STRIFE





Triestes was a tired man. Still, just seeing the walls of Corinth gave him a reason to smile. Coming home always did that to him.

As General of Corinth's military, he had been dispatched to Corinth's neighboring kingdoms to assure their neighbors that the recent developments in Corinth would not upset the current diplomatic situation.

Triestes grunted. 'Damn, I'm starting to sound like a diplomat! I despise the Spartans, but at least they're honest. They called Medea's actions by its right name. Murder.'

At the time the Corinthian Council had sent him on his mission, he hadn't understood why he'd been chosen. After leaving Sparta, he did. The old general spoke honestly. Even if the Athenians were sometimes offended by his blunt choice of words, all the neighboring kingdoms knew what was going on.

Medea, wife of Jason of Corinth, had murdered their children and fled the kingdom.

Despite the rumors, Jason still ruled. All treaties and agreements were still in force.

And if King Jason was slower than normal in responding to his fellow kings' letters, well, that was to be expected under the circumstances.

As Triestes and his escort approached the western gates of Corinth, he removed his helmet and wiped his forehead. His thinning gray hair damply clung to his neck even as his tired body slumped a little in the saddle.

He now silently grudgingly admitted that if any of the Corinthian Council had gone in his place, most of the neighboring kingdoms would have suspected that either Jason was dying or about to be deposed.

Neither supposition would have been good for the peace of Corinth.

Spotting the guards at the gate as they slouched against the wall, Triestes straightened his spine and glared. "Is this how you represent your king?" he barked.

The two sentries literally jumped in surprise.

Triestes dismounted and walked towards them. "Visitors to Corinth see you before they see anyone else! What sort of impression do you think they'll have seeing the two of you lounging against the walls?"

"Sorry, General," one of the young men stammered.

Triestes stared at both young men. "Report to me first thing tomorrow morning," he sternly ordered.

"Yes, sir," the guards quickly answered.

The old man turned to his escort. "Stable the horses and get some rest. Report to me in the morning." He glared once more at the nervous guards and walked through the open gates.

A brisk walk to the palace worked off most of his aggravation. But the sight of Grias, Chief Counselor to King Jason, was guaranteed to irritate him even further.

"Welcome home, General." Grias, a dark-haired dark-eyed man in his mid thirties, bowed in respect.

Triestes knew just how much of that bow was respect and how much was mockery. "It's good to see you." He bowed in return.

Grias also knew just how much of the bow was respect and how much was mockery.

Triestes looked around. "Where is King Jason?"

Grias sighed. "His Majesty is..."

"Triestes!"

Grinning, the general turned to see Jason of Corinth walking down the hall towards him. His smile faltered as he sniffed the odor of wine on the king. Nonetheless, he bowed reverently. "Good afternoon, your Majesty."

Jason briefly hugged the older man. "All is well?"

"Yes, your Majesty," Triestes assured him. "I have their messages for you."

"I'm sure the king would not wish to be so troubled to read their condolences at this point," Grias smoothly interrupted. "The Council can reply to them."

"I was assured that some of those messages are personal." Triestes glared past Jason at the Counselor.

Jason hesitated, then waved a hand. "I'll look at them tomorrow." He patted Triestes on the arm. "I'm sure you would prefer a nice bath and rest."

Triestes hesitated, then bowed. "As you command."

Jason chuckled. "I never commanded you, my friend. Never." Unsteadily, he walked away.

Grias edged closer to the general and sighed. "I'm worried about our king."

Triestes glared at the counselor. "As His Majesty said, I'm looking forward to a nice bath. So spit out whatever you're hinting at."

Grias shrugged. "His Majesty spends more time brooding and drinking than ruling. And while I have no objection to devoting all my time to our beloved Corinth, King Jason's actions are not reflecting well upon him personally."

Triestes grunted. "I'll report to the Council tomorrow after I've met with my men and after I've reported to King Jason."

"As you wish." Grias bowed again and walked away.

Triestes once more wished for the good old days when Jason's father reigned. The Council then had been advisers who knew better than to show any ambition to rule. But the untimely death of Jason's father had brought an untried boy to Corinth's throne. And with Jason's ascension had come the ambitious counselors.

Shaking his head, Triestes left the palace and walked towards his quarters at the barracks. Spotting one of his junior officers leaving the medical tent, he yelled, "Kellious!"

The younger man stopped then wearily smiled. "General! It's good to see you!"

Triestes uneasily eyed the commotion around the medical tent. "Who's hurt?"

Kellious brushed back his dark red hair. "No one. But there's a nasty fever going around. Started where the Yellows live. Most of the guards patrolling in that section of the city have come down with it. So we're not patrolling there now."

Triestes spun around. "WHAT?!" he bellowed. Gratified when Kellious took a couple of steps backward, the general advanced on him. "Did I hear correctly?" he angrily hissed. "You referred to citizens of Corinth as 'Yellows'?"

"Well, that's what others..." Kellious nervously began.

"What others say or think matters less to me than a wart on Dionysius' ass!" Triestes furiously swore. "King Jason has accepted a lot of people into his kingdom, and they have sworn to uphold our laws and be productive citizens. And for the vast majority, they are! Therefore, they are entitled to as much respect as someone whose family has been here for three generations! Now, do you have a problem with that concept?"

"No, sir," Kellious quickly answered. "I apologize, sir."

Triestes walked away a few steps and regained his temper. Then he spun back around. "And why are no patrols going into that part of the City?"

"Mostly because of the fever," Kellious slowly answered. "We're short-handed."

Triestes swore under his breath. "We've been short-handed before. It's at times like this that we need to show a presence in order to prevent panic and trouble." He took a deep breath. "Get a patrol together. I'll lead it myself."

"But, sir, you've just ret..." Kellious gulped. "Yes, sir. Immediately, sir."

Triestes watched as the young soldier scurried away. He glanced towards the palace and inwardly sighed. 'It's worse than I thought. Jason never had the confidence of the Council but now part of the military is slacking off and showing a lack of respect.'

The old general had always known that Jason's backing came from not only the military but also from the people who he ruled. They appreciated the wealth that Jason's treaties with kingdoms both within Greece and across the seas brought them. They also appreciated the peace that Corinth's strong military provided.

Triestes decided to follow Kellious. While he would have preferred a long hot bath, he knew he would be making his point more if he led the patrol with dirt of his long journey still on him.

Something dirty had taken root in Corinth. But Triestes had never been a man afraid of getting his hands dirty.

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Grias watched from a window as Triestes walked away from the castle. He inwardly chuckled, realizing the general was in a foul mood. He could almost feel sorry for whoever crossed Triestes' path. 'At least the old fool will be occupied elsewhere.'

"It's disgraceful how Triestes flouts your requests. After all, you speak for the Council and Corinth."

Grias turned to his scribe. While the young man hadn't been in his service for long, he'd proven to be almost indispensable. "Now, Stefanos, King Jason speaks for Corinth," he gently rebuked. He quickly smiled when the scribe lowered his eyes. "I am merely his humble servant."

"I meant to disrespect," Stefanos quickly apologized. He nervously pushed his dark blonde hair away from his forehead. "But, you work so hard! And with King Jason…grieving…" He shook his head. "Triestes should give you more respect."

"We each serve Corinth in our own ways," Grias magnanimously admitted. "But I agree that Triestes, while an adequate general, has no concept of how to rule. And I'm more than happy to help King Jason during this time of trouble."

"Poor King Jason." Stefanos sadly shook his head. "I can't imagine how he's managed to keep his sanity. He loved those children so much." He glanced at Grias who had turned to look out the window. "It's so awful what Medea did. I can't understand it myself."

"Yes. Yes. Who knows about such things? You'd best be about your duties now." Grias abruptly waved a hand in dismissal.

"Of course." Stefanos bowed. "At once."

As the young scribe closed the door, he maliciously grinned. "Who knows about such things? Well, I know about such things, you silly twit." Humming under his breath, he quickly walked away.

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Jason wearily fell onto the bed and stared up at the brightly decorated ceiling. He knew Triestes had smelled the wine on his breath but couldn't work up either the shame that it had been detected or the indignation that Triestes had ignored it.

Rubbing his face, Jason sighed. 'Tired. Just so damned tired.' He closed his eyes for a brief moment, then quickly sat up, his heart pounding in his chest.

Frantically, he got to his feet and searched his room. He found an unopened bottle of wine and quickly opened it. Drinking deeply, he shuddered as the liquor hit his empty stomach. "Can't stand to see them," he muttered, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

Holding the bottle against his chest, he sat on the floor. Looking around, he slowly shook his head. "Every time I close my eyes, I see my children." He gently patted the wine bottle. "I shouldn't be drinking about this, but I can't stand seeing them like that!"

Suddenly, Jason threw the bottle against the wall, flinching when it smashed into small pieces. "DAMN YOU, MEDEA! GOLDS OF OLYMPUS, DO YOU HEAR ME?!! DAMN HER!"

Curling into himself, Jason sobbed for his murdered children.

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Iolaus wiped the sweat from his forehead and looked up at the cloudless blue sky. 'A perfect day for fishing.' He glanced at the demigod who was working next to him. "So Alcmene needs a wall, huh?"

Hercules hesitated then shrugged. "Since we're not here all that much, I thought she needed some extra protection especially after someone broke into the house while she was in Corinth."

Iolaus nodded. 'Oh yeah. This wall is sure to stop a hydra...not to mention a bunch of marauding warlords or a couple of petty thieves.' Putting hands on his hips, he studied the length of stone they'd already erected. "Well, this is going to be a great wall. This will be a wall of envy to other walls. People from all over Greece will come to marvel at this wall."

Hercules used his muscles to shove a large section of rock into place. Sometimes Iolaus complained just because he was bored. But sometimes he complained in order to find out what Hercules was keeping from him. He knew that Iolaus had been just as concerned as he to learn that thieves had broken in to Alcmene's house. He also knew that Iolaus was just dying to point out that the proposed wall wouldn’t deter another such robbery.

That didn't mean Hercules was going to give him the opportunity. The demigod turned and pointed to a larger piece of rock. "You want to help me pick that up?"

"Sure, where's it going?" Iolaus brushed his dusty hands on his leather pants.

"Up there," Hercules pointed with his chin.

Iolaus turned to look at the spot his partner indicated and nodded. Eyes twinkling, he waited until the demigod had bent and slid his hands under the rock and started to lift. Then he walked past his friend, arms outstretched. "Alcmene! Let me take that for you! It's much too heavy for you to carry on your own!"

With a grunt, Hercules let the rock slide back onto the ground. Standing, he bit back the words he would have normally have said to his chuckling partner.

"Thank you, Iolaus," Alcmene smiled. She shaded her eyes and studied the wall. "That's quite a wall the two of you are building."

"Only the best for you, Alcmene," Iolaus assured her as he placed the tray of juice and empty mugs on the top of the partially finished wall.

"Well, don't forget we're having dinner with Cyrus and Oi-Lan," Alcmene reminded the two men. She fondly smiled at Iolaus then patted Hercules on the arm. "Don’t work too hard."

Hercules glanced at Iolaus who was lounging against the stone wall and sipping the juice. "Don't worry about that, Mother." He had to grin when Iolaus chuckled. "Seriously, I'd like to get this section finished today. I can visit with Oi-Lan and Cyrus another day." He walked towards the wall for some juice and missed the look that passed between Alcmene and Iolaus.

"The invitation was accepted by all of us, Hercules," Alcmene firmly replied. "I've raised you with better manners than that. An emergency is a suitable excuse for declining an accepted invitation at the last minute. Finishing a section of this wall is not."

"Yes, Mother," Hercules smiled in embarrassment. "I'm sorry."

Alcmene quickly hugged her son. "That's all right. I know you like to finish what you start."

Iolaus nervously looked at the wall. "Ummm, Herc? Just how big a wall are you planning?"

"I haven't decided yet," Hercules teased with a grin.

"Alcmene!" Iolaus whined.

"Play nice, boys," Alcmene laughed. "Just be sure you're cleaned up and ready to go in an hour."

"An hour?" Hercules glanced at the overhead sun then caught the look of relief Iolaus was giving Alcmene. "Yes, Mother. An hour."

Iolaus happily gulped his juice then coughed when Hercules pounded his back.

"Better get moving, Iolaus. We can get a lot done in an hour."

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Mei Li anxiously watched the group of men congregated across the street from her grandfather's herbal shop. She clutched the bread, warm from the nearby bakery, close to her chest and dropped her eyes when she noticed one of the men watching her.

The warm afternoon sun had encouraged her to leave her shawl in the herbal shop. Now, she felt half-undressed as the men openly stared at her. Peeping at the men one last time, she quickly entered her grandfather's herbal shop and closed the door. Sighing, she leaned against the door.

"What is it, child?" Hai Li asked with concern.

"Those men...they frighten me," Mei admitted.

Hai gently smiled. "They are only men. No worse and no better than others we have met."

"They hate us!" Mei exclaimed. "I really believe they would like to see us dead, grandfather!"

"Nonsense! King Jason has kindly and very wisely opened his city to immigrants. He wouldn't permit such an atrocity to occur."

"They say King Jason isn't the man he should be," Mei confided, stepping away from the door. "Ever since his children..."

Hai raised his hand to stop her words. "Please. There's no need to speak of that awful tragedy. And I refuse to listen to the gossip of those who have never met the King." He smiled. "Now. I have some jam in the back. Let's see if that bread tastes as good as it smells."

Mei looked over her shoulder at the men standing across the street. She shivered but started to follow the old man in to the back of the shop. She stopped when she heard the door open. Turning, she saw two men from the crowd across the street entering the herbal shop.

Hai stepped back into the stop and courteously bowed. "How may I assist you, gentlemen?"

"By getting out of Corinth! Go back to your own kind!"

Hai stared at the angry middle-aged man. "Cletus, you are a good man. Why would you say such a thing to me? I have done nothing to harm you."

"You and your kind harm us!" Cletus exclaimed. "Now there's fever and disease in Corinth, and you people brought it with you!"

"How can you accuse anyone of that?" Mei challenged.

"It started here with you Yellows. Now it's spreading to decent people!" Cletus suspiciously looked around the small shop. "All these…herbs that no one has ever heard of! You probably started this fever!"

"That's a lie!" Mei furiously denied. "My grandfather has helped many people with his herbs and knowledge! He could help even more if people would let him."

"There's no way I'd let any of my family take anything from you Yellows!" the younger man with Cletus snarled.

"Philip and I are here to tell you to get out of Corinth! You tell the rest of the Yellows to leave! Don't make us come back and make you!" Cletus threatened.

"We are here with the permission of King Jason," Hai calmly answered. "You do not speak for him. You only speak for those who choose to live in ignorance. Now you will leave my shop in peace."

"You've been warned, old man," Cletus angrily hissed. He turned around and walked out of the shop.

Philip smirked and followed, slamming the door behind him.

Mei anxiously clasped her hands together. "Grandfather, perhaps we should…" "No." Hai shook his head. "We were forced to leave our homeland. I will not leave my new home because of the ignorance of others."

Mei gasped when the door of the herbal shop opened. Then she relaxed when she saw Mahabi enter.

The tall African smiled at the young girl. "Are you both all right?" His normally booming voice was soft and gentle.

"Yes, thank you," Hai smiled.

Mahibi's dark eyes narrowed as he turned around and stared at the men across the street. "They will not be satisfied until they have hurt someone. They have ordered many of the immigrants to leave."

"I thought they only hated us Yellows," Mei bitterly muttered.

The weaver chuckled. "They hate anyone who is different from themselves."

Hai slowly nodded. "Perhaps it is time to appeal to King Jason." He smiled at the young man. "Will you come with me?"

Mahibi quickly nodded. "I would also like to ask him why his troops no longer patrol in our part of the city," he angrily admitted.

"We will speak reasonably and without either anger or bitterness," Hai gently remonstrated. "You cannot expect anyone to respond positively when all they hear is anger and accusations."

Mahibi chuckled again. "Sometimes, my friend, an accusation is needed to clear the air." He raised his hand. "But I will allow you to lead us. Your wisdom is greater than mine."

Hai politely bowed. "You do me great honor."

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"Look at them," Philip muttered. "Smiling and bowing while we can't find decent work and die from their miserable diseases. I tell you, what's happening here is what happened in Athens! That's why I came here to find work. I want to be able to bring my family to a place that's decent!"

"Where are they going?" Cletus asked as they watched Hai lead his friend and granddaughter down the street.

"Maybe he's going to marry off that granddaughter of his to that African," Philip snidely guessed.

"That's sick!" Theseus, Cletus' nephew, exclaimed.

"Well, what can you expect from the likes of them?" Philip demanded. "They need to be taught a lesson! They need to be put in their place!"

Cletus eyed the younger man. "I can't be seen to be a part of that. If I'm to have any chance of representing our people to King Jason, I must be seen as above such violence."

Philip looked at the other three men. "I think we can take care of them for you. After all, we must do what we can to make Corinth safe for Corinthians. No sacrifice is too great for us to make, is it?"

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The three immigrants stopped as they found the small street blocked by silent sullen men.

Anxiously, Mei clutched her grandfather's arm. The old man merely narrowed his eyes as he studied the men who started walking towards them.

Mahabi looked behind them then sighed. Their retreat was cut off by a group of people who stood glaring at them. "I learned a weaver's trade because I had shed too much blood in my country's wars," he muttered. "But I have not forgotten what I learned." Looking at Mei and Hai, he smiled. "I will clear a way for you. Run as fast as you can towards the palace. Send whatever help you can."

"We can't leave you," Hai protested.

"You have no choice," Mahabi calmly pointed out. "You will be of no help to me in this fight, my friend."

Reluctantly, the old man nodded.

Mahabi led them forward to meet the approaching men. Suddenly, he threw back his head and shrieked a war cry. His eyes rolled back in his head as he tensed his muscles.

The approaching men stopped, unsure of what was happening.

Mahabi slowly lowered his head, his eyes still rolled back in his head. Slowly, he smiled. His eyes coming back into focus, he screamed again then ran at the men who blocked their way.

Frightened, two of the men immediately stepped aside.

Grabbing his granddaughter's arm, Hai ran behind Mahabi.

"Get them!" Philip yelled.

Mahabi spun around and raised his fists. "You shall not pass!" he thundered.

Philip watched anxiously for a few seconds. Then, he smiled, assured that Mahabi would pose no further threat to them.

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Triestes was inwardly seething. Every time someone gave them a surprised look, he glared at Kellious. Every time, he noticed garbage lying on the street or in an alley, he fumed. Making sure that the citizens properly disposed of their garbage and trash was a responsibility of the City Guard.

By the time, they'd traveled halfway through Corinth, Kellious was silently praying that the city would be attacked. While Triestes wouldn't forget the punishments he was planning, at least it would be postponed. 'And, if I'm lucky, at least I'll die in battle.'

"General! Help! Please!"

Triestes turned around with a frown. Staggering down a garbage-strewn alleyway was an old Oriental man and a young Oriental girl. He ran towards them, motioning for his men to follow.

"Please! They'll kill him!" the girl begged.

The old man gulped for air. "They chased us. Mahabi stayed to prevent them from hurting us. Six blocks east and two blocks north."

"Right in the middle of Yel..."

Triestes whirled around. "Who said that?!" he bellowed.

The speaker flushed even as his fellow soldiers edged away from him.

"You're dismissed! Get your personal belongings and leave!" Triestes ordered.

"What?!"

"Sir," Kellious began to protest.

"By Ares! I give the orders! And when I give them, they are to be obeyed! If anyone doesn't like how this city is run, they can leave!" Triestes raged. He pointed at the dismissed soldier. "Be gone before I return!" He looked at two other soldiers. "Take these citizens of Corinth to the medical tent. Any injuries are to be treated. Understand?"

"Yes, sir!" Both soldiers saluted. The younger of the two reached towards Hai. "Let me help you, sir."

"The rest of you...with me!" Triestes ordered. Drawing his sword, he smiled. 'Time to find out just what's going on around here.'

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Philip was the first one to see the Corinthian guards running towards them. Smiling to himself, he ducked into a nearby alley.

Triestes' eyes narrowed as he saw one man on the ground being hit with pieces of wood and stomped by heavy boots. "Take them!" he ordered.

Startled, Mahabi's attackers suddenly found themselves surrounded by Corinthian soldiers. Kellious dropped to his knees next to Mahabi and began examining his wounds.

"We're not doing anything!" one of the men protested.

Triestes angrily strode towards him. "You beat a man nearly to death, and you say you've done nothing?" he demanded.

"He's not one of us!" Another man protested. "They've brought sickness and fever to Corinth!"

Other voices joined in agreement.

"The laws are very clear about assault upon a citizen of Corinth!" Triestes loudly reminded them. "You'll stand trial before the King." Coldly smiling, he raised his sword. "Resist, and you'll be restrained. If you try to agitate this crowd, you'll be gagged as well. Now, drop your weapons."

Reluctantly, the men looked around then slowly dropped their clubs.

Triestes pointed to three of his soldiers. "You will help Kellious get this man to the medical tent."

"He assaulted us," one of the men accused.

"He was defending himself," Triestes shot back. Looking at his men, he pointed towards the palace. "These men are under arrest. Take them to the palace jail." Hearing angry murmurs from the nearby crowd, he turned to face them. "The laws of Corinth will be enforced! If you don't like those laws, petition the King to have them changed or leave the city!" Turning in a slow circle, he glared at the crowd. "Now, go about your business and keep the peace of the city!"

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"These rumors are getting out of hand, Your Majesty," Triestes reported. "I strongly urge that you show yourself in the City. The people respect you."

Jason slowly nodded. "I hadn't realized things had gotten so out of hand." He started at Grias. "Why wasn't I informed about this fever?"

Grias' dark eyes widened. "I did mention it, Your Majesty. But it was confined to the immigrant section of the city, and they insisted on treating themselves. There had been no reports of it spreading." He shook his head. "I think perhaps this is one more rumor."

"Hardly," Triestes grunted. "And if only one non-immigrant has caught the fever, it's enough to feed the anger of a mob."

Jason nodded. "Arrange for a detachment to accompany me."

"Your Majesty, I must protest!" Grias anxiously stepped forward. "You cannot risk your life! What would happen to Corinth if you caught this fever and died? With no heir..."

"SILENCE!" Jason angrily roared.

Grias hesitated, then bowed his head. "I must speak of this, Your Majesty. It gives me no pleasure to do so, but the words I say are true."

'You sanctimonious hypocrite.' Triestes' eyes narrowed in distaste.

"You are responsible for all of Corinth, not just for a select few," Grias continued. "While I applaud Your Majesty's desire to personally intervene, surely Triestes' troops can insure peace."

"Your Majesty's soldiers will make sure there are no mobs running around the streets," Triestes assured Jason. "But you should see representatives of those who are...upset."

Jason nodded. "Tell them I'll meet with them in an hour. Tell them I'll not listen to angry bigoted rhetoric. They're to present their concerns, and we'll discuss them."

"Your Majesty's wisdom is a shining example to all of us." Grias respectfully bowed.

'Zeus, I know as King of the Gods that you're very busy. But anytime you want to hit Grias with a lightning bolt is fine with me.' Triestes managed to refrain from rolling his eyes.

Jason wearily waved a hand in dismissal. He silently walked down the corridor towards his suite.

Grias slowly smiled at Triestes then walked away.

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"Have you heard from Jason lately?" Iolaus glanced at Alcmene as they walked along the path to Cyrus' house.

"Not since I left Corinth after the funeral," Alcmene admitted. "I invited him to stay here if he wanted to get away for a while. But he said it would be better if he stayed in Corinth." She frowned. "Perhaps I should have stayed there for a while."

Hercules squeezed his mother's shoulder. "I'm sure Jason would have appreciated that, Mother. But I'm sure he just needs time to deal with what happened before wanting to be around a lot of people."

Iolaus reluctantly nodded. "And it's not like he's in a position to be left alone. He's still the King of Corinth. He's got things to do and people to see everyday."

Alcmene slowly nodded. "I suppose you're right," she slowly admitted. 'But it just feels wrong.'

"We'll wait a while then head to Corinth for a little vacation," Iolaus proposed. "Alcmene can do some shopping, and we can do some sea fishing. And, of course, we'll stop in to see Jason; and get him to play hooky for a couple of days!"

Hercules hesitated at the fork in the road. Alcmene and Iolaus had already turned onto the left fork leading to Cyrus' farm. He glanced up at a nearby hill, aware that his mother and friend had stopped and were looking back at him. "Go on," he suggested. "I'll catch up before you get to Cyrus'."

Iolaus' eyes glanced at the hill. He knew what lay on the smaller hill hidden by the one Hercules was staring at. He started to speak, but stopped when Alcmene squeezed his hand.

"Don't be long," Alcmene quietly spoke.

Hercules half-smiled. "I won't," he promised. "I know how little food gets left when Iolaus starts eating."

Iolaus chuckled and patted his flat stomach. "So what if I like to show my appreciation for good food?"

Hercules' smile broadened. Then he turned and rapidly walked towards the nearby hill.

Iolaus worriedly watched for a few seconds.

Alcmene patted his arm. "Come on," she urged. "He won't be long."

Walking beside the two mortals, the invisible god nodded to himself. "Oh yeah, I can see what Big Daddy Zeus saw in you, pretty Momma." Leaning closer to Iolaus, he murmured, "Gotta be wearing on your nerves, Iolaus. Hercules always has somebody, doesn't he? But you? You've been just a tagalong for years, right?"

Frowning, Iolaus looked over his shoulder to where Hercules had disappeared. "Are you sure, Alcmene?"

The older woman sadly smiled. "Let him have his time, Iolaus."

"Yeah," Iolaus slowly nodded.

"Yeah." The invisible god nodded in agreement. "Let him be alone. He doesn't need you bugging him every hour of every day. In fact, the mighty Hercules has friends everywhere. You're not even all that important, are you?" He watched as the hunter momentarily frowned. Then, as he disappeared, the god snickered. "I am SO good!"

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Hercules carefully cleared the small twigs and leaves that covered the four graves under the massive tree. "I miss you all so very much," he murmured. "But I stay busy. There's a lot to do. So I'm not just sitting around grieving. I know you wouldn't like that." Sighing, he pushed his hair away from his face. "There's a nice family living in our house now. It just seemed…right, Deianeira, you know? We had such plans, remember? And there's something about that property that just begs for the sound of children laughing, doesn't it?"

Standing, he rubbed his hands on his leather-clad thighs. "Guess I'd better stop delaying, huh? Mother and Iolaus will wonder where I've gotten to. It's just gonna be hard to see another family living where we had so many dreams and plans."

Taking a few steps away, he hesitated. "You kids behave for your mother. I love all of you."

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"That smells so good!" Iolaus appreciatively sniffed the scents coming from the kitchen. The small house was neat and tidy with only a few touches to remind the residents of their former homeland.

Oi-Lan blushed. "Thank you. I was not able to get all the herbs I needed to properly prepare the food I am serving."

"Don’t apologize," Iolaus assured her with a grin. "If it tastes half as good as it smells…" He grinned at Cyrus. "You're a lucky man."

Cyrus chuckled and wrapped an arm around his wife's waist. "Very lucky. We are expecting a child next winter."

Alcmene immediately looked at Oi-Lan's barely rounded stomach. "Congratulations!" She hugged the younger woman.

The invisible god leaned closer to Iolaus. "Looks like Alcmene will have a little one to fuss over, won't she? Replaced again, huh?"

Iolaus' left shoulder twitched even as he offered a hand to Cyrus. "Congratulations, Cyrus. You'll be a great father."

"If we are blessed with a daughter, we would like to name it after you, Alcmene," Oi-Lan shyly explained. "You have been so good to us."

"I'm honored," Alcmene admitted with surprise. "Thank you. But are you sure you want to give her a Greek name rather than one that reflects her heritage?"

Cyrus and Oi-Lan exchanged a quick look. "We live here. It is better that our children be assimilated into your culture."

Iolaus frowned. "That doesn't sound good."

Alcmene put a hand on Oi-Lan's arm. "Have you been having trouble in town again?"

"Trouble? What trouble?" Iolaus demanded, hands on his hips.

"It's nothing to speak of," Cyrus shook his head. "This is a dinner of celebration. Not a time for disagreements."

"Tell that to your visitors, chum." The invisible god rubbed his hands in anticipation.

Just then someone pounded on the front door.

"You inside! Get out here!"

Oi-Lan automatically placed a protective hand on her stomach.

Iolaus exchanged a grim look with Cyrus then walked over to the door and opened it.

"Look, you…Iolaus?!"

"Prulos. Haven't seen you in a long time," Iolaus greeted. He stepped forward, forcing the villager to back up. He noticed several villagers from Thebes standing a few yards away. "What's going on?"

Prulos nervously glanced behind him, then straightened his shoulders. "We're glad you're here, Iolaus. Guess you're here to straighten these people out."

"About what?" Iolaus casually crossed his arms across his chest.

"About these people taking Hercules' land, that's what!" Prulos shouted. "Squatting here like they own the place. Heard they threatened Alcmene when she tried to get 'em to move."

"Is that a fact?" Iolaus frowned. "Well, Hercules gave them the land; and Alcmene never asked them to leave." He glanced at the villagers. "I hear they've been having some trouble in town. Would anyone like to tell me about it?"

"They don't belong here."

Iolaus looked at the young villager who'd sullenly spoke. "Chrytes, isn't it?" He nodded to himself. "You moved here a couple of years ago, didn't you? Yeah, you weren't born here, were you?"

"At least I'm Greek!" the young man angrily shouted.

Iolaus turned to Prulos. "Remember when we were kids? What was that jerk's name?" He grinned. "Valerius! That's it! Remember how he looked down on us because his family had been in Thebes for six generations?"

Prulos laughed. "I'd forgotten about him! Yeah, he kept picking on you because you were born in Sparta and not Thebes."

Iolaus happily nodded. "Until I finally broke his nose."

"And I blacked both his eyes when he made my sister cry," Prulos laughed again.

"That's not the same thing!" Chrytes shouted.

"Isn't it?" Iolaus demanded. "What sort of trouble are they having in town?" He took two steps forward. "Talk to me, Chrytes."

The younger man looked away. "We take care of our own first. So what if there's not much left in the market for them?"

Iolaus' blue eyes narrowed as he turned back to Prulos. "Did you know Oi-Lan is going to have a baby? Do you think she needs to be treated like that?"

"A baby? A little thing like her?" Prulos frowned. "We didn't know that Hercules had given them this land."

"And who said they'd threatened Alcmene?" Iolaus demanded.

"A traveler who was heading to Corinth," Prulos frowned. "He said he'd heard them arguing. And then when someone broke into Alcmene's house…" He nervously shrugged. "Well, we just assumed…."

"You should have asked Mother rather than listening to gossip."

They all turned to see Hercules walking towards them, frowning as he looked from one man to the other.

"Oops. Time to leave." The invisible god quickly fled.

"We didn't want to bother Alcmene," Chrystes muttered.

"I'm sure it wouldn't have been a bother," Hercules smoothly answered.

Prulos frowned. "We were under the impression they'd just decided to squat here. It's different if you gave them the land." He rubbed his forehead. "We should have spoke with your mother."

"You should have treated them better," Iolaus sharply pointed out.

Prulos looked at the other villagers who slowly nodded. Chrystes hesitated, then reluctantly nodded as well. Straightening his shoulders, Prulos walked towards the open door where Cyrus and Oi-Lan stood with Alcmene just behind them.

"On behalf of the others, I'd like to apologize," he quietly spoke. "We were wrong."

Cyrus studied the other man for a few moments, then slowly nodded.

Oi-Lan hesitated, then smiled. "Would you like to join us?"

"Well…" Prulos hesitated. "That's very kind of you."

"Please. Enter our home." If Cyrus' invitation was more formal than cordial, they all understood the reason.

"Just wipe your dirty feet before you come in," Alcmene sharply ordered although with a smile on her face.

Iolaus glanced at Hercules and leaned closer. "Why the frown, Herc?"

Hercules shrugged. "I just felt something when I got here."

Iolaus casually looked around then shrugged.

"I guess it was just my imagination," Hercules admitted.

"You know, Herc, I was thinking," Iolaus said as they followed the villagers into the house.

Hercules groaned, causing his partner to laugh.

"Seriously, I think I'll stick around a little bit," Iolaus decided. "Maybe reopen the forge for a while."

Hercules studied his friend closely. "You think it'll keep trouble from occurring?"

Iolaus shrugged. "It wouldn't hurt to practice my craft a little anyway." 'Maybe I'll feel really useful again.' He moved to help Oi-Lan who was helping Alcmene carry heavily laden platters to the table. "Here…let me do that. You shouldn't be carrying heavy stuff anyway."

Oi-Lan started to protest, then smiled in acceptance.

Hercules wondered what was going through Iolaus' head and how long it would take for him to get it out of his partner.

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Cletus nervously rubbed his hands together. He'd never been inside the royal palace and wished he'd been given time to properly dress. However, the soldiers had been very insistent that he immediately present himself before King Jason. He was also shaken to hear that his nephew, Theseus, was currently in prison. He took a deep breath when he recognized Grias, Chief Counselor to the king, approaching.

"Greetings, Citizen." Grias bowed his head. "King Jason will see you now. However, please be brief. His Majesty is still grief-stricken over this recent tragedy."

Cletus frowned. "A foreign queen brought disaster to the king. Foreigners inside our city." He shook his head. "Surely the king must see that no good can come of allowing those people into Corinth."

Grias frowned as he slowly walked them towards the reception room. "I have not always agreed with His Majesty's policies. But I cannot deny that Corinth has prospered."

"But at what cost?" Cletus demanded.

Grias held up his hand. "You need to present those arguments to King Jason. But I will tell you that you are not alone in your beliefs." As he spoke, he opened the door to the reception room.

Jason, sitting on his throne, beckoned the merchant forward.

"Your Majesty." Cletus bowed then walked closer. He saw Triestes standing to the left of the throne, clad in court dress. Then he frowned when he saw Hai Li standing to Triestes' left. "What is he doing here?"

Jason glanced at the older man. "He is here just as you are. To resolve this problem."

"Your Majesty, he and his kind are the problem!" Cletus shouted.

Triestes glanced at Jason whose face had darkened.

"Remember to whom you're speaking," Jason growled in warning.

"My apologies, I meant no disrespect to you," Cletus apologized. He stepped forward. "But you must understand, Your Majesty! These people are our enemies!"

Jason rose to his feet and walked to meet Cletus. "Your nephew and his friends almost beat to death one of my citizens. And for nothing more than because he was of a different race!"

"They come here and take our work!" Cletus argued. "They prefer to live in squalor and work cheaper than honest citizens! No one will buy from us because we must make an honest living! They eat horrible smelling food and worship strange gods!" He reached out to grab Jason's arm. "Surely you understand! Foreigners have never brought anything good to Corinth! Look what a foreign queen did!"

"Enough!" Jason furiously roared. He jerked his arm away from Cletus's grasp. "You will be silent!" Taking a few steps away from Cletus, Jason tried to catch his breath. 'Gods, I need a drink! Damn him for bringing Medea into this!'

Finally, Jason spoke, his voice shaking in anger. "Now hear me! The citizens of Corinth will live in peace with each other! This nonsense is going to stop and stop now! Anyone…and I do mean ANYONE who breaks the peace will be severely punished!"

"But, Your Majesty…" Cletus began.

"ENOUGH!" Jason furiously shouted. "If you can't live in Corinth and obey the laws, then you are free to leave!"

'After all, we must do what we can to make Corinth safe for Corinthians. No sacrifice is too great for us to make, is it?'

Cletus remembered Philip's words and lowered his head. His fingers curled around the dagger in his belt as he watched Jason turn towards Hai Li.

'No sacrifice is too great for us to make, is it?'

"For the good of Corinth," Cletus calmly spoke.

"What?" Confused, Jason turned around.

Cletus raised the dagger and lunged towards Jason.

Caught by surprise, Jason stumbled backwards, his arms thrown up defensively in front of his chest and face.

Triestes threw himself between Jason and Cletus, reaching for the dagger. He grunted at he felt the dagger plunge deep into his chest and fell to the floor.

Two of the guards, summoned by Grias' cries, ran into the room and dragged Cletus off Triestes.

"I did it for Corinth! We must be cleansed!" Cletus shouted.

"Get him out of here!" Jason ordered.

Hai Li knelt beside Triestes and gently examined the wound. He raised his head as Jason knelt on the other side of the fallen general. Slowly, he shook his head.

"I'm losing too much," Jason muttered, shaking his head. "Too much." He reverently touched Triestes' arm.

Triestes looked up into the sad dark eyes of his king. He'd known Jason from the time he was a very young headstrong prince and had known the boy would one day make a good king. He tried to raise a hand.

Jason caught the hand between his own and gently squeezed. "Thank you, my friend. For my life."

Triestes stared past Jason and saw the quickly masked triumphant look on Grias' face. "Be…ware…" he whispered. Then he saw Celestia approaching with her candle and closed his eyes.

Jason sagged when Triestes breathed his last.

"Corinth has lost a great protector," Grias somberly pronounced.

'I've lost a good friend…and I never gave him that honor.' Jason slowly stood. "Corinth has lost someone who cannot be replaced," he choked out. "He will have an honorable burial. See that the city is notified we are in mourning for our great friend."

Grias respectfully bowed.

"And let it be known how and why Triestes died," Jason ordered in a shaking voice. "By my order, the citizens of Corinth will live in peace with each other."

"As you wish, Your Majesty," Grias nodded.

Jason turned to Hai Li. "Come. I will see you are escorted back to you granddaughter. Your friend, Mahabi, will be given the best possible care."

The elderly man merely nodded and walked out with Jason.

Grias followed, mentally composing the official announcements…worded in a more conciliatory manner, of course.

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The Hall of War was a dark and forbidding place. Even the most battle-hardened warriors approached the imposing structure with more than a little trepidation and caution.

But a god was different.

"You've done well," Ares admitted. He lounged on his dark throne, the fingers of his hand gently stroking the sword at his side.

The god, Strife, chuckled. "Corinth was almost too easy," he admitted. "All it took was a little suggestion here…a little word in this ear…" He suddenly frowned. "Too bad about Thebes, though. I didn't expect those meddling mortal heroes to butt in."

Ares rubbed his bearded chin in reflection. "Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about Hercules and his little buddy." He chuckled. "I have something in mind for them."

The Hall of War was a dark and forbidding place. Even the most battle-hardened warriors approached the imposing structure with more than a little trepidation and caution…especially when the God of War laughed.



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