by Tan Grimes
To read the disclaimer, return to I PARDA ROMAE.
Heat coursed down on the raised platform, on the officers and citizens assembled in the square. It prickled the Conqueror’s skin, leeched moisture from her lips. Unconsciously she reached for her goblet, found it empty, refilled it herself. Her body slave would not be pouring for her today.
Her eyes flickered to the woman standing near the rear of the platform. In the battered armor and leopard skin cape, she looked every bit a prized Roman gladiator. The collar and manacles on her wrists only enhanced the effect. She stood still as marble, tensed muscles pulling the chains tight and silent, as if they pushed her wrists apart rather than held them together. Even her eyes looked oddly vacant.
A howl yanked the Conqueror’s attention back to the open area before the dais, the swing of a mallet onto the shins of an unfortunate soul. The third today.
A second swing, the jarring crunch rippling through those assembled. Even the Conqueror twitched, instantly scowled at herself.
She turned slowly to regard Amun raising his cup in jovial salute. The Egyptian delegate leaned in from his seat, whispered to her conspiratorially, “I think your executioner is a tad out of breath with the festivities today. Certainly he needs a more vigorous workout.”
Acid bubbled in her stomach and in her veins. None of it reached her smile. “There’s not much crime to speak of in my lands anymore. Not enough executions to keep him in shape. But you are right. After we’re finished perhaps I’ll choose a new man. He can start by practicing on his predecessor.” The expected answer from the Destroyer of Nations. He laughed, and her ruby red lips smiled. If it lacked warmth, he didn’t notice.
“I’m so glad you suggested we stay one more day. This display of the Conqueror’s justice has been most inspiring.”
“I’m pleased, Amun. Besides, a little fresh air has helped me get a better perspective on Cleopatra’s changing needs. If her people are truly suffering from the drought, perhaps I should ease her tribute this year. As you say, that gold could be better spent buying grain to feed my loyal Egyptian subjects.”
Amun broke into a bright grin, bowed his head. “Conqueror, your wisdom in this matter is breathtaking.”
“And your flattery overwhelming. I see why Cleopatra regards you so highly.”
He inclined his head with a smirk, returned to the cross-raising.
The Conqueror swirled the wine in her goblet, took another gulp. “Then again, that extra gold could buy other things, too. Ships. Weapons. The loyalty of a Roman legion.”
Kohl-blacked eyes cut to her.
Her lips curled in a smile, broad and lazy. “Hadn’t you heard? Five thousand Roman legionaries landed at Nicopolis weeks ago. Bad for your queen, to be caught between my rule and Caesar’s aspirations. Worse still if she invited them. There are few things I dislike more than betrayal to Caesar.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but a chain latched around his windpipe. Thick manicured hands clutched at it, at the Leopard’s wrists, his features swelling with strain. The officer beside him rose, caught the Leopard’s heel in his throat before his sword even cleared its scabbard. She cinched down harder on the delegate’s throat, out of reach of struggling elbows, letting time finish the job.
In that long hushed minute, punctuated by occasional jerks of the emissary’s legs, the Conqueror glimpsed something in her slave. Not the same demon she housed within her own heart, always hungry for the rush of a kill. This thing in her slave was flat, distant, inhuman. In place of the willful young woman stood soulless flesh intent on its task. An arrow loosed from the bow. Except an arrow felt more.
This was Caesar’s creation.
She lay a hand on the gladiator’s bunched arm, looked into unfocused green eyes, willed them to look back. They did, cold and remote. She offered the tiniest shake of her head.
Instantly the gladiator’s grip loosened, some warmth returning to her eyes. But the thing still lurked there, waiting to for the order to finish him off.
The Conqueror cast her rich voice above the murmuring of the crowd. “Amun, also known as Marius Licentius, agent of Rome, you are charged with sedition. The penalty is death by crucifixion. Have you anything to say?”
He gurgled against the chain. At her nod, the Leopard unlooped her manacles from his purple neck, shoved him to the front of the platform with a boot. He rasped with each breath, rubbing his neck. Cornered eyes locked on the slave. “Stupid girl.”
“Save your breath, spy. Caesar’s eyes and ears will be joining you in Tartarus.” She beckoned. Guards escorted a chain of captive servants, soldiers, and citizens into the square.
The delegate took in the faces of those arrested. Some strength fled his face, left him older and frailer.
“You have something to offer, spy? Information on Caesar’s plot against Greece?” She didn’t expect any such thing. Men like Amun were chosen to lead such plots because of their fanatic loyalty. No, his network of informers had already proven quite cooperative. The delegate stood a little straighter. “It’s only a matter of time, Xena. Caesar will rule Greece, with or without your death.”
She studied his face, his stance, smiled when certain he had no more cards to play but words. “Kinetos?” she called to the puffing executioner. “Before you get started, bring me his tongue.” Her eyes raked the condemned. “Bring all of them.”
The executioner complied, swift and proficient, deaf to the roar of the crowd. Still, something niggled at the Conqueror, prompted her to scan the crowds. They could have missed someone. Word could still get back to Rome. The mob glared back, surly and spiteful, angry at the Egyptian, the conspirators, the soldiers, the gladiator, even the Conqueror. Some days sheer charisma and force of will held them at bay. Like her army. Like her enemies.
The executioner’s knife cut deep. Arms raised in unison, a great whoop of victory drowned out the delegate’s scream. In moments the rough tongue lay in her palm, warm and heavy. She smiled. Nothing unified the mob like a common enemy. A shrewd smile found the gladiator—
—who rushed her, chained arms outstretched. Instinct brought her guard up, her palm rearing back to shatter the slave’s nose.
Nerves hummed to alertness at the twang of a bow. She turned, feeling the arrow zooming toward her breast, her hand moving of its own accord as the Leopard launched. The Leopard reached her first, sent them tumbling to the platform.
Everyone moved at once. Soldiers charged into the crowd. Citizens scattered like dry leaves. Through the chaos cut the booming voice of Bellerophon. “Kill the assassin!”
“No!” She shoved the gladiator off, jumped to her feet. “I want him alive.” In four long strides she snatched from the dirt the discarded bow. The crude craftsmanship looked all too familiar. She rolled the feathers and beadwork between thumb and forefinger, a rage boiling up in her belly. “I want her alive.”
A familiar presence filled the space at her elbow. She didn’t turn, pitched her voice for the slave alone. “That was a stupid thing to do. I can take care of myself.”
She sensed the slave’s nod in a creak of leather and a ragged exhale.
“Joxer!” She tossed the bow to the Dragon. “Take that back to my quarters. Kinetos? Finish your business, starting with that thrice-cursed son of a jackal Amun.”
Bellerophon ran to her and saluted. “Conqueror, the gates are sealed and extra guards are deploying to the walls. Citizens reported a strange woman running toward the temple district. We’re concentrating our search there, with four squads searching house to house. We’ll find her.”
“I’m very disappointed, Captain. Give me your sword.”
The Dragon blanched, but otherwise kept his composure. “Conqueror?”
“I can’t go hunting without a sword, can I?”
He let out a held breath as he handed it over.
She preferred him sweating. “She’d better be found, Bellerophon. Otherwise I might have to start asking how a woman with a bow got past your guards.”
He saluted. “By your will.” Snapping orders he left, eager to put distance between them. Wise man.
She flashed her stone-faced companion a fiendish grin. “Told you the bitches would show up. Did you get a look at the woman’s face?” The Leopard offered a single tight nod. She couldn’t suppress a smile. “Come on then. I feel like hunting rabbit.”
The gladiator had to hustle to stay close as she marched through the streets, stalking past houses and carts and shops eerily empty on a summer afternoon. When the Conqueror took notice of them, they scurried back into the shadows of doorways and windows like human roaches, bruised and disheveled from the soldier’s passing. One cradled a screaming baby to her chest, fresh blood trickling from the corner of her swelling lip. She did not shrink from the Destroyer’s gaze, looked mad as Hades and powerless to do anything about it. The Conqueror’s skin prickled, the cool breeze of vulnerability blowing across her calloused soul.
Clothes and furniture flew out a door and into the street ahead, victims of a zealous squad. She hurried by without slowing, gradually became aware of the absence of her shadow. The gladiator stood frozen, gaze riveted on the family outside, the young woman they clapped in irons. “Let’s go,” she snapped, gesturing vaguely with her sword. Slowly the Leopard followed, her gaze lingering on the ransacking.
Finally they approached a crumbling temple. Vines crept over the arch of the doorway, crisped by the late summer heat. The place looked abandoned, if not for the swept porch and the dim flicker of torches within.
“Amazon Elysium. If she isn’t here, someone here knows her. Come on.”
The slave rooted into the ground, resisted the hand on her arm.
“I said let’s go. We may not have much time—”
The woman shook her head. Sweat beaded on her forehead.
The Conqueror followed her gaze. Chiseled into the lintel above the arch, a bow and crescent moon warned enemies of who resided within.
“Oh, for Ares’s sake. You think killing one Amazon queen earns you the undying enmity of a washed-up goddess? I’ve done things to her Amazons that make Hera look benevolent. If Artemis hasn’t struck me dead by now, she won’t even notice a nobody like you. Now get in here.” A tug jerked the gladiator across the threshold. When the sky didn’t split open, the Conqueror shot a knowing smirk over her shoulder.
“Your presence is not welcome here,” thrummed a harsh voice. The gladiator stiffened against the iron grip, eager to leave, but the Conqueror held tight. Echoes faded, and from behind the curtain at the far side of the room stepped a woman. Not an incensed goddess; a priestess in white armor. The temple’s keeper maintained her distance but otherwise showed no regard for the blade her visitor brandished so casually.
“That’s alright. I don’t mind.” The Destroyer turned away, scrutinized the scenes painted on the walls. Hunts through verdant forests. A stag chased by dogs and women. A woman bathing under the moon. She smiled at the priestess. “It’s unlawful to harbor Amazons in my realm. Of course, you know that. We’re looking for one. An assassin. She didn’t by chance duck in here when you weren’t looking?”
The priestess lifted her chin. “If I wasn’t looking, how would I know?”
“I see your point. Guess we’ll just have to have a look around. Let me call the guards. I’m sure Artemis won’t mind if we rearrange her house in the name of a hunt. Oh, is this a leaf prayer book?” She picked it up the delicate string of dried leaves, turned them over casually. “Looks fragile. Are you sure there’s no chance she might have slipped in here? Did you want to take another look?”
“You hold no power here, Xena. You cannot lay the daughters of Artemis any lower. Destroy the prayers. Nothing is permanent, and nothing is irreplaceable.”
She tossed the artifact back on the pedestal. “And what about you? Can I lay you any lower?” The tip of the sword grazed the priestess’ chin, bobbled at her throat. “Your predecessor didn’t last very long. I had hoped her replacement might show more wisdom.”
The priestess opened her mouth to answer, but a crash from the room behind her cut her off. The Conqueror swatted her aside, carved through the shroud to see legs dangling from a smoke vent in the roof, trying to kick and squirm through the small hole. She leapt up and pulled, dropped the Amazon to the hard-packed dirt. The girl groped for twin blades at her sides, found a sword at her throat before she could pull them.
“Is she the one?” She spared a glimpse over her shoulder. Hesitantly the Leopard nodded. She fixed the young Amazon with a hungry smile. “Time to die, assassin.”
She expected the girl to try something stupid. She even expected stupidity from the priestess. She did not expect chains to catch the sword, wrap steel around steel and jerk it from her hand.
The Conqueror stared at the gladiator, shock bleeding into rage. Her fist lashed out, flattened the slave with a blow to the jaw that must have loosened teeth. The girl took her chance and lunged over the fallen gladiator, blade drawing and slicing simultaneously, laying open the silk sleeve of her dress and the arm underneath. In one pathetically easy motion the Conqueror grabbed her wrist and twisted it behind her back. “Drop it or I’ll tear your arm off.” She wrenched it to the limits of the shoulder to make her point. The short blade clattered on the flagstones.
The Leopard pushed herself up, murmured something thickly.
“Now you talk? Speak up!” She shook the girl in her arms, elicited a yelp.
The gladiator worked her jaw. Pain-sharp eyes glanced at the priestess in the doorway, back to the Conqueror and her catch, reluctantly pitched her voice loud enough to be heard. “I’m yours. I speak only for you. I belong to you.”
“Roman whore!” The red-headed spitfire in the Conqueror’s arms thrashed, a leg catching the gladiator under the chin and knocking her on her back.
“I’ve had enough of you,” the Conqueror growled in her captive’s ear, drawing the girl’s own blade.
“No!” The shout bounced off the walls of the small room. The Leopard worked herself up on one elbow, spat blood, forced the words out carefully. “She could be useful to you. Provide information about the Amazons. Be used as leverage against her sisters, even the queen. Maybe she could end this, one way or another.”
The girl struggled. “No! I’d rather die! Finish it!”
In the girl’s ear, “You’re too mouthy for your own good, worm.” She locked eyes with her slave, tossed her the key to the manacles. “Fine, we’ll try it your way. Get up. We’re going.”
She managed, if slowly, favoring a shoulder. The shackles came off to be locked again around the Amazon’s wrists. As they marched back to the palace she fumed, robbed of the satisfaction of skewering the girl, angrier still at the gladiator for interfering for the second time today. That she had a point did little to soften the fact that the slave defied the Conqueror—fought with her, even—in front of witnesses. In front of enemies. She would not tolerate displays of defiance in front of enemies.
“Move it!” she snapped at the lagging gladiator as they wended a path through the streets. Dimly it registered that the Leopard wore no chains well beyond the walls of the palace. She could bolt at any moment, make good the escape she once considered. That night, watching from the antechamber as the Leopard wrestled with her first taste of freedom, the Conqueror had asked what kept her from running.
Not sure. You, I suppose.
It had been an unguarded answer, betraying a conflicted heart. She never once thought the Leopard spoke from a place of fear. Awe, perhaps, but never fear. But that was long ago, long enough for the shine to wear off, the reality of the Conqueror’s true nature to set in. That the woman continued to trudge through the streets back to certain captivity, head down, never once glancing around to even gauge her chances, brought on the faintest twinges of discomfort. She didn’t understand her, couldn’t fathom why the woman saved her from an arrow only to challenge her later over the worthless life of a criminal. The Leopard’s motives mystified her, made her unpredictable and dangerous.
The square stood vacant but for the forlorn bodies upon the crosses, heads hanging, arms opened wide to embrace the barren sky. At the palace gates she grabbed a soldier, sent him off to find the captain and call off the search.
She headed straight to the dungeon, tossed the prisoner into the same cell the gladiator had occupied. Once out of the Conqueror’s crushing grip the girl recovered some fire, sneered through the bars of her cage, “I had you, Xena.”
“No you didn’t,” the Conqueror sighed, turning away.
“Amarice had the great Xena! If your bitch hadn’t interfered, you’d be on the road to a long slow death!”
“No I wouldn’t,” she called over her shoulder.
She ignored the rest of the girl’s rantings, happy to put them behind her, go to her chambers, put a cool cloth on her head and think. The Leopard followed, pale and unreadable. Perhaps she expected the tongue lashing she deserved. The Conqueror had no stomach for it now, wanted only to crawl into the tepid waters of the bath and rest. Without a word between them she stripped off the ceremonial dress, pulled on the robe already laid out for her on the bed. Gods bless Vidalis.
Under the robe lay the bow next to an arrow. The tip was missing, snapped off, but the dusty Amazon fletching was unmistakable. She grunted softly, curious. Where had he found it?
“Xena?” The Leopard stared at her, at the arrow. Her beautiful face and clothes and armor, so breathtaking before, now bore as much dust and grime as a day in the arena. “Back in the courtyard—”
She cut the slave off with a curt shake of her head. “I’m not in the mood to hear excuses.” As expected, the slave’s mouth clamped shut. At least the Conqueror could still intimidate her. Sometimes. She let go of a long held breath. “Come. I need a bath. Then we’ll get you out of those things.”
She dropped the robe and slid into the water, letting it wash over her sweltering head. As she surfaced cool water sluiced down her back, damping the anger under her skin. “It’s dangerous to get between me and my objectives.”
“If you know, why did you do it? Your defiance makes me look weak.”
“I didn’t defy you,” the gladiator snapped. “I questioned you. That’s different.”
The warlord stared, caught off guard by the Leopard’s prickliness. She leaned in, eyes hard. “Questioning is defying. Rumors will fly that a slave influences the decisions of the Conqueror, that my decisions are flawed—”
“That decision was flawed!” The gladiator caught herself shouting, reined in her emotions and her tone. “Killing her would achieve nothing but satisfying your personal desire for vengeance. Greece needs more—”
“Greece? Who are you to lecture me on the needs of Greece?”
“A Greek! Like you! An enemy of Rome! Like you! I’m on your side! Why can’t you see that?”
“You’re out of line—”
“I’m not speaking as your slave, Xena, I’m speaking as a free woman of Greece—!”
“You are not free!”
The echoes of their shouts faded from the chamber, left them both swimming in a heated quiet.
The slave recovered her voice first. “I shouldn’t—I’m tired—”
“Don’t.” The Conqueror turned away, sullen. “Never make excuses. If you’re going to make the decisions of a leader, you better start acting like one. Do you have a plan for what to do with the girl?”
The turn in conversation threw the woman off. “No,” she finally murmured. She took a sponge to the warrior’s neck, absently worked long tracks across her shoulders. “Offer to spare her life if Queen Terreis calls off the assassins.”
“No. Absolutely not. If an attempt on my life leads to successful negotiations, dozens more will follow. Besides, Terreis won’t care about the life of one failed assassin.”
“Perhaps she’s a relative. Someone the queen cares about.”
“Not likely. I killed most of her family and friends myself.”
The sponge paused mid-rub, resumed more slowly. “The girl’s still a member of her tribe. Isn’t Terreis responsible for her, for them? She has to do what’s best for her people—”
The Conqueror rolled her eyes. “By the gods. See this?” She reach under her arm, fingered an ugly scar that ran between ribs from side to spine. “This is what she considers best for her people. One of her Amazons infiltrated my personal guard and almost filleted me. I would have been perfectly content to ignore her tribe. She left me no choice.”
A light touch traced the scar, gentle and reverent. Strange tremors fluttered across the Conqueror’s skin. Before the finger reached her side she ducked under the water, feeling the sudden need to rinse. When she broke the surface the Leopard sat a little farther away, fidgeted with the sponge as she chose her words. “She was wrong to do that. But don’t you think she would do anything to take it back? Give anything to undo the damage done to her tribe, to help her people?”
The Conqueror shook her head. “You’re talking about a woman laid up in the infirmary at this very moment because I promised her an easy match in the arena. She has every reason to hate me, and you. She’s not thinking about the good of her people right now.”
A long exhale. “Interrogate the girl then.”
She took the sponge from cool fingers, worked it against her chest. “She won’t know much. She’s young and hot-headed, too impulsive to be trusted with secrets.”
“She knows who sent her to kill you, can give you names of known Amazons.”
“Maybe.” Scrubbing absently at her stinging arm, the Conqueror half-turned. “You really want me to interrogate her? There wouldn’t be much left to give back to her queen. Is that how you want to start this brave new alliance with the Amazon nation?”
The slave slumped. “No.” She stared at her hands, finally looked up. “If you were so certain she was of no use to you, why’d you spare her life?”
She thought of the Leopard leaping between her sword and the assassin, nearly powerless to stop her but determined to try. “I wasn’t certain. You were. I took a chance. Don’t. Let. Me. Down,” she growled, poking the dusty arm for punctuation.
The Leopard nodded, deadly serious. Finally the Conqueror cracked the faintest twinge of a smile, set to work in earnest with the sponge. “They’re not bad ideas. Keep thinking. We’ll figure something out.”
The woman nodded, let go of the conversation if not the problem. After a few minutes of silence, “Maybe I should send for a healer.”
“A healer? For what?” Pink rinsed from her sponge, trickled from the cut down her arm. “For this? It’s nothing.”
They kept quiet for a while as she scrubbed the sweat from her skin, humming to herself. When she finally glanced up again, the gladiator looked different somehow, strangely deflated, distant. Xena cocked her head. “What are you thinking?”
The gladiator stared a thousand leagues away. “I should have seen her sooner. In the square. I couldn’t stop looking at Amun. And then I saw the bow and the girl, and I couldn’t move fast enough.”
“What are you talking about? Everything worked out. I’m fine. You’re fine.”
Vaguely the Leopard shook her head. “I don’t think so. No. Most definitely not.”
Curious how colorless the slave’s cheeks looked. She sat up. “What’s wrong?”
Eyes gone dark met hers. “I’m sorry.”
Her jaw clenched. “Sorry for what?”
“Xena, I…I’ve been shot.”
Bath water sloshed across the floor. “Stupid, stupid woman!” The Conqueror’s long fingers groped feverishly at the clasps and hooks of the stiff armor.
Her own fingers were less helpful, cool and clumsy. “Don’t be angry. It’s not bad.”
The heavy leopard skin fell from her shoulders, brought some relief to formless discomfort. A growled oath behind her. Reflexively she reached, found the shaft’s ragged stub buried high in the leather backplate between shoulder and neck. A steady stream of curses flowed from the Destroyer’s lips, grated on her already ragged senses.
“Please, I’m fine. Can’t really feel it. Just itches, that’s all—”
“Stupid stubborn…why didn’t you say something sooner?”
She wondered why? After the look of violence in the Conqueror’s eye moments before they collided, her hand rearing back for a hit meant to kill? The snarl on her face when she’d shoved the Leopard off, too angry to notice her wince and pale. The venom in her voice…That was a stupid thing to do. I can take care of myself? The brush off in the rush to catch her would-be assassin.
She gave up on the buckles of her armor and sighed, uncomfortable at the naked truth—she was hurt that Xena would be angry at her for wanting to protect her, angry enough to not even notice her injury. She buried that hurt deep; the Conqueror showed little interest in her feelings, even less when they drove her to recklessness. “I didn’t want to be any more trouble. I started to, when I saw the broken arrow—”
Her breath hitched as the armor came off, jostled the shaft. A palm caught her as she swayed, pulled away soaked in red. For a moment they both stared at the dark smear before the warlord growled and ripped the fine linen in two, lay the shoulder bare. Curiously, painfully, she craned her neck to peer at the arrowhead. It peeked out under her collarbone like some baleful half-lidded eye, crying scarlet tears down breast and stomach.
“Stupid, stubborn woman!”
Cool air scraped across her clammy skin like a cat’s tongue, dry and coarse. She shuddered. “Please, it’s fine, just pull it out—”
The Conqueror threw on her robes. The gladiator barely had time to cover herself with the torn tunic before being dragged out of the chambers and down to the courtyard. Familiar steps led down into the dim chill of the infirmary.
The healer scrambled to help her sit on a bench at a long table. She would have much preferred a bed. Every movement of her head made her shoulder and chest ache. She twitched when he peeled back the edges of the wound, clucked to himself thoughtfully. “Can you move it?”
The shoulder rolled slowly, reluctantly. Not good enough. She raised it, pushing higher and higher, desperate to show it was alright, said nothing of the icy pain that numbed her fingers.
“Let me.” The healer took her elbow, delicately testing the range of motion. Nearly every direction brought a wince, but pulling the arm back stole her breath. Muscles locked down to protect the wound, prevent the moan that threatened to ooze out. Eyes fixed on a point across the room, anything to hold on to until the hurt passed.
She found herself staring at the fiery red mane and quilted face of Terreis. More than a week since the match, and the swelling and bruises still made her almost unrecognizable. Dulled by pain and herbs, one unswollen eye pinned the Leopard to the bench. She looked away uneasily.
“…wedged against the bone. If we can’t push it through, I’ll have to cut it out.”
“No. You cut it out and she might never use the arm again. She’s no use to me if she can’t fight. We pull it, one way or another.”
“And if it won’t budge?”
They stood apart from her, kept their voices low as they argued. She pretended not to hear, didn’t want to hear, but the Conqueror’s words sat like a sank in her gut.
Her hand crept up to test the sharp tip protruding from her skin. The collarbone pulsed with formless pressure. Arm forward was better, raised the bone and relieved the ache; she lay her elbow on the table, eased her forehead down beside it. The wood sent another chill through clammy skin, but at least it afforded some rest. The muttering continued, grew more heated. The arrowhead kept drawing her eye, mocking her while they argued.
No use to me if she can’t fight.
She fumbled with the arrowhead, pulled on it. Useless. Her fingers couldn’t get a grip on the blood-slicked metal tip bulging under reddened flesh. Jaw set, she pushed skin back against sharp edges, widening the hole. Cold sweat trickled down her forehead, dripped from brow and nose to the floor. Her hand trembled so bad it could hardly manage the bloody task; sheer pigheadedness made her grit her teeth and keep working at it. Little by little more of the tip showed, the crowning head stretching skin to its limits. Just when the point became too big, the hurt too great, skin tore over one of the twin barbs of the broad head and settled in behind, followed by a fresh trickle of red down chest and tip.
She panted for air around the pain. The bared barb bit into raw flesh with each movement of her chest, its mate still lodged under the collarbone. With a few more shallow breaths to collect herself, she grasped the half-exposed head between thumb and forefinger and, before she could have second-thoughts, twisted.
She couldn’t kill the sound. Strangled behind clenched teeth, it squeezed out as a shrill whimper.
A hand pulled her back from the table, wrenching her shoulder and ripping another cry from her throat. Half-blind with pain she shoved it off, forced fumbling fingers around the head to pull. More hands tried to pull hers away. Impatiently she shook them off, hooked two fingers under the barbs and strained with all her fading strength.
Inch by inch, it slid free.
A hot gush down her icy breast, the void filling with seeping cold. She raised her head, held the arrow up to the light to see. It swam in and out of focus, dimmed to orange and crimson and black shadows. Her face bounced off table on the scenic route to the floor.
Shouts. Hands caught her before she hit, lifting, pinning, hurting her. Fingers dug into her cheeks, wedged her jaw open, pressed a wooden dowel between her teeth. Her vision still dark, the bit stirred ugly memories of Caesar, of helplessness, pain, humiliation. Instinctively fingers dug like claws into the flesh around her, muscles straining against the bodies holding her down. The bit dug cruelly into the corners of her mouth. She panted around it, dizzy and disoriented. If she passed out now, she would be defenseless. Through the fog of fear wormed a familiar voice, low and steady, warm breath whispering at her cheek.
That more than anything made her stop struggling, cling to awareness through the pounding in her head, Xena’s voice in the darkness, the warm flesh under her sticky frozen grasp.
White pain and the smell of melting flesh, a distant shriek that might have been hers. The sound of sizzling lingered well after the iron departed. She knew what was coming, didn’t get a moment’s rest before the hot poker found the hole in her back. She jerked and groaned, teeth threatening to splinter the bit.
They let go, left her curled around quivering flesh while the fire trapped under her skin faded. Her thick dry tongue worked the bit from her mouth, spat out fragments of wood. She pushed herself up with one arm, propped against the table while some sight returned.
“Where are you going now?” demanded Ephiny.
She cast off, watery knees held stiff for the short voyage to a row of cots. A hand took her elbow, kept her from collapsing outright on a straw pallet, lowered her into a waiting pit of darkness.
She slept fitfully. Dreamt of the Amazon girl, Amarice, on the jailer’s stained table. Watched while the Conqueror worked her over in the name of interrogation. When those blows had no effect the cloaked visitor stepped in, put blade to face to sculpt another terrible masterpiece. She wanted to shout, tell the Conqueror to stop, that she’d changed her mind.
“How many sisters will you destroy?”
The silvery tingle of moonlight night made her shiver. “Artemis,” she breathed. “Please, I tried to help her—”
“Help her? As you helped Melosa? Betrayer. Murderer. You will be hunted by your sisters until your dying breath.” She drew her powerful bow, held string to cheek as she lined up the Conqueror. The gladiator stood frozen, unable to even shout as the arrow let fly.
But it was the torturer who silently jerked and crumpled to the floor. The hood fell away. She gaped at her sightless self.
“No.” Even as she backed away the Conqueror handed her the knife, guided her toward the table. Wooden feet crossed the distance, arms on invisible strings making the first cut. It wasn’t the Amazon girl she carved into. Terreis glared up at her through one swollen eye—
She gasped for air, shot back to awareness with a jolt. Still reeling from the nightmare, it took her long moments to register the burn sinking into her cheek. Curiously her hand brushed buzzing skin, stirred the beginnings of pain. A shadow loomed over her. The glowing green eye. The scarred puffy face.
“Get up!” the queen hissed, threatening another backhand. The Leopard’s eyes darted around the infirmary. No one else occupied the room, not even a healer. A second blow turned the stinging into throbbing and she held up a hand of surrender, slid reluctantly from the cot.
“So the bitch’s tool is damaged. How lucky for me.”
She could have blocked the punch, didn’t. As blows went, it paled in comparison to the Conqueror’s, didn’t turn day to night or alter the passage of time. But it was vicious in its own right, sharp-knuckled and penetrating. She resisted the urge to rub her jaw, noted with grim satisfaction the way the woman flexed her hand.
“Up for a rematch?” A fist to the other side punctuated her point. She yielded to it, spared herself the very worst of the blow. A breath to control her emotions, then she squared her face to look at the queen again.
A backfist connected with an already swollen jaw before she could adjust for it. Pain exploded through her mouth, white and red and black in succession. She staggered back, hissing through clenched teeth, willing the automatic fury back down.
Some of it must have crept into her eyes. The queen mocked her with a pout. “I’m sorry. Did that hurt?” Only a jerk of the head to the side spared her a broken nose from the next punch. She stumbled back into the wall, blinking against stars, flinging heavy drops of red with a shake of her head. Terreis’s arm pinned her there, pressed into her windpipe mercilessly. Her hands balled into fists; pitilessly she held them at her side, refused to let them retaliate.
The queen bent so close now she could trace every ribbon of red in the crazed blood-shot eye. One finger caressed her face as her sweet voice crooned, “Where is the monster that killed my sister? Perhaps it needs more…encouragement.”
Clawed fingers dug into her traumatized shoulder, pierced blackened holes.
A howl gurgled from her throat. Her fist shot out; she jerked it back before it pummeled the Amazon, convulsed against repeated urges to lash out—
“Stop! Terreis, stop!”
Ephiny wrestled the queen away. The Leopard slumped, coughing, her shoulder on fire, not daring to take her eyes off them as they argued in low tones. Even across the room she could feel the queen’s acid stare, returned it in kind. Not until Terreis rested once more on her cot, overtaken by a sleeping draught, did the Leopard look away. Even then she remained wary of the apprentice, retreated when she came to look at her shoulder.
“Stop that.” Ephiny waited impatiently, showed no signs of backing off. With a frustrated sigh she relented, drew some measure of support from the wall at her back while the apprentice prodded angry flesh. Her examination wandered to cheek and jaw and brow until the Leopard jerked away from her touch, hard green eyes glaring warning. She snatched the rag for herself and wiped the trickle of blood under her nose, pressed it tenderly into the freshly seeping hole in her chest.
Ephiny shook her head. “Why didn’t you fight back?”
She surprised herself by growling, “You were wrong.”
The apprentice stared at her.
“You said I tried to kill her. You were wrong. That day I saw—” She swallowed, suddenly uneasy. “I thought I saw a lot of the things, but her mask…I thought she…” The words sounded silly now, empty, unconvincing. “I never meant to hurt her.” Every word went against her better judgment, betrayed Xena’s trust. She pressed on. “I know Terreis hates the Conqueror, but you have to reason with her. Persuade her to go along with whatever plan my mistress suggests.”
Her mistress. She cringed. When had that word entered her vocabulary?
The hazel eyes hardened suspiciously. “Why me?”
She weighed how much to say. “You love her. You love your people. This war must end, or you’ll be the last of your kind.”
She cut her off. “Your callouses. The way you look at her. The touches. It was you I heard singing in her cell.”
The apprentice shifted, looked like she might argue. Instead her jaw tightened. “The war could have ended today. Why did you save her?”
The Leopard didn’t reply, couldn’t. She searched the floor for answers, rejecting uncomfortable vague feelings for more convenient facts. “She didn’t start this. She doesn’t deserve to die for it.”
“True or not, she deserves to die for what she’s done since.”
No counter-arguments offered themselves. She shook her head. “Please. Talk to your queen. Convince her to call off her assassins.”
Ephiny gestured at the queen in frustration. “Her assassins? Does she look like she’s in any position to command her people?”
The slave stared hard at the queen, a guest of the infirmary for the past week, the dungeon for a long time before that. Cut off from the outside world but through one Amazon sister. “No.” Her eyes narrowed to slits. “But you are…Regent.”
A guess. As the moments ticked by without protest she grew more certain. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You ordered the assassination.”
“Never! Amazons meet their enemies face to face. The Conqueror lies.”
Her patience with the stubborn woman evaporated. One finger stabbed toward the door. “There is an Amazon assassin in the dungeon right now. I saw her do it. I pulled her arrow out of my chest—”
“An arrow with a metal tip! Amazons use stone! Or didn’t Queen Melosa teach you that?”
She jutted out her chin defiantly, but the Regent’s words seeded doubt in the field of her certainty. She gritted her teeth. “If she’s not an Amazon, who is she?”
Ephiny snorted. “Who knows? I don’t know that girl from Hippolyta. And Amazons aren’t the Conqueror’s only enemies.”
“Then why did we find her in Artemis’ temple?”
“Not everyone who worships Artemis is an Amazon.”
They battled silently again, the Leopard stubbornly skeptical. This time Ephiny backed down. “Fine. You don’t believe me? Come on.”
She grabbed cloaks off the wall, tossed one to the Leopard as she headed out the door. A flutter of uneasiness made the Leopard hesitate. Her mistress already questioned her loyalties once today. Wandering around the palace in the dark of night with the Regent of the Amazons would only feed those suspicions. But said Regent waited impatiently. Gods, trouble sought her out like warlords on Hestian virgins. She sighed, slung the wool around her shoulders one-armed and followed.
Her chest tightened as they stole around the edges of the courtyard, her fears confirmed when they crept down the stairs leading to the cell block. Sneaking around to talk to the Conqueror’s would-be assassin would definitely count as treason. She hung back unhappily.
“I thought you wanted proof. Or does the Conqueror tell you what to think as well?”
She shot the Amazon a glare, sucked in her cheeks. If caught in the dungeon, she would already deserve punishment. What difference would it make if she were inside or out? Bare feet padded after the apprentice, crept to the occupied cell.
“Who’s there?” Owlishly the guard on duty peered at them from the lit room at the end, hand laid less-than-casually on the hilt of his sword.
“Just me, Phavo.”
“Ephiny?” He blinked, relaxed. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry I woke you. Just finishing my rounds.”
She laughed. “Don’t remind me.”
He squinted. “Who’s that with you?”
The Leopard shrank deeper into the hood.
The apprentice shrugged. “One of the kitchen slaves. How’s your elbow?”
Automatically he flexed it. “Better, thanks. You need in?”
“Nope.” She pulled from her cloak a crust of bread, tossed it into the cell. Movement in the dark made the gladiator jump, remember what they came for. The girl crept into view, fixed rabid eyes on the Regent as she shoved the brittle husk into her mouth.
Not a hint of recognition. Just rage.
See? “Let’s go.” The Amazon tugged on her arm, drew her away from the approaching guard.
“Wait a minute. You, slave, hold up.”
She stopped, heart pounding, turned slowly.
“Take these back to the kitchen.” Food-crusted bowls shoved against her chest. She bit hard on her lip, took them and bowed.
Not until they were skirting the courtyard did the apprentice speak. “I’ve never seen that girl before in my life, and she’s never seen me. If she’s an Amazon, she’s not from my tribe.” Ephiny glanced back, almost choked trying to keep a straight face. “Counting how many ways to kill a man with his bowls?”
Her jaw clenched around the void where a witty reply should be.
Ephiny just laughed, took the stack from her arm, offered a steady hand under her elbow. She resisted the urge to shake it off, accepted the help without protest. Something changed in the air between them on the way back to the infirmary, some ease born of necessity. Not trust really. An acceptance of fate. Certainly the Regent would be executed as a spy if the slave exposed her. Then again, that clandestine visit to the dungeon could be enough evidence of collusion to warrant two crosses.
Though they didn’t speak of it again, the crackle of antagonism was gone. Truces could be short-lived, but the Leopard didn’t care. For the night at least, she could sleep knowing the apprentice would watch over her, protect her from the queen’s reprisals. And tomorrow…they might find some way out of this political nightmare after all.
The stairway down loomed before the Conqueror, soft voices beckoning within. That she’d come here didn’t surprise her; she’d already spent every ounce of willpower the day before avoiding it. The fact that weak morning sun barely crested the palace walls did give her pause.
Sleeplessness brought an early morning workout, the sky then barely hinting at the dusty blues and purples to come. She blamed her restlessness on a lack of news from Egypt, aimed to burn the dissatisfaction away with a long bout of training. An hour later she’d purged a heavy sweat and little else.
An inspection of the Dragon’s barracks proved tedious, and she broke it off less than halfway through with a dismissive gesture at Captain Marcus.
He didn’t quite manage to hide his disappointment. “Begging your pardon, Conqueror, but the soldiers were looking forward to your visit. Some confess to missing your company.”
She cut him a look. “My weekly inspections aren’t enough?”
He blushed, a difficult thing with his dark complexion, turned his head away from the men. “Forgiveness, Conqueror, but it’s been almost a moon since your last inspection.”
A moon? She opened her mouth to argue, snapped it shut. “I’ve been occupied…pressing matters of state.” One of those matters of state lay in the healer’s care across the courtyard. Interwoven with threats of assassination and a looming war with Egypt and Rome wandered thoughts of the slave. She shored up the weak excuse with a clap on the back. “The men look good, Captain. A little fat, maybe. I think we could all use some action.”
He flashed his easy smile, one that reminded her of happier, simpler days. “Ares willing. I can’t recall a summer with you as peaceful and boring as this one.”
She knew him too well to be fooled. Marcus was a talented captain and a strong soldier, but his heart had grown tired of conquest long before hers. Two years in Corinth transformed him into a capable administrator and respectable family man. If he looked forward to another military campaign, it was only through the misty eye of a man grown older.
So she offered a tight smile, excused herself as quickly as possible. Which is how she came to stand at the top of the steps to the infirmary, squinting up at the white morning sun and wondering if the gladiator was up yet. Doubtful. She turned away, then turned back, her mind made up.
Several faces glanced her way when she entered the sweat-stale room. No one looked surprised to see her. Was she so transparent?
The gladiator still slept. She sat down on the edge of the cot, mesmerized by the rise and fall of the bandaged chest, the soft youth of her face, free of the tension that often followed her into sleep. The swollen nose and purpling under her eyes didn’t escape the Conqueror’s notice either. A low growl rose from her breast. She pushed herself up to set someone straight.
A hand on her wrist, gentle but strong. She sank down again, her rising anger forgotten in the gentleness of those sleepy eyes. “Morning. Feeling better?”
The Leopard rewarded her with a broad lazy smile. She helped her sit up, offered a hand to lean on while the other prodded the shoulder. “Fresh bandages. Is it still bleeding?”
The gladiator shrugged.
“What about these?” One knuckle brushed the knot on the bridge of her nose, the swelling along her jaw. “Where did they come from?”
“Must’ve happened when she fell.” Ephiny approached, a steaming bowl of porridge in her hand. “I remember her mistaking the table for a pillow. Hungry?”
The Leopard nodded, wedged the bowl in her lap and attacked it with the wooden spoon. In moments the gruel was gone. The Conqueror arched one fine eyebrow, snapped her fingers at the apprentice. Soon another bowl appeared, one the slave devoured more politely.
She eyed the second empty bowl, shook her head. “You’d think you hadn’t eaten in two days.” Embarrassed, the slave ducked her chin. She smiled. “Don’t. A strong appetite is a virtue.”
When the Leopard said nothing she faltered, at a loss for how to keep the one-sided conversation going. When no ideas came to mind she stood. “Court is waiting for me. And there’s the Amazon to deal with, so I’m going to go—”
The gladiator swung her legs over, pushed up stiffly from the cot.
“Where are you going?” she demanded in her most fearsome tone.
Green eyes met hers, unintimidated.
“No. No. Look at you, you can hardly stand. Go back to bed. You need rest—”
Through it all the woman’s gaze never wavered. If anything it grew harder, as flinty as any Roman’s. She shifted tactics, chose something gentler. “Gabrielle, I’m fine. You’re not. You’re better off here where the healers can keep an eye on you.”
The Leopard closed the distance between them. That she had no desire to stay was unmistakable. Still, the Conqueror had to try. “You don’t understand. Court is tedious and exhausting on the best of days. You’re still weak—”
Wrong thing to say. The Leopard set her jaw, squared her shoulders out of pride. If the motion caused her discomfort, she hid it. The Conqueror shrugged. “Fine. But I don’t have time or patience to deal with you if you can’t keep up, understand?”
With a solemn nod, the gladiator clutched the remains of her tunic to her chest and followed the Conqueror back to her chambers. First order was a bath; sharp scents of sweat and blood and burned flesh swirled around the gladiator, innocuous enough to the warlord’s senses but hardly appropriate for a slave in the court of the Conqueror.
Cloudy water filled the tub, remnants of the aborted bath. Again the Conqueror got in first. The cool stale water wasn’t particularly pleasant. All business, she worked the morning’s perspiration from her skin with quick efficient strokes.
The bath must have stirred memories for the slave as well. Her brow creased. “What if the assassin isn’t an Amazon?”
Something in that tone made her instantly wary. “What makes you say that?”
The gladiator studied the pattern of marble tiles on the floor. “I’ve just been thinking…if she needed to get close to you undetected, wouldn’t she have worn something less…Amazonish?”
“She wanted to make a statement.”
“Somebody wanted to. Everyone knows you hate Amazons. Dress a girl in doeskin and tell her to shoot the Conqueror and anyone can guess who’ll be blamed.”
She bristled. “What are you getting at?”
The slave took a deep nervous breath. “Everyone has their weaknesses. Maybe someone is trying to manipulate yours. Trying,” she emphasized quickly at the sharp look. “Not succeeding.”
She forced long steady breaths through her teeth, resisting the urge to raise her voice. “I don’t have weaknesses.”
The gladiator stood conspicuously out of arm’s reach. “It is wise not to show weaknesses, but pretending they don’t exist is dangerous.”
A vein pulsed on her temple. “Sharing wisdom from years of political scheming?”
The head turned soberly. “A fact of combat, nothing more.”
She itched to lay whip to the slave for impudence, if only she could detect any. The slave sounded almost apologetic, as if stating the obvious to someone who already knew better. Which she did. She stepped out of the bath, gave herself time to calm down while she toweled dry. “Alright. If she’s not an Amazon, who put her up to it?”
The gladiator considered, one hand awkwardly working the ruined tunic from her shoulder. “What about Caesar?”
The Conqueror snorted. “And you say I have weaknesses. Not all bad things come from Caesar.”
The Leopard’s cheeks grew hot. She let her suffer for a moment, choke on the bitter pill of her own reasoning, then smirked. “Dangerous as he may be, I find Caesar less troublesome than others less ambitious but closer to home.”
As surely as deft hands tucked the damp towel tight around her body, they unwrapped the bandages from the Leopard’s shoulder, turned her into the morning light to see. The mouth of the angry blackened wound stretched wide in a wicked grin.
She set her jaw, about to order the gladiator to bed—
The slave turned away, eased herself into the tub. The water grew murkier with scrubbing.
Willful thing. “That wound needs to heal.”
She couldn’t see the woman’s face as the injured arm gingerly washed the other, guessed the slow strokes masked pain. “I’ve had worse. What about the girl?”
“I suppose you want me to interrogate her.”
The head turned ever so slightly. Softly, “My wants are irrelevant. You will do what’s best for Greece.”
“Ha. Don’t tempt me. This Greece would like to see her hide on my next saddle.”
The gladiator clenched her jaw, set to work scouring under the collar. “Fine. Flay her. Just find out who sent her first.” She found the shift in tone jarring, ridiculously tender one moment, supremely ruthless the next, two incompatible psyches sharing space in one entirely intractable head.
She took the sponge, dipped it in the clouded water to rinse the shoulder. White knuckles clenched the edge of the tub, twitched soundlessly with each dousing. The Conqueror moved to face her. “Why are you doing this? You need rest. You’re no good to me like this.”
Abruptly she stood, reached for a cloth. “I can still fight.”
“Fight? You can hardly move.”
“It’s just stiff.”
“You get in a fight with that shoulder and you’ll hurt it worse, maybe permanently.”
The gladiator rolled her shoulder awkwardly, her face stubbornly still if faintly pinched. “I’m fine. You said if I was going to make the decisions of a leader, I needed to act like one. I just want to hear the girl’s side of the story.”
“This is about her? Or your beloved Amazons?”
“They’re not my Amazons,” muttered the slave.
She watched the woman struggle with an answer. “What I did to Melosa…I’m just trying to put it right.”
She took the young face in an unkind grip. “Melosa is no longer your concern. Nor Caesar. Your only concern is me. Is that clear?”
The Leopard swallowed, then threw off her hand. Her voice, her whole body shook with anger. “You know I serve you. But if there’s a way to serve you and end this war, I will find it.”
Such words spawned instant anger. But she said them with such earnest intensity that the warlord blinked, suddenly chilled by a sensation she hadn’t felt in years. Admiration. And fear. That she ever considered the gladiator an amusement or a pet to be tamed was a dire mistake. She was a river, willful and uncontrollable. So learned the Roman officer who first owned her but was enslaved by her words. So learned Caesar, thwarted by her silence and her conviction. So learned the senator, whose abuses couldn’t shatter her spirit. Such a soul and the Conqueror could not coexist. A familiar voice whispered in her head, sure and seductive. Kill her. Kill her now, or she will destroy everything you’ve created.
So strong was the compulsion that her hand even reached for a non-existent sword. And yet she made no other move, trapped in the woman’s eyes.
“Are you alright? Xena?”
In that moment, staring at the slave, she heard the whispers of the Fates. She couldn’t kill her. She didn’t want to. Bellerophon was right. She served the gladiator as surely as the gladiator served her.
Poison bubbled up from her stomach. She pushed it down violently, closed her eyes against the acrid gas searing her nostrils. “I’m…fine. We’ll go see the girl, ask some questions. But after that I have Court, and I have better things to do than look after a slave. You understand?”
A simple word loaded with so much feeling. For a moment she almost believed everything would be okay, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
She felt anything but fine as she dressed. The sharp pain in her gut persisted, drained her of color and energy. Will alone dulled the knifing in her abdomen, schooled her face into the usual bored expression. Anything else would arouse suspicion. The gladiator also kept her suffering private, rebandaging the shoulder and concealing it under the generous fabric of a milk white tunic laid out for her. But those sage eyes occasionally jumped the distance between them, seemingly indifferent glances colored by worry.
Xena drew the slave to her with a crook of her finger. She locked the familiar manacles on her wrists, fussed with the linen hanging from her shoulders, tugged gently at the collar’s half-ring to bring it in line with the hollow of her throat. A thumb brushed the bruises darkening around her eyes. “Someday you will attend me without looking like I beat you within an inch of your life.”
Her small hands smoothed the cord fasteners on the exotic Egyptian dress. “And ruin the Conqueror’s reputation? I would sooner bleed by my own hand.”
She wanted to laugh, if only the gladiator laughed with her. The smile faded as the gaze drifted up to meet hers. In them she found neither lie nor boast. Only surety.
Like a river. Unchangeable. Inexorable. Relentless. Irresistible.
You are lost.
Increasingly harrowing images occupied the gladiator’s thoughts as they neared the dungeon. As much as they’d spoken about questioning the girl, she had no idea what the Conqueror planned to do. She kept seeing Melosa, every bone broken, back shredded by the cat-o-nine, face bathed in blood. And in some dark recess of memory better left unvisited echoed other lashes, her own flesh puckering at the kiss of the whip.
The more she thought about it, the less she wanted to know what skills her owner possessed.
She almost ran into the Conqueror who stopped abruptly, staring into the cell.
The assassin lay face down in sticky red straw.
The guard hustled out to meet her, began fumbling with the key even before he noticed the unmoving prisoner. In his sudden panic he didn’t seem to recognize the gladiator, though she remembered him, the bowl man from her previous visit.
The moment he unlocked the door the Conqueror shoved past him, crouched down beside the unmoving form, turned her over.
Like Terreis, her face was nearly unrecognizable under a plowed field of interlaced furrows. Unlike Terreis, one deeper gash grinned under her chin, flooded her unmoving chest with red.
A strange voice rattled from the warlord’s chest, thin and hollow. “Detain that soldier.”
Before her words registered in his mind, the Leopard snatched his sword from its scabbard, brandished the heavy thing with both manacled hands. He had the look of a man trapped, eyes gone glassy with fear. For his sake she hoped he didn’t try anything rash. She didn’t have the strength to wrestle him, the energy to chase him down. If he bolted, she’d stop him at the point of the sword.
To her relief, he offered no resistance.
The Conqueror let go of the girl’s face and stood, disgusted. She took the blade from the gladiator’s hand. “Go get Demetrius.”
She swallowed, dashed up the stairs and across the courtyard. A cool wind stirred the dust, brought with it hazy clouds from the sea that dulled the sun. She shivered, ducked into the well-trod stairwell to the infirmary.
The healer rested on a cot. Her urgent shaking woke him.
“What? What’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer, dragged him out of bed and hurried back, hardly waiting long enough for him to grab a satchel.
A sickly groan drifted up the entrance. She ducked into the passage in time to see the soldier drop to his knees, doubled over from a punch to the gut. No, not a punch. Pink ropes bulged between his fingers. The Conqueror grabbed him by the tunic, dragged him deeper into the passage. Gladiator and healer stood rooted to the stairs, the healer’s look of horror reflecting the discomfort in her own belly. Reluctantly they followed her to the room at the far end of the dungeon.
“Demetrius, good,” she acknowledged casually, hefting the soldier onto the table like a downed stag. “See, Phavo, salvation is just a few steps away. Answer my questions quickly and you may live through this.” She tied him to the table, plucked a talon-like knife from the wall, cleaned under her fingernails with the wicked point for effect. The soldier moaned.
The healer stepped in. “Mistress, please.”
A Medusa stare stilled him. “You may wait outside until I call for you.” Demetrius chewed on his tongue, offered a stiff bow before leaving the room. Her focus shifted. “And you? Do you want to leave, too?” She raked the Leopard with a sneer. You said you wanted an interrogation.
The gladiator pulled inside herself under that withering gaze. Yes, she dreaded what might come next. But leaving meant running, hiding from what had to be done. The Leopard did neither. If Xena could do it, so could she.
Strange emotions played across the warlord’s face, surprise chief among them. The Conqueror’s mask slipped back into place, a scathing smile promising games the soldier would not enjoy. She’d felt that look before, shuddered for the man.
The Conqueror leaned in, the tip of her curved blade tracing across his face, hooking under one nostril. “Tell me, Phavo. Who killed my prisoner?”
He sucked in a breath, squirmed away from the blade. “Your torturer, Conqueror.”
She ripped through the side of his nose, earning a yelp. “I need no torturer. Try again.”
Desperately, “He bore a key, showed your seal.”
“What did this phantom look like?” The sharp edge drifted, lay a shallow seeping line from the bridge of his nose to his jaw.
He whimpered. “I…I could not see his face. He wore the hood of an executioner.”
She ripped him open from temple to mouth, baring teeth through the bloody gash. The gladiator hissed under her breath, forced herself not to look away.
“Wrong answer, Phavo. Let’s start again.”
“No, please, Conqueror. I speak the truth. I would never lie to you. Please.” He sobbed, shrank away from the blade that hovered just in the crease of his jaw. If the Destroyer heard him, her expression gave no sign. She smiled as the tip traced the back of his ear, her mind elsewhere, on the next cut, the next scream, the next drop of vengeance to quench her anger. This wasn’t interrogation. This was pure, pleasurable vengeance.
She pushed away from the wall, forced herself closer, onto the stage of pain with the primary players. The Conqueror had warned her about interfering again. She didn’t dare touch her, didn’t dare speak on his behalf. Tender as the Conqueror had been, she wasn’t so certain of the nature of their strange relationship to believe she wouldn’t end up on the table in his stead. But she couldn’t stand by and do nothing. She pressed against the table’s edge, into the Conqueror’s awareness, willing the warlord to look at her.
Death looked back, ravenous, eyeing a new snack.
She refused to flinch. She’d learned that years ago. She didn’t challenge, either, or beg. She just looked at Xena, the way Xena had looked at her at the crucifixion. Intent on strangling the Egyptian, she had blocked out all thought, all feeling, all sensation but the feel of the chains pulling on her wrists, the squirming thing in her arms. He wasn’t human. Neither was she.
Until the Conqueror’s touch had wormed its way into her awareness, that and Xena’s eyes, blue and calm and very human. Slowly the world had returned. She was not Caesar’s weapon, unfeeling and deadly, but flesh and heart and mind and spirit. Sickened, she’d shoved him away, grateful for the reminder.
She offered that same reminder now, looking into the Conqueror’s monstrous eyes. This isn’t you. You don’t have to do this. You can choose not to do this.
The rage churned and ebbed, slowly retreated once more behind hooded eyes. The Conqueror stepped over to a bucket, plunged into its depths gory hands and set to scrubbing. If she noticed the flecks of blood on her face, she didn’t show it. “Demetrius.”
The healer entered, checked on her subject, muttering oaths under his breath that would make a sailor blush. “You, girl, give me a hand.”
The Leopard snapped back to the table, to the healer working feverishly on the permanently smirking soldier, teeth gleaming through his gashed cheek. At her hesitation he grabbed her hand, pressed it to cover that horrible gash while he worked on the pink ropey innards spilling from his midsection.
“Mistress, I could use your help, if you want him to live.”
The Conqueror’s mouth pulled tight at the edges as she scraped slick ochre from her fingers, nodded grimly. They worked in strained silence over the soldier, until Demetrius wiped his nose with the back of his hand, left a smear of fluid. “That’s all I can do for him here. I’ll get some soldiers—”
“I’ll do it.” Stonefaced, the Conqueror scooped up the man in her arms, hefted him with little effort and climbed up the steep narrow steps into the courtyard.
Bright morning sun no longer heated the hard-packed earth. For the first time in days, colorless clouds obscured the sun, drenched the walls and colonnades in miserable tones. The gladiator spared a glance at the rigid back of her owner, wondering if the Destroyer of Nations had somehow conjured the weather to suit her mood.
They deposited Phavo on a table in the infirmary, to the barely-restrained chagrin of Demetrius’ apprentice. The Leopard looked away guiltily, was surprised to hear Xena call out tightly, “Ephiny.”
She approached, taking in the stained dress. “Conqueror?”
“When you’re finished, escort the queen to my chambers and wait for me.”
The gladiator glanced sharply at her owner. Ephiny’s hazel eyes flickered from Conqueror to slave, back again with the faintest trace of fear. “By your will, Conqueror.”
The Leopard stared at the warlord’s rigid spine, had to jog to catch up. Why? The word pressed against her lips, insistent, but soldiers crossed their path and she bit it back, tried to still the slow queasy roll of her stomach. Questions would have to wait until they reached the Conqueror’s chambers.
But they didn’t ascend the private tower, veered instead up steps into the palace proper. They traveled halls the slave had never seen before, sparsely decorated but opulent compared to servants’ passages and prison walls. Her sharp eyes picked out doors and hallways, mapped turns and directions even as they remained studiously on the small of the Conqueror’s back. They seemed to walk forever before she began to recognize their surroundings. An immense dining hall occupied by one long table. A lonely atrium covered in ivy. Still the Conqueror walked, her long stride eating the distance. The gladiator’s head swam with the effort of keeping up. Two days ago she pulled an arrow from her chest, poured half her blood on the floor before they managed to cauterize it. But this was her decision, and she’d been warned about the consequences of falling behind. Cursing the spots in her vision, she picked up the pace.
“Straighten up,” the Conqueror hissed, pausing outside a doorway. She nodded, struggled to control her breathing, the pounding behind her breastbone. She caught the warlord’s look of impatience and squared her shoulders, forced past the discomfort constricting her chest. Her owner gave her a few more moments, adjusting the tunic to hide the bandage, making no effort to conceal the blood spatters on her own face and dress. With one long exhale Xena’s face went slack, easing the fine lines of tension she’d held onto since the morning bath. She fixed the slave with a gaze of marble before sweeping through the door.
With a deep breath, the Leopard followed.
The room rumbled to life, guards snapping to attention as the Conqueror took the throne, the slave standing at her shoulder. “Vidalis, send in the first business of the day.”
The headservant cleared his throat, pitched it for all to hear. “The Conqueror calls forth Numia, scout of the Third Army in Egypt.”
The doors parted for a lightly-armored woman no older than the gladiator. She bowed, her eyes lingering on the throne. What a pair they must have looked to her, the Destroyer wearing a blood-splattered eastern silk dress and a bone-cold smile, her manacled slave in purest white linen, face purple and swollen with cuts and bruises. She sighed. In spite of the oath to her mistress, she did hope one day to stand beside her owner without some part of her wounded or aching.
The young woman hid her trembling well as she reported on Caesar’s hasty retreat from Egyptian shores. An unkind smile wanted to take form on the Leopard’s lips. She killed it, slipped on a slave’s practiced look of ignorant disinterest.
Through the great hall flowed more military scouts, foreign dignitaries and minor Greek officials. All bore news, but most brought requests. Money or men usually, occasionally goods or supplies. The Conqueror remained arch, snapping at her visitors for petty requests, showing little patience for delegations that wasted her time with trivial gifts and information.
The slave studied this harsh woman. Was this the face the world knew? In this room, questioning the Conqueror was not tolerated. The objections of a slave here would certainly earn a short trip to the executioner, if the Conqueror didn’t draw a weapon and do it herself. Slow understanding crept in, how lucky she’d been to stand up to her owner and live. That the Conqueror tolerated such impudence at all from the slave became the stranger thing. A warm feeling crept up her cheeks, the oddly pleasurable swell of pride. And a great reluctance to test her benevolence without good reason.
The impatient wag of an empty goblet. Even two hands couldn’t steady her trembling grip; dark liquid sloshed over the side onto the Conqueror’s hand. She caught the hard look, ducked her chin to take a blow. None came.
More faces passed before them, one blurring into another as morning became afternoon. Dizziness crept back in as she stood behind the throne, filling her head with wool and turning her knees to water. Xena had been right; she was in no shape to serve the Conqueror today, endangered them both by insisting on it. She blinked her vision back into focus, shook her head, pinched herself to stay sharp. If she faltered again, the Conqueror might send her back to the infirmary, or worse. Surreptitiously she braced against the side of the throne, stilled the swaying.
Another beckoning of the goblet. By some Olympian intervention she managed to keep it in the cup the second time, started to return to her place, but the Conqueror snapped her fingers, pointed to the floor beside the throne.
This was new. Hesitantly she knelt down to face her, bowed her head. Without the signal to rise she waited, eyes down, chained wrists in her lap, secretly grateful for a moment of respite, dreading having to stand again. A hand came to rest on her back of her neck, absently ran long thin fingers through her cropped hair. She tensed, thrown by the unfamiliar—almost intimate—touch. Clearly the Conqueror wanted to make an exhibition of her prize, but in what way? What reaction did she want from the slave? Resistance and fire? Fear? Meek acceptance? Too tired to put on a show, she huddled beside the throne, prepared to endure the Conqueror’s little display.
Slow steady caresses undercut her anxiety, eased jangled nerves and raw flesh. Weariness crept in, coaxed eyes closed. She listened, understanding some of the foreigners’ words and not others, until the droning voices blended and washed through her, guiding her mind away from the room, the palace, Corinth…
No. She pushed exhaustion away, pressed up against the Conqueror’s palm in an unspoken request to rise. The hand denied her, offered only the maddeningly soothing touch. Was it a trick? A test? She fidgeted, shifted, anything to stay alert.
The hand pulled her closer, lay her cheek upon the Conqueror’s lean thigh. For a moment she stiffened, pride grating at being treated like some favored hound. But only a few of the diplomats and messengers even registered the shift, and those that did seemed more interested in the Conqueror’s public display of affection than the creature she bestowed it upon. If they’d ever heard of the fearsome Leopard of Rome, they made no connection to the bruised and battered slave the Conqueror petted now. Her irritation dimmed and she faded again, until a random thought gripped her. Was it all an act to give her a chance to rest? She almost laughed at the absurdity of it, except her head felt so heavy, and the leg so comfortable against her cheek. Ears open to danger, her eyes closed, setting mind and body adrift.
The scrape of metal against metal brought her lurching to her feet, deadly warning gleaming in glazed eyes for any man who bared a blade to her owner.
A low chuckle. “It’s alright.” A light touch on her wrist pulled her back.
The dignitary swallowed. “A gift from the land of the rising sun.” Nervously he held up the gently sloping blade for her inspection.
At her owner’s gesture, the slave stepped forward to receive the exotic sword. For its length, it was startlingly light and balanced. The workmanship was like nothing she’d ever seen. Swirls traced the edge, red cords wrapped around a carved grip big enough for two hands. It was a thing of graceful violence, like a snake waiting to strike.
The Conqueror stood as she approached, took the blade gingerly to admire it. “This was forged by a skilled swordmaker. What’s the occasion?”
“Lao Ma wishes only to honor her esteemed mistress with spoils garnered from the Conqueror’s campaign in Japa. And she wishes to renew her invitation to visit our beautiful lands.”
The Conqueror didn’t respond, absorbed in the craftsmanship of the sleek sword. In an instant, ruler became warrior, light of feet and heart. Chops and slashes split the air, as sharp and nimble as the blade, as fast and ferocious as the wielder. The Leopard gaped. No gladiator or soldier she’d ever met could pick up a weapon and immediately find its rhythm, its strengths and weaknesses with such ease.
One misstep sent the Conqueror stumbling, jarred the assembly out of their amazement with a collectively drawn breath. Instantly the slave took a step, forced herself to hold still while the warlord slowly drew up to her full height, extending a hand for the dark polished scabbard. Only once the sword was resheathed did she murmur, “Greece accepts Chin’s gift. We regret that we will not be able to visit the Middle Kingdom in the near future.”
Green eyes never left that tensed alabaster face. The Conqueror wouldn’t look at her, resumed her seat with the faint rigidity of a body riddled with pain.
The last few visits dragged on. She watched her owner in the edges of her vision, marking every shift in position, every twitch of her hand, every curt order. By the dismissal of the last guest, the Conqueror looked unmistakably pale.
Again the slave took a step toward her, but a sharp look from hard eyes stayed her. “Vidalis?”
“Mistress?” He feigned nonchalance.
“I think I’ll retire early tonight. Send a light dinner to my chambers.”
He bowed, scurried away. An order from Captain Marcus sent the guards filing from the chamber. The Captain himself didn’t budge, waited for the last Dragon to leave before turning to face the Conqueror. He looked as concerned as the Leopard felt, struggle playing in his expression for the right words to broach the subject.
She preempted him. “Take the night, Marcus. Go home to your wife.” The gladiator held her breath as her owner pushed up from the seat, steadied herself with a crushing grip on the armrest.
“Are you sure, Conqueror? You don’t look well. Is there nothing else I can do for you?”
A faint smile. “Come back tomorrow. If I’m dead, you and Bellerophon and all the generals can fight over who gets to run this soul-sucking bureaucracy.”
“That’s not funny.”
“To me it is.” But she couldn’t manage a smile, made her way stiffly out of the chamber. The gladiator’s gaze flicked between captain and Conqueror. She hurried to catch up with the latter.
Questions buzzed in her head, niggling concerns suddenly grown too large to ignore. Again she held her tongue as they walked halls peppered with soldiers and servants and slaves. The Conqueror offered no opportunity to talk, barreled toward the royal chambers with a slightly weaving gait, rigidly upright, looking at nothing and no one as they passed. She fought the urge to steady her, to scream “Stop,” make her sit down, ask her what was wrong. The Conqueror gave no indication she wanted any of those things, so the slave tucked her chin and kept her eyes locked on the floor. A secret prayer of thanks fell from her lips when they left grand hallways for the private corridors to the royal chambers.
At the scuff of a sandal the Leopard surged forward, caught the Conqueror’s elbow before she fell. Alone in the narrow passage, safe from prying eyes, the slave slipped her uninjured arm around the thin midriff. She half-expected a protest. Long moments filled with the rasp of tight breaths and no argument.
“Come on,” she coaxed. “Not far now.”
The head lifted, the dark curtain parting for a drawn face. Athena’s mercy, the woman looked a companion to death. But a grunt got them moving again, one foot before the other.
Her burden grew heavier with every step, bones turning to lead under softening flesh. Her thighs burned with exertion. At the base of the stairs the warlord doubled over, expelled dark wine and watery bitterness upon the steps, her dress, the slave’s feet. Jaw set against the impulse to gag, she held beautiful black tresses away from the ghastly face while the Conqueror retched.
“Gods. Xena, what's wrong? Is it poison? The infirmary—”
It was an order. The gladiator nodded, heart pounding so hard she could hardly think. Braced under one arm she jerked up, rising by inches to stand, the strain sending searing pain through her shoulder and ribs. Mounting the first step took long moments of struggle, led to another step just as daunting. The Conqueror’s efforts faded, each rise more difficult to scale.
“Please, Xena. I can’t do this without you.” The appeal fell on deaf ears; one of the warlord’s knees buckled, brought them crashing to the stone steps. She tugged on the arm to haul her up, found it limp. “Xena?” Her quivering fingers brushed the Conqueror’s hair aside, wiped filth from her cheeks and lips. “Xena?”
Her fingertips came away slippery and red. Blood.
A shaky exhale. Numb legs backed away. One step, two.
The guards lingered in the courtyard, spoke in low tones. She hid in the doorway, heart threatening to crack open her chest. Precious moments of filtered grey light trickled away, remnants of Apollo’s ride. Should she wait? Was staying out of sight more important than moving quickly?
She crouched low in the shadows, unseen by the soldiers as they parted ways. Even in the failing light, one bore an unmistakeable scar. She counted to five before skulking out of the doorway under the shadow of the colonnade. Quietly she shadowed her old escort, closing the distance.
The moment the others disappeared, she yanked him into the gloom. Instinctively he shoved her away, reached for his sword. She swore at herself for not expecting as much, lunged for the dagger in his belt. A moment later the sword clattered to the ground, Scar clutching the back of his gashed hand. As she snatched it up he drew breath to shout; both blades flicked under his chin, solemn warning silencing him as effectively as a slit throat. She shook her head, her eyes pleading with him. Don’t.
They squared off in the shadows, the soldier clutching his hand, squinting at her. “Parda?” His eyes narrowed. “What are you doing out here? Where’s the Conqueror?”
She pressed the sword and dagger back into his hands, dragged him toward the darkened doorway. After a few steps he shook his head. “Wait. Wait a minute!” He shook her off, leveled the sword.
She stared at the weapon, at the soldier, grappled with her own fears. She needed him. She trusted him. “Help me,” she finally forced out past the knot in her throat. “Please.”
He stared, surprised.
She didn’t wait for an answer, hurried back through empty halls to the closed door, the narrow passage beyond. The Conqueror still lay on the steps, black blood and wine and fouler stuff pooled under her cheek. She draped one arm across her shoulders, gritted her teeth and tried to lift the woman. Her ribs screamed at the strain, her legs too watery from exhaustion and blood loss to stand. A tiny sound of panic from her throat. She began to crawl, knees and elbows scraping over each step, dragging the warlord behind her.
The weight eased. She sucked in a great gasp of relief as Scar took one arm. “We need to get her to the infirmary.”
She jerked her head. “No. Up.”
He started to protest, but she pulled them both into motion up the stairs. Several corridors later they staggered into the royal chambers. The gladiator made straight for the bed, lowered her to the mattress with as much care as her tired arms could muster.
The soldier lit a candle, brought it close for a better look. “What happened?”
She shook her head as she panted for air. “Poison, maybe. I don’t know. She didn’t eat anything—”
She spun, found the apprentice watching from a dim corner, standing between them and the Queen.
She shook her head. “There’s nothing I can do.”
The gladiator snarled and launched. Before she could wrap her hands around that fragile neck, the Dragon’s arm caught her and dragged her back. Eyes like coals scorched the Amazon. “Help her!”
“You lie!” Rage drove her at the woman.
Scar held fast, wrestled her back, his shouts to stop only slowly sinking in. He cleared his throat. “Maybe she’s just had too much wine.”
Ephiny shook her head. “Look at her. Skin and bones, pale as snow. She’s cursed, been getting worse for months. Demetrius, her herbalist…they’ve tried everything.”
The Leopard shoved off the soldier’s grip and turned away, not trusting the words that wanted to come out of her mouth. A silver pitcher among the refreshments caught her eye. She poured a cup of water, unconsciously sipped it before taking it to her owner. The cool substance moistened the warlord’s lips, dribbled into her mouth. Silently the slave begged her to drink it.
For a long moment, nothing. Then a noisy gulp.
She let out a held breath, took a towel to her stained lips and waxy cheeks and chin, wiping them clean of vomit. The exquisite silks reeked, but no matter how sick she was, undressing the Conqueror without permission and in front of her subjects smacked of suicide. She pulled up a blanket instead, hoping warmth might find her skin again.
She ignored the apprentice, stared at the warlord, willing her to hear her thoughts. Don’t leave. Not like this. This is not a warrior’s death. This is not the Conqueror’s death.
Her back stiffened at a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t touch me.” Air cracked around the whisper.
“Your wound’s opened up again. It’s bleeding badly—”
“Leave it.” She couldn’t feel it, couldn’t feel anything.
The apprentice backed off. “We’ll go.”
“No,” the Leopard croaked. “You stay.”
Ephiny’s mouth drew in a tight line. Her quiet words shook with anger and fear. “Why? Do you know why she summoned the queen? After hearing what she did to that girl Amarice, I can sure as Hades guess.”
“She didn’t do anything,” the Leopard growled. “And I don’t know why she summoned you, but you’ll stay until she tells us herself.”
A harsh nervous laugh. “Says who? You? A slave?”
The gladiator looked expectantly at Scar. He flexed his freshly-bandaged hand, glanced uncomfortably from the Conqueror to the apprentice. “You can wait.”
Ephiny opened her mouth to argue, snapped her jaw shut. “Fine. But I won’t stand here and watch you bleed to death.”
Her eyes never left Xena. “Do what you want.”
She didn’t help the apprentice pull the tunic over her head. Her escort cleared his throat. “I’ll just…ah…guard the door.”
Ephiny’s sure hands worked on her for some time, dabbing, scraping, stitching. Only occasional twinges penetrated the sensation that the bed, the floor, the earth shifted beneath her, falling away into nothingness. The room swayed; only the Conqueror’s face remained solid and still.
The apprentice caught her when she tilted, steadied her until the feeling faded and she knew she wouldn’t pass out. “Told you all this bleeding would catch up with you,” murmured Ephiny. The slave knew better. She wasn’t the one spinning. It was the world, turned on its ear.
Finished, Ephiny packed up her kit, climbed onto the slave’s cot to tuck in behind her sleeping queen. The gladiator sighed, trickled more water down the Xena’s throat. Errant drops trickled down her cheek. A knuckle brushed them away, found her skin frightfully cool to the touch. A glance at the Amazons, already lost to Morpheus.
She slid under the blanket, draping her bare body over her owner’s. Already chilled, she shivered at the icy touch. Or perhaps it was the foolishness of lying unbidden with the Conqueror. She could almost feel cold blue eyes boring holes into her skull, threatening pain far worse than anything inflicted upon the wretched Phavo. The longer she ignored it, the more unbearable the tingling became until she couldn’t help but look up.
Closed eyes. A slack face.
Let her. Let her wake up and be angry. What punishment wouldn’t be worth that miracle?
Awareness crept in, of coolness and warmth, movement and stillness, darkness and light. A long inhale penetrated the deeper recesses of her chest. She held it, appreciated the burn of it before letting it go. A weight shifted on her ribcage. Automatically steadying it, rough fingers met warm silky skin, pleasant enough to coax her eyes open.
In the dimness she found a head of hair, thick and blonde and wild, resting on her chest. The gladiator. Her bedchambers. Night breezes through the dark narrow window. Her thumb brushed across the unmistakable pucker of tight stitches on the woman’s shoulder, traced a line across the marks of the whip to smoother planes and curves under the blanket they shared. Even in sleep the Leopard’s body felt tense, coiled, ready. Still, she’d decided as she listened to hours of audiences in court that she liked touching the slave’s skin, running her fingers through the pale hair, hearing and feeling the unconscious rhythm of another body’s breathing.
This was different. She couldn’t remember the last time she didn’t wake alone, much less who she’d made exception for. Marcus perhaps, in those early days of heady conquest. She rarely allowed it then, for many reasons important to an ambitious young woman proving herself to an army of ambitious men. Now she had nothing to prove, could do whatever she liked with whomever she pleased. Strange that she remained the bed’s only inhabitant, only occasionally making exception to scratch the human itch. She certainly never let them stay. Sex was one thing, but lovers had an annoying habit of mistaking privilege for power. Those people usually ended up on a cross. Gabrielle was neither itch nor lover. Like some curio thrust into her hand by a trader, she found herself strangely captivated, yet thoroughly unsure what to do with her.
The form metamorphosed while she mused, breath gone shallow and silent, muscles bunched under a palm now absently wandering across the hollow of her strong back. She caught herself before it wandered any lower. The head didn’t raise, but uneasy energy fluttered under the supple skin. The Leopard would leave the moment she let go.
So she didn’t, ran one hand through tangled hair to soothe her as it had in court. They lay in silence, the warlord stroking patiently, the gladiator taut in her arms. She was just about to give up when the body in her arms grew heavy, settled against her once more.
She thought the slave might sleep, but the breathing remained measured and quiet. Her arm felt as if she’d swung a sword all day, achy and exhausted, and eventually stilled against the warm body. Sleep pressed in.
The gladiator rose.
“Don’t go.” It was a request. No, a plea.
Propped up on her elbows, she held still. “You need food.”
“I’m not hungry.”
The half-truth earned a dubious look. The slave pressed a palm to the hard hollow of her stomach, stirred gurgles and moans and a foulness that burned its way up her throat. She made a face.
“Ephiny says you’re cursed.” The voice hardly raised above a whisper, as if saying such things too loudly might make them true.
“Cursed?” The Conqueror chuckled, a wan smile tugging at her mouth. “By my own choices, perhaps.”
The slave stared at her blankly.
She shrugged and shook her head. “I’m just sick. Tired and sick. Demetrius swears it’s nothing a few months’ bed rest can’t cure.”
Some anxiety fell from her face. “Good. If that’s all you need, we’re already two days along.”
“Two days?” She didn’t mean to raise her voice, drew a sleepy mumble from the cot in the corner. She dropped it to a hiss. “You let me sleep for two days?”
“Doctors orders. Sca—” She caught herself. “Joxer and Vidalis have been running interference.”
She craned her neck. “And what are those two doing here?”
“You summoned them.” She chose her words carefully. “After you questioned the soldier.”
A curiously sterile way of saying it. As if they’d discussed the weather over dinner. The less wholesome reality grinding through her head dredged up a wave of nausea. She tucked her chin to hold it down.
The slave eyed her warily, held up a chamberpot. She wrinkled her nose, hastily pushed it away. “Gods, how can you stand the smell?”
The slave shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to it.”
She looked down, got another strong whiff and winced. “Ugh. Get me out of this dress.”
Candle in hand, the gladiator kept her upright for the short journey to the dressing chamber. She leaned against a shelf, held still on wobbly legs while Gabrielle’s small hands unfastened loops from buttons and stripped off the dress. Before the chill could settle in a warm wool robe settled around her shoulders. Her favorite. She smiled that the slave remembered, fingered the worn fabric as the slave cinched her belt.
“How’s your wound healing?” Delicately she lay a hand on the bare shoulder, turned her into the candlelight for a better look at the fine stitches.
The Leopard nodded stonily, forced it around as proof.
“Stop. I said stop, or you’ll make it worse.” Fingers dug in until the Leopard held still. She probed the flesh carefully, tested the range of motion while watching the gladiator’s body and face for tell-tale signs. Nothing. No wince, no jerk, no clench, all shielded by carefully crafted tension. The lack of response itself became a clue, like silence in the woods where danger lurked. She sighed, not bothering to hide her exasperation. “Don’t do that.”
The gladiator glanced up, surprised. “Do what?”
“Act like you’re fine when you’re not.”
“No it’s not.” She ducked her chin, got eye to eye with her prize. “When I ask how it is, I want a real answer, not bravado. I’ve watched too many battlefield injuries go sour, lost too many men. Got it?”
She felt the Leopard struggle, finally nod in reluctantly admission. “It’s…weak.”
“Does it hurt?”
The gladiator wrestled with her answer. “I can still fight with it.”
“Zeus’ beard, what’s this obsession with fighting? You won’t have to fight again until it’s healed, understand?”
Those pale green eyes locked onto hers. “What if it never heals?”
“It won’t if you keep abusing it.”
Gabrielle mumbled something, avoiding her gaze. She hooked a finger under her chin, waited expectantly. The slave sighed. “You said…I’m no use to you if…”
If she can’t fight, she’d told Demetrius. Stupid to think the slave hadn’t overheard. A fingertip to those soft lips shushed her. “If we can’t spar, I’ll find someone else. Besides, do I look like I’ll be fighting any time soon?”
The gladiator took in her emaciated frame, shook her head. But she allowed herself to work the shoulder a bit more carefully, let a hint of soreness show. Though the skin puckered angrily around fresh stitches, the wounds seemed to be healing well enough. In fact, yellowing bruises and fading welts said two days of bed rest benefited the slave as much as her owner. A pang of guilt for that.
As practiced eyes evaluated each mark and discoloration, it finally pierced her scattered awareness that the gladiator bared a great deal of skin. All of it, in fact. A titillating vision, even if she felt too out of sorts to appreciate it. Judging by the hundreds of tiny bumps stippling her exposed flesh, the slave had to be freezing.
“Felt like parading around naked today?”
The slave cheeks grew hot. “I…don’t know where my…where you keep your slave’s tunics.”
She stared at the slave. They stood in a chamber full of clothes from lands as far away as the rising sun, more than the Conqueror could wear in a year. “Look around. There are tunics of every color and texture to choose from.”
“They’re yours, not…”
The Conqueror arched an eyebrow. Damn her eyes if she didn’t buy the proudest, most stubborn slave in all the Mediterranean. “It’s not healthy for a slave to dwell on what belongs to her when it can all be taken away.”
“Even Roman slaves can own property.” The words rolled out faster than the Leopard could pull them back. Her head ducked out of habit, expecting to be hit, but the gaze that burned from under that brow dared her to deny it.
She stood speechless, too surprised to think of a counter, until the moment passed and grew into an awkward silence. “There…there’s a trunk in the back with your things in it.”
Not the words she expected to come out of her mouth. She looked away as the Leopard bowed and went to find them, embarrassed. Embarrassed at not telling the slave where she kept her things. Embarrassed at assuming she might sleep with her in the nude by choice. Embarrassed at being out-argued again by a gladiator who loathed speaking at all.
But it was just her and the slave in a dim antechamber in the pit of night, with no witnesses to her humiliation but hundreds of yards of fabric. To her surprise, a smile crept onto her face.
The gladiator jerked and hissed, stared down at her palm. Immediately her gaze shifted, and she lifted from the trunk a circle of steel and gold.
The Conqueror lurched into motion. “Put that back. Did you cut yourself? Let me see.” Gabrielle held out her hand. Nothing. She took it, turned it into the light. “I don’t see—”
She pulled the fingers back, opened a gash in the side of her hand so fine and deep the flesh didn’t know to bleed. The Leopard blinked. “Sharp.”
As her eyes darted around for a scrap of cloth, she cursed her own carelessness. “That’s the wrong chest. Put it back. Damn it.” In the time she’d looked away blood pooled in the small palm and spilled over the side, fat drops splatting on the floor. She pressed the first thing that came into her hand against the dripping gash, a priceless ermine-trimmed robe from the Northlands.
The gladiator held the ring up in the light, her other hand forgotten. “What is it?”
“A chakram. Make a fist.”
She did as she was told. “A weapon?”
The warlord pushed past her, dug deeper into the same trunk, past leathers and armor for a pouch at the bottom. “Gimme that.” She snatched it away, tossed it back in the trunk. “Sit. Press here. Hard.” As she sat down beside her she put Gabrielle’s thumb in the crook of her elbow and squeezed, produced a needle and thread from the pouch.
The gladiator paled. “Really?”
“I thought you were supposed to be tough.”
The Leopard looked away, too proud to respond, opened her hand. She set to work, ignoring the jumps and twitches the ivory needle drew with each stitch. Gabrielle’s face pinched as the needle pierced deep. “How did you get it?”
The Leopard could be annoyingly single-minded. She ground her teeth, focused on stitching. “Hold still, damn it.”
Her patient winced, struggled not to jerk. “Talk to me. Tell me a story.”
“I don’t tell stories.”
A noise squeezed out and her voice shrank. “Please. It hurts like Hades. Say anything. I don’t care what.”
She sighed, moved the candle closer for better light. “It was a gift. From Ares.”
“The horse trader. Yes, the god.”
When she stayed silent too long, the slave shifted, pulled her knees up to her chest. “Do you use it?”
“Not anymore. Some gifts are too costly.”
The Leopard watched her as she worked. “What did this one cost you?”
Gods, did her questions ever get easier? She thought about it. “My soul.”
A sigh. “Xena, I’m sorry…about the interrogation.”
“Sorry for what?”
“That I ever suggested it.”
Another wave of nausea. She locked it down. “Too hard on you?”
The gladiator shook her head. “Too hard on you.”
Pale eyes narrowed. “Nothing is too hard for the Conqueror.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But some things might be too hard for Xena.”
The warlord leaned back, eyes gone cold and steely. “If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
Some of the gladiator’s resolve withered under her glare. She found a particularly interesting pattern of fabric to stare at, gathered her nerve. “This face you wear out there, this Conqueror. I think she’s killing you.”
Without thought her hand latched around the slave’s throat, squeezing, so furious she could hardly form words. “You will never…say that to me…or anyone else…again. Understand?”
Teeth gritted, veins bulging in her forehead, the slave nodded.
She let go, head swimming in a sea of emotion. The red rage ebbed to seeping black misery. Gods, she felt sick. The Leopard rubbed her throat, hooded green eyes masking anger and hurt. She could feel them, couldn’t bring herself to meet them. She, the Destroyer of Nations, unable to look a slave in the eye.
“I didn’t mean to do that.”
Her companion said nothing, looked away sullenly.
“Gabrielle, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I reacted—” The lie died in her throat. She knew why. She heard the same voice—the one that begged her to kill the woman before she ruined everything—whispering to her now. Finish it. Crush her windpipe. Snap her neck. She sagged. “I’m truly sorry.”
Moments passed in tense silence. Finally the gladiator spoke. “What about Terreis?”
She blinked. “What?”
Gabrielle cleared her bruised throat. “Terreis. Why did you send for her? What’s the plan?”
She sucked in a steadying breath. “I don’t have a plan. She’s not safe in the dungeon. She’s not safe anywhere I can’t keep an eye on her.”
A long exhale. “I could watch her.”
“Not if you won’t defend yourself when she comes after you.” At the gladiator’s shock, Xena grazed one purpled eye with the back of her knuckle. “I leave you in the infirmary for two nights and you come out looking like this? Come on. Either she did it in your sleep, or you let her. Why?”
She looked down uncomfortably. “My first attempt at foreign policy. You said I should start acting like a leader.”
“That’s your idea of foreign policy? Letting her rearrange your face?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “It’s not so bad. I could take it. She needed it.”
“And how’s that working out?”
“She hasn’t tried since.”
“Huh.” The warlord considered it. “Think it would work for me?”
The smallest smile crept in. “Maybe.” Her gaze drifted toward the doorway and she sobered. “No. She’d want to cut your face, and then I’d have to kill her.” She said it quietly, almost to herself, left no doubt in Xena’s mind that she meant it.
“Then I guess we’ll figure something else out.” She gestured to the hand. “Finished.”
The Leopard shivered and nodded, examining her work. The wound still oozed pink but the edges of the gash lay flush and tight. “Hmm. Good stitches.”
“Better be, considering how often you get hurt.” She tied a cloth around the hand. “Look in the trunk on your right.”
The Leopard opened it, froze. The stiff leather cuirass lay on top, freshly oiled, the puncture through the backplate neatly repaired. She reached for it, shifted instead to touch other items in the trunk, hesitantly pulled out a white linen tunic trimmed with gold. Her breath caught.
“You like it?”
She swallowed hard, nodded.
“Let me help you put it on.”
She shook her head, put it away reverently. “I’ll save it for a special occasion.” She pulled out a simple red one instead, worked it over her head with help. She ran her hand over the thick wool thread, her face wrinkling mischievously. “Mine?”
“Yours. You think I’d be caught dead in a Roman tunic?”
Even beaten, the Conqueror refused to concede. Her opponent grinned. “Now will you eat and go back to bed?”
She had a look of persistence about her, ready to argue if her owner objected. The warlord smiled. “Fine. A little. And pour me some wine.”
She shook her head. “No. Demetrius said no wine.”
“I don’t give a rat’s carcass what Demetrius said. A life without wine is not worth living.” Her tone joked. Her eyes didn’t. The slave recognized an unwinnable battle and relented.
They sat on the bed and ate without conversation. The Leopard’s silence she attributed to the presence of others, even if they slept. For her part, the Conqueror found her thoughts elsewhere. On the Amazon-hating murderer hiding in their midst. On this faintly tender protectiveness from the reclusive gladiator. On her own gentle permissiveness in return. She felt something for the slave. Trust, maybe? Understanding? Even…friendship? Gods, she must really be ill.
The Leopard caught her eye, looked at plate of food she pushed around, back at her. Eat, her lips formed soundlessly.
Her smile felt more like a grimace. The morsels on her plate looked appealing enough, smelled like food ought to smell. So why did her stomach twist into knots?
An olive appeared under her nose. The slave waited expectantly until the Conqueror bit it in half. She popped the rest in her mouth, offered a grape.
A wicked grin pulled at her lips. “If only I could take every meal from the fingertips of a beautiful slave.”
She almost bit her tongue as soon as she said it, earned a sharp look from the Leopard, but so long as she took even a bite, the slave played along. After a handful of food, her stomach finally cramped. “No more.”
When no amount of coaxing changed her mind, the slave put the rest away, brought back two cups, handed one over. She took a swig, almost choked on the water. She glared at the woman, at the cup of wine in her other hand, reluctantly finished off the contents before they traded cups.
As the slave cleaned up, she slid under the chilly blankets. In spite of the all-too-familiar pang in her belly, she felt better, almost…normal. The wine seeped under her skin like honey, thick and warm. She sighed. Between that and the Leopard’s protective embrace, she might actually sleep through the night.
Gabrielle put the cups away, stoked the fire, then lay down on the bare stone floor in front of the hearth.
Xena blinked, opened her mouth to say something, shut it. Of course the slave only slept in her bed out of necessity, out of concern for her mistress’ health, for mutual warmth. With the Conqueror recovering and the slave warm, the finest bed in all of Greece would be hers alone once more.
She turned away, curled around a clenched stomach, and ached.
The stone floor was neither warm nor kind. She napped in fits and starts, shoulder throbbing, any little sound jerking her from sleep. Each time she would lay still, listening for danger, for the warlord, hearing neither. No whisper of her familiar breath, no moans or heaves of sickness. She’d lay in the orange ember glow of the hearth, ears straining, wondering. Was Xena alright? Awake? Gone? Dead?
She’d shift, try to find a position that eased the ache of her stiff shoulder, afforded her a better view of the bed. The lump still huddled under the blankets. She would tell herself that was good enough.
Until she finally woke to silence and worry she couldn’t bear. She pushed up, padded around the bed for a closer look.
Even with her face in deep shadow, the warlord didn’t look dead. But neither did she breathe with the carelessness of one in the grip of Morpheus. Nervously Gabrielle reached out, feeling for warmth, for a puff of moist air—
She jerked, rattled and embarrassed, torn between explaining and retreating back to bed. In the dark she couldn’t make out the Conqueror’s expression, couldn’t tell how angry she was—
Xena's voice revealed nothing. She shook her head reflexively even as a shiver gripped her. Stupid to lie, when her body betrayed her. She forced a slow nod.
The blankets lifted, warm air wafting past her skin. They held there, open and waiting.
She couldn’t move. Inviting as the warmth felt, she shivered at the memory of her last waking in that bed, the Conqueror’s fingers trailing up and down her back. She hadn’t moved, had hardly allowed herself to breathe, waiting for the touches to turn insistent, demanding, taking whatever they pleased.
“I’m not Caesar.”
Those words jarred her back to the moment, to a bed and a woman, nothing more. She swallowed, slid under the blankets to lay on her side, wide eyes staring into the darkness, the Conqueror’s warm chest pressed against her stiff back.
Again she didn’t move, didn’t breathe. Through her tunic and the threadbare robe she could feel every bone, every muscle, every curve of the lean body. The Conqueror’s arm draped around her middle and held tight, knees tucked in behind hers. She held her breath and counted, waiting for the touch or sound that signaled a desire for something more. Moments passed, then minutes, until spots of false color lit up the room. Nothing.
The smallest exhale escaped from her frozen chest, and gradually the brambles in her stomach withered. Other sensations slowly took precedence, the shoulder she lay on aching under the tension and weight. She didn’t dare reposition herself, tensed to shield the barely-healed wound. No good. The throbbing eventually pulsed from elbow to neck to rib, until each breath carved a narrow path between necessity and torture.
“You shouldn’t lay on it.”
Gods, the woman could read her mind. Or had her thoughts, so long without voice, learned to translate themselves into a language of flesh only the Conqueror understood, yet another of her many skills?
Xena didn’t wait for an answer, pulled her onto her back, the dark head nestling into the hollow of her uninjured shoulder, the long frame pressed against her side. She stared at the blackness of the ceiling, too stunned to move. Only after the warlord settled into the first sighs of sleep did her own nervousness ease. Hesitantly her hand slid up the bony back, wrapped around broad shoulders. The dozing woman didn’t seem to mind. Still, the very impropriety of it set her on edge. Come morning her owner would wake, feeling better, and realize where she was, what she’d done. The slave knew firsthand the price of embarrassing the Conqueror. Gods, what a mess she’d gotten herself into.
She’d wait until Xena was fast asleep. Then, warm or not, she’d disentangle herself and go back to the floor before anyone was the wiser.
Banging jarred her from sleep. Groggy and disoriented, she squinted against the flat grey light seeping from the window illuminating the bed. The Conqueror still lay in her arms, face relaxed. Gods, what hour was it? How long had she slept?
More banging, fiercer than before. She clambered to her feet, hands already curling into fists before she’d even located the threat. Through the thick door came Joxer’s voice, steady but rising. Someone wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Two pairs of eyes glowed in the predawn gloom. The healer’s presence in these sacrosanct chambers could be explained; the Conqueror’s enemy and prisoner, not so easily. Another barrage on the door. “You, in there,” she hissed, shoving the Amazon queen toward the dark dressing chamber. And to Ephiny, “Send them away.”
The Amazon hardly managed to duck out of sight before the heavy doors slammed open, Captain Bellerophon closing the distance to the bed with long angry strides. Ephiny fell in step beside him. “She’s not seeing anyone, Captain. She’s too ill—”
He backfisted her in the gut, doubling her over without slowing down. In a heartbeat the Leopard leapt between him and the Conqueror, ducking a swing to shove him back, drawing his sword in the process.
He recovered, pure hatred in his eyes. “Who in the name of Zeus do you think you are? I am Captain of the Conqueror’s Second Dragon Guard. You will drop your weapon and let me see her.”
Joxer hurried forward. “Sir, maybe she thinks you’re a danger to her mistress.”
“I don’t give a damn what this Roman whore thinks. I think she’s the danger. I’m placing all of you under arrest for treason.”
“Treason?” Ephiny forced herself upright between gasps. “What in Tartarus are you talking about?”
“Conspiring against the Conqueror.” His eyes cut to the Leopard. “That’s been your plan all along, hasn’t it? Get close enough to the Conqueror to poison her while—”
“Poison her?” Ephiny spat. “She’s sick, you arrogant ass!”
The Leopard’s ears rang with the shouting, too fast and loud to keep up. Ephiny getting truly riled now, Bellerophon bellowing in her face, Joxer trying to keep them apart.
“All of you, shut up.”
It was little more than a moan, but it cut through the noise like a hot iron through skin. In the grey light the Conqueror looked nigh dead, her only spark of color the ice blue chips of her eyes.
Bellerophon straightened, snapped a sharp salute. “Conqueror, you are in grave danger.”
“Not as much as you are. There will be no more talk of arresting my attendants.” She worked her way to her elbows. “Is that your only reason for barging in here, Captain?”
“No, Conqueror. A message from General Marmax. Two Roman legions have crossed into Epirus from Illyria and engaged the First Army. He’s requesting reinforcements.”
“You come up here to tell me this? Send a detachment from the Second.”
“As we speak, an order is enroute to General Mistocles. However, Persian raids into Greek lands continue to intensify. He’s already reported that his army is spread too thin. It’s doubtful he’ll be able to spare many men.”
The Conqueror scowled, made up her mind in moments. “Get my armor.”
The slave’s stomach clenched, eyes cutting to Ephiny, willing her to say something. But it was Bellerophon who cleared his throat. “Conqueror, the men would certainly welcome your presence, but are you well enough for the saddle?”
“You better hope I’m not well enough to break your jaw for asking. Tell Captain Marcus to get his men ready.”
Bellerophon blinked. “Captain Marcus? Conqueror, I should accompany you—”
“Now is not the time for more of your jealousy, Captain.”
“Conqueror—” He hesitated, uncertain of rest of the room’s inhabitants.
His mistress glared at him. “Spit it out.”
He squared his shoulders. “I suspect Captain Mkkk—”
The soldier choked mid-sentence. The Leopard blinked, her mind hardly registering the flash of silver at his throat. For a surreal moment no one moved, watching the captain’s lips form words without breath. Red shot across the bed covers; both of his hands pressed against the font at his neck as he sank to his knees, mystified.
The Amazon queen stood behind him, chakram in hand, hazel eye glittering.
“What have you done?” Ephiny breathed.
The Conqueror scrambled out of bed, clamped another hand on top of his already blood-soaked one. “Ephiny, help me!” Numbly the apprentice dropped down beside her, adding her own hands to staunch the fountain. His wide blue eyes roamed their faces, found Terreis. She spat on him.
Joxer stirred to life, drawing his sword.
“Get her out of here!” the Conqueror snapped. That shook the slave loose. Before her escort did something rash she grabbed the queen’s elbow, shoved her into the dressing antechamber.
Out of sight, Terreis jerked her arm from the gladiator’s grip, fixed her with a hateful stare.
The gladiator held out her hand. “Give it to me.” It took a moment for the prisoner to remember the strange weapon she held. Even as she brandished it the gladiator wrenched it from her grip, shoved her back against the shelves with its razor edge against her throat.
“I should kill you right now.”
“Like you did Melosa? I welcome it,” she hissed. “My sisters will rise up at my death and rain destruction down on this city.”
“Your sisters are dead! The Amazon Nation is destroyed! Or didn’t your Regent tell you that?” Angrily she searched for comprehension in the woman’s bloodshot eye, found only demented fire. She pushed away, disgusted. “And you know nothing of Melosa. Caesar killed your queen. I just helped her go the way she wanted.”
And for the first time, her heart actually believed it. A little.
“He only got what he deserved for this.” The Amazon’s finger stabbed at her own ruined cheek.
“Bellerophon? I don’t believe it. Besides, how would you know? The soldier said he wore a mask.”
“I know that voice.” The queen’s snarl, low and hateful, left no doubt. “The lying bitch sent her own right hand man!”
She launched at Terreis, sent her crashing against the trunks with one enraged punch. “Xena had nothing to do with it!” It didn’t matter that the queen was half-unconscious, that someone pulled her back before she could choke some sense into the mad woman. She found herself back in the main chamber, hands and knees still shaking with rage.
“You always had that temper?”
The Conqueror offered her a goblet of water. She took it, struggled to hold it steady, as much to give her hands something to do as drink. She gulped it down, panting a little, eyes glazed, before the warlord took it back with bloodied hands. Automatically her eyes flicked to Bellerophon. He lay on his back, one leg bent beneath him at an uncomfortable angle, the dark pool spreading around him.
Even the Conqueror’s iron will couldn’t overcome a slit throat.
“I should have killed her,” Gabrielle whispered. “Saved you the trouble.”
“Nah. Won’t be any trouble.” Xena glanced at Joxer over her shoulder, arched an eyebrow of curiosity. “So you talk now?”
The question surprised her. She looked back at Joxer, Ephiny, the queen, shrugged. “A lot’s happened in the past three days.”
“More than I imagined.”
Joxer cleared his throat. “Conqueror, what about Bellerophon?”
She grimaced. “Well, he won’t be guarding Corinth. Marcus will have to stay. And I’ll need a new Captain of the Second Guard. The job’s yours, Joxer.”
The soldier had the sense to snap his mouth shut. “Thank you, Conqueror. I meant, what about his murder?”
She looked into the handsome face. The Leopard could have sworn she saw affection betrayed in the Conqueror’s face before it hardened into the usual icy gleam. “What murder, Captain? This was an execution.”
It took the soldier a few moments to understand. “Conqueror, begging your pardon, but the men won’t see it that way. Assuming the Amazon isn’t lying—”
The Conqueror waved him off. “Bellerophon was a capable and loyal captain, but I have every reason to believe he tortured my prisoner against my wishes. Fetch Captain Marcus. Quietly, Joxer. Ephiny, bring Terreis out here.”
Both soldier and gladiator stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Captain, I believe I gave you an order.”
He fumbled for composure, saluted and left. The Leopard continued to gape at her owner, thoroughly confused.
The Conqueror ignored her, squared her shoulders to face the queen, gestured to the Bellerophon. “Was this the man who visited you in your cell?”
“You know he was.”
The warlord’s mouth drew into a thin line. “I believe he was, yes, although I didn’t know of his actions at the time. By Corinthian law, your vengeance ends with his death. You will not be punished, nor will you seek further retribution for his crimes. He’s already paid a high enough price.”
“And what about the one who ordered him to do it?”
She sighed. “You want to try me, too? Fine. You say I commanded him to torture you. I say I knew nothing about it. Who can attest to my wrongdoing? Call your first witness.”
The queen stared at her, eyes darting to the corpse.
The Conqueror pursed her lips. “I see. No evidence, no case. Charges dropped.”
Terreis growled, readying a stream of curses. The Conqueror held up a hand, but it was Ephiny’s fingers digging into her arm that silenced her.
“Did you or did you not send multiple Amazons to assassinate me?”
Through gritted teeth, “You know I didn’t.”
The Conqueror crossed her arms. “I say you did.”
“And where’s your evidence?” the queen spat.
“I don’t have any. Three years I searched for the Amazon, the peasant, the cutthroat who’d testify against your crime, and I have nothing to show for it but a bunch of dead women and soldiers.”
“So? What are you saying? You’re above your own law?”
The slave held her breath. The Conqueror drew herself to her full height, looking down her nose at the pair of women. A deep exhale, then softly, “Terreis, Queen of the Amazons. You’re free to go.”
The prisoner didn’t move. Words failed her for long moments, before she whispered, “Is this some sort of joke?”
The Conqueror’s eyes narrowed. Ephiny quickly pulled the Amazon back. “Conqueror, I’m sure the queen is grateful for your mercy—” she elbowed the woman, silencing her protest, “—but Amazons are still hunted in Greece. How can she leave the palace without being arrested again for being who she is?”
“Fair enough. I declare the war with the Amazons over.”
The one red eye narrowed, peered at her suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”
“Sign a peace treaty stating that no Amazon will raise a weapon against Greece. And no Greek will raise a weapon against the Amazon nation. A first offense will result in the offender’s mutilation or exile. A second offense means death.”
For a moment, doubt crept into that eye. Then it hardened. “If you think my cooperation can be bought so cheaply—”
Ephiny stepped in front of her. “Conqueror, may I speak with Queen Terreis in private?”
The Destroyer nodded, watched the Amazon pull her queen away. The slave watched her owner. As soon as the Amazon’s attentions were thoroughly elsewhere, the Conqueror’s hard look faltered.
“Need to sit?”
A nod. The Leopard eased her back onto the corner of the bed, retrieved a few cold edibles to coax into the Conqueror’s stomach.
“You looked better last night,” she commented off-handedly.
The warlord waved off an olive. “I wasn’t in pain last night. Stuff like this always stirs it up.”
The Leopard nodded, feigned nonchalance. “So are you really going to Macedonia?”
A tight smile. “I have to, don’t I?”
“Why not send Captain Marcus?”
The fig she offered met the Conqueror’s approval, passed between pale lips. “Marcus is a capable officer, but he’s no general. He doesn’t see the long view, and he won’t make the hard choices it takes to win. Most of all, he’s not me. The men don’t rally around the Conqueror’s bodyguard. They want the Conqueror.”
She nodded again, studied the barely-touched plate. “So how long will you be gone?”
Her owner didn’t answer. Nervously she glanced up, caught the woman smiling at her. “You think I’m letting you out of my sight?”
She snorted. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Not unless you want me getting into trouble.”
“Exactly. Bring me some parchment and ink.”
She did, stood by while the Conqueror drafted the treaty. When it was finished, she held it up to the window, let a faint breeze help dry the ink.
“So that’s it?” the gladiator whispered. “That’s all it takes to end the war? You say it’s over?”
The Conqueror shrugged. “That’s all it ever takes to end a war. Two people agree to stop fighting.”
“And what about the survivors, people who lost friends and family? These aren’t soldiers you’re dealing with. Will the Amazons agree to it?”
“They’ll do what their leader convinces them to do.”
The gladiator shook her head. “You don’t seriously think Terreis will convince them to lay down their arms, do you?”
“I didn’t say Terreis, did I?”
She followed the warlord’s gaze. Ephiny remained calm yet firm as she argued with the queen.
Understanding dawned. “If she can convince Terreis…” The Leopard nodded, impressed. Another thought. “You knew. How long have you known?”
“About the Regent? Not long. I pieced it together after you mentioned their encounter at the games.”
Her brow creased. She’d definitely intended to keep that memory of the apprentice to herself. “I don’t remember—”
“When you were sick.”
“Oh.” She forced a tight swallow. “I guess you never really told me what I said.”
The Conqueror grinned wickedly. “Lots of things, but now’s not the time.”
“Guess not.” She mustered a queasy smile. Across the room the Amazons argued in hushed tones, oblivious to the Conqueror and her slave. “Xena, what makes you so sure Terreis told the truth about Bellerophon?”
That question finally drew the warrior’s attention. Her eyes darted to the pair, back to the gladiator, and in a low voice she said, “Bellerophon murdered the jailer.”
Not the answer she expected. “I thought the jailer died from the blow to his head. A blow I inflicted,” she muttered bitterly.
“Everyone did. But when Bellerophon took me to see him, his body was limp. Had he died in the night, he would have stiffened up.”
“He could have died right before they found him.”
“Bellerophon found him. And when I leaned in close, I smelled bitterness in his mouth.”
“I didn’t think of it again until a few days later when I smelled it on your chobos.”
It took her a moment to make the connection. “Belladonna. The jailer was poisoned?” She worked over the implications in her mind. “You think Bellerophon sabotaged the match? Why would he try to kill me?”
“He’s never trusted you, but I don't think you were his intended target.”
She caught the warlord staring at Terreis, sucked in a sharp breath. “The only remaining witness to crime. Gods. I nearly did his dirty work, didn’t I?”
“Nearly. But you didn’t.”
“He must have killed the Amazon girl, too. But why?”
“Ah, that’s the question, I don’t have an answer to. What would he gain from their deaths?” But before the gladiator could think about that the pair approached, the fire in Terreis’ eye dampened, the apprentice ready to talk. Their discussion would have to wait.
VI DOMINOR GRAECIAM...To Rule Greece
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