Conquering the Conqueror
General Disclaimer: You already know they arent mine. Im not doing this for money, only for adoring emails ( firstname.lastname@example.org for those of you who want to start adoring now). I do thank Renaissance et al., the producers and everyone involved for inventing such wonderful women for us to admire, lust after and respect. I also thank LL and the ROC for just being. Theyre a pair of stunning actresses who brought life and love to a couple of worthy characters.
Subtext Disclaimers: Well, it wouldnt be X:WP if there wasnt sexual ambiguity, but as things go along, sex gets less ambiguous. In fact, it gets decidedly lesbian. I think Aphrodite would, like, approve.
Timeline: This is a Conqueror story. Theres no Hercules in my Xenaverse (not that the Big Guy isnt cute in his own clueless way) and Xena is in "bad ol Xena" mode. And she looks damn good doing it. The Bard of Poteidaea isnt quite as cute and cuddly as she was in, say, Season 2, but shes still gorgeous and intelligent. Karma being what it is, we know that little Armageddon Now scene wasnt all they would have had.
Violence Disclaimer: There is quite a bit of violence here. Xena is a murderous warlord; she thinks with her fists.
Overdone Chicken Note: The now-infamous crucifixion scene does appear... and appear... and appear, just like in Season Four. My thinking is this: The Chronos Stone, like all good disruptions in the space-time continuum (see Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager), cant erase everything. Somebody will have phantom memories, and Xena being Xena even when shes being bad ol Xena is not going to forget the look in the Gabsters eyes when they... anyway... Ive warned you, its there.
Plagiarism Note: Gins Negotiations must be credited with one major, much later in the story plot element having to do with the fate of Xenas child, Solan. You won't see it for a while, but youll know it when you see it. I didnt mean to steal it; it just made so much sense that it seemed necessary to perpetuate it. I think I expanded upon it, in fact. Mea Culpa.
We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
In the windowless holding cell along one wall of the main agora of Corinth, a prisoner awaited judgment. The stones of her prison held in the midday heat, and she, faint with the hunger of three days without a meal, weak from the last beating shed received, lay huddled in the corner, trying to remain conscious.
Many of the crowd gathered outside knew her, had talked to her, or rather listened to her talk, in darkened kitchens and back rooms of small, anonymous houses in narrow, impoverished streets. Her message, those persuaded by her said, was of light and goodness: human rights for all, not just for those strong enough to take them by force; fair government; freedom from fear. She wanted to bring Corinth forward from the darkness that had fallen upon it with the coming of the forces of occupation. Though she insisted that all in the circles of resistance have an equal vote in every project, everyone knew that she supplied the words, the vision, the ideas, that sought to relieve the oppression. Her words had breathed fire on the tinder of dissatisfaction, and rebels began to speak of her as their leader.
And so hers had been the only name spilled from the lips of one pitiful, unbalanced zealot caught trying to set fire to the tax collectors booth.
"Gabrielle of Poteidaea!" hed proclaimed. "She has shown me the light of humanity and I will die fighting the darkness for her!"
The secret police hadnt needed to torture him for information, though theyd done so for pleasure anyway. Hed gladly talked of the political firebrand and trained bard whod brought them all a message of hope and equality.
Hed lasted two days on his cross, still mumbling her name and garbled bits of her message though theyd cut out his tongue. It had taken a further two weeks for his body to fall of its own weight into the sand of the street where he hung.
By that time, the trail of the young, blonde insurrectionist, Gabrielle of Poteidaea, had been traced to a small loft room above a nondescript leather shop, and when night was at its darkest, in the still hours just before dawn, the secret police had burst through the shop door, scaled the tiny ladder and found Gabrielle of Poteidaea. She awoke, as was fitting, to find her dreams at an end.
The despot, be assured, lives night and day like one condemned to death...
With the clang of brass cymbals, the heavy thudding of drums, and the deep, inhuman wailing of throat singers from the high plains of the East, the triumphal procession wended its way through the streets of Corinth to the central agora. A cohort of Corinthian Guards lined the agora, ready to quell any disturbance, but no one truly expected any trouble. Thered been one disruption of the public judgments early on in the occupation; no citizen of Corinth in the square that day had lived to comment on its success or failure. Since then, the public judgments had been peaceful and routine, horrifyingly routine.
The procession drew nearer, its unearthly noise growing deafening as the smell of the outlandish incenses overwhelmed the street. Imperial minions in yellow silk and purple marched into the enclosure and took their places, drawing the eyes of the crowd toward the outer edges of the high dais. Men at arms, the Royal Guard, in bronzed breastplates with streaming guidons on their helmets marched down to line the steps, unsheathing their swords.
"On your knees before the divine scourge of the gods! All tremble at the coming of the Destroyer of Nations!" shouted one of the retainers in Greek, Latin, and Chinese, raising his hands heavenward as if calling down thunderbolts.
The huge hanging gong was struck, reverberating ear-shatteringly within the stone walls of the agora. The huge ostrich feather fans, wielded by bare-chested gladiators chosen for their muscularity, swayed closed, concealing as a stage curtain, and then parted, revealing to the focus of all the drama, the center of the mystery.
Xena the Conqueror, the Lion of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess of Calmai, the Ruler of Britannia, Gaul, Rome, Chin and Greece, sat upon her throne, resplendent, peerless, and cold as the snows of Mount Olympus. About her flowed her robe of state, ten thousand dinars worth of damasked silk from the furthest eastern reaches of an empire that stretched from Mare Atlanticum to the boundless seas of Chin. Her golden diadem, formed like the wings of Nike, goddess of victory, sparkled with gems torn from the deepest mines of Kashmir, Burma, and Rus. On her fingers sparkled rings the worth of which could keep a kingdom. Emerald, sapphire, ruby, turquoise, amber, lapis lazuli, all the treasures of the known world, these were as playthings to the Destroyer of Nations, worthless glass for all she noticed them, for the heart of the Warlord was as cold as her image on the throne, and as empty.
Her enemies, and they were without number, called her heartless, soulless, conscience-less, but none denied her beauty. Her thick raven tresses reached the middle of her back when not bound up under her crown; her face, balanced, chiseled, perfect, served as a model, it was said, for Praxiletes goddesses. Her long, lithe limbs were formed of hard muscle, yet clothed in satiny bronzed skin; and her eyes glowed not the deep, earthy brown of her countrymen, but an icy, sky blue between the glow of newly cut sapphire and rich lapis.
Those eyes could freeze the heart as easily as enflame the desires, as the trail of broken hearts and shattered bodies spread across her empire attested. Lao Ma, the regent-mother of Chin, had named her the Many Layered Pearl, the sight of which is a boon and a death in the same heartbeat. Helen of Troys beauty might have launched a thousand ships, but Xena of Amphipolis beauty burned them to the waterline.
"Bring out the prisoner!"
Soldiers strong-armed the rebel out of her cell and threw her before the dais.
"What is her crime?" asked the Conqueror, though she knew as well as any in the square.
The woman seemed to surface into consciousness, turning her face upwards, glaring eyes meeting those of the Conqueror. "I spoke," she answered, bitterly.
The Conqueror sat, looking down at the crumpled form. The red-gold hair tumbled over her face once more, hiding the features of this enemy of the state, enemy of the system, enemy of the Empire for which the Conqueror had given her sweat, her blood, her son... her soul.
"She incited the people against you," Darphus, Captain of the Imperial Guard, supplied. "Encouraged them to revolt."
The Conqueror stood, if so ordinary a word could encompass the grace of the movement.
"Get up," she ordered, stepping down from the dais. Her hand, slipping out of the long sleeve of her robe of state, made an imperious gesture, and the groggy young woman struggled to her feet and stood swaying.
The Conqueror towered over her, even when she reached the same level as the prisoner. She reached forward, filling a hand with red-gold hair, moving the curtain of it to reveal the face she had come to see. A fine featured face, she judged, unmarked as yet by time or care. Beautiful, the Conqueror decided, but shed seen-- and had-- to many of the beauties the world could offer, and now beauty left her cold.
She trailed her hand down the ripe curve of the smooth cheek, rubbing her sword callused thumb across the silken lips, feeling the defiance of the now clear eyes on her own face. She felt an instant of excitement at the contact, the lack of fear. It had been so long since someone had stood up to her, since shed felt challenged. It wouldnt last.
"Are you guilty?" she hissed, anger washing away the spark of excitement.
The prisoner whipped her face away from the touch. "I gave voice to the people.. the fearful, the starving, the ones who disappeared in the night...never to be seen again."
The Conqueror watched the little actress playing to the crowd with sardonic amusement, allowing her mouth to part in mock horror and cruelly false sympathy.
"Have you no dignity?" the rebel cried to those watching. "No rights? The right to live...to be free from harm?"
"I guess they dont hear your voice," the Conqueror surmised, eyes never leaving the blonde.
The defiant eyes returned to her and the small, pointed chin tipped proudly. "Im not the only one...and you cant break our spirits."
"The cure for spirit is fear," the Conqueror smiled. "Youll serve as an example."
Doubt, disbelief, and terror entered into the malachite gaze before her and the Conqueror, in spite of herself, felt a vivid disappointment at the loss of the challenge. "Put her on the cross," she ordered the soldiers.
Turning, she gathered her robe to ascend the staircase. With her foot on the first stair, she glanced back, taking in the incredulity of the prisoner being lifted and carried to her crucifixion. The Conqueror issued the order, said the words, the words that still awoke her screaming from her own nightmares, "Break her legs." Without another backward glance, the ruler ascended to her throne.
The Conqueror remained perfectly still through the sound of the screams. She knew-- who better?-- what rending agony poured through the slight, young form. At least youre not in the air already, she offered the woman from the dark recesses of her own mind. Then the weight of your body would be shredding your muscles with the spiky ends of those broken bones. If youre lucky, youll be unconscious by the time they lift you upright.
When the screaming faded to sobs, she shot a mocking smile out over the crowd.
"You speak when spoken to," she explained, her voice pitched to fill the crowded agora, "and your rights are mine to decide."
She glanced at the crucifixion squad lieutenant who instantly motioned the soldiers to seize the cross and shoulder it for the journey to the city walls where the young insurrectionist would hang with the others, dead and dying, judged by the Conqueror.
As the squad passed in front of the dais, heading for the street, the Conqueror saw with amazement that the young woman was still conscious. The defiant green-- How do I know theyre green? she wondered-- eyes, now pools of silent suffering, tracked to the almost colorless arctic blue of the Conquerors. Xenas heart faltered a beat and she shot to her feet, trembling with an unknown fear and the instantaneous anger that always followed her fear.
The insurrectionists cross turned again as the squad drew away, and still those eyes, looking now across the shattered ruins of shapely legs, locked the Conquerors gaze. The crowd, the splendor, the world fell away, and the Conqueror saw a snowy field beneath a sharp three-peaked mountain...
... a squad of soldiers prepares the crosses; I look to my right and she is there, the one I love, the one Ive failed yet again, the one I would give everything to save. She lifts her eyes to mine, all the love and trust and goodness in the world in a gaze.
"Youre the best thing in my life, Gabrielle," I choke on the bitterness of failure and overwhelming love.
She smiles, wise and forgiving, "I love you, Xena..."
"Gabrielle," the Conquerors lips formed the name as she returned from the vision and she spun to pin her Captain of the Imperial Guard with the cobalt fire of her eyes. "What is the rebels name?"
Darphus stuttered ineffectually and jerked around to his lieutenant.
"Gabrielle," Palaemon stated coolly, pleased with his superiors gaff. "Gabrielle of Poteidaea."
"Get her back," came the hissing order.
"Wha-?" both men looked at the Conqueror in confusion. Unpredictable as she might be, the Conqueror never let a rebel go unpunished.
"GET HER BACK," she snarled, enunciating each word. "Send someone after that squad; I want that woman in the palace, with Wan Li the healer in attendance, within the candlemark."
"Thy will be done, Conqueror," both murmured automatically.
With a snap, the Conqueror signaled her litter bearers to their places and resumed her throne. The servants bore her away, leaving Darphus and Palaemon staring. Then they were both scrambling to do the bidding of the Ruler of the Known World.
Son of a bacchae, what have I done? The Conqueror cursed fluidly in several languages within the brilliant, adamantine confines of her mind. Saving the girl had been the height of stupidity: a complete loss of face in front of her subjects. How was she going to justify not executing a known insurrectionist, already tried, judged, and partially punished? It was bound to cause talk within her own administration, let alone the secret cadres of resistance in Corinth and beyond.
Only if they find out... some part of her tried for reassurance.
Of course theyll find out!! screamed the politician within. She was the ring leader of that damned bunch of loud mouth dissidents thrown out of the Bards Academy. Theyll be pestering my soldiers for the body by nightfall!
How can I turn this to my advantage? The inner tactician began.
None of her inner turmoil was, of course, apparent. The Conqueror long ago had learned bitter lessons on schooling her features to portray only what she chose. Mask-like in its perfection, her face appeared confident and composed. Nevertheless, the head of her household quailed at the caustic burn of the blue gaze that found him waiting in the reception hall of her palace.
"Have a bed placed in the room connecting to mine," the Conqueror ordered, not slowing her stride past the courtier. "And clothes-- for a woman about the size of that food taster, Alita."
"B-but, Conqueror, by your own command, no one shares that..." his words stopped with a final squeak, "wing." He gulped as she stopped and swung around. "It-- Thy will be done, Conqueror."
With a chilling whisper of black silk, she disappeared toward her royal apartments.
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