How often things occur by mere chance which we dared not even hope for. Terence Phormio
"She's in a Hades of
a mood," Theodorus cautioned Palaemon as the two-- Theodorus moving at
a curious jog-trot-- passed in the balustraded gallery of the palace's
west wing. Judging from his tone alone, Palaemon didn't need to be told
which she the longhaired guardsman meant. Theodorus had been one
of Xena's bed warmers a few years ago, and he'd never lost his adolescent
yearning and semi-religious awe for the Conqueror. And Palaemon knew Theo
wasn't alone among Xena's former lovers in feeling that way.
"What's up?" Palaemon questioned, reversing to follow Theodorus a few paces.
"Who knows?" Theodorus shrugged ruefully. "She's been pulverizing Corinthians since daybreak, then Darphus and his lot showed up and she started beating the holy Tartarus outa them. She sent me for Wan Li and the battlefield healers. I think Prosentus' leg is broken."
"Thanks," Palaemon muttered, resuming his path to the practice ring beyond the barracks with a quicker stride.
He wondered what had produced such a radical change of mood. Not that Xena's moods were all that predictable, but last night she'd laughed and conversed so readily with the bard and himself that he'd genuinely looked forward to seeing her this morning, and not, for once, with thoughts of winning her favor to advance his career. Instead, he'd wanted just to talk to her again, in hopes of seeing another glimpse of that charming, funny woman with whom he and Gabrielle had shared dinner. Her demeanor had given permission to relax and think of her as something other than a ruthless, demanding leader, something more like a friend.
He considered whether Gabrielle might have said or done something to anger Xena after he had left, but he thought it unlikely. The two of them, incredibly, seemed to have slipped into some sort of friendship based on their remarkable intelligence and amazingly similar senses of humor. Palaemon, in the Conqueror's inner circle for several years, had never seen anyone make her laugh the way Gabrielle had done.
Aesop's ass and the serendipitous slide, he thought with a grin, recalling the sparkle of mischievous delight he'd observed in Gabrielle's eyes as she'd told Xena that story. Xena had looked amazingly young while she watched the bard, and her expression had held an unguarded quality that Palaemon felt sure few had seen from the adult Xena. And her laughter.... Palaemon smiled openly. Facing the Conqueror on a daily basis, one forgot sometimes how attractive she was, but when Xena smiled and laughed, she was absolutely stunning.
Now, someone or something had unleashed the Destroyer of Nations on them all once again.
"Ares' left ball, Darphus, you're even slower than usual!"
Palaemon heard the Conqueror long before he actually saw her. He climbed the high wooden wall of the practice ring and joined the other soldiers watching the Conqueror decimate the inner circle of the Imperial Guard. She was dressed in her familiar leather battle dress, breastplate, bracers and greaves, but she faced more heavily armored opponents. Darphus' chosen men had come from full-armor drills and each wore a legionnaire's breastplate and carried spathas. However, three were down already, obviously the ones Theodorus was getting medical help for, and Darphus was engaging the Conqueror backed only by two somewhat frightened-looking guardsmen who did little beyond hamper Darphus' swing.
As Palaemon watched, Xena twirled her sword lazily and made a pass at the soldier on Darphus' right. The man tripped over his own feet and fell into the Captain's path. Xena immediately struck at his distracted superior, and Darphus grunted and twisted to his right, but the cold blade of Xena's sword moved to block him there. He pushed off with his forward foot, slipping back a pace and trying to set up an attack, but the Conqueror was on the offensive again, kicking out at the other guard, forcing him back. She turned on Darphus with a jab from the shoulder, followed with a cross-body slash and, unprepared as he was, the block he needed to save his life nearly cost him the fingers of his right hand. Only Xena's incredible control stopped the blade before it sliced completely through tendons and bone. Even Palaemon winced at the damage she'd done.
"Idiot!" the Conqueror hissed, lowering her sword as Darphus clutched his wound. "How you've lasted this long as a warrior is beyond me. You're doing nothing I-- or any other halfway experienced warrior-- haven't seen a hundred times before. There's nothing new with you, Darphus. I have twelve blocks for every blow you aim at me, and I can predict your next ten strokes because you never vary them!"
Darphus' flushed face reddened further as she castigated him in front of the entire first squad of the Imperial Guard. The Conqueror's reprimand could easily be taken as a signal for some younger member of his officer corps to challenge him for command of the Guard. He glared balefully at Palaemon, the likeliest candidate, awash as he was in Imperial favor, perched on the top rail of the enclosure, but the blond merely smirked.
"You're all pathetic," the Conqueror widened her target range. "You expect to protect me, to be my elite strike force, and yet I can take on any number of you and damn near dismember you in practice? How much worse will you perform in a real battle when you're stressed and frightened?" She sheathed her sword in a gesture laden with contempt. "I want to see changes, Darphus. I want to know I can trust you like my right hand."
Trust? Darphus paled visibly. The Conqueror trusted no one and nothing. Darphus' thought process, like his swordplay, ran on a hopelessly unimaginative track. She knows something; she's playing with me. He'd been in a sweat since she'd called that bastard Autolycus in to investigate that irritating blonde bard, and now the Conqueror was talking to him about trust? She must know something! Darphus could feel his knees begin to shake. Xena, he knew, was always one step ahead, even when you thought she was behind you.
"The-- the Guard would lie down and die for you, Conqueror," he stammered, wrapping a rag around his injured hand.
"I want the Guard to stand up and fight for me!" Xena turned to pace around the enclosure, laying the baleful fire of her gaze on one after another. "I'm sick of beating you all senseless two mornings a week and having you in infirmary the rest of the time."
Darphus, released from her attention, felt relief. The Conqueror was genuinely angry over the Guard, he realized, and not just berating them as an introduction to uncovering his disloyalty. She had no idea what he was plotting. His secret, his grand and glorious secret, remained his alone. He felt a glow of satisfaction, tempered by a healthy fear of Xena's ability to sniff out a plot as soon as it was hatched. She must not find out until everything was in place, and then... then it would be too late for even the Conqueror to do anything to stop it. A small smirk curled his mouth as he watched her.
"You're supposed to be finest fighting force in the Known World, perhaps the best ever assembled," Xena informed them, her tone making her disbelief of that supposition patently obvious. "That's the most dangerous situation possible: to have a reputation you cannot maintain. If one swordswoman can best ten of you--even if that swordswoman is me-- your reputation is grounded on nothing! Get yourselves together, Guard, or I'll muster out every one of you and recruit myself an Imperial Guard I can count on."
It wasn't an idle threat, they all knew. Xena's resources knew no limits and selecting another 250 guards from the elite of her legions, armies, and local levies would be less than a day's employment for her administrators. For the mustered out, however, little awaited them, but destitution and eventual death. No man or woman asked to leave the Imperial Guard would ever be allowed to fight in another portion of the Conqueror's army. The Guard was the elite and the only honorable way to leave it was on your shield, dead or dying, having given everything for the honor of the Empire.
"The Conqueror's will be done," Darphus ordered, his voice tight with easily manufactured rage. "Double the exercise schedule." There was a collective groan and Darphus leapt at the throat of the nearest guardsmen. "Did you say something?!" he demanded.
"Sir! No, Sir!" the man choked out.
"Did anyone here wish to express an opinion?" Now he glared around at the assembly.
"Sir! No, Sir!" They answered in unison.
Xena nodded, not pleased but satisfied for the moment. "More weight training and running. And we'll start the surprise drills again. I don't care how much of Corinth you keep awake; there will be unannounced skirmishes whenever the mood strikes me. We may be at peace at present, but war is inevitable and I want my warriors prepared."
"Thy will," Darphus said docilely, convinced that he'd smoothed over her suspicions once more.
Palaemon jumped down from the wall and caught up with the Conqueror as she made her way back to the palace.
"My queen," he began hesitantly.
"My security chief," she mimicked his solemnity.
"I would like to make a request of you, Conqueror."
"Then make it, Palaemon. I can't say I will grant it until you ask it."
"I would like to help in setting up the unannounced drills." He rushed on as she paused her stride and turned to him. "It's Darphus' men you're testing, and I know Darphus-- he'll tip them off every time, just to make himself look good. If you let me help, he won't know anything and the tests will be true ones."
The Conqueror frowned. "I'm not happy with the divisiveness I already feel in my Imperial Guard, Palaemon. Making you my lieutenant in this will only solidify the two camps I see forming. Darphus will be insulted and his men will be as well. They'll be picking fights with your squad whenever the chance arises. I won't have infighting, in addition to lack of preparation, hampering the Guards' ability to fight at a moment's notice."
Palaemon nodded, trying to cover his expression of disappointment. "Thy will, Your Majesty." He took a deep breath and made his decision. "There's something else, though."
The Conqueror folded her arms, looking expectant.
"I-- I don't have much solid evidence, but I think Darphus is... is preparing to betray you in some way," he finished in a rush.
"Well," the Conqueror's expression held mock-horror, "that's a pretty strong accusation, oh security chief." Her tone implied just the opposite, heavy as it was with sarcasm. "Especially since you readily admit you don't have proof."
He went scarlet under her gaze. "My Queen, I wouldn't bring this up if I weren't..."
"Deeply concerned for my personal safety," she interrupted acidly. "Yes, Palaemon, I know. Of course, the fact that you're perfectly positioned to move into Darphus' command has nothing to do with it." The Conqueror threw up her hands in disgust. "Gods preserve me from ambitious seconds!"
"Conqueror, I swear, by any god you name," Palaemon pleaded sincerely, "this is not about my promotion. I take my position as chief of security very seriously, and right now I'm worried about your security. My gut tells me Darphus is up to something, and I'm afraid... afraid for you and for the Empire. I don't trust him."
Xena's expression softened some at the honest emotion she read in the younger officer's face. Besides, what he said only confirmed what her own gut was telling her. "Darphus is always up to something," she told Palaemon reassuringly. "I won't let this go too far. If I give him enough rope, the idiot will hang himself."
Palaemon bowed, knowing that that was as close to an apology as he was going to get. "I am yours to command, Your Majesty."
"Of course you are," she purred, as was expected. "Now, go do something useful. And Palaemon..." she waited until he turned once more to face her before finishing quietly, "I'll keep your offer to lead the drills under advisement."
The King of Spies'
headquarters in Corinth lay on the lowest level of the palace dungeon,
a place well removed from the light of day and filled instead with the
shadows of fear and horror that clung to all places of torture. The Conqueror
seldom visited the halls of interrogation, not because of any moral squeamishness
but because she found torture mundane after years of bloody battlefields,
massacred cities and the usual destruction of war. Nevertheless, she found
it amazing that Autolycus actually sought these types of quarters in whichever
of her cities he was visiting.
"It tends to keep me honest," he'd confessed self-deprecatingly when she'd once questioned him.
At Corinth, the choice held more logic: an old, carefully constructed system of tunnels and passages led from the spymaster's suite to points all over the city-- basements, cisterns, wine cellars. Autolycus could come and go invisibly as he controlled the network of informants (usually paid) and monitors (usually volunteers) that provided the Conqueror with up to the moment information regarding all her many domains. Fully a third of Xena's Imperial Budget passed through Autolycus' hands to buy and guarantee that knowledge, and the Conqueror found the former thief almost suspiciously honest when it came to handling these funds.
He'd bristled at her inquires into his accounting. "It's no fun to steal where it's expected."
The Conqueror had never again doubted him. Even thieves, it seemed had their own codes to live by.
She appeared silently in Autolycus' doorway and watched him as he rustled through the scrolls lined up along his desk. Dressed, as always, in black, he did have a certain rakish charm, and he did everything in his power to enhance that image, including his fastidious concern for his clothes and his almost obsessive care of his mustache. He fussed like an old housewife, she thought, allowing herself a slight grin. Just then Autolycus caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye and jumped nearly out of his skin.
Xena sauntered in like a sleepy panther and perched on the end of a sofa, crossing her long, shapely legs, barely covered by the leather skirt of her battledress, and folding her hands on her knees. Autolycus swallowed audibly.
"Couldn't you clear your throat or something? I don't know that my old heart can take many more of your little entrances."
Xena grinned unrepentantly. "Where's my report on the bard?"
Autolycus made a discomfited gesture. "I can't pull that kind of intelligence out of my...hat," he grinned as he obviously changed the analogy. "I've sent my best man out to Poteidaea and I expect him back in a week."
"I don't want to wait a week," she growled.
"Now, now," Autolycus hastened to curb her impending tirade. "I do have some local information. None of it's been confirmed," he cautioned as he began sorting through the scrolls again," but it all looks pretty straightforward. Ah, here!"
Xena took the proffered scroll and unrolled it, scanning it as Autolycus waited with obvious nervousness.
"She...shops?" the Conqueror asked disbelievingly.
"That seems to be the most egregious error-- aside from the incitement to riot thing-- that we could find," Autolycus admitted. "This is the most boring potential criminal I've ever done research on. Everyone loves her; she's kind to the poor; she even worked to get the local kineterion to clean up their place and raise the whore's prices so they could make a living wage."
"Reforming the local whore house," the Conqueror sighed. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" She skimmed through the rest, murmuring highlights aloud, "Conducted a morning literacy workshop in the small agora... wrote a recommendation so a poor boy could get into the Athens Academy... petitioned to have the crossroad cistern cleaned." The Conqueror snorted with disgust. "How did she end up on a cross?"
"Well, she did conduct secret meetings with people who later committed some serious breaches of the public peace." Autolycus seemed to be trying to sound as pompous as possible.
Xena tossed him the scroll. "Ah, yes, the tax booth arsonist. A few bricks shy of a load, wasn't he? Oh, and her poster campaigns. Broadsides, posted in the least literate neighborhoods of Corinth, asking people to write letters to the Corinthian Administrator complaining of the lack of rights? That's not an executable act of sedition. That's a minor annoyance like we face in every conquered city." The Conqueror shook her head ruefully. "So, tell me, truly, Autolycus, how did she end up on a cross?"
Autolycus stroked his moustache. "Well, apparently, the local police force received a tip about the arson. Somebody told somebody who told...you get the idea, but, amazingly, when they went to investigate, they found the guy standing there, pockets full of straw for tinder, a jug of wine for fuel, and a flint and striker in his hand. They asked him what he was doing and he said he was watching the front of the tax booth to see if the fire he's set in back was burning."
The Conqueror looked incredulous. "He told them?"
"Apparently, he was so intent on making sure his fire had caught, he didn't even look to see who asked the question."
"Well, it gets better. He's brought in to the Corinth jail and guess who's coincidentally there? The Captain of the Imperial Guard."
"Darphus," Xena's eyes narrowed to blue bale fire slits.
"Darphus," Autolycus agreed. "Heard from someone that the Corinthians were holding a political prisoner. Thought he'd come by and escort the prisoner to the secret police."
"He was waiting when they brought this arsonist in?"
Autolycus shrugged noncommittally, but his expression as he watched the Conqueror said volumes about what he thought of Darphus.
"So, the arsonist ends up here..." Xena prompted.
"He fainted as soon as Darphus mentioned taking him to the secret police, so Darphus and his goons-- Marstevius and Garnon-- haul him all the way over here and dump him on my doorstep."
"Did you interrogate him yourself?"
Autolycus smiled. "I don't usually go in for that sort of thing," he said demurely. "I think of myself as an... administrator."
Xena gave him an evil grin. "Okay, I'll think about that one, on the off chance I need another administrator, but you're a damn good spy, Autolycus, and one of the few-- I hesitate to admit it-- I actually trust."
"I didn't interrogate him," Autolycus continued as if she hadn't spoken, but he was well pleased with the Conqueror's response to his roundabout request for a promotion. "They had a lot of trouble keeping him conscious. He fainted every time they introduced a new tool, but he gave the girl up quickly. Darphus was hovering at the door like an expectant father, they tell me, and he came to me with that cheesy grin of his and asked to be allowed to-- how was it he put it-- 'expedite this matter' for me." The master spy shrugged. "I figured the less my men are seen picking up prisoners, the better spies they'll make, so I agreed. He ends up with the bard; she ends up in the public judgment."
"Well," Xena said, more for something to say while she processed the information than for anything else. "So, Darphus' grubby paw prints are all over this and he gets the glory for bringing two rebels to judgment."
Autolycus nodded. "The bard did attend the meetings and my sources tell me that the self-styled 'freedom fighters' did look to her for leadership. She was the brains, plain and simple, but she knew nothing about the tax booth fire. We questioned her hard on it and she was clean."
"And the arsonist? Did he mention anyone else?"
"He mentioned one other name, but by the time they got to that point everything was pretty incoherent. They wrote it down, but no one's been able to connect it to the freedom fighters."
"What was it?"
The name meant nothing to the Conqueror, either, though she was known for never forgetting anything. She filed it away with the rest of the facts of the case and tried not to think for the moment about the mistake that had been made with Gabrielle's life. Darphus was indeed up to something and Gabrielle had had the misfortune to get caught up in his little web.
"Anything else I need to know?" she shifted her intensity to other matters with an effortless strength of will.
Autolycus wisely followed her lead and changed the subject. "I'm hearing rumors from Egypt," he said cryptically.
The Conqueror smiled a crocodile smile, hearing the rustles and movement of one of Autolycus' subordinates in the outer office and realizing that Autolycus had heard the man come in as well. Egypt was part of the prearranged code, which the two of them had agreed upon in the event that anyone could overhear them. Egypt in their vocabulary stood for Rome. Had Autolycus really meant to discuss Egyptian policy he would have said he'd heard rumors of Cleopatra or the Nile.
"And are the Egyptians preparing to give me trouble, oh King of Spies?"
"Very likely," the dark-haired thief grinned. "Perhaps it's time you visited Ptolemy and reminded him what a pleasant ally you make." He selected a small anonymous-looking scroll from his desk and handed it to her. "A state visit to Egypt is always wonderful this time of year."
Xena slipped the scroll into her bracer and stood. "My navy is feeling somewhat neglected. Perhaps Ptolemy's hospitality would cure them."
"Undoubtedly," Autolycus bowed ironically and escorted her to the door.
"I'll see what my admirals say and get back with you."
"Thy will be done, my queen."
In her chamber a short time later, the Conqueror retrieved the scroll Autolycus had handed her and read it. Rumors, indeed, from "Egypt" she thought as she read. She sighed and moved to incinerate the scroll with habitual thoroughness. Her eyes lingered on the flame, her thoughts on Rome-- Rome and Caesar, her nemesis, her mirror, her maker. Yeah, I killed you, ya bastard, she thought bitterly. And a fat lot of good it did me. You and your crucifixions still haunt my dreams, and now I'm playing your part with Gabrielle in my place... on the cross.
Gabrielle sighed and tried again to shift her splinted legs to a more comfortable
position. She'd never slept on her back, always on her side, but the unyielding
bindings made that impossible. To add to her restlessness, she'd done absolutely
nothing all day: no visitors, of course, but no sight of the Conqueror,
either, and no invitation to share her evening meal. Xena had dined elsewhere,
Gabrielle surmised, and was still engaged, for silence had reigned in the
suite since before sundown, when the bard had heard that familiar velvet
lash of a voice dressing down someone named Theodorus.
It was just past midnight, now. Gabrielle had heard the changing of the palace guard through her open window a few minutes ago, but she was no nearer sleep than she had been three hours before when she'd heard the last guard change. Insomniac Gabrielle was not. She usually slept well and soundly; in fact, it had been a family joke that the only thing that could awaken Gabrielle was the growling of her own stomach. Of course, the bard thought with unaccustomed bitterness, that had been back in the quiet, peaceful days when everyone in Poteidaea slept without fear.
Gabrielle knew precisely the day that peace had been broken. She remembered it like it was yesterday, and the pain of it hadn't faded at all in the five years that had passed.
"Lila," she whispered to herself, tears forming in her green eyes. The guilt was still there, too, though everyone in the village had forgiven her, rejoicing over the very thing that still made her feel so unworthy of their trust and friendship that she'd left Poteidaea forever as soon as she was able.
The morning that everything changed had dawned like any spring morning, sun-dappled and golden. The village women and girls, gathering family laundry and laughing and gossiping as they went, made their way to the river to do the wash, but the Fates intervened. In the clearing below the big olive grove, slavers waited, and the women walked right into their trap. Ten women and six girls were taken captive by Draco's men and sold to raise money for his doomed campaign against the mightiest warlord in Greece-- Xena the Conqueror. It was a trivial attack in the middle of a futile endeavor, but it had ended the idyllic innocence of the village of Poteidaea.
Gabrielle had seen the whole thing over and over in her mind. The imaginative clarity of her storyteller's eye made the colors more vivid, the sounds louder and more distinct, even the smells, of spring flowers and new grass, stronger. But not because she'd witnessed the event. No, Gabrielle wasn't there because she, the obedient oldest, the dutiful daughter, had for once rebelled and disobeyed her parents. She had abandoned Lila, her beloved younger sister, in the town square with the laundry, and, when Lila and the others had been taken by the slavers, Gabrielle had been safe on the other side of the village, listening to Artebus, a traveling bard, regale the children of Poteidaea with Aesop's fables.
A little sob shook the bard's frame as she thought of it. Oh, sister, how I wish it had been me, she thought for the thousandth, perhaps ten thousandth, time.
Her parents had been grief-stricken as a matter of course, but Gabrielle had been saved from the slavers, they and the rest of Poteidaea believed, by some divine intervention, and they celebrated quietly even as they grieved for their lost child. Gabrielle, bearing the weight of both the loss and the self-recrimination, had sunk into a depression, a listlessness that had lasted for months. The sole bearer now of all her parents' hopes and fears, she'd unquestioningly done everything they'd told her. At their behest, she'd even accepted dull, dependable Perdicus' offer of marriage and settled down on his farmstead outside of town, determined to be what she'd failed so miserably that awful day to be: a dutiful daughter and, then, wife.
With a sigh, Gabrielle tossed her red-gold head against the pillow. What use was it, going over all this again, she wondered. Nothing she could do would change anything one iota. She'd had to accept that she truly wasn't meant to be with Lila, wherever Lila had been taken. She'd dealt with the grief and learned long ago that her life had needed to go another path. But the guilt remained because Gabrielle knew that, whatever her current hardships, she was alive, and she had no proof that her sister had survived.
What makes one life more important than another, she pondered, wishing sleep would take her away from all these questions that seemed to have no answers. Why should one person live and another die? Alexander the Great had ruled nearly as much land as the Conqueror, yet he died suddenly at thirty-three, leaving no heir and an empire that dissolved almost immediately. Had he done something to anger the gods, bringing their wrath upon him? Or was it merely the weaving of the Fates meeting an abrupt end? Perdicus, her plodding, unimaginative husband, could, under no circumstances, have been said to have deserved to die, but die he had, and his death had set Gabrielle free to follow the path in life she had always wanted.
Xena said we change our own destiny with the choices we make, Gabrielle recalled, and she's right. By choosing to go watch the storyteller that morning, I altered the course of my life forever. But our choices also change other people's destinies. Perdicus choosing to enlist as a soldier and dying in battle freed me from my marriage and allowed me to become a bard. The right to choose is a double-edged sword.
A flicker of movement distracted Gabrielle from her contemplations and drew her eye to the window, set high in the wall above the left side of her bed. She frowned, seeing nothing now but the fierce shine of familiar stars framed by the casement. The Great Hunter, Orion, stood there, a narrow, nail-paring moon at his side.
A shadow darted between the two and Gabrielle realized what she'd seen: a hunting bat, moving on jerky, frantic wings. Bats had nested in the eaves of her parent's home in Poteidaea, she remembered with an inward smile, and she and Lila had often watched them, at sunset, fly out for the night, trailing like smoke, squealing their high-pitched cries. Gabrielle had been afraid of them, fearing they were Bacchae sent to steal the souls of farm children, but Lila had laughed and said they were just mice with wings.
Their squeaks did sound like mice, Gabrielle mused sleepily, settling herself deeper into her covers, hoping to drop off on that pleasant memory, but her eyes flew open as she suddenly realized there had been no sound from the bat she thought she'd seen. And it was far too late in the night for a bat to be beginning its hunting. She stared hard at the window again.
With so little moonlight, it was nearly impossible to differentiate between the darkness beyond the window and the darkness within. Gabrielle's eyes, straining, nervous, saw movements where there were none, but she became convinced that steadily, stealthily, someone or something was entering her window.
Had she been asleep as she should have been, Gabrielle would have heard nothing. As it was, her eyes barely followed the quick, silent movement of a black clad body dropping through the open casement and landing in the thicker darkness beside her clothes wardrobe. A few heartbeats of stillness, then the shadow detached itself from its hiding place and began moving toward her bed.
Instincts she didn't know she possessed took the bard over.
"Xena!" she shrieked and rolled to her right, putting the width of the bed between herself and her attacker. Her shattered legs screamed in protest, but Gabrielle clenched her jaw and threw herself off the side of the bed, landing on the thick sheepskin rug and rolling under the bed frame.
Whatever she had previously speculated about Xena's almost supernatural abilities, Gabrielle blessed them as the connecting door from the Conqueror's supposedly empty bedchamber flew open, silhouetting the tall, armed form of the Conqueror in golden light.
"By the window," Gabrielle warned, but Xena had already launched herself unerringly at the nearly invisible figure that was struggling up the wall toward the opening.
The chamber's outer door burst inward just as the Conqueror grabbed the fleeing assassin, and Palaemon and three palace guards stormed in with torches and lanterns.
"It's about time," Xena muttered, catching the upraised arm of the black-clad assassin with her free hand.
A knife glittered and Palaemon threw himself forward. There was a brief scuffle, and then the knife clattered into the corner, and the intruder was on his knees, unmasked, arms pinioned behind him by the burly security chief.
"Chinese," Xena frowned at the revealed features.
To Gabrielle's wonder, the warlord barked out a question in the strange, singsong dialect of Chin. She got no answer and her tone went icy as she repeated the question. She slapped him roundly, sending blood and spittle flying from his open mouth.
"Who sent you?" Xena repeated in Greek, but the man just shook his head.
Snarling, the Conqueror tossed aside her sword and administered two sharp jabs to the base of the assassin's neck. Palaemon released his hold and stood, signaling the guards to withdraw. The assassin was immobilized.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she informed him with some satisfaction, not bothering with a Chinese translation. "You'll die in seconds unless you tell me who sent you."
He stared stoically ahead, not even acknowledging her.
"What the Tartarus took so long?" the Conqueror snapped, turning her tigerish gaze on Palaemon.
"Two sentries were killed. They met with their counterparts only every quarter candlemark."
Xena grunted with dissatisfaction and moved to light the bedside lamp. She almost smiled when she saw where the bard was. Smart girl, she thought proudly.
"Are you all right?" she questioned, bending to help Gabrielle slide out from under the bedstead, then lifting her up onto the mattress.
Gabrielle nodded tightly, white-faced with pain. "Yes... but what about him?"
Xena glanced at the assassin. "What about him?"
"Will he really die?"
"I'm hardly the bluffing type, Gabrielle."
He was writhing, Gabrielle observed, a thin trickle of blood trailing from one nostril, but he betrayed little panic.
Don't kill him," Gabrielle begged, watching the color drain from his face.
Finally, the man made a weird, ululating moan, meeting the Conqueror's implacable blue gaze.
"Son of a bacchae," Xena hissed, stepping over to grasp his chin and peer into his gaping mouth. "He's had his tongue cut out." With a frustrated growl, she reversed the pinch. The man collapsed, nearly unconscious. "A mute assassin so he couldn't reveal who sent him."
"He must have mistaken my bedroom for yours," Gabrielle said, voice shaky.
"Don't be too sure of that," Xena murmured absently, still looking at the intruder.
Silence filled the gap as Gabrielle and Palaemon both waited for her to continue. Xena's intent gaze, however, never left the assassin; though it was obvious her thoughts were elsewhere and the elsewhere was nowhere pleasant.
"I'll fetch Autolycus," Palaemon offered after a long moment.
"No," Xena halted his movement toward the door. "Do you trust any of those men with you?"
"Y-yeah, I think they're all trustworthy."
"Don't think, Palaemon," Xena bit out, "know."
He flushed, but nodded, "Yes, Conqueror, they can be trusted."
"Okay, have one of them fetch Autolycus. Send the others back to their posts. Tell them it's under control. I don't want the whole palace up and about. And secure him somehow," she pointed contemptuously to the assassin.
Palaemon called the guards in and gave them their orders. The men glanced at the Conqueror and saw the gravity of the situation in the icy stare she gave them. They acted without question. When they'd gone, Xena crossed to the dresser and poured a goblet of water, then took it to Gabrielle.
"Drink this," she ordered, perching on the side of Gabrielle's mattress.
Gabrielle wiped surreptitiously at the tears of pain that had formed in her eyes. "Is water your answer to everything?"
Palaemon, binding the assassin's arms, found that despite the seriousness of the moment he had to suppress a laugh. He was glad his back was to the Conqueror.
"Just drink it and stop back talking me." Xena's tone held some of the exasperation that was beginning to be habitual when she dealt with the bard, but her long, elegant hands checked Gabrielle's splints with a light, almost tender care.
"Do you need Wan Li fetched, Gabrielle?" she asked, as she saw the bard wince away from one particular sore spot.
"No," Gabrielle muttered, reaching to push the Conqueror's probing hand away with a frown. "He'll only give me something to make me sleep."
"That might not be such a bad thing," the Conqueror hazarded, absently straightening the blonde's thin cotton nightdress and reaching for the blanket at the foot of Gabrielle's bed. She knew Gabrielle wasn't even aware of her almost convulsive shivering, but the water in her goblet threatened to spill with her shaking. Shock was setting in now that the danger had passed.
"Someone just tried to kill me," the bard protested as Xena wrapped her in the blanket. "I'd prefer to be awake to hear the precautions being taken to prevent it happening again."
"Drink it all," the raven-haired woman ordered, touching the forgotten wine glass full of water.
Gabrielle gave her a look, but did as she was told.
"Okay," Xena said, replacing the goblet on the dresser and swinging into a pacing circuit of the room. "Someone hired an assassin-- whether to kill me or Gabrielle is at the moment a moot point-- but whoever that someone was, he or she knew enough about my methods to hire a mute so that I couldn't get any information from him. The planner also knew palace security well enough to know which guards to kill and how long it would be before the killings were discovered."
Palaemon nodded, cradling his chin in his hand. "Your pinch interrogations are widely known, but the security plans were changed only night before last."
"And who all knew of the changes?"
"Yourself, me, Darphus, Theodorus, Autolycus, the men assigned to night watch guard duty."
"So, some forty or fifty people," the Conqueror sounded displeased at the odds. "But, this took more than two days to plan, so who knew ahead of time that the change would be taking place?"
"You, me, Darphus, Theo, Autolycus, and my sergeant."
The Conqueror's smile wasn't pleasant. "Of those, who has a motive to kill me? Pretty much all of them. But I still think Gabrielle was the target, not me." She stilled Palaemon's protest with a gesture. "No, Palaemon, I don't think you're in on the plot, but let's be completely honest. Who can I trust? Only myself, of course."
"Well, I didn't try to kill myself," Gabrielle piped up.
"No, Gabrielle, you didn't," Xena agreed, "but you could have been trying to escape, and you're still under suspicion because of your previous activities and what went on at the public judgment."
"How could I escape with two broken legs?"
"I killed six of Caesar's legionnaires who were sent to kill me and escaped to Chin two nights after my crucifixion."
Gabrielle paled, but said nothing more, letting the Conqueror work through her suspect list in silence. She shared a glance with Palaemon who looked faintly apologetic at the Conqueror's hard-bitten paranoia. Xena completed another circumnavigation of the room.
"None of those who knew the guards' schedule has anything to gain by Gabrielle's death, at least at first glance."
Palaemon frowned. "Autolycus could have turned rebel. He's been in Corinth for the last nine moons, the same amount of time you've been having trouble with the insurrectionists. He could fear that Gabrielle knows something about the Corinthian underground that would implicate him."
The Conqueror smiled. "Two flaws in that theory: First, Autolycus could have killed her in interrogation without a single question being raised and, second, Gabrielle wasn't captured because of the spy network. The locals got her name in an interrogation: some half-witted fumbler tried to burn a tax booth and was caught."
Gabrielle whispered a name that Xena didn't catch. "He thought I would fall in love with him if he did something heroic."
"What was his name?"
"Well, Joxer spilled his guts, and yours was the only name he knew, even after the Corinthians gave him to the secret police for... more drastic interrogation."
Gabrielle's tear-stained eyes met the Conqueror's. "He wasn't a bad person, Xena. He didn't deserve to die like that."
Why does the sight of you in tears rip my heart out? Xena thought. "He committed a crime against the state, Gabrielle," she fought not to sound conciliatory.
"Someone else had to have put him up to that. He just wasn't smart enough to think it up on his own."
"He's the reason you were arrested!" Xena exclaimed. "How can you defend him?"
"He didn't mean to get me into trouble," Gabrielle explained, a note of pleading in her voice. "He cared about me and it's my fault he died. If I'd just let him..."
"It is not your fault," Xena cut in, shocked at how angry Gabrielle's guilt made her. "He made his own choices. You didn't tell him to set fire to anything."
"No, I didn't. But I also didn't take him seriously when he said he'd do anything for me. Someone else did, though, and that person used Joxer's love for me to get him killed and me... well, we know where it got me."
There was another moment of uncomfortable silence that threatened to overcome them all. Xena glanced at Palaemon who was trying very hard to pretend he wasn't there.
"Palaemon, see if you can find anything up there," she pointed to the open window and the rooftop beyond. "See if he had anything with him-- ropes or more weapons."
The blond man gratefully accepted the chance to escape and, with a boost from the Conqueror, made his way up and out of the window.
Gabrielle looked at Xena in silence.
"What?" Xena asked, almost defensive.
"You know I wasn't trying to escape."
Xena sighed, rubbing the nape of her neck in a gesture that combined embarrassment and exhaustion. "No assassin has ever gotten this close to my chambers before, Gabrielle. At the moment, everyone is a suspect to me."
At that moment, Autolycus knocked and Xena moved to let him in. He looked at the bound man curiously, but shook his head at the Conqueror's inquiring look.
"Never seen him before," the King of Spies admitted.
The Conqueror quickly recounted what had happened and her major theories about the crime.
"They weren't trying for you," Autolycus concurred. "It's too easy to find out which room you sleep in. It had to have been the bard."
"Hey, I've got a name," Gabrielle protested.
Now that all the excitement was over, she found herself amazingly weak and more than a little irritable.
"Look, blondie..." Autolycus began.
"Both of you calm down," Xena snapped. "Look, here's Palaemon back from checking the roof."
The security chief appeared a moment later and swung down into the chamber from the windowsill. Taking a moment, he stood on a chair and closed the interior shutters, dropping the bar across them.
"It's clean up there. A scuff or two on the roof tiles, but no cache of weapons or any climbing gear. It's almost like he intended to leave through the front door."
"He probably did," Autolycus agreed. "He'd look far less conspicuous walking down the corridor than climbing off the roof. This is the one place in Corinth where his Chinese features would go largely unnoticed."
They all turned to contemplate the unconscious assassin.
"So," Autolycus said cheerfully, "I'm guessing he's my responsibility now?"
"Yes," Xena agreed, folding her arms. "Take him down and keep him somewhere secure. I imagine someone's going to come looking for him when he or she learns that he didn't manage to kill Gabrielle."
"I won't be able to get anything out of him, probably," Autolycus ventured cautiously.
"I don't expect you will," Xena nodded wearily. "Someone played their cards well when they chose a mute to do their dirty work. But he can still be bait to catch the shark that's behind all this. Keep him under watch and let's wait to see which fish strikes. Now, get him out of my sight."
Palaemon moved to drag the assassin to his feet, but the man was nearly dead weight.
"Help Autolycus get him downstairs," Xena ordered. "And try to keep from being seen. I'd prefer that whoever sent him has to ask lots of questions to find him again. You know what to do, Autolycus."
The soldier and the spy manhandled their prisoner out of the chamber and the Conqueror closed the door behind them and set the bar on it.
"Very well," she said briskly, turning to Gabrielle. "Now, suppose you get some sleep."
The bard stared at her bedcovers, a flush rising to her cheeks. "I don't know if I'll ever sleep again," she whispered.
The Conqueror looked momentarily nonplused, then moved to seat herself on the edge of Gabrielle's bed. "You know there's no chance they'll try anything else tonight," she began reasonably. Gabrielle nodded, but Xena heard the small sob that slipped through. "Hey, look... I'll be in the next room," the Conqueror tried a smile, reaching to lift Gabrielle's chin. "I got over here pretty quickly, didn't I?"
The awkward attempt at comfort broke down the last of Gabrielle's control and she held out her arms to Xena like a small child, weeping openly now. Xena flinched away from the embrace for an instant, a look of combined wonder and fear on her usually impassive face, but one glimpse of those tear-drenched green eyes and she gathered Gabrielle close.
"Shhh, I've got ya," she whom they called the Destroyer of Nations whispered in a low, crooning voice. "It's all right. It's all over now."
Xena held the shaking form close, amazed at how small Gabrielle felt in her arms and how easily the blonde head tucked into the hollow of her throat. Gabrielle's hair was silky soft as she turned her cheek against it and it clung against her lips when she pressed a kiss onto the top of the bard's head. She rocked Gabrielle slowly, waiting the storm of tears out. After a few moments, the worst had passed and Gabrielle lay more relaxed in the embrace, hiccupping now and then.
"I don't want to be alone," the bard breathed against Xena's chest, voice so low Xena had to strain to hear it. She drew back and lifted those drowningly green eyes to the softened sapphire ones above her. "No one's ever tried to kill me before," she choked another sob. "I don't think I'll ever feel safe again."
"Don't worry. No one's gonna hurt you now," Xena promised, all the while thinking that she'd tried to kill Gabrielle as well. The bard obviously didn't see it that way. "C'mon," she invited, moving to lift Gabrielle and standing with the young woman cradled against her chest. "Everything will be better in the morning, Gabrielle, I'm sure of it. For tonight, you can sleep with me."
The cool hour before dawn, the hour when warlords, conquerors, and innkeeper's
daughters are wont to awaken, came and the heavy fringe of dark lashes
lifted, unveiling the storied blue of Xena the Conqueror's eyes. She was
sleeping on her back, which she never did. In what should have been another
alarming development, an elbow rested in the middle of the Conqueror's
chest, the arm curled up around her neck to where the hand tangled in the
dark strands of her hair. It was a slender arm, the Conqueror noted, lifting
a hand to trace it, downed with blonde hair and attached to the lightly
snoring form of Gabrielle of Poteidaea. The bard lay on her back, too,
shoulder tucked quite comfortably into Xena's armpit. But what truly amazed
the Conqueror was that her own arm, as if it had an independent mind, had
snaked around the bard's body and was holding the slender woman close.
Their heads, dark and light, had tilted so that they rested firmly against
one another. The Conqueror was sure that her neck would never straighten
I should get up, the Conqueror told herself. I shouldn't be lying here holding her. I don't have any proof that she isn't as much a threat to my life as that assassin was to hers. She waited to see if her body would react with its usual instinctive recoil from a potential threat.
Dark lashes drifted down over brilliantly blue irises. I haven't slept this well in years, she thought distantly as she allowed herself to sink back into Morpheus' embrace.
Continued in part 5