The Hanging Gardens
For disclaimers and other pertinent info, please go to Part I.
Feedback is always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
At the request of several people, here is the cast of characters (so far), in alphabetical order:
|Allemane, Lord of Gaul||Eponin, Gabrielle's Chief Officer|
|Dokov, Chief of the Huns||Eward, a member of Xenas Royal Guard|
|Farza, Queen of Syria||Harib, Marshall of the Babylonian Guard|
|Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons||Kelryn, an Amazon warrior|
|Gregor, Proconsul of Ephesus||Lari, an Amazon warrior|
|Kulam, King of Persia||Minon, a member of Xenas Royal Guard|
|Lao Ma, Empress of Chin||Novan, a member of Xenas Royal Guard|
|Nebuharin, King of Babylon||Palaemon, Captain of Xenas Royal Guard|
|Pompey, Triumvir of Rome||Pei-cha, a wise snow leopard|
|Xena, Conqueror of Greece||Tamara, an Amazon warrior|
Kelryn was in the large library roaming through the racks containing the multitude of scrolls. Eponin had given them permission to wander through the palace, hoping to distract the antsy Amazons by having them map out the buildings layout as well as possible. Kelryn had been given the southern wing of the palace and she had found it surprisingly easy to move between rooms, none of the Babylonian guards ever challenging her presence. She tried to imagine a foreigner wandering through the Amazon village or the Conquerors palace in Corinth. It was impossible.
As she rounded one of the stacks, Kelryn became aware she was not alone in the room. She saw a petite woman sitting at a long table carefully transcribing one scroll to another. The woman was clothed in a scarlet skirt and top, a brief glimpse of skin available between the two garments. A belt of twisted gold wrapped around her waist snugly, worn more for aesthetic than functional purposes. Kelryns eyes appreciatively followed the curves of the tanned body and the dark hair that fell along the length of the womans back. She only hoped it felt as silky as it looked.
Running a hand through her own short hair and pulling back her shoulders, Kelryn approached her. She stood beside her for a moment, allowing the woman to adjust to her presence, and gazed at the scroll the woman was working on. Babylonian script was very different from Greek or Amazon, she noted. The foreign script utilized symbols which looked like various common objects a bird, an eye, a leaf to represent words and phrases. When she knew she had the womans attention, she pointed to the last line transcribed. "What does that say?"
Warm brown eyes looked up at her and then down at the text in question. "The line is: this thought has given me courage."
"What thought?" Kelryn leaned down closer to the scroll, as if it was distance alone which kept her from being able to translate it.
The woman smiled at the young solders attention. She had heard tales of Amazons, but had never expected to meet one. "The King is referring to the fact that he is never alone."
"He likes that? How does that give him courage? Doesnt it give people more chances to harm him?" Kelryn puzzled. She knew that her Queen and the Conqueror definitely delighted in their time alone.
"No, no, no," the scribe chided gently. "He is never alone, never far from Marduks presence. Thats what he was happy about."
"Ah, a religious thing." Kelryn didnt have much use for gods, even Artemis. She was reverent to the extent required by the Nation, but no more. My fate is what I make it, not what three sisters string together somewhere.
The woman smiled indulgently. She could tell this soldier preferred to make her own way in the world. "Yes, a religious thing. The King is a very observant man. He has always honored Marduk and Ishtar."
"So he doesnt worry a whole lot on his judgment day with Marduk each year."
The scribe was impressed; this was a unique visitor in every way. "How do you know about that?"
Kelryn shrugged dismissively, "I know stuff."
Dark brown eyebrows drew together. "I bet you know lots of stuff." She let her eyes wander meaningfully over the athletic body of the soldier; women in Babylon were soft, not allowed to serve in the military.
"Amazons are all well educated."
"Do you know enough to teach?"
A brilliant smile was her response, "Lady, Ive been on the lecture circuit for years."
The scribe considered the lanky youth for a long moment. The King was in the inner palace and would not be requesting any of them for the next quarter moon, they had been told. She was free, for tonight. "What do you lecture on?"
"Religion," Kelryn replied, her voice husky. She smirked knowing that no priestess would ever mistake her for one of their own.
The woman drew in a deep breath, noticing the musky scent of the soldier who was close enough to touch her, but had yet to do so. "I would never have guessed."
A soft laugh was her answer. "I teach Artemis Blessing. Its a special form of worship. But I must warn you "
"Yes?" the woman answered, wondering what the warning was.
"You may never go back to Marduk again. Or, if you do, you will be most unsatisfied." In response, the woman turned her head and blew softly on the parchment, ensuring the ink was dry. Kelryn swore she could feel that breath cascading over her own skin. Then she watched the woman roll up the scroll, place the cork back in the ink pot and set aside her quill. Once she had tidied up her work area, she turned to Kelryn and extended a slender hand.
"Come, lets find an altar and worship."
Kelryn grinned. One.
Palaemon approached the archway to the inner palace, intent on reporting to the Conqueror. Nebuharins men had taken the Conquerors and Queens goods into their room earlier in the day, but had denied him entrance. As it was now past dinner time, he made his second attempt.
The Captain stood his ground while four Babylonian soldiers approached him, their weapons at the ready.
"Turn around. No one is permitted entrance."
Palaemon placed his hands on his hip, deliberately drawing attention to the sword belted there. "I am Captain of the Royal Guard of Xena, Conqueror of Greece. The Conqueror expects me to report to her."
One of the four stepped forward, "And I am Harib, Marshall of King Nebuharins Palace Guard. Please step aside with me, Captain."
The muscular, blond man gave a curt nod and took a few steps with his bearded counterpart. "Whats going on, Marshall?"
"King Nebuharin has given orders that he and his guests are to be undisturbed for the next quarter moon. Anyone who attempts to cross between the inner and outer palace will be killed." The Marshall smiled, almost apologetically.
Palaemons eyes narrowed as he took in this information. "A quarter moon? No one in or out?" He was answered with a nod. "All right. Thank you for the information." He forced himself to be polite, to keep the Marshall from suspecting his true inner feelings about this situation. "I will convey this information to my men. Excuse me."
He went in search of Eponin. There was much to be done.
"Dead? As in not living, dead?" Gregor asked.
Lord Allemane scowled, "Do you know some other kind of dead?" He pushed himself up and away from the corpse, disdainful of the dead flesh. He went in search of another drink.
Lao Ma laid her hand over King Nebuharins forehead and bowed her head. She whispered a few words which were unintelligible to the others. Reaching up to his empty chair, she removed the cloth napkin and laid it over his face.
Everyone turned and faced Kulam, who was laughing. The Persian King was shaking with mirth. "Congratulations, Queen Farza, you have succeeded once more. I didnt know Syria had designs on Babylon. But you should have thought more of how you would escape from this palace."
The heavy woman pushed herself up from the table. "How dare you! Surely you dont think I had anything to do with his death!"
"Poison is your specialty." Kulam pointed out unnecessarily. Farzas skill was well known. "Should I be afraid now of finishing my drink? How many of them did you fix?" He picked up his goblet and spun it about, swirling the amber liqueur around its rim.
"I did not "
"It would be rather convenient," Allemane observed, "if Queen Farza was accused. Hasnt Persia had its eye on Syria for quite awhile?"
"Shut up!" Xenas voice ordered. The Conqueror rose to her full height and leveled her gaze at the two feuding rulers. Syria and Persia were lifelong enemies. She did not expect them to behave any different given the circumstances. "Lao Ma, give me Nebuharins goblet."
The Empress picked it up from where it had fallen on the floor and handed it over.
Xena held it up to her nose and sniffed. There was a faint odor left in the goblet which reminded her of mice. "Hemlock, and quite a lot, from the smell of it."
There was a cry and everyone turned to see Pompey herding the four serving girls into the main dining area. They each looked terrified of the Roman triumvir, trying to move as far away from him as possible.
"What are you doing, Pompey?" Lao Ma inquired mildly, as she moved to soothe the girl who was crying the hardest.
"If no one has noticed, our host is dead. Does anyone want to consider what the Palace Guard would do to us if they knew about it? We couldnt risk them running off and raising the alarm. Even with all of our attendants, we are outnumbered."
Xena nodded. "Hes right." She stalked over to the tallest of the four servants, who still only came up to Xenas shoulder. "Whats your name, girl?"
Brown eyes avoided hers and the servant shifted nervously.
The Conquerors large hand grasped the womans jaw, forcing her to meet her eyes. "Your name?" she repeated.
A confused expression met her words.
"Does she understand Greek?" Gabrielle inquired reasonably. She glanced down when she felt a nudge against her leg and she saw Pei-cha looking up at her expectantly. Finding unanticipated pleasure in the moment, she reached out and began to stroke the thick fur. The large cat reared back and placed his large front paws in the oracles lap, bringing his head almost level with Gabrielles. He rubbed the top of his head against her chin. Gabrielle whispered in his ear, "Yeah, I like you too, Pei-cha. Youre a handsome boy."
The Conqueror spoke again, this time in the Babylonian language, surprising most everyone except Gabrielle. The oracle simply added it to the other five languages she already knew the Conqueror spoke. Gabrielle looked around at the other rulers smugly; they had no idea who they were dealing with.
"Tell me your name."
The servant relaxed slightly, finally understanding. "Emelle."
"Listen to me carefully. I want each of you to sit over there and be quiet. If any one of you tries to leave, I will kill all of you. Do you understand me, Emelle?"
Emelle shuddered in fear at the sound of her name coming from the Conquerors lips. Quickly composing herself, she glanced at the three other servants, each of whom indicated they understood the threat. "Yes, we do."
"Now, sit. Ill deal with you later." She gave the girl a slight push toward a bench near the bar and then she surveyed the rest of the garden house. "I suppose its too much to hope that Nebuharin committed suicide."
The Proconsul snorted. "I hardly think so. He looked a bit surprised that he couldnt breathe." He held up a mangled hand. "Unless you also think I did this to my own hands."
Xena looked at him and growled, "You did, Gregor. And if you keep reminding me, I might need to do it again. Obviously, you didnt learn your lesson."
Allemane sniffed his goblet before taking a drink. "But who could have put the poison in his drink? He served himself each time he had a refill. The serving girls only brought the food."
"Why would Nebuharin want to commit suicide?" Dokov interjected. "He wanted to force us to make peace. Although, he was an imbecile. There will never be peace here."
"It is best to not speak disrespectfully of the dead," Lao Ma intoned. "One day we will be like him."
"That one day will be sooner than later if we let Farza stay here with us," Kulam noted. He turned to Pompey, "Lets take her to the Palace Guards, turn her over as the murderer of Nebuharin. Its logical. She killed her husband using poison hemlock, even. We give her to them and we go free."
Pompey considered the proposal. "I think "
"I will not be turned over as some sacrificial lamb!" Farza squealed, shaking with anger. "I didnt kill him. But I wonder why you keep insisting I did, Kulam." Her last statement was filled with insinuation.
"How did you do it, Destroyer?" Dokov asked. He moved slowly back towards the table.
Xena scowled, "Conqueror. Do what?"
"Kill Nebuharin, of course."
Gabrielles head snapped up at the accusation. "She did no such thing!" Her anger spilled over onto Pei-cha who looked up at the Chief with hostility in his eyes as well. When Dokov looked down at the leopard, Pei-cha growled lowly, causing the Hun to step back once more and head for a seat far away from the fair-haired Queen.
"Its all right, Gabrielle," the Conqueror soothed, moving toward her oracle, to rejoin her at the table.
Dokov looked at the Amazon with open contempt. "You set it up, didnt you?" He turned to the other rulers, "I didnt harm her tonight. She lied to distract us all. It was their ploy: get us all up from the table, get our attention focused elsewhere while the Destroyers plaything put the poison in Nebuharins glass."
"You ran your hand up my leg!" Gabrielle exclaimed, indignant.
"So you say."
Xena responded on Gabrielles behalf, her voice pitched low and menacing. "So I say. Make any charge you want against me, Dokov. But leave her out of it. Shes not like the rest of us."
Allemanes eyes narrowed, "If that is when you think it happened, then any of us could have poisoned him. We were all moving about."
The Hun shook his head slowly, a large smile showing his pointed teeth once more. "Not true. I couldnt. I was being attacked by the Destroyer."
"Well, unless you had a partner, like you accuse us of doing," Gabrielle noted.
Xena smirked, Well, maybe shes a little like us. "I didnt kill him, nor did Gabrielle. But I dont expect any of you to believe me. No more than I believe any of your denials."
"I havent heard Lao Ma deny anything," Allemane noted.
"The innocent need not deny," came the calm reply.
"Oh please! You are hardly an innocent. Tell me, how is Lao Tzu?" Allemane sneered.
Inscrutable eyes met his. "He is ailing, I am afraid."
"Because you find it convenient for him to ail. Youve kept him drugged and comatose while youve usurped his throne." The Gaul stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the Chinese woman. "You can pretend to be some benevolent ruler, but youre nothing more than an elevated concubine."
Gabrielle observed Lao Ma as she showed no reaction whatsoever to the accusations being levied against her. The Amazon ruler knew she could never be so calm if spoken to in such a way. As if sensing his owners need for companionship, Pei-cha moved from Gabrielle back to Lao Ma.
The Empress scratched behind Pei-chas tufted ear when he returned, causing the feline to rest his chin on her thigh. "Nevertheless, I rule Chin," she said, seemingly to Pei-cha, so focused was she on the animal.
"Because that bitch backs you." Allemane now pointed to Xena who was watching the interaction quietly.
"Our alliance is none of your concern. Nor is it relevant here. And put that finger away before I break it off and feed it to you." The Conqueror placed her arm along the back of Gabrielles chair. "Whatever relations Greece and Chin enjoy certainly didnt kill Nebuharin, any more than Romes alliance with Ephesus or Gauls alliance with Persia did."
"So what do we do?" Gabrielle inquired, anxious to change the topic.
Looks were exchanged among the nine rulers as each assessed their rivals. "Lets put Nebuharin in his bedroom, and retire for the night," Pompey finally suggested. "We can figure out what to do in the morning."
"And what of them?" Kulam asked, pointing to the servants.
"Well lock them in a room," Xena responded. "That will keep them from alerting the guards. And itll keep them alive to prepare our meals tomorrow while we decide how to handle this."
Farza chuckled, "I think I might be making my own meals actually."
"Why?" Kulam countered. "You have the least to worry about."
"I am going to my room," Farza announced, pushing up from her place at the table with a flourish. Sniffing disdainfully, carefully avoiding looking at the dead body in their midst, she paced over to the serving trays filled with fruit. She cautiously selected several pieces and wrapped them in a linen napkin. "I hope I can sleep after all this excitement."
Pompey smirked, "Those with a guilty conscience usually have trouble sleeping."
The Syrian Queen let out an exasperated sigh and spun around, creating a dramatic exit. The other rulers watched her leave with various degrees of interest. Kulam clapped the Roman triumvir on the back. "Well done, friend. I think that got her."
Pompey turned his head slightly to stare at the hand resting on his cape.
After a few awkward moments, Kulam removed his hand. "I think Farza had one good idea." He went over to the food and helped himself to a large serving.
The others all begin milling about, meticulously sorting through the food that was laid out on the low serving table. Each of the rulers watched the others, by-passing the same pieces, and each noting the color, texture and smell of the assorted remaining fruits. Xena served herself and Gabrielle, trusting her own survival instincts to keep them both safe.
It was a surreal sight, Gabrielle decided. The remaining eight having dinner while their dead host lay largely forgotten on the floor. His servants sat huddled together on a bench, watching in disbelief as the guests continued on seemingly unconcerned.
The dinner party broke up into three distinct groups: Dokov and Gregor sat together, sharing their hatred for the Conqueror; Pompey, Allemane and Kulam huddled together, laughing robustly; and Lao Ma joined Gabrielle and Xena.
"Were you surprised by the guest list, as well, Xena?" Lao Ma inquired, using delicate fingers to bring a grape to her lips.
The Conqueror shrugged, "I would not be here otherwise."
Lao Ma acknowledged the truth of that statement with a nod. "The spider lures the fly by offering a thing of beauty."
"And once he has landed proceeds to enfold him and eat him. I am hoping to avoid that particular fate." Xena tossed a fig in her mouth, chewing contentedly. "Now who do you think the real spider is here?"
"I see many webs. I do not know which one ensnares us yet."
Gabrielle frowned; she wondered if this was how Xena and Lao Ma had always communicated. If so, she wondered if they ever understood exactly what one another was saying. No wonder the Conqueror wants me to be direct.
"How is Chin?" Xena asked, her voice becoming harder, more serious.
"Didnt you receive my latest report?" The Empress delicately rearranged the folds of her dress.
"I was wondering about what wasnt in the report."
Dark eyes raised and met light ones. "Everything was there, Conqueror. As was the tribute."
"Of course, it was." The Conqueror smiled and rose to her feet, extending a hand to Gabrielle. "Its time to retire for the evening. I suspect we will be rather busy tomorrow, trying to get out of here alive and all."
"What about Nebuharin?" Gabrielle asked softly as they began moving toward the maze.
"Lao Ma will handle it," came the confident reply. The Conqueror stalked over to where the four serving girls were sitting, one still crying softly into anothers shoulder. "Stand up." The command only caused the crying girl to emit a loud sob. Xena repeated the order more forcefully.
Allemane, Pompey and Kulam looked up from their conversation at the commotion near the stairs. "What are you doing to them, Xena?" Pompey called, a hint of amusement in his voice.
Biting back a sarcastic comment, Xena satisfied herself with giving the triumvir a withering glare. She grabbed hold of Emelles upper arm and hauled her to her feet.
Gabrielle put a restraining arm on Xena. "Are you telling them to come with us?"
"We need to lock them up for the evening."
The Amazon Queen nodded, understanding. "But they are less likely to cause trouble if they feel secure. Theyre afraid. Their king is dead and they have no reason to think they wont end up that way themselves. We should let them know we dont plan on hurting them." To emphasize her point, she smiled reassuringly at the servants, who recognized her as their protector.
The dark-haired ruler fought down her irritation at the girls weakness. "All right," she sighed, then spoke to the servants. "Queen Gabrielle wants me to tell you that we wont harm you. If you obey me, that will be true. If you disobey me, I will make you mulch for the gardens. Is that understood?" She waited until she saw four nods. "Now lets head back to the rooms and dont cause any trouble. You will be waiting on us tomorrow."
Slowly the four began moving through the maze in front of the two rulers. Xena made them walk backwards with their arms linked. It was awkward and slow going, but it kept them from running away.
"That was a long we dont plan on harming you talk," came the soft comment beside her.
Xena smiled, "The Babylonian language is wordier."
"Uh huh, right." Gabrielle slipped her hand around Xenas arm and leaned against her as they approached the building. "What did you do? Play Good Ruler, Bad Ruler with them?"
The Conqueror chuckled, "Well yeah. But it really works for us. We both have our parts down pat."
"Thats only what you think," Gabrielle countered, "not what I believe."
Xena shook her head, amazed at her oracles capacity to see things that were not there. "Well, youre quite alone in that regard."
Gabrielle pressed her lips against the soft skin of the Conquerors shoulder. "I dont mind. I know Im right."
Silently they wandered through the residential quarters, looking for an appropriate room to house the servants overnight. Off one of the common areas was a doorway to a small storage room. Xena inspected the room, satisfying herself that the only way in or out was through the one portal. The room was filled with fresh linens and cleaning supplies. The Conqueror removed a few items she thought could be fashioned into weapons and set them outside. "Get in," she commanded and was readily obeyed.
"One moment," Gabrielle said as Xena was closing the door. The oracle had found a nearby pitcher of water and a basin. She handed the items to the tallest of the four girls and smiled reassuringly. To Xena, she said, "Thank you."
The Conqueror closed the door and locked it with the keys she had taken from the servants. She surveyed the doorframe carefully and removed her breast dagger. Hearing a giggle behind her, she turned to see Gabrielle looking intently at her cleavage. "What?"
"Arent your breasts dangerous enough?"
Xena shook her head, grateful no one else was there to hear the comment, and went back to her task. She drove the dagger into the upper doorframe, burying the entire blade deep into the wood, preventing the door from being opened unless the dagger was removed from the outside. "Now theyll stay put. Come on," she said, once again taking Gabrielles hand in hers. "Lets go to our room and Ill figure out how were going to get out of here."
"Well figure out how were going to get out of here," Gabrielle corrected.
Xena chuckled, "Isnt that what I said?"
"No, it isnt, but Im going to pretend it was."
"Wait. Show me the symbol for Amazon," Kelryn moved closer to the scribe. Both were lying on their stomachs, propped up on their elbows, looking down at the parchment the dark haired woman was writing on. The night air was cool and drifting in the open window, so they had pulled a lightweight sheet up to cover the lower halves of their nude bodies.
The slight woman grimaced slightly and drew the character. "Its a combination of woman and warrior and unnatural."
The Amazon warrior frowned. "I dont like it."
"I didnt think you would." The scribe looked over at her new lover shyly. An evening with the young soldier had quickly taught her that the Amazon was a proud woman. "Lie down," she said, pushing the soldier flat against the pallet. "Lets see how well youve learned the other characters Ive taught you."
With her head nestled on crossed forearms, Kelryn complained in a muffled voice, "I cant see anything."
The scribe whispered into Kelryns ear, "Feel then." Placing her left hand on the strong back of the soldier, the woman slowly drew a character with the tip of her index finger.
Kelryn shivered at the dainty touch. "Hmm do it again. I didnt quite get it." It was a lie, and both women knew it. The character was simple, but the scribe complied and redrew it on soft skin. "Ruler. Thats the word for ruler."
"It also means King, yes."
"Do I not want to ask if it could also mean Queen?"
"You dont. We dont have a word for a woman head of state." The Babylonian woman rubbed Kelryns back briskly, as if wiping the slate clean. "Heres the next one." She drew another character, her fingernail tracing a delicate path.
"Lets see. Thats a number I remember that, at least. Five?" Kelryn found it hard to concentrate under the circumstances.
"No." The character was redrawn.
"Ten rulers. Like here," the soldier observed. "I wonder how their dinner party is going." She particularly wondered how her beautiful Queen was doing.
"Im sure as well as it could be, considering all the personalities involved. Kulam tried to hire some of us for his own while he was here! And Farza wanted us to do her laundry!" the scribe announced indignantly.
"Most rulers are pigs."
"But not your Queen?" It was a sincere question. The woman had never met a ruler who did not treat her as an object to be used.
Kelryn sighed, surprising even herself. "Not my Queen. Gabrielle is kind and good."
"Yet she lives with the Destroyer of Nations." She was startled when the body under her fingertips laughed at her observation.
"Well, theres no accounting for taste." Kelryn shrugged her shoulders impatiently. "Lets get back to my lessons. Im a very eager student."
"I thought you were on the lecture circuit," the scribe whispered. "Wait a moment." She kissed the skin at the base of Kelryns neck and moved off the pallet. She picked up the quill she had been using earlier and a small jar of ink. Coming back, she sat down lightly on the soldiers behind.
"Oof!" the Amazon teased.
A gentle tap on the back of her head was Kelryns reward. "Be good. Or Ill stop." Her threat was successful. "Now, be still." She dipped the quill into the ink and then touched the fluid to skin. Working carefully, she wrote a line of Babylonian script across Kelryns back. "What did I write?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
"Thats because you werent paying attention. Lets try again." Another row of script followed beneath the first. "Well?"
Kelryn frowned; she had tried to focus on the characters but the whole situation was rather distracting. "Something about ten rulers, but I couldnt figure out the rest."
"Very good." The scribe leaned down and blew on the ink to help it dry, eliciting a moan beneath her. "Its part of a poem."
"Why dont we make some more poetry of our own?" Kelryn replied, not being able to take the teasing any longer, and pressed her palms to the floor. She was just about to twist around and take hold of the scribe when the door to the room burst open.
Startled, the woman fell off Kelryn, though deftly managing to not spill any of the ink on herself, the soldier or the pallet. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of the two imposing warriors in the doorframe staring at them.
"Kelryn!" Eponins voice boomed into the small room. "We need to " she drifted off, taking in the scene. "What in Hades are you doing?" She bit her lip to stifle the laugh threatening to escape.
"Havent you heard of knocking?" While she refused to be embarrassed, Kelryn did reach out and pull the sheet over the scribes body. "Hi, Palaemon." She gave a short wave at the blushing Captain. He quickly withdrew from the room.
Eponin shook her head, "Get your damn leathers on and get out here. We have work to do. It took us long enough to find you as it is." The Commander closed the door. Well, she doesnt need a token for that one. Obnoxious kid.
Excitement of a different kind coursed through the young soldiers body as she quickly redressed. "Sorry, beautiful, duty calls." She knelt down and kissed the scribe leisurely, as if unconcerned about her commanding officer outside the door. Finally breaking away, she smiled and winked. "Thanks for the lesson."
"You can lecture here anytime, Amazon. And may Artemis Blessing always be with you."
Kelryn smirked and hustled out the door, running smack into Eponin.
"Took you long enough."
The young soldier folded her arms across her chest and shrugged. "Actually, Id say that took me less than three candlemarks. How are you doing with the bet, Ep?"
The Commander colored and cuffed Kelryn. "Focus, soldier. We have a situation."
Palaemon stepped closer and said softly, "Lets talk about this in a more private place."
In their room, Xena stood over the desk, studying the map she had procured from the reading room downstairs. She had changed into a loose fitting silk robe, one Lao Ma had presented her from Chin in her last tribute shipment. It seemed fitting for her to be dressed in spoils as she made her plans. Her finger traced the boundaries of Babylon, going east to west from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. To the north were Ephesus and Syria; the south was only sparsely populated and not unified.
She squinted, envisioning her destiny. Ephesus would be easy to overtake. Gregors leadership was non-existent. Her naval fleet could blockade support from Rome. It would take a moon or two, at most, to secure her hold on it.
Syria would be more difficult. Farza was crafty and ruthless. But Ephesus would give Xena the foothold she needed to launch her takeover of Babylon. From there she could press to the northeast and control all of the region, and capture Persia as well. This would make Rome and Egypt dependent on her for goods from the far east. She could starve them out, isolate them and conquer them as well. Then continue west to Gaul. The Huns she would destroy along the way.
Nebuharin, you didnt know how right you were. You will help us make peace: unified rule under Greece will bring peace. Babylon will be mine. Ephesus will be mine. Syria will be mine. Persia will be mine. Gaul will be mine. Egypt will be mine. Chin is already mine. The Amazons are already mine. The Huns will die. And I will rule Rome. Amazing what one drink can do for world history.
"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, handing Xena a drink, amusing the warrior with her timing.
"Envisioning Nebuharins dream." The Conqueror turned and surveyed her oracle who had changed into a sleep shift, drawing a sensuous smile from the ruler. "Of course, my own dreams are looking pretty good right now." Setting down the goblet, her large hands reached out and clasped hold of Gabrielles narrow hips.
"Oh yeah?" Gabrielle deliberately held back from the Conqueror, keeping the rulers arms extended away from her body. "You getting tired?"
A throaty chuckle was her answer. "Hardly." With a swift movement, she pulled Gabrielle tight against her, pressing her lips against the oracles. Her fingers ran up the length of the fair-haired womans back to grasp the top of the off-white shift. Nipping Gabrielles lower lip, she ripped the nightshirt open along the back seam, eliciting a gasp.
"Good glad to hear that." Gabrielle settled fully into the Conquerors embrace.
Xenas fingertips ran over the smooth back, drinking in the softness of the skin under her touch. It reminded her of everything she loved about Greece, why she wanted to conquer it, dominate it, tend to it. Too much of her country had once been ravaged by warlords who cared not for its beauty, its bounty. They had thought only of their own gain, while she sought to expand Greeces fortunes. She knew by her mastery of Greece, she could lead it to the mastery of all other lands. Once all bowed to her, to Greece, then there would be assurance of prosperity. And things as tender as Gabrielle would never fear again. Not while they were in her hands.
She slowly slid the garment remnant off the Amazon Queen, letting it pool around her feet. "My dreams are closer to coming true than ever before," Xena whispered, kissing the younger woman again.
"Help me with mine," Gabrielle whispered, taking the ruler by the hand and leading her back to the bed.
"Oh, I can make yours real," Xena boasted. Then proceeded to scoop up her lover and toss her gently onto the bed, launching herself effortlessly up on top of the Queen.
"You think?" Gabrielle brushed a stray lock of hair behind Xenas ear.
"I know." A kiss followed the boast. Then several more after.
"What are your dreams?" Gabrielle managed when her lips had one unoccupied moment, her arm wrapped loosely around Xenas neck as the ruler laid siege to her own.
"The world. All of it."
The oracle closed her eyes, distracting herself from the unexpected pain of the reply. Grow up, Gabrielle. Stop filling your head with silly romantic notions. Just take what you are given, its more than shes ever given before.
Xena took the silence as encouragement, assuming the Amazon Queen to be overwhelmed by her attentions. She found herself highly aroused at the prospect that this vacation would actually propel her closer to her ultimate goals. "Mine," she whispered into Gabrielles ear then moved southward. Even Xena didnt know who or what exactly she was referring to. Everything seemed hers tonight. All the world was alive with possibilities.
She paused in her attentions to Gabrielles breast, resting her cheek against its slope. Reluctantly she focused her senses away from the body moving beneath her, from the fingers moving through her hair and from the naked flesh pressed against her now open robe. Blowing out a deep breath, which only further served to arouse Gabrielle, she pushed herself up. "Do you mind if I kill one of your Amazons?" she growled softly.
Before Gabrielle could recover well enough to respond, Xena was off the bed and stalking toward the balcony. She threw open the door and pulled Kelryn into the room, throwing her into a chair. Placing both hands on the arm rests, the Conqueror leaned over the young soldier, not bothering to close her robe.
Kelryn looked at the flesh before her and in that instant understood her Queens attraction to the dark ruler. She had never seen a more perfectly proportioned or defined body, and Kelryn knew she had a lot of experience with which to make comparisons. The Conqueror was the flawless blend of warrior and woman.
Kelryn then quickly realized that most people who looked at the Conqueror this way didnt live until the next morning. She immediately chose another view. Unfortunately, her eyes wandered over to the bed. Upon seeing her Queen undressed, her face suffused with heat. Where the Conqueror was all woman warrior, her Queen was all woman soft and round and beautiful in all the right places. She could tell by the flush covering the pale skin that she had more than interrupted a private moment. "Oh gods," she moaned, hating her plight and Eponin for sending her into the inner palace.
"Do you like what you see?" Xena whispered, having watched where Kelryns attention had gone.
The soldier shook her head, "No, Conqueror." I love what I see, I want what I see. I just happen to enjoy breathing on a regular basis.
Xena leaned in closer to the guard. "No?" her tone was incredulous. "You dishonor your Queen?"
Grey eyes traveled to the rulers face, now close to her own. "No! Oh gods Never!" She realized how her answer had been deliberately misunderstood. Kelryn was smart enough to know better than to explain herself. Extolling Gabrielles ample womanly virtues would not lengthen her life expectancy at this moment. "Its just "
"Xena," Gabrielle called softly, as she stood up and wrapped herself in the rumpled sheet. "Let me."
The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder and flashed a quick smile in the Amazon Queens direction, indicating her clear enjoyment of Kelryns panic. "Lucky for you, Amazon," she said, moving away and settling herself on the nearby couch.
Gabrielle did her best to maintain a dignified expression, despite the fact her body was humming with desire for the Conqueror. She took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the lounging ruler, who sat insolently, not closing her robe. "Whats going on, Kelryn? How did you get in here? And why are you here?"
Kelryn stood up only to bow low before her Queen. "My Queen, my apologies for this untimely interruption."
"Interruptions are, by definition, untimely, Amazon," Xena scoffed.
Gabrielle shook her head slightly in Xenas direction, indicating the ruler was not helping the situation at all. "Sit back down, Kelryn. How did you get in here?"
The young warrior resettled, positioning herself so she had no eye contact with the Greek ruler. "My Queen, Palaemon discovered that you were being held in here for a quarter moon. He asked Eponin and I to aid him in breaching the inner palace. We surveyed the perimeter and discovered that no one was assigned to watch the inner palace roof. Apparently, the Babylonians arent used to women who can scale trees and walk on branches and climb up and down steep angles between rooftops so they dont guard against us." Kelryn paused to recollect her thoughts, but it was of little use. She was still too nervous and prone to rambling at such times. "So the Captain threw a javelin into the inner palace roof with a rope attached to it, I crossed over on the line. I have always been the best in the village in the branches. And Eponin is too heavy for the rope we used. We got a real small one to make it harder to see. Plus, its almost straight up going back. We have Lari and Tamara downstairs distracting the guards, and Palaemon and Eponin are awaiting my return on the other roof. Oh, Palaemon gave me a message for the Conqueror."
"Speak it," Xena commanded.
"Conqueror, he wrote it down." She removed a rolled up piece of parchment from beneath her bracer and handed it over.
The ruler muttered under her breath when she took the parchment and moved away from the two Amazons.
The tension level dropped with each stride further away from them by the dark ruler. Gabrielle took Xenas place on the couch, adjusting the sheet around her body as she did so. "How are things going in the outer palace?"
"Very well, my Queen. We have mapped out the interior and are awaiting your command." She glanced shyly at her leader. "May I ask what King Nebuharin hopes to accomplish by holding you inside?"
Gabrielle made a face akin to having bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. "Peace."
"He didnt quite think it through, did he?"
The Queen looked over at her young Amazon and laughed, delighted to hear someone speak the plain truth. "No, he certainly didnt. I think he was even surprised by the response he received." Gabrielle held off mentioning the Kings death until Xena made absolutely clear she wished it to be known. She looked over to see the Conqueror writing on the parchment; she assumed it was a response to Palaemon.
Kelryn was beginning to feel a bit better. As long as she didnt consider what was and what wasnt beneath the sheet Gabrielle wore, she was fine. It occurred to her to return to the scribe tonight, if at all possible.
"Here," the Conqueror said, suddenly close to her again. "Give this to Palaemon."
"Yes, Conqueror." Kelryn looked over at Gabrielle for permission to exit. It was her fondest hope it would be granted soon.
It was. "Youre dismissed, Kelryn."
Pleased to be leaving in one piece, the young soldier leapt to her feet, eager to comply. Bowing deeply to Gabrielle, she swore her fealty. She was just at the balcony door when the Conquerors voice stopped her. "Come a candlemark later tomorrow night, Amazon."
"Yes, your Majesty," Kelryn replied, unhappily reliving the first few minutes in the bedroom once more. With one more bow, the soldier departed, adroitly scaling the vines which hung down the length of the building.
"Where were we?" Gabrielle asked from the bed, the sheet back to its original use.
Shedding her robe, the Conqueror returned to her oracle. "I was right about here," she whispered as lips closed over flesh.
The fair-haired woman sighed in relief, tangling her fingers once more in Xenas hair, gently caressing the soft spot behind one of her ears. "Exactly."
The morning found Gabrielle alone in bed. She stretched slowly, as she imagined Pei-cha did, and welcomed the day. Their lovemaking had gone long into the night so Gabrielle was not surprised by the height of the sun outside the window, or the absence of the Conqueror. She leaned over the edge of the bed and picked up the robe Xena had discarded on her way to the bed the night before. Bringing the silk to her nose, she inhaled the scent of her lover and wondered where Xena was.
She did not wait long as she heard soft footfalls on the balcony. Gabrielle had moved over to the dressing area and was choosing her clothing for the day. Holding a copper colored dress up to her body, she turned to the Conqueror. "Do you like this one?"
Xena nodded, "Definitely. But you should put it on quickly. Kulam is on his way."
Frowning, Gabrielle dressed and was running a comb through her hair when an insistent banging was heard on their door. "Do you want me to answer it?"
The dark ruler shook her head and motioned Gabrielle back. "No; best if I do."
"Youll soon find out," the Conqueror replied, opening the door and taking an imposing stance in the doorframe. She coolly surveyed the Persian ruler, who was clearly agitated. He glanced over his shoulder, as if concerned someone might be sneaking up on him.
"You know?" Kulam queried; his voice had a mixture of anxiety and annoyance in it.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, trying not to sound annoyed.
"Farza is missing."
"Did she cross over the sand?" was Gabrielles reasonable inquiry.
"Not that I can tell," Kulam replied. "Pompey and I have been down by the crossing, trying not to attract too much attention from the guards across the way. We couldnt see any evidence of someone crossing."
Gabrielle tried not to smirk when she thought about her Amazons. Living in a desert without many trees had made the Babylonians think only horizontally and not vertically. Tree climbing skills were not to be underestimated, she decided. She wished she had climbed more of them as a child.
Xena shrugged, "That means shes here. Probably just hiding, afraid were going to turn her over to the Babylonians."
"It is still our most expedient option, Xena. Think of it: we hand Farza over to the Babylonians and then Syria is ours." The Persian kings voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.
"Syria is already mine, if I want it." The Conqueror looked bored with the entire conversation. "Lets go find Farza before she causes any more trouble than she has already." She settled a cape around her shoulders, knowing she wore one better than Pompey ever could.
"Do you think she killed Nebuharin?" Gabrielles question brought Xenas attention back to the matter at hand.
Kulam snorted at the Amazon Queens question. "Of course she did. She sat beside him and its her favorite way of getting rid of troublesome people."
Gabrielle considered his argument but remained quiet. It seemed too convenient to her. Convenience and truth were opposites; such had been her discovery in life so far.
The Greek ruler rolled her eyes at Kulams stubborn insistence, but followed him out the door, reaching back for Gabrielles hand. Her longer fingers curled around the smaller ones, entwining them tightly. She didnt like the idea of Farza being missing, despite her earlier comment. Considering the womans very real fear the night before, Xena thought it unlikely the Queen would deliberately remove herself from the others. People are much easier to kill when all alone. The Syrian Queen certainly knew that.
They went back to the garden house where the other rulers and the servant girls were gathered. The servants were setting out platters of food on the long table under the watchful eyes of Lao Ma and Allemane. Dokov and Gregor stood by the bar, pouring an amber liquid into their goblets. Pompey was lazing on a long bench, his hands clasped under his head, providing a pillow of flesh. He seemed to be watching his chest move as he breathed, intent on watching the medals affixed to it rise and fall. No one paid particular attention when Xena, Gabrielle and Kulam arrived, except for Pei-cha. The snow leopard rose from his position beside Lao Mas chair and made his way to Gabrielle.
Pei-cha rose up on his back legs and placed his paws on Gabrielles shoulders, bringing himself nose to nose with the Amazon Queen. She staggered back a step, surprised by his sudden movement and weight against her. It was only Xenas hand on the small of her back that kept her upright. Pei-cha emitted a low purr, then rubbed his cheek against Gabrielles.
Awkwardly, the small woman brought her arms around the leopard in an embrace. His fur was thick, but surprisingly soft. Gabrielles hand and wrist all but disappeared into its length as she held the feline.
Kulam watched the scene with interest, "You seem to attract wild things, Queen Gabrielle." He moved over to the buffet before either Gabrielle or Xena could respond to his observation.
The cats weight was beginning to become too much for the slight oracle, but Pei-cha showed no intention of moving anytime soon. His chin rested on her shoulder and his tail had wrapped around their entwined legs.
Xena reached out to help disentangle Gabrielle from the feline, but stopped short when a low growl issued from the cats throat and his icy blue eyes met hers. While unafraid of what the leopard might try to do to her, she would not risk Gabrielle becoming injured accidentally. "I think hes happy where hes at," Xena whispered, her voice containing a hint of amusement.
"Well, hes heavy." She rubbed his fur briskly, trying to communicate her affection for him. "Its time to get down now, sweetheart," she whispered in his tufted ear which was nestled near her chin.
Pei-cha pulled back, rubbed his cheek once more against the soft skin of the oracle, and then dropped down on all fours. He spared a glance at the Conqueror, baring his fangs slightly, and then slowly circled back to Lao Ma.
"I dont think he likes me much," the Conqueror noted.
"Competition," Gabrielle guessed. "I think he was trying to mark me just now."
"He did all but spray you, thats for sure."
Gabrielle pursed her lips together and regarded the Conqueror, "Sounds like someone else I know last night." At Xenas indignant look, she smiled gently and placed her hand on the other womans strong forearm. "For which I was very grateful. Youre a very good protector." Lowering her voice so that only Xena could hear, Gabrielle concluded, "And, I am yours."
Mollified, the Conqueror led them over to the table, where they greeted Lao Ma and Allemane. Little was said as they filled up their plates and began eating. The others wandered over to the table and loaded up on the fruit, cheese, breads and smoked meat.
The servant girls knew to stay within sight at all times and busied themselves with refilling goblets and trays. Gabrielle noticed that they stayed far away from Dokov, making her wonder what he had done to frighten them. She felt a flash of indignation at the thought he had mistreated them as he had done her the night before.
Xena surveyed the table, noting the new seating arrangements. The Hun had wisely chosen to sit far away from her, assuming Farzas seat. It was then she knew. "We need to find Farza."
Gregor shrugged, "Shell come when she gets hungry enough. She seemed awful concerned with her belly last night."
"You should talk," Allemane muttered, giving the obese man a look of contempt.
"Shes in here somewhere," Pompey replied around a mouthful of bread and gesturing at the surrounding gardens.
Sighing, Xena pushed herself up from the table. "I intend to find her." She looked meaningfully at Gabrielle who popped a grape into her mouth and stood up to come with her.
"Ill help you," Gabrielle offered unnecessarily. She grabbed a handful of grapes as she rose from the table and followed after the ruler.
Together they wandered through the expanse of the gardens. The gardens were laid out into four distinct regions, each with its own theme. The southwestern corner was the hedge maze and garden house. The southeastern corner was overflowing with flowers in intricately arranged beds. Even though one could look across the entire area with a sweeping glance, Xena insisted on walking through the flowerbeds on the narrow gardening pathway. The ruler believed that when she found Farza, she would not be standing upright.
All four regions were touched by a lake in the middle of the gardens which extended as far back as the northern wall. The water within was cold and clear, much like the water of the Euphrates. Along the northern wall was a rising column of rock, built to resemble the side of a mountain. From the top of the rocks the stream came splashing down, thus creating an artificial waterfall in the middle of the desert palace.
The dark ruler and oracle stood on the western side of the falls, watching the water dance its way down to the lake. Gabrielle was clearly impressed by the design. "Thats terrific, isnt it?"
Xena nodded slowly, "It is." Her eyes went to the two towers she could see rising behind the northern way. She knew that had to be where the water was being drawn up to the top of the wall. She wondered how many slaves it took to keep the water circulation on-going throughout the day and night as it had been. Xena wished Nebuharin was alive to explain how they brought in the water from the Euphrates as well. Was there an inlet of some kind? Although she doubted it, not having seen any waterway to the palace on their walk from the ship. If not, did Nebuharin have slaves fetching water from the river and then hoisting it above the wall? Were that the case, the Conqueror would consider it a tremendous and unforgivable waste of his resources.
"I wish we had more waterfalls in Greece," the oracle sighed. She especially enjoyed the fine mist that rose from the surface near where the water splashed down. "Ive hardly seen any before."
Xena chuckled, "You just need to know where to look for them, Gabrielle." Giving the smaller woman a gentle tug on her arm, the ruler began leading them into the forested area of the northwestern region. "Come on, I think weve established that Farza isnt in the waterfall."
They walked through the treed area, being suitably impressed at how dense it truly was. Once they were thirty paces into its realm, they were obscured from view. The light became sparer as the tree limbs and leaves blocked out Helios harsh rays. Gabrielle shivered slightly at the temperature drop. The Conqueror removed her cape and draped it around her companions shoulders. Gabrielle smiled her gratitude as the warmth settled over her.
It occurred to Xena that this would be the perfect place to hide in the gardens. A full candlemark later, they emerged from the forest. While they had not searched the entire area, Xena felt reasonably confident that Farza was not within its confines.
They walked around the lake and back to the northeastern area and through the tropical plants found there. Gabrielle was impressed by the big, leafy vegetation and the bamboo stand. Deep within the section, they found a small pond and shaded prayer hut. The pond was filled with brightly colored fish who swam about oblivious to all the intrigue in the gardens.
Gabrielle reached out and took hold of the Conquerors hand, leaning up against the tall woman. "Id really like this place if Nebuharin hadnt had the bad manners to die."
Xena glanced down at her oracle and smiled, surprised by the humor. "I know what you mean."
"How are we going to get out of this, Xena?"
"Come on, lets sit down for a moment." The Conqueror led them into the prayer hut and settled down on the small bench provided for the petitioner. "I have Palaemon making arrangements for us to leave. Once we have a secure way out of the city, well be going."
"Even without knowing who killed Nebuharin? Dont you want to find out?"
"Not that much. Im more concerned about us getting out of here alive and in one piece."
Gabrielle played with the large hand held within her own, uncurling the Conquerors fingers gently, examining each. "Wont the Babylonians assume you killed him if we flee?"
"Frankly, I dont care what they think, Gabrielle. Were not safe here either way. Once they discover their king is dead, all of our lives are forfeit. I dont intend to be here when they find out the truth."
"But if we discovered the truth about who killed him, wouldnt that be better?" Gabrielles eyes glowed with resolve. "Otherwise, Babylon will consider Greece its enemy. Youve had important trade relations with Babylon since the beginning of your reign. I dont want to see that lost."
The dark ruler stretched out her long legs and crossed them at the ankles, staring resolutely at her boots, as if they might provide her with guidance. "Trade is no good if youre dead. But -" she held up a hand as Gabrielle was about to interrupt her "you have a very good point." She touched her fingers to the oracles lips. "Heres what well do: well try and figure out who killed him. But, if we can leave here safely before then, well go. And I dont want any arguments from you when that time comes."
Gabrielle kissed the fingers against her lips. "Deal." She lightly slapped her thighs and stood up, gazing down fondly at the relaxing ruler. "Come on, lets find Farza before she causes any more trouble."
"I dont think she will be," Xena muttered.
It was time for the noon meal when the two returned from searching the gardens, having discovered no trace of the missing Syrian Queen. As they approached the garden house, Pompey and Kulam came up behind them. "It makes no sense to me," Kulam muttered.
"He was a crazy old man," Pompey replied blithely, still regretting that it was he and not Caesar in this mess.
"What makes no sense?" Gabrielle inquired, her curiosity piqued.
Kulam gestured about, taking in as much of the gardens and the inner palace as he could. "That there is only one way in or out of this place."
"Perhaps he felt safe here," the Roman theorized. "He could have thought there would be no need for an escape route."
"Then he would be a fool, and he was called the Fox because he wasnt one."
Xena had to agree with Kulam. "True. Foxes have many holes leading to their lairs. You just didnt find the others."
At this, Pompey became indignant. "I know how to conduct a search, Destroyer."
Gabrielle interposed herself at that moment, "Does something smell good to anyone else?" Taking hold of the Conquerors arm, she moved them up the stairs and toward the dining table. She was pleased with Xenas willingness to be led away from her Roman antagonizer. She missed Xenas smirk over her shoulder at the Roman.
Finding some of the other rulers lounging around the garden house, Xena shook her head. "I intend to search the inner palace for Farza. If you dont want me looking through your lodgings without you, I suggest you get off your lazy asses and help with the search."
"How dare you!" Allemane sprang to his feet, immediately angered. "That is outrageous! While you have been out traipsing about with your consort, we have been busy as well."
"You havent begun to see outrageous, Allemane." Xena took a step toward the curly-haired Gaul. "And what have you done this morning?" Her tone implied that it could not have been very worthwhile, if he had done it.
Gabrielle found herself unexpectedly warmed by the declaration of her as the Conquerors Consort. It didnt bother her that Allemane had dismissed her own royal status; she could only dwell on the title he had bestowed on her. It wasnt a secret she and Xena were lovers, by any means. Yet there had been no formalization of their relationship and certainly no announcement of it. She wondered what the Conqueror thought of Allemanes comment, but knew better than to inquire.
"Pompey and Kulam looked for a way out of the inner palace."
Xena shrugged, "I know that. I asked what you did. Not what they did."
Allemane stood to his full height, but he was still shorter than the Conqueror. "I too examined the gardens."
"Too bad you didnt do anything useful."
Clearing her throat, Lao Ma spoke. "I would be happy to help with the search, Xena. I am sure all of us would be glad for the distraction." Her eyes fell on Dokov and Gregor, her annoyance with them evident to any who cared to notice. "Sitting here, merely watching over the servants, has been less than enlightening." Indeed, she had been protecting the servants from the unwanted attention of the Hun. While she had wanted to join in searching the premises, she knew that to leave the servants alone would have resulted in their defilement.
Pompey responded first, "Lets get it over with. Then we can come back and eat."
The search consisted of a cursory review of each of the rooms. None of the rulers was willing to allow anything more than establishing that Farza was not within their space. After a short time, they were all gathered in the formal receiving room.
Gregor let out a long sigh as he settled himself on one of the couches. "She is being rather tedious. I mean, this desperate ploy for attention "
"I hardly think Queen Farza is doing this because she feels neglected," Gabrielle countered.
"She must be in the gardens then."
"I looked there, Pompey. Shes not there," Xena growled, not liking the challenge.
Dokov snorted in derision. "You are not infallible, Xena."
Twirling around, her cape billowing out, Xena drew a dagger from her left boot and held it menacingly. "And you are not immortal."
Kulam found himself in the unusual role of peacemaker, as he stepped between the two rulers. "Is there anyplace else we have not looked?"
"We looked in all of our rooms," Allemane replied.
"Not all," the Chin Empress stated calmly. "We havent looked in Nebuharins room."
"Oh, yeah, shes hiding in there. Please."
"Allemane, shut up," Kulam ordered. "Lets make a visit. This has gone on long enough."
The procession, complete with servants and snow leopard, made its way back through the inner palace, to the large suite that housed the body of the Babylonian king.
The twelve people piled in the room, the four servants bowing before the covered body of their dead leader. One of them began crying, a combination of grief for her monarch and for the situation she found herself in.
Dokov and Gregor settled into chairs, annoyed at the whole affair. Allemane stood guard at the door, watching over the servants, as had been his duty all morning. Meanwhile, Pompey was going through the suite, looking in every possible hiding place for the missing queen. Lao Ma and Gabrielle stood together, trying to think as Farza might, and discern where she was. Pei-cha settled his large frame between them, contenting himself with both of their attentions. Kulam walked out onto the large balcony and was carefully checking it for any sign of her, or her having been there. Xena stood in the middle of the room taking it all in.
The two men returned from their explorations and shrugged. "If she was here, she isnt anymore," Pompey announced, unnecessarily.
"It makes no sense. Unless she found another way out of here."
"I dont think thats it, Kulam," Xena replied, realizing the obvious, at last.
"Then where is she, Conqueror?"
Walking over to the bed, Xena lifted up the sheet to expose the dead body of Queen Farza. Looking soberly at the startled people around her, she shrugged, "I think the better question is: where is Nebuharin?"
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