The Hanging Gardens by XWPFanatic

HangingGL

The Hanging Gardens
by XWPFanatic

Here is the cast of characters, in alphabetical order:

Allemane, Lord of Gaul                                  Eponin, Gabrielle’s Chief Officer
Dokov, Chief of the Huns                               Eward, a member of Xena’s Royal Guard
Farza, Queen of Syria                                      Harib, Marshall of the Babylonian Guard
Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons                 Kelryn, an Amazon warrior
Gregor, Proconsul of Ephesus                       Lari, an Amazon warrior
Kulam, King of Persia                                     Minon, a member of Xena’s Royal Guard
Lao Ma, Empress of Chin                               Novan, a member of Xena’s Royal Guard
Nebuharin, King of Babylon                          Palaemon, Captain of Xena’s Royal Guard
Pompey, Triumvir of Rome                           Pei-cha, a wise snow leopard
                       Xena, Conqueror of Greece Tamara, an Amazon warrior
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Sequel to Aftermath: The Tree Of Life

Part I

Chapter One

Gabrielle stood on the balcony, overlooking the practice field behind the castle. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her face. Soon the midday sun would make it too hot for the activities taking place below her. Taking a deep breath which brought the scent of summer flowers, dirt and sweat to her nose, she smiled. Green eyes the color of the summer grass on the hillside fluttered open and watched the Conqueror and Palaemon spar in front of the Royal Guard.

She savored these moments. After knowing the horror of a true battle, Gabrielle found comfort in the rhythmic practice. It was like watching a dance, except instead of a possible sprained toe, the participants could lose the toe entirely if they weren’t careful. While careful wasn’t the right adjective for the Conqueror, Gabrielle had no concern about Xena’s ability to return to the throne room whole. Thus, the Amazon Queen could watch the match with an eye for the beauty inherent in the Conqueror as she practiced her art of war.

Xena spun around and blocked the strike Palaemon aimed for her lower legs. She enjoyed fighting him, he was the only one of her soldiers she could go full-out with and not be afraid of accidentally killing him. She had trained him for years now, fought alongside him, and they both knew each other’s combat style. If only she had an army of Palaemons, then she knew she would conquer Rome. The thought amused her. If only she had an army made entirely of her, then she would destroy Caesar without even breaking a sweat.

Knowing this was not a possibility, unless she invited the intervention of Ares, she focused on training her soldiers so they would become more like her. Each day at dawn, well before Gabrielle consented to rise, the Conqueror would awake and go down to the barracks. There she would have breakfast with Palaemon and her other key officers. It was her way of keeping informed on the morale of her men, and also to watch them for signs of trouble. Xena knew that while there was no current fear from external enemies, there was always fear of internal enemies and internal weakness. She would allow neither in her kingdom. Not when she had so much to lose.

The Captain of the Royal Guard believed his sparring partner’s mind was elsewhere from her thoughtful expression. He assumed it was on the lithe figure he knew to be standing above and behind him. Gabrielle had come into the Conqueror’s throne room five moons before and changed everything. He had never seen the Conqueror content before. She had always been restless, like a caged animal, but now she seemed …

His thought was cut off as he ducked beneath the blow aimed for his head. Once before he had been caught daydreaming while sparring with the ruler. He had the scar down the middle of his cheek to prove it. Focus, Palaemon, focus, he chanted to himself and directed his attention and energies on the dark warrior before him.

Xena felt the shift in her Captain and her eyes narrowed dangerously. She disliked being ignored and she wouldn’t allow Palaemon to wish he were someplace other than here. Deciding to teach him a lesson, the Conqueror dipped down into her reserves and began a merciless assault.

Gabrielle gasped as she witnessed the marked change in Xena’s efforts against the Captain. It brought her back to the hillside in Ephesus where she had watched the Conqueror defend herself against five Roman soldiers at once. To defeat them, Xena had become wild, a dangerous and terrifying vision to the young woman. She witnessed the Conqueror’s devolution from precise warrior to cornered animal. The Roman soldiers did not understand that at the moment Xena seemed weakest, she was at her most fearsome. Perhaps they came to the realization as they paid their fare to Charon.

She wanted to call out, to stop the fight, but knew she could never do so. Xena would not tolerate disrespect in front of her soldiers. Gabrielle would have to bring this up later when they were alone, when the Conqueror could allow herself the luxury of counsel. So Gabrielle made a silent petition to Artemis to protect the Captain from harm.

Palaemon scrambled backward feeling like a clumsy child. He saw the dangerous glint in the Conqueror’s eyes which had become nearly colorless in her attack. He knew he was in trouble. Perhaps having a contented Conqueror was not a good thing, perhaps she needed new lands to conquer in order to keep the battlelust inside her sated. The Captain did the only thing he knew to stop the blows, he threw down his sword and fell to his knees.

Stopping her momentum at the sight, Xena saved Palaemon his head. The dark woman stood over her Captain, blade at the base of his neck, sweat from her brow dripping onto his exposed skin. She sheathed her sword and turned to face the onlookers, many of whom had assumed there would be need of a new Captain of the Royal Guard that day. “Never take your mind off the battle. When you do, you will die.”

Gabrielle let out the breath she had been holding and loosed her unconscious hold on the railing.

Looking back at Palaemon who had not moved from his close call, “Break them into drill squads for the next two candlemarks. Then you and Minon report to the throne room.”

The Captain nodded, “Yes, my liege, it will be done.”

Gabrielle met Xena when she came into their living quarters. Holding out a linen towel, she gave it to the sweaty ruler along with a smile. “Good morning.”

The Conqueror wrapped the towel around her neck then bent to receive a good morning kiss from the Amazon Queen. “Hello there. How are you doing this morning?”

“I’m good. Slept like a rock now that you’ve given me my side of the bed back.” She gently pushed against the taller woman’s hips, rocking them. Gabrielle had discovered she really like being near Xena after she had been training with her men. It always brought out an energy from deep within the ruler, along with a musky scent that Gabrielle found particularly appealing.

Xena growled and pulled the fair-haired woman close to her, “It has been my side of the bed all my life. No one has ever fought me for it before.”

Running her hands up slick arms, resting finally in Xena’s hair, Gabrielle leaned closer, “Well, it was time someone did. I am willing to share, however.”

“Hmm,” the Conqueror smiled, remembering Gabrielle’s version of sharing. “Perhaps we can work something out. Care to negotiate?” Xena’s large hand splayed across the small of Gabrielle’s back, pinning her lover next to her. She had noticed recently that Gabrielle was very attentive whenever she returned from the workout fields.

A warmth suffused Gabrielle’s features as she recalled a rather public negotiation she and Xena once conducted. Glad for the lack of audience, she pushed up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips against Xena’s.

“My mother always told me it was best to share,” Gabrielle husked out eventually.

“That’s my girl.” Xena kissed the tip of Gabrielle’s nose and pulled out of their embrace. She began stripping out of her leather sparring outfit, heading toward the bathing chamber. “I saw a new horse in the stables when I checked on Argo. Who’s here?”

Gabrielle followed behind her picking up articles of clothing and armor, setting them where the servants would attend to them. It amused the oracle that Xena seemed incapable of taking off her clothes while standing still. She was either moving toward the bath or the bed when she disrobed. She never paused in her approach to either, not that Gabrielle minded. She appreciated the urgency it conveyed.

She watched the warrior slide in the waiting pool, hearing the sigh of gratitude for the coolness of the water. Xena floated over to the spout, rinsing the sweat and dirt out of her hair. “It’s a messenger from King Nebuharin. I have Nestor providing him with food and drink. We can see him after you finish your bath.”

Xena tilted her head, “We certainly won’t be seeing him before then.” She lifted a large hand and splashed the water, sending a scattering of droplets at her oracle. “Join me. Then we will find out what the Fox of Babylon wants.”

Chapter Two

The messenger, a slight man, skin permanently seared by a harsh sun, bent low before the ruler of Greece. His forehead was pressed against the cool stone floor of the great hall while he waited for the command to rise and speak.

The Conqueror leaned back on her throne, waiting an appropriate amount of time before releasing the messenger from his position. Her long fingers closed around a goblet of sweet wine and she brought the liquid to her lips. After swallowing, she spoke, “Arise.”

He gracefully arose and approached an additional few paces toward the thrones. “Most humble greetings to the exalted and esteemed Xena, Conqueror of Greece, and to Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation, from your loyal friend, King Nebuharin of Babylon, the cradle of civilization. King Nebuharin rejoices in your continued good health and prosperity, grateful to the benevolent gods for blessing you. King Nebuharin is desirous of the pleasure of your company, remembering fondly his time prior spent in Greece, and now extends his invitation for you and Queen Gabrielle to join him in Babylon, to feast on its bounty, to wonder at its beauty, and to join with your friends in peace.”

Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by the melodic cadence of the man’s voice. He was obviously trained in the speaking arts and she wondered if his singing voice was as pleasant as well. The thought of spending time in a culture which prized speech was intriguing to the oracle. She knew better than to voice her opinion before the Conqueror voiced hers, though, so she remained silent and waited for Xena’s reaction.

Xena drummed her fingers on the arm of the throne. The invitation suited her plans. She had wanted to spend some time alone with Gabrielle ever since Ephesus. While Xena had never been to Babylon, she had been told the gardens were magnificent, the gift of King Nebuharin’s great-grandfather to his bride, who missed her homeland. The romantic story alone would appeal to Gabrielle’s sensibilities, even if the gardens did not live up to their reputation. “Welcome, friend. Greece returns the warm embrace of King Nebuharin and we bid you stay, take your rest and await our answer this evening.”

A soft smile creased the oracle’s lips, knowing with that reply what Xena’s answer would be. She wondered what Babylon looked like and realized she would soon know.

“My Queen, I must protest to this course of action.” Eponin turned her back to the Conqueror, trying to block Gabrielle’s view of the ruler at the end of the table, hoping to minimize the ruler’s strong influence over the young Queen. “We can’t adequately protect you with only four warriors.”

“Eight,” Xena countered, her voice low.

Gabrielle recognized it for the warning that it was. “Eponin, I am sure I will be fine. If Xena believes that arriving in Babylon with too large an escort would send the wrong diplomatic signals, then I have to agree with her.”

“But only four? My Queen –”

The Conqueror’s palm crashed against the hard wood of the table with a resounding smack. All eyes turned to her as she half rose from her seat and leaned forward, putting her weight on her curled up fists. “Do not contradict me again, Amazon. Gabrielle will have eight guards – four Amazons, four Greeks. I am quite capable of defending myself. And teaching you respect.”

The dark haired Amazon met the Conqueror’s gaze defiantly. She knew better than to speak but she did not flinch in face of the ruler’s disapproval. I am an Amazon, a warrior and protector of my Queen. I will not cower before you, despite who you are, Destroyer. Drawing strength from the spirit of her mother, which Eponin believed resided in her, she waited.

“Eponin, leave us for a moment,” the Queen commanded softly, her green eyes never leaving the angry ruler.

“Yes, my Queen,” Eponin responded stiffly, moving with rigid precision and exiting the room.

Xena flicked her eyes in Palaemon’s direction and her message was clear. He too rose and bowed, “My liege, your majesty.”

Gabrielle moved from her chair to the Conqueror’s side. Trailing light fingers down the rigid muscles of Xena’s arm, Gabrielle leaned into her, placing her lips by the ruler’s ear. “I will do as you wish, Xena. You know that. Why are you so angry?” She loosely wrapped her hand around a tight fist.

“I will not be disrespected in my own palace, certainly not to my face, and never by an Amazon.” Her speech was clipped, the words bitten off before given full form. She had not moved from her coiled position at the head of the table, the muscles in her arm standing in contrast to smooth skin.

“I will speak to her. It will not happen again, I assure you.” With her free hand, Gabrielle reached out and pulled at the Conqueror’s chair until it touched the back of her knees. “Please, sit down.” A light squeeze to the ruler’s hand and Xena gracefully sank into the seat. “I understand what you are saying. I believe you that arriving with more than eight warriors, considering the fact King Nebuharin’s men will be escorting us into Babylon, would be seen as an act of distrust. I know you will keep us safe, Xena.”

“Your Amazons are convinced I would have you harmed.”

Gabrielle shook her head, her fair hair framing her face softly. “I just think Eponin takes her job very seriously. I seem to remember someone threatening her to the very gates of Tartarus and beyond if she let something happen to me.” The oracle noted Xena’s lips curling a bit in remembrance. “She’s fearful of losing another queen. She and Terreis were best friends, I’ve been told.”

“You will be safe with me.”

The young leader knelt down beside her lover and gently grasped her hand. “I never doubted that for a moment.” Placing a kiss on Xena’s palm, she met Xena’s eyes confidently. “Now, which Amazons should I choose for my escort? Who should the four be?”

The Conqueror mentally made her list but did not voice it. “Who do you think?”

“Eponin – unless you do not want her to accompany us -”

“Never,” Xena interrupted, “make a decision about your safety based on a guard’s popularity, Gabrielle. Do you trust Eponin to protect your life with her own?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe her capable of defending you?”

“I do.”

“Is there anyone who would serve you better than she would?”

“Of the Amazons, no.”

“Then you have no choice but to have Eponin come,” Xena concluded. “To do otherwise, would be foolish.”

“I didn’t want to upset you.”

A large hand nudged her chin upward to meet eyes the color of the afternoon sky in late summer. “I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

Gabrielle nodded, feeling silly for wanting to protect the Conqueror. “All right, so I will take Eponin. I think Tamara would also do well.” She felt a flush of confidence as the Conqueror nodded gravely. “And Lari.” Another nod. “The last? Perhaps Kelryn.”

The Conqueror pictured the young Amazon, full of cockiness, swagger and bravado. Three traits Xena didn’t admire, unless they were earned. Having watched Kelryn on the practice fields, she had a feeling that one day they might be. She was still a little green for the ego she possessed, but perhaps she would grow into it. It wouldn’t be bad for her to come along. Especially when the seven other guards would be senior to her, give her something to watch and learn. “I think she’s a fine choice.”

“Thank you for accepting King Nebuharin’s invitation.”

The Conqueror’s features transformed with an affectionate look, one that only the Amazon Queen was privy to. “I just thought we could use a little peace and quiet together.”

Chapter Three

Green eyes surveyed the arid land for anything resembling their own color. Gabrielle had at first been entranced by the endless sienna landscape, but, after a half moon of unvarying scenery, she was ready to arrive at the Euphrates River. The ancient river was the source of life for the region, bringing much needed water to a desolate area and greenery to brighten up the view, or so she had been told; she could only hope it was true.

Their journey had been hard on soldier and beast alike. Since starting into the desert, water had been conserved for drinking and cooking only. Gabrielle longed for a bath to rinse away grains of sand which had no business being lodged where they were. What mostly disturbed her were the times she could feel the sand on her teeth, hearing the scraping noise deep within her ears, causing her flesh to erupt in Goosebumps.

It also annoyed her how nonchalant Xena was about the conditions. The Conqueror acted as if no more luxurious accommodations could be had which, in point of fact, was true. The ruler and the Amazon Queen traveled within a covered carriage, the benches padded and thin linen drapes covering the windows. They had been spared the worst of the journey, which also made the young Queen feel more than a little guilty.

Whenever possible, they shared the carriage with their guards. Palaemon was a frequent visitor, as was Minon. The Greek Royal Guard were more likely to accept the invitation. Three of the Amazons, especially Eponin, shied away from their traditional enemy, despite the presence of their Queen. The only Amazon who seemed excited about spending time with the two rulers was Kelryn, who bounded like a young puppy up into the transport whenever asked.

Xena spent most of their days reviewing matters of state, studying reports she had received from the regents of the provinces before their journey. Of concern to her was a growing population of nomads which was coming perilously close to the northern border. There had been no sign of aggression yet, but the Conqueror was taking no chances on preserving her territory. She continually revised battle plans and fortifications. Xena also inquired as to the Amazon Regent’s report to Gabrielle about the progress of the resettlement, taking special note of the Amazons’ ability to lend support of arms should a border fight break out.

For her own education, Gabrielle studied Amazon history and law, knowing she had much to learn about the Nation she had been entrusted with. She found it especially amusing that for a nation of women who seemed to like to carry on only minimal conversation, they were especially verbose in their writings. The treatise on the placement of the latrines in relation to the main village establishment had run two scrolls alone. Gabrielle giggled; Amazons have delicate noses.

Xena glanced across the carriage at the sound. Her young oracle was curled up on the bench, legs tucked under her, and a scroll spread across her lap. Gabrielle looked younger than her twenty-three winters while studying. Indeed, it surprised the Conqueror how much maturity was held within the young heart.

Over the last three moons, they had fallen into an easy pattern. At first the ruler had been worried Gabrielle would want to formalize their relationship, press for more than she was willing to give. Instead, the oracle had responded to her in kind, not placing emphasis on defining what they were together. They shared a remarkable physical chemistry, more so than Xena recalled with any of her previous lovers, including Borias. Further, she and Gabrielle were not burdened by excessive and effusive promises of the future to come. It wasn’t that Xena didn’t want to have a future with Gabrielle, she simply couldn’t envision it. She couldn’t envision any future beyond that of her and Greece. Borias had never understood that. He had kept insisting on their togetherness, on forming a family. She snorted in disgust. She had no business being a part of a family. Surely leading Lyceus to his death had proven that. And yet an incarnation of Lyceus sat across from her. The same fair hair framed gentle features, the same laugh softened hard days.

“What are you thinking?” Gabrielle asked, reluctant to break the mood, but unable to stop herself as she noticed the faraway look in the Conqueror’s eyes.

“How much you remind me of my younger brother.” Xena surprised herself by the honest reply. “Your hair is the same color.”

“Red or blonde?” the oracle teased, knowing the propensity her hair had for appearing different colors to different people.

The ruler chuckled, a low, rich sound, “The color of late afternoon sunlight.”

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat at her lover’s description, more poetic than anything she had ever heard from her before. “That’s beautiful, Xena.”

“Come here.” The ruler patted a soft spot on the cushion beside her, setting the scrolls she had been perusing on the floor of the carriage. She lifted her arm, giving further invitation to her companion, who was resettling her own scrolls and moving toward the ruler. Gabrielle snuggled up against her side, fitting herself tightly against the Conqueror despite the heat. Xena’s fingertips found a pathway up and down the exposed skin of Gabrielle’s arm, unconsciously sweeping grit away. She smiled when Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered closed within moments.

Kelryn bounced alongside the carriage, trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen and Conqueror through the moving drapery. She noted when Gabrielle had switched sides to join the ruler. Her overactive imagination created many scenarios of activities now going on within the confines.

“You’re making me tired,” Eponin growled, putting a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, holding her closer to the ground momentarily. “Stop it.”

“I just want to see.”

“Yeah, well, stop it anyway.”

Frowning at her commander, Kelryn groused, “Don’t you want to know what they’re doing in there?”

“Not particularly, no.” In fact, Eponin preferred not to know.

“Really?” The sandy-haired soldier was intrigued. “I had heard you had something of a reputation once yourself, Commander.” Her gray eyes examined Eponin discreetly, noting the tensing of her shoulders with a satisfied smirk.

“How old are you, Kelryn?”

“Nineteen winters, Commander.”

“Then you’re old enough to know better than to ask me something like that.”

“I wasn’t aware that was a question.”

The Commander stopped, arms folding across her chest, and took a warrior’s stance. “Soldier, do you have something you want to prove? Do you think because you have a little swagger in your step that you’re the one women are fainting over in the streets?”

The younger Amazon took a decidedly relaxed stance, hooking her thumbs in the belt of her uniform. “You noticed my swagger?”

“Everyone notices your swagger, kiddo,” she waited until Kelryn looked pleased with her pronouncement before continuing, “you work it hard enough.”

Full lips pursed and eyes narrowed in response, but Kelryn kept her voice confident. “I’ve had six lovers since arriving in Corinth, four of them Greek girls who needed a little education, which I was happy to supply. And you?”

“You want to compare belt notches, kiddo? ‘Cause I’ve whittled away more belts than you ever will. My knife has become dull –”

“- you can say that again –”

“- from all my notching.” Eponin wanted to throttle her soldier, but held off knowing she might need another guard for their new Queen. I’ll just wait until we get back to Corinth. I bet the Destroyer put her on this detail simply to drive me slowly insane.

“Past tense there, Commander. No offense, but I prefer to live in the present.”

“Gods! Aren’t you the cockiest thing that ever was born into the Nation? I have half a mind to take you down a peg or four.”

Kelryn suppressed a smile badly. That was easier than expected; Ep’s not as perceptive as they say she is. “I’d like to see you try, but, Commander, I don’t want to embarrass you in front of the others.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, little one. I’ve never been embarrassed about sex.” Her eyes wandered toward the carriage which was continuing to move slowly along the desert road; they needed to hurry and rejoin it soon. “Here’s the deal: starting now until our return we’re in a competition. Whoever wins gets bragging rights.”

“I can live with that. How do we prove success?”

Caramel colored eyes twinkled, “Oh, you’ve never received a token of appreciation, have you?” Eponin enjoyed the resulting flush on Kelryn’s cheeks and throat.

Sucking in a deep breath, Kelryn held out her hand, waiting to seal the contest. She smiled evenly when Eponin grasped her forearm. “This will be a pleasure, Commander.”

“The pleasure will be all mine, kiddo. All mine.”

Chapter Four

Gabrielle awoke to the overwhelming smell of sweet water. She had never noticed the scent of a river before, and had even doubted others when they claimed they could. It was, she decided, the nicest thing she had ever encountered.

Stretching slightly, she discovered she was lying on her side, her head cradled in Xena’s lap, the Conqueror’s hand nestled in her hair. She could tell by the slow and even breathing pattern that the ruler was asleep. Content to remain where she was, Gabrielle remained still, knowing that Palaemon would retrieve them from the transport when it was time to board the ship for the next part of their journey. She drifted back to sleep.

Outside, Palaemon, Eponin, and the head of their Babylonian escort were overseeing the placement of the Conqueror’s and Amazon Queen’s goods aboard the ship. Palaemon had assured the ship’s captain that only one cabin would be needed for the two dignitaries but that the guards would take the adjoining cabin. This resulted in a raised eyebrow from Eponin but she said nothing. Both Greek and Amazon soldiers would want to be close at hand should there be any trouble. It certainly wasn’t as if her three were unaware of the differences between the two genders.

Once all was prepared, including a large bath to be utilized before boarding, Palaemon went to the carriage to inform the Conqueror. He was surprised that she had not been out with him. It was rare for her to seclude herself when they were in a new territory. When he opened the carriage door after a short knock, he understood why. He stood there for a moment, taken by the view of his ruler in repose, hand secure on her oracle.

Eponin noticed Palaemon’s hesitation and became suspicious of the carriage’s contents. She jogged over a few steps and peered in around the broad shouldered Captain. The scene reminded her of a lion cub held in the mouth of the lioness. She could only pray to Artemis that the lioness’ jaws would not clamp fully shut.

“Is there a reason we have become a tourist attraction?” the Conqueror asked, her voice startling the watchers who had assumed her to still be asleep. Her pale blue eyes fixed on the soldiers and she noted the mixed emotions playing on the Amazon’s features. “Is everything ready for our boarding?”

“Yes, my liege,” Palaemon answered, knowing the question was intended for him. “I have also had a bath drawn for you and Queen Gabrielle so you can be more comfortable on the voyage. It has been set up in the tent on the bank.”

At last, Xena sighed inwardly. “Excellent, Palaemon. Be sure your men also clean up. I don’t want them tracking sand through the ship and reacquainting me with its feel.”

“Yes, my liege.”

Eponin remained in the doorway, even as the Captain left to carry out his orders. The Conqueror seemingly ignored her, focusing her attention instead on rousing the Amazon Queen. She watched as battle roughened hands gently threaded through fair hair, rearranging strands carefully.

“Wake up, Gabrielle. We have a bath waiting for us.” She whispered the words she knew her oracle would want to hear. The last three nights they had spent in discussion of how great a bath would be. Xena was especially anxious to meet the water, for Gabrielle had called a halt to their intimacies after a week in the desert, claiming there were some locations best not permanently embedded with sand. While the ruler had agreed in principle, she had made sure to tease the Amazon Queen a bit, testing her resolve and leaving them both more than a little frustrated. Xena hoped that Gabrielle would suffer from seasickness even on a river passage. Her remedy would certainly make the next quarter moon go more pleasantly.

Gabrielle awoke once more and rolled over so that she was looking up at her lover. “Thanks for being a good pillow,” she whispered.

The Commander was still standing in the doorway, and upon her Queen’s awakening now felt as if she were witnessing something very personal. There was a confidence in Gabrielle’s presence with the Destroyer that surprised her a little. In public, her Queen was deferential to the dark ruler. In private, she appeared to be unconcerned about her status, gleefully possessive of the Destroyer’s lap, not fearful of being devoured whole. It was a lot to ponder, so she left quietly, feeling Xena’s eyes on her back as she did.

“How do you know King Nebuharin?” Gabrielle asked, dipping her head back into the cool water, unable to stifle a moan; the feeling was exquisite.

Completely distracted by the body and the sound in front of her, Xena fought to form coherent words in response. “I first met the Fox when I was in Egypt a few winters ago.” She moved closer to the oracle, rubbing her hands briskly over the bar of soap, filling her palms with lather.

“What’s he like? Why do you call him the Fox?” Another sigh escaped her lips as she felt Xena’s hands slide across her shoulders and down her back.

Xena leaned forward, pressing herself against Gabrielle’s back, determining how truly interested Gabrielle was with this line of conversation. As her hands moved to help assure the cleanliness of Gabrielle’s arms and collarbone, she teased, “Because he has short, bristly red hair and a pointed nose and ears.”

The Amazon Queen lightly caught Xena’s hand as it passed across the hollow of her throat and slid it lower. “Funny. How is he so crafty that you – of all people – would call him the Fox?”

Must we have this conversation at this very moment? O Gabrielle, what you do to me sometimes. “Babylon is the gateway between the East and the West. All trade with Persia and the distant lands beyond must go through her portals. Moreover, nothing can reach Egypt or Syria from the East without crossing Babylonian borders. Yet, despite its prominence as a target, the Fox has ruled for over forty summers and has managed to avoid invasion, collapse and upheaval.”

“Through deception and trickery?” She managed to ask the question despite the Conqueror’s tracing of delicate paths along her throat.

“No, mostly through knowing the minds of men. He understands what his opponents want and he very skillfully avoids their traps.” Tired of the conversation, Xena bent to have her lips follow the lines her fingers had made. “You, however, have not avoided my trap,” she informed the oracle and she slid strong arms around Gabrielle’s waist, pulling her against her own body.

“Who said I was trying to?” Gabrielle laid her head back on the broad shoulder behind it, tilting slightly to see Xena’s profile better. “Maybe I was seeing how focused you can be under adverse conditions. You know, in case you were ever captured by an enemy.” She laughed gently at the ruler’s outraged expression. “Well … it could happen.”

“I think not, Gabrielle.” Gently, she bit down on the nearby earlobe. “Besides, if I were captured, they certainly wouldn’t put me into a bath with a beautiful, alluring, young woman. I have a feeling I would be naked, but far less comfortable.”

This thought deeply disturbed the Amazon Queen, reminding her of the fear she had experienced on the Ephesian hillside watching the battle below her. Her only thought at the end of the day had been that none of the blood on the bronzed skin of the Conqueror was the warrior’s own. “Let’s not talk about it.” Gabrielle hugged the arms holding her.

“You started it,” Xena chastised gently. When she received no response, she realized that had been the wrong reply. Thinking quickly, she tried to regroup, to not lose the moment she had been impatiently awaiting for a quarter moon. “Let me finish it,” she said softly as she turned the smaller woman around in her arms. Disconcerted by the lost look she found on Gabrielle’s face, she pressed her palm against her cheek. “Don’t worry about me. Nothing’s going to happen to me.” She leaned forward and gave the oracle a lingering kiss, waiting until she felt the smaller body beginning to respond to her. “No one is ever going to keep me from my destiny.”

Gabrielle leaned her head back, giving free access to her throat, and slid her hands up into the Conqueror’s dark hair. “No more talking, okay? I don’t want to think right now,” she panted out next to the ruler’s ear.

The Conqueror nodded her consent, moving her hands down the gentle slope of Gabrielle’s spine and further still, and proceeded to make thinking impossible for both of them.

Chapter Five

Babylon is magnificent. This was the one thought that echoed through Gabrielle’s mind as she viewed the city from the upper deck of the ship. The city was alive with color; the river’s banks overflowed with it, lapping onto the sides of the nearby buildings, spilling upward like a fount and covering everything in its wake.

It made her feel near colorless in the garments the King had provided for them on their journey. Upon arriving onboard, she and the Conqueror had discovered traditional Babylonian clothing in their stateroom. Gabrielle had immediately found it much more suitable to the climate – loose trousers of white linen, a billowy white linen shirt overhanging it, and a long scarlet scarf which wrapped several times around her waist, drawing the shirt closed and keeping sand away from her skin. Eschewing the sandals laid out for her, Gabrielle kept on her boots and finally felt free of the tiny irritants that had plagued her for nearly a moon.

What she now found most intriguing to her was the huge building which towered over the middle of the city. It consisted of eight stepped platforms, rising high above the desert floor, each covered in bright blue tile. It was as if the tower pulled all the brilliance of the Euphrates and pushed it skyward, reminding the city’s inhabitants of their dependence on the water flowing through its center.

“That is Etemenanki, the temple of Marduk, the chief of our gods,” the ship’s captain said from beside her, seeing where her gaze fell.

“It’s amazing, so beautiful.”

“It has stood there since before my family name took form. There is no holier site in Babylon than it.” He pointed a long brown finger further down the river’s path. “And you can see the beginning of the palace now.”

“Really? Where?” All Gabrielle could see was a rising mountain of greenery. She let out a gasp when she realized that was the palace. “How did … it’s …”

“It does not look like a building, does it?”

“No, not at all.” As the ship neared, the young oracle was barely able to make out the white colonnades, rooftops and arches underneath the leafy oasis. “Why was it designed that way?”

“It is a beautiful love story, Queen Gabrielle. Our great King Nebuchadnezzar II married the young Princess Amyitis of Medes. Her homeland was one filled with mountains and greenery. So when she came here to Babylon, she became melancholy, longing for the forests she had known as a child. The love King Nebuchadnezzar had for her was overwhelming, and it broke his heart to see her so despondent. In order to make her feel more at home, he ordered this palace built, to resemble the mountain near where the Princess grew up. This once again restored his bride’s joy and they lived a long life together, ruling over Babylon in peace and prosperity.”

Gabrielle exhaled softly, imagining being the recipient of such a love. “Thank you for telling me the story, captain.”

“It was my pleasure, I assure you. Please excuse me, I must see to our landing.” With a stiff bow, he stepped backward and returned to the helm.

Gabrielle continued to watch the growing tower and palace as they drew nearer to their destination. She could see people dressed in white robes climbing up the side of the tower, along the staircase which wound around its girth. It appeared on the different levels that there were benches and shade trees for the people to take their rest under, and that people took advantage of them. The thought of attempting the climb made her legs throb in remembered pain. While her legs were healed enough for everyday stress, it had been a long recovery and they weren’t quite ready for such a task.

Strong hands caught her shoulders as she swayed slightly. “My Queen, are you all right?”

Flushing slightly, Gabrielle nodded, “Yes, Eponin, thank you.”

The dark-haired guard gazed up at the afternoon sun, mentally reproaching it for being too harsh on her Queen. “Shall I escort you below?” Eponin missed the cooler climate of Greece, missed the trees and fields which spread out as far as she could see, not just as far as the irrigation canals could take the water. She wondered how the people could live here with such a narrow swathe of land on which to provide for themselves and their families. And she worried about war, knowing that whoever controlled the waterways controlled the populace.

“Really, I’m fine.” Pointing to the brightly tiled buildings they floated past, Gabrielle asked, “Isn’t it exquisite? I’ve never seen such a vibrant city.”

The Commander took in the bright yellow, red, green and blue buildings and dismissed them as gaudy. “It is colorful, my Queen.”

Gabrielle laughed, “Please say what you really think, Eponin.”

This time the Commander blushed slightly, glad for the excuse of the sun. Before she could reply, the Destroyer’s presence behind her registered in her mind.

“Take Gabrielle below, immediately!” Xena growled, reaching for her oracle’s arm to help her on her way. She began taking long strides toward the cabin door with Gabrielle in tow and Eponin in their wake until Gabrielle dug the heels of her boots into the deck.

“Xena! Wait! What’s going on?”

Xena’s face reflected her internal debate between simply throwing Gabrielle over her shoulder and hauling her below versus informing her of what was happening. A glance at Eponin indicated if she wanted the Amazon guard’s cooperation, she would have to opt for the giving of information. “The ship already docked is flying the imperial flag of Rome.”

“Caesar?” Gabrielle whispered, a wave of fear hit her in the gut, roiling through her, threatening to knock her off her feet. Her nightmare was coming true. She clung onto the Conqueror, fearful of letting her go.

The Conqueror closed an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders briefly, “Let me take care of this, all right? Go below, have Eponin stay with you.” Gently, she began peeling the smaller woman away from her and passed Gabrielle on to the Commander. To Eponin she said, “Post one of the Amazons at the door, send the other two up to me.”

“Yes, Conqueror,” the warrior replied, taking hold of the young Queen and leading her as quickly as possible to the cabin below.

“My liege!” Palaemon skidded to a stop before his ruler and inclined his head. “I have Minon below, and Eward and Novan fore and aft.”

“Send the other two Amazons to join them. Then you meet me at the helm. Of all the damnable times to be caught with my skirt flapping in the wind!” Without waiting for his reply, she went to take over control of the ship.

Chapter Six

In the cabin, Gabrielle sat on the bed in stunned silence, trying to calm her mind, slow her heart and regain full use of her senses. Eponin was muttering curses in an Amazon dialect she did not fully understand, but she knew enough to not ask for interpretation. Eponin was upset not only at the topside situation, but also at finding Minon within the stateroom.

Brought to Babylon and betrayed by the Fox. What price had he been given? A deep anger began to wash away the fear in Gabrielle’s veins. Coming to a decision, she stood quickly, startling both soldiers in the room. “Minon, stand outside.”

The guard frowned uncertainly, “Queen Gabrielle, the Conqueror has ordered me to remain beside you.”

Eponin made a move toward the Greek soldier, but Gabrielle waved her off. She saw no need to fight among themselves at this moment. “Fine. Then turn your back,” she commanded as she began unwinding the scarf from around her waist.

Suddenly realizing what was about to take place, the young soldier turned on heel and began studying the grains of wood in the siding.

“My Queen?” Eponin choked. She didn’t know if nudity was the best option under the circumstances.

“Get my ceremonial dress for me, Eponin. If I am to meet Caesar, I will meet him as Queen of the Amazon Nation.”

“Yes, my Queen!” Eponin sprung into action, hoping her fingers could as quickly put clothing onto an Amazon as they had always helped remove it.

“Bring the ship in slowly, but don’t drop anchor,” the Conqueror commanded from directly behind the captain, her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. A thin trickle of blood already coated the collar of his uniform, but he showed no sign of distress.

“Of course,” he replied, before giving out his orders to the crew.

“I want you to send one of your runners to the palace. I want the old Fox to come here himself for the betrayal.”

“Betrayal?” he couldn’t help but ask.

Using the point of the dagger to turn the Captain’s gaze toward the ship already in port, Xena growled, “Caesar is here.”

“Not Caesar, Pompey.” He eased his neck slightly away from the blade. “King Nebuharin has invited all of his significant neighbors here. Pompey came for Rome, but he is only one of nine.”

“Nine?”

“You, Queen Gabrielle, Pompey of Rome, Queen Farza of Syria, Lord Allemane of Gaul … I don’t know all the others.”

“All here? So much for peace and quiet.”

“Captain!” a sailor’s voice drifted up from the main deck. “King Nebuharin approaches!” The captain awaited the Conqueror’s orders, acknowledging her power.

“Drop the gangplank. I will go meet him. And I swear to you that if this is a trap, I will survive long enough to make your last moments in life extremely painful. Am I understood?”

The captain swallowed, not daring to nod and impale his throat on her blade. “Yes, Conqueror.” He fully believed her promise; indeed, he suspected that even if she were to die, she would find a way to reach across the river Styx and destroy him slowly.

“Watch him, Palaemon,” Xena growled dangerously and hurried to where the gangplank was being lowered.

She found Kelryn and Minon standing beside the gangplank, holding onto the railing to keep it from swaying excessively. Further enraged by this disobedience to her orders, she grabbed the Greek soldier by his leather uniform, lifting him up so he was balancing on his toes. “Why have you left Gabrielle?”

“I’m right here, Xena,” responded the voice she didn’t expect.

Xena looked over and saw Gabrielle displayed in her Amazon garb, the sight momentarily distracting her from her anger. Recovering quickly, she approached the smaller woman, towering over her. “What are you doing up here? I thought I told you to go below.” The Conqueror spared a glance at Eponin, speaking volumes about what she thought of the Commander’s protective abilities.

A determined chin rose and steady green eyes met Xena’s, “I wasn’t afraid to meet Caesar’s men in Ephesus; I am not afraid to meet Caesar in Babylon. The Nation will not cower below deck if there is danger above.”

The Conqueror clamped down on the proud look that threatened to steal across her features. “Stay right behind me. Nebuharin is approaching and we need to discuss his little surprise.” Without waiting for a response, Xena swung over the low railing and began descending the gangplank. Her innate sense of balance kept her upright despite the rolling of the untethered ship.

The dock moved with the current, adding a springy energy to the dark ruler’s steps. Even in the traditional Babylonian clothing she had donned while traveling, the light seemed to diminish around her, reflecting her mood. Her sword hilt and chakram gleamed in the afternoon sun, reminding all she might be cornered but not defenseless. Ten paces away from King Nebuharin, the Conqueror paused and put her hands on her hips, blocking the pathway to and from the ship. She could feel Gabrielle and her guards set foot on the dock and wait a small distance behind her.

“Greetings, Conqueror Xena!” Nebuharin called out, seemingly oblivious to her mood. “Welcome to Babylon!”

“I seem not to be the only one invited.” A jerk of her chin indicated the imperial flag of Rome which fluttered in the lazy wind.

The King’s gaze followed and he shook his head sadly, “Ah, my friend, I can understand your distress.” He turned to one of his attaches, “Have the captain lower that flag, or I will send men to cut it down. Remind Pompey that he visits my country, not I his.” He shrugged and spread out his hands in supplication, “Romans. They seem to think all the world is their own. No manners, I am afraid.”

“I am less concerned with well mannered adversaries than I am with having my throat cut in my sleep, Nebuharin. Surely it is a violation of your gods’ hospitality to invite a friend under a banner of peace and then cause your friend harm.”

“A most grievous sin. And I assure you that you and yours are protected in my kingdom. If not, may Marduk himself strike me down.” He listed to the left and peered around her, smiling as he obtained a better view of Gabrielle. “You must be Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons.”

“King Nebuharin,” came the polite reply. Gabrielle stepped closer and intently examined the Fox. She was amused to find that his hair did seem bristly, although it certainly was not red. His hair and beard were speckled liberally with gray, but his overall appearance was one of vitality. He had a compact and spare body, one that moved gracefully under his robes. The outfit he wore was much like the one she had been wearing earlier, but was adorned with colorful scarves and beads, indicating his wealth and rank.

“Please, let me make a formal apology for the worry this must have brought to you. I understand that you and Rome have recently had a disagreement in Ephesus. I did not mean to cause you alarm.”

“A fuller explanation would cause me to feel less alarmed.”

The King nodded solemnly, “I have invited you, Queen Gabrielle, and seven other rulers to join me here in Babylon for a time of celebration. It is the anniversary of my reign and I wished to be surrounded by my friends and my allies.”

A thin smile edged Xena’s lips, “Had you told me, I would have brought you a present.”

“You are too kind to your friend,” he resumed his approach, assuming that all was understood and forgiven. He opened wide his arms and embraced the Conqueror heartily, kissing first one cheek and then the other.

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and silently reproved Kelryn who had snorted at the sight. She was thus caught unaware when the King pulled her into an embrace and repeated his welcoming with her.

“Queen Gabrielle, it is a pleasure to meet you. I can see the reports I received about you from Ephesus did not do you justice. I had been told that the strength of your warriors was only slightly overshadowed by your beauty. But if such were the case, surely the whole world would bow before the Amazon Queen; for you are truly radiant and I cannot imagine you not overwhelming all those around you.”

“You are most generous in your welcome, King Nebuharin. And I suspect you of not a little flattery.”

The King clapped his hands together, “Ah, a wise and beautiful Queen. The Amazons have much to be proud of once again.” He spun around and began making gestures to his entourage, speaking in a language Gabrielle had never heard before. Turning once more, he held out his hand, “Please, will you accompany me to the palace? I have prepared food and drink for you. My servants will see to your belongings. Let us begin our celebrations.”

“We would be happy to, Nebuharin,” Xena replied, collecting the invitation for herself as well. She turned to the ship and sent several hand signals to Palaemon, relaying orders for him and the other guards on board. While still unhappy with the turn of events, she saw no need to exacerbate the problem. Best to follow the Fox to his lair. Xena hoped that for once her host had not outsmarted himself.

Chapter Seven

“This is the Sacred Walk,” Nebuharin said over his shoulder, gesturing at the narrow street they traversed on their way to the palace. “It is the processional way in Babylon, giving Marduk entrance to the city during the time of festival. He comes from visiting the river, down this pathway, looking in the windows of the righteous –”

“- that could be embarrassing –” Kelryn muttered to Eponin.

“- and then making his way to his temple.”

The King did not hear the Amazon behind him, but Gabrielle did and she once again gave her youngest guard a disapproving look. “Who lives in this quarter of town, King Nebuharin?” the Amazon Queen asked politely. The houses were all two or three stories in height, which indicated wealth, but were haphazardly placed along the roadside. Many of the buildings would have an open view to the river had each of their neighbor built but a few paces to one side.

“These are the noblemen and officials in my court, Queen Gabrielle.”

Xena smirked, having noticed the strategic placement of the houses, each trying to bolster its own reputation at the expense of its neighbors.

“You can recognize the Sacred Walk by these stones.” He stopped over a dark red stone and bent down, his fingers following the engraving on its face lovingly. “My great ancestor, King Nebuchadnezzar II had these stones laid personally. Each says ‘the way of the lord’ and as long as you follow this path, you follow Marduk.”

“Marduk is the chief of your gods?”

“He is, much as Zeus is of yours. Except, our Marduk is real.” He chuckled at his own joke. “I say this, of course, to tease the Conqueror. She seems to be on a rather familiar basis with your Olympian gods.”

“That alone should make you grateful for your absent deities,” Xena muttered. It had been too long since Ares’ last visit, since Ephesus, and she doubted her good fortune would last.

“Oh, Marduk is not absent. He just sets appointments with us instead of dropping in. In fact, we recently celebrated his festival. It was a time of much rejoicing and feasting. And the King receives direction from Marduk himself.”

Gabrielle was intrigued, “What happens?”

“On the first night of the festival, I climb to the temple of Marduk, which is located at the top of the Etemenanki,” he gestured to the blue tiled tower looming over the city, “and there I await his visit. As King, I am placed on trial for the sins of the people. If the people or I have displeased Marduk too greatly, I will be killed so that another may reign. If we have pleased Marduk, I receive guidance from him.”

“Have any kings been killed by Marduk?”

“Sadly, yes. Even Babylon has suffered under wicked kings, but not for long. Marduk protects his people.”

Or an assassin does. Xena doubted that the king went to the temple unaccompanied. An unpopular king could easily be dispatched in the ceremony and no one the wiser. It would be the perfect time to take over the kingdom. “Who else is present at this counseling session?”

“No one save the high priestess of Ishtar.”

“Who is Ishtar?” Gabrielle asked.

“Ah, Ishtar is our goddess of love and of war.”

“Love and war? Isn’t that contradictory?” The oracle tried to imagine Ares and Aphrodite agreeing on anything; it was impossible.

The King stopped and regarded the younger Queen seriously. “Not in Babylon. I know many rulers go to war for conquest and gain, to expand their empires and make themselves become great. Ishtar teaches us that we fight only for that which we love: our homeland, our peoples, our gods. Babylon has enjoyed peace with its neighbors for generations now because we follow the path of love and war, and not one or the other exclusively.”

There was a long uncomfortable silence among all the rulers until Xena took in a deep breath. “Aren’t we heading to a party, Nebuharin?” Her voice was measured, careful to not allow her annoyance to show too clearly. She did not appreciate the other ruler attempting to publicly castigate her, however obliquely and cloaked in religion.

For now Xena knew it was important to keep relations polite. She was a guest in a foreign land and was surrounded by her enemies. A quick exit from the country was all but impossible unless they were to travel south on the Euphrates, taking them still further away from Greece. This wasn’t exactly the relaxing visit she had hoped to enjoy with Gabrielle.

The Fox flashed a brilliant smile and nodded vigorously, “Absolutely, yes. Come, let us hurry! You will want time to relax before our gathering tonight.” He began briskly walking down the processional way toward the leafy palace.

Not eager to resume any discussion, the Conqueror let the King move a short distance ahead before she started out. When she realized Gabrielle was standing still, she returned to the Amazon Queen’s side. “Everything all right?”

In response, Gabrielle stretched out her hand to the Conqueror. “I’m sorry.” The oracle’s eyes were sad as they met Xena’s. “I didn’t mean for him to say anything like that. I would never …”

Xena took the smaller hand in hers and shrugged, “It was nothing, Gabrielle. Nebuharin wasn’t even particularly insulting.” She tugged on Gabrielle and began leading them down the road, their three soldiers forming a protective arc at their back. “It’s only going to get worse when we go to the party. Pompey certainly has no love for me, nor do any of the others Nebuharin mentioned. If the worst thing said is that I’m not like Ishtar, it’ll be a good evening.”

“Do you regret coming here?”

The ruler gave the hand she held a reassuring squeeze, “No. I only regret being caught unaware. But you and I will find a way to enjoy ourselves despite the company we keep.”

“Oh, do you have any ideas?”

The Conqueror smiled suggestively and leaned into the oracle as they walked so that her lips brushed a small, pink ear, “I have many ideas, Gabrielle. My favorite one involves you, me, rose petals and a soft bed.”

Chapter Eight

The warmth of the Conqueror’s hand and the imagery her words evoked, chased away any lingering unease in Gabrielle. She was once again able to appreciate the scenery around her.

They walked through the remainder of the nobles’ quarter to a long, walled roadway that led directly to the palace. The walls were made of a glazed brick and lions were depicted along their length. The lions were in various poses – reclining, playing, feeding, attacking. Each was drawn with exquisite detail and had they not been in brilliant colors, Gabrielle would have thought them real.

At the end of this roadway was a huge gate which barred entrance to the outer courtyard of the palace. The gate, made of bronze, was decorated with dragons and bulls, also rendered in great detail. Passing through them, Gabrielle tugged on the Conqueror’s hand. “Do you think they’re real?” she whispered.

Xena frowned momentarily, until she realized Gabrielle wasn’t only referring to the gates. “Dragons? Well, I’ve never seen one.” Her tone clearly implied if she had not yet encountered one she was doubtful of their worthiness as a beast.

“But do you think they’re real?” the oracle persisted.

“I think they’re myths made up to keep children from running out to play in the night.”

“Oh.”

Hearing the disappointment in the young woman’s tone, Xena chuckled. “We can ask Nebuharin if he’s ever seen one.”

“I don’t particularly want to ask him any more questions, thank you.” She didn’t like the Fox using her to aim a criticism at the Conqueror. I will not be duped again. Nor will the Amazon Nation be considered so meek as to tolerate such behavior.

The Conqueror nodded gravely and then turned her attention to the palace before them. It resembled a small mountain, with long vines overhanging the walls, obscuring their true nature. Like the temple in the middle of the city, the palace was built in stepped layers, four in number. Each layer was home to a multitude of trees and shrubbery. Only by careful observation could one make out the columns, arches, doorways, and walls beneath the foliage. It gave the impression that the building itself was alive, that they were walking into the belly of a leafy beast.

Entering the palace they walked briskly through several large rooms. The first was a highly ornamented reception hall, designed to intimidate those who entered. Given her current mood, it only served to make Gabrielle further annoyed with the Fox. The next was a large room used for social functions such as dinners and dances, as she could tell from the many tables and the dance floor. It had little in the way of other furniture, but had many beautiful tapestries hanging on the walls which depicted exotic animals. The last room they passed through was a trophy room, filled with the hides and heads of many animals. Gabrielle noted sourly that there was no dragon among them.

They walked through an archway and came to a separation between the palace and an inner palace. This gap was a little over a chain in width and filled with sunlight and a fine sand that had been raked into intricate patterns. Throughout the sand were a few boulders off-setting the design, sending it spiraling in another direction. It was simple and elegant. It disturbed Gabrielle that they were about to walk over it and mar its beauty.

The Conqueror could feel the curiosity pouring out of the Amazon Queen as they reached this rift between the two palaces, but knew Gabrielle well enough to know she would give no voice to it right now. Her compassion was matched only by her stubbornness.

King Nebuharin stopped at this juncture and turned to face his guests, smiling pleasantly. “As you can see, we are about to enter the royal living quarters. My rooms and garden are set apart from the rest of palace by this channel and no servant or soldier, other than my own, is allowed past this point. We have suitable accommodations prepared for your honor guard on this side. My servants will lead them there while I take you to your room.”

Xena folded her arms across her chest and shook her head slowly, “King Nebuharin, surely you understand that I cannot allow my officers to be unaware of where I and Queen Gabrielle will be staying. Should there arise a problem, especially due to the presence of some of your other guests, my men must know how to find me. Our guards will walk with us to our room and then withdraw.”

“I am afraid that is impossible, Conqueror. I have not allowed any servant of the other dignitaries to enter into the royal dwelling. I should not make an exception for you.”

“I understand,” the Conqueror replied, surprising all of the people with her. She waited a moment for King Nebuharin to look pleased with her concession before she turned to Minon. “Run back to the ship and have Palaemon see that our belongings are stowed away. We will set sail in two candlemarks.” Smiling pleasantly, she met King Nebuharin’s gaze. “I am afraid, in that case, I must bid you farewell. I cannot compromise my safety or that of Queen Gabrielle because of your unwillingness to allow this small favor. I hope you have a most pleasant dinner party this evening, but we will be unable to join you.”

Eponin stepped forward, anticipating an adverse reaction by the King. Even though the Destroyer had spoken on her Queen’s behalf, she could certainly not argue with this decision. She had not liked the Fox or even Babylon since they had entered the walled city. Greece was still a moon away, but at least they would be headed in the right direction.

Minon inclined his head, “Yes, my liege,” and left.

“Conqueror,” Nebuharin sighed.

“Yes?”

“Call back your officer. They may walk with you to your room, but then they must leave immediately.”

Minon heard the other ruler clearly but kept marching briskly until he heard the Conqueror’s voice bidding him to return.

“Please, follow me,” Nebuharin bade, his voice more subdued than earlier, and he led them across.

Gabrielle walked lightly on the sand, but still left footprints along the length of it. She wondered why there was no crossing path provided so as to avoid marring the sand sculpture. Then she realized that was exactly the point. There was no way anyone could enter into the royal quarters undetected. A scan of the area indicated there were no tools nearby to repair the damage to the design. It was the perfect entry detection system – far too wide for even Xena to leap, no vines for someone to swing across, no windows which opened over the gap, the boulders placed too far apart to hop from one to another. The only way into and out of the royal quarters was over this sand.

They entered into a room even more opulent than the ones seen before. “My private gardens are beyond,” Nebuharin noted, gesturing to the open double doors on the opposite wall, “and your room is in this wing, on the second floor.” He led them to a wide staircase and climbed it, leading them down a hallway to the far end. There he opened the door to the guest room he had prepared for them.

Xena was pleased as she surveyed its contents. In the far right corner she immediately noted the large feather bed housed in a wood frame with a canopy, gauzy white drapes encircling it. The rest of the room contained several large and comfortable looking chairs with low tables between them, two dressers for their belongings, a bathing station to freshen up at, and a balcony overlooking the gardens below.

Nebuharin ambled over to the balcony. “We will be having dinner tonight there,” he jabbed a finger in the direction of the large white garden house in the southwest corner of the gardens. “We will have honeyed liqueur at dusk. May I suggest you come early?”

“Why is that?” the Conqueror inquired mildly.

“You have to go through a maze in the garden to get there. It’s easier in the daylight.”

The Conqueror then saw the high hedges which led in an intricate pattern to the garden house. The hedges extended out from all sides of the raised platform; there was no other way to get to it except through the maze. “All right. We will see you at dusk then, Nebuharin.”

“I leave you to relax. And to see that your soldiers leave immediately.”

Neither of the visiting rulers replied as he saw himself out.

“Whew!” Gabrielle expelled, dropping into one of the chairs and immediately liking its softness. “Eponin, Kelryn, come sit for a moment.”

Kelryn hurried over and chose the chair next to the Queen. She couldn’t remember a more exciting day since entering the Queen’s service: Romans, political bickering and posturing, the wordplay going on between the King, the Conqueror and the Queen, the annoyance of the Queen. It all made for good drama. She couldn’t wait to tell the tales back in Greece, especially the one of her besting Eponin in their bet.

“If there are any problems where you are staying, send one of Nebuharin’s servants to me with a message and I’ll come out to you,” Gabrielle advised reasonably. “I am hoping that this visit will improve greatly, if not, we may be leaving soon.”

“Of course, my Queen.” Eponin would gladly carry every single trunk back to the ship herself if it meant they would leave any time sooner. All of her instincts told her to get her Queen out of the palace and fast, but she knew there was nothing she could do about it.

“And you,” Gabrielle shifted her attention to the young guard, “need to be careful of what you say around others. Never insult our host’s gods, especially in his own country.” She watched the slow burn of a blush creep over Kelryn’s face and neck.

“Yes, my Queen.” Kelryn found herself unable to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. Her shoulders slumped and she had to remind herself to draw back in her lower lip from the pout position it had assumed. “I am sorry.”

“Good.” She waited a moment longer for the chastisement to take hold, then continued, “You’re a good soldier, Kelryn. If you can learn to be more like Eponin, you will be an excellent one.” As Gabrielle was focused on Kelryn, she missed the smirk directed at the soldier from Eponin. She did not miss, however, the continued distressed countenance of the youth. “I personally chose you to come with me. Please do not disappoint me.”

At that, Kelryn’s head snapped up. Her gray eyes reminded Gabrielle of storm clouds on the horizon. “Never, my Queen.”

“Good. I want to be right about you, Kelryn.”

“You are. I swear by Artemis’ temple, you are.”

Gabrielle bestowed a gentle smile on the guard and nodded seriously. “Good. I’ll see you both later.”

Both soldiers rose to their feet, bowed and walked to the door. They waited at the doorframe for Minon who was speaking in low tones with the Conqueror. After a moment, he bowed and took his leave.

The Conqueror closed the door behind the guards, lowering the bar, locking it securely. She then went to the balcony and stood in the afternoon sunlight, letting it soak into her skin and warm her thoroughly. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, drawing in all the exotic scents from the gardens below. It was a moment of peace, one she didn’t realize she had needed until she felt arms slide around her waist and Gabrielle’s head rest between her shoulder blades.

“Do we have to go to dinner tonight?” the plaintive voice behind the ruler asked.

Xena chuckled; she knew how the Amazon Queen behaved when she was hungry. “I think we better. The gods only know what Nebuharin has planned for this evening. We’d hate to miss it.”

“I don’t like him.”

“I picked up on that.” Xena gently patted Gabrielle’s hand on her waist. “He’s all right, just a bit eccentric and a lot condescending.”

“How come you’re not annoyed with him like I am?”

“I can’t really allow myself to indulge in that right now. This has become a bit more complicated than I anticipated. I didn’t expect him to invite all the gods-be-damned leaders of the region here. And we don’t even know the whole guest list. I need to stay sharp. I can’t let petty things get to me.”

“You think we’re in danger?”

“Hmm … well, let’s just say we wouldn’t have come if we had known about this. Nebuharin is infuriating, annoying and patronizing, but he is a man of honor. We were invited here as friends and as guests of his household. We should be safe.”

“From Nebuharin. But not necessarily everyone else.”

Xena scowled; her oracle had seen through her extremely positive spin of their situation. “Nah, we’re safe from them too. I won’t let anything happen to you, Gabrielle.”

The Queen rubbed her cheek against the soft material at Xena’s back, “I know that. I just want to know who our enemies are here.”

“It might be quicker to count our friends.”

“Nebuharin?”

Xena nodded, “That would be it. At least, from what I know so far.”

Gabrielle sighed, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

Chapter Nine

Dusk came much sooner than Gabrielle would have liked. She was still a little bit put off by everything, but knew she needed to set her foul mood aside. Nervously, she resettled her dress’ fabric, watching the way it draped her body critically. The Conqueror had insisted she wear a green satin dress she thought was entirely too form-fitting and revealing. It was tight through the chest and waist and flared out gently at her hips, stopping at mid calf. The dress was sleeveless and was cut low on top and had a high slit up the right side.

“You look beautiful, as an Amazon Queen should.” Xena assured her as she led her confidently through the maze.

Gabrielle thought the same compliment could be directed toward the Conqueror. Although ‘beautiful’ didn’t seem to be quite the right descriptive. Dressed in a gown a few shades darker than her eyes, the Conqueror seemed majestic in every sense of the word. Power poured from her, the same way the sun throws off heat, and – like the sun – everything paled in comparison to her radiance. “How do you know your way through here so well?”

“Memorized the pattern while we were standing on the balcony. Didn’t want to have to stumble around.” Xena stopped and faced her oracle. “Things might get a little rough tonight, Gabrielle.”

“You think someone might try to hurt us?”

“No,” Xena replied, though she didn’t feel quite as confident as she sounded. “It’s just when you put a bunch of rulers into one confined space, everyone begins posturing and testing one another a bit. You’ll likely get it since you’re new at leading the Amazon Nation. People will see if you should be leading a nation of warriors.”

“Great, just great.”

“You’ll be fine. Just pretend you’re talking to me.” At Gabrielle’s questioning look, Xena explained, “Tell the truth. You do it well.”

A few more turns and the two emerged into the clearing at the center. The garden was divided into quadrants, with the southwest corner devoted to the maze surrounding the garden house. The building was a raised open-air structure, large enough to comfortably house a table which sat twenty, but was set for ten. The table was covered with a heavy white cloth and surrounded by overstuffed chairs. At the other end of the building was an open area where seven people were milling about, stopping at the bar and refilling their goblets.

“Ah! Conqueror Xena! Queen Gabrielle!” King Nebuharin called out, loudly announcing their arrival. He walked over to the short staircase ascending to the garden house and extended his hand to Gabrielle. The oracle hesitated only a moment before placing her right hand in his and allowing him to help her up the stairs.

Xena came up behind her, settling her expression into one of infinite boredom. She lifted seemingly disinterested eyes to survey those assembled. She recognized the majority of them and could guess who the remainder were. The only woman among the other rulers had to be Queen Farza of Syria. She was a woman of average height, with brown skin and cocoa colored hair gathered at the nape of her neck. Xena recognized it as a strategic ploy since it emphasized one of her better qualities and brought the eyes upward from more than ample hips. She watched as Farza sized up her competition in comeliness at this gathering, and saw the flicker of knowledge that she had lost handily.

Next to her was Lord Allemane of Gaul. Xena had met him before and instantly identified him by his copious amounts of dark, curly hair. It was even longer than Gabrielle’s and was loose around his shoulders. Her first thought was in battle she would grab him by his hair and kill him, or force his horse to ride through low-lying branches and entangle him there. It was her ardent belief that soldiers should have short hair, or keep it tied and away from their opponent’s grasp. She smirked, unless they were as good as she was. Then they could do anything they pleased with it.

By the bar was King Kulam of Persia. Though his people were related by royal marriage to the Babylonian empire, there was no love lost between them. Kulam was a hard man, made harder still by excessive political strife in his homeland. He had now survived four assassination attempts. His dark eyes were as cold as the night which was beginning to embrace the rulers.

Standing behind Kulam, giving her and Gabrielle a look of pure hatred, coupled with a healthy dose of fear, was Proconsul Gregor of Ephesus. His hands looked gnarled and she knew they had not healed properly after Palaemon’s questioning. Idly, she wondered if his toes had suffered the same fate.

Of the two remaining men, Xena identified the tall, blond haired general as Pompey of Rome. His crimson cape hung off one shoulder in what she supposed he considered a dashing manner. He openly surveyed her arrogantly, taking measure of her and deciding she came short of expectation. She too found him wanting. He resembled her Captain of the Royal Guard, but had grown soft from the life of privilege.

She could only guess the last man was from the north of Greece, though she was unsure of his country. He wore a cloak of bear skin and he himself resembled a bear – far too large and hairy to be considered at all attractive. He smiled in Gabrielle’s direction baring teeth that resembled fangs. Xena stepped closer to the Amazon Queen and laid a proprietary hand on the small of her back, claiming territory. She knew she would be challenged, but she would establish her interest early on.

“And this is Chief Dokov of the Huns,” Nebuharin concluded, as he had been introducing each of his guests while Xena surveyed them. “Of course, Xena the Conqueror of Greece needs no introduction. And this is Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation.”

“Hi,” Gabrielle smiled, desperately wanting to ease the tension which had cloaked the gathering.

No one responded.

“Where is the last one?” Xena inquired of Nebuharin. “I was told you invited nine rulers for the celebration.”

“Hello, Xena,” a melodic voice behind her said.

Xena spun around to face Lao Ma who was mounting the stairs gracefully, a large snow leopard at her side. The Conqueror was unsure what surprised her more: seeing the de facto ruler of Chin, her former mentor, or looking down into the intelligent eyes of the predatory cat. “Lao Ma,” she breathed.

“Son of a Jubai! What is that beast doing here!” Queen Farza shrieked, recoiling, though the animal had made no move in her direction. Indeed, it had paid her no attention until she created the commotion.

Lao Ma’s dark eyes flicked to the heavyset woman and her hand settled in the thick fur covering her cat’s head. “This is Pei-cha. He is my friend.”

“Friend?” Pompey echoed, amused. “He’s a leopard.” He thought it was time someone brought this to her attention.

The Empress nodded gravely, “And I am thus doubly honored by his friendship.”

Gabrielle was watching the scene unfold with fascination. It was clear the Conqueror and the mysterious friend-of-a-snow-leopard were acquainted, and she felt a shiver of jealousy run down the length of her spine. She wished for the ruler’s hand to return to her, but they were now separated by the newcomers, the cat and empress having interposed themselves when they ascended the stairs.

Nebuharin waited while the sovereigns inspected one another carefully. He watched the professional soldiers among them move to better strategic positions, while the others spread out as well, unconsciously desiring distance. They were the ten rulers responsible for the majority of the settled world, with the notable exception of Egypt. He had invited Cleopatra, but she had deferred stating other obligations. Obligations which, Nebuharin knew, included the reason why Caesar had sent Pompey in his stead.

The evening was going exactly as he had planned.

“Come, let us all enjoy the bounty of the land! I assure you, this honey liqueur is the finest ever.” He ambled over to the bar and slipped behind it, taking the role of bartender to the rulers. He had sent away the majority of his servants for the evening, desiring to create an atmosphere where they could all speak freely. Noting who didn’t already have a drink, he lined up the correct number of goblets and began filling them.

“How have you been, Xena?” Lao Ma inquired, her slender fingers moving through Pei-cha’s fur. The large cat sidled up to the Empress’ side, rubbing his cheek against the silk of Lao Ma’s gold toned dress.

The Conqueror shrugged, “Greece prospers.”

“So I have heard.” The beautiful woman turned her gaze to Gabrielle. “Queen Gabrielle, I am honored to meet you.”

Gabrielle was surprised by the warmth of Lao Ma’s tone. The Empress’ eyes conveyed only a sincere regard for her, nothing like her own jealous response. She melted a bit and smiled broadly, “I am pleased to meet you, as well.” Gabrielle indicated the cat which had a rather content expression on his face, if she was reading it correctly. “Is he this friendly to others?”

“Pei-cha is rather discerning with his friendship. However, I think he would extend it to you. Place your hand in front of his nose. If he pushes his head into your hand, he has accepted you. Otherwise, it is best to not put your hand in front of his mouth again.”

The oracle nodded solemnly, “All right. I’m willing to try.” Slowly she extended her small hand, palm forward, in front of Pei-cha’s nose. There was something about the inherent danger of approaching such a beast she found exhilarating. She could feel his warm, moist breath landing upon the skin of her palm, and then she felt his nose pressed into it. A delighted laugh escaped out of her and her fingers stroked the underside of Pei-cha’s chin. “I have a new friend.”

Lao Ma smiled enigmatically. “Yes, you do.”

“Come, come, let us feast together!” King Nebuharin began shooing the rulers toward the long table. “You will find your seat by the figurines above the plates.”

Each of the guests wandered over to the table and began trying to locate their seat. It was a fairly simple task as all of the rulers had been rendered in a painted porcelain figurine. Each of them was incredibly accurate, mimicking even the usual facial expressions of their subject. Xena noted that hers had been given her hard battle stare while Gabrielle’s had a smile gracing her features.

Xena also saw she and Gabrielle were to be separated at the table by Pompey. Smiling at King Nebuharin, she switched hers and Pompey’s figurines, moving him to her left. She saw no need for her to be deprived of Gabrielle’s company during this evening, which she was sure was designed to torture her. Pulling out Gabrielle’s chair, the Conqueror waited while her oracle seated herself gracefully and then took her own seat.

The night air was filled with the sounds of chairs scraping along the wooden surface of the garden house floor and people settling themselves at the table. Seated in the center of the table was King Nebuharin, looking for all the world like the sphinx in Egypt, his expression inscrutable. He was flanked to his left and right by Lao Ma and Farza, with Allemane to the right of Farza and Gregor to the left of Lao Ma. Opposite Nebuharin were Xena, with Pompey and Gabrielle on either side of her, and Kulam on Pompey’s left and Dokov on Gabrielle’s right. Xena chastised herself mentally for not having moved Dokov from beside Gabrielle as well. The Hun Chief made her furious with the lascivious looks he directed at her oracle.

All eyes turned expectantly to Nebuharin. He rose and lifted his glass. “A toast to you, my friends and allies. May peace bless our lands as we lead our peoples along the right path.” People murmured assent and drank the liqueur. The King picked up a small brass bell beside his place setting and rang it, the notes carrying clearly through the gardens.

Immediately four serving girls emerged from behind a screen and began carrying over the first course of the banquet. They each had a tray overflowing with fruit and cheese which they brought among those seated. As each of the rulers helped themselves, Nebuharin spoke.

“I have invited each of you here to join with me in celebrating the anniversary of my reign over Babylon. I was a lad of just sixteen winters when my father died leaving me the Kingdom. Fortunately, I was blessed with true advisers and the kindness of Marduk and so I have now served Babylon forty winters. In due time, I will be gathered to my ancestors. It is my duty to ensure continued peace for my people. That is why I have invited each of you here. It is my desire that we ensure the peace and prosperity of all our countries.”

“How will we do that?” Kulam muttered. “The only way there can be true peace is if there is only one of us left.”

Allemane’s head snapped up. “Are you threatening us, Kulam?”

The dark eyes which had seen the faces of four would-be assassins stared at the Gaul. “No. I am stating the obvious.” He drained the rest of his liqueur. “Who here trusts another at this table?”

“I do.”

All eyes turned to Gabrielle.

“I trust Xena with my life.”

The Proconsul laughed bitterly, setting down his goblet with infinite care due to his misshapen fingers. “That harpy! She’ll cut your heart out the moment your back is turned, you little fool! She’s only using you, like she used me to get the information she wanted.”

Before anyone else could respond, Pompey’s voice cut low and threatening through the air. “What information would that be, Gregor?” His blue eyes fixed on the Proconsul he had helped install in Ephesus. He and Caesar had suspected this betrayal, but to hear of it blurted out at dinner was more than he could handle.

Xena leaned back, smirking. “When he sold Rome out, Pompey. He wet himself too. Yet he couldn’t wait to tell me everything I wanted to know.”

The obese man held up his hands, displaying mangled fingers for all to see. “Does this look like I wanted to tell?” In truth, he had been eager, he was so afraid, and had counted himself grateful to only be left with broken bones.

“You are still alive, Gregor. The Destroyer would not have left you that way if you did not serve a purpose for her.”

“Conqueror,” Xena growled, but left it at that.

Soft green eyes turned to meet Xena’s, concern evident in them. She reached out and covered Xena’s hand with her own. I am not afraid of her, no matter what she may have done.

“You’re a bastard, Pompey,” Gregor countered. “You’re just Caesar’s lapdog who waits for his permission to take a piss. We all know that you’re here because Caesar is too busy bedding Cleopatra to come to this gathering.”

Pompey’s face reddened but he said nothing in reply. His hand gripped tightly around the knife at his place setting and he briefly considered flinging it into the Proconsul’s throat.

Farza laughed; it sounded like a dog’s bark. “This is just like dinner in my kingdom. How delightful of you to invite us, Nebuharin.” She opened her mouth and tossed a fig in, chewing happily.

“Farza, how long ago was it you poisoned your husband, in order to take his throne?” Allemane inquired blithely.

Farza brushed hair off her neck and glanced at the man seated to her right. Surprisingly, she laughed once again. “As I said, just like home. You play the part of my eldest son well, Allemane.”

Kulam smiled, “You mean you haven’t killed him yet? Quite the oversight.” He and the Syrian Queen exchanged knowing looks.

“Friends, friends, please,” Nebuharin finally intervened. “Please, let us talk reasonably with one another. Let us build the foundation of an assured peace.” He looked slightly distressed at this turn of events. This was not how the dinner was supposed to go. But they had time, he would see to that.

“Peace cannot be had if it is first not found in one’s own heart, Nebuharin. How do you propose to introduce peace here at this table?” Lao Ma inquired, her hand stroking Pei-cha’s large head. She pointedly looked at the other rulers who were clearly without peace of heart or mind. The only one who seemed remotely centered was Gabrielle. The young ruler was listening and watching carefully not letting the barbs thrown impact her.

Nebuharin sighed and took another long swallow of his drink. “I was afraid this would happen. Although, I must admit to being surprised it has come to this so quickly. I had hoped to be able to enjoy dinner together at least.”

The Conqueror’s head snapped up at the comment, “Come to what exactly?”

Pompey too became alert. “Nebuharin, what is going on?”

“We will work this out, we will come to terms,” Nebuharin stated, spreading his hands out. “I have instructed my palace guards that no one is allowed in or out of my living quarters for the next quarter moon. If anyone attempts to do so, they will be killed.”

“This is outrageous!” Allemane raged, rising from his seat.

“Sit down,” Kulam ordered. “Of course it is, that is not the point.”

“What is the point then?”

“The point is, we are his prisoners.”

Lao Ma laid a hand on Nebuharin’s forearm, “Peace can only be negotiated when all parties are free, Nebuharin. A captive is unable to give true consent to terms. Surely you know this.”

The older ruler shook his head, “You are not prisoners.”

“Then we can walk out,” Gregor stated.

“No. We will secure peace for the future. That will be our legacy, our gift to our grandchildren. It is the mark of a great leader to ensure this for his or her people. And I, for one, intend to be great, like my ancestor King Nebuchadnezzar.” He eyes glistened momentarily before he cleared his throat and continued. “I am sorry to have to force this issue, but it is for the best. You and your people will, one day, thank me.”

“What’s to stop me from walking out and raking a swirly pattern behind me?” Pompey looked frustrated, annoyed at having been sent into a trap meant for Caesar.

Nebuharin shrugged, “It is made with a special tool, none of which are on this side of the palace. It is also an intricate pattern, one taught by the priests of Marduk. I doubt if you can recreate it accurately.”

Xena leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs idly. “So, what are your plans for us? How are we to go about making peace?”

Nebuharin smiled at her, grateful for her support. “Ah, we will talk. We will work out our differences. We will make treaties and bind our countries to them.”

“And if we cannot come to terms?” Gabrielle asked, calculating that the odds were against this group even agreeing that water was wet.

“Let us not anticipate such an occurrence, Gabrielle.”

“Oh, let’s,” Xena countered.

“Then I will have to assure peace for my descendants.”

Queen Farza nodded, “Like I did.”

King Nebuharin clasped the woman’s hand and nodded. “Exactly.”

Suddenly Gabrielle felt a large hand traveling up the length of her right thigh and hot breath on her neck, “If we’re not to last more than a quarter moon, why don’t you and I start getting to know one another better now?”

Gabrielle shrieked and pushed away from the table and the hairy hand.

Xena reacted immediately, pushing Gabrielle behind her and advancing quickly on the still seated Dokov. Grasping the Hun’s upper arms, she pulled him from his chair and tossed him toward the open area, much as Pei-cha would his dinner before consuming it. “Never touch her!” she spat out, heat and anger flashing through her body, taking control. “Never!” She advanced on the fallen man and kicked him solidly in the gut, forcing air out of his lungs.

Dokov rolled with the kick, coming to a crouch a few feet away from her. “I thought she was anyone’s slut, if she would lay down for you.”

The Conqueror came at him again and was met by the Hun. Her fist connected with his jaw, sending him staggering backward another pace. They advanced on each other again and began trading blows.

The other rulers left the table and formed a loose ring around the combatants. Lao Ma placed a restraining hand on Gabrielle’s arm for the young woman looked as if she might enter the fray.

Pompey stood next to Nebuharin and nudged him with his elbow. “I see your plans for peace are working admirably already.”

“My friends, stop this!” the Babylonian leader cried out, advancing on the fighting duo.

The Hun pulled out a concealed knife and brandished it before Xena, stopping Nebuharin’s approach. “Come just a bit closer, whore. Let me save my men the trouble of invading your homeland.”

Xena watched the blade carefully, then struck suddenly. She feinted with a left jab, but connected with a solid kick to the groin. She heard a satisfying crunch and gasp as the Hun fell to his knees, clutching at himself, the knife falling to the floor forgotten.

“Bastard!” Xena spat and briefly considered killing him but decided against it for now. Her primary concern was Gabrielle. She didn’t think Dokov had actually harmed her oracle, but she needed to assure herself of that fact. Blowing out an angry breath, she relaxed her features so as not to alarm Gabrielle any more than the fight already had, and turned to face her lover.

“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked softly, carefully moderating her voice so as not to convey a lack of confidence in the Conqueror.

Xena rolled her eyes, “That hardly qualified as a fight, but thank you for asking.” She stepped forward and carefully examined Gabrielle, running her hands down the exposed arms and clasping her hands gently. “The much more important question is did he hurt you?”

A gentle shake of the Amazon’s Queen answered her. “He just startled me.”

“You’re certain?”

Gabrielle smiled gently, “I think I would know.”

“Good. I’d hate to kill him before the main course, it might delay our getting served.” Xena smirked at her own humor and then leaned down and kissed Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen’s eyes fluttered closed and she sighed in contentment. She allowed herself the luxury of forgetting she was in a foreign country, surrounded by people who hated her for no apparent reason, and was being held captive for the next quarter moon. Although, she could think of few things better than confinement with the Conqueror. She felt Xena’s hands cupping her cheeks and she leaned forward, resting against the taller woman.

The crowd dispersed, some of the rulers refilling their cups from the bar, others going back to their seats, wondering if the next course would be served. Nebuharin carefully picked up the knife and tucked it into his belt. He looked down at the grunting Hun. “Shall I have my servants bring a cold cloth for you?”

“There will be no peace, Nebuharin. Never. Not in my lifetime.” His hate-filled eyes bored into the back which was confidently displayed to him. He hated her arrogance, and her easy defeat of him. He hated that it was her bed the beautiful Amazon Queen would be in later that night.

“Let’s get us a refill,” Xena suggested, when she pulled away reluctantly. She led Gabrielle by the hand to the table to get their goblets.

Nebuharin followed them. “Let me,” he offered, taking them and walking back to the bar. After he refilled them, he returned to Xena and Gabrielle. “I apologize for Dokov’s most inappropriate behavior, Queen Gabrielle.”

“Ready to reconsider this foolish idea?” Xena challenged, her arm forming a protective arc around Gabrielle’s shoulders.

“I still believe we can accomplish much here, Xena. We need only try.” Deciding to have more of the liqueur himself, he picked up his goblet which was near Xena and walked back to the bar.

No one had left the garden house, but none seemed inclined to stay much longer, despite the fact the entrée had not yet been served. Nebuharin knew that for his plan to succeed he had to keep the rulers together, force them to interact. He needed to secure peace in his lifetime. It would be his legacy. “My friends, we have more of the bounty of Babylon to enjoy. Please, sit and eat.”

“I would prefer to have my dinner brought to my room,” Queen Farza commented frostily. She was more than tired of the evening’s entertainment. She wanted only the peace of solitude.

Nebuharin took a long draught from his goblet, wanting to soothe his own frazzled nerves. “I think it would be best if we remained together. It will give us time to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk!” Dokov spat out. He was standing, but slightly bent over. “I want her dead!”

Xena seemingly ignored him and placed a kiss on Gabrielle’s right temple, knowing it would infuriate him all the more.

Kulam chuckled, “I think it might be the other way around, Dokov. You may already be unable to sire a successor.”

“I will not be insulted in this way!” Dokov began advancing on the Persian King.

“What way would you like?” his intended target asked, nonplussed by his approach.

Pompey cleared his throat loudly, “Nebuharin, you need to control your guest.”

Nebuharin tried to respond, but no sound issued forth, his lips moving silently. He clutched at his throat. Everyone stopped and focused on their host as his skin began to turn a light shade of blue, his eyes becoming wild with fear. His fingers scratched the skin from his throat, drawing rivulets of blood along its length. Soon, he collapsed to the ground, striking his head against the table on his way down.

Lao Ma and Allemane reached him first. The Empress placed her hand in front of his nose and mouth and waited. She felt nothing for long moments. Allemane placed his hand on the King’s chest which had stopped moving altogether. They exchanged a silent look of shared knowledge.

“He’s dead.”
Chapter Ten

Kelryn was in the large library roaming through the racks containing the multitude of scrolls. Eponin had given them permission to wander through the palace, hoping to distract the antsy Amazons by having them map out the building’s layout as well as possible. Kelryn had been given the southern wing of the palace and she had found it surprisingly easy to move between rooms, none of the Babylonian guards ever challenging her presence. She tried to imagine a foreigner wandering through the Amazon village or the Conqueror’s palace in Corinth. It was impossible.

As she rounded one of the stacks, Kelryn became aware she was not alone in the room. She saw a petite woman sitting at a long table carefully transcribing one scroll to another. The woman was clothed in a scarlet skirt and top, a brief glimpse of skin available between the two garments. A belt of twisted gold wrapped around her waist snugly, worn more for aesthetic than functional purposes. Kelryn’s eyes appreciatively followed the curves of the tanned body and the dark hair that fell along the length of the woman’s back. She only hoped it felt as silky as it looked.

Running a hand through her own short hair and pulling back her shoulders, Kelryn approached her. She stood beside her for a moment, allowing the woman to adjust to her presence, and gazed at the scroll the woman was working on. Babylonian script was very different from Greek or Amazon, she noted. The foreign script utilized symbols which looked like various common objects – a bird, an eye, a leaf – to represent words and phrases. When she knew she had the woman’s attention, she pointed to the last line transcribed. “What does that say?”

Warm brown eyes looked up at her and then down at the text in question. “The line is: ‘this thought has given me courage’.”

“What thought?” Kelryn leaned down closer to the scroll, as if it was distance alone which kept her from being able to translate it.

The woman smiled at the young solder’s attention. She had heard tales of Amazons, but had never expected to meet one. “The King is referring to the fact that he is never alone.”

“He likes that? How does that give him courage? Doesn’t it give people more chances to harm him?” Kelryn puzzled. She knew that her Queen and the Conqueror definitely delighted in their time alone.

“No, no, no,” the scribe chided gently. “He is never alone, never far from Marduk’s presence. That’s what he was happy about.”

“Ah, a religious thing.” Kelryn didn’t have much use for gods, even Artemis. She was reverent to the extent required by the Nation, but no more. My fate is what I make it, not what three sisters string together somewhere.

The woman smiled indulgently. She could tell this soldier preferred to make her own way in the world. “Yes, a religious thing. The King is a very observant man. He has always honored Marduk and Ishtar.”

“So he doesn’t worry a whole lot on his judgment day with Marduk each year.”

The scribe was impressed; this was a unique visitor in every way. “How do you know about that?”

Kelryn shrugged dismissively, “I know stuff.”

Dark brown eyebrows drew together. “I bet you know lots of ‘stuff.’” She let her eyes wander meaningfully over the athletic body of the soldier; women in Babylon were soft, not allowed to serve in the military.

“Amazons are all well educated.”

“Do you know enough to teach?”

A brilliant smile was her response, “Lady, I’ve been on the lecture circuit for years.”

The scribe considered the lanky youth for a long moment. The King was in the inner palace and would not be requesting any of them for the next quarter moon, they had been told. She was free, for tonight. “What do you lecture on?”

“Religion,” Kelryn replied, her voice husky. She smirked knowing that no priestess would ever mistake her for one of their own.

The woman drew in a deep breath, noticing the musky scent of the soldier who was close enough to touch her, but had yet to do so. “I would never have guessed.”

A soft laugh was her answer. “I teach Artemis’ Blessing. It’s a special form of worship. But I must warn you …”

“Yes?” the woman answered, wondering what the warning was.

“You may never go back to Marduk again. Or, if you do, you will be most unsatisfied.” In response, the woman turned her head and blew softly on the parchment, ensuring the ink was dry. Kelryn swore she could feel that breath cascading over her own skin. Then she watched the woman roll up the scroll, place the cork back in the ink pot and set aside her quill. Once she had tidied up her work area, she turned to Kelryn and extended a slender hand.

“Come, let’s find an altar and worship.”

Kelryn grinned. One.

Palaemon approached the archway to the inner palace, intent on reporting to the Conqueror. Nebuharin’s men had taken the Conqueror’s and Queen’s goods into their room earlier in the day, but had denied him entrance. As it was now past dinner time, he made his second attempt.

“Halt!”

The Captain stood his ground while four Babylonian soldiers approached him, their weapons at the ready.

“Turn around. No one is permitted entrance.”

Palaemon placed his hands on his hip, deliberately drawing attention to the sword belted there. “I am Captain of the Royal Guard of Xena, Conqueror of Greece. The Conqueror expects me to report to her.”

One of the four stepped forward, “And I am Harib, Marshall of King Nebuharin’s Palace Guard. Please step aside with me, Captain.”

The muscular, blond man gave a curt nod and took a few steps with his bearded counterpart. “What’s going on, Marshall?”

“King Nebuharin has given orders that he and his guests are to be undisturbed for the next quarter moon. Anyone who attempts to cross between the inner and outer palace will be killed.” The Marshall smiled, almost apologetically.

Palaemon’s eyes narrowed as he took in this information. “A quarter moon? No one in or out?” He was answered with a nod. “All right. Thank you for the information.” He forced himself to be polite, to keep the Marshall from suspecting his true inner feelings about this situation. “I will convey this information to my men. Excuse me.”

He went in search of Eponin. There was much to be done.

Chapter Eleven

“Dead? As in not living, dead?” Gregor asked.

Lord Allemane scowled, “Do you know some other kind of dead?” He pushed himself up and away from the corpse, disdainful of the dead flesh. He went in search of another drink.

Lao Ma laid her hand over King Nebuharin’s forehead and bowed her head. She whispered a few words which were unintelligible to the others. Reaching up to his empty chair, she removed the cloth napkin and laid it over his face.

Everyone turned and faced Kulam, who was laughing. The Persian King was shaking with mirth. “Congratulations, Queen Farza, you have succeeded once more. I didn’t know Syria had designs on Babylon. But you should have thought more of how you would escape from this palace.”

The heavy woman pushed herself up from the table. “How dare you! Surely you don’t think I had anything to do with his death!”

“Poison is your specialty.” Kulam pointed out unnecessarily. Farza’s skill was well known. “Should I be afraid now of finishing my drink? How many of them did you fix?” He picked up his goblet and spun it about, swirling the amber liqueur around its rim.

“I did not –”

“It would be rather convenient,” Allemane observed, “if Queen Farza was accused. Hasn’t Persia had its eye on Syria for quite awhile?”

“Shut up!” Xena’s voice ordered. The Conqueror rose to her full height and leveled her gaze at the two feuding rulers. Syria and Persia were lifelong enemies. She did not expect them to behave any different given the circumstances. “Lao Ma, give me Nebuharin’s goblet.”

The Empress picked it up from where it had fallen on the floor and handed it over.

Xena held it up to her nose and sniffed. There was a faint odor left in the goblet which reminded her of mice. “Hemlock, and quite a lot, from the smell of it.”

There was a cry and everyone turned to see Pompey herding the four serving girls into the main dining area. They each looked terrified of the Roman triumvir, trying to move as far away from him as possible.

“What are you doing, Pompey?” Lao Ma inquired mildly, as she moved to soothe the girl who was crying the hardest.

“If no one has noticed, our host is dead. Does anyone want to consider what the Palace Guard would do to us if they knew about it? We couldn’t risk them running off and raising the alarm. Even with all of our attendants, we are outnumbered.”

Xena nodded. “He’s right.” She stalked over to the tallest of the four servants, who still only came up to Xena’s shoulder. “What’s your name, girl?”

Brown eyes avoided hers and the servant shifted nervously.

The Conqueror’s large hand grasped the woman’s jaw, forcing her to meet her eyes. “Your name?” she repeated.

A confused expression met her words.

“Does she understand Greek?” Gabrielle inquired reasonably. She glanced down when she felt a nudge against her leg and she saw Pei-cha looking up at her expectantly. Finding unanticipated pleasure in the moment, she reached out and began to stroke the thick fur. The large cat reared back and placed his large front paws in the oracle’s lap, bringing his head almost level with Gabrielle’s. He rubbed the top of his head against her chin. Gabrielle whispered in his ear, “Yeah, I like you too, Pei-cha. You’re a handsome boy.”

The Conqueror spoke again, this time in the Babylonian language, surprising most everyone except Gabrielle. The oracle simply added it to the other five languages she already knew the Conqueror spoke. Gabrielle looked around at the other rulers smugly; they had no idea who they were dealing with.

“Tell me your name.”

The servant relaxed slightly, finally understanding. “Emelle.”

“Listen to me carefully. I want each of you to sit over there and be quiet. If any one of you tries to leave, I will kill all of you. Do you understand me, Emelle?”

Emelle shuddered in fear at the sound of her name coming from the Conqueror’s lips. Quickly composing herself, she glanced at the three other servants, each of whom indicated they understood the threat. “Yes, we do.”

“Now, sit. I’ll deal with you later.” She gave the girl a slight push toward a bench near the bar and then she surveyed the rest of the garden house. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that Nebuharin committed suicide.”

The Proconsul snorted. “I hardly think so. He looked a bit surprised that he couldn’t breathe.” He held up a mangled hand. “Unless you also think I did this to my own hands.”

Xena looked at him and growled, “You did, Gregor. And if you keep reminding me, I might need to do it again. Obviously, you didn’t learn your lesson.”

Allemane sniffed his goblet before taking a drink. “But who could have put the poison in his drink? He served himself each time he had a refill. The serving girls only brought the food.”

“Why would Nebuharin want to commit suicide?” Dokov interjected. “He wanted to force us to make peace. Although, he was an imbecile. There will never be peace here.”

“It is best to not speak disrespectfully of the dead,” Lao Ma intoned. “One day we will be like him.”

“That one day will be sooner than later if we let Farza stay here with us,” Kulam noted. He turned to Pompey, “Let’s take her to the Palace Guards, turn her over as the murderer of Nebuharin. It’s logical. She killed her husband using poison – hemlock, even. We give her to them and we go free.”

Pompey considered the proposal. “I think …”

“I will not be turned over as some sacrificial lamb!” Farza squealed, shaking with anger. “I didn’t kill him. But I wonder why you keep insisting I did, Kulam.” Her last statement was filled with insinuation.

“How did you do it, Destroyer?” Dokov asked. He moved slowly back towards the table.

Xena scowled, “Conqueror. Do what?”

“Kill Nebuharin, of course.”

Gabrielle’s head snapped up at the accusation. “She did no such thing!” Her anger spilled over onto Pei-cha who looked up at the Chief with hostility in his eyes as well. When Dokov looked down at the leopard, Pei-cha growled lowly, causing the Hun to step back once more and head for a seat far away from the fair-haired Queen.

“It’s all right, Gabrielle,” the Conqueror soothed, moving toward her oracle, to rejoin her at the table.

Dokov looked at the Amazon with open contempt. “You set it up, didn’t you?” He turned to the other rulers, “I didn’t harm her tonight. She lied to distract us all. It was their ploy: get us all up from the table, get our attention focused elsewhere while the Destroyer’s plaything put the poison in Nebuharin’s glass.”

“You ran your hand up my leg!” Gabrielle exclaimed, indignant.

“So you say.”

Xena responded on Gabrielle’s behalf, her voice pitched low and menacing. “So I say. Make any charge you want against me, Dokov. But leave her out of it. She’s not like the rest of us.”

Allemane’s eyes narrowed, “If that is when you think it happened, then any of us could have poisoned him. We were all moving about.”

The Hun shook his head slowly, a large smile showing his pointed teeth once more. “Not true. I couldn’t. I was being attacked by the Destroyer.”

“Well, unless you had a partner, like you accuse us of doing,” Gabrielle noted.

Xena smirked, Well, maybe she’s a little like us. “I didn’t kill him, nor did Gabrielle. But I don’t expect any of you to believe me. No more than I believe any of your denials.”

“I haven’t heard Lao Ma deny anything,” Allemane noted.

“The innocent need not deny,” came the calm reply.

“Oh please! You are hardly an innocent. Tell me, how is Lao Tzu?” Allemane sneered.

Inscrutable eyes met his. “He is ailing, I am afraid.”

“Because you find it convenient for him to ail. You’ve kept him drugged and comatose while you’ve usurped his throne.” The Gaul stood up and pointed an accusing finger at the Chinese woman. “You can pretend to be some benevolent ruler, but you’re nothing more than an elevated concubine.”

Gabrielle observed Lao Ma as she showed no reaction whatsoever to the accusations being levied against her. The Amazon ruler knew she could never be so calm if spoken to in such a way. As if sensing his owner’s need for companionship, Pei-cha moved from Gabrielle back to Lao Ma.

The Empress scratched behind Pei-cha’s tufted ear when he returned, causing the feline to rest his chin on her thigh. “Nevertheless, I rule Chin,” she said, seemingly to Pei-cha, so focused was she on the animal.

“Because that bitch backs you.” Allemane now pointed to Xena who was watching the interaction quietly.

“Our alliance is none of your concern. Nor is it relevant here. And put that finger away before I break it off and feed it to you.” The Conqueror placed her arm along the back of Gabrielle’s chair. “Whatever relations Greece and Chin enjoy certainly didn’t kill Nebuharin, any more than Rome’s alliance with Ephesus or Gaul’s alliance with Persia did.”

“So what do we do?” Gabrielle inquired, anxious to change the topic.

Looks were exchanged among the nine rulers as each assessed their rivals. “Let’s put Nebuharin in his bedroom, and retire for the night,” Pompey finally suggested. “We can figure out what to do in the morning.”

“And what of them?” Kulam asked, pointing to the servants.

“We’ll lock them in a room,” Xena responded. “That will keep them from alerting the guards. And it’ll keep them alive to prepare our meals tomorrow while we decide how to handle this.”

Farza chuckled, “I think I might be making my own meals actually.”

“Why?” Kulam countered. “You have the least to worry about.”

Chapter Twelve

“I am going to my room,” Farza announced, pushing up from her place at the table with a flourish. Sniffing disdainfully, carefully avoiding looking at the dead body in their midst, she paced over to the serving trays filled with fruit. She cautiously selected several pieces and wrapped them in a linen napkin. “I hope I can sleep after all this excitement.”

Pompey smirked, “Those with a guilty conscience usually have trouble sleeping.”

The Syrian Queen let out an exasperated sigh and spun around, creating a dramatic exit. The other rulers watched her leave with various degrees of interest. Kulam clapped the Roman triumvir on the back. “Well done, friend. I think that got her.”

Pompey turned his head slightly to stare at the hand resting on his cape.

After a few awkward moments, Kulam removed his hand. “I think Farza had one good idea.” He went over to the food and helped himself to a large serving.

The others all begin milling about, meticulously sorting through the food that was laid out on the low serving table. Each of the rulers watched the others, by-passing the same pieces, and each noting the color, texture and smell of the assorted remaining fruits. Xena served herself and Gabrielle, trusting her own survival instincts to keep them both safe.

It was a surreal sight, Gabrielle decided. The remaining eight having dinner while their dead host lay largely forgotten on the floor. His servants sat huddled together on a bench, watching in disbelief as the guests continued on seemingly unconcerned.

The dinner party broke up into three distinct groups: Dokov and Gregor sat together, sharing their hatred for the Conqueror; Pompey, Allemane and Kulam huddled together, laughing robustly; and Lao Ma joined Gabrielle and Xena.

“Were you surprised by the guest list, as well, Xena?” Lao Ma inquired, using delicate fingers to bring a grape to her lips.

The Conqueror shrugged, “I would not be here otherwise.”

Lao Ma acknowledged the truth of that statement with a nod. “The spider lures the fly by offering a thing of beauty.”

“And once he has landed proceeds to enfold him and eat him. I am hoping to avoid that particular fate.” Xena tossed a fig in her mouth, chewing contentedly. “Now … who do you think the real spider is here?”

“I see many webs. I do not know which one ensnares us yet.”

Gabrielle frowned; she wondered if this was how Xena and Lao Ma had always communicated. If so, she wondered if they ever understood exactly what one another was saying. No wonder the Conqueror wants me to be direct.

“How is Chin?” Xena asked, her voice becoming harder, more serious.

“Didn’t you receive my latest report?” The Empress delicately rearranged the folds of her dress.

“I was wondering about what wasn’t in the report.”

Dark eyes raised and met light ones. “Everything was there, Conqueror. As was the tribute.”

“Of course, it was.” The Conqueror smiled and rose to her feet, extending a hand to Gabrielle. “It’s time to retire for the evening. I suspect we will be rather busy tomorrow, trying to get out of here alive and all.”

“What about Nebuharin?” Gabrielle asked softly as they began moving toward the maze.

“Lao Ma will handle it,” came the confident reply. The Conqueror stalked over to where the four serving girls were sitting, one still crying softly into another’s shoulder. “Stand up.” The command only caused the crying girl to emit a loud sob. Xena repeated the order more forcefully.

Allemane, Pompey and Kulam looked up from their conversation at the commotion near the stairs. “What are you doing to them, Xena?” Pompey called, a hint of amusement in his voice.

Biting back a sarcastic comment, Xena satisfied herself with giving the triumvir a withering glare. She grabbed hold of Emelle’s upper arm and hauled her to her feet.

Gabrielle put a restraining arm on Xena. “Are you telling them to come with us?”

“We need to lock them up for the evening.”

The Amazon Queen nodded, understanding. “But they are less likely to cause trouble if they feel secure. They’re afraid. Their king is dead and they have no reason to think they won’t end up that way themselves. We should let them know we don’t plan on hurting them.” To emphasize her point, she smiled reassuringly at the servants, who recognized her as their protector.

The dark-haired ruler fought down her irritation at the girls’ weakness. “All right,” she sighed, then spoke to the servants. “Queen Gabrielle wants me to tell you that we won’t harm you. If you obey me, that will be true. If you disobey me, I will make you mulch for the gardens. Is that understood?” She waited until she saw four nods. “Now let’s head back to the rooms and don’t cause any trouble. You will be waiting on us tomorrow.”

Slowly the four began moving through the maze in front of the two rulers. Xena made them walk backwards with their arms linked. It was awkward and slow going, but it kept them from running away.

“That was a long ‘we don’t plan on harming you’ talk,” came the soft comment beside her.

Xena smiled, “The Babylonian language is wordier.”

“Uh huh, right.” Gabrielle slipped her hand around Xena’s arm and leaned against her as they approached the building. “What did you do? Play ‘Good Ruler, Bad Ruler’ with them?”

The Conqueror chuckled, “Well … yeah. But it really works for us. We both have our parts down pat.”

“That’s only what you think,” Gabrielle countered, “not what I believe.”

Xena shook her head, amazed at her oracle’s capacity to see things that were not there. “Well, you’re quite alone in that regard.”

Gabrielle pressed her lips against the soft skin of the Conqueror’s shoulder. “I don’t mind. I know I’m right.”

Silently they wandered through the residential quarters, looking for an appropriate room to house the servants overnight. Off one of the common areas was a doorway to a small storage room. Xena inspected the room, satisfying herself that the only way in or out was through the one portal. The room was filled with fresh linens and cleaning supplies. The Conqueror removed a few items she thought could be fashioned into weapons and set them outside. “Get in,” she commanded and was readily obeyed.

“One moment,” Gabrielle said as Xena was closing the door. The oracle had found a nearby pitcher of water and a basin. She handed the items to the tallest of the four girls and smiled reassuringly. To Xena, she said, “Thank you.”

The Conqueror closed the door and locked it with the keys she had taken from the servants. She surveyed the doorframe carefully and removed her breast dagger. Hearing a giggle behind her, she turned to see Gabrielle looking intently at her cleavage. “What?”

“Aren’t your breasts dangerous enough?”

Xena shook her head, grateful no one else was there to hear the comment, and went back to her task. She drove the dagger into the upper doorframe, burying the entire blade deep into the wood, preventing the door from being opened unless the dagger was removed from the outside. “Now they’ll stay put. Come on,” she said, once again taking Gabrielle’s hand in hers. “Let’s go to our room and I’ll figure out how we’re going to get out of here.”

“We’ll figure out how we’re going to get out of here,” Gabrielle corrected.

Xena chuckled, “Isn’t that what I said?”

“No, it isn’t, but I’m going to pretend it was.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Wait. Show me the symbol for Amazon,” Kelryn moved closer to the scribe. Both were lying on their stomachs, propped up on their elbows, looking down at the parchment the dark haired woman was writing on. The night air was cool and drifting in the open window, so they had pulled a lightweight sheet up to cover the lower halves of their nude bodies.

The slight woman grimaced slightly and drew the character. “It’s a combination of ‘woman’ and ‘warrior’ and … ‘unnatural.’”

The Amazon warrior frowned. “I don’t like it.”

“I didn’t think you would.” The scribe looked over at her new lover shyly. An evening with the young soldier had quickly taught her that the Amazon was a proud woman. “Lie down,” she said, pushing the soldier flat against the pallet. “Let’s see how well you’ve learned the other characters I’ve taught you.”

With her head nestled on crossed forearms, Kelryn complained in a muffled voice, “I can’t see anything.”

The scribe whispered into Kelryn’s ear, “Feel then.” Placing her left hand on the strong back of the soldier, the woman slowly drew a character with the tip of her index finger.

Kelryn shivered at the dainty touch. “Hmm … do it again. I didn’t quite get it.” It was a lie, and both women knew it. The character was simple, but the scribe complied and redrew it on soft skin. “Ruler. That’s the word for ‘ruler.’”

“It also means King, yes.”

“Do I not want to ask if it could also mean Queen?”

“You don’t. We don’t have a word for a woman head of state.” The Babylonian woman rubbed Kelryn’s back briskly, as if wiping the slate clean. “Here’s the next one.” She drew another character, her fingernail tracing a delicate path.

“Let’s see. That’s a number … I remember that, at least. Five?” Kelryn found it hard to concentrate under the circumstances.

“No.” The character was redrawn.

“Ten?”

“Exactly.”

“Ten rulers. Like here,” the soldier observed. “I wonder how their dinner party is going.” She particularly wondered how her beautiful Queen was doing.

“I’m sure as well as it could be, considering all the personalities involved. Kulam tried to hire some of us for his own while he was here! And Farza wanted us to do her laundry!” the scribe announced indignantly.

“Most rulers are pigs.”

“But not your Queen?” It was a sincere question. The woman had never met a ruler who did not treat her as an object to be used.

Kelryn sighed, surprising even herself. “Not my Queen. Gabrielle is kind and good.”

“Yet she lives with the Destroyer of Nations.” She was startled when the body under her fingertips laughed at her observation.

“Well, there’s no accounting for taste.” Kelryn shrugged her shoulders impatiently. “Let’s get back to my lessons. I’m a very eager student.”

“I thought you were on the lecture circuit,” the scribe whispered. “Wait a moment.” She kissed the skin at the base of Kelryn’s neck and moved off the pallet. She picked up the quill she had been using earlier and a small jar of ink. Coming back, she sat down lightly on the soldier’s behind.

“Oof!” the Amazon teased.

A gentle tap on the back of her head was Kelryn’s reward. “Be good. Or I’ll stop.” Her threat was successful. “Now, be still.” She dipped the quill into the ink and then touched the fluid to skin. Working carefully, she wrote a line of Babylonian script across Kelryn’s back. “What did I write?”

“I have absolutely no idea.”

“That’s because you weren’t paying attention. Let’s try again.” Another row of script followed beneath the first. “Well?”

Kelryn frowned; she had tried to focus on the characters but the whole situation was rather distracting. “Something about ten rulers, but I couldn’t figure out the rest.”

“Very good.” The scribe leaned down and blew on the ink to help it dry, eliciting a moan beneath her. “It’s part of a poem.”

“Why don’t we make some more poetry of our own?” Kelryn replied, not being able to take the teasing any longer, and pressed her palms to the floor. She was just about to twist around and take hold of the scribe when the door to the room burst open.

Startled, the woman fell off Kelryn, though deftly managing to not spill any of the ink on herself, the soldier or the pallet. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of the two imposing warriors in the doorframe staring at them.

“Kelryn!” Eponin’s voice boomed into the small room. “We need to …” she drifted off, taking in the scene. “What in Hades are you doing?” She bit her lip to stifle the laugh threatening to escape.

“Haven’t you heard of knocking?” While she refused to be embarrassed, Kelryn did reach out and pull the sheet over the scribe’s body. “Hi, Palaemon.” She gave a short wave at the blushing Captain. He quickly withdrew from the room.

Eponin shook her head, “Get your damn leathers on and get out here. We have work to do. It took us long enough to find you as it is.” The Commander closed the door. Well, she doesn’t need a token for that one. Obnoxious kid.

Excitement of a different kind coursed through the young soldier’s body as she quickly redressed. “Sorry, beautiful, duty calls.” She knelt down and kissed the scribe leisurely, as if unconcerned about her commanding officer outside the door. Finally breaking away, she smiled and winked. “Thanks for the lesson.”

“You can lecture here anytime, Amazon. And may Artemis’ Blessing always be with you.”

Kelryn smirked and hustled out the door, running smack into Eponin.

“Took you long enough.”

The young soldier folded her arms across her chest and shrugged. “Actually, I’d say that took me less than three candlemarks. How are you doing with the bet, Ep?”

The Commander colored and cuffed Kelryn. “Focus, soldier. We have a situation.”

“The Queen?”

Palaemon stepped closer and said softly, “Let’s talk about this in a more private place.”

Chapter Fourteen

In their room, Xena stood over the desk, studying the map she had procured from the reading room downstairs. She had changed into a loose fitting silk robe, one Lao Ma had presented her from Chin in her last tribute shipment. It seemed fitting for her to be dressed in spoils as she made her plans. Her finger traced the boundaries of Babylon, going east to west from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. To the north were Ephesus and Syria; the south was only sparsely populated and not unified.

She squinted, envisioning her destiny. Ephesus would be easy to overtake. Gregor’s leadership was non-existent. Her naval fleet could blockade support from Rome. It would take a moon or two, at most, to secure her hold on it.

Syria would be more difficult. Farza was crafty and ruthless. But Ephesus would give Xena the foothold she needed to launch her takeover of Babylon. From there she could press to the northeast and control all of the region, and capture Persia as well. This would make Rome and Egypt dependent on her for goods from the far east. She could starve them out, isolate them and conquer them as well. Then continue west to Gaul. The Huns she would destroy along the way.

Nebuharin, you didn’t know how right you were. You will help us make peace: unified rule under Greece will bring peace. Babylon will be mine. Ephesus will be mine. Syria will be mine. Persia will be mine. Gaul will be mine. Egypt will be mine. Chin is already mine. The Amazons are already mine. The Huns will die. And I will rule Rome. Amazing what one drink can do for world history.

“What are you doing?” Gabrielle asked, handing Xena a drink, amusing the warrior with her timing.

“Envisioning Nebuharin’s dream.” The Conqueror turned and surveyed her oracle who had changed into a sleep shift, drawing a sensuous smile from the ruler. “Of course, my own dreams are looking pretty good right now.” Setting down the goblet, her large hands reached out and clasped hold of Gabrielle’s narrow hips.

“Oh yeah?” Gabrielle deliberately held back from the Conqueror, keeping the ruler’s arms extended away from her body. “You getting tired?”

A throaty chuckle was her answer. “Hardly.” With a swift movement, she pulled Gabrielle tight against her, pressing her lips against the oracle’s. Her fingers ran up the length of the fair-haired woman’s back to grasp the top of the off-white shift. Nipping Gabrielle’s lower lip, she ripped the nightshirt open along the back seam, eliciting a gasp.

“Good … glad to hear that.” Gabrielle settled fully into the Conqueror’s embrace.

Xena’s fingertips ran over the smooth back, drinking in the softness of the skin under her touch. It reminded her of everything she loved about Greece, why she wanted to conquer it, dominate it, tend to it. Too much of her country had once been ravaged by warlords who cared not for its beauty, its bounty. They had thought only of their own gain, while she sought to expand Greece’s fortunes. She knew by her mastery of Greece, she could lead it to the mastery of all other lands. Once all bowed to her, to Greece, then there would be assurance of prosperity. And things as tender as Gabrielle would never fear again. Not while they were in her hands.

She slowly slid the garment remnant off the Amazon Queen, letting it pool around her feet. “My dreams are closer to coming true than ever before,” Xena whispered, kissing the younger woman again.

“Help me with mine,” Gabrielle whispered, taking the ruler by the hand and leading her back to the bed.

“Oh, I can make yours real,” Xena boasted. Then proceeded to scoop up her lover and toss her gently onto the bed, launching herself effortlessly up on top of the Queen.

“You think?” Gabrielle brushed a stray lock of hair behind Xena’s ear.

“I know.” A kiss followed the boast. Then several more after.

“What are your dreams?” Gabrielle managed when her lips had one unoccupied moment, her arm wrapped loosely around Xena’s neck as the ruler laid siege to her own.

“The world. All of it.”

The oracle closed her eyes, distracting herself from the unexpected pain of the reply. Grow up, Gabrielle. Stop filling your head with silly romantic notions. Just take what you are given, it’s more than she’s ever given before.

Xena took the silence as encouragement, assuming the Amazon Queen to be overwhelmed by her attentions. She found herself highly aroused at the prospect that this vacation would actually propel her closer to her ultimate goals. “Mine,” she whispered into Gabrielle’s ear then moved southward. Even Xena didn’t know who or what exactly she was referring to. Everything seemed hers tonight. All the world was alive with possibilities.

She paused in her attentions to Gabrielle’s breast, resting her cheek against its slope. Reluctantly she focused her senses away from the body moving beneath her, from the fingers moving through her hair and from the naked flesh pressed against her now open robe. Blowing out a deep breath, which only further served to arouse Gabrielle, she pushed herself up. “Do you mind if I kill one of your Amazons?” she growled softly.

Before Gabrielle could recover well enough to respond, Xena was off the bed and stalking toward the balcony. She threw open the door and pulled Kelryn into the room, throwing her into a chair. Placing both hands on the arm rests, the Conqueror leaned over the young soldier, not bothering to close her robe.

Kelryn looked at the flesh before her and in that instant understood her Queen’s attraction to the dark ruler. She had never seen a more perfectly proportioned or defined body, and Kelryn knew she had a lot of experience with which to make comparisons. The Conqueror was the flawless blend of warrior and woman.

Kelryn then quickly realized that most people who looked at the Conqueror this way didn’t live until the next morning. She immediately chose another view. Unfortunately, her eyes wandered over to the bed. Upon seeing her Queen undressed, her face suffused with heat. Where the Conqueror was all woman warrior, her Queen was all woman – soft and round and beautiful in all the right places. She could tell by the flush covering the pale skin that she had more than interrupted a private moment. “Oh gods,” she moaned, hating her plight and Eponin for sending her into the inner palace.

“Do you like what you see?” Xena whispered, having watched where Kelryn’s attention had gone.

The soldier shook her head, “No, Conqueror.” I love what I see, I want what I see. I just happen to enjoy breathing on a regular basis.

Xena leaned in closer to the guard. “No?” her tone was incredulous. “You dishonor your Queen?”

Grey eyes traveled to the ruler’s face, now close to her own. “No! Oh gods … Never!” She realized how her answer had been deliberately misunderstood. Kelryn was smart enough to know better than to explain herself. Extolling Gabrielle’s ample womanly virtues would not lengthen her life expectancy at this moment. “It’s just …”

“Xena,” Gabrielle called softly, as she stood up and wrapped herself in the rumpled sheet. “Let me.”

The Conqueror glanced over her shoulder and flashed a quick smile in the Amazon Queen’s direction, indicating her clear enjoyment of Kelryn’s panic. “Lucky for you, Amazon,” she said, moving away and settling herself on the nearby couch.

Gabrielle did her best to maintain a dignified expression, despite the fact her body was humming with desire for the Conqueror. She took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the lounging ruler, who sat insolently, not closing her robe. “What’s going on, Kelryn? How did you get in here? And why are you here?”

Kelryn stood up only to bow low before her Queen. “My Queen, my apologies for this untimely interruption.”

“Interruptions are, by definition, untimely, Amazon,” Xena scoffed.

Gabrielle shook her head slightly in Xena’s direction, indicating the ruler was not helping the situation at all. “Sit back down, Kelryn. How did you get in here?”

The young warrior resettled, positioning herself so she had no eye contact with the Greek ruler. “My Queen, Palaemon discovered that you were being held in here for a quarter moon. He asked Eponin and I to aid him in breaching the inner palace. We surveyed the perimeter and discovered that no one was assigned to watch the inner palace roof. Apparently, the Babylonians aren’t used to women who can scale trees and walk on branches and climb up and down steep angles between rooftops so they don’t guard against us.” Kelryn paused to recollect her thoughts, but it was of little use. She was still too nervous and prone to rambling at such times. “So … the Captain threw a javelin into the inner palace roof with a rope attached to it, I crossed over on the line. I have always been the best in the village in the branches. And Eponin is too heavy for the rope we used. We got a real small one to make it harder to see. Plus, it’s almost straight up going back. We have Lari and Tamara downstairs distracting the guards, and Palaemon and Eponin are awaiting my return on the other roof. Oh, Palaemon gave me a message for the Conqueror.”

“Speak it,” Xena commanded.

“Conqueror, he wrote it down.” She removed a rolled up piece of parchment from beneath her bracer and handed it over.

The ruler muttered under her breath when she took the parchment and moved away from the two Amazons.

The tension level dropped with each stride further away from them by the dark ruler. Gabrielle took Xena’s place on the couch, adjusting the sheet around her body as she did so. “How are things going in the outer palace?”

“Very well, my Queen. We have mapped out the interior and are awaiting your command.” She glanced shyly at her leader. “May I ask what King Nebuharin hopes to accomplish by holding you inside?”

Gabrielle made a face akin to having bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. “Peace.”

“He didn’t quite think it through, did he?”

The Queen looked over at her young Amazon and laughed, delighted to hear someone speak the plain truth. “No, he certainly didn’t. I think he was even surprised by the response he received.” Gabrielle held off mentioning the King’s death until Xena made absolutely clear she wished it to be known. She looked over to see the Conqueror writing on the parchment; she assumed it was a response to Palaemon.

Kelryn was beginning to feel a bit better. As long as she didn’t consider what was and what wasn’t beneath the sheet Gabrielle wore, she was fine. It occurred to her to return to the scribe tonight, if at all possible.

“Here,” the Conqueror said, suddenly close to her again. “Give this to Palaemon.”

“Yes, Conqueror.” Kelryn looked over at Gabrielle for permission to exit. It was her fondest hope it would be granted soon.

It was. “You’re dismissed, Kelryn.”

Pleased to be leaving in one piece, the young soldier leapt to her feet, eager to comply. Bowing deeply to Gabrielle, she swore her fealty. She was just at the balcony door when the Conqueror’s voice stopped her. “Come a candlemark later tomorrow night, Amazon.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Kelryn replied, unhappily reliving the first few minutes in the bedroom once more. With one more bow, the soldier departed, adroitly scaling the vines which hung down the length of the building.

“Where were we?” Gabrielle asked from the bed, the sheet back to its original use.

Shedding her robe, the Conqueror returned to her oracle. “I was right about here,” she whispered as lips closed over flesh.

The fair-haired woman sighed in relief, tangling her fingers once more in Xena’s hair, gently caressing the soft spot behind one of her ears. “Exactly.”

Chapter Fifteen

The morning found Gabrielle alone in bed. She stretched slowly, as she imagined Pei-cha did, and welcomed the day. Their lovemaking had gone long into the night so Gabrielle was not surprised by the height of the sun outside the window, or the absence of the Conqueror. She leaned over the edge of the bed and picked up the robe Xena had discarded on her way to the bed the night before. Bringing the silk to her nose, she inhaled the scent of her lover and wondered where Xena was.

She did not wait long as she heard soft footfalls on the balcony. Gabrielle had moved over to the dressing area and was choosing her clothing for the day. Holding a copper colored dress up to her body, she turned to the Conqueror. “Do you like this one?”

Xena nodded, “Definitely. But you should put it on quickly. Kulam is on his way.”

Frowning, Gabrielle dressed and was running a comb through her hair when an insistent banging was heard on their door. “Do you want me to answer it?”

The dark ruler shook her head and motioned Gabrielle back. “No; best if I do.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You’ll soon find out,” the Conqueror replied, opening the door and taking an imposing stance in the doorframe. She coolly surveyed the Persian ruler, who was clearly agitated. He glanced over his shoulder, as if concerned someone might be sneaking up on him.

“You know?” Kulam queried; his voice had a mixture of anxiety and annoyance in it.

“I heard.”

“What?” Gabrielle asked, trying not to sound annoyed.

“Farza is missing.”

“Did she cross over the sand?” was Gabrielle’s reasonable inquiry.

“Not that I can tell,” Kulam replied. “Pompey and I have been down by the crossing, trying not to attract too much attention from the guards across the way. We couldn’t see any evidence of someone crossing.”

Gabrielle tried not to smirk when she thought about her Amazons. Living in a desert without many trees had made the Babylonians think only horizontally and not vertically. Tree climbing skills were not to be underestimated, she decided. She wished she had climbed more of them as a child.

Xena shrugged, “That means she’s here. Probably just hiding, afraid we’re going to turn her over to the Babylonians.”

“It is still our most expedient option, Xena. Think of it: we hand Farza over to the Babylonians and then Syria is ours.” The Persian king’s voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper.

“Syria is already mine, if I want it.” The Conqueror looked bored with the entire conversation. “Let’s go find Farza before she causes any more trouble than she has already.” She settled a cape around her shoulders, knowing she wore one better than Pompey ever could.

“Do you think she killed Nebuharin?” Gabrielle’s question brought Xena’s attention back to the matter at hand.

Kulam snorted at the Amazon Queen’s question. “Of course she did. She sat beside him and it’s her favorite way of getting rid of troublesome people.”

Gabrielle considered his argument but remained quiet. It seemed too convenient to her. Convenience and truth were opposites; such had been her discovery in life so far.

The Greek ruler rolled her eyes at Kulam’s stubborn insistence, but followed him out the door, reaching back for Gabrielle’s hand. Her longer fingers curled around the smaller ones, entwining them tightly. She didn’t like the idea of Farza being missing, despite her earlier comment. Considering the woman’s very real fear the night before, Xena thought it unlikely the Queen would deliberately remove herself from the others. People are much easier to kill when all alone. The Syrian Queen certainly knew that.

They went back to the garden house where the other rulers and the servant girls were gathered. The servants were setting out platters of food on the long table under the watchful eyes of Lao Ma and Allemane. Dokov and Gregor stood by the bar, pouring an amber liquid into their goblets. Pompey was lazing on a long bench, his hands clasped under his head, providing a pillow of flesh. He seemed to be watching his chest move as he breathed, intent on watching the medals affixed to it rise and fall. No one paid particular attention when Xena, Gabrielle and Kulam arrived, except for Pei-cha. The snow leopard rose from his position beside Lao Ma’s chair and made his way to Gabrielle.

Pei-cha rose up on his back legs and placed his paws on Gabrielle’s shoulders, bringing himself nose to nose with the Amazon Queen. She staggered back a step, surprised by his sudden movement and weight against her. It was only Xena’s hand on the small of her back that kept her upright. Pei-cha emitted a low purr, then rubbed his cheek against Gabrielle’s.

Awkwardly, the small woman brought her arms around the leopard in an embrace. His fur was thick, but surprisingly soft. Gabrielle’s hand and wrist all but disappeared into its length as she held the feline.

Kulam watched the scene with interest, “You seem to attract wild things, Queen Gabrielle.” He moved over to the buffet before either Gabrielle or Xena could respond to his observation.

The cat’s weight was beginning to become too much for the slight oracle, but Pei-cha showed no intention of moving anytime soon. His chin rested on her shoulder and his tail had wrapped around their entwined legs.

Xena reached out to help disentangle Gabrielle from the feline, but stopped short when a low growl issued from the cat’s throat and his icy blue eyes met hers. While unafraid of what the leopard might try to do to her, she would not risk Gabrielle becoming injured accidentally. “I think he’s happy where he’s at,” Xena whispered, her voice containing a hint of amusement.

“Well, he’s heavy.” She rubbed his fur briskly, trying to communicate her affection for him. “It’s time to get down now, sweetheart,” she whispered in his tufted ear which was nestled near her chin.

Pei-cha pulled back, rubbed his cheek once more against the soft skin of the oracle, and then dropped down on all fours. He spared a glance at the Conqueror, baring his fangs slightly, and then slowly circled back to Lao Ma.

“I don’t think he likes me much,” the Conqueror noted.

“Competition,” Gabrielle guessed. “I think he was trying to mark me just now.”

“He did all but spray you, that’s for sure.”

Gabrielle pursed her lips together and regarded the Conqueror, “Sounds like someone else I know last night.” At Xena’s indignant look, she smiled gently and placed her hand on the other woman’s strong forearm. “For which I was very grateful. You’re a very good protector.” Lowering her voice so that only Xena could hear, Gabrielle concluded, “And, I am yours.”

Mollified, the Conqueror led them over to the table, where they greeted Lao Ma and Allemane. Little was said as they filled up their plates and began eating. The others wandered over to the table and loaded up on the fruit, cheese, breads and smoked meat.

The servant girls knew to stay within sight at all times and busied themselves with refilling goblets and trays. Gabrielle noticed that they stayed far away from Dokov, making her wonder what he had done to frighten them. She felt a flash of indignation at the thought he had mistreated them as he had done her the night before.

Xena surveyed the table, noting the new seating arrangements. The Hun had wisely chosen to sit far away from her, assuming Farza’s seat. It was then she knew. “We need to find Farza.”

Gregor shrugged, “She’ll come when she gets hungry enough. She seemed awful concerned with her belly last night.”

“You should talk,” Allemane muttered, giving the obese man a look of contempt.

“She’s in here somewhere,” Pompey replied around a mouthful of bread and gesturing at the surrounding gardens.

Sighing, Xena pushed herself up from the table. “I intend to find her.” She looked meaningfully at Gabrielle who popped a grape into her mouth and stood up to come with her.

“I’ll help you,” Gabrielle offered unnecessarily. She grabbed a handful of grapes as she rose from the table and followed after the ruler.

Together they wandered through the expanse of the gardens. The gardens were laid out into four distinct regions, each with its own theme. The southwestern corner was the hedge maze and garden house. The southeastern corner was overflowing with flowers in intricately arranged beds. Even though one could look across the entire area with a sweeping glance, Xena insisted on walking through the flowerbeds on the narrow gardening pathway. The ruler believed that when she found Farza, she would not be standing upright.

All four regions were touched by a lake in the middle of the gardens which extended as far back as the northern wall. The water within was cold and clear, much like the water of the Euphrates. Along the northern wall was a rising column of rock, built to resemble the side of a mountain. From the top of the rocks the stream came splashing down, thus creating an artificial waterfall in the middle of the desert palace.

The dark ruler and oracle stood on the western side of the falls, watching the water dance its way down to the lake. Gabrielle was clearly impressed by the design. “That’s terrific, isn’t it?”

Xena nodded slowly, “It is.” Her eyes went to the two towers she could see rising behind the northern way. She knew that had to be where the water was being drawn up to the top of the wall. She wondered how many slaves it took to keep the water circulation on-going throughout the day and night as it had been. Xena wished Nebuharin was alive to explain how they brought in the water from the Euphrates as well. Was there an inlet of some kind? Although she doubted it, not having seen any waterway to the palace on their walk from the ship. If not, did Nebuharin have slaves fetching water from the river and then hoisting it above the wall? Were that the case, the Conqueror would consider it a tremendous and unforgivable waste of his resources.

“I wish we had more waterfalls in Greece,” the oracle sighed. She especially enjoyed the fine mist that rose from the surface near where the water splashed down. “I’ve hardly seen any before.”

Xena chuckled, “You just need to know where to look for them, Gabrielle.” Giving the smaller woman a gentle tug on her arm, the ruler began leading them into the forested area of the northwestern region. “Come on, I think we’ve established that Farza isn’t in the waterfall.”

They walked through the treed area, being suitably impressed at how dense it truly was. Once they were thirty paces into its realm, they were obscured from view. The light became sparer as the tree limbs and leaves blocked out Helios’ harsh rays. Gabrielle shivered slightly at the temperature drop. The Conqueror removed her cape and draped it around her companion’s shoulders. Gabrielle smiled her gratitude as the warmth settled over her.

It occurred to Xena that this would be the perfect place to hide in the gardens. A full candlemark later, they emerged from the forest. While they had not searched the entire area, Xena felt reasonably confident that Farza was not within its confines.

They walked around the lake and back to the northeastern area and through the tropical plants found there. Gabrielle was impressed by the big, leafy vegetation and the bamboo stand. Deep within the section, they found a small pond and shaded prayer hut. The pond was filled with brightly colored fish who swam about oblivious to all the intrigue in the gardens.

Gabrielle reached out and took hold of the Conqueror’s hand, leaning up against the tall woman. “I’d really like this place if Nebuharin hadn’t had the bad manners to die.”

Xena glanced down at her oracle and smiled, surprised by the humor. “I know what you mean.”

“How are we going to get out of this, Xena?”

“Come on, let’s sit down for a moment.” The Conqueror led them into the prayer hut and settled down on the small bench provided for the petitioner. “I have Palaemon making arrangements for us to leave. Once we have a secure way out of the city, we’ll be going.”

“Even without knowing who killed Nebuharin? Don’t you want to find out?”

“Not that much. I’m more concerned about us getting out of here alive and in one piece.”

Gabrielle played with the large hand held within her own, uncurling the Conqueror’s fingers gently, examining each. “Won’t the Babylonians assume you killed him if we flee?”

“Frankly, I don’t care what they think, Gabrielle. We’re not safe here either way. Once they discover their king is dead, all of our lives are forfeit. I don’t intend to be here when they find out the truth.”

“But if we discovered the truth about who killed him, wouldn’t that be better?” Gabrielle’s eyes glowed with resolve. “Otherwise, Babylon will consider Greece its enemy. You’ve had important trade relations with Babylon since the beginning of your reign. I don’t want to see that lost.”

The dark ruler stretched out her long legs and crossed them at the ankles, staring resolutely at her boots, as if they might provide her with guidance. “Trade is no good if you’re dead. But -” she held up a hand as Gabrielle was about to interrupt her – “you have a very good point.” She touched her fingers to the oracle’s lips. “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll try and figure out who killed him. But, if we can leave here safely before then, we’ll go. And I don’t want any arguments from you when that time comes.”

Gabrielle kissed the fingers against her lips. “Deal.” She lightly slapped her thighs and stood up, gazing down fondly at the relaxing ruler. “Come on, let’s find Farza before she causes any more trouble.”

“I don’t think she will be,” Xena muttered.

Chapter Sixteen

It was time for the noon meal when the two returned from searching the gardens, having discovered no trace of the missing Syrian Queen. As they approached the garden house, Pompey and Kulam came up behind them. “It makes no sense to me,” Kulam muttered.

“He was a crazy old man,” Pompey replied blithely, still regretting that it was he and not Caesar in this mess.

“What makes no sense?” Gabrielle inquired, her curiosity piqued.

Kulam gestured about, taking in as much of the gardens and the inner palace as he could. “That there is only one way in or out of this place.”

“Perhaps he felt safe here,” the Roman theorized. “He could have thought there would be no need for an escape route.”

“Then he would be a fool, and he was called the Fox because he wasn’t one.”

Xena had to agree with Kulam. “True. Foxes have many holes leading to their lairs. You just didn’t find the others.”

At this, Pompey became indignant. “I know how to conduct a search, Destroyer.”

Gabrielle interposed herself at that moment, “Does something smell good to anyone else?” Taking hold of the Conqueror’s arm, she moved them up the stairs and toward the dining table. She was pleased with Xena’s willingness to be led away from her Roman antagonizer. She missed Xena’s smirk over her shoulder at the Roman.

Finding some of the other rulers lounging around the garden house, Xena shook her head. “I intend to search the inner palace for Farza. If you don’t want me looking through your lodgings without you, I suggest you get off your lazy asses and help with the search.”

“How dare you!” Allemane sprang to his feet, immediately angered. “That is outrageous! While you have been out traipsing about with your consort, we have been busy as well.”

“You haven’t begun to see outrageous, Allemane.” Xena took a step toward the curly-haired Gaul. “And what have you done this morning?” Her tone implied that it could not have been very worthwhile, if he had done it.

Gabrielle found herself unexpectedly warmed by the declaration of her as the Conqueror’s Consort. It didn’t bother her that Allemane had dismissed her own royal status; she could only dwell on the title he had bestowed on her. It wasn’t a secret she and Xena were lovers, by any means. Yet there had been no formalization of their relationship and certainly no announcement of it. She wondered what the Conqueror thought of Allemane’s comment, but knew better than to inquire.

“Pompey and Kulam looked for a way out of the inner palace.”

Xena shrugged, “I know that. I asked what you did. Not what they did.”

Allemane stood to his full height, but he was still shorter than the Conqueror. “I too examined the gardens.”

“Too bad you didn’t do anything useful.”

Clearing her throat, Lao Ma spoke. “I would be happy to help with the search, Xena. I am sure all of us would be glad for the distraction.” Her eyes fell on Dokov and Gregor, her annoyance with them evident to any who cared to notice. “Sitting here, merely watching over the servants, has been less than enlightening.” Indeed, she had been protecting the servants from the unwanted attention of the Hun. While she had wanted to join in searching the premises, she knew that to leave the servants alone would have resulted in their defilement.

Pompey responded first, “Let’s get it over with. Then we can come back and eat.”

The search consisted of a cursory review of each of the rooms. None of the rulers was willing to allow anything more than establishing that Farza was not within their space. After a short time, they were all gathered in the formal receiving room.

Gregor let out a long sigh as he settled himself on one of the couches. “She is being rather tedious. I mean, this desperate ploy for attention …”

“I hardly think Queen Farza is doing this because she feels neglected,” Gabrielle countered.

“She must be in the gardens then.”

“I looked there, Pompey. She’s not there,” Xena growled, not liking the challenge.

Dokov snorted in derision. “You are not infallible, Xena.”

Twirling around, her cape billowing out, Xena drew a dagger from her left boot and held it menacingly. “And you are not immortal.”

Kulam found himself in the unusual role of peacemaker, as he stepped between the two rulers. “Is there anyplace else we have not looked?”

“We looked in all of our rooms,” Allemane replied.

“Not all,” the Chin Empress stated calmly. “We haven’t looked in Nebuharin’s room.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s hiding in there. Please.”

“Allemane, shut up,” Kulam ordered. “Let’s make a visit. This has gone on long enough.”

The procession, complete with servants and snow leopard, made its way back through the inner palace, to the large suite that housed the body of the Babylonian king.

The twelve people piled in the room, the four servants bowing before the covered body of their dead leader. One of them began crying, a combination of grief for her monarch and for the situation she found herself in.

Dokov and Gregor settled into chairs, annoyed at the whole affair. Allemane stood guard at the door, watching over the servants, as had been his duty all morning. Meanwhile, Pompey was going through the suite, looking in every possible hiding place for the missing queen. Lao Ma and Gabrielle stood together, trying to think as Farza might, and discern where she was. Pei-cha settled his large frame between them, contenting himself with both of their attentions. Kulam walked out onto the large balcony and was carefully checking it for any sign of her, or her having been there. Xena stood in the middle of the room taking it all in.

The two men returned from their explorations and shrugged. “If she was here, she isn’t anymore,” Pompey announced, unnecessarily.

“It makes no sense. Unless she found another way out of here.”

“I don’t think that’s it, Kulam,” Xena replied, realizing the obvious, at last.

“Then where is she, Conqueror?”

Walking over to the bed, Xena lifted up the sheet to expose the dead body of Queen Farza. Looking soberly at the startled people around her, she shrugged, “I think the better question is: where is Nebuharin?”

Chapter Seventeen

The Hun became interested in the proceedings when Xena revealed Farza beneath the sheet. He stared at the body for a few long moments before drawing a thin blade from his belt. Ambling over to the bed, he stood beside the Conqueror and took in the still body. “How do we know she’s dead?”

Xena put her hand over Farza’s mouth and nose and waited. “She’s not breathing.”

“Neither was Nebuharin.” Moving quickly, the Hun drew his knife along the Syrian Queen’s throat. The dead flesh parted revealing congealed blood, but none seeped from the wound.

Gabrielle gasped at the sight and Pei-cha let out a low growl, sensing her horror.

“What are you doing?” Xena grasped the Hun’s wrist in her hand, increasing the pressure until he released the dagger and it clattered on the floor.

“Now we know she is dead,” he growled, his breath rank as it brushed over Xena’s features.

The Conqueror shoved the Hun away from her, at the same time kicking the blade over to Gabrielle, knowing her oracle would pick it up.

It seemed as if everyone began talking at once. Accusations began flying about who had killed Farza and deposited her in Nebuharin’s room. Many focused on Kulam, who had the most to gain from the Syrian’s death.

Lao Ma cleared her throat, a delicate sound that somehow managed to capture the attention of the room. “I think we should not overlook the obvious suspect.”

“We’re not,” Allemane countered, having been one of Kulam’s most vocal accusers.

“Actually, you are.” The Empress seemingly glided across the floor to the bedside. There she removed her own scarf and wrapped it around Farza’s neck, hiding the post-mortem wound inflicted on the body. She drew up the sheet once more over the Queen’s head. “Farza is in Nebuharin’s bed. Nebuharin is not. That hardly seems to point to King Kulam having killed her.”

“Are you saying Nebuharin did?” Pompey inquired.

“I would think that is the obvious conclusion.”

“Didn’t you say he was dead?” Gregor raised his fleshy hand and pointed a mangled finger at the slight woman. “Now you say he’s alive and killed Farza. That’s very convenient for you.”

“Allemane also said he was dead,” Gabrielle reminded the occupants of the room. She hadn’t spent much time with the Chin ruler, but felt protective of her nonetheless. When she came to Lao Ma’s support, Pei-cha rubbed his cheek against her thigh.

“And the Destroyer said he drank hemlock,” Allemane added, reluctant to be one of only two suspects.

“His cup had hemlock in it. I smelled it.”

“Obviously,” Pompey broke in, “he didn’t drink it. The question is: where is he?”

Xena folded her arms over her chest, straightening to her full height. “We know there’s no one hiding or hidden in the inner palace or gardens.”

“So you say, Destroyer,” Gregor hissed.

“Explain yourself, Proconsul.”

“You say no one is in the gardens, but I don’t trust you. And I have ten good reasons not to.” He held up his hands for all to see, his puffy fingers almost grotesque in size and shape. “For all we know, you and Nebuharin set this whole party up to knock off your enemies. He pretends to die. You get your lap dog,” he gestured to Lao Ma, “to say he’s dead. You and your Amazon whore then tell us he’s nowhere to be found. We all know if she will spread her legs for you that she’ll say or do anything. And then you kill Far -”

Gregor was so engrossed in his speech that he failed to see the Conqueror’s fast approach. With the strength equal to several men, Xena backhanded the proconsul. His head snapped to the side and the sound of breaking bones was evident to all, most especially the Ephesian. Blood spurted from his nose and lip, coating his chin and chest in brilliant red.

Across the room, Gabrielle winced at the violence being inflicted on her behalf. Her stomach cramped up and she wondered if she might lose its contents. Shakily, she lowered herself onto a nearby footstool and hugged Pei-cha around the neck, trying to obscure her vision.

Xena reached into his open mouth and pulled out his tongue, digging her thumb into the fleshy organ. “Never insult Queen Gabrielle. If you do so again, I will rip out your tongue and feed it to you. Do you understand?”

Gregor did not respond immediately.

Xena’s other hand slapped his lower jaw, causing him to bite his own tongue. He moaned with the additional pain and choked on the new blood filling his mouth. “Answer me, you fat, quivering fool!”

Muffled by the hold on his tongue, the proconsul barely managed to stammer a discernable reply, “Yhwes.”

She released her hold on his tongue and wiped the wetness off on his cloak. “Apologize.”

Once again, Gregor was foolishly slow to obey. As a result he suffered another backhand, this time focused on his other cheek. Gasping for breath, he finally spoke, “I’m sorry … Queen Gabrielle.” Blood and saliva ran over his lips as he spoke. Fortunately, he remembered to use her title, precluding another attack.

Allemane took a step toward the two combatants, as if he might now intervene.

He was met with the tip of Xena’s sword at the base of his throat. “Back off, Allemane. Don’t involve yourself in this dispute.”

Wisely, the Gaul leader stood still, neither advancing nor retreating. He knew that any movement on his part would be interpreted as a threat. Trying not to show any fear, he waited for the danger to pass.

There was the sound of other swords being drawn, others not being sure if the Conqueror’s anger might soon be directed toward them. Gabrielle glanced around the room and saw Pompey, Dokov and Kulam all standing armed, their swords held in a defensive position. Tension radiated through the room, wrapping the occupants tightly in its grasp.

“There are several flaws in your theory, Gregor,” Lao Ma responded calmly, as if there was no imminent danger. “First, Allemane also verified Nebuharin’s death. Either he has to be in on the deception as well, or he lied for his own purposes. Second, you imply that we were all searching for Nebuharin today, when, in fact, we had no idea he was missing until a few moments ago. Third, you state that it was the Conqueror who killed Farza. There is no proof of that allegation whatsoever. Any of us could have killed her.”

“I couldn’t have,” Dokov replied. “I was with you all morning in the garden house, Lao Ma.” He was still annoyed that the empress had denied him his diversions.

“Not all morning, Dokov. And certainly, not all night. We have no idea how long Queen Farza has been dead. You could have killed her in the night, put her in Nebuharin’s bed, and then joined me in the garden house.”

“We were all alone at some point,” Kulam agreed.

“Not all,” Xena replied. “Queen Gabrielle and I were together all night and all morning.”

Hearing the Conqueror’s assertion, Gabrielle’s brows furrowed. She said nothing, not wanting to contradict the ruler at this moment.

Allemane shrugged and made a face, backing away from the Conqueror’s sword. “With all due respect, Conqueror, that is hardly a ringing endorsement, at least to me. I don’t know about the others.”

Pompey nodded, “I would agree with you, Allemane. No one has an alibi. Including Nebuharin.”

The Hun lumbered over to another chair and placed himself in it, laying his sword across his lap. “If Nebuharin is alive, let’s leave.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Allemane retorted. “We can’t get out without Nebuharin. He has to rescind his order to kill anyone who crosses the sand trap.”

The Hun scowled, but did not reply.

A mirthless laugh issued from Kulam. “So, we are still stuck in here, but now we have a different corpse and a missing host. Although, I think Dokov has kindly prevented Farza from similarly rising from the dead. Who will be next?”

“Why are you assuming anyone else will die?” Pompey inquired.

“Why did Nebuharin go to such trouble then? He brings us all here, locks us in his inner palace and disappears. He makes sure we are unable to leave, no matter what begins happening. Now his neighbor to the north is dead. Why should any of us feel safe? Do you think he will now appear and say ‘Surprise!’ and let us all go home?”

“Kulam’s right, we are all in danger,” Allemane agreed. “This is Nebuharin’s way of taking out his enemies.”

Realizing his fellow rulers were agreeing with him, Kulam continued. “We need to search again.”

“I did search,” Xena growled, taking offense.

Lao Ma nodded her assent, “I agree with Kulam, Xena. You were searching for Farza, not for Nebuharin. Now, we need to try to find someone not just hiding in fear, but someone hiding as a killer would.”

Somewhat mollified, the Conqueror gave a slight nod. “Fine.”

“We should also try to find a way out of here,” Pompey added. “I don’t think Nebuharin only had one way in or out. That would be too dangerous. He’d have at least one other way out. We need to find his escape route and use it.”

One by one the rulers exited the bedchamber, speaking softly amongst themselves. Soon only the women were left in the room. The servant girls sat together on the floor, eyeing the three very different women rulers with interest.

Gabrielle went over to the Conqueror and embraced her, as she had been wanting to do since Farza’s body was revealed and Dokov’s desecration of it. The Conqueror’s arms closed about her and Xena rubbed her oracle’s back soothingly. “It’s going to be fine, Gabrielle.” She kissed the fair head nestled under her chin.

“What do you really think about Nebuharin, Xena?” Lao Ma asked after a suitable time.

Xena still held the oracle, even when the smaller woman tried to pull away. “It doesn’t seem like something Nebuharin would do. He was a Fox, but he wasn’t a real predator. That’s why his kingdom has survived so long. He was interested only in his borders, no one else’s. To bring us all here to kill us doesn’t make sense for him.”

The Chin empress considered the reply. “Perhaps he meant it as his legacy. He was very impassioned talking about that at dinner. Many equate peace with the death of their enemies.”

“And others regard it as the incapacitation of their enemies, or those who stand in their way.” Xena locked eyes with the slender empress. Coming to a decision, she placed a kiss on Gabrielle’s forehead. “Gabrielle, I need to go see if I can find Nebuharin, dead or alive. I want you to stay with Lao Ma.”

The oracle wanted to protest, but decided not to since they were not alone. “Be safe.”

A throaty chuckle was her response, “Don’t worry about me.” She untangled herself from Gabrielle’s embrace. “Lao Ma, see to her safety.”

“Of course, Xena. You need not ask.”

Xena smiled thinly, “I wasn’t asking.” She strode confidently out of the room, eager to discover whatever secrets there were in the inner palace.

Lao Ma stroked Pei-cha’s fur, gaining the snow leopard’s attention. Pointing to Gabrielle, she said, “Guard!” Pei-cha went over to the oracle, brushing himself against her, purring loudly. Amused at her cat’s obvious adoration of the young Amazon Queen, Lao Ma smiled. “Well, if Xena can’t be here, Pei-cha is the closest thing.”

Pale leopard eyes narrowed at the perceived insult.

Chapter Eighteen

Palaemon walked along the docks, looking over the various ships moored there. He tried to ignore the smells he always associated with a harbor – sweat, salt and fish. There were many reasons why he never entered the navy, the stench he associated with the work a main one. His older brother had become a sailor. Palaemon could still remember how long it took for his mother to wash the scent of the sea out of Andrus’ clothing whenever he visited on shore leave. Andrus had told the younger Palaemon of the freedom on the ocean, and the camaraderie among the men. Palaemon figured he had the best of both worlds. He lived on Grecian soil and his brother told him all the jokes his shipmates had taught him.

His love of the land didn’t mean that Palaemon never learned the basics of sailing, nor that he suffered from seasickness as a number of men did. As the Captain of the Royal Guard, it was important that he be familiar with any type of transport the Conqueror might wish to utilize. He was searching for boat that would carry their compliment of ten, in addition to the crew. It would be best, he thought, if the crew was small in number. It would make them easier to control and would mean fewer people to bribe. This also meant a smaller ship and, he hoped, a faster ship. While it would be nowhere near as comfortable as the vessel they traveled on into Babylon, survival was a greater benefit.

The note he had received from the Conqueror had instructed him to do this. Xena wanted a ship capable of a fast escape, should it be necessary. He had been told to use any amount of money necessary to procure it. Palaemon was also to make sure the Babylonians would be hindered in any pursuit they might attempt. He was focusing on the first objective; the second would take more time.

Walking alongside him was Novan, one of Palaemon’s most trusted senior officers. She had been in the Conqueror’s navy prior to her promotion into the Royal Guard, apparently not as affected by the smell of the harbors as the Captain. It was her duty to assure him of the sea-worthiness of the vessel they ultimately chose.

Palaemon enjoyed working with Novan. The brown haired, broad shouldered woman was always focused on the mission at hand. Years of serving at sea had toughened her and made her stronger than many of the other women in the Guard. The navy had also taught her to be content with her own company as women were not accepted readily as crewmates onboard ship. Palaemon found her less talkative than the Conqueror, which was quite the achievement.

They eyed the boats in the harbor and the Captain deferred to his lieutenant’s lead, as they walked slightly closer to ones that might fit their needs. Their focus on a ship capable of making a fast getaway meant they would need one with both sails and rowers. They could not rely on anything as capricious as wind when they left Babylon. Human effort would be needed. This meant that the ships they were focusing on had a crew compliment of at least forty, making Palaemon a bit nervous.

Her trained eye examined the vessels quickly, looking for the signs of a conscientious captain. Their plan for this morning was to identify five potential candidates and make discreet inquiries about their owners later. It would be foolish to approach the captains directly without knowing their political allegiances. They had, however, been focusing on finding acceptable ships not flying the Babylonian flag.

The Captain was also looking for the waterways or sewers into the city. If they had to make a surreptitious getaway, it would be best to have a concealed pathway to the river. Further he was to ensure that riders were hired who would lay a false trail into the desert on horseback. Palaemon knew it was due to the Amazon Queen’s presence that the Conqueror was so concerned about their escape plans. Normally, the Conqueror would have merely informed him to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. She would have trusted her instincts and the part of her that was Ares’ child to see her safely home. Gabrielle in her life meant an end to such spontaneity, as the Conqueror was unwilling to put the fair-haired woman at risk. Palaemon was more than happy to see to the Amazon Queen’s safety. He had risked his life and reputation before to safeguard her. He would never hesitate to do so.

Novan indicated the boats she would be content with, from a cursory inspection, and they left the waterway in search of the nearest sailors’ pub.

Eponin was walking around the walled grounds surrounding the palace, examining them from every angle. It was her task to determine if there were any suitable exits, or areas that could be made into exits, should they be needed. She had found a few places that could be utilized in a pinch, but she was not pleased with the results of her search.

She began heading back to the palace when she spotted a woman sitting near the south wall. The woman was petite, with short red hair. Eponin could tell little more as she was seated on a short stool and had her back to the warrior. She was drawing a brush along stretched canvas. From Eponin’s vantage point, it appeared that the woman was painting nothing that existed in the garden. Intrigued, she wandered over. In the back of her mind, she remembered her bet with Kelryn, knowing she needed to make a few notches today. It would be a little difficult with the situation they found themselves in, but, provided she kept encounters relatively brief, she knew she would be able to easily best the younger Amazon. Eponin smirked; no one had ever questioned her prowess before and been proven right.

Positioning herself a little behind and to the left of the artist, Eponin studied the artwork. She then studied the scene before the artist. As she had noted, they were nothing alike. The grounds surrounding the palace were full of exotic flowers blooming on prickly cacti. The painting, however, was of a lush valley, full of high grass, dotted with yellow dandelions and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It certainly wasn’t a depiction of anything in Babylon.

“Dreaming of being someplace else?”

The red-head didn’t turn to look at her, but kept working on her painting. “What makes you think I understand Greek?” she replied, in Greek, hiding a smile.

Eponin was stumped. “I … I …” Confused, she scratched her forehead. “Do you?”

The small red-head looked over her shoulder slyly and raised her eyebrow.

The Commander turned a deep shade of scarlet as she realized what she had said. Her pride deeply wounded, all plans of conquest raced from her. She felt a sudden urge to inspect the palace once again. A few dozen quick strides had her close to the edge of the grounds when she saw Kelryn leaning against the wall, smirking. Eponin groaned; this kept becoming worse by the moment.

Laughing gray eyes fixed on her as she approached. Kelryn’s gaze pointedly raked over the pretty painter. “You could try just clubbing them over the head and dragging them into the bushes.”

“Not another word, Soldier.”

“Does having the same woman twice count, by the way?”

“I said,” Eponin barked, “not another word.”

Chuckling, Kelryn made a show of sealing her lips. Then she made a bigger show of stretching her arms and rolling her shoulders, highlighting the additional line of text the scribe had thoughtfully applied only a half candlemark before, the words streaming out from under her leathers.

“Tell me about your other morning activities, Soldier.”

“Well, if you don’t want to hear about the good part…” Kelryn trailed off when she realized the depth of her commanding officer’s annoyance. She cleared her throat, squared her shoulders and began relating her findings in a precise tone. The young woman transformed into the consummate professional warrior, the cockiness replaced by accomplishment and earned confidence. “Commander, I interviewed as many of the guards as possible without raising suspicion. None have seen any comings or goings into the inner palace. Nor have they seen any of the rulers approach the other side of the divide. The sand is raked every morning by one of the priests, under the observation of Marshall Harib. The concubines report that they have not been visited since Nebuharin went into the inner palace. Although a few complained that the king’s son has been showing unwanted and inappropriate attention in his father’s absence.”

“And what of the purpose of this summit? Did they have any ideas?”

“Commander, the guards all reported that they were not privy to such information. Marshall Harib considers his ruler an honorable and peaceful man, intent on protecting his homeland. The concubines all noted that Nebuharin was particularly excited about the other rulers visiting. He seemed unconcerned about how they would interact, assuming that a banner of peace would prevail. Many of the concubines harbored concern, as their presence had been requested in prior visits by various dignitaries. While Babylonian law prohibits father and son from sharing a woman, it seems the taboo does not extend to guests.”

“Bastards,” Eponin muttered.

“Yes, I would agree. They were all greatly relieved when Nebuharin said he would not be needing them during the summit.” My gain, Kelryn thought, but didn’t bother sharing with Eponin.

“You seem to have been able to gather quite a bit of information from the women of the court.”

Kelryn considered the tone of the question, trying to determine how best to answer. “Commander, I am young and flirtatious. I am not considered a threat by the women so they confide in me more readily than others perhaps. I assure you that my pursuit of our contest has not in any way undermined my -”

“- Kelryn, I know that. If I doubted you, I would never have given you an important assignment.” Eponin blew out a long breath, diffusing the residual anger lingering in her. “Find out from them the secret ways in and out of the palace. They would know if anyone; they’re probably sneaking out every night themselves.”

“Yes, Commander.” With a salute, Kelryn returned to the palace. There were worse assignments than milking the harem for information. Kelryn chuckled at her own phrasing.

Eponin watched this young version of herself leave, the swagger noticeable and enviable. Rubbing a callused hand across her chin, she sighed, wondering when she had become so old.

“I’m sorry,” a sweet, low-pitched voice said behind her.

The Amazon turned and saw the red-head had come over. The woman’s fingers, throat and face were liberally spotted with paint. Wiping one hand off on a rag, the woman offered it out to Eponin. The warrior took it, bracing herself for some type of trick.

“My mouth has always led me into trouble, of all kinds,” the artist was saying, a suggestive smile on her lips.

Eponin had yet to say anything in greeting.

“My name is Wynn.”

This roused the warrior. “Eponin.”

“You’re an Amazon and a Greek. How is that possible? I thought the Conqueror rid Greece of the women warriors.”

Eponin was surprised to note a measure of anger in Wynn’s eyes as she asked the question. “My Queen saved the Conqueror’s life in battle,” Eponin declared proudly. She remembered the events of nearly six moons ago as if they were yesterday. She could still taste the surprise of the Roman soldiers when the fierce Nation appeared on the hillside and joined ranks with the Greeks. “The Conqueror restored our traditional lands and now invites our Queen to join her in court. I am the head of Queen Gabrielle’s guard.” She took an appraising look at the artist. “And what is a Greek doing here in Nebuharin’s court?”

Wynn heard the challenge in the words. “Painting,” she replied blandly. “Excuse me, please.”

Shaking her head, Eponin muttered to herself, “Well, that could have gone better. Just loaded with charm today, eh, Ep?”

Chapter Nineteen

Xena headed back to the garden house and sat at the head of the table. She confirmed that which had let her know Farza was dead. The figurine of the Syrian Queen was broken in half, the two pieces scattered on the tabletop. Nebuharin’s had been given similar treatment. Thinking back to the time of the king’s death, she could not recall it having fallen off the table.

Someone was sending them a message.

The Conqueror drummed her fingers on the table restlessly. Nebuharin was no fool. He would not have built an inner palace that only had one entrance. No matter how secure he thought the site to be, he would never have allowed himself to be trapped. So the question was where did he put the passage?

Her gaze drifted out of the garden house, to the inner palace. She scanned the walls, liberally covered with thick vines and flowering plants. The rooftop was her first choice, but she knew the Babylonians did not share the Amazons’ and hers love of heights. In a land of sand and stone, the people would stick low to the ground, like the animals that populated it.

Would he have put in a tunnel? The Conqueror considered the soil type, knowing it would have to be strong enough to support the palace, but not knowing if it would be soft enough to carve a tunnel through it. Most likely, the palace had been built on stone, which would have been near impossible to dig through any length without it taking a considerable amount of time. So, where did he put it?

“Nothing is as soft as water, but who can withstand the raging flood.” The long distant words of Lao Ma echoed through Xena’s mind.

“You sneaky bastard.” With purpose in her step, Xena left the garden house, knowing she would soon be free of the inner palace.

“Let’s retire to another room, shall we?” Lao Ma proposed, standing up and straightening out the long folds of her gown. “I believe there is nothing we can do that will help Farza. And remaining here is only frightening the servants needlessly.”

“You’re right.” Gabrielle smiled in the direction of the four girls and held out her hand to one of them. The servant clasped it and allowed herself to be pulled upright. Her liquid brown eyes met the oracle’s in thanks. Gabrielle nodded her head and indicated that the girls were to follow.

They finally came to rest in the receiving room, a large, ornately decorated area down the hall from the king’s chambers. There they showed the servants to a corner of the room which held various amusements, parlor games and such. Gabrielle and Lao Ma settled themselves into overstuffed, high-backed chairs. Pei-cha curled himself up at the oracle’s feet, still mindful of his sentry duties.

“You have been with Xena for half a cycle of seasons now.”

Gabrielle was unsure if this was intended as a question or a statement of fact. “Yes, that’s true.”

“How did you come to be with her?”

“I hated her,” came the quiet reply. “I hated her more than I hated anyone before in my life. And, yet, I knew that if someone would have compassion on her…” Gabrielle plucked nervously at the cloth covering the chair. “I thought it hypocritical of myself to desire a second chance for the people, but be unwilling to extend one to her.” Lao Ma’s reaction was indiscernible and Gabrielle wondered if she had spoken too freely. Chin was an ally, and certainly Xena and Lao Ma were well acquainted. Perhaps there had been more between them than she knew. She fell silent and admired the coloring of Pei-cha’s fur.

“What made you believe the Conqueror was in need of a second chance? If anyone has made the most of every opportunity, it is Xena.”

“I shouldn’t have said what I did before, Empress. The Conqueror is a skilled leader.” The oracle rebuked herself for her loose tongue. She never hesitated to speak the truth to Xena, but she should not be in the habit of blurting it out to others.

“When I first met Xena some seven winters ago, she was nothing like the woman you know now. Her anger consumed her and made her foolish. It nearly cost her her life.” The Empress’ eyes grew dim as she remembered finding Xena in the woods, the ravenous hounds baying behind her, drawing ever closer to their goal. “I tried to teach her to give up her Will, to stop desiring, believing it would consume her.” She shrugged, a simple gesture for the enormity of what she felt. “I was wrong.”

“How so?” Gabrielle breathed.

“Which is more powerful here, Gabrielle, the desert or these gardens?”

The oracle shrugged, the answer obvious and the change of topics abrupt. “The desert. The gardens had to be brought forcibly here and carefully tended to survive.”

“Exactly. That which is in its natural form is always more powerful than that which has been changed.”

Gabrielle frowned, knowing what was said was important, and wanting to fully understand what Lao Ma was trying to convey. “I don’t follow.”

“I tried to alter Xena. Had I succeeded, I would have made her less than she is.” Lao Ma sighed, finally able to share the realizations she had made over the last seven winters. “My way is not her way, my path is not her path. I believe that ultimately we will reach the same destination, but we are unlikely to cross each other during our travels.”

“You don’t mean physically.”

“No, I do not. Chin is indebted to Greece and is Greece’s servant. I will always glad for an opportunity to welcome Xena to my homeland and to be with her, or to visit Greece. She is a remarkable woman, capable of greatness.”

“I know.”

There was a long silence between them, punctuated only by the sounds of the game playing in the corner. Pei-cha, tired of the inactivity, raised himself up and placed his front paws and head in Gabrielle’s lap, demanding attention. Her small hands immediately went into his fur, rubbing it briskly. “Is he always this affectionate?”

Lao Ma smiled, “No. But he is still young.”

“Young?” Gabrielle considered the size of the cat. He was easily as long as she was tall. Further, his tail was nearly equal to the length of his body. His head came to her waist when she stood and he weighed more than Gabrielle. “Will he grow larger?” She couldn’t imagine what he would be like if he did.

Soft laughter greeted her inquiry, “I believe he is finished. Pei-cha is a little over a winter old. I brought him with me because he is still being trained. His mother, Mei-ling, remains in the court of Chin.”

“How many do you have?”

“Eleven.”

Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over his broad forehead, eliciting a low purr from the feline. “How do you train them?”

“I teach them to trust me. After that, we learn from each other.”

Sounds like Xena and I. “I can see that. Trust is essential.”

“Pei-cha trusts you because he has no reason to fear you. He knows you are content with yourself, so he can be content with you. Most people foolishly try to tame wild animals. It is destined to fail because it is against their nature.” As I failed with Xena, Lao Ma added silently.

One hand slipped down to squeeze a fur-covered paw. “I am content with you as you are, Pei-cha,” Gabrielle affirmed, a smile on her lips. She spent a moment looking into the intelligent blue eyes and thought of her lover, who was searching the inner palace and gardens even as they spoke. “Do you believe Nebuharin is alive?”

“We are certainly meant to wonder about that, aren’t we?” Lao Ma settled herself more comfortably in the chair. “If he is dead, then someone has gone to great pains to hide that fact. To steal the body from his room and put it where it has not been readily found would take a great deal of effort. One beyond that of a mere trifle.”

“Why would someone do that, though?” Gabrielle then answered her own question, “By hiding Nebuharin’s body, it leads people to suspect Nebuharin of Farza’s death. That would mean the killer is among us unsuspected. But for what reason? Does he intend to kill us all? Or will he be content with Nebuharin and Farza?”

“And yet why would he kill him when Nebuharin has ordered that we are all to remain in the inner palace on penalty of death?”

Gabrielle pressed her lips together in concentration. “Perhaps it was a mistake on the killer’s part? He had put the poison in the drink before that proclamation was made. He couldn’t stop his plan.”

“Perhaps. But, if he had put poison in a flask or in a goblet, the fight between Xena and Dokov was the perfect cover for destroying it. He could have done so without notice.”

“Just as he could have poisoned Nebuharin’s drink without notice.” Gabrielle shook her head. “But why? When he would be trapped as we are?”

Lao Ma replied, “Unless he isn’t. Yet even if he has a way out we are unaware of, to murder Nebuharin in his own palace is fraught with risk. Unless he is able to place blame for the murder on someone else. That would make it is considerably less dangerous.”

“Did you know of the other rulers being invited before you came, Lao Ma?”

“I did not. It was my understanding that Nebuharin had merely asked for my company.”

“Same with Xena and me. I doubt if he told the others then. So, assuming no one came knowing they would have opportunity to kill their enemies or lay blame on them…” Gabrielle trailed off. It was very confusing trying to consider all the angles. “The intended victim must have been Nebuharin.”

“Yet murder is never committed without an element of profit. What does the murderer gain by Nebuharin’s death?”

The Amazon Queen shook her head. “Only his own certain death if he is unable to escape. It’s not as if there isn’t an heir to the throne. While Nebuharin’s son might be weaker, he would still have the same strength of army his father had. And, if his father had been murdered, he would have greater reason to fight to protect his homeland.”

Lao Ma nodded. “Exactly.”

“So do you think Nebuharin is alive then?”

“The best way to ensure peace is to have no enemies,” Lao Ma observed. “He brought the strongest rulers in the world here to his house – with only two exceptions. What better way to guarantee that his dynasty is preserved?”

“But why go through this charade? Why pretend to die? And then hide? Why not kill us when we arrived? Or poison us at dinner?”

Lao Ma sighed, “Maybe to make us suspect one another and hope that we do his work for him.”

Chapter Twenty

The rest of the afternoon wore on with the rulers searching out the various parts of the palace and gardens. Lao Ma had left with the servant girls to prepare dinner; Lao Ma still believed herself to be the best guardians of the servants’ virtue. Gabrielle and Pei-cha had contented themselves with sitting on the balcony, watching the various comings and goings in the gardens. The oracle kept straining for sight of her lover, but was unsuccessful.

She had eventually fallen asleep in the warm sunlight, a scroll spread out on her lap and Pei-cha stretched out at her feet, when she awoke to Allemane’s shouts. Still groggy, she lifted her head up from the back of the chair and saw Allemane moving hurriedly through the flowerbeds, waving his arms. His curly black hair bounced about his shoulders as he ran, giving him an effeminate appearance.

“Gregor is dead!” he called out.

This roused Gabrielle immediately. She sprang to her feet and rushed back into her room. It took her only a few moments to quickly rearrange her sleep-rumpled clothing and hurry down the stairs. Pei-cha matched her strides, his fur bristling as he felt her anxiety rise.

“What happened?” Gabrielle asked, breathless, as she arrived in the middle of the garden where Allemane and Dokov stood. The Amazon Queen hadn’t seen the Hun arrive, but assumed it was during her own descent to the gardens. She was careful to stand a good arm’s length away from him. Despite having Pei-cha at her side, she still felt far too vulnerable near Dokov for her own liking. Gabrielle also recoiled when she saw the Gaul’s hands and sleeves were covered with blood. Pei-cha noticed it as well, and let out a small growl at the scent of the blood.

Dokov stepped back, believing the growl was directed toward him.

Gabrielle scratched Pei-cha behind the ear in thanks.

“I found Gregor dead in the garden, over there.” Allemane pointed in the direction of the floral garden.

Lao Ma arrived at that moment and Gabrielle wondered how the Empress could manage to appear serene despite the situation. “How was he killed?” she asked.

Allemane spread out his hands, revealing the blood stained flesh. “His throat was slit.”

“You forgot to clean up afterwards,” Kulam remarked dryly as he arrived. His dark eyes had seemed to grow darker in the last two days as murder came close to him again and again.

“How dare you!” the Gaul sputtered and took a step toward the Persian king.

Seeing another fight about to break out, Gabrielle stepped between the two rulers. “Why don’t you take us to the body, Lord Allemane?” This seemed to diffuse the escalating conflict for the moment, providing everyone with a new subject to focus on. The rulers reminded her of the young bullies she had avoided while growing up. She disliked being around them as a child, she certainly hadn’t grow fonder of them in the intervening years.

They paced about forty steps into the flowerbeds, finding the dead body amidst the incongruously cheerful setting. Gregor was stretched out across a row of flowers, their bright yellow color muted by the darkening blood on the petals. His throat was cleanly slit, his mouth contorted in horror. Death had found him unaware until it was too late to deny its embrace.

They stood around the body, a circle of witnesses, each surprisingly careful not to trample any more flowers. “Where are the others?” Kulam asked.

“Pompey is with the servant girls in the garden house,” Lao Ma supplied. “I turned them over to him earlier this afternoon.”

“And Xena?” he continued.

All eyes turned to Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen said nothing, not wanting to admit she had no idea where the Conqueror was. She assumed she was still searching the grounds like everyone else, but wondered why she hadn’t come with the noise Allemane had made. Certainly she would be interested in learning of another death. Unless she already knows about it. The thought came unbidden into Gabrielle’s mind and caused a chill to race through her. She shivered, despite the heat, and hoped no one had noticed her reaction. “Is still searching,” she finally replied.

“Well, now we have three dead. Or two, depending on whether you believe old Nebuharin is alive and kicking.” Kulam stroked his chin thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing. Gregor’s death cleared a path for him to the Mediterranean. If Nebuharin were actually dead, nothing stood between him and the sea. And nothing stood between Greece and Persia either; he needed to ensure that the Conqueror would not be able to take advantage of this situation.

“We should take him to his room,” Gabrielle whispered.

“I don’t want to carry that pig anywhere. I could strain my back,” Allemane protested.

“It would be wrong to dishonor him in death, Allemane,” the Empress chided. “It is beneath the dignity of Gaul for you to refuse him that basic courtesy.”

“Who are you to lecture to me about dignity and courtesy? You and your son are mere puppets of the Destroyer. You pay her tribute to keep the bitch from taking it all away from you and your shell of a husband. Where is the dignity in that type of rule?” Allemane’s face flushed with anger as he warmed to the fight. “At least Gaul is free, truly free. We are champions of our own destiny.”

Kulam snorted. “You are a fool. Gaul is only as free as Rome allows her to be. You are Rome’s lap dog as Chin is Greece’s. You may think more highly of your master, but you are far from free.”

Gabrielle frowned, “I thought Gaul and Persia were allied.” She looked at Kulam for some type of confirmation. “Is Gaul also allied with Rome?” This she asked of Allemane.

Neither Allemane nor Kulam spoke; indeed, both avoided eye contact with her.

The Amazon Queen was thoughtful. She did not like this new information, but nothing about Rome ever comforted her. Xena’s disdain of Caesar personally, yet healthy respect for his forces, had rubbed off on her during their time together. Rome and Gaul allied; Gaul and Persia allied. Are Rome and Persia allied? Is the friend of a friend also a friend? Or does it simply make one of the friends replaceable?

Dokov scratched his gut and then bent over, roughly grabbing one of Gregor’s arms. He pulled the Ephesian proconsul into a lopsided sitting position before looking at the other two men. “Pick him up. He was worthless, but I don’t want the smell of his rotting body drifting over to the dinner table.”

Both men considered the heat of the gardens and knew the exposed flesh would soon ripen. Reluctantly, they grabbed onto his other arm and legs and the three men began to carry the heavyset ruler back to his room. They paused every twenty paces to unceremoniously dump Gregor on the ground and rest their arms and backs. Then they would hoist him up again and continue on their way.

“Which one do you think killed him?” Gabrielle asked the Empress standing beside her.

Lao Ma turned to her and lifted a delicate eyebrow in question. “Why could it only be one of them?”

“Oh, okay, or Pompey.”

“Or Nebuharin or Xena or myself … or even you.”

Gabrielle screwed up her face, as if she had tasted something vile. “What are you talking about?”

“Things are not always what they seem, Gabrielle.” With that, the slight woman turned and made her way back to the garden house.

Standing alone among the flowers, a drying pool of blood on the ground below her, the oracle turned her green eyes to the snow leopard. She knelt down, careful to not stain her gown, and held out her hands to Pei-cha. Obligingly, he placed his front paws in her hands. Carefully, she lifted them up and inspected his claws. She was relieved to find them without a remnant of Gregor’s flesh attached. Releasing his paws, Gabrielle leaned forward and placed a kiss on the feline’s forehead. “Just wanted to make sure, sweetie. No offense.”

Pei-cha raised his left paw and licked it clean.

Chapter Twenty-One

There were a lot of giggles surrounding the Amazon warrior. Kelryn had been admitted into the private quarters of the king’s concubines. The young warrior stood among the score of beautiful women, enjoying the fawning taking place over her. She stood taller than the women of Babylon, her sun-pink skin in contrast to their naturally darker tone. Her light brown hair and gray eyes also set her apart from the sea of dark hair and eyes surrounding her. Only a few of the concubines had dyed their hair to a reddish color, but Kelryn didn’t find them as attractive. She preferred the exotic look.

The women were pleased with themselves for having successfully smuggled her into their rooms, despite the guard outside the door. While the concubines themselves enjoyed a relative amount of freedom in the palace, no one, save the king, was allowed in their private quarters. However, the women were quite adept at all manner of distraction and while the guard’s attention was directed elsewhere, Kelryn had been brought inside. They led her through the outer room and into their private bathing courtyard.

Kelryn was certain she had discovered Elysia. Staring hungrily at the naked women who cavorted around the pool and reclined on padded benches, Kelryn briefly considered remaining in Babylon permanently. Following gestures she understood immediately, the Amazon warrior accepted the invitation to join them. She divested herself of her clothing and performed a shallow dive into the pool.

Surfacing, she found herself surrounded by five of the concubines, all speaking in somewhat broken Greek. They pressed her back against the tiled side of the pool, questioning her about everything to do with Greece, Amazons and the Conqueror.

One of the concubines took a long inventory of the soldier and looked up at Kelryn, quite puzzled. This caused the normally confident Kelryn to glance down her own body as well and, once satisfied that everything seemed to be in its proper place, she raised a questioning look to her surveyor. “What?”

The concubine blushed and reached out to poke Kelryn in the right breast.

“Hey!” This was not how the Amazon had pictured this moment going. She did not want to become a specimen for these women to examine. Well, not if it was just going to involve ungraceful poking. “What was that for?”

“Aren’t you an Amazon?” her assailant inquired.

“Yes,” Kelryn hissed, having no idea how the question and the action were related. The women spoke amongst themselves in the Babylonian language for a moment. There seemed to be a slight point of disagreement arising which involved Kelryn. Not appreciating this entire turn of events, she smacked the water lightly, to regain control of the conversation. “What’s going on?”

The poker bowed her head slightly. “I’m sorry. We had been told that Amazons cut off their breasts in order to be better with a bow and arrow.”

Kelryn stared blankly at the women for a long moment, and then, unable to contain herself, erupted into gales of laughter. In her mind, she imagined the scene of an Amazon war council with this suggestion made on how to improve their archery. She then imagined a huge bonfire in which every bow and arrow from the camp was burned mercilessly, consequences be damned. Cut off our breasts! Riiiggghhht. Gods, they probably also believe we eat men’s privates for dinner. Regaining control somewhat, she peered around at the innocent, inquisitive expressions and lost herself in laughter once more.

A few of the women around her twittered at her response, more in embarrassment than actual amusement. The questioner looked forlorn.

Gulping for air and holding her side, Kelryn came back to herself. “Gods, sorry about that.” Another chuckle escaped but she fought it valiantly. “Uh … no … we don’t do that. That’s just an old myth told to scare daughters away from joining the Nation. We love our breasts,” she concluded, amusing herself once more. We love ours and yours and …

“So you don’t eat men’s privates for dinner?” another woman asked.

Clamping a hand over her mouth, Kelryn shook her head. “Where did you hear all of these things?” she finally managed when she regained control.

“From Prince Vedtrilan.”

“Who’s that? Is he Babylonian?”

“He’s King Nebuharin’s son,” one concubine said proudly. “He’s a wonderful storyteller. He tells stories and writes poetry and sings songs and …” she trailed off sensing the accusatory stares of her fellow concubines. “I like him,” the woman protested meekly.

“You mustn’t,” the ‘poker’ advised. “He isn’t your master. It would mean death, but only to you, if King Nebuharin found out. Vedtrilan would merely be scolded. The King would not put to death his own heir.”

“He has another,” the infatuated concubine replied sullenly.

The ‘poker’ scoffed. “Don’t delude yourself. Amurin is merely a child, and is his grandson. Vedtrilan is the Crown Prince. Royal blood is never spilt in an argument over a member of the harem. Remember your position, Kaleia. Don’t be foolish.” She knew she was only stating the obvious, but the obvious was being overlooked.

Kaleia scowled, clearing disapproving of the advice being given.

During this exchange, Kelryn had been surveying the women in the pool. Of particular interest to her was a sweet looking young woman across from her. The girl kept lifting her almond shaped eyes up to meet Kelryn’s and then they would drop back down to studying the surface of the water. The next time she looked up, Kelryn flashed her most winsome smile. A small smile was returned to her, coupled with a discreet wave.

“How long have you been a warrior?” the ‘poker’ asked, wanting to end the argument that had been taking place.

Tearing her eyes away from the beauty, Kelryn replied, “My commission is new, less than a winter. But I have been training all of my life. My mother’s lifebond was head of the armory. I spent a lot of time with her there.”

“What’s a lifebond?”

“A mate. It’s the highest form of commitment two Amazons can share together.” Seeing the sea of blank faces around her, Kelryn continued patiently. “We have contractual bonds, wherein a couple will agree to be together for a certain period of winters. Typically it’s for a purpose – to start a business, to plant and harvest a new field, or even to raise a child. In each of those, at the end of the term, the couple can renew, renegotiate or separate without any penalty. Lifebonds can never separate, under penalty of death.”

A collective gasp went up around Kelryn. “They’re executed if they separate?”

Kelryn nodded gravely; she had seen such a sentence carried out once in her lifetime. “Not just separate physically either,” she clarified. “Desertion, adultery, abuse, failure to provide for your lifebond or your lifebond’s children, all of those carry the highest penalty.”

“I assume there are not many lifebonds,” one of the women, a tall, almost awkward looking woman, said wryly.

“You’re right. In fact, the entire village tries to talk the two women out of making the commitment. There is always a one moon waiting period before they can participate in the ceremony. During that time, it is each Nation member’s obligation to attempt to dissuade both women. There’s no shame in backing out of an engagement either. It’s better to be a bit embarrassed now than dead later.”

“We have nothing like that here,” one of the women muttered. “Women aren’t allowed to be together.”

Looking around the bathing area, Kelryn smirked. “I take that what the king is unaware of is permitted?”

“That would be true of everything,” the ‘poker’ said pointedly, looking at Kaleia.

Kelryn remembered her assignment. “So, if you want to see someone – prince or otherwise – how do you go about getting out of the palace? It’s guarded and you’re watched.”

A chorus of giggles enveloped her once more.

The young Amazon was starting to lose patience with the twittering and lack of immediate answers from her hosts. Although she had no problem with their hospitality overall considering her surroundings. She looked over once more at the pretty concubine across from her. She had felt the young woman studying her during her discussion on lifebonds. Kelryn used this time to return the favor. Their eyes met for a long moment, neither looking away. The woman twirled her index finger slowly over the surface of the water. Kelryn wanted to be that water.

“We swim.”

Kelryn had no idea what the woman was talking about, her mind fully occupied elsewhere. “Swim?”

The ‘poker’ took Kelryn’s hand and held it underwater, placing it where the current was the strongest. “Can you feel it? There is an inlet from the river below the palace. It circulates all the water inside, so we always have fresh bathing and drinking water.”

Excited at the discovery, Kelryn dunked herself underwater and twisted around until she saw the inlet. It looked large enough for two people to swim side-by-side through the opening. Resurfacing and shaking her head, scattering droplets of water on everyone around her, she faced her informant again. “How far do you have to swim underwater?”

“Not far. It opens upward a short distance away from here. Then you can walk along a pathway that is carved into the tunnel.”

“How come people don’t use it to sneak into the palace?”

Everyone looked at her like she had grown another head. “Babylonians can’t swim. At least, the common people cannot.”

“Why not?” All Amazon daughters were taught to swim from infancy.

“We live in a desert,” one muttered. “Only the sailors and the nobles know how to swim. The rest of the people are afraid of the water. Marduk walks through the river at times, surveying his kingdom. They do not wish such a close encounter with our god.”

“A little ignorance is a good thing sometimes, eh?” Kelryn whispered to herself, more than to the women.

The ‘poker’ reasserted herself once more, this time poking along Kelryn’s spine. She smiled demurely at the soldier’s startled yelp. “I see you are learning our latest poem.”

Twisting her neck to glance at the graceful script written on her skin, Kelryn shrugged. “Is that what it is? I was wondering.”

“Oh yes. It is quite playful.

Ehssehl maitzbiem kehtainiem muzmainiem lailukhait

Ehkhaid yehsh lu k’ehv behtehn v’aihz h’yaih taiyshai

Taiyshai maitzbiem kehtainiem lainu m’ukhail m’ud

Ehkhaid lu hietulaiyl v’aihz h’yaih shmuneh

Shmuneh maitzbiem kehtainiem haihyu laishlainu

Ehkhaid gielaikh kailuv v’aihz h’yaih shehvai

Quite a few of us have memorized it. But there are seven more verses to go.”

Kelryn smiled at her pretty friend across from her once more. “Well, I’ll have to get someone else to add them on for me.” At this remark, the young woman nodded in acquiescence. The Amazon’s features transformed with a suggestive smile, and she rose slightly out of the water, exposing her shoulders and upper arms to the warmer air. “Will you ladies excuse me, please?”

They backed away as Kelryn made her way across the pool toward the woman she had been flirting with since her arrival. She took long, graceful strokes and a bodylength away, she slipped underwater. Kelryn used that opportunity to confirm that the woman’s good looks extended beyond just her face. When she surfaced, she was directly in front of her admirer. “Hello,” she said, consciously lowering her voice.

“Hello,” the woman replied, laughing softly at the assertiveness of the Greek.

They examined one another silently a few moments longer before Kelryn whispered, “Enough talk.” Not caring that they had a crowd watching, the Amazon pulled the concubine up against the length of her body and proceeded to kiss her.

Two.

Chapter Twenty-Two

The mood at the dinner table was restrained. Of the original ten who had sat around the large table only the night before, now a mere six were present. Xena still had not returned from her wanderings, which caused a great deal of consternation for the other rulers.

“Aren’t you worried about your keeper?” Dokov grunted, while tearing into a strip of meat.

Gabrielle bristled at the insult, feeling it more for the Nation than for herself. “Chief Dokov, I would remind you that I am Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation. I have treated you with the respect entitled to someone of your position. I expect no less from you.” Carefully left out was any reference to respect for his character. She doubted if he had the intelligence to notice.

“I obtained my position by doing more than being a good lay.”

Pompey chuckled, “That’s not what I had heard.”

The other rulers joined in the laughter at Dokov’s expense, alleviating the tension and relieving Gabrielle of the need to respond.

Dokov’s skin mottled red and his hand tightened on the edge of his plate, his fingers turning white from the effort. “I will kill you for that, Pompey.”

The triumvir ignored the Hun entirely, sipping his wine casually.

“Where is the Conqueror?” Kulam inquired.

The Amazon Queen shrugged, “Searching the gardens and palace. The same as everyone else today.”

“Well, yes,” Kulam conceded as he used a small ivory toothpick to remove an offending piece of his dinner that remained in his teeth, “but we are all here.”

“With any luck, the bitch is dead,” Dokov muttered.

“Are you wanting us to search for her?”

“No, Lao Ma, that is precisely what I don’t want to do.” He picked up a goblet and swirled the red wine around within its confines. “What better way for her to pick us off if we all go traipsing after her one by one?”

“Xena did not kill Nebuharin -” Gabrielle began her standard objection.

Allemane laughed, “No, it appears no one did. If we are to judge by his absence from his deathbed.”

“- nor did she kill Farza.” Gabrielle finished. Her angry green eyes scanned the faces at the table. “I suggest that instead of continually sniping at one another we would be better served by trying to figure out how to get out of here alive. And what we will do once we are free. Provided Nebuharin does not show up to make our way out of the country any easier.”

“I think Nebuharin should be considered an enemy until proven dead or otherwise,” Kulam offered. “He brought us here, locked us up in his inner palace, pretended to die and now may be murdering each of us while we wait for something else to happen.”

Pompey was unimpressed by this analysis. The blond ruler leaned forward, elbows on the table, and studied those present. “Or, someone here killed Nebuharin, hid the body to achieve the impression he was alive, and is now killing us off while we wander around the gardens.”

Gabrielle shook her head, “That doesn’t make any sense, Pompey. How would that person escape from the inner palace? Once the Babylonians find out their king is dead, there will be a price to be paid.”

“Not if our killer is working with someone in Babylon.”

“The son, the crown prince,” Lao Ma whispered.

Pompey gestured vaguely, “The crown prince, the other members of the royal family, the priests, a spurned concubine … it wouldn’t really matter if he, she or they seized control once the murderer’s work here was done.”

“What would that person gain?” Allemane asked.

A sarcastic “please” was the reply.

Kulam’s eyes glistened as he spoke, “A powerful ally indebted to him, elimination of most of his rivals and the satisfaction of reordering the world to suit his purposes.” Smiling at Lao Ma and Gabrielle, he finished, “Or her purposes.”

“So, if we can’t trust each other or anyone else in Babylon, what do we do?” Gabrielle sighed.

“Finish dinner and go back to our rooms.”

Dokov snorted, the burst of air sending the food in his hand fluttering. “Locking the doors, of course. I suggest doubly so for you, Pompey.”

Lao Ma escorted Gabrielle back to her suite. Gabrielle opened the door and allowed Pei-cha to slip into the room first. The feline quickly scouted the territory, determining that no one unfamiliar was within its confines. He sat contentedly in front of one of the chairs and waited for his mistresses to enter as well.

“Would you like something to drink, Lao Ma?” Gabrielle offered, walking over to the dresser with the pitcher of water atop it.

“No, thank you. I need to go make sure the servants are settled appropriately by Kulam and Pompey. I don’t know how much longer Dokov can be restrained from pawing them.”

Remembering the feel of the Hun’s hand on her thigh, Gabrielle shivered. “I hope to never interact with that tribe again after this visit.”

“He is most unpleasant. It would be distressing to learn that he is the best of his clan.”

Taking a sip of cool water and putting some down in a bowl for Pei-cha, Gabrielle began to prepare for sleep. “Please don’t feel you need to baby-sit me, Lao Ma. Pei-cha is an admirable defender, I think.” At the mention of his name, the big cat looked up and rubbed his head against Gabrielle’s leg. “And I am sure Xena will return any time now.”

The Empress considered her options momentarily and then agreed. “All right then. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to come to me.”

“Thank you. Good night.” With a brief squeeze to the Empress’ upper arm, Gabrielle showed her out. She then swung the heavy door closed and barred it, knowing that Xena was more than capable of entering through the balcony. “What were you doing this morning, Xena?” the oracle whispered to the air. Gabrielle was glad to be free of company so that she could express all of the emotions she had kept restrained all day. “Where were you when Gregor died? Where are you now? Are you all right?”

Hearing no answer, though not expecting one, she sighed and stripped, putting on a soft sleep shift. Burying her nose in the fabric she drank in the smells of Greece which clung to it. She loved the spices the laundress used in cleaning and packing their clothes. They never failed to remind her of early summer mornings. In a land of oppressive heat and sand, Gabrielle longed for the gentle breezes and cloud dotted sky she knew so well.

She looked at the shift the Conqueror had ripped off her body the night before and smiled wistfully. It was her fondest hope that once they made it home, she and the Conqueror would be able to remain in the palace for a little while. Three moons hadn’t been nearly enough to begin to understand her lover. Gabrielle doubted that a lifetime would provide enough opportunity.

Missing Xena, the young woman turned down the bed and crawled under the light sheets. She felt miserable, missing the only friend she had in the strange country, and fearful lest something had happened to Xena. She remembered the Ephesian battlefield where the Conqueror’s mortality had been all too real a concept.

Gabrielle didn’t realize she was crying until she felt Pei-cha’s solid bulk rest on the bed beside her. She opened her eyes to discover ice blue eyes looking at her, distinguished from her lover’s only by the shape of the pupils. Unable to hold back the wellspring of emotions within her any longer, Gabrielle threw her arms around the feline and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping. Pei-cha emitted a soft, soothing rumble and let the oracle curl up against him.

Soon both fell into a deep sleep.

Xena stood over the bed, looking down at her oracle who was clinging tightly to the snow leopard in her slumber. She had been disappointed to find Gabrielle already asleep when she returned. Examining the smaller woman, she noted what appeared to be dried tear tracks down her cheeks, and her face still seemed flushed with emotion. A burning sensation began in the Conqueror’s stomach as she wondered where Lao Ma was and why she had allowed Gabrielle to become upset.

Wanting to determine that her oracle was uninjured, Xena extended a hand toward the sheet covering Gabrielle. She stopped her movement, however, when a low growl was produced by Pei-cha. The Greek ruler stared at the large cat for a long moment before beginning to move once more. The growl became louder the next time and was accompanied by the baring of sharp teeth.

Gabrielle muttered something in her sleep and snuggled closer to the cat. Pei-cha looked from the Conqueror to the oracle and back again. Content with his intimidation tactics, Pei-cha wiped a rough tongue over Gabrielle’s cheek.

“Oh, I see,” Xena muttered. “So that’s how it is, eh?”

Pei-cha’s tail swished.

“I saw her first.”

The leopard yawned, his mouth smacking shut with a slurping sound. With a defiant look, he settled his muzzle down on Gabrielle’s shoulder and closed his eyes once more.

“Damn cat,” Xena complained, deciding to forego the examination of Gabrielle for the time being. “I’ll make an area rug out of you if you’re not careful.”

Kelryn was pulled into the bedroom suite much the same as she was the night before. The Conqueror drew the curtains over the doorway to prevent anyone from witnessing their meeting. She had remained fully dressed in her leathers since her excursion earlier in the day and had passed the time waiting for the Amazon by sharpening her sword. It was an old habit born in the battle camps she had known. It had often soothed her and allowed her to focus on the only thing that mattered: survival.

The young Amazon casually glanced over to the bed and startled when she saw the beast her Queen was hugging in her sleep. “Sweet Artemis!” she exclaimed, jumping up and reaching for the hilt of her sword. “My Queen!”

Rolling her eyes, the Conqueror caught the warrior’s wrist in her strong grip. “She was sleeping,” Xena growled, unintentionally joining Pei-cha’s response.

The noise caused Gabrielle to awaken and she stretched slowly before she realized she had three sets of eyes on her. Seeing Xena standing in the suite, whole and unharmed, revived the oracle. She rolled off the bed and raced over to the Conqueror, nestling herself in the ruler’s strong arms. “You’re back.”

Xena frowned, knowing something was still bothering Gabrielle for her to react this way. “I’m back. Are you okay?”

“I am now.” She squeezed the ruler tightly, deciding to let whatever they needed to discuss with Kelryn wait.

Xena rubbed soothing circles on the small of Gabrielle’s back and held the smaller woman’s head gently against her chest. Over the oracle, the Conqueror gave Pei-cha a smirk, then kissed Gabrielle’s temple. “I told Lao Ma to watch over you. Why isn’t she here?”

“I sent her away.”

“Did she hurt you?” Xena was suddenly tense, afraid she had made the wrong decision in entrusting Gabrielle to the Empress’ care.

Gabrielle knew at that moment that one wrong word from her would seal Lao Ma’s doom. It was an overwhelming feeling knowing that Xena would kill for her. It was not a responsibility she cherished. “No, not at all. She left me with Pei-cha.”

“That’s hardly comforting,” Xena replied, earning a glare from the snow leopard.

“But he has been. He has Dokov scared.”

Xena grunted. “I doubt it takes much for that. I should have killed him last night for touching you.”

“No, I’m glad you didn’t. I don’t want you to have trouble on my behalf.”

Kelryn watched the entire scene with open fascination. The Conqueror she normally saw was not the woman standing before her, gently holding her Queen. The young soldier was impressed by how focused Xena was on Gabrielle; she would not had thought the ruler would put anyone before business.

“I don’t mind trouble on your behalf. As long as I get to pick which half of you it’s on.”

Gabrielle chuckled and kissed an available patch of skin.

Kelryn was shocked. I think she made a joke. Eponin will never believe this in a million years. I don’t know that I believe it.

“No matter what, we’re leaving here tomorrow, my oracle. I found the way out. Once Kelryn stops gaping at us and reports, I will know if Palaemon was able to arrange our transport.”

The Amazon’s mouth snapped shut and she blushed a deep crimson. “Pardon, my Queen, your majesty. I have a message from the Captain for you, Conqueror.” She reached into her belt and pulled out the small piece of sealed parchment.

Xena kissed the top of the fair hair tucked under her chin and pulled away. Moving gracefully, she took hold of the parchment and walked over to the desk to read it.

Gabrielle’s gaze followed her the whole way before the Queen turned her attention to her soldier. “How are things in the outer palace, Kelryn?”

Remembering her activities earlier in the day, Kelryn smiled. “Very good, my Queen.”

“Really?” Gabrielle was intrigued by the look on her young soldier’s face. It was not one that suggested any distress over their situation.

Kelryn remembered her duty and assumed her soldier’s face. “We were able to determine a path out of the palace, my Queen. There is an underwater passageway that leads out. Or so I have been told. I have not been able to swim through it yet, my Queen.”

“It does,” Xena said casually, not bothering to look up from the parchment she was reading. “It leads just about everywhere. I’m surprised the palace hasn’t been invaded before.” She shook her head ruefully. “Such a security lapse is inexcusable.”

Gabrielle smiled indulgently. She looked forward to returning to Greece and feeling safe once more. The Conqueror’s palace was nothing if not secure, as opposed to the Babylonian inner palace. “Gregor is dead,” Gabrielle mentioned, speaking of security lapses.

“Another, my Queen?”

“Actually, we’re up to three now – Nebuharin, Farza and Gregor.”

“Three?” Xena asked carefully, recalling her brief visit to the garden house before rejoining Gabrielle.

Gabrielle missed the confusion in the ruler’s eyes. “Gregor’s throat was slit while in the garden today.”

“And Allemane?”

The Amazon Queen shrugged. “Well, he says he just found Gregor’s body, but he had an awful lot of blood on his clothes. I had been here, on the balcony, taking a nap when Gregor was found. It was the same as before – everyone claims they were doing something else at the time of the murder, but no one was with anyone else to prove it. Dokov was busy searching Nebuharin’s and Farza’s rooms. Pompey and Allemane were searching the gardens, but not together. Pompey then relieved Lao Ma of watching the servant girls. It was after that Allemane found Gregor dead. So, we all had opportunity.”

“And you say Allemane had blood on him, but not his own. It was all Gregor’s?”

“Yes. Why do you ask, Xena? Why are you so interested in Allemane?” Gabrielle asked, making Kelryn happy. The soldier had been wondering the same thing, but knew she was not allowed to ask.

“I thought I saw something.” The Conqueror feigned nonchalance. After writing a brief reply to Palaemon, the ruler walked back over to the Amazons, coming around behind Kelryn. She stopped, recognizing the script extending out on the soldier’s shoulder. Her large hand reached out and snagged the back of Kelryn’s leathers, tugging them aside to give her a view of more flesh.

“Hey!” Kelryn gasped, startled by the invasion and the Conqueror’s touch. With Xena’s hand pulling at the garment, she was in a most uncomfortable position.

“Where did you get this?” the Conqueror growled. Without hesitation, the ruler began unfastening the leather top, efficiently stripping the soldier to her waist.

“Son of a bacchae!” Kelryn yelped, surprised to find herself exposed so quickly. She’s done that before, Kelryn noted idly. Her arms crossed in front of her chest, suddenly shy in front of her beloved Queen.

“Xena!” Gabrielle was as startled as Kelryn. Suddenly, she had a topless Amazon in front of her and an angry ruler behind Kelryn. “What is it?” Compassionately, she handed Kelryn a piece of linen to cover herself with.

“The scribe and the concubine wrote it,” Kelryn responded, trying to sound dignified despite the situation.

She felt hot breath moving over her ear as Xena leaned forward, “I’m not even going to ask how and why they were able to write on your back.”

Swallowing, Kelryn managed, “That would be best, your majesty.”

“Uh huh. Where did they learn it?” Xena read the lines again, shaking her head.

“What?”

“This poem.” To emphasize her point, the Conqueror jabbed Kelryn in the back with a strong finger.

What is it with poking today? “I don’t know, your majesty. They just said it was the latest poem in the harem. I didn’t even have it translated. What does it say?” She asked the question with much trepidation, knowing it mustn’t be good for the Conqueror to be as upset as she was.

“It’s our death warrant.”

Gabrielle joined Xena behind Kelryn and studied the strange script. “Can you read it to me, please?”

“Sure.

Ten little warlords invited over to dine;

One’s stomach didn’t agree with him and then there were nine.

Nine little warlords stayed out very late;

One slept in and then there were eight

Eight little warlords looked rather sloven;

One had too close a shave and then there were seven

Seven little warlords laying down bricks;

One’s wall toppled down and then there were six

Sound familiar?”

The oracle had paled while Xena was reading the poem. “Nebuharin, Farza, Gregor …”

Xena nodded, all their deaths had followed the pattern of the poem. “And I suspect we will discover Allemane is dead somewhere in the compound.”

“Why?”

“You remember the figurines on the table, each of which was a likeness of one of the rulers?” At Gabrielle’s nod she continued. “Well, when Farza died, I noticed that both hers and Nebuharin’s figurines were broken. When I came in tonight, I checked by the garden house and saw that both Gregor’s and Allemane’s were also broken.”

“We should check on him. Maybe it’s not too late.”

“We will, we will. Let’s get Kelryn out of here first. No need to let anyone know we can get in and out yet.” The Conqueror’s large hands landed on Kelryn’s shoulders and spun her around to face them. “I want you to find out who wrote this poem. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Come back in immediately when you find out. And make sure Palaemon is ready to leave by noon tomorrow.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Go,” Xena gave the Amazon a small push toward the balcony.

Kelryn stopped only briefly to reattach her leathers properly. She turned and bowed to Gabrielle. “My Queen.”

As they watched Kelryn disappear into the night, a loud noise sounded from inside the gardens, as if something were collapsing. Xena sighed, “I think we’re too late for Allemane.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

The surviving six rulers stood around the remains of the prayer hut, their torches illuminating the heavy stones which had collapsed in a heap. “Well, that had to hurt,” Kulam muttered dryly.

Dokov snorted, reminding Gabrielle of a wild pig that once lived outside Potadeia. “How do we know Allemane is under all that? It could be another trick, like Nebuharin.” The Hun shifted his weight to his other foot, having twisted his ankle slightly while stumbling through the meager light to this place.

“Nebuharin and Allemane? I don’t think so,” Pompey countered. “Gaul is almost completely occupied by Rome. It will be ours before the next moon. Babylon could be no help to Gaul.”

“Rome this, Rome that,” the Hun Chief grunted. “I am so sick of your and Caesar’s ambitions. My nation will override you.”

Pompey’s face appeared even more contorted in the torchlight, as harsh shadows fell across his features. For a moment he stared incredulously at the burly ruler, who still wore his fur outfit despite the heat of the desert, and burst into laughter. His deep, rich laugh echoed throughout the gardens. “Please, Dokov, tell me another funny story. I am so glad you can keep your sense of humor when others are dying around you.”

Dokov lunged at the Roman, his hastily drawn sword swinging wildly to the left of his intended target as his ankle collapsed under him. Pompey ducked to one side and kicked the Hun in the hindquarters as he stumbled past. Dokov fell on his face with an overwhelming lack of grace.

Even Pei-cha seemed to snicker at the sight.

“Stay there,” Kulam ordered, the tip of his sword at the base of the Chief’s neck. “This is really most tiresome. You’re beginning to get under my skin.”

Handing her torch to Gabrielle, Xena walked over to the large pile of stone. “Well, let’s see if we can find a body under here.”

Pompey gave his torch to Lao Ma and then joined in the turning over of stone. Each block was a cubit square and quite heavy. The task was slow going, as there were only two moving the blocks aside.

As Pompey moved closer to the center of the pile, he bent to pick up a block of stone and felt his hand touch flesh. Dropping the block and narrowly missing his foot, he called Lao Ma closer. In the flickering light, he confirmed what he felt. “I have a hand here.”

The Conqueror moved over from where she had been worked and examined the crushed extremity. “Well, that answers that question.”

Kulam nicked the base of the Hun’s neck, drawing a small trickle of blood. “Got that, Dokov? Allemane’s under there. So, enough of your games.”

He sheathed his sword and took a step away from the Hun, carefully watching the unpredictable ruler for another ill-conceived attack. Moving over to the others, he shrugged. “I don’t see why we need to finish this tonight. It’s late. Allemane isn’t going anywhere.”

“Best thing I’ve heard you say yet,” the Conqueror stated, taking back the torch from Gabrielle. “Let’s go to bed,” she said, her voice rich with meaning. Xena smiled as she watched the blush steal across the Amazon Queen’s features.

“With people dying left and right, who can sleep?” Pompey muttered, missing Rome more than he thought possible.

“Who said anything about sleep?” Xena smirked, taking Gabrielle’s hand in her free one, entwining their fingers tightly.

Not willing to let the evening end so quickly, Kulam called out to the retreating figure of the Greek ruler, “Where were you all day, Destroyer?”

The Conqueror paused and looked back at the Persian King. “In the gardens, just like everyone else.”

Pompey chuckled quietly.

“Why couldn’t we see you? Why didn’t you come when Gregor was killed? Or were you too busy rigging this to collapse on Allemane?”

“Kulam, does it really matter what I answer? If I did as you say, I am certainly not going to blurt out the truth, and if I bother to deny it, you won’t believe me anyway. I will tell you, however, that if I wanted Allemane dead, I wouldn’t have needed to stone him, however untraditionally done.” Having made her point, she led Gabrielle back toward their room.

Kulam smiled tightly, “Very well. I bid you and Queen Gabrielle pleasant and safe slumber.”

The Conqueror and the Queen were too far away to hear his remark. Pei-cha’s keen hearing did pick it up though and the leopard peered back over his shoulder at the Persian king. A glimpse of teeth and a swish of tail told Kulam that his benediction was not taken as sincere.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Eponin strode confidently through the palace as if it were the Amazon village. Throughout her entire life she had been a leader among her sisters, recognized for the easy way she took on the mantle of authority. Better still, she was known for not letting her title or position go to her head. Eponin through it all was a soldier first and commander second. She knew what it was like patrolling for three days without sleep to protect the Nation’s borders. She had done more than her fair share of hunting to provide for the others, and then waited patiently in the mess hall line to be served that which she had slaughtered. She never forgot the hours of drilling that she had gone through to get to the point where she could trust her instincts and know she could protect her sisters.

When she was called to be Commander of the Queen’s Escort, she had first been reluctant. With the Nation reclaiming old lands, Eponin had wanted to be with her sisters. She wanted to be the one who spread Terreis’ ashes over their sacred ground. Instead, Ephiny had taken on that honor. Ephiny, whom she had sworn to Terreis to protect, was living in a village far from Corinth, farther still from Babylon. Often, Eponin wondered if she had made the right decision.

Yet somehow she knew her destiny lay beyond the four corners of Amazon territory. It was wrapped up with a wandering Amazon Queen who had a strange allegiance to the Nation’s greatest enemy. Who was now its greatest benefactor. This same destiny had brought her to Babylon. A place she instantly disliked. The land was too arid, the sun too bright, the wind too scarce. To live here would be torture to one who had known the beauty of Greece.

This was what drove her to find Wynn. She had to know why a Greek chose to live in this desert, to serve an obviously irresponsible king, and to turn her back on her sisters. For Eponin was sure Wynn was Amazon stock. She was never wrong about that; family always recognized family.

She had sent Kelryn to discover the rest of the poem which had so angered the Conqueror. A part of her had wanted to accompany the young soldier, but she had decided not to do so. Kelryn needed to finish this assignment on her own. She had certainly been successful with the concubines so far. Eponin shook her head ruefully. Gods, she could only hope the little pest didn’t brag about this contest forever. Somehow, Eponin doubted if even Artemis would extend that kindness to her.

Eponin found the painter, at long last, in the wing opposite the concubines’ quarters. Eponin had started her search with the members of Nebuharin’s pleasure house, assuming Wynn to be among them. She had been surprised to not find her there. Wynn was certainly attractive enough to be a member of the harem. Her absence caused Eponin to wonder if there was a prejudice against Greeks in that manner. She had never found men to be particularly discerning in the past. Not that she had ever availed herself of any of their attentions. She chuckled; somehow she didn’t think she was quite any man’s type. Not when she could outperform them in any number of activities, including the one they were most proud of. All of this was going through her mind as she stared into the small room that contained the Greek.

“Is there something you want?”

Eponin blushed, annoyed that she couldn’t seem to make the right impression with this painter. “I wanted to see you.”

“Ok, well, you have. You can leave now; mission accomplished, soldier.”

The Amazon scowled. “May I ask what I did that so offended you? I don’t think I’ve spoken more than a few sentences to you, if that. Normally, it takes me a little longer to have someone stop talking to me altogether.”

“Happen much?”

“Not as often as you must think.” Eponin shook her head and walked over to a nearby chair, settling down into it. What was it about this woman that made Eponin feel very old and very unsure of herself?

“Have a seat,” came the wry reaction to her movement.

“Thanks.” The Commander ignored the annoyed look she was receiving from the petite woman and let her eyes take in the small confines of the room. On every available space on the wall was another piece of hide or parchment that Wynn had painted. All were scenes from Greece; not one was from Babylon. “Miss Greece, eh?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it.”

“They’re very nice.”

Wynn softened slightly. “Thank you.”

“How long have you lived in Babylon?”

“Since I was 13 winters.” To forestall the next question, she continued, “So, almost half my life ago, I came here.”

“Why did you come to Babylon?”

Running a hand through her short red hair, Wynn sighed. “Gee, my mother wanted to see the world. How’s that for an answer?”

“It doesn’t suit me real well, but it’s an answer, I suppose.” Eponin’s callused hands ran briskly over the tops of her thighs. Studying her fingers, she asked softly, “Is there a reason you don’t like me? Or is it just on principle?”

Wynn leaned back against the wall, folding her arms across her chest. “I guess I don’t like being just another belt notch.” If there had been any doubt in her mind that had been Eponin’s first intention, the ducked head dispelled it. “My mother’s lover was like you, before she left us.”

Ouch. Eponin pursed her lips. “I barely said two words to you.”

“Come now, with your subordinate running around like a crazed rabbit … hard to deny similar intentions. The concubines all think she’s an Amazon sex slave. It’s been quite funny listening to them talk about her.”

“Sex slave? Where would they get that idea?”

Wynn chuckled, “For one thing, she’s apparently very good at her chosen occupation.” The artist enjoyed seeing Eponin shake her head sadly. “For another, she wears her hair short.”

“Most Amazon warriors don’t grow their hair long until they have their Rite of Initiation. She won’t have that until she has successfully completed her first tour of duty.”

“They don’t know that. All they know what is what they see.” Wynn fell silent, wondering if Eponin would make sense of it all.

It took a few long moments before the Commander looked up and stared into hazel eyes. “You’re a slave?”

Self-consciously, Wynn scratched the back of her neck, feeling the ends of her hair tickle her hand as she did so.

“Why didn’t you say so? What happened?”

“My mother and her lover had broken up. Mom was despondent and had to leave the village for awhile. Seeing Mala with her new lover was too much for her to handle. The infidelities had been bad enough, but the abandonment was hardest. She decided we should see a bit of the world, and then we would return to the village. We were in Syria when we were captured. Mother was a beautiful woman; she was sold to the chief minister of state here in Babylon. I had her natural artistic ability as well. So, we were both kept as favored artists of the king.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your pity. Nor do I want to be used by a sister Amazon. I’ve had enough betrayal to last a lifetime.” The last words came out bitter on her tongue.

“We’re leaving here tomorrow,” Eponin said quietly. She knew if she was wrong to trust Wynn, that she had now betrayed her Queen and the Conqueror. But she could not turn her back on this woman. She didn’t think Gabrielle would want her to either. “Come with us.”

“Do you really expect a slave of King Nebuharin to simply walk out the door with the Greek entourage?”

“I’ll buy you,” Eponin ventured.

“I’d rather die here.”

Eponin had never felt so frustrated in her entire life. “I am trying to free you. Don’t you understand that?”

“I thought there was no slavery among the Amazons. Or has that changed?”

“You wouldn’t be my slave!”

Wynn shook her head slowly. “Yes, I would. As sure as if I had shackles on my hands and feet.”

“How am I supposed to leave you here?”

The red head shrugged. “The same way you’ve left every other woman before, Commander. Just put one foot in front of the other.” She pushed herself away from the wall and went over to the door, opening it. “If you don’t mind.”

The soldier started to protest, but no words came out. Finally, in defeat, she exited the room, reminding herself to place one foot in front of the other.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Back in their room, the Conqueror was going through their belongings, sorting through them to put some in a bag for Kelryn to carry across the divide. It annoyed her to have to leave items behind. Better possessions than our hides, Xena thought until she caught sight of Pei-cha snuggling close to Gabrielle on the couch. Well, I wouldn’t mind leaving behind one hide.

“Tell me how things are on the outside.”

Xena shrugged, not stopping her work. “There’s a whole nation ready to kill us when they discover their king is dead. I’ve had Palaemon arrange passage for us, so if the winds are favorable and the crew is strong, we have some hope.” She finished her task and glanced up to see the impact of her words on Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen was tense from fright and was stroking Pei-cha in an effort to calm herself. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena said, walking over, ignoring the warning growl.

“I’m fine; it’s fine, Xena,” Gabrielle assured her. “I just miss Greece.” She tapped Pei-cha on the head. “Be nice.”

The Conqueror smiled ruefully. “Some vacation, eh?”

“I’d like to stay home next time myself. Don’t you feel the same way?”

An ironic laugh was her reply and the Conqueror reached large hands out to push Pei-cha off the couch. The large cat resisted, hunkering down onto the cushion, changing his center of gravity to make him impossible to move. His expression changed, baring his teeth and his fur bristled. Just as radically, Xena’s expression changed.

Before she could confront the cat, Gabrielle stroked Pei-cha’s head. “You need to get down, sweetheart. Xena wants to sit there.”

Pei-cha considered the request for a long moment before acquiescing. He climbed down from the couch and went out to the balcony without a second glance behind him.

The Conqueror took the vacated spot, after thoroughly brushing the cushion free of leopard hair, and cradled Gabrielle’s hand gently between her own. “We will be started home tomorrow, Gabrielle. I promise you. And we will see Greece soon.”

“I wish we knew who had killed all of these rulers. I hate that we will now be at war with them.”

“We will be safe. Ephesus is toothless. It was even with Gregor’s presence. Syria will most likely thank us for Queen Farza’s death. We will be heroes to her son who has waited for a long time to fill his father’s throne. Gaul isn’t a worry for us. It’s too far away to make any hostile move toward Greece, and it has the Romans to contend with as it is. And Babylon isn’t known for a moving army. I doubt that it will be able to make it across the desert and the water to see Greece’s beauty. Trade will be dampened for awhile, but we will be fine.”

Gabrielle shook her head, smiling gently. “Thanks, I feel better.”

“That was the point.”

“But, what about Rome, Persia, Chin and the Huns? You wouldn’t leave Lao Ma in here, would you?”

“No, Chin is too important to Greece, especially now. Besides, I owe my life to Lao Ma. She holds my debt. Even as I hold hers.”

Green eyes glinted and the oracle considered this information. “Xena,” she began speculatively.

Sensing she was about to be told or asked something she wouldn’t like, the Conqueror responded gruffly. “What?”

“Your debt to Lao Ma is because she saved your life. So, naturally, you feel a certain affection for her.”

The Conqueror shifted uncomfortable, not wanting to discuss her prior relationship with the empress, even with Gabrielle. “I wouldn’t call it affection. I would call it a responsibility.”

“All right,” Gabrielle continued, “this responsibility makes you want to protect her. There is a bond between you because of what you suffered, right?”

“What are you trying to get me to do, Gabrielle?”

“Let’s take all of the rulers with us.”

The Conqueror made a face as if a foul smell had wafted into the room. She moved away from the Amazon queen, shaking her head as she did so. “No. That’s out of the question.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Xena’s voice became loud. “Why? You have to ask why?” She waved a hand toward the gardens where they had recently found part of Allemane. “One of them is a murderer, Gabrielle. And the rest aren’t much better.”

Gabrielle moved a little closer to the Conqueror. “Are you sure the murderer is one of us? If you found the way out, perhaps someone else did? Someone in the palace?”

“There has to be someone on the inside. Otherwise, the killer wouldn’t know when each of us were alone. Nor would they be able to walk around undetected. And to make sure all the deaths fit into the scheme of that poem.”

The fair head nodded, “Even so. Three out of four aren’t murderers. I highly doubt Lao Ma is the culprit. So that leaves Kulam, Pompey and Dokov.” Her brow furrowed as she considered the three remaining suspects trying to figure out which was the one.

“I hope it’s Dokov,” Xena muttered. “I would enjoy strangling the life out of him. If my hands can reach all the way around his thick neck.” This had the desired effect and caused the oracle to laugh softly.

“Tell me, Xena,” the smaller woman snuggled close to her side, molding her skin to the Conqueror’s, “what are we going to do when we get back to Corinth?”

The dark ruler stretched out, wrapping her arm around the slight shoulders of her companion. Her long fingers played on the soft, exposed skin of Gabrielle’s upper arm. Turning her head, she whispered into the hair which smelled like sunlight. “What would you like to do?”

“Stay home.” Gabrielle reached over and took hold of Xena’s free hand, entwining their fingers.

A low chuckle rumbled out of the Conqueror. “And do what?

“Anything you like.” This statement was followed by a gentle kiss on Xena’s collarbone.

“Oh … I like a lot of things.” Xena countered with a gentle nibble on Gabrielle’s ear.

“That’s not particularly flattering,” the oracle chided.

“I like you most of all, though.”

Gabrielle’s heart began beating overtime and she twisted around so as to see the Conqueror’s pale blue eyes. “That is flattering,” she whispered and pressed her lips against Xena’s. As she continued to explore the ruler, she found herself shifting, climbing into the taller woman’s lap. Her hands were wrapped in dark tresses when she heard a menacing growl from Pei-cha. Their lips parted reluctantly and an annoyed oracle rested her forehead against Xena’s. “Damn cat,” she muttered. She was reconsidering her affection for a feline that continued to threaten her lover.

Xena echoed the growl from the feline. “Damn Amazon, actually.” Giving Gabrielle a gentle squeeze, she lifted the light figure from her lap and stalked outside. Kelryn clung to the vines above the floor of the balcony, out of easy reach of Pei-cha. Xena recognized that it would be nothing for the leopard to leap up and pull down his Amazon dinner, if he wanted to. “Come on in, Kelryn,” Xena sighed.

“If you say so.” Kelryn’s cocky attitude was conspicuously absent. She dropped lightly to her feet, being sure to land as far away from the cat as she could. With much haste, she entered into the suite, breathing a sigh of relief. Her eyes quickly went to her queen. She noted the blush which graced Gabrielle’s cheeks and her kiss bruised lips. Kelryn closed her eyes and grimaced. She would not continue to live if she kept interrupting these two. “My Queen.” She bowed.

“Hi, Kelryn.”

“Do you have the rest of the poem, soldier?” Xena’s gruff voice inquired from behind her.

“Yes, your majesty.” She felt strong hands grab at her leathers to strip them down. Kelryn grabbed at her chest, holding up the garment. “Not there!”

Xena stopped. “Where then?”

Kelryn handed a piece of parchment over her shoulder.

“Will you read it out loud?” Gabrielle asked gently.

“Sure,” Xena nodded, unrolling the small scroll. “I’ll pick up where we left off last.

Six little warlords visited a scribe;

One’s skin became like parchment and then there were five

Five little warlords spent a day at the shore;

One swam with sharks and then there were four

Four little warlords climbed up a tree;

One was tangled in the branches and then there were three

Three little warlords stopped to admire the view;

One slipped and fell and then there were two

Two little warlords sat out in the sun;

One’s skin shriveled up and then there was one

One little warlord left all alone;

So he hanged himself and then there were none

Pleasant little poem, eh?” Xena rolled her eyes. “Who wrote it?”

“Prince Vedtrilan, your majesty.”

Seeing the question in the oracle’s eyes, Xena answered it before she could voice it. “He’s Nebuharin’s son.”

“Sounds like we found out who the murderer is.” Gabrielle pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them. “Who else has more to profit from by his father’s death?”

“Provided Nebuharin is actually dead, no one.”

“But what?” Gabrielle asked, reading the hesitation on the ruler’s face.

“Doesn’t it all seem a bit too convenient?”

Chapter Twenty-Six

“Now you’re going to be taking all the other rulers with you?” Kelryn asked Gabrielle a little later, as she was waiting somewhat patiently while Xena wrote out more instructions for Palaemon.

Gabrielle smiled. “It’s for the best diplomatically.”

Over at the desk, Xena silently agreed. It would be harder for the Babylonians to blame her alone for the deaths if she left with four other rulers. Of course, holding a debt over Pompey was especially enticing. Caesar, I will have your life in my hands soon. Xena glanced over at her fair-haired oracle and allowed herself a small smile. For someone so young and so new to affairs of state, Gabrielle had a natural instinct for ruling. Throughout their ordeal in Babylon, Gabrielle’s advice had proven itself worthwhile. Had it only been a few short moons ago that the injured young woman was first before her? Xena briefly considered thanking the gods for the inspiration to hold the contest of truth, but decided against it. Ares had been too quiet for too long. There was no need to draw undue attention to herself.

Gabrielle caught her staring. She flashed Xena a smile and a subtle wink, wishing Kelryn wasn’t there so she could go over and wrap her arms around the dark ruler. Her mind flashed back to earlier in the evening and Xena’s lips on hers. A light blush dusted her skin.

Kelryn noticed the reaction in her Queen. I really need to leave these two alone for awhile. If I have any hope of having a long career as a soldier. She smirked. Or if I’m to have a long career breathing and walking the earth. She was still surprised to find such devotion between the two women, especially given the Conqueror’s reputation.

Finishing her note, Xena strode over to the young Amazon. She thrust the paper at Kelryn. “Give this to Palaemon. Tell Eponin that all of the Amazon guard are to be at the entrance to the tunnels at the concubine baths. When I lead Gabrielle and the others out, we will head there first.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Hearing Eponin’s name reminded Kelryn of the note the older Amazon had entrusted her with. She removed it from under her bracer and extended it to Gabrielle. “My Queen, Eponin sent a personal note to you. My apologies for not presenting it to you earlier.”

“No problem, Kelryn. I’m glad you remembered it.” She took the parchment and unrolled it, scanning its contents quickly.

Over to the side, Xena scowled. She knew she shouldn’t be annoyed that Gabrielle’s lead officer would be communicating with her privately, but she was.

“Xena,” the Amazon Queen said as she handed the parchment to her. “What do you think?”

The ruler was pleased to see that the note was not personal in nature. She was also pleased at how naturally Gabrielle involved her in decisions. It was a request from Eponin to add another member to their traveling party. “Do you know who she’s referring to?” the ruler asked Kelryn.

“I think so, Conqueror. I believe she is the painter in the court. She’s the only Greek I have seen outside of our soldiers.”

“What do you want to do about her, Gabrielle?”

“I want her to go home with us.”

“Well,” Xena shrugged, “it seems the more the merrier.”

“Thank you,” the oracle replied. Turning to her soldier, Gabrielle straightened, transforming into a regal presence instantly. “Tell Wynn that her Queen bids her to come home. Greet her as a sister Amazon and extend to her the offer of safe passage to Greece and to her sisters. Tell her the Nation has missed her, missed her talents and her presence. We want her home.”

“Yes, my Queen.” The young soldier knew Eponin would be pleased with this response. When Eponin had given her the note, she had been extremely agitated. Kelryn smirked; she believed it had more to do with the painter than Kelryn’s lead in the bet. Though her lead had increased to a more substantial one when she obtained the rest of the poem. It took Kelryn a few moments before she realized that she was being stared at by two sets of impatient eyes.

“You’re dismissed,” Xena repeated, her voice low and full of warning if ignored.

Remembering what she had interrupted the night before, and she assumed again tonight, she nodded briskly. “Good night, my Queen, your majesty.” Giving Pei-cha a wary glance, she slid around him and out to the balcony, hoisting herself up rapidly to safety.

“We have to work on that girl’s timing,” Gabrielle muttered. A large hand wrapped itself around her waist, drawing her close to the Greek ruler. Gabrielle’s hands went instinctively to the broad shoulders in front of her. She snuggled closer, making sure their bodies were in contact along their length.

“I can’t entirely blame her for being anxious to see her queen,” Xena said as she placed a gentle kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek. She bent at the knees so as to be eye-to-eye with her oracle. “Because I have been anxious to see her queen all day.”

“Have you?” Gabrielle searched out the clear blue eyes in front of her for sincerity.

“Oh yes.”

Finding it, the young oracle inquired, “What have you wanted to see?”

“Oh, this and that,” Xena mumbled and she began laying a line of kisses down on Gabrielle’s neck and shoulder. Large fingers pulled on the garment’s straps, pulling until one dangled down the Amazon’s arm. “For example, this,” the Conqueror said as she kissed Gabrielle’s collarbone, her tongue tasting the salt of her skin. While Xena’s lips remained occupied, she slid the other strap off Gabrielle’s right shoulder and began tugging the dress down to her oracle’s hips. Pulling back just far enough to appreciate the view, the Conqueror licked her lips suggestively. “Definitely that.”

The breasts Xena had addressed swelled with pride at being singled out for admiration. A sultry smile graced Gabrielle’s lips. “Hmm … well, I missed you here and there,” her tone was teasing and light.

The Conqueror picked up on it immediately. “Really? Where?”

“Here.” She offered the admired body part to Xena’s willing mouth. A sigh of pleasure spilled out of her as the Conqueror accepted the gift readily. Without breaking contact, Xena sat down on the couch and pulled the oracle down to straddle her lap. With the attentiveness of a newborn babe, Xena stayed at Gabrielle’s breast. Her hands caressed the soft skin of her lover’s back and sides, pulling more sensation out of the smaller body against hers.

Gabrielle closed her eyes to the pleasure, giving herself up to it, welcoming the peace that came with Xena’s touch. Her fingers played with Xena’s dark hair, holding her close to her heart. When switching to the breast’s twin, Xena’s mouth made a journey upwards to kiss Gabrielle’s lips briefly before attaching itself lower. Soft sounds of contentment came from the ruler, warming the oracle’s heart. Other parts of her anatomy became warm as well when one of Xena’s hands shifted locales. “Ahh ….” Gabrielle moaned. “Oh most definitely there.”

The early morning found Xena awake, but still in bed. The sunlight streamed in through the open window, warming her skin and the breeze cooling it gently. If not for the murders and their need to escape Babylon today, it would be a beautiful morning. It was always a nice morning waking up beside Gabrielle, Xena noted. Her young lover had a way of holding on to her throughout the night which – surprising to Xena – did not make her feel crowded. The oracle’s touch was a soothing one, bringing about dreams of better days. Xena smiled; the oracle certainly brought about better nights.

Gabrielle was sleeping on her stomach, as she was wont to do. Her left arm was flung across Xena’s middle, her hand tucked under the ruler’s body. Her head was snuggled up against Xena’s shoulder, and Xena could feel Gabrielle’s breath against her skin. Rolling slowly, so as not to awaken the girl, Xena moved on her side. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and began tracing patterns on Gabrielle’s back.

First she drew the inner palace compound, imagining the various rooms and gardens. She reviewed the locations of the four murders – Nebuharin, Farza, Gregor and Allemane. With the exception of Nebuharin, each had been carried out in secret, when no one else was around. That left everyone without an alibi. Well, everyone except Gabrielle. She smoothed out a patch of skin and kissed it.

Then she began tracing the water passageways she had found yesterday. The exit out of the inner palace, the branches which extended throughout the larger palace, the main tunnel that led out to the Euphrates river. She had tried to move through each of the tunnels in her excursion, but had finally run out of time. She was at least certain of their escape route and hoped not to spend undue time in the water.

Her next drawing was of their journey back to Greece. The return trip up the river, the trek across the desert, the boat ride over the Mediterranean and – finally – their arrival at the Grecian shore. It would take at least a moon to disembark there. But, in her mind’s eye, Xena could envision the scene.

Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s request for them to remain at home in Corinth for awhile. It would be possible, and even necessary, for a season. But then she would need to be on the move again. It was never good to let the army get bored or restless. Even worse for her. Perhaps they would travel to the northern part of the country and check the borders. She didn’t want Caesar sneaking in, and she wanted to make sure Dokov’s people kept far away. Her finger came to rest on a freckle which was located in the exact spot of Athens. Xena wondered if her oracle had ever been to the ancient city. It would be good for them to stop there as well. The people needed to see their ruler frequently, be reminded of who they served and why.

She frowned. That meant she should make sure she and Gabrielle visited the Amazons along the way. She couldn’t afford them becoming discontented and taking up arms against her once more. Though the thought of returning to Amazon territory was distasteful to the ruler. She had worked too long to clear Greece of their kind to give up her prejudices easily. At least, Gabrielle was not a born Amazon. That would have been unbearable.

The sun felt warmer on her back. A glance behind her confirmed that Helios had now risen in the sky and it was time to begin their day. It would take them until noon to finish convincing the other rulers to leave with them. And to incapacitate any who refused to come along.

Xena withdrew her hand from Gabrielle’s back and started to get out of bed.

“Hey … why’d you stop?” a sleepy voice inquired. “That felt nice.”

The Conqueror chuckled. “Hedonist.”

Gabrielle pushed herself up on her elbows and stretched. “With you, always.”

Xena was momentarily distracted by newly revealed flesh. “We need to get going soon,” she said gruffly, mostly to refocus her own attention.

It didn’t fool the oracle, who now lazily rolled over onto her back, enjoying herself immensely. “Must we?” She reached up and folded her arms under her head.

Xena leveled a stare at the smirking woman. “You’re playing with fire.”

“Me? Xena, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just waking up. You know, the usual.”

“The usual, eh?”

“If you want me out of bed, you can say so. I mean, I want to get out of here too.” Smiling, despite her best efforts not to, Gabrielle started to push herself up from the mattress.

Only to be stopped by a large hand on her rib cage. “I didn’t say you had to get up right now.”

“I thought you were in a rush.”

“We have a quarter candlemark or so.” Xena leaned in to kiss her oracle as her hand slid upward.

A smaller hand settled on top of it. “Quarter candlemark?” The tone had more than a hint of reproach in it.

“Half?”

“Xena.”

“I think a half candlemark is reasonable,” the ruler countered. “I can certainly make it worth your while.” She leaned over the oracle’s body and placed a soft kiss on waiting lips.

Gabrielle’s hand tightened on Xena’s. “I have no doubt about that. However, need I remind you that we are about to head back out to the desert? The desert which has lots of little bits of sand. Sand which becomes embedded. And makes me very unhappy.”

“And me,” Xena pouted.

Gabrielle rubbed her back sensuously against the smooth sheets beneath her. “No sand here.”

Blue eyes narrowed, “You make a compelling argument. No wonder I made you my oracle.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

It was later than anticipated when the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen made it down to the gardens. As they were about to emerge from the maze, Lao Ma met them. “Good morning,” she said, bowing slightly. Her hand reached out and touched Pei-cha’s head, exchanging a silent greeting with the snow leopard.

“Lao Ma, what are you doing out here?” Gabrielle asked, wondering why the empress did not wait until they reached the garden house to meet them.

“There has been another murder, I am sad to inform you.”

“Not Pompey?” Xena asked, hoping her plans were still intact. She would be angry with herself for how she spent the last few candlemarks if she had lost her pawn against Caesar.

“Dokov.”

Pei-cha let out a soft growl at the mention of the name.

The Conqueror let out a small breath, grateful for the murderer’s choice of victim. It would save her from having to exterminate the Huns for his indiscretion at having touched Gabrielle. She smirked, now she could just exterminate them for the sport of it.

Gabrielle felt sadness over the Hun’s death, despite his personal failings. She could still feel his sticky palm as he fondled her leg, and her fear as Xena engaged the Chief in battle. She began to leave the maze, when Lao Ma’s hand clasped her upper arm.

“Gabrielle, it is best if you do not see. It is especially distasteful.”

“Why don’t you stay here a moment?” Xena said as she moved around the slight form of her oracle. She knew if Lao Ma warned against it, it would be an awful sight.

“I can handle it, Xena, really.” Gabrielle did not want to be left behind again today, especially not with another murder having taken place. She took several long strides out into the open and instantly regretted her decision. Hanging from one of the crossbeams of the garden house was what looked to be a skinned animal. A second look revealed the muted features of the Hun, barely recognizable without their former covering. Gabrielle fell to her knees and immediately lost the meager contents of her stomach.

Pei-cha looked at the carcass across the way and let out a loud rumble. He sniffed several times and then blew the air out his nose, expressing his displeasure at the scent.

Xena knelt beside the Amazon Queen and gently rubbed the small of her back as her spasms continued. “Just relax, it’ll pass.” What little there was in her stomach had come out and now Gabrielle was reduced to dry heaves.

Lao Ma went into the garden house and retrieved a glass of wine and a damp cloth. Pei-cha followed her as far as the hanging carcass. The leopard stayed below it, snarling, as if Dokov might become animated at any moment.

Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible, wishing the action alone would erase the image in her mind. “Who could do that to another person?” she gasped, as her stomach betrayed her once more.

“No one like you,” the ruler replied as she squeezed the excess water from the cloth Lao Ma handed her. Xena lifted Gabrielle’s fair hair and placed the cool fabric against the nape of her neck. “We’ll be out of here soon.”

“Not soon enough,” came the sad retort.

“Well, at least, I think this will serve as ample motivation for the others to go with us. We’ll have less of a fight on our hands now.”

Sitting back on her heels, trying to avoid looking at the ghastly sight, Gabrielle took deep breaths. “I didn’t like him, but how can someone just butcher another person? Gods, it’s so awful.”

Handing the cloth to small hands, Xena shrugged, “I know.” Having inflicted this particular torture on her enemies in the past. “Are you able to stand up? I want you and Lao Ma to go back to our room. I’ll bring everyone to us. I think it’s best if we all stay together right now.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” Gabrielle protested. “Please don’t send me away.”

“I’m not sending you away, I’m just …”

“Sending me away, back to the room. No offense, Lao Ma,” she spared a small smile for the empress, “but I really want to be you, Xena. I feel a bit safer.”

“Just a bit?”

“Well, how about a whole lot? Will that let me stay with you?”

Xena’s resolve weakened. “Sure it will.” She found Lao Ma’s eyes over Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Lao Ma, I plan on all of us leaving here in a few candlemarks. Put the servants somewhere they won’t be able to alert others to our escape. Then join the rest of us up in our suite.” The empress nodded and started to leave. “Oh and take the gods-be-damned cat with you.”

Pei-cha lifted up the sides of his mouth, revealing his fangs. The Conqueror and the feline locked identical sets of ice blue eyes in anger as each focused on intimidating the other.

“For your own protection,” Gabrielle soothed. She smiled at the leopard and inclined her head toward Lao Ma.

With a twitch of his tail, Pei-cha acquiesced. As he left, he made sure to hit Xena with his tail.

Gabrielle stifled a giggle.

“I will be up after I see to Dokov’s body. He was a terrible man, but my honor depends on how he is treated in this state.”

“Suit yourself,” Xena replied, not caring to show any respect to the dead Hun. “Come on.” Xena took hold of the smaller woman’s hand and led her back into the maze.

“Where are we going?” Gabrielle asked as the ruler led her further into the gardens. “I thought we were going to gather up the others.”

“In a few moments. I want to take a look at that prayer hut one more time. I have an idea.”

Standing at the edge of the stone structure’s remains, Xena surveyed the collapse, focusing on where she had found Allemane’s hand. She bent down beside it and lifted up the stone pinning it to the ground. “Look at this,” she called to Gabrielle.

“It’s severed.”

“That it is.” She glanced pointedly around at the stones lying on the ground. “See any sharp enough to do that?”

“No …” Gabrielle made a face. “Who would cut up a dead body? Or did they cut him up and then topple the prayer hut to fit with the poem?”

“I have another idea.”

They entered Gregor’s room, the Conqueror carefully leading the way. A quick survey of the room revealed them to be alone with the cloth covered body.

“What are you expecting to find, Xena?”

“It’s more what I’m expecting not to find, actually.” With that, Xena lifted the sheet.

Fair eyebrows drew together. “It’s Gregor,” she was mildly disappointed. She thought Xena was on to something.

“True,” Xena conceded. Then she pointed toward the middle of the body. “But it looks like he misplaced something.”

“His hands.”

“Exactly.”

“Allemane is alive,” Gabrielle breathed, understanding.

“I never did like the Gauls,” the Conqueror muttered.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Standing at the edge of the water, the Conqueror coolly surveyed the unhappy rulers surrounding her. Kulam seemed especially distressed about the trip Xena had described. “How do we know you aren’t trying to just kill each of us?”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Because I could kill you just as easily right here, right now.” She folded her arms across her chest, straightening her spine, looking even more intimidating.

The king stiffened and looked indignant at the suggestion.

Pompey laughed. “Come on, Kulam. It’s just a little bit of water. And I know the Conqueror -”

Xena started to object.

“- and I know that she is nothing but ruthless. If she wanted us dead, she would have already tried.” Everyone noticed that he did not say she would have succeeded.

Lao Ma took off her outer robe and carefully folded it. She placed it within the oilsack at her feet. The sack would keep its contents dry during the underwater journey. Next she placed her sandals in its confines. “I am ready.”

Gabrielle hoped that meant the empress had already placed some valuables in the pack. She couldn’t imagine only taking a robe and shoes for their escape. She had already noted that Pompey’s and Kulam’s bags seemed much too heavy for the path they were about to take.

The empress bent down on one knee causing Pei-cha to immediately come to her. The large cat put his forehead against hers and a large tongue extended and brushed over her face. “Be strong, Pei-cha. And be brave, as you should.”

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked, confused by the display and the almost sad expression on the snow leopard’s face.

Running her fingernails through the thick fur, Lao Ma spoke sadly. “Snow leopards cannot swim. Pei-cha must stay behind.”

“No!” Gabrielle gasped. Imploring green eyes looked over at Xena. “Can’t you figure out a way to take him?”

The Greek ruler considered the request, ignoring the insolent stare of the leopard. “He’s just a cat,” she protested, knowing how feeble it would sound to Gabrielle.

To the side, Pompey snickered, earning him a warning glare from the Conqueror. The situation was bad enough as it was.

“Xena,” Gabrielle pleaded. She could only imagine what the Babylonians would do to the feline when they discovered the death of their king and the disappearance of the other rulers. She did not want Pei-cha to pay the price for a murderer’s wrongs.

“Fine. I’ll bring him through.” She was far from certain as to how she would accomplish this feat, but was certain the solution would come to her. “Let’s get moving!”

Pompey and Kulam adjusted their packs, tying them closed to keep their contents dry. Pompey started to pull off his boots and then reconsidered. Lao Ma was the first of the rulers to step into the water, her silk gown billowing out as she descended into it. Muttering curses to various deities, the other two followed her. They waited in the water for Xena to lead them through the passageways, none of them anxious to lead on the journey.

Xena dove in, cleanly slicing through the water. It reminded her of her days onboard ship. She had always loved the water, and swam as often as she could. Her strong arms stroked the surface, bringing her back to the water’s edge. She extended her hand to Gabrielle. “Come on in, the water’s fine.”

First, Gabrielle kissed the leopard’s head. “See you soon, Pei-cha.” The feline purred, earning a smile from the Amazon Queen. She took Xena’s hand and lowered herself into the cool water.

“All right, listen up, everybody,” Xena commanded as she tucked Gabrielle against her. “The tunnel is about a bodylength below here. Once in it, it only goes in one direction. Follow that and we’ll meet you there.” This was the part that most concerned the Conqueror. If either Kulam or Pompey wanted to try to hurt them, now was the best time to do so. The tunnel was a death trap if one were delayed or blocked. She had already announced that she and Gabrielle would be the first to go through, followed by Lao Ma and then the two men. Having to come back for Pei-cha was annoying, but she would have not agreed if she felt it would endanger her oracle.

“We ready?” her fair-haired lover asked, eyes betraying her fear.

“We are. Just take a deep breath and hold onto my hand. I won’t let anything happen to you. It’ll only take us a few moments to get to the other side.”

“I trust you.”

“On the count of three. One, two, three!” Together they drew in large lungfuls of air and dropped beneath the surface. The Conqueror’s hand clasped the smaller one tightly and she began tugging Gabrielle through the water. The light above provided adequate illumination of the entrance to the tunnel, but once inside, the water became dark. Having been through it before and knowing that air was not too far away, Xena was not disturbed by the change. She could feel the tension radiating from Gabrielle, however, as they kicked their way through the passage.

Gabrielle’s lungs burned from lack of air. Her reflexes told her to open her mouth to breathe, while her brain told her to keep it closed. Her left hand flailed through the water, trying to help add speed to their journey. Next to her, the Conqueror pulled them both through the passageway steadily, her grip solid and assured.

Xena could feel the relief in her oracle as she angled them upwards. As they broke the surface, Gabrielle sucked in a huge breath, her chest heaving from the exertion. She threw her arms around the Conqueror’s neck and rested against the ruler. “You did great, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered into a pink ear. She held onto the nearby ledge, steadying them.

“Do we have to do that again?” Gabrielle managed in between deep breaths, the ache in her chest easing.

“A couple times, but that’s the longest one.” She pushed back a few wet tendrils of hair from Gabrielle’s face. “Let’s get you up on the pathway. And then I’ll light the torch.”

“There are torches in here?” Gabrielle asked, relieved. It was disorienting to be completely without light. If it weren’t for the water, she would have no idea which way was up or down.

“I guess someone used this a bit more often in the past. There are a lot of sconces carved into the wall. Once we light a few, you’ll feel better.” Still holding onto the ledge with one hand, the Conqueror used the other to boost the smaller woman up and out of the water. Gabrielle let out a surprised squawk, but was happy to be mostly on dry land. Once assured Gabrielle was stable, Xena lifted herself out. She stood and took careful sliding steps along the ledge in the darkness. Her fingers soon found the torch and the flint hanging below it. She struck it against the wall several times, a shower of sparks falling onto the cloth swaddled torch tip. It soon caught fire and a warm glow flickered in the cavern.

It was then that Lao Ma surfaced, drawing in a small breath. Seeing Xena and Gabrielle on the ledge to the left, she swam over to them and joined them on the ledge, waiting for the men to make it through.

“I expect Gabrielle to be safe with you, Lao Ma.”

Dark eyes lifted to hers. “Of course.”

Pompey surfaced a short time later, gasping for air. He ran a large hand through his close cropped hair, whisking water away. He joined them on the pathway, instinctively moving far away from the women.

It was several long moments before Kulam surfaced, sputtering and spewing water from his mouth. His right arm hung heavily in the water and he had a hard time reaching the outcropping. It took a great deal of effort for him to hoist the oilsack he had brought onto the shelf.

“I told you not to bring so much,” Xena reproached him.

Kulam ignored her, focusing instead on clearing his lungs.

“I’ll be right back,” Xena promised and then slid back into the water, disappearing from view. The return trip was much faster without having to pull Gabrielle through as well as herself. When her head broke the surface in the gardens, she came eye to eye with the snow leopard.

Pei-cha growled at her.

“I was thinking you’d make a good pair of slippers,” Xena muttered. She shook her head, a spray of water hitting the leopard. “You ready to go through this, you waste of fur?”

The cat took a lazy swipe at the Conqueror.

“I see. That’s how it is. I don’t suppose you’re going to make it easy on me.” She blew out a long breath. “Now, Gabrielle expects me to haul your fat, furry behind with us. So, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

A hiss was her reply.

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Matching the feline’s expression, Xena reached out and jabbed Pei-cha in his neck, where she assumed the veins were.

Pei-cha growled in outrage and a large paw struck out and swiped at her shoulder, claws extended, drawing blood. Then he collapsed. The cat seemed dead, its chest still.

“Maybe a bed covering,” Xena mumbled, dipping her shoulder into the water and ignoring the pain. She was grateful for her natural strength as she hauled the heavy carcass into the water. It surprised her how the pinch worked on the leopard. But she was glad she no longer had to worry about his drowning. However, she did realize she needed to hurry.

Pei-cha sank like a stone in the water, being all muscle and bone. She swam after him, grabbing a handful of fur at the nape of his neck and began stroking with all her might for the other side.

In the cavern, Gabrielle waited impatiently for Xena to return. As the torch burned lower and lower, she worried that she had made the wrong request. Had her natural compassion led her to harm the one person who mattered most to her in the world? “I need to go find her,” she announced, sliding back into the water, away from the empress’ grasp.

She paddled awkwardly out to the middle of the pool, ignoring Lao Ma’s supplications behind her, determined to find Xena. It was as she was preparing to dive below when Xena surfaced, gasping for air. When she saw Gabrielle beside her, she frowned. “What are you doing out here?”

“Looking for you.”

“You found me. Now get out of the water.”

Gabrielle obeyed. As soon as she was on the ledge, she reached out and helped tug Pei-cha up across her lap. The feline was heavier than ever, his fur laden with water. He was twitching and foaming at the mouth. “Xena! What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing this won’t fix, I hope.” She jabbed his neck and released the pressure points. Her large hand pressed against the cat’s stomach and a flood of water came out his mouth. Pei-cha immediately sucked in the stale air of the cavern.

“You put the pinch on him!” the oracle exclaimed.

“You have another idea how I could bring him through?”

Pei-cha roused himself, stretching carefully before shaking vigorously. He turned accusatory eyes on Xena. Sniffing, he began snarling, his gaze fixed not on the Conqueror, surprisingly, but on the far wall.

“What is it, boy?” Gabrielle asked. A glance around the cavern revealed nothing to her.

The Conqueror turned to check on Pompey and Kulam, but neither of them seemed interested in the on-going activities or any threat to Gabrielle.

Lao Ma followed the leopard’s line of sight. “I think there’s something over there, in the corner.” She pointed to far side of the cavern, far away from the torchlight.

Xena drew a dagger out of her boot. She clenched it between her teeth and dove underwater. From her vantage point she studied the figure, noting the shape by the change in the shadows beneath the surface. It was a human form, at least as far as she could tell. Deciding that direct confrontation was the best solution – as it always had been throughout her life – she powered through the water. Her forearm crashed into the person’s neck, pinning him against the wall with a thud.

“Who is it?” Pompey asked, curiosity aroused and sword drawn.

The Conqueror backed away from the dead flesh which was chilled to the water’s temperature. “Nebuharin.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Kulam began coughing and spitting with gusto.

Lao Ma turned toward him and spared him a compassionate look. “Are you all right?”

“I swallowed some of that water!” He spat again. “I think I’ll be sick!”

“Well, stop spitting in it, because we might have to swim through it again,” Pompey warned.

“Will you two shut up?” Xena boomed, swimming back to the side. “You two are worse than a pair of old women.” Before either of them could complain, she held up her hand. “Enough. We’re leaving. I don’t want to hear another complaint from either of you. Or I’ll leave you in here with him.”

“How do we know you didn’t put him in here?” Kulam asked, his voice sullen.

The Conqueror rolled her eyes. “How many times do we have to go through this. Just shut up and follow me. Be grateful I don’t leave you in here. Gods!” Xena pushed up out of the water and shook off the excess moisture. She held out an imperious hand to her oracle. “We’re leaving.”

“Gladly,” Gabrielle agreed, accepting the hand up.

With her free hand, the Conqueror removed a torch from the sconce and began leading the way along the narrow ledge. The water flowed alongside them as they moved further down the passageway. No one spoke and the only sounds were the squishing of water-logged boots and fur.

It was nearly a half candlemark later when the Conqueror held up her hand. “There’s another passageway here. I want you three to wait while Gabrielle and I go through.”

“I don’t think so,” came Pompey’s immediate objection.

“No, you don’t think. You do what I say, when I say it, how I say it.”

“I am Imperial Rome,” Pompey announced, his voice dropping low and reverberating off the stone walls of the passageway.

Xena had hold of Pompey before anyone even noticed her moving along the narrow ledge. She dangled him over the water, the muscles in her arms standing out in relief as she easily held his weight. “And I am Greece. It would be just as easy for me to say you died inside the gardens.”

“Except for Kulam,” Pompey countered, sweat beading across his forehead. “He would know the truth.”

The Persian ruler did not look pleased to be brought into this particular conversation.

The Conqueror made a dismissive face. “I’d kill him as well. I’m not stupid, Pompey. But I am losing patience. If you want to live, you will obey me. Without hesitation. Without question. Without complaint. If you give me a moment’s grief, I will finish up the murderer’s work for him. Am I understood?”

“You can’t speak to me that way!”

“As you wish.” Xena let go of the Roman and he fell into the dark water below. She immediately knelt down by the triumvir as he resurfaced. Her long fingers threaded through his short hair, gripping his scalp tightly. She plunged him back underneath the waters, ignoring his cry.

Pompey struggled as hard as he could, but found it impossible to shake the Conqueror’s grip. With one hand he flailed against his captor, with the other he tried to find purchase on the side of the waterway. The walls were slick with mildew, keeping him from being able to resist her force.

From her vantage point, Lao Ma kept a careful eye on Kulam, making sure he did not join in the struggle.

Horrified as she was, Gabrielle made no effort to intervene. She knew Pompey’s insistence on doing things his own way could easily bring about the death of all of them. She doubted, as well, that Xena would allow him to die. Rome was too important to the Conqueror’s ultimate plans.

After several long moments, Xena pulled him above the water line, allowing the half-drowned man a reprieve. “Do you wish to change your earlier position?”

“You are insane!”

“Unfortunate response.” With a shrug of her broad shoulders, the Conqueror plunged the stocky Roman back underwater.

“We might need him later,” Lao Ma reminded gently as Pompey’s flailing became more frantic.

With a final shove downward, Xena climbed to her feet, releasing Pompey to come up for air. “Teach him some manners while we’re gone.” Her face gentled when she saw her oracle, grateful that her judgment had not been challenged, but mindful of Gabrielle’s less brutal inclinations. “Let’s go collect your Amazons.”

Chapter Thirty

They surfaced in the concubines’ bathing pool, slipping through the narrow passageway easily, even as Gabrielle’s lungs began to burn from lack of air. It was Xena’s surge of strength at the end which propelled them to the surface. She helped her coughing oracle to stand in the pool, even as she scanned the area for any signs of hostile forces. Instead, all she saw was a multitude of women in various states of undress and four Amazons standing guard; Kelryn was flanked by two rather amorous concubines. Her gaze fixed on Eponin. “Report.”

“My Queen, Conqueror,” she replied, bowing slightly, “we are here and prepared to leave. Palaemon and the other Royal Guards are already stationed at the dock, awaiting our arrival.” Eponin did her best to not allow her eyes to wander over the shapely form of her queen, as outlined by the wet clothing. She knew that was an activity unlikely to be rewarded by the Conqueror.

“Good; let’s get going.”

Tamara and Lari immediately obeyed, splashing into the pool and wading toward the Conqueror and their Queen. Kelryn was trying to divest herself of wandering hands without being too rude. However, Eponin remained rooted to her spot, her eyes conveying her reluctance to leave.

Gabrielle squeezed the Xena’s hand gently, as the Conqueror began to submerge once more. “One moment. I have one thing I need to do.” Curious, but patient, blue eyes met hers and registered agreement. Turning her attention to Eponin, Gabrielle asked, “Is the woman you wrote me about here?”

Xena paused and watched, wondering how her oracle would handle this situation. She knew how she would do it. Somehow, she doubted Gabrielle would follow the same path.

The Commander began to reply, but was cut short by a petite red-head. “I’m here.”

Gabrielle waited patiently, as the Conqueror had taught her; she could feel Xena’s approval for this decision radiating to her.

Finally, Wynn added, “My Queen.”

“What’s your name?”

“I am Wynn.” The small woman straightened to her full height, the sound of her voice matching the arrogance of her stance.

“Welcome home, Wynn.” Gabrielle smiled gently, easily seeing through the false bravado.

Wynn’s hazel eyes became puzzled. “Home?”

“Wherever members of the Nation are is home, Wynn. Surely, your mother taught you that. Amazons are not bound to land, but to one another.” Gabrielle watched the impact of her statement on the woman as the painter appeared to struggle for words, but remained silent. Wynn blinked rapidly, trying to contain the tears that threatened to spill over onto her cheeks. “It’s time to leave this place, Wynn. Your mother may be gone, but your sisters are here.”

Eponin laid a warm hand on Wynn’s shoulder, squeezing it gently. She wasn’t sure if the other woman would allow it, but was pleased when it wasn’t shrugged off immediately.

“Thank you, my Queen,” Wynn replied after a long silence.

Xena, who had remained silent throughout the exchange, immeasurably pleased by the regal nature displayed so easily by her oracle, cleared her throat. “Time to go.”

Chapter Thirty-One

Seven heads surfaced in rapid succession in the passageway. Pei-cha let out a low rumble of concern for the fair-haired one among them. The leopard raised himself onto strong legs and stretched out toward his new mistress, content only when his nose brushed her hair.

“Stupid cat, back up,” Xena growled as she approached the ledge. Pei-cha seemed reluctant to move, but did make some space for Gabrielle to be boosted up next to him. He sat down behind the slim form of the Amazon Queen, neatly cutting off Xena’s access to the ledge, and began licking away the excess rivulets of liquid on Gabrielle’s skin.

The Conqueror looked at the leopard and envisioned a new set of boots and a belt.

Kelryn chuckled at the sight. “Isn’t that cute?”

Angry eyes turned on the young soldier, silencing her immediately. “Time to get moving,” the Conqueror ordered. “We have to get to the boat before the tide leaves.”

Gabrielle gave Pei-cha a gentle nudge, clearing more space next to her, which the Conqueror promptly filled. Together, they gave a hand to the five Amazons, pulling them out of the water and interspersing them among the rulers. Xena was careful to position the heavily armed Tamara near Pompey, knowing the weaponry would be a deterrent to any further nonsense on the Roman’s part.

“My Queen,” Eponin began as they moved along at a steady pace, “may I ask what happened inside the gardens?”

When the Conqueror did not object to the question, Gabrielle replied. “It appears that Lord Allemane and Prince Vedtrilan have conspired together to kill the rulers of the surrounding kingdoms, including, King Nebuharin.”

Eponin nodded soberly, knowing the Amazon prohibitions against any violence toward one’s family. “To kill one’s own parent is a grave evil.”

“Would someone inform my son of that fact?” Kulam added sweetly, mockery clear in his voice.

“Except in your case,” Xena muttered.

“Hear, hear,” a disgruntled Pompey agreed.

“I don’t believe Vedtrilan could do something like that,” a disagreeing voice said.

The Conqueror turned and faced Wynn. “Why not? Isn’t he heir to the throne?” Xena’s voice took on the bored tone of a lecturer in Athens. “Whenever a murder is committed, it is usually by the person who would benefit most from the untimely demise of the victim.”

“True,” Wynn conceded. “But, aren’t they also then the most likely suspect? And, to be honest, it doesn’t sound like the Prince Vedtrilan I know.”

“Oh really?”

“Really,” the painter persisted. “Vedtrilan is a poet, an artist, and a songwriter. He is most definitely not a murderer. He doesn’t even want the throne, but is afraid to let his sister have it.”

Xena rolled her eyes. Obviously the new Amazon wasn’t aware of basic Babylonian law. “Women cannot inherit property here, let alone a kingdom.”

“But her son can.”

This stopped the Conqueror. “Her son? Princess Sinoa has a son?”

“It’s a new development. Amurin is only a few moons old. But ever since his birth, things have been tense in the court.”

“Understandable. I don’t recall Princess Sinoa’s wedding.”

Wynn raised a delicate eyebrow. “That’s because there wasn’t one.”

“Any rumors?”

“Plenty. You know how palaces are.”

“So, Sinoa and Allemane conspire to overthrow the kingdom?” The Conqueror began running through this scenario, trying to decide if it fit. “She rules as Regent in her son’s infancy, kills off the neighbors most likely to threaten a child’s kingdom. Does all of this by framing her brother for her father’s murder. Perhaps she marries Allemane; no, she wouldn’t want to share power. Why Allemane? Because he’s farthest away. Maybe she kills him at the end of this murder spree.

Or just sends him back home. It would be too costly to send an army over from Gaul. She would be safe.”

“Though Amurin wouldn’t be safe for long,” Gabrielle said softly, joining in Xena’s stream-of-consciousness. “Think about it. She would let him live for awhile, long enough to change people’s attitudes toward a woman ruling. Once that was accomplished, Amurin would certainly have a fatal accident.”

Pompey snorted. “You’ve trained her well, Xena. She thinks like you do.”

Before Xena could react, Tamara brought a powerful hand up and hit Pompey in the back of the head. This sent the Roman sprawling onto the ledge, his nose encountering the slippery rock with a loud clap. Blood issued forth from the broken appendage, staining the water as it dripped into the canal.

Kneeling beside the prostate figure, Xena hissed, “Never speak of her in that manner. Or I will kill you.” As she stood, Xena ground his fingers under her boot, causing the man to moan in further pain.

Standing silent witness, Gabrielle wondered what exactly it was that Xena objected to in the comparison.

Chapter Thirty-Two

They reached the end of the tunnel. A solid wall of stone marked the decided end of the passageway. Only the water continued to move forward, flowing under the wall and out to the river beyond. The group came to a stop at the barrier, with Kulam sighing and dropping down to rest. Pompey, cradling the hand with the swollen fingers against his chest, joined him.

Xena crouched down by the water. She ran a hand lazily along the surface, trying to figure out how she would transport Pei-cha through the passageway this time. She knew Gabrielle would not allow here to leave the big cat behind. “Eponin, Tamara, come here.”

The two Amazons pushed their way along the ledge and knelt beside her. “Your majesty.”

“I want you two to go through last. I don’t trust Pompey or Kulam at our back. Gabrielle and I will go through first. Pace everyone else through. Understood?”

“Yes, your majesty.”

The Conqueror rose to her full height and held out a hand to Gabrielle. “Ready to go home?”

Gabrielle smiled, “I’m ready to go anywhere with you.” She reached out and grabbed hold of the Conqueror’s still damp cloak. “But home sounds really good right now.”

Xena returned the smile, momentarily forgetting the annoyances surrounding her. “Think you might get seasick on the trip there?”

A light blush dusted the oracle’s features. “I’m pretty sure we can count on it.”

“Do we still have to bring the cat?” The Conqueror asked, hoping for a reprieve.

A pale eyebrow lifted in response.

An aggrieved sigh issued from the dark ruler. “You won’t complain about me putting the pinch on him?”

Pei-cha growled.

“It won’t be necessary,” Lao Ma replied. “While I am not strong enough to pull him through, I can prepare him for you, Xena.”

“By all means.”

Two delicate fingers hovered in front of Pei-cha’s gaze, drawing his attention. Lao Ma began intoning words from the Chin language which seemed to calm the leopard. Slowly the great cat’s eyes fluttered closed and his breathing stopped.

“What did you do?” Kelryn asked, hovering behind the empress.

“He’s hypnotized. Pei-cha will come out of it when he leaves the water.”

“We better start moving then,” Xena declared. “We go in pairs. Gabrielle and I first, Kelryn and Lao Ma next, Wynn and Lari, Pompey and Kulam and then Eponin and Tamara. Once you make it through, head directly for the docks.”

With her boot, Xena shoved Pei-cha into the water and watched with no small amount of satisfaction as the leopard sank.

Shaking her head, Gabrielle slipped into the cold water.

The Conqueror immediately followed, taking the smaller hand in hers as she entered the flow. Feeling the tremor in Gabrielle, Xena paused. “Are you that cold?”

Lips pressed together, Gabrielle shook her head.

“What then?”

“Let’s go.” Gabrielle insisted, sinking down to her chin. “I’ll tell you on the other side. Let’s get Pei-cha.”

Narrowed blue eyes searched hers and Gabrielle knew the Conqueror was not pleased. “The other side,” Xena repeated.

Then the Conqueror and the oracle disappeared under the water.

Chapter Thirty-Three

The passageway was short, but the trip was interminable. In the dark waters it took Xena several long moments before she was able to locate the white pelt of Pei-cha. Several more before she had sufficient hold on the leopard and on Gabrielle to carry them through the passageway. With one arm wrapped solidly around the cat’s chest, Pei-cha was a leaden weight to Xena. He was pulled dreamlessly through the water, unaware of the effort it was taking to save his hide.

For her part, Gabrielle struggled strongly through the water, desperate for the return to air above. What she hadn’t revealed to the Conqueror was that she had never learned how to swim. Her muscles were uncoordinated in the water, her movements unsure. The weight of the water on all sides of her body caused her endless panic. It was only Xena’s sure grip on her hand and the knowledge that the Conqueror would not allow something as trivial as death interfere with her plans, that Gabrielle did not give in to her fears.

Endlessly relieved when she saw light streaming through the water, Gabrielle began kicking toward the surface, anxious to feel the sun directly on her skin and no longer filtered. When she broke through, she began drawing in deep lungfuls of air.

Xena emerged beside her. The Conqueror did not appear to be affected in the least by the journey. The dark ruler gently guided her coughing oracle to the shallow area of the inlet, not stopping until she discerned Gabrielle’s feet touching bottom. Once assured her lover would not slip back underwater, Xena let go of her hand to grasp fully onto Pei-cha. She hefted the leopard onto the riverbank, settling him down none too gently. The sting of the gravel against his coat roused the cat back to consciousness. With a growl, the dazed look vanished from ice blue eyes and he stretched out.

“You must have nine lives,” Xena muttered, having been hopeful the leopard had not survived the second trip. Duty done, she turned back and waded to her oracle. “You all right?”

Gabrielle nodded. “Just catching my breath,” she said, each word punctuated by a deep intake of air.

“What did you need to tell me?”

Gabrielle shrugged, trying to minimize what she knew would draw an angry outburst. “I was trembling because I don’t know how to swim.”

“By all the gods on Mount Olympus, Gabrielle, you should have mentioned that a bit earlier!”

The oracle cocked her head, patiently waiting for the anger to dissipate. “Would it have made any difference? We had to get out of there. The only way was to swim. I knew you wouldn’t let anything happen to me.”

“When we return to Greece, we will begin your swimming instructions immediately.” The Conqueror gave her a meaningful stare. “It is important to me that you are safe in all settings. Whether I am there or not.”

“Thank you,” came the soft reply framed by an affectionate smile.

“Let’s get moving.” The Conqueror led them to the side just as Kelryn and Lao Ma surfaced in the middle of the pool. She barely gave them a backward glance as she climbed out of the water and helped Gabrielle do the same.

The Euphrates was a mere stone’s throw away, its waters filling the inlet. Now standing atop the bank, Xena could see the boats at the pier, waiting for their passengers. Her eyes focused on the one hired by Palaemon, a red scarf identifying it, flying on the mast below the boat’s own colors. This was the most perilous part of the journey, the approach to the docks. They would have to walk about a stadium length to reach it, completely exposed to the observation of others the entire time.

As planned, nestled in an alcove, was a large sack, containing changes of clothing for Gabrielle and Lao Ma. Xena would not change out of her leathers until they were safely away; the Amazons would follow her example. There were several towels of Egyptian cotton in it as well, for them to dry off as best as they could. Nothing would be more suspicious than five soaking wet women warriors marching along the docks.

Xena gave one towel to Gabrielle and held up another to allow her oracle to dry off and change in relative privacy. Once assured the Amazon Queen’s modesty was preserved, she used the towel she was holding to dry off her own skin and hair.

Lao Ma and Kelryn joined them in the alcove, also quickly taking care of preparing for the next stage of their trek.

A newly dry Gabrielle and drier Xena emerged when Lari and Wynn surfaced, almost immediately followed by Pompey and Kulam. The Conqueror scowled. She had told Eponin to space out the swimmers better. She became angrier when Eponin and Tamara came bursting to the surface on the heels of the foreign leaders.

Eponin swam furiously for the bank of the inlet. “There’s someone behind us, my Queen! We heard them coming through the tunnels.”

“Of all the gods-be-damned miserable things! You!” She pointed to Lao Ma. “Keep Gabrielle safe!” She pushed the nearest Amazon toward Gabrielle as well. “Get her to the boat quickly. Tell Palaemon to set sail immediately.”

Kelryn frowned, “Your majesty, what about you?”

Unsheathing her sword, the Conqueror growled, “I will be fine.”

Gabrielle was torn between wanting to fight for her right to stay at Xena’s side and her wanting to keep Xena safe, which meant not being a distraction to the dark ruler. She hated feeling incompetent in battle, especially since she led a nation of women warriors. When they were back in Greece, Gabrielle resolved to have combat lessons, as well as swimming.

With a parting glance at Xena, who remained at the rear, shoving the Amazons and two remaining rulers ahead of her, the Amazon Queen allowed herself to be pulled along the river bank by the Chin Empress. Pei-cha moved on silent paws beside her, his coat bristling with an angry energy. He snarled at several Babylonians who looked their way which caused them to find other more interesting things to do.

Lari went around them to take the point position, heading for the boat awaiting them. She focused on walking briskly, but not appearing to flee. Her right hand rested on the hilt of her sword, her hazel eyes flicking right and left, watching for danger.

The docks appeared much as they did when they had arrived a few days prior. There were numerous small boats tied up in the Euphrates, most of them in the process of either loading or unloading goods. As with any seaport, there were numerous crates filled with merchandise and animals for market strewn about, hindering progress at times, and large coils of rope crisscrossing the wooden planks. Men, clothed in only loin clothes and sweat, hauled items from one point to the other. Several cast appreciative looks at the women marching through their midst until the leopard convinced them otherwise.

Behind them, Xena marched with her sword drawn, keeping watch on their back. She was gratified that no one had come bursting out of the water. Perhaps it had been Eponin and Tamara’s over-eager imaginations. Of course, that would require Eponin to have an imagination, which the Conqueror doubted. That meant soldiers would be coming at any moment.

Xena glanced ahead, to reassure herself that Lao Ma and Gabrielle had not encountered any resistance to their progress. It was then she noticed the commotion up along the main highway running alongside the river, above the docks. She quickly counted at least four troops of soldiers.

She smiled, eighty to her eight, not including herself; and not including the troops she knew now to be behind her, hearing their cries as they sloshed their way out of the water passage and scrambled up the banks. “I didn’t plan on having this much fun in Babylon.” Pursuing her lips, she sounded a shrill bird call, alerting Palaemon and her Royal Guard to the danger. She was pleased when she saw them immediately spring into action, as she had relentlessly trained them.

Minon climbed the ship’s mast quickly, reminding the Conqueror of the monkeys she had seen in the Chin palace years before, and began calling down information to Palaemon. While she couldn’t make out what he was saying, she knew it would be the size of the opposing troops, their approach and the location of the Conqueror. The latter was confirmed when Palaemon stood briefly on the ship’s railing and lifted a sword in her direction. He then disappeared, leaping off the ship, onto the docks below, Novan fast on his heels.

Every annoyance of the last few days boiled up within the Conqueror. Every slight, every danger posed to her oracle, every insult, every threat to her own life, came to her mind, producing a white hot flash of anger. This anger transformed itself into Ares’ image, reminding her why she was his Chosen, why he had sought her out so many winters prior. She had never been defeated in battle, not once, and she did not intend to start when there was so much to lose – her reputation, her kingdom and her Gabrielle.

Preferring to fight a battle on one front, as opposed to several, she began deciding how to hinder the rear troops’ approach. A nearby barge was in the process of loading animals for market. Lying on the dock were several crates full of small fowl yet to be loaded. As she passed them, the Conqueror easily sliced through the ropes binding them closed. A small kick sent the cages open, releasing scores of birds grateful for freedom.

The release of birds obscured the Conqueror from her pursuers, giving her time to duck to the side unobserved. She began tossing crates onto the planks, spilling their contents, creating a hazard for the Babylonian soldiers to navigate. This also roused the dock workers into action, not appreciating their wares being so rudely handled.

Xena grinned, there was nothing she enjoyed more than a big brawl. Especially when the dock workers didn’t seem to care who they were fighting, as long as they were connecting flesh with flesh. She pulled one worker to her side, clutching him tightly to prevent him for hitting her. “Listen to me,” she spoke into his ear in his native tongue, “these guards have just killed King Nebuharin at the request of Princess Simoa. Now they plan to take over the city and allow a woman to rule.” She gave him a shove, sending him back into the fray to spread the word. As she heard him shout out about the unnaturalness of a woman leader, Xena thanked the Fates for the predictability of men’s actions.

She vaulted atop a stack of merchandise to check on Gabrielle. The Babylonian troops had descended down onto the docks and now had the others engaged in combat. She spotted her fair-haired oracle rather easily, being a cascade of light in a dark sea of combat. The snow leopard at her side was striking out at any foolish enough to come too close to her. Xena was grateful that the close combat would prevent the Babylonians from using missile weapons for fear of killing their own.

The precaution did not apply to the troops following her, however. One archer spotted her atop the crates and aimed his arrow at her heart. He was more than a little surprised when the dark haired ruler caught it in her hand. He watched in horror as Xena leapt from the crates and used the arrow to impale the neck of one of his comrades, smiling at him as she did so.

The Conqueror continued her approach toward Gabrielle. Every carton she passed ended up strewn across the path behind her. Angry merchants cluttered the way trying to retrieve their goods, and to protect them from the thieves who naturally flocked to take advantage of the distraction. Dock workers fought merchants who fought thieves who fought guards who fought them all, and tried to quell the growing rebellion caused by a single, loud-mouthed man who insisted Princess Simoa was behind some great evil.

The Amazons were faring less well in battle than the Conqueror had anticipated. Without the advantages normally afforded them in Greece – trees which provided an extra dimension to the battle – they were forced into hand-to-hand combat. Their leathers did not protect them well from sword strikes, being too minimal to prevent or deflect impact. Through the crowds, Xena could see that Tamara had suffered a series of blows to her sword arm, now hanging useless by her side. The Amazon soldier’s body was half-turned to still protect her Queen, but her uncoordinated left arm and the severe blood loss she had already sustained were making that task difficult.

A Babylonian soldier dove from atop a crate at the Conqueror. Xena waited until the last possible moment before springing forward, neatly missing his leap. He crashed hard against the docks, the wind momentarily knocked out of him. As the Conqueror’s sword sliced through both lungs, the wind permanently left him.

Xena marched on. She was challenged several times by those foolish enough to ignore the blood copiously running down the length of her blade. Each of those men contributed their own blood to the flow.

Up ahead on the docks, Gabrielle stood in the center of a protective ring of human flesh. Lao Ma was in front of her. The Chin Empress, without benefit of any visible weapon, had managed to keep the Babylonian soldiers at bay. She spoke in hypnotic, low tones and occasionally waved a hand, directing her opponent’s attention in another direction. However, Gabrielle noticed her struggling more as the number of their opponents increased.

Eponin was at Gabrielle’s right side. The Commander kept shoving the Queen in the direction of the ship, toward Palaemon and the other Royal Guard. Her one goal was to form a solid line of defense, with the water at their back. It was too difficult trying to hold off foes on all sides. Especially when Tamara would not last much longer.

Tamara stumbled. Exhausted, her hand opened and her sword clattered to the wooden planks, useless. She turned sad eyes to her Queen as she felt a Babylonian sword impale her. Instinctually, she reached up to protest the meeting of metal and flesh, but never finished the movement. Instead, she fell to the ground beside her sword.

Emboldened by the kill, the soldier took a swing at the woman the others were obviously protecting. He couldn’t imagine what a small and insignificant woman could have done to engender such loyalty. Swinging, he moved in for the kill.

Pei-cha waited until the last possible second before leaping for the soldier’s throat. His teeth sunk deep into the Babylonian’s neck, and he shook his head, ripping the throat open. The soldier crumbled to the ground with Pei-cha landing heavily on his chest, the last of his breath leaving through the rent throat. The snow leopard let out a long hiss, the force of the air splattering the soldier’s own blood across his still features.

“Good, kitty,” Eponin muttered. “Keep moving, my Queen! We must get you to safety!” the soldier shouted over the din of battle.

“Where’s Xena?” Gabrielle cried out. “Where are the others?”

Eponin shrugged broad shoulders, and then parried a blow. “My Queen, she will find you. I know that.” The Commander took a step back, forcing the fair-haired woman to move with her. “Please, Palaemon is only a short distance away. We must get to him.”

Gabrielle nodded, good sense winning out. She stayed close behind Lari, who had moved in to take Tamara’s position, and the four women and snow leopard began moving toward the Greeks.

Palaemon, Novan and Eward had formed a solid line along the dock. The three were accustomed to fighting alongside one another, years of drilling by the Conqueror had taught them teamwork. Palaemon also realized that their only hope lay on reaching the ship and casting off, hoping to use the natural barrier of the water to protect them. He wasn’t quite sure how they would escape Babylon, but he wasn’t planning on dying on its filthy docks.

The Captain was glad to see the Amazons moving Gabrielle closer to their position. Eponin seemed to have realized what he had done in creating a safe zone for the oracle. Now, he thought, as he blocked a sword strike at his shoulder, they just had to hold it until the Conqueror arrived.

Kelryn climbed over another pile of crates following the one she held responsible for this fiasco. Wynn had slipped away from the Amazons the moment the fighting began. The Amazon’s heart wanted her to be by her Queen, but her head told her nothing could save them now. The odds were overwhelming. Kelryn’s one desire had become the elimination of their betrayer. It only made sense to her that Wynn had told someone in the palace of their planned escape. It had to be the painter who had alerted the guards. For that, Kelryn would kill her.

Wynn waited while the fighting raged around her. She wasn’t too surprised to see Babylonians fighting one another. Battle was confusing. Especially as she watched the Conqueror throw merchandise everywhere. She waited until the combatants were distracted and then she slipped through the fighting once more. When she finally reached the road, she began sprinting toward the palace.

The Conqueror stepped over Kulam’s lifeless body. The Persian ruler looked surprised that death had found him. Xena knew that his son would be displeased to not have inflicted the blow himself. It would be for that reason, and not the death of his father, that she believed Persia would declare war on Babylon.

“Xena!” a male voice cried out nearby.

She turned and saw Pompey being forced back by his opponent. He was fighting with his left hand, his right hand having been broken by the Conqueror in the tunnels.

Sighing, she drew a dagger from her boot and threw it at the Babylonian soldier engaging the Roman. It became buried to the hilt in the soldier’s neck. “Come on, Pompey.”

The Roman did not need a second invitation and he immediately came to her side. Together, they made their way through the battle, which as Babylonians continued to fall, resembled less a fighting force than a common street brawl.

The more professional soldiers, though, were engaged in battle with the Amazons and their Queen. Now, only a bodylength away from the Greeks, it was almost impossible to move.

A Babylonian soldier, taking advantage of the close quarters, unsheathed a dagger from his belt and thrust it into Lari’s stomach.

The Amazon was shocked by the cold feel of blade and the warmth of the blood pouring out of her gut. She hadn’t expected such a short strike. She cried out when soldier grabbed the blade and tore it through the rest of her midsection. Then she stopped feeling the pain.

Gabrielle screamed as she witnessed Lari’s death.

She screamed again as the knife lodged itself into her upper arm, having been deflected from her heart at the last moment by Eponin.

The Commander head-butted the Babylonian, and, when he fell to his knees, neatly slit his throat. She turned her attention to Gabrielle, “My Queen?”

“I’m fine,” Gabrielle replied, her voice unwavering despite the pain.

There was no time for the Commander to disagree with her. Another three soldiers rushed them, each sensing victory at hand. One tackled Eponin about the knees, bringing the strong warrior down on Lao Ma. A second leapt atop the heap of bodies, randomly striking with his sword. It was difficult for him to make any good hits, however, in the close quarters. Mostly, he was hitting with the flat of the blade, causing only bruising but no lasting damage.

Eponin struggled at the bottom of the pile. Unable to gain good leverage as Lao Ma was beneath her, she fought as best she could, attempting to dislodge the two large bodies above her.

The third soldier eyed the small Amazon Queen before him. “You’re mine,” he whispered, not caring that she did not speak his language. He drew back his sword to impale her when large teeth sank into his wrist. He howled in pain as a snow leopard dangled from his arm, ripping open his skin to expose the muscle and bone below. His sword fell to the ground.

Pei-cha released him and moved back to his defensive position beside Gabrielle. He snarled at the soldier who did not flee despite the wound inflicted.

Instead, the soldier drew his dagger and locked eyes with the beast. With a strong throw, fueled by his injured pride for being wounded by a mere animal, he threw it at the leopard satisfied when it sank deep into the white pelt, near the neck.

Pei-cha let out a low growl of pain as the knife entered his body and he slumped down.

“Pei-cha!” Gabrielle cried, dropping to her knees beside the cat, her hands searching for knife hilt. She pulled it out and pressed her hand against his fur, attempting to staunch the flow of blood.

The soldier bent down and retrieved his sword, grasping it in his non-dominant hand. His two colleagues were still rolling on the ground with the large Amazon. The leopard was no longer a danger. The kill was his. With a cry, he drove the blade into the small woman’s side. “Victory for Marduk! Death to the heretics!”

It surprised Gabrielle that the second wound did not hurt as much as the first. She knew it was deeper, and in a more dangerous location, but it didn’t seem quite real. She tightened her hold on Pei-cha and the two of them fell to the planks.

From across the battle, the Conqueror witnessed the blow. A horror within her welled up and fought its way out of her throat, “No!” She tightened her grip on the bloody hilt of her sword. “No!” Renewed with energy, she began crashing through the battle to her oracle.

Novan witnessed the blow as well and made the only decision she knew the Conqueror would accept. She threw her sword back behind the safe line, to keep it from an opponent’s hand, and then threw her body in the opposite direction. She sailed through the remaining distance to cover the oracle’s body with her own. As she was much larger than the petite Queen, Novan curled herself around Gabrielle and waited for the attack to fall on her instead.

Palaemon launched himself at the man who had struck Gabrielle, giving up the line, knowing now that it did not matter. The Conqueror would not leave if her oracle were dead. He knew she would stay until she had slaughtered every last Babylonian herself. There was now no need of escape, only retribution. He was glad to provide it as well, gratified when he removed the man’s head from his shoulders.

The Babylonians surged again. Palaemon fought to keep the men away from Novan who lay on the ground, defenseless, protecting the Queen with her own body. However, there were too many and he watched in horror as Novan absorbed numerous strikes, many of which her leathers and armor did not protect her from.

As he began to despair, he saw the Conqueror approach, taking his breath away. She moved with the rage of Ares, her blade neatly slicing through anything in her path. The darkness which enveloped her repulsed soldiers from her. They recoiled in horror as she approached, but she gave them no respite. Any within her reach died swiftly. Bodies littered the planks behind her, their blood flowing free through the planks and into the Euphrates. Palaemon knew the river would run red when she was through.

When Xena arrived at his side, she quickly killed the two soldiers struggling atop Eponin. The Amazon clamored to her feet, helping Lao Ma up as she went. “My Queen!” she gasped, upon seeing the stricken Gabrielle.

Eward moved forward from the line to join Palaemon and Eponin now provide cover for the Conqueror and her oracle. However, there were far fewer opponents than moments before. No new Babylonians wishing to risk the wrath of the dark lord who had gone through their midst moments before. Both sides stood staring at one another, gasping for breath, ready to resume battle at the slightest provocation.

The Conqueror knelt beside Novan. Rolling her Guard over gently, she found Gabrielle in her protective embrace. Gabrielle clutched the bloodied Pei-cha to herself.

Xena was horrified at the amount of blood on her oracle. It covered her arms and chest and hair. Remarkably, her face was clean of it, save for a small smear on her left cheek. Carefully, Xena disentangled Gabrielle from Novan and the leopard, pulling her oracle’s small body into her own embrace.

Chapter Thirty-Four

The rage within her died as the Conqueror held Gabrielle. She kissed the forehead under chin, and was glad to feel the warmth of Gabrielle’s skin. She was still alive. Efficiently, Xena ripped the bottom third of Gabrielle’s dress then used the cloth to quickly bind her wounds. Once the worst of the bleeding was staunched, she gathered Gabrielle in her arms. Then Xena stood and faced the remaining Babylonian troops.

“See to Novan and Pei-cha,” the Conqueror ordered Eward and Lao Ma. “Palaemon, Eponin, come with me.”

Settling her precious cargo in her arms, the Conqueror began moving through the throng on the docks, heading toward the main road. She abhorred every step she took that brought her back into the city. Yet she knew unless she confronted Vedtrilan there would be so safe passage for them. The opposing soldiers melted away from her as she passed. None were foolish enough to engage her, even with the small woman in her arms, they knew to do so would mean their death.

Kelryn came running down the road and fell to her knees before the Conqueror. “My Queen!” The young Amazon paled at the sight of the unconscious woman in the Greek ruler’s arms. Quickly remembering her message, she continued. “Your Majesty! Prince Vedtrilan has ordered his sister’s capture and Allemane’s as well!”

Deadly eyes locked on Kelryn’s. “Where have you been?” The Conqueror’s voice was low and held the promise of immediate punishment for the wrong answer.

“Your Majesty, I was attempting to kill the traitor, Wynn, but … she wasn’t a traitor. She was able to see the Prince. He’s given the order to the army to stop the attack. I … I …”

“Arrest her, Commander,” Xena ordered.

“Your Majesty?” Eponin risked a glance at the dark ruler, trying to understand the order.

“Do as I say.”

Eponin stepped forward and reluctantly wrapped her hand around Kelryn’s upper arm. She pulled the younger warrior to her feet. “Come with me, Kelryn.” Eponin’s hazel eyes tried to convey an encouraging sentiment, but she wasn’t so sure of Kelryn’s future.

The Conqueror resumed her march. While Gabrielle’s weight was insubstantial, it felt like the one Atlas bore due to her stillness. Xena longed for her oracle to move, to sigh, to speak, to do anything to assure her she would be all right. She tightened her hold on her bundle, rubbing her cheek against the blood-matted hair.

Xena moved along the Sacred Walk, the same one they had used to enter the city a few days prior. Nebuharin had been a fool ultimately. The Conqueror wondered if the end of her reign would be as replete with failure, if an act of hubris would be her last, and if Greece would suffer because of it. But more than anything, she wondered if Nebuharin had cost her the life she valued most in the world.

Approaching her was a procession from the palace. In the center of the group was a tall man by Babylonian standards. Dressed in white, as his father had been, adorned with colorful scarves and beads, Prince Vedtrilan, now King Vedtrilan, came forward and held out his hands in greeting. “Conqueror Xena!” He snapped his fingers and two attendants rushed forward toward Gabrielle.

“Stay back!” Xena warned.

Wynn stepped around one of the Babylonians she had been following. “Conqueror, I have told King Vedtrilan of the treason by his sister and Lord Allemane. King Vedtrilan has sent his troops to put down the uprising.”

The Conqueror stared intently at the young man who would now take his father’s place. “Your sister and Lord Allemane conspired to kill your father and frame you for the murder. Failing that, I assume you would have met with a similar unfortunate demise as did several heads of state your father had invited here as guests of his home. Your sister has disgraced your country and your gods. I look to you to restore Babylonian honor.”

“Marduk is displeased,” Vedtrilan agreed. “He requires our hospitality and protection of strangers within our land. I can only offer you my most sincere condolences and the services of my healers for your companion.”

Xena considered his words for a long moment, knowing she wanted to have Gabrielle attended to soon, but she needed more from the new King. “I have several demands. One, Princess Simoa’s life is forfeit. Two, Lord Allemane is mine. Three, safe passage immediately provided for my party. And, four, there will be tribute paid to Greece by Babylon to forestall our invasion for this egregious affront.”

“Princess Simoa will be punished, but according to Babylonian law.”

“What she has done is punishable by death,” Wynn provided.

Vedtrilan shrugged. “Marduk will decide her fate. And that of her son.”

“Her son?” Xena echoed. “I thought Amurin was a child yet, incapable of participating in this uprising.”

“Yes, but still very much my enemy.” His brown eyes traveled to the still form in the Conqueror’s arms. “Please, Conqueror, let us attend to her.”

“I will go with her,” Xena countered, unwilling to let Gabrielle out of her sight in the hostile territory, as she now considered Babylon. Vedtrilan’s grip on power was too tenuous at best. All she wanted was Gabrielle’s wounds dressed and a ship provided. Greece would heal all wounds.

So Xena followed the King and attendants back into the hated palace and gardens.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Nightfall greeted the Conqueror sitting by Gabrielle’s bed. The young oracle hadn’t awakened since her injury. Xena and the healers had seen to her wounds, cleaning them and packing them with healing herbs. The only thing that remained to be done was wait. Long years on the battlefield had taught the Conqueror one thing about stomach wounds: they either killed you quickly, or you recovered slowly.

A knock at the door was ignored by the Conqueror.

The door opened slowly and Palaemon stepped into the room. “My liege, how is she?”

“I should destroy Babylon for what has been done to her. I should tear this city down brick by brick and leave nothing alive for her injuries.”

Palaemon nodded and ran a large hand through his short hair, trying to rid the Babylonian sand from his scalp. “I would gladly help you, my liege.”

“How is Novan?” The Conqueror played with the fingers of Gabrielle’s right hand, moving them gently, wishing they would grasp her own.

“Badly injured, Conqueror. She took a number of sword strikes meant for Queen Gabrielle. Her lower back suffered the worst.”

“When will she be able to travel?”

“The healers will protest, but, if we have appropriate medications and accommodations onboard ship, tomorrow.”

Xena nodded, “It will be so. I will see to it.” She looked out the window at the darkness beyond. “Report on the others.”

“My liege, Minon is dead. He was found dangling from the ship’s mast, an arrow in his chest. Eward is fine, however, as is Commander Eponin. Tamara and Lari are dead. Kelryn is under your arrest. Wynn is back in the King’s court. Princess Simoa is under arrest, as is Lord Allemane. Triumvir Pompey is being treated for his injuries. Lao Ma is attending to Pei-cha, who is expected to live.”

The Conqueror shook her head, “Nothing but bad news, eh?”

“I saw the cat kill several soldiers who tried to harm Queen Gabrielle, my liege.”

“I suppose she’ll make me take it back to Greece with us,” Xena complained, smiling down at her lover, wanting Gabrielle to awaken and confirm that desire. Bending down and placing a kiss on the fingers she held, Xena then straightened up. “Stay with her, Palaemon. No one enters through that door but me.”

“Yes, my liege.”

“And I should be notified immediately of any change in her condition.”

“Of course, my liege, on my life.”

The Conqueror walked over to Palaemon and grasped his chin her hand, turning his face from side to side, studying it carefully. Just as abruptly, she released him and strode out the door.

The Conqueror had a palace servant lead her to the room where Pompey was being treated. Entering, she found a healer applying salve to the wounds the Roman had suffered in the battle. “Get out,” she commanded, her voice allowing for no opposition.

“I –” the man’s protest died. “Yes, Conqueror.” With a slight bow, the man slipped out the door.

Xena stood over the sleeping form and studied the triumvir’s slack features. The resemblance between her detested enemy and her trusted lieutenant was uncanny. And was about to become more so.

She walked over to the fireplace providing the main source of light in the room. Squatting down, she withdrew her dagger from her boot and held its blade in the fire, waiting until it glowed red. Xena carried a candle over as she returned to Pompey’s side, setting it down so it would cast light where she needed it.

A quick jab to Pompey’s throat guaranteed his remaining asleep while she worked; though she did it not out of compassion but so as to avoid any mistakes in her task due to his movement. With equal efficiency, Xena took the hot blade and carved Palaemon’s scars into Pompey’s skin.

Once the Conqueror was satisfied with her work, she wiped the bloody knife off on the bedsheets. “We’ll be seeing each other again, Pompey. Though, I doubt if you’ll be pleased to see me.” She released the pressure point and left the room as Pompey’s screams began.

“King Vedtrilan, the Conqueror of Greece requests an audience.”

Even as the announcement was made, Xena strode into the throne room, her dark cape billowing behind her. As she entered, the king’s attendants backed away. She stood in its center drawing all attention onto herself, commanding by sheer force of will. “I want to know your judgment on Simoa and I want Allemane delivered to me.” She paused when no one sprang immediately into action. “Now.”

Vedtrilan shifted on his throne as if it were too big to hold him properly. “Conqueror Xena, I am saddened to inform you that my sister has taken her own life and that of her child. To commit suicide is a terrible transgression against the providence and justice of Marduk. It is an -”

“Spare me the religious dissertation, Vedtrilan. I have no use for yours or any other gods.” The Conqueror folded her arms across her chest. “Show me the bodies. I have had enough Babylonian deception to fill my gullet for a lifetime.”

The young king was about to protest her comments when good sense won out. His advisors noticeably relaxed upon realizing he would not further insult the dangerous ruler in their midst. A long brown finger lifted from the arm of his chair and pointed to a small alcove off of the throne room.

Xena’s gaze followed in that line and settled on two shrouded figures in the area, resting side-by-side. Her footsteps were heavy as she crossed the room, the heels of her boots contacting sharply with the marble floors. With the toe of her boot, she pushed back the linen covering the face of the larger figure. The features on the young woman were similar to Nebuharin. She kicked off the linen from the smaller figure. The child had markedly lighter skin than his mother and the curly hair of Lord Allemane.

The Conqueror looked back into the throne room and spotted Wynn standing among the attendants. “Come here.”

Wynn obeyed readily, without bothering to ask Vedtrilan for permission. She went to the Conqueror’s side and bowed her head. “Your majesty?”

“Is that Simoa and her boy?”

The artist looked at the two dead figures on the floor whom she had recently painted in portraits. “Yes, Conqueror.”

“Very good.” Xena returned to the main room. “Bring me Allemane.”

“Conqu-” The new king instantly rethought his objection as he took in her countenance. “Do it.”

While they waited for the guards to bring the Gaul in from where he was being held, Xena approached Vedtrilan. Speaking in low tones so as to not be overheard, “Do not imagine that the worst is now over, Vedtrilan. Your father’s foolish actions in inviting nine heads of state to Babylon is compounded by five of their deaths.”

“Five?” Vedtrilan echoed, counting only Kulam, Dokov, Farza and Gregor.

“Five,” the Conqueror repeated. “You will be pressed from the north and the east: Persia and Syria will demand blood. Do not believe, either, that I have forgotten the insult and dishonor shown to me and the Amazon Queen by your country. My memory is long and my fury unquenchable should tribute ever stop being paid to Greece. You will provide me with one quarter of your bounty every year for as long as Greece remains. Know that you rule at my pleasure and anytime you becoming displeasing to me, I will end your reign.”

“I serve by the will of Marduk.”

Xena shook her head slightly and chuckled. “I know of the festival of Marduk, Vedtrilan, of you possibly atoning for the sins of the people. Do not believe I will hesitate to punish you on Marduk’s behalf, as you are there communing with the priestess of Ishtar.” Xena heard the footsteps of the guards and the prisoner. “As I am about to demonstrate, Greece’s wrath is poured out. And is only satisfied by a blood offering.”

Allemane was pushed to his knees by Harib, the Marshall of the Babylonian guard. It was apparent from the bloodied lip and swollen face that Allemane had already been subject to interrogation by Vedtrilan’s forces.

The Conqueror circled the downed man, studying him as the lioness surveys the weakest of her prey. “Make your confession, Allemane.”

Dark, insolent eyes peered back at her through a mass of tangled curls.

“It’s the only way you may yet live.”

“Whoring bitch.”

Xena licked her lips slowly, as if tasting the words. Inclining her head toward the dead bodies in the alcove, she murmured, “Now, is that any way to talk of your lover? The mother of your bastard child?” Hearing Vedtrilan clear his throat to begin a protest, Xena held up a hand, cutting him off. “You are a coward, Allemane. There are very few things I despise more than a man with no backbone or balls.”

Swooping down quickly, she latched a large hand around his testicles and squeezed, crushing the flesh. Just as swiftly, she moved away as he fell on his side, crying out in pain. “You seem to have the necessary parts, but I must assume they are not fully formed in your case.” Xena shrugged and wiped her hand on her cloak. “Confess and you may yet live. Tell me of your cowardice.”

“I should have killed you first,” he spat out between gasps of air.

Xena pursed her lips. “Yes, you should have, if you had wanted to succeed. Instead, in your cowardice, you killed your host by poison. You, a guest in his house, raised a hand against him. You have no honor.”

“I have more than you, Destroyer.”

“Do not delude yourself. Every ruler I ever killed, I fought in fair battle. I made my intentions clear; I declared myself an enemy, gave them a chance to arm themselves, and perhaps live. I did not come as a guest. I did not drink their wine and eat their food. I did not offer a hand of hospitality. I did not lie.”

“O pardon me,” came the sarcastic reply.

“I think not. What did you think you could gain by this foolishness? Forestall the invasion of Gaul by Rome by murdering Pompey? But, you were expecting Caesar, were you not? Cut off one leg of the stool and the whole topples.” She waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Your plan was ill-considered, ill-conceived. Like your dead child.”

“I only regret I did not kill your whore.”

“Ah, in a few moments your only regret will be that she was injured at all. You will beg the gods above to make it not so to end your torment.” Slowly, Xena drew from her boot the dagger she had used to deform Pompey and tossed it on the ground before Allemane. “I demand an equal amount of flesh from you for her wounds. If you can carve it off and live, I will let you go.”

The Gaul remained motionless for a long moment, staring at the knife a mere arm’s length away. Pushing himself upright, he regarded it carefully, as if it might spring to life on its own.

“I suggest you start with your unmentionables, you seem to have little need for them.”

“You have to kill me, bitch.”

Broad shoulders lifted and fell. “As you wish.”

There was a blur of activity in front of him and then Allemane looked down at his arms. Both of his wrists were slit side-to-side and blood was spilling out of them.

Xena crouched down beside him and watched the blood splatter onto the marble floor, its sound melodious to her ears. “How does it feel, Allemane?”

“It is a relief to not have long to endure your company.”

“Then let me hasten your journey.” The knife once again cut through his flesh, this time slicing his arms from elbow to wrist.

“May your whore die!” he forced out, his features growing pale.

A messenger ran into the throne room and bowed briefly before Vedtrilan. Turning to the Conqueror to relay his message, the youth wavered slightly before the gruesome scene. “Conqueror, Queen Gabrielle is asking for you.”

Sparkling blue eyes met waning brown ones. “Ah, your final wish is denied, Allemane.” As Xena rose, she slit the Gaul’s throat. “And mine is granted.”

Chapter Thirty-Six

Xena stood in the doorway and observed the small figure in the large bed. She could hear Palaemon’s footsteps as he drew further away from room, having been dismissed by the Conqueror moments before. Her eyes took in how the moonlight spilling through the window played in her oracle’s fair hair. It reminded her of a camp fire they had shared several moons ago, the way the light had played off Gabrielle’s features then.

“Are you going to stand there all night?” came the soft inquiry from across the room.

The Conqueror relaxed her shoulders, the tension suddenly dissipated. She had hurried back to the room only to have Palaemon tell her Gabrielle had fallen asleep again. Hearing the gentle voice of her oracle soothed her in a way Allemane’s blood had not. After securing the door, Xena made her way to Gabrielle’s side, falling to her knees unceremoniously. She grasped hold of Gabrielle’s hands and squeezed them. “Thank the gods you’re all right.”

Gabrielle smiled at the declaration. “It’s good to see you too. I was worried about you.”

“Me?” Xena scoffed. “I’m fine. You were the one who was hurt.”

“Well, I was,” Gabrielle assured, squeezing back. “I couldn’t see you in the fight. I didn’t like that.”

“I’m here now.” The Conqueror leaned forward and kissed her oracle gently, glad for the opportunity to still do so. “How do you feel?”

The oracle shifted and winced. “You don’t want to know.”

A sword callused hand felt of Gabrielle’s forehead, gently wiping away the light sheen of perspiration accumulated there. “You have a slight fever,” Xena reported. “That’s normal. And I bet your stomach hurts something awful.”

Gabrielle nodded, tears welling up in her eyes.

“It’ll feel that way for awhile, I’m afraid. But your scarring shouldn’t be too bad. I did the stitches myself, and I’m pretty good at them now.”

“You did them?” The weak voice held a note of disbelief.

“Lots of practice on the battlefield. More than once I lost my healer and had to attend to my own injuries.” Xena shook her head slightly to clear it of old memories.

“I don’t think I could ever do that.”

Xena’s hand played in the now clean hair of her oracle. “I had hoped I would never have to take care of you in that way, Gabrielle. I am sorry I brought you here.”

“Not your fault.”

“Don’t argue with me,” Xena countered. “I know I’m right. And you have a continuing obligation to me to always speak the truth.” The Conqueror’s voice was rough with anger.

Gabrielle fully intended to argue this point with the Conqueror, but decided to let it wait until later, when she had more strength and when Xena wasn’t so upset with herself. “You don’t need to worry, Xena. I’m going to be fine. Palaemon told me Novan was badly injured protecting me. How is she?”

“Expected to live. I will see her again when we move her on-board ship. We’ll be leaving this gods-be-damned country at first light. I’m taking you home.”

“I like the sound of that,” the oracle replied. In more ways than one. “And you arrested Kelryn?”

“She deserted in battle. She’ll have to be executed in front of the troops, as an example.”

“No!” Gabrielle reached up and grasped onto the Conqueror’s cloak with surprising strength. “No, Xena. She’s one of my Amazons, I won’t have her executed.” When Xena opened her mouth to protest, Gabrielle’s hand traveled further and touched her lips. “Let me handle it.”

“I don’t want you to have to order anyone’s execution, Gabrielle. I know it goes against your nature. Let me do this for you, take the responsibility from you.”

“No, you can’t have it. I have to be Queen and handle it myself; otherwise, I shouldn’t rule the Nation.” Seeing that Xena wasn’t continuing to protest, she moved her fingertips to graze the plane of the Conqueror’s cheek. “You’ve spent so much time these last few moons trying to teach me to be a good ruler, I can’t walk away from my obligations now.”

“She has to be punished for her actions, Gabrielle. She left you in battle when she was part of your guard.”

“She’ll be judged by an Amazon court then.” As she attempted to shift her position slightly, Gabrielle felt a solid band of pain grip her about the waist and hold her tight. Her breath hitched and she tensed, not moving further.

Having witnessed the reaction, Xena reached out and smoothed her lover’s hair. “Relax. You need to relax into the pain or it’ll hurt worse.”

“It really hurts,” the younger woman whispered.

“I know it does,” Xena soothed. “In a little while we can give you some herbs for the pain. But not until we get on the ship. Can you stay awake for me until then?”

“Will you stay with me?”

“Of course. I’m not letting you out of my sight again, Gabrielle.”

A warmth spread through the oracle at those words uttered softly by the Conqueror. “That sounds nice.” She forced her stomach muscles to release and her body to stop fighting against the pain. Bit by bit, she eased back onto the soft mattress, the worst of the discomfort passed for the moment.

“Well, not many people would agree with you on that point.”

Carefully, to avoid stretching her throbbing side, she reached out once again to tangle her fingers in the Conqueror’s cloak. “I don’t care. I know what I want, who I want.” She tugged Xena closer. “Lay down beside me, please.”

“It’s better that I don’t, Gabrielle. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“It hurts me to have to twist to see you, Xena,” her oracle countered. “Come up here and tell me what happened while I was unconscious.”

“I am not a good storyteller.”

“Xena.” The request was softly spoken but filled with urgency.

“Shh, all right.” The Conqueror leaned forward and placed a kiss on Gabrielle’s brow. She rose to her full height and walked around the bed to the other side. Very carefully, she lowered herself onto the mattress as close as she could to her oracle without disturbing Gabrielle’s position. With a free hand Xena spread her cloak over her body, warding off the chill of the night air. “Better?” she whispered, now laying on her side, facing a small, pink ear.

“Thank you.”

They laid together in silence for a few long moments, and Xena’s hand traveled over to rest on Gabrielle’s forearm, stroking it lightly. “I remember when I had my first gut wound,” Xena began softly. “I wasn’t even twenty winters and had just secured my hold on all of Thrace.”

Gabrielle nodded, afraid to speak, lest Xena stop.

“I was challenged by one of my lieutenants who had more ambition than brains. He got in a lucky strike, though, before I killed him. It slipped right under my armor and into my side, about here.” Xena demonstrated by fingering a section of her waist directly above her left hip. Gabrielle was well familiar with the jagged scar located there, one of the few stories written on the Conqueror’s skin. “However, I couldn’t let anyone know I was injured. If I had, I would have been killed that night.” At Gabrielle’s wide-eyed expression, Xena explained, “Armies are notorious for weeding out the weak leader. So, I stayed out among my men for another candlemark, grateful for my dark leathers, the twilight, and my high tolerance for pain. Once it was safe, I went back to my tent and examined the puncture. I couldn’t call in my healer without admitting what was wrong, so I took a needle and the same gut thread used to fix my boots and did my first stitches on myself. That’s why the scar is so big and rough. I didn’t know the first thing about the healing arts, but I vowed to learn everything I could from that moment on.”

“You stitched your side up with shoe leather?” Gabrielle echoed.

“Basically.”

“I’ll never complain again.”

“No,” Xena squeezed Gabrielle’s arm gently, “I didn’t tell you the story for that reason. I just wanted to let you know I know what you’re going through. And I think you’re very brave, although I wish you didn’t have to be.”

“I know you do, Xena. Thanks for staying here with me.”

“It pleases me greatly to be with you, Gabrielle. I assure you that Babylon would not remain standing had I lost you.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven

First light found Xena overseeing arrangements for moving to the ship. She and Palaemon conferred in a corner of the room discussing provisions, arms and transport. From time to time, Xena would glance over at Gabrielle to check on her condition, knowing the young woman had to be in a tremendous amount of pain. She would give her the herbs to help diminish it once they were on-board and safe.

Eponin had reported at dawn as well and was now seated by her Queen’s bedside. Her eyes were tired and her skin sallow as the soldier worried her hands together.

“Eponin, stop it,” Gabrielle chided, placed her smaller hand on top of two larger ones. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m sorry, my Queen.”

“We’re going home, thank Artemis.” She took in as deep a breath as she dared to with her stitches. “Did Lari or Tamara have a family? I mean, besides the Nation. A bondmate, a child?”

The Commander nodded. “Lari had a bondmate of a few seasons; Tamara had a daughter and a sister.”

“When we are back in Greece, I want to see them and thank them personally for their sacrifice. Gods, I sound so shallow. How can I thank them for the death of someone they loved? Nothing can ever make it right.”

“They will be pleased to know Lari and Tamara were true daughters of Artemis until the end, my Queen. Personal and familial honor is very important.”

“Over life?”

“My Queen, surely you don’t believe that life is the only end worth pursuing? If so, we’re no better than the beasts of the field. Without dignity, duty …”

“I know, I agree, Eponin. It’s just it hurts so much to lose them.” Gabrielle paused and took a long drink of water, pleased when her stomach didn’t clench up at the addition to its contents. “Where is Kelryn?”

“She’s already on-board the ship, my Queen, in the brig.”

“What would Terreis do with her, Eponin? How would she have handled this situation?”

Eponin took a deep breath. It had been so long since she had thought about her best friend. It simply hurt too much to dwell on. Lately, it seemed the only time she thought of the former Queen was when she heard from Ephiny, Terreis’ surviving bondmate and regent in the Amazon territory. I’m sorry, my friend, your memory deserves better. “She would have an immediate trial for Kelryn. It isn’t good for an Amazon’s honor to be clouded by suspicion, even for a brief while.”

“What do we need for a trial?”

“Unfortunately, my Queen, we need three Amazons of age. Each would then be free to ask questions of the accused. Once sufficient testimony was had – either from the accused or other witnesses – then the three would decide on a verdict.”

“Can the Queen be one of the three?”

Eponin’s brow furrowed, “Of course, but, the accused cannot be.”

“Of course not,” Gabrielle countered. “But we have three.”

“My Queen? Surely, you don’t mean the Conqueror?”

“We have Wynn.”

Before Eponin could comment, she was surprised by the Conqueror’s presence at the bedside. She hadn’t even heard or felt her approach.

“We’re about ready to leave. How are you doing?”

Gabrielle smiled, despite the pain that she felt in every part of her body, to reassure the Conqueror. “I look forward to being seasick.”

An inscrutable look passed over the dark ruler’s features. “I don’t think so, Gabrielle.” She reached out and brushed the back of her fingers against her oracle’s cheek. “You’re going to sleep most of the journey and get better.”

Gabrielle leaned into the caress. “It’s a long journey.” She closed her eyes and savored the gentleness of the moment, the Conqueror’s touch easing the pain she felt. “Will we get to say goodbye to Lao Ma and Pei-cha before we go?”

“Yes, Lao Ma will meet us at the docks. She’s leaving for Chin today as well.”

“I wish I could have spent more time with her. She’s an amazing woman.”

“Perhaps we will invite her to visit Corinth in the future.”

“With Pei-cha?” Gabrielle teased.

“I could only hope not.” Hearing a commotion at the door, the Conqueror turned and saw Palaemon admit four Babylonian servants with a litter for transporting Gabrielle. The Captain examined the men and the litter thoroughly before allowing them near the two rulers. “This will hurt some, Gabrielle.” The Queen sucked in a breath in anticipation of the pain. “We’ll make it quick, I promise.”

It certainly did not seem quick enough to the oracle, but she forced herself to not cry out in pain. Once she was settled on the pallet, she lay heavily on it, taking deep breaths and forcing the pain to a small corner of her awareness. She felt Eponin settling a light blanket over her and the servants carrying her out of the room. The only thing that made her feel better was knowing it was the beginning of the journey home.

Gabrielle faded in and out of awareness during the march. She was cognizant of Vedtrilan joining them, along with an honor guard of soldiers. She asked Eponin about Wynn at one point, but didn’t hear the answer over the pain that suddenly seized her. When she next awoke, they were ascending the plank onto the ship. Almost home.

Lao Ma approached her and clasped her hand, stroking her thumb over Gabrielle’s wrist. “Queen Gabrielle, I am most gratified to see you still among us. You are a woman of true inner strength. No wonder the Conqueror has chosen you as her companion.”

“Lao Ma.” Gabrielle swallowed and wished away the pain. “I am so sorry about Pei-cha being hurt. He’s such a fine friend. I will miss him.”

Dark eyes met her own. “I am afraid that it is I who will miss him. It has been clear since he met you where his allegiance lies. If you will accept his joining your party, both he and I would be pleased if he would represent Chin in the Greek court.”

Fair eyebrows drew together in thought. “Xena agreed to this?”

The Empress laughed softly. “Eventually, yes. It is hard for untamed spirits to accept one another readily. In time, I believe both will well-regard the other.”

“Then I accept, gratefully, Lao Ma.”

Lao Ma inclined her head. Her free hand drifted over the blankets to rest atop Gabrielle’s wound. She gently pressed down on the edges of the bandage and closed her eyes.

Gabrielle felt a flood of warmth spill over her stomach, growing in intensity until she was sure Lao Ma held a torch to her side. When it was almost unbearable, it ended.

“May you be well, Queen Gabrielle.”

“Thank you, Lao Ma. You too.”

Gabrielle slept once more.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Palaemon started at the knock on the cabin door. He stood up and shook himself, trying to wake up, having fallen asleep while watching over Novan. The healer had left instructions for the soldier to have salve applied to her wounds every few hours, to prevent them from drying up, and for the bandages to be changed regularly to prevent infection. At midday the healer retired to his cabin to sleep, having attended to Novan throughout the night, and seen to her transfer on board.

The Captain opened the door and was surprised to find the Conqueror standing behind it with a tray of food in her hands. He took it from her immediately and stepped aside for her to enter. “My liege,” he acknowledged, bowing his head. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

Xena frowned. “I was dismissed from my own cabin by Gabrielle. She has declared it an Amazon council room and she, Eponin and Wynn are speaking with Kelryn now. Somehow, I doubt if there will be an execution taking place on board.”

Palaemon’s mouth twitched but he did not reply for a long moment. “Perhaps, my liege, she will learn how to better serve her queen.”

“She had better, or next time I will not step aside.”

“Would you like me to serve you?” Palaemon asked, indicating the tray laden with rolled meats, fruit and bread.

Xena waved a hand. “No, no, that’s for you two. I will take my meal later. I knew you,” she pointed a finger at her captain, “wouldn’t leave to visit the galley. So, I made the cook provide enough food for you and Novan for the day. You are invaluable to me in service, Palaemon. Even more so now.” Her eyes took in the scars on his face. “You must stay strong.”

“My liege, I am your humble servant.”

From the pallet, Novan groaned as she adjusted her position, the pain awakening her. As her eyes fluttered open, she realized the Conqueror was standing in the room. She tried to sit up, but was thwarted by a firm hand on her shoulder. “Stay down, Novan. Don’t be foolish.”

“My liege. Your pardon,” the officer whispered through gritted teeth.

“None needed. I am very proud of you, Novan. Your courage on the battlefield and your protection of my interests were well noted. What would you like in reward?”

The large soldier shook her head and swatted at the hair that spilled over her eyes. “Nothing, my liege. Except to continue serving you.”

“Granted.” Xena bent down and gripped Novan’s shoulder. “But I am pleased to have you return to Greece as Palaemon’s second. You will be responsible for the security of the palace, and specifically for overseeing the safety of Queen Gabrielle. In addition, you will be given a room in the palace to live and your stipend will be tripled.”

“My liege …”

“Do not protest good fortune, Lieutenant Novan. You have earned your place. And you will serve to keep it.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, rest. We have a long journey and I intend to have you assume your new responsibilities immediately upon our return.” The Conqueror rose to her full height and regarded Palaemon. “Take care of your lieutenant, Captain.”

“Yes, my liege.”

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Gabrielle shifted on her bed, trying not to jostle her side too badly. She had no desire to conduct the trial at this time, but she knew Kelryn needed to face her Amazon sisters.

The young Amazon sat on a stool next to the wall. She couldn’t bring herself to meet her Queen’s eyes; instead, she sat slumped over, elbows on knees, staring intently at the floorboards. The night and half day in the brig had sobered her. She had asked for, and received, from Eponin a scroll, quill and ink. For what she had done, she knew a possible sentence was death. Kelryn had spent the evening writing to her mother and sisters.

Wynn found it curious that she was included in the Amazon council. She had not even been sure she would still be welcome in their traveling party after she had run back to Vedtrilan. Still more surprising to Wynn was the fact that Gabrielle had not mentioned her flight and yet expected her to sit in judgment of Kelryn’s.

Eponin seriously doubted her young ruler would be ordering an execution for Kelryn’s behavior. Gabrielle was so gentle, the Commander had a difficult time imagining she could ever be brought to hurt anyone, whether they deserved punishment or not. Yet, at the same time, Eponin tried to reconcile the tender heart with Gabrielle’s absolute and public devotion to the dark Greek ruler. I guess anything is possible.

“Kelryn, you are here to answer charges brought against you by your Amazon sisters,” Gabrielle began, speaking softly, as drawing in too much breath was painful. “Namely, that during an enemy attack you abandoned your duties as a soldier and member of the Queen’s Royal Guard and fled. Abandonment and desertion are serious crimes and both are punishable by death. How do you answer the charges?”

Kelryn swallowed hard, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill out. In all her imaginings of her career as a soldier in the Queen’s service, she had never seen such an outcome. She tried to speak, but her throat was so tight with emotion, she couldn’t. Instead, she bowed her head further, wishing she could become part of the floor.

The Commander scratched her jaw and cleared her throat in an attempt to capture Kelryn’s attention. “You need to answer your Queen, Kelryn.”

“I’m sorry,” came the stark whisper.

“I know, soldier, but that’s not an answer to the charges.”

Anguished eyes tore themselves away from the wooden floor and met her Queen’s. “My Queen …” Kelryn struggled for control as she felt her voice breaking. “I am guilty of abandonment, but not desertion.”

Gabrielle nodded slowly. “What happened out there, Kelryn?”

The soldier clenched her jaw shut slightly to quell her emotion and stared at a spot on the cabin wall to the left of her Queen. “I was providing rear guard when the worst of the fighting was taking place. I saw Commander Eponin and Tamara and Lari …” Kelryn angrily wiped at tears which escaped onto her cheeks at the thought of her two fallen friends. “I saw them gather around you, my Queen, and move you closer to the ship. I didn’t think – I guess that’s the problem – I didn’t think I could make it to you or to them. The fighting was so bad. I thought I would die for sure.” She took a deep breath and looked at Wynn. “I saw her run away. I thought she was the one who had betrayed you. I thought we were all dead. But I didn’t want her to get away with her betrayal. So I followed her to kill her. It was to be my final gift to you.”

Gabrielle blew out a breath. Why is that all soldiers think of the death of another as a gift? She knew that the Conqueror would share this viewpoint with Kelryn. Though, the Queen was forced to admit, Xena would never consider defeat to be at hand. “What should you have done?”

“Performed my duties, my Queen.”

“What are your duties?” Eponin asked, interested to hear the junior soldier’s response.

“To protect Queen Gabrielle and my sisters.”

Eponin leaned back and crossed her legs at the ankles. “So what went wrong?”

Angry eyes met the Commander’s. The soldier pressed her lips together, fighting her words.

“What went wrong?” Eponin repeated.

“I did what I thought was best at the moment,” Kelryn protested, sitting up a bit straighter.

“And that would be the problem,” Gabrielle interjected. “Kelryn, I don’t doubt that you had the best of intentions in following Wynn.”

Wynn chuckled. “You mean in killing me, Gab… my Queen?”

The Amazon Queen shared a smile with the painter. “Well, yes.” Her green eyes returned to Kelryn. “But, you need to learn that there is much you don’t know. You haven’t been a soldier long enough to make decisions like that.”

“I just thought …”

Gabrielle raised her hand to stop the protest. “I brought you to Babylon because I believe in you, but I also intended for you to learn from Eponin. She, along with the Conqueror and Palaemon, is one of the finest soldiers I have ever known. It’s easy to be young and know more than everyone else. It’s difficult to live your talk. That’s what Eponin does each and every day.”

The Commander fought a blush that she felt stealing across her features. “My Queen, you honor me too much.”

Wynn watched the exchange very carefully, still feeling out of place in the session, but glad she was able to study Gabrielle and Eponin so closely.

“Do you have anything else to say in your defense, Kelryn?”

The youth shook her head.

“You may step outside then while we decide your punishment.”

Kelryn pushed herself up to her feet and left the room, her feet dragging heavily across the boards.

With Kelryn out of the room, Gabrielle lowered herself down on the bed with a sigh. Her side hurt, not as much as before, but she needed to lie down. Eponin came to her aid and helped her resettle herself. “Should I get the Conqueror?”

Gabrielle shook her head, knowing that if Xena was brought in she would stop the proceedings. “No, let’s discuss and be done with it.”

“Excuse me, but why am I here?”

Gabrielle turned her head slightly to regard the red-head. “You’re here because we needed a quorum, because Kelryn deserves to travel home with some peace of mind. As a born Amazon, you can sit in judgment of another. However, I understand your reluctance.”

“Why aren’t I being judged? I ran away too.”

“Why do you think?

The painter shrugged and spread her hands. “I have absolutely no idea.”

“You ran, but you had no reason to stay.”

“I’m an Amazon,” Wynn protested.

“Are you?”

“Born and bred.”

“Then why did you run?” Gabrielle asked.

“I didn’t. I went for help, because I knew I needed to. I can’t fight, I won’t even paint a battle scene. But, I do know how to build alliances and how to work them.”

“So, why should I think you ran? We all have roles to play in the Nation, Wynn. I have mine, Eponin has hers, so does Kelryn. You have one as well. I trust you, Wynn, and I believe you did what you thought was best. I will continue to trust you until you give me reason to do otherwise.”

Wynn nodded. “You wouldn’t execute her for being brash, would you?”

“I have no intention of ordering Kelryn’s death. Do you, Commander?”

Eponin shook her head vigorously. “No, my Queen.”

“I think Kelryn should be taught to not trust herself so much, to learn to follow orders. Then she can start thinking creatively.”

“How will you do that?”

“I will be leaving that to you, Commander.”

Wynn suppressed a laugh as Eponin winced.

“For the next two seasons, Kelryn is yours. I want her doing anything and everything you see fit. Mostly, however, I want her to do things for others, to learn to see others as more important than herself. Can you do that, Eponin?”

As the possibilities unfolded themselves in her mind, Eponin smiled. “Yes, my Queen.”

“Let’s tell her.”

Chapter Forty

A moon had passed. A moon filled with mostly unchanging scenery, from small strips of green that had lined the banks of the Euphrates, to the burnt ground of the desert, to the clear blue depths of the Mediterranean. Now aboard her private vessel, manned by the Greek Royal Navy, and headed for home, the Conqueror finally allowed herself to relax her constant state of vigilance. In another day they would reach Corinth.

Home.

Xena had not tried to think about how close she had come to never seeing Greece again. Had Gabrielle died, Xena had vowed to destroy Babylon, person by person, brick by brick. While her pride would not allow her to concede her own death in such a pursuit, her rational mind could, nevertheless, envision it as a possibility.

Yet Gabrielle lived. And was improving steadily. Lao Ma had helped speed her recovery, as she had Xena’s so many winters before. The only unfortunate thing was the Empress had left Pei-cha behind.

The snow leopard was already fully healed from his wounds, being too stubborn to die, at least, in the Conqueror’s estimation. Of course, anything would flourish under the amount of attention Gabrielle had bestowed on the beast. She fed the feline from her own plate, brushed his fur constantly, and let him sleep at the end of their bed.

That would end in Corinth. Of that much the Conqueror was certain. She would be Caesar’s puppet before she would allow the cat free reign over her palace and into her quarters. There had to be a line drawn somewhere. Even for something Gabrielle wanted.

Novan’s health had improved as well. By the time they had boarded The Majesty, the former sailor insisted upon assuming her duties as Palaemon’s second. This she interpreted as assuming command of the ship and allowing Eponin to assign various duties to Kelryn. The young soldier was learning obedience slowly. Yet, she was grateful to be alive and still in service to her queen.

In a moon, Wynn’s hair had grown down to her shoulders. The painter had vowed to never cut her hair again, never to be reminded of her prior status as a slave. She kept mostly to herself, preferring the company of the paints she had brought with her than any person. Gabrielle had been unsure, when Xena had asked, about her plans for the returning Amazon. She was torn between wanting to integrate Wynn as quickly as possible into the tribe, and wanting to allow her to acquaint herself at her own pace. Half a lifetime apart from her sisters was a large obstacle to overcome.

Palaemon served diligently. Having won over Eponin’s respect and loyalty in Babylon, the two worked well together. He knew the Conqueror would reward him upon their return, but he could not begin to imagine what he lacked. He had wealth and influence beyond most men’s dreams. He served the greatest ruler any had ever known. If he could say there was one thing missing in his life, it would be his own oracle. One who could bring a professional soldier like himself to the savage tenderness the Conqueror exhibited around Gabrielle.

The Conqueror opened the door to the cabin she and Gabrielle shared. The small oracle was lying on the bed, restless despite the lateness of the night. It seemed that her side hurt most when Helios was gone from the sky, as if the warmth of his light alone soothed the ache.

“You’re still awake?” Xena asked unnecessarily, seeing the gentle green gaze from across the room.

“Yes,” Gabrielle sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Why I can’t sleep anymore. I never had this problem before in my life.”

“Perhaps some fresh air would help?”

Immediately, the oracle nodded, her features lighting up with a smile. As they had neared Greece, Xena had become more and more focused on her plans for her realm. The Conqueror often sat at the desk for candlemarks reviewing the reports concerning Greece during the time of their absence, making notes, discussing her vision with Palaemon. Gabrielle had missed the dark ruler’s company, having been nearly the sole recipient of it during the first two legs of their journey homeward. “I’m sure it would.”

The Conqueror offered her hand to Gabrielle, helping her rise from the bed without any undue strain on her side. Pei-cha immediately lumbered to his feet to accompany them. A cold stare met his actions. “You will stay here,” the Conqueror ordered.

Pei-cha hissed, the fur on the back of his neck rising.

“Pei-cha,” Gabrielle soothed. “I’ll be back soon. It’s all right.”

Together they emerged onto the ship’s deck to be bathed in moonlight. The moon hung low in the night sky, appearing just beyond the reach of an outstretched arm. In its pale light, they could make out the emerging form of the Corinthian shore.

“Beautiful.”

“Yes, you are,” Xena concurred, pulling the oracle back against her and settling her cloak around both their forms. “Am I hurting you?” she asked softly, being careful to keep her arms loosely clasped about the smaller woman’s waist.

“Not at all,” came the soft answer. Of course, even if you were, I wouldn’t admit it; I don’t want this perfect moment to end. “I remember the last time we were sailing home to Greece.” Gabrielle felt the chuckle in the body molded behind hers.

“You were sea-sick.”

“I would like to be so again,” complained Gabrielle.

A soft kiss to her left temple was the answer. “You will be. But not yet. I won’t risk hurting you any more than you already are, Gabrielle. When you are healed, I promise we’ll sail the boat around the harbor and be as sea-sick as you want.”

“I just don’t want you to not have what you desire.”

“Gabrielle, everything I desire is in my arms at this moment.”

“And Greece?”

“I am Greece,” the ruler replied. “You are mine. And the future is ours.”

The End
November 1999
Continued in The Unconquered Sun – An Interlude

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