"C'mon Fran!!" shouted Joxer. "Hurry!!"
"Coming, coming!!" exclaimed Francisca.
She jumped onto the front seat, snapping the reins. The horses lurched forward.
"Which way?!" said Francisca.
"Make a left-a left!! There!! Second alley on the right!!"
Francisca followed Joxer's instructions. Within moments, she reined in the horses, slowing the carriage to a stop. Joxer jumped from the carriage, running into the alley. He spotted Meg and Gladys.
Meg turned to Gladys.
Meg grabbed Gladys's shoulders, fire in her eyes.
"Don't argue with me!!" she exclaimed angrily. "I'm trying to save your life!!"
The girl hesitated for only a second. She got up. Meg, Joxer and Gladys ran towards the cart.
"There she is!!"
Meg glanced back for a second. Two men were running down the alley from the other direction, swords drawn. Terror filled her. She rushed forward, pulling Gladys along. The three climbed hastily into the back of the cart.
"Go, go, go!!" shouted Meg.
Francisca cracked the reins, and the horses took off. Joxer stared back at the two men. He spun towards Meg.
"Meg, what in Tartarus is going on?!"
Meg shook her head erratically.
"Not now, Joxer! When we get to someplace safe."
Joxer moved up to Meg. His eyes were full of anger.
"No. You're gonna tell me now. I ain't waiting until later."
Gladys looked out towards the back of the carriage. Her eyes widened in terror.
"By the gods- they're after us!!"
Meg and Joxer looked back. Four men on horseback were chasing after them, and were beginning to gain ground. Meg gasped.
She scrambled up to the front of the cart.
"We've got four men after us Fran!!"
Francisca stared at Meg in shock and anger.
"What?!? Meg, what in Tartarus is going on here?!?"
"Just get us out of here!! Explanations later!!"
Meg suddenly felt a hand grab her arm. She suddenly turned around. Joxer stared at her in anger and fear.
"Meg, who is this-this Taz-Taz-"
"Tsao-Li." said Meg sadly. "He used to be a pimp. I've heard he became a slave trader."
"H-How do you know him?!"
Meg lowered her head in shame.
"I-I used to work for him. Years ago."
Joxer stared at Meg, not believing what was going on. He looked back, and the men on horseback were slowly, but steadily, closing distance.
"Uh, Fran-" he began.
"I know, I know!!"
Francisca snapped the reins, harder and harder. The horses were going as fast as they could, but with the weight of people and furniture, they were just not able to go much faster. They tore along the dirt road, passing large groups of trees at a furious pace. Suddenly, Francisca noticed the road widening ahead of them. Another town lay before them.
"We're entering Piros!!" she shouted.
The horses and carriage tore down the road, and into the town. People screamed and ran for cover as the horses and carriage plowed down the street. The four men on horseback followed close behind. Francisca suddenly turned a corner, and found the path blocked by a huge herd of sheep and several carriages.
"Oh no!!" exclaimed Francisca.
She brought the horses to a halt. Meg instantly popped up, staring at Francisca in anger.
"Fran, what in Tartarus-"
"Road's blocked!! We got to get out!!"
Meg turned to Joxer and Gladys.
The three quickly got to their feet. They rushed to the back of the cart-
Only to stop in their tracks. The four men on horseback had crossbows pointed at them. One of them, a large, burly, dark-skinned man, spoke.
"Get out of that cart. Slowly."
Meg, Joxer and Gladys looked at each other. They had no choice. All three quietly obeyed. They got off and stood before the four horsemen. The man turned to his comrade.
"Colicos. Go find the driver of this cart."
He got off his horse, and ran out towards the front of the cart. The dark-skinned man shook his head and spoke again.
"Gladys, you are going to pay for this, I assure you. Tsao-Li is very displeased with your behavior. And as for you two, I'm going to make an example with your deaths for trying to help an escaped slave!!"
Gladys held onto Meg for dear life. Meg and Joxer stared at the horsemen in anger and fear. The three horsemen then lifted their crossbows.
The dark-skinned man spun towards the source of the cry. A greenish-black blur came rushing towards him.
Two heavy boots slammed into his face. The rider flew off his horse, crashing into the two other riders in rapid sequence. All three flew through the air, crashing into the ground. Their assailant flipped through the air, landing beside them. Meg's eyes widened in joy.
One of the riders slowly got to his feet, shaking his head. Autolycus tapped him on the shoulder.
The rider turned around. Autolycus threw a vicious right into his jaw. The man went flying through the air, crashing into some wooden crates. The other two men rose to their feet. They quickly drew knives.
"We're gonna hack ya ta pieces!!" growled the dark-skinned man.
Autolycus twirled his moustache.
"I'd like ta see ya try, meathead."
The two men rushed forward. Autolycus effortlessly somersaulted over their heads. The two men spun around. Autolycus whipped his foot at them. It smashed into their jaws. Blood and teeth exploded from their mouths. The momentum of the blow sent them into a spin. Autolycus quickly ran up to them and smashed their heads together with all his might. They dropped bonelessly to the ground. Autolycus raised an eyebrow.
"Enjoy your nap."
Autolycus looked up. Meg ran up to him and hugged him.
"Okay, okay, okay!! Easy!!" Autolycus exclaimed.
He pulled back, staring at Meg in concern.
"Meg, why are these guys after you??"
"Hold it!!" exclaimed Joxer. "What about Fran?!"
"I'm okay, Joxer."
He spun around. Francisca stood before him, rubbing her fist.
"I took care of the last guy."
She walked up to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Francisca smiled.
"Maria taught me well. I'm not so easy to push around anymore."
Joxer returned the smile. Both turned to face Autolycus and Meg. Autolycus smiled at seeing Joxer.
"Ya know, I'd never thought I'd say this, but it's good seeing you Joxer."
He walked up to him, grasping his hand in a firm handshake. Joxer grinned.
"You too, Autolycus."
Meg rushed up to Gladys.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah-y-yeah, I-I'm okay."
Meg grabbed Autolycus's arm. He spun towards Meg, eyebrows knitted.
"We gotta get outta here. I'm trying to save this girl from those men. We gotta get as far away from here as possible."
"The road's clearing up in front of us." said Francisca.
"Good. Let's get going."
"Okay. Lie back sweetheart." said Maria.
Gladys relaxed into the comfortable bed. Maria tenderly wiped the hair from her eyes.
"Feel better, honey?"
Gladys smiled in gratitude.
"Yeah, I do. Thank you so much."
Maria returned the smile.
"You're welcome. Now, I want you to try and get some sleep, okay?"
A dark shadow covered Gladys's face.
"I-I'm afraid to sleep."
Maria crouched down alongside Gladys, her face overwhelmed with pity. She tenderly placed her huge hand on the side of Gladys's face.
"You don't have to be afraid, honey. You're with friends now. No one's going to hurt you."
Maria's eyes turned to ice.
Gladys swallowed hard at hearing the barely controlled rage in Maria's voice. She could see tears welling up in her eyes.
"A-are you crying...for me??"
Maria smiled weakly. She nodded. Gladys stared at her in amazement.
"No one's every cried for me before."
Maria tenderly ruffled her hair.
"Just rest, sweetheart. I'll be right outside."
Maria rose. She left the room, and closed the door behind her. The moment she did this, Maria began to cry. Francisca rushed up to her side, taking Maria into her arms.
"Hey, hey!!" Francisca cooed.
Autolycus and Joxer exchanged somber glances. Joxer turned towards Meg. She sat by a window, staring out of it. Joxer could see the pain churning underneath the seemingly impassive mask. He walked over to Meg, and sat down beside her. Joxer grasped her hand.
"Meg? Please tell me what's bothering you. What's all this about? I want to help."
Meg swallowed hard. A shudder cascaded through her. Joxer grew alarmed. He drew closer.
"Meg, what is it?!"
Meg bit her lower lip. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. She looked at Joxer in shame and grief.
"Tsao-Li and I go back to about eight years ago. He used to be a pimp. And I was his whore."
Meg looked down, and chuckled harshly.
"He always called me his 'favorite acquisition'."
Meg twirled her tongue around in her mouth. She looked up. This time, Francisca and Maria stood behind Joxer. Autolycus drew a little closer. Meg wiped the tears from her eyes and looked out the window. A cold, emotionless grin formed on her lips.
"Oh, those were the days. Oh yeah. My little bad-ass self. Doing tricks with just about anything that walked and talked. I ran into Tsao-Li in Athens. He took a liking to me. A big liking. He asked me if I wanted to come to work for him. And I did."
Meg looked down at her dress, absently fiddling with the fabric. Then she looked out the window again and continued.
"Soooo, I went traveling with him. It was kind of exciting. We met all sorts of people. Warlords, rich merchants, you name it. Tsao-Li had a pretty good operation going on. I basically was meant only for high-bidding customers. Some were royalty. Princes and princesses. Man or woman, it didn't matter. It paid my way. Oh yeah, the money. I saw a lot of that going around. Huh. Good ol' Tsao-Li knew how to party. And he partied hard."
Meg sighed. Her brow furrowed as the darker memories kicked in.
"There was a side of Tsao-Li that I saw every once in a while. Not so much in the beginning, though. A dark side. In the beginning, he used to treat me with a lot of respect. I guess, being attractive to him and all, being his favorite acquisition, he treated me okay. But I saw things. I sometimes saw him treat women he didn't find so hot like dogs. He'd spit on them, smack them around. That caught my attention.
"One night, I was wandering through a warlord's camp. I heard these cries coming from a tent. I sneaked up to the tent, and peered through a hole in it. This-this young girl was on her knees. She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen. Tsao-Li and the warlord were beating the shit out of her. And at one point, Tsao-Li pulled down his pants and pissed all over her. He looked up at the warlord, laughed, and said, 'This is the only thing women are good for.'"
Meg looked down at the ground. Tears filled her eyes. Joxer squeezed Meg's hand. He was visibly shaken, and internally, he felt a thousand times worse. Joxer quickly turned to the others. Francisca's face mirrored his. Maria and Autolycus, however, wore grim masks. Joxer could see the rising fury surging underneath them. Meg wiped the tears from her eyes and sighed.
"I go to the edge of the forest, and throw up. I-I-I mean, what in Tartarus did I get myself into here?! I thought, by the gods, how long will it be before I'm the one being pissed on?!
"I-I got back to my tent. Couldn't sleep. Had nightmares about that poor young girl who didn't deserve any of that. So...next morning comes. I-I come out of my tent. I see a cart pass my tent. And in it-"
She stopped suddenly. A surge of agony shot across Meg's face. She bit her lower lip, her eyes wandering rapidly over the floor. Joxer quickly placed a hand under her chin, lifting it. His brown eyes searched her blue ones.
"M-Meg??" Joxer asked, already knowing what was coming next.
Meg stared at Joxer, tears streaming down her face. Her lower lip trembled.
"I-In it was the girl's body. She'd been strangled. The rope was still around her neck."
"Gods..." growled Autolycus in disgust.
Meg wiped her face again. She looked out the window into the forest.
"I knew, right then and there, that I had to get out. Problem was, Tsao-Li was...kinda possessive. You don't just walk out on him."
Meg snorted. She chuckled harshly and shook her head.
"I talked to some of the other girls a bit more. Being kinda new, I wasn't all that sure of the goings on. It wasn't good to get too nosy. But boy, after that poor girl got offed, I started looking into how the other girls were treated. How Tsao-Li and his cousin, Chang Su, would whip, sodomize, just plain give these girls hell. Many were scared beyond Tartarus. I heard some horrific stories. Some of them had tried slashing their wrists. Gods, I was so naive back then..."
Meg shook her head in disgust. She paused, her eyes wandering over the floor. Then she continued.
"Huh. Tsao-Li began to suspect I was onto something. Sooo, over the next couple of weeks, he started playing mind games with me. To see how I would react. He asked me if I was happy with him, I said I was. He'd start making these little snide comments about women while I was around, almost as if I wasn't there. And he sensed he was getting to me. I tell ya, I was really starting to get scared. I-I wanted to figure out a way to get out of there, but I couldn't.
"Yeah. Okay. Then-then one day, this Roman centurion comes over to Tsao-Li and asks for me one night. I thought that this might be my chance. I go with him to his mansion, do my thing. Then I leave. And I thought that now would be the best time to skip town."
Meg swallowed hard. She shuddered slightly. Joxer got up and sat next to Meg, putting his arm around her.
"Meg, you don't have to go on." he said softly.
Meg shook her head.
"N-No. I gotta tell the rest...."
She looked around her nervously, and continued.
"A-All right. So I-I said, screw Tsao-Li. I ain't going back to him. Na-uh. And I leave town. I'm thinking, okay, okay. Just gotta get myself on a boat, and I'll be okay. Except when I got to the boat..."
Meg bit her lower lip. A tear rolled down her cheek.
"When I got to the boat, Chang Su and another guy were waiting for me. They asked, 'where are you going, whore?!' I was stuck. I-I didn't know how to answer. They-they dragged me away, into an alley..."
Meg grimaced in agony. Maria instantly was at her side. She sat down in front of her and clasped her hand. Her face was filled with sympathy.
"Meg," she began. "You don't-"
"They raped me. Beat the shit out of me. No-you gotta hear the rest. I'm tired of holding this in. Yeah. That bastard Chang Su. Called me a filthy bitch, no-good whore. They took me back to Tsao-Li..."
Meg trembled erratically. Joxer held her tight. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
"Tsao-Li beat and raped me the rest of the night. Broke several of my ribs. They dumped me on a road outside of Rome, leaving me for dead. Bastard..."
Meg began to cry. Joxer kissed the top of her head and rocked Meg gently.
"Meg, sweetheart....By the gods, I'm so sorry....Don't cry. Sssssshhhhh...."
Maria turned to Autolycus.
"By the gods...I-I'm going to kill him."
"Not good enough punishment...." he muttered harshly.
"He's gotta be stopped."
All four turned towards Meg. There was a coldness in her eyes that Maria and Francisca had never seen before. But Joxer and Autolycus had seen it. It was the exact, predatory look that Xena had when she was about to go after a foe. Meg spoke again.
"We've gotta stop him." she said in a cold, dark voice. "We've gotta come up with a plan and put that son-of-a-bacchai out of business. For good."
Autolycus crouched at Meg's side. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Meg, I've heard of Tsao-Li. He may have been just a pimp back then, but this guy's gotten a lot more powerful since you knew him."
Meg's eyes narrowed into feral slits.
"I don't care. He's gotta be stopped. Look what happened to that poor girl, Gladys."
"I wish I knew where Xena was..." sighed Autolycus.
Joxer shook his head.
"She ain't around, Auto. She and Gabrielle are out of the country."
"Then we've got to figure out a plan." said Maria. "There's got to be some way of stopping this bastard."
"Only thing we can do now is let Gladys rest. We can talk to her tomorrow morning about Tsao-Li. She's got to get lots of rest."
"I agree. I'm gonna stay with her, in case she needs anything."
Autolycus stood up. His face was set with determination.
"Well, whatever it is you guys plan on doing, count me in. I'll help in any way I can."
Meg smiled slightly.
"Thanks, Auto. I appreciate it. You're welcome to stay here."
Autolycus returned the smile.
"No problem Meg."
"Let me find you a room." said Francisca. "C'mon."
The two left. Maria rose to her feet. She tenderly stroked Meg's head.
"I'll do anything you need Meg." she said. "Just name it."
Meg grasped her wrist and squeezed it. She looked up at Maria and smiled.
Maria turned, and left. Joxer rubbed Meg's back affectionately.
"Let's go someplace where we can talk in private about this." he said softly.
Meg turned towards Joxer.
"What did you have in mind?"
"A hot bath? It'll help you relax."
Meg sighed, nodding slowly.
"Yeah. I'm game."
Meg sat in the large tub, silently staring ahead. Joxer tenderly scrubbed her back. He looked at Meg's profile.
"How does that feel?"
Joxer let the sponge float on the water. He moved around to face Meg. Joxer grasped her hands. He looked at Meg timidly.
"So, what happened after Tsao-Li...?"
Joxer looked at the water, having grown very uncomfortable. Meg sighed. She lifted Joxer's chin, gazing at him with a sad smile.
"Don't feel bad Jox."
He shook his head.
"It's just that...m-maybe I shouldn't be asking these...oh, I don't know..."
Meg moved in closer. She eyed Joxer steadily.
"Joxer, it's okay."
Joxer looked at Meg with sadness and pity. Meg sighed, and spoke again.
"This guy found me. His name was Nickolai. He lived up in the mountains. I think he was from Gaul. An incredible healer. I don't know how he did it, but he brought me back from the brink of death. I had to stay with him for almost two weeks. But Nickolai took incredible care of me. He brought me back."
Meg paused. Darkness covered her face.
"And during that time-t-that time I was there, I-I thought about my life. I was so disgusted. I-I hated myself. I hated myself so much. I felt cursed. Gods...I-I just wanted to die. Nickolai talked to me, a-and he tried to get me to turn myself around. But the pain...the pain and that self-hatred was too much."
Meg turned around. She looked up at the ceiling.
"Even now...even now I wonder what my purpose is. Do people still look at me as a joke?"
Meg looked down at the water.
"Maybe I still am..."
Joxer shook his head.
Meg turned towards Joxer. Anger and despair surged across her features.
"I'm glad the gods made me infertile. Gods, I don't even know why I thought that I could bring up that baby I asked you and Auto to help me kidnap-"
Joxer grabbed her shoulders.
"Meg, stop it!" he snapped.
Meg stared at Joxer, her eyes brimming with tears.
"Why?! Why me?! W-What did I do to deserve this life?!"
Meg broke down and began to cry bitterly. Joxer instantly took her into his arms, holding her tight. He kissed the top of her head. Meg continued to cry. Joxer looked up towards the ceiling with rage. Yet again, he felt a bitter hatred towards the gods. What an ability they had to make this life miserable.
He held Meg for a while. Slowly, the crying stopped. There was silence for a few long moments. Joxer pulled back. He gently placed his hands on either side of Meg's face and lifted it up to face him.
"Hey..." he cooed.
"Joxer, please hold me. I don't want to be let go."
Joxer wrapped his arms around Meg again. Meg burrowed her head into Joxer's shoulder. He pulled her towards the edge of the tub. Joxer leaned back against the tub's edge. He bent his head towards Meg's ear.
"I ain't gonna let ya go, sweetheart." he said softly. "I'm here as long as ya need me."
Meg pressed further into Joxer. He kissed the top of her head, rocking her gently in the warm water.
"We looked everywhere for them!! But they disappeared!!"
The dark-skinned man then turned to his three comrades. They stared at him nervously. Then the four turned their attention back to the table before them.
At the table sat a man. Dark hair. Oriental features. Wearing a red robe. In his hands, he had a chicken leg. The man bit into it, ripping off a chunk of meat. He chewed slowly.
He licked his lips, studying the length of the leg. He sighed, his dark brown eyes studying the crisp flesh that hung from it.
Then he bit into it again.
The four men stared anxiously at him. The man reached for a jug, pouring some wine into a goblet. His eyes then focused on the four. But for only a moment. He casually brought the goblet to his lips, and began to drink the wine. The only sounds in the room were those of the wine being drunk, and nervous breathing.
The man set the goblet on the table. He gazed at the four again, his eyes showing no emotion. He looked to his left. Another man stood there. Oriental features as well. He wore a sleeveless purple shirt. He was muscular. His face was cold, impassive. His eyes met those of the other man for a few moments. Then their gazes returned to the four. The man at the table spoke.
"So, Malsam. What do you expect me to say?"
The dark-skinned man chewed on his tongue. The man at the table was silent for a few moments. He spoke again.
"I asked you a question, Malsam. What do you expect me to say?"
Malsam swallowed hard.
"I-I don't know, Tsao-Li."
"You don't, eh?"
Tsao-Li nodded. He rose from the table, and walked to the front of it. He looked towards his left, motioning the other man forward with his head. The man walked over to Tsao-Li's side. Tsao-Li pursed his lips, nodding. He spoke again.
"Okay. Here's what's on my mind. I lost a valuable piece of merchandise. I asked you to recover it. And you didn't."
The man standing by Tsao-Li walked up to Malsam. The man's eyes grew ice cold. Malsam stared at him in ever-growing fear. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"I'm afraid that my cousin, Chang-Su, must teach you the price of such folly."
Chang-Su's face grew dark. He came closer. Malsam's body shook in terror. He felt a warm wetness trickle down his leg.
"No Tsao-Li, please-"
Malsam squinted his eyes shut, bracing for pain that never came. He slowly opened his eyes. He was looking straight into the green eyes of Chang-Su. He saw that Chang-Su's left arm was outstretched.
He followed it...
And saw that his hand held the handle of a large knife. A knife that was embedded in the belly of the man standing next to him. Malsam gasped.
Chang-Su withdrew the knife with a slick, wet sound. Colicos dropped to his knees. His eyes bulged out of his head. A red foam erupted from his mouth. He made a harsh, gurgling sound, and dropped to the floor, dead. Chang-Su lifted the knife, wiping the side of the blade along Malsam's face. Then Chang-Su spoke.
"Next time, it might be you."
He walked back to Tsao-Li's side. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"The rest of you will receive sixty lashes each for your incompetence. Plus one week in solitary confinement."
The three men gasped. Out of the darkness came seven more men. Six took hold of the remaining three. Tsao-Li glared at them in disgust.
"Take them away."
The three were dragged out. The last man dragged out the corpse. Tsao-Li turned to his cousin.
"Six more days, and we'll be doing business with Dabros."
He turned around, reaching for his jug. Tsao-Li poured some more wine into his goblet. Chang-Su spoke.
"I'm looking forward to his visit. Dabros of Crete is a very wealthy merchant."
Tsao-Li nodded, a thin smile crossing his lips.
"Indeed. Which is why I'm extending my stay here. This will give me time to load both ships with supplies before we journey off. Dabros is known for his appetite for women."
"And his penchant for spending lots of money."
They looked at each other, and smiled.
Gladys stabbed at her eggs with a fork. She then took a bite. Meg looked at her, smiling.
"Like the eggs?" she asked.
Gladys nodded. She chewed some more, then swallowed. Autolycus looked at Gladys.
"So. Dabros is gonna be here in four days, you say?"
Gladys nodded again.
"Y-Yes. That's what I heard Chang-Su say. Dabros was looking to buy some art in Boecia, and then meet with Tsao-Li."
Meg leaned towards Maria. She spoke again.
"If there was a way to amass some troops, we may be able to capture Tsao-Li, Chang-Su, and his two ships. We can try and set some sort of trap!"
Meg paused, and frowned.
"But what kind of trap...??"
"There's a problem with that. I see why Tsao-Li has his slave ship off these shores, and his 'pleasure ship' off the shores of Boecia. The kingdom of Mirtan has no law against slavery. Keeping his other ship off Boecian shores is legal, since it's just a 'pleasure boat'. He gets clients onto his 'pleasure boat', then ferries them over to the slave ship to check out the merchandise. Clever..."
Maria raised an eyebrow.
"I just remembered. King Daites is supposedly looking into creating laws against slavery. But he has yet to finalize anything. If we can only get Prince Philemon and King Daites to work together..."
"I can talk to Philemon!!" exclaimed Meg. "He'll listen to me! Maybe we can get him to convince King Diaties to combine troops and stop Tsao-Li!!"
Maria raised her eyebrows, nodding in agreement.
"That could work! I could arrange a meeting between you and Prince Philemon."
Autolycus slowly began to smile, as an idea came to him.
"And I got an idea. One we can use if we can get both kingdoms' troops to work together with us."
Meg raised an eyebrow.
"Really?? Go on, Auto!"
"Ooookay. I take Dabros's place. I check out the merchandise. When I come back to make the purchase, that's when the troops jump on them!!"
Maria stared at him, puzzled.
"How do ya know Dabros hasn't met with Tsao-Li??"
Autolycus leaned towards Maria.
"Because Tsao-Li has been out of the country for quite some time. Dabros came into his wealth a year or so ago. Tsao-Li's been away from here for about close to three years. Trust me. I know quite a bit about these two. If those two had done business, I would've known about it. I've got lots of contacts. Nothing gets by this nose."
"I knew there was a reason I liked ya, Mr. Stinky."
Autolycus's jaw dropped. His eyebrows knitted.
"Hey!! I thought ya weren't gonna call me that anymore!!"
Joxer laughed heartily. Autolycus glared at him. He lifted his fork towards Joxer.
"Like a fork up your nose, laughing boy??" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Joxer stopped instantly. He lifted his hands in the air.
"No-no. I've had enough problems with my nose lately."
Maria turned to Meg, brows knitted.
"I really hope we can get all this to work."
Meg turned towards Maria. Her smile disappeared. Her face showed traces of anxiety.
"We have to. We can't do this alone."
"The only way you can stop Tsao-Li is by getting an army in there." said Gladys quietly. "He has too many men. And Tsao-Li is not above killing everyone aboard the slave ship. If he thinks there is any threat, he will do it."
Meg lowered her head. A quiet anger roiled through her features.
"Huh...that doesn't surprise me."
The others stared at each other. Autolycus turned back to Gladys.
"How many women aboard the slave ship?" he asked.
Gladys sighed. She paused for a moment, then spoke.
"What kind of shape are they in?" asked Maria.
Gladys's face grew dark.
"Caged like animals. He dresses and feeds most of us well enough, but this is only so that the buyers see a healthy product."
She sighed, paused for a few moments, and continued.
"The more attractive ones are sold to high-price customers. The less attractive ones are sold to people who need them for hard labor. Tsao-Li can be very brutal. Especially with the women he does not find so attractive. He demands complete obedience and respect."
Gladys paused for a moment, as a particularly dark memory resurfaced. She trembled in horror as it fully manifested itself. Meg quickly moved to her side, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"Gladys, what is it?"
The girl swallowed hard. A few moments of tense silence passed. Gladys spoke, a far-away look in her eyes.
"T-There was one time." she began quietly. " O-One time that he enforced this. It was over three weeks ago. He had a bunch of us on deck. Tsao-Li brought out a woman who had been a troublemaker, somebody who had enough guts to stand up to him. T-The woman had been so badly beaten that she could barely stand. And this woman had been one of the better-looking slaves.
"Tsao-Li told us that disrespect and disobedience of any kind would not be tolerated. He said he was going to show us what would happen to those who would defy him.
"C-Chang-Su dragged the woman to a large steel pit that's embedded in the deck. This was new. It had been installed only several days before. She was tossed into the pit. Chang-Su dumped oil on her. A-And then, he lit her on fire..."
Tears trickled from Gladys's eyes. Meg wrapped her arm around her, holding her close. Tears came to her eyes as well. The others sat there in stunned silence. Gladys continued.
"I-I-I had never heard anyone scream like that before. Never. I-I just stood there. It-it was as if it were some crazy nightmare. Women around me began to cry. The screaming just went on and on..."
"And then, it stopped. Just stopped. The smell of her burning flesh made me throw up. I...I..."
She couldn't continue. Gladys stared into space, tears running down her face Meg quickly grasped the girl's chin, turning Gladys's face towards hers.
"You don't have to say any more, sweetheart." she said softly.
Gladys began to cry bitterly. Meg held her tight, rocking her gently and kissing her on top of the head.
"Let all the pain out." Meg said softly. "Cry, sweetheart... Cry as much as you want."
Gladys burrowed her face into Meg's shoulder and wept. Maria moved her chair closer and rubbed Gladys's back with affection. Autolycus got to his feet. Trembling with rage, he stared at the three women. Autolycus turned and left the room. Joxer quickly got up and followed him.
"Autolycus!! Wait up!!"
Autolycus entered his room, walking over to the window. He stared out of it, grinding his teeth. Joxer walked into the room.
Autolycus gazed at the sky.
"I knew Tsao-Li was a bad apple, but... torching women?!?"
A moment of tense silence. He turned to face Joxer.
"Ya know, I've never killed. Not that the thought hasn't crossed my mind occasionally. But in this case..."
Autolycus shook his head. Joxer walked up to him, his face grim.
"Ya don't wanna go there. Trust me. Once you kill, everything changes."
Joxer grabbed Autolycus's arm. He stared at him, his eyes cold and filled with pain.
Joxer turned around. He sighed, shaking his head.
"Look Autolycus. There's gotta be some way of trying to take him in alive."
"Huh. Where in Tartarus have you been??"
Joxer turned to face him, eyeing him quizzically. Autolycus continued.
"I'm telling ya, this guy is bad news. Taking him out is an option we are going to have to consider. If I have to do it myself, I will. Okay. I'll admit to womanizing. But the thing is, I've always been a gentleman. I don't believe in abusing women. But what this guy does..."
"I wish Xena were around..." grumbled Joxer. "She'd make short work of that son-of-a-bacchai."
"Well, she's not." said Autolycus. "It's just us. And we can only pull this off if we can get Prince Philemon to help us."
"Which is what I am going to do."
Autolycus and Joxer turned around. Meg stood in the doorway. Her face was set in determination.
"I told Maria to go see Philemon. She'll arrange a meeting. We can talk to him then."
Joxer walked up to Meg. He placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Keep the faith, Meg. I'm sure we can work something out with him."
Meg gazed at the ceiling, her eyes full of anxiety.
"By the gods, I hope so."
Joxer scratched the back of his head. He looked up into the overcast sky. The gray clouds drifted along, as if part of a massive river. He turned to Meg. She sat on a stone, gazing into the forest.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Ah...I dunno. I-It just is a little uncomfortable, that's all. Seeing Philemon, after all this time."
Joxer walked up to Meg, sitting beside her. He placed a hand on her knee.
Autolycus walked forth from behind some trees, along with Gladys. He spoke.
"I hear some horses coming."
Joxer and Meg got to their feet. Soon, they also heard the horses. Within a few moments, eight appeared. Riding one of them was Maria. Prince Philemon rode another. Accompanying them were six soldiers. The riders brought their horses to a stop. They dismounted their horses. Maria and Philemon walked over to Meg and Joxer. The golden-haired prince smiled warmly.
"Hello Meg. It's been a long time."
A sad smile crossed Meg's face.
"I know. How's King Lias, Diana, and the baby?"
"Everyone is fine."
"We all miss you a lot."
Meg lowered her head and bit her lip. She sighed,and looked up.
"Maybe one day, I'll visit you guys."
"I hope it's soon."
Philemon straightened himself. He walked closer to Meg.
"Maria told me the problem. Where is this young woman you rescued?"
"I'm here, Your Majesty."
Gladys walked forward. She took off her hood and cloak. Philemon's eyes widened in horror at the vicious injuries on her face, arms, and legs.
"By...the...gods..." he gasped.
Philemon's face grew dark and stern. He turned to Meg.
"How could he do something like this to another human being?!"
Meg gazed at Philemon solemnly.
"That's something I've asked myself many times."
Meg lowered her head. Philemon gazed at her quietly. His features softened a bit. He turned to Gladys. Philemon walked up to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. His blue eyes grew cold.
"I'll see to it that Tsao-Li is put out of business."
He turned to Meg.
"So. Maria tells me Dabros of Crete is supposed to meet with Tsao-Li in six days."
Meg nodded. Philemon's eyes narrowed.
"Tsao-Li's very clever...He knows Mirtan hasn't enacted an anti-slave law yet. He knows I can't legally touch him with his slave ship off Mirtan's shores."
"What about King Daites?" asked Meg. "Will he agree to combining his troops and yours to stop Tsao-Li? "
Philemon gazed at Meg with a warm smile.
"I'm sure he will. Daites and I have become fast friends, and we are working to try and unite our two peoples further. His father would probably not have been as accommodating. Relations during his father's reign had been a bit strained, but since his recent coronation, Daites is intent on trying to change that. He and his wife, Queen Ralias, are good people. Daites is quite adamant about ending slavery. It's something that he and his wife are very passionate about. I've sent a messenger to his castle to inform him I'm coming. I'll be talking to Diates about this."
Meg smiled, sighing in relief.
"Thank the gods..."
He turned to Gladys.
"I'd like you to accompany me. Are you able to travel?"
Gladys turned towards Meg, eyeing her quizzically. Meg walked up to Gladys and placed a hand on her shoulder.
"It's okay Gladys. And besides, you're safer with Philemon. He'll protect you."
"I'll take her back to Boecia when I'm done with Daites." said Philemon. "She can stay at the castle, where she'll be well-looked after."
Gladys gasped in total shock. She shook her head in disbelief.
"Y-Your Majesty!! But I-I'm just a-a commoner!!"
Philemon turned to her. He placed his hands on her shoulders.
"No. You are a human being. Just like me. Take away the title, and I'm just a man. You are a human being Gladys, and it's high time you were treated like one for a change."
Gladys trembled. Tears came to her eyes.
"I-I-I-I don't know what to say!!"
Philemon smiled warmly.
He turned to Maria.
"Maria, would you accompany me to see Daites?"
"Of course, Your Majesty."
He turned back to Meg.
"Um, Meg? I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment. In private."
Meg nodded uncertainly.
"Um, y-yeah, sure."
Philemon walked over to Meg, placing a hand on her back. He led her away from the others, and they stopped under a group of trees. Philemon turned to her.
"Maria tells me you plan to testify against Tsao-Li once he's captured."
"Yes. I want to help put him away for good."
"I understand he hurt you a great deal."
Meg lowered her head.
"He left me for dead after he beat and raped me."
Philemon's face darkened. Rage surged within him. And through the rage, he also felt a tremendous admiration for Meg's willingness to confront Tsao-Li. He squeezed her shoulder.
"Meg, what you're doing is very brave."
Meg blushed, lowering her head.
"I-I'm just trying to do the right thing."
Philemon paused a moment. He spoke again.
"Meg...please remember that I'm a friend. So is Diana and King Lias. We won't judge you. We never have."
Meg turned away, her face filled with embarrassment.
"Y-You know then. About...what I did with the King's money...w-what I'm doing now."
She spun towards Philemon.
"I-I'm working to turn this into a restaurant, you know. I-I'm trying to put that life behind me. And so are the other girls who work there-"
"Meg." interrupted Philemon. "I...will not judge you. Or the girls that are with you. Believe that. Please."
Meg lowered her head, her eyes wandering nervously over the ground. Philemon placed a hand under her chin, and lifted it so she faced him. He spoke again.
"I will always be your friend. So will Diana and King Lias. You are welcome back to the castle any time you wish."
"And what about my girls?" Meg asked. "What about them? I-I mean, they can't all live in your castle!"
"No." Meg said firmly. "No, I can't. I don't belong there. I-I mean, I care for all of you very much, but I don't belong there. And it wouldn't be right for me to abandon those girls."
A moment of silence. Philemon smiled warmly.
"Xena was right about you having a warm, loving heart."
Meg blushed. She lowered her head.
"I-I'm not that special." she said in a small voice.
Philemon shook his head.
"I disagree. You're more special than you know."
He turned towards Joxer, who was gazing at them with curiosity. Philemon smiled a bit. He turned back to Meg.
"Still with Joxer, I see."
He looked back at Joxer, and nodded his approval.
"Joxer is a very, very lucky man."
Meg couldn't help but grin at this. She looked up at Philemon.
"I love him with all my heart." she said softly.
Philemon returned a warm smile.
"I'm happy for you, Meg. You and Joxer make a perfect pair."
Meg blushed even further. She lowered her head, a shy smile crossing her features.
"I should go. There's much to do. C'mon."
Meg and Philemon walked back towards the others. Autolycus approached him.
"Prince Philemon, I'm going to find out where Dabros is staying. Once you finalize everything with King Daites, I want to meet with you. I've got a plan on how we might be able to stop Tsao-Li."
"It's a good one, your majesty." said Maria. "A lot of lives could be saved if we use it."
"All right, Autolycus."
He turned to Gladys.
"Yes, your Majesty."
Maria placed a hand on Gladys's shoulder.
"You can ride with me, sweetheart." she said softly.
"Hey Maria." said Autolycus.
She turned to him.
"When you're done at Diates's castle, meet me back at Meg's."
Gladys turned towards Meg. She rushed up to her and hugged her tight. Meg returned the embrace. Gladys pulled back, tears in her eyes.
"I-I don't know how to thank you!!"
Meg smiled at Gladys, a tear trickling down her cheek.
"You're welcome. Just take care of yourself."
Joxer walked up to Gladys, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"I second that. Take care, and good luck."
Gladys hugged him.
She turned, and walked over to Maria. Philemon walked over to Meg and Joxer. He smiled at Meg.
Philemon turned to Joxer.
"Meg is a special woman, Joxer. Look after her."
Joxer nodded firmly.
"I will, your Majesty."
Philemon and his soldiers climbed onto their horses. Maria climbed up onto hers, and hoisted Gladys up behind her. The group then rode out into the forest. Autolycus walked behind a tree, and lead his horse forth. He walked over to Meg and Joxer.
"Well," he began, "I figure I shouldn't have a problem finding out where Dabros is staying. I wasn't kidding when I said I had contacts. I've got lots of them in Boecia."
"A guy in your profession would."
Autolycus raised an eyebrow, and twisted his moustache.
"It's good to have people in the know. Later, kids. See you in a couple."
Autolycus climbed on his horse, and rode off into the forest. Joxer turned to Meg, full of curiosity.
"What were you and Prince Philemon talking about?"
Meg smiled. She threaded her arm around his.
"I'll tell ya along the way. C'mon."