Even from afar, the Eastern City Gates looked imposing and grand; three arches of white marble illuminated by the reddish rays of the sunset. The sun shined right into the incomers’ faces, forcing them to squint their eyes. The road leading to the Gates was filled with a crowd of pedestrians, carts and several lecticas scattered in the ruck, all wanting to get into the city before the nightfall. Hence, the squad of oncoming troops was forced to slow down considerably - something their worn-out horses welcomed with relief. A dark warrior rode at the front, her soldiers following in twos, barely a few paces behind their commander. Their horses were tired and covered in froth and the road dust, but even in that state they looked spectacular. The crowd in front of them was thick, but the Warrior Princess didn’t intend to wait in queue for her turn - she pushed her palomino right in the middle of the mob, threatening to trample anyone who didn’t get out of her way. She could see curious glances shoot her way by the guards at the gate. They already recognized her. If not by her face then by the chakram at her side and the hollow vexillum held by one of her guards; the same one she looted from Caesar three years ago in the battle of Pharsalus, burned out his personal emblem and made it her own banner since then. Several heartbeats and a few fearful whispers later, the Gates guards pushed away the crowd and made a comfortable way for Xena’s party to pass through the middle, tallest arch.
Citizens of Thessaloniki could be best described as curious and confused. Curious of the great Warrior Princess, and confused because nobody seemed to know how to greet her. Cheer for her as they would for a returning general, turn their back on her as for a conquering enemy, or ignore her completely and go along with their evening as they had planned? Not knowing what to do, the Thessalonians choose all three and some other combinations. Xena could see people pretending not to see her, just to turn around in the last moment to gawk at her shamelessly, and others, cheering for her, just to run inside their homes when her eyes fell on them. She smirked when several young boys, thirteen, maybe fourteen years old, ran along the horses chanting her name; their eyes bright and smiles wide. The warlord knew in a year or two they’d be banging their fists on the garrison doors, desperate to join her troops as soon as they lost the childhood tunics in favour for the men’s one. But there were also people avoiding her, mothers shielding their children and elders looking at her from behind the corners, spitting curses against the Destroyer of Nations, full of fear and disdain. Xena didn’t mind it at all - fear, right after worship, was the easiest to control.
After crossing several streets, the squad finally got to the governor’s domus. They bypassed the main entrance at the high street and turned into the small alley, from where they entered the courtyard. It wasn’t big, the space usually used only for unpacking supplies, but there was more than enough place to accommodate the horses. At the sight of the warriors a tall, balding man, so far waiting under a roofed portico, walked to them from inside the building. His purple-rimmed toga looked immaculate as he spread his arms in greeting, but his smile was twitchy and tight lipped.
- Xena! - he exclaimed, he’s enthusiasm obviously fake - Welcome again to the humble house of Balbinus.
The warlord rolled her eyes and slid down from her horse, taking a moment to stretch her legs. Even she was tired and stiff after the ride. Her troops were doing much worse - groaning loudly and cursing as they dismounted. Soon enough the house servants appeared, bustling around and taking the reins, ready to take care of the animals.
- Gaius - Xena finally acknowledged the man, unceremoniously using his first name.
- We didn’t expect you to honour us with your presence so soon - he bowed to her, badly hiding the grimace of disgust caused by the stench of horse and human sweat - Please accept this humble invitation to enjoy our hospitality and share a meal with us.
- More like you prayed to all the gods you’d never have to seen me again - she retorted and the closest guards laughed at the remark - But lead on.
Xena petted Argo one last time and threw her reins at the nearest stable boy. But before making a move to follow the governor, she turned to give dispositions to her troops.
- Falca! I want… - she started, but didn’t have to finish her thought.
- The garrison state report. It’ll be ready right after the cena - assured the Guard’s leader.
Her short, blonde hair shook as she bowed smartly. She was even more muscular than Xena, but shorter and not as proportionally build.
- Splendid - Xena nodded and then snapped her fingers at her auditor - Frida, keep an eye on Philippa, I don’t want her wandering around. And I want the blonde to entertain us tonight.
She motioned to the girl standing a few steps to the side, next to Philippa’s horse. Falca glanced at the battered kid; the girl was staggering on her feet. The Guard leader’s scepticism as to the use of the peasant girl for entertainment was showing on her face.
- She’s a peasant. What good could she be as entertainment?
- Oh no, she’ll be perfect - laughed the brunette - She’s a bard, she’ll tell us a story.
- What kind of a story?
But Xena ignored the question, carelessly tossing her chakram at Falca instead. When the blonde guard looked up again the Warrior Princess was already walking into the domus arm in arm with clearly unnerved governor Balbinus.
The water was hot and relaxing. Three slave girls attended to her, washing her carefully and thoroughly, even cleaning her fingernails. They combed her hair, washed it and combed it again, skilfully turning a wide mane into silky tresses falling almost to her hips. It felt great to be clean again.
She could hear the laughter and voices of her guards from the other part of the baths. For a moment, before getting into her own tub, she considered joining them and bathing together in the common pool as she usually did. But this time she decided against it; she needed to give them some space to whine in peace. After such a deadly ride, it’d be understandable if they grumbled and complained about her. Annoyed and tired after the ride they deserved to slack off a bit. Still, she was positive Falca would keep the guards in check if the harmless complaining turned disrespectful.
One of the girls reached out to help the brunette out of the water.
- How about a massage, my- conqueror? - she asked, awkwardly faltering over the title.
Xena loved when people stumbled over the way they should address her. If she were a man they’d simply call her “lord”, but she wasn’t one. She also didn’t fit their definition of a lady, so most of the people she encountered had problems with how to call her, constantly unsure of the proper title they should use. Xena enjoyed it immensely.
The girl led her to the table, gracefully avoiding Xena’s dirty clothes, armor and weapons still scattered haphazardly on the floor. Xena knew the offered massage was mostly a ploy meant to allow more time for Gaius to organize the cena and invite the guests. But still, the girl’s hands felt nice on her body and the muscles stiffened after the ride begged for some attention.
The massage was long and relaxing, leaving Xena in a pleasant state of laziness. Reluctant to ruin the evening by dealing with Gaius, a part of her wished to simply grab one of the girls, or all of them, and retire to her chambers. But she knew she had a deal to strike with the governor, and that she would enjoy tormenting him as soon as she got past the initial unwillingness to get up. With that thought she rose from the table and allowed the slave girls to dress her in a simple red peplos, with golden rim as the only ornament. They also pinned up her hair and woven an olive wreath into the tresses before crisscrossing a braided golden belt around Xena’s waist and hips. A simple set of sandals finished the attire.
Outside the baths, four guards were already waiting for her. Three men and a woman who had the misfortune to draw the loosing lots which condemned them to the guard duty at the cena, while their friends relaxed. All of them wore black tunics with a decorative golden strip down the middle and short daggers at their sides. One of the men - Thero, a blond bearded giant, handed the cleaned chakram to Xena. She fastened it deftly at her side using the loose end of the belt. It was rude to appear armed at a meal, but she was considered a barbarian anyway and she loved to remind the Roman nobles she was above their customs. Besides, after all this time she felt naked without a weapon.
Gaius Caelius Balbinus was standing in the atrium, his white clothes standing out against the colorful mosaics on the walls. Engrossed in conversation with two other people, he didn’t notice Xena’s appearance immediately. The sound of her guards’ hobnailed boots against the marble floor caused him to almost jump out of his skin, but soon enough he regained his composure and turned towards the newcomers with a cold smile.
- Xena, allow me to introduce Marcus Fabius Rufus, this year’s chief magistrate of Thessaloniki.
The man in question bowed dutifully. He was in his early thirties and could hardly be called handsome, his chin too weak and his body too frail, but he was clearly a careerist, judging by the respectable position he acquired at such a young age.
- It’s a great honour to finally meet the famous Warrior Princess - in contrast to the unsettled governor, Rufus looked completely relaxed and seemed to enjoy himself - This my younger sister…
But Xena didn’t pay any attention to the girl’s name, or any other pleasantries they might wanted to exchange.
- Shall we? - she cut the man short and turned in the direction of the triclinium.
Balbinus offered her his hand and they passed by the magistrate and his sister. For a moment, the girl happened to be just in Xena’s line of sight. She looked young, maybe fourteen, pimped up and the brunette wondered if the girl was supposed to gain the favors of the governor by presenting her to his son, or maybe gain the favor of the warlord herself. Maybe both.
The triclinium was a pompous room, full of idyllic mosaics and sculptures. One wall was opened to the garden, now illuminated by carefully arranged lampions. A small platform with musicians was hidden behind the exotic flowers, the soft music never rising high enough to disrupt the guests.
All the others honoured by the invitation to the cena were already present. Gaius’ wife Alba and their daughter took the couch on the right, while Tamaios – commander of the city garrison, made himself comfortable on the left one. Xena, as the guest of honour, would take a place on the couch at the head of the table, accompanied by Gaius and his younger son Lucius – his older one being unavailable, fighting somewhere in the Roman army in the rank of a centurion.
Gaius’ wife hospitably motioned to Rufus and his sister to take places next to Tamaios as Xena allowed Gaius to lead her through the room and reclined gracefully on the head couch. Two of her guards: Damon, a long haired Greek and Sarad, a short Nubian, positioned themselves behind her back, ready if not to kill or maim, then to at least threaten anyone who would dare to defy the Warrior Princess. The other two stayed behind to guard the door.
- Xena, we’re deeply humbled by your presence - said Alba, keeping to her duties as a good matron.
The warlord barely acknowledged her with a nod, because in that moment the house servants started bringing in the food. Several dishes of diversely prepared fish – a clear nod to the guest of honor, and a roasted pheasant decorated with feathers appeared on the table, along with a number of salads and sea-food appetizers. The servants washed everyone’s hands and, after the initial wine offering to the gods, the guests started eating. Xena impatiently snatched the full plate out of Lucius’ hand. It was a good way to prevent poisoning. She knew Gaius would have to be a complete idiot to poison her in his own house and she didn’t have to worry about any real danger. But still, it was an easy way to keep people on their toes and to remind everyone she didn’t trust them.
The guests seemed comfortable enough, eating and talking lazily. The magistrate tried to engage Xena in a conversation about chariot races, but she mostly ignored him, answering only in monosyllables. After a whole day on the road she was much more interested in devouring the food from her plate. Still, he managed to catch the warlord’s attention for a short moment when he placed his palm on his sister’s thigh while staring meaningfully into Xena’s eyes. The girl, busy chatting with Gaius’s daughter and wife, barely noticed the gesture. But it confirmed Xena’s suspicions about Rufus’ intents, making her scowl and turn away. Even if the girl wasn’t straight away offered to the warlord, she was definitely made available and Xena wanted nothing to do with people who pimped out their kid sisters.
Her eyes fell on Thero, the blond giant at the door. Noticing he got his commander’s attention, he nodded slightly to let her know that the entertainment arrived. Xena smirked and clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention.
- I’ve enjoyed your hospitality so far, let me repay you in some way - she grinned ominously.
The blonde bard walked in, hesitant steps accompanied by gasps from the party guests. Her hair was pinned up to highlight the metal collar on her neck and her wrists were shackled together, the chain rattling slightly as she moved. She was dressed in a plain linen chiton, the fairness of it contrasting with the dark bruises her face and body were covered with. Somebody even made sure that the open side of the chiton would show off the nail scratches on the girl’s hip. Xena almost chuckled when the women at the table paled at the sight of the warlord’s treat. The girl glanced nervously around the triclinium, but knowing what was expected of her, she started to recite without any further prompting.
- Fierce as the dragon scaled in gold
Through the army lines she darts her glowing eye;
And pleased their order to behold,
Her gorgeous standard blazing to the sky,
Rolls onward her Assyrian car,
Directs the thunder of the war,
Bids the wing'd arrows' iron storm advance
Against the slow and cumbrous lance.
What shall withstand the torrent of her sway
When dreadful o'er the yielding shores
The impetuous tide of battle roars,
And sweeps the weak opposing mounds away?
So Corinth, with resistless might,
Rolls their unnumber'd hosts of heroes to the fight…
Xena drifted off; she knew the story. It was one of the older versions of the Battle of Corinth and the Betrayal of Borias. One of the few favourable for her. It was very poetic, but did a pretty poor job when it came to describing the facts. When, after the battle, she disappeared for a few years everyone came to believe she had died in the siege. Back then, the story ended with her and Borias fighting a last fight to the death and killing each other in the process. In that version, the Destroyer of Nations was overpowered by wounds and blood loss and then died poetically on a top of a hill as the sun set over her dead body. But when a few years later she came back to conquering, the bards realized the tale ending with her death was no longer standing in accord with the facts, so they changed it for a one where she killed Borias in the duel and then rode away on her horse into the sunset. Both versions were ridiculously poetic and equally far from the truth.
The blonde slave was still speaking, but Xena decided she’s had enough. She leaned over to the governor to speak with him in hushed tones.
- I want you to buy seven girls from me - it was a request, not a question - 600 denarii each.
- That’s a high prize - Gaius scratched his beardless chin while keeping his eyes focused on the young bard - But I’ll look at them and see what I can do…
- I need the money right now - Xena interrupted him - The girls will get here in a few days. And why would you need to look at them? I know their worth. They’re all healthy and young, four of them are still virgins. They’re from the same village as this one - she motioned to the bard.
- Are they equally battered, then? - Lucius inserted himself into the discussion, his voice ironic.
- Didn’t your mother teach you to keep quiet when adults are taking? - Xena hissed without looking at the young man.
Lucius silently gritted his teeth, knowing full well it would be unwise to confront the unpredictable and dangerous conqueror about an off-hand insult. His father simply ignored both comments and continued with the conversation as if nothing happened.
- Xena, you surely do understand I can’t pay that much for the merchandise I didn’t see… How about 3000 denarii for all of them and we’ll call it a deal?
-Need I remind you that your eldest daughter is in Stobi right now? Warming Marcus’ bed in my absence - Xena smiled sweetly - They even have a son, nice kid, just turned three. I heard they called him Gaius, after his grandpa… It’d be a shame if something happened to him - she stroked the edge of her chakram.
Gaius paled and his wife gasped. This time Lucius refused to ignore the offense. He jumped up and tried to attack Xena from behind, but Sarad was quicker – she slammed the man’s head against the table and held him there. She was small and unobtrusive, but over the years she flourished into a deadly warrior; Lucius could only growl in pain and fruitless anger. Suddenly the room grew quiet and the warlord let a triumphant smile surface on her lips. She looked around the party guests and the terrified bard in the middle of the room, to finally arch her eyebrow as she looked expectantly at Gaius.
- Of course, Xena. 4200 denarii for all the girls - he agreed in a slightly shaky voice.
- Make it 4500.
The only thing the governor could do was to nod grudgingly. Xena was pleased with herself. She stood up gracefully and turned to walk away.
- Everyone enjoy the rest of the story, I must leave you now.
Damon and Sarad followed after Xena, while the other two guards stayed at the triclinium doors to keep an eye on the bard. The warlord walked to the eastern part of the domus and finally stopped before her chambers.
- Do you want us to bring you the girl when she’s finished? - asked Damon.
Xena considered for a moment, but decided she was not in the mood anymore.
- No, take her to the servant’s quarters and let her sleep.
The room was simple, equipped only with the necessities. The east wall opened to a balcony with a view on the courtyard. When she first requested this room Gaius was astounded – he had much better chambers already prepared for her. But the Warrior Princess refused the offer, preferring a secluded place that would allow her to keep her Guard near and enable a quick departure if needed. A chamber lost somewhere in the labyrinth of rooms in the governor’s palace would never suit her purposes.
Xena closed the door with a sigh and turned to Frida who was waiting for her. She was sitting on the bed with her legs tucked under herself and doing the last touch ups on the sword; other weapons and armor already cleaned, polished and neatly hung on the rack. Her still damp hair looked more auburn than red in the dim light of oil lamps.
- How was the cena? - asked adiutor with a smirk - Was the bard’s attire to your liking?
She got up from the bed and put the freshly sharpened sword on the rack. Xena turned towards a bronze mirror on one of the walls to wrench the leaves from her hair.
- Mostly - she agreed while tousling her hair - But nobody fainted so there’s still room for improvement.
A moment later there was a knock on the door and Frida jumped right up, opening the door with a smile and letting Falca in. The Guard leader walked to the table and plopped down on the closest chair. The V-shaped brand burned on her right cheek, a keepsake from her gladiatrix days, was especially prominent as the lamp illuminated her face. The burn was adorned with two cut scars which stretched to her jaw. All together it formed a slightly crooked X.
Xena joined her at the table as Frida poured wine for both of them. They sipped slowly while Falca delivered a vary detailed and very boring report about the state of the garrison. She finished by asking Xena if she’s going to check everything for herself tomorrow.
- No, I trust your judgement. Besides, we leave tomorrow, I won’t have time for that.
- Well, all the better - Falca downed her cup - I hate those pissy maggots.
Xena chuckled and snapped her fingers at Frida. The adiutor understood the gesture and immediately brought several maps to put on the table. She rearranged the lamps as The Warrior Princess leaned over to pin the parchment with the half-empty cups.
- Go fetch Kaisar and Iason - she ordered - Then you’re free to stay downstairs, eat something and relax.
Frida nodded happily and ran to the balcony, jumping over the rail to the courtyard below where the guard’s quarters were.
- She grew up so fast… - Falca sighed as she looked after the girl.
- Don’t worry - Xena sipped some wine straight from the jug - Deep down she’s still a kid.
Falca laughed at that.
- You say that only because you’re scared Solan will catch up with her too soon.
Xena made a noncommittal grunt, but the summoned men were already walking through the door, saving her from having to admit she’s a sentimental fool.
- We’re going to Rome to kill Caesar - she announced instead.
Her advisors looked between themselves, more than sceptical to the idea. But they spent enough time in Xena’s service to know that she was more than capable of getting exactly what she wanted, no matter the circumstances.
- Rome? Hmm… - Iason leaned over the map and started thinking aloud - Gathering an army big enough will certainly take some time. And we have only 80 ships in Piraeus, but well… The Warrior Princess has many skills. If we plan carefully and everything goes smoothly… I say, we can be ready for next spring.
Xena smirked at the misunderstanding and shook her head.
- I didn’t mean an open invasion. I meant assassination. Only we - she gestured around them - and those jerks downstairs.
- Well… That certainly has bigger potential - deadpanned Kaisar.
Xena sent a glare his way.
- So, what’s the plan? - he retreated.
- Nothing too clear yet. But it’s almost twenty days travel to Rome, so I’m certain I’ll be able to think about something - she said smugly.
They talked some more, but soon Xena sent everyone away. The second night watch was just coming to an end and they all needed rest. She instructed them to let everyone know what they managed to establish so far, but at the same time they were to keep their goal a secret from anyone not belonging to Xena’s party.
After sending them on their way she sat down behind the table to write dispositions for Marcus. He already took over most of the bureaucratic affairs, so her prolonged absence wouldn’t disrupt anything. Still, she had to let him know where she was going, if only to stop him from sending a search party after her. If she wanted to keep her little trip a secret, Marcus had to take actions to make everyone think she’s safely back in Stobi. Tomorrow a messenger would take the letter to Marcus, along with their horses and her vexillum.
She contemplated taking off her peplos and going to sleep, but in the same moment she heard a knock on the door.
- Enter - she allowed and turned around to see who decided to disrupt her so late at night.
It was Solan. He wore a black guard’s tunic, probably Frida’s, and a dagger at his side. With his sandals so clean they were almost shining and hair braided down he looked as soldier-like as possible. She looked at him expectantly even if she knew what he came for.
- I ask to be allowed to travel with you to Rome - he confirmed her suspicions.
- And why should I agree to that?
- I’m the best cadet in my squad and my fighting skills exceed the abilities of anyone my age. Even compared to your Guard I’m proficient with a sling and more than proficient with a dagger. And as I proved in the last days, I can act as an excellent spy - his mouth corner twitched slightly as he tried to supress a smile.
Xena sighed and glared at him, wiping any traces of humour from his face. She circled the table and leaned her hip against it.
- You do realize that, sans the spy thing, you listed exactly the same set of skills you used to convince me to take you to Draco’s camp?
- It was nine days ago! I didn’t have time to learn any new things - the kid protested, his voice a little too loud. But he caught himself quickly - Please, I’ll do anything. I could even be your servant…
- I already have a servant. Several, in fact - stated Xena, knowing very well it wouldn’t be enough to discourage the boy.
Solan hesitated barely for a moment.
- I could be Frida’s servant - he offered with a determined expression.
- Hmm… There’s an idea - Xena pretended to think it over.
Maybe she was getting soft, but she really did like the boy and didn’t want to part with him just yet.
- You’ll start immediately - she announced - I’m sure Frida is waiting to have her tunic returned and she’ll most likely have some chores for you. If she’s content with you by tomorrow morning, then you can come with us.
- Thank you, Xena! - he grinned widely and made a move like he wanted to hug her, but stopped himself just in time.
Xena nodded and shooed him away. She poured herself more wine, a last cup before going to bed. But it wasn’t meant to be.
- Nice lad, he is.
The Warrior Princess felt the annoying presence of the God of War even before he showed up. She supressed the reflex to spin around and face him. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of showing how uneasy he made her feel.
- Him? - she snarled and gulped her wine - He’s just a precaution in case Frida doesn’t live up to the expectations.
Ares walked closer to her. She felt his hands stroking her hips and his hot breath on the back of her neck.
- You look stunning…
She willed herself to stay still, seemingly indifferent to his advances. In reality, every part of her being was screaming for her to run.
- What? - he continued - No kiss for daddy?
- You’re not my father - she gritted her teeth.
- Sure, dear, keep telling yourself that.
She rolled her eyes and moved away from his touch.
- Just because you fucked my mother doesn’t mean you’re my father. She’s a tavern owner. If every man who slept with her insisted on calling himself my father I’d have thousands of those.
- That’s not a nice thing to say about one’s mother.
He was right, it wasn’t nice. Nor was it true. Of course, her mother wasn’t considered virtuous. There were obvious reasons - tavern keeping wasn’t a respectable job for a woman. And of course, she had the first child without being married, then, when she did marry, it was to a foreign soldier who spent more time away at war than at home, just to finally abandon them altogether. But even considering all that, her mother definitely hadn’t slept with more than several guys.
- What do you want? - Xena asked finally.
- I heard you’re going to Rome… A very stupid idea, I may say.
She only scoffed in response.
- Now, Xena, hear me out - he inched towards her - With me on your side you could mold the world anew. I could provide you with the best warriors the world ever heard of. Resurrect the old heroes... Achilles, Hector, even Alexander. You wouldn’t have to sneak into Rome like a pitiful assassin. You could ride right into the Eternal City on the head of the greatest army the world ever heard of…
- I already have such an army - Xena remarked from above her cup.
- Really, Xena? For how long? - Ares circled around her, his hand roaming over her body - With you away on some spiteful vengeance trip how long will it take for your trusted generals to turn towards their own profits?
- Are you trying to threaten me? - she shook his hand off and smiled - Just because you gave me a shiny orb doesn’t mean you get to tell me how to live my life.
A spasm went through his face and he slammed her forward against the table, pinning her down.
- Oh Xena, it means exactly that.
She winced at the sound of her peplos being ripped, and when he rammed himself into her she had to bite her lip to the point of drawing blood to keep herself from screaming out. Of course she tried to fight him, struggling against his hold, but even she couldn’t fight off a God of War. Maybe in a fair fight and with their swords drawn she would stand a chance. But with her face pressed into the table and her wrists twisted painfully, she was powerless. She hated herself for being so focused at supressing her body’s reactions just to appear relaxed in front of him. Then again, conceit was always her greatest flaw. She gritted her teeth and cursed at herself for how quickly she grew wet for him, but at the same time she knew it was a simple bodily reaction and at least it helped to make the whole ordeal less painful.
- Don’t think we’re over - he grunted as he finally pulled out.
After that he disappeared, leaving Xena still sprawled on the table, her clothes torn. She lied there for a few moments before she managed to collect herself. Cutting off all the thoughts she threw the ruined peplos into the hearth, washed herself in the small basin at the stool in the corner of the room and dragged herself to bed.
And if in the morning somebody noticed her bruised cheek they didn’t dare to say a word.