The Leader

Chapter 18

Gabrielle hesitated entering the room. Only two days had passed since the Conqueror had hit her, and she wasn't sure of what to expect. After all, the Destroyer of Nations wasn't used to forgiveness. Xena had ordered her put in a more comfortable cell, that was true, but it was likely that Xena would still be angry with her. The guard roughly shoved the young woman inside and closed the door.

The blonde woman regained her composure and looked around the silent room with reverence. "It's a library," she gasped. I wonder if I'm alone. Unwilling to call out and break the silence, she moved toward the tall shelves passing the first row only to find a second and then a third. Unable to rein her curiosity, she cautiously unrolled the nearest scroll.

I saw her, my king, bury the corpse against your orders.

So tell me, you, with your head bent, do you admit or deny this?

I did it. I admit and don't deny it.

Be quick: did you know the prohibition to do so?

I did. Who didn't? Everyone knew.

But you dared trample the laws?

Zeus didn't proclaim that prohibition. And I thought your words weren't strong enough to surpass the unwritten laws of the Gods. I knew I had to die sooner or later. And if I'll die before my time, I call this a gain. This fate isn't painful to me. But if I left unburied my dead brother, this would have been painful. You think I'm crazy. But he's a madman who accuses me of madness.

Those who are subject to others shouldn't be proud. But you not only knew you were acting against the law, you're praising yourself! This is your second guilt. I'm really not a man if this insolence remains unpunished!

What are you waiting for, then? I don't like your words, as you don't like mine. All these people would agree with me, if fear wouldn't close their mouths. But tyranny has this advantage too: she can say and do all that she pleases.

How can you alone, among all these Thebans, see this?

Oh, they see it too, but to please you they keep silent.

Gabrielle was stunned. Gods, it's Sophocle's tragedy Antigone! How can a forbidden scroll like this be here? She thought, and read it again, incredulous.

A few steps away, unnoticed, the Conqueror was intently watching her prisoner. Her eyes noticed how greedily Gabrielle was reading the scroll, how oblivious she was to her surroundings. But above all, her eyes rested on the young woman's pale face, the nasty bruise on the left cheek, painful reminder of Xena's lack of control. The Conqueror desperately wanted to say something, anything, but the shame she felt drained her will. So she simply watched, her guilt growing worse with every passing moment, the nebulous fear of losing Gabrielle's trust forever slowly solidified in her mind. After a while, the captive woman lifted her eyes and gasped in surprise seeing the Conqueror so close, her brows furrowed. At that moment the blonde woman was sure Xena was mad at her, more than ever. Not only she had repeatedly provoked her, she had even read her scrolls without permission. The raven haired woman saw fear pass in Gabrielle's green eyes, and it hurt her more than a sword. I knew it, she's afraid of me, she thought. And I can't really blame her, after what I did...

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." the two women said, at the same time. Then stopped, surprised at the other's words.

"Me first," Xena said, hesitatingly. "I'm really sorry I hurt you. I didn't mean to... I don't expect you to understand, but I'm a warrior... trained to react at every threat... when you touched me... I... my instincts took control... it shouldn't have happened... I'm so sorry." She inwardly sighed. After two days this is the best I can do? Pathetic! the Conqueror thought sadly.

"You shouldn't be," Gabrielle replied gently, surprised at Xena's words and moved by the sadness in her voice. "It's not your fault, really. I should apologize... I've been rude, I insulted and provoked you... And even now... I took your scrolls without permission... I'm sorry but I couldn't help it... I've never seen so many together."

Xena was stunned. Surprise tinged her thoughts. I hit her, and she is apologizing to me.

Gabrielle noticed the astonished look in Xena's blue eyes and anxiously asked, "Is there anything wrong, Conqueror?... Did I say something I shouldn't..."

The raven haired woman interrupted her "No, no... it's all right." She cleared her throat, "So you like my library?"

"Oh, I adore it!" The blonde woman exclaimed enthusiastically, spinning in place, looking at all the shelves, a huge smile on her face. "This room is the dream of every bard... I'd spend half my life in it! But I bet it takes a lifetime just to read half of these scrolls."

"Not really," Xena shrugged, "But believe me, they're not all nice readings... on the contrary most of them are treaties or annals, boring stuff."

"You mean you... you read them all?" asked Gabrielle, astonished.

"I did," Xena answered, a hint of pride clear in her voice and demeanor.

"No, it's impossible. Nobody could have read all of them. There are thousands!" Gabrielle insisted, disbelief evident in her voice, "And you're the ruler of the world. You couldn't build your empire and find the time to read all these scrolls!"

You can when nightmares don't let you sleep at night, Xena thought, then willed away the memories. "What? Are you saying your empress is a liar?" She asked, bending a little towards the smaller woman, fists on her hips, brows furrowed. The tone of her voice, however, wasn't threatening at all... just teasing.

She... wants to... play? Thought Gabrielle, incredulous. Is it possible? "I dare you," she said after a while, with a hesitating voice.

Xena straightened and grinned, happy to see that Gabrielle had caught her silent request for a game, her blue eyes glittering. "Fine. What do you want to bet?"

"What can I bet?" Gabrielle softly asked, showing her manacles "I have nothing to offer."

"Let's say that the most valuable thing you could offer are some names..." Xena said, sarcastically and before Gabrielle could reply, continued "But you don't want to, uh? It's okay. You won't lose anything."

"Fine then..." said Gabrielle, more and more surprised by the Conqueror's playfulness "And you? What will you lose?"

"You make the choice." Xena said, folding her arms on her chest.

The younger woman reflected for several moments, her brows furrowed. Xena was sure of herself, it was clear, but she couldn't have read all those scrolls. Many of them maybe, but surely not all of them... Gabrielle knew she was going to find one the Empress didn't know. But then, what, what could she ask?

"What then?" Xena asked, impatient.

"I'm thinking, gimme a moment, please..." Gabrielle asked, thoughtfully rubbing her chin. A big smile lit her face and she exulted, "Got it! I know what to ask." Xena's eyebrow climbed to her hairline in a silent question. "Britannia. You will abolish the taxes," the blonde woman exclaimed.

"WHAT?" The Conqueror almost shouted "You want me to.."

"To lift the special taxes, yes," Gabrielle patiently explained, not surprised by Xena's reaction.

"Forget it." the empress growled.

"Why? You said the choice was mine." Gabrielle stated, determined.

"It would be a sign of weakness. They revolted. Many people died, and now they must pay the price for it," Xena replied, with a harsh voice. This was really too much.

"They revolted four years ago! They've already paid more than twice the price of your military expedition. The taxes are double those of the rest of the empire! They're suffocating the people. This way they'll rebel again." the blonde woman insisted.

"Then I'll crush them again. Choose something else."

The captive woman grinned defiantly. "If you really read all the scrolls it shouldn't be a problem... Or are you afraid to lose?" She asked with a teasing voice.

Xena inhaled deeply and gave her captive a menacing look. Gabrielle swallowed hard, but didn't lower her green eyes. They stared at each other for several moments, neither wanting to give up. Then the Conqueror spoke, through clenched teeth. "Fine. Then it's the taxes."

"Good!" The blonde woman smiled. "I think we can start from this one, since I've already opened it..." and read the passage loud for the Conqueror.

"Antigone," Xena said, contemptuously.

"I guess you don't like it," Gabrielle said teasingly, while putting the scroll away.

The taller woman shrugged. "It has an interesting start, then becomes so boring..."

"If you say so... I've never read it all. You know, the censorship... it's almost impossible to find a copy..." the blonde woman said, with a teasing voice.

"You didn't miss anything special, trust me" Xena replied, amused at the captive's courage.

"I believe you. But I'd prefer to judge for myself," the blonde woman insisted.

"Certain ideas are too dangerous to circulate freely. People can't distinguish between fiction and reality. Somebody could have big trouble, even lose his life because of scrolls like this one," the Conqueror explained.

"What?" Gabrielle started, her voice suddenly animated "You think people can't distinguish between fiction and reality?? I can't believe this!" The Conqueror thinks we're all dreaming children, she thought. I can't believe she really thinks she has the right to decide what's safe for us to read... Xena harshly interrupted her musings.

"Pick another scroll, Gabrielle. I haven't got all day."

The younger woman took a deep breath trying in vain to calm her anger, then chose another scroll and started reading with an enraged voice. "It's such a waste... The ability she showed on the battlefield has no equals in history. She was able to defeat all her enemies, even when the odds where against her. But after..." Gabrielle gasped and blinked twice.

Xena chuckled: I wondered how long it would take her to recognize it, she thought.

The blonde woman swallowed and slowly continued, her eyes wide in surprise "...But after conquering the world, she rules showing no mercy. If only she'd use for helping the people half of the energy she uses to oppress them, the world would be such a wonderful place. But she prefers to be a tyrant!" The younger woman lowered the parchment, shaking her head in disbelief, finishing the piece quoting from her memory. "Nobody can speak his thoughts without being punished. Nobody can oppose her orders, even when they're wrong, without losing his life. In her eyes, we're all slaves! But it won't be like this forever. A day will come when every man's dignity will be respected. A day will come when nobody will be scared of her anymore. We've got to believe it: she can't break our spirit. For each rebel that falls, ten rise to take his place. We shall overcome!"

"Interesting speech. False, but interesting indeed," Xena said, nonchalantly.

"What... what do you mean... false?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"I mean that's not true that I can't break my enemies' spirit," the Conqueror slowly explained, with a wicked smile. "The cure for spirit is fear. And I will overcome." Before Gabrielle could reply, she continued softly, "Anyway, it's an anonymous speech. But they tell me it should be from a certain Gabrielle, wannabe bard from Poteidaia, if I'm not mistaken."

"True," admitted the younger woman smiling tentatively, "and the author is really surprised to find her work here."

"Flattered?" Gabrielle nodded. "You shouldn't be. You deserve to be in my library. You see, I want to know my enemies, so in this section I collected all that's been written against me. And your speeches are probably the most arrogant, impudent, brave and clever of all."

The younger woman blinked twice, surprise blocking her voice. She never knew what to expect from Xena, but she surely didn't expect this revelation. And, most of all, she didn't know if she should consider it a compliment or a threat. The Conqueror lifted an eyebrow in question, and Gabrielle realized she had to pick another scroll. From a different shelf, she picked a huge scroll and when she opened it, gasped in surprise.

"What's this stuff?" she mumbled, blushing an impossible shade of red.

Xena, puzzled, positioned herself behind the young woman and watched the scroll. "Oh, gods!" she exclaimed laughing loud when she was close enough to realize what it was "Of all the scrolls!! I admit you make interesting choices, Gabrielle." She put a hand on the smaller woman's shoulder and explained with a sultry voice, "This is called the Kamasutra, and well... I think you can see what it's about. But if you want me to prove to you I read..."

"Nothankyou," the embarrassed woman hastily replied, quickly putting the scroll away. "I believe you read it. Gods, nobody would ever believe me if I relate this." Xena chuckled and Gabrielle picked another scroll. "I wonder what else I'll find in this section," she guessed with an accusing glance. The Conqueror shrugged innocently. "Let's see... this? What's this?"

Xena looked the parchment and patiently explained "It's a Chinese scroll about medicine. And you're holding it upside down."

"It's not fair!" the blonde woman protested, "I can't read this language. How can I be sure you've read it?"

"I'm afraid you'll have to trust me. This shelf and the next three are full of Eastern scrolls," the raven haired woman said, smiling happily.

"You're having a good time, aren't you?" Gabrielle asked, grinning, "But wait, you haven't won yet" and crossing the room, approached a new row of shelves, followed by a chuckling Conqueror. Sighing, the blonde woman picked another scroll and started reading:

"To me he seems like a god

the man who sits facing you

and hears you near as you speak

softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts

the heart in my ribs. For now

as I look at you my voice

is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue

cracks and slender fire is quick

under my skin."

Xena's brow furrowed. Her eyes seemed lost. I've got her! Exulted inwardly the younger woman. "So?"

"Mmm, let me think..." the Conqueror said, slowly pacing back and forth, "I've already heard something like that... but where..."

The blonde woman arched an eyebrow in question and waited. Xena seemed at a loss. Gabrielle's joy grew with every passing moment. After a while the blonde woman couldn't resist anymore and said happily, "Admit it, you haven't read this poem."

The Conqueror sighed, cast her eyes on the floor and said, with a sorrowful voice "I admit it... All I remember is that it continues like this:

My eyes are dead

to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.

I convulse, greener than grass,

and feel my mind slip as I

go close to death,

yet I must suffer all things,

being poor.

And while Gabrielle's jaw dropped in surprise and disappointment, Xena's laughter rang loud and shrill. "You really thought I've never read Sappho? I'm insulted," grinned the Conqueror. "Aren't you tired of this game yet?"

"If you think I'll give up so soon, you don't know me." Gabrielle replied, her green eyes still flashing determination. Damn! She inwardly cursed. I was sure I won... But it's not over. There must be something she hasn't read. I have to be clever, the blonde woman thought. I have to choose wisely... And after carefully watching, she picked a small parchment, covered in dust. "Brutus' horsemen moved on the left..."

"Caesar." Xena immediately said "It's called De bello gallico."

"I never heard of it" the blonde woman said, disappointed that Xena remembered this apparently forgotten scroll so well to recognize it just after few words.

"I bet. It's unfinished... He was writing it when I defeated him. I found this scroll in his tent."

Gabrielle looked at the parchment in her hands. Caesar was a great general who thought his fate was to rule the world and now this scroll is what remains of him, the blonde woman thought. I wonder if one day the scroll I wrote will be the only thing that'll remain of me.

"Daydreaming, leader?" teased an amused Xena, startling Gabrielle.

"Sorry." She moved to another shelf and read from a newer looking parchment. "Luckily this unusually cold winter is over. Farmers are in the fields again and there's hope for a good harvest. Your majesty's engineers are already at work to rebuild the bridge destroyed by the flood." Damn! Gabrielle inwardly cursed. This is an account from some governor... she surely read it. She watched the Conqueror, standing a few steps away. There was no longer amusement, but an unreadable expression on her face. Gabrielle continued reading, "I don't think we'll need extra slaves: as your highness ordered, our garrison's soldiers are doing the job. I admit at the beginning they weren't happy about it, but now they have started seeing the results of their work and morale is high." The younger woman lifted her eyes again and saw puzzlement in Xena's. Oh, no, Gabrielle thought, she can make a fool of me once, but not twice! "Come on," she said bitterly, sure that the Conqueror was still feigning ignorance, "don't tell me you haven't read one of your men's reports... I don't buy it."

"This time I'm not kidding," the Conqueror said through clenched teeth and roughly seized the scroll. She scowled and, after silently reading the parchment, growled "I've never seen it." With long strides she reached the table in the middle of the room and angrily hit the gong that was there. After few moments a short man entered, bowed and paled seeing Xena's scowl.

She's really angry! This means she hasn't read it, Gabrielle thought. If this man is the librarian, I don't envy him now.

"What's this?" Xena hissed, throwing the scroll at the astonished man. Her icy blue eyes were like swords cutting into his soul.

"M-my liege?" the frightened man asked, his hands quivering as he took the scroll. The Empress folded her arms on her cuirass, waiting for an explanation. The librarian silently read some lines and swallowed hard, "It-it's Titus' last report... from Spain, my liege." he respectfully said.

A false smile appeared on her face. "Is it? Really?" She asked with a mocking voice.

"Yes, Conqueror... It arrived two weeks a..." The Conqueror arched an eyebrow. "Holy Tartarus.... two weeks ago..." The man paled even more and started trembling uncontrollably. "My liege, I... I don't know how it could happen... Two weeks ago so many scrolls arrived... and-and maybe... I mean... I-I," he swallowed.

"Yes?" The Conqueror prompted, with a dangerously calm voice.

"It seems I... put it among the ones your highness had already read," the librarian said with a strangled voice.

"So it seems," Xena stated, coldly.

"I-I'm so sorry... I'm so terribly sorry for this, my liege... I"

"You can be sorry all you want!" The Conqueror suddenly exclaimed, her face a mask of anger "But it doesn't change anything! I've not read this scroll!"

The man sank to his knees and started begging, tears already streaming down his face "Please, Conqueror, forgive me... I'm so sorry.. please, it was just a mistake, it won't happen again..."

"I know it won't," she said with a snarl, and unsheathed her sword.

"No, please!" the man shouted and bent until his forehead touched the ground at Xena's feet "Please, for the gods'sake... Have mercy on me! Please... it was just a mistake... just a mistake!" He begged, hugging Xena's feet.

"One mistake is enough," the Conqueror stated, under Gabrielle's appalled gaze.

"Oh, no, don't, please... I won't fail you anymore, I promise... forgive me..."

"You're pathetic," Xena spat. "Stand and die like a man."

"Conqueror, I have a family! How will they live without me? Please don't kill me!" He begged through the sobs.

"You should have thought of that before," the Conqueror contemptuously said, raising the sword over her head "Now it's too late." And she lowered her sword in a deadly arc towards his head.

"Conqueror, no!" Gabrielle shouted, throwing herself between the wailing man and Xena's rage.

The raven hair woman stopped her blade at a hair's width from the blonde woman's body. "Out of my way, Gabrielle," she growled, an angry scowl on her face.

"No," pleaded the younger woman, opening her arms as much as the chains allowed her "Please, don't. He made a mistake, but it's not worth his life. It's not your fault if you didn't know about this scroll. For me the bet is even... His mistake will bring you no harm... So please, let him go. We're all human, we all make mistakes... please...," she begged, worried for the man.

Xena watched the scene before her eyes: Gabrielle was standing in front of her, arms open, breathing fast. She was clearly scared, but fear hadn't stopped her from risking her life to plead mercy for a perfect stranger. The librarian was curled up at her feet, sobbing uncontrollably.

Gabrielle's pleading green eyes fixed on Xena's and the Conqueror softened. What am I doing? She thought. This man served me faithfully for years and at his first mistake I'm ready to kill him, forgetting all the past? Is this how I'm trying to change? She took a deep, calming breath and watched the younger woman in the eye.

"It's not even. You won." she said, sheathing her sword. "And I'm keeping my word. Rise, Senticles." The terrified man was barely able to lift his head up a little. Xena addressed him with a calm voice "I have decided to cut the taxes in Britannia. Someone has to take them the news, and you're the perfect one."

"Oh, t-thanks, my liege, I won't fail you, thanks," the man started saying, immediately relieved at the thought of leaving Corinth and the Conqueror for a while. Xena interrupted him.

"You'll leave on my new battleship, next week. The ŚAmphipolis' needs a thorough test and a journey to Britannia is perfect, dont'ya think?" She asked, a wicked smile on her face.

The librarian's jaw dropped. "Your highness means I will... go to Britannia... by boat?" Gods, she can't do this, he thought, she knows I hate boats! Just thinking of stepping on a ship again makes me deathly seasick! I became a librarian just to be as far as possible from anything floating!

"Are you deaf or what, Senticles?" Xena asked mockingly.

The man swallowed hard and paled, "Oh, no, my liege, but... this way the journey will be longer than by horse," he respectfully pointed out.

"The less I see you, the better for you, at least for a while," she said menacingly.

"But... but we'll have to cross the western strait... go into the open sea for days... and the sea is so agitated in this period of the year..." he guessed, his face taking a unhealthy green colour.

"And doesn't it excite you? Sea and sky all around for days, being rocked by the biggest waves the ocean can create..." she said, fully satisfied of her idea. The librarian groaned at the thought. "A writer like you will make a wonderful report. And I recall you were a sailor in your youth, so you are probably used to the idea of rough weather tossing the boat up and down, back and forth, to and fro." She watched the man turn greener by the moment. "You'll leave next week," she finished, clearly meaning there was no possibility to argue.

The man hung his head "It will be done, Conqueror," he said, defeated.

"Fine. Now get out."

The librarian rose on his wobbly legs, his mind already feeling the floor moving beneath him, and slowly walked towards the door. As he seized the handle, he turned and pleadingly watched the Conqueror again hoping she would change her mind, but she regarded him with an icy glance. So, sighing, he left the room, feeling his stomach turn at the simple thought of his journey to Britannia.

Chapter 19

"Thank you," Gabrielle said, relieved as the man closed the door.

"No, thank you," replied the Conqueror, with a soft voice.

"What for?" the blonde woman asked, puzzled.

"For stopping me. I would have regretted killing him," Xena explained, feeling guilty for her outburst of anger. The only thing that had stopped her had been Gabrielle selfless act. Grateful blue eyes studied the blonde woman's face and she asked, "Why did you risk your life like that for a stranger?"

"Because he's a man with a family, and you were going to kill him because of me," the younger woman replied, matter-of-factly.

"I was going to kill him because of his own mistake," the Conqueror retorted.

"But his mistake would have been unnoticed if it weren't for my stupid bet," she lowered her eyes, ashamed of her foolishness.

"It wasn't stupid, Gabrielle," Xena said, gently tilting the blonde woman's chin up until she caught her eye. "But there's one thing I don't understand: why did you ask me to lift the taxes? Why didn't you ask something for yourself instead?"

"Something for me? Like what?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"Like a more comfortable cell, better meals, no more chains..."

"I didn't even think about it..."

"Do you want to change your bet now?" The Conqueror offered.

"No, I don't," Gabrielle replied quietly. "Nothing I can ask for myself is worth this much. But thank you for the offer."

"My pleasure," the Conqueror said, half proud of the captive's answer, half sorry that she hadn't changed her mind. An awkward silence descended upon them. After some moments, Xena cleared her throat, then tentatively suggested, "There are many other beautiful rooms in this palace. Would you like to see them?"

The blonde woman's eyes widened in surprise and disbelief at what Xena was offering her, "Oh, yes, sure I would!" She exclaimed.

"Fine. Follow me," Xena said and slowly walked towards the door, a smiling Gabrielle by her side. As the door opened the two soldiers guarding the room snapped to attention, then discretely started following, two steps behind the two women along the long, huge corridors.

Gabrielle was more and more surprised every corner she turned. Every time she had met the Conqueror the guards had blindfolded her on the way to and from the dungeon, so that, if she tried to escape, she would get lost. Now she could see the palace in all its splendour. The floors were all marble, the different colored slabs positioned as to create frets and other beautiful patterns. The ceilings were high and the solid wooden beams were decorated with silver chakram patterns. The walls were frescoed with battle scenes and landscapes so realistic that only the occasional doors reminded the blonde woman they were just illusions. Chandeliers and lamps strategically placed on the walls provided a uniform and suffused light all along. Gabrielle couldn't believe that the palace, so gloomy and dark outside, could hide such marvel. She kept walking beside the Conqueror, her mouth open in wonder.

"Do you like it?" Xena asked, a gleam of pride in her eyes.

"Of course I do!" the younger woman replied, enthusiastically. "It's wonderful!"

Xena chuckled "You haven't seen anything yet," and reaching a huge two folds door she seized the golden handle and entered first.

"It's the dining hall!" Gabrielle gasped in wonder. She had heard countless stories of marvelous and awful events taking place in this luxurious room and would have never believed she would see it with her eyes. Xena only used it for special occasions, for the most important guests and only the few who had been invited at a dinner here could rightfully claim to be important people. The banquets taking place in this dining hall were legendary for their richness. Exotic courses were served on silver trays. The finest wines were poured in golden mugs decorated with emeralds and rubys. The most beautiful slaves attended to the guests' every need. When the guests were dignitaries and kings, the most famous artists performed during desserts in the ten feet chakram designed on the marble floor inside the immense U shaped table. When the guests were generals, the performances were famous prisoners' executions or wrestlers' fights to death. It was said that the Conqueror herself had more than once entered the chakram ring to join the savage exhibition.

"Yep. The main one," Xena acknowledged, and scowled watching the slaves work in the huge room. As they saw the Conqueror they deeply bowed, and hastily resumed their job, silently praying that she found everything perfect. Some were vigorously cleaning the marble floor, others were attaching garlands to the walls, others were carefully polishing the wrought iron chandelier. It was the biggest ever made, war spoil from the royal palace of Babylon. It was so huge that it could easily support one hundred candles at the same time, and it took three men to lift it to the ceiling.

Gabrielle wasn't sure why they were all working so hard. "Is a banquet on program, Conqueror?" She asked.

"Yes. The day after tomorrow is my birthday and many kings and dignitaries will bring their wishes and bid their loyalty. I can't let them starve, now can I?" Xena sighed, annoyed at the mere thought of the trembling royalty parade.

"No, I guess you can't," the captive woman weakly replied. It's her birthday, and I've nothing to give her, she sadly thought. If only I had known when I was in Poteidaia I could have brought a gift... the handkerchief wasn't a worthy birthday present at all... "What?" She realized with a start that the Conqueror was speaking.

"I said that one of my favourite rooms is over here," Xena said to the blushing woman, while walking towards a door. Gabrielle glanced one last moment at the beautiful dining room then followed her through new corridors and halls, each different from the others in shape and decoration. After a while they reached another two folds door. The Conqueror opened it and entered. Then, a contented smile curving her lips, she folded her arms on her chest and asked, "So? What do you think?"

"It's strange... Is this your armory?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled. The room was indeed a very long, low corridor with only two doors, facing each other, about twenty feet wide and more than ten times long. Along the dark walls there were no windows or paintings, but only countless armors, hanging almost at eye level, shining ominously at the low light of the torches, along with shields and swords. Each was different from the other, and while the captive woman could recognize some of the armors as Greek, there were several others whose origin she could only guess to be Roman or Oriental. A long carpet formed by multicolored stripes of cloth ran from where the blonde woman stood to the opposite door.

Xena laughed and started walking towards the other door, followed by Gabrielle. "No," she proudly explained, "it's one of the trophy rooms, my favorite. These are the armors of my greatest enemies. This is Brutus'." She said, indicating a leather and silver armor on her left. "This is Hannibal's," she nodded towards another elaborated one and, smiling contentedly, she kept naming the men and women that owned them before facing her.

The low ceiling, the armors all around, and the almost complete silence caused by the stripe of cloth absorbing the noise of their steps made Gabrielle feel terribly at unease. The room was unpleasantly oppressive, almost suffocating, and she wondered if it was its purpose. A doubt crept in her mind and the blonde woman studied the carpet. "Gods, these are flags!" she exclaimed, stopping abruptly when she realized from what the unique carpet was created.

Xena smiled. "Yep. Some of the flags and banners I took from my enemies. Behind that door is my study. I often receive dignitaries there, especially if they come to negotiate a treaty. I used to let them wait some candlemarks in this room. Somehow it helps them meditating," she explained with a wicked smile. "And it's nice to see them trying not to trample their own flags."

Following the Conqueror and studying all those armors, Gabrielle couldn't help thinking that none of them, no matter how beautiful or strong, had been able to protect the owner from Xena's wrath. "I'll bet that helps meditating," she said at last, barely hiding the uneasiness she felt being surrounded from all those war spoils.

"Something wrong?" Xena asked, sensing Gabrielle's discomfort.

"Oh, no, nothing" the younger woman replied, with a forced smile, "I was just thinking this armor is really strange." You pretend to be a bard and this is the best you manage to say to change the subject? She chided herself. Gabrielle, you're pathetic!

"Yes, it's Chinese," the Conqueror said, studying the blonde woman's face. "Are you sure you're fine?"

"Well I..." The blonde woman hesitated. One perfect eyebrow rose in question. "I'm sorry, I really don't like this room," the younger woman said, lowering her eyes.

"Why?" The Conqueror asked, incredulity evident on her face.

"Because long ago each of these armors protected a person," Gabrielle explained with a soft voice, "and now they're dead."

"They opposed my supremacy," Xena said, defensively.

Gabrielle watched Xena in her stunningly blue eyes and smiled innocently, "You could say it of me, too," she whispered.

Xena's jaw dropped. How could I be so stupid? She thought. I am so proud of these trophies but how, how is she supposed to like them? "Sorry," she said after a while, then added, "I didn't mean... You're not like them. I won't hurt--" Suddenly, she remembered her hand hitting Gabrielle hard, only two days before. She turned away, and couldn't finish the sentence.

The younger woman realized what Xena meant. "I know," she said. "You don't hurt anyone without a reason."

The Conqueror smirked. "I had no reason for hitting you."

"In fact you didn't do it intentionally. Now please, stop feeling guilty about it," Gabrielle softly replied, touching the Conqueror on the arm, gently, to prove her point. And this time the Destroyer of Nations didn't even flinch.

Why isn't she afraid after all she's seen? Xena thought, watching the blonde woman with awe. Why is she so nice to me? And what can I do for her to repay this? Her musings were interrupted by a sudden, loud growl coming from Gabrielle's stomach.

The younger woman blushed to the roots of her hair. Xena frowned. "Sorry," the blonde woman whispered, lowering her green eyes.

The Conqueror realized the younger woman had misunderstood her glance. "Don't apologize," she said, placing a hand on the smaller woman's shoulder, and speaking with a gentle voice. "Just tell me honestly: do my men give you enough to eat?"

Gabrielle smiled tentatively. "Well, yes, I mean, it's not their fault... really. I'm always like that... hungry, I mean. My sister says I keep a monster in my stomach," and blushed even more.

I can't believe it, Xena thought. Not only the librarian, now she's trying to protect the guards, too! I'll take care of them later. She smiled, "Well, let's do something for him then. What does this monster like most?"

"Uh? Everything, it's omnivorous..." Gabrielle said, blushing even more.

The raven haired woman chuckled, remembering how the younger woman had devoured a whole tray of fruit the first time she was in the throne room. "I'll bet. But there must be something that keeps him silent longer than anything else."

"Well..." A dark eyebrow rose in question. "Nutbread," the blonde woman whispered, shyly.

"Fine. My cook makes the best nutbread of Greece. I'm sure there's some in the kitchens," and signaled Gabrielle to follow her.

"I'm really curious to try it, then. But it will hardly beat Lila's nutbread," the blonde woman replied, following the Conqueror down the corridors.


"Uh, sorry. Lila is my younger sister. She makes the best nutbread of Greece."

"Oh, really? Wanna bet?" Xena asked, teasingly.

"Oh, no, thank you. One bet a day is enough. Besides, I don't want your cook to join the librarian..."

Xena laughed. "Oh, my. Really sure of yourself, aren't you?"

"I'm sure of Lila's nutbread. She has a special recipe and I know it's the best of all," the blonde woman insisted, smiling. They walked for a while, Gabrielle's voice still enthusiastically describing her sister's nutbread and the Conqueror thinking that, if half of what Gabrielle said about Lila was true she should hire her, when suddenly Xena's smile disappeared and she froze in place, her eyes narrowed.

Surprised, the blonde woman asked, puzzled, "Did I say som..." but the Conqueror hushed her with a sharp wave of her hand. The raven haired woman turned towards a nearby door. She approached silently, and stood still, listening. She scowled, grabbed the handle and tried to open the door, but found it locked. She then took a step back and delivered a single, powerful kick to the door. The wood broke with a crash, uprooting the pintles, and she entered.

It was a small warehouse, lit by a single candle, with a row of shelves along each wall. Close to the farthest wall, their mouths open in surprise, three men were kneeling on the floor. Two were holding a young, naked girl's arms. The third was ready to force himself on her, his trousers already lowered. Her jaw clenched, the Conqueror observed the men's sweaty faces, the girl's tears, their now quivering hands and the girl's torn clothes. Her hand grabbed the hilt of her sword.

"M-my liege..." a man babbled, trying to rise.

"Shut up!!" Xena growled, unsheathing her sword, and launched herself against him. With a single thrust she opened his chest from the left shoulder to the hips, then, not waiting for the man's last breath, she turned towards the others, a feral snarl on her face. One of them rose, swallowed hard seeing the Conqueror's mask of rage and lifted his hands as if to ask for mercy. As he opened his mouth, Xena beheaded him with a single swing of her sword. Panicked, the third man rose, too, and launched towards the door, longing for an impossible escape, but his trousers, lowered at the ankles, made him stumble and he fell face down. A moment after Xena was towering over him, and while he tried to rise again she mercilessly thrusted her sword in his back. "Serves you right, animal," she growled at the corpse, then, breathing heavily, she surveyed the scene before her. Her armour and hands were covered in blood. The three, mutilated corpses lay on the ground, in a pool of blood. The girl had crawled to a corner, as far as possible from them, and curled up. Finally, free from the cloth the men had used as a gag, she was crying hysterically, and trying to cover herself with what remained of her clothes.

The Conqueror approached her, but seeing her the terrified woman screamed louder, turning towards the wall, crying. Sighing, Xena stopped, and immediately Gabrielle approached with a blanket she had found on a shelf. She knelt beside the terrified girl and gently wrapped the blanket around her hugging her, softly murmuring over and over "It's over, don't worry, you're safe". After a while Gabrielle's soothing voice had the desired effect and the woman calmed a little. Other guards and a healer entered the room and Gabrielle rose. She studied the blood on Xena's hands and the corpses on the ground. Then, slowly shaking her head, she watched the Conqueror in the eye, and gave her a look of complete disgust.

It happened, Xena thought. She saw my real self. I could just let the guards take care of this trash... but no! I had to kill them myself, my way! I'm a murderer and acted as such. And now Gabrielle despises me, like all the others. Now she too has realized... I will never be able to really change. She doesn't believe in me anymore. The Conqueror glanced at the corpses again and sighed. I can't control my instincts day after day, forever... And one day even Gabrielle could lay at my feet like this... No, I can't let it happen. Somehow I have to protect her... and there's only a way to do it. Hiding from her eyes the pain she felt in her heart, Xena nodded and immediately the two guards approached Gabrielle and pulled the speechless woman away. Yes, she thought, there's only one way.

Chapter 20

The sky was clear and azure. The warm spring wind had cleared it of every cloud, and the sun shined brightly on a cheerful Corinth. The main square was crowded as never before. People were so amassed against the wooden barriers that when someone fainted from exhaustion or heat, the only way to carry him outside was to pass him over people's heads. It seemed that the whole of Greece had gathered there to pay homage to the Conqueror in this, the day of her birth. Some Corinthians had even slept on the ground to have the better places and see closely all the picturesque kings and dignitaries gathered there to bring the richest presents and swear allegiance to the Destroyer of Nations. Others, being too far to have a good view even on tiptoes, tried every now and then to open their way to the front line with their elbows, and sometimes fights erupted among the crowd. However, they always ended quickly because the fear caused by the simple presence of the royal guards, majestic in their best uniforms, positioned all around the square, was more than enough to keep people under control. Finally, other citizens didn't care at all about the ceremony but were afraid to be noticed for their absence. They were as far as possible from the throne, and watched the never ending procession trying to hide their annoyance.

Apparently insensible to all the glances fixed on her, the Conqueror sat rigid on the throne at the summit of the high marble staircase, dressed in a rich, elaborated Chinese outfit that enhanced her prominent cleavage and perfect body. The golden crown on her head shone brightly under the sun's rays, creating a enchanting contrast with her night black hair. Only her sky blue eyes, dangerously clouded, and her expression, colder than usual, reminded everyone that this gorgeous woman was also the cruel ruler of the known world.

One after the other, quivering delegations from all the world, in their typical outfits, marched past the throne, following the same ritual. They approached the staircase, bowed deeply and waited for a nod from the Conqueror. Then they slowly ascended the steps and bowed again. The highest in rank asked leave to speak and hastily offered the strangest gifts, wishing her happiness, victory and blessings from the gods. Then Xena dismissed them with a nod, or -if the gift had especially pleased her- with a lopsided smile that didn't reach her eyes, and the relieved delegation bowed and left and another took its place.

For candlemarks, before the throne passed senators from Rome and nobles from Africa, kings from the East and envoys from every town of the empire, from the smallest to the biggest, and finally even the last town had brought her homage.

Now is the moment, Xena thought, and took a deep, calming breath. Some people on the square, the farthest from the throne, discreetly, were already going away, thinking the show was over, when five guards entered the square dragging a heavily chained Gabrielle.

At the beginning of the staircase, they roughly shoved her on her knees. Silence immediately fell among the crowd and everyone came back to see what was going to happen. The few who knew who she was were stunned to see her there; the others wondered what such a young girl could have done to deserve judgement in such a special day.

Gabrielle herself was wondering what Xena's intentions could be. Nobody had told her she was to be judged today, and she didn't know what to expect. But, when she lifted her eyes, the blood froze in her veins. The Conqueror was watching her with cold, angry eyes and a wicked smile on her face.

Gods, the captive woman thought, I'm facing the Destroyer of Nations again... this isn't the gentle woman I met in my cell. Gabrielle swallowed, realizing that this could mean only one thing: her destiny was sealed. She squared her shoulders, raised her chin and met Xena's icy gaze, determined. I asked for this, she thought, and I'm the rebels' leader. My friends will be proud of me today.

Seeing the blonde woman's defiant glare the Conqueror smiled, amused, "Tell me, Gabrielle of Poteidaia" she said, derisively, "What's your crime?"

"I spoke," the blonde woman replied, with a steady voice.

"You spoke! Oh, no, not just this. You spoke against me, girl. Against the kingdom. What have you to say in your defense?"

"I gave voice to the people.. the fearful, the starving, the ones who disappeared in the night...never to be seen again. I preached freedom. I fought for a better world. If this is a crime, I am guilty."

The Conqueror watched the blonde woman with amusement, mockingly feigning sympathy and horror for her. "You are. And you know the punishment for your crime... the cross." Gabrielle swallowed against her will. Xena crossed her legs at the knees and continued, teasingly, "Besides, this is a solemn day, blessed by the gods, the anniversary of my birth. As you know, on this day I often free a criminal, to share my joy with others... After all, I'm not the monster you say." Gabrielle and the crowd held their breath. It was impossible that the Conqueror was really going to free the captive girl. The previous years she only freed minor thieves, surely not traitors, especially those who defied her publicly like this young woman! Xena paused for effect then continued with a harsh voice. "But instead, you realize your crime is too serious. I can't simply free you as if nothing happened." And your ideas are dangerous... more for yourself than for me, Xena mentally added. "So this is your sentence: Gabrielle of Poteidaia, you're banished from Corinth and Athens. You'll be free to live where you please, but if you are found in either of these towns, or if you write speeches again, you will be sentenced to death. You have until tomorrow at sunset to leave the town." I'm sorry, Gabrielle, the Conqueror thought, but this is the only thing I can do for you. Send you as far as possible from me, to protect you. She waved her hand and the soldiers lifted the stunned woman and dragged her away.

After some steps the young woman recovered from the shock and begun to struggle in the soldiers' grasp, to go back, but the men easily held her. She then turned towards the Conqueror and desperately shouted, "No, wait, don't do it! Don't send me away...!" But the murmurs of the crowd, discussing this unprecedented act of mercy, covered her voice.

Goodbye, my only friend, Xena thought, watching Gabrielle's blonde head disappear among the soldiers' lines. This time it's forever.


"I can't believe she did it," Gabrielle said for the umpteenth time, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Yes, yes, you can't believe it, I know," Ipheus sighed, exasperated.

"Is the shelter very far?"

"No, we're almost there. But we have to go round some more, just to be sure nobody is following us," he said, guiding the blond woman through the narrow streets of Corinth.

They rounded a corner, and Eponin and Melas appeared before them.

"All clear." The Amazon said, a broad smile on her face.

"Solari! Melas!" Gabrielle exclaimed, throwing her arms around her friends and hugging them tightly.

"Gabrielle. Let me look at you. How are you?" The thin man asked, studying his leader at arms length.

"I'm fine. Honest. And you?" She replied, smiling.

"Better, now that you're safe," the Amazon said happily, ruffling the younger woman's hair.

"Let's go, before someone notices us," Ipheus urged, looking around suspiciously, and the four friends moved on. They quickly approached a small staircase in a dark alley and descended until they reached a small door. Melas knocked three times then two times. After few moments the door opened and they all entered.

"Gab! I'm so happy!" Perdicus exclaimed, and hugged his betrothed.

"Me, too, Perdicus," she replied returning the hug. Lifting her eyes, she saw Ephiny, standing beside a table, with moist eyes. Gabrielle immediately disentangled from Perdicus' embrace and ran to her arms. "Ephiny!" She exclaimed, then burst into tears.

"Gabrielle..." the blonde Amazon whispered, hugging her friend tight, tears streaming down her face. "I was so afraid..."

"We all were," a moved Eponin intervened after a while. "After what the Conqueror did to Ephiny, we thought she hurt you, too..."

Gabrielle pulled back a little from the embrace, resting her arm around Ephiny's waist. "But... didn't you receive my letter?" She asked, wiping her tears.

"We did, but it seemed so absurd... How could we believe she had freed you, but you wouldn't come back to us? We thought she had somehow forced you to write it," Ephiny explained, accompanying Gabrielle to the table.

"You're right... I owe you all an explanation," she said, sitting and signaling the others to do the same. "The Conqueror didn't hurt me at all," she started, quietly. "She threatened to the first time we met, in Ephiny's cell, but I didn't say anything. The following day I asked to speak to her alone, and she agreed. I tried to explain her why we fight her, what we want... I told her I couldn't find any reasonable explanation for her deeds but I wanted to... And she accepted to tell me the story of her life. Since then, she never threatened me again."

"And so... she told you her story?" Eponin asked, disbelief written on her face.

"She did," the leader shrugged. Silence descended upon the small room.

"Then what?" Perdicus asked. "What did she tell you?"

"Everything, Perdicus, everything." Gabrielle whispered, her eyes fixed in the void of the memory.

"Good. Tell us, too," the man impatiently urged.

"I can't." She said, shaking her head.

He scowled. "What? Why?"

"Because I promised her I wouldn't," the blonde woman explained, matter-of factly.

"What?" Melas exclaimed. "Gabrielle, she may have told you something we could use against her, you must tell us!"

"No, Melas, I won't," she insisted, her green eyes flashing determination.

"You really want to honour a promise made to that monster? Think about it, Gabrielle..." Ephiny insisted.

"I already did. And I'll keep my word." The leader looked the Amazon in the eye. "She kept hers." Ephiny lowered her eyes.

"Who cares?" Ipheus insisted. "Don't you remember all the times she didn't?"

"Of course I do, but it's not a good reason to do the same. Then we wouldn't be different from her at all."

"What in Tartarus are you saying, Gabrielle?" Melas asked, raising his voice. "How can you compare us to her like this? She's a murderer; this is just a promise! And you made it when you were her prisoner!"

"I'm sorry, I can't," she repeated again.

Eponin sighed. "All right. There's no need to argue. Is there something you can tell us? Why did she send you to Poteidaia?"

"I don't know. I had no idea mom was dying. But she knew, and offered me to see her one last time."

"And what did she ask of you in exchange?" Solari asked suspiciously.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing."

"It's nonsense! She could have asked you to betray us..." Ephiny murmured.

"And the soldiers left you there? Like this?" Perdicus asked.

"Yep. They left the same day we arrived and never came back."

"Then why did you surrender again? You were free," he insisted.

"I had to." Gabrielle steeled herself. "She needed me."

"What??" Everyone exclaimed, almost jumping from the chairs.

"You're kidding," Eponin muttered.

"No, I know it's almost unbelievable for you, but it's true. She was trying to change and I wanted to help her."

"Changing? The Conqueror? Yeah, sure, when the man will learn to fly..." Melas said shaking her head and rose to grab a bottle of wine and some mugs.

"But it's true! I saw her spare the life of a servant that had failed her... and surely you know that she went to Killini after the earthquake!" Gabrielle begun to explain.

"Yes, to hang the robbers..." Perdicus insisted, while accepting the wine.

"No, to dig among the ruins! And she lifted the special taxes in Britannia..."

"Since when?" Melas asked, his brows furrowed.

"Since the day before yesterday. I saw her give the order."

Everyone remained silent, trying to deal with the unbelievable news. "It seems too good to be true," Ipheus said at last. "It must be a trap of some kind. That woman is smarter than a fox."

"Yes, if you were helping her, why did she banish you?" Solari asked.

"I have no idea... I surely didn't ask her to," the leader said sadly, lowering her eyes.

"Then forgive me, but I think I'll check the streets around here one more time... just because." Perdicus said, rising.

"I'm coming, too, if you don't mind." Ipheus said, joining his friend.

"Be careful," Eponin suggested.

"Always," the men replied then, laughing, left.

"What are you going to do now, Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, softly.

"Nothing. I'll stay here and write speeches as before, hoping she'll listen to them," she shrugged.

Melas sneered. The other rebels watched each other in the eyes, then Solari spoke. "Gabrielle, if you feel you want to give up or to take a rest... it's okay... You already did more than we could ask you."

"Do you want me to leave?" The younger woman asked, surprised.

"No, of course we don't, but you were under a lot of pressure. If you need a break now, we understand." Ephiny explained, holding her hand.

"Thank you, but I'm fine. I'll stay here. I don't need any breaks," Gabrielle declined, smiling.

"But you probably should take one. ŚCause if you want to help the Conqueror, this isn't really the right place..." Melas added acidly. Gabrielle watched him in the eyes, hurt. The others, too shocked to speak, stared at him dumbfounded. Gabrielle misunderstood the silence and rose, going to the fire place, silently.

"Melas, you're an idiot." Solari said, contemptuously.

"Why? What did I say? We're not Xena's friends. Or did I miss something?"

"But it's not the way to say it!" She replied, and kept arguing with him.

Ephiny rose and approached Gabrielle. The leader was leaning against the fire place, crying silently. The Amazon put an hand on her shoulder and gently suggested,

"Gabrielle, you're tired. My room is over there," and she indicated a nearby door. "If you want to rest for a while..."

Not trusting her voice, Gabrielle nodded and entered the room. Seeing the pallet at the light filtering from the door, she let herself fall on it, and, burying her face in the pillow, she wept. Ephiny followed her, lit a candle and closed the door. "Gabrielle..." she called, but the younger woman didn't answer. The Amazon slowly approached and sat on the edge of the bed. "Don't listen to him, we don't want you to go." She said softly, gently stroking her friend's hair. "Whatever you think about the Conqueror."

"She's human, Ephiny..." Gabrielle said through the sobs. "You... have no idea... believe me, she's not a beast."

"It would be beautiful, but it's really hard to believe, my friend," the curly haired woman said, amused at her friend's kind heart.

"But it's true... you don't know her as I do... She can be so kind when she wants to... If only you knew her better..."

The Amazon's hand stopped. "Actually I've known her, and I'm not looking forward to know more about her," she said, shuddering at the memory of her awful hours with the Conqueror.

Gods, how could I forget what Xena did to her? Gabrielle thought, and turned to face her friend. "Ephiny, I'm so sorry... I know what you had to endure just to protect me..." the leader said through the tears as she hugged the blonde Amazon. "You don't know how guilty I feel... how much I wanted to take your place..." She remembered the bruises on Ephiny's body, the strain of her voice and couldn't help thinking that, if she would have surrendered sooner, the Amazon wouldn't have suffered so much.

Ephiny smiled, returning the hug. "You did it, Gabrielle, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. I owe you my life."

"But I shouldn't have waited so long..."

"Don't think about it anymore, Gabrielle. It's over." She wiped away the younger woman's tears and regarded her seriously. "You saw what Xena did to me. Still you say she's not a monster. How can you say it?" The younger woman lowered her green eyes in denial. "Gabrielle, please, help me to understand," Ephiny insisted, "What did she tell you?"

The leader closed her eyes. "You have no idea what she's been through..." she whispered at last. "Anyone would be like her after that... She's known only war and betrayal, Ephiny. Nobody ever told her she could rule differently..."

"Before you..."

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes drifting off in space. "I tried, Ephiny. I listened to her, spoke to her, I got angry to her... And she spoke to me... she set you free, she set me free... and was happy when I came back, I saw it! I know she was really trying to change..." She turned to look at her friend, sadly. "Then why did she banish me, Ephiny? I had gone back to her... I could help her... I wanted to help her!" Tears started rolling again from her eyes. "Why did she do it? Why??"

The Amazon wrapped her crying friend in her arms, comforting her, "Shh, Gabrielle, don't cry. I don't know why she did it, but you shouldn't be upset. You did all you could to help her..."

"No..." the younger woman said through the sobs, "maybe I did something wrong... I was rude... yes, that must be it...."

"I'm sure you did nothing wrong. You can't be rude, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, still holding her friend.

"If so, why? Why?"

"I don't know, Gabrielle," said the Amazon, "but maybe it's better like this. Now you're safe, and you can always let her know what you think: you can write speeches about her deeds, and, if she really cares, she'll listen..."

The younger woman shook her head, "No, this way I won't be able to tell her if she's going to make a mistake... I'll tell her only after..." she sobbed.

"I know, but there's no other way. You can't go back to the palace," the older woman said, softly. Gabrielle buried her face in her friend's shoulder and wept silently. The Amazon whispered comforting words rocking her friend and caressing her back until the exhausted woman dozed off. She then gently leaned her friend on the bed, tucked her in a blanket and left the room.

In the main room Ipheus and Perdicus had just come back from their check and were seriously listening to the heated discussion between Melas and Solari. "Please, don't speak so loud, Gabrielle is sleeping," Ephiny said joining the others at the table.

"I repeat that we're not the Conqueror's friends" Melas said, in a lower tone.

"And I repeat that Gabrielle isn't either." Solari retorted. "Haven't you seen her wrists? They're raw for the chains! How could the Conqueror be her friend and treat her like that?" Perdicus and Ipheus nodded in agreement.

"Solari is right," Ephiny intervened, "but for what I see Gabrielle would really like to be her friend, no matter how badly the Conqueror treated her. You know Gab... she sees only the good."

"It's true, she's very naive sometimes... but this doesn't mean she'll betray us," Perdicus said defensively.

"I never said that!" Melas exclaimed. "I'm only afraid that the Conqueror may use her naivetè against us!"

"How? Everything is safe outside, we just checked," Ipheus said, while polishing his nails.

"But Xena knows we're suspicious now... she'll wait. Then, when we think she forgot about us, one of her spies will notice Gabrielle and will follow her. We'll be doomed!" The thin man insisted.

"Then what do you suggest, Melas?" Perdicus asked, exasperated. "I won't throw Gabrielle out. For me, she's still the leader of our group."

Everyone but Melas nodded. "Fine. But let's be careful. I'd wait to tell her about Gar. We'll have the opportunity after he gathers all the interesting information he can," the thin man suggested.

Gods, he doesn't trust her anymore, Ephiny thought, but seeing that all the other rebels agreed with him, she, too, nodded, feeling like she had betrayed her saviour.


Days and weeks went by quickly. Xena at first was able to keep her dark side under control. She still imposed her will with an iron fist, but seemed more open to listen to others when she had to make her choices. She made many edicts to make the administration of the empire less corrupt and the taxation more fair, and Gabrielle's speeches praised her for her efforts. Unfortunately, as days passed by, her resolve weakened. Once again she started greeting the requests of her subjects with annoyance if not with open contempt, and her bursts of wrath were more and more frequent. While nobody expected Xena's change, everybody imagined it wouldn't last, so as it was clear that this was only a passing whim, people buried their unspoken hopes, resigned. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was restless. She knew her speeches couldn't help, and was continuously looking for a way to reach the Conqueror again. Only the constant presence of Perdicus and Ephiny kept her from simply going to the palace to talk to her. One sunny August morning a public judgement was scheduled, and Gabrielle and the other rebels were on the main square, scattered among the people. The intolerable sultriness and the huge crowd made the air unbreathable, yet nobody wanted to miss the show. Even the soldiers lined beside the throne sweated profusely in their summer uniforms. Only the Conqueror, in her black leather armor, was perfect as always, as if the weather had no effect on her. She approached her throne and paused, scanning the crowd with her deep blue eyes. When she spotted a small figure far, on her left, hidden in a green linen cloak, she sadly chuckled. She's there, as usual, she thought. She doesn't realize that the cloak only makes her more visible in summer. And the gods only know how uncomfortable she is... but she never misses a single appearance. She's lucky my guards can't see a fly on their nose. Xena frowned. I should do something about that...

Distracted by her thoughts, Xena didn't pay attention to an officer, approaching her at her back. Only when he made a strange move with his arm she noticed, from the corner of her eye, that he had a knife in his hand. But by then it was too late.

Part 4

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