Dinnerware Disclaimer: Because y'all are just too darn picky. The fork was not introduced into Western dining as anything other than a serving utensil until around the 13th Century.
Poetry Disclaimer: The poem which Xena recalls near the end of this section is the work of the Tenth Muse. No, not Gabrielle of Poteidaea. Sappho.
Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move,
earth bears none frailer than mankind. What man
believes in woe to come so long as valor
and tough knees are supplied him by the gods?
Homer The Odyssey Book XVIII
"… and what I find hardest to believe, gentlemen," Xena's voice burned with fury as her blue eyes scorched over her Chief of Security and her Chief of Secret Police, "is that my spy network, on which hundreds of thousands of dinars and countless lives have been expended, cannot find one Chinese agent in the tiny country of Greece in a time span of six weeks."
A deep brick red suffused Autolycus' face at the icy-voiced diatribe from his Empress, but he didn't dare attempt to excuse or refute any of her points. It wasn't fear, however, that kept him silent. It was the knowledge that they-his men and himself-had failed miserably and there didn't seem to be any way to recover from that loss. The Empire and the Conqueror were in danger and the blame rested squarely on his shoulders.
It had been a textbook example of a routine exercise gone terribly wrong. In the wee hours of that night a frantic six weeks before, Autolycus' men, whom Iolaus had praised so highly to the Conqueror, had returned to the palace with the news that Astoriis of Crete had disappeared and the hideout near the Athens Gate in which they thought they'd cornered Vuong was actually empty. Autolycus himself had woken the Conqueror to tell her the news; The mark from her blow had faded now, but the bruising to his pride was still tender. The fact that he, too, blamed himself didn't make the Conqueror's anger-so seldom directed at the King of Spies-any easier to bear.
The next evening, searchers had found Astoriis of Crete, dead in an alleyway behind a brothel. It became clear that Vuong, using a decoy of himself to lead them astray, had lost the surveillance team within a few minutes, then doubled back and caught Astoriis unawares, snapping the man's neck from behind without any evidence of a struggle. As a precaution, the back up men were being held, even now, for fear that they themselves had some part in the plot. Given the sophistication of Vuong's escape, it no longer seemed impossible, or even unlikely, that someone besides Darphus was aiding and abetting the rebellion.
To add insult to injury, Darphus had barely ventured out of the barracks since-- warned, no doubt, by the wily Vuong-- and the former Captain of the Guard was visibly, gloatingly, pleased with himself. The plan he'd helped put into place went forward without a hitch, while the secret police ran in circles, trying to uncover any clue about the details. Being bested by Darphus didn't set well with any of the Command Team, Autolycus least of all.
"Do you have anything to answer, Autolycus?" The Conqueror enquired in a frighteningly calm voice.
"No, Conqueror," the Spy Chief muttered, wishing for the thousandth time in the last six weeks that he'd stuck to breaking and entering.
"Palaemon?" The azure gaze went to the blond Security Chief, one brow arching inquiringly.
"I still feel like we're missing something," Palaemon said, as if thinking aloud.
"Obviously," Xena said acidly. "Any more brilliant observations?"
Palaemon flushed, but went on doggedly. "Rexel was doing Darphus's dirty work in Corinth-finding easy marks to pin crimes on, yet, ultimately, undermining the resistance. But all of that was to our benefit. Why would Darphus kill the man who was doing him these favors?"
Xena frowned. "Because he knew that my finding out about Gabrielle's innocence would stop his little grandstanding scheme."
Palaemon shook his head. "So, why not just blame it all on Rexel? He was the perfect scapegoat. You'd believe Darphus over some stranger."
"Because Rexel knew something Darphus didn't want us to know," Autolycus filled in what they already knew.
"And what was that?" Palaemon cut the air with his hand as if cleaning a slate. "It's like those damn logic problems we used to get in school. We have part of the information we need to figure it out, but we're overlooking some piece of evidence that is the real key. We know now that Darphus was involved in something bigger than finding scapegoats for Imperial Justice. He's working for someone else, someone with designs on the Empire-the whole Empire-but whoever it is doesn't trust Darphus enough to let him meet with her directly. Could Rexel have known who this mystery woman was? Or did Darphus just panic and kill him because….because…" Palaemon shook his head angrily. "That's as far as I can get with it."
"Rexel must have known more than Darphus was willing to risk us finding out," the Conqueror continued the line of reasoning. "And the stuff with Gabrielle was all window dressing…"
"Like a magician's show-or a really good scam," Autolycus interrupted. "Look at this hand while I work the trick with the other. Create a diversion somewhere while you strike in another area."
"Yes," the Conqueror grinned at the analogy. "Rexel was the magician's helper, waving the colored scarves and distracting us while Darphus performed the real trick. But, like every magician's helper, Rexel knew how the trick really worked."
"So, Rexel had some knowledge of how the real trick was going to play out…and when!" Autolycus smiled, broadly.
The Conqueror caught his thinking immediately. "And what Rexel knew, I'll bet someone else knows, too. Was there a wife? Family?"
"He wasn't married," Autolycus mused, "but we didn't really follow up completely with his known associates. Didn't seem to be a reason with him dead and all. There's bound to be some bartender, some whore to whom Rexel let slide some information."
The Conqueror's expression darkened momentarily. "Autolycus? Why has it taken all this time for us to get to this point in the investigation?"
The thief struggled a moment and then answered honestly, "Complacency, Your Majesty. We've been the best game in town for so long that we've lost our edge."
"I don't want to be playing catch up when whoever's behind this springs her plan."
"No, Conqueror," he hastily assured her. "I've been humiliated once. I'm not about to let it happen again."
"Good," she answered shortly. "Palaemon, send a message to Rome and have those lawyers Darphus implicated arrested immediately. Use a carrier pigeon; that'll be fastest. Let's see if we can cause a little confusion to smoke out our prey."
"Thy will, Conqueror."
"This is why I never hire hetaeras," the Conqueror remarked as she sauntered in the door. With a negligent flick of her wrist, Xena launched a parchment cylinder at the corner where Gabrielle stood, sorting reports and correspondence, and then flopped down in her armchair. The unrolled parchment fluttered in a high arc and landed like a wounded dove on the desk. With a smirk at the Conqueror, Gabrielle picked it up and scanned it.
Leandra, who'd abandoned her scrolls at the table to attend the Conqueror, moved to pour the monarch a glass of wine, but Xena gestured her away.
"Leave us, Leandra," she ordered curtly. "Go read in your room."
The slave gathered the scrolls carefully and left with a curtsy.
"How was the meeting with Palaemon and Autolycus?" Gabrielle asked cautiously, hazarding a peek at the sullen warrior before returning to her reading.
"Nothing really new," the Conqueror sighed, frustrated and still angry. "We're checking into Rexel's background again, looking for known associates who may know something about what Darphus is planning. Autolycus knows he screwed up and he's still trying like Hades to straighten it out before I kill him."
Gabrielle glanced at the Conqueror to see how serious the monarch was about that last remark. Xena had vented a number of times to Gabrielle about the miscues that had led to Vuong's escape and it seemed clear that the Conqueror blamed Vuong and his mysterious female leader far more than she did Autolycus-- not that she'd let Autolycus know that-- and Gabrielle decided that this mention of killing the King of Spies was as close to an idle threat as Xena got.
The letter, on the other hand, was anything but idle. It requested an astronomical fee for the appearance of one "Silken Chiton" as Xena's companion at a symposium held by Davidicus of Corinth in one week. The social event of the year, Gabrielle knew the dinner party was meant to cement the Conqueror's position with the Corinthian upper class, a move Xena hoped would remove any support for future rebellions against her and, therefore, lead to her being able to leave Corinth for other parts of her Empire within the month.
Gabrielle looked up again. The Conqueror lounged in her big armchair, long legs thrust out before her and hands linked across her stomach. Her expression had changed to one of arch inquiry, but Gabrielle, who knew her well enough now after six weeks as her secretary, could see the playful glint enter her sapphire eyes.
"Xena," Gabrielle protested, setting the letter aside and returning to sorting dispatches, "you could never kill Autolycus. He amuses you too much. And you're fully aware that hetaeras are women-- just like you and I-- forced into roles outside society's norms. Their fees are their only income. They trade on their beauty as I trade on my storytelling, as you trade on your fighting skills, in order to survive."
"Are you saying I couldn't survive on my looks?"
Gabrielle gave her a head-tilted, "Come on; get real" look. "Many fine and intelligent women have become hetaeras," the bard continued as if Xena hadn't spoken.
"Yes," Xena agreed, with exaggerated patience, "and they've gotten stunningly rich doing so."
"Xena, the money has your face on it. Don't tell me you're resisting hiring a hetaera for Davidicus' symposium to save a dinar or two."
The Conqueror grumbled indistinctly.
"I said I hate talking to that pornoboskos, Salmoneous."
Xena wished suddenly that she had never begun the conversation. "He… fawns all over me. He's constantly making these embarrassingly fulsome compliments," she waved her hand as if shooing the topic away. "It's just disgusting."
Gabrielle stepped down hard on her desire to giggle. "Think of it as a supply negotiation," she suggested in a reasonable tone. "Pretend he has the horses you need for your cavalry."
Xena rolled her eyes. "I think the proper euphemism is cattle. They're called the heifer brigade."
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "Whatever. It's a business transaction."
"I don't deal with the business side of the Empire," Xena said, the beginnings of a truculent pout at the corners of her mouth. "That's what I have secretaries for."
"So that's it!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "You're just mad because I haven't offered to handle it for you."
Xena started to give Gabrielle a woebegone, pleading look, then shook it off. "No, I don't want you out procuring for me."
"Why not just take Leandra, Xena? She's certainly beautiful enough and she's had training for those kinds of functions."
Hades, the Conqueror cursed internally. I'd hoped this wouldn't come up.
"I sort of loaned her to Palaemon," Xena had the grace to look discomfited. She knew what Gabrielle's reaction was likely to be.
Silence reigned for a long moment.
"I see," the bard said succinctly.
"Gabrielle, it's not like that. You know Palaemon…"
"It's not 'like' what? It's not 'like' you're treating Leandra like a pair of boots or a saddle to be shared among your officers?" Gabrielle's usually well-modulated bard's voice shook with anger and unshed tears.
"Gabrielle, it's Palaemon. You know he won't harm her or try to take advantage of the situation. I think he's half in love with her anyway."
"I can't help it, Xena. All I can think is how easily it could be me in Leandra's circumstances," Gabrielle's breath caught on a sob. "And, for all I know, my own sister is still living as someone else's property."
Damn it, now I've made her cry, Xena cursed silently, watching helplessly as the bard turned away and pretended a sudden, intense interest in some scrolls on the other corner of the desk in order to hide her tears. She rose and went to the bard's side, standing near enough that Gabrielle couldn't ignore her.
"Gabrielle, Autolycus is still searching for Lila," Xena promised gently. "If she can be found, he'll find her. It's just a matter of time and distance. She could be traveling east even now."
The blonde sniffled and nodded. "I know. It really makes no sense: I want to find out what happened to her, yet I'm afraid that the truth will be worse than the not knowing."
Xena's mouth quirked with pained empathy. It made perfect sense-it was exactly how she felt about finding out Solan's fate. Best not to go there, she told herself sternly. Focus on the matter at hand.
"Gabrielle, about Leandra," some part of the Conqueror listened with amazement as she defended her decision to the bard, "I know it's not the way you want things, but it's the way the world is. I've already told Palaemon it's okay, and Leandra knows as well. She's not upset with the arrangements."
Gabrielle shot her a glare. "Like she'd dare defy you."
Xena flushed and rubbed the back of her neck. I can't believe I'm apologizing for this, she thought, and I can't believe it's not doing any good. "This is a done deal, but I promise, in future, I'll ask Leandra before I grant any such request. How's that?"
Gabrielle chewed her lip. She couldn't believe Xena was apologizing and making her such an absurd promise. Asking the permission on a slave before she sent her to do her bidding? Yet, Gabrielle still wasn't happy with the situation.
"How about this?" she looked up at the Conqueror challengingly. "If I get Palaemon to release you from your promise, you'll take Leandra."
Xena frowned, looking for the catch in the offer, but there didn't seem to be any. "Okay, if that's what you want. You get Palaemon not to take Leandra and I'll take her myself. No hetaera."
Gabrielle smiled sunnily. "Done. Now, may I go talk to Palaemon?" She held up a sheaf of parchments. "These are the ones you absolutely have to look at. The rest I can take care of myself. While you look at them, I'll go speak to Palaemon and I'll be back in time to transcribe your notes."
Xena took the dispatches reluctantly and gave Gabrielle a suspicious look. "Very well," she said with ill grace, stomping back to her chair. For some reason, the Conqueror had a sneaking feeling that she was being artfully manipulated.
Gabrielle grinned again at the stiffly retreating back and went to find Palaemon.
"You ready for dinner?" Xena stuck her head around the door to Gabrielle's chamber at precisely the sixth hour past midday as she had done every evening, regular as a water clock, for the last four weeks.
The bard looked up, smiling as she always did when she met those relaxed, inquiring blue eyes.
"Sure. Are Autolycus and Palaemon going to be there?" She set aside her quill and capped her ink before rising and straightening her skirt. The letter could be finished after dinner-if she managed to get back to her chamber at a decent hour. These get-togethers had turned into long evenings of discussion and laughter before now.
"Why?" Xena leaned on the door and gave her a smirk. "You feeling protective?"
"I'm sure they don't need me to protect them. They faced you all alone this morning." Gabrielle stepped closer, tipping her head to look up into the now-grinning face of the Conqueror.
"Faced the Destroyer of Nations and lived. They'll probably tell their grandchildren the story."
"That reputation of yours may lose some of its effect over time, you know," the bard warned teasingly. "Besides, their grandchildren will probably be serving your grandchildren."
Xena tried not to freeze up at the mention of children. "That's what I have you for, Official Bard of the Empire-to make sure my reputation doesn't fade.'
Gabrielle read the tension that stiffened the Conqueror's face and tried to figure out what had been said to cause it, but Xena turned back to her chamber and the bard was left with the mystery.
She followed Xena automatically, still ruminating, and nearly walked squarely into the Conqueror's naked back. Unthinkingly, she caught Xena's waist to steady herself, then snatched her hands away from the warm velvety skin as if burned.
"Oh," Gabrielle went crimson and backed into the open bathroom door with a clunk, "I'm sorry. I didn't know… I thought…"
"What?" Xena, never one for modesty, turned around and unintentionally worsened Gabrielle's embarrassment. "I just need to change." She lifted the clothing in her hand.
Gabrielle glanced at it and was unable to stop her eyes from wandering from the hand to the smooth, muscled length of the arm, the bare, broad shoulders, and the lovely, full breasts before her. She found she couldn't willingly look away.
"Leandra has a question for you," the Conqueror went on imperturbably, slipping into the new tunic. She shifted so that the garment settled more comfortably over her, but made no moved to button the front, dealing instead with the cuffs, the open shirt front swaying open and closed, revealing and concealing her bosom. The unintended seductiveness of it threatened to overwhelm Gabrielle's thought process.
"She-she does?" Gabrielle squeaked, her mind struggling with her reaction to Xena's nudity.
"Yeah, something about one of the scrolls you loaned her." Xena waved the topic away impatiently. "She'll tell you all about it at dinner, I'm sure. You two have your own little poets' circle going on down at that end of the table."
The safer topic eased Gabrielle's tension enough that she could manage a laugh and she replied in kind. "Then it must be a war college you're conducting at the other end."
Xena lifted a brow at her. "Of course it is," the Conqueror confirmed archly. "And it wouldn't hurt you to participate a bit. You need to know something of strategy to write intelligently about battles, and the other talk might help you with your self-defense exercises."
"You said I was doing well…" Gabrielle started to protest.
"There're always ways to improve, Gabrielle," Xena cut in. "Even for me." Holding the bard's gaze til she saw it soften, Xena grinned. "Now then, ready?"
"Yes," Gabrielle found a grin to answer Xena's. "I'm starving."
It had become customary some few weeks ago that, after the affairs of state and the army were finished for the day, the upper echelon of the Conqueror's staff would dine together in the informal dining room. At first, it had been a matter of space: Xena's chamber wasn't large enough to hold all the members of a dinner meeting, and Gabrielle had arranged for them to meet in the long, narrow room that paralleled the larger mess hall. Since that night, given the tenseness of their present situation, they had met often to discuss strategy, but for the last moon, even when there was no pressing security issue, a group of ten to fifteen of them, different on any given night save for the core group of Xena, Gabrielle, Palaemon, and Leandra, shared the evening meal.
The assembly rose as Xena entered, but, half-irritated, she motioned them back to their seats. They'd waited to dine, but with the Conqueror's entrance, the servants began the courses with a light appetizer.
Gabrielle waved at Palaemon who sat on the other side of the table, then bent to whisper to Leandra. With a smile and a shooing gesture, the slave nodded her assent to whatever she'd been asked. Dodging a waiter, Gabrielle took the open seat to Xena's immediate left, across the table from Autolycus and Telekon of the Corinthian Navy.
With a humorous quirk of her lips, the Conqueror handed her secretary the appetizer that had been placed before her and motioned for the servitors to bring another.
"Can't have you fainting from hunger," Xena explained to Gabrielle's inquiring look.
"Your Majesty," Theodorus called from the other end of the table. "I have a new wine for you to try."
Quan Park, head of the Royal Stables, cut in. "I hope it's better than that last lot. I woke up with a hairy tongue the morning after that barrel."
Soldiers, Gabrielle thought long-sufferingly, as she listened to the good-natured raillery continue. But at least Xena's smiling. Tonight, the Conqueror ate in the Western style with knife and spoon rather than chopsticks and Gabrielle had to smile to herself, watching those deft and graceful hands handle the utensils with elegant precision and style. And to think that first night I thought she needed instruction in table manners, she thought abashedly. Xena did everything well, Gabrielle had found, and her dining manners really depended on the comfort level she felt with those at her table.
"More wine?" the Conqueror asked Gabrielle as the steward refilled the monarch's goblet. "It's actually quite good. Maybe Theo's learning."
"No, thanks. I'm drinking cider." She laughed at the warlord's aghast expression. "Quan Park and I learned that lesson together-take care with Theo's wine."
"I do seem to recall you singing rather loudly that night," Xena said upon reflection. "And that was after you went to bed."
"Conqueror," Autolycus broke in atop Gabrielle's indignant reply, "tell Theo that the Lesbian Army was not made up entirely of women."
Xena actually laughed outright at that, and Gabrielle found herself watching the Conqueror, paying only half-hearted attention to the topics being discussed. Xena's attention seemed everywhere at once, her senses sorting half a dozen conversations and responding to verbal and nonverbal signals from her tablemates. Gabrielle, focused only on the Warrior Princess, found herself enthralled by the shift of expressions over that normally inscrutable face.
The men, being primarily soldiers, wanted to talk of old battles, reveling in their own survival as much as the tactics and techniques they'd used to win and they soon engrossed the Conqueror in a recreation of the battle to take Byzantium. Gabrielle, absorbed in her observations, drew a groan from the soldiers when she took a sip from her cider glass, which had been serving as the West battlement tower, and replaced it incorrectly. Without halting her argument that the Byzantines had missed a huge chance to defeat her that day, Xena placed her own goblet in the spot and handed the cider to Gabrielle. Their fingers brushed together in the hand off, and Gabrielle found herself thinking again of the Conqueror's warm, lightly scented skin beneath her fingertips. She nearly dropped the cider, drawing an inquiring glance from the Conqueror before Xena went back to the discussion.
What is going on with you, bard? Gabrielle asked herself. Since when has Xena been on your list of fantasies? She answered herself quite easily: Since the day I came here, and then sat stunned at the epiphany.
"You've seen it, haven't you, Gabrielle?" Xena turned to ask and the bard nearly swallowed her tongue.
She couldn't know what I….
"Uh-uh, seen what?"
"The opening they could have exploited," Xena said impatiently, gesturing to the plate and cup map before her. "Tell these great commanders what even a novice in battlefield strategy can see."
Recovering herself, Gabrielle looked at the "map" and, amazingly, she could see where there could be an opening. She pointed to a spot between the "tower" and a row of cutlery that was meant to represent Xena's army.
"If they had countermined there and used archers above, you couldn't have sapped the tower," she guessed.
Xena hooted with laughter and clapped Gabrielle on the shoulder affectionately. "See? I told you, boys. My bard could have saved Byzantium that day!"
Gabrielle understood, suddenly, why people of all ages, cultures, and genders would follow this woman into battle. All for one of those smiles, she thought. Just one moment of her approval and one of those smiles.
Another room, another meal-this one finished, its remnants scattered across a cheap, rickety table in a dimly lit room a few streets away from the Palace. The room had been chosen on the premise that the best place to hide was in plain sight, and so far that logic had kept the fugitive Vuong alive and well within a stone's throw of the center of activity to find and prosecute him.
"These things take time," Vuong reiterated, leaning back on his couch and taking another hit from the water pipe on the table beside him.
"Time?!" Darphus paced the narrow confines of the small, rented room like a man in a death row cell. "To Hades with your precious schedule, Vuong! I'm sick of waiting and being watched. Do you know how hard it was for me to get here? I've got more tails than a hydra has heads!"
"Calm down, Darphus," the Chinese murmured imperturbably. "The schedule that we're on is necessary if you want to defeat Xena. Our allies are coming from all parts of the Empire and they need time to reach us. Remember that many of us have been waiting years for this to happen."
"I've been waiting years, too," Darphus turned on his heel and made the tiny circuit of the room again. "I had that bacchae where I wanted her-then she survived the gauntlet. She's not mortal, I tell you. Ares himself must have fathered her."
"Our waiting will be at an end within a week, Darphus," Vuong promised. "My leader has told me…"
"And that's another thing," Darphus whirled around to snarl out the interruption. "Where is this all-knowing, all-seeing leader of yours? When do I get to meet the head bitch?"
The door behind Darphus flew open, rebounding off the wall before rattling to a halt.
"Would now be soon enough?" purred an icy voice.
Darphus spun, dropping automatically to a fighting crouch. Then his eyes widened and he froze.
"Ares, Apollo, and Aphrodite," he whispered. "I thought you were dead."
"Only in my dreams," Callisto answered with a regretful sigh. "But you're another story."
He didn't have a chance to raise his sword. With a whip-like strike, the blonde warrior lashed out at the Greek and, with an almost anti-climactic ease, Darphus fell.
Vuong sat up abruptly, the mouthpiece to the pipe falling unheeded to his lap. He eyed the spreading puddle of blood oozing out from around Darphus's still body, then looked up at his leader.
"I fear you have done the Conqueror a favor in your haste, my queen," he finally found his voice. "She has wanted Darphus dead for a long time."
"Yes," Callisto allowed, bending to clean her sword on the back of Darphus's tunic with careful, almost child-like strokes. "But she would have preferred to be the one who killed him. I couldn't give her the satisfaction."
"Was it wise, my queen?"
"Are you questioning me, Vuong?" Callisto made the accusation sound almost pleasant, which frightened Vuong more than if she'd screamed at him.
"No, my queen."
"Good," she smiled chillingly, eyes wandering over Darphus' limp corpse. "Darphus had outlived his usefulness, Vuong. See that you don't do the same."
She straightened and sheathed the sword before sauntering over to the table beside Vuong's couch. She picked up the trailing tube of the hookah pipe with exaggerated care and held it negligently, one eyebrow lifting.
"It's a custom, my queen," the Chinese agent fought to remain calm. "I only partake lightly. It doesn't impair my thinking or my acting."
Callisto drew her dagger, a false smile doing nothing to hide the madness in her eyes. With a stroke, she cut the leather tube and backhanded the water pipe from the table. It shattered with a crash and hiss, releasing the acrid smell of the drug within.
"No more," Callisto ordered, pointing the dagger at her henchman. "We are too close to our goal to risk even the slightest… impairment. That's why I killed Darphus. He knew too much and if Xena's torturers had gotten a hold of him, he would have told them everything. There will be no mistakes in the final phase of my revenge on Xena. No mistakes and no mercy."
Xena's voice could have been heard over half of Corinth and it startled the bard awake in the next chamber. Bleary-eyed, Gabrielle scrambled up and, grabbing a robe, ducked through the bathroom and into the Conqueror's room.
Palaemon was rising to one knee, shaking his head as if he'd just been kicked by a mule. The mule in question was pacing away from him with long, furious strides, her silk nightrobe billowing behind her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle looked from one to the other. "What's going on?"
"Go back to bed, bard," the Warrior Princess snarled, pausing on her turn to slam her fist into the oak mantelpiece. Gabrielle thought for certain that she heard a creak from the massive, handspan-thick wood.
The bard looked to Palaemon who had gained his feet, but still wore a faintly incredulous expression. The livid imprint of Xena's signet stood out against his fair skin, but she hadn't cut him with the ring.
"Why did she hit you?" Gabrielle asked, moving to his side and touch the mark on his cheek.
Xena made a disgusted noise and swung away into another lap of the room. Her Security Chief recovered himself somewhat and looked down into concerned green eyes.
"Darphus is unaccounted for," he explained, voice somewhat muffled by a stiffening jaw. "Autolycus's men followed him to the apartment of one of his whores, but he never came back out. When they went inside, they found the woman no longer lives in the building. Darphus was nowhere to be found."
Gabrielle turned to the Conqueror. Xena's face had formed into a mask of fury, deathly white with glittering sapphires for eyes. The broad shoulders drew back, making her appear physically larger, and at her sides, the long, elegant hands clenched and unclenched. The bard recognized the look, the aura: the Destroyer of Nations inhabited the familiar form of her employer, empress, and sometime friend. She shared a glance with Palaemon and saw her own fear and regret in his eyes.
"Your Majesty," Palaemon began apologetically.
"Save it, Chief," Xena snapped, her voice stinging him more fiercely than her earlier blow. "I want no more excuses for the constant incompetence. I want one thing and one thing only. One of you idiots will find Darphus. Tonight. And you will bring him back here-dead or alive, I don't care-but you will bring him to me. Now go!"
The soldier saluted crisply and hurried from the chamber, leaving only the small, blonde bard to face the tall, raven-haired empress.
"It's not his fault," Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena gave her an incredulous glare. "He is the Chief of Security, Gabrielle. Who else's fault can it be?"
"Darphus's," Gabrielle answered immediately. "He's the bad guy here, Xena. Not Palaemon."
Xena flung a hand up with a disgruntled snort and strode to the fireplace again. She laid her forearms on the mantle and rested her forehead on them, obviously trying to get herself more under control. Gabrielle watched her, angry with the Conqueror, but hurting for her as well. Was she as afraid for herself as Gabrielle was for her? The bard wondered. Was that why she struck out at those closest to her?
"Xena," the smooth voice held more gentleness than it had. "This is Palaemon we're talking about. You know he worships the ground you walk on. He'd do anything for you. You must see how badly he feels about all this."
"He needs to do his job better," the Conqueror grunted, not looking around.
"He's only human," Gabrielle defended, "and he's doing the best he can. You didn't have to hit him." That brought blue eyes to bear on her, but she straightened her back and met the look fearlessly. "You didn't have to hit him," she repeated. "Violence like that doesn't help anything."
"It made me feel better," Xena muttered in an undertone.
"At the expense of your relationship with Palaemon," Gabrielle countered. "I think you owe him an apology."
"Are you insane?"
"I'm not apologizing."
Gabrielle shrugged and turned, walking to her room. "As you will."
"Gabrielle." The voice was a whipcrack across the quiet room.
The bard turned slowly.
"I didn't dismiss you."
The smaller woman's chin rose proudly. "I didn't ask you to."
Xena was before her in a second, towering over her with a face like a thundercloud. "What?" the Conqueror demanded, icily.
"I didn't ask you to," Gabrielle repeated without a tremor.
The air between them vibrated with tension as blue eyes and green locked. After long silence, the bard spoke.
"Are you going to hit me, too?"
"Get out." Xena said. "Now."
An apology? Bah! Disgusting! Cowardly! Beneath the dignity of any gentleman, however wrong he might be.
She found Palaemon in the practice yard when she went down the next morning to saddle Argo for a morning ride. He bowed formally, halting his exercises as she approached and assuming parade ground full attention. The mark of her blow lay like a scuff of dirt along his jawline.
"What's the report?" she asked, voice neutral.
"Nothing yet, Your Majesty."
She glanced away, tongue probing a back molar as she sought the right thing to say.
"Last night…" she paused and looked directly at him, though his eyes were rigidly fixed on the middle distance as if he were being inspected. "I made a mistake."
Dark blue eyes met icy cobalt with something akin to disbelief.
She nodded. "Yes, I do make them. And I did last night."
Palaemon snapped his eyes forward again. "I failed you, Conqueror," he said formally, taking a deep breath and blowing it out through his nostrils.
"No, Palaemon, you didn't." She turned so she was facing the same direction as he, looking out onto an imaginary or remembered scene not clear to him. "I failed me. I trusted someone I shouldn't have and I didn't trust someone who was completely loyal." She shot him a sideways glance. "It won't happen again."
With that she pivoted and strode away to the stables.
Gabrielle dawdled over dressing for as long as she could, dreading going next door to face the icy mask and biting commentary she was sure would be her lot. She'll probably fire me, she thought, not for the first time. Then what will I do? Go back to being a bard? The morning-after regrets tasted bitter as ash on her tongue. What was I thinking? When will I stop letting my big mouth run away with itself? She's the Empress of the World. She can do whatever she wants without the approval of her secretary, she reprimanded herself. But another, deeper part of her knew that if she were in the situation again, she'd behave exactly the same way. Palaemon hadn't deserved the blow, and Xena had needed someone to tell her that it wasn't right.
The bard squared her shoulders, armed with moral rectitude, and marched to the intervening doors. Only to halt in the bathing room hall, paralyzed again with dread. She's still going to be angry, the least brave part of her commented. She'll probably demote me to kitchen help. That's where I belong until I can learn to keep my big mouth shut. Right down in the kitchen, basting roasts and cutting carrots. Might as well get it over with. She reached for the door as a last plaintive thought sneaked in: But then I'll never get to see her.
In the Imperial bedchamber, Xena sat at her desk, reading newly arrived night reports, just as she did every morning. She was alone, of course. Gabrielle had learned soon after taking her position as secretary not to expect Leandra's presence. Whatever went on between the two at other times-and the bard had unwillingly overheard it on a couple occasions-Leandra didn't sleep in the Conqueror's bed or even her chamber. This morning, the bard found herself regretting those arrangements; she would have welcomed the young slave's moral support.
Approaching cautiously, Gabrielle searched the pristine profile for some hint of the Conqueror's mood, but none was forthcoming. Indeed, Xena could have been carved from the same marble that covered her desktop for all the expression she showed. I can do this, Gabrielle told herself firmly, and, drawing a deep breath, took her seat.
They worked in complete silence for the next three candlemarks, and then Xena rose.
"See if you can get the quarterly financial summary from Quan Kim Yuun in the Treasury," the Conqueror requested, sauntering toward the door. "I'd like to go over the tax figures from Persia when I return from morning exercise."
Gabrielle looked after her somewhat disbelievingly. Was the woman made of stone not to feel the tension between them?
"I'll take care of it," the bard answered automatically.
And with that Xena disappeared.
"I just don't understand her," Gabrielle complained to Palaemon as they seated themselves in the dining hall amidst the cacophony of other conversations.
"The Conqueror works in mysterious ways," Palaemon teased as he drew his eating knife and began working on the slab of beef that was the main entrée.
Gabrielle gave him a look, then relented. "Are you going to be able to eat that?" she enquired.
"Yeah," he said sheepishly, cutting the portion into a smaller bite. "My jaw got a work out in the training session Xena just held."
"See, that's precisely what I mean," Gabrielle reiterated. "Last night, she decked you, and, today, she has you leading the training session for her. I just don't understand her."
Palaemon shrugged. "It's just the way she is. She gets the anger out and she usually doesn't hold a grudge. 'Don't be sorry,' she says, 'just improve.'" He smiled at Gabrielle's irritated snort. "She actually apologized to me this morning, Gabrielle. I don't think I've ever heard her apologize to anyone before."
"Oh, she did, did she?" Gabrielle's green eyes alight with a mixture of irritation and triumph.
"Yeah," Palaemon looked genuinely pleased and Gabrielle knew that, once again, the soldier would willingly walk through fire for his leader.
She followed my advice, the bard thought with some satisfaction, then a second realization struck her: And she'd sooner die than admit I was right. Stubborn to the end, Xena was refusing to discuss the matter again, even though she'd bowed to Gabrielle's advice. Hence, the silent treatment this morning. Very well, Warrior Princess, the bard thought with some of the same stubbornness, two can play at that game.
It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
"What are you doing still here, Gabrielle? And where's Leandra?" The Conqueror asked, two mornings later, as she reentered her chamber after her late morning exercise bout.
The bard glanced up from her writing tablet, taking in Xena's calm blue eyes and relaxed features. A thick towel was wrapped around the warlord's neck and her dark hair was still wet from the officer's baths, which she'd just left. Amazing what a warm bath can do for a warlord's disposition, Gabrielle thought with an inward chuckle, aware she was repeating one of her first impressions of Xena. It pleased her to see that Xena's foul mood seemed to have lifted a little. The bard's resolve to return silence with silence had made things had been rather tense since the argument over Palaemon. Gabrielle hoped that they could put that aside now.
"Leandra's gone to get some lunch," Gabrielle answered, flashing the warlord a smile. "I'm just finishing up with the supply schedule for the Persian garrison."
"I don't remember telling you to skip your lunch to get that done," Xena grinned devilishly. "I really never considered that it was possible for the bottomless bard of Poteidaea to miss a meal."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Ha, ha. Very funny. I'm making up for the time off to see Palaemon the other morning."
Xena made a rude noise and unslung the towel, flicking it playfully at the bard. "What happened to the Golden Mean? All work and no play makes Gab a dull girl."
Gabrielle caught the end of the fabric and pulled it away, startling both herself and the Conqueror. For a second, they stared at one another a little wide eyed, and then Gabrielle scrunched up her nose and grinned again.
"I'll show you dull," she threatened, snapping the towel at Xena's unprotected side.
The bard's attack lasted all of two heartbeats until Xena quickly snagged the towel back. With a superior grin, the Conqueror went back to drying her hair with it. The bard watched her, feeling a little deflated that the game had ended so soon.
"What about your 'play', Xena?" she asked, trying not to let the question sound as serious as it was. "Aren't you afraid of becoming dull?"
Xena's eyebrow's peaked almost comically, then she frowned. Gabrielle worked to keep her expression open and inquiring, though inwardly she quailed just a bit.
"I don't 'play,'" Xena said the word as though it left a bad taste in her mouth.
"Then your advice is a little hypocritical, isn't it?" Gabrielle said quietly.
Xena stared at her, torn between disbelief and anger. Their conversations before two nights ago had seldom had these sorts of pitfalls, and the Conqueror found she didn't like the feeling of being out of her depth.
"If I need to play, so that I don't become dull," Gabrielle went on evenly, head tilted inquiringly, "then it stands to reason that you need to play as well. So, tell me, Xena, what do you do for fun?"
A number of rude, rebuffing replies offered themselves to the Conqueror, but what she said instead was honest, if unexpected.
Gabrielle's whole face lit up. "Fish? For what? Trout? Salmon?"
Xena threw back her shoulders, pasting on a patently fake look of icy disdain. "If the season is right… and the river."
"How about eel?" Gabrielle questioned, playfully challenging.
Gabrielle laughed, wringing a smile from the Conqueror. "I'm sorry; I just find it hard to imagine the Conqueror of the Known World standing on the bank of a river with a stick in her hand, dangling her string in the water."
Xena shook her head, falling with relief into the role of exasperated expert. "It's a 'pole,' Gabrielle, and 'line'. Besides, you don't always use one."
"Then how do you catch the fish?"
Xena waggled long fingers tauntingly. "With my bare hands."
"You do not!" Gabrielle stepped forward, hands on hip as she accused.
"Do, too" Xena bent so that her face was inches from the bard's.
"Prove it!" Gabrielle demanded, green eyes glinting with a competitive light.
"Okay, tomorrow morning-early-- we'll go fishing," Xena vowed, "and I'll show you how it's done."
This close, Gabrielle could trace the deep indigo rim around the icy blue irises of Xena's eyes, could see the length of her dark lashes, and smell the soft, warm heat of her freshly bathed skin. It all made the bard feel faintly dizzy. For the Conqueror's part, she was struck by the way laughter blended with the deep intelligence in Gabrielle's gaze and the way the sunlight brought out the blonde and red highlights in Gabrielle's long hair. Heartbeats or candlemarks might have passed as they stared into one another's eyes.
At the same moment, both women realized how close their faces actually were and hastily stepped back from one another, feigning nonchalance.
"Okay. You've got a deal," Gabrielle said, casting about for something to say to distract them both from what had just happened. "But on one condition."
"Condition?" Xena protested.
"There's a play at the old grass amphitheatre beside the southern wall this evening. I'll go fishing with you in the morning, if you go to the play with me tonight."
"I hate plays," Xena's tone bordered on petulant. "Give me one good reason why I have to go to a play?"
"Because it's what friends do," Gabrielle said firmly.
Something flickered in the Conqueror's gaze, softening those stunning eyes to a richer blue. "Friends, huh?"
"Yeah," Gabrielle smiled, glowing under that softness. "Friends."
The look stretched again, threatening to engulf them, but Xena broke away, turning her back and stepping away.
"Okay, friend," she tested the word on her lips like a new wine. "What's the plan?"
"Well," Gabrielle took the first deep breath she'd taken in a while. "I know Hamna had some tickets. His friend's producing it. But I'm not sure if there's going to be room for your whole entourage, Conqueror."
Xena shrugged negligently, toweling her hair again. "Then I won't bring them."
Xena cast a grin and a wink back over her shoulder. "Just meet me at the amphitheatre, Gabrielle. I'll take care of losing my entourage."
Hamna looked up with a wide smile as Gabrielle slipped into the library.
"Ah," he teased, rising to greet her with a hug, " a visit from the exalted realm."
Gabrielle laughed. "You've done the job; you know how unexalted it can be."
"But exciting in its own way, yes?" his sharp brown eyes took in the sparkle in the bard's eyes and the confident way she held herself. "You're standing at the elbow of History and taking her dictation."
Of one accord, they moved out to the balcony and down to their favorite table in the garden. It was here, during the weeks that Xena had spent en route to and from Italia, that Gabrielle, with the help of the librarian, had written much of her still-unfinished history of Xena's rise to power.
"I'm sure you can imagine what 'History' would say to that comment," the bard grinned as she took her seat. "She hates being reminded of how famous she is. She's amazingly modest once you get beyond that cocky warrior thing."
Hamna nodded, sitting opposite her and motioning for his servant to fetch them some refreshment. "She's got nothing to prove these days. She's the queen of the world. Not like when I served her and she was out to put her indelible mark on every battlefield, every kingdom, and every person who opposed her."
"I didn't know we were going to be so serious today," Gabrielle laughed a little, embarrassed at what she'd revealed. "I really just came to get tickets to your friend's play."
"Of course you may have them. And it's just that you manage to get away so seldom now that you are the Conqueror's Chief Secretary," Hamna teased. "I have to speak to you about serious things while I have the chance."
"You know you're the only one I can really talk to about this stuff," she smiled to temper the revelation. "Everyone else is so afraid of her-afraid of her spies, of her reputation. They don't want to say anything. It's like they don't know her at all."
"Well, I certainly know enough to fear her," he said consideringly. "And her reputation is nothing to sneeze at."
"I find it so hard to imagine her like that-killing for pleasure and plundering innocent villagers," Gabrielle revealed, leaning forward earnestly. "I mean, not that I haven't seen her lose her temper and be violent and unforgiving about things. She does frighten me sometimes, but most of the time she just seems to be so-opposite to the cold blooded image I have always had of her."
Hamna frowned, concern written on his usually jovial face. "You'd better be careful, Gabrielle," he warned. "She's Xena the Conqueror. She's the bloodiest warlord this world has ever known. You forget that and you might be letting yourself in for more trouble than you ever thought possible."
The bard shrugged, looking away, out over the garden, a small frown marring her brow as she fought down the images of the savage beating she'd seen Xena deliver to Darphus and the stunned look on Palaemon's face only the night before last when Xena had taken out her rage on the Security Chief.
"She's very different when we're alone, Hamna. She makes jokes; she explains things to me; she tells me about the places and things she's seen. I feel like I learn something from her, about her, every day." She turned intense green eyes on the librarian. "I really like her."
"She's easy to like, Gabrielle," he smiled understandingly. "Easy to love, in fact, or men and women wouldn't have left their homes and lives to follow her banner. But she's still the Conqueror and she wields not only power immeasurable, but also ruthlessness and ferocity the likes of which you can only imagine."
He reached across the table to take her small, clenched hand in his own and gently unfold the fist, stroking it with fatherly affection. "I've seen her kill a whole village for not surrendering one runaway enemy soldier, Gabrielle. I've watched her fight her way through a squad of soldiers, giving no quarter despite pleas for mercy, killing every one of them where they stood because her army didn't have enough supplies to share with prisoners. Or because she needed to cover more ground before the next camp and prisoners would slow her down. I've taken notes at interrogations where she beat the men so severely that they never walked again." He shook his head, his expression wise and sad. "I followed her of my own free choice, Gabrielle, because I saw greatness and promise in her, but I always remember-and you have to, too-- that under that charming, beautiful exterior is a savage, homicidal maniac."
Gabrielle pulled her hand away rather stiffly. "That was a decade ago, Hamna. She's not like that anymore." In spite of herself, the memory of Xena's furious eyes impinged itself on her consciousness.
The Briton looked pained. "Gabrielle, she ordered you crucified."
"For a crime she thought I'd committed, Hamna," the bard objected, "not for a whim. Not because she was an awful person who wanted to see someone suffer. I've forgiven her for it. It was a mistake. A grave mistake."
"Don't compound her mistake with one of your own," he cautioned. "Remember who she is, what she is. By Lugh Brightspear, Gabrielle, I don't want to see you get hurt again."
"She won't hurt me," Gabrielle smiled confidently. "I'm her friend."
"Forgive me, Your Majesty, but it's absolute madness!" Palaemon's voice rose uncontrollably on the last word and he sucked in a hard breath, trying to modulate it. "We already have one high-security event scheduled in the next few days. With the situation the way it is-with Darphus still missing-- your going out without guards borders on suicidal."
"That's very reassuring, coming from my Chief of Security," Xena snapped. "I think I can still manage to get myself out of most scrapes, Palaemon. Besides, who's going to suspect that I'd leave the palace right now anyway? The unexpectedness of it will be half the safety."
"An assassin could be lying in wait for you anywhere out there," Palaemon objected. "We don't really know how much they know."
"Whoever 'they' are," Xena added, bitterly. "I know that, Palaemon. I'm not going without a weapon, but I am going, and no guards are coming with me."
"Enough!" she barked. "Don't question my orders, Chief. Dismissed."
Palaemon pulled himself up stiffly and saluted, then executed a sharp turn and marched to the door. Her voice stopped him as he reached the portal.
"And no running to Autolycus for one of his surveillance teams," she commanded. "I think the city has enough dead spies for the moment without me adding to them. I go alone, Palaemon."
Palaemon closed the door behind him with a bit more force than necessary.
Alas, regardless of their Doom
The little victims play!
No Sense have they of Ills to come,
No Care beyond today:
Yet see how all around 'em wait
The Ministers of human Fate
And black Misfortune's baleful train!
Thomas Gray An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
A light evening breeze had kicked up by the time Gabrielle arrived at the amphitheatre and the colored flags on the food sellers' booths snapped and streamed in the wind, adding color and panoply to the festive scene. All around, couples and groups laughed and chatted, excitement and pleasure clear in their voices. In the concourse, hawkers called their wares loudly, seeking to be heard above the musicians playing both within and without the walls.
Gabrielle, for once, ignored the importuning vendors. She bore a large hamper of food from the Imperial kitchens and a blanket for the Conqueror and herself to sit upon, and she juggled the two awkwardly as she returned the smiling greetings of passersby. She felt a little odd being by all alone in a crowd of pairs and groups, but she told herself that Xena would be there soon and kept a lookout for the tall silhouette to come striding through the crowd.
"Good evening," came the low, rich voice near her ear and the bard spun around, nearly tripping herself. Xena laughed and captured the picnic basket, using her other hand to steady Gabrielle.
"Do you always have to sneak up on people?" Gabrielle demanded shakily. "I mean, stealth is great when you're hunting or something, but you really startled me."
"I came with no entourage," Xena shrugged, giving her that teasingly offhand look. "I can't attract undue notice."
"I didn't need fanfare and trumpets; Just a simple 'Hey, Gabrielle' is all I'm talking here."
Xena ignored her, turning her attention to the hamper. "What have you got in here? It weighs a ton."
"Oh, it's just a little snack," Gabrielle had the grace to blush. "I thought we might get hungry… or thirsty."
"Fishcakes, sausage, bread, fruit, wine…. Gabrielle, I didn't have this many courses at my last banquet."
"Come on," the bard changed the subject, "they're opening the gates. It's open seating; we'll have to hurry to get a good spot."
Gabrielle had asked Xena to meet her early so that they had a better chance to grab a place on the lawn close to the lip of the sunken proscenium, but she soon saw that the Conqueror's forceful personality and steely-eyed stare worked even better for getting a choice seat. By the time they reached the front section, center stage, other patrons had dropped away, giving the two of them a wide circle of space in which to spread their blanket and set out their food.
Hands on hips, Gabrielle looked about them, taking in the bubble of privacy and, smilingly, shook her head. "I don't know how you do it, but remind me to invite you to the theatre next time there's a sold out Sophocles play in Athens."
"What?" Xena asked innocently, popping a grape into her mouth and then spitting the pit into the buffer zone between them and their nearest neighbor.
"Nothing," Gabrielle gave up with a grin. The weirdest thing about it was she was certain no one knew the dark-haired warrior reclining so casually on the cream-colored groundcloth was their Imperial Leader, Xena the Conqueror. She watched Xena watching the crowd and wondered if perhaps, for this evening at least, both she and Xena could forget they knew as well.
Xena had dressed the part of an ordinary theatregoer, wearing a soft linen shirt with wide sleeves gathered at the wrists under a violet blue vest, embroidered with a bestiary of mythological creatures. Her dark skirt was slit high over black boots, both of which bore silver-hilted daggers in their tops, and a short sword rode in a scabbard at her left hip. As Gabrielle watched, Xena loosened the swordbelt and set the blade aside, though near enough to reach if there was trouble. Then Xena turned and looked up at her, blue eyes warm and humorous in the late afternoon sun.
"Aren't you going to sit down?"
"Oh, of course," Gabrielle plopped down and scooted nearer. "Can't let you have all the grapes."
"Hey… hands off my fishcakes," Xena responded and the two wrangled their way through nearly all of the food in the basket.
"I still don't understand why everyone pays to see Oedipus Tyrannus," Xena commented as the two, surrounded by other playgoers, wound their way through the dark, crowded streets of the southern sector toward the main thoroughfares and the boulevard that led to the Palace. "Even the smallest child knows the plot; besides, it's depressing."
"Depressing?" Gabrielle frowned. "A lot of people would say that it has an important message for us all: worship and obey the gods, for they decide the fate of humankind."
"What crap!" Xena responded inelegantly. "The gods have their own petty wars and pleasures to be concerned with. They only interfere with mortals when they need something, or they're bored."
Gabrielle started to question the vehemence of the answer, then thought better of it. "Okaaaay. Then what about the idea of the sins of the parents being visited on the child? That's a pretty important lesson."
Xena gave her a look. "Depressing, Gabrielle. Very depressing."
The bard sighed sharply, seeing that it was going to be a hard sell. "Okay, what about the idea that Oedipus's downfall was caused by his own lack of self-control? His violent temper and lack of restraint led him to kill his father and so led to his own damnation."
Xena stiffened, a slight hesitation in her stride, but she answered. "He did what had to be done at that crossroads."
"Kill them all?"
"Yeah, kill 'em all. He says in the play that they ran him off the road, and, when he resisted them, King Laios hit him with the chariot goad."
Gabrielle stopped, forcing the Conqueror to turn back to look at her. "Why couldn't he just let them pass?"
"They hit him, Gabrielle," Xena said as if that explained everything. "He had to protect himself."
"And what about the concept of turning the other cheek?"
The Conqueror crossed her arms over her chest as if protecting something. "Turning the other cheek is a guaranteed way of getting two black eyes. You have to stand up for yourself. The world is a violent place."
"Yes, yes, it is, but it doesn't have to be," Gabrielle argued. "We can break that cycle of violence. Love can break it."
Xena tried humor to rescue herself from the dangerous turn the conversation had taken. "Oedipus 'loved' Jocasta. That didn't seem to help much."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle sighed, exasperated. "Not sexual love."
"Then what do you mean by love?" Xena asked, real curiosity in her tone.
Gabrielle started walking again and Xena fell in at her side. "Love," the bard repeated thoughtfully. "Understanding? Forgiveness?"
"Like you forgiving me for… what happened," Xena responded softly.
"Yes," Gabrielle answered just as softly. "Though that wasn't your fault."
"I ordered it done," the Conqueror tilted her chin, expression stiff.
"Yes, but on the basis of false evidence from Darphus."
"I allowed him free rein," Xena rebutted her. "I made the law. And I never checked the evidence myself before I judged the case."
"Xena," a small hand touched her arm, making her look down at the bard. "Don't blame yourself. I told you, I forgive you and I do."
"And Darphus?" Xena challenged, more to divert the talk from herself than to find out the answer. "Could you forgive Darphus?"
"I already have," Gabrielle said with quiet surety.
The grunt of surprise was soft, but Gabrielle heard it clearly. After a long pause, the Conqueror's voice came clearly through the darkness of the narrow street they traversed.
"Not everyone is you, Gabrielle."
"It's funny," the bard said, meaning just the opposite. "I used to think you were a remorseless monster who never regretted anything. Now, I think you're too hard on yourself."
"I've done lots of things worthy of regret," said the disembodied voice.
"You have to give forgiveness to get it, Xena," Gabrielle's voice was utterly sure in its conviction. "You have to give love, too. Do good to those who hate you, not because it will change them, but because it will change you."
A long pause stretched between them as they moved from darkness to the light of a crossroad and then back into shadow. In the darkness, Xena spoke again.
"Lao Ma once told me that it was easy to serve those whom you love because it was like a good return on investment. But to truly free one's self, you must serve those you hate."
They emerged from the alley into the bustle of the central agora where shops were still open in the long, summer twilight and bazaar booths stretched along the central sidewalks.
"She sounds like a very wise woman," Gabrielle said, giving Xena an out for the conversation. "Hope I get to meet her."
Xena grinned crookedly, stronger emotions still haunting her blue eyes. "No way," she joked. "You two would drive me up a wall with all your philosophy."
Gabrielle laughed as she was meant to and the pair strolled down the crowded avenue, the bard eyeing the wares on display all around them.
"I'd love to travel more," she said almost wistfully. "See where silk is made. Visit the cities and temples of other people and gods."
"I'll take you to Chin one day," Xena promised, almost offhandedly, but her eyes were serious. "If you want."
Gabrielle's face lit up at the offer. "Oh, yes! I'd love it."
"Good," the Conqueror smiled, too. "Good."
They walked on companionably, Gabrielle pointing to items and the Conqueror commenting, after some prodding, as to whether she liked them or not.
"You're hopeless at girl talk," Gabrielle finally burst out as they paused at the booth of a jeweler.
She didn't see the slight flicker of hurt that passed over Xena's features.
"Comes from being around men all the time," Xena defended, pinning the jeweler with a rather fierce stare as he hovered a little too closely for the Conqueror's taste.
"Oh, Xe-" Gabrielle caught herself just in time, but finished the thought with a wry grin, "look at this."
She held up a necklace of silver, set with a shaft of pale green stone.
"I've never seen anything this color," the bard commented. "Isn't it pretty?"
Xena, still smiling at Gabrielle's close shave with revealing them both to the jeweler, if not the whole bazaar, glanced at it and was immediately struck with the necklace as well.
"What is that stone?" she interrogated the tradesman, leaning in abruptly. She took the chain gently from the bard and held the stone up to the light of the torch burning at the corner of the awning. The color changed as the light shifted and Xena swallowed hard.
"Oh, that is a very rare piece," he started into his spiel, but an icy look halted him. "Uh… it's-um-called toramalli, madam. You would say 'tourmaline.' It comes from a land far to the east. An island, shaped like a teardrop, off the coast of India, called Simhalam."
"It's lovely," Gabrielle breathed, unaware that the Conqueror's eyes as she agreed lingered on the bard's face. In the torchlight, Gabrielle's eyes were the same color as the singular stone in its delicate silver setting.
"Yes, it is." She turned to the jeweler. "We'll take it."
"But…" Gabrielle tried to interrupt, but Xena was fishing out the coins for the price the man named. "You shouldn't…"
Xena moved around behind her and looped the chain over her head. "Move your hair," she requested, and Gabrielle felt that pleasant rumbling sensation that came from Xena's voice in its lower registers very near to her back.
The necklace lay cool against her skin, and Xena's hands lay warm on her shoulders. When the jeweler held up a bronze mirror for her to admire the pendant, Gabrielle found she couldn't look away from the icy blue eyes that smiled at her over her shoulder.
"Thank you," she murmured. "You shouldn't have."
"It matches your eyes," Xena replied. "Consider it a gift from a friend."
Rising before the sun, the Conqueror bathed and dressed in the silence of the sleeping castle. She was looking forward to her little excursion with Gabrielle, she found. It had been a long time since she'd had the chance to exercise the particular skill she'd bragged about to the bard, and, perhaps, even longer since she'd wanted to impress someone with any of her skills. Gabrielle brought out her competitive streak, she told herself, but felt a niggling suspicion that Gabrielle's effect on her went deeper than that.
Letting herself through to the other chamber, the Conqueror grinned as she drew nearer to the bed. The circle of her candle illuminated the rosy blonde hair spilling over the creamy silk sheets and the sprawled form of the bard under the light covers. Gabrielle slept on her side, one hand cradling her cheek, like a painting of a sleeping child. Xena bent to light the bedside lamp, then called to the bard.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, it's time to get up."
The blonde groaned and immediately turned over and away from the light.
"Just a quarter candlemark more, Xena," she pleaded. "The sun's not even up."
"Fish won't wait, Gabrielle," Xena grinned mercilessly.
That earned another groan, "Not fish again. You still haven't replaced my frying pan."
The Conqueror frowned briefly, trying to make sense of that, then shook her head. Despite her seeming coherence, the bard was obviously still unconscious. Using both hands, the warrior rolled the sleeping woman out of the covers and stripped them from the bed.
"Come on," she ordered. "Time to rise and shine."
A whole lot of semi-nude bard flesh was exposed to the pre-dawn chill and Xena allowed her eyes to roam appreciatively. Gabrielle had firmed her girlish curves with exercise and, from broad shoulders and full chest to slim waist and curving hips outlined against the thin linen of her chiton, her compact body was delightful. In this light, the scars on her shins were barely visible beneath the healthy tan on her legs. Xena, suddenly unsettled by the path her thoughts were taking, dropped the bed covers back atop the bard.
Like a mole emerging from its burrow, squinting green eyes surfaced from the seawrack tangle of red-gold hair.
"It's not even light yet. How are you going to fish in the dark?"
Xena drew herself up. "I have…."
"Many skills, yeah, yeah…" Gabrielle untangled herself from the bedding and stood, swaying a little and yawning hugely.
"Dress in layers," Xena instructed, turning back to her quarters, fighting back the urge to smile at Gabrielle's drowsy displeasure. "It'll be cold, but once the sun comes up, it'll get warm. Meet me in the kitchen as soon as you're ready."
A muffled grunt was her only acknowledgement.
Half a candlemark later, they stood outside the stable. Gabrielle, having exhausted her excuses and avoided taking her own horse, had agreed to ride behind Xena on the Conqueror's huge destrier.
"Maybe we should have waited until tomorrow morning," Gabrielle said, yawning for the third time. A shiver shook her slender form, and she hugged her cloak a little tighter. "We were up pretty late last night."
"You wanted to see me fish, Gabrielle," the Conqueror noted, fastening the last strap of the pack she'd just placed on Argo's saddlebow. "And I have a feeling you'd be just as sleepy tomorrow morning."
"Not all of us feel the need to get up and oversee the rising of the sun," Gabrielle grinned, knowing that the darkness just before dawn was one of the Conqueror's favorite hours.
Xena rolled her eyes. "No one likes getting up out of a nice warm bed, bard-not even me."
Gabrielle nodded, recalling Leandra's tousled, sleep warm presence in the Conqueror's chamber. Xena probably did hate getting up, when she could share her bed with someone as lovely as Leandra.
"I'm sorry we woke Leandra," the bard said softly.
"She didn't mind coming over," the Conqueror was around on Argo's other side, checking her mount's saddle girth. "I hadn't planned on needing her, but since someone didn't have any leggings…"
"Hey, I'm a warm-climate girl," Gabrielle defended herself. "How did I know you were going to take me up into the mountains for this little fishing demonstration of yours? Don't they have fish in the streams outside the city walls?"
"Not fish like these," Xena grinned, coming back around the big mare. "You'll appreciate the difference when I grill the fish for you over an open fire. Nothing fresher than that-not even the Corinthian market."
The Conqueror looked younger in her battle dress, Gabrielle decided, smiling back at the warrior. The brown leather brought out highlights in her dark hair and emphasized every dangerous curve of her long body. She still couldn't believe the monarch wasn't freezing to death, but Xena had merely given her a mysterious smile and a "You'll see" when queried about her choice of dress.
"Okay," Xena said, hoisting herself into the saddle and reaching down her arm. "Up you come."
"If she just wasn't so tall," Gabrielle huffed, allowing herself to be lifted up to the pillion of Xena's saddle.
"Ready?" Xena asked when the fidgeting had settled down some.
"As I'll ever be."
A tightening of strong thighs and Argo moved into her paces.
Gabrielle shook her head, looking from the pair of trout on the bank to the tall, still form in the midst of the rushing stream and back.
"I can't believe you did that," the bard said for the fifth time.
"Shhh…" Xena hissed, dark hair drawn back out of her way and head tilted above the rushing stream as she "listened" for another fish.
"You just reach in there and grab them," Gabrielle continued as if nothing had been said.
"You could be cleaning those," Xena lifted her head a moment to fix a disgruntled look on the bard. "It'd make breakfast go a lot faster."
"You catch 'em, you clean 'em," Gabrielle voted. "I said I'd cook them."
Suddenly, Xena's entire body took on tension as she glanced back down the trail. Gabrielle froze, listening, though she didn't know what for. With a single leap, the warlord was back on the stream bank, pulling her sword from where it had been stuck, upright, in the sandy soil. Her chakram appeared in her other fist. Gabrielle, without being told, moved behind the Conqueror, though not close enough to interfere with her swing.
Now, the bard heard what Xena had heard, the pounding hooves of a single horse, ridden fast up the winding track Argo had carried them up.
"Conqueror!" The deep male voice came muffled through the trees. "Xena!"
"Palaemon," Xena murmured, dropping her hair-trigger stance somewhat. Gabrielle stepped up beside her, placing a hand on the warrior's side.
The horse broke from the forest and labored up the trail. The guardsman leapt from its back while it was still moving.
"Darphus," he gasped out. "They've found him."
"In the main agora. He's dead. Laid out like a crucifixion in the middle of the square and not a single track leading up to or away from his body."
Gabrielle watched the fury and determination infuse the Conqueror's face which just moments ago had been as relaxed as Gabrielle had ever seen it.
"Let's go," Xena said shortly.
Palaemon turned to mount his horse and Gabrielle was shocked to feel Xena's hand on her upper arm, halting her turn toward Argo.
"Hey," Xena said quietly, her expression softened again, "I'm sorry your fishing lesson got ruined."
"It's not your fault."
Xena essayed a smile. "I'll bring you again-some other time-and you can cook what I catch."
"You gotta deal," Gabrielle smiled radiantly. "But you still have to clean them."
Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.
"I really don't know what I want," Gabrielle admitted plaintively as she stepped out from the shade of the palace gate and turned down the boulevard toward the market agora.
"And that's stopped you from shopping before?" Leandra inquired, gently teasing.
"Ha, ha," Gabrielle grinned, glancing back to make sure that her escorts, Yorgos and Antonia, had seen which way they'd turned. Antonia gave her a smile, but stayed back alongside the taller Yorgos. "Have you decided what you're wearing tomorrow night?" the bard asked Leandra.
"Her Majesty hasn't expressed a preference," Leandra stated matter-of-factly.
"Umm, no offense, Leandra," Gabrielle offered, "but I don't think Xena's given much thought to it. She's not really into that kind of stuff."
Leandra shrugged. "This is a state dinner in some ways. How I look reflects on her. I think she may give it more than her usual attention."
The bard silently acknowledged the logic of that statement.
"Thank you for talking her into taking me," Leandra continued. "It's a great honor."
Gabrielle flushed a little. "I-um-I think she thought she was doing Palaemon an honor, allowing him to escort you."
The slave considered that a moment. "I wouldn't have minded going with him. He's very cute."
Gabrielle completely missed the speculative look directed her way. "Yes, he is, isn't he?"
"Should I be insulted that he dropped me so quickly when you offered to be his companion for the evening?" Leandra chuckled.
"Oh, Gaia, no," Gabrielle protested, blushing. "Palaemon and I are just good friends. He was very kind to give up his chance to take you, so that I could have an escort."
"Hmmm," Leandra agreed, and then murmured slyly. "I was surprised that Her Majesty wasn't planning to take you."
Gabrielle's blush deepened appreciably and her hand moved unconsciously to fidget with the tourmaline necklace at her throat. She didn't know how to answer the slight accusation in Leandra's comment, so she pointed ahead of them, hoping to change the subject. "There's the scroll shop I was looking for," the bard said thankfully.
Yorgos and Antonia caught them up and Yorgos took up a defensive stance on the doorstep to the small shop while Antonia entered first and checked the inside security. At her silent nod, Gabrielle and Leandra entered. Another woman and two men were already inside. One glanced up and came immediately over.
"Welcome, welcome," Arvid, the shopkeeper, greeted the duo with a broad smile. "What can I get you, Gabrielle? I have a number of new romances in from the Gaulish poets."
"Oh, no, thanks," the bard smiled back. "I'm looking for blank scrolls myself. Please don't trouble yourself. I see you have other customers."
"Help yourself, dear," the man gestured hospitably. "You know where they are."
Leandra followed her as she made her way to the back of the mercantile.
"Don't you have scrolls from the Imperial Quartermaster?" the slave questioned curiously, examining the parchment with knowledgeable hands. "And aren't they better quality than these?"
"Yes," Gabrielle admitted, grinning, a little embarrassed, "but those are for official governmental business. I buy my own scrolls for my writing."
Leandra shot her a look and shook her head. "Oh, I can just imagine the Conqueror's reaction to that."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know."
The slave straightened her spine and took a deep breath. Deepening her voice, she mimicked a certain well-known voice, "That's just ridiculous, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle, caught totally by surprise, dissolved into giggles. "Leandra! That was great! You rolled the 'r' just like she does." The Imperial Secretary gathered herself together and lowered her chin, assuming 'the look.' "Are you making fun of me, Leandra?" she hissed, in a nearly perfect imitation of her own.
The two young women fell together laughing, drawing the curious stares of the other customers in the parchment shop. On previous shopping expeditions among the mostly dark-haired Corinthians, the two blondes had drawn lots of admiring looks, so they were fairly immune to the attention, but Gabrielle caught Antonia's stifled laugh at their impressions of the Conqueror and the bard felt badly. She took her purchases to the counter and, amazingly, paid without haggling about price. Arvid looked a little insulted as she swept out, Leandra at her side.
"I guess I shouldn't be tarnishing the Conqueror's reputation," the bard remarked as they wended their way down the busy market street, trailed by the guards. "She did hire me to write her history."
Leandra nodded, somewhat thoughtful. "Perhaps not, but perhaps her reputation could use some… lightening up."
Gabrielle shot her a strange look. "Lightening up?"
"Everyone sees her as some sort of monster," the pleasure slave explained. "The tales that are told of her-eating babies, drinking blood. When my previous master told me I would be given to her, I expected to be beaten… injured." She broke off, as if fearing she had said too much. "You know what people say of her."
"She used to live up to some of the stories," Gabrielle said regretfully, then smiled at Leandra. "But she's not like that anymore."
"No," Leandra agreed, "she isn't. She's never hurt me." A sexy smile dimpled the slave's peachy cheeks. "At least not that I've minded."
Gabrielle laughed, as she was meant to and let her gaze rest on the slave as they paused at an open-air stall that sold scarves and shawls. Their relationship was odd, she decided. They were friends, without question, yet rivals as well, like two women who shared a common lover. Gabrielle genuinely enjoyed Leandra's company, but she still felt tinges of what could only be jealousy when the slave spoke about Xena. Somehow, despite both women's best efforts, they competed to prove who knew the Conqueror best. Both had an intimate relationship with the ruler, but of vastly different sorts.
Xena spent most of her waking hours in Gabrielle's company, and the bard, being the bard, had winkled all sorts of information out of the uncommunicative warlord. It had only gotten easier as they grew to know and trust one another, and Gabrielle found that Xena explained many plans and goals to her that the ruler kept concealed even from the members of her Imperial staff. Leandra, on the other hand, seldom spoke to the Conqueror. Their communication was almost entirely physical and, yet, Leandra did have some unique insights into the Conqueror that Gabrielle didn't share.
It was a typical Conqueror dichotomy, Gabrielle decided. Divide and conquer; or, in this case, divide and conceal. No one person knew too much about Xena or her wants and needs, and so no one person could betray her. The bard's heart ached for her friend as she thought how lonely that must make Xena's life.
Leandra turned and smiled, bringing Gabrielle back to the present. "There's a great dress shop in the next square, Antonia says," Leandra revealed. "Maybe we should see the seamstress about making you something outrageous for the symposium."
Gabrielle laughed self-consciously. "I don't think anyone will notice me, Leandra. Not with you and Xena there."
The slave smiled wistfully. "Gabrielle, the Conqueror would notice you if you were wearing Hades' helmet of invisibility. And besides, we know Palaemon will have eyes only for you. Come on! Let's really give the two of them something to look at!"
Gabrielle allowed herself to be led into the next market square, trying hard not to think too intently about Leandra's remarks.
Forestall your opponent by seizing what he holds dear, and subtly contrive to time his arrival on the ground.
Sun Tzu The Art of War
Palaemon halted at Gabrielle's door with a slight shake of his head. He still couldn't believe the bargain Gabrielle had roped him into. He'd given up the chance to be the envy of every man present and the talk of the barracks for weeks to come by escorting the Empress's lovely body slave to tonight's symposium, all because Gabrielle had agreed to go as his companion in Leandra's place. Somehow as he'd looked into those persuasively pleading green eyes, it had all seemed worth it. Now, he was feeling a little foolish:
Gabrielle saw him only as a friend, he knew. She wasn't even aware of her effect on him, of the fact that his heart beat double time just being near her. From the beginning, she had shown him nothing more than friendly flirtation, not for a moment to be taken seriously. She treated him like a schoolmate or a friend of the family-someone with whom she could laugh and be playful, but with whom she would never fall in love. If he'd been less observant, it might have wounded him, but Palaemon had seen the shy smiles and longing looks and unconscious touches that the bard showered on the Conqueror, and he was aware that against that competition no one could hope to win.
Xena, however, seemed as oblivious to Gabrielle's infatuation with her as Gabrielle was to Palaemon's crush, and there was some down-to-earth, mature part of Palaemon's psyche that found that rather amusing. It reminded him of one of the farces he'd seen at the Dionysian Drama Festival in Athens with the three of them locked in a silly triangle of unrequited love. Except that the Conqueror seemed not to love anyone, he realized and felt a pang of sorrow.
He shook his head again and lifted his hand to knock, only to have the door pulled open. Alita, who'd been helping Gabrielle dress, squealed with startlement, and then caught herself.
"Oh, forgive me, Lord Palaemon," she hastily apologized.
He smiled and waved away her explanation. "Is Gabrielle ready?"
Alita's smile had an edge of mischief to it. "One moment, my lord. I'll see."
He heard a muffled consultation then the door eased open and Gabrielle herself stood there. Palaemon's jaw nearly dislocated itself as his blue eyes wandered over the sheer, deep blue gown that clung to every curve of the bard's shapely body, accenting her hourglass figure and hinting at a sensuousness the soldier had never even dreamed Gabrielle might possess. The slender straps of the dress seemed suspended by magic, just ready to slip off the slope of her shoulder, yet hanging delightfully on the upper curves of her breasts. Palaemon snapped his mouth closed with an audible pop and smiled rather dazedly.
"Wow," he murmured appreciatively. "You look…. stunning."
Gabrielle blushed attractively. "Thanks." She'd ended up borrowing a gown from Leandra, rather than have one made, and if the look on the handsome Security Chief's face was anything to go by, she'd made the right choice.
"I-um-" Palaemon cleared his throat, dragging his eyes away from the vision before him. "I ordered a palanquin to carry us there. It's really too far to walk comfortably and I didn't know if you could ride."
Gabrielle smiled at his hesitant tone. "I don't much like horses. I never learned to ride properly, and," she gestured to her clothing depreciatingly, "I don't really think this is the outfit to learn in."
Palaemon grinned. "Nope. I can think of lots of things to do in that outfit, but riding isn't one of them."
"Palaemon!" she swatted him playfully. "I thought we agreed: no flirting."
"That was before you chose to wear a dress like that one."
With the subject out in the open, it was easy for the two of them to fall into their light-hearted pattern of teasing one another and the journey to Davidicus's Corinth mansion passed quickly.
Enemies and assassins-those few who actually survived-claimed that the gods themselves warned Xena of attacks against her, but the truth of the matter was much more complex than divine intervention. In the years that one would have to name formative for the tavernkeeper's daughter from Amphipolis, Xena had been hunted like an animal by men and nations across the Eurasian continents. Fleeing Caesar, she had fought, faked, and fornicated her way through Anatolia, Rus, Kazakhstan, and into the wastes beyond where the wild nomads called Kazars erected their yurts and tended their flocks and herds. Forced constantly to defend her next breath, she learned to listen for the creak of a floorboard, the scuff of a moving tent flap, or the scrape of a sword as it was drawn, because often it was the only warning she had that her life was once again in danger. She learned the best way to disappear in any landscape and reappear without a sound where she was least expected. She learned to kill first to keep from being killed, and she learned to like the feeling. She learned that life was a fragile thread that rubbed against the edge of the knife of fate and that only those who stayed awake and aware kept that blade from cutting short their days.
Consequently, her senses were trained to an extraordinary awareness of the world around her. A mouse in the grass outside her tent on the night before battle sounded to her like an elephant. The smell of adrenaline, hatred, and fear put off by a foe or an assassin moved over her senses like the drift of wood smoke in clear air. One item out of place in a supposedly undisturbed room triggered her defenses like a shout of warning. All because she had fought long and hard to stay alive in a world where every second man or woman sought her death.
So, when Xena's highly trained senses told her that something wasn't right in the home of Davidicus of Corinth, she should have trusted them. But the savage young warrior who killed and maimed and lived always on the edge of the blade had been somewhat tamed in the last years. The Destroyer of Nations now had to think of political implications and working relationships, and leaving the symposium because she had a bad feeling would be an insult to her host and to the city she was trying so hard to secure.
She needed to calm down, she told herself firmly. Nothing could go wrong here. Everything had been checked and rechecked by her own people. The food would be cooked under the supervision of her chef and tested and tasted by her servants. The wine barrels had come from her own cellars, sealed with the Imperial mark, and would be broached only in her presence. The guards were her own Imperial household troops, men whom Palaemon had chosen as those with loyalty only to her person. Nonetheless, those feelings that the newly forged diplomat dismissed as alarmist, the deep, animal instinct at her core warned were her deepest reality.
"We will dine within, Your Majesty," Davidicus, her host, bowed deeply, allowing her to precede him into the room.
Blue eyes darting about warily, Xena entered as if entering a booby-trapped enemy hideout. The luxuriously appointed room was well lit, with no shadows or furnishings, which could conceal an assassin. The ceiling, high and painted in the Corinthian style, had no windows or skylights. Somewhat reassured, the Conqueror told herself to relax, to stand down from the highly alerted state she felt her body entering. Cautiously, she took a seat on the first couch, the place of honor that she would occupy for the evening, and scanned the room, looking for possible entrances-and exits-should there be an attack. Unfortunately, there was only one: the broad doorway by which they had entered. Two armored guardsmen, one of them the Celt Cassivellaunus whom she had dressed down for teaching Gabrielle the sword, stood at the ready on either side of the portal and the Conqueror tried to reason with the deep, crawling unease in the pit of her stomach. My men; of my command; I am as safe as I am in my own chamber, she told herself.
Turning her eyes to the door, the Conqueror nodded, and the guard allowed Leandra into the room. The long, heavily embroidered silk gown the slave girl wore whispered as she moved, parting and closing again to conceal the no less silken limbs beneath it. That effortless sexual appeal brought a slight smile to the Conqueror's face and she patted the cushion beside her as the slave approached, indicating where Leandra should seat herself. A small grin and curtsy told her that it pleased her bondsmaiden to be noticed and flaunted.
Without the room, the Conqueror's host and fellow dinners were being thoroughly searched before being allowed to enter. Davidicus arrived first and she acknowledged his bow calmly, giving him a cool, calculating look. He was an up and coming Corinthian politician, this Davidicus, and he seemed well able to walk the fine line between obsequious and respectful.
"If I may introduce our guests, Your Majesty?" he asked.
She nodded shortly, though she didn't care for his hovering so near her, and he took up a stance beside her. As he did so, he blocked her peripheral vision on her right, which made her edgy all over again.
He had chosen his guests thoughtfully, the Conqueror saw, cross-sectioning Corinthian politics and money by inviting representatives of both the old families and those "new families" who had risen as a result of her reign. Wisely, he had sprinkled in a few of her officers and administrators as well. Theodorus, for instance, entered early and after casting a measuring glance around the room took up his seat across the room on her left.
Perhaps making him Captain of the Guard had been a better decision than she'd hoped, the Conqueror thought, trying to distract herself from her discomfort while lending half an ear to Davidicus's fulsome introductions. It certainly gave her more flexibility with Palaemon, her true choice for Captain, in the Security position: he could handle those matters that didn't traditionally fall under the Captain's authority while Theo took care of the mundane matters of the Guard. Probably wasn't wise for the three of them to attend functions together, though. It could limit response time to emergencies if all the principle commanders were away at the same time.
"Conqueror," a rotund man in an ill-fitted toga made his ungainly bow before her, distracting her from her thoughts and blocking her view of the door. She gave him an irritated nod, but he didn't move, maundering on about some appointment he sought or wanted for a relative.
"See my secretary about it," she snapped, losing patience. "All such requests go through her."
He launched into expressions of abject gratitude and Xena huffed out a sigh, glancing at Leandra. The slave's attention was trained on the entranceway, which she could see from where she sat. Xena made an impatient gesture to Davidicus, indicating that he should move the fat man along, and he hurriedly did so, leading the man away himself and giving the Conqueror room to breath again. And room to see what had so fascinated Leandra.
Palaemon and Gabrielle.
They made a gorgeous couple, some more detached portion of her mind noted as she took in the tableau. He was clad in a snowy toga bordered with the burgundy and gold stripe of Imperial Office and it emphasized his magnificent build even more than his uniform did. He could have been the archetype for a warrior statesman, standing there under a blazing torch that lit his handsome features and gilded his blond hair.
And clinging to his strong arm, her face lifted and smiling to him, Gabrielle was the feminine mirror to his masculine beauty. The deep, rich blue of her gown revealed the healthy tan of her bare shoulders and upper chest while enticingly concealing all her other womanly attributes. The dress also provided an ideal backdrop for the cascade of red-gold curls that was her hairstyle for the evening and for the slender chain and small chameleon-like stone of the necklace the Conqueror had bought her just a few nights before. Xena couldn't recall seeing the bard look so grown up before, or so obviously gorgeous.
As Xena watched, somewhat stricken, the green eyes left her escort's face and, bright as a shaft of sunlight though the forest gloom, met her own across the room.
To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts the heart in my ribs.
The poem, heard once, some years ago, flitted through the Conqueror's mind and she felt the rushing roar of emotion flow over her-the same emotion she had felt first some six weeks earlier, when she'd heard those two laughing together outside her chamber door. This time, however, she knew it by its rightful name: jealousy.
Jealous? Of what? She demanded of herself incredulously. Jealous because two of your subordinates seem to have become involved with one another? When have you ever noticed the love lives of your army or your staff unless it interfered with some seduction you had planned or some manipulation that you intended? What have you to be jealous of? That he cares for her? He's a free man when he isn't on duty. And she…. The righteous indignation in the thought faltered at last.
She… She is meant to love me, Xena's heart protested, stirring painfully in the stalwart chest. And once she admitted her heart's belief, she couldn't stop the knowledge that her jealousy was wholly centered on the almost physical need she felt to have the bard's gently adoring green gaze fixed only and always on herself.
Gods, Xena thought with something akin to panic, I'm in love with Gabrielle. And she's coming this way!
It made breathing difficult, that feeling, but she drew a breath against the ache, preparing herself to speak to them as they approached. The Security Chief bowed with manly grace.
"Palaemon," the Conqueror greeted flatly, trying to keep the newly formed dislike out of her tone.
Icy azure eyes turned to his companion and melted against their will.
"Gabrielle," she burred, low in her throat.
Blonde lashes blinked rapidly at the sound of that voice, but the bard summoned a dazzling smile. "You look magnificent, Your Majesty," she breathed awestruck and excited.
"So do you," Xena offered sincerely and saw with pleasure the delighted flush that spread over Gabrielle's cheeks. "Is this your first symposium, bard?" she teased.
"No," Gabrielle looked around. "but it certainly is the most sophisticated one I've been to. I've never been to dinner with so many movers and shakers."
"As long as you don't move and shake too much," Palaemon teased. "You might lose that dress."
Gabrielle smacked him, backhanded, across the midriff, eliciting a playful "oof" from the iron-muscled warrior. Xena clenched hard at her spiraling anger. He has every right to flirt with her, the Conqueror told herself. Gabrielle has made it clear that he's her choice. I'm merely a friend to her. It helped her regain some equilibrium, to think on their friendship.
"I think your dress is perfect, Gabrielle," she complimented.
"Thank you, Conqueror. Leandra loaned it to me for this evening."
The Conqueror glanced at the slave and bestowed a smile on her, then turned her gaze back to Gabrielle.
"You don't have dresses of your own?" Xena asked, manufacturing pity, knowing that Gabrielle had a whole closet full.
"Nothing suitable for an event like this," Gabrielle replied demurely.
"I will have one of my seamstresses call on you," Xena said decisively.
"Oh, Xena, that's not necessary," Gabrielle rushed to protest.
"Just supporting the local economy," Xena deadpanned.
A slow, nose-scrunching grin formed on the bard's face, her green eyes sparkling delightedly into Xena's. "I've heard talk about a statue," she said slyly.
Palaemon and Leandra had no idea why the Conqueror and the bard laughed so heartily at what seemed a feeble joke. Still chuckling, Gabrielle allowed herself to be led away to their couch by Palaemon, but she was pleased to find that several times during the meal her eyes and Xena's managed to meet and they always shared a richly humorous communication.
The Conqueror began once more to get impatient when the plates were cleared and the drinking of wine was over. The formality of the affair stifled her and she knew that it was customary for a long programme of highbrow entertainment to follow so sophisticated a meal. Pipers, singers and dancing girls, meant to arouse the emotions and entice the other palates of the guests, were the usual post-dinner fare at gatherings like these, and Xena found herself longing for some peace and quiet in which to brood about her feelings for Gabrielle.
"Imperial Highness," Davidicus rose and bowed again, then gestured, encompassing the room, "my dear guests… I would like to introduce this evening's entertainers. They have traveled long and hard to reach our fair city and I think I can safely say that their like has never been seen before in Corinth. Please welcome them."
Polite applause greeted the entry of the dancers as the music began, wild with clashing cymbals and wailing pipes and the tiny drums that beat out a hurried, harried pace, but the Conqueror stiffened as the doorway curtain, disturbed by the passage of the cloaked and costumed dancers, shifted to reveal a bare wall where before the guard Cassivellaunus had stood. Xena straightened on her couch, rising from her reclining position and accidentally knocking Leandra to the floor.
"The guard…" she began, but the distraction of the dancers, swirling around the edges of the room, surrounding the diners and drawing the eye first here and there with their antic movements, swept her words away from most of the guests.
"Something has disturbed the Conqueror," Palaemon said, sitting up.
Gabrielle looked across the room and saw despair and fury warring in the Conqueror's face.
Xena stood, casting about her with those senses honed to preternatural awareness. The music, bacchanalian in its frenzy, continued to ring around the chamber, echoing off the ceiling, drowning out all sound, joining with the shouts of the dancers. And then she heard it: the slithering chime of a sword leaving a scabbard.
All other noises disappeared from the Conqueror's world so total was her concentration on that single sound. That sound and the sound of her own heartbeat, speeding up to a pounding pace, swept along by her rapid breathing.
Doom… it said….doom…doom, doom, doom, doom.
"Palaemon! The guards!" her battlefield voice sliced through the confusion. "The dancers are armed!"
The killing began.
Dancers, casting aside their cloaks, revealed themselves as lightly armored fighters who drew all manner of weapons and began laying about them with a will. Dinner guests shrieked and leapt to their feet, only to die. Xena saw the fat man who had begged her for a job get disemboweled and pushed onto a huddle of other diners. Davidicus, confirming his role as traitor, beheaded one of the Conqueror's loyal administrators with a sweeping blow of a curved blade he had pulled from a vase near the door. Others were thrust aside, stabbed, gored in the first seconds of chaos.
None of them were armed-not loyal Theo, nor Palaemon, nor, greatest shame, the Conqueror herself-but neither were they sheep to be slaughtered as they stood.
Xena launched herself high into the air, landing her flip with precision on the chest of one of the foemen. His sword fell clattering and then, in a blur too fast to follow, the warrior to his right found that same sword protruding from his chest. Almost casually, Xena took the second man's sword as he fell and moved on to the next dancer. A cross cut fake and a thrust through the throat and the disguised warrior fell dead. And the next-a parried slash, a block of a roundhouse swing, and a flashing double cross that cut both the foewoman's shoulder tendons, preventing her from lifting her sword again.
Palaemon overturned his dining couch and kicked it closer to the wall, manhandling one of the dancer-turned-warriors out of the way, felling the man with a punch. The Captain of the Guard grabbed Gabrielle and lifted her over the barrier.
"Get down," he ordered roughly. "Don't come out unless it's Xena or I."
He turned and leapt onto the nearest fighter, wrestling for the man's blade, laying on with one fist while he held the man with the other. In a moment, he was armed.
He looked to his leader and saw her seize a second fallen sword. The odds were evening out rapidly, he thought with absurd optimism. The Conqueror is armed.
Theo had broken his own couch over the back of a huge enemy fighter and bore a trident and the heavy wooden leg of the couch. He parried an axeswing from his right and thrust his spear through the man's unprotected chest. With a push, he sent one of the uninjured guests stumbling toward the door.
"Run!" the Captain of the Guard roared at the others cowering near him. Noncombatants only distracted them from the fight or became human shields for their foes.
Palaemon, taking his cue from Theo, began to do the same between exchanging blows with the enemy fighters. "Go on… get out!"
Xena took two steps and relocated herself to the other side of the room with a gravity-defying flip jump, kicking out as she landed and spinning another of the enemy out of the fight.
"Where's Gabrielle?" she shouted at Palaemon as she fought her way closer to her Security Chief.
"Behind my couch. She's okay."
"Xena!" Leandra's shriek from the far side of the room rose above the mayhem and the Conqueror sized up the men facing her. Her left and right hands twirled the captured swords in a distracting flourish then snapped out in opposite directions to amputate reaching arms on a downswing and disarm the two amputees on the upswing. Both foes screamed and clutched at the spraying stumps of their arms. Xena shoved them aside and, kicking a body out of her way, waded the dead and dying toward Leandra's shout.
Two men had grabbed the slave between them and appeared to be dragging her toward the entranceway. Somewhere, at the back of her mind, Xena wondered why they weren't simply killing the girl, but it was hardly the time for consideration. Behind her, she heard Palaemon grunt as he took a hit, but she continued toward the girl, intent on saving Leandra and then getting the pleasure slave and Gabrielle out of this Tartarus-scape before one of them was hurt. Focus, said the iron will within the Conqueror. One goal at a time.
A shriek of maniacal laughter halted her in midstep, short of her goal, and she stood an instant, stranded in the amazingly empty middle of the dining room battlefield, all ability to move taken from her.
In nightmares second only to those of her crucifixion, she heard that laugh, but she had always believed that sound now came only from the depths of Hades' realm. That vengeance-seeking maniac had been laid to rest nearly five years ago, she'd thought, soon after she had killed Gabrielle's husband and two thousand of Xena's soldiers. The Conqueror swiveled slowly, gracefully, like someone moving in another sort of dance and found her worst nightmare come back to life.
"Callisto," the Conqueror said as if pronouncing a sentence of death.
"I've missed you, Xena," the blonde warrior said with mock-gaiety.
"You never wrote," the rough, snarling voice was one heard on many battlefields.
Callisto yanked forward the form she had had hidden in her shadow and Xena realized that the death sentence she'd spoken might be her own. Gabrielle struggled against the iron grip Callisto had on her arm, but Callisto's hulking second in command-ironically, named Theodorus, like Xena's own Second-had the bard fully contained with a grip on her other arm and a bulging forearm across her throat.
Behind the Conqueror, Leandra cried out again, this time in pain. Xena half-turned to see one of the girl's captors wrenched her arm up behind her back and grasped a handful of her blonde hair to hold her steady.
"Caught between a rock and a hard place, huh?" Callisto offered with pouting mock-sympathy. "Which one do you save? You know whichever one you go for, I'm going to kill the other. Truly the horns of a dilemma."
Xena's eyes darted around the room. Palaemon lay over one of the upturned couches, blood seeping from his side. She couldn't tell from here if it was a fatal wound, but he was barely conscious. She sought out her Theodorus and felt a pang as she saw him lying some ten feet away, his beautiful golden hair untouched, though his head had been nearly severed from his body.
"Why not just kill me instead?" the Conqueror offered, voice husky with pain and fury.
"Oh, I thought of that, dear," Callisto smiled. "It would have been rather easy tonight. Silly of you to come to the party with only two men. Makes you terribly vulnerable." The white-blonde curls danced as she shook her head in the negative. "I'd rather let you live to suffer while I take what you love."
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out. "Go! You can fight your way free."
"Ah, ah, little one," Callisto castigated, calmly slapping Gabrielle across the face. "This is a conversation between your elders."
Xena growled fiercely, lifting her sword again and starting toward the trio.
Callisto leveled her blade at the Conqueror. "Another step and Greedo kills the other one."
Xena didn't look away from the demented gaze of the madwoman, but she heard Leandra gasp with pain and saw Gabrielle's frightened, stricken gaze on her counterpart hostage.
"I swear if you hurt either of them, Callisto, I'll…"
"You'll what, Xena? Torch my village and slaughter my family? Too late, dear, you've already done it. Not much leverage there."
"There won't be a spot on the gods' green earth I won't search til I find you and kill you," Xena promised.
"Such a passionate vow," Callisto critiqued. "Could it be one of these two irritating blondes actually means something to you? Ah, Xena, you don't know how hard it's been-- waiting all this time for you to love something, so I could take it away."
"Come on, Callisto," Xena switched tactics, "you know it's me you want." She smiled invitingly, dropping her sword and holding her arms outstretched. "I'm all yours."
Gabrielle gasped, jerking once more against Theodorus's restraining embrace. "No…"
Blue eyes shifted to her for only a moment, but what the bard saw there stilled her struggles.
"Let the girls go," the Conqueror prompted, voice lowering, becoming enticing, becoming seductive. "Come on. It'll be just you and me, like you've always wanted. Just the two of us, as it should be. I'll come quietly and you can take as long as you want to kill me."
Callisto's smile faltered a little at the siren pull of that voice, and she stared at the Conqueror, weaponless and within her grasp, for a long moment. Then her eyes closed and she drew a long, pleasure-filled breath. "Oh, Xena, you are so good," she praised, her voice like a lover's after climax, then she snarled, "No dice. Game over." She gestured to her men. "Get them out of here."
Xena flipped the sword up with her foot and caught it out of the air. "You won't get out of the city alive, Callisto."
"Watch me," Callisto laughed as Theodorus pulled Gabrielle away.
It was a slow, inching progress around the room, with Xena standing ready to jump at the slightest opening, but Callisto and Theodorus circled, half-carrying, half dragging Gabrielle until they stood alongside Leandra and her guards at the open doorway. The surviving members of Callisto's murderous dance troupe had skirted around the Conqueror as well and now lined the escape route out of Davidicus's ruined and deserted mansion.
"Make certain she doesn't follow… yet," Callisto ordered the soldiers, flashing a last demonic smile at the Conqueror. She and her two hostages disappeared from the Conqueror's line of sight, just as the first trumpeting alarms sounded from the Imperial Palace across the city.
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