Revision Disclaimers: There have been minor revisions made to this section of the story. Most were for the purpose of time continuity, but there are some plot changes in the dinner scene in Chapter 22.
Gratuitous Sex Warning: It's there. It's mildly kinky (only one shade darker than vanilla, actually) and it goes on and on. Why? Because I can. If you're not old enough, get outa here. If it's illegal where you are, move or vote to change it.
In every tyrant's heart there springs in the end
This poison, that he cannot trust a friend.
Aeschylus Prometheus Bound
"…so things here have remained relatively quiet," Palaemon shrugged as he finished his report to the Conqueror.
Xena sipped from her wineglass meditatively and glanced to Autolycus, seated at her left. "Anything you'd like to add to what Palaemon's told me?"
Autolycus smirked a bit. "Well, like my esteemed colleague here, I find it hard to believe that the assassin was so frightened of the tightened security that he or she chose not to strike at the bard again. It's much more likely that the plot is Darphus' and he thinks that, by killing Rexel, he's taken out the element connecting him to Gabrielle and so he's decided not to kill her."
"I disagree," the Conqueror smiled brittlely. "The attacks will resume now that we're back. Once he killed Rexel, Darphus didn't have a long enough arm to reach Gabrielle from Rome. In fact, I'd bet he's decided to kill her himself and avoid the possibility of our catching some accomplice again." Her lip curled at the look the two men shared. "You forget, gentlemen: I've been dealing with that piece of slime a lot longer than you. He's infinitely predictable. The only thing that'll stop him from killing Gabrielle now is… me"
Somehow, to both men, that sounded amazingly reassuring.
Palaemon gave a relieved smile. "So, you're not going to have her moved to other quarters, Your Majesty?"
"No," Xena's expression was distant as she considered options known only to her. "She'll stay right where she is for the present. There need to be other changes made, though…"
A knock at the door interrupted whatever else the Conqueror would have said.
"Come," Xena called, irritated.
"Your Majesty," the door guard bowed. "Iolaus of Corinth seeks immediate admission to your presence."
The Conqueror recognized the name from the background report on Gabrielle. She glanced at Autolycus, who shrugged and nodded. "Then let Iolaus of Corinth be shown in."
The short blond man entered a bit shyly, but his irrepressible grin soon forced its way out when he saw his superior seated so casually at the Conqueror's side. Iolaus sketched a hasty bow to the Conqueror then stood fidgeting, seemingly uncertain what to do with his hands. He plucked at his shirt, then hooked his thumbs in his belt, then folded his arms all in the space of a few heartbeats.
"So, you are Iolaus of Corinth," the Conqueror rumbled slowly. "I congratulate you on your report concerning Gabrielle of Poteidaea. You were very thorough."
"Thanks," the man said, without a trace of false modesty. "It was easy. Those people loved to gossip and especially about Gabrielle."
Xena frowned when he didn't continue. Something about this little man bothered her. Perhaps it was the fidgeting, or the cocky stance, or perhaps the all-out, toothy grin. It reminded her of Gabrielle, that smile, all sincerity and open good nature, and she realized that what irritated her about him was his familiarity-he was familiar in the same disquieting way Gabrielle had from the beginning felt familiar.
"Weeeellll?" Xena drew the word out with ill-concealed impatience. "You've gained my presence. What do you want?"
"Your Majesty," he bowed again, lower, but his grin remained. "I've been assigned to follow Darphus since your return from Rome. I actually started trailing him at Methoni, but he hasn't really done much, until today."
"What did he do today?" she asked with razor thin patience, her temples beginning to ache.
"Well," Iolaus' tone lowered to that of shared confidences, "I followed him to the waterfront when he got off duty. I could see he was headed for Fletcher's place, so I took a short cut down the alley of the potters and..."
"Cut the travelogue, little man," the Conqueror growled, headache now fully blossomed. "What did you see?"
"Oh, um…. Well…" Iolaus gathered his scattered wits and found the trail of his story. "At Fletcher's, he met with a Chinese man, finely dressed and free with his money. I was near enough to hear what they said…."
"And that was?" Xena bent her head, pinching the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger to distract herself from thoughts of beating Iolaus' story from him. Perhaps if I don't look at him, this feeling of familiarity will go away.
Autolycus, recognizing the rare outward signs of the Conqueror holding her temper in check, gave the other spy a rushed hand signal. Iolaus quickly related the details of Darphus' conversation with Vuong.
By the time he finished, the bold blue eyes were fastened on him and Xena's headache was forgotten.
"…'find the true Way,'" the Conqueror questioned intently. "That's what Vuong said?"
"Yes, Conqueror," Iolaus nodded like a piston arm on a water wheel. "I was as close as Lord Palaemon. I heard everything quite clearly."
Xena's eyes went to Autolycus. "I-uhh-there's no way, Conqueror," the dark-haired spy chief hastily mustered some coherence as he caught her drift. "We have the best of sources in the Kingdom of Chin. I know when a mouse far-I mean, I know everything that goes on in the palace."
"The best sources in Chin are no match for Lao Ma," the Conqueror rumbled, her face frozen in a half-sneer.
The Conqueror sat back, her face going grim and impassive as she considered the pieces of the puzzle. At her side, Palaemon felt the icy draft that seemed to roll off her. Even he had to admit it didn't look good for the Chinese regent. He'd dined with the Conqueror, Lao Ma, and her heir, Ming T'ien, at Lao Ma's summer palace on the Yangtze and had heard her discuss the self-same philosophies. She had sought to convert Xena to her 'Way', and they had bantered back and forth in a way that implied that it was an old argument between them. But having seen them together, recalling their familiarity, and Lao Ma's carefully concealed, yet keen, gaze on the Conqueror, never would Palaemon believe Lao Ma had betrayed the relationship she had with the Conqueror. He straightened in his seat.
"With all due respect, Conqueror," he began apologetically, "I don't think Lao Ma would move against you. She is perfectly content as your regent in Chin. And you know how she hates Darphus…"
Xena frowned. Gods, it all sounded so reassuring, exactly what she wanted to hear. Lao Ma was one of the few people she truly trusted, perhaps the only one it could even be said she loved; to learn that this plot originated with her one-time mentor and sometime lover would be devastating. Betrayals come in all forms, the Conqueror reminded herself sternly. Lao Ma wouldn't be the first lover to plot behind your back. Surely, we don't need a list.
"It wouldn't take much for any of my regents to become discontented, Palaemon," she said with a bitter twist of a smile. "One whiff of world dominion and you'd be surprised how small Chin might look. With the Romans financing things from their end, I could be fighting a war on two fronts before autumn."
Xena flung herself out of her chair and began to pace the confines of the room with the lethal stride of a caged panther.
Autolycus grimaced at the tone and the pacing, but braved both. "Your Majesty, let's not be hasty. Lao Ma is one of the only regents whose loyalty has never been questioned. Let my people return with more information before we brand her a traitor. Even if the Chinese troops began marching on the day Darphus had Gabrielle arrested, they would still be months away. And alarms would be sounding from all the intervening states over whom they would be marching."
The Conqueror nodded briefly, seeing that Autolycus was giving her a way out with plenty of "face": It was true. The distance between Greece and Chin was immense and, even if the plot involved Lao Ma, she could afford to wait until further reports came in before moving to halt the rebellion. But she knew that mere strategy couldn't dim the anger and pain tearing at her now. Gods, I don't want this to be true, she agonized behind her expressionless mask. Not Lao Ma of all people.
"Very well, Autolycus. I want your Rome and Chin bureaus all over this-how much money is being spent, names of all the conspirators, as much of the plan as they can get as soon as they can get it." She pinned Iolaus with the razor-like blue gaze. "Someone followed this Vuong as well, I assume?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," the small man hurriedly affirmed. "Astoriis of Crete went behind him when he left the tavern. Astoriis is good. He will not lose him and he had two back up men."
Xena's eyebrows rose at the small man's confidence. "Then we shall hope that Astoriis or the back up see fit to send us some word soon of where this traitor has gone to ground. You may go, Iolaus. I'll expect a written version of this by nightfall."
The small blonde spy saluted correctly and left the room. For a long moment, Xena stood with her back to the conference table, staring at the huge wall map depicting her far-flung empire. Autolycus and Palaemon shared a look, and then the blond Captain spoke.
"What are your wishes in this matter, Conqueror?" Palaemon asked diplomatically.
"Let them run, Palaemon," she said, after some further consideration. "Keep watch on Darphus and Vuong and anyone they come into contact with, but let them run. Eventually, they'll lead us to whoever is their ultimate backer and then we'll catch all the sharks in one net." She turned rather abruptly and gestured to the two men. "I am going to retire for lunch, gentlemen. If anything changes, I want to be notified immediately."
Xena's long strides carried her quickly to the door of her chamber and she sighed as she paused. The slave, Leandra, would be there, no doubt, and for a moment the Conqueror regretted whatever impulse had led her to take the girl. Privacy to think, to plan, to assess was hard to come by and she'd casually tossed hers aside by accepting the gift of a body slave.
But do I really want to think right now? she wondered. Do I want to consider the betrayal that seems planned and the punishment that I'll be forced to inflict on someone-perhaps the only someone-I truly cared for? Or do I want, above all things, something to take all thought away?
A slow devilish smile crept over the Conqueror's half-shadowed visage. If she didn't want to think, Leandra provided the perfect distraction. How many times in the past had she used sex to distract her from the brooding, the anger? And it usually worked. Today, a bed slave and a relatively cool midday sounded like the perfect combination. After all, wasn't the distraction why she'd gone ahead and bought the girl when she'd gotten ready to leave Methoni?
She reached out and eased the wide chamber door open.
Leandra sat at the table, carefully running one fingertip along the lines of writing on an open parchment, her lips forming the words by their syllables. Gabrielle, giving her some basic instruction, had discovered that she knew her letters, and Leandra had been pleased to find that the rest of the mechanics of reading had came rather easily to her. Given her background, it was unusual that she knew her alphabet, and she had explained to Gabrielle that it had come about in a rather unorthodox fashion: Her training master had used the alphabet as a training mantra, having her repeat the letters over and over in her mind while he pleasured her so that she could hold herself from climax indefinitely. It was a skill needed by pleasure slaves who might be sold to less… vigorous masters than Leandra's present owner.
Leandra recalled with some shame the blush that had suffused the bard's face as she told Gabrielle the story. She found it hard to remember with the young, unassuming bard that she wasn't talking with another slave and she'd managed to embarrass Gabrielle with the frank discussion. She shook her head, telling herself to be more careful. It wouldn't do to alienate the one person for whom the Conqueror had indicated any feelings of friendship.
"Alpha….Am-phi-po-lis," the slave sounded out carefully. "Amphipolis." She smiled and repeated aloud what she had so far. "'I sing a song of Xena, warrior of Amphipolis'…."
"Leandra," Xena's honeyed voice flowed into the room.
"Your Majesty," the girl squeaked, jumping up. The Conqueror stood in the doorway, filling it with her mere presence, looking dark and dangerous and incredibly sexy. She wore a deep blue doublet over a soft cream-colored linen shirt and her hips were encased in black leather trousers, tucked into short indoor boots also of black. She fairly smoldered with sensual allure. Leandra gaped a moment at the vision and then hurriedly knelt beside her chair.
Xena sauntered in, her walk filled with carnal energy. Her full lips curled at the edges in a slight, smug smile as she allowed cerulean eyes to wander over her slave. "Whatcha doin', little girl?" The warm vibrato in that voice turned Leandra's insides to jelly.
"I-I was reading, Your Majesty."
"'Xena' will do for right now," the Conqueror breathed, moving to stand behind the kneeling woman.
"Yes, Xena," Leandra answered, obedient, but also, suddenly, afire.
The Conqueror allowed her that informality only in bed and any questions Leandra had about the Conqueror's intentions had just been answered. She felt the thrill run through her at the thought of being taken again by the tall, marvelously talented warlord above her.
Xena had introduced the slave to pleasures she'd never experienced, despite her extensive training, and Leandra was certain that the Empress hadn't even exerted her boundless imagination. Unlike some of the clients Leandra had served at the brothel, Xena didn't demand that the slave attend wholly to pleasing her. Instead, the Conqueror seemed to relish breaking the steely hold of Leandra's training and forcing the slave to surrender to the sensual power the Conqueror wielded with such devastating force.
Xena leaned over, her thighs brushing Leandra's back, and read the first few lines of the scroll. "'I sing a song of Xena, warrior of Amphipolis, of her life and of her battles, great in story and in song'… I see you and the bard have become better acquainted."
"Yes, Xena," Leandra forced herself not to lean back into those strong, leather-clad thighs.
Xena smiled at the smoky tone already entering the slave's voice and dropped her hand down to play idly with the red blonde hair near her hip. "Get undressed and wait for me by the bed."
Leandra got to her feet, though her knees threatened to collapse at the Conqueror's explicitly seductive tone. It burred lightly from that lean throat and reverberated in all the right places in Leandra's body. The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest and waited. The slave undressed immediately, calling upon her training to resist meeting the blue eyes that watched and promised.
When the girl was naked, Xena strolled over to her and stood once more behind her, admiring the smooth, lyre-shaped back and the tumbling hair, thinking of the impending sexual encounter and others that had shaped this moment.
Sex as conquest was a game Xena had learned to play young and one some said she had perfected. She had mastered the bedroom as a battlefield where she could lay siege to the enemy's body and storm the bedmate's senses as she would attack a castle or keep. She maintained perfect control, planning and executing her advances and retreats, timing her assaults and feigning withdrawal until she had her sexual opponent suing for surrender.
It was one of the reasons Leandra had been so piquant to the Conqueror's jaded desires: A general or warlord Xena would carefully dismantle, manipulating will and resistance, playing and turning them until the mighty, ego-driven control freak was begging her to walk all over him or her in her leather warrior boots. But how did one conquer the complete submissive?
Leandra had been vigorously trained in submitting to the whims and wills of others; she gave pleasure readily, denying her master nothing, and she took pleasure with equal willingness, refusing no caress. Yet, in that training, that control, was the ultimate resistance: the barrier to pleasure was that it was not what one chose, but what one submitted to. The mystery of how to break that barrier was what had kept Leandra in the Conqueror's bed beyond that night in Methoni.
Placing her hands on Leandra's shoulders, the warlord gathered up the long fall of hair, twisting it lightly around one hand.
"Whom do you belong to, Leandra?" the Conqueror asked in a velvet voice, tugging gently to tilt the girl's head back, lifting her to her feet, controlling her movement with the handful of hair.
Leandra's eyelids, which had begun to droop, flew open. It was not a question she had ever expected. The world and everything in it belonged to the Conqueror and Xena never seemed to doubt that ownership.
"You, Majesty," the girl breathed, hoping she was answering correctly, feeling the tightening of apprehension in her stomach.
Xena reached around with her free hand and cupped one bare breast, cradling it, hefting the weight in her hand, then slowly compressing her grip to a painful squeeze. The slave was unable to suppress the slight gasp of pain.
"I told you how to address me, Leandra," she grated sternly. "Who am I?"
"Xena…" Leandra was rewarded with the immediate release of the grip.
"Very good. Now, whom do you belong to?"
"Yes, me," the Conqueror purred with satisfaction, tweaking the girl's nipple sharply. "Your other masters didn't know how to use you, Leandra," she told the woman with calm authority. "They just wanted a body, a hole, if I may be so blunt. I, on the other hand, want something else. I want your willingness."
"I-I am willing, Xena."
"No," again the Conqueror used that careful teaching voice, "no, you are doing what I want because I own you, because you belong to me. If I order, you obey, correct?"
"Yes, Xena," Leandra answered automatically, even as her mind sought desperately for a pattern to the conversation.
"And if I ordered you to seek your own pleasure, Leandra? What would you do?"
"You-you wish me to masturbate for you, Xena?"
"No," Xena tugged the smaller woman's head to the side and lowered her lips to the smooth juncture between neck and shoulder. "Leandra, I want to do what pleases you."
The slave girl trembled as her mind tried to deal with the enormity of the thought. Many people blessed with the Conqueror's undivided attention did not live to tell the tale, and, for a few moments, Leandra thought she was going to be among that majority.
"What do you want?"
The sultry question burned through the layers of learned behavior and set fire to her very core. Leandra's wants and desires had been beaten and starved and threatened into abeyance, but now she could feel the first sparks of free will smoldering to life, and her every choice seemed centered around the things this powerful, potent woman could do to her in bed.
"Would you like me to touch you?" Xena asked, voice in its lowest register. "Is that what you want?"
She trailed her blunt nails down either side of Leandra's ribcage, and the girl nodded, unable to find her voice. The long fingers with their lightly calloused tips slid back up, cupping the outer curves of Leandra's bare breasts.
"Here?" the Conqueror asked, solicitously, then moved her middle fingers to the hardened centers. "Or here?" Leandra's breath left her in a rapid rush. "You mustn't hesitate to tell me," the Conqueror maintained her low, concerned, questioning tone, but her thumbs joined her fingers in teasing and tweaking Leandra's nipples. "Tell me what you want, Leandra."
Leandra nodded blindly, eyes screwed shut, lower lip seized between even white teeth. When the Conqueror's strong fingers bit down on the nipples, twisting them roughly, Leandra's hips jerked forward, her knees no longer supporting her.
"Yes," she gasped out, throwing her head back against Xena. "That…."
Xena forcefully jerked the smaller woman around so that she faced her and let her eyes drink in the sight of that passion-softened face, the flushed body. She nudged the girl backward, so that her calves connected with the bed frame, and Leandra sat abruptly. Xena followed her down, kneeling between her feet.
"Leandra," Xena's voice was low and gentle. "Do you want more?"
She bent her head and tenderly tongued one erect nipple as the body slave gasped and tangled her slender fingers in the Conqueror's raven hair.
"You have to tell me," Xena insisted, voice muffled against Leandra's flesh. "Tell me what you want."
"Xena," Leandra gasped out as teeth raked lightly over her nipple. "I-I want…."
"I want … you."
The Conqueror chuckled low in her throat and gave the slave exactly what she asked for.
Some time later, Xena rose and dressed again with her usual off-hand elegance. Leandra, still a bit woozy from the sexual onslaught, climbed from the bed and straightened the disordered sheets.
"I won't be back until dinner," Xena offered unexpectedly as she pulled on her boots. "Can you see to the arrangements for tonight? Palaemon will join Gabrielle and I."
Leandra smiled, standing at the end of the Conqueror's bed. "Of course, Majesty. I'll clean up a bit here," she gestured to the barely disordered bedchamber, "and speak to someone about dinner. In a candlemark or so, Mistress Gabrielle will be back to give me another lesson in reading."
The Conqueror's mouth quirked at the "Mistress Gabrielle."
"Alita will know what to do. Where is Gabrielle?" she inquired, retying a loose doublet string.
"I-umm-I believe this is the time of her weapons instruction with Cassivellaunus, Your Majesty."
"Weapons instruction?" Xena demanded, her eyes pinning Leandra. A feeling like panic flooded through the Conqueror's chest, sluicing away any contentment she might have won from her brief, carnal distraction.
"Yes, Majesty," Leandra answered hastily. "At least, that's what she told me this morning."
The Conqueror stared burning blue holes through the girl for a long moment. An afternoon exercise regime had been mentioned in one of the reports on Gabrielle's progress, but not for one moment had Xena considered that someone might get it into his head to teach the bard a weapon. Gabrielle had admitted being a part of the Resistance, the tactician within the Conqueror ventured. Training her to fight was tantamount to offering the "freedom fighters" arms. But that old cautious distrust had nothing to do with Xena's gut feeling. Somewhere, deep inside the Conqueror, the very idea of Gabrielle fighting and killing and-her stomach lurched again-perhaps dying sickened her. That bright, innocent soul should never be made to face the darkness and destruction of war again, Xena told herself emphatically. And she should never have to lift a blade to defend herself… not as long as I'm around.
The Conqueror recovered herself at the first flood of fear entering the green eyes facing her and she managed a stiff smile for Leandra, realizing that the slave knew very little more of Gabrielle's routine than she herself did. It was not the girl's fault some idiot had endangered Gabrielle, but Xena was determined to find out whose fault it was.
"I'll see you at dinner time," she reiterated and strode out, intent on finding the bard and discovering whose bright idea it was for the former pacifist rebel to be given weapons training.
Cassivellaunus of the Ambarri, named for the great king of Britain who'd defied the Romans and held them from his coast, considered himself a lucky man. First of all, he'd been born with a caul, a sign of great good luck among his people. He still carried the shriveled remains of it in a small talisman bag around his neck, along with mistletoe and hawthorn and he'd never doubted the effectiveness of the charm. Secondly, when he was a mere boy the druids had cast runes for him that promised strength in battle and long life. Auspicious news that, if not the glory of everlasting fame that was a Celts' greatest wish from life.
"Launie," as the Greeks called him, had followed upon those druidic promises and had excelled in the arts of battle since childhood. Never a leader of men, he'd proven a valuable follower nonetheless, and, when Xena had come to Gaul, he'd fought with his princes, the same as all the rest. And had fallen to his knee the same as all the rest to swear fealty to Xena of Amphipolis when the Conqueror had done what the Conqueror did best: conquered Gaul. Soon after, a third stroke of luck (greatly aided by Vercinix of Gaul) had caused Launie to be recommended to join Xena's royal guard where he had grown rich on the spoils of war. Rich enough that in two years when his tour of duty was up, he was going back to Gaul and buy a horse farm and marry Tingerie, his childhood sweetheart.
Consequently, Launie believed avidly in his good luck and he knew, when the sword appeared out of the clear midday sky and sliced through the weighted wooden training blade that he held that his luck was what kept him from being sliced in half along with it.
"Who gave you orders to teach this woman how to handle a sword?" The low, chill voice sent the hairs on Launie's arms to attention and he gaped like a fish into the snarling face of the Empress of the Known World.
"Conqueror," the half-grown blonde girl he'd taken such a liking to stepped between the warlord and himself. He expected to see her fall in two pieces like the training sword, but she didn't. She even went so far as to put her hands on the forearms of the Conqueror, trying to divert the warlord's attention. "He didn't do anything wrong. I asked to be taught."
The blue eyes didn't waver from Launie's wide, mud-brown gaze. "I didn't say he did. I asked him who gave the order," the Conqueror hissed.
"P- Palaemon, ma'am, Your Majesty, sir," Launie's Greek finally came back to him and he drew himself to attention, though it was more than a little late.
"I want this clear, soldier," the Conqueror snapped. "No one- no one- in this yard is to teach this girl to use a weapon again. You got it?"
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" He saluted fumblingly.
"Pass the word. Dismissed."
Launie took off at a half-run, but not before he heard the girl child begin her protest.
Xena struggled, staring after the man, to get some control over her anger before she said or did something to the bard that she would come to regret, like turning the girl over her knee and paddling her behind. Gabrielle, however, stood toe to toe with her, as if oblivious to the thunderous waves of rage pouring off the Conqueror's statuesque form.
"Xena, Wan Li suggested that I exercise and I asked Palaemon to teach me to defend myself," Gabrielle tried to smile as she gestured to the training sword at her feet. "I figured I could kill two birds with one stone."
Xena bent, snatching up the weighted blade, and, with savage strength, hurled it across the practice yard to shatter against the wall of the guard barracks. Men scattered, startled and fearful they would be the next projectile.
"You should never have been shown how to use that. You have no need for a sword. There are a thousand other ways to defend yourself, any of which would provide you with the exercise your physician directed."
"I wanted to learn what you showed me that night at dinner," Gabrielle confessed. "I wanted to learned to fight like you."
Xena's eyes took on a strangely haunted look as the anger that had been bearing her up abruptly deflated. "Gabrielle," her voice shook. "You couldn't-and shouldn't-ever be like me. Years of war went into making my skill with a sword and I'd never wish that life on you." She made an abrupt gesture as if discarding all she'd said and took Gabrielle by the upper arms. "Listen to me: this is a matter of self-preservation, too. A sword makes you a target. You should never pick up a sword unless you mean to kill with it. Your enemy expects you to try to kill him, and he will try to kill you first."
Gabrielle shook her head, fearful of the raw feelings she saw in the Conqueror's pale gaze, heard in that normally steely voice. "I couldn't kill, Xena."
"No…" Xena's eyes went wide and haunted again. "No, you mustn't kill. It changes everything… everything."
Abruptly, the Conqueror snapped back to complete awareness, her iron will recalling her from whatever dark place she had visited. Gabrielle watched with wonder and regret as the shutters went back up behind Xena's expressive blue eyes. The Conqueror's firm hand on her upper arm guided the bard from the practice field and the carefully not watching eyes of the Royal Guard.
"Xena," Gabrielle found courage to venture the question as they made their way along the deserted portico, "when did you first kill? Do you remember?"
The Conqueror shot her a look as pointed and cold as a needle made of ice and kept walking. Okay, dumb question, Gabrielle, the bard berated herself. Silence stretched between them for the entire crossing of the long, covered walkway, and, indeed, Gabrielle had decided there would be no answer before it finally came.
"You've heard the stories," Xena shrugged dismissively.
The blonde woman stopped, forcing the Conqueror to do the same. Gabrielle laid a palm on Xena's forearm, feeling the muscles tense and bunch, but Xena didn't pull away.
"Yes, I've heard the stories," Gabrielle explained earnestly. "And that's all they were: stories. I'm asking you to tell me the truth."
Xena looked away from those intense green eyes. "You never forget your first," her low voice throbbed with more emotions than Gabrielle could sort: regret, pain, despair. "His name was Termin. I slit his throat when his commander Cortese attacked Amphipolis. So many people died that day, people I knew." She swallowed hard. "My brother… Lyceus was killed. Termin killed him."
Gabrielle instinctively moved closer, her expression deeply compassionate. "I'm sorry."
"So am I," Xena finally turned her eyes to Gabrielle's and tried unsuccessfully to smile. "So am I."
The Conqueror turned and started walking again, but she shortened her stride so that Gabrielle could keep up.
"I don't want you to ever have to be any sorrier, Gabrielle," she revealed, eyes firmly fixed in front of her. "If you want to learn to defend yourself, I'll teach you, or have someone do it, but I won't have you taught how to kill."
Gabrielle studied the toes of her shoes, feeling impossibly young and inexperienced and foolish. "I didn't realize it was so complicated."
"It only gets more complicated if you kill."
Gabrielle thought about that for a long time, long after they'd parted at her chamber door and she'd summoned Leandra for her next reading lesson.
Xena strode the inner corridors of the palace like a storm sweeping in from the steppes. Servants and guards sucked in their breaths and their stomachs as they read the displeasure on her coldly beautiful features. As was usual when the Conqueror's mood had shifted from as near relaxed as she got to strung tight with tension in the space of a candlemark, no one wanted to be the one who gave her a reason to vent her temper. Autolycus-- usually so skilled at discerning and avoiding the moods of his sullen, dangerous mistress-- had a few too many things on his mind and walked right into the squall line of the storm.
"Conqueror," the former thief called after her, jogging to catch up. "Could I have a moment?"
"What?" Xena asked shortly. "Tell me you've heard from Astoriis of Crete."
"Um, no," Autolycus hung his head regretfully, then looked up with a winning smile, "but we will. Have no fear, we will."
"Fear?" Xena demanded. "Me?"
A weak, nervous laugh forced its way out. "A figure of speech, Conqueror," Autolycus backpedaled hastily. "Just a figure of speech."
"What do you want, Autolycus?"
"I-um-that is-We have another imposter at the city gate this morning."
"Another?" Xena let out a hissing combination of Chinese that made Autolycus happy his grasp of that language was minimal. "That's three in the last four moons. "
Autolycus shrugged. "It's the Athens Academy of Performing Bards. They have half their graduating class out there rabble-rousing, telling horrendous lies about your childhood: how your father disappeared when you were young, supposedly driven away by the evil he saw in you, how you're really the daughter of Ares himself sent to punish the world for transgressions against the gods. All the usual horse--
"My mother killed my father," Xena cut in icily. "And that story about Aries could be true for all I know," she shrugged, regally indifferent.
Autolycus gaped, started to say one thing, then changed his mind. "Um, well, I think that's what causes these… outbreaks."
"So, a bunch of young bards fill the taverns with horror stories about my childhood and every roving drunk in Greece shows up at my door, claiming to be the noble Atrius, the long-lost father of the Conqueror? Great. Just great."
Autolycus shook his head, acknowledging the absurdity of it. "I know, I know. This one doesn't even look like you. He looks like the north end of a southbound trireme after the Battle of Pergopolis, and I doubt he's been sober once since you were born."
"Yeah, sounds like the one at Byzantium who claimed the gods had taken him to Olympus for all these years to teach him how to be my co-ruler."
Autolycus grimaced a little at the memory. "If that's what you smell like after 20 years on Olympus, I'll pass on the ambrosia."
"This latest one," Xena asked. "What have you done with him?"
"He's downstairs in a holding cell. I usually keep them for a day or two, try to scare the Hades out of them, get them to recant whatever cockamamie story they've made up, then I let 'em loose."
"That sounds like the best we can do at the moment," Xena assented. "I don't really want to start crucifying all my fake fathers. That's bound to get me in trouble with the Furies."
Autolycus looked at her carefully, trying to see a glint of humor after that remark, but finding none.
"That other matter you had me looking in to," he began discreetly, glancing around.
"Yessss?" she drawled, suddenly impatient again. "Which of the thousand things I have you 'looking in to' are you talking about?"
"The little blonde's sister," Autolycus explained. "Gabrielle, the bard."
"Yeah, I know her," Xena snarled.
"I've got several men up north, looking for the sister, like you wanted. Lila? Wasn't that her name? Draco sold those slaves into Germania and Eastern Gaul and we have some leads on the buyers."
Oddly enough, that seemed to ease the Conqueror's temper. She suddenly smiled. "Good, Autolycus, very good. I want copies of their reports. Let them know that whoever finds this girl will be rewarded most generously."
"Thy will, Conqueror," Autolycus replied habitually.
Xena nodded firmly and turned away. "See that it's done."
The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.
Gabrielle plucked at the pleated fabric of her chiton, turning from side to side before the oval bronze mirror. The light blue material fell straight from her shoulders to be gathered at the waist with a gold stamped belt and then flared out again, ending just below her knees. A form-fitting underdress of a darker blue added contrast. Gold earrings and a bracelet and golden sandals in a pattern matching the belt completed the outfit.
She'd bought the dress earlier in the day, from an Egyptian merchant who assured her that the pleated garment, made from the light, airy cotton of the region, was the latest style from Alexandria. The dress is flattering, she thought, squinting with real displeasure, if you're a twelve year old on your way to your first solstice festival.
She sighed impatiently. None of her clothing seemed to suit the occasion. Everything made her look like a child or a bumpkin fresh off the turnip wagon from Poteidaea, but she'd already changed four times, and, now, she didn't have time to change again. She frowned into the mirror, not really seeing herself, as her thoughts traveled the same well-worn path they had for the last candlemark: Leandra would probably have on something chic and sexy, new from Rome or Athens, or chosen for her especially by the Conqueror. The bard's eyes narrowed as she thought of the effortless sophistication of Leandra's bearing, the well-trained elegance of her movements, the quiet loveliness of the slave's speech. Even her bardic training hadn't prepared her to compete with that.
"Then don't compete," she told herself sternly, meeting her own eyes in the mirror. "You're not trying to get into Xena's bed. You want to be her friend and friendship is not based on how beautiful you look in comparison to her lover."
She nodded firmly and turned away, but, for some reason, her jealousy didn't stay behind her.
Palaemon was approaching down the long, deserted hallway when Gabrielle exited her room and Gabrielle gave the security chief a wry smile.
"It feels odd, going out in the hall to go next door," she confessed.
Palaemon smiled understandingly, trying hard not to notice how adorably her nose scrunched when she grinned like that.
"Well, things have changed a bit since the last time we shared a dinner with the Conqueror," he pointed out optimistically. "You're back on your feet and the Conqueror has just returned from a stunning success at Rome."
Gabrielle threaded her arm through his as they strolled the short distance to Xena's chamber door.
"And don't forget there'll be four for dinner tonight," she added.
"Four? Oh, the bed- uh, Leandra?" Palaemon flushed a little at the near faux pas. "I doubt she'll contribute much to the conversation."
"You never know," Gabrielle said with an impish smile, "she may know a different version of Aesop's Ass and the Serendipitous Slide."
Palaemon immediately laughed. "Yes, but I don't think she'd tell it with quite the….flair you did."
"Please don't let me drink as much as I did last time," the bard pleaded laughingly, face flushed. "I don't want to embarrass myself in front of Leandra."
"Oh, so it's all right in front of the Conqueror and I, but…"
Gabrielle punched him, laughing.
"Don't worry," Palaemon assured her. "I'll keep my eye on you."
"Anything I shouldn't talk about tonight?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly apprehensive as they reached their destination and Palaemon lifted his hand to knock.
"Yeah," he muttered heavily, "don't bring up weapons training."
Gabrielle gave him a guilty, sympathetic look. "She rip you a new one?" she asked on a whisper.
"You could say that," he sighed and knocked lightly.
The scene that awaited them was certainly not the small, intimate dinner that they had enjoyed before. The Conqueror's chamber, normally rather Spartan in its appointments, was draped in silk and damask tapestries, dyed in the jewel-like hues seldom seen in the West and depicting Eastern scenes of luxury and sensual delight. Gardens filled with strange flora and even stranger mythological beasts beguiled the eye and excited the mind while spiced oils added to the well-placed lamps illuminating the room charmed the palate with exotic fragrance. New furnishings had also been brought in: three low, thickly upholstered chaises formed a classic Greek dining circle about a wide table laden with fine dinnerware.
Gabrielle chanced a glance at Palaemon and found him just as taken aback as she by their surroundings, and then her gaze followed his to the sight that had arrested his attention.
Enthroned on her high-backed armchair, Xena sat at her ease, legs stretched elegantly to their supple, impossible length. The lamplight seemed to gather and glow along her sun-bronzed limbs, drawing the eye along those shapely curves, both revealed and concealed by a flowing scarlet and gold gown made in a similar style to Gabrielle's, but with much less fabric. Her body, tight and muscled, yet silken in its gracefulness, could not have been more artfully framed. Amidst the rich, dark waves of her unbound hair, the Conqueror wore a jeweled diadem, but no gem set within the gold matched the sapphire blaze of her eyes.
Gabrielle, frozen in that gaze, realized that this was the scene she had always anticipated when, long ago it now seemed, she had thought of meeting the Conqueror face to face. There before her sat the embodiment of the Empire, cold, aloof, yet so beautiful that it hurt the heart to look upon her. The bard took a deep breath, then another, realizing that she had forgotten to breath in that presence.
"I see you decided to join me," Xena said, her voice neutral, detached, yet something in Gabrielle stiffened at the tone.
"Yes, Majesty," Palaemon said, half-questioningly.
She rose fluidly and stepped along the narrow, Persian carpet toward them, her walk that saunter that both Palaemon and Gabrielle recognized as dangerous, but neither realized was also angry.
"I heard you laughing in the hallway," she explained, voice taking a more mocking note. "I thought perhaps you'd decided that each other's company would be more entertaining tonight than a stuffy dinner with your boring overlord."
Palaemon opened and closed his mouth helplessly, stunned by the unexpected attack, but Gabrielle hesitated only a moment before responding.
"We were discussing when last we dined with you, Conqueror," she explained. "I-- I asked Palaemon not to let me drink so much and… and embarrass myself."
"Ah," Xena said, patently disbelieving.
Her eyes coldly examined the bard's gown and hair, which was pinned up into a mass of curls at the top of her head. "You look very… worldly tonight, Gabrielle," the Conqueror murmured.
The tone stung, making the innocuous comment, which half a candlemark ago would have pleased the bard, sound like an insult.
"Th-thank you, Conqueror," Gabrielle managed a curtsey, bowing her head to hide tears that started in her eyes. "I chose it especially for this dinner."
"And you, Palaemon," Xena's bright, biting glance skimmed over his immaculately turned out uniform from shining bronze shoulder guards to mirror-shined boots, "didn't you choose an outfit especially for tonight?"
The blond officer straightened automatically, "No, Conqueror. As you see, I thought it best to wear my uniform."
Xena 'tsk'ed, mock regretfully. "And I was so looking forward to seeing you in… civilian clothes. I'm sure Gabrielle would have been swept away," she finished, her mockery now explicit and suggestive.
Conversation, unbelievably, went downhill from there. Every sentence was met with some cold, calculated rejoinder that took a layer of skin from very sensitive places. Palaemon was grilled about the condition of his security forces' barracks and Gabrielle spent nearly a candlemark defending the philosophies and teaching practices at the Athens Academy of Performing Bards. The laughing, reachable warrior they'd dined with before the Rome trip was nowhere to be seen. It only got worse when dinner was at last served.
"Does she have to eat on the floor?" Gabrielle immediately blurted out, her expression clearly distressed.
The Conqueror looked from Gabrielle to Leandra, who had knelt beside the chaise on which the Conqueror reclined, then back, clearly baffled.
"I am a slave, Mistress Gabrielle," Leandra said quietly. "This is my place."
Gabrielle's gaze, full of appeal, went again to Xena. "I-- I can't eat with her there."
Storm clouds gathered in the Conqueror's eyes. "What?"
"She's a human being, Conqueror. I can't stand to watch her be treated like an animal, fed on the floor."
"I'm not treating her any differently from the way she's always been treated, Gabrielle."
"Just because someone else treated her like an object doesn't mean you have to."
A long, painful silence stretched between the two combatants. Xena stared at the young blonde bard with an expression that bordered on murderous, but Gabrielle, though not looking directly at the Conqueror, nevertheless conveyed in the jut of her small, firm chin her stubborn unwillingness to compromise her principles. It ended in a way no one at the table would have foretold, even the Conqueror herself.
"Get up, Leandra," the Conqueror ordered, with a disgusted sigh. "You'll share our meal."
The slave rose instantly and, bowing, seated herself at the end of Xena's chaise. Gabrielle, embarrassed now by her temerity, lowered her eyes to her cup, clasp tightly in her hands. Palaemon looked at the Conqueror, waiting for the explosion that didn't come.
"Gabrielle," the Conqueror's voice had modulated, but still held a great deal of exasperation, "even Plato's Republic acknowledged the need for slaves."
"My objection isn't a philosophical one, Conqueror," Gabrielle said carefully, lifting her eyes to reveal the tears that threatened to overspill her long lashes. "It's entirely personal."
Xena's lips compressed at the sight of the tears. "Because of your sister," she finished for the bard.
"How-how do you know about my sister?"
Xena made a dismissive gesture. "Autolycus completed a background check on you," she answered flatly.
"You checked into my background?" Gabrielle squeaked.
"It's standard procedure," the Conqueror shrugged. "Especially given your activities before you came to the Palace."
Gabrielle's stare never left the Conqueror. "So, I guess you know all there is to know now."
Xena lifted an eyebrow at the challenging note in the bard's voice. "Some of it did come as a surprise. You never mentioned having a husband."
"I don't recall ever being asked," Gabrielle said tartly. "Besides, as you now know, I don't have a husband: my husband is dead."
"Killed in the battle against Callisto," Xena nodded.
Gabrielle smiled, a faintly bitter twist of the lips. "Ah, your sources don't tell you everything, I see. Perdicus wasn't just killed fighting the forces of Callisto; he had the honor of being killed by Callisto herself, or so he told me… before he died."
Xena stiffened a little at the malice with which Gabrielle spoke. So, the Conqueror thought, your husband didn't just die in my army, he was killed by my greatest nemesis. The sorrow she felt swam momentarily in her eyes and Gabrielle, seeing it, looked stricken. Suddenly, it was as if the two of them were completely alone in the room and all the baiting and unpleasantness of the earlier conversation disappeared.
"He got tired of farming," Gabrielle whispered, making a helpless gesture. "Getting drafted wasn't an accident. He wanted to be a soldier, a famous hero."
"Did he know about the baby?" Xena asked.
The bard shook her head. "I didn't tell him. He wasn't always coherent, and I thought knowing would just... hurt him more. Those women…they helped us."
"The Amazons," Xena said shortly
"They said they were Amazons, but they… they weren't any different from other women. I didn't really believe them."
Xena smiled a little. "Amazons don't look any different than other women, except when they're in ceremonial dress. But these Amazons helped you?"
Gabrielle nodded. "They eased Perdicus' pain, and they treated me when I went into… when the baby died. They let me recuperated there and even escorted me home to Poteidaea."
Seeking to comfort, Xena's hand reached out, seemingly of its own accord, and rested on Gabrielle's. "I set Autolycus to find your sister, Gabrielle," she rumbled, in her lowest, most tender voice. The bard's eyes widened and her hand clasped the Conqueror's convulsively. "There's no guarantee," Xena warned. "Draco's forces didn't keep good records and things were very scattered…"
"But you are searching nonetheless," Gabrielle's gaze held the familiar dazzle of hero-worship and something deeper, and Xena found she couldn't look away.
"Yes. He has orders to find Lila and free her."
The Way of the sage is to act but not to compete.
The half-open door between the suite and the bathing room showed Gabrielle the Conqueror's back. Xena stood at her desk, her back to the bed and the dining table, her hands filled with scrolls and letters, which she seemed to be sorting. All the resplendent decorations of the night before had disappeared from the bedchamber and not for the first time, it occurred to Gabrielle how like a battlefield tent the Conqueror kept her apartment. Another monarch would have separated her bedchamber from the business of the empire; gotten a staff of secretaries to handle her correspondence; fitted out a chamber for private dining; even, perhaps, have had a separate room to hold her clothing. Xena, however, chose to keep her bedchamber as she had her command tent when she was the oft-moving warlord of her years of conquest: Her bedchamber had taken the place of the quickly-packed war tent, holding nearly all of what she needed to run her empire within the confines of the one room where she spent most of her time.
Also unlike other monarchies, the bulk of the decisions concerning the running of the empire, instead of being delegated to administrators, was handled by the Conqueror herself. Gabrielle had plans to change that. In their exchange of letters, Xena had spoken of offering the bard a position in her household. Gabrielle assumed Xena thought she'd make a passable official bard, but the blonde former resistance leader had another position in mind.
Seeing the Conqueror alone, Gabrielle gathered her courage and stepped into the room. Even concentrating as she was, Xena felt some change in the air and jerked her head around, blue eyes snapping at the intruder. Seeing Gabrielle, Xena nodded briefly and returned to her task.
"What?" the Conqueror demanded, her tone encompassing several layers of meaning, from plain irritation to a sort of grudging affection.
Gabrielle smiled to herself and crossed to the Conqueror's side. A stack of scrolls refused to stay upright and the bard caught them as they would have tumbled from the table. "I actually came to talk to you about these," she revealed, gathering an armful of the stubbornly rolling things.
"You need a raise to meet the rising cost of parchment," Xena guessed sarcastically.
Gabrielle chuckled. "No. You're paying me quite generously. The merchants of Corinth are thinking of erecting you a statue."
Xena grinned, adding a folded letter to another pile. "The Imperial Household must do what it can to aid local economies."
Gabrielle expertly stacked the scrolls on an empty corner of the desk. "I wondered if you'd thought anymore about my place in your household."
The Conqueror gave Gabrielle a quick look. "You're not happy as my bard? You don't like teaching Leandra how to read?"
"It's not that," Gabrielle smiled, rescuing another falling item of correspondence and setting it carefully on the pile for which Xena had intended it. "Leandra is a quick learner; she won't need me for long. I was thinking that I had other talents that could benefit you."
Xena sat the remaining paperwork on the desk and turned to Gabrielle, folding her arms across her chest. "Other talents?" asked she of the many skills carefully.
"I could be your secretary. Answer your correspondence. Summarize reports and prioritize your calendar," Gabrielle said in a rush. "I was schooled in rhetoric as well as storytelling; I have excellent penmanship and a trained bardic memory. I never forget a detail. I could be a great help to you."
"Gabrielle," the cautioning rumble was back in the Conqueror's voice. "I have hundreds of secretaries available..."
"None you trust, though," the bard guessed, gesturing absently at the littered desk.
"No," the Conqueror admitted, studying the earnest young face lifted to hers.
"And you trust me," Gabrielle held her breath at the audacity of that statement.
"No..." Xena answered immediately, automatically, and then hesitated. "Yes…" she looked away, troubled at the disclosure.
Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on the crossed arms, gripping a steely wrist. "So let me help you."
Xena's frown deepened. "Gabrielle, I've kept you away from your life for far too long already," she began, intending to release the bard from her service altogether.
"I died on that cross, Xena," Gabrielle interrupted, her green eyes turbulent with her intense need to convince the Conqueror of the meaning she was trying to express. "The 'I' that I thought I was is gone, and I have a new life now. Everything started over at the moment you had me taken down."
Xena found she couldn't look away. Her lashes fluttered a little, though, as Gabrielle's meaning hit her hard in a place that she'd thought completely buried.
"I understand," she answered quietly.
"You-- You do?"
Xena nodded, her inner eye flashing on the interior of a firelit hut, a squad of Roman soldiers, a dark-skinned, curly haired young woman collapsing in her arms. "When I was...saved from the cross, part of me died as well, and I had to learn to live all over again."
Gabrielle felt the sorrow welling in those cerulean eyes. "I want to work with you," she told Xena quietly, her thumb circling absently on the smooth skin of the Conqueror's arm. "I think I can do something meaningful here, be a part of history instead of simply reading about it. I think I can help."
Xena, coming suddenly back from the darkness she remembered, frowned, seeing the innocence and youthful intensity a direct mirror of that other face, the one she had watched those same qualities drain out of with the flow of M'Lila's lifeblood. "This isn't an easy life, Gabrielle. It's not some story scroll adventure. The dangers are all real. As my secretary, you would be a target…."
"I've seen the dangers first hand, remember?" Gabrielle's hand tightened on the wrist she held. "I've already been a target."
The Conqueror frowned, caught between her need to comfort and the very real dangers she knew Gabrielle might face. The bard continued quickly.
"Xena, I'm not saying that I'm not afraid, but all of life is dangerous, and I'm less afraid with you around. You make me feel safe."
It wrung an unwilling laugh from the Conqueror. "Gabrielle, I'm a warlord."
"You're the nicest warlord I know," Gabrielle pledged, smiling winningly, then asked in all earnestness, "They won't kick you out of the club for that, will they?"
For years to come, Xena laughed every time she thought of that question.
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