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Chapters 18 - 20
Ephiny tried to concentrate on the map spread before her. Three women took animated turns explaining the new planting pattern that had been established, which would assure maximum yields from the Amazon lands. They had no trouble feeding themselves, but the extra produce could be profitably traded with surrounding areas, to provide items the Amazons could not produce for themselves. Ephiny had already approved the basic plans, but new refinements were always being made. She smiled with enthusiastic approval at the trio, but her mind was only half present. When they left at last, she waited only briefly before starting for the door; it was time she spoke to Gabrielle. The bard saved her the trip. When she opened the door, Gabrielle was loitering outside, suddenly, uncharacteristically, shy. Ephiny jerked a thumb as a command for Gabrielle to enter the hut. "Gabrielle. Finished sulking?"
She nodded. "Ephiny. I'm sorry, I was wrong to say what I did. I don't know what I was thinking."
"You were thinking that you were losing Xena to another woman. You were wrong."
"It just seemed so obvious---"
"Obvious? Because we were naked? Alone, in a purifying-hut? Get used to it Gabrielle, you're an Amazon Princess, for the love of Zeus! Despite what you may have heard in taverns, we do not spend all our waking moments having sex with each other." Not that I don't find Xena desirable, she admitted to herself. She stifled a grin, remembering how Xena had threatened to put her eyes out when they first met, if she didn't stop staring.
Gabrielle blushed deeply. "I know that Ephiny. It just seemed so strange for Xena to let someone touch her like that, I couldn't imagine what else might be going on."
"Some bard. You couldn't imagine that maybe, one woman to another, I was comforting her? I was surprised she didn't push me away, I figured you must be getting through to her at last, helping her pull down her defenses." She scowled. "Nice technique, Gabrielle, get her defenses down, then stick her right in the gut. You know, I think your tongue is more deadly than her sword could ever be. Only her sword is less painful; she sees to it that her victims die quickly." Gabrielle's mouth hung open, astonished at the analogy.
"I don't know why I felt the need to hurt her that way, Ephiny, but one word led to another, and then I just...stepped over the line."
"You wanted to hurt her, because she had hurt you, let's just say that and get it over with."
The blonde head bobbed up and down, in agreement. "She's hurting pretty bad, huh?"
"You saw her," Ephiny said, with no attempt to soften this for her sister Amazon.
"I'll go talk to her," Gabrielle said. She started for the door, but Ephiny laid a strong hand on her shoulder.
"She's not here."
Gabrielle's face stared back at her puzzled. "Where is she?"
"She stayed long enough to load her gear on Argo. If you'd returned to your hut you would have seen that her stuff was gone."
"She must have said where she was going."
"Not a word. Didn't she tell you where she was headed next?"
Gabrielle shook her head numbly. "Ephiny. Send some mounted Amazons after her. Please."
"No," was the adamant reply. "I'm not sending Amazons to get hurt because two grown people can't figure things out for themselves. Besides, you have no claim on her, as you pointed out, and she's made a decision."
"Then give me a horse," Gabrielle said, desperation tingeing her voice.
"You'll break your neck. Besides, you don't know where she's going."
"She's meeting those two soldiers I told you about, Arcus and Barrus on the other side of Amazon territory. If I cut through---"
"Forget it, Gabrielle, she'll be long gone."
"So what do I do?" she pleaded.
"You might start getting used to the idea that you may never see her again."
She shrank back at the notion. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that it's a big world, and if people don't want to be found, it's easy to get lost."
"No, she wouldn't stay away," Gabrielle said, insistently. "Why would she stay away?"
Ephiny bit her tongue on the answer she wanted to give; some things had to stay between her and Xena. Dream-readers, even unofficial stand-ins, had to maintain confidentiality. She considered what she could share. "Let's just say that today is a day you should have slept in. Had you waited a bit longer, Xena and I would have been dressed, sharing breakfast, wondering when you'd put in an appearance. And before you showed up, my guess is that Xena would have gone to awaken you, and she would have made up for all the hurt she's caused you these past few weeks."
Ephiny noticed how Gabrielle's green eyes became like tidal pools when they filled with tears. "Is that what you two were talking about in the purifying-hut?" Ephiny's silence gave her the answer. "Oh, great." She sank into a chair as she absorbed this new information. "You know, Ephiny," she said after a moment, "Xena knows how I feel about her; she'll be back."
"You may be right, Gabrielle," Ephiny shrugged. "I just don't know if feelings are enough to make a difference." She looked out the window to the tranquil village center, still festooned with flowers from the celebration of the night before. "Every morning I pass the spot where Xena's funeral pyre was lit. I remember your tears, your fears that you couldn't go on without Xena. She heard your grief from beyond the grave, and came back to you, because you gave her a reason to live. That's what I don't get, Gabrielle," she threw up her hands in frustration. "You two would die for each, Xena would kill for you, so it isn't a question of feeling. It's something else. Maybe Xena's right."
"About what?" Gabrielle asked with interest. Ephiny couldn't just tell her what Xena had said, she decided, Gabrielle would have to see it for herself. "Gabrielle, why was Xena angry with you in Prestia?"
"I made a mistake," she answered defensively. "I didn't tell her that Atrius was dead. How could I know they'd accuse her of the crime? Does she think I wanted her to spend time in a dungeon?"
"Xena's spent time in worse places; that wasn't the problem," Ephiny said dismissively. "Why didn't you tell her?" she pressed.
"Because I thought she did it," the bard muttered.
Ephiny nodded. "Would you have assumed that, if you didn't know what Atrius had done to Xena when she was a little girl?"
Gabrielle thought about that for the first time. "I guess not," she said at last.
"How long did it take for Xena to talk to you about anything personal, Gabrielle, I mean to really share her feelings, the private things about her life?"
Gabrielle stood up and stalked off to the corner, suddenly knowing where Ephiny's questions were going. "She never talked about herself. Not for a long time," Gabrielle acknowledged.
"But you got her to open up. I was amazed when she talked to me this morning, really talked." A spasm of shared pain touched her face. "And you laughed at her for it."
Gabrielle pressed her palms to her face, horrified, as she saw herself in a new light. "I did, didn't I?"
"How long do you think it will be before Xena talks to anyone again, about anything?"
She put her hands on Gabrielle' shoulders, and gently turned her around. "Gabrielle, I have no doubt that Xena loves you, or that you love Xena. This isn't about love, it's about trust. You didn't trust Xena over the death of Atrius, or this morning with me. Xena can't talk to you anymore; she's afraid to trust you." And if she can't trust you, she can't trust anyone, Ephiny thought. She rubbed her eyes, suddenly weary. "Maybe you can find a way to fix this mess Gabrielle, you know Xena better than anyone; but I can't see how it can be done."
The brimming eyes scanned the room purposelessly for a few moments, as if the solution to her problem lay in its woven patterns. Then a spark came to the green eyes. "Maybe she left word in our hut, Ephiny, she wouldn't have just left," she affirmed.
"Gabrielle, don't get your hopes up," she warned. "And one more thing: news travels fast in a community this size, what she said, what you said, why Xena and I were in the purifying-hut for so long, why she left so abruptly, all those things will be matters of conjecture. I don't want people to imagine there's a rift between us, and I don't want them taking sides between you and Xena in this. So let's go to your hut together, two friends out for a stroll." She raised a stern finger to Gabrielle's nose. "No public tears," she commanded.
The large pallet was disheveled, Gabrielle's Amazon garb was scattered carelessly where Xena had left it the night before. Xena's things were gone, as Ephiny had said they would be, leaving the room barren and cold. The bard's eyes traveled hopefully to a small bag on the low table beside the pallet. Gabrielle knew it as one of Xena's bags, and she grabbed it eagerly, spilling the contents among the bedclothes. The largest item was a dark leather pouch. The bard hefted it, and knew forlornly that it contained most of their common store of dinars. Ephiny watched as she sorted through the remaining few items: a small comb, carved of ivory; one cheap earring; a length of colorful ribbons, loosely braided; and a piece of blue glass, polished by long years in the sea. Gabrielle picked up the stone. "I found this on a beach, it's the color of her eyes, I didn't know she still had it." She fingered the comb. "I earned some dinars telling stories at a festival; she seemed upset that I spent them on her," she told the mute Amazon. "The earrings. She only wore them once, and there was a big fight in a tavern. She stayed there a long time after the fight was over. She said she was thirsty, but I think she was looking for the lost mate." Her lip quivered, as she remembered. "I don't know why I bothered to make this," she said, as she held the ribbons; "it looked so beautiful, holding back her hair, but she thought it looked gaudy. I guess when you wear battle dress all the time..." she stopped suddenly and let the long-dammed tears run hot down her cheeks. "This is everything I ever gave her, Ephiny, just left here like so much trash. She isn't coming back, is she?" For the second time that morning, Ephiny held a heartbroken friend while she wept.
King Cletus of Prestia surveyed his realm from the castle ramparts, his First Minister by his side. Maybe his daughter was right about how to end the crisis, he thought. It would be easy to pick the pipsqueak up and hurl him to the courtyard below. Easier than enduring this little game, he muttered to himself.
"Xena?" Cletus interrupted, knowing how it irked the man.
"Yes, Xena," he affirmed in a controlled tone. "She managed to elude the guard rather easily. One might almost think---" He broke off, warned by something in his monarch's eyes. This was not the time to suggest that collusion was involved. "Well," he changed direction smoothly, "one might begin to believe the tales told of her talents."
Cletus nodded, itching to boast that she had eluded them with no connivance on the part of the guard. Only Arcus and Barrus knew that Cletus was pleased by the escape, willing to bear the blow to the head to make it seem authentic. He was proud to know that Xena had managed to leave the castle precincts without doing serious harm to his loyal guard. What happened to Radec's troops appeared to be another matter, from what his own sources had said. Radec's face seemed to confirm that now.
"My forces pursued her across the border. She's apparently inflicted considerable damage on them. None of the units have been heard from since they left here. They were to have reported their whereabouts. I'm assuming there have been deaths."
"Summon them to return, if you ever hear from them again. And send no one else after her. Seems a pity to have so much bloodshed to recapture a woman who may, or may not, be guilty."
"Your Majesty, she is certainly guilty of an assault on your person," Radec pointed out. "That can't go unpunished."
"Bah," the king snorted. "I survived. It's not worth anymore deaths to pursue her. That's an end of it, Radec," he ordered. "What other business do we have?"
"There is much discussion in the city about the woman---"
"Xena," he broke in again.
"Yes, Xena. People want to know why she was in your private quarters." He raised an eyebrow in question.
"Let them keep wondering," Cletus said simply. "I suppose the king's private quarters are called that for the reason that they are private. Now is there anything else, Radec, or may I return to my weather observations.?"
"Just one more point, Your Majesty. The attempt on your life raises again the issue of your successor. You must name an heir, or place your kingdom in dire peril at your death. As you have no issue," he said archly, "I have a list of cousins---"
"I know my cousins, Radec. I will choose an heir; all in good time."
Radec, glowered at the taller man. If the guard was not watching, one of Cletus' loyal troops, it would be so easy to end the old fool's life with a fast shove over the parapet. Maybe not so easy, he said, regarding the king's greater height, and maybe not just yet. Better he told himself to wait, until he heard from Glaucon, until the successor was certain. Cletus had left it too late to make his choice, Teremon, known. With Xena a fugitive, and Teremon ensconced on the distant island of Dracatha, Radec held all the cards, and Cletus didn't even know what the game was. He could well afford the expansive smile he tendered with his reply to the king. "As you say, Your Majesty, all in good time."
There was little light coming from the fire, and that suited Glaucon. Only one person was welcome at this little party, and she would arrive, light or no light. He was sure of that. He had sent his men on an errand, no point in posting sentries, the witch would dispatch them as they waited for her. He felt secure about his own life, because he held the key to her desires. He pulled his cloak closer at a sudden chill in the air. In that moment a hand encircled his throat, and pulled his hair by the scalp.
"Oooh. One little twist and Glaucon's worries are over," came the soft voice out of the dark. He knew she was a games player, and made no reaction, save to speak softly in return.
"Callisto," he said, "you've made your point."
She laughed and released him, then settled herself on the ground opposite him, on the other side of the small fire. "I got your message Glaucon, this had better be good," she smiled, showing her teeth. Glaucon couldn't see Cletus in the girl, maybe this was all a mistake. Still, as long as she served her purpose, it mattered little whether she was really his daughter.
"This will be worth your while, Callisto, as I promised."
"You said you had information about Xena. I can't imagine it's anything I don't already know." I've been inside her head, she recalled, but her god hood was gone, and with it her chances to explore the dark recesses of Xena's mind.
"Xena doesn't even know all of what I'm about to tell you, Callisto."
She cocked her head in anticipation. "Your price? Who do you want destroyed?" she inquired.
"The same person you do, Callisto. The Warrior Princess."
She laughed happily. "You're an assassin, Glaucon, why not do it yourself?" she asked.
"Because she deserves so much more than a knife in the ribs," he told her. "She deserves your special touch."
"And you can't manage it yourself, huh?" She laughed again. "Let's hear your information," she demanded, tiring of the man, "then we'll see. What is it that Xena doesn't know about herself?"
"I'll start with something she recently discovered: she is the daughter of King Cletus of Prestia."
Her eyes grew wide. "Our little Xena a princess, a real princess! How delightful! And a bastard to boot," she chortled. "This is happy news. Her sainted mother really let her down, huh? Can't wait to toss that in her face."
"You could have some fun there, she's still digesting it herself." This was the moment of danger, Glaucon knew. If Callisto reacted badly, he was a dead man. "Here's what she doesn't know, Callisto, what neither of you know: Cletus is also your father."
Callisto's response was a shriek that echoed through the woods, as she covered her face with long fingers and absorbed this new horror. Glaucon could well imagine the terror she struck in the hearts of her victims before she ever raised an arm to them. He sat very still, hoping she would forget about him until her initial rage had passed. It was not to be. She crossed to him, grabbed him by the collar and drew him close to her face, teeth bared, eyes flashing violent intent. "You dare tell me that I share blood with the murderous bitch? That my mother... I'll kill you for that lie, little man."
"Callisto," he began quickly, "it's no lie. I tell you what was confided in me by wiser men than myself. People who know the secrets of Cletus. We all want the same thing," he assured her, "to destroy the monster." She relaxed her grip, and let him sink to the ground. "I know this is unwelcome news," he continued, "but it is true and it cannot be ignored. Even now the King, your father, plots to put the Warrior Princess on the throne as his successor." He watched the brown eyes narrow as he spoke.
"Xena? The Queen of Prestia?" That seemed to hit her hard. She had visited Prestia as a child, dimly recalled seeing the king when he passed through Cirra on his way to distant locations. That man, her father? Giving that beautiful jewel, Prestia, to Xena! Glaucon noticed that she was shaking at the same time she became aware of it, and dug her nails into her palms for control. "No, I won't let him do that," she screamed, "I'll kill him first."
"Killing him just gives her the throne," he hissed. "Kill her first," he advised her. "Then the throne can be yours."
She paused in her rage to examine his face. "You'd like that wouldn't you, me doing your dirty work. Why are you telling me this?"
"Because some of us in Prestia shudder at the thought of the Doom of Cirra on our throne. Cletus may believe that's she's repented for her past, has become a heroine; we're not as foolish. With her gone, the throne belongs to you."
She regarded him suspiciously. "If Xena is the Doom of Cirra, I'm its dreaded aftermath. Tell me, how can you want me on the throne?"
Glaucon had expected this. "Prestia buried Cirra; we wept for her victims, all her victims, living and dead. It is well understood in Prestia that Xena's evil, unredeemable deeds created you, and we can forgive you. It is fitting that you take the throne." He had said all he could. He left it to her to decide.
Callisto juggled several thoughts: a throne was being offered to her; she had allies against Xena; her mother had had a secret. One thought loomed above all: she had living family. She blanched at the thought that the woman who murdered her sister, had taken her place. Glaucon was looking at her. She forced herself to remember why. "Where is Xena?" she asked abruptly.
"She was last known to be headed toward Amazonia, though she may have business in Dracatha," he offered. Callisto turned without speaking. "What are your plans?" he asked, hoping for some sign of her intentions. Without a glance the blonde warrior disappeared into the forest.
Arcus and Barrus exchanged sidelong glances over their portions of roast rabbit, silent comments on the dark-haired warrior who sat across the fire from them, absorbed in her own task. She had not been chatty on the journey from Prestia to Amazonia. Since they had reunited beyond Amazonia, she had been a Sphinx. She spoke only to give commands, or ask essential questions. She had provided the rabbits for the meal, ate sparingly of the fare, and sat by the fire now, tending to her gear. The best maintained gear in the world, they had decided, for all the time she gave to it. They also knew that if she did not need the firelight, she would not be so near. When they had a rare break during the day she positioned herself far from the two men, ostensibly to keep lookout, but obviously to be alone. There was none of the insouciant attitude which had so irritated Arcus on that day in Prestia when she had first made their acquaintance. They missed that attitude now, and had discussed it quietly between them, determined to draw her out. She was, after all, the daughter of Cletus, and that alone made her worth the trouble, apart from the fact that they liked her.
"I was surprised to see that your friend wasn't along," Arcus commented. She shot him a glance to acknowledge that he spoke, but made no reply.
"Woody said she's quite a story-teller," Barrus put in. "We were hoping for some entertainment. A bard always seems to make the miles fly." No answer. "Haven't you found it to be that way?" he asked cheerily.
"Bards are for little children and toothless old folk with nothin' better to do," she said from clenched teeth. She returned to her work, leaving no doubt that she did not want conversation. Certainly not about Gabrielle. Damn, she thought, biting off a length of leather cord, how could she keep her out of mind if they kept bringing her up? Except it was the first time they'd brought her up since they met on the road. Everything else brought Gabrielle to mind, the scent of flowers, the stars in the sky, the smoky-fragrance of the campfire. Even Argo seemed to be missing her; and it would be like this forever, she realized bleakly. "Arcus, you have first watch, I'll relieve you," she told him. Barrus didn't need to be told that he'd have the last watch. Arcus didn't need to be told to wake her; they all knew she'd be awake already, shaken from rest by a nightmare. She picked up her gear, and walked away from the fire without a word.
"Sleep well," Barrus called, sincerely. The two soldiers shrugged.
Xena lay down on her bedding like someone placing her head on the executioner's block. She had to get this over with, she knew, a few hours sleep, a nightmare, watch and then a few more hours, maybe a second nightmare, maybe not. And then another night would be over, and she'd be one night closer to what? Tartarus? She had heard that Hades had the power to grant oblivion, to those who merited neither the Elysian Fields nor Tartarus. She wondered vaguely if it were true, and whether she would qualify. Probably not, she decided, too much still to pay for, and how much more before she died? Steeling herself for the night, she began the process of putting Gabrielle out of mind, and tried, once more to find some pleasant thought that was not connected, somehow, to the bard. She thought of Lyceus, and how it was before Cortese. That worked for a few minutes, until her mind rushed past the happy moments and seized on his death. She sat up again, breathing hard. There was so little that she could focus on, to try to produce that happy dream she longed for, that place where he
a few moments. She tried to sleep again, not hoping for a dream this time, just for a few minutes of oblivion.
She made a muffled scream when she woke this time, something she hated, and she listened for a while, wondering whether she had been heard. The moon told her she had not slept long, yet there was no point in trying to sleep again. She kicked back the blanket and donned her armor. Arcus would appreciate the early relief, she knew. Lonely watch on a chilly night made no one happy. The next day they would reach the coast, and arrange for a boat to take them to Dracatha. Then she would meet a brother, and begin the return journey. Arcus and Barrus knew more about Teremon than did she, and that suited her well. She was a coerced sword on this mission, they could be the diplomats.
"Get some sleep," she told Arcus gruffly as she approached his perch on a rock overlooking the campsite. He didn't start at her approach, had heard the stifled scream, and knew she'd be there shortly.
"You could use some sleep yourself, he said in response, just as gruffly. "You don't sleep, you don't eat, you don't talk," he observed.
"And?" she challenged.
"We don't know what Radec has still to throw at us," he continued. "You'll get yourself killed, or get one of us killed."
"I won't let you down, Arcus," she said dourly. "I know what I'm doing."
"Fine," he said over his shoulder as he returned to the campfire. "Only, if you decide to die in battle, wait until Teremon's safely in Prestia."
She was startled by his words.
Gabrielle wiped a grimy hand over her sweaty face, and leaned on the hoe she had learned to wield like a master. The new planting scheme required clearing acres of land and breaking clods of earth that had never been cultivated. Gabrielle had volunteered to help, hoping it would make the time pass, and leave her exhausted enough to sleep at night. Last night had not been a good night for sleeping. Ephiny had invited Gabrielle to use a different hut, away from the memories of the one she'd always shared with Xena. Gabrielle had declined, expressing the irrational fear that Xena might return in the night, and not finding her in the hut, leave without a word. Yet the hut was so empty without her... She bent back to her task. It was still too early for the other women to be in the fields, but Gabrielle found working beat lying awake in an empty hut. She was startled to see a blonde head nearby, bent over as if working the soil. "Ephiny," she called, wondering why the queen would be working in the fields.
"Gabrielle," came a voice which made her skin crawl, "do I look like one of your happy tribe?" Instantly, the Amazon Princess shifted hands on her hoe and dropped to a fighting stance.
"Oh, Gabrielle," the woman said in a voice that was meant to be reassuring, "relax. I just want to chat. And if I wanted to kill you, do you seriously believe you could fight me off with a hoe?" She put her hands on her hips and spread her hands, inviting Gabrielle to lower her defenses. The bard held her position. "Have it your way, Gabrielle," she lilted. "Xena's taught you well. Speaking of the noble Xena, where is she? I've been watching the village since last night, and no sign of the intrepid warrior. Is she off on some heroic mission of derring-do, leaving you to till the fields with the Amazons?"
"What do you want, Callisto?" Gabrielle asked sternly.
"I told you," she answered. "I want to see our dear Xena. I do miss her so. Last time I saw her she set my broken arm and leg." She wiggled the limbs. "See: all better."
"I'll tell her," the bard promised.
Callisto laughed, and began to pace. "So, she's coming back here?"
"I never said that," Gabrielle said tersely.
"Oh, but if you're here, she'll be back. Can't leave our beloved little one for too long." Something in Gabrielle's face made her stop. A big grin split her face. "Unless you've quarreled? Is that it? Has that big warrior walked out on you? Left you here to mend your broken heart?" Gabrielle felt her cheeks color, despite herself. "That's just like her," Callisto clucked sympathetically. "Don't suppose that princess thing has gone to her head?"
It was uncanny, Gabrielle thought, even as the color drained from her cheeks. Callisto always seemed to know everything. People who called her a witch didn't know the half of it. She stopped breathing for a moment, wondering if Callisto knew the whole story. She didn't have to wonder for long.
"Surprised that I know? Family thing," she said smugly. "That's why I want to see my big sis, let her in on the little secret." Gabrielle's mouth went dry. Callisto touched a finger to pursed lips. "I must confess to a bit of confusion. I've been led to believe that Xena doesn't know she has a sister. Yet you don't seem surprised at all. Either someone has lied to me, or you've been keeping secrets from our beloved blue-eyed wonder." She winked at Gabrielle. "Either way, it means fun for little sister."
"Callisto, Xena will be gone for a while. I don't know where she is."
"Not to worry, little Gabrielle, I do. At least, I know where she's headed." She walked over to Gabrielle and took the hoe from unresisting fingers. "That's better. Gabrielle, I'm family now. After all these years with only memories of my dead sister, it's so wonderful to have one again," she rhapsodized. "Too bad it has to be Xena. I don't suppose she's much for chats about clothes and hairstyles is she? So serious all the time. We'll have to see if we can't get her to loosen up. Oh! I forgot. Xena's left you behind." She reached a hand to Gabrielle's hair and loosely twirled a long strand around a finger. "Sorry; we'll have to play without you. I'll tell her you said goodbye," she ended harshly.
From the woods surrounding the field came the sound of many voices. Callisto tossed the hoe back to Gabrielle. "I'd love to stay and meet the rest of the girls, but I've got a family reunion to get to." Gabrielle stood, eyes fixed on the black-clad figure that strode leisurely away. She dropped her hoe and ran past the approaching women, desperate to talk to the Amazon Queen.
"Ephiny, I have to find Xena before Callisto does. She can't hear this news from her."
Ephiny nodded at Gabrielle, but her mind was elsewhere. Her vaunted Amazonian security system had been breached by the viper, and a review was in order. "You're sure she left the area?" she asked Gabrielle.
"Yes---I don't know, she said she was going to see Xena, but Callisto isn't known for her veracity. Ephiny," she said, returning to her main concern, "I can't let Callisto find her first," she repeated. Ephiny focused on what the bard was saying. She had first heard her news as one piece of a whole, with the safety of her Amazons paramount. Now, with the village alerted, and the sentries doubled, even though Callisto was almost certainly gone, she allowed her mind to digest the stunning news. Callisto and Xena, sisters. Astonishing. She appreciated Gabrielle's concern, yet wondered why the bard had accepted Callisto's words without question.
"Gabrielle, are you certain she was telling the truth? As you say, veracity isn't her best quality." she asked calmly.
"It's true, Ephiny. Cletus told me himself."
Ephiny's eyebrow shot up. "Cletus told you?" She placed her hands on her hips and leaned into the shorter woman's face. "So you know, Callisto knows, even I know, and no one's thought to tell Xena? Gabrielle, why didn't you tell her?" she demanded.
"I-I don't know," she stammered, "it seemed like the right decision at the time. She and Callisto are always at sword's point---"
"Which is exactly why she should know. Knowledge is ---"
"Power. I know, Xena always says that."
"Which means that when Callisto does meet Xena, the balance of power will be tilted in her favor." She swore an Amazon oath Gabrielle had never heard before, and stood very still, arms crossed, eyes concentrated in thought. At last she spoke. "Xena shouldn't hear this from Callisto, but I don't see how that can be helped. Callisto says she knows where to find Xena, we don't. Plus, she has a head start, so she can't be tracked, even if I was willing to put Amazon lives at risk. Xena's on her own as far as Callisto is concerned," she said reluctantly.
"I'm not sitting around doing nothing any longer," Gabrielle declared.
Ephiny took a moment to smile at the determination that shone in the young woman's face. By the Gods, if Xena could see that love...But love wasn't the problem, she had already decided. And if Xena knew about this latest secret kept from her---"What is it?" Gabrielle asked at Ephiny's slow head shake.
"Nothing," Ephiny said, breaking out of her reverie. "And I'm through with sitting around waiting myself, my Amazon Princess. I'd like to know how Callisto found out. If that old buzzard Cletus told her, I'll wring his neck. If he didn't tell her, his enemies know a lot more than he's aware of, and Xena's return to Prestia might be the equivalent of walking into a hornet's nest."
"You have something in mind," the bard asked hopefully.
Ephiny strolled over to the ceremonial mask which hung on the far wall. She lifted it off its perch and admired the workmanship with an enigmatic smile. "They haven't seen anything like this in Prestia in years. I think it's time The Royal House of Prestia was visited by Amazon Royalty."
The thick bowl of fish stew under his nose smelled enough of the sea to remind him of his recent voyage, and yet he wasn't certain what denizens of the deep were actually swimming in the noxious broth. He pushed it away and waited for his companion to return. Balceres was buying the next round of ale, which was only fitting, as he had managed to withdraw a good sum of dinars from Salmoneus since he'd arrived in port. A simple game of dice shouldn't be so one sided, unless one was playing with weighted dice. Salmoneus knew that wasn't the case, he'd insisted on providing the dice himself. His luck was bound to change, he felt certain, and a decent wager at the right moment could make all the difference. As Balceres joined him again, he slapped a fistful of dinars on the table and grinned. "My luck's about to change, Balceres. Ante up."
Balceres grinned in return, brown eyes bright, and shook his head. "You've lost enough for one day, friend, and I need to go soon. One last mug to say good-bye, eh?" He drained his mug, one eye on Salmoneus. The merchant-of-all-goods looked at him in supplication.
"My friend indeed! One last toss of the dice; double or nothing?"
Balceres looked at the door, torn between his business elsewhere and the bearded merchant with no luck. Or sense. He reached into his own pocket and extracted a sack of dinars. He spilled half on the table and tossed the dice to Salmoneus.
The older man, demurred, one hand up in apology. "Just to change my luck, could I have a fresh set of dice?" he asked sweetly.
Balceres laughed heartily and called the barkeep over. "Fresh dice," he asked, and tossed him a dinar in return. Salmoneus caught the dice, felt them roll in his hand, and, satisfied, made his toss, and counted his total with approval. That would be hard to beat. Balceres showed real concern over his prospects, then sighed, picked up the dice and tossed. Salmoneus' face fell; nearly impossible, but the dark-haired stranger had won again. Balceres shrugged, a silent comment on Salmoneus misfortune, and began to collect his winnings. A sudden vise-like grip around his neck stopped all movement.
"Drop 'em," came a breathy voice from behind him. Involuntarily his fingers flew open and the dinars spilled onto the table. Xena used her free hand to push them over to Salmoneus. "Pick 'em up, " she told the astonished merchant. She released Balceres, who turned in a rage to face the interloper. "Ya got somethin' to say to me?" she asked, in a discouraging tone.
"I won those fair and square," he ventured, speaking past her to an audience of tavern patrons.
"No, ya didn't" she countered, and grabbed his right arm. She ripped the sleeve away and revealed an array of pouches with openings to stow, or release dice, as they needed to be used or hidden. "You're good," she told him; "just not good enough." To the approval of the crowd she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his pants and scurried him through the door. She left him deposited in a puddle in the street, and reentered the tavern. Balceres muttered an oath as he lifted himself from the mud.
"Bitch," he muttered, "You'll pay, you bitch!" he promised.
Xena returned to Salmoneus' table and sat across from him. "You surprise me Salmoneus, anyone would think you're fresh off the farm."
"Xena," he spluttered, "did you see that guy? He was good, really good. So smooth, so-"
"Yeah, I saw," she reminded him. "What name does he use?" she asked. "He looks sort of familiar."
"You know, he reminded me of someone, too. Maybe that's why I trusted him." Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh," he remembered her question, "Balceres." She filed the name away as Salmoneus looked around. "Where's your little friend?" She regarded him with a blank stare. "You know," he prompted, " short, blonde hair, great---" he trailed off. Xena's look did not invite him to continue.
"She doesn't travel with me anymore," she said shortly. She had to say it for the first time to someone. She caught at the ache in her soul and gestured for another mug of the same. "You're buying," she told him.
"My pleasure," he replied, to the woman who had saved his stake. He looked at her closely now for the first time, and furrowed his brow, she looked the same as last time, but somehow, she was different, more, he realized with a small start, like the Xena he'd first met, the Xena who had led a ravaging army. It was the eyes, he decided, there was a chill in the blue, and a barrier which seemed to deflect his attempts to read her.
She felt his stare and looked up from her mug, irritated. "You staring at me Salmoneus?" she demanded.
"No!" he denied emphatically, "I was just wondering who was eating the liquamen." He waved his hand as if shooing away a vile odor.
"That would be me, Salmoneus," she said as she began to rise.
He grabbed an arm, "Xena! Sit down. What's a little of the fish sauce among friends?" he asked cozily. She eyed his hand on her arm and he pulled it back with a nervous laugh. She sat again, and he began, unbidden, to tell his tale of woe. "You know, Xena, It's good to see a friend, this lousy little town is a pretty sorry excuse for a port."
"It's no Athens," she agreed.
"It's no Potadeia!" he exclaimed, then hurried on as her face darkened. "Anyway, I had this crummy tip on some goods for sale down south, near Arberis. Know the place?"
"I was there once, can't recall much about it."
"Yeah, well the goods turned out to be something even I wouldn't sell," he said in disbelief. "Reusable scrolls? Can you imagine? You go to all the trouble of writing something, why would you want to erase all record of it?"
Xena could think of a few things she'd like to erase from her mind, but she said nothing. Why did it have to be scrolls, she thought crossly?
"And," Salmoneus continued brightly, "disappearing ink to go with it. I guess it's good for lovers who change their minds, otherwise---" He broke off, wanting to swallow his words about the scrolls and lovers. Best not to say anything about the samples he'd kept for Gabrielle. "So," he came to a quick finish, "I hopped a ship up the coast, and here I am, waiting for my next commercial venture!" She nodded absently, watching the dregs of her drink swirl in the bottom of the mug. "So, what's your business in---ah? What's the name of this polis? If I may dignify it with that term?"
"Brinnia," she said.
"And?" he prompted. She merely looked at him, a sign that she was not going to satisfy his curiosity. Some things never change, he acknowledged. But he wanted to see her smile before they parted. "Have you heard the one about the---"
"Probably," she said without a smile.
"Ah!" He paused. "Xena, I might be out of line here, but you seem a little, not yourself tonight, and if there's anything I can do..."
"Who else could I be Salmoneus?" she asked cryptically, and looked past him, as two sober fellows in drab clothing came through the door and scanned the room until their eyes lit on her. "Gotta go; good-bye Salmoneus," she said with a short nod. She swallowed the last of her drink, and moved to a new table, where she was joined by the two men. "Well?" she inquired, regarding the weathered faces across from her.
"We sail on the morning tide," Arcus told her. "A good little ship--" he began.
"A ship is 'good' if it does its job, like anything else," she snapped. "How will I find it?"
Barrus looked at her uncertainly. "Well, we thought we'd all leave here in the morning and go to the ship together."
"I'll meet you there. Where is it?"
Arcus took a breath, then took a chance. "Why not stay here at the inn, Xena? If it's a question of money, the king gave me a purse to cover expenses."
"Money," she sneered. "I don't want his money. I take care of myself. I'll be outside in time to meet the tide." She moved to the door, Arcus and Barrus in her wake. "Where do you think you're going?" she asked.
"We're in this together, Xena. "If you're under the stars, so are we," Barrus responded with a solid nod. She muttered under her breath. What did she need to do to get some time alone, she wondered? The two, carrying their kit bags, stood ready to follow her back to the woods, on an almost starless night, with a damp chill as the fog rolled in from the sea. Two soldiers, accustomed to the elements, turning down a rare, all-expense paid night at an inn in Brinnia, to keep their little task force together. Soldiers, she thought, with appreciation. She knew them better than almost anything, understood them, was one of them. She knew when she was defeated. She turned away from the door, and gestured to the stairs.
"But I'm paying my own way," she growled. She arranged for a room, then sat in the public bar room again, at a corner table, and nursed another ale. Pay your own way, she snickered at herself. After providing for Argo's board while they would be gone, paying for the room, and a few drinks, there was little left in the purse. Well, without Gabrielle I won't need so many dinars, she told herself, it was to make Gabrielle happy that we spent an occasional night at an inn, and wasted dinars on cheap, useless junk at festivals...Her hand moved involuntarily to her ear, hoping what...? She had lost an earring once... She was startled by a face near hers.
A man, shaven, clean, attired in the colorful dress sailors often adopted. She fixed on the gold earring hanging from one lobe. Her smiled at her, and gestured, seeking permission to join her. She smiled back, and nodded her consent. He was fair, with wavy hair, and chestnut eyes. His teeth were good, all there, and save for a scar on his upper lip, his skin was unblemished.
"You looked a little lonely sitting here by yourself." He considered calling her sweetheart, but decided against it. "Waiting for someone?"
"Maybe I'm waiting for you," she said, and laughed at the response. He joined in the laugh. They both knew what they wanted, and no attempt would be made to pretend otherwise. He was a sailor, fresh in port, and she was looking for a way to pass the night. She remembered using men like this, killing the dark hours until Helios mounted the sky once more. He placed a hand on her thigh and she tensed, moving closer to him. "I have a room," she breathed. His smile grew wider and he squeezed her thigh before he rose.
"My mates lose this one," he confided to her. "They had you pegged for one of those followers of Sapphos." He shook his head, incredulous. "No, I told them, she's all woman. A beauty like her could have any man she wants. Wouldn't catch her with one of those warped, unnatural---" The change in her face alarmed him. Certain she had misunderstood, he began to explain himself, "No sweetheart, don't get me wrong, I was defending you..." She had risen to face him over the table and one hand clutched his throat in a fierce vise.
"Don't ever talk about her like that." The guttural snarl was for his ears only, and his mates watched in amusement, congratulating themselves on being right about her. She released him and sank back to her seat.
"You a little confused about things?" he threw at her as he hastened back to his mates. He beckoned them to follow, and they left together, casting glances at her as they passed through the door. When they were gone she drained her mug and went up the stairs, defying comment from the curious patrons who had witnessed the little scene. She didn't really care what they thought, just wanted to be alone, with space enough to face the surging despair that she could barely contain. She closed the door to her tiny room and leaned against it A lone candle in her hand provided the only light; even the moon was absent. The last night she had spent at an inn was with Gabrielle, that night in Prestia, when so much had been said. She shuddered, remembering. Had Gabrielle been laughing at her even then? She didn't think so, but wouldn't let her mind linger too long on that evening, on that lovely face. One night at a time was all she could take. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she sank on to the bed, wondering at the fact that she had survived thus far, hoping she could hang on long enough to finish this task. This one was for Solon, her last chance to be of use to her son. Gods, another face loomed before her, the sunny, open visage of the child she'd cradled so briefly. She clutched her elbows, arms pressed against her stomach and rocked silently on the edge of the bed, reluctantly pushing him to the corners of her mind. Her bracers, greaves and boots were laid aside with her breastplate. She lay down, and surrendered to the inevitable almost immediately.
She imagined that her cry still echoed even as she sat up in bed, hoping no one had heard. She turned on her side, resting her head on one arm. Maybe that nightmare would be it for the night, she guessed hopefully. Maybe she would get some rest. Even as she thought this, she closed her eyes and saw Gabrielle, smiling at her, the light of the sun shining from her face. She caught her lip between her teeth and bit hard, determined to end the agony. Carefully, gently, she drew black velvet around the little bard, layer after layer, wrapping her until the light was obscured and no soft laughter could escape. She took the package to the edge of an abyss, steeled herself to drop it in, and watched as it plummeted endlessly, out of sight. She absently slammed a fist against the recent wound in her thigh, ripping the stitches, relieved to feel some other pain for a change.