Copyright: Yes, I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer but yes, it's in here, thick and heavy.

Feedback: I love it! redhope@redhope.net

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net

Write a Review: http://www.redhope.net/xena/review/stranger-form.html

Started: September 23, 2006

Other Fanfictions                      Story Number: 66

Stranger in a Strange Time

by Red Hope

Chapter 12 – The Future Meets the East

The Conqueror had her legs stretched out from the throne chair, her posture slumped, her right elbow on the chair arm, and her face in her hand. She had her chakram out and she spun it on her left finger like a toy. Her forehead was pounding as the idle chitchat of the court muddied up her head.

The court was rather chatty today after discovering that Rhodes, the advisor of state, had been unemployed recently. The advisors were trying desperately not to be next on the Conqueror's list.

"Commander Meleager," called out the ruler, who neatly caught her chakram in her left hand. Her head lifted from her hand when the commander appeared from the masses.

"My liege." The commander bowed his head respectfully then stood his ground.

"What's the status of the legions on the Norselands' borders?"

Meleager steadied himself for this report that the Conqueror expected of him since the last court meeting. "They are almost prepared to attack the Norselands. They await your orders, my liege."

The Conqueror tossed the chakram high up, stood, and caught the whistling weapon with ease. "Belay my previous orders," she casually remarked then took one step down.

The commander narrowed his eyes. "My liege, the campaign is about to begin."

"And I say it isn't going to," snapped back the ruler. She took the next step down. "It is much too late in the season for this."

Commander Meleager was dumbfounded by the switch of orders. "My liege, we are-"

"Going to what?"

The commander tensed when the dark ruler was instantly in his face, her eyes glowing with warning.

The Conqueror leaned into the large man and placed the blade of her chakram under his chin to tilt his eyes up to hers. "You were saying?"

Commander Meleager weakened under the predator features of the ruler. "The legions will bunker down for the winter season and prepare for battle at first budding." He swallowed when the Conqueror bared her teeth in a wicked grin.

"Excellent, commander."

The commander's shoulders slightly slumped when the ruler suddenly whipped away.

The Conqueror ascended the dais again then faced her court of advisors. "What of the Corinth Canal? I haven't heard much on it… must be bad news." She scanned her advisor's faces and waited to see who dared to speak up.

"My liege," started an advisor, "the canal's progress has slowed."

The Conqueror's right eyebrow gradually arched. "What's the problem?"

"Dieses… many of the workers are falling ill, my liege." The advisor stepped through the sea of the court. "The healers can't seem to keep up. We have the supply of herbs just not the help."

"I see." The ruler hooked her chakram back into its home. "See that you speak to me in the next day or two, Cyd. We'll figure out how to improve their situation." She took her seat while saying, "No use in letting good resources go to the afterlife."

Cyd bowed his head, very pleased by the results from the Conqueror. He backed up into the masses of people.

Just as the Conqueror was prepared to question the court again, her assistant stepped up the dais and bowed his head down to the ruler. He whispered something hastily then waited for an answer.

The Conqueror slightly straightened up at the news but she didn't gave herself away either. "Escort her in here," she ordered then waved her trusted assistant away. 

The assistant, Galen, respectfully dipped his head then hurried off to carry out his orders.

"My liege," called out an advisor, who was pushing through the people. "I have been receiving news from Egypt."

The Conqueror's eyes lowered to the advisor of foreign affairs. "What of Egypt, Maximus?"

The advisor stood at the foot of the dais now. "Queen Cleopatra has requested your appearance in the next moon or so."

The Conqueror made an audible annoyed sound.

"She merely wishes a visit," clarified the advisor.

"And I need the Egyptian Navy," muttered the aggravated ruler. "Bring the invite to my office, Maximus so I can consider it."

"Of course, my liege." Maximus was about back away but he stopped when the courtroom's main doors were thrown open by the guards.

The advisors all turned their heads in oddity at who was interrupting the Conqueror's court. When many recognized who it was, they dropped their eyes in respect.

The Conqueror stole an evil smile as she rose up from her throne.

At the entrance of the courtroom stood a petite but exquisitely beautiful woman, who had midnight hair tied into a bun and a soft complexion. Her smooth face was gentle yet her dark eyes were vivid against her red silk robe that flowed down over her ankles and hands. She required no invitation here as she glided across the floor with ease and perfect mannerism. As she neared the court, the sea of advisors parted to the sides for her and she soon stood before the powerful ruler of half the known-world. She placed her arms over her stomach and bowed her head deeply.

The Conqueror still held her smile and she went down one step at a time until she was on the ground level. She reached out and cupped the woman's bowed chin then lifted her head up. "Corinth welcomes the House of Lao."

Lao Ma's beautiful ruby lips eased into a smile. "I am grateful, Conqueror."

The Conqueror relinquished her touch then slowly bowed her head in respect for the Chin ruler. "As am I after so many moons of support from the House of Lao."

Lao Ma bowed her head one last time then simultaneously the rulers straightened up.

The Conqueror turned to her masses and called out, "We will dismiss the court early today… if there are further concerns then see that you bring them directly to me." She waved them off then a loud din of chatting began but she ignored them all. "You are a long way from Chin, Lao Ma."

The Chinese ruler conceded with a faint nod then she quietly asked, "May we speak in private, Conqueror? Perhaps your office?"

The Conqueror placed her hands on her hips as she studied the ruler, who gave nothing away. She then held her left hand out to the door not far away. "This way then." She escorted Lao Ma out of the court while her thoughts quickly ran over why the ruler had unexpectedly dropped in Corinth. Her realm's affairs with Chin have been nothing but peaceful and for Lao Ma to show up unexpectedly was unknown of.

Lao Ma quietly floated along side the great ruler, who she'd known for some time. She hadn't seen the Conqueror in almost twelve moons since the Conqueror's last visit in Chin for certain political affairs. Yet she was uneasy despite nobody knew it but her.

The Conqueror cleared her throat then asked, "How was your journey here?"

"Peaceful," softly admitted the Chin ruler. "I had safe passage."

"How does Chin fair?"

Lao Ma smiled at the concerned ruler. "We prosper well."

The Conqueror returned the smile too. "Always under the House of Lao." She signaled to her office door ahead and opened it for her counterpart.

Lao Ma glided into the warm room and hid her hands into the sleeves of her robe. She turned as the darker ruler neared her after closing the door.

"I did not expect you, Ma," stated the Conqueror.

Lao Ma dipped her head when the Conqueror called her by her first name. She understood the subtle meaning behind it. Her chocolate eyes met those of the Conqueror's. "I apologize for not sending word… Xena."

The ruler noticed the wavering in the Chin ruler's tone at her name. It made her uneasy but she hid it well from her smaller counterpart. "It must be urgent then," she summarized aloud.

Lao Ma's eyes narrowed and she moved closer to the tall woman she knew so well. "It is most urgent, to me… and perhaps you as well."

"Go on," drew out the Conqueror.

The Chin ruler inhaled then carefully spoke, unsure how to present things but winging it really. "Over a moon ago, I sensed some shift in the balance… your balance and I grew increasingly concerned so I immediately left Chin."

The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest while taking a few beats to consider the ruler's words. "What was the shift, Ma?"

"It is unclear but it was strong enough for me to sense it." Lao Ma tilted her head then came even closer as if trying to determine something in particular. She stared up into the Conqueror's eyes for many heartbeats and then she murmured, "Now I understand what this is."

The Conqueror's eyes slotted quickly and her husky tone filled the small space between them. "What is it?"

Lao Ma stretched out her hand until it touched the Conqueror's right arm. Her touch was lightening to the Conqueror and her breathless words captured them both. "You are not Xena."

The Conqueror broke away as if burned by Lao Ma. She went several paces away then her stormy features centered on the Chin ruler. "What did you come here for, Lao Ma?"

Lao Ma slipped her hand back into her sleeves then softly stated, "To help you."

The Conqueror crossed her arms against her chest then coldly stated, "I do not require help, Lao Ma."

Lao Ma sadly smiled then closed in on the defensive ruler. "You're spirit is her but much older and wiser through the ages." Her right hand appeared again and this time against the Conqueror's cheek. "You're soul has grown more beautiful than I could ever hope for."

The Conqueror's eyes were closed and she leaned into the comforting touch of the woman she felt so linked to.

Lao Ma came closer and now had both hands against the woman's cheeks. She gently whispered, "Tell me what has happened and how I can help." She was amazed when the Conqueror's eyes fluttered open and it was if another person was staring back at her. She never seen the Conqueror so tender and it made her heart still for a beat.

"I don't know where to begin," emotionally whispered the Conqueror.

Lao Ma brushed back the ruler's hair behind her ear as she smiled. "Sometimes it is best to start at the end then work back."

The Conqueror half heartily smiled and clasped her hands over Lao Ma's much smaller ones.

"Let us sit." Lao Ma released her hold then gestured to the sofa close by. She guided the taller ruler over and took a poised seat on the comfortable sofa next to the ruler. She soon learned of the mysterious yet amazing circumstances that'd come over the ruler since she'd sense the shift in the balance. She quickly realized that in fact she was not seated beside the dark ruler she'd tried to change moons back but instead the ruler's much aged karma placed many lifetimes ahead of now. She also finally figured out why she'd always steered clear of the Conqueror since that dark shaman, Alti, had taken resistance next to the Conqueror.

Melinda finished her story and explanation of things that'd passed by since Alti's kidnapping of Janice. At the end of it, she felt a sense of relief at spilling out the truth to an unconditional ear and supporter. She was also very spent emotionally and sluggishly leaned against the sofa.

"I understand clearly now," gently spoke Lao Ma. "Thank you for telling me, Melinda."

Melinda dipped her head some.

"I can tell this has not been easy," stated the Chin ruler, "for you or your friend."

Melinda sighed heavily and licked her lips. "It has been harder on Janice than me."

"She struggles against things in her mind while you struggle against those in your soul." Lao Ma shook her head. "Neither is easier than the other but both taxing on the heart."

"I reckon so," murmured the translator. She let out a long sigh then confessed, "I am scared this could change me, Lao Ma." Her stricken features turned to the Chin ruler. "And I'm even more scared it could hurt Janice."

Lao Ma solemnly smiled as she collected Melinda's hands into her own. "Often what you fear is what will happen, Melinda however if you can let those fears go then they will not conqueror you." She bent her head to peer up into hooded eyes. "You must not think so much about what is happening in you."

"How can't I?" debated Melinda. "Everyday I grow more fearful that I'll really wake up as the Conqueror instead of myself."

Lao Ma shook her head and squeezed the larger hands. "It is not the Conqueror inside of you but it is Xena." When Melinda was about to speak, she stopped her short. "You have told me that Xena was never the Conqueror in your world then it is merely Xena's karma you must follow… not the Conqueror's." She leaned in some. "As I have told the Conqueror in the past, I am blessed and cursed with the ability to see into people's souls."

Melinda digested this information and explanation to how Lao Ma figured her out so easily. "What do ya see in my soul?"

"Many things that the Conqueror is not and could not achieve for lifetimes to come. Your soul is at a changing point now, Melinda. You are a balance of the darkness and the light and you will grow into the light."

"How is that possible?" Melinda shook her head, confusion written on her face.

"It is the cycle," explained Lao Ma, "just as winter becomes spring and spring into summer then autumn and finally back to winter. A soul follows much the same cycles."

"So at some point my soul will be completely light?" tried Melinda.

"Yes." Lao Ma softly smiled then murmured, "Much like mine. I have reached my peak and soon I will cycle back to the Darkness."

Melinda shivered at the thought of the Darkness.

"Do not misunderstand this cycle, Melinda." Lao Ma's soft voice eased her fears. "For everything has a balance in life… for when there is fire there is water."

"My balance is Janice, isn't she?"

Lao Ma smiled at the woman's sharp perception. "Yes, she is your balance as you are hers and as you come to the Light then she will go to the Darkness."

Melinda stiffened at this news.

"Just have faith in the cycle and balance, Melinda." Lao Ma eased the translator to calm again. "You must accept your soul so that the balance is not broken."

"I reckon I understand." Melinda was calmer as the information slipped into the deep recesses of her mind.

"Now the Conqueror faces a great change," informed the Chin ruler, "A change that could be disrupted by Alti."

"She has to be stopped," agreed Melinda.

"When it is time, yes." Lao Ma released her hands from Melinda's. "Until that time, I will remain here in Corinth to protect Janice from Alti."

The southerner softly chuckled at the declaration. "Boy, will Janice love this." Just then her head snapped up when there was a hard knock at the door. She instantly knew who it was so she got up from the sofa while her suddenly cold voice called, "Enter."

Lao Ma turned her head as a tall, shadowy woman filled the room with her mysterious powers. She gradually got up to meet this evil woman that she automatically knew without a name.

"Alti," greeted the Conqueror, who held her hand out to Lao Ma. "This is Lady Lao from the Kingdom of Chin."

The shaman knew the smaller ruler immediately as her senses were heightened. "Lady Lao." She was forced to bow her head in respect for the Chin ruler. When she lifted her head she was surprise to see Lao Ma was bowing her head in respect as well. "Welcome to Corinth."

Lao Ma brought out a pleasant smile. "Thank you, Alti. This is my first visit here."

"And an unexpected one," added the dark shaman.

"Yes, as I wished to surprise the Conqueror so I could skip many of the formalities."

The Conqueror kept her curling grin from showing at Lao Ma's ability to skirt around the truth. "Lady Lao is planning on an extended visit." She now showed her wild grin. "See that you take care during her stay here, Alti."

"Of course, my liege." Alti's dark gaze broke away from the Chin ruler and met the Conqueror. "I came to speak to you about the prisoner."

"Perhaps after Lady Lao and I have finished then I will find the time, Alti." The Conqueror placed her hands on her leather clad hips. "I'll come find you."

Alti's demeanor spoke of annoyance but she huskily agreed. "Very well, my liege." She turned and exited the office without another word.

Lao Ma turned to the taller woman after the door closed. "Now I understand why the Conqueror has become lost."

Melinda folded her arms across her chest as she huffed. "I know… it ain't comforting either." Then it struck Melinda that she'd promised Janice that she'd come by after the meeting with the court and that was several hours ago. She let out an audible groan and before she was questioned there was a soft knock at the door. "Come in!"

The door shoved open enough to let a small form slide in easily. "Melll…" Janice's words fell short when she spotted the oriental woman in the office with her friend. "Mmmind if I come in, Conqueror?" She tried to recover.

The Conqueror grinned at the attempt but she waved the prisoner in while ordering to the guards, "Stay posted at the door."

Janice shut the door then carefully approached the pair but her interest was solely on Lao Ma.

"Janice, this is Lao Ma from the Kingdom of Chin."

Janice had knitted eyebrows at hearing Melinda's southern draw properly introduce the stranger. She switched from Melinda to Lao Ma then stood in front of her, eye to eye.

Lao Ma offered a warm smile then bowed her head. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Janice." She straightened up and her smile widened at Janice's still perplexed features.

Janice snapped out of it when Melinda cleared her throat. She hastily bowed in respect since she knew some of the Chinese culture and history too. She knew the concept about giving and taking face even though she didn't perfectly understand it. "Um…."

Melinda softly laughed at her friend's pure confusion so she finally stopped toying with her friend. "She knows, Janice."

"Oh." Janice blinked at the Chin ruler then shyly smiled at her. "I'm sorry… this hasn't been exactly the most normal thing."

Lao Ma still held her smile. "I understood."

"Lao Ma met the Conqueror many years back, Janice," explained Melinda, "and they parted ways for some time until the Conqueror had a lot of power."

"It has only been recent that the Kingdom of Chin and the Conqueror's realm has created treaties," explained Lao Ma.

The archeologist nodded at the news but asked, "How did you know… what happened?"

Melinda turned her head to the Chin ruler.

Lao Ma saw her position to answer the question. "Over a moon ago I detected a shift in the Conqueror's balance so I hastily came to see what'd happened."

"So you were able to figure out that Mel wasn't the Conqueror?" At Lao Ma's nod, the archeologist became incredibly concerned. "That's not so good… what if Alti can figure it out too?"

"She will not," answered Lao Ma, "as her abilities are different than mine. She cannot discern Melinda's soul from the Conqueror's but only identify that it is there and has the same powers."

Janice looked clearly relieved and the tension flowed out of her body. "Thank god then." Now she put her hands on her hips and glanced between the counterparts. "So where does this leave us?" And she didn't like the smirking expression on Melinda's face one bit. It wasn't long until she heard Lao Ma and Melinda's intentions until things were solved later down the road. Janice kept quiet the entire time, her hands gripping her hips, and her head cocked to the side.

Janice's annoyance flowed off and rippled over to Melinda, who became uneasy. Melinda finally offered to Lao Ma her room that she'd told her assistant to have prepared for her. With a verbal offer, Melinda and Janice escorted the Chin ruler through the fortress and Janice's guards tagged along side. Melinda morphed into her role as the Conqueror as she led the group.

The Conqueror pushed open the heavy door of the bedchambers then let Janice and Lao Ma enter. She turned her head to the guards and arched an eyebrow at them in warning. She slipped into the bedchambers next with the door shutting behind.

"Holy shit!" yelped Janice, who jumped back and stumbled into her friend.

Melinda turned her head to the right at what'd scared the archeologist. She held her breath as her gaze leveled to the predatory eyes.

Lao Ma smiled, her head dipped down, and her soft features regarding the sleek, muscular tiger that was waiting for her. She neared him and her small hand slipped out from her robe so she could pet his large head. "This is Hu."

Janice remained tense as she stared at the sitting Siberian tiger.

Melinda lifted her hands then rested them on Janice's shoulders to assure her.

"Hu is my most loyal friend," explained Lao Ma.

Hu responded by lifting his head and licking the Chin ruler's wrist. He started to purr happily.

Lao Ma returned her gaze to the women by the door. "In Chin culture, we believe that the tiger is most protective and filled with wisdom."

Melinda tilted her head then asked, "I reckon they bring good fortune and power."

Lao Ma bowed her head in agreement. "The tiger is the king of the earth while the dragon rules the skies." With curious eyes, she assessed that Janice was very frightened by the powerful animal so she sought to remedy the problem. She slipped around so that her back was to the women and she faced her feline friend.

Hu tilted his head back; he stared into swirling black eyes slightly above him.

Melinda was amazed at something seemed to pass between the Chin ruler and the tiger. Then when Lao Ma stepped aside, Hu stood up and leisurely neared her and Janice. Under her hands, Janice's muscles tightened and she unknowingly started a massage.

Hu took a new seat but now just at Janice's feet.

The archeologist inhaled quickly but she was transfixed by the handsome tiger below her. Emerald eyes slowly mixed with the tiger's fire eyes. Janice hypnotically lifted her hands and her fingers combed through the tiger's furry cheeks.

Hu's purr filled the silence again and grew louder as Janice's hands trailed up his head and behind his ears.

Melinda was fascinated and enjoyed the scene as much as Janice's small, warm body melting against hers.

Lao Ma silently glided up to her furry friend and Janice Covington. "A tiger and dog always make instant friends," mentioned the Chin ruler, "Forever loyal to one another."

The archeologist constricted face lifted to the oriental woman. "Dog?"

"Yes," murmured Lao Ma, "you were born under the dog."

"Chinese zodiac," elaborated the translator.

Lao Ma nodded then smiled at the tall, dark woman behind Janice. "Your karma has always been born under the tiger."

Janice twisted her head around to gaze up at her best friend. "You're a tiger?"

Melinda simply nodded her head.

"Hu will protect you, Janice."

Hu's agreement was a lick to Janice's closest hand, his sharp teeth flashing but he demeanor gentle.

"Hu?" softly called the Chin ruler.

The tiger glanced sidelong at his friend, his head somewhat tilted as if he were carefully listening.

Lao Ma closed in the distance between her and the tiger. She touched him just over the shoulder. "Stay with Janice."

"Lao Ma, I'll be-"

"Safe with Hu," finished the Chin ruler. "You cannot refuse him."

The archeologist sighed and stared back down at her new, furry friend. She really did admire his beautiful striped coat of orange and black, which each seem to come to life when Hu moved. "Thank you," she stated to Lao Ma.

Lao Ma had a soft smile. "Hu has offered, I did not make him."

Janice blinked then lowered her gaze to the powerful tiger, who stared back at her. She slightly grinned now as she ruffled his fur on his head just to toy with him.

Hu instantly shoved his cold, wet nose against the offending hand.

Janice couldn't stop her chuckle.

"We'll leave you alone, Ma." Melinda squeezed Janice's shoulders then removed her hands. "I know you would like to rest."

"Yes," agreed the ruler, "Thank you, Melinda."

Melinda breathed deeply as she stole a second before moving into her ruler role. She reversed out of the bedchambers.

The guards straightened up stiffly when the Conqueror exited followed by the prisoner and then they jumped at seeing the tiger. "My liege," started a guard.

The Conqueror held up a hand. "He's with the prisoner." She signaled the tiger.

Hu's fire eyes flickered between the two guards and his long tongue darted over his muzzle.

The sentries swallowed but simultaneously nodded, not sure what else to say.

The Conqueror gestured for Janice to follow her down the hall to her room. She opened one door by the gold ring then went in first followed by the rest of the small party.

The guards took posts on either side of the doors after they closed but they exchanged looks.

Janice was petting Hu, her head bent down.

The tip of Melinda's tongue touched her lips as she debated what to say first. She knew her friend's annoyance about earlier was still there. It was something she needed to settle or it would wedge them apart, which she wasn't interested in right now. "Janice," she tried, "I reckon Lao Ma's help will be important."

The archeologist retreated from her petting of Hu and looked at her friend. "Mel, I already have the guards… I have you… everything is fine." She indicated the tiger. "Now him?" She huffed and shook her head.

"Alti is dangerous," reminded the taller southerner.

Janice huffed then grunted out, "You don't have to remind me, Mel." She now put her arms over her chest in a defensive manner. "I don't think Lao Ma needs to trail behind me like a shadow."

"She won't be a shadow," defended the translator.

Janice quickly snapped and chewed out, "I can protect myself, Mel." Her forest green eyes swirled with anger.

Melinda's temper followed suit as she growled, "As if you were doing such a hot job earlier." Her southern accent forgotten and her tone cutting.

Janice was jarred by the statement, she sucked in her pain then turned away from Melinda.

Melinda's anger was instantly lost as she realized what'd transcended from her lips. Her regret swept through and she briefly watched her friend steer away, going across the large room.

Hu was sitting, his head turned, and eyes following Janice.

Janice remained quiet, her head hung low, and her arms still against her chest.

The translator's jaw was set as she pulled on her usual calmness to fix things. She quickly came up behind her friend and lowered her head down closer to Janice's right ear, without touching her at all. "I'm sorry, Janice. I didn't… I shouldn't have...." She lost her words, her hands in midair almost touching Janice, and they fell back to her side.

Janice sighed then shook her head. "This isn't easy… for either of us, Mel." Her voice quaked and she worked her hand through her short, golden hair.

Janice's pain transferred into Melinda deeply and she followed her instincts. She stepped forward so that she brushed up against Janice's back.

The archeologist's eyes shut when the warm, strong presence behind her came closer. She uncontrollably leaned back into her friend just as Melinda's strong arms slipped between her arms and side.

Melinda had her arms encircling the smaller woman and drawing her in tightly so that their bodies molded. Relief flowed through her at the silent agreement between them. She lowered her head back down until her chin was lightly on Janice's head.

Janice placed her hands on top of her friend's then rested her head against Melinda's chest. She remained that way for some time without every thinking about it or questioning it. It felt too amazing to wonder about it. She didn't break away from her peace until there was a nudge at their hands. Janice let out a chuckle and lifted her head.

Melinda discovered that Hu had decided to join them too.

The archeologist played with his soft coat as he sat at her feet again. "What we going to do now, Mel?"

The translator lowered her head down closer to her friend's, her cheek almost against Janice's. "We wait... it's as much as we can do right now."

Janice sighed, her attention on the tiger at her feet. "What happens if the Conqueror is sentenced to death?"

Melinda released a long sigh because she had no real answer. "We'll face it when we get to that bridge… if we do."

"I don't know how we won't be, Mel… Christ." Janice shook her head, her lips sealed tightly.

Melinda tilted her head as she wondered what else was on her friend's mind.

"You were right," softly brought up Janice.

"About what?" Melinda instinctively tightened her arms.

"That I wasn't doing so well earlier." Janice bit her lower lip then shook her head with an aggravated huff. "I would be dead now if it wasn't for you."

"No," argued Melinda, "ya would be alive now too… with or without me."

Janice peered up at her friend, her eyes filled with doubt.

"The Conqueror wasn't planning to kill ya," gently told the translator. "She wasn't going to let Gabrielle die either." She watched the constricted, perplexed features on Janice's face. "She knew that Gabrielle had bribed some of her soldiers back when she was sentenced to the cross."

"So she… intentionally let her escape," concluded the archeologist. "Why?"

Melinda, who perfectly understood her ancestral counterpart, answered the question. "She's lonely… and bored."

"What? Wait…." Janice's right hand now touched Melinda's right shoulder as she slightly turned in her friend's embrace, her left hand rested on Hu's head. "You're telling me that Gabrielle is like… a toy to her? She's just playing with Gabrielle?"

"No." Melinda cocked her head to the side. "She's intrigued by her."

Janice grunted. "She has a funny way of showing it."

"I reckon so." When Janice leaned back into her again, Melinda continued to explain the mystery. "The Conqueror is realizing her realm is expanding but her world is shrinking."

"All she has to show is a kingdom."

"Nobody to share it with," added Melinda.

"And nobody close to her… no family… or friends." Janice sarcastically chuckled and muttered, "She controls the world but has...."

"Nothing," softly finished Melinda.

Janice had a bittersweet smile at this realization. "Life is always so damn ironic." Her head was bent down as she toyed with Hu's thick coat.

Hu dripped his head back some and his tongue snaked out, licking his new friend's hand.

"What about Alti?" murmured the archeologist.

"I will keep her busy," coolly stated the southerner.

"Mel?" Janice dropped her head against her friend's chest, her brilliant emerald eyes met Melinda's inquisitive ones. "I didn't say thank you."

Melinda had a tender smile and her eyes shaded like the skies. "Ya don't need to."

"Yes… yes, I do." Janice reached up and her right palm touched her friend's smooth cheek. "Thank you… for everything… I've never had anybody care… about me."

"Your daddy did," debated the translator.

Janice noted how Melinda didn't mention her mother, she lowered her hand back to her side. "So did my mother…." Her voice fell off as her emotions trickled to the surface. "Alti… showed me something while I was in the dungeon."

"What happened?" Melinda was concerned, her tone showed it.

"Alti showed me a vision." Janice now stared across the room, at the heavy curtains that led to the small balcony outside. "It was of my mother before she died." She swallowed as her eyes closed and the vision drowned her suddenly. "When I was ten, my parents were working on at a site in Greece. It was early evening and my mother took my father's truck to go into town, to get some supplies. I never saw her after that evening."

Melinda inhaled and held her breath.

"The truck my father had was pretty old, beat up… we called it Bertha too." Janice had a distant smile then it slipped away. "The truck broke down halfway to town so my mom tried to fix it with what little she knew. She couldn't get it started so she walked back towards camp."

Melinda swallowed then lowered her head down. Her eyes shut as she whispered, "What happened?"

Janice shook her head. "She didn't make it back… a man in a truck pulled over, offering to help her." She squeezed her eyes closed tighter in hopes it'd cut off the memory from the vision but it didn't work. "He raped her then killed her, Mel." Her eyes flew open as the wet drops tracked down her hot cheeks.

"Ooo god," murmured the translator. "I'm sorry, Janice… I'm so sorry."

Janice moved in the embrace so that she faced her friend.

The tall southerner drew Janice in closer, as deep as she could then when Janice's moist face pressed into her neck, she began to cry too. Janice's body quaked against hers silently and Melinda's heart dropped further.

Janice clung to the warm, comforting woman that offered her safety as she broke down. Her mother's final hours slowly started to recede out and the tidal emotions gradually calmed again.

Hu sensed everything upsetting so he moved closer and nuzzled his face against Janice's side to comfort her too. He stopped after a bit and merely waited, his eyes closed, and face against Janice's torso.

The archeologist gained control again and withdrew some. She peered down at Hu to see a ferocious creature that was tenderly comforting her.

Hu opened his eyes when he felt the attention on him. His fire eyes spoke to Janice.

Janice's unknown resolve against the tiger gave way and she smiled at him gratefully. Her right hand threaded through his fur and held on for assurance.

Hu closed his eyes again and snuggled his face into the wool cloak the human wore.

The group remained this way for awhile, the time passing without notice. Then there was a demanding knock at the door, which broke the comfortable spell between them all.

Melinda was incredibly tense as power and darkness charged through her body without warning. "Janice, take Hu and wait out on the balcony for me. Stay quiet."


"It's Alti," clipped the southerner. "Go. I will deal with her."

Janice's eyes wondered over to the door as second series of bangs came and her stomach knotted. Melinda suddenly pulled away, which caused Janice's emotions to recoil into a hidden area. She stayed quiet as she signaled for Hu to follow her. She made it to the curtains but looked over her shoulders at her best friend. She only saw the Conqueror instead leisurely approaching the main doors. Janice hurried through the curtains with her furry friend and found a spot off to the side of the balcony.

Hu knew something was amiss but he would not leave the small human's side. Yet he purred when a small, warm hand worked down his coat in a repeated session.

Janice chewed on her lower lip for a second but stopped as she tilted her head. She tried to focus on the low yet strong voices of Alti and Melinda.

"It doesn't concern you, Alti," warned the Conqueror.

Alti's black eyes flashed with anger. "Yet you required me to do a vision on her, Conqueror." She stepped closer to the ruler. "She's a threat to the realm… just like that rebel." She folded her arms over her robed chest. "Or do you plan to let this one loose too?"

The Conqueror growled deeply as she closed in the small distance between her and Alti. Her teeth bared in a furious display. "Do not question me, Alti."

Alti opened her mouth to start the argument. Her words were halted before they were breathed by the powerful hand around her neck.

The Conqueror kept her grip tight around the shaman's neck. "I do as I please." Her grip increased another notch. "She may be of more use than I planned… she's close to the Amazons." Her face leaned in closer to the shaman's. "And don't you want Cyane?"

Alti rasped as her right hand came up, her long fingers curling around the muscular arm of the Conqueror.

The ruler jerked her hand on Alti's neck to get a response. "Don't you, Alti?"

The shaman closed her eyes from the thinning air in her windpipes. "Y-e-s-s-s."

"Then she is a way in." The Conqueror abruptly threw Alti from her vice grasp then stared down at the crumbled shaman, who kneeled down gagging for air. "Do not compromise my plans, Alti."

The dark shaman heaved yet she forced her legs to lift her before the ruler.

"Do I make myself clear?" The Conqueror neared the shaman again with her flickering anger in her face.

Alti dipped her head then answered, "Yes, my liege… perfectly."

The Conqueror clenched her fists at her sides then walked away but over her shoulder she ordered, "Get out, Alti."

The shaman bowed her head then backed up a step before turning and exiting the large bedchambers of the ruler. When she was out of the room, she rubbed her sore neck, which increased her anger for the ruler's reaction. She noticed the two guards staring at her. "What is it, fools?" Her eyes narrowed at them. "Is there a problem?"

"Of course not, shaman." The speaking guard turned his head away and became a statue like his partner.

Alti wanted to strike against them but thought wiser so she swept past them in a rage.

Melinda needed a few minutes before she faced her friend again. She went in search of something she'd been holding for Janice for a few days now.

Janice was entranced by the beautiful city as the low western sun started for its descent off to her left on the horizon. Even from here, she could inhale the distinct salty smell of the mixing seas and it filled her. She first sensed Melinda coming out before seeing her then there was a large yet gentle hand on her midback.

"I've been meanin' to give ya this, Janice. Ephiny sent it."

The archeologist was bewildered as she accepted the small leather pouch from her friend. She undid the leather string and peered in for the articles. "Goddamn!" She brightened as she dug out a cigar in complete triumphant.

Melinda was grinning at the archeologist's happiness. Her nose slightly crinkled though at the thought of the pungent odor of the cigars.

"I need one," concluded the small woman. She was excited to find her lighter too but she hesitated while looking at the end of the cigar that required cutting first.

Melinda smirked, plucked the cigar free while reaching into her cleavage, and she neatly cut the cigar then her dagger disappeared in a blur. She held out the prized cigar to her friend.

Janice blinked and then gaped. She received the cigar while asking, "What the hell else do you have in there, Mel?"

The southerner's lips puckered some as her eyes brightened with teasing. "I can't tell ya."

Janice was biting back an evil remark. She instead plugged her mouth shut with the cigar then pulled out her lighter. She flipped the top mechanically then followed it by a flick. Once she had the cigar going, she dropped the lighter into the bag and worked it closed while holding the burning cigar between her teeth.

Melinda then grabbed up the cigar bag so that Janice's hands were free.

The archeologist was grateful as she stepped up to the marble railing and leaned against it, her eyes scanning over the ancient city. "Isn't it amazing, Mel?" Her left hand dealt with the cigar while her right scratched Hu's closest ear.

Melinda had stepped back a bit so she wouldn't pick up the cigar smell. She wasn't opting to explain to people the new, strange odor. "It's beautiful," she murmured from her spot against the wall, her arms folded over her chest.

Janice shook her head as she took a long draw from her cigar. "I never thought I'd see something like this… Christ we shouldn't be seeing this."

The translator was grinning now. "It’s uh little different from the movies."

Janice laughed and gazed over back at her friend. "It is that." As she turned her head back, a group of seagulls swooped past and dove into an arch towards the sea. "Can you believe that the Conqueror is building the Corinth Canal?"

"Mmmm… I reckon she'll succeed too," logically concluded the southerner.

Janice was considering this as she smoked her cigar. Her gaze lowered to the wall that protected the fortress. She watched the sentries patrol the walls and the grounds with set precision. "Mel?" She spun around and leaned back against the rail as her cigar traded hands. "If we stayed here it wouldn't be too bad."

Melinda's right eyebrow hiked up her forehead at this idea. "I reckon we don't belong here, Janice."

"No," agreed the archeologist, "yet we could do so much here. Record the history so that the future will have it."

"But this ain't our world, Janice. God only knows if our counterparts exist in the 1940's."

Janice shrugged after just taking another drag. "Still… there will be archeologists researching this time period." She held out her hands in indication of everything before going back to petting Hu. "We could have it all here."

Melinda sighed deeply then dove into the debate finally. "This ain't our time or our world, Janice. We are tampering enough with it by being here."

"But think about what we can do to help these people, Mel. You're the Conqueror… you can change it all. We could do this together." She put the cigar in the side of her mouth while muttering, "And record it all to a 'T' and dotted 'i's, Mel."

The translator released a drawn out exhale because she sympathized with her friend's ideas. She still knew it would never work out right. "We can't, Janice."

Janice had taken her lost smoke of the cigar, snubbed it out, set it on the rail, and gradually let the smoke filter between her split lips. Her shoulders slightly slumped in defeat because she knew too. "There's just… so much we could do, Mel."

The translator pushed off the cold stone wall and came back to her friend. "There is but it ain't up to us." She stood in front of her friend with her head bent down to hold Janice's gaze. "We still have to prove Xena's existence in our world."

Janice now had a silly grin at how her friend reminded her of the partnership. "Yea… you're right, Mel." Again she turned back around to stand before the great city. Her left arm positioned on the rail while she went back to petting Hu at her right side.

Melinda glanced over at her friend; she saw how transfixed the archeologist was by the beautiful view of the ancient city. It was also beyond Melinda's imagination too as every morning since her arrival here she would watch the sunrises to start her day. She was trying to memorize the historical city by every detail.

"I remember when my father use to take me to the ancient ruins of Corinth… as a kid," mentioned the archeologist. "I use to try to imagine what it use to look like before it was destroyed and forgotten." She waved her hand at the city before her eyes. "My imagination doesn't even compare to this."

Melinda had a solemnly smile as she carefully listened. "My daddy never took me to a dig site." She shook her head while brushing back her hair that'd moved from the breeze. "My mom was too afraid I'd get hurt."

Janice grunted. "A dig site is no place for a proper belle." Her teasing grin flickered at the translator.

Melinda sighed though then nodded her head. "But daddy always showed me all the photos… his notes, the artifacts, and he taught me syntax."

The archeologist peered over at her friend, her head dropped to one side. "Is ancient syntax the only language you know?"

"Ooo my no." Melinda chuckled as her playful eyes met Janice's curious features. "I'm fluent in several languages." At seeing Janice's interest perking at this news she further explained. "I am fluent in Latin, French, German, and Mandarin."

"Plus English and ancient Greek," reminded the archeologist.

Melinda nodded then softly added, "I recently learned Egyptian hieroglyphics."

"Christ," blurted out Janice, "you're more of a damn linguist than a translator, Mel."

Melinda had a soft grin at the backwards compliment from her friend. "I reckon so."

Janice moved her head in amazement at this revelation. She let out a long sigh then asked, "What did Alti want?"

"Mmmm… just your head on a pike," muttered the annoyed southerner.

Janice shrugged. "Easy request."

Melinda's face darkened a shade but she didn't look at her friend. "She's trying to figure out why I spared you from the dungeons."

"And why did you… Conqueror?" Janice saw the arched eyebrow coming in her direction. She gave back a challenging look to see what Melinda's intent was from the start.

"Because you're valuable to get to the Amazons." Melinda straightened up quickly as she turned to her smaller friend. "I plan to… seduce you to my side."

Janice suddenly looked as if she were a deer in headlights as she swore she misheard her friend. "Um... seduce?" Her mouth was cotton and her heart pounding plus Hu was forgotten.

Melinda nonchalantly neared her friend and smirked down at her. "The Conqueror always gets what she wants, Janice." She then lifted her right hand then shoved the cigar bag against the smaller woman's chest. She leaned down then sensually whispered, "Always." With that, she strolled back towards the set of curtains and disappeared through them.

Janice breathed sharply after Melinda left the space, the wake of power still struck Janice in the knees. "Wow," she whispered as her hand clenched her cigar bag. She peered down at her feline friend and asked, "Are all tigers like that, Hu?"

Hu seemed to understand as he flashed his teeth in a fine show then stood up, he walked away a few feet then glanced back at Janice.

The archeologist shook her head then followed Hu back into the bedchambers.  And how does she plan to seduce me, mentally wondered Janice, who was smirking wildly.

Chapter 13 – Family Matters

Gabrielle's head popped up when there was a rap at her door. She turned in her chair then called, "Come in." She smiled when a familiar Amazon stepped into the hut, in her right hand was a sealed scroll.

"A message has arrived for you, Gabrielle." The Amazon already knew that for Gabrielle it would require a lot to get up and come to her. So she marched across the short distance and held out the scroll.

"Thank you for bringing it, Princess Terreis."

The fiery red head stood proud yet receptive to the outsider. "Whenever you're ready to send a reply then simply ask for me, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled up at the Amazon Princess as she placed the scroll on the desk. "Thank you again, princess. I appreciate everything you've done… everything your Nation has done."

The princess bowed as her bright hair fell forward around her face briefly. "It has been a pleasure to the Nation."

Gabrielle tilted her head to one side then softly asked, "Has it really or…?" She wavered, shrugged and softly stated, "I just thought the queen wasn't so keen on having Cyrene, Melpomene, and I here."

The princess rested her hands on her hips, a habit she'd learned from her sister seasons back. "Queen Cyane has seen much in her time… these are trying times for her."

The bard sighed sadly then dared to ask the question on her mind. "Is she fearful of the Conqueror?"

"Who does not fear her?" countered the princess. "It is wise to have a healthy dose of fear for the ruler."

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed then challenged, "I think Queen Cyane has had too many doses." She saw how the princess was tensing at the direction of the conversation. "It just seems to me, from what I've seen, that she hides the Amazon Nation in the shadows."

"It is the only way to survive in this world," declared the princess.

Gabrielle read Terreis's mannerism and something tipped her off. "And you don't believe that though."

Princess Terreis shifted uneasily as she didn't predict to be transparent to this outsider. "It is not easy, Gabrielle… you are not an Amazon."

"No… I'm not," softly conceded the bard, "but I've always been attacked by the Conqueror much like the Nation. I fear her too." She paused as she really considered that last declaration. Did she truly fear the Conqueror anymore? "I do understand the need to survive but if you think about it, princess… the Nation is already dead… you're just hanging onto… nothing." She shook her head. "I realized that at a young age and that's why I decided to stand up. To give the people a voice and to stop the Conqueror no matter if it meant my life. I am more alive than I ever was before." She tilted her head to the other side then gently asked, "Isn't that what the Amazon Nation is about? Strength and truth?"

"Yet we cower before the Conqueror," murmured the enlightened princess. She shook her head as her hands fell from her hips. "I understand your point of view, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle slowly nodded.

"You know the Amazon ways yet you're not one of us…." The baffled princess was staring at the outsider in a new light.

The bard had a wide grin now then her light voice proudly declared, "Hey, don't judge a scroll by its paper."

Princess Terreis chuckled and agreed with movement of her head. She took a step back while saying, "I will leave you to your message. Please find me when you're ready."

"I will," promise the rebel.

Princess Terreis was at the door but she hesitated and glimpsed back at the outsider. "Perhaps we can speak more about this later….?"

Gabrielle smiled at the hanging question in the space between them. "I would enjoy that, princess."

The Amazon flashed a warm smile then exited the hut silently.

The bard adjusted in her seat at the desk and opened the message that she hoped was from Melinda. She smiled at the coded Greek on the scroll and carefully read over it. She let out a relieved breath when she heard that Janice was alive and healing now. When she was through the message, she hastily worked on a reply to tell Melinda what was happening with the trial along with her plans. She also expressed some of her concerns about the Conqueror and if Melinda had any suggestions since Melinda knew her best.

Just as Gabrielle finished her scroll, the door was shoved open some and Melpomene formed in the hut. Gabrielle smiled at the girl and set her quill down. She waved the girl over and picked her up.

Melpomene settled onto Gabrielle's lap.

"I heard from Melinda," mentioned Gabrielle carefully.

Melpomene peered up, wide eye at the news.

Gabrielle suddenly smiled and whispered, "Janice is just fine too."

The girl squealed and threw her arms around Gabrielle's neck happily. "Thank the gods… I was so worried."

"I know you were, sweetie." Gabrielle hugged the child back while mumbling, "So was I." She rocked their bodies as she closed her eyes and repeated, "So was I."

Melpomene drew back after a bit. "Melinda is okay too?"

Gabrielle knew things were not easy for Melinda but she wouldn't worry the child with it. "She's okay too, Melpomene." She poked the cute nose in front of her. "I think everything will work out okay."

Melpomene shook her head as she frowned. "The Conqueror won't change though, Gabrielle."

"Never say never," argued the rebel.

"I heard that Cyrene is the Conqueror's mother, is that true?" Melpomene had an awed expression as she held her breath in waiting.

Gabrielle could only wonder where Melpomene heard about this but she wasn't going to lie. "Yes, Melpomene… Cyrene is the Conqueror's mother."

"Wow," gasped the girl. "She's your mother too, right?"

At that moment, Cyrene had slipped into the hut silently and already heard the conversation transpiring. She remained spellbound by Gabrielle and Melpomene.

Gabrielle dipped her head then softly replied, "Yes, she's my mother too."

"So you and the Conqueror are sisters," logically concluded the girl.

The bard cocked her head then a grin appeared. "Not quite, Melpomene but she and I have a lot in common."

Melpomene crinkled up her nose then vigorously shook her head. "No you don't… you and the Conqueror are nothing alike."

Gabrielle softly laughed. "On the outside we're not but inside here." She freed a hand and touched her heart, "We're a lot alike… she just doesn't know it."

The child frowned then pointed out, "If she was then she wouldn't hurt so many people."

"Exactly." Gabrielle leaned in closer as she gently explained things. "The Conqueror has a beautiful heart… just like mine but she's… forgotten that she has it."

"Are you going to help her remember it?"

"I'm hoping so," agreed the bard, her smile back in place.

Melpomene's eyes lightened and her smile beamed again. "I think you're right. You know why?"

Gabrielle had a wry grin now as she went along with the child. "Why?"

"Because if the Conqueror and you have the same mother then the Conqueror must have a beautiful heart too… like you." Melpomene had a hopeful and confident expression. "I've never had a grandmother but Cyrene is like my grandmother… she loves me even though I'm not her child."

Cyrene covered her mouth with her hand to contain her cries from escaping and breaking the moment. Her feelings swept over her at the child's honest words.

"And you know what, Melpomene?" Gabrielle leaned in, her eyes burning from hidden tears at the thought of Cyrene's giving and loving heart. "Cyrene loves you as her granddaughter… don't ever believe otherwise. Okay?"

Melpomene grew very happy at this pledge from her friend. She was all smiles. "Okay, Gabrielle." She tilted her head then asked, "Does that make you my auntie?"

The rebel suddenly laughed in surprise as she reached up to wipe away her tears.

"Can you be my aunt?" anxiously asked the girl. "You'd make the best aunt… ever!"

Gabrielle laughed again at the excited girl.

"Yes, she would make the best aunt," agreed the soft voice from the door.

Gabrielle's head whipped around at hearing Cyrene.

Melpomene brightened at Cyrene's agreement so she tugged on Gabrielle's blue top to get her attention again. "Pleeease?"

The bard's soft eyes returned to the child. "If you want me to be," she gently agreed.

"Yes, yes," gushed Melpomene. "Please?"

A chuckle came from Gabrielle and she nodded her head. "Okay just don't go telling everybody about your rebel aunt."

Melpomene giggled and suddenly engulfed her new family member with an extra strong hug.

Gabrielle had the air squeezed out off her as she returned the amazing hug. She then helped the child slide of her lap then she watched as Melpomene went over to Cyrene. Her sea mist eyes rose up to meet Cyrene's gaze. "How long were you there for?"

"Long enough," murmured the mother. She then gestured at the scrolls on the table because she could tell one wasn't Gabrielle's. "Did you receive word?"

"Yes!" Gabrielle brightened at this and smiled. "Janice is fine and so is Melinda. Melinda said she demobilized the Spartan legions as soon as she took control."

Cyrene sighed in relief at this news. "Thank the gods." She then peered down when a small hand took hers. "Yes, dear?"

"Can we go eat?" Melpomene looked between her new family with a very serious look. "I'm hungry."

Cyrene bit her lower lip from laughing.

Gabrielle pointed a finger at her adopted mother. "I don't want to hear it, Cyrene."

"Well… you are the aunt," jested the older woman.

Gabrielle forced her legs to lift her and she limped over with her cane in hand. "Come on… grandma. The grandkid is hungry."

Cyrene's washed out blue eyes darkened in warning. "Watch it, Gabby." She turned to the door and opened it.

Gabrielle's jaw was slack but Melpomene grabbed her freehand to drag her along.

"Come on, Auntie Gabby… we don't want to miss dinner."

Gabrielle just kept her growl down but her clenched teeth showed between her lips. "Just you wait, Cyrene."

Cyrene was in the lead but her mocking laughter filtered back to the rebel.

The small family joined the Amazons for the dinner just as the sun finished its last candlemark. The meal that night was excellent and quite fulfilling too. Just as they were prepared to retire back at their hut, Gabrielle was stopped short by the princess requesting some time together. Gabrielle agreed and promised Melpomene and Cyrene that she would be in a little later. She then returned to an empty table while the princess collected two mugs of sweet wine for them.

Princess Terreis settled into the seat across from the outsider and gave her a mug. "I heard the trial is swaying in your favor, Gabrielle."

The bard shrugged then replied, "It really won't matter when it comes to the punishment."

"It will though," countered the princess, "because if you can show that she was influenced the sentence could be lighter."

Gabrielle grunted and showed disbelief. "What? Instead of burning her alive they'll only hang her?"

Princess Terreis shook her head at this sarcastic remark. "If you can prove that Alti influenced her to do these crimes then she may live."

"Princess, I'm sorry but she killed ten or eleven Amazons… there's no reason not to seek death."

"I understand," agreed the princess, "but you must realize if the Conqueror did not act on her own accord then she can't fully be held responsible."

"And you're okay with her living?" brought up the bard. "Wasn't your sister Queen Melosa?"

Princess Terreis hesitated as she took a sip of her wine then toyed with her mug. "Yes, Melosa was my sister… she died in the Last Great War against the Conqueror." Her eyes lifted to the outsider. "I'm not completely okay with the Conqueror living. What I am okay with is knowing true justice was served here. That the Conqueror carried out her punishment according to what she did or did not do." She shook her head. "This isn't about revenge… for the dead sisters or for those outside of the Nation that have died because of her."

"And you don't think when the council passes judgment that they won't be the slightest bit biased?"

"We're all human, Gabrielle." The princess studied the rebel leader then softly added, "Even the Conqueror."

Gabrielle sighed then she gradually nodded her head. "Yes… yes, she is."

"Earlier you said that… the Amazon Nation cowers in the shadows," brought up the Amazon. "Can you tell me more why you see this?"

Gabrielle was taken back by this forward princess that was naturally curious. "I can but… why do you want to hear it from me? I'm the outsider."

"Exactly." The Amazon Princess smiled then stated, "You see things different than we do. Another perception is always useful to finding the true problem at hand." She took a drink of her wine as she waited.

Gabrielle got over her initial shock then formulated her response carefully. "I believe I see it that way because after the Last Great War the Amazon Nation all but disappeared." She leaned against the table. "I remember as a kid hearing about stories about the great Amazon Nations… I always wanted to be an Amazon as a kid." A sad smile formed on her face as she went back to her childhood memories. "Some bards would come into the local tavern in my town. They'd always have a few stories about the gods and some fabled heroes but then there were the tales about the Amazons and their queens. I use to think they were just stories then one day I asked the bard how he came up with it."

Princess Terreis chuckled yet kept listening.

"He told me that he didn't… that it was true, all of it." Gabrielle chuckled and wrapped her hand around her mug. "I wouldn't believe him at first but then I did, I really did." She had a coy smile as she kept relaying her past to the princess. "I loved the stories about Queen Hippolyta… she sounded like a goddess more than a queen." Gabrielle's eyes were bright with the old stories in her mind. "I sometimes thought about running away from home to join an Amazon Nation but I knew I really couldn't since I was too young."

The princess leaned against the table and continued to take in the outsider's tale.

"I guess after everything that happened to me… when I lost my family and I met Cyrene, I stopped hearing about the stories for awhile." Gabrielle's expression fell now. "It wasn't for some time until I heard about the wars against the Conqueror and the Amazon Nation. I heard how she drove Queen Cyane through Greece and laying waste to the other Nations in her wake. I kept hoping that maybe Queen Cyane would defeat her. I tried to believe that Artemis, the patron goddess of the Amazons, would protect the Nations from the Conqueror but… it never happened."

Princess Terreis let out a sad sigh of agreement then took a drink of her wine.

"Then I heard about the Last Great War, when Queen Melosa and Queen Cyane joined forces to stop the Conqueror. That they hoped they could defeat her and I held my breath that they could do it. I wanted… I needed to hear of the Conqueror's defeat… but all I heard was of her success and the blood."

Princess Terreis's eyes fell as she murmured, "It was the worst battle in Amazonian history… ever. So many lives were lost in that war."

"So many lives have been lost since the creation of the Destroy of Nations."

"Yes," gently agreed the princess, "so many."

"After the defeat," continued Gabrielle, "I was at a loss; I'd really believed that the Amazons could stop her. That's when I realized nobody would stand up to her… there was nobody left. The Amazons were broken… splintered and nobody ever spoke about them since the Last Great War. Some people even said that the Conqueror completely wiped them out."

"That's why you started the faction, wasn't it?"

The rebel leader nodded. "I finally realized there was nobody left and not because there truly wasn't but because we believed there wasn't anybody. I took a stand in hopes that people would follow me and see that there is power in numbers. That if the Conqueror really believes fear does conqueror all then she is deathly wrong."

"It is a desirable quest," agreed the princess, "and a costly one too."

"It's been more rewarding than costly," rebuked the bard.

Princess Terreis cocked her head then asked, "You stopped believing in the Amazon Nation after our fall from the Last Great War?"

Gabrielle peered down into her half filled mug then lifted her gaze. "Yes," she admitted, "I did… like so many others."

"A pedestal can only hold so much weight," muttered the princess. She sighed then shook away her dismal idea about the Nations' defeats in the past. "In many ways, I believe we are responsible for the creation of the Conqueror."

Gabrielle's eyebrows were knitted together as the considered the princess's words. "Because of Alti?"

"Yes… we harbored Alti in our Nation then she met the Conqueror. If those two had never met then we may not be here today."

The rebel pressed her lips neatly together. "Do you think the queen holds that responsibility on her shoulders?"

"Yes, I do believe so," answered the princess. "I sometimes think it is that guilt that has blinded her."

"Blinded her from…?"

"From challenging the Conqueror again," replied the princess. "Queen Cyane only met the Conqueror's sword in the Last Great War because of my sister. Melosa would not stand down while Queen Cyane was merely trying to keep her Nation alive. My sister pledged her life to the destruction of the Conqueror because it was the Amazon way. Queen Cyane's heart was not in the Last Great War and her guilt over Alti and even the elders' deaths has clouded her vision ever since."

"I hope this trial will bring her some peace then."

The princess was shaking her head as her soft green eyes met Gabrielle. "I believe it will bring some but not all that she requires. As long as Alti is free then she will always be plagued by the past."

"Alti is a symbol of her weakness," theorized the bard.

"In some ways, yes… she's a symbol of the Amazons' weakness. She was an Amazon and we failed to stop her before she paved the way for the Conqueror to become so powerful."

Gabrielle pushed her mug aside, a new fire in her eyes. "The Amazon Nation can't take on that weight, that responsibility. How can you be so sure that Alti is the key to the Conqueror's success?" She then smacked her palms on the table and argued, "Even if the Nation does take that responsibility, why don't you do anything to stop Alti instead of wallowing in your own guilt?

Princess Terreis understood the outsider's point of view and she slowly started to nod. "Some of the Nation carries this weighted responsibility… mostly Queen Cyane's side of the Nation. The side of the Nation leftover from Melosa does not; they are prepared to correct the aged old mistake."

"But so long as Queen Cyane is in power then there's not much that can be done."

The princess was frowning but she knew it was true. "There is no simple solution, Gabrielle."

The bard relented some as her shoulders slump. "Well… maybe this trial is putting things in motion."

"I think they are," agreed the princess.

"Speaking of trial…" Gabrielle waved with a sigh as she eyed her new found friend. "I should speak to the Conqueror about it."

The Amazon smiled at the outsider's persistence to help her enemy despite all the history. "I admire you greatly for representing her, Gabrielle. There is nobody here in this Nation that giving to do such an act. You truly fulfill your own legend." She smiled at the flush developing in Gabrielle's cheeks.

"Thank you, princess."

Princess Terreis reached out and captured the bard's hand. "Please call me Terreis, Gabrielle."

This didn't seem to help the bard's flush as it deepened a shade.

The Amazon Princess release the small, warm hand then started to get up. "I will escort you to the jail."

"That'd be great." Gabrielle got up but much slower and she collected her mug after quickly finishing it off.

Together the new friends rid of their used mugs and strolled out of the hut into the cool evening. They were quiet at first but Gabrielle easily filled the void again.

"I take it that Velasca doesn't like me much," carefully mentioned the bard.

The princess had her hands behind her back as she strolled along side the limping woman. "Velasca is a dedicated Amazon… she believes in our destiny for greatness. She believes that the Conqueror threatens that greatness."

"Just as she always has," reminded the rebel. "I guess that makes me a threat too since I'm representing her?"

Terreis's features were falling at her friend's obvious concern. "Gabrielle, she will not do anything to harm you. I can guarantee that."

"What about the Conqueror's mother?" reminded the rebel. "She's a perfect target to get at between me and the Conqueror."

The princess considered this as she knew the outsider, Cyrene, was the Conqueror's mother and very close to Gabrielle too. She could see where Cyrene would be an excellent target but she couldn't imagine Velasca stepping over those lines. "Don't worry, Gabrielle… she likes to be intimidating but that's her show." She came to a slow stop when they were close to the torch lit jail. "Thank you for the talk tonight, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle smiled up at the princess. "Thank you too, Terreis. It's nice to talk to somebody in the Nation."

Terreis now suddenly grinned and quietly offered, "Ephiny is rather impressed by you so that is what originally perked my interest."

Gabrielle laughed and asked, "Ephiny? The head guard Ephiny?"

"The same," answered the princess. She winked then took a few steps away. "People notice you, Gabrielle… more than you think." She gave a wave, said goodnight, and hurried off.

The rebel shook off her surprise as she neared the jail. The guards knew her so well that they opened it just as she was close enough. She stepped into the torch flickering jail and refrained from the unexpected smile at seeing the quiet ruler sitting on the bench. "Don't you ever get bored of sitting there?"

The Conqueror narrowed her eyes at the jibe. "They don't give me walks."

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she refused to laugh here in front of these Amazon guards that most likely hated the ruler. She worked the laugh back down her throat then limped up to the Conqueror. "I think the trial is going well."

The Conqueror had seen the unexpected amusement in the rebel's eyes despite the low light in the jail. She hadn't expected her words to be taken as a joke however she could see why it sounded funny to the rebel. "Instead of death by fire I'll only be hung."

Gabrielle had been sitting down on the bench when she faltered and peered across at her enemy. "Well…." She sat down finally then finished what she was saying. "I thought that too but I think we're in luck." She stopped as her features wrinkled at how she'd said this was luck. Was the Conqueror living through this trial truly a good thing or not? Should she even be allowed to live, mentally wondered the bard.

The Conqueror could see that the bard was someplace else so she tilted her head. "You were saying?"

The rebel blinked from her reverie and focused on her enemy again. "I was...." She tried to recall what she was talking about anyway.

"You were telling me about my luck," refreshed the ruler.

"Right." Gabrielle cleared her throat then proceeded to relay some of her discussion that she had with the princess. After she was done telling her about it, the Conqueror merely huffed at her. "What?"

"You really think they'll let me live?" The Conqueror grinned and leaned into her counterpart. "Whether I murdered one Amazon or all of them they would hang me."

"You don't know that," argued the bard.

"Yes, I do." The Conqueror straightened up then coolly stated, "I know I wouldn't let me live if I were them."

Gabrielle grunted as she folded her arms across her chest. "Well thank the gods you're not them… that's the difference."

The Conqueror suddenly flashed an amused smirk. "Always the optimist aren't you, rebel?"

"Well somebody has to make up for your lack of it."

"Ooo I have optimism that I'll have you back on your cross by the time this is all over."

Gabrielle's jaw clenched then relaxed as she bent forward to the ruler. "Then you'll be unleashing Tartarus on earth, Conqueror." When the ruler cocked her head in misunderstanding, she threateningly whispered, "She's also known as your mother… there's no greater scorn than a mother's wrath."

The Conqueror straightened up as she digested the rebel's honest words. She put her arms over her chest and read the confident woman before her, more confident than she'd ever seen the rebel.

"I think," started the bard, "that you and I both understand Cyrene." She saw how defensive acting the ruler was but she still pressed forward anyway. "And if you do then you know, like I do, that she's very torn between protecting you and protecting me." She toyed with her cane in her lap for a heartbeat then softly finished. "I also know that it would hurt her to lose either of us… especially if it was to one another."

The Conqueror swallowed hard because she knew it was her mother that had unwantingly linked her to this rebel leader. Her mother had shunned her many moons back and she had rejected the existence of her mother ever since that fated day. Yet when her mother stood before her this morning, every bit real, she knew she could no longer deny her mother. She reconciled long ago that she'd hurt her mother by leading Lyceus to his death and that guilt suddenly swallowed her all over again this morning.

"I almost hurt her," confessed the bard, whose emotional eyes lifted from staring at her hands. She'd force Cyrene into following her in her plans to kill the Conqueror and as she sat here, she realized it was the worst move ever. She saw that the Conqueror was carefully listening so she whispered low enough so only the Conqueror could hear her. "I don't want to hurt Cyrene… ever."

The Conqueror was breathing heavily as she read between the lines of the rebel's offer. She knew what this meant if she agreed or disagreed and her body was wired by the hatred to strike out against her enemy, to destroy her enemy. The Conqueror could not allow this rebel to continue against her realm less everything be lost. And yet the Conqueror had lost so much in her moons as she took over the known-world piece by piece. Her only link to the past, to her family was sitting right here and she had a chance to reclaim her identity if she so decided. For the first time in her life, she was fearful that this second chance could slip through her fingers if she didn't take it.

Gabrielle watched in pure amazement as her silent offer was agreed to by a simple nod from the Conqueror. She could even translate the hidden agreement deep in the Conqueror's steel blue eyes. She was in disbelief and touched her forehead as the realization swept over her and she became woozy with relief. From that day forward, there were never anymore threats of a cross and any other forms of death promises.

The Conqueror broke the spell that was between them with her clipped tone. "What of the trial tomorrow?"

Gabrielle lowered her hand to her lap and returned her attention to the ruler. To the ruler, who she newly formed a silent pact of peace because of one woman they both held high in their lives. She had a faint smile as she rolled into her explanation of her plans for the trial tomorrow.

The Conqueror agreed to it all rather readily. She also had a few confessions she had yet to make but they could wait until later. At the end of the talk, she watched as the rebel leader painfully got to her feet and studied her.

"Get some sleep… it'll be a long day tomorrow."

The Conqueror's right eyebrow hiked up her brow some. "On what bed?"

Gabrielle bit her lower lip, her eyes flickering to the guards then back to the Conqueror. "You're use to sleeping without a bed." She stepped away a few paces then glanced back with a wide smirk. "Or have you gotten that soft since your campaign?"

The Conqueror knew it was a tease yet she narrowed her eyes in warning. She didn't need this brass rebel taking new liberties already but part of her conceded to it. She easily jibed back, "That's easy to say when you've been pushing a quill all your life."

Gabrielle swallowed her laughter then teased back, "Don't forget moving my lips too." Her eyes sparkled at the new level of banter between her and her enemy. She continued her walk to the door but wavered when the ruler's monotone floated to her.

"How could I forget," murmured the ruler, who closed her eyes and slumped against the wall in a relaxed mode.

Gabrielle stole one last look, said nothing, and left the jail with a lighter heart than she could ever recall. She soon found her way back to the hut where she changed for bed and crawled into her cool sheets. She listened to the gentle slumber of her mother and newly adopted niece in the other bed. She put her hands under her head and stared at the thatched roof overhead, her thoughts floating off to her recent success over these days. Her dreamscape soon found her and she felt more prepared for the trial than the day before.

The trial began in excitement since the new disclosures that Gabrielle had brought to light before the Nation. The trial this day focused on the only other Greek shaman known, Yakut. The young shaman stood before her peers, her hands behind her back, and her formal, tribal dress on. Velasca had already questioned her once and now the outsider was stepping up to her.

"Yakut, how long have you been a shaman for now?" inquired the bard.

The shaman lifted her chin then proudly stated, "For twenty seasons now."

Gabrielle smiled at this then leaned heavily against her cane for support. "I'm just guessing but are you relatively close to the same level of power as Alti was when she was in Queen Cyane's Nation?"

The shaman tilted her head then replied, "I can't be sure since I never met her."

"Is there a way to gauge it, possibly? Maybe by the length of her being a shaman perhaps?"

"That's possible," agreed the shaman.

Gabrielle turned to the council. "Do we know for how long Alti was a shaman when she met the Conqueror?"

The head council leaned to her left and gazed over at the queen. "My queen?"

Queen Cyane stepped away from Velasca and answered, "When the Conqueror arrived in my Nation, Alti had been a shaman for twenty-three seasons."

Gabrielle beamed at this new information so she returned her focus to the shaman. "Yakut, is it safe to say then that you and her are roughly the same then?"

"That is safe to say, yes." Yakut adjusted her stance then waited for the next question.

"From the questioning yesterday of Queen Cyane, I brought up the question about whether it was possible for Alti to help Xena fight the queen and the elders. As it seems so impossible that the Conqueror could have killed ten Amazons and wound the queen. Do you have any information to offer on this, Yakut?"

The shaman had picked her brain already and proceeded to answer the question rather confidently. "Yes, it is highly probable that Alti was able to help Xena do this."

"How is this possible?" inquired the curious rebel.

"My assumption would be she used a mix of things. A shaman works in the spirit world… that is all their power and at this particular stage a shaman cannot inflict any pain on a person." Yakut paused as she gathered her thoughts. "What a shaman can do is… emphasis a person's weaknesses or strengths that emulates from their karma."

"So then what you're saying is that Alti emphasized the Conqueror's natural abilities as a fighter?" 

"Yes, exactly." Yakut's eyes followed the moving rebel as she continued to speak. "Alti would have to been near by for this to work. The one problem that Alti may have faced was the Conqueror's conscious mind."

Gabrielle stopped pacing and lifted her head to the shaman. "Conscious mind?"

"Yes, the Conqueror may have resisted the notion of killing the Amazons but Alti could severe that spiritual. She merely had to fuel the Conqueror's hunger for power by showing her the darkness that Alti was so familiar with. In turn, this would override the Conqueror's sense of right and wrong because she is pulled in by Alti."

Gabrielle's head was bobbing so she pulled away from her thoughts. "So Alti greatly influenced the Conqueror to act the way she did?"

"Yes," replied the shaman, "it many ways Alti controlled the Conqueror like a puppet on that day." She stopped then added, "Granted the Conqueror has final say in her actions but those actions were influenced by Alti and her shamanism."

Gabrielle nodded then said, "Thank you, Yakut." She stepped back as she heard Velasca moving forward again.

Velasca had her head down but she lifted it and asked, "Yakut, can you be certain that Alti influenced the Conqueror's actions that day?"

The shaman sighed then shook her head. "Not without having been there first hand."

"So we really can't be sure whether Alti did or didn't influence the Conqueror's actions that day," she summarized to everybody. "Yakut, repeat to the council and the Nation what you told the council back on the day that Janice Covington requested the Nation to help her. It had to do with the Conqueror's destiny."

The shaman's memory quickly pinpointed what the Amazon was speaking about so she nodded. "When I look into the Conqueror's karma, I discovered that she was destined for this life… to be the ruler." She pressed her lips tightly together but forced herself to say the last piece of it. "It wouldn't have mattered whether she met Alti or not, she still would be the Conqueror today."

"Wait," jumped in Gabrielle, "The Conqueror is only on trial for her crimes against the Nation… nothing else."

The head councilor sighed and gave a warning look to Velasca.

"I am merely pointing out the fact that with or without Alti, the Conqueror will carry out her destiny… that includes Alti's unproven influence." Velasca grinned when the council members started to nodded.

"She has a point, Gabrielle." The head councilor's attention flickered between the representatives. "Any other question, Velasca?" At Velasca's negative response, she turned to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle?"

The bard nodded then moved away from the silent ruler at her side. She approached Yakut again then asked, "So the Conqueror is destined to… be the Conqueror, correct?"

"Yes," answered the shaman.

Gabrielle cocked her head to the side. "Was the Conqueror destined to kill the elders?"

"That's a speculating question," argued Velasca from her spot.

"But it’s a fair one," charged on the outsider, "since you opened that door."

"She has a point, Velasca," remarked the head councilor. "Go ahead, Yakut."

Yakut steadied herself for this response as she answered, "No."

The air was filled with a roar of chatter from the spectator Amazons from far behind.

"Silence!" ordered many of the councilors in booming voices. When the silence finally came, the head council allowed the trial to continue.

"The Conqueror wasn't destined to kill the elders," repeated the bard. "So you're saying she may have never killed the elders and attack Queen Cyane?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying," agreed the shaman.

Gabrielle's head was bobbing repeatedly then she tapped her cane on the solid ground. "Yakut, when the Conqueror was first arrested and brought here to the Nation, I asked you about this influence that Alti may….." Her eyes switched over to Velasca as she finished with, "or may not have. Do you recall this conversation?"

Velasca ran her tongue along the back of her molars as the carefully listened to the outsider continue with the shaman.

"Yes, of course I do."

"You explained to me that it was plausible that Alti and the Conqueror may have a connection. Can you explain this connection as you explained it to me?"

The shaman nodded then cleared her throat. "This link or connection is something instantaneous when two karmas on similar paths meet. It actually can happen between anybody, regardless of shamanism or not, however a shaman can increase the strength of this connection and take advantage of it for good or bad. In the case of Alti and the Conqueror, these two emphasis the Darkness in one another… that is their link and over time it can become permanent too."

"Through this link can a shaman influence the other person?"

"Yes, greatly too."

Gabrielle licked her lips as she prepared for the next part that would be the breaker. "As we're all wondering, Yakut is there any proof this connection really exists between the Conqueror and Alti. Does this connection, right now, exist between the Conqueror and Alti?"

Yakut narrowed her eyes at how Gabrielle asked the question so she honestly answered. "No, there is no connection… right now."

Velasca smirked as her point was perfectly proved.

The council members started to chatter as did many of the Amazons in the Nation.

Gabrielle stepped closer to the shaman then loudly asked, "Why is there no connection right now, Yakut?"

"There is no connection because I severed it."

The din of voice went silent and all that was heard was the faint rattle of the Conqueror's chains, which captured everybody's attention.

The rebel leader turned to Velasca and stated, "There's your proof." She faced the Amazon Nation while calling out, "There was an instantaneous link when the Conqueror and Alti first met." She had a hidden smile for Cyrene, who stood behind the Conqueror. Her eyes went back to the shaman. "Yakut, could you tell whether this connection between the Conqueror and Alti was strong when you severed it?"

The shaman bit the inside of her mouth then finally answered the question. "I was barely able to severe it… it was in the maturity stage of being permanent."

Gabrielle huffed and while shaking her head she declared, "Alti is very much a leech."

"That is a perfect analogy of Alti's shamanism, yes," agreed Yakut. Her expression was grim but her tone was very agreeing with the rebel.

"Thank you, Yakut." At the shaman's nod, she returned to the Conqueror's side.

"Anymore questions, Velasca?"

Velasca dropped her arms from her chest then shook her head. "No, council."

"Fine." The head council glanced at the other members, who were all in agreement. "We will convene for the day then continue tomorrow at Helios high again."

There was a roar of talking all at once as people broke up into different groups, discussing the tidal turn of the fascinating trial. Nobody had been betting on the outsider bringing up such a perspective.

Cyrene carefully approached Gabrielle and the Conqueror after getting around the six guards. "I think you're swaying them, Gabrielle."

The bard smiled at Cyrene, grateful for her presence. "I think so too." Her attention lifted to the ruler. "This might turn out okay after all."

The Conqueror merely nodded because she was wordless before her mother and the rebel leader. She felt too uneasy here so she started the pace walk to her jail but a warm hand grabbed her left arm to stop her. She peered down at soft, worn blue eyes that showed nothing but love.

"Have some faith, Xena." Cyrene squeezed her daughter's strong forearm while whispering, "Everything happens for a reason."

The Conqueror dipped her head down as she murmured, "Yes it does." She glanced at Gabrielle then broke away from them as she continued towards the jailhouse with her guards swarming around her. She heard Gabrielle and her mother still chatting in the background then it grew distant. She tilted her head to the right when an unexpected yet distinct sound grabbed at her honed warrior skills. She abruptly stopped and turned as she tried to pinpoint the noise.

"Conqueror, let's go," ordered Ephiny, her voice hostile. She tensed when the Conqueror's head snapped to the right and Ephiny raised her sword at the ready.

The Conqueror suddenly gave a vibrating battle cry and she easily sprung up into the air. She landed halfway between the guards and her mother with Gabrielle but she quickly broke out into blurry sprint.

Gabrielle saw the dark ruler coming at them, her body charged by fear about what was happening.

Cyrene grabbed onto Gabrielle's arm to hold her in place, she wasn't scared and she transferred that into her adopted daughter.

The Amazon guards all yelled at once as they chased after the freed ruler.

The Conqueror stole a heartbeat fast glimpse to the right as her target was coming closer.

Gabrielle looked in the same direction then she saw it, her mouth opening to release a yell of warning. She suddenly dropped her cane then shoved Cyrene as far as she could before her weak knees buckled under her weight.

The Conqueror launched her body into the air with her right hand stretching out as far as the manacles allowed her. Her warcry sounded again from her lips just as her fingers wrapped around the shaft of an arrow.

Gabrielle gasped as the arrowhead skimmed her view then disappeared in a blur from the Conqueror's perfect catch. She then collapsed to her aching knees in a wash of pain and relief.

The Conqueror tucked onto the ground, bounced up onto her feet, and tossed the arrow to the ground. She quickly acted again as the whistle of another arrow came, her left hand snapping out to catch the arrow coming at the rebel again. Her furious eyes honed in on the archer standing tall on one of the huts and stringing a third arrow.

"Stop him!" bellowed out the queen's powerful voice.

The assassin gave one last shot as his third arrow screamed directly towards the Conqueror.

The ruler growled and plucked the last arrow from mid air with ease. She snapped the two arrows in her hand and threw them to the ground with pure disgust. She watched in satisfaction as the Amazons hurried after the retreating archer, who was jumping from hut to hut with less than great stamina. A soft moan of pain captured her attention so she knelt down beside the rebel to help her. By this time the guards horded around her and the rest of the group.

Cyrene was back on her feet after watching the amazing display of the attack and her daughter's abilities. She gathered up Gabrielle's walking stick as she came over to help.

Gabrielle was breathing heavily as the Conqueror helped her get to her feet again.

"Are you okay, Gabrielle?" asked the head guard, her mask pushed away from her face.

The Conqueror, for the first time, saw the striking features of Ephiny but she returned her focus to getting Gabrielle on her feet again.

Gabrielle nodded her head to Ephiny's question. "Cyrene?"

"I'm just fine, Gabrielle." Cyrene held out the cane once the rebel was up again.

The bard gratefully took her cane then tried to regain control of her coursing fear after just being attacked. Her eyes met the Conqueror's unemotional ones but she could tell by the actions the Conqueror was just as concerned. "Thank you for saving me, Conqueror."

The Conqueror straightened up to her full height. A sharp remark came to mind but she bit it back since her mother was here and she knew the rebel was already shaken enough. She now wondered if she was getting soft after all. Her dark eyes switched to Ephiny as she coolly requested, "When they get him, put him in the cell with me."

Ephiny blinked then realized it was less of a threat but a joke. She wasn't sure how to respond but Gabrielle took the opening.

"I think the Amazons can handle him," reminded the rebel.

The Conqueror huffed, folded her arms against her chest, and kept a smirking expression on her face.

Gabrielle shook her head, her nerves still badly shaken by the event. "Why did he...."

The Conqueror sighed at the bard being so naive and her hands fell from her chest. "Somebody wants you dead for representing me."

The rebel didn't like much being on the receiving end of an assassination attempt. "Who?"

The Conqueror had her ideas but she wasn't going to voice them here.

"Is everybody okay?" inquired a new voice.

Gabrielle lifted her head to see the queen outside of the circle of guards. "Yes, we're all fine, Queen Cyane. Thank you."

The ruler turned her head to the Amazon Queen.

Queen Cyane secretly nodded her approval to the Conqueror then focused back on the rest of the group. "Gabrielle, you and Cyrene should return to your hut. I will post two guards there for the time being until we apprehend this man. I had two Amazons find Melpomene and bring her to the hut."

"Thank you again." Gabrielle was in agreement to the queen's orders.

Cyane turned some then called out, "Princess and Eponin, escort Gabrielle and Cyrene back to their hut, please."

The two Amazons jogged up while they waited for the queen but now given new duties. The queen then hurried off to find out any news about the attacker.

Gabrielle glimpsed at the ruler once more then repeated, "Thank you again, Conqueror." When she saw the ruler wasn't going to say anything, a warm hand touched her back, it was Cyrene.

Cyrene signaled for Gabrielle to go ahead in the opening in the guard ring now. She didn't follow yet and bitter sweetly smiled at her daughter. "Thank you, Xena," her voice full of emotions.

The ruler's jaw flexed against her surfacing feelings for her mother but all she could do was nod her understanding. She then watched as the rebel leader and her mother were escorted through the Amazon Nation to their hut.

Ephiny pulled her mask back down then ordered, "Come on, Conqueror." This time her tone wasn't forceful but tinted with respect.

The unexpected commotion after the trial soon settled down when the assassin was actually apprehended just outside the Nation's walls. He'd kept them fairly busy as he escaped out of the village but his escape was short lived when he was shot in the leg by an arrow from a patrol Amazon. He then was dragged back into the Nation and thrown into his own jail, a meager jail compared to the Conqueror's but a locked up tight jail.

Around sunset, the outsiders were delivered their dinners along with news about the assassin's apprehension. The princess had delivered both the food and good news then further told them they were allowed out of the hut now. The guards were also dismissed from their duties since things were safe again.

After the dinner, Gabrielle excused herself and left to go see the Conqueror. She knew that the ruler probably had a fair idea about what was going on even though the princess refused to explain anything, yet. When she arrived at the jail the door was already opening, she was happy to see the Conqueror certainly awake and seeming to expect her.

The ruler watched as Gabrielle took a seat beside her.

Gabrielle exhaled deeply then asked, "You've been cooped up in here too long huh?"

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her allied enemy, which was enough of an answer.

Gabrielle's eyes glowed with an idea so she slid off the bench then approached Ephiny, who was easy to pick out with her curly hair. "Ephiny, can the Conqueror take a walk with me?"

The head guard was gaping behind her mask but her definite tone answered, "Gabrielle, that is beyond out of the question."

"Ephiny, she just saved my life."

"I don't care if she saved Queen Cyane's life… the answer is still no."

Gabrielle stepped up closer to the head guard and poked her in the chest with her left index finger. "She's not going to run. She saved my life. And you and the guards can play tag along anyway." She lowered her hand then hotly commanded, "Unlock her now… she's not a goddamn caged animal."

"Gabrielle," seethed the frustrated Amazon.

The Conqueror was biting back every comment in the book and just controlling her smirking features. She remained statues.

Gabrielle tried her best impression of what maybe was the Conqueror's dangerous looks. "Unlock. Her. Now."

Ephiny clenched her left hand at her side then suddenly spun her sword and sheathed it behind her back. She stepped around the bard while hotly ranting, "This will cost me every one of my feathers."

"And then some," remarked a guard.

"I don't want to hear it, Solari." Ephiny was working the jail manacles off the Conqueror while the regular chains stayed on her.

"She saved Gabrielle," started another Amazon, "it's a fair trade."

Solari turned her head to Callisto and she was shocked by the Amazon's support.

Ephiny huffed as the chain clanked onto the floor. She rose up and backed away as the ruler stood up to her towering height. She unsheathed her sword however she kept it at her side. "I swear, if you make me regret this then no words of Gabrielle's will save you." She spun on her heels and stomped up to the door and banged heavily on it. "Open it, Karis."

Karis unlocked the door then pulled it open; she didn't understand why she was opening it.

Ephiny marched out first then another guard then a third followed by the Conqueror, Gabrielle, and the last three guards.

"Ephiny, what's going on?" demanded Karis.

Ephiny turned to the Amazon and replied, "We're going for a stroll." Her tone showed she was annoyed, frustrated, and plain testy about this. "I don't want a word of this to get to the queen." She stepped closer then hotly whispered, "Is that clear?"

Karis held up her hands. "You're the head guard, Ephiny." She grabbed the jail door and pushed it shut. "Good luck too."

"Thanks," chided the head guard, who signaled everybody to fall out. She guided them towards the edge of the village then followed the loop towards the sparring fields that weren't too far. She knew that would be the safest spot, away from the Nation's eyes and ears.

Gabrielle limped along side the ruler, who was very quiet. She glanced up to see how the Conqueror was looking at everything with precision despite the torch lights offered little. "I wish I could do more to thank you for saving my life… this is pretty bland in comparison."

"No," argued the Conqueror, her gaze falling to the rebel. "This is perfect." She enjoyed the cool, fresh air of the autumn evening. "I don't like to be… locked in one place too long."

Gabrielle huffed then nodded her head. "I can sympathize there."

"Cyrene is okay?" softly questioned the Conqueror and her words were only heard by the rebel.

Gabrielle noted how the ruler said Cyrene's name. She tilted her head back and replied, "Your mother is fine… she was pretty shaken up like me."

The ruler just nodded her head.

Gabrielle walked closer the Conqueror, almost brushing up against her. "Do you know who it was?" She pause then quietly added, "They won't tell me anything."

The Conqueror grunted at the comment. "They won't either." She scanned around at the village then peered down at the rebel. "I have my guesses… those arrows weren't Amazon."

Gabrielle smirked then remarked, "Well it was a male."

The ruler rolled her eyes then lifted her head again.

"So he was probably hired then," concluded the bard.

"Either he was hired or inspired."

Gabrielle smirked wildly then teased, "You're a poet and you didn't even know it, Conqueror." She giggled when the ruler shot her a dangerous glare for the joke.

"I must be seeing too much of you," jabbed back the ruler.

Although the jab was given too lightly as the bard was still grinning then she lost it as she went serious. "So if he's inspired then….?" She waited for the ruler to fill the void.

"Then word leaked out that I'm here and they want me." The Conqueror exhaled her frustration. "I have plenty of enemies."

"Hard to believe," dryly remarked the rebel leader.

Ephiny held up her hand at the group. "This is as far as we can go."

Gabrielle scanned over the sparring field then pointed to the wood bench at the edge. "Let's sit down."

The Conqueror smirked. "Ooo goody." She trailed behind the bard as she was taken to the bench.

The guards circled around the pair but it was going to be short lived.

"Ephiny, wait over there?" asked the rebel. "I want to talk to the Conqueror alone."

Ephiny was bugged eyed as she ripped her mask back. "Gabrielle-"

"Listen to her, Ephiny," challenged the Conqueror, her tone not at all threatening.

Gabrielle was smug at the head guard.

Ephiny pointed her sword at the guards and ordered, "Fan out about twenty paces from them."

Gabrielle watched in satisfaction as the guards fanned out from either side and behind them but not in front. That left them a perfect view of the field, the wall, the trees beyond the Nation, and finally the night sky that was lit by the waning moon. "So you don't know who it is exactly?"

"No," answered the ruler, "but scum always surfaces to the top… eventually."

The bard rested her cane in her lap as she peered up with hooded eyes at the ruler. "I'm not sure I like this."

The dark ruler flashed a grin at the rebel. "That's what happens to anybody that associates with me."

"That's real comforting," chided the rebel.

The Conqueror's grin slowly disappeared as her thoughts wondered off to a place besides the current problem at hand. She turned her gaze to the night sky as she quietly asked, "How is my brother… Toris?"

Gabrielle bit her lower lip as she debated how to answer this question. She knew she had to be honest or her growing understanding with the Conqueror could be damaged. "Cyrene and I haven't seen or heard from him in several moons."

The Conqueror's head snapped down. "What?"

The bard swallowed then mustarded up her courage to explain the situation. "Toris just… disappeared. Cyrene and I tried to find out what happened but our resources are limited. He was in Amphipolis last… running the tavern. He would send money now and again to help Cyrene and I. Then we stopped hearing from him so Cyrene and I took a trip up to see what was going on." Her story fell off as she stared at her cane and hands in her lap. "Cyrene's tavern was closed up tight and his things were all there. Nobody in Amphipolis knew what happened to him."

"People just don't disappear," hotly declared the ruler.

"Well Toris did and we can't find out anything." Gabrielle's voice now cracked as she added, "Cyrene has been worried sick about him. She tries not to think about it but she scared he might be dead by now… since he hasn't shown up." She ran her fingers through her hair. "I'm scared she might be right." She peered up at the ruler. "Toris is my brother… if something has...." She shook her head then turned her head away. "What can't go wrong?"

The Conqueror leaned forward as the tried to process everything she was told. She realized that all along she had the easy, simple means at her fingertips to track down her brother but she the most important piece of that, knowing her brother was missing, she didn't know thanks to her ignorance. She shoved her internal anger away then looked sidelong at the emotional, small woman beside her. "Who is Janice Covington?"

The bard was jolted out of her thoughts by the question. Her eyes locked on the Conqueror's for a few heartbeats but she dropped her gaze to the ground. "She's my descendant… sort of." When the ruler prompted to continue with an expression, she sighed first. "I guess you're still behind on that story, huh?"

The Conqueror sat up again then replied, "I have some pieces of it but I want to hear you tell me." She lifted her arms, which caused her chains to jingle. "It's not everyday the Conqueror is kidnapped." Her joke wasn't lost on the rebel.

"I guess not," agreed the bard, who watched the ruler lower her hands back to her lap. "Well it all starts and ends with Alti, I would say."

"I'm starting to figure this much out," remarked the aggravated ruler. "What did she do now?"

Gabrielle touched her neck and scratched there, preparing to tell the truth no matter the costs. She didn't like this but maybe it would work out alright, she had to hope for the best. "Alti… time traveled… sort of." She lowered her hands to lap the gripped her cane for some assurance.

"How did Alti time travel… sort of?"

"She used your scepter to do it."

The Conqueror's eyes filled with understanding suddenly as she realized she'd been missing her scepter for some time now. The last spot she'd seen it was in her trunk and not since then. "The stone transported her."

"Yes," replied the bard, "that stone is the Cronos Stone."

The Conqueror's memories flooded her from back when she took the stone from King Quallus so long ago. She recalled the king's words that it was "a rare jewel, unlike any other, possessing a strange power," whispered back the king's memory.

"What is it?" broke in the bard's voice.

The memories vanished from the Conqueror's mind as she focused back on the present. "The king, who I took it from, warned me about this." She clenched her hands in her lap. "Leave it to Alti to figure out what it does." She ran her tongue along the back of her teeth then theorized aloud, "So she kidnapped Janice so she could control your karma for a few lifetimes?"

"No," replied the rebel, "to control my karma over worlds."


"Alternate realities," explained Gabrielle, "Janice is my descendant but from another world."

The Conqueror smirked and murmured, "Only Alti would be stupid enough to try something like that." Her eyes narrowed as she asked, "Then the woman impersonating me is my descendant as well?"

"From that reality, yes," replied Gabrielle. "Her name is Melinda Pappas."

"Funny how Alti failed to mention that minor detail," growled the ruler.

Gabrielle shrugged then reminded, "Funny how she forgot to mention the minor detail about the Cronos Stone."

The ruler stared down at her clenched hands as she whispered, "Alti can't have that scepter. She's too dangerous with it."

"I'm surprised to hear you say that," murmured the rebel.

The Conqueror met the curious rebel's gaze. "Nobody should have that kind of power… not even me." She shook her head then stated, "Being able to alter time can throw everything off."

"But you could fix so many things too," murmured the rebel, her eyes filled with ideas.

"For every thing you think you fix," started the ruler, "another thing goes wrong." She turned her head away. "It's like a rippling effect… no good can come from it. Everything happens for a reason and that should not be tampered with."

Gabrielle sighed as she conceded to the ruler's wisdom. "It could be dangerous, you're right."

"It is dangerous that those two are in this world." The Conqueror lips curled into an angry smile. "Alti will have much to answer to."

"You know," brought up the bard, "everything does happen for a reason… maybe there's a reason why they came here… to this reality. I mean it throws the balance off sure but still it happened."

The Conqueror leaned forward again. "It doesn't matter because it has to be corrected."

Gabrielle leaned closer to the ruler then asked, "You wouldn't use the Cronos Stone?"

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her counterpart. "Contrary to popular opinion, I happen to have a few brains and know that scepter is nothing but dangerous… especially in Alti's hands."

"Since when did you care about what Alti does?"

"Let me tell you a little secret about me, rebel." The Conqueror leaned over to the smaller woman now. "I keep my friends close but I keep my enemies closer."

The rebel leader glanced at how close they were, which made her coyly smile then she considered what the ruler explained to her. She lost her smile then tilted her head. "Gabrielle." At the ruler's twisted features she explained, "My name is Gabrielle."

"I know you're name," snapped the ruler.

"Yea well… try using it instead of rebel," mocked Gabrielle. "I'm more than just a rebel… some people consider me a bard… a daughter, a sister, a friend-"

"A pain in the ass too," remarked the ruler.

Gabrielle pointed a finger at the Conqueror. "Ha. You're real funny you know. Who would have thought?" She smirked at the glowering expression coming at her as she lowered her hand. "I'm sure you're more than just the Conqueror."

"Just?" repeated the irritated ruler. "Perhaps the Destroyer of Nations or the Warrior Princess although lately I've been favoring murderer and bitch."

Gabrielle shrugged but presented, "You're still Cyrene's daughter though. Doesn't that count for anything? How about Lyceus and Toris's sister?"

The Conqueror turned her head away and stared up at the moon now. "That was a long time ago."

"Well to be honest…." Gabrielle sadly smiled then finished what she started. "To be real honest that's something you can never escape… family is forever." She toyed with her cane then whispered, "That was something Cyrene taught me when she first took me in." She let it go there as she thought back on what the Conqueror said earlier. "So then Alti is your enemy?"

The Conqueror grinned then replied, "She's my play thing." She saw the instant shiver from the rebel, which thoroughly amused her. "She's nothing but a tool… if she dies tomorrow I could care less."

"And what do you think about this connection that she's always had with you?"

The Conqueror's grin slipped at this point. "I find it… interesting."

"Interesting to know she's been influencing you against your will all along huh?"

"Against my will?" The ruler shook her head then reminded, "More like influencing my will more than required."

"Still," debated Gabrielle, "she had some sense of power over you."

"True," granted the most feared woman. "It’s a mutual agreement between her and I."

The young woman considered this thoughtfully then replied, "I don't think any agreement with that shaman can stay too safe for long." She pointed at the ruler. "She's already hiding the Cronos Stone from you." Her hand went back to her lap. "Next she'll stab you in bed so she can have your karma and kingdom."

The Conqueror's slotted her eyes at the perceptive rebel leader. She let out a long sigh and went back to the night sky that felt so good to see after so long. "Why did you let Janice Covington try to assassinate me? You knew she would fail the mission."

"No, I didn't let her go so she could assassinate you." The rebel saw the fascination in the ruler's eyes. "I sent her to warn you."

"Warn me?"

Gabrielle nodded her head. "About Alti." She shrugged then gently added, "I figured as soon as she told you about Alti's plans you would go off the deep end. I was hoping, if anything, Alti would be next on the cross. Then I had alternate plans to get Janice to safety… there was no way I could have stopped Janice from doing what she wanted to do." She waved her hand then gently added, "I just had to make sure she made it out alive."

"And if Janice hadn't told me about Alti?"

"Ooo she would have told you," answered the bard. "It was her leverage over you and she knew it." She smirked then softly added, "You wouldn't have killed her without knowing first how she came to be. You're too curious to know why she looks just like me."

The Conqueror tried to play off like she wasn't and it wasn't showing to Gabrielle. She sighed then muttered, "It's a bitch when my mother is siding with you."

Gabrielle quickly processed what the ruler's point was then she laughed at the joke. "Cyrene does understand you pretty well even if it's been a long time." She flashed a grin for a heartbeat.

"You've kept me busy," admitted the ruler. "I will give you that… you and your faction."

"Its kept me busy too," relented the bard.

The Conqueror suddenly stood up while saying, "By the way, I enjoyed your coding system." She turned around so she could enjoy the shocked features of the rebel leader.

"You... how did… you couldn't have…."

"Yes, Rhodes, and I did." The Conqueror crossed her arms against her chest.

"Rhodes?" repeated the bard, who jumped to her feet as much as she could. "What…." She shook her head while positioning her cane in front of her.

"Rhodes wasn't quite as good at retaining your coding system as you thought. He would translate your messages then merely throw them out in the trash."

"By the gods," rasped the dumbfounded rebel. "I can't believe… gods-be-damned." She ran her fingers through her hair then her angry features met the ruler's stare. "Then you knew… everything?"

"Almost." The ruler shrugged as the started walking along side the rebel. "I didn't know my mother was with you. I did know your movements, your briberies… your plans."

"You didn't know the faction members," challenged the rebel.

The Conqueror's faced darkened in answer. "No… I don't know them all. You've been excellent about hiding that and your location."

Gabrielle noted how the guards were circling around them again as they went back towards the jail. "My faction is just a… game to you, isn't it? A game of cat and mouse." She wasn't sure she liked that assessment about her and the Conqueror but yet it was brutally honest.

"It was but…." The Conqueror displayed a curled grin. "I haven't had this type of a challenge in many moons."

"It’s a relief to know I've kept you entertained," coldly remarked the rebel.

The Conqueror tilted her head then casually mentioned, "Don't berate yourself… I have few enemies I respect in my life… you're among the few."

Gabrielle blinked then suddenly stopped walking, which caused the Conqueror to stop too after a few paces.

The ruler turned her head to the rebel leader at the edge of the guard circle. She lifted a curved eyebrow.

"I still don't know whether to be flattered or insulted," murmured the bard, who shook her head and started walking again.

The Conqueror kept her small laugh internal. "It's easier to be flattered."

Gabrielle had no response as she silently returned to the jailhouse. When they came to the door that was opened by Karis and the other guard, she stopped and faced the ruler. "I guess tomorrow will be your big day."

The ruler rolled her eyes. "I'm absolutely ecstatic," she commented dryly. 

Gabrielle unexpectedly grasped the Conqueror's strong arm then said, "Hey it might just work out."

The Conqueror faltered under the gentle, warm touch but she came back to herself. "I hope for my mother's sake it does."

Gabrielle released her hold after realizing what she was doing. "I hope so too," she murmured then watched as the Conqueror started for the open jail door.

The Conqueror paused in the doorway then turned to the rebel. "Thank you for the walk… Gabrielle." She then vanished into the flickering light of the jail as the guards rushed in at once.

Gabrielle released a long breath then to nobody she murmured, "You're welcome." She then lowered her head and made her way back to the hut. She was exhausted physically and mentally after today, her thoughts well wearing her out on many levels. Tomorrow would prove to be another trying day.

Chapter 14 – The Split

Melinda Pappas was abruptly jolted from her dreams when there was a loud pounding on the doors. She threw her bed sheets off and adjusted her white nightshift before throwing on a black silk robe that rested close by. When the second set of knocks came, she threw open the door. "What is it?"

The torchlight from the hallway flickered of the fearful features of Nakia. "My liege, I'm sorry to wake you but…." She glanced over her shoulder at the guard at the prisoner's bedchambers at the other end.

The Conqueror followed her gaze then hastily clipped, "What's happened?"

The Egyptian slave folded her arms over her stomach to keep her robe in place. "Janice woke up from a nightmare, she's hysterical… one of the guards woke Theresa and I but we can't get her to calm down." She saw the darkening features of the ruler so she poured out the rest, "She was saying some woman's name… Mel… Melinda or something then she demanded to see you. I sent one of the guards to get the healer to sedate her."

The Conqueror stepped out of the room then closed the door as she ordered, "I will take care of her. Tell the healer to belay the orders. Get the guard back here."

Nakia stepped back then bowed her head. She turned and ran down the hall with her robe flowing and her sandals echoing down the hall.

The Conqueror briskly walked down the long hallway as she tied off her robe. Her heart pounded as she shoved the door open to the bedchambers. Instantly her ears were filled by Janice's cracking, raw voice off to the left. She turned her head to see the archeologist curled up in a chair and Theresa kneeling down and trying to comfort her.

Theresa recognized the great ruler so she stood up, her worried eyes leveling with the Conqueror's. "I tried to… I'm sorry, my liege." She bowed her head.

"Leave us," clipped the ruler. "Take Nakia with you when she returns." She pivoted on her feet, her metallic eyes flashing as she watched the slave leave the room. When the door shut, she took Theresa vacant spot in front of the small, huddled archeologist. "Janice?" she called. She heard the quiet sobs despite Janice had her face buried in her knees and body.

At that moment, Hu appeared from the shadows and sat beside the chair. He rested his large head on the armchair as his reflecting eyes stared up at the huddled blond.

Melinda carefully extended her hand and lightly touched the archeologist's closets, heavily scabbed up leg. "Come on, Janice… it's me." Finally she had a glimpse of Janice's face, which was bright red like her eyes and her face completely moist from crying. And the fear, Melinda had never seen such fear in all her life. "Ooo god," cracked Melinda's voice and she stood up but stayed hunch over. She snaked her arms between Janice and the chair and managed to heft the small woman into her arms.

Janice had never displayed any weakness towards her friend. She felt so lost as the nightmare still attacked her mind. She clung to the solid, strong body that carried her across the room.

Melinda easily got them onto Janice's disheveled bed and she sat down at the head. She worked Janice onto her lap as she sat Indian style. Janice's face was hidden under her chin then Janice's legs were wrapped around her waist. She tangled her fingers into Janice's short hair while her other arm was around Janice's back. She closed her eyes and whispered comforting words to her friend.

Hu had moved over too, he now sat at the side of the bed, and his head rested on the bed. He stared at the women holding one another.

Janice's body trembled and her hold on Melinda was almost life threatening. Her eyes were on fire and her throat ached from all her cries. She tried to suppress the nightmare and the memories that surfaced too. It was too real as the dagger cut her skin again, Rhodes's rotting carcass still filled her nostrils, and this time she thought she was undergoing the water torture instead of the woman she witnessed.

Melinda kissed the top of Janice's head. She soothingly ran her fingers up and down Janice's back. "Let it go, Janice… you're safe here." Her rapid heartbeat wasn't settling though, which she knew wouldn't until Janice was okay. "It's just you and me… ain't nobody else." Melinda's accent was warm and inviting. "Just let it out."

Janice's breathing was becoming slightly regular. Her chest slowing and her sobs fewer. After awhile, she withdrew her face from Melinda's neck and angrily wiped her tears away from her face.

Melinda leaned back some then used her right hand to tenderly wipe the tears away from her friend's face. She displayed a warm, tender smile despite her eyes were full of sadness. "Are ya okay?"

Janice couldn't talk but she nodded.

Melinda tried to neaten up some of Janice's messy hair. "Ya really get bad bedhead with this hairstyle."

Janice broke into a laugh then a few tears slipped past again.

Melinda sighed but she had a faint grin as she wiped the new tears away. "Ya really scared me."

"I'm sorry," came Janice's cracked voice.

"No," whispered Melinda, who leaned in to kiss her friend's cheek. "Nottin' to be sorry about."

There was a subtle whine next to them, which caused them both to turn their heads in the direction.

Janice slightly smiled at the tiger and she bent over so she could place a tender kiss to the tiger's head. She then ruffled his furry head up and in return he bumped his cold nose against her retreating cheek. When she straightened up again, her eye contact was lowered to the small space between her and Melinda. "Mel?"

"Yes?" The translator dipped her head so she could get some view of her friend's face.

"Thank you." The archeologist raised her head up as she smiled sadly. "You didn't have-" She was stopped by the finger against her lips.

"No, don't ya say it." The linguist lowered her hand until her fingertips were under Janice's chin, tilting her head up. "I wanted to, Janice Covington. Everybody can't be strong all the time."

"I know," murmured the archeologist. She slipped her right hand into Melinda's and their hands locked together in their laps. "Its just I was doing fine… no damn nightmares and now…." She shook her head.

"They're surfacing," concluded the southerner.

"I think so," agreed Janice.

Melinda bit the inside of her lip. "Just try not to think about any of it when you go back to sleep."

The archeologist recoiled as she shook her head. "I can't… I don't want to go back to sleep. I...." Her tears started to brim at her eyes and she was withdrawing from the resurfacing nightmares. "She continues to torture me in my dreams, Mel," she emotionally rasped.

Melinda became obviously upset as her friend started to break down again. "Janice, its okay… I swear."

"No… she'll… I don't want to die." Janice became another person when her memories engulfed her feverishly.

"Janice, you're okay… she's ain't here."

Janice grabbed Melinda's sides and frantically shook her head. "If you leave though she'll show up, Mel."

The translator was shocked by her friend's words. She grabbed Janice's hands into her own and promised, "I ain't going anywhere, Janice."

"Don't leave me alone, Mel… please."

Melinda cupped Janice's smaller hands easily into one of hers. She reached up with her freehand to wipe the fresh tears away. "I ain't leavin', Janice." She realized what was happening as the nightmare and memories still plagued her friend's safety. She then started to move and slipped out of the bed but Janice grabbed at her.


"Sssh it's okay." Melinda reached out and pulled the small woman into her arms. She settled the archeologist against her body then sensed a small but strong arm locked around her chest and over her left shoulder. She glanced down at Hu and arched an eyebrow at him in question.

Hu stood up then strolled over to the door, his tail swooshing back and forth.

Melinda walked over to the door, closed her eyes, and when her eyes opened again her body and mind were consumed. "Guards, open the door."

A guard hastily shoved the door open for the ruler and he was stunned to see the prisoner in the ruler's arms. He stepped aside when the Conqueror came out with the tiger following behind.

"Follow me," she ordered the guards. She went down the hall until she reached her bedchambers at the other end of the hall. She commanded them to stay posted at her bedroom door then she kicked the door open. Hu entered first and she looked at the guards with a frozen stare. "See that you hold your tongues about tonight or else I'll cut them out myself."

"Yes, my liege," replied a guard.

After the Conqueror was in her bedroom, she kicked the door shut then hurried over to her large bed.

Janice's quiet sobs were settling again as she released Melinda. She sunk into a cool but soft bed then the sheets were drawn over her.

Melinda took a quick second to disrobe then came around to the other side. She crawled into the bed under the sheets then shifted closer behind her friend.

Janice was trying to gain some sense of control again. She dried her face with her hands then turned on her back to see Melinda next to her. She now rolled onto her left side just as Melinda drew her in close.

The linguist kissed Janice's forehead then adjusted the sheets over them. She tightly wrapped Janice up against her body, in her arms, and legs. She sensed that Janice was finally coming back. "Ya going to be okay, Janice?"

The archeologist pressed her hand against Melinda's chest then whispered, "Yea… I'm sorry."

"I told ya, there ain't nottin' to worry about." The southerner soothingly rubbed her friend's back. "I'm just gonna have fun explainin' this later."

Janice grinned a little then lifted her head to meet Melinda's gaze in the dark room. "Is this apart of your… seduction plan, Mel?" She pleasantly watched as both eyebrows rose up on Melinda's face. She then thought it best to leave that one alone so she asked, "Where's Hu?"

Melinda sat up some then felt a new weight at the foot of the bed. She glanced down to see the large tiger stretching out across the foot of the bed.

Janice felt it too so she peered down and quietly laughed. "Typical cats."

Hu heard the remark so he flicked his tail at Janice's covered feet then snuggled his face into his paws.

"Come on, try to go to sleep," softly prompted the southerner.

Janice settled back into the warm, long body next to hers. She tried to remain calm and settled even though she was scared of her nightmares returning tonight.

"I'll be right here," promised Melinda.

"I know… thank you." Janice tried to return to her usual gruff attitude to help her. She closed her eyes and the emotional night was spent on her. She slowly passed over into her dreams after half an hour.

Melinda though, her eyes closed, stayed awake for longer. She considered her friend's plausible nightmares and what could be done later down the road. The nightmares hadn't shown up at all in the past few days but now they were suddenly and it wasn't a good sign. She also would have to contend with the rumors that would arise tomorrow from Janice being in her bedchambers. The guards wouldn't talk but certainly Nakia and Theresa would especially once they come looking for Janice in the morning and she's not in her bedchambers. Well Melinda decided it would have to wait tomorrow because there wasn't much that could be done tonight.

In the early morning, Janice was aroused by the distant sound of the yelling and clanging noise. She woke up to an empty bed even minus Hu. She was startled at first but realized she was in the Conqueror's bedchambers. She climbed out of bed then immediately noticed the nightstand by the bed had her leathers folded there. She only had on a nightshift that Nakia had provided her with several days back.

Again the voices and noise filtered to Janice from a specific direction then something caught her eye. She suddenly grinned.

Hu had his head poked through the curtains that led to the balcony. He saw his human friend awake finally but he turned back out onto the balcony.

Janice was curious as that was the location of the sounds so she hastily put on her leathers but padded outside without her boots. She spotted Hu laying on the floor and warming his body in the morning sun. Janice though went to the marble rail and peered down at the fortress's grounds.

"Come on, attack!" commanded the Conqueror. Her sword was over her head and at the ready, a wild grin showing her enjoyment.

Suddenly the ten soldiers charged in after the ruler.

The Conqueror laughed then her battle cry filled the air as she spun her sword around to catch each soldier's blade with ease. She give one an abrupt kick his chest, sending him on his back then she slashed her sword at another soldier's stomach, just catching him. She then dodged a sword swipe meant for her face.

The Conqueror kept moving so fast, her laugh or warcry coming to life at certain attacks. She felt so alive as her body anticipated every move of the soldiers. Her ears pounded with the soldiers' frantic heartbeats and the ravish thrill to win the battle took her over.

Janice was entranced by the flawlessness of her friend's unknown abilities. She'd seen Melinda fight Ares back in the tomb, which was stunning in itself but this was different. She wasn't a bard but she knew that Melinda was poetic with every calculated move she performed. It shook her to realize that Melinda hadn't learned any of this and this was natural for Melinda, like it was for Xena.

The Conqueror efficiently had all the soldiers disarmed, beaten, and on the ground with ragged breathing. She spun around and eyed the ten men with absolute disgust. "I've seen kids fight better than you." Her cold gaze leveled to the squad leader then she pointed her sword at him. "See that you better train them, dekarchos or next time I'll have your head."

The dekarchos, or squad leader, bowed his head then ordered his men to get up.

The dark ruler spun her sword as she saw the next squad coming for exercise.

Janice was amazed and she was curious to see this more up close and personal. She rushed back into the bedchambers and quickly got cleaned up and ready. "Hu, come on, boy." She called for him and was happy to see him loyally following her out of the bedchambers.

The two guards stiffened up when the prisoner came out of the Conqueror's quarters.

"Hey," started Janice, "can you fellas take me down to the grounds? Where the Conqueror is training the squads?"

The guards exchanged looks, shrugged, and started down the hallway. It wasn't long when the guards had the prisoner out of one of the side doors of the fortress and strolling onto the grounds towards the exercising ruler. Janice stopped several yards away and her hand instinctively ran up and down Hu's back when he sat beside her.

The Conqueror clipped another soldier's arm then kicked a third in the stomach. Her laugh rang loudly then she shot up into the air, flipped around, and landed neatly behind the soldiers. She slashed her sword at their unguarded backs, which effectively took some of them down. By then the five remaining guards weakly charged the Conqueror, who no sooner disarmed them and bruised them allover.

The Conqueror remained tall but her burning eyes fell on the squad leader. "Better," she commented, "but they require more training."

The dekarchos bowed his head in agreement yet he was relieved at the Conqueror's assessment. He then ordered his men to get up then got them out of the grounds and into the city.

The Conqueror watched them go momentarily then she spun her sword. She sheathed it with the distinct scraping filling the silent grounds. She then turned her head to the prisoner.

Janice inhaled sharply as she became entranced by the Conqueror's slow walk towards her. Earlier Janice had become enthralled by precision and dangerous beauty behind her friend's abilities but now she was captured by the raw power flowing from her as she neared her.

The Conqueror loomed over the prisoner, her grin very ravishing. "Follow me to my office," she ordered.

All Janice could do was nod. She then fell into step behind her friend as they entered back into the fortress with Hu at her side and the guards behind her.

The Conqueror did not speak but led the way through the fortress. The energy in her was flowing from her body in every direction and her mind was lost of much thought. Her carnal instincts from the fighting were still controlling her purely. When Janice and the tiger were in the office, she ordered the guards to stay posted at the doors.

Janice tilted her head as she watched her friend go to the large window to the left of the office. The heavy curtains had been drawn back some time ago so the morning sun splashed brightly into the room and made the tall woman glow in gold. Janice was breathing heavier than expect but she quietly neared her friend. "That was really… amazing."

Hu followed Janice a few steps then stopped and sat down. He watched as his human friend closed in the distance to the much taller woman.

The archeologist stood next to her friend, her eyes peering up at the tense yet quiet woman. "You really… dominated them." She stiffened when her friend turned to her and blazing sapphires were clawing into her. She was suddenly afraid that maybe this wasn't Melinda after all.

The Conqueror vanished in a quick movement and she easily shoved the smaller woman back against the corner of the wall and window. She roughly pressed her body against Janice's and pinned her, she lowered her head and sneered, "I'll show you dominance."

Janice grabbed at the Conqueror's arm that was pressed tightly against her body. A strong hand at her bare stomach held her against the wall but before she could protest anything, her lips were forcefully taken by a carnal kiss that willed her to give in without a chance.

The Conqueror took away all of Janice's strength and she felt the small woman give into her rein. She broke the violent kiss just as small hands held onto her hips for support. She leaned in again for another searing kiss that caused Janice to moan in partial protest and passion. "Don't… fight it," she growled between the kissing, her hand sliding up Janice's scabbed stomach.

Janice slightly broke away and she moved her head in objection. "No," she rasped. Her right hand shot up to grab the large wrist near her stomach, trying to desperately to halt the hand's movement up her stomach.

The Conqueror leered at the archeologist's resistance because it fueled her hungry. With her freehand, she turned Janice's face back to her then sensually whispered, "You want this, Janice." She lowered her head so that her burning lips glazed over Janice's, her tongue tentatively running over Janice's sealed lips. "You feel this power… this Darkness too." She now moved her lips across Janice's as she purred, "We both want this, Janice."

Janice's control was lost in another dominating kiss but her body trembled when the Conqueror's earlier freehand found its way to her inner thigh. This sparked resistance into her and she jerked out of the kiss as she angrily demanded, "No!"

The Conqueror deeply laughed then pressed her body harder so that Janice couldn't move anymore. She leaned in again while whispering, "You're resistance is only making it more wild." Her voice was husky as she hotly added, "Keep resisting… come on," she rumbled deeply.

Janice gritted her teeth as she knew those last words were true. She suddenly released the wrist she'd been pushing down on then she murmured, "I know you won't do this… Melinda." Just as she felt those perfect, full lips touch hers they were idle against hers. She had her eyes closed and waiting for the final surrender if it was demanded of her. The large hand on her stomach slipped away as did the one on her thigh. Janice twisted stomach now calmed and she warmly whispered, "Come on, Mel. Come back to me." Then suddenly that feral power that'd been pulsing from her friend had vanished. The heavy weight of her friend quickly slumped against her in some subtly defeat.

Absolutely relief washed through the archeologist and she hastily pulled her friend into an embrace that would be needed by now. "It's okay, Mel... everything is fine."

Melinda Pappas came back to her body in a matter of heartbeats. Her emotions flooded her as she realized what'd happened between her and Janice and what could have happened. It wasn't long before tears built up in her eyes and she hoarsely murmured, "I'm sorry, Janice."

"It's okay… it's okay, I swear." Janice tightly held onto her friend. "We're fine… nothing to get upset about."

Melinda locked her eyes tightly together as she tried to gain momentum of her raging emotions. Her face was buried into Janice's hair and she clung to the small woman- a complete contrast to earlier.

Janice inwardly sighed at how closed that had been. She waited for the southerner to gain some self control before saying anything again. She then lifted her head, which made linguist also raise her head up. "Mel, you want to sit down?"

Melinda only agreed by a nod. Her hand was laced through by Janice's and she was unknowingly guided across the floor to the center of the office where the couch, wood table, and couple of chairs rested. She was softly told to sit, which she did then her hollow eyes filled with Janice's concerned features.

"Mel, come on… its okay now. Nothing happened."

Melinda swallowed hard as she ran her longer fingers through her hair. "I… I could have… I would have hurt ya, Janice."

"You didn't though, Mel," urged the worried archeologist. She gathered Melinda's larger hands into her own. "What happened?"

The linguist's head was bent forward as her emotions kept raging through her. She slowly lifted her head, her eyes filled by worry and fear. "It's called battle lust."

Janice's face screwed up with confusion, her mouth slightly open as if she was going to speak but she had no words.

"I was in control," whispered Melinda, "but I ain't… its hard to explain, Janice."

"Is this apart of the split that Yakut was talking about?"

"Yes, it is," agreed Melinda. "At some points I don't know who I am. I… I was caught up… by the battle lust." Her breathing grew heavy by her fears.

"Mel, its okay," assured Janice and she squeezed her friend's hands harder. "We'll work you through this." She tilted her head then curiously asked, "What is battle lust?"

Melinda swallowed as she prepared to explain the consuming sensation. "It is an overwhelming feeling a warrior gets when they're fighting especially if the fight is close to death."

"It sounds a lot like an adrenaline rush," murmured the thoughtful archeologist.

"I reckon so." Melinda lifted her head some. "I'm sorry, Janice."

The small woman shook her head and squeezed her friend's warm, large hands tighter. "Mel, it's okay. You're under a lot of pressure here…. I'm sorry I didn't see it sooner." She frowned in disappointment at herself. "I need to be there for you more."

Melinda finally had her head up and she held her friend's eyes. "We need to be there for each other."

Janice softly smiled at this, her features lighter now. "You're right."

"If there's a next time, Janice… then say my name sooner."

The archeologist tilted her head to the right then gently asked, "It snapped you out of it huh?"

"Yes," came the still hoarse voice of the linguist.

"Mel?" Janice could tell though that her friend wouldn't meet her gaze, her focus distant and fuzzy. She squeezed Melinda's hands then gently called, "Melinda?"

Melinda Pappas returned to the present and sadly smiled at her friend.

Janice release one of Melinda's hand then placed her palm against Melinda's cheek. "I don't think you trust yourself with this… this split and battle lust but I do trust you." She leaned in and lightly kissed Melinda's forehead then murmured, "I trust you with my life, Melinda." She pulled back and observed the surfaced emotions on Melinda's face and in her eyes. Janice knew she'd calmed many of her friend's fears by those simple words. "Come on." She got up and hauled Melinda to her feet. "I know you have stuff to do."

"What will you do today?" inquired Melinda, her hands now freed.

The archeologist shrugged. "I'm feeling a bit cooped up now."

"I know." Melinda had been considering this for some time now. She was trying to work out a way to free Janice from this predicament without causing too much of a stir. "Lao Ma might be able to get you out of the fortress for a bit."

Janice had questioning features but she nodded. "Let me know… I think I'm gonna get my guards to give me a tour of the fortress." She casually walked over to Hu, her yawning protector. "Minus the dungeons," she muttered.

The southerner studied the tiger and a question came to mind but Janice was the one to say it.

"And why didn't you protect me, ooo lazy hairball?" teased the archeologist.

Hu was lying down on the cold floor and he flicked his tail at Janice. He blinked, looked at Melinda then tilted his head back up to Janice. He then got up and rubbed his large head against Janice's closest leg.

Janice huffed yet she smiled and ran her fingers through his coat. "I guess he trusts you too, Mel." She glanced over at her friend. "You're the only one that doesn't."

The linguist sighed because she knew her friend was right. She straightened out her shoulders as her next step towards Janice brought her into another mind set. "Guards?" She called out.

The guards pressed into the room after swinging a door open.

"Yes, my liege?" The speaking guard bowed his head followed suit by his comrade.

The Conqueror strolled past Janice and bee lined for the nervous guards. "Take the prisoner on a tour of the fortress. See that you bring her back here by Helios high."

"Aye, my liege," agreed the quiet guard.

Janice came over with Hu tailing behind her. "So where to first, fellas?" Her grin was broad and held amusement like her eyes.

The sentries exchanged glances, said nothing, and shuffled out of the office.

The Conqueror stepped aside as Janice passed her but her right hand shot out and caught Janice's left arm to stop her.

The archeologist wavered under the powerful touch and she questioningly peered up at her friend.

The Conqueror leaned down then her usually steel voice came out warm. "Thank you, Janice." She then released the prisoner as she straightened back up.

Janice didn't make a show of it so she only nodded then left the office with her furry protector. When the office door was closed, she exhaled in relief from finally getting some space from her friend. It wasn't so much how it'd happened between her and Melinda but that it happened and worse, Janice loved it. Oh it's only been more years than you can count since you've been kissed like that, Janice, inwardly blamed the archeologist. The memory from only a few minutes ago flooded her and she shivered at the thought of Melinda's lips against hers again. She urged the feelings away then came back to the present with a silly grin on her face. "Well I know this damn fortress is big so where to first?"

The guards glanced at one another again then one stepped forward to take the initiative. "Follow us." He wasn't sure what to call her but he turned along with his partner and they led the way to the first level. The tour would begin outside with the grounds, small barrack, and wall.

The Conqueror returned to her desk and started her usual daily reports. She hated this aspect of rulership yet it was required and needed if her realm was to succeed. She didn't trust anybody else to do the work or to do it correctly. She started with the proposal from Cyd about the Corinth Canal and the healer aide that was required to help the workers. She'd need to get it finished and decided on by the midday when her advisor would show up for an answer.

Just as the Conqueror finished going over the proposal scroll, there was a gentle knock at her door. She dropped the scroll on the desk with a thunk then called out, "Enter."

Lao Ma soon glided through the entrance and closed the door behind her. Her smile at the ruler was gentle and her face showed no deception. "Good morning, Melinda."

Melinda rose up from her desk and approached the Chin ruler. "How are ya, Ma?"

Lao Ma bowed her head then lifted it again. "I am well. I see you continue the Conqueror's work…?"

Melinda glanced back at the covered desk then she nodded at the smaller, oriental woman. "Yes, unless I want people to wonder."

Lao Ma's lips tugged with a faint smile. "It is wise… perhaps you can correct much of what she's done."

"Very subtly, yes."

"I would like to request that I may have a tour of Corinth today and that Janice joins me."

Melinda now smiled for once. "I reckon Janice would like that."

"It would do her well to get out of the fortress."

Melinda nodded her head in agreement. "I will order an escort with you." She considered something then added, "I will have my assistant, Galen, lead you. He does well with the city's history." She then had a wide grin. "Then tonight we'll follow the Conqueror's tradition for a banquet."

Lao Ma bowed her head then lifted it again. "As you wish, Melinda."

Melinda chuckled but she kept her grin. "If I can't make use of all her powers and luxury then what is left?"

The Chin ruler followed the line of thought as she turned to the door. "Then there would be nothing else."

"Mmmm," agreed the linguist. "I will send Janice to your room when she returns. I reckon she'll finish her tour soon."

"That is fine." Lao Ma went through the door that Melinda had opened. "Thank you, Melinda."

Melinda nodded then watched the small yet powerful woman she'd recently befriended. She was relieved to have Lao Ma's support and understanding during all this chaos and mix up. She hadn't expected the help but it was very welcoming for both her and Janice. She finally closed the door then returned to her desk work.

By that late evening, the promised banquet had gone into full swing when Helios set in the low west sky. The great ruler of much of the known-world was seated at her throne, poised at perfection, and lavished in a beautiful red silk dress made from the finest in Chin. The pattern was very much oriental with gold stitching, her hair twisted up behind her head and pinned by decorative, gold chopsticks, and the gown was form fitting yet long enough to just cover her feet. On her showing chest she bore the finest sapphire known in her realm that reflected her eyes perfectly. She was truly the Conqueror of her lands.

At the floor of the court, which had been conveniently converted to a banquet hall with food, there stood the bowing ruler of Chin. She wore a matching outfit to the Conqueror's minus the significant necklace but she was very much the Conqueror's counterpart.

The Conqueror's hawk eyes scanned the faces of the masses at the various tables until she found the one she was looking for above all. Seated at the back was the prisoner, who looked anything but the role as a Chin style dress had been fashioned for her earlier today. Janice's dress was pure red silk with no sleeves, a small collar around her neck, a teardrop opening over her chest, and slits running down either sides starting at her thighs. On the bottom portion of the dress, there was the beautiful design of the Chin phoenix from their famous tales. Even from her distant spot, Janice's red dress brought out her glittering sea green eyes and highlighted her new hairstyle.

The Conqueror finally rose up from her throne with her robed dress pouring out around her feet. She bowed her head to Lao Ma, who lifted her head in unison to the Conqueror's. She inhaled then loudly announced, "Tonight we celebrate the House of Lao in Corinth… in my realm." She observed all the advisors, wealthy, higher officers, and stationed guards. "Welcome Lady Lao as I have welcomed her."

Lao Ma respectively dipped her head then remained still.

The Conqueror glided down the steps then on the final step, she stopped, and held out her hand.

Lao Ma kept her head bowed but she took the offered hand from the great ruler. As soon as the Conqueror's feet met the floor of the court, she rose her head up and gave a warm smile to the Conqueror.

The Conqueror mirrored the smile back then escorted her guest to the head table where many of her head advisors and officers awaited her arrival. Lao Ma took the chair to the right of where the Conqueror sat, who was at the head of the table. Once the Conqueror sat, the court suddenly exploded with chatter and the movement of the slaves to serve dinner.

The dinner was a lavish feast and the food was a meeting of the east and the west. Lao Ma found her usual dishes from home and absolutely new dishes that were traditional to Greece. She'd come to discover and enjoy an interesting cheese that the Conqueror explained was called feta. The Conqueror made a mental note of the Chin ruler's enjoyment and would later order some feta to be gifted to Lao Ma on her return trip home.

After the large meal, the desserts followed suit not long afterwards but the wine kept flowing through as a river. At some point, the Conqueror paused in her idly chatter and stole a view of the prisoner so far away. She could tell by Janice's body language that she was tense and uneasy so she would have to remedy that at first chance.

Janice Covington was relieved that Hu was lying near her feet, under the table. She would stop at some points and toss him hidden pieces of meat, which he was grateful for. She'd come accustom to the people around her table despite they were mostly ignoring her except for one.

The aristocratic person at the table, who did not ignore Janice, sat across from the table. It was one of the faction followers, Argus, and he tried not to overly talk to Janice as it would certainly tip somebody off but he kept a steady gaze on her.

"So, are you related to that rebel… Gabrielle?" inquired a woman from across the table. She sat next to Argus but her husband was to her left.

Janice lost her appetite when everybody's eyes switched to her. She pushed her plate away some so she'd have a second to think of a decent response. "I am but very distantly."

The woman assessed Janice's features and certainly took in the fact she had a lot of scabbed wounds and bruises. "I am surprised the Conqueror let you live much less let you dine with us." Her tone was edgy and held disgust, her eyes very judgmental.

Janice's temper flared up a notch but she was clamping her jaw tightly.

Hu detected the shift as his head came up from his paws, not that anybody could really see this but Janice felt him move around.

"The Conqueror and I have come to an understanding," drew out the archeologist.

"She means she provides services," emphasized a man at the table, "to the Conqueror." His statement was followed by some laughter.

"What confuses me," brought up that same woman again, "is why she would want such an unnatural's… services?" Her face was screwed up by repulsion. "Surely I thought she had better taste than… this." She pointed at the prisoner then leaned back as if sickened by the prisoner's very presence.

Janice Covington never backed away from any fight so she quickly stood up, her hands on the edge of the table, and she was bent over the table. Just as her mouth opened so that she could chew out this woman, strong hands clasped her shoulders then a dark, grounding voice filled the void.

"I do have better taste because if I did not, I would have chosen your services , Nysa."

Janice's anger mostly calmed but it wasn't gone yet, but she watched in complete satisfaction as that woman, Nysa, reacted as if she'd been slapped across the face.

"My liege," defensively spoke Nysa's husband, who rose up.

The Conqueror lifted her chin some as her cold eyes froze the aristocratic husband. "See that you teach your wife to play nicely, Jason." Slowly her hungry grin spread out over her face as her stare went to Nysa. She then purred out, "Unless she prefers to experience… my services to correct her manners for treatment of my guests."

"It will not happen again," hastily relented Jason. "I apologize, my liege."

"I do not require your apology, Jason." The Conqueror released the prisoner's shoulders then held out her right hand to Janice's leaning profile. "Perhaps Nysa would be so kind to apologize to Janice."

Nysa swallowed but the ruler's threatening features told her it was best to act quickly. She rose up from her chair, bowed, and stated, "I apologize for my words… Janice."

The ruler pleasantly smiled now despite her eyes were still hard. "Very good, Nysa." Her smile quickly fell as she threateningly whispered, "See that this occurrence does not repeat."

"It will not," promised Jason. He quietly ordered his wife to sit and his mood showed that his wife would most likely hear a long lecture from him later. He too took his seat again.

The Conqueror reached for the back of Janice's chair and moved it aside, one of the chair's legs almost catching Hu's tail that'd flopped out of the way in time.

Janice turned to her friend and savior with appreciative features. She could also tell that the Conqueror had something else in mind by that glint in those deep cobalt eyes.

"Janice, I would be honored if you… serviced me to begin tonight's dancing." The Conqueror held out her right hand in offer.

The archeologist was hesitant at first but slowly she lifted her hand and clasped the warm hand into hers. "Yes… of course, Conqueror." Her stomach knotted when the Conqueror's cat like grin appeared instantly to her response.

Everybody at the table was goggling at the pair as they never imagined the Conqueror beginning a banquet's dancing with another woman much less a prisoner and enemy. They kept staring in astonishment as the Conqueror led the petite, finely dressed woman to the open dance floor before all the tables. This drew the crowds' complete interest and they never fathomed such a controversial scene.

The Conqueror signaled the musician to begin in any heartbeat as she turned to Janice with her right hand up.

Janice stepped up and slipped her hand into the Conqueror's then she sensed a strong arm slip around her small waist. She knew how dancing work even though she wasn't the best but she just prayed her friend would lead as she couldn't do this otherwise.

The Conqueror pulled Janice in closer just as the music began. "I couldn't think of a better way to stir up trouble."

Janice had a grin as her body started to move with the Conqueror's with such ease. "You did an excellent job, I think." She signaled, with her chin, at the crowd just memorizing them.

"Ah yes." The Conqueror stole a quick look then whispered, "I believe I have... how perfect." She suddenly pushed away from Janice and spun her with beauty. She then coiled Janice back against her body then lowered her head close. "You look absolutely amazing, Janice."

Janice chuckled then whispered back, "Do not get use to me in dresses." Her feet and hips followed the ruler's to perfection as it was almost too easy.

"But you make it look so exquisite," purred the Conqueror's sensual voice. She drew away from her dancing partner at the right beat then brought her back as they glided across the dance floor.

"Are we back to your plans to seduce me?" toyed the teasing voice of the archeologist.

The Conqueror gracefully spun Janice around then pulled her back in but surprisingly with Janice's back across her front side. Her left arm was wrapped around Janice's waist and she brought her lips down to Janice's delicate ear. "And do I really need to seduce you, Janice Covington?" She slowly pulled her wrapped hand away from Janice's stomach, her touch so lingering and smooth across Janice's stomach. "Or are you just enjoying the wait until I take you?" she suddenly slipped away but not without breaking her clasped hand with Janice's.

The daze archeologist came back to the dance as her and the Conqueror met halfway and continued the sensual dance that was displayed to all. Her mind slightly woke up from the sexual haze between her and her friend and she tried to figure out if this was Melinda or the Conqueror she was dancing with now. As she considered it deeper, this was really both of them but always in the end it was Melinda.

The Conqueror's body moved across the petite woman's and the music made her feel alive. The song's end was near so she twirled Janice away moved a few steps then brought Janice back to her. "For once you have nothing to say, Janice?" Her eyes were glowing brighter than the sapphire on her neck ever could.

Janice leaned in close as she breathed, "I think a tiger has my tongue." Her joke wasn't lost on her friend as the Conqueror's face came down closer to hers.

The Conqueror had a wild grin spreading over her face. "Not yet." Her head lowered more as the music was slowing down and so were they. "You do trust me, Janice?" she silken whisper went into Janice's left ear but she pulled back some to capture Janice's gaze.

Janice freed her right hand from the Conqueror's hip and touched it against her closest cheek. She knew she could easily break this spell by saying Melinda's name but she wouldn't risk it, not here. She also understood what was being asked of her in this very instant and her eyes showed her answer as her voiced response came out very precise. "I trust you with… everything… Conqueror."

The Conqueror sensed the closing of the song so she closed in the distance.

Janice's eyes slipped shut just before the Conqueror's full and silky lips met hers. She moaned softly between the kiss that was so shattering of all her senses. This kiss was far different than the ones they'd had in the office this morning and it was only tinted by hunger but covered in passion for each other. The hushed voices of the masses were blacked out by the intensity behind the Conqueror's searching tongue and warm lips.

The Conqueror held Janice tightly against her body then as she drew back from the kiss that brought Janice's tongue with hers. She ended the kiss with a gentle nip to Janice's lower lip then her feral grin showed between them. "I believe we have utterly aghast the people." 

"Welcome to my life, Conqueror," lightly joked the long time controversial and infamous archeologist of the 1940's.

The Conqueror softly laughed at the reference then straightened up and Janice stood beside her but their hands still holding. "Let us finish the evening, together," she called out to the masses. She held out her hand to the musician to begin a variety of songs.

The court bustled with noise again, the people getting up to find dancing partners or standing aside to watch. And of course, all the whispered talk was about the Conqueror and the prisoner loafing together so casually amongst the people instead of at least behind doors.

Hu sat on the edge of the people, his back just brushing against the table that Janice had been seat at earlier. He lifted his head when a very familiar hand went through his coat. His fire eyes softened at his friend's face.

Lao Ma smiled at him then looked at the crowd of dancers and onlookers. "It is a strange custom, Hu."

Hu flicked his tail a few times.

"Perhaps there is something I can take back to Chin." Lao Ma tilted her head to the right. "Something of it at least could be useful." Her gaze wondered over the masses and the Conqueror with Janice stood out more than anybody else. Finally something else caught her gaze, it was the dark shaman off to the right standing outside the circle. Lao Ma could tell Alti was brooding and her hatred stare was centered on the center of attention in the dancing ring.

Hu too was staring at Alti as if he was debating whether to bite her now or later.

"We must watch her carefully, Hu," warned the Chin ruler. "She will be the downfall of the Conqueror if we do not."

The tiger sighed loudly then peered up questioningly at his friend.

"She is a yāo mó, Hu. We must be careful of such a demon." Lao Ma continued rubbing the tiger's head while quietly stating, "She will be sent back to Di Yu… to the Chamber of Avici so that she may never be reborn."

Hu watched the dark shaman and his friend's whispered words made perfect sense to him. He truly knew that if anybody could send that evil human to Avici it was Lao Ma. That would then pull away the dark veil over the Conqueror and over the realm.

To be continued...

Return to the Academy