The surviving six rulers stood around the remains of the prayer hut, their torches illuminating the heavy stones which had collapsed in a heap. "Well, that had to hurt," Kulam muttered dryly.
Dokov snorted, reminding Gabrielle of a wild pig that once lived outside Potadeia. "How do we know Allemane is under all that? It could be another trick, like Nebuharin." The Hun shifted his weight to his other foot, having twisted his ankle slightly while stumbling through the meager light to this place.
"Nebuharin and Allemane? I dont think so," Pompey countered. "Gaul is almost completely occupied by Rome. It will be ours before the next moon. Babylon could be no help to Gaul."
"Rome this, Rome that," the Hun Chief grunted. "I am so sick of your and Caesars ambitions. My nation will override you."
Pompeys face appeared even more contorted in the torchlight, as harsh shadows fell across his features. For a moment he stared incredulously at the burly ruler, who still wore his fur outfit despite the heat of the desert, and burst into laughter. His deep, rich laugh echoed throughout the gardens. "Please, Dokov, tell me another funny story. I am so glad you can keep your sense of humor when others are dying around you."
Dokov lunged at the Roman, his hastily drawn sword swinging wildly to the left of his intended target as his ankle collapsed under him. Pompey ducked to one side and kicked the Hun in the hindquarters as he stumbled past. Dokov fell on his face with an overwhelming lack of grace.
Even Pei-cha seemed to snicker at the sight.
"Stay there," Kulam ordered, the tip of his sword at the base of the Chiefs neck. "This is really most tiresome. Youre beginning to get under my skin."
Handing her torch to Gabrielle, Xena walked over to the large pile of stone. "Well, lets see if we can find a body under here."
Pompey gave his torch to Lao Ma and then joined in the turning over of stone. Each block was a cubit square and quite heavy. The task was slow going, as there were only two moving the blocks aside.
As Pompey moved closer to the center of the pile, he bent to pick up a block of stone and felt his hand touch flesh. Dropping the block and narrowly missing his foot, he called Lao Ma closer. In the flickering light, he confirmed what he felt. "I have a hand here."
The Conqueror moved over from where she had been worked and examined the crushed extremity. "Well, that answers that question."
Kulam nicked the base of the Huns neck, drawing a small trickle of blood. "Got that, Dokov? Allemanes under there. So, enough of your games."
He sheathed his sword and took a step away from the Hun, carefully watching the unpredictable ruler for another ill-conceived attack. Moving over to the others, he shrugged. "I dont see why we need to finish this tonight. Its late. Allemane isnt going anywhere."
"Best thing Ive heard you say yet," the Conqueror stated, taking back the torch from Gabrielle. "Lets go to bed," she said, her voice rich with meaning. Xena smiled as she watched the blush steal across the Amazon Queens features.
"With people dying left and right, who can sleep?" Pompey muttered, missing Rome more than he thought possible.
"Who said anything about sleep?" Xena smirked, taking Gabrielles hand in her free one, entwining their fingers tightly.
Not willing to let the evening end so quickly, Kulam called out to the retreating figure of the Greek ruler, "Where were you all day, Destroyer?"
The Conqueror paused and looked back at the Persian King. "In the gardens, just like everyone else."
Pompey chuckled quietly.
"Why couldnt we see you? Why didnt you come when Gregor was killed? Or were you too busy rigging this to collapse on Allemane?"
"Kulam, does it really matter what I answer? If I did as you say, I am certainly not going to blurt out the truth, and if I bother to deny it, you wont believe me anyway. I will tell you, however, that if I wanted Allemane dead, I wouldnt have needed to stone him, however untraditionally done." Having made her point, she led Gabrielle back toward their room.
Kulam smiled tightly, "Very well. I bid you and Queen Gabrielle pleasant and safe slumber."
The Conqueror and the Queen were too far away to hear his remark. Pei-chas keen hearing did pick it up though and the leopard peered back over his shoulder at the Persian king. A glimpse of teeth and a swish of tail told Kulam that his benediction was not taken as sincere.
Eponin strode confidently through the palace as if it were the Amazon village. Throughout her entire life she had been a leader among her sisters, recognized for the easy way she took on the mantle of authority. Better still, she was known for not letting her title or position go to her head. Eponin through it all was a soldier first and commander second. She knew what it was like patrolling for three days without sleep to protect the Nations borders. She had done more than her fair share of hunting to provide for the others, and then waited patiently in the mess hall line to be served that which she had slaughtered. She never forgot the hours of drilling that she had gone through to get to the point where she could trust her instincts and know she could protect her sisters.
When she was called to be Commander of the Queens Escort, she had first been reluctant. With the Nation reclaiming old lands, Eponin had wanted to be with her sisters. She wanted to be the one who spread Terreis ashes over their sacred ground. Instead, Ephiny had taken on that honor. Ephiny, whom she had sworn to Terreis to protect, was living in a village far from Corinth, farther still from Babylon. Often, Eponin wondered if she had made the right decision.
Yet somehow she knew her destiny lay beyond the four corners of Amazon territory. It was wrapped up with a wandering Amazon Queen who had a strange allegiance to the Nations greatest enemy. Who was now its greatest benefactor. This same destiny had brought her to Babylon. A place she instantly disliked. The land was too arid, the sun too bright, the wind too scarce. To live here would be torture to one who had known the beauty of Greece.
This was what drove her to find Wynn. She had to know why a Greek chose to live in this desert, to serve an obviously irresponsible king, and to turn her back on her sisters. For Eponin was sure Wynn was Amazon stock. She was never wrong about that; family always recognized family.
She had sent Kelryn to discover the rest of the poem which had so angered the Conqueror. A part of her had wanted to accompany the young soldier, but she had decided not to do so. Kelryn needed to finish this assignment on her own. She had certainly been successful with the concubines so far. Eponin shook her head ruefully. Gods, she could only hope the little pest didnt brag about this contest forever. Somehow, Eponin doubted if even Artemis would extend that kindness to her.
Eponin found the painter, at long last, in the wing opposite the concubines quarters. Eponin had started her search with the members of Nebuharins pleasure house, assuming Wynn to be among them. She had been surprised to not find her there. Wynn was certainly attractive enough to be a member of the harem. Her absence caused Eponin to wonder if there was a prejudice against Greeks in that manner. She had never found men to be particularly discerning in the past. Not that she had ever availed herself of any of their attentions. She chuckled; somehow she didnt think she was quite any mans type. Not when she could outperform them in any number of activities, including the one they were most proud of. All of this was going through her mind as she stared into the small room that contained the Greek.
"Is there something you want?"
Eponin blushed, annoyed that she couldnt seem to make the right impression with this painter. "I wanted to see you."
"Ok, well, you have. You can leave now; mission accomplished, soldier."
The Amazon scowled. "May I ask what I did that so offended you? I dont think Ive spoken more than a few sentences to you, if that. Normally, it takes me a little longer to have someone stop talking to me altogether."
"Not as often as you must think." Eponin shook her head and walked over to a nearby chair, settling down into it. What was it about this woman that made Eponin feel very old and very unsure of herself?
"Have a seat," came the wry reaction to her movement.
"Thanks." The Commander ignored the annoyed look she was receiving from the petite woman and let her eyes take in the small confines of the room. On every available space on the wall was another piece of hide or parchment that Wynn had painted. All were scenes from Greece; not one was from Babylon. "Miss Greece, eh?"
"Its been a long time since Ive seen it."
"Theyre very nice."
Wynn softened slightly. "Thank you."
"How long have you lived in Babylon?"
"Since I was 13 winters." To forestall the next question, she continued, "So, almost half my life ago, I came here."
"Why did you come to Babylon?"
Running a hand through her short red hair, Wynn sighed. "Gee, my mother wanted to see the world. Hows that for an answer?"
"It doesnt suit me real well, but its an answer, I suppose." Eponins callused hands ran briskly over the tops of her thighs. Studying her fingers, she asked softly, "Is there a reason you dont like me? Or is it just on principle?"
Wynn leaned back against the wall, folding her arms across her chest. "I guess I dont like being just another belt notch." If there had been any doubt in her mind that had been Eponins first intention, the ducked head dispelled it. "My mothers lover was like you, before she left us."
Ouch. Eponin pursed her lips. "I barely said two words to you."
"Come now, with your subordinate running around like a crazed rabbit hard to deny similar intentions. The concubines all think shes an Amazon sex slave. Its been quite funny listening to them talk about her."
"Sex slave? Where would they get that idea?"
Wynn chuckled, "For one thing, shes apparently very good at her chosen occupation." The artist enjoyed seeing Eponin shake her head sadly. "For another, she wears her hair short."
"Most Amazon warriors dont grow their hair long until they have their Rite of Initiation. She wont have that until she has successfully completed her first tour of duty."
"They dont know that. All they know what is what they see." Wynn fell silent, wondering if Eponin would make sense of it all.
It took a few long moments before the Commander looked up and stared into hazel eyes. "Youre a slave?"
Self-consciously, Wynn scratched the back of her neck, feeling the ends of her hair tickle her hand as she did so.
"Why didnt you say so? What happened?"
"My mother and her lover had broken up. Mom was despondent and had to leave the village for awhile. Seeing Mala with her new lover was too much for her to handle. The infidelities had been bad enough, but the abandonment was hardest. She decided we should see a bit of the world, and then we would return to the village. We were in Syria when we were captured. Mother was a beautiful woman; she was sold to the chief minister of state here in Babylon. I had her natural artistic ability as well. So, we were both kept as favored artists of the king."
"I dont want your pity. Nor do I want to be used by a sister Amazon. Ive had enough betrayal to last a lifetime." The last words came out bitter on her tongue.
"Were leaving here tomorrow," Eponin said quietly. She knew if she was wrong to trust Wynn, that she had now betrayed her Queen and the Conqueror. But she could not turn her back on this woman. She didnt think Gabrielle would want her to either. "Come with us."
"Do you really expect a slave of King Nebuharin to simply walk out the door with the Greek entourage?"
"Ill buy you," Eponin ventured.
"Id rather die here."
Eponin had never felt so frustrated in her entire life. "I am trying to free you. Dont you understand that?"
"I thought there was no slavery among the Amazons. Or has that changed?"
"You wouldnt be my slave!"
Wynn shook her head slowly. "Yes, I would. As sure as if I had shackles on my hands and feet."
"How am I supposed to leave you here?"
The red head shrugged. "The same way youve left every other woman before, Commander. Just put one foot in front of the other." She pushed herself away from the wall and went over to the door, opening it. "If you dont mind."
The soldier started to protest, but no words came out. Finally, in defeat, she exited the room, reminding herself to place one foot in front of the other.
Back in their room, the Conqueror was going through their belongings, sorting through them to put some in a bag for Kelryn to carry across the divide. It annoyed her to have to leave items behind. Better possessions than our hides, Xena thought until she caught sight of Pei-cha snuggling close to Gabrielle on the couch. Well, I wouldnt mind leaving behind one hide.
"Tell me how things are on the outside."
Xena shrugged, not stopping her work. "Theres a whole nation ready to kill us when they discover their king is dead. Ive had Palaemon arrange passage for us, so if the winds are favorable and the crew is strong, we have some hope." She finished her task and glanced up to see the impact of her words on Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen was tense from fright and was stroking Pei-cha in an effort to calm herself. "Im sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said, walking over, ignoring the warning growl.
"Im fine; its fine, Xena," Gabrielle assured her. "I just miss Greece." She tapped Pei-cha on the head. "Be nice."
The Conqueror smiled ruefully. "Some vacation, eh?"
"Id like to stay home next time myself. Dont you feel the same way?"
An ironic laugh was her reply and the Conqueror reached large hands out to push Pei-cha off the couch. The large cat resisted, hunkering down onto the cushion, changing his center of gravity to make him impossible to move. His expression changed, baring his teeth and his fur bristled. Just as radically, Xenas expression changed.
Before she could confront the cat, Gabrielle stroked Pei-chas head. "You need to get down, sweetheart. Xena wants to sit there."
Pei-cha considered the request for a long moment before acquiescing. He climbed down from the couch and went out to the balcony without a second glance behind him.
The Conqueror took the vacated spot, after thoroughly brushing the cushion free of leopard hair, and cradled Gabrielles hand gently between her own. "We will be started home tomorrow, Gabrielle. I promise you. And we will see Greece soon."
"I wish we knew who had killed all of these rulers. I hate that we will now be at war with them."
"We will be safe. Ephesus is toothless. It was even with Gregors presence. Syria will most likely thank us for Queen Farzas death. We will be heroes to her son who has waited for a long time to fill his fathers throne. Gaul isnt a worry for us. Its too far away to make any hostile move toward Greece, and it has the Romans to contend with as it is. And Babylon isnt known for a moving army. I doubt that it will be able to make it across the desert and the water to see Greeces beauty. Trade will be dampened for awhile, but we will be fine."
Gabrielle shook her head, smiling gently. "Thanks, I feel better."
"That was the point."
"But, what about Rome, Persia, Chin and the Huns? You wouldnt leave Lao Ma in here, would you?"
"No, Chin is too important to Greece, especially now. Besides, I owe my life to Lao Ma. She holds my debt. Even as I hold hers."
Green eyes glinted and the oracle considered this information. "Xena," she began speculatively.
Sensing she was about to be told or asked something she wouldnt like, the Conqueror responded gruffly. "What?"
"Your debt to Lao Ma is because she saved your life. So, naturally, you feel a certain affection for her."
The Conqueror shifted uncomfortable, not wanting to discuss her prior relationship with the empress, even with Gabrielle. "I wouldnt call it affection. I would call it a responsibility."
"All right," Gabrielle continued, "this responsibility makes you want to protect her. There is a bond between you because of what you suffered, right?"
"What are you trying to get me to do, Gabrielle?"
"Lets take all of the rulers with us."
The Conqueror made a face as if a foul smell had wafted into the room. She moved away from the Amazon queen, shaking her head as she did so. "No. Thats out of the question."
"Why?" Xenas voice became loud. "Why? You have to ask why?" She waved a hand toward the gardens where they had recently found part of Allemane. "One of them is a murderer, Gabrielle. And the rest arent much better."
Gabrielle moved a little closer to the Conqueror. "Are you sure the murderer is one of us? If you found the way out, perhaps someone else did? Someone in the palace?"
"There has to be someone on the inside. Otherwise, the killer wouldnt know when each of us were alone. Nor would they be able to walk around undetected. And to make sure all the deaths fit into the scheme of that poem."
The fair head nodded, "Even so. Three out of four arent murderers. I highly doubt Lao Ma is the culprit. So that leaves Kulam, Pompey and Dokov." Her brow furrowed as she considered the three remaining suspects trying to figure out which was the one.
"I hope its Dokov," Xena muttered. "I would enjoy strangling the life out of him. If my hands can reach all the way around his thick neck." This had the desired effect and caused the oracle to laugh softly.
"Tell me, Xena," the smaller woman snuggled close to her side, molding her skin to the Conquerors, "what are we going to do when we get back to Corinth?"
The dark ruler stretched out, wrapping her arm around the slight shoulders of her companion. Her long fingers played on the soft, exposed skin of Gabrielles upper arm. Turning her head, she whispered into the hair which smelled like sunlight. "What would you like to do?"
"Stay home." Gabrielle reached over and took hold of Xenas free hand, entwining their fingers.
A low chuckle rumbled out of the Conqueror. "And do what?
"Anything you like." This statement was followed by a gentle kiss on Xenas collarbone.
"Oh I like a lot of things." Xena countered with a gentle nibble on Gabrielles ear.
"Thats not particularly flattering," the oracle chided.
"I like you most of all, though."
Gabrielles heart began beating overtime and she twisted around so as to see the Conquerors pale blue eyes. "That is flattering," she whispered and pressed her lips against Xenas. As she continued to explore the ruler, she found herself shifting, climbing into the taller womans lap. Her hands were wrapped in dark tresses when she heard a menacing growl from Pei-cha. Their lips parted reluctantly and an annoyed oracle rested her forehead against Xenas. "Damn cat," she muttered. She was reconsidering her affection for a feline that continued to threaten her lover.
Xena echoed the growl from the feline. "Damn Amazon, actually." Giving Gabrielle a gentle squeeze, she lifted the light figure from her lap and stalked outside. Kelryn clung to the vines above the floor of the balcony, out of easy reach of Pei-cha. Xena recognized that it would be nothing for the leopard to leap up and pull down his Amazon dinner, if he wanted to. "Come on in, Kelryn," Xena sighed.
"If you say so." Kelryns cocky attitude was conspicuously absent. She dropped lightly to her feet, being sure to land as far away from the cat as she could. With much haste, she entered into the suite, breathing a sigh of relief. Her eyes quickly went to her queen. She noted the blush which graced Gabrielles cheeks and her kiss bruised lips. Kelryn closed her eyes and grimaced. She would not continue to live if she kept interrupting these two. "My Queen." She bowed.
"Do you have the rest of the poem, soldier?" Xenas gruff voice inquired from behind her.
"Yes, your majesty." She felt strong hands grab at her leathers to strip them down. Kelryn grabbed at her chest, holding up the garment. "Not there!"
Xena stopped. "Where then?"
Kelryn handed a piece of parchment over her shoulder.
"Will you read it out loud?" Gabrielle asked gently.
"Sure," Xena nodded, unrolling the small scroll. "Ill pick up where we left off last.
Six little warlords visited a scribe;
Ones skin became like parchment and then there were five
Five little warlords spent a day at the shore;
One swam with sharks and then there were four
Four little warlords climbed up a tree;
One was tangled in the branches and then there were three
Three little warlords stopped to admire the view;
One slipped and fell and then there were two
Two little warlords sat out in the sun;
Ones skin shriveled up and then there was one
One little warlord left all alone;
So he hanged himself and then there were none
Pleasant little poem, eh?" Xena rolled her eyes. "Who wrote it?"
"Prince Vedtrilan, your majesty."
Seeing the question in the oracles eyes, Xena answered it before she could voice it. "Hes Nebuharins son."
"Sounds like we found out who the murderer is." Gabrielle pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them. "Who else has more to profit from by his fathers death?"
"Provided Nebuharin is actually dead, no one."
"But what?" Gabrielle asked, reading the hesitation on the rulers face.
"Doesnt it all seem a bit too convenient?"
"Now youre going to be taking all the other rulers with you?" Kelryn asked Gabrielle a little later, as she was waiting somewhat patiently while Xena wrote out more instructions for Palaemon.
Gabrielle smiled. "Its for the best diplomatically."
Over at the desk, Xena silently agreed. It would be harder for the Babylonians to blame her alone for the deaths if she left with four other rulers. Of course, holding a debt over Pompey was especially enticing. Caesar, I will have your life in my hands soon. Xena glanced over at her fair-haired oracle and allowed herself a small smile. For someone so young and so new to affairs of state, Gabrielle had a natural instinct for ruling. Throughout their ordeal in Babylon, Gabrielles advice had proven itself worthwhile. Had it only been a few short moons ago that the injured young woman was first before her? Xena briefly considered thanking the gods for the inspiration to hold the contest of truth, but decided against it. Ares had been too quiet for too long. There was no need to draw undue attention to herself.
Gabrielle caught her staring. She flashed Xena a smile and a subtle wink, wishing Kelryn wasnt there so she could go over and wrap her arms around the dark ruler. Her mind flashed back to earlier in the evening and Xenas lips on hers. A light blush dusted her skin.
Kelryn noticed the reaction in her Queen. I really need to leave these two alone for awhile. If I have any hope of having a long career as a soldier. She smirked. Or if Im to have a long career breathing and walking the earth. She was still surprised to find such devotion between the two women, especially given the Conquerors reputation.
Finishing her note, Xena strode over to the young Amazon. She thrust the paper at Kelryn. "Give this to Palaemon. Tell Eponin that all of the Amazon guard are to be at the entrance to the tunnels at the concubine baths. When I lead Gabrielle and the others out, we will head there first."
"Yes, your majesty." Hearing Eponins name reminded Kelryn of the note the older Amazon had entrusted her with. She removed it from under her bracer and extended it to Gabrielle. "My Queen, Eponin sent a personal note to you. My apologies for not presenting it to you earlier."
"No problem, Kelryn. Im glad you remembered it." She took the parchment and unrolled it, scanning its contents quickly.
Over to the side, Xena scowled. She knew she shouldnt be annoyed that Gabrielles lead officer would be communicating with her privately, but she was.
"Xena," the Amazon Queen said as she handed the parchment to her. "What do you think?"
The ruler was pleased to see that the note was not personal in nature. She was also pleased at how naturally Gabrielle involved her in decisions. It was a request from Eponin to add another member to their traveling party. "Do you know who shes referring to?" the ruler asked Kelryn.
"I think so, Conqueror. I believe she is the painter in the court. Shes the only Greek I have seen outside of our soldiers."
"What do you want to do about her, Gabrielle?"
"I want her to go home with us."
"Well," Xena shrugged, "it seems the more the merrier."
"Thank you," the oracle replied. Turning to her soldier, Gabrielle straightened, transforming into a regal presence instantly. "Tell Wynn that her Queen bids her to come home. Greet her as a sister Amazon and extend to her the offer of safe passage to Greece and to her sisters. Tell her the Nation has missed her, missed her talents and her presence. We want her home."
"Yes, my Queen." The young soldier knew Eponin would be pleased with this response. When Eponin had given her the note, she had been extremely agitated. Kelryn smirked; she believed it had more to do with the painter than Kelryns lead in the bet. Though her lead had increased to a more substantial one when she obtained the rest of the poem. It took Kelryn a few moments before she realized that she was being stared at by two sets of impatient eyes.
"Youre dismissed," Xena repeated, her voice low and full of warning if ignored.
Remembering what she had interrupted the night before, and she assumed again tonight, she nodded briskly. "Good night, my Queen, your majesty." Giving Pei-cha a wary glance, she slid around him and out to the balcony, hoisting herself up rapidly to safety.
"We have to work on that girls timing," Gabrielle muttered. A large hand wrapped itself around her waist, drawing her close to the Greek ruler. Gabrielles hands went instinctively to the broad shoulders in front of her. She snuggled closer, making sure their bodies were in contact along their length.
"I cant entirely blame her for being anxious to see her queen," Xena said as she placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielles cheek. She bent at the knees so as to be eye-to-eye with her oracle. "Because I have been anxious to see her queen all day."
"Have you?" Gabrielle searched out the clear blue eyes in front of her for sincerity.
Finding it, the young oracle inquired, "What have you wanted to see?"
"Oh, this and that," Xena mumbled and she began laying a line of kisses down on Gabrielles neck and shoulder. Large fingers pulled on the garments straps, pulling until one dangled down the Amazons arm. "For example, this," the Conqueror said as she kissed Gabrielles collarbone, her tongue tasting the salt of her skin. While Xenas lips remained occupied, she slid the other strap off Gabrielles right shoulder and began tugging the dress down to her oracles hips. Pulling back just far enough to appreciate the view, the Conqueror licked her lips suggestively. "Definitely that."
The breasts Xena had addressed swelled with pride at being singled out for admiration. A sultry smile graced Gabrielles lips. "Hmm well, I missed you here and there," her tone was teasing and light.
The Conqueror picked up on it immediately. "Really? Where?"
"Here." She offered the admired body part to Xenas willing mouth. A sigh of pleasure spilled out of her as the Conqueror accepted the gift readily. Without breaking contact, Xena sat down on the couch and pulled the oracle down to straddle her lap. With the attentiveness of a newborn babe, Xena stayed at Gabrielles breast. Her hands caressed the soft skin of her lovers back and sides, pulling more sensation out of the smaller body against hers.
Gabrielle closed her eyes to the pleasure, giving herself up to it, welcoming the peace that came with Xenas touch. Her fingers played with Xenas dark hair, holding her close to her heart. When switching to the breasts twin, Xenas mouth made a journey upwards to kiss Gabrielles lips briefly before attaching itself lower. Soft sounds of contentment came from the ruler, warming the oracles heart. Other parts of her anatomy became warm as well when one of Xenas hands shifted locales. "Ahh ." Gabrielle moaned. "Oh most definitely there."
The early morning found Xena awake, but still in bed. The sunlight streamed in through the open window, warming her skin and the breeze cooling it gently. If not for the murders and their need to escape Babylon today, it would be a beautiful morning. It was always a nice morning waking up beside Gabrielle, Xena noted. Her young lover had a way of holding on to her throughout the night which surprising to Xena did not make her feel crowded. The oracles touch was a soothing one, bringing about dreams of better days. Xena smiled; the oracle certainly brought about better nights.
Gabrielle was sleeping on her stomach, as she was wont to do. Her left arm was flung across Xenas middle, her hand tucked under the rulers body. Her head was snuggled up against Xenas shoulder, and Xena could feel Gabrielles breath against her skin. Rolling slowly, so as not to awaken the girl, Xena moved on her side. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and began tracing patterns on Gabrielles back.
First she drew the inner palace compound, imagining the various rooms and gardens. She reviewed the locations of the four murders Nebuharin, Farza, Gregor and Allemane. With the exception of Nebuharin, each had been carried out in secret, when no one else was around. That left everyone without an alibi. Well, everyone except Gabrielle. She smoothed out a patch of skin and kissed it.
Then she began tracing the water passageways she had found yesterday. The exit out of the inner palace, the branches which extended throughout the larger palace, the main tunnel that led out to the Euphrates river. She had tried to move through each of the tunnels in her excursion, but had finally run out of time. She was at least certain of their escape route and hoped not to spend undue time in the water.
Her next drawing was of their journey back to Greece. The return trip up the river, the trek across the desert, the boat ride over the Mediterranean and finally their arrival at the Grecian shore. It would take at least a moon to disembark there. But, in her minds eye, Xena could envision the scene.
Xena smiled at Gabrielles request for them to remain at home in Corinth for awhile. It would be possible, and even necessary, for a season. But then she would need to be on the move again. It was never good to let the army get bored or restless. Even worse for her. Perhaps they would travel to the northern part of the country and check the borders. She didnt want Caesar sneaking in, and she wanted to make sure Dokovs people kept far away. Her finger came to rest on a freckle which was located in the exact spot of Athens. Xena wondered if her oracle had ever been to the ancient city. It would be good for them to stop there as well. The people needed to see their ruler frequently, be reminded of who they served and why.
She frowned. That meant she should make sure she and Gabrielle visited the Amazons along the way. She couldnt afford them becoming discontented and taking up arms against her once more. Though the thought of returning to Amazon territory was distasteful to the ruler. She had worked too long to clear Greece of their kind to give up her prejudices easily. At least, Gabrielle was not a born Amazon. That would have been unbearable.
The sun felt warmer on her back. A glance behind her confirmed that Helios had now risen in the sky and it was time to begin their day. It would take them until noon to finish convincing the other rulers to leave with them. And to incapacitate any who refused to come along.
Xena withdrew her hand from Gabrielles back and started to get out of bed.
"Hey whyd you stop?" a sleepy voice inquired. "That felt nice."
The Conqueror chuckled. "Hedonist."
Gabrielle pushed herself up on her elbows and stretched. "With you, always."
Xena was momentarily distracted by newly revealed flesh. "We need to get going soon," she said gruffly, mostly to refocus her own attention.
It didnt fool the oracle, who now lazily rolled over onto her back, enjoying herself immensely. "Must we?" She reached up and folded her arms under her head.
Xena leveled a stare at the smirking woman. "Youre playing with fire."
"Me? Xena, I dont know what youre talking about. Im just waking up. You know, the usual."
"The usual, eh?"
"If you want me out of bed, you can say so. I mean, I want to get out of here too." Smiling, despite her best efforts not to, Gabrielle started to push herself up from the mattress.
Only to be stopped by a large hand on her rib cage. "I didnt say you had to get up right now."
"I thought you were in a rush."
"We have a quarter candlemark or so." Xena leaned in to kiss her oracle as her hand slid upward.
A smaller hand settled on top of it. "Quarter candlemark?" The tone had more than a hint of reproach in it.
"I think a half candlemark is reasonable," the ruler countered. "I can certainly make it worth your while." She leaned over the oracles body and placed a soft kiss on waiting lips.
Gabrielles hand tightened on Xenas. "I have no doubt about that. However, need I remind you that we are about to head back out to the desert? The desert which has lots of little bits of sand. Sand which becomes embedded. And makes me very unhappy."
"And me," Xena pouted.
Gabrielle rubbed her back sensuously against the smooth sheets beneath her. "No sand here."
Blue eyes narrowed, "You make a compelling argument. No wonder I made you my oracle."
It was later than anticipated when the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen made it down to the gardens. As they were about to emerge from the maze, Lao Ma met them. "Good morning," she said, bowing slightly. Her hand reached out and touched Pei-chas head, exchanging a silent greeting with the snow leopard.
"Lao Ma, what are you doing out here?" Gabrielle asked, wondering why the empress did not wait until they reached the garden house to meet them.
"There has been another murder, I am sad to inform you."
"Not Pompey?" Xena asked, hoping her plans were still intact. She would be angry with herself for how she spent the last few candlemarks if she had lost her pawn against Caesar.
Pei-cha let out a soft growl at the mention of the name.
The Conqueror let out a small breath, grateful for the murderers choice of victim. It would save her from having to exterminate the Huns for his indiscretion at having touched Gabrielle. She smirked, now she could just exterminate them for the sport of it.
Gabrielle felt sadness over the Huns death, despite his personal failings. She could still feel his sticky palm as he fondled her leg, and her fear as Xena engaged the Chief in battle. She began to leave the maze, when Lao Mas hand clasped her upper arm.
"Gabrielle, it is best if you do not see. It is especially distasteful."
"Why dont you stay here a moment?" Xena said as she moved around the slight form of her oracle. She knew if Lao Ma warned against it, it would be an awful sight.
"I can handle it, Xena, really." Gabrielle did not want to be left behind again today, especially not with another murder having taken place. She took several long strides out into the open and instantly regretted her decision. Hanging from one of the crossbeams of the garden house was what looked to be a skinned animal. A second look revealed the muted features of the Hun, barely recognizable without their former covering. Gabrielle fell to her knees and immediately lost the meager contents of her stomach.
Pei-cha looked at the carcass across the way and let out a loud rumble. He sniffed several times and then blew the air out his nose, expressing his displeasure at the scent.
Xena knelt beside the Amazon Queen and gently rubbed the small of her back as her spasms continued. "Just relax, itll pass." What little there was in her stomach had come out and now Gabrielle was reduced to dry heaves.
Lao Ma went into the garden house and retrieved a glass of wine and a damp cloth. Pei-cha followed her as far as the hanging carcass. The leopard stayed below it, snarling, as if Dokov might become animated at any moment.
Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible, wishing the action alone would erase the image in her mind. "Who could do that to another person?" she gasped, as her stomach betrayed her once more.
"No one like you," the ruler replied as she squeezed the excess water from the cloth Lao Ma handed her. Xena lifted Gabrielles fair hair and placed the cool fabric against the nape of her neck. "Well be out of here soon."
"Not soon enough," came the sad retort.
"Well, at least, I think this will serve as ample motivation for the others to go with us. Well have less of a fight on our hands now."
Sitting back on her heels, trying to avoid looking at the ghastly sight, Gabrielle took deep breaths. "I didnt like him, but how can someone just butcher another person? Gods, its so awful."
Handing the cloth to small hands, Xena shrugged, "I know." Having inflicted this particular torture on her enemies in the past. "Are you able to stand up? I want you and Lao Ma to go back to our room. Ill bring everyone to us. I think its best if we all stay together right now."
"I dont want to leave you," Gabrielle protested. "Please dont send me away."
"Im not sending you away, Im just "
"Sending me away, back to the room. No offense, Lao Ma," she spared a small smile for the empress, "but I really want to be you, Xena. I feel a bit safer."
"Just a bit?"
"Well, how about a whole lot? Will that let me stay with you?"
Xenas resolve weakened. "Sure it will." She found Lao Mas eyes over Gabrielles shoulder. "Lao Ma, I plan on all of us leaving here in a few candlemarks. Put the servants somewhere they wont be able to alert others to our escape. Then join the rest of us up in our suite." The empress nodded and started to leave. "Oh and take the gods-be-damned cat with you."
Pei-cha lifted up the sides of his mouth, revealing his fangs. The Conqueror and the feline locked identical sets of ice blue eyes in anger as each focused on intimidating the other.
"For your own protection," Gabrielle soothed. She smiled at the leopard and inclined her head toward Lao Ma.
With a twitch of his tail, Pei-cha acquiesced. As he left, he made sure to hit Xena with his tail.
Gabrielle stifled a giggle.
"I will be up after I see to Dokovs body. He was a terrible man, but my honor depends on how he is treated in this state."
"Suit yourself," Xena replied, not caring to show any respect to the dead Hun. "Come on." Xena took hold of the smaller womans hand and led her back into the maze.
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked as the ruler led her further into the gardens. "I thought we were going to gather up the others."
"In a few moments. I want to take a look at that prayer hut one more time. I have an idea."
Standing at the edge of the stone structures remains, Xena surveyed the collapse, focusing on where she had found Allemanes hand. She bent down beside it and lifted up the stone pinning it to the ground. "Look at this," she called to Gabrielle.
"That it is." She glanced pointedly around at the stones lying on the ground. "See any sharp enough to do that?"
"No " Gabrielle made a face. "Who would cut up a dead body? Or did they cut him up and then topple the prayer hut to fit with the poem?"
"I have another idea."
They entered Gregors room, the Conqueror carefully leading the way. A quick survey of the room revealed them to be alone with the cloth covered body.
"What are you expecting to find, Xena?"
"Its more what Im expecting not to find, actually." With that, Xena lifted the sheet.
Fair eyebrows drew together. "Its Gregor," she was mildly disappointed. She thought Xena was on to something.
"True," Xena conceded. Then she pointed toward the middle of the body. "But it looks like he misplaced something."
"Allemane is alive," Gabrielle breathed, understanding.
"I never did like the Gauls," the Conqueror muttered.
Standing at the edge of the water, the Conqueror coolly surveyed the unhappy rulers surrounding her. Kulam seemed especially distressed about the trip Xena had described. "How do we know you arent trying to just kill each of us?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Because I could kill you just as easily right here, right now." She folded her arms across her chest, straightening her spine, looking even more intimidating.
The king stiffened and looked indignant at the suggestion.
Pompey laughed. "Come on, Kulam. Its just a little bit of water. And I know the Conqueror -"
Xena started to object.
"- and I know that she is nothing but ruthless. If she wanted us dead, she would have already tried." Everyone noticed that he did not say she would have succeeded.
Lao Ma took off her outer robe and carefully folded it. She placed it within the oilsack at her feet. The sack would keep its contents dry during the underwater journey. Next she placed her sandals in its confines. "I am ready."
Gabrielle hoped that meant the empress had already placed some valuables in the pack. She couldnt imagine only taking a robe and shoes for their escape. She had already noted that Pompeys and Kulams bags seemed much too heavy for the path they were about to take.
The empress bent down on one knee causing Pei-cha to immediately come to her. The large cat put his forehead against hers and a large tongue extended and brushed over her face. "Be strong, Pei-cha. And be brave, as you should."
"Whats going on?" Gabrielle asked, confused by the display and the almost sad expression on the snow leopards face.
Running her fingernails through the thick fur, Lao Ma spoke sadly. "Snow leopards cannot swim. Pei-cha must stay behind."
"No!" Gabrielle gasped. Imploring green eyes looked over at Xena. "Cant you figure out a way to take him?"
The Greek ruler considered the request, ignoring the insolent stare of the leopard. "Hes just a cat," she protested, knowing how feeble it would sound to Gabrielle.
To the side, Pompey snickered, earning him a warning glare from the Conqueror. The situation was bad enough as it was.
"Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. She could only imagine what the Babylonians would do to the feline when they discovered the death of their king and the disappearance of the other rulers. She did not want Pei-cha to pay the price for a murderers wrongs.
"Fine. Ill bring him through." She was far from certain as to how she would accomplish this feat, but was certain the solution would come to her. "Lets get moving!"
Pompey and Kulam adjusted their packs, tying them closed to keep their contents dry. Pompey started to pull off his boots and then reconsidered. Lao Ma was the first of the rulers to step into the water, her silk gown billowing out as she descended into it. Muttering curses to various deities, the other two followed her. They waited in the water for Xena to lead them through the passageways, none of them anxious to lead on the journey.
Xena dove in, cleanly slicing through the water. It reminded her of her days onboard ship. She had always loved the water, and swam as often as she could. Her strong arms stroked the surface, bringing her back to the waters edge. She extended her hand to Gabrielle. "Come on in, the waters fine."
First, Gabrielle kissed the leopards head. "See you soon, Pei-cha." The feline purred, earning a smile from the Amazon Queen. She took Xenas hand and lowered herself into the cool water.
"All right, listen up, everybody," Xena commanded as she tucked Gabrielle against her. "The tunnel is about a bodylength below here. Once in it, it only goes in one direction. Follow that and well meet you there." This was the part that most concerned the Conqueror. If either Kulam or Pompey wanted to try to hurt them, now was the best time to do so. The tunnel was a death trap if one were delayed or blocked. She had already announced that she and Gabrielle would be the first to go through, followed by Lao Ma and then the two men. Having to come back for Pei-cha was annoying, but she would have not agreed if she felt it would endanger her oracle.
"We ready?" her fair-haired lover asked, eyes betraying her fear.
"We are. Just take a deep breath and hold onto my hand. I wont let anything happen to you. Itll only take us a few moments to get to the other side."
"I trust you."
"On the count of three. One, two, three!" Together they drew in large lungfuls of air and dropped beneath the surface. The Conquerors hand clasped the smaller one tightly and she began tugging Gabrielle through the water. The light above provided adequate illumination of the entrance to the tunnel, but once inside, the water became dark. Having been through it before and knowing that air was not too far away, Xena was not disturbed by the change. She could feel the tension radiating from Gabrielle, however, as they kicked their way through the passage.
Gabrielles lungs burned from lack of air. Her reflexes told her to open her mouth to breathe, while her brain told her to keep it closed. Her left hand flailed through the water, trying to help add speed to their journey. Next to her, the Conqueror pulled them both through the passageway steadily, her grip solid and assured.
Xena could feel the relief in her oracle as she angled them upwards. As they broke the surface, Gabrielle sucked in a huge breath, her chest heaving from the exertion. She threw her arms around the Conquerors neck and rested against the ruler. "You did great, Gabrielle," Xena whispered into a pink ear. She held onto the nearby ledge, steadying them.
"Do we have to do that again?" Gabrielle managed in between deep breaths, the ache in her chest easing.
"A couple times, but thats the longest one." She pushed back a few wet tendrils of hair from Gabrielles face. "Lets get you up on the pathway. And then Ill light the torch."
"There are torches in here?" Gabrielle asked, relieved. It was disorienting to be completely without light. If it werent for the water, she would have no idea which way was up or down.
"I guess someone used this a bit more often in the past. There are a lot of sconces carved into the wall. Once we light a few, youll feel better." Still holding onto the ledge with one hand, the Conqueror used the other to boost the smaller woman up and out of the water. Gabrielle let out a surprised squawk, but was happy to be mostly on dry land. Once assured Gabrielle was stable, Xena lifted herself out. She stood and took careful sliding steps along the ledge in the darkness. Her fingers soon found the torch and the flint hanging below it. She struck it against the wall several times, a shower of sparks falling onto the cloth swaddled torch tip. It soon caught fire and a warm glow flickered in the cavern.
It was then that Lao Ma surfaced, drawing in a small breath. Seeing Xena and Gabrielle on the ledge to the left, she swam over to them and joined them on the ledge, waiting for the men to make it through.
"I expect Gabrielle to be safe with you, Lao Ma."
Dark eyes lifted to hers. "Of course."
Pompey surfaced a short time later, gasping for air. He ran a large hand through his close cropped hair, whisking water away. He joined them on the pathway, instinctively moving far away from the women.
It was several long moments before Kulam surfaced, sputtering and spewing water from his mouth. His right arm hung heavily in the water and he had a hard time reaching the outcropping. It took a great deal of effort for him to hoist the oilsack he had brought onto the shelf.
"I told you not to bring so much," Xena reproached him.
Kulam ignored her, focusing instead on clearing his lungs.
"Ill be right back," Xena promised and then slid back into the water, disappearing from view. The return trip was much faster without having to pull Gabrielle through as well as herself. When her head broke the surface in the gardens, she came eye to eye with the snow leopard.
Pei-cha growled at her.
"I was thinking youd make a good pair of slippers," Xena muttered. She shook her head, a spray of water hitting the leopard. "You ready to go through this, you waste of fur?"
The cat took a lazy swipe at the Conqueror.
"I see. Thats how it is. I dont suppose youre going to make it easy on me." She blew out a long breath. "Now, Gabrielle expects me to haul your fat, furry behind with us. So, we can do this the easy way or the hard way."
A hiss was her reply.
"I was hoping youd say that." Matching the felines expression, Xena reached out and jabbed Pei-cha in his neck, where she assumed the veins were.
Pei-cha growled in outrage and a large paw struck out and swiped at her shoulder, claws extended, drawing blood. Then he collapsed. The cat seemed dead, its chest still.
"Maybe a bed covering," Xena mumbled, dipping her shoulder into the water and ignoring the pain. She was grateful for her natural strength as she hauled the heavy carcass into the water. It surprised her how the pinch worked on the leopard. But she was glad she no longer had to worry about his drowning. However, she did realize she needed to hurry.
Pei-cha sank like a stone in the water, being all muscle and bone. She swam after him, grabbing a handful of fur at the nape of his neck and began stroking with all her might for the other side.
In the cavern, Gabrielle waited impatiently for Xena to return. As the torch burned lower and lower, she worried that she had made the wrong request. Had her natural compassion led her to harm the one person who mattered most to her in the world? "I need to go find her," she announced, sliding back into the water, away from the empress grasp.
She paddled awkwardly out to the middle of the pool, ignoring Lao Mas supplications behind her, determined to find Xena. It was as she was preparing to dive below when Xena surfaced, gasping for air. When she saw Gabrielle beside her, she frowned. "What are you doing out here?"
"Looking for you."
"You found me. Now get out of the water."
Gabrielle obeyed. As soon as she was on the ledge, she reached out and helped tug Pei-cha up across her lap. The feline was heavier than ever, his fur laden with water. He was twitching and foaming at the mouth. "Xena! Whats wrong with him?"
"Nothing this wont fix, I hope." She jabbed his neck and released the pressure points. Her large hand pressed against the cats stomach and a flood of water came out his mouth. Pei-cha immediately sucked in the stale air of the cavern.
"You put the pinch on him!" the oracle exclaimed.
"You have another idea how I could bring him through?"
Pei-cha roused himself, stretching carefully before shaking vigorously. He turned accusatory eyes on Xena. Sniffing, he began snarling, his gaze fixed not on the Conqueror, surprisingly, but on the far wall.
"What is it, boy?" Gabrielle asked. A glance around the cavern revealed nothing to her.
The Conqueror turned to check on Pompey and Kulam, but neither of them seemed interested in the on-going activities or any threat to Gabrielle.
Lao Ma followed the leopards line of sight. "I think theres something over there, in the corner." She pointed to far side of the cavern, far away from the torchlight.
Xena drew a dagger out of her boot. She clenched it between her teeth and dove underwater. From her vantage point she studied the figure, noting the shape by the change in the shadows beneath the surface. It was a human form, at least as far as she could tell. Deciding that direct confrontation was the best solution as it always had been throughout her life she powered through the water. Her forearm crashed into the persons neck, pinning him against the wall with a thud.
"Who is it?" Pompey asked, curiosity aroused and sword drawn.
The Conqueror backed away from the dead flesh which was chilled to the waters temperature. "Nebuharin."
Kulam began coughing and spitting with gusto.
Lao Ma turned toward him and spared him a compassionate look. "Are you all right?"
"I swallowed some of that water!" He spat again. "I think Ill be sick!"
"Well, stop spitting in it, because we might have to swim through it again," Pompey warned.
"Will you two shut up?" Xena boomed, swimming back to the side. "You two are worse than a pair of old women." Before either of them could complain, she held up her hand. "Enough. Were leaving. I dont want to hear another complaint from either of you. Or Ill leave you in here with him."
"How do we know you didnt put him in here?" Kulam asked, his voice sullen.
The Conqueror rolled her eyes. "How many times do we have to go through this. Just shut up and follow me. Be grateful I dont leave you in here. Gods!" Xena pushed up out of the water and shook off the excess moisture. She held out an imperious hand to her oracle. "Were leaving."
"Gladly," Gabrielle agreed, accepting the hand up.
With her free hand, the Conqueror removed a torch from the sconce and began leading the way along the narrow ledge. The water flowed alongside them as they moved further down the passageway. No one spoke and the only sounds were the squishing of water-logged boots and fur.
It was nearly a half candlemark later when the Conqueror held up her hand. "Theres another passageway here. I want you three to wait while Gabrielle and I go through."
"I dont think so," came Pompeys immediate objection.
"No, you dont think. You do what I say, when I say it, how I say it."
"I am Imperial Rome," Pompey announced, his voice dropping low and reverberating off the stone walls of the passageway.
Xena had hold of Pompey before anyone even noticed her moving along the narrow ledge. She dangled him over the water, the muscles in her arms standing out in relief as she easily held his weight. "And I am Greece. It would be just as easy for me to say you died inside the gardens."
"Except for Kulam," Pompey countered, sweat beading across his forehead. "He would know the truth."
The Persian ruler did not look pleased to be brought into this particular conversation.
The Conqueror made a dismissive face. "Id kill him as well. Im not stupid, Pompey. But I am losing patience. If you want to live, you will obey me. Without hesitation. Without question. Without complaint. If you give me a moments grief, I will finish up the murderers work for him. Am I understood?"
"You cant speak to me that way!"
"As you wish." Xena let go of the Roman and he fell into the dark water below. She immediately knelt down by the triumvir as he resurfaced. Her long fingers threaded through his short hair, gripping his scalp tightly. She plunged him back underneath the waters, ignoring his cry.
Pompey struggled as hard as he could, but found it impossible to shake the Conquerors grip. With one hand he flailed against his captor, with the other he tried to find purchase on the side of the waterway. The walls were slick with mildew, keeping him from being able to resist her force.
From her vantage point, Lao Ma kept a careful eye on Kulam, making sure he did not join in the struggle.
Horrified as she was, Gabrielle made no effort to intervene. She knew Pompeys insistence on doing things his own way could easily bring about the death of all of them. She doubted, as well, that Xena would allow him to die. Rome was too important to the Conquerors ultimate plans.
After several long moments, Xena pulled him above the water line, allowing the half-drowned man a reprieve. "Do you wish to change your earlier position?"
"You are insane!"
"Unfortunate response." With a shrug of her broad shoulders, the Conqueror plunged the stocky Roman back underwater.
"We might need him later," Lao Ma reminded gently as Pompeys flailing became more frantic.
With a final shove downward, Xena climbed to her feet, releasing Pompey to come up for air. "Teach him some manners while were gone." Her face gentled when she saw her oracle, grateful that her judgment had not been challenged, but mindful of Gabrielles less brutal inclinations. "Lets go collect your Amazons."
They surfaced in the concubines bathing pool, slipping through the narrow passageway easily, even as Gabrielles lungs began to burn from lack of air. It was Xenas surge of strength at the end which propelled them to the surface. She helped her coughing oracle to stand in the pool, even as she scanned the area for any signs of hostile forces. Instead, all she saw was a multitude of women in various states of undress and four Amazons standing guard; Kelryn was flanked by two rather amorous concubines. Her gaze fixed on Eponin. "Report."
"My Queen, Conqueror," she replied, bowing slightly, "we are here and prepared to leave. Palaemon and the other Royal Guards are already stationed at the dock, awaiting our arrival." Eponin did her best to not allow her eyes to wander over the shapely form of her queen, as outlined by the wet clothing. She knew that was an activity unlikely to be rewarded by the Conqueror.
"Good; lets get going."
Tamara and Lari immediately obeyed, splashing into the pool and wading toward the Conqueror and their Queen. Kelryn was trying to divest herself of wandering hands without being too rude. However, Eponin remained rooted to her spot, her eyes conveying her reluctance to leave.
Gabrielle squeezed the Xenas hand gently, as the Conqueror began to submerge once more. "One moment. I have one thing I need to do." Curious, but patient, blue eyes met hers and registered agreement. Turning her attention to Eponin, Gabrielle asked, "Is the woman you wrote me about here?"
Xena paused and watched, wondering how her oracle would handle this situation. She knew how she would do it. Somehow, she doubted Gabrielle would follow the same path.
The Commander began to reply, but was cut short by a petite red-head. "Im here."
Gabrielle waited patiently, as the Conqueror had taught her; she could feel Xenas approval for this decision radiating to her.
Finally, Wynn added, "My Queen."
"Whats your name?"
"I am Wynn." The small woman straightened to her full height, the sound of her voice matching the arrogance of her stance.
"Welcome home, Wynn." Gabrielle smiled gently, easily seeing through the false bravado.
Wynns hazel eyes became puzzled. "Home?"
"Wherever members of the Nation are is home, Wynn. Surely, your mother taught you that. Amazons are not bound to land, but to one another." Gabrielle watched the impact of her statement on the woman as the painter appeared to struggle for words, but remained silent. Wynn blinked rapidly, trying to contain the tears that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. "Its time to leave this place, Wynn. Your mother may be gone, but your sisters are here."
Eponin laid a warm hand on Wynns shoulder, squeezing it gently. She wasnt sure if the other woman would allow it, but was pleased when it wasnt shrugged off immediately.
"Thank you, my Queen," Wynn replied after a long silence.
Xena, who had remained silent throughout the exchange, immeasurably pleased by the regal nature displayed so easily by her oracle, cleared her throat. "Time to go."
Seven heads surfaced in rapid succession in the passageway. Pei-cha let out a low rumble of concern for the fair-haired one among them. The leopard raised himself onto strong legs and stretched out toward his new mistress, content only when his nose brushed her hair.
"Stupid cat, back up," Xena growled as she approached the ledge. Pei-cha seemed reluctant to move, but did make some space for Gabrielle to be boosted up next to him. He sat down behind the slim form of the Amazon Queen, neatly cutting off Xenas access to the ledge, and began licking away the excess rivulets of liquid on Gabrielles skin.
The Conqueror looked at the leopard and envisioned a new set of boots and a belt.
Kelryn chuckled at the sight. "Isnt that cute?"
Angry eyes turned on the young soldier, silencing her immediately. "Time to get moving," the Conqueror ordered. "We have to get to the boat before the tide leaves."
Gabrielle gave Pei-cha a gentle nudge, clearing more space next to her, which the Conqueror promptly filled. Together, they gave a hand to the five Amazons, pulling them out of the water and interspersing them among the rulers. Xena was careful to position the heavily armed Tamara near Pompey, knowing the weaponry would be a deterrent to any further nonsense on the Romans part.
"My Queen," Eponin began as they moved along at a steady pace, "may I ask what happened inside the gardens?"
When the Conqueror did not object to the question, Gabrielle replied. "It appears that Lord Allemane and Prince Vedtrilan have conspired together to kill the rulers of the surrounding kingdoms, including, King Nebuharin."
Eponin nodded soberly, knowing the Amazon prohibitions against any violence toward ones family. "To kill ones own parent is a grave evil."
"Would someone inform my son of that fact?" Kulam added sweetly, mockery clear in his voice.
"Except in your case," Xena muttered.
"Hear, hear," a disgruntled Pompey agreed.
"I dont believe Vedtrilan could do something like that," a disagreeing voice said.
The Conqueror turned and faced Wynn. "Why not? Isnt he heir to the throne?" Xenas voice took on the bored tone of a lecturer in Athens. "Whenever a murder is committed, it is usually by the person who would benefit most from the untimely demise of the victim."
"True," Wynn conceded. "But, arent they also then the most likely suspect? And, to be honest, it doesnt sound like the Prince Vedtrilan I know."
"Really," the painter persisted. "Vedtrilan is a poet, an artist, and a songwriter. He is most definitely not a murderer. He doesnt even want the throne, but is afraid to let his sister have it."
Xena rolled her eyes. Obviously the new Amazon wasnt aware of basic Babylonian law. "Women cannot inherit property here, let alone a kingdom."
"But her son can."
This stopped the Conqueror. "Her son? Princess Sinoa has a son?"
"Its a new development. Amurin is only a few moons old. But ever since his birth, things have been tense in the court."
"Understandable. I dont recall Princess Sinoas wedding."
Wynn raised a delicate eyebrow. "Thats because there wasnt one."
"Plenty. You know how palaces are."
"So, Sinoa and Allemane conspire to overthrow the kingdom?" The Conqueror began running through this scenario, trying to decide if it fit. "She rules as Regent in her sons infancy, kills off the neighbors most likely to threaten a childs kingdom. Does all of this by framing her brother for her fathers murder. Perhaps she marries Allemane; no, she wouldnt want to share power. Why Allemane? Because hes farthest away. Maybe she kills him at the end of this murder spree.
Or just sends him back home. It would be too costly to send an army over from Gaul. She would be safe."
"Though Amurin wouldnt be safe for long," Gabrielle said softly, joining in Xenas stream-of-consciousness. "Think about it. She would let him live for awhile, long enough to change peoples attitudes toward a woman ruling. Once that was accomplished, Amurin would certainly have a fatal accident."
Pompey snorted. "Youve trained her well, Xena. She thinks like you do."
Before Xena could react, Tamara brought a powerful hand up and hit Pompey in the back of the head. This sent the Roman sprawling onto the ledge, his nose encountering the slippery rock with a loud clap. Blood issued forth from the broken appendage, staining the water as it dripped into the canal.
Kneeling beside the prostate figure, Xena hissed, "Never speak of her in that manner. Or I will kill you." As she stood, Xena ground his fingers under her boot, causing the man to moan in further pain.
Standing silent witness, Gabrielle wondered what exactly it was that Xena objected to in the comparison.
They reached the end of the tunnel. A solid wall of stone marked the decided end of the passageway. Only the water continued to move forward, flowing under the wall and out to the river beyond. The group came to a stop at the barrier, with Kulam sighing and dropping down to rest. Pompey, cradling the hand with the swollen fingers against his chest, joined him.
Xena crouched down by the water. She ran a hand lazily along the surface, trying to figure out how she would transport Pei-cha through the passageway this time. She knew Gabrielle would not allow here to leave the big cat behind. "Eponin, Tamara, come here."
The two Amazons pushed their way along the ledge and knelt beside her. "Your majesty."
"I want you two to go through last. I dont trust Pompey or Kulam at our back. Gabrielle and I will go through first. Pace everyone else through. Understood?"
"Yes, your majesty."
The Conqueror rose to her full height and held out a hand to Gabrielle. "Ready to go home?"
Gabrielle smiled, "Im ready to go anywhere with you." She reached out and grabbed hold of the Conquerors still damp cloak. "But home sounds really good right now."
Xena returned the smile, momentarily forgetting the annoyances surrounding her. "Think you might get seasick on the trip there?"
A light blush dusted the oracles features. "Im pretty sure we can count on it."
"Do we still have to bring the cat?" The Conqueror asked, hoping for a reprieve.
A pale eyebrow lifted in response.
An aggrieved sigh issued from the dark ruler. "You wont complain about me putting the pinch on him?"
"It wont be necessary," Lao Ma replied. "While I am not strong enough to pull him through, I can prepare him for you, Xena."
"By all means."
Two delicate fingers hovered in front of Pei-chas gaze, drawing his attention. Lao Ma began intoning words from the Chin language which seemed to calm the leopard. Slowly the great cats eyes fluttered closed and his breathing stopped.
"What did you do?" Kelryn asked, hovering behind the empress.
"Hes hypnotized. Pei-cha will come out of it when he leaves the water."
"We better start moving then," Xena declared. "We go in pairs. Gabrielle and I first, Kelryn and Lao Ma next, Wynn and Lari, Pompey and Kulam and then Eponin and Tamara. Once you make it through, head directly for the docks."
With her boot, Xena shoved Pei-cha into the water and watched with no small amount of satisfaction as the leopard sank.
Shaking her head, Gabrielle slipped into the cold water.
The Conqueror immediately followed, taking the smaller hand in hers as she entered the flow. Feeling the tremor in Gabrielle, Xena paused. "Are you that cold?"
Lips pressed together, Gabrielle shook her head.
"Lets go." Gabrielle insisted, sinking down to her chin. "Ill tell you on the other side. Lets get Pei-cha."
Narrowed blue eyes searched hers and Gabrielle knew the Conqueror was not pleased. "The other side," Xena repeated.
Then the Conqueror and the oracle disappeared under the water.
Return to the Academy