Phantasia
By Taiko

DISCLAIMERS: Part 1

I would like to thank Ambrosia for writing this story with me. She's currently working on a new uber story and has asked if I would finish Phantasia on my own. I agreed to give it a shot. So, beginning here in Part 5, I am the sole writer, for better or for worse. ;)
- Amb, don't be surprised if you get an email or 2 asking for advice. ;)
- The section in Part 5 with Gallus and Ria was originally written, by Amb, for Part 4. I edited it and used it here. :)
Thanks Amb!
~Taiko

FEEDBACK: Please send me a note and let me know what you think. xgfan1@aol.com

Part 5

It was a beautiful morning. Marcus stood on the balcony of his bedchamber and watched the picture on the ground below. The young prince was running and giggling, being chased around the garden by his mother. It didn’t take the woman long to catch the boy and scoop him up into her arms, both laughing and thoroughly enjoying this playtime together.

It was a pleasant sight. The man thought how it almost looked natural. In another place, at another time, it would be natural; here on the Conqueror’s palace grounds, it was odd. Marcus could not remember a time when children played here.

"Something interesting out there?"

Marcus turned at the sudden sound of the Conqueror’s voice.

"Simply enjoying the morning," the man replied.

Xena grinned and stepped out onto the balcony. The sound of laughter caught her attention, and she looked out to the garden, spying mother and child. For the briefest moment a smile appeared on the tall woman’s face. Then just as quickly it disappeared.

"I’m getting soft." Xena didn’t realize she had said it out loud until Marcus answered, "You? Never." The smile on his face suggested that he was being sarcastic, not something to be done lightly to the Destroyer of Nations. But this was Marcus, and the history they shared lead to some latitude.

"Are you mocking me?" There was a glint in the woman’s eye.

Marcus stood facing her. "I do not mean any disrespect, Xena." The Conqueror waited to see if he would say more of what he was feeling. Few spoke their mind to the woman for fear of losing life and limb, and rightly so, but there were a few who were not only allowed but expected to speak their mind to her. They had earned her respect and shown their loyalty. Marcus was one of those individuals.

With a nod and a smirk the woman turned once again to the scene below. "I keep giving liberties to this woman." Xena turned back and entered the room. Knowing there was more to be said, Marcus followed her. Stopping at the table, she poured a glass of wine and took a sip. The man remained quiet.

The Conqueror turned and faced the dark commander. "You brought the woman a quill and parchment the other day." This was not a question but a statement of fact.

"Yes, Conqueror," he responded.

"She wrote up a treaty," she plainly stated, turning back to the pitcher. "A treaty between Phantasia and all the lands under my rule." Taking another swig of wine, the Ruler of the Known World stepped back out on the balcony.

"A pitiful little island that I could take in my sleep, and she has the audacity to offer a treaty." Her voice sounded incredulous, and she shook her head, never turning as Marcus walked up beside her.

"She is a strong woman and a fine ruler."

Xena’s head turned, staring at the man. "You like her?"

Never taking his eyes off the blonde woman below he replied, "I respect her. She has been faced with not only the prospect of war and her death, but also the death of her son. She bears the weight on her shoulders well." With this he turned and faced Xena, "Wouldn’t you agree?"

The Conqueror turned from him and once again watched mother and son. Her answer came a moment later. It was almost a whisper, but Marcus heard it. "Yes, very much so."

*********

The little boy rested his head on his mother’s shoulder and slept peacefully as he was carried inside the palace. Their guard opened the door to the prince's room, holding it for them. Gabrielle gently placed the child down on the bed, removed his sandals, and tucked him in, giving him a kiss on his forehead.  For a moment, she simply stood and watched over him.

The day had been wonderful, more than she ever would have dreamed since this whole ordeal began. The queen was afraid she had gone too far with the treaty and couldn’t hide her shock and disbelief when Marcus came to get her early this morning. She had been told that she would be spending the day with her son. Although she was curious as to why, she did not question the man.

Periodically throughout the day her thoughts wandered to the Conqueror, wondering why the Ruler would allow her and Orion a day together. Gabrielle considered that this day was destined to be their last, but something happened that made her consider the possibility that she was actually getting through to the Destroyer of Nations.

Gabrielle and Orion were playing in the garden and at one point she happened to look up, catching sight of Xena and Marcus on a balcony above. For the briefest moment the queen saw a genuine smile on the Conqueror’s face. The hard features of the Destroyer of Nations softened in that moment, and the young queen saw the woman under the mask. For the first time, she felt that there was hope. Hope for her son, her people, and hope for this woman whom the entire Known World feared.

“She is a woman, a human being. Maybe I can help her to see that death and violence are not the answer,” the queen whispered to her sleeping son. Her hand brushed the boy's blonde locks from his eye. A guard entered and Gabrielle knew it was time to go. She turned and walked to the guard who ushered her out to the hall. Gabrielle was surprised to see Marcus standing there.

“Good evening, Your Majesty.” The tall, dark man bowed his head slightly.

“Good evening, Commander.”

“I hope your day was pleasant.”

“Yes.”

“Good.” Marcus smiled at the queen and nodded to the guard to proceed.

The guard lead the queen back through the corridors to her cell.

**********

Gallus was sitting on Orion's bed, holding the little boy's first doll in his hand. The older man suddenly smiled as he remembered when the prince used to chew on the doll when he was teething. He was the most adorable sight. Moments later, tears of pain and longing stung the general's eyes, as his throat tightened. Gallus swallowed, trying to hold it all in, but a tear chose that moment to escape down his unshaven cheek. Gallus covered his eyes with his right hand as he held the doll in his left.

The man felt a hand give his shoulder a light squeeze. Wiping at his eyes quickly, the man looked up to see a young boy of around twelve or thirteen gazing down at him with a sympathetic expression.

"Are you alright, sir?" the boy politely asked in a voice on the brink of adulthood. He took his hand away letting it fall at his side as he looked at Gallus with concern plainly written on his young face.

Gallus nodded. "Yes, I'm fine, lad. Did you bring the scroll?"

The boy nodded mutely as he handed the rolled up scroll to the general. Every two weeks he brought scrolls with the latest news to Queen Gabrielle's palace. He was the Royal Messenger, and took his job very seriously.

"Thank you, lad," Gallus said as he reached into a pouch and took out a few dinars. He handed them to the boy. The messenger smiled as he noticed the grand tip that Gallus gave him. He put the money in a small sack hooked onto his belt and nodded at Gallus before turning to leave. Changing his mind, the long-haired boy regarded the man still sitting on the bed made for a child.

Feeling eyes upon him, Gallus looked up. "Is something wrong?" he asked.

The boy shifted from foot to foot as he hooked his thumbs into the straps attached to the pack that he carried on his back, which contained all of the scrolls that he had to yet to deliver. "I...I heard that the Queen went after her son to bring him back."

Gallus nodded slowly. "That is right. She did." He wondered where the young messenger was heading with this.

The boy licked his upper lip quickly, evidently nervous. "Queen Gabrielle will bring Orion home safely, sir," he stated with much conviction. "Everything will work out fine. Just fine."

The general smiled at the lad as he reached a hand out to him. The boy shook his hand with a tight grip, before letting go. "Thank you, lad."

The boy nodded as Ria came in, softly asking if she could speak with Gallus privately. Offering them a respectful smile, the messenger left the room. As soon as the door closed, Gallus arose from the bed and walked over to Ria. Wrapping his arms around her, he surprised them both with the display of affection. The woman's shoulders began to tremble slightly as she sobbed, her tears falling on the general's shirt. Quietly, the man continued to hold her until minutes later the woman was able to get herself together, apologizing quickly.

"Ria," Gallus started, "there is no reason to apologize." He lifted her chin so that he could look into her eyes. "You're not the first and you will most certainly not be the last person to need comfort." He then led her over to the bed, and they both sat down. Gallus then noticed that he was holding Ria's hand, but found that he did not want to let go, so he didn't. Instead he gave the woman's hand a small squeeze, causing Ria to smile at him.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" She asked so softly that he barely heard the question.

"Why would I not be nice to you?"

Ria fell silent for a few moments before replying, "It is my fault that all of this has happened. I should have been more responsible," she finished, looking at Gallus.

"Do not blame yourself, Ria. There was no reason to suspect trouble."

"But this is the prince that--"

"Stop,” Gallus stated, cutting the woman off. “You cannot keep blaming yourself. The Queen doesn’t blame you and neither do I.”

Softly sighing, Ria shook her head and smiled.

Smiling tenderly at this woman that he had always had a soft spot for, Gallus gave Ria's hand another squeeze. "Well then. We must have complete faith that the Queen will bring Orion home safe and sound."

Ria nodded in agreement as she smiled at the general gratefully. He was one of the kindest men that she had ever met. "I do have faith in our queen."

****************

Dawn was appearing over the horizon as the Conqueror sat at her desk, already hard at work. Xena was always an early riser, waking before the sun. She read through the newest scroll by candlelight, and then set it aside. Rubbing her eyes, the Conqueror stood and walked over to the window. She quietly watched the sunrise and sighed. This was her time. Ruling the Known World meant that she was constantly dealing with subordinates, making decisions, punishing criminals... But now, in the early morning, she was left alone with her thoughts. Now she wasn't the Conqueror, she was simply Xena. Lately she found that she treasured these times.

After gaining everything she ever thought she wanted, the Conqueror found that her life held little meaning. She had raised an army and conquered all the lands from Greece to Rome to Chin, leaving a trail of death, blood and destruction. Too much blood, the Conqueror thought. No matter how she tried there was no way to remove the blood from her hands. It was strange to think that the Destroyer of Nations would care how much blood and death were on her hands. Yet here she was, watching the sunrise and reevaluating her life. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, the woman chastised herself. Why do I care about blood spilt and lives taken? I am the Conqueror, Ruler of these lands. I am feared by the people and revered by my soldiers. No one dares question me. My word is law.

My word is law. Her thoughts turned to the young queen who slept in her dungeon, and to the little boy across the hall. Xena could not figure out where these feelings were coming from. Mother and son should be dead by now and Phantasia hers. She ignores my threats and has the gall to propose a treaty. Yet I allow her to live. The Conqueror grinned. You’re getting soft, Xena. A vision of the boy appeared in her mind, and the words that had come to haunt her night and day echoed. Why do you have to be so mean? Why indeed. To win, to rule, to conquer all who stood in her way. Why? To fill the ache in her gut that has resided there all these years. Why indeed.

A gasp from the corner of the room broke into her thoughts and made the Conqueror turn. There, in front of the now opened side door, stood the little prince with fear in his eyes. Before she realized what she was doing, Xena smiled. "Good morning," she stated, and then turned back to the window. The boy was startled. She had smiled at him. His fear slowly receded, and he cautiously walked over to the window. "Um...good morning," he replied in almost a whisper.

Xena looked down at the boy, and the image of her deceased brother, Lyceus, flashed before her. There were definite similarities between Lyceus and Orion, in both looks and personality.

"Are you supposed to be wandering around by yourself?" Xena asked, turning back to stare out at the now fully lit sky.

Orion backed up a step, fearing he had made the Conqueror angry. His mother had told him to behave while staying in the Conqueror’s palace. The prince knew he should have stayed in his room until Uncle Sal or his mother fetched him. He put on a brave face, squared his shoulders, and told the truth, "I woke up early and was bored."

Xena tried to hide her grin. Never looking at the boy, she stated, "I believe my orders were that you were to stay with Salmonious at all times." Now she looked at the child, raising her eyebrow, "Were they not?"

Orion thought hard about how he would get out of this situation. Puppy-dog eyes worked with his mother, at times, but he knew they would not work with this woman. He would have argued that she wasn't his mother, but even his mother had told him to always stay with Uncle Sal and do as he was told. "Yes, but...umm," the boy paused as his mind raced for a feasible excuse, "I'm with you, and that's even better 'cause you can watch me yourself, now, until Sal or Mama wake up. So, you see, I'm not by myself, and I didn't run away so...so, it's okay." He smiled up at the woman, confident that he'd made a good point. When she didn't return the smile, the boy frowned and lowered his head. Suddenly, Orion heard a soft chuckle and felt a hand tossing his hair. He looked up at the Conqueror, who was now grinning at him, and his smile returned. "Come on," she stated and lead the boy over to her desk.

Xena sat at her desk as Orion went to the other side. The boy was on his knees, on a chair, leaning his elbows on the edge of the desk. The desk had stacks of scrolls, a map and ink and quills on the top. No four-year-old could resist the urge to rifle through everything, to see what goodies may hide underneath. "Look, but don't touch," the Conqueror's voice boomed, startling the boy. Xena instantly regretted the tone of her voice. Why? This boy was her prisoner, a bargaining chip. Why did she care if she frightened him? The point was that she did care. Somewhere deep down, the Conqueror had no desire to see fear in this child's eyes. Nor his mother's eyes, the thought quickly came and went. A voice echoed in the back of her mind. Why do you have to be so mean?

"I didn't mean to scare you, but these things are important, and I can't have you disrupting them, understand?" Xena spoke in a much gentler tone. The boy nodded.

For the next half-hour, Xena worked at her desk while the prince amused himself in the Grand Hall, careful not to disturb the Conqueror. Orion found his attention captured by the large tapestries on the walls. Each one told a story, and the child's imagination put himself into those stories.

Xena looked up, realizing the young boy was suddenly too quiet. She spotted the prince standing in front of one of the tapestries, simply staring at it. The Conqueror got up and walked over, stopping when she was standing next to the boy. The tapestry depicted the conqueror's army defeating the Persians. In a low voice, Xena began relating the events captured on the wall. The prince looked up as the woman told her story, completely enthralled. When she finished, Xena looked down at the child standing next to her.

Prince Orion looked away, lost in a vague memory the Conqueror's story had sparked. "My father died fighting the Persians." He whispered. "I was just a little kid," the boy continued, "but I remember Mama carrying me to his bed. I didn't know he was dying but I could tell Mama had been crying and Daddy didn't look so well." The boy tried to remain brave but sobs began to wrack his small body. The Conqueror's heart melted. She picked the boy up and carried him back across the room. Orion wrapped his arms around her neck and cried into her shoulder. Xena sat in her chair, with the boy still in her arms. She began rocking back and forth, whispering soothing words in his ear. The boy’s tears subsided, but the woman continued to hold him, reassuring him.

*****************

Marcus was not thrilled with what he had to do. He had been on his way to report to the Conqueror when Salmonious ran into him. It seemed Sal had lost the prince - again. This time the difference was that the boy ran off before Sal had woken up. Marcus had the entire palace searching but there was no telling where the little four-year-old had wandered to.

The tall, dark man stood before the door to the Grand Hall. "Xena is going to have someone's head served on a platter for this," he muttered to himself. Marcus knocked on the door and waited until he heard Xena's voice granting him entry. The man entered the room and stopped. He looked behind him, as if to check if he was in the right place.

"Come in, Marcus. Close the door," he heard the Conqueror say.

The man closed the door and began walking forward, openly staring at what was before him. "Marcus, close your mouth and take a seat." The man did as he was told, a grin beginning to form on his lips. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes he would never have believed it possible. There was Xena, Destroyer Of Nations, Conqueror of the Known World, sitting at her desk, with the little four-year-old tyke on her lap, who was giggling at something the woman had whispered in the boy's ear.

The Conqueror narrowed her eyes at Marcus. "Not a word."

Marcus grinned at the conqueror. "I didn't say a thing, Xena. Not a thing"

The woman glared at him, and then chuckled. Lifting the boy off her lap and setting him down. She spoke to the prince, "Okay, young man, I want you to go with Marcus. He'll take you back to your room." Seeing that the boy was about to protest, she sternly stated, "You know the rules. I expect you to follow them."

The boy sighed. "Yes, ma'am.”

Xena smirked, then winked at the boy. Orion smiled and went over to Marcus, who was now standing, waiting to return the prince. Xena watched them walk towards the door. Before stepping out into the hall, the prince turned and waved to the Conqueror. She simply chuckled.

A few moments later Iolaus entered the Grand Hall. "I saw Marcus with the kid. I'm glad he's okay." The blonde man took a seat in front of the Conqueror. A scroll on the desk caught his eye. “May I?” he asked, indicating the scroll.

“Yes,” Xena nodded

The Conqueror watched as her second in command read. Iolaus looked up, “A treaty?”

“Yes.”

Once again the blonde head looked down and read further. Every so often his head would nod. Then it happened. He reached the pivotal part of the treaty that had angered the Conqueror when she was first presented with it. Iolaus raised his head and looked into blue eyes. “What was your response?”

“I am more interested in your thoughts, Iolaus.”

“It is well written with all the essentials that you require from any country.” The man paused and reread the passage. “You’ve never allowed a treaty unless you were given full authority with all leaders answering to you.”

“I know.” Xena continued to sit, appearing unaffected.

“Are you actually considering this?” There was a part of the man that was astounded that this woman, whom he had served for more then a dozen years, would even consider such a thing. But the other part, the part that has had enough of war and bloodshed and who had grown accustomed to the ruling, rather then conquering, dared to hope that Xena was in fact considering allowing another nation to exist, peacefully, alongside theirs.

Being the second in command of most of the Known World was a daunting task. That is, daunting for anyone except Iolaus. The man seamed to take everything in stride. Once the larger battles had been won, Iolaus had been free to oversee the running of the countries, and had taken care to see to the welfare of all under Xena’s rule. Their lands, for the most part, were thriving. It was, on the whole, a prosperous time. And it was due, in part, to this man sitting before the Conqueror.

“You think that’s weak.” It was a statement.

“No!” The blonde realized he answered a bit too quickly. “Forgive me, Xena. I simply think that it’s worth taking under consideration. We’ve had peace for a few years now.”

An eyebrow rose, “Getting used to this life, Iolaus?”

“I would follow you into battle tomorrow, Xena, you know that.” The serious tone made the woman grin and nod at the man.

“I know that, my friend.”

“We can take the island, Xena. That’s never been a question. But they will fight. They are a brave and proud people, and victory will not come quickly.”

“We’ve had their queen and heir for over a week now. Plenty of time to prepare a defense.” The Conqueror had to smirk at that. “By the gods, I am getting soft,” she chuckled.

Iolaus smirked, then grew serious, “What kind of fallout do you think we should expect?”

An important consideration, but right now Xena didn’t have the answers. Her concerns were with this woman who would forfeit the lives of her people, of her son, before accepting the Conqueror’s rule over her small island. There is something about her

The idea was preposterous to even consider... but she was considering it, wasn't she? The ruler had to sit back and digest that for a moment. Not even Lao Ma had been able to convince Xena to simply write a trade agreement. No, treaties were inevitably broken, the Conqueror had always believed. This way, she ruled, and her word was law. No middle ground. But this woman... this queen...

And the boy. Was that it? Did the child remind her so much of her loving younger brother that she was willing to consider a treaty with another country? No, it was more than the boy. Xena had grown tired of the conquering. She had been so consumed with rage and hate, for so long... it had seemed there was nothing that could stop her need for blood, for conquest, for power, and for the ultimate control over any and all in her path. She had won. Xena, Destroyer of Nations, ruled almost all of the Known World. But at what cost?

She was lonely. The Conqueror freely admitted that to herself. Xena always knew that the simple life was not in her future - no mate, no family, no children. She conquered her lovers just as surely as she conquered nations, and then disposed of them just as quickly, Marcus being one of the few exceptions. Lao Ma had taught Xena much, but even she couldn't keep the Conqueror reigned in. But now this beautiful, strong, confident queen...

“Xena?”

The Conqueror was brought out of her musing and answered Iolaus' question. “We can expect some fallout, but I would think it would be nothing that couldn’t be handled quickly and smoothly.” She looked up and saw the blonde nod. “There is much to consider. Thank you for your councel, Iolaus.”

The blonde knew that was his cue to leave. There was a lot Xena needed to contemplate. Rising to leave, the man gave the Conqueror a respectful nod and left the Great Hall.

****************
A stomach growled and the guard had difficulty hiding a grin. Ballus had been guarding the young blonde woman long enough to know that her appetite could be fierce.

Gabrielle was starving. Since she was taken prisoner, she was given the first meal of the day at a decent hour. Today, it seemed, she would be made to wait. Hearing her stomach complain, the woman looked up at Ballus and gave an embarrased smile.

The outer doors opened. A man stepped in and spoke softly to the guard. Gabrielle watched the exchange. When the man left, Ballus walked over to her cell.

"I will be escorting you to the Grand Hall," the man said as he unlocked the cell door.

"Thank you, Ballus."

The walk to the Grand Hall gave the queen an opportunity to quench her fears and gain the strength needed to face the Conqueror. Several days of being allowed to enjoy time with Orion had not made the young woman less determined, but it had made her wonder what the reasoning was behind the visits. Xena was known as a bloodthirsty monster, her only goal being to kill and conquer. However, Gabrielle's observations since being brought to the palace revealed a slightly different picture. The prince had been well taken care of both before and after the queen's arrival. The Conqueror had allowed Orion to believe that his mother was her guest and not a prisoner, a fact that would have terrified the child. Even Gabrielle's time spent in the prison cell could be considered better than expected. The guards were respectful, she was given more than decent food and she was able to spend time with her son. Then, just yesterday, she heard that the prisoner that the queen had met her first day here, who was to be executed for speaking his mind to the Conqueror, had been set free.

The queen remembered the threats and the coldness in those blue eyes. A Trap? Perhaps. Make your enemy comfortable, and then attack. That was always a possibility, but the blonde couldn't help feeling that there was more to it.

The doors opened revealing the tall woman standing in front of the desk. Ballus motioned Gabrielle forward and lead her to the Conqueror.

********

"Something is wrong!"

"Nothing is wrong."

"It's been too long!"

"Ephiny, calm down!"

The blonde Amazon was pacing back and forth in front of the dark-haired woman sitting by the fire. Their camp was several leagues outside the city and gave them the needed privacy. Days were spent in town and on the docks. Each day a disguised ship from Phantasia would come into port and anchor, waiting for its passengers. So far no one questioned it. It was simply one of a hundred ships coming and going.

"We don't know what's going on in there! I don't like it!" The woman continued her pacing.

Solare sighed and shook her head. Yes, things were taking longer than expected, but getting riled up was not helping anyone. Besides, the pacing was driving her nuts. "Ephiny! Sit!"

The blonde stopped and turned, her eyes narrowing as she stared at the woman who was giving her orders. "Please," the seated woman added. With an exhausted sigh the Captain of the Royal Guard admitted defeat and seated herself next to Solare.

"By the gods, I hope they're all right." Ephiny's voice was barely above a whisper. She felt a hand on her knee and looked over at her friend.

"They are fine, Eph. Trust Gabrielle."

A whistle was heard signaling Eponin's return. Both women stood and greeted the Amazon.

"What did you find out?" The Captain asked.

"Things seem fine, considering. The queen and Orion were spotted in the palace courtyard for two days in a row. They appeared happy and healthy." The surprise was evident in the messenger's voice.

Ephiny let the news sink in. There had to be some misunderstanding. There was no way Eponin got the message right. But what if she was correct, and Gabrielle and her son had been happily spending their days together out in the fresh air? It could be a ruse. A false sense of security. I just don't get it.

********

The Ruler of the Known World took in the sight before her, and her breath caught in her throat. There in the doorway stood the beautiful creature that had been constantly in her thoughts. Where are these feelings coming from? This is not the time... breathe, Xena, you can do this. You are in control... sure you are. Keep fooling yourself.

Gabrielle stepped into the room and walked toward the Conqueror. Her head was raised, eyes looking directly at the tall woman before her. There was no doubt, by the way she carried herself, that Gabrielle was a ruler in her own right.

Xena gestured to the table and both rulers made their way over to the corner. After being seated, the Conqueror called a servant over with a wave of her hand. The girl dutifully poured wine into each goblet, and then scurried out a side door that lead to one of several kitchens in the palace.

"I trust the time spent with your son has been pleasant?" Xena asked, raising her goblet and taking a sip of her drink.

"Yes, Conqueror, very pleasant," the queen answered, while eyeing the nutbread that was on a plate in the center of the table. There was also fruit and other breads, but the nutbread held her interest.

Ever observant, Xena motioned for the woman to help herself to what was on the table. She had to smile at the woman's passion for food, taking special note of her fondness for nutbread. The queen noticed that the Conqueror was observing her, and with a smile no less, but to her credit Gabrielle neither commented nor reacted. She simply placed a piece of nutbread in her mouth and began to savor the morsel.

A chuckle came from the Conqueror and the young queen turned and scowled, "What?" The simple question elicited a laugh from the tall woman and Gabrielle's scowl deepened.

"What may I ask, is so funny?" For a moment the queen forgot with whom she was speaking.

The laughter faded to a chuckle as Xena replied good-naturedly, "You are very interesting to watch. I've never seen someone take such pleasure from a simple bite of food."

She couldn't help it. Gabrielle grinned, and then chuckled at herself. It was true, after all, that she could get caught up in the enjoyment of nutbread. She could feel herself beginning to blush, and both women succumbed to a quiet laugh. Glancing up, she saw the most open and sincere expression on the Conqueror's face, and it took her breath away. There was an awkward silence as the two rulers simply gazed at each other.

The silence was suddenly broken by the double doors opening and Iolaus, along with three men, rushing over to the Conqueror.

"My apologies, Conqueror, but there is trouble from Rome."

Xena was immediately on her feet and moved to her desk.

"Tell me."

********

There it was laid out before her. Ships had been spotted heading towards Greece, and from the markings they were Roman. Iolaus estimated that they would hit the southern shore within 24 hours, almost certainly sending troops north to Corinth.

Xena absorbed the information before her. Brutus thinks he can defeat me. Let him try.

It was no secret that Brutus wasn't happy. In fact, the leader of Xena's Roman Empire had been showing signs of a growing thirst for power for years. The Conqueror placated the General, for he was indeed a good, organized, and talented leader. However, she was not unaware of the man's growing desires. But, to come after me this directly. Surely he knew this was a suicide mission. Xena pondered that for a moment. He would know that his ships would be spotted, tracked and destroyed, if necessary. Then I would be forced to come after him. What is he planning?

In less than an hour, the Grand Hall had become a war room. Tables were set up with maps and scrolls, and the Conqueror's top officers were gathered, discussing strategies. All the while, runners were in and out passing messages back and forth between the officers in the Grand Hall and those outside of the palace. Both heated debates and quiet discussions echoed throughout the room.

The Conqueror bent over her desk, hands resting on top, and glared at the map, tracing the possible routes with her eyes. All the while, her mind tried to piece together what her far off General was planning, and why. That's when she saw it. How could I have missed that, she swore to herself. Again she traced the route, but this time with her finger and once again it lead to the island just below Arcadia, south of Corinth. The ships were heading straight for it.

"Phantasia!"

Silence. Everything stopped as all eyes turned to the Conqueror. With a shake of her head, Xena rose to her full height, becoming aware for the first time that she had spoken out loud.

"Those ships are not heading for Greece," a pause, "They are heading for Phantasia."

A small gasp sounded from the side of the room, seemingly unheard by everyone, except Xena. The Conqueror glanced, briefly, to the table in the corner, spotting the young queen. In that briefest of moments blue eyes locked with green and a second felt like an eternity. All the fear, strength, and determination of this young woman could be seen and felt by the leader of the Known World. In that instant, Xena knew, without hesitation, she would do whatever needed to be done, to help this woman save her home.

To be continued...

 

Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse