Death of a Conqueror
by Lori A Meyers
Gabrielle sat on the steps of the Stoa of Attalos and watched as the merchant went about attending to his stall. It didn’t take long to realize that the Conqueror’s observations from the day before were accurate. He sold only a few parcels before the customary closing time for the afternoon meal. The blonde watched as the man tied a tarp around his merchandise then folded himself in a loose cape and walked down the few steps and proceeded southwest.
The blonde woman followed the man at a respectable distance, hiding among the throng of people, not wanting to draw too much attention to herself. After a few minutes they were following a small road that passed the west side of the prison and came upon the boundary stone of the agora. The neatly arranged stone road disappeared, became coarser, and now had grass growing abundantly between the sparsely placed stones. Bushes and trees replaced buildings as the road curved southeastward, past the Areopagus on the east, toward a section of small apartments that hugged the road on both sides, about four hundred feet past the boundary stone. From this place one could see the Pnyx on a hill to the southwest. Most of the pedestrian traffic was headed toward the agora, on their way to inns, so Gabrielle slowed her pace even more, not wanting to look like she was following the man.
The man turned east down a small alley and then entered a small dwelling to his right. A curtain was drawn aside as the man entered the building. Gabrielle stopped by a eucalyptus tree and leaned against it. She took a fig from her pocket and made the pretense of eating it, all the while watching the building. From what she could see from the outside they looked well kept. The two storey series of apartments were made of limestone bricks and had wooden porches and doors.
The blonde finished the eating the fruit and casually walked down the same path the man did, and when no one was watching, drew close to the building and peered inside the window. From her vantage point see could see simple wooden furniture covered with some sort of cloth. That was not what captured her attention, though. It was the conversation she overheard.
“Is that all you’ve made so far today?”
“I know, I know. I’ll try to do better this afternoon, I promise.”
“Kadmos, the children are hungry.”
What? Gabrielle heard the sound of cloth being ripped opened and leaned in closer.
“It’s just day old bread and cheese, go on and feed the kids. I’ll go back now and see if I can earn a few more dinars before dinner time.”
“But you haven’t eaten?”
“The kids are more important than I am, Keto.”
The children are hungry… The blonde thought she heard a small catch in the woman’s voice.
“Don’t you ever say that again, Kadmos, you are my husband. Isn’t there anyone you can talk to about that new tax?”
“Kimon thinks we merchants ought to get a petition going. I don’t know about that, though. I don’t want to be one to face the Conqueror about this.”
“Something has to be done, we can’t go on like this.”
“Look, it’s only been a month since it started. Maybe business will pick up. It should with the theatre season bringing more people into the agora…”
Gabrielle saw some people heading her way so she crept to the path and headed back to the agora. She was stunned by what she heard. A new tax…this doesn’t make any sense…Xena told me she wouldn’t let people go hungry just to make her rich…maybe something else is going on here…The blonde quickened her pace. She wanted answers, and she wanted them now.
Glaukon arrived at the Poikile in the late afternoon and looked around for the Captain. He found the guard inside the north side of the stoa looking at a rather large painting of the Conqueror. The light in this part of the stoa came by oil lamp alone so the light was diffused and there were areas of dark shadows. The young man smirked and walked up to the guard.
“I showed up, just like I said I would.”
Palaimon turned slowly and smiled at the youth. “Glad you came. Remember how I said this is the last time we’d have to meet?”
“Why do you think I showed up?”
“Would you like to see why?”
The Captain stepped aside so he was in the shadows and when he disappeared the Conqueror stepped into the light. “Hello, Glaukon.”
Glaukon’s jaw dropped as the dark woman made her way over to him. “Uhhh…”
Xena slipped her arm around the youth’s shoulders and slowly walked down the hall, bringing the stunned young man with her. “This place has the best artwork I’ve ever seen. Don’t you agree, Glaukon?”
When he remained silent Xena glanced over her shoulder and winked at the Captain. She brought her hand up and snapped her fingers in the young man’s face. “Anybody in there? I believe our young friend here is speechless, Palaimon?”
The Captain smirked. “Do you think he’s been struck dumb with awe, my Lord?”
“I think you may be right, you know, about the dumb part. But is it the artwork—or me?” Xena knelt in front of Glaukon and forced him to look her in the eye. “Which one is it?”
Glaukon’s voice was barely a croak. ‘You, Lord Conqueror, my Lord.”
“That’s not the answer I wanted.” She made a point of throwing her cloak to one side and revealing her sword. “You got two choices, young man. You can meet me here every day and learn about each individual painting and take a test on what you’ve learned. Or you can meet the Captain here only three days a week and learn some good things from him. What will it be, boy?”
“I think I’d go with the Captain, my Lord, lord Conqueror.”
Xena stood up. “You made a good decision, young Glaukon. Don’t make me regret my decision to let the Captain enlighten you. Go on, now. Don’t forget to meet the Captain here tomorrow at the same time.”
“Thank you, Lord Xena!” The youth ran from the stoa.
Palaimon laughed so hard he had to put a hand against the wall to steady himself. “That was priceless, Xena. I thought he was going to soil himself right in front of you.”
Xena chuckled and readjusted her cape. “You think he’s been sufficiently scared?”
“Oh, yeah. He’ll be here tomorrow.”
The dark woman rubbed her temples. “Damn, another headache’s coming on.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day, my Lord.”
“Can’t. I’ve got to negotiate this afternoon with those stubborn Cappadocians.”
“Will you still go to the theatre tonight, my Lord?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, you know that. I’d like to invite Gabrielle but I kind of acted like an ass to her earlier.”
“I bet she’s already gotten over it.”
“Yes, but I haven’t. Will you go and find her, my friend, and extend my invitation? Tell her I’m sorry and will make it up to her. I’m late for my appointment.”
“Of course, Xena.”
“What do you mean she’s not available?” Gabrielle’s brow furrowed as she stared down at the clerk.
Agathyros put aside the scroll she was working on and folded her hands on the desk. “The Conqueror is busy with Cappadocia this afternoon and won’t be available until this evening.”
“But she was expecting me.”
“I’m sorry but the negotiations can’t be interrupted once they start, it’s the rules.”
Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath. “But, can’t you make an exception this time?”
“I thought I saw you come in here.”
Both women turned as Perdikas entered the building. “Damn, you’re a hard woman to find these days.”
The blonde tried to hide her annoyance. “But I need to see the Conqueror.”
The clerk stood up. “I’m sorry but I just can’t do it.”
Perdikas placed his hand on Gabrielle’s arm. “Come on, Gabrielle, you can see the Conqueror later, okay?”
The blonde looked from the young man to the clerk then finally nodded. “Alright, let’s go.”
They walked outside to a warm spring afternoon. The agora was especially crowded, so they proceeded northward towards the Poikile.
“What would like to do, Gabs?”
Gabrielle stopped. “Would you do me a favor, Perdikas?”
“Anything, you know that.”
“Stop calling me ‘Gabs’, okay? Didn’t you hate it when I called you ‘Perdy’?”
The young man cringed. “Yeah, I did. Sorry, old habits, you know…”
Gabrielle took hold of his hand then continued down the street. “What would you like to do?”
Perdikas rubbed his chin. “Have you been to the gymnasion?”
“No, not yet.”
“Care to go for a swim?”
Gabrielle’s eyes lit up. “Let’s go.”
The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, at the southern end of the acropolis, was built to celebrate the cult of Dionysus when it moved from Eleutherae to Athens, about four hundred years before the reign of Xena Akolastos. Grand dramatic contests were held there during the festival of the Great Dionysia, celebrating the ancient rites.
The Empire also celebrated the arrival of spring each year by dedicating its theatre season to the goddess Demeter, and hosted both comedies and tragedies. The area consisted of a permanent round stage surrounded by a semi-circular series of stone seats that rose up on the southern hill of the acropolis at three levels. The Temenos of Dionysus, the sacred building the housed the statue of the god, was at its southeastern end. Directly west of the theatre stood the Stoa of Eumenes. It stretched out for about one hundred twenty yards along the southern face of the acropolis and was connected to the Panathenaic Way by a path on its western end. The Sanctuary of Asclepius, Apollo’s son, was on its northeastern border.
The Conqueror arrived at the path leading to the Stoa of Eumenes with her entourage in tow. She dismounted from her horse, along with her four guards, and handed the reins to a porter who led the horse away. Her guests for the night, General Eteokles and his wife Penthesileia, and Admiral Isokrates, all exited from a carriage and talked among themselves as they waited for Captain Palaimon to arrive.
After a short while he came riding up on his horse and dismounted near the Conqueror. “I’m sorry, my Lord, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.”
Xena frowned. “Did you check her rooms?”
“Yes, my Lord, and the agora—everywhere. I don’t understand why I couldn’t find her.”
“Well, we don’t want to be late, let’s go.”
The Captain handed his horse over to a porter and walked beside the Conqueror as the entourage entered the Stoa of Eumenes. The Conqueror’s guests and the four guards followed them. Most theatregoers walked through the stoa, instead of the small path next to it, on the way to the theatre to buy wine and foodstuffs to take with them and eat before the performances. The Conqueror and her guests entered the colonnaded building and were immediately assaulted by the aromas of cooking meats, breads, and vegetables.
Xena chuckled when she heard Palaimon’s stomach growl. “Are you hungry, Captain?”
“Well, maybe just a little.”
Penthesileia put an arm around her husband’s waist. “What shall we get tonight, my husband?”
Eteokles smiled at her. “Anything you want.”
Isokrates was already sampling s skewer of fish and vegetables. “How about some of these?”
The dark warrior ate a sample then nodded. “An excellent choice, Admiral. Merchant, we’ll take the fish skewers, bread, and an amphora of your best wine.” She wiped her hands on a towel. “Captain.”
Palaimon pulled out his purse and paid for the goods. “Hey, you over there?”
A boy, who was sitting on a stool behind the merchant, stood up. “Yes, sir?”
“How about you help out with the wine.”
The boy lifted the amphora and placed it on a small cart. He strapped it down with some leather straps. “Ready, sir.”
“Good, let’s go.”
All followed the Conqueror as she led the way down the long stoa. After a few moments she slowed a bit and walked beside her Captain. “Any news about the page, Palaimon?”
The Captain lowered his voice. “Yes, my Lord. Her father is Lysias Demosthenes.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Do you know him personally, my Lord?”
“Only by reputation. He’s known as quite a paramour—of both women and men.”
“He’s that ‘Luscious Lysias’?”
Xena chuckled. “I hear he’s got a lot of other nicknames. It’s quite a clever disguise, don’t you think? He’s a traitor who hides in plain sight by having a lot of well-known, public affairs. He draws a lot attention to himself as a cad, yet he’s secretly a collaborator among us.”
“You’ll never guess who his sister is, my Lord?”
The dark warrior smiled. “Governor Alkyone of Miletus, right?”
“How long have you known, Xena?”
“I just now made the connection. In the morning, Palaimon, after you’ve met Agathyros, I want you to go to the Strategeion and arrange to have Miletus and Rhodes summoned to Athens at once. It’s time to snare in our suspects.”
“Yes, Lord Xena.”
“You’ll find out.” Xena slowed her pace again until she was beside Eteokles. “I have a question, General.”
The General let go of his wife’s hand. “Yes, my Lord?”
“Of all your Lieutenants, who do you trust the most?”
“Who do I trust the most, or who is the most competent, my Lord?”
“Periklymenos, my Lord.”
“Have him report to me in the morning at the palace, General, after mealtime.”
“Yes, Lord Xena.”
A trumpet blast announced to all that the Conqueror had arrived at the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus. When Xena entered the theatre everyone stopped what they were doing and stood. The dark warrior walked up the stairs to her reserved section of seats, in the middle of the theatre, and waited for her guests to follow. Palaimon retrieved the amphora of wine and carried it up to the Conqueror’s seats.
The Captain poured a cup for everyone then finally handed Xena her chalice. “For the blessing, my Lord.”
“Thank you, Palaimon.” The Conqueror lifted her chalice and turned to all assembled. “Spring is here and once again Demeter has blessed us. We ask you, holy Demeter, to sanctify us again this year with a fruitful harvest and your many blessings. To Demeter!”
All in the theatre cheered when Xena drank from her chalice and they followed with their own cheers and salutes to the goddess. All were expecting it, so no one was surprised when the goddess appeared on the stage along with her daughter, Persephone.
The Conqueror bowed deeply at the waist. “Blessed Demeter and Honored Persephone, welcome.”
Demeter held up her own chalice. “To you, Conqueror, for your continued tribute to me. I drink to you!”
The crowd cheered again when both goddesses’ drank to the dark warrior. Palaimon watched as Xena basked in the honor the people bestowed on her. When the crowd quieted the goddess’ disappeared for only a moment then reappeared at their usual seats in the front row of the theatre, they were immediately attended to by pages.
Penthesileia opened the basket and began to distribute their meal. When the Conqueror sat she handed her a plate. “My Conqueror.”
Xena took the food offered and smiled. “Thanks, Penthesileia. How long until the performance begins?”
Palaimon sat next to the Conqueror. “Not for awhile, we have plenty of time, my Lord.”
Xena settled into her chair then turned to accept more wine from the Captain. When she did she spotted something out of the corner of eye, at stage level, that caught her attention. She looked down and saw the Naurachos Laodameia with…
Only the Captain heard the strained whisper from the dark warrior. He looked down and saw Gabrielle enter with the admiral at one of the entrances at stage level. Several people who were near the entrance seemed surprised as well. People who went through the official process of censorship usually didn’t show their faces in public the same day, and especially not at an event such as this. His eyes went wide when he saw Laodameia walk up to Demeter and introduce the blonde to her.
Xena’s fists clenched as she slowly rose to her feet. A myriad of emotions rose up for dominion in the dark woman as she watched Gabrielle with the admiral—anger, jealousy, disbelief, disgust—all warred within the warrior as her heart beat double time within her, causing a deep inhalation that froze her to the spot.
“No, Xena…no…” The Captain desperately whispered for his lord to sit down. His pleadings fell on deaf ears.
Eteokles and the rest of the Conqueror’s party looked up when the dark warrior rose to her feet. In confusion, they stood as well, discarding their plates on their seats. Several people, who where sitting near, stood out of respect to the Conqueror, even though they didn’t know what was going on. It didn’t take long for the whole theatre to rise and stand along with the dark warrior.
Misinterpreting Xena’s move, Demeter turned in the direction of the Conqueror and raised her chalice again. The theatre, once again, cheered and lifted their own glasses in another salute to the dark women.
Gabrielle looked up and saw the gaze directed towards her and the admiral. But Xena was too far away for an easy interpretation. “What’s going on, Laodameia?”
The admiral quickly covered up a smirk. “Oh, nothing; the Conqueror’s only acknowledging our presence.”
The blonde woman frowned. “Are you sure?”
The Naurachos Laodameia smiled down at the blonde. “Sure. Why don’t we sit down?”
The Captain watched as the admiral led the blonde to her reserved seats. When they were seated porters brought them some wine. He knew that the Conqueror could have easily called the Admiral out for her act of impropriety, but in doing so she would have had to implicate Gabrielle as well. He realized Xena would never do such a thing to the young woman.
Palaimon touched Xena’s arm. “My Conqueror, we need to sit down.”
Xena’s head whirled in his direction and her eyes locked with the Captains. Her emotions were still raw and too near the surface, but she held Palaimon’s stare and his presence calmed her somewhat. She saw the concern in her Captain’s eyes and her features relaxed to some extent. “Thank you, Palaimon.”
The rest of the theatre sat when Xena once again was seated. Penthesileia briefly glanced at her husband before returning the dark woman’s meal to her. The Conqueror accepted it without word and an uneasy silence ensued while they began their meal.
Palaimon watched Xena closely, somewhat nervous that the dark warrior might do something to upset the evening’s revels. He was angry with the Admiral as well, but knew there would be another time to deal with her treachery later.
After a short while another trumpet blast, albeit a more subdued one, directed the people’s attention to the stage. A lone figure, dressed in the robes of an aristocrat, slowly walked to the front of the stage and bowed.
“What, O Athens, does precede the mercy of the gods?”
There was a long pause, and then a chorus offstage answered his somewhat rhetorical question. “The righteousness of the Furies!”
The man nodded his approval at the answer. “And what defined their justice?”
“Sweet vengeance whether delivered by god or man, O Great Athenians. The Furies gave us retribution for three major sins. What are they?” He paused, and then called over his shoulder. “Our audience doesn’t know.”
Laughter could be heard offstage before the man raised his hand and it ceased. “Blasphemy!” The chorus cheered. “Deceitfulness to guests!” More cheers from offstage. “Spilling your kinsmen’s blood!” A riotous laughter.
The cheering stopped when the man raised both of his arms. “These sins are an affront to our noble society, my friends, and we will see them in all their wretched glory tonight and all season long. Let the drama begin!”
The oil lamps that were scattered along the sides of the theatre were extinguished and then a solitary lamp lit up the top of a platform, on the stage, on which a Watchman stood. He stood up from the mattress he was sitting on and, facing the façade of a palace, with statues of Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes in front of it, began to speak.
“’O gods! grant me release from this long weary watch.
Release, O gods, Twelve full moons now, night after night
Dog-like I lie here, keeping guard from this high roof
On Atreus’ palace. The nightly conference of stars,
Resplendent rulers, bringing heat and cold in turn,
Studding the sky with beauty—I know them all, and watch
Setting and rising; but the one light I long to see
Is a new star, the promised sign, and beacon-flare
To speak from Troy and utter one word, victory’… ”
Xena sat back in her chair and let her mind wander, not really interested in the festivities for the night. Her glance kept returning to the seats far below her, to watch Gabrielle. She knew that her Captain was watching her, making sure nothing else happened, but that did not concern her, her interest in the play was dead, and she just wanted to leave.
O gods, grant me release from this long weary watch…
The Conqueror felt those words resonate deep within her.
Is this all that my life really is, a long watch, looking—seeking for—something startlingly elusive?
She continued to watch the play before her, not really hearing the words, only feeling the great tide of emptiness settle within her. After a short period, Xena turned to the Captain and whispered in his ear. “I’m going, please don’t follow.”
The Conqueror rose slowly from her seat and ducked her head as she made her way down the stairs, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She needn’t have worried. All eyes were riveted to the stage, and the unfolding drama. All except for a small blonde, who kept glancing over her shoulder to the middle of the theatre. She felt a growing uneasiness.
The Stoa of Eumenes was already empty as she made he way down the long corridor. Only the occasional guard passed her on this journey, and they only acknowledged her presence by the occasion nod. When she reached the end of the building she saw the porters waiting outside with the horses and carriages, waiting for the performance to be over. A surprised guard handed her the reins to her horse and she rode off without a word to anyone.
Xena considered taking a prostitute, but the thought of it left her feeling hollow. It was once enough—casual, indiscriminate sex—but not now. The Empire—it was once enough, as well, but not now.
How many nights have I rested in complete contentment, knowing that the land was at ease because I was? How many nights have I relaxed in my bed, after a glass of wine with my Captain, knowing—really knowing—that there was nothing more I needed? Me and the land—the people—we are one…
There were, perhaps, hundreds of those nights. When all she needed was the companionship of a good friend, the taste of good wine, and the knowledge that her people were free to live their lives. In less than a week her life had been completely turned around—by a compassionate smile, a gentle disposition, and verdant eyes that sparkled with lovely, good humor. If the past few days were evidence of anything, it was just how empty her life really was.
A few days, and I feel like I’ll never be happy again…
A few days…
That’s all the time it took for Xena Akolastos, the Conqueror, to fall in love.
End of Part I