There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.
Alexis de Tocqueville
"Read," Gabrielle repeated, her mind still trying to deal with the words "body slave". Somehow, Gabrielle had avoided really thinking of Xena and Lao Ma together, but now the Conqueror's concubine stood right before her and the bard had no problem picturing the Conqueror's dark head bent to kiss the blonde slave. She fought to keep her mind from supplying more of those disconcerting images. Well, as Hamna pointed out, Xena's no Hestian virgin, some more sarcastic part of the bard confirmed.
"Yes," the younger woman answered. "My last master didn't think it was important, but the Conqueror…. Well, I want to be able to do the things she likes."
The things she likes? A nearly hysterical giggle of embarrassment threatened to bubble out of the bard. "Ummm… I.. ah… I…"
To the eternal consternation of the muse of conversational witticisms, the Conqueror chose that moment to step through the connecting door behind Gabrielle. Gabrielle felt the warm bulk of a body behind her, saw Leandra's eyes go wide, and started to whirl around, but long, tanned hands clasped her shoulders, halting her.
"Easy," the Conqueror's low, velvety voice rumbled close by Gabrielle's ear. "Just me."
The bard froze in the Conqueror's grasp. Her heart, pounding from the fright she'd gotten, didn't seem to want to slow down, and she felt gooseflesh prickle under the warmth of Xena's hands. For some reason she couldn't explain, she fought an urge to move backwards, fully into Xena's embrace, and cling there for a long time.
"Hey," Gabrielle breathed the greeting, eyes shut.
"Hey," Xena answered quietly. "I stopped in your room to warn you I had returned, but I see you figured that out."
Gabrielle's green eyes snapped open as she caught her errant thoughts and tried to cover her odd physical reaction by turning and hugging the warrior with friendly exuberance. "Welcome back! You look great."
Xena didn't flinch at the hug…much, but took Gabrielle's shoulders again and gave her a thorough once over, nodding at the bard's proudly erect carriage. Releasing her, the Conqueror smiled slightly. "I'll see to it Wan Li is rewarded for getting you back on your feet so quickly."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in a grin. "Hey! I did do some of the work, ya know."
Both women smiled, thankful that the subject could be addressed with so little awkwardness, and each took a moment to study the changes nearly three months had wrought on the other. Xena saw before her a vibrant young woman, seemingly completely healed from her physical traumas. Gabrielle's hair had lightened from exposure to the sun and her smooth cheeks held an attractive color from what Xena knew from her sources to be daily exercise. Xena found the beauty of the bard's face something of a revelation.
"You look well," Xena said softly.
"I am," the bard answered quietly confident.
For Gabrielle's part, she was reminded again of the sheer physical presence of the Conqueror. Xena's beauty was a given, but Gabrielle noted that the dark leather battle dress and armor called attention to the lean, dangerous lines of the Conqueror's body. Xena also looked amazingly well rested. Perhaps the nightmares have passed, Gabrielle thought, noting that the glorious blue eyes were unshadowed and free from dark circles underneath. She smiled wider, pleased at that change.
Realizing first that their conversation had deteriorated to merely staring at one another, smiling, Xena quirked a brow and stepped around the bard. "I see you've met Leandra," she commented.
"Oh … um … yes," Gabrielle felt another rush of heat to her face. Gods, grow up, Gab, she berated herself. Xena's trying to have a conversation with you and all you can do is blush and stammer because she has a lover!
"She's pestered me the whole way from Methoni to teach her how to read," the Conqueror gave the slave an indulgent swat on the bottom as she crossed to her favorite armchair. "I told her to ask you to do it when we got here." Again, the elegant eyebrow shot upwards, questioning.
Lots of signals in that little exchange, Gabrielle analyzed. Now, if I could only interpret them. She smiled graciously and looked at Leandra. "I'd be happy to teach you, Leandra."
The almost pitifully eager rush of excitement in the girl's face was reward enough, but Gabrielle was doubly rewarded when she caught Xena's pleased expression.
"Well, then," the Conqueror folded her hands across her midriff, "that's taken care of."
The moment of silence stretched until it became awkward and Gabrielle, still working on the dynamics of this new arrangement, suddenly realized that she ought to withdraw.
"Oh, sorry…" she blurted. "I'm sure you two want to go to bed… I mean, to sleep. It's the middle of the night, after all, and most people want be in bed…sleeping, of course…"
Xena looked a little bemused at the tumble of hasty words from the bard, but rescued her nonetheless. "Why don't you dine with me tomorrow night, Gabrielle?" she suggested. "No doubt I'll be rested by then."
Thrilled at a chance to escape, Gabrielle readily agreed and retreated to her chamber, closing the connecting door and leaning back against it with a grateful sigh. Thanks be to the gods for getting me out of that without putting my foot in it any further, she thought.
A candle was lit at her bedside and Alita had disappeared, dismissed by the Conqueror, no doubt. Alita had slept in Gabrielle's room since the Conqueror had left and Gabrielle had been grateful not to be alone, but tonight, the solitude was most welcome. Besides, Gabrielle thought with a slight grin, there's not much need for Alita's dubious protection with the most skilled warrior in the world sleeping next door.
Of course, Xena might be a bit distracted now, it occurred to Gabrielle. What with her new body slave and all.
The bard flopped down on her bed, lying back atop the coverlet and staring up at the darkened canopy. The addition of Leandra to Xena's household meant some definite revision to the image Gabrielle had had of her future. The bard had expected things to go on as they had before the Conqueror left: Xena and herself sharing the suite, meals, and a domestic proximity indefinitely. It was a lovely fantasy. She would work on writing her history while Xena continued to linger in Corinth, providing the bard with many opportunities to talk to the Conqueror about herself and her past. When Xena decided to make a progress to some other capital, Gabrielle would travel beside her and be similarly housed near the Conqueror.
"How stupid was that?" Gabrielle asked herself aloud. The Conqueror choosing to spend time with a convicted dissident? Wasn't it enough that she had offered the bard an undeserved opportunity to be a member of her household? Gabrielle knew she had initially been housed in the Conqueror's suite so Xena could keep an eye on her, in case she was some sort of threat, and the meals they'd shared were merely a chance for Xena to interrogate her prisoner.
Alita had told Gabrielle Xena didn't like having anyone housed near her. Now that the Conqueror had returned to Corinth, she was bound to have the bard moved to other quarters. Seeing the Conqueror every day was a nice dream, but the woman had an empire to rule. She couldn't spend all her evenings answering the bard's questions about her past.
The blonde woman sighed deeply. She knew why she felt such disappointment: she'd felt a friendship building between Xena and herself. Xena's letter had even hinted that she felt the same. But with Leandra as Xena's concubine, Gabrielle wondered if her position as friend had been filled. They were lovers, Gabrielle reasoned, and Xena would confide in Leandra, would talk to Leandra about the things that were weighing on her, would share that gentler side of her personality with her lover. It was only natural that physical intimacy would bring with it emotional intimacy as well.
She's found another sort of friend, Gabrielle told herself sternly, fighting back tears that suddenly filled her eyes. She doesn't need you.
Despite the late night and the previous long day of travel, the Conqueror rose with the sun as always. Unwilling yet to face the administrative questions she knew awaited, she climbed to the palace walls, frightening sentries with her disinterested yet deadly stare, and paced the confines of her domain within her mind.
Looking west, she paced slowly to the end of the parapet and stood looking over an imaginary map she constructed before her: Gaul, Britannia, and her satellite, Hibernia, were settled, resting easy beneath the Conqueror's yoke. Iberia, still a bit of a wilderness, full of Celts and cattle, caused her no problems. She turned and walked back the way she had come, eyes made translucent by the rising sun. The vast forests of Rus, whence Borias had emerged, were primitive and passive, at least for now. Greece simmered, of course, but Xena saw no quick resolution to that problem. With the Roman situation under control, therefore, Xena's restless eyes turned back toward the East, toward India and Chin.
Lao Ma had written some months ago about new traders plying routes east from Chin, across the ocean toward the rising sun to Nippon, an island kingdom ruled, the natives boasted, by the descendents of the sun goddess. Insular and xenophobic, they had resisted Chinese trade for decades, but now they had opened their ports. Were they merely expanding their trade or did they constitute a threat of invasion to the Chinese mainland?
Xena smiled to herself as she recognized her favorite rationalization for conquest: the threat of invasion, a preemptory strike to prevent a hostile takeover, the creation of a buffer. Had those not been her excuses when she defended Amphipolis those many years ago?
Do I need to add Nippon to the Empire? She asked herself. No. Do I dare leave the West for the years it might take to subdue the island and set up my government? No. So why do I feel that familiar rush of excitement in my veins when I think of doing it? Is it a love of war? Of fighting? Of killing? Or is it just a response to something that will relieve the boredom I feel growing in me with each passing year as Empress?
She sighed and turned back from her dead-ended pacing along the east wall. Walking west with the sun behind her, she watched her long shadow stretch out before her. How far would her metaphoric shadow stretch? she wondered. Could she really create a dominion that would last beyond her death? Was she sure she wanted to?
If not me, then some other. She called forth another favored rationalization. Then chuckled as she realized how childish that sounded. "If all the other children jumped off the Strymon bridge," her mother had always asked, "would you as well?"
How do I learn to be happy with what I have? asked the Conqueror. But there was no answer forthcoming. She turned for another circuit of the palace walls.
The unaccustomed bustle of activity from the neighboring room woke the bard early the next morning, and she rose and moved toward the connecting door, in spite of herself. The door was ajar, revealing a chaos of furnishings, trunks, and servants within. In the middle of the room, Leandra stood, one hand against her head in a gesture of complete dismay. As Gabrielle watched, the slave slowly turned completely around, looking helplessly at the crowd of servants, each intent on moving his or her piece of the chaos to some other part of the room. Drawn by Leandra's vulnerable, bewildered expression, Gabrielle let herself into the room.
"What's going on?" she asked, giving her a reassuring smile.
"They've brought all the Conqueror's things," Leandra looked on the verge of tears, "all her traveling furniture, and I don't know what to keep and what to send to storage."
Gabrielle looked around, a little nonplused, but determined not to show it. "Well, she hates clutter, so all this stuff can't stay." The bard wasn't sure what made her so certain of Xena's reaction, but she didn't really have time to question it. "She doesn't keep a throne in here, I know, so send that to storage." She pointed to a large pair of men on the other side of the room, struggling with that same item, and Leandra shot her a grateful look before regally gesturing the men out with the throne they carried.
"That desk goes in the corner, there," she said in a low voice to the concubine, nodding toward the space Xena's desk had occupied when she was last in residence. Leandra quickly ordered it placed, and then turned to Gabrielle expectantly. "That trunk usually sits at the foot of the bed…."
In a quarter candlemark, they had the room cleared and everything in its proper place. Leandra turned to Gabrielle as the last workman left the chamber and hugged her impulsively.
"Thank you," the bondswoman said sincerely. "I don't know what I would have done without you."
Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, you would have been fine. You would have figured it out."
Leandra shook her head, big green eyes solemn. "No, you saved me from getting into real trouble with the Conqueror. I can't thank you enough."
Gabrielle frowned at the real note of relief in the slave's voice. She obviously feared angering Xena. But who wouldn't fear that? "Leandra," the bard struggled to phrase the question diplomatically, "would Xena… punish you if you hadn't done this correctly."
Leandra's face unconsciously assumed a frown, too, mirroring Gabrielle's expression. "She would have that right," she explained. "I'm a trained slave. If I don't complete my duties properly, my master has every right to punish me."
"But would Xena?" Gabrielle persisted.
"I don't know," Leandra revealed. "I've only been with her for eight days and she's never raised a hand to me in anger in that time. I think I am very lucky."
Gabrielle let none of her surprise show. Only eight days together wouldn't necessarily have prepared Leandra for all the mercurial swings of Xena's moods, but the bard felt a lessening of her concern. Chances were that Xena would treat Leandra kindly; she'd treated Gabrielle herself with gentleness after she'd determined Gabrielle wasn't a threat. It's none of your business, anyway, some more socially-inhibited portion of Gabrielle's brain reminded her. If Xena beats her slave, it is Xena's business. Of course, that was the portion of Gabrielle's brain that most usually got ignored.
She eyed the slave thoughtfully. This is what I might have been, Gabrielle admitted, if I had been at the river that day with Lila. The slavers might have sold me to a brothel or a slave trainer and I could have become Leandra, someone's sexual property. She felt tears welling. It frightened her still, how her childish rebellion of not going with Lila that day had saved her life, frightened her and plagued her with guilt. Lila was even now serving somewhere, Gabrielle mused, perhaps in the same role as Leandra, but certainly not in the same security and luxury.
"Gabrielle?" Leandra said hesitantly, seeing the distress in the green eyes so like her own. "Are you all right?"
"What? Oh, yes… Yes, I'm fine," Gabrielle pinned on a bright smile and hoped it fooled the other woman. "Why don't we begin your lessons, Leandra? You'll be able to read something to the Conqueror by nightfall."
Darphus hurried down the crowded midday streets to the Broken Arrow on the Corinthian waterfront. He'd been due for relief from guard duty a candlemark ago, but Theodorus had fabricated some minor infraction in his uniform and kept him standing in the hot, midday sun for the extra time. Whore-haired bastard, Darphus cursed to himself. I'll see his head shaved and his bloody ass for sale in the market stalls when my destiny is fulfilled.
He pushed past the congregated sailors outside the inn door and entered the Broken Arrow. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior, but he quickly spotted his contact, lounging at a table near the back. He swaggered over, not bothering to apologize to the patrons he plowed through.
"Hey, watch it," croaked a cloak-shrouded bundle lying on the inn floor.
"Fuck you," Darphus muttered almost pleasantly, back kicking the drunk, and continued on.
The Chinese agent waiting at the back table eyed the Imperial Guardsman regretfully. The Greek was an idiot, he thought, and ought to be killed before he revealed the plan. However, his leader wanted the man left alive. He must, therefore, be of some use, as his leader was never wrong.
"You are late, Darphus," he said calmly.
The guardsman flushed. "That asshole Theo…"
"It matters not. I have a message for you. An important message."
"What is it?"
"My leader says that you are to leave the blonde bard alone." Darphus growled, furiously, but the agent continued unperturbedly, "She is an unexpected distraction for the Conqueror, and we need Xena to remain distracted."
"But that little…."
"Enough, Darphus," the man said coolly, sipping the bitter ale he'd come to like while stationed here in the West. "The leader has made a decision. Now, you either abide by it or I will kill you here and now, and your desire to rule Greece goes with you to Tartarus."
Darphus went a deeper shade of red, anger making his eyes glow almost maniacally, but the Chinese's face across from him remained unruffled and the Greek found himself backing down. He had only to follow orders, he reminded himself, and everything he wanted would be his. Xena would die and he would rule Greece in her place.
"You may tell your leader I agree," he muttered.
"Good," the other man leaned back in his chair, toying with his nearly empty mug. "You are certain of the information you sent me from Rome?"
"Yeeessss," Darphus said with ill grace. "My Roman contacts say she left the real ringleaders alive. The lawyers were behind it all and the Conqueror didn't have a clue."
"So, Manius Herrenius and Quintus Caecilius would be supportive of another attempt to overthrow the Conqueror's rule in Italia?"
The sandy-haired soldier nodded with a slight grin. "They've got more money than Midas, I hear, and they've pledged it all to getting rid of Xena the Bitch of Tartarus."
"Your insults betray your jealousy of the Conqueror, Darphus," the agent smiled snidely. "You must not take it so personally. You must learn to control your will, empty yourself of desire. Your goal is more easily found if you do not have to fight yourself as well as your enemy. Through that discipline, you will find the true Way."
Darphus snorted disgustedly. "I'm sure that's something your all wise and powerful leader taught you."
The smile across the table never wavered. "My leader has taught me many things, Darphus. And I think before the end she will teach you many things as well. I doubt your lessons will all be pleasant, though."
"Are you threatening me, Vuong?"
"Why would I do that, Darphus?" the man asked almost gently. "Are we not allies in the great and silent war against the Conqueror?"
Darphus grunted, unconvinced, and watched as the agent rose and tossed down a handful of dinars. "It won't be long now, Darphus," he assured the guardsman. "Just stay quiet and ready."
Darphus rose as well. "I have waited a long time for this. I can wait a bit more."
The agent smiled, a bare movement of his lips, unable to forego a last jab at the foolish Greek. "See to it that you don't get demoted completely out of the guard, Darphus. The leader would be most displeased."
With a snarl, Darphus turned and plowed his way back out of the inn, unable or unwilling to respond to the agent's taunt. Stepping over the cloak-wrapped drunkard in the floor, the Easterner followed, turning in the opposite direction when he passed the inn door.
The figure on the floor stood with an alacrity that hadn't been apparent in the loose-limbed slouch of moments before. Scarred, knife-fighter's hands lifted to the hood and threw it back, revealing the man's curly blond hair. He eased to the exit after the two conspirators, causing nearly no notice among the other patrons.
At the door, his blue eyes sought and found his back-up man across the street. Two simple hand gestures, borrowed from the Amazons he'd helped annihilate, and the other man was following the Chinese agent down the narrow Corinthian streets. The blond "drunk," Iolaus of Corinth, discarded his cloak in the tavern doorway and, with a last wink at Fletcher the taverner, the only person in the bar who'd seen any of the proceedings, moved to follow Darphus back toward the Conqueror's palace.
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