Politics Of War.
Aphrodite looked down at the warlord her son was supposed to be watching then over at her son. "So, what's the big with this guy? Why did Ares want you to watch him?"
"Pop's got this new idea on how to keep his players in check," Cupid said with a shrug. He glanced at his mother. "He thinks they need something to help them focus, but they're totally only into the fighting."
"So he's gonna give them a lover?" she asked, looking shocked. "But that distracts them."
"Not as much as them taking over a town for a night would," Cupid pointed out, shifting until he was more comfortable against the tree he was leaning on. "It seems that Pop thinks that these guys need a more steady influx of love, and he'll get to control them through these people. He's already picking out some warriors to have trained by my temple priests."
"Huh," she said, going back to studying the warlord. "Well, he could probably use a good lay, but how does this help your father? Besides watching him."
"He'll be able to push them a little easier when he needs them to move."
"Oh, I get it. A hostage to their good behavior. If they screw it too badly, he takes away the toy."
Cupid nodded. "I think so. He didn't tell me everything, just that he wanted to train a few warriors to become 'helpers'." He grinned. "Which is totally something that I could get behind. Most warriors have the focus to burn if they're taught sex is more than thrusting and grunting." He grinned suddenly. "I know someone who would be great for this guy, but I doubt he'd do it."
"Who?" she asked.
"Iolaus. This guy needs someone with a lot of energy."
"Herc would *kill* you," she said solemnly.
"Yeah, I know. So we'll find him a more energetic lover among the ranks of cadets," Cupid said with a shrug. He disappeared, going to report on this warlord.
Aphrodite shook her head. "I hope this works. I really don't want this to backfire, that could be messy for me." She disappeared too, going back to her main temple to send her son a few of her best trainers.
Cupid looked up at his father. "Fluetus needs someone energetic. Not someone bouncy but someone like Iolaus. Which I know will totally get Uncle Herc up in arms."
Ares nodded. "There's someone like him in the current ranks of cadets at the Thebian temple. I'll pull him in and see if he'd be agreeable."
"Oh, and he likes brunettes."
"We can probably fix that too," Ares said quietly. "Anything else to report?"
"Yeah, he seems like the type of guy that would think it was great to reward his favorite warriors with a taste too," Cupid told him. Ares nodded. "That might cause your guys some problems."
"It might," Ares agreed. "But I've already got that covered too. Thanks, Cupid."
Cupid shrugged. "No problem," he said then disappeared.
Ares leaned back on his throne and considered the situation. This test case needed some delicate handling, but that's why he had picked this particular idiot. If he could control this idiot with a sextoy then he could easily control most of the rest of them. Even if he did have to train people to do whatever these guys needed. "Some tactics," he told himself. "Some fighting skills to spar with the assholes, and maybe even some sense of humor because none of my warlords can tell a decent joke." He shook his head, and went back to planning the specialized training this guy would need.
Iolaus looked up as he walked through the town's gates, waving at a guard he knew who was manning the towers. He had been sent a letter to come to Thebes and the money for passage to get there quickly, and all it had cost him was to dump Hercules for a month. Which was nice in its own way, they needed some time apart. He headed to the temple of War. When he got inside, one of the priests ushered him into a private meeting room and shut the door. "You called?" Iolaus asked quietly to the empty room.
Ares appeared and pointed at a chair. "Sit." The warrior did. "I need your help. You have to listen before you say anything."
Iolaus shrugged. "That's fine. Is it another crisis? Something that Herc and I have to fix, or refix?"
"No, more of a plan that I'm trying to implement." Ares manifested a goblet and took a sip, then created a mug of water for Iolaus. "I want to give some of my wandering warlords a helper, if you will." Iolaus nodded. "I want to do this by giving him a warrior of his very own."
Iolaus snickered. "You want to give him a sexual companion that will help him on the battlefield?"
Ares nodded and relaxed further. "Yes, but the reason I called you here is tougher than that. The one I've picked out is your son. He's stationed here to train." He watched as Iolaus gulped the water. "You didn't know?"
"No!" He slammed down the mug. "I didn't know I had any children. I have a son? Is he like me?"
"Very like you," Ares said, regaining his usual smirk. "He's very...energetic."
Iolaus glared at him. "I don't bounce," he said semi-coldly.
"Of course you don't," Ares said, smirking broadly now. He waved a hand. "I sent for you because this is a decision that he should make, but that only an adult can." They shared a look and the mortal nodded. "I'll have him brought in here for you to meet." Ares tipped his head to look at the blond warrior. "You really didn't know? He looks almost exactly like you. You've been through his village since he was born, twice if I remember right."
"No one's said a thing," Iolaus said simply, shrugging. "Thank you for telling me though. I think I need to have a discussion with a few of my women." He stood up. "In here?"
"Sit," Ares said, waving a hand and creating a meal. "Eat, I'll go pull him from pole practice." He disappeared, heading out to the practice area. "Tras," he called as he appeared, smiling as all the cadets automatically fell to their knees as soon as they saw him. The two that were blindfolded and had their ears covered were excused. This time anyway. He motioned the young man over, looking him over. "I need you to go talk to someone," he told Tras. "Your father is here."
The warrior looked up at him. "My father's dead, Lord Ares."
"The one who created you," Ares corrected. "But yes, he has died a few times," he said with good humor. He nodded a priest over. "Take him to the meeting area that the blond warrior is in." He looked at the other warriors, watching the two who were up on rickety platforms without two of their main senses. They had only been on that exercise for a few hours and they were already doing better than most foot soldiers he had under him. "I think they're doing well," he told their teacher. "Give them the afternoon off." He disappeared again, going to listen to Iolaus and Tras' talk.
Tras walked into the meeting room and looked at the man sitting there. It might as well have been a mirror image aged thirty years. "Well, shit," he said, moving to a chair and sitting down. "She lied to me."
"Who?" Iolaus asked gently. "And for the record, your mother never told me."
"That makes two of us. She told me she came from a virgin ceremony at one of Aphrodite's temples."
Iolaus snickered. "I've been to a few of those so it's possible." He held out a hand. "Iolaus."
"Tras," he said, shaking it. "So, you're a daddy. Now what?"
"Well," Iolaus said, leaning back some. "I'd like to eat and get to know you a little better before I put forward a plan that I got called in here to talk to you about."
"Uh-huh. Is that why Ares sent two of us to Cupid?"
Iolaus nodded and pushed over some of the meat and bread. "Yup. Eat. At your age, I was a bottomless pit."
Tras laughed and dug in. "I am too," he admitted. "You seem pretty cool for an old dude."
"Gee, thanks," Iolaus said dryly. "Who is your mother?"
"Little brunette piece, died a few years ago. Named Lileth."
"I remember her," Iolaus said with a head shake. "I'm sorry that she's dead."
"Not a problem. I came here once she died, she insisted." He took a bite and chewed. "She said it was my destiny."
"Don't do that, you spit food and waste it," Iolaus said, smiling at him.
"Yes, dad," Tras sighed, rolling his eyes.
They looked at each other then cracked up laughing. When they finally came down, Iolaus wiped off his face and looked at his son. "You know what Ares has planned?"
"Yup. He wants me to go be a toy for a warlord to spy on him and keep him in check." He shrugged. "It's not something I'm against, it's a sound tactic, but it is a bit dangerous. Why did he call you?"
"Because you're not old enough to make this decision yet," Iolaus pointed out. "He's right, this is a very adult decision and you need to think about a few things. What happens if the warlord gives you as a present to his warriors?"
"Then I kill them and tell Ares that he dishonored his present," Tras told him.
Iolaus nodded. "That's sound, but sometimes things happen that you can't control."
"I know," Tras said evenly. "I listened in on the women's lectures when I was bored. The Priestess warned them constantly about such things. She never went into how it happened to men, but I have a pretty good idea." He nibbled on a piece of meat. "I know the lay of the land," he said quietly. "I understand the consequences and how this could taint my future goals. I'll deal."
"Then you're going to do it?"
"Probably. No one's specifically asked me yet," Tras pointed out.
"They will," Iolaus said, patting him on the arm. "Be careful and send for me if you ever want to see me. I'm usually found with Hercules so look for the biggest annoyance in Greece." He grinned. "We're usually somewhere around it."
"Gee, from what Ares said, you usually are it," Tras said with a grin.
"Some days," Iolaus agreed. He picked up another piece of meat and ate it. "Let's talk," he suggested. "I missed so much."
"Yeah, you did, but that's okay. Mom lied to the both of us. Do I have any other family?"
"Yeah, some," Iolaus said with a grin. "We're not close though."
Tras nodded. "I can see how that happens."
Ares looked down at his three cadets, all three not very eager but ready for this task that their God had chosen for them to do. "I will lay down some rules as your training progresses," he told them, looking serene but not happy. "Cupid will also be laying down some rules for your conduct while you are in his temple. You *will* obey them. If I hear *one* bad word about any of you, I will send you to the farthest active border war I can find and make sure you die there. Got me here?" he asked them. They all nodded, looking a little scared, but all pretending to be calm. "Good. You've got an escort to the temple of Cupid's choice, and Tras you will behave on your travels. No jumping innocent girls who just wanted a taste on this trip." The young man in question tried to look innocent but the grin spoiled it. "Thank you. Iolaus, do you have the passage money and your travel necessities?"
"Everything but food," Iolaus agreed, picking up his pack and putting it on. "Lets go, guys. It's a long walk."
"Why can't we ride?" the lone female cadet asked.
"Because armies walk and you'd better get used to it," Iolaus told her. "Only the warlords, the rich kids, and the ones who do nothing ride during a campaign. Walking is good for you, it strengthens your muscles."
"And you get to see more of the countryside," the other male cadet put in. "I walked here from Potedia."
"Do you know a girl named Gabrielle?" Iolaus asked him.
The boy groaned and nodded. "Intimately. She was always such a preachy little ..." He glanced at Ares and amended what he had been about to say. "Woman," he finished.
"That's one way of putting it," Ares said lightly. "I would have said cunt personally, but that might offend Xena and then I'd have to deal with her again," he sighed.
"You know her?" the boy asked Iolaus, but he was looking up at Ares.
"She's the bard running around with Xena," Iolaus told him. "We might end up intersecting their wander on the way. And no, I won't tell them anything," he told the boy, moving ahead to lead the way out of the temple.
Ares leaned back and laughed. Iolaus was going to be a good mommy for his little hatchlings, they'd be much better attuned to real warriorhood by the time they got to Cupid's temple. Reality was about to hit them in the face and it would be good.
Iolaus stopped them in the forest, looking around at the silent area. "We're camping here," he told them. "Stream's a few minutes that way," he pointed to the left. "Pick a tree but cover it up if you have to go." He set down his pack and started clearing out an area for a fire and for sleeping. The three cadets looked at him and he just stared back. "What?"
"No inn?" Tras asked.
Iolaus laughed. "Inn? Do you think that armies get to spend nights in inns?" He stopped laughing at the hurt look. "Listen, guys, Ares told me to get you used to traveling like you're going to be doing. That means no inns, we only visit towns on the way through, and that you'd better learn how to do laundry in a stream because it does smell after a week of walking or marching. This is all part of your upcoming training."
"Usually the cadets get to go be assistants during a smaller battle," the female warrior pointed out. "That's how most of us learn what walking all day is like."
Iolaus nodded. "I did that at the academy, but I also walked there so it wasn't so much of a shock." He sat down on the small pile of dry leaves he had moved out of the way. "Just because you're going to be serving Ares in a very...personal manner doesn't mean that things are going to get easier on you. Warlords are usually not very bright. The good ones travel with their armies. The bad ones travel ahead of their armies on horses or in carriages. You might be unlucky enough to do that, but from what I understand you're going to be watching the army as much as you are the warlord. This means that you've got to get to know how the grunts think and how they live. And yeah, you'll be an outsider, but if you play your cards right you'll end up with a few friends down in the ranks. Just don't let the warlord know about it or he'll have you both killed for screwing them. Got it?" All three nodded. "Good. Methlin, go bathe first. The guys can help me set up the camp."
"I have no problems with the men," she told him quietly. "They wouldn't touch me and if they did, they wouldn't be of much use to Ares anymore."
He nodded. "That's good, but this is a courtesy gesture. I always let the women bathe first and in private, it saves awkwardness later on. After all, if I don't see you naked, why would I think of you naked?"
She snorted but got up and went to do as she was told.
"Tras, go gather firewood. Michnas, help me clear the camp." Iolaus stood up and went back to cleaning away some of the dead leaves, making a pile of them in the center of what would be the firepit. "Go get some rocks to ring this, the ground's not good to dig a hole down into this time of year." Michnas ran off to go find some rocks to ring the fire with. Iolaus relaxed, this wasn't going to be *so* bad. Hopefully.
Two days of walking later, Iolaus was proved correct, they ran into Xena and her bard. "Hey," he said, waving them over to their group. "Where are you two going?" He leaned up to give Xena a hug then he gave one to Gabrielle.
"We're headed to Thebes. There's a rumor of Ares doing strange things with his cadets," Xena told him. She looked at the obvious cadets following Iolaus. "What's with them?"
"We're on our way to Cupid's temple," Tras told her, giving her a smile.
"Tras, Amazon," Iolaus said gently.
Tras grinned and shrugged. "Can't blame a guy for trying to woo a beautiful woman's attention. A simple dinner would probably be divine in their company." Methlin elbowed him. "Ow!" he complained, pushing her back.
"Have fun," Gabrielle snorted, looking at Iolaus. "Joxer's somewhere behind us. He had to stop and write something down for someone." She shrugged. "Xena, want to make camp with them tonight?"
"Why not," she said, swinging down off her horse. "Here?"
"We've been following a stream," Michnas told her. He frowned at Gabrielle. "Nice to see you too," he said dryly.
She smiled at him. "Do I know you?"
"No, we used to play together every day for most of our lives, Gabrielle. You don't know me at all." She looked confused and he shook his head. "I'm going for firewood."
"His name is Michnas," Tras told her, patting Iolaus on the back. "What do I do tonight?"
"Go dig a fire pit," Iolaus suggested. "Then please help Michnas get firewood. We'll need a decent fire tonight so Xena and I can hunt." Xena nodded, handing off Argo's reins to her traveling companion. "Let's go. I've heard birds and rabbits all day."
"Lead on," Xena agreed, smiling at the young people. "Methlin, would you please help Gabrielle?"
"Sure," she said with a shrug, going to help take the saddle and put it down on a small rock sticking up out of the ground.
Xena waited until they were alone. "What's going on?"
"Ares is sending them to Cupid's temple for specialized training," Iolaus said simply. "On the way, I'm giving them practical lessons on what being a warrior is like."
"Walking," she agreed, looking happier. "How long have you been out here?"
"Three days. We're going to the next port and taking a ship." Iolaus pulled out his knife and handed it over to her. "Want the first trap while I go beat the bushes?" She handed him the rope and he went to find them a bird or three.
She shook her head. "Ares, you can't do that to your warlords, those kids are too innocent."
"You'd be surprised," Tras said from a few feet away. He walked over to her carrying an armful of firewood. "I'm not as innocent as I look, Xena. I know exactly what I'm getting into. I also know what it will mean to my future and what people will say if they find out. I fully agree with Ares in this case, there's a few warlords that need a helper to keep them out of trouble."
She nodded. "As long as you realize what you're getting into."
He gave her a slight smile. "Yeah, I know. Iolaus made sure I knew what I was getting into."
"Are you two related?" Xena asked.
"He's my father." Her mouth fell open. "That was his reaction too," he said with a grin, then he headed back to the campsite.
She went back to making her traps, only nodding at Iolaus when he rejoined her with a few birds. "They all know," he told her. "We both made sure of it."
"You do realize that Hercules is going to throw a fit, right?" she asked.
Iolaus shrugged. "It's going to hopefully keep a few warlords in check. He won't say too much if he doesn't have to deal with them. If he does, then I'll point out that it's not much different from what we used to do for Jason back when we were younger." He walked away, going to clean the birds.
She thought about it, but couldn't come up with much to say. If they knew what they were doing, then there wasn't much she could do or say about it. They were adult enough to know what they were getting into. The very fact that Iolaus was with them told her that much. She finished off the first snare and went to make another one. Any extra meat would be good for their travels.
Joxer wandered into the camp a few hours after dark and sat down next to Iolaus, shaking his hand. "Escorting new people to a temple?" he asked, nodding at the young people sitting together and talking.
Xena looked up at him. "Did you get the letters finished?" Joxer nodded. "Thank you for doing that for them."
"No one deserves to be without knowledge of their loved ones," Joxer said simply and quietly. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No, we're all set up," Tras told him, giving him a smile. "So, you're Joxer?" The other man nodded, looking careful. "I met your sister."
"Oh, Jace," Joxer said, giving him a smile. "Was she performing?"
Tras nodded. "I passed through the town she was performing in on my way to my training in Thebes."
"You were training at Ares' temple?" Gabrielle said, glaring at him.
"We all were," Methlin told her. "Now we're going for some cross training with some of Cupid's temple. Iolaus was good enough to escort us when asked to."
"Ares asked him to?" Gabrielle said, starting to laugh. "Was he *nice*?"
Joxer and the three warriors all glared at her. "There's times when it suits him to be pleasant," Xena said quietly. "Otherwise, no one would ever do anything but grovel at his feet." She looked over at Joxer, then at Iolaus. "Maybe Joxer should go with you. We passed a bandit group a few days back, and they were heading for the same port you four are."
"We couldn't find their hideout," Gabrielle added. "Otherwise we would have taken care of them already. But, please, take Joxer. We won't need him in Thebes to go find out what Ares has planned."
Joxer started to open his mouth but Iolaus put a hand on his arm, giving him a sympathetic look. "Sure, I could use someone else to come with me. With a short sea voyage on our route, I'm sure we could use the extra hand." Joxer grinned at him. "You game?"
"Sure." Joxer looked at the three youngsters. He felt so old seeing how eager they looked. "I think it'd be fun and I do serve Ares. Anything to serve my God."
Iolaus clapped him on the back. "Thanks. Methlin, this is Joxer, he's a great storyteller."
"Yup, I've got lots of stories."
"Any of battles?" she asked.
"He grew up in a warlord's house," Iolaus told her. "He probably has got some from then too." Joxer looked at him and the silent exchange told him all he needed to know. Joxer understood why these three were going to Cupid's. "Maybe you could tell them something about campaigning behind a warlord. I'm supposed to be showing them how armies work and how to think like a foot soldier."
Joxer looked at the young warriors. "Get used to walking with everything on your back," he said, then he smiled. "You'll be doing it for at least four months out of the year and training the rest of the time if you're smart."
Xena nodded. "Definitely. Though some do settle down and raise a family the rest of the time. Some warlords even get their people back in time for harvests. They tend to take a lot of the harvest for themselves, but they do look after their warriors during the thin months." She ate another piece of rabbit. "Joxer, eat."
He smiled and grabbed some of the roasted bird, eating the greasy meat. "S'great," he said through the food. He swallowed as he pulled his pack around, digging for his waterskin. He took a long drink and looked at Xena, then glanced at Gabrielle. Xena nodded. "Interesting seasoning choice. I've never tasted that combination except on fish."
"It's all we have," Gabrielle huffed. "Just eat it, Joxer."
"I didn't say it was bad, just different," he soothed. He ate another piece but made sure his waterskin was close at hand. The peppers were a bit hot for his tastes and the herbs just made them more so. He took a sip and pulled out a piece of journey bread, handing it off to Xena, who gave him a nod in thanks. "A sea journey," Joxer finally asked, just to break the silence.
"Yeah, Ares is sending them to Cupid's temple in the Islands a few miles off the coast. Not more than a day's sail."
"It's supposed to be really pretty at that one," Joxer told the three warriors. "It's rumored to have some very nice gardens. It's also very warm there."
"You sound like you've been there," Tras said, looking at him.
"I spent some time with a priest who had just been there and was traveling with a message to Aphrodite's main temple. He had a lot to say about that temple, he hoped he was going to be able to retire near that one instead of here on the mainland." He took another sip of water. "He told me that, and this was a few years back, that the temple only had three priests and one priestess, but that there wasn't anyone else nearby. They had to farm their own land to get enough food, but they weren't bothered by townspeople trying to get in and peek on them."
"It is supposed to be beautiful," Iolaus agreed. "Lots of places to sit and read or think."
"It sounds idyllic," Methlin said quietly. "Peaceful places to think don't seem to happen at a lot of temples."
"Ares doesn't encourage that sort of activity," Xena reminded her. "Practice is much more productive."
"Yes, but even the most hardened warriors need time to contemplate their life," Methlin pointed out.
"But then you might decide to change and stop being one of Ares' goons," Gabrielle told her.
Xena shook her head. "Not at all, but you might find out that your priorities have changed and that would preoccupy you during a fight," she told her sidekick. "That usually leads to death. The temple in Thebes has a wonderful old tree to sit under and think about the world and your plans for it." She licked some rabbit juice off her fingers. "I spent some time under it while I was planning which way to take my army. I got many of my best ideas while underneath there."
Iolaus nodded. "There was a place like that at the Academy too. Herc and Jason used to do their strategy homework under there."
"And you brought the girls there?" Methlin asked, smiling at him.
"Sometimes," Iolaus agreed, grinning back at her. "Usually it was easier to meet in town. Less chance of getting caught than when I snuck them onto the Academy grounds. Chiron was very strict about such things."
"So I heard," Joxer said with a grin. "My father used to tell stories about that school and how it was great for the people that wanted to run an army but for the average warrior it wasn't worth all the extra classes."
"Well, you're definitely not the average warrior," Xena told him. "Did you ask him to send you?"
"No, Jett did. My father pointed out that Jett would never lead an army, he was more of a small tactical group sort of leader." Everyone stared at him. "That's how he was trained until he left home and went to learn his present trade."
"What does that one do?" Michnas asked.
"He's the King of Assassins," Xena told him.
"Then you're a well-trained warrior?" Tras asked.
Iolaus glared at him. "Joxer serves Ares but he's not meant to be a foot soldier. He's got other skills that come in more handy than the average sword skills."
Tras got the point and backed off. "Sorry. I like knowing the strength of those around me, in case something happens of course."
Joxer smiled. "I'm not a great fighter, but I'm learning, the same as you are. My other skills are more along the path of ..." He tried to think about how to put it.
"Mischief making," Xena put in. "He's the best at making others screw up their plans."
"That too," Joxer said, looking over at her. "But I never do it on purpose."
"We know," Gabrielle sighed. "Maybe you'll pick up some ideas from Iolaus on the trip. I hear he's pretty good at getting into the other camp's head and figuring out how to get them unmotivated."
"It's a very useful gift during a real campaign," Iolaus told her. He looked at Xena, who mouthed the word 'moon'. He and Joxer both nodded wisely. "Maybe we should all turn in," Iolaus suggested. "We might make it to the port tomorrow if we walk a little faster tomorrow."
"Faster?" Michnas asked. "I'm walking as fast as I can, Iolaus."
"Not much faster," Joxer told him. "Maybe a few less breaks would do it. Tide is around noon this time of year. You might get there before then if you push yourselves."
"If we miss tide can we stay in an inn?" Methlin asked in a wistful tone. "I'd love a real bath." She looked at Xena. "How do you handle cold streams all year?"
"We stay in inns as much as possible," she said with a faint smile. "If you're in a large enough army, there's probably at least a big pot to heat water for a cloth-bath. You adapt after a few months of it."
"And when you get off campaign, you spend the first few hours at home in a real bath," Iolaus finished with a smile.
"Right after you toss your armor outside because it smells so bad and you never want to see it again," Xena agreed.
Michnas looked at his own leather vest. "I'm already feeling like that. That stuff is hard to move in."
"Not once you've done it for a while," Xena advised. "Try sleeping in it a few weeks. It should start to soften up."
"It *is* softened up," Michnas protested. "But it's confining."
"It doesn't seem to fit him right," Tras told her. "He's grown some more muscle since he had it fixed last time."
"And about four inches," Methlin pointed out. She patted him on the arm. "It's time to get it fitted again. Your father will be so proud, you're now taller than he is and still more graceful with a blade."
Joxer laughed. "There's a really good leather worker in the village. He could probably help you fix it when you get in."
"Help him fix it?" Tras asked.
"Most foot soldiers don't use the camp armorer, if you group even has one. Their armor is most likely the only thing that they own in the world. Even if it needs a major repair, most soldiers like to at least stand there, if not help," Xena told him.
Tras looked down at his own semi-worn leather vest. "I can understand that. This is my only set of armor. Not like *some* of the guys back at Thebes."
"Who would brag about it," Michnas added.
"And push it in your face that their father had stabled their personal horses in the local town because Ares didn't allow cadets to have personal animals at the temple," Methlin finished.
"Sounds enchanting," Gabrielle said snidely. "People like that don't tend to learn their lessons very well."
"Most of them will probably become their family's bodyguards, or are the heir and needed to be able to protect themselves," Iolaus pointed out. "You almost never see guys like that in an army unless their fathers disown them." He shifted on his blanket. "I agree with Joxer, let's turn in now. It's going to be a longer day tomorrow."
"Iolaus, are you taking it easy on us?" Tras asked.
Iolaus smiled at him. "Yup."
"That's what we thought." He sighed and headed to his blanket, the other cadets following his lead.
Joxer laid out his blanket next to them and laid down. "Night."
"Good night, Joxer," Xena told him, going to her own bedroll. She kicked at Gabrielle, making her follow.
Iolaus banked the fire and crawled into his bed for the night too. He was looking forward to a night at the inn too. He was getting too old for this.
Joxer hung back and studied the warriors that were going to be trained. He was sure at least one of them had a real idea of what was going to be happening to them all but he wasn't sure if he should butt in or not. He decided to when he noticed Michnas starting to bite his fingernails. "You shouldn't do that," he said as he walked up to him. "You'll get an infection if you rip it off." He checked the young man's hands, then glanced into his eyes. He knew. "Let's talk tonight," he suggested. "I remember this trip very well." He moved up to walk beside Iolaus, smiling at Tras. "Getting caught up?"
"Yeah, I just found him," Iolaus said, smiling at Joxer. "I've decided to give the kids a break and stay at the inn tonight. It'll be a short sail and they'll want to be clean and presentable when they get there."
Joxer nodded. "That sounds like a good idea. Am I coming on the sail with you?"
"If you want," Iolaus said lightly. He looked Joxer over. "I'm sure you understand what's going on here, Joxer, and I know you'll probably have some information for the kids."
Tras stopped in his tracks. "You?" he squeaked.
"Me," Joxer agreed, stopping to look at him. "Iolaus, give us a minute," he suggested, walking off the road and finding a clearing in the woods. He turned and found the three cadets walking behind him. "I've been on this walk before," he told them. "My father decided I should become useful in a more...political sense." He blushed and smiled, looking down at his feet. "I didn't mind, at first. I was trained by one of Aphrodite's priestesses and then given to a warlord my father wanted to make a truce with. I had the strictest instructions on what my duties were, and how I was to obey him if he came up with a *reasonable* demand." He started to pace, a few feet in each direction. "The problem was, I was too young to realize what a reasonable demand was. I was allowed contact with my father, and all of us knew I was going to be reporting back to him about everything, especially when I was at that age." Again the blush/smile combination came and quickly left. "Then even I started to see some things as unreasonable. How I was his so-called stress relief. How I was the one he blamed when he was clearly making stupid plans." He stopped and looked at them. "My father had made it very clear that if this warlord had ever gotten to the point where it was becoming dangerous, he was to die."
"What happened?" Tras asked.
"But you only lost your blood innocence a few years ago, or so Iolaus said," Tras said, looking confused.
Joxer gave him a pleasant smile. "I didn't kill him. I saw it happen. I was underneath him when it happened." He sighed. "My brother's first kill was to protect me. He's since pushed it back in my face, but this warlord was his first kill. Not a happy time for any of us. It took me almost a year to heal from all my injuries." He swallowed hard. "Guys, if you need my advice, ask. Ask me, ask Iolaus, ask Ares. Do *not* ask Hercules for advice, he's a bit of a prude," he confided with his usual smile. "Most of all, be careful. Most warlords got where they are by being not very nice. Most of them wouldn't know how to treat a lover if they were given lessons by Aphrodite herself- you've got to have some ideas before you can learn." He looked them over again. "Never, and I do mean *never*, let the man give you to anyone as a reward, never let him hit you, and if you think you've screwed up and lost his attention, you have and you're now a legal target. If *any* of those happen, you have to leave. If the warlord lives is between you and Ares. If you live is a matter of you knowing what this asshole is like and how he thinks. Study the man before you approach him. *Know* him before you bend over and take it from him, or her." He smiled at them. "There are female warlords, as Xena proves, and they're usually either insane or even more cruel than the cruelest male warlord. You don't have to take my word for it, but please take the advice." He clapped his hands. "End of lecture. Let's get back to walking. I could use the inn too."
"Um, Joxer, how long ago was this?" Methlin asked.
Joxer smiled. "I'm nearly as old as Iolaus, but he isn't as old as he looks. And yes, I was about your age, maybe a year younger, when my father offered me for training."
"Then who was the warlord?"
"I...I can't say, guys, let's not get into that." He headed back to the road, going to catch up to Iolaus. "Ready to move on?"
"Sure. Who was it?" Joxer frowned at him, and Iolaus shrugged. "It was obvious you *knew*, Joxer, and I figure something had to interrupt your training when it would have done the most good."
"No, I've been clumsy all my life. I asked one of Ares' priests and he thought my eyesight wasn't as good as everyone else's, but that there wasn't anything I could do about it."
"And who was the warlord?" Iolaus asked.
"I can't say, Iolaus. I made a vow not to tell." He started walking on. "I want a real bath and a real meal," he called back. "Are you coming?"
"Yes," Iolaus said, jumping up to follow him. "I'm sorry, Joxer. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."
"You didn't. It was a long time ago, Iolaus. It doesn't hurt but I can't tell you."
"Hey, it's all fine, as long as you're fine with it." He clapped the other man on the back. "Kids?" he called.
"Daaaaaaaddddddddddd!" Tras yelled as they ran to catch up. "Don't call us that."
Joxer smiled at him. "It's good to have family that likes you. Cherish it." He smiled at Iolaus. "I'm finally being spoken to again by mine."
"Good," Iolaus said, giving him a bright smile. "It's about time. How is Jace?"
"He's fine. He's got a new act, which is a very big tease."
"You mean she's not your sister?" Michnas asked, looking shocked.
"Nope, he's my brother," Joxer said lightly. "He likes to dress up as a woman, but he's all man." He laughed at the sour expression of two of the three youngsters. "There's really not anything wrong with it. He had to show me that, but I've come to realize that he's happiest that way so I should be happy for him."
"As long as no one expects me to do that," Michnas said firmly. Then he stomped his foot.
"She probably does that much better," Methlin teased, grinning at him.
"Come on, guys, you're making the trip longer. The inn's about an hour's journey." The three cadets started to run, wanting to get there. Iolaus shared a smile with Joxer, who looked happier. "Do you still want to come to the temple with us?"
"No, I think I'll stay at the inn tonight and head off in another direction after you guys leave."
They walked along, calm and friendly with each other. Iolaus never judged him, it made him a good friend.
Joxer fell back onto his rented bed and sighed in relief. His back hurt, it was more than time for him to spend a few days in a bed. Maybe he'd head back to Meg's for a week or so. But that would require walking halfway across Greece to get there. He gave it up as a dream and relaxed back into the hay-stuffed mattress, hoping he wasn't going to have to move for a while. A bright flash next to the bed forced him to turn his head, and he made himself sit up. It wasn't good to meet your God on your back, not even if it had been Aphrodite. "Ares," he said calmly, nodding at him. "How can I serve you today? Do I have to get up and do a proper bow?"
"No, stay," Ares said, giving him a smile. "What you did earlier was just right, I'm glad I sent you to talk to them. Michnas has asked to be removed and the other two have started to ask what sort of duties they're going to be forced to do." He looked over Joxer's body. "What's wrong with you?"
"I'm tired, Ares. My back's sore and I'm tired of walking." Joxer pulled himself back, resting against the wall. "I'm thinking about slowing down. Maybe giving myself a few months off a year of following behind Xena."
Ares laughed. "Joxer, you don't have to follow along with them if you don't want to. It was your choice."
"I know," he said quietly. "I choose to follow along with them and complete my training." Ares gave him a look. "Which I do know I'll never really get to finish, especially at my age, but I feel like I left that part of myself unfinished when I was gifted."
"I understand fully," Ares told him, giving him a shrug. "Then what do you want to do in those months off?"
Joxer grinned up at him. "I have no idea. I'll figure it out when I find it."
"You're growing up," Ares said in appreciation. "I like this new you. Your family's lands are up for grabs with your father in prison and your brothers both gone." Then he disappeared.
Joxer leaned back, relaxing again. That was a good idea. Maybe he had enough money to sail most of the way. Nebula was in town. She liked him the last time they'd met. Or at least he had ... amused her. Maybe she'd take him most of the way home. He curled up onto his side, letting his back muscles stretch. "Ahhhhh," he sighed, falling asleep just like that.