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Conquering the Conqueror
General Disclaimer: You already know they arent mine. Im not doing this for money, only for adoring emails ( firstname.lastname@example.org for those of you who want to start adoring now). I do thank Renaissance et al., the producers and everyone involved for inventing such wonderful women for us to admire, lust after and respect. I also thank LL and the ROC for just being. Theyre a pair of stunning actresses who brought life and love to a couple of worthy characters.
Subtext Disclaimers: Well, it wouldnt be X:WP if there wasnt sexual ambiguity, but as things go along, sex gets less ambiguous. In fact, it gets decidedly lesbian. I think Aphrodite would, like, approve.
Violence Disclaimer: See Missy Good.
Timeline: This is a Conqueror story. Theres no Hercules in my Xenaverse (not that the Big Guy isnt cute in his own clueless way) and Xena is in "bad ol Xena" mode. And she looks damn good doing it. The Bard of Poteidaia isnt quite as cute and cuddly as she was in, say, Season 2, but shes still gorgeous and intelligent. Karma being what it is, we know that little Armageddon Now scene wasnt all they would have had.
Plagiarism Note: Gins Negotiations must be credited with one major, much later in the story plot element having to do with the fate of Xenas child, Solon. Youll know it when you see it. I didnt mean to steal it; it just made so much sense that it seemed necessary to perpetuate it. I think I expanded upon it, in fact. Mea Culpa.
Overdone Chicken Note: The now-infamous crucifixion scene does appear... and appear... and appear, just like in Season Four. My thinking is this: The Chronos Stone, like all good disruptions in the space-time continuum (see Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager), cant erase everything. Somebody will have phantom memories, and Xena being Xena even when shes being bad ol Xena is not going to forget the look in the Gabsters eyes when they... anyway... Ive warned you, its there.
We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
In the windowless holding cell along one wall of the main agora of Corinth, a prisoner awaited judgment. The stones of her prison held in the midday heat, and she, faint with the hunger of three days without a meal, weak from the last beating shed received, lay huddled in the corner, trying to remain conscious.
Many of the crowd gathered outside knew her, had talked to her, or rather listened to her talk, in darkened kitchens and back rooms of small, anonymous houses in narrow, impoverished streets. Her message, those persuaded by her said, was of light and goodness: human rights for all, not just for those strong enough to take them by force; fair government; freedom from fear. She wanted to bring Corinth forward from the darkness that had fallen upon it with the coming of the forces of occupation. Though she insisted that all in the circles of resistance have an equal vote in every project, everyone knew that she supplied the words, the vision, the ideas, that sought to relieve the oppression. Her words had breathed fire on the tinder of dissatisfaction, and rebels began to speak of her as their leader.
And so hers had been the only name spilled from the lips of one pitiful, unbalanced zealot caught trying to set fire to the tax collectors booth.
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia!" hed proclaimed. "She has shown me the light of humanity and I will die fighting the darkness for her!"
The secret police hadnt needed to torture him for information, though theyd done so for pleasure anyway. Hed gladly talked of the political firebrand and trained bard whod brought them all a message of hope and equality.
\Hed lasted two days on his cross, still mumbling her name and garbled bits of her message though theyd cut out his tongue. It had taken a further two weeks for his body to fall of its own weight into the sand of the street where he hung.
By that time, the trail of the young, blonde insurrectionist, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, had been traced to a small loft room above a nondescript leathershop, and when night was at its darkest, in the still hours just before dawn, the secret police had burst through the shop door, scaled the tiny ladder and found Gabrielle of Poteidaia. She awoke, as was fitting, to find her dreams at an end.
The despot, be assured, lives night and day like one condemned to death...
With the clang of brass cymbals, the heavy thudding of drums, and the deep, inhuman wailing of throat singers from the high plains of the East, the triumphal procession wended its way through the streets of Corinth to the central agora. A cohort of Corinthian Guards lined the agora, ready to quell any disturbance, but no one truly expected any trouble. Thered been one disruption of the public judgments early on in the occupation; no citizen of Corinth in the square that day had lived to comment on its success or failure. Since then, the public judgments had been peaceful and routine, horrifyingly routine.
The procession drew nearer, its unearthly noise growing deafening as the smell of the outlandish incenses overwhelmed the street. Imperial minions in yellow silk and purple marched into the enclosure and took their places, drawing the eyes of the crowd toward the outer edges of the high dais. Men at arms, the Royal Guard, in bronzed breastplates with streaming guidons on their helmets marched down to line the steps, unsheathing their swords.
"On your knees before the divine scourge of the gods! All tremble at the coming of the Destroyer of Nations!" shouted one of the retainers in Greek, Latin, and Chinese, raising his hands heavenward as if calling down thunderbolts.
The huge hanging gong was struck, reverberating earshatteringly within the stone walls of the agora. The huge ostrich feather fans, wielded by bare-chested gladiators chosen for their muscularity, swayed closed, concealing as a stage curtain, and then parted, revealing to the focus of all the drama, the center of the mystery.
Xena the Conqueror, the Lion of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess of Calmai, the Ruler of Britannia, Gaul, Rome, Chin and Greece, sat upon her throne, resplendent, peerless, and cold as the snows of Mount Olympus. About her flowed her robe of state, ten thousand dinars worth of damasked silk from the furthest eastern reaches of an empire that stretched from Mare Atlanticum to the boundless seas of Chin. Her golden diadem, formed like the wings of Nike, goddess of victory, sparkled with gems torn from the deepest mines of Kashmir, Burma, and Rus. On her fingers sparkled rings the worth of which could keep a kingdom. Emerald, sapphire, ruby, turquoise, amber, lapis lazuli, all the treasures of the known world, these were as playthings to the Destroyer of Nations, worthless glass for all she noticed them, for the heart of the Warlord was as cold as her image on the throne, and as empty.
Her enemies, and they were without number, called her heartless, soulless, conscience-less, but none denied her beauty. Her thick raven tresses reached the middle of her back when not bound up under her crown; her face, balanced, chiseled, perfect, served as a model, it was said, for Praxiletes goddesses. Her long, lithe limbs were formed of hard muscle, yet clothed in satiny bronzed skin; and her eyes glowed not the deep, earthy brown of her countrymen, but an icy, sky blue between the glow of newly cut sapphire and rich lapis.
Those eyes could freeze the heart as easily as enflame the desires, as the trail of broken hearts and shattered bodies spread across her empire attested. Lao Ma, the regent-mother of Chin, had named her the Many Layered Pearl, the sight of which is a boon and a death in the same heartbeat. Helen of Troys beauty might have launched a thousand ships, but Xena of Amphipoloss beauty burned them to the waterline.
"Bring out the prisoner!"
Soldiers strong-armed the rebel out of her cell and threw her before the dais.
"What is her crime?" asked the Conqueror, though she knew as well as any in the square.
The woman seemed to surface into consciousness, turning her face upwards, glaring eyes meeting those of the Conqueror. "I spoke," she answered, bitterly.
The Conqueror sat, looking down at the crumpled form. The red-gold hair tumbled over her face once more, hiding the features of this enemy of the state, enemy of the system, enemy of the Empire for which the Conqueror had given her sweat, her blood, her son... her soul.
"She incited the people against you," Darphus, Captain of the Imperial Guard, supplied. "Encouraged them to revolt."
The Conqueror stood, if so ordinary a word could encompass the grace of the movement.
"Get up," she ordered, stepping down from the dais. Her hand, slipping out of the long sleeve of her robe of state, made an imperious gesture, and the groggy young woman struggled to her feet and stood swaying.
The Conqueror towered over her, even when she reached the same level as the prisoner. She reached forward, filling a hand with red-gold hair, moving the curtain of it to reveal the face she had come to see. A fine featured face, she judged, unmarked as yet by time or care. Beautiful, the Conqueror decided, but shed seen-- and had-- to many of the beauties the world could offer, and now beauty left her cold.
She trailed her hand down the ripe curve of the smooth cheek, rubbing her sword callused thumb across the silken lips, feeling the defiance of the now clear eyes on her own face. She felt an instant of excitement at the contact, the lack of fear. It had been so long since someone had stood up to her, since shed felt challenged. It wouldnt last.
"Are you guilty?" she hissed, anger washing away the spark of excitement.
The prisoner whipped her face away from the touch. "I gave voice to the people.. the fearful, the starving, the ones who disappeared in the night...never to be seen again."
The Conqueror watched the little actress playing to the crowd with sardonic amusement, allowing her mouth to part in mock horror and cruelly false sympathy.
"Have you no dignity?" the rebel cried to those watching. "No rights? The right to live...to be free from harm?"
"I guess they dont hear your voice," the Conqueror surmised, eyes never leaving the blonde.
The defiant eyes returned to her and the small, pointed chin tipped proudly. "Im not the only one...and you cant break our spirits."
"The cure for spirit is fear," the Conqueror smiled. "Youll serve as an example."
Doubt, disbelief, and terror entered into the malachite gaze before her and the Conqueror, in spite of herself, felt a vivid disappointment at the loss of the challenge. "Put her on the cross," she ordered the soldiers.
Turning, she gathered her robe to ascend the staircase. With her foot on the first stair, she glanced back, taking in the incredulity of the prisoner, being lifted and carried to her crucifixion. The Conqueror issued the order, said the words, the words that still awoke her screaming from her own nightmares, "Break her legs." Without another backward glance, the ruler ascended to her throne.
The Conqueror remained perfectly still through the sound of the screams. She knew-- who better?-- what rending agony poured through the slight, young form. At least youre not in the air already, she offered the woman from the dark recesses of her own mind. Then the weight of your body would be shredding your muscles with the spiky ends of those broken bones. If youre lucky, youll be unconscious by the time they lift you upright.
When the screaming faded to sobs, she shot a mocking smile out over the crowd.
"You speak when spoken to," she explained, her voice pitched to fill the crowded agora, "and your rights are mine to decide."
She glanced at the crucifixion squad lieutenant who instantly motioned the soldiers to seize the cross and shoulder it for the journey to the city walls where the young insurrectionist would hang with the others, dead and dying, judged by the Conqueror.
As the squad passed in front of the dais, heading for the street, the Conqueror saw with amazement that the young woman was still conscious. The defiant green-- How do I know theyre green? she wondered-- eyes, now pools of silent suffering, tracked to the almost colorless arctic blue of the Conquerors. Xenas heart faltered a beat and she shot to her feet, trembling with an unknown fear and the instantaneous anger that always followed her fear.
The insurrectionists cross turned again as the squad drew away, and still those eyes, looking now across the shattered ruins of shapely legs, locked the Conquerors gaze. The crowd, the splendor, the world fell away, and the Conqueror saw a snowy field beneath a sharp three-peaked mountain...
... a squad of soldiers prepares the crosses; I look to my right and she is there, the one I love, the one Ive failed yet again, the one I would give everything to save. She lifts her eyes to mine, all the love and trust and goodness in the world in a gaze.
"Youre the best thing in my life, Gabrielle," I choke on the bitterness of failure and overwhelming love.
She smiles, wise and forgiving, "I love you, Xena..."
"Gabrielle," the Conquerors lips formed the name as she returned from the vision and she spun to pin her Captain of the Imperial Guard with the cobalt fire of her eyes. "What is the rebels name?"
Darphus stuttered ineffectually and jerked around to his lieutenant.
"Gabrielle," Palemon stated coolly, pleased with his superiors gaff. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
"Get her back," came the hissing order.
"Wha-?" both men looked at the Conqueror in confusion. Unpredictable as she might be, the Conqueror never let a rebel go unpunished.
"GET HER BACK," she snarled, enunciating each word. "Send someone after that squad; I want that woman in the palace, with Wan Li the healer in attendance, within the candlemark."
"Thy will be done, Conqueror," both murmured automatically.
With a snap, the Conqueror signaled her litter bearers to their places and resumed her throne. The servants bore her away, leaving Darphus and Palemon staring. Then they were both scrambling to do the bidding of the Ruler of the Known World.
Son of a bacchae, what have I done? The Conqueror cursed fluidly in several languages within the brilliant, adamantine confines of her mind. Saving the girl had been the height of stupidity: a complete loss of face in front of her subjects. How was she going to justify not executing a known insurrectionist, already tried, judged, and partially punished? It was bound to cause talk within her own administration, let alone the secret cadres of resistance in Corinth and beyond.
Only if they find out... some part of her tried for reassurance.
Of course theyll find out!! screamed the politician within. She was the ring leader of that damned bunch of loud mouth dissidents thrown out of the Bards Academy. Theyll be pestering my soldiers for the body by nightfall!
How can I turn this to my advantage? The inner tactician began.
None of her inner turmoil was, of course, apparent. The Conqueror long ago had learned bitter lessons on schooling her features to portray only what she chose. Mask-like in its perfection, her face appeared confident and composed. Nevertheless, the head of her household quailed at the caustic burn of the blue gaze that found him waiting in the reception hall of her palace.
"Have a bed placed in the room connecting to mine," the Conqueror ordered, not slowing her stride past the courtier. "And clothes-- for a woman about the size of that food taster, Alita."
"B-but, Conqueror, by your own command, no one shares that..." his words stopped with a final squeak, "wing." He gulped as she stopped and swung around. "It-- Thy will be done, Conqueror."
With a chilling whisper of black silk, she disappeared toward her royal apartments.
What is it to be a philosopher? Is it not to be prepared against events?
-- Epictetus, Discourses
Gabrielle was, in a bitterly ironic way, furious that she didnt get to pass out. In all the great tales of heroic deeds, the dying hero only suffered a moment of pain before passing out or passing over to the Elysian Fields.
If she had to die for the greater good, she would have asserted even a two candlemarks ago, then that was her fate and she welcomed it. Nothing had prepared her for the blinding agony of her legs being broken. Now she knew the stories had lied about the heros painless death. Now she knew what real fear felt like. She doubted shed ever want to be a hero again.
Gabrielle had been stunned at the cruel loveliness of the Conquerors face up close, but her righteous anger had kept her upright during the brief interview with the Conqueror, though her knees had nearly buckled when the taller woman grasped her chin and wiped an insolent thumb across her lips. Shed thrown the words shed practiced for so long into that beautiful face without real fear, though, trusting that the gods would intervene before the real pain began. I didnt even manage to die for the cause, she berated herself. In fact, when she finally re-opened her eyes, hoping for a brief stop before the Elysian Fields, shed found herself staring up at the wooden ceiling of a bedchamber in the Conquerors Corinthian palace. In moments, she was divested of her prison garb, bathed, and dressed in clothing she couldnt have bought with a years earnings from storytelling. Her noble epic of political idealism had changed to a bizarre and sinister fairytale.
"How does that feel?" the physician, Wan Li, broke in on Gabrielles thoughts.
"Like Tartarus," Gabrielle quipped, looking over the spoke-like arrangement of pins sticking out of her broken legs, "but better than it did a few minutes ago."
The doctor smothered a smile, nodding slightly. "The needles have been properly positioned. The pain will ease gradually."
The door flew open, rebounding against the inner wall and the Conqueror strode in. Gone was the flowing silk and ornate winged crown. The raven hair whipped freely around broad shoulders clad in a sleeveless crimson tunic and wide-sleeved white shirt. Black woven leather pants were tucked into tall, black boots. Blue eyes blazed as they fixed on the recumbent form of the recently convicted rebel.
Wan Li, seated motionless at Gabrielles bedside, watched the expressions chase over the fair features of his patient. He saw initial startlement and fear fade to confused wonder, and then proud defiance.
"Are you a witch?" the Conqueror demanded.
"No," Gabrielle replied clearly, lifting her head to meet the Conquerors eyes. "Im a bard."
"Lie still," Wan Li and the Conqueror ordered in unison.
With a gesture, the Conqueror dismissed the physician. Then the tall, lithe form of the Conqueror stalked close to lean over the bed, arms akimbo. "Do you see visions?"
Gabrielle frowned. "No," a note of scorn entered the clear voice. "Why? Are you looking for an oracle? Cause I gotta tell you, the recruitment methods stink."
"Watch your tone, Gabrielle of Poteidaia," the Conqueror barked. "I am your ruler."
"Whatre you going to do?" the younger woman shot back. "Crucify me?"
"No," the Conqueror found herself fighting an almost genuine smile. "Thats been done. I like to keep things...spontaneous. Ill improvise," she gave the last word a nasty twist.
Gabrielles anger deflated like a trireme sail in a calm, and tears swelled. "Im sure youll think of something," she said bitterly.
The Conquerors finely arched brows drew together as she felt an unwelcome wash of sympathy and, she had to admit, remorse, but the old familiar anger swept over her, washing away her guilt. She got back to the point at hand.
"Are any of those mouthy rebels of yours dabbling in magic?"
Gabrielle looked away, defeat and exhaustion painted on every line. "No... We thought the people would rise up if given leadership and that we could reason with the Conq-- with you. I guess we only dabbled in blind idealism."
The Conqueror paced, her eyes darting with the intent paths of her thoughts. Gabrielle, turning her head again to watch, allowed her natural curiosity to get the better of her.
"Why are you asking me all these questions? Why didnt you just kill me and get it over with?"
The Conqueror drew herself up, folded her arms across her chest, and sneered at the younger woman. "As you said in your last little poster campaign, I act on selfish whims. My reasons are at best unclear and usually cruel. That was your writing?"
Gabrielle met the stony lapis eyes. "I wrote those words, yes."
"If I could get my court propagandist to write that well, Id have people all over the world surrendering at my feet," the Conqueror grumbled, half to herself, turning for another pacing circuit.
"Yes, but youd still be enslaving them," Gabrielle retorted.
"If not me, then someone else," the raven hair swung wildly as she whipped about. "The weak always fall to the strong. I just happen to be the strongest of the strong!"
"Then who better to protect and defend the rights of those weaker?" Gabrielle demanded.
The Conqueror threw up her hands. "Sophists! Philosophers! Theorists! You people always have an answer. Yet not a single one of you could run a government if your life depended on it!"
"Youve never given us a chance! Youve never even considered counselors from the philosophers or from the people. You simply impose your will, never considering if what youre willing is really best for those you rule."
"Idealistic drivel," the Conqueror waved an imperious hand.
"Its not!" Gabrielle leaned up on her elbows to emphasize her point. "There are huge differences between the people you rule, but theres no difference in the way you rule them. I know that we here in Corinth arent the only ones to question what youre doing, nor are we the only ones to act. Not listening to us, not even acknowledging that our ideals might have some merit, is causing that dissent and putting your dominion in danger."
"Theres only one danger that Im worried about at the moment," the Conqueror pointed an accusing finger at Gabrielle. "You and those idealists of yours," she spat, "you threw some sort of spell at me and got me to spare your life, but Ill get to the bottom of this, I promise you, or Ill kill you all!"
With that she was gone in a whirlwind of anger and dark beauty.
The physician returned in a few moments and Gabrielle looked at him rather bemusedly as he began to splint her legs.
"She plans on killing me. Shes already tried once. Why is she bothering to have you splint my legs? Shell probably kill me before they heal..." a small sob finally broke the young womans composure, "if they can ever heal."
The Chin physician let her cry for a few moments as he bound her broken legs tightly to the splints, then patted her reassuringly. "The Conquerors will is law, child. You must not question it. As for your healing, you are lucky. Your legs will heal straight and will soon grow strong. In a few moons, you will walk as you ever did."
"If she lets me live that long," the bard muttered again.
The Conqueror lounged imperturbly in a leather sling chair at the head of the conference table that dominated the chamber behind her Reception Hall. Darphus and Palemon occupied the chairs to her left and right and the Corinthian Guard commander, Titus, and head of naval affairs for Corinth, Telekon, flanked them. All had been present at the public judgement, but none had sufficient bravado or suicidal tendencies to bring the matter up, so they waited in silence until the chamber door eased open to admit a tall, black-clad figure.
"Autolycus," the Conqueror greeted, her voice rich with sensuality and menace.
With a flourish, the mustachioed former thief bowed. "The King of Spies at your service, Conqueror."
The men surrounding the table had all stiffened at the entrance of the chief of Xenas secret police, but Darphuss face held rage as well as fear. A fact not lost on the Conqueror.
"What is he doing here?" Darphus demanded.
Both perfect brows rose to the edge of the Conquerors bangs. "I didnt know I needed your permission to consult with my subordinates," she said with well-feigned mildness.
Darphus gulped then pasted a smile on. "I- Im sorry, Your Majesty. I was simply taken aback." He glared at Autolycus. "I didnt know he was seen in public these days...at least not in daylight."
Autolycus caressed his moustache with a negligent finger, smiling insinuatingly. "Youd best worry when you dont see me, Darphus."
The Conqueror grinned wolfishly. Something about Autolycus amused her in spite of herself, and she was never one to forego amusement, especially at Darphuss expense.
"My King of Spies has been called out to do some... research on that little blonde rebel I pulled off the cross today."
The men exchanged not so subtle looks among themselves. If she brought up the topic, there was less chance one of them would get killed for discussing it. Titus smiled his best bootlicker smile and leaned forward.
"We knew your action this afternoon smacked of greater intrigue, Your Majesty. We all know you wouldnt let a true insurrectionist go free."
Xena sneered her agreement, then cut him off at the knees. "Oh, no, shes a rebel, all right." She let him flounder a moment, bootlicker smile sliding off his jowly visage. "She, however, seems to be a rather low rung on the ladder. Im hoping shell lead us to the real force behind these attempts to destabilize my hold on Corinth."
Darphus had broken into a slight sweat as he heard Xenas revelations. "I-- You--" he took a deep breath and started again. "I had it on the best authority that she was the ring leader, Majesty. Those idiots would follow her to death."
The Conqueror chuckled unpleasantly. "Do you really think some half-wit arsonist is the best authority, Darphus? Ive spoken to the girl. Shes a bard, for the gods sake, not a seditionist or even a very effective rabble-rouser."
Autolycus smiled. "I guess thats where I come in...?"
"Yes," Xena focused her somewhat considerable attention on him. "I want you to trace this girl. She claims to be from Poteidaia, yet shes also an Athens Academy trained bard. I want to know everywhere shes been for the last five years. Theres someone pulling her strings, Im sure of it, and I want that someone... to take her place on my cross."
Darphus flushed. "Your Majesty could have asked the Imperial Guard to handle this investigation," he offered, cowed into subservient speech at least.
The Conqueror gestured impatiently. "And have half of Greece know Im looking into the girls whereabouts? Its bad enough theyll think I spared her," she sighed disgustedly. "I dont want anyone outside this room to know that Ive initiated this little inquiry. If we draw too much attention to the girl, those who sent her will disappear like a morning mist. And she may come up with a severe case of dead before she can tell me what I want to know."
Palemon smiled secretively as he watched the interplay between his superior and his ruler. Darphus was oozing guilt from every sweat-soaked pore, and the younger officer was sure that the Conqueror noted it. A plotter Darphus wasnt, and if he thought Xena had forgiven his taking of her first army and The Gauntlet shed been made to run, then Palemon was certain he was the biggest fool in the gods green earth. Hed witnessed the public degradation Xena had visited on Darphus, the oaths of fealty shed forced from him. Palemon was actually quite surprised shed let Darphus live at all and doubly surprised that the viper hadnt leapt up to bite her before now.
"Palemon," the Conqueror snapped, indicating that shed already said his name once.
"Your Majesty?" the blonde man straightened jerkily, focusing on the twin sapphires that bore through his skin.
"I said," she repeated acidly, "I want you to tighten security around my wing of the castle. Im keeping the rebel near me so that I may question her at my discretion, and Id bet that therell be some sort of attempt on her life as soon as its widely known that Im interested in what she has to tell. Your job is to stop any such attempt."
There was no need to verbalize the threat of what she would do to him if he failed. Palemon saluted crisply, fist to breastplate, "Thy will be done, Conqueror."
"Of course, it will be," Xena purred, then lashed out with her cold snarl. "Now, all of you, out of here. I have the Chinese reports to deal with."
Truth is the beginning of every good thing, both in heaven and on earth; and he who would be blessed and happy should be from the first a partaker of truth, for then he can be trusted.
Gabrielle awoke in the evening as the sedative Wan Li had given her wore off and the throbbing began again in her legs. She groaned a little, trying to shift in the bed. The call of nature was upon her, but she could do little about it, immobilized as she was.
"Excuse me?" she called, hoping someone was guarding her door. No response. "Pardon me?!" she tried a little louder.
A sibilant curse sounded from the next room and then splashing. Suddenly, a connecting door between the rooms, concealed by shadows and tapestry, opened. The Conqueror, wrapped in a thin linen towel that did more to emphasize than conceal her body, stood in the opening.
Gabrielle looked straight up at the ceiling, praying that whichever god found this situation so amusing would just take her life.
"Something must be wrong or you wouldnt have called out," the Conqueror reasoned sarcastically, "or was that an attempt at a plea bargain?"
Gabrielle weighed the options against her bladder and her bladder won. "I need to use the chamber pot," she gritted out. She thought she heard a breath of a laugh.
"Theres no one on this end of the palace but me...and you, of course," the Conqueror revealed, tying the ends of the towel between her breasts to secure it and moving to the bedside. "Im bathing, and Ive had too many rulers stabbed in their baths to let anyone near me. So....can you wait, or will I do for a nurse?"
Gabrielle weighed the options again and found that her bladder still won. "Please," she muttered, "help me."
The Conqueror chuckled again, but it held none of the previous sarcasm. Strong arms moved under Gabrielles shoulders and knees, careful to steady her splinted calves, and carried her to the garderobe between the two rooms.
"Flex your thighs to hold your lower legs still," the Conqueror advised as she sat the younger woman down. "No...wait..." She ducked out.
Gabrielle watched, puzzled as the raven-haired warrior returned with a footstool. The dark head bent as the Conqueror knelt, placing the stool, and lifting Gabrielles feet onto it. Drawn by some unnamed curiosity, Gabrielle reached out to touch the silken strands of damp hair spilling from the bent head. Instantly, she found herself staring at the point of a knife a fingers breadth from her eye.
Oh, gods, Gabrielle thought, frozen, shes totally naked and she still manages to pull a knife. It was too much, and the bard, like many before her faced with the Conqueror in such extreme circumstances, released her bladder from fear. Luckily, she was in the appropriate place to do so.
The Conqueror, as Gabrielle was to learn was often the case, did the one thing that the bard never expected. The Empress of the Known World, Conqueror of Rome, Gaul, Chin, and Greece, bent over double and began to laugh. Unable to help herself, giddy with relief, Gabrielle joined her.
"Call when youre done," Xena choked out, retreating from the garderobe.
Beyond embarrassment now, Gabrielle finished what she had to do and called and the Conqueror returned to lift her once more, but the raven-haired ruler made her way to her own chamber instead of returning to Gabrielles.
"Where are you..?"
"I can hear your stomach growling, bard. I was about to ring for my supper," the shoulders under Gabrielles tentative embrace shrugged. "It will save you more shouted plea bargains."
Where did all this afternoons anger go? Gabrielle pondered as the Conqueror carefully, even solicitously, arranged a seat and footstool for the disabled bard. This woman, who dropped the damp towel without inhibition and slid into a silken robe with unconscious grace, seemed a creature formed for luxurious pleasure, not the worlds deadliest warlord.
Amazing what a warm bath can do for a warlords disposition, Gabrielle joked inwardly. The softening in no way implied that the Conqueror had relaxed her preternaturally alert senses; in fact, Gabrielle, who had listened, fascinated, to all the stories of the Conquerors legendary sensory abilities, could almost feel the scanning of the invisible strands of attention that the Conqueror focused on her external world. It seemed, however, that the warrior had lain aside the cold, terrifying mask with which she faced her daylight responsibilities.
Gabrielle didnt fail to notice the effect the Conquerors relative calm was having on herself, either. She had never hated the Conqueror the way the other dissidents had; Gabrielle had been too impressed by the intelligence and strength the Conqueror displayed. Her hope had been to reason with the Conqueror. Here, in this warm room, with the woman out from under the armor, Gabrielle began to have hope that she could reach an understanding with the Conqueror, perhaps win her over to their way of seeing things. She relaxed and stopped fearing that more pain would be visited upon her at any moment.
"Youre romanticizing, bard," the Conqueror growled, as if reading Gabrielles thoughts.
"How do you know?"
"Ive seen the look before," the Conqueror revealed, tugging the bell pull to order dinner. "Besides, I can practically hear the cogs turning in that little epic mill between your ears."
"A bard has to observe people."
"Well, stop observing me before I rip your eyes out," the Conqueror threw her an ornate scroll. "Do something useful: read this letter to me."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrow at the Conquerors back, suspecting the threat was actually Xenas idea of humor, and unrolled the scroll. The Greek was a jumble of dialects, colloquialisms and blatant grammatical errors.
"To the conqueror of Heaven and Earth, the noble Warrior Princess, the just and righteous Queen of ..."
"Skip the schmooze, Gabrielle," the Conqueror rumbled.
Gabrielle felt a frission like memory wash over her at the sound of that contralto caressing the syllables of her name, but the Conqueror raised inquiring blue eyes and Gabrielle hastened to begin again. The Conqueror seated herself and lifted her sword from its hanger. A whetstone and oiled rag were retrieved from a nearby basket. The rhythmic sharpening accompanied Gabrielles reading.
We, the noble survivors of the True Amazon Nation beseech thee to look kindly upon our heads and accept our multitudinous pardons-- I think they mean apologies-- for the varlotous behavior of our false, surreptitious and subversive sisters who resisted and rebelled against your wise and just rule..."
Gabrielle paused, frowning over a badly misspelled word.
"And?" the Conqueror glanced up from her sword edge.
"I cant tell if its specious or specific," she shook her head. "These Amazons need a rhetorician and a penmanship instructor."
The Conqueror grinned, looking once more at her blade. "Maybe Ill exile you there."
"Not that that wouldnt be interesting, but me...? With Amazons?" Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Theyd eat me alive."
The grin broadened as the Conquerors eyebrow rose. "They might, at that..."
Gabrielle, blessed--or cursed-- with fair skin to match her fair hair, turned scarlet at the tavern room humor. The arrival of the meal saved her from whatever further devilish remarks the Conqueror had meant to bestow upon her, and Gabrielle was infinitely grateful.
She remained silent, eyes downcast, expression neutral, during the laying of the table. She saw the subservience with which the household servants approached the Conqueror, and it triggered a warm rush of alarm and embarrassment through the bard. She had yet to call the Conqueror by an honorific, while Alita the food taster prefaced every sentence with If it pleases the Conqueror... or If Your Majesty will allow.
The Conqueror had begun her rise to world dominion in the East and her retinue honored many of the traditions of Chin. No one lifted their eyes to the beautiful azure gaze; to do so was to challenge the face of the warlord and Gabrielle imagined that might mean a swift trip to prison or the torture cells. She also recalled with no small terror that she had repeatedly locked eyes with the Conqueror, competing to see who would look away first.
Your egalitarian ideas need reining in, bard, Gabrielle told herself. You cannot hope to gain her trust or to reform her methods of government if you continually disrespect her. And you must never, ever think that this private Conqueror youve observed will somehow appear to save you if you make the mistake of disrespecting her in public.
The Conqueror attacked the food nearly as it was set down, but Alita discreetly cleared her throat and, with a frustrated sigh, the warlord tossed the morsel shed snatched with her chopsticks back into the larger platter. Alita took an obligatory bite of each dish, waited a brief moment, then bowed herself out. Xena dug in, gesturing for Gabrielle to do the same.
"You dont fear poison?" Gabrielle felt compelled to ask once they were alone.
"Alita," the Conqueror explained around a mouthful of rice and spiced meat, "is my cooks only daughter."
Gabrielle frowned. Smart, yes, but her table manners need work, she thought as the Conqueror reached across several dishes for a piece of beef.
"Eat, bard," the grunt held a note of command and Gabrielle obeyed, struggling a moment with the chopsticks.
A long, elegant hand covered hers, nudging the ivory utensils into a more comfortable position, then cupped the back of her hand.
"Relax," Xena instructed. "The wrist needs to be loose. Theyre not like a quill: youre not trying to force ink onto leather with them; youre lifting food... gently... to your lips." Xenas hand guided hers as she selected a bite of food and brought it to her mouth.
"There you go," the Conqueror praised, her eyes for a moment almost warm.
They ate in silence for a space, the Conqueror obviously perfectly content with the lack of conversation, Gabrielle carefully choosing words to frame the question shed held in check for most of the day.
"Just ask it," the warrior finally ordered, not looking at the woman seated at her side.
"How..?" Gabrielle felt a superstitious shiver chase up her spine.
"You have an amazingly expressive face," Xena supplied unexpectedly.
Gabrielle nodded absently, fidgeting with her chopsticks. "I- I wanted to know why you think someone cast a spell on you."
Xena took a swallow of wine, considering how much to tell the rebel. "I had a...vision while you were on the cross."
The bard tried to ignore the casual tone and phrasing used to describe her horrendous injury. "A vision?"
Xena nodded. "Im not much given to visions," she understated almost mildly. "In fact, Im not much given to anything that has to do with the gods or prophecy or soothsaying. I prefer to make my own destiny. But today, while they were carrying that cross toward the gates, a vision came to me."
The Conqueror studied Gabrielles rapt, guileless expression a moment and found it made her angry. "It supplied me with your name and... persuaded me to that I needed to keep you alive. Thats why youre here, now, and thats why youll stay here until you tell me what caused that vision and what you hoped to gain--other than your life."
"What did you see?" Gabrielle questioned, curiosity overcoming caution.
"You dont need to know that," the Conqueror bit out, her expression hardening instantly into the warlord mask, "or do you know already, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle shook her head, eyes wide as a rabbit before a cobra. "I- I dont know anything about it, Conqueror. I swear it," she flinched at the warriors growl of disbelief. "None of the freedom fi-.." she caught herself and began again. "None of those I know had anything to do with magic or prophecy or anything like that. We-- they were students or shopkeepers or tradesmen..."
The Conquerors hand, which a quarter candlemark ago had gently rested against Gabrielles, snaked out to seize the smaller womans throat. "I could make you tell me the name of every conspirator, bard," she threatened, her voice dripping ice and fury. "I dont have to wine and dine you to get the truth."
Gabrielle fought the urge to struggle, placing the fingers of one hand lightly on the Conquerors strong wrist. She tried to remain calm, but her heartbeat, pounding against the Conquerors fingers, belied the effort. She nodded slowly, to show the angry warlord she understood the truth of the statement. Her eyes remained on the icy blue ones of her captor, and she sought to convince the sovereign of her sincerity through that contact.
The grip slackened a fraction. "I dont know anything about it," she whispered again.
Xenas eyes softened not an iota. "You will stay here, bard, until I find out who does."
"Thy will be done, Conqueror," Gabrielle closed her eyes.
The Conqueror found herself replaying that surrender in her mind late that night as she lay unable to sleep. The fact that the young bard had not cowered, had not begged, had not fought, troubled something deep in the ruler. How could it be that the rebel now acted with such blind trust toward the very ruler whose rule she so hated that she had incited the people to revolt?
The Conqueror knew she should suspect the easy surrender-- what better way for a spy or assassin to win her over, but through non-resistence? Instead, it only confirmed some gut-level response Xena had toward the petite blonde. Xena knew Gabrielle of Poteidaia was as well-meaning and honest as she presented herself to be.
The Conqueror thrust the response away as maudlin foolishness; Her reaction to the bards crucifixion had been irrational. She, who despised the masses for depending on soothsayers and oracles, had allowed a vision to interfere with her decision-making. She had rescinded an order on the basis of a feeling! Feelings, shed learned time and again, only led to recriminations, pain, and betrayal. Caesar, Borias, Boadicea, the list of betrayers and betrayed was endless. But here was the Conqueror irrationally following her feelings when it came to the rebellious bard and setting off a swarming Greek-fire of speculation. For the first time since taking the world by storm, the Conqueror felt at war with her own emotions.
She nearly died on my cross this morning, Xena thought, and this evening she shares my meal. How could she forgive so easily, so quickly?
The Conqueror slammed a fist into her suddenly overly-soft pillow and rolled over for the hundredth time.
"Its not natural," the warrior said aloud. "People dont just forgive you trying to kill them."
It sounded like one of the philosophies Lao Ma had attempted to teach Xena when the Conqueror first arrived in Chin. Lao Ma had urged Xena to change: Stop willing. Stop desiring. Stop hating. To conquer others is to have power; to conquer yourself is to know the Way.
"I know my way," Xena whispered to the darkness, but for the first time in many years, she felt a glimmer of uncertainty.
Gabrielle, too, lay awake in the darkness. The Conqueror had called a guard in to carry the injured woman to bed and Gabrielle had felt the gesture like a slap. It made no sense, she knew. I ought to despise her, she told herself. She ordered my death this morning. And not just any execution, a torturous, excruciating death by crucifixion. Her legs ached, and her throat was still raw from the choking grip shed been held in, but she found that the deepest hurt was in her spirit. She had been overtly rejected by one whose respect she had longed to earn.
"I thought I could reason with her," she said to the empty room, shaking her head disbelievingly. "I thought I could stand up to her and shed be moved by my arguments. I thought I could break the cycle of violence she lives in. The arrogance of it! Me, a puny, puling academic, facing the most relentlessly ruthless warlord in history, the Empress of the World, and expecting her to just say, You know, Gab, youre right! I do need to let the people have more control of their own government. I do need to disband my secret police and lighten the tax load. Stupid, stupid bard."
A rueful laugh broke on a rather piteous sob, and the young woman cried herself to sleep after all.
Others were awake at that cold hour, but they werent chasing sleep. In a distant quarter of the city, amid shadows that held thieves and other miscreants, conspirators were meeting.
"Did you find anything?" a towering dark shade, wrapped in a coarsely woven cloak asked his newly met companion.
"Her room was pretty much ransacked. A few scrolls, another dress. Nothing to explain why she was spared."
The taller figure snarled, clenching fists that rattled metallicly under the cloak. "The rebel was supposed to be an easy scapegoat. Why would she take a rebel off the cross? And why send out secret police to investigate the girls past?"
"It doesnt make sense... unless Xena suspects something and truly thinks the girl can tell her whos involved."
"How much does the girl know, Rexel?" the tall man asked, seizing the tunic of the other.
"Nothing, Darphus, I swear it. She thought she was taken because of the freedom fighters little games. She had no idea you just wanted a conspirator to execute to win Xenas trust."
"You had better be right, you little sneakthief," Darphus warned, "because if your little rebel tips off the Conqueror to what Im plotting, Corinth will be awash in blood and mine will only be a small portion of it. Xena doesnt take well to coups."
Rexel nodded furiously, recalling the miles of crosses lining the road to Rome after Caesars failed attempt to steal Xenas Empire. "Your secrets safe. Im not ready to face the torturers."
"Dont be afraid of the torturers, little man. Fear Xena as you fear the fires of Tartarus. If she catches us, shell make you beg to die." He released the smaller man. "You keep your ears open and be ready to move when I say the time is right. Ill take care of the rebel myself."
Continued in Chapter 5
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