The candles sizzled as each one was snuffed out with the moist end of the Conquerors fingers. She sighed deeply as her hearing caught the random movements of the new guards just beyond the large oak doors of her chamber.
As the flames were extinguished, the lord went through the incidents of the past few days. Her fingers played over the loosened strands of the catgut at her side and she took some comfort in the pain it elicited. If nothing else, it meant she was capable of feeling something other than the cold isolation that seemed to hold her tight.
Walking carefully over to the sideboard, the Conqueror poured herself another drink and then sat by the bed waiting for the healer. She winced as her fingers absently probed the damaged flesh. What had she been thinking? It was just pure foolhardiness to ignore a wound, and in her position such oversight could have meant her life.
"That damned assassin. Who sent him and just what were those inscrutable words hed spoken?" Any thoughts of Dagnine being the mans employer flew out the window as soon as hed spoken a word. "Was that low or high Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese? And the mans voice itself what of that?" It had been somewhat raspy and yet Xena could tell the man was young. She groaned as she inspected her bruised ribs.
"And very strong. Not to mention knowledgeable. Where the fuck did he learn that pinch?" She grimaced as she swallowed a rather large quantity of port.
Xena went over the many lessons Lao Ma had given her years before. Flexing her fingers again, she noticed that a little more feeling was returning to the left side of her upper body. Whoever the man was, it was certain he was of the same caliber as Lao Ma, perhaps even her superior in his grasp of the martial arts. Was that possible? While shed been very impressed with the array of combative skills the lovely concubine had displayed, there had been nothing that equaled the strength and debilitating force of this recent attack. She tried to remember exactly what the assassin had done. Had he struck her there, where the bruise was, or higher? Had the bruise been the result of the blocked blood flow from a nerve pinched farther up?
Xena ground her teeth in frustration. She needed to see that man again, learn what he knew, and then Well, no man was indispensable.
Tipping her goblet again, Xena was surprised to find it empty. Grumbling all the way, she went for more libations. The front of her gown fell open, and she stumbled on one corner. Hitting the floor with a resounding crash, the Conqueror rolled over onto her back clutching her side painfully.
The door creaked open quickly and a young guard stuck his head inside.
Xena pounded her right hand painfully against her left arm and shoulder in frustration and accented her answer with an empty goblet. The man ducked quickly as it hit the wall by his head.
Not wishing to provoke further anger, the guard made a pinched face and then slammed the door behind him.
"Conquerors in a fine mood tnight, idnt she? Dya fink she misses that bit of fluff what went out of ere earlier? I say shes goin soft, I do. An bloody daft as well." He brought his face close to Maltors and then whispered conspiratorially. "I dont fink Id follow her into battle. Why, shed raver spend the day in bed, she would. We aint had a good battle fer months. Hows a bloke spose to make a decent livin wiffout da spoils of war, I ask ya? And I could do wiff a bit othe slap n tickle, struth."
Maltor nodded absently, and jingled the few coins hed earned before his last watch. Yes, his time with Dagnine was proving to be profitable. He decided to make another visit to the man before his second watch later that night. Seeing the Conqueror in such a state might be worth something. He narrowed his eyes as the lords words came back to him. Well, he thought petulantly, perhaps I wont have to worry none about a promotion in your army especially if you dont have one for long. He spent the next part of his shift wondering just what type of position he could curry with the Lieutenant. A man of his obvious skills was sure to be worth something. He began to hum tunelessly.
Xena dragged herself back up and into her bed just as the healer entered the room.
"Milord " He stopped in his tracks as he noticed the Conquerors condition.
He opened his mouth to rebuke the woman but was silenced with one raised eyebrow.
"Dont even go there, Daedalis, not if you value your life. Just sew me back up, and be quick about it."
The healer bowed with a flourish, and then set out the contents of his bag on the side board.
"Do you wish a herbal mixture for the ? No, I can see you are well past worrying about the pain. In your present mood, I doubt they would take effect in time to do any good." He removed his spectacles from his pocket in preparation for looking over the wound.
"Lord Xena, if I may?" She nodded but said nothing as she slowly opened her robe.
Encouraged by the womans silence, he decided to continue with his reprimand.
"I did try to tell you " His next words were squeezed off as the warrior reached across and grabbed him by the throat.
"Has your advanced age addled your brain, healer, or have you just lost all will to live?"
Daedalis squeaked a small reply and then waited patiently for the Conquerors grip to loosen. He rubbed the red flesh of his neck and then attempted to clear his throat. His efforts were dismal. Taking a small flask from his bag, he uncorked the contents and then brought the bottle to his lips.
"Eeek," he sputtered as the flask was taken just inches from his mouth.
"Ill just take that." Daedalis pursed his lips as the warrior drank down his private stock of Ouzo. Knowing better than to push his luck further, he watched in silence and then caught the empty flask as she tossed it back to him.
"Perfect. How thoughtful of you to think of me, Daedalis."
Rubbing his throat carefully, he grimaced once and then replaced it with a weak smile. "But of course, Lord Xena. I am at your service."
"Whatever. Proceed with your procedure."
Within the hour, the healer had patched the wound and had cautioned his patient against entertaining anything more strenuous than climbing into bed for the rest of the day.
"Im not a child, Daedalis."
He grunted as he made his way to the door.
"Then dont act like one, milord."
Xena growled half-heartedly, and waited until the man had gone, then walked unsteadily to the bathroom. Splashing some cold water on her face, she readied herself for the ordeal she must perform.
Xena glanced closely at her reflection, picked out a spot on her neck, nodded once and then jabbed two fingers into it.
She gasped as the air slowly seeped from between her lips. Holding her right hand before her, she watched as the tremors increased. She was unaware of the blood snaking its way down to her chin. Only when shed fallen to her knees and her eyes had begun to roll back into her skull did she bring her hand back up to her neck.
The mere act of doing so had her sweating profusely, and she squeezed her eyes tightly against the growing darkness.
It has to work it just has to. She thought as she summoned the last bit of her strength and jabbed her fingers back into the soft flesh of her neck. Falling forward into a heap, Xena lay trembling as she fought to bring her breathing back under control. She resettled her shoulders and then moved her left hand. It was as if small sharp teeth were gnawing at the flesh there, and she cried out in relief.
"A good sign "
Flexing her fingers into a fist slowly, Xenas confidence began to build. It had been quite a few hours since shed been able to even perform such a simple act. If she continued to improve
The Conqueror hadnt really taken the time to examine what her life would have been reduced to if shed completely lost the use of her arm. Quite frankly, it was a topic she had been avoiding it all day. Watching the young bard being helped out of her chambers had made her realize the type of existence the woman endured every single day. Im the cause of that. My blind quest for justice at any cost reduced another human beings life to one of pain and humiliation. That isnt justice, it was a thoughtless deed rendered by an uncaring ruler. How many other judgements have I meted out without discerning exactly what the ramifications would be?
"Bah! It must be that liquor Daedalis gave me. Mans trying to poison me, I know it." She shook her head hard trying to dislodge the growing feeling of guilt sitting in the pit of her belly like some sharp rock.
"Its my duty as ruler of Corinth to dispense justice in any way I see fit. Havent the peasants more food than they ever had? Isnt there a smaller death count from the old and the very young? There are no more petty squabbles between warring factions in the area. Only Caesar "
Xena grabbed a damp cloth and pressed it to her forehead. All this talk of politics and justice was beginning to give her a headache. She was doing her best, and that was enough. Who could expect anything more from her?
But was she?
She sat at the edge of her bed and sighed deeply. Shed always considered herself to be a competent ruler, one that was both fair and thorough in her quest for the truth. Now she wasnt so sure. The years of having her Lord Chancellor handle the judicial matters were long ago. When had she begun to take more pleasure in the judgement of men than the quest for their guilt or innocence?
"Whats happening to me? I know my path, I know my duty. Enough of this foolish thought." She glanced up quickly as her servant girl entered the rooms and began setting out trays of food.
Xenas belly growled its approval as the scent of food wafted over to her.
"Ah, Ubris. Just what the healer ordered." Rubbing her left hand and arm, she walked to the table and began to eat.
The Conqueror pushed a few of the bottles off the table and grunted as one broke. "This place is a mess. See to it. I believe Ill go out for a ride. Its time I was seen back in the company of my men. Ive lain a bed far too long."
Ubris narrowed her eyes as the lord began to stuff food into her face.
"There are rumours to quell, fights to be fought, and a certain silence to be found on the practice field."
Ubris wanted to reach out as the woman began to disrobe. Helping the Conqueror with her personal attire was always one of her favorite duties. Her lips flattened into a cruel line as she thought of the young woman a few doors down. Gabrielle had been given a bath in preparation for the healers arrival. He would administer a sedative and then
"You are going out, master?"
Xenas head popped up at the use of the word master.
"Yes, I have no time to play slave girl with you, Ubris. My duties have been sadly lacking of late. I mean to remedy that right here, and right now."
The Egyptian held her tongue as the Conqueror dropped her robe and walked leisurely over to her bed, dauntless in her self-confidence. Ubris wondered why the Conqueror saw all of life as a game. Was Lord Xena the board itself or merely all of the pieces?
The womans broad back and shoulders seemed to gleam in the morning sunshine, giving the servant the impression that this perfect specimen of female pulchritude was indeed a goddess. There was no doubt in her mind that Lord Xena truly believed that she had everything needed in life. Ubris felt a tightening in her chest as she thought of just what the Conqueror didnt have, and might never have. The bond with her soulmate had been so strong that death could not sever it. Could Lord Xena be smart enough to recognize the opportunity afforded her and seize it? It seemed the lord was oblivious to the truth offered by the petite blonde. So much to give, she thought sadly as the warrior began settling the leathers over her muscular frame.
She smiled as the Conqueror muttered as she went about her chore. She had always taken pride in the knowledge that Lord Xena felt comfortable enough to let down some of her barriers and speak from her heart. She had learned much about the woman in just this way. Who had heard the tears she cried deep in the night when her family turned their back? Who had held the inebriated woman after her bouts of depression when it seemed all those around her had betrayed her in one way or another? And who was it that had been privy to the lords darkest secrets, and darker needs? Yes, Ubris was indeed one of the privileged few. But was it enough to just sit back and watch life frittered between the Conquerors fingers? Was duty all there was?
"Damned buckles. Fix this one at the back."
Blue eyes caught brown as the servant stood her ground.
"I said "
"You wish me to tend to you, master? You cannot do this alone, no?"
Xena scratched her chin and tried the buckle again.
"Why should I bother when you are there to do it for me? Its your duty to attend me, Ubris. What has come over you, girl?"
"If it was not my duty, do you think I would still perform this function, lord?"
Xena grabbed her bracers and then stood before her armoire. Perhaps I should forgo the battle dress, and just wear my jerkin and pants? She threw the servant a look of distaste.
"Youre being very troublesome, Ubris. Youve always told me how much you enjoy aiding me while I don my armour."
The Egyptian nodded. "Yes, sire. It is a time well spend, when our bond is rich in both closeness and harmony."
"Then do as you are asked. Its not even mid autumn and the cool air is already making me regret my choice in clothing."
The servant sighed deeply. Even though I am expected to read your mind and be satisfied with the silence. You can say so much with one look, yes, but sometimes a woman needs more than that sometimes she needs words.
"Come along and be quick about it. Ive spent far too much time in my chambers, as it is, molly coddling that slave. Things have to change, Ubris."
But they already have, Lord Xena. You have but to accept them.
The servant had just opened her mouth to reply when she found herself pushed to her knees.
"Your hesitation displeases me, Ubris. Dont think that because the slaves insolence goes unpunished in your presence, that you can be openly defiant without consequence." She tangled her fingers in the young womans dark tresses.
"Ive not applied the flogger to you yet, dont make me change that."
The smell of alcohol drifted over the servants face as the Conqueror locked eyes with her. Ubris released a slow measured breath, sat back on her heels, and just looked up at the Conqueror.
"No, lord. I do not believe you are a very nice person, master, but you would not beat me."
Xena jerked her head back in surprise.
"You think of yourself as a very cruel woman, but I do not think you have a heart of stone, my Lord Xena, despite the part you play."
Xena snorted and swaggered over to the table. Grabbing a few morsels of meat, she ate hungrily, and then burped before responding. "Bah, why should your thinking be different than the others, Ubris. Everyone believes exactly what I wish them to. Never give the people the truth; they wouldnt know what to do with it."
Ubris placed a hand on the pacing warriors leg, entreating her to stop.
"You really wish to go out riding when Gabrielle lies alone, waiting for the pain to begin?"
Xena flinched. "I have a duty, that is my truth."
"The truth you have given the people is that you have become the very person you wish them to believe you are."
"This is all because of that bard, isnt it? Has she been twisting your mind, perverting your allegiance to me?" Damn that woman shes making us both weak undermining my authority making me think too hard unwanted emotions welling up inside me Xena blinked fiercely and tried not to think of the procedure in store for the frail bard. Shell do better by herself, without worrying about appearing so weak. But she is weak you fool. Shes been in pain for days most of which you caused! The least you could do is stay with her, let her know Xena cocked her head. Let her know what? That I care, and that it would break my heart to see her in pain? Or that she makes me as weak as a child when she turns those sorrowful eyes in my direction?
Ubris watched as the Conquerors shoulders slumped, and then she slowly got to her feet.
"Sire, am I merely a servant to you?"
Xena ignored the woman and began removing her unbuckled armour. I need to get out of here. Itll be the pants today after all. "Cant you just stop talking?"
"I wish to serve you, master, because it gives me great pleasure. I do not do so because it is my duty as your servant, or because you force me. Your violent ways could never bind me to you. Just as your attempts at breaking the will of Gabrielle will not earn her love or respect."
The warrior had had enough. Why were women so consumed with the idea of love? She whirled on the servant, her index finger held out before her as a weapon.
"And what makes you think I want either, from you or from her? Fear and intimidation gets me everything I want or will ever need, Ubris."
The servant swallowed hard. Now was the time for truths, even truths the Conqueror wished to avoid. Would her rage be total and all encompassing? Ubris sighed resignedly. Still weakened by her ordeal at the warriors hands, she had little to lose. Lord Xena usually vented her displeasure with any of her servants by way of long bursts of vile temper. It usually resulted in broken furniture and unkind words spoken in haste. Despite her blustery threats to the contrary, Ubris knew no woman had ever been subjected to anything she hadnt willingly consented to. She wondered just how the rest of the realm would react to this particular truth.
"We could not love you so if you had a heart made of stone. We love you in spite of yourself."
Xenas eyebrows knit as the womans words slapped at her. She pushed Ubris away from her and stared into her eyes.
"What gibberish are you going on about now?" Looking decidedly uncomfortable, Xena began to remove her battle dress.
"Why does everything have to be about love," she grumbled. "Ever since that woman entered my life, things have just not been the same. And I wont have it! Why do things have to be so godsbedamned complicated!"
Ubris began to unlace the back of Xenas leathers.
"But lord, she has brought you much joy. She has brought you peaceful slumber and the first stirrings of love."
"Love. Whats this talk of love? Its an emotion best suited for the weak of body and mind. It does no man any good to lose his heart and therefore his reason and very soul." The Conqueror began to pace again. Offer any of my men love or power, and they will gladly choose the latter. I dont require my people to love me, just to obey me. In all things.
Such thoughts brought her back to the subject of Andros, and exactly why he and some of the other men remained loyal to her. Surely it wasnt just the money?
"No, milord. I mean, yes milord." Ubris bowed deeply as the womans leathers fell to the floor in a heap. She picked through the articles in the drawer, and then held up a pair of light leather pants. Ubris smiled expectantly.
"These would do nicely, yes lord?"
Xena rubbed her jaw, completely lost in thought as she prowled her chambers. If Im not in control of my faculties, then it follows that I must be in love? What foolishness. She grumbled the last word under her breath and then focused her eyes on the woman before her.
"What are you doing? I need my robe, not a pair of pants. I have no idea where your mind has gone, Ubris. Are you still weak and losing blood?" Placing a hand on the servants face, she tipped the womans chin up carefully. The bruises were beginning to fade.
"I never meant to be so Never."
"It was not me you wished to punish, sire." She cleared her throat. "You will not be riding this morning, then lord?"
Xena grunted. Why would I punish her, she did nothing wrong. And the slave was in the other room although terribly insolent, stubborn, willful
"How could you think Id make the slave suffer ?" An image of the broken body of a woman floated up before her. At first it wore Gabrielles face and then it was Ubris lying in blood, as the truth of the suffering she had caused her servant hit her again. She had meant to hurt Gabrielle. Would she?
"I never meant to hurt you, Ubris. Things got carried away I lost control."
"Yes, lord. Sometimes you are at your very best when you are not in total control, when your true self is unleashed, my liege. I have seen it with Ankara and now with Gabrielle. In the first instance, you let the tiger own you. But with the bard you seem to relish the passion, lord, and not the conquest."
Xenas lips twitched as she remembered the heat that ran through her body as Gabrielle had openly admired her body. How long had she lain there pretending to sleep, just watching the blonde as she in turn watched her? She could see the passion in the woman, but the little bard was so determined to hold onto something that she wished to give away freely. She fingered her nipple ring. The little bard produced such feelings of passion, desire, anger and confusion. It was all very perplexing to Xena, who decided not to think about it anymore.
"My robe, Ubris. What have you done with it? And run a bath for me. Ill have something more to eat and then a long relaxing soak, I think. That should take my mind off things. I have a full schedule of things this afternoon. Ill be far too busy to sit around here for long. But first a bath; a little rest and relaxation, and I should be fit as a fiddle to go roust a few lay abouts in the morning."
Grabbing her robe off the end of her bed, exactly where shed left it, Xena glanced quickly at the small grin that was painted on the servants lips.
"What do you find so amusing, and where did you say the slave was? Just for my information, of course."
"Gabrielle is but a few doors down, milord. I smile to see you happy, sire. Should I tell her that you will be coming forthwith?"
"No! No that will be fine, Ubris, Ill be too busy, really." Xena walked back over to the table, flexing her left hand, pleased with the returning circulation, and began to eat.
"And Im not happy, Im hungry. Im never happy unless you want to round up some of my guards now so that I may pummel them after breakfast."
"But lord, Daedalis said "
"Yes, yes, I know. Besides, it would give the men an unfair advantage: it wouldnt do them any good to see only half the squadron disabled by one slightly incapacitated warrior. Bad for moral." She chuckled to herself.
She held up an empty bottle. "And more wine, if you please. In case you havent noticed, that young woman lives up to the title bard quite admirably. My throat shall be parched if it is not nicely lubricated well before hand." She stroked her throat. "Perhaps you can fetch me some honey, too. An ounce of prevention, after all."
She cleared her throat. "I suppose Ill have to see her sometime today."
Ubris hid her smirk with a tiny hand. She, too, had noticed the young womans verbosity. While the Conqueror saw it as a shortcoming, she herself thought of it as being exactly what the healer had ordered. She pursed her lips. It would do no good to have the healer wandering in and break the mood. She shuddered. Her choice of words was unsettling. The whole idea of re-breaking the young womans legs was very unsettling. Ubris bit her lip pensively. A quick visit with the young woman now, after she ran the lords bath, would be perfect timing. Perhaps there was work for her in the other end of the castle, away from the screaming?
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