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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.
This is Part II of "Blood Loyalty." The entire story is a continuation of "Consequences," which is also posted at Tom's Xena Page. Some references are made to events in that piece.
This story is probably in the PG-13 ratings area. There is no overt sex or violence, although references are made to 'off-screen' violent acts.
"Joxer!" she said. The young man glared up at her, but did not respond.
"This is impossible," Xena stated flatly. "Joxer couldn't kill a flea if he tried."
"We found him trying to sneak out of the alley with this in his hand," Eumelus asserted. Xena knew the king's lieutenant as an honest man. He would not maliciously slander an innocent.
"What alley?" Iphicles inquired curtly.
"The alley alongside the house where Stavros and his family live," said Eumelus.
Suddenly Xena jolted. "Close the city gates; don't let anyone out," she ordered.
"What!" said Iphicles.
"Have him," Xena nodded toward Joxer, "locked up for now." She took Iphicles by the arm and led him to the front of the hall. Behind them, the guards took Joxer away.
"Tell your guards to keep watch for a man who looks just like Joxer."
"Xena, what in Tartarus is going on here?"
"Joxer has a brother, an identical twin," said Xena. Iphicles groaned. "His name's Jett. He's an assassin, a hit man for hire. I think Jett must have killed Stavros, and Joxer's trying to protect him."
"Wonderful," said Iphicles. He called for Eumelus and relayed the information to his lieutenant. Eumelus went swiftly with a group of his men to secure the city gates.
"I want to look at Stavros," said Xena. "Is there someplace I can do that?"
"Yeah, down in the cellar." Iphicles nodded to those of his men who still bore the actor's body. "Take him downstairs."
As the guards carried away Stavros, Gabrielle suddenly appeared through the doorway.
"Xena, what's going on? People are rioting in the streets."
"Stavros was murdered," Xena responded without preamble. Her friend winced. "The king's guards found Joxer with a bloody knife in his hand."
"Joxer?" Gabrielle echoed. "Are you sure it's not Jett?"
"Well, the man we just locked up is Joxer," said Xena. "Iphicles has his guards combing the city for Jett."
"I can't believe someone would kill Stavros," Gabrielle said, a look of dismay on her face. "Why?"
"We'll find out," said Xena. "Where's Medon?"
"He's with the other guards, trying to get people to calm down," said Gabrielle. To Iphicles, she said, "It's a madhouse out there."
"I'll go take care of it," said Iphicles. "Have a look at Stavros and let me know if you find anything." Throwing an apologetic look to Xena, the king and his men departed.
"What are we looking for?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm not sure," Xena responded, rolling up the sleeves of her gown. "But I want to have a look at his body before he's buried."
The actor's body had been laid out on a stone slab in a small, cool basement room, one that seemed designed specifically for the washing and preparing of the dead for burial.
"Help me get his clothes off," said Xena. At one time, Gabrielle might have squirmed with embarassment or distaste at such a task, but now she went briskly to the actor's feet and removed his sandals while Xena raised the man's torso and slipped off his tunic.
Xena then unfastened the simple cord Stavros had worn as a belt and unlaced the flap of his plain linen trousers. While Gabrielle lifted the actor's midsection, Xena drew off the pants and set them with the rest of the deceased man's clothing.
"What's this?" Gabrielle fingered an amulet around the actor's neck.
"Let me see." Xena took a careful look, then slipped off the chain. "Looks like a sun amulet that's been split in half," she murmured.
Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Medon said that Stavros worshipped Apollo."
"But only half a sun?" Xena pondered. The silver disk had been crafted with curling flames around the outer edge; however, the circle seemed to have been severed in two. On closer inspection, though, Xena realized the amulet had been crafted as a half-disk deliberately. Somewhere, she felt certain, someone else wore another half-sun amulet.
Xena set aside the pendant and turned her attention back to Stavros. When the king's men had brought in the actor's body, Xena had not seen any signs of bleeding, although the knife Joxer carried had been covered with blood. The incongruity puzzled her.
Stavros had been in excellent health. He'd been very slender and subtly muscled. Even with the pallor of death, Xena noted the peachy-fair tone of his skin. She examined the front of his body and found no wounds. Xena next lifted the head and carefully felt his scalp with her fingertips. She detected no unusual lumps, and her fingers came away free of blood. So the actor had not died of a head injury. Xena lifted each eyelid, and did not find bleeding, or any other signs of damage to his eyes.
"His hair is short," Gabrielle remarked.
"Yeah, he must've been wearing a wig in the play. Here, help me turn him over."
Gabrielle helped her turn the cadaver, and Xena stared at the dead man's back, as unmarked as the front.
"So where'd that blood come from?" Xena asked herself.
"From here?" Gabrielle asked dubiously, indicating a scratch on the actor's arm.
"No, the knife was covered with blood." Xena looked closely at the scratch on the left forearm. "That's odd," she said softly.
"What's odd?" said Gabrielle.
Xena straightened up. "If someone's being stabbed at with a knife, they usually throw up an arm like this." She demonstrated, raising her left arm, as if to ward off a blow. "He has exactly the kind of scratch he might have if he raised his arm and someone grazed him with the knife. It's just a scratch, not even a cut." She lifted the arm and took another look. "It barely broke the skin, so Stavros couldn't have been very close to whoever did this. But the blood isn't dry," she added. "This is fresh; it must have been done right when he died."
The two women turned at the sound of footsteps. A moment later, Iphicles entered the chamber. "Having any luck?" he asked.
"Not really. Come look at this." Xena showed him the scratch on the dead man's arm. "This is the only mark on him. Joxer couldn't have killed Stavros, not with that knife anyway. That must be someone else's blood."
"Then how'd Stavros die?" asked Gabrielle.
"I'm still working on that," Xena responded. Of Iphicles, she inquired, "Have there been any other deaths tonight?"
"No," said the king, looking weary. "A lot of brawling, but we got them to settle down." He pushed tired fingers through his hair. Xena observed that he'd removed his crown and cloak, and now seemed less like a king and more like an overworked bureaucrat.
"Xena, maybe Stavros was poisoned," Gabrielle said abruptly.
Xena stared at her friend. "Maybe there was poison on the knife," the bard clarified.
"Iphicles, go get me that knife," said Xena. The king complied promptly. "What ever made you think of that?" the warrior asked.
"He must have died quickly," said Gabrielle, touching the actor's chest. "He's still warm." She took a motionless hand in her own. "He's cooling off, though."
Xena sniffed around the dead man's nose, then opened his mouth. She detected nothing. "If it was poison, it sure worked fast," she remarked.
Iphicles returned with the knife. "Here," he said. Xena carefully scrutinized the weapon. She examined the bloodied blade, then sniffed it.
"I don't smell anything," she said, her voice puzzled. She gave the knife back to Iphicles. "Keep that someplace safe," she said. "Don't clean it." The king nodded.
"If Stavros was killed with poison, it must have been faster than anything I know of." Xena rapidly reviewed in her mind the list of possible culprits, but most toxins left telltale marks-- an odor, convulsing or paralysis of the limbs, hemorrhaging in the eyes.
"Snake venom?" Gabrielle suggested.
"Could be, but even venom takes time..." Xena trailed off. "If someone's keeping vipers, they might have milked the poison by having the snake bite an animal, probably something small, like a pig or a dog. Then they stuck the knife into the carcass."
"That'd explain the blood," said Iphicles.
"Have your men look around for anyone who might be keeping snakes," Xena told the king. "And for anyone trying to get rid of an animal carcass." Iphicles nodded. "I'll come with you," said Xena. She wanted to have a look around the city herself; in her present state; she'd never sleep anyway.
"Me too," said Gabrielle. She re-covered the actor's body with a sheet. Xena took the half-sun amulet and slipped it over her own head, concealing the ornament beneath her gown. Then the three set out for the city.
They searched the city from one end to the other, but found no trace of snakes, animal carcasses, or Jett. In the small hours of the morning, they finally had to surrender to weariness, and returned to the palace. The two women trudged up to their rooms in the guest quarters, where they dropped into bed for a few hours' sleep.
The first rays of dawn pulled Xena from slumber. She quickly dressed and went down to the washroom, then hurried into the kitchen. The servants had set out a cold breakfast, and she took some bread and fruit, which she ate while contemplating her next move.
She decided to go have a talk with the other actors, to see if any of them could shed light on where Stavros had gone after the play. Given the amount of time that had passed between the end of the play and the murder of Stavros, Xena knew the actor had had plenty of opportunity for an encounter that might have been the cause of his demise.
The warrior retraced her steps through the palace and left through the main gate. She'd not taken half a dozen paces when loud, angry jeers caught her attention. Xena hurried forward, then caught a glimpse of a couple who'd just rounded a corner from behind a building.
The pair walked very quickly in the direction of the palace. As they drew closer, Xena saw that the woman wore an unadorned white gown. A black veil covered her head, falling nearly to her waist. A young man walked beside her, his body language defensive, his head turning from side to side.
From behind the same corner, a crowd of people emerged, who must have been following the couple. Xena could hear shouted taunts. She hurried closer, and as she approached the pair, a stone flew from the crowd, striking the woman's shoulder. She cried out in pain, and the young man quickly stepped between the woman and the mob, his body shielding her from the next two stones.
Xena didn't waste any time. She broke into a run, and with an ear-piercing battle cry, valuted up over the couple's heads, somersaulted through the air, and landed to face the angry crowd. She pulled her chakram off its clip and used it to deflect the next half-dozen stones. The missiles shot back at the attackers, and the throng drew away, suddenly wary and respectful. Xena unsheathed her sword and stood in front of the harried pair.
"A mob against two people?" Xena demanded. "Hardly seems like fair odds to me."
A youth with red, swollen eyes pointed an accusing finger at the veiled woman. "Murderess!" he shouted, his voice cracking. "Whore!"
The young man guarding the woman lunged, but Xena caught his arm and pulled him back.
"She murdered Stavros!" a woman screamed. "That lying, two-faced, cold-blooded bi--"
"Where's your proof?" Xena shot.
The crowd erupted into a cacophony of accusations, some pointing fingers, others gesticulating violently with stones still in their hands. Suddenly a deafening bellow broke through the din.
At once every person in the mob fell utterly still. Xena glanced to her right and saw Iphicles come striding up alongside her, his face hard with anger. He looked with disgust at the crowd, at the stones in people's hands, and demanded, "What is this, an execution squad?"
The people shifted uncomfortably. Many dropped their stones to the ground. Xena noted that most of them looked tired and frustrated, their eyes red from weeping, their skin pallid from lack of sleep. She realized these must be people who had admired Stavros, and were venting their grief upon this hapless woman.
One man spoke up boldly. "Hemera killed Stavros," he declared. "Or arranged to have him murdered."
"Do you have proof?" asked Iphicles coldly. "Apart from the gossip of your neighbors?"
The people glanced at their feet, or off into the distance-- anywhere but at the king's face.
"I didn't think so," said Iphicles. "I'll remind you that decisions about guilt, innocence, and punishment are my business, not yours. I promise you I'll do everything I can to bring whoever murdered Stavros to justice, but there won't be any trial by mob. Not in Corinth, not as long as I'm king. Now, all of you have homes and work you should be tending. Go."
The crowd quietly melted away, leaving the foursome alone in the square. Iphicles hurried to the woman's side. "Hemera," he said gently. "I'm so sorry." The black veil bobbed up and down, but the woman beneath it said nothing. "Are you all right, Elpenor?" the king asked.
The young man nodded also.
"Come on," said Iphicles. "Let's get back inside, where we can talk about this in peace."
They found Gabrielle inside the main gate. She followed them into a small, sunny room down a hallway from the throne room. Iphicles closed the door. Xena glanced around the chamber curiously; it looked to her like the king's study. She spied a table strewn about with scrolls, quills, and a bottle of ink.
"Sit down, please." Iphicles gestured for the four others to sit, which they did, although uneasily.
"Can I get you anything to eat or drink?" asked Iphicles.
"No, thank you," said the veiled woman. "Elpenor and I are fasting until the funeral for Stavros is over."
"Of course," the king said swiftly.
As if aware of the others' disquiet, the mourning woman drew off her black veil and folded it neatly in her lap. She looked tired and sad, but remarkably composed, given the circumstances.
"I'm Hemera," she said in a quiet, beautiful voice. "Stavros was my husband."
Xena scrutinized the widow who had drawn such enmity from the crowd. Hemera had a heart-shaped face, framed with a tangle of soft, brown curls. Her hair picked up the sunlight, giving it a golden sheen. She had eyes of the same honey-brown color, and the very pale skin of a wealthy woman who rarely ventured out into the sun. Her undecorated gown of white silk spoke of luxury, a woman with the means to afford formal mourning attire.
Hemera gestured to the youth at her right. "This is Elpenor, my son," she said. Even without the introduction, Xena would have identified the young man as offspring of Stavros. Elpenor had his father's striking bone structure: the high cheekbones and forehead, the beautiful jaw, the wide-set eyes. His neatly cut hair waved, rather than curled; like his mother's, the color was a gold-shaded brown. Eyes as vividly blue as Xena's own blazed beneath thick eyebrows. Like Hemera, Elpenor didn't seem to have slept recently, but he wore an alert expression nevertheless.
"This is Xena," said Iphicles, "and this is Gabrielle. They're friends of mine, and they're helping me get to the bottom of this."
Hemera nodded. To Xena, she said, "Thank you for defending me today. Those people-- they loved Stavros. They almost thought of him as an immortal. Please don't be too angry with them."
"Hemera," said Iphicles, "I know this is a difficult time for you, but we need any help you can give us. Do you know where Stavros went after the play last night?"
"The Temple of Apollo," said Hemera promptly. "He always went there to give thanks after a performance."
"Alone?" asked Xena.
A faint wave of color rose to the widow's cheeks, but her gaze didn't waver from Xena's face. "Alone except for perhaps a priest or two. They respected his wishes for privacy."
"And then?" asked Iphicles.
"I'm not sure," said Hemera. "Sometimes he'd go to a tavern for supper with the other actors. Sometimes he'd come home. I think he must have been coming home last night-- he was right outside our house when--" Her voice shook slightly and she stopped speaking.
"When you came to see me last night," she said to Iphicles after a moment, "you told me there was a man in custody."
"There is," said the king, "but we don't think he's the killer."
"Why did that mob think you killed Stavros?" Xena asked abruptly.
Hemera waffled briefly. "I-- they must have-- I'm not sure," she said, but color stained her cheeks. Xena observed a dark, angry look on Elpenor's face.
"Or do you just not want to talk about it?" Xena pressed. Elpenor started to stand up, but the warror gestured for him to sit. "Hemera, we have to know everything you can tell us if we're going to find whoever killed your husband. Please believe that we're not doing this to embarass you. Nothing you tell us will leave this room. You have my word on that."
Hemera sighed. She seemed to collect her thoughts for a moment, then she began speaking.
"Stavros and I were betrothed as children," she said. "Our parents arranged the match. My father was a goldsmith. He had wealth, but no family status, and I was his only child. Stavros was the only heir to one of the oldest families in Corinth. His father was a kind man, but perhaps too kind, and worse, foolish. People took advantage of him, and by the time Stavros was nine or ten, his father had almost no money left."
"So our fathers made a bargain. My father bailed out Stavros' father, in exchange for Stavros marrying me."
"So his family gained money, and your family gained status," observed Gabrielle.
"Exactly," said Hemera. "I was fourteen when we married; Stavros was fifteen." She smiled. "Stavros was good to me," she said. "He was as kind and generous as his own father. We had two children, our daughter Delia, and Elpenor. Stavros was a wonderful father to both of them." Xena glanced over to see Elpenor visibly fighting tears.
"My father had thought to train Stavros as a goldsmith, but he had no real talent for either the craft, or the business of selling jewelry. Stavros lived for the stage. So I apprenticed to my father, and as soon as Elpenor was old enough to learn, so did he. We ran the business together after my father died three years ago, which brought in money, and left Stavros free to pursue his acting."
Xena kept nodding.
"A few years after Elpenor was born, Stavros realized... well, I think he'd always known, but..." Hemera faltered, as if unsure how to continue.
"Do you want me to tell them?" asked Elpenor.
"No," said Hemera, taking a deep breath. "Stavros... he loved other men," she said simply.
Xena nodded. She'd had such men in her armies, although she'd mostly recruited only those men she could control with her sexuality.
"He never intended to hurt or betray me," said Hemera. "He cared about me, and he loved our children, but he could never love me the way men love women. He would never shame our families. To my knowledge, he took no lovers until after all our parents had died. We... had an... arrangement," Hemera concluded, turning red again.
"Both of you could see whoever you wanted, so long as you kept it discreet?" asked Xena.
Hemera nodded. "It may seem odd, but it worked. Our daughter married and moved to Nauplia," she said. "Nothing we did affected her. And Elpenor never held his father's... tastes against him."
The widow gazed at the shafts of golden sunlight that streamed into the room. "About a year and a half ago, Stavros introduced me to Melisseus," she said softly. "And for the first time in my life, I knew how it felt to be in love with a man."
"And you never thought to leave Stavros?" asked Xena.
"Never!" said Hemera vehemently. "I loved him; he was one of the best friends I've ever had. He was honest, and hard-working, and a wonderful father..." her voice shook, and she dropped her head. "Forgive me," she said wearily. "I'm getting maudlin." She lifted her head again. "And Stavros loved me so much... he wanted me to be happy. He thought Melisseus and I would get on well, and so he introduced us deliberately. They were good friends, and Stavros knew he could trust Melisseus to be discreet."
"I understand," said Xena, keeping her voice quiet. Her mind rapidly assembled the pieces of this most peculiar puzzle.
"But discreet or not, people guess," said Hemera. "They always do. But they wouldn't say anything while Stavros was alive; they loved him too much, and probably thought his private life was his own business. But now I'm sure they all think I had Stavros murdered so I could marry Melisseus."
"Where were you last night?" asked Xena.
"After the play, I went home," said Hemera.
"Was anyone with you?" Xena continued.
"Only me," said Elpenor.
"What about Melisseus?" asked Xena.
"No, he would never come to the house on such a public night," said Hemera. "I haven't seen him since yesterday."
"So you don't know what he did last night?" said Iphicles.
"No, I have no idea," Hemera responded.
"Then it doesn't look good for him, either," assessed Xena grimly.
"Xena," said Gabrielle, "what about the amulet?"
"Oh, yeah." Xena fished into her bodice and produced the half-sun amulet. "Do you know what this is?" she asked, showing the ornament to Hemera. "Stavros was wearing it."
"That's odd." The widow frowned. "It looks like half a sun. I could understand Stavros wearing a sun amulet," she said. "He was devoted to Apollo. But a half-sun?"
Elpenor examined the amulet carefully. He turned it over, then made a small noise of surprise.
"Look," he said. "That mark? It's delta. Diodores used to mark his work that way. He must have made this."
"Diodores was killed last year," said Gabrielle.
"We sold the last of his stock," said Elpenor, glancing at the king. "And King Iphicles had the money taken to Crete, where the kin of Diodores lived. But this is his work. He must have made it before he died."
"Do you know if Stavros had any lovers now?" asked Xena. "Did someone give this to him?"
"I don't know," said Hemera. "He kept his private life to himself."
"We need to talk to anyone who might know where he went after the play last night," said Xena. "We should start with the other actors." Perhaps, she thought, Stavros might have had a lover among his fellow-thespians.
"Start with Metion," suggested Iphicles. "If anyone would know, it's him."
They all stood. Hemera twisted the veil in her hands. "I'd like to wash and shroud Stavros now," she said calmly.
"Of course," said Iphicles. He summoned two guards and his own personal servant to assist the widow in her joyless task.
"No," said Metion. "No, I have no idea where he went last night after he left the temple."
The actor who'd staged the previous night's play seemed older now, less boyish. Like so many others in the city, he didn't seem to have slept well, and his sandy hair stood up in disarrayed clumps on his head.
"But did he go to the temple?" Iphicles clarified.
"Yeah, he went by himself," said Metion. "I saw him go in, then I took off for Liber's tavern with the rest of the troupe. We waited for him, but he never showed up. We thought the mob must've scared him away."
Xena hesitated, then drew out the half-sun amulet and showed it to Metion. He examined the medallion, nodding.
"That was his," Metion confirmed. "He wore it under his clothes, always. I asked him once if it wasn't a dishonor to Apollo to wear only half a sun. He winked and said--" the actor's features suddenly shifted, and he looked for a moment so uncannily like Stavros that the dead man's spirit might have entered his body-- "'the second half is worn by another devotee, as a sign that we're bound together in our service to Apollo.'" Metion's face once again became his own.
"But you didn't know who it was?" asked Gabrielle.
"No, he never told me. He must've been serious about it," Metion remarked. "He had that amulet for a year."
"That fits," commented Xena. "We know that Diodores the Silversmith made the amulet before he died, and that was a year ago. So Stavros had this lover for at least a year, maybe more."
"And you never saw him?" Iphicles asked.
Metion shook his head. "No. I'm sorry I wasn't more nosy; I might have learned something useful."
Xena, Gabrielle, and Iphicles next stopped at the beautiful Temple of Apollo. The nervous priest on duty didn't want to talk about the previous night, but after some gentle pressure from the king, he finally relented.
"He was in here," said the priest, leading the threesome into a secluded inner chamber. "We always left him alone, of course."
The room had no other doors, save the one. "You must have seen Stavros leave," said Xena. "Did he leave through the front of the temple? Did anyone see him?"
"People who admired him would often wait outside. He used the private door to the priests' quarters, and left through the side door. I let him out myself." Sadness creased the man's face. "I may have been the last person to see him alive."
Apart from the person who killed him, Xena thought grimly.
They decided to check Liber's tavern, just to be sure nobody had seen Stavros after he left the temple.
They found the building half-destroyed. Outside the tavern, three young men repaired a badly damaged wall. Inside, a woman swept up a pile of broken crockery, an adolescent girl mopped the floor, and pair of boys repaired broken tables and benches under the guidance of a man who looked old enough to be the children's great-grandfather.
A middle-aged man popped up from behind the bar. "We're closed," he barked, then stopped short. "Your majesty," he sputtered. Then he regained his composure. "Couldn't you keep a better handle on those ruffians?" he demanded. "This whole confounded festival was your idea; I should think you'd have had enough guards to keep the crowds under control."
"What happened?" asked Iphicles.
"Happened?! A mob is what happened. It was just an ordinary, busy night until these crowds started showing up, looking for a free dinner."
"Free dinner?" Xena echoed.
"Yeah, seems some troublemaker went around yelling that the food was free and the drinks were on the house. In all the taverns, they said! It's amazing there's a single tavern standing in the city, and that's--"
"Wait, wait," said Gabrielle. "Did they use those exact words? 'The food is free and the drinks are on the house?'"
"Yeah," said Liber, looking confused. "Is that important?"
"It might be," said Xena.
While Iphicles talked reassuringly with the barkeep, Gabrielle drew Xena aside. "That's exactly what I wrote on the scroll Aphrodite enchanted," the bard whispered. "I wrote 'the food is free and the drinks are on the house.' And the ale started pouring out of the ceiling."
"And Joxer is the only other person who'd know about that," Xena murmured back.
"So why would he run around Corinth telling everyone that the taverns were serving free food?" Gabrielle asked.
"To create a distraction, probably," Xena speculated.
"To cover for Jett?" Gabrielle's voice echoed her dismay. "Do you think he knew Jett was going to--"
Xena gestured subtly for Gabrielle to be quiet. Iphicles re-joined them. "What's up?" he asked.
"We may have something," the warrior said in a low voice. "Come on."
Joxer sat on a bench in a corner of his cell, silent, and stubborn as a mule. Without his silly armor, he looked young and small. On the floor sat an untouched tray of food-- whether this reflected lack of appetite, or a form of protest, Xena couldn't be sure.
"Joxer," she said, hunkering down so she could meet his eyes. "We know Jett is in the city somewhere. Do you know if someone hired him to come here and kill Stavros?"
"Did you create a distraction last night to cover for Jett?" Xena pressed.
"Do you know where Jett is hiding?"
Joxer stared up at the ceiling.
Impatiently, Xena lunged, and jabbed her fingers into the presser points on Joxer's neck. She waited. His face grew pale, then blue, and his eyes bugged out. But still he said nothing. At the last possible moment, Xena released the pressure points. Joxer sagged against the wall, gasping. A trickle of blood ran down from his nose. The warrior sighed inaudibly. Joxer knew full well she'd never kill him; trying to scare him had just been an exercise in futility.
"Joxer," said Gabrielle from outside the cell. "We understand that you want to protect your brother, but he may have killed someone. Keeping quiet isn't going to help him. It's only going to make it worse when we find him."
The young man stared for a moment at the woman he loved, then he lowered his gaze to the floor without comment.
Xena shook her head and let herself back out of the cell.
"Stubborn wretch," Xena muttered.
"What do you want me to do about him?" asked Iphicles.
"Nothing, for now," said Xena. She picked up a piece of dried meat from the table of lunch foods and chewed on it. She and Iphicles sat alone at the table; Gabrielle had left already for the bard competition.
"He knows we won't torture him," said the warrior. "We'll never get a thing out of him. He must be protecting Jett. I've never seen him just clam up like this."
"It's funny, isn't it?" the king mused. "People will defend their family, no matter how foolish or dangerous they are."
"Yeah." Xena frowned, staring out into the courtyard. She tried to make sense of the jumbled collection of clues.
"Who does Jett usually work for?" asked Iphicles. "Kings? Warlords?"
"Anyone who'll pay him," said Xena. "I don't imagine he's too fussy. He'd been hired to murder Cleopatra once, and--" she stopped talking abruptly. After a moment, she sat up straight in her chair. "We've been looking at this all wrong," she said. "We're focusing too much on Jett and not enough on Stavros."
"How so?" the king inquired.
"Why would an actor be a target for assassination?" asked Xena. "Did he have political connections? Did he have enemies?"
"Not that I know of," responded Iphicles.
"Maybe Stavros wasn't the intended victim at all," Xena went on. "Maybe it was Melisseus."
The king stared at her blankly. "Why?"
"Think about it. Stavros and Melisseus looked enough alike so that someone might've mistaken one of them for the other, especially at night. They were about the same height and build, and they had almost the same coloring. And Melisseus was known to be having an affair with Hemera, so it would make sense for him to be outside her house."
"Gods." Xena could see the implications of her remarks beginning to dawn on Iphicles. "You could be right. And if Melisseus had died--"
"The new amphitheater," said Xena. "What would have happened to it?"
"It might've been built eventually, but without Melisseus, we'd have been set back at least a year, if not more. Good builders aren't always easy to find, and the best ones usually need a year or two before they can commit to a big project."
"And who'd benefit most directly if the amphitheater didn't get built?"
"King Periander," said Iphicles, his brow furrowing angrily. "That bastard."
"He could easily have hired Jett," said Xena. Suddenly her fist thumped down on the table. "Gods, why didn't I think of this earlier?" she almost shouted. Lowering her voice, she added, "Jett was imprisoned in Megarid after he tried to kill Cleopatra."
"So Periander would've had the authority to release him," said Iphicles. "And he probably let Jett out of prison on condition he kill Melisseus."
Iphicles called for one of his guards. When the man appeared, the king ordered, "Go find Melisseus, and bring him here. Tell him I want to see him. It's important." The guard nodded and left with alacrity.
"So this is why Periander ignored everything I told him," said Iphicles, fuming. "He figured it'd be easier to sabotage my work than to run Megarid honestly. Well, he won't get away with it, not over my dead body."
"Joxer must have found out about this, somehow," Xena speculated. "But I can't imagine him trying to create a distraction to cover for Jett."
"Maybe he wasn't," said Iphicles, rising. "Maybe he was trying to make it more difficult for Jett, giving Melisseus a chance to get lost in the crowd."
Xena stood also. "You're right," she said. "And when he found Jett had killed the wrong man, he grabbed the knife and took the blame. You already know Joxer, and you know he'd never kill anyone, so he knew he'd be safe."
"He's smarter than he looks," said Iphicles.
"Let's hope he's not too smart for his own good," said Xena. "I'm going to the bard competition," she added. The king nodded. Xena hurried from the great hall and up to her room in the guest quarters. She knew that Jett shared his twin's fascination with Gabrielle, and she wouldn't put it past the assassin to slip into the bard competition. Xena knew that if Jett saw her, he'd flee, so a change of clothing would help.
As Xena rounded a corner, she almost ran into someone coming in the other direction.
"Excuse me." Medon swiftly side-stepped the warrior and continued on his way, but not before Xena saw the guard's sallow face, and eyes swollen red from weeping.
"This is the story of Cecrops, the lost mariner of Athens."
Gabrielle stood on the stage under the bright mid-day sun. Throngs of people crowded the square to watch the bard competition, now well under way. Gabrielle was one of the last contestants. Over on one side, beneath a shaded canopy, sat Metion, pressed into service as the judge of the event in the wake of Stavros' death.
Xena milled slowly about the edges of the crowd, keeping her eyes open. With one corner of her mind, she listened to Gabrielle's recitation, but the larger part of her attention focused on scanning faces, looking for anyone who might be Jett in disguise.
She'd exchanged her habitual armor for the blue dress, and had folded a scarf of the same color over her head, transforming herself from a warrior into an ordinary woman. With luck, Jett wouldn't even look twice at her.
Gabrielle continued with her narrative. People laughed and cheered when she described Xena's leap from the island to the mariner's cursed ship, considerably exaggerating the distance the warrior had flown through the air. Xena paused in her surveillance, and thought, it was a long jump, but it wasn't that far! She'd have to talk with her friend about toning down the hyperbole in these stories.
Xena kept looking in the crowd, taking utmost care to draw no attention to herself. Then she paused, taking another look at Gabrielle. The bard gesticulated with her Amazon staff as she spoke, and it seemed to Xena that Gabrielle's gestures swept from right to left rather emphatically. The warrior moved closer to the stage. Without breaking the rhythm of her story, Gabrielle caught Xena's gaze, and moved her own eyes deliberately to the left.
Xena kept her body still, and slowly turned her head to the right, following the bard's line of vision. She saw, over on the edge of the crowd, an unremarkable young man in nondescript homespun clothing. His eyes never wavered from the woman on the stage. Slowly, cautiously, Xena began to inch her way toward him.
"...and the storm pelted down from the sky, lashing the ship with Poseidon's wrath--" Gabrielle gave her staff a furious shake.
Xena moved closer in Jett's direction.
"...when suddenly an enormous wave crashed over the ship, knocking everything down with its force, and cracking the mainsail in two!"
Gabrielle let fly with her staff. The weapon shot straight through the air with a spear-like precision. As the crowd gasped, the wooden shaft struck Jett squarely in the forehead. He wavered for one astonished moment on his feet, then toppled over. Xena sprang toward him, pushing people aside as she ran.
"He needs help," she heard someone say.
"Leave him alone," Xena said, reaching Jett at last. She got an arm under the assassin's prone form and hauled him up. "He's mine."
A second figure pushed its way through the crowd to Xena's side. "Here, let me get him for you," said Eumelus.
"Thanks." Xena kicked Gabrielle's staff up into her hand and hurtled the weapon back toward the stage. The bard hadn't missed a beat of her story, and most of the audience barely noticed the commotion with Jett. She caught the staff in her hands and continued her narrative. As Xena carried away the unconscious hit man, aided by the king's lieutenant, she heard Gabrielle finish the story, amidst wild applause from the appreciative crowd.
"Strip him," ordered Xena.
Eumelus and his men swiftly set to work, removing the assassin's clothes. Xena examined each garment carefully as Eumelus handed it to her. Jett remained unconscious, blissfully oblivious to the procedure. Outside the cell, Joxer watched uneasily, Gabrielle at his side.
"Ah!" said the king's lieutenant suddenly. He'd just removed Jett's belt, and had made a discovery, which he handed to Xena.
"What is it?" asked Iphicles. Xena showed him.
"A hollow reed." The warrior held up the small tube, only about the length of her hand. She held it up to the torchlight and peered through it.
"Is this important?" the king inquired.
"Yeah," said Xena. "You can blow darts out through one of these. Poisoned darts," she added.
"You think that's how he might've killed Stavros?"
"Possibly," said Xena. She glanced at Joxer, who looked back at her, but said nothing.
Jett also carried a knife in each boot, but both weapons were clean. Xena found a collection of lock-picks sewn into one boot, which she took the liberty of removing. The rest of his clothing yielded no further clues. Xena ordered the guards to re-dress the hit man, and she left the cell with her companions. Now they'd have to wait until Jett regained consciousness.
"Who hired you?" asked Iphicles.
Jett said nothing. He gazed up at the king and smirked. Despite his imprisonment, despite the colorful bruise on his forehead, the assassin's facade of bravado had not cracked.
"You know," said Iphicles, hunkering down to Jett's eye level, "I could just hang you and be done with it."
"You won't," Jett sneered. "You're too humane for that."
"You really think so?" The king straightened up. "Then I'll have you escorted back to Periander and let him deal with you however he pleases."
Xena saw the hit man visibly jolt at the mention of Periander's name. She noted the fear that briefly flashed through his eyes. Jett did not relish being shipped back to Megarid's king, his mission a failure.
"Think about that," said Iphicles. "You talk, and I'll keep you here. But if you don't say anything by first light tomorrow, you're going back to Megara in chains."
Iphicles motioned for a guard to let him out of the cell. As the door swung shut behind him, a flurry of noise from outside the prison area became audible.
"Your majesty." Eumelus burst into the cell block, clearly agitated. "Come quickly-- you're not going to like this--"
"Oh, no!" said Gabrielle.
Iphicles cursed under his breath. To Eumelus, he said, "Where'd you find him?"
"A woman who runs a stall in the marketplace found him, stuffed between her storage baskets," said the lieutenant.
Xena had already set about examining the dead man's body, which the king's guards had brought down to the same basement room where she'd examined Stavros. Jett remained locked up; Joxer had been released from his cell, but Iphicles had forbidden him to leave the palace. Guards had taken the young man back upstairs while Gabrielle and Xena helped the king deal with this new mishap.
"He's cooling off, but there's a little warmth left in him," said Xena. "He hasn't been dead long." Since about the time of the bard competition, she thought. Around the same time they'd apprehended Jett.
The guards helped Xena to strip the clothes off the cadaver. As they removed the tunic, Gabrielle caught her breath.
"By Zeus," Iphicles growled.
Silently, Xena slipped off the chain and eased it over the dead man's head. Silver gleamed in the torchlight as the warrior held up the half-sun medallion so that everyone could look at it. She turned it over and noted the tiny delta etched into the back.
"This is the other half," said Xena.
"So Medon and Stavros were lovers?" asked Gabrielle doubtfully, gazing down at the dead guard.
"It looks like it," Xena responded, turning her attention from the amulet to Medon's body. With Iphicles and Gabrielle assisting her, she gave this corpse the same careful scrutiny as she'd given Stavros. She found nothing on the front of his body, but when the three of them turned Medon over, the warrior immediately spotted a tiny drop of blood under his left shoulder blade.
Gingerly, Xena took a square of linen and dabbed away the blood. She spotted a tiny puncture wound, the kind that might be made by a fine, sharp object. A quill-point. A needle. A dart.
She looked over Medon's body carefully to make sure she hadn't missed anything, but she felt certain that this tiny pin-prick held the answer. Like Stavros, Medon seemed to have died swiftly, with no obvious indicators to the cause of his death.
"That's it," said Xena, pointing to the spot. "That's how he died."
"Impossible," said the king.
"He was probably poisoned," Xena speculated. "Jett must've shot something at him through that reed, maybe a poisoned dart."
"We still don't know what kind of poison, though," Gabrielle pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," said Xena.
"You think this same poison was on the knife that got used on Stavros?" asked Iphicles.
"Nothing else I've ever seen is so quick," said Xena. She went to a table where some tools lay, and selected a small, sharp knife. Gabrielle watched her friend make a tiny incision at the site of the puncture wound. Xena then slipped the knife down into the cut, and gingerly probed around.
This process fascinated the bard, and she didn't notice that Iphicles had left until he returned with a small wooden box in his hands.
"What're you doing?" he asked Xena.
The warrior had teased something up out of Medon's flesh. "Finding this," she responed grimly. "Careful, don't get too close," she warned. Xena didn't want either of her friends accidentally pricking a finger on the tiny conveyor of death.
Her friends stared at what seemed to be a needle, covered with blood, about the length of Gabrielle's small finger.
"Porcupine quill," announced Xena with satisfaction. "Jett must've coated it with poison and blown it out through that reed. It was under Medon's skin, so Jett would've had to be right behind him."
"I'm glad we got to Melisseus before Jett," said Iphicles soberly. The king's men had found the builder in his home, and had escorted him back to the palace, where he now waited comfortably in the guest wing until the mysterious deaths were solved.
"What's that?" asked Xena, nodding toward the box Iphicles held.
"The knife," he said. "Something about it's been bugging me." He opened the lid of the box. "I finally realized what." The king held up the murder weapon. "Look."
The two women stared at the knife. "The blood's still wet," said Gabrielle.
"Yeah," said Iphicles. "All that time after we found Stavros, the blood should've been drying, but it wasn't." Xena silently cursed herself for not having observed the same phenomenon.
"How can that be?" asked Gabrielle. "The blood's still fresh. It should be dried now, and flaking off the knife."
Slowly, Xena reached out and took the knife from Iphicles. She looked the blade over, then returned the weapon to the wooden box. "Only if it came from a mortal," she said. "A person or an animal. But not if it's from an immortal."
"An immortal?" Iphicles echoed.
"The blood of an immortal won't dry," said the warrior. "An immortal, or a god."
"A god?" said Gabrielle, a look of comprehension crossing her face.
"Yeah," said Xena. "I think that's Ares' blood. Hercules once warned me that Ares has poisonous blood. It kills mortals instantly."
"Big surprise," Gabrielle muttered.
"Terrific," said Iphicles, scowling.
"Xena, do you think Periander's working for Ares?" the bard inquired.
"He could be," said Xena. "That would explain why Periander's trying to build up an army."
"And sabotaging Corinth to draw more money into Megarid, so he can finance his blasted army," said Iphicles.
"There's more to it than that," said Xena, her mind rapidly filling in the missing pieces. "You helped negotiate a peace agreement between Athens and Sparta. You tried to discourage Periander from military buildup. You've made Corinth rich through trade, not plunder, and you've ruled humanely. All those are things that Ares would hate."
"And Hercules is my brother," the king sighed. "The gods love to hurt him through his family. Wonderful. I used to be a target for village bullies because of him, and now I'm the target of gods." An edge of self-pity had crept into his voice.
"You don't have to be," said Xena, glaring at Iphicles. "We can defeat Ares by stopping Periander." She nodded toward the knife. "Jett got that blood from somewhere," she said. "Is there a temple to Ares in Corinth?"
"No!" said Iphicles, looking appalled at the thought. "There's a small shrine near the south gate," he said. "Nothing fancy. An old soldier in town takes care of it."
Gabrielle's face grew very still. "The metalsmith?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Iphicles, looking startled. "Deucalion. How'd you know?"
"He has a little figure of Ares in his shop," said the bard.
"Sounds like it's time to pay him another visit," said Xena. She flashed a feral grin. "I think my sword needs sharpening."
The threesome hurried up to the main level of the palace. As they headed for the main gate, Domesticles, the king's seneschal, rounded a corner and called to them.
"Your majesty! There's a young man here, begging for an audience with you." Domesticles wrung his hands. "He's injured, and probably dying. He says he needs to tell you something before he-- before he--"
"Where is he?" said Iphicles.
"Here... I had the guards put him in here."
Xena smelled the wound before she saw it. Her heart sank when she knelt down beside the young man, who lay on a sofa in one of the first floor common rooms. Fever glazed his half-closed eyes and drained the color from his skin. Sweat leaked from his pores, redolent with the stink of death. He breathed shallowly, and he barely seemed conscious.
Xena lifted the crude dressing and winced at the wound in the man's side. With proper cleaning and binding, or cauterization, he might have recovered from this. But infection had gotten too firm a hold. The original wound site oozed a greenish pus, which accounted for the fetid smell, and the flesh around the gash had turned a mottled brownish-purple as tissue died. The rot extended well up the young man's torso, and down toward his abdomen.
Servants brought two basins of water, and clean linen bandages. Xena lifted the youth's body so that the servants could ease off the dirty, blood-crusted tunic. Gabrielle soaked a cloth, and without flinching, began to clean the wound. She handed the soiled linens to Joxer, who'd come into the room, evidently drawn by the commotion. He rinsed out the cloths in the second basin. Xena knew they couldn't help the injured man, but they could make his dying moments comfortable, and lessen the horrible smell.
The warrior took in the young man's clothes, and suddenly something came clear in her mind.
"Jehan?" she said, moving up to his head. She took a damp cloth from Gabrielle and washed the boy's face. He groaned softly, and his blue-gray eyes fluttered open.
"How did you...?" he whispered.
"I met your friend, the carpenter's apprentice," she said. "He told me what happened." Xena fought the urge to scold the youth for not having had the wound tended properly. She motioned Iphicles to her side. "The king will listen to whatever you have to tell him," she promised.
"You will?" The shepherd looked beseechingly up at Iphicles.
"That's right," said the king.
Feebly, Jehan reached up and handed something to Iphicles. Xena saw a small, ripped scrap of fabric. She noted the distinctive weave of the material, good quality linen, brown threads meshed with light blue to create a subtle, pleasing cross-hatched texture.
"I tore this from the shirt of a murderer," Jehan whispered. He paused, gasping slightly from exertion. Xena could tell that every breath tortured him. "I looked everywhere for him, but I couldn't... I couldn't..." He stopped speaking again. A tremor shook his frame. Iphicles kept the boy's hand in his own, squeezing it tightly.
"Come on," the king coaxed. "You've made it this far."
"I've heard you're an honest man." Jehan finally continued. He clutched the king's wrist with both hands. "Please, find this monster and bring him to justice. His name is Sciron. He was once a soldier, and he was imprisoned by old King Autesion for treason. But he must have escaped. Sciron took revenge on the woman who denounced him: his wife, Lavinia. I saw... saw him murder Lavinia with his own hands."
Gabrielle paused in her work, and glanced at Xena with wide eyes. Beside her, Joxer sat frozen and pale, whether from shock or nausea, Xena couldn't tell.
"How do you know it was Sciron?" Xena asked quietly. "You must have been a child when he was imprisoned."
"I heard... heard him when he... I heard him roaring that this was the price she paid for betraying him to Autesion... heard her screaming for mercy..." Jehan shook with violent coughs. Xena used the cloth to wipe the shepherd's mouth, noting that the infection must have spread to his lungs.
"I ran into the house, but it was too late. I tried to stop Sciron, but he wounded me. I grabbed at him and tore his shirt as I fell, but he pushed me away and ran... hobbled off. Even with his bad leg, I couldn't catch him because of this..." Jehan nodded down at his wound. "I searched as long as I could, but I couldn't keep going. There's no honest lawmen in Megarid... so I came here."
Iphicles kept rubbing the young man's hand. Xena could see how profoundly Jehan's trust moved him, how the boy's simple faith that Iphicles would bring Sciron to justice had driven him mile after mile to the Corinth palace gate. Silently she liberated the linen scrap from Jehan's hand, and began to slowly withdraw. The dying youth held the attention of everyone in the room.
"And this is true?" said Iphicles. "You swear by all the gods that this is true?" A man on his deathbed would not imperil his soul with a lie in the gods' names.
"It's true, I swear it." An expression of profound peace settled over Jehan's features. He'd accomplished his mission. His body relaxed completely, and he exhaled a long, deep sigh. He lay motionless on the sofa, in the utter stillness of death. Iphicles closed the shepherd's eyelids, and stood.
"Take him downstairs and have him washed and dressed for burial," he ordered the servants. He gazed about the room.
"Where'd Xena go?" he asked abruptly.
Gabrielle shook herself out of the painful daze that clouded her mind. "I didn't even know she'd left." She too stared about the room as the servants bore away Jehan's body. "And where's Joxer?"
"Hi," said Xena, ambling into the forge. The fire had been banked; Deucalion stood at a workbench in another part of the shop, carving knife handles. A pile of wooden shavings lay on the countertop. The metalsmith had removed his leather apron; it hung from a peg on the wall behind him. Xena glanced briefly at his well-made linen tunic, noting the nubby texture created by the criss-crossed weave of brown and blue threads.
"Hello." Deucalion stood up, smiling at Xena, clearly pleased to see her again. "Anything I can help you with?"
"I'd like another look at those throwing knives." Xena favored the metalsmith with a seductive expression. "I got lucky at dice last night," she added.
Deucalion limped over to the wall of knives and found the leather gauntlets. With his back turned, Xena could easily see where the torn hem of his tunic had been patched and repaired. The metalsmith handed the gauntlets to Xena, who grinned and removed the pair of little knives. "Mind if I try them out?" she asked.
"Not at all." Deucalion returned to his work. Xena took the knives and made a few practice throws at the wooden block in the corner. After her third trial, she went casually over to the block to retrieve the weapons, which she tucked back into the leather sheathes. As she did, Xena glanced briefly at the wooden shelves along the wall. Without even seeming to lift an arm, she removed the figure of Ares from its shelf.
"I'll take these," she announced, dropping the gauntlets onto Deucalion's workbench. She held up the figure of Ares. "Is this for sale?"
"No, that's personal," the metalsmith responded, reaching out a hand. Xena stepped playfully back and pretended to admire the small stone carving.
"What a beauty," she said. "The likeness is remarkable."
"You... know him?" asked Deucalion cautiously.
"Oh, very well," said Xena, her eyes narrowing. "Intimately, you might say."
The metalsmith seemed uncomfortable, most likely not wanting to relinquish the figure, but also not wanting to offend one of the war god's personal servants. "I still can't sell it, I'm sorry," he hedged. "It's too valuable." He started to step out from around the workbench.
"Is it?" asked Xena, taking a step back. "Is it worth a man's life?" she taunted. "Or a woman's?" She took another step back as Deucalion advanced upon her, clearly growing more angry by the moment. "A king? Or maybe just your wife--Sciron!" She spit out his name.
"Who are you?" the metalsmith glared at her.
"Maybe you've heard of me," she said, suddenly giving him a savage kick in the abdomen. When he doubled over, Xena brought her free hand down on the back of his head. "I'm Xena." She spun around and kicked Sciron in the shoulder, throwing him against the work bench, where he collapsed to the floor. "That's for Lavinia," she said, and strode out of the shop.
Joxer waited outside the forge, an anxious expression on his face. Before Xena could say anything, Gabrielle emerged from the crowds in the square, staff in hand, gasping for breath. She must have run all the way from the palace. A moment later, the throng of people parted to let Iphicles through.
"It's him," said Xena. "Deucalion is really Sciron. He's even wearing the same shirt." Her strong fingers worked rapidly over the figure of Ares. Her face brightened when she felt the upraised sword arm twist. With supreme caution, Xena removed the arm and peered down into the cavity of the figure. Gabrielle, Joxer, and Iphicles gathered around her, and Xena showed them the small hidden phial of the war god's blood. When they'd all had a look, the warrior carefully replaced the arm on the carving.
"That's it, then," said Iphicles, pulling his sword. He took two steps toward the forge, and stopped short. Sciron emerged from the building, walking unsteadily, but carrying a sword in his right hand. When he saw the king waiting for him, his face twisted and contorted into a hard mask of absolute fury. Xena's hand went automatically to her chakram.
"That idiot may have failed to kill Melisseus," Sciron told Iphicles, "but I won't fail to kill you!" He raised the sword, and Xena saw, to her horror, that Sciron had edged the blade of the weapon with Ares' blood.
"Iphicles, don't!" Xena called, but she might well have told the wind to stop blowing. Iphicles met Sciron's advance, easily parrying the metalsmith's blows. Ordinarily, Xena would have been content to let the king fight his own battle, but even the tiniest nick from Sciron's sword would kill him.
A crowd gathered, inevitably drawn by the astonishing spectacle of the king fighting in the street with one of the most respected craftsmen of the city. Gabrielle quickly stepped away from Xena, and used her staff to hold people back. A moment later, Joxer pulled his sword and took up a position opposite Gabrielle, keeping people from getting too close to the dueling men. Xena had drawn her own sword as well; she kept her chakram in her left hand, prepared to use either weapon if necessary, but knowing that when she did, it might be too late.
Iphicles fought with Sciron, keeping the bloodied sword blade safely away from him. Anxious sweat poured off Xena as she watched the two men; Sciron fought amazingly well given his bad leg. Xena could see vast experience in his technique, skills honed by years on the battlefield. Iphicles had not nearly Sciron's experience, but he parried, thrust, and blocked with the same persistence Xena had observed in the king's practice session with Eumelus.
As the duel progressed, Xena could see Sciron beginning to tire, and she realized that Iphicles inexorably pressed the metalsmith's weakness, forcing the older man to use his injured leg again and again. The battle had become one of time as Iphicles deflected the poisoned sword, wearing down Sciron's reserves of strength. The years of imprisonment began to take their toll. Xena could see Sciron's sword arm sagging. He panted for breath, and he sweat profusely in the hot sun.
Inevitably, Sciron's bad leg twisted under him, and he staggered to keep from falling. Iphicles pounced in that moment and kicked Sciron's wrist. The weapon flew through the air, and Xena lunged after it, catching the deadly thing perfectly by the handle.
A gasp rose up from the crowd, a twin sound of excitement and horror. Xena saw that Iphicles had kicked Sciron down into sand, and now stood prepared to lop the murderer's head from his shoulders. The summary execution startled her, but Iphicles had every right: the scrap of fabric, the phial of Ares' blood, Jehan's testimony, and Sciron's own words provided proof beyond doubt of the metalsmith's guilt.
Xena's head snapped to the left. She stared, along with everyone else, at Joxer, who had issued the plea for clemency. Iphicles didn't move his left foot from Sciron's back, but he locked eyes with the younger man, his face angry and questioning.
"Why?" he spat.
Joxer stared at the man kneeling, humbled and broken on the ground beneath the king's foot.
"Because he's my father."
"Talk," said Iphicles. "You talk, and tell me everything you know, or you'll die with your father." Iphicles looked Jett squarely in the face. "Do you understand me?"
The assassin nodded once, looking pale and scared. His easy bravado had vanished when the guards had dumped Sciron into another cell in the dungeon. Iphicles let the hit man sweat for an hour before having Eumelus bring Jett upstairs.
Iphicles paced about the study. From the way he occasionally rolled his right shoulder, Xena knew he'd pulled something fighting Sciron. She, Gabielle, and Joxer were present at Jett's interrogation at the king's request. Across the table from the hit man sat Archivas with a quill, ink, and a pile of scrolls, prepared to write down every word that came out of Jett's mouth.
"Where do I start?" asked the assassin.
"From when Periander hired you," said Xena. She sat in a chair against one wall, arms folded, a grim and unpitying expression on her face. On the other side of the room, Gabrielle stood casually leaning on her staff. Joxer sat at an equal distance from both women, directly in his twin's line of vision, shifting uncomfortably in his chair.
Jett sighed. "Periander let us out of prison a year ago-- a little over a year ago. He said he had a job for us to do, and if we did it well, we could both keep working for him. He gave Dad enough money to set up a forge in Corinth, so he'd have someone in the city to keep an eye on everything that happened here."
"Was his original plan to have you kill Melisseus?" asked Iphicles.
Jett shook his head. "He didn't really have a plan at first. He just wanted to ruin you." The hit man eyed the king frankly. "He was jealous rotten," he sneered. "Said it wasn't fair he had to wait until he was an old man for his rightful inheritance, and you got all this--" Jett made a half-circle with his head, evidently encompassing the palace, the city, and the state-- "just handed to you."
Iphicles looked unimpressed. "And?" he said.
"When Dad heard about the new amphitheater, Periander decided to have Melisseus killed. Dad knew about Melisseus and Hemera. So he told me to take out Melisseus, and put the blame on Stavros. Periander told us to wait until the big festival, so we'd get a lot of attention."
"And everyone was supposed to believe that Stavros killed Melisseus out of jealousy," said Gabrielle.
"Yup." Jett looked pleased with himself. "Until Mr. Goody-Two Boots stuck his nose in it." He glared at Joxer.
Iphicles turned to Joxer. "What happened?" he asked. "How'd you find out about all this?"
"Medon was running errands for my father," said Joxer. "He was supposed to meet Jett in a tavern and give him a message, but I was there, and he thought I was Jett, so he gave the message to me instead."
Iphicles cursed under his breath. "Medon? He was in on all this?"
"Dad was paying him," said Jett, relishing the king's consternation. "He needed someone who knew Stavros, knew his routines. Dad was buddies with most of the palace guards by then, and he knew Medon was having a fling with Stavros. So he hired Medon to be a spy."
"And Medon went along with this?" interrupted Gabrielle. She appeared genuinely shocked.
Jett smirked. "Bet you thought lover-boy really liked you. Medon went after anything that moved, boy or girl, he didn't care." Jett paused to enjoy Gabrielle's hurt expression. "He liked money, too, wanted to live easy. Stavros was such a dolt-- he thought Medon really loved him!" Jett convulsed with mirth.
Xena recalled that when she and Gabrielle had first run into Medon, he'd evidently been on his way to visit Sciron's shop-- to report to his master? To collect money? They'd never know for sure, now. She thought also of seeing Medon in tears after the death of Stavros. Perhaps the guard had cared about the older man more than Jett, in his cynicism, realized.
"Did Sciron tell you to murder Medon?" asked Iphicles.
"It went without saying," Jett shrugged, dismissing Medon's death as just another assignment. "He knew too much, he knew the thing had been botched, he had to go." The hit man scowled. "I don't usually make mistakes," he added defensively. "I thought Melisseus would be on his way to see Hemera-- how was I supposed to know it was her damn husband?" He began laughing again. "That's great-- the one time Stavros went home to his wife, it got him killed!" Jett cackled at his own wit.
"You shot Medon with a poisoned quill?" said Gabrielle.
"Yup, blew it right out my little reed." Jett recalled the kill with apparent pleasure. "Wish someone'd given me a stash of Ares' blood before this; I really could've done some damage."
The king ignored this. "And your father hid you?"
"Yup." Jett shifted in his seat. "Little brother grabbed my knife and told me to take off. I scooted back to Dad's place and hid out 'till the coast was clear."
"Joxer." Iphicles turned his attention to the miserable-looking young man. "You knew about all this."
Joxer ducked his head. "I couldn't turn them in," he said, guilt ringing in his voice. "I couldn't do it. I thought I could stop them from killing Melisseus without getting them in trouble."
"So you created a distraction," said Gabrielle. "You told everyone the taverns were serving free food and drinks."
Joxer nodded. "When Medon thought I was Jett, he told me everything they were planning to do that night. I thought if there was a big enough crowd, and people were really worked up, Jett might lose Melisseus."
"I know where he lives, you idiot; I'd have found him anyway," Jett scoffed.
Joxer glared at his twin. "The other thing I tried to do was follow Stavros around. I could be a witness and say that he didn't do anything. I followed him to the temple, but I didn't know he'd go out through the back door."
"He always went out the back door," Jett snickered. "Gods, you're so inept it just kills me."
"And look who's in prison," retorted Joxer, dark eyes gleaming in an unexpected moment of malice. "You're not as ept as you think you are."
"When Stavros didn't come back out the front door, I just started wandering around," Joxer continued. "I ran into him--" he nodded slightly in Jett's direction-- "outside Stavros and Hemera's house, but it was too late. Stavros was already dead."
"And you took the blame," said Iphicles.
"I knew you wouldn't believe it was me," said Joxer, looking resigned. "You probably think I'm an idiot, too."
"No, I don't," said the king. "I wish you'd come to me in the first place with all this, but I understand why you didn't. Blood is thicker than water."
"So, what happens to me?" asked Jett, his bravado evidently on the rise again now that he'd taken enough shots at his brother to bolster his ego. "Do I get sold into bondage or something?" He leered at Gabrielle.
"Exile," said Iphicles, an almost brutally terse response. "You'll be shipped out to the labor camp in our colony at Syracuse."
Jett blanched. "No," he said, horrified. "Anywhere but Syracuse!"
"The boat leaves tomorrow," said the king. He went to the door and gestured for Eumelus, who'd been standing guard outside. "Let him say goodbye to his father, then have him locked up in the barracks until tomorrow morning." Iphicles turned to Joxer as Eumelus took away Jett. "You can talk to your father, too, if you want."
Joxer's face tightened. "Why? So he can tell me how much he hates me one last time?"
"Joxer." Xena made her voice gentle. "I think you should do it. For you, not for him."
"I'd rather die!" And Joxer stormed out of the room. The others could hear his armor clanking as he retreated down the corridor.
The glowing red embers of the forge provided only a dim light in the workshop. Gabrielle stepped over the threshold and peered around. The room looked big and empty without the vast collection of weapons. The king's men had already confiscated Sciron's arsenal; Gabrielle knew that Iphicles planned to melt everything down and turn it into farming equipment.
Night had fallen. After a dinner for which nobody had had any appetite, Xena had wanted to take a look at the king's injured shoulder. Melisseus, his safety no longer in peril, had gone to see Hemera. Not knowing what else to do, Gabrielle had finally decided to seek out Joxer, and the forge seemed as good a place to start as any.
When her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Gabrielle finally spotted Joxer over in the corner where the practice block had stood. Slowly she crossed the room and went to him. She lowered herself down to the floor and sat next to her friend. He remained silent for several long moments, and when he spoke, it startled her.
"He killed my mother."
"I know," said Gabrielle softly. "I'm sorry."
"If I'd known that, I would never-- I'd never--" he couldn't continue.
"You wouldn't have protected him?" Gabrielle provided.
"I shouldn't have done it anyway," said Joxer.
Gabrielle found his hand and squeezed it. "You did what you thought was right," she said.
"I didn't want anyone to get hurt," he said bitterly. "I thought I could keep the two of them from killing Melisseus without getting them in trouble. But I couldn't do it." Joxer threw his head back against the wall of the building, creating a loud thunk as his helmet connected with the wood. "Ow!" he said. Then, "I can never do anything right!"
"You did," Gabrielle insisted. "You just tried to protect too many people. You couldn't be in four places at once. Nobody can blame you for not wanting to turn in your family."
"I should have." Joxer sounded utterly wretched. "I hate them, but they're the only family I have. Had," he corrected. The morning would see his father's execution, and his brother's banishment.
After a while, Gabrielle said, "We saw your house."
She felt Joxer start beside her. "I haven't been there in years," he said.
"Not even to visit your mother?" she asked, surprised.
"No." Gabrielle could hear the tightness in Joxer's voice. "I hated her because she couldn't protect me from him."
Gabrielle felt chilled.
"I remember when Autesion's men came and took him," Joxer went on. "I ran and hid, but I could hear him screaming that he'd come back and kill her for it one day."
"That's terrible," she said.
"It should've been better after that, but Jett'd already gone bad. He always tried to be like our father, to get his approval. He was the only one of us our father really liked. Before he started killing people, he used to kill animals. He tortured them. If I tried to stop him, he'd beat me up."
Gabrielle continued squeezing Joxer's hand, hoping he'd keep talking, and release the pent-up sadness and fear.
"Mom wanted me to be a musician, like her, but I thought it was for sissies and weaklings. I wanted to be like Jett, like my father-- mean and tough." Gabrielle could hear the self-derision in his voice. "I wanted to be a warrior."
"So that's when you tried to join Callisto's army," Gabrielle recalled.
"Yeah," said Joxer, with a sick half-laughing noise. "Incredible she didn't kill me for the fun of it, huh?"
"I'm glad she didn't," said Gabrielle with sincerity.
"Then I wanted to be a hero," said Joxer wretchedly. "I wanted to be Xena. But I'm not. I could pretend, but I could never be like her."
"She wouldn't want you to be," said Gabrielle. "Do you have any idea how much time she spends feeling horrible about the things she's done? She'd never want you to be like her. She wants you to be yourself."
"I don't even know who myself is," he whispered.
"Stop trying to be everyone else," said Gabrielle earnestly. "Find out who you are, and be that person. You can still be a hero, Joxer. If you give a cold man a blanket, you're a hero in his eyes. You don't have to fight warlords or kill monsters. That's the part people remember, because nobody sings ballads about how Xena helped rebuild someone's house after the warlord's army went through."
"You make it sound easy," said Joxer.
"It's not," said Gabrielle. "Sometimes people don't even thank us. They can be rude." She shook her head. "But the worst is sometimes wondering if I should even be fighting at all. Is this the right thing for me to be doing? Sometimes I wish I wasn't fighting, so I wouldn't have to worry about it." She turned her head and looked at Joxer's dark form. "I could kill someone any day," she said. "Every time I pick up my staff."
Joxer shook his head. "But you won't," he said. "I've seen you fight. I wish I could be like you."
"No you don't," said Gabrielle hastily.
"I do," Joxer insisted. "You're brave and nice and beautiful, you fight and tell stories, and everyone likes you..."
"Please." Gabrielle squirmed uncomfortably.
"Well, not everyone likes what I do," said Gabrielle ruefully. "Look at my parents."
"They're just worried about you," said Joxer. "I could tell they love you. If I'd had a family like yours," he added wistfully, "I'd have never left Potedeia."
"I'd have gone mad," Gabrielle responded. "They have no imagination; they can't see beyond the village walls."
Joxer pulled himself to his feet. "Well, at least they're not murderers," he said angrily. Gabrielle watched as he yanked off his helmet.
"What are you doing?" she asked in alarm, standing.
"Watch." Joxer tossed his helmet into the forge. He then stripped off the plates of ill-made armor and threw them into the forge as well. Gabrielle looked on in astonishment as he took the scabbard off his belt and thrust it, sword and all, into the glowing embers. The pieces of metal turned orange, then white as they began to melt, and the leather blackened and curled. Without the encumbrances, Joxer looked suddenly small and young, but also free, as if he'd been released from a cage.
"I never want to be like him," said Joxer fervently, and Gabrielle knew he meant Sciron, not Jett.
"Then don't." Gabrielle hesitated, then put her arms awkwardly around Joxer. They watched the slow destruction of his armor, until the red embers began to cool. They stood together in the darkness, just holding each other.
"I can't trust anyone, can I?"
Xena paused for a moment, then resumed working, her fingers deftly massaging the knots in the king's shoulder.
"You can," she said cautiously. "You just need to... be prudent."
Iphicles made a comical snorting noise. "Medon was one of my best guards, and he'd have sold me out for an easy life. My men had been going to Deucalion for a year, and they all liked his work. Gods." The king went rigid. "He even sharpened my sword, the bastard."
"Relax," said Xena. "You're getting tense again."
Iphicles exhaled and forced himself to relax. He sat in a chair in the common room of his quarters, shirtless; Xena stood behind him in her leather dress, tending his shoulder. He'd evidently wrenched something in his upper arm while fighting, and had been unconsciously clenching his shoulder and back muscles in pain all afternoon. Now the soreness extended up into his neck as well.
"You always need to be careful," said Xena. "There's too many people who like to bring down anyone in power. It always helps to question what people say and do. Be skeptical. You'll learn who you can trust. People will show you with their deeds, not just their words."
Iphicles nodded. Xena worked her way over his back, and began pushing her thumbs up under his right scapula. The king yelped.
"That's where it is," said Xena, satisfied. She pushed again. "Feel those?"
"Ow! Yeah, gods, I feel them."
"That's where the trouble is. Here... lean forward." Iphicles pushed back his chair and leaned forward, resting his head on his folded arms. With the problem area better exposed, Xena set to work with her thumbs, pushing at the knotted bunches of muscle tissue. She loosened up the tight spots one by one. The final, most stubborn knot, she exorcised with her elbow.
Iphicles groaned. "Did you really need to do that?"
"Oh, yeah." Xena worked over the area with her hands, massaging his entire back, then moving up to his neck. After a while, she realized she was touching him more for her own pleasure than for his benefit, and she drew away.
Iphicles straightened up and turned around to look at her. Xena's gaze dropped for a moment to the beautiful muscles of his chest and abdomen, covered with a fine pelt of dark brown hair. She noted with a poignant twinge of both tenderness and lust that one of his nipples sat higher than its fellow. When she met his gaze, she saw that his eyes had grown large and dilated.
"You didn't have to stop," he said.
"How's your shoulder?" she asked, trying to deflect the tension between them.
Iphicles rolled his right shoulder, then his left, experimentally. "Great," he said. "Thanks." He gestured to the chair. "Your turn," he invited.
Xena smiled and sat. Iphicles brushed aside her hair and began deftly rubbing her shoulders. He had a wonderful touch-- strong and gentle at the same time. She'd observed the same quality in the way he'd handled his horse, in the way he'd held the dying shepherd's hand.
"Trust is difficult," she said after a while. "You can't just blindly accept what everyone says and does. But sooner or later, you have to learn to trust your instincts and let yourself believe in other people. Otherwise, you'll get cynical, and not recognize goodness and honesty. And when trust breaks down," Xena concluded darkly, "it's too easy to grab for your sword when conflicts come up."
Iphicles worked on her neck. "You're right," he said. "I could never have worked out that peace agreement with Athens and Sparta if I hadn't trusted King Menestheus to keep his word."
"The hard part is that there's always the threat of betrayal," said Xena. "You have to look at every situation from as many angles as you can, think of every possibility, even ones that seem remote and crazy. Sometimes you'll feel like you have to question everything and everyone. But in the end you have to use your own judgment."
"And what do I base my judgment on?" asked the king. "Instinct? Reason?"
"Both," said Xena. "Instinct and reason, guided by experience. And whatever solid information you can gather."
They both fell quiet while Iphicles worked on Xena's neck and shoulders. "You're good at this," she said.
"Thanks," he responded, and she could hear the pleasure in his voice.
"The most decent, principled people I know are ones that are willing to trust others," said Xena. "It's part of what makes them strong. And other people have to know they can trust you as well. Think of Melisseus and Jehan and Hemera. Hemera might've been stoned to death if you hadn't intervened, and there's a lot of lawmakers who wouldn't have looked any further than the surface evidence. They'd have convicted either her, or Melisseus, or both of them."
"Or Joxer," said the king.
"Or Joxer," agreed Xena. "And think about Jehan, who came to you out of desperation, because he believed you were the only one who could bring Sciron to justice. There's four innocent people right there who might have suffered or even died if you hadn't believed they were telling you the truth."
Xena turned around in the chair and faced Iphicles. "Those are the people who need you," she said. "Those are the people who depend on you to be a just leader. Don't let one or two bad seeds ruin your faith in humanity. I did that," she said without self-pity, "and I let myself give in to my worst impulses. But there were still people who saw good in me, and tried to show me another way in life. But I thought they were fools, and I didn't believe them, and most of them I destroyed one way or another." Xena reached out and took the king's hands. "Don't let that happen," she implored. "You don't want to live with the guilt and regret that I live with every day."
"What about Sciron?" asked Iphicles. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?" She could see a quiet doubt in his eyes.
"Yeah," she responded, her voice full of a terrible gravity. "I think you are." Xena didn't elaborate. Many times, she herself had weighed that awful decision in battle-- to show mercy, or to withhold it. Sometimes she felt absolutely certain, other times she would lie awake at night wondering if she'd made the right choice. In the end, it all came down to judgment, as she'd told Iphicles-- instinct and reason, guided by experience.
Sciron had done horrible things, things for which he'd shown no regret or remorse. And he'd tried to kill Iphicles in public, before witnesses. If the king spared Sciron's life, Xena knew, he would lose all credibility, both with his subjects and with his peers-- enemies and allies alike.
Iphicles pushed aside the chair and drew Xena into his arms. They kissed intensely, their passion driven by equal measures of heartbreak and happiness, by a need for solace as much as a need for love.
"I think we have some lost time to make up for," he said when they parted for air.
"That's right," said Xena, softly nuzzling his face. "I think we'd just gotten to this point last night, hadn't we?"
"Has it only been that long?" Iphicles wondered out loud. "What a day." He kissed her again and took her hand. "But tonight's going to make up for it." He led Xena into his bedroom and closed the door, bolting it shut against the world outside.
The dim light of dawn had just filtered into Gabrielle's room when she heard the door open, and then Xena's footsteps. The bard had been tossing and turning restlessly all night after Joxer's departure. He'd wanted to put as much distance between himself and Corinth before his father's execution, and Gabrielle couldn't say she blamed him.
"Xena?" Gabrielle sat up in bed.
"Come on," said the warrior softly. "We need to get going."
Gabrielle got up and gathered her things. "What about breakfast?" she asked.
"I got some food from the kitchen," responded Xena.
They went out to the stable and found Argo. Xena briskly saddled up the mare. Gabrielle watched her friend's calm, composed face with a mixture of surprise and curiosity. The bard had a pretty shrewd idea of where Xena had spent the night, and she didn't understand her friend's sudden need to depart.
Still, Gabrielle said nothing as they quietly walked Argo to the north gate of the city. A hazy layer of clouds obscured the rising sun, casting the normally bright Corinthian countryside into a dim, almost wintry gloom. Xena mounted the horse, then drew Gabrielle up behind her.
"Xena," said Gabrielle suddenly. "You're not doing this because of me, are you?"
"No," said Xena, a note of sadness and resolution in her voice. "I'm doing it for him." She tapped Argo's flanks with her heels and they set off on the road, heading due north.
Iphicles awoke well after dawn, at first enveloped in a warm cocoon of contentment. But when he reached out to share this pleasure, he found only cool, empty sheets. Alarmed, he sat up and gazed about the room. Xena had gone, taking her armor and weapons with her. She'd left no note, but her very absence spoke louder than words ever could. Iphicles went to the window and looked down over the dull gray ocean. Overhead, a gull wheeled and cried. Dejected, the king leaned against the window casement, a deep and profound hollowness gnawing at his heart.
Xena pushed north relentlessly, only stopping for two breaks. By dusk, Gabrielle had become too exhausted to continue, and they looked for a sheltered place to make camp. The layer of clouds had thickened as they traveled, and they hovered ominously low to the earth. Xena said she knew of a cave in the area, and led Argo into the woods. Gabrielle followed uneasily.
In the cave, they built a fire and consumed the remains of a lunch they'd purchased in a tavern, then rolled up in their bedding and fell into exhausted sleep.
During the night, the weather finally broke in a violent storm that drenched the ground with rain. Gabrielle awoke to the echoing booms of thunder, and vivid blue flashes of lightning.
A moment later, Xena screamed horribly and sat bolt upright, eyes wild with some unspeakable fear. Later, Gabrielle found out that her friend had had a nightmare, and that dream changed everything.
To be continued...
Special thanks to Suzanne Klerks and Chrisso Boulis. Special acknowledgement to the late Ellis Peters, whose work has been such an inspiration. Letters of comment are welcome! Write to me at email@example.com.
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