The Hun became interested in the proceedings when Xena revealed Farza beneath the sheet. He stared at the body for a few long moments before drawing a thin blade from his belt. Ambling over to the bed, he stood beside the Conqueror and took in the still body. "How do we know shes dead?"
Xena put her hand over Farzas mouth and nose and waited. "Shes not breathing."
"Neither was Nebuharin." Moving quickly, the Hun drew his knife along the Syrian Queens throat. The dead flesh parted revealing congealed blood, but none seeped from the wound.
Gabrielle gasped at the sight and Pei-cha let out a low growl, sensing her horror.
"What are you doing?" Xena grasped the Huns wrist in her hand, increasing the pressure until he released the dagger and it clattered on the floor.
"Now we know she is dead," he growled, his breath rank as it brushed over Xenas features.
The Conqueror shoved the Hun away from her, at the same time kicking the blade over to Gabrielle, knowing her oracle would pick it up.
It seemed as if everyone began talking at once. Accusations began flying about who had killed Farza and deposited her in Nebuharins room. Many focused on Kulam, who had the most to gain from the Syrians death.
Lao Ma cleared her throat, a delicate sound that somehow managed to capture the attention of the room. "I think we should not overlook the obvious suspect."
"Were not," Allemane countered, having been one of Kulams most vocal accusers.
"Actually, you are." The Empress seemingly glided across the floor to the bedside. There she removed her own scarf and wrapped it around Farzas neck, hiding the post-mortem wound inflicted on the body. She drew up the sheet once more over the Queens head. "Farza is in Nebuharins bed. Nebuharin is not. That hardly seems to point to King Kulam having killed her."
"Are you saying Nebuharin did?" Pompey inquired.
"I would think that is the obvious conclusion."
"Didnt you say he was dead?" Gregor raised his fleshy hand and pointed a mangled finger at the slight woman. "Now you say hes alive and killed Farza. Thats very convenient for you."
"Allemane also said he was dead," Gabrielle reminded the occupants of the room. She hadnt spent much time with the Chin ruler, but felt protective of her nonetheless. When she came to Lao Mas support, Pei-cha rubbed his cheek against her thigh.
"And the Destroyer said he drank hemlock," Allemane added, reluctant to be one of only two suspects.
"His cup had hemlock in it. I smelled it."
"Obviously," Pompey broke in, "he didnt drink it. The question is: where is he?"
Xena folded her arms over her chest, straightening to her full height. "We know theres no one hiding or hidden in the inner palace or gardens."
"So you say, Destroyer," Gregor hissed.
"Explain yourself, Proconsul."
"You say no one is in the gardens, but I dont trust you. And I have ten good reasons not to." He held up his hands for all to see, his puffy fingers almost grotesque in size and shape. "For all we know, you and Nebuharin set this whole party up to knock off your enemies. He pretends to die. You get your lap dog," he gestured to Lao Ma, "to say hes dead. You and your Amazon whore then tell us hes nowhere to be found. We all know if she will spread her legs for you that shell say or do anything. And then you kill Far -"
Gregor was so engrossed in his speech that he failed to see the Conquerors fast approach. With the strength equal to several men, Xena backhanded the proconsul. His head snapped to the side and the sound of breaking bones was evident to all, most especially the Ephesian. Blood spurted from his nose and lip, coating his chin and chest in brilliant red.
Across the room, Gabrielle winced at the violence being inflicted on her behalf. Her stomach cramped up and she wondered if she might lose its contents. Shakily, she lowered herself onto a nearby footstool and hugged Pei-cha around the neck, trying to obscure her vision.
Xena reached into his open mouth and pulled out his tongue, digging her thumb into the fleshy organ. "Never insult Queen Gabrielle. If you do so again, I will rip out your tongue and feed it to you. Do you understand?"
Gregor did not respond immediately.
Xenas other hand slapped his lower jaw, causing him to bite his own tongue. He moaned with the additional pain and choked on the new blood filling his mouth. "Answer me, you fat, quivering fool!"
Muffled by the hold on his tongue, the proconsul barely managed to stammer a discernable reply, "Yhwes."
She released her hold on his tongue and wiped the wetness off on his cloak. "Apologize."
Once again, Gregor was foolishly slow to obey. As a result he suffered another backhand, this time focused on his other cheek. Gasping for breath, he finally spoke, "Im sorry Queen Gabrielle." Blood and saliva ran over his lips as he spoke. Fortunately, he remembered to use her title, precluding another attack.
Allemane took a step toward the two combatants, as if he might now intervene.
He was met with the tip of Xenas sword at the base of his throat. "Back off, Allemane. Dont involve yourself in this dispute."
Wisely, the Gaul leader stood still, neither advancing nor retreating. He knew that any movement on his part would be interpreted as a threat. Trying not to show any fear, he waited for the danger to pass.
There was the sound of other swords being drawn, others not being sure if the Conquerors anger might soon be directed toward them. Gabrielle glanced around the room and saw Pompey, Dokov and Kulam all standing armed, their swords held in a defensive position. Tension radiated through the room, wrapping the occupants tightly in its grasp.
"There are several flaws in your theory, Gregor," Lao Ma responded calmly, as if there was no imminent danger. "First, Allemane also verified Nebuharins death. Either he has to be in on the deception as well, or he lied for his own purposes. Second, you imply that we were all searching for Nebuharin today, when, in fact, we had no idea he was missing until a few moments ago. Third, you state that it was the Conqueror who killed Farza. There is no proof of that allegation whatsoever. Any of us could have killed her."
"I couldnt have," Dokov replied. "I was with you all morning in the garden house, Lao Ma." He was still annoyed that the empress had denied him his diversions.
"Not all morning, Dokov. And certainly, not all night. We have no idea how long Queen Farza has been dead. You could have killed her in the night, put her in Nebuharins bed, and then joined me in the garden house."
"We were all alone at some point," Kulam agreed.
"Not all," Xena replied. "Queen Gabrielle and I were together all night and all morning."
Hearing the Conquerors assertion, Gabrielles brows furrowed. She said nothing, not wanting to contradict the ruler at this moment.
Allemane shrugged and made a face, backing away from the Conquerors sword. "With all due respect, Conqueror, that is hardly a ringing endorsement, at least to me. I dont know about the others."
Pompey nodded, "I would agree with you, Allemane. No one has an alibi. Including Nebuharin."
The Hun lumbered over to another chair and placed himself in it, laying his sword across his lap. "If Nebuharin is alive, lets leave."
"Dont be stupid," Allemane retorted. "We cant get out without Nebuharin. He has to rescind his order to kill anyone who crosses the sand trap."
The Hun scowled, but did not reply.
A mirthless laugh issued from Kulam. "So, we are still stuck in here, but now we have a different corpse and a missing host. Although, I think Dokov has kindly prevented Farza from similarly rising from the dead. Who will be next?"
"Why are you assuming anyone else will die?" Pompey inquired.
"Why did Nebuharin go to such trouble then? He brings us all here, locks us in his inner palace and disappears. He makes sure we are unable to leave, no matter what begins happening. Now his neighbor to the north is dead. Why should any of us feel safe? Do you think he will now appear and say Surprise! and let us all go home?"
"Kulams right, we are all in danger," Allemane agreed. "This is Nebuharins way of taking out his enemies."
Realizing his fellow rulers were agreeing with him, Kulam continued. "We need to search again."
"I did search," Xena growled, taking offense.
Lao Ma nodded her assent, "I agree with Kulam, Xena. You were searching for Farza, not for Nebuharin. Now, we need to try to find someone not just hiding in fear, but someone hiding as a killer would."
Somewhat mollified, the Conqueror gave a slight nod. "Fine."
"We should also try to find a way out of here," Pompey added. "I dont think Nebuharin only had one way in or out. That would be too dangerous. Hed have at least one other way out. We need to find his escape route and use it."
One by one the rulers exited the bedchamber, speaking softly amongst themselves. Soon only the women were left in the room. The servant girls sat together on the floor, eyeing the three very different women rulers with interest.
Gabrielle went over to the Conqueror and embraced her, as she had been wanting to do since Farzas body was revealed and Dokovs desecration of it. The Conquerors arms closed about her and Xena rubbed her oracles back soothingly. "Its going to be fine, Gabrielle." She kissed the fair head nestled under her chin.
"What do you really think about Nebuharin, Xena?" Lao Ma asked after a suitable time.
Xena still held the oracle, even when the smaller woman tried to pull away. "It doesnt seem like something Nebuharin would do. He was a Fox, but he wasnt a real predator. Thats why his kingdom has survived so long. He was interested only in his borders, no one elses. To bring us all here to kill us doesnt make sense for him."
The Chin empress considered the reply. "Perhaps he meant it as his legacy. He was very impassioned talking about that at dinner. Many equate peace with the death of their enemies."
"And others regard it as the incapacitation of their enemies, or those who stand in their way." Xena locked eyes with the slender empress. Coming to a decision, she placed a kiss on Gabrielles forehead. "Gabrielle, I need to go see if I can find Nebuharin, dead or alive. I want you to stay with Lao Ma."
The oracle wanted to protest, but decided not to since they were not alone. "Be safe."
A throaty chuckle was her response, "Dont worry about me." She untangled herself from Gabrielles embrace. "Lao Ma, see to her safety."
"Of course, Xena. You need not ask."
Xena smiled thinly, "I wasnt asking." She strode confidently out of the room, eager to discover whatever secrets there were in the inner palace.
Lao Ma stroked Pei-chas fur, gaining the snow leopards attention. Pointing to Gabrielle, she said, "Guard!" Pei-cha went over to the oracle, brushing himself against her, purring loudly. Amused at her cats obvious adoration of the young Amazon Queen, Lao Ma smiled. "Well, if Xena cant be here, Pei-cha is the closest thing."
Pale leopard eyes narrowed at the perceived insult.
Palaemon walked along the docks, looking over the various ships moored there. He tried to ignore the smells he always associated with a harbor sweat, salt and fish. There were many reasons why he never entered the navy, the stench he associated with the work a main one. His older brother had become a sailor. Palaemon could still remember how long it took for his mother to wash the scent of the sea out of Andrus clothing whenever he visited on shore leave. Andrus had told the younger Palaemon of the freedom on the ocean, and the camaraderie among the men. Palaemon figured he had the best of both worlds. He lived on Grecian soil and his brother told him all the jokes his shipmates had taught him.
His love of the land didnt mean that Palaemon never learned the basics of sailing, nor that he suffered from seasickness as a number of men did. As the Captain of the Royal Guard, it was important that he be familiar with any type of transport the Conqueror might wish to utilize. He was searching for boat that would carry their compliment of ten, in addition to the crew. It would be best, he thought, if the crew was small in number. It would make them easier to control and would mean fewer people to bribe. This also meant a smaller ship and, he hoped, a faster ship. While it would be nowhere near as comfortable as the vessel they traveled on into Babylon, survival was a greater benefit.
The note he had received from the Conqueror had instructed him to do this. Xena wanted a ship capable of a fast escape, should it be necessary. He had been told to use any amount of money necessary to procure it. Palaemon was also to make sure the Babylonians would be hindered in any pursuit they might attempt. He was focusing on the first objective; the second would take more time.
Walking alongside him was Novan, one of Palaemons most trusted senior officers. She had been in the Conquerors navy prior to her promotion into the Royal Guard, apparently not as affected by the smell of the harbors as the Captain. It was her duty to assure him of the sea-worthiness of the vessel they ultimately chose.
Palaemon enjoyed working with Novan. The brown haired, broad shouldered woman was always focused on the mission at hand. Years of serving at sea had toughened her and made her stronger than many of the other women in the Guard. The navy had also taught her to be content with her own company as women were not accepted readily as crewmates onboard ship. Palaemon found her less talkative than the Conqueror, which was quite the achievement.
They eyed the boats in the harbor and the Captain deferred to his lieutenants lead, as they walked slightly closer to ones that might fit their needs. Their focus on a ship capable of making a fast getaway meant they would need one with both sails and rowers. They could not rely on anything as capricious as wind when they left Babylon. Human effort would be needed. This meant that the ships they were focusing on had a crew compliment of at least forty, making Palaemon a bit nervous.
Her trained eye examined the vessels quickly, looking for the signs of a conscientious captain. Their plan for this morning was to identify five potential candidates and make discreet inquiries about their owners later. It would be foolish to approach the captains directly without knowing their political allegiances. They had, however, been focusing on finding acceptable ships not flying the Babylonian flag.
The Captain was also looking for the waterways or sewers into the city. If they had to make a surreptitious getaway, it would be best to have a concealed pathway to the river. Further he was to ensure that riders were hired who would lay a false trail into the desert on horseback. Palaemon knew it was due to the Amazon Queens presence that the Conqueror was so concerned about their escape plans. Normally, the Conqueror would have merely informed him to be ready to leave on a moments notice. She would have trusted her instincts and the part of her that was Ares child to see her safely home. Gabrielle in her life meant an end to such spontaneity, as the Conqueror was unwilling to put the fair-haired woman at risk. Palaemon was more than happy to see to the Amazon Queens safety. He had risked his life and reputation before to safeguard her. He would never hesitate to do so.
Novan indicated the boats she would be content with, from a cursory inspection, and they left the waterway in search of the nearest sailors pub.
Eponin was walking around the walled grounds surrounding the palace, examining them from every angle. It was her task to determine if there were any suitable exits, or areas that could be made into exits, should they be needed. She had found a few places that could be utilized in a pinch, but she was not pleased with the results of her search.
She began heading back to the palace when she spotted a woman sitting near the south wall. The woman was petite, with short red hair. Eponin could tell little more as she was seated on a short stool and had her back to the warrior. She was drawing a brush along stretched canvas. From Eponins vantage point, it appeared that the woman was painting nothing that existed in the garden. Intrigued, she wandered over. In the back of her mind, she remembered her bet with Kelryn, knowing she needed to make a few notches today. It would be a little difficult with the situation they found themselves in, but, provided she kept encounters relatively brief, she knew she would be able to easily best the younger Amazon. Eponin smirked; no one had ever questioned her prowess before and been proven right.
Positioning herself a little behind and to the left of the artist, Eponin studied the artwork. She then studied the scene before the artist. As she had noted, they were nothing alike. The grounds surrounding the palace were full of exotic flowers blooming on prickly cacti. The painting, however, was of a lush valley, full of high grass, dotted with yellow dandelions and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It certainly wasnt a depiction of anything in Babylon.
"Dreaming of being someplace else?"
The red-head didnt turn to look at her, but kept working on her painting. "What makes you think I understand Greek?" she replied, in Greek, hiding a smile.
Eponin was stumped. "I I " Confused, she scratched her forehead. "Do you?"
The small red-head looked over her shoulder slyly and raised her eyebrow.
The Commander turned a deep shade of scarlet as she realized what she had said. Her pride deeply wounded, all plans of conquest raced from her. She felt a sudden urge to inspect the palace once again. A few dozen quick strides had her close to the edge of the grounds when she saw Kelryn leaning against the wall, smirking. Eponin groaned; this kept becoming worse by the moment.
Laughing gray eyes fixed on her as she approached. Kelryns gaze pointedly raked over the pretty painter. "You could try just clubbing them over the head and dragging them into the bushes."
"Not another word, Soldier."
"Does having the same woman twice count, by the way?"
"I said," Eponin barked, "not another word."
Chuckling, Kelryn made a show of sealing her lips. Then she made a bigger show of stretching her arms and rolling her shoulders, highlighting the additional line of text the scribe had thoughtfully applied only a half candlemark before, the words streaming out from under her leathers.
"Tell me about your other morning activities, Soldier."
"Well, if you dont want to hear about the good part " Kelryn trailed off when she realized the depth of her commanding officers annoyance. She cleared her throat, squared her shoulders and began relating her findings in a precise tone. The young woman transformed into the consummate professional warrior, the cockiness replaced by accomplishment and earned confidence. "Commander, I interviewed as many of the guards as possible without raising suspicion. None have seen any comings or goings into the inner palace. Nor have they seen any of the rulers approach the other side of the divide. The sand is raked every morning by one of the priests, under the observation of Marshall Harib. The concubines report that they have not been visited since Nebuharin went into the inner palace. Although a few complained that the kings son has been showing unwanted and inappropriate attention in his fathers absence."
"And what of the purpose of this summit? Did they have any ideas?"
"Commander, the guards all reported that they were not privy to such information. Marshall Harib considers his ruler an honorable and peaceful man, intent on protecting his homeland. The concubines all noted that Nebuharin was particularly excited about the other rulers visiting. He seemed unconcerned about how they would interact, assuming that a banner of peace would prevail. Many of the concubines harbored concern, as their presence had been requested in prior visits by various dignitaries. While Babylonian law prohibits father and son from sharing a woman, it seems the taboo does not extend to guests."
"Bastards," Eponin muttered.
"Yes, I would agree. They were all greatly relieved when Nebuharin said he would not be needing them during the summit." My gain, Kelryn thought, but didnt bother sharing with Eponin.
"You seem to have been able to gather quite a bit of information from the women of the court."
Kelryn considered the tone of the question, trying to determine how best to answer. "Commander, I am young and flirtatious. I am not considered a threat by the women so they confide in me more readily than others perhaps. I assure you that my pursuit of our contest has not in any way undermined my -"
"- Kelryn, I know that. If I doubted you, I would never have given you an important assignment." Eponin blew out a long breath, diffusing the residual anger lingering in her. "Find out from them the secret ways in and out of the palace. They would know if anyone; theyre probably sneaking out every night themselves."
"Yes, Commander." With a salute, Kelryn returned to the palace. There were worse assignments than milking the harem for information. Kelryn chuckled at her own phrasing.
Eponin watched this young version of herself leave, the swagger noticeable and enviable. Rubbing a callused hand across her chin, she sighed, wondering when she had become so old.
"Im sorry," a sweet, low-pitched voice said behind her.
The Amazon turned and saw the red-head had come over. The womans fingers, throat and face were liberally spotted with paint. Wiping one hand off on a rag, the woman offered it out to Eponin. The warrior took it, bracing herself for some type of trick.
"My mouth has always led me into trouble, of all kinds," the artist was saying, a suggestive smile on her lips.
Eponin had yet to say anything in greeting.
"My name is Wynn."
This roused the warrior. "Eponin."
"Youre an Amazon and a Greek. How is that possible? I thought the Conqueror rid Greece of the women warriors."
Eponin was surprised to note a measure of anger in Wynns eyes as she asked the question. "My Queen saved the Conquerors life in battle," Eponin declared proudly. She remembered the events of nearly six moons ago as if they were yesterday. She could still taste the surprise of the Roman soldiers when the fierce Nation appeared on the hillside and joined ranks with the Greeks. "The Conqueror restored our traditional lands and now invites our Queen to join her in court. I am the head of Queen Gabrielles guard." She took an appraising look at the artist. "And what is a Greek doing here in Nebuharins court?"
Wynn heard the challenge in the words. "Painting," she replied blandly. "Excuse me, please."
Shaking her head, Eponin muttered to herself, "Well, that could have gone better. Just loaded with charm today, eh, Ep?"
Xena headed back to the garden house and sat at the head of the table. She confirmed that which had let her know Farza was dead. The figurine of the Syrian Queen was broken in half, the two pieces scattered on the tabletop. Nebuharins had been given similar treatment. Thinking back to the time of the kings death, she could not recall it having fallen off the table.
Someone was sending them a message.
The Conqueror drummed her fingers on the table restlessly. Nebuharin was no fool. He would not have built an inner palace that only had one entrance. No matter how secure he thought the site to be, he would never have allowed himself to be trapped. So the question was where did he put the passage?
Her gaze drifted out of the garden house, to the inner palace. She scanned the walls, liberally covered with thick vines and flowering plants. The rooftop was her first choice, but she knew the Babylonians did not share the Amazons and hers love of heights. In a land of sand and stone, the people would stick low to the ground, like the animals that populated it.
Would he have put in a tunnel? The Conqueror considered the soil type, knowing it would have to be strong enough to support the palace, but not knowing if it would be soft enough to carve a tunnel through it. Most likely, the palace had been built on stone, which would have been near impossible to dig through any length without it taking a considerable amount of time. So, where did he put it?
"Nothing is as soft as water, but who can withstand the raging flood." The long distant words of Lao Ma echoed through Xenas mind.
"You sneaky bastard." With purpose in her step, Xena left the garden house, knowing she would soon be free of the inner palace.
"Lets retire to another room, shall we?" Lao Ma proposed, standing up and straightening out the long folds of her gown. "I believe there is nothing we can do that will help Farza. And remaining here is only frightening the servants needlessly."
"Youre right." Gabrielle smiled in the direction of the four girls and held out her hand to one of them. The servant clasped it and allowed herself to be pulled upright. Her liquid brown eyes met the oracles in thanks. Gabrielle nodded her head and indicated that the girls were to follow.
They finally came to rest in the receiving room, a large, ornately decorated area down the hall from the kings chambers. There they showed the servants to a corner of the room which held various amusements, parlor games and such. Gabrielle and Lao Ma settled themselves into overstuffed, high-backed chairs. Pei-cha curled himself up at the oracles feet, still mindful of his sentry duties.
"You have been with Xena for half a cycle of seasons now."
Gabrielle was unsure if this was intended as a question or a statement of fact. "Yes, thats true."
"How did you come to be with her?"
"I hated her," came the quiet reply. "I hated her more than I hated anyone before in my life. And, yet, I knew that if someone would have compassion on her " Gabrielle plucked nervously at the cloth covering the chair. "I thought it hypocritical of myself to desire a second chance for the people, but be unwilling to extend one to her." Lao Mas reaction was indiscernible and Gabrielle wondered if she had spoken too freely. Chin was an ally, and certainly Xena and Lao Ma were well acquainted. Perhaps there had been more between them than she knew. She fell silent and admired the coloring of Pei-chas fur.
"What made you believe the Conqueror was in need of a second chance? If anyone has made the most of every opportunity, it is Xena."
"I shouldnt have said what I did before, Empress. The Conqueror is a skilled leader." The oracle rebuked herself for her loose tongue. She never hesitated to speak the truth to Xena, but she should not be in the habit of blurting it out to others.
"When I first met Xena some seven winters ago, she was nothing like the woman you know now. Her anger consumed her and made her foolish. It nearly cost her her life." The Empress eyes grew dim as she remembered finding Xena in the woods, the ravenous hounds baying behind her, drawing ever closer to their goal. "I tried to teach her to give up her Will, to stop desiring, believing it would consume her." She shrugged, a simple gesture for the enormity of what she felt. "I was wrong."
"How so?" Gabrielle breathed.
"Which is more powerful here, Gabrielle, the desert or these gardens?"
The oracle shrugged, the answer obvious and the change of topics abrupt. "The desert. The gardens had to be brought forcibly here and carefully tended to survive."
"Exactly. That which is in its natural form is always more powerful than that which has been changed."
Gabrielle frowned, knowing what was said was important, and wanting to fully understand what Lao Ma was trying to convey. "I dont follow."
"I tried to alter Xena. Had I succeeded, I would have made her less than she is." Lao Ma sighed, finally able to share the realizations she had made over the last seven winters. "My way is not her way, my path is not her path. I believe that ultimately we will reach the same destination, but we are unlikely to cross each other during our travels."
"You dont mean physically."
"No, I do not. Chin is indebted to Greece and is Greeces servant. I will always glad for an opportunity to welcome Xena to my homeland and to be with her, or to visit Greece. She is a remarkable woman, capable of greatness."
There was a long silence between them, punctuated only by the sounds of the game playing in the corner. Pei-cha, tired of the inactivity, raised himself up and placed his front paws and head in Gabrielles lap, demanding attention. Her small hands immediately went into his fur, rubbing it briskly. "Is he always this affectionate?"
Lao Ma smiled, "No. But he is still young."
"Young?" Gabrielle considered the size of the cat. He was easily as long as she was tall. Further, his tail was nearly equal to the length of his body. His head came to her waist when she stood and he weighed more than Gabrielle. "Will he grow larger?" She couldnt imagine what he would be like if he did.
Soft laughter greeted her inquiry, "I believe he is finished. Pei-cha is a little over a winter old. I brought him with me because he is still being trained. His mother, Mei-ling, remains in the court of Chin."
"How many do you have?"
Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over his broad forehead, eliciting a low purr from the feline. "How do you train them?"
"I teach them to trust me. After that, we learn from each other."
Sounds like Xena and I. "I can see that. Trust is essential."
"Pei-cha trusts you because he has no reason to fear you. He knows you are content with yourself, so he can be content with you. Most people foolishly try to tame wild animals. It is destined to fail because it is against their nature." As I failed with Xena, Lao Ma added silently.
One hand slipped down to squeeze a fur-covered paw. "I am content with you as you are, Pei-cha," Gabrielle affirmed, a smile on her lips. She spent a moment looking into the intelligent blue eyes and thought of her lover, who was searching the inner palace and gardens even as they spoke. "Do you believe Nebuharin is alive?"
"We are certainly meant to wonder about that, arent we?" Lao Ma settled herself more comfortably in the chair. "If he is dead, then someone has gone to great pains to hide that fact. To steal the body from his room and put it where it has not been readily found would take a great deal of effort. One beyond that of a mere trifle."
"Why would someone do that, though?" Gabrielle then answered her own question, "By hiding Nebuharins body, it leads people to suspect Nebuharin of Farzas death. That would mean the killer is among us unsuspected. But for what reason? Does he intend to kill us all? Or will he be content with Nebuharin and Farza?"
"And yet why would he kill him when Nebuharin has ordered that we are all to remain in the inner palace on penalty of death?"
Gabrielle pressed her lips together in concentration. "Perhaps it was a mistake on the killers part? He had put the poison in the drink before that proclamation was made. He couldnt stop his plan."
"Perhaps. But, if he had put poison in a flask or in a goblet, the fight between Xena and Dokov was the perfect cover for destroying it. He could have done so without notice."
"Just as he could have poisoned Nebuharins drink without notice." Gabrielle shook her head. "But why? When he would be trapped as we are?"
Lao Ma replied, "Unless he isnt. Yet even if he has a way out we are unaware of, to murder Nebuharin in his own palace is fraught with risk. Unless he is able to place blame for the murder on someone else. That would make it is considerably less dangerous."
"Did you know of the other rulers being invited before you came, Lao Ma?"
"I did not. It was my understanding that Nebuharin had merely asked for my company."
"Same with Xena and me. I doubt if he told the others then. So, assuming no one came knowing they would have opportunity to kill their enemies or lay blame on them " Gabrielle trailed off. It was very confusing trying to consider all the angles. "The intended victim must have been Nebuharin."
"Yet murder is never committed without an element of profit. What does the murderer gain by Nebuharins death?"
The Amazon Queen shook her head. "Only his own certain death if he is unable to escape. Its not as if there isnt an heir to the throne. While Nebuharins son might be weaker, he would still have the same strength of army his father had. And, if his father had been murdered, he would have greater reason to fight to protect his homeland."
Lao Ma nodded. "Exactly."
"So do you think Nebuharin is alive then?"
"The best way to ensure peace is to have no enemies," Lao Ma observed. "He brought the strongest rulers in the world here to his house with only two exceptions. What better way to guarantee that his dynasty is preserved?"
"But why go through this charade? Why pretend to die? And then hide? Why not kill us when we arrived? Or poison us at dinner?"
Lao Ma sighed, "Maybe to make us suspect one another and hope that we do his work for him."
The rest of the afternoon wore on with the rulers searching out the various parts of the palace and gardens. Lao Ma had left with the servant girls to prepare dinner; Lao Ma still believed herself to be the best guardians of the servants virtue. Gabrielle and Pei-cha had contented themselves with sitting on the balcony, watching the various comings and goings in the gardens. The oracle kept straining for sight of her lover, but was unsuccessful.
She had eventually fallen asleep in the warm sunlight, a scroll spread out on her lap and Pei-cha stretched out at her feet, when she awoke to Allemanes shouts. Still groggy, she lifted her head up from the back of the chair and saw Allemane moving hurriedly through the flowerbeds, waving his arms. His curly black hair bounced about his shoulders as he ran, giving him an effeminate appearance.
"Gregor is dead!" he called out.
This roused Gabrielle immediately. She sprang to her feet and rushed back into her room. It took her only a few moments to quickly rearrange her sleep-rumpled clothing and hurry down the stairs. Pei-cha matched her strides, his fur bristling as he felt her anxiety rise.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked, breathless, as she arrived in the middle of the garden where Allemane and Dokov stood. The Amazon Queen hadnt seen the Hun arrive, but assumed it was during her own descent to the gardens. She was careful to stand a good arms length away from him. Despite having Pei-cha at her side, she still felt far too vulnerable near Dokov for her own liking. Gabrielle also recoiled when she saw the Gauls hands and sleeves were covered with blood. Pei-cha noticed it as well, and let out a small growl at the scent of the blood.
Dokov stepped back, believing the growl was directed toward him.
Gabrielle scratched Pei-cha behind the ear in thanks.
"I found Gregor dead in the garden, over there." Allemane pointed in the direction of the floral garden.
Lao Ma arrived at that moment and Gabrielle wondered how the Empress could manage to appear serene despite the situation. "How was he killed?" she asked.
Allemane spread out his hands, revealing the blood stained flesh. "His throat was slit."
"You forgot to clean up afterwards," Kulam remarked dryly as he arrived. His dark eyes had seemed to grow darker in the last two days as murder came close to him again and again.
"How dare you!" the Gaul sputtered and took a step toward the Persian king.
Seeing another fight about to break out, Gabrielle stepped between the two rulers. "Why dont you take us to the body, Lord Allemane?" This seemed to diffuse the escalating conflict for the moment, providing everyone with a new subject to focus on. The rulers reminded her of the young bullies she had avoided while growing up. She disliked being around them as a child, she certainly hadnt grow fonder of them in the intervening years.
They paced about forty steps into the flowerbeds, finding the dead body amidst the incongruously cheerful setting. Gregor was stretched out across a row of flowers, their bright yellow color muted by the darkening blood on the petals. His throat was cleanly slit, his mouth contorted in horror. Death had found him unaware until it was too late to deny its embrace.
They stood around the body, a circle of witnesses, each surprisingly careful not to trample any more flowers. "Where are the others?" Kulam asked.
"Pompey is with the servant girls in the garden house," Lao Ma supplied. "I turned them over to him earlier this afternoon."
"And Xena?" he continued.
All eyes turned to Gabrielle. The Amazon Queen said nothing, not wanting to admit she had no idea where the Conqueror was. She assumed she was still searching the grounds like everyone else, but wondered why she hadnt come with the noise Allemane had made. Certainly she would be interested in learning of another death. Unless she already knows about it. The thought came unbidden into Gabrielles mind and caused a chill to race through her. She shivered, despite the heat, and hoped no one had noticed her reaction. "Is still searching," she finally replied.
"Well, now we have three dead. Or two, depending on whether you believe old Nebuharin is alive and kicking." Kulam stroked his chin thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing. Gregors death cleared a path for him to the Mediterranean. If Nebuharin were actually dead, nothing stood between him and the sea. And nothing stood between Greece and Persia either; he needed to ensure that the Conqueror would not be able to take advantage of this situation.
"We should take him to his room," Gabrielle whispered.
"I dont want to carry that pig anywhere. I could strain my back," Allemane protested.
"It would be wrong to dishonor him in death, Allemane," the Empress chided. "It is beneath the dignity of Gaul for you to refuse him that basic courtesy."
"Who are you to lecture to me about dignity and courtesy? You and your son are mere puppets of the Destroyer. You pay her tribute to keep the bitch from taking it all away from you and your shell of a husband. Where is the dignity in that type of rule?" Allemanes face flushed with anger as he warmed to the fight. "At least Gaul is free, truly free. We are champions of our own destiny."
Kulam snorted. "You are a fool. Gaul is only as free as Rome allows her to be. You are Romes lap dog as Chin is Greeces. You may think more highly of your master, but you are far from free."
Gabrielle frowned, "I thought Gaul and Persia were allied." She looked at Kulam for some type of confirmation. "Is Gaul also allied with Rome?" This she asked of Allemane.
Neither Allemane nor Kulam spoke; indeed, both avoided eye contact with her.
The Amazon Queen was thoughtful. She did not like this new information, but nothing about Rome ever comforted her. Xenas disdain of Caesar personally, yet healthy respect for his forces, had rubbed off on her during their time together. Rome and Gaul allied; Gaul and Persia allied. Are Rome and Persia allied? Is the friend of a friend also a friend? Or does it simply make one of the friends replaceable?
Dokov scratched his gut and then bent over, roughly grabbing one of Gregors arms. He pulled the Ephesian proconsul into a lopsided sitting position before looking at the other two men. "Pick him up. He was worthless, but I dont want the smell of his rotting body drifting over to the dinner table."
Both men considered the heat of the gardens and knew the exposed flesh would soon ripen. Reluctantly, they grabbed onto his other arm and legs and the three men began to carry the heavyset ruler back to his room. They paused every twenty paces to unceremoniously dump Gregor on the ground and rest their arms and backs. Then they would hoist him up again and continue on their way.
"Which one do you think killed him?" Gabrielle asked the Empress standing beside her.
Lao Ma turned to her and lifted a delicate eyebrow in question. "Why could it only be one of them?"
"Oh, okay, or Pompey."
"Or Nebuharin or Xena or myself or even you."
Gabrielle screwed up her face, as if she had tasted something vile. "What are you talking about?"
"Things are not always what they seem, Gabrielle." With that, the slight woman turned and made her way back to the garden house.
Standing alone among the flowers, a drying pool of blood on the ground below her, the oracle turned her green eyes to the snow leopard. She knelt down, careful to not stain her gown, and held out her hands to Pei-cha. Obligingly, he placed his front paws in her hands. Carefully, she lifted them up and inspected his claws. She was relieved to find them without a remnant of Gregors flesh attached. Releasing his paws, Gabrielle leaned forward and placed a kiss on the felines forehead. "Just wanted to make sure, sweetie. No offense."
Pei-cha raised his left paw and licked it clean.
There were a lot of giggles surrounding the Amazon warrior. Kelryn had been admitted into the private quarters of the kings concubines. The young warrior stood among the score of beautiful women, enjoying the fawning taking place over her. She stood taller than the women of Babylon, her sun-pink skin in contrast to their naturally darker tone. Her light brown hair and gray eyes also set her apart from the sea of dark hair and eyes surrounding her. Only a few of the concubines had dyed their hair to a reddish color, but Kelryn didnt find them as attractive. She preferred the exotic look.
The women were pleased with themselves for having successfully smuggled her into their rooms, despite the guard outside the door. While the concubines themselves enjoyed a relative amount of freedom in the palace, no one, save the king, was allowed in their private quarters. However, the women were quite adept at all manner of distraction and while the guards attention was directed elsewhere, Kelryn had been brought inside. They led her through the outer room and into their private bathing courtyard.
Kelryn was certain she had discovered Elysia. Staring hungrily at the naked women who cavorted around the pool and reclined on padded benches, Kelryn briefly considered remaining in Babylon permanently. Following gestures she understood immediately, the Amazon warrior accepted the invitation to join them. She divested herself of her clothing and performed a shallow dive into the pool.
Surfacing, she found herself surrounded by five of the concubines, all speaking in somewhat broken Greek. They pressed her back against the tiled side of the pool, questioning her about everything to do with Greece, Amazons and the Conqueror.
One of the concubines took a long inventory of the soldier and looked up at Kelryn, quite puzzled. This caused the normally confident Kelryn to glance down her own body as well and, once satisfied that everything seemed to be in its proper place, she raised a questioning look to her surveyor. "What?"
The concubine blushed and reached out to poke Kelryn in the right breast.
"Hey!" This was not how the Amazon had pictured this moment going. She did not want to become a specimen for these women to examine. Well, not if it was just going to involve ungraceful poking. "What was that for?"
"Arent you an Amazon?" her assailant inquired.
"Yes," Kelryn hissed, having no idea how the question and the action were related. The women spoke amongst themselves in the Babylonian language for a moment. There seemed to be a slight point of disagreement arising which involved Kelryn. Not appreciating this entire turn of events, she smacked the water lightly, to regain control of the conversation. "Whats going on?"
The poker bowed her head slightly. "Im sorry. We had been told that Amazons cut off their breasts in order to be better with a bow and arrow."
Kelryn stared blankly at the women for a long moment, and then, unable to contain herself, erupted into gales of laughter. In her mind, she imagined the scene of an Amazon war council with this suggestion made on how to improve their archery. She then imagined a huge bonfire in which every bow and arrow from the camp was burned mercilessly, consequences be damned. Cut off our breasts! Riiiggghhht. Gods, they probably also believe we eat mens privates for dinner. Regaining control somewhat, she peered around at the innocent, inquisitive expressions and lost herself in laughter once more.
A few of the women around her twittered at her response, more in embarrassment than actual amusement. The questioner looked forlorn.
Gulping for air and holding her side, Kelryn came back to herself. "Gods, sorry about that." Another chuckle escaped but she fought it valiantly. "Uh no we dont do that. Thats just an old myth told to scare daughters away from joining the Nation. We love our breasts," she concluded, amusing herself once more. We love ours and yours and
"So you dont eat mens privates for dinner?" another woman asked.
Clamping a hand over her mouth, Kelryn shook her head. "Where did you hear all of these things?" she finally managed when she regained control.
"From Prince Vedtrilan."
"Whos that? Is he Babylonian?"
"Hes King Nebuharins son," one concubine said proudly. "Hes a wonderful storyteller. He tells stories and writes poetry and sings songs and " she trailed off sensing the accusatory stares of her fellow concubines. "I like him," the woman protested meekly.
"You mustnt," the poker advised. "He isnt your master. It would mean death, but only to you, if King Nebuharin found out. Vedtrilan would merely be scolded. The King would not put to death his own heir."
"He has another," the infatuated concubine replied sullenly.
The poker scoffed. "Dont delude yourself. Amurin is merely a child, and is his grandson. Vedtrilan is the Crown Prince. Royal blood is never spilt in an argument over a member of the harem. Remember your position, Kaleia. Dont be foolish." She knew she was only stating the obvious, but the obvious was being overlooked.
Kaleia scowled, clearing disapproving of the advice being given.
During this exchange, Kelryn had been surveying the women in the pool. Of particular interest to her was a sweet looking young woman across from her. The girl kept lifting her almond shaped eyes up to meet Kelryns and then they would drop back down to studying the surface of the water. The next time she looked up, Kelryn flashed her most winsome smile. A small smile was returned to her, coupled with a discreet wave.
"How long have you been a warrior?" the poker asked, wanting to end the argument that had been taking place.
Tearing her eyes away from the beauty, Kelryn replied, "My commission is new, less than a winter. But I have been training all of my life. My mothers lifebond was head of the armory. I spent a lot of time with her there."
"Whats a lifebond?"
"A mate. Its the highest form of commitment two Amazons can share together." Seeing the sea of blank faces around her, Kelryn continued patiently. "We have contractual bonds, wherein a couple will agree to be together for a certain period of winters. Typically its for a purpose to start a business, to plant and harvest a new field, or even to raise a child. In each of those, at the end of the term, the couple can renew, renegotiate or separate without any penalty. Lifebonds can never separate, under penalty of death."
A collective gasp went up around Kelryn. "Theyre executed if they separate?"
Kelryn nodded gravely; she had seen such a sentence carried out once in her lifetime. "Not just separate physically either," she clarified. "Desertion, adultery, abuse, failure to provide for your lifebond or your lifebonds children, all of those carry the highest penalty."
"I assume there are not many lifebonds," one of the women, a tall, almost awkward looking woman, said wryly.
"Youre right. In fact, the entire village tries to talk the two women out of making the commitment. There is always a one moon waiting period before they can participate in the ceremony. During that time, it is each Nation members obligation to attempt to dissuade both women. Theres no shame in backing out of an engagement either. Its better to be a bit embarrassed now than dead later."
"We have nothing like that here," one of the women muttered. "Women arent allowed to be together."
Looking around the bathing area, Kelryn smirked. "I take that what the king is unaware of is permitted?"
"That would be true of everything," the poker said pointedly, looking at Kaleia.
Kelryn remembered her assignment. "So, if you want to see someone prince or otherwise how do you go about getting out of the palace? Its guarded and youre watched."
A chorus of giggles enveloped her once more.
The young Amazon was starting to lose patience with the twittering and lack of immediate answers from her hosts. Although she had no problem with their hospitality overall considering her surroundings. She looked over once more at the pretty concubine across from her. She had felt the young woman studying her during her discussion on lifebonds. Kelryn used this time to return the favor. Their eyes met for a long moment, neither looking away. The woman twirled her index finger slowly over the surface of the water. Kelryn wanted to be that water.
Kelryn had no idea what the woman was talking about, her mind fully occupied elsewhere. "Swim?"
The poker took Kelryns hand and held it underwater, placing it where the current was the strongest. "Can you feel it? There is an inlet from the river below the palace. It circulates all the water inside, so we always have fresh bathing and drinking water."
Excited at the discovery, Kelryn dunked herself underwater and twisted around until she saw the inlet. It looked large enough for two people to swim side-by-side through the opening. Resurfacing and shaking her head, scattering droplets of water on everyone around her, she faced her informant again. "How far do you have to swim underwater?"
"Not far. It opens upward a short distance away from here. Then you can walk along a pathway that is carved into the tunnel."
"How come people dont use it to sneak into the palace?"
Everyone looked at her like she had grown another head. "Babylonians cant swim. At least, the common people cannot."
"Why not?" All Amazon daughters were taught to swim from infancy.
"We live in a desert," one muttered. "Only the sailors and the nobles know how to swim. The rest of the people are afraid of the water. Marduk walks through the river at times, surveying his kingdom. They do not wish such a close encounter with our god."
"A little ignorance is a good thing sometimes, eh?" Kelryn whispered to herself, more than to the women.
The poker reasserted herself once more, this time poking along Kelryns spine. She smiled demurely at the soldiers startled yelp. "I see you are learning our latest poem."
Twisting her neck to glance at the graceful script written on her skin, Kelryn shrugged. "Is that what it is? I was wondering."
"Oh yes. It is quite playful.
Ehssehl maitzbiem kehtainiem muzmainiem lailukhait
Ehkhaid yehsh lu k'ehv behtehn v'aihz h'yaih taiyshai
Taiyshai maitzbiem kehtainiem lainu m'ukhail m'ud
Ehkhaid lu hietulaiyl v'aihz h'yaih shmuneh
Shmuneh maitzbiem kehtainiem haihyu laishlainu
Ehkhaid gielaikh kailuv v'aihz h'yaih shehvai
Quite a few of us have memorized it. But there are seven more verses to go."
Kelryn smiled at her pretty friend across from her once more. "Well, Ill have to get someone else to add them on for me." At this remark, the young woman nodded in acquiescence. The Amazons features transformed with a suggestive smile, and she rose slightly out of the water, exposing her shoulders and upper arms to the warmer air. "Will you ladies excuse me, please?"
They backed away as Kelryn made her way across the pool toward the woman she had been flirting with since her arrival. She took long, graceful strokes and a bodylength away, she slipped underwater. Kelryn used that opportunity to confirm that the womans good looks extended beyond just her face. When she surfaced, she was directly in front of her admirer. "Hello," she said, consciously lowering her voice.
"Hello," the woman replied, laughing softly at the assertiveness of the Greek.
They examined one another silently a few moments longer before Kelryn whispered, "Enough talk." Not caring that they had a crowd watching, the Amazon pulled the concubine up against the length of her body and proceeded to kiss her.
The mood at the dinner table was restrained. Of the original ten who had sat around the large table only the night before, now a mere six were present. Xena still had not returned from her wanderings, which caused a great deal of consternation for the other rulers.
"Arent you worried about your keeper?" Dokov grunted, while tearing into a strip of meat.
Gabrielle bristled at the insult, feeling it more for the Nation than for herself. "Chief Dokov, I would remind you that I am Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation. I have treated you with the respect entitled to someone of your position. I expect no less from you." Carefully left out was any reference to respect for his character. She doubted if he had the intelligence to notice.
"I obtained my position by doing more than being a good lay."
Pompey chuckled, "Thats not what I had heard."
The other rulers joined in the laughter at Dokovs expense, alleviating the tension and relieving Gabrielle of the need to respond.
Dokovs skin mottled red and his hand tightened on the edge of his plate, his fingers turning white from the effort. "I will kill you for that, Pompey."
The triumvir ignored the Hun entirely, sipping his wine casually.
"Where is the Conqueror?" Kulam inquired.
The Amazon Queen shrugged, "Searching the gardens and palace. The same as everyone else today."
"Well, yes," Kulam conceded as he used a small ivory toothpick to remove an offending piece of his dinner that remained in his teeth, "but we are all here."
"With any luck, the bitch is dead," Dokov muttered.
"Are you wanting us to search for her?"
"No, Lao Ma, that is precisely what I dont want to do." He picked up a goblet and swirled the red wine around within its confines. "What better way for her to pick us off if we all go traipsing after her one by one?"
"Xena did not kill Nebuharin -" Gabrielle began her standard objection.
Allemane laughed, "No, it appears no one did. If we are to judge by his absence from his deathbed."
"- nor did she kill Farza." Gabrielle finished. Her angry green eyes scanned the faces at the table. "I suggest that instead of continually sniping at one another we would be better served by trying to figure out how to get out of here alive. And what we will do once we are free. Provided Nebuharin does not show up to make our way out of the country any easier."
"I think Nebuharin should be considered an enemy until proven dead or otherwise," Kulam offered. "He brought us here, locked us up in his inner palace, pretended to die and now may be murdering each of us while we wait for something else to happen."
Pompey was unimpressed by this analysis. The blond ruler leaned forward, elbows on the table, and studied those present. "Or, someone here killed Nebuharin, hid the body to achieve the impression he was alive, and is now killing us off while we wander around the gardens."
Gabrielle shook her head, "That doesnt make any sense, Pompey. How would that person escape from the inner palace? Once the Babylonians find out their king is dead, there will be a price to be paid."
"Not if our killer is working with someone in Babylon."
"The son, the crown prince," Lao Ma whispered.
Pompey gestured vaguely, "The crown prince, the other members of the royal family, the priests, a spurned concubine it wouldnt really matter if he, she or they seized control once the murderers work here was done."
"What would that person gain?" Allemane asked.
A sarcastic "please" was the reply.
Kulams eyes glistened as he spoke, "A powerful ally indebted to him, elimination of most of his rivals and the satisfaction of reordering the world to suit his purposes." Smiling at Lao Ma and Gabrielle, he finished, "Or her purposes."
"So, if we cant trust each other or anyone else in Babylon, what do we do?" Gabrielle sighed.
"Finish dinner and go back to our rooms."
Dokov snorted, the burst of air sending the food in his hand fluttering. "Locking the doors, of course. I suggest doubly so for you, Pompey."
Lao Ma escorted Gabrielle back to her suite. Gabrielle opened the door and allowed Pei-cha to slip into the room first. The feline quickly scouted the territory, determining that no one unfamiliar was within its confines. He sat contentedly in front of one of the chairs and waited for his mistresses to enter as well.
"Would you like something to drink, Lao Ma?" Gabrielle offered, walking over to the dresser with the pitcher of water atop it.
"No, thank you. I need to go make sure the servants are settled appropriately by Kulam and Pompey. I dont know how much longer Dokov can be restrained from pawing them."
Remembering the feel of the Huns hand on her thigh, Gabrielle shivered. "I hope to never interact with that tribe again after this visit."
"He is most unpleasant. It would be distressing to learn that he is the best of his clan."
Taking a sip of cool water and putting some down in a bowl for Pei-cha, Gabrielle began to prepare for sleep. "Please dont feel you need to baby-sit me, Lao Ma. Pei-cha is an admirable defender, I think." At the mention of his name, the big cat looked up and rubbed his head against Gabrielles leg. "And I am sure Xena will return any time now."
The Empress considered her options momentarily and then agreed. "All right then. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to come to me."
"Thank you. Good night." With a brief squeeze to the Empress upper arm, Gabrielle showed her out. She then swung the heavy door closed and barred it, knowing that Xena was more than capable of entering through the balcony. "What were you doing this morning, Xena?" the oracle whispered to the air. Gabrielle was glad to be free of company so that she could express all of the emotions she had kept restrained all day. "Where were you when Gregor died? Where are you now? Are you all right?"
Hearing no answer, though not expecting one, she sighed and stripped, putting on a soft sleep shift. Burying her nose in the fabric she drank in the smells of Greece which clung to it. She loved the spices the laundress used in cleaning and packing their clothes. They never failed to remind her of early summer mornings. In a land of oppressive heat and sand, Gabrielle longed for the gentle breezes and cloud dotted sky she knew so well.
She looked at the shift the Conqueror had ripped off her body the night before and smiled wistfully. It was her fondest hope that once they made it home, she and the Conqueror would be able to remain in the palace for a little while. Three moons hadnt been nearly enough to begin to understand her lover. Gabrielle doubted that a lifetime would provide enough opportunity.
Missing Xena, the young woman turned down the bed and crawled under the light sheets. She felt miserable, missing the only friend she had in the strange country, and fearful lest something had happened to Xena. She remembered the Ephesian battlefield where the Conquerors mortality had been all too real a concept.
Gabrielle didnt realize she was crying until she felt Pei-chas solid bulk rest on the bed beside her. She opened her eyes to discover ice blue eyes looking at her, distinguished from her lovers only by the shape of the pupils. Unable to hold back the wellspring of emotions within her any longer, Gabrielle threw her arms around the feline and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping. Pei-cha emitted a soft, soothing rumble and let the oracle curl up against him.
Soon both fell into a deep sleep.
Xena stood over the bed, looking down at her oracle who was clinging tightly to the snow leopard in her slumber. She had been disappointed to find Gabrielle already asleep when she returned. Examining the smaller woman, she noted what appeared to be dried tear tracks down her cheeks, and her face still seemed flushed with emotion. A burning sensation began in the Conquerors stomach as she wondered where Lao Ma was and why she had allowed Gabrielle to become upset.
Wanting to determine that her oracle was uninjured, Xena extended a hand toward the sheet covering Gabrielle. She stopped her movement, however, when a low growl was produced by Pei-cha. The Greek ruler stared at the large cat for a long moment before beginning to move once more. The growl became louder the next time and was accompanied by the baring of sharp teeth.
Gabrielle muttered something in her sleep and snuggled closer to the cat. Pei-cha looked from the Conqueror to the oracle and back again. Content with his intimidation tactics, Pei-cha wiped a rough tongue over Gabrielles cheek.
"Oh, I see," Xena muttered. "So thats how it is, eh?"
Pei-chas tail swished.
"I saw her first."
The leopard yawned, his mouth smacking shut with a slurping sound. With a defiant look, he settled his muzzle down on Gabrielles shoulder and closed his eyes once more.
"Damn cat," Xena complained, deciding to forego the examination of Gabrielle for the time being. "Ill make an area rug out of you if youre not careful."
Kelryn was pulled into the bedroom suite much the same as she was the night before. The Conqueror drew the curtains over the doorway to prevent anyone from witnessing their meeting. She had remained fully dressed in her leathers since her excursion earlier in the day and had passed the time waiting for the Amazon by sharpening her sword. It was an old habit born in the battle camps she had known. It had often soothed her and allowed her to focus on the only thing that mattered: survival.
The young Amazon casually glanced over to the bed and startled when she saw the beast her Queen was hugging in her sleep. "Sweet Artemis!" she exclaimed, jumping up and reaching for the hilt of her sword. "My Queen!"
Rolling her eyes, the Conqueror caught the warriors wrist in her strong grip. "She was sleeping," Xena growled, unintentionally joining Pei-chas response.
The noise caused Gabrielle to awaken and she stretched slowly before she realized she had three sets of eyes on her. Seeing Xena standing in the suite, whole and unharmed, revived the oracle. She rolled off the bed and raced over to the Conqueror, nestling herself in the rulers strong arms. "Youre back."
Xena frowned, knowing something was still bothering Gabrielle for her to react this way. "Im back. Are you okay?"
"I am now." She squeezed the ruler tightly, deciding to let whatever they needed to discuss with Kelryn wait.
Xena rubbed soothing circles on the small of Gabrielles back and held the smaller womans head gently against her chest. Over the oracle, the Conqueror gave Pei-cha a smirk, then kissed Gabrielles temple. "I told Lao Ma to watch over you. Why isnt she here?"
"I sent her away."
"Did she hurt you?" Xena was suddenly tense, afraid she had made the wrong decision in entrusting Gabrielle to the Empress care.
Gabrielle knew at that moment that one wrong word from her would seal Lao Mas doom. It was an overwhelming feeling knowing that Xena would kill for her. It was not a responsibility she cherished. "No, not at all. She left me with Pei-cha."
"Thats hardly comforting," Xena replied, earning a glare from the snow leopard.
"But he has been. He has Dokov scared."
Xena grunted. "I doubt it takes much for that. I should have killed him last night for touching you."
"No, Im glad you didnt. I dont want you to have trouble on my behalf."
Kelryn watched the entire scene with open fascination. The Conqueror she normally saw was not the woman standing before her, gently holding her Queen. The young soldier was impressed by how focused Xena was on Gabrielle; she would not had thought the ruler would put anyone before business.
"I dont mind trouble on your behalf. As long as I get to pick which half of you its on."
Gabrielle chuckled and kissed an available patch of skin.
Kelryn was shocked. I think she made a joke. Eponin will never believe this in a million years. I dont know that I believe it.
"No matter what, were leaving here tomorrow, my oracle. I found the way out. Once Kelryn stops gaping at us and reports, I will know if Palaemon was able to arrange our transport."
The Amazons mouth snapped shut and she blushed a deep crimson. "Pardon, my Queen, your majesty. I have a message from the Captain for you, Conqueror." She reached into her belt and pulled out the small piece of sealed parchment.
Xena kissed the top of the fair hair tucked under her chin and pulled away. Moving gracefully, she took hold of the parchment and walked over to the desk to read it.
Gabrielles gaze followed her the whole way before the Queen turned her attention to her soldier. "How are things in the outer palace, Kelryn?"
Remembering her activities earlier in the day, Kelryn smiled. "Very good, my Queen."
"Really?" Gabrielle was intrigued by the look on her young soldiers face. It was not one that suggested any distress over their situation.
Kelryn remembered her duty and assumed her soldiers face. "We were able to determine a path out of the palace, my Queen. There is an underwater passageway that leads out. Or so I have been told. I have not been able to swim through it yet, my Queen."
"It does," Xena said casually, not bothering to look up from the parchment she was reading. "It leads just about everywhere. Im surprised the palace hasnt been invaded before." She shook her head ruefully. "Such a security lapse is inexcusable."
Gabrielle smiled indulgently. She looked forward to returning to Greece and feeling safe once more. The Conquerors palace was nothing if not secure, as opposed to the Babylonian inner palace. "Gregor is dead," Gabrielle mentioned, speaking of security lapses.
"Another, my Queen?"
"Actually, were up to three now Nebuharin, Farza and Gregor."
"Three?" Xena asked carefully, recalling her brief visit to the garden house before rejoining Gabrielle.
Gabrielle missed the confusion in the rulers eyes. "Gregors throat was slit while in the garden today."
The Amazon Queen shrugged. "Well, he says he just found Gregors body, but he had an awful lot of blood on his clothes. I had been here, on the balcony, taking a nap when Gregor was found. It was the same as before everyone claims they were doing something else at the time of the murder, but no one was with anyone else to prove it. Dokov was busy searching Nebuharins and Farzas rooms. Pompey and Allemane were searching the gardens, but not together. Pompey then relieved Lao Ma of watching the servant girls. It was after that Allemane found Gregor dead. So, we all had opportunity."
"And you say Allemane had blood on him, but not his own. It was all Gregors?"
"Yes. Why do you ask, Xena? Why are you so interested in Allemane?" Gabrielle asked, making Kelryn happy. The soldier had been wondering the same thing, but knew she was not allowed to ask.
"I thought I saw something." The Conqueror feigned nonchalance. After writing a brief reply to Palaemon, the ruler walked back over to the Amazons, coming around behind Kelryn. She stopped, recognizing the script extending out on the soldiers shoulder. Her large hand reached out and snagged the back of Kelryns leathers, tugging them aside to give her a view of more flesh.
"Hey!" Kelryn gasped, startled by the invasion and the Conquerors touch. With Xenas hand pulling at the garment, she was in a most uncomfortable position.
"Where did you get this?" the Conqueror growled. Without hesitation, the ruler began unfastening the leather top, efficiently stripping the soldier to her waist.
"Son of a bacchae!" Kelryn yelped, surprised to find herself exposed so quickly. Shes done that before, Kelryn noted idly. Her arms crossed in front of her chest, suddenly shy in front of her beloved Queen.
"Xena!" Gabrielle was as startled as Kelryn. Suddenly, she had a topless Amazon in front of her and an angry ruler behind Kelryn. "What is it?" Compassionately, she handed Kelryn a piece of linen to cover herself with.
"The scribe and the concubine wrote it," Kelryn responded, trying to sound dignified despite the situation.
She felt hot breath moving over her ear as Xena leaned forward, "Im not even going to ask how and why they were able to write on your back."
Swallowing, Kelryn managed, "That would be best, your majesty."
"Uh huh. Where did they learn it?" Xena read the lines again, shaking her head.
"This poem." To emphasize her point, the Conqueror jabbed Kelryn in the back with a strong finger.
What is it with poking today? "I dont know, your majesty. They just said it was the latest poem in the harem. I didnt even have it translated. What does it say?" She asked the question with much trepidation, knowing it mustnt be good for the Conqueror to be as upset as she was.
"Its our death warrant."
Gabrielle joined Xena behind Kelryn and studied the strange script. "Can you read it to me, please?"
Ten little warlords invited over to dine;
Ones stomach didnt agree with him and then there were nine.
Nine little warlords stayed out very late;
One slept in and then there were eight
Eight little warlords looked rather sloven;
One had too close a shave and then there were seven
Seven little warlords laying down bricks;
Ones wall toppled down and then there were six
The oracle had paled while Xena was reading the poem. "Nebuharin, Farza, Gregor "
Xena nodded, all their deaths had followed the pattern of the poem. "And I suspect we will discover Allemane is dead somewhere in the compound."
"You remember the figurines on the table, each of which was a likeness of one of the rulers?" At Gabrielles nod she continued. "Well, when Farza died, I noticed that both hers and Nebuharins figurines were broken. When I came in tonight, I checked by the garden house and saw that both Gregors and Allemanes were also broken."
"We should check on him. Maybe its not too late."
"We will, we will. Lets get Kelryn out of here first. No need to let anyone know we can get in and out yet." The Conquerors large hands landed on Kelryns shoulders and spun her around to face them. "I want you to find out who wrote this poem. Do you understand?"
"Yes, your majesty."
"Come back in immediately when you find out. And make sure Palaemon is ready to leave by noon tomorrow."
"Yes, your majesty."
"Go," Xena gave the Amazon a small push toward the balcony.
Kelryn stopped only briefly to reattach her leathers properly. She turned and bowed to Gabrielle. "My Queen."
As they watched Kelryn disappear into the night, a loud noise sounded from inside the gardens, as if something were collapsing. Xena sighed, "I think were too late for Allemane."
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