Aftermath: The Tree of Life

By XWP Fanatic
xwpfanatic@earthlink.net

Part III

For Disclaimers please see Part I

Chapter Fourteen

She woke up slowly, the heartbeat beneath her ear gently bringing her to consciousness. The skin underneath her cheek was warm and soft, and she couldn’t help but nuzzle it and tighten her hold on the woman below her. How did we end up here? I remember the singing … and the dancing … and the drinking … the drinking, that explains it. Trying not to laugh and awaken her partner, she removed some straw that was sticking her in a most inappropriate spot.

"What’s so funny?" Terreis muttered, having been awake since the first nuzzle.

"How did we end up in the stable?" Ephiny asked. She could remember nothing about last night clearly.

"Ahh … this was your idea, my love." Terreis’ hand ran up the smooth back of the blond warrior snuggled at her side. "You were rather adamant about certain needs and you wouldn’t let me take you home."

"Our hut is only another two hundred paces from here," groaned Ephiny, incredulous.

"I know." Terreis smiled at her deeply blushing partner, "I was rather flattered; really, it was nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s good for the Queen’s reputation for her to be so desired by her Consort. But … I think we frightened the animals."

Ephiny lifted her head and looked over the side of the loft at the animals below. "The sheep do look a little pale, Ter."

Laughing warmly, the Queen brought her hands up to Ephiny’s cheeks and kissed her. "They’ve always looked that way, dear." Breaking off from the kiss, she nipped Ephiny’s nose. "But let’s get home. I have straw in all the worst places."

Several candlemarks later, a much cleaner Terreis climbed the Temple steps and headed toward the House of the Goddess. Kneeling before the bronze statue of Artemis, she pressed her forehead and palms against the cool granite. She could not bring herself to lift her eyes to the replica of the goddess.

Clymera, while lighting incense in one of the nearby braziers, noticed the young red-haired woman who appeared in obvious pain. "Sweet Artemis," Clymera whispered and hurried over to Terreis’ side. "My Queen?"

Terreis flinched at the title, feeling it as a sword through her heart. "Clymera. Shouldn’t you be preparing for the Council meeting?"

The older woman shrugged, spreading out her palms. "Do you wish me to leave you alone, my Queen?"

"Please don’t call me that. Not when Artemis has decided on another Chosen."

Clymera watched the young woman’s throat clench several times as she fought being overwhelmed by emotion. "Perhaps the sign is not as it seems." But Clymera knew her assurance was hollow; Artemis would only have one Chosen at any time. Traditionally it was the Queen of the Amazon nation. If there were to be another Chosen, Terreis would have to die to make way for the other woman.

"Have you ever been wrong before?" Terreis shook her head at her own question. "Perhaps I am favored. At least, I have the time and ability to set my affairs in order." And to say goodbye in my own way; gods, Ephiny… I miss you already. Terreis closed her eyes, trying to block out her fear. "Is the Chosen coming with the Destroyer?" she asked softly, making mental calculations.

Clymera gently squeezed the young woman’s shoulder, "I don’t know, my Queen. I only know that she is near."

"A quarter moon? Two? A moon?" And then the words assailed her that she could not ask: How much longer do I have to live, Clymera? Artemis, how have I displeased you so? Was I that poor a leader in my sister’s stead?

"Queen Terreis, you must live for today. It is all any of us know we have. The Fates work in mysterious ways, none of us know exactly when our thread of life will be severed." The old woman reached out and cupped the queen’s chin in her wrinkled hand. "You have served Artemis well. You gathered the remnant of the Nation together here in Ephesus. We have warriors again, because of you. The Nation believes again in its destiny."

"But why can’t I continue to lead? What have I done that was so … wrong?"

"My child, maybe this is Artemis’ way of rewarding you. You will be forever young in the Elysian Fields and in the heart of our Nation."

Terreis rubbed a rough hand against her eyes, "Why does that fail to comfort me?"

"Because your heart wants to stay." Clymera smiled sadly at the woman who had recently been bonded to her Consort. "If it’s any consolation to you, I suspect that I will soon join you on the other side. In fact, I might greet you over there."

That pronouncement caused Terreis to focus on the priestess. "Have you been feeling the pains again?"

A wry look met her question, "At this age, all I feel is pain. I can only hope to avoid being one at this point."

At the priestess’ joke, Terreis chuckled softly. "Come, Clymera, we have a Council meeting to attend. And a Destroyer to prepare for." The Queen pushed herself to her feet and held a hand out to the older woman. The Nation is more important than any one individual, including me. Especially me. I am supposed to be willing to sacrifice my life for the Nation. I just hate that Artemis has asked me to do that.

"When will you tell the others of the vision of the Chosen, my Queen?" Clymera asked as she was effortlessly pulled to her feet.

Terreis became still, "When I give her my Right of Caste; I suppose it will be obvious to everyone then."

Entering the Council Hut Terreis and Clymera greeted the five other women charged with the care of the Nation. One of them, a broad shouldered warrior with honey colored eyes made no attempt to hide her amusement. "Good morning. So you and Eph are the reason my horse is so skittish this morning?"

Terreis wagged a finger at her best friend, "Eponin, fish haven’t returned to a certain pond since a prior incident involving unnamed persons. I wouldn’t look so smug right now." The Queen took her seat at the head of the table, and with the seat assumed a regal attitude. "What preparations have been made at the Temple?"

Eponin took out a scroll which detailed the layout of the Temple. Gesturing to several points, she began her narrative, "I have added to our guards at these points. The watches are now overlapping by a candlemark. And I’ve widened the perimeter of the watches. If the Destroyer comes within a furlong of the Temple without our knowing, it’s only because Ares has cloaked her."

"And the treasury? The marketplace?" Clymera inquired.

The weapons master scowled, she had never believed that the temple should be used for profitable enterprise. She would detail her guards to protect the House of the Goddess and the objects therein, but it galled her to watch over the money of those who did not worship Artemis. "They will be protected as well."

Clymera rolled her eyes, her feud with the younger woman long-standing on this account. "If they aren’t, the Ephesian Proconsul is likely to take over the administration of the temple. Is that what you would want? To hand over to our sacred site in order to satisfy your petty prejudices?"

A deep crimson overtook the warrior’s features. Shaking with anger, she rose to her full height and gripped the edge of the council table. "What I want is our Nation back, Clymera. Not to continue groveling to Roman dogs who dare defy our goddess. The Destroyer can have their gold for all I care."

"Ep, it would displease Artemis to have her temple robbed of anything within its possession. Including the traders’ money," Terreis spoke softly and waved the reluctant warrior back into her seat. "All of the temple is under Artemis’ protection until she states otherwise. And we shall rely on Clymera to tell us of her desires because our Priestess has served the Nation long and well. Is that not true?"

Eponin began rubbing her thumb along a grain of wood on the table. She did not want to look up and see the reproach from her best friend, nor the gleam in Clymera’s eyes. "She has certainly served a long time," the warrior allowed. Silence met her response. "And done so faithfully," she managed at last.

Clymera allowed herself a brief smile, careful to not have Eponin see it, for fear of the conflict resuming. "Thank you. But let us not forget: Artemis has chosen us to hunt the Destroyer. Those are the preparations we should be making now. Plans for war, not for protection. She is ours to take down."

The council, energized, leaned forward and worked on the plan that had already been forming in Terreis’ mind.

Chapter Fifteen

"The Proconsul of Ephesus welcomes you, Xena, Conqueror of Greece, and bids you peace while you reside in the city of the holy Artemis. We welcome you to our spring festival and invite you to sample the hospitality of your Ephesian neighbors." The messenger from the Proconsul bowed deeply after finishing his speech. He had been a bit worried about the "holy Artemis" portion knowing the warrior’s disdain for the goddess. Her only reaction had been a slight narrowing of the eyes, not the drawing of her sword, and he considered himself blessed.

Standing on the deck of her ship, surrounded by her Royal Guard, Xena was the embodiment of every tale ever told of her. Wearing her signature black battle ensemble, the Conqueror was every dark nightmare come to life. The only hint of light was the pale blue of her eyes although they had gone nearly colorless in the bright afternoon sun. "Fair greetings and peace to the good Proconsul and to the people of Ephesus. Greece is happy for this visit and wishes only to enjoy good favor while here." Xena responded in a standard diplomatic manner.

The balding messenger nodded, surprised at the rich voice that had greeted him. The tales of the brutality of the Conqueror always left out descriptions of her beauty and charm. Somewhat emboldened by her favorable response, he said in a stronger voice, "The Proconsul wishes to convey his most sincere desire to have the honor of your company. His house would be favored if you were to consent to dine with him tonight and welcome in the festival."

Just what I love: diplomatic state functions. They always expect me to eat my meat raw at these dinners. Maybe I will tonight. "Greece would be happy to dine with the Proconsul and partake in his hospitality."

The messenger bowed low and stepped away, "The Proconsul awaits your presence eagerly. He bids you to refresh yourself and take your leave. When the moon has completed a quarter of its nightly journey, the Proconsul will welcome you into his household."

"Well said, messenger. Tell your Proconsul that I will come." Xena watched as the herald turned briskly and began his journey back to his master. She had spoken to many such men before, each engaging her in the delicate diplomatic language of lavish praise and subtle compromise. After her siege of Corinth, the only member of the opposing army she allowed to live was the herald, for he alone had acted with any honor. She missed such men.

Upon snapping her fingers, Palaemon came to her side, inclining his head. "My liege?"

"Go convey Greece’s greeting to the Proconsul. Impress on him that my visit here is of no consequence to him or to his station." If you let me bloody Caesar’s nose, I may have no need to bloody you.

Palaemon’s blond head inclined and then he turned on heel to carry out his orders. Passing by Cefan he paused and pulled his lieutenant aside, "Double the standard guard pattern around the Conqueror. The Ephesians have no excess of love for our General. And it would be embarrassing for anyone to be able to get close enough to harm her."

The Egyptian studied her Captain gravely, "It will be done." In fact, she had already ordered such a change. "Try not to call the Proconsul a pig-dog, or anything like that."

The scar on Palaemon’s face hooked the side of his mouth into a broad grin as he recalled such an incident. "I make one small diplomatic snafu and no one lets me live it down. He was a pig-dog; do you remember how his nose was pressed up into his face?"

Cefan barked out a short laugh, "I think that was after the Conqueror got through with him."

Exchanging warrior arm clasps, the two parted company with Palaemon hurrying down the gangplank to the docks below and Cefan moving to stand by the Conqueror.

Xena looked out at the four hills of Ephesus that surrounded the thriving metropolis and created a safe haven for the city. Any opposing force would have to come from one of five directions, each unfavorable to the invaders. The four roads crossing the hillsides would force the invading troops to battle uphill, through narrow canyons and then, if they still had any men left to fight, they would spill out into an open valley where they would be exposed to an ambush. Trying to defeat the city from the water was also less than ideal. The harbor of Ephesus was shallow and had to be continually dredged for ships to be able to come in from the open sea.

Fortunately, I don’t want to conquer Ephesus. Artemis can have it for all I care. Xena gestured to the third hill, "That’s the road to Syria, Cefan. When Caesar tries to move the weapons, he’ll have to go that way."

"I will have your scouts leave at first light tomorrow. You will know of every pebble on that path."

"Make sure I do. And send some scouts to the temple, tell them to be subtle, but to make sure they are seen by the Amazons here. I want them to provide a distraction from my true purpose here." Xena walked to the side of the ship and looked down at the docks below which were swarming with porters removing goods from the vessel.

As Xena was about to call down to her foreman, Gabrielle came hurrying over to her, her staff propelling her quickly. The young woman’s cheeks were flushed and her skin glistened with a light sheen of sweat. "Conqueror! This place is wonderful!"

Xena found it impossible not to grin in response to Gabrielle’s enthusiasm. "Where have you been? Down on the docks?" She didn’t like the idea of the attractive girl wandering around a hostile city unescorted. And the port area of any city always had the least refined of its residents.

"Down on the docks and a little bit toward the marketplace. They have everything! And the people and the colors. Everything is so bright. I felt so … so boring, so bland walking around." She gestured to her traveling outfit, which, while functional, was not designed for aesthetic purposes. "The women here are so beautiful. They wear these exquisite dresses. I can’t even begin to describe it all." She paused for a breath, "Have you ever been here before?"

"No, I’ve been a little busy for the last ten years or so," Xena responded, irony tingeing her voice. "I couldn’t really take a holiday."

Gabrielle was unsure how to take the Conqueror’s reply. There seemed to be almost a wistful tone in her voice, but she could not be sure no reproach was meant. "Did you know that this moon is sacred to Artemis? The whole city and surrounding countryside have turned out for the festival. There are performers here from Persia. I talked to this man who said that the show at the theatre was incredible. He said that the performers had to be enchanted in order to do the feats they did."

"How long were you at the marketplace?"

That was not the answer Gabrielle expected. "I’m not sure. Maybe half a candlemark. I wasn’t gone from the ship long. I just really wanted to stand on land again." Gabrielle laid a hand on her stomach and swayed a bit, indicating how she felt about sea life. "Then I followed a crowd down the street and found the shops … I’m sorry, Conqueror. I should not have left without your permission."

"Well, that is true, Gabrielle, but that wasn’t why I asked." My own intelligence officers would have found out half of what she did in twice the amount of time. "We are in a city that is an undeclared enemy. Ephesus is chosen by Artemis. And Artemis is still a little annoyed with me for my annihilation of her Amazons in Greece. But I didn’t destroy them here, leaving me more than a few enemies in this city. And, since you are with me, they are your enemies as well. You will need to be very careful while we are here. I will not be able to protect you continually." Xena paused, surprised at her own words. When did I become this one’s protector? "No more wandering off."

"Of course, Conqueror. It won’t happen again."

Xena hated how the enthusiasm that had been present moments before had left the young woman. Lyceus was exactly the same, all fire and ice. No middle ground, ever. "Tell me more about these Persian performers."

A spark quickly returned to the green eyes that lifted to meet hers. "This man said that they can fly through the air unaided. And that they dangle from the ceiling, wrap themselves in ropes and fall to the ground, only to stop a hand’s breadth from it. There’s a woman who can put her feet behind her ears."

This last revelation left the Conqueror unimpressed, "Why would anyone want to do that?"

Gabrielle’s nose scrunched as she considered the question. Rubbing the end of it hesitantly, she shrugged, "I don’t know. But it’s interesting that she can do it."

"Lots of people can do interesting things, Gabrielle. Doesn’t make them worth doing."

Gabrielle had the idea that they were talking about more than body contortions. "That’s true. Who are we staying with while we are here, Conqueror?"

The Conqueror adjusted the cape over her shoulders. "A merchant from Greece, Salmoneus, that I have made wealthy beyond his own expectations. And his were pretty grandiose to begin with." The Conqueror shook her head remembering the short man who had pestered her for some sort of favor. She had finally given in just to make him go away. And, in truth, he amused her; he had been the first person since her conquering of Greece to not seem terrified by her presence.

"How did you do that?" Gabrielle was intrigued. She never considered that the Conqueror would want to increase anyone’s wealth beside her own.

Xena let her eyes wander over the docks, observing the activities and the goods being moved about. "In Ephesus there is much wealth, a lot of money to be made by enterprising people. It does me no harm for a Greek to prosper here. In fact, it increases my stature, as others see Greeks as powerful and savvy. And it makes him even more loyal to me, for he relies on me and my reputation to stay free from harm abroad. So, I gave Salmoneus exclusive shipping rights from Ephesus to Greece. Anyone who wants to import or export has to go through him."

"No wonder he’s wealthy."

The Conqueror smirked, recalling the merchant she had happily sent abroad two winters ago; with him so far away she didn’t have to listen to his various schemes on a daily basis. "I think you’ll like him. He talks even more than you do."

Cefan approached the Conqueror and bowed. "My liege, all is prepared for the journey to Salmoneus’ house: the runners have prepared the way and your horse is ready."

Xena nodded and motioned for the Royal Guard to assemble around her. Catching the eye of one of the Guards, she summoned him over. "You are to escort my oracle during our walk through the city. Do not let anything happen to her. Or you will only wish it happened to you. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my liege." The tall soldier marched and stood by the object of his attention.

Gabrielle realized that the Conqueror needed to ride at the head of the procession, alone and regal, for Xena bore on her shoulders the reputation and honor of Greece. The vast majority of the people they would pass on the road would never see Greece, never know the splendor of its cities, never meet its citizenry. The Ephesians’ knowledge of their neighboring country would be based on this one woman walking through its streets.

She knows that every eye will be fastened on her alone. And, far from scaring her, it excites her. I could never handle so much attention. I’d probably stub my toe and fall down, or something hideous like that. And yet she has no fear. Or, at least, she shows none. Gabrielle watched the Conqueror carefully as the procession began. She and her escort were thirty paces behind Xena and her honor guard. Gabrielle was the only non-soldier in the march, and she felt distinctly out of place.

Glancing to each side, she noted the demeanor of the Royal Guard. From the moment they stepped onto the docks and began marching through town, the men and women seemed to grow taller. They stood straighter, their shoulders thrown back, their chins raised high. They were the epitome of a professional military organization, reflecting the attitude and carriage of the Conqueror. Echoes of their footsteps bounced off the narrow streets, making the army seem even larger and more fearsome. If I were Artemis, I’d be worried, Gabrielle thought absently.

Her attention was captured by the beauty of the city as they passed through it. The procession went down the central roadway, the Street of the Curetes, and toward the hillside which housed the wealthy district of town. At the sight of the Library of Celsus, Gabrielle’s heart raced. The marble fašade was exquisite. The two story structure had fourteen columns with ionic capitals. The eight lower columns surrounded sculptures of four of the Muses, but they were moving too fast for Gabrielle to identify which ones. Tall steps led up to the treasures contained within the building. She hoped that the Conqueror would allow her to go there later.

As they passed through the Gate of the Agora, her eye was drawn to a flurry of activity further up the way. A group of women were shouting angry accusations at the Conqueror. Their words were jumbled as each fought to make her voice heard above the others. And then there was silence, as the Conqueror reined in her horse and turned in the saddle slowly to face her accusers.

Gabrielle and the Royal Guard stopped. Cefan and the Honor Guard encircled the Conqueror, providing a protective band around the General. From her perch, Xena met the eyes of the woman she recognized to be their leader and allowed a smile to spread across her lips. To this red-haired woman she mouthed, "I remember you." And then she led the procession onward, not stopping again until she reached Salmoneus’ home.

Gabrielle was never aware of another pair of eyes which watched her every movement and the hate that filled them.

Chapter Sixteen

"O Mighty Conqueroress!" Salmoneus shouted, hustling to her side as fast as his chunky form would allow him. "It is such an honor to see you again! You look well. Ruling agrees with you. It must be a power thing, right?" He prattled on oblivious to the annoyed look of the object of his attention.

"Salmoneus. You seem to be doing well for yourself here." Her eyes swept appreciatively over the exquisite and massive home in front of her.

"Yes, well, times are good. And to think I could afford this all after your taxes." At the sight of her blue eyes locked on him, he smiled cheekily. "Which are more than fair, my Warrioress. And which I paid. You can check that, if you want."

"I will."

"Good, good." Salmoneus stroked his beard thoughtfully, wondering when he should talk to his financial advisor about correcting a few accounting discrepancies. Forcing a smile even as he considered the amount of dinars he would have to send to the Conqueror to make his prior boast true, he focused his attention on Palaemon. "What happened to you?" he blurted out, not thinking to censor his reaction to the facial scar.

"I did," the Conqueror responded. "Palaemon wanted to kill me before he decided to join me. I convinced him otherwise."

"That you did, my liege, very well."

Gabrielle was shocked to hear that the Captain had ever been opposed to the Conqueror. There’s been some change of heart. I wonder what happened. I’ll have to pester Palaemon for the story later. Lost in thought, she was surprised when she felt lips on the back of her hand.

"And who is this beautiful flower?" Salmoneus asked, not releasing her hand from his grasp.

"Gabrielle."

He smiled, "Beautiful. Would you care to see my melons out back?"

Xena’s eyes narrowed, "Salmoneus. She is my oracle. I suggest you back off."

Immediately her hand was abandoned and the short man let out a strangled laugh, taking care to wipe the palms of his hands on his tunic. "Of course. You must be tired after the long journey. Let me show you to your rooms." With a friendly smile, he began leading them through the enormous house providing a running commentary.

"This room looks out onto the harbor, and has a beautiful view of the Temple. I sell some really nice miniature replicas of it," he said to Gabrielle, believing her to be the one most likely to make such a purchase. "They’re made from genuine Ephesian stone."

The Conqueror cleared her throat loudly and Salmoneus hurried on down the hallway. Gabrielle glanced back at Xena over her shoulder and smiled, amused by the little man.

"Here is the dining room. The glassware was imported from Babylon. I paid a fortune for it! When you fill up a glass with wine, it changes color."

Xena chuckled, "The glass or the wine?"

Salmoneus stopped and considered the ruler, "The glass, of course."

"Of course, Salmoneus. Lead on." She waved him down the hallway.

Throwing open a door, he showed them another room. "This is my library. Apparently, it is customary for great houses in Ephesus to have one. I had the scrolls selected by the librarian, so I have only the best scrolls."

"May I come in here later, Salmoneus?" Gabrielle asked, her voice full of wonder. She had never seen so many scrolls in one place before.

He shrugged, "Sure. You may have to blow dust off the chairs though."

"You don’t use the library?" Gabrielle was shocked by his admission. "I would live in there."

"Hmm … well …let’s get you to your rooms. I’m sure you’re tired from the journey." He turned and continued onward, passing by a doorway.

The Conqueror stopped. "Show me what is in this room, Salmoneus."

The man stopped, laughed and shook his head. "Conqueroress, it’s just a broom closet. Really. Storage. Nothing of importance to you."

"Open it."

"Mighty Conqueroress, it’s just a waste of your time to –"

"- Salmoneus," the General growled ominously.

With a heavy sigh, the rotund man pushed open the door, revealing three workers packing shipping crates with what looked to be porcelain plates. They seemed genuinely surprised to find a large assortment of people standing in the doorway watching them work. "See, just storage," Salmoneus said, grabbing for the door handle to pull the door shut once more.

Xena pressed a hand against the door, keeping it ajar. With a glance at her host, she stepped inside and walked over to the plates the men were packing. She stared at one for long moments, forcing herself to calm down, trying to remind herself of all of Lao Ma’s teachings on self control. "Explain this, Salmoneus," she said ominously.

Salmoneus wished at that moment he could be anywhere else in the known world. Any place was better than here. "Well, you see, your Rulership, well … people here in Ephesus need to know what you look like. They’ve heard so many rumors. So …. I thought that I could sell these tasteful decorative commemorative plates with your likeness on it. I was hoping you could sign a hundred of them for a special limited signature collection."

Hearing this explanation, Gabrielle and Palaemon scrambled over to the crates and removed several plates. The one in Gabrielle’s hands was a close-up of the Conqueror, a pretty accurate depiction of the smooth planes of her face, onyx hair and cerulean eyes. "Not bad," she commented. Nowhere near as good as reality though.

Palaemon showed her the plate in his hands, a rendition of the Conqueror astride Argo – who had been regretfully left behind in Athos. She held a bloodied sword in one hand and her chakram in another. "They got the hilt wrong," he said pointing to the sword on the plate and the sword sheathed on the Conqueror’s back. "And the design on the chakram is off."

"Well, well, let’s be going, shall we?" Salmoneus said, clapping his hands nervously and attempting to shepherd them out of the room.

Gabrielle wasn’t budging, she was too busy sorting through the crates searching for any other design. When she found one, she let out a snort of laughter and clasped a hand tightly over her mouth.

Salmoneus knew exactly which plate she had found and he began backing toward the door. And found himself stopped by an unyielding wall of flesh, leather and armor. "Stay with us, Salmoneus," Xena rumbled and began moving them back over to the crates. "Let me see that, Gabrielle."

Smiling her regret, Gabrielle did just that. And watched the Conqueror flush scarlet as she saw the rendering. The Conqueror lay on a bed clad only in the clothes she was born in, her sword and armor discarded on the floor, and a caption which read ‘Woman Warrior’.

"Now, this is obviously an artist’s interpretation of your … attributes … since I have never had the …" he stopped when he saw how white the knuckles were of her hand that was gripping the plate. "We don’t have to sell this one. I was just trying to help … soften …your image."

"Salmoneus, I expect to hear the shattering of plates all night long, do you understand me? Or you’ll regret more than your underpaid taxes."

"How did you know -?" He stopped, before completely incriminating himself. "Yes, your Worshipness, but I think we’re missing out on a great opportunity here."

Xena raised a hand, blocking the sight of the smaller man’s face. "Don’t …" Turning crisply, she stepped out into the hallway.

As Gabrielle followed, she whispered, "Save me one of each, ok, Salmoneus?"

He nodded, "There is another really nice one I think you’ll like." Ever unrepentant, he joined the rest of the party in the hallway and continued his tour of his home.

Even much later, while standing in the receiving room of the Proconsul’s home, Gabrielle had a difficult time not giggling. She had had this problem the entire march over to the home and did not anticipate it subsiding anytime soon. The look on the Conqueror’s face had been priceless.

Her behavior was influencing Palaemon who, due to the nature of his facial scar, was unable to completely disguise his own amusement. Steadfastly he refused to meet the Conqueror’s eyes, knowing he would collapse in helpless laughter the moment he did. And he certainly did not want her to challenge him to an impromptu sparring session considering the mood she was in.

The Conqueror for her part was trying to ignore the two, which was difficult as the Captain stood at her right side and Gabrielle at her left. She knew what was making them act this way; she did not share their sense of humor. Perhaps it had been a mistake to stay at Salmoneus’ home.

They were joined in the receiving room by the Proconsul and two of his slaves. The Proconsul was a grossly overweight man of inconsequential height. His hair was curly, but cut short, accenting the full moon shape of his face. He wore a white robe which fell over his girth in long folds and had sleeves which ended at the wrists above his meaty hands.

The Conqueror surveyed the wreck of a man with barely concealed disdain. This is what Roman rule allows, and even encourages. Keep them fat, dumb and happy – at least the upper class – and rebellion is thwarted. Yet building an empire on weakness is never a good idea.

Gabrielle sniffed, noting the pungent odor that arrived in the room along with the Proconsul. Surveying his robe she idly noted that he would do better with a darker color. Thank the gods the Conqueror has not let herself decay like this man. Is this what power does to some?

One slave set a large basin of water on the ground and the other knelt before the Conqueror. The slave studied the top of Xena’s boots while he awaited the command to remove them and wash her feet in the warm water provided.

The Conqueror realized the meaning of this gesture and said, "You may."

"Wait," Gabrielle said forcefully, putting up a hand to still the actions of those around her. "Conqueror?"

Xena wondered what was bothering Gabrielle so much. "Speak." The young woman smiled her thanks and then directed her attention to the Proconsul. The Conqueror was intrigued by the hardness that settled over the normally gentle features as her gaze shifted.

"Proconsul, do you intend to shame the Ruler of Greece in your own home and thus bring disgrace on yourself, your household and all of Ephesus?" The question was asked softly.

Palaemon’s eyes narrowed, his hand instinctively reaching for the pommel of his sword. He hadn’t liked the Proconsul from their first meeting, and his affection was not growing. If Gabrielle said that this weasel was insulting his leader, he’d have none of it.

The Proconsul’s forehead beaded with sweat as he took in the seriousness of the situation he was in. The Conqueror had not moved, or even seemed to breathe, since the young red-gold-haired woman had asked permission to speak. He drew in a shaky breath and tried to appear calm, "I don’t know what you mean. It is our custom to wash the feet of our guests."

"Not those of visiting royalty." Green eyes flashed a challenge at him, daring to be contradicted. "Your customs dictate that the feet of royalty are not to be touched by a slave. Either the royal is to enter unwashed, and thus presumed to bring the soil of their homeland into your home, gracing it. Or the master of the home is to wash their feet, showing your deference to their station."

"How?" the Proconsul stammered, surprised at her knowledge. He had planned on this being his own secret pleasure, something he could boast of to the Ephesian council later. Now it didn’t look like such a good plan. Not with the dark demon staring at him and his accuser speaking in confident tones.

Gabrielle turned to the Conqueror, "I read this in Salmoneus’ library. I then asked his head servant if this was the prevailing custom. He assured me that it was. I did not want to see you dishonored, my liege."

Angry blue eyes flicked back to the Proconsul who was looking quite pale at the moment. "You have chosen poorly." To Palaemon she said, "Assemble the Guard, we’re leaving."

"At once, my liege." Palaemon bowed to the Conqueror. As he turned, he met the eyes of the Proconsul, gave a cold stare, and bared his teeth, promising retribution at a later time.

The Conqueror’s attention focused back on the Proconsul, who was looking as if he might pass out at any moment. Shaking her head, she spoke softly, "I would not have harmed you during my stay here. Now you leave me no choice. You, however, have one. Do me no more injury and I will repay only you. If you persist in this ill-chosen path, I will destroy your city. And neither you, nor your army, nor Artemis herself will be able to stop me."

The man fell to his knees before the Conqueror, reaching out for the hem of her cape. "Please, Conqueror … don’t."

Xena shrugged her shoulder, pulling the cape clear of his reach. "Why shouldn’t I? You have not just insulted me, you have insulted Greece. I cannot stand by and allow you to do that."

"It was a mistake, Conqueror. An oversig…" He stopped, when he saw her begin to draw her sword. Don’t lie. "I was wrong. I was stupid."

Xena crouched down, her elbow resting on her armored knee. "All actions have consequences, Proconsul. You intended your action to result in my disgrace. But, instead, it has fallen squarely on you."

"Have mercy," he begged, mindless of the tears that coursed down his cheeks and the wetness spreading throughout his robes from a lower fount.

The Conqueror laughed as she rose to her full height. Shaking her head, she turned to leave him to worry about his fate until she dealt his death blow. She was almost certain that the anticipation alone would kill him.

"Conqueror?" Gabrielle said softly as the Conqueror passed by.

More? "Yes, Gabrielle?"

"Mercy might be the prudent course of action at this time." Gabrielle ignored the Proconsul as he shouted out his agreement with her statement. I really don’t need or want you on my side, she thought in the Proconsul’s direction. "A living ally is better than a dead enemy."

Xena frowned, folding her arms across her chest. "That depends on the ally."

Gabrielle directed her attention to the man who was looking at her with pleading eyes. "What do you know of the shipments in and out of the city?"

A spark of hope ignited in the man. "Everything! I know everything!" He tried to ignore the numbness spreading in his legs from kneeling so long. He did not dare rise to his feet.

Forcing herself to be patient and not mimic the Conqueror’s anger, Gabrielle asked, "What type of things? Please, be specific."

"I know everything. What comes in the harbor. What leaves the city. Whether it’s on the water or on the highway. Permits are required for tax purposes, I have to approve them all. And it helps me assign our highway guards. For example, if I know that a very important shipment is going to Miletus then I can deploy a larger escort through our territory."

Gabrielle’s eyes met the Conqueror’s meaningfully at the Proconsul’s answer.

Xena acceded to Gabrielle’s proposed plan. Keeping her eyes firmly fixed on Gabrielle, she said to the Proconsul, "Palaemon will be here tomorrow. If you answer his questions well, you will save your life." Xena gestured to the door, indicating to Gabrielle that the conversation was over. Over her shoulder, she said, "And don’t try to run away or entertain any other visitors tonight. I will leave a squadron of men to assure myself of your new-found integrity. Though I will be surprised to find that to be the case."

Outside in the courtyard, the Conqueror closed her hand around Gabrielle’s upper arm, pulling the smaller woman to her side. "Thank you, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle’s features relaxed into a broad smile as she regarded the Conqueror. "You’re welcome. I couldn’t stand by and let him insult you." Not now. Not when I’m beginning to get to know you. And I’m discovering a woman I can respect, one I can now speak freely to.

"I know I’m considered a barbarian, even in Greece." She shook her head ruefully, "Especially in Greece."

In Xena’s eyes, for the briefest of moments, Gabrielle saw her hurt, the pain the Conqueror suffered from being hated by so much of her populace. It caused her heart to reach out inexplicably to the woman her own body knew she too should hate. But she couldn’t find the hate within her. "It’s only because Greece does not know the ruler I do."

Xena tried to find any insincerity in the green eyes meeting hers. All she saw was spring in Amphipolis. Xena attempted to formulate an appropriate rejoinder, but found herself unable to. Every time the Conqueror started to reply, her throat constricted and her eyes burned. When was the last time one of my subjects did not look at me like some demon from Hades? I tried to kill this girl for speaking up once before, and now she raises her voice to protect me. Finally, she managed to say, "I understand there is a performing troupe here from …" I can barely talk, much less think straight right now. Where did she say that damn group was from?

"Persia," Gabrielle supplied helpfully, noting the Conqueror’s discomfort.

The Conqueror nodded, tightening her hold on Gabrielle’s arm momentarily before releasing it. "Persia, yes." A deep breath, and then Xena continued, "I was wondering if you would care to see this evening’s performance. Since our other plans have been so rudely canceled."

"Do you think we can still get in?" the fair-haired woman asked, not wanting to have her hopes raised only to be disappointed.

This time it was Xena who indulged in a very rare full smile which warmed her eyes to a vibrant shade of blue. "I think that I might be able to get us tickets. My barbarian reputation should be useful for something, other than scaring women and small children." Looking over Gabrielle’s shoulder, she motioned for Palaemon once more.

"My liege?"

"A night at the theatre is in order, Palaemon. Take five men and arrange for good seats for us. And appropriate security."

"Yes, my liege. It will be done." I didn’t even think she could recognize a theatre, much less ever go to one. He quickly chose the men to accompany him and they set off at a jog. Tonight just keeps getting better and better. Wonder what else will happen?

Chapter Seventeen

Gabrielle was completely overwhelmed. Nothing in her upbringing in Potadeia, nor her time spent in Corinth, prepared her for the Ephesian theatre. Rising halfway up Mount Prion, the theatre could fit over fifty thousand spectators and it was filled to capacity for this evening’s performance. Gabrielle tried to take in the faces of as many of the people as she could, intrigued by the different nationalities represented. "Where is that man from, Conqueror?" she asked, pointing to a man wearing a white turban.

The Conqueror’s eyes traced a path down Gabrielle’s arm and then followed the line of her finger until she saw the man inquired about. "I would say he is from Persia, like the performers."

"Hmm. I wonder what they will look like," the younger woman responded. "And the woman, three – no – four people to the left of him. Where is she from?"

Xena found the woman easily. She wore a sapphire blue dress, which accentuated her olive skin, dark eyes and inky hair. A gold amulet encircled her left bicep to great effect. "She’s Egyptian. Like Cefan."

A furrow appeared between Gabrielle’s brows, "But Cefan is so much darker skinned. And her hair is curly."

"True. Cefan’s parents came to Egypt when she was a child. She’s from the dark nation to the south. From what Cefan tells me, they are a fierce people. But she considers herself Egyptian. It’s the only home she’s ever known, besides Greece."

Nodding her understanding, Gabrielle found another person to inquire about. "And that man? What is he?"

The man in question was tall, with a dark flowing beard. He wore a purple robe over his white tunic, the sleeves and hem of which were stitched with gold thread. On his robe was an insignia over his left breast – a snakelike dragon eating its own tail. His eyes too seemed to roam the crowd, stopping when they locked with the Conqueror’s gaze. "That’s a magician, Gabrielle. It’s best to stay away from men like that."

"What do they do?"

"Deceive." The answer escaped with more bitterness than she intended. Clearing her throat, she continued, "And you, my oracle, are only to tell the truth." Xena said the last part lightly, not wanting to spoil the mood of the evening.

"Always, Conqueror." Sighing, she leaned back in her seat and waited for the performance to begin.

The Conqueror half turned in her seat to get Palaemon’s attention. "Well done."

The Captain nodded, "Thank you, my liege. But it was your influence which allowed me to arrange this. The theatre manager was quite anxious to accommodate your wishes."

Xena chuckled and considered the first row, center section seats they currently enjoyed. And the four rows behind her that were cleared for her guards. "With what atrocity did you threaten him if he didn’t comply so willingly?"

"Conqueror, I merely pointed out that it would be in everyone’s best interests to enjoy favorable relations. I was pleased that this Ephesian was not as stupid as the one we last left." He bent his head, bringing his mouth closer to her ear. "Shall I kill the Proconsul tomorrow, my liege?" He knew that Gabrielle would not want to hear his question, nor would the Conqueror want to her to hear the response he expected.

Xena’s mouth set in a firm line, not liking either of her choices. "Let him live, for now. But … make sure he is unable to warn Caesar’s men. That would displease me greatly."

"Yes, my liege, as you wish." Palaemon began considering the various ways he could achieve his General’s objective.

Suddenly the night air was filled with the sounds of instruments unfamiliar to Gabrielle. Glancing in the direction of the musicians, she saw a number of strangely clad men and women in the shell shaped alcove. They held various stringed and wind instruments, none of which she recognized. But Gabrielle found the sounds they produced to be intoxicating. Closing her eyes, she allowed the music to wash over her and fill up her senses.

Taking a deep breath of the torch-smoke scented night air, she found everything to be just right. I don’t think I’ve been this happy since before Draco. I’m finally seeing distant lands. I’m in what has to be the largest theatre in the world. And I am seated next to the most feared woman in the world.

Never thought I’d end up here.

The Conqueror has managed to surprise me at every turn and upend all of my expectations of her. I participated in the contest of truth so I could speak to her. I wanted to tell her that she did not have to be the brutal ruler she was, exacting pain on her people to force their compliance with her edicts. I thought she must resort to violence because she lacked the intelligence to go any other way. Now, I know that is not the truth. She is one of the most brilliant leaders I have ever met. It is simply her pain and fear of betrayal which drive her first thoughts to always be of violence.

I wish I knew what happened to cause her to be that way.

Unconsciously, Gabrielle’s hand moved down to her legs and massaged the muscles lightly. They don’t nearly hurt as bad anymore. I don’t need the staff as frequently while walking. And the oil the Conqueror gave me while we were travelling to rub into the muscles tingles whenever I put it on. And then I always walk better afterwards. Surprisingly, I think all the walking and travelling has been good for me. Arrol treated me like a breakable object after the cross. Perhaps that even slowed down my healing. I think in another quarter moon, I will not even need the staff at all.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered, noting the faraway look in the young oracle’s eyes.

Gabrielle jumped slightly in her seat and embarrassed eyes met the Conqueror’s. "Sorry, I was thinking."

"The show’s starting."

Her eyes tracked to the stage and there she saw a fool, dressed in a form-fitting white costume. Hanging from the costume were ribbons in red, green, yellow and blue. The fool’s face was painted white, except for a red slash of lips. Even the man’s dark hair had been powdered to match the costume. The fool picked up a rope from the floor of the stage and began twirling it around his body.

Gabrielle was fascinated, the rope seemed to have a life of its own in the fool’s hands. She watched as he spun it up in the air, making it contort into various shapes. Then he tossed it over one of the rafters of the canopy over the stage. She saw two more men dressed as fools up on the rafter, waking along the thin beam as if it were the ground. Gasping, she pointed when one of the fools somersaulted in the air, only to land back on the beam.

The Conqueror had seen circuses like this before. The acrobatics were always breathtaking to watch, but she had never considered the sensation of watching them with someone like Gabrielle. The young oracle had a thirst for all things new. And so Xena watched the fair-haired woman almost as much as she watched the performers.

The fools atop the beam, secured the rope and tied off two others. Soon all three men were climbing the ropes. Using their bodies’ momentum, they began swinging the ropes through the air in a circle above the ground. Then, all at once, each let go of his rope and threw his body to the one in front of him. They repeated this maneuver two more times, until each fool was back on his own rope.

A collective gasp went through the audience at the stunt, yet it seemed not even to be a stretch to the fools’ talents. The fools next climbed back atop the rafters. There they each performed a handstand on the beam and slowly pitched over, falling toward the stage.

Another gasp. This one alleviated when the fools reached out at the last moment and grabbed their ropes, stopping their downward fall less than a bodylength from the stage.

Dropping lightly to the ground, the three men bowed deeply and left the stage. They were passed by a man inside a large wheel. The man was dressed in a dark blue costume that covered his entire body, including his head, with only narrow slits left for his eyes and mouth. The wheel was constructed of metal, with the diameter just larger than the man inside it. The wheel was fashioned out of two circles linked together by six crossbars spaced evenly around its circumference. There were also several leather straps inside the wheel for the man to hold onto. By changing his center of gravity, the man could propel the wheel across the stage.

"I’d be so dizzy," Gabrielle whispered to the Conqueror, as she watched the man go upside down.

On cue, the man stopped the wheel when he was horizontal to the ground. A movement of his hips and he began rolling the other way. Before reaching the other side of the stage again, the man twisted his shoulders. With that, the wheel began rolling on one of its edges on the stage, much like a dinar spins when flipped before settling on the surface of a table. Each time it looked like the wheel would come to rest of the stage, the man would arch his back and begin the cycle anew.

The audience burst into applause, cheering the man’s strength and coordination. Gabrielle joined them.

Then the man righted the wheel and began moving across stage again. Thinking that there were no new tricks to be seen, Gabrielle let her eyes wander over to her companion, only to discover the Conqueror studying her. Before either could speak, a gasp from the rest of the audience, drew their attention back to the man.

He had vaulted himself from inside the wheel and dove back into it as it rolled underneath him. He did this several times, diving in and out of the metal, never once missing or slipping or stopping. It reminded Gabrielle of the fish she had watched during their sail over to Ephesus, the ones who had followed alongside the ship seemingly skipping along the water’s surface.

The man in the wheel left the stage as three large hoops were lowered from the rafters. Inside each hoop was a small girl, dangling in an artistic pose. The hoops were lowered to different heights and the girls began their choreographed movements. They each spun through their hoops, rolling through them fluidly, stopping when their feet wrapped around the hoop and they dangled upside down over the stage.

It was a strange sight, as the girls each wore white outfits that looked like they were stained with blood on the chests and wrists. The impression was of dead bodies hanging above the ground, suspended lifeless.

A flashback to the cross for Gabrielle, who let out a soft moan and closed her eyes. You’re not there anymore. You’re safe. They’re safe. Breathe, Gabrielle.

"Are you all right?" the Conqueror asked against her ear.

Gabrielle nodded vigorously, shaking the image from her head. "Thanks." And resolutely she fixed her eyes back on the performers.

Xena glanced back at the stage trying to discern what could upset her companion so. Then she saw it – those who had especially displeased her were crucified upside down and their sides were pierced with a sword at the end of the day. Those three girls had mimicked that pose unknowingly.

She’s reminded of the cross you put her on. You can pretend that she’s just someone who wandered in for the contest, but the truth is you tried to kill her. Forcing her thoughts to be quiet, Xena resumed her observation of the on-going act.

One of the girls twisted so that she floated above the stage with her arms wrapped inside the hoop, but nothing else. As she held her body straight, one of the other girls dove from her hoop and affixed herself to this girl’s body. Together they swung above the stage, both dependent on the one girl’s arm strength.

A woman in the audience shrieked when the girl loosed her hold on the hoop, sending both girls plummeting downward, until she grasped onto the bottom of the hoop with her hands. There she swung them back and forth until the one let go over her, somersaulted through the air and landed safely on the stage. The other two girls repeated this process and soon all three were on the ground and bowing for the audience.

"Wow," Gabrielle said, trying to ease the solicitous look the Conqueror was bestowing on her.

The three hoops rose and three long red ribbons were lowered. A woman walked onto the stage below. She was dressed in the same red hue as the ribbons. She walked to them, grabbed onto the center ribbon and deftly hauled herself up its length. At the top, she began a series of movements among the three ribbons – spreading them, clutching on to them, moving between them.

It reminded Gabrielle of a dance, except it was performed five bodylengths above ground.

Then the woman paused and wrapped one of the ribbons around her right thigh. Once secured, she let go of all of the ribbons and began moving her body, which was now supported only by the ribbon wrapped around her thigh. She performed the dance of the veils, using the ribbons as veils.

"Beautiful, isn’t it?" the Conqueror asked.

Gabrielle nodded, "She has perfect control of her body. I’ve never seen anything like it."

The woman folded herself up and now wrapped one ribbon tightly around her ribs. Then she seemed to slip and left go. Tumbling toward the ground, the ribbon unraveling from around her as she fell, it seemed certain that a terrible mistake had been made.

The audience gasped and waited for the inevitable.

Gabrielle, unable to help the woman, reached out and clutched at the Conqueror and shut her eyes.

Only to reopen them with the wild applause of the crowd. The woman had stopped her fall a mere handsbreadth from the floor. Her body was straight, hovering over its surface, every muscle in perfect obedience.

Gabrielle thought to applaud and it was then she noticed she had taken hold of the Conqueror’s hand in her fear. Her first conscious thought was that the Conqueror’s hand was much softer than she would have guessed it to be. It must be all the oil she uses on her sword and leathers which soften her hands. It certainly isn’t because she isn’t used to hard work. Unable to stop herself, one of her fingers ran a path along the Conqueror’s palm.

This caused a pair of very blue eyes to track to hers and then down to their intertwined hands. A small smile spread across Xena’s lips as she resettled their hands, taking Gabrielle’s smaller hand fully within hers. Her thumb ran along the back of Gabrielle’s hand gently, sending a warm feeling throughout them both. Maybe she can forgive me for the wrong I did her.

Gabrielle decided that enough of the audience was clapping. Her hand would not be needed; it could stay right where it was for the rest of the night.

On the other side of Xena, Palaemon watched as the Conqueror held the young woman’s hand with a tenderness he had never seen her display before. He closed his eyes and for a moment he could feel the warmth of Gabrielle’s hand against his own. And he knew for certain that his heart would never quite be the same.

Continued in Part IV


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