The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
There were already over a thousand warrior women surrounding their little convoy, and still they continued to come.
"How...?" gasped Gabrielle.
"We asked Xena, and later Alti, for the right to care for the battered women, and abandoned children of the Empire, in exchange for our surrender."
"And they let you?"
"Why wouldn't they? Where's the threat from a bunch of women? It was a burden we were relieving them of. As far as they were concerned, the Amazons were finished. So, while you were gathering the children of just Corinth together, we were drawing new members from the entire empire. When Sparta was turned into a military regime, they threw out thousands of women, like they were used clay lamps. We took them in." Terreis smiled out at the band of brown-clad women who had surrounded their horses; the women shook their staves and swords in a gesture of appreciation as they nodded and stamped their feet.
"But Alti must know...?"
"Some of it, certainly. She knows of our training grounds. But women like Alti and Xena, they don't worry about their sisters. They don't know what it's like to be a woman in this world."
Ephiny interjected, heatedly. "And what's more they don't care. They figure that if the occasional rape is punished, they've done well by their sex. It leaves them free to go on running with the men. They don't think about what it's like for most women - the drudgery, beatings, rapes, murders even. The lack of rights. Nobody to stand up for them. These women came to us, Gabrielle, from every town but Corinth, and not one of the Empire's spies noticed or cared about the disappearance of a few women or children." The gathered Amazons murmured their agreement.
Terreis turned to Ephiny. "I want five hundred of the best to accompany Gabrielle when she goes in to see the Green Dragon. The rest can be ringed around the camp." She returned her attention to Gabrielle who was still looking about her in shock. "Gabrielle? Listen to me. I want you to tell him that we aren't afraid of the black powder. We know he's got it and we know what it can do. I'm ordering half our people to get right up close to the Chinese lines, but not to threaten - tell him we won't move on his troops unless they try to advance. I don't think he's going to want to start throwing explosives into our people when we're right alongside of his own troops. You can also tell them our hidden archers can pick off a hundred of his men each day, unless you and your guard are kept safe. Then you can negotiate an alliance against Alti."
Terreis' red brows arched in surprise. "What do you mean no? This is for your safety!"
"I don't mean 'no' about threatening to keep me safe. I like that part. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to be some sort of conjuror to survive this. I meant no, I'm not going down there with five hundred armed Amazons, and I'm not going down there to negotiate a coup."
Yakut emerged from the crowd, wrapping her furs snugly around her to stave off the creeping cold of the valley, and asked, "What's the hold-up?"
Ephiny exploded. " Just when I was beginning to like her, she changed sides again!"
"No I haven't," Gabrielle shot back, her eyes kindling. "You're sending me into a negotiation with a set position and I don't know anything about what the other side wants. I'm not going to do it. And you don't have any choice, I'm the negotiator he's expecting. So don't start making threats."
Terreis started laughing, which served to infuriate an already wound-up Ephiny more. "What do you find so funny? Are you going to take this from her?"
Terreis shook her head. "Gabrielle, do I have your word that you will negotiate with your Amazon sisters in mind, and do what is best for them?"
Terreis turned to the furious Ephiny. "See, here I was having a few doubts she could pull this off, and now I'm satisfied. Yakut, you were right, she's the one."
"This 'girl' as you called her has just put ten thousand Amazons in their place. You don't think she can do the same for ten thousand Chinese?" *****
"Why haven't you fired at me?"
"Because I've been thinking. Something Gabrielle told me to do. She said I wasn't thinking." Solon relaxed his arm a little, but kept the crossbow poised.
"Right. And she's always thinking..."
"You don't understand her. So many things that didn't add up. I >wasn't thinking. I didn't until the Empress gave me this crossbow. Why me, Gabrielle asked. The Empress is always goading me to hurt and cause you pain, and now to kill you. But why me? And why always you?"
"Gabrielle told me you killed the other guards. Except me. You nursed me and brought me away from the Empress. Why?"
"You got lucky. Don't push it."
He smiled, raised his crossbow again and fired. Three arrows slammed into the wall to her right. Xena hadn't moved. "I know you have your chakram back. You could've thrown it and killed me before I could fire, but you didn't." He lowered his bow, and placed it on the floor. "No way the Warrior Princess would leave herself open like that. Not without good reason."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Then tell me!"
"We can't talk about this, Solon. It's not safe for you here. Alti's nearby somewhere, listening."
"Why would she be here?"
"To see you kill me? Or me kill you? She'd be here."
"What would it matter to her?"
"You have a certain... power. So do I. Alti thrives on it, she needs it. And more than that, you still have a purity about you, and she'd do anything to see that destroyed. It's how she gets her kicks, by corrupting innocence. She wouldn't miss this - it's everything she's worked towards." She took a small step towards him, but he jerked back.
"Don't move! I didn't say I trusted you, either. Just stay where you are. I have very good eyesight in the dark." He had the loaded crossbow once again in his hand, and levelled at her chest.
"Okay - I'm not going anywhere." She held up her hands, palm outwards. "What are you going to do now?"
Abruptly, he changed tack. "Alti said my mother had good eyesight too. You knew my parents, didn't you? Alti told me you killed them."
What could she say? What would finish this conversation before it reached the end she knew Solon was edging towards? Even now, her hearing was searching through the stone corridors for the sound of another person. But there was only the echo of their own voices. "Solon..."
He gestured with the bow again. "I need to know. Did you kill my father?"
Seeing his determination, and recognising her own stubbornness in him, she sighed. "No. But it was my fault that he died."
"But you didn't kill him, did you?"
"No. I didn't."
"And... my mother?"
"It's too complicated, and now isn't the time."
Solon obstinately ignored the warning note. "I'm making it the time. It's time I knew the truth. Everything that's gone wrong in my life happened because I didn't know the truth."
"Solon, the lies have kept you alive. The truth will have you killed."
"I don't care. Don't you understand? I've spent my whole life hating, and I'm so tired of it. I feel like I've been living in a huge black hole and I can't take it any more. Gabrielle said I was so twisted up because of hatred and lies that I'd never have a hope of a normal life - well, she's right. I'd rather know the truth than go on hating."
She closed her eyes against the pain of his words. "You won't hate any less if you knew the truth. You wouldn't understand."
"What wouldn't I understand? Talk to me!"
"No. If you're going to shoot me, do it, because I... I'm responsible for what happened to you, and I won't see you hurt anymore."
"Damn you, Xena!"
Xena ducked as the crossbow was flung at her, and the sound of it skidding along the bumpy stone passageway masked the sound of a surreptitious approach until it was too late. Xena's didn't anticipate Alti emerging from behind Solon, and grabbing him by the throat.
"Not quite what I hoped for, but still very touching," she gloated. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world." To the disconcerted warrior, Alti seemed to be glowing with energy, and even more confident then usual. "I think we know what happens next, don't we, Xena? Please, your weapons. You won't need them now." She shook Solon by the neck. His face was already turning a faint blue, so Xena drew her sword and chakram, and dropped them to the ground.
As if waiting for that sound, both ends of the passageway filled with soldiers.
"So what happens now?" Xena asked, quietly.
Still holding onto the boy, Alti mocked the warrior. "You remember your cell? But I think we'll have to assign another keeper. This one will be staying very close to me until Gabrielle returns."
Ephiny brushed back her curly locks and laughed at the energetic new Amazon across from her. "Seems like only last week I was being called a slave driver when I made you spar with me this long. Wait a minute, it was just last week."
Gabrielle exhaled loudly, and began bouncing on the balls of her feet while trying to find the staff's balance in each position. "Last week I wasn't spending all morning and afternoon arguing semantics with a master." Ephiny charged while Gabrielle was still talking. "Then... there's all that rich food he keeps... shoving at me... and... ahh... gotcha! Yeah!" For once Ephiny had been listening instead of reacting, and Gabrielle had executed a perfect feint, sweeping her feet out from under her. Ephiny lay on the ground, amused, as the blonde did a small victory dance with her staff held over her head. "Let's hear it for the kid! Gabrielle, One! Ephiny... well, let's say we start counting from today?"
"Fine, " said the Amazon as she raised herself up and grinned menacingly. Gabrielle's success was punctured slightly by that smile, and she hurriedly moved to sit by the fire, tugging her short brown skirt down as she settled on the ground. "Ummm, I think that break idea of yours sounds good, too." She picked up her heavy woollen cloak and wrapped it tightly around herself.
Smirking slightly, Ephiny tugged on her own short, grey furred jacket and joined the girl in the warmth, both positioning themselves facing the fire with their backs to the now setting sun.
"So..." Ephiny started. "Have you figured out Ming Tien, yet?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Nope. And it's not that 'inscrutable Chinese' stuff people talk about. Every little while I get this picture of this small boy peering out at me, daring me to catch him. I know he'll keep his word; the trick is to nail down on paper exactly what he's promising."
"You still don't know what that whole business with the hair comb was about?"
Gabrielle shrugged, mystified. "No, but I know it's a key to something. You saw his face when we presented it to him. If you hadn't added that bit Xena said about clearing up her messes, I don't know what he would've done."
"And what he said afterwards, that could mean anything," Ephiny mused.
"So Xena realises she was a tool. Then perhaps she can find her just end through the same path,"Gabrielle quoted.
There was a cry from behind them, and both turned to see a messenger coming from the main Amazon encampment. Ephiny looked over to Gabrielle and remarked, "Looks like today's pigeon just came in. I wonder what's new in Corinth?"
The message was handed over breathlessly, and Gabrielle watched her friend's face as she read. "Oh, dear Artemis," Ephiny bit back a curse.
"What is it?"
"What the palace is calling 'the mad woman who thought she was Xena' is being held after going on a rampage. She killed that old man, Arminus, and then nearly killed the kid Solon. He's not expected to live."
Gabrielle's froze. "Solon. Arminus? No..."
"Eponin says they're holding Xena in her old cell and she's supposedly raving out loud."
"No," Gabrielle restated as firmly as she could, despite the fear in her heart.
"Oh, yeah." Ephiny passed the note back to the messenger and turned to see how Gabrielle was taking the news. She seemed stunned, and so she reached over and seized Gabrielle by the shoulders. The older Amazon spoke intensely, willing her words into the blonde who simply shook her head at each word. "Gabrielle. You know what this means. What Terreis will ask you to do now? This changes everything. You managed to convince all of us to let everything ride on that monster, and now you've got to go down to Ming Tien and renegotiate. You've got to get that woman's name off that treaty."
Gabrielle seemed to take that in. "And replace it with whose? The Dragon was just as insistent as I was that she be named."
"It doesn't matter who you put instead. You, Terreis, the first person we meet on our way down there. You have got to get Xena's name removed."
Gabrielle continued to shake her head. "No. This is a trick. You didn't see how she was when she was looking after Solon. She could never kill him."
"Couldn't kill her jailer? Don't you see? This is what she meant when she said she was cleaning up her messes!"
"It doesn't make any sense. Why Arminus?"
"Who knows what was going through her mind? You know she hated that prophecy, maybe she thought she could stop it if he died."
"No. She wouldn't do this. She was trying... she needed something to hold onto." Gabrielle stood. "It's got to be a set up. Alti's behind this."
"Alti? That makes no sense. She looked after that little rat Solon like he was her own child. And Arminus, she could have killed him years ago. There was no need to do it now. Alti isn't crazy... mean maybe, but not crazy. Xena is."
Again the blonde head shook in denial. "It's all lies. We've got to go back."
Ephiny was just as firm. "Our job, your duty, is here." Seeing this had no impact on Gabrielle, the Amazon tried to reason with her. "Look, I know you started to like Xena for some weird reason. Maybe you had to because of the prophecy or whatever. And I know this treaty's taken a lot of work and maybe right now doing it all over again seems impossible, but you have to see Xena for what she really is. And you can't let your guilt blind you either."
"Guilt? What are you talking about?"
Wordlessly, Ephiny reached over and handed over the message to Gabrielle. "A few people know Gabrielle was responsible for Xena running free, and they might blame her for the deaths."
There was silence, for a moment, broken only by Gabrielle's heavy breathing. Then she stood, and faced Ephiny. "Get up. Let's go at it again."
"I thought you were tired?"
"I'll tell you when I'm tired."
Ephiny tried to think of the right thing to say. This girl was the key to stopping a holocaust amidst the dissolution of a vast empire. There were thousands of lives at stake; but faced with the determination and anguish burning in those now hard green eyes, Ephiny moved to a fighting stance, and started her attack. Gabrielle deflected it, demanding, "Again!"
"It has been some time since you were last here. I had begun to wonder if you had forgotten how to read."
General Alexander smiled thinly at the teasing remark, placed his arm about the Greek and steered him to the far end of the library, tucking them between rows of shelves which were stacked to the brim with scrolls, parchment and various paperwork. He pressed a finger to the lips of the startled scholar to stall the expected questions, and spoke into his ear. "My friend, is there anyone here that might overhear us?"
The young intellectual shook his head. "No, I was just doing some cataloguing… it's an endless task."
"It's about to become much simpler," Alexander retorted grimly, as he hurriedly closed and bolted the massive vault doors behind them. They stood enclosed by seemingly endless shelves, each costumed according to their station; the youthful general in full armour, and the Greek in light robes, though both were close in age and temperament. Alexander was pleased to see that the scholar seemed to be taking his unusual behaviour in his stride. "My friend, you've managed to survive the transition from one Empress to another; truly an exceptional feat. Not only that, but you also saved this wonderful library too. A most impressive accomplishment in these unlearned times. You obviously have a talent for survival, Pericles." He threw his arm across the bemused scholar's shoulder and drew him in close before whispering urgently, "So you must believe me when I tell you that another crisis is upon us, and if you want to survive this storm as well, you must give me your word that nothing I am about to tell you will pass to another human being."
Pericles nodded. "Of course, Alexander. What is the latest cruelty from above?"
Alexander took a deep breath. "This city, and our library and all of its accumulated wisdom, teachings and histories are about to be destroyed. I need you to choose one hundred volumes, no more or less, to be saved from this obliteration."
"What? The city? Destroyed?", The academic was momentarily struck wordless, and swept his clenched hands about. "Why? They have to be stopped…" he demanded.
The young general gripped the scholar's shoulders, roughly shaking him. "Focus on the library and nothing else, Pericles. Give me your word that you will do what I ask, or I swear, none of these will survive!" Alexander reached above his head, yanked down a scroll and thrust it into the agitated hands of the Greek. It was The Code of Hammurabi, painstakingly reproduced from the original copies from the court of the author. Alexander swept it to the ground. "The collected wisdom of the ages, the very best that man has produced - all gone."
Pericles watched the scroll as it rolled across the floor and shook his head in disgust. "I have already given you my word, my honour, that no-one shall know of this."
Alexander paced about, searching for any signs of life in the cavernous rooms, staring at the scrolls that lined the walls with obvious regret. Occasionally, he would pause and run a finger along a fragile piece of parchment. When he had finished the inspection to his satisfaction, he returned to the stunned Greek. "I've just left a meeting of the Generals' Council, and by mutual agreement, all of Corinth is to be destroyed. Anyone who survives will be sold as slaves and transported to the farthest reaches of the world. It shall be as if Corinth, and Alti's empire, never existed."
Pericles mouth dropped, and for a moment he actually struggled to breathe. "You agreed to this? Why?"
"As the capital of the Empire, Corinth finds itself in the position not unlike that of the eldest son of the royal line. As the empire breaks up, there are pretenders to the status of capital, and it was agreed that the line of succession must be left open."
"What pretenders, what capitals?"
"Each of my fellow generals sees his own first city as the centre of a new empire. Corinth must be razed so that it can never threaten the new histories they are already writing in their minds."
"But what about the people, the city...?"
"Like Alti and Xena, it will be as though they never existed. Make sure the scrolls you save have no mention of either of our Empresses." Alexander turned his back, preparing to leave.
Pericles stared, aghast, at the rows upon rows of parchment that covered every available inch of shelf space. Thousands of scrolls, containing hundreds upon thousands of unique, irreplaceable, priceless treasures - all to be sacrificed. And for what? "This is madness, Alexander. Is there no way of stopping this?"
Alexander paused. "The girl, Gabrielle, returns from the Green Dragon in a few days. If she returns with a treaty of peace, with no concessions required by the empire, and with Alti recognised as ruler, then the Empress will have bought some time. But not much. The end has already begun."
There was a short silence, which was eventually broken by Pericles. "And if the treaty is not exactly as you have described?"
"By mutual agreement," the phrase admitting Alexander's complicity was repeated stonily, "the destruction of this city and everything in it will begin immediately after the treaty is examined. The commanders will be receiving their orders to that effect now. There'll be nothing left to indicate this rule existed, and there is nothing either of us can do to stop it. Put your mind to the one task you have - to save what is precious."
"What is precious are the people, Alexander!" Pericles retorted, aghast.
Alexander spoke harshly as he grabbed his friend by the collar. "There will always be more people. The ones in this city carry a curse, and the memory of two women who stood in the way of destiny. There is nothing we can do for them now."
"Isn't there?" the Greek snapped. "You're willing to save words over people?"
"Above all others, you know the power of words, Pericles! They have saved your life more than once, and now they will again." The young General swept his arm around in an expansive gesture. "It's these words, these texts here, that make us the people we are today. The wisdom that they carry will take us out of this dark, ignorant age. If we lose all of these works, we lose the only things that are going to help us form the new world that is coming."
"Then why destroy the texts with Xena or Alti, or the city? Surely if this new world is so much better, then the people need to know what they have risen from? We need to learn from our past, not bury it."
"We've argued this before, friend. What does it matter what the average man believes? All that is important is what our progeny believe, and the victor will write that. And spare me your sympathy for the wretches in the streets of Corinth. Xena and Alti destroyed many cities, from Potadaia to Athens. Towns and cities filled with civilians. This is war, and if it takes one last slaughter to sterilize the wounds, to place this world on the pedestal that it was knocked from, then so be it."
Pericles was silent for several long moments, eyes closed, as he tried to take in all that the young General had told him. Finally, he looked up and there was still anger mixed with wariness in his eyes. "This is your new world, isn't it? These are your plans. Your destiny that was thwarted. Have you saved me a place, a destiny, in all this?"
"You survived the last cataclysm because you were intelligent enough to know what was possible and what wasn't. As I said, you are an exceptional human being. Who knows, maybe you will be given your chance at power, and then you can make these decisions."
The scholar grasped at the General's sleeve, holding him back as he made to leave. "Give me a chance to talk to the others. To convince them and you of the madness that you are unleashing."
"You forget your place." Alexander shook him off roughly.
Pericles laughed bitterly. "How could I? You remind me of it so often. So I am to be practical, to decide what books to save, is that all? As all the important choices have already been made. Fine! So what manuscripts would you have me save?" Pericles asked, as his angry gaze swept around the packed library walls. "What would you suggest and how will they be transported?"
"Take the volumes that you know exist nowhere else, and divide them into two groups of fifty to hide"
"Hide? In a city which is about to be burned to the ground?"
"There are some caves several leagues outside Corinth. They should be safe there."
Pericles was, if anything, even more skeptical. "Caves? For these delicate ancient texts?"
Alexander interrupted quickly. "That's why your selection must be limited. I'll arrange for large kitchen jars and sealing wax to be brought here, but I can only arrange for a dozen without raising suspicion. Be as quick as you can, you don't have long. I estimate a few days at the most, until the girl returns. All this has to be safe by then."
Alexander unbolted the doors to the Library and tugged one open. He hesitated at the entrance, and cast a glance back at the angry man who stood, frustrated and stunned, in the midst of the dusty old tomes. "Ease your anger, Pericles. This is simply destiny righting itself. Hadn't you imagined what our lives would have been like if Xena had never lived? Had Alti not been her advisor? They were anomalies, and their time is over. This is how the new world must be. As if they had never existed, so our lives can finally be on their true path." He turned away again and said over his shoulder. "Tell no one about this, and bring no one with you. Only you and these texts will make it out of here. Is that understood? I have your word, and you have a job to keep you busy. To keep your life. So that you may fight for your ideals another day, my friend."
Pericles raised his head, and stared after the retreating back. "Why are you making so many pay to put destiny back on its path again? If I were in a position..."
Alexander turned once more and met the stare, stony faced. "But you aren't. I'm offering you a future, Pericles. Choose it and the hundred texts wisely. The new world needs men like you. I'll be back tomorrow with the containers and I expect you to be ready."
Reluctantly, Pericles bowed his agreement.
Gabrielle paused before entering the Green Dragon's private enclosure, to check her robes and her resolve. She had learned many lessons in this past week, but the most important had been not to let any indecision show. She took another final, calming breath and entered. As she passed through the rich silks which separated the inner sanctum of Ming Tien's tent, the air was stirred, causing the sweet incense to swirl momentarily. The room, she had been told, was an exact duplicate of the Dragon's private quarters in Chin - sumptuous, opulent, and ostentatious; it seemed as though he was determined to carry his world with him, even across the continents.
And curiously enough, all the plush decor held no stamp of the man.
As always, the ivory inlaid throne was empty and Ming Tien was seated across from a chess board, a game he had painstakingly taught Gabrielle during their negotiations. She took pride that she was now being beaten with greater difficulty, but the board had been used more often as a metaphor for their continuing debates.
"Gabrielle," he greeted her. "I was afraid you would not return to complete our game."
She smiled at his subtlety; she was learning to read him well. This meant he knew of Xena's incarceration, but the rules he had established meant that this implication could not be directly commented on. For someone used to speaking her thoughts aloud, the politic constraints of the past days had been exasperating, to say the least.
"I always look forward to the challenge, Dragon." She bowed slightly. "As long as our negotiations are not a game as well." Ming Tien remained silent, and she mentally berated herself for the error. How long would it take until she learned the protocol? Statements would be unanswered. Only direct questions would retrieve information. And the questions must be exact, or the reply would be as ephemeral as the incense that drifted throughout the room.
She settled herself down, sitting cross-legged on the thick fur rug, and tried again. "In chess, there can only be one winner. I do not seek YOUR defeat. Do you seek mine?"
Ming Tien's smile had seemed cruel to Gabrielle at first, but now she welcomed it as a break from the stolid countenance he usually presented her with. That meagre smile graced his features now. "There is no defeat in chess, Gabrielle. One player or the other accepts the outcome, and resigns."
She returned her gaze to the game and examined the board, but in her mind she was forming a statement to be delivered quickly, without any faltering, now that she could assume it was not news to her opponent. Confidently, she said, "Xena has been arrested. How will this affect our treaties?"
There was no hesitation. "The first treaty requires that Xena come to this camp and sign the second. If that is not done, then the negotiations will end. I will then listen to..." Delicately, he plucked a pawn from the board, and positioned it in front of her rook. "...other offers. However, that is not my first choice, as you know."
"I appreciate the time and patience you have given my proposal," she replied, dutifully. The Dragon nodded, and both turned their eyes once more to the table. Ming Tien had taken an advanced position towards the centre of the board.
"You have moved your most precious pieces far from their home," Gabrielle commented slyly, while moving a rook to restrict his position.
"And you have ringed them with your horses," the Dragon replied in a similar tone. He advanced a pawn on the far side of the board, indicating a new front.
"But they will not hold you for long."
"No," he agreed.
"Then it would seem my only response is to move my queen to meet with you."
"If you can do so safely."
"I am more worried about HER safety."
"Sometimes you must risk even the most valuable piece to finish the game, Gabrielle."
There was silence. Gabrielle broke it saying, "Xena and I have talked about your mother. She told me that she did not kill her, but she blames herself."
"I am not surprised."
"So, why would you ask this woman here, to simply sign this second treaty when she abetted such an act?"
The question earned her another minuscule smile from the Dragon. "Lao Ma loved and trusted her. I respect Lao Ma's opinion. Xena ruled Chin with surprisingly little of her usual violence, and my country prospered. I also respect that."
'Prospered?' Gabrielle thought. 'But who prospered? The people? Lao Ma didn't, and neither did Xena. But Alti did... and so did you.' She remained silent and castled, opening a space for her queen to move. The Dragon made what appeared to be a defensive deployment.
Gabrielle moved the queen to the centre of the far rank. "All this document needs then is a signature?"
"Your signature, and the presence of Xena to sign the trade agreement."
Gabrielle moved her queen to the centre of the board. Immediately she realised her mistake, as the Green Dragon crossed the board with a rook. Checkmate was unavoidable in three moves. She wrapped her fingers around her king, and contemplated it. "For me to sign, it is becoming clear to me that I need to know the story of how Lao Ma died. Will you tell me?"
There was a short nod, and he began, "Reports say...
Cursing her error, Gabrielle interrupted and restated her question. "I apologise, I should have asked, how do you believe she died?"
A candlemark later, a shaken Gabrielle left the encampment. Her signature and his were on all the documents she carried, and the forfeited game was forgotten.