How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seems to me all the uses of this world!
The Conqueror rose at her usual pre-dawn hour, despite having slept little.
Having bathed her face and body with cool water, she dressed swiftly but
with careless elegance in a doublet of blue silk, its puffed sleeves slashed
with white, and black trousers. Surrounded by servants, guards and administrators
most of her waking hours, there were some things Xena insisted on doing
alone and her morning ritual was one of them. Of course, no one dared question
the Conqueror when she expressed a need for solitude, but it drove her
heads of household and her security officers to distraction that she seldom
allowed an attendant of any sort in her bedchamber. "If I can't defend
myself in my own chamber," she'd argued to more than one worried administrator
or guardsman, "then nothing you can do will keep me from being killed outside
it." She'd never guessed that the price she had to pay for being the Conqueror
would include the loss of all personal privacy.
Don't forget the price of love and family, that dark, derisive voice at the back of her mind reminded her. Your brothers are dead; your mother won't acknowledge you exist, and your son... Well, who knows where your son is, eh, Conqueror? Your beloved Solan, sacrificed to anonymity so he wouldn't have to share the cost of your fame-- or is it infamy? Is today the day you decide whether or not it was worth it?
That voice, she sometimes thought, was the last remnant of the idealistic young tavern keeper's daughter who had watched her younger brother murdered by a savage warlord and had taken up the sword to defend her village when no one else would. At first, that voice had spoken of heartbreak, outrage, shock, but years of being locked away, ever deeper, in the increasingly bloody and vengeful vaults of the Conqueror's mind had faded the voice to merely bitter. And bitterness the Conqueror had no time for, so she simply ignored the voice and finished braiding her hair. In the fifteen years since her journey of personal-vengeance-turned-world-domination had begun, the Conqueror had gotten good at shutting that particular voice out. She'd had to, or risk losing her mind.
Settling a rather lethal-looking eating dagger inlaid with Gallic enamelwork in her belt, she made her way to the huge dining hall at the center of the palace to break her fast with those of her household already awake.
It didn't pay to sleep in if one hoped to advance in Xena's army, so the dining hall was full. She paused a moment just outside the doorway, eyeing the scene within, gauging the crowd. The room was furnished with long trestle tables, full this morning of rowdy men-- and a few women-- at arms engaged in breakfast and conversation; conversation that rumbled near the level of battlefield noise as the warriors sought to speak from group to group, talking, shouting, and laughing over one another. The jests were as usual crude and demeaning, but the Conqueror detected a thread of aggression in the remarks, a faint whiff of challenge that bordered on bloodlust. Maybe,she mused, they're as bored as I am without a war to fight. Or do I have a situationbrewing?
Her practiced eye swept over them, defining three obvious camps: those who followed Darphus, including many of his former cronies, though she'd wisely dispersed his officers within her own ranks when she took his army; those who sensed a change in favor under way and had begun aligning themselves with Palaemon; and those loyal only to herself who sought to stay out of a coming conflict between the "old guard" under Darphus and Palaemon's young Turks. She noted the faces in each group, filing it away for future reference in the crystalline memory for which she was famed. Xena never forgets an enemy, the saying went, or fails to reward a friend. "If she hasn't killed them already," the punch line-- never stated before her, but heard nonetheless-- finished.
She stepped forward into the doorway, allowing her audience to see her and was gratified by the immediate silence that fell. Instantly, everyone stood and saluted. With a slow, stately swagger, studied in its negligence, she made her way to the raised dais on which her throne rested. A perfunctory gesture indicated that they could all reseat themselves as she was brought her morning fare. Talk resumed at a much lower pitch.
"My sovereign queen," Palaemon, ever the opportunist, stood to greet the Conqueror.
"Isn't that redundant?" The Conqueror asked, receiving a round of laughter from those listening with pretended nonchalance to the exchange.
The young second colored slightly, but bowed again acknowledging the hit. "We were discussing the Persians' famous chariot maneuver." He gestured to the young men surrounding him. "Perhaps, since you've faced it and defeated it, you could explain why it doesn't work."
Xena grinned. "It just didn't work against me, Palaemon. I've used it against others since."
The ensuing discussion of cavalry tactics grew lively as the Conqueror let her warriors have free rein on their opinions. She even allowed and accepted a challenge from Palaemon to a chariot drill two candlemarks past noon.
"Pick two men to side with you," the Conqueror ordered. "Titus and Darphus will form my wedge against you."
"Great." Darphus, who had maintained a sullen silence as the debate swirled around him, let his spoon drop noisily into the empty bowl before him and rose. "Then I'd better take care of my other duties if I'm to spend the afternoon at child's play," he half-snarled. "By your leave, Conqueror...?"
The Conqueror gave him a measured look. "Your tone lacks some...forethought, Darphus," she warned. "Change it before I see you again."
"My apologies," he forced out, bowing, but the stiffness of his movement betrayed his simmering rage. Turning on his heel, he stalked from the dining hall. Xena hid a smirk behind her tankard and turned amused eyes back to her palace security chief.
"May I pick the chariots?" Palaemon requested. Xena saw through the ploy immediately, but let him go. She had nothing to fear from the brash young man.
"Certainly... and the horses."
Palaemon left the hall well pleased with the morning's maneuvering. Darphus had no skill at chariot fighting everyone knew, and Palaemon knew he had made life uncomfortable for the Captain of the Imperial Guard.
After breakfast came the Conqueror's usual morning briefing with the commanders
of the standing Greek army. It was uneventful, for once, though the commanders
seemed rather unsettled by what had taken place at the public judgment.
"I made the decision to take her down," Xena shrugged when one of them finally got nerve up to ask for clarification of the rumors that already swept Corinth.
"Athens and Thebes may get ideas, Your Majesty," General Thessikles warned. "There've been several skirmishes with rebels in the countryside."
"And they've been put down easily," the Conqueror replied curtly. "When I've finished with the insurrectionists here in Corinth, those in the countryside will not dare to raise their hands to scratch their... bellies, let alone to draw their swords."
With some relief, she broke free of their worries and moved to the next chore: two hours dealing with the business of distant lands overseen by her administrators. A constant stream of reports flooded the mail and messenger lines within the Empire. In the main, the reports were confirmations of long-term plans engineered by Xena and put into motion by her regents. As such, they were seldom very interesting, and often downright tedious, but Xena, being Xena, found it difficult to be less than completely informed and in control.
Many items of "news" were months old by the time they reached the Conqueror. On more delicate matters, however, Xena demanded that her regents get her approval before taking action, so there was a second, less publicly discussed system of communication: carrier pigeons. Used only in times of greatest need, it could still take weeks for Lao Ma to send a message from Chin and receive an answer, but Xena was careful in the amount of outright power she allowed those who ruled for her.
Urgent messages were brought to her immediately, though, so she knew the next two hours would be as dull and mundane as they usually were. She made her way reluctantly through the cool, dark corridors of the palace to the administrative offices.
"The Persians have resisted sending their winter grain taxes for another month, my liege," Milosz, the Conqueror's Mediterranean administrator, informed her, without preamble, as she entered the room.
"The granaries at Athens are full," the Conqueror thought aloud, "but it wouldn't do to give them the idea they can get away with it."
"Macedonia is experiencing some shortage due to a bad harvest," Milosz confirmed. "Therefore, Athens will have to send out some of their grain. The Persian taxes would ensure no one goes hungry."
"We'll be forced to send a punitive expeditionary force from the legion outpost at Caesarea," the Conqueror ordered calmly, then grumbled. "Gods, I hate that name. Can't they go back to whatever they were before Caesar decided to lend them his name?"
"Umm, I believe he founded that city, Your Majesty."
"Ahh," Xena smiled wickedly. "All the more reason to change the name. He threatened me once with historical oblivion; let me return the favor. Henceforth, Caesarea shall be called... Xenantium."
"Thy will be done, Conqueror," Milosz grinned openly, making a note on the administrative file for the former Caesarea. Then he began the endless, uneventful reports from the other, fully stabilized districts of her empire.
Xena paced restlessly about her chamber as Corinth drowsed in the early
afternoon resting period that followed a typical Greek lunch. Her thoughts
were even more dark and brooding than usual.
She had conquered the Known World in a stunningly short time span, her forces a whirlwind of violence and bloodshed that had made hers a name and reputation to be reckoned with. Nation after nation had fallen before the Destroyer, overwhelmed by greater strength, greater numbers, and a single, driving Will that controlled them both. And now that Will was being stymied, stifled, blunted. Now, the controlling force was controlled, trapped in a relentless cycle-- both stressful and monotonous-- of fighting to maintain the balance of the power she had striven to gain.
She paced to the bed and flopped her long-legged form upon it. She needed rest, she knew, but her mind and body refused to relax. Instead, she twitched and fidgeted, finally drawing the covers completely over herself and curling onto her side.
Ruling taxed her mentally and emotionally in ways simple fighting never could. There were still moments of intense action or thought-- overcoming some armed resistance, putting down a rebellion, planning fortifications and economic programs-- but they were followed by months of inaction-- reading reports, drilling troops, judging complaints or criminal trials. She went through the same routine, no matter which of her Imperial cities she was visiting, and all that changed was the faces which led her through the daily, weekly, monthly repetitions of identical decisions, events, and discussions.
She could swear she sometimes felt herself losing that mental edge that had gotten her where she was; felt it as it was chipped away with each interminable council or endless state dinner. The repetition and boredom were as insidious as rust, for with the boredom came insomnia, and the dark thoughts and internalized anger that action kept at bay tormented her in the night. She spent whole weeks analyzing her past, second-guessing every past decision, wishing for things she couldn't have... Just as she had done this morning; just as she was doing now.
"Enough!" The Conqueror sat up impatiently. "Now I remember why I hate afternoon naps," she muttered, throwing off the dark thoughts with the sheets and rising.
Deliberately, she focused her mind on selecting her armor for the coming chariot exercise. No need for full armor or the ceremonial gold plated cuirass of her Roman Command armor. She knew what she wanted, what she needed, to settle her emotions and focus her thoughts. She stepped beyond the armor racks and opened the trunk at the foot of her bed.
With tender, almost reverent hands, she lifted from storage the familiar leather battle dress and ornate breastplate in which she felt most at home; the second skin which she'd worn for ten years as she swept the resistance of every civilized nation before her like a scythe harvesting wheat. A slight smile worked its way over her face as she touched the swirling design of the breastplate. She inhaled the beautiful scent of leather that rose from the fabric like a caress.
These clothes defined her, steadied her, reminded her of who she was and what she had done with nothing more than iron will and unquenchable desire. She might wear the robes and crown of an Empress now, but Xena the Conqueror had been born in the much-scarred, restitched, and repaired leather and brass she now held.
Nostalgia?She wondered. Gods, how old do I think I am?
Rueful now, she allowed herself to rationalize the choice: This armor was light, allowed her to move easily, and would protect her from most possible damage. Not that she was particularly worried, she continued the thought as she efficiently dressed herself. Palaemon had potential, but his skills needed sharpening; that's why she'd agreed to his little challenge. Darphus, on the other hand, hated chariot fighting and, consequently, was blatantly awful at it. She'd insisted he come just to humiliate him.
The Conqueror had never forgotten or forgiven Darphus' betrayal six years ago. She remembered fondly the fear she'd seen in his eyes when she'd ridden into his camp a year later with twice as many men as he had at her back. Join or die, she'd offered him and his soldiers the choice, and Darphus, always looking out for his own skin, had submitted and joined her army. He'd been a useful tool, and she had used him, and would continue to use him, until a better tool came along. Then there'd be an excuse-- there was always an excuse with someone like Darphus-- to complete the revenge she'd planned as she recovered, alone and disregarded, from The Gauntlet.
I'll put that fear back in him someday soon,she thought. Probably as soon as he springs whatever stupid plot he's working on at present.
Following up on that thought, the Conqueror eased noiselessly through the bathing room and garderobe to the other bedroom of the suite to check on Gabrielle.
The bard, like the rest of Corinth, was abed, asleep. Xena moved to the bedside and looked down at her unlikely prisoner. Long, fair lashes swept against cherubic cheeks and the cupid's bow mouth parted with relaxed breathing. Beautiful,Xena thought again as she had when she first saw the young woman. Now, however, she saw another level of beauty in her. She doesn't shy away from anything, this bard. Into a lifestyle full of sycophants and hypocrites, Gabrielle had brought a breath of candid curiosity and genuine spirit. The Conqueror smiled slightly. At the moment, this was the one thing that held any fascination her, she realized, eyes traveling the sleeping features again. This was a face that, for now at least, piqued all her rather substantial curiosity. Xena's smile fell suddenly. I hope to the gods I don't end up having to kill her.
Palaemon had arranged himself and two of his subordinates in a loose chariot
wedge at the west end of the chariot pitch, the Conqueror noted as she
rode down from the city. He'd chosen a matched pair of Persian ponies that
she'd gotten in tribute only three days before and hitched them to a light
Celtic chariot like those she'd used in Gaul during her last campaign against
those recalcitrant Parisi. His wedge and he rested in the shade with the
sun at their backs. Her mouth quirked at his audacity.
"You gonna let him do that?" Darphus asked, taking in only the field position Palaemon had taken advantage of.
"Sure," the Conqueror smirked. "It won't matter in a few minutes when I drive him up against those outcroppings on the southern side."
Darphus brightened a little, swinging down from his mount, but his expression soured as he saw the cramped Egyptian chariot that she motioned him toward. The Conqueror, as usual, was enjoying herself at her Imperial Guard Captain's expense.
"Ready, my queen?" called Palaemon from the other end of the field.
She didn't reply, just slapped the reins down on the backsides of her ponies and trundled toward him, forcing him out of his shady resting spot and into the glare of midafternoon. She saw him try to cut to his left, north, away from the outcroppings she'd intended to send him into, and she grinned avidly.
"Little bastard did do his reconnaissance," she murmured, moving to intersect his line.
Palaemon, she actually liked, seeing a lot of her younger self in his constant boundary pushing and arrogant disregard for propriety. He had a measure more caution than she had had, but then he'd come to maturity under the Conqueror, with whom caution was more of a requirement. Xena knew if she'd met a leader like herself when she was his age, she would have gladly followed, learning everything she could. Of course, she'd have killed her teacher and taken the power as soon as she was done, she laughed internally. Palaemon would need to do a lotmore reconnaissance before he got the chance to follow that particular tradition.
Ambition I can deal with, she decided, but treachery like Darphus' mustn't go unpunished.
She swept down on the opposing wedge alone, having outdistanced Darphus and Titus, but she managed to split them and cut Palaemon off from his flankers. He made a run for the eastern end of the pitch, but she stayed level with him and pushed him more north. He fought his team to a standstill, intending to cut around behind her, but she simply dropped the reins and launched herself into his chariot. When Darphus, sweating heavily and sawing on his team's reins, drew up, she had Palaemon in a wrestler's hold on the bottom of the chariot, both of them laughing like children as she gave him a knuckle rub through his spiky blonde hair.
"That was useless," Darphus spat out, as Xena released Palaemon and hopped down from his chariot.
"Not completely," Palaemon objected, grinning. "I got to run these new ponies."
Darphus looked at the Conqueror, his expression that of one child tattling on another, but she cut his protest off immediately.
"We're not done, by any means. That was only one pass. Palaemon's going to demonstrate that Persian feint he was arguing so passionately this morning, then I'm going to show him why it doesn't work."
Darphus turned his chariot without further protest and struggled back to his end of the field.
They mock-fought for the next two candlemarks, until the horses and they themselves were sweated and weary and--in some cases-- injured. Palaemon sported a steadily darkening black eye, given him by the Conqueror in a rather heated engagement, but the young man bore it like a badge of honor because, firstly, he'd forced her into a situation where she'd had to hit him full force or be hit herself, and, secondly, he'd remained conscious. Xena returned his grin rather ruefully. The young man actually managed to lift her out of the dark mood she'd been in earlier.
"I'm sure Nevon's arm will heal straight," the cocky blonde assured her for a third time, a glint in his eye. The Conqueror found herself laughing at his brazen attempt to tease her.
"Come and eat with me tonight, Palaemon," she invited. "I'm going to bathe and read the Indian dispatches. Come at the beginning of fourth watch."
"Thy will be done, Conqueror," he bowed.
Darphus gave her a sour look, but remained silent: she'd cut his lip with a blow from her chariot whip, and he wasn't in the mood to taste his own blood again.
A servant interrupted Gabrielle's afternoon interview with her physician.
"Brysas, the Corinthian head of household," the young woman announced and held the door as the immaculately clad majordomo entered.
"You are Gabrielle of Poteidaea?"
Gabrielle, trying to look for all the world like she didn't recognize the note of ill-concealed condescension in his voice, smiled politely. "I am."
He snapped his fingers and servants entered bearing more clothing, vases filled with flowers, furniture, including a large desk and a padded chaise lounge, and, finally, scrolls, more scrolls than Gabrielle had seen outside the Corinthian library.
"The Conqueror has ordered that your chambers be made more comfortable," the officious little man recited, as if reading from a script he had not written. "The palace servants are at your disposal, and they can get you anything you require until you are more...mobile. At that point, you will be assigned an escort, and you may move freely about the city."
Gabrielle, by no means slow on the uptake, saw immediately that she was to remain a very pampered prisoner in a silk-bedecked jail. Immobilized for at least nine weeks, regaining the use of her legs for perhaps another three weeks, Gabrielle was effectively debarred from escaping, but by giving her palace servants and an escort, the Conqueror guaranteed that none of the Corinthian dissidents dared risk contacting her while she was recuperating or afterwards. The Conqueror was making sure her single clue was secure and untampered-with until she solved the mystery surrounding her vision.
Nonetheless, Gabrielle felt a measure of security at the new arrangement. Xena was sparing her, whatever the reason, and, after her close brush with death, Gabrielle rejoiced at any confirmation that she would live a while longer.
The bard nodded to the majordomo as if she'd spent every day of her life in a palace. "The Conqueror is most kind and you are most efficient in your duties, Brysas." She wondered idly if he annoyed the Conqueror as much as he did herself. She was fairly certain he did. "I thank her for her concern and you for your faultless service."
He stiffened a little at that, realizing that she was indeed treating him as a servant, but the memory of the Conqueror's glittering gaze stilled any disrespectful retort he might have aimed at the bard. He bowed precisely. "You are too kind. Please do not hesitate to ask for anything you might require."
When the servants had all filed out, Gabrielle found herself alone with the physician from Chin once more. He wore an odd expression as he watched her and Gabrielle found herself embarrassed by his perusal.
"There is an old saying among your people which you may recall," he finally broke the silence. "Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot." He gathered his medical supplies and walked to the chamber door. "I think, Gabrielle of Poteidaea, you have chosen the correct handle."
On a whim, Xena stuck her head through the connecting door to Gabrielle's
room after her bath was prepared.
"Okay, bard, I'm getting ready to get in the tub. Any requests I should know about first?"
Gabrielle colored attractively at the obvious teasing and set aside the scroll she'd been reading. "No... I'm fine." She made a small gesture indicating the newly furnished room. "Thank you for...for this."
Xena glanced around, finally noting the changes. "Oh..." she shrugged, a bit discomfited. "No big deal."
A pause developed and both searched their minds for a way to smooth it.
"Well..." they both said at once.
"I'm eating in about an hour," Xena forged on. "One of my commanders will be there. If you'd like, you could join us."
"If I won't be in the way...?" Gabrielle smiled gratefully. "I've been rather bored in here all day alone."
"You won't be in the way," Xena assured her. "I'll send someone for you in a bit."
The Conqueror came herself, it turned out, and found Gabrielle freshly
bathed and changed into a lovely blouse and skirt of mossy green edged
with yellow and maroon embroidery. Her red-gold hair had been brushed and
braided attractively in the latest of Corinthian fashions. Xena smiled
inwardly at the obvious preparations and carried Gabrielle into the other
room. Did she do that for me, or my unknown guest? The Conqueror
couldn't help wondering.
"This is an informal dinner," she told Gabrielle teasingly as she settled her into the chaise beside the low table at which they would dine. A servant moved forward to draw the Conqueror's own chair out for her.
Gabrielle flushed. "You gave me all these wonderful clothes. I just thought I should wear them."
That brought the Conqueror up short, and not knowing what to say, she grunted noncommittally and motioned for the servants to pour the wine. A knock interrupted the awkwardness.
"Lord Palaemon," Alita, who'd answered the door, announced.
The young man strode in, smiling that charming smile of his, and Xena, watching Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye, saw the bard's green eyes widen. She looked at Palaemon to see what so intrigued the bard, then realized it was just the sight of a handsome young man. Great, the Conqueror thought disgustedly. All I need is a lovesick bard. She'll be spewing bad poetry inside ten minutes.
Palaemon made his formal bow, but his eyes never left the blonde vision before him. It took the edge off the Conqueror's disgust to see him so obviously distracted.
"Palaemon," she purred in her most affable tone. He jerked his attention back to his ruler, flushing. "Meet Gabrielle of Poteidaea, a bard. Gabrielle, this is the chief of palace security, Palaemon."
To Xena's well-hidden amusement, Palaemon kissed the back of the hand Gabrielle extended to him. The bard blushed, pulling away rather quickly, but gazing at him with open encouragement.
"A lucky man am I," Palaemon announced, seating himself, "to dine with the two most beautiful women in the world."
"Save it for the bard," Xena cautioned him, giving him an eyebrow-lifted smirk.
Gabrielle's blush deepened, but she rallied enough to speak. "Thank you, m-my lord," she glanced to the Conqueror to confirm the honorific and received a nod. Green eyes sparkled naughtily as she continued. "I appreciate the flattery of being favorably compared to the Conqueror in beauty. She is that high peak to which all womanhood aspires."
Xena shot her a quelling look, but Palaemon, undaunted, nodded solemnly. "Yes, it is widely known that only Aphrodite is thought more fair than our Empress."
"Gods, not both of you," Xena rolled her eyes, but she was more off-balance than she wished to admit. It had been a long, long time since someone, especially two someones, had made an effort to compliment her. "Let's turn this excess of youthful energy to the food. I think that rumble like thunder is Gabrielle's stomach."
The introductions set the tone for the evening, and Xena was to remember for a long time afterward the laughter and conversation that filled her bedchamber that night. Once the servers had withdrawn, Gabrielle and Palaemon flirted outrageously and tried to outdo one another with teasing comments about and flattery of the Conqueror herself.
"So," Gabrielle finally asked the security chief, having held herself in check for a whole course, "what happened to your eye?"
Palaemon grinned. "Xena happened," he quoted mock-solemnly.
It was a standard answer in the ranks: What happened at the battle of fill in the blank? Xena happened.
The Conqueror gave Palaemon the same quelling look that had failed against Gabrielle; it didn't seem to faze him either. "Palaemon forgot to duck."
"Palaemon," said the man himself, "didn't even see your hand move before he hit the floor of the chariot."
Gabrielle looked from one to the other eagerly.
The Conqueror shrugged, gnawing idly on the end of a chicken bone. "That was a nice little counter you used," she allowed his comment to pass. "Hadn't seen that before."
The blond officer shook his head ruefully. "Not that that stopped you from turning it."
The Conqueror shrugged again. "It's all in the grip. Once I saw the grip, I knew where you were headed."
He frowned and flexed his hand as if holding a sword hilt. "So, you watch the hand?"
Xena smiled unpleasantly. "I watch everything. And listen. And feel."
"Feel?" Gabrielle probed.
"He puts off energy; everyone does. If I concentrate, I can feel the energy shift. Or I can hear the change in his breathing as he gets ready to swing. I used to practice blindfolded to learn to fight in the dark."
The bard couldn't help the disbelief that shaped her expression. "Fighting blindfolded?"
The Conqueror grinned cockily. "Yeah. I'll show you. Palaemon?"
The two warriors wiped their hands on their napkins and rose. Palaemon had seen the Conqueror demonstrate this particular skill on other occasions and he had to admit it was not only amazing, but actually frightening. The rumors in the corps of her bond with Ares explained some of her abilities, but nothing could rationalize this one. Warriors were a superstitious lot, and Palaemon found himself making a sign to ward off evil eye as he chose a sword from the Conqueror's armor rack.
"Tie this," the Conqueror ordered, handing him a silk scrap she'd pulled from a spear guidon. "And don't cover my ears."
They settled the blindfold, and she turned, taking her stance.
"Very well, bard," she teased. "Watch closely. Come on, Palaemon. Give it your best shot."
Palaemon took a deep breath, praying to whichever god was listening that he wouldn't get seriously injured in the Conqueror's little display, and began to circle to his left. The Conqueror followed his movement, easing to her left as well, keeping the distance between them. When he'd turned her a quarter turn from where they'd begun, he tried an overhead swing, but her blade snapped up and stopped it with a clang. She grinned that damned feral grin of hers.
"Don't suck in such a big breath before you swing," she advised.
He flushed, embarrassed. "It's never been a handicap before," he gritted out, sliding a thrust at her as he finished the last word.
She turned that and slipped past him, elbowing him in the kidney as she went by. He "oof"ed and swung again, but she ducked away. He barely averted the slash that followed, so he stilled his movements and took a couple deep breaths. She wasn't just playing with him, he could tell. She fought with her usual precision, despite the blindfold, and Palaemon decided prayer wouldn't help, so intelligence would have to. He watched her a moment, seeing the tilt of her head as she focused her hearing on him, the gentle sway of her hips and shoulders as she waited to shift with his next advance.
The Conqueror continued to grin, correctly reading her security chief's silence as a pause to think. Can't let him do that,she told herself and thrust again at where she felt his trunk to be. He slid away to his right, but she anticipated and aimed a swing at his right thigh. He caught it with a grunt on his sword and tried to turn her wrist, but she disengaged speedily and tossed her sword to her left hand. Before he could adjust, she rained a series of blows at him. He evaded them all, but he was breathing heavily by the last pass and she knew she'd have no problem hearing him now.
"You'll have to do better than that," she taunted him, poking her sword at him. He charged, as she knew he would, and she laughingly launched herself into a low flip and landed lightly behind him. When he turned, she reached up and pulled the blindfold off, revealing laughing blue eyes.
"Care to continue?" she invited.
Palaemon shook his head, expression a mixture of awe and frustration. She managed to make him look like an untrained private, even missing the most important of her senses. The Conqueror tossed him her sword and back-flipped over the table, coming down before her chair and collapsing back onto the fur and silk cushion.
"How do you do that?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes starry with excitement like a child at a magician's show.
"Years of practice," the Conqueror took a sip of water. "I probably tried my flip 300 times before I got it right."
Palaemon nodded in agreement as he sat the swords back in the hanger and returned to the table. He'd seen the grueling regimen she still put herself through to keep her fighting skills honed.
"But..." Gabrielle shook her head, working through what she wanted to say. "That seems to imply anyone could learn to be as good as you."
Xena laughed. "Well, I wouldn't go that far."
"Some people are fated to be warriors," Palaemon observed.
"Fate...destiny..." the Conqueror said the words as if they tasted sour. "I don't know if I believe all that. I think you make your own destiny. You change it with every decision, every act."
"Change destiny? Isn't it decided by the gods before our birth?" Gabrielle was thrilled with the direction the conversation was headed. She had loved theoretical philosophy at the Academy, and her dream all along had been to discuss such things with the Conqueror.
"No," the Conqueror argued confidently. "Life is like... like a river. Acting or making a decision is like throwing in a rock: There are ripples, aftereffects, to every action."
"But the ripples eventually die out," Palaemon stated.
"Ah...but the rock is still there," the Conqueror smirked triumphantly, raising one long finger, "so the river is changed."
"But...but..." Gabrielle looked from one to the other, "what if they're the wrongrocks?"
"The wrong rocks?" Palaemon queried, seeing the Conqueror's brows pull together at the continued dispute, which she thought she'd won, and fearing her mercurial temper.
"Yes. What if the decisions were the wrong decisions? The wrong rocks thrown into your life river?"
"Then you'll pay for it in Tartarus," Xena cut in heavily.
Palaemon could sense that things were also becoming a little too personal for the Conqueror. Gabrielle was implying, through the analogy, that Xena might have made decisions that were wrong. Not a way to please the Conqueror. He decided to try a little levity.
"At least you know your friends will be there," he joked
"It's the friends I putthere that worry me," the Conqueror revealed.
Her tone allowed them all a chuckle, lightening some of the tension.
"So, we're doomed to suffer eternally for our wrong decisions?" Gabrielle frowned. "I just can't believe that that is our soul's destiny."
"You can come back," Palaemon said quietly.
"Just me?" Gabrielle grinned, laying a hand on his forearm.
He flushed. "No, I mean any one of us. At least, that's what Plato argues."
"You've read Plato?" Gabrielle excitedly squeezed the muscled arm under her hand. "He's one of my favorites."
"Palaemon's father was an academician. He's one of my most well-educated soldiers." For once, Xena's voice held no note of mockery.
"So, what does Plato say?" Gabrielle encouraged the now-embarrassed security chief.
"Well, actually, Philo of Alexandria took Plato's idea and worked it out to a logical conclusion: he says that some souls, reaching the Isles of the Blessed, find that they long for the familiar and accustomed ways of mortal life, so they return to this world to live again."
"Not as ghosts?" The Conqueror seemed intrigued by that idea.
"No, they're born and live again. Reincarnated."
Palaemon shrugged. "Maybe to try to undo something they did... or to be near someone they loved."
"I believe that," Gabrielle nodded, eagerly. "I believe I've been here before." She blushed suddenly at the Conqueror's disbelieving stare and struggled to explain. "Haven't you ever walked into a place you've never been before and... and recognized it? Or heard a song that you know you've never heard before, yet you find you know the words." The Conqueror's face was so still that Gabrielle thought she'd lost her audience and rushed on with another example. "Surely you've met someone and within moments or candlemarks, you've fallen into instant rapport with them."
Only you, the thought-- accompanied by a brief reappearance of the vision of Gabrielle's eyes as she lay on the cross-- flitted through Xena's consciousness and she was greatly disturbed by it. Gabrielle, eyes locked on the Conqueror's steely blue ones, could almost see the shields go up and she felt like an unexpected blow the rejection and sudden disinterest. The blonde's expression fell.
"Plato," the Conqueror recovered, her tone rudely dismissive, "he's the one that thinks philosophers are the only ones qualified to rule."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed quickly, taking umbrage at the Conqueror's tone, "but he said warriors are philosophers."
"He also said dogs are philosophers because they decide who to bite based on knowing or not knowing," Xena countered, leaning forward into the confrontation.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply hotly, then closed it. Then opened it again.
She suddenly realized that that was exactly what Plato had said, and she-- trained in rhetoric and debate-- had just been out-argued. Just like Palaemon had been easily out-fought, she realized. She broke into rueful laughter. Xena, correctly reading all the emotions that had crossed Gabrielle's all-too-expressive face, also found herself laughing. Palaemon released the breath he'd been unaware he was holding.
"Are you one of Gabrielle's warrior philosophers, Palaemon," Xena teased, eyes sparkling still from the shared laughter.
"I've learned a lot in your army, Conqueror," he stated modestly.
"That reincarnation stuff is the religion in India," the Conqueror mused. "In Persia, they believe that we're all the soldiers in two giant armies that fight through eternity. One is the army of Light and the other the army of Darkness."
"Which army do you belong to?" Gabrielle thought it safer to ask Palaemon the question first.
"Light being good and dark being evil?" he clarified. At her nod, he smiled, "Light... I think."
"Well, that's the problem, isn't it?" the Conqueror's eyes looked distant. "Who decides good and evil... just and unjust?"
"Our hearts know," Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena came back to the discussion suddenly and fixed Gabrielle with a devastatingly charming and altogether reckless smile. "I don't have a heart."
Gabrielle took a moment to recover her dropped jaw, then rolled her eyes. "Your soul, then."
"I fear my soul is rather biased," Xena sighed, but her tone wasn't as light as she tried to make it. "I'm surely bound for an eternity in Tartarus."
"You said you can change your destiny every day," Gabrielle objected. "You could change that."
Xena drained her wine with a flippant air. "Or I could just wait til next life and hope everything turns out better."
"You could come back as a dog," Palaemon offered.
With the ensuing laughter, the conversation turned and faded in intensity. Finishing desert and drinking their wine, they argued humorously over whether animals had souls and would go to the Elysian Fields. The Conqueror was adamant on only one point: Argo was Elysia bound.
"That reminds me of a story..." Gabrielle announced and launched into a seemingly endless supply of humorous tales and jokes she recalled or-- Xena suspected-- invented on the spot. Much, much later, after Palaemon had made his laughingly effusive goodbyes, Xena found herself chuckling as she carried Gabrielle back to her side of the suite.
"Aesop's ass and the serendipitous slide," she repeated to Gabrielle's questioning look.
"I could tell you were an ass woman," Gabrielle quipped.
The Conqueror snorted. "You had too much to drink," she hazarded, setting the bard down carefully.
"Something like that," Gabrielle agreed, lying back on the soft mattress, feeling the room rotate slowly around her.
Xena went to the dresser and poured a goblet of water from the carafe sitting there. She returned to seat herself on the edge of the bed.
"Palaemon has a nice ass," Gabrielle observed dreamily.
"Do tell?" the rich voice held exasperated amusement.
"Not as nice as yours," the long lashes fluttered open, revealing softly glowing green eyes.
"Don't say things you'll regret in the morning," the Conqueror cautioned, seeing hero worship mixed up with a little unconscious infatuation in the green gaze. She held the look a moment longer than necessary, then forced herself to break the connection. "Speaking of things you'll regret in the morning..." she unceremoniously hauled Gabrielle up and held the goblet to the bard's lips. "Drink this. All of it."
"You'll thank me when your head doesn't feel like Aesop's ass kicked it."
Gabrielle choked a little laugh, but obediently swallowed all the water.
"Do you think you'll be sick?" Xena asked. "I can get Alita to sleep here with you tonight. In case you have to get up."
"No, I'll be fine." Gabrielle swayed, catching herself on her hands. "I may need help getting undressed."
"You can sleep just as you are," Xena protested.
"And ruin my clothes? No, if you could call someone...?"
Xena sighed impatiently. "Here," she handed Gabrielle the goblet and reached behind the other woman's neck to unfasten her blouse.
"Oh, no, you shouldn't..."
"Hush, I've done it already," the Conqueror frowned, pulling the garment over Gabrielle's head, turning it wrong side out in the process.
Gabrielle acquiesced uncertainly, unbuttoning her skirt and helping Xena slide it down over her splinted legs. At Xena's bidding, she rolled to the other side of the bed so Xena could pull the covers aside, then rolled back to be tucked in.
"There now," the Conqueror said in long-suffering tones, watching the blonde settle herself under the light cover and stifle a huge yawn. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's lashes had fallen again, but she managed a murmur in her softest, sleepiest voice. "G'night, Xena."
The Conqueror didn't know why she shivered as she blew out the bedside candle.
In the cold hours before dawn, the Conqueror sat bolt upright in bed, gasping
against the pounding of her heart, awake from a nightmare of the crucifixion,
but tangled in the images still. Reaching down, she touched her shaky,
sweating palms to her lower legs. The fierce ache there faded with the
receding dream, and, with a sound almost like a sob, she threw herself
sideways over the cooler side of the bed, laying with wide, staring azure
eyes in the creaking silence of the castle.
Now there were two versions of her oldest night terror, she thought, sickened. In the familiar, almost comfortable first, she watched the man she'd called friend, though they'd been more, order her legs broken with icy nonchalance. She'd seen it so many times, in so many beds, that she could turn it, change it, take it forward to its true end many years later when she stood at the foot of Caesar's cross and smiled as she ordered him punished in exactly the same manner.
This new dream of crucifixion, an extension of the vision she'd seen the day before, was painfully unfamiliar: snow, soldiers, smooth wood against her back, and her eyes filled with Gabrielle and that adoring green gaze. She shuddered at the memory. In this dream's grasp, she twisted and throbbed with uncontrolled emotion: anger, of course, but also guilt, anguished and caustic, at someone else's injury, heartbreak at her own helplessness, and finally, overwhelmingly, the deep, terrifying, abiding love for the woman sharing her fate. She felt tears well at even the memory of that depth of caring. No one in all her life had made Xena feel what she felt for that wraith, that imaginary woman whose double slept just two doors away.
Xena forced herself upright and out of her bed. Pathetic! she hissed to that internal weakness. I didn't get where I am crying over little girls with broken legs!
She seized her sword from the rack beside her armchair and began in silence to drill, facing the imaginary opponent she'd fought many long nights in a quest to win through to rest and peace. Tonight, she tried not to notice that that invisible figure wore her own face.
Continued in part 4