DISCLAIMER: While this fan fic does use characters from X:WP, it also includes real people from the XenaVerse Mailing List. The premise is that all of the members of the XML live in a complex of buildings on the slopes of Mount Olympus, but Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Autolycus, and the rest of the characters from the universe of X:WP interact with them on a regular basis.


Also, I did not write this entire epic by myself, James Davis is equally to blame. But, for the sake of continuity, I have edited all of the 40 installments into 3 parts. Some minor rewriting has also been done to preserve the narrative voice throughout.


Oh, and it's rated the same as the television show: PG14 for suggestive language and mild violence.


~ Autolycus



Part One

"We Are Gathered Here Today"





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The King and Queen of Arcadia


Proudly announce the marriage of their beloved daughter


Princess Damara


to the former King of Thieves


Autolycus of Scyros


The Binding Ceremony will take place during the Matronalia



At the Groom's request, all residents of the XenaVerse are invited to attend this happy and festive occasion.


Room and board will be provided for any who attend by the gracious Groom himself as a show of good faith and to prove that he has given up his former greedy nature.



Please RSVP to King Bastian and Queen Lena of Arcadia at your earliest

convenience and join us in this happy celebration.



Autolycus looked over the sample invitation and nodded his approval. "These will do fine," he said with a smile, hugging a slender, auburn haired woman close to him. "Do you like them, darling?"


Princess Damara snuggled up to him and nodded. "They're absolutely divine...Just like you, sweetie. I can't believe we're actually going to be married in a little over three weeks. It seems like I've known you forever, even though it's only been a couple of months."


"I know exactly what you mean, dandelion," Auto agreed, stroking her hair gently. "I'm just glad we found each other and your father approved of our union."


The woman next to him shifted uncomfortably. "Um, well, father may have

approved, but you still have to pass the Adoniad," she said in a quiet voice.


Autolycus stiffened. "And just what is the Adoniad?" he asked, pulling back to look her in the eyes.


"A series of tests any suitors must pass before being allowed to marry a daughter of the Royal House of Arcadia," she blurted out.


"Tests? No one said anything about any tests. What kind of tests?" he asked, suddenly suspicious. "I don't have to be a virgin or anything like that, do I?"


"Oh, no! Nothing like that," she answered, slightly blushing when he exhaled in relief. "The Adoniad are a series of challenges which, according to ancient tradition, can only be completed by a man who is worthy to one day sit on the Arcadian throne."


"What do you know about the specifics of the tests?" he pressed.


"Not very much, I'm afraid. No one has been forced to undertake them in my lifetime," she shrugged. "But don't worry, I have faith in you, Auto. I know you'll come through them with flying colors."


The former King of Thieves scowled ever so slightly and then leaned forward and chastely kissed Damara on her forehead. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, love-cake. When do I begin these tests?" he asked.


"Soon enough," boomed a male voice from behind the pair.


"Lord Vantys, I didn't hear you come in," Auto said, carefully placing the Princess at arm's length from him.


"So I gathered," the younger man frowned, but then, turning to face the Princess, he smiled as brightly as Apollo. "I hope I didn't startle you, my lady."


"Of course not, Vantys. Perhaps you and my fiancé should discuss the Adoniad in private," she said, pausing to give Auto a kiss on the cheek, which slid over onto his mouth before she pulled away, giggling. "I'll see you later, my love, and I'll inform the royal scribe that this design is satisfactory. Good day, Lord Vantys."


Vantys bowed his head as she passed him on the way to the exit. "And to you, Princess," he replied.


"You really need to relax, loosen up a bit, you're such a stiff it's no wonder she never showed any interest in you," Autolycus observed.


"You speak out of place, Autolycus. The Princess and I barely know each other," Vantys sputtered.


"Exactly. But you can't fool me, I can see you wish it were otherwise. Of course, it hardly makes any difference now, does it, since she'll be marrying me in less than a moon? The sad thing is, even if I'd never come along and quite literally swept her off her royal slippers, she still would never have had anything to do with you. Not with that attitude," he said quickly, enjoying how the younger man's face darkened with rage. "So, what about these tests I have to take?"


Lord Vantys choked back his anger and proceeded to inform Autolycus of the Adoniad, taking secret delight in the way the former thief's cocky demeanor faded as he described each task the older man was expected to complete in order to win the hand of the Princess.


After the younger man had gone back to doing whatever he did when not spying on the former King of Thieves, Autolycus quickly wrote a note on a small piece of parchment and then made his way to the roof. There, he removed a pigeon from the pen marked XenaVerse Complex, fastened the note to its leg, and then released it.


"I just hope James is at home," he mumbled to himself as he watched the bird wing its way North.


The XenaVerse Complex


Athena's owl flew through the open window and landed on a perch that was set up there just for him. "Hey, mate! How's the bleeding head this morning?" he yelled at James, who was sitting on a couch reading the Daily Scroll.


Looking over the top of the scroll, the bard shot him a bleary, bloodshot-eyed look and said, "Oh, just fine. Makes me wish that I was dead again. Whatever possessed me to let you talk me into going to an Amazon party and get involved in a drinking contest?"


The owl just chuckled and then asked, "So, what's in this morning's scroll?"


"Usual stuff. The Amazons are announcing another party for tonight. Zeus is rumored to be having another affair with a mortal woman. That kind of thing," he told the owl, glancing down at the scroll.


The owl gave his equivalent of a human shrug by rotating his head side to side. "You need to get out for a while. Do some more traveling."


"You know that's a problem right now. We've had two bounty hunters show up here looking for Inimicles lately. And, in case you've forgotten, I am now wearing his body," James said.


"Like it would make that much difference. When you were alive the first time, you looked exactly like Inimicles anyway. You two could have been twins. I'm glad to see that you at least have a better fashion sense than he did," the owl said, looking at the clothes that James was wearing; a white shirt covered with a dark green vest and brown leather pants with brown boots. "When you first came back, I was worried that you were going to stay with that black armor of Inimicles, or go back to that Ares style clothing you were wearing before. I was happy to see you order some new clothes from the tailor, but I think you should have stayed with that mistake the delivery person first brought you," the owl said with another chuckle.


"That was woman's clothing! It looked like something Callisto would have worn!" James exclaimed.


"What's the matter? Afraid that it wouldn't have looked good on you, or afraid that it would have?" the owl laughed as it dodged the thrown scroll.


Hearing a knock at the door, James yelled at whoever it was to come in. One of the many Amazons that made their home in the XenaVerse Complex entered. She had short spiky black hair and he vaguely remembered her from the party last night.


"We got a message for you by U.P.S delivered to our place by mistake, so I brought it over," she said, looking around.


"U.P.S.?" the owl asked hopping on to the back of the couch, trying to see the message.


"Universal Pigeon Service," the Amazon woman said, handing James the small piece of parchment.


"Oh, yeah, I remember their slogan now: Your message guaranteed to be there overnight or you get to eat the pigeon," the owl said, looking at the Amazon. "Did the message get here overnight?" he asked her hopefully.


The Amazon frowned at the owl and then said, "Yes!"


"Pity!" the owl said and then hopped closer still, trying to see the message.


The Amazon turned to leave and then, stopping, she turned back. "Um, James, do you remember the party last night?"


"Just barely," he answered with a grimace.


"Well, one of my sister Amazons lost her handbook scroll last night and she was wondering if you might have seen it?"


James turned to look at the owl, at the same time he turned to look at the bard. They then both turned to look back at her. "I didn't know that Amazons had handbook scrolls," James said with surprise.


"Well, she says if she finds out who took it, she will have to kill them, so, if you see it somewhere, could you bring it over to the P&P?" the Amazon asked.


"Well, if I see it somewhere, I'll tell you where to find it, but I don't think that I will bring it around," James said with a smile.


The Amazon thought about it for a moment and then smiled herself. "Maybe that would be safer. See you tonight?"


"I haven't decided," he replied, rubbing his throbbing temples.


The Amazon laughed and walked out of the room waving her farewell.


The owl waited until she was gone and then fairly bounced with curiosity. "Who's the message from?"


"Autolycus," James answered, looking it over.


"What does the eternally wandering, rogue King of Thieves have to say?" the owl asked, trying to read the message over his shoulder.


"You're not going to believe this! He's getting married! And, he wants me to be his best man, and to look up some information for him in Athene's library before I leave," James said in an astounded voice.


"Who's he marrying? Some saucy barmaid in some backward town that doesn't know of his reputation?" the owl said derisively.


"Would you believe Princess Damara of Arcadia?" he said, showing the message to the owl.


The owl's beak moved as he read the message. "What's a 'best man'?"


"It's a fairly new tradition that started about seven years ago. The best male friend stands at the groom's side while he gets married," James explained to the owl.




"I think it's supposed to be the best man's job to make sure that the groom doesn't get a case of nerves and try to run off before the wedding or something like that," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "He says here at the end that formal wedding invitations are being sent out to everyone here at the XenaVerse Complex, but he wants me to get information about something called the Adoniad at Athene's library and bring it early."


"Do you think that the King of Thieves is really going to settle down?" the owl asked.


"I don't know, but I guess I'll find out soon enough. I better see what this Adoniad is all about and make some travel arrangements," he said, getting up off of the couch and heading for the door. "See you later, owl."


The owl flew back to the perch by the window and mused aloud to himself, "The King of Thieves settling down with a 'ball and chain'? This I have got to see!"


The royal castle in Megalopolis


Autolycus entered the throne room and saw King Bastian and Queen Lena seated on their chairs of state. Lord Vantys stood next to the King, watching the former King of Thieves carefully. "You sent for me, your highness?" Auto said, bowing low.


"I did," the King replied. He was in his late forties, with gray hairs beginning to be featured prominently in his brown beard. He had the build of a warrior, but the eyes of a weary traveler who has seen too much evil in the world to really get a good night's sleep. "I've heard some rumors about you..." he began.


"Rumors are ugly, imprecise things at best, your majesty," Autolycus said quickly. "Personally, I pay them no mind." He laughed nervously.


"Quite true, Autolycus," Queen Lena said, nodding in agreement. She was younger than her husband, but not by more than ten winters, with long hair the color of freshly tilled earth and deep brown eyes that looked as soft as the fur on a fawn. Most of the time. But Autolycus had also seen those same soft brown eyes grow cold and hard. As they were now. "Which is why we wanted to confirm these rumors with you."


"Just what rumors are we talking about?" Auto asked suspiciously as his mind raced over any of the dozens of rumors circulating about him, not to mention the countless verifiable facts which might give the King and Queen cause for concern.


"The ones regarding your association with Xena, the Warrior Princess," King Bastian said, and Auto thought he detected a slight sneer in his voice as he did so.


"We hear you're friends with her," Queen Lena added quickly.


Auto let out a sigh of relief. "Yeah, I'd say we're friends," he nodded. "We've definitely been through a lot together. Why?"


"Might she be coming to your wedding?" the Queen pressed.


"If there is a wedding," Lord Vantys mumbled just loud enough to be heard.


"I certainly hope so," Autolycus responded, ignoring the disgruntled lord's comment. "I hope that won't be a problem."


"No problem at all," King Bastian said with a smile which Auto thought seemed a bit forced. "We just wanted to know so that we could prepare a proper reception for one of Greece's most famous heroes."


Autolycus nodded, raising one eyebrow at the sight of the King's face reddening ever so slightly and his hands balling up into tightly clenched fists. "Was there anything else?" he asked.


"No, I don't think so," Queen Lena said, patting her husband's hand until it relaxed. "Thank you, dear. You may go now."


"Until dinner, then, majesty, my queen, Lord Vantys," Auto said, bowing again and then turning and striding from the room.


Once he was gone, King Bastian motioned for the guards standing by to close the doors. "You don't think he suspects, do you?" the King hissed.


Queen Lena shook her head, a cruel smile playing about her lips. "He's too worried about his own reputation sinking this match to bother about Xena's," she replied. "You were just another general during the Battle of Corinth, my dear, and our son was just another soldier. She probably wouldn't know his face if she saw it today and I'm sure his name would mean nothing to her, but I can never forget it. I still wake up with it on my lips. And the image of you returning from that awful battle, with his lifeless body cradled in your arms, is one I can never forget. And one which the Warrior Princess will pay for when she arrives for Autolycus' wedding," the Queen vowed, tears streaming from her eyes and her own hands clenched tightly into fists. "The rest of the world might think her a hero, but I can only regard her as the cause of my son's death."


"Don't worry, my dear," the King said, reaching out and gently stroking her face, wiping away the tears. "Xena will pay for that crime. If she never pays for any of her other offenses, by the Gods, I swear that she will pay for the death of our dear Demas!"


"It will be my supreme honor to see to it that the Warrior Princess is arrested and brought to justice in the memory of your beloved son," Lord Vantys said solemnly, bowing before the royal couple.


"Dear Vantys, what would we ever do without you?" Queen Lena sighed, reaching down and stroking his cheek.


"Thank you, Vantys," King Bastian said, placing his hand on the man's shoulder. "Now, you'd better keep an eye on our future son-in-law."


All three laughed as Lord Vantys nodded curtly and then left the throne room to see where the former King of Thieves had got off to.




The Queen had been right about one thing: Autolycus was so worried about his own past that he never paused to consider Xena's and, while he did think King Bastian had acted a bit off, he chalked the monarch's behavior up to reservations he had about his daughter marrying the infamous King of Thieves. So, as he made his way through the castle, heading towards the courtyard where he had left the Princess practicing her archery, his thoughts revolved around the Adoniad and his need to successfully complete it so that the wedding would take place.


"What did Mummy and Daddy want?" Damara asked, releasing an arrow.


Autolycus dove out of the way just in time to avoid being skewered, even though he was nowhere near the target. "They were just curious if Xena would be attending our wedding, sweetums," he replied, picking himself off the ground. He dusted off his clothing and then removed the arrow from the earth at his feet. "You're improving. At least you're not missing the ground anymore," he grinned, handing the arrow to her.


"Oh, you!" she huffed, playfully swatting him with the bow. "I really don't care for this sort of training at all. I'd much rather be exercising my mind. But father insists that I maintain a healthy body as well as a healthy mind." She folded her arms across her chest and puffed out her lower lip. "So, I have no choice."


"Now, honeybunch, your father is right," Auto chided, tweaking her nose. "You've got a great figure, it would be a shame to lose it because you never got any exercise. Of course, there are other ways to exercise..." he added, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.


Princess Damara laughed and lowered her eyes. "Now, dear-heart, you know I've vowed not to experience your passion's gift until after we exchange marriage vows," she blushed.


"How could I forget," Auto mumbled under his breath.


"What?" she pressed, looking up, her dark eyes flashing suspiciously.


"How could I forget such a beautiful gesture," he said quickly, giving her one of his most disarming smiles. "Uh, oh, here comes Master Dempsey, and he doesn't look happy that you've taken an unscheduled break from your lessons."


"My dear sir," the older man said icily, indicating that he considered Autolycus neither dear nor a sir, "the Princess' education in everything from music to mathematics has been placed in my capable hands. However, I cannot properly instruct her in any subject if you continue to interrupt us. Why don't you go steal something and stay out of my hair."


"I gave up stealing when I met this enchantress," Auto said, bowing and kissing Damara's hand. "As for staying out of your hair...I don't think I could fit up your nose, and that's the only hair I can see on you." As Dempsey turned an ugly shade of purple, Autolycus smiled and made his exit, blowing kisses to Damara as he went.


The XenaVerse Complex


As James walked through the garden on his way over to Athene's library, he had to pass the marble monument which had been erected in his honor from the time when he had saved Athene from Barney and Hope. The adventure that resulted in his dying the first time. It was always an extremely weird feeling walking by alive, knowing that 6 foot down lie his first body, decomposing quietly. As usual, he hurried past without looking at it.


The doors to Athene's library opened at his approach and, hearing the flapping of wings, James was not surprised as Athene's owl landed on his shoulder. Looking around, the bard could see that the library was empty.


The owl, noticing his questioning gaze, said, "Athene's not here. She's still looking for scrolls to refill her library."


"I just hope that we can find the information we need here. Where should we start looking first?" he asked the owl, deferring to his knowledge of Athene's library.


"Mating rituals and marriage customs," the owl said decisively, rotating his head to point at a series of shelves.


Quickly scanning the labels on the scrolls, James found the one marked Arcadia - Royalty - Adoniad. Taking the scroll to a table, he unrolled and started to scan it. The owl landed on the table and was reading along with him.


Test 1 - Fidelity


The owl looked at James and blinked his eyes several times. "I think Autolycus is already in trouble," he said solemnly.


"Umm, yeah," James agreed and then continued to read:


The suitor for the hand of marriage to a member of the royal family will be taken and placed into a confined area with ten members of the opposite sex for the term of no less than one day to test their devotion to the member of the royal family that they are intending to marry.


James paused and looked over what he had just read. "What the Tartarus does all that mean?" he asked out loud.


The owl, snickering slightly, said, "It means that Autolycus will be locked into a small room with ten beautiful women for an entire day to see if he can behave himself and remain true to the Princess."


"Poor Autolycus. This might cause him to have a nervous breakdown," James said, shaking his head.


Test 2 - Intelligence


There will be a series of tests in logic and reasoning composed by scholars of the court to prove that the suitor to a member of the royal family is an individual of high intelligence levels.


James looked up at the owl. "You mean Autolycus has to take a written test to prove that he is smart enough to marry the Princess?"


"I would think that wanting to get married would already prove that you're not that smart!" the owl snorted.


"Spoken like a true bachelor owl," James said with a smile as he read the next test.


Test 3 - Strength and Dexterity


A test to be determined by court to test the limits of the individual wishing to marry a member of the royal family will be performed to prove individual's abilities in strength and dexterity.


James ran his tongue thoughtfully across his teeth. "So, if I read this correctly, the King or one of his advisors will make up some kind of test that will require Autolycus to do something physically hard and for a long time to make sure he is physically good enough for the Princess?"


"Should be a breeze for Autolycus, as long as he hasn't angered any of the court and they decide to hit him with something really hard," the owl said.


"Well, then, Autolycus should be all right. The only test he'll have any problem with is the very first one and, if he truly loves the Princess, that shouldn't give him any trouble," James said with a smile. "After all, Autolycus is smart, strong and dexterous enough to pass any tests that the court may hit him with. As long, as you say, he has not angered anyone that has anything to do with picking or judging the tests."


James rolled the scroll up and placed it back on the shelf. Turning, he found himself in the travel section and, on a whim, picked up a scroll on the kingdom of Arcadia. "I'll take this with me and read up on Arcadia as I travel, that way I'll have a little knowledge of their customs and spots of interest by the time I get there."


"Hmmm, good idea. I know that Athene won't mind you borrowing a scroll for a while. When do we leave?" the owl said, flying over to land on his shoulder.


"We? I didn't see an invitation for you anywhere," James reminded him.


"It's probably coming by messenger with the rest of the invitations. Autolycus wouldn't leave me out. Besides, you don't think that I'm going to miss seeing Autolycus married, do you? The chance to tease and torment him is too great. You have to let me come!"


James allowed the owl to stew for a moment as he appeared to consider it. "Won't Athene be annoyed that you left your post guarding the library?"


"The library can take of itself. Who's going to bother it?" the owl said as he hopped from foot to foot on James' shoulder.


"Strife destroyed it once, remember?" the bard said as he made his way to the door.


"Strife is gone now for good and no one else would dare risk Athene's wrath." The owl stopped hopping around on James' shoulder and stared at him with his large eyes. "Can I please travel with you to Autolycus' marriage?"


"Okay. The trip would be lonely without someone to talk to and I know how thrilled Autolycus will be to see you when we arrive."


As the doors to the library closed behind them, Athene's owl's voice rang out: "Are you being sarcastic, mate?"


The city gates of Megalopolis


The young woman approached the city gates and adjusted her hooded cloak to shield her face from the guards who were watching travelers enter and leave the great city. Not that she was likely to have been recognized by them, never having visited the city before, but it was a habit that was hard to break. Not surprisingly, the men on watch paid her no mind at all.


Once in the city, she made her way to the royal castle and appraised how difficult it would be to get in. To her amazement, and if there were no hidden traps or devices she'd missed, it would be laughably easy for her to sneak in, should she need to. At the moment, however, she wasn't sure if it would even be necessary.


In fact, if everything went the way she hoped, she'd never have to set foot in the castle at all.


Satisfied that this would be even easier than she had suspected, she walked off to find suitable lodgings for her brief, but profitable, stay in the kingdom.


Later that evening, as she sat drinking in one of the local taverns, several of Lord Vantys' personal guards entered and rounded up several of the women, including her. "What's going on?" she inquired as she and five other women, professionals, from the look of them, were hustled from the building.


"Quiet, wench, and you might make some money," growled one of the soldiers, pushing her outside.


"This is only six women, captain," Lord Vantys said as he sat astride his horse just outside the tavern, "I told you that I needed ten."


"The rest weren't worth the bother it would take to bring them before you, sir," the captain replied, wearily saluting his master.


Lord Vantys urged his horse forward and carefully examined the women standing nervously before him. "Smile," he instructed a buxom redhead. "You'll do. What's that on your chin?" he demanded of a petite brunette.


"A wart, sir," she managed to croak out.


"A wart?! Great Zeus, woman! I thought someone had nailed a dead mouse on your face! You can go," he said, softening his tone and handing her a coin. She bowed and dashed away. "Fine...Yes...Very nice...You, there, step closer and let me have a look at you," he instructed the stranger. She hesitated only a moment before approaching him and removing her hooded cloak. Lord Vantys, his guards, and even two of the women whistled in appreciation as a well-curved body clad in silk and leather was revealed. The woman, who looked to be in her late 20's, had stunning dark eyes that glistened like polished glass and a full head of auburn hair which hung in a single braid to the small of her back. Her outfit was comprised of a silken blouse the color of a forest lake at midnight and leather breeches as black as Ares' heart that hugged her shapely thighs and rear end as if they had been painted on. "You will most definitely do, my dear. What's your name?"


"Varina, Lord Vantys," she replied, bowing low and affording him an excellent view of her cleavage. "I'm glad that I please you."


With an effort, Vantys regained his composure and shook his head. "Oh, no, Varina, you're not for my bed. I've something else in mind for you ladies. And, it won't involve any more than just sitting around and being the lovely creatures you are," he said with a gleam in his eye. "Carry on, captain, and find me five more before I've returned from my meeting."


"Aye, sir," the captain replied, saluting as Lord Vantys rode off toward the city gates.


"So, what does this gig pay, sweet-stuff?" asked one of the other women, stroking a guard's face with her hand.


"100 dinars, and a bonus if you break the suitor's resolve and he gives in to your charms," the captain replied.


"How much of a bonus are we talking about, stud?" the buxom redhead asked, pushing her chest against that of the captain.


"500 dinars," the soldier replied without batting an eye.


"You mentioned a suitor...?" Varina questioned, putting her cloak back on.


"Aye, but there's no need to worry about that right now. Lord Vantys will explain everything to you before the test begins," he assured them. "So, if you want to make yourselves some easy money, be sure to come round to the back of the castle in three days. And make sure you use the servant's entrance."


"We will," the women promised, laughing as they headed back into the tavern to see if they couldn't still make some money tonight. Except for Varina, who instead crept back to her room.


"It would appear that Autolycus has made himself an enemy already," she grumbled to herself as she prepared for bed. "Figures this wouldn't be as easy it sounded."




Meanwhile, the soldiers had continued on and entered another tavern. This time, it was the captain, Cretius by name, who waited outside to judge the women his men brought to him. He glanced up as a half-dozen women emerged from the building. `At least there are no warts on this bunch,' he said to himself. His thoughts trailed off as a tall woman with black hair and piercing blue eyes joined the others. She was wearing a flimsy outfit made of sheer material, fashioned in the style of the eastern lands. "What's your name, darling?" he asked, approaching her and not attempting to hide his desire.


"Cherish," she replied seductively, although her eyes glistened with fires of an entirely different nature.


Cretius nodded and continued down the line, nodding appreciatively. "Ladies," he said, pacing back and forth in front of the seven women, "the kingdom of Arcadia needs your unique services to expose a pretender to the crown. Unfortunately, we will only need five of you." He walked over to a small-chested woman with light brown hair and handed her a coin. "Sorry, maybe another time." He then turned to a short woman with reddish highlights in her blonde hair and likewise gave her a coin. "You, too, sweetheart. Perhaps another time. Now, then, as for the rest of-"


"Excuse me," the blonde said, her green eyes flashing. "You're taking her," she pointed to a rather plain brunette with a generous chest, "over me? No offense, dear."


"Yes," replied the captain wearily. "Now then, if you ladies-"


"Can I ask why?" the blonde interrupted, looking down at her body, which was looking particularly lovely in a two piece outfit made of red velvet which exposed her taut abdominals fetchingly, and then over at the other woman, who, while well-endowed, was also a bit on the heavy side.


"I was told the suitor prefers...taller women. You're too short," Cretius replied diplomatically.


"Face it, short-stuff," said Cherish with a wicked grin, "there just isn't enough of you. Maybe you should consider a different profession?"


"Oh, there's plenty of me, chippy! More than enough to give you a piece, if you know what I mean," the blonde growled.


Cretius sighed and gestured to a couple of his men and they grabbed the outspoken woman by the arms and led her back into the tavern as her challenges to the captain continued: "Are you sure you won't change your mind? Size isn't everything, you know!"


Once she was gone, Cretius proceeded to instruct the women as he had the other group and they all assured him they would be at the rear entrance of the castle in three days. As they were heading back into the tavern, he detained Cherish, placing his hand on her arm, which was surprisingly hard. "Are you interested in making some money this evening?" he asked hopefully, removing his helmet and smoothing down his hair.


"Sorry, I'm on a pork-free diet," she said, removing his hand and entering the tavern.




As James entered the city gates of Megalopolis the following afternoon, the owl sitting on his shoulder started talking into his ear very quietly, "Hey, let's get something to eat! I'm starving!"


"I thought we agreed that you wouldn't talk in public? Remember? It's not a good idea for anyone to find out that Athene's owl is out. There might be someone who thinks of grabbing you to try and ransom you back to Athene," the bard whispered back while quickly looking around the crowd to see if they had drawn any attention.


One of the city guards watching just shook his head. "These foreigners and their strange pets. Talking to them as if they could understand," the guard said loudly, nudging one of his fellow guards and pointing.


Walking a little faster, James got out of sight and then hissed at the owl, "Can you please try not to draw attention to us?"


"What's the problem? We're supposed to be here by invite for a wedding. Why are you sneaking around anyway, mate?" the owl whispered back.


"Strange for a city that is about to have a royal wedding to have so many guards around, don't you think?" James said, gesturing with his chin as another patrol passed by.


"Hmmm, you think that something more than just Autolycus getting married is going on?" the owl asked thoughtfully.


"Maybe, then again, maybe I'm just being overly cautious. There is something about all of this that is making me nervous, though," he said, looking at yet another passing patrol of guards. "We might as well get something to eat before visiting the castle. It would be in poor taste to show up for a royal audience with a bird that died of starvation on my shoulder," he added with a grin as he made his way to the nearest tavern.


Entering the tavern, James took a seat at a table at the very back of the place. After a few moments, a very tired looking woman showed up and handed him a small, dirty scroll. Reading the stained piece of paper, he quickly made his choices.


"Bring me the stew of the day and a pitcher of port wine. Oh, and bring my owl one of these roasted pigeons you have listed here," he said, handing the scroll back to her.


"We don't serve animals in here, even if they are pets," she scowled.


Seeing the owl's feathers starting to ruffle, James quickly spoke before he could. "Why? What do you care what I do with the food as long as I pay for it?"


"It would put people off eating if they had to watch a owl eat," the woman said, folding her arms across her chest.


Just then they both heard what sounded like a bunch of pigs eating in a trough. Looking to the right, they saw a man wearing well to do clothing sitting at a table a short distance away. He had his face close to the table and was shoveling food in as fast as he could with both hands, pausing every few moments to chew once before shoveling more in.


The woman looked back at James and said, "You promise to clean up any mess the owl makes after he eats?"


He nodded and the woman grunted once and then walked away.


A few moments later the woman came back, balancing a tray with a bowl, tankard of port and carrying a separate wooden platter with a roasted, golden brown pigeon on it. She sat the bowl in front of James and placed the delicious smelling pigeon in front of where the owl stood on the table.


Picking up a wooden spoon, James looked at the stew. It was gray in color and had undefinable bits of what he hoped were vegetables floating in it. Reaching out with the spoon, he pushed down on a gray lump floating in the middle and, as it sank beneath the liquid, was rewarded with a bubble that floated to the surface but did not manage to break through the oily looking liquid.


Pushing the bowl away and then pulling his chair back a little from the table to be on the safe side, James looked over at the pigeon.


"Maybe you could use some help eating that pigeon? After all, it is rather large for a pigeon," he said, reaching out.


"DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!" the owl hissed quietly.


James pulled his hand back with a sigh and was just about to call out for the tavern maid to bring him something else, when he felt a warm tingling feeling come over him. He was just about to turn around when a very familiar strawberry blond threw an arm around his neck and landed in his lap.


"Hey, big boy! Got some money to spend on a lady?"


The man looked on in stunned silence as Xena dressed in a sheer costume pulled a chair away from the table and, turning it backward, sat down in it.


Regaining his voice, James said, "Now, you could be the woman Joxer is always telling me about called Meg, but I know that there can't be two women that are as cute and sexy as Gabrielle." He saw a very brief look of sadness cross Gabrielle's face before her smile once again returned. Glancing down, he noticed that Gabrielle's costume was made of red velvet and not only exposed her lovely stomach but it also had a very plunging neckline. Reaching out, James took a long drink from the port tankard and, to keep from staring, looked back at Xena. "So what's with the dress up routine?" he asked her, his voice a little hoarse from the port.


"Did you know that Autolycus is getting married?" Gabrielle asked him.


"Yeah, he sent me a message asking me to be his best man and to look up something in Athene's library," he answered, looking back at the beautiful Bard that was still sitting in his lap.


"He wanted you to look up information on the Adoniad, didn't he?" Xena asked.


"Yeah. So, why are you two dressed like this?" he asked, giving a long look at Xena's attire.


"Xena thinks there's more behind this than Autolycus just deciding that he wants to get married. So, we're looking into it, and Xena isn't exactly popular around here because of the Battle of Corinth," Gabrielle said as she leaned closer to his ear.


James gulped and looked over to see Xena frowning. He had no idea if it was at him, or at Gabrielle for getting a little too much into her 'working girl' act.


Gabrielle, moving a little further away from him, but still sitting on his lap, reached out and pulled the bowl of stew over to her. "Are you going to eat this?"


"You're not going to tell me that you want it, are you?" James asked her in surprise.


"No way! I'd rather eat Argo's oats before I ate this stuff," the Bard said with a shudder and pushed the bowl away again.


James reached into his pocket and pulled out an apple. "I don't have any oats, but how about an apple?" he said, showing it to her. She nodded eagerly. Placing the apple on the table, he reached down into his boot and pulled out a wicked looking dagger and sliced the apple into pieces and gave Gabrielle a piece.


Gabrielle grabbed the piece of apple and, moving closer to his chest, started eating it with great enjoyment.


Xena reached out and, taking the dagger, examined it. It had the symbol of Ares on it, but the symbol was surrounded by a snake and it appeared that the snake was squeezing the symbol to death. "Inimicles'?" she asked with a quirk of an eyebrow.


"Yes. It was the only thing that I saved from his clothing. Not being much of a fighter, I didn't own a knife, so I thought why throw it away? It might come in handy for cutting rope, an apple, or" he said, looking at the stew bowl a few feet away, "maybe even a stew."


Xena handed the dagger back, hilt first. "Be careful with that. Remember, you're in Inimicles' body. If anyone finds that, they'll take it as proof that you are Inimicles."


Gabrielle continued to munch on the apple and make sounds of pleasure.


Looking around, James noticed that the other men in the tavern were glaring at him. Suddenly, he realized that from the distance it would look like she was nibbling on his neck and he started to blush.


Xena, with a slight quirk of her lips into a smile, suddenly jumped to her feet and yelled out loud enough to be heard all over the tavern, "I wouldn't have minded it being the three of us, but you wanted to let the owl watch, too. You are really sick! You know that?"


James' face now furiously blushing, he looked at the equally stunned Gabrielle. It was when he saw a devilishly wicked smile come over her face that he knew his embarrassment was not over yet.


Gabrielle leapt to her feet and yelled, "I wouldn't have minded the owl watching, but you wouldn't have needed stretch there as well. I'm more woman than you could have handled!"


James sat for a moment, with his face getting redder by the second, and then got to his feet and made a motion for the owl, who was shaking so hard from repressed laughter it looked like he was having a fit, to fly up and get on his shoulder. After the owl, which flew kind of shaky, landed on his shoulder, he turned to look at Gabrielle and Xena standing together. "I should have known that I couldn't find sophisticated enough women in this dump of a tavern to suit my refined tastes," he said with a slight smile, enjoying the fact that the smile on Gabrielle's face had been replaced with a slight frown and a blush of her own.


As he walked by Xena, he said in a low voice he knew she could hear, "See you at the castle?" She gave the barest of nods and the corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smile.


The royal castle in Megalopolis


As he was lead into the throne room by one of the castle's staff, James could see the owl sitting on his right shoulder looking around. "Nice place. A bit drafty, but, all in all, nice," the owl whispered into his ear.


The servant stopping at the doors to the throne room, proclaimed in a loud voice, "The Bard James of the XenaVerse Complex." He then made a motion for him to continue on in and quickly closed the doors behind him as he left.


As he entered James could see two people sitting on obvious thrones. He knew from the scroll that he had borrowed from Athena's library that they must be the current King Bastian and his Queen Lena. Standing next to the king was a man in expensive clothing, eyeing him suspiciously.


James bowed low to the King and Queen and felt the owl flap its wings trying to keep his balance. "Your Majesties." As he rose from the bow, he could see the Queen frowning at him.


"We generally do not allow pets inside the royal castle," she said in a cold voice.


"But your Majesty, this is not an ordinary pet. This owl saved me from a pack of wild wolves and has been my constant companion since then," he said, deciding to keep the fact that the owl was Athena's trusted assistant quiet.


The Queen replaced her slightly hostile glare for a curious one. "I would like to hear how a owl saved you from a pack wolves."


James could see out of the corner of his eye as the owl turned to look at him with a look on his face that practically laughed "This ought to be good."


"While traveling from one city to another to apply my barding skills, I was caught between towns by the fall of night. So, I found myself a good camping site and had just started to make camp when I heard a noise like Hades' dog Cerberus growling at me. Looking up I saw that I was surrounded by hungry wolves. Not being much of a fighter, I prepared myself to die. The leader of the pack of wolves moved forward from the rest, I suppose to claim the kill for himself, and that was when I heard it," he said weaving the fantasy from his mind as fast as he could.


"What?" the Queen said, leaning slightly forward on her throne.


"The sound of flapping wings. With a mighty screech the owl flew right into the face of the wolf pack's leader. With its talons ripping at the wolf's eyes, the owl was screeching like the fallen harpies in Hades' kingdom all the time. As soon as the leader fell back, the owl launched itself at the other wolves till they all ran off with their tails between their legs. So you can see why I beg you to allow me to keep the owl with me, your Highness," he finished with a hopeful look on his face.


The Queen sat back on to her throne and said, "Well, of course we shall make allowances this one time for such a noble bird."


Again, James saw the owl out of the corner of his eye raise one feathered eyebrow as if to say "Not bad."


The Queen then asked him, "Why are you here?"


"I received a message from my good friend Autolycus that he was getting

married and he asked for me to come to be his best man."


The Queen nodded her head and then looked to her husband.


James turned his attention to the King and saw that he was in what appeared to be a whispered argument with the man standing beside him.


The King finally looked up and, watching him suspiciously, said, "One of my most trusted advisors here, Lord Vantys," he said, gesturing at the man beside him, "was pointing out that you seem to match a description of a vicious warlord named Inimicles that has been circulating about lately."


"Me? Your Majesty, I swear to you that I am just a simple bard named James," he said with a sinking feeling in his stomach.


"A bard named James?" the King said thoughtfully. "Would you be that bard that was almost executed by the King of Tyrees in the north part of Greece about eight summers ago?"


Feeling his face start to blush, James answered with a sheepish look, "Yeah, that's me. Are they still telling that story?"


Suddenly, the King started to chuckle to the amazement of his wife and Lord Vantys.


Bastian, noticing the looks he was getting from his queen and Lord Vantys, kept chuckling and then made a motion with his hand at him. "Please, tell my wife the story."


Feeling his face get even hotter with embarrassment, he began the tale: "I was traveling through some rural area near Tyrees eight summers ago, when I heard stories going around about a young woman named Salren who was being very free with her charms with the men in the area. Some of the stories were so funny that I made a point of memorizing them and planned to use them when the chance presented itself. Reaching the city of Tyrees, I found a tavern and was surprised when the people there asked me if I knew any stories about the woman named Salren. I admitted that I did and, at their urging, I started to tell some of the more humorous ones. I should have known that something was wrong when the people in the tavern began laughing so hard that some of them fell off their chairs, but I was a young bard then and I only thought that I was doing a good job in my storytelling. Suddenly, the whole tavern went silent in the midst of one of the more rowdy stories about Salren and I looked up to see the King's guards standing at the doorway."


The Queen, her eyes growing wide, said, "You are not going to tell me that Salren was the King's daughter, the Princess, are you?"


"Um, no, actually, Salren turned out to be the King's wife. The Queen of Tyrees," he said, wishing, even after all this time, that he could crawl under a rock and hide.


The Queen's lips started to quirk into a smile but she quickly regained control of herself. The King, however, began to laugh harder than ever.


"The old King of Tyrees never even wondered at his wife going off into the country side so much. She told him it was to hunt game."


Even Lord Vantys was finding it hard not to grin at the story.


The Queen reached out and touched her husband on the arm, trying to get him to regain control. She glanced down at James and asked, "What happened next?"


James took a deep breath and began again: "They took me and threw me into the dungeon and the King of Tyrees proclaimed a death sentence on me for daring to insult his Queen's honor. With someone's help I was able to get out of the dungeon and escape their kingdom and I have never went back," he finished in a rush.


The Queen looked at him suspiciously. "Who helped you to escape?"


"Um, ah, it was Salren herself," he replied, dreading the next question that he knew was coming.


"Why would she help you to escape?" Queen Lena asked him in surprise. She had been certain that the young bard was going to say that the King of Thieves had helped him to escape.


"Actually, she came down to the dungeon because she thought I was good looking and wanted to, um, ah, 'talk', and it was only afterward that she helped me to escape," he said, certain that his face could not get any redder.


"Um, Oh!" the Queen said, her own face blushing slightly.


The King turned to look at Lord Vantys. "I am convinced that this man is not the warlord you thought he was. He tells too good a tale for one thing, and for the second, a warlord would not blush so about 'talking' his way out of a execution."


Just then the doors opened behind him and James could hear someone quietly walking up behind him. Not wanting to take his eyes off of the King or Queen for fear of angering them, he waited nervously to see who it was.


As the young woman passed him on her way to the thrones of the King and Queen, James felt his heart race. She was a beautiful, graceful woman. She walked up to the foot of the thrones and said, "Mother, father, I have heard that one of Auto's friends has arrived at the palace." She turned and, glancing at the bard, gave a brilliant smile. "Is this him?"


"Yes, my dear. This is the Bard James. He says that Autolycus wants him to be his best man for the wedding," the Queen told her daughter.


James noticed that at the mention of the wedding Lord Vantys grimaced slightly.


The Princess' face lit up with a large smile and, stepping closer, she placed her hand on James' arm. "Great! He can tell me some stories of my little Autokins. Auto is so shy about his past with me."


"I am sure that James has had a long and hard journey to get here so fast," Lord Vantys said. "After all, the invitations were only sent a few days ago. Do you know if any of Autolycus' other friends from the XenaVerse Complex will be arriving soon?"


It was because of events like what had happened to him at Tyrees that James had learned and developed his instincts about an audience, and right then his instincts were telling him that there was more to Lord Vantys' simple question than met the eye.


"Oh, I am sure that they will be here. They all love a party and would not let Autolycus down. I was just lucky to get here first," he answered with a smile on his face but a nagging suspicion that something was wrong in his heart.


"Do you know if Autolycus' good friend Xena will be here?" Lord Vantys

continued in a far too casual manner.


James noticed that at the mention of Xena's name the King and Queen tensed slightly. `Uh oh,' he thought to himself. "Well, you never really know with Xena. She travels so much...but I am sure if she gets the invitation she will be here," he replied. Looking away from Lord Vantys, he noticed that the Princess was still beside him with her hand still on his arm.


Lord Vantys leaned over and whispered something to King Bastian, who nodded his head. Looking up, the King said, "Damara, why don't you let James go to his room to rest a while before dinner? He can talk to you and Autolycus then."


The Princess gave a small pout before smiling and agreeing.


The King then called for a servant, who led the bard away from the throne room.




Autolycus entered the main dining hall, the lovely Princess Damara on his arm, and broke into a wide smile at the sight of his friend. "James!" he said, clasping the bard's forearm in a warrior's handshake. "Why didn't you tell me you were here, you rascal?"


"We wanted to surprise you, darling," Damara grinned, although her gaze drifted over to James.


"Well, you certainly succeeded in doing that, my little peach pit. Do you have any other surprises, or can we eat now?" the former King of Thieves asked playfully.


"Oh, you!" the Princess scolded.


"So, when did you arrive?" Auto asked as the trio walked over to the enormous table, where the King and Queen were seated and waiting patiently.


"We arrived earlier this afternoon," James replied, looking at his friend, but his eyes had a tendency to wander over to the Princess.


"We?" Autolycus questioned.


"I brought my owl, of course," the bard said, straining to signal to Auto to play along without raising the Princess' suspicions.


"Your...owl..." Auto said slowly. James nodded vigorously. "Oh, your owl! Yes, of course. And how is the old rat-trap?"


"He's fine. A bit tired from the trip and so he's up in my room," he replied after sighing with relief.


"Actually, father absolutely forbade him from bringing the owl to dinner," Damara revealed, giggling. "I could tell he was furious by the way he was jumping up and down and hissing."


"Your father?" Auto asked incredulously.


"No, silly, the owl," she corrected with a gentle laugh as she sat down in the chair being held for her by a servant. When Auto and James began walking to where their place settings were, directly across from the Princess, she shook her head. "James, dear, you sit next to me," she said, turning and favoring him with a dazzling smile. A servant jumped to move the bard's dishes and glass. "I can't wait to hear more stories about my dear Autokins."


King Bastian and Queen Lena greeted Autolycus and then bade the attendants to serve dinner before resuming their own private conversation.


"More stories?" Autolycus questioned as he sat down opposite the Princess.


"I've been keeping James company and he's been telling me the most wicked stories about you all afternoon," she laughed, placing a hand affectionately over the bard's.


"I see. So, James, just what have you been telling my fiancée?" Auto asked, stressing the last two words.


Before James could answer, the main door burst open and Lord Vantys entered, followed by two figures in brightly colored hooded robes.


"Vantys, what's the meaning of this interruption?" Bastian demanded.


"Forgive me, highness, my queen, Princess, but these travelers just arrived and insisted on being brought to Autolycus at once," Lord Vantys explained nervously. "And, given who they are..." His voice trailed off as he noticed that the bard was not only seated next to the Princess, but that her hand was upon his.


"Yes, Lord Vantys?" the Queen prompted. "Who are they?"


Suddenly, both strangers threw back their hoods, revealing Xena and Gabrielle, except that Xena was wearing a thick blonde wig and Gabrielle was wearing a curly brunette one, and neither was clad in their customary clothing. Xena had on a bright colored gown that made her look a bit on the heavy side while Gabrielle's tight-fitting dress of lavender highlighted her every curve. Also, both women were wearing enough make-up to choke Argo.


Autolycus opened his mouth, and James could practically hear the word "Xena" leap from his lips. Before Auto could utter a sound, however, the bard gave him a swift kick in the shin.


"Ow!" exclaimed the startled former thief.


"That's hardly the greeting I expected from my favorite nephew, Autolycus!" Xena exclaimed, rushing toward the confused man. But she didn't sound much like Xena; at least, not the Xena that Auto knew. "Come'ere and give your Auntie Philomena a big hug!"


Autolycus screwed up his mouth thoughtfully. "Aunt Philomena?" he questioned, rising as she got near.


"You raise a boy after his mother, my sister--Zeus rest her soul--dies, slave over him, provide him with the best you can, and this is how he repays you: By forgetting you!" Xena said dramatically, looking over at the King and Queen. "Kids!"


Bastian and Lena nodded sympathetically as she hugged Autolycus close and hissed, "I'll explain later. Just go along with it!" In a much louder voice, she said, "And I suppose you've forgotten your cousin Mavis, too? Come over here and say hello to your cousin Autolycus, Mavis, dear."


Gabrielle scowled a bit but quickly smiled and said, "Yes, mother."


"A beautiful girl, but she has the brains of her father--May he rot in Tartarus!" Xena spat as Gabrielle walked by.


King Bastian and Queen Lena rose and walked over to the newcomers, hands

extended. "Welcome to our castle, Philomena," the Queen said as they lightly held hands. "It's a pleasure to meet some of dear Auto's family at long last. You and I must make some time to get to know each other so you can tell me all about what a bad little boy he was."


"Thank you, your highness," Xena replied with a plastic smile. "I've got plenty of stories about this young man, believe me. Oh, isn't he just the cutest thing?" she asked, grabbing Auto's cheeks and pinching them painfully. "Who would've thought that such an ugly child would grow up to be so adorable?"


Autolycus pulled away and rubbed his cheeks, glaring at Xena.


"He's quite the charmer, too, or he would never have won the heart of my dear Damara," Bastian said, briefly shaking Xena's hand. "I suppose he got that from you?"


"Oh, you naughty boy!" Xena exclaimed in mock-horror. "And right in front of your wife. I can tell who wears the crown in this kingdom."


"Don't be too sure about that," Lena said, but it was impossible to tell if she was entirely joking or not. "Come, let's all sit down before this wonderful meal gets too cold to enjoy. You will sit next to me, of course." She took Xena's arm and led her to the head of the table, where the servants had already set out a plate and glass for her.


"You and I shall have to become friends as well," Damara said, rising and clasping Gabrielle's hands. "I want to hear how awful Autokins was to you when you were little."


"Oh, he was awful, all right, Princess," the Bard smiled. "Man, was he awful!"


"Please, call me Damara. After all, we're practically family," she pointed out, circling her arm around Gabby's shoulders and leading her to where a place had been set for her next to Autolycus.


The former King of Thieves, looking more confused and miserable than ever, looked from Xena to Gabrielle, and then from Gabrielle to Xena, and finally back at Gabrielle before sighing and resuming his chair.


Lord Vantys was about to leave the cheerful reunion when he suddenly noticed that James' face was bright red. He quickly made his way over to the bard, thinking he must be choking on something, and discovered that tears were streaming from his eyes.


"Are you all right, James?" he asked, tapping him on the shoulder.


James practically jumped out of his skin. "What?" he blurted out, fighting to stifle the laughter welling up inside him.


"I thought you were choking. Your face is quite red," Vantys said, looking at him suspiciously.


"No, it's just such a happy occasion. They haven't seen each other for ages," James gasped out. "I'll be all right in a minute." He then removed a kerchief from his pocket and wiped the tears from his face and then loudly blew his nose. "Really. I will."


"Of course. I suppose this will make a fine story," Vantys mused as he walked from the hall disgustedly.


"You have no idea!" James giggled to himself. "No idea at all!"




After the royal dinner party, James found himself being escorted down the corridor toward my room by the princess, one arm through his and her other through Autolycus' arm. Right behind them was Xena and Gabrielle in their disguises. And walking far behind was Lord Vantys.


Reaching the door to the bard's room, James turned and said goodnight.


"But it is still quite early!" the Princess said, refusing to release his arm immediately. "I was planning on going for a moonlight stroll in the garden with Auto here and isn't it the job of the best man to be a chaperon?" she asked with a smile.


"Well, I wasn't planning on going to sleep right away, but I have to feed my owl. He must be starving by now," he said, raising a good-sized bag that the castle kitchen staff had made up for the owl. His fictional story about how the owl had saved him from the wolves had made a circuit of the castle and the kitchen help had made an extra special package up for the noble, brave' owl. `He's going to eat better than I did again,' James thought to himself.


"Perhaps Aunt Philomena and Mavis would like to go with you as chaperons?" he suggested with just the slightest smirk on his face.


Autolycus frowned at his friend and quickly looked back at Xena and Gabrielle. The devilish look on Gabrielle's face made him very worried, especially after some of the stories that Gabrielle had made up about him when he was a young man.


"I imagine that Aunt Philomena and Mavis have to leave now so that they will be able to find a room at an inn for the night," Autolycus said, raising his eyebrow at Xena.


The Warrior Princess smiled a sugary smile at Autolycus and said, "Didn't your Auntie remember to tell you? The King has offered me and Mavis a room here at the castle. Since we're family and all. It was agreed at dinner. It's right next door to James here, if I'm not mistaken?" Xena said, glancing back to where Lord Vantys was standing in the hallway.


"Um, yes. It is the next door down the hallway," Lord Vantys confirmed, moving closer to the group.


"Thank you, Lord Pantys," Gabrielle said with a sweet innocent look on her face.


"That is Lord Vantys, with a `V', dear lady," the noble said with an icy look at Gabrielle.


"Oh, don't mind her. She has always had a bad time with names. Just like her addlepated father--May he rot in Tartarus!" Xena said and then made a spitting motion.


"Well, I guess it will be all right walking in the garden with your aunt and cousin to chaperon us," Damara said with a whole lot less enthusiasm than she did when she suggested James.


"Oh, I'm sorry, dearie. We were hoping to talk to James tonight. We hear so little about our darling Auto here and you know how shy he is about talking about himself so we were hoping that James could fill us in on what he has been doing lately," Xena finished with another plastic smile.


Autolycus started to smile with relief when James added with another almost smirk, "Perhaps Lord Vantys wouldn't mind walking with you as chaperon?"


Lord Vantys' face had a sour look on it; the last thing he wanted to do was watch Damara having a romantic walk in the garden with another man, but, at the same time, there was no way that he was going to allow Autolycus to walk with her without some kind of chaperon. "I would, of course, be glad to chaperon," he said with a thin, forced smile.


James opened the door to his room and watched as Damara and a now sour-faced Autolycus walked by with Lord Vantys following closely behind them. He waited till they were out of sight around a bend in the corridor before shutting the door. Xena and Gabrielle had entered the room before him and as he shut the door, Gabrielle burst out laughing. "Did you see the look on Auto's face when I told Damara about how he used to steal my dollies? It was priceless!"


The owl, which had been watching all this quietly, suddenly started talking. "I suppose that with all of you out there having fun, no one thought to bring the poor owl anything to eat?"


James sat the bag of food on the table in the room and, opening it wide, said, "The kitchen staff hopes that the `noble and brave' owl will find this to his liking."


The owl hopped across the table to where the bag rested and sighed with pleasure when he saw the roasted pigeons, quail eggs and other assorted delicacies that were in the bag.


"Did you see how Auto wanted to crawl under the table when James started telling that story about Auto and Salmoneus dressing up like showgirls?" Gabrielle laughed again as she pulled off her wig and shook her red golden hair out.


"I noticed that Autolycus' fiancée spent most of the evening looking at James rather than him," Xena said with a frown. "And I noticed that James spent a great deal of time looking at her," she finished, looking at the bard.


"Don't be silly, Xena. She was asking me to tell stories about Auto, I had to look at her to talk to her," he answered.


The owl, who having taken a break from stuffing himself, glanced across the room at James. "You're not falling for another unattainable woman, are you?"


"What unattainable women?" Gabrielle asked the bird curiously.


"Well, there was the Goddess Discord," the owl answered.


"Be careful that you don't choke on a bone in the pigeons!" James growled at the owl from across the room.


The bird chuckled for a moment and then continued, "Now you seem to say that James is developing a crush on the Princess and I think he had something for Athene for a while and, of course, there was Ga..." The owl, suddenly realizing who he was gossiping with, started to cough at almost telling Gabrielle that James had a crush on her.


"Who?" Gabrielle asked, moving closer to the choking owl.


"The owl thinks that I have a crush on one of the Amazons at the complex that I have a drinking contest with. He was going to say the 'game Amazon'. Were you not?" James said glaring daggers at the owl. "That's his name for the Amazon I drink with," he added as he moved over to the window and looked out.


"Umph! If you call that drinking with the Amazons," the owl snorted quietly.


"What do you mean?" Xena asked, moving over to the table where the owl was standing.


"Well, I have been flying up to the window when James goes over to the Pun & Pub Party Palace for the Amazon parties, and he always goes to a dark corner and drinks alone till he can barely stand up and then he goes back to his room. I have never even seen him talk to an Amazon at a party since he got back to the complex."


Xena glanced over to where James was standing at the window with a sad, depressed look on his face. Not being one for subtlety, she called out to him, "It's because you feel guilty being attracted to other women when Troya is waiting for you in the Elysian Fields, isn't it? You think that you are cheating on her whenever you feel any attraction for a woman?"


She could see by the way that James jumped that she had hit a nerve. Xena's face softened as she saw how depressed he was. "You have to get over this, James. Troya would not want you to spend the rest of your life depressed and alone. She will understand if you find another woman to be with while you are alive. You don't need to feel guilty."


"Okay. How about I feel guilty because I am attracted to one of my best friend's loves?" James asked out loud still staring out the window.


The owl raised an eyebrow, wondering if he was referring to Autolycus and Damara...or to Xena and Gabrielle.


James shook himself a little and then moved away from the window and walked over to the table where Xena and Gabrielle were waiting. "We need to worry about what Autolycus is planning and forget my problems."


"You think that Autolycus isn't really interested in Damara, don't you?" Gabrielle asked.


"I'm not sure. I haven't had a chance to really talk to Auto since I got here, but I don't think he's as much in love as he wants us to think. He used to tell me about this woman he met called Cupcake and his eyes would glow when he talked about her. I just haven't seen that look in his eyes when he talks to or about Damara," he finished, glancing at Xena to see her reaction.


Xena nodded her head. "There is definitely more going on here than meets the eye. Gabrielle put your wig back on. We might as well go to our room and wait and see what tomorrow brings."


Gabrielle pulled her hair back up and placed the wig on her head. Checking her look in a mirror on the wall she sighed. "Can't we at least take this makeup off when we sleep? I feel like I am walking around with a ton of mud on my face."


Xena shook her head. "No, we have to stay in character the whole time we're here so no one gets suspicious." Seeing the miserable look on Gabrielle's face, Xena patted her on the back. "I'll make this up to you when this is over."


Gabrielle smiled briefly and asked, "Maybe a trip to the islands?"


"We'll see," Xena said with a smile of her own as they walked out the door and shut it behind them.


James turned from watching them leave and asked the owl, "Can this get any more complicated?"


The owl, instead of answering, just let his eyes widen real large and made a squawking noise.


Turning around, James found himself a hairsbreadth away from the Goddess



"Discord! What are you doing here?!" he asked backing up into the table behind him.


"Well, I heard that someone had a crush on me and I just had to see if I approved," Discord said as she moved closer to me and placed a hand on his chest.


Slipping out from Discord's touch, James moved around the room keeping his eyes on the evil Goddess. Bumping backward into the bed, he sat down



"Hmm, not bad for a mortal," Discord purred as she started to stalk toward him.


"How about, for a change, you tell me the truth, Discord?" James asked as he started to scoot across the bed backwards, placing it between him and the Goddess.


Discord stopped and said with a frown, "Tell the truth? Sounds kinky. All right, the truth. Ares wanted me to try and seduce you into working for him."


"Why would Ares want me to work for him? I mean, I understood it when Ares wanted me to work for him when I had the metal body that Hephaestos forged; it would have made an unstoppable warrior. But why now? All I have now is this body." Suddenly, his eyes widened with understanding. "The body of Inimicles the warlord. A man that vowed to destroy Ares. Inimicles rises again but this time serving Ares. Ares gets his reputation back as being the patron God of all warriors and Inimicles' army rushes back to join their leader. It's a good plan, except for one thing: I am not interested in working for Ares."


Discord shrugged. "I told Ares it wouldn't work, but the seduction part sounded interesting."


"Well, you can go back to Ares and tell him that it is no go," James said, trying to not stare at Discord's black leather costume.


"Oh, Ares is all wrapped up in a war that he stirred up far from here," Discord said as she started moving toward him again.


"A war? Lots of places to sow the seeds of Discord there. You better rush back," he said as he continued to scoot around on the bed trying to stay as far away from Discord as he could.


"I don't know. There are plenty of places to sow the seeds of discord, as you say, at a wedding, too," Discord said as she disappeared in a flash of light.


Breathing a sigh of relief, James looked over to where the owl still stood on the table.


"That is one scary and, at the same time, sexy Goddess!"


The owl only snorted at James' taste in women.




Autolycus and the Princess, under the watchful eyes of Lord Vantys, strolled through the maze-like rows of colored flowers, quietly talking.


"You seem quite taken with my friend James," Auto said casually.


"He's very charming," Damara nodded, smiling mischievously. "You're not jealous, are you, my darling Autokins?"


"Never. Should I be?" he suddenly asked.


"Of course not. I love only you, and you know it," she said, gazing up at him.


"And I love only you," he replied, stroking the curve of her cheek with his fingers.


"Oh, this is just too much!" Discord gagged, flashing into existence in front of the pair. "You? Love her? Hardly. Want her, I could believe, but love her? Not in a million years!"


Autolycus was about to step in front of the Princess, to shield her from the evil Goddess, when he suddenly realized that she hadn't moved. In fact, she didn't so much as blink when he waved his hand in front of her eyes. "Neat trick," nodded the King of Thieves. "I don't suppose you could teach it to me, it would come in handy in my line of work."


"Well, at least you're finally admitting that this whole retirement thing is just a scam," the Goddess grinned, running her black nails along Auto's exposed chest.


"No point lying to you. Why the icicle treatment?" he gestured toward the Princess and Lord Vantys, who was likewise frozen.


"I wanted to have a private chat with you, to let you know that I haven't forgotten about you and Iolaus turning me into a chicken," she said, smiling in a way that made the King of Thieves extremely nervous.


"Iolaus was the one who actually fired that arrow that changed you, I just happened to be there," Auto quickly pointed out.


"You gave him Artemis' Bow!" Discord hissed, digging her nails into his flesh. "But don't worry about Iolaus, I haven't forgotten about him. As for you, though...I know why you're here, and Xena will figure it out before too long, too. The only question is: Which will cause you more anguish? The theft you've worked so hard for, which will restore your reputation as the undisputed King of Thieves, but only at the cost of this cow's trust and devotion," she gestured disdainfully at the frozen Princess, "or the foiling of your plan, which will leave your thiefly reputation lacking, but allow you to remain a good man at heart. It's your dual nature that dooms you either way, Autolycus. I'm just trying to figure out how to exploit this to my advantage."


"My dual nature...Oh, just like you're both a bitch and...Whoops, my mistake. I forgot you don't have a dual nature," he shrugged, but despite the customary smirk, his eyes glinted with anger.


"I consider that a compliment," the Goddess giggled.


"You would," Auto said harshly.


"Don't push me too far, Autolycus, or I may decide to take more drastic measures as a means to achieving your distress...except that you might just welcome them at this point," she laughed cruelly and then disappeared in a brilliant flash of smoke and lightning.


Autolycus blinked and realized that he was standing next to Damara, and that his chest was free of scratch marks.


"That's so sweet," the Princess smiled, reaching up and kissing him chastely on the cheek.


"Don't rub it in," Auto said under his breath.




"Don't rub it in...that we must soon part for the night, my beloved," he said quickly.


She nodded, slightly puzzled, and then saw Lord Vantys approaching. "I fear our parting is imminent, darling," she sighed.


"Princess, Autolycus, the air is turning a bit chilly. Perhaps you should turn in for the night," he said it in such a way as to make very clear to the King of Thieves that it was anything but a suggestion.


"Oh, Lord Vantys, just a little while longer. If you're concerned about my being cold, you could always offer me your jacket," she added slyly.


Lord Vantys scowled slightly as he noted that Autolycus wasn't wearing a jacket or coat of any kind, but that he also didn't appear to be the least bit cold. "Of course, Princess," he replied, removing his thick jacket, revealing a flimsy silk shirt beneath. He handed it to her and watched with frustration as Autolycus helped her into it. "Just let me know when you're ready to retire, Princess."


"Say, maybe you should run in and get something hot to drink," Auto said, barely concealing a grin. "You're shivering."


"Nonsense. I'll be fine until the two of you are finished," he snapped, walking away and leaving the pair alone.


"Why aren't you cold?" the Princess asked Auto suspiciously.


"I'm not sure," he shrugged, taking her arm and continuing their promenade through the garden. "I rarely notice the cold. I suppose it could have something to do with my semi-divine nature..."


They both laughed and then sat on one of the benches and gazed up at the moon for what seemed like seconds to them, but hours to Lord Vantys. Finally, however, just before Vantys lost all feeling in the toes of his right foot, they got up and walked past him, heading toward the castle.


Lord Vantys sighed and slapped himself on the shoulders a couple of times before trying to rise from his own bench. Apparently, however, there had been some moisture on the bench and it had frozen to his pants, trapping him.


He looked expectantly for Autolycus or the Princess to return, once they noticed he hadn't followed them, but neither appeared. He reluctantly opened his mouth to call for help...only to discover that the cold had parched his throat to the point where all he could manage was a soft squeak. Desperate, he placed his hands firmly on the bench, determined to rip his pants off if he must to free himself, but the sweat on his hands instantly froze to the cold stone of the bench.


Lord Vantys stomped his feet angrily--The only thing he could do--and continued to try to call for help.


Discord, chuckling evilly to herself, disappeared from the area this time, and not just from mortal sight.


It wasn't until the moon was high in the night sky that a patrol finally discovered the frozen form of Lord Vantys. They ended up having to bring the entire stone bench into the castle and placing it in front of the roaring fire in the grand dining hall for nearly half an hour before the man could be removed from his seat. Then, as his teeth chattered uncontrollably, he was force-fed cup after steaming cup of hot beer until the blue color had faded from his face and hands and he was able to speak without biting his tongue off.


At long last, he was recovered sufficiently from his chilling ordeal to crawl into the warmth of his bed...after pulling several extra blankets down from storage and piling them atop his regular ones.


He fell into a fitful slumber and dreamed of erupting volcanoes...into which he gleefully tossed Autolycus.




As James strolled through the hallways toward the dinning hall for breakfast, he paused at one of the windows and looked out at the garden. It was a bright clear, crisp morning. The kind that made you feel glad to be alive and he could hear the owl on his shoulder humming just under his breath, showing that he felt it, too.


As he entered the dinning hall, his attention was drawn by a loud sneeze to the end of the table where Lord Vantys sat with a scowl on his face. He was wrapped in a heavy cloak and kept drinking some kind of hot beverage, from the looks of steam coming off of his cup.


"Good morning, Lord Vantys," James said cheerfully.


Vantys just grunted and, with a scowl and shivering, pulled his cloak more tightly around him. "I don't know what's so good about it. Last night was freezing and the day doesn't look like it is going to warm up that much either," Lord Vantys growled.


Turning his head to look at the owl, James raised an eyebrow in a silent question. The owl just shrugged his feathered shoulders showing that he did not get it either.


"I did not notice it being all that cold last night," he said as he pulled a chair out and sat down.


Lord Vantys grunted again and then, as he looked more closely at the bard, his eyes grew wide. "You brought that dirty bird into the royal dinning hall?"


"Oh, please, Lord Vantys. My owl is not dirty. He is a very clean bird. Besides, I can't leave him locked up in my room all day. He is used to being out and about. Not to mention that I do have to feed him once in a while," he replied sharply.


The owl ruffled his feathers and James could hear him mutter, "Dirty indeed! Oh, and by the way, you don't feed me as often as I think you should either!"


James raised the eyebrow nearest the owl and he quickly settled down.


Reaching over, the bard examined the food that was already laid out on the table. Figs, apples and bowls of oatmeal. He picked up a fig and offered it to the owl. Raising one feathered eyebrow, he rotated his head side to side in an angry `no' gesture.


James was wondering what else he could offer the owl for breakfast when Lord Vantys suddenly broke the silence that had descended on the room by loudly banging his fist on the table.


He glanced sharply at him, wondering what was going on now, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a young female servant appear at the doorway. She frowned at Lord Vantys and then, looking in his direction, flashed a brilliant smile and said in a loud voice, "There he is!" and promptly disappeared around the doorway once again.


James looked at the obviously confused and irritated Lord Vantys and saw that he did not know what was going on either.


The servant reappeared a few moments later carrying a large tray toward him. Placing the tray on the table she started cautiously to stroke the owl's feathers. "Oh, he is as noble and beautiful a bird as I heard that he was!"


James could feel the owl as he stretched to his full height under the woman's attention and he could swear he could hear him purr. He reached out and lifted the cover that was over the tray and found himself looking at roasted quail and small quail eggs.


"The kitchen staff thought that would be more to the liking of your owl than the other breakfast things we usually serve," the woman said with a final scratch of the owl's head.


The owl turned his head to look James in the eye, chuckled quietly and then flew over to the tray and delicately started to nibble on one of the quail.


Lord Vantys brought his fist down on the table again with a loud bang, causing his bowl of oatmeal to bounce and spill out on to the table.


"Servant! I need more hot wine. Now!"


James could see the serving woman grimace at his loud tone and immediately replied, "Yes, my Lord, right away!" and hurried off.


Even though he was a guest in the castle, James started to turn and remind Lord Vantys of his manners when he saw Princess Damara enter the room.


Lord Vantys appearance and manners changed immediately. He sat up straighter and his surly attitude disappeared in a flash to be replace with a warm smile. "Princess Damara! I hope that you slept peacefully last night?"


The Princess smiled at him. "When I finally could get to sleep. I can't help it, but I am getting so excited about the upcoming marriage!"


James noticed a scowl appear on Lord Vantys' face, but he quickly recovered and continued to smile at the Princess. But the bard could detect that it was now a little strained.


"Every woman dreams of her marriage, or so I have been told," James said with a smile.


Lord Vantys shot him a dark look but Princess Damara smiled even more



"It will also be very special to me because I will be allowed to wear the `Star of Arcadia,'" Princess Damara said with a dreamy look as she sat down at the table.


James could see the owl stop eating and cocked his head to the side as he listened.


"The Star of Arcadia?" the bard asked with a sinking feeling in his stomach.


"Yes. It is one of the largest gems in the known world. It is only brought out of a secret vault for royal marriages. The last time it was worn was when my mother wore it at her wedding and soon I will get to wear it for my marriage. It's a tradition that goes all the way back to the very founding of this kingdom," the Princess finished with a large smile.


"Um, I should go up and see if Autolycus' aunt and cousin are ready for breakfast and escort them down," James said, hastily getting to his feet.


The owl sitting on the table bobbed his head in agreement and flew to his shoulder.


They started to leave the dinning room quickly but stopped as the owl whispered into his ear. "Um, please have the servants leave the owl's breakfast. He'll finish eating it after we collect Auto's relatives and come back down," he said and then made his exit from the room.


Princess Damara looked at Lord Vantys. "That James is such a gentleman to think of escorting Auto's relatives down to breakfast. Don't you agree?"


Lord Vantys nodded and then hid his scowl behind his empty mug and wondered what was taking the servant so long in fetching the hot wine.


As he reached the room next to his that was assigned to Xena and Gabrielle, James paused for a moment and looked down the hallway both ways. "Maybe we're overreacting? It could just be a coincidence that there is a priceless gem here and the only time it is brought out is when someone gets married?" he whispered to the owl.


The bird snorted and replied sarcastically, "Yeah, and Ares is known for being a real warm and caring guy, too! You know the only reason that Auto is here is for that gem!"


James frowned at the owl but then gave a slow and unhappy nod. Reaching out, he knocked loudly on the door.


The owl's eyes grew wide at the grumbling that was suddenly heard behind the door. "What in the Tartarus is anyone doing up at this time of the morning?" Gabrielle's voice could be clearly heard.


"I am going to go out on a limb here and say that Gabrielle is not a morning person," the owl whispered.


After a few moments of the sounds of someone moving around and muttering a few things that even made James' ears turn red, Gabrielle eventually opened the door. "This had better be important!" she snarled as she jerked the door open.


Poor Gabrielle was not wearing her Mavis wig and her own hair was sticking up in all directions badly and the heavy makeup she was wearing was smeared. All in all, it was not a good appearance day for the Bard. But she took one look at the serious expression on his face and gestured for them to enter the room quickly.


"What is it?" she asked as she sat down at a table that had a large mirror behind it. Taking a look at herself in the mirror, she grimaced and, grabbing a cloth on the table, she started to scrub the makeup off her face.


"We were having breakfast this morning with the Princess when she started to tell us about a very large, very priceless gem that is only taken out of a secret vault and worn when a member of royalty gets married," James said, sitting on the edge of the bed.


"James here thinks it might just be a coincidence that Auto wants to marry the Princess and the gem is here," the owl added.


Gabrielle looked at the man's reflection in the mirror and just snorted, "Yeah, right!"


"Okay! I admit it was a long shot. I just thought that it would be nice if Auto was really serious about the Princess and not just playing her for a fool to get his hands on the gem," he said with a frown.


Gabrielle softened the look on her face and replied gently, "You're just a hopeless romantic, aren't you, James?"


To keep from answering Gabrielle, he looked around and noticed that a very tall and deadly warrior woman was missing. "Where is Xena?"


"She told me last night that she was going to be gone this morning when I woke up. She was going to wander around the castle before many people got up and see if she could find out where they are going to hold the first Adoniad trial and what the other tests might be," Gabrielle said as she scrubbed the last of the heavy makeup off and then looked in distaste at the makeup jars before her. Sighing, she reached over and started to reapply the makeup. "You are going to owe me big time for this, Auto," she muttered to herself as she started to trowel the makeup back onto her face.


Hearing someone at the door, Gabrielle quickly grabbed her wig and shoved it onto her head and turned away from the door.


When she saw the relaxed look on James' face as the person entered, she knew that it must be Xena and turned around again.


The Warrior Princess was dressed in her Aunt Philomena costume, heavy makeup and all.


Xena's eyes narrowed slightly as she saw James sitting on the edge of the bed and asked, "Now what's wrong?"


"We found out why Autolycus is really here," he said.


"For the Star of Arcadia?" Xena asked with a slight smile at the disappointed look on his face.


James looked over at Gabrielle, but she just shrugged. "She's always doing that to me, too. Just when I think I found out something she doesn't know, she pops up with the information like everyone should know it."


"I got the information this morning by talking to an old servant. She was more than happy to talk to me about her memories of the last royal wedding. She says that this Star of Arcadia was so large and perfect a gem that they had to build a shade in the court yard to hold the wedding because the gem kept blinding everyone by reflecting the sun," Xena said as she moved over to Gabrielle's side and adjusted her wig for her.


The Bard, looking at Xena's reflection of the mirror, asked, "What are we going to do about Autolycus?"


"I am tempted to drag him out of here by his ear and kick his butt all over Greece," Xena replied calmly.


"Xena, we can't! It would break the poor princess' heart to find out that Autolycus was just using her to get to the gem," Gabrielle said quickly.


"Not to mention that the King and Queen might want to remove his head from his shoulders, too, for leading their daughter on," Xena added.


"I don't really think the King or Queen intends for a marriage to take place anyway," James said from the bed.


"What makes you think that?" Xena asked, turning to face him.


"When I arrived they were very interested if any of Auto's friends from the XenaVerse Complex were going to be here for the wedding. Especially a certain warrior woman named Xena. I'm beginning to think the only reason they allowed this to go on this long is for a chance to capture you," he answered thoughtfully.


Gabrielle turned in her chair to face her companion. "Xena, did you ever visit here? You know, back in your Warlord days?"


Xena looked thoughtful for a moment. "No, I'm sure that I didn't. Arcadia was a rich kingdom, but too well defended back then." The thoughtful look deepened on her face and then she added, "But they were allies of Corinth, and I suppose they might have lost some soldiers in that battle."


"Maybe they just don't like Warlords. When I arrived they accused me of being Inimicles and were all for dragging me down to the dungeon. I had to relate an embarrassing story from my past to convince them that I was just a humble bard," James revealed.


"What embarrassing story?" Gabrielle asked, looking interested.


"Never mind. It is enough just to say that it convinced them that I was who I said I was," he replied, shooting a warning look at the owl not to tell Gabrielle that story.


"Well, this is all fine and dandy, but the question still remains, how do we keep Auto from stealing the gem without breaking the heart of the Princess?" the owl asked from his shoulder, totally ignoring the warning look.


Xena glanced at the owl. "The way I was planning from the beginning: I will make sure he fails the Adoniad trials. The Princess will be saddened that he didn't make it but her sadness will be less than if she knew he never really loved her and was only after the gem. After Autolycus fails the test he will be escorted to the city border and asked to never return here again."


"Well," James said as he got to his feet, "I told Lord Vantys and the Princess that I came up here to escort you ladies down to breakfast. So shall we go?"


"Breakfast..." Gabrielle said as her stomach growled.


"Don't get too excited, Gabrielle. The breakfast here has a lot to be desired," he said with a grin.


The owl hooted a few times and then said, "I don't know, mine was really quite tasty and I look forward to getting back to that roasted quail and quail eggs!"


As they moved to exit the room, Gabrielle looked at him and asked, "Does the owl always eat better than you do?"


"It seems that way," James answered, scowling at the smirking bird.


End of Part One