Chapters 28 - 30
Xena stepped into the king's living quarters hesitantly. She had been in them only once before, yet she knew the memories of that visit would never leave her. It was curious: she could still see Gabrielle, as she confessed to keeping the news of Atrius' death from her. Xena could almost taste the anger she had felt then, yet it might have been a story told about other people for all the impact it made now.
"Xena." The king emerged from his private chamber, fully clothed, despite the early hour, his face telling his new-found joy. "I know my message didn't wake you; you were in the stable at dawn."
"Argo was long overdue for a proper grooming," she said. Your spies are very effective; at least in keeping tabs on your friends, she thought.
"I heard of Argo's role in Teremon's rescue. You have a horse worthy of you." Xena's head moved in fond agreement. "That makes me happy."
"Well, as long as you're happy..." she grinned.
"She's earned a rest," he went on, ignoring her sarcasm. "I hope that means you'll be staying a while." Her shrug was noncommittal. "I heard you were injured. It's obvious it hasn't healed yet. I think you could use a rest as well. I have a good healer, you should have that leg seen to."
"It'll be fine, thanks. Just needs time."
"Callisto said -"
"Don't go there," she warned. He looked at her closely for the first time. There was a coldness in the eyes he hadn't seen before. They were narrowed now, in anger, above lips that were tight with fury. Callisto was a big problem for her he realized.
"Cletus, I did what you 'asked' me to do," she said generously. "You have your son."
"Xena, I give you my sincere thanks. I am in your debt. I would have seen you last night, but I was so excited about Teremon...I stayed up half the night just watching him sleep, noticing every little feature."
"Bully for you. Don't worry; there's no doubt he's yours. As for the 'debt', we had a deal. I've held up my end of the bargain; now you forget Solon ever existed. Take his name off every document and record you have, including those that you imagine to be confidential."
He looked crestfallen. "I had hoped -"
"What? For a grandson to dote on? My own mother doesn't have that pleasure, and she deserves it. You'll have to wait for Teremon to do you that favor. Or maybe my sister will oblige you. One other thing: clear my name in the little matter of Atrius' murder. I don't need that following me around."
"Done," he said simply.
"Now, I have a few questions I'd like answered," she told him, her tone warning him to be forthcoming. Apparently our little false escape ruse didn't work. Where do you suppose it failed? Informers? Or did that guardsman botch things?"
"Woody 'botched' things, but it was really a failing of yours," he said a little cruelly. "You let Woody and the bard talk you into letting Radec's man, Filxon, live. He damned near killed Woody, and carried word of your true mission to Radec. I hadn't expected that sort of misjudgment from you."
Her jaw tightened as she absorbed the criticism. He was right, and she had known in her gut she made a mistake at the time. All right; so much for mercy. "It won't happen again, I promise you. Now you tell me this: How did Radec learn of Teremon? Or Callisto? They didn't learn that from who was it? Filxon. Who else knows your secrets?"
Cletus shook his head. "I don't know how he discovered these things."
"That just means you don't want to think about it right now. Well, you'd better think about it. Then again, maybe that no longer matters. But Radec has been one step ahead of you throughout this episode. Now he's sent assassins to eliminate your heir. What are you going to do about that?" she demanded.
"Officially, I can take no action. We have no evidence."
"Unofficially, a lot can be done," she suggested hopefully.
He shook his head. "No."
Exasperated, she threw up her arms. "Fine. It's your neck, and Teremon's. I don't get it though: you would gladly sacrifice Filxon, a foot-soldier, yet his boss has the run of the kingdom with a royal seal around his neck. I'm glad I don't have your scruples."
"Filxon would have died in the field. I can't condone assassination."
"That's a distinction I don't get, but never mind. One more question. I think you know what it is: Radec was obviously using Callisto to kill me, and Teremon. He'd never let her have the crown," she said with quiet conviction. "Who does he have in mind for that?"
Cletus moved to the sideboard and selected a sweet roll. "I have many cousins," he said thoughtfully. "Perhaps..."
"A cousin? Which means all the other cousins with a yen for the crown have to be dealt with? I don't think so. Who else is there?" she persisted.
"There is no one-"
"Fine. Don't tell me," she broke in. "I'll be well rid of this mess." She turned to go.
"Xena," he said, suddenly, unwilling to see her leave. "There is someone else. Another son." She pulled a face; she had suspected this. "Why don't you have a seat, while I tell you about him?" She complied, and gestured for him to continue. "I don't know if Radec knows of him, or plans on using him, but it seems likely. I haven't been able to track him for a couple of years now, not for want of effort. His mother was a noblewoman, in the court of an eastern potentate. Krykon was the third son. Primogeniture is the law in that kingdom, rather backward I'd say. That was abolished long ago in Prestia," he said with pride." Xena's look told him to get to the point. "With two brothers ahead of him, it seemed unlikely he'd ever inherit anything. Maybe it was that that made him restless and..." he paused, looking for a euphemism. Finding none that fit, he went on. "He got in trouble, over some debts and gambling. The scandal involved members of court with higher rank. Krykon was sent packing. I was able to track him for a time, then I lost him.
He seems to change names rather frequently. If Radec's found him, I think he'd be just the man. His claim would be superior to Teremon's," he observed.
"Only if you acknowledge his claim."
"I would never deny my blood, Xena. I have been remiss as a father," he admitted, " but any child of mine who makes a claim on me, I will acknowledge."
"So, here's where things stand," she said after a minute, eyes focused on a distant point, as if picturing the possibilities. "You want Teremon to have the crown, Radec, in all probability, wants Krykon, who is ahead of Teremon in the line of succession. You won't disavow Krykon, even though he's a cheat and liar, or make a move against Radec, even though he's a cheat, liar and assassin. And we don't even know what Callisto's role in all this might be."
He smiled helplessly at the absurdity of the situation. "Any suggestions?"
"Yeah: pack your things and take up residence on Dracatha with Teremon; you can't win if you refuse to play. Or fight," she hissed, fiercely. There was a noise at the door, as Teremon and Drusander walked in. Drusander beamed at the sight of her; Teremon sniffed the air, caught the scent of leather, and launched himself toward her, slowing just enough to navigate around the unfamiliar room. "Xena," he cried, as he threw his arms around her, ramming a knee into her thigh as he did so. She went nearly white with pain, and buried her face in his shoulder until she recovered. Cletus observed the scene with interest, curious about the relationships that might have developed on the road.
"Xena," Drusander said from the entrance, "I didn't realize you were joining us."
Teremon pulled away from what had seemed to be an affectionate hug, overjoyed that he was back in her good graces at last.
"Yeah, well, I'm not really. Just finishing up business with Cletus. I've got to go." Three male faces fell. Teremon spoke up. "We're having breakfast with the king, Xena," he said excitedly. Remembering his manners, he ascertained where the king might be, in some mysterious way, and waved broadly. "Good morning, Your Majesty." Then back to Xena. "It was nice to sleep in a bed again," he confessed. "Do warriors prefer the ground?" he asked, innocently.
"Sometimes, I do, Teremon. Last night it was good to be indoors." He slipped a hand inside hers. "Please stay for breakfast. It will be nice to see how you are now."
"What do you mean?" she asked puzzled.
"Arcus told me on the road that you had to be that way, you know, cold and mean, to do your job as a warrior. I was a good soldier, and stayed out of your way, didn't I?"
Cold and mean; he didn't deserve that. Her resolve to keep him at arm's length for his own safety began to melt.
"You were a good soldier, Teremon. I was proud of you." He touched her face to feel her expression. She smiled for his fingers. "I think I have a little time for breakfast," she relented.
"Before we eat, I have some news you Teremon." The boy face turned to Cletus expectantly. "You like it here in the castle, don't you?" The boy nodded. "And you'd like to stay here, to live as my son?" Another nod. "My boy," he said quietly, laying a hand on his shoulder, "you shall stay here forever, because you are my son. I am your father. Your real father." Teremon waited a second, as if listening for more. "Is that it?" he asked at last, a cloud dimming his smile.
"Does that make you unhappy," Cletus said, his own features matching those of the boy.
"No; not unhappy, but I knew that, I heard Drusander and Grindl talking a long while back. I wondered when you would come for me."
"Then what's wrong?" Drusander asked.
"I thought maybe you would say that Xena is my real mother." An uncomfortable silence followed, broken at last by Drusander. "Teremon," he said, do you really think, if Xena had a child, she'd leave him alone? I think you know Xena would be a good mother." He smiled at her, not expecting the glare she returned.
It was good to be outside the castle walls; even if the populace did eye her warily. Xena had become a figure of notoriety in Prestia. Xena, Doom of Cirra had only been a name. Recent events had provided a face to go with that name, and as she strode through the streets, working to minimize the limp, heads turned, and whispers were exchanged. She was aware of it, but too engaged in her own observations to be disturbed. On every street, it seemed, lounged brown-clad men of Radec's. They walked with a swagger, their manner telling the citizens to clear a path. An inadvertent jostle was reason for a clout. On one crowded corner, a trio of the bullies leered at a young girl, as she trundled her cart of produce through the streets.
"We like your wares," one of them said with a lascivious grin, a hand reached out to fondle her bottom. The girl turned to slap his hand away, and in reaction he tipped her cart over, crushing her goods underfoot. "Oops! There goes a day's wage," he smirked.
"Now get that lot cleared up, or you'll be fined for creating a public nuisance," a comrade put in, poking her in the ribs. "Or you could come along and show us a good time," he suggested, as his arms encircled her waist.
"You want a good time, boys? I'll be happy to oblige." He turned to the husky voice, and crumpled to the ground as a knee drove into his groin. Xena gently shoved the girl out of the way and lifted a foot to meet the face of the second man. He pitched forward into the dirt a split second after his teeth. The third man reached for his sword. Xena grinned as if hoping he would draw steel; he caught her meaning and backed away. "You've broken the peace here in Prestia," he told her. "This isn't the end." Xena took a half-step toward him, and he turned to run, forgetting his downed comrades. The girl mumbled thanks as she set about righting her cart. Xena moved to help her, but several men stepped out of the small crowd that had gathered, and did the job. The sight of her day's goods lying ruined in the street clearly distressed the girl. Even as tears filled her eyes however, Xena rousted the first bully with a none-too-gentle touch of her boot. "You bought a lot of fruit today. You gonna pay for it?" Without waiting for a reply, she found his purse and counted out a handful of dinars. Then she grinned and took a few more. She placed them in the girl's hand. Then she turned back to the pair. "This girl is under the protection of Xena. Nobody goes near her. You got that?" she asked, picking up each head in turn to get a barely audible response. She focused on the girl. "I think you'll be okay." The little crowd had grown, happy to see justice done, if only for a time. A low murmur became a spontaneous cheer. Xena, it appeared was not the villain they'd expected. The warrior looked around, taking in the faces briefly, and edged out of the crowd, to continue her excursion.
Salmoneus hurried to catch her, calling her name at last, to urge her to wait. "Xena, you're not an easy person to catch."
"Yeah, Salmoneus, I like it that way." She had heard he was staying in the castle, guessed it had to do with Gabrielle, and left it alone.
"Small world, isn't it," he said, amiably. "First Brinnia, now Prestia. Funny thing, speaking of small worlds, you know that cheat you saved me from in Brinnia? He's here, in Prestia. If it's not him, it's his double." He shuddered as they passed a knot of Radec's men, happy to be walking beside the strong warrior. "This place isn't what it used to be," he commented dryly.
"It isn't what it was a few weeks ago," she replied. She wondered to what extent the people understood the power structure in Prestia, knew that Radec and his forces operated independent of the king. These oppressive thugs would bring a reaction from even the most docile nation. Before long there would be bands of citizens seeking to redress injustice, as she had done just now. That would be Radec's excuse to exert more force, to establish martial law, to demand the abdication of a king unable to keep order. The beginning of the end. She pictured the peaceful streets littered with bodies, shops shuttered against looters, a populace living in permanent fear of arbitrary violence in the name of justice. And Cletus just watches, she thought glumly, wondering if he really was incompetent. He was certainly more concerned about his private affairs than those of his people.
Salmoneus watched as the lovely features clouded over. "Xena, will you be at the banquet tomorrow evening?" he asked, hoping to change the mood.
"Banquet?" There had been an ornate scroll sitting on a table with her name on it; maybe an invitation. She hadn't opened it. "I don't know."
"It's to welcome the Amazons, officially. Rumor has it, there's to be an announcement of some sort, having to do with the little boy." He waited in vain for her to volunteer information.
"I wouldn't know, Salmoneus." Any banquet to welcome the Amazons would be better for her absence, she thought. No point being in Gabrielle's presence if it could be avoided. She had succeeded in controlling the pain in her thigh for a good part of the morning. Now it worsened, suddenly, and she knew the return walk to the castle would be an ordeal.
"Is he the king's son?" Salmoneus was asking. "That's not an idle question. I can't decide whether to invest in this place if I don't know what things will be like down the road. Cletus is a nice guy, but he seems to be losing his grip, you know what I mean?"
She regarded him soberly. Salmoneus was a good judge of character; he had seen the heart that lay beneath her tough exterior even before she had felt it. He also had a profit-driven acumen for assessing situations. If he could sense the problems so clearly, in just a few days, there was much to be alarmed about. "Walk me back to the castle and we'll have lunch, Salmoneus." It was not exactly a smile that touched her face, something more akin to a sly grin, yet Salmoneus knew that he was not on the receiving end of whatever she had planned, and he nodded his assent happily.
"I won't be at the banquet, Ephiny." Blonde curls shook as her head came around to face the bard. "Yes you will," Ephiny said. "It's a duty, not a choice. I told you when we came to Prestia this was not solely about you and Xena. Unless you're too sick to walk, you'll be there." Her voice held a note of command. "Besides," she said, softening, "maybe Xena won't be there. She's not much for formal banquets, I should think."
Gabrielle was torn. She dreaded the banquet, was sincere about wanting not to go, yet at the same time, she ached to see Xena one more time, maybe one last time.
The headquarters building of the Security Forces of Prestia was a squat, ugly affair, originally built as a barracks. The army had moved on to better quarters, leaving it to the First Minister, for the needs of internal security. It was walled with thick stone, but was not invulnerable. That fact had never seemed to be a problem before Xena's arrival in Prestia. Radec had used the time since her escape to fortify the building as much as possible. The task of defeating the garrison there would be much harder now. From his quarters, Radec looked out on a Prestia more and more in his grasp. Even Glaucon, the fool, had not been able to impede Radec's drive to power. A few more moves, and the game would be over; satisfied with his calculations, Radec sipped slowly from a cup, and laughed over the latest report. The Warrior Princess, the king's own daughter, siding with the townsfolk in Prestia. It was amusing, and pathetic. As a member of the royal family, she could wield power to some purpose, as a Warrior Princess, engaging in street brawls, she was a sideshow. By the time they guessed his next move, she would be irrelevant.
The Warrior Princess sat straining to read the dim writing on a scroll. It was one of many ancient writings preserved in the king's library. They were arranged neatly, according to era, which made things hard to find. It had taken her all afternoon to determine which scrolls she needed to read. Reading them was not much easier. The ink was fading, and the light in the room diminished as the sun moved around the corner of the building.
"Interesting," she said aloud. She sat back, eyes narrowed, and let her mind work. The outline of a plan had begun to form, looming out of the darkness in bits and pieces. It was often that way, she could see the salient features of a plan, know the ending before she knew the middle, or often the beginning. She saw only the shape of the plan now, and knew the extent of detail that would be necessary to make it work. It all hinged, as most plans did, on a few vital factors. Some of those factors were well known to her, others were still puzzles. Cletus, was a key, and she knew him well, had his ear. Another key was Radec, and she knew all she needed to know of Radec from those few minutes in the dungeon. If people acted true to form, she was almost certain she could dictate the outcome of this mess. Only the intangibles created any doubt. Still, they could be lived with, would have to be lived with. Few problems ever had a neat solution, she reminded herself. In the end she might have to take a sledge hammer and make the pieces fit together. She'd done that before she acknowledged, with a self-deprecating smile. People usually assumed it was all part of the plan. She rolled up the scrolls she'd found useful, tucked them on a shelf where they could be easily retrieved, and left the library. A hot bath was in order she decided, and a long quiet time to think.
"Tell them." It was not a request. Candles had been newly lit to light the night-darkened room. In their fluttering light, Xena sat across from Cletus, watching him collect metal filings with a magnet. It was irritating, somehow, and she brought her eyes up to focus on his face, wondering how he could play while his kingdom slipped away.
"I thought we had agreed to conceal your connection," he said without looking up.
"You agreed to it rather quickly," she commented with a hint of bitterness. "I've decided to exercise my prerogative, my royal prerogative, to change my mind." Her eyes narrowed, her mouth twitched at one corner. "We assume that Radec will propose Krykon as an alternative to Teremon. Callisto won't be quiet for long. Am I so much more shameful than the cheat and the madwoman?" She grinned unpleasantly. "You don't have to answer that, but you publicly acknowledge me as one of your line, or I'll make my own statement. You've said you would never deny your blood. "
He looked at her at last, surprise, and disappointment showing on his face. "I would have expected this from Callisto, Xena; not from you," he said a little sadly.
"Well, get used to it. Callisto and I have a lot in common."
"And what, exactly, is your aim in all this?"
The blue eyes did not waver as she answered. "I just want my due. To wipe away the name of Atrius from my life, forever. To just, not be disregarded." Her voice rose a little on the last word. Cletus felt, for the first time the effect his careless fathering had had on his oldest child. There was more there, but she would not say it.
"What is your answer?" she demanded instead.
"Have you thought of Cyrene? To have her, indiscretion, shall we say, announced to the world? Will that be best for her?"
"My mother made a choice to commit an 'indiscretion', a long time ago. She should have thought of the consequences then," she ended in barely a whisper. "I'm thinking about Xena, now," she informed him. "My life is always simpler when I just think about her."
That was cold. Cletus looked away, unwilling to see the darkness that had settled over the beautiful features, unwilling to admit to his own role in letting her sink into darkness.
"All right," he said suddenly. "At the banquet. There will be a second announcement. Prestia shall meet the two children from opposite ends of my life. One the child of the brash young warrior, the other the product of a wiser, old king." He forced a smile, and received a feral grin in return.
Xena had become intimate with the castle confines. She took a route back to her own quarters that skirted the area given over to the Amazons. Through a gateway, she could see into the courtyard, and peered closely as she went by, hoping to see Gabrielle without being seen. Her intentions were guessed at. "Gabrielle's not there." She had heard the footsteps; Ephiny's voice annoyed, rather than startled her. "She just left with a dozen others for a dinner to celebrate some poet. Seemed appropriate for her to represent us." She waved a hand in invitation to the courtyard. Amazons milled there, much as they did in Amazonia, relaxing by firelight, swapping stories of the wonders of Prestia. Xena nodded her acceptance. Everyone knew Xena, and heads turned as she walked through the courtyard. Nods and smiles were given or not, depending on what each woman believed about the breakup. Eponin pressed a cup into Xena's hand, and embraced her briefly. That was the signal for greetings to be more vocal. Xena lifted the cup and drank in acknowledgement. Ephiny smiled, sensing that Xena had relaxed a bit, happy there was someplace the warrior could feel at home. "Stay for dinner." She led her to a bench away from the fire, not commenting on the limp, which seemed jarringly out of place.
"Prestia is quite a place, Xena. It's been good for the others to see it, and for them to see us. I know Cletus meant well with all this," she indicated the courtyard with a sweep of her hand, " but it would have been good for them to mingle with others more."
"Cletus is full of ideas," Xena admitted. "They just aren't the ones he needs to do his job." There was anger in her voice. Ephiny asked: "What's he done wrong? I mean, as a monarch, I'd like to know what things to avoid."
Xena took a long draught from her cup, and shifted her weight to accommodate her wound. "Don't worry about that, Ephiny," she replied. "You'll never have his problems. He's just not suited to the position he was born to fill." Ephiny's look invited her to continue. "Because he hasn't a clue about exercising power. If you saw the way he runs this kingdom, Ephiny, it would make your head swim," she said with scorn.
"I don't know, Xena," she responded doubtfully. "This seems like a prosperous, peaceful country."
"Sure. Maybe he was on top of things once; now he lets the power float off somewhere in the ether." She waved an arm in anger. "His army is useless; worse than useless. It drains the treasury, gives him a false sense of security, and yet once he goes, maybe sooner, all power will be exercised by Radec's scum, and then Gods help them all. This place will be flooded with misery."
"You haven't much faith in his heir?"
"Faith? In a six-year old? Mentored by a bard? Drusander will make some regent," she snorted with derision.
"Is there a problem with Drusander, or do you have something against bards?"
Xena showed her teeth in a grim smile. "I've gotten over my obsession with one little bard, if that's what you mean."
"Obsession?" she asked, driven to probe a little deeper. "I thought it was love."
Xena's broad shoulders moved in a casual shrug as she stood and turned away, suddenly interested in clouds which obscured the early stars. Bad time to stand she realized, as the pain had suddenly become alive. "Yeah, I usually get in trouble when I fall in love. I got off lucky this time. Have to remember not to let it happen again," she muttered, more to herself than to Ephiny.
The Amazon took a long stride toward Xena, seized an arm, high, up near the shoulder, and pulled her around. The sudden movement caused her leg to buckle; she caught herself by the edge of the bench before she hit the ground. Both women froze for a moment, then she accepted the hand Ephiny offered to help her to her feet, Xena's eyes, set in a pain-whitened face, daring Ephiny to comment. The blonde let it pass and focused on her original intent. "Xena, I don't know whether you truly believe what you're saying, but if you ever let Gabrielle hear those words, I'll break your neck. I don't know how I'll manage, but I swear on Artemis, I'll break your neck."
She watched with interest as the dark head bowed, a small concession that was not reflected in her eyes. "Don't worry Ephiny. I don't want to hurt her. I won't say anything. I won't even see her again, if I can avoid it."
"You think that won't hurt her? She still loves you," she said almost fiercely.
Xena responded with a cool gaze. "I didn't say I don't love her," she pointed out. I just know the limits to what I can have. Gabrielle's outside those limits." She lowered herself slowly to the bench, her face tight with the strain of stifling a groan.
Ephiny saw no sign of the woman who had wept in her arms over love of Gabrielle. This woman spoke dispassionately, as if discussing the price of a horse.
"You sure got over her quickly."
Again the shrug. "I think my strongest instinct is for survival," she explained. It was almost a boast. Inwardly she admitted her surprise that she had survived. Those long days after she left Amazonia, she had been certain she would die, soon, somehow; and it wouldn't have mattered.
"And I was worried about you, picturing you with a broken heart." Ephiny sneered at her own foolishness. "How did you do it?"
"I also didn't say it was easy," Xena said in defense. "I just don't see the point of crying over things I can't have." She narrowed her eyes, and half-smiled. "Did you know that I'm a mother, Ephiny?" Ephiny's stunned expression was her answer. "Yeah, I have a son. He thinks his mother was a wonderful woman, who is long dead. I only tell you this because I trust you. I won't tell you where he is; he's something of a secret, and it's better you don't know." She paused, fixing Ephiny with steely-blue eyes, letting her know that the telling excited no emotions. "I've only visited him once since I gave him up. Something else Gabrielle scolded me for. She couldn't understand that choice anymore than she, or you can understand this one. I wanted him with me. I just know what's possible. No point beating myself up over it. I made decisions a long time ago that put the things that decent people have out of reach for me." She stopped, and stared into the cup, remembering. "I reached an accommodation with myself over him. I've done the same about Gabrielle." She lifted the cup and drank. Ephiny wasn't sure if she could believe that Xena was over Gabrielle, yet could hardly doubt it, as Xena drained the cup and smiled, relaxed and confident, except for the vestiges of pain. Her eyes were unreadable, and only that gave Ephiny pause. She had seen those eyes go blank that day outside the purifying- hut. She felt now that Xena might be masking her feelings, maybe even from herself. Xena turned slightly, as a group of women began a rhythmic chant, and pain registered on her face, but her eyes remained curiously untouched.
"Accommodation? Seems to me that you've made a deal with Hades."
"Call it what you like, it's how I get through life. That's all I'm looking for. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll skip supper. I have a lot to do." She rose with difficulty; the wound, it seemed, was her only problem.
"You should have that leg looked at Xena."
"It's coming along," she lied. "Thanks for your concern."
As she made her exit she passed close to a small group of Amazons; they were in Gabrielle's camp, and regarded her with unease, save for one who stepped forward.
"Xena," she hailed her.
"Jalani." The warrior nodded briefly, watching Jalani's eyes as they took in her frame.
"I had a vision of you, Xena."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "I don't know what Ephiny said -"
"Ephiny has not spoken of you," the graying head shook in response. "I saw you in a vision," she repeated. "You have asked something of the gods, and it has been granted."
"Not recently," Xena demurred.
"Yes," the old woman persisted. "Remember that the gods often move in our lives because they are carelessly bidden. You would do well to recall your words" She stepped back into the group, and Xena turned abruptly, pondering her words as she limped away.
The receiving line formed quickly, an apparent confusion of rank and title made more confusing by the dual nature of the occasion. The assemblage gathered not only to honor the Queen of the Amazons, but to hear Teremon named heir. The official announcement was preceded by hours of speculation, and seemed to be confirmed by the presence of the boy-prince at the side of Cletus in the receiving line.
Cletus stood to the right of Ephiny, Teremon proudly before him. Xena lounged nearby, half seated on a window ledge, one long leg stretched before her, the other tucked bent at the knee, in her attempt to ease the screaming pain. She did not yet hold official status, and could avoid this duty. That would change at the banquet. To Ephiny's left, her back to Xena, Gabrielle accepted extended hands mechanically, glad that the ceremonial mask allowed her not to smile. She sensed that Xena was near; that proximity, and the great gulf that lay between them were a hard combination to deal with.
At last the guests had all passed through, and the heralds trumpeted the entry into the banquet hall of the royal personages. It was an impressive assembly, the royal purple of Cletus, ornate with gold brocade, was balanced by the wild elegance of feathers and beadwork bedecking Queen Ephiny. As he passed Xena ,Cletus paused. "Isn't it time you got ready for the banquet?" he asked with sarcasm.
"I bathed," she replied.
"Don't you ever wear anything else?" She regarded her brown leather battledress with pride. "Not if I can help it." She eyed his regal crown, seeing it for the first time. Diamonds and blue sapphires were set in finely worked gold. "Nice crown. Don't lose it," she warned.
Four long tables formed a large rectangle in the center of the huge hall. Guests were seated on both sides of three tables, to permit seating for the large numbers of Prestian who had expected, demanded or begged invitations. Seats were taken amid a hum of anticipation. Cletus had left no doubt of his pride in the little dark-haired boy who had helped him greet his guests. No one doubted what announcement would be made this evening. First, however, came the toasts of Prestian-Amazon peace and friendship.
Salmoneus considered himself fortunate to have been invited, even if he did sit at the lower inside part of the table nearest the door; contacts could be made here which could stand him in good stead if the kingdom held together long enough to make a business venture possible. He raised his goblet heartily at each toast, and in sincere appreciation when Gabrielle made her toast, an eloquent appraisal of the beauties of Prestia, and the warmth of its people. He looked to see Xena's reaction to the bard's words, and wondered at her place at table: Ephiny was at the king's right hand; Teremon at his left, flanked by Drusander. Then Xena. Gratitude over her safe delivery of his son? Or was there more than a passing acquaintance between Xena and Drusander. This bore watching he decided; after all, Gabrielle wouldn't be in Prestia forever.
From her place at the head table Xena could survey the whole room. There were many doors exiting to the outside, to other rooms, to the kitchen stairway. Windows were set high in the walls, allowing ventilation and daylight. Tonight they harbored soft-cooing doves, and circles of smoke which curled upwards from the candles and torches. Gabrielle had just finished speaking , and held her cup aloft. Xena half turned in her seat to see the vision of the regal Amazon, mask doffed, soft hair curling around her shoulders. She found herself smiling, as the Amazon Princess lifted her cup to drink the toast, happy to see the young woman again, happy to enjoy her without feeling the pain of loss. Gods, she offered in a rare prayer, Jalani says you answered a prayer I don't remember making. Answer this one now: give Gabrielle peace, and the happiness she deserves. She was still looking at the bard fondly when Gabrielle's face turned her way. For a moment, their eyes met, and Xena's smile faded. Gabrielle drained her cup and sat quickly, determined to maintain her composure in the face of all odds; she would not let the Amazon nation down.
Cups were refilled, and Cletus rose a second time, blue eyes twinkling, lips parted in a mischievous grin. Xena noted a door open as he began to speak, Radec entered, with a second man. Even at this distance she knew his features. So did Salmoneus. His eyes darted to meet Xena's in silent confirmation: this was Balceres, the dies cheat in Brinnia. Xena was puzzled for a moment, as odd bits of information spun around in her mind. The hapless Krykon, disgraced through gambling; the clever Balceres, living by his dishonest wits; the viper Radec, seeking to strike at Cletus in his own nest. Xena's blue eyes twinkled now, and a knowing grin twisted her mouth. Gods, this evening could be interesting, she decided. She focused again on Cletus, and caught up with what he had said, about his dear, late wife, the lovely Lycia, and the sweet and equally lovely, Salana, the mother of Teremon. That brought him to his point: he was not, after all, a king with no issue. The crowd gasped in appreciation and delight before Cletus had finished the words, delighted to have an heir to the throne; an end to the succession crisis was at hand.
However Cletus wasn't finished. Again cups were refilled, and Cletus spoke of the recent heroic deeds performed by Xena, known to the world as the Warrior Princess. The guests listened uncertainly as the old king explained that she was no longer a villain, instead used her considerable skills in defense of the right. "Hear! Hear!" came a cry from the back of the hall, as a man who had witnessed the street scene supported the king's contention. Those who knew her best kept their eyes on Xena's face as she endured the heaping praise, knowing how she hated such displays. This time was different: she was not ducking her head, turning her eyes away, or smiling in discomfort. Instead she met the stares of the crowd with an unwavering gaze, daring anyone to question the king's words.
"I ask you to raise your cups to drink the health of Xena, my true daughter and oldest child." Whatever reaction he expected was certainly present somewhere in the hall. An initial silence was broken by gasps of surprise certainly, dismay in some quarters, delight in others. Eyes were riveted on the dark-haired warrior, who accepted the attention with aplomb. She knew what they were thinking, even if she couldn't hear all the whispers. A few words drifted up to her: Cirra, warlord, murderer. Cletus' little speech had not gone down well with everyone. Of great concern was the question of who would be in line for the crown, the little blind boy, or the warrior woman. The crisis might not be over yet.
Gabrielle and Ephiny stole questioning glances at each other. They both knew she was his daughter, but had never expected it would be acknowledged, certainly not in such a way. It didn't seem to be Xena's style, yet she showed no sign of displeasure, had seemed to be expecting the announcement. Salmoneus watched with an ever broadening grin on his face. Xena! The Warrior Princess, a real princess. He liked the woman, and was happy for her, whether she could help him secure lucrative deals or not. Maybe Prestia could use a new Minister of Commerce, he wondered idly, Cletus moved to raise her to her feet, and bestow a fatherly embrace on her. Xena took the opportunity to smile to the crowd. How can anyone resist that, Gabrielle thought, and indeed, one by one, smiles appeared in the hall, to be tempered later by new doubts, but for the moment, the assemblage welcomed their new princess with smiles and drained cups.
Teremon had absorbed this new announcement quietly, understanding that if Xena was the daughter of Cletus, she was his sister. He confirmed this with a stunned Drusander, then slipped out of his chair, and appeared by her side. She felt a small tug on her battledress, and reached down to collect the boy in her arms. When she picked him up, and he gave her an affectionate kiss, hugging her around the neck as if he would break it, a cheer swept through the hall. Cletus looked on his new family with undisguised pride.
Radec watched the scene with polite interest, playing the part of a loyal First Minister.
Balceres had recognized the dark-haired woman as the one who'd dumped him on his seat in Brinnia, poorer and exposed as a cheat. His resolve to take his revenge was kindled anew. From a window perch high above the hall, stroking the head of a dove, Callisto watched the joyous celebration, savoring the hatred she felt for Xena, wondering who else in this little party deserved her special hatred. "So happy, so happy " she crooned to the little dove. "We'll have to do something about that," she thought aloud, as she twisted the neck, and threw the dead bird into the darkness beyond.
Xena's eye traveled again to the high windows, an expectant grin hidden beneath the smile she showed the crowd. As people settled back in their seats, a cry cut through the general din, and drew startled faces to the ceiling, where Callisto perched on a crossbeam. She caught one of the thick ropes which secured a chandelier in place, and shimmied quickly down its length, until she could execute a flip and land in the center of the rectangle. The guards that skirted the room had never expected such an entrance, and as they fumbled to access the center space, Callisto strolled over to the king's place. Smiling slyly, she addressed the monarch. "I know you meant to invite me Daddy, I'm just hard to reach, I guess. But when I heard, I decided nothing would keep me from this little family gathering. She picked up his cup and addressed the crowd: "I'm the second daughter," she said toasting herself. "Drink to the health of Callisto."
True chaos reigned now, as the king called his guardsmen to leave her alone, the crowd exclaimed over this new surprise, and forty Amazons touched their weapons in readiness.
Cletus found a new cup, slammed his fist on the table until order was restored, and spoke to Callisto. "Callisto," he began, "I would have invited you this evening, but as you say, you are hard to reach. I welcome you now, and ask you to join your family at table, my daughter." The crowd was hushed now past all speculation, as the black-clad warrior took a place at table, between Teremon and Drusander. Xena alone seemed not to be surprised or disturbed by this new, ominous presence in the room. Callisto had behaved as expected, she told herself, and Radec now, she predicted would save his little surprise for another day. Already the guests were joking about what other bastards might turn up this evening. Balceres, Krykon, or whatever he called himself would be anti-climatic now, and Radec knew it. Well pleased, Xena allowed herself to relax a bit, vigilant against the threat Callisto always posed, but happy that certain things were in the open at last.
The guests settled down to serious eating now, and unstinting enjoyment of the wine. Xena gauged the mood of the room with a trained eye. The crowd could be won, she thought, if she didn't overplay her hand. Next to Callisto, she might not look quite so bad; her crimes were in the past, and Cletus had placed enough faith in her to entrust his son to her care. She watched Callisto out of the corner of her eye. Teremon was overjoyed to have not one, but two, new sisters. This one with the strident voice was a complete mystery. The sound and smell of her told him she was another warrior, and he began, without asking leave, a tactile investigation of Callisto. It amused her, intrigued her, and in some way seemed to delight her. Through with her face and hair, her began to explore the leather garment she wore, and his words poured out in a torrent. She was so like Xena, he told her, yet he noted each difference, to Callisto's initial consternation. She soon realized that his comparisons were not matters of preference, but matters of fact. She did carry no chakram, she wore no metal breastplate, and her hair did have curves and waves which Xena's lacked. "Like Drusander's" he said. This was clearly a compliment. Callisto unsheathed her sword; the room fell silent, holding it's breath until she placed the hilt in the boy's hands and let him examine it's markings. At last Teremon sat back, content to process the new information his senses fed him. He handed Callisto a date from his own plate, which he declared to be delicious. She took it from his fingers with a note of genuine thanks in her voice. Xena hid her smile. Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief.
"Callisto, " Teremon was asking, "have you met Xena before?"
She cast a glance at the dark warrior. "Xena and I go way back, " she admitted. "Isn't that so, Sis?" Xena bent her head in acknowledgement, remembered that Teremon was waiting for the response and said "Yes, Callisto. Way back."
"Gosh, Teremon, I first saw Xena when my own little sister was about your age. Of course, she's long dead now. Remember, Xena?"
Cletus had followed the exchange, and tried to intervene now, but Xena had determined that Callisto would get her reply. "What she means to say, Teremon, is that a long time ago, my army attacked a village, and killed Callisto's family, along with most of the rest of the town."
Drusander spoke up, "Xena, Teremon shouldn't hear these thing."
"Why not? Someday Teremon will be a king. Rulers should know the worst people can do, as well as the best. I don't do that any more, Teremon," she continued, looking steadily at Callisto. "But nothing I do now can restore Callisto's family." She turned back to her plate, and ate placidly, as if the conversation had not taken place. Callisto found hot words rising to her lips, but suddenly Teremon's hand was in her own, and although her eyes burned like hot coals staring at Xena, Teremon couldn't see that look, and continued his instinctive task of wooing the adult world to his graces. Drusander felt a wave of sympathy for Xena, who sat silently absorbed in her own thoughts. He placed a protective hand around her shoulders, his own form of wooing. Xena relaxed against the arm. People continued to act as she had suspected. She only wished Gabrielle was not here to witness the rest.
Emboldened by her acceptance of his arm on her, the bard took a moment to whisper in her ear, telling her that he was glad she was kin to Teremon. She whispered back, a breathy "Me too," brushing her lips against his ear as she did so. He reacted with his own return whisper, something she never made out, more nuzzle than words. His hand moved to her thigh, and she let it linger there, faintly stirred, a smile playing on her lips. Ephiny followed Gabrielle's eyes to the pair, and she fought the urge to slap Xena's face - hard. She was entitled to her preferences, but could wait until she was behind closed doors. Xena felt Gabrielle's eyes on her, and avoided looking her way, wished she wasn't there, even as Drusander took her hand in his own and planted a lingering kiss on the back. She smiled at him, knowing that Radec along with the rest of the room, saw every move.
"Nothing between Xena and Drusander? You still sure about that Eponin?" Solari was not in a mood to be gracious. Eponin glared at her; she was in no mood to be baited.
"It was quite an evening," Ephiny announced.
"You have a gift for stating the obvious, Majesty," Solari said, as she moved to Ephiny and unlaced her bracers. "Stunning news that Xena and Callisto are sisters. You knew that, Ephiny, didn't you? Is that why Callisto was looking for Xena in Amazonia? Is that why we're here now?"
"Solari, we're here now for many reasons, and yes, that's one of them." She looked Solari in the eye. "Think for a minute where we'd be if Xena hadn't averted the war with the centaurs," she suggested.
"Let's take it a step further. Think where we'd be if Xena hadn't died, and needed ambrosia to restore her to life. That gave Velasca her chance to become a goddess. Do you think we've heard the last of her?" Solari replied. "I'm not denouncing Xena," she said, in a conciliatory tone. "I just think her connection to our people has been a mixed blessing."
"As are most things." Gabrielle's voice in the doorway startled them all.
"You said you were heading straight to bed," Solari commented.
"I changed my mind. I heard some whispers about her. I don't like it," she said flatly. "If Xena wants Drusander, or anyone else, she's entitled."
"Gabrielle, in your presence? It's an affront!" Solari exclaimed.
"This castle is her home, now. Officially. She can do what she wants in her own home, I suppose. And what does it matter, in front of me, behind my back? I don't understand, what's happened, I don't understand anything she's doing. I never would have believed she'd want to be acknowledged publicly as a member of the royal family, but... people change."
"You're some friend, Gabrielle. Just like you to defend her. She doesn't deserve it."
"Yes, she does, Solari. Xena has supported every important decision I've made since I met her, even if it took me away from her. When I married Perdicus, she smiled, and said all the right things. I didn't know until much later how that tore her up inside. Her standard was always whether it would make me happy. Well, now, it's my turn. Can I do any less for Xena?"
Too good to be true, Solari thought.
Ephiny said, "If you'd like, you can return early. I'll send -"
"No. Thank you. I have responsibilities here." There was something else she left unspoken. Maybe Gabrielle alone knew Xena well enough to recognize the signs that something was up. There had been a ghost of a smile on her face at certain points throughout the evening, when Callisto appeared, when Radec entered, when Teremon fed Callisto from his plate. Xena was up to something, and Gabrielle was not leaving Prestia until she had figured it out.
Xena woke with one of Drusander's arms draped across her chest. She lifted it with a sigh, and rose. He didn't stir. She felt almost sorry for him. He had spoken of love the night before, whispered sincere endearments, seemed to believe they were reciprocated.
She remembered only that her wound had hurt so much she thought she would be sick.
She had warned him, that morning after they first had sex, that it went no further. He would end up hurt, she knew. It couldn't be helped. She dismissed him from her mind,
and pulled a tasseled rope in the bathing chamber; a hot bath would be drawn in minutes. "Do you need anything else, Highness?" the servant asked with a bow.
"No," she snapped, surprised and irritated by the title. "I'm sorry," she said more gently.
"I don't need anything else." This princess thing would take some getting use to. She stopped to examine herself in a looking glass. Same face, same body, same scars. Different father, and everything changes. She lowered herself into the water and gently soaped her body, taking time to massage the wound, once again. It was feeling no better, she admitted. Maybe it was time to see a healer, Cletus', or preferably, Agrana, who had traveled here with the Amazons. As if they'd permit that after last night, she told herself. She had felt the glares, decided she'd be a welcome as a satyr at their campfire. Still, it couldn't be helped.
"Salmoneus." Xena welcomed the bearded man to her quarters, watching with pleasure as a grin spread over his face to match her own. A lavish table was set: rack of lamb as the main course.
"Xena, Your Highness. Uh, what do I call you? Princess Warrior Princess?" he asked.
"Xena will do," she replied.
"Well. We've shared worse meals," he enthused.
"We have that, Salmoneus. Quail, isn't that your specialty? I'm tired of eating rodents and winged creatures." She sat, and he joined her.
"That announcement really took me aback, not that I ever doubted your nobility, I just never knew it was so, official."
"It's kind of new to me, too, but I think I can get used to it. Everything I ever fought for, power, wealth, security, has just been handed to me." She sat back, a contented smile on her face.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Not bad. Along with a whole new family. Too bad about Callisto."
She shrugged. "Comes with the package. I can deal with her." They ate for a time,in silence, mostly, except for Salmoneus' comments on possible business ventures. "Things seem much brighter here, suddenly. The idea of an heir has restored my faith in the economic future of Prestia."
"Good," she said, wiping her hands on a napkin. "Help it be so. I'd like you to do me a favor. I can make it worth your while." She had her business face on, inscrutable, in deadly earnest.
"Xena, I'm happy to do you a favor. But, uh, what did you have in mind?"
"You saw Balceres enter the hall last night. I want you to denounce him as a cheat."
"Uh, Xena, you know sometimes things have to be let go. Radec doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who'd be duped by Balceres, and he might not appreciate my speaking up."
"I'm sure he won't," she agreed, "but I will. How would you like a special trade license with Prestia. Exemption on duties, say, or exclusive export rights for, well, sturgeon, roe?"
She held up a piece of bread, spread with what looked like tiny black bubbles. Salmoneus tasted it warily. "This is good. Best roe I've had. I could make a fortune selling this stuff."
"It's yours. It will take a little while to arrange, but I'll manage." She took a fingerful of the stuff herself, and savored it greedily. "I'll tell you when and where. Just make it good." She smiled; he'd been longing to see her smile, but this wasn't it. This was the smile of a shark. "And there is one other thing."
"You've been busy." King Cletus watched his son, in the company of Drusander, negotiate a small grove of fig trees, ready to provide assistance if necessary. Cletus spoke to his older daughter, who had taken a place by his side, and regarded him levelly. "Review of the troops this morning, lunch, with what's his name? Salmoneus. Afternoon meeting with Arcus."
"Your spies have been busy," she observed, but they haven't seen everything. "I've been satisfying my curiosity about some things. Is Arcus your chief military advisor?"
"At the moment," he acknowledged, his eyes looking past her to his small son. "Teremon," he called, "watch out." The boy ducked under a tree branch, and waved his thanks.
"You mean since Memnos resigned, taking with him the army's plans for order of battle, and defense of the castle, numbers, locations, weapons.? He's been seen at Radec's headquarters."
"He has an able second in command -"
"Also gone," she broke in. "People are funny. They like to be on the winning side." Her face was hard; he didn't like her this way. "We need to talk." She motioned him inside with a nod of her head. Cletus turned from the happy task of watching Teremon at play.
Cletus stood where he could steal glances from his window, eyes never leaving the boy.
Drusander's eyes strayed to the window, looking for a glimpse of Xena. "Drusander's fallen for you, hard," Cletus said. "I'd hate to see him hurt."
"He's a big boy," she said annoyed. "A lot of people are going to be hurt if you don't take some action. Your army is in disarray, your enemy has your plans for defense. We could review the shortfalls in the Exchequer, but why bother? A Prestian dinar is only worth something as long as Prestia is prosperous. Civil war has devastating effects in that regard."
"What do you know of the Exchequer?" He asked, his full attention now on her.
"Salmoneus and I spent a few hours combing the accounts-scrolls. It's amazing what people will let a member of the royal family see, if she asks the right way," she said with a smirk. "Salmoneus is a master at spotting double entries, and other discrepancies. There isn't enough missing to make a big difference in the way the kingdom is run, but someone is getting rich. You had to know that," she accused.
"And chose to let it go. You don't have the luxury of making that choice anymore," she told him, coldly. "Radec has your other son, Krykon here, in Prestia." He didn't respond.
"Your spies have told you?"
"They don't know, for certain" he said helplessly. "Radec has a stranger with him. He introduces him as Balceres."
"I know. I met him in Brinnia. He makes a living by cheating at games. I tossed him on his rump in the street. I have no doubt he's Krykon. Except for Callisto turning up last night, I have no doubt Prestia would have been introduced to the successor to the throne."
The old man's head snapped around. She continued, forcing him to see the truth. "His claim is superior to Teremon's; he's older. Give Radec another twenty-four hours, and he'll be in here making his claim."
Cletus looked suddenly older. The bright young boy on which his hopes rested was to be set aside in favor of a wastrel, in the control of a scoundrel. He looked to her for a solution. She provided one. "Make me heir." The words stunned him. He had been certain she had no interest in the throne.
"I won't do that, he said firmly. "You know I'll never do that."
"Why not? I have a legitimate claim."
"Xena, the throne passes to a male."
"Don't give me that. You know the laws of your own kingdom, and so do I, now. I spent an afternoon in your library. The words laid down by the first council of the first monarch set the succession: the crown goes to the first born. That would be me."
"It has always gone to the son," he insisted. Her claim was a good one, well-founded in Prestian sources, and he knew what her response would be.
"Since the beginning, the surviving oldest child has been a boy. The claim of a daughter has never had to be dealt with. Until now. Do you believe in fate, Cletus? Maybe the fates have ordained that I be the first woman to claim the throne, in order to hold this kingdom together."
"Xena," he said, offering a feeble response, in place of a counter-argument, "I am naming Teremon. Leave it at that."
"Why? So Balceres can take the crown, " she spat. "His claim is superior to Teremon's, or Callisto's. My claim is supreme. Or do women only have value for you in bed?" His words stung, and her glare told him they were meant.
"Daughter, do you really want so much power?" he asked.
"Fatherly concern. How touching," she said, bitingly. "If I scare you, put limits on the monarch's power. Change the constitution." He made no reply. "Listen," she said urgently, "if Teremon is so important to you, make an iron-clad provision, that the crown passes directly from me to him. You know I don't want Solon to have the crown. I can't imagine I'll have any other children."
He didn't respond to her proposal. Something in her words had touched him, given him pause. "Teremon isn't the only child that's important to me Xena. You're important too. You all are." He spoke sincerely; it emitted a dismissive laugh from her. "Save it Cletus."
She took a painful step, seeking a new approach. "All right; don't name me heir," she said. "It seems silly discussing it, anyway. It doesn't look to me as if you'll be meeting Hades anytime soon, unless an assassin gets you."
"A distinct possibility," he observed.
"It would be less likely to happen if you got this place under control. Give me enough power, and I'll do that for you. At least name me regent, until Teremon is old enough to govern, or I clean out this hornet's nest."
"Xena," he said, speaking firmly for the first time. "I won't accept any of your proposals. "Power is dangerous for you. It inebriates you. I won't let you destroy my kingdom."
The curious coldness in her eyes remained unchanged, but the muscles of her cheeks went rigid. "No, you beat me to it, old man, you haven't done right by your subjects, or your family, and I'll be happy to see you in Tartarus."
He was a little shaken by this outpouring, but offered a conciliatory smile. "So certain you'll be there?"
"Oh, I have no doubt where I'll end up. I've been there, remember? They've been saving my place for years," she added sardonically.
"I'll be there too, Xena. Thanks to you." Callisto stood framed in the doorway. Xena eyed her with disdain. "Don't put that on me, Callisto. We all make our own Tartarus. I've been adding fuel to my fire for years. It's not the fault of - anyone else," she ended.
"And you've been aching for Tartarus. Begging for it." She stood inches from Callisto; their faces almost touched. "You'll be disappointed if we don't suffer everlasting torment together."
"You see what she's like, Father," Callisto said plaintively. She moved to the back and side of Cletus, and reached sinewy fingers around to stroke his jaw. "I heard what Xena wants: the regency. You see what she's doing, don't you. She wants power, and doesn't care how she gets it." Xena breathed with relief. Callisto hadn't heard everything.
He pulled her hand away. "Stop it," he commanded. "This thing is settled. Teremon is to be named first in succession. Xena won't interfere with that." He looked at his dark-haired daughter, wondering if he was right.
"I won't come to watch the little pet be anointed." Callisto pouted.
Xena eyed her dangerously. "Don't start anything, she warned.
"Giving orders again? I suppose that pleases you, being so tight with the little prince. And his keeper. Still got a thing for bards, huh? Gender unimportant." Xena glared, but didn't move. "Is Drusander your path to the throne? I wouldn't think you'd be happy being the power behind the throne. More your style to seize it, let the crowd grovel at your feet. If I don't beat you to it." She left as quickly as she'd entered. Xena watched her leave, trying to decipher the cryptic woman. She always had something in mind. Cletus eyed Xena as carefully. She caught his gaze and offered him a dark grin. "Are you proud of your little family, old man? Two worthless daughters, dedicated to destruction, a cheat and liar for an oldest son, and a little boy afflicted almost from birth by loss and disease. You should have stayed on this side of the river."
Chapters 31 to 33
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