The Edge of Nowhere

Part II

Athens. Gabrielle fidgeted with her reigns uncomfortable, staring at the outline of the city looming in the distance. She never thought she'd be returning to this place again, definitely not in the company she was in now. This city held so many memories of a life she'd once known, had once lived, but had tried so desperately to forget. When she'd been in Chin she'd really believed her friends would be better off without her. She had always been the one risking their safety, had always been the one urging them to take chances. They'd nearly gotten killed because of her several times. That last time had been too close… 

"I don't know about this, Gab…" Naxos looked unsure as his grip tightened on the folded parchments in his hands. "Handing these things around in broad daylight on the Agora… Isn't there a slightly less conspicious way to do this?"
"Just act unsuspicious and wait for people to step up to you." Gabrielle instructed him calmly, her eyes flicking across the square from her spot in a corner at the end of the stoa. "They'll never expect us to hand these out here and now, Naxos. The Conqueror's troops have been patrolling constantly in our neighbourhood at nighttime. This is a lot safer than sneaking outside tonight…"
"Handing out pamplets that say 'The conqueror must die!' at midday on one of the most heavily guarded squares in Athens does not strike me as safe, Gab." Naxos hissed back, then hastily dove behind a large pillar as a soldier got a bit too close.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Would you just relax?!" She grabbed her friend by both shoulders, looking at him sternly. "Come on, Naxos. We need to get these things delivered. We need to let people know what's going on. If the Conqueror is really planning raids in the eastern blocks our people there need to know so they can be prepared."
Naxos sighed heavily. "I know, I know…"
"Good." Gabrielle nodded, then looked across the square, shooting a look at Kimon, who was posted in the shadow of a small grocery shop. The young man inclined is head slightly, to show he was ready. "All right. Lets get this done. You'll hide the parchment at the spot we talked about?"
"Yeah yeah, I know the plan…" Naxos sighed gravely. "I walk across the square and hide the parchment under the bushes near the fountain. Then we all point people to that location where they can pick 'm up… I know the drill, Gabrielle, you talked me through this a zillion times already…"
"Stop wining and just get it done." Gabrielle gave him a look, then a pat on the shoulder, before walking off to her spot on the stairs at the temple of Ares.

There were a lot of soldiers around this day. Gabrielle let her eyes take in her surroundings, spotting at least a dozen near the temple alone. This was really not the best day to try and twarth some of the Conqueror's great plans. Green eyes tracked to the stoa as Naxos emerged, the tension written in his body as he paced towards the fountain. Gabrielle took a breath. This had to work… If it didn't, a lot of people would end up dead and…
"Hey! You!"
Gabrielle winced as she heard the gruff voice drift over. She watched as Naxos spun around anxiously. Far too anxiously.

A tall, armoured, blond man stepped closer to the young rebel. His armour was decorated, and he wore a bright blue cloak, the sign of one of the higher lieutenants. "What have you got there?" He pointed at the pile of parchment.
"I' de…delivering papers to the sc…scribes of the Conqueror… sir…" Naxos stuttered, swallowing.
"Show them to me…" The lieuntenant extended his palm towards him.
"I…" Naxos took a pace back. "I…"
"I said give them here!" The soldier snapped, advancing towards the young man. "You give them to me now, or I'll…"

A voice echoed up from the other end of the square and his blond head shot up as the words penetrated. "Down with the Conqueror!" The lieutenant eyes flicked across the crowd then settled on the blonde figure standing on the steps of the Temple to the God of War.
"We've all had enough of the tyranny!" Gabrielle went on, seeing the blond lieutenant's attention was now fully focused on her, Naxos completely forgotten. "We have to stand up now, together, and fight this regime! It's time to rebel, it's time to take up arms and show the Conqueror the power of the masses. Let her hear the voices of the people. Our voices! We have a right to speak, to voice our opinions. We have a right to…"
"You have no rights, girl…" A soldier growled as a sword was pointed at her throat. Gabrielle looked around her, at the soldiers circling her, all heavily armed. There was no escaping this time, Gabrielle realised, so she stood strong and glanced aside quickly, locking eyes with Naxos, who was staring at her in a completely stunned state. 'Go.' She tried to tell him wordlessly, before a voice beside her shot up and drew her attention away from him.
"We've got her, lieutenant Pompey." The soldier who had spoken to her before, inclined his head towards the lieutenant that came walking up the stairs towards her, his blue cloak waving in the soft breeze.
"Good work." Pompey acknowledged to the man, then crossed his arms and turned his gaze to meet hers. "I bet the conqueror would like to have a word with you…"

It would have been Naxos on that cross… And she couldn't let that happen. But now, in spite of her efforts, Naxos was dead. Kimon was dead. Gabrielle took a shaky breath. She should've kept them out of it, should've done it on her own. Their deaths were on her conscience. They needed to be avenged.

Green eyes lifted and gazed at the dark haired woman cheerfully chatting to her advisor in the front row of the formation. They would be avenged. 

As they rode up to the gates of the capital, the large wooden doors were pulled back, clearing the way for them. A number of guards stood in either side of the road into the city, stretching out their flat hands as Xena rode passed. The Conqueror acknowledged their salutes with a nod of her head, passing the soldiers at an easy trot. 

Men and women looked up as the small group of soldiers passed through the streets of Athens. Gabrielle kept her head firmly facing forward, but she couldn't help but catching the gazes fixed in her direction, or hear her name drift up in the murmuring that followed. 

They hadn't forgotten her… Then again, how could they have, with the scene she'd made at her trial. And now they saw her riding with the woman she'd spat insults at… Gabrielle closed her eyes, her composure nearly failing her as her shoulders slumped slightly. The rebel turned traitor. Now she would be despised by both sides. 

Oh, cut the self pity. Gabrielle silently growled at herself. This is what you get for running off and saving your own neck, Gabrielle. 

The gates to the palace grounds were pushed open and Xena rode in, riding over the wide paved path to the doors that led into the large building. Home sweet home. Xena rolled her eyes. To say she was unhappy to arrive back in Athens was an understatement. She hated the city, and all it stood for. 

As she pulled to a halt, giving the dark stallion a pat on the neck before dismounting gracefully. Immediately a young boy ran up to her, taking the reigns from her, his head bent as he stood before her. "Take good care of this one, Brennos."
"Yes, my liege." The boy nodded obediently, then gentle tugged the stallion's towards the stables. 
The Conqueror waved a small girl closer. "Iona, take that palomino to the stables."
The girl curtsied. "Empress."
"And be sure to take special care of that one, OK? I don't wanna see a speck on her."
A firm nod, then the girl walked over to the horse in question, taking the reigns from the warrior woman whose eyes were roaming around the complex. "I'll take your horse, ma'am."
Suspicious green eyes turned to her. "Take her to where?"
Iona blinked, swallowing. "Uhm… The stables, miss." A moment of silence. "The Empress ordered me. I promised to take good care of her." 
Gabrielle blinked, then released her hold on Argo's reigns, giving the girl a nod. "All right…" She untied the saddlebags from the mare's hindquarters, slinging them over her shoulder. "Go on…"
"Thank you, ma'am." The girl inclined her head, then turned around and lead Argo around the left side of the palace. 

Gabrielle watched her go, then turned as one of the soldiers cleared his throat in order to get her attention, then motioned her forward, indicating she ought to follow the Conqueror. 

Xena walked up the steps, the doors swinging open as she did so, allowing her entrance to the large hall. The floor was made of black, well polished marble. The high thick walls were a beige colour and the room decorated with items from across the world. Drawings from Egypt, silk from Chin, ritual spears from Africa, statues from Rome… Pyrron had decorated the hall, wanting it to serve as a way to impress people and remind them about the Conqueror's wealth and power. Xena thought it was boring.

An older man, wearing a simple white tunic with golden edges, stood in front of a small group of similarly dressed people. They all bowed as Xena entered. "Welcome back, my liege." The older man said politely as he straightened. "How may we be of use to you?"

Xena suppressed a sigh. Back to business it was then. "Has the regent of Egypt arrived yet?"
"Yes, my liege, she docked in Pireaus yesterday and arrived at the palace last evening."
"Good." Xena nodded, loosening the thin cloak from around her neck, a young woman immediately rushing forward and taking it from her. "Benitor, make sure all our luggage is returned to where it came from."
"Yes, Empress." The man nodded, lifting four fingers and waving them towards the door, four young men immediately rushing off. 
"And I want you to personally show Gabrielle here to her room." She waved a hand at the warrior that had entered behind her. 
The older man looked at the scarcely dressed woman, old ragged saddlebags slung over one shoulder, slightly wide green eyes darting across the room. He wrinkled his nose, but managed to keep the polite smile plastered on his face. "Of course." He inclined his head, then walked towards the woman, but was halted by a hand on his shoulder as he passed the Conqueror. 
Blue eyes pinned him down. "She is a guest here and I expect her to be treated as such." Xena dropped her voice. "Is that understood?" 
A hasty nod. "Perfectly, my liege."
"Good." She released her hold on him, then turned to face the blonde. "Benitor here will show you your room." 
Gabrielle crossed her arms. "What about Thalia? You said I could see her…" 
Xena drummed her fingers on the leather of her pants for a moment, then nodded. "True. But I will have to welcome my regent first." A pause. "Give me one candlemark."
The warrior looked at her for another moment, then nodded. "All right." She agreed, then turned to Benitor, who hastily motioned towards one of the marble stairs on her left, mounting the stairs, Gabrielle following behind him. 

Pyrron watched her go, then waved two soldiers closer, motioning his head towards the blonde. The men nodded, then walked towards the stairs. 
They froze in their tracks as Xena's voice rumbled behind them.
"Did I order you to escort my guest to her room?"
The men blinked, giving each other an insecure look, before shaking their heads simultaneously. 
Xena crossed her arms, glaring at them "Then I suggest you get away from those stairs right now." 
"Yes, Empress." Was the hasty reply, as the two soldiers hastily rejoined the rest of their group. 
"Smart." Xena muttered, then glanced to the men lined up before her. "Well, gentlemen, it's been a pleasure travelling with you. Now, go back to your quarters and rest." 
The men saluted, then turned and marched out of the room. 

The advisor winced, then turned to face his ruler. "My apologies, Empress."
Blue eyes regarded him sternly for a moment, then Xena waved him off. "Just don't do it again."
"I won't." 
"Good." Xena gave him a nod, then turned and headed for a door on the far left. "Make sure the regent is brought to my study. After that go and see your family."
Pyrron smiled at the prospect. 
"I'll expect you back for diner this evening."
A nod from her advisor. "As you wish, Empress."

"Your room, m'lady." After endless twisting and turning through hallways and up stairs, Benitor opened a door in the far left corner of the palace, swaying his hand towards the entrance with a small bow. 

Gabrielle frowned at the politeness, but then preceded him, walking into the room. And come to a dead stop in the entrance, staring inside dumbfounded. The room was the size her first house in Athens had been, and she'd shared that place with six other people. A king-size bed was placed against the far wall, in front of a large window that allowed the bright sunlight to filter into the room, reflecting off the scarlet rug lying on the white marble. A wooden closet and small desk and several comfy looking chairs filled the rest of the space. Gabrielle blinked, then turned back to the older man behind her. "I… I think you made a mistake…"
Benitor folded his hands behind his back. "A mistake, ma'am?"
"This can't be my room."
The servant cocked his head. "Is it not to your liking? I would put you in a better room, miss, but unfortunately the Egyptian regent is here at the moment and she's settled in the other guest room."
A blonde eyebrow lifted. "Guest room?" 
"Yes, ma'am." A firm nod. "We usually accommodate guests in the guest rooms."
Gabrielle blinked. "Right." She managed, tentatively taking another step into the room, taking the saddlebags off her shoulder and placing them on top of the desk. 

"One of the boys will soon come bring you your luggage, miss."
"I don't have any other luggage."
The older man's bushy eyebrows frowned. "No luggage? Then what will you wear for diner?"
"I... uhm…" Gabrielle scratched the back of her neck. "This I guess…" She indicated her tunic. "After I wash it, of course…" She hastily amended, seeing the displeased look on the servant's face. 
"After you wash it?" A small grin now found its way on Benitor's face. "Miss, I don't think you quite understand your position. You are a guest in the Empress's palace. Guest generally don't wash their own clothes here. We tend to do that for them."
"Oh, I don't want to bother you with that." Gabrielle hastily shook her head. 
"It wouldn't be a bother." The servant assured her politely. "Just place your clothes in the basket right here and I'll come and pick them up. I'll get you something alternative to wear, while you freshen up in the bathroom. I've taken the liberty of filling the hot tub for you." He pointed towards a door on her right. 
"The hot… Right…" Green eyes glanced from him to the door. 
"Good." Benitor smiled at her. "Is there anything else I can get you? A snack before diner maybe? We've got some nice roasted quail if you're interested."
"I… No… No, thank you. But… some water would be nice…"
"Just water?"
A nod. 
"Water it is then." The servant confirmed. "I'll send one of the girls up in a moment." He inclined his head, then turned and walked off.

Gabrielle watched him go, then turned, closing the door behind her. She eyed her room insecurely for another moment. What was going on? She was a guest now? What happened to the 'slave of the month' scenario here? She unsheathed her sword, twirling it in one hand. Quietly she tiptoed to the door to the bathroom, then kicked it open with a boot, pointing the sword forward defensively. 


Carefully she edged around the door, her eyes scanning the room. 

Nothing. Except for a filled, steaming hot tub. 

This had to be a joke. Some insane twist of the Conqueror's sick mind, that's what this was… The warrior walked back into the room, her sword still clutched in her hand. She checked the large closet, she checked under the bed… 


Gabrielle unclipped the scabbard from her back, then resheathed her sword, laying the weapon on the bed. Everything seemed clear… 

Maybe she'd poisoned the water… The blonde head shot up. Yeah, that was probably it. She darted back into the bathroom, dipping a cupped hand in the water and lifting some of the liquid up, bringing it to her nose. 

Lavender. Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. There had to be something… This couldn't just…

A soft knock on the door made her jump, and she instinctively reached for the dagger stuck in her boot. Another knock and she crept closer, careful not to make a sound. Slowly, the door was pushed open and Gabrielle tightened her hold on the hilt of her dagger, then jumped forward, pouncing on the door opening. 

A high squeal, then the sound of shattering glass and the splash of water. 

Gabrielle jerked open the door to see a small girl lying on the carpet, the remnants of a small jug lying beside her. 

The young redhead blinked up at her nervously. "I… I'm j… just here for the cl… clothes, ma'am." 

Xena sighed as she leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. Cleo was a great ruler, a valuable ally, but by the gods could that woman nag… The Conqueror massaged her temple softly, trying to get rid of the pounding headache that was drilling at her skull. Egypt was the main supplier of gold of the Empire and Cleo knew that all too well. She also knew her position as leader of the lands in northern Africa was pretty solid, since her people saw her as a living goddess and there would be a mayor uproar if Xena replaced her. And an uproar would mean no gold, which would mean no pay for her inferiors, which would mean… Well, her death, basically… Couldn't have that…

Xena got up from her seat and walked to the small bathroom linked to her study. She poured some water out of a jug into the small basin, then scooped some of the liquid in her hands, splashing it on her face. 

Luckily she had some leverage over Cleopatra as well. She controlled all import into Egypt. Iron, marble, silk… The Queen of the Nile knew that if she gave the Conqueror any trouble all import would cease… Which would create a nice rebellion in Egypt, which would most likely result in a test of how immortal this living goddess really was… Xena chuckled softly to herself as she dried her face with a towel. She liked these little games with her regents. It was kind of like waging war, judging their next move, their motivations, finding strengths and weaknesses in their defence… She still preferred real battles, swords and armour, but this parrying with words and sharp looks had its moments. 

Xena grinned wickedly, cracking her fingers. Now there were other games to be played however. 

Moments later she knocked on the door to Gabrielle's room. 
"Just a moment." Some stumbling sounded, then the door was pulled open, Gabrielle's form blocking the door frame. The warrior had changed and was now dressed in a light, greenish blue tunic. "Oh, it's you…" She concluded in disappointment. 
Both dark eyebrows raised. "You were expecting someone else?"
"Yes, actually." The woman deadpanned, then turned her head, looking inside the room. "I'm sorry, Esmee, I have to go see my friend now. Tell Benitor I'll have to take a rain check on the baklava, OK?"
"Sure." The young redhead squirmed off the bed, getting to her feet. "Thank you for the drink, Gabrielle."
"Anytime." The warrior shot her a smile. "Again, I'm so very sorry about what happened…" 
"Don't worry about it." The girl waved a hand at her, then hastily curtsied as she came into view of the Conqueror. "Empress." She said politely, then slipped out of the room. 

Xena watched her go with an amused look, then turned back as Gabrielle pulled the door shut behind her. "Baklava, huh?"
"I figured that if this all turns out to be bogus I would have at least gotten some pastry out of it."
Xena chuckled. "I think you're in for another month or so of cheating me out of good food, Gabrielle."
"We'll see…" Gabrielle followed the conqueror through a hallway, then down a pair of stairs. The warrior hesitated for a moment, then decided being straightforward was probably the best approach to dealing with the conqueror. "So why the VIP treatment?"
Xena grinned. "Would you rather have me lock you up in the storage room? I could do that, you know?"
"You're not answering my question."
The conqueror lifted both hands in defence. "Excuse me." She considered the question for a moment. "Because I saw no reason to treat you any differently. You're not my servant."
"No, I'm your pawn."
A low laugh. "I wouldn't have put it that way myself, but…"

She descended down another flight of the stairs, then turned a corner, re-entering the main hall. 

And at the moment they did the outer door was pushed open, two servants stepping inside hastily and bowing to the woman that strode into the room, a leather cloak draped over her shoulders, the brown hair pulled back from the dark glowering face. 

Xena pulled to a stop, frowning at the woman. "Alti? What the Hades are you doing here?" 
"I'm here to make sure you don't start making mistakes, Xena." She motioned towards the blonde. "I see you've decided to make things complicated for yourself."
The Conqueror chuckled. "Always." She motioned for the warrior behind her. "Alti, meet … my pawn Gabrielle." A grin. "Gabrielle, this is my shamaness Alti."
"Shamaness?" The warrior frowned, looking at the woman. Dark brown eyes focused on her, and Gabrielle could almost feel the sorceress probing her brain. 
Alti circled Xena, oblivious of the introduction, focusing her attention on Gabrielle for a long moment, reaching out her hand towards the warrior's neck.

But before she could touch her a strong grip wound itself around her arm, tugging the limb back, a painful crack sounding as the bone was twisted into an unnatural position. "Oh no you don't..." Xena warned in a low tone. "No flashbacking dear Gabs here. I'm not through with her yet."
Dangerous brown eyes glowered at the Conqueror, jerking her hand back from the ruler's hold. "She is a danger to you."
"Well, that's stating the obvious." Xena gave the shamaness an amused look. "That's kind of the point."
"She will corrupt you…"
Gabrielle snorted. "Right, like she needs any help in that department." She crossed her arms. "Can we save the chit chat for later. I'd like to see my friend now."
"Sure." Xena nodded, then motioned for a pair of stairs leading down. "Right through there." She waved one of her servants closer. "Accompany my friend here to her room." 
The servant bowed, then motioned Alti to precede him. 
Brown eyes narrowed at her. "You should not discard this so easily, Xena. I am warning you…" 
"Lemme just handle this first, then I'll come talk to you, OK?" Xena shot her a toothy smile, then followed Gabrielle down the stairs.

The corridors here were much smaller. Gabrielle glanced around uncomfortably. This would be an easy spot for an ambush. The Conqueror at her back, a few soldiers attacking her from the front… Gabrielle shivered at the thought. What was she doing here? This could never work… A few more echoes of her footsteps. Thalia. She had to focus on saving Thalia… But what if she wasn't here…?

Then again, what if she was? Would Thalia still recognise her? Would she hate her for what happened? What if her old friend wouldn't even want to talk to her, what if she saw her as a traitor… What if…?

"Hail Empress." A young soldier saluted.
"Claudius." Xena accepted his greeting with a nod. "I'd like to see one of the prisoners."
"Yes, my liege." He turned and opened the door for her. "Which one?"
"The rebel leader." 
"Very well." The soldier nodded, then strode forward. 

Gabrielle followed behind him, glancing to her left and right. Rows of cells on either side of the hallway, shadowy figures standing up as the threesome passed. The guard in front of her stopped at the last cell on the right. "This is her, ma'am."
The woman that was lying on her pallet facing away from them hastily scrambled to her feet at the nearby voice. She faced the bars, then her eyes widened slightly and she took a few shaky paces forward. "Gab?"
Gabrielle wrapped her hands around the bars, staring at her old friend. "Yeah, it's me…" She managed in a slightly hoarse voice. 
"I can't… I can't believe it…" Thalia whispered incredulously as she closed the distance between them. "You can't be…" She reached through the bars, touching the blonde's cheek. "Oh my gods…"

"Oh, these touchy reunions…" The conqueror fained wiping a tear from her eye. "They get me all emotional…" She grinned, then turned to Claudius. "Open the door."
The guard blinked. "Empress?"
Blue eyes narrowed at him as she dropped her voice an octave lower. "I said: open the door."
"Yes, ma'am." Was the hasty reply as he searched for the right key, then placed it in the lock. 

"I will give you two some privacy so you can catch up, okidoki?" 
Green eyes dragged themselves from the prisoner and focused on Xena. "If you're considering locking me in here, you can forget about it…"
"Hey, who said anything about locking?" The Conqueror lifted her hands in defence. "No tricks, honestly. I'll leave the door open." Then she crossed her arms, leaning a little closer and dropping her voice. "I've kept my word through all of this. I expect you to do the same." 
Gabrielle judged her for a moment, then nodded. 
"Good." Xena shot her a grin, then waved Claudius closer. "Let's go."
"I…" The guard frowned, but quickly nodded as blue eyes gazed at him questioningly. "Yes, Empress."
"Smart boy." She patted the soldier on the shoulder, then turned back to Gabrielle. "Take all the time you need. I will see you at diner." She stated, then headed back to the exit, Claudius hastily following behind. 

She shut the door to the prison, then placed a hand on Claudius's shoulder, the guard looking up at her insecurely. "Go outside, find the leader of the guards and tell him to put some extra archers in the square. If they try to make a run for it, tell the archers they should aim for the redhead. The blonde can go for all I care, but the rebel is not leaving this place alive, understood?"
A small smile crept onto the guards face, the soldier relieved to see the rational side of his ruler poking through. "Understood, Empress." 

"What is going on here?" Thalia frowned her brows, gazing after the Conqueror. "What is she talking about?"
Gabrielle released a breath, pulling open the cell door and stepping inside. "It's a long story."
"If there's something I've got plenty of, it's time…" Thalia muttered, then walked closer to her friend, pulling her into a hug. "Hey, you."
Gabrielle released a breath, returning the hug hesitantly. 
Thalia pulled back to come face to face with her old friend, staring into the deep green eyes, that were now brimming with tears. "Now don't go all mushy on me." She joked faintly, wiping at the drops that slid across the blonde's cheek, while forcing down the lump in her own throat. "You know how much I hate that…" 
"Sorry." Gabrielle sniffed, blinking. "I just…" She took a shaky breath. "I thought you were dead…"
"Pff…" Thalia waved a hand at her. "Darn tyrant can't kill Terror Thalia, you should know better." 
The warrior looked up into the smiling face for a moment longer, then bent her head in defeat. "I'm so, so sorry…"
Thalia frowned at her. "Sorry? What are you talking about? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?"
Green eyes peeked up at her guiltily. "I left you."
"Oh please…" The redhead rolled her eyes. "If I remember correctly I was the one that put you on that cart and told you to get as far away from Athens as possible. You just did as ordered."

A wry chuckle from the blonde. "Now there's a first."
Thalia joined in, patting her cheek affectionately. "I'll say…" A short pause as she studied her friend. "You've heard about…?"
A heavy breath, as Gabrielle nodded quietly. "I heard when I came back to Greece. I stopped by my parent's house on the way here. My sister told me…"
Thalia sighed, sitting back on her pallet. "I don't know what happened…" She started. "One moment we were cheerfully plotting along, the next all these soldiers barged through the doors, yelling and screaming. Kimon tried to…tried to attack one… He was run through before he could even get close… …" A shake of the red head. "They rounded us up, then dragged me along to the palace… I thought maybe I would get to see the Conqueror, maybe I could get the rest out of this one way or the other…" A self deprecatory snort. "Well, obviously not, huh?"
Gabrielle settled down beside her friend, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. 
"I could hear the trial from here." She murmured softly, staring into the nothing. "I could hear their voices… I could…" A shaky breath. "I could hear the screams as they… As they were…"

Gabrielle gently squeezed her shoulder in comfort. "This is not your fault, Thal. You couldn't have known…"
Thalia shook her head softly. "I tried telling myself that. But I'll always keep wondering, ya know, if maybe if I'd not done this or that, I could have prevented it…"
Gabrielle laid her head against the woman's shoulder. "Yeah, I know." She said quietly, a small smile crossing her face as she felt an arm circle around her. 

She felt herself slipping back into the skin of the person she'd been, and marvelled how easy it was to forget those three years, to just soak up the friendship and put faith in the fact that, together, they could do anything… But things were different now. It was all in her hands this time, and now she would have to go up against their long time enemy by herself, unable to hide behind pamphlets, or graffiti, or small raids. This time she had to defeat her face to face. Not just once, but over and over again… 

"Hey, Thalia?" A voice drifted over from the cell beside them. Gabrielle looked up to see a woman peeking through the bars, curly dark-blond hair framing a young face, curious eyes focused on the two of them. "Who's your friend?"
"Forgive me my manners, your highness." Thalia apologised in an over-exaggerated manner, flashing her a grin. "This…" She waved a hand at Gabrielle. "…is the one and only Gabrielle of Potedeia."
"Ah, Gorgeous Gab, Defender of Democracy." The prisoner chuckled amusedly. "Thalia said you'd come back. Glad to see you haven't disappointed her."
Gabrielle cocked her head at the woman, standing up and taking a few steps closer. "And you are?"
The woman poked her hand through the bars, extending it towards the warrior. "Ephiny."
"Queen of the Amazons." Thalia added in a regal tone, chuckling as Ephiny rolled her eyes at her.
"Nice to meet you." Gabrielle took the offered hand, shaking it. 
"Could have been under better circumstances." The amazon noted, leaning her head against the metal bars separating them. "So, the Conqueror caught you too, huh?"
"Well…" Gabrielle scratched her neck. "Not exactly…" 
Two pair of intrigued eyes glanced at her. 
The warrior took a breath. "See, it all started out like this…"

"You have nothing to worry about."
Alti crossed her arms, standing in the centre of her room, watching the Conqueror lying stretched out on her bed, one hand propped up to support her head. "You have no idea what you're dealing with, Xena."
The ruler waved her free hand at her negligently. "Whatever it is, I can handle it…"
"And what if you can't?" The shamaness retorted. "In spite of what you may think, you are not invincible…"
A shrug. "If I can't handle it, you can come to my rescue, OK?"
"Prevention is better than finding a cure…"

The Conqueror tossed up her hands, pushing herself up into a sitting position, legs dangling over the edge of the bed. "All I want to do is have a little fun! You remember, fun? Where you laugh and enjoy yourself? Ever done that?"
Alti shot her a bored look. "I enjoy myself in ways that are less threatening to my existence."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh right, I forget, killing ignorant peasants and taking their 'spiritual powers'" She hissed the last words, wiggling her fingers at Alti. 
"Don't mock me, Xena." The shamaness pointed a finger at her. "You do not want me as your enemy."
Blue eyes regarded her for a moment, then Xena sagged back on the bed, exhaling gravely. "I gave my word on certain matters and I can't back out on that now, Alti."
The shamaness frowned. "Why not?"
Xena shot her a look. "It's a code between warriors, OK?"
"And a code is more important than your life?"
"That code is part of my life, part of who I am." The Conqueror lifted a hand to stop the shamaness from replying. "It's complicated. It has to do with honour and respect and stuff. Things you scrapped out of your vocabulary a long time ago."
"You're not the most honourable person I know either, Xena. And I can remember a few northern amazons who would fully agree with me…"

Icy eyes glared at her. "That was before…" 
A devious chuckle. "Oh, and you've changed, have you?"
"Let's just say being leader of the known world has given me a different perspective on some things." Xena crossed her arms. "Look, I am touched by your concern for my well being…"
Alti snorted. 
"….but just let me keep my toy, OK? I promise I'll be really, really careful and all that… You can stay here in the palace if you like… Ya know, keep an eye on things…" The Conqueror took a few steps closer, coming face to face with the shamaness, dropping her voice. "But if you interfere with my plans in any way, I swear to you, powers or no powers, you will not leave this palace in one piece. Understood?"

Deep brown eyes looked up at her, unimpressed. "Very well… It's not like there is anything I can do to stop you…"
"You've got that right." Xena muttered. 
"…but I like the way things are right now, Xena. And I'll do anything in my power to keep everything the way it is." Alti waved a hand at the door. "And your pawn out there personifies change. I want to see her dead."
"Look, I explained the deal to you, right? I will kill her within the month and learn some stuff in the process…" The Conqueror leaned back on her hands on the bed, looking up at the shamaness. "You have nothing to worry about."

"Lemme get this straight, you fought the Conqueror and you actually won?"
"And then you let her live?"
"What on earth did you do that for?!" Ephiny gazed at her in disbelief. "We would've finally gotten rid of that tyrant."

Gabrielle exhaled gravely. "It's not that simple. If I kill the Conqueror, the land would fall into disarray. All the regents and generals would start fighting over the throne, and that would only lead to more suffering of the innocent."
Ephiny frowned, unhappy with how logical all of that sounded. 
"You have to start with the people." Thalia joined in. "They have to see that things should change and that they have the power to change them. That's the only way to stop the tyranny once and for all." 

The amazon gave her a look. "You've held that speech more often, haven't ya?"
Thalia chuckled. " A few times…"

"That doesn't mean it wasn't tempting though." Gabrielle leaned her back against the iron bars, closing her eyes. "I've been at the verge of tossing a dagger at her chest several times."
"Well, I say: You go girl… Whatever happens after that bitch is dead can't be any worse than things are now." Ephiny told her. 
The warrior shook her head pensively. "I think I'll just focus on getting you out of here first, then I'll deal with her."
The amazon raised an eyebrow at her. "Is that a you in the multiple sense of the word? As in, me too?" She pointed at her own chest.
"Of course."
"Excellent." Ephiny smiled brightly.

Thalia cocked her head at her friend. "But I thought your deal with the Conqueror only got me out of this place?"
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "You really think I'm gonna trust the woman who nailed me to a cross, Thal?" 
The redhead winced. "Good point. So what do you have in mind?"
The blonde considered this question for a long moment. "Nothing yet." She took a few paces through the cell. "I'll have to check out this place first. See if there's any weak spots in the defence." 
Ephiny pointed a thumb at the cell door. "You could try to make a run for it…The door's open and there's just one guard standing out there, right?" 
"Not anymore." Gabrielle shook her head softly. "She's too smart, she's tripled security by now…" A breath. "Besides, I gave her my word."
Thalia frowned at her. "So?" 
Gabrielle crossed her arms. "I can't break my word."
"You and your stupid principles." Her friend rolled her eyes, shaking her head slightly. "It's not like anybody else sticks to those rules anymore, you know?"
The blonde shrugged. "Maybe not… But that's no reason why I shouldn't."
"Whatever…" The redhead waved a hand in dismissal of the subject. "But you'll think of something else then?"
"I'll have to. I don't think I can keep the Conqueror's sword out of my chest long enough to survive this little game of hers…"

Thalia looked at the blonde insecurely. "I don't know about this, Gab. I really do want to get out of here, but if the price for my freedom is your life..."
"I'm not gonna leave you again, Thal. I owe you."
"You owe me nothing." Her friend stated sternly. "Gabrielle, I don't want you to risk everything because you feel guilty or something, all right?"
Gabrielle lifted a hand, cutting off her friend's sentence. "I'm not doing this because I feel guilty. I'm doing this because you're my friend and you need my help."
The redhead looked at her for a moment, then sighed in defeat. "Fine, you win… As always…" 

Her friend flashed her a grin, then knelt down and reached for her boot, pulling out the dagger she had hidden there. "I'll leave this here." She dropped her voice now, so only the two women could hear her. "If something goes wrong, maybe you can use it to escape somehow. But don't try anything until I've had a shot at breaking you out, understood?"
"All right." She handed the weapon to Thalia, who quickly hid it up her sleeve. "Is there anything else I can try to get you? You need some extra food, or clothes… Anything?"
"I'll be fine." Thalia shot her a smile, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
"Thank me when this is over." The warrior replied, then wrapped her arms around her friend "Take care, Thalia. I'll come see you as often as I can."
"You'd better." The rebel smiled into her shoulder, then patted her side as she pulled back. "Good luck, my friend. Cheat her out of as much food as you can, all right. As the start of the new rebellion."
Gabrielle chuckled as she exited the cell, smiling a goodbye to her old and her new friend. "You know me… Anything for the greater good."

As Gabrielle entered the dining room she immediately realised this was gonna be one of those really long dinners filled with uncomfortable silences and suspicious glaring. The dining room was fairly basic, the only decoration a few paintings on the walls. A large oval table stood in the centre of the room. On the left side of the table sat the shamaness she'd encountered earlier in the hall, who looked at and through her with those creepy dark eyes of hers. A young woman, with pitch black, shoulder length hair, dressed in an elegant white Egyptian robe and adorned with several golden jewels also sat on the left, but a vast number of chairs separated her from the shamaness and they were both doing their very best to ignore each other. The Egyptian regent spared her a glance, clearly displaying her discontent at Gabrielle's presence, then diverted her eyes again with a huff of superiority. 

The warrior took a seat on the right side, near the head of the table, putting as much distance between her and the other two women as she could manage. Why the Conqueror wanted her to attend was a mystery to her. The Egyptian regent was a very important person. Gabrielle had never been to the Land of the Nile, but she'd heard enough during her travels to be very aware of the fact it was incredibly wealthy. Was the Conqueror trying to annoy Cleopatra by letting 'a commoner' join this diner? If that was the case, Gabrielle was more of a pawn than she'd initially thought. And what about the shamaness? She was obviously a woman of great power, it was practically oozing off her, almost palpable in the air when she was near. Yet Xena had been far from respectful to this Alti…. What was up with that?

"So…" It was the Egyptian, speaking in slightly accented Greek. "You're the new flavour of the month, are you?" She was unable, or unwilling, to get the hint of disgust out of her voice.
Gabrielle looked up, meeting the flashing eyes calmly, unintimidated. "I'm not a flavour. I'm a warrior." 
"Right." Cleopatra snorted, looking at the small blonde, dressed in a simple, plain tunic, who was not looking the faintest bit like she was a threat of any kind. "Well, warrior, you do realise you're just going to get dumped in a few weeks or so, don't you? I've seen hundreds of pretty things like you come and go."

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the regent. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh please…" Cleopatra rolled her eyes. "I'm not blind. I know the Empress has the occasional fling with a peasant now and then. Usually they aren't around when I am however."

A low laugh shot up from the other side of the table, Alti leaning back in her seat and watching the exchange in bemusement. "Jealous?" 
"Of a peasant? Never!" The Egyptian replied indignantly, her fiery eyes darting to the shamaness. "I just thought Xena and I had more respect for one another…"
"Respect?" Alti chuckled. "Blackmail is what you mean…"
"Stick to your magic books and frog spells, witch, and leave politics in the hands of those who have enough brain cells to understand what's going on…" 
Alti's eyes narrowed dangerously at the regent. "Watch your words, Egyptian, unless you want to relive some painful memories." The shamaness lifted a hand, palm facing forward, the muscles in the fingers tightening. "I know of a certain nearly fatal assassination attempt I would love to reacquaint you with."
A chair fell back, the backrest bouncing on the floor a few times, sending loud echoes through the room. "Are you threatening me?!" Cleo snarled, standing and pointing a finger at the shamaness. 
"Oh, you figured that out all by yourself, did you?"
"Enough! No one insults the Queen of the Nile like this!"

Gabrielle watched the two quietly, her eyes flicking from one to the other as they spat out new insults. All this yelling was giving her a headache. And a headache was the last thing she needed right now… This really had to stop…

"Have you picked a new regent for Macedonia yet?"
"I've selected some good candidates, Empress. I will hand the list to you after dinner." 
"Fine." Xena nodded, straightening the fabric of the red gown she'd just changed into. "What about security?"
"I've done all you asked. I don't think she'll be able to get anybody out of here unharmed."
"Don't think, Pyrron. Know." 
"Yes, Empress." Her advisor nodded, then hesitated for a moment. "Empress, is it really necessary for me to attend?"
The Conqueror chuckled amusedly. "Afraid of the big bad women, Pyrron?"
"Well… Yes actually…" The advisor muttered with a sigh. "You know I don't like the shamaness, Empress. And the Egyptian regent does not like me much since that whole pig incident…"
Xena grinned. "Oh yeah, that was funny…"
"And as for the warrior…. Well, I just praise myself lucky to not have been mortally wounded by her yet, and I like to keep it that way…"
"Well, Pyrron, I'm afraid I have to insist on your company." She patted her advisor on the shoulder. "They hate me just as much, except for Cleo maybe…" A wicked chuckle. "I need an ally in there…" 
"I was afraid you'd say that." Pyrron sighed defeatedly, as they turned another corridor, a door at the end leading to the dining room. The advisor frowned at the lack of noise, knowing Cleopatra's reputation for not being able to keep her mouth shut for more than an instant.
"Brace yourself, Pyrron." Xena grinned at him, then took the lead, pulling open the door. "I'm sorry I'm…" 

Blue eyes glanced across the room for a moment, taking in the form of her regent lying slumped in her chair and spotting her shamaness lying face down on the marble tiles. "…late…" She finished, her gaze lifting to the table, where Gabrielle was sitting, tracking grains in the wooden table with a finger in utter boredom.

Another moment of silence, then she started laughing uncontrollably, grabbing onto Pyrron's arm and pulling him into the room, pointing at the scene, unable to speak.
Pyrron poked his head around the doorway, then snorted loudly, hastily covering his mouth with a hand to hold back his laughter as he took a closer look at Cleopatra's face, her jaw hanging slightly ajar and a thin line of black mascara that had trickled from her eye down her cheek. 
"See, I told you this is the way to deal with those two!" Xena managed between breaths. "Screw diplomacy, just punch 'm in the face…" She shook her head in bemusement, walking towards the large oval table, placing her forefinger under Cleo's chin, closing her mouth with a soft click of teeth as she passed on her way to the head of the table. "Well, Gabby, you've made sure I'll have to suffer through a whole lot of bitching when those two wake up…"
"They gave me a headache." Gabrielle told her calmly, leaning back in her seat. 
"I can certainly relate to that..." The Conqueror grinned wickedly. "Pyrron, get someone to… escort my dear friends back to their rooms, will you? And tell the cook two of my guests had to leave before dinner."
"As you wish, Empress." Her advisor chuckled, then headed back out the door. 

Xena sagged back in her chair at the head of the table, slinging one of her long legs over the armrest on the opposite side of the warrior. "You know, Gabrielle, if you'd like, we could tweak this game a little and you can be my court jester for the next month. How about it, huh?" She leaned her head back, so her world was upside down, and shot the warrior a grin. 
"I think me hitting people will get boring after a while."
The Conqueror smiled to herself, her mind already forming mental images of several regents of hers laying bleeding on the floor. "Oh, not at all. There are so many people I would like to slug on a daily basis…" She stated, as a few boys hastily ran into the room, grabbing onto limbs and then dragging the unconscious women out of the room. 

"So?" Gabrielle shrugged, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.. "Why don't you? You're the undisputed leader of the known world, aren't you? Nothing's stopping you…" 
Xena snorted. "I wish it were that simple…" She pulled herself back upright, twisting around, now tossing a bare leg over the other armrest so she faced the blonde. "Unfortunately being the leader of a world isn't just about knocking people around enough so they'll listen."
"Seemed to be working fine enough for you before." Gabrielle muttered. 
Xena rolled her eyes. "You have such a narrow mind." 
"Hah!" The warrior looked at her in disbelief. "I have a narrow mind?? Excuse me?" 
The Empress crossed her arms, leaning back. "You seem to think ruling an Empire is a simple affair. That it's just about scaring people into submission. It doesn't work like that, Gabrielle…" She waved a hand at the woman. "Take yourself for instance. You and your rebellion. I warned you people time after time after time again. I flogged one, crucified the other… But did that stop anyone? Nope…" 
"Of course not." Gabrielle glared at her, anger building once more. "We knew what we were striving for was right."

"Right?" Xena chuckled. "What is right, Gabrielle?"
"Freedom is right." The blonde immediately replied, unable to resist the discussion.
"Is it?" The Conqueror folded her hands together, leaning an elbow on her upraised knee, her face serious now. "Then how about… How about a man walks out onto the Agora with a crossbow and kills a child… He should be free then?"
"Of course not, but…"
"No, he shouldn't be…" Xena agreed, continuing on calmly. "So in that case freedom is not right." 

Gabrielle released a breath, slightly frustrated. "No." She admitted. "Not for him. But for others it is."
"Of course. Everything is right for someone. For that man, killing that child was right."
The warrior shook her head. "Killing a child can never be right."
"For him it is…" Xena insisted. "It depends on what you believe. And people have strange beliefs sometimes, Gabrielle. When I'd just conquered Rome, there was a group of people there saying there was a single god and that this one fellow was his only son, born from the womb of a virgin."
Gabrielle snorted, unable not to laugh at the ridiculousness of that. "No way." 
"Oh absolutely." The Conqueror confirmed confidently. "I saw him. Young guy, peace loving figure… You would've liked him. But Ares didn't. He wanted him dead." 

A blonde eyebrow lifted. "Ares, King of the Gods?"
"Uhuh, he was afraid this new god would get too powerful and all that…"
Gabrielle frowned, thinking about this. "So you killed him?"
Xena chuckled. "No, I did the worst thing you can do to a martyr: I let him live."

Gabrielle nodded pensively. "Makes sense."
"Worked like a charm. A few more months and people lost interest. Never heard from him again." The Conqueror concluded, her gaze shifting to the door as more servants entered, carrying a number of plates. "Ah, nice timing." The boys and girls walked up to the table, placing several bowls on the centre of the table. Esmee walked past, flashing a quick smile at Gabrielle, then continuing on to the Conqueror, placing a plate before her. "Empress." She curtsied politely. "Advisor Pyrron told me to say he can not make it to dinner."
Xena chuckled. "Chickening out, is he? Even when two of his three fears have been taken upstairs?" 
"No, my liege. Niobe has fallen ill, he had to go home and tend to her."
The Conqueror's cheerful expression sobered. "Niobe's sick?" 
Esmee nodded in confirmation, then took a few steps back, circling the table to follow the others out of the room. 
Xena seemed lost in thought for a moment, then snapped out of it. "Oh, Esmee… There's something else…"

Gabrielle tensed, glaring from the Conqueror's face to the form of the little girl she'd spoken to before. What was this about? Considering what happened to the last person she'd had dealings with, the soldier Tamon, she wasn't taking any chances. She shifted to the edge of her seat, muscles tensing. If that woman made one wrong move towards Esmee she would take her down... There was no way another innocent would suffer because of her, not again… 

Xena motioned the girl closer, Esmee cocking her head in confusion, but obeying her anyway, walking back until she was standing right beside the Conqueror's chair. Xena leaned closer, dropping her voice, whispering in the girl's ear. Gabrielle watched the scene anxiously, but calmed a little as she saw a tiny smile form on Esmee's face, the smile slowly growing bigger as the whispering continued. 
Xena pulled back. "Can you do that for me?"
Esmee nodded hastily. "Yes, Empress." She affirmed confidently. 
"Good." Xena patted her cheek. "Go on then. And remember…" She lifted a single finger. "Just one for you." 
"Yes, Empress." Esmee beamed her a smile, then turned and darted out of the room. 

Gabrielle blinked, looking after the cheerful girl, then turned back to the Conqueror. "What was that about?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that's highly classified information." Xena stated, unable to repress a smile, poking at a bit of meat with her fork. 

Gabrielle stared at the Conqueror's profile. Her normal casual calm had faded, replaced by what seemed to be quiet amusement. But for the first time her amusement didn't come at a cost to others, to Gabrielle or one of her soldiers, but was simply the result of her whispered interaction with a child. And though soldiers cowered as the Conqueror passed, Esmee had seemed perfectly at ease around the woman. "I can't figure you out." She voiced her thoughts, wincing as she realised she'd spoken out loud. 

Blue eyes tracked up to her, regarding her for a long moment. "Don't try to." Xena finally concluded with a shrug. "Your dinner'll get cold."

After dessert Xena excused herself and returned to her study to work. Gabrielle decided this spare time was best spend doing a bit of investigating. She roamed the castle for a while, turning corner after corner, walking up and down stairs… This palace was huge, and it was very easy to get lost in the maze of corridors. But after a while Gabrielle started to understand the logic of the place. The palace could be divided in four wings, corridors leading into each wing from the main hall. Her own room was located in the east wing, which included the dining room and a few other recreational areas. Judging from the light shining through the cracks of some of the doors she guessed these belonged to the Egyptian regent and the shamaness. Fortunately there was quite some distance between her room and these other two, which meant running into the two women was a little more unlikely. 
The west and south wing were forbidden territory to anyone but the Conqueror and those she invited with her. One of the guards, who had reluctantly provided some information, had told her the south wing held the Conqueror's private chambers and the west one her study and several meeting rooms. 
The northern part of the palace was the place where the servants lived. She ran into Esmee there, who had immediately insisted she'd give her a small tour of the place. 

Never, ever had Gabrielle seen serving staff live in this kind of luxury. Each person had his own room, some actually had several rooms to accommodate their families. There were a few professionals, the cooking staff for instance, but a lot of the people here turned out to be family of soldiers of Xena's who'd either died in battle, or where stationed very far away. Esmee's mother was a general stationed in Gaul and her father had died in the battle for Rome, just before the girl was born. 

When she'd asked her if she was mad at the Conqueror, for being responsible for her father's death and for stationing her mother so far away, Esmee had looked at her in utter bewilderment. Mad? Why would she be mad? True, she missed her mother a lot, but they saw each other a few times a year, when her mother travelled to Athens or on a rare occasion when Esmee went to Gaul. And in the meantime the Empress treated her well… She was nice…

Gabrielle took a breath, pacing along behind the girl, who pointed out place after place. The Conqueror was nice… Now there was a first… She guessed Esmee was shielded from the outside world here in the castle and probably just didn't know about the executions and the military patrolling the streets. She'd considered telling the young girl some of the horror stories she'd lived, but decided against it. Ignorance was bliss, after all, and she wouldn't let the child suffer through this particular bit of knowledge. 

She thanked Esmee as the young girl was called into the kitchen, then decided to go and look around outside.

It was quiet in the stables, only the sound of hooves scraping over the stone ground and the occasional neigh. Gabrielle marvelled at how clean this place was. It smelled of fresh hay and the hall was speckless, a gentle breeze drifting through the open windows, making sure there was hardly any dust floating around in the air. 
"Argo?" Gabrielle called out softly. 

A soft neigh, then a cream coloured head poked through one of the stable doors at the far end. 
The warrior smiled, walking closer to her horse. "Hey girl." She scratched a spot between the mare's eyes, Argo eyelids fluttering closed in contentment. "Did they take good care of you?"
Argo gave her warrior a tiny shove, then turned her head, looking at a corner of her stable. 


Gabrielle followed the horse's gaze until she spotted a small form curled up on a soft patch of hay. The blonde frowned, unlocking Argo's door and stepping inside and looking at the girl. She had long dark brown hair, and was dressed in a simple blue tunic, which was smudged with dirt on several places. "Please tell me you didn't knock her out." 
The mare snorted indignantly. 
"Just checking." Gabrielle mumbled as she kneeled down beside the small girl, who she now recognised as the one who'd led Argo to the stables for her. Iona… She seemed to be about the same age as Esmee, somewhere in her early teens. "Hey?" Gabrielle placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. 
Iona jerked awake. "Wh…?" She blinked, gazing around her surroundings dazedly for a moment, until her memory kicked in. "Oh… I fell asleep…" She scrambled to her feet, looking up at Gabrielle. "I'm… I'm sorry, ma'am… I didn't mean to…"

The warrior hastily waved a hand at her. "Don't worry about it… Did my horse give you any trouble."
Argo grumpily stamped her hoof on the hay. 
"Oh no, not at all." Iona shook her head vehemently. "She's very nice."
"She has her moments…" Gabrielle allowed. 
Argo huffed in dismay.

The blonde chuckled. "Just kidding, girl." She patted the horse's flank, only now noticing how clean the horse was. "Good job." She complimented Iona in an impressed tone, as she reached down and pulled up one of Argo's front hooves, all the dirt there also neatly removed, the horseshoe nearly sparkling in the torchlight. 
"Thank you." Iona beamed a smile at her. "I did my very best. The Empress said to take special care of your horse."
Green eyes peeked down at her. "Did she now?"
"Oh yes." The young girl affirmed. "But even if she hadn't said that I would've. She's a very pretty horse." 

"I like to think so." Gabrielle smiled, ruffling Argo's manes a little with one hand and pulling a bit of carrot out of her pocket with the other. She held the vegetable up to the mare, who quickly took it off her hand, chewing contently. Then she walked out of the stables, holding the door open for the girl to follow her. "You weren't in here the whole day, were you?"
Iona shook her head. "I went home for diner. But she was a bit restless, being in a strange place and all, so I promised I'd come back."
"And then you fell asleep?" 
Iona scratched the back of her neck with a sheepish grin. "Yeah." She admitted, walking to the stable on the opposite side as Gabrielle locked the door to Argo's stable. "We worked really hard today, getting things ready for the Empress's return." Iona stroked the neck of the black stallion as he poked his head out. "I guess I was a bit tired." 
"I can imagine." Gabrielle mumbled as she walked over to her. "Hey there." She greeted the horse, extending her palm to the stallion, who sniffed it tentatively, before gently pressing his nose against her hand. 

Iona looked from the stallion to the warrior. "He likes you." She stated in surprise.
Gabrielle cocked her head at the girl. "Why wouldn't he?"
"He's very picky." Iona told her. "He likes the Empress and he likes me. He just allows Brennan."
"Oh…" Gabrielle digested this for a moment, as she softly lifted her hand and stroked the horse's head. "What's his name?"
"Chilon." Iona informed her. "He's really kind if he likes you… But his former owner was mean to him, so he's afraid someone will hurt him again. He lived in Britannia before and this man was hitting him and then Xena got really mad and grabbed onto the guy's shirt and tossed him in with the pigs in the mud. She said that's where he belonged. Chilon's been here for a year now, but he's still very skittish. But Xena says he's doing a lot better."

Green eyes peered down at the girl with interest. "Do you know her well? The Empress, I mean?" She asked, as they turned away from the stallion and headed towards the exit.
Iona nodded proudly. "We play together sometimes."
"Play?" Gabrielle frowned, having a tough time picturing the Conqueror skipping a rope. 
"We play tag, or hide and seek… But playing hide and seek with her is no fun, because she can always find me… We wrestle... That's fun, because I always beat her."
The warrior chuckled. "Do you?"
"Yes." Iona confirmed confidently. "Though I think she lets me win sometimes."

"Hmm…" Gabrielle decided to stick to a non committal mutter. "I never pictured the Conqueror as the playing type."
"Oh, the Conqueror isn't…"
A blond eyebrow lifted. "Excuse me?"
"The Conqueror doesn't play. The Empress doesn't play either. But Xena does. She likes to play." The girl told her sincerely. 
Gabrielle fell silent, digesting this for a moment. "I see…" She murmured as they walked up the stairs and entered the palace. Gabrielle frowned as Iona turned right instead of left, heading towards the south wing instead of the servants quarters. "You live there?" 
"Yeah." Iona confirmed, smiling at the guard standing in the hallway. "She's with me." She told him, waving a hand at the warrior walking along behind her. 
Gabrielle blinked as the soldier inclined his head politely. 

Iona walked on, expertly finding her way through some corridors. "This is where the Empress lives." She pointed at two large wooden doors on her left. "That's her study. And that's where she trains." Iona indicated a door at the end of the hallway. 

Gabrielle sucked in all this information like a dry sponge. A free tour of the Imperial quarters. Her luck had to be changing. 

"And this is my home." The young girl stated, stopping in front of a door, cocking her head at the voices she heard inside as she pushed open the door. 

"You are spoiling my children…" Pyrron said angrily, pacing through the room. "I told you not to do that…"
Xena batted her eyelashes at him innocently, hanging in a comfy chair in the advisor's living room, her legs popped up onto the table. "Who said I did anything?"
Pyrron placed his hands on his hips, glaring at her. "Oh, that little bag of honey drops just mysteriously appeared into the room, did it?"
"It must have flown in though your window when you weren't looking." The Conqueror said with a straight face. "Actually, just before dinner, I looked out my window and I saw this pouch with little white wings fly past. That must have been it. I'll make sure I warn you next time…" 

"Bags… don't… fly!" Pyrron growled under his breath. 
"Sure they do… Why would they have wings otherwise?" Xena's eyes turned to the hallway as she heard sounds there, then smiled as she recognised small footsteps. "Io! Tell your dad bags fly for me, will ya?"
"Bags fly." Iona said dutifully as she bounced into the living room, heading straight for Xena.
The older man rolled his eyes. "Right… And you're gonna tell me horses have eight legs next?"
"Of course not…" Iona looked at her father indignantly. "That's not true…" 
Xena ruffled the blonde hair. "And you never lie, do you Io?"
The girl shook her head respectfully. "Never."

"Argh!" Pyrron tossed up his hands in defeat. "I give up…" He pointed a finger at Xena. "Just don't do it again."
The Conqueror laid a hand over her heart. "If I had done something now, I would surely never do it again."
"Right…" Her advisor muttered, turning and walking into an adjoining room. 
Xena shot a grin at her partner in crime, then shared a high five with her, before digging a small item out of a pocket, handing it to the girl, who immediately popped it into her mouth. 

"You're forcing kids to lie now, are you?"
Xena's head shot up at the familiar voice, spotting Gabrielle leaning against a wall in the hallway, barely visible in the shadows. She quickly recovered her pose though, shooting the warrior a wicked grin. "She never lied."
"Really?" Gabrielle pushed off the wall, taking a few paces into the room. 
Xena marvelled at how soundlessly the woman could move… She had to learn how to do that… "Really." She turned to her younger companion. "You saw the bag fly, didn't ya?" 
"Uhuh." Iona nodded, a grin tugging at her lips. "Right through that window." She pointed at the window that faced the courtyard. 
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at the two. 
Xena crossed her arms. "Hey, if you don't trust us, ask Esmee. She was standing right down there when it happened." 

"Ah, I see…" Gabrielle glanced from the window to the Conqueror. "A smuggle route…" She took a few paces closer, circling the table, dropping her voice. "You know, now that I know about this, I could tell him…" She pointed a thumb at the door Pyrron had disappeared through. 
Iona's eyes widened in shock. "You wouldn't!"
"Depends…" Gabrielle dropped her gaze to meet the Conqueror's. "What's in it for me?"

Xena seemed to consider the question seriously for a moment, then dug into her pocket again, before extending a hand towards the warrior, three small pieces of candy displayed on her palm. "Some of the merchandise?"
The warrior cocked her head at the woman. "A bribe?" 
"I prefer to call it sharing." 
"Uhuh…" Gabrielle folded her hands behind her back, taking a few pensive paces through the room, repressing a grin as she saw Iona eying her anxiously. "All right…" The girl sucked in a breath in relief. "…but I want my share taken to my friend downstairs."
Blue eyes looked at her in amusement, then the Conqueror chuckled. "I guess I can arrange that."

"Here, just look at… Oh…" Pyrron stopped as he spotted the warrior standing in his living room. "Hello. I didn't hear you come in."
"That's because I didn't want you to." Gabrielle deadpanned, crossing her arms and glaring at him, then frowning as she let her eyes drop to the small bag the advisor had clenched in his hand. "How did you get that?"
Pyrron blinked. "What?" He followed her gaze. "Oh, this?"
"That's my candy." Gabrielle turned narrowed green eyes on him. "How did you get it?"
"I…" Pyrron swallowed audibly. "I found it here, in my quarters…"
Gabrielle snorted. "Oh right, it just flew in here, did it?"
"Yes… I mean, no!" The advisor winced as the small pouch was grasped from his grip. "I didn't know it was yours…"
"What am I supposed to do, write my name on everything now?" She leaned closer, dropping her voice. "Step outside for a moment, OK? I don't think your kid will want to hear what else I have to say…" 

Xena had a hard time keeping a straight face as she watched her advisor cower, then nod meekly, walking out into the hall. Gods, this kid was good. Not only had she managed to free her from her most obnoxious allies for the rest of the evening, in the most entertaining way Xena could imagine, now she'd also proved herself an expert in the Conqueror's favourite game: teasing the Imperial Advisor. 
Gabrielle followed Pyrron down the hall, tossing the small pouch over her shoulder without looking, Xena only having to lift a hand to snatch it out of mid air. If only the woman hadn't been a peace loving rebel who hated her for a failed attempt at crucifixion, they could've been a match made in Tartarus…

Xena held the bag out to her giggling associate, who immediately tucked it away. "She's fun. Is she staying here?" 
The Conqueror leaned back, folding her hands over her stomach. "If it's up to me she'll stay here for the rest of her life…"

Gabrielle looked around, her eyes draining in every bit of her surroundings. She'd expected the training area to be quite large, but this was ridiculous… The building looked like the Colloseum in Rome, only not as high, about ten rows of benches sloping up around her. The arena was huge though, light-coloured sand covering the circular area. Built into the arena wall were several doors, opening up into cabinets, which were filled with every kind of weapon she could imagine, and some she could never have imagined at all… 

Gabrielle took a strange curved blade off a hook, a thick strip of leather attached to the hilt. The end of the strip was formed into a loop so it could be attached to a wrist and the leather used to swing the weapon around and extend its range. Gabrielle studied it for a moment as the crenate edges of the blade shimmered viciously in the dull morning light. She'd never seen a weapon like this before. Carefully she attached the leather to her wrist, balancing the weapon in her hand, swinging it around her body experimentally a few times at a soft pace, testing its weight. 

"It belonged to the leader of some savage clan a bit north from here." Xena's voice dropped in from behind her. "We faced off in combat."
Gabrielle nodded softly, her attention still focussed on the weapon. "You won?"
"Cut off his head."
"Now why am I not surprised?" The warrior muttered, as she grabbed onto the hilt once more. "It's an interesting design."
"It's tricky to use. I've got it pretty much figured out though." The Conqueror tried to sound casual, but couldn't keep the hint of pride out of her voice.
Gabrielle cocked her head, inspecting the edges of the blade. "Doesn't look that tough."
Xena crossed her arms, giving the warrior a look. "Oh it doesn't, does it?"
Gabrielle took a few paces back, making sure the area around her was clear. She tightened the grip on the hilt, twisting it in her hand a few times before letting go, wielding the blade around her body at high speed in an impressive display of flashing metal. Finally she allowed the leather to loop around her wrist until the hilt touched her palm and she closed her fingers around it. "Nah."

"Guess it isn't…" The Conqueror muttered, slightly miffed, since it had taken her at least a week to get the basics of this weapon worked out. She had been quite proud of having mastered a weapon in so short a time, but now her pawn was waltzing over her accomplishment like it was no big thing at all. "You are sure you've never seen this weapon before?"
Gabrielle shrugged, silently enjoying her small victory, the Conqueror's discontent clearly visible on the woman's expressive face. "Nope. But there was a similar kind of weapon in Chin that I used once or twice." 
"Right…" Xena frowned, then dismissed the subject, reclaiming her casual pose. "So… You ready?" 
"Does it matter whether I am?" Gabrielle retorted calmly. "Just pick your weapon."
The Conqueror chuckled. "Are you that sure of yourself? You realise this could all be over with like that…" She snapped her fingers. "What if I pick a weapon you're no good at?"
The warrior snorted, then let go of the hilt with a flick of her wrist, neatly trimming an inch of the Conqueror's bangs. "You were saying?"

Xena held up her flat hand at chest height, catching a few bits of hair as they floated down. "She knocks out my obnoxious associates, she teases my advisor in the most perfect manner and saves me a trip to the barber." She looked up with a wicked grin. "Is there no end to the list of skills, Gabrielle?"
The warrior shrugged. "I suck at eating with chopsticks."
A laugh from the conqueror, who turned around, waving her hand towards one of the soldiers, who immediately ran closer. "How good are you at staffs, Gabrielle?"
"Good enough." 
"Staffs it is then." She looked questioningly at the soldier she'd just called over, who nodded and ran off again towards one of the cabinets. 

Another moment before he returned, handing two staffs to his Conqueror. Xena turned and tossed one of the staffs at the warrior, who caught it with calm precision. Gabrielle balanced it in her hand for a moment, then twirled the staff around her body a few times, getting a feel of the weapon. It had been a while since she'd handled a staff. And though her martial arts teacher had told her she showed quite an aptitude for the weapon, holding it had always felt… awkward… Eerily familiar. Reminding her of something she'd never known. 

Gabrielle shook her head slightly, shaking off the strange pondering. This was not the time for her mind to be straying, she had to focus on what was about to come. Though she was convinced she would be able to best The Conqueror, the dark haired woman was a formidable opponent, to say the least. In a way, a very strange way, this arrangement might prove beneficial. It had been a while since Gabrielle had pushed her skills to the limit. She'd had little competition in the past years. The soldiers she'd killed in Macedonia hadn't been much of a challenge. Not that they had been bad fighters, not at all, but they hadn't seen half of what she'd seen, hadn't lived through an inch of what she'd lived through. They hadn't had the skill, or the experience or… 

Or the instinct to kill, Gabrielle finished unhappily. An instinct that had built over the years, starting with her hatred for the strict rules set by the new ruler of their land, continuing on through her crucifixion, the murder of her mentor and the revenge exacted by her on Lao Ma's son to the moment when she'd re-entered Greece and discovered the sad fate of her former colleagues and friends. And though she showed no mercy in battle, afterwards she'd always sit down beside her campfire and morn… Morn the loss of the lives she'd taken and morn the slow decline of the purity of her soul… 

Xena watched the warrior twirl her weapon around pensively. She turned her head, motioning some of the soldiers closer. "Watch this…" She whispered to them, then took a firmer grip on her staff and lunged out for the blond head. 

Gabrielle moved in a flurry of motion, knocking the staff aside as if it were a mere fly, turning and falling to a knee, swinging out at her opponents legs. 

Xena pushed off in time, pulling herself into a back flip, twisting in the air before landing neatly on her feet. "See?" She commented to their spectators, pointing at the blonde, who was holding her weapon up defensively, her eyes flicking across the training area alertly. "Now if all of you can react like that on a moment when you are paying attention, I'd be more than content."
"Attacking someone before officially announcing a dual has begun is un-honourable." Gabrielle stated, eyes narrowed. 
"Oh puhlease…" Xena rolled her eyes. "That was not a real attack and you know it. That was a mild test."
Gabrielle glared at the woman, but did realise the blow had not had half the strength of the strokes she'd shared with the Conqueror before. 
"If it had been an attack you'd be lying unconscious on the sand by now." Xena continued on cheerfully, twirling her staff over her shoulder and grabbing onto the edge sticking out under her arm, smacking harshly at the empty air. 
The warrior snorted. "Right…"
"Tch…" Xena chuckled. "Didn't anybody teach you to never underestimate your opponent, Gabrielle."
The blonde watched the Conqueror's staff play with a bored expression. "Who said I was?" 
"Well, ouch!" An amused laugh from the dark haired woman. "You know, I think we should just start this thing and see who's underestimating who. Don't you agree?"
"Fine by me." Gabrielle shrugged casually, then ducked as a staff was lunged towards her head. "Though I have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be…"
"Oh you're a seer now too, are you Gabrielle? I had no idea…" Xena managed, before focussing all her attention on a hasty parrying of staff strikes. 
"There's a lot you don't know about me…" The warrior hissed, sidestepping to avoid another stroke, then jumping up, flipping over her opponent, flicking her staff back towards the unprotected back. 

Hitting only air, Xena flipping up and out of the way just in time, landing a few metres away from her. The conqueror turned as the warrior darted for her again, wood hitting wood as Xena blocked the staff's path to her side. "Really?" She winced as the wood grazed her side, leaving torn skin in its wake. Hastily she pulled back a little, receding a few paces to give herself a moment to recover. A very short moment, since Gabrielle continued on with her attack like a cat closing in on its prey, swinging her staff at the conqueror's shoulder. But her attack was blocked, Xena pushing her weapon against the edge of her opponent's, her eyes meeting the flashing green eyes through the arch formed by their staffs. She dropped her voice, so only the warrior could hear her. "You'd be surprised by what I know of you, Gabrielle of Potedeia." 

A satisfying widening of the pupils was the response, followed by a twist and lunge at her knees, which Xena barely managed to parry. "Oh, hit a nerve, did I?"
"That's not hitting a nerve…" Gabrielle growled in response. "This…" She lunged towards the warrior's head, then changed direction at the last moment, harshly slamming her staff against the Conqueror's chest, knocking the air right out of her. "… is hitting a nerve." Before the woman could recover from this second hit Gabrielle reached forward, grabbing onto the Conqueror's own staff and pushing it forward savagely, punching the woman in the face with her own weapon. Xena staggered back a few paces, but Gabrielle continued on relentlessly, firmly placing one edge of her staff on the ground, using the weapon to aid her as she jumped up and kicked out at the Conqueror's chest. 

The last strike was too much and Xena tripped, Gabrielle following the woman's movement easily. She prepared herself for the impact with the earth, placing one foot on each side of her opponent's body. She brought her staff forward, gripping it tightly in both hands. 

Xena instinctively closed her eyes as she thudded on the sand. When she opened them again she got a very close look at the edge of Gabrielle's staff, barely touching her exposed neck. Her eyes tracked up the wood until she finally ended up staring into green eyes. And she could see the doubt there, could so plainly see the hesitation, the desire to finish this battle once and for all. 

The Conqueror stared back calmly, unafraid, holding the tense gaze for what seemed like ages. Finally she raised an eyebrow at her opponent in question. "You done?" 

Another moment, then Gabrielle took a step back, slowly withdrawing the staff. "For now." She gave her fallen opponent one last look, then turned and strode out of the training area, the spectators hastily edging out of the way as she passed, looking after her with a mix of fear, respect and disbelief. 

Xena lifted her torso up a little, leaning back on her hands as she watched the warrior walk off with an air that was emanating far more confidence than Xena knew the warrior possessed at that moment. She chuckled, shaking her head in amusement, then rocked back on her back and pushed off, hopping to her feet in one smooth motion. 

A tall, young man, with dark blond hair walked up to her with hasty paces. The wind toyed with the bright blue cloak he was wearing. "Conqueror, are you all right?"
Xena looked at him in amusement, lifting a hand to her nose and discarding some of the blood that was dripping down to her lips. "I'm touched by your concern, Pompey, but a bit of a nosebleed is not gonna kill me anytime soon, really." She grinned up at her lieutenant. 
The Roman frowned, then leaned a bit closer, dropping his voice. "I can discard of her for you, Empress. She seems strong, but a dozen of my best soldiers should be…" 
"You will do as you are ordered." Xena intervened smoothly. "If I want her dead you will know… For now however…" She smiled widely. "…I'm quite content with her just the way she is."
"But Conqueror, she beat you in front of your own troops." Pompey argued. "Humiliated you…" 
"Perhaps." Xena shrugged casually. "But she did teach me how to do this…" She tossed the staff she was still holding onto at her lieutenant, who caught it on instinct. Than she wrapped her hands around the wood, slammed the weapon harshly against his nose, mimicking Gabrielle's move with deadly precision. "… which I think is sorta cool." She chuckled as the Roman grabbed for his aching nose, his eyes darting up at her in shock. She chuckled. "Yeah, I think I'm keeping her…"

"Well, good morning, Cleo. Had a nice nap?"
The Egyptian, who was sitting in front of a small table, putting the finishing touches on her make-up in an attempt to cover up her red, swollen eye, growled something under her breath at the sound of the cheerful voice. She looked up, seeing Xena's form reflected in her mirror, standing in the doorway. "I am not amused."

Xena chuckled, walking further into the room and dropping in a chair. Cleopatra took in the light, leather armour she was wearing in disdain. Both armour and Conqueror were liberally covered in dust, and the dark-haired woman had a nasty scratch on her upper arm. "Couldn't you have at least taken a moment to clean yourself up before walking in here and befouling my room."
The Conqueror rolled her eyes. "I was trying to be attentive by making you my first stop of the morning."
"Well, you failed." Cleo stated, turning back to the mirror, judging her appearance before gracefully rising from her seat, her clean, white dress falling straight to the ground. "Attentive would have been being on time for dinner."
"I had work to finish…"
"Attentive would have been not inviting that Alti woman…" Cleopatra went on without paying attention to the Conqueror's protests. "… and most of all it would have been leaving that… that peasant where she belongs."

Xena leaned back in her chair, folding her hands together and balancing them on her knee. "What I do in this palace is of no concern to you."
"It is when I get knocked unconscious by a hand that is not even worthy of touching my feet!" Cleopatra spat back angrily, her legendary temper flaring to new heights. "I do not wish to see this woman again during my stay here, Xena, or I will see myself forced to take repercussions against this disrespect shown by you for my presence here."
A dark eyebrow lifted slowly. "Are you threatening me?" Her voice dropped to a dangerous level.
Dark eyes regarded her, uncertainty twitching in the depths.
Xena slowly rose to her full height. "You see, I can't imagine you are, because I know you know what threatening The Conqueror generally leads to."

A multitude of emotions flicked over the Pharaoh's face, then Cleopatra relented, seating herself on the bed in a graceful motion, crossing her legs, a bit of skin showing through a split on the side of her dress. "You must have misinterpreted my words…"
"I'm sure I must have…" Xena agreed amiably, shooting the pharaoh a charming smile before turning and re-taking her seat. "Accept my apologies for the events of the previous evening. I'll do my best to make sure that does not happen again."
"I'm assuming from your attire that you've taken care of that woman already?" Cleopatra motioned towards the armour.
The Conqueror chuckled under her breath. "Not quite…"
A perfectly rounded eyebrow arched. 
"She is… I have certain interests in keeping her alive for the moment. And no, none of these interests come even remotely close to what you think they are…" The Conqueror added calmly as fiery eyes narrowed at her. "Actually, the 'peasant', you so affectionately refer to, hates my guts. Which is why Alti is here, since she doesn't trust me and wants to make sure dear Gab doesn't corrupt me."

Cleopatra blinked at her, unable to grasp all of this and puzzle the different bits of information into something that made sense. 
"It's complicated." Xena added for good measure, affirming the one thing Cleopatra had managed to deduce. "But the woman is my guest and I will be treating her as such…"
"Guests are not supposed to hit people of high stature." The Queen of the Nile replied agitatedly. 

Xena leaned back in her chair, regarding the woman calmly. "Cleo, I hate to bring this up, but I can remember a certain Egyptian Queen nearly scratching my Advisor's eyes out of their sockets last time she visited."
The Pharaoh's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "I had every right to do that."
Xena tried hard to repress the wicked grin that was struggling to take over her face. "It wasn't poor Pyrron's fault that pig happened to escape when you were standing near, and that he just happened to get his tusks caught on your dress, after which he just happened to run off with you trailing along half naked across the…"

"Enough!" Cleopatra pushed herself up, standing on her feet, peering down at the Conqueror angrily. "There is no need to remind me of the whole incident!"
"My apologies." Xena managed to say quite sincerely. "I know that must have been quite a drag for you…" She hastily lifted both hands as the Egyptian's fingers curled up into fists and prepared for an assault. "Kidding, just kidding."
"Ha ha." Cleopatra uttered dryly, but decided against hitting the Conqueror nevertheless, knowing it would do no good anyway. "I will not be toyed with, Xena." 
"You are not being toyed with." The Conqueror informed her seriously. "You know you are a valuable ally to me, Cleo. Your company and support is very important to me. And you can be sure I've informed the warrior how I feel about what she did yesterday." The truth could be so much fun sometimes, Xena grinned to herself. "Now, if we can forget all of this now, I'll personally see to it the rest of your stay here is far more pleasant."
Dark eyes looked up at her inquisitively. "Personally?"
"Absolutely." Xena assured her, producing a sexy smile, before lifting a hand and offering the Queen of the Nile her arm. "If you'd be so kind as to join me for breakfast?"

Cleopatra judged her for another moment. "Is that woman going to be there too?" She asked suspiciously.
"If she is I'll make sure she leaves." The Conqueror promised sweetly, knowing full well that she hadn't told Gabrielle to join her for breakfast, and the chances were pretty slim the warrior would show up voluntarily to enjoy the Conqueror's company. "I'll make sure she does not bother you again, I swear."
"Very well then." Cleopatra allowed finally, placing her hand on the Conqueror's arm. "I will accept your invitation for breakfast, in that case."
"Nothing would please me more." Xena said politely, as she guided the Egyptian from the room, making sure the woman was unable to see the fingers she had crossed behind her back. 

"I don't like this, Argo." Gabrielle informed her horse in a mutter, wiping at the dust on the palomino's back. Not that the mare needed any cleaning this early in the morning, after the great care Iona had provided the day before, but the brushing was a form of meditation, a way of clearing her mind and putting some things straight. "I don't like this at all."
Argo scraped her hoof over the hay negligently. 
Gabrielle shot her horse a look. "Yeah well, you're not the one who has to survive a fight to the death each day, are you? You're the one with the nice stable and the fresh hay and the good company." The warrior pointed out to her mare. 
A dark brown eye gazed back at her innocently. 
Gabrielle gazed at the horse, then released a breath, resting her forehead against the mare's flank tiredly. "You know Argo, sometimes I wish I was a horse. Then I'd only have to worry about keeping fed and getting enough sleep…"
The Palomino snorted indignantly, flicking her tail at the warrior in dismay. 
"All right, all right, I'd have to worry about a bit more than that." Gabrielle relented, continuing her brushing. "But you have to admit my life is a bit tougher than yours is, with the fighting and the dealing with the conqueror and the continuously getting my friends killed and all…" A sigh. "Sorry, I'll stop the self-pity now." 

A moment of silence as Gabrielle dropped to a knee and wiped some tiny flecks of dust off the mare's front legs. "Maybe I could get to be a horse in my next life. We could both be horses and we could race each other in the meadow. How about it huh?"
A snicker. 
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yeah, you're right, I'd probably suck at being a horse. Just as well, I guess. I prefer nut bread over grass any day." 

Her senses flared up, alerting her of the arrival of another presence., standing in the door opening of the stables, trying to be quiet, listening. The warrior smiled as her ears and nose deduced who this presence had to be. "Didn't your father ever teach you it's rude to eavesdrop, Iona?"

A moment of stunned silence, than footsteps hastily pattered closer, before Iona poked her head over the edge of the bottom part of the double door, peering into the box. "How did you know it was me?"
Green eyes looked up at her in amusement, then the warrior lifted a finger and tapped her ear. "Heard it was you."
"Wow." The young girl beamed an impressed smile at her. "Just like Xena. She always knows when it's me too. Even when I'm trying to be really quiet…" A short pause. "She didn't know you were there last night though… How come?"
Gabrielle finished with Argo's front legs, then moved to the back. "She couldn't hear me."
Iona cocked her head. "How come?"
"Because I didn't want her to." Gabrielle stated, tugging a piece of hay from the palomino's tail. 
"How come?"
The warrior rolled her eyes, then straightened, turning towards the girl. "Because that way I can get to hear things I normally wouldn't hear, which I can use to my advantage." She informed the blonde, walking closer and opening the door, exiting the box before closing it again behind her. 
"Like with the candy?"
"Exactly." Gabrielle placed the brushes back in her bag, then slung the leather pouch over her shoulder. "Besides…" She grinned down at the young blonde. "It's more fun to sneak up on people."

Iona giggled, skipping along behind Gabrielle as the warrior headed out of the stables. "You're funny."
The warrior looked down at the girl with a tolerant smile. "I have my moments."
Another giggle, then the girl stopped her skipping and her face took on a thoughtful expression for a moment, before she hastily ran to catch up with Gabrielle's longer strides, reaching out and touching the warrior's arm. "Could you teach me?"
"Teach you how to sneak up on people?"
"How to sneak up on Xena," Iona corrected her.
Gabrielle looked down at the girl doubtingly, considering the request. "I don't know…"
"Awwwwww." The young face gazed up at her pleadingly. "Puhlease?"

The adorable pout, a child's best weapon to get what they wanted. Gabrielle couldn't help grinning though. "Very well then…"
A victorious glint sparkled in the blue eyes. "Yay!" 
"…on one condition." Gabrielle amended, which got her a slightly disappointed look from the girl who'd felt assured of her victory only moments before. "You know this place pretty well, right?"
Iona nodded apprehensively. 
"I bet you know some of the…" Gabrielle searched for the word for a moment. "…the more unconventional ways to get in and out of the palace. Maybe even some the Conqueror doesn't know about herself?"
A mischievous grin formed on the girl's face. "I might…" She drawled slowly. 
Gabrielle dropped to a knee, facing the girl at eye height. "You tell me those, and I'll teach you how to perfect your sneaking. Deal?" She extended a hand to the girl. 
Iona smiled brightly. "Deal." She took the warrior's hand, giving it a firm shake. Well, firm for a twelve year old anyway. 

"Now, we can't tell anybody about this little exchange, OK? Especially not the Conqueror."
"Of course not." Iona shook her head gravely. "If she knew it'd be even harder to scare her."
"And when you know how to sneak, you can't teach anybody else, all right?" Gabrielle continued on with her demands. "This has to stay between you and me…"
"Our secret." The girl affirmed with a nod. "Got it."
"Perfect." Gabrielle ruffled the blond hair affectionately, then stood again motioning towards the palace. "Come on. Let's go inside and find some quiet place to practice." 
Iona smiled cheerfully, happily bounding along behind Gabrielle. "I know just the spot…"

They mounted stairs all the way to the top floor, then Iona led her down a corridor, passing a few doors before pulling to a halt at a dead end. Gabrielle's brows frowned as she looked around, seeing only walls around her, no doors or windows to lead them anywhere. "Did you take a wrong turn?"
Iona grinned, shaking her head rapidly, then she pointed an index finger straight up to the ceiling. 

Gabrielle looked at her, then her gaze tracked up in the direction she was pointing in. A short piece of rope was dangling from the ceiling, nearly undetectable, since the rope was the exact same colour as the surrounding walls and ceiling. 

Iona flashed her a grin, then hoped up, once, twice, before managing to grab onto the rope. Her weight tugged it down, opening up a hatch in the ceiling, a simple wooden ladder tumbling down to allow them passage to the attic. Iona mounted the ladder without any hesitation, scrambling up with an agility that surprised the warrior. Gabrielle followed behind, her green eyes flicking around alertly. She doubted the girl was leading her into a trap of any kind, but one could never be too sure… 

Another few steps, then she poked her head through the hatch, getting a clear look at the attic. The floor was made of rough, wooden boards, nobody having bothered to decorate this abandoned part of the castle. The walls sloped up around her, joining together straight above her head.
"Cool huh?" Iona bounced around happily, feeling quite proud of herself for thinking of this spot. "Nobody ever comes here, except me and Niobe and Castor. And Xena sometimes. It's just used for storage." The girl indicated the wooden boxes around them, which were nailed shut tightly. 

Gabrielle grabbed onto the edge of the attic floor, putting her weight on her palms and swinging her legs up, then standing gracefully. Fortunately, she could easily stand to her full height in the centre of the room, through she figured she'd have trouble standing at the sides of the room where the roof sloped down. "Who's Castor?"
"He's my little brother." Iona explained, walking to a box in the centre of the room and sitting down, her legs dangling. "He's with Linos in the mountains."
"Our teacher." The girl clarified. "He teaches reading, writing and calculus to Castor and Niobe. For me it's mostly philosophy and astronomy and stuff…" 
"Really?" Gabrielle asked in mild surprise as she seated herself on one of the crates, knowing both matters were pretty tough reading for a twelve year old. "Which philosophers?"
"Plato, Aristotle…" Iona shrugged negligently. "Some things they say are pretty clever, but there's a lot of blabbering about nothing in there too… They like to use fancy words to say really simple things…" 
Gabrielle's eyebrows edged up into her hairline. "Do they now?"
"Yeah." The young girl nodded confidently. "They just write about stuff all the time, guessing about what they think is the truth, but they never go out and do anything… I like to learn more practical things, like how to tame horses and fight with a sword. And how to sneak up on people of course…" She added hastily, giving Gabrielle a meaningful look. 

"Right." The warrior chuckled, then stood. "All right, we'd better get started then. Take your shoes off…"
Iona looked down at her booted feet, then up at Gabrielle again. "Why?"
"Because if you keep 'm on it's harder to sneak."
"Because the leather squeaks."
Iona frowned, looking at her boots one more time. "It does?"
"Uhuh." Gabrielle confirmed with a small smile, walking closer and kneeling in front of the girl. She grabbed onto the small boot, one hand at the heel and one at the toes, pulling the footwear loose. "Really soft sounds sometimes, but there's always something you can hear if you listen real close."
"Can you teach me to listen real good too?" Iona immediately asked enthusiastically, gazing at her new companion. 
"We'll see…" Gabrielle muttered, unable not to be amused by the girl's curiosity. "First things first, OK?"
"OK." Iona sighed gravely, then hopped off her crate. "What do I do?"
"Well…" Gabrielle glanced around the room cluttered with crates and other smaller items. "First we have to create some space here. Help me move some boxes to the side, will you?"

Iona immediately set to work. Gabrielle watched her movements from the corner of her eyes, while she herself moved the heavier items around. Iona appeared to be quite strong for her age and build, and a hard worker for someone who'd been raised in the luxury of a palace. The warrior shook her head a little as she tightened her grip on one of the larger crates, lifting it up to place it on top of another one. This was so weird, all of this. All the things she'd seen this last few days, well, most of them at least, didn't add up to her vision of the Conqueror at all. Iona clearly adored the ruler, and judging from the bits of interaction Gabrielle had been able to witness as she was hidden in the shadows of Pyrron's quarters the feeling was mutual. Or at least, The Conqueror made it seem to be. Maybe it was a form of indoctrination, making sure the children in the palace grew up to form a bond with the Conqueror, so they would stay loyal to her in times to come… Which would be terribly manipulative, but incredibly smart, Gabrielle had to admit. 

Caught in her musing, she forgot to keep an eye on her younger companion for a moment. The girl was just lifting up a smaller box, intend on carrying it over to the side of the room, when she tripped on a small unevenness in the wooden floor. With a clattering of wood and a thudding of limbs, she and her burden crashed to the floor. 

The rough boards scraped her knees, and Iona bit her lip to keep from crying out. Footsteps hastily rushed closer, then a gentle hand touched her back. 
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle's worried voice sounded behind her. "Iona?"
The girl sniffled back some tears, then turned to sit on the floor, wiping an arm over her face hastily to get rid of a salty drop staining her cheek. "Fine." She said in a slightly unsteady voice. 
"That was quite a nasty fall." Gabrielle looked down at the girl's legs, which had some nasty scrapes, but didn't appear to be broken or bruised or anything like that. "Think you can stand?"

Iona nodded, then allowed the warrior to pull her to her feet. She winced as her legs stung painfully, trying to ignore the bits of blood trickling down her kneecaps. "See. I'm fine."
Gabrielle gave her a wry grin, then lifted a hand and patting her cheek affectionately. "You're a tough kid, you know that?"
This got a delighted smile edging its way through the pained features. "I am?"
"Most definitely." Gabrielle informed her honestly. "How about we go downstairs and tend to those knees of yours, huh?"
Iona's face turned sombre. "No sneaking?" 
"It's no good sneaking when you're hissing in pain at every step you take." Gabrielle said, as she moved over to the box Iona had dropped. The shock of the fall had loosened the nails keeping the lid in place and part of the contents had spilled out onto the attic floor. Gabrielle pulled the crate upright again, then started to pick up the items to place it back in the box. 
"I won't hiss." Iona assured her weakly, knowing the warrior was probably right, but she was unable to help being disappointed, since she had really been looking forward to sneaking up on Xena. 
"I'll teach you another time, I promise." Gabrielle shot her a smile, before turning back to her task, picking up a picture frame off the floor. "We'll…" 

She paused, as her eyes fell on the framed drawing in her hands. A woman with dark, curly hair, wearing a simple dress, an apron tied at her waist, was standing behind three children. It was a family, at least, it seemed to be, the likeliness between the individuals being quite striking. The largest of the trio, a boy with dark hair, stood on the left. Beside him stood a much smaller boy, with blond hair and a huge grin on his face, his arms wrapped around the girl beside him, who had a hand placed protectively on his shoulder. She was smiling too. 

Gabrielle stared at the girl in the picture. At the long dark hair, braided back to keep it out of her face. At the way she was standing. At the already clearly visible layer of muscles on her bare arms and legs. Just like… But this couldn't possibly be…

"What are you doing here?!" A growl beside her suddenly made her jump. She scrambled to her feet as fast as she could, still holding the picture frame in one hand, her alert eyes flicking to the hatch they'd entered the attic through, to see icily cold blue eyes flashing at her.
"Uh oh…" Iona swallowed, her eyes wide.
For a moment the gaze flicked sideways to take in the girl's presence. "You took her here?!"
Carefully the young blonde took a few paces back, finding shelter at Gabrielle's side, half hiding behind the warrior. "Conqueror." She whispered, a tinge of fear in her voice. 

Gabrielle darted another quick look at the angry set of the Conqueror's body, before turning her attention to the girl beside her. "Iona, why don't you go back to your room and have someone look after those wounds, OK?"
Blue eyes peeked up, blinking hesitantly. 
"I'll come by to see if they did a good job later, deal?" 
An insecure look at the Conqueror, then Iona nodded. "'kay."
Gabrielle gave her a reassuring smile and a pat on the cheek, then straightened again, letting her eyes meet Xena's. "Don't try to stop her, or you'll regret it."
The Conqueror took a breath, clearly attempting to calm herself. "Go on." She spoke to the girl, forcing the anger out of her voice. "It's OK."
The girl nodded, hastily, dropping her eyes to avoid the Conqueror's gaze, hastily walking to the hatch and descending down the ladder. 

Xena waited a moment, so she was sure Iona was out of hearing range, then lifted her gaze to meet Gabrielle's once more, all the anger flooding back in. "I give you complete freedom to roam my palace. I give you luxury and comfort. Good food. And you repay me by going through my things without my consent?!" 
"That's not what happened…" Gabrielle refuted. 
"Isn't it?!" Xena waved her hands at the opened crate in a furious motion. "Then what's this?!"
"Iona was carrying it, then she tripped…"
"Oh, sure… Just an accident, right?" The Conqueror laughed humourlessly. 
Green eyes narrowed to slits. "If you are insinuating I hurt that girl in any way…"
"And what if I'm insinuating just that?"
"Then you're dead." Was the growled reply.
"Oh please." Xena rolled her eyes. "You're willing to do anything to save your rebel friend, right? Why not tripping a little girl so you can find some stuff to use against me then?" 
"Don't you dare!" Gabrielle pointed a threatening finger at the Conqueror, only just keeping herself from pounding on the woman. "You took everything from me! You slaughtered my friends, you quenched any chance at a normal life for me, you took away my dignity… I will not let you take my honour!" She'd taken a pace closer with every point she made and was now right in front of the warrior, only a few feet separating them. "So you'd better take that back right now, or I will kill you where you stand and take my chances at getting my friend out of here on my own."
"You'll die." Xena hissed back. 
"So be it then. Death is the least of my worries."

A moment of tense silence, as blue and green faced off in a battle of wills. Xena had no doubts the warrior was serious. Not that she feared the threats, death was the least of her worries as well. There had been moments when she would have gladly welcomed it. The Conqueror took a breath. "It was an accident?" 
"Yes." Gabrielle affirmed firmly. 
"Very well." The Conqueror relented, then held up her hand. "Give me the picture."
The warrior did so without hesitation, stealing a last look at the cheerfully smiling girl, before glaring back up into a similar face, this one void of any happiness. 
"To the world, these things don't exist." Xena stated, avoiding looking at the item in her hands. "I'd like to keep it that way." 
"If someone finds out about this in the future, they will not have heard from me." The warrior assured, crossing her arms.
"I'll trust your word on that." 
A short nod from the blonde, then she turned towards the hatch to make her exit. Deciding climbing the ladder would take too long, she simply jumped down, grabbing onto the edge of the attic floor at the last minute, swinging sideways to avoid bumping into the ladder, then landing gracefully in the hallway. 

The Conqueror's eyes followed the warrior until she was out of sight, then Xena released a tense breath, closing her eyes. Gods… She lifted a hand and rubbed her eyes tiredly. What was she doing? Was Alti right? Was she insane to trust this young woman? This woman who blamed her for every wrong thing in her life? Sure, the last few days had been fun, but was this bit of fun worth risking everything for? Xena dropped her head, sagging down on one of the crates. Yes, Xena admitted to herself, it was worth it, but the risk wasn't what concerned her, was it? What concerned her was that this was moving beyond being just plain fun.

Xena angrily pounded her fist against the wood she was sitting on. Damn it. Why did the people she liked always hate her guts? Why were the people that hated her guts always the ones she respected and could see were good and honourable. 

She snorted in self-contempt. "You know exactly why people like her hate you. She has every right to hate." Her eyes trailed down, finally coming to rest on the picture she held in her hand, her gaze settling on the smiling young boy in the centre of the drawing. "Oh, Ly…" A finger tracked up to trace the solid pencil strokes. "I'm doing what we always dreamed of. I'm ruling the world… But… if you're looking down on me now, I doubt you'll see much to be proud of." She released a shaky breath. "Has mom told you about me? About everything I've done?" A short pause to allow an answer, even though she knew it would never come. "Yeah, I'm sure she has. She was always the first in line to judge me. The first to tell me what a horrible beast I was. And she was right… Is right…" She stared into the eyes of her kid brother. "I'm just… I'm hoping you can look deeper, can look inside me and… And see I meant well… At least part of the time…" A tear slid down her cheek, gravity pulling it off her skin to fall down and splatter on the glass that covered the drawing. "I try, Ly, I really do…. But it's hard…" She gently wiped over the glass with her sleeve to clean the fluid off the drawing. "It's hard being alone…"

For a long time she was silent, as if waiting for a promise of future companionship… But it never came…

To be continued in Part III