by Tan Grimes
To read the disclaimer, return to I PARDA ROMAE.
Late morning sun heated the hard-packed dirt of the courtyard. Servants and soldiers alike pulled scarves and cowls over their heads to ward off the growing heat, shield their eyes from the harsh Corinthian sun.
The Conqueror’s pale eyes hardly noticed the glare, or the crowd. She devoured the combat in the middle of the courtyard, felt the flow of each swing, the jarring impact of each blow. The Leopard moved like water, sometimes still and patient, sometimes soft and yielding, sometimes hard and forceful. How do you attack water?
Her opponent clearly had no answer and suffered. Barely more than half his height, she remained almost unmarked. He on the other hand bore dozens of small gashes across bare arms and legs. Partway around the ring of onlookers the Conqueror caught Ephiny’s scowl as another line opened up on the soldier’s calf. She had a long afternoon of stitching to look forward to.
She almost felt bad for the soldier. His so-called friends, members of Lieutenant Ramis’ unit, elected him as their instrument of revenge upon the gladiator. He was a passable fighter, and he stood half a head taller than any other man in his unit. When the men approached her about a grudge match, she already knew whom they would pick as their champion. Typical, that they were ever impressed with—and relied upon—size.
Size was no obstacle for the Leopard. He had the advantage of both strength and reach, true, but so did almost every other gladiator she’d ever fought. As the Conqueror knew firsthand, she had a great deal of experience in how to counter size and strength. She danced just out of the range, let him chase her down until he spent much of his aggression, then systematically began disassembling him. There was no playing to the crowd, no humiliating or showboating. Trickles of blood flowing down his arms were shame enough, her timing and precision impressive enough. Her face showed no pleasure from this fight. The Conqueror wondered if she truly felt nothing. She could have sworn she remembered a glimmer of a smile on that hard face before the Leopard removed the lieutenant’s manhood.
The soldier’s comrades had complained bitterly at the “no-kill” stipulation on the match, sometimes shouted for him to finish her, send her to Tartarus. Now they mostly stood quiet, perhaps glad his life would be spared. He could hardly lift his arms, wobbled on tired legs between clashes, kept wiping his palms for a better grip on his sword, marking his tunic with long red smears.
A presence encroached on her enjoyment, pressed close behind her shoulder. Bellerophon murmured in her ear, “The emissaries from Egypt have arrived, Conqueror. They await you in the great hall.”
She waved him off. “Let them wait. This is almost over.”
The gladiator circled the soldier, gauging his defenses, his reserves. They’d been going at it some time, and the gladiator’s arm drooped under the unfamiliar weight of the long sword. When it dipped again he swung with everything he had, one last summoning of strength to overwhelm her. Too late he recognized the feint, realized she was not so tired as she seemed when she disappeared under his swing. He might have tripped on his own momentum, but the sweep of her powerful leg made certain he dropped face-first in a cloud of dust.
She scrambled to her feet, kicked the sword from his hands, lay hers across the back of his neck.
The fool tried to get up. She kicked his arm out from under him, dropped him again, pressed harder with the flat of her sword. He tried to push up again. She shoved him back down. He tried to push up again. She threw the Conqueror a look of frustration and disgust. The Conqueror gazed back at her icily. When it became clear no intervention was forthcoming, she smashed the pommel into the back of his skull. He slumped to the dust.
There were no cheers from the audience. This was no battle won against great odds. This wasn’t even a contest. Servants and officials muttered amongst themselves. Soldiers looked on with disappointment and open hostility. The gladiator moved to stand before her owner, neither dropping her sword nor kneeling, her green eyes burning with words she wouldn’t say. You could have stopped it. I didn’t want to hurt him.
The Conqueror rankled at her tiny act of rebellion, at the very rawness of emotions closer to the surface than the Leopard ever allowed, anger and resentment, as if a slave had any right to feel such things. The warrior held out her hand, took the offered sword and gestured impatiently at the ground. The gladiator dropped to her knees, eyes staring straight ahead while the collar clicked into place.
Long fingers laced under the heavy ring in their own iron grip, knuckles pressed subtly against the taut throat, just enough to constrict breath and pulse, remind the slave of her place.
He glanced up from the soldier, his disapproval of the whole affair cast in the deep creases of his face. “He lives.” And so low he perhaps thought no one would her, “At least for now.”
She pitched her voice for everyone assembled to hear. “Your champion lost in a fair match. There will be no more challenges on Lieutenant Ramis’ behalf. And know this. Any attack on my property is an attack on me, and will be dealt with severely. Now get back to work.” She hauled the insolent slave to her feet, handed her off to Joxer. “Take her back to her cell.”
As the crowd parted she looked up to see the Egyptian envoy standing there. Bellerophon approached, his face apologetic. “They wanted to take in the entertainment.”
“Entertainment, huh?” She eyed them, wondered how much of that display of defiance and discipline they caught. Curse the gods, this was no time to show weakness. She plastered on her best negotiation face and headed for them. “Emissary. I hear you’ve developed a taste for Roman amusements.”
“That daughter of a jackal!”
The Conqueror threw open the doors to her chambers. The nerve of Cleopatra, demanding her tribute be cut in half! Already pain gnawed at her gut. What nastiness did that little snake have in the works if her Conqueror refused?
A rumpled cot pressed itself into her awareness, empty and accusing, its occupant two days departed. Niklos’ absence left her feeling out of sorts, irritable and lonely. A hard swallow pushed down nausea, cooled her rage.
She retreated to the main chamber, shed the elaborate dinner dress and discarded it on the floor with some small satisfaction. Hardly mature, taking her frustration out on rare and expensive dresses. Didn’t change the fact it felt pretty damn good.
As she pulled a tunic over her head, the key around her neck caught her eye, stirred oddly pleasant memories. An idea struck, a possible cure for an otherwise unshakable foul mood. She threw on battle leathers and boots quickly, eager to get down to the courtyard.
Another cot grabbed her eye, fresh linens still folded on it. She half-glared at it, should have had it removed days ago. Yes, she’d have Vidalis take care of it tomorrow.
Remarkable how she could be so excited and incensed about the same person.
Late as it was, the halls of the palace were not empty. Servants cleaned up after the dinner, soldiers stood watch, but no one spared her more than a passing glance or smart salute. The Conqueror was known for night wanderings and surprise inspections. No one wanted to attract unfavorable attention.
They didn’t interest her tonight. Already she could feel the knives in her abdomen dull as light feet carried her to the west courtyard.
She was halfway down darkened stairs to the dungeon when noises stopped her, faint ticks on stone, thumps on metal. She listened, let her eyes adjust to the dim torchlight bleeding from the room at the far end of the passage. The thumping came from a cell near the stairs. Boots carried her silently forward until she could make out the faint glow of pale hair. The Leopard’s knuckles rapped against the bars in some sort of pattern, waiting while other noises replied from another cell further down.
The pain in her stomach roared back full force. “What in Tartarus are you up to?”
The slave bolted away from the bars, retreated into the darkest corners of the cell where her owner couldn’t see her. But she could hear rapid breathing, feet shifting nervously on straw.
A head poked into view, the sleepy Macon pushing a torch into the hall. “Conqueror?” He hurried down the hall, fishing a key from his belt.
Orange brightness filled the cell, revealed the gladiator’s guilty stance. For an angry moment the Conqueror wanted to forget the whole thing, leave her in the cell to rot. The jailer held up the key uncertainly. Tightly she nodded, stood aside as the cell door opened. “Let’s go.”
The Leopard stepped out of the cell stiffly, almost flinching when she passed. Clearly she expected to be hit. The Conqueror wouldn’t give her the satisfaction…yet. She pushed her toward the stairs.
They crossed the courtyard without saying anything, ended up in the armory by the barracks. “Choose.” She gestured to the rack of practice weapons. The gladiator eyed her distrustfully. “Choose!”
Reluctantly she stepped up, her fingers brushing across dozens of swords, spears, and clubs. Her hands closed around the familiar hilts of two gladii, almost pulled them from the rack before they froze, took out a battered pair of chobos instead, staring at the fighting sticks in shock. She turned to the Conqueror, her disbelief apparent.
The Conqueror noted her choice with interest. Farm girl indeed. “You like those? They belonged to one of my slaves.”
She looked down at the sticks in her hands, gave them an experimental swing. Actually, she spun the weapons with practiced skill. Amused at the gladiator’s slip, the Conqueror selected a long wooden sword, moved to face her opponent.
The Leopard thumbed the grips of the weapons, eyes gone vacant with memory. Slowly they fixed on the Conqueror, cold and hard, as she padded out toward the center of the courtyard to take a ready stance.
Sword crashed into chobo. The Leopard let the taller woman set the pace and intensity of the match, backing out of reach when the attacks came too hard or fast. Every time the Conqueror tried to maneuver her into a corner the slippery bitch somehow managed to escape the tightening noose. As in their previous encounters the Leopard did not strike, merely guarded and gave ground even when the Conqueror deliberately left openings in her defense.
The Leopard refused.
“Attack, damn you!”
“Why?” she growled. “Need an excuse to kill me?”
“You think I need an excuse? I’ll kill you when it pleases me and nothing more.”
Wood cracked against wood, hard and fast, but the gladiator’s defense was nearly impenetrable. The Conqueror would definitely have to open her up.
“You know, she’s still around. The owner of those weapons. I don’t know why I let her live. I suppose she amuses me, too.”
She grinned when the gladiator’s eyes narrowed to angry slits. “Where is she?”
“Oh, I think you already know.”
The Leopard frowned in thought, suddenly gaped in comprehension.
A smack to the temple dropped her. Woozily the gladiator staggered to her feet, eyes glassy and unfocused, chobos blindly blocking strikes, stumbling back when a kick doubled her over. The Conqueror moved in to finish her, but the woman dropped out of sight; the next moment she thudded to the dirt, her legs kicked out from beneath her. The Leopard sprinted across the courtyard toward the dungeon.
The Conqueror swore, charged after her. The gladiator careened off the walls of the stairwell, still reeling from the blow, but she managed to stay well out of reach as they raced past a dozen cell doors lining the underground passage. Her prey burst into the torchlit room at the end and skidded to a stop, staring. Seeing her chance she launched, but the slave bolted aside. By the time she rolled to her feet, Macon lay unconscious on the floor, his keys in the Leopard’s hand.
The Conqueror lunged, blocked the doorway to the passage of cells. For the second time that night, she fairly vibrated with fury. “Put those keys down now.”
Her tone would have stopped any sane person in their tracks. By the fire in her eyes, the Leopard was too enraged to qualify. “I have to see her.”
“Is it worth your life?”
Her eyes darted around the dimly lit room at the heart of the dungeon, at the chains and knives and whips hanging on the walls. Though she paled, the instruments only incensed her. “What have you done to her?”
The Conqueror straightened to look down at the mutinous slave. “Nothing more than an enemy of the state deserves. Give me those keys.”
Her voice quavered, low but vehement. “No one deserves this place.”
“Give up those keys and I may spare your life, Amazon.”
The sickly green glow in those eyes sputtered.
“Chobos are Amazon weapons. Any Amazon who refuses to renounce the Nation or her Queen faces crucifixion.”
The Leopard snorted bitterly. “I’m no Amazon. Their Queen was Caesar’s prisoner, his star gladiator. She taught me how to fight. She did such a fine job that I killed her.”
The Conqueror searched her face for truth. “In the arena?”
A sneer of disgust. “Caesar wouldn’t allow her that honor. I murdered her for his own private amusement.”
In her distraction Xena saw pain and half-truth. And opportunity. She lunged, almost snatched the keys. Instead she caught a stick across the temple, bounced off the wall before crashing into darkness.
The Leopard stared wide-eyed at the unconscious woman at her feet. The Conqueror came in so fast, she just reacted—
When her owner woke, she was good as dead.
Heart pounding, her unfocused vision floated to the room beyond, full of instruments best used to inflict pain and suffering. In a daze she stepped over the limp form, plucked a wicked blade from a stand next to the giant stained table, dropped down beside the Conqueror. It would be quick. The blade found the delicate neck, bounced against the thump of a fierce heart, opened a thin split along ivory skin.
She hovered there, ready, her breathing shallow. But her hand didn’t move. It twitched and stilled, caught in a war between forces she didn’t understand. Her jaw clenched, ground teeth together until she snarled in frustration, jabbing the knife into the dirt.
With a deep breath she rose, slid the key into the heavy lock and turned it, pulled the iron door open. Darkness. She retrieved a torch, followed it into the cell.
Orange light spilled into the bare cell, rank with the stench of human waste. Against the far wall, arms hanging from shackles, sat the remnants of a woman grown thin with starvation, skin drawn tight around bones and little else. Translucent alabaster flesh formed the cloth upon which some dark artist scored and sewed a quilt of cuts and stitches. Nearly every square inch of skin criss-crossed with long ragged scars, some several moons healed, some bright and livid with the passing of mere days.
The Leopard scarcely breathed, tentatively crossed the cell. She held the torch closer, her other hand brushing back a long curtain of dirty copper curls.
The head lifted, dull sunken eyes peering out from a ruined patchwork face that turned her stomach.
Rough hands grabbed her from behind. She spun with a punch, stopped it within hairs of Scar’s face. Her fist hovered there, cocked, hungry to hit someone, anyone who would do that to a person. Or allow it to happen. He glanced passed her at the prisoner, hustled her out of the tiny room, white knuckled fingers dug in to her bicep.
More soldiers hauled the Conqueror to her feet, steadied her as she shook her head. She rubbed her temple, took in the open door, the gladiator. Her face twisted in rage and she snatched up a sword, raised it to strike the mulish head from the Leopard’s shoulders. She didn’t flinch, didn’t block, didn’t move. Contempt burned in her eyes for the woman who would order such torture, as gruesome as anything Caesar ever meted out. She raised her chin, willing her owner to swing.
The Conqueror hesitated, her eyes drawn to the woman chained to the wall. A slight frown formed on her face as she stepped in, brought a torch closer to see. Her scowl deepened.
“Who did this?”
Her voice cut through all sounds. No one offered an answer. She stepped back into the hall, glowered at the soldiers, the unconscious jailer. Piercing blue eyes settled on the Leopard. She stared back, surprised at the Conqueror’s anger. That alone dampened her own righteous rage, left a muddle of emotions far more complicated and confusing.
The cell door swung shut, cutting off her view. “Lock that man up,” Xena growled, gesturing at Macon.
Scar cleared his throat. “Conqueror, should I summon a healer?”
She glared at him. Nervously he gestured vaguely at his own neck, nodded to hers. A hand went to her throat, found the thin crusted cut. Her gaze dropped to the blade on the ground, the Leopard. A furious heat flushed her face. In one smooth motion she snatched up the chobos and keys and swept out of the dungeon. “Bring her.”
Plenty of eyes followed them as they made their way through the palace. They shrank from the Conqueror’s tempest, threw pitying looks at the slave dragged behind her. Eventually they ended up in a hallway on the upper floor in front of a set of heavy double doors. “You’re dismissed,” her owner barked over her shoulder, taking the slave by the arm and pushing her through the doors.
The royal bedchambers. She’d lost count of the days since her first and last disastrous visit. A luxurious bath, unexpected frankness between them, sudden hostility…the cell seemed far less surreal.
The Conqueror slammed the doors shut behind them and stood there, her back to the slave, arms bunching, hands gripping the chobos so hard she could swear she heard wood creak. She flung them past the Leopard to clatter against the far wall. “You infuriate me!”
The gladiator winced, stood carefully still.
One long finger stabbed back the way they’d come. “You saw who did that, didn’t you? That’s how you knew she was there, who she is!”
She shook her head, kept her thoughts and feelings under tight rein. She almost even managed to still the tremor in her voice. “I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before. And truthfully, I thought you did it.”
Blue eyes narrowed dangerously. “Think again.”
Her fury sounded genuine. She searched Xena’s face, hunting for any hint of deception, found none, grasped at the threads of her unraveling anger. “Whoever it is, the jailer lets them in and out. Ask him.”
“I can’t. You clobbered him.”
The gladiator met the glare stubbornly, neither sorry nor apologetic. They stared each other down, locked in a battle of wills and doubts.
The Conqueror sighed and shook her head. “Gods defend us. When the Amazons find out, I’ll be neck deep in rebels and assassins.”
The Leopard stared at her a few moments. Had the Destroyer of Nations just called a truce? Uncertainly she clung to her temper, ready to meet that sharp gaze again, but the Conqueror turned away and headed into one of the antechambers, sloughing off her battle leathers. She stared at the retreating back in amazement, finally allowed her shoulders to relax.
Alone in the middle of the large bedchamber, a shiver crept up her spine. For the first time in nearly five years, she stood in a place without bars or chains or watching eyes. She glanced nervously around the massive bedchamber. The Leopard, formidable adversary in the arena, slave in the clambers of some of the most powerful rulers of the known world, suddenly small, naked, and…afraid. When had the trappings of her captivity become comforting? Without them she felt exposed, vulnerable. This was what she waited for, wasn’t it? The opportunity to escape? Outside the double doors stood a single guard, a series of uncomplicated and lightly-guarded hallways to…where? Beyond the courtyard she knew nothing of this place. Still, it was a chance. More chance than she’d had in years.
“Think you’d make it?”
She flinched. The Destroyer leaned her head out of the antechamber. Could she read minds as well? The slave struggled to mask her guilt. “Make it where?”
“Out of here? Do you think you could escape the palace?”
The gladiator’s vision fairly pulsed with the thoughts pounding through her head. She swallowed hard. “No.” The Conqueror arched a disbelieving eyebrow. She shifted uncomfortably at the lie, finally squared her shoulders. “Maybe.”
“What’s stopping you?”
She struggled to suppress roiling emotions. Gods, how she wanted to retreat to that fog where the Leopard thought nothing, felt nothing. Since breaking her silence, that purity, that crystal clarity of acting and reacting eluded her. She opened her mouth several times, conflicted. “Not sure. You, I suppose.” She flushed with color at the admission, fervently looked away. Numb feet carried her across the room to the window, a narrow thing that viewed a slice of the palace, the practice courtyard below. Had the Conqueror stood at this window, watched the slave sit in the shade of the loggia and run through her exercises and drills? Why not? Hadn’t she appeared out of nowhere just in time to stop Ramis’ men from beating her to death? True or not, it brought her some comfort to believe the Conqueror kept an eye on her.
She looked over her shoulder, wondering if the Conqueror watched her now. An empty cot just inside the main doors caught her eye. “Your servant, the boy…is he better?”
Rustling in the antechamber grew still. “I sent him home.”
That name jarred a memory. A a girl she used to sit in the rafters of the barn, staring out across Poteidaian fields and rolling hills at distant grey peaks to the north, capped brilliant white with an early fall snow. A lump of longing strangled her; she cleared it from her throat. “That’s days away. When will he be back?”
“Weeks away, actually. And never.”
Perhaps it was the way her voice faltered as she said it. A coldness suddenly sank into the gladiator’s bones.
“Don’t.” A false lightness colored a voice thick with emotion. “He’s not dead. His father Niklio is an old hermit healer, best I’ve ever known. If there’s anyone who can help Niklos, it’s him. And even if Niklos does heal, he’s never coming back. It’s too dangerous here for someone like him.”
Someone like him. She wondered how the Conqueror classified people like him. Young? Innocent? Defenseless? Undamaged?
Her foot bumped a discarded chobo. She picked it up, turned it over in her hand. It looked almost identical to the pair she learned with, the carvings on the shaft depicting a bare-breasted archer taking aim at a stag in the forest. “Who was that prisoner?”
“Queen Terreis. I caught her in a raid on the northern territories. Her tribe’s been a pain in my backside, but so long as I have her, the Amazons behave. Now this.” She stepped out of the dressing antechamber, her favorite old robes shrouding the long thin figure. She rolled her neck and shoulders, already bearing the weight of new troubles.
Gabrielle thought a long moment. “You didn’t do it. Why don’t you bring the culprit to justice, set the queen free? Or at least let her live as a slave. Let the Amazons see you set things right.”
The warlord sighed. “It doesn’t work like that.”
She disappeared into the bath chamber. Left alone, the silence became unnerving. Her thoughts kept drifting to the Conqueror standing over her, sword raised. She drew in a long breath, her voice low with uncertainty. “I was sure you were going to kill me tonight.”
The Conqueror grunted, returned holding a cloth to her bleeding brow. “Nearly did. But then we wouldn’t be having this pleasant conversation.” Troubling thoughts made the Conqueror shake her head, pour a goblet of wine to wash them away. Absently she scratched her throat, fingered the cut across her neck. “You could have killed me too. Why didn’t you?”
The Leopard thought about that. “Maybe I wanted to talk to you, too.”
The Conqueror snorted. It lacked intimidation, turned inward. Another swig of wine gave voice to her thoughts. “Why? You don’t talk to anyone else. Why me?”
No answer presented itself. She stood there, her thoughts jumbled, wrestling for dominance. Reflexively she grabbed the damp rag thrown her way as the dark-haired woman padded over to the table of food. The bloodstained cloth was wet and cool on the lump at her temple, brought instant relief. Her owner brought the plate of treats to the giant bed, gestured for the Leopard to sit. She didn’t. The Conqueror’s friendly demeanor cooled a bit. “You sure as Hades never talked to Caesar.”
Bile rose in her throat, laced her words. “It was Caesar who taught me the value of silence.” She turned to a clean spot on the cloth, pressed it against her head while she considered. “That—the first night we met, you…saw me. You didn’t underestimate me because I was small, or young, or a woman, or a slave, or even a gladiator. You respected my skills and fought accordingly. So I respect you. And when you realized I was hurt, you could have pressed your advantage but you didn’t. You helped me, fixed my shoulder, showed fairness and mercy. So I help you. And then you said you wanted us to fight again when I was healed, as equals. So I treat you as an equal. And when we did fight again, you saved me from my owner. So I protect you.”
The gladiator shifted her feet, fought to keep her nerve under the withering stare. “Yes. Equals. Not in station, I know that, but as mortals under Olympus. I think you understand me like no one else can. And I understand you. We’re fighters. We act; we don’t watch. We look for trouble; we don’t run from trouble. You’re the first person in almost four years I actually want to talk to.”
“I’m touched,” the warrior snipped. But she seemed at a loss for any comment more cutting. The silence stretched on. The gladiator took a deep breath.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I won’t promise an answer.”
She eased herself to the floor beside the bed, leaned her head against the thick soft pad, the rag almost forgotten in her hand. “Why did you destroy Poteidaia?”
The Conqueror’s face grew still and stark. She nodded. “I’ll answer, if you tell me this first. Why did you leave it?”
A familiar cold settled in her stomach, verging on the brink of violent illness. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for a plunge into icy waters. “I…killed one of your officers.” She expected an outburst, an interrogation, but the Conqueror said nothing, waited expectantly. “A watch captain at the garrison named Callisto. She was temperamental and cruel.” Again she looked to the Conqueror for a response, met unreadable eyes, forged ahead. “Everyone feared her, even her own troops. Attracting her attention was a sure way to meet a horrible fate. Like my sister.” A lump closed her throat; she swallowed several times before she could clear it to speak. “She had a beautiful way of saying what was on her mind.”
The question startled her. She peered up at the face, trying to read Xena’s thoughts. “Yeah, I could be opinionated, but I wasn’t the one who drew Callisto’s eye.” Her shuddering voice betrayed her. “I came home from the fields one day to find her tied to the well, a hole where her tongue used to be. We had to do something. Quietly I began to talk to the townsfolk, encourage them to—”
Eyebrows knitted. “Write a letter of petition. I’d heard all sorts of stories about you. That in spite your harshness, you were fair. I thought if you knew what your officers were doing, you would put a stop to it. I would write it, get the townspeople to sign it—”
The cascade of words dried up in her throat. When she struggled to start again, the Conqueror pressed her goblet of wine into her hand. She peered into its plum depths, gave in with a long gulp. Absent was the usual bite of vinegar, coating her throat instead with cloying sweetness. She licked her lips, found the goblet more than half drained. Embarrassed, she refilled it before continuing.
“Most of the villagers refused to rally behind a peasant woman. Only after my husband put his name on the letter would they add their marks. He supported the letter, of course. The more people looked to him as the writer of that letter, the more he began to talk like it was his idea. I didn’t mind, really. It wasn’t about taking credit, so I didn’t argue. When Callisto found out about the letter—”
“She killed him.” That the Conqueror said it so matter-of-factly reopened old aches long thought to be healed. Brutally she clamped down on her feelings, cauterized them with other memories.
“I confronted her alone outside the camp that night. I wish I could say we met by luck or fate, that I hadn’t been waiting in the woods when she came out to the latrines to relieve herself. That I didn’t mean to have a knife in my hand. That I planned to meet her face to face as a citizen and just talk to her, ask her to explain how she could so casually end a life. But the truth is, I was there, and armed, and when the Fates brought her to me, I couldn’t convince myself that talk would change or stop her.”
She trailed off again, her mind on the stench, the taunting laughter, the wet blade.
“Was she your first?”
Her head bobbed dully. “I told my parents what I’d done, planned to turn myself in, but they convinced me that your soldiers would execute the entire family for my crime, after what happened to my sister. We left in darkness, told no one where we were going. But everything was different after that. Their looks, their silence. I left the next summer, came back to Poteidaea. It was burned to the ground. Crucifixes dotted the isthmus from shore to shore. Every cow, sheep, pig, goat, and chicken lay slaughtered, every building reduced to ash. No survivors.” Her stomach convulsed at the memory.
The soft voice intruded. “Why do you think I came to Poteidaia?”
A shrug. “I’ve asked myself that so many times. I told myself something must have happened over the winter. Some say the town couldn’t pay its yearly grain tithe. Or maybe it was another of your officers running amok. Or it could have been an accident.”
Blue eyes bored through her. “You don’t believe that, do you?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know. I was afraid…it was a warning to those who defy your rule.”
The Conqueror reclined against the pillows, propped a long arm carefully on her robed knee. “Yes.”
The gladiator went still, the knot in her throat suddenly too big to swallow. Fingers tightened around the weapon in her hand, threatened to snap either wood or bone.
The Conqueror studied her with half-lidded eyes. “What are you waiting for? This is why you’re here, isn’t it? For revenge?”
Her head swam with emotion. “What?”
“Why Caesar sent you. To kill me. To avenge Poteidaia. What are you waiting for? You got your answer. I ordered the destruction of your home, the execution of your friends. Now it should be easy.”
The gladiator shook her head, thoroughly shaken. “I—I didn’t—why?”
“Does it matter? They’re dead. Now’s your chance.”
“Did it matter why Callisto killed your husband? You took your vengeance on her.”
“And paid for it with my soul!” She struggled to lower her voice. “When I took her life, a part of me died and a part of her took hold. I’ve killed so many since then, too many to count. I told myself I killed her for some greater good, that I was doing it to save Poteidaia. Now you’re saying their deaths are my doing, too. So yes, it matters. Was it worth slaughtering an entire village just to teach me a lesson?”
She held up a hand, silencing the trembling gladiator. “A warlord named Draco appeared over the winter, made a name for himself raiding villages in the valleys west of Poteidaia. My scouts reported men flocking to his camps in the hundreds, even thousands. With enough food and money he could march on Amphipolis. I could have pulled the First Army from Macedonia, chased him around Greece until I hemmed him in and forced a battle. Of course, dozens of villages would be caught in his rampage, never mind the sheer stupidity of leaving Greece’s northern borders undefended against Rome or the Gauls. Or…I could remove the food and money and strike fear in the hearts of his men in one blow. After that one night of fire and crucifixion, Draco’s army evaporated. That one act of brutality bought years of peace and prosperity. It had nothing to do with you. Their murders are not yours to bear. They’re mine.”
She stood speechless, struck by the grim conviction of her owner, slowly sank down to the floor, considering her explanation. Her confession. Eyes fell to the chobo in her hand. “I almost took a swing at you. You wanted me to. For them.”
Xena looked away.
She thought about that, about this hidden side to her owner, the one that admitted feeling guilt for the suffering she’d caused. And few people in Greece had caused as much suffering as the Conqueror. She took a deep breath, met pinched eyes with an understanding that ran deeper than most could fathom. “Don’t look to me to punish you for your crimes. You’ll just have to do your best to set things right, starting tomorrow with Queen Terreis.”
She awoke as the sky grew light, startled she’d slept so deeply. Instantly her eyes darted to the cot near the fireplace.
Empty. She’d jumped to her feet before noticing the lump underneath, the tangle of golden hair buried under a pillow. The woman still slept, her knees pulled up tight against her chest, long from waking by the sound of her breathing. She’d fallen asleep leaning against the bed; it had taken some convincing to get her to go lay on the cot. The night dragged on with the sound of her tossing until the Conqueror dozed off. Either the Leopard had been very quiet when she moved, or her presence hadn’t set off the warrior’s cautious senses. She’d have to remember that.
She considered waking her, but it was early still, and she needed to think. She threw on a practice tunic and headed up, sword in hand, to the roof. From there she could see much of the palace and had an unobstructed view of the unborn sunrise. And she could practice away from prying eyes.
Apollo’s chariot raced into the sky when she returned to her chambers. She crept in quietly to crouch low by the cot, reached out to touch a shoulder, thought better of it. “Parda?” When she didn’t stir, the woman tried again, louder. “Gabrielle?”
The slave jerked, whipped around. Quickly she clambered to her feet, struggling to blink the sleep out of her eyes.
“I need you to attend to me today. Vidalis is sending water boys to heat the bath and bring up breakfast. I need to get cleaned up. So do you. Remember your tasting duties, stay close, do as I command without question. Above all, listen. Will you do that?”
Strange that she turned the order into a question. Stranger still that the willful thing nodded without hesitation. Had to be the sleepiness dulling her contrariness. Long arms peeled the sweat-soaked tunic from her frame, tossed it to the body slave as she crossed the spacious chamber.
As she drew the threadbare robe over broad shoulders she caught the Leopard studying her, felt a strange flutter of nervousness. Did those young eyes see too many scars, a relief map of the warrior’s past mistakes? Or did they see too few, think she let others do her fighting for her? Was her physique going soft with age and time away from the battlefield? When she glanced up again, the expression was carefully tucked away. Her moment of self-consciousness turned raw. Gods, what idiocy, to care what a lowly slave thought of the Destroyer of Nations.
Yet her thoughts kept returning to that look, and she forced herself to admit that she did care. Not because the woman had any say in the Conqueror’s life, but because she spoke last night with such honesty about that life, and what it meant to her.
Foolishness, all her talk of respect and honor and equality. Words a younger Xena once spouted when she led the defense of Amphipolis. Words that convinced her to trust a handsome young Caesar. Words she eradicated from her soul to make her name feared far to the east and north. Words she used to gain trust, land, and power once in Greece again. Words that ate at her as she grew older, looking back on a life long on action and short on meaning.
The slave followed her into the antechamber, stopped at the sight of innumerable silks, linens, and leathers neatly arranged on shelves and hooks. Embarrassed, she rifled through her clothes quickly. “It’s Vidalis. He thinks the ruler of Greece should have an expansive wardrobe.” She pulled out a long white dress trimmed in gold, held it up to her lean frame. “A gift from the land of the Pharaohs. It’ll do.”
A quiet knock at the door. She looked to her slave, eyes flicking that way expectantly, watched her hurry out of sight. Anxiously she listened for trouble. The gladiator seemed to know nothing but fighting, certainly couldn’t manage the basic art of conversation. Her interactions with the rest of the Conqueror’s subjects always seemed to end in a body count.
When the first water boy hurried in, she exhaled, relieved.
A tray of food came next. Without prompting the slave examined the contents, carefully ate a bit of each one and sipped the wine, her eyes on the Conqueror, before bringing over a small bowl of bread and berries and a goblet of wine. A small smile crept onto Xena’s lips.
“Ah, Conqueror! And your new body slave. How nice.”
Vidalis’s tone spoke volumes otherwise as he flitted between scurrying boys, his girth hardly slowing him down. His head tilted toward the empty cot in the entry way. “I’ll have that removed today. Heartbreaking, losing Niklos. ‘Tis a shame he won’t be attending you during this most important visit.” The slave didn’t miss the barb, bristled. He didn’t spare her a glance. “I brought the articles you ordered.” He produced a long Roman-style white tunic, held it up against the fair slave. “I’d have to see it on her mannish frame to gauge the fit—”
The warrior took it from him before the wildcat decided to remove his hands. “I’m sure it’s fine. And be careful what you call her frame. It’s not so different from mine.”
“My apologies, Conqueror. She is uncommonly healthy, from strong peasant stock.” He proffered a golden corded belt and gold shoulder clasps for the long tunic; the warrior reached more curiously for the polished gold collar. Under examination the ring was relatively thin and light, more for decoration than practicality in spite of the half-ring anchor in the front and the locking clasp in the back. More importantly it was loose and smooth, would not cut or chafe the delicate skin it was forged for. She smiled at the headservant. “This is exquisite.”
He beamed at the rare compliment. “Persian design. Clean, elegant, functional. I see the bearer doesn’t appreciate your kindness.”
With the man’s upturned look of distain she realized the Leopard had backed away from them both. Well, she expected a fight. She wouldn’t be disappointed. “Thank you, Vidalis. The key?”
He held up a dark leather cord upon which the tiny golden key dangled and placed it in her palm. He noted the fine Egyptian robes she held. “May I suggest your snake armlet with that? I can help you with the gold-braided wig before your audience today.”
“Fine,” she called over her shoulder, avoiding a waterboy as she made her way toward the bath. “Tell them that’s enough water.”
“As you wish. The delegates will be in the hall within a candlemark. Dinner will be roast duck served in your private courtyard. May I be of any other service to you, Conqueror?”
“Yes. Send up Captain Bellerophon in half a candlemark, not before. I don’t want to be disturbed during my bath. That will be all.”
“By your will.” He bowed deeply as he backed out of the room, pulling the double doors shut behind him.
The gladiator stood rooted, glaring after the man. The Conqueror chuckled. “He’s very good at what he does, if a little odd. You get used to it. Come, help me bathe.”
The bath was business, not pleasure, a quick thorough cleansing without conversation. The gladiator helped her dry off and don the revealing dress. To her credit the slave kept her wits about her this time, didn’t let her eyes wander over the curves of her owner…much. Once the Conqueror was dressed she sent the slave to scrub herself clean while she added the finishing touches.
She handed the fighter a cloth to dry herself as she stepped out, waited until she was done to approach her back. Long nimble fingers gently applied the sharp-smelling salve—the same one she’d used on the gladiator the first day on the boat—to old and new scars lacing her shoulders and back and arms. “Badges of pride aside, this will fade those marks with regular use. I keep it on the stand here. Use it once a day and after every bath.” As she set the clay pot back down, her fingers brushed the slave’s tan tunic before scooping up the new white one. “Where did you get that?”
The striped shoulders stiffened. “A gift.”
That there was more to the story was clear. That the gladiator didn’t want to explain was also clear. The Conqueror didn’t like secrets. She held back her questions, decided to wait and see if her slave would ever offer a better answer.
With a little help she slipped the white tunic over the golden head, pinned the clasps on the shoulders. It occurred to her how lovely it would look to release one of those clasps, bare one small firm breast for her guests to admire, though the thought of any of them taking an interest in her more womanly features stirred the acid in her stomach. Everything of yours is mine.
She tore her eyes away before the gladiator saw the look, focused her gaze on the golden cord she tied around the firm abdomen until the vision passed. Since her last campaign more than a year ago, her infamous urges had gone curiously missing. That they should rear up now, with this ruined piece of flesh and soul to break the fast, struck her as cruel irony. Those conquered in the bedchamber were rarely much fun afterwards, too broken or frightened or hateful to let themselves feel pleasure again. That kind of unpredictability coupled with this one’s skills…no, she’d find another outlet for her libido.
When she held up the collar, the Leopard stepped back. Refusal sparked instant anger. “Come here.”
Green eyes flared. “Why? I didn’t run last night.”
The Conqueror had to remind herself the slave had worn no collar since her last fight. How to make her understand? “It’s a symbol. It shows the world you belong to me, that you are under my protection. A wrong against you is a wrong against me. Every slave in this palace wears a collar. Do you think it so distasteful to be owned by me?”
“To be owned at all, yes.”
“And yet here you are. But I’m not unreasonable. I offer you a choice. This, or the heavy restraints you wore into Corinth. I warn you, you’ll still be expected to perform your tasks either way.”
She watched her words burrow into that bright mind, stubbornness warring with practicality. The slave thrust her chin up in a gesture of willful pride, let her lock the ring around her neck.
“Thank you.” She genuinely appreciated the gladiator’s assent, pressured though it was. In truth, she looked forward to having her near all day.
A knock on the door dampened her enthusiasm.
“If it’s Captain Bellerophon, see him in. And Parda?”
The slave turned, halfway to the door.
“Let’s try to get through today without bloodshed, shall we?”
The Leopard’s mouth drew into a thin line.
When she returned from the entryway, the captain followed. The black eyes were almost gone, but judging by the stiff face, he held a low opinion of the slave’s new duties.
“You sent for me, Conqueror?”
“Macon is under arrest.”
“The jailer? What has he done?” Immediately he glanced at the gladiator suspiciously.
“Send a detail to relieve the guards I left there last night, and find me a new jailer. And let me know when Macon wakes up. I want to ask him a few questions.”
Eyes darted between owner and slave. His mouth opened as if to speak, then closed abruptly to inhale through perfect teeth. “By your will.” He bowed crisply and left.
The Conqueror exhaled. Until that man got over his mistrust of the gladiator, she would keep her very close indeed. Out of the corner of her eye she caught the Leopard staring at the door, her face shadowed by some dark instinct that made her green eyes practically glow with heat. Even in a simple Roman tunic, the woman radiated predator.
“You look—” stunning, her mind interjected, but she caught herself. “Intimidating, as a Roman gladiator should.”
The Leopard’s jaw clenched, her distaste plain. She smiled apologetically. “I know. You’re Greek. Just pretend, will you? The delegates we meet today are very fond of Romans.”
She stood some distance from the Conqueror, alone and unobtrusive against a wall next to a silver amphora of wine. Xena and her guests reclined lazily on long dining couches, plucking from a low table fresh fruits, nuts, savory and sweet breads, cheeses, fish, quail, boar, and venison. Given the rare delicacies spread around the table, an onlooker would have thought the Conqueror entertained Caesar himself, not a lowly delegate from Egypt.
She dined and conversed with the Egyptians casually, her plate almost untouched. When the slave thought about it, the Conqueror always had such morsels available to her, though she hardly ever partook of them. Both times she’d been to the Conqueror’s chambers, her owner prepared a plate of food only to have her taster eat more than she did. How much fruit and cheese and dried meat spoiled on those sumptuous trays?
The snap of fingers jerked her mind back to the table, to the feast and those who dined upon it. The Conqueror held out her hand, her empty goblet waiting expectantly. As she obediently filled the goblet, the emissary at the far end of the table interrupted his own near constant chatter. “Ah, excellent. I would indulge in more of your wonderful nectar as well.”
The Leopard glanced at her owner. At the nod she walked around the table to refill his drink.
His eyes doubled back to her for a second glance, flicked down and up her body like the twin forks of an asp’s tongue. Her skin crawled, flushed hot as if burned. He looked away, but not before a smile crept onto his olive features. She returned to her station but couldn’t help watching out of the corner of her eye, wary of his interest.
Apparently the Conqueror noticed too, for when he finished his tale, she edged forward and grinned conspiratorially. “You like her, Amun.”
It was more statement than question. He paused only a heartbeat, smiled broadly. “She is indeed a vision. That pale hair is unusual, surely passed down from great Alexander himself. Personally I find her a bit…gamey…for my tastes. But I accept your offer, if it is indeed an offer.”
The grin turned to ice on her lips. “It’s not. I’m sure you’ll find other companionship more to your liking. Her skills lie…elsewhere.” The Conqueror’s gaze drifted from the emissary to the slave, and the Leopard could swear she saw some heat flicker beneath those hard blue eyes.
At the silent exchange Amun’s eyebrows rose in pleasant surprise. “By Horus, this isn’t the same slave we saw brawling in the courtyard, is it? She looks so civilized when she’s clean. Well trained, too.”
The Conqueror fixed him with a dangerous stare.
He brightened. “Which reminds me. We bring from noble Cleopatra a gift, a symbol of her gratitude as your humble servant.”
At a glance, the military officer seated beside him rose from the table to open the dining hall doors. Just beyond waited two Egyptian guards, and between them a figure shrouded all in white.
“Conqueror. I give you Khepri.”
The figure came to life, raised the white veil to reveal a beautiful young face, a firm young body that began to sway in time with a broken and exotic rhythm.
Slow sinuous movement stole the gladiator’s gaze, held her captive as each limb shifted with a will of its own. The boneless gyrations struck her as unnatural, inhuman, primal. Every part of her moved in different directions at once. Everything but her eyes, locked on the woman at the head of the banquet.
She peered at her owner, noted the lazy posture, the shuddered eyes, the subtle frown. Her taut body exuded displeasure at this turn of events. No, not exactly displeasure. The Conqueror would not bother concealing anger. Her scowl masked something else, some other trouble churning within.
A wave of nausea wrenched at the gladiator’s stomach, the same sensation that filled her when Amun’s eyes raked over her. Now she could see the quick shallow rise and fall of the Conqueror’s chest, the slightly parted lips, the hand gripping the armrest just a little too hard. She knew that look from others, just never from the Conqueror.
Slowly the dancer closed the distance between them. She writhed sensuously, every arch of her back an offering of her breasts, every turn out of the leg and thrust of the hip an invitation to explore deeper mysteries. Even her arms moved as if guided by an invisible lover, caressing without touching, reaching and drawing in to her tantalizing bronze skin.
The Conqueror had eyes for no one else.
Warily the slave took small steps toward the warrior, her eyes upon the Egyptians in the room. Even they seemed entranced by the dancer, all but two. The military advisor studied the Conqueror. The delegate Amun studied her.
She looked away quickly, unsure what the Conqueror’s punishment would be for looking one of her guests in the eye. But old defiance reared up, that he should stare at her as if she already lay in his bed. She met his gaze again, made clear by her expression that he would not find her companionship pleasurable.
He grinned. Not the charming easy smile that he smeared on for the Conqueror, but a gash of teeth and gums stretched wide and ravenous.
Even without taking her eyes from him, she took in the silver platter of duck, the burning candelabras, the jade dragon centerpiece, the polished serving spoon, all perfectly acceptable for caving in his skull.
Something shifted in the air. The Conqueror hadn’t moved, but Captain Bellerophon leaned over her shoulder to whisper in her ear, and the expression on her face shifted from shadowy desire to frozen fury. The dancer stood within two paces of her and closing, arching back to close in for a touch—
The Conqueror held up a hand. The drumming died. The performer paused, her face upside down before the Conqueror, her whole being quivering slightly with hard breaths.
“I accept my servant Cleopatra’s gift. Vidalis, escort her to the slave quarters.” With a flick of her wrist she dismissed the woman, turned back to the table without another thought. “Emissary, an excellent conclusion to dinner. Shall we retire during the heat of the day? We’ll speak again later; I’m eager to hear more of Cleopatra’s wish to renegotiate Egypt’s tribute.”
She rose without waiting for a reply, swept past the surprised Khepri and Vidalis and out of the hall, the captain close behind.
The slave stood frozen, unsure. Was she meant to follow and serve, or stay to watch and listen? She looked to Vidalis for direction, but he was fascinated by the Egyptian dancer who stared hungrily after the retreating back of the Conqueror. As he led her away Khepri locked eyes with her, hostile challenge leaving her bewildered.
A murmur reached her ears, muttering between soldier and diplomat in the foreign tongue they dared not speak before the Conqueror. Her stare settled on them, unable to tear her attention away from the condescending smiles and quiet chuckles.
Again the emissary met her gaze, this time far more inviting, gesturing for her to come nearer as some long-lost uncle would a skittish child. When she didn’t move he raised his goblet, waiting patiently. Only slowly did her feet move, not sure how her owner would have her respond. She’d already been commanded to fill the man’s cup once; cautiously she did so again.
He pitched his voice low enough that only she and the commander beside him could hear, his Latin overly enunciated. “Your old dominus is glad you fare well. However, he would have you remember your obligations.”
Her heart stopped.
Many moments seemed to pass before she felt its heavy thump push sluggish fluid through her veins. Many more before she felt her lungs hitch, aching for breath. Dimly she became aware of his hand on her arm, jerked it free as if burned. Sour essence of grape sloshed out, stained her white tunic the color of fresh angry bruise.
“His eyes are upon you, Parda, here more than ever. Strike sure and true. Someone eagerly awaits your return.”
She faltered back, uneasy at the smiling ghost before her. Wide eyes tore themselves away, raked the room. Other than the delegation, only a servant watched from the kitchen. Had the woman heard? Had she seen?
Numb fingers set the amphora on the table before it slipped out of their grasp. She turned, willing one foot in front of the other, wherever they might take her away from his shallow smile.
The Conqueror blazed across the courtyard, her long strides forcing Bellerophon to jog to keep up. His expression betrayed him; his life hung in the balance of the next few moments.
He followed her into the prison, directly to the open cell door where two soldiers stood like pillars of salt. Roughly she shoved one aside, her lips curled in disgust at what she knew awaited her.
Macon lay slumped against the bars of the cell, grey and still. She crouched down beside the corpse, turned his chin to examine the bloody lump on the side of his head.
“Conqueror…” The captain squatted down beside her, his voice low and soft. “Who did this? What happened here last night?”
Her stomach clenched, forced sour into her throat. If she told him, a certain gladiator would decorate a cross by sundown. A small part of her wanted the same; Macon was no angel, but he was loyal. Not that the Leopard meant to kill him. Had she?
It didn’t matter. No one in the palace, not even Macon, knew the identity of the prisoner. Telling Bellerophon about the fight last night might lead to questions she didn’t want to answer, could ruin her only chance to make peace with the Amazons.
She lifted a limp arm to rearrange it across his chest. A shadow crossed her features. “Who found him?”
Bellerophon stood. “I did, Conqueror, when you sent me down to change the detail.”
She nodded, bent closer to examine the wound. She took a deep breath, caught a whiff of iron and bitterness. She frowned, stood abruptly.
“Take him to Ares’ temple. Arrange a soldier’s funeral. A quiet one. Put his ashes in the hall of warriors.” Bellerophon opened his mouth to argue, but the Conqueror cut him off. “Full honors, Captain. He died serving me faithfully.”
He saluted. “By your will.” At his gesture the soldiers hauled the body away.
She listened until she could no longer hear their footsteps, a very long time with here acute senses. Quietly she stole down the dim hallway, slid a key hidden in the folds of her robes into the lock of one very solid door.
The prisoner sat exactly as she did the night before, shoulders stretched at extreme angles, head down and hidden under stringy curls. If the Amazon was aware of the Conqueror’s presence, she showed no sign. Cautiously the warrior approached, wary of deception, took a fistful of copper hair and pulled the head up to rouse her. Deep puckered scars crossed her cheeks, nose, forehead, chin…she barely recognized the woman. A cruel comment died in her throat. “Still with us, Terreis?”
One eye cracked open, swiveled around in its socket before settling on the Conqueror. Dry split lips parted, rough tongue trying to shape words. “S-still.”
She sighed, left the cell, returned with a bucket of water, food, and manacles. One by one she released the Amazon’s wrists, ready for fists or claws to lash out. The bony limbs hung limp, unresisting. Once the manacles were secure she relaxed, offered a ladle of water to parched lips. The woman sputtered between greedy sips, took the proffered bread roll, though she needed help to lift it to her mouth.
“Who did this to you?”
One eyelid drooped, whether from swelling or scarring she couldn’t tell. The other eye made up for it, blazed with green heat that burned down to a single coal of rage. “You already know.”
The emotion in those three words dredged up old responses. She shoved them down, more desperate for answers. “I don’t. I promised you wouldn’t be harmed, didn’t I? Who did this?”
She shook her head solemnly. “I’m the Conqueror. I don’t need a torturer.”
The prisoner glared at her, decided to play along. “A man. Hid his face behind a mask. Blue eyes.”
Dark suspicions swirled in her mind. “Did he say anything?”
“He said my face offended you. Is that true? Perhaps it reminds you of my lands you took under treaty, my sisters you sold into slavery.”
“You broke that treaty by sending assassins against me.”
“Never. Amazons confront their enemies, not backstab them.”
“I have a five-inch scar that says otherwise.”
“Then she was no sister of mine.”
The Conqueror sighed, unwilling to rehash old interrogations. “You’ve been in this cell a long time, Terreis, long enough to reconsider your position on this argument.”
“I can’t change the truth, Xena. Had I known what you would do to my people, I would have challenged you myself.” Her faint voice shook with more than just anger for her people. Those knife wounds cut deep, all the way down to a disfigured soul.
“The Terreis I remember ruled her tribe through wisdom and negotiation. You’re neither a warrior nor a killer.”
“The worse for my sisters. Perhaps they would still be alive, and Grecian soil would not be so drunk with their blood.”
The Conqueror blinked, the sour taste rising up again that she could not swallow away. She remembered the Queen as she was when they met, fiercely protective of her people, ridiculously optimistic about her ability to make the Conqueror see the error of her ways. Even enraged as the Conqueror was after the attempt on her life by an Amazon, she still marveled at the Queen’s willingness to hand herself over to the Conqueror if it meant sparing her sisters. She saw no trace of that woman in the thing that looked at her now.
A thing that held her responsible for its creation. Her tactical experience said kill her now, quietly, before anyone could make the situation worse by telling the Amazons of her abuse. But was a dead Amazon queen truly better than a damaged one? Both would incite the Amazon Nation. Only one could be controlled by the Conqueror.
She rose with a sigh. “I never wanted to hurt you. But if you want a challenge, you’ll get one. Not against me. If you win the match, you get out of this cell. Those…” the prisoner jerked away from a brush against her cheek, “…will be tended to. You’ll get real food. And if you behave, we can discuss…other requests.”
The good eye wandered, considering her offer. “And if I lose?”
The warrior thought of the Amazon’s opponent, allowed herself a knowing smile. “You won’t.”
She locked the cell door and hurried back across the courtyard, mind racing. Her thoughts focused so intently on the planning of the match that she almost didn’t hear Vidalis calling to her.
He gasped with the effort of catching up with her. “Conqueror, she’s quite impressive. Elegant, charming, graceful, and very, ah, flexible…I can see why you find her so interesting.”
“Yes, she’ll need an outfit—what?”
“Of course, I’ll make sure she is dressed appropriately when she arrives after dinner tonight.” He looked at her expectantly. When she stared at him, clearly not comprehending, he cleared his throat. “The dancer?”
“What? No.” She realigned her thoughts, shook her head even more emphatically. “No.”
“Conqueror? I thought you were interested in—you haven’t wanted any companionship since your return—” He caught himself as realization dawned, lip curling as if stumbling upon the public toilets. “Forgive me. When you tire of her, the dancer will be waiting for you.”
She felt even more lost. “Tire of who?”
“Your Roman. The gladiator?”
“Tire of… No. No, we—” She stopped, processing his assumption. “You’re right. Perhaps I could use a change of pace.”
He brightened. “As you wish. Perhaps she can perform for us at dinner tonight.”
She shook her head, amazed at his persistence. “I need fighting leathers for a woman, an Amazon. They need to cover every inch of skin from head to toe. Everything. How long will it take you to make something?”
He considered. “Two days, if it’s urgent.”
“It is. Get on it. And send my body slave up to my chambers.”
He paused, confused. “Conqueror, wasn’t she with you?”
“No, I left her in the dining hall.”
“Begging the Conqueror’s pardon, but the dining hall was empty when I returned. I thought she followed you.”
A wave of queasiness hit, sharp in the back of her throat. She swallowed hard, forced her face to remain still. “Then I’m sure she’s in my chambers already. Please make arrangements for that outfit as soon as possible.”
She strode away, her excitement over the coming match waning with the absence of the primary player. The Leopard could not…would not have gone far. She hurried up to the royal bedchambers in the vain hope that the woman ended up there. The Fates were not so kind. She visited the infirmary, then the slaves’ quarters, then the dining hall, then back to the cell block, growing more concerned with each unproductive stop. Her thoughts traveled to darker places. She prowled the guest wing, wondering if the emissary’s attention toward her body slave had earned him a deadly afternoon visit.
No cries of alarm, no blood, no signs of the Leopard’s passage. She didn’t dare ask if any of the servants or slaves had seen her. Which would be worse, gossip that the Conqueror lost a slave or she worried about her? Her long legs picked up speed, carried her faster than was proper through the labyrinth of halls. What if she somehow slipped out of the palace? Every moment spent looking and not sounding the alarm put her further away. But surely someone would notice her, a fair-haired Roman woman with a slave collar and a fighter’s physique.
The barracks. Would she be stupid enough—or resentful enough—to go there? Whether she went there intentionally or not, her presence would no doubt lead to trouble. The gladiator was a lightning rod for it.
“Joxer,” she growled, spying him standing in the hallway ahead. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I need you to find the Leopard—”
He stood quiet and still. She tracked his gaze into a private colonnaded courtyard. Shaded from the sun by the dense leaves of alders and poplars, a little girl ran in circles on the mossy cobbles, making nonsense noises to herself and swinging and bouncing a carved figurine in her hand while a woman sewed at a bench nearby.
“Hey, snap out of it, soldier. Let’s go.”
He lay a hand on her arm as she turned away. Her head snapped up at the impudence, ready to punch his teeth in if he didn’t remove the offending limb. He pointed. Not at the girl. Near the side entrance to the atrium, hidden in the shadow of the colonnade stood her gladiator, still as a statue. Neither the girl nor the woman seemed to notice the observer. The same could not be said for the Leopard; the strangest look gripped her face, her eyes fixed on the girl like a panther tracking a meal.
“What is she—how did you find her?”
“I didn’t. She just appeared.”
The Conqueror let out a pent-up breath. She circled around, entering the courtyard through the side door, careful not to arouse the attention of the girl or woman. Much closer now, she noted her strained pale face, her eyes on the girl but her mind a thousand leagues away.
Willing the hammering of her heart to slow, she forced a gentle calm into her being, sought the same stillness the slave’s escort was so good at cultivating, kept her voice low and non-threatening. “What are you doing here?”
For a long moment the animal beside her trembled, consumed by some struggle.
“Hey,” she breathed, stepping in front of her and blocking her view.
She blinked. When she finally raised her eyes, the Conqueror saw a woman she’d only glimpsed before, a living feeling breathing person who acknowledged hurt, who looked at her with such rawness her chest ached. “Why did you bring me here?”
Not the response she expected. She smiled to ease the sting of her words. “I own you. This is my home. Where else would I bring you?”
“Why? Why did you buy me? Why did you come to Rome? Why did we ever have to meet? There was a time I dreamt of nothing else. Why now? After everything that’s happened, why now?”
The Conqueror shook her head, at a loss. “Why ask these questions? The Fates brought you to me. We can’t change it now, only make the best of it. You said I’d have to do my best to set things right, didn’t you? Well I am, and I need your help.” She lifted the gladiator’s chin, drew her drifting attention from the courtyard. “Are you listening?” The Leopard nodded. “Good. Come on. You have a match to lose.”
She sat in the dimness, lost herself in the dance of a mote of dust floating across sheets of sunlight. A shadow passed across the light, blocked the golden ray piercing her eye. She glanced up. Wide eyes peered down at her through the wooden slats, the small face of a boy regarding her with awe.
A soft nudge at her elbow. Scar held out a bowl of porridge. “You should eat something. The match isn’t for another candlemark.” She shook her head, but he pressed it into her hand. “Come on. She doesn’t feed you enough. I always hear your stomach rumbling.” As if on command it gurgled and clenched. She drew her lips into a grim line, pushed the bowl away.
He shrugged. “I know what you mean. I’m nervous too.”
The room was extraordinarily quiet for the number of men and women waiting within. Grunts and monosyllables filled empty spaces where conversations normally took place. Prisoners and combatants and guards focused every ounce of awareness on the minutes before them, the sounds above them. Too many of them looked at her with dull eyes, dead before they ever passed through those doors.
Hardness glittered back at them. She didn’t waste energy or focus for something as useless as pity. They would either fight and win or fight and die. She couldn’t help any of them, and she had her own performance to worry about.
With each opening of the gates, each rousing cheer of the crowd waiting beyond, the room thinned out. Guards dragged two of the wounded into the back of the sun-striped room to join the day’s other casualties. Harried healers and assistants bustled between cots, staunching bleeding and stitching wounds. Ephiny was among them, her face set, hands efficient. Between patients she glanced up once, her gaze settling on the Leopard. In the set of her jaw lurked lingering accusations. This is your fault. You brought this upon us.
Faintly she heard the crier announce another match. The last combatants, two of the Conqueror’s most skillful soldiers, stepped out into the blinding sun.
She waited alone, her mind focused solely on her body, on sounds, on the fight to come.
Her escort hefted the armor over the red soldier’s tunic. After years of being chained while guards strapped armor on for her, it felt strange buckling the familiar cuirass herself, unfettered by manacles. Only the thin gold collar around her neck served as a reminder of her status, that and her gentle shadow. She savored the ability to stretch her arms wide, tilted her face up to enjoy the warm light cutting through the room, allowed herself to pretend she was a freewoman. If fighting to the death for the entertainment of others counted as freedom.
The back gate opened. Two guards entered, escorting the chained prisoner. Beaded leather armor covered her from head to toe, her face hidden by a mask, a strange representation of a hawk fringed with a mane of feathers and grass. She might not have even known it was Terreis, if not for the mass of flame curls under the fringe. As Scar tightened the leather ties on her bracers she studied the queen of the Amazons, the way she swayed when forced to move, held abnormally still when left alone. Her eyes narrowed. Losing to this woman would not be easy.
A weight pulled back on her shoulders, shifted her center of balance as Scar clipped a heavy leopard skin to her armor. She scowled at the cape, at her escort. He shrugged apologetically. “Conqueror’s orders.”
The drone of the crowd above rose in volume. Wouldn’t be long now. She adjusted her bootlaces under the bronze greaves, rolled her wrists to get the bracers to settle comfortably. Absently fingers scratched the back of her left hand, still itching where it healed.
She stole another glance back at the Amazon. Did she remember those long nights in the cell? Did she recognize a fellow prisoner? The mask stared straight ahead, showing no interest in her. She wished she could see her eyes. What had the Conqueror told her? How hard would she fight? Was she in a lot of pain? Did she even have the strength to raise a weapon?
The gates flew open. Soldiers dragged one of the soldiers in, his feet plowing a deep furrow of black blood in the virgin sand. The victor followed, smiling and waving, too drunk on the adoration of the crowd to notice his blood leaking out too fast. Ephiny was on him quickly enough, pressed a bandage to his leg, swearing under her breath for protection from fools and despots while helping him toward the makeshift infirmary.
As soldier and healer passed the waiting prisoner, the queen’s gauntleted hand reached out just a little, fingertips caressing the apprentice’s leg as she hurried by. The gladiator stared, almost thought she'd imagined it, but once she got the soldier settled on a cot, Ephiny stole a furtive glance at the Amazon.
The gladiator snapped her head around as her escort pressed chobos into tingling palms. Though similar to the ones she used before, these were new, sporting freshly-oiled leather handles and bearing the carvings of the Conqueror’s dragon interweaving itself up the length of each shaft.
The voice above seeped in once more. “…in today’s final match, fighting for the first time for the pleasure of Corinth, the Conqueror’s prize, the Leopard of Rome!”
The gates opened once more, and on the impenetrable whiteness rode the siren song of the crowd. Tension from the long wait melted away, and with a dark flutter of anticipation, she waded into the light.
Odd feelings of possessive pride swelled the Conqueror’s chest as her gladiator took center stage, coolly appraising the hundreds of people shouting and cheering and booing from the shaded stands. She was a vision of beauty, strong and healthy and confident and powerful in a way the Conqueror had never seen before, her tiny presence commanding the crowd’s attention, filling the newly consecrated arena of sand as no other combatant had.
The oval was hardly bigger than the ship they arrived on, quickly thrown together from wood and dirt, lacking any of the statues or color or finery of Caesar’s prized battleground. But in Corinth it was a rare and wonderful spectacle, and the Corinthian audience cheered loud enough to be heard as far away as Athens.
The gladiator turned full circle, pale eyes finally coming to rest on the Conqueror. Fire leapt in her belly at the contact, at the confidence in that look.
Amun shifted as he recognized her, his eyes wide. “She is your prize fighter? Your body servant?” A slow grin settled on his face. “Wherever did you find such an interesting creature?”
She shrugged, smirked. “Got lucky.”
Beside her the speaker waited for the noise to die down before addressing the crowd once more. “Facing the Leopard is a fearsome fighter, known for her prowess both on and off the battlefield. Today she fights for a reprieve from the executioner. I give you Terreis, Queen of the Amazons!”
Jeers and catcalls greeted the prisoner, that and rotten food and coins. The Conqueror watched tension knot in the gladiator’s arms and shoulders. She glared not at her opponent but the crowd, no doubt still smarting from fresh memories of her own welcome by this mob. The Amazon weathered it well enough, kept her feet under her and didn’t acknowledge the hecklers. The mask focused solely on the gladiator and nothing else.
“Gladiators, face the Conqueror and bow.”
Chobos crossed in Amazon salute, the gladiator inclining her head, the queen bending stiffly at the waist and immediately taking a defensive fighting stance. Languidly the Leopard responded in kind. They circled, closing the distance, studying each other.
The first clash of the chobos ended as abruptly as it started, one of the Leopard’s fighting sticks flying from her hand. She rolled away before the Amazon could press the advantage, scooped up the dropped weapon and reset for another go. Not the opening gambit the Conqueror would have chosen, but it certainly opened the expectations early for a more even match.
The gladiator spun it in her hand, tightened her grip and blocked the next blow head on. Both chobos flew from her hands; she barely managed to turn her face before the strike split her cheekbone, sent her sprawling. She scuttled away until she could get her feet back under her, stared down at her palms. The arena was small enough that the Conqueror could clearly see the smear of blood upon them. Where had it come from? Was it hers? The Leopard’s shock turned to resentment and mistrust in the glare she threw the Conqueror. The warrior’s eyebrows knitted with questions.
The Leopard’s eyes flicked to her opponent, barely threw her forearms up in time to block the sticks arcing toward her head, landing flat on her back, stunned. The queen moved in to strike but a powerful leg hooked the back of her ankle, dropped her to the sand. They both scrambled up, the gladiator snatching up one chobo, then the other. Careful to keep a little more distance between them she glanced at the weapons, turning them over in her hands.
The moment she looked away the Amazon came in again. Lightning fast the gladiator flipped the chobos, gritted her teeth and blocked with the handles. This time she held on. Wood smacked against wood in a flurry of strikes and blocks. The Conqueror was impressed. Two days ago the prisoner could hardly lift her arms. Now she put every ounce of strength into each blow. Even so, she was wild and uncoordinated and not remotely as cunning and evasive as the Leopard.
Her slave finally settled into the rhythm of the fight, more comfortable holding the wrong ends of the sticks. The Conqueror relaxed a little; this was the match she expected. The gladiator would keep the fight moving along, make it look good until she got the signal, then leave an opening large enough to drive a siege engine through and wait for the woman to take her down. Easy, if the queen’s endurance held.
And so things went for a while. The afternoon heat began to take its toll on the pair. The queen’s blocks began to sag under the effort of swinging the chobos. The gladiator also began to droop, although never so much that she took another hard hit for it. The Conqueror’s experienced eye detected the deception, made a note to watch for it next time they sparred.
In a lull between clashes the Leopard startled and spun, swiping at empty air behind her. Even the Amazon paused, surprised. By the time she took advantage of the distraction the gladiator turned again, ducked the swing meant to take her head off. A chobo jabbed into the queen’s armored midsection, hard enough to knock the wind out of the Amazon and send her staggering back. The Conqueror growled; she explicitly forbade any serious injuries to the queen. That was a harder shot than she was supposed to deliver the entire match.
She felt Amun lean in. “What’s wrong? I thought we were rooting for your slave.”
The Conqueror gritted her teeth. “Poor technique,” she groused, left it at that.
The gladiator hung back, feigned a need to wipe bloody palms on the hem of her tunic while her opponent recovered. When she glanced up again, her eyes went wide. At what, the warrior couldn’t tell, but something about the queen clearly rattled her. The queen lunged, driving the startled Leopard back, chobos whirling madly until they locked together. Nose to nose, the queen’s slightest lean forward caused the gladiator to arch back in alarm. A trick, she surmised; any moment now she would shift her stance, give a little, slip to the side like she always did.
A quick scoop of the queen’s foot dropped the gladiator hard in the sand. The Conqueror blinked. A raw recruit could have avoided that sweep.
The gladiator rolled over, scrabbled to get her hands under her. The queen hauled back, planted a boot in ribs the gladiator made no effort to block. It lifted her off the ground, dropped her hard face first in the dirt. Watery elbows pushed her up from the sand, a knee dragged itself beneath her—
Another kick to the ribs, this one clearly in the soft spot between breastplate and backplate by the grimace it elicited. The Conqueror twitched, suppressed a groan as her ribs clenched in sympathy. Again her gladiator hauled herself up, teetered on one knee and elbow as the Amazon drew back a leg. Finally the Leopard showed sense enough to curl an arm against her ribs. The kick snapped her head back instead, dropped her flat on her back in the sand.
“Goodness,” Amun chuckled, “it looks as if your slave is out of her league.”
The Conqueror frowned. She’d told her to lose. She hadn’t told her to get herself killed.
The slave stirred, eyes glassy as limbs waved ineffectually. The queen straddled her heaving chest, pinned her arms to the sand and leaned low. The crowd made too much noise to hear, but she could have sworn the queen whispered something in her ear. Whatever she said pierced the Leopard’s daze, drew a howl—a howl!—from her clenched throat. The Conqueror jolted to her feet. The slave might have her toenails ripped out and not make that sound.
A murmur rippled through the crowd. A second scream from her slave, a strangled keen of hatred and pain, and she bucked the Amazon over her head, clawed across the sand to pounce on her. A single fist reared back, fractured the mask and the face beneath.
“Guards!” the Conqueror bellowed. They couldn’t move fast enough. Her stomach twisted in a knot as her plan shattered under the gladiator’s assault. Even after the queen lay still, blows rained down upon her. Not until her fists came away covered in red ichor did she tire, push away from the unrecognizable form drunkenly, a hand finding one of her chobos along the way.
Her skin flushed crimson with heat and exertion. Glazed eyes scanned the crowd, the archers taking positions along the top of the wall, the soldiers forming up around her. Her eyes slid past the Conqueror, didn’t see the signal she gave for mercy that would end the match, didn’t drop her chobo. Instead she swung at the closest soldier, driving him back. Gods, was she mad? The guards pressed in tighter, surrounding her, cutting off room to maneuver. She spun, the chobo clearing space in the constricting noose even as one knee buckled beneath her. She doubled over and spat up frothy bile, snapped her stick up and swiped blindly at menacing swords before they could close in for the kill.
The Conqueror leapt to the sand, silencing the crowd with a scowl. She strode over to the Amazon queen, checked the bloody heap for signs of life. “Take her to the healers. Now!” she barked.
The gladiator still held the remaining soldiers at bay with a stiff arm, staring at nothing with eyes so dilated they looked like black hollow pools. The Conqueror stepped past the ring of soldiers, trying to draw her attention. “Parda? Do you hear me?”
The chobo thrust toward the voice, forced her back out of range. A dozen swords tried to close in on the Leopard, but she stopped them with a movement of her hand, eased in again. “Gabrielle?”
Again the chobo warded her off, even as squinting eyes failed to find her. Her lips moved, but the grunts that scraped out barely resembled words. The Conqueror glanced up at the hushed crowd, squared her jaw.
“Give me that weapon, slave. Fight’s over.” She held out a hand. The Conqueror expected to be obeyed. The warrior preparing for anything.
“No,” her slave mumbled thickly. “Monsters.”
That she spoke at all erased any doubt the Leopard was not herself.
The slave lunged at man beside her, drove him back, put her wobbly self squarely between her owner and the nearest soldier.
Mediterranean blue eyes flickered to the crowd, their hunger whetted for more bloodshed, eager for any resistance that would oblige her to order the slave’s execution.
She lay cautious hands on knotted shoulders; unnatural heat poured off them in waves. Words began to tumble from her lips, arrows meant to pierce deaf ears and a remote mind. “Gabrielle, give me your weapon. They won’t hurt me. They won’t hurt you. I won’t let them.” As she spoke, one hand slid down the extended arm, closed around the blood-caked fist. “Listen to me. Trust me. Stop fighting. Let go.” Long fingers gentled the fighting stick from a white-knuckled grip. The Leopard didn’t seem to notice. She leaned in, full red lips breathing into burning ears. “Kneel, Gabrielle. This one time, submit to me.” And softly, so softly that she was certain no one else could hear, “As a friend.”
The gladiator’s shoulders fluttered with each gasp. Almost twenty soldiers stared at them, swords drawn, bowstrings pulled taut.
One by one her physical defenses came down, surgically dismantled as only a professional fighter could. Even the mask fell away and she seemed to shrink, shapeshift into something strangely soft and innocuous. Troubled black eyes turned toward the Conqueror while one knee bent, then the other, hovering mid-way until tired legs gave out to drop her jarringly to her knees. She winced, one arm crushed against her side, propped her more or less upright in spite of the pronounced curl around her ribs. Breath oozed from tight lips, the high-pitched wheeze of air escaping an overfilled bladder.
A sharp glance at the announcer roused him from his captivated stare. He cleared his throat. “Good Corinthians, I give you the winner! The Conqueror proclaims these games concluded!” A half-hearted cheer rose from the stands. Only as the crowd departed did the tension in the arena dissipate. Swords lowered and bows creaked at the Conqueror’s signal.
The Leopard hunched in the sand, head hanging, body shuddering with unnatural panting. Thick scarlet fluid bubbled from her bloated nose, crusted on a swollen upper lip. One cheekbone leaked red from the kiss of the chobo. Half-lidded eyes gazed at slack hands upon her thighs, stained dark with so much gore, hers and the Amazon queen’s. She looked…lost.
The last of the onlookers filed out of the arena. The Conqueror sighed. “You may rise.” She shook her head to herself, at a loss for how to get out of this newest mess.
The Conqueror’s head snapped up at the forbidden word. Gabrielle clambered to her feet shakily, her voice hoarse, slurred. “I feel a little…strange.”
She never quite reached vertical, eyes rolling up to whites as she toppled.
She groaned, pushed at air, threw an arm over her eyes.
Her stomach pitched and bubbled, spat acid at the thought of moving. She covered her ears, willed her visitor to go away.
“Is that the proper way to greet your Master?”
Her eyes snapped open.
Caesar’s chambers. Caesar’s bed. Caesar.
She startled backwards so fast she fairly levitated. Chains snapped tight, dropped her hard to the down-filled pallet.
“I don’t recall dismissing you.” He slid across Egyptian cotton sheets to lay a hand on golden manacles. Wild eyes snapped to exquisitely carved marble busts, polished gold serving bowls full of sumptuous fruit, fine purple drapery framing a view of Rome herself. He frowned at her confusion. “Oh dear. You didn’t think I’d let her keep you?”
Her heart hammered so hard in her chest she thought it might shatter.
He propped himself up on an elbow, smirked. “I must say, you were quite helpful to me with the senator. How much moreso now? Selling you to that old buzzard was one of those fate-inspired moments. Even though…” He leaned in, drew in a heady lungful of her scent. “Hmm…being this close to you does recall certain…diversions.”
He scooped up a fistful of white gold hair, pulled her lips to his. She stiff armed him, fists clenched, but he clucked at her. “Now, now, the arrangement hasn’t changed.” His eyes flickered over her shoulder.
She didn’t look, knew who stood there watching. Her arms sagged and she withdrew behind hooded eyes as he kissed her, long and hungry. His perfect fingernails brushed her throat, traced along her breast, her side. She retreated deeper inside, but a familiar flutter in her stomach betrayed her. He took her slowly, carefully, knowingly, wanted only one thing. Only ever one thing. Control. They warred silently, her flesh the battleground, the pawn, the traitor, until she gasped and shuddered, outmaneuvered again.
He finished with a groan, low and undignified, face red, lips twisted in an unconscious sneer. Finally he rolled away, panting, body slick with sweat. “You always disappoint me, Gabrielle. No passion, no spirit. Now Xena, on the other hand…there’s a woman who loves a good fuck. She and I, we’re exactly alike. Look at her go.”
Cold water flooded under her skin as she reluctantly followed his gaze. In the Conqueror’s luxurious bed she lay, eyes closed, her features limned in the warm glow of a dying hearth fire. Not asleep, and not alone. Something—someone—moved between her thighs, rhythmically rocking to a silent song that pleased the Conqueror.
“Exquisite, isn’t she?” Caesar stood over her, the back of his hand caressing a warm cheek with sickening familiarity. The slave stood frozen across the room, afraid to make a sound lest the Conqueror open her eyes.
Xena moaned, clutched at the form above her, squeezed an ample breast. Breath caught in the Leopard’s throat. The woman ground harder into the Conqueror, her hand lost in the space between them.
“Why so shocked?” he whispered in her ear. “Hasn’t she taken you to her bed yet?”
The woman flipped thick black hair over her shoulder. The Egyptian dancer. The gladiator swallowed, the meaning in her parting look suddenly clear, one slave challenging another for the right to pleasure the Conqueror.
Caesar’s eyebrows crawled into his hairline. “Hm. Pity. I suppose a broken thing like you hardly meets her standards. This one is far more lovely. Eager, too.”
He stood behind the Conqueror’s gyrating partner, his palms hovering over the arched back, thin waist, full ass, admiring her as he spoke. “I believe my servant made my wishes known to you, yes? Yet days go by and you do nothing. You dine with her. You sleep in her chambers. You drill with weapons while she stands within arm’s reach. You sleep in your bed while she lies helpless under the ministrations of her lovers. So I must ask you, are my expectations unclear?”
With the barest twitch she shook her head, unable to take her eyes off the two women.
“I didn’t think so. And is there any doubt in your simple peasant mind as to what will happen if you refuse?”
Again, the tiniest jerk of her chin side to side.
“Excellent. Now do what you do best. Go find something sharp to put an end to her existence.”
She wavered, legs stiff as marble, iron bands squeezing her chest.
“Come, Gabrielle, we haven’t got all night. You know there’s a knife on the food table. Or are you having second thoughts about your priorities?”
How she came to stand by the table she didn’t know. Numb fingers wrapped around the blade, held it clipped against her forearm while she drifted silently across the floor. Just within range of the oblivious pair she held back, her knees trembling.
“Is there a problem?” snapped her former owner, his patience wearing thin.
She didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right. The knife in her hand didn’t sit comfortably. Her legs wouldn’t hold steady. Her vision blurred. She shook her head, narrowed her focus down to the Destroyer of Nations, to her blade suddenly hovering above the bare throat.
Pale eyes stared up at her, the Conqueror’s pleasure forgotten.
She should have slashed and been done with it. She’d seen the Conqueror’s reflexes, knew from experience how quick she could be with that jab to the neck. But once again she held an edge to that strong pulse and hesitated, unwilling to make the final cut.
“What are you doing?”
She couldn’t be sure who asked. Xena, whose lips moved, or Caesar, whose voice bored into her skull. The dancer skulked away, melded with the shadows.
“Kill her. What are you waiting for?”
She quivered with ragged breaths, licking lips suddenly dry.
With one long finger, the Conqueror casually raised the tip of the blade. “Put that away. You’re not yourself—”
She growled, lifting that fine jaw with the knife’s edge. No, she was most definitely not herself. She was someone else entirely, someone the Conqueror didn’t know.
Caesar leaned over the headboard, his handsome face inches from hers. “Finish her. Do it.” She sucked in a desperate breath, suffocating under his whispers.
The Conqueror’s eyes took in the room. “Gabrielle, think.”
Caesar ground his teeth. “Think? Since when have you ever been trained to think? Leave the thinking to poets and philosophers. You don’t think. You kill.”
A strangled sound crept out, caught between wanting to explain and trying to obey.
“Gabrielle, talk to me.” The woman looked alarmed, less for herself than the gladiator. She shoved the knife’s edge harder against the bare throat, would end her life with a single slice, easy. She’d done it before. So why did that porcelain face still her hand, steal her breath?
“Finish this, pet. Everything will be back to the way it was.” Caesar snaked against her back, one hand gliding down her abdomen to cup her sex. Her eyes squeezed shut against the intimate touch, the hated heat, the bubbling in her stomach.
A punch to the jaw sent her flying, tumbling across the rugs. She heard more than saw her coming, stumbled back. Vision swimming, instinct alone deflected some of the punches. Not a good way to fight, particularly against a combatant as notoriously skillful as the Conqueror. She ducked a swing, sidestepped into a kick that sent her crashing down on top of a wooden stand. Her hand closed around something and she swung blind, connecting with the warrior’s leg and dropping her. In the momentary respite she scrabbled to her feet and backed away, trying to get her bearings, recover her senses, assess the bruises and tickle of blood upon her lip and cheek.
“What are you doing?” Caesar screamed in her ear. “Kill her!”
Automatically she moved to comply, but a vision behind the prone warrior stole the very air from her chest. The leather-clad woman leaned heavily against a column, one leg twisted almost beyond function. From her dislocated shoulders dangled broken arms and fingers clinging to a weathered pair of gladii. The ghost raised her head, nearly unrecognizable under the long dark matted curls and swollen face.
“Kill her, sister. Mercy in a gladiator is no virtue. You taught me that.” At her stare, the ghost smiled. “Had you forgotten about me? The teacher you betrayed for Caesar? He gave you an order.”
She looked down at the Conqueror, met the woman’s questioning eyes. She jerked her head, as much shudder as protest.
“You refuse? Have you no honor? No sense of duty to your master?” When the gladiator couldn’t move, her mentor smirked. “Fine. This crippled old woman will do it herself.” She shuffled forward, awkwardly raised a gladius to strike the Conqueror.
The Leopard lunged first, drove her own sword deep into the woman's side, caught her as she fell.
Bloated lips worked for few moments before sound oozed out. “Good girl.”
Her throat clenched, swallowing the sting of those words. She cradled the Amazon to her chest, smoothed dark curls away from her bloody face. Strange that no tears came this time. Did she have none left for the old queen, or none left for herself?
Caesar knelt to croon in her ear. “As maudlin a scene as I remember it—”
She roughly shouldered him away.
“Melosa's right, though. Mercy is for the weak and the dead. When was mercy ever shown to you?”
Without thinking her eyes slid to the Conqueror.
“Xena? Show you mercy? The woman who hung you from the mast of her ship? The one who uses you as a poison taster? The one who forces you to fight for her amusement? Surely you don’t think she does anything except for herself. Had you forgotten all that? Let me put it another way. You just tried to kill the Conqueror. If she lives, your life is forfeit.”
Her heart warred with itself. The Leopard nodded, pushed herself heavily to her feet. Tired words tumbling from her lips. “He’s right.”
She jerked her head. “Caesar.”
Eyes darted behind her. “Gabrielle, there’s no one there.”
“He’s—” She gestured, blinked slowly at the empty space where he’d stood. The Amazon queen’s body was gone too. She shook her head to clear it, immediately regretted it as the room spun a little, made her stomach do a slow roll. “Doesn’t matter. He ordered me to kill you.”
A sneer on her lips. “Did he?”
“I’m sorry. I’ll make it quick.” She set her stance, raised her guard.
“Is that so? With what?”
She held up her sword, found it gone from her hand.
“You’re not in the best shape.” The Conqueror rippled and blurred like a vision on a hot summer’s day. “Are you sure you can take me in your condition?”
“Condition?” She swayed, steadied herself on a column, only to jerk back as it writhed under her palm, an enormous snake stretched from floor to ceiling. She bumped into the Conqueror, jumped again. She opened her mouth to warn her, but the column was plain drab stone once more.
Gentle hands steadied her. “Maybe you should lie down for a while.”
She took stock of a disconnected body, reluctantly nodded. “Just until he comes back.”
Careful arms guided her to a plush bed draped in pristine white linens. She sank down onto it, hissed at the stab in her ribs. “She got me good.” As the pain ebbed she sagged, smiled to herself. “My blocks were never much use against Melosa.”
Probing fingers stopped. “Melosa? Queen Melosa?”
She sighed, tired. “She was just here, remember? Caesar loved to watch her fight. She taught me how to use the chobos, how to survive in the arena. When Caesar tired of her, he let his guard beat her half to death for sport before he had me kill her. After her, they got easier.”
She jerked at the press against her ribs, saw spots, answered through clenched teeth, “The kills.”
A shrug. “Officers. Diplomats. Senators. He never did like to get his hands dirty.”
The Conqueror’s hands stilled. “I’ll be damned. Bellerophon was right. You are an assassin.”
She couldn’t read the Xena’s expression, thought she detected disappointment. Betrayal. “I wasn’t sent to kill you. Please believe me. The senator was my target, when Caesar gave the word. Then you arrived. I don’t think even he could anticipate you buying me. In the house of his enemy, I hoped to be free of him, but he has eyes even here.”
The Conqueror grunted. “He’ll be blind soon enough.”
Hands dug like arrows in her side, left her feeling light-headed and far away. A cloth wiped blood and perspiration from her face. “I don’t want to, you know. Kill you. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“That’s the beautiful lady talking.”
Her brow wrinkled. “You…think I’m beautiful?”
The Conqueror shook her head, half irritated, half amused. “Never mind. I have an idea.” She began tearing a fine white sheet into strips. “You don’t want to kill me, but Caesar’s ordered you to, right?” She nodded, mesmerized by the squeal of ripping fabric. “What if you don’t get another chance? Caesar can’t expect you to follow through until you have an opportunity.” One end of a strip knotted around her wrist, pulled it snugly to the bed. “Right?”
She tested the knot warily. “I suppose.”
Another knot slipped over the other wrist. She jerked against it, but Xena took her hand. “He won’t. He has an advantage here if he doesn’t waste it. He’ll wait until the right moment. Trust me.”
It made sense. The other wrist pulled tight to the bed. More ties pinned her down. Nerves prickled in her gut. “Xena?”
“Are you going to execute me? For trying to kill you?”
She stopped, thought about that. “Not tonight.” She pulled a sheet up to the gladiator’s shoulders, tucked it in, shuffled out of sight.
A sigh. “What?”
“I’m sorry I interrupted you…with the dancer.”
A pause. “’S alright. I was…thinking about something else.”
More answer than she expected. The dancer’s glare surfaced, unbridled hatred for a rival. “Xena?”
“Will you have me service you someday?”
The silence from the other side of the room deafened, long enough to make the gladiator flush with nervous imagination. “Is that what you want?”
The very thought made the already warm air go thick and heavy in her chest. “No.”
The word bounced around the chamber for a few moments. “Good. I don’t do damaged merchandise.”
Stung, she wrestled with those words for some time.
“By the gods, what?”
“Are we going back to Corinth?”
“We are in Corinth.”
The bright marble halls of Caesar’s palace faded to the drab stone of the Conqueror’s dim chambers. Inky windows let the weak hearth light escape into the night. “Oh. Do you like it here? In Corinth?”
The silence stretched out, long enough to know she’d overstepped some invisible boundary. “Go to sleep, Gabrielle.”
She didn’t sleep. She lay awake for a long time, wrists fidgeting against the ties, wondering if she would die come morning. Wondering what happened to the people she’d left behind in Rome. What the Conqueror was like as a lover. Most of all, she wondered if she could kill her when the opportunity arose.
Her throat hurt, scraped and bruised and overused. A dry swallow made her wince.
Which reminded her that her face hurt. She reached up to rub her cheek.
Which reminded her that she couldn’t lift her arms.
With dread, she cracked open one eye.
Her eyeball felt like a chunk of pumice tumbling around in its socket: hard, not-quite round, and scratchy. And a poor replacement for an eye. It wouldn’t stay still on any one thing, certainly didn’t focus. Every jiggle left an afterimage, a trail behind each object that blended into an indecipherable mess. She closed it, expecting a surge of nausea.
It never came. Slowly she opened them both, found the jittering and smearing to be a little more manageable.
The rod of white in a wash of dark looked suspiciously familiar, and with persistence she recognized a tall narrow window that threw a shaft of light across the room, splashed upon the Conqueror’s opulent bed and bounced into the shadowed corners of the chambers.
The Conqueror’s chambers. Her cot, tucked in the corner. She tried to sit up, couldn’t raise shoulders or knees or arms. Memories came back to her in scraps and ashes of Xena telling her something. Telling her many things, actually, and she spoke of many things in kind, but this was something important, something both soothing and disturbing at the same time.
The ties. She was tied down. “Why?” she would ask.
“Because of the beautiful lady,” the Conqueror would reply. And her mind would wander, pondering this cryptic answer, and then she’d forget and ask all over again. How many times did they have the same conversation? A dozen? More? But she remembered this time and relaxed.
“Xe—?” The name lodged in her parched throat. Another swallow, like drinking powdered glass. Best she could do to wet her tongue. “Xena?”
Movement then, too fast, like swallows streaking out of the barn rafters when she was a girl. It startled her then and it startled her now, moreso since she couldn’t quite bring her eyes to focus on the face looming over her. Not Xena’s.
“Still alive.” Ephiny sounded disappointed as she took her chin in a firm grip, peeled back an eyelid. The Leopard tried to shake off her forceful touch, found herself too exhausted to fight back…much. But the effort earned a different expression from the apprentice: curiosity. “Hey, you in there? Do you hear me?”
She snarled at the harassment, glared daggers at the apprentice if she didn’t let go.
“I’ll be a centaur’s mother, you’re looking right at me. She’s back,” the apprentice called over her shoulder, returning small clay pots and leather bags to her satchel. She paused midway, looked down peculiarly. “The Conqueror says you chose not to kill the queen. Is that true?”
Her brow furrowed.
“The queen? The match in the arena? You pounding her face to porridge?” Her tone took on a harder edge. “She says you backed off to spare her life. Looked to me like you ran out of strength before you finished the job. So I want to know. Did you mean to kill her?”
She stared up into hard eyes, at a loss for how to respond.
“You don’t remember any of it? The match? The poisoning? What you did—?”
“Leave her alone.” Scar appeared over her shoulder, his face hard. “You heard what the Conqueror said.”
She hardly looked at him. “The Conqueror’s not here. I can ask questions.”
“I’m here.” His threat was unmistakable. “Besides,” he said, reading the gladiator’s face, “she won’t answer you now. Should have asked when you had the chance.”
Her stomach clenched. What chance? What poisoning? Who had she been talking to besides the Conqueror?
Ephiny’s hazel eyes never wavered. “Did you mean to kill her? Maim her? Or just humiliate her?”
She shook her head, desperately trying to recall what the woman wanted to know. All she could remember was one fleeting forbidden touch between healer and prisoner.
“Stop it. By the end of that fight she was out of her head. She didn’t know what she was doing.” The scarred soldier’s tenor edged away from cool detachment, settled somewhere near protective.
“Centaur dung. I saw the look on her face. Pure rage.” She leaned in, dropped her voice. “I heard what you did to Melosa. Do you hate all Amazons, or just Amazon queens?”
“That’s enough.” The low growl turned the apprentice’s head in fear. She backed away, the sudden dark void filled with the Conqueror’s blurry face. The gladiator gasped in relief, blinked furiously to clear the fuzziness from her vision, the odd stinging from her eyelids. “Relax. Close your eyes.” She obeyed, not questioning why. “Open.” Again the light assaulted her, the brightness of the window, the paleness of the Conqueror’s face. She cringed, still dreading a bout of nausea that never manifested, willing the streamers to fade.
“No dilation. Ephiny, looks like you get to live. You can return to your duties. Send me an update on the prisoner. And pass my compliments along to the old man.”
“By your will,” the apprentice forced past a clenched jaw.
The Conqueror ignored her, set to work slowly untying the knots, eyes fixed on her. An undercurrent of static seemed to crackle between them, but she couldn’t read the Conqueror’s expression, some strange mix of wariness, concern, and anger. “You almost left me.”
Perplexed, her mouth opened, closed again soundlessly. She rolled her wrists, working out soreness from struggles she couldn’t remember.
“Can you sit up?” In spite of the Conqueror’s neutral tone, but it didn’t take an oracle to know she was in trouble. She took the offered hand, found herself relying on it to pull herself upright.
A spear through her side and sparkling lights made her tilt, might have dumped her to the cold stone floor if not for steadying hands on her shoulders. Now she did feel like vomiting. She sat still a long time, willing the weakness away, knuckles locked anxiously on anything that didn’t move until the swaying passed. She opened her eyes to find cloth-wrapped fingers dug deep into the warlord’s shoulder. Immediately they let go, burned by the fine silks they crushed. She looked away before she could gauge the Conqueror’s response.
Moments dragged by, heavy with embarrassment. The Conqueror drew a long inhale. “Do you remember how you got here?”
The gladiator looked up again, vaguely past her at the waiting guard. She shook her head no.
The Conqueror’s lips drew into a thin line. “Leave us.” Her eyes burned into the gladiator, and for a moment she struggled to comply. A hand stilled her. “Not you.”
Scar cleared his throat. “Begging the Conqueror’s pardon, but she could still be—”
“She wasn’t dangerous then, and she isn’t now.” She sighed then at his concern. “Wait in the hall if you must.”
The chamber doors latched shut behind the departing soldier. For many long heartbeats neither of them moved, unsure what to do or say next. At least that’s how the slave read her owner. For her part, she knew what she needed. Sitting up cost her too much. The pain in her ribs alternated between vicious knifing and concerted throbbing. She felt tired, heavy, altogether wrong, as if coated with mud inside and out. Her cot rocked on ocean waves she couldn’t see. All she wanted was to lay her spinning head on something unmoving, and only the fact that the strong shoulder before her belonged to the most powerful woman in the Mediterranean made her pause.
Which left her suspended in discomfort, barely breathing, muscles locked protectively around injuries she couldn’t remember, waiting for the Conqueror to ask something, say something, do something—anything—to let her know what she’d done wrong and what she was supposed to do next.
Xena drew a long slow breath. “Does that shade of green mean you need a chamberpot?”
She took stock of her stomach, realized by the way it rubbed up against her spine that there wasn’t enough in there to eject. A strangely comforting thought. She shook her head again, wobbled with the motion, gritted teeth and willed herself to stay upright. That shoulder was still there, still looked appallingly inviting. She closed her eyes, shoving the thought away.
“Do you remember the match?”
The match. Unbidden images leapt to mind, of the sun-streaked staging room, the passage of bodies and souls through the gates, the makeshift infirmary, the healer, the prisoner—
“The apprentice, Ephiny,” she croaked, her throat tasting of copper with the effort. “She said I nearly beat the queen to death. Is that true?”
The Conqueror got up, returned moments later with a cup of clear water and pressed it into her hands. “You tell me.”
“I remember fighting her, but…” A horror rose up in her mind, the screech of a monstrous gryphon, its long beak snapping hungrily at her face. She shut her eyes against it, tried to squeeze the vision out. “I don’t remember how it ended.”
The Conqueror studied her. “But you do remember something.”
Desperate for liquid on her tongue and throat, she took a long drag from the cup, swallowed with effort. It did nothing to take the edge off her thirst. Another gulp finished off the cup, left her mouth dry as sand. She stared into its depths, debated asking for more, thought better of it until she collected scattered thoughts. “Yes, I remember things. Impossible things, like dreams come to life. Or nightmares.” The visions reasserted themselves, bizarre and violent, too real to be imagined. Her throbbing eyes focused on the fingers she clenched and unclenched in her lap, wrapped like sausages. She held them up. “What happened?”
The Conqueror retrieved one of the dragon-carved chobos. Dry blood crusted both ends. “Sabotage. Razors embedded in the handle under the wrap. From the first hit they cut through and into you.”
Her memory jolted. She nodded. “I remember. After I flipped them around they weren’t a problem. Why would someone bother?”
“The handles were soaked in poison. Belladonna.”
“Beautiful lady,” she breathed, finally understanding. “Thank the gods I didn’t get much of it.”
Xena snorted. “You got enough. For three days straight you’ve barely breathed or raved like a lunatic.” Unconsciously the Leopard's fingers brushed her raw throat. The Conqueror chuckled, not unkindly. “I’ll bet it’s sore. Once you start talking, you don’t stop.”
She couldn’t breathe. The knifing in her ribs dug deep, tapped an older wound. “Wh—what did I say?”
“Oh, many things, what parts I could make out. Stories, mostly, about the gods, old heroes, your family. About Xena, the honorable Warrior Princess. About your deadly uses to Caesar outside the arena.” The last sent a chill through the Leopard; she hardly noticed the battered sword until it rested nonchalantly on her shoulder next to her throat. “What did the Egyptian say to you?”
She could barely move, much less defend herself. She stilled, cautious of the cold steel nipping at her neck, chose her words carefully. “He said my old master had eyes even here, and I must kill you if I—if I want to go home.”
“‘Home.’” The Conqueror weighed the truth of her words. “And would you?”
The question caught her off guard, put her instantly on the defensive. “I’ve killed many others.”
“But would you kill me?”
Discomfort prickled in her gut. “I’ve already tried.”
“Yes. More than once as I recall. Although technically, holding a serving spoon to my throat doesn’t count as an actual attempt. But twice now you haven’t gone through with it. What’s stopping you?”
She struggled to sort through the jumble of feelings. “Fear, maybe.”
“Fear? I don’t believe it,” she sneered. “What could the Leopard of Rome possibly be afraid of? Being caught? Punishment?” The edge of the blade scraped against the pulse in her neck. “Death?”
The gladiator took a ragged breath, considered how to explain. “You own me. Your life is my life. My very short future is to live and die by your side or by your hand. Do you honestly think I don’t know your death will be my death?”
“Fear of what then?”
That was the harder question. She struggled to make sense of her feelings. “Of living, maybe. Going back to that existence. To him. To the arena. To silence. To a life without—” You, she almost said, caught herself in that absurdity of that statement. “Without hope. I can hardly face what I’ve done as it is. Tartarus would be a relief.”
The sword at her throat wavered. After long deliberation, the Conqueror pulled away, sheathed the blade. “There is no relief in Tartarus for people like us.”
Like us. The crack in the warlord’s customary detachment, the intensity of her words touched something in the slave. Her nose wrinkled in a wry smile. “Well, at least you’d have me for company.”
“Great. Stuck for eternity with my troublesome slave cum assassin.” A sobering thought. “I can’t have you trying to kill me all the time.”
The slave picked at the linen wrapped around her fingers, unable to look her in the eye. “Back to the cell?”
“No,” she said without hesitation. “So far as I’m concerned, someone tried to kill you, and until we figure out who, I want you where I can see you.”
“As bait.” Her slow blink earned a chuckle. “And protection.” If some other purpose crossed her mind then, it never found a voice. “Within these chambers, no manacles…on one condition. No attempts on my life. Give me a chance to deal with Caesar’s spies. So long as you’re locked up, he can’t expect you to strike. Besides, I’m not some old general or fat senator. I’ve survived better assassins than you, and I wouldn’t enjoy your execution.” The warlord’s wide easy smile was meant to be conciliatory, but diamond chips glittered in her pale eyes.
The killer inside stirred, sized up the Conqueror in turn, her assessment straining her chest with feelings somewhere between pride and nausea. In her palm she felt the pressure of the spectral knife, remembered the twitch of the pulse beneath. That the Conqueror still lived spoke more of a lack of will on her part than skill. Such had always been her problem with killing, a weakness Caesar took great pains to eradicate. She’d begun to believe he’d succeeded, before she met Xena.
“Are you listening?”
Her mind snapped back, tried to resurrect the conversation. “My execution.”
She shook her head. “I said you’ll have to be restrained outside these chambers until the spies are dealt with. Will you do this for me?”
She rubbed her wrists, calloused from years of chains, scratched her neck under the gold collar. After days half-remembered of feverish soul-baring conversations, this was not the way she envisioned standing next to the Conqueror, as some pet on a leash.
The Conqueror read her reservation. “Do you remember the end of your match?”
Xena surrounded by hoary beasts, their long frosted claws reaching— She shook her head, not certain which memories were real.
“After the fight, when you wouldn’t stand down to the soldiers, I asked you to submit to me. Not as a slave. Never once has the slave surrendered to the Conqueror. But the Leopard has relinquished control and put her life in my hands more times than I can count.”
Green eyes snapped up, wary, uncertain. “I…don’t remember that.”
“You don’t think you could have been tied down without your consent or a stiff fight, do you?”
That much was true. Fragments of memories filtered in. “But…there was a fight, wasn’t there?”
“Oh, many. When you weren’t talking, you were fighting.”
The slave thought she detected a grim note of humor. And then she saw them, ochre bruises on the Conqueror’s neck, masked by a high collar. Reflexively she reached out to touch. Her owner stood abruptly, walked over to pour more water. A slow steady exhale under her breath. “I did that.”
“No. Caesar did that. You let me go.”
The pressure on her chest eased, let her breathe a little. She sighed. “What about the queen? Ephiny said I tried to kill her.”
“You hurt her pretty bad, true. But I don’t believe your strength failed you. Trust me, you had plenty left to take on my men. I think some part of you pulled back. Maybe you recognized her. Or maybe you just aren’t the heartless murderer Caesar wants you to think you are.”
Bitterness. “You don’t know me—”
“I think I do. I think hours of listening to your thoughts and opinions and stories qualifies as an education. I know what the joy of the kill looks like. You don’t have it. That you even wonder about it proves me right.”
She opened her mouth to argue, stopped herself. True or not, the Conqueror didn’t believe it. She took a deep breath. “What happens now? With the Amazons?”
“Their queen still lives. We’ll make the most of second chances.” The Conqueror’s voice projected confidence, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to look the slave in the eye.
V INSIDIAE INESCARAE...The Baited Snare
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