The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Ephiny continued her angry banging at the ornate gilded door. There was a muffled curse from within, and finally it opened partially, to reveal a figure swathed from head to foot in rustling silk. From within the folds a voice was heard to say, "I've never had anything with button hooks. I think they're caught and I can't get my arms free to undo them."
Ephiny sighed as she closed the door behind them, but made no attempt to go to Gabrielle's aid. In a voice seething with resentment she said, "I was sent here to escort you to the throne room, not to dress you."
"Ephiny? Well, I can hardly go if I'm like this. Come on, just give me a hand."
Grumbling, the Amazon separated the dress until the fasteners were found and dropped the hem, revealing Gabrielle's flushed face. The girl blew the hair out of her eyes and said, "Thank you." There was a silence that was broken by Gabrielle's "What?"
Ephiny continued to smoulder. "Nice outfit. You and the Empress going to a Mother and Daughter event later?"
"She insisted I dress in this. What's got your feathers in a twist? Did you want one?"
"No. I had just hoped that swearing an Amazon oath meant something to you. But I see you made another choice."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed. "Like I've made any choices in the past few days. You're in no position to judge - I made the same choice you and your tribe made. To live."
"Whatever I do, I do for my tribe and for the Amazon nation," the Amazon shouted back at her. "We all fight for a higher cause...and for each other!" Toe to toe, they squared up and were only interrupted by Terreis, who had slipped in silently amidst their shouting.
"You can hear the yelling outside, Ephiny."
"We made a mistake, Terreis. She has no intention of honouring her oath - I doubt she has any honour or integrity in her," the irate Amazon spat, contemptuously. "She's only out for herself."
"Gabrielle's right. We're in no position to judge," Terreis interrupted quickly as she shoved the irate Amazon behind her. "All I need to know is whether she intends to honour her vow. Do you, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle ignored Ephiny and spoke clearly to the senior Amazon. "My word is unbroken."
"Then that's all that matters."
"For now," muttered Ephiny
"For now. We'll talk later," Terreis said lightly. "Now if everyone is ready, let's see what the Empress has in store for us all today." She slung her arms around the shoulders of the two women, and maneuvered them out of the room quickly.
They proceeded down the corridor with Terreis in front, and Ephiny in the rear until they reached a heavy, studded door. Terreis took her staff and pounded on it, the deep, sonorous sound echoing through the halls on both side. The door was opened by more Amazons, and the three women entered.
The room was filled with colours, and scents. Cloudy tendrils of smoke reached towards the painted ceilings, which were decorated with pictures of fresh-faced youths of both sexes, naked and revelling in their sensuality. Bright red and gold tapestries, blue and green cloths and burnished bronze armour hung from the walls, lit by candles and oil burners sunk into sconces, and Gabrielle's nose picked up the faint traces of perfumes and oils burning and releasing their thick incense into the crowded space. She felt suffocated by the sights and odours, and by the sheer number of men in the room. Dressed in their best military regalia, Alti's Generals and Ambassadors lined the walkway like a scowling and suspicious honour guard as the Amazons entered, bearing their prize.
At the end of the walkway, her eyes were drawn to the dais where Alti lounged alone. Her eyes widened a little when she spotted Darphus, back in his customary place at Alti's feet. He grinned, and winked at her. Gabrielle's nose wrinkled in disgust.
Alti smiled. She liked what she saw. The girl was clearly awestruck, and that was something she could use. And it was nice to see that she cleaned up so well.
"Gabrielle, "she purred, waving a manicured claw in her direction. "I knew we might find a pearl underneath all those rags. Come and meet the boys."
By now all eyes were on her; many were resentful, and she nearly stumbled on the hem of her sage green gown as she walked forward to meet Alti. The Conqueror rose from her throne and swept down from the dais, flung a companionable arm around the girl and steered her over to a long, mahogany table set against the wall.
"Have a seat, Gabrielle. I'm sure it won't take long for my Generals to update me on the state of my empire." Alti smiled again as she intercepted several uncertain looks passing around her men. She strolled with Gabrielle to the head of the table, and settled herself comfortably in the chair. "Gentlemen, this is Gabrielle. She'll be attending future meetings as my aide." She motioned round the table, giving a brief introduction to each of the assembled men.
Gabrielle's head swam with all the names, faces and nationalities; some she recognised, some she had heard of and some she had hoped never to encounter. She noted that the great Alexander of Macedonia was not amongst them. All of them looked suspicious; some only resentful but all were hostile. Alti, on the other hand, looked satisfied.
The smug expression changed somewhat as the progress reports came in.
Gabrielle shivered as Alti's chilled fingers touched her bare arms; they felt like frosty kisses, cold and lifeless. "See how my Generals update me, Gabrielle? Keeping me abreast of events across my empire. Such important matters as... what have we heard today?" Her voice drawled, the words sliding off her tongue like a mudslide. "Wheat harvests in Arcadia, tax rises in Rome, the loss of three merchant ships on the Black Sea... fascinating. One really feels one has one's finger on the pulse... wouldn't you say?"
"I guess it's important to know what's going on," was Gabrielle's non-committal reply.
"Yes. Knowing that there's an army of ten thousand men amassing on your borders obviously isn't important. Or were we just getting to that bit?"
There was an audible intake of breath. Gabrielle flicked a curious glance at the Empress, who looked almost pleased with the wave of uncertainty that had passed through her Generals. "I see the Green Dragon has been busy. I'd like to know why his envoy neglected to tell me that he was planning a trip to my borders. Take Ling Tao down to the dungeons. I'll speak to him later."
The Green Dragon's envoy was seized, and dragged out of the room despite his desperate protests.
"What will happen to him?" asked Gabrielle.
Alti swept her eyes around the assembly, making sure her words were heard by all. "I'll question him myself. I think the personal touch is important, don't you? And I have to find out where my security lapses are. In the meantime gentlemen, please... your reports." She gave a cold smile, and swept her hand towards her ambassador to Troy.
Gabrielle listened attentively as news of the Green Dragon's advances was laid before the gathering. It was just as she'd suspected, just as the merchants in the markets and the travelling bards had said. A fair sized army, on the march for several moons now under foreign colours and with its intention unclear. She marvelled that the Green Dragon could get so close to the Empire's head, so easily - and Alti seemed so unconcerned, too. What could the Ruler of Chin possibly want, to come on such a long and hazardous trip, in person?
A meaty fist pounding on the table followed by a coarse shout, broke her reverie. "I'm sorry you're bored with the conversation, little girl. If it's past your bedtime maybe you could ask for some warm milk and cookies?"
Gabrielle shot a glance at Alti, but the Empress didn't move from her place; she merely watched with a glint in her eyes. Gabrielle stood up slowly and stared back at the German who had interrupted her chain of thought so rudely.
"I wasn't bored. I was just thinking."
"Perhaps you'd be kind and share your thoughts." The guttural accent made the comment difficult to comprehend, but she caught the underlying disdain in the words.
She smiled slightly before answering. "I was thinking that Xena conquered all of the tribes of Gaul, hundreds of thousands of them, with fifty thousand men." She paused, pleased by the ripple of shock caused by the hated name. "Your combined armies are larger than any force on earth, and it would take, what, six days to travel from Germania, and two days from Athens?"
"What's your point?" the German, Suebin, shot back, rudely.
"Why are they sitting back and waiting for him to arrive?" she countered smoothly, the roughness of the question counterbalanced with the expression of innocent curiosity which accompanied it.
"He wouldn't dare enter here with an army, not while the Empress is here," Darphus interjected with an expansive gesture towards the smirking Alti. "He's on a peaceful trade mission. Why worry unduly?"
"You don't even know why he's coming or what he wants. You don't know anything about him." Inwardly Gabrielle was still burning about the little girl comment, and decided to give them a show. She planted her palms on the table top, leaned slightly forward and smiled sweetly. "You don't know, for example, that he has only fifty horses, for his own and his commanders' private use. That his foot soldiers carry spears, blades and nothing else and that he reached the Steppes a week ago, and hasn't moved since."
There was a stunned silence for several minutes, which was eventually broken by Alti's slow, appreciative laughter. "That's my girl," the Empress said, almost fondly. Gabrielle couldn't help feeling a bubble of pride in herself.
Claudius sat up quickly. "How do you know all this?" The suspicion in his voice made the question harsher than he had intended.
Gabrielle casually picked up a piece of fruit from the table. "Same way I know this was harvested two days ago in Thrace. Or that this..." she held up another, "...was stored over winter in Germania and brought here this month." She tossed the pear at Suebin, and grinned when he bungled his catch. "The markets and the sellers tell everything, know everything, about a country."
Suddenly Alti was speaking into her ear, warm breath caressing her earlobe in an unpleasant familiarity. "So you can tell how old this pea is?" She placed a slight, green object in the centre of Gabrielle's small palm.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Yes, it's fresh. Just today. But it's out of season? How did...?"
Alti smiled, ran her finger along the girl's palm, enjoying the shiver the girl made. Then picked up the pea and popped it into her mouth. "My gardener. A very interesting man. Named Arminus. You should meet him. I'm sure you'd find a conversation with him fascinating." Gabrielle looked to the ground, afraid her fear showed in her face, but knew that Alti was aware of it anyway. The Empress moved slowly away, satisfied with the reaction. Seating herself on the throne, she waved a claw. "But go on... you were asking a question, I believe."
Grimly, seeing this as a test of her concentration, Gabrielle focused back onto the previous discussion.
"Ariovistus says that he can't advance on the Dragon because the throwing of the lots say a battle with his troops can only take place after the next moon. Suebin says he can't traverse the Steppes in time. Meanwhile this tiny force of ten thousand draws closer. So all these excuses, but no one seems really ready to face this small force. So I have to wonder, what is so special about this army?"
Claudius threw a furtive glance toward the Empress. "They have special weapons, we are led to believe."
"Fine, they have some special weapons. Still ten thousand people. Not all of them are necessarily soldiers, right? I mean, this is a prince. How do you know the Green Dragon doesn't need a thousand courtiers in order to go to the toilet?" There was muffled laughter from some of the observers and the German became redfaced.
"This is ridiculous - are we to sit here and listen to the ramblings of some child from the streets? How are we supposed to know what his plans are, girl - march right up to him and ask him?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Why not? Since your intelligence gathering obviously isn't working... maybe you need a more direct approach." She cast a semi-sweet smile at Claudius.
Alti laughed again, a loud and harsh sound amidst the muttering of her commanders. "She has a point about our Intelligence services - either they're not working, or information is being kept from me. And I prefer to think that none of my trusted commanders would be that foolish. So - a direct approach. And who would be the man for that job? Gabrielle, any suggestions?"
Showing a confidence she was far from feeling, Gabrielle counted off on the fingers of one hand. "Well, you can't go, you can't leave the fortress because you can't trust anyone. And you can't send any of your 'boys', because they might make a deal with him first. If they haven't already. What you really need is...
"You." Alti clapped a hand down on the girl's shoulder.
"I... oh, no. I..."
"Excellent, then it's all arranged. Darphus? Get me that sack of powder from my chambers, to give to Gabrielle. Then select men from across the ranks to accompany her."
From the area of the throne a cough was heard. They turned to see Terreis standing. "I think that an escort of Amazons might be more appropriate, Empress, if I'm judging the effect you wish to have."
"What are you now, a mind reader?" Terreis ducked her head, but stood her ground. "But you're right. A squad of Amazons would have its novelty appeal to the ruler of Chin. And you could train my little protégé along the way." Alti smiled broadly. "Fine, take half of your squad. I expect Gabrielle to be protected and kept safe, as though all of your lives were in her hands. Which they are."
Darphus hurried back from the chambers, accompanied by two other servants carrying a large metal bound chest, heading towards the Great Hall and the girl who had remained to be briefed by Alti on her new mission. He waited outside until she was about to leave, and interposed himself between her and the door.
"The Empress ordered me to give this to you." He presented a small grey bag, tied with a scrap of string. Noticing her uncertain gaze, he shrugged and smiled ingratiatingly. "Ours is not to question why...."
"What is it?"
"A gift for the Green Dragon." He shook the bag and motioned her to take it.
Gabrielle hesitated before reaching her hand out to take the pouch. He grinned at the look of distaste that ran over her face as their fingers met. It was briefest of touches, but it was enough; he could feel the energy pouring off the girl. Even with his barely trained abilities, he could see her potential, and realised that she represented a very different threat to himself. It didn't matter who won - Xena or Alti, it was all the same. He would still be left outside, like he was now - only this time, it would be this girl who would move closer to the power. Leaving him... where?
"Yes," Darphus continued, "I'm sure you'll survive as a courtier. The Empress is certainly smitten with you, much she was once with poor Vercingetorix..." The name hung in the air until Gabrielle had finally swallowed the word 'survive'.
"Vercingetorix?" she ventured.
"Yes. General Vercingetorix. Some confusion about his exact whereabouts on the day Xena escaped, and the Empress seemed to think he had something to do with it. Very unfortunate. But such is the life...or death... of a courtier." There was a moment of silence while both examined each other, until it was broken by Darphus, waving the slaves forward to bring the chest.
"This might be more appropriate for Ming Tien." He lifted the catch and opened it, revealing jewels and coins from a dozen different countries of the realm. "You better take good care of this until you leave. I'm sure you can think of a place to keep it." There was another long pause. "There are so few safe places in the palace." He smiled again, a slow spreading smile which tightened his thin lips until they looked bloodless, like a death's head grimace. "I wouldn't show it to anyone if I were you. After all, it's not like you can trust anyone round here. Is it?"
Gabrielle matched his stare for a moment, then nodded a curt goodbye. He snickered as he watched her retreating figure appreciatively for what he hoped was for the last time. She had scrubbed up well. For a peasant girl.
And like a peasant, she would be sure to take the money and run.
Once again Ephiny found herself pounding at the thick oaken door, and once again she was not satisfied with the response from within. "Open this Gods damned door now Gabrielle, or I'll kick the thing to splinters."
"I SAID, just a minute! Can't you go kick in someone else's door for a few minutes?"
There were a few grunts and mumbled curses from the interior, and Ephiny, her patience broken by this damnable girl, threw her weight against the door before realising it wasn't bolted. Now furious, she raised herself from the floor where she'd fallen to see Gabrielle standing by the window with a nervous smile plastered across her face.
"What are you doing? Why didn't you let me in?" the red-faced Amazon barked. "I'm supposed to be helping you get ready for a fortnight's journey to face a possibly deadly army and... what's that?" She pointed to a small rope dangling between Gabrielle's legs. Behind her back the girl released it, and the end disappeared in a blink of an eye.
"What's what?" was the ingenuous answer. Hearing a crash and some screams below, Ephiny growled, pushed the protesting girl away and poked her curly head through the open window.
At the unguarded base of the palace, far below Gabrielle's window she saw a dozen children, led by a boy she recognised as Perdicus, swarming around the smashed ruins of the chest that Darphus had presented to Gabrielle earlier. They were hurriedly pocketing its golden contents in front of her disbelieving eyes.
Furious, she turned to confront the girl. "You were planning to take off, just as Darphus hoped, weren't you?"
The girl said nothing, but shot her a sulky look.
"I knew it! I knew you weren't to be trusted..." Ephiny ranted. "You were just gonna pack your fine new dresses away..." she yelled, pointing at the garments which were lying neatly folded on their shelves in the open closet. She paused mid-rant, and cast a suddenly suspicious eye around the small room. There were no clothes packed, Gabrielle was in her shift and she wasn't even wearing shoes.
Understanding dawned quickly. "You gave it away, didn't you?" Gabrielle gave a small shrug. "To a bunch of children??" Ephiny's voice rose.
Eyes flashing, Gabrielle returned her anger. "Who did you expect me to give it to? Make a donation to the nearest Temple of Ares? I don't think so. My kids can have a solid roof over their heads and food in their bellies now, their families will have medicine, and just maybe a few will be able to use the money to get out of this town before it collapses around us!"
Ephiny slumped down on a chair. "You're one Tartarus of a piece of work aren't you?" She shook her head with reluctant admiration. "What is Darphus going to do when he finds out?"
"Who will tell him?" Gabrielle's eyes darkened with challenge as she approached Ephiny. The Amazon felt a sudden, small chill. "As long as I keep my oath, your loyalty is to me and the rest of your sisters. Not to Darphus, right?"
"As long as you keep to your oath, yes," Ephiny said, defiantly.
Gabrielle breathed a huge sigh, and it was as if she was deflating. Suddenly, she looked like a child again, instead of the careworn adult she had seemed a few moments ago - just a lost and lonely child. The Amazon felt an unaccountable desire to hug her. This girl was supposed to be the key to all their destinies, and she had no one she could trust, or depend on. How shaky a platform for their future was that? Almost in spite of herself, she rose and put her hand on the girl's shoulder.
"This hasn't been much fun for you, has it?"
There was a broken laugh, and the girl looked at Ephiny warily for several long moments. Gabrielle shook her head. "Not really. You and Terreis have YOUR ideas about how I can be used. Then I have two madwomen who are pulling at me, not caring if my arms are both yanked off. And neither is capable of ruling this empire - all they seem to be able to do is create chaos. Thousands of people are caught up in their games, and it's those people who are going to be hurt before this is all over. That money you saw? What's it going to do? It's a drop in the ocean. Right now I'm figuring the only thing I can do around here is maybe delay the inevitable collapse of the empire, while playing at being some sort of token for all of you. At best, maybe make it last as long as I can. And meanwhile I'm asking, what's the point in all that?" Gabrielle shrugged, her shoulders slumping. "It'll all end the same, anyway."
Terreis had anticipated just this moment, thought Ephiny. Damn her. Her instructions had been to gain Gabrielle's trust, but to do it with sincerity. Even so, it required some force before the words grudgingly made their way out. "What do you want from all this, Gabrielle?"
"What do I want?" The girl laughed shortly. "I don't even know what I want. All I've been thinking about is trying to protect people while the Empire falls over. But what real choices are there? Either Alti stays, or Xena takes over. Like I said, two madwomen and not much to choose between them. Both have only ever brought death and pain."
"But what about you? Don't you harbour some hope of ruling yourself?"
"Me? Oh yeah, that's really funny." And to Ephiny's amazement, the girl actually laughed.
"Gabrielle, I know we haven't gotten along, but..." Terreis or no Terreis, it wasn't in Ephiny's nature to make a promise with words alone, so she abruptly made a decision. She pulled out her dagger, and held out her staff. Gabrielle pushed away her chair in surprise. "Ummmm," she said hesitantly, "things are bad, but I'm not killing myself yet."
Ephiny frowned. "No. Everyone seems set on giving you presents today, and I think you need one a bit more practical. This staff belonged to my mother."
"And the dagger?"
Gabrielle looked from the menacing blade to the now almost stoic Amazon, and chose her words carefully. "Ephiny. I'm honoured. I truly am. But..."
"Gabrielle. I know you'd like to think that all problems can be solved with words, but not in this world. Sometimes you have to fight, if only to defend yourself and what you believe in. We're going to be putting you through a rushed training program while travelling and you'll have to pick a weapon to work with. So, I thought that this way..."
Gabrielle tried not to flinch this time as the dagger and staff were once again presented to her. "I suppose, if push came to shove, I'd prefer to thump people rather than kill them. And I've heard that knives and swords just make you a target." The girl shrugged, trying to appear casual.
The dagger was tucked back into Ephiny's belt. "I just want you to know that, whatever way this goes..." There was one last hesitation, but it was blown to pieces by the disbelieving but hopeful green eyes. "... that I'll stand by you. You're family now."
Gabrielle reached up to touch the gnarled hardwood of the staff, and then ducked her head as the straightforward promise struck her heart. "Thank you," she murmured. "I've taken so many... castaways, so many people who needed me, it means... more than you can know, that someone would..."
There was an increasing danger that she was going to be hugged, so Ephiny moved to change the tone. "So, you know where I stand here. Now, tell me what you need."
"Yes," Ephiny ground out.
"Even if it meant it was a bit dangerous?" Seeing Ephiny's eyes start to kindle again, Gabrielle raised her hands and gave her a placatory smile. "Well..." She stood away, and then spun about. "I've got to get a message to and some information from Xena. I need someone to talk to her, and if I showed up, I think she'd kill me."
"And you want me to go?" The young Amazon's voice rose.
"She knows the Green Dragon. She sure as Tartarus knows more than we do."
"Oh, thank you, Artemis! All right. I never saw myself as growing old."
"Xena will like you. You're a warrior, like her."
"I don't care if she would LIKE me, and I am NOT a warrior like her."
To Be Contiued - Part 8
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