Convert This Page to Pilot DOC FormatConvert this page to Pilot DOC Format

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

NOTE: All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent.

Specific Disclaimers:
This story is a continuation of "Consequences," which is also posted at Tom's Xena Page. Some references are made to events in that story.

This story is probably in the PG-13 ratings area. There is no overt sex or violence, although references are made to 'off-screen' violent acts.

"A little more than kin, and less than kind." --Shakespeare, Hamlet

Blood Loyalty by E.A. Week (

Part I

"Sorry," said the headwoman cheerfully, setting a trencher of food before Xena. "We don't have a metalsmith here. The village is too small," she explained, setting a second trencher in front of Gabrielle. "We usually go over to Metion in Hyettus, but he mostly makes horseshoes and farm tools. If it's weapons you're after, you'll need a smith in one of the bigger towns." She wiped her hands on her skirt.

"Thanks anyway," said Xena, picking up a drumstick. Across the table, Gabrielle tore off a chunk of bread.

"And thank you for lunch," the bard added.

"The least I could do," said the woman. "I don't know what we'd have done if you hadn't come along. The whole village might've burned down."

"It's nothing," Gabrielle assured her, picking up a beaker of ale and taking a thirsty gulp. "We do it every day, right Xena?"

The warrior grunted her assent around a mouthful of chicken.

The two women had been traveling across southern Boiotia for some days. A cloud of smoke and shrieks of dismay had drawn them to this village, where they found a fire rapidly consuming one of the thatched huts. The fast thinking of Xena and Gabrielle had prevented the fire from spreading to the rest of the village. They'd contained the fire to the one hut, which sadly couldn't be saved. After making sure everyone was all right, Xena wanted to leave, but the villagers insisted on sharing their lunch as a gesture of gratitude.

Now they sat with the headwoman's family, at a table outside in the clear, sunny day. Xena chewed her food, watching the ruined hut smolder. Thankfully, there wasn't much of a wind, otherwise, the entire village might have been engulfed.

A boy of about twelve ran into the village from a nearby field. "Ma!" he shouted. "What happened?"

"Diores!" the headwoman scolded. "Where've you been? We've been looking for you all morning--"

"Wow," said the boy, staring at the burned wreckage with a slack jaw. "Was there a fire?"

"Well, what does it look like?" The woman put her hands on her hips, her expression softening slightly. "Sit down and eat as long as you're here." Her son wiggled onto the bench beside Gabrielle, who smiled at him and edged over to make some room.

"Wha' happened?" the boy asked his mother, popping an olive into his mouth.

"Don't talk with your mouth full." The headwoman handed her son a trencher, then sat herself. "Mestra knocked over a cooking pot and set their house on fire."

"That klutz!" the boy laughed.

"Diores!" The mother gave him a disapproving look.

"It's true," he giggled. And to Gabrielle. "She knocks over everything."

"She can't help being clumsy," the headwoman chided. "At least she was here to help put it out, which is more than you can say."

The boy colored up, but maintained his defiance. He continued eating, then took in Xena as if only just noticing her. He gazed at the hilt of her sword, visible over her shoulder, and at her armor. "Who are you?" he asked.

The warrior smiled tolerantly. "I'm Xena," she said.

"Xena!" said the youth, eyes opening wide. "The warrior? Cool! I heard you fought a giant lizard with six heads and twenty eyes, that breathed fire and spit poison!"

Gabrielle choked on a piece of apple.

"I don't know who you've been talking to," said Xena.

"Cephalion, over in Hyettus," said Diores. "He's a great storyteller! He's going to a huge festival in Corinth next month. There's going to be a bard competition. I bet he'll win first prize. It's 200 dinars! He says if he wins, he'll buy a pony and teach me how to ride."

"A festival in Corinth?" asked Gabrielle eagerly.

"Uh-huh. A messenger just came through a few days ago and announced it."

"An arts festival," said the headwoman, a disapproving tone in her voice. "Not something busy lads should have time for. Corinth is a fortnight's travel from here. Even if Cephalion wins, he'll spend most of his prize on food and lodging to get from here to there and back again. He'd be better to do some honest work and save the stories for the fireside at night."

"A bard competition," said Gabrielle in a dreamy voice, her imagination clearly far away. "Think what we could do with 200 dinars."

Xena made a noncommittal noise.

"Do you mind?" asked Gabrielle. "We haven’t been to Corinth since last year."

"Yeah, I know," said Xena. She led Argo by the reins through a sunlit field of tall grass. Gabrielle walked beside her.

"So?" the bard prodded.

"So, what?" Xena prevaricated.

"So, can we go to the festival?" Gabrielle stopped walking and gave her friend a puzzled look. "Is there some reason you don’t want to go back to Corinth?"

"No," said Xena honestly."

"Well?" Gabrielle could sense Xena hedging.

"All right," said the warrior at last.

"Great!" said Gabrielle, and bounded across the meadow with a determined swing in her stride, heading due south.

"This place is a dump," Gabrielle complained in a low voice, glancing around the tavern, although ‘tavern’ seemed too grand a word to describe such a dirty hovel. Still, it was the first place the women had encountered all day that served food.

"We’ve been in worse," Xena reminded her.

"Maybe tomorrow we should find someplace to fish," said Gabrielle. "This bread is stale, and the stew tastes like... like an old boot."

"The town’s in rough shape," said Xena, taking in the dilapidated tables. Many of the benches showed signs of having been repaired several times. "The tavern’s falling apart because there’s no business to keep it going."

"Some of the other towns were like this," Gabrielle remarked, trying to choke down more stew. She didn’t dare guess what meat might be included in the lumpy mess. The barkeep had said goat, but Gabrielle’s taste buds told her otherwise. "Everything’s so run down."

"There’s a lot of problems in Megarid," said Xena. "Old King Autesion mis-managed the state for years; he spent too much time and money trying to build up an army, then he lost most of his men at Troy. His son Periander is king now, and he isn’t doing much better." Xena eyed a forlorn old man in one corner of the room, slowly drinking himself into a stupor. "People are leaving the state, either for Corinth or Attica."

"Can you blame them?" said Gabrielle. "Who’d want to live here?"

The two finished as much of their meal as they could stomach, and left the gloomy tavern, glad to be putting the town behind them.

"Are you sure you know this shortcut?" Gabrielle asked dubiously, looking around the woods.

"Positive," Xena responded. The bard felt a twitch of exasperation. Her sense of direction told her they ought to have crossed the state boundary into Corinth by now, and she swore Xena had deliberately set this meandering course to slow them. Here in the woods, they couldn’t ride Argo, and lost even more time.

"What’s that?" said Gabrielle. Xena raised a questioning eyebrow.

"That... up ahead." Gabrielle pointed with her staff toward a rooftop, barely visible through the foliage. "It’s a house. Come on, maybe they can give us directions."

Gabrielle walked more quickly, leaving Xena to follow. She pushed her way through a dense thicket of undergrowth and emerged into what looked like a garden—or, the remains of a garden. Weeds choked the cultivated plants. Here and there, Gabrielle spotted survivors: vegetables, and a few flowers.

Xena had to lead Argo around the thicket, and she emerged through a clearing on the other side of the garden. "Looks deserted," she said.

"Yeah," said Gabrielle. "What a mess!"

Light came in through chinks in the roof, illuminating broken furniture, broken crockery, animal droppings, leaves, dirt, and clear signs of vandalism. This place had been empty for a while; vagabonds had taken whatever items of value the owners of the house might once have possessed.

Still, the dwelling showed evidence of sturdy construction. Gabrielle tried to imagine what it might have looked like in its original condition. The floor had been made from solid wooden planks. Most peasants built their homes right on the ground, saving valuable timber for roof and walls.

The family would eat and work in this large, central area, Gabrielle thought. She wandered into a smaller room, and found the remains of a wooden bed frame. She went back to the main room, then through a second doorway into another room. Here the roof had partially collapsed, and debris cluttered the floor.

Something caught her eye, and she knelt down to pick it up. A piece of curved, polished wood. Gabrielle ran her fingers over it, puzzled, then stood.

In the main room, Xena hunkered down, studying the floor with rapt scrutiny.

"Find anything?" asked Gabrielle.

"Yeah, I did. Come look at this." Gabrielle picked her way through the clutter and stood beside the warrior.

"So? It’s just dirt," said the bard.

"Not this." Xena ran two fingertips across the dark spot, then rubbed the browish residue with her thumb. "It’s blood."

"Blood?" echoed Gabrielle, a rhetorical question. Xena would not mistake blood for anything else.

"Yeah. And look--" Xena pointed to similar dried splotches extending from the first. She followed the trail carefully until it ended at the base of a wall. Gabrielle shuddered. A much larger stain darkened the floorboards.

"Whoever it was, he probably got stabbed over there," said Xena, "and crawled over here, bleeding. This is where he died. It looks like he might’ve been stabbed again. This is a lot of blood."

"That’s horrible." Gabrielle stared up at the sagging timbers of the ceiling. Here and there she spotted what seemed to be bunches of dried herbs. "I wonder who it was?"

"There’s no way to tell," said Xena, also staring around the forlorn dwelling.

"I feel like I’ve been here before," said Gabrielle suddenly. "Isn’t that strange?"

"Yeah," said Xena. "I know what you mean." She caught sight of the object in her friend’s hand. "What’d you find?"

"Just this," said Gabrielle, holding out her discovery. "I found it in one of the other rooms."

Xena took the piece of wood and turned it over. "It could be from the furniture," she said. "But I don’t think it is." She gave the wood back to Gabrielle. "It looks like it’s from a lyre."

They left the house, retrieved Argo, and gladly put the macabre discovery at their backs. A thread of a path led away from the dwelling; the two women followed this until it opened abruptly into a wider, well-traveled road.

Not much further on, the trees gave way to rolling meadows. The women crested a hill and looked down at a small, snug-looking village.

They continued down the road, and the village vanished from their sight. The green, pleasant little hollow held another surprise: a young man standing near a pile of recently upturned earth by the side of the road, carefully positioning a wooden marker in the ground.

"Hello," he called, taking in the odd sight of two armed women and a horse.

"Hi," said Xena. "I don’t suppose whoever’s buried there," she nodded toward the grave, "used to live in that house back down the road?"

"Yeah," said the man, visibly surprised. "How’d you find the house?"

"We took a shortcut through the woods," said Gabrielle. "We saw the blood on the floor," she added. "Who was it?"

"A woman named Lavinia," said the youth. "She lived there by herself. I had a friend who used to tend sheep in this area," he went on, gesturing to the hills around them. "His name’s Jehan. He used to look in on her; she was almost a mother to him. One night, Jehan came to me, babbling and hysterical. He said Lavinia had been murdered by her husband."

"Was she?" asked Xena.

"I don’t know," said the young man. "I’ve only lived in Tarpeia for a year. I’m an apprentice to my uncle, a carpenter," he explained. "But Jehan swore it was her husband. He said he’d been on his way to visit Lavinia one evening, and heard her scream. He ran inside the house, but it was too late. He tried to fight the killer, but only got himself wounded. He tore off a piece of the bastard’s shirt, though, and swore to me he wouldn’t rest until he found the murdering swine."

"When did you last see him?" asked Xena.

"About two months ago. Jehan asked me to bury Lavinia," the man went on. "I just finished the marker today," he said, glancing proudly at his work. "I have no idea where he’s off to—on some wild goose chase. Poor kid," said the carpenter soberly. "He loved Lavinia. Hades take the bastard who killed her—a woman by herself in the middle of nowhere!"

"Did she have a family?" asked Gabrielle.

"Jehan said she had children, but they’re grown up and gone. You saw the house; it’s falling to pieces."

"And the husband?" Xena probed.

"My uncle said her husband, Sciron, died in prison years ago. Old King Autesion accused him of treason." The carpenter shrugged. "I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s what everyone says."

Gabrielle held out the broken piece of lyre. "Was this hers?"

The young man looked it over carefully. "It might have been. Jehan said she loved music." He started to hand the wood back to Gabrielle, but she refused it.

"Leave it here," she said, and watched as the youth pressed the broken instrument into the soil beside the grave marker.

"Did you know her?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

"I only met her once," the carpenter responded. "Jehan took me to her house for dinner. She was a sweet, gentle soul-- a lovely woman, but timid as a mouse. The house was falling apart; Jehan wanted her to come live in the town, but the thought of so many people terrified her. We promised to make some repairs on her house, but we never had a chance to..." he trailed off sadly.

"That's too bad," said Gabrielle.

"If you’re traveling," said the young man, "could you keep an ear open for any word of Jehan? I’d look for him myself, but my uncle..." He trailed off. "Good apprenticeships aren’t easy to find in Megarid these days," he explained ruefully.

"Sure," said Xena. "We’ll be glad to."

Xena and Gabrielle ate their lunch in a tavern the carpenter's apprentice recommended to them. The town of Tarpeia, although small and unspectacular, appeared to be in far better condition than the places the two women had seen further north.

At least Xena no longer seemed to deliberately slow their progress, Gabrielle thought. After they ate, Xena mounted Argo, drew Gabrielle up onto the horse behind her, and they continued south at a brisk pace.

The countryside came to life around them as they traveled. Gabrielle saw cultivated fields, orchards, and vineyards, with farmers bringing in the year's harvest. She saw teams of oxen slowly overturning fields where the barley crops had already been reaped. Here and there, she spotted the thatched roofs of a village, or the taller roofs of a town. Goatherds and shepherds tended flocks in the open meadows.

As they traveled, Xena asked people they met if they'd seen or heard of Jehan, but nobody recognized the name.

The next day, the women rode into the largest town they'd encountered in their journey south. They made their way slowly through a crowded market place, where farmers bartered their goods, and merchants tempted townspeople and farmers alike with an array of ready-made wares.

"What's that?" asked Gabrielle, nodding toward an impressive structure.

"Probably the overlord's mansion," said Xena. "Phlegra's the capital of the province."

They hitched Argo to a post outside a tavern-- a real tavern, Gabrielle noted with pleasure-- and went inside. Noisy patrons crowded the interior, and the women had to wait in a line before they reached the bar. Behind the counter, a barkeep took orders for drinks while a woman, probably his wife, dispensed food. A pair of boys, most likely the couple's children, tended the fires and ran errands.

Xena ordered mead for herself and Gabrielle, while the younger woman balanced two trenchers of food. They wove through the tables, and finally found seats at a table occupied by two men, deep in conversation. They barely looked up as the women sat.

"This is good," said Gabrielle, pulling apart a roasted pigeon. The savory meat slipped easily off the bones. The barley bread tasted like it had just come out of the oven, and the mead had been spiced to perfection. "What a difference!"

The two devoured their food without further conversation. Gabrielle eavesdropped on the people sitting behind her, a habit she'd gotten into as a child and never abandoned. Before she met Xena, such conversations had provided the basis for her stories.

As Gabrielle and Xena finished their meal, one of the men at the other end of the table departed, leaving his companion alone. The young man drained his tankard, glanced with mild curiosity at the two women, then did a double-take.

"Hi," he said without preamble. "Are you Xena, by any chance?"

The warrior set down her apple and extended an arm across the table. "I am," she said.

The man clasped her hand eagerly. "I'm Josephus," he said. "I'm the overlord of Phlegra." Gabrielle's eyebrows went up; Josephus could scarcely be older than she. On closer inspection, however, she realized he wore well-made, though unadorned clothing, and carried himself with a quiet air of confidence.

"Good to meet you," said Xena. She gestured to her companion. "This is Gabrielle."

Josephus clasped Gabrielle's hand warmly. "I've heard of you from your friends," he said. "Hercules and Iolaus. It's a pleasure to have you in Phlegra." Gabrielle nodded. Josephus now seemed slightly older than she'd first guessed. A round face and wavy, dark hair contributed to his boyish appearance.

"Maybe you can help us," said Xena. "We're looking for a shepherd named Jehan, who disappeared from the town of Tarpeia two months ago. Nobody between there and here has seen or heard of him. He was said to be tracking down a man named Sciron."

Josephus pondered this a moment, then shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," he said. "I know every shepherd in this area, and not one's named Jehan. I haven't met anyone by that name."

"He might be wounded," said Gabrielle.

"No, I haven't seen or heard of anyone coming here to have an injury tended, either," said Josephus.

"The name Sciron isn't familiar?" asked Xena.

"No." Josephus had a puzzled look in his eyes. "But I almost feel like I ought to know that name," he said.

"He's rumored to have been thrown in prison for treason by old King Autesion," Xena supplied.

Josephus laughed then, a short, barking sound. "Well, in that case, Jehan might as well go back to his flocks. Anyone thrown in prison by Autesion never came out alive."

"What about the new king?" asked Gabrielle. "Maybe the new king pardoned him?"

Now Josephus roared with laughter. "Periander would be even less likely to let a prisoner go. He's waited fifty years to take the throne of Megarid, and he's more interested in his own pleasures than running the state well."

"We came through Megarid on our way here," said Gabrielle. "It's terrible. We saw a couple of towns that had been completely abandoned."

"I know," Josephus nodded. "We've had a lot of people come here from Megarid over the past five years. Farmers, mostly, but some good craftsmen, too."

"Periander's losing money," said Xena shrewdly.

"That's right," said Josephus. "His sources of revenue are drying up, so he raises taxes on the luckless souls who're still in Megarid because they don't have the means to get out. And every time he raises taxes, more people leave. It's a vicious cycle."

"You'd think he'd see that," said Gabrielle.

"Well," said Josephus thoughtfully, "When Periander became king, Iphicles went to Megara, met with him, and talked to him about how he might get the state back on its feet again." Josephus shrugged. "For a while, we thought Periander might actually be making some changes, but then he seemed to just give up."

"That's too bad," said Gabrielle.

"Well, it's been our gain," said Josephus philosophically. "But I'm getting off the track here. I wish I could help you, but I've never heard of Sciron, and I haven't seen any wounded shepherds. But I'll have my people keep eyes and ears open for him."

"Thanks," said Xena. Then she said, "Do you have a good metalsmith in town? My knife's broken and I need to replace it."

"Sure we do," said Josephus. "But if you have time to go to Corinth, there's an excellent metalsmith in the city. His work is first-rate."

"We're on our way there," said Gabrielle. "We're going to the arts festival."

Josephus grinned. "That should be a treat," he enthused. "I wish I had time to go, but this is a busy time of year. A lot of our merchants will be heading that way tomorrow. There'll be good business to be had while the festival's running."

"Who's this metalsmith?" asked Xena.

"His name's Deucalion, a former soldier. If you're looking for a weapon," said Josephus, glancing at the hilt of Xena's sword, "you won't find better work anywhere else. And his prices are fair."

"Thanks for the tip," said Xena. She stood. "It was good to meet you, Josephus," she added.

"The pleasure's mine," Josephus responded. "And please come back whenever you're in the area."

The two women made camp that evening near a spectacular waterfall. They fished, cooked, ate, cleaned their things, bathed, and finally unrolled their bedding beside the fire.

Gabrielle shook out her leather satchel of scrolls and sorted through them. Xena sat barefoot in her linen shift, sewing a tear in Argo’s saddle blanket. She watched as Gabrielle divided her scrolls into a large pile and a smaller pile, then put the larger pile back into the satchel.

"What story should I tell for the competition?" she asked aloud, but seemingly more to herself than to Xena. She picked up one scroll, then another, frowning slightly, then gradually set aside each scroll until only two remained.

"I’m down to two," she said, as Xena finished working on the blanket. "I can’t decide whether to tell the story of Icus and his father, or the one about Cecrops."

"Hmm," said Xena, stretching out on her bedroll.

"If I tell the story about Icus, do you think people will have a hard time with the idea of one god?" asked Gabrielle.

"They might," said Xena, but her thoughts seemed elsewhere.

"I could leave it ambiguous," said Gabrielle thoughtfully, tapping the scroll against the palm of her hand. "They can assume the voice we heard was Zeus... or whoever."

"Hmmmh," said Xena.

"Or maybe I should just tell the one about Cecrops," said Gabrielle, unrolling the scroll about the mariner. "That’s a good adventure story." For an event such as this, Gabrielle wanted to tell a story that did not involve her personal life, or Xena’s personal life, but still a narrative where she felt as though someone had learned an important lesson. She thought that people would enjoy hearing how Cecrops had defeated Posiedon’s curse by learning to give love, rather than expecting to receive it.

"Xena? What do you think?" When Gabrielle received only silence as a reply, she glanced over and realized the warrior had fallen asleep. Gabrielle smiled, tucked the scrolls back into her bag, and lay down to sleep also.

Shortly before noon the next day, they arrived in Corinth. They joined a throng of people waiting to enter the city by its north gate. Many of those in the line had wagons of goods or hand-carried baskets with them, no doubt taking advantage of the travelers who had come to the city for the festival. With no goods to declare, the women entered the city easily, and walked slowly through the crowds inside the gate.

"Wow," said Gabrielle. Xena glanced at her and grinned.

After days of traveling through villages and small towns, a city tended to come as something of a shock. Gabrielle always enjoyed Corinth—the wide, well-kept streets, the beautifully constructed buildings, the cheerful people, the general sense of order and prosperity.

They first stopped at a large stable, where visitors to the arts festival could leave their horses. Xena saw to it that Argo would be well tended, then she and Gabrielle wandered toward the central square of the city.

The two women passed through what looked like a residential area. Gabrielle looked up at the fine houses, wondering absently what it must be like to have enough money to afford living in such splendid and urbane dwellings. Over a lull in the noise on the streets, Gabrielle heard the distinct sounds of a man’s voice singing, a beautiful and slightly husky tenor. She paused to listen, momentarily enchanted. Then the voice broke off, and she heard laughter, a feminine voice mingling with the masculine one. The voices faded; the couple had probably stepped away from the window. Xena had walked on ahead; Gabrielle hurried to catch up with her.

The entire population of the city and all the visitors seemed to have gathered in the marketplace. The two women had to move very slowly because of the crowds, but it gave them the opportunity to examine everything they passed. Xena asked a fishmonger for directions to Deucalion’s forge, and the woman pointed across to the other side of the square.

They made their way around the square, pausing from time to time at the displays of goods. The smell of cooking food wafted through the air, making Gabrielle’s mouth water, and mixing with the scents of animals and people. From time to time, Gabrielle’s nose detected the faint whiff of a wealthy woman’s perfume, or the fragrance of fresh flowers. Above all, the pervasive scent of salt air reminded her that the ocean lay just beyond the city walls.

Xena stepped into Deucalion’s workshop. Like most blacksmiths' shops, the front of the building was open to allow air to circulate. At the center of the shop stood the glowing forge. A tall, powerfully-built man thrust a long, flat piece of metal down into the red-hot embers. The two women watched as he drew out the metal and lay it on an anvil, then began patiently working the metal into a blade with a hammer. He lifted the weapon, eyed it critically, then lowered it into a vat of water.

He glanced up suddenly, noticing the two women for the first time. "Can I help you?" he inquired in a deep voice.

"Yeah," said Xena, strolling forward, gazing about the shop with hungry eyes. "I'm looking for a knife."

"Over on that wall." Deucalion gestured with his right arm. He scrutinized Xena's armor and sword. "Is this a weapon you're after?"

"Yeah," the warrior responded, her gaze roving over the impressive display of knives. Gabrielle stared at the collection: the knives ranged in size from tiny up through those big enough to be small swords. She saw thick blades, thin blades, and hilts in a variety of shapes and sizes, some wooden, some metal. She turned away with a grimace of distaste. For reasons Gabrielle didn't like to dwell on, she hated knives.

She left Xena to knife-shop, and wandered over to the opposite wall. Here, swords in an equally impressive assortment of shapes and sizes hung displayed in wooden racks. Along the rear wall, Gabrielle saw spears, axes, and arrowheads-- in all, enough metal to outfit a small army.

Gabrielle paused, her attention drawn to an object on one of the shelves, set in among some metal spearheads. A small figure of Hephaestus, she guessed, the god of the forge. She stepped closer and picked it up. The figure had been carved of black stone and polished to a high degree. Gabrielle realized suddenly that the upraised arm held a sword, not a hammer. The face bore no features, but Gabrielle recognized the shape of the head and shoulders. Ares.

She swiftly set down the figure, glancing at Deucalion's back. If he'd been a soldier before he became a metalsmith, he might well have worshipped Ares at one time. The little figure, however, seemed to occupy no particular place of honor in the shop, and gave no indication as to Deucalion's present religious activities. Gabrielle sternly reminded herself that no matter her own experience, people had a right to worship whatever gods they pleased. Resolutely, she turned away from the figure, but the scores of weapons, with all their potential for bloodshed, seemed to close in on her.

Gabrielle decided she'd had enough. "I'll be in the vellum shop next door," she said. The fine leather, made of specially treated sheepskin, provided the source of her scrolls. Gabrielle had become expert at bargaining for lesser pieces, the ends and scraps most merchants deemed of quality too poor to sell profitably. Perhaps she'd have some luck in acquiring a few new pieces today.

After the Amazon left, Xena turned her attention back to the display of knives. She took down one, then another, testing each weapon for weight and balance, and for fit in her hand. Behind her, the metalsmith resumed his work. Xena finally chose a knife she liked, one that would fit comfortably in her boot. In combat, she tended to rely more on her sword, her chakram, and her hand-to-hand skills; the knife was a last resort, but she carried one nevertheless.

"Good choice," Deucalion commented, wiping his hands on his trousers. A heavy leather apron protected his clothes from sparks. He seemed well advanced into his middle years, but certainly not far enough to be considered old. Greying dark hair clung to his skull in a short, neat cap. Xena studied his complexion thoughtfully. Despite a suntan, the metalsmith's skin bore an underlying pallor that suggested ill health.

"How much?" she asked.

"Twenty dinars," Deucalion responded. Xena lifted her eyebrows; she'd expected to pay twice that amount. He saw the expression and smiled slightly. Xena noted the poor condition of his teeth. His horribly pitted and scarred face told her he'd suffered either from smallpox, acne, or both. In spite of these disfigurements, Xena did not find him unattractive. He had a well-shaped head, good bone structure, and very dark eyes.

"I do a lot of business," he said, moving around the forge to take Xena's money. He limped slightly, favoring his left leg. "I can keep my prices down."

"Josephus, in Phlegra, recommended you," said Xena, sliding the new weapon down into her boot.

"Ah, then I'll have to remember that the next time I see him," said Deucalion. "Is there anything else you'll be needing? Sharpen your sword?" Xena shook her head. Deucalion stared at her chakram. "Do you mind my asking what that is?"

"It's called a chakram," said Xena, handing him the circular weapon. Deucalion turned it over and over, admiring the workmanship with appreciative eyes, then handed it back.

"You throw it?" he inquired. Xena nodded. She pointed to a large block of wood set up in a rear corner of the shop, whose chewed-up condition announced its use for target practice. Xena cast the chakram from her hand and sent it flying. An instant later, the block of wood toppled to the floor in two pieces.

"Incredible," the metalsmith marveled. Xena retrieved the weapon and set the wood blocks back up, one atop the other. "I don't suppose I could interest you in anything else?" He limped over to the wall of knives and drew down a pair of dark leather gauntlets. He showed Xena the tiny knives concealed in sheathes in the leather. "Throwing knives," he said, and gave her a demonstration, whipping one, then the other, at the target block. The weapons whistled through the air and struck the wood almost noiselessly.

"I don't think so," said Xena reluctantly. She already had enough weapons, and the chakram filled her need for one she could use at a distance. She admired the throwing knives, keenly wishing for more money. She wouldn't have minded owning such a pair of little beauties.

"Too bad," said Deucalion. "If you change your mind, you know where I am."

Gabrielle suddenly reappeared. "Xena?" she said.

"Sure," said the warrior. And to Deucalion, "Thanks."

Outside the shop, the two women nearly ran into a young man who seemed to be on his way in to see the metalsmith. He wore the bright blue tunic of a palace guard, and carried a sword at his waist.

"Gabrielle!" he exclaimed. "Xena! What brings you back to Corinth?"

For a moment, Gabrielle couldn't place him, then said, "Medon?"

"That's right," he responded, blue eyes shining.

"We're here for the arts festival," said Gabrielle.

"Are you entering the bard competition?" asked Medon.

"Of course!" said Gabrielle. "I wouldn't miss it."

"That's wonderful," he said, glancing back and forth between the two women. "Good luck." He paused. "Have you been to the palace? King Iphicles would love to see you both again."

"No," Gabrielle responded. "We just got here."

"Well, come on," said Medon, turning in the direction of the palace, his errand to Deucalion evidently forgotten. "It's almost time for lunch."

"Sure," said Gabrielle, falling into step beside Medon. Xena walked behind them. "I wonder if he'll let me look in the library again."

"He'll let you do anything," laughed Medon. "You helped save his life." Medon had been one of the guards at the palace with Gabrielle when Xena had gone with Autolycus to rescue Iphicles from the hands of ruthless outlaws. Gabrielle remembered the arrival of the wagon carrying the unconscious king, the soldiers frantically calling for assistance, and the horrible condition of the king's body. Medon had helped get Iphicles out of the wagon and up to the king's quarters. Gabrielle shuddered at the memory.

"How is he?" asked Gabrielle.

"Fine," said Medon. "Do you remember the next morning, when we were all expecting news that he'd died, and he walked into the kitchen as if nothing had happened, and asked for breakfast?"

The bard laughed. "Poor Falafel almost fainted."

"We all did," said Medon. "We should have known that somehow Hercules would find a way to have his brother healed."

"Yeah," said Gabrielle, preferring to let Medon persist in his belief that Hercules had intervened with the gods on his brother's behalf, rather than telling him the less spectacular truth: that a fluke of luck had saved Iphicles, and nothing more.

The trio approached the palace. The guards at the gate nodded to Medon. The men looked vaguely familiar to Gabrielle; she recalled their faces from her last visit, if not their names. But the men clearly remembered the two women, because they allowed the visitors to pass through without question.

Inside the gate, Medon asked another guard as to the king's whereabouts.

"He's out back, working with Eumelus," the guard responded.

"Thanks." Medon turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "He usually trains with Eumelus for an hour or two in the morning, before lunch. Come see." He led the women through the first floor rooms and out a side door that opened onto a large, walled-in courtyard.

Gabrielle gazed about the space curiously. The king's guards must train in here, she thought. The area had been set up as a gymnasium, where the men could exercise with various pieces of equipment, and practice with all manner of weapons. She spotted swords, staves, bows and arrows, spears, and a few large targets propped up against the walls.

At the moment, most of the guards had ceased their own training and stood watching the king, engaged in swordplay with his lieutenant, Eumelus. Both men wore ordinary tunics, trousers, and gauntlets. Eumelus had cropped, short hair, and Iphicles wore his own drawn back in a tail. Gabrielle could see the men sweating profusely under the hot sun. Dust clouds swirled in the sunlight, raised up by movement over the sand on which the men fought.

The two women and Medon joined the crowd of onlookers, observing the mock duel. Gabrielle watched Xena evaluate the technique of the two men, sometimes nodding slightly in approval, or frowning critically. The bard noted that Eumelus possessed more talent than the king, and he probably had more experience as well, but Iphicles fought with a kind of dogged persistence. If he trained with Eumelus every day, Gabrielle thought, the king got an excellent workout from a skilled teacher. The lieutenant clearly challenged Iphicles, working his weaknesses without sympathy, forcing the king to use some hand-to-hand techniques as well.

The session seemed to end when Eumelus disarmed the king and knocked him down, but Iphicles pounced up, and with surprising agility for someone his size, kicked the sword out of his lieutenant's hand. The weapon went flying. Gabrielle didn't see it come sailing toward her; the fight held her attention. She watched the king wind Eumelus with a backhand blow to the solar plexus, then kick the lieutenant's legs right out from under him. Eumelus dropped into the sand at the same instant Xena's arm shot out and caught the sword in midair.

Iphicles pulled his lieutenant to his feet, amidst applause and cheers from his men, then retrieved his own weapon. Eumelus looked around for his sword, and heard a familiar voice call out to him.

"I think this belongs to you."

The king's head snapped up, and when he caught sight of the newcomers, a huge grin illuminated his face, like a torch in a darkened room.

"Xena!" he said, striding over to greet the warrior. His hazel eyes glowed with pleasure as he clasped her arm. "Welcome back to Corinth."

"Hi," said Xena, giving his arm a squeeze. Iphicles took Gabrielle's hand, then nodded at Medon.

"It's good to see you again," said the king. "What brings you back?"

"The festival," said Gabrielle. "I'm entering the bard competition."

"Good for you," said Iphicles. "Give them a run for their money."

"I thought you'd want to see them again," Medon interjected.

"I'm glad you did," Iphicles responded. "In this crowd, I'd have missed you completely. Have you eaten? You're more than welcome to stay for lunch."

Xena started to open her mouth, but Gabrielle beat her to the mark. "We'd love to!" she said warmly, giving the king a winning smile. "As long as I can look in the library after we eat," she added lightly.

"By all means." Iphicles gestured them inside, and they retreated from the hot courtyard into the cool interior of the palace. "Anything you want, just ask. If you don't have lodging for the festival, feel free to stay here. There's plenty of room."

"We don't--" Xena began, but Gabrielle quickly interrupted her.

"Thank you!" she said, beaming up at Iphicles. "That's so nice of you!" Xena glared at her companion, but Gabrielle didn't seem to notice.

The king paused at a doorway and pointed inside the room. "You can wash up in there," he said. And to his guard, "Medon, bring them to the dining room when they're finished."

Gabrielle sighed happily at the luxury of the washroom. "This is so wonderful," she said, gazing around. She went over to a basin of fresh water, soaked a cloth, and began washing her hands and face.

Slowly, Xena unlaced her gauntlets, then began washing herself at another basin. An interior doorway led through to a second, larger room with a sunken tub; they could have had baths if they'd wanted. Xena felt uncomfortable about staying in the palace for the night-- she hated to impose upon people, or take advantage of their gratitude for the sake of her own comfort. Gabrielle, however, clearly relished the thought of such luxurious accommodations. Despite her own misgivings, Xena felt inclined to indulge her friend's wishes.

"All set?" the bard asked brightly, as Xena re-laced her gauntlets.

"Yeah," the warrior responded.

Medon greeted them with a smile, and led them down one corridor, then another, to a vast banquet hall. Xena took in the room, noting that it would easily accommodate a hundred people. But at one end of the room, a small recessed area opened onto the central courtyard of the palace. A table had been set for four in this pleasant alcove.

Iphicles came in a moment later, having visibly washed and changed his shirt. "Please, have a seat," he said.

"This is so pretty," said Gabrielle, admiring the courtyard. "The roses are lovely."

"Aren't they?" Iphicles agreed. "Jason's grandmother planted some of those." A servant appeared at his elbow, almost as if by magic, and poured wine for the four of them. "When did you get here?" he asked, as a second servant set down a bowl of olives and three platters: one of bread and cheese, one of tiny meat pieces, one of something that smelled like seafood.

"This morning," said Xena.

"How long are you staying?" the king asked.

"For the whole festival," said Gabrielle. She reached for a piece of bread. "Right, Xena?"

The warrior nodded, swallowing wine.

"The festival runs three days," said Medon. He picked up one of the tiny meat pieces, skewered on a wooden pick. "The bard competition is tomorrow."

"Do I have to do anything special for it?" asked Gabrielle. She eyed the platter of meat pieces, then took one, sniffed it curiously, and put it in her mouth.

"No, just sign up," Medon answered. "Archivas is handling that."

"Who's judging it?" the bard inquired.

"Stavros," said Medon, his whole face lighting up. Gabrielle almost spit out her food.

"Stavros the actor?" she asked.

"Is there more than one of him?" Medon laughed.

"I saw him in Alcestis last year," Gabrielle said, reaching for another tidbit of meat. "He was wonderful! Maybe I should tell a different story," she worried. "He might not like the one about Cecrops."

"That story's fine," said Xena. "You want to reach the crowd, not just the judge." She helped herself to something from one of the platters, then commented to Iphicles, "this is wonderful octopus."

"Octopus?" Gabrielle spluttered.

"Sure," said Iphicles. "There's a great spot right out here where you can catch them, and--"

Gabrielle held up her hand in protest. "I'd rather not know," she said. She took a few olives from the dish, then gestured to the platter of meat. "What's that?"

"Pickled flamingo tongues," said Medon, reaching for another. "One of Falafel's specialties."

"I'm sorry I asked," the bard groaned, watching as Iphicles speared a piece of octopus with his knife.

Their conversation briefly paused as the servant reappeared with more plates of food, which he deftly set down before each person at the table. The beautifully crafted silver plates held rounds of fragrant bread, filled with savory meat. Xena's nose detected pork in date sauce. The servant placed a platter of roasted vegetables in the center of the table, then quietly withdrew.

"Will you go to the play tonight?" asked Medon. "Stavros has the lead in a new play by Euripides."

"Really?" asked Gabrielle.

"Yes, it's called The Bacchae."

Xena nearly inhaled her food. She covered her mouth and coughed discreetly.

"He stole my idea!" said Gabrielle indignantly.

The king laughed. "Did he?"

"Yeah, I told him about the Bacchae the last time we were here." The bard made a face. "Figures," she grumbled.

Iphicles grinned. "One of our musicians likes to say that artists are all cannibals and poets are all thieves."

"Hey," Gabrielle protested.

Medon laughed. "Well, at least Euripides is stealing from the best," he said. Gabrielle grinned at him.

"What else is going on?" asked Xena.

"There's contests for musicians, one for dancers, one for sculptors... see as much of it as you can," said Medon. "And the play tonight."

Not to mention the activity in the marketplace, Xena thought wryly. Every merchant and farmer in the state seemed to have come to the city for the festival.

The conversation paused as the four consumed their food. Xena and Gabrielle hadn't eaten such a fine meal in ages. Xena found it very agreeable to dine in these surroundings, with the fragrant scents from the courtyard wafting into the room. She tried not to feel guilty at indulging in luxury, reminding herself that Iphicles would feel bound by gratitude to extend the best hospitality he could offer.

When they'd all eaten to the point of satiety, two servants appeared. One refilled their wine glasses, the second cleared away their dishes. A third servant emerged and set down a platter of honey cakes decorated with walnuts, and another of fresh fruit. Gabrielle fell upon the sweet pastries with greedy enthusiasm. Medon took one also. Xena hesitated, then shook her head slightly. She noted Iphicles abstaining also. He glanced at her and smiled.

"Too sweet for me," he explained, nodding toward the cakes.

Gabrielle finished one cake, then took another. "These are good," she said. As she ate, she asked Medon, "So where do I sign up?"

"Outside the Temple of the Muses," he said. He seemed to hesitate for a heartbeat, then said, "If you like, I'll go with you. I can show you where the contest will be."

"That'd be great!" said Gabrielle. "I'd love to see it."

Xena smiled. Like most young men they'd met, Medon seemed utterly enchanted by Gabrielle, and who wouldn't be? Beautiful, smart, and spirited young women didn't pass through the city gates every day. The guard seemed about Gabrielle's age, maybe a year older. He stood about average height, and had a nice, slender build. His neatly-cut dark hair and blue eyes probably reminded Gabrielle of Perdicas, although Medon lacked the down-to-earth blunt good looks of Gabrielle's short-lived husband. Xena found the guard almost too pretty, but she could imagine a younger woman finding him attractive.

Xena realized Iphicles had been speaking, but she'd been too lost in her own thoughts to hear him. "Excuse me?" she asked.

"Do you have plans for the afternoon?" he asked.

"I--" Xena glanced at Gabrielle.

"Don't worry about me," said the bard swiftly. "I can find plenty to keep busy." Medon looked very pleased.

"I usually ride out to some of the villages in the afternoon," said Iphicles. "I'd enjoy the company, if you'd like to come with me."

The invitation could not have been more gracious, and Xena knew she could refuse without insulting him. But she had not enjoyed pleasant male company for a long time, and she knew Iphicles rode well.

"Yeah, I will," she responded. Gabrielle beamed at her with a sunny, encouraging smile. Xena nudged her friend's foot lightly under the table. She didn't need the bard playing matchmaker for her!

After Gabrielle had taken off with Medon, Xena went with Iphicles to fetch his horse from the palace stables. They walked the stallion to the public stables where Xena had left Argo. Because of the throngs, they didn't try to mount up right away, but rather walked the animals as far as the north gate of the city. There, Iphicles spoke briefly to the guards about crowd control.

"If anyone gets drunk or out of hand, throw them out of the city," said Iphicles. "I don't want the festival ruined by brawling idiots." The guard nodded crisply.

Xena carefully led Argo through the crowd at the gate. Iphicles followed behind her with Xanthus, his white stallion. Amidst the babble of voices, the warrior heard soft, excited murmurs. "It's the king!" She glanced over and spotted a couple of young women gazing at Iphicles with big eyes. She grinned.

Once free of the people, Xena mounted Argo. Iphicles brought Xanthus up beside the mare, slipped his left foot into a stirrup, and swung his right leg over the animal's back. Xena watched the ripple of muscle beneath his dark leather trousers, and felt a warm tightening in the pit of her stomach. Iphicles glanced over at her, and suddenly Xena realized she'd been staring at him. Their eyes connected in a moment of wordless communication, then they nudged their horses into motion.

They took the road leading north, then veered off onto a smaller track, passing farms as they traveled. The farmland gave way to uncultivated fields, dotted with strands of trees. Iphicles nodded toward a smaller track, and the two horses headed out into a broad, grassy meadow.

Once in the open, they urged the animals on to a faster pace. Xena rarely had the opportunity to ride for mere pleasure, and she seldom pushed Argo to such a speed unless she was running down an adversary. She cast a sidelong, appreciative look at Xanthus; few horses, in Xena's experience, had ever been able to match the golden mare.

They slowed the horses when they reached the opposite side of the meadow, and the terrain became rocky. The ground began to climb a bit. The riders followed a trail that led up the side of a hill and into some trees. Xena didn't know where the trail went, but Iphicles seemed to have a particular destination in mind. When the trees thinned out and opened onto a grassy hilltop, she suddenly saw what he'd wanted to show her.

The hill overlooked the surrounding countryside, right down to the ocean. From here, Xena could see the beautiful patchwork of trees, fields, vineyards, and cultivated farmlands. And sparkling like a jewel at the edge of the water sat the city of Corinth itself, from this distance a collection of rooftops enclosed securely within the high wall.

"It's beautiful," said Xena. She glanced over at Iphicles, who beheld his lands with an expression of love and pride and pleasure. She wondered what it must feel like for him to look out over such bounty, such prosperity, and know that so much of it was his own accomplishment.

"This isn't much of a village," Xena chided softly.

"Sorry," Iphicles grinned. "I come up here sometimes, just to look at everything." And, Xena suspected, to be alone with his thoughts. She felt pleased that he'd shared this place of solitude with her. Iphicles dismounted from his horse; Xena did the same. They left the animals to graze and strolled to the edge of the hilltop.

"How've you been?" Xena asked after a few moments.

"Good," Iphicles responded. "The harvest is good again this year, we haven't had any threat of invasion, revenues are up--" he stopped when he saw Xena smiling.

"I wasn't talking about Corinth, I was talking about you," she said.

Iphicles fell quiet for a few moments, tugging at the laces of his gauntlets. "I'm okay," he said. She could see a tiredness in his face, and a loneliness as well. He looked like he'd lost weight, and she hoped it was due to his active life, and not lack of appetite. "Busy," he finally added. "There's a lot going on." He studied Xena frankly. "I've thought about you."

"Yeah," she said neutrally.

"The last time you were here," he said slowly, as if considering his thoughts, "I talked to Herk after you left. He said that whatever I do, I should ask myself if Rena would be proud of me for doing it. He said that if I started feeling sorry for myself, I should do things to help other people." Iphicles lifted his shoulders and dropped them. "So that's what I've been doing."

Xena nodded approvingly. "Has it worked?" she asked.

"Mostly," Iphicles laughed. Then he sobered. "I also thought about what you said to me before you left. You told me there's a lot of bad rulers out there, and I'm not one of them." He shook his head. "Gods, that's so true. I have to deal with them more than I want to, and I think I'd rather die than run Corinth the way most of them run their countries."

"We came through Megarid on our way here," said Xena. "It's in pretty rough shape. We stopped in Phlegra, and Josephus told us that there's been a lot of people moving to Corinth because of what Periander's been doing." She gave the king a questioning look.

"It's true," Iphicles confirmed. "He's in a pretty rotten situation-- he was born when his father was only fifteen, and Autesion lived to be an old man. Periander was sixty-two when he finally came to the throne, and he got stuck with all the debts his father had run up, plus every other problem that Autesion wouldn't deal with."

"Josephus said you went and met with him," said Xena.

"I did! I talked with him for almost two full days, and he really seemed to want advice on how he could start fixing things." Iphicles shrugged in confusion. "For a while, he seemed to be doing all right, then he just stopped trying to make changes, and Megarid's as bad now as it was under his father. Maybe even worse."

"What did you tell him to do?" asked Xena.

"Lower taxes, for one thing. Give land his father had seized back to the families who used to own it. Set aside money for people to start up new farms, settle colonies, trade. Get rid of corrupt local authorities, put in new people, and keep a tight rein on everyone. Listen to people, find out what they want, what their problems are..." Iphicles sighed softly. "I could go on and on. I also told him to forget trying to build up a huge army; Megarid's just too small, and that's how his father lost so much money in the first place. Now, from what I hear--"

"He's trying to build up an army," Xena interjected. The king nodded.

"How'd you know?" he asked.

"We heard rumors in some of the villages we stopped in," said Xena.

"I don't know who he's trying to impress," said Iphicles. "Thessaly and Attica both have armies that would squash anything he could raise, and if he even thinks about coming south," Iphicles grinned, "he wouldn't even make it past Phlegra."

Xena laughed.

"Well, it's his bed," said Iphicles. "He's made it, and he's lying in it now. Nobody's forced him."

They stood in companionable silence for a few moments. Then Xena said, "I heard you helped negotiate a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta."

"I did," said Iphicles, rubbing the tip of his nose. "That was about six months ago. The Athenians had taken some Spartan army officers prisoner, so the Spartans started attacking Athenian ships, killing the crews or taking them hostage, seizing whatever goods they found. Then the Spartans started going after any boat they suspected might be Athenian, or allied with Athens--"

"Yeah, I know," said Xena ruefully. "Gabrielle and I were on one of them."

"You're kidding," said Iphicles, staring at her.

"No. They were going to have us executed, when a messenger ship flagged down the Spartan ship we were on and told the captain that a treaty had been settled, and that all hostages should be exchanged."

"I'm so glad," said the king fervently. "Gods, I had no idea you two were in the middle of that. Amphion and I were in Athens, trying to get King Menestheus from declaring war on Sparta. I told him peace would be cheaper and easier in the long run, and he finally believed me."

"Corinth is allied with Sparta," observed Xena. "You'd have had to send your own men to fight against Athens."

"I know, and that's what I wanted to avoid," said Iphicles soberly. "We carry on more trade with Athens than with any other state. If we went to war, trade would stop, and close to half the merchants in Corinth would be out of business."

"And blame you for it," said Xena.

"I know. And even if Sparta won, everyone would have blamed me for the men they lost in the fighting, and if Sparta lost..."

"Yeah," said Xena. "You'd be out of a job."

Iphicles barked with laughter. "Thankfully, it worked out. Menestheus wasn't crazy about the treaty, he thought it was giving too much to Sparta, but at least he got his own men back-- the survivors, anyway. And he got an apology for the ones who got killed, but that won't bring them back."

"No," said Xena, gazing down at the ocean with a moody expression. "No, it won't."

Their next silence lasted longer, both of them wrapped in their solitary thoughts.

"Well, there's been happy things, too," said Iphicles. "I'm having a new amphitheater built."

"Really?" said Xena, surprised. "Where?"

"In Sylea," said Iphicles, "up in the northeast. It'll be something that people in Phlegra can get to, and they won't have to keep making the trip down to Corinth to see plays."

"And merchants won't have to travel as far, either," added Xena, with a hint of a smile. Iphicles grinned back at her.

"There's that, too," he agreed. "Some of the tavern owners in the city have complained to me about how crowded it's getting, and other people have said that the marketplace is too mobbed to move around in. This'll take off some of the pressure."

"And create new business in the northern part of the state," said Xena.

"Well, I never said I didn't have ulterior motives," said Iphicles, laughing. "I'm making the announcement tonight, before the play starts. I just hope everyone takes it well."

"Do you think they wouldn't?" asked Xena.

"There might be some people in the city who feel like business is being taken away from them, but almost everyone I've talked to says overcrowding is a worse problem. And another amphitheater creates a venue for poets and writers and actors in Phlegra." The king shrugged. "I'm sure there's people who'll complain, but they're the sort who'd gripe if it rained gold. Everyone else would be scooping up the money, and the same handful of doom-sayers would grumble about their gardens being ruined."

Xena laughed. "Phlegra's far enough away so that most merchants in the city won't lose any business," she observed.

"Exactly," said Iphicles. He smiled at Xena. "Do you want to come with me tonight?" he asked.

"Come with you to the play?" she clarified.

"Yeah," he said. "You and Gabrielle can sit in the royal box if you want."

Xena turned this over in her mind. His perfectly friendly invitation might well be regarded very differently by others. If people in Corinth saw a woman in their king's company, they would probably assume he was courting her.

"All right," she said at last, despite her misgivings.

"Great!" he said, perhaps a touch too enthusiastically. He colored up a bit at her smile. They stood in awkward silence for a moment.

"We should probably get back," said Xena reluctantly, looking down again at the city. She'd need to tell Gabrielle, and they'd need to find something to wear besides their battle clothes.

The two retrieved their horses and led them down the trail, without saying anything else. Xena could tell that Iphicles felt slightly abashed at his interest in her, but she admired his straightforward persistence. Most men barely knew how to approach her. She distinctly recalled his declaration of love the last time they'd met; perhaps Iphicles now regretted having spoken so impulsively. Her thoughts stole back to their first meeting, and their almost immediate attraction. With an inward shudder, she remembered finding his hideously mutilated body in the cliffside fortress, and her own brutal treatment of the man responsible for the king's death.

She thought of her relief when Hercules revived his brother with Ambrosia, and the way Iphicles had looked at her when he returned to life. Xena sensed that with very little encouragement, she could fall in love with Iphicles, and then would have to make decisions about her life that she would rather avoid. She'd been staying well clear of Corinth for an entire year, but now found herself face-to-face with the conundrum again.

Madness, she thought. She barely knew Iphicles, and his position as king presented all manner of complications to any relationship she might have with him. But she couldn't help her heart, which sometimes seemed to operate completely independent of logic.

In the meadow, they mounted their horses and set out at an easy trot. To break the awkward silence, Xena said, "Your training with Eumelus is going well."

"Thanks," Iphicles responded. "He's a good teacher. Tough, but good."

"Tough is good," Xena laughed. "You defend yourself well, but you need to be more aggressive when you attack. I saw you make a couple of openings this morning, and not take advantage of them."

"Yeah, I know," said the king. "I'm working on that." His mouth opened slightly, as if to suggest that Xena join him in a training session, but he seemed to reject the thought. He closed his mouth without saying anything.

"Do you train on horseback?" asked the warrior.

"A couple of times, not much," he said.

"You should," said Xena. "If Eumelus isn't skilled enough, find someone who is. You ride so well, I think you'd have a much better advantage on horseback."

"Good suggestion," answered Iphicles. "I'll look into it." He glanced at her. "And thanks for the compliment."

They reached the trail. As they rode, Xena asked, "Does the name Sciron sound familiar to you?"

Iphicles jolted visibly. "Yeah, I never met him, but I know who he was. King Autesion arrested him for treason, but that was ages ago."

Xena told him the story of the house she and Gabrielle found, and of the missing shepherd who believed Sciron had murdered his wife.

"Nobody's come to me about this, but I don't have any jurisdiction in Megarid, anyway," said Iphicles. "And it couldn't have been Sciron. When Autesion threw people in prison, they never came out again. I heard about Sciron when I worked for Gorgus," Iphicles recalled, referring to his late wife's stepfather. "Sciron was involved with a plot to murder Autesion and Periander both. I have a feeling Gorgus was behind it-- he could've combined Megarid and Phlegra into one state."

"Do you think Gorgus betrayed Sciron?" asked Xena.

"He might have," Iphicles speculated. "He might've decided the assassination attempt wasn't worth it, cut his losses, and handed over Sciron. Autesion wouldn't have gone after Gorgus anyway-- Gorgus was too powerful. But whatever really did happen, Sciron was arrested and nobody saw him after that. If someone killed this woman Lavinia," the king concluded, "it wasn't her husband. Probably some cut-throat or poacher. Poor thing," he said soberly. "I used to worry about my mother living alone like that, at least until she married Jason."

"Yeah," said Xena, glad that her own mother lived in a large town, surrounded by people.

The trail merged into the main road, and the two riders guided their horses in the direction of the city.

"We saw Stavros!" said Gabrielle excitedly. "He walked right across the square in front of the Temple of the Muses. Gods, he is so handsome!"

"Really?" said Xena, mildly interested. She and Gabrielle made their way down a street toward a dressmaker's shop. She lacked the bard's enthusiasm for people in the performing arts.

"I thought he was good-looking when we saw him on stage, but that doesn't do him justice. He has mismatched eyes," Gabrielle went on, her voice rising an octave, "one's blue and one's green. He stopped and talked to us. Medon's been posted at the amphitheater sometimes, so he knows most of the actors."

"Hmm," Xena responded. They reached the dressmaker's shop, knocked, and entered at the sound of a woman's cheerful voice.

"You two will be the ladies the king sent word about." A beaming, middle-aged woman approached them. She looked both Xena and Gabrielle up and down, eyes growing big with excitement. "So you need dresses to wear to the play tonight? Come on back, and I'll see what I have." They followed her through a curtained doorway into a workroom. "Most of my clients have their things made to order, but I have a few dresses collected over the years. I always try to have some ready-made gowns on hand for festivals and big market days, so that ladies who come from out of town can get something quickly if they want."

The woman opened one trunk, then another, and began pulling out gowns. Fabric rustled softly as she draped the garments over her arm.

"Here," she said, handing a substantial pile to Gabrielle. "These should be about your length, and I can adjust the fit if you need me to." She went to a different trunk and drew out several more dresses, which she handed to Xena. "There's less for you," she said glancing up at the warrior. "I don't often get ladies your height in the shop. I'll be out front," she added, vanishing behind the curtain. "Call me when you're ready."

Gabrielle sorted through the dresses, setting aside the colors she disliked, then began trying on one gown after another. Xena watched for a few moments, then looked through the dresses the seamstress had given her. They were all lovely, but she set a couple aside because they seemed too ornate and gaudy.

The warrior slipped out of her armor and weapons, then tried on a couple of gowns. She made up her mind almost immediately, and put her armor back on. She sat in a chair and waited for Gabrielle to finish.

"Which one are you wearing?" asked Gabrielle, pulling another dress down over her head.

"This one," said Xena, holding up the garment.

The bard looked at the dress her friend had chosen and sighed. "Figures," she said.

"What figures?" asked Xena indignantly.

"That you'd pick the darkest, plainest dress in here. Xena, you're beautiful. Most women would kill to look like you. Why not take advantage of it?"

"Because I'd rather not make a spectacle out of myself," the warrior retorted.

"You can be unspectacular and still be pretty," argued Gabrielle. "You'll look like one of the Sisters of Gaia in that thing."

Xena scowled. "I am not into being pretty, Gabrielle."

The bard ignored this comment and began to rummage around the room, poking into trunks and cupboards.

"Some of those dresses may belong to other women," Xena cautioned.

"I know, I know," said Gabrielle, her voice muffled inside a trunk. She stood up with another pair of dresses, which she brought over to Xena. "Try these."

Xena stood. She held up one gown to herself and handed it back. "This is too short," she said. She held up the second gown, then doffed her armor once again, and slipped the dress over her head.

"See?" said Gabrielle with a happy smile. "That one's a lot better."

Xena stared at herself in a mirror, admiring the vibrant peacock plums and greens of the dress. Then she frowned, lifted her arm, and sniffed at a panel of fabric hanging down from the sleeve. The material smelled to her like rancid tallow.

She began unlacing the gown. "I don't think so," she said. "This smells like an old candle." She pulled the dress over her head and tossed it to Gabrielle.

The bard sniffed the garment herself. "No, it doesn't," she argued. "Xena, this dress is gorgeous. The colors are just you."

"No," said Xena, putting her scabbard on her back.

"It's from being at the bottom of the trunk," said Gabrielle. "It only smells like leather." She sniffed again. "Almost smells like cinnamon, too," she remarked. She handed the dress to Xena. "See?"

The warrior took the gown with a loud sigh, held it to her face and inhaled, then gave it back to her friend.

"I still say it smells like an old candle," she said.

Gabrielle took another sniff. "It's not too bad," she said. "Just think of it as a... a leather-cinnamon scented candle."

Xena stared incredulously at the younger woman. "A leather-cinnamon scented candle," she repeated. "Gabrielle, that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of in my life."

"To the non-artistic mind, maybe," said the bard in a lofty voice. "Scented candles are nice. Lila and I used to make them-- we'd use spices and herbs and dried flowers. You know. Give the candles some life."

"Sounds like something Salmoneus would come up with," said Xena, sitting again. "He could probably make a fortune if he marketed them right."

Gabrielle made a face. "Do you always have to be such a cynic?" she asked.

"If it keeps me from running around smelling like a scented candle, yes."

The bard put the two gowns back in the trunk. She poked about the shop a bit more. Xena heard her suddenly sigh, as if she'd found something marvelous, then she drew out a stunning gown of garnet red silk from a cupboard in the back of the room.

"Xena, look at this!" Gabrielle went to the mirror and excitedly held the dress up to herself. "This is my size!" She slipped out of the gown she'd been wearing, and donned the red silk. She spun about, and the skirt flared around her. "Isn't this wonderful?"

"Yeah, that's perfect on you," the warrior admitted, her expression softening. She always loved seeing Gabrielle enjoy herself.

The shopkeeper came back into the room.

"Can I wear this?" Gabrielle asked eagerly. "I'm sorry, I was looking around, I found this in the back..." She trailed off. The seamstress had a sad, nostalgic look on her face. "Whose is this?" the bard asked.

"That's the last gown I ever made for my lady the queen," the shopkeeper said softly, stepping closer to Gabrielle. She examined the fit of the dress. "She wanted it to wear after the baby came. It's a bit loose in the top on you, but I can take that in." The seamstress dropped her hands. "She would have been nursing, had she lived."

"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle, looking stricken with guilt. "I shouldn't have--"

"Don't be silly," the woman scolded firmly. "I'm a sentimental fool, keeping that around, when someone could be getting good use out of it. No, I'll take it in, and you can wear it. You can keep it if you want."

"No, no," said the bard hastily. "I could never do that."

"Well here, let me take it in for you, then." The seamstress picked up needle and thread and began to deftly take tucks in the bodice of the gown.

"Has Iphicles seen that?" asked Xena quietly as the woman worked.

"No," the shopkeeper reassured her. "No, he never did see it. My lady wanted to surprise him." She sniffled.

"That's so sad," said Gabrielle. The three fell quiet for a while.

"There, that should be better." The seamstress finished her work. She straightened up and glanced at Xena. "What did you decide on?"

"This one," said Xena. "It's fine, it doesn't need any adjusting at all."

The shopkeeper looked at the garment, and nodded. "You could get away with something more fancy," she said. She went to a wicker stand and drew off a stunning gown of white, woven with gold threads. "Something like this."

"No," said Xena firmly.

"Are you set on shoes?" The seamstress went to another trunk and began to rummage through it. She came up with a nice pair of leather sandals for Gabrielle, but Xena shook her head.

"My boots are fine."

"Xena," Gabrielle protested. "You can't wear boots under a dress."

"Says who? The skirt covers my feet, and it will be dark. Who's going to notice?"

The shopkeeper glanced at Gabrielle. Her expressing said, is she always like this?

The bard laughed and shrugged. "I guess we're all set then." She handed her gown and sandals to Xena. "Can you bring this back to the palace for me?" she asked with a winning smile. "I have another errand to run. I won't be long, I promise."

Gabrielle approached the Temple of Aphrodite hesitantly. She had no reason to believe the fickle goddess would help her. Xena and I aren't exactly her #1 fans. On the other hand, I did help undo that scroll and get her powers back, the bard mused. Maybe she'll do me a favor in return. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Gabrielle entered the temple and peered around the lovely interior. She stepped forward to the main altar and set down a few flowers she'd purchased for a dinar in the marketplace.

"Mom's not home."

The bard whipped around to confront Cupid, who stood behind her, hands folded atop his longbow. For a moment, Gabrielle couldn't speak because her lungs seemed to have stopped working.

"Cupid," she finally managed.

The god inclined his pale head fractionally. "Gabrielle," he said, and the Amazon felt her legs turn to water. She loved how Cupid said her name.

"Mom's on Cyprus," the god continued. "There's a festival in her honor at this time every year." Gabrielle nodded. Legend held that Aphrodite had been born when she washed ashore on Cyprus, and the island continued to be the principal seat of her worship. "Are you looking for a favor? If it's that guard who's been taking you around, he doesn't look like he needs any help."

Gabrielle laughed. "It's not for me, it's for Xena," she said earnestly. "I think she's in love with King Iphicles, and won't admit it. And she's being a crank and a half."

Cupid grinned. "So what did you want Mom to do about it?"

"I don't know... maybe just give Xena some encouragement. Blow some sparkles on her," the bard laughed. "Maybe you could shoot her with an arrow?" she jested.

"Hmm. Well, there's a couple of complications," said Cupid. "First, Xena's been hit by one of my arrows before, so she'd know what was going on. Then she'd be mad at you for asking me to shoot her."

Gabrielle nodded. He had a point.

"The second thing is that Iphicles is a king. If Xena falls in love with him and marries him, that makes her a queen. Do you think she'd want that kind of responsibility?"

"I--" said Gabrielle, then she closed her mouth, frowning. Cupid had another point, a valid one.

"If Xena's resisting her own feelings, she might have good reason," the god went on. "And I can't force her to love him. Well," he conceded, gently stroking the top of his longbow. "I could. But it wouldn't be right. And since the future of a kingdom is affected by her decision, I'd just as soon she make up her own mind."

"Wow," said Gabrielle, half in jest. "A god who knows when not to interfere!"

Cupid looked injured. "We're not all like that," he said. "Some of us believe in free will."

The bard sighed. "Still, I wish... you know, I get the feeling that Xena doesn't think she's worthy of being loved. If I told her Iphicles loves her, she'd say she doesn't deserve it."

Cupid tilted his head to one side. "I'm the god of love," he reminded her. "Self-esteem is outside my specialty."

"Can't you at least help her?" Gabrielle pleaded. "Just... make her feel happy?"

Cupid laughed then, his eyes narrowing, and his teeth gleaming in the candlelight. Gabrielle suddenly shivered.

"I'll see what I can do." He gazed down at the small woman, then asked, "What's wrong?"

"It's nothing," said the bard, shaking herself slightly. "You just... you look like Ares," she blurted out against her better judgement.

Cupid didn't seem at all affronted. "I ought to," he said pleasantly. "He's my father." And in a flash of white wings, the god vanished, leaving the astonished mortal behind.

Xena glared at her reflection in the mirror and jabbed a last pin into the knot of hair at the back of her head. There. She'd drawn her hair up in as plain and severe a style as she could manage. She wore no combs in the dark mass, no circlet, no flowers, no gilded net, no nothing.

She stepped back away from the mirror and took a better look at herself. She'd chosen the dress because of its unremarkable dark blue color, long sleeves, and modest neckline. She'd done up the back laces rather loosely, in order not to accentuate her figure. She lifted the skirt slightly, grinning down at her boots. Overall, she thought with satisfaction, as sober and unromantic a garment as she could possibly have worn.

She paced the guest room, brooding. She should never have accepted the king's invitation to accompany him tonight. She shouldn't have accepted his invitation to go riding, either. In fact, she should have ignored Gabrielle's pleas and stayed away from Corinth entirely.

Surely, in a year's time, Iphicles should have found someone else. Surely, her interest in him should have cooled. But they'd only needed to look at each other once, and their year of separation barely seemed a heartbeat. She didn't need a romance with a king to further complicate her already vexing life.

Resisting the urge to look at herself again in the mirror, Xena stalked out of the room, down the corridor, and down the stairs to the main floor. No coy, dramatic entrance for her; she'd be ready and waiting when Iphicles turned up.

Tomorrow, she vowed to herself, tomorrow I'll get up at first light, take Argo, and ride around the countryside all day to see if I can find out anything about Jehan. If, indeed, the shepherd had traveled south. The next day, I'll find something else to keep busy, and keep me away from Iphicles for the rest of the festival.

She stared out a west-facing window. The sun set, hovering just over the city wall, bathing Corinth in a golden, lambent glow. She heard distant laughter and voices as throngs of people made their way toward the amphitheater. A warm summer wind gusted through the window, gentle as a lover's caress.

Abruptly, Xena turned around at the sound of footsteps behind her. All thoughts of vanishing on Argo left her mind immediately. She stared at Iphicles without bothering to disguise her admiration, letting her eyes wander down, then back up again. She'd seen him dressed up before, but now he somehow seemed taller, more majestic.

It might be the crown, she thought, which added inches to his height, or the royal blue cloak that fell from his broad shoulders down to the tops of his boots. It might have been the pale brown leather of his tunic, which complimented his golden-brown mane of hair so perfectly. Unlike other kings, who adorned themselves with extravagant jewelry or elaborate robes of precious cloth, Iphicles knew that simple, well-cut garments that set off his height and athletic body would have a much greater visual impact.

Iphicles crossed the floor and extended his hand to her. Xena hesitated, then extended her own hand into his. Iphicles kissed the back of her fingers graciously. "That's lovely," he said, glancing down at her dress. "What a wonderful color on you."

Xena felt her cheeks turn warm, partly with pleasure, partly with chagrin. She realized that she could have wrapped herself in Argo's blanket, and Iphicles would still have found her enchanting. And by dressing in a simple, unadorned gown that let her beautiful, work-sculpted body speak for itself, Xena knew also that she'd simply reinforced the king's own tastes.

"Thank you," she said, trying to sound sincere. She realized Iphicles hadn't let go of her hand. In fact, he had both of his own hands-- large, warm, and slightly callused-- around hers. They stood unmoving together, staring into each other's eyes.

Across the room, a throat cleared softly. Iphicles jolted slightly and released Xena's hand. The two turned to face the newcomer, a tall man who appeared to be in his middle thirties.

"I'm sorry, is this a bad time?" he asked charmingly.

"Not at all!" Iphicles grinned broadly. He gestured to the tall man, who crossed the room to stand beside the king. "Xena, this is Melisseus, the builder who's designing the new amphitheater. Melisseus, this is Xena."

The builder stood about the king's height, with a lean, angular frame. Short, thinning pale hair framed a face that all but blazed with intelligence. A lifetime of pulling his brows together in concentration had resulted in a distinctive vertical furrow in the center of his forehead. He wore a loose-fitting white linen tunic, trousers of the same fabric, and brown leather sandals. He carried about himself an air of self-assurance that bordered on arrogance, but this only added to his appeal.

"Hi," said the warrior, extending her hand. Melisseus gave her arm a squeeze.

"This is an honor," the builder said with an ironic smile. "I don't get introduced to a living legend every day."

"Living legend?" Xena jested, lifting an eyebrow. "As opposed to some other kind?"

Melisseus laughed, humor flashing in his green eyes. "The stories don't do you any justice," he said, casting a curious glance at Iphicles.

"No, they don't," a voice said behind them, and the three turned to see Gabrielle descend the staircase and cross the floor.

The men's eyes went wide with astonishment; Xena smiled with pleasure. The garnet silk dress brought out color in Gabrielle's face and gave her blue eyes a vivid glow. She'd drawn up her hair in a gold net, and added some gold jewelry-- most likely the reason for her errand, Xena thought. The warrior felt a slight pang of guilt. Gabrielle should have more evenings like this, she thought, and fewer days with her life in peril.

"That's wonderful," said Iphicles. If he recognized the gown as something his late wife might have worn, he showed no sign of it. He gestured to his builder. "Melisseus, this is Gabrielle," he said. "The sure winner of our bard competition tomorrow."

"Melisseus!" said Gabrielle. "You designed the Temple of the Graces in Mycenae."

Xena glanced at her friend in surprise. How on earth did Gabrielle know that?

"Yeah, I did." Melisseus looked very pleased that she knew of his work.

"He's building our new amphitheater," Iphicles told Gabrielle.

"That's great," said the bard. To Melisseus, she said, "I heard all about you from Salmoneus."

"Salmoneus?" echoed the builder. "The little round fellow who tried to sell me the furnishings for the temple?"

"That'd be him," Xena remarked.

"Yeah, turns out he'd brought them cheap from a thief who'd stolen them from the Temple of Aphrodite in Argos, and wanted to unload them in a hurry."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a pained expression. "Did Autolycus live to tell about it?" Xena wondered.

"Rumor has it, Aphrodite extracted an appropriate revenge," said Melisseus, his eyes gleaming. "She caused him to fall in love with a donkey."

The two women laughed. Iphicles grinned.

"Serves him right," said Gabrielle.

"Thankfully, I had the sense to not accept the merchandise Salmoneus offered me," the builder concluded.

"Wise man," said Iphicles, lifting his eyebrows.

Gabrielle had been watching Melisseus intently. She asked him, "Did I hear you singing earlier today? We were walking past some houses this morning, and I heard a voice that sounded like yours." She hummed a tune.

Melisseus turned very red. "My weakness," he said sheepishly.

"No, your voice is beautiful," Gabrielle insisted. "Are you going to be in the music competition?"

The builder laughed. "No, I couldn't even if I wanted to. The judge is--" he glanced at the king-- "rather biased."

"You're judging?" Gabrielle asked Iphicles.

"Yeah, it's my one indulgence for the festival," the king answered. "We get a lot of great musicians here."

Melisseus nodded toward Iphicles. "And you're looking at one of them now."

"You sing?" asked Gabrielle. "Or do you plan an instrument?"

"He doesn't admit it," Melisseus taunted gently, "but he sings. Beautifully, I might add."

Iphicles shrugged, looking embarrassed. Sensing his discomfort with the topic, Gabrielle changed the subject quickly.

"Where's Medon?" she asked.

"Probably outside," said Iphicles.

"Medon?" Melisseus repeated. "Medon the guard?"

"Yeah, he was supposed to be coming with us," said Gabrielle.


Xena frowned slightly, wondering at the reason for the builder's astonishment.

"We should get going," said Iphicles. "It's almost time."

They left the palace. Medon waited by the main gate, talking to some of the other guards. He'd cleaned up and put on a fresh blue shirt, and looked every inch the crisp, efficient king's guard. The young man's face lit up when he spotted Gabrielle.

"Hi!" he said, reaching to take the bard's arm. "You look wonderful," he added, gazing up and down at her attire. Xena glanced at Melisseus, and saw a perplexed expression on the builder's face.

"Thank you!" said Gabrielle. The pair headed off together. Iphicles hesitated, then offered Xena his arm. Xena slipped her own arm through his with a smile. Melisseus followed behind them at a discreet distance. Xena wondered why he didn't have an escort of his own. A man so handsome and self-assured must not want for feminine companionship very often.

Most theater goers had already filled the amphitheater to capacity. The murmuring din of the crowd increased perceptibly as the king's retinue emerged and took their seats in the royal box. Xena looked around at the airy, spacious structure. The stone seats and walls glowed warmly in the rosy-lavender twilight, and scores of torches provided light for the stage.

Iphicles left the royal box, crossed the arena, and mounted the steps to the stage. The crowd fell respectfully quiet.

"Good evening," said Iphicles. His low voice carried effortlessly up to the highest levels of the amphitheater. "Welcome to Corinth. I'm pleased to see such a crowd tonight, and I know Euripides appreciates your enthusiasm for his work."

"Many of you who've come to the city for festivals like this, and for market days, know how crowded Corinth has gotten lately. And traders who live in the northern part of the state have spoken to me about the need for a bigger market in the north. Tonight, I'm happy to announce a solution to both problems. Next spring, construction will begin on a new amphitheater in Sylea, which will provide a venue for artists in northern Corinth." The king continued, "And the amphitheater marketplace will serve farmers and traders, who won't have to come so far south to sell their goods."

A soft murmur of approval and pleasure rose from the crowd.

"The amphitheater will be designed by Melisseus, who recently built the Temple of the Graces in Mycenae," Iphicles went on. "Many of you may already be familiar with his work, which has no equal."

Now the crowd shifted to get a look at the handsome builder, who sat comfortably in his chair, completely unperturbed by the attention.

"I know some of you may have concerns about the new amphitheater," Iphicles concluded. "And I'll be more than happy to hear them all, when the festival is over." He treated the crowd to a dazzling smile that Xena knew probably melted the knees of every woman in attendance. "In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the play tonight, and the rest of the festival."

Iphicles hopped down from the stage and returned to the royal box, amidst cheers and applause. Xena smiled at his flushed countenance as he took the seat beside her. What a charming speech, she thought. He'd had the crowd eating right out of his hand. She wondered how many of his remarks had been rehearsed; they'd certainly sounded spontaneous, as if he'd made up everything on the spot. Impulsively, she reached over and gave his hand a squeeze. Iphicles looked at her, surprised, and tightened his fingers around hers. Then he released her hand and turned his attention to the stage. The play had begun.

A quiet hush descended over the amphitheater. A heartbeat later, Stavros stepped onto the stage.

Xena normally disliked theater, but from the moment Stavros, clad as the god Dionysus, began speaking, she was spellbound. The actor stood about her own height, long and lean, dressed in a simple robe. Pale brown hair fell to his shoulders, framing a breathtakingly handsome face. Nature had blessed Stavros with a high, noble brow, cheekbones like twin scimitars, and a strong, smooth jaw. As Gabrielle had observed, Stavros had mismatched eyes-- the right blue, and the left a gray-green. The anomaly provided the actor with his most distinctive feature, and assured that the gaze of the audience would not leave his face.

Confounding Xena's expectations, Stavros had a talent that matched his looks. He spoke distinctly, easily conveying the stylized dialogue of the play to even the most unintelligent members of the audience. He had a beautiful voice: light but powerful, every word perfectly enunciated. He moved slightly as he spoke, and each gesture, no matter how small, provided an added emphasis-- indeed, an added meaning-- to the character's pontifications.

As with many plays Xena had attended, the central message of The Bacchae seemed to be the danger and folly of defying the gods. Yet, as the drama unfolded, she became aware of a deeper conflict-- a young man of uncertain parentage, fighting for legitimacy against an arrogant cousin determined to prove the god fraudulent, and a bastard. She felt Iphicles shifting beside her, and knew that this observation had not escaped him, either.

The actor playing Pentheus, the cousin of Dionysus, provided a perfect foil to Stavros: he stood shorter, and had a doughy, boyish face, capped with sandy-red hair that made him seem far too young to be the King of Thebes. He delivered his lines in a mocking, superior voice that clearly conveyed the character's distaste for the new god's orgiastic revels.

"Why do you bring these rites to Hellas?" Pentheus inquired of the disguised god.

"Dionysus, the child of Zeus, sent me," the god responded.

"Is there a Zeus who breeds new gods there?" Pentheus inquired scornfully, causing a soft wave of titters to pass through the crowd in the amphitheater. Xena glanced at Iphicles, who stared at the stage, frowning.

She turned her attention back to the actors.

"Again, you diverted my question well, speaking more nonsense," Pentheus accused.

"One will seem to be foolish if he speaks wisely to an ignorant man," Dionysus countered, his voice mysterious. Xena grinned, mentally storing away that observation for future use.

The play continued. Xena had to grudgingly admire the craft of Euripides, who wove a fascinating tale, and the talent of the performers who brought the bard's vision to life. As the audience watched, Pentheus attempted to imprison the god, but Dionysus easily escaped. A messenger brought word that Agave, the mother of Pentheus, had joined the other women of Thebes in the Bacchic revels. Pentheus thought to capture the women by force of arms and have them put to death, but Dionysus persuaded the king to instead disguise himself as one of the god's followers and spy upon the mad women.

Dionysus and Pentheus both left the stage, and the chorus took over, once more extolling the virtues of blind obedience to the gods. Gabrielle, seated to the right of Xena, glanced at the warrior and rolled her eyes.

Pentheus re-emerged, in the guise of a woman, pleased with himself for his cunning. When the god remarked, "You will return being carried in the arms of your mother," Xena felt a chill, immediately sensing a double meaning to the dialogue.

The king responded jovially, "You will force me to luxury."

Dionysus hissed, "Yes indeed, such luxury!"

Xena felt annoyed when the chorus took over with another sermon. But it ended shortly with the arrival of a messenger who bore the news of the king's ghastly death. Then the audience murmured with horror as Agave walked on stage with her son's head impaled on her thyrsos.

Gabrielle made an inarticulate noise. Xena reached over and put a hand on her friend's arm. It's only a play, she wanted to say, but her own mind reeled nevertheless, especially when Agave boasted to her father of having killed a wild lion cub, and encouraged him to hang its head from the walls of the house.

The final, inevitable moment of despair came when Agave returned to her senses and realized her unspeakable atrocity. Kadmos, Agave's father, lamented the failure of his daughter and grandson to revere the new god. Dionysus himself reappeared and condemmed the unhappy father and child to exile. The chorus made a final pronouncement, and the play ended.

A great round of cheers and applause rose up from the crowd. Xena found herself standing, in spite of her distaste for the play's motif, and clapping in appreciation of the performance. Gabrielle had recovered from her earlier perturbation, and stood laughing with Medon. Iphicles clapped, but his eyes were far away. Melisseus, on the far left of Iphicles, grinned broadly.

The cast returned to the stage for a bow. First the chorus, then the two actors who'd played the messengers, then the chorus leader. Then the two older men who'd played Kadmos and Teiresias. Special cheers arose for the adolescent boy who'd portrayed Agave. When the actor who'd played Pentheus emerged, the applause increased to an enthusiastic roar.

"Metion," Iphicles told Xena, almost yelling over the noise. "He directed the play."

"He was excellent," Xena yelled back.

The cheers erupted into screams when Stavros finally appeared to take his bow. The applause went on and on and on. Stavros bowed again and again, in a self-effacing manner, though Xena could tell that modesty was not a habitual virtue of the actor.

Metion vanished off-stage, and reappeared with a reluctant Euripides in tow. The crowd went wild all over again. The young playwright took one awkward bow, blushing furiously. Finally, he held out his hand in a gesture of thanks to Iphicles, who nodded back toward the cast. After a last bow, the players left the stage.

Iphicles took Xena's arm, and they left the royal box, escorted by a small contingent of guards.

"Xena," said Gabrielle, her hand entwined in Medon's, "we're going to find Euripides and congratulate him."

"All right," said Xena. "Take care," she added as a caution. The post-play crowd might well decide to engage in some Bacchic revels of their own.

"I should head for home," remarked Melisseus with an exaggerated yawn. "It's been a long day." He nodded at Xena. "It was lovely to meet you." And to Iphicles, "I'll stop by tomorrow."

When the architect vanished, Iphicles glanced at Xena. "What do you want to do?" he asked simply.

"Walk," she said, smiling. He grinned back at her.

They strolled along through the dusty grounds where, in daylight, the amphitheater market would be held. They entered the city through the south gate, along with scores of other people leaving the play. Xena could feel the curious eyes of strangers upon her, no doubt wondering about the identity of the king's escort.

They left more and more of the crowd behind, as people headed for their homes, for inns, and for taverns. When they reached the palace, Iphicles asked, "Want to see the courtyard?"

"Sure," said Xena. They entered the courtyard through the great hall, and the scent of flowers immediately enveloped them. Light streamed into the courtyard from torches in the surrounding corridors, and from the ghostly rising moon.

The pair walked slowly along the pathways, hands loosely clasped.

"So, what did you think?" asked Xena.

Iphicles laughed ruefully. "I always used to be so jealous of Herk," he admitted. "The big hero, the guy who got all the attention. I never thought that people might treat him like a freak."

"Yeah," said Xena. "I could've lived without the chorus lecturing about blind obedience to the gods, but it was a good play."

"Makes you think, doesn't it?" said Iphicles as they strolled around a bed of roses. "When a strange guy shows up in town and tells you he's a new god, do you believe him, and risk making an idiot out of yourself, or do you tell him to get lost, and risk being blasted down for it?"

Xena laughed in delight at this blunt assessment.

"But people love that kind of thing," said Iphicles. "Almost every play I've seen has said pretty much the same thing: the gods have your life all planned out for you, and if you try to buck the system, it's just going to land on your head harder than it would've the first time."

"Do you believe it?" asked Xena with a wicked smile.

"No," laughed Iphicles. "Well, maybe they have general plans for us, but we still have to do the work. Otherwise, you'd sit around all day doing nothing. Why bother trying to accomplish anything, if the gods've already made up their minds?"

"Good point," said Xena, giving his hand a squeeze.

"What about you?" asked Iphicles. "You looked like you'd bitten a lemon every time the chorus started in about the glories of Dionysus."

"I think we make our own fate," said Xena. "Life is whatever you make it out to be. Most gods I've run into would love you to believe they control every moment of your existence, but I don't think it's true at all."

"Do you deal with them?" asked Iphicles.

"More than I want to," said Xena. "Including Bacchus."

"Is he anything like Stavros?" Iphicles jested.

"No, he looks like a big red turnip with horns."

The king almost fell over laughing. "That's rich," he said. They stared at each other for a moment with big, dopey grins. Abruptly, they looked away and continued walking.

"It's funny," said Iphicles. "The first fight I think I ever got into was with some bully who told me my mother was a whore."

"He deserved it, then," said Xena.

"Yeah, I got a lot of that," sighed Iphicles. "They called Herk a bastard, said my mother couldn't wait for my father to come home, all the usual stuff kids will say to torment you. It's the first thing I resented Herk for: I got picked on because of him."

Xena laughed.

"Then it came out he was the son of Zeus, and people backed off." Iphicles laughed. "But he still got all the attention, so I still resented him. Took me a long time to get over it," the king admitted sheepishly.

"It's human," said Xena. "Especially when you're young, it's hard not to resent being overlooked. Everyone wants to feel special."

"I could never see it then, but the attention is the last thing Herk's ever wanted," said Iphicles. "He just wants to be ordinary. When I married Rena, I think I realized for the first time he envied me."

Xena smiled.

"What about you?" asked Iphicles. "Do you have brothers and sisters?"

"Two brothers," said Xena. "My older brother Torris was the independent one-- he'd always be off with his group of friends. I was the troublemaker. But we all doted on my younger brother, Lyceus." Xena's voice grew soft with reminiscence. "Maybe because he was the youngest, we all wanted to protect him."

Iphicles must have heard something in her voice, because he tightened his hold on her hand. "What happened to him?"

"He died trying to help me defend Amphipolis from a raiding warlord," said Xena. "That was my first battle, and he was my first loss."

"Gods," said Iphicles. "How old were you?"

"I was seventeen, Lyceus was sixteen."

The king stared at her. "That young?" he asked.

"Yeah. I first picked up a sword when I was thirteen," Xena recalled. "I was one of the biggest, strongest kids in the town. It came naturally to me. I started teaching Lyceus. It was all a game at first, but..." she trailed off, seeing her life since that day, one long battle, a perpetual struggle to kill and avoid being killed.

Iphicles hadn't released her hand.

"It's like a chain," she said after a while. "All those dead souls are like one long chain on me."

"But every time you help someone, you cut off a link," Iphicles argued.

The warrior exhaled in a gusty sigh. "You sound like Gabrielle," she said. "I can never bring back the people I killed, Iphicles."

"No, but you can keep others from being hurt," said Iphicles. "And you're doing what so few people do: you've apologized and made amends." The king looked away. "When Rena died, a lot of men suffered because I wanted someone to blame." Iphicles looked back at Xena. "Sixteen men died because of me, including Herk's friend Ajax, who threw himself to a sand shark to save my life." Xena could hear the bitterness in his voice. "I wasn't worth it."

Xena felt her stomach sink. Quietly, she said, "I didn't realize there were that many."

"Three of them were beaten to death by guards," said Iphicles, as if he had the grim statistics memorized, etched into his mind forever. "Six of them got killed by sand sharks when they tried to escape the prison. The rest of them starved to death."

Xena tightened her hand around his. She didn't know what to say. Sixteen men, none of whom Iphicles had killed directly, seemed a grain of sand compared to the thousands of dead Xena had left strewn in her wake. But those sixteen deaths would weigh no less heavily on the king's shoulders.

"So, I did what you do," said Iphicles tiredly. "I apologized, I made amends. I do anything I can to help my people." He looked around the courtyard. "I'm here to protect them."

"You're doing a good job," said Xena. "People wouldn't be moving to Corinth in droves if you weren't." She searched for the right words. "I know this is easier said than done, but you have to forgive yourself sooner or later. Guilt has a way of turning into self-pity if you're not careful. And if you spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself, you might overlook someone who needs your help."

"Yeah," said Iphicles. They stopped walking and turned to each other. "Have you?" he asked. "Forgiven yourself?"

"For some things." Xena looked troubled. "Not others."

"Herk told me I wanted someone to blame," said the king. "You told me not to blame myself for things I didn't do." Iphicles managed a smile. "I've been trying to find the middle ground."

"Peace," Xena told him. "You'll find your way to peace if you remember both my advice and your brother's. But it's such a long road."

Iphicles reached out and began stroking her face. "Not so long when there's someone with you," he said.

"Yeah," said Xena. She stepped forward and give him a soft kiss on the mouth. Iphicles hesitated, then put his hands awkwardly on her shoulders. They kissed again, then again. Iphicles dropped his hands and slid his arms around Xena's waist. Xena put her own arms around his shoulders and drew him closer.

"I'm so glad you came back," Iphicles whispered. He kissed Xena's ear, then her neck. "I've thought about you, almost every day."

They kissed again. This time, Xena opened her mouth and allowed Iphicles to explore with his tongue. He tasted wonderfully of wine. Xena loved his warm, earthy scent; it brought to her mind thoughts of freedom and the outdoors and sunshine.

A breeze gusted through the courtyard, carrying with it the fragrance of flowers. Xena felt light-headed and weak at the knees. She pushed her fingers through the king's hair, mindful not to knock off his crown. She could feel his hands moving slowly up and down her back. Xena caressed Iphicles likewise, imagining how the skin beneath his leather tunic would feel.

At last they parted for air. Iphicles nuzzled Xena's face, lightly kissing her forehead and eyebrows with his open mouth. Warm air gusted over them again, almost, Xena thought dreamily, like a feathered fan being waved from across the courtyard. Such a beautiful night, she thought, and such wonderful company to share it with her.

They kissed again with more intensity. Xena realized she wanted Iphicles, the first time she'd really desired a man since Marcus died. When they parted again, she could see the hungry expression on the king's face, and the questioning look in his eyes.

"Here?" she teased, softly brushing her mouth across his. "The roses are little thorny, don't you think?"

"I have a perfectly comfortable bed upstairs," said Iphicles with a laugh. He pulled Xena to him, holding her tightly. "And I've spent too many nights in it by myself," he added hoarsely.

They kissed once more, and Iphicles took Xena by the hand, leading her back through the courtyard to one of the torchlit corridors. This passage would, Xena knew, lead to the stairway to the king's rooms. There, they would have the luxury of privacy and a locked door.

Xena suddenly stopped short, all thoughts of passion briefly forgotten. "What was that?" she said.

"What's what?" asked Iphicles.

"That noise." Xena turned toward the front of the palace. Iphicles heard it then, an audible commotion. And it kept growing louder.

"Come on," said Iphicles reluctantly, taking Xena's hand. "Let's get this straightened out now, and get it over with." He kissed her fingers, throwing her a lopsided smile. "Whatever's going on, it'd better be good, or I'll have their hides."

They rounded the corner, hurried through the darkened great hall, and down a short corridor into the main receiving area of the palace, where visitors normally waited for an audience with the king.

About a dozen guards scuffled, dragging a reluctant form with them. Several more guards reverently carried a shrouded body on their shoulders.

"Eumelus!" Iphicles bellowed, causing everyone to fall silent at once. "What in Hades is going on in here?"

"Your majesty." The king's lieutenant gingerly held a bloodied dagger in one hand. With his free hand, he gestured to the subdued miscreant who'd been pushed down to the floor. "That man is guilty of murder! We found him in an alley with this--" he held up the knife-- "in his hand."

Iphicles sprang over to the shrouded body and drew back the sheet. Xena heard him curse.

"It's Stavros," he said.

"The actor?" Xena's voice registered her astonishment. But her incredulity grew when she turned to look at the prisoner the king's men guarded so jealously. Xena pushed the soldiers aside and stared down into the dark eyes and defiant face of Joxer.

Continued in Blood Loyalty, Part II.

Listings of works by E.A. Week Fan Fiction
Return to the Fan Fiction area