? Then I will show you to your new home in town before the sun sets. I must tell you, your townhouse is in a very desirable location my lord, being surrounded by the homes of many of the most prominent senators. Good for business connections I should think as the senators much love fine accommodations, wine, food, and... the finest of horses. Tomorrow, or the day after if you feel rested enough, we can journey to your large villa in the countryside.”
Alexandros stepped forward, Iolaus keeping pace with the two sisters following behind.
Stopping for just a moment, Gabrielle looked up at the massive statue.
“Great Poseidon, I thank you for a safe journey across the seas and also for the calm of the waters. I do not believe I could have endured heavy tossing of our ship upon the waves.” Gabrielle looked down, seeing how her clothing now hung on her much thinner frame. She had not eaten, more precisely had not been able to keep down much of what she had eaten, throughout the entirely of the voyage.
“Gabrielle hurry!” cried an exasperated Lilla.
The large wooden stirring spoon struck him...again…
“Gods on high!” Sevastian shouted while cowering back, “Madam, please!” he implored, “I’m just the messenger!”
“You get what my daughter deserves only because I don’t have a spoon long enough to reach her!”
The growing crowd outside Cyrene’s inn laughed.
“How dare you barge into our village…”
The spoon held within her hand rose and Sevastian cringed back further much to the delight of the onlookers.
“…And tell us, we must bear the indignity of being occupied by these thugs!”
“Empress Mother, they are honorable soldiers of the Empire, here to protect you and this village.”
“Quit calling me that! Cyrene yelled. “You, your Empress, and the Empire can go down to Hades for all we care!”
The townsfolk, surrounding them murmured their agreement with Cyrene. This had not gone well from the start, the peasants standing silent in anger as the troops passed those within the Inn silent the moment he entered, that is, until the woman he came to know as Cyrene charged out from the kitchens spoon in hand.
“Be that as it may, Empress Mother, I have my orders, these men must stay.” His response caused the spoon in her hand to rise again.
“No!” Sevastain’s arm flew out halting Siri in her path. He didn’t need the Empress hearing his guard captain had forcibly subdued her mother. The result of that would have a negative effect on both their lifespans.
The spoon lowered as Cyrene eyed the Amazon warily. “Well, you march right back to Xena and tell her that we refuse to house these hooligans! Not one copper coin will be spent on them!”
“You do not have to pay.” said Sevastian.
“Not one copper coin.” he reassured.
“The Empress has seen to that, you…” Sevastian breathed a little sigh of relief at seeing the hand holding the spoon drop completely. “Have no burden in keeping these men. They will build their own barracks, provide for their own meals. Why their presence may even help your village financially. “After all,” he smiled slightly. “Soldiers spend coin like everyone else. You may find them of some use in completing projects around your village perhaps?”
“They are under our jurisdiction?”
“To the extent that it does not interfere with their directives from the Empress yes,” Sevastian qualified.
“The missive that--”
…you tried to hand me.” Cyrene finished.
“Yes, written by the Empress herself, it will explain all. Sevastian held out the rolled parchment tentatively. He had tried to give it to her in the tavern, getting a sound whipping instead.
Cyrene snatched it from his hand.
“There are two scrolls here, one inside the other.”
“Madam, one is official, being that it deals with the troops, the other is personal.”
“You have read them?”
“Not the personal missive, no.”
“And this…” Sevastian reached into the leather pouch held by Siri pulling out another scroll. “…is for you.” He indicated Toris.
“So, she sent you to face us?” Toris was derisive.
“Yes, the Empress choses to defer to the wishes of this village and not appear in person.”
Sevastian stepped back a pace and dipped his head to Cyrene. “I will take my leave, as I know my presence offends many. He turned, walking to Gisela and then stepping up into the saddle.
Toris moved to stand near, and Sevastian leaned over slightly. A good moment was at hand to make a point.
“A word to the wise, Toris, your sister wishes me to express that she knows of every communication you’ve sent to your remaining allies in Athens.
Your allies are dead…” Sevastain paused to let that piece of knowlege sink in.
“The scroll I gave you has wording of the exact same tenor as I now say to you. The Empress chooses not to order your execution. Do not continue this course Toris, for you are severely trying her patience. Trust me when I say, I am sure she can find a suitable punishment for your actions, one which will make you wish you were dead. I know the Amazon Hippolyta would dearly love to be the one to mete out your punishment. Weren’t you part of the plot which succeeded in killing her husband and son?”
The brother of the Destroyer palled, and was silent for some time.
“I know you, don’t I?” asked Toris softly.
“Perhaps, but then again I was but one of many you sent to the dungeon.”
Sevastian spurred his mount leaving Toris behind to ponder his words.