The Last Conqueror


Kamouraskan and Lariel

For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1

Part Six

Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle was about to descend the stairs leading to the quarters they'd managed to secure, when a hand grabbed at her right elbow and attempted to spin her about. Acting on instincts honed in the streets, she went with the attacker's movement and slammed her left hand into their skull. At the same time she swung a leg with the force of the pivot and knocked out their feet from under them. The attacker was no slouch and managed somehow to maintain their balance but Gabrielle had already withdrawn into a defensive crouch when a voice yelled, "Hold it. Both of you!" and she found herself facing a very surprised looking Amazon.

She moved back cautiously and complained, "Strange way you have of thanking someone."

The Amazon named Ephiny lifted her hand to cautiously touch the bruise beside her ear and replied grimly, "Not nearly as strange as the people you hang around with. That woman you called your sister. Who is she really?"

"Who do you think she is?" Gabrielle tried to hedge.

"No games now, you know that's Xena."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Everyone knows that Xena is dead."

"Then they better tell her. Because some people won't ever forget those eyes." Ephiny's comment was greeted in silence by Gabrielle, who was staring at the Amazons warily. They had blocked off her exit, and she tried not to look too worried. Ephiny continued, "I think you had better talk with us, because if that's Xena, then you're Gabrielle, and we have a bit of news you might need to know."


"Tell us about Xena."

"No, you go first. I thought you owed me, or was that just a figure of speech?"

Chagrined, Terreis interrupted. "Alti has just issued orders a few minutes ago for everyone to be on the lookout for a crazy woman claiming to be Xena."

"She might have the crazy woman part right," Gabrielle stared pointedly at the Amazons, "but there seems to be more than one of them running around."

Terries laughed. "Yes, but she also said she is accompanied by a young redhead named Gabrielle, and Alti is very interested in her."

"I'm more of a blonde."

Terreis ignored the glib reply. "No attempt was to be made to capture them. But there was a message to be passed to the girl that her boyfriend would be released if she and Alti could have a chat. Otherwise he will be executed publicly at dusk."

"Where is she keeping him?" Gabrielle asked quietly.

"Right now they're both in the courtyard, with a full complement of guards, waiting."

"I'd have to be an idiot to go there, wouldn't I?"

"Or willing to risk your life for another human being. Like you did earlier for me."

"I'd have to be nuts to think of turning myself over to Alti. She's just using Perdicus to lure me. Then she figures I'll tell her where Xena is."

"You'd think so wouldn't you?" Ephiny gingerly touched her bruise again as she watched a pensive Gabrielle anxiously chew her lip.

Terreis examined the girl thoughtfully before giving Ephiny an abrupt order. "Pass the word along to Yakut. Tell her to get here, now. Be careful - make sure she's not seen." The younger Amazon grunted, but nodded and brushed past Gabrielle as she made her way down the stairs.

"Who's Yakut?" Gabrielle asked absently.

"She's being trained as a Shamaness"

"By Alti?"

"No. By a man, strangely enough."

Gabrielle suddenly felt warm, and her stomach churned a little. "Arminus?" Somehow, the name just appeared on her tongue.

"You know him?" Terries looked almost satisfied.

The confirmation made Gabrielle feel a little sick, but she pushed the feeling down and shrugged, nonchalantly. "I know a lot of people."

"But he took an interest in you, didn't he?" Terreis was staring intently at her, studying her face and seeing the faint traces of surprise and fear that were flickering behind cool green eyes.

The memory of that afternoon hovered at the edge of Gabrielle's mind, like a spider hiding in the dark. She wasn't really sure now whether it had been real or not. "Maybe he likes young girls."

"Gabrielle, let's stop sparring. Has Arminus ever indicated he thought you had a special... destiny?"

"He's a weird old man, with all sorts of crazy ideas." She shook her head slightly, trying to dislodge the buzzing that invaded her head whenever she thought about that afternoon.

"You know that's not true. Yakut said there's a prophecy. I thought, with Xena dead, it didn't matter." Terreis pulled a returning and sullen Ephiny towards her, and whispered a conversation; Gabrielle caught only snatches, but saw how Ephiny scowled and shook her head, evidently disagreeing strongly with whatever her leader was suggesting. Terreis' voice rose, and Gabrielle heard her say, "...if she's the one, Alti can use her." There was more muted discussion, with the redhead's gestures becoming more pointed. Finally, she turned to the wary girl, completely catching her off guard when she said, "Gabrielle, have you ever considered becoming an Amazon?"

"Are you kidding?" She couldn't help the laugh that erupted out of her. The angry glints in Terreis and Ephiny's eyes didn't go unnoticed.

"We wouldn't joke about something like that, Gabrielle. We'd die for the Amazon nation. It's a serious offer." The steely tone sounded foreign to Terreis' formerly gentle voice.

"I'm sorry." The solemnity of these women almost outweighed the absurd humour of the situation. Still very aware of the potential danger she was in, surrounded by Alti's royal Amazon retinue, Gabrielle gathered her wits about her. "But you have to admit - that's one Hades of an offer. I didn't see a recruiting sign."

"Let me ask you a question. Why are you here? With Xena?"

"To get Perdicus out."

"Is that all?"

"That depends on what other opportunities may present themselves." There was a muttering from the Amazons.

"And what about Xena?" Terreis persisted. "What does she want?"

"She wants Alti. You can't blame her. After that? I don't know."

"What makes you think that Xena's any better than Alti? She's just as much of a killer - maybe worse. She's personally slaughtered thousands, and enjoyed it. She killed hundreds of my sisters - and my blood family - right in front of my eyes."

Gabrielle's eyes closed. "So? Join the club. You know where I come from? Do you? Potedaia? Xena made sure there isn't even a signpost left to show where it was." Gabrielle's voice was dull, almost uncaring.

"No one survived Potedaia," Ephiny said flatly.

"Some of us survived. As best we could."

"Then why in Hades name would you help her?"

"Because it suits my purpose. Why do you stay with Alti?" she countered, and was satisfied to see a faint smile crease the corners of Terreis' lips. "We're all here for a reason, Terreis. You stick with Alti, and I'll take my chances with Xena." She made to leave, but suddenly found Ephiny blocking her path. "You're in my way," she said, pointedly.

"We haven't finished with you yet," came a new voice from behind Ephiny. A space cleared, and Gabrielle found herself staring into a face that looked even younger than her own. She blinked rapidly as she picked up the scent of rosemary coming from the strange girl, and her stomach stirred again. Unaccountably, she felt nervous.

"What do you want with me?"

"We want to talk," continued Terreis.

"I'm busy. Talking won't save Perdicus' life." She made to push through the Amazons, but was grabbed. "Let me go!"

"We made you an offer," reminded the redhead. "We're still waiting for your answer."

"I can't be an Amazon. I'm not a warrior!" She struggled, but the Amazons held her arms in a firm grasp.

"You don't have to be. There are many ways of fighting, Gabrielle, and many weapons. Not all of them kill. Some save lives." Yakut spoke up, her voice young and high. "Don't be afraid."

"I'm not afraid!" The smell of herbs and damp earth was stronger, and Gabrielle could feel it sliding into her nose and mouth as she fought for breath, permeating her body and filling her inside. The heady combination sent her head throbbing, buzzing with sounds and sensations and all the while, the high voice of Yakut kept its even tone. As the buzzing in her head grew louder, the timbre of Yakut's voice changed, grew deeper... familiar, masculine somehow.

"I think she might be the one," she heard Yakut say. "But she's fighting it - I can feel her struggling, inside." In Yakut's eyes, Gabrielle for an instant thought she saw spirals of smoke and flame surrounding an inky black darkness, but the image was scattered by her own reflection.

Deep in her mind, Gabrielle heard the voice, slow and persistent like water flowing over rocks and roots, dancing and delicate, and incessant. "The two need you to counterbalance - you are the fulcrum. But be careful, and choose wisely."

She gasped, and Yakut smiled. "Yes, it's her. She knows."

Terreis nodded in satisfaction. "Join us," she said, simply. "We can help each other. You want Alti off the throne, and so do we." Gabrielle's eyes widened. "We're Amazon warriors, Gabrielle. Not a royal honour guard for a crazy, murdering bitch. We know Alti was behind the destruction of our Nation, even if Xena was the hand."

"What about Xena?" asked Gabrielle, warily.

"She'll be useful." Terreis held up a hand, to quell the angry murmuring that erupted from the small group of women. "First things first. If Xena can help us, then we use her. There might come a time when we have to fight, and as much as I hate to say it, the Warrior Princess is the best person to have on your side. Can you control her?"

"She needs me," Gabrielle countered, as she damped down her own doubts about the warrior. "But how can a handful of women fight against the Conqueror?"

"That's one of the things we need to talk about. We have other plans - which is where you come in - but if we need to fight, we're ready. You'd be amazed how easy it is to hide when you're female. Nobody pays any attention when groups of women get together." Terreis smiled coldly.

"So what would you want me to do?"

"What you're best at; talk."

Gabrielle hesitated, looked around her; her exit was still blocked, and her arms were still held. "Okay. Tell me more about this becoming an Amazon thing..."


"Althea? Althea?" There was no answer as Gabrielle cautiously swung the heavy stable door open. She cursed under her breath, and hissed, "Xena?"

There was a scuffling noise from the far corner of the room, before a slurred voice spoke. "Huh? Oh, it's you..."

"By the gods, Xena...what...? You've been drinking? No, never mind...we need to talk."

A clutch of rat corpses was waved unsteadily at her. "What we need to do is have 100 rat pelts by sundown, or we lose our cover. You haven't made your quota yet." The glazed eyes peered towards her. "Where have you been?"

"Hey, I never agreed to this. You're the palace rat catcher. I'll stay in the kitchens." She winced as another rat was dispatched. "I think it's safer," she muttered. "Certainly cleaner."

"It's perfect cover - who ever notices the rat catchers?" Xena replied gaily as she cast around for her next victim. "Or the privy cleaners and the other servants who walk in filth? Anything else and I'd be noticed straight away. People'll cross over the other side of the street rather than share the same air space with me now," she declared proudly.

Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Imagine that."

"Yeah? Can you see the three rats under that pile of straw you're sitting on...? Yeah, those ones. Look at 'em run! Great scream, Gabrielle. Do it again." Horses in the nearest stall snorted, and stamped their hooves anxiously as Xena ducked and weaved around their enclosures.

"Uhhh... Xena?" asked Gabrielle, as she watched the warrior grab a rat by its tail and whirl it round her head. "Xena? I really need to talk to you..."

"Gabrielle, I'm busy. And very nicely drunk."

"Why did you have to get drunk?"

"Have to is the word. When you ran off, which was really rude of you, you know? I started having these thoughts, feelings... I wasn't sure what was real again, so I figured what I needed was a lot of liquor. And I was right. Now all I need is a lot more rats, and the night will be complete."

"Xena, there's a whole box of live rats over here."

"I know." There was a wicked gleam in the glassy rat catcher's eye. "Rats get everywhere. And there's one place in particular I want them to get..."

"That's your plan?" Gabrielle was once again incredulous. "The great Destroyer of Nations, one of the finest military minds of our age, and her plan is to drop rats into Alti's quarters?"

"Yeah! And once they're there - whammo!" Xena made a crude gesture with a fist and an open hand. Gabrielle closed her eyes, and swallowed. She opened her eyes again, and wished she hadn't.

Gabrielle cursed again. "Why is it that every time I turn my back, you start acting like some crazy...?" She was halted suddenly by a finger poking towards her face.

"Killing these rats isn't crazy. It's part of the plan and if you'd been in a cell with the little bastards for almost a year without your hands free to do THIS..."

Gabrielle sidestepped the rat corpse that was flung in her direction. "Xena, I need to talk to you. Something really strange just happened to me..." The warrior waved her out of the way, and started to scan all around the floor. "Xena, are you listening? I've just been approached..." She winced as the warrior savagely snapped the neck of another rodent.

"You shouldn't be talking to anyone, Gabrielle. We don't want to attract attention," she said, stringing her latest kills up onto her pole. "We can lie low here for a while, until I'm ready to move on Alti."

"You were right. About Perdicus. Alti has him. They're in the main square now. They're going to execute him this evening, at dusk. Unless I show."

"Then you'd better stay out of sight, hadn't ya? Can't afford to blow our cover for one stupid kid."

"I'm not leaving him to die, Xena!"

Xena sighed, and stopped her work. "I've told ya before, kid. If you want Alti off the throne, then you're gonna have to accept that people will die. Some people are expendable, and he's one of them."

Gabrielle's face hardened. "And I've told you, Xena. I won't let him die. He's like a brother to me. Would you let your brother be killed like this?"

Gabrielle found herself pinned against the stable wall by six feet of furious and filthy woman. "Don't you ever mention my brother! If he hadn't been such a stupid, naive fool then maybe he would still be here... he wouldn't have left me... Don't you ever talk about my family again, you hear me?" The cold fury that poured into her eyes iced Gabrielle's blood, and all she could do was nod. Just as quickly, she was dropped; she slid down to her knees, gasping and stunned.

There was a frigid silence in the stable, until Gabrielle stated, in a shaky but determined voice, "I'm going to get Perdicus. You can stay here and be safe, and drunk. Strangle all the rats you want, I don't care." Setting her shoulders, she rose slowly to her feet. She didn't get far.

"You do this, and you blow the plan. We'll all die, and Alti stays on the throne. Is that what you want?"

"I'm not like you, Xena. I can't choose who lives and dies."

"Gabrielle. I'm warning you...I'm not gonna let you go down there..."

"For Zeus' sake, Xena! I'm not stupid, I'm not gonna blow the plan. For some reason she thinks I'm important, I'll be safe. Alti just wants to talk..."

"You're gonna talk to that bitch?" Xena exploded, "Oh no, you're not...I'll kill you first!"

"I'm only going to talk to her! What harm can that do?"

"Plenty. You don't know that bitch, what she's capable of."

Gabrielle snorted. "I thought you said she was just a con artist."

"She is!"

"Well then, I've run a few pretty good cons in my time you know. You don't survive on the streets by being naive. And I'm no fool, you should know that by now, Xena."

"Look, Alti's good, as much as I hate to admit it. She has this knack of getting people to do what she wants."

"And you don't?" Gabrielle shot back, and immediately regretted the words as she saw Xena's face tighten. "I'm sorry, okay?

But as soon as Xena turned to continue her ranting, Gabrielle slipped away.


His wrists chafed from the rough ropes that were binding him to the stake in the centre of the town square, and the position he was tied in was making his shoulder muscles scream with agony. He moved his feet, trying to adjust his position to ease the ache in his back, and flicked a glance around the packed square. Alti had made sure that there was an audience for her show. He was just thankful that he wasn't the entertainment. Not today, anyway.

"Just what were you thinking, Darphus?"

He tried a weak grin. "A man has certain... needs, Empress."

"Needs, yes." She wagged a bony finger before his eyes. "Needs make a person weak, Darphus. They're exploitable. As you've just found to your cost." She waved towards her Amazon retinue, who were observing the proceedings with a keen interest. "Luckily for you, I don't have time for this. I'll deal with you later."

Alti scanned the crowd, trying not to let her anxious impatience show too obviously. She didn't even know what she was looking for, or more precisely who; realising that she didn't know what the girl Gabrielle even looked like, she walked past the bound figure of Darphus to his equally trussed companion.

"Boy," she grated, dragging a fingernail along his cheek, "Your girlfriend doesn't seem to be interested in what happens to you." He gave a defiant shrug. "It's amazing how people can change. Especially impressionable people, idealistic people. It's clear that Xena's influence over her is growing. I hope it's not too late." She paused meaningfully, catching the flicker of fear just before he closed his eyes.

"Gabrielle would never become like Xena." His eyes settled momentarily over her shoulder, and widened. She knew instantly what he'd seen. Or, more precisely, who.

Her voice rose slightly, flowing over the gathered crowd like smoke from a funeral pyre. "The power of darkness can be very intoxicating. You have no idea how seductive it can be, how seductive someone like Xena can be. I bet she's seducing Gabrielle right now. Filling her head with stories, promises. Things that could turn a girl's head - it's how Xena's was turned, after all. She was just a normal girl from Amphipolis before..." she smiled slyly, "...before she found her dark side."

"She'll be here. She wouldn't let me die. Gabrielle wouldn't let anyone die," Perdicus mumbled.

"I hope you're right. I don't want to kill you, but I have to rescue Gabrielle from Xena. You do see that, don't you? A person that pure deserves a chance, and Xena would never give her that."

"And you expect me to believe that you would?" Alti turned as she felt the warmth of the girl's breath caressing her cheek. Briefly, she wondered how she had managed to get past her Amazon guards, but dismissed the thought as her greedy eyes drank in the sight of the young woman who she knew represented her fate; her future. Or her death.

"Xena's little... friend. How nice to meet you, Gabrielle."

"I wish I could say the feeling was mutual, but it isn't." Prepared to die, Gabrielle nodded curtly towards Perdicus. "I'm here. Let him go."

"Of course. I only needed him to ensure you came alone. Xena might have told you things... Lies, mostly. So we have a lot to talk about, you and I." Alti smiled and waved; moments later, Perdicus was rubbing his wrists and standing free at Gabrielle's side.


"Perdicus, go. Now." Her tone brooked no argument, and years of fruitless pleading had taught him not to bother. He turned and melted into the crowd, not noticing the guard who shadowed him.

Gabrielle watched him safely out of the courtyard, then turned back to the Empress. "What do you want, Alti?"

A frown flashed across the dark features. "Most people call me by my proper title."

Gabrielle's brow quirked. "I didn't think it was fit to be spoken in public, but if you insist..."

"A sense of humour. How very charming." Alti's face darkened, but she forced a smile onto her lips.

"Let's get down to business, shall we? You went to a lot of trouble to get me here, and I'm intrigued to know why." Gabrielle looked cautiously around as she spoke, searching for an escape route.

"Let's just say that we have a lot of things in common. Enemies, for instance. We both want the same things. Peace, prosperity, freedom. Justice. A future."

"I know I want all of those things. I didn't know you did."

"I'm the ruler of the known world. Of course I want what's best for my empire."

"So where do I fit into all this? I'm just a kid from Potadaia." Bright green eyes flickered around the square, seeking the figure of the woman who she knew had run after her from the stable. Xena was nowhere to be seen, but Gabrielle felt she was close, listening to every word. She missed the glint that appeared in the other woman's eyes when her home was mentioned.

"Potadaia? How can you bear to be with Xena after what she did there?"

Gabrielle's face hardened but she remained mute.

"As for being just a kid, hardly. You are so much more. There are things I think you know of; things Xena wouldn't tell you, isn't that right?" Alti slung a companionable arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. The girl could barely contain her shiver as the Conqueror's flesh touched her bare arm. "I know about you, Gabrielle. I know how you've been organising the food and medicine drops, the way you look after people. And yet have I moved to stop you? You see Gabrielle, I'm not the monster that some people have painted me to be. I might be encouraged to expand your operations."

Gabrielle tried to slowly move aside; Alti's arm dropped. As the girl stepped cautiously away, out of the corner of her eye she caught a glint in the crowd - it was Xena, with a dagger unsheathed. "Why should I believe you?" she stalled. Another glance took in Terreis and her Amazons, who were watching the exchange with closed faces.

"You don't have to believe me. You know of both my and Xena's reputations. You've started to doubt that she's as black as she was painted, why not give me the same benefit of the doubt?"

"You want me to trust you? You're kidding, right?"

Alti quirked her lips. "If you start from there, what choice do you have? A half mad killer, the Butcher of Potadaia, hiding from every shadow, or the woman who actually rules and has never hurt or threatened you? Certainly it's the basis for talking, at least. Wouldn't you agree?"

There was a slow nod. "Talking. I can do that."

"Good. That's all. I think you'd find we have far more in common that you think. Xena was the daughter of a wealthy inn owner. She's known only conquest and blood since she was in her teens. I was a farm girl who loved to read, to study, just like you. I started out as an Amazon Shamaness, you know. A holy woman, if you will. I dedicated my life to the spiritual state of the world."

"What happened?"

"The darkness is very tempting, Gabrielle. Without a guide it is so easy to stray from your path. I'm tired of it, now. All the killing, the blood. I never meant it to be this way. I want to return to my path, Gabrielle. I need help, and I think you are the one."

Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Xena raise the dagger. Her eyes strayed back to the sincere face of the woman in front of her. "You want to change?"

"Do you think I can?" The Shamaness could feel the indecision pouring off the young woman in front of her, and she all but licked her lips at the spiritual power that was buzzing around Gabrielle. It was like molten gold, pure and rich and irresistible. And all hers for the taking.

"Maybe," the girl hedged.

"Think of all that I offer you, Gabrielle."

"It's what you want in return that worries me."

"All I ask is that you accept who you are, and the importance you have. You are the one a certain prophecy calls for. You might be the one who saves the empire and your people. Isn't that what you really want, Gabrielle?"

"To be a hero, working for the Greater Good?" Gabrielle stood in silence for several brief moments as she seemed to mull the offer over. "I guess more resources, maybe more influence... that would make life easier."

"Then maybe we can talk about that..." Alti once again put her arm along the girl's shoulders, and slowly drew her towards the palace. Gabrielle's eyes reluctantly pulled away from the crowd, and she flinched as she saw Xena's wrist flick. She dimly registered a thunk in the wall beside her head as she passed through the doorway.

She never noticed Alti turn and give a triumphant smile at Xena. If the warrior's aim had been a fraction to the left, she would've hit the Conqueror right between her eyes. A fraction to the right, and she would've hit Gabrielle.


Gabrielle halted in the corridor and turned to the Empress. "And what about Xena?"

"And what about her?"

"I'd be a lot clearer on how sincere you are about changing your path if I knew what your plans were for her."

"So clever. A test, is it?" Her eyes became hooded for a moment and then they emerged from the folds with a cruel smile. "I have a test for you as well then."

"I suppose that's only fair. What do you want me to do?"

"I'm sure I can think of something by tonight. Will you be ready?"

Gabrielle considered for a moment, before nodding slightly. "I asked you about Xena."

"I promise that I will not touch Xena, and I'll make sure no one else does either."

"What are the boundaries of this test?" queried the girl as she was maneuvered back into motion by the insistent arm of the Empress. "I won't kill, I won't hurt anyone."

The Conqueror laughed, a harsh sound. There may even have been a hint of reluctant admiration in it. "A test wouldn't be a test unless there were risks of pain to someone, would it? And I have to know that any... partner I take on can be trusted and has the skills I need to support me in my... redemption."

"And I need to know that the people I work with can be trusted to deliver."

"Don't worry, Gabrielle. You'll have everything that you asked for, and more. The whole world could be yours, if you want it."

"Thanks, but I'm not that ambitious. Just give me what I asked for." Gabrielle's stomach lurched even as she made the statement; the truth of the tainted offer that she was accepting making her feel sick.

"Of course. I wouldn't dream of breaking an agreement. And I'm due to discuss the Realm's situation with my generals in a candlemark - I'd like you to accompany me."

"In what capacity?"

"As my protégé. I think it will give you a chance to see the real me, Gabrielle - how I'm trying to keep my empire at peace."

"Well, if I'm to try to change things, I need to know what's going on now," Gabrielle conceded.

"Good. I'll have my guards show you to the quarters I've arranged for you. They should be ready by now."


Hidden in her ratcatcher disguise, Xena crossed the courtyard, deserted now of Alti's guard and filled with vendors going about their usual business. Darphus, still tied to the stake, went unnoticed amidst the bustle. The people of Corinth had grown used to such sights; they'd seen much worse from her and Alti.

She crept up to the throne, which had been forgotten in the excitement of Gabrielle's appearance. Sunk into the wood, lost amidst the many trophies, just above where Alti's head would be, was her chakram. Her fingers shook as she traced its curves, remembering its long forgotten texture. She tugged, but couldn't loosen it.

"Xena...!" Darphus struggled against his bonds. "Free me, and I'll take you to Alti!"

She ignored him and darted across the yard, begged a knife from a merchant and came back to pry the shining disc from its prison. Soon, the heavy object lay on her palm, its reassuring weight pressing into the sensitive skin there. She smiled grimly, and turned away before attracting any more attention.

"Darphus. Look what I have..." She ran the chakram's blade across his throat, gently. "Time to choose your side. Alti's mine - she doesn't stand a chance, not now that I have this." She flicked her wrist, and the disc rose and then landed snugly at her side. She cast him one last mocking grin, and vanished.

"She has Gabrielle. What makes you think she hasn't already won?" Darphus muttered to himself.


The sun was dropping low in the sky when Alti returned to the square and her captive former Commander. She drew a knife through the ropes, with a smirk. "Maybe I'll let you live a little longer, Darphus. Who knows, the way things are right now, you may be useful to me one day."

He rubbed his wrists, which chafed from the cords that had cut into his tender flesh. "Your mercy is much celebrated, Empress," he said, through gritted teeth while wondering how she could miss the disappearance of the chakram, even lost as it had been amongst all the other prizes fastened to the throne. More evidence of her broken concentration, he knew.

She laughed at him. "Sure it is, Darphus. I'm going to let you sweat for a while longer, wondering what your punishment will be and when I may decide to mete it out."

"Thank you, Empress."

"Don't be such a fool. I haven't forgotten, and I won't forgive. But I'd be a fool to throw away such a devoted lapdog, while I still had a purpose for him. Wouldn't I? Oh, don't look at me like that, Darphus - we both know you're not going anywhere. Yet."

"Maybe you take me for granted too much, Empress. You know how valuable I am to you..."

Her laughter grew louder. "Then run to Xena, you upstart pup. Go on - see if your former master treats you any better. No?" She slapped the knife against his chest. "Go on, take it - you need a weapon, and that'll do until you pick up your sword from the guardsman."

He seized it, felt the reassuring weight in his hand and tested the blade against his thumb.

"It's sharp enough, Darphus. Do it now, if you've got the balls." She stared at him with a triumphant sneer on her face. "If you honestly think Xena will win... kill me now."

He stared into her black eyes, and saw promises of power and position there. "And why would I want to do that, Empress?" he said deliberately, as he tucked the knife into his breech's belt. "I still have so much to learn from you. Xena is dead, we both know that."

A slow smile spread across her thick lips. "Right answer, Darphus. But stay away from my Amazons."

"Yes, Empress. What would you have me do to prove my loyalty again?"

"I want you to look after Gabrielle."

"That scruffy street...??"

"She's important to me, Darphus. I don't want her slipping away to meet anyone, understand? But no harm comes to her. I want to know where she goes, and whom she talks to. Do you understand who I mean?"

"Yes, Empress. If Xena comes anywhere near her, you'll be the first to know."

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