Chapter 8: A Roomful Of Legends

Gabrielle was patiently standing in front of a set of huge iron doors, waiting for Xena to tell her she could open her eyes again. With her was of course Xena, two of the Royal Guard, and two Castle Guards dressed in red that was always stationed outside these particular doors.

Xena fumbled for a moment with the large set of keys she was holding, until the doors were finally unlocked and opened. She dragged Gabrielle into the room before telling her to open her eyes.

Gabrielle blinked, once, before her eyes grew wide and she spun around open-mouthed and staring.

"Welcome to the Throphy Room, Gabrielle." Xena grinned, extremely pleased with herself.

"Wooow... Is it really... Jace talked about this place. You really keep all those things in here?" Gabrielle tried to peek at everything at once, causing Xena to chuckle and the guards to struggle not to do the same.

Xena gestured to the guards, who immideately took up positions around the door, then put an arm around Gabrielle, steering her way through the room. "Yep. This is where I keep a lot of old... mementos from the past. Mostly past battles, but not all these things were gotten in combat."

"The horn of Achelos? The head of the hydra? The horns of Minotaurus? What about the Golden Apples?" Gabrielle could not stand still for her enthusiasm. Xena shook her head amusedly.

"Calm down, my sweet, they aren't going anywhere. The horn of Achelos is to your right, there, and the others are further into the room. The Golden Apples, however, I gave back to Hera."

"Weren't you, you know, ever tempted to eat one and become immortal?" Gabrielle was curious.

"Not really..." Xena sounded wistful, then lovered her voice so that the guards might not overhear them. "Ever since after killing the Nemeian lion I have known who my real father is, Gabrielle." She casually pointed out a glass casing the held the long horns of the Minotaur.

"Ares appeared before me as I took the pelt from the lion, and told me the truth. It's not a pretty story, since my mother never knew that she had been... visited... by the God of War at the night of my conception." Xena looked sad at the mention of her mother. "I'll admit that I don't have much to do with him, thanks to Aphrodite and Hera, but he... is proud of me. He likes me."

She was silent as they continued on, clearly searching for the right words. She pointed out the great head of the Hydra, encased forever in solid steel from the forge of the gods themselves. Gabrielle was thrilled at the sight of the ugly thing.

"He... likes me a bit too much, if you know what I mean?" Xena looked embarrassed, and Gabrielle was so shocked her eyes threatened to pop right out of their sockets it seemed. "Well, like I said, grandmother and Aphrodite made certain that Ares would not continue to... pursue me. Oh I still hear from him from time to time, but it's not often, and we're not particularly close."

"G-grandmother?"

"Umm, yes. My grandmother, Hera, Queen of the Gods." Xena could see the realisation dawning in Gabrielle's eyes. "Yeah, it's true. I am a halfgod Gabrielle. That's why I was never tempted to eat from the Golden Apples or find ambrosia."

"If I ever wanted it, all I have to do is ask. And they won't give me just immortality, they would make me a god."

Xena and Gabrielle stood merely looking at each other for a long time. Xena had been afraid to tell Gabrielle of all these things, afraid to see the change in Gabrielle's eyes, but knew it would have to come out eventually.

Neither of them spoke.

"I...see." Gabrielle said slowly. Then she smiled gently. "Hey, that's pretty cool. And it explains a lot about the things you can do, doesn't it?" She took Xena's hand.

Xena was as near tears as she had ever been in her adult life. Roughly she pulled Gabrielle to her, kissed her forehead, and just held her for a long moment. "Thank you." She whispered into Gabrielle's hair.

"So." Gabrielle inquired cheerfully. "Tell me more about them?" Xena smiled.

"I've never been much for worshipping gods, even before I knew about my father, but if really really pushed, I suppose I could worship grandmother. Hera is an honorable goddess, and she likes me a lot... Which feels kind of nice, having at least some relatives that does like me."

Gabrielle wondered at that, but didn't want to interrupt Xena now that she had gotten started. Xena pointed out the stem that the Golden Apples had once grown on, caught in an eternal golden bloom inside a sparkling crystal, as they passed it by.

"Zeus on the other hand, really doesn't like me. And Athena, well, she downright hates me." Looking earnestly at Gabrielle. "I would have spared Athens you know, it was never my intention of razing it to the ground and nearly annihilating the Athenian army. But she wouldn't let them surrender to my army because Zeus was angry at me, and in the end there was nothing left. I really tried Gabrielle."

"It turned really ugly after that. Poseidon is another that really dislikes me, but on the other hand I get along quite well with Hades and Aphrodite."

"Xena? You mean you... slept with your... aunt?" Gabrielle was quite horrified.

"Please don't remind me! I try really hard not to think about that bit." Xena said, wincing. "But they don't see it as immoral, although Hera finally drew the line at Ares' many attempts at getting into bed with me." Shuddering. "Thank Goddess for that!"

They walked down another pathway.

"Oh, see that?" Pointing at a giant silver chalice standing nearly half the height of a person. "That is the Chalice of Blood, the one that belonged to Bacchus. I kept it after I killed him, though it's clean now."

"According to the legend you killed Bacchus because you wanted to free all the maidens he had enslaved, is that true?"

"Ah, no." Xena looked regretful. "I only wish it had been a more noble thought that caused all that."

"No, I, uh, I kind of had a lover back then, a woman called Eurydike. It was never anything serious, she just kept hanging around my army." Shrugging. "Only, she had neglected to tell me that she was married, and one day the husband, Orfeus, showed up. I suppose I was a bit callous when I told her I didn't care one way or another what she did, but that she was not to be seen anywhere near my camp ever again."

Xena looked seriously at Gabrielle. "Do you see? I could not take the betrayal, that she had lied to me."

"Orfeus came back the next day, telling me that Eurydike had been taken by Bacchus, and that I was responsible so I should help him get her back." Xena smiled wryly. "So you see, I was guilted into it."

They wandered around, Xena pointing out one strange artefact after another. "See that ugly rock that has a sword sticking out of it? It belonged to these really weird warriors, Order of the Pierced something or other. Well, they were talking really big about how the man who would be their leader would one day come and draw the sword from the stone, and lead them. So I pulled the sword out to take a closer look, and Hades did they get livid. In the end I beat them silly and took their precious sword with me. Silly thing that it is..."

"And that over there isn't strictly speaking a trophy, it's here more for safekeeping." Pointing at an odd shaped stone altar. Walking closer Gabrielle could see what was hidden underneath the glass and iron casing.

"Xena! Is that another chakram?"

"Yes it is, only that one can only be touched by someone who is completely pure. A lot of people have been killed trying to take it, so I had it moved here and put into one of Hephaistos' sealing casings."

"And I bet you can tell what that is."

"Is that... the Golden Fleece? Wow."

Xena smiled indulgently. "Just don't try to touch it Gabrielle. It does evil things to people, making them slaves to their ambitions." Gabrielle looked questiongly at Xena. "Yes, I know - why didn't it affect me? But it did, it's just that I have plenty of ambition all by myself, so it couldn't control me. Besides, when I got it I was well on my way of becoming the Ruler of the Known World already, so there really wasn't much left to pursue."

They wandered off to the casings on the other side of the huge room.

"See that white robe with the strange sword hanging over it? That's from a part of the Realm that's even further east than Chin, called Japa."

"I though Chin was as far east as one could get?"

"Mmm, many think so, as Japa isn't very well known. Usually when someone mentions the 'east of Chin' though, that's what they mean. They wanted it that way, the satrap I left in charge and the native gods of the land. I saw no reason not to let them have their way, it is a very small island."

"And I experienced something rather unpleasant there."

"The robe you see belonged to a woman, sort of a princess of that land though not quite, her name was Akemi. I am ashamed to say that she played me like a lyre, used and betrayed me. And in the end she even tried to devour my soul." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "I was very young then, I had barely begun my conquest of the world. And she was the only woman to have said that she loved me."

Gabrielle stiffened noticeably in Xena's arms. Xena smiled a little and nuzzled Gabrielle's hair.

"She lied of course, but at that point in time I was a bit... na´ve I guess. In the end it turned out that not only was she a great deciever who only used me, she was not even human. A kind of snow monster in the shape of a woman, as near as I could tell. The katana, the sword hanging above the robe, is a soul-slaying blade that I got there, and that I used to kill her."

"A gruesome tale to be true, but since most of the things in here has a dark past, it seemed appropriate to put that here. A reminder, if you will."

They continued on, Xena wondering to herself whatever possessed her to tell that particular tale to Gabrielle, since it had obviously bothered the young woman. 'Well Xena, you did just tell her that you callously killed a former lover, a young woman that said she loved you, and then had the audacity to put her only remains on display as a trophy. Of course that has to bother her!'

They passed by knick-knacks from Egypth, the Norse lands and even the Africaans as they moved about, one obviously male wooden sculpture from the Africaans in particular catching Gabrielle's eye. And had her breaking down in laughter.

That lightened the mood somewhat, and Xena steered Gabrielle towards the end of the room, and her own favorite part.

"What is that?" Gabrielle walked around the hig table curiously.

It was slightly taller than an ordinary table, and ornately made in black marble. The surface was divided into a multitude of even squares of white and black marble, and upon that surface stood a group of marble figurines, some black and some white.

"This" Xena said, lifting one of the larger figurines into her hand "is a joke."

She laughed a little at Gabrielle's incredulous look, and showed her the figurine that was once again as tall as one of Xena's hands. "This is Hera, you might recognise the symbols around her." She pointed at the other black figurines. "That is Ares, Hades, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Celesta and so on." Pointing at the white figures. "Those are Zeus, Athena, Poseidon and their lot."

"It kind of came to be after I had complained a bit too much about the gods using us all as playthings in their games, and that is what this symbolizes. All the struggles in my life that has had divine involvement, so to speak. The white figurines are those that I usually end up fighting against, like Zeus and Athena, while the black figurines are the gods that I sort of like and that don't usually go out of their way to fight me."

"Why black? Usually black is associated to evil, and white to good."

Xena looked incredulous. "But Gabrielle... black is my color! Surely you knew that? My coat-of-arms is a silver lion's head with blue eyes on a black shield, making my colors black, silver and blue. Kind of like the Royal Guard, that wears my colors black and silver."

"Although I guess a lot of people would say that black is a good metaphor for me in that case..." She teased Gabrielle, who scowled playfully at her.

Gabrielle walked around the table, intently looking at each of the figurines to see if she could name them. She noticed that the details on each was very rich, but that one figure in particular was done slightly different than the others. She smiled.

"You really do favor Hera, don't you?" While all the other figurines were made solidly out of one piece of black or white marble each, the one that represented Hera had one deviation. Someone had given the sculpture green tinted mother-of-pearl eyes, resembling the famous eyes of the Queen of the Olympian gods.

Xena shrugged sheepishly.

"Hey, since we are heading towards where I keep my trophy from the Nemeian Lion, did you ever find out the whole story about how all that happened?" Putting an arm around Gabrielle's waist.

"Well, I know you were very young then, and it was long before you started conquering the world. The stories say that the villagers of Amphipolis came to you for help when the monstrous lion showed up outside of their village, because they had heard rumours of your great strenght. And that you wanted a challenge like the lion, so you accepted."

Xena shook her head wryly. "That is such good propaganda. It's much better than all those horror stories that are in circulation, where I burn down villages, ravish the women and molest the livestock." She sighed.

"I guess it depends on where in the Realm you are." Gabrielle smiled. "In Poteidaia the legendary Warrior Princess is held in high regard, because Poteidaia is in the same area as Amphipolis. The Ruler of the Known World is rarely ever spoken of, though."

"I can imagine. Very well, but did you know that the story you have been told is not quite true? Not many do, but you at least I can tell." She held Gabrielle a little closer.

"I was almost sixteen, and I had not yet gotten the name Warrior Princess, that would come later. I was a warlord at the time, leading a small army of the young and angry. Earlier that year a warlord had attacked my home and my beloved younger brother got killed, and that's when I took up the sword for real. My home village was Amphipolis."

Gabrielle looked quite surprised.

"My mother is the innkeeper there, and she blamed me for my brother's death." Xena looked at Gabrielle with pained eyes, despite all the years that had passed. "He died saving my life, you see."

"She told me to leave and never return, and to this day I never have. But I used my little wannabee army to keep the area around Amphipolis as safe as I could manage. So when the news came in that the Nemeian Lion for some reason had appeared in the countryside outside Amphipolis, I had to do something about it."

Quietly. "Even if she hates me, she is still my mother."

"I didn't know back then that the beast was the child of the titans Echidna and Typhon, and that it was there as a part of some plan of Zeus'. He was probably going to force himself on yet another mindless young woman, knowing him. Anyway, I got my weapons together, but I added something that the stories doesn't tell you about. A pair of big steel gauntlets, with madly big spikes that I had dipped in the venom of a poisonous snake."

"The poison slowly paralyzed the lion rather than killing it, but that was allright because I managed to crush it's neck, and it ended up just as dead. Of course that raised some questions, since no ordinary person is strong enough to snap the neck of a titan, even this way. I got convinced by the men in my army that I should keep the pelt as a trophy, and it was while I was trying to cut off the pelt that Ares appeared before me."

"He told me the truth. And in a bout of supposedly fatherly pride, he made this for me." They stopped in front of the back wall of the room, and a strange construct.

It was a throne, Gabrielle decided after some consideration, although it could of course also be a divan of some kind, it was that big. It was made entirely of a gold hued pelt, with the armrests - or if they were headrests, she couldn't tell - were made to look like giant lion's paws, claws and all. The pelt continued from the paws and back going upwards into a large covering, a canopy of sorts, that ended in a huge...

Gabrielle blinked.

"Yeah. I know it's garish, but that's his style. And I think he wanted me to use this awful thing as my throne one day, so that everyone would look at it and be intimidated." Xena smiled and shook her head.

"B-but Xena... Isn't that" Gabrielle strained her neck to get a closer look "a lion's head?"

Xena looked surprised. "Well yes Gabrielle, of course it's the head. You've got all four paws down here, and that thick cord that winds around the seat is actually the tail, so the only thing left was the head. As you can see it never did have much of a mane."

"You mean that's the real thing? The Nemeian Lion?" Gabrielle gasped.

Xena laughed. "It sure is. Ares got so proud that he made me a throne out of it, although I've never used it as such." Gabrielle nearly fainted when she realised just how big the beast had been in life. As if sensing where Gabrielle's thought were going, Xena held up her arms and formed a large circle with them, indicating the size of the beast's neck. Gabrielle shook her head vigorously.

"I can understand why he would feel so proud of you, I feel proud of you too even though it was so long ago. And absolutely terrified. What in the world made you even think you could kill it? You didn't know you were a half god then."

Xena smiled radiantly at Gabrielle and pulled her in for a kiss. "Thank you my sweet."

"Actually, I think I was just too stubborn to let it kill me. Anyway, here, let's try it out shall we?"

Reclining in the lion throne Gabrielle discovered that the pelt was very soft to the touch, and that they sank into it slightly, forming a curious cocoon together with the covering. It was quite nice all around, actually.

Xena gave her a sultry look and leaned down to whisper in Gabrielle's ear.

"W-what was that?" Gabrielle gasped slightly.

"A poem from Japa. This is what it means." Xena proceeded to whisper some more into Gabrielle's ear, kissing the earlobe while she did so. Gabrielle moaned in response.

"Or maybe..." Xena said teasingly, withdrawing slightly "you prefer Sappho?" Winking at Gabrielle.

Xena pushed up on her elbows for a moment, and called out loudly across the room to her guards. "I suggest you lot guard the room from outside for now. And close those doors!"

The guards snickered as they complied, and Gabrielle groaned. "You are so bad."

"Really?" Xena smirked.

"Oh yes."

"But I am quite good at reciting poetry though." Xena husked as she leaned back down into Gabrielle's neck "Oh yeah..." was Gabrielle's breathless reply.

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Chapter 9: What Lies Hidden Within

The days rolled on, and Gabrielle kept bringing much joy to Xena's life. Gabrielle was now allowed to move more freely around the castle, although she was at all times accompanied by at least one Royal Guard. The servants in the inner castle, with a few noticable exceptions, grew very fond of their gentle and friendly "Slave Princess" as they secretly called her. Somehow the simple peasant woman from Potedeia had accumulated a great following, making the Royal kitchens suddenly a palace hotspot for all servants lucky enough to be able to go there. Everyone hoped to be present when the famous Lady Gabrielle came around to tell a story or two in exchange for a snack and some chitchat.

She charmed them all. And the Royal Guard took a particular shine to their Lady Gabrielle, an almost possessive big brother attitude that they all shared.

Gabrielle's initial meeting with the Captain of the Royal Guard himself, however, proved to be a trial for Xena.

It wasn't that Meleager showed any disapproval towards the young woman, nor that Gabrielle did not like the man. Rather, they liked one another far too much for Xena's jealous nature to handle.

In retrospect, she really should have realised what Gabrielle's reaction would be.

Xena had stopped Meleager in the hallway on her way to the Royal Gardens with Gabrielle, since she had a feeling that Meleager was the one member of the Royal Guard Gabrielle had yet to be introduced to. Meleager had bowed his head to the young woman as Xena did the formal introducing.

"Gabrielle, this is the Captain of the Royal Guards, Meleager. I trust him wh..." Xena was cut off by Gabrielle's loud delighted squeal.

"Meleager? You mean Meleager the Mighty?! I can't believe I got to meet you in person!" Xena was dumbfounded and merely stared at Gabrielle, who by now was virtually bouncing in place.

Meleager looked just as surprised, and scratched his white hair. "It's been a long time since I heard anyone say that... Didn't much think they told you young people those old stories."

"Ooo, but I loved your stories! Xena, did you know that Meleager singlehandedly defeated two hundred men in the battle of..."

"Aa!" Meleager chuckled and tapped the ridge of his nose in a conspirational fashion. "Well now, it wasn't quite that many, young Lady." Winking at Gabrielle.

Xena stared at Meleager.

"I should have known! Of course Xena would have only the best as the Captain of her Royal Guard, and who could be better than Meleager the Mighty?" Gabrielle beamed, and it was quite clear that Meleager was becoming utterly charmed by her.

Xena's shock wore off, and fury replaced it. She wanted to grab her sword and run Meleager through, despite the fact that he was an old and trusted friend. She wanted to poke out his eyes. She wanted to throw herself at Gabrielle's feet and beg. She wanted to smear bits of Meleager across the entire hallway. She wanted to hold the man outside the window a few paces behind him, and watch him drop to his death against the paved courtyard far below. She wanted to jump out the window herself. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs.

All she did do was stand there, clench her hands and swallow with difficulty, so that she would be able to speak without giving her emotional uproar away. She cut into their cheerful chatter with some effort.

"Well, we were heading for the gardens, Meleager, so I'm afraid I'll cut you off here." Possessivly putting an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "We'll not occupy you any further."

Meleager got within a mere breath of instant execution when he in parting lifted Gabrielle's hand to his lips, kissed it, and smiled his flashiest grin. "It has been a pleasure, Lady Gabrielle. Have a nice visit to the gardens, and I hope we will have opportunity to speak som other time."

He gave Xena a respectful bow, then ambled off with a big smile on his lips and a certain bounce in his stride. Xena glared daggers into his back.

Xena pulled Gabrielle with her in the other direction. After a moment of gathering herself she managed almost casually speak to the smiling woman. "If I had known you would be quite so taken with him, I suppose I should have introduced you two sooner."

'Or not at all is more like it.'

Gabrielle laughed, and the sound cut something deep into Xena. "Oh Xena, I have heard the stories about him since I was a baby! He was my hero, I loved his stories! And now I actually got to meet him." She hugged Xena in thanks.

Xena responded by kissing Gabrielle almost desperately. She didn't release Gabrielle's lips until they were both gasping for air and leaning heavily into an alcove by a window. Gabrielle was clinging to her for support.

"Mine!" Xena growled.

"Gods yes!" Gabrielle moaned, just before she was lifted up and carried off by an amorous Xena.

It didn't help Xena's insecurities in the long run, of course. But later that night as Gabrielle was sleeping, those very same insecurities had Xena awake, wandering around their quarters.

Wandering into Gabrielle's room Xena sat down at the desk she had installed for Gabrielle to write at. Smiling affectionately, Xena remembered the day in the library. Xena ran her hand over the scrolls assembled at the desk, noticing which ones was borrowed from the library and which was Gabrielle's own work.

Remembering suddenly that Jace had mentioned that Gabrielle had written poetry about her, Xena could no longer resist at least taking a peak at Gabrielle's scrolls.

Through some interfearence of fate, the scroll she picked up was dated from the evening Xena brought Gabrielle to the Trophy Room, a poem entitled 'My Lion'.

Reading it strangely put Xena's fears at rest. Wiping a single tear from her eyes Xena replaced the scroll without touching the others. Quietly she made her way back to the bed where that all-important young woman lay peacefully sleeping.

Crawling into bed next to her, Xena gently wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and buried her face into her hair. Gabrielle turned instinctively in her sleep, burrowing further into Xena's arms with a small sigh. She stirred a little.

"Sshh my love, I am here... go back to sleep." Xena whispered to her, and watched how Gabrielle even in sleep smiled contentedly, and then fell back into a deeper slumber.

Then she realized what she had said.

"I... l-love you."

Xena slept very little that night.


Gabrielle's work with Jace also continued during the time that Xena spent in matters of state. The young womans curiosity and aptitude for learning, as well as her passion for debating the pros and cons of customs and traditions, made their sessions quite enjoyable. And it also meant that Gabrielle's progress in her education came in leaps and bounds. Before too long Jace brought it to Xena's attention that Gabrielle might benefit from attending a few court formalities for real.

Xena hardly needed prompting to bring her lover with her on her boring state functions, so after some consideration it was decided that Gabrielle was to follow Xena's work during a few days, accompanied by Jace. She was not to speak out of turn or interfere of course, merely observe.

The last part was Viceron's idea, one that they finally did more or less give in to, since Viceron argued vehemently (though always politely and with the good of the Realm at heart, or so he claimed) against allowing Gabrielle's presence even as a spectator on these occasions.

Xena finally put her foot down, and explained to Viceron with exaggerated patience that the reason Gabrielle was given this education was because Xena had every intention of bringing her lover to gatherings with the satraps, once they had arrived. Even more, she intended for Gabrielle to be her escort and table lady on the annual ball that celebrated both the creation of the Realm, and Xena's own birthday.

This rankled him, of course, but nothing could be said. He did realize, however, that he must act swiftly if he was to eliminate this vile blemish that the peasant represented on the varnish of his beloved ruler. The satraps would begin to arrive within a few months unless something unforeseen would happen.

What actually happened was this:
Gabrielle began by attending petitions and audiences, keenly interested in the machinery that ruled the Realm around her. She made no move to disturb Xena, but spoke very quietly to Jace, who soon found the young woman from Poteidaia to have a keen mind for these sort of things. And a surprising sense for negotiations.

Gabrielle may not have tried to distract Xena in any way, but the dark ruler was at every moment very much aware of the young woman's presence. But no longer did Xena treat petitioners to the short end of her temper, since, inadvertively, she wanted Gabrielle to see her at her best behavior.

Also, whenever Xena's attention would sway - and it did so frequently - she would notice things about Gabrielle. After a day of this, Xena had learned to read small clues in Gabrielle's eyes or facial expression when something caught her interest, when Gabrielle disapproved or approved, when she had caught something significant, or, which was perhaps the greatest surprise, when she had a really good idea.

Because by the end of that day, Jace approached his Lord with a somewhat astounded expression. In a quiet voice Jace gave a list of suggestions that Gabrielle had come up with during the day, and it was clear to them both that many of them was simply brilliant. The Realm would obviously benefit from Gabrielle's perspective, and so by the next day, Gabrielle was moved to a seat right next to Xena.

Viceron impotently ground his teeth, but could not countermand his ruler's decision. He tried to protest that it was unbefitting for the Ruler of the Known World to listen to the council of a body slave, and that careless remark ended him refined to his quarters for the rest of the day, and about a hair from having his head taken off by a livid Conqueror.

Gabrielle's council soon became irreplaceable. Her gentle ways and penchant towards a more merciful approach made her a favourite among the petitioners. Her shrewd mind and sunny disposition made those that tried to bargain with her leave the courtroom greatly pleased and feeling victorious, while Xena in fact had gotten everything she wanted from them. Although at times she was still a bit na´ve and innocent, her council was still an enormous asset, and Xena watched to her amusement as Gabrielle at times played her supposed naivety to her advantage, letting the other party put themselves right into her hands.

While Gabrielle had her moment of rising fame, Viceron's plans were already ever so slowly moving towards a sinister end...

For some time after his ill advised observation, Viceron was out of his Lord's good graces. Since this once again made Jace the more favoured of the Chamberlains, the general opinion of the castle was that power was shifting from Viceron to Jace, a most favourable transition in the eyes of most. Viceron was a known as a cruel and dangerous man to the lower classes in the castle, though none dared bring this opinion to Xena's awareness.

The slaves in particular got to see a good deal of Chief Chamberlain Viceron's cruelty.

Oh, Viceron was smart enough not to choose his targets among those slaves that spent their time where Xena might come across them, but the palace was large and there was many an area where the Lord Conqueror never sat foot. And once he was free to leave his private quarters, such a place was where he went in search of something on which to vent his frustrations.

Or more accurately, someone.

The female slave that most often suffered from Viceron's frustrations was Lyla, a tall black haired young woman who most often served in the messhall of the Castle Guards. Lyla's misfortune was the simple fact that she, with her height and coloring, bore a passing likeness to the Lord Conqueror, something she had been given ample opportunities to curse after the fateful day she caught Viceron's eye.

The scullery maids and servants in the soldier's kitchens did not dare to question nor comment when Lyla would return from a summons to the Chief Chamberlain broken and bloodied, they merely patched her back together and kept quiet. And Lyla herself knew better than to try and disobey or in any way draw attention to herself, instead she learned to bear what hardships life gave her.

So when Viceron appeared in the doorway to the kitchens and with cold eyes gestured for her to leave, Lyla merely dropped her pans and walked away without comment. She knew what was expected of her only too well.

The room was a small, secretive place that Viceron, as Chief Chamberlain, had managed to secure as his private playpen shortly after being instated at the palace. Only a rare few servants were allowed to enter that place other than those he chose as his entertainment, but those who did often had to carry the sorry slaves that had caught his eye out from it.

Lyla had been there before, too many times to count, so the stained equipment, the rumpled bed and the stench of old blood was no surprise to her. The terrified young woman already in the room, however, was.

"Are you crazy? Get out of those clothes before he gets here, or you'll have nothing at all to wear when he's left!" Frowning, Lyla quickly had them both undressed, even though she felt a cold fear at this new development. His tastes had never included using more than one before, and instinctively she felt that this was a very bad sign. Not to mention that the little thing he had picked to toss in there was already crying her pretty little eyes out.

They'd both be dead in a candlemark if Lyla couldn't get the other woman to control herself better than that.

Deianeira was falling apart. Although very poor for all her young life, Deianeira had not entered slavery until a few years back when her caretaker had sold her to the Lord Conqueror's household. She had thus been spared many of the sufferings that a young female slave would otherwise have to endure, and had been rather happy in her life as a part of the cleaning group for the eastern wing. But she knew the horror tales of Chamberlain Viceron, and now she had somehow drawn his attention to herself.

In a blink of an eye she found herself in the chamber that was spoken of among the palace slaves as a horror far beyond the dungeon torture chamber, and she was utterly terrified.

She could tell that the tall woman who entered the room was also a slave since she bore the markings, but she had not seen her before. The tall woman then proceeded to tear her clothing off, and although Deianeira struggled to keep them on as best she could she soon found herself naked. There was no question what was going to happen to her soon.

Deianeira cried even harder.

The dark haired woman then awkwardly hugged Deianeira close, patting her back tentatively. "C'mon, you've got to get a hold of yourself! Please... If you cry too much too soon he'll kill us both." Deianeira looked into the other woman's starkly serious brown eyes. "If he can see how scared you really are and how much it hurts from the start, then he just won't stop. So please, you've gotta control yourself!"

The sound Lyla dreaded came, and Viceron entered the room, locking it behind him. A quick look at the little redhead showed that she had at least managed to stop crying, even though she still looked petrified. Lyla swallowed hard and took a careful step towards Viceron.

Viceron raised his head slightly, and in the blink of an eye the thick end of his whip cracked Lyla's head hard to the side. She stumbled and yelped, but managed to resist wiping at where her lip started bleading from the blow.

"No." His voice was low and undreadable. He indicated the redhead. "Her first."

And then he smiled.

Lyla, wide eyed and barely able to keep herself from trembling, slowly turned to the other woman. The young woman was biting her lip to keep from screaming, and Lyla wanted to cry as well. 'I'm so sorry' Lyla mouthed to her, with her back to Viceron.

Deianera nodded almost imperceptibly to the clearly anguished dark haired woman. She tried very hard not to think or feel as the taller woman carefully grabbed her arms and pushed her down on the bed. But she could not ignore the metallic tang of the other woman's blood as Deianera found herself bluntly kissed.

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Chapter 10: Considering Birthday Gifts

After Gabrielle had been at the palace for little over three months, Xena was approached by her seamstress Myra and her private cook Ella, asking for permition to hold a small birthday celebration for Gabrielle. Caught between being deeply curious, and being embarrassed that she did not know when her young lover's birthday was, much less just how old she was, Xena agreed and tried discreetly to weedle out the information she wanted. No such luck, although she did find out that the small party planned was for three days hence, and would be held in the private kitchens.

Xena then started frantically searching for the perfect gift that she could give Gabrielle, without giving to much of her own emotions away. Nothing she could think of seemed right.

The big day came and Xena, true to her word, got Gabrielle and went to the kitchens. No one of the servants had really expected Xena herself to come, of course, but she wouldn't miss it for the world.

"You are feeling snackish? You Xena? Now that's different." Gabrielle teased playfully as they walked down the corridors towards the kitchens. "And is there any particular reason we're actually heading there ourselves, I mean, you usually have stuff sent to you when you're hungry."

"Hey, I'm not that bad! You make it sound like I'm lazy!" Xena played along, pretending to pout at Gabrielle's gentle ribbings. "Besides, I feel like I could manage some... cake."

The last bit was spoken just as Xena opened the doors for Gabrielle, and Gabrielle stepped into the quiet kitchen.

"SURPRISE!" The sound yelling voices was deafening. Gabrielle stared incomprehensibly at Xena as all the people in the room started singing a birthday song for her. Slowly realisation seemed to dawn on her features.

"For me? But... how did you...Why..." Gabrielle stammered as one after another her friends among the servants and soldiers of the inner castle shouted their well wishes. Meleager even gave her a fatherly hug, after which he grabbed some drinks to offer Xena.

Xena smiled benignly and watched how Gabrielle simply glowed in the centre of all that attention, genuinly loved by all present. She sipped her drink as Ella came carrying a large birthday cake with all the trimmings, putting it on the table in front of Gabrielle.

"Happy sweet sixten, our dear Lady Gabrielle!"

Xena choked on her drink as the cheers rose up. "Sixteen? Did I just hear that right, sixteen?!" She grabbed Meleager roughly by the front of his tunic and shook him slightly, a somewhat frantic look on her face. "SIXTEEN?!!"

Gabrielle heard Xena's voice go up in volume, and turned to smile brightly in her direction. Xena blinked. "Umm, h-happy birthday Gabrielle" She managed to choke out with some difficulty. Gabrielle beamed in response, before turning back to all the people clamouring for her attention.

"Oh gods..." Xena groaned to Meleager before stealing his drink and downing it. "I have cradle-snatched." Meleager patted her on the shoulder sympathetically.

"I must be closer to her mother in age than Gabrielle." Xena continued depressed. "Don't I have laws against that sort of thing?" Meleager smirked, snatched them another drink each, and steered his ruler towards a table.

"Don't be ridiculous, you are twenty-seven in a handful of months, that's hardly that much of an age difference really. And in the countryside girls are married off well before reaching sixteen, as you know." He waved down a soldier to fetch them slices of the birthday cake once it was cut.

Xena glared at him. "And you would know my age... how, exactly?"

"Aahh, but you forget My Lord, " He saluted her with a tip of his goblet. "I have been to Amphipolis quite a few times. It wasn't particularly hard to find out." Xena growled and Meleager laughed.

Gabrielle once again drew Xena's attention. Someone was explaining to her the tradition of blowing out all the candles and making a wish. She had to get a little closer to listen in.

"...you've never had a birthday cake before?" Some girl was asking. Gabrielle shook her head slowly, looking slightly sad as she thought of the past. "No, we never made a big deal out of birthdays at home. Usually it was just me and Lila remembering to do something nice for one another on our birthdays."

Xena decided right there that the idea she had been toying with as a birthday present was going to happen, she was going to make sure of it.

Gabrielle blew out her candles, closed her eyes and made a wish - and then promptly refused to say what it was. Cheering rose again, and now people lined up for a slice of the cake, while clearing an area at the end of the room.

Gabrielle looked around curiously, wondering where her friends Jace and Artus had gone to, when the music started.

In from the adjoining room came Jace, dressed in a fancy white outfit that had even more frills and lace than usual and wearing multicolored feathers. He winked at Gabrielle, then struck a pose and started singing. Then in from the room behind him came a tall blond woman wearing a similar white outfit with feathers, dancing with him.

Before too long they had the room swaying with the music, and Gabrielle's eyes bugged out when the woman danced up to her and swung her around the floor. It was Artus!

Several candlemarks later Xena and a very tired, but very pleased Gabrielle made their way to their chambers. Gabrielle was chattering away happily, while Xena was watching her affectionately and helping to carry the gifts Gabrielle had received.

"...and did you know that Artus would dress up as a woman like that? I had no idea he did that."

Xena smiled. "It has been a few years since I last saw 'Miss Artiphys', actually. When I first met Artus he was dressed up as Miss Artiphys to compete in a women's beauty pageant."

"Really? What happened?"

"What, in the pageant? He won it." Xena smirked as Gabrielle mock scowled at her. "I helped him out then, or more importantly perhaps, I didn't tell the judges that he was a man. I didn't see him again for a few years, when he suddenly turned up here in the capital with news of a plot to assassinate me. After he did his part in rooting out the mastermind behind the plot I offered him a spot in my Royal Guard, and he accepted."

Xena winked at Gabrielle. "In truth I think he must already have gotten fond of Jace, and saw it as an opportunity to be near him. But I haven't had any reason to regret it."

Xena looked thoughtful as they reached the Royal Chambers. "I didn't know Jace could sing and dance like that, though. It was quite a surprise."

Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "No... He told me all about that before." She looked at Xena. "Do you know about his family?"

"I know he comes from a long line of warlords, if that's what you mean?"

"Well, that's sort of part of it. His father is a warlord, and his mother a warlord's wife, sure. One of his identical brothers is an assassin, and the other is a thief. The only one in the family he felt close to was the one that's a thief now, apparently they both loved music as children and were very good friends. But when they found out about him the entire family turned their backs on him, including the brother he liked so much, and they refuse to have anything to do with him. It kind of made him stop wanting to sing much, he said."

Xena considered that, as it made certain things about the man she had known for years all that much clearer. After all this time and she had not known anything about his family except that some of them where warlords, but it took Gabrielle no time att all to find out all the details. Funny how that worked.

"It was nice of them to give me these amazon scrolls, wasn't it Xena?" Gabrielle smiled happily and fingered said scrolls. Xena bit her lip in amusement and hummed non-committably in response. "And the chinese calligraphy set that Meleager and the Guards gave me is so pretty! Did you see all the neat carvings on the box? And those inkstones shaped like little dragons, how could I possibly destroy them just to practice my kanji? It's so detailed and lovely."

Xena hefted the two large ornamental pillows she was carrying and gave them an appreciative glance. "I prefer these."

"You would." Gabrielle smiled and followed Xena into the bedroom.

They sat down on the lush pillows in front of the fireplace, arranging the new additons where they would be clearly visible.

"Lovely Gabrielle, Lady of my life." Xena smiled and put the large green pillow near herself, the one that had a surprisingly good rendition of Gabrielles face on it in careful embroidery. "My Lady."

Gabrielle smiled at her with deeply felt affection, before arranging the blue pillow and leaning back into the giant pillow that they were both using as a backrest. "I like this one better since it has both of us." Embracing one another, actually. "It's an incredibly thoughtful gift, isn't it?"

"Yeah. And it was just what this collection needed." She gave Gabrielle a saucy smirk before pulling her in close. "I have a thought of a gift for you as well."

Gabrielle looked surprised, and opened her mouth to protest, but Xena kissed her protest away.

"T-the one thing you must want the most I can't bear to give you... your freedom. I couldn't stand to l-lose... Well, I just can't." She gave Gabrielle a pained look. "Not yet Gabrielle."

"But I think I know what would be your second wish, and that I can grant." She paused dramatically. "Would you like to see your sister again Gabrielle?"

The way Gabrielle, with wide eyes and an open mouth, immediately sat up and turned towards Xena was answer enough.

"I thought that either we'd have her escorted here to visit you for some time and you could show her Corinth, or we could go to Potedeia for a little while. Your choice."

"It won't be right away, though, whichever you choose, I'm afraid that matters of state has us both rather preoccupied for a while. But as soon as it is convenient, we'll have it all arranged."

Gabrielle teared up, and with a great sob she hurled herself into Xena's arms. "Thank you! Oh thank you thank you!" She wept into Xena's shoulder.

Xena held her lovingly and rocked her gently. "Hey... no crying for the birthday girl." And Xena cringed slightly inwards at the thought that 'girl' was perhaps more appropriate than she had imagined. "Not even if they are happy tears."

In another part of the castle, Viceron was deep in discussion with another man. The dark haired man sneered coldly and fingered his scar in consideration to something Viceron had said.

"So do you understand the plan?" Viceron asked urgently.

"Perfectly." A cruel smile spread on the scarred man's face. "And believe me, it'll be my pleasure."

Viceron frowned as he looked at the other man, reconsidering his choice of allies somewhat, but it was too late to turn back now. Very well, things were set in motion, and if he just played his cards well, he, Viceron, would end up with everything he had ever wanted.

*******************************************

Chapter 11: Entangled Visions

A few days passed on, and the emissaries from the various satraps that would arrive in time for the meeting was arriving one by one, carrying with them the tributes from their respective regions. Xena was, as predicted, quite busy during this time, preparing for the satraps and making last minute alterations to previously scheduled meetings and accomodations.

Gabrielle helped out some, but was more often than not free to spend her time as she pleased, as her education had not really included the satraps and the practises involved with dealing with them.

She choose to spend much of that time with Artus, as Jace was busy working with Xena, and he painstakingly taught her things she would need to know for the upcoming annual ball, such as dancing. Gabrielle had shyly admitted to him that she did not know how to dance, and since Xena had mentioned that Gabrielle would accompany her at the ball, she desperately wanted to know enough not to embarrass Xena should the situation arise.

But Artus wasn't always assigned as her personal Royal Guard for the day, and Gabrielle was lingering around her and Xena's chambers, indecisive about what to do for the day. She was leaning towards staying in and writing in her scrolls until Xena might come back when Chief Chamberlain Viceron bustled in unannounced.

He seemed surprised at finding her there for a moment, then adopted a rather blasÚ expression and continued to Xena's workdesk. He shuffled through scrolls and papers, setting some aside, but then seemed to have trouble finding something. Drawers were opened and shut, and then opened again.

Gabrielle stepped forward uncertainly. "Can I be of assistance perhaps?"

Viceron stopped his search, and turned to look at her incredulously. Gabrielle regretted having opened her mouth at all.

"Firstly, slave, my title is Chief Chamberlain or Lord Chamberlain, if ever you should have reason to address me." He spoke haughtily, his cold glare deeply frightening Gabrielle. "Secondly, I am not interested in the sort of 'assistance' a body slave can give."

Gabrielle bit her tounge not to answer and further anger the man.

Viceron continued his search through Xena's drawers for a while longer, then apparently found what he had been searching for, and started for the door. Gabrielle had almost begun to relax slightly when he stopped and turned towards her again.

"Tell me, slave, do you have a room of your own to use?" He appeared almost to struggle to act as if he was being benevolent in speaking to her. She nodded slowly, wondering what he was aiming at.

"Good, good. A word of advise then, from someone who has served Our Lord far longer than you..." He managed a brittle half-smile in her direction, and Gabrielle's stomach churned in anxiety. "The satrap Cleopatra is due to arrive within the fortnight along with Marc Anthony, then the satraps Lao Ma and Melosa will most likely arrive not long after that, among others. It would be prudent if you relocated to your room for the time they remain here, and kept out of the way."

"B-but why?" Gabrielle couldn't understand what the man was saying. Viceron's eyes narrowed at the fact that once again his title had been forgotten, but choose to ignore it for now. He opened the door and answered her from over his shoulder.

"You have not heard? No matter. Our Lord has a history of choosing her entertainment from among the satraps, satrap Cleopatra being perchance the most... ardent and most frequent. It would be advisable if you were not present when Our Lord brings her old, ah, lovers here as I am sure you understand."

He left, feeling quite pleased with himself.

Gabrielle on the other hand, stood motionlessly staring at the closed door for a long time after Viceron left. She distantly noticed the first sob as if it was someone else she heard, as she sank to the floor in tears.

Xena was in the middle of a conversation with the emissary from Chin, exchanging pleasantries and discussing the nature and quality of the lates tribute, when the Royal Guardsman Artus bolted into the room.

Xena raised a surprised eyebrow at the man's breach of palace protocol, but realised that he looked a sligt bit to unsettled for it to be a frivolous reason. Her thoughts immediately went to Gabrielle.

"Well? Speak up man! What is the matter?!" She barked, holding a hand up to cut the Chin emissary off mid-sentence.

"Forgive me My Lord, but If I may speak privately?"

Frowning Xena nodded, dismissing the emissary with a wave of the hand. "Now Artus, what is wrong?"

"It is Lady Gabrielle, My Lord. She refuses to come out of her chamber, and I can hear that she is crying." The man looked quite distraught. "I am sorry to disturb you this way, My Lord, but I do not know what to do."

Xena bolted to her feet and grabbed the front of his tunic. "Why didn't you just SAY SO!" She roared. Tossing Artus aside she sprinted towards the Royal Chambers.

Once there Xena dismissed the guards that had taken residence outside the door to Gabrielle's room, clearly worried for their young Lady, and waited for them to leave before speaking to Gabrielle through the door.

"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was gentle but urgent. "Let me in, my sweet."

It never crossed Xena's mind that Gabrielle might refuse, and although it took a moment, she could hear the soft sniffles coming closer. A moment longer, and the bolt on the door was lifted. The soft footsteps veered off.

Xena entered and shut the door behind her. Gabrielle was standing with her back to Xena, so Xena crossed the short distance and gently urged Gabrielle to turn around and face her. "What is wrong, my sweet?"

"Oh sweetheart!" Xena gasped at the sight of Gabrielle's tear-streaked face and red eyes. She immediately drew the young woman into her embrace, tenderly kissing her forehead and just held her close. Gabrielle sobbed some more.

"My dear, precious, sweet Gabrielle..." Xena murmured lovingly after a while "What is wrong? Please tell me."

"I-it's nothing... it's silly really... I don't know why I'm..."Gabrielle mumbled with some difficulty into Xena's chest. Xena gently tipped Gabrielle's chin up until she could look into those teary green eyes. She kissed a wet cheek.

"If it makes you cry, my sweet, it is anything but silly." She looked quite seriously at Gabrielle. "Nothing should ever make my Gabrielle cry."

"So what is it Gabrielle? Has something happened? Or did someone say something they shouldn't have?"

Gabrielle's almost guilty start was enough of an answer for Xena. She frowned, wondering who the culprit was, but decided that she had to do something for Gabrielle before asking for more information.

Xena lifted Gabrielle into her arms and carried her over to the bed, where she sat down with Gabrielle in her lap, holding her until the young woman relaxed against her chest.

Slowly she coaxed the whole story out of Gabrielle.

Xena was livid.

But her fury would have to wait, for now the important thing was reassuring Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, listen to me, allright?" Xena sighed a little. "I have a... past, if you will, with certain satraps, such as Cleopatra, and I'm sure that is what the old dog means. I admit that when I was younger I once thought it... amusing... to steal Caesar's lover away from him. It's not something I'm proud of, but there was much... bad blood between me and Caesar."

"Cleopatra is a quite, well, actually quite a promiscuous woman, who can never stay faithful to whatever lover she has at the time. Which I'm sure you'll notice when you meet her, as she's sure to try and woo you if I'm not around. I thought back then that this was merely the mentality of Egypthian women, but no, Cleopatra is a very much a special case."

"Her lover of some time now is Marc Anthony, the satrap of southern Rome, a man whose eye is about as roving as hers, so it would seem to be a fair pairing." Xena smirked evilly. "Not to mention that Marc Anthony's long-time dalliance in Egypth keeps him way out of the reach of Brutus and Octavian, the two other satraps of the regions of Rome. Brutus has had his eye on Marc Anthony for quite some time, actually, so he is afraid to go back to Rome these days just in case."

"But the point is that Cleopatra and I haven't been an issue for several years. In fact, we never where 'an issue' as it was never that serious, and I sure don't like Viceron's implication that I would 'entertain' my satraps in that fashion."

Xena growled angrily. "Believe me, that old man has made his last mistake. If he slips up ever so slightly again, I'm demoting him to the lovest rank I can find." She squeezed Gabrielle as close as she could, and muttered into her hair. "In fact, let me invent something special just for him. Anyway he's getting his, rest assured of that. He's not allowed to speak to you in that manner, nor will I let him run around making assumptions like that about either of us."

Gabrielle shifted sligtly in Xena's arms and snuggled her face into Xena's shoulder.

"I-if you grow t-tired of me, you would tell me, wouldn't you?" Gabrielle spoke indistinctly against Xena's shirt. "N-not just bring someone here while I'm here..."

"No! Never, Gabrielle, I swear upon Hera herself!" Xena was aghast. "Oh Gabrielle... Don't you know that... you are precious to me? That no one could take your place in my life?" Xena spoke with difficulty, keenly feeling the pain of the insecurity sown into Gabrielle's mind.

"Really?" Gabrielle whispered.

Xena closed her eyes and quietly debated with herself. It would be saying to much, and yet... wasn't the fact that Gabrielle were so upset a sign of jealousy? That she might even... care, just a little?

"You... have no idea just how important you are to me, Gabrielle. But please believe this, it was I who chose, and I chose you. In my arms, my bed, my life, yes everything that we are, I chose you and no one else."

"You may not have anyone besides me, and similarly I could not even consider any other than you, either."

"No one ever made me feel like you do, Gabrielle." Xena spoke very softly. Mutely Gabrielle hugged Xena as hard as she could, not daring to speak what she was really feeling, and not sure she understood it completely either.

They were quiet for a while.

"I... There is more to tell about the satraps, Gabrielle, if you want to know?" Xena said at last, uncertainly. Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I think I would rather know up front than have surprises pop up once they are here, if you don't mind?"

Xena gave her acquiescence, carefully beginning her tale about the woman who was her satrap in Chin, Lao Ma, and the dramatic and painful events that led the young Xena to meet the Empress of House of Lao.

Later that evening, Viceron stormed through the castle in a murderous mood. He had been called on the carpet and warned that his Lord's patience was at an end, that he risked demotion if he let anything slip again. All for that peasant harlot! Suddenly he did not in the slightest regret his association with... him. No, not at all!

Viceron tore down the hallways and chambers, his grand robes of state billowing around him as he hunted someone in particular to receive his black mood.

He had been told that he would have to be more respectful and mind how he spoke to 'Lady Gabrielle' lest he suffer worse than demotion. He, the highest ranking non-military person in all the Realm, would have to be respectful to a body slave! Oh, she would most certainly get what was coming to her!

Viceron found what he was searching for, and before long he had them both naked before him in what he fondly thought of as his playpen. His eyes narrowed in cold fury. It was not enough!

The usual would not do!

Angrily he tore down a heavier whip from the wall, one with a long wooden handle, and struck the red-headed woman repeatedly with it. She turned into Gabrielle before his eyes.

He screamed his hatred at her, and continued to strike.

"Oh gods, NO! Deia!" The taller woman screamed and pushed him aside, reaching for the woman on the bed. In his eyes she became Xena, and oh how he wanted her to suffer for his indignities.

Reaching for a large wooden club he cracked it across her skull, watching coldly as she sank down over the other woman's form. Backing up a few steps he reversed the whip in his hands, cracking it in the air a few times just to hear the sound.

Almost knocked unconcious by the blow, Lyla still managed to cover Deianera's body with her own and brace for what was sure to come next.

Viceron screamed wordlessly as he let the whip rain blows upon the closely entangled forms on the bed. The women both screamed with each blow, even though Lyla took the brunt of his fury, and Viceron kept it up until both forms were silent and unmoving.

"Accursed..."

Viceron panted with the exertion.

"peasant..."

He let the whip drop.

"whore!"

Weakly he straightened his robes and brushed himself off.

"She will regret ever having been born... just before she dies."

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Chapter 12: Captive Heart

As it turned out, a message came from satrap Cleopatra for the Lord Conqueror, saying that Cleopatra and her entourage would be delayed for a handful of days. That, and bad weather at sea for the entourage from Chin, would put the expected arrival date of both satrap Cleopatra and satrap Lao Ma to be somewhere around the same as that of satrap Glaphyra of the Africaans and satrap Boadicea of Britain.

While this news did not exactly diminish Xena's workload, it did allow for Xena to bring Gabrielle along in the preparations more. Viceron wisely kept out of sight for most part, and Jace was more at the center of things. Xena already considererd naming him Chief Chamberlain officially, but decided to give it until after the satraps' visit at least.

Xena was holding court proceedings over the more serious offenders on this particular day, and Gabrielle had instead opted to go shopping in the marketplace with Artus and two other Royal Guards.

Gabrielle was leaning in to take a closer look at the wares in one booth, thinking one item in particular would be a good gift for Xena, when she caught a motion on the edge of her field of vision. Turning in that direction, she saw nothing.

She bought her wares and chatted amiably with Artus and another of the guards as she made Artus carry her purchases for her. A stall where they had fresh nutbread then caught her eye, and she veered towards it while Artus crossed over to a stall a few paces down the other side for some drinks.

There was that movement in the corner of her eye again.

Gabrielle turned around, and this time she saw that it was Jace, standing a little behind two booths and gesturing for her to come.

Strangely enough, Jace was wearing a hooded cloak, but she and the guards could still see him clearly. Gabrielle realized that Jace must be doing something that was supposed to be a surprise for Artus, since he seemed so secretive.

He gestured again for Gabrielle to meet him on the other side of a covered stall, where Artus wouldn't see them. Gabrielle smiled and nodded, then told the other guards that she would only be a minute, and stepped in behind the booth.

Grinning and trying to come up with what kind of outrageous plan the Junior Chamberlain was enacting for their friend's benefit this time, the two guards waited patiently where they were. After all, they had seen it clearly, it was only Jace.

Artus returned, and frowning demanded to know why they were not at Gabrielle's side. After briefly explaining that she had gone over there to speak to Jace, they waited for a while longer.

But then Artus got worried and decided to see what his lover was up to, and walked over to where they assumed Lady Gabrielle and Chamberlain Jace was standing.

But there was nothing there.

Artus started a frantic search of the marketplace, while he sent one of the others to sound the warning for the other Royal Guards.

Xena sat clutching her head with both hands. Hands that not too long ago came very close to strangling Artus for failing to protect her love.

Gabrielle was missing, and no one knew where she was. Only one assumption could be made.

Xena groaned and rocked a little in her seat. Scenes ran rampant in her mind, of her beloved Gabrielle in the hands of some ruthless cutthroat or assassin, all because she, Xena, could not protect her properly. She groaned again.

"What in Tartarus where you thinking?!!" She hissed at the distressed guards. "You were supposed to be with her at all times!"

The search was still on, of course, but Xena herself had searched where the trail ended, and knew that further searching would give nothing. All she could hope for was that whoever took Gabrielle would make contact to ask for a ransom of some kind... and not prove the authenticity of his claims with a piece of Gabrielle.

"But we saw Chaimberlain Jace right there, beckoning for Lady Gabrielle to come over to him. We didn't think we needed to accompany her if she was with him." One of the guards said, miserably staring at the ground.

"Me?" Jace said, surprised.

"Don't be silly, he has been with me at the courtyard all day." Xena snapped at the guards.

"My Lord, wait." Jace held up one hand to plead Xena to be quiet for a moment. "Did you say you saw someone that looked like me?"

"Y-yes Jace, I saw you as clear as right now, except you were wearing this ugly big cloak and acted mighty secretive." The incomprehending guard answered.

Jace gasped and clasped both hands to his forehead.

Xena glared at him. "What in Hera's name is it, man?!"

Jace met Xena's eyes with a horrified expression in his own. "I have two identical brothers... and one is an assassin."

Xena paced, up and down the room. Pace. Turn. Pace.

"The ransom note should arrive soon." Jace spoke to no one in particular. "It has to."

Pace.

Meleager glared at the guards that had been assigned to Gabrielle that day. "You failed miserably! You realise that you will be stripped of rank and position at best, left to return to the regular army as rookies. At best!"

Turn.

"That is, if Our Lord does not choose to courtmartial you for this, first."

Pace.

"But how could anyone disappear so completely?" Artus was thinking out loud.

Pacepacepacepace.

"I should drag you out to the courtyard and have you flogged myself!" Meleager continued his scolding.

"Jett doesn't usually do kidnappings though..." Jace was near tears.

"He would have to be employed by someone, wouldn't he?" Artus asked Jace quietly.

"ENOUGH!!!"

With a roar Xena grabbed the nearest chair and smashed it against the wall. The room turned deadly silent.

She stood there, shaking with anger, for quite a while before she managed to ground out between clenched teeth. "I don't care a Gryphon's hind leg who he is, or who he is related to."

"Use whatever you can think of, anything at all, just find her! And we'll have plenty of time to lay blame later... when I have Gabrielle back safe and sound!"

She turned around and fixed them all with a wild stare.

"People... The woman I love is out there."

A pause.

"Get her back."

An entire day passed with no sign of Gabrielle or her captor. Xena still believed that they were both hiding inside the castle, something in her gut just told her that Gabrielle was not that far away, and no one dared to argue with her in her current mood.

On the evening of the second day, the seamstress Myra found a sheet of parchment outside her personal chambers that was addressed to Xena. It was in Gabrielle's hand though obviously dictated by another, and it was the expected ransome note.

Xena, Jace, Meleager and Viceron all gathered in the Royal chambers to pour over the note once it reached Xena's hands.

She read it out loud, then crumpled it in her hands.

Jace and Meleager were both having strong reactions to the ransom note, and Xena had closed her eyes against the intruding images, so no one noticed how Viceron reacted... strangely to the note.

"P-preposterous My Lord, surely even this Jett would realise that you cannot..." He tittered nervously, his face a chalky white.

"SILENCE!" Xena snapped and grabbed Viceron by his throat. "Don't let me hear another word from your lips, old man." She warned him darkly. "Unless you think it worth your life."

"For Gabrielle... Anything." She reluctantly let go of Viceron. "Anything at all, the Realm, my wealth... my life."

"But My Lord..." Jace began hesitantly. A blue glare stopped him short however.

"I have to agree with Viceron on this one." Meleager cut in with confidence, having been friends with the woman for far longer than either of the other two had worked for her. "We will have to find another way."

Xena spun around, snarling at him, but Meleager was unfazed. "Be reasonable. The Realm can't afford to risk losing you, we will think of something else."

Meleager seemed to come very close to snapping Xena's already brittle control over her anger. "To Tartarus with it! This is not a committee!" She roared at them. "I. RULE!"

"And you obey! Or suffer the consequences."

Clearing his throat slightly, Jace cut in with a soft voice. "Ahem..."

"Jett is strictly speaking as an assassin, taking someone hostage would be against his pride as a professional, he simply would not do it. His employers have no more say in the matter once he gets the name of the target, and his pay."

Jace lifted his teary eyes from the crumpled parchment he was staring at, and met Xena's narrowed gaze.

"Something has made him leave his professionalism behind... this has to be personal somehow."

Meleager and Xena exchanged thoughtful looks, but neither could think of a reason for this Jett person to have a personal vendetta against Xena. She shrugged slightly. "It's possible he has reasons to hate me, a lot of people do. But I have no idea what it could be."

"He would have to realize that doing this is suicide, wouldn't he?" Meleager asked Jace. "Even if we agree to his terms, he would have the entire joined armies of Corinth on his heels within minutes. And eventually, the world."

"You value me too highly, old friend." Xena muttered quietly. "But this should mean that he is desperate. Can we use that to our advantage somehow?"

Jace looked thoughtful. "Jett was always the more unstable of us three, despite everything. He has a cruel and twisted mind and he is good at what he does, but he's not stricly speaking all that smart, and if he is rattled... But that would also make him unpredictable."

"Would bringing you with me make a difference to him?" Xena asked. Jace sighed deeply in response. "Not in any positive way, he hates me. I might be able to distract him for a moment, though?"

Xena considered the facts for a moment. "Allright people, this is what we will do..."


The spot where the note said to meet was deep within the palace catacombs, specifically at a place where hallways and passages met, creating a multiple fork that gave Jett plenty of routes by which to make his escape if he wished. It was also difficult to see all the twist and turns that the many openings created, leaving Xena very vulnerable should she wait for Jett there.

However, she did not wait alone. Meleager and Jace both flanked their ruler, and hidden further down a few passages were Viceron and several members of the Royal Guard. And to Xena's advantage were the fact that Jett would have just as limited a vision as she herself had, and that Xena knew these passageways like the back of her hand. Once she saw the man, she felt confident that he would not elude her.

Her main concern was Gabrielle. She had to get Gabrielle to safety before she could concentrate on taking out Jett, and could she do that without first getting killed herself?

It seemed like they were waiting forever.

Then a voice echoed between the passages, masking the direction it came from quite cleverly. "Drop your weapons and come forward alone.The other two back off."

"We are unarmed as you told us to be." Meleager countered.

"I said drop them! Don't play me for the fool!" A sinister paus. "Or blondie here gets it."

A small gesture with Xena's hand, and Meleager reluctantly dropped a handful of hidden weapons to the ground. More surprisingly, so did Jace. She waited.

"You too, bitch!" The voice snarled, giving the echoes a curiously spitting sound as they bounced around them.

Xena calmly held her arms out at her sides. "What do you want me to do, cut my arms off? Sorry, you'll have to do that bit yourself." She slowly stepped forward.

"That's far enough for now. Order your little friends to leave, and we can make the exchange."

"Jett! Why are you doing this?" Jace called out, sounding desperate.

"Well if it isn't little sissy-boy." The voice snarled. "I shouldn't be too surprised to find you shacked up with this bacchae... you never did care about our family. Run along now and I won't hurt you Jace. This time."

Jace took several steps forward, looking quite distraught. "But why Jace? What is it that she has done?"

Xena edged forward unnoticed.

"DONE?!! She has murdered our father!" Jett raged from the darkness. "Our father Jace! If you had any decency in you at all you would join me in avenging him, but nooo, the family was never good enough for little sissy Jace, now was it? And you wouldn't be man enough to honour our father's memory anyway."

"How did she murder our father, Jett?" Jace was gesturing wildly as he spoke, clearly getting more and more upset. "And you know that is not true, I've always loved you all, even though you wanted nothing to do with me."

Jett was about to give an angry outburst, but got cut off by a scuffling sound and a yelp that came from a passageway to Xena's left.

"Xena! Loo..." Gabrielle's sudden cry was cut off with a muffled sound and a barely audible cry of pain that made Xena sprint towards her on pure instinct.

"STAY where you ARE!" Jett roared, no longer bothering to disguise where he was hiding. Xena froze in place and watched as Jett emerged from the shadows, holding a bound and loosely gagged Gabrielle tightly in front of him.

With a wickedly curved blade at her throat.

"Gabrielle!" The tortured cry tore from Xena's lips without permission at the sight of her terrified young lover. Xena let her gaze break away from Gabrielle's and take in Jett. Her eyes turned an almost electric cold blue, and she snarled silently.

"Don't do anything foolish now, bitch, or the next thing blondie here will see is Charon's boat. Just" Emphasizing his words by pricking Gabrielle's skin with the curved dagger.

"stay" In horror Xena watched a drop of blood make it's way down Gabrielle's neck.

"where you are."

"You, sissy boy..." Jett snarled contemptibly at Jace, the scar on his cheek twisting familiar features not nearly as much as the hateful expression he bore, and gestured into one of the doorways. "There are manacles over there. Bring them out."

"Now you bacchae, Jace will put those on you around your back, and I will listen for the locking noise so don't even think about trying to fool me." Jace seemed almost gleeful for a moment.

"Then he and the old man will leave and bring the rest of your people with them. When we are alone, you'll walk over here and I'll release blondie. Everybody got that?"

Jace sniffled and protested, but did comply after a brief nod from Xena, and then Xena was firmly shackled.

Meleager tried to reason with the now evilly snickering man. "You know you can't get away with this, the entire army will be after you. If you do this there's no way you'll survive, is that what you want?"

"You think death frightens me? I'm an assassin." Jett pressed the blade tighter again, gesturing with his head that Jace and Meleager should back down the corridor. When they were far enough away he smiled.

"As for what I want... " Jett dropped the dagger from Gabrielle's throat and slammed at something in the wall. "I want this!"

Time seemed to stand still for Xena.

On one hand she heard the twain snapping the crossbow bolts, some distant part of herself calmly assessing that she would not be able to evade or catch them all. On the other she saw Gabrielle tearing free from Jett's weakened grasp and hurl herself towards Xena.

Straight into the path of the arrows.

Xena only vaguely felt the impact as Gabrielle's body hit hers, then it seemed to take an incomprehensible amount of time for her to fall to the floor, and even the sound of Jace screaming seemed awfully disjointed somehow.

Gazing up att the dark celing above through strands of beautiful red-gold hair made everything seem almost unreal. That was when Xena felt the rush of warm blood on her arm.

"G-gabrielle?" Xena breathed and struggled to sit up.

Xena's shifting caused Gabrielle to roll slightly to the side, and reveal a sight that would plague Xena's nightmares for a long time to come - the pale green of Gabrielle's dress rapidly covering in red blood that had already begun pooling on the ground, coming from not one but two large crossbow bolts firmly lodged into the small form. One arrow had gone through Gabrielle's shoulder just underneath the collarbone, but the other...

The other was caught in the very centre of her chest.

Xena lifted her gaze incomprehensibly and saw Jett, ready to bolt down the dark corridor from which he came. Her entire world went red.

Over the roaring sound of her blood pounding through her veins she heard the audible snap as she tore the manacles apart by sheer force. Then there was nothing.


continued...
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