DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Lila, and Gabrielle's father and mother are the property of Studios USA or whomever owns them now. The other characters and the story emerged from the murky depths of my own pointy little head. You can blame me for it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I haven't written a classic Xena/Gabrielle story for you in a while, as I've been slaving over novel number two (the sequel to the novel An Amazons' Moon, featuring characters found in the X & G story The Fast Ship) and some Mel & Janice stories, and found that I missed the bard and the warrior. So, I started pounding away at the keyboard and this is what emerged. (I even pulled an 'all-nighter' on this one, as I really wanted to find out how it was going to end.) I do hope that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it for you. I strive to make each story better than the one before, and hope that I've given you that. Now, I'll shut up and let you read. Dear friends, enjoy!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Master of the Sword
By D.J. Belt
"Xena, I want to thank you for making this trip. I know this isn't your favorite place to visit." Gabrielle reached out and squeezed Xena's hand as they trod the dusty road toward Potidaea side by side, Xena's large warhorse plodding along behind them and Gabrielle's staff tapping the road in counterpoint to the tread of their feet.
Xena smiled, but the smile seemed slightly forced. "For you, love, anything. I know you've been missing your family."
"I have been. Lately, they've been on my mind. I have a feeling that something isn't right."
Xena raised an eyebrow and cast a glance at Gabrielle. "Oh? Is the bard becoming a seer as well?"
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled as she looked up at her friend. "I have many skills."
The tall warrior snaked an arm around Gabrielle's waist and pulled her close as they strolled down the road. "Hey, that's my line."
Gabrielle persisted, "Well, don't I?"
Xena's eyes reflected a faraway, slightly smoky countenance. She muttered, "Oh, yeah."
"Stop it! You'll make me blush." The petite blonde jabbed an elbow into Xena's ribs. That just elicited a snicker and a tighter hug from Xena and a twinkle of laughter from Gabrielle. "You're such a tease sometimes, you know that?"
"And that's bad?"
Gabrielle hastened to correct herself. "Oh, no. I love it. I remember when we first met, how sullen you were, how serious. I didn't think that you had a sense of humor at all."
"And you, so anxious to run away and see the world. You couldn't wait to leave Potidaea. Now you can't wait to visit again."
Gabrielle smiled at the memory. "I was such a country girl then."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle and beamed, "And just look at you now. Bard, Amazon princess, friend, lover, and one hades of a fighter with your staff. I'd trust you to guard my back any day. I don't give that trust easily, you know."
"I know. It means a lot to me that you do."
As they rounded a turn in the road, the trees cleared and a vision of the sprawling town of Potidaea became evident to them. From their vantage point on the crest of a prominent hill, they could look down on the town, nestled among the hills bordering the bright blue Aegean Sea in the distance. The tightly-clustered buildings of the port-city grouped near the water spread out toward the gently rolling hills surrounding the town, the tight and crooked streets alive with the ant-like activity of its occupants. On the outskirts of the town, outside the city's defensive wall, the buildings thinned considerably, the fields and clusters of dwellings more resembling farm communities than part of a port-city. Areas of cultivation alternated with rolling green hillsides where white flocks of sheep grazed leisurely. It was in the outlying areas, in one of these farming communities, that Gabrielle was born and raised, and where her family still lived.
As the two dusty travelers stood in the road and gazed down upon the panorama stretching out in front of them, Gabrielle pointed and squealed with excitement. "Look, Xena. You can just see our farm from here."
The sparkle in Gabrielle's expression caused Xena to smile in spite of her uneasy mood. "Well then, let's go. Want to ride? We'll get there more quickly."
Gabrielle nodded enthusiastically, then paused to place her hand on Xena's arm. At the touch, the warrior looked down at her. "You really are very good to me, aren't you? I know that you're looking forward to this about like you would look forward to getting a tooth pulled."
Xena mounted the horse, reached down and offered a helping hand up to Gabrielle. The petite blonde placed a foot in the stirrup and lifted herself up, settling in behind Xena. She scooted very close and wedged her staff on her lap between them, wrapping her arms around the leather-clad waist in front of her. Xena's voice was teasing. "You ready?"
"Let's go, Xena. I promise not to fall off." Xena kicked the horse into motion, and they gained an easy trot down the long slope of the hill toward the town. As they rode, Gabrielle persisted in her thoughts. "I'm sorry that you don't get along better with my family."
Xena's reply was succinct. "Me too, but it's not my fault."
"I know. Father doesn't like you and my sister Lila is jealous of you, I think."
"Look, maybe it would be better if you visited alone. I'll camp on the outside of town, in the woods near your farm. There's a nice stream there. I can rest and fish."
"Xena, you don't have to do that."
"I'd rather do that, to be honest. I don't want my presence to spoil your homecoming. Besides, I'm not welcome in your home. Your father made that clear, last time we were here. He threw me out of his house, remember?"
"He was just furious because he discovered that we were lovers. He still wants me to marry some dull, smelly farmer and have a litter of kids."
Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's description of farm life. "Sounds delightful. Are you sure that you don't secretly want that, too?"
Gabrielle's reply was astonished. "You've got to be kidding!" After a moment, she added, "Aren't you?"
Xena smiled over her shoulder. "Just checking." In reply, she felt Gabrielle's arms squeeze her tightly and heard her voice over the sound of the horse's hooves.
"There's no place in the world that I'd rather be than by your side and doing what we're doing. I'm going to keep telling you that until you finally believe me. I'm not going anywhere, Xena. You're stuck with me. Get used to it."
"Glad to hear it. You up for a gallop?" Xena felt the arms around her waist squeeze tightly in response, then urged the horse into a gallop which took them down the dusty road and into the outskirts of the town.
Gabrielle slid from the back of the horse, resting her staff against the fence which edged the yard of her family's farm. Xena dismounted and handed her bag to her, then her bedroll. They gazed at each other for a moment, then Xena fidgeted uneasily and said, "You know where I'll be camping." Gabrielle crooked a finger at Xena, urging her to bend down. At the gesture, the tall warrior assumed a puzzled look, then bent down until her face was near the bard. Gabrielle reached up, wrapped both arms around her neck, and kissed her soundly. Xena replied with a lingering kiss of her own, then squeezed her and whispered, "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too, love. I'll visit often, don't worry." After a moment, she added, "This won't be for more than a couple of days."
"I know. I'll still miss you."
Gabrielle smiled. "You know, Xena, you can visit, too."
Xena's eyes were pained. "No, I can't. This is your father's house. He doesn't want me here, and I understand. I intend to honor his feelings."
"Well, I don't understand."
"Gab, please. Don't push it. I don't want to be the cause of your visit becoming sour. Promise?"
Gabrielle hung her head for a moment, then looked up and nodded. "I promise. Now go on and go fishing. Scram, before I cry."
"See you later, beautiful. I love you."
"I love you too, Xena. Be safe."
Xena smiled a lop-sided, cocky grin and responded, "Always." With that, she mounted her horse, kicked it into motion and turned the horse in the direction in which they had come. Gabrielle watched her go, then bent down and lifted her bag and bedroll, draping the straps over her shoulder. With her other hand, she hefted her staff and walked through the gate. In a few seconds, she found herself on the front porch. She lifted her hand, hesitated, then knocked several times on the front door. After a moment, it opened. Gabrielle's mother stared at the sight before her, uttered a cry of heartfelt joy and wept as she embraced her daughter.
Gabrielle smiled her thanks as her mother placed a cup of hot tea before her, then sat and joined her at the kitchen's table. As she sat, her mother beamed, "Dear, just look at you. You seem so different from when we saw you last. You're full of muscle and tanned. You seem so much wiser and older. You're truly all grown up." She eyed her daughter critically, then added, "And you're a bit skinny, as well."
"Xena and I have been through a lot, these last three years. We've seen and done things that would probably seem astounding to you."
"My daughter, a famous bard. Travelers which come through here seem to know of you."
"I tell stories to earn money as we travel." Gabrielle laughed, then continued, "There's not a lot of money in what we do."
"Well, you'll have time enough to tell us all your stories. You're staying for a while, aren't you? Please say that you are."
Gabrielle considered the pleading, expectant gaze in her mother's eyes, then nodded. "For a while." She looked around the farmhouse. It seemed no different than when she had left. "Where's father?"
"He's at market, trying to sell some goods. The farm isn't as prosperous as it once was."
"Do you have enough to eat?"
She nodded as she sipped her tea. "Oh, yes. We manage."
Gabrielle considered the answer, then asked, "Mother, where's Lila?"
Her mother's expression grew solemn. "She's taken a job."
"She's working at the governor's house. She got a servant's job there." At Gabrielle's raised eyebrow, she continued, "We needed money. She felt that she could do us more good there than working here on the farm."
"Does she come home at night?"
"No. She visits us on her time off, perhaps once a week."
"Well, I'll just have to visit her there. I can't wait to see her again."
"It's rather difficult to get in and see her, I'm afraid."
Gabrielle smiled. "Xena and I have our ways."
"Where is Xena, dear? Did she not come with you?"
Gabrielle hesitated in her answer. As she was about to speak, the door squeaked open and her father entered. He clumped into the kitchen, muttering under his breath. "Damned mule. Gave me nothing but trouble today." He did not look up until Gabrielle spoke to him.
At the voice, he froze, then cast a glance toward the kitchen's table. His mouth fell open and his eyes widened. "Gabrielle! When...?"
Gabrielle rose and walked over to him, hugging him tightly. He embraced her, then held her at arm's length, his expression enigmatic but his eyes shining with emotion. Noting his speechless state, Gabrielle just laughed. "It's good to see you again, too."
He finally gained his power of speech again, just replying, "Gabrielle. Welcome home, girl."
A voice interrupted from the kitchen's table. "Husband, come and sit. You must be hungry. I'll put some food out and we'll eat."
Gabrielle offered, "I'll help, Mother." Looking back at her father, she said, "Why don't you wash? We'll be ready in a minute."
Shortly, the three were seated and indulging in a simple meal. Gabrielle noted the sparse fare, but said nothing about it. She used the time to study her parents. They seemed much older and careworn than when she last saw them, and her heart ached for it. She could tell that her father was struggling to keep the farm alive, and her mother's admission that Lila had taken a job in town to earn money confirmed it. It must kill father to have to accept money from Lila, she thought morosely. His pride must be suffering. To spark conversation, she asked, "So tell me about Lila's job."
Her father grunted, "Works in the governor's house. It seems good money for her, but I'd still rather have her here on the farm."
Her mother interjected, "Perhaps she'll meet a young man there. She's of an age to marry."
Her father snorted. "There's young men here, on the farms around us. She doesn't need to go off and meet some fancy-pants. Young Siplus, for instance. He always asks about her."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Siplus? For Lila? Really, Father."
He glanced up as he ate. "What's wrong with him? He's a good boy."
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, I suppose that he is." And about as dull as the day is long, she silently recalled. The mule has more brains than him.
"There, you see?" He eyed Gabrielle, then noted, "There's men hereabouts for you, too."
Gabrielle's mother laid a hand on her husband's arm. "Dear, please don't start."
He looked over at her. "I'm not starting anything. I just made an observation."
Gabrielle attempted to smooth the conversation. "It's okay, Mother." She looked at her father and kept her expression gentle and kindly. "Father, I'm just not interested in that sort of thing. I'm doing what I love. I've seen so much and done so much. I'm traveling, writing and telling stories and doing a lot of good for people. Xena and I..."
His head shot up at the mention of Xena's name. "You still hanging about with that one? She's not here, is she?"
Gabrielle felt a slow burn of anger rise in her, but she kept it under control. "Yes, I am and no, she's not here." She paused, then finished, "She knows that she's not welcome in your home. She respects that."
"That's good. I never liked that woman. Bloodthirsty ex-warlord, she is. You'll come to grief with her, I always warned you."
Gabrielle sighed, then looked at her father. "Xena is not like that. I know her better than anyone. She's noble, more so than anyone I've ever known. We do a lot of good for people." She spread her hands wide as she spoke. "Look at me. Do I look like I'm evil? Do you think that I could possibly love someone who was like that?"
Her father scoffed at the argument. "Love? She's filled your head with garbage, that's what."
Gabrielle swallowed hard, then attempted to sooth her father. "I am with Xena because I choose to be with her. We're in love, Father. We're connected on a level I never knew possible. We see with one set of eyes, we think with one mind, we love with one heart. We're soul-mates."
Her father rolled his eyes. "Soul-mates? What a lot of romantic clap-trap. Next you'll be telling me that you're a princess. What do they call her, 'Warrior-Princess?'"
Gabrielle felt the corner of her mouth twitch up in a grin. "Actually, Father, I am a princess."
Her father threw up his hands in resignation. He looked at her mother and said, "See? This is what comes of your filling their heads with stories when they were small."
Her mother attempted to admonish him. "Now, Husband..."
Gabrielle interrupted, "An Amazon princess of the tribes of Thessaly." At that, they both fell silent and stared at her. Her mother had one inquisitive eyebrow raised, but her father's mouth was opened and his eyes wide. Gabrielle hastened to explain, "On her death, an Amazon princess gave me her rite of caste."
Gabrielle's mother interceded. "The rite of caste is how Amazon nobility pass their rank on at death. It's an ancient custom, Husband, and a considerable honor." Her eyes twinkled as she added, "You'd know that if you had listened to the stories when they were small."
He grumbled, "Humph." After a moment's silence, he muttered, "So how did you come by this, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle warmed to the opportunity to tell a story, thinking that it would smooth the strained conversation. She unfolded the story to her parents, her mother listening with rapt attention, her father considering her with a half-disbelieving ear. When she finished, she added, "So they took me in, taught me to fight with a staff, and allowed me to join them in the study of their heritage and customs. I carry the title 'Amazon' with great pride, Father."
He grunted, then scratched his chin. "I've seen some Amazons. They come to the market occasionally to trade. Fierce-looking women, they are. Live in the forests, far to the north of here." He thought, then gave them a grudging compliment. "Always bring good furs. They seem to be a fair bunch in their trading. One of them took the prize in the archery contest this year. I've never seen such skill with a bow." He gazed at his daughter across the table. "Amazon princess, huh?" Gabrielle nodded. "Well, then. Guess you've done good, after all."
Gabrielle beamed. Her mother breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Why don't you join Gabrielle and me by the fire? I'll pour some wine and she can tell us some of her stories."
Her father rose from the table. "Still got some work to do. You two can gossip all you want." He clumped toward the door, then turned around and looked back at the two women. "Glad to have you home, Gabrielle." Without waiting for a reply, he walked out the door.
Gabrielle sighed as she helped her mother clear the dishes. "Well, it's a start, anyway."
Her mother hugged her close. "One thing at a time, dear. We'll work on him. He'll come around eventually."
"I wonder if he'll ever change his mind about Xena. It really hurts me that she's so unwelcome here."
Her mother stopped puttering in the kitchen and looked at Gabrielle. "You and Xena are really in love, aren't you?"
Gabrielle smiled wistfully. "Yes, Mother. We are. I know that it's hard for you to understand, but..."
The older woman drew Gabrielle close to her and kissed her on the forehead. "No, Gab. It's not hard for me at all." She smiled down at the blonde head in front of her. "Now let's heat some wine and put a log on the fire. I can't wait to hear of your adventures."
The dusk had deepened into night, and Xena's campfire lent a flickering glow to her sword's blade as she rasped her sharpening stone over it. The repetitive act seemed to sooth her as she sat near the fire, her back leaning against the remains of an old house wall. Although she did not lift her head and study the darkness around her, she could hear the distant gurgling of the nearby stream, the insect and animal noises in the woods and a set of footsteps making their way toward the campsite. As the footsteps neared, she heard a delightfully familiar voice call out.
"Here, Gab. Follow the fire's light."
Gabrielle wandered into the circle of light, her staff in hand, her bedroll and bag over her shoulder. Xena looked up and smiled, then raised an eyebrow in exclamation. She noted, "What? No warm, soft bed at your father's house for you tonight?"
Gabrielle placed her bedroll and bag near the fire, then dropped to her knees next to Xena. "I can't sleep without you anymore."
Xena regarded her with blue eyes which twinkled in the fire's glow, then replied softly, "I know what you mean, little bard."
"I brought you some dinner, love. Thought you might like some of my mother's bread." She reached into her bag and produced a hunk of fresh bread, holding it out toward the warrior.
Xena tore off a piece and chewed thoughtfully as she asked, "So, what's up for tomorrow?"
"I'm going to visit Lila. Want to come along?"
"What? She's not here? Where is she?"
Gabrielle smiled. "It seems that quite a lot has changed since I was last here."
Lila noted the morning sun streaming through the slats in the window's shutters and rose to open the window to the light of a new day. She latched back the shutters, then paused as she looked down from her room and studied the people at work in the courtyard of the governor's house. The usual buzz of activity was present, servants trudging about their daily business of household chores and a small cluster of children playing in one corner of the courtyard. She considered the scene for a moment, then thought, Once, I was among them. Now, I'm suddenly elevated above them. I still can't believe that this happened to me. It just seems a dream, all of this. How did I get so lucky?
She watched a gate in the side of the courtyard swing open. A mule-drawn cart entered, loaded with fresh produce and large clay pots of wine. She recognized the driver, an old man who had given long service to the governor's house, and waved a pleasant greeting to him. Just as she was about to turn from the window, she looked again and noticed a figure perched on the back of the wagon. Her heart thrilled with wonderful disbelief and she squealed with delight, stepping out onto the balcony above the courtyard and shouting, "Gabrielle! Up here!"
Gabrielle turned at her shouted name and scanned the windows of the sprawling, spacious house, her face a picture of muddled confusion until she caught sight of her sister. She bounded from the wagon's back, waved enthusiastically, and returned the greeting. "Lila!"
"What are you doing here?"
Gabrielle's face portrayed a slight hurt at the question. "I came to see you, Lila."
Lila waved a hand. "Meet me at the door. No, that one, down there. I'll be there in a moment." At her sister's understanding nod, she swept into the room, donned her sandals and wrapped a shawl about her shoulders. With a quick glance into the burnished bronze mirror to assure herself that all was in order about her, she hurried into the hallway, descended the stairs and sought out the servant's door, meeting Gabrielle at the steps and giving her a resounding hug and a kiss on her cheek. "Gabrielle, I thought you'd forgotten about me. It's so good to see you again." She held her sister at arm's length and added, "You look--different."
Gabrielle studied her sister for a moment, then replied, "You, too. I have a feeling that we've got a lot to talk about."
"Yes, come to my room. Follow me." She took Gabrielle by the hand and led her in through the door. In a few moments, they had ascended the interior stairs and found themselves in Lila's room.
Gabrielle looked around the room and noted the quality of the furnishings, the luxurious bed, and the table with the mirror standing in its place. "Lila, you're doing quite well here. Are all the governor's servants so well cared for?"
Lila smiled indulgently as she poured out two mugs of hot tea. Handing Gabrielle one, she motioned to the table. "Sit down, Gab. I've got an incredible story to tell you. You'll drop your teeth when you hear this."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow inquisitively, glancing over Lila's form. Her floor-length tunic was of fine material and the sandals which she kicked off under the table displayed exquisite craftsmanship. A gold band adorned her left arm, halfway between her elbow and shoulder. What Gabrielle wondered most at, however, was the light coloring of make-up which adorned her sister's eyes. Lila seemed to her much older than when they had last seen each other, not at all like the peasant girl which she had known for her whole life. Gabrielle leaned her staff against the wall, then sat at the table and sipped at her tea as she questioned Lila. "So, tell me all about this job of yours. It must pay quite well. You're wearing fine cloth and gold."
Lila gestured with a hand as she spoke excitedly. "Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about." She paused, then asked, "Have you visited Mother and Father?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes. I arrived yesterday. They told me that you were here."
"Well, I took a job here as a servant. Part of my duties were to attend the meals and such, and I worked hard at it. I actually got to meet the governor. Oh, Gabrielle, he's handsome and sophisticated, not at all dull like farmer boys." Gabrielle said nothing, just listening and sipping at her tea while Lila chattered. "Anyway, he's a charming man." She leaned forward, adding, "And not married. Well, he's taken quite a shine to me, Gab. Imagine that, me! It wasn't long before he began showing favor to me, then paying a lot of attention to me." She paused, then confided, "He began courting me."
Gabrielle's tea mug hit the table with a thump. "What?"
"Oh, it was so thrilling. He brought me flowers and shared poetry with me. We walked in the gardens and talked. He made me feel so beautiful, the way he treated me. I've never been treated that way, ever before." She giggled, then added, "Imagine that. Little old me, your plain-as-dirt sister Lila, being courted by the governor."
"I can understand that, Lil. You're a pretty girl, and very clever. You always were." Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. "So what happened then?" Silently, she thought, I think that I'm beginning to get the picture here. "Am I going to like this, Lila?"
"Oh, sure you are. Anyway, we fell in love. It's wonderful, Gab. It's everything I imagined that it would be. He's wonderful to me, and I find myself devoted to him. It's a magnificent feeling. I never knew that life could be like this. I think that the gods have really smiled on me."
Gabrielle felt a thread of fear wind itself up her spine as she studied her sister. Uh, oh. Usually, when the gods smile upon you, it's just before they... "And this governor, he loves you?"
Gabrielle appeared puzzled. "Huh?"
"Clemnos. That's his name, silly. Of course he does. He says so, all the time." Lila gazed at Gabrielle, then her expression grew worried. "What's the matter, Gab? I thought that you would be happy for me."
Gabrielle sat speechless for a moment. Something nagged at her, a feeling that all wasn't quite as it seemed, but she couldn't quite place the fear. "Of course, Lila. Excuse me, but it's just that I'm in a state of shock over this. I had no idea."
"So anyway, he relieved me of my servant's duties. I live here now."
Gabrielle studied her sister as she finished her tea. "Mother and Father don't know about this, do they?"
Lila looked down at the table and her tea mug as she confessed, "No. You know how old-fashioned Father is. I didn't want to, er, upset him. I'll tell them just as soon as Clemnos proposes marriage."
"He hasn't yet?"
She shrugged. "There's some difficulty with his relatives over this. I'm from a peasant family, after all. They want someone more, um, well-born for him." At Gabrielle's expression, she hastened to add, "Oh, he says that they'll come around in time. In the meantime, we'll just have to make do with the present situation."
The present situation? I think that I understand now. Gabrielle sighed, then regarded her sister with sad eyes as she spoke. "Lila, you're his mistress, aren't you?"
Lila grew slightly defensive. "You make it sound like a bad thing, Gab. It's not sordid. It's not like I'm sharing his bed for money. I'm not a prostitute. We're in love. That makes all the difference, doesn't it? I mean, what's a formal marriage contract if we're in love? Anyway, that's why I can't tell Father and Mother yet. Please don't tell them, Gab."
Gabrielle smiled painfully, then reached out and placed a hand over Lila's. "I won't." She fixed Lila with a serious look and cautioned, "You just be careful. Somehow, I have a bad feeling about this."
Lila's eyes betrayed hurt. "Gab, I thought you'd be happier for me. Please don't rain on my parade."
Gabrielle attempted to lighten her mood. "Sorry, Sis. I've just always been very protective of you, you know that. I don't want to see you get hurt."
"How can that happen, Gab? Clemnos loves me, and I love him. Didn't you once tell me that love is the most powerful force in the world? Oh, I believe it now. I didn't understand what you were trying to tell me until I fell in love myself."
"I know a few things about love and about the characters of powerful men. Both often prove ruthless. That's why I'm scared for you, Lila."
Lila was skeptical. "Oh? You and your Xena are so much better? You've bonded souls with an ex-warlord, for the gods' sakes. Father threw her out of the house when he found out that you two were lovers. It's okay for my big sister to love an ex-warlord, but not for me to love the governor of Potidaea?"
Gabrielle spoke carefully. "No, I'm not saying that. Look, let's not argue, okay? Just let your big sister feel protective of you if she wants. Deal?" As she awaited Lila's reply, she added, "I love you, Lil. You're my sister. I just want you to be happy."
Lila's expression softened. "And I am, Gab. Why won't you believe me?"
Gabrielle smiled sadly. "I do, Sis. Forgive me if I seem cautious. I've just seen too much of the world, I guess. I do believe you, and I'm happy for you."
Lila rose. "I'm so glad to hear that, Gab. For a moment, I thought that you weren't. Now, why don't you let me show you around?"
Xena entered the tavern, ordered a cup of wine from the proprietor, and plopped a coin down on the worn wooden counter. As she sipped it, she thought, Hope that Gab's reunion with her sister is going well. She was disappointed when I didn't go, but Lila doesn't care for me much. She snorted softly, then continued her ruminations. Can't say that I blame her. Gab left her family to be with me. Me, of all people. I'm not a great catch. If I were Lila, I suppose that I wouldn't like me much, either.
A voice roused her from her doldrums. "Well, Xena. Long time, no see. How's the warlord business these days?"
Xena glanced up to look into the face of a soldier in the uniform of the governor's personal guard. She squinted, then smiled sardonically as she placed the face. "Perodius. Been a long time." She extended a hand, and the man grasped it. "I'm not in that line of work anymore."
The man leaned against the counter next to her. "So I hear. Had a change of heart, Xena? That doesn't often happen to warlords."
"Tell me about it. Buy you a drink?"
The man's expression broadened into a grin. "Don't mind if you do." She motioned to the proprietor, then toward Perodius, and another cup of wine was placed down on the counter. Xena dropped another coin beside the first one, then studied the man next to her.
"So what are you up to these days? Gone honest?"
"I'm an officer in the governor's personal guard. Not bad for an ex-warlord's lieutenant, eh?"
Xena smiled. "Not bad." She thought for a moment, then asked, "So what's it like, working for the governor?"
He shrugged as he lifted his cup. "It'll do. Mostly ceremonial stuff, and protecting the household and the servant staff. Occasionally, we have a scrape, but not much to speak of."
"Oh? Tell me, what's he like? This governor, I mean."
Perodius laughed. "Oh, Clemnos? He's a wily one, that rascal. Smooth, cultured, smart. A real politician." He drank from his cup, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Not like you were." At Xena's raised eyebrow, he hastened to explain himself. "Oh, I just mean that you were always straightforward, blunt. A fellow always knew where he stood with you. No pretense. I admired that."
Xena relaxed. "Thanks." After a moment's consideration, she asked, "And this one's not?"
"Nope. He's devious. Watch your back around him."
"Yeah? Tell me more."
"He's clever, that one. He can charm the snakes off of Medusa's head, then turn around and stab her in the back." The man chuckled, then added, "He's sure got a way with the ladies, too."
"Yeah. Woos them like there's no tomorrow. Hades, he's just acquired a new mistress, couple of months back. Nice girl, too. Farmer's daughter from around here. That's unusual for him. Mostly, he goes for the more, ah, experienced types, usually expensive paramours purchased from abroad."
Xena stiffened. "This new mistress. She's got a name?"
"Yeah. Lila, I think it is." The man squinted in thought, then added, "Yeah, that's it." He sipped at his wine, then spoke. "She seems a sweet kid. I'm sorry for her."
Xena leaned in closer, keeping her voice low. "What do you mean by that?"
"Well, like I said, he goes through mistresses like some guys change their socks. Keeps them until he tires of them, then they disappear and he acquires a new one."
Xena felt a cold dread surround her. "What happens to the old ones?"
The man waved a finger in the air as he spoke. "That's the puzzle. Don't know. They just disappear." He fixed Xena with a grave expression, then added, "I don't think that I want to know."
"So what keeps you there?"
"He pays well. Life is hard in Potidaea, these days. Taxes are heavy. I've got a family to feed now." He shrugged. "You know how it is."
Xena looked down at her wine cup. "Yeah. I know how it is." Damn it, Lila's in big trouble. She's in way over her naive little head with this guy. Maybe I need to get into that house and see for myself what goes on. She looked back at Perodius. "So, this governor. Is he in need of another sword?"
"You for hire? Hades, you could become Master of the Sword in no time."
"That's the head of the governor's personal guard. Best sword in the bunch, but you could take him with your eyes shut. You'd be a shoo-in for the job." He drained his cup, then extended his hand to Xena. "Got to get going. Good to see you again, Xena."
"Take care, Perodius. Be seeing you around." She watched the man depart, then turned her thoughts inward. Gabrielle's going to freak when she hears about this. I've got to tell her, though. She's got a right to know. Xena finished her wine, then walked out into the street. Lila's not going to disappear, though, not if Gabrielle and I have anything to say about it.
The campfire's light flickered brightly as Gabrielle paced back and forth, at a loss for words. She sputtered and mumbled, then stopped and faced Xena. "You can't be serious."
"I'm just telling you what I heard, Gab. Don't blame me for it." Xena placed her sword and sharpening stone aside. "You said yourself that something didn't seem right about the whole thing."
"I thought that it was just my protective instinct talking. She seems so much in love, Xena. I really want to believe her. I really want to."
"She is in love, I'm sure. I just wonder if he is."
Gabrielle was aghast. "Then you think that he's just using her? That one day, she'll disappear like those others?"
Xena nodded. "I do."
Gabrielle sat down next to Xena and placed her face in her hands, leaning forward. "What are we going to do?"
"I really don't know."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "What do you mean, you don't know? You always have a plan cooking in that mind of yours. You don't have one now?" At Xena's silence, Gabrielle rose and picked up her staff. "Well, if you aren't going to do anything, then I will."
Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle's leg. "Where are you going?"
Gabrielle stared down at Xena. Her countenance, sharpened by the flickering fire, seemed stormy. "I'm going to get her out of there."
"She won't go."
"Then I'll hog-tie her and drag her out of there."
"She'll hate you forever for it, and she'll go right back to him."
"I don't care, Xena."
"Yes, you do. Look, sit down and we'll think of something together." Gabrielle said nothing, just stared at Xena. "Come on, now. We need a plan." Xena kept her hand on Gabrielle's leg and looked up into stormy hazel eyes. In those eyes, she could see that Gabrielle knew that she was right. She could also see that Gabrielle was about to act very rashly. "Lie down with me, and we'll talk about it. Please?" After a second, she whispered, "I need to feel your touch, Gab. I've missed you, these last two days."
Gabrielle softened at the pleading tone in her lover's voice. That pleading quality only happened around her, and she knew it. It was one of the things which she loved so much about Xena, that needy, childlike part of the warrior which no one saw but her. She relented, placed her staff on the ground, and sat down next to Xena, leaning in against her and snuggling into the familiar feel of leather and the muscular, taught body. She wrapped her arms about Xena's waist and spoke softly. "What are we going to do, love?"
Xena spoke slowly, quietly, thinking aloud as she held Gabrielle tightly and stared into the fire. "We need to get into that house. We can find out what happened to those other girls and be close enough to protect Lila when the time comes."
"You mean, 'if the time comes'?"
Xena agreed. "Yeah. That's what I mean."
After a long silence, Xena felt Gabrielle's head nod and her voice whisper, "Seems logical. So, how do we do that?" Her head rose and she looked into Xena's face. "I know. I could take a job there."
Xena chuckled. "You're close, but I had a slightly different idea."
The little blonde raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Oh?"
"Yeah. I take a job there."
"You? Yeah, right. Xena, Warrior-Princess, a servant?"
"Nope. Master of the Sword."
"But I thought that you said that the governor already had someone in that position."
Xena smiled. "Oh, I have a feeling that the job will come open tomorrow."
Gabrielle snuggled her head back down into Xena's arms and thought, then spoke, her voice muffled by Xena's chest. "I think we have a plan, love."
Xena nodded as she yawned. "Yup. I think that we do."
Clemnos, governor of Potidaea, walked across the floor of the main hall and lifted his wine cup as he dictated to his scribe. The little man scribbled as the governor spoke, occasionally pausing to dip his quill's point into the inkwell, then return to his writing. As Clemnos finished the letter, he glanced to one side and noticed a slender figure standing beside the pillars which lined the edges of the room. The figure waved shyly, and Clemnos smiled a return greeting, then turned back to the scribe. "Take that to the courier today, will you?" The man nodded and rose to leave the room. The governor watched him go, then placed his cup down and strode to the pillars, sweeping Lila into his arms. "Good morning, beautiful. I trust that you slept well?"
She placed a kiss on his lips, then blushed slightly as she replied, "Well, you toss and turn in your sleep."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Did I awaken you last night?"
"It's nothing, Clemnos. I guess I'm still unused to sleeping with a lover."
He laughed, then stroked her cheek with his fingers. "You should be used to it. After all, it's been a few months now."
"Well, we don't sleep together every night." She looked up at him. "Will we, when we're married?"
His eyes widened at the question, and then he regained his composure and agreed, "Of course, Lila. Of course. We just don't now because I know that you need your rest occasionally. Besides, separate rooms is a luxury that the wealthy enjoy."
"I wouldn't know about that. I'm just a farm girl, remember?"
"My dear, you're anything but that. You're the governor's lady now. Enjoy the privilege which comes with that. I want to spoil you."
"Always thinking of me?"
The squeak of the door and the sound of footsteps interrupted the conversation. Clemnos looked over his shoulder to see a clerk enter the hall. "Sir, pardon me for interrupting, but there's someone here to see you."
"A warrior and a bard."
Clemnos felt Lila gasp. He looked down at her face, noting the reaction and her wide eyes, and smiled slyly. He released Lila and turned toward the clerk. "This should be interesting. I've been bored lately. Show them in." The clerk nodded and left. Clemnos looked back toward Lila. "You look slightly pale. Acquaintances of yours?"
"I don't think that you know them."
"Oh, I will shortly." He reached out and took her hand in his, kissing her knuckles lightly. "Back to work. I'll see you for the evening meal? I'll need you by my side, of course. Pomp and ceremony, you know."
"Of course. I'll miss you until then. Will you come and see me later?"
"If I can. Of course, the press of duties... Excuse me, won't you?"
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and he turned away and strode toward the center of the hall, leaving Lila in the shadows of the pillars. When she glimpsed the tall warrior and the petite bard enter the hall, she stepped backward into the shelter of a pillar, intent on listening.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the hall, enigmatic expressions on their faces, contemplating their first sight of the governor of Potidaea. He was of moderate height and build, extremely handsome, and wore his authority about him with an easy air. His manner was smooth and gracious, his smile charming. Xena and Gabrielle halted, cast a glance at each other, and then gave a deferential, slight bow toward the official. He returned the greeting with a pleasant voice. "I am Governor Clemnos. How can I be of service to you two today?"
Gabrielle spoke for them both. "I am Gabrielle of Potidaea, and this is my dear friend and companion, Xena. We've come to you because Xena thinks that she can be of service to you."
"Oh?" Clemnos closed the distance between them and extended a hand. "Xena, the one they call 'Warrior-Princess'?"
Xena spoke as she shook his hand. "I have been called that."
His eyes scanned her quickly, taking her in from head to foot. Looking up at her, he said, "You are as impressive in person as your reputation is in legend. Honored." He released her hand and considered Gabrielle. "And you must be the bard?"
Gabrielle leaned on her staff as she chuckled, then replied, "And I have been called that." She paused for a second, then added, "Among other things."
Clemnos smiled. "A sense of humor. Wonderful. That quality seems lacking around here lately. May I offer you wine?"
Xena replied, "No, thank you. We won't be long."
He seated himself, throwing one booted leg over the arm of his wooden chair. "Then what can I do for you?"
Xena relaxed, clasped her hands behind her back, and fixed him firmly with her intense blue eyes. "I think it's a matter of what I can do for you, Governor Clemnos."
Seeing his curiosity piqued, she continued, "I think that you have need of a Master of the Sword."
He swept out a hand as he replied, "But I already have one."
Xena smiled coldly, a smile which did not extend to her eyes. "Not anymore, you don't. I defeated him on your practice field this morning." Watching the governor's eyebrows rise in silent exclamation, she continued, "He's even now at the healer's, getting his cuts and bruises tended. He'll be out of action for some time, I'm afraid."
Clemnos regarded her with caution, then called to his clerk. The man entered, and the governor spoke to him across the room. "Who is the next ranking officer of my guard after the Master of the Sword?"
"Is he hereabouts?"
"Just outside, sir."
"Send him in, will you?" The clerk nodded and left. The room's occupants quietly regarded each other, not saying anything, until Perodius entered and saluted. Clemnos asked, "Where is my Master of the Sword?"
Perodius replied, "At the healer's, sir. He took quite a beating this morning."
Clemnos' face reddened slightly. "And just who gave him that beating?"
Perodius pointed at Xena. "She did, sir."
"I see." He regarded Xena again, then turned his attention to Perodius. "You're in temporary command until I select a new Master of the Sword. That will be all, thank you." The guard's officer nodded and left the room. Clemnos studied the two women before him, his eyes roving from one face to the next, then he spoke. "So, Xena. What's your game?"
"I'm in need of money. I'm broke. You're in need of a new Master of the Sword, it would seem. I think that we can come to an agreement."
Clemnos leaned back in his chair, a hand covering the ever-widening smile which creased his face. "Perhaps we can. Tell me, can you teach my men to fight like that?"
"They'll be better fighters when I leave than they are today, I'll guarantee you that much."
The governor nodded. "And how long do you plan on staying?"
"Just long enough to earn some money and let your current Master heal. Then, the job can be his again."
Gabrielle added, "It'll be a while, I'm afraid. I think that Xena broke his arm."
Xena looked down at Gabrielle. "You forgot about the nose."
Gabrielle coughed as she leaned upon her staff. "Oh, right. Sorry."
Clemnos nodded slowly as he rubbed his chin and considered the offer. Finally, he agreed, "You've got the job, Xena. You are now my Master of the Sword. I'll pay you fifty dinars a month."
Gabrielle countered, "Make it seventy and throw in a room, and you've got us." She glanced at Xena and finished, "With a bath, please. She's been camping out lately."
Clemnos noted Xena's nonplused response to Gabrielle's joke and roared in laughter. "All right, you've got it." He turned his attention to Gabrielle and spoke. "But what about you? I fear that I have no need of a bard. Whatever shall I do with you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle noted the way that his eyes narrowed as they lingered on her muscular, tanned legs and traveled slowly up her body as he regarded her, and she jerked a thumb toward Xena. "We're one, Xena and I. We live our lives together. Where one goes, the other follows." To emphasize the point, Gabrielle reached out and curled a hand around Xena's arm, leaning against her. "I am with Xena, and she is with me. We are inseparable, in that respect especially."
For the second time that morning, Clemnos' eyebrows shot up almost to his hairline in silent exclamation. He finally nodded, agreeing, "I think I understand you, Gabrielle."
Xena growled, "Good."
Gabrielle's eyes flickered over to Xena's face and noticed her 'intimidating' expression begin to take form. She quickly added, "Besides, it will allow me some time to visit with my sister."
Clemnos looked puzzled. "Your sister?"
"Why, yes. She, ah, works and resides here in the governor's house." Gabrielle's gaze was unflinching. "Lila. I believe that you might know her."
Clemnos' complexion paled slightly. "Your sister is Lila?"
"Oh, yes." Gabrielle smiled, her voice becoming bright and excited as she spoke of her sister. "My younger sister. She's very dear to me, you know. It's her first time away from home, and I'm worried for her. Xena thinks I'm being foolish, though. After all, she's safe here in the governor's house. What could possibly happen to her here?"
Clemnos regained his composure, rising from his chair and smiling. "What, indeed? I assure you that my entire household is well-guarded. Safest place in town, hey?" He gestured toward Xena and added, "Especially after my new Master of the Sword finishes educating the governor's guard in the finer points of combat." He turned and extended a hand to Xena. "So, do we have a deal, Warrior-Princess?"
Xena shook his hand and smiled. "We do."
Clemnos beamed, "Good. Both of you, stay here at the governor's house. I'll have my staff see to your room."
Xena countered, "Gabrielle can settle into our room. I'd like to start instruction, if you don't mind."
"Of course. Get with Perodius. He'll see to it."
As the two women left the hall, speaking quietly between themselves, Clemnos watched them depart and then turned to lift his wine cup. He smiled to himself as his thoughts echoed through his mind. Interesting. Most delightfully interesting. This business with Lila complicates my plans, though. Well, that's good. I've been too bored lately. The possibilities for intrigue here are endless. Just what is your game, Xena, what is it really? I will find out. He turned and gazed out at the gardens in the distance. And if I work it right, I could get some real silver out of this. That slave-trader will pay handsomely for three, instead of just one. Go ahead and train my guard, Xena, and when they become good enough, they'll prove to be your undoing. Then, you and your bard will find yourselves chained in the hold of his ship along with sweet, trusting Lila.
The next week found Xena and Gabrielle settling into their new routine at the governor's house, Xena exercising and instructing the guard and Gabrielle dividing her time between visiting her parents, spending time with Lila, and tending Xena's sore muscles in the afternoon after the warrior performed her duties as Master of the Sword. She found the early evenings particularly fascinating, though, as they were often invited to dine with the governor at his dinners and rub elbows with the influential citizens of Potidaea or visiting dignitaries.
Xena found the dinners a chore, as she was not one to spend her time in the idle chatter of politicians and merchants, but Gabrielle watched Lila with admiration as she saw her sister practice newly-learned social graces and charm the visitors with her pleasant manner. She also noted the way that Lila and Clemnos responded to each other at these public affairs, and grew ever more convinced that they, truly, were in love. He seemed always to treat her with great courtesy and respect, and she, for her part, doted on the young governor. Once, after dinner, she commented on this to Xena as they walked, hand in hand, in the gardens. Xena's response was guarded.
"I still don't trust him, Gab. I've just got a gut feeling that something's not right here."
"You're really a hard sell, aren't you? I'm beginning to think that I've been wrong about this whole thing, that the rumors about Clemnos' other mistresses disappearing is just hokum."
Xena stopped and turned Gabrielle to face her, placing her hands on the bard's shoulders and fixing her with a concerned expression. "I hope that I'm wrong, too, and that Lila's safe with him. Believe me, I'd love nothing more than to have to admit that to you. I just don't think that I am, though."
"I know. I do trust your instincts, love. They've been right before when I've been wrong." She placed a hand on Xena's abdomen, tracing the patterns on her leather tunic. "So, how will we decide when we're wrong? When should we butt out of Lila's life?"
"Let some more time pass. Look, if we're not convinced by the time that the previous Master heals and comes back, then we'll let it alone and leave. Deal?"
Gabrielle nodded, keeping her eyes on her finger tracing the ornate metal on Xena's tunic. "Deal."
Xena nodded in agreement and looped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. They turned and strolled leisurely back through the garden, entering the gate and seeking their room.
On a balcony overlooking the garden, Lila sat stiffly, her breath held as she listened to the conversation in the garden just below her. When she saw Xena and Gabrielle leave the garden, she exhaled slowly as her mind whirled in thought. After a time, she rose and found her way through the halls to the door of the room which Xena and Gabrielle shared. At her knock, the door squeaked open and Gabrielle peered out. "Lila! Come in."
Lila hesitated, then glanced through the door. "Um, can we talk?"
Gabrielle saw the solemn expression on her sister's face and nodded, concerned. "Sure. Come in."
"I mean privately."
Gabrielle replied, "Xena's bathing. You can talk in front of her, though."
"No, come to my room." When Gabrielle hesitated, she urged, "Please, Gab?"
"Okay." Gabrielle turned her head and spoke. "Xena, I'll be in Lila's room for a bit." She slipped out into the hall, closing the door behind her, and wordlessly, they trekked the short distance down the corridor to Lila's room. After they entered, Lila shut the door behind them and turned to face Gabrielle, who tilted her head in question and asked, "What's up, Sis? You look upset."
Lila's dark eyes seemed to burn as she fixed Gabrielle with a hard look. "Just what are you two doing here, really? You didn't come to earn money, did you? Did you come to spy on me?"
Gabrielle was taken aback. "Lila, we were worried about you. We just..."
"You just what?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath, then decided to plunge ahead. "We just wanted to be near you in case...well, it's something that Xena found out."
Lila wore a stormy expression. "What?"
"What, Gab? What?" She took a step toward Gabrielle. Their faces drew near as Gabrielle blurted out the answer.
"I wanted to protect you. I don't want you to disappear like Clemnos' other mistresses have."
Lila's mouth fell open, and she stared hard at Gabrielle. "Just what are you talking about?"
Gabrielle tried to speak soothingly. She held her hands in front of her and asked, "Lila, do you think that you're the first mistress he's had?"
Lila's expression became stormy again. "I know that I'm not. There's been one or two before me. So he's more experienced than I am. What's that got to do with it?"
"One or two? From what I'm told, there's been a flock of them."
"Are you believing gossip-mongers now?"
"What happened to the previous ones, Lila?"
"I don't know, Gab. They're gone. It didn't work out or something, and frankly, I'm glad."
Gabrielle persisted. "Where's the last one? What happened to her, Lila?"
Lila threw her hands into the air, gesturing as her voice rose. "I don't know. I saw her once or twice when I was first here, but she left suddenly."
Gabrielle placed a hand on Lila's arm. "Where did she go? When? Wasn't it when he started paying attention to you?"
"So he didn't love her. He loves me instead. I can understand that, Gab. I know that feeling, believe me."
Gabrielle gestured as she spoke, a frantic whisper. "Look, Lila, I pray to all the gods I know that we're wrong, but I'm not convinced. Where did she go, Lil? Where? Because when he tires of you, the same thing's going to happen to you that happened to her. I pray that we're wrong, but..." Lila stepped away from her sister, her face a picture of shock. She said nothing, just slowly shook her head and kept her eyes on Gabrielle as she pleaded, "Do you see now? Can you understand why we're so worried about your safety?"
"I know what this is, Gab. You're jealous of me."
Gabrielle started. "What?"
"Yeah, that's it. My big sister, jealous of little nobody me."
Lila tapped her chest with a finger. "Is it? Look at me. I've gotten away from that farm in a bigger way than you ever could. I've landed a rich man, a powerful man, a handsome man. He loves me. He wants to marry me. I've made it. You, you're still wandering the countryside with that loser warlord of yours, scraping an existence out of beating up bad guys and telling stories for a few lousy coins. Do you call that a life? That's what you've got, Gab. A loser. A washed-up warlord. She'll never give you what I'll have, and you know it. She'll never give you a comfortable home. She'll never give you children, either. Some day, you'll end up back on that farm and scratching in the dirt like poor Father does, getting old before your time. Deep down, you know it and you're jealous of me."
Gabrielle stared into her sister's angry features. Never before had she been spoken to with such harsh words by the sister she loved so deeply. The scene felt unreal to her, as a bad dream from which she would shortly awaken and breathe a sigh of relief, but this was no dream. It was real. She felt the tears well up in her eyes and begin to run down her cheeks. She tried to speak, but could only squeak, "Lila, that's not true. I love you. We only want to protect you."
Lila was unrelenting. "I love you too, Gab, but right now I think that you're so wrong about everything. You're wrong about Clemnos. Yes, he's had a past. Yes, he has a darkness, but he's different now. You're just so wrong about him. He won't hurt me. He loves me, and I love him." After a moment of harsh silence, Lila continued, "And you're wrong about Xena, too."
Gabrielle sniffed and wiped the tears from her cheek. "What do you mean?"
"Just how well do you know Xena, really?"
"I know her better than anyone, Lil. We're..."
Lila waved a hand. "Yeah, I know. Soul-mates. Your stories are full of it. Well, Sis, you'd better march in there and ask your soul-mate what she's really doing here. Go on, ask her."
"She's here because I asked her to be here, to help me watch over your safety."
"No." Lila shook her head sadly. "No, she's not."
Gabrielle's voice was a whisper. "What do you mean?"
"She's here because she sees a chance to take control of Potidaea from Clemnos. She wants to seize his power. That's what Clemnos suspects, and I think so, too."
Gabrielle heard her voice squeak, "Stop it, Lila. Now you're being ridiculous."
Lila stepped forward and grasped Gabrielle's shoulders with her hands. "Am I? Wasn't she once drenched in power? Power that her sword gave her? Power that her hold over her soldiers gave her? The Destroyer of Nations, they called her. Don't you think that she misses that? And what would give her that power again quicker than to take control of Clemnos' personal guard? With that, she could seize Potidaea. And with Potidaea as a base, she could conquer Macedonia."
Gabrielle shook her head as the tears spilled down her face. "But she's not like that anymore. She doesn't care about power. She would never do that."
Lila gazed sadly at her sister. "Wouldn't she? Once a warlord, always a warlord, Father always said. And do you know what? He was so right."
The words struck Gabrielle to her soul. She felt her stomach knot as Lila's angry tirade stabbed at her innermost fear, a fear of Xena's buried darkness, a fear that even the transcendent, spiritual power of their love might not be enough to contain the beast forever. It was a fear that she never spoke of, even to herself. Now, in just a few words, Lila had cut her more effectively than a surgeon's knife and laid that fear open to be seen by all. Gabrielle felt her chest tighten at the thought, unwelcome and uninvited, that what Lila had said might actually be true.
"Xena wouldn't do that. She's not that way anymore."
"You just keep believing that, Gabrielle. One day, her darkness will be your agony, your death. You just can't see it because you're so in love with her. And you want to protect me? How I hurt for you, Sister."
Gabrielle sobbed out loud, then fell to her knees as her strength left her legs. She sat, crumpled on the floor, as Lila knelt and held her, sympathetic tears wetting her own face. They crouched that way for some moments, crying together, then Gabrielle looked up at her sister's dark eyes. In them, she could see that they reflected her anguish. Gabrielle whispered, "Oh, Lila. How did we come to this quarrel, you and I?"
Lila sniffed as she quietly replied, "We both fell in love, Gab."
Xena rose from the bath and dried herself, slipping a sleeping-gown over her body. She was about to enter the bed when she heard footsteps which halted just outside the door. They resembled Gabrielle's soft footfalls, but when the door did not open right away, Xena left the bedside and quietly lifted her sword from its scabbard, then padded to the door and placed a hand on the latch. She strained her hearing to listen, and thought that she heard the sound of muffled sniffles from the hallway. A thrill of fear grasped her, and she opened the door. The sight which greeted her gave her a shock.
Gabrielle's face was puffed and her eyes red. She had been crying, and Xena could instantly feel the anguish which radiated from the little blonde. She reached out and pulled Gabrielle into the room, hugging her closely. "Gab, what's the matter? What happened?" No answer was forthcoming from the woman. As Xena held her, she could feel Gabrielle's body stiffen. No arms reached out to return the embrace, but stayed tightly tucked into her sides. Xena repeated the question. "What's the matter, love?" Even as she spoke, she could feel a wall, a distance build itself between them. She placed her sword aside and lifted Gabrielle from her, looking down. "Talk to me."
Gabrielle avoided her gaze, wiping her eyes and whispering, "Yes. We have to talk."
Xena closed the door and gazed down at Gabrielle, feeling a wave of dread wash over her. Her thoughts betrayed the fear she felt. What in the name of all the gods? Something's happened. She's angry with me. How have I failed her? What have I done? Hesitantly, she said, "All right, Gab. Sit, and we'll talk." Gabrielle shuffled over to the table and pulled out a chair, sitting in it and facing Xena. Her posture was stiff, and she folded her hands in her lap as she just gazed at the warrior, not speaking for a moment. Xena studied her face, feeling her fears eat at her with every second of crashing silence which reverberated between her and the woman she so desperately loved, and who was now regarding her through puffy and enigmatic eyes. Oh gods, she's going to leave me. Something's happened, and I've lost her love. As Xena stood uncomfortably in the center of the room, she attempted to draw out Gabrielle's thoughts, not at all sure that she wanted to hear them. "What is it, Gab?"
Gabrielle sighed deeply, sniffed a time or two and said, "I just came from Lila's room."
"We had a terrible row."
Xena's eyes reflected sympathy. "I'm sorry. I know you must be hurting. What...?"
"Please, Xena, don't patronize me."
Xena's mouth dropped open in shock. "I'm not. I..."
Gabrielle fixed her with burning hazel eyes, a look which Xena had seldom seen in the bard. It caused her fear to rise again. Finally, she simply said, "Xena, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want a totally honest answer from you."
The implications of the words struck Xena to her soul. "Have I ever given you any other kind?"
She thought that she could perceive the burning hazel eyes relent just a bit, and even radiate a shadow of warmth as Gabrielle replied, "No. You have not."
Xena swallowed hard, then asked, "What is it, Gabrielle?"
"Are you here to take control of the governor's personal guard and seize his power, Xena? Is that why you're really here?"
Xena was struck dumb by the question. She blinked disbelievingly a couple of times, staring at the solemn little blonde in front of her, then choked out an answer. "Is that what you think?"
"Just answer the question, Xena. Tell me the truth, as you always have before."
"Where in Hades did you get that idea?"
Gabrielle replied evenly, "Lila thinks that's why you're here. She says that Clemnos suspects it, too. She says that once you gain control of his personal guard, you can seize power from him and take control of Potidaea. With that as a base, you can probably conquer all of Macedonia. Is that what you want, Xena?" The tall warrior stood in the center of the room, speechless. Gabrielle watched her, then persisted, "Answer the question, Xena. Look at me and answer."
Xena felt as if she had been clubbed. The hazel eyes watched her unflinchingly, stripping her of all defense, rendering her seemingly naked in front of the bard. She found that she had no defense, no refuge into which to sink. She felt herself accused of heinous crimes in the court of Gabrielle's mind, and she was already convicted. She could see the distrust in the hazel orbs, feel the doubt which radiated from her lover. It stabbed into the depths of her very soul. How can I answer that? What can I say to convince her that it's untrue? Look at her. She believes it. I can't blame her, either. It seems logical. Once upon a time, it's something that I would have done. Oh, Gabrielle. What can I say to convince you?
"The truth, Xena."
You want the truth? Well, here it is. Xena walked forward, slowly knelt in front of Gabrielle, and placed both hands on her knees. She looked up into the angry hazel eyes and spoke from the essence of her soul as she slowly unfolded her answer. "You want the truth? Then listen to me and heed what I say. Such a thing never crossed my mind, Gab. I am here because you wanted me here. I am here out of love for you and Lila. I have no wish for that which you accuse me of. I left that all behind, long ago. That kind of power is a sham, a vicious, violent journey which has no good end. I know that, now. I learned that very painfully. It cost me my son. It cost me my family's love. It cost me everything that I ever held dear.
"Then, you came into my life. You, Gabrielle, you showed me a power which transcends all that I've ever known. You showed me a love the likes of which I never believed that I was worthy of. I'm still not sure that I'm worthy, but I'm trying to be. The gods know that I'm trying. You showed me the meaning of true nobility, the 'greater good'. And the only reason that I ever believed that I could achieve such nobility is because you believed in me. You. I didn't believe in myself, but you did." Xena blinked back some tears, then resumed her soft confession. "And now you don't, anymore. I can see it in your eyes. You doubt me. Gabrielle, if you don't believe in me, then who will? Your love, your respect is all that I crave. I need that, so desperately, every moment of my life. It is all that keeps me right. If I've lost that, then I will die. Don't lose your faith in me, Gab. Not now, not ever. Please. I swear on my son's grave that what you think is false. I never intended such a thing. Please believe me, Gabrielle."
Xena found that she could utter no more words. She lay her forehead on Gabrielle's knees, her eyes tightly closed, her heart pounding with dread. Never before anyone had she felt so completely vulnerable, so helpless, as she did now before Gabrielle.
She felt gentle hands place themselves on her head and stroke her hair. She felt her face lifted, and her eyes met Gabrielle's. They were very close. She peered into the face, desperately wishing to see a glimmer of the love, the trust, which she had seen there so many times before.
And it was there.
Gabrielle cupped Xena's face in her hands and smiled down wistfully. Then, she leaned forward and kissed the forehead in front of her, beginning a confession of her own. "My love, I have made many mistakes in my life, but the greatest one of all is ever doubting you. I am just so sorry. Please, please forgive me."
Xena reached up and placed her own hands over the ones which held her face. "There's nothing to forgive, Gab. I might have thought the same thing in your place."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. You would have believed in me. I'm sorry that I failed you."
"You didn't. I'm just glad to have you back."
"Part of me doubted you, but another part of me never did. I'm so confused by it all."
"It was your logic, your mind that doubted me. It was your heart that never did."
"You know, you're wise beyond your years. Let's go to bed, love. I'm just so tired, and I need your touch. Will you hold me?"
Xena stood and offered a helping hand to Gabrielle, who rose from her chair. "Are you kidding? I'll never let go."
The members of the governor's personal guard were gathered at the practice field the next morning, awaiting the arrival of their recently-appointed Master of the Sword. They did not have to wait long. Very soon, Xena strode out onto the field. By her side was a slender, fit blonde carrying a long staff. As the newcomer took her place to one side, Xena faced her students, her manner imposing, her appearance intimidating. The guard snapped to attention, and Perodius saluted.
"The guard is assembled and awaits your instruction, Master of the Sword."
"Thank you." Xena took command easily, leading the guard through a series of aggressive postures and drills as Gabrielle watched. She noted the energy with which the soldiers performed their drills and the enthusiasm with which they followed her lead, and thought, No wonder Clemnos thinks she's out for his position. Look at them follow her. She has a gift for leading soldiers. With a slight chill, she observed, She must have been fearsome as a warlord. Thank the gods that she's not that way now.
A barked command from Xena allowed the soldiers to rest, and Gabrielle heard her name called. She looked at Xena, who waved her out onto the field and called, "I need your assistance for the next lesson, Gabrielle."
The bard hefted her staff and strolled out onto the field, facing the soldiers. They regarded her indulgently, smiling and offering a few quiet comments. Gabrielle just smiled and nodded in return. Xena paced back and forth in front of her students and began her lecture.
"Today, you will learn a very important lesson. Watch carefully and listen well, for your lives may depend upon it." With her sword, she pointed at two of the biggest soldiers in the front rank. "You and you. Step forward." The two soldiers complied. Xena regarded them for a moment, then gestured toward Gabrielle with her sword. "In your duty, you will sometimes be required to disarm and arrest a citizen. This can go easily, or it can go hard." She looked at the two soldiers, then pointed at the little bard. "Disarm her and arrest her."
The two soldiers looked Gabrielle over, then grinned at each other. They walked forward together, approaching Gabrielle. When they were about four feet from her, they stopped. One of the soldiers said, "You're under arrest, missy. Surrender your weapon."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and replied, "I don't surrender my staff to anyone."
"Come on, Missy. Let's get this over with." He reached out a hand toward her, and she stepped back, raising her staff into a fighting position. The two soldiers looked at each other, then stepped forward in unison. That was as far as they got. Gabrielle swung hard, clubbing one of them on the side of his head. The man staggered, and his helmet rolled across the grass. Rumbles of laughter sounded from the assembled guards watching the spectacle. The soldier shook his head, then approached Gabrielle again, more warily this time. His comrade began moving around to her side.
Gabrielle attacked the helmetless soldier again, striking several hard blows to his body, then deftly swept his feet out from underneath him. He hit the ground with a thud, grunting as his breath left him. She whirled and faced the second soldier, spinning her staff. He hesitated, then looked over at Xena. The Master of the Sword was watching, her arms folded across her chest, an amused smile on her face. "Your comrade is out of the fight. You're on your own. Disarm her."
The soldier nodded uncertainly, then replied, "Yes, Ma'am." He puffed himself up and walked toward Gabrielle, who was awaiting him. She jabbed him with her staff and doubled him over with a blow to the mid-abdomen. Her next blow caught him squarely on the head, spinning him around, his helmet bouncing across the grass. He staggered, then looked at Gabrielle with disbelieving eyes. The raucous laughter of his comrades caused his face to redden slightly, and he drew his sword.
Xena looked over at her students and simply observed, "Oh, oh. Big mistake. Watch what happens next."
Gabrielle saw the sword unsheathed, and she struck a battle position with her weapon. As the man neared her, Gabrielle swung with all her strength and peppered the man with a stinging series of hits which caused him to raise his arms in a protective stance. He swung with his sword, and Gabrielle parried the swing neatly, then brought one end of her staff down upon his arm, knocking the sword from his hand. The next resounding blow knocked him out. He dropped to the grass like a sack of oats, not moving. As she stood, regarding him curiously, she noted the first man picking himself up off of the ground, and walked over to him. Another rap from her staff drove him right into the dirt, face-first. Then, satisfied that both her opponents were disabled, she stepped back and gave a slight, deferential bow toward Xena.
Roars of laughter and a round of applause rose from the assembled guard. Xena, for her part, simply smiled, then raised her hand to quiet the guard. "The moral of today's lesson is simply this: never underestimate your opponent. Appearances can be quite deceiving." She turned to gaze back at her two fallen men, and noted that Gabrielle had picked up the water bucket and poured it over the unconscious man. He sputtered, then roused himself, sitting up on the grass with a slightly disoriented countenance. As his comrade helped him up and they staggered back into formation, several of their fellow guards laughed and clapped them on the back. Xena waited for the good-natured ribbing to quiet, then faced the two defeated guards. "Congratulations. You've just met an Amazon."
Murmurs of respectful comment arose from the ranks, which Xena quieted with a gesture. "They visit our city occasionally to trade at the market. When you meet them, you must never attempt to disarm them. Most Amazons train from the age of eight with weapons. The only way to disarm them is to kill them, and as you can see, that can be quite difficult. They are some of the finest fighters in the world."
A guard stepped forward. "Master of the Sword?"
"How are they to be handled, then?"
"Like this." She motioned to Gabrielle, who walked over, staff in hand, to face Xena. "Ma'am, no weapons are allowed in the governor's house or on his grounds."
Gabrielle replied, "I have business here, but I will not surrender my weapon."
Xena regarded her for a moment, then asked, "Are you Amazon?"
Gabrielle stood to her full height and replied, "Yes. I am a princess of the tribes of Thessaly."
"Then you may pass. Keep your weapon." She returned her gaze to her students and finished, "Understood?" Nodding heads indicated that they had taken the lesson to heart, and Xena turned to face the diminutive blonde. "Thank you, Gabrielle." At Gabrielle's smiled reply, she turned to Perodius. "Pair up for instruction. Swords and shields."
On a balcony overlooking the practice field, Clemnos scratched his chin thoughtfully as he watched the drill. Impressive. They're looking better than I've ever seen them. That Xena is remarkable. She's just about got them where I want them. Just in time, too. The slave-trader arrives today.
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice near his elbow. "Clemnos?"
He turned his head to find Lila's dark eyes regarding him. "Yes, my dear?"
"I've missed you lately. You seem preoccupied. Is anything wrong?"
"No, no. I'm just watching Xena drill the guard."
Lila stood next to him, placing a hand on his arm. "I wonder if we haven't misjudged her."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I've been thinking. My sister places great faith in her, and I have faith in my sister. I don't think that she will allow Xena to threaten your place as governor."
"Let us hope not." He studied Lila's earnest expression, and then added, "But you needn't worry about it. She'll soon be gone."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, I just mean that the old Master of the Sword is healing well. He's just about ready to return to his duties. That's all."
Lila seemed pensive. "Oh."
"What's the matter now?"
"When she leaves, my sister leaves, as well."
Clemnos smiled slyly. "Well, I think that the two of you will be spending much more time together than you anticipate. Don't worry."
"How?" Lila's eyes were hopeful.
Clemnos kept a mysterious expression about him as he replied, "Oh, I'm working on it."
"Come on, Xena. We have to be at the dinner tonight."
"I hate those things, Gab."
"I know, but Clemnos has insisted. There's somebody here visiting that he wants us to meet."
"Somebody from Syria. Um, Mertis, I think his name is." Gabrielle saw Xena stiffen noticeably, and asked, "You know him?"
Xena's voice was a low growl. "Oh, yeah. I know him."
"Who is he?"
"Nobody good, I'll tell you that." Xena gazed thoughtfully out the window for a moment, then said, "Look, Gab. I'll be back in a bit. Stay with Lila until I return, and keep your staff by your side."
Gabrielle grew worried. "What's up?"
"I hope nothing, but I fear everything."
Xena sought out Perodius in the main hall and approached him. The officer wore a curious expression as Xena pulled him aside, then looked around to assure herself that no one was within listening distance. In a low voice, she asked, "Is Mertis of Syria to be here tonight?"
The man nodded. "His ship is now at the docks."
"Does he often visit?"
"Yes, regularly. Why?"
"That's what I want to know. Look, think back. This is important. When was the last time that he was here?"
"Oh, perhaps three months ago."
Xena's eyes widened. She looked at Perodius severely, then asked, "About the time that Clemnos' last mistress suddenly 'disappeared' and Lila found his favor?"
Perodius assumed a shocked expression. "Yes. Just then."
"And before that? What about the previous mistress?"
He squinted in thought, then nodded. "The same. You don't think that...?"
"I do. I know Mertis of Syria. He's a slave-trader. His specialty is concubines for wealthy men. Whatever's going to happen to Lila, it will happen tonight, I suspect." She placed a hand on Perodius' shoulder. "Do I have your loyalty? The loyalty of the guard?"
"You know that you do, Xena. The men have great respect for you."
Perodius studied her, then nodded. "You have it, Xena. What do you want us to do?"
"Keep the guard assembled and out of sight this evening. I'll let you know."
She extended her hand to him, and he shook it. "Thank you, old friend."
"For you, Xena, anything."
"This one will be for Lila." With that, she left him and sought her way up to Lila's room.
The dinner was one typical of the governor's house, the long table populated with various officials of the governor's household. At his side, Lila sat, her pretty features augmented by her quiet, unassuming manner and pleasant conversation. Clemnos, as usual, was in his element, his clever speech and smooth manners dominating the table. The new face at the table, however, was a swarthy one, his smile augmenting a shifting eye and devious manner which he had not quite craft enough to hide completely.
During the meal, Clemnos introduced the table to Mertis, his guest from Syria, mentioning various names as he gestured around the table. Xena noted Mertis' gaze linger on Lila as she was introduced, and that subtle act confirmed her worst suspicions. What shocked her more, though, was that Mertis regarded Gabrielle with the same expression. When she perceived that, she shifted her eyes to Clemnos, and saw him trade glances and nods with the Syrian. Oh, oh. This is not good.
Clemnos indicated Xena with a hand and spoke to Mertis. "And this is my new Master of the Sword, Xena."
Xena said nothing, just glanced at Mertis, who studied her for a moment, then replied, "Ah, yes. I believe that we have met before. Tell me, Xena, how is the most ferocious warlord in Greece these days?"
Xena replied evenly, "I'm out of that business forever."
"So I have heard. You fight for a 'greater good', now?"
"I do." She regarded him without expression, then asked, "So how is the slave-trading business lately?"
He smiled. "Profitable, as always. You ought to try it."
"No, thanks. So, what brings you to Potidaea? You can't be hoping to, ah, find any merchandise here. Slave-trading is outlawed here now."
He shrugged. "One never knows. I remember acquiring a few from you, once upon a time."
Xena's voice was cold. "Different times, different Xena. I suggest that you remember that, Mertis."
Clemnos noted the icy conversation between the two, and intervened. "Ahem. Well, Gabrielle, here, is an Amazon princess. Isn't that right, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle replied simply, "Yes."
"You made quick work of a couple of my guards on the practice field this morning." He turned to Mertis and added, "You should have seen her. Most impressive."
Xena noted that Mertis regarded her with his lingering gaze once again, then stroked his beard and agreed, "Would that I could have. An Amazon? Really."
Xena leaned forward, placing her wine cup on the table and fixing Mertis with blazing blue eyes. "Yes, and I'm most protective of Gabrielle." She saw his eyes widen slightly at the statement. "Lila, too. As Master of the Sword here, I take that most seriously. I would kill to protect them, no questions asked." She emphasized those last three words as she drilled her eyes into Mertis. He squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, then resumed his smooth manner.
"Most laudable." He then flitted his gaze away from Xena's unrelenting eyes and spoke to Clemnos. "It seems that you have a most dutiful Master of the Sword at your table."
Clemnos looked at Xena as he replied, "Yes. So it would seem." He smiled as he spoke the words, but his eyes were cold. They fixed Xena with an icy stare, and Xena returned the look. In that moment, she thought, I've got you, you bastard. I know your game, and you know that I know it. This plays out tonight.
Clemnos raised his cup and proposed a toast, not taking his eyes off of Xena. "To prosperity and good business. After all, that is what a governor wishes for his people, is it not?" The entire table raised their cups and echoed the toast.
Xena, as she raised her cup, just smiled in the direction of the governor and replied, "And to the protection of the innocent from the wolves among us."
Once again, the entire table raised their cups and echoed Xena's words. As they did so, Mertis and Clemnos cast a sidelong glance at each other and then followed the toast. Clemnos stood and clapped his hands. "Let us eat."
The scurrying of the household servants bringing out the trays broke the tension at the table, and as food was served, Xena leaned over to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "The game begins. Keep your wits about you, love." Gabrielle nodded silently, then affected pleasant conversation with her neighbor as Xena picked at her food and kept a silent watch about the room.
"Damn it, Clemnos, when you told me that you had three for me instead of one, you never mentioned that the third was Xena." Mertis was extremely agitated, and Clemnos attempted to calm him with smooth words.
"I've done you a favor. She'll fetch an excellent price, I'm sure."
"The other two will. Xena will never allow herself to be taken. My men will have to kill her."
Clemnos shrugged. "So? Kill her, then. You still come out one ahead."
"She'll slaughter half my men first. She's vicious."
"What? The great Mertis, afraid of Xena?"
Mertis ignored the barb and paced the floor as he added, "And she'll never allow the others to be taken, either. You heard her at the dinner tonight. It's as if she knows our plans." Mertis stopped pacing and faced Clemnos. "How does she know of our plans, Clemnos?"
The governor made a dismissive gesture as he poured a cup of wine. "She doesn't know. She's just bluffing."
"Don't be so sure. She's clever, that one."
Clemnos smiled indulgently. "Look, Mertis, the plans should go ahead. Are your men here and ready?" The slave-trader nodded. "Good. I'll tell you what we'll do. Listen to me and it'll go smoothly." He sipped his wine as he collected his thoughts, then began thinking aloud. "I'll keep Xena occupied for fifteen minutes or so in the main hallway. During that time, have your men collect Lila and Gabrielle and take them to your ship. When I get the signal from you, I'll summon my personal guard and they'll surround Xena. Then, you can have her, too." He snorted in laughter as he added, "How you get her to your ship without getting your heart torn out of your chest is your problem."
Mertis was unconvinced. "She'll go through your personal guard like a hot knife."
Clemnos smiled. "I think not. She's been training them herself, you know. I've never seen them in better shape."
Mertis nodded as he stroked his beard. "Governor, you surprise me sometimes. How devious. How brilliant. You had Xena train the very ones who will bring her down."
"That's how I've stayed governor these last several years."
A quick, soft rapping on Lila's door roused her from her thoughts. She left the balcony and padded through her room, listening at the door. "Who is it?"
She pulled the latch back and opened the door. Gabrielle slipped in, her staff in hand, and she spoke urgently, quietly. "Lila, get your shoes on and follow me. Quickly, now. There's no time to lose."
Lila's eyes were wide. "What is it, Gab?"
"Just do it, please." The urgency in her voice frightened Lila, and she moved to comply, slipping her sandals on and allowing Gabrielle to take her by the hand and lead her out into the hallway. As they tread the stones toward the stairs, Gabrielle whispered, "Which way is the fastest to the main hall?"
Lila pointed. "That way. What's going on, Gab?"
Gabrielle shushed her with a finger to her lips. "No time now. Just trust me, Lila. You've got to trust me. Do you?" Lila's eyes searched Gabrielle's face, and urgency was written over her features. She nodded. "Come on, then. Be quiet."
They descended the stairs slowly, Gabrielle holding her staff in one hand and Lila's hand in the other. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they crept along the corridor until they found the back entrance to the main hall, then slipped inside and kept to the dark shadows behind the pillars which lined the large room.
In the room, voices were echoing. Lila recognized them as belonging to Xena and Clemnos. Gabrielle turned to Lila once again, placed a finger over her lips, and whispered, "Just follow me and listen." Lila slowly nodded, and Gabrielle led her along the wall, in the deep shadows cast by many flickering oil lamps, until they found a place of advantage behind a large pillar. When they peeked around the pillar, they could see Xena and Clemnos in heated discussion.
Clemnos slammed his wine cup down on the table as he assumed an angry pose in front of the warrior. "I repeat the question. Just what did you think that you were doing?"
Xena's reply was firm, but unemotional. "I don't care much for your taste in dinner guests."
"My choice in guests is my business, Xena. I remind you that you work for me. You do what I say, and you don't insult my guests. Is that understood?"
Xena leaned forward, placing her hands on the table. "I'll tell you one thing that I understand, Clemnos. As Master of the Sword, I'm responsible for everyone's safety in this house. I don't trust Mertis. He's scum. As long as he's here, I don't feel easy." She eyed Clemnos, then asked, "Just what is he doing here, anyway? What business do you have with him? He's a slave-trader."
Clemnos' voice was rising in pitch. "That's not your concern. You are here to obey me."
"Wrong. I'm here to train your guard. I obey no one but my own conscience."
"How very convenient for you."
"That's the difference between you and me. I have a conscience. You don't."
Clemnos slammed a fist down on the table. "I've about had enough of you. You're discharged from your post as Master of the Sword. Get out."
"Maybe I don't feel like leaving just yet."
"Oh? Suppose I summon the guard and have you arrested?"
Xena chuckled dryly. "Go ahead. Just who do you think that they'll obey, the Master of the Sword or the governor?" She perched on the edge of the table and crossed her arms across her chest. "Why don't you call them and find out, Governor?"
Clemnos growled, "What do you mean by that?"
"Simply this. I now control the guard. They have offered their loyalty to me. It would seem that you're in a precarious position in your own house, doesn't it?"
"I knew it. That's your game, Xena. You wanted my power, my position all along. You want to rule Potidaea."
"Wrong. Like I said, I want to protect Lila."
Clemnos emitted a hoarse, derisive laugh. "That's horse dung. What does Lila have to do with all this?"
Xena eyed him for a moment, then replied evenly, "Why don't you tell me?" When Clemnos didn't reply, Xena rose from the table and poured two cups of wine. As she handed him one, she spoke. "Look, let's you and I speak bluntly. After all, there's no one here but us, is there?"
Clemnos was cautious. "All right, let's talk. You first."
"I want to know why you have a slave-trader visit you periodically. Let's see now, the last time he was here was just around the time that your previous mistress disappeared, wasn't it?"
Clemnos considered her through slitted eyes, and then relaxed and sipped at his wine. A sly smile crossed his features, and he began to warm to the prospect of the game of wits now underway. "So what if it was?"
"A scumbag like Mertis doesn't travel all the way over here just for dinner and jokes. You're doing business with him, aren't you?"
"Maybe he likes my cooking."
"Maybe he likes your taste in women. Oh, come on. A guy like you has had lots of women. Oh, I understand. Like you, I was once surrounded by power. I took whomever I wanted, and when I tired of them, I got rid of them. I know the addiction. I've been there, Clemnos." Xena paused, then finished, "Just like you are now."
Clemnos interrupted, "So what's your point?"
"Just this. You rely on him to provide you with women, don't you? And when you tire of them, he buys them back and brings you another one. Pretty nifty."
"Thank you. It's just a hobby, I assure you."
Xena continued, "But what I can't figure out is where Lila fits into this. Tell me, what's your interest in her? Don't tell me that you're actually in love with her."
"With Lila?" Clemnos snorted contemptuously. "Of course not. Oh, she's a sweet kid, but..."
"Well? What's the scam, then?"
There was a heavy pause in the conversation, and Clemnos spoke, his voice tinged with irony. "You're clever, Master of the Sword. You tell me."
"Okay. You figured that he'll pay well for new women. So, you choose a naïve farm girl, romance her, clean her up, teach her the social graces, and when you're bored with her, you sell her to Mertis. After all, he does traffic in high-class paramours for wealthy men."
Clemnos began slowly applauding Xena, the sound of a solitary set of hands clapping ringing through the hall. "Bravo, warrior. Well done. You're absolutely right."
Lila had heard enough. She tore away from Gabrielle and ran back through the corridor, her hands over her face. Gabrielle cursed under her breath, then followed at a run, her voice a harsh whisper. "Lila, stop. Lila!" She chased her sister up the stairs and caught her at the door of her room. "Not here, Lila."
Lila hissed, "Yes. I'm getting my clothes and getting out of here."
Gabrielle shook her. "Get a grip, Lila. We can't be here. They'll come looking for you here. Don't you see, they're coming for you tonight? They'll look for you here."
"Then help me, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to reply, but the sound of boots treading the hallway caused her to turn and look. Horrified at what she saw, she pushed Lila into the room and bolted the door behind them. "It's too late. They're here."
The clapping abruptly stopped when Xena unsheathed her sword and held it at Clemnos' neck. "I'm right about one thing: if anything happens to Lila or Gabrielle, you're a dead man."
Clemnos' voice rang through the hall. "Guard!" In a few moments, Perodius entered the hall, the guard pouring into the hall behind him. They spread out around the two figures in the center of the hall and drew their swords, standing ready and looking to Perodius for instruction. The governor backed away from Xena's sword and pointed toward her. "Arrest her. She's threatening my life." When Perodius made no move to respond, Clemnos shouted, "What's the matter with you? I said arrest her. Kill her if you have to."
Perodius stood his ground and replied, "I don't raise my sword to Xena."
Clemnos' face fell in shock. "You're in this, too?" He pointed toward several of the guards and repeated his order. "I'm your governor. I order you to arrest both these people. Do it, damn you." The guards did not respond. They stood silently, their eyes fixed on the scene unfolding in front of them. Clemnos' face reddened as his voice escalated in pitch. "Treason. This is treason. I'll have the lot of you executed along with her."
Perodius looked over at Xena and asked, "What are your orders, Master of the Sword?"
Xena grinned as she regarded Clemnos' exasperated expression. "Keep him here, under guard. I'm going to fetch Lila and Gabrielle."
Clemnos laughed, a bitter laugh which echoed through the hall. "You're too late, Xena. They're already gone."
Xena's expression betrayed her shock. Of course. He kept me here long enough for Mertis to get to them. Damn it. She pointed at Perodius and ordered, "Seal the house and grounds. Don't let anyone in or out. I'm going for them."
"Right, Xena." As Perodius began shouting orders and the boot-steps of his men resounded through the hall, Xena bolted for the stairs, seeking her way up to Lila's room.
Mertis paced restlessly near the wagon waiting by the side gate to the governor's house, growling under his breath. At the sound of footsteps, he glanced up. "It's about time. What took you so long?"
Mertis' second replied, "We had a problem."
"One of them fought us. Tore us up, she did."
He pointed. "That one."
Mertis glanced at the group of men who hovered near the back of the wagon. At their feet, tangled in a net, lay Lila, bound and gagged, and Gabrielle, who was unmoving. He bent down and lifted the net away from their faces. Lila's dark eyes were round with fear. She struggled and mumbled under her gag, but Mertis ignored her. His attention was fixed on Gabrielle. She was unconscious, a splash of dark blood matted in the hair above one ear. He reached down and felt for a pulse at her neck, then rose and chastised his second. "You idiot. I told you not to injure them. What use are they to us if they're dead or disfigured?"
The man huffed. "She was like a wild animal. She took several of us down with her staff. We had no choice." He grunted, then pointed at his arm. "I think that she broke my arm."
"Quit whining. If she doesn't recover, I'll take it out of your pay." He gestured toward the wagon. "Get them loaded and let's get out of here. We've made too much noise already."
The group lifted the two, entangled in the net, into the back of the wagon and drew a cloth over them. When that was done, the second looked back at Mertis. "What about Xena?"
Mertis eyed him with disgust. "I'll handle Xena. You and two others, take the wagon to the ship. I'll meet you there with Xena. The rest of you, follow me. Clemnos should have her by now." He finished with a parting barb. "You can handle that much, can't you?" The man nodded sullenly. "See to it, then." Without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked toward the house, several men following him, as the side gate squeaked open and the wagon began trundling out toward the docks.
Xena's long stride took the stairs two at a time, her heart pounding and her fear rising. As she bounded down the hall, she noted the door to Lila's room ajar. I'm too late, she heard herself think. She halted in front of the door, then pushed it open. Damn it, I'm too late.
The room was in a shambles, furniture overturned and broken pottery on the floor. Xena entered, sword drawn, and looked at the mess. She called, "Gabrielle? Lila?" No one answered her. Her gaze traveled around the disarray, and her breath stopped when she saw Gabrielle's staff lying on the floor. Next to it, she saw a small puddle of blood. Oh, oh. Someone's been hurt. An anger rose in her, a dark, virile wave of emotion. If it's Gabrielle or Lila, I'll kill whoever's responsible. I swear it. She re-sheathed her sword, bent down, picked up the staff, and noted a trail of blood droplets decorating the stones of the floor and leading out of the room. Got you, you bastards. I'm on your trail, and when I find you, you'll wish you'd never been born. Staff in hand, she returned to the hallway, pulled a lighted torch from the wall, and began following the blood trail toward the back stairs.
The blood droplets, gleaming dark against the stones, thinned and then stopped as she neared the servants' door. She growled under her breath, then opened the door and looked out into the night. The courtyard was empty. Dead end. Now where...? She could feel the hair rise on the nape of her neck and she whirled, pinning a figure against the wall with Gabrielle's staff. She heard a loud gasp and held the torch in front of her, its light betraying one of the servant-girls from the governor's staff. The girl's face was frozen in fear. Xena studied her, then asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I heard noises. I came to see." The girl stared at Xena's ferocious expression. "You're the Master of the Sword, aren't you?" At Xena's nod, the girl continued, "Are you seeking the men who just left here?"
"They left through this door, just a few minutes ago. They were carrying something heavy. They loaded it into a wagon, and then left through the gate."
Xena released her, then asked, "How many?"
"I don't know, six or seven. Some of them were hurt, I think. They spoke in a foreign tongue."
"Perhaps. I couldn't recognize it."
Xena nodded. "Thanks. Stay out of sight." She wheeled around and exited the door, striding out into the courtyard, torch held high, and met three of the governor's guard as they ran across the courtyard toward the gate. The soldiers, recognizing her, stopped and reported to her.
"Perodius ordered us to guard the gate, and let no one in or out."
"Good. Is the governor under guard?"
"Let me out of the gate, then lock it. Don't open it again unless you hear my voice." The soldiers responded without hesitation, trotting over to the gate and creaking it open. She turned and asked, "What is the quickest way to the docks from here?"
"Down that street." The soldier pointed.
"You, come with me and show me. You two, take your posts here."
The men stood to comply, and Xena handed her torch to one of them. With a gesture, she waved to the first soldier, who followed her through the gate and trotted alongside her as they ran down the darkened street toward the docks. As the soldier huffed in his effort to keep up with her, he breathlessly asked, "What are we looking for, Master of the Sword?"
"A wagon driven by Syrians."
"And when we find them?"
"And if they offer resistance?"
Xena's reply was terse. "Kill 'em all."
Mertis entered the main hall accompanied by his men and saw Perodius, several members of the guard, and Clemnos gathered near the center of the room. He did not see Xena, and that puzzled him. Looking to Clemnos, he asked, "Where is Xena?"
It was not Clemnos who answered, but Perodius. "Did you take possession of Lila and Gabrielle?"
Mertis looked over at him, then nodded. "Yes. They're on their way to the ship now. All I need is Xena, and our deal is complete."
Perodius replied, "That's all I needed to hear." He pointed toward them with his sword. "You're under arrest, all of you. Drop your weapons and stand aside."
Mertis blinked in disbelief, then looked over at Clemnos and hissed, "What is this? You're arresting me?"
Clemnos raised an eyebrow and said, "Not I. It would seem that Xena's in control here now."
Mertis drew his sword, and his men followed his example. "Not while I live." Perodius shouted a command, and his men spread out around the hall to circle the Syrians. They assumed a battle stance, swords at ready. The Syrians huddled in a group behind Mertis, who glanced around him at the soldiers and scoffed, "Soldiers? You bunch don't fight. Your job is to stand around and look important."
Perodius smiled as he replied, "We've been trained by Xena. Care to try us?"
At the challenge, Mertis waved his sword and shouted a command in Syrian. His men responded by raising their weapons and charging the guards, who closed with them as one group, the sound of battle resounding through the hall.
Xena stopped as she spied a wagon in the street ahead, three men walking next to it. Two of them were limping. Their voices echoed softly in the narrow, crooked street. The language was Syrian. She thumped the soldier next to her on his shoulder and pointed. "That's them. Follow my lead." She drew her sword, and the soldier followed suit. They ran toward the wagon, unnoticed until they were very near. At the sound of their feet, one of the Syrians turned and looked, pointing and offering a shout of alarm. The wagon stopped. The three men drew their swords and spread out across the street. Their leader raised his weapon, but had no chance to employ it. Xena struck him down with a single blow. The man grunted, then fell heavily to the street, his sword clattering across the cobblestones. At the sight, the other two charged. One attacked Xena, the other moving around her to dispatch the soldier of the governor's guard. The fight did not last long. In a few minutes, three Syrians lay dead or dying in the street. Xena looked around, saw the soldier still standing, and asked, "You all right?"
He was shaking. "Yes, Master of the Sword."
She eyed him, then asked, "Your first kill?" He nodded. "You'll get used to it."
Re-sheathing her sword, she climbed up into the back of the wagon and pulled the cloth aside. Tangled in nets were Lila, her eyes wide, and Gabrielle, who stirred and groaned, then sat up holding her head.
"Xena! By the gods, my head is killing me. What happened?" She looked around, blinked heavily, and then huffed, "They got us, didn't they?"
"I should have been able to take them, Xena. I'm sorry that I let you down."
Xena crouched down and hugged Gabrielle to her. "You got your licks in. Don't fret over it now. I'm just glad you're alive." She pulled her hand away from Gabrielle's head and noted the blood on her palm. "Are you okay?"
"I think so." Her eyes focused, then she looked around frantically. "Lila?" In response, the net next to her stirred and a muffled, indignant voice mumbled some unintelligible words. Gabrielle looked down. "Oh, thank the gods. Give me your knife, Xena." Xena complied, then watched without comment as Gabrielle cut away the net and pulled her sister up to a sitting position, sawing at the bonds which held her. When her hands were free, Lila pulled the gag from her mouth and watched as Gabrielle cut away the rope which held her feet. When she was freed, she slowly climbed down from the wagon and stood in the street, stood looking at her sister and Xena for several silent moments. She said nothing, just slowly shook her head in disbelief, then reached out a hand and helped Gabrielle down from the wagon. Gabrielle staggered slightly when she stood, and Xena was at her side in a moment, holding her.
"Gab? Look, ride in the back of the wagon. We'll take you back up to the house." She nodded consent and perched on the wagon's back. Xena placed her staff in her hands, then motioned for Lila to sit next to her. Lila declined.
"I'm not going back up to that house. Not now, not ever. I'm going home."
Xena's voice was gentle. "Lila, it's not finished yet. We've got to get back up there. Come on, now. Just a little more. I promise, after tonight, it'll all be over."
She considered the words, then silently perched on the wagon's back next to Gabrielle. Xena motioned to the soldier, and he took the horse's harness in his hand and turned the wagon around, heading back to the governor's house. Xena walked next to him, occasionally glancing back over her shoulder at the two sisters in the cart, but allowing them some privacy to speak together.
For several minutes, Lila was silent, just studying the cobblestones passing underneath her feet as she gazed down at the street. Gabrielle said nothing, her head resting in her hands, her concentration focused on attempting to quell her headache and nausea. Finally, Lila placed her arm around her sister's shoulders and tugged at her, urging her to lie down. Gabrielle relented and curled into a ball, resting her head in Lila's lap, listening as her sister began to speak.
"Your head hurts, doesn't it?" Gabrielle nodded. "I'm sorry. It's all my fault."
"Don't be dumb. It's not your fault. I should have been quicker with my staff."
"I should have fought next to you, Gab."
"You're not a warrior, Lila. They would have killed you."
"And you are, it seems. You were amazing, Sis."
"I still lost."
"But you fought them all. You saved me."
"No, I didn't. Xena saved us both."
Lila turned and glanced toward Xena, and then back down at Gabrielle. "Yes, she did. She's really quite something, isn't she?"
She saw Gabrielle smile and heard her voice. "I've been trying to tell you and Father that for some time now."
Lila sighed, then sniffed a tear back as she spoke. "I was so wrong about her, Gab. I was wrong about a lot of things." After a moment, she whispered, "I'm sorry that I said what I did about her, about you. I was just angry. It was awfully mean, and I really didn't mean it. You were right about everything, all along."
"Lil, don't. There'll be time enough to talk later."
"Please, Gab, just shut up for once." She saw Gabrielle's mouth twitch into a smile, and continued, "I don't know how I could have been so stupid. You two saw this coming and I didn't. I fell for his deceit completely. He never loved me. He lied about it. An evil man, wrapped in such a beautiful package. I should have known, but I was so dumb. I feel so horribly dirty, Gab. I feel used. I loved him, and he used me. He tried to sell us. How could I have been so blind?"
Gabrielle whispered, "You loved him. Love is blind."
Lila looked down at her sister, then smoothed her hair with a soft hand. "That's good, Gab. You should write that down."
Gabrielle chuckled, then winced. "Ow. Don't make me laugh. My head is killing me."
Xena strode into the main hall, the soldier and Lila entering with Gabrielle some paces behind her. Perodius greeted her with a salute. "Master of the Sword, we have done as you ordered. The governor and the remaining Syrians are under arrest here. What are your instructions?"
Xena looked around the hall and noted the bodies and blood littering the floor. "What happened here?"
"The Syrians decided to fight." Perodius smiled as he reported, "They were soundly defeated."
She gazed around at the faces of the soldiers in the hall and broke into a broad, lop-sided grin. "I expected nothing less from you. Well done, all of you."
One of the soldiers raised a sword and shouted Xena's name. In a moment, all the governor's guard which were assembled in the hall echoed her name repeatedly and raised their swords in the air, the chant resounding through the large hall. As her name was sounded over and over, Xena drew herself to her full height and raised her own sword in answer to the salute. Her smile slowly transformed from proud to slightly sinister and her eyes flashed with a gleam which had long been buried. She appeared to revel in the acclaim, and her muscular shoulders and arms were tight with a sinewy strength.
Lila watched the scene with a sense of alarm, her eyes growing wide at the spectacle of the governor's guard celebrating their bloody victory and their Master of the Sword. She felt Gabrielle's hand grip her wrist tightly and looked over into her sister's eyes. Gabrielle, holding a cloth to the side of her head, met Lila's dark eyes with her own hazel ones, and in those light depths, Lila could see the fear in her own heart mirrored. They said no words, the look speaking volumes, but stood and watched the scene unfold.
Finally, Xena held up her hand to quiet the governor's guard. The entire household staff of servants, clerks and others, roused by the combat and subsequent cheering, had assembled along the walls and were watching the spectacle. Finally, all stood silent, their eyes fixed on Xena, awaiting her next command. It was immediate.
"Perodius, where is the chief clerk?"
Before Perodius could answer, a voice responded, "Here." Xena turned to see a man step forward from the crowd. "How can I be of service, Xena?"
Xena sheathed her sword and stood before the man. "You must know the law here as well as anyone, do you not?" The man nodded. "Tell me, what does Potidaea's law say about the removal of a governor for high crimes?"
The man glanced about nervously, his eyes alighting on Clemnos, who was watching the scene with a bemused countenance. "Well, Master of the Sword, the law states that he must be accused and arrested. Then, the Council of Elders will hear the evidence of his crimes. If sufficient, he will be removed from office and put on trial."
Xena crossed her arms across her chest and replied, "That first part has already happened. I arrest Clemnos and accuse him of slave-trading, which is forbidden in Potidaea, is it not?"
"It is. If he is convicted, the sentence is exile or death. At any rate, he cannot remain governor."
"And who rules in his place if he is removed for such crimes?"
"Well, this is unprecedented. I really don't know." At this, Perodius raised his sword and shouted Xena's name, the call being echoed in the hall first by the guards, then by the onlookers. The tumult became a dull roar. After a few moments, Xena held up her hand to quiet the shouts, then looked down at the clerk again. "I repeat, who rules in his stead?"
The clerk swallowed hard, then answered, "It would appear that you do, Master of the Sword."
Xena nodded satisfactorily. "How right you are, Clerk." At that, the sound of a sardonic laugh punctuated by a single set of clapping hands echoed in the hall. It was Clemnos. He rose from his chair, where he had been watching the scene unfold, and spoke loudly enough for all to hear.
"Congratulations, Xena. You've gotten what you came here after. Very smoothly done, too. You've usurped the loyalty of my guards, evicted me from my office on the ridiculous grounds of slave-trading, and taken control of Potidaea." He spread his hands wide as he addressed the assembled soldiers and onlookers. "What's next, Warrior-Princess? All of Macedonia? Are you to lead these people back into bloody wars of conquest? How many sons of Potidaea have already died under the direction of vicious warlords such as yourself? Many of the people in this hall remember when your name spread fear across these lands. Are we to have that again?" He pointed at Xena. "I saw the lust for power in your eyes. It possessed you once, and it possesses you still. It is within you, eating at you, and it always will be. You have given it free reign tonight. We, all of us, have just witnessed the rebirth of a monster. Mark my words, if Xena rules here, this is the beginning of the end for Potidaea."
Murmurs began in the hall, the assembled soldiers and onlookers abuzz with the implications of what Clemnos had said. Xena noted this and turned to the clerk, asking in a loud voice, "You say that the Council of Elders must hear the evidence to remove him from office?"
"That they must, Master of the Sword."
"Then we'll assemble them here, tonight. We'll do this now."
The clerk was taken aback. "Now?"
Xena was firm. "Now." She turned to Perodius. "Send the guard out in teams of two, to each of their houses. Bring them here. We'll have this knot tied tonight."
"Right away, Xena." Perodius turned and summoned a group of his guards, speaking to them, as Xena turned toward Clemnos.
"Sit down and behave, Clemnos, or I'll have you bound and gagged."
He bowed smoothly to her, answering, "As you wish, Master of the Sword." He returned to his seat, sitting smugly.
Xena paced the floor as she awaited the arrival of the elders, studying the stones at her feet, interrupted in her thoughts as Gabrielle's hand placed itself on her arm. Her voice was severe. "Xena, we need to talk."
"Can't this wait, Gab?"
"No, Xena, it can't wait. We need to talk now."
Xena sighed, then nodded and took Gabrielle by the arm. "All right, but not here. Over there."
They walked through the main door and stood in the anteroom. Xena looked down at Gabrielle, who locked eyes with her and said, "What are you doing, Xena?"
"What does it look like I'm doing, Gab? I'm trying to keep this city from falling into chaos."
"How? By taking control of it yourself? This isn't right, Xena."
Xena placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked deeply into anguished hazel eyes. "Now is not the time to have a crisis of faith, Gabrielle. Look, I've got a plan, but you've got to trust me and go with me on this. I know what I'm doing."
"Do you?" Gabrielle studied her for a moment, then asked, "Who am I talking to here, the Xena I love so much or the old Xena?"
"The lustful, power-hungry Xena. The one who wants to control, to conquer. The one I thought was dead." She swallowed hard, then added in a whisper, "The one who frightens me so much. Is she here tonight, taking control of Potidaea? Was Lila right after all?"
"Clemnos is an animal. He can't remain governor. Don't you see, I have to make sure that he falls hard, that he falls forever?"
"Agreed, but when he falls, will you take his place?"
"I hope not, love. I hope not." Gabrielle looked into Xena's face and searched for a reassurance that the Xena she loved was in front of her. She saw the hard blue eyes soften, felt the hands gently squeeze her shoulders, and heard the sultry voice explain, "This is the most dangerous time for your city, Gab. Now, when power is shaky and up for grabs. This is when bad things happen. This is when unscrupulous people grab for control. I need to be sure that power flows smoothly into the proper hands. It is for the 'greater good'."
Gabrielle studied Xena's face, then slowly nodded. "All right, love. I'm with you. Let's do this."
Xena pulled Gabrielle to her and they embraced tightly, holding each other for a long moment. They parted when Perodius entered the anteroom, clearing his throat to announce himself. "Xena, the Council of Elders are here."
Xena looked from Gabrielle to Perodius, then said, "Then let's get this over with." Together, the three of them entered the hall.
The head of the Council stroked his graying beard as he spoke. "This is a most astounding development. The charge against Clemnos is a heavy one. If we are to consider removing him from power and appointing another governor, we must have some proof that the charges are valid."
Xena replied, "What proof do you ask? Would the testimony of eyewitnesses do?"
The head of the Council nodded. "That would certainly do, I would think." He turned to look at the other Elders, and they nodded in agreement.
Xena replied, "Then listen carefully. I am an eyewitness. I'll tell you my story first." Xena paced as she spoke, succinctly unfolding the facts as she witnessed them, and faced the Elders when she finished. "But don't believe me. Listen to the victims. Listen to Gabrielle."
At Xena's signal, Gabrielle stepped forward and faced the Council. She, in her own florid style, told the tale much as Xena had described it, adding the fight with the Syrians and the capture of her and her sister. As she finished, Clemnos rose and protested.
"This is lies! They are together in this charade. Xena came here for the express purpose of usurping my position as governor of Potidaea. She defeated my Master of the Sword in combat and applied for his job. When I gave it to her, she gained the loyalty of the governor's guard and used their power to arrest me. She has it in her mind to take control of Potidaea and use us as a base to conquer all of Macedonia. Do you Elders not remember when her name was a feared one in these lands? Do you wish that again? Don't listen to this."
The Elders whispered together as Clemnos was forcibly returned to his chair and admonished to be quiet. After a whispered conversation, the Council of Elders turned toward the hall and the head of the Council spoke to Clemnos. "But Gabrielle certainly isn't a part of this, is she?"
Clemnos scoffed from his chair, "She's not to be trusted. They're lovers, she and Xena. She stands to profit from this as much as Xena does."
The head of the Council looked at Gabrielle. "Is this true, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle answered, "It is true, sir, that Xena and I are one in soul. It is not true that I would ever condone or be part of such a plot. Clemnos tried to sell my sister and me to the Syrians. Of that much, I am certain."
The Elder looked at Xena. "I'm afraid that we require more proof."
Xena nodded. "Then listen. Lila, tell the Elders your story."
Lila stood forth, a bit uncertainly, and gazed around the room, then began to tell her own story. As she did, the Elders listened intently, their gaze traveling between Lila and Clemnos. When she finished, she retreated back to Gabrielle's side. The Elders looked over at Clemnos. "What have you to say to this, Governor?"
He cast a withering look at Lila, a look which made her ache and shut her eyes tightly, and replied, "She lies. She is Gabrielle's sister. Blood makes her loyal to Gabrielle, and by implication, to Xena. Her family is a poor peasant family. They would gain wealth and status if Xena were to attain my power. Gabrielle would see to that."
The Elder seemed surprised at that answer. "But she is your mistress, is she not? What would cause a mistress to speak so forcefully against the man who keeps her? Would she not gain such wealth for her family by being with you?"
Clemnos paused, then answered, "I had hoped not to reveal this, but she was falling from my favor and knew it. I found her being unfaithful to me, and was about to send her back to her family."
Lila hissed, "That's a lie. I was never unfaithful to you, and you know it. I was devoted to you. I loved you. You never loved me like you claimed. Your honeyed words were all lies. You used me, you deceived me, and then tried to sell me to a slave-trader." Gabrielle placed a hand on Lila's arm, and she quieted, a deep burn of anger evident on her face.
The head of the Council looked at Xena. "Do you have other witnesses?"
"I do. Perodius, bring Mertis out." The officer strode over to the edge of the room and returned with Mertis in his grasp. The man was bound and suffering from a wound. "This man is a Syrian, Mertis. I know him. He deals in slaves." To Mertis, she said, "Tell your part in this, Mertis."
"Why? So you can put me to death?"
Xena urged, "Do it."
Mertis hissed in reply, "Rot."
Xena nodded at the insult, then looked over at the Council of Elders. "If Mertis agrees to tell his story, do I have the Council's word that he will be exiled for his crimes, and not put to death?"
"Do you hear that, Mertis? You've got nothing to lose now. Speak up. If you don't, you go on trial."
Mertis saw the hopelessness of his situation and began to talk freely, his story unfolding to all gathered. When he finished, Perodius took him back to the corner. The Council of Elders huddled together in whispered conference, then, when agreed, faced the occupants of the room. The head of the Council spoke for all of them. "We are agreed that there is evidence sufficient to hold Clemnos for trial. He must be removed as governor immediately, and another governor appointed in his place. Obviously, we must do this right away, so that there is no lapse of power. Such lapses are extremely dangerous."
Clemnos rose from his seat and shouted, "I protest. You would remove me, your governor, on the basis of these lies?"
The head of the Council answered, "The evidence is most compelling."
"Then I invoke the right of mortal combat against my accuser, Xena."
There was silence in the hall at his shout. Xena turned toward the head of the Council and gasped, "Can he do that?"
The heads of all of the Elders nodded, and the head of the Council spoke. "It is an ancient law, seldom invoked, but yes. He has that right, Master of the Sword."
Xena turned back toward Clemnos. "Don't do this, Clemnos."
Clemnos smiled coldly as he walked out into the center of the hall. "Do you think that I want to spend my days in prison and exile? Fight me. If you refuse, I win, Xena."
"I'll kill you."
"Perhaps not. Either way, I win."
They stared at each other for a timeless, silent moment, and then Xena nodded. "Give him a sword. No one interfere. This is between Clemnos and me."
Gabrielle cried out, "Don't, Xena."
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, who stood, horrified. Xena's expression was one of intense sadness and resignation, and she slowly responded, "It seems that I have no choice, Gabrielle."
"That's right, Xena. You have no choice. Now defend yourself." Clemnos lifted an offered sword from the hand of one of the governor's guard and approached her, taking a swing at her head. She deftly dodged it, and drew her own sword. Their blades met in mid-air, a clang resounding through the hall, and they quickly fell into a deadly martial dance, thrusting and parrying, dodging and attacking each other. The repeated strikes of their blades rang through the silent hall, the governor's guards and the onlookers watching in horrible, rapt silence.
Xena did not attack with her full fury, instead allowing Clemnos to weary himself, watching him for his weaknesses and strengths in swordplay, parrying his attacks and attempting to strike a wounding, but not fatal blow. His skill was enough, though, that she found it difficult to strike the wound that she desired. The openings which she did not immediately take would have killed him. After what seemed endless minutes, they circled warily about each other, pausing in their duel, Clemnos taunting Xena with barbed comments. Xena did not reply, just watched him carefully, awaiting his next attack. It came soon enough.
She parried his sword thrust, then struck him soundly on the side of the face with her left hand. He staggered, then recovered and charged her. As his blade whistled past her ear, she lashed out in an automatic, reflexive motion which caught him on the back of his shoulder. He cried out and fell, rolling across the floor and then staggering to his feet. She glanced at her blade. It glistened with fresh blood. As she looked at him, he was smiling. He attacked again, and she perceived the swing aimed toward her head. She ducked and slashed her blade across his waist, and he fell backwards, dropping his sword and clutching his abdomen. As she slowly approached him, her bloody blade extended, she asked, "Do you relent?"
He looked up at her from his place on the floor and shook his head slowly. "You're going to have to kill me, Xena."
"I don't want to do that, Clemnos."
He glanced down at his hands and laughed, then winced in pain. "I think that you already have."
"Let me look at that wound. I might be able to help you."
"Not on your life, Xena. Kill me. Go on, do it. You know that you want to."
Xena turned toward the Council. "Is this not sufficient?"
One of the Elders stepped forward. "If he is incapacitated, it will serve. Let me examine him. I am a healer. I will judge." The Elder knelt next to Clemnos and lifted his hands away from the wound, peering at it, then looked up. "I fear that it is a mortal wound. You have won, Xena."
Clemnos objected through gritted teeth, "Not yet you haven't, Xena."
Xena stared down at him, her blooded blade hanging loosely by her side. "What more can you do to us, Clemnos? Your fight is over."
He stared up at her. "But yours is just begun." He grasped the tunic of the Elder kneeling next to him and said, "I claim the right of appointing the next governor."
Xena was incredulous. "What?"
The Elder waved the other members of the Council over to the death scene. As he did so, the Elder looked up at Xena and explained, "The law states that the governor can appoint his successor."
The other Elders gathered near the dying man. Raising a bloody hand, he pointed at the Elders and spoke. "You hear me, Elders. I claim the right of appointing the next governor."
The head of the Council looked down at him. "Whom do you appoint, Clemnos?"
He laughed, a bitter, vicious laugh, and then his bloody hand indicated Xena. "I appoint you, Master of the Sword, the next governor of Potidaea." He grinned, then winced and spat out his next words with venom. "And I hope that you choke on the power."
Xena was aghast. "Don't do this, Clemnos. I'm not to be trusted with it."
He grimaced in pain, then drilled her with dying eyes. "You've got it now, Xena. Take it. Revel in it. No one will oppose you, not with the governor's guard at your back. I can feel the darkness in you rise to the taste of it. You can't deny that you relish it. I can see it in your face. It will lead you down a path which will spell your destruction, and the destruction of all around you. Your darkness will cover this land in blood, and even your vaunted bard Gabrielle won't be able to sway you from it. I win, Xena. I will ruin you with this last act."
Xena watched him slowly die on the floor, lying in a pool of his own blood, his eyes fixed on her face, the last of his hate focused in the words, "I'll see you in Tartarus, Master of the Sword."
His eyes closed and his breath ceased. Xena stared at him, a numbness permeating her body, a single thought echoing through her mind. You just might at that. She then slowly turned and faced the Council. "Is this what the Council wants?"
"It is, Xena. It is customary to grant this. You are now the new governor of Potidaea."
At his words, a cheer resounded from the assembled guards. Chanting Xena's name, they gathered behind her. She noted the act, then smiled very coldly and looked down on the body of Clemnos. When she looked up again, Gabrielle was at her side. "Xena, this isn't right. Tell me that this is not what you wanted."
She looked at Gabrielle's worried features, then over at Lila, who was kneeling at Clemnos' side, her hands over her mouth in an agonized pose. Xena's thoughts drilled themselves into her conscious mind as the tumult surrounded her. It wasn't what I wanted, but it's what I got. It feels good, so oddly satisfying. I remember it now, the intoxication of raw power. The feeling of destiny, of immortality. The ability to rule absolutely. By all the gods in Tartarus, I do love it. She looked down at Gabrielle's face once again and thought, Gabrielle is scared. I can feel it from her. Fear. It's strangely exhilarating. The Council is frightened of me, as well. I can feel the fear from them. They don't dare oppose me. I remember what it was like to be feared like this. Once, I drank it in like strong wine. Now, it's in my grasp again. Damn, it feels so good. Clemnos was right. With Potidaea, I could rule all of Macedonia. Curse him, he was so right.
Xena raised her hand to quiet the shouting in the hall. When silence fell, she turned and faced the soldiers of the governor's guard, now her guard. "Do I have the loyalty of the guard? Will you be ruled by me?" They answered with a unanimous, hearty shout of affirmation. Then, she turned toward the Council of Elders, huddled nearby. "Do I have the backing of the Council? Will you support me in my office?" The Elder's heads bobbed in consent, their eyes warily fixed on Xena. "Then let it be written that I, Xena, am now the governor of Potidaea."
Gabrielle and Lila traded glances, Gabrielle backing slowly away from Xena and Lila looking up from her place kneeling near Clemnos' body. As Xena looked around the hall, her eyes fixed themselves upon Gabrielle's face. The expression she found there was an ashen look of dread, of disbelief. Xena's chest tightened at the look in the hazel eyes, eyes which had so often regarded her with love and now reflected horror. Her thoughts echoed a brutal truth to her, a truth which she knew would most certainly come to pass. But I'll have to do it without Gabrielle. I'll lose her along the way. She'll reject me. She'll oppose me. She'll become a bitter enemy, one whom I'll have to kill or break in spirit. Well, Xena. So it comes to this? Love of Gabrielle, or love of power, of conquest? Can you strike Gabrielle down? Can you live without her, Warrior-Princess? Can you? Can you live without the most noble, the most radiant goodness that you've ever known? Can you live with only half a soul? Now is the moment of truth. Make the most of it.
Xena strode into the center of the hall and raised her bloody sword in the air to punctuate her words. "And I, Xena, governor of Potidaea, issue these two edicts, to take effect immediately." The hall was silent, awaiting her words. She paced in a circle, her intense blue eyes glancing over the assembled faces, her bloody sword in her hand, and those eyes came to rest on the Council of Elders. "My first act as governor of Potidaea is to offer my resignation to the Council, and my second act is to appoint my successor." A shocked silence followed the edict, and then a soft buzz of voices. Xena faced the Council and spoke from her heart. "You all know of my reputation, my past. That darkness is a part of me, of who I am. It always will be. I don't dare succumb to it again. You don't need a warrior to rule you. You need a soul possessed of wisdom, of compassion. Justice and mercy are the two pillars upon which the world of an enlightened ruler is built. I can't give that balance to you. All that I can give you is a lust for power. Therefore, I must resign. It is for the 'greater good'."
One of the Elders spoke. "But Xena, who will rule in your stead?"
Another of the Elders echoed the question. "Yes. Whom do you appoint to take your place?"
Xena looked around the room. She strode to the edge of the crowd and placed an arm around a bard of humble, peasant heritage, guided her out into the center of the room, and spoke with pride, with certainty. "I appoint Gabrielle of Potidaea as your governor."
Gabrielle paled and looked at Xena with an expression of absolute shock. As voices buzzed around them, she blurted, "I can't accept that."
The head of the Council of Elders protested, "But this is most unusual. Has she the qualities necessary for such an exalted position? She is of quite humble family, I understand."
"She is an Amazon princess of the tribes of Thessaly, a race of proud and noble warriors. She is gifted with wisdom and compassion far beyond her years. She will govern with ability, I assure you." At the Council's doubting expressions, Xena argued further. "My origins are as humble as hers. My mother is a tavern-keeper. My father, I never knew. Yet you gave me the power of governor. I give that power to her, willingly. I have the loyalty of the governor's guard. That makes me very powerful. I pledge that loyalty to her, as her Master of the Sword. My sword, my life are at her command, and the governor's guard, loyal to me, are hers as well." At that, Xena knelt down on one knee next to Gabrielle. "In all respects, I will be ruled by her. This I vow with my life." Xena looked up at the Elders. "Will the people of Potidaea follow me?"
The Council Elders looked at each other, then nodded. The head of the Council spoke for them all. "We consent."
Perodius raised his sword and shouted, "Gabrielle!" To a man, the governor's guard followed his example, raising her name. The chant of Gabrielle's name was taken up by the onlookers, and the hall resounded with the sound. Gabrielle looked down at Xena.
"What are you doing, Xena? I can't do this."
Xena looked up at her. "You must, Gabrielle. If you don't, then I'll have to, and you know what that will bring. Please don't put that on me, I beg of you. I'm not as strong as you are."
Gabrielle studied the imploring blue eyes and felt her heart quicken. In a moment, she knew that Xena was right. They could do this. She felt her fear dissolve, her own soul quicken to its resolve. Alone, she could never do this. With Xena by her side, she could. As long as they were together, anything was possible. Gabrielle leaned on her staff and looked over at the Council.
"I accept, provided the Council of Elders chooses another governor to replace me within two month's time."
The head of the Council of Elders smiled. "It will be done as you dictate, Governor, er, Princess, er...how do we address you?"
She smiled. "Gabrielle will do."
Xena rose and stood next to her. "I rather like the sound of 'Governor'." She cast an intimidating eye toward the Council, whose head Elder responded carefully as he nodded toward Gabrielle.
"Ahem. Of course, Governor."
Late that night, as Xena stood on the balcony, fresh from a bath, clothed in her night-shirt, she sipped at a cup of wine and studied the night stars. Been one hades of a day, she thought. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?
Gabrielle wandered out onto the balcony, her hair still damp from her own bath, her night-shirt draped loosely over her petite frame. She nestled her body next to Xena's taller form and sighed, "Gods. Been one hades of a day."
Xena looked down at her with surprise, an expression which Gabrielle noted and inquired about. Xena chuckled and noted, "This is curious. We're starting to speak the same sentences."
"I just thought the very words that you spoke."
Gabrielle puzzled over that, then replied, "Not so curious. We've been together for three years now."
"Glad to know that we think so much alike." Xena changed the subject. "So, how's Lila doing?"
"She's hurting so terribly. She cried herself to sleep in my arms. I feel so badly for her, Xena."
"Me, too. She's a resilient girl, though. She'll pull through and become stronger for it."
"I hope so. I told her we'd take her home tomorrow. She doesn't want to go yet. I think that she's afraid of Father's condemnation. She wants to stay here with us for a while."
Xena smiled painfully. "With you, you mean."
"No, I mean with us. She really does have a deep admiration for you, Xena."
They snuggled a bit closer together on the balcony and stood in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. After a while, Gabrielle glanced up at Xena, who noted the look out of the corner of her eye and waited patiently for her lover to speak her mind. Finally, it came. "Xena?"
"You played that one close, this evening. You really had me worried for a moment. I thought that I had almost lost you to the old Xena."
Xena placed her wine cup down on the balcony's rail and looked down at her. "You almost did." At Gabrielle's inquisitive look, she explained, "It would have been so easy, Gab. I had Potidaea in my grasp. With it, I could have conquered the Chalcidice, then all of Macedonia. For a long, terrible moment, I really considered it. I really wanted to do it, and I could have done it. The Guard was behind me. The Council was afraid of me. Even you were afraid of me."
Gabrielle quietly confessed, "Yes. I was, Xena. We all were. You were so fierce, so intimidating. There was a look in your eyes that scared me right down to my toes."
"And a sick part of me feasted on that fear. I'm ashamed of that, now. I'm really sorry I frightened you so, Gab."
Xena felt Gabrielle squeeze her arm. "I'm just glad to have this Xena with me, and not the old one."
"The old one is a part of me. I do live in fear that one day, she will resurface with a vengeance."
Gabrielle picked up the wine cup and sipped from it, considering what Xena had confessed. After a few moments, she looked up at the tall warrior and asked, "So, what kept you from bringing the old Xena back to life tonight? What made you seek the 'greater good' once again?"
"Me? What did I do?"
"You would have left me. I had a choice: your love, or my love of power. It was no contest."
"But what if you didn't love me, Xena? If we weren't so in love, could I still have stopped you?"
Xena thought, then shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Then it wasn't me that stopped you. It was your love for me. There's a difference, Xena."
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, hugged her tightly and placed a kiss on her forehead. "No, there's not. Not for me, there isn't."
In reply, Gabrielle smiled and leaned up, kissing Xena on her lips. When they parted, she whispered, "I love you, Xena."
"I love you too, Gabrielle, more than anything in the world."
"I know. You proved that once again, tonight." They held tight to each other, Gabrielle resting her head on Xena's chest and listening to her heartbeat. As she did so, she heard a rumble of laughter deep in the tall warrior's chest and lifted her eyes up to peer into deep blue ones. "What, Xena?"
Xena's voice was a sultry whisper. "Is it proper for the governor of Potidaea to be seen necking on the balcony with her Master of the Sword?"
Gabrielle's face betrayed an evil grin. "Maybe not, but then, who's going to object?"
"Gab, you're a quick learner."
The little blonde looked up at Xena. "Are you really ruled in all respects by me, like you proclaimed tonight?"
Xena looked down at her and raised a cautious eyebrow. "Yeah. Say, where are you going with this, Gab?"
"It's not where I'm going. It's where we're going."
"Oh?" Xena regarded her with some caution. "Where's that?"
"To bed, love. I have a feeling that it'll be a long day tomorrow, and my entire body aches."
"Sounds like you could use a back-rub, Governor."
"Mmm. One of Xena's famous back-rubs. You know, I could really get to like this 'ruling you in all respects' business."
"Don't let it go to your head, little bard."
"Ow! My headache is back. Thanks for reminding me, Xena."
"Come on, Governor. Your back-rub awaits you." With that, Xena picked Gabrielle up, cradling her in her arms, and disappeared into the room, leaving the balcony empty to all but the twinkling of the stars overhead and the fading sound of Gabrielle's delightful giggle.
Xena sat by the creek, idly casting her fishing line out into the current and watching the gurgling water carry it down stream. She smiled as she sat, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the afternoon sun and the beauty of her surroundings. She sipped from a pottery jug of weak wine, placed it down next to her foot, and pulled her line in, casting it out again. The only thing that she was missing to make the afternoon complete was Gabrielle.
The Council of Elders had replaced Gabrielle within a week, appointing to the post of governor a merchant whose reputation for honesty was well-known in the city. At the same time, the former Master of the Sword had healed from his wounds and sought his post once again, a post which Xena was happy to relinquish once Gabrielle had been relieved of her duties as interim governor of Potidaea. Once discharged, they had taken Lila under wing and brought her home to her parents' house to reclaim her life on the farm, a life which she resumed with quiet, aching melancholy. It was this melancholy which Gabrielle tended as she spent time with her sister, helping her to rebound from the emotional devastation which had been visited upon her during her time at the governor's house. Xena hoped that it wouldn't take too much time, as she was chafing at the absences from Gabrielle and the inactivity of the forced leisure which visited her at her campsite by the creek, in the woods near Gabrielle's family's farm.
She was roused from her thoughts by the sound of footsteps behind her and she knew instantly that it wasn't Gabrielle. The footfalls were too heavy, too clumsy. Xena slowly turned her head, her hand on the sword lying by the log upon which she sat, and raised an eyebrow in surprise as she recognized her visitor. It was Gabrielle's father.
He stood awkwardly, just gazing at her for a minute, and finally cleared his throat and spoke.
"Mind a visitor?"
Xena smiled and waved him over with a gesture, pointing to a space on the log next to her. "Naw. Come on. Join me."
He approached and sat on the log next to her, not speaking for a moment. When he did, it was an awkward attempt at conversation. "Catching anything?"
"Not biting today." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, then picked up the wine jug and passed it to him. "Drink?"
"Thanks." He took a drink from the jug and passed it back to her. She sipped from it, then put it down. As she glanced over at him, she could see him sitting, studying the ground at his boots, his rough farmer's hands rubbing together nervously. To set him at ease, she decided to speak to those things close to his own heart.
"So how's the farm doing these days?"
His face brightened as he replied, "Much better. Taxes aren't so heavy as they were, you know. I see profit, and a full pantry again."
Xena smiled. "Yeah. You can thank Gabrielle for that."
He turned to her, puzzled. "Huh?"
"She found that Clemnos had been raising twice as much money in taxes as he needed to run the city. She cut all taxes in half, her second day in office."
Gabrielle's father scratched his chin as he thought about it. "Well, I'll be damned. My little girl, governor of Potidaea for a whole week. I still can't get over it."
"She did well."
"Yup. Guess so." They sat for some time, side by side, silently watching Xena's fishing line bob in the water. Finally, he spoke his mind to her. "Look, Xena, I'm not much one for words, but I wanted to thank you for what you did."
Xena smiled again. "I didn't do anything, really."
"Sure you did. The girls told their mother and me the whole story, every bit of it. I wanted to thank you for bringing my daughters home to me. Both of them."
Xena shrugged. "It was the least I could do. They're great gals."
Gabrielle's father agreed, "Yes, they are. I'm quite proud of them."
"You have reason to be. They both showed real courage in a difficult situation."
"So did you, Xena. I'll never forget what you did for my family." Xena shrugged in a dismissive gesture, and then passed the wine jug to him again. He took it and sipped from it, passing it back to her and watching her drink. "And I wanted to ask a favor of you."
"Would you....well, that is, I'd consider it an honor if you'd have dinner at my house this afternoon."
Xena looked over at him and smiled. "I'd love to. Thanks." He nodded, then sat quietly as Xena fished. As she did, she concluded, "By the way, the honor will be mine."
"Look, I'm man enough to admit a mistake. I misjudged you, Xena. Gabrielle was right. You are a good person."
"Anything good you see in me, Gabrielle did it. For that, I owe her more than I can ever repay."
"She seems to have that effect on us all."
Xena offered her best lop-sided grin at that. "She sure does." She handed the wine jug to him once again and he drank from it, passing it back to her. She took a long drink, then placed it down.
Gabrielle's father asked, "You hungry? Dinner should be just about ready." He paused, then persisted, "Gab's cooking."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Is she making those little shepherd's pie things with the meat inside?"
Xena looked over at him. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
They both rose from the log, and Xena picked up her sword and wine jug. As they walked past her campsite, Gabrielle's father studied it and asked, "You and Gabrielle camp out often?"
"All the time, on the road."
He scratched his chin, then observed, "You know, your horse would be much more comfortable in my stable."
"I wouldn't want to impose."
"No imposition. Get your things together, Xena. I'd be honored if you'd stay at my house for the rest of your visit."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I don't want to be a bother." At his crestfallen look, she reconsidered and offered, "Well, I guess I could stay in your barn, if that's all right."
"Not on your life, Xena." He scratched his chin again and explained, "Gab would never speak to me again if I put you out there. You and Gabrielle can share the back room. After all, you two are a couple. Lila will sleep in the kitchen. No, Lila insists on it, and you know how stubborn she is. If you don't agree, I'll never hear the end of it." At Xena's hesitation, he leaned in toward her slightly and confided, "Help me out, warrior. I'm living in a house full of women. I haven't got a chance for a moment's peace if I come back without you."
Xena laughed brightly, and then nodded. "Know what you mean. Okay, give me a minute to pack my stuff. I haven't got much."
"Saddle your horse for you?"
"Thanks. I'd appreciate it."
In a short time, they were trudging out of the woods and up toward the distant farm, Xena's warhorse trailing behind them. Gabrielle's father eyed her sword, then mentioned, "You know, I was a hoplite soldier in a couple of battles when I was young." He lifted his tunic's sleeve and exposed a long scar down his arm. "Got that in one of them. Sword."
Xena eyed the scar and whistled appreciatively. "That's a doozy, that one is. Reminds me of this one here." She stopped and lifted the leather skirt over her leg, exposing a jagged scar high on one thigh. "Spear." She straightened up and produced the wine jug. "A drink between two old soldiers?"
He took the jug and grinned, exclaiming, "Don't mind if I do, Xena. Don't mind at all."
As they trudged toward the farm, their muttered conversation sprinkled with laughter, the sun cast a brilliant red hue in the western sky, a mariner's sign that the storms were, at least for the time being, over and smoother seas lay ahead toward the horizon.
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