|The Wait Of The World|
The death of Velasca drove home to all who witnessed Xena's outburst and Penthesileia's demonstration of grief the seriousness of their situation. Up to the present time, a combination of civic pride, personal resolve, faith in the power of their arms and the strength of Ilium's nearly impregnable fortifications along with the city's ability, thus far, to withstand the lengthy siege with minimal discomfort had emboldened the people of Ilium to continue their resistance.
Now, in the tenth year of the conflict, the odds of battling the invaders to a draw, never mind securing a victory, were slowly but trenchantly diminishing. The tide of fortune was turning against them, not by the will of the gods, some of whom favored the House of Atreus and others of whom favored the House of Priam, but by the dumb, inexorable, cumulative force of men, materiel and military might. The death of Hector at the hands of Achilles had been a symbolic harbinger of inevitable defeat. There remained the desperate gamble that Aeneas was preparing to undertake with the help of Xena and Penthesileia's Amazons. But it was an extremely long shot, and Aeneas, being both modest and astute, knew that it was a long shot even without having to have that knowledge confirmed by Cassandra who foresaw only too well the inevitable defeat and downfall.
Then what of a negotiated surrender? There was honor in that course of action. Lesser Trojan lights than Hector -- King Priam's two youngest sons, Troilus and Helenus, for example -- had offered to meet Achilles in single combat, on the field of battle, winner take all. But Achilles had refused to accept the challenge. When there was no prospect of any true contest in the offing -- Achilles would have despatched either of these Trojan champions with a mere cast of the spear -- there was no honor in slaughtering an opponent merely to confirm that opponent's acknowledged bravery. If the House of Atreus was honorable in its conduct of the war, a deal might possibly be worked out. Attic, Spartan and Mycenean interests might henceforth dominate the rich trade routes of Asia Minor and the great land mass of Central Asia; yet Ilium, the jewel of the Ionian coast, suzerain of Phrygia and master of Anatolia, whose vassal states, but for free and independent Themiscyra, stretched as far as the Persian frontier, was not without pride of place and dignity of her won. Her name was as great as any city in Hellas save, possibly, Athens.
But was the House of Atreus, in fact, honorable? Or would its masters renege on the terms of a negotiated surrender, put the men to the sword, the city to the torch and deliver the women and children, those whom they permitted to live, into slavery or worse? Agammemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax, Nestor, these names were not known for their generosity and munificence in treating with their enemies. Diomedes, the seventh member of the Argive general staff, was reputed to be the most noble and humane among them, but even Diomedes had been drawn, by circumstance and obedience, into pusillanimous theft and cowardly murder. Ruefully, Aeneas concluded that the Argive leadership could not be trusted to abide honorably by the terms of whatever agreement the two opponents might enter into, and Xena made little attempt to dissuade him, believing, in her heart, that his assessment, in this regard, was regretfully accurate.
Velasca's wanton murder was an indication, in many minds, of the shape of things to come: a message, however inadvertent or desultory, sent to the Trojans of what they, too, might expect were Ilium's walls to be toppled or breached.
Xena and Gabrielle avoided one another on the day following Velasca's funeral. They were both extremely angry and didn't want to run the risk of accidentally taking their anger out on one another. Xena spent the day at the telesterion, putting the Trojan infantry through an exhausting pace of training exercises, pushing them harder than Thermodosa and the Amazons had pushed them, which was already plenty hard.
"Snap to! Let's see some passion in those moves!" Xena shouted and scowled. "Those are squads of ruthless mercenaries you're going to be confronting out on the open plain, not packs of inexperienced boy scouts! Think of your wives and children! Your arms and your nerve are all that stand between the fate of your loved ones and an army of well-equipped soldiers trained to kill and whose generals won't flinch at the mass murder of unarmed civilians! Be sharp and hit hard! It's the only language that those who serve the House of Atreus are willing to understand!"
"Will you be out there fighting beside us, Xena?" a voice cried.
"I don't know yet!" Xena cried back. "I'll have to see what my orders are!"
That was a switch. Xena hadn't taken orders from a superior since the day she'd refused to take them from Darphus and had been made to run the gauntlet as a result of her insubordination. Xena had been ruled by Lao Ma and Gabrielle, even Cyrene on occasion, but that was different. They had ruled Xena by the force of persuasion and moral authority -- and because they loved her. Xena had permitted Hades to rule her once, for Marcus' sake. And she'd let Herc rule her once, for her own sake. But Xena had never served as anyone's second in command except for Ephiny at the Battle of the Strymon Road, and Xena's willingness to do so had largely been conditioned by her knowledge that Gabrielle had wished her to support Ephiny's leadership and not to challenge or undermine it.
Xena wasn't bound to take orders from Aeneas, but she believed in him, and she also felt an obligation to King Priam, one of the few Kings whom Xena respected, to assist in the evacuation of Ilium if and when the need should arise. But word had been filtering into the city that the buildup of the assault forces on the beach beside the mouth of the Scamander and along the coastal waters of the Xanthus, coupled with the massive deployment of reserve forces on Tenedos, was of a scale the likes of which Xena had never seen. For the first time in her Warrior Princess career, Xena found herself out of her depth and unable to see a way effectively to cope with the situation. It was a frightening and disorienting feeling, that inability to take matters onto her own hands. Would Gabrielle think less of her if Gabrielle were to discern that matters had evolved beyond Xena's power to control, that the Warrior Princess, for all her many skills and unrivalled heroism in a thousand contests of varied dimensions, not all or even the most important of which had been fought with sword and chakram, wasn't a Superwoman after all but was simply, in the end, a creature of flesh and blood, heart and soul?
That's all I've ever wanted her to be, Gabrielle thought to herself as she observed the day's training from a distance, lurking in the shadows under the arches, not wanting Xena to know that she was there. I can handle Xena's being human and limited and fallible, but can she? After all, as must be obvious to anyone who knows her, Xena's a raving control freak. Even in bed, Xena was often possessed by that need to be in control -- of herself mostly -- and at those times she found it nearly impossible to ease up and let go, no matter that she may badly have wanted to.
"It's just me, Gabrielle. It's just my ornery cussedness," Xena would often say in the hope of saving Gabrielle's ego from taking a battering which it took anyway. At other times, Xena was able to allow herself to relax in an atmosphere that was less than a demand for self-perfection. At those times, loving her was heavenly. Yet if Gabrielle happened to be in a bad mood, if she was angry and flustered as she was today on account of Velasca's death, and if she were then accidentally to snap at Xena or just to act moody or grouchy, Xena would pout or withdraw or go out back and smash a couple, three dozen boards with her fists or lop off some heavy, overhanging tree branches with the blade of her sword until Gabrielle went out and asked her -- please -- to simmer down and come back in and cuddle up next to her.
Xena can't stand it when I'm mad at her, Gabrielle shook her head. It drives her tender spots up the wall. It's the one thing we can't talk rationally about -- insofar as Xena has the capacity to be rational when it comes to dealing with the things that press her most vulnerable buttons. So Gabrielle, furious on the day after Velasca's body was burned on the pyre, steered a wide berth of Xena lest Gabrielle's anger make her short-tempered and provoke a silly, pointless fight.
Joxer, who'd been on hand but had remained in the background during the preparation of the pyre and the funeral ceremony, seemed to sense that he'd do well to give Xena and Gabrielle a wide berth for the time being. As tempers were running high, it might be best to lay low.
In any event, Joxer had plenty to occupy his attention. He'd been setting up his chemistry lab in the kitchen behind the refectory, against the wall that vented into the rear alley. He’d piled his boxes and crates of black powder supplies by the back door. To his delight, Joxer was being aided in this endeavor by a small and terribly cute strawberry blonde with glistening, strandy hair that fell below her round and very embraceable shoulders. And though Joxer would endlessly have sworn on a stack of Olympian scrolls that his love for Gabrielle was as true and undying as the millions of stars above, nonetheless, in the heat of the sandglass (and Joxer was no stranger to hot sandglasses), life did have a way of offering its temporarily consoling diversions, one of which, when the day was nearly done, had found her giggling way onto his lap, her arms encircling his neck while her lovely breasts, nicely buoyed inside the stitching of a lace bodice, bobbed up and down at nose level, causing Joxer's head to nod rapidly up and down in tandem, nose to boobs with some space between, though not enough to keep Joxer from repeatedly losing his train of thought.
"You're cooking up something secret with Xena and her friend, aren't you, Joxer, the Muddy, who groans through the pantry slide," Joxer's friendly and extremely pretty assistant said as she looked playfully into his eagerly bouncing eyes.
"The, um, Mighty. And I roam. Through the countryside," Joxer corrected his affectionate interlocutor’s misimpression. "And what you see here, little lady, isn't the kind of sugar you'd wanna go frosting your flakes with."
"Wouldn't the stuff you’re whipping up make my flakes taste all frosty and sugary?" the little lady snuggled closer on Joxer's lap.
"It'd make 'em go snap, crackle and pop," Joxer said, getting just a trifle crackly and poppy on account of the shifting weight of the lady's bottom exerting its erotic pressure on his lap.
"So the stuff you're making is shot from guns, is it?" she wriggled her fanny closer and harder.
"Put it this way," Joxer said, real cozy-like and starting to get quite excited, "once I've put the finishing touches on it, you might wanna call it the breakfast of champions."
"Ahem..., Joxer," Gabrielle discretely intruded on the little ménage. "If you can tear yourself away from your, um, devotion to work for just the turn of a sandglass, Xena would like to see you... Like right now at this very instant... Excuse me," Gabrielle nodded at Joxer's new friend.
"Whoa, Gab! It's you!" Joxer straightened up, reflexively dropping his lap and accidentally causing his pretty assistant to slide down his shins and bump her bottom on the floor. "Xena! Wants to see me! Right now! En seguida! Sure thing!"
Gabrielle gave Joxer's assistant a cool, cursory look. "I'm sure it won't take you long, and then you can, um, get back to what you're doing."
"Gab, this here’s my new assistant," Joxer said as though, for some reason, she weren't. "Um, I'm afraid I never got your name..."
"I'm Cressida," the young woman smiled at Joxer and then at Gabrielle.
"This is my new acressida," Joxer's face was soupy with smiles. "The sweetest ass... istant a master chef could want. Cres, this is Gab, one of my merry dressed friends."
The ladies acknowledged one another.
"Think you could maybe like... move it?" Gabrielle looked at Joxer through slightly bared teeth.
"Now don't you go anyplace, you hear?" Joxer twitted at Cressida. "I'll be right back. And don't try and make off with any packets of these little sugar snaps while I'm gone, 'cause I'll know if you do. I've counted up each and every one of those tasty little O's."
Cressida smiled and told Joxer not to hurry... ah, worry while he was gone.
"What that was all about," Gabrielle turned and glared at Joxer when they were alone in the passageway that led from the refectory to the guest quarters.
"You like my new little helper?" Joxer smiled a goony smile. "Isn't she the cutest thing?"
"You'd better not tip anybody off to what you're doing here," Gabrielle snapped. "You're working on a top secret, classified project. Do you know who your new assistant is?"
"Yeah, a sweet little honey who helped me set my flasks and beakers up," Joxer hurried to keep pace with Gabrielle as they scooted down the corridor. "Wasn't that nice of her to pop in and offer to titrate my tubes?"
"That's Troilus' girlfriend," Gabrielle said. "There’s a rumor that her father's spying for Agammemnon."
"No! Not a cute little muffin like that," Joxer protested. "Aw, and here I was thinking she was really interested in learning how a length of rubber hosing’s volume expands when its flange gets plugged into a sealed methane chamber."
Xena was waiting in the suite which she now shared with Gabrielle, the place feeling large and deserted since Lila and the Amazons had gone. Deiphobus had installed Joxer in quarters close to the refectory, but Xena was thinking it might be a good idea for Joxer to bunk in the room that Elana, Oriena and Thelestria had vacated the better to keep an eye on him and thus, hopefully, to prevent him from accidentally spilling the beans to pretty faces and curious ears like Cressida's.
"I've got a schedule worked out," Xena sat Joxer down on the wide ledge of the belvedere that looked down at the mall and courtyard. The twilight was serene and the air was calm. It was a pleasant night in Ilium, one of the few remaining evenings when families and lovers could walk leisurely abroad on the promenades, arm in arm, with toddlers scurrying behind, enjoying the last of these balmy fall nights before the sweeping rains would come to signal the approaching days of winter. "On day seven, the full moon, we strike paydirt and blow the thing sky high. Which means that on day six, we need to get it rigged and wired, which means that on day five, we have to have everything we need stashed in a secure place where we can easily lay our hands on it. So by the end of day four, I want the whole thing assembled, so by the end of day three, all the pieces need to be ready to get put together and all the black powder has to be baked, dried and ready to load."
"That means that I gotta have all the batches of it made up by the end of day two which means getting all the weighing and mixing and sifting and soaking done by the end of day one which is -- yikes -- tomorrow. Wow, that's really pushin' it," Joxer's eyebrows jutted up and down.
"And the first thing I want you to do is to dump your new assistant," Gabrielle insisted.
"What assistant's that?" Xena wanted to know.
"Cressida. She's helping him," Gabrielle said.
"Joxer, have you gone and lost your marbles?" Xena's eyes flared as she sat back and gave Joxer an exasperated look. "I think you must've gotten hit by one too many pies in the face on the day that Gabrielle lost her all-time big bet to me."
"The bet that I lost!" Gabrielle protested. "You're saying that I lost that bet? Xena, you blew that bet the instant you saw how Argo had gotten shrunk to the size of a beagle."
"And whose fault was that?" Xena huffed. "It wasn't me who came up with the bright idea of giving Argo a bath in Lachrymose's stream."
"You blew the bet and that’s why you got pie'd for it," Gabrielle held firm. "We think that Cressida's uncle might be spying for Agammemnon. Get rid of her," Xena, not wanting to argue with Gabrielle, snapped at Joxer instead.
"But she likes me, how can I up and hurt her feelings?" Joxer said, bummed at Xena's request. "And how do you know her uncle’s a spy? If her uncle’s a spy, how come he hasn't been arrested and had his eyes gouged out, huh?"
"’Cause he's spying for Aeneas too," Xena said.
"Ooh, a double agent," Joxer said, impressed.
"They have their uses," Xena said. "He’s an idealist. He thinks he can head off the bloodshed by serving as a go-between. Agammemnon's got him convinced that the Argives can be trusted. So tell Cressida to look for more suitable outlets for her desire to serve the cause, okay? And Joxer...?"
Joxer made sad eyes at Xena. Cressida was petite and pretty and had a fresh, natural look about her. She had long, bouncy, strawberry blonde hair which she brushed to a sheen and let hang loose and fluffy. Cressida seemed to Joxer to be very wholesome and affectionate: just the kind of woman that Joxer found most attractive in those rare turns of the sandglass when he permitted himself to wonder if Gabrielle, really and truly, was his real, true love.
"Yeah?" Joxer said, his eyes and voice downcast.
"You know how some barnyard animals get led around by the rings in their noses?" Xena said.
"Yeah?" Joxer said.
"Well, there's some guys in the barnyard who let themselves get led around by their... um, well, it's usually longer than their noses and last time I looked, most of 'em haven't got rings in 'em," Xena said.
Joxer gave Xena a funny, embarrassed look.
"Don't be one of those lonesome farmhands, okay?" Xena said.
"Awright, you win. Cressida goes," Joxer fumed. "Never let it be said."
"Never let what be said?" Xena said, waiting for Joxer to complete the thought.
"Never let it be said...," Joxer stood up, disconcerted, "that I don't stock my drawers with loads of spare pipettes."
Joxer started to wend his way along the enclosed arcade when Xena called after him. "Jox..."
Joxer turned around, his face, in the instant, not looking much like a magnet for cream pies.
"We're glad you're here with us, you know," Xena called out. "even though it’s dangerous."
Joxer hesitated, then nodded and turned to resume his hike back to the kitchen compartment behind the refectory.
"Think you were maybe a little hard on him?" Gabrielle said as she watched Joxer go.
"Gabrielle," Xena said. "A week from now, this entire city may have gone up in smoke. You and I need to arrange for getting as many people as possible out of here before the Argives torch the place. That doesn't give us time to be looking over Joxer's shoulder. He's gotta come through on his own, and he can't afford to let himself get distracted."
"She is awful pretty," Gabrielle said, thinking of Cressida.
"She is," Xena said. "And a pretty face, as we well know, is Joxer's crucial weakness."
"If only Jox could find somebody nice," Gabrielle sighed. "Somebody who could give him what he needs. Somebody other than Meg who only gives him part of what he needs."
"He will. Someday," Xena rolled up her chart.
"When we stood up to Brutus and his legions at the Strymon Road, that felt right. Ephiny was there. We were all in it together," Gabrielle mused. "But going up against the Argives doesn't seem quite as right. Perdicus is out there. So's Andros. So's Lexie's brothers. What if we cross swords with the?. It's not really the Greeks we're fighting. It's Agammemnon and the House of Atreus. What gives them the right to presume to speak for all the Greeks anyhow?"
"The force of arms gives them the right because others don't protest," Xena said.
"I'm Greek. You're Greek. Agammemnon and his forces don't speak for us," Gabrielle said.
"No, Penthesileia speaks for you," Xena said.
"No, she doesn’t," Gabrielle fingered the point on the tip of one of the sais which she drawn from its holster on her hip.
"She does if you acknowledge her as your queen which you’re bound by Amazon law and custom to do," Xena said.
"Within reason," Gabrielle said.
"No," Xena shook her head. "If Penthesileia commanded you to fight alongside her, as a Trojan ally, you'd be bound by your oath to obey her, even if that meant going hand to hand against Perdicus, Andros or Alexis’ brothers."
"Penthesileia would never do that," Gabrielle said. "Her way isn't to give orders or to put her subjects in double binds, caught between Argive rocks and Trojan hard places."
"But if she did," Xena said. "Which comes first in the line of duty?"
"You do," Gabrielle said in the light of the instant's self-revelation. "Then Mom and Dad and Lee and then the Amazons. I'm not ashamed to fight for the Trojans. They have the better cause, even before what those foul scum did to Velasca."
"Yes," Xena let go a long, hissing sigh, "the Trojans have the better cause. And I'm not riding at the head of an army now. I don't know if I could do that anymore. I’m starting to wonder if it may be time to hang up the chakram and put in for a desk job."
"You? Fight a war from behind the lines? Never," Gabrielle shook her head. "You’ll be laid to rest with your leathers on. As you should."
"Should I, though?" Xena mused as looked down at the peaceful mall and courtyard at twilight, long cleared of the ecstatic bloodletting of the Corybantes. "Well: all such thoughts aside, we need to check in with Diomedes."
"That son of a slithering sidewinder! What for?!" Gabrielle's eyes flared and the tip of her sai twirled in very impatient circles.
"He's given us a free pass out to the Argive lines," Xena smiled. "Otherwise, we'd have to slog through some pretty awful muck and do it after dark to avoid the dragnet. He's not so bad, Diomedes. I want to tell him that I meant what I said about going one on one with him after the war if he doesn't sever his ties with the House of Atreus. Besides, we're going to need his help if we're to have a fighting chance of evacuating this place should we need to."
"You’d trust Diomedes? After what they did to Velasca?" Gabrielle’s eyes widened.
Xena nodded. "You've heard the story of how my army got whipped at the Battle of Corinth when we went up against Tyldus and the Centaurs."
"You've told me they halted your advance like we did to Brutus when we turned the Roman legions back on the Strymon Road," Gabrielle said.
"They did more than just halt our advance," Xena said. "They whipped us. Not many people can say they whipped me in battle, but Tyldus can. Then when I met Diomedes in a tavern one day, not long after Caesar had finished with me and I was a crawling mass of jelly, Diomedes showed me how I could have won that battle. Victory lay in a combination of three moves which, in retrospect, were so simple that, at the time, I never thought of them. And I was the best there was at that game. Or so I’d imagined.
"We'll head out in the morning when I can think straight and keep a civil tongue in my head. And you’ll need to hang on to your temper. Don't go blowing it like you nearly did on the night we went to see Latrinus and found Alexis, brave and scared, sitting alone on a pile of furs inside a chilly hut, not knowing what had become of Lila. We'll need to keep our cool no matter how angry and aching we might be on the inside. Think you can hack it? If not, I'll go see him alone."
"I can hack it," Gabrielle said and replaced the sai in her holster.
Xena stared out at the mild, mesmerizing night of Ilium and its lovely pavilions, rotundas and gardens. "I could have won that battle," Xena said absently, toying with one of the brads on her leathers. "Three simple moves, that’s all it would have taken...," Xena turned to look at Gabrielle with a wan smile that was half affection, half contemplation, "and I could've entered the record books undefeated..."
|Continued - Chapter 64|
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