The Edge of Nowhere

Part IV

Not much later Gabrielle closed the door to her room behind her, before making her way towards the stairs at the end of the hallway. Solari had given her the information she'd asked for and then left. They both realised that any second they spent talking together was a risky one, so they'd decided to avoid each other as much as possible for the time being. Gabrielle was sure the Amazon had more useful information to share, but what she'd gotten in the last quarter of a candle mark or so would have to do for the time being. 

Noises caught her attention and she looked up to see servants exiting from the room she knew Cleopatra occupied, carrying large trunks and bags from the guestroom. Another moment, then Benitor emerged, walking backwards, tugging at the handle of a large wooden chest. His face was bright red and he was obviously struggling with his burden. Gabrielle walked closer, greeting him. 
"Ah, m'lady." He smiled and straightened, inclining his head towards her politely. "Good afternoon to you."
"I told you not to call me that." Gabrielle scowled at him, with a hint of a smile. 

She liked the older man, in spite of the fact they'd gotten off to a rocky start the first moments after her arrival here. The fact that he reminded her a little of her grandfather probably had to do with that too. He had the same shortly trimmed, dark grey hair and the same vibrant brown eyes. Her grandfather had been the only one in her family to understand her when she was younger, had been the only one supportive of her telling stories, had just smiled when he caught her day dreaming. She'd loved him more than anyone else when she was a child and when he died… She'd cried for days on end, sitting by his body and refusing to let go of his hand, even when the men came to bury him. 

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I'll be sure not to do it again." Benitor smirked at her, then wiped his arm across his forehead. "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me now. I have to take these downstairs."
"I'll help." Gabrielle offered, grabbing onto the other handle before he could protest, lifting the chest of the ground, seemingly without much of an effort. "Go on." She walked around him, making sure she was the one walking backwards as they headed towards the stairs. 
"It's highly uncommon for guests here to carry things around the palace, miss." Benitor objected half-heartedly, pretty relieved the warrior had just spared him the burden of carrying the heavy object down the stairs by himself. 
"You're not accusing me of being common, now are ya?" 
A chuckle from the older man. "Never, m'lady."
"Tch..." Gabrielled tsk-ed him, carefully placing her foot on the first step of the stairs, tensing her muscles as the weight of the trunk slowly shifted to come to rest almost fully on her as they descended further and further. 
"Are you all right?" Benitor asked in concern, glancing down the length of the chest at the warrior's tense face. "We could stop for a moment…"
"No, it's OK." Gabrielle objected, her ego not allowing her to back down so easily. She just clenched her teeth, moving down the last few steps and entering the hallway. "Geez, this thing is heavy." She muttered, releasing a breath as she lowered the chest to the ground. "Wonder what kind of junk the Queen of the Null has got stashed in there, huh?"

Benitor prudently remained silent. 
Gabrielle looked up at him with a frown, then saw that his eyes were firmly fixed on the marble floors. 
"How dare you!" A voice called out from behind her, and Gabrielle winced as she recognised who she was dealing with. 
She bit her lip, then got her facial features back under control, working a calm, un-intimidated expression on her face before turning around and facing the Egyptian regent. The woman's dark eyes were shooting daggers at her, the eyeliner darkening the edges of her eyes making the look particularly vicious. "Well hi there… Fancy meeting you here…"
Cleopatra actually growled, barring her teeth in a snarl. "Get away from me! And don't dare to obscure my line of sight ever again!"
Gabrielle crossed her arms, giving the woman an amused look. "All right then. As you wish…" She smirked at the woman, then pushed off, pulling herself into a flip and neatly landing behind the regent. "There you go… Better?"

Cleopatra spun around, but Gabrielle just followed in her movement, staying out of the regent's sight obediently. "Hey!" The Egyptian flung her hand around in frustration, trying desperately to hit the warrior. "Stop that!"
Gabrielle smirked at the woman's back. "Say please…"
"Why you obnoxious little…" 
"Hey, don't start on the height issue…" the warrior objected, wiping a bit off dust off the regent's shoulder carelessly. "That's a touchy subject, you know?"
"Get away from me!" The Egyptian woman spun around once more, then started screaming at the top of her lungs. "Xena!!"
Gabrielle slapped her hands over her sensitive ears. "Ouch… Now, was that really necessary?"

A moment passed, then sharp footsteps echoed and moment later Xena entered from the hallway leading out of the south wing. She was dressed in a long, black gown with red edges and a tight bodice and her hair was elegantly braided back, tiny strands of gold highlighting the dark locks. "Yeeeeees?" She drawled, looking at the regent with forced politeness. "What's the matter, Cleo?"
"That peasant…" Cleo snarled, followed by a row of spat out Egyptian curses. 

Xena shook her head, crossing her arms. "All right… Where is she?" She asked, then blinked as a hand suddenly poked up from behind the regent's head, the fingers wiggling cheerfully at her above the grimly set Egyptian face. "Ah…" She did her best to repress a smirk. "I see…"
"Get her away from me." Cleopatra instructed angrily. "Now!"
"But of course…" Xena politely inclined her head at the regent, then turned her attention to the unseen warrior behind her. "Gabrielle?"
"Could you stop doing that, please?"
"Sure." The warrior stepped from behind the regent's back, smirking up at the narrowed eyes looking down at her. "I told you…" She reached out, and patted the regent's cheek. "All you had to do was say please…" The warrior flashed her a last grin then turned around and paced off.

"I can't believe you are just allowing that woman free reign." Cleopatra rambled on, grumpily staring out of the window of the carriage that was transporting them to the harbour. "Do you realise what this looks like to your staff? Not to mention your officers…"
Xena leaned back in her seat, watching the woman sitting across from her quietly. "Cleo, I explained all of this to you this morning, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did… But that doesn't mean I have to like it…"
The Conqueror rolled her eyes. "It's just a little harmless fun…"
"With you, fun is never harmless, Xena, and you know it…" Cleopatra deadpanned, her dark eyes shifting to meet the Empress's. "I did not survive a decade of ruling over Egypt because I'm blind to threats. And that toy of yours is a threat to your Empire, Xena. You should kill her while you can…"
"I'll kill her when I can, and not a moment later…" The Conqueror assured her. 

A snort from the regent, who returned her attentions to the window, quietly studying one of the armed, mounted guards riding beside the carriage. "Sure."
Xena slowly lifted an eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?" A pause in which there was no response, then more insistent. "Answer me." 

Cleopatra rolled her eyes, then looked back at the Empress calmly. "I'm just telling you to be careful."
"Oh, you're concerned about me?" Xena drawled, laying a hand over her heart. "I'm touched…" 
"You are the key to my rule, Xena, and I am part of the key to yours." The Egyptian balanced her elbows on her knees and leaned closer, dropping her voice. "I like the ways things are right now, and I'll do anything I can to keep them this way…"

Blue eyes regarded the woman for a moment, then Xena chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. "You are starting to sound just like Alti."
Cleopatra pulled back, crossing her arms. "Don't insult me."
"No insult intended, really." Xena assured her with a smirk. "But, honestly, I don't understand what you are so worried about… Do you think I can't beat her?"
"Of course I don't…" Cleo denied. "I've known you long enough to at least be sure of the fact that you don't overestimate your own skills. If you say you'll beat her before the month's through, than you will."
The Empress tossed up her hands. "So, what's the problem?"
Cleopatra rolled her eyes. "The problem is, Xena, that whenever you go off and try to have some ' harmless fun'…" She shot the Conqueror a meaningful look. "…things tend to escalate."
"Which is a problem why exactly?" 
"Oh please…" The regent shook her head. "Do I really need to remind you of that little trip you decided to take to Carthage all by yourself that would have gotten you killed, if it hadn't been for the soldiers that I send after you?" 
Xena released a frustrated breath. "I thanked you for that, didn't I? Repeatedly, if I'm not mistaken…"
"Or should I mention that time when you ran off without warning and some psycho blonde walked into your precious Athens and massacred half of the city?"
Blue eyes narrowed to slits. 
"Or maybe back when you went nuts and chased down some puny warlord named Draco for destroying a small centaur village that wasn't even under your control, leaving all other matters unattended while you…"
"Shut it!" Xena growled, her eyes icy cold as she glowered at the regent. "Don't stick your nose into matters you know nothing about, Cleo…"

Cleopatra studied her for a moment, but then backed off, realising she'd hit a nerve and knowing all too well that pushing further would not do her much good. "My apologies." She said, calmly looking at the Conqueror. "I was only trying to make a point…"
"Which is?" Xena grumbled, trying to get her emotions back under control. 
"That the moment you let your guard down, things escalate." Cleopatra informed her. "You are an Empress, Xena… THE Empress. Half this world wants to kill you for some reason or another. And what do you do? You invite the best assassin ever to walk the earth into your palace and give her no restrictions what so ever!" The Egyptian tossed up her hands. "Can't you see how foolish that is? Or do you just want to die?"

Xena considered this, shifted her gaze to stare out the window, watching the small houses along the road slip by. She spotted a young boy up ahead, who had been playing in the garden in front of one of the houses. He scrambled to his feet as he heard them approaching. Even from this distance, she could see him gazing at the horses in wonder, admiring the richly decorated carriage as it got closer and closer. Another moment, then his eyes shifted and met hers, and the wonder shifted to shock. He hastily turned around and ran off, finding shelter behind his mother's skirt. The mother just kept her head bent, refusing to look up for even a moment. As they rode past, she could see wide round eyes peeking from behind the older woman, looking up at her in utter fear… 

Xena released a breath, closing her eyes. "What I want is not important…" She finally murmured. "I learned from my mistakes, Cleo. You don't have to worry about your position in Egypt. It is not under any threat from me or the warrior, I assure you…" 
Cleopatra studied her for a moment, then nodded, folding her hands together and leaning back in her seat. "Good. That's all I need to know…"

After an hour or so they arrived in Piraeus, the harbour of the city of Athens. It had been a while since she'd been here, and Xena took a moment as she exited the carriage to glance around, taking in her surroundings. What had been a small fishing village a few years ago had grown into a massive port now, the docks lined with warehouses, men and women busily walking about, taking goods from or to one of the many ships that were anchored off. Xena took a breath, soaking in the salt stained air. The smell of the sea reminded her of times long ago, when she'd set off and roamed the seas for a while, looting ships and harbours as she sailed past. Ah yes… Xena closed her eyes and let a small smile cross her face. Those good old days…

Cleopatra exited the carriage after her, her guards hastily circling around her, their eyes anxiously flicking across the crowded dockside. Xena rolled her eyes at them, then offered Cleopatra an arm, before starting the walk down the dock towards the large Egyptian vessel that was anchored a little way off. "Your boys need to relax a bit more, Cleo. They're too tense… It's not good for their health."
"It's good for mine." Cleopatra stated simply.
Xena chuckled. "I guess so…" She agreed, calmly letting her eyes pass over the people in her vicinity. 

Most had halted their activities and were watching the Empress, the regent and her entourage now. Heads bent as her gaze flicked over the crowd and Xena got a chance to quietly check for any potential troublemakers. Athens was the centre of the world these days, and she was once again reminded of that as she saw people from all corners of her Empire. The foreigners were easily recognisable by their skin colour, or a particular way in which they dressed or acted. The Asian people, who were present here in great numbers, were all much shorter than the rest of the crowd and they acted very obediently, bowing deeply as she passed by. A small group of merchants from the Norseland, however, didn't seem by far as impressed, keeping their show of respect to an inclining of their heads. Xena quietly observed the rough, simple clothing, made of skins and thick fabrics, quite unfunctional in the warm Mediterranean climate. Xena rolled her eyes at them, slightly shaking her head. Men from the Norseland made great mercenaries, since they were strong, and reliable, but no sense ever seemed to penetrate through those thick skulls. She'd always wondered if it was the barrenness of their country that made them so headstrong, or if there was some other factor…

She paused, then cocked her head as she picked up a few whispered words from the group they'd just passed, followed by some muted laughter. "Excuse me for a moment." She excused herself politely, then turned and strode back to the group with calm determined paces, putting a placid smile on her face as she approached them. She calmly fixed her eyes on the leader of the group, a tall, broad shouldered man in his early thirties, with long reddish hair, the unruly locks blowing sideways in the gusts of wind that floated in from the sea. When he saw her approach she saw him flinch, but then he recovered his pose and straightened, standing to his full height and flexing some muscle in a display of manlyhood. She shot him a charming smile, then uttered a single syllable on the Norse tongue, before reached forward in a flash and neatly snapping his neck

As she turned her back on the group the man collapsed onto the ground, the sound echoing down the docks as his large body thudded to the ground. 

Cleopatra watched the exchange, raising an eyebrow at the Empress who'd quietly returned to her side and then motioned to her they should continue on their way. The Egyptian shot another glance at the group of Norsemen, who were staring at the Conqueror with wide, fearful eyes. "What did he do?"
Xena shrugged. "He said something I didn't like." 
"Aha…" Cleopatra mumbled, walking along beside her, considering for a moment. "If I may ask… What did you tell him?"
A wicked grin spread across the Conqueror's face. "I told him to die." A low chuckle. "Amazing, how well my subjects obey me these days, don't you agree?"

The regent rolled her eyes. "Your techniques of requiring loyalty are unsurpassable, Xena."
"Heh." The Conqueror chortled cheerfully. "I do like to think so." 
Cleopatra tossed up a hand in defeat. "Naturally…"

Xena laughed, then fell quiet again, as she heard the soft sound of metal hitting stone. "You dropped something." She informed her regent quietly, turning around and letting her eyes flick over the area. 
Cleopatra frowned, then looked at the hand she'd just moved, only now noticing the thin, golden bracelet she'd been wearing around her wrist was gone.

Xena scanned the ground again, still unable to spot the object she was looking for. Slowly she let her eyes lift, heads hastily dropping as she did so. "Hmm… Now that's odd…" She mumbled out loud to herself, taking a few paces closer to the crowd, people fearfully receding as she approached. "See, I'm sure I heard it drop… right…" She stopped in front of the one man that had held ground and was now shivering like a reed in the wind. He was a younger man, somewhere in his early twenties. He was short, but strongly built and his curly, dark brown hair reached down to his shoulders. "…here…" She dropped her voice to its lowest register, suppressing a wicked grin as she saw the man gulp. "You wouldn't happen to have seen it lying around here somewhere… Would you?"
The man rapidly shook his head, bending his head even lower. 
"Oh well… All right then…" Xena waved the ordeal off, turning around, hearing the relieved sigh as she did so. "I guess I musta misheard…" She took a pace away from him, then halted again, cocking her head in thought. "Unless…" 

In a blur of motion she turned, wrapped a hand around the man's throat and lifted him clean off his feet, revealing the golden bracelet he'd kept hidden under his boot. "It just mysteriously vanished and then reappeared under your sole."
The man's eyes grew wide as he fearfully looked down at the Empress, his eyes growing wide as he desperately tried to suck some air into his lungs. "Please…" He managed to gasp. "I didn't mean to, Empress. I'm sorry…" 
Xena produced a look of utter shock, laying her free hand over her heart. "Sorry? You mean to say you intentionally PLACED your foot over this piece of jewellery?" She shook her head sadly, tsk-ing him. "Didn't your mother teach you stealing is bad, young man?"
He blinked at her, his face turning a darker shade of red which each passing moment. 
"Well… Since she failed in educating you properly, I guess I'll just have to teach you this little lesson myself, won't I?" She smiled charmingly at him, then pulled back her free hand, balling it to a fist. 

The Empress narrowed her eyes for a moment, then turned and looked at her regent, who was looking back at her, her arms crossed. 
"I don't mind you killing off the entire population, but could you just escort me to my ship first? I'm expected to be back in Egypt before the next millennium, you see…"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Very well…" She then conceded, discarding of her burden, negligently tossing him in front of the feet of one of her own guards. "Take him back to the palace and lock him up. I'll deal with him later."

Gabrielle made her way down the stairs to the dungeon. The guard in front of the door nodded politely as she passed, recognising her from her previous visit, before he turned and keyed open the door. The warrior paced down the corridor, the guard following behind her quietly, the only sound the rattling of metal as the soldier selected a key from his key chain. 

A few more steps, then Gabrielle pulled to a halt beside her friend's cell and looked inside. The place was a complete mess, plates and bowls and cups scattered across the floor. In the centre of this chaos was Thalia, lying flat on her back on the ground, her hands folded over her stomach. Her eyes were closed and a dreamy smile was plastered on her face. In the cell next to her, Gabrielle spotted Ephiny lying on her pallet with a similar expression. The warrior chuckled, shaking her head in amusement. "You two enjoyed your meal, I take it?"

Eyes fluttered open, looking up at her in complete adoration. "You are divine." Thalia managed reverently. "No, you are more than divine… You're… You're…" The redhead fell quiet for a moment, considering a designation to top divinity, then she gave up, closing her eyes again. "Whatever beats being divine, you're it…"
"If I could, I'd fall at your feet right now and profess my undying loyalty." Ephiny's voice murmured dreamily from the other cell. "But if I did that I'd probably just end up puking all over your boots and I don't think that's really a good way to display my appreciation."
Gabrielle laughed, stepping into Thalia's cell as the guard opened it for her. "Not really, no…"
The redhead managed to lift her head a little. "I'd love to get up and give you a hug, but my body is digesting at the moment, so I'm afraid that'll have to wait."
Another laugh. "'s Okay. Just stay put." Gabrielle told her, leaning down and picking up one of the plates as she started to pile up the dirty dishes. "They got you a full five course meal, right?"
"Seven." The Amazon corrected with a happy sigh. "Seven courses…"
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow in surprise. "Seven?"
"Three desserts." Thalia mumbled, nearly swooning. "I've never had a dessert in my whole life and now I just ate three…"
"Chocolate mouse…" Ephiny licked her lips. "Baklava…"
"Roasted quail."
"Oh, and I loved the salad." The Amazon added, somehow managing to role onto her side, so she could look at the people she was speaking with. "There were some nicely salted meaty bits in there… Very tasty…"

Gabrielle glanced from one to the other in amusement. "Well, I'm glad you two enjoyed yourselves." She grinned, seating herself on the bed after she'd placed the piled up dishes near the door. "You two got lucky they made a mistake. I only ordered five courses…"
"Not luck." The redhead informed her, tiling her head back a little and regarding her friend. "Fellow that came in here said something about a thank you for saving his daughter."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "Really?"
"Would we lie to you, oh great one?" Ephiny's lazy voice drifted up. 
The warrior chuckled. "Guess not…" A pause as she considered this bit of info. "Interesting…" 
"That's what I would've thought if my brain hadn't been so busy screaming 'Food! Food!'" A pause in which Ephiny smiled. "I found a note in my salad, by the way…"
"Did you now?" Gabrielle pushed herself up, strolling closer to the bars. "What did it say?"
"That you were even better in person than she'd thought you'd be…"

A snort as the warrior shook her head. "Your friend is quite a character… Did she tell you she threatened me with a butcher's knife?"
Ephiny smirked. "Once an Amazon…" She muttered with a shake of her head, then she paused, turning more serious. "Is she doing OK?"
Gabrielle leaned a shoulder against the bars, considering this for a moment. "It's hard to say…" She replied honestly. "I only spoke with her for a moment… She's… very dedicated to you…"
The Amazon nodded a little. "She's… a very good friend…" Hazel eyes peeked up. "Hey Gabrielle? Could you… Tell her something from me?"
"Tell her…" The Amazon took a breath, returning her gaze to the ceiling. "Tell her that if this doesn't work, I want her to leave."

The warrior regarded her calmly. "This will work, Ephiny. I promise…"
"I believe you. But, if something does go wrong, I don't…" A breath. "I don't want Solari to suffer through more years like this… You know?"
Gabrielle considered for a moment, then nodded. "I understand. But I don't think she'll listen…"
"Make her listen." Ephiny urged, carefully pushing herself up a little, to come to lean on an elbow. "You can make up some excuse for all I care, just make sure she gets out of here… Please?"
Gabrielle released a breath, then nodded. "I'll do my best."
"Thank you." Ephiny managed a smile for her. 

"Shush, Amazon, you're getting my Gab al downish…" Thalia complained, pointing a finger at her locked up friend. "We're supposed to be cheering her up, remember? After a Conqueror filled day she doesn't need to see you pining away in here over your girlfriend…"
Annoyed hazel eyes shot in the redhead's direction. "She is NOT my girlfriend…"
"Riiiiiiight." Thalia drawled. "Sure…"
Ephiny rolled her eyes, before returning her gaze to Gabrielle. "Ignore her." She instructed the warrior, who just chuckled in response. "So… How was your day, oh great one?"
"Nothing doing…"Gabrielle shrugged carelessly, turning a little and leaning her back against the bars. "Started the morning off searching for the Conqueror… Found her, kicked her butt, got attacked by a three year old, but sort of managed to make amend with the kid by saving her from the Pharaoh of Egypt and her guards…"

Ephiny blinked at her, then turned her head to look at Thalia, who met her gaze for a moment, before they both looked back at Gabrielle. "Forget I asked." Ephiny finally muttered, shaking her head a little. 
"If this is nothing, I really don't wanna know what a busy day for you looks like…" Thalia added to that. "I mean, even in our rebel days we never…" She stopped as she detected sounds coming from behind the cell door. "Hey, you hear that?"

Gabrielle was already standing near the bars, her hands wrapped around the metal as she peeked outside. "Yeah, I…" 

The door was kicked open, then one of the servants stepped inside, walking backwards. "OK, careful now…" He stated, waving his hands about busily. "Theodorus, move the thing back a little…" A scratching sound echoed through the dungeons, as a huge wooden object was pushed further into the hallway. "No, back, BACK, you idiot! It won't fit through the door like this, we have to turn it on its side…"
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle called out, which caused the man to turn around, his hands on his hips. 
"Yes?" He asked, raising an eyebrow at her sharply, his pose indicating he didn't have the patience to talk with her. 
"Is there something I can help you with?" The warrior asked politely, pulling open the cell door and stepping into the hallway. "I'm just visiting here." She explained, as the man's eyes widened.
"Ah…" Light seemed to dawn. "You must be Gabrielle then?"
"That's my name." Gabrielle confirmed, stepping a little closer. "What is it you're trying to move in here?"
"The present from the Conqueror." The servant replied cordially, waving his head towards the wooden structure that was now completely blocking the exit. "She said something about owing you… I understood you knew about this?"
Blond eyebrows frowned at him. "I don't know anything ab…" She stopped, then inspected the wooden frame, before turning her attention back to the young man standing beside her. "Is that a bed?"
The servant inclined his head politely. "King size…"

"She even remembered to send fluffy pillows." Gabrielle murmured with a shake of her head, as she tossed one of the feather stuffed items towards the bed, that was now taking up nearly all the space in the cell. 
Thalia caught the soft item in both hands, then popped it under her head, laying down and exhaling blissfully. "This is sooooooo nice…" 
"Oh yeah, rub it in, why don't ya?'" Ephiny muttered from her spot behind the bars, glaring at the deluxe bed with a tinge of envy. 
The rebel turned her head and looked at her friend, her eyes twinkling mischievously. "Getting jealous, your majesty?"
"Being queen ain't no fun when it's your rebel neighbour sleeping on the king-size bed." The Amazon informed her. "You wanna trade Terror T? My title for your bed? How about it, huh?"
Thalia replied to that by just sticking her tongue out at the Amazon. 

Gabrielle watched the exchange from the corner of her eye as she picked up another pillow, then launched it towards the bed, the soft surface smacking into Thalia's smug face with a satisfying thud. 
"Mhey!" Her friends muffled voice sounded in an indignant tone. Thalia pulled the pillow away from her head, her dishevelled red hair poking out in all directions. "What was that for?"
Gabrielle shrugged negligently, her eyes twinkling. "No particular reason…"
In the other cell, Ephiny burst out in laughter. 

Thalia flung her pillow towards the hysterically laughing Amazon, but was of course unable to hit her and the fluffy item just bounced off the metal bars. The rebel narrowed her eyes at the woman as she started laughing even louder, then decided to turn her wrath to a victim that was within her reach. She grabbed onto the remaining pillow lying on her bed, then slowly, dangerously, crawled towards Gabrielle. "You realise this means war, don't ya?"
"It does, does it?" The warrior drawled unimpressed, the last of the three pillows flung casually over her shoulder. 
"Oh yes…" Her friend assured her, rising up to her knees as she reached the end of the bed, grabbing onto her weapon more tightly. "And, if I may remind you, you have never been able to beat me in a pillow fight before, so it'd be best for your own well being to surrender to me now, and beg for my mercy."

Gabrielle cocked her head, seeming to consider that statement for a moment… "You're probably right…" She admitted calmly, but then suddenly lashed out a foot, kicking the pillow from Thalia's hands. It soared up into the air, nearly hitting the ceiling before descending again. Gabrielle reached out with her free hand and neatly scooped it out of the air, then she aimed both pillows for Thalia's ears, neatly sandwiching her head between the two soft surfaces. "…Then again, I think I'll take my chances…"

Thalia emerged from between the two items, looking even more frazzled than before. "Crap…" She managed to muttered, lifting a hand to rub her tingling ears. "When did you become the ultimate pillow fight champion?"

"Never did." The warrior argued. "Argo still holds the title."
Thalia raised a fuzzy eyebrow at her. "Who's Argo? Another mentor of yours?"
"You could say that…" Gabrielle chuckled. "Actually, she's my horse…"
"Oeh!" Ephiny was all ears all of a sudden. "You have a horse?" 
"No. I have THE horse." The blonde corrected smugly, before tossing one of her pillows towards the Amazon's rolling eyes. Ephiny caught the item, before worming it through the bars and tossing it onto her pallet to join the pillow Thalia had tossed at her. "Hey, have you ever heard of a horse that killed a man with a pillow? Have you?"
"You're kidding, right?" Thalia shot a glance at her, while pushing her disorderly hair back into order. 
"I do not kid about my horse." Gabrielle denied sternly, crossing her arms. "This guy was trying to attack me from behind, see? And she kicked out her hind legs against the pillow that was lying on my bedroll. Thing slammed into him with such force he was knocked straight off his feet. When I finished with the other thugs I noticed he was still lying there, checked his pulse… Nada… Guy got the wind knocked out of him… Literally…"
"Now that's my kinda horse…" Ephiny grinned wickedly. "I gotta get my Amazons some of those…"
"I think Argo's sort of one of a kind." Gabrielle smirked. "I need to go back up top and tend to her in a moment, by the way… She's been cooped up in the stables here for the last few days without any exercise. She hates to be…"

Sounds from outside made her halt her sentence, and she turned back and stepped outside the cell, staring at the thick wooden door that was the entrance to the dungeons. 
"What is it?" Ephiny headed towards the bars herself, peeking outside. "If that's another bed I'm gonna start a cult dedicated to your divine being right this moment, you understand that, don't ya?" 
Gabrielle softly shook her head. "No bed…"
"Bummer…" The Amazon muttered, immediately losing interest for whatever it was that was approaching and returning to her pallet. 

Another moment, then the door opened and a man, his hands chained together by heavy shackles, was pushed inside roughly, stumbling as he lost his footing and nearly crashed to the ground. 
"Move it!" A gruff voice sounded behind him as two muscled, armed soldiers followed him inside, one giving him another shove to move him further down the corridor. "Now!" 
"Hey!" Gabrielle called out, quickly pacing towards them. "What's going on here?"

Both soldiers looked up and studied her, then the man who'd spoken before leaned closer to his companion. "Who's she?"
"The warrior who arrived three days ago…" The older of the two replied in a scratchy voice. "You know…"
"Oh right…. She's the Conqueror's pet, is she?" He whistled under his breath. "That woman sure knows how to pick 'm…"

"I asked you a question." Gabrielle glowered at him, crossing her arms. "What's going on?"
The first soldier hesitated for another moment, then wrapped his hands around the captive's collar and jerked him upright. "This piece of scum decided stealing from the Egyptain Regent was a good idea… The Conqueror disagreed… She'll sentence him when she returns…"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at him. "Sentence him to what?"
"I ain't no fortune-teller, lady." The other guard grumbled, walking past his companion and the prisoner to a cell door, keying open the lock. "Normally the penalty for stealing is losing a hand…" The captive whimpered in fear. "… but since it was the Pharaoh he went stealing from he might as well loose his head…" An audible swallow from the young man, whose round eyes looked up at Gabrielle fearfully, pleadingly, before he was roughly shoved into the cell, the door locking behind him with a loud rattling of metal. The soldier stuck the keychain back in his pocket and then turned around, motioning for his companion to move toward the exit. 
"Hey!" Gabrielle followed behind him. "Is he even gonna get a fair trail?"
"The Empress will judge him as she sees fit…" The man mumbled, not bothering to turn around. 
"Is someone speaking in his defence?" The warrior continued. "What if the Conqueror's mistaken and he's innocent, shouldn't he…?"
The guard sighed audibly and spun around. "Look, sweetheart…" Deadly green eyes glared at him. "I'm not in a place to be explaining the legal ways to ya… I just arrest people, I ain't no lawyer or nothing… You wanna complain about the way things are done around here, take it up with the Empress, OK?" He instructed, before turning back again, heading down the corridor and out of the dungeons…
Gabrielle looked after the two soldiers, then at the young man huddled in a corner of his cell. "Maybe I'll go and do just that…"

Some time later, horses thundered through the large gates that opened into the palace grounds. The carriage slid to a halt in front of the stairs that lead up to the large doors that formed the entrance to the Imperial home. Xena hopped onto the ground, circling past the four dark horses that had pulled her to Pireaus and back, patting their strong necks affectionately, before striding up the stairs, where she was greeted by her Advisor. 

"The man you arrested was brought in half a candlemark ago. He's been taken to the dungeons." Pyrron informed her as he fell into pace beside her. "Also, Alti wishes to speak with you."
"All right." Xena acknowledges the news. "Send them both to the throne room. That way I can kill two birds with one stone…"
Her advisor nodded, motioning with his eyes towards one of the servants, who hastily darted off. "I'll arrange for the stone to be placed under your seat, Empress… And I would really appreciate it if you took care of the shamaness first, if you could…" 

Xena laughed, shooting the older man an amused look. "Has she been bugging you, Ronnie?"
Pyrron rolled his eyes with a sigh. "That woman is a menace, Empress… I found her just now with her hands wrapped around the neck of a palace guard… She would have killed the man if I hadn't intervened…"
"Alti, Alti…" Xena tsk-ed, with a slight grin. "Don't worry, I'll have a talk with her."
"Thank you, Empress." Pyrron inclined his head graciously. "Oh, last but not least, Iona told me to tell you she is taking Chilon out for a ride in a candlemark, and you'd better be there or she'll just take off without you…"
Xena exhaled gravely, shaking her head. "Pushy little thing…"
"Like draws to like…" Pyrron muttered under his breath, for which he was awarded with a dangerously arched eyebrow. 
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that." Xena growled in mock-anger. 
"Eternally grateful." Her advisor retorted smoothly. 

Xena chuckled, then slowed her steps as she neared her destination. "If you see her before I do, tell her royal pain-in-the-butt I'll try to make her deadline…"
"Of course, Empress." Pyrron grinned. "Do you want all of us to join you for dinner, this evening?"
"Yeah." Xena smiled at the thought. "Yeah, I'd like that… I've missed my table discussions with Niobe."
Her advisor chuckled in amusement, then bowed his head politely before turning around and walking off. 

Xena took a breath, steadying herself, before turning the last corner and walking into the throne room. She only came here when she really couldn't avoid it, when she had to receive emissaries from far away provinces, or sit in judgement upon some matter or another. The room was decorated to impress, lots of gold and silver lining the walls, works of art standing in various corners, beige, silken straps draping down from the ceiling. A long red carpet lead up to her throne, which was skilfully carved from pinewood, imported from a forest somewhere in Chin. The seat was covered by a soft, dark blue velvet. Except for the throne and a few statues, the hall was completely empty. 

"Hello, Xena…" A low voice burred up, as Alti stepped from behind the large throne. 
Well, maybe not completely empty, Xena amended with an inward sigh, forcing a smirk onto her face. "Alti…" She greeted the shamaness cordially, walking closer to her. "I heard you nearly flashbacked a guard of mine into extinction…" 
"Flash forwarded, actually…" Alti corrected her, crossing her arms, the fabric of the dark toga she was wearing softly rustling as she did so. 
"Aha…" Xena nodded in understanding, rising up the few steps that led to her seat. "And why did you do that, if you don't mind me asking?"
The shamaness shrugged negligently. "He said something I didn't appreciate…"
The Empress chuckled as she dropped down into her seat, casually flinging a leg over an armrest. "Sticks and stones…"

Alti snorted. "You should talk… You just killed a man because he said you didn't look so tough as he'd imagined…"
Xena tipped her head back and regarded her shamaness, raising an eyebrow at her. "You been spying on me in that big cauldron of yours, have you Alti?"
"Hardiharhar." Alti rolled her eyes. "I just overheard some guards talking…"

"How common of you…" The Empress chuckled, pushing herself upright again. "Now, tell me… What was the urgent matter you so desperately needed to speak to me about? And please, don't tell me you've come to warn me that you are getting bad vibes from my valued pawn, OK? I'm not interested…"
"It's more than 'vibes', Xena." Alti argued angrily, narrowing her dark eyes at the woman. "When I send that guard of yours to see his future, I wanted to show him how he dies…"
"Surprise, surprise…" The Empress drawled in an undertone.
"And you know how he dies, Xena?" The shamaness continued on, uninterrupted. "He dies in an attempt to help you escape from your own dungeons."

Xena frowned, sitting up a bit straighter. "What do you mean?"
"I mean just what I said…" Alti stated, circling the throne. "I saw you, Xena… Shackled and locked up in your own stronghold…" She dropped her voice to a raspy whisper. "That warrior will be the downfall of you, Xena… Continue down this road and your Empire will fall. Is that what you want?"
The Conqueror turned her head to look up at her. "How do you know this has anything to do with Gabrielle?"
Alti rolled her eyes. "I just know…"
"That's not good enough." 

The shamaness tossed up her hands. "Since when?"
"Since now." Xena replied smoothly, rising to her feet and turning to face her companion. "I have a real good opportunity here to learn, Alti. To stop standing still and grow… And I'm not gonna give that up because you dislike the one person who can teach me…"
Alti placed her hands on her hips. "Even if you risk losing all you've worked for?"
"To gain one thing, you often have to risk another." 
"You're not just risking 'another thing'.. You are risking everything!" Alti spat back, clearly frustrated. "You shouldn't…"

Xena stopped her with a stern wave of her hand. "This discussion is over." She growled, her blue eyes narrowing at the shamaness. "When you can give me solid proof Gabrielle is plotting against me, I'll listen to you… Until then, I don't want to hear another word about this matter…"
"Not… another… word…" Xena repeated, clearly pronouncing every word. The sound of rattling metal behind her caught her attention, and she shot a look over her shoulder to see her prisoner being dragged into the room. "Now, if you'll excuse me… I have a life to end…" 

"Oh, you've already decided on that, have you?" 
Xena spun around to watch Gabrielle stride into the room, passing the prisoner and his guard to come to a standstill in front of the young man, protectively forming a barrier between him and the Conqueror. Xena smirked, looking down at the scene. "Sheltering criminals now, are you Gabrielle?"
"This man deserves a fair trial." The warrior stated, crossing her arms and looking up at the Conqueror, unintimidated. Her gaze tracked to the figure standing behind the throne, and her eyes narrowed at the shamaness for a instant, before she returned her attention to the Empress.
Xena crossed her arms. "Does he now?"
"He should have a chance to prove himself innocent." 
The Conqueror chuckled. "I found Cleo's bracelet hidden under his boot. The chances of him being innocent are close to zero…" Xena settled down on her throne, leaning back in her seat and crossing her legs at the ankles.
Gabrielle blinked, then glanced over her shoulder, taking a look at the young man kneeling down behind her, his head bent shamefully. "Maybe… Maybe he had good reason… Maybe he…"

Xena lifted a hand, stopping the warrior's guessing. "Don't go there…" She instructed, before pushing herself to her feet, calmly meeting the angry green eyes. "Just face it, Gabrielle… Not everybody is worth saving." She slowly, gracefully, descended down the steps. "Your tendency to make a stand for the underdog is… endearing…"
An indignant huff from the warrior.
"But don't spend your precious energy trying to protect the life of some puny little man like this…" Xena waved a negligent hand at the kneeling figure. "Do you want me to prove him guilty?" 
The warrior looked back at her suspiciously. 
"Let me show you…" The Conqueror took a few paces to come to stand at the prisoner's side, then knelt down and grabbed onto the young man's chin, roughly jerking his face up, forcing his grey eyes to meet hers. For a moment he stared at her in shock, then his eyes hastily darted away, avoiding the intense blue gaze. Xena let him suffer for another moment, then she shoved him away, rising back to her full height. "You know as well as I do, eyes are windows to the soul…" Blue eyes met green. "He can't even look at me… Because he knows he's guilty."
"Because he's afraid!" Gabrielle argued. 
Xena took a step closer, their gazes still locked. "You were afraid of me too, once… But during your trial, your eyes never left mine…"

A long silence, in which memories flooded both. Finally, Gabrielle drew in a breath. "You admit I was innocent?"
A small smile tugged at Xena's lips. "No. You just never considered yourself guilty…" A glance over her shoulder. "This man, on the other hand…" She shook her head a little, then walked past the warrior, heading back towards her throne. "All he wanted was some extra cash, Gabrielle… To spend on liquor, or gamble away… He's not worth your attention…"

"No. Not liquor…" The man spoke for the first time, hesitantly peeking up. "I…"
"Silence!" The guard's voice boomed, ending his words by smacking the back of his hand onto the side of the young man's face. "You don't speak unless you're spoken to…" 

The prisoner thudded on his side, then scrambled back to his knees, crawling away from the soldier on instinct. Gabrielle quickly dropped down by his side, laying a hand on his shoulder to calm him, before inspecting the reddening area, where a drop of blood was sidling down from the small scratch made by the soldier's ring.
"Get back here…" The guard growled, advancing on his captive, a hand balling into a fist, his other reaching out to push Gabrielle away from the man. 
The warrior was just about to react and reach up to stop him, when the guard was stopped for her. 

Xena wrapped her long fingers around his wrist, then jerked the guard's arm back roughly. "I must be losing my hearing..." She growled at him, twisting the arm back just a little bit further, making him yelp in pain. "Cause I sure didn't hear me order you to hit that man… Did you?"
The soldier blinked up at her, then rapidly shook his head. "I… I just thought…"
Xena snapped the fingers of her free hand. "Ah, there's our problem then…" She gave him another icy stare, then let go of his arm, shoving him back. Then she turned and looked down, meeting Gabrielle's eyes for a moment, before turning her attention to the man lying at her feet. The man looked back up at her fearfully, but now he was meeting her eyes at least. "Talk." She simply instructed him, crossing her arms.

The man drew in a shaky breath. "Herbs. I needed the money for…for herbs…"
A dark eyebrow raised at him. "Herbs?"
He nodded his head feverously. "For my wife… She… She had a miscarriage, last year… And now she is pregnant again and… And a merchant told me he had herbs that could prevent her from losing another child…"

"Oh please…" Alti's voice drifted up, sounding quite bored. "I can't believe you're listening to this, Xena… Stealing is stealing and… Whoa!" The shamaness jumped back as a metal ring seared past, not even an inch from her eyes. With a clang the metal bounced off the far wall, then off another, before Xena neatly scooped it out of the air. "I am getting TIRED of these interruptions!" She growled dangerously, giving the shamaness a deadly glare. "So shut up!"
Alti stared at her for another moment, then tossed up her hands in defeat. 

Gabrielle had jumped up as she'd heard the weapon leave Xena's hand and had watched it traverse its path across the room and back in complete fascination. 

"Good." Xena shot her a toothy smile, then returned her attention back to the man at her feet. "Go on… Keep begging…"
The man blinked, then stuttered on. "The… The merchant… He asked for a great amount of money… I'm just a simple gardener, I… I couldn't afford it, but… If Lucinia loses another child, she'll die, Empress, she can't go through that pain again, and… And then the bracelet dropped down in front of my feet and I…"
"And you stole it." Xena finished for him. 
The thief bent his head guiltily. 

Xena turned away from him, taking a few paces, silently. "What's your name?"
The young man blinked in surprise, then spoke up. "Gelon, Empress."
"Gelon…" The Conueror repeated the name thoughtfully. "You said you were a gardener?"
"Yes, Empress."
"Hmm…" The Conqueror considered her options for another long moment, then turned towards the man. "Well, you're a damn lucky man, Galon…" She stated, before tightening her grip on the weapon she was still holding and bringing it down in a flash. 

With a loud clanging the ring impacted with the gardener's chains, breaking the metal as if it had been a mere twig, freeing him from his bondage. 
Galon blinked, then glanced over his shoulder to look at the warrior standing behind him, but Gabrielle had an equally, if not more, confused look on her face, her eyes focussed on the weapon the Conqueror was holding. He scrambled to his feet, then looked up at the Empress. "You are letting me go?"
"I'm not killing you…" Xena corrected simply. "You can be useful to me, and I hate to waste resources…" She crossed her arms, looking down on him. "I want two things from you… One: You are going to tell me the name of that merchant. And two: you are going to work in my gardens for the next moon, free of charge… Understood?"
The man nodded his head rapidly. 
"Good." She stated, then leaned closer, dropping her voice. "You are very, very lucky. You understand that too, don't you?"
"Yes, Empress."
"And you realise that if this happens again, I will not be so generous…"
"Yes, Empress."

Xena patted his cheek condescendingly. "Smart boy." She turned towards the guard she'd pushed aside earlier. "Get the shackles off his feet and bring him his belongings." She instructed, getting a inclining of the head in response. "Then escort him home." Another nod. "Good." Xena reattached her circular weapon to her hip, then waved for the shamaness to join her. "Let's go, Alti." She glanced at Gabrielle. "I hope to see you at dinner."
Gabrielle blinked, then nodded mutely. 
Xena smirked, amused at the uncharacteristical insecure behaviour, then turned and headed towards the exit. 

"What is it called?"
The Empress halted in her tracks, then turned, arching an eyebrow at the warrior. 
"The ring…" Gabrielle motioned towards the Conqueror's side. "What is it called?"
Xena looked down at the weapon, then back up at Gabrielle. "Your knowledge of weaponry is failing you, is it Gabrielle?" She chuckled good-naturedly. "It's a chakram." She then supplied. "Ares gave it to me."
Gabrielle seemed to consider this for a moment, then nodded. 
"Now, if that's all… Until this evening…" Xena smiled at her, then turned around and paced off, following her shamaness out of the room. 

"You just had to show that thing off, didn't you?" Alti muttered grumpily under her breath. "I don't like being mocked, Xena…"
"Hey, I could have cut off both the straps on your toga and left you standing in the middle of the throne room butt naked… I think I was being quite nice…"

Gabrielle pensively watched the Conqueror for another moment, then her attention shifted to the gardener, who'd been released from his chains now, and was walking towards her. 
"You're… You're Gabrielle?" He asked, shyly, grey eyes peeking up at her from under his thick bangs. 
The warrior managed a smile for him. "That would be me." 
Galon bent his head deeply. "I owe you my life…" 
"You owe me nothing." Gabrielle told him, waving the debt off. "I'll uhm… I'll see if I can figure out how to get those herbs for you, OK?"
The young face creased into a delighted smile. "You'd…? If you could supply them I'd give you everything I own in return… Anything you want…"
"I don't want anything…" Gabrielle lifted both her hands before he could object. "Let me just see if I can find them first, OK?"
Galon nodded, then bent his head again, gratefully. "Thank you, Gabrielle."
The warrior smiled wryly. "Don't thank me yet…"
"Thank you…" Galon repeated nevertheless. "Thank you… for coming back…"
Gabrielle looked at the young man for another moment, then gently touched his shoulder. "Go home, Galon. Go see your wife."
The young man looked up at her with a smile, then nodded, before turning around and hastily making his way out of the room. 

Gabrielle waited until both he and the guard had exited the room, then she let out a grave breath, pushing both her hands against her face, before running her fingers through her hair. She stood in the room for another moment, then walked off, heading to the main hall and up the stairs. A few corridors, then she pushed open the door to her own room, stepping inside and closing it behind her again. She knelt down at her bed, and reached under it, pulling her saddlebags out from under its surface. She stuck her hand in the bag, digging past clothes and other small trinkets, until her fingers touched the metal item at the bottom. Carefully, she pulled it from its hiding place and held it up in one hand, regarding it quietly.

The sunlight that was filtering through her window shimmered off the decorated metal ring, highlighting the golden, jagged lines, the gems embedded in the metal sparkling as the light touched them. Gabrielle lifted a hand, carefully tracing the edge of the ring with a finger. "And I thought you were just a fancy wall decoration… Go figure…"

A candlemark later Gabrielle entered the dining room. The large table was set for seven this time, and the room was not by far as abundantly decorated as it had been the first time she'd walked in here. The large Egyptian statue she'd spotted in a corner two nights ago had been removed, and the huge painting of the Nile circling its way through green riverbeds had been replaced by a set of worn down swords, blades crossed. 

To her relief the shamaness was nowhere to be seen, the hall occupied only by Pyrron and his youngest daughter, who was sitting in his lap, babbling on busily, while waving her hands in the air to emphasize her point. It only took the attentive youngster a moment before she spotted the room's new occupant and tugged on her father's sleeve firmly, pointing a finger at the warrior. "Abby!"
Gabrielle couldn't suppress a smirk as she walked closer, sitting down opposite from the two. "Evening."
"Good evening." Pyrron returned, politely inclining his head toward the warrior. "I didn't expect you here…" 
"The Conqueror insinuated I ought to make an appearance…" Gabrielle stated calmly, leaning back in her seat. 
"I see." The Advisor nodded in understanding, while he struggled to keep hold of his squirming toddler, who was trying to climb onto the table's surface.

Gabrielle regarded the two in silence for a moment, then cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I uhm… I wanted to thank you…"
Pyrron glanced up in surprise, both grey eyebrows raised. "Pardon?"
"For the meal…" She made a vague hand gesture towards the double doors she'd just entered through. "My friends were uhm… ecstatic…" A half grin. "They won't be able to walk for the next two weeks, but… they loved it, nevertheless…"
The older man chuckled softly. "No thanks needed… I just delivered on my part of the deal…"
"You did a little more than that…"
"So did you…" Pyrron retorted easily, giving the warrior a hesitant, but sincere smile. 
Gabrielle looked at him, then produced a smile as well. "I guess we're even then…"
"I guess so…" The Advisor agreed, then cursed under his breath as Niobe escaped his grasp and crawled across the table's surface with amazing speed. 

Gabrielle only just managed to grab onto the child before she toppled off her end of the table. Niobe plumped down in the warrior's lap, then immediately homed in on what she'd come for, sticking a small hand in the pouch the blonde had tied to her waist. She grasped out some of the contents, then stuck it in her mouth hastily, sucking greedily on the candy. 
Gabrielle cleared her throat, to catch the girl's attention, then raised an eyebrow at her. In response Niobe produced a toothy smile, the yellow glaze from the honey drops staining her teeth conspicuously. The warrior eyed her for another instant, then smirked, shaking her head. "She's well trained, isn't she?"

"You betcha…" Xena's voice drifted up from across the room, as the Empress strode in, Iona cheerfully skipping along behind her. Both were dressed in dirty, sand stained pants and grubby shirts, the odour of horse lingering thickly around them. "Just watch…" Xena continued, then whistled. Niobe immediately retrieved another bit of candy, pulled her hand back and then launched it towards the Conqueror, who neatly caught the treat between her teeth, wiggling her eyebrows, before letting the bit of candy fall into her mouth. 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the display, while Niobe giggled, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "Sena good!"
"You're not bad yourself, kiddo." Xena replied easily as she walked closer. 

Niobe hesitated for a moment, considering if her favourite playmate outweighed the candy. that was in her reach right here where she was, then came to the conclusion that, yes, she did, before wiggling herself free from Gabrielle's hold and heading for the Empress. Xena scooped her up before she could fall off the warrior's seat, lifting her up on her own shoulder as she headed towards her seat at the head of the table. 

Pyrron, in the meantime, directed a question at Iona, who'd taken her seat on Gabrielle's left, in between the warrior and the Empress. "I take it your lesson went…" He took a moment to let his eyes scan over her dirty clothes. "…as only could be expected?"
"It was great!" The young blonde stated enthusiastically, her blue eyes glinting excitedly. "I pushed Chilon into a full gallop, and Xena said he's faster than any of the other horses she's ever seen… Which says quite a lot since Xena's been everywhere, of course, and…"

"Whoa, back up a minute…" Pyrron turned his attention to the Empress. "You let her ride that monster full speed?"
Xena shrugged negligently, focussing her attention on tickling the giggling Niobe.
"He's not a monster!" Iona exclaimed indignantly, narrowing her eyes. "He's sweat…"
"Right, and I'm Bacchus…" The Advisor muttered. 
"Really?" The Empress replied drolly. "I always thought I saw a resemblance there…"
Pyrron rolled his eyes. "Oh, aren't we being funny today."
"Hey, it's not my fault I was gifted with this brilliant sense of humour, now is it?" Xena retorted, flashing her Advisor a toothy grin. Pyrron just groaned in response, getting a chuckle out of the Empress. "Hey, by the way, where's the brilliant scientist and his grey-haired sidekick?"

A grin tugged on the Advisor's lips. "They'll be here soon, hopefully… But you know how those two get… All wrapped up in their experiments…"
"I hope they're not trying to get their heads to explode, or we could be here for a loooong time…" Gabrielle muttered under her breath.
Xena snickered in response
"Pardon?" Pyrron raised an eyebrow at her inquisitively.
"Inside joke, Ronnie…Don't bother…" The Empress informed him with a grin, then turned her head as she heard footsteps approach. "Ah, I think our last dinner guests have finally arrived." She caught the gaze of one of the servants, who'd been standing silently near the doorway, then motioned for him to go and get dinner. 
"The shamaness isn't coming then, is she?" The Advisor inquired, not quite able to hide his delight about this fact. 
"Nope." Xena shook her head. "She's too busy moping in her room and cursing my ignorance in the 'spiritual' matters." 

Only moments after the servant left the teacher Linus and his younger shadow entered the room, caught up in conversation. Linus politely inclined his head towards the Conqueror as he circled her to take his seat on the left side of Pyrron, leaving the space next to the Empress available for Caspar, who immediately plumped down in the seat. Xena reached over and ruffled the boy's thick bangs. "You're late, mister." She scolded him teasingly. "That's no way of making a good first impression on Gabby, now is it?"

Caspar frowned at her, then his eyes trailed across the room for the first time, spotting the warrior, dressed in her simple, sleeveless, crimson red tunic, leaning back in her seat casually. The soft candlelight that was illuminating the room flicked over the bronzed skin of her upper arms, muscles clearly visible, shifting under the surface. He blinked, then swallowed, then blinked again. 

"Caspar, meet Gabrielle. Gabrielle, Caspar." Xena waved a lazy hand from one to the other and back. 
"Hello." The warrior said politely, managing a smile for him. 
Wide brown eyes stared at her some more. 
Gabrielle frowned, then arched an eyebrow at him. "You OK?"
The boy blinked, then blushed and diverted his gaze. "Uhm… Yeah…." He peeked up again hesitantly. "Hi…" He managed, before quickly resuming his study of the table's wooden surface. 

Xena glanced from the warrior to the boy in amusement. "Gabrielle's here for… business reasons." She informed Caspar, unable to completely smother the smirk tugging at her lips. "She'll probably be here for a few weeks or so…"
"'kay…" The boy managed, not taking his eyes away from the grains in the wood. 

At that moment the servants started filing into the room and Caspar looked up at them, pathetically grateful for the diversion. Gabrielle glanced up at the entering people as well, then had to force herself to keep her face unmoving as she spotted Solari among the servants. 

She turned her attention back to the table and focussed on the last occupant, whose name she didn't know yet. 
"Linus." The bold, bearded man introduced himself politely as he met the warrior's gaze, extending his hand towards her. 
Gabrielle took the offered hand and shook it. "Gabrielle."
"Pleasure meeting you." The teacher said politely as he settled back in his seat, while a steaming plate circled around his right side and was placed in front of him. 

Xena sniffed her own plate appreciatively. "Smells great." She commented to Solari, who'd placed it in front of her. 
"Of course it does. I made it, didn't I?" The Amazon muttered in response as she stepped back and turned away from the Empress. 
Xena chuckled in amusement, poking at a bit of meat and popping it into her mouth, humming in delight as the spices pleasantly stung her tongue. "You know you can only get away with that because you're such a good cook, don't you?"
Solari waved a hand over her shoulder negligently. "Sure."
A short laugh, then the Conqueror called the cook to a halt. "Hey, get back here for a moment." Xena turned her attention to the warrior. "I want to introduce you to the chef here." She poked a thumb at the cook. "This woman makes THE best Caesar salad…"
Solari turned back towards the table. "It's all a matter of the right ingredients." 

Gabrielle lifted her head, studying the cook for a short moment, before returning her gaze to her plate. "We've already met."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Oh really?" 
Behind the Conqueror, both Solari's eyebrows raised as well. 
The warrior nodded. "In the kitchen, this morning. We had a disagreement about the way she was dealing with her staff."
"You'd think that after three years people'd let me just deal with the morons that surround me in my own, very effective way, but noooooooo…." The cook joined in, crossing her arms. "Newby here had complaints about my kitchen manners." 

Xena glanced at the warrior, then up at the cook with a grin. "Don't take it personally, Solari. Gabrielle just has this tendency to stand up for… anything she can stand up for…"
"She should learn to sit down, then." Solari muttered gruffly, then turned and strode out of the room without looking back. 

The Empress smirked, scooping up a bit of rice with her spoon. "Well, she most certainly doesn't like you, does she?"
"Can't be friends with everybody." Gabrielle responded, poking her fork at a carrot. 

While the rest of the room's occupants made conversation around her, Gabrielle took a moment to quietly survey the room. She liked it better this way, she decided, as her eyes tracked passed a large Roman shield, then fell upon a painting of the seawaters, the sun tainting the water different shades of yellow and red, a small boat outlined against the horizon. The room was still too huge and imposing to feel completely comfortable in, but it wasn't as cold as it had been before. It had a slightly more personal touch now, a touch that fit the Conqueror perfectly in that it was completely incoherent and she couldn't get a grasp on what it was the woman liked exactly. Weapons mixed with quiet landscapes, armour and painted pottery…

She felt she was being stared at and turned her head to see the young Caspar gazing at her, hastily dropping his eyes as he realised he'd been noticed, blushing a deep red. Gabrielle frowned at the boy, then shrugged it off, taking another bite from her dinner. 

"So, Caspar… I was wondering…" Xena started, wiping her hands on a napkin as she finished her dinner. "Since I'll be very busy tomorrow with the regents of the Greek provinces, I don't think I'll have time to entertain my guest here…"
"How horribly disappointing…" Gabrielle drawled sarcastically, only loud enough for Xena to hear. 
"Soooooo…" The Empress continued on, ignoring her whispering. "I figured maybe you could chaperone her for me tomorrow… You know, make sure she doesn't get into any trouble…"
A blonde eyebrow raised sharply. "Excuse me?"
Humoured blue eyes met hers. "You don't deny you've infuriated both my valued shamaness and my highly respected Egyptian regent several times over these past few days, do you?"

"That's not exactly a difficult thing to accomplish, Empress." Pyrron spoke up in the warrior's defence, taking a sip of his wine. "And I speak from experience…"
Xena shot him a look. "Hey, whose side are you on?"
"The most beneficial side, Empress."
The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at him. "Oh really? And since when is picking the side of a former rebel more beneficial than the one of the ruler of the known world?"
"Since the rebel can kick the ruler's butt." Iona helpfully supplied, which even got a smirk out of the stoic warrior sitting beside her. 

"Ouch…" Xena placed a hand over her heart in shock. "Et tu, Iona… Et tu…"
The girl just grinned back at her wickedly. 
"Too bad… See, I was going to suggest that you could maybe accompany Gabrielle on a horse ride through the palace grounds after you finished your homework, but…" Xena shook her head in disappointment.
Iona blinked, her eyes wide. "Really?"
Xena placed a hand over her heart. "Would I lie to you?"
"Yes." The girl replied simply, as she crawled off her seat. "Can I take Chilon? Can I?"
"Who said anything about you going?" The Empress retorted, crossing her arms. "Maybe I changed my mind…"
"Aaaaaaaaaawwwwwwww…" Iona produced the ever victorious pout. "You know I was just kidding before…"
"Oh, were you now?"
"Of course…" The young blonde stated convincingly. "You know you're my most favouritest person in the whole world…"
"Oh ho…" Xena chortled, tweaking the girl's nose playfully. "Well, since you put it that way…"
"Yes!" Iona whispered under her breath, very content with her new victory. "So? Can I take Chilon?"

Xena considered this seriously for a moment. "All right." She finally allowed. "As long as Gabrielle agrees, as you're gonna be slowing her down…"
The twelve year old looked at her indignantly. 
"…since you won't be going any faster than an easy trot and you're not gonna go further than two miles from the stables…" Xena finished, then immediately shushed the objections the blonde was about to splutter at her. "No arguments."

Iona scowled, but then excepted defeat, grumpily turning around and directing a pleading look at the warrior on her other side. 
Gabrielle smiled at her. "Fine by me." 
"Yay!" Iona bounced over and hugged the slightly stunned warrior, leaning a bit closer to whisper in her ear. "You're actually my favouritest person, but don't tell her, OK?"
The warrior started laughing and amicably patted the girl's back. "My lips are sealed."
Iona giggled, then bounced off again, heading for the door. "Gonna go tell Chilon." She called over her shoulder as an afterthought, before disappearing from the room. 

"You are not gonna do any such thing, young lady!" Pyrron immediately stood up from his seat, lifting up his youngest daughter as he set in pursuit. "You are going to get a bath and change into something less smelly."
No response. 
"Iona!!" The Advisor's voice echoed through the hallway, followed by some muted muttering as he moved out of hearing range. 

"I should get back to my work." Linus stated as he stood as well. "I have some things I need to prepare for the classes tomorrow."
Caspar hastily scrambled to his feet as his teacher did, quickly following him out the door, not being able to resist peeking over his shoulder at the two women one last time, before dropping his eyes again and running off. 

Gabrielle frowned, shaking her head as she rose from her seat, not intent on spending some quality time with the Conqueror. "Odd boy…"
"Usually he's quite normal, actually…" Xena chuckled, leaning back in her seat comfortably. "But I'm afraid your charming presence knocked him off a little."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the Empress. 
"You should be flattered, Gabrielle…" Xena went on with a smirk. "Caspar isn't prone to crushes, you know?"

The warrior glanced up at her. "Excuse me?"
"Oh puhlease…" The Empress drawled, utterly enjoying herself. "Don't tell me a peace bringer like yourself doesn't even recognises love when its looking right at her?"
"You're deluded." Gabrielle muttered, as she caught on to what the Conqueror was saying. "The kid just met me…"
"Deluded maybe… But I'm definitely not blind…" Xena smirked. "Besides, I know my Caspar… He doesn't fall often, but when he does…" She made a whistling sound, while trailing a path downward in the air. 

Gabrielle crossed her arms, looking down upon the Conqueror. "He does NOT have a crush on me…" 
Xena snickered, waving a hand at her negligently. "If that's what you want to believe…"
Gabrielle shot her another look, then huffed out an annoyed breath, spinning around and heading for the doors. 
Xena studied her as she paced off, letting her blue eyes track down and then back up the warrior's well built form. "Well… At least the boy's got good taste…" She murmured with a grin. 

The warrior halted, green eyes shifting back to her with lethal intent for a mere moment, before she faced forward again, striding out of the room. 
"Oh yeah…" The Empress chuckled to herself, popping her feet onto the table and placing her hands behind her head. "Excellent taste."

Gabrielle sat on her bed, crossed-legged, her wrists resting on her knees, the fingertips of each hand barely touching one another. Her eyes were closed and she was murmuring words to herself, repeating them over and over again. "Stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating, stop willing…"

Another moment, then she let herself fall back onto the bed with a disgusted sigh, pressing her hands to her eyes. How could she stop willing to get her friends out of this place, stop hating the Conqueror, stop desiring…

She hadn't been able to meditate properly since Lao Ma's death. She'd been so full of hate for Ming Tien, so focussed then to end his life the way he'd ended Lao Ma's… When she'd stuck his own dagger in his heart… Gods, it had felt so good… Satisfying… It hadn't mattered that blood was on her hands for the first time, it hadn't mattered then at all… It'd been like living in a haze for a moment… She couldn't even remember escaping from his room and hiding away in a nearby forest. 

She'd thought it'd stop after she'd completed her mission. Thought she'd stop feeling so hurt, so angry… But from there on, it'd just gotten worse… Every sad event she witnessed on her travels back, every sad face, every death… And then the news of what had happened to her friends… 

She hated her. Gods, she hated the Conqueror so much… Hate, hate, hate… She mantra-ed the word to herself, casting out those few moment where she'd felt…

Felt what? Pity? Compassion? 


The warrior shook her head, pushing herself to her feet briskly and taking a few paces to the small cabinet on the other side of the room. They were nothing alike. She angrily smacked her balled fist onto the wooden surface. Nothing alike.

Metal clanged as the ring lying on top of the cabinet shook from the vibrations of her hand slamming into the wood. Gabrielle's eyes drifted to the weapon, and she stared at it for a long moment, before reaching out and lifting it up, as she'd done countless times already today. 

How had it ended up in her bag? This ring, this chakram… It'd been days before she'd spotted it… All during her quest for vengeance she hadn't touched her bag. Not needing to change, or eat or look at anything that reminded her of her mentor. The scent of Lao Ma still clung to the leather, so she avoided being near it as much as she could… 

When she neared the border of Chin, however, she realised she had to stop tormenting her body if she wanted to stay alive… So she'd pulled the saddlebags closer and had stuck her hand inside for some clean clothes to change into… But her fingers had touched upon metal, unfamiliar metal, and she'd peeked inside…

And there it was. The ring with the strange golden design on top, the razor-sharp edges… half rolled up in her shirts as if it'd been there forever, belonged there… 

Had Lao Ma put it there? And, if she had, then why? Why hadn't she just handed it to her as a gift? Did she think maybe Gabrielle knew about the fact the Conqueror carried a similar weapon and wouldn't except it? What was the point of giving her the weapon at all, when the warrior hadn't even known until this day what it was this ring was capable of? Was this some strange joke from her teacher, to remind her again of the similarities Lao Ma had always hinted at? Why would Lao Ma, who'd always told her fighting was not the way, hand her something that could kill many with a single toss?

Gabrielle sighed, then walked to her bed and knelt down, hiding the weapon in her bag, where it had been before. Too many questions and no answers… She hated that… The warrior stripped out of her tunic and pulled a sleep shirt over her head, then pushed aside the covers and crawled into bed. She wasn't tired, really, but she needed to go to sleep, if she wanted to be ready for her fight with the Conqueror in the morning. Though she was still more than capable of besting the other woman, the Empress had managed to avoid two of the moves Gabrielle had hit her with in their first fight. The Conqueror was a fast learner, and she needed to be prepared if she wanted to last. One wrong move and this could be all over with. One wrong move and Thalia would be stuck in that cell for the rest of her life, or, even worse, be killed. Solari would be cooking for her greatest enemy until she died. Ephiny would remain captured and would never have a chance to go back to her people… 

So much was depending on her. Gabrielle closed her eyes, trying to force the worries from her mind. Sleep. She needed to sleep. She'd deal with whatever it was she had to deal with. Tomorrow. 


The weapon split through the air, coming towards her with amazing speed and she was only just able to duck under the blow. The Conquerer had picked nunchukas for this fight, two wooden sticks with a thick bit of chain attaching them together. Gabrielle had worked with these weapons before. She'd fought off a man who'd whirled the weapon at her on her travels back to Greece and she'd spend some time figuring out how to use the weapon herself after she'd killed him. She was hardly an expert at it, though, and the Conqueror proved to have quite an aptitude for this weapon, as she swung it around her body comfortably, then made a swing for the warrior's legs. 

Gabrielle jumped up just in time, back flipping away from her opponent to give her some breathing space. Xena laughed wickedly, obviously thoroughly enjoying herself as she cartwheeled closer, then took a swing at Gabrielle's side. The warrior blocked it with the chain, then tried an attack of her own, dropping to a knee and aiming for the Conqueror's knees. Just at the last minute though, her weapon was swept aside by Xena's and she had to roll away in a hurry to avoid to other side of the Empress's nunchukas impacting with her skull. 

She hopped back to her feet, then ducked to avoid another attack. 
Xena chuckled, as she sidestepped a kick from the warrior. "Getter tougher, isn't it Gabby?"
"Don't sound so smug." Gabrielle growled under her breath, swinging one end of her weapon over her shoulder to gain some speed, then catching the end with her other hand and sending it hurling towards the Conqueror's upper right arm in an attempt to dislodge the weapon from her grip. 

She failed miserably however, since Xena saw through the move easily and deftly caught the wood in her hand, stopping it dead. The woman quirked a wicked grin at her opponent, then pulled hard. Gabrielle stumbled forward a few paces and before she could defend herself Xena spun around and had slammed her elbow into the warrior's unprotected neck. 

The force of the blow send her tumbling to the ground, smacking onto the sand of the arena head first. She scrambled back to her knees, still holding onto her weapon with one hand, wiping at her nose with the back of her other, colouring the skin bright red. 

A low chuckle made her look up to see Xena approaching, towering over her. "Disappointing…" She tsked with a smirk. "I expected a little more from you…" She informed the blonde, then kicked out towards the warrior's head. 

Gabrielle reacted on pure instinct, lashing out with her weapon. The chain wrapped itself around Xena's ankle, stopping the Conqueror's attack. Gabrielle grabbed onto the second wooden stick and pulled, then jerked both hands back, making the dark-haired woman lose her footing and fall onto the ground herself. 

Before Xena could get back to her feet Gabrielle had one foot pressing down on the hand that was holding her opponent's weapon, the chain of her own pressing against the Conqueror's neck. "Better?" She growled, the green eyes flashing dangerously. 

"You swept me right off my feet." Xena drawled dryly, flashing the warrior a grin. "I humbly submit, so you can get off me now… Not that this situation is entirely unpleasant for me, mind you, but we have to worry about your reputation and all…" She added in a conspiritual whisper. A remark which made breathing become a bit harder for just a moment as the metal of the chain embedded itself a bit deeper into her neck. But then the pressure lessened and Gabrielle backed away, flinging her weapon away in disgust as she stood, before walking off without looking back. 

Xena snickered as she pushed herself to her feet, then winced as she put pressure on her ankle, which had been twisted as she was pulled down. "Ugh, gonna have to bandage that up…" She muttered to herself. 
"Empress?" Pompey asked questioningly, stopping by her side. 
Xena looked up at him, not a sign on her face of her own discomfort. "Nothing." She informed the officer, smirking at him confidently. "Liked the show, Pompey?"
"It would have been better if you'd won, Empress." The Roman told her bluntly. 
"I'm getting there…" The Conqueror replied easily, brushing some sand off her leathers. "Nearly got her today…"
"But you didn't…"
"I can always count on you to point out the negatives, can't I Pompey?" Xena gave him a look. "Just be patient."
Pompey sighed frustratedly, his eyes following Gabrielle as she strode out through the gates of the Arena. "I'm not a patient man by nature, Empress."


"Obnoxious daughter of a…" Gabrielle angrily tightened the girth on Argo's saddle, which got her an annoyed snort from the mare. "Sorry." She mumbled in apology, loosening the girth a little again. "She just… just…" The warrior's hands clenched in frustration. "She just gets on my nerves and makes me wanna… Urg…" She tossed the reigns over Argo's neck. "You know what I mean?"
Argo snorted in complete understanding.
"I just don't get her, you know? That's the most frustrating thing… I don't get her…" The warrior reordered Argo's manes. "Then again, I don't really need to get her, right? I just need to kick her butt a few more times before we go and get out of here…"
The mare nodded amicably. 
"But that's getting harder every day and… And I want to get her…" Gabrielle tossed up her hands in frustration, then ducked under Argo's neck to continue saddling her up. "I want to understand her. I don't know why, but I just do… Does that make any sense?"
The mare eyed her for a moment, then snorted with a shake of her head. 
Gabrielle smirked wryly. "Thanks for the support, buddy."
Argo gently pushed her nose against the warrior's stomach. Gabrielle smiled, rubbing the mare's head. "Yeah, I know… I love you too…"

A soft thud echoed through the stables. Gabrielle frowned, then circled her horse and peeked outside. Caspar was lying flat on his back in the corridor, out cold. Beside him was Iona, looking down at her brother with a frown, before looking up at the warrior with a twinkle in her eyes. "Cool!" She chortled. "And you didn't even touch him!" She bounded closer happily. "Teach me to do that?"

Continued in Part V

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