Gabrielle awoke in the big downy bed, a comforter up to her chin. Xena had made good on all her promises for the evening. It was still early, the sun peeked in the room from low on the horizon, yet Xena was already up, leaning on the window sill, enjoying the way the sun glinted off the waves of the Pres. She heard Gabrielle stir, and said over her shoulder, "You're missing an incredible sunrise." The sleepy-eyed woman made her way to the window and rested her chin on the warrior's shoulder. She sighed with appreciation. Fishing boats plied their way through the current, waterfowl skittered across the surface, in search of breakfast, and somewhere a carillon of bells greeted the sun. "I never said it wasn't pretty," Xena said, anticipating any comment the bard might make. "I just don't belong here."
Gabrielle thought for the first time of her misgivings of the night before. If Xena had exacted retribution on Atrius, it was probably best that they leave Prestia as soon as possible. "What's the plan for this morning, Xena?"
"We go to see the King." Gabrielle picked up her head and smiled. "What?" Xena asked. "If you don't want to -"
"Try going without me. I'm just happy to be included."
"I could say its because I like your company, but that's only half the reason. The man who left you in the fire in Amphipolis intended to go after me. He was on horseback, and should have arrived in Prestia long before you, but he hasn't made his move yet. Either he was sidetracked, or changed his plans. He expects you to be dead. I don't want you to be alone when he discovers otherwise."
Xena was still not sure of the best approach to King Cletus. She vaguely hoped to find Arcus and Barrus following her once again; that would have made it easy. As it was, she could only think that a direct approach was best. If the king declined to grant her an audience, preferring to keep their contact a matter of secrecy, at least he would know she was trying to reach him. She was certain that some communication would be forthcoming. Accordingly, they appeared, the warrior and the bard, at the guardhouse of the castle as the city was beginning to stir. She didn't expect the king to be receiving anyone yet, but didn't know how long it might take for the message to pass through the layers of bureaucracy that surrounded important persons.
"I'd-we'd-like to see the king." Direct, to the point.
"On what business?"
"That's between us and the king."
"Well, then, go right on in. I'm sure he'll invite you for breakfast," the brash young guard on duty replied with a snigger. Gabrielle saw Xena's eyes narrow, and before the angry retort could find a voice she spoke up: "We'd be grateful if you just let him know who wants to see him," she said sweetly. "We know he's busy, but the people of Prestia, and its king, have a reputation for hospitality and graciousness. Have I told you how impressed I am with your kingdom? Even the uniforms of the guards are special. Are the castle guards recruited partly for appearance?"
Xena's eyes rolled, but the young guard stood a little straighter and returned Gabrielle's smile. "They do like us to make a nice appearance," he conceded. "Does honor to his majesty. Now who did you say was calling?"
Within minutes the names had been forwarded to his superiors, and the next layer of bureaucracy appeared. This layer wore the insignia of an officer of the guard, and his instructions were to escort them, unarmed, into the presence of one of the king's advisors. Xena hesitated, as always, at the thought of being without her weapons, but knowing her real relationship to the king she felt certain that no harm would come to her in this castle. Gabrielle, she noted, had left her staff behind this morning. They passed through the courtyard, and were led to a small antechamber within the castle walls. It was chilly inside the stone enclosure. The only light came from a small slit window near the top of the wall. Xena knew their path had taken them on a gradual slope downwards, and she was sure that most of the room lay below ground level. They waited in silence, not wanting to speak in the presence of the guard. At last a door opened and a small, graying man bearing a heavy seal on a chain around his neck entered the room. He regarded them both closely, then focused on Xena.
"Would you be Xena?" he inquired with deference.
"Yes," she nodded. "Who are you?"
"I am Radec, First Minister to the king. His Majesty wishes to speak with you privately, first," he added with a bow to Gabrielle.
"I have no secrets from Gabrielle."
"The king might. There is no option, if you wish to see him, those are his terms. You'll only be in the next room. Your friend can join you in a minute." This kingdom was a layer of secrets, Xena acknowledged to herself, not for the first time. She smiled reassurance at Gabrielle, and followed Radec to the door. As it opened, Gabrielle had a brief glimpse of the room beyond. It lay in similar darkness, yet near the window light one face was illumined, a face she knew, belonging to a tall man, with a beard. As the door closed she called out, too late: "Xena!"
In minutes, Radec returned. "Where's Xena?" Gabrielle demanded. The man she had seen in the other room was the attacker who had ridden away from the inn in Amphipolis. It seemed her had finally made his move.
"You won't be joining her after all. She's being detained."
"For what reason?" she asked, not surprised.
"As one who chooses to keep company with the warrior princess, you might not understand this, but we in Prestia have a particular reverence for human life. When someone, resident or not, is murdered we like to see that justice is done."
"Who was murdered?" she asked, knowing the answer to the question, "and why do you think Xena did it?"
The dead man was one Atrius, lately of Cythera, originally of Amphipolis, known to be the father of Xena. In as much as his purse was full, we can only impute personal motives for the killing. Since his only personal contact in Prestia would have been Xena, that makes her a logical suspect."
"That's a guess. Why would she kill her father?"
"Because there was bad blood between them; we have record of a recent altercation in Cythera. You were there. Perhaps we'll call on you to give testimony," he said in after- thought. "If there was bad blood, this is how we'd expect a wanton killer to resolve the matter."
"Xena isn't a wanton killer. Not anymore," she said earnestly.
"We in Prestia saw what she did in Cirra. There were few survivors to provide for, but we buried the charred remains." He looked at her, as if perplexed. "You don't appear to be the sort of girl who'd consort with a woman like that."
"I don't know the Xena who destroyed Cirra. She's changed."
"I had heard that, wanted to believe it. I look for the good in people, not the bad. But I have a responsibility to preserve the peace of this kingdom."
"Then look for the real murderer," she implored.
"Xena was seen in an alley wiping blood from a dagger shortly before the body of Atrius, still warm, was found. I don't know what other evidence I need."
They had built a strong case against her. All the better to cover up their own involvement. "May I see her?"
"Not now. We'd need to get some information first. Perhaps before the trial." A sick feeling at the possibilities that held swept over the bard. "May I see the king?" she managed.
"No," came the expected reply. "He can't be troubled over every crime that happens in Prestia, although the rare murder would interest him. Why did you two want to see the king anyway?"
"I don't know... It was Xena's idea," she ended lamely. "Can I have her---"
"Weapons? Sorry. Evidence." He moved to Gabrielle and she shrank away. "Really. I'm not the villain here," he said quietly, in a comforting tone. " May I send an escort with you to your lodgings?"
"No," she said abruptly. She just wanted to be away from this man, out in the sun again, to think how she could let her friend out of the trap she had helped prepare. If only she had told Xena that Atrius' murder was being investigated...If Xena had done the crime, she would have known that. But if she were innocent? She wouldn't even know Atrius was in Prestia, let alone dead. Last night Gabrielle had been ready to believe Xena was guilty. Now it seemed likely she was not. The presence of the would-be murderer from Amphipolis made that clear. Yet Xena was locked away some place, and would be subject to Zeus only knew what kind of interrogation. She was following Radec out of the dank space. In the entrance to the courtyard she turned her eyes away from the glare of the sun.
"Trust me; she will get a fair trial," Radec was promising. She left by way of the courtyard, past the same young guard who had first greeted them. If only she hadn't managed to get them inside, she lamented.
"Hey sweetheart, did ya see the king?" he asked with a toothy grin.
"Not yet," she smile back wanly.
"When you do, tell him Woody sends his regards." He waved a farewell.
Xena woke in the dark, the taste of blood in her mouth. She was lying on the floor, and slowly sat up, to rest her back against the wall. There was no light, not even from a window. She could feel manacles on her wrists and ankles, joined by short links. An iron collar around her neck anchored her to the wall by way of a chain. Her leather and breastplates were gone; in their place she felt a rough tunic. That was not a good sign. Some one expected her to be there for a while. She hushed her body and listened hard for a few moments. There was no sound of breath or movement. She was alone.
"Gabrielle?" she called tentatively. There was no reply, which only meant that Gabrielle was not in hearing distance. Maybe they had not taken her; maybe they had taken her someplace else. Really put your foot in it this time Xena, she reproached herself. Kings were always dangerous to be around, especially kings of prosperous nations with no clear line of succession. That knowledge had not stopped her from marching up to the castle gate, laying her weapons aside and walking into the butt end of a sword. She rubbed the back of her head. Someone would answer for that clout, and if they had harmed a hair on Gabrielle's head...She quelled the rage that rose in her. There had to be some reason for this, if only she could see it. She was certain King Cletus had not ordered her seized like this, it was unlikely he knew of it, and that made it worse. Maybe she had unwittingly become a pawn in some succession scheme. Why else? It seemed likely this was tied in some way to the incident in Amphipolis, Gabrielle had spoken of a crest...Gabrielle. Her mind came back to the bard. Alone; free or in captivity, Gabrielle was alone. A small window set in the cell door was opened, and she had to shield her eyes from the light which flooded in. There was a murmur of voices beyond the door. The window was slammed shut again, but she knew that she'd have company in minutes. She didn't waste energy speculating about what they might want. She focused, instead, on what *she* wanted: information about Gabrielle, and her freedom. Radec didn't disappoint her. His coterie of armed guards preceded him into the cell and he stopped well short of the limits of her restraints. She watched him with studied disinterest, but had him sized up immediately. He enjoyed power, but his power all resided in the hands of others, his guards made it safe to be in her presence, he thought, she smiled grimly to herself. It was in the name of King Cletus that he exercised any power at all. When she saw the king again she'd have to chide him about his choice of advisors, she decided.
Radec regarded her for a long moment, working hard to make his contempt evident. When she showed no apparent interest, asked none of the urgent questions he'd come to expect from prisoners taken unawares, he was forced to speak first. "You'd like to know why you're here?" he asked peevishly.
"I'm here to see your king," she replied smoothly, "he has a funny way of receiving guests," she ended with a snarl. Radec nodded and a nearby boot was launched at her lower back. She had anticipated the blow, and rode with it, marginally reducing its impact. She stole a glance at the soldier who had kicked her, vowing to remember the face. She noted that the uniforms these guards wore were different than those worn by Arcus, Barrus and the guards in the courtyard. These were either the elite, or the scum.
"You'd better keep a civil tongue in your head; we're not fond of murderers in Prestia," Radec said, eager to keep her attention.
'Who am I supposed to have murdered?" she asked, "Recently."
"Don't worry. We're not harking back to your blood-crazed past; you were wise then to have stayed out of Prestia. You should have stuck to that policy, murdered your father in Cythera, say."
"My father?" She didn't try to hide her surprise.
"Atrius, lately of Cythera, formerly of Amphipolis. He was found with a knife in his ribs, two days ago, in the old quarter."
"How do you know its Atrius?"
"He had been in several taverns that morning, made himself known in all of them. Mentioned you loudly in all of them." I'll bet he did, she thought. "He hasn't been buried yet. Would you like to see the body? Satisfy yourself it's Atrius?"
At that moment, despite the irons which held her body, her spirits were soaring. Liberated. That was the word which came to mind. Atrius was dead, and she had been liberated.
"I don't need to see the body," she said simply. You couldn't pay me enough, she thought. "Why do you think I'm the murderer?"
"His purse was full, so there had to be a personal, rather than a financial motive. You are his only personal connection here. You are known to have murdered... what is the number? Hundreds? Thousands? You are here in Prestia, for the first time ever, as far as I know, at the time of the murder. A coincidence? I think not. And, oh yes: a witness has stepped forward who saw you leave the alley, while the body of Atrius was still warm." He smiled, impressed at the strength of his own hand. "Now if you can offer anything in your defense, I'll be happy to consider your statement."
She had nothing to say. His case was full of holes; he knew it, yet his "witness" was the trump card. He wouldn't have picked a fool to be his liar. The witness would be thoroughly trained to tell an unshakable story, to whatever tribunal was assembled. "Are you prepared to make a statement now? he prompted. "I'll call in the scribe."
"I didn't murder Atrius."
"Have you an alibi? Was anyone with you that morning?"
Arcus and Barrus. The king's men. How much help would they be to someone imprisoned in the king's dungeon? She didn't think she was here at the command of Cletus; yet she didn't know how much he wanted their mutual connection to be made public. Arcus and Barrus might be a link to the king that he wouldn't want revealed. No point mentioning that alibi until she knew whether it would be supported. "I shopped in the bazaar that morning." It was the truth, but it wouldn't be much help. The old quarter was an easy stroll to the bazaar.
"So the shopkeepers would remember you?" He was playing a little game, so he could present this as a fair investigation to whoever would listen. It was a game she was tired of playing; her guilt had already been determined. "You'll have to ask them. There was a young woman with me just now," she said, changing the subject.
"Ah, yes, well, maybe we can discuss her when you've completed your statement."
"I have nothing else to say," she said evenly. "Where is the woman?"
"Maybe you didn't hear me. You have a statement to complete." He gestured to the guard behind her. Another kick landed on her back. It seemed they didn't want the bruises to show. "This can be hard, or easy. You choose."
"You gonna hurt me Radec?" she sneered. It was calculated to bring him within her reach; it worked. He moved closer to her, hand raised to strike her face. She rose to her feet and snapped her wrists open and shut in one smooth move, catching Radec's neck in the short link of chain between. Her teeth bared in a vicious grin as Radec's guardsmen caught her intention.
"Uncomfortable, Radec?" she purred. "Sorry, you didn't leave me a lot of chain to work with. She settled into an easy stance she could hold for hours. "Now, like I said, I'm here to see your king. Get him."
"She's bluffing, "Radec croaked.
"You surprise me, Radec. I thought you had more brains than courage. Still, it's your choice." The links tightened quickly around his neck. Only her strong thigh under him prevented his landing on the floor. "The king," escaped through the small passage of air she'd left him. A guard scurried out to fetch the monarch. She loosened the grip, but let him stay in the torturous posture while they waited for his sovereign.
Cletus arrived within minutes, clad in a long blue robe, his bare chest showing beneath; he was still well-toned, Xena noticed. His eyes were alert, and wide open, or she would have thought he'd just been rousted out of bed. "What is this," he thundered as he strode into the cell, Radec's men parting before him. "What are you doing?" he demanded of her. "Release my minister."
She ignored the command. "I asked at the gate if I could see you. This cell was the result. If this is a sample of Prestian hospitality, your country is highly overrated."
"I'm told," he indicated the guard who had summoned him, "that you're accused of murder.
"They tell me the same thing. It's a false accusation."
"You are Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
"Yes," she said wearily. "That doesn't make me guilty."
"It doesn't inspire confidence in your innocence." If Cletus was staging an act for Radec and his guards it was very effective, she thought. "Why did you want to see me?" Cletus wanted to know.
"That's not important now. Right now I want your word on something."
"I promise you will receive justice in Prestia---" She shook her head with a sardonic smile.
"I'm sure you think so, but I want your word on something else. I arrived here with a friend. A young woman. Her name is Gabrielle. We were staying at the Inn of the Four Gardens. I don't know where she is now."
The king looked at Radec. She gave him air enough to speak. "The girl was not detained. I don't know where she went."
"I want your word that no harm will come to her here."
"You have my word," the king assured her, with a solemnity that matched her own. She relaxed marginally, maintaining the pressure around Radec's neck.
"Lift my tunic," she told him. The dark head moved to indicate her back. The guards tensed as he moved closer to her. He lifted the rough cloth and saw, above her breeches, two swollen purple bruises. "I'm not whining," she explained, "I've been kicked harder by girls," she said with contempt. "But understand this, if anyone ever tells you that I've confessed to this murder it's a lie. If I'm ever reported dead in an attempted escape, it's a lie. If I try to escape, I won't fail." she promised.
He moved to face her again. She unwrapped the chains that held Radec and he sprawled to the straw-littered ground. The guards moved toward her. "Hold," Cletus commanded them. She is our prisoner, and must be treated humanely; we are not a brutal people. She is not to be harmed."
Red-faced, Radec worked the air back into his lungs, and massaged his neck; the chains had left their mark. "This behavior deserves some punishment."
"The punishment was administered beforehand. It's over," Cletus declared. He ordered everyone to leave the cell. "I will monitor your case," he promised, once he was alone in the cell with Xena.
"Do you need anything?"
She shook her head. "Just take care of Gabrielle," she said quietly. "I had some dinars when I was taken---" Cletus waved his hand to cut her off. "She'll be looked after."
Gabrielle went back to the inn, uncertain what to do. She knew no one in Prestia, and the only people who knew her were from the enemy camp, whoever that enemy might be. Xena had spoken of two soldiers, Arcus and Barrus? who had seemed "all right." But how to find them? And if she could find them, what if they really were not "all right." Xena's instincts were usually good, but in Prestia everything seemed different. Xena had paid ahead for two nights at the inn. Beyond that, there was not enough in Gabrielle's purse to continue at the inn, and also pay for Argo's board. Another problem. She could take to the public lands beyond the walls of the town. She and Argo could both live for free, Argo could eat, she could eat if she managed to catch enough---Who was she kidding? She didn't want to be any further from the place of Xena's imprisonment than necessary. That meant staying at an inn, less expensive than this one. An inn meant money; that required a job, or a least telling stories for a few dinars in taverns or inns. Her repertoire of stories would be severely limited if she couldn't speak of Xena, she realized, but that could be overcome she told herself, as she sought the innkeeper and began to present her plan. "Sorry," he told her, before she had half begun. "I've got no place for a bard, and I'd be much obliged if you'd find someplace else to spend the night."
"Excuse me?" she asked politely. "We've paid for this evening already."
"I'll hand your money back gladly, but you've got to go. I don't need trouble here."
Understanding came to her. "You've heard that my friend was detained."
"Tossed in the dungeon, aye. For murder; that's what the soldiers who came here said."
"Did they come here to find her?"
"No. Wanted to search the room---" Gabrielle tore madly through the inn, and opened the door to a scene of chaos. Someone had indeed searched the room. She set to tidying their things, packing as she did so. She would be happy to leave this inn, happy to leave this city, this kingdom, but not without Xena. Satisfied that nothing was missing, she collected the money owed for the second evening's lodging and set-out to find another inn. Her search was fruitless. Word of the arrest had spread like a wind-fanned flame. The most humble inns, with obvious vacancies, refused her room. No one wanted trouble. At last, several miles from the Inn of the Four Gardens, and no closer to any plans about anything, she sat on the ledge which surrounded a public fountain.
"Here! Don't you know you can't loiter in public areas like that?" A loud male voice assaulted her ears from close-by. She turned to look into the face of the young castle guard she'd met that morning. Her tendency to fight over the innate right of a tired person to sit down was overridden by her desire to avoid further trouble. "All right ,Woody," she surrendered.
"I'll move along."
"You bet you will," he confirmed. Seizing her by one arm, and grabbing her bundle with the other, the husky young soldier hustled her away. Several blocks later they stopped at the entrance to a small courtyard, like so many others in Prestia. Gabrielle had long since ceased struggling against his strong grasp. She saw her chance now, and bolted as he busied himself with the gate latch. "Where are you going?" he asked in a pleasant voice. "You must really be bushed by now. Come in and sit." He threw open the courtyard gate and stood back to let the confused young bard enter before him. A small cottage was nestled in the rear of the courtyard, and the door was already open. An older woman stood there, warmth and greeting in her face. "Go on!" Woody urged. "That's only my mother. She won't bite."
It was like some sort of dream, another Prestian surprise. Gabrielle was seated in a cozy all-purpose room, watching Woody's mother scrub vegetables for supper. Her worries about where to stay, how to eat, how to care for Argo were over. Even now the big mare was grazing in the small enclosed yard at the rear of the cottage. Woody gave little explanation for his actions, beyond commenting that it was at his brother's request. His brother, Arcus, would explain when he returned. Gabrielle's mind had raced ahead to figure that Cletus would employ his own guard to look after business close to home. She felt more comfortable about Xena then; Cletus would not allow any serious harm to befall her. The worries were lessened, but the guilt remained; she had been Radec's accomplice.
She turned her attention to the stout, cheerful Delia, who was pleased to have company. She had given birth to four sons. Witan and Trekkar had died in a campaign to pacify the northern border. Their swords hung in places of honor over the hearth place. Her husband, Grastle, had also died in the king's service. Those deaths did not diminish the pleasure and pride she took in her remaining warrior sons. "A noble career," she had called it, particularly since they served in the King's Own.
"Cream of the crop, not like those scum in Radec's guard. It seemed to Gabrielle that Xena had been right about Prestia. Beneath the placid surface swirled tumultuous currents. They were caught in one of those currents now. Or rather Xena was, she thought glumly, knowing she shared responsibility for that.
Cletus' visit had effected some change in Xena's conditions. Radec's brown-clad guards had been replaced by men in the purple and blue of the king's household guard. She was still in irons, but she had been given a blanket and a candle. Supper was a chunk of bread, a cup of water and a thin vegetable soup with a piece of fatty meat floating on top. The night spent before at the inn seemed from another lifetime. She sopped up broth with the bread and chewed absently, suspending her mind between speculation about her predicament, and anxiety over Gabrielle's circumstances. She had stopped thinking about escape possibilities for the moment. As long as she was secured to the wall she couldn't even try the cell door, and the iron collar which held her there was not to be removed: molten lead had been poured into the keyhole. The collar would have to be removed with a file. The chain and ring which fastened the collar to the wall might have yielded to the strength of Hercules; but he wasn't here. There was always a moment, she told herself, be patient and be ready.
Much later, when her candle had burned out, she sat up at a sudden noise. Her cell door opened. For the second time the king of Prestia paid her a visit. This time he was fully clad, but no sign of his rank distinguished him. He was accompanied only by a torch- bearing Arcus. The soldier nodded at her, as he would an old comrade. She had been lying asleep on the floor, wrapped in the blanket. She sat up, holding the blanket loosely around her shoulders. It hides the manacles, the king noted, an unexpected pang tugging at his heart. Bits of straw clung to her hair, yet, for the second time, he felt as if he was entering the domain of a potentate. Her realm is within her, he realized.
"Xena. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I think we need to talk. You made a dangerous enemy today."
"So did he," she said without a shred of warmth. She looked at him from narrow eyes, unaccustomed to the light. "Have you word of Gabrielle?" The king nodded to Arcus, who stepped forward to reply.
"Your friend is safe. She's staying in my home, with my mother and brother. She'll be safe there. There are a lot of good soldiers living in the quarter. Oh, your horse is stabled in my shed."
"Thank you." She didn't bother to hide her relief. "Would you tell her not to worry? Please?"
"You'll have the chance to tell her yourself, very soon," King Cletus put in.
"I'm getting out of here?" she asked without hope.
"No. I can't do that," he said with genuine regret, "but I will arrange for you to see her."
"I'll appreciate that." After a moment she went on. "I don't know what Radec has told you, but I want you to know I didn't kill Atrius. As near as I can figure, Arcus and Barrus should be able to vouch for my whereabouts for the entire morning that Atruis was killed."
It was true; the looks on the faces of Arcus and his king revealed that they both knew it was true, yet Cletus shook his head. "Arcus can't provide your alibi, Xena. I can't betray the connection between us." She had guessed as much, and only nodded her understanding. "I won't stand still for being hung," she said quietly, holding his blue eyes with her own.
"Stop it," he said just as quietly. "Do you imagine I'd let Radec hang you?"
"Depends on the alternative. If it was to save your kingdom from civil war, yeah, you would," she ended dispassionately. "So, I'm hoping you have an alternative in mind. Maybe an escape?"
"If it comes to that," he nodded. "I'd rather squash Radec's little plan."
"And that means my staying here a while longer?"
"Yes. I'm sorry. I'll make you as comfortable as I can under the circumstances, but I can't give you your freedom, or preferential treatment without raising eyebrows. The people of Prestia still remember the Xena---"
"Who destroyed Cirra. I know. I made quite an impression on people." She looked past the king. "Arcus, has Gabrielle told you about the attack in Amphipolis?"
"Yes, Miss. I've passed it on to His Majesty."
Cletus' jaw tightened. "Along with the news that she saw the attacker in the castle, when you were taken. Radec's plan is far-reaching and I suspect it has deep roots. You, and the people you love are not safe while his conspiracy lives."
"And I sit on my backside waiting for the outcome?" she asked, tight-lipped.
"You'll be safer here, your friend is secure, and I've already dispatched men to protect Cyrene." He stopped and threw up his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I am trying to provide for every contingency. What have I missed?" She raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm serious, Xena. You are a formidable strategist, a woman of great cunning. You would be a dreadful adversary, and a valuable ally. I welcome your counsel."
She hadn't expected this. "Will you answer a question?"
"If I can." "You care about your people; I think you're a good king, yet you let that piece of cow dropping have such power? Why?"
He paused, eased himself onto the ground next to her and considered. "I've made a lot of mistakes as king." His eyes shadowed, as he recalled murky events, then he roused himself and looked at his daughter. "For one thing I liked soldiering too much. I think it's in the blood. The idea of a campaign, men engaged in a common cause, the clash of arms, all appealed to my sense of adventure, of the full life." She knew what he meant, he saw it in her eyes before she turned away. "I left my kingdom in the hands of other to administer while I was away. I don't recommend it. Even the most able of men, the most honest advisors, find unmoderated power heady. When I was home, the details of governing seemed more comfortable in their hands, so I left it there. I was free to pursue other interests: I liked visiting my farmers, encouraging new techniques for planting and harvesting; I sailed with the fishing fleet on the interior lakes, hearing about innovations in navigation and hull design---" He broke off, and looked at her. "I didn't force myself to do the tedious things kings need to do," he confessed "I heard a philosopher once explain that if we could empty all the matter from an area, it would fill up again immediately, because it's the will of nature to fill every space. There can be no emptiness. I think it's like that with power. If power is not exercised in any area, someone will rise up to seize it. Does that make sense?" She shrugged; what he was saying verbalized a principle she had often put into practice. Whether it applied to nature she couldn't say. "Listen to me," he commented, in a self-deprecating tone. "My own exercise of power is in danger and I'm rambling about empty spaces."
She returned to the topic at hand. "Radec has developed his own power base?"
"In a nutshell, yes."
"Is he a pawn, or his own player?"
"Radec has no royal connection. To seriously contend for the throne he'd need an heir, of whatever distance. Even though I've no heir apparent, there are various cousins scattered around; none currently in Prestia. He might try to use one of them to seize the throne, when I'm gone."
"You don't look like a man who's about to die." she said.
"Who knows when the thread will be cut?" he sighed. "My wife went before her time."
"None of us goes before our time," she said from experience.
"Sometimes, this past year I've felt the blade on the thread. I've had spells that have come, and passed; they always leave me a bit shaken."
"Have you seen a healer?"
"Do you know a good one," he asked in reply. "They're hard to come by. Although I hear you've got the touch."
"I learned a lot on the battlefield. It wasn't always about taking life." The chains clanked against each other as she moved her head to resettle the heavy collar around her neck. "Tell me this: would Radec try to seize the throne while you're alive?"
"I don't know," Cletus said after a long pause. "When I see how bold he's gotten," he indicated her imprisonment, "I think maybe he's ready to make a move. He has a considerable armed guard. Allowing that was a mistake," he acknowledged.
"The army is with you?"
He considered. "The old guard, the regulars. The King's Own, most of the troops who've campaigned with me. Of course, they're all over the country, patrolling the borders. In the vicinity of the capital, there are more of Radec's guard."
She shook her head at his foolishness. "can you disband Radec's force without bringing matters to a head?"
"I doubt I could disband them at all."
"A preemptive strike at their barracks? It doesn't look very well-defended."
She'd appraised Prestia with the eye of a warrior; he approved of his daughter. "I'd have to call in troops from around the country; that would tip them off."
"What would happen if Radec were killed? It's just an idea," she added quickly.
"Likely they fall apart." He held her gaze for a long time. "This kingdom was founded on certain principles; for me to violate them would be the same as handing it over to men like Radec."
She shrugged. "It's your throne," she said. You are unable, or unwilling to destroy Radec and his power, so you have to bolster your own. Name an heir," she said simply. "You must have someone in mind. When your heir is in place, Radec's position changes. His choice is no longer the alternative to you." Cletus nodded, sagely, keeping the smile from his lips. She had thought through the puzzle with far less information than he had, and had arrived at the same conclusion. "Of course, I haven't told you anything you don't already know. Tell me this: why is Radec so busy now?"
"You are the reason, Xena. Your arrival in Prestia must have led him to conclude that I had summoned you to name you heir, or that you had decided to claim the succession for yourself."
"He works fast; I was barely over the border when he orchestrated the attempt to kill my mother."
"She'd offer dangerous evidence that you are, in fact, my daughter. I think the arrival of Atrius must have clinched it," he mused. "He never got past Radec to see me this time. He must have told Radec you were my daughter; before that, all Radec's guesses were just that, guesses."
"And that's why Atrius was eliminated. It kills two birds with one stone: another person who could testify about my parentage is gone, and making me the murderer eliminates me from contention for the throne, even if I do escape the ax. Not bad," she said with grudging admiration.
"Radec is no one to trifle with."
"That's why you have to act first." She moved her head in emphasis, forgetting about the collar, and winced as it cut into her neck.
"Zeus!" the man swore. "Arcus, fetch the key to this thing!"
"There is no key," she informed him. "It needs a smith, or an armorer." He inspected the lock with disgust.
"You'll be out of that in the morning." He reached a hand to touch the bruising that appeared around the collar; she pulled away. "Thanks," she said, " I'll just hope the place doesn't burn down overnight. I don't see myself making a quick exit."
Cletus was as good as his word. His armorer removed the collar early the next morning. Although the king didn't visit again, Arcus arrived with welcome news.
"You're to be let out of your cell tonight, just for a bit, to meet your friend." Xena's heart leaped. This was more than she had dared hope. "She'll be brought here, to one of the rooms in His Majesty's quarters. Likely he'll arrange a meal for the two of you." He beamed. "And you'll have the irons off for the occasion." She returned his infectious smile." There is one condition," he cautioned.
"Anything," she replied.
"His Majesty wants your word you won't use the occasion to escape. It would put him in a bad position. Folk would want to know how you escaped, why you had special treatment; Radec's already making a big deal out of the regulars replacing his guard in the castle dungeon. It's rather irregular, but the old man's putting a stone-face on it. Won't budge, won't explain. Radec must be spitting nails."
A small laugh escaped her. "I'd like to see that. And don't worry. I won't put your king in a bad position. I give my word, no escape."
Xena arrived first; that was good, it left time for her fetters to be removed and the guards to withdraw before Gabrielle arrived. The room was small, intimate, and made cozy with colorful tapestries festooning the walls. The fienly carved wooden furninshings spoke of a king who liked simple comforts; the soft, colorful cushions bore the needlework imprint of a queen who took pride in her home. A fire blazed in the hearth. She rubbed her ankles and wrists to remove the chafe marks as best she could, then looked in the big wall mirror while she dabbed at her face with a wet napkin. The door opened before she was finished, and she turned to meet Gabrielle's eyes as she entered the room.
"Xena?" The soft green eyes brimmed with tears despite her relief. She had not been told of the meeting until late in the day, and had little time to prepare herself. Xena smiled uncertainly. "Do I look that bad?" she asked.
"Not to me," Gabrielle cried as she flew across the room and buried her face in Xena's shoulder. Xena held her until the crying had passed, then gave her an affectionate squeeze.
"I was sort of counting on a smile, Gabrielle," she chided.
Gabrielle stepped back from the hug to look at the tall warrior. The blue eyes sparkled as they always did when Xena was happy, yet there was a certain anxiety in them. There were no obvious bruises, that was good. She inspected the marks around Xena's wrists, saw matching ones around the ankles. She reached up to touch the red ring around her neck. Xena pulled away. "You've been in irons, Xena."
"I'm not in irons now." She offered Gabrielle her crooked grin.
"Have they hurt you?" the bard asked softly.
"No, I'm fine, really; but I wouldn't mind having my leather back." She held up her arms to model the tunic, exaggerated horror on her face.
"Stop it Xena" she scolded, "don't try to make a joke out of this. You're in serious trouble. I can handle that, even though you still seem to think I'm a kid who needs to be entertained."
"I know you're not a kid Gabrielle," Xena began, not certain what had caused the reaction. "But it won't make things any better if I hang my head and pout," she reasoned. "I've been chained up in a dungeon until a few minutes ago, and it feels good to free for a while. It looks as if I'm about to have a decent meal." She indicated the table set for two. "I don't know how you've been eating, but I wouldn't recommend the cook where I am." She took Gabrielle's chin between her fingers and raised the bard's head to look at her. She misread the guilt she saw there. "Gabrielle, I know you've been worried about me. I haven't been less worried about you. For a long time I didn't know what had happened to you. For all I knew you could have been in an identical cell. Alone. In the dark. Finally, I get to see you, know that you're all right. If I want to joke, then damn it, I'm gonna joke." She spoke quietly, but there was no doubt that she meant every word. Before Gabrielle could reply, the food arrived. Xena looked on with interest as modest platters of roasted meat, vegetables, fruits and bread were set out on the sideboard. A servant stood by; she waved him out, and began to carve a joint of lamb. She looked at Gabrielle and shrugged "I don't mean to seem anxious, but I haven't eaten anything worth mentioning since the night at the inn. I'll say this for Cletus: he sets a nice table. Hope you're hungry."
"I'm not, really, I won't fit into my clothes if I stay there much longer."
"Where's 'there'?" She looked up from her plate, and ate steadily as Gabrielle told her of Woody, and his family, Barrus, and the man in the castle who had been the attacker in Amphipolis. Xena listened closely, asked few questions, and in the end said only: "Cletus said he'd see that you were all right. I'm glad he's kept his word." She poured and drank a cup of wine, then poured another. "He also serves good wine," she said raising the cup to the portrait of Cletus and his bride.
"Have you had a chance to speak with him?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"And? Is he going to free you?"
Xena slowly finished chewing and swallowing a handful of grapes. Gabrielle seemed upset enough; she had to put the best face on this. "Not just yet. Seems I'm one of the pawns in a little power game that's going on." She arched an eyebrow, and took another bunch of grapes. "That's why I was detained, and that's why Cletus can't let me go."
"Funny," Gabrielle observed. "You don't seem as upset as I thought you'd be, under the circumstances. I mean, you're falsely accused, imprisoned; the man who has the power to release you is your father, yet he lets you stay in chains."
"Gabrielle, Cletus is a player in this game. I'm as much a pawn to him as to any of his enemies. If it suited his purpose he'd put a noose around my neck; he wouldn't take any pleasure in it, but he'd do it. I don't expect more from him." She swore silently as she caught the panic that touched Gabrielle's face. "I don't mean that literally, Gabrielle," she lied. "I don't expect anything really bad to happen to me. Or to you," she said truthfully. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here eating grapes," she assured her.
"Xena," she dropped her voice to a whisper. "You could escape right now."
Xena looked at her suspiciously. "Have you been at the henbane, Gabrielle? Why should I choose to be a fugitive, when I can just wait for this to be cleared up? Besides, I gave my word. I wouldn't try anything if the king let me see you. Down below I *can't* try anything. Haephestus would be proud of those chains. So I suppose I stay put. For a while." Though she tried to make light of it, she couldn't hide the wistful expression in her eyes. She would feel like a caged lion in a cell, Gabrielle knew. That thought alone made her eyes fill. Now Xena was worried. The bard was too quiet, and however well she was eating, it would not have curbed her curiosity about the food served at the castle. Xena had done all she could to reassure her that they were in no danger; she was weary with the effort, yet something was still bothering Gabrielle, and they had little time left.
"Gabrielle, what else can I say to make you feel better? I know this looks like a tough spot, but I promise you things will be all right. I've been in tough spots before, you know."
"I know," came the reply, "but I didn't put you in those other spots."
Xena thought hard for a moment, then thought she understood. "Gabrielle, if you think it's your fault that we returned to Prestia---"
"No, Xena, not that." She wiped her face and turned to Xena, summoning the courage to look her in the eyes. "I knew before we came to the castle that Atrius was dead. That he'd been murdered. I should have told you, and we could have left Prestia, instead of delivering you to the dungeon."
"You knew?" Xena watched Gabrielle's face closely, trying to understand.
"That night at the inn, when I went down for the wine, people were talking about it."
"Why didn't you say something? Were you afraid you'd upset me? After what we'd been talking about?"
Gabrielle shook her head silently at each question. "No, Xena. I didn't tell you...because I thought you knew." She looked away.
"How would I know---" she began. Then everything was clear: Gabrielle's guilt, her sudden change of mood at the inn that night. "You thought I had to know, because I was the killer," she said slowly. Gabrielle nodded.
"Why didn't you ask me?" the warrior said. Both women were surprised at the small tremor in her voice. She breathed slowly to steady herself before asking again: "Why didn't you ask me?"
"Xena, it just seemed so clear." Gabrielle's face was red now, and the tears flowed freely. Xena turned away. "You were here, emotionally overwrought, he was here, his purse was full, so he wasn't killed for money..."
"Oh, yes." Xena turned back to her, eyes flashing. "Radec's official line. 'Atrius wasn't killed for money, it had to be his daughter, the blood thirsty Xena.' Who do you think filled his purse, Gabrielle? Radec. Paying for information about me."
"Xena, I know that now," she explained, "but that night, I thought, that with everything Atrius had done to you, it was natural---" She stopped, something about the look in Xena's eyes frightened her.
" 'Natural' that I'd kill him?" the warrior asked tight-lipped. "That's Xena's way? 'Natural' for Xena to kill. Is that it?"
"No, Xena, it wasn't like that. I wouldn't have blamed you. That night, I think I could have killed him," she ended her voice a whisper.
"No, you couldn't. Even if you caught him in the act you couldn't have killed him," Xena sneered. "But I could have, we both know that." She nodded suddenly, as if a puzzle had been solved. "That's why you didn't want to share the bath," she accused quietly. "You didn't want my bloody hands in your clean water."
Gabrielle's head shook helplessly from side to side, "No," she said, "you have to believe me Xena, that's not how it was," she entreated.
"In case you're still wondering, Gabrielle, I didn't kill Atrius," she said, as if the bard had not spoken. I've been trying to avoid cold-blooded killings," she said flatly. "I've got a friend who keeps telling me I'm a good person. Sometimes I almost believe her; but I guess she's not quite sure herself." Whatever exuberance Xena had been feeling was suddenly gone, and the strain of the ordeal flooded back into her soul. "The funny thing is," she mused, "it would have been easier for me to kill him, than it was to let him walk away in one piece. How I hated him... But I let him walk away; and now everyone assumes I did it anyway." She smiled at the irony. "If I had known how good it would feel to know that he's dead, I would have found him and killed him a long time ago."
"Xena, I'm sorry I doubted you," Gabrielle apologized, in voice that was barely audible. She was afraid to look the warrior in the face.
Xena dismissed the apology abruptly. "Don't bother. I've earned enough doubt and mistrust to last ten lifetimes."
"Not from me, "Gabrielle said miserably.
Xena looked at her steadily for a moment. "Gabrielle," she said at last, "you're a fair person. If this is what you feel about me, it must be what I've earned, somehow." Gabrielle's eyes shot up at a strange quality in her friend's voice.
"You complain that I think of you as a kid," she went on. "I don't; I haven't in a long time." She looked off into space, as if trying to recall the moment Gabrielle had stopped being a kid. She focused again, holding Gabrielle's eyes with her own. The blue which had warmed so many of Gabrielle's days seemed chilly now, as if Xena looked from the depths of some icy pool. "But to you, I'm still the monster."
"Xena, I've never seen you as a monster," Gabrielle protested. "I believe in you; I believe in your goodness," she said fervently.
"I think you have yourself convinced of that. If it were *true*, you might have handled things differently." She was fighting now to keep any emotion from her voice. "A simple mention that Atrius was dead would have been enough. I was a pretty clever murderer, you know; if I was guilty I would've pretended otherwise for you. You would never have known. But since I wasn't guilty, I would have said so; and then I could have thought of some approach to Cletus more clever than marching up to the door of the dungeon and handing over my weapons." Now she shook her head at the bard's sheer lack of logic. "What were you thinking?" she asked rhetorically.
"Don't apologize again," she warned.
Both heads turned as the door opened. "It's time." Three guards advanced toward Xena, swords drawn, manacles ready. She met them and stood with detached patience while the irons were fastened to her wrists and ankles, and attached to each other by a long chain. Gabrielle turned away, unwilling to see this humiliation, which was her fault. There were no good-byes said. The short lengths of chain made it difficult for her to walk. The bard watched through tear-filled eyes as Xena, supported by guards on either side, was shuffled out of the room. At the door she pulled against the guards and called over her shoulder: "Gabrielle?"
"Xena?" she replied hopefully. Her tunic had been rucked up as she was lead away. Gabrielle saw her bruised back as if it were the only thing in the room.
"Cletus will give you the money in my purse. Ask Woody, or one of your other friends, to get you out of Prestia," she said in a voice which was as devoid of emotion as her eyes. "You should be safe; Radec shouldn't have any more interest in you."
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