Gabrielle opened the door to a tall, hooded stranger.
"Yes?" she asked, a little warily. She could no longer
afford the trusting nature she had had in the years before she joined
the protest movement. It was too dangerous now.
A gloved hand drew back the hood, and Gabrielle's mouth fell open.
"Xena?" she gasped, forgetting the presumption of using the
Conqueror's given name.
"Can I come in?" Xena asked.
"Uh-- of course," Gabrielle stammered. She stepped back to
make way, then poked her head outside. No guards waiting to spring, so
far as she could see.
Xena surveyed her surroundings. This is where the scribe lived?
The young woman's entire home was confined to a square footage
considerably less than a single room in Xena's palace. A small wall
fireplace, crudely adapted for the makeshift quarters, but apparently
providing adequate ventilation, had no difficulty warming the tiny
space. Filling the entire west corner was a narrow bed, above which hung
a curtain that could be drawn for privacy. Rumpled sheets indicated that
the scribe had been awakened by the arrival of her early-morning
To Xena's immediate left was a three-drawer chest that apparently
contained all of the woman's clothes; at least Xena didn't see anything
else that could hold them. A washbasin rested atop the chest. No private
facilities, of course; she supposed the scribe had to wander down the
alley when the need arose.
Her inspection ended on two wooden chairs placed in close proximity
in front of the fireplace. For socializing -- or plotting -- the
ruler assumed; handmade pillows had been placed in the seats for extra
Gabrielle closed the door. "How did you know where I live?"
she asked. Xena arched an eyebrow, and Gabrielle grimaced.
"Oh." The ruler of most of the known world would have her
sources, she supposed. She wondered what else Xena knew about her.
"Um, please sit down, if you want." Why are you here?
Gabrielle wanted to scream, but instead she held her hand out for Xena's
cloak, taking the time to appreciate the remarkable garment. Dark wool,
silk lining, not really that heavy considering how thick it was.
Gabrielle ran a finger across the intricate gold stitching on the
sleeves. "This is beautiful," she said.
"You want one?" Xena asked casually.
"Oh,--" Gabrielle rolled her eyes, chuckling. "What am
I saying? Nevermind."
"Me with a coat like this? My friends" -- accomplices, Xena
translated -- "would think I'd gone over to the other side."
"Maybe they'd just think you have a wealthy lover," Xena
joked, a little surprised when the other woman seemed to take the remark
"Right," Gabrielle snorted. "Then they'd know
something was wrong."
Xena settled into one of the chairs, extending her long legs in front
of her toward the fireplace. This wasn't so bad, she decided; kind of
toasty. In a way, it reminded her of the days when she had led her army
in the field, instead of by proxy.
"Oh, yeah?" she said. "And why's that?"
Gabrielle didn't answer immediately, being preoccupied at the moment
with a quandary: The chairs were closer together than usual, having been
moved to facilitate sweeping and not yet returned to their original
positions. Should she leave her chair close to the Conqueror's, which
might be a little awkward, or move it farther away, which might be a
Her dilemma was resolved when Xena patted the other chair, impatient
for her host to make herself comfortable so that she might be
comfortable. It had been many years since Xena had ventured out on a
regular, non-royal, non-conquering visit, and it felt foreign enough as
"Why is that?" she repeated.
"Pardon?" Gabrielle had forgotten the question.
Xena hadn't. "Why wouldn't your friends believe you have a
Gabrielle studied her fingers, which seemed to be constructing some
sort of steeple, a slow blush rising up her throat. She didn't
particularly care to discuss her lack of opportunities in that sort of
thing. Everyone knew the Conqueror had never had that problem; she would
just laugh at her. 'The cause is first and only,' Gabrielle always
insisted. That was why she wasn't interested in any of the young men who
approached her, why she hadn't ever--
She glanced up to see Xena still waiting for an answer.
"Well," Gabrielle said, "I mean, it's just that I'm so
busy . . . ."
"Doing what?" Xena asked, smiling. As if I don't know.
She was kind of curious, though: How did one support herself by rabble
Gabrielle met her gaze. "Charity work," she replied, and
both women smiled.
"Is that enough to support you?" Xena asked.
Sensing that Xena really was interested, Gabrielle nodded, spreading
her hands to indicate their surroundings. "It's not exactly the lap
of luxury," she said, "but it's plenty for me."
"How . . . ?" Xena puffed out her cheeks, not sure how to
"How does charity work support me?"
"People . . . contribute," Gabrielle answered carefully.
"I get . . . enough for this room" -- she hoped Xena wouldn't
deduce from the comment that the room was donated -- "and food, and
some clothing." She pointed to the simple floor-length skirt she
"Nice," Xena acknowledged. And it was. Carefully cut and
stitched, but neither a color nor design that would accentuate the
scribe's natural beauty. No, something deep green would be better, Xena
thought, with a sharp V neckline. She imagined how striking Gabrielle
would look, then pictured her slovenly guards drooling over the same
sight. The fantasy neckline moved a few inches up the blonde woman's
Xena turned her face toward the fireplace, which crackled
satisfyingly. Folding her hands across her stomach, she noticed a small
square of parchment on the hearth, apparently the result of someone's
poor aim. She leaned over to pick it up, intending to toss it in the
flames, then brought it closer to examine it.
The scribe snatched at the paper, but Xena drew her hand out of reach
and continued to study the drawing. A tall woman with long dark hair,
royal dress, and sandaled feet; nothing out of the ordinary--except,
perhaps, the two prominent fangs protruding from the woman's mouth,
dripping some substance she assumed was supposed to be blood. The
blood of the people or some other tired cliche, she supposed.
Gabrielle couldn't read Xena's expression as she looked at Mica's
caricature, and a sense of dread began to set in. How could she have
forgotten for even an instant that this woman was the Conqueror?
Xena held up the sketch. "Did you draw this?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Not a good likeness." Xena tossed the drawing to the
floor, dismissing it, then directed her cool gaze at the scribe.
Gabrielle suspected that the warrior would honor some sort of truce
for her home, for tonight anyway, but it didn't matter; she could not
have resisted what she was about to do anyway. "I have a better
one," she said.
Narrowed blue eyes followed the scribe over to a writing table, where
she pulled open a drawer. Gabrielle rifled through a stack of loose
papers, pausing at the sudden realization that drafts of some of her
speeches were in there, parchment too precious a commodity to use only
one side. Casually, she shifted her body, positioning it between Xena
and the table, effectively concealing the contents from the Conqueror's
The young woman's movement, and its purpose, did not escape Xena's
attention, and she was tempted to storm over there, yank the drawer out
and empty its contents on the floor. For now, she remained in her seat.
The scribe had apparently found what she was looking for, and she
walked back holding out a slightly worn square of parchment. There, in
black and white, was a sketch of the Warrior Princess, astride a
magnificent palomino mare. Xena turned the paper over, squinting at some
long-faded words . . . flour, nuts . . . .
She flipped the paper over again. No date, no clues in the sparse
background. It could have been any valley.
"Potedaia," Gabrielle answered, and Xena's head jerked up.
The blonde woman was staring intently at a red weave on the fireplace
rug. "We heard you were coming, but some of us thought what we had
heard wasn't true," she said. The things they had said were
inhuman, too horrible to be true. "My sister and I sneaked up
the west hills, and I saw you with your men. On your horse."
Xena knew where this was headed, but waited for her to continue.
"Your army came the next day." Gabrielle closed her eyes.
"Potedaia isn't there any more." She reached for the sketch,
running her eyes across it unnecessarily--the image had been seared into
her memory those four long years ago. "My father and sister were
killed by one of your men. He ran them through with his sword, even
after my sister tried to surrender." The scene ran through
Gabrielle's mind, as painful as if she were witnessing it again at this
moment. "My mother was taken for the slavers," she continued
tonelessly. "I never saw her again."
She held out another parchment. Against her better judgment, Xena
found herself looking down at the head and shoulders of an older blonde
woman, below which was some intricate calligraphy. Hecuba
Gabrielle took back the drawing and carried both parchments to her
Xena stood and grabbed her cloak, fastening the clasps efficiently.
"Traitors against the realm will hang in the square," she
said, levelling an icy gaze at the scribe. "And all who
stand with them."
Gabrielle stared back at her, then nodded once at the declaration of
their mutual enmity. She held open the door, and her visitor stepped
outside into the harsh glare of the rising sun.
Xena strode away from the stone building, cursing herself for the
drunken impulse that had brought her to this hovel. A dozen or so mugs
of ale, tossed back between scuffles at familiar dives during the night,
had persuaded her that the traitorous mouse might prove interesting
company for a few minutes.
She scowled. She hadn't perceived the lateness of the hour, and now
she would have trouble getting into the castle unnoticed. She could get
past her own pathetic guards undetected, that much was certain, but
Ennaus would have been by already for a morning briefing. Although
ordinarily he knew better than to look behind the bedroom curtain, he
unquestionably would have done so when the ruler failed to acknowledge
his presence, if only to yell at him to go away.
She tucked the hood more snugly around her face, not nervous but
cognizant of the awkwardness of explaining her presence in this part of
the city. There were no soldiers' haunts here, nothing but run down
tenements and walled enclosures that people like her -- Xena's
lip curled -- pathetically called homes.
She rounded a corner and headed away from the castle.
Gabrielle hurriedly tossed another stack of papers in the fire. The
wooden box was now empty, save for two drawings: One a golden-haired
woman with loving green eyes, and one a fierce black-haired woman
astride a horse.
Gabrielle brought the first sketch to her lips, and replaced the
treasure gently in its container. The other drawing she held up longer.
A memory surfaced of two girls peering over the top of a hill, watching
a woman in dark leathers give orders to her men, and Gabrielle could
almost remember feeling . . . something, some fascination for
this woman who was unlike anyone she had ever seen before.
She hadn't been prepared. She always had quill and ink knotted into
her belt, but she didn't have any parchment with her, except for a new
recipe the blacksmith's wife had sent home for Hecuba.
Gabrielle had quickly unfolded the square, holding it flat with one
hand as the other moved swiftly across the page. Later that evening,
Lila had centered the parchment on their shared bedstand while Gabrielle
carefully placed a heavy sack of flour on it, working out how they might
wipe off the inked words from the back of their prize tomorrow.
Three days after the attack, when she regained consciousness at the
home of a stranger, the first of many who would show her kindness in the
following months, Gabrielle had found the drawing in her pocket. She
hadn't intended to keep it, but in her desperation to save her mother's
portrait from the flames, she had accidentally snatched both parchments.
Looking at it, Gabrielle had, without hesitation, known where she needed
to go: Corinth, where she would devote her life to destroying the
existence of the woman who had destroyed hers.
In some ways, Gabrielle mused, it was hard to reconcile the woman of
her illustration, a monster who stood by while her men sacked and burned
a grossly outmatched village, with the intelligent, at times engaging,
woman she had spent two evenings with, who had let her go for no other
reason than that she had been bested in a wager . . . .
Gabrielle stared at the drawing a while longer before dropping it
back into the box.
The Conqueror backhanded another challenger into oblivion, then
downed her prize in a single gulp. Suddenly the doors burst open, and
three of her Guard entered the darkened tavern.
About time. She had been waiting for them to 'find' her for
One of the men advanced, while his two colleagues hung back
nervously. Cowards, she cursed. They should rot in her dungeon.
"Princess," the brave one bowed, "Lord Ennaus wishes
to know whether you would like an escort back to the castle, if you are
. . .," he glanced at the bodies lying in various stages of hurt,
"Whatever," she mumbled. Not bad looking, she
supposed. Too bad she was so out of it. "What's your name?"
"Esor, your Highness."
"Whatever." She slammed her empty mug down and steadied
herself with a hand on the counter. Whoa. She hadn't been quite
this wasted in some time. She started toward the door, her balance
slightly less assured than usual.
"Wait!" The distressed cry of the tavernkeeper's apprentice
reached her from behind the bar. The girl spread her hands out,
indicating smashed tables and chairs, a gaping hole in one end of the
counter, and other remnants of the devil woman's visit. "The damage
. . . ."
Esor stiffened. How dare she! Did the fool not know whom she
The girl shrank from the hostile glare of soldiers, taking refuge in
the bleary-eyed but comparatively calm gaze of the woman who had wrecked
her uncle's establishment. She swallowed, but the certain beating she
would receive from her uncle overrode the speculative harm that might
befall her at these strangers' hands.
"Do you know who I am?" Xena asked.
The girl held her breath, afraid to admit that she didn't.
"Please," she said, her voice quivering. "We don't have
the money to repair this."
Xena studied her. Pale complexion, red-gold hair; under the
flickering light of the wall torches, she looked almost like--
"Insolent girl!" Esor took a step forward, but Xena's bark
"Here!" She drew a small coin purse from beneath her cloak
and launched it at the far wall, gold coins spewing across the floor as
it burst open. "Take it. I've got thousands more of these. 'Lining
my already bursting vaults,'" she quoted disdainfully. "She'll
line the square with the others," she muttered to herself.
The guards looked at each other. Who knew what she was talking about?
Word that the Princess had been out for a night of lively
entertainment travelled through the castle, and the place was deadly
silent as servants tiptoed about their chores, not wanting to be the one
to accidentally wake her.
Xena dozed on and off, no longer sleeping off her binge, but
unwilling to drag herself from the warm comfort of her bed.
"Princess?" Her aide's too-loud voice carried through the
She draped a forearm across her eyes. "What."
"Princess, we must discuss matters of castle security,"
Ennaus said, pressing ahead in spite of her mood. Secretly, he was
thrilled; if Xena had amused herself with a soldier last night, she
would not be in such a foul temper today.
Xena closed her eyes. One thing she did not need right now was
another lecture about her occasional nocturnal outings, the only real
fun she had these days. Most of the time, anyway. She wouldn't make last
night's mistake again. "Later," she yelled.
Ennaus smiled. "Yes, Princess." He had the information he
Potedaia isn't there any more.
Good. One less problematic village in her way. Xena wondered
how the so-called scribe had escaped the raid. Ran, probably, she
thought uncharitably, then admitted that it was unlikely. That woman,
even before she was a woman, would not willingly have abandoned her
Xena wished she knew which of her soldiers had disobeyed orders and
killed the man and girl trying to surrender. Not that it was a much
better fate, but they should have been sold to Canzas along with the old
woman, whatever her name was. A recollection of elaborate handwriting --
Hecuba of Potedaia -- forced
its way into her consciousness, and she jumped to her feet in search of
Judging by the position of the sun, they would be leaving for Sparta
within the hour, she noted. She was looking forward to this. A month or
two away from the suffocating walls of Corinth and its ungrateful
residents was just what she needed.
She paused before the window and looked out at the peasants scurrying
about their business, forming a colorful potpourri of baskets and rugs
and robes as they moved along. This was one reason she had ignored the
urgings of her second in command to take an inside chamber. It would
have been safer, yes, but even more isolated than she already felt at
times. What was it that irritant had said? Out of touch.
Far more annoying than the scribe's accusations was the fact that
Xena was still thinking about them. Who cared what some mule-headed
traitor thought? So, she was attractive--beautiful, in fact, if one
could get past that mouth. So were hundreds of other women who would
gladly accept an invitation to the royal chamber. One body was just as
warm as any other between the sheets.
Xena turned her attention back to the street scene outside, her eyes
settling on a stooped woman, far more gray than black in her hair, who
was leading a stubborn goat down the passageway. Xena's fingers clung
lightly to the curtain as she watched other pedestrians navigate around
the tussling figures.
In a way, the goat symbolized her subjects, Xena thought: Useful in
some respects, but stubborn and thick-skulled. You could not reason with
a goat; getting its attention and obedience required a firm hand. Yet
still the woman struggled to convince the goat with words to cooperate.
Foolish hag; her task would take all day if she didn't lay a hand on the
Behind them, a stocky young man, a trader by the looks of him, strode
briskly up the narrow street, and Xena's eyes narrowed. She recognized
the walk--not his in particular, but the arrogant gait of those whose
time is more valuable than others'. Annoyed at the obstruction in his
path, the trader shoved the old woman aside and she lost her grip on the
Xena craned her neck for a better look at him before returning her
gaze to the woman, who was being helped to her feet by friendly
passersby. The goat had scuttled only a few feet away, and a little girl
held up the leash to her. A hand pressed against her side, the old woman
resumed her battle of wills with the four-legged creature; a complete
waste of time, as far as Xena was concerned, but she supposed the little
scribe would wax eloquent about the old woman's trials or such. She
smiled slightly, picturing green eyes ignited with indignation, or
passion, or delight, whatever the emotion of the moment might be.
A long moment later, Xena whirled around and strode to the door.
"Have Achias report to me," she directed.
The two guards nodded respectfully, trading speculative glances after
the door closed. The words were never spoken aloud, but it was no secret
why Xena kept the ex-soldier on her payroll. Achias would pay Xena a
visit, and within weeks or even hours a problem of Xena's would
conveniently be solved: A disobedient king would be found on his throne
without his head; an uncooperative landowner would vanish from his home
without a trace.
At times, members of the guard speculated -- well beyond the castle
walls -- on how a man with only one arm could be so effective. His
appearance probably lulled his victims into lowering their guard, they
figured. Of course, no one knew it was Achias, because no one ever saw
anything, but everyone knew. The junior guard hurried to fulfill his
Xena poured two glasses of port in anticipation of her guest's
arrival. The man had been an exemplary member of her second army until a
shoulder wound had weakened his sword arm to the point where Xena had to
send him home before he lost it. Too late, as it turned out.
She smiled. Achias was quietly loyal, discreet, a killer without
conscience, and the closest thing Xena had to a friend.
"Highness, your carriage--" Ennaus halted, irritated to see
that smug henchman standing beside Xena, both bent over a map.
"Do whatever it takes," the Princess was saying. Achias
nodded, fully understanding the scope of his authority.
"Princess?" Ennaus tried to gauge where Xena's hand had
been resting on the map, but she straightened casually and rolled up the
"Join us, Ennaus," she said pleasantly. "We were just
about to have some more port."
Behind her back, the two men grudgingly acknowledged each other's
presence, Ennaus openly irritated at his exclusion from whatever was
going on, Achias with that same damn non-expression he wore whether he
was plucking a flower or slitting a man's throat.
"Another time, Highness," Achias said. "By your leave
. . . ." He bowed, and withdrew.
Closso arrived late to the meeting, but his news could not wait.
"The Conqueror was attacked on her way back from Sparta," he
All eyes in the group widened.
"And?" Raubert held up crossed fingers.
"Three of her escort were killed, but Xena was not
injured," the guard said.
"Raubert! You don't mean that," Gabrielle said.
He looked at the scribe as if she had just announced that the sun
never rose in the summer. "Of course I mean it. Who here wouldn't
love to see the Conqueror dead at his feet?"
"At our feet, yeah," Timmor chimed in, "to kick her
rotten corpse to pieces."
"Nice image," Gabrielle said. "How do we know we'd end
up with any better?"
"Because there is nothing worse," Raubert reasoned,
encouraged by several nods of agreement.
"Well, I agree that she's . . ." Gabrielle wasn't sure what
she wanted to say. "She's . . . ."
"A heartless bitch?"
"A rabid dog?"
"She's harsh," Gabrielle said, ignoring the suggestions.
"But look at what's happened in the months she's been gone. The
pogrom in Carmal, hundreds of desert dwellers massacred. The attacks on
the newcomers by the Corinthian purists, a dozen killed last week
alone." She ticked off horrors on her fingers. "The--"
"Nothing compared to the terror she's inflicted over the
years." Marcas waved her off. "Remember the Saldan
Yes, she did. Stories had travelled fast and far of thousands of
civilians overrun by sword-wielding cavalrymen on the Conqueror's order.
"I still think you're too unfeeling," she said, with less
confidence than she had felt earlier. "Isn't it better to give Xena
a chance to learn the error of her ways than simply to wish her
"Right, Gabrielle," Timmor said. "She's gonna change
her ways after all these years. Did you hear about Cormus?"
"I was there," she replied, recalling vividly the man's
broken body hanging from the cross. Horrible, yes, but what did they
expect Xena to do to someone who fired a crossbow at her? she
thought. Had Xena let that go unpunished, her life would be in constant
danger, wouldn't it?
Raubert smiled down at her, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"You're so naive sometimes, Gabrielle."
She jerked away from his touch. "Just because I don't agree with
everything you say doesn't make me naive," she snapped. "Let's
just get on with the meeting."
In the northeastern region of Xena's realm, a man in full Guard
regalia dismounted and dusted himself off. He strode confidently to the
door, where he was met by a nervous lord of the manor.
The visitor removed his feathered helmet and tucked it under his arm.
"Terellis of Duche, I bring greetings from Xena the
Conqueror," he said.
Terellis paled. So his guards had reported it correctly. The
stranger's words were polite, but everyone knew that an unexpected visit
from Xena or one of her agents never bode well.
"An honor," he replied, recovering from his shock
sufficiently to bow. He straightened, and swept an arm across the
extensive grounds. "My humble abode is yours for as long as you
wish to stay."
Achias stepped over the threshold into a decorative entryway.
"This will not be an extended visit," he said. It had taken
the emissary longer than he had expected to track his prey to this
estate, and he wanted to head out without further delay. "You have
something the Conqueror wants."
The Warrior Princess was carried smoothly into the square, two
well-muscled attendants lowering the pallet carefully to the ground.
Xena swept her gaze over the sizeable crowd. Always good
attendance at a sentencing, she observed dryly. For most, it was a
way to satisfy perverse curiosity; people wanted to see a man killed,
even as they turned away.
For others -- and Xena suspected she could name at least one --
viewing a sentencing was a way to personalize the ruler's cruelty, to
paint more vivid pictures of her depravity. The image of a blonde woman
scribbling across a blank parchment slipped into her head, and she found
herself scanning the crowd for a particular face. She would be here, of
course, working her way toward the front as the sentencing progressed
like a good little scrivener.
The captain of the guard called for the first condemned man, who was
hauled forward and deposited in the dirt at the Conqueror's feet.
"A thief, Highness," the captain explained.
Xena sighed. "You know the penalty for theft," she said in
a bored tone. "Your hand has offended the Realm." She jerked
her head, and two guards hauled the struggling man to a platform,
securing one arm across its diameter, immobilizing it even as the man
fought desperately to pull away.
The executioner handed a razor-sharp implement to his apprentice, who
was expected to work his way through lesser limbs before earning the
right to take someone's head. The axe swung up and over the younger
man's head, and Gabrielle closed her eyes, the nauseating sound of metal
severing flesh and the prisoner's screams temporarily overwhelming her
senses. No matter how many of these she attended, she could never become
accustomed to them.
Xena watched with indifference as the thief, now unconscious, was
carried to the healer's. Movement caught her eye, and she spied Achias
making his way toward the spot where she had expected to see him. Xena
secretly studied the woman with him, reluctantly shifting her attention
to the next prisoner, whose name she had missed.
"A violator of women," Belile pronounced.
Xena's lip curled. She thought she had made it more than clear her
intolerance of such conduct, particularly since an attack on the Doge of
Marguelle's daughter during his visit a year ago had ended in an
ill-advised attempt to lay siege to the City. Messy business it was,
finally forcing her to cut the Doge's throat and replace him with a less
Achias handed the woman beside him a square of parchment folded
carefully in two, a light wax seal binding the two edges together.
"Don't lose that," he said. She peered down at the paper and
back up again, but he was gone.
"You know the penalty for rape," Xena declared. "Your
pathetic manhood has offended the Realm." With a jerk of her head,
the criminal was dragged toward the hospital. Too much blood loss had
killed the last one by mistake. Xena hadn't been particularly bothered
by his fate, but she had her system, and certain punishments were now
meted out under the healer's direct supervision.
"She must be tired today," Raubert said behind his hand.
"No lectures about how 'this should serve as a warning' and all
There was no answer from Gabrielle and he leaned down to repeat his
comment, pausing at the look on her face.
Gabrielle stood frozen, staring in disbelief at a woman standing a
dozen yards away. Pen and parchment slipped unnoticed from the scribe's
fingers, and she started slowly forward.
"Mother?" she whispered.
"The final prisoner, Highness, is--"
Belile was interrupted by a scream from the crowd, as all heads
turned to see two women clasped tightly together, crying.
The captain's growl was forestalled by a soft command. "Let it
go, Belile; it seems harmless enough. Continue."
From his carefully selected vantage point amid the assembly, Achias
studied his commander closely. Subtly, almost undetectably, yet
unmistakable to one who had known her for years, the Conqueror's glance
was returning again and again to the two women clinging to each other at
the edge of the crowd. Hmm . . . .
Gabrielle wiped gently at her mother's face with the back of her
fingers, still in shock. Hecuba tensed, and Gabrielle took her hand.
"What is it?" she asked, bringing her mother's hand to her
lips, then pressing the other woman's palm to her cheek.
"The man who brought me here," Hecuba said. "He'll be
"Who was it?"
Fresh tears rolled down Gabrielle's face. Her mother, still a slave?
Were they just passing through Corinth? She would not lose her again
now; she would follow them wherever they went. Gabrielle reached for her
mother's other hand, but it was balled tightly into a fist.
"What's the matter?" Hecuba uncurled her fingers, and
Gabrielle noticed the parchment. "What's this?"
"I don't know. He gave it to me before he left."
Gabrielle brought it up to inspect it, slipping a finger between the
edges to break the seal.
"Gabrielle, don't!" Hecuba gasped.
"It'll be all right. We'll tell him it was an accident."
Hecuba stared at her. It was obvious that her daughter had never been
a slave, for which she thanked the gods.
Gabrielle edged her finger through the wax and unfolded the paper.
She read it, then mutely held it out to her mother, who shook her head
anxiously. If her master saw them--
"It's a declaration of freedom," Gabrielle said. She closed
her eyes, then brought the parchment up to read it again. Those were the
legal words; Gabrielle had borrowed them once from an emancipated
slave's certificate to issue a blanket declaration of freedom of all
Corinthians from Xena's tyranny.
The signature on this document was sloppy, but it was embossed with
an official seal that would prove the claim were anyone to dispute it. Oh,
gods. She took her mother into her arms again.
Another convict was tossed before the Conqueror, requiring her full
attention. Damn it. "What is his crime?" she asked
The man looked up at her. "I spoke."
"He incited the people against you, Conqueror," Belile
Xena rose from her platform and approached the captive as he
struggled to his feet. "Are you guilty?" she asked, actually
stalling for time. The penalties for speaking against the Realm were
unambiguous, and Xena had never hesitated to enforce them, but she
wasn't particularly in the mood today.
She contemplated the prisoner a moment longer, wondering idly if this
was a friend of the scribe, who was probably still watching from the
crowd. For the first time in her reign, the Conqueror felt a hint of
indecision. Too tired, she decided. She hadn't had much
opportunity for rest since returning from Sparta; perhaps she should
postpone the sentencing until--
She felt it almost as she heard it. The crowd went silent, holding
its collective breath as Xena wiped the spittle from her face. An
instant later, she had drawn a sword from the captain's sheath and
impaled the traitor through the chest. She tossed the bloody weapon to
to the ground, returning to stand in front of her pallet.
"His heart offended the Realm," she shouted. "Know
this: All who speak against the Realm will die like this dog."
She lowered herself to the pallet, and was transported back to the
castle. Nearly a quarter league in the distance, a mother and daughter
held hands as they walked toward the younger woman's home, having left
the horrors of the sentencing square far behind them.
"Highness." The soldier saluted. "We raided one of the
traitors' meetings," he reported proudly. "Caught nearly a
dozen of the bastards."
Xena straightened in her throne. "Where was it?"
"Where was what, Highness?"
She gritted her teeth. "The - meeting," she said slowly.
Eban's brow furrowed. The Princess didn't seem to be as pleased with
this news as he had anticipated. Just his luck to catch her in a bad
"On the east side. A house behind the mausoleum. We burned
Xena nodded. "Good work. Nearly a dozen, huh?"
The soldier gulped. He'd overstated it a little, not expecting her to
quiz him about details. "Well, Highness, eight, I believe."
Xena smiled supportively. "All orators?" All men, in
"Seven of them, Highness. One was a girl."
"A girl?" Xena uncrossed her thighs slowly, diverting part
of Eban's attention, then recrossed them with equal deliberation,
capturing the rest of it. "Are you sure she was with them?"
Eventually, Eban registered the question. "Oh -- yes, Highness.
She had quite a mouth on her. Belile says that you have arrested her
"I see." Xena sat back and gripped her thighs. She had done
all she could. She had warned them all what would happen if they were
arrested again. The scribe would now join her friends in their fate, and
this muddled interval in Xena's life would finally be over.
It was far too distracting -- and ultimately dangerous -- anyway. In
Sparta, she had nearly made use of a willing housemaid until something
the girl said or did brought the scribe to mind and kept her there.
Cursing the interference of a woman thirty leagues away, Xena had
ordered the servant back to her own quarters. Over the next weeks, honey
gold hair and green eyes would flash unexpectedly into her brain while
she was attempting to conduct business -- "Excuse me, Highness,
you said Potedaia again" -- until finally she just gave up and
cut short the visit.
She needed this to be over. To spare the woman would be to lose
credibility with her own men and the citizenry, and would only encourage
other dissenters. It wasn't an option, no matter how much Xena
desperately desired to do it. She sighed at the inadvertent admission.
Yes, she wanted to spare Gabrielle. She wanted the scribe to be here
instead, with her, talking to her, smiling at her.
She cringed at an image of Gabrielle on the cross. She could at least
spare her the pain and indignity of a lingering death. "I'll see
them," she said.
The guard took a deep breath. His captives were important enough for
the Conqueror's personal attention. A true feather in his cap.
"Let's go," she said.
The soldier's jaw dropped. Now? She was going to the prison herself?
He could not have asked for a greater honor. "Oh." The
Conqueror was standing at the entrance, waiting for him. "My
apologies, Highness." He hurried out the door and down the hallway.
There was a firepit in the cell now, Gabrielle noticed. "This is
new," she said conversationally, acting the good host for the
Athenian dissidents who shared her cell. "They spoil us here."
She laughed half-heartedly. "I'm really sorry about this; your
first visit to Corinth and you're arrested." The other irony, that
she had been the one appointed to share speeches and ideas with them,
hadn't occurred to her. "That's basically what it's like
She knelt beside the pit, testing the kindling for dampness. At least
they wouldn't freeze to death before they were executed.
"I warned you."
Gabrielle whirled around to face the Conqueror's piercing blue eyes
through the cell bars.
"I told you that this time there would be no mercy," Xena
The scribe could not speak, but it didn't appear that the Warrior
Princess would be interested in anything she had to say anyway.
"I am sick of your interference and your insolence," Xena
continued, directing her remarks to all the prisoners. Almost as an
afterthought, she added, "I have no choice." She turned to her
captain, who had hustled to the prison at word that the Conqueror was
paying another unannounced visit. "Hang her in the square at
dawn," she ordered, and then disappeared again into the darkness.
Gabrielle sank to her knees. She had heard about the brutal slaying
of an orator at the sentencing last month, but somehow had thought, had
hoped, that it was an instinctive reaction to being spat upon. That
wouldn't excuse it, but Gabrielle thought she could at least understand
it. The Warrior Princess had been a creature of instinct nearly all her
life; she couldn't be expected to change that overnight.
But this-- this wasn't instinct. Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling a
sense of loss that had nothing to do with her impending death. When the
guards came to separate her from the others, she went without protest.
Xena put aside the question of why she was doing this. For the hell
of it, she had tried to persuade herself. Because she was bored. Because
it was a challenge. Unfortunately, she knew better. It was because she
couldn't think of any other way to keep the scribe alive.
She had given up trying to understand why she gave a damn about what
happened to the woman from Potedaia. They had not spoken since Xena's
ill-fated visit to that cramped basement months ago, when the scribe had
made clear her utter contempt for the Conqueror. Since then, Xena had
seen her from a distance at sentencings, at proclamation days, and, in
somewhat of a surprise, at a non-lethal wrestling exhibition over which
Xena had presided.
On one occasion, Xena had taken a chance and met the scribe's gaze,
which to her astonishment was more curious than hostile. The women had
stared at each other until, with a grin, the scribe had raised her quill
and parchment menacingly, causing Xena to laugh in the middle of
announcing an outbreak of anthrax. After that, despite her aide's strong
disapproval, the Conqueror had scheduled weekly outdoor events of one
type or another throughout the summer, and had seen glimpses of
red-blonde at all of them.
Portions of treasonous speeches had also been found or transcribed,
and Xena had no trouble identifying the passionate hyperbole of one
scribe in particular. She grinned, remembering the time she got wind of
an imminent oration and quickly announced a change in whatever minor
policy it was, just to imagine the scribe's consternation at having
spent all that time writing a now useless speech. That one had gotten
her a raised eyebrow and crossed arms from the end of the platform, and
ultimately, when Xena answered with a wide-eyed expression of innocence,
Smiling at the pleasant memories, Xena fastened her cape. Whatever
the reason, be it involvement of the Fates or simply her own bad
judgment, she felt an inexorable connection with this woman, and more
alive than she had in years. She could no more change her plans tonight
than she could refrain from breathing.
She pursed her lips. First and foremost: No killing. The death of a
Royal Guard had automatic repercussions under the law, and the scribe
would hardly be appreciative of freedom that came at the cost of a
Mask drawn tight across her eyes, Xena drew her legs across the sill
and dropped from her window to the earth below.
The first of . . . ten prison guards, if she recalled correctly,
opened the outer door to a hard fist that sent him flying. A figure
clothed entirely in black, long sleeved shirt tucked into formless pants
that cinched around calves at the bootline, darted inside, spent a few
seconds seeing to the bolt, and headed deeper into the prison.
The next two never saw her. Asleep on the job, Xena noted,
making a note to discuss discipline with Belile; two quick jabs and they
were out of her way. She could feel her blood beginning to boil; it had
definitely been too long since she'd had some fun.
The prisoners pressed theirs faces against the bars, curious about
the commotion down the hall that they could hear but not see. Seven
members of Xena's guard had surrounded the intruder, lashing and
stabbing at the form that constantly eluded them, who now leapt into the
air and took out three of them with slashing kicks.
"Get him!" Belile shouted. Xena spun away from him to slam
an elbow into one of her men, swiping with a torch at four others who
charged at the same time. The brief distraction was enough for Belile to
lunge in with his dagger, feeling a satisfying plunge into flesh.
A spark of fear coursed through him when, other than a sharp intake
of breath, the warrior made no sound as the knife sank into his back. By
the gods, it hardly even seemed to slow him down.
Xena spun around, knocking two more guards off their feet. Her
timetable had just been sped up; she needed to get Gabrielle and get out
before she lost too much blood. Nice shot, Belile. She might add
weapons training to his responsibilities.
Time seemed to pass slowly as she battled her way into the cell area,
until finally the last of the outer guards fell beneath her boot. A jolt
from the hilt of a confiscated sword floored the cell guard, and she
bent to retrieve the key from his belt.
There she was, the condemned woman, segregated from the others in
accordance with custom. The cell door swung open with a twist of the
key, and Gabrielle rushed out.
"What are you doing?" she gasped. The man had to be insane,
taking on Xena's Guard like this. The Conqueror would have his head. She
opened her mouth to offer a further warning, but was stopped in her
tracks at a glimpse of bright blue eyes through the mask. Familiar eyes.
Gabrielle brought her hands to her mouth. "Wh--?"
Xena placed her hand across the scribe's, and shook her head.
Gabrielle snapped out of her trance just as Xena dropped the key ring
onto the unconscious guard's chest.
"Wait." Gabrielle pulled back from her rescuer's grasp.
"What about them?" Xena stared at her. "You can't leave
Xena snarled. Did the ingrate not know the risk she was already
taking? She shook her head again and pulled at the young woman's arm.
"No!" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's sleeve and pulled the taller
woman down to whisper urgently in her ear. "They'll think it was
someone I know. What'll I tell them?"
Godsdamnit! Xena glared at her, than stomped over to the guard
and retrieved the keys.
"No -- not that one," Gabrielle cried, seizing Xena's hand
as it reached for the cell next to the scribe's. Its occupant had
regaled Gabrielle more than once with the nature of his crime,
describing, in graphic terms, what he would do to her if he could get
into her cell. "Over here."
A minute later, seven more radicals were free and running -- the
wrong way. Xena spoke into in the scribe's ear.
"Wait! This way!" Gabrielle shouted. "Follow us."
The escapees swept through the back door and over the wall,
scrambling up the temporary stone block ladder that Xena had constructed
before her grand entrance. With a grunt, the Warrior Princess positioned
a solid boulder against the door; she had already jammed the bolt in
front to where it would not likely come free before breakfast.
Gabrielle watched the last of her colleagues leap from the top of the
wall, then pivoted to see Xena propped casually against the wall.
"Hey, come on! We've got to go!" she said.
"I agree," Xena rasped. "But I'm not going to make it
over that wall."
Gabrielle reached out to her, staring with shock at the blood that
coated her hand. "Oh, gods, Xena, you're hurt."
"No kidding." The old Warrior Princess was going soft, Xena
thought disgustedly; in the old days, a wound like this wouldn't have
taken her out for hours. The sound of a battering ram slamming against
the back door brought her back to the present, and she wrapped an arm
around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Let's go." She jerked her head
toward the south. "This way. There's a--" She took a breath,
too fatigued to explain. "You'll see."
It was a good idea, Gabrielle realized; she hadn't even seen the
abandoned irrigation canal until she literally stumbled across it. She
assisted Xena into the crevice and to the ground. "What
"Stabbed in the back," Xena chuckled. The concept seemed
rather funny, all things considered.
"I'm glad you find it so amusing," Gabrielle said, moving
Xena's shirt aside to get a better look at the wound. "Oh,
gods." She raised a hand to her forehead, smearing blood across her
skin and hair. "I don't know what to do. What should I do, Xena?"
"First, relax," Xena said calmly. "This isn't a bad
"How do you know that? You can't even see it."
"I can feel it, and I've had a lot worse. I'll show you the
scars some day."
"Trust me," Xena said, and Gabrielle swallowed the rest of
her objection. "I need some bandages and some clothing."
"I can't show up with bloodstains after what happened."
She heard the sound of cloth rending, and some wadded up portion of
Gabrielle's outfit -- her skirt, Xena assumed -- was pressed against the
wound. She ground her teeth together, reminding herself not to take out
her discomfort on her companion.
"Can't you say you were attacked or something?"
"And ruin my reputation?" Xena joked. She tried to shake
her head, but gave up on it. "Too hard to explain. Gabrielle,"
she said, "I need something to bandage--"
"OK, OK, I'll get some." Gabrielle raked a hand through her
hair. She thought she recognized where she was now. "I'll go get
some," she said again. "OK?" She waited for Xena's nod,
slipping off her belt to tie it loosely around the compress.
Gabrielle raced through the streets, her mind reeling with scenarios
of vindictive soldiers coming across a helpless Xena, not recognizing
her before they ran her through. She quickened her stride, already
feeling as though her heart were going to burst. Lack of oxygen to her
brain disoriented her for a moment, but finally she located the eagle
statue that marked the house.
Raubert opened his door to frantic pounding, shocked to see the
beautiful blonde woman covered in blood, her clothing torn, almost
incoherent in her panic.
"Bandages!" she repeated. "Cloth . . . " She
gulped for air. "Bed linen . . . anything!"
"No time!" she shouted, shoving him aside to tear through
his closet. She yanked out several thin towels, then remembered Xena's
other instruction and hurried over to a dresser, pawing through drawers
until she had compiled a more or less complete outfit. "I need
these," she said. Wait--would she need to sew up the wound? Xena
hadn't mentioned it, but maybe she had assumed . . . . "Needle and
thread," she said.
Without thinking, Raubert gestured toward a small basket in the
corner. "Gabrielle, are you--"
"I've got to go," she interrupted, taking a couple of long,
slow breaths in preparation for the return trip. She stepped out into
the night, precious bundle stuffed under her arm, and turned back
quickly. "Thank you, Raubert. I owe you."
Then she was gone. Raubert closed the door, wondering what exactly
she owed him.
Xena pivoted slowly at Ennaus' call.
"Princess, we have been searching for you for hours. The--"
He eyed her warily. "May I ask what you are wearing,
"A souvenir, Ennaus," she replied. "Of a rather . . .
impressive . . . and . . . vigorous young man." She smiled
suggestively. "Pretty good fit, don't you think?" She twirled
around, gritting her teeth at the excruciating pain the display was
costing her. "I would have expected the trousers to be
larger," she added with a wink. She resumed her journey down the
hall, hoping the hesitation in her stride would seem the result of
overindulgence in activities of several varieties.
Ennaus did not care to hear the details of the Warrior Princess's
latest conquest, and was pleased that he had just the news that would
dampen her good mood. "While you were away, Princess, someone
attacked the prison and released the traitors."
Xena spun around. "What?" Blue eyes flashed, the emotion in
her performance enhanced by the nearly debilitating pain spiralling
through her body. "Am I surrounded by sheer incompetence?" she
shouted. "Can I not indulge in a single evening's pleasure without
being humiliated by yet another example of it?"
The need to lie down was overwhelming; if it wasn't in the next few
minutes, it would be here in the hall. Xena wished she could have
sneaked Gabrielle in with her. Gathering up one last reserve of energy,
she stormed down the hall and through the doors opened hurriedly by her
chamber guards. "I want Belile brought to me at first light,"
The doors closed behind her, and she sank to the floor.
Xena took a deep breath. It was now or never. The old woman was
probably there, but Gabrielle would just have to talk her way out of it.
That shouldn't be a problem, she grinned. Just as she raised a
fist to knock, the door swung open and Gabrielle shrieked.
"Shh. It's me," Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle ducked her head back inside. "It's nothing, Mother. A
friend of mine with a message." She stepped outside and shut the
"How'd you know I was here?" Xena asked.
"I ought to make something up," Gabrielle said, matching
Xena's grin, "but I didn't know. I was actually, um . . . ."
She tossed her head toward the far end of the alley.
"Oh. Sorry. You better go ahead."
"Walk with me." Gabrielle took Xena's arm. "I'm glad
to see you. I never got to thank you."
"Yes, there is. You risked your life for me."
Xena wondered if she should point out that she was the one who had
imposed the death sentence from which the scribe had been rescued.
Gabrielle tightened her grip on her arm, and Xena smiled. "Aah, I
was bored anyway," she said.
"Oh. Nevermind, then." They grinned at each other.
"Did your back heal all right?"
"It's getting there. Wanna see the scar?"
"Yeah!" Gabrielle's smile faded. "Oh--you were
kidding, weren't you?"
"Well, not if you really want to see it."
"Well, you did promise to show me all your scars once,"
Gabrielle said, then blushed at the way that sounded.
They had reached the outbuilding, and Gabrielle stepped inside. A
minute later, she emerged again and they strolled, arm in arm, back to
her quarters. "OK--let's see it," Gabrielle said, stopping
beneath a torch-light.
"I'll have to pull down my leathers," Xena warned.
"Oh." Gabrielle's eyes widened. "That's OK, it's not--
I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."
"I don't care," Xena said, and she didn't. "I just
wanted to make sure that you . . . that you knew that."
"Well, I, uh, certainly don't mind that, I mean I don't care one
way or the other," Gabrielle sputtered. "I'd kind of like to
see it, but . . . ."
Xena unwrapped her cloak and pulled on the two straps until her
leathers were at mid-waist, holding the front against her breasts.
"Wow, that's amazing." Gabrielle traced a finger along the
indentation. How could a tear in her side that big make a scar that
small? Without conscious intent, her hand strayed across the
surprisingly smooth skin of the Conqueror's back. Amazing . . . .
"Oh--sorry." Gabrielle drew her hand back as if Xena's back
were on fire.
Xena hadn't been bothered by the scribe's exploration. At its abrupt
end, she pulled the straps back up and shrugged into her cloak,
hesitating before drawing down the hood. She opened her mouth to say
something, then shut it again. "I need to head back," she
"How about a goodbye kiss?" The words were out before
Gabrielle could stop them. "Uh, you know, like friends do all the
time." She looked up uncertainly. "We are friends, aren't
Xena nodded slowly at the recognition. Yeah, she guessed they were.
"I mean, we don't really know when we'll see each other
again," Gabrielle rambled on, wishing she hadn't opened her stupid
mouth to begin with. "Just to, you know, sit down and visit or
Xena smiled. "Right." She leaned down and lightly pressed
her lips against the other woman's, and then she was gone.
Gabrielle leaned against the door, reliving the too-brief moment
their lips had met. It wasn't enough. She popped her head into the small
room. "I've got to help someone out, Mother," she said.
"I'll be back later this morning." She dashed to the corner
and looked both ways, hands on her sides. Which way would Xena have
Countless streets and corners later, Gabrielle was pretty sure she
was still making her way toward the castle, but she was beginning to
think that following the Warrior Princess -- or, more accurately, trying
to follow -- hadn't been the best idea. She wasn't very familiar with
this part of the city.
The sun was a good hand or more above the horizon now. Gabrielle held
her hand in front of her eyes, shading them, and her eyes widened. Was
that the castle? Hades, she was a lot closer than she thought. Xena
would undoubtedly be inside the walls by now.
A sound behind her alerted Gabrielle that she was not alone, and she
turned to see two men advancing on her. She whirled back round to see
another pair approaching, closing off her only avenue of escape.
Xena encircled her knees, tucking her thighs into her chest. She
hadn't fully understood how much she wanted the kiss until it happened;
now she could think of nothing else.
The Conqueror surveyed her domain from her perch atop the roof of the
armory, unable to bring herself to end the experience by returning to
the realities of government. She needed to get back to the castle soon,
or Ennaus would discover her gone. Too many unexplained absences would
eventually trigger the aide's curiosity.
A woman's scream caught her attention, and her head jerked toward the
sound. Her mind was too focused on the scribe; the terrified cry almost
Another high-pitched shout, abruptly smothered, propelled the Warrior
Princess from the roof to the street below and down the block at top
speed, her fears confirmed at the sight of four dead men tearing at the
most beautiful creature in the world.
The men spun around to see a hooded attacker flying at them, blue
eyes nearly red with rage. She wrenched the sword from the closest of
them and thrust it through his chest, nearly severing his shoulder when
she yanked out the blade.
Freeing his hands to defend himself, a second man threw Gabrielle
against the hard rock wall and drew his own sword. The weapon was raised
to strike when Xena lunged, her sword tearing through soft abdomenal
flesh. Within seconds, she had cut down the remaining two, revelling in
the satisfaction of her blade piercing one son of a bitch's throat,
severing the other's head from his body with sufficient force to drive
the corpse ten feet away.
"Gabrielle." Xena cradled the scribe's head in her lap as
she examined her. From over her shoulder, she saw the beginnings of a
crowd, three guards trailing behind. From city patrol, she noted, not
the jail, which meant they were unlikely to recognize the injured
An older woman knelt beside them. Poor girl, Beltha thought;
not much older than her own daughter. "Is she all right?"
From beneath the pointed cowl of her cloak, Xena peered at the bloody
gash in Gabrielle's skull. The wound was not fatal; with some basic
care, she would be all right.
"You there!" The guards were calling to her. "What's
Xena took the woman's hand and placed it over the wound, then placed
her own over it.
Beltha had seen the nervous glances over the hooded man's shoulder.
Wanted by the law, probably. "I'll take care of her," she
A brief squeeze of the stranger's hand was all the thanks Xena could
give. Resisting the urge to kiss Gabrielle, she rose and leapt to the
roof of an adjacent building.
"You! Stay where you are!"
She ignored her guards' futile instructions and jumped to another
roof, and then another, soon disappearing from their sight.
Circling around, Xena landed across the alleyway on a rooftop
directly behind the guards. Another woman had joined the first beside
Gabrielle, and they were securing a brightly colored cloth to the
scribe's forehead. The guards leaned over the three women, apparently
conferring about the situation.
Xena monitored their efforts until, reluctantly acknowledging the
sun's position, she returned to the empty walls of the castle.
Ennaus breezed into the Conqueror's chamber to find her seated upon
her throne, wrapped in her favorite striped robe. His favorite as well.
"Good morning, Princess," he smiled.
"Hardly," she retorted. "What's all the racket?"
"A mere fracas, Princess. Nothing of concern."
Blue eyes narrowed at him. "I didn't ask your opinion, Ennaus, I
asked what the noise was. Anything that wakes me from a pleasant dream
is my concern."
Ennaus reddened, nodding to acknowledge that he had overstepped his
bounds. "A girl, I am told, wandering around looking for
"Hm." Xena plucked an apple from a basket at her side.
"Found it, did she?" She polished the fruit on her robe.
"Yes, Highness. Four men obliged her."
"Where are they now?"
"Dead? The girl did it?" She sank her teeth into the sweet
Ennaus shook his head. "No, Highness. Reports are of a cloaked
man who came to her aid and then disappeared."
"How noble," Xena said, sounding bored with the topic
already. "And the girl?" She took another bite.
His shoulders moved up and down. "Dead, I expect."
Xena's head jerked up. "What?"
"They saw no reason to bother with her," he said. "She
was just a peasant, probably a woman of the streets. They dispersed the
crowd, and notified the street cleaners." That apple in Xena's
mouth was looking awfully good, Ennaus decided.
"But she was--" Xena lowered her gaze, seemingly inspecting
a bruised area on the fruit, fear and anger battling her mind's efforts
to stay calm. "She was injured; she had to be."
"I suppose so," he conceded. "But we cannot permit
peasants to assemble around the castle walls." He reached into the
basket. "What concern is it of ours, Princess? You've not trifled
with disputes between peasants in the past."
"She was near the castle grounds, Ennaus," she said.
"An odd place to be at that hour alone, even for a woman of the
streets. She may have been witness to something." She threw her
apple core in the fireplace. "I want her found and attended to
immediately, then send the healers to me." A thought occurred to
her, and she added, "No need for you to be bothered, though; have
someone else handle it. I want to discuss the Akkadian situation with
He nodded, glad that the Princess did not expect him to see to this
troublesome girl personally. A waste of time for all around, as far as
he could tell, but Ennaus was not one to question the Conqueror's
instincts. They had served the Realm well throughout the years.
He swept out of the room and Xena sprinted into her bedchamber,
slinging the robe onto a chair, easing out of her leathers and into more
traditional attire. She wished she could have gone to Gabrielle herself,
but there would be word soon.
Instead, the sun had nearly reached mid-sky before the doors finally
opened to admit two ancient women. About time, Xena thought,
meeting them half-way across the room with her arms crossed. She had
been waiting for their report all damned morning. "Yes?"
"You sent for us, Highness," said what appeared to be the
elder of the two, no small achievement. Xena raised an eyebrow, and the
woman continued, "About the girl brought in this morning."
"Yes. What is her condition?"
"The peasants had bound her wound, but she lost a fair amount of
blood," the healer began.
Because those cretins left her there to die. Xena
unconsciously clenched her fists. She would find out who they were,
"She will recover, but it would be best to keep her another day,
"Whatever." A look passed between the elders. "Is
there a problem?" Xena asked.
"She . . . ." The healer pressed her lips together.
"It does not appear that she has money for our services,
Zeus. Indigents -- peasants, as Xena had always referred to
them -- were not permitted to receive care from the castle's skilled
doctors. She walked slowly toward her throne, searching for a way out of
this situation. Gabrielle's health came before all else, and to Hades
with the suspicions of Ennaus or any other--
"Princess." The healer looked at her sister again,
encouraged by the other woman's nod. "We are not busy today. We
have spare beds, and we don't mind sharing our gifts with those who
cannot pay. If you could--"
Of course. It was a familiar plea, the healers pestering her once a
year or so about donating medical care to the peas-- the poor.
". . . at no cost to the Realm."
Xena raised a hand. "Enough!" She whirled around. "I
am tired of this constant nagging from you crones." She flicked her
hand impatiently. "Do what you wish. I have no interest in what you
do in your spare time. Just be certain that no employee of the Realm
goes without," she warned.
"Oh, yes, Highness, thank you, Highness," the women uttered
excitedly. Finally--their prayers answered.
Ennaus frowned. Free medical care for the peasants? What next?
"When the girl is able to talk, alert one of the hospital
guards," Xena said. "I want to know why she was there."
The two elders exchanged smiles, and Xena's eyes narrowed suspiciously.
"Has she regained consciousness?"
"Momentarily, Highness. She was rather light-headed and did not
say much," the healer answered, "but I suspect you will find
her no threat."
"Explain yourself," Xena ordered, concealing the relief
surging through her. Gabrielle had been awake, for a while at least. She
wondered if she could get away from Ennaus long enough to--
"She did not witness anything which could pose a danger to you,
of that I'm certain," the older woman said.
"That doesn't answer my question."
"She was rather disoriented . . . ."
"Get on with it."
"She said only that . . . ." The healer shrugged, smiling.
". . . she wanted another kiss."
Xena turned to hide the crimson that was making a rare appearance in
her cheeks. "Useless information," she said, waving them away.
Another kiss, huh? Xena grinned. She thought she could handle
"I doubt if they'll try that again." Xena's other guests
joined the nobleman in enjoying his joke on the fools who had trampled
Xena smiled. The morning had been pleasant enough, but unsatisfying.
Something was missing, the same something that was missing from
everything she did now.
A guard arrived with her daily messages, and she motioned for him to
read them aloud, tiring almost immediately of the recitation of routine
invitations and petty problems of lesser kingdoms.
Reaching the end of the parchment, the guard hesitated.
He licked his lips. Why did he have to be the one to relay this to
the Conqueror? "I'm sorry, Highness. It's--" He shook his
head. This had to be a mistake. "It's nothing, Highness."
Achias smirked. Wrong answer.
"Nothing?" Xena asked, leaning forward in her throne.
"It's on my message scroll?"
Ennaus shot daggers at the witless guard who had been stupid enough
to mention whatever it was in the first place. It was probably some
lascivious remark from a recent bedpartner that no one cared to hear. He
wished Xena would just let it go.
"The Conqueror's messages are not important to you?" Xena
"No! I mean yes!" the guard stammered. He held up the
scroll, clearing his throat. "There will be fresh pomegranate at
the market today."
Xena blinked. Pomegranate? What kind of idiotic-- Unless . . . .
"How was this message delivered?" she asked.
"A woman from the market. She said you had requested to be
Achias eyed his old commander, a suspicion beginning to form.
"Yes," Xena said. "That will be all. Tell Tova I will
accompany her to the market today." Noting the raised eyebrows of
her guests, she shrugged. "I've been having a craving."
"We select only the finest produce," Tova assured the
Conqueror for the fourth time, seeking confirmation from her assistants.
"I'm sure of that," Xena said. "I am not being
critical; I simply felt like joining you."
"Tova . . .," she warned.
The other woman clamped her mouth shut.
Behind them, a silent figure tracked their progress.
Xena stood at one end of the circus that was Market Street, unhappily
taking in the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who had chosen this
day to go shopping. "Where are the pomegranates?" she asked.
"At that booth, Highness," Tova said. "And
those," pointing to several others, "and down there."
Xena pursed her lips. "Great."
Barely noticing agitated patrons scrambling to let her through -- Oh,
the gods! Was that the Conqueror? It couldn't be -- Xena ambled over
to the first booth Tova had indicated, peering down at a bunch of little
red fruit. She picked one up, frowning. Just how did one identify a ripe
Achias watched the scene with some interest. A homemaker now, was
she? He didn't think so.
Xena replaced the thoroughly squeezed and shaken object in its bed
under the merchant's anxious gaze. Did her selection displease the
Conqueror? Not quite satisfied, apparently, her picky customer proceeded
to the next stall.
"I believe this will meet with your approval, your
Highness," a sultry voice said from close beside her. A small hand
offered up a plump pomegranate for her inspection.
If he had not been paying such close attention, Achias would have
missed the brief flash of white that accompanied Xena's acceptance of
the fruit. She scrutinized it, apparently finding everything to her
It was all beginning to add up: Tracking down the address of some
peasant girl for reasons Xena did not disclose, buying the old slave
woman only to have her released, and now a clandestine rendesvous that
Achias was certain had little to do with a sudden hankering for
The Conqueror's little helper made a well-timed exit, and Achias
watched Xena stuff produce into a cloth sack provided by the excited
merchant. The ex-soldier could predict what would happen next: Xena
would hand the sack to her kitchen staff and stroll casually away from
the market, taking the first private (she thought) opportunity to read
the note, a brilliant smile illuminating her face while she hastened
toward a pre-arranged destination.
Achias watched Xena nearly break into a run, and resumed his
surveillance. In for a dinar . . . .
Gabrielle nervously set a bowl down on one edge of the small table.
"It's not exactly pheasant," she apologized. "I don't
"It smells wonderful," Xena interrupted, smiling. "And
I get tired of pheasant." She wouldn't have cared if it were
hedgehog. She was just thrilled that Gabrielle's mother would be away
for the afternoon, grateful to whoever's sister it was who had failed to
return to Corinth when expected. She had been deprived of Gabrielle for
too long, including an eternity spent tucked into the alcove across the
alley waiting for the old woman to finally leave.
Gabrielle smiled back at her, but still felt self-conscious. How
stupid to invite Xena for lunch--Xena, who enjoyed elaborate meals every
night prepared by the finest chefs in Corinth. "It's just
soup," she said, feeling more foolish by the second. Stupid.
Xena raised a spoon to her lips and blew on the hot liquid. "Mmm.
It's very good."
"It's--" Gabrielle turned away abruptly, embarrassment
paralyzing her vocal chords.
"Hey." Xena caught her around the waist. "What's the
matter?" She stood, maintaining the physical contact. "It's
truly wonderful," she said quietly.
She slipped her other arm around Gabrielle's waist, waiting for signs
of understanding, and acceptance, of what she was really saying. Arms
slid behind her neck, telling her all she needed to know, and Xena
slowly lowered her head.
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the feel of Xena's lips on hers. She
tightened her embrace, drawing Xena in closer, deepening the kiss,
breaking away for only a few seconds to catch her breath and then diving
in for more.
Xena's thoughts of a gentle approach flew out the window, and she
placed her hands on Gabrielle's breasts, swallowing the other woman's
sharp cry. Gods, she wasn't sure she could make it to the bed.
Achias rolled his eyes. How had he gotten himself into this?
He waited long enough to make sure it wasn't a false alarm, then
slipped down the passageway. Not happy at all, he approached the old
house, telling himself that Xena would thank him for this.
Shaking his head, Achias tromped down the stairs and pounded on the
lower door. There was no reply, and he slammed his fist against the door
Finally, the one he expected to see -- a little out of breath,
disheveled, her blouse hooked unevenly -- answered. "Yes?" she
said, a bit testily.
He shoved the door open the rest of the way and strode past her.
"Xena." His head swiveled from side to side. Where the heck
"What in the name of Zeus are you doing here?" Movement
registered from the corner of his eye, and Achias chuckled. Damn, she
was good. Standing against the side wall the whole time, and he couldn't
see her. Now that he could, he noticed that the Warrior Princess' armor
was nowhere to be seen, and the shoulder straps of her leathers were
"The old woman is headed back this way," he said.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "My mother?"
Aha. Thought so.
"Godsdamn it," Xena growled. Not now, for Zeus' sake!
"How much time do we have?"
Achias shook his head. "Only a few blocks." He looked over
the tiny blonde woman whose hair needed to have a comb run through it. Like
you'd want to hurry with this one anyway, he thought.
Xena hauled her armor up from beside the bed and buckled it into
place, sliding her bracers over her forearms, all the while watching the
scribe pour untouched soup back into the kettle and return the second
spoon to its box. Under Xena's admiring eye, Gabrielle bent over to
straighten the coverlet on the bed.
"Come here," Xena said. She positioned Gabrielle away from
Achias' view and unhooked the other woman's blouse.
"Xena . . . ."
Xena placed a finger to her lips, then rehooked the buttons in
correct order, unable to resist brushing her palms against Gabrielle's
"Oh, gods, don't," the scribe whispered. "This is hard
enough as it is."
Xena gave her a lop-sided smile. "Sorry. Just didn't want you to
forget." She fell into Gabrielle's sea green gaze. "Achias, go
stall her for a minute. Do your beggar act or something." She just
needed one more minute.
"Not a good idea, Princess," he said. "She'll know
Gabrielle looked over at him. "Know you? Know you from
Uh oh. Achias had just assumed that the girl knew, and was
'thanking' Xena for the present.
"Oh, my gods." Gabrielle stared at Xena. "It was
you?" Gabrielle buried her head in her hands. "We couldn't
figure it out." She shook her head. "I should have . . . . I
never . . . ." Gods, it was so obvious now.
She threw her arms around Xena's neck, and once more Xena cursed the
fates for their cruel timing. She leaned down for a goodbye kiss that
brought both their passions roaring to life again, reluctantly breaking
the contact to hurry outside with her godsdamned pain-in-the-backside
friend. At the junction of alley and street, the pair casually moved
aside for an older blonde woman who rounded the corner and continued
down the alley.
They trudged toward the palace in complete silence, until Xena
couldn't take it any more. "Not one word, Achias," she warned,
shooting him a look.
He raised his hands, hurt at his old friend's suggestion that he
would make fun of her. "Of course not."
Xena pressed her lips together and picked up the pace a bit.
"You'll hear nothing from me."
Her eyes narrowed.
"Nope. Not one word about Xena the Conqueror fleeing from the
She jerked her head around. "Achias, have you ever wondered what
it would be like to lose your other arm?"
Mindful of what he had interrupted only a few minutes earlier, Achias
concluded that discretion was the better part of valor. Wonder if
whistling's off limits, too. He unpuckered his lips--better safe
Incredible. Far beyond anything the scribe could ever hope to put
into words. The few minutes Gabrielle had experienced of the Warrior
Princess's lovemaking had exceeded a lifetime's imagination.
Gabrielle blushed at the recollection of her own clumsy efforts,
mortified now at losing all semblance of control, burying her face in
the irresistable mounds of flesh hidden beneath Xena's leathers, getting
her hand caught in a shoulder strap as she tugged desperately on it,
nearly knocking Xena off her feet as she tried to pull her down to the
Xena hadn't complained, but she would have enjoyed herself more with
someone more experienced, someone a little more in control, Gabrielle
knew. Still, she thought back to Xena leaning over her on the bed,
forearms on either side of her head, back arching luxuriously as the
scribe's hungry mouth found her--
Nine curious gazes were focused upon her. "Um, I'm sorry . . . .
What did you say?"
"Come on, Gabrielle, this was your idea," Marcas said.
"What do you think would make Xena squirm the most?"
Gabrielle's eyes widened.
"Should we address it to Xena, or the Realm?"
"'We, the people of Corinth, demand that Xena agree to a debate
on public issues of the day,'" Raubert suggested.
Oh, yeah, the debate. One of the scribe's contributions to
last month's agenda. Xena would never agree to it, of course, but the
refusal would provide nearly as much fodder. Gabrielle pictured Xena
standing tall on a platform, wind sweeping through her dark mane as she
spoke passionately . . . .
"Sorry," she mumbled. "I just can't -- I'm not myself
today," she said. "I'll catch up with you later."
Grabbing her wrap, she peeked cautiously out the side door, making sure
there weren't any surprises waiting for them. She needed to think.
"Highness," Ennaus said again, striving to be patient with
his queen, who was in a royal mood this evening.
"Why are you wasting my time with this?" Xena snapped.
"Can't you take care of it?"
"I could, Princess, but typically you would address the matter
personally, since it involves one of your chosen."
Xena scowled. "Chosen or not, he needs to learn to handle things
on his own."
"But Princess, he is hardly in a position to take on Tarouf.
Daron's army numbers only--"
"Nine hundred. I'm well aware of the armed forces within my
"Of course, Highness."
Xena pressed two fingers against her head.
"Are you unwell? Perhaps you need--"
"I know what I need," she snarled. And it's not here.
Her thoughts returned to gentle hands . . . moist lips . . . soft skin .
. . .
The ruler did not elaborate, and Ennaus thought it best not to push
the issue. He knew the Warrior Princess well enough to figure out what
she thought she needed, although he didn't remember her ever being quite
this worked up about it before.
Xena's mind travelled through back alleys to a basement with a single
candle in the window. Would she be there if--
"The delegation from Senturia will be here within the hour,
Princess." Ennaus looked up from his notes and blinked at the sheer
hostility in the ruler's expression. "You do recall issuing the
invitation?" he reminded her diplomatically.
In answer, Xena stormed into her bedroom, hurling layers of clothing
around as she changed. A steady stream of expletives attended her
efforts, increasingly strident and creative with each passing minute.
Ennaus frowned. He hoped the Princess' temperament would improve
before the landowners arrived to discuss her latest inspiration from out
of the blue, this time to limit ownership of olive groves in the valley.
Who cared if all the groves were controlled by a few noblemen? They knew
better than to extort members of the Realm with their pricing, and were
useful collaborators. The aide simply could not see why Xena had taken
it upon herself to interfere.
A thunderous crash -- "Godsdamnit!" -- came from behind the
bedroom curtain, and Ennaus expelled air through his lips. At this rate,
the Senturians would be lucky to end up with a single tree.
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