Chapter 16: Ploys R Us

The air was tangy with the smell of salt spray. Double masted schooners were moored in the bay, their crews hauling cargo to and from the docks via long, narrow sculls plied with oars. Fishing trawlers were unloading their traps of deep sea catch. Wagoners from town were piling watertight chests of fabrics and wax-sealed crates of dry goods for stowing in ships' holds while merchants and mongers bartered with mates and steevies for corded nets, tubs of tallow, flats of dried kelp and barrels filled with soggy seaweed.

Xena tied Argo to a hitching post and motioned for Gabrielle to follow her up a wooden ramp onto the main dock. "Let’s see if we can get a lead on this Dutch sea captain."

"What does a Dutch sea captain look like?" Gabrielle shuffled along, a step behind Xena.

"I doubt he looks like that," Xena pointed to an African mariner who was toting a curved cutlass and was dressed in silken, orange culottes and a pair of broad, red baldrick sashes that criss-crossed on his massive chest.

"Pardon me," Gabrielle paused to address an elderly beggar robed in a dark, hooded burnoose. His stooped figure sat huddled against a fat pole that supported one of the piers. "Would you happen to know where we might find a Dutch sea captain whose ship is said to fly like the wind?"

"Eh? Hoo?" a creaky voice echoed within the folds of the robe. "You'll have to speak up, dearie. ‘Fraid I've gone a mite rusty in the ears."

"We're looking for a Dutch sea captain," Gabrielle spoke louder, "whose ship supposedly skims over the waves."

"Oh, yehhhsss...," the old beggar nodded. "The Dutchman and his flying ship. You're at the wrong end of the wharves, my dear. You'll need to go way down thataway. Look for the ship that's got the red and yellow tulips on the sails."

"Thank you, sir. Xena!" Gabrielle shouted. "We're in the wrong place!"

"A little something for his pains," a wrinkled hand reached out from within the folds of the hooded cloak and shook a little tin cup whose contents rattled with coins. "Have mercy on the poor, the homeless, the destitute."

"For sure," Gabrielle fished a dinar out of her purse and plunked it into the old man's cup.

"Thank'ee kindly, Ms.," the beggar fawned.

"Guess we'd better get a move on," Gabrielle said when Xena came back to join her.

Gabrielle hiked a few steps down the ramp to the hitching post. Discovering that Xena wasn't behind her, Gabrielle turned and called, "Xena, don't be pokey. We've still got a ways to go."

To Gabrielle's surprise, Xena stood poised over the shriveled figure of the old beggar who sat quietly hunched and cringing in the depths of his hooded robe.

"Xena, are you coming or what?" Gabrielle shouted.

But Xena kept staring at the crouched figure.

"I'm undoing Argo! We're heading out! I wonder what makes her so spacy sometimes," Gabrielle loosened the reins and began to lead Argo along the paved curve of the road that ringed the shore.

"Autolycus," Xena murmurred as she continued to stare at the bunched up heap in front of her.

"Never been there," the old beggar stammered. "Never heard of the place."

With a decisive swoop, Xena reached down, grabbed the folds of the burnoose and gave a swift tug. The cloak and hood came ripping off the cringing beggar to reveal the green jacket and leggings of the mustachioed King of Thieves.

"Aw, Xena," Autolycus stomped his boots, "what'dja hafta go and blow my cover for?"

"Autolycus, what are you doing here?" Xena fumed. "Wait, let me guess."

"Autolycus!?" Gabrielle came racing back to the pier, "I thought you were some dirty old man who was giving me directions. Hey, you ripped me off for a dinar!"

"You handed it over willingly, my sweet," Autolycus flipped the dinar in the air, and Gabrielle caught it on the fly. "Shoot," Autolycus whined, "that could've been my lunch money."

"And you could end up being my lunch," Gabrielle said through gritted teeth. "What are you doing, sitting on a dock, done up like a beggar, hundreds of leagues from home?"

"It's a long story, my lovely compan-yero," Autolycus twiddled his eyebrows and, with the fingers of one hand, curled his moustache. "It begins at the base of the platform on which sits the blazing brazier of Hephaestos' fiery forge..."

"And that's just where it’s gonna end," Xena looked away from the docks, up the steeply sloping quayside toward Queen Admete's gleaming limestone and marble palace.

"You've come to swipe Hippolyte's belt, haven't you?" Gabrielle scowled.

"Well, it hardly took a catapault scientist to figure that out," Autolycus griped, looking back and forth between a disapproving Gabrielle and an exasperated Xena.

"You're wasting your time," Xena said. "The belt stays where it is. At least for now."

"I see you giving me that slightly contemptuous, mildly disdainful, Warrior Princess look that tells me you're less than overjoyed to see me," Autolycus hopped onto his feet. "Look, I've got a client who says he'll pay top dinar for that belt. Have you feasted your eyes on that thing? It's got more precious gems on it than you've got little brass thingies stamped on those boob-tubes you’re wearing."

"Who's the client?" Xena said, paying no heed to the little brass thingies stamped on the twin breast pieces of her upper body corselet.

"Ever hear of Croesus, the richest man in Hellas?" Autolycus said in a cocky tone of voice.

"I know Croesus. His company backed my army once," Xena frowned. "What does Croesus want with Hippolyte's belt?"

"You got me. Maybe ‘cause it’s a one-of-a-kind collectible. Oughta be easy pickings to fandangle that hot little item from its current location, no? The flighty babe who oversees this joint’s got it mounted on the wall above her golden easy chair. So it’s in like Flynnides through the casement, lower myself down on a rope, put the pinch on it, toss my pointy hook over the slats in the skylight, shimmy up to the ceiling and slide out through the vents. Piece of baklava. You sure you don't wanna stick around and watch the King of Thieves pull off the light-fingered larceny of the lunch hour?"

"Except that the instant you pull the belt off its wall mount, a spring mechanism, at point blank range, fires a poisoned bolt into your heart," Xena said.

"How'd you know that?" Gabrielle said.

"I have..."

"I know, many skills," Gabrielle completed the thought.

"A blueprint of the palace's internal security system that Architectus gave us before we got here," Xena said.

"You don't you think I've got that little booby trap psyched out, Ms. Ex-Dubya-Pee?" Autolycus huffed. "All I do, before I lift the slat that the belt is sitting on, is chuck this little gismo into the fissure behind the moulding," Autolycus dug a little wormscrew out of his pocket, "and wait to hear the lovely sound of gears crunching, grinding and stalling out the firing mechanism."

"Excuuusing me," an old sea dog in a weathered cap and boson’s jacket came rambling along the pier. "Yuuu be carefuul yuuu not get in the way."

The old salt shoo'ed the quarreling trio to the edge of the dock. "Yuuu nice fellers come this way," he called to a flock of longshoremen who stood by the dock with heaps of sacks and stacks of crates. "Yuuu put where I show yuuu."

The loaders began to haul the cargo up the plank toward the hold as the old tar, Xena, Gabrielle and Autolycus found themselves squinched together like four scavenging cats shoved against a wall, backs arched, while a pack of pooches came barking down a narrow alley.

"Yuuu fill up guuud," the skipper called to the loaders. "Is long time I go for sail. Long time away from land and...," looking at Gabrielle, "...long time away from pretty girls."

"Why, thank you," Gabrielle said with a polite smile.

"Yuuu look like pretty Dutch girl. Yuu got pretty guuulden hair," the old fellow said, picking out and admiring a few strands of Gabrielle's short, flaxen hair. "But yuuu not wearing wuuuden shuuues."

"My shoes?" Gabrielle said.

"Not made of wuuud," the fellow said.

"Not if those are the shoes that Dutch girls wear," Gabrielle made an accommodating shrug. "Hey, wait, are you the Dutch sea captain, the one with the flying ship?"

"Yah, I sail flying ship," the Dutchman nodded.

"Will you take us with you? We’ve gotta get someplace like super fast."

"Ja, is fast ship, by golly," the Dutchman pointed to the craft that listed in its slip at the end of the pier.

"It's my kid sister," Gabrielle said as the onloading cargo came wheeling past. "She's being held hostage by a sleazy warlord." Gabrielle grabbed the Dutchman by the lapels of his jacket. "We’ve gotta get there before the slimy scumball does something really awful to her."

"We need to go three hundred trireme marks that way," Xena pointed north along the coast. "The man on the flying horse said you could help us out. We'll give you all the dinars we’ve got."

"A flying horse?"

"Yes, Pegasus. His rider just brought us news of the kidnapping."

"Is big horse, this horse? Guuud horse. I like flying horse."

"Can you take us with you?"

"Flying ship, flying horse. Yah, sure."

"Really?" Gabrielle brightened.

The Dutchman's face lit up with an elfin grin. "Pretty blond girl. Can yuuu say 'shuuuty shuuu?'"

"Shooty shoo?" Gabrielle wrinkled her brow.

"Ja, say, 'shuuuty shuuu,'" the Dutchman twinkled.

"Shooty shoo."

"Ha, you Greek girl," the Dutchman chuckled. "You not Dutch girl."

"I don't think I know any Dutch girls," Gabrielle said.

"We met some," Xena said. "On the way to Britannia. The land of the windmills, remember?"

"Oh, that place," Gabrielle perked up. "The place that had all those cute little red and yellow flowers poking their noses out of their cute little red and yellow cones. They were really pretty flowers, weren't they, Xena? Weren't those cute little red and yellow flowers that poked their noses out of those cute little red and yellow cones really pretty..., Xena. You have very pretty flowers where you come from, sir. Xena and I were saying just the other day how pretty those cute, little red and yellow flowers were that poked their noses out of those cute little red and yellow cones back when we were in your pretty country. Weren't we just saying the other day how cute and pretty those red and yellow flowers were when we saw them poking their noses out of their cute little red and yellow cones back when we were in the Dutchman's pretty country..., Xena."

"I no can go my country," the Dutchman said, sadly.

"Well, that’s funny ‘cause we're not going to your country either," Gabrielle smiled her chummiest smile. "We're trying to get to where Xena was just pointing to. And we gotta there as quick as we can!"

"I go here. I go there. I go Greece. I go Gaul. I go everyplace. But no leave ship. Never leave ship."

"You never leave your ship?" Gabrielle raised a curious eyebrow.

"Not 'til pretty girl say she come and fly with me," the Dutchman shook his head. "Then we no have to go on ship no more. No more fly through sky. Only walk hand in hand on sunny beach and smile sunny smile."

"Like Cecrops," Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Doomed to wander at sea until the spell is broken."

"Yuuu know Cecrops?" the Dutchman said. "I know Cecrops."

"Do we know Cecrops," Gabrielle huh-ho'ed. "Xena 's the one who broke the spell that got Cecrops off the boat."

"Yah? Is truuue?" the Dutchman turned to look with admiration at Xena.

Xena nodded.

"Yuuu love Cecrops?" the Dutchman said.

"I helped Cecrops find a way to love himself," Xena said.

"Yuuu big girl," the Dutchman looked Xena up and down. "Yuuu Cecrops' girl?"

"I'm Cecrops' friend."

"Yuuu want come on my ship?"

"Yes!" Gabrielle burst out. "If your ship can really fly."

"Der Fliegende Hollander, ja."

"Can you take us as far as Thessaloniki?" Xena said. "Or to Amphipolis? Anywhere near Poteidaia? At the top of the ocean where the sea meets the land."

"I go where yuuu want," the Dutchman said. "One day I meet pretty girl who say, 'I go where yuuu want,' and spell will be broken. Then I no have to fly on ship no more."

"And one day I'm sure you will; I mean I'm sure you won't. Have to fly on your ship anymore," Gabrielle took the Dutchman's arm and led him along the pier toward the gangplank that climbed on board the ship while the loaders finished dumping the cargo into the hold.

As Gabrielle and the Dutchman walked arm in arm, Gabrielle turned and, signaling to Xena, silently mouthed the words, 'Go get Argo….' Then Gabrielle turned back to the Dutchman and breathed a few soothing words into his ear before looking around again and, with her eyes wide, giving Xena a quick jolt of the head and mouthing the words, 'Now! Move it!'

"Well, Xenaroonie, all I can say is it's been real," Autolycus began to saunter away from the dock. "Sayonara and Scaramouche. The shepherds of the gods of stealthy acquisition are calling and I must weed their herds... I mean, heed their words."

Before he'd gone twenty paces, Autolycus felt his legs give out from under him. Suddenly upended, he lay supine on the ground, gazing up at one of only two puffy white clouds that came floating past his line of vision as he felt himself being dragged through the dust by a length of leather bullwhip whose end was tightly looped several times around his ankles.

"Whoa, what's goin' on here!" Autolycus cried out as Xena, having snapped her whip, was reeling him in like a fish.

"On your feet. Hurry up," Xena commanded.

Looking cross, partly for the sake of his being embarrassed in front of the passersby who'd stopped to stare at the altercation, Autolycus scrambled to his feet and brushed himself off. "C'mon, play nice, would you, Xee? I just got this outfit pressed."

"Autolycus, you can't go stealing that belt," Xena said. "The Oracle told us that Admete has to part with it willingly. If she doesn't, it will only bring grief and heartache on whoever makes off with it, assuming it doesn’t kill them on the spot. Your want to be remembered as the Kings of Thieves who never blew a heist, don't you?"

"Well, yeah," Autolycus nodded.

"Then don't go flinging it away on a two-drachma break in, betting the store on a knickknack that has mostly sentimental value to a sad, lonely, Amazon queen who's gone to Troy for the express purpose of putting and end to her sad, unhappy existence," Xena coaxed.

"Sad, lonely, Amazon queen, my spongy liederhozen," Autolycus gave Xena a don't-kid-me look. "You're talking about Penthesileia, the lady who just so happens to be the Queen de la Queen of all Amazon queens; the babe with the kind of good looks that would make Queen Admete, royal knockout though she may be, turn as green with envy as the sleeves on my doublet. You're talking about the Cover Girl of Anatolia, sweetheart, the most gorgeous creature that men have laid eyes on from the beaches of the Adriatic to the shores of the Black Sea. That belt is worth a mint in Chinese fortune cookies and you know it."

"I want that belt to find its way to Penthesileia for Gabrielle's and Ephiny's sake; to show her that Gabrielle and Ephiny are loyal and true Amazons," Xena grabbed Autolycus by the collar of his doublet. "And I don't want to have to go to the hassle of hijacking it from Croesus who'd only send his hired swords to take the price of it out of your hide, one mounted jewel at a time."

"You've, um, got a point there, Xee," Autolycus said, his desire for self-aggrandizement varying inversely with his desire for self-preservation.

"We just need to come up with a more effective approach," Xena said. "Meanwhile, Latrinus's gang has just kidnapped Lila and a friend of hers, so we've got to get back there and spring them loose before we do anything more about the belt."

"It’s a bummer to hear the news about Lila and her friend, but what you mean ‘We…,’ Keemo Xena?" Autolycus folded his arms.

"Pack up your cloak. You're coming with us," Xena said.

"Huh ho; now hold on, Ms. Warrior Princess, Baby, Honey Lamb," Autolycus sought to decline the invitation. "Okay, I dig the bit about not relieving Queen Admete of the Amazon family jewels. Curses, bad luck, poisoned arrows shot at point blank range from concealed crossbows, I gotcha. But what's that got to do with me helping you and Gabrielle get Lila and her friend out of a jam? Rescuing sweet young things in distress is your department, Xena-rina. I like my juice, I like my fizz, I like my neck right where it is."

"If Latrinus has gone to the trouble of kidnapping Lila and her friend, he'll likely be holding them for ransom," Xena said. "Except that Latrinus knows that Herodotus and Hecuba and the other farm families in those villages have next to nothing to ransom them with. So what does he gain by kidnapping them? He could as easily have staged a raid on the counting house and made off with its sacks of dinars. So I’ve got a hunch that Latrinus has got his sights set on something bigger. He knows who Lila's sister is. And he knows who Lila's sister's best friend is. I think he's using Lila and Lila’s friend to try and get to Gabrielle and, by way of Gabrielle, to get to me in an effort to blackmail us into helping him further some rotten scheme he's likely been hatching in that half-baked little frying pan of his that he has the temerity to call a brain."

"And what do you suppose that rotten little scheme might be?" Autolycus said.

"That's what I intend to find out," Xena said. "Latrinus is a softer touch than Draco, Cortese or Krykus were. His gang stages surprise raids but they don't go after whole villages. My guess is that they're looking to turn a quick dinar by trafficking in stolen goods. The biggest thing in Poteidaia is the pottery works. If you’re a warlord who’s looking to cash in the chips, why not clean the place out and dump the stuff on the black market? So I may need you to swipe a few plates and dishes for me."

"What?!" Autolycus exploded in a burst of righteous indignation. "Rip off piles of plates and stacks of dishes? In case you haven't noticed, Xena, Babes, I specialize in big ticket items like jeweled Amazon belts specially made by the armorer of the gods. It's been many a sunmark since I've dabbled in over the counter merchandise. That's a job for a rookie fence, not for the King of Thieves. I've got my reputation to think of."

"Not to swipe as in burgle and deal," Xena said. "Just to rearrange a few things and throw a monkey wrench into a greedy warlord's plot to turn a quick dinar at the town’s expense. I may need you to shake things up at the pottery works. Gabrielle may need you, and Gabrielle's family may need you. Lila and her friend could be in great danger with us being so far away."

"Cripes, there you go, playing on my conscience again," Autolycus fussed. "Some day I'm gonna rise to the level of an aesthetic detachment so pure that no ethical qualms are gonna come between me and the perfect heist."

"But that day isn’t today," Xena nudged him along.

"What's with you guys!" Gabrielle came running back down the gangway. "The Dutchman's been cleared for takeoff. Go get Argo. Hurry!"

Xena went to unhitch Argo. Then Gabrielle, a step ahead of Xena and Argo, with a complaining Autolycus bringing up the rear, walked crisply over to the Dutchman's ship. The halyards were stiff and the sails had unfurled in the rising sea breeze as the ropes on the dock slipped from the davits and the vessel rolled free of the slips.

Hoisted on board at the last instant, the foursome bid farewell to Tiryns’ dazzling shores.

"Me and the Dutchman are gonna trade stories as soon as we're on automatic," Gabrielle said to Xena as the ship, picking up speed, hauled and reached through the calm, lapping wake. The prow began to lift free of the swell. The keel, shedding spume, launched skyward. The louvers, port and starboard, opened. The sweeping of the tiller propelled the rudder airborne. The sails caught the gusting billows. The hull rose and soared. The craft left the port with its docks and warehouses far behind in the bathing light of the onrushing sun.

"I promised I’d fill the Dutchman in on how you stood off the entire Persian army," Gabrielle shouted into the roaring blast, "and he said he'd tell me the tale of the little Dutch boy who saved his country by sticking his thumb in a dike."

Arching high above the calm Aegean east of the Peloponnese, the towns and villages became dots and bumps on a landscape that was rapidly fading into the distance. The ship began to straighten its course, north by northeast, as Gabrielle made her way to the forward cabin in which the Dutchman stood with his pipe in his mouth and his hands on the wheel, the sextant functioning as the ship's altimeter.

As she opened the door to duck inside the quarterdeck, Gabrielle turned and shouted back to Xena, who, with Autolycus and Argo, was starting to make her way to the ladder that dropped below decks to the hatch, "Pretty gutsy move on that kid’s part, wouldn't you say? Must've been the only way he could think of to slow her and the girls in her army down."

Continued in Part 17

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