Title: A Hopeful Bard (11/?)

Author: Maggiemerc

Rating: R

Characters/Pairing: Xena/Gabrielle. Conqueror fic.

Disclaimer: Don't own them. The only profit I seek is an ego boost from good feedback.

Summary: The Conqueror (she'd really prefer you call her the Empress) meets the Playwright (a title she's totally fine with). There's some verbal sparring. Some physical sparring. Some gods. Some emperors. Maybe some ribald comedy.

Author's Note: Um…it has been eight months. That was an accident! I guess I just hit a MASSIVE bit of writer's block. I'll try to be better with future chapters.

Chapter Eleven

"You can't be serious!"

Why did they always have to ask that? Was she not the Empress? Was her word—were her decisions—not law? She could point at a person and they'd be dead. She waged wars and built cities with her hands. Every decision she made was full of consequences the men and women at the table around her could barely fathom. So why then did they insist on asking idiotic questions.

"I never joke," she growled. As it was either growling or taking the man's head off. As Xena didn't want to be remembered as the monstrous she-bitch of Greece she had to growl. Apparently the decapitations did nothing for one's reputation.

Down the table the playwright raised an eyebrow. They both knew full well Xena joked. The playwright had born witness to quite a bit of joking before she ripped Xena's heart out and send her into a spiral of guilt and alcohol that had left her with a constant headache for weeks.

But the rest of the table didn't need to know that.

"Rome has been begging to meet with me ever since Caesar offed the rest of the Triumvirate."

"Because he wants to kill you." That was Athens. Always saying what no one needed to hear.

"So let him try. Then we can all watch as Rome rebels on its 'emperor.' I'll even take bets on which state tries to secede first."

"You really think his grasp is so tenuous?" That was Gabrielle. Speaking up for the first time since they'd seen each other that morning. The playwright was radiant in a pale blue dress with gold thread fringe and the talk of Rome had only made her…more so.

The former slave eager for revenge against her masters.

"I think the Roman legions are the only thing holding that country together."

"But inciting them to rebel? Can we really afford that sort of trouble on our border?"

And Xena thought the playwright would be hopping at the chance for war with Rome. She'd read her plays and watched her speak. She'd even seen the faint scars left by the touch of a master's whip.

"As everyone at this table well knows, this empire thrives on war. Invasions keep you all pickled in wine and olives. It tars the ships, paves the roads and pays the servants you'd otherwise be without. We cannot only afford it. We have to have it."

"Thousands will die," said the playwright. "What? So the people at this table can grow fat? So you can pay a smithy to expand your armor? We should be focusing on the empire now. Not looking for trouble in Rome."

"The empire is at peace."

"Rome has roads that extend from the heart of the empire to Britannia. We don't even have paved roads from here to Apollonia. His army has a shorter distance to travel and better roads to travel on. His navy is centered in the Mediterranean and won't have to travel all the way around Africa to reach us here."

Xena grinned. She'd anticipated that. Her navy was spread clear across the globe. More than half floated in the seas of Indus and Chin. Getting them around Africa and back home would take years. At least that is what most assumed.

"Well it's a good thing I have Darius and Cleopatra isn't it."

Every governor in the room tilted their head in confusion. Down the table Gabrielle's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "What have you planned," she asked—clearly forgetting her place as a lowly governor.

"Darius suggested the idea and Cleopatra agreed. Egypt and Persia have built me a canal. From the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. My Indus and Chin navies can be here in a matter of months—not years."

The clamor went up around the table as the governors allowed their shock to overwhelm them and their mouths. They shouted and cried and praised Xena's cleverness. All but Gabrielle. She leaned back in her chair with a sullen pout on her fair pink lips. When Xena caught her eye Gabrielle nodded—admitting defeat.

The rest of the meeting was spent planning a consolidation of forces. Working out the comings and goings of militias and supply trains, anticipating uprisings in Thrace where the centaurs and Amazons still roamed, and praising Xena's ingenuity. By the end Xena wasn't sure what had made her rear more sore, hours in her little throne or all the ass kissing.

Finally the governors were dismissed and Xena returned to her own rooms to prepare for a long and tedious dinner.

Soon the whisper of silk against skin caught her ear.

"You take liberties coming in here uninvited," she said.

"I came to see if I could talk you out of war."

Xena turned and found Gabrielle, changed now into a dress of dark blue silk dotted with precious stones. Her hair was piled up on her head giving the illusion of a longer neck. The light of the braziers in the room glowed tantalizingly on the expanse of skin Xena saw and her mouth involuntarily watered.

"You came to manipulate me."

Gabrielle shook her head, "To ask that you see reason."

"I have."

"Rome is powerful. Caesar? Anthony? Brutus? Those are not men who will play at war. At least one of them hates you dearly. If you start something he will see it finished."

"So I should let them haunt our borders. Let them continue to enslave innocents for arena games and easy field work?"

"Don't act like you're doing this out of compassion. You're no great emancipator."

"I ended slavery throughout half the known world."

"And shed a great deal of blood in the process. You're doing this because you're bored and we both know it."

No one had ever accused Xena of that before. Waging war out of boredom. It had always been understood that as a conqueror it is her nature to conquer. Just as bakers make bread and fishermen troll the sea with nets.

While she might have confessed, privately and to herself, that she often waged war because she had nothing better to do it is wholly different when Gabrielle accused her. From the Playwright's lips it was an accusation. It was ugly and mean and bared Xena's dark soul for all to see.

So she shifted the conversation.

"This is about Eli isn't it?"

The Playwright sighed, "This isn't about Eli."

"He was a pacifist. It makes sense that his acolytes would be too."

"I wasn't his acolyte."

Xena raised an eyebrow.

"I was his friend. An acolyte suggests—"

"Devotion."

"You're making me sound like a religious creep. Like one of those Vestal Virgins or Ares's warlords."

"You loved him. Followed him. Were devoted to him. Don't be ashamed of it."

"I did love him. Will always love him. But I'm here now because of you."

Xena stepped into the other woman's space—close enough to smell her perfume and see fine blond hairs on her neck. "You want to stop me?"

She was looking down at Gabrielle and Gabrielle was looking up. It would be so easy to bend her neck. To stoop just a bit. A little shift and she'd have those lips on her own. Her eyes darted to Gabrielle's. She was answering Xena's question.

"Yes," she said. Her voice little more than a lover's whisper.

"I leave for Rome in a week. To break bread and start or stop this war. Come with me."

Her eyes were pained now and she stepped away, a gust of cool air parting them. "That's—"

"A simple request Gabrielle."

"You know my feelings for Rome."

"I do. But I also know how strong the streak of pacifism is that runs through you veins. So prove it and come with me. Stop a war."

Gabrielle laughed, "You're cruel."

Xena had her and a dark smile crept up across her lips, "I never said otherwise."

#

Some good came out of Gabrielle's trip to Corinth. Not a great deal, but some. Her play was a success and statesmen, merchants and the intellectual elite all clamored around to tell her how fine it was. Even Xena took a moment in her busy schedule of brow beating governors to come see it. Afterwards she'd pulled Gabrielle aside and said, "It was a good play."

"I know. I wrote it."

"And do you believe it? What you wrote? That love is transformative?"

She'd seemed so eager to hear Gabrielle's response. Her eyes had been wide open, curious and childlike.

"I believe in the love I have for my daughter. It changed me."

That had not been the right answer because Xena's features had darkened, "Not all of us can be saved by the squalling cry of a child."

That had been the end of the good part of the trip.

The rest of it was spent planning Xena's war. Gabrielle knew she had to go with her. As soon as Xena had asked she'd felt the tug of destiny calling her to answer. She did not want to go. In fact she was certain that her presence there would only hasten the onset of war, but she had to. Had to be with Xena. Had to make her see reason.

There would be opportunities. They'd stop in Apollonia on their way and perhaps with Eve's help she'd be able to convince the other woman to stay. Grow old and fat and happy in Greece. And then there would be the ship. While she didn't relish the idea of spending days on a ship making her way to Rome it would give her more time alone with the Empress.

She could do it. She could stop a war.

She just had to make sure the leaders of Rome didn't see her. Because then…then the war would begin and nothing she could do would stop it.

####

Eve was waiting with that cow Sappho as the ship docked. Her bright blue eyes watched every motion of the sails and the ropes and the men who man them both. When she saw Xena she waved and grasped Sappho's arm. The other woman's dark eyes caught Xena's. Her brow furrowed and her lips started to purse but she caught herself at the very last moment and instead offered Xena a smile.

A snake was what that woman was. Some cross between a snake and a cow. And only the ugly and oily and deadly parts of both.

Gabrielle's heavy footsteps on the deck drew Xena's attention away and she watched as the smaller woman lumbered towards her. The green shade of her skin had lessened a little with land in sight, but not enough.

"Feeling all right?"

Gabrielle had started vomiting almost as soon as they'd set sail and hadn't stopped since. Her look was as sour as her breath. "Who ever invented boats should be crucified."

Xena raised an eyebrow but Gabrielle was too miserable to notice. She leaned against the side and tried to wave feebly at her daughter.

"I think I've left half my body in the Mediterranean. And not even the good parts. Just the inside bits nobody ever wants to write songs about."

"I sing today of Gabrielle of Apollonia—"

"And her stomach," Gabrielle continued, "Where many fish were laid to rest and many more resurrected."

With that Gabrielle suddenly lurched over the side and dry heaved. Thankfully there was nothing left or the men mooring the boat would have been very upset.

Xena, in a moment of ill advised pity reached for Gabrielle's arm.

"Here," she offered, "let me show you something."

The arm beneath her fingertips was surprising firm with a coiled strength just beneath the skin, but Gabrielle didn't flinch from Xena's touch. She watched her. Watch as Xena's fingers found the pressure point another woman had taught her once. She pressed down and Gabrielle hissed in pain. Then stopped.

"What—"

"Is it helping?"

The governor was too busy looking at her forearm to answer. Her fingers, stained with ink, stroked the skin. "How did you do that?"

"Pressure points."

"And you waited until we made it to Apollonia to show me?"

"There are…side effects."

She'd once seen a man find live squid appetizing when he was using the pressure point trick.

Gabrielle traced the spot, reddened from Xena's blow, with her thumb, then pressed down hard and groaned loudly in relief. Some of the sailors on deck looked up at the noise and a young one nearest them blushed bright red.

"Careful Gabrielle, you're giving all these sailors ideas."

Gabrielle's eyes shot open. She made eye contact with one particularly leery sailor and smiled nervously. She held up her arm and stabbed at the pressure point. "Just some, uh, sea sickness relief."

One sailor licked his lips. His eyes wandered from Gabrielle to Xena's scowling face. His lips clamped shut and he immediately returned to his work.

####

Sappho swept Gabrielle up into her arms like an old lover and didn't care who on the docks saw it. Which, normally, wasn't too terrible. Gabrielle was loved by the people she governed and wealthy and powerful enough to be…eccentric. But usually the empress whose affection she'd scorned wasn't standing right behind her with a face so stony it might have been crafted from marble.

She gently pulled away from Sappho and reached down to pull her daughter into her arms. She twirled her and Eve squealed in delight. "How many guards did you get to quit while I was away."

"Only two," Eve confessed. She'd also lost another tooth it gave her a roughshod appearance that her mother found adorable. "And one of them said he was quitting anyways."

Behind them Xena watched the exchange then observed dryly, "You made two guards quit?"

Eve nodded eagerly. "One time I got five!" She held up her hand as proof.

"She put laxatives from Diomedes' stores in their stew."

"They called me words I'm not allowed to say," she said almost somberly.

They hadn't been the only one. Though Gabrielle had managed to keep her tirade in her head. Eve, when she so desired, could be an abomination. Not as bad as some children Gabrielle had had the misfortune to know. Eve wasn't evil. She was just…prone to amorality. And mischief.

She looked up at Xena. No wonder she and Eve got on so well. They were very much alike.

Once they were back in the palace Sappho cornered Gabrielle in her bedroom. "You and Xena are on friendly terms."

"I'm trying to stop the woman from starting a war. I can hardly be on anything but."

Sappho frowned and took a seat on the chaise near the fire. "You really think she means to wage war with Rome?"

"I think she's been planning it since she conquered her first city state. She has a singular focus Sappho. She's driven."

Her lover's eyes were soft in the firelight, "Like you were once," she said quietly.

Long before. She liked to think it was Sappho or Eli that had tempered the fury and soothed the pain she'd carried for so long, but it was only when she'd found Eve that Gabrielle had finally given up the ghost of revenge against all those who had harmed her.

"If I can stop her—"

Sappho nodded, "I know. I understand." She held out a hand in invitation and Gabrielle took it and sat on the edge of the chaise. Sappho's hands were smoother than Gabrielle's. Not as stained. Her privilege was there in the absence of lines and callouses indicating a life lived very different from Gabrielle's. "But this is Rome Gabrielle, and the only person who may hate it more than Xena is you."

She pulled her hand away. "You think I'll do something stupid."

She shook her head, the curls of brown hair almost auburn in the firelight, "No. I think you'll go there with the hopes of stopping a war. I think it will end badly though. You hate Rome and it hates you. And I worry," she reached up to cup Gabrielle's cheek, "that death will be your only companion there."

"I won't die." It was a promise whispered.

Sappho frowned, "Perhaps the body will survive. But what of the soul?"