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Conquering the Conqueror
General Disclaimer: You already know they arent mine. Im not doing this for money, only for adoring emails ( email@example.com for those of you who want to start adoring now). I do thank Renaissance et al., the producers and everyone involved for inventing such wonderful women for us to admire, lust after and respect. I also thank LL and the ROC for just being. Theyre a pair of stunning actresses who brought life and love to a couple of worthy characters.
Subtext Disclaimers: Well, it wouldnt be X:WP if there wasnt sexual ambiguity, but as things go along, sex gets less ambiguous. In fact, it gets decidedly lesbian. I think Aphrodite would, like, approve.
Violence Disclaimer: See Missy Good.
Language Disclaimer: There are some good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon swear words in this chapter...and probably will continue to be as long as warriors are warriors and Xena is the Warrior Princess. When she reforms into Xena, Librarian Princess, then maybe... Oh, and Darphus is too dumb to think in more than one or two syllable words, so all the Anglo-Saxonisms fit in his vocabulary.
Most of the nastier insults are in Ancient Greek. If youre fluent in that dialect, I apologize for the graphic nature of the vocabulary. If youre not fluent, dont ask for translations: my mother would wash my mouth out with soap.
If youre REALLY curious, try Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson. Its a great book and not just for giving me Ancient Greek curse words. It would amaze you to learn what the Greeks would have thought of our wandering duo...and Xenas love of fishing.
Grammar Disclaimer: I marked myself down to a B+ for that laying/lying verb error at the end of Chapter 6.
The cause is hidden, but the result is known.
Ovid Metamorphases IV
Gabrielle slowly became aware of heat. Sunlight, she identified hazily, seeing the dull red of the inside of her own eyelids. Hot. She remembered being chilled at one point and cuddling deeper under the silken sheets and coverlet, seeking out the furnace-like heat she sensed there, but now she was definitely too hot. Too hot. She tried to kick the covers off, only to groan when she was forceably reminded that her legs were broken.
She struck out with her arms instead, throwing the weight of silk off her, and hit something solid next to her. It was warm, too, and she traced her hand over it, trying to figure out how whatever it was got into her bed during the night. Last night. Something important, her brain provided a cascade of images to fill in the missing information. Gabrielle began ordering the scenes. Last night... window... darkness moving against the dark...strangling fear and danger... sudden light and...Xena.
Gabrielles eyes popped open. The canopy above her was the familiar one which shed studied so intently over the last three days, she noted with a tinge of... disappointment? And the object shed hit with her arms was a pillow, turned lengthwise in the bed and tucked against her side. She knew somehow shed been clutching it to her earlier. How did I get back in my own bed? Logic tried to reassert itself in the bards sleepy mind. She knew that shed spent at least part of the night in the Conquerors bed. She recalled the feel of those strong arms carrying her yet again and the inability-- for her a momentous thing-- to think of a single thing to say. Shed simply lain in those arms and looked at the regal profile above her, memorizing the arch of brow, the curve of lip, the length of dark lashes, in disbelieving silence. Then shed been enveloped in the light, spicy scent of Xenas sheets. Hyacinth, her senses had identified, and cinnamon and... Xena.
"I dont wear a sleep shift," the Conqueror had warned in that low tone that Gabrielle had begun to identify as somewhere between shy and apologetic.
The bard had nodded, looking away, feeling a flush climb her neck. Maybe a sleepless night in her own bed wouldnt have been so bad, after all. Xena put out the lamp and relaxed into the mattress beside her, but the embarassment kept Gabrielle rigid on her side of the bed. After a long moment, the Conqueror rolled closer, gathering the bard into a light embrace.
"Relax, Gabrielle. Everythings all right now," Xena said softly and a long, strong, but wonderfully gentle hand moved over to stroke the bards hair. "Try to sleep."
Warmth had radiated off Xenas form and Gabrielle, chilled with exhaustion and the remains of fear, had soaked it in, soothed by the rhythmic motion of Xenas hand on her hair. She knew she should explain that she wasnt scared anymore, that she didnt need Xena to hold her, that it was being in bed with the most beautiful naked warlord in the world that... She drifted off with her cheek against a smooth, muscled shoulder.
Now, she remembered being lifted again, leaving behind the soft, scented darkness of Xenas bed, and the floating feeling of being carried, then the rich contralto comfort of that voice, tenderly easing her back to her dreams. Her arms had wrapped around a silk-clad form, she recalled. She looked at the pillow again. It was one of the ones from the Conquerors bed and Gabrielle drew it to her to inhale that faint, intimate scent.
Xena, the young blonde thought, realizing the scent of hyacinth would always bring to mind blue eyes. I wonder where she is this morning. She raised herself to look toward the connecting door. It was open and beyond it, the Conquerors chamber door showed light.
"Xena?" she called, but there was no answer, and she lay back, letting her mind return to the whole story of last evening.
Thank the gods she was there, was the bards first thought. Gabrielle had been certain that the Conqueror was out because of the silence in the other chamber, but when the danger had approached, she couldnt still her cry for Xena. And Xena had swept into the room like an avenging goddess or a hero out of the old stories before the sound of the shout had died. The Conqueror had risked her own life against an armed assassin to rescue the bard. She saved my life, Gabrielle felt a glow of wonder and gratitude. Shes a hero.
She grinned as she imagined the Conquerors reaction to that title.
"Youre romanticizing again, bard," shed gruff out, giving Gabrielle that half-irritated, half-baffled look.
It made Gabrielle chuckle to think of it. Xena had difficulty accepting compliments, even if they were true. The warlord actually didnt do any sort of conversation very well. It wasnt that Xena wasnt witty and charming when she tried, but rather that she seemed out of practice. Its almost as if shes been living away from people for a long time, Gabrielle decided with sudden insight. She doesnt know or recall quite how to talk or laugh.
And as she thought of it, the bard realized it was entirely true. Xena didnt have many people around her. She issued orders or discussed plans or strategies, but she didnt have conversations. No one contradicted or questioned her, and no one, at least in the bards presence, had come closer to her than arms length.
No one except me, Gabrielle corrected herself. I threw myself into her arms, and her bed, last night. She blushed as she recalled it, but she didnt feel ashamed or particularly embarassed. She had known instinctively that Xena would banish the fear just as she had overcome the physical danger, and Gabrielle had felt extremely safe-- little wonder-- and incredibly comforted, held in those warm arms. The dark, menacing warlord had vanished at the first sign of tears, and in her place appeared a gentle, tender-hearted friend.
"Ive got you..." the husky voice promised sincerely. "No ones gonna hurt you now."
Xena had clearly been out of her depth, awkward and uncertain, as Gabrielle had seen her in conversations that didnt go the way the Conqueror expected; yet, Xena had responded despite her unease. Perhaps that was another form of heroism, Gabrielle pondered, doing what scared you, even though it scared you. She wondered what the Conqueror would say to that and found that she wanted to discuss the whole idea with Xena, hear the older womans opinion on heroism and what made a hero.
She should know: shes a hero herself, Gabrielle reasoned. Of course, Ill have to convince her of that first. She found she looked forward to the task.
Gabrielle might have been surprised to learn exactly how far away the Conqueror actually was. In the cool hour following sunrise, Xena had transferred her sleeping charge to the other bedroom and donned leather pants and a light tunic, carrying a heavier, imperial-vermilion cloak. The kitchen staff had fallen over themselves gathering bread, meat, water, and fruit for a travelers breakfast, and, taking her knapsack, the Conqueror had gone to the stables and saddled Argo herself. Nearly alone in the city streets, she guided the big mare past the city gates and up a rarely used track into the hills.
She was going to brood. She acknowledged it because she was used to being brutally honest with herself, but, therefore, she also had to admit that unlike other people who brooded about what they were feeling-- rationalizing guilt, repressing anger, sublimating lust-- Xena was brooding that she was feeling.
Emotion had no place in the world the Conqueror had constructed for herself. Shed learned after Lao Ma and Borias that emotion interfered with action and distracted one from the goal. Lao Mas concern for her son had cost her an empire: Xena now controlled the land of Chin, with Lao Ma serving her as regent, when the roles could so easily have been reversed. Borias had lost his edge as a warlord because of his love of the Conqueror herself and the child theyd made together. She recalled taunting him for his weakness hours before he died.
With those examples constantly before her, the Conqueror had worked at divorcing herself from her feelings, tamping them down, keeping them under control with will and the concentration techniques taught her for totally different purposes by Lao Ma. If she wanted to own the world, she couldnt let anyone touch her emotions again.
The process had only been hastened by all that occurred on that cold night above Corinth when Borias had died betraying her and Solan had lived an entire lifetime in a single hour in her arms. Her emotions had simply ended, she sometimes thought, as she handed the centaur Kaliepus the entire contents of her heart, wrapped in the softest blanket she could find and bundled against the chill.
"Take this child..." shed pleaded. "Hes my son and Borias...If he stays with me, hell become a target for all those who hate me. Hell learn things a child shouldnt know. Hell become like me."
Like the mothers milk her body had produced for her son, many of her emotions had dried up when she gave him away. Yet, was it possible that her breast still ached after fifteen years? She remembered the retching sickness that had driven her to her knees in this very forest as shed left behind the centaur and her heart, her Solan. The body has its own memory and its own way of dealing with emotion.
"Gods, Im getting as philosophical as that damn bard," she grunted, shaking herself free from the past.
The warlord swung down from her mare and tethered the palomino in the shade. She took her knapsack and moved to sit on a stony outcropping a little deeper in the grove. It didnt surprise her that shed guided Argo to the very spot she was thinking of. A private ritual like her annual sacrifice to honor Lyceuss death, she visited the grove at least once whenever she was in Corinth. How these trees have grown, she thought as she assembled a sandwich. But with an effort of will, she turned her thoughts away from that night and to her present situation. The problem shed come to debate with herself was tied directly to these sudden waves of swamping remembrance and feeling she found herself experiencing.
It all began with that vision of Gabrielle on the cross, she reconstructed logically. Until I saw her, I was in complete control of everything: my thoughts, my feelings, my nightmares were my own. The vision and her subsequent rescue of Gabrielle yielded to no logic, no analysis. Xena had acted from nothing but visceral emotion so deep and so sudden it swept away all her practiced control. No conventional Grecian magic, spell or potion could have caused that. The Conqueror had pondered some foreign intervention, but Autolycus local spies had discovered nothing in the bards recent past more outlandish than a penchant for shopping. That left only two possible sources for the vision: the gods and Xena herself.
Which god watches over bards? Apollo? The Conqueror wondered sarcastically. Why would he intervene so drastically in my life after I spared Gabrielle?
It felt like her well-ordered, highly disciplined life had spun out of control from the moment shed laid eyes on the pale-haired Poteidaean. I saved her from a public execution I ordered. I installed her in the bedroom next to mine. I shared my meals with her, carrying her to and fro like her bodyservant. Im seeing visions and having nightnmares. I allowed an assassin to get as close as the second bedroom in my suite. And somewhere, somehow, along the way, Ive come to actually care about what happens to this naive, intelligent, funny woman.
The Conqueror snorted derisively and threw her apple core to Argo. The mare nickered, offended that it wasnt a whole apple, but she ate it. Xena grinned a little. Perhaps it was just stating it all outright, but she felt somewhat better. The chaos that seemed to envelope her looked more manageable laid out before her and the strategist-cum-organizer within the Conqueror began problem-solving almost immediately.
The vision could remain a mystery for the time being, but the bard definitely needed protection from whoever was trying to kill her and time to heal from the cross. The best place for her was precisely where she was-- under the Conquerors watchful eye. Maybe during that intervening period, Xena would figure out where the vision of Gabrielle on the cross had come from. Tracing the plot, which now included one attempted murder, back to its originators made up her second priority, and the Conqueror paused a moment to acknowledge the sudden shift.
Before three days ago, finding the conspirators would have been her first act, and she would have turned Corinth into a cowering, wretched mass of beaten collaborators in her own mind and, soon enough, in reality. Why didnt she have her goon squads out harassing the populace into giving up the "Rexel" mentioned by Gabrielles lovesick arsonist? Why wasnt the Chinese assassins head being paraded through town for potential witnesses to view and identify? These steps had worked before and would get results, even in this most unruly of her city states. But she knew what stopped her.
"Dont kill him, Xena." That sweet, soft voice had pleaded for the man whod tried to kill her and then forgiven the man whod caused her public judging. "He was a good person... he didnt deserve to die that way."
Good people die all the time, the dark heart of the Conqueror argued bitterly angry. Life doesnt differentiate. My brother, my Lyceus, was the best of men, or would have been if hed been allowed to live to manhood.
The observer, the emotionless, detached persona that Xena had created to keep control of her heart and mind, seized on this emotional outburst. Thats so typical of the last few days, she pointed out to herself. Every emotion seems perilously close to the surface, ready to burst the bounds at any moment. Shed cried after the nightmare, and the Conqueror had to admit she couldnt recall the last time something had moved her to tears. Shed laughed at Gabrielles stories until her jaws had ached and she knew it was because she so seldom relaxed enough to laugh. Shed been angrier, sadder, more amused, and more frustrated since Gabrielles loving green gaze had met hers in that horrifying scene of the cross.
Can one moment-- one totally imaginary moment-- change a life so completely? She pondered, thinking back over the moments of change, the breaking points, in her life heretofore: Lyceus, Caesar, MLila, Lao Ma, Alti, Borias. At each moment, her path had split, her direction had changed. Each had been a choice made in the heat of the moment, without forethought, nothing cold or calculated, and many of those choices she had come to grieve and to despise.
This choice, pulling Gabrielle from the cross, didnt seem to hold the same urgency as those others, at least on the surface. She held the power of life and death over all her subjects; saving one convict wasnt an empire-shaking decision. And the girl certainly posed no threat to the Conqueror. Gabrielle wasnt likely to raise an army to usurp a province or kill Xena in open combat. Yet, something about it all unsettled the Conqueror deeply. What if Ive begun some inexorable process that will lead to my downfall? She asked herself superstituously.
She wasnt afraid of dying; she knew she owed Hades a death, but she wondered if she could handle living if she wasnt the Conqueror. Who would I be if I werent the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations, the Ruler of the Known World? Who would Xena of Amphipolis be without all her titles? A dark and brooding warrior facing the sins of her past without the trappings of power to protect and insulate her? A woman dealing with her own culpability and the losses shes inflicted on herself?
She wondered, too, why those ideas didnt scare her as much as they used to and thought once more of the vision of the cross. She-- the she in the vision-- had accepted her own failure, had felt the scalding burn of guilt and fear, had borne the burden of bad choices and past mistakes, and yet she had received the gift of love-- soul-shakingly deep love-- from the phantom Gabrielle. What if this is the step that leads me to that end? The Conqueror asked herself.
For the time being at least, there was no response.
"I swear to Ares, that little choirions put a spell on her!"
Darphuss announcement emerged in a lull of conversation and hung over the noise of the dining hall, drawing quite a bit of attention to the conversation taking place at the commanders table. Palaemon and his second Nevon, he of the Conqueror-broken arm, had come in early and claimed the seats nearest the throne dias, but Marstevius and Garnon, two of Darphuss squad had plopped down across from them and then Darphus had joined them. The conversation had quickly turned to veiled taunts and insubordinate remarks about the Conqueror, as if Darphus were daring Palaemon to report him to Xena.
Someone at the table behind Palaemon laughed and answered the accusation. "Hades, Darphus, the little slags got two broken legs."
Darphus grinned, his eyes on Palaemons. "Like thatd stop the Queen of Tartarus?"
There was general laughter to that remark, and Palaemon, realizing how badly outnumbered he and Nevon were, clenched his fists to keep from leaping at Darphuss throat.
"Shes not some little flute girl that Xenas got the hots for," he objected.
"Oh, no..." Darphus agreed expansively, then snarled. "Shes a known insurrectionist, tried and convicted. Ive never seen Her Imperial Bitchness go to so much trouble over a whore."
"Shut your stinking mouth, Darphus," Palaemon growled.
"Whatsa matter, smart boy?" the Captain of the Guard taunted. "Arent you worried the little blonde pornes gonna take your place in the Conquerors stable?"
Palaemon glared at him. "Gabrielles not a whore and Ive never wanted a place in the Conquerors bed, you know that."
"Oh, no, you just want to be the best security chief you can be," Darphus mocked in pseudo-sincere tone. "Is it true the pornes still sharing Xenas suite?"
"I heard shes a bard," Nevon put in, having listened to Palaemons gossip about his dinner with Xena.
"Bard, flute girl, ground beater," Darphus made a sour face, "it doesnt matter what the pimp is calling her this week. I just cant believe Xena pulled her off the cross and supposedly installed her in the imperial bedroom. Either shed cast some spell on the Conqueror or Xenas getting soft as a fishs belly."
Palaemon fixed his gaze on the reddened face and rotting teeth of his arch-rival. "The Conqueror didnt look soft yesterday when she nearly took your sword hand," he pointed out in a deceptively soft tone.
A collective breath was drawn and held. Bloodshed had been a distinct possibility since the conversation was joined, but it had never been closer to reality than that moment. The silence stretched until it stilled nearly every conversation in the room, but Darphus chose to back down, content that his day of triumph was drawing ever near.
"No one doubts her fighting, but to flaunt the rule of law-- her own law-- may raise some questions. And not just among her troops."
Palaemon narrowed his eyes. The stink of complacent treason and self-serving piety that rose from Darphus nearly choked him, and when he thought about how frightened and how brave Gabrielle had been in the face of Darphuss assassin, he wanted to kill the man himself. "The Conquerors will is the law, as it always has been," he warned Darphus with his tone rather than his words.
"You never answered my question, smart boy," Darphus sneered. "Is the little bard still in the Conquerors suite?"
"Yeah, why?" Palaemon dared him to go on.
"Heard you had a little incident last night," Darphus stressed the word as if to imply Palaemon himself had had a part in it.
"Two sentries got stuck," Palaemon shrugged nonchalantly.
"Two sentries," Darphus looked around at his audience, gathering support for another push against the blond security chiefs temper. "That dont look too good for you, smart boy. TC know?"
"Yeah." Palaemon recalled Xenas orders about making the one whod lost the assassin ask a lot of questions in order to find him again. He also remembered seeing Xena backhand Darphus for calling her "TC." It made him grin.
"And youre still alive and security chief?"
Palaemon shrugged again, looking at his plate to keep the grin from becoming a laugh. "Looked like it was a robbery."
"A robbery on palace grounds," the Captains tone said what he thought of that explanation.
"I didnt say where the sentries were killed," Palaemon pinned Darphuss murky hazel eyes with a bright blue gaze.
The elder officers expression didnt alter. "I heard they were on the grounds."
"You heard wrong," Palaemon lied, keeping to Xenas plan. "They were wall guards."
"Whatd TC say to do about it?"
Palaemon shrugged a third time. "She handed it off to Autolycus. Said he could find out who robbed them."
Darphus flushed. "I hate that fucking thief," he bit out. "If there was ever a man needed a knife decorating his back..."
"You better keep that talk down, Darph," Garnon murmured, casting a nervous look around and making the sign against the evil eye. "He has ears everywhere."
"Yeah, Darphus," Palaemons tone was pure malice. "You dont want to end up in Autolycuss little game room."
"Thats where that porne bard would end up if I had my way," Darphus threatened. "Then wed find out what she can do that makes her so special to the Conqueror."
That got another round of laughter that halted abruptly as Palaemon seized his dagger from the table and rose. Darphus was halfway out of his seat before Palaemon sheathed the blade in his belt. "I have duties to attend to," the younger man smiled. "You must excuse me."
Darphus subsided into his chair, giving Palaemon a hated-filled glare. "Be careful out there, smart boy. Dont want you getting stuck like one of those guards last night."
"Im not worried," Palaemons smile never faltered. He turned and sauntered out of the dining hall without a look back.
"Ten-shun!" Palaemon called his squad to attention as Argo trotted into the compound. The men dropped the staffs theyd been practicing with and snapped into rigid files, eyes forward, shoulders thrown back. The Conqueror eyed them a moment from her relaxed seat atop the big mare, then tossed the reins to the waiting stableboy and slid down.
"Good girl," she whispered to Argo, giving her a pat, and turned her attention to the men once more. "As you were," she ordered coolly. "Walk with me, oh security chief."
Palaemon knew where shed been; it was his job, after all, to watch over her security, but past experience had taught that one didnt follow the Conqueror into the hills above Corinth. Shed killed her last security chief for just such an invasion of her privacy, and the Guard knew that those trips to the hills usually meant a reappearance of the icy, demanding Destroyer of Nations. Palaemon found himself unable to determine whether that was who he faced now.
From the Conquerors flat tone, the present security chief wondered if he was about to meet the same end as his predecessor. Her body language never offered much clue, since Palaemon himself had once seen her strike off a messengers head between footfalls without her expression or stride altering. Palaemon knew guilt for the assassins entry into the palace fell entirely upon his shoulders, but the Conqueror hadnt seemed angry with him last night. Had her trip to the hills changed that? Surrendering himself to the fates, he fell into step alongside the raven-haired warlord.
"Last night must never happen again," she stated without preamble, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Her eyes remained bent on the ground they traversed. "Has anything been said this morning?"
"Darphus has heard, but doesnt have all the details. He asked about it this morning in mess hall."
"Anything I need to know," Xenas footsteps halted, but she didnt lift her eyes.
Palaemon shook his head, then realized she couldnt see him. "No."
"You dont sound very positive."
"He was spouting off about Gabrielle and... and you."
"What about Gabrielle?" her eyes, brilliant and vivid as the summer sea, stunned him with their intensity of color and expression.
"He-- uh, he was implying that Gabrielle was a... a hetaera," Palaemon gulped against the image of that other messenger, beheaded for his message.
"My hetaera," the Conqueror clarified for herself, eyes now distant, considering. "It might be just as well..." she muttered.
Palaemon gave her silence in which to think. He saw where her thoughts were going and found he had to agree with her reasoning. To touch the Conquerors favored-- be it persons, slaves, horses, or property-- was instantaneous death; no trial, no public judgement. If everyone thought Gabrielle Xenas hetaera-- her companion, her friend, with the whole mountain of connotations that went with each of those euphemisms-- then no one would think of harming her. Of course, the damage it might do to Gabrielles reputation was something to consider.
"No," Xena shook her head finally. "Make sure that rumor is quashed. I think Gabrielle has had enough damage done to her without adding that accusation to her name. And her being my hetaera or even my concubine wont stop whoevers behind this. In fact, it might even add to his desire to kill her."
"Yes, Conqueror." Palaemon agreed softly, pleased that she was explaining her decision. It implied a trust hed feared lost.
"I have an assignment for you, Palaemon," Xena said, glancing around to make certain that they werent within hearing distance of anyone on the compound. "I am going to have to make a state visit to Egypt. This is not to be repeated, but there are some rumors about the alliance and I think that my presence there can...allay them." She looked at him carefully, nodding slightly when she saw he understood she meant more than she was saying. "I need someone here to watch over Gabrielle, someone I can trust with her life, because I dont think this is the only attempt they will make."
The security chief was torn. He knew Egypt was probably a ploy, and that the Imperial Guard would see action with the Conqueror wherever she was headed; however, he also knew that Xena never forgot a special service done for her. His ambition agonized over which placement would be most advantageous, even as his pride swelled that the Conqueror trusted him to protect the bard even after the mistakes made last night.
"I would be honored to accept that position, Your Majesty," he bowed deeply.
A devilish grin curled the Conquerors mouth. "Did I say I wanted you to do the job?" she teased, then relented. "That was a tough choice, eh, Palaemon?"
He nodded, deciding subterfuge was wasted with Xena. "Id love to be going with you."
"Ill remember what youve done for me and for Gabrielle," the Conquerors gaze was straightforward and serious. "Shes an innocent who doesnt deserve to be caught up in whats going on. She needs your help."
"She is an insurrectionist, Your Majesty," the security chief felt compelled to remind her.
"The charges were false. She should never have been held in judgement and she certainly should have never been crucified," Xena informed him and realized it was the first time shed openly admitted her imperial justice system had made a mistake. In an odd way, she felt as if a burden had been lifted with the admission. But could I make the same admission to Gabrielle, the victim herself?
"Ill do everything in my power to protect her, Conqueror." Palaemon promised.
"See that you do, Palaemon," Xena nodded. "See that you do."
"Conqueror!" the door to the council chamber burst inward, and Xena was on her feet before it rebounded off the wall. Palaemon, assisted by Decimus, one of Autolycus men, and trailed by the chief spy himself, dragged a bound, gagged, and bloodied figure through the door. The representatives of the Corinth Merchants Guild, with whom the Conqueror had been haggling over trading rights with Chin, squawked like a flock of terrorized chickens and jumped belatedly to their feet as well.
"This had better be good," the Conqueror muttered, seeing the chaos begin, and strode down from her dias to meet the knot of men.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded, thinking rather hysterically that she sounded like every outraged ruler in every bad bards tale shed ever heard. Focus, Xena, she ordered herself.
"They found him!" Palaemon exclaimed, but Autolycus stepped forward with that insouciant air of his and interrupted the enthusiasm.
"My men were able to locate the Rexel mentioned by the arsonist," Autolycus explained, gesturing to the man held by Decimus and Palaemon with a smirk. "Interestingly enough, he was packing to leave Corinth. A sick relative in Pireaus."
The flickering smile that crossed the Conquerors face was unpleasantly raptorial. "Get out," she ordered the Merchants Guildsmen, not sparing them a glance as they hastily obeyed. "Palaemon, fetch the bard."
"Ive sent for the assassin," Autolycus reported to the Conqueror. "Ive been... talking... to him and Im pretty sure hell give up whoever was behind his hiring."
"Good," Xena murmured. "Maybe now well get to the bottom of this mess."
Decimus kicked the bound mans legs out from under him at the Conquerors nod, and he settled into a heap at her feet. His wide, staring eyes never left the raven-haired warlord and the stench of his fear was palpable in the cool air of the hall.
"Did he resist?" she asked, the low, growling tone raising the hairs on all three mens arms.
"Yes," Autolycus responded. "But not nearly as much as I expected. I get the impression he thinks this is all a misunderstanding."
Xena stalked around the man, her boots silent on the marble floor. He was woefully ordinary, hence their difficulty in locating him more quickly, and he didnt have the look of a hirer of assassins. He looked nothing so much as an out of work blacksmith, with the pallid skin and brawny arms of a forgemaster. Xena was certain she had never laid eyes on him before, though he was obviously easily overlooked.
"Maybe it is. Well just see if the bard recognizes him," Xena made the explanation sound remarkably threatening. "In the meantime, get the gag off him and lets see what we can find out."
"Conqueror!" the door of the chamber flew open for a second time and Darphus entered, followed by two of his lieutenants.
The temperature in the room dropped several degrees.
"What are you doing here, Darphus?" The Conqueror questioned.
"I-- uh-- I heard they caught the killer of those two guards from last night," he extemporized lamely. "I came to see if I could be of any help."
"Palaemon and Autolycus have the situation under control," she assured him, with a stiff, false smile that never neared the glacial depths of her eyes.
"Well, Palaemon-- Palaemon seemed to be the cause of it in the first place, if you ask me," Darphus blustered.
"Which I didnt."
"I-- Im just worried for your safety, Conqueror," Darphus tried to summon a placating smile, but his lips were trembling too much. "I just wondered if youre sure you can trust him?"
"Trust... trust... Theres that word again," Xena taunted. "You know I trust no one and nothing, Darphus. But, why should I trust you over Palaemon?"
Darphus was saved from replying by Palaemons entrance with the bard cradled in his arms.
"Whats going on, Xena?" Gabrielle asked as soon as she was set down in a hastily arranged chair.
"Get the gag out of his mouth and unbind him," the Conqueror ignored the question. "Hes not going anywhere with all of us here."
Darphus started to protest, but Palaemon stepped forward and sliced away the sodden rag stifling the prisoners mouth.
"P-- Please..." he began to beg immediately. Palaemon bent to work his knife on the ropes binding Rexels hands behind him.
"Do you know this man, Gabrielle?" the Conqueror questioned.
Gabrielle concentrated on the bruise-reddened and the helpless eyes. "I-- Im not certain. What did he do?"
"Thats not important," Xena snapped, blue eyes boring into the girls face.. "Do you recall ever seeing him before?"
"I think I may have seen him..." Gabrielle hesitated and decided that the truth would have to be told. "At one of our meetings. One of the freedom fighters secret meetings. He-- he didnt say anything. He was vouched for by one of the others. I didnt talk to him, but I think his name is Rexel."
In that instant, as Xena and Gabrielle stared at one another, Palaemon stood, his eyes on the two women, and the prisoner whipped out with one newly freed arm and grabbed the dagger from Palaemons hand.
Several things happened at once. The Conqueror stepped between Gabrielle and the knife, taking a fighting stance without seeming to adjust her body in any way. Autolycus shouted something unintelligible and drew a throwing dagger from the concealed sheath at the nape of his neck. Palaemon grabbed for Rexels arm, but was knocked aside by Darphus, who leapt forward with a cry. Then Darphus knocked the dagger loose with a stunning blow to Rexels wrist and caught it out of the air. Xena was moving while the knife was in the air, but she was a heartbeat too late, and the next moment, the dagger was protruding from Rexels throat.
Darphus never saw the fist that sent him spinning away from the still-gasping corpse.
"You stupid son of a Bacchae," the Conqueror snarled, aiming a kick at the Guard Captains ribs. It lifted him nearly to his feet again, and he began to scramble away from the source of his sudden pain. "I wanted him alive!" The roar was that of a lioness frustrated in her kill. Another kick took the feet out from under Darphus, but he landed against the council table, a good twelve feet away, and propped himself upright again.
"He-- he was trying to kill you," Darphus mumbled around a broken tooth, then spat it out. "I was trying to save you."
"The fuck you were," Xena bit out, following him and landing another punch. Bloody saliva sprayed from his mouth, cut by her signet ring with the first blow. She drew back for another straight-from-the-shoulder jab.
"I swear it!" Darphus squealed, covering his head with both arms.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called out, her voice breaking. "Please... stop!"
The Conqueror, arm still raised to deliver the blow, turned at the sound of that voice, her dark brows drawing together in confusion. Her glorious, blinding rage, boiling over a second before, simmered now, cooled by Gabrielles plea. Xena felt suddenly lost without it. Darphus waited for a blow that didnt come, then sank to the floor beneath the table, breath sobbing from his broken nose.
"Dont," Gabrielle pleaded, tears standing in her eyes. "Please. I cant bear to watch you hit him anymore."
The Conqueror looked from Darphus to the girl. Those eyes, those eyes held nothing but hurt and fear, but they looked into the Conquerors soul with their green light. The rage that beat against her barriers night and day howled despairingly at the touch of that light. It was another turning point, if only Xena had recognized it.
"Take her out of here," the Conqueror ordered Palaemon icily and turned back to Darphus.
The Guard Captain covered his head once more and hoped it would end soon. He knew it wouldnt.
"No!" Gabrielle struggled against Palaemons embrace. "Xena! Stop it! You dont have to do this!"
"Palaemon," the Conqueror growled, grasping Darphuss hair and yanking him out from under the table, "get her the Tartarus outa here!"
Palaemon, balancing his burden carefully, made double time to the door, but Gabrielle, sobbing now, heard the heavy thud of blows begin again.
"Xena!" she cried, but the door closed behind them, cutting her off.
Life is one long struggle in the dark.
Lucretius, De rerum natura
The snow swirls around the squad as they mechanically go about their duties, their movements as measured and timed and ritualistic as a dance. I lay already on my cross; three men bind me to it. Two other legionnaires appear, carrying Gabrielle between them. They lay her down upon the execution tool.
Shes so lovely, so pure, I think, even here, even now. Or is it especially here, especially now?
When the soldiers move, I see that her eyes seek mine. I feel my heart in my throat as I meet those deep, green eyes from which I can hide so little. My beloved friend, I want to cry out, Ive led you to your death...
So much I feel for her... so much I should say...Yet, now words cant carry all the meaning I try to give her with my eyes, with the smile I summon from deep inside; the last pitiful gift I can give her, poor repayment for everything that she has given me.
"Youre the best thing in my life, Gabrielle..." I choke on the bitterness of failure and overwhelming love.
She smiles, wise and forgiving, "I love you, Xena...
The Conqueror lunged upright, sucking in huge lungfuls of air as she tried to get control of her body and her thoughts. She was shaking, nauseous, sickened by the scenes she had avoided, but knew would follow-- the nails entering those slender hands, pinning those delicate feet. She wrenched her mind away from the torment of it.
Gods damn it! she nearly cursed aloud, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes, bluring the darkness with bright sparks of light from the pressure. How much longer will I be plagued with this? How many more times will I have to see her... like that? A sob shook her long frame and she drew her knees up, hugging them to her mightily. What can it mean? She demanded of the silence in her mind. What can it portend? Who can tell me?
Compelled, Xena unfolded herself and rose, slipping through the intervening doors into the other half of the suite. The bed curtains werent drawn and the soft fall of moonlight from the window framed the beds occupant like a portrait. Xena shivered at the sleepers similarity to her dream. Gabrielle lay on her back, her face turned against her left shoulder, her left arm outflung, soft palm uppermost. The warlord knelt by the bedside, folding her arms and resting her chin on her forearms.
Did you cast a spell on me, little bard, or am I simply losing it? The ruler asked silently. She reached out, this woman who avoided personal contact with flinches and flashing eyes, and curled her hand into that smaller one. Have you come to teach me or to betray me? To love me or to hate me as you must have this afternoon?
Gabrielles forehead puckered as if she heard and was considering those unspoken questions. Xena grazed her thumb over the soft back of Gabrielles hand.
As Xena watched, Gabrielles eyes blinked open.
"Hello," the bard breathed, voice sleepy-soft. "Is it morning?"
"No. Its still three hours to dawn."
Gabrielle didnt move, just looked. "Couldnt sleep?"
"I had a dream... a nightmare."
"Sometimes it helps to talk about it," Gabrielles trusting expression probed gently at the violet-silver eyes of the Conqueror.
How can you look at me like that? Xena wondered. You saw who I am this afternoon.
"Why dont you tell me?"
"It was like the vision," Xena admitted.
"So, I was there."
"Yes. You and I." Xena fixed her gaze on the small hand in her grasp as she brushed it with cool fingertips. "A squad of soldiers, Roman, is crucifying the two of us. Its snowing. And you look at me and say that you...that you forgive me for not saving you."
Gabrielles fingers fluttered a little in Xenas, and instantly the larger hand withdrew, plucking at the sheets now. For once, the bard was at a loss as to what to say, so she reached out with the abandoned hand and touched Xenas wrist.
"Could you?" Xena finally whispered. "Could you....forgive me?"
"Yes," Gabrielle answered, closing her eyes on the vast relief she experienced in that most simple of responses. She felt free of a weight she hadnt known she carried. When she opened her eyes, Xena had gone.
When Gabrielle awoke the next morning, the Conqueror was gone-- gone from Corinth, gone from Greece entirely, heading south by ship to Alexandria and a meeting with Cleopatra and Ptolemy, co-regents of Egypt. Wan Li, who brought the news, knew little more and said the wind alone knew when the Conqueror would blow back into this small corner of the Empire.
Continued in Chapter 9
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