The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Alti threw a handful of dusty herbs onto the tiny fire, and the small room was immediately filled with acrid smoke. Darphus choked and coughed as he desperately tried to pull air into his lungs.
"Don't fight it, Darphus." He dimly made out Alti's creaking voice as she chuckled. "Just breathe and let the spiritual world take you." He held out his hand for the proffered cup and stared into the swirling dark liquid through the hazy smoke that filled his vision.
"What is this?" he choked.
"Necessary. Drink it..." He put the cup to his lips and took a deep draught, gagging and spluttering as he tried to force the thick, warm liquid down.
"It'll taste a bit like iron." Alti smirked as her lieutenant drank the fresh blood. Good job he hadn't asked where it had come from, she thought, and watched in satisfaction as the cup was emptied. "Now, what do you feel?"
"A bit lightheaded..."
"Good. What can you see?"
"Uhh...the fire moving...the flames."
"Look into the flames. What can you see?"
"Not colours!" she snapped, impatiently. So far, Darphus wasn't turning out to be a star pupil. "What do you see?"
"I see...I see...death!"
Alti sighed deeply. "How original."
"Death, and...fear... I see a dark figure. Gods, I think...it looks like you!"
"What?" Roughly, he was shoved out of the way as Alti crouched down at the little fire. Silently, she stared into its dancing copper depths for several long moments, and then abruptly she thrust her hand in and scattered the brands and embers over the floor. Darphus winced as he smelt the burning of her flesh. She clasped her blistering hand to her chest and smiled coldly at him. "Tell me what you saw!"
He paused, and stared into the scattered, still smoking brands from the fire, before raising his eyes to meet hers. "Nothing. I saw nothing."
"Good. You saw nothing...just flames casting spells on your mind. There was nothing there to see."
"Of course, I understand." Behind his diplomatic face, his brain was whirling at the implications of the fragmented images that had for a moment played across his mind. It was Alti, but not Alti. And Xena. With a young girl he had never seen before. Their clothes and backgrounds had changed again and again but the same three figures were constants. Always the same three. Trying to cover his curiosity, he asked deferentially, "Would you like to see the healer?" though he already knew her answer.
"Of course not," she replied dismissively, deciding to make her way to the healer's tent under cover of darkness. She rose to her feet and started to make her way to the door.
There was a scuffling noise outside, followed by a knocking; the door was thrust open and one of the palace guards tumbled in. Furiously, she barked at the cringing man. "I didn't say you could enter, you fool!" She gripped his head between two clawlike hands, and her dark eyes sucked at his soul.
"My apologies, Empress," the guard quaked, "But I have news which I thought you should hear immediately."
"A prisoner has escaped."
With a deep sense of foreboding she asked, "Which prisoner?" She already knew the answer; she could feel it in her plummeting heart.
She dropped his head, and turned her back to the two men in the room. Darphus watched with interest as she took a few moments to get her breath back. With a malevolent glint in her deathly eyes, she turned back to the guard. "When?"
"We only just discovered it. She could've been gone for up to two candlemarks."
"Two candlemarks?" Bony fingers dug into the front of his jerkin. "What about the guards?"
"All dead, Empress." His tone did not disguise the horrors he had seen.
"Including her jailer?" Her fingers tightened around his throat.
"There's no sign of him, Empress."
"She's taken him?" If they didn't know better, they could swear they heard an unfamiliar trace of fear in her voice. "How did she get out?" There was an unmistakable flicker in her face when she heard the guard's reply.
"It seems she had an accomplice..."
"She wasn't alone?" She shook him furiously. "She was with someone? Just one? Who was it? WHO??"
"I... we don't know, Empress..." The shaken man managed to stutter. Alti dropped him, and turned blindly towards Darphus, muttering, "She wasn't alone. So... it has begun."
Gabrielle eased her body through the final part of the secret passage from the room, reaching up to be pulled out of the last few feet by an anxious Perdicus. His worried eyes examined her as she dusted off her clothes, and he finally blurted out, "What have you done? Are you crazy? "
Gabrielle thought of the deadly woman she had just left in the sealed room and tried to shake off the fear that she engendered. "Maybe, but not as crazy as the lady back there. You were watching through the peep hole?"
"Soon as Elias said you gave the signal." Perdicus shook his head.
"What a stroke of luck, Perdicus! You'll never believe it!" Her eyes shone, and Perdicus felt increasingly nervous.
"What's going on, Gabrielle? Who is that woman?"
"Our ticket out of here. The way we're gonna get a better life for all of us." Gabrielle made a visible effort to pull herself together. "That's Xena."
There was a stunned silence, as Perdicus struggled to assimilate this new information. At last, he managed to pull together a question. "Xena? How can it be? She's dead!"
"I'm telling you, that's Xena."
"But how..." His face was incredulous. "And you brought her here?"
The blonde blew on her knuckles in feigned pride. "Yup. Broken as a half-crushed bedbug and just as clueless. And everything they say about her is true. But now you gotta let me think."
"Think? What's there to think about? Let's kill her for what she did to Potadaia, or turn her over to the Royal Guards. There's got to be a reward or a cross waiting for whoever has her. I'd rather have the reward."
Gabrielle gave an exasperated shake of her head. "When are you ever going to think further than tomorrow? This fluke isn't something we can let slip through our hands. Everything is beginning to fall apart in the empire, and instead of having to find a place to hide so we don't get swept away in the flood waters, suddenly there's a way we can stop being pawns and become players."
The young man backed away, holding up his palms. "Oh, Gods. I know that look. No, Gabrielle. Please. You've been predicting the fall of Alti for months now. It didn't matter if you were just running on intuition before, but to risk all of our lives on some plan involving HER and some feeling you have, I won't do it."
Now the girl's green eyes were blazing. "Feeling? Intuition? Perdicus, are you and the others all blind? Just look at the faces of the soldiers, the shopkeepers in the markets. Alti's rule is deteriorating. She may have been one Tartarus of an advisor, but she couldn't run a corner jewelry stand, much less an empire." She paused to look back to the tunnel she had escaped through. "She didn't even build it.... and the woman who did is lying unconscious in that room. Now let me think!"
Darphus looked about the war room in only slightly disguised disgust. He knew what each of the assembled generals was thinking, and yet none of them had the nerve to bring it up. Xena would never have allowed them to hide critical news from her. As afraid of the Warrior Princess as they all had been, they were more afraid of her anger when she discovered that she had been kept uninformed. The looming crisis with Chin's Regent would not even be mentioned; the men before him would keep silent, giving reports that they knew would curry favour. Their anxious glances roved around the room, settling on heavy tapestries, assorted weaponry and beautifully carved furniture - all spoils of war or gifts offered to Xena during her reign. The room was filled with her presence, and each soldier there felt it. Darphus cleared his throat.
"Any word from the Macedonian?"
There was an uncomfortable rustling. One of the commanders spoke. "Alexander doesn't inform us of his movements."
Darphus grunted an acknowledgment. That was the problem. They never knew where the brilliant devil might show up. Once Xena had been deposed, the young general had managed to keep himself busy beyond the range of Alti's talons, while still making himself invaluable to her.
Damn him, he had sent word he would attend this time. A crisis was heading towards them and the young king might have the only mind capable of finding a solution. Other than Xena herself. Damn them both to Tartarus. Darphus moved on reluctantly. "The Empress will be here shortly. She wishes to hear your reports in person."
There were more murmurs before one of them finally managed to say what the majority were wondering. "Why? She's trusted us until now."
"She feels it's time to start taking more of a hands-on approach to ruling her empire." Darphus barely contained his satisfied smile as he watched the various expressions flicker across the faces of the men as they assimilated the news.
"Why now, Darphus?"
"She's been hearing reports. Not from you, but from other...shall we say...sources? Trade agreements threatened in Chin. Persia on the move, threatening the borders of the empire she built."
"Don't you mean the empire Xena built?" Vercingetorix, one of the longest serving generals, questioned.
"Vercingetorix, you were allowed to keep your command after the removal of THAT woman, unlike many of your colleagues. If you know what's good for you, you won't mention that name again. Particularly not in the hearing of the Empress - and remember, Alti has many ears."
There was a muttering.
"Apparently so. Who are these sources you mentioned, Darphus?" Caspius, another of Xena's former commanders, added his voice to the muted murmuring.
"I don't think that's important right now." He smirked. "I think we should be focusing on the problems - before Alti decides that YOU are the problems." The threat hanging in the air was enough to quiet the discontented generals. Despite their dislike of Darphus, his was another military mind, and the meeting continued with a discussion of options and reports from spies and commanders in the field.
When the Conqueror finally made her entrance, attended by a retinue of Amazons, Darphus scuttled over to her side and escorted her to her cushioned chair, before kneeling at her feet and bowing his head. The assembled commanders of her various armies around the Empire followed suit, reluctantly in some cases, fearfully in most. The redheaded Amazon leading the escort gestured to her women, and they sank to their knees around the throne.
Alti surveyed the room, allowing her probing gaze to fall for several long seconds on each commander present. With satisfaction, she noted those ones who sweated, gulped and shifted. She waved them all to their feet, and gestured to Darphus. He stepped forward eagerly, and updated her with the latest briefings from her territories and outposts. She stopped him with an impatient wave of her hand.
"Never mind about all that - I know what's really going on." She beckoned Ling Tao forward; he approached slowly, eyes flicking to his colleagues in search of support or reassurance. He found none.
"Tell me about Chin."
"If it pleases your Highness..." he started, "Ming Tien sends his highest regards, as ever. Trade continues to be strong..."
"So strong that the Green Dragon has decided to levy a toll on merchants using the spice routes? That even now his army approaches from the mountains in the east?"
"Highness..." Ling Tao faltered, avoiding the brown-black eyes that were filling his vision.
"How big a fool does the Green Dragon think I am? I made him ruler and I can bring him down." There was a covert cough, and Alti glared at the gathered military men. "I made him! I rule here! Don't ever forget that. You don't want to get me angry, do you?"
She paused and carefully straightened her robes. "I expect to hear news of what's going on in my empire from my generals, not from my spies. Is that understood?" There was nodding from several heads in the room. With narrowed eyes, Alti examined Vercingetorix as he knelt, head bowed, staring fixedly at the floor. "Vercingetorix."
He looked up, quickly. "Empress?"
"How are things on the Persian borders?" she asked casually.
"Worrying, Empress. I have given a full report to Darphus..."
"Yes, I'm sure you have," Alti interrupted. "How long have you been in Corinth?" Her face loomed towards him, dark and insistent.
"I got in the day before yesterday, Empress," he replied, slightly confused by the unexpected line of questioning.
"I've had reports that you were seen down near the prison yesterday. See anyone you know?" His face rumpled further in surprise, and a little consternation. Darphus glanced nervously from Alti to Vercingetorix as the questioning continued, then shot a quick look at the other generals.
"Yes, Empress..." At this admission, she rose from her chair and moved towards him, sinuous and gliding like a python poised for the strike. He swallowed deeply, and the men either side of him backed away discretely. Alti's eyes lit as they recognised the fear in him and she smiled in anticipation of the easy release of his life force. Darphus watched as the other generals moved away from the doomed Vercingetorix. There was nothing he would do to stop her, just as he knew the others would not. Just as he knew they would not forgive Alti for making them all feel the shame of their own cowardice. Even as he watched the innocent man's desperate struggles, he thought only of how he might save his own skin from the rebellion this act would provoke.
"Taste her fear, my warrior." Alti's sibilant voice was right next to her ear. "Reach out and take her..."
Xena watched in horror as her own hand reached towards Lao Ma and gathered up some of the blood which streamed from the hairpin that protruded from her forehead. She watched as her former lover screamed in pain as her hands seemed to enter the chest. She felt her fingers close about the moist, beating heart, tightening her grip about it, as the once serene face bloated in agony and disbelief at her betrayal...
Xena lurched upwards in terror, staring about wildly for several long moments until her thudding heart had calmed and her hazed mind had found a semblance of order. Dazed still, she stared around her at the unfamiliar surroundings until she remembered what had happened the day before. The girl? Was it another dream? Was she truly out of her cell? Where was the girl?
The sight of the young blonde seemingly asleep exactly where she had last seen her calmed her somewhat, a response she assumed was based on her fear of a further treachery.
Her nightmare was not true. Never. She had not - could not - personally kill Lao Ma; that knowledge was bedrock in her soul. But she was responsible for that death. That had been the beginning of the end. Once she had allowed Alti to trick her into overcoming Lao Ma, once those formidable powers were absorbed by the Shamaness, once she had to deal daily with the knowledge that the one person who had not betrayed her had suffered the most horrible of deaths due to her greed for power... the one woman who had tried to treat her as more than a barbarous animal... her descent had been swift. Alti had been so ingenious in aiding her fall. Her son as jailer? What a magnificent capstone to her destruction.
Solon still lay on the altar, his breathing slow and even. She sank back into the corner of the temple and turned to see the green eyes of the girl watching her.
"What are you looking at?" she hissed.
Gabrielle surprised them both with her honesty. "I don't know."
They were both silent for a moment, staring at each other until Xena raised herself slowly to her feet, trying not to wince with pain as her wounds reminded her of their presence. She tentatively reached out a hand to stroke Solon's temple, and suddenly became aware of the young girl standing at her elbow.
"I've already given him something for the pain," Gabrielle offered. Xena turned with a suspicious frown.
"Where did you get medicine?"
Gabrielle pointed towards the back of the altar. "The priests always kept a few phials for emergencies."
Xena glared at her again, and walked over to a chest that lay half hidden underneath tattered cloth and broken statuary. The chest was small, clean and well stocked, even for a temple priest's medicine chest. With a confused frown, she stared around and noticed for the first time the jars, bottles and wooden boxes that lay carefully stacked in dark corners. The obviously ruined and deserted temple was clean, dust free and the morning air was relatively fresh; the mess and clutter had a distinctly crafted feel to it.
"What in Tartarus is going on here?" she demanded angrily, grabbing the startled Gabrielle roughly and pulling her towards the wooden chest.
"What do you mean?" responded Gabrielle, refusing to meet her stare.
"Don't play games with me, girl. You expect me to believe that you just stumbled onto this place? Who are you working for? Is it Alti? Don't lie to me!"
Livid blue eyes bored into frightened green ones; Gabrielle's breathing quickened and her pupils dilated as Xena's furious face drew closer, but she recovered and said quietly, "No. I brought you here because I knew we'd be safe and we'd have what we need to treat you and Solon. I use this place as a hide-out. Nobody apart from me and my friends ever comes here."
"Other people know? Who?"
"Only my friends, and they're...they're family." Gabrielle tried to soothe the still raging woman who held her tight. "They don't know about you."
"You expect me to believe you? I should kill you now!" Xena's face grew furious again, and she lashed out at the girl, slapping her face and pushing her to the ground.
Gabrielle cried out as the slap stung her cheek, but she rolled and kicked the warrior solidly in the nose, then immediately leapt to her feet. "Don't you ever hit me again, you hear me?" she screamed.
Xena's face was still and white as marble; in amazement, she lifted a finger and touched the thin thread of blood which bloomed on her pale skin.
Gabrielle continued to rant.
"Don't you ever touch me! You people think you can just push us around, and treat us like filth on the street. Well I'm not filth! I'm a person just like anyone else - I'm no less than you!"
Xena stared amazed as the girl's face grew red. Angry tears squeezed through long lashes as Gabrielle continued her outburst; Xena remained totally silent.
"You people, with your money and your power - what the Hades do you care about people like me? You think you're Gods, don't you? You just push us around, use us in your games and kill us in your wars like we were nothing. Who do you think suffers the most? We do! We're the ones who starve, and have to hunt for food around a town that's having the life strangled out of it! We're the ones who pay for what you do!"
"Don't lecture me, little girl. The poor die. There will always be peasants suffering. What difference do they ever make?"
"They're not resources - they're real people, with real lives and families, and people who love them and need them. They live, they die, they feel - not like you selfish bastards! People like you don't care about anyone except yourselves." Gabrielle was on a roll, and wasn't going to let a little thing like an angry Destroyer of Nations put her off her stride. "While you and Alti were conquering your empires and playing your games, who do you think was paying for it? And when Alti overthrew you, who do you think was dying on crosses all along the Corinthian Way? Who do you think gets taken when Alti needs new blood to practice her witchcraft on? And who do you think is starving now that she's starting to lose her grip..."
"What did you say?" Xena's hands bruised the tender flesh of Gabrielle's upper arms as she tried to get the girl to be quiet. "Alti's losing her grip?" Gabrielle nodded slowly, silent as she saw the crazed expression creep across Xena's irises. "Tell me!" she demanded brusquely, shaking Gabrielle.
Gabrielle tried to free herself. "Let go of me first."
Xena dropped her hands, staring intently, almost obsessively. Gabrielle brushed off her shoulders, and took several steps back before clarifying.
"Things are getting pretty bad. They say that Chin might be rising, and there's rumours that Persia is moving too. Food's already starting to get scarce and as for medicines and other supplies...you have to know the right people to get them. And when things go crashing down - which they will - who do you think will suffer the most?" She paused for breath. "Well, I'm not gonna stand by and let that happen to my friends again. It was bad enough the last time. I lost a lot of people I cared about when you were in power... and when you were overthrown I lost more. I won't be a pawn like that again," she said resolutely, staring defiantly at Xena.
"So. Alti's weak? She thought she could run an empire, and if things start crumbling around her, she'll be exposed as the fraud she is." Xena's voice rose, and Gabrielle could feel the pleasure coming off her in waves. "Then she'll be mine!"
Gabrielle shook her head. "You haven't heard a word I've said. You're just like her. You're all the same."
"What are you talking about?"
"What happens to me, and to all the people like me? The ones who aren't important, after you've got your revenge against Alti? The ordinary people always get crushed when a leader falls and the power struggle starts. What happens even if you get that damned throne back..."
"I don't care about the power. I've had that before, and I've seen what it does. All I want now is Alti dead. At my hands."
"Then let me help you."
Seeing Xena's surprised expression, and forestalling the expected response, she carried on. "You don't want power? Well, I do. Not much - just enough to keep my people from getting caught in the middle. If you want Alti's blood, you're gonna need help. I want a chance to protect some things before it all crashes down." Xena's expression didn't change. "Look, you're injured and hunted. You can't do this alone. I can be very valuable to you. I know enough people that I can get us what we need - information, supplies, whatever. I'll do whatever you want, if I have your word that once Alti is off the throne, you'll listen to me to help the people of this city who can't help themselves."
Xena's expression softened ever so slightly as she looked into the girl's bright green eyes. "You remind me..." Her voice for a moment was thick with almost forgotten emotion. She cleared her throat with an almost embarrassed cough. "What's your name, kid?" she asked, her tone flat once again.
"You have a deal, Gabrielle. But if this is a trick..." Again her voice rose and the wild look returned. "...if I find out you sold me out..."
"I won't. I promise," Gabrielle avowed hurriedly.
"This isn't trust. You understand? This is a business deal, and if you even think of betraying me..." The woman fell silent for a moment. Once again her voice was calmer and reasonable. "Now tell me about what's been happening while I've been... away."
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