Autolycus adjusted his blue turban. He gazed at himself in
the mirror, checking his fake beard. Maria tapped him on the shoulder.
"Hey. You ready Auto?"
"Yeah. Wish I didn't have to wear this beard, but I don't want those goons I fought to recognize me."
He turned to Maria.
"How do I look?"
Autolycus raised an eyebrow, studying Maria's fearsome appearance. She wore purple leather and bronze armor. Her muscular, massive form towered over Autolycus. He spoke.
"You look scary."
A gentle smile crossed Maria's face.
"That's the idea. Let's go."
The pair left the market grounds, and walked out to the pier. They approached one ship. A man standing guard at its entrance raised his hand, halting them.
"Hold it." he said. "Where are you going?"
"My name is Dabros." said Autolycus. "Dabros of Crete. I'm here to do business with Tsao-Li."
The man then looked at Maria. He swallowed hard, gazing at her in fear.
"My bodyguard, Shania." said Autolycus.
Maria glared down at him, her eyes pure ice. The guard nodded quickly.
He ran up the ramp, into the ship. Autolycus and Maria waited patiently. After a few moments, Tsao-Li and Chang-Su appeared at the top of the ramp. They walked down it, and approached the pair. Tsao-Li smiled warmly. He outstretched his hand.
"Tsao-Li. I'm glad to finally meet you, Dabros."
Autolycus shook his hand. He returned the smile.
"Likewise! Your reputation precedes you, Tsao-Li."
Autolycus turned towards Chang-Su.
"And you are?"
Chang-Su bowed slightly.
"I'm his cousin. Chang-Su."
"Nice to meet you."
Tsao-Li looked at Maria, and raised an eyebrow.
"Ahh. This is my bodyguard, Shania. She goes everywhere with me."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su looked at each other for a moment. Tsao-Li turned back to Autolycus. He smiled.
"Come. I welcome you aboard my ship."
Autolycus smiled in return, bowing slightly. The four then proceeded up the ramp, onto Tsao-Li's ship. The captain of the ship approached Tsao-Li.
"Set sail now, sir?"
Tsao-Li's ship slowed to a stop next to his slave ship. The men dropped anchor. A ramp was extended across to the slave ship. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su approached the edge of it. Tsao-Li turned to Maria and Autolycus.
"This way, please."
They followed Tsao-Li and Chang-Su across the ramp, onto the slave ship. Maria and Autolycus noted the heavy presence of guards aboard. Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus again.
"So, Dabros. Which of my slave girls would you like to see?"
Autolycus squinted his eyes in thought.
"Hmmmm...ya know, I'd actually like to take a tour of the ship, if you don't mind. You see, I'm not just looking to get slaves for myself. I've got some powerful friends who might be interested in what you have."
Tsao-Li smiled slightly, nodding.
"Fair enough. If you would accompany me."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked over to a staircase. Maria and Autolycus followed. They descended below deck. Autolycus and Maria then saw two long rows of cells. Outside them were a dozen heavily armed guards. Inside them were women, aged from fifteen to thirty-five summers old. They all wore simple white dresses. Their faces were guarded, but Autolycus and Maria could read the fear and pain in some of them. One or two even gave Maria cold stares at they walked by. Maria felt a horrific stab of pain, as these few women made their hatred towards her clearly known. Outside, Maria kept her impassive stance. Inside, her soul cried out in grief and anger. She turned forward. Maria saw two large stumps rising from the floor of the hallway. Manacles were on either side of each. The floor around them was stained in blood. Maria fought hard to fight down the rising nausea.
Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus.
"These women happen to be my finest slaves. What do you think?"
Autolycus stopped. He walked over to several of the cells, looking over the women within. He nodded slowly.
"Hmmmmm...!! I like what I see!! You've got excellent taste, my friend! Excellent taste in women."
"Thank you Dabros. Any here that you might be interested in?"
Autolycus licked his lips, his eyes narrowing, as in thought.
"Hmmmm...what are you asking?"
Tsao-Li walked over to his side. He spoke again.
"The price range is from three hundred fifty to five hundred dinars."
Autolycus nodded slowly.
He walked to each of the cells, patiently looking over the women within each. Autolycus nodded.
He walked up to Tsao-Li.
"Hmmmm...I think we might be able to do business. There are nine women that I see which I fancy."
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow. A smile formed on his lips.
"Yes. Nine. They'll make nice house slaves. Very pleasing to my eye."
Tsao-Li turned to Chang-Su, who was smiling as well. He turned back to Autolycus.
"Sooooo-can I look at the rest of your slaves?"
"Certainly. This way."
Tsao-Li and Chang-Su walked over to a doorway. They descended a flight of steps. Autolycus and Maria followed. Within moments, they entered another hallway, and on either side again were cells containing women. These women, however, were dressed in more tattered clothing. Autolycus and Maria could see that some of them had been beaten. They could also see the exhaustion and depression on their faces. The smell of urine and feces hung in the air. It was obvious to Autolycus and Maria that these slaves were treated more roughly than the attractive ones upstairs. Like upstairs, a dozen guards stood watch. Maria and Autolycus saw two more whipping posts. They were stained with even more blood. Autolycus felt an incredible urge to kill Tsao-Li right then and there. But ever the professional, he remained focused. Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus.
"These slaves are for hard manual labor. They're a pretty ugly bunch, but they are strong. Good for tending fields, building houses, mining, if need be."
"Price range?" asked Autolycus.
"From seventy-five to one hundred fifty dinars."
Autolycus walked over to each cell, inspecting them. Tsao-Li and Chang-Su waited patiently. Finally, Autolycus walked up to them. He spoke.
"Excellent working stock. Had to get a little heavy-handed with some of them, eh?"
"Well, you know how it is. Some slaves get a little unruly, and...well, they've got to be reminded of their place."
Autolycus raised his eyebrows slightly, nodding.
"That's very true."
He looked around.
"Very impressive. You know, I think I could use a few work slaves."
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah! I could use a few. Probably about, ehhhh, say fifteen?"
"Good enough! I see no problem in that."
Autolycus walked up to Tsao-Li, placing an arm around his shoulder.
"Tsao-Li, my friend, I'd like to see about bringing my ship here in about, umm two days. As a token of good faith, I'm willing to leave a thousand dinars with you right now. I'll bring the rest when I come over with my ship. Is that doable?"
Tsao-Li turned to Autolycus, smiling warmly.
"More than doable, my friend."
They shook hands. Autolycus turned back to the women.
"Ooooookay! Time to pick and choose."
Autolycus and Maria entered their hotel room. Maria shut the door behind them. She turned to Autolycus, raising an eyebrow.
"It'll be interesting to see the look on Philemon's face when you ask for four thousand dinars more."
"Well, it was necessary. And at least we've got Tsao-Li where we want him."
Maria's eyes narrowed. Her face grew dark.
"I'm looking forward to giving him and his cousin their come-uppance. Did you see how a lot of those women looked? And did you see those whipping posts on each prison deck?? They were soaked in blood!!"
Autolycus lowered his head. He fought hard to keep down the rising agony inside him.
"Yes." he said quietly. "I saw them."
He lowered his head, taking a deep breath
"I saw one hobbling in a corner. A young girl. No more than twenty-five summers old. Beaten to a pulp. It looked like she had a broken ankle. Gods, I wanted to buy her..."
Maria walked up to Autolycus, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I understand why you didn't. I know you didn't want to arouse suspicion."
Autolycus turned to her. His eyes narrowed in rage.
"Believe me Maria, I'm with you on the busting heads idea."
Maria's lips curled in a snarl. She cracked her knuckles.
"Oh don't worry. There'll be plenty of that to do. And I'm gonna enjoy it."
"That will be 9 dinars for the herbs, miss."
Meg took out her purse, and paid the woman. Joxer scratched the back of his head.
"Wow. Stella really got that food poisoning bad."
"Yup! I warned her about getting milk from that farmer. His cows could use better care."
Meg placed the herbs in a basket. Joxer walked up to her, peering into it.
"Will this help?"
"Yeah, it should. Let's go."
Meg and Joxer walked off. Joxer peered into the sky.
The pair walked for a while in silence. Soon, they entered the forest. Joxer took a deep breath.
"Aaahh-it's good to be outside. Too bad it was for this."
Joxer turned to her.
"How're you doing?"
"Eh! Okay. A little better."
"Good. I hate to see you sad."
A bit more silence. Joxer spoke again.
"Did I ever tell you that you have a beautiful smile, Meg?"
Meg looked at Joxer, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah. Quite a few times."
"I'd like to see it again."
Meg blushed, lowering her head. A faint grin crossed her lips. Joxer tapped her on the shoulder, eyebrows raised in mock anger.
"Ay-ay- ay!! I wanna see that smile! Don't hide it from me!!"
She looked at Joxer, relaxing into a warm smile. Joxer broke into a huge grin.
"Aaaaah! That's it. That's the smile I love. More than anything in the world."
Meg drew closer, her blue eyes full of love.
"And that's only reserved for you."
Joxer pointed at himself, eyebrows raised.
Meg grasped Joxer's armor, pulling him close.
She leaned in, giving Joxer a long, tender kiss on the lips. She pulled back, her face filled with gratitude and affection.
Joxer raised an eyebrow.
"For being my rock. My strength. For helping me get through this."
Joxer blushed, smiling shyly. He lowered his head.
"Ah well. It's Joxer the Mighty's duty to save damsels in distress."
Meg gave a lopsided grin.
"And you're doing a damn good job of it." she said softly.
Meg leaned in and kissed Joxer again. The kiss deepened, and soon, tongues were caressing each other eagerly.
"Joxer the Mighty?? We'll see about that!!"
The lovers immediately broke the kiss. They abruptly turned forward. Tsao-Li stood there, along with five men. Meg's color drained from her face.
"...by the gods...Tsao-Li..."
Joxer instantly drew his sword. His lips twisted into a snarl.
"What do ya want?!" he hissed.
Tsao-Li chuckled sinisterly.
"Your girlfriend. Or should I say, my favorite acquisition. Remember that, Meg??"
Joxer's eyes narrowed into icy slits.
"Ya gonna hafta get through me if you want her."
Tsao-Li stared at Joxer in disbelief. He broke into raucous laughter.
"You?! You?! You are going to stop me?! You look like a clown!! You're not even a real man!!"
"He's more of a man than you'll ever be, ya sonofa-bacchai!!" spat Meg furiously.
Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
"Is that so??"
He looked at his men.
"Knock him around a bit."
Meg's eyes widened in terror.
Tsao-Li's men rushed forward. Joxer let out a loud battle cry and ran at them. One man swung his sword. Joxer blocked the blow. He kicked the man hard in the groin. He doubled over in agony. Joxer then delivered a vicious kick to his jaw. The man flew back, blood and teeth erupting from his mouth. He crashed into the earth. Another man leapt into the air, swinging his foot at Joxer. It smashed into the side of his face. Blood exploded from his mouth. Joxer reeled backwards, stunned by the blow. Another man swung his sword at him. Joxer blocked the blow. He rammed a foot into the man's knee. The man cried out in pain, dropping onto it. Joxer kicked him hard in the chin. Blood exploded from his mouth. He fell back onto the ground. Joxer turned to his left. The man who hit him flew at him in the form of a flying kick. His foot slammed hard into Joxer's chest. Joxer flew through the air, crashing hard into the ground. His sword flew into some bushes. Meg stared on in terror.
She ran towards Joxer. Suddenly, one of Tsao-Li's men leapt behind Meg, wrapping his arm around her throat. He quickly brought a knife to it. Meg squirmed in his grasp. The man pressed the blade into her neck. A thin stream of blood trickled forth. Meg cried out in pain.
"Move and you're dead!!" shouted the man.
Joxer struggled to his knees. He saw Meg being held by one of Tsao-Li's men. His eyes widened in fury. He quickly rose to his feet-
And Tsao-Li stepped in front of him. A cold smile curled his lips.
"Ya gonna hafta get through me if you want her." he sneered.
Joxer threw a vicious punch at Tsao-Li. He effortlessly blocked it, ramming his own fist hard into Joxer's stomach. Agonizing pain exploded from within. Joxer doubled over, eyes bulging out of his head. Tsao-Li then threw a savage left into Joxer's right cheek. Blood erupted from his mouth. He flew through the air, crashing into the ground. Tsao-Li chuckled.
He turned, and began to walk towards Meg. Joxer slowly rose to his feet. With an angry cry, he rushed at Tsao-Li, leaping at him. Tsao-Li whipped out his left foot, hitting Joxer in mid-air. He flew back, crashing face-first into the ground.
Meg stared on in soul-searing terror. Tears streamed from her eyes.
"Joxer!! STOP IT!!"
Joxer slowly rose onto his hands. Blood flowed from his mouth, leaving a crimson pool on the dirt road. His face was battered and bruised. Still, it radiated defiance. Joxer shakily rose to his feet. Tsao-Li raised an eyebrow.
Joxer growled like a rabid dog. He staggered towards Tsao-Li. Joxer threw a wild punch. Tsao-Li quickly jumped out of the way. Joxer spun towards him again. He threw another wild punch. This time, Tsao-Li blocked it. He threw a right of his own. Joxer's head snapped back, blood and several teeth erupting from it. Tsao-Li then grabbed Joxer's shoulders. He then rammed his head hard into Joxer's face. More blood flowed. Tsao-Li head-butted him two more times, whipping Joxer's head to the left, then to the right. Tsao-Li then rammed a knee hard into Joxer's groin. Joxer let out a gurgled cry of agony. A vicious left…Joxer staggered back. Finally, Tsao-Li executed a violent whirling kick, hitting Joxer hard in the chin. He flipped back through the air. Joxer's body crashed face-first into the earth in a huge cloud of dust. After that, he lay still.
Meg's eyes bulged out of her head.
Fury overwhelmed her. She rammed her foot hard into her captor's foot. He cried out in pain, loosening his grip on Meg. She elbowed him hard in the face. Blood exploded forth from his mouth. The man staggered back. With a piercing scream, Meg rammed her fist with all her might into the man's face. There was a loud crack as his nose was smashed. More blood erupted forth. He flew through the air, crashing into the earth. Meg snatched up the knife from the ground . She glared at Tsao-Li, her ice-blue eyes filled with hatred and an all-consuming rage.
"I'm gonna gut ya, ya SHIT EATING SONOFA-BACCHAI!!"
Tsao-Li's men moved towards Meg.
"No!!" shouted Tsao-Li. "She's mine!!"
Meg stood there, hissing like a cobra. Tsao-Li approached Meg, smiling cruelly.
"I'm going to break you Meg. I'm going to break you and sell you to the highest bidder. Nobody's going to miss a worthless whore."
Meg let out a piercing scream and dove at Tsao-Li, taking a vicious swipe at him. He leapt back. Meg growled heatedly, teeth bared, her ice-blue eyes pulsing with fury and bloodlust. She charged at him again. Tsao-Li grabbed her arm, twisting it sharply. Meg cried out in pain, dropping the knife. Tsao-Li then drove a knee hard into Meg's stomach. She grunted loudly in pain, doubling over. Tsao-Li rammed his fist hard into Meg's right cheek. Her head snapped to the left, blood exploding from her mouth. Meg dropped to the ground, and Tsao-Li was upon her. He took out a blue cloth, and quickly put it over Meg's mouth and nose. Meg became overwhelmed with the bittersweet odor penetrating her nostrils. She reached out, clutching Tsao-Li's chin. Meg dug her fingernails into his flesh, drawing blood. Tsao-Li winced in pain, and pressed down harder on the cloth. The rage in Meg's eyes soon gave way to fatigue. Her eyelids drooped, finally closing. Her hand fell away from Tsao-Li's chin, landing on her chest. Tsao-Li drew back, running his hand along the wounds inflicted by Meg. His eyes narrowed.
"You're going to pay for that, Meg." he said icily. "I'm going to teach you a new level of pain and fear."
"Where in the world are those two??"
Francisca stood in the rear doorway of the brothel, looking out towards the forest. She scratched her head in puzzlement. Francisca turned around. Another woman sat at a table, face pale, a bucket at her feet.
"How're ya doin' Stella?"
The woman raised her tired brown eyes towards Francisca.
"Uhhhh...n-not too good. W-Where's Meg and Joxer?"
"That's what I'm wondering. They should've been back long ago-"
Suddenly, Francisca heard clanging metal, and stumbling feet. She hastily looked outside. Her eyes widened in horror.
Joxer stumbled out of the forest, blood flowing from his mouth and the side of his head. A few bystanders stared at him in shock. Francisca rushed out towards him. Joxer dropped to his knees, falling on one hand. Francisca instantly knelt at his side.
"Joxer!! What ha-"
"Tsao-Li's got Meg." he grunted in pain.
Francisca's jaw dropped in shock.
Joxer grabbed Francisca's arm. His brown eyes were full of fury and savage determination.
"I-I gotta see Maria."
"I don't care!!" shouted Joxer. "Either you take me to Maria right now, or I'm going myself. I don't care."
Francisca stared at him in fear and confusion. She swallowed hard. Francisca knew that Joxer was not going to sit around while Meg was in danger. She had to come to a quick decision.
"All right. C'mon."
Francisca lifted Joxer to his feet. She helped him towards the brothel.
"Joxer, no!!" shouted Maria angrily.
Joxer strode up to Maria, eyeing her square in the face. His features were twisted in pain and rage.
"I...am going...after Meg." he uttered in a low, dangerous tone.
Maria grabbed him by the collar, yanking him close. Her hazel eyes bored into his. Joxer held his ground, meeting her gaze.
"You listen to me." Maria snarled. "You go on that ship now, in your condition, and you're gonna get yourself killed!! Then what good are ya gonna do Meg then?!"
"And what good am I doing Meg NOW?!" Joxer screamed back.
Maria squinted her eyes shut. She forced down the rage and frustration she was feeling, making an incredible effort to keep some semblance of control. Maria opened her eyes, gazing into the mid-afternoon sky. She let out a low, vicious growl, and looked down at Joxer. She spoke again. Slowly.
"You want to rescue Meg?? You want Tsao-Li to get what's coming to him??"
Joxer kept his heated stare directed at her. He said nothing. Maria moved in close. Her eyes narrowed.
"You're gonna do this my way. There's nothing I'd like more than to storm that ship now and get her out of there. But we can't. Autolycus has to get the rest of the money to buy the slaves he picked. And there's the other slaves to consider. It's not just about Meg."
Joxer narrowed his eyes.
"Well, did ya think about this?? What do ya think is going to happen to Meg between now and when you attack the ship?! Meg could die under that shit's hands!!"
Maria winced at Joxer's words. She knew he was right. Maria took a deep breath. She spoke again.
"Let me ask you something Joxer."
"What??" Joxer replied in an irritated tone.
"What would Meg want?? Never mind what you want. What about Meg?? Do ya think she'd want you to jeopardize the lives of those other women just to rescue her??"
Joxer fell silent. No words were exchanged for a few long moments. Francisca stared at the two in fear. Joxer finally spoke.
"I love her, Maria." he said quietly, his voice cracking. "I don't wanna lose her."
Maria instantly embraced Joxer, kissing him on top of the head.
"You won't. I swear on my life you won't."
Joxer pulled back, looking deep into Maria's eyes.
"Then I'm joining Philemon's forces aboard Dabros's ship."
Maria raised an eyebrow.
"Joxer, you're in no condition to-"
"I'm going." Joxer said with blunt finality. "Not even Zeus himself is going to stop me. I'm going to rescue the woman I love."
Maria straightened up. There was silence for a few moments. Finally, Maria nodded.
She turned to Francisca.
"I'll tell you where to take him."
Tsao-Li sat on top of his table. Chang-Su stood behind him. Across from him sat Meg, her ankles manacled and her wrists tied behind her back. Meg's ice-blue eyes pinned Tsao-Li in a feral, dangerous stare. Yet, Tsao-Li was unmoved. Chang-Su walked over to his cousin.
"She's still retained her beauty." he said, studying her.
"That she has."
Meg's eyes narrowed.
"So." she began, her voice full of venom. "Mister big-shot slave trader, eh??"
Tsao-Li smiled slightly.
"I make ends meet. Kidnapping a few attractive women here and there doesn't hurt either."
"Why am I not surprised?!"
Tsao-Li leaned towards Meg.
"Right now, worry about yourself. Until you are sold, this is where you're going to spend the rest of your days. On this slave ship."
He walked up to Meg. Her lips curled into a snarl. Tsao-Li spoke again.
"You should fetch a handsome prize."
"I'll kill myself first." hissed Meg.
Tsao-Li instantly clutched Meg's chin. His brown eyes narrowed.
"You think you're in control of your destiny, whore??"
Meg spat in his face. Tsao-Li sprang back, wiping saliva from his eyes. They widened in fury. He slapped her hard in the face. Blood whisked out of her mouth. Her head whipped to one side. She turned towards Tsao-Li, spitting at him again. Blood and saliva drenched his face. He wiped it again. Rage tore through his features.
Tsao-Li delivered a vicious uppercut to Meg's chin. More blood burst from her mouth. She flew back onto the ground. Tsao-Li was upon Meg, grabbing her by the collar. His eyes bored into hers.
"I am going to enjoy torturing you again."
Meg's eyes fluttered open. A cold smile slowly formed on her face.
"M-M-Messing up the merchandise?? W-What would your clients say??"
Chang-Su walked up to Tsao-Li's side.
"Let me have a try at her!!"
Meg's eyes narrowed.
"You'd like that, you shit."
Tsao-Li grabbed Meg's throat, squeezing it hard. Meg's eyes dilated, gasping for air.
"I think it's time for a lesson in humility." growled Tsao-Li. "It's time to remind you what you are."
Philemon placed a hand on Joxer's shoulder.
"Have faith. We'll pull this off, Joxer."
The nurse applied salve to the cut on Joxer's right cheek. He hissed in pain. The nurse frowned.
Joxer looked at her through narrowed eyes.
He looked at Philemon.
"I'm scared for her. What could that bastard be doing to Meg??"
Philemon's face darkened. He lowered his head for a moment. Then he looked up.
"Try to have faith, Joxer."
Joxer laughed harshly.
"Faith?! In what?! The gods?! Uh-uh. One thing I've learned from traveling with Xena and Gabrielle is that the gods are all full of it. They don't care about anyone but themselves. So, if you're asking me to have faith in the gods, your majesty, forget it."
Philemon moved in closer, his gaze intense.
"Joxer, you've got to remain calm and focused. You're going to drive yourself crazy if you don't! We have until tomorrow morning."
Joxer growled slightly in frustration, rolling his eyes.
"That's easy to say."
He looked at Philemon.
"Imagine if that were Diana instead of Meg." he said quietly. "Would you be able to stay calm and focused?"
"If I wanted to save her life, yes. It would probably kill me, but I'd do it."
Joxer lowered his head, sighing heavily. His eyes scanned the patterns on the floor.
"I'm coming for ya, Meg." he whispered. "I won't let you down."