The Last Conqueror
Kamouraskan and Lariel
For disclaimers and credits, please see part 1
Even as Xena's fingers itched to take up the cudgel, she saw the girl facing Alti for her sake, daring the Empress to go through her. She heard her own voice declaring that she wouldn't let anyone hurt Gabrielle, not even herself. And above it all, the sure knowledge that Gabrielle brought something that she lacked, and probably couldn't even name, much less identify, to the table.
She took a deep breath and felt the tension inside and around herself ease. To her surprise, she found herself smiling and a sense of peace possessed her in way she had only experienced in dreams. "Stop willing...stop wanting, Xena... silence your will, if only for a moment... all life is balance, Xena... find that which completes you..." She sent a silent prayer of thanks to Lao Ma.
Collecting herself, she took both of Gabrielle's hands in hers. "Relax. You can do this, Gabrielle. We'll take the problems one step at a time. Getting into that room is my responsibility. What we say once we're there, is yours. That work for you? Still partners?"
"Never doubted it at all," Gabrielle lied with a smile.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle complained.
"Stop whining. You said you wanted to look like an Amazon Queen and it's not easy to braid wet hair, you know?" snapped the exasperated Ephiny as she twined damp golden hair with deft fingers.
"I wouldn't mind feeling like a queen. I was getting to like baths, hot baths. Not just cold water poured on top of us." She eyed the empty bucket that lay at Ephiny"s feet with distaste.
"You also said you wanted to get to the generals before Alti. She's probably doing the same patch job to herself right now." Ephiny tugged the braid she was working on, and grinned wickedly at Gabrielle's yelp.
"I feel like a scalp with a person attached," grumbled Gabrielle.
"If my Queen wishes it, I could remove the scalp and work quietly and MUCH more easily without you."
"Don't call me your Queen."
"Take your royalty like an adult, Gabrielle. There are worse people for the job. I don't see why you're so dead set on turning it down. You know, with our warriors, and your friendship with Ming Tien..."
"Give it up, Ephiny," sighed the damp Queen. "Everybody thinks I'm just waiting for some opening to make my move. The only thing that's kept me sane and honest is knowing I didn't want to be Empress. For the Gods' sake. Empress? All we've ever seen is people getting power and then trying to keep it. And then letting it screw up their heads and twist what few morals and principles they had. No. This girl is going to do what it takes and then I'm getting out of here."
"What if staying is what it takes?"
"It won't be if I have any choice."
There was a scuffle as the heavy cloth screen was pulled back, and Xena entered. "What won't be?"
"Gabrielle was just explaining why she's going to follow the plan and not take the throne. How about you?"
Xena scoffed. "Why can't I do both?"
Before Ephiny could respond, Gabrielle changed the subject. "How's Solon?"
Still exchanging glares with Ephiny, Xena was noncommittal. "They're doing what I would have done."
"Then that's good, right?" Xena simply shrugged, and removed the cloak she'd used to hide her identity. Gabrielle caught her breath. She'd gotten used to seeing Xena in ragtag fashion, but now in her leather and armour she seemed to burn with magnetism and once again she began to have doubts. "You seem.... taller."
The warrior turned burning blue eyes in Gabrielle's direction. "That's the idea, right? You wanted to impress people. So are we ready to move? Alti's had at least a quarter candlemark to get people together. We need to be there now."
Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. "Xena, I don't think that Alti is a factor any more."
Xena's brow wrinkled. "What are you talking about? She's never finished. She always pulls one more dinar out of the cake."
"You can't see it because you're obsessed with her. Think of the Alti we left. She was broken, Xena and everyone who was there knows it. We stood up to her, and her powers were gone just like you predicted. If you'd have said boo to her, she would have jumped."
Xena tried to assimilate that concept. Alti, no longer able to..? The cards in her mind shuffled quickly. "If that's true, then it all comes down to Alexander, and whatever we work out better make him the key to it all."
"Alexander of Macedonia?" Ephiny's attention was caught.
"Without his support, nothing will work, so we can't just kill him..."
Gabrielle blew a stream of air out. "So, what do you know of him?"
"Well," said Xena thoughtfully. "There's good news and bad news. The good news is that Alexander's just like me, and I know how he thinks."
"And the bad news?"
"That Alexander's just like me and I know how he thinks."
Undaunted, Gabrielle raised her quill and scroll, prepared to write. "What can we give him?"
"Well, what he wants is the world."
Gabrielle lowered her scroll. "Oh." There was a pause, and then she picked up her quill again. "Well, maybe we can give it to him."
"My Lord, the Empress demands that all her Commanders meet immediately in the Throne Room. You are ordered to come alone and without swords."
"Did she now?"
"May I reply that you are not available?"
"I think not. Not if the girl is back." Alexander looked up from the desk. "She has returned?"
"Yes, my Lord."
The King of Macedonia got up and strolled to the window and gazed below onto the streets, lost in thought. The servant waited for several moments before coughing. Alexander looked up and smiled. "Have you spent much time in Corinth, Galba?"
"A few days now and again. It has its charms."
"But not enough to be remembered." disagreed the King. "I would have liked to have been crowned here, but setting destiny on its proper course means that sacrifices must be made. Can you write, Galba?"
"No my Lord, I have not that privilege."
"A pity. A record should be kept of this day. I'm afraid I shall be too busy. As for the future, Athens is nice, I believe."
"But it is not the seat of the Empire, Lord."
Alexander laughed. "No, it isn't. I am. Help me dress. The time has finally come, and we mustn't keep the Empress waiting."
Shortly afterwards, Terreis returned. "So we have the Queen's Litter and we gathered twenty Amazons. You ready?"
Gabrielle looked down at the scrolls she'd filled with ideas and notes. "No, but it's not like we have a choice."
Terreis smiled. "Funny, I feel like I've been waiting for a long time for this. You'll be fine. All we need is the right audience for what you've written." She then turned to the warrior, who was sitting cross-legged against the wall, examining her sword. "Xena? Word is that there's over three hundred soldiers waiting for us to try to break in to Alti's meeting with the Generals."
"And how many inside?"
"None," replied the Regent.
Eponin joined them. "It makes sense. She doesn't have any Amazons as bodyguards, no one whose loyalty she can trust, and she's about to break the news to her commanders that she's failed to bring the Green Dragon onto her side. Alti isn't about to allow any swords into the room, much less soldiers. No, the troops are all stationed at the only entrance, waiting for us in the main corridor."
Terreis looked to Xena. "That corridor is three body lengths wide, a field long and marbled from ceiling to floor. Smooth as glass and not even a pillar to hide behind. So how do twenty Amazons get past three hundred soldiers?"
Xena was confident, even cocky. "All the better. The reason that there's no pillars inside, is because they are all on the outside."
She stood, and ran a finger along the side of her sword. "We have a few things to get, and then I'll show you how twenty Amazons can get past three hundred soldiers."
Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's sword. "Are all those soldiers going to have to die?"
Xena surprised them all by shaking her head. "That wouldn't take much imagination, now would it?"
And then she smiled.
Eponin's voice echoed down the length of the long corridor. "The Queen of the Amazons wishes to meet with the Empress and her Commanders."
From the end by the great door the reply was just as firm. "The Empress will not be seeing anyone until after her conference with her Generals."
From the shadows a dark figure sauntered into view. "Well, you can't say we didn't try to be nice."
The voice was distinctive and easily recalled. "Xena?!" The guard's mouth gaped.
The former Empress smiled. "Lucius, isn't it?" She leaned casually against the wall, causing his eyes to bulge further. "Hello, boys. Do we have to do this the hard way, or would you like to let the nice lady in?" She smiled, like a cat cozying up to the mouse.
Lucius made a small hand gesture and from both sides of the doorway soldiers flooded in. Xena removed her arm and stood patiently, almost bored, until the last man filed in facing her across the length of the hall.
"That all, or should we wait for a few more to even the odds?"
Lucius sneered. "Once I thought that killing you would bring honour, but they were right. You're just another mad bitch."
Xena hung her head. "Lucius, Lucius. You've been working for Alti so long that you've forgotten I'm not just any mad bitch. I am THE mad bitch." She gestured to him to bring his men forward. "Let's see what you've got."
Lucius motioned several lines of men forward, and Xena covered her mouth and spoke through her hand to Eponin at her side. "Remember, we have to get them all into the main sections. So on my signal, count to ten, have the archers fire, then repeat like we planned. Get them ready."
Epinon nodded and ordered the archers up front and the rest to withdraw. "Xena..?" came a querulous voice from inside the litter as it was lifted. Xena never lifted her eyes from the phalanx facing her but replied curtly. "Gabrielle. You said I was in charge of getting you in there. You have your job and I have mine."
The bearers waited for instructions to move and at first they only heard a grumbling noise from inside but then a quiet, "Be careful. Okay, you heard the lady, let's move out."
As the litter retreated, Xena turned and mouthed to Terreis, "look after her'. She was rewarded by a slight nod and a smile. That off her mind Xena waited till six archers positioned themselves behind her, arrows cocked and ready to fire.
At the sight of them the soldiers raised their body shields and continued their advance. Xena waited for a few heartbeats before raising and flinging her chakram. The weapon bounced off the polished walls and sliced across the exposed ankles of the front row; the injured soldiers immediately dropped to the ground screaming, exposing the unprepared men behind them.
Xena dropped low with them while Amazon arrows flew over her head and found their marks. As the volley ended, her cry echoed down the corridor and she leapt over the two rows of fallen men, landing on and flattening two soldiers in the third row. Still standing on their shields, she cut down two more on either side with her sword. Again, she leapt into the air just as another volley of arrows pierced the gap she had created and striking with deadly accuracy more soldiers in the final and fourth row.
Shocked at the quickness with which twenty men had been slaughtered or disabled, Lucius gave the order to charge. As the surging mass rushed towards them, Xena made one last bloody slash with her sword before flipping backwards and joining the Amazons in a frenzied retreat. As they raced, Eponin glanced back to be sure their pursuers were all committed to the rush. Assured that they were, and seeing that the mass of men had reached the mid-way point of the corridor, she gave a piercing whistle and a crashing sound was heard from the outside. The walls trembled and dust began to fall from the ceiling like powdery snow. There was another crash and the soldiers halted in confusion as fractures began to snake up the walls on all sides of them. Perplexed, they turned just in time to see the columns behind them come crashing down, blocking their exit. The Amazons and Xena ignored the sounds, leaping over the falling marble, barely making it out of the corridor into the open air. Behind them, both ends of the corridor collapsed, trapping the troops securely in the mid part of the corridor - the only area that remained standing.
There was a shocked silence, broken only by the sound of rubble settling.
As the dust cleared, Terreis' and Gabrielle's groups dropped their battering rams beside the remains of the pillars and surveyed the damage. The marble and plaster dust began to disperse, revealing the exposed Great Door where Lucius now stood, alone and in shock.
Xena surveyed the wreck with some pride. "And that is how twenty Amazons can get past three hundred soldiers." The Amazons lined the former hallway, their bows pointing at the cracks in the masonry, keeping the soldiers trapped in their makeshift marble cell.
The Queen's Litter was brought forward again, and Gabrielle shook her robe and hair free of the debris before scrambling inside.
The bearers hoisted the litter to their shoulders, made their way to the outside of the now ruined hallway and picked their way carefully around the fallen masonry. There was a stumble and Xena heard the sound of the body inside being tossed about. Seemingly casually, but with no wasted motion, Xena forced her way to its flank. "Are you alright?" she asked the occupant.
"Tell me again why we have to use a Queen's Litter?" Gabrielle grumbled from inside.
A relieved smirk appeared. "You wanted to impress."
"Gods. How impressive are the Queen's funerals?"
"Well, if this doesn't work, neither of us will be around to help with the arrangements."
There was a short pause, followed by an un-Queenlike snort. "You're not helping."
"Seriously, are you okay?"
"I am if you are." The words were given added emphasis when a hand snaked out through the curtains and laid itself on the former Conqueror's shoulder. Xena stared at the hand for a moment as though wondering how it had gotten there. She moved to clasp it, but stopped when she saw Ephiny approaching. Any emotion that might have been in her eyes was sealed and the two women acknowledged each other coldly.
Ephiny waited until Xena moved in front of the litter before making one more appeal. "Gabrielle. This is the last chance. Did you hear yourself when you told me off before? That wasn't some street kid that ordered me to apologise, that really was the Queen of the Amazons. Maybe you still think you can't pull it off, but you have to look at the alternatives, and I swear..."
Furiously Gabrielle cut her off. "If I'm so forceful, why are we still having this conversation? The decision is made, Ephiny, do you understand?" Angrily she called out to the Gods. "Why won't anyone believe me that I don't want power?"
"I believe you," said Xena clearly, from up ahead. "I've believed you ever since I read those scrolls."
Gabrielle smiled wanly. "The girl who wrote them is long dead."
Xena objected quietly. "If that's the case, then I killed her. And I won't believe that. The only thing that's kept me going since then, the only times I've held onto my sanity was when I trusted you. That girl has to be still alive for all our sakes."
The three traveled in silence for a moment, and the tension began to build with each footstep.
Finally the bearers manoevred their cargo around the collapsed section of the hallway and reached the door. In front, Eponin repeated herself without any change of her previous inflexion. "The Queen of the Amazons wishes to meet with the Empress and her Commanders."
Still gaping in shock, Lucius quickly nodded, and banged on the door.
There was no answer.
"Why don't you knock again?" suggested Gabrielle, poking her head through the curtains. "It's a very thick door. Maybe they didn't hear you?"
Xena shoved Lucius aside. "You gotta learn how to make an entrance when you're Queen, Gabrielle." With that, she took a few steps back, and then charged the door, smashing it off its hooks and laying it flat. Without a glance to her companions, she strode inside. Shrugging, the Amazons hoisted their Queen's litter onto their shoulders once more and, without another word, followed Xena into the room.
Inside, Gabrielle thought her worst fears were realised. Alti stood in a huddle amidst the generals and seemed to be quite entertained by what they were saying. But as the shock of Xena's entrance made its way through the room, the generals stepped aside, leaving Alti to stare at Gabrielle glassy eyed, her red and white silk robes clinging tightly to her frame. Gabrielle noticed that the silk seemed to be running, and her eyes widened as she spotted the crimson rivulets that were streaming onto the floor beneath the Empress. What she had thought was a smile was a painful grimace.
The Empress' eyes rolled towards the intruders; she staggered a half step, and attempted to clench her fist. Gabrielle heard her mutter "Mine!' as her hand waved unsteadily, but whether it was Xena and Gabrielle's souls, the throne room and all its glory, or something else, she never would know.
Alti, the Empress of the Known World, crumpled to the ornate mosaic floor, dead before she landed.
To Be Continued
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