The Edge of Nowhere

Part III

Gabrielle let herself fall back on the bed, closing her eyes as she hit the soft mattress. Good gods… Why couldn't things be simple for once? Why couldn't things be like in the stories she used to tell, where the hero always knew what to do, never doubted for a moment and instinctively chose the right path at the crossing. Just for this one time she'd like evil people to just be evil. To be ugly, hairy, growling men with scars and not be good-looking women who had happy little girls hiding somewhere under all that armour… 

Green eyes opened and gazed up at the decorated ceiling. In these last years, living in Chin, roaming the world on her travels back to Greece, she'd never even considered… She'd never even considered the Conqueror had a family. That she'd once been a child… For some reason she'd been convinced the woman had just been spewed up by the fires of Tartarus. That, like the goddess Athena, she'd been born full grown and dressed in armour, ready to mould the world to her desire by brute force… 

But now she knew differently. The woman now known as the Conqueror, the most brutal ruler the world had ever known, had once been an innocent child. 

What had happened? What could have possibly changed this woman's destiny from being a simple peasant girl to being the one to lead this Empire? 

Whatever it was, did it matter? Gabrielle asked herself. It shouldn't… What was important was what the woman was now. A murderer. The one who had killed her friends, had imprisoned Thalia… So she wasn't a demon created from the cursed fires of the Underworld, so what? The woman had chosen this path herself. She shouldn't care in the slightest what the Conqueror's reasons had been…

She shouldn't care… But she did…

Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. Though she felt the bard inside of her had died on that cross all those years ago, her curiosity for interesting tales hadn't lessened in the slightest. The Conqueror was a cold, ruthless killer, a murderer and a tyrant, but… well, she was an incredibly intriguing woman… She could chop off the head of a man without even flinching and be adored by a young girl at the same time. She could show incredible deviousness in dealing with her regents, but remain true to her word through all of it… 

Just now, in the attic, for just a moment she'd looked into the Conqueror's eyes and seen… Something… Something beside the anger and the taunting glints, past the rage and bloodlust… 

Eyes were windows into ones soul… Lao Ma had told her that once, that if you would just stare into someone's eyes long enough you could separate the good from the evil. 

"Clearly that doesn't always work… You allowed The Conqueror into your home."
Lao Ma closed her eyes, shaking her head slightly. "Gabrielle, you do not understand…"
"No, I don't…" The blonde crossed her arms, towering over her mentor, who was sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor. This was the one thing they were constantly at odds about. "Teacher, you know I respect you more than any other person in this world, but… But I can not understand why you speak of this woman that has conquered your country and mine, that has betrayed you and tried to crucify me, as if she is someone you care for."
Dark eyes shifted to look up at her. "But she is."
Lao Ma took a breath, then gracefully rose to her feet, her thin, yellow robes draping around her, the lower edges reaching down to the floor. She walked out of the room and onto the porch overlooking the terraced gardens, colourful flowers surrounding small waterfalls and pebbled paths. Gabrielle followed behind, quietly awaiting her answer. Her teacher walked down the three wooden steps, coming to stand on the small path that led to the arches and temples in her garden. "Do you see that tree over there, Gabrielle." 
Gabrielle's eyes followed the direction her teacher was pointing to, to see a large, lush green pine tree standing beside the pond in the centre of the garden. 
"When I was a child, that tree was no more then a mere seed. I planted it here on my first visit to the house of Lao." Lao Ma stated calmly. "Great trees grow from the smallest shoots, Gabrielle." 
A moment of silence as Gabrielle considered this. "If you're comparing The Conqueror to this tree for some reason, I think I need to point out this tree here didn't kill thousands of people or forced countless others to submit to its will."
Lao Ma turned her head and looked at her student, then rolled her eyes. "It's just a metaphor, Gabrielle. Bear with me, okay?" 
"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle walked up next to her, sitting down on a stone. "Go on…"
Lao Ma smiled at her in amusement, slightly shaking her head. "There is no rest in you, is there?"
Blond eyebrows frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Every person one day comes to a crossing. And they will have to choose which road to walk upon. Choose their Tao, their way. But you haven't chosen. You are trying to walk every path at once."
"I am not." Gabrielle looked up indignantly. 
"Oh, come now… Don't you think I know you've asked my guards to teach you how they fight, teach you how to wield a weapon?" Green eyes dropped, refusing to look up at her. "You have taken steps on the path of war, and yet you want me to teach you peace."
"I only want to protect you." Gabrielle said softly. "I know there are people who threaten you, but you won't protect yourself against them. So I must…"
"Do not apologise." Lao Ma knelt down before her, reaching out and touching her cheek. "A seed grows into a tree not because it chooses to, but because it was meant to do so. As such it is with you. As such it was with Xena."
"The Conqueror and I have nothing in common!" Fiery green eyes turned to calm brown ones. "Destiny won't shape me, I'll shape it."
Lao Ma regarded her quietly for a moment, then straightened, leaning down and placing a kiss on the blonde's forehead. "She said the exact same thing."

Gabrielle sighed. She had respected Lao Ma like no one else, but the obnoxious thing about the woman was she always managed to make it seem she was right… Even when she clearly wasn't… She was nothing like…

She sat up straight as she detected the shuffling of footsteps coming towards her door. Gabrielle cocked her head, judging the sound, trying to deduce who it was, but she found she couldn't… It wasn't the Conqueror, not Iona or Esmee… Instinctively she reached for her boot, grabbing a firm hold of the hilt of the dagger she had placed there, laying the blade against the inside of her arm. It could just be one of the servants, or maybe…

The door opened, her visitor not bothering to knock. A tall, dark form blocked her doorway, dressed in a black toga, with deep purple edges. "Well… How nice to see you again too…"
A shiver passed down the warrior's spine at the shamaness's low, crackly voice. "Don't try anything stupid, sorceress. Whatever your powers may be, you know there'll be a dagger stuck in your chest before you'll have uttered the first syllable of your spell." 
A chuckle from Alti. "Keep your feeble threats to yourself, warrior. I have no desire to see you dead… You can be more useful to me alive…" She edged into the room, closing the door behind her. "We could be useful to each other."
Gabrielle watched her suspiciously, keeping her dagger firmly clenched in her hand. "You expect me to believe you're willing to help me after what happened yesterday…"
"Oh, yesterday…" Alti lifted a hand to a small scratch on the side of her face. "Yesterday was… an unfortunate incident. I'm willing to overlook that…" She settled down on a chair next to the bed, crossing her legs, her dark eyes firmly fixed on Gabrielle's face. "I saw you fighting."
The warrior stared back calmly, forcing herself not to break eye contact with the shamaness. 
"Xena is getting weak. You proved that today by defeating her… It is time for her to be replaced." Alti leaned forward, folding her hands and balancing her elbows on her knees. "I could make you ruler of the known world, Gabrielle."

Green eyes regarded her for another moment, then Gabrielle started laughing. "You think I want to be an Empress?" A snort. "You know, for a woman with such great spiritual powers, you have very little brain."
Alti's jaw clenched, but she managed to keep any snappy retorts to herself. "When Xena is taken care of, you can make any reforms you want. You can turn this Empire into a democracy."
A blond eyebrow raised. "You would support a democracy?"
"I would support any form of rule, as long as I have a part in the ruling." Alti informed her dryly. 

Gabrielle regarded her for a moment. "You have no loyalty towards The Conqueror?"
Alti rolled her eyes. "Nobody is loyal to Xena. All her relationships are based on either blackmail or mutual benefits. Xena was useful to me before, as I was to her, but with you here, things have changed…" Dark eyes stared at the warrior intensely. "You are the bringer of change, Gabrielle. I have seen you in my visions. You're destined to conquer the Conqueror. All I want to do is aid you in becoming what you're meant to become…"
Gabrielle cocked her head at the shamaness. "You like to stick with the winning team, you mean?" 
A wicked grin. "You could say that…"
"Well,…" Gabrielle stood up from the bed and headed for the door. "…I hate to disappoint you in that case…" She pulled it open. "But I'm afraid I'll have to do just that…"
Dark eyes stared at her in fury. "You are declining my offer?!"
The shamaness slowly, dangerously, rose to her feet. "I offer you the empire on a plate, and you won't take it? Why?"
"Because the end doesn't justify the means." A negligent shrug. "I don't like you. I think you're a dangerous, manipulative old witch, whose main purpose in life is to destroy the lives of those who get in her way." 
Alti stared at her in outrage. "I am not old!"
Gabrielle released a breath. "Whatever. Just leave." She motioned for the door. "And don't bother me again."
Another moment, in which dark eyes drilled into hers with almost painful intensity. "You're even more of a fool than I thought you to be." Alti finally said in a growl, striding forward and out of the room. "You've made an enemy of me today, Gabrielle. You will regret this."
Gabrielle closed the door behind her, then leaned forward, resting her forehead against the wood, exhaling gravely. "Yeah… I'm quite sure I will…"

"Gab!" Thalia smiled widely as she spotted her friend walking towards her, a guard following close behind. "You're back!"
"Hi." Gabrielle stepped aside to allow the guard to key open the door for her. "How are you doing?"
"Considering I'm stuck in a cell, not too damn bad…" The redhead told her cheerfully, pulling her into a hug as she stepped in the cell. "I hadn't expected you back for some time…"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I can go wherever I want to. That includes being here." She held the paper bag, she had gripped in one hand, out to her friend. "Here. Brought you some stuff."

Thalia cocked her head, but took the bag, pulling it open and peeking inside curiously. "Oh my goodness!" She looked back up at Gabrielle, her eyes twinkling enthusiastically. "You are a goddess!"
The warrior chuckled, sitting down on the edge of the single bed that occupied the cell. "Wouldn't go that far…"
"Well, I would…" Thalia said full of conviction, digging into the bag and pulling out one of the cinnamon rolls. "Hey, your highness, catch!" She called out, as she tossed it through the bars into the cell next to hers, where Ephiny neatly scooped it out of the air. 
"Hmmm…" The Amazon sniffed the treat appreciatively. "I agree with ya. Divine presence in the prison, for sure." 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, shaking her head in amusement. "It's good to know you found someone down here to share your deluded sense of humour with, Thal."
"Hey, I used to be plain and sane before…" Ephiny mumbled around a mouthful. "You just try hanging out with her for two full years…"
Thalia shot her companion a look. "See, this is the problem with royalty. You share your cinnamon rolls and your candy with 'm, and all you can expect back is accusations…" She tossed another bread roll at the Amazon, hitting the blonde square on the forehead. Ephiny caught the roll as it bounced off, then took a bite, munching on happily. Thalia rolled her eyes at her, then turned to look down at Gabrielle. "Did you send the candy along with my dinner, by the way, or was that a gift from the Conqueror?"
The warrior chuckled, leaning her back against the wall, feeling herself relax a little in the company of friends. "Both actually."
A red eyebrow lifted. "Explain."
"I blackmailed her into giving those to you." 

A moment of silence, then Ephiny coughed loudly, as she tried to keep from choking to death on her cinnamon treat. "What?!" She managed, between breaths. 
"Lemme get this straight… You blackmailed the Conqueror??" Thalia stared at her in disbelief. 
The redhead scratched the back of her neck. "But I thought she was blackmailing you by holding me here?"
"She is." Gabrielle confirmed. 
Two pairs of eyes blinked at her in confusion. 
"It's complicated." The warrior explained. 
"Oh, geez, ya think?" Ephiny muttered sarcastically, shaking her head as she successfully swallowed down a bit of bread roll.

Thalia leaned back against the bars, judging her friend intently. "You know Gab, this could just be me, but she's letting you get away with an awful lot… Blackmail, sneaking me treats, coming down here any time you want…"
"I know…" Gabrielle sighed, tipping her head back and closing her eyes, trying to quell the doubtful voices in her head yelling at her. 
The redhead frowned. "The Conqueror would only do you favours if you…" Her eyes widened. "Gab, tell me you're not… I mean, you and her aren't… uhm…" She waved her hand at the empty air in a vague gesture. 
Gabrielle's eyes shot open. "No!" She denied, glaring at her friend in horror. 
"Just checking…" Thalia said hastily. "Gab, I know you feel guilty and all, and I just don't know how far you'd go…"
"Not that far." She leaned forward, rubbing at her eyes tiredly with a hand. "Not as long as I don't need to anyway." She added in a softer voice, making sure her friend couldn't hear her, before speaking up again. "The Conqueror's just… different… She's…" She shook her head in defeat. "I don't know… Something indefinable…"
"Well, I've got a few definitions for ya…" Ephiny muttered from the other cell. "Beast, Murderer, Destroyer of Nations, Terror, Curse…"
Gabrielle released a frustrated breath. "There's more to her than that… There's… I mean, did you ever wonder what she was like as a child? If this darkness was innate, or if something happened to her and…"

Ephiny's eyes narrowed viciously. "Don't tell me you're feeling sorry for her?!" She spat, looking at Gabrielle in outrage. 
The warrior lifted a hand in defence. "I didn't say…"
"I don't give a damn what happened to the poor Empress when she was an infant!" The Amazon continued her tirade. "You know what I care about? I care about all the sisters I lost because of her. Forty-two people lived in our village. You know how many were left after she waltzed through? Three! Three!!" 
"Ephiny…" Thalia carefully stepped closer to her friend. "Easy now…Calm down…"
"Easy??" Hazel eyes blasted fire at the redhead. "You wouldn't calm down if you'd lost…" 

The Amazon stopped short, biting her lip to hold back the rest of her sentence. A moment of silence followed, then Ephiny spoke up again. "I'm sorry. That was… stupid…" 
"'s Okay… I understand." Thalia, patted the blonde's shoulder with a wry look, then turned back to Gabrielle, who was still sitting on her bed, her head in her hands. "Gab?"
The warrior sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I… I'm sorry, I'm just... confused…" 
"Confused?" Thalia walked closer, sitting down beside her. "How come?"
Green eyes peeked up at her. "I've just…" A shake of the blond head. "I've seen things these last few days that just… don't fit…"
"Don't fit?" Her friend frowned at her. 
Gabrielle tossed up her hands in defeat. "She's like a puzzle. And I thought I figured her out, I thought she was just evil and screwed up in the head. I nearly had her all puzzled together… But now I've found all these pieces that… that don't fit anywhere… Like they belong to a different puzzle, but I'm positive they don't… You know what I mean?" 
Thalia considered this for a moment, then nodded. "I think I do…" She finally murmured. "But, Gab, the majority of those… those puzzle pieces of yours still go together, right? The bigger part of her is still evil, isn't it?"
Gabrielle nodded faintly. "I know…" A sigh. "And part of me is yelling at myself for being so ridiculous, but…You know how I get…"
"All mushy and well-willing, yeah…" Thalia grinned at the scowl from the warrior. "You still believe all people have some good hidden somewhere, don't you Gab?"
Gabrielle released a tired breath. "I thought I didn't anymore…"
"Must be hanging around with me then." Thalia wrapped an arm around the blonde's shoulders amicably. "You always made sure before your opinions were the direct opposite of mine…"
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully. "Never did it on purpose…"
"I know… It was good, anyway, it kept us… balanced out…" 
"Guess so…" The warrior smiled at her friend, then shifted her gaze to look at Ephiny apologetically. "I uhm… I'm sorry… I shouldn't have…"
The Amazon quickly waved her off. "Neither should I…" A pause as the woman considered her words. "It's just… I had a friend before. Her name was Terreis… And she believed that the Conqueror was… reasonable. Even when queen Melosa was killed and she had to lead our tribe she tried everything to talk to the Conqueror about peace." Ephiny flicked a hand at her surroundings. "And look where it got us… I'm captured, the remaining Amazons are scattered…"
"Remaining?" Gabrielle cocked her head at the blonde. "I thought the Amazon nation was extinct."
Ephiny snorted. "As if…" She leaned as close into the other cell as she could, dropping her voice. "That's what she wants you to believe, Gabrielle. If they were all dead, why would I be alive today?"
Gabrielle had no answer to that. 
"If we ever get out of here I could show you places, where people thought 'extinct' live together peacefully. Centaurs, Amazons, Pomira…" Ephiny smiled wryly. "They're hiding, but at least they're alive."

The warrior thought about this. "How do you know ? You've been here two years now, right?"
"Three." Ephiny corrected her. "Longer than her anyway." She pointed a thumb at Thalia. 
"So how do you know?"
The Amazon Queen grinned wickedly. "Let's just say I have… sources…"

Gabrielle's eyes widened as she realised what that meant. "In the palace?"
"Shh." Ephiny placed a finger to her lips, motioning the warrior forward with her other hand. Gabrielle stood and walked closer. "I trust you because you're a friend of Thalia's, all right? Don't treat her honour lightly…"
"Never." Gabrielle shook her head confidently. 

Ephiny glanced around, making sure none of the other captives was paying attention, then started whispering. "There's a woman working in the kitchen. Her name is Solari. Short brunette." She gave Gabrielle a meaningful look.
The warrior nodded. "Amazon?"
"Well, it would be kinda hard to hide a centaur in here, ya know?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "True enough." A short pause. "They haven't been able to get you out yet?"
Ephiny shook her head. "I don't want them to."
A blonde eyebrow lifted. 
"It would mean drawing attention to their existence. I can't risk that." The Amazon released a breath. "Solari is just stubborn enough to stick around here and tell me about the outside world from time to time. Notes in my soup, stuff like that…" She shrugged. "Keeps me sane… Sorta…"
Gabrielle smiled wryly, then reached through the bars, laying a hand on the bare shoulder. "I'll get you out of here."
Hazel eyes studied her for a long moment. "You seem very sure of yourself."
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "I've never let the Conqueror get me down before… I'm not about to start now…"

With a soft plop Xena uncorked another bottle of red wine, then tipped it and poured some of the liquid into her glass. She placed the bottle back on the table with one hand and reached for her glass with her other. The fluid twirled around in her glass, Xena watching it quietly as the light from the candle lit up the contents, the red twinkling at her wickedly. She lifted the glass to her lips, then tipped her head back, downing the wine in a few hasty gulps. Her mind became pleasantly fuzzy, the room spinning around unfocusedly. Xena closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, her free left hand finding the bottle on instinct, lifting it up to fill another glass. 

"Well well…"
Xena rolled her eyes behind her eyelids at the familiar voice, then frowned as she realised how hard that was. She wondered why…
"So this is the 'urgent business' you had to deal with, is it?" Alti's raspy voice said sarcastically. "Your Egyptian will be crushed if she found out…"
"Go away." Xena growled in annoyance.

Alti walked further into the room, ignoring the threat and seating herself on the edge of the desk. 
The Conqueror gritted her teeth. "What do you want?"
Dark eyes regarded her intently. "I want to warn you. Again." The shamaness waved a hand at her. "Don't you see what's happening? Just look at yourself… She's only been here two days and you're in here getting drunk."
Xena stared deeply into her glass, hypnotised. "Nothing wrong with that…"
The shamaness shook her head. "You are betraying yourself, Xena."
"Really?" Amused blue eyes looked up at the shamaness. "Well, we could start a club in that case. You can be president." The Conqueror leaned back in her chair, her hands folded around her glass. "You know, Alti, if you want to form a 'secret alliance' with dear Gabby, you should really make sure half of my staff isn't watching you while you sneak into her room." 

A grin slipped onto Alti's face. "Don't tell me you're getting drunk on my behalf, Xena." She laid a hand over her heart. "I'm moved." 
"Well, if you would just move yourself out of my room, I'd really appreciate it." The Conqueror muttered sarcastically. 
Alti regarded her. "Don't you even want to know how my meeting with your pawn worked out? Or did you have spies watching our conversation too?"
Xena dragged her eyes from the surface of the red liquid up to the shamaness's face. "I don't need spies to know she turned you down."
"Really?" A dark eyebrow lifted. "How so?"
"Good people like her don't work with scum like us."

"Xena, Xena…" Alti straightened with a sigh, standing up and circling the desk. "Don't tell me you've developed a conscience all of a sudden." 
"I've always had one, Alti, I just prefer to have it turned off." The Conqueror stated calmly. "Hurts less…"
The shamaness crossed her arms. "I could help you with that… Taking the good out of people is what I do best after all…" She leaned closer, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Life is far less painful without a soul, you know?"
Xena considered this for a moment. "Probably." She then admitted. "But the nasty side effects are you start wearing dear skin a lot and go way overboard with the black eyeliner." She looked up at Alti, feigning an apologetic look. "Just ain't worth it… Sorry… "

The shamaness looked back at her with a bored expression. "Good to know you found your sense of humour at the bottom of that first bottle… Or was it the second?"
"Fourth actually." Xena informed her cheerfully, then downed another glass. 

Alti closed her eyes with a sigh, then stood and headed back out the room. "It's no use talking to you this way. I will speak with you in the morning."
"Afternoon. I'm fighting Gabby in the morning." 
Alti looked over her shoulder, dark eyes gazing at the Conqueror for a moment. "The state you'll be in, I'm guessing that fight won't last all that long." The shamaness said dryly, then strode further out of the room, leaving the door open. 

Xena watched the door opening sway from left to right for a moment, letting the motion sooth her. "You're probably right." She agreed with the now absent shamaness, before reaching for the bottle, lifting it to her lips and taking a long swallow. 

Iona sat huddled in the corner of her bed, her arms wrapped tightly around a small, stuffed horse, her face hidden in its soft skin. 
A sound alerted her and she looked up, hastily lifting a hand to her eyes and rubbing away some of the tears with her sleeve. 
"You're getting good at hearing me." Gabrielle said, smiling at the girl. 
Iona sniffled, bending her head. "You did that on purpose."
The warrior grinned reluctantly. "Nothing gets past you, does it?"

Blue eyes peeked up hesitantly, blinking at her. "I thought… I thought you were Xena's friend… But you're not…"
Gabrielle sobered, walking closer and sitting down on the edge of the girl's bed. "No, I'm not…"
"Why not?" 

The warrior released a breath taking a moment to find the correct words to explain things to the young girl. "I… I don't know your… your Xena…" Speaking the name felt odd. "But… I know the Conqueror."
Iona bit her lip, looking up. "Did she hurt you?"
Gabrielle watched the girl for a moment. Apparently she seemed to know more about who the Conqueror was than Gabrielle had thought. "She… She and I fought. We don't agree on how the Empire should be ruled." 
Iona cocked her head. "You're a rebel?"
She knew much more… "I used to be." Gabrielle corrected quietly. "Now I'm a warrior."

The girl nodded pensively, seeming to consider all this new information. "So why are you here?"
The warrior rubbed her temple, thinking. "The Conqueror… took something from me. I want it back. And we agreed that if I fight her for a month and teach her new things, she'll give it to me…"
Another nod. "Xena likes to learn. But there's no one left to teach her things… Well, except you now…" Iona amended. 

She fell silent again, thinking, absentmindedly stroking the manes of her toy horse. Gabrielle studied the stuffed animal for a moment. It was well made, the stitches neatly hid in the black fabric. 
"Xena made it for me." Iona's voice said softly, shifting her grip and holding the toy out to Gabrielle, who hesitated a moment before taking it from her. "Last year, for my birthday." 
"She made this herself?"
"Yes." The girl confirmed. "She always gives the best presents."
"It's very pretty." Gabrielle agreed, looking at an unseeing, dark eye. 
"She made that especially, because Xena says the wrapping is the best part of the present, but she couldn't wrap up Chilon, cause he kept kicking at the paper."

Gabrielle frowned, then looked back up at Iona. "The stallion is yours?"
Iona nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah… But I can't ride him without Xena being there, because he gets scared sometimes, and he runs off, and Xena doesn't want me to get hurt."
"She should've just given you another horse." Gabrielle muttered, handing the toy back to Iona, who hugged it close. 
"I didn't want another horse."
The warrior looked up in amusement. "And you always get what you want, do you?"
"Always." Iona confirmed confidently, her eyes taking on that mischievous twinkle Gabrielle now associated with the girl. 
The warrior chuckled. "I have no doubt you do." She leaned forward and ruffled the blond hair affectionately. "You can charm your way out of anything."
Iona giggled, her good mood returning. "Hey, Gabrielle?"
"I like you." 
Gabrielle smiled. "That's good to know."
"But I like Xena too." The young blonde added. "Does that mean I have to choose?"
"Nah." The warrior shook her head, patting the girl's cheek. "You can be friends with both of us. We just can't be friends with each other."
"OK." Iona said, pleased with the reply. "So, does that mean you can still teach me how to sneak?"
Gabrielle laughed, shaking her head in disbelief. "One-track mind…"
"Well, can ya?" 
"Yes." She grabbed onto the girl's shoulders before she could start bouncing through the room. "But not tonight. It's late."
Iona pouted sadly. "Awwwww." 
"That is not gonna work with me, young lady." Gabrielle pointed a chastising finger at the girl. 
An even sadder look. 
The warrior sighed. "All right, all right… Just one short lesson, OK?"
Iona grinned victoriously. "Whatever you say."

"Whatever you say…" Gabrielle shook her head as she closed the door to Pyrron's quarters behind her. "Manipulative little thing… You're such a sucker for those pleading blue eyes, Gab. It's ridiculous. You knock down the Conqueror without much of an effort, but some twelve year old waltzes right over you…" She muttered to herself as she made her way down the corridor to the main hall. "What's up with that, huh?"

She frowned as she saw light spill onto the dimmed corridor, coming from an open door. The Conqueror's workspace, Gabrielle concluded after she probed her memory for the information Iona had provided. Would the woman still be up this late? Even though she got up before dawn for her morning run?

Gabrielle took a breath. Whatever. She didn't care. She picked up her pace, intent on striding past the Conqueror's room and just… 

"Gabby!" A slurry voice called out enthusiastically. 

Gabrielle looked at the ceiling in annoyance. Of all the times to be noticed… But she turned and took the few paces back to stand in front of the door opening, looking inside. 

The first thing she saw was a neat row of six dark green bottles, placed on the desk, the one furthest from her still half full. Behind those were the Conqueror's bare feet, resting on top of a chair's headrest. A frown from the blonde eyebrows as Gabrielle's eyes tracked down the long, leather clad legs, until they disappeared under the desk the Empress was behind. She bent down, looking under the table to finally come face to face with the dark-haired woman. Xena's head was bright red, her dishevelled black hair, which fell straight down to the ground, standing out starkly in contrast. 

"Do you know how hard it is to drink when you're upside down?" Xena asked, demonstrating the problem by sipping a bit of her wine, her strenuous face displaying the effort as she swallowed. 
Gabrielle blinked back at her in confusion. "What are you doing?"
"Well…" Xena reached up, grabbing onto the still half full bottle of wine with one hand and holding her glass in the other, while balancing on her head. "If you stand on your head all the blood goes down, right? Then it'll get too full up…uhm… down here…" She put the empty glass down on the ground in front of her, then tapped the side of her head with two fingers. "And my theory is that when it does my skull will explode. I'm just testing my hypothesis."

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment in utter disbelief. "I was right after all…" She finally muttered to herself. "You are seriously screwed up in the head."
Xena chuckled, while pouring her glass full of wine without spilling a drop, which was really quite impressive considering the state she was in. "Want some?" She lowered an eyebrow at the warrior.
"No." Gabrielle replied shortly, straightening again. "Good luck on your experiment. I hope it proves you right." 
"Well, that's probably the nicest 'I hope you die' I've ever heard, Gabrielle." Xena told her cheerfully, swallowing another sip of wine. "You have a way with words. You would've been a success at the Bard's Academy for sure."

The warrior halted in her tracks, looking over her shoulder at the Conqueror's wiggling toes. 
"Too bad I closed it just before you could enrol, huh?"
"How do y…" Gabrielle bit her lip to hold back her frustration as she realised she was talking to a pair of feet, then bent down again, glaring into twinkling blue eyes. "How do you know?"
"I read your petition for acceptance into the Academy." The Conqueror informed her dryly. "Very nice. Eloquent. You would've gotten in for sure…"
The warrior gazed at her in disbelief. "How in Hades' name did you…?" Her sentences halted in a tense breath as the Conqueror crossed her arms, attempting to take on an interested pose in her upside down state. "Would you sit up straight! This is driving me insane!"
"All the more reason not to." Xena grinned widely. "C'mon Gabby, I can't give this up now… I've been at this for a candlemark, you know? I can't just give up my quest for answers…"
Gabrielle tensed her hands to fists in an attempt to push back the anger. "Look…" She managed from between clenched teeth. "I strung up a guy by his feet on the way over here, remember? Left him hanging for the whole night. And, before you so brutally ended his life, he was looking pretty undead to me."

Xena frowned, considering this for a moment, then sighed gravely. "Bummer…" She reached out for the edge of the desk and pulled herself up. "Another hypothesis down the… Ugh…" She grabbed for her throbbing head. "Gods, that hurts…" She managed to get herself upright, twisting a little in her seat so her legs were swung over an armrest and her back was against the other. "Science is a danger to one's health. Maybe I should forbid it too. What do you think?"
Gabrielle crossed her arms, glaring at the Conqueror. 
"Want a drink?" Xena offered as she got not response. 
"I want you to answer my question." 
A furrowing of the dark brows. "You asked a question?"
"How do you know about the Academy?" Gabrielle repeated in a low tone.
"Oh that…" Xena took the liberty to pour herself another glass of wine. "Well, you know…"
"No, I don't… Explain it to me."
"Tch… Gabby, Gabby…" The Conqueror shook her head in amusement as she lifted the now filled glass to her lips. "You know, just because you're my valued pawn, that doesn't mean you get to…"

With a loud shattering, the glass slammed against the stone wall, leaving a large red stain on the cream coloured priming. Drops left small paths as they sidled down to the formerly light blue carpet, which was now a deep shade of purple. 

Xena dazedly looked from the wall to her now empty hand, before her gaze drifted up into raging green eyes. "You just had to make a mess, didn't ya? I just had that carpet cleaned, you know?"
"Answer my question."
"And on top of it all you broke the first commandment in this household: Thy shalt not spill alcohol. Unless of course it's…"

The wood creaked loudly in protest as Gabrielle slammed her fists on the desk's surface. "Answer… My … Question!"
Blue eyes blinked up at her innocently. "You asked a question?"

A growl of frustration as Gabrielle turned about briskly, and headed for the door. 

"Kidding! Just kidding!" Xena hastily amended, attempting to stand up, then deciding against the idea as the room started to spin in circles. "I just heard."
Gabrielle halted in the doorway, not turning around. "From who?"
A negligent shrug. "I have my ways of getting information…"
The warrior looked over her shoulder, her gaze nearly lethal in its intensity. "If you've hurt my family in any way, I swear…"
"Whoa, chill…" Xena lifted her hands in defence. "No peasants were harmed in the production of the file on the former rebel Gabrielle. Trust me…"
"I generally don't trust destroyers of nations. Sorry." The warrior muttered sarcastically. 
The Empress rolled her eyes. "Hey, you don't run an empire as big as this by being ignorant, OK? This is the information age, Gabrielle. If you dumped all the informants and spies I have walking about in the ocean, half of this world would flood." Xena leaned back in her seat, popping her feet on the table. "When someone like you crosses a border they get noticed. Your description was send about. Someone spotted you in Potedeia, went into the local pub and listened… That's all… And as for your academy petition… I've had that ever since you became known as a rebel." 
"You had information on me back then?" Gabrielle couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice. 
"I had information on every member of the resistance." Xena informed her calmly. "Your friend Thalia, for instance, lived in Corinth. She lost her family in a fire when she was sixteen years of age. She came to Athens, worked in a tavern for a while, then got linked up with the rebellion. I'm assuming she got in charge after the first leader, Kadmos, got executed." She folded her hands together and placed them behind her head. "You came to my capital shortly after. I knew, before, you came from some northern province, but I didn't know which one exactly. You tried to get into the Academy, but couldn't because I shut it down, started to work at the same tavern Thalia had worked in before, the two of you got in touch and voila…" A snap of the long fingers. "The dynamic duo was formed. From that moment on things get a little blurry. You did a good job in hiding yourselves. After you… left… things became much easier though…"
"The resistance didn't revolve around me…" Gabrielle argued automatically, her mind still processing what she'd just heard. 
"Didn't it?" A low laugh. "Who was the one that put up the posters? Who came up with all those nice bits of text?" The Conqueror painted a headline in the empty air. "Fear gives power to those who should have none. When we show the courage to overcome that fear, tyrants will falter." She grinned at the stunned look on the blonde's face. "That was my personal favourite."
"You… You remember what I wrote four years ago? You learned it by heart?"
"Four years, eight months and two weeks ago and I didn't really learn." Xena produced a smug smile, then tapped her head. "Good memory." 
"Right…" Gabrielle paused a moment, trying to regain her composure. "So… Now that you know everything about me, what's the plan? Kill my family? Burn my home village? What?"
Xena sighed in an over-exaggerated manner. "Why is it that people always think the worst of me?"
"Just answer." Was the growled response. 
The Conqueror considered, then shrugged. "I'm assuming I won't have to use this knowledge. It's just a precaution." She flashed the warrior a grin. 
"So what you're saying is that this is a no win situation." Gabrielle deducted after a short pause to think. "If I die my family will survive, but Thalia won't, and if I do live through a month I can save Thalia, but my family will die." 
"I'm not saying any such thing…" Xena denied calmly leaning her head back and closing her eyes. "…because I'm sure you'll find a sneaky way out of this. I'm just trying to stay one step ahead, that's all… Just like old times, Gabrielle, when you used to stay one step ahead of me in your rebel years…"

The warrior looked at her for a moment, then shook her head. "No. It's not like that at all." 
A dark eyebrow edged up. "It's not?" In absence of a glass she picked up the wine bottle, intent on taking another sip.
"No." Gabrielle stated quietly. "Because I didn't hate you before… But now I do…" 
Xena's motion stilled, blue eyes tracking from the red liquid's surface to the warrior's face. "You… you didn't hate me… before?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I fought against tyranny. Not you." She took a few paces closer. "But now it's personal, and I am fighting you." She placed her palms on the table's edge, leaning towards the Conqueror, dropping her voice. "And I swear to you, if you threaten me with using the information you have, I will find your deepest, darkest secret and clobber you over the head with it." Gabrielle took another moment to let her eyes drill into Xena's, then she turned away, walking out of the room, closing the door behind her. 

Xena watched her go, thoughts racing through her foggy brain with a painful clarity. Did she suspect…? Xena shook her head at herself. No, the warrior had no idea… But she couldn't afford to be careless now and risk… Her gaze shifted to the bottle she still held clenched in her hand. Anger rose, her grip tightening, then with a savage swipe of her hand she tossed it away, the bottle breaking into thousands of fragments, the room echoing with the sound of shattering glass. 

A choir of crickets chirped into the early morning air. A frog croaked, then hopped off the lily leaf he'd been resting on and into the pond with a loud plunge, followed by the sound of rippling water. Xena groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. Sometimes this sensitive hearing thing was vastly overrated. Even through the fabric that covered her ears she could hear a second frog respond to the croaked message of the first. The Empress cursed something inaudible into her pillow. To-do-list for today: 1. get up 2. get dressed 3. destroy all amphibian life 4. have breakfast. She summarized for herself, a thought that would've brought a wicked grin to her face, had it not been for the pounding headache drilling against her skull. Gods, she hated mornings. She hated knowing she'd have to get up and spend the day dividing her attention between an Egyptian regent, who was now seriously pissed off at having been neglected for two days in a row, a shamaness, who would continue annoying her until she got her way and a warrior, who was intent on slamming a staff against her already aching head. She wrapped her arms around her pillow in an attempt to shield out some more of nature's noises. Today was gonna suck. She just knew it. 

After another moment she gave up her fight against the approaching dawn and pulled the pillow from her head, flinging it across the room. The first rays of light peeked into her room and she narrowed her eyes at them, trying to will them to sink back down the horizon. Didn't work unfortunately. Xena rubbed her eyes tiredly, then pushed herself to her feet, ignoring her headache and the soreness of her body. She glanced down, taking in what had formerly been a clean white shirt, but was now covered liberally in deep red stains. Xena shook her head at herself, than hastily stopped as her brain protested against the moment. 

Herbs… She needed herbs… Lots of 'm… Her feet pattered forward to salvation, opening the door into her study to allow her to step inside and... 

"Ah!" She hopped around on one foot, lifting the other off the floor and grabbing onto it with a hand to allow her to see the sole. A large shard of dark green glass was sticking out of the calluses on her heel. "Damn it all to Hades!" Angrily she pulled out the piece of glass and flung it out the window, hoping maybe it'd hit one of those freaking frogs and add a bright spot to this gloomy morning. There was some rustling as animals skirted out of the projectile's way, but no agonising death croak… Bummer… 

She turned her attention back to her study, taking in the green and white glass spread across the carpet, and the red stains on both her carpet and the walls. With a sigh she tried to ignore the mess and focus on getting to her desk without further painful incidents. She did, somehow, and pulled open a drawer of her desk, where a row of small, labelled, paper bags were lined up in a metal box, a wooden cup standing beside it, a small jar of water next to that. 

She'd been down this hangover road more than once and Xena always made sure she was prepared for the after affects of her alcohol infatuation. She selected three of the paper bags and mixed an appropriate amount of the selected herbs together in the cup, then added water to the mixture and watched the herbs twirl in the liquid for a moment, before lifting the cup and downing her medicine in a few hasty gulps. She clenched her teeth, counting to twenty, waiting for the vile tasting herbs to settle down and quit playing tag with the contents of her stomach. 

They finally did and after a few more moments the pain in her skull started to ease as well. The Empress exited her study, closing the door behind her, not wanting to get confronted with last nights events again for the time being. She limped over to a closet, sorting through some clothes on the bottom shelf, which was reserved for her more simple outfits. She settled on a white tunic with golden edges, stripping out of her old shirt before pulling the clean fabric over her head. Though skipping her morning run was very tempting, she never allowed her morning rituals to be interrupted, most certainly not by her own irresponsible behaviour. 

She sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped a bandage around her left foot, before pulling on the simple leather shoes she used for running. 

It took longer than usual to fall into a comfortable pace as she made her way towards the forested area she used for her early morning activities. The wound in her foot stung, but she got used to the pain after a while. As she reached the forest's edge she settled on a path to take. Which was of course the roughest road with the most bumps and inclines. Xena rolled her eyes at herself as she picked up speed. For some reason she was unable to keep things easy. It was her curse. She hopped off and flipped over a rock in the centre of the path, trying not to cringe in pain as the pressure on her wound doubled when she landed on the other side. 

The running soothed her though. It was mind numbing, even on this path, since she knew it by heart. She knew exactly when to jump and when to duck, when to slow down or pick up speed… Which would annoy her normally, but in her current state it actually came in quite handy. 

She continued the path for half a candle mark until she reached a small lake, that indicated she was halfway through her course. She headed for the water's edge, slowing speed to finally come to a standstill, bending down as she reached the water, dipping both hands in and splashing the liquid over her face, then scooping up some more and bringing it to her lips. 

The water rippled and churned, then settled again, and as Xena looked down at the steadying surface she caught a glimpse of a familiar outline reflected on the surface. The form was moving away from her, trying to sneak off out of sight. 

Xena considered whether she should let her get away with that, then settled on a no. "Where do you think you're going, Io?"

Iona stopped dead in her tracks. Her shoulders slumped, then she turned around with a sigh, her head bent. "I just…" Blue eyes peeked up at her. "I didn't think you'd want to see me…"

Xena released a breath. She felt a sensitive chat coming on… Gods, this day sucked. 

"C'mere…" She motioned the young girl closer as she settled down on the edge of the pond, pulling her shoes off and placing her feet in the cold water. 
Iona looked at her hesitantly, which got her a dark raised eyebrow and a demanding pat on a patch of sand beside the Empress. She then walked closer and settled on the designated spot, careful to keep a respectable distance between herself and the older woman. She stuck her bare feet in the water as well, kicking at the liquid in discomfort, her fingers fumbling nervously with the edge of her tunic. 

Xena watched her for a moment, then reached out, brushing a blonde lock out of the girl's face. "You mad at me?"
Iona peeked up at her again, judging her for a moment, then shook her head. 
"Good." Xena smiled at her and received a hesitant smile in return from the young blonde. "I wasn't mad at you either, you know?"
Iona faced forward again, looking at the surface of the water. "You are mad at Gabrielle."
The Empress considered this for a moment. "No, not really." She finally denied.
Iona peered up at her curiously. "You're not?"
Xena shook her head. "No, I'm not mad at her… I…" The Empress considered her words for a moment. "…I yelled because I was afraid…"

Iona's eyes widened in shock. "You were afraid?" She asked in utter disbelief. 
Xena chuckled, reaching over and ruffling the girl's hair. "Shocking huh? You wanna know why I was afraid?"
Rapid nodding from the blonde. 
"Because I thought she was gonna hurt you."

Iona blinked up at her dark haired companion. "Really?"
Xena nodded solemnly. "Really." She reached out and wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders. "You're really important to me, Io, and I'm afraid that if Gabrielle finds out exactly how important you are, she'll use you to get to me…"
"Oh…" Iona leaned her head against the dark haired woman's side, unable to hide a small, happy smile. "But Gabrielle wouldn't hurt me. I'm sure she wouldn't…"
Xena looked down on the blonde head. "I don't think she will either… But you can never be too sure…"
The girl seemed to consider this for a moment, then she tilted her head to look into her companion's blue eyes. "Do you want me to stay away from her?"
The Empress hesitated for a moment, but then shook her head. "No, you can see her if you want… But I need you to be careful, OK?"
Iona smiled, happy she could remain friends with both her playmates. "OK."
Xena gently squeezed her shoulder. "Good girl."
"As if…" The blonde snorted. 

Xena couldn't keep from chuckling at the mischievous glint in the girl's eyes. "Pyrron doesn't have a clue you're here, does he?"
The grin widened considerably. 
The Empress rolled her eyes. "You realise he's gonna blame me now, don't ya? I'm the one who's gonna get in trouble."
Iona crossed her arms. "Hey, you were the one that wanted to talk to me, remember?" 
Xena shook a finger at the girl. "You realise you just broke the first commandment, don't you? Thy shalt not outsmart the Empress, remember?"
Iona just giggled, then flicked some water up with a foot, splashing her companion in the face. Xena growled as she feigned anger, and grabbed for her, but Iona managed to avoid the hands, hastily scrambling to her feet and darting off. 

The attempt at escape was futile though, since moments later footsteps caught up to her and an arm wrapped around her waist, lifting her off her feet. No kicking or wiggling could keep her from being carried towards the water. 

"Oh, gods be damned daughter of…" Pyrron growled in anger as he paced through the courtyard. "Iona!! Get your little blonde butt back here right now!!" 
His brown eyes flicked across his surroundings, but, just as the thirty-five times he'd yelled for her before, there was no response. The advisor released an aggravated breath. He loved that girl, he really did, but sometimes this annoying mischievous side of her would drive him insane. "Iona!! C'mon, I'm getting tired of yelling my lungs out here!!"
"Well, that makes two of us then."

Pyrron hastily spun around to find Gabrielle standing right behind him. "Oh, I… I'm sorry." He hastily regained his composure, as much of a composure as he could muster near the warrior anyway. "I'm looking for my daughter…"
"Really?" Gabrielle muttered in a sarcastic tone. "I would never have guessed…"
The advisor scratched the back of his neck in discomfort. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I've been waiting for the Conqueror to show up for our morning fight. I thought she was still in bed with a hangover, but I just went to Esmee and checked, and she says the Empress got up at the start of dawn."
Pyrron covered his eyes with a hand and groaned. "Oh boy… Iona's missing, Xena is missing… I doubt this is a coincidence."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm in for some serious trouble." Pyrron sighed in aggravation. "Last time those two took off, we had the regent from Persia over and they hid a spider under a bit of lettuce on this man's dinner plate and…"

At that moment a horrified scream echoed through the gardens. "Get him off!!" Cleopatra's panicky voice sounded from a window in the east wing. "Get that horrible green monster off me!!"

"Oh Hades' eyeballs…" Pyrron hid his face in his hands. "I'm dead… I'm so dead…"
Gabrielle tried very hard to wipe a grin off her face, but was only partially successful. 
"When I find that obnoxious, sordid daughter of a gorgon and her evil blond-haired sidekick, I'm gonna…" His hands clenched to fists. "I'm gonna…" He paused again, then sighed as he realised he really didn't have the power to back up any threats to the Conqueror… He just wasn't strong enough to… He cocked his head, then looked up at Gabrielle, who was gazing at him with a look of mild amusement. "You wouldn't be willing to do me a favour, would ya?"
The warrior chuckled. "No… But I'd be more than happy to do your bidding for a reasonable fee…" She gave him a meaningful look. 
Pyrron considered for a moment, then looked back up at her with a glint in his eyes. "Five course meal for your locked up friend."
"Add one for the Amazon Queen in the cell next to hers and you got yourself a deal." Gabrielle extended a hand towards him, which Pyrron immediately took. "Any particular instructions?"
"Knock her senseless." The advisor told her, then winced as another cry of horror emitted from Cleopatra's room. He released a breath, then squared his shoulders and strode off towards the room, just as a small green frog came flying out the top window, croaking in dismay before he sank into the pond with a loud plunge. 

Gabrielle shook her head at the scene, not managing to hold back a chuckle. Her sensitive hearing informed her she wasn't the only one getting a laugh out of the whole thing and she walked a few paces towards the forest edge, to come to a standstill at a large oak tree which appeared to not only be the source of giggling and whispered voices, but also of a very local shower, thick drops dripping down to the ground at irregular intervals. Gabrielle glanced up, then crossed her arms and cleared her throat. 

Silence, then an 'Oh Hades', followed by a rustling of leaves as Xena dropped down from her hiding spot. Her wet white tunic was covered with greenish stains from the tree's bark and her dark hair was still dripping. "I completely forgot." 
"And I thought you had such a good memory…" Gabrielle retorted dryly, giving the Empress a look. 
"I lost track of time…" Xena murmured apologetically, then hastily took a pace back and extended her arms just in time to catch Iona, who'd cheerfully hopped down from the branch she'd been sitting on. "Io! I thought I told you to be careful!"
Iona stuck her tongue out at the dark-haired woman. 
The Empress shook her head at the girl. "You are such a brat."
"Daddy says I get that from hanging around with you too much." Iona informed her cheerfully. 
"I bet he does." Xena rolled her eyes as she lowered her burden to the ground. "Go on. I have some unfinished business to attend to…"
"You gonna teach Xena now?" Iona hopefully glanced up at Gabrielle. "Can I stay and watch?" 
Gabrielle looked down at the girl doubtingly. "I don't think…" 
"Aaaawwww…" There was that pout again. "Puhleeeeaaaaaase??"

Xena intervened this time around though, stopping the charm assault. "Oh, no you don't…" The Empress gave her a stern look. "Linos got back this morning. I'm sure he's got some homework for you. So scoot…"
The pout turned to a scowl. 
"Hey, you don't wanna grow up all dumb and witless, do you?" Xena asked, crossing her arms. 
Iona blinked up at her. "But you just said I was already too smart for my own good…"
Xena growled in frustration. "Would you just go?!"
"Fine, fine…" The girl made a display of looking very grumpy and stomping off. 

The Empress rolled her eyes, then she whistled to get the young blonde's attention. She waited for Iona to turn around before tossing two pieces of candy in her direction, which the girl fished out of the air expertly. "Give one of those to Esmee, understand? Tell her she did great." 
The blonde grinned wickedly at her, then wiggled her fingers at the dark-haired woman before darting off towards the palace. 

Gabrielle watched the whole exchange with a shake of her head. "So, is Esmee in on all of your practical jokes?"
Xena grinned wickedly and twinkling blue eyes turned to meet hers. "As if I'm gonna tell you… Last time I let you in on a secret you bribed me out of a quarter of my candy and made me give it to a prisoner." The dark haired woman crossed her arms. "What's next on your list, a five course meal?"
"I've already got that covered actually." Gabrielle remarked dryly. "My next demand will be something in the order of a king-size bed with nice fluffy pillows…"
The Empress chuckled. "I shoudda know…" She shot the blonde a smile. "So… Our morning activity has been delayed long enough, don't you agree?"
Gabrielle inclined her head in agreement. "OK. Pick your weapon."
Xena considered this for a moment. "How about… You pick the weapon… and I pick the place?" 
Gabrielle shrugged, not caring much one way or the other. "Fine… You first…"
The Conqueror shot her a charming smile, then lifted a finger and pointed up…

You are insane. The rational part of Xena's brain complained, as the conqueror grabbed onto a branch and pulled herself up even higher into the tree. You have a tough enough time at keeping up with this woman as it is, is it really necessary to go balancing in a tree while your foot hurts like Tartarus?
"Yes." Xena muttered in reply, using the veering of another branch to push her up, flipping in mid air before landing on a higher wooden limb. The wound in her foot stung as her weight pressed down on it, but she ignored he pain and looked around. There were a lot of branches at about the same height around here, so this seemed a good enough place as any. 
No it isn't. A good place would be on the ground… No, a good place would be no place at all, and just skipping this stupid fighting thing for a day. 
"Shut up…" Xena growled at the voice in her head. 
You're hurt, you're tired, you're groggy from drowning your sanity in alcohol…
"Shut up…" 
…and you're actually talking to voices in your head…Do you really think it's a good idea to get your butt kicked at an altitude of… Blue eyes glanced down. Gods, you couldn't just have picked a small tree, could ya?
Xena bit her lip, focussing on finding the best way to balance herself on the branch she was standing on. 
Or a medium-sized tree even? Nooooooo, you had to go and find yourself the monster tree from Tartarus… This is ridiculous. I'm not going to be part of this futile endeavour. 
"Good, then you'll just shut the Hades up and leave me alone."

"Excuse me?" Gabrielle frowned at her from a branch a few feet away. 
"Nothing." Xena muttered, hopping up and then refinding her balance again. "You ready?"
A blonde eyebrow lifted. 
The Conqueror lifted a hand in defence. "Just being polite." 
"Don't bother…" Gabrielle murmured, flexing her hands. "You can just be yourself around me, you don't have to pretend you're nice…"
"Gee thanks." Xena rolled her eyes, then hastily ducked as a leg was kicked out in her direction, while Gabrielle somersaulted over her head to land on the opposite side. 

The warrior turned around then crouched down on a slightly higher branch, looking down at her opponent, searching for an opening. Gabrielle had decided on using no weapons in this fight, which, considering her height and agility, would in theory be more beneficial to her than to the conqueror in these leafy surroundings. Another moment, then she lunged forward again, diving for the conqueror's legs. 

Xena quickly hopped up, grabbing onto a wooden limb hanging above her and pulling herself up to get out of the warrior's path. In response, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of the branch Xena had just been standing on, using her momentum to swing under it, before pushing her body straight up, slamming her feet into her opponents injured foot with deadly precision. 

The Conqueror hissed in pain as she felt the healing wound open up again, warm liquid pressing against her sole. "Ugh, you play dirty." 
"You mean there's other ways to play?" Gabrielle asked in a surprised tone, as she leaped up, grabbing onto the branch Xena was dangling from. She swung forward, wrapping her legs around the woman's neck and head butting her. "Wow… I never realised…" She smacked the sides of her hands against the conqueror's arms savagely, forcing the older woman to let go. Before they could both fall Gabrielle found a grip on another protruding piece of wood, using her speed to swing them both up, before letting go of her hold on the Conqueror, sending the dark-haired woman flying. 

You're the most pitiful excuse for a ruler of the known world I have ever seen. The voice in Xena's head informed her dryly as the Conqueror was launched off. I warned you about this, you know? But would you listen? Noooooooo…

Xena grumbled some curses, twisting her body around in mid air and instinctively reaching out, folding her fingers around a branch just before it would have impacted with her skull and using it to swing around and launch herself back towards Gabrielle. She landed on the same branch as the warrior, a few feet away from her. "My my… She ducked under a kick aimed for her skull. "Aren't we feeling mighty aggressive this morning…"
"A good warrior…" Gabrielle swung her elbow towards the Conqueror's face. "…knows when it's best to be defensive…" She knelt and swiped at the woman's legs. "…but also when it's time to totally kick her opponent's butt."
"Nicely put." Xena chuckled, hopping over the warrior's kick, grabbing onto a branch above her and swinging forward, towards Gabrielle's head. The warrior ducked in time though, and she flew over her, landing gracefully on the opposite side of the blonde, spinning around just in time to block a punch aimed for her skull. "I doubt those wise words came from Lao Ma…"
"These particular words are all mine." The warrior confirmed, ducking under a fist. "You can quote me, if you want…"
"I might just do that." Xena laughed, as she tried to pass the blonde's defences with a with a rapid series of moves. "Like I said before: you have a way with words."
"Ways with words are troublesome." Gabrielle stated, pushing off to avoid a well-aimed lunge and cart wheeling through midair to the next tree. "They are long, and winding, and they hardly ever lead you anywhere…"
"True…" Xena followed her motion, landing a few feet away from her. "But long and winding roads can be awfully entertaining…" She blocked a strike with her upper arm. "It's not about the road you walk, Gabrielle, it's the journey itself that's the fun part."
"Oh please…" The warrior rolled her eyes, then took a few paces forward, running up her opponent's body and giving her a good kick in the face before flipping and landing neatly back on her feet. "…don't go all philosophical on me."

Xena wiped at the trickle of blood that was seeping from her nose with the back of her hand. "Didn't know philosophies got you all upset… I'll be sure to stay out of your way if Plato ever comes to visit."
"I hope he comes to visit soon, in that case." 
The Conqueror laughed in amusement, then somersaulted back to avoid a kick aimed for her side. 

Unfortunately for her, Gabrielle had seen through the move though, and immediately changed direction, hoping up and intercepting the dark-haired woman before she could finish her flip. 
Xena reached out for something to hold onto, but this time there was nothing there, and she fell down. She winced as she bumped against a branch, only just managing to grab onto it and using it to swing herself sideways. A soft crack behind her informed her that Gabrielle was right behind her, so she continued to motion, letting go and flying off through the air, grabbing for another branch, and then another, until she pushed herself off the last one, flipping through the air, emitting a loud battle cry before neatly landing on her feet on the solid earth, spinning around just in time to duck under Gabrielle's boot. 
"You know, if you'd spend more time fighting, and less time yiyiyi-ing, you might actually be getting somewhere…" The warrior informed her dryly, blocking a strike, before twisting around and elbowing the Conqueror in the jaw.
Xena managed to avoid a second impact by shifting her body sideways. "Sorry, it's a trademark thing… Comes with the boots and the kick-ass attitude."
"I'd be working on that attitude if I were you…" The warrior told her, ducking another punch. "…because you haven't even gotten close to kicking any part of my anatomy…" 

She moved forward in a flash of motion, placing her foot behind the Conqueror's, before slamming the palm of her hand harshly against her breastbone. Xena staggered back, her boot getting caught behind the warrior's foot. She lost her balance and fell down, tumbling on the earth. Before she could attempt to get up an arm was pressed against her neck, a second arm pressed her own to the dirt and Gabrielle had positioned her body half on top of hers in such a way she could not possibly escape. "…and it doesn't look like you're about to any time soon." The warrior finished, giving the Conqueror a look. 
"I have to tell you, Gab, you have to work on your respect for personal boundaries." Xena told her, wiggling a little to see if she could somehow work her way out. 

Green eyes glared at her in boredom. "I think this fight is… Ah!" She hissed in pain as he head was pulled back harshly, hands clutching in her blond hair and tugging hard. 
"Leggo!" A tiny voice demanded angrily, as a third body entered the fight, worming itself on top of Gabrielle. "Leggo! Bad lady!"
"What the Hades…" Gabrielle grumbled, turning her head to look up into narrowed brown eyes, dark brown hair outlining a young, chubby face of a girl no more than five years old. She blinked, then looked back at Xena. "I heard you liked to start training your guards when they're still young of age, but this is ridiculous."
Xena laughed in amusement. 
"Bad!" Gabrielle's attacker repeated, giving the blond locks another hard tug. 
"Ouch!" The warrior rolled off of her opponent, the attacker immediately letting go of her as she did so.

The toddler crawled over to Xena's side, a tiny hand reaching out and touching the Empress's bruised cheek. "Y'okay?"
Xena smiled up at the young face. "Yeah, just fine." She pushed herself up a little, leaning back on her hands, looking at her saviour with twinkling blue eyes. "You're my hero, Niobe."
"No owie?" Niobe asked in concern, peering at the dark-haired woman in concern. 
"No owie." Xena confirmed seriously, getting to her feet, before reaching down and swooping up the toddler, tossing her in the air a bit and then catching her again. "See? All good."
Niobe giggled, tossing her arms around Xena's neck happily. "Good." She agreed, giving Xena a sloppy kiss on the cheek. "Sena good."

The Conqueror glanced up at Gabrielle, who was watching the whole spectacle with a raised eyebrow. "Hey, you are ruining my reputation here, kiddo." She whispered to her burden. "Can't have Gabby know I'm all nice and stuff."
Brown eyes blinked up at her. "Abby?"
Xena pointed a thumb at the watching blonde. 
Niobe's eyes followed in the direction she was pointing in, then the girl scrunched up her face in dismay, frowning her brows. "Abby bad!" She pointed an accusing finger at the warrior. "Hurt Sena. Bad!"

Gabrielle crossed her arms, glaring back at the angry toddler. "Kid, your characterisation is seriously  screwed up…"
Xena chuckled. "Gabby isn't bad, Niobe… We were just… playing…"

The toddler faced her, then raised an eyebrow, looking at the Empress in disbelief.
"Really." Xena added.
Niobe looked up at her hesitantly for another moment, then turned back to Gabrielle, the dark brown eyes inspecting the warrior scrupulously. "Play?" She finally asked.
Gabrielle nodded in confirmation.
"No play nice." The girl then accused, shooting the warrior another grumpy look, before turning her attention back to her dark-haired companion, smacking the Empress on the shoulder. "Down."

The Empress grinned, lowering the toddler back to her feet. "But of course, your highness. Anything else?"
"Cum." Niobe instructed, then walked off. 

Xena shook her head, smiling. "Gotta love that kid."
"Demanding little thing…" Gabrielle murmured, standing behind her. "Let me guess, she got that from hanging around with you, right?"
The Conqueror chuckled wickedly. "Perhaps…"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Do I even wanna know what their brother is like, or should I just avoid him for the rest of my stay here?"
"Ey!" Niobe's voice called out. "Cum!"
"Never mind, that sorta answers my question." Gabrielle muttered, then followed along behind the laughing Empress. 

"Geez, what's the big rush…" Xena looked down on the small form tugging incessantly at her tunic. Niobe had dragged them across the courtyard and towards the stables. The girl didn't answer her question though, and just kept walking, slipping through the crack in the door to the stables, simply pulling the Empress along. The smell of fresh hay drifting into her nostrils as she pushed open the door a bit wider, so she too could enter. 

Gabrielle walked along behind the duo, her curiosity besting her want to stay away from the Conqueror. 

Niobe patted down the corridor, until she stopped near an empty box next to the black stallion's, the doors to which were half open, allowing her entrance. Chilon's dark eyes looked down at the small thing that was disturbing his peace once more and snorted in dismay, stamping his foot on the ground angrily. 
Niobe looked up at the horse's head towering over her. "Horsie!" 
Chilon immediately backed up a pace, cowering. 
"Be shh! No wake fog."
"Fog? What's a…" Xena blinked in alarm. "Oh, great gods, please tell me she didn't…" She pulled the door to the box open a bit wider and peeked inside. Niobe was huddled near one of the corners, leaning over a small form, that was neatly tucked in under a white handkerchief. 
"Sena, cum!" The toddler waved her over anxiously. "Foggie boke leg. Owie."

The Conqueror took another step inside, taking a look at the small green head peeking out from under the piece of cloth, round white eyes peering up at her pleadingly. "Oh, you have to be kidding me…"
Behind her, Gabrielle laughed under her breath. 
"Owie." Niobe repeated for emphasis. "You fix?"
Xena shot the frog another look. "I'm trying to annihilate amphibian life, Niobe. Saving him goes against all my principles, understand?" 

The toddler blinked up at her in non-understanding for a moment, then tears welled up in her eyes. "No fix?"
Niobe sniffled.
"I can't…"
A tiny lip quivered.

Xena sighed in defeat. "All right. Fine." She paced inside, dropping down to a knee beside the girl, wiping at a wet, chubby cheek with a fingertip. "But no crying, OK?"
Niobe nodded, managing a watery smile. 
"Good." Xena gave her a light shove towards the door. "Gimme a moment." 
More nodding, then Niobe leaned closer, placing another kiss on Xena's cheek. "Luv ya." She told the dark-haired woman, before turning around and walking out of the box. 

Xena gazed after the girl, then rolled her eyes, before turning back to her patient. 
Wide black pupils blinked up at her
The Conqueror released a breath. "You are one damn lucky frog." She informed the amphibian. 
The frog croaked loudly, wiggling a little in an attempt to escape from his blanket. 
"I'm just doing this for the kid, understood?" Xena continued, as she uncovered the green leg. "Don't you start telling your buddies there's peace or anything now, OK? The war between our species will go on."
The frog puffed up his cheeks. 
"Good." Xena gave him a nod, before carefully checking the leg for fractures. "I'm glad we got that straight."

Gabrielle watched the Conqueror, as the woman bent over the small form of the amphibian, muttering grumpily. For an evil, ruthless, psychotic tyrant she sure had a soft spot for children, she mused before she let her gaze shift to look down at the toddler, who'd pattered over to Chilon's stable and was standing on tiptoes to be able to stroke the horse's nose with one hand, while she sucked on the thumb of her other. Gabrielle glanced up at the stallion, worrying about the three year-old's safety considering the horse's reputation. But the stallion seemed perfectly calm, enjoying the gentle attention with half lidded eyes. 

A moment, then the girl's gaze strayed from her patting, wandering until it fell on Gabrielle's quietly watching form. Brown eyes narrowed to slits, the toddler conjuring up a indescribably foul look. 

Oh boy…Gabrielle winced at the suspicious glaring. Better make amends here, Gab. You've got enough enemies as it is, already. "That's you sister's horse, right?" Gabrielle tried, working up a friendly smile. 
Dark brows frowned angrily.
Gabrielle took a breath, then pointed to the stable across from the stallion's. "I've got a horse too. Wanna see?"

That got a reaction. Niobe's eyes darted to the indicated direction and then back to the blonde, looking doubtful as she considered on a course of action. 

Fortunately, Argo chose that moment to poke her head outside and see what all the commotion in front of her door was about. The mare's eyes glanced from her warrior, to the little kid staring at her, then up at the black stallion. Chilon nodded his head towards Gabrielle and snorted. Argo snickered in reply. 

Niobe found all of this quite interesting and wobbled over to the creamy head, holding out her hand. Argo leaned closer, sniffing the hand tentatively, then gave it a gentle shove. Niobe giggled. "Good horsie." She praised as she stroked the mare's nose. 
Heh, Gabrielle chortled triumphantly to herself. Score one for the rebel. "I think she likes you." She said to the girl, taking a step closer. 
Niobe immediately backed away, putting Argo's head in between herself and the warrior. "Horsie… 's Bad Lady. No good." She confided to the mare, who shot a look at her rider, then snorted in response. 

A low chuckle drifted up behind her. "Can't win 'm all, Gab." The Empress grinned as she exited the box with a small bundle of cloth and frog in her hand. 
"Sena!" Niobe came trotting over enthusiastically. "You fix fog?"
"Yes." The dark haired woman confirmed, before handing the toddler her burden.
"Yay!" The girl looked at the amphibian happily, tenderly cradling the patient in her arms. "All good?"
"All good." Xena nodded , then knelt down beside the girl. "Now, listen to me, short stuff. You keep that thing away from me, hear? If I so much as hear one croak in my vicinity there'll be frog legs on the menu tonight, do you understand?"

Niobe blinked up at her for a moment, then giggled, leaning closer and placing a sloppy kiss on the tip of Xena's nose. "Luv ya." She told the empress, before happily skipping off with her green skinned patient. 

Xena watched her go with a disbelieving look for a moment, then shook her head, releasing an aggravated breath. "I am so gonna regret this, aren't I?"

Behind her, Gabrielle crossed her arms, shaking her head in disbelief. "Explain something to me?"
Xena stood, stretching. "Sure. My life is an open scroll for you, Gabrielle." She informed the warrior cheerfully, as she headed for the door, passing through, then holding it open for the other woman. 
"You and kids." The blonde stated, as she folded her hands behind her back. "I don't get it…"
"Me and kids…?" The Conqueror chuckled. "Oh, you mean the fact they actually like me?"
"No. I can get that…"

The Empress shot her a completely stunned look. "Pardon?"
"To them you're like a walking, talking, somersaulting, candy-possessing plaything with ultimate power. Of course they like you." Gabrielle deadpanned, as they walked over the cobbled path back towards the palace. Up ahead she could spot Niobe toddling along, chattering cheerfully to her patient. "What I don't get is that you actually, honestly, like them."

Xena smirked. "What makes you think I'm not just raising an army of munchkins so I can pout all who oppose me into submission?"
"I considered that." The warrior replied seriously, ignoring the attempt at humour. "That you were just using them for your own advantage somehow… But from the looks of it you don't really have anything to say about Niobe there… And Iona is too smart to be fooled. She can read your moods like the back of her hand. She'd know if you were faking…" 

A pensive silence fell and lasted for a few moments, until Xena spoke up again. "True." She admitted. "Kids are…"Another pause. "Well, they just are. They don't pretend to be anything else. Anyone else. When they hang around me I know they're there because they actually want to be there. Not because they need something from me, or they're trying to improve their image." The Empress stared ahead quietly, watching as Niobe wobbled over to the pond and sat down, placing the bundle in her lap as she warbled something about 'foggy fiends'. "Kids are blunt. They just tell you whatever it is they think. Straight up, no tricks. I like that. Honesty is rare in my line of work."
"Maybe you should pick a different profession." 
A low chuckle. "Unfortunately, being Empress of the known world is a lifelong commitment, Gabrielle. Quitting is not an option."
"You could hand over the sceptre to someone else." Gabrielle suggested. 
Blue eyes regarded her in amusement. "You have someone in particular in mind, maybe?"
The warrior rolled her eyes. "No, not me… I don't know... One of your loyal munchkins maybe? Iona…"
The Empress laughed. "Oh no no no no… Not Iona."
A blonde eyebrow raised at her. "Why not?"
"Because she'd be way too good." Blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "If I were to step down, I'd want someone on that throne that totally sucks at ruling…"
A second eyebrow joined the first. 
"Someone who'll send this whole empire in disarray." Xena went on cheerfully. "Cause then people will say 'gee, you remember those good old times when Xena was still around? She was one heck of a ruler, wasn't she?'" The Empress chuckled. "And I'll go into the history books as the greatest gift to mankind that ever walked the earth. The Uniter of Nations." She grinned wickedly. "Has a nice ring to it, don't you agree?"

Gabrielle looked up at her for another moment, then snorted. "You're deluded."
"No, I'm not." Xena denied. "That's how history works, Gabrielle. It's a very subjective matter. If I wanted to, I could hire some bard and let him write about how the evil Gabrielle rebelled against the benevolent ruler Xena and in 50 years or so people wouldn't know any better and buy the whole load of fiction convinced it truly happened. Even today, who's to say I actually conquered Britannia? You've never been there, have you? Maybe I just made it up…"
"That would require imagination." Gabrielle said calmly. "Which I doubt you have."
The Empress chuckled in amusement. "Good point. I…" 

Simultaneously the two women cocked their heads, as muted sounds drifted up from inside the castle. Another moment, then the doors to the courtyard burst open and Cleopatra came waltzing through, a set of royal Egyptian guards hastily trotting along behind the pacing woman, Pyrron following behind the guards. "Xena!" She yelled furiously, the air playing with the white Egyptian robes. 
The Empress tried to hold back a grin. "Here comes trouble…"
"Are you referring to the regent or your advisor?" Gabrielle inquired, as she saw the raging look on Pyrron's face as his dark eyes met Xena's. 
The Conqueror repressed a grin, trying very hard to get a calm look on her face as Cleopatra strode closer with angry paces. 

"This… is… an outrage!!" Cleopatra screamed, pointing a dangerous, slightly shaking finger at her. "Of all the disrespectful events that have occurred to me here, this is the most… the most… The most indescribable horror yet… And I am holding you personally responsible for this this… this lack of respect! " 
"Whoa…" Xena held up both her hands in an attempt to quell the wordflow. "Cleo, would you just…"
"This household is a abomination!" 
"Would you just relax?"
"Would you relax if you'd just found frogs in your… in certain garments they are not supposed to be in?!" Cleopatra tiraded on, her hands clenching to claws. 

Xena brought a hand to her mouth, trying to smother the wicked grin while keeping her eyes emanating shock and concern. "That's horrible." She managed to say quite reverently. 

"You know I only come to this house of horrors to do you a favour, Xena!" Cleopatra snapped. "It's about time you finally treated my being here with the respect my presence deserves!"
"I've placed extra guards…" Xena argued. "…arranged for the best food in my Empire, the best members of my staff are waiting on you hand and foot,…"
"And meanwhile I'm getting dragged along by a pig, knocked unconscious by a peasant and plagued by frogs!!" The Queen of the Nile screamed furiously, poking a finger at the Empress's chest on every word for emphasis. "I've had it! I swear, Xena, if one more thing ha…"

With a thud and a splash a large clump of mud smacked squarely into the Egyptian's face. 

"Bad Lady!" Niobe yelled angrily, pointing a muddy finger at the woman, her bundled patient lying at her feet on the grass. "Toss fog! Fog owie! No good!"

Xena could swear there actually was smoke coming out of the regent's ears. Cleopatra blinked open her eyes, small splashes of mud launching off her eyelashes as she did so, then turned her head to look at the toddler. "You…" She hissed, taking a step towards the girl. "Do you realise who…"

A second blob of mud smacked against her chin. A drop sidled down, painting a dirty brown line down the formerly perfectly white robes. 

Xena winced. This was not good. It was hilarious, yes, but so not good for her working relationship with Egypt. Judging by the steam drifting up from the regent's forehead, the woman was about to snap and since her object of anger at the moment was Niobe…

"You little brat!" Cleo spat out, clenching her hand into a fist and advancing on the angrily glaring tot. "I'm gonna…"

A strong hand wrapped itself around her wrist. "No, you're not." Gabrielle stated calmly. 
Cleopatra huffed in outrage. "Let go of me, peasant!"
"If you don't watch your tone I'm gonna send you into the mummified stage of your existence a lot faster than you'd like." The warrior growled, tugging at the regent's arm savagely, twitching it behind the woman's back. 
"Ah!" Cleopatra cried out in pain. "Let go of me!"
Gabrielle tugged the arm up a little higher. "Say please…" 
The woman winced, then shot a hateful look at her escort, who were watching the whole scene in shock. "You are supposed to be my guards! Guard me for Thoth's sake!"

This brought the men back to their senses, and they hastily drew their weapons, then lunged towards the warrior with a load yell. 

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, the kicked out as the first guard ran towards her, hitting a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy and sending him straight to his knees. A second well placed kick to his forehead knocked him out cold. 

Meanwhile another four had managed to form a circle around her and where now advancing on her at the same time , running forward, weapons raised. Gabrielle considered her options for a moment, then shrugged, grabbed onto Cleopatra's arms and started turning in a circle. Within moments the regent's was twirling through the air, screaming and kicking wildly, which worked to Gabrielle's advantage as one guard after the other was knocked out by the flailing feet. 

Xena watched the whole spectacle with a grin. This was the perfect solution. Niobe didn't get hurt and she didn't have to smack up the Egyptian regent herself to save the tot, thereby risking getting a major political problem on her hands. Perfect. She watched as Gabrielle discarded of another attacker. This was absolutely perfect. 

She watched the ongoing for another moment, then decided to put a stop to all of this. "Enough!" She took a few steps towards the warrior, careful to avoid Cleopatra's high heals as they soared past. "Let her go. Now."

Green eyes regarded her for a moment, then obliged, letting go. The regent flew off a few feet, then thumped down on the ground, rolling on for a few more feet until finely coming to a standstill. 
Xena watched her go flying, wincing at the thud of the regent landing. "That was not what I meant." She informed the warrior under her breath. 
"Oops." Gabrielle suppressed a grin. "Sorry."

Meanwhile Pyrron had run over to the Egyptian and was holding onto her arm to help her to her feet. 
Cleopatra managed to stand, then smacked at the Advisor's hand angrily. "Go away, you imbecile!" 
"Cleo?" Xena came walking closer with hasty paces. "Are you all right?"
Firey dark eyes shot up at her as the regent straightened to her full height, trying to take on a dignified pose. 

Which was pretty hard considering she was smeared in sand, her hair was sticking up straight into the air and her make-up was wiped all over her face, the purple colouring of black eye she'd gotten two nights before painfully visible between the blobs of mud. 

She took a step closer towards Xena, barely managing to stay on her feet as the after affects of twirling around at high speed caught up with her. "I…" She pointed a finger at Xena's forehead, slightly swaying. "…am going home."

She then turned, nearly toppling over, and staggered back towards the palace, her torn, sand-stained robes dragging along behind her. 

The Empress watched her go, managing to hold back until the large wooden door into the courtyard was slammed shut. Then she burst out laughing. "Oh gods…" She gasped. "That was brilliant!"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the woman, then turned back to look down at Niobe, who'd sat down, her thumb stuck in her mouth, her arm wrapped protectively around her bundle of frog. She was watching the whole scene calmly, unintimidated. "You okay?"
The toddler nodded confidently.

"Niobe." Pyrron's voice dropped in as the Advisor walked closer with hasty paces. "What did I tell you about throwing mud?"
A sigh. "'s Bad." The girl muttered around her thumb. 
"Exactly." Pyrron confirmed as he reached down, then lifted the three year old up. "You could've gotten in real trouble there, young lady." He glanced up at the warrior, then back down at his daughter. "You say 'thank you' to Gabrielle now, OK?"
Another sigh. "Okay…" Brown eyes looked up. "Abby?"
Gabrielle suppressed a smile. "Yes?"
"Thanks you."
"My pleasure." The warrior grinned, crossing her arms. "If you ever want me to beat her up again, just say the word…"
Brown eyes glinted in response. "Good! Go now!"
"Niobe!" Pyrron gave the girl a stern look. "Be nice." He instructed, as he headed back to the palace. 
"No be nice to bad lady." Niobe explained grumpily. "Hurt fog. No good."

Gabrielle chuckled under her breath, shaking her head softly at the departing duo, before sobering and turning her attention back to the still laughing Conqueror. "Are we done?"
"Sure, sure…" Xena nodded with a wave of her hand, as she tried to catch her breath. "Oh gods… Gabby, you have no idea how much hardship you just spared me from…"
"Yes, I do. I saved you from a political crisis. I expect my reward to be accordingly." The warrior retorted calmly, then turned and headed back toward the stables. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got better places to be."

Xena watched her go with a bemused expression. "Perfect." She muttered to herself, with a shake of her head. "She is absolutely perfect."

The kitchen was bustling with activity. Gabrielle ducked under a large platter, then just managed to avoid a pitcher of water as the items were carried towards the door. So many people… Gabrielle's green eyes flicked around the area, trying to spot her target, but she soon realised finding a short brunette in this chaos was practically impossible… A yell shot up on her left, the reply from her right being a large cabbage tossed at the first speaker, soaring barely an inch above her head. A short Chinese man hopped up and neatly scooped it out of the air, putting it down on the chopping block before bringing down his knife and splitting it in two in one clean cut. He looked up from his work and eyed her for a moment, then returned his gaze to his task before directing a few words in Chinese to the man standing next to him. "What's the blonde doing in our kitchen?"
"I'm looking for someone actually." Gabrielle replied in accentless Chinese, crossing her arms and giving him a look. 

The man's head shot back up and he blinked at her a few times, before bending his head to her, stammering an apology. "Forgive me, madam, I didn't mean to sound disrespectful."
The warrior looked at him for another moment, but then waved him off. "Don't worry about it… What's your name?"
"I am Ch'u Feng, from the house of Ch'u." He bowed politely. 
"Gabrielle, from a house in Potedeia." Gabrielle introduced herself.
The cook smirked. "Since when do they speak Chinese in Potedeia?"
"I was a guest in the house of Lao." The warrior offered as an explanation.
"The house of Lao?" The cook looked impressed. "That is a highly respected house." He bowed to her again, this time even deeper then before. "It's an honour to meet you, Gabrielle, guest of the house of Lao."
"The honour's all mine." Gabrielle politely inclined her head towards him. 
"You said you were looking for a friend?"
"Not a friend." The warrior denied. "I need to find a short brunette that works in this kitchen, who goes by the name of Solari."

The man's face immediately scrunched up in dismay. "Are you sure it is her you want to find?"
A blonde eyebrow raised at him in question. 
"She is best left unfound." Ch'u Feng confided to her, crossing his arms. "She is not really a pleasure to be around, to put it mildly."
"I think I can tolerate her presence for a moment." Gabrielle stated calmly. "I have a message for her."
"Very well then." He pointed towards the far corner of the kitchen. "You will find her there. Just look for the one who's grouching and cursing the loudest and that'll be her."

The Chinese cook hadn't been exaggerating, Gabrielle realised, as she wormed her way past cooks and maids. 
"Hey! Moron! Does this look like quail to you?" An annoyed voice shot up from the far corner. "Cause it's looking a mighty lot like chicken to me."
"I tried, madam, but…" A tiny voice attempted. 
"Now listen to me, you puff of hydra's breath…" The brunette leaned closer to the small boy standing in front of her, dropping her voice. "When I tell you to bring me quail, you bring me quail. You don't TRY to bring me quail, you GET quail. Is that understood?"
The boy swallowed. "But the man who's in charge of the supplies told me…"
"I don't care what he told you!" Solari poked a finger at the boy's chest. "I don't care how you get it, or where you get it, or how many people you have to kill to get it… Just get me some quail!" A pause in which the boy blinked up at her with wide frightened eyes. "Now!"
A hasty nod, then the child darted off as fast as he could, diving past some cooks and servants to exit the kitchen as fast as he could.

Solari shook her head, as she watched him go. "Incompetent…" 
"He's not gonna improve any if you yell at him, you know?"
The brunette turned her head to look at the short blonde standing behind her. "Excuse me?"
"I was criticizing your way of dealing with an employee." Gabrielle stated calmly. 
Solari turned around fully, wiping her bloody hands on her apron, smudging stripes of red over the beige fabric. Her dark eyes tracked down and then back up the warrior's body, until she met the calm green eyes staring back at her. She snorted. "If you're the new assistant they hired for me, please tell me now, so I can go hang myself, OK?"
The blonde crossed her arms. "I am not your new assistant."
"My bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day." Solari drawled, turning back and pulling open a drawer, extracting a huge butcher's knife. "Now, if you'd be so kind as to stop wasting my time, I'll be kind enough to not place this knife in your ribcage." The woman flashed Gabrielle a fake smile over her shoulder, then turned back to her chopping block, grabbing an onion of a pile and neatly severing the vegetable in two.

The warrior watched the brunette in amusement. "I'd like to see you try."
"I can assure you…." Solari started, laying the half union down on its flat side, then moving the knife in a blur of motion, reducing the vegetable to thin rings in a matter of seconds. "…you really wouldn't…"
Gabrielle smirked, walking closer a few paces and peeking over the brunette's shoulder, to see her chop up the other half. "Wow… You are pretty good with that thing…" She commented as Solari split another onion. "But I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. If you couldn't handle a simple knife, you'd make a pretty lousy Amazon, right?"

Solari's head shot up, then she yelped, looking down at her thumb to see blood seeping up from the small nick in her flesh. "Damn it…" She lifted the finger to her mouth, sucking off the blood as she turned and faced the warrior. "Who are you?"
Gabrielle hastily let her eyes flick around, spotting any possible threats, but the kitchen was so crowded and noisy no one seemed to notice them. "I'm a friend."
"Yeah, right…" The brunette snorted. "News flash, blondy. I ain't got no friends."
"You have one." Gabrielle stated. "Ephiny send me." 
Dark eyes peered at her for another moment, then the woman shrugged, turning back to work. "I have no idea who you're talking about."
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Right… I guess I'll just take off then…" She took a pace closer, dropping her voice to a whisper. "But if your memory suddenly kicks in and you feel like helping me break her out of here after all, you can come bring me my lunch in half a candle mark, so we can talk…" Gabrielle straightened, then headed towards the door.

She took about three paces before a voice behind her shot up. 
Gabrielle turned around, raising an eyebrow at the cook. 
Solari eyed her for another moment, then caved in. "What do you want for lunch?"
A grin crept onto the warrior's face. "Chicken."

Xena hummed a cheerful melody as walked down the hallway a few candlemarks later, heading towards her study. As she passed the door to her Advisors room however, and heard voices drifting up, she paused, then turned back, knocking a few times before pushing the door open. 
"Sena!" A happy little voice called out as Niobe spotted the conqueror. 
"Hey, short stuff." Xena grinned at the toddler, who was squirming in her father's gasp in an attempt to escape and charge her favourite playmate. "You doing OK?"
"Oh right… Now she asks…" Pyrron muttered, tightening his hold on his daughter.

A dark eyebrow lifted at him as Xena crossed her arms. "Excuse me?"
Her advisor glanced at her hesitantly for a moment, then put the squirming tot down, giving her a pat in the direction of her room. "Niobe, leave us for a moment, OK?"
The girl frowned up at her father, then glanced at Xena, who smiled at her, then nodded her head towards the girl's room. The girl scowled, then pattered off grumpily. 

Xena watched her go affectionately, then she looked back up at Pyrron, her expression turning serious. "Well?"
Pyrron waited until he was sure the girl was out of hearing range, then he dropped his voice to a whisper. "She could've gotten seriously hurt today." He accused in a hiss. "If Gabrielle hadn't been there…"
"I would never let anything happen to Niobe." Xena retorted angrily. "You know that. If Gabrielle hadn't been there I would have stopped Cleo myself."
"And you would have risked our trading with Egypt in the process!" Her advisor shot back. "And I would have to work overtime to fix everything again, as usual…" 
The conqueror tossed up her hands. "Oh please… Our trading with Egypt wasn't at risk."
"That is a lie and you know it."
"Whatever." Xena rolled her eyes, turning away from him and walking to a chair, plumping down in it, swinging one leg over the armrest. "I dealt with the situation, OK? I had an… uhm…" A wicked grin. "…a talk with Cleo just now, and Egypt is still a loyal province of the Empire, so you have nothing to worry about."

Pyrron crossed his arms, looking at her in dismay. "You slept with her." 
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
Her advisor released a breath, shaking his head. "I wish you'd deal with that woman in a more professional matter, Empress."
Xena shrugged negligently. "She's not complaining."
A frustrated sigh. "That's not my point." 
"Well, then just spill it, Ronnie. What is your point exactly?"

Her advisor considered his words for a moment, seating himself on the edge of the table. "One day you're going to push somebody a little too far and things will escalate without you or me being able to put a halt to it. You should stop trying to see how far you can go and just be content with how far you've gotten." Pyrron tossed up a hand, then let it fall back on his knee. "You approach this whole ruling the world thing as if it's nothing more than a game, Empress."
"Of course it's a game." Xena replied, pushing herself back to her feet and taking a few paces towards the window, looking out over the gardens. "Life is a game, Pyrron. Some sick game the gods thought up to keep themselves entertained and all we can do is to just score as many points as we can before we die." 
"Even if gathering points endangers other people?"
Xena turned back, leaning back against the stone wall. "I have never, or will ever, hurt your children." She stated, her intense gaze meeting his. 
Pyrron closed his eyes. "I know." He admitted. "But I would appreciate it if you stopped using my children to get rid of your Egyptian regent from now on, Empress."
"Who said it was ever my intention to get rid of my regent?" Xena asked innocently. "I most certainly never…"

At that moment the door burst open and Iona came bounding in, her eyes flicking across the room until they met Xena's. "Is it true? Is she really leaving?" 
The Conqueror grinned wickedly, then nodded.
"Woohoo!" The girl punched at the air with a fist in victory. "A new record! We've never gotten rid of her this fast before…"

Xena bit her lip, then sheepishly looked up at her advisor, who just rolled his eyes in response, not quite able to wipe a small grin off his own face. 
"Is she gone already?" Iona asked impatiently. "Cause you promised we could train Chilon if she was… Can we? Now?"
"I remember." Xena laughed, reaching out and ruffling the blond hair. "She's leaving today. I'll escort her to the harbour this afternoon."
"And we can go riding after that right?" Iona blinked up hopefully. "Right?"
"If you finish your homework." Pyrron stated, before Xena could reply. 
Iona looked back at him in dismay. "Aw, dad!"
"No whining." Pyrron warned, pointing a finger at her. "And would you like explaining to me why you're not at school right now, young lady?"

"Because she ran out of the class when she heard of Cleopatra's departure." An older, bold man, with a long grey beard stood in the doorway, glaring down at Iona with crossed arms. "Just ran out." A younger voice added, an eight year old boy copying his teacher's pose, staring up at Iona with an angry frown. 

Xena smirked at the scene. "Hello Linus. Welcome back." 
The older man looked at her, then respectfully inclined his head. "Empress."
"Xena!" The young boy ran closer as he heard the woman's voice. 
"Castor!" The Empress mimicked the boy's enthusiasm, before scooping him up and tossing him in the air. "Had fun in the mountains?"
Castor nodded rapidly as he was placed back on the ground, his formerly orderly arranged brown hair standing up in all directions. "We got herbs and some special mushrooms."
"Yeah. Wanna come see?" He tugged at her sleeve. "I found some stones too. They're really pretty…"
"I'd love to come see…" The Empress told him seriously. "Unless your father has anything more to say about the matter we were discussing before?" She lifted an eyebrow at her advisor. 
"You know I try not to waste my time on hopeless cases, Empress." Pyrron stated, his dark eyes twinkling a little, informing Xena she was out of the red zone. 
"Good." She shot him a smile, then turned her attention back to the boy standing in front of her. "Lead the way." 
He beamed a smile up at her, then headed for the door. "We saw a falcon too. Just like the ones you go hunt with sometimes…"
"Neat." Xena went along amiably. "Did you know that when they hunt, then can swoop down on their prey with a speed of about 200 miles per hour?"
"Really?" Caspar peered up at her with wide eyes. "Wow…" He considered for a moment, trying to compare the speed of this bird with something he was familiar with. "That's even faster than you can run, right?"
"Yes." Xena admitted with a straight face. "But not by much…"

Gabrielle looked up from the large book that was lying on her lap as a knock sounded on her door. "Come in." She called out, sitting up a little straighter on the bed, closing her book and putting it down on the ground beside her. 
The knob turned and the door peeked open revealing first a large platter, loaded with several bowls and plates, and then Solari, who skilfully edged into the room, then kicked the door shut with her boot without spilling as much as a drop. "Lunch is served." The Amazon announced, walking closer and placing the tray on the bedside table. "On the menu today we have traditional Amazonian fried chicken, vegetable soup and Caesar salad with actual bits of Caesar. Enjoy."
Gabrielle looked up at her, then leaned closer and peered at the salad suspiciously. "I do hope you're kidding."
"I don't kid. That would require a sense of humour." Solari deadpanned, seating herself on the edge of the bed. "And I lost that a long time ago."
The warrior reached over, lifting the bowl of soup off the plate and pulling up a knee, balancing the bowl on top. "So that touch-me-and-die attitude isn't just for show then, is it?"
A shrug from the Amazon. "It started out that way… The attitude keeps people at bay, ya know, which is safer for me and my queen. But I've played this role for so long now that I don't think I could go back to being the nice, friendly, peace loving Amazon I used to be."
Gabrielle chuckled softly, spooning up a bit of soup, gently blowing at the steaming liquid to cool it a little. "Probably not…"
"On the other hand, now I can totally beat the crap out of someone without having to worry about my conscience, which probably comes in pretty handy for you, right Gabrielle?" 
Gabrielle's eyes flicked up for a moment, then refocused on the surface of her soup. "I don't remember telling you my name."
"I have my ways of getting information." The Amazon stated calmly. "You should have told me your name sooner. It would have saved you the whole business of being threatened by butcher's knives and all…"
Green eyes peered up at her with interest. "Really?"
"Well duh." The Amazon snorted. "Anybody who's somebody in the resistance knows your name, Gabrielle. You're a legend, you know?"
"Right…" Gabrielle muttered self-deprecatory, scooping a bit of bread off a plate and popping it into her mouth. "Some legend…"
"Quite." Solari replied seriously, ignoring the sarcasm. 

A short silence, in which Gabrielle pensively chewed on her bread before swallowing. "So… The resistance is still alive then, is it?"
"Yup." The Amazon confirmed, plucking a bit of a greyish meat-like substance out of the salad and popping it into her mouth. "Alive and kicking. Only it isn't kicking in that nice roundhouse-kick-that'll-knock-the-conqueror's-head-off-her-torso kinda way, like it used to. People lay low these days, especially in Athens."
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully, pulling up a knee and resting her chin in its surface. "Are there still people left from before…" A shaky breath. "I mean…"
Solari seated herself on the edge of the bed, leaning back on a hand. "Not a lot. Most ran off after the executions… I heard a fellow named Agenor is still around though." 
"Agenor." Gabrielle's face lit up. "Yeah, I remember him."
"There's probably some more, but I'm not up to date. Agenor would probably know more though, you should try to get in touch with him if you want to find out more." 

A moment of silence. "That can wait." The warrior finally said, sending another spoonful of soup down her throat. "First I need to worry about getting our friends out of the dungeon."
"I've done a lot of thinking on that subject." Solari stated. "And after much consideration and many a sleepless night I've come to the conclusion there's one way of getting Ephiny out of that place…"
Gabrielle cocked her head at her. "Which is?" 
"She will have to become invisible and obtain the ability to pass through solid walls." The Amazon informed her dryly.
The warrior rolled her eyes. "Very funny."
"Nothing funny about that." Solari objected. "It's simply impossible to get her past all the doors and guards and soldiers without being seen."
A shrug from the warrior. "The fact that things are considered impossible by many have never stopped me from doing them." 
Dark brown eyes studied her. "You have a plan then?"
"Not yet." The warrior murmured pensively, crunching bit of lettuce between her teeth. "But I will."
Solari raised an eyebrow at her. "I know about your little deal with the Conqueror. And I don't know how you've managed to survive these last few days, but lemme just make one thing clear, OK? You're nothing but a toy to her and when she's done playing with you she's gonna gut you like a fish."
"We'll see…" Was the negligent reply. 
"It'll be too late by then." Solari muttered grumpily. "You're not gonna be around for much longer, so you'd better hurry up…"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Relax, will you? Making plans takes time. Rome wasn't built in a day, remember?" 
"No, but it was destroyed in one." The Amazon grumbled. 
"Trust me, I've got a week or so left at least." The warrior leaned back in her sea of fluffy pillows, staring up at the ceiling in thought. "I'm assuming you know something about the guards around this place? Where they're posted, when they patrol…?"
"Of course."
"Good." Gabrielle reached under the bed, fishing a piece of parchment and a bit off charcoal out of their hiding place and handing them to the Amazon. "Draw me a map."
"Sure." Solari took the items from her, balancing the sheet on her knee as she put the first line to parchment. "I have to warn you though… Amazons are not known for their artistic skills…"


To be continued in Part IV