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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 ( email@example.com 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: All Roman Names came from the appendix of Colleen McCollaughs First Man of Rome. My Latin is generally cadged from the Latin dictionary and Latin Phrases and Quotations by Richard Branyon.
Spelling Disclaimer: Boudicca is a proper spelling of Boadicea /Boudica. Poet/feminist/lesbian Judy Grahn argues this proper spelling and phonetic pronunciation is where the slur "bull dyke" came from. I dunno; I just cant quit teaching at the end of the day.
Emails may be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. SEJ
The people that had once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now... long eagerly for just two things, bread and circus games.
From the deck of her ship The Lion of Amphipolis, Xena watched as the Italian coast hove into view. The publicly announced trip to Egypt three weeks before had been a carefully planned, and very successful, ruse to allow her navy and Imperial Guard to mobilize without drawing suspicion to her true purpose: Rome. Autolycuss intelligence machine had proven correct as always. The city legions of Rome, whom shed bribed herself before her first invasion of the Eternal City, had indeed risen against her. A group of patricians--senators and consuls-- humiliated at being ruled by a "Macedonian upstart," had put together the huge sum needed to buy the legions. As Rome went, the patricians hoped, so would all Italia.
The Conqueror promised herself with a feral smile that she would remind them most carefully that Amphipolis lay within the borders of Thrace. Perhaps Ill brand them as they mark Athenian prisoners of war with the owl of Athena, she thought, her cobalt eyes roving the distant shore. Or perhaps Ill tattoo a map of Thrace on their hairy backsides. No punishment could be more humiliating to a patrician than to be marked like a slave with the name or symbol of their owner.
Xena knew the coup was more a matter of money than national pride, as was it almost always the case with Romans. Caesar had conquered for personal aggrandizement and reputation, but he had been an anomaly. Fame meant far less than fortune to most Romans, and any barbarian was a good barbarian who fed, clothed, and housed the expensive legions protecting the wealth and debauchery of Rome. The Conqueror had effectively halted the German tribes at the Danube, and Rome enjoyed the concomitant prosperity of safe trade within the Empire. With trade goods readily available and luxury affordable to even the common citizen, only the legions had been unhappy. Theyd threatened to rebel three times in the last four years and a raise in wages had bought the peace each time, but now the legions had found other bidders, and, with that, the Conqueror had reached the end of her not-very-considerable patience.
"Were sure we have the harbor sealed?" Xena asked, as Neilon, Captain-Admiral of The Lion, and one of the few survivors of Xenas first Lion of Amphipolis, approached.
"No pun intended?" Neilon joked. "You know...harbor...seal?"
The Conqueror gave him a look and the man grinned feebly.
"Theodorus and the landing party signaled as soon as there was light. Not even a whimper will escape," he promised, a tad more respectfully, though it was hard for him to look at her and not see the seventeen year old pirate queen whod bloodied Caesars nose all those years ago. Shed carried a mantle of power even then and had the same steely glare, but he recalled her laughter as well and had hoped to spark it again.
The Conqueror stood motionless at the rail a moment longer, also recalling other times, other Roman encounters, and a small Egyptian-Gallic slave who fought like a harpy. MLila, she thought with the ache of regret. Why did you save me only to die in my arms? When will I be free of that guilt and the hatred for these damned Romans? Then the sea breeze tugged at her blood red cape, belling it behind her, and she shook her dark hair out of her face and the dark thoughts out of her mind.
"Very well, Neilon. Lets get this tub of yours to dock," she grinned, rewarding him with a flash of white. "This Macedonian has some Greek geography to teach these Roman schoolboys."
Her forces struck at Ostia, on the mouth of the Tiber. There was no resistance. The bribes hadnt reached this far, and Xena was, after all, the Conqueror. Latium cowered before her and she raced her Imperial Guard down the long Via Aurelia to the city gates of Rome and demanded entry just as she had seven years before.
No Caesar held the city this time, despite the patricians claims, and, though certain quarters of the labyrinthine city had taken time to clear, within ten days, the Conqueror stood in the Coliseum, watching the triumphal procession that brought two censors, the one living legion commander, twelve centurions, and seven Roman senators to be publicly humiliated-- passed under the yoke-- before the Greek barbarian who, once more, had conquered Rome. Each of them bore the tattoo of the lion, city symbol of Amphipolis, above his left brow.
She saw with amusement that the crowds, always on the side of the victor, the strong, the one in position to give them their beloved bread and circuses, had pelted the would-be liberators with rotten vegetables and fruit and other filth from the street as the procession had wound up the Capitoline Hill, past the Imperial Palace, to the glaring white bulk of the Coliseum. The crowd within continued the humiliation, cheering and jeering as the once regal, once patrician conspirators were made to crawl beneath the captors yoke. As the ritualistic degradation concluded, though, an expectant hush fell over the huge gathering. Now they would find out their own punishment for allowing the treachery to go unchallenged. Now their communal fate rested in the sword-roughened hand of the Warrior Princess
In the near silence, Xena the Conqueror sat aside her sweating goblet of snow-chilled Mendaean wine and rose from her lavishly draped throne. The moment called for panoply and drama, and the Destroyer of Nations knew how to put on the necessary show. She allowed a dramatic pause then out from the shadows of the royal purple canopy she strode.
Apollos glowing chariot, the midafternoon sun, glaring from its height, struck the rich darkness of the Conquerors unbound hair and caressed the sun-bronzed beauty of her muscular limbs. Clad in white and gold ceremonial armor, she could have been Athena, newly sprung from Zeuss brow, or the wild and untamed Amazon Queen Antiope, who enchanted the noble hero, Theseus. She was unparalleled in Roman experience and they cried out in wonder and amazement.
Her golden breastplate and golden laurel leaf crown sent ripples of light out into the crowd as she raised her hand, silencing the cries of "Conqueror!" and "Xena!" She smiled, teeth as purely white as the starched linen of her short-sleeved tunic and pleated legionnaires kilt. The world stilled at her smile.
"Friends, Romans..." she began, her modulated battlefield voice filling even the corners of the enormous stadium, "before you stand the traitors and conspirators who would disrupt the livelihoods, steal the voice, and cost the lives of the people of one of the most powerful cities in my Empire."
Gods, I hate speeches, she sighed inwardly, but the Romans, a people in love with the sound of their own voice, ecstatic at having their civic prestige and rights reconfirmed, cheered her. She nodded, eyes automatically scanning the benches for danger as the innate politician worked the crowd. The emboldened crowd chanted,
"Xena... Imperatrix! Xena... Imperatrix!"
She lifted her hand again, calming, calling for quiet, and slowly, within the Coliseum, the cry died, but the listeners in the street-- those unable to find or afford a seat-- took up the chant, and it provided a chilling background for the rest of the spectacle.
"Citizens of Rome," she greeted them again, "it is not my intention to punish the many for the crimes of the few. A tiny, power-hungry minority such as those represented here must not be allowed to effect the prosperity and freedom of the great city of Rome."
Again, the cheering interrupted, but the Conqueror glanced at her Imperial guard and they clashed spears to shields, quieting the crowd.
"These traitors will pay for their crimes," she growled and the Coliseum growled with her, "and their families will pay... Pay the quartering, wages and feeding of the legions I will leave in place of those who threatened revolt against their rightful ruler."
No new taxes, was all the message Rome heard or needed, and even the Imperial Guard couldnt quiet their joy. The chant continued, pulsing over the stadium and the city until the hearts of all Rome seemed to beat in time with those six syllables: "Xe-na... Im-per-a-trix!" Triumphant and adored by the people of Rome, who would revolt in the streets if their favored gladiator lost, the Empress Xena was whisked back to the Imperial Residence where the lawyers for the condemned mens families waited already. The battle she had just commemorated winning had truly just begun.
"Theo, show these... gentlemen the way out," Xena ordered her new Imperial Guard Captain in a silky tone.
With Darphus demoted to an ordinary guardsman for his interference in the interrogation of Rexel and Palaemon assigned to protect Gabrielle back in Corinth, there had been too few other choices for Captain of the Guard, but Theodorus acted without question and the Conqueror knew shed need that unquestioning loyalty in the viper pit of Roman politics. Just as now, she saw with satisfaction, as the longhaired blonde motioned for the group of lawyers to precede him out the door of the audience chamber. They balked like a gaggle of geese before an unfriendly dog.
"Your Majesty..." Manius Herrenius, cognomen Ravilla ("talks himself hoarse"), beseeched.
"I have said all I have to say, Manius Herrenius," the Conqueror said patiently, reaching negligently to the table beside her and choosing a grape from the chilled bunches of fruit in an exquisite Chinese bowl, "and I have heard all from you I wish to hear."
Quintus Caecilius, cognomen Silanus ("ugly pudgy face"), smiled ingratiatingly and tried a different tack. "Empress, we are simple men who study the law. We wish only to understand the legal ramifications of your decision to tax the poor unfortunate families of those who rebelled against the Empire."
"Yes...yes...legal ramifications," came the pleased murmurs from the huddled mass of lawyers trying not to be noticed at his back.
"Legal ramifications?!" Xena barked out, causing Silanus to turn the color of spoiled bread dough.
For a long moment, the Conqueror considered beheading them all. It might be easier, she thought seriously, and it would definitely be more fun than what she sensed was coming. Theyd already argued with her for half a candlemark, probably a quarter candlemark longer than she should have allowed, and they showed no signs of working toward a conclusion. It would go on for hours, if she let it. What do I expect from a people formerly ruled by a committee?
Killing them would only mean more fighting, she knew, and she didnt have time for that now. Other parts of the Empire needed her attentions. Oddly enough, she had a sudden thought of Gabrielle. What was it the bard had said about the way she ruled?
"There are huge differences between the people you rule, but theres no difference in the way you rule them.... Not listening to us, not even acknowledging that our ideals might have some merit, is causing that dissent and putting your dominion in danger."
So, if she took Gabrielles advice, she would tailor her rule for the each of the peoples she was ruling: Greek rule for Greeks, Chinese rule for Chin, and Roman rule for Italy. Could she do that without making huge concessions and looking weak?
"Legal ramifications," she repeated more quietly, her razor sharp mind considering options. The men in the room were still, praying to various gods to get them alive from the audience. "Very well, Silanus. Tell me what the legal punishment for theft is."
"D-- Death, Your Majesty," he got out shakily.
"And an embezzler, Silanus? What punishment would he receive?" She casually popped a grape into her mouth.
The lawyer studied the question, looking for possible traps. "He would... he would receive death as well, Your Majesty."
Xena nodded sagely, chewing a grape. "And how does one know a suspect is a thief, Silanus?"
He gaped a little. "Well, umm... He might have the stolen property on his person, Your Majesty, or in his house."
"Ah," Xenas expression was pleased. "Then possession of stolen property is proof of a crime committed."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Xena popped another grape into her mouth. "And tell me, Silanus, does the law demand that the thief pay reparation to those harmed by his crime?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
She grinned to herself. I sound like Gabrielles damned Socrates with all these questions. "And if the thief is... harmed somehow, injured or killed, who pays the reparation then?"
Silanus frowned, sensing danger, but answered honestly. "The court might order the reparation taken from the estate of the deceased..."
One of the other men in the huddle of lawyers caught on more quickly and groaned. "Oh, no..."
Xenas nonchalant air vanished immediately. "So, tell me then, Silanus, were not your clients found in possession of the stolen legions of the Imperial City?"
A miserable nod from the lawyer.
"Did your clients not embezzle tax money meant for the Empire as a means of bribing my legions?"
Silanus, flushed now to a deep brick red, inclined his head.
"And being killed in their resistance to being arrested for that theft, they are unable to pay me my reparation, is this not so?"
Another hopeless agreement.
"Therefore, legally, the court-- me-- has the right to demand reparation from the families of those convicted for theft," she concluded with a sardonic smile. "And I do so."
"And the legal ramifications..." Silanus began huskily.
"There are none," Xena confirmed, her smile turning a little more smug. "Nothing has been done that isnt within the existing Roman law." She made a small gesture to her Guard Captain. "The gentlemen will be leaving now, Theo."
Idle in her rooms that evening, the Conqueror found herself wondering what her little rhetorician back in Corinth would have made of the Roman lawyers. Indeed, what would Gabrielle, the trained orator, have done with the opportunities presented in that little pageant at the Coliseum? Speech would have been longer, the Conqueror smirked to herself, then relented, and probably more eloquent. Too bad she wasnt well enough to travel. She has the talent to write a speech that would have the People and the Senate in the palm of my hand and the rhetoricians singing my praises for hundreds of years. The Conqueror chuckled a little to herself. How long had it been since shed felt that desire for lasting fame? She was guaranteed her place in history now, but she couldnt help feeling a tinge of regret that her fame wouldnt be for oration.
No similar situation would present itself in Corinth, she thought with a tinge of regret, or Greece at all for that matter. Greece gave her more trouble than any ten of her principalities put together. "No man is a prophet in the land of his birth," ran an Israelite proverb and Xena decided it applied to Conquerors as well as prophets.
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
"What do you mean, there are no histories of the Conqueror?"
"Hamna, the librarian, said to explain that the scrolls you asked for-- the history of the Conquerors reign-- do not exist," Alita repeated, patiently. Unemployed as food taster since the Conqueror was gone, she had been assigned as Gabrielles maidservant. "Theres never been an official history, he said."
Gabrielle leaned back on her pillows and shook her head, stunned by the revelation. Xena had altered politics, reshaped history, changed the traditions and daily lives of more people than Gabrielle could even name, and no one had bothered to even write about it? It didnt seem possible.
"Not even some yearly chronicle?"
"Hamna said you would ask that. He is requesting the Athenian chronicles from the Corinth city library for you, but he said you would probably be disappointed with what you find there."
"No history," Gabrielle muttered to herself, then straightened decisively. "Well, then, Ill just have to write one."
"Youll have to ask the Conqueror directly for permission," Brysas repeated obstinately, straightening the sleeve of his over tunic with an annoying, finicky gesture.
"How am I going to do that?" Gabrielle asked, seething at the bureaucratic mindset of the majordomo. "Shes in Egypt!"
"Actually, shes in Rome," Brysas informed her, his smarmy voice filled with self-importance. "She and her Imperial Guard were transported there to put down a revolt among the city legion. Word came yesterday."
"Is she all right?" Gabrielle wondered at the sudden fear that went through her.
"I trust so," Brysas replied. "One doesnt fear for the Conqueror on a battlefield."
"I-- I guess not. But thats beside the point! How can I work on my history of her reign if you wont let me interview people who were there, at the beginning?"
"Youll have to ask the Conqueror directly for permission."
Gabrielle, though bedfast, looked capable of murder at that moment. Her green eyes sparked with golden fire as she bit out the questions. "Can you--- no, can I write to her in Rome? Is there a way to get a message to her?"
Brysas frowned. "Well, I suppose the administrative messenger could..."
"Fine," Gabrielle bit out, sounding amazingly like the Conqueror. "Make it so. Ill draft a request for her permission."
It is part of the cure to wish to be cured.
The Conqueror looked impatiently at the pile of messages, reports, and inventories on her desk. Sometimes it was a huge pain to be in total control. Shed always insisted on checking everything herself, but when everything had become everything on two continents and then some, shed nearly been overwhelmed. Despite her administrators efforts to sift and sort the vast majority of her correspondence and paperwork, the pile of messages eating up half of her desk had to be gone through by her alone.
"Do it," she ordered herself and began sorting.
A small square of parchment sealed with her own initial stopped her. On closer inspection, she saw it wasnt her initial, but a pair of quills crossed over one another. She turned it over. It was addressed simply, "To Xena, The Conqueror, at Rome, From Gabrielle of Poteidaea, Corinth." Brows drawing together, she flicked a fingernail under the wax and unfolded the small missive.
I dont really know how exactly to open a letter to someone like you. I generally write to people with far fewer titles and honorifics. But I remember you didnt like all the titles in that letter from the Amazons, so I thought it was all right to leave them out.
I hope youre well and that your campaign-- or whatever you call it-- is going as planned. Not that I can imagine anything of yours not going as planned.
I got to looking into the history of your reign and found that there isnt one. A history, I mean. No one has written it. So, I was writing to get your permission to begin one. Brysas, your head of household here, wont let me talk to anyone who can give me the information I need-- or even tell me who I should talk to-- until you say its okay for me to write about you.
Im sorry to bother you in the middle of governing your empire, but I just cant stand to think of all the history youve been in, and been the cause of, thats going unrecorded.
Xenas laughed softly, her eyes glowing a rich blue behind dark lashes. When in the last ten years had she received a truly personal letter, she wondered. Her closest acquaintances were regents, administrators, and battle commanders over whom she held absolute control. She had no friends; had never even considered that she would or could. Power had insulated and isolated her from all that. Now, she stood looking at a letter written by the innocent academic shed ordered killed and realized it was also written by someone who would offer her friendship. Friendship and forgiveness, despite the agony and fear the Conqueror had caused her.
"I hope you are well...Take Care..." The sentiments were so obviously genuine that Xena found herself momentarily at a loss. Did she want a friend? Friendship...love... had betrayed and hurt her so many times in the past. Her father had vanished when she was a child; Petracles, her fiancé, had abandoned her; Caesar had killed MLila; Borias had betrayed her to Ming Tze. Was it worth the risk, opening herself to that again?
The Conqueror hesitated a moment as a thought struck her. The bard had obviously been shocked and pained by the two interrogations she had witnessed. Xena could still hear her begging that the Conqueror not hit Darphus again. What would Gabrielle think of the horrors she was bound to uncover in her quest to write Xenas rise to Imperial power? Would the bard recoil from her, reject her out of hand? Of course, the Conqueror had regrets, but what strong ruler didnt, but shed learned to live with the choices shed made. Could the bard? If Gabrielle wasnt able to accept that part of Xena, the Conquerors emotional self-defense mechanisms rationalized, then she wasnt the friend the Conqueror hoped for.
She recalled again the vision of the crosses in the snow. "I love you, Xena," Gabrielle had said, even at that moment when Xena had felt-- knew in her soul-- that she had cost that Gabrielle her life. Did Xena want a friend? A friend like that she did. A friend like that shed dreamt to find her whole life, though bitter experience and endless disappointment had buried the dream so deep shed thought it dead.
Xena picked up a quill and parchment.
Everything here is fine. We took Rome easily and Im planning on returning to Greece soon.
Your request for my permission to write made me laugh. Youve written quite a bit without my permission, I seem to recall. Nevertheless, you have full Imperial blessing to work on a history of my Empire. Just show Brysas the postscript and my seal below. It should be sufficient. Who to talk to may be more complicated. Ask Palaemon to fetch Fletcher at the Broken Arrow on the Corinthian waterfront. Hell know some stories.
Xena paused, considering how to phrase what came next. All the apologies she thought of sounded weak and empty, but she had to let Gabrielle know she regretted what had happened.
I hope you are recovering your strength. When I return, well discuss some permanent arrangements for your joining my household.
Gods, that sounded cold! She took the pumice and started to scratch it out, then stopped. Better to be cautious, she decided. The bard might not even want to join her household. Shed kept Gabrielle away from her life for weeks now; perhaps, the bard would want to go back to it.
Be well and try to stay out of trouble.
She signed it with her initial as Gabrielle had done and added the postscript giving Gabrielle permission to do whatever research she desired. Dripping wax on the tail of the parchment, she impressed the stylized chakram and crossed swords of her seal ring upon it. She folded and addressed the letter, "To Gabrielle of Poteidaea, Imperial household, Corinth." Her official seal on the outer layer would proclaim who sent the letter.
Character is destiny.
Alita burst into the chamber, disturbing Gabrielle as she read the last of the Athenian yearly chronicles Hamna had borrowed for her.
"What is it, Alita?" she asked, more sharply than she intended.
The maidservants fingers actually trembled as she handed the folded parchment to Gabrielle. "A letter," she said. "From the Conqueror."
Gabrielle hid her astonishment well, carefully setting aside the scroll and reaching to take the letter, but her finger paused to trace the wax seal deferentially. The raised wax felt warm and comforting for some odd reason, though she wasnt sure even yet that the Conqueror would grant her request to write a history. Gabrielle had expected a reply one way or the other, but not so quickly and certainly not so personally. "Gabrielle of Poteidaea," the address proclaimed, as if everyone should know whom that was, "Imperial Household, Corinth."
"Probably not from her," Gabrielle demurred with a small, embarrassed smile. "Her secretary probably answered."
"The Conqueror hasnt got a secretary," Alita informed her, still wide-eyed, "and thats her personal seal, from the ring she wears."
Gabrielle looked at the seal again. Yes, she recalled that elaborate gold signet, gleaming on the elegantly long, tanned finger. At dinner that evening with Palaemon, a gesture from the Conqueror had caused it to catch the light and distracted the bard momentarily from the sparkle of those cerulean eyes and that gleaming smile.
"Well, are you going to open it?" Alita interrupted her daydream.
Fumbling a little, the bard broke the seal and unfolded the parchment. A small grin greeted the "Hi," but faded as she read, then returned at "...and try to stay out of trouble."
So, Gabrielle blew out the breath she hadnt known she was holding, shes offered me a place in her household. Was it an apology for what had happened or an attempt to maintain control of a potential problematic situation?
Gabrielle knew what the other freedom fighters must think-- that she had betrayed them and their cause, gone over to the Conqueror in return for position or wealth-- but she also understood now how hopeless their attempts at insurrection had been in the face of the Conquerors might. Their posters and broadsides and newsletters were like fighting an elephant with a fly swatter. The Conqueror need not hunt them down; she need not even acknowledge their existence. Two dozen ragged intellectuals and a group of disgruntled shopkeepers were meaningless in the grand scheme of an empire that ruled tens of thousands.
And one injured bard is even less, Gabrielle admitted. Nonetheless, Xena was giving her an opportunity, a chance to be a part of the Conquerors intimate household. Perhaps I could make a difference here. Ive already gotten through to her on some things. She is different when shes alone with me-- more a person than a ruler. Gabrielle wondered if that was enough.
"Is it bad news?" Alita ventured to ask after Gabrielles continued silence.
"No," Gabrielle smiled, looking at the bold quill strokes and the flourish of the initial on the signature. "Shes asked me to join her household."
"Oh, Gabrielle!" Alita hugged the bard impulsively. "Thats so wonderful! Youll get to travel the world with the Imperial Household. Think of all the things youll see!"
Travelling the world in the retinue of the Empress, Gabrielle thought with a sense of complete disbelief. Me? The little girl from Poteidaea? But with Xena, the unbelievable became reality. Maybe Palaemon can tell me what it will be like, she decided with the beginnings of a smile.
He must necessarily fear many, whom many fear.
Seneca, De Ira
Xena examined the elaborate scroll casing suspiciously. It looked harmless enough, she decided, tapped the end so that the tightly rolled scroll slid out into her waiting palm. It had been delivered from Corinth after six weeks just as Autolycus had promised, but now the Conqueror wasnt sure she really wanted to read the report on Gabrielles background. What did it really matter? She asked herself. Shed already made her judgement of the young bard. She trusted her enough to offer the woman a place in her own household. Yet, if she was honest with herself, the Conqueror knew some part of her feared disillusionment and disappointment with the young woman to whom she found herself more and more drawn, despite their current distance from one another.
Will her past make a difference? No, the Conqueror decided, because the present Gabrielle was the one she knew and trusted. Nonetheless, Xena found herself curious about the forces that had led the young academic to her present life and without the woman herself to ask, Autolycuss report was the next best thing. She untied the scroll and began to read.
Report of Iolus of Corinth
To Autolycus, Chief of Secret Police
Subject: Gabrielle of Poteidaea
The Poteidaeans were remarkably talkative concerning Subject. It seems that Family is well known and liked, though Father has a reputation for being a hardheaded and hard-hearted man. I was regaled with childhood stories, none of which seemed particularly odd or noteworthy, until they came to the story of how Subject escaped capture by Dracos slavers during his attempted uprising. The people here feel it was some form of divine intervention that kept Subject from going to the river that day with Sister and the other women of town where they were taken. It seemed more like a childish rebellion to me: Subject was off listening to a wandering bard instead of doing her wash chores. Sister was never heard from again.
Villagers noted that it marked a change in Subject. She followed her parents wishes and married Perdicus, a farmer who lived a few stadia beyond town. Married a year when Husband conscripted into Imperial Army. Husband was sent to Thrace to defend Amphipolis against Callisto, and Subject, against custom and familys wishes, traveled with him. Subject apparently was pregnant and Mother wanted her to stay in Poteidaea to have the baby. They parted in anger.
Subject returned alone some seven moons later. She wasnt pregnant anymore. I made contact with a Friend of the Subjects Mother who related the following story, which Friend claimed to have directly from Subjects Mother: Husband was wounded in battle in northern Thrace, near the Amazon homeland. Subject claimed him from the Army infirmary and sought another healer. As Subject was traveling south, she overtook an Amazon patrol harassing the Centaurs. There was a minor engagement between Hooves and Harlots. Amazons eventually fought free, but Subject played some part in battle and was injured. Subjects pregnancy aborted. Husband also killed in skirmish. Amazons succored Subject until Subject able to travel again and provided pyre for Husband. Subject returned to Poteidaea.
Gods! Xena reread emotionless the paragraph with a sense of disbelief. Gabrielles life had been an on-going series of misfortunes: a sister enslaved, a husband taken by the army, a child lost. Could this truly be the biography of the sunny, optimistic idealist Xena knew? Could that blushing innocent truly have been married? Pregnant? Why was the woman not at all affected by the horrifying events shed survived? The logic of Gabrielles personality escaped Xena. She knew she herself would have raged against the gods, the Fates, and all humankind had all these events happened to her, yet Gabrielle remained gentle, forgiving, unbowed by the blows.
"Its not natural," the warrior said aloud and was aware that shed thought that before about Gabrielles reactions.
The Conqueror also struggled with the knowledge that some of the events had, remotely at least, been caused by her. Dracos suicidal uprising, Callistos attempt at vengeance for Cirra, Perdicuss forced enlistment in the Imperial army, these were all events that had ravaged Gabrielles life and, ultimately, they had their start and finish with Xena the Conqueror. She felt an unaccustomed wash of guilt at the thought of how her rise to power had impacted Gabrielles life. My rule has not been easy on Gabrielle, she admitted to herself. Or on many others like her, came the dark, derisive voice of the shattered idealist Xena at the back of her mind.
Amazons, though, cautioned another, more jaded portion of her brain, the part she thought of as the survival center, the part that made careful, calculated decisions about her personal safety. She acted like shed never met Amazons. She could be more devious than youre giving her credit for. She could be a threat. Xena brushed the thought aside as ridiculous. If she wanted to kill me, she could have stabbed me as I slept that night after the assassination attempt. I certainly left myself wide open to her. Whatever Gabrielle was, Xena knew she was no physical threat.
There were only a few more paragraphs left and Xena scanned them quickly. They confirmed things she already knew. Once more defying her parents, Gabrielle had sold her husbands farm and used the money to travel to Athens and join the Academy of Performing Bards. Shed studied only a year before graduating at the top of her class and then shed come to Corinth. Performing in the poorer parts of the city, Gabrielle had been appalled by living conditions and had begun her tiny protest movement.
Somewhere along the line, shed attracted the notice of Darphus, or those working for Darphus, or those Darphus worked for, Xena reasoned. They needed a scapegoat, a diversion from the real rebellion, and Gabrielle had been the perfect fit. The arson had been set into motion and Gabrielle apprehended, while who knew what mischief was taking place in other areas of the city.
Though Darphus had been summarily demoted for killing Rexel, Xena hadnt wanted him out of her sight, so shed brought him with her to Italy, assigned to Theodoruss squad, the very squad Darphus had commanded. It stood to reason that his former subordinates would love the opportunity to get back at their former officer, and Xena figured that would keep Darphus too busy to give her much trouble. Now he skulked around, nursing bruises and a nicely manufactured anger that Xena mistrusted. Something was going on, she knew, and the Conqueror promised herself that as soon as this trip to Italy was ended, shed get to the bottom of Darphuss little scheme and hed be decorating a cross along with everyone else involved.
Too much rest itself becomes a pain
Homer, The Odyssey
After nine weeks in bed, Wan Li gave Gabrielle permission to begin trying to retrain her leg muscles. At first simply standing was a chore, then a circuit of the room, assisted by the sturdy staff Palaemon-- a daily visitor-- found her, became her goal. Soon, though, the chamber, monotonous and frustrating after weeks contemplating its walls, couldnt hold her.
She walked first to the library in the other wing. Hamna, the librarian, gave her a tour of the racks of scrolls shed yet to read and led her to the open balcony that reached the central garden. She and Alita soon spent every sunny day there, often attended by the blond security chief whose duties had shrunk from protecting the jewel of an Empire to guarding the golden head of an unrenowned bard. Not that it seemed a great demotion. As he laughed with Gabrielle over lemonade and lunch, Palaemon wondered where his ambition had disappeared to.
Hamna the librarian and Gabrielle the bard found that they had much in common. Both adored scrolls, both remembered nearly everything theyd ever read, and both loved gossip, especially about Xena the Conqueror. Their friendship flourished in the clique-ish atmosphere of the Corinthian Imperial Palace where those who wished to advance had to kowtow to Brysas. Neither Hamna nor Gabrielle had a snowballs chance in Tartarus of advancing.
On a sunny morning perhaps two weeks after Gabrielles first journey to the library, Alita assembled a picnic breakfast and the two set out to make their slow way to the library and the garden beyond. Gabrielle wasnt strong, yet, but she was determined to recover and Wan Li assured her that was half the battle.
"I was just coming to find you," Hamna called as he approached down the last corridor. "I think Ive found someone for you to talk to about the Conquerors early years."
"Thats wonderful!" Gabrielle smiled one of her sunniest smiles, the thought of learning more about her absent subject very appealing. "Who is it?"
Hamna grinned. "Me. I dont know why I didnt think of it before. I guess because she was already a legend when I met her, but I met Xena when she fought with Boudicca against Caesar. Thats close to 12 years ago now. Not the very beginning, but a period you havent covered yet, right?"
"No," Gabrielle agreed, rising again to her rather unsteady feet and taking the arm Hamna offered. "Fletcher-- or rather the fletcher, as he told me that wasnt his name, but a job title-- was injured in the escape from Caesar and he left her then. Settled in Corinth some time later."
Hamna nodded sagely. "She was largely alone when she went to Chin, but she came back sharing an army with Borias. Dagnan was her first officer, but the Centaurs crippled him. That was when the First Battle of Corinth was fought."
Gabrielle smiled at him as he led her out into the courtyard. "You could write this history better than I, Hamna," she teased.
"Loving stories and appreciating a good one are very different things than writing one myself," Hamna argued as Alita set their breakfast table in the cool, morning sun. "I like paintings, too, but Id never try to paint one."
Gabrielle just shook her head and took a huge bite out of the wheat muffin shed just drenched with berry jam. "Tell me everything," she ordered, when she could speak again.
"I was a bath house slave in Novomagus on the Britannia coast," Hamna revealed. "My father had speculated in the tin trade and, when his scheme went bust, I was sold into slavery to pay his debt."
Gabrielle made a sound of shocked sympathy, but Hamna merely smiled, "It is an acceptable practice among my people and carries no shame. My father might even have eventually made enough to buy my freedom, but fate had something different in store for me." His eyes took on a distant light as he looked back into the past. "As I said, I was a bath house slave. The man who bought me from my father didnt care that I was educated as a scribe. I fetched more from the baths. Then Xena landed to gather recruits for Boudicca."
He grinned at the spellbound bard. "She didnt speak the dialect of Britannia and her Gaulish was horrific. I think shed been learning it all of a moon. For the safety of her officers, who she was knocking about out of sheer frustration at not being able to communicate, it was necessary that someone be found who spoke Greek, or Latin, ornext to impossible in that dayChinese." He shrugged. "My master recalled the sales pitch hed been givenFluent in Latin and purest Attic Greek-- and offered me to the officer in charge. By nightfall, I was sitting at the elbow of the Conqueror, tutoring her in Gaulish and Britannic while she sharpened her sword and heard reports from her troops."
He chuckled at the childlike wonder on Gabrielles face. "Its hardly worth all this attention," he objected. "I was only with the Conquerors army for a couple seasons. Ultimately, she broke her association with Boudicca and went back to the East. I stayed with Boudicca until Gaul was made a subjugate state, and then Xena welcomed me back into her administration."
"What was she like?" Gabrielle questioned eagerly. "Which battles did you witness? Has she always fought like she does now? Were you close?"
"Wait, wait, one at a time," Hamna laughed. "I didnt actually witness many battles because I wasnt trained as a warrior. Yes, she fought with the same skill and intensity that she does now, though she was more reckless, as I remember it. I wasnt close to her; I dont think anyone can say they were, but I was in contact with her daily. As for what she was like..." he paused, choosing his words more carefully. "She was younger, obviously, and that made her at least seem more approachable. She dined every night with a rowdy group of her commanders, and they traded jokes and blows with equal enthusiasm. There was always a lot of noise and movement around her."
He looked at Gabrielle, head tilted, and pursed his mouth consideringly. "It was almost as if she were afraid of silence, of stillness, of having too much time to think. She was driven by the need to conquer, to control, and it radiated off her like a sort of aroma the aroma of danger and action."
Gabrielles expression grew distant as she thought of her own encounters with the Conqueror. "Shes not like that now, is she?" she asked rhetorically. "She still radiates danger, but shes often alone and her chamber is almost always completely silent. I think she broods a lot."
Hamna smiled slightly. "She was much changed by her second sojourn in the East. I have always heard that Lao Ma, the regent of Chin, taught the Conqueror much about statecraft and philosophy whilst Xena conquered and consolidated Chin. They were much together and some hinted that they were lovers."
Startled green eyes met his. "She and the regent of Chin?" Gabrielle wasnt sure what amazed her more: that Xena was rumored to have a woman lover or that Xena was rumored to have a lover at all.
"Shes no Hestian virgin," Hamna understated ironically.
"Well, no," Gabrielle admitted, rubbing the bridge of her nose to hide her blush. "No, shes certainly not."
Thankfully for the bard, the conversation turned to Hamnas recollections of the battles Xena had fought while he was in her service. However, she filed away this new information about Lao Ma and the Conqueror for later consideration.
The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Little Foxes
A tiring seven weeks later, the Conqueror took ship from Ostia, heading back to her unruly province of Greece. Shed visited the Senate and attended gladiatorial spectacles put on in her honor, but Eternal Rome sickened her as it always had. It had been a blessed escape to travel north to the Cisalpina and renew her ties with her Gaulish regent, Vercinix. She liked Vercinixs decisiveness and the fact that hed chosen not to fight her after shed defeated Boudicca. "Too many of my countrymen will die and still you will take the land," hed admitted. "Id rather live this life than take my chances in the next just yet.
His lovely wife rode at his side in true Gaulish fashion, and it had amused the Conqueror to think of herself choosing a mate to share her war chariot. Lao Ma and others had encouraged her to marry or take a consort if only to ensure and heir for her Empire, but the Conqueror felt little desire for such an arrangement. She was young yet, and somewhere, buried deep inside, was the hope that shed someday find her son, alive and well and not hunted to extinction by the Amazons with the remnants of the Centaurs.
Things in Rome had quieted; the ransom, as she found herself thinking of it, had begun to pour into the Imperial coffers, and she was free to return to her homeland to concentrate on the rumors of rebellion shed heard there. The Athens Academy of Performing Bards had begun a campaign of words against her, sending out its most talented to challenge her displeasure with all the worst tales of her less-than-noble rise to power. It neednt be a bloodbath, she knew, but somehow, some way, theyd force her hand and some young imbecile would die. Another Gabrielle, some inner voice clarified.
Thinking of Gabrielles injury darkened the rather mellow mood the Conqueror usually enjoyed on shipboard. Being at sea brought MLila to her again and the Conqueror replayed her memories of what had been until they became fantasies of "what if?" So much would have been different, Xena sighed. I might have remained simply Xena of Amphipolis and lived out my days in relative obscurity, a small-time ruler, or a mercenary, or even just an innkeep in some crossroad village.
For some reason, thinking of MLila brought her mind back to the rebellious bard. MLila would have wanted to protect Gabrielle, Xena told herself, and you would have been hard put to withstand the power of those two. She sighed again and turned to make her way to her cabin. Perhap... perhaps I would have just surrendered.
All things change, nothing is extinguished. There is nothing in the whole world which is permanent. Everything flows onward; all things are brought into being with a changing nature; the ages themselves glide by in constant movement.
When the palace grounds became too small as well, Palaemon appointed her a palace escort, Yorgos and Antonia, and Gabrielle made them fast friends, leading her little caravan of maidservant and guards through the bazaars of Corinth, buying them small gifts and shish kabobs and sweets. Brysas had first delivered an allowance to Gabrielle weeks ago. When Gabrielle questioned the amazingly large pouch of dinars, she was told that the Conqueror had ordered her paid for her work as historian. Gabrielle had taken it as a challenge to work harder, but when she wasnt working on the history, she was working on spending Xenas dinars. Consequently, her chamber was nearly over run with knick-knacks and gee-gaws, and merchants in the main market called out the bards name as she made her rounds, flanked by her loyal retainers.
Two places only Gabrielle did not go as she recovered: her former apartment above the leathershop and the large agora where the Conquerors justice ground inexorably on.
Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?
Confuscius, The Analectics
"Come on, Darphus," called Garnon.
"Go to Tartarus," Darphus muttered, fishing for his last coin at the bottom of his greasy belt pouch.
"Theyre mustering to go aboard," Garnon warned, starting to move back up the dirty waterfront alleyway, but pausing to look back yet again at his former commander.
"You sure Phaeneron at Peraeus gets," Darphus said again in his nearly unintelligible Latin.
"Yes, yes, Phaeron at Peraeus," the seedy-looking messenger nodded, eyeing that last coin covetously. "I know where it is to be taken. It will be there in three weeks. I know a sailor going to Peraeus who will carry it."
"Okay," Darphus reluctantly handed over the dinar, then snatched the mans wrist, "but dont get there, I come find you."
"Darphus!" the voice was Theodorus. "Get your skinny ass aboard now, or Im leaving you here!"
With a last warning glare, Darphus turned and ran up the alleyway toward the ship that would take him back to Corinth, where, he thought slyly, he had some unfinished business with a certain blonde porne.
There is no greater nor keener pleasure than that of bodily love-- and none which is more irrational.
Plato, The Republic
The flotilla disbanded in Methoni and the Conqueror, in celebration of their success, treated her admirals to a harmless round of drinking and wenching. Its good to be the queen, the Conqueror-- a bit drunker than she usually allowed herself to get-- decided as Neilon, Captain-Admiral of The Lion of Amphipolis, led a string of Illyrian pleasure slaves into the magnificent inn reserved by the Empress. A loud wave of cheers and raucous laughter greeted him as he chose two in particular and led them to the forefront; then, everyone swung round to watch the Conquerors reaction as she rose from the rather austere throne she traveled with.
Xenas face creased into a lascivious grin and the rough chorus of encouragement burst out again.
"You silly bastard," she said to Neilon as she passed his bowing form. He laughed outright, knowing Xenas backhanded compliments better than any man present.
Hed brought two, he boasted to the others, because they were small, and that was half-true. The female slave was petite, her head just topping Xenas shoulder. She was beautiful, of course-- tight, nubile body; perfect, Cupids bow mouth; clear, lightly scented skin. Only the best for the Ruler of the Known World. She was also strawberry blonde with deliciously green eyes. As was the gorgeous, hulking manservant who knelt by her side. There was no mistaking Neilons message. Thered been much talk among the Imperial commanders about the recent events in Corinth. Neilon was merely putting forward his theory that the Conquerors rescue of the blonde bard was an indulgence in a new favorite flavor for bed partner of the week.
Xena had always understood the need for a leader to display unquestioned virility to her troops. Consequently, shed always exercised an insatiable public appetite for sex. Early on, shed even indulged similarly in private. Sex had served to channel her anger, to control or manipulate her commanders or allies, to keep away fear and boredom, to avoid the questions she didnt want to answer or even analyze too closely. Then Borias had gotten her pregnant, and, in the aftermath of all the horrible chain of events that had set into motion, she had felt too empty, too alone, too wounded to open herself to anything. Shed hardened herself against intimacy of any kind.
Still, an army demanded that their leader conquer in the bedroom as on the battlefield, so sex became another battle to win. One of Lao Mas presents, a translation of Sun Tzes Ping Fa, provided her with an answer:
"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking your enemys resistance without fighting."
So, the veritable parade to her bed began. She began choosing young men, often on the basis of stamina and lack of brains, from the ranks of her army or the defeated, and they were perhaps two weeks gossip and cat calls among the troops before she chucked them out of her tent, often naked, often in tears. More usually, she seized young women from the tents or towns of those she defeated and trained them, even occasionally sleeping with them, before she passed them on to others or freed them, depending on her mood. Glaphyra, one of the chief slavers of Thrace, had been Xenas bedslave for nearly a year. Another of Xenas talented cast-offs, a delightfully intelligent woman from Hibernia named Moira, had married Hestaphon, commander of the Conquerors forces in Britannia. It was said that the Conqueror dowered many a dinarless girl.
Her captains and generals loved her for it and traded tales of the multitudes-- sometimes beaten, occasionally bloodied, always begging for more-- of the discarded. It was as if her prowess increased their own, and, superstitious lot that they were, they were certain it ensured their potency with swords of flesh and iron. Few of the slaves ever revealed that they slept alone many nights, untouched and disregarded, while the warlord turned Conqueror read, or sword-drilled, or brooded in silence. Those that did were roundly ridiculed.
Oddly enough, though, Neilons little presents sparked the Conquerors dormant libido, and she took each by a wrist and raised them.
"Ill send you whichever tires first," she promised Neilon, to the cheers and taunts of her men, and swept the two pleasure slaves away to the huge backchamber that served as her bedroom.
True to her word, four candlemarks later, the young, red-haired boy of such ample proportions presented himself at the cabin door aboard The Lion. Neilon lost his bet with his firstmate, Faledon of Anatolia, and the woman, barely more than a girl, became the Conquerors newest demesne.
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Gabrielle awoke from a nightmare of the crucifixion in the hot, sticky darkness. Alita still slept on the chaise and Gabrielle moved carefully to the garderobe, unwilling to wake her. It seemed cooler there, but Gabrielle eased into the bathing room beyond, intent on splashing some water on her overheated skin. A crack of light under the Conquerors door halted her.
No one entered Xenas chamber while she was away, Alita had informed Gabrielle when the bard had wandered across the shared inner rooms one day while working on building her strength. Being Gabrielle, that had proved an irresistible challenge, and shed sneaked in a time or two-- okay, several times-- when Alita was elsewhere. Shed borrowed and replaced the scroll, Sun Tzes The Art of War, that she found at the Conquerors bedside, and had once been so bold as to spend an hour, sitting, lost in thought, in the huge, fur- and silk-padded comfort of the Conquerors armchair.
The room, while rather impersonally furnished, had absorbed something of the Conquerors essence, just as the silk draping the back of the armchair still smelled faintly of Xenas hyacinth and cinnamon scent. For Gabrielle, it held memories of those brief moments of connection shed had with the complex and frightening woman who had literally held Gabrielles life in the palm of her hand, and the bards constantly-seeking mind had used the room, the scents, the faint echoes, as a source of healing for her physical, emotional and intellectual trauma. Now, someone had invaded the sanctity of the Conquerors privacy, and Gabrielle, feeling somehow violated, jealous, and protective all at once, moved to defend.
She eased the door open slowly.
The young woman moving smoothly around the chamber was a stranger, but even Gabrielle noted her resemblance to herself. She had the same reddish-blonde hair falling between her shoulderblades, the same slender, full-chested build, the same air of unquenchable youth, though Gabrielle thought the girl younger than herself. Her face was more classically beautiful than Gabrielles cherubic visage, but they could have been taken for sisters.
But she doesnt limp, the bard added with some bitterness.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle said, stepping into the light. "Who are you and what are you doing in Xe-- the Conquerors bedchamber?"
The other woman started, nearly dropping the heavy war helmet shed been placing on the armor rack. She drew herself up and tilted her chin, unconsciously trying to assume her mistresss steely gaze.
"I am Leandra, the Conquerors body slave."
Body slave? She has a gorgeous body; does she need a slave just to...
Ohhhh.... With a nearly audible click, the pieces snapped together and the meaning of "body slave" became apparent to Gabrielle. Who was immediately cursed once again with the common affliction of the fair skinned and naive: she blushed scarlet.
The slave girl pinned her with a deep green stare. "And who are you?"
A philosophical question to say the least. "Im Gabrielle, the Conquerors..." Victim? Pet Exectutee? Watch dog? "bard."
A smile broke over Leandras face. "Ah, her bard. The Conqueror said you would teach me how to read."
Continued in Chapter 20
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