A Queen for All Seasons
Xena prowled through the hall, her eyes flicking right and left as she moved among the now crowded space filled with merchants and their servants trying to find space to spread out their wares.
The storm had worsened outside, and she’d ordered the big firepits lit. Now the huge hall was starting to warm, and around her people were rubbing their hands together and looking more cheerful, oblivious of the tall figure in it’s common cloak in their midst.
Xena recognized the voice even from the partial word and she paused, turning to find Stanislaus at her elbow, looking both harassed and anxious. “Now what?” She stepped aside out of the crowd, into a small alcove where they could hear each other and not impede traffic.
“Your majesty.” Stanislaus said, rubbing his hands together but not from the cold. “His royal highness Duke Lastay wishes to see you.”
Xena tilted her dark head slightly. “So he has you asking?” She queried . “Someone cut his balls off? Figured he didn’t need them anymore since he got his heir?”
“Ah no.. ah…. No, mistress.” The seneschal took on a hint of color. “The good duke merely asked me to inform you if I should see you. He went to your audience chamber, and your suite, and did not find you there.”
“Because I wasn’t.” Xena agreed. “Okay, where’s the little bastard now?” She asked. “He in his bedroom making more kids?”
Stanislaus’ facial color deepened. “Your majesty I hardly know what he is doing in his privacy.” He said. “I believe his lady, in fact, was going to attend the market. Perhaps his lordship is taking his lunch.”
“Perhaps his lordship is taking his pleasure with a stable goat.” Xena chuckled. “You never know. …” She eyed her seneschal. “You never do know, do ya? You have any kids?”
Stanislaus’ face went still. For a long moment Xena thought her longtime lackey was going to actually do something unexpected like yell at her. The look of mixed embarrassment and suppressed rage was fascinating. ‘Well?”
Stanislaus looked up at her. “Your predecessor took that choice from me, your majesty. I have no ability to do that.” He said, stiffly. “My focus has always been service to the crown.”
Xena paused, and blinked, feeling a sense of honest shock at this revelation. She belatedly remembered now that she’d inherited the seneschal among a handful of others who hadn’t died in the overthrow. “The stupid bastard made you a eunuch?” She finally said. “Really?” She knew her voice sounded as surprised as she felt.
Stanislaus looked horribly embarrassed. He shifted his eyes to the far wall and half turned away from her. “I had assumed your majesty knew.”
Had she known? Xena stood quietly studying her servant. Stanislaus was an unremarkable looking man, of mid height and indifferent coloring. He had never seemed effeminate to her, but he had never seemed overly masculine either, merely world wearied with a tendency to fussiness.
She had known he wasn’t married, but she had assumed he had his dalliances – apparently incorrectly. “I didn’t know.” She said, quietly, now far more serious. “Why?”
He glanced up at her, catching the change in mood. “He was very jealous of his women.” Stanislaus said. “Those of us who were close in the household, he wanted no chance of temptation.”
“What an asshole.” Xena said, succinctly.
The seneschal shifted a little, his body straightening. “It was his way.” He said. “There were those who thought perhaps your majesty would do the same, when you took your consort.”
Both of the queen’s eyebrows lifted. “As if them knowing I would not only cut their parts off but disembowel anyone looking crosswise at Gabrielle wasn’t enough?”
Stanislaus lifted his hands slightly, then let them drop. “Your predecessor was not so accomplished at arms.” He explained. “He was not a warrior, in truth. He relied on his generals to carry his banner in the field – unlike yourself.”
‘He was an idiot and he deserved to be spitted on Brendan’s lance as he lay cowering under an oxcart.” Xena replied. “But I am sorry he damaged you, Stanislaus. You didn’t deserve that.”
Startled, the man’s head lifted and he looked Xena unexpectedly right in the eye. “Mistress.” He murmured after a pause. “I…. thank you.”
“Mm.” Xena peered out across the room. “All right, let me go find Lastay and see what he wants.” She looked back at him. “Those circus people settled in?”
His face twitched a little. “Her Grace is entertaining them last I just saw.” He said. “I believe they have what they require.”
“Entertaining?” Xena allowed herself to be sidetracked. “They’re supposed to be entertaining her.”
“She is telling them a story.” The seneschal clarified.
A story? Why would Gabrielle be telling a bunch of players a story? “Ah huh.” Xena mused. “What kind of story?”
“I didn’t stop to listen, majesty.” Stanislaus said. “The young men were, however, quite interested so perhaps it was about you.”
Xena stopped in the middle of taking a breath to answer and cocked her head, wondering if her seneschal was flattering her or trying to piss her off.
Could go either way really. Stanislaus had always been funny about Gabrielle, ever since the beginning when she’d started treating her body slave as something more.
Since he’d tried to get rid of her, risking Xena’s wrath in a misguided attempt at what he thought was protecting her, lucky that she’d come to know him well enough to know that.
His own kind of twisted, skewed bravery. “Thanks.” Xena said. “Hope I’m naked in it in that case.” She dusted her hands off and eased past him, heading down the steps and towards the door to the stronghold.
“Mistress!” Stanislaus called after her. “The Duke’s quarters are in the tower?”
Xena lifted a hand and kept going, trotting down the steps and crossing the inner courtyard. She could hear the buzz of many voices inside the walls, and it made her twitch a little, the smells of so many people and animals drumming against her senses in a not altogether pleasant way.
Speaking of not altogether pleasant. Xena glanced to her left but kept walking. Philtop angled in and met her, matching her strides. “Need something?”
“You said you’d give me details this morning.” Philtop had on a cloth of gold tunic, and looked casually elegant in it. “My men are waiting.”
Xena stopped and turned to look at him.
‘Weather’s coming in. They’re desperate.” Philtop said, in brief clipped tones. “Not to mention nervous as Hades hearing there’s some crazy killer loose in here.”
“You mean another crazy killer loose.” Xena said. “They already knew about me before they showed up here.”
Philtop’s face twisted into wry grimace. “You were a known risk.”
Xena pointed at a stone bench against the wall. She went over and dropped down onto it, and he followed, sitting down next to her. She extended one booted foot out, and rested her elbow on her thigh, the dusty leather she was wearing seeming out of place in the silk draped courtyard.
“Now you look like the Xena I remember.” Philtop said, unexpectedly. “You wore well, Xena. I think you’re better looking now than you were back then.” He studied the angular profile, and the pale eyes full of glittering intelligence watching him.
That’s what he’d screwed up on the last time. He’d seen the pretty face, and the strong body and the wildness and figured he could tame all that with a good roll in the hay – after all she was a good looking woman, and he was a very good looking man, and that’s all it had taken with all the others.
Hadn’t figured on that crafty razor brain that seemed to have only gotten sharper over the years, or the fact that this new queen had pretty much literally been raised by wolves and had the morals and manners of one.
By the gods, he’d paid for that mistake. At the time he’d never really believed Xena was the power behind her own throne, never really believed she was the war leader of the army that had taken over the largest kingdom in the land.
Never really believed a woman could be a warrior until he was being gripped by the neck and held against a stone wall with his feet dangling, powerless against her very unexpectedly much greater strength.
He still bore the scars of that encounter. He felt like he was playing with fire now again but this time he understood what the risk was. Looking at Xena now, he could see past the beautiful face, and the raw sensuality of her, and see the powerful, rangy body in it’s worn leathers and the thick, corded wrists that told their own story.
This woman was still a finely honed weapon. He was now attracted to her for a completely different reason.
“Give me numbers.” Xena replied in a crisp tone, ignoring the backhanded compliment. “I need to know how many people you have there, and what the level of supply is. I’m not turning over cartloads of supplies on spec.”
“You don’t trust me, Xena?” Philtop asked, wryly. “Aw, c’mon now. You don’t still hold a grudge do you?”
“I trust myself. That’s about it.” The queen answered. “You give me numbers, my supply people will give you enough to last the cold months but nothing fancy. You’ll get what my servants do.”
Philtop leaned back against the wall and studied her profile. “Rumor has it your slaves do well. “ He said. “We wont starve, anyway.”
“No.” Xena turned her head to watch as the outer gates opened, and two wagons started rolling in, allowing a burst of weather in with them. “You won’t starve.” She pointed at the doors. “And tell your people just to be glad they’re here eating off my table instead of being packed out of here into that.”
Philtop chuckled, then sobered. “What about the deaths I heard about?”
The queen half shrugged. “Four guys. Fighters. Looks like they were poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” Philtop sounded surprised. “Really?”
“Someone you piss… no, no point in asking that.” He said. “You piss everyone off.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to chuckle. “I do my damned best to.” She agreed. “Anything else you want? I”ve got things to do, people to threaten, and my consort to find.”
“Ah yes. Your consort.” Philtop seemed amused. “Did you really have to pick a little shitkicker like that to take to be..”
Xena had him up against the wall, her hand twisted in his collar to choke his air off in a flicker of an eye, between one breath and the next, before Philtop could even summon a jerk of his arms or a move towards the long dirk at his belt.
“Morons who are here on my sufferance, begging for scraps should learn to keep their mouths shut.” Xena said, in a low, even voice. “Especially about things that mean a whole lot more to me than their worthless lives.”
Philtop hesitated, then he slowly put his hands back against the wall, knuckles against the stone, as the ice blue eyes even with his glittered with raw, violent intent. “Okay Xena.” He rasped. “I get the message.”
“Hey, you’re drawing a crowd here.” Philtop said. “Might look bad for you to be choking a guest.”
“They’re used to it.” Xena turned and hauled him away from the wall, using her body weight to swing them both around and releasing him at the top of her arc of motion, sending him sprawling across the stone floor and away from her. “They take bets when I draw my sword which wall I’m gonna hit with the entrails.”
She brushed her hands off on her leggings. “Stay away from me, Philtop. Get me your figures, and get out before you tick me off enough to forget you’re a guest.”
“Guess I hit a nerve, huh?” Philtop got to his feet. “Truth hurt, Xena? You hear everyone laughing about your little ragamuffin?”
Xena studied him, her face impassive. “Ask my army what they think about her.” She said. “I never did give a damn what the rest of these frills thought or I certainly woudn’t have slept with you.”
She walked past him and headed towards her original destination, the dancing hall. Her ears told her when he got up, and they told her when he started after her, then stopped, then turned, and walked away.
“Smart jackass.” She muttered, feeling the tingle of rage slowly fading, the twitching easing from her hands as her breathing returned to normal. “I”ll shitkicker him right into the gods be damned moat the next time he opens his damn mouth.”
Xena turned to find a short, well dressed man at her elbow. “What?”
“Pardon me, your majesty, but I am Duke Lastay’s valet.” The man said. “His grace is looking for you.”
Xena suddenly felt a strong desire for Gabrielle’s presence. “Tell him to come to the dancing hall.” She instructed. “I’ll be glad to talk to him there. I”ve got some business I have to take care of.”
“Your majesty.” The man bowed. “I will inform him at once.”
The man scuttled off, finally leaving Xena in peace to head to the hall, where the doors were open and she could hear the faint sounds of animals, and the hammering of wooden pegs, and in the fringes of that a familiar voice.
With a sense of relief, she bounced up the steps and paused in the open doorway, reviewing the interior.
They’d made a mess of the hall. Straw had been hauled in and laid down over the marble and boxes and seats were being constructed around the open center. There were wagons and animals staked around, the scent of manure and wet straw rising in the air.
A frame had been erected, and she could see ropes crisscrossing the top of it, with men working at the bottom to brace it for, she supposed the acrobats.
And the acrobats themselves, along with what appeared to be other performers were all gathered in one corner, near a supply wagon, where there was a barrel of something there with a short, adorable woman seated wearing Xena’s colors and her heart on one sturdy linen sleeve.
Ragamuffin? Xena studied her consort. Gabrielle was dressed in her hawkshead tabard and warm cloth leggings, with sturdy black leather boots on. Her pale hair was caught at her neck in a clasp and the hands which were gesturing to the crowd were well formed, one wrist graced with a twined silver bracelet Xena had given her.
A courtesan she wasn’t, but neither was she scruffy or ill favored even to Xena’s admittedly biased eyes and she decided Philtop was just trying to get under her skin. Maybe because she’d willingly joined with Gabrielle and spurned his interest?
Maybe he’d heard she’d named Lastay as her heir, and figured to reignite their relationship? Seeing an angle to get more of the power he craved?
Or maybe he was just an asshole.
She edged a little further into the hall and leaned against the doorframe, waiting. After a few heartbeats, Gabrielle’s eyes shifted as if she sensed the queen’s presence, and her face broke into a welcoming grin, changing the tenor of her voice and making her audience turn around to see what she was looking at.
No one, Xena acknowledged, had ever smiled at her like that. Even her troops, loyal to a man, and the officers she’d fought with always knew her presence could be a dangerous thing to them, if they went cross of her temper, or had failed her in some way.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, was just simply always glad to see her, no matter what the circumstance. No matter what crappy thing was happening to them, or how hard life was being, Xena knew she could look into those eyes, and see that love shining back at her.
Just like it was now.
“Xena!” Gabrielle called out. “I was just getting to the good part! Come listen and meet my new friends!”
She could see the rounded, awed eyes of the circus performers turn her way as she pushed off from the frame and started towards the group, soaking in the notoriety of whatever tale her consort was spinning.
Shitkicker? Xena settled herself on a box, propping one boot up on a second. “G’wan, muskrat. I can’t wait to her what crazy story about me you’re telling now.”
“Zev.” Gabrielle addressed one of the muscular little boys seated next to her. “Remember that thing you did on the bar? Xena can do that.”
Uh oh. Xena managed a confident smile as the boy looked around at her in wary skepticism. Careful what you ask for, Xena. She spared a brief glance at the frame contraption rising over her head.
“Really, she can.”
Xena draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders as they made their way back to the main part of the castle, the queen putting herself between the howling wind and her companion to make sure she didn’t get blown away. “Wow.” She eyed the clouds overhead. “Winter showed up ahead of schedule.”
“Wow is right.” Gabrielle was glad of her anchor. ‘That’s some wind!”
They half ran up the steps and ducked through the hastily opened doors as the guards spotted them and then just as quickly shut the big wooden portals after their passing.
“That was fun though.” Xena remarked, as she raked her fingers through her hair, scattering droplets of ice and water on the floor. “More fun than having court.”
“Will you have to do that now?” Gabrielle asked.
“Nah.” Xena shook her head. “I talked to the jackass. That’s really all that was on the agenda that was slightly important.”
“I gotta go find Lastay though.” Xena admitted, with a sigh. “Find out what he needed.” She looked around. “I’m surprised he didn’t come find me. “ She changed her direction. “C’mon. Let’s go roust him out.”
Gabrielle willingly fell into stride next to her, and they went up the big half circle stairs and turned right, heading down a long, high corridor that led to the one of the six towers lived in by Xena’s most important nobles when they were at court.
A left turn, and several winding corridors in the opposite direction would have taken them to the tallest tower, the guard tower that Xena had once inhabited, and where her sparring chamber still was. The rooms she’d used were cleaned and set aside, the tower still empty since she and Gabrielle had moved to the former ruler’s palatial quarters in the center of the stronghold.
Gabrielle, in truth secretly missed those upper chambers sometimes. She loved their new digs, but there had been a solitude about the tower that she’d come to appreciate. Watching the sun rise over the upper battlements, sipping some hot tea as the world came alive around her was something they really couldn’t do now, since the balcony of their rooms overlooked the central courtyard in full view of pretty much everyone.
Not the same thing. She’d gotten to understand the value of those quiet moments, between the crazy wars and battles they’d gotten themselves into.
They approached Lastay’s rooms, and his guard drew themselves up when they recognized Xena, ducking their heads in respect as the queen arrived. “Open up.” Xena said, briefly.
“Majesty.” The nearer guard quickly worked the latch, rapping his knuckles against the wood surface in a clumsy attempt at warning.
Xena gave him a tolerant look, then shoved past him and bumped the door open with her shoulder, stalking inside the room with Gabrielle at her heels. “Lastay!”
“Majesty, his servant told us not to disturb him.” The guard had his head poked in the door and he spoke apologetically.
Xena felt a prickle up her spine. “Yeah.” She said, moving slowly towards the inner doors. “But chances are he isn’t too involved to ignore my sweet melodious voice.” She drew a dagger almost without thought, turning it in her hand so the blade pointed backwards laying along her forearm. “Muskrat, stay here.”
Gabrielle slowed, but didn’t entirely halt, her body edging after Xenas as though bound to her with a string.
Xena went to the doors and put her hand on them, then she rapped on them sharply. “Lastay!”
The guard came inside, along with his mate, standing inside the door uncertainly.
Xena cocked her ears, tilting her head to listen. She heard nothing behind the doors, not the merest rustle of bedclothes, or whisper of a voice. With a short intake of breath, she worked the latch and shoved the door open, pushing it hard against the wall with a solid crack.
It was dim inside, only the pallid light from the window outlining the interior with dusty gray. But that was more than enough for Xena’s eyes to take in everything. The overturned chairs, the bed with a single figure in it, the second figure on the floor.
A candle flared behind her and she almost knocked it out of the air before she recognized the presence at her back and Gabrielle was easing up next to her, holding the candle up high and lighting the room.
“Oh Xena.” Gabrielle said, after a long pause, her voice soft and aching.
Xena released her breath, uttering a curse on it’s issuing. She sheathed her dagger and took the candle, taking a step toward the half naked body on the floor and kneeling next to it. “Ah.” She took the shoulder and turned it over, the light from the candle reflecting on a slack, dead face.
Eyes open and staring.
“What’s going on here?” A voice sounded behind them. Gabrielle jerked in surprise and turned, as the doorway was filled with the concerned form of Duke Lastay.
“M.. your Majesty!” He spluttered, obviously very surprised to find the queen in his bedroom.
“C’mon in Lastay.” Xena examined the body. “You know this guy?”
The duke circled around his kneeling liege. “By the gods! That’s my man Chilres.” He turned and looked at the bed. “And my … “ He picked up the head on the bed by the hair and lifted it. “My good wife’s ladyservant.”
Gabrielle had been standing, astounded, looking from one to the other. “Gosh. I thought..”
“Yeah me too.” Xena said, her shoulders straightening as she recovered her composure. “Your people in the habit of sleeping in your bed, Lastay?” She eyed the Duke. “Kinky.” She turned the body over again and examined the exposed bare skin along his back and shoulders.
The duke drew himself up. “Certainly not!” He said. “We had only just left… my lady wife went to brunch with some of her friends, and I.. well, I went to find you, your majesty! “ He looked at the woman on the bed. “What happened to them?”
Xena rested her forearm on her knee. “What was supposed to happen to you, I guess.” She looked more than troubled. “Poison again.”
Lastay abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, enough of a soldier to ignore the dead woman lying across it.
“Gabrielle, close the door. “ Xena said.
“Do you want me to go get Brendan?” Her consort asked.
“No.” The queen shook her head. “I don’t want you out of my sight.”
Gabrielle pondered that in silence, as she went over and closed the door. She could see the guards on the outside, watching her in nervous silence, but she put them out of her mind as she turned and put her back to the solid wood.
Xena got up and went around the room lightning the candles, and then the brazier. She put the candle she’d been holding down, then she went to the corner and slowly started moving along the wall, her head tilted slightly.
“What is this, mistress?” Lastay murmured. “I had heard of the deaths, but… surely not really poison?”
“Really poison.” Xena muttered. “Look at the guy’s neck. In the back. Along the spine. Red mark. Slightly swollen. He got hit by a dart made from a hard wood thorn with the underfeathers of a bird tacked around it, shot from a bamboo blowgun.”
Gabrielle and Lastay exchanged glances. Then Gabrielle gingerly knelt, parting the hair on the back of the dead man’s neck and peering at it. “There it is.” She said softly, as Lastay came to kneel next to her. “Just like Xena said.”
‘Aye.” The Duke murmured. “But the feathers?”
Gabrielle looked up at her patiently circling friend, then she faintly shrugged. “Xena, how did you know that?”
“Smell it.” The queen said, briefly. “I can smell the bamboo.” She added. “And the feathers.”
Gabrielle looked around the room. She could smell a lot of things, the bedding, the rushes on the floor, the candle wax that was now perfuming the space.
But smelling bamboo and feathers? “Wow.”
“Bigods.” Lastay muttered, under his breath.
Gabrielle got up and cautiously approached her. She could see Xena was taking careful steps, her eyes fixed on the ground. “What does bamboo smell like?” She asked finally.
Xena held her hand up, then she knelt on the ground. “Bring that candle over here.” She waited, then took the sconce her bedmate quickly retrieved for her and lowered it close to the ground. Her eyes focused on the dust and the corners of them crinkled a little.
She looked up at the wall. She was almost in a corner of the room, and it was full of shadows here though otherwise the area was empty. Xena looked back down at the faint footprints she could see in the disturbance of the dust.
Had the attacker stood here, in the darkness? With the candles out, it would have been very dark indeed – even Xena had mistaken the bodies before she’d looked closely at them. But the thought of the two servants taking this guilty pleasure all unknowing while cold, killers eyes watched them…
Xena’s face twitched, as close to a shiver as she’d allow herself. She stood and continued her prowl aware of Gabrielle’s quiet form at her heels.
She could see the scuffs, reflecting a little silver in her eyesight as she followed the tracks across the room near the wall, and behind a tall dressing screen. Here, she could see a thick carpet lying along the wall and then, just the other corner.
No way for the man to escape. The room had only one door. The outer chamber had two other corridors, but the complex itself had only the front door, or one back door that she knew led down to the kitchens.
Much like she’d had, up in the tower. “Lastay, did you have anyone in the outer chamber?”
Lastay shook his head. “These two.” He indicated the bodies. “Would have been arranging the rooms, and seeing to lunch.” He studied the man on the floor. “Poor things. Wanted to get married. They asked my lady wife about it just this morning.”
“And the guards outside.” Xena murmured.
“As you say, mistress.” Lastay agreed. “Suppose they came in here to..ah..”
“Screw.” The queen supplied succinctly. “Yeah. Well, there’s a bed here. Probably more comfortable than the stone floor outside.”
“Hey Xena?” Gabrielle had leaned against the wall behind where the queen had wandered. “This is moving.”
Instantly, Xena whirled and almost pounced on her. “What?” She grabbed Gabrielle’s shoulders and moved her aside. “Get away from that.” She got in front of her and yanked her dagger out again, backing up a few steps as the heavy carpet stirred, and the hard outline of the surface beneath it poked through the draping.
Gabrielle put her hands on Xena’s hips and peered past her elbow. “What is it?”
“Mistress, shall I call the guard?” Lastay had stood up, moving around the body on the floor and drawing his sword uncertainly.
“Put that away.” Xena stabbed the carpet on the wall with her dagger, and yanked hit towards her viciously. It ripped off the wall and fell in a tumbling heap, forcing her to hop backwards to avoid it. Behind the carpet, on the now bare wall was a partially open door.
“Bigods!” Lastay edged up next to them. “I never knew that was there!”
“Candle.” Xena held her hand out, grasping the sconce and handing it back to Gabrielle. “Hold that, while I get ready to maybe kill something.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle held the candle away from Xena’s clothing, as the queen reached one booted foot out and kicked the door open, the dagger in her hand out and ready, cocked slightly to one side. She could see Xena’s shoulder muscles tense and felt her heart skip a beat.
The door revealed only a dark opening, though, no rush of assassins. Xena waited, then she advanced cautiously, her free hand held just in front of her thigh, fingers crooked.
A puff of air came from the darkness, and she opened her mouth a little, tasting it on the back of her tongue. Damp stone was the prominent scent, but underneath…
Xena went into the opening, the candle’s flicker lighting the space in front of her as Gabrielle followed. It occurred to her that maybe she should send her bedmate somewhere safe, but then she acknowledged the safest place for her was right where she was.
No one, Xena was utterly convinced, could protect Gabrielle as well as she could. “All right.” She eased forward, sweeping her senses to her right and her left as she found herself in a very narrow space, a slim corridor between the stone of the outer walls and the stone of the inner. To her right, the corridor ended abruptly. But to the left, it continued on.
Xena could feel a faint draft against her face. “Let’s see where this goes.” She started down the narrow corridor turned sideways, since the width wouldn’t allow her shoulders to pass. “Gabrielle, stay close.”
“Like a tick.” Gabrielle agreed, holding the candle up high so the light would cast ahead of the queen. She kept her free hand on Xena’s back, tucking her thumb under the harness her sword was attached to, aware of Lastay tentatively coming in after her.
“I’m coming too, your majesty.” Lastay said. “Want a piece of whoever was after me and my lady, I do.”
Unseen, since she was in the lead, Xena grimaced, then rolled her eyes. She felt Gabrielle gently tap her spine, and wondered if the little muskrat knew what she was thinking.
“I sure feel better having you back there.” Gabrielle commented mildly.
“Why thank you, your grace.” Lastay answered gallantly. “It’s my great pleasure to guard your …ah. Yes. Back.”
Xena took a nerve steadying breath and continued down the corridor. She couldn’t sense anyone near, though the hint of bamboo and the slight smell of silk were on the air and she could see in the faint light from the candle footsteps in the dust of the stone floor that had brought itself into the room in the fainter scuffs she’d seen.
So. Hidden passages.
“Did you know about this, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena pondered the question. Had she? She remembered scouring the castle when she’d first taken over, security demanded that of course. She and Lyseus had searched all the corners, looking for loot as well as learning the ins and outs of their new home.
But had she searched for secret passages in the towers? “No.” The queen admitted reluctantly. “I knew there were some tunnels. From the dungeons to the crypts, and then a long one out to the stables. “
“Really?” Lastay asked. “You know, I think I heard about that one a long time ago. One of the king’s ancestors was supposed to have abdicated out that way, with a serving wench.”
“My kinda guy.” Xena commented. She got to the end of the curve of the tower wall, and found a set of very narrow steps going downwards. “Well, we know how the bastard got in and out, anyway.” She muttered, starting down them dagger first.
“Mistress.” Lastay spoke up after they’d gone down a few steps. “Why us?”
Xena exhaled. “Why you.” She swept her eyes over the steps as she walked down them. Now that she was moving forward, the faint draft was getting a little stronger and she could smell a dank scent of decay.
It occurred to her that going pretty much alone down a hidden stairwell with who knew what at the end of it wasn’t the smartest thing she ever done. But really, that’s how her damn life had been going lately hadn’t it?
So why Lastay? “Probably you because you’re my heir.” Xena stated. “And before you ask me the most obvious question – “
“Why not you yourself majesty?” Lastay obediently submitted.
‘Why not me?” Xena repeated. “Well, that’s a damn good question you know that, Lastay? I could think it was because I’m a damn tough kill.” She mused. “Or maybe they’re scared of the muskrat.”
Gabrielle made a small, snorting noise.
“Or maybe they wish to make your life a difficult thing, your majesty.” Lastay offered. “To destroy things that you have.. ah… “
Xena paused on the steps and looked over her shoulder at him in silence for a long moment. “First two who died were in service to a loyal man of mine. Second two were my own men, now you.” Her face hardened and tightened into sharper planes. “Could be, Lastay.”
“What made you think about the bamboo, Xena?” Gabrielle asked, after an awkward silence. “How did you know about that?”
“About the blowguns?” Xena turned and continued walking down the steps. “I’ve used them.” She craned her head around the curving wall, seeing some light at the end of it. She figured they were about or just below ground level, and as she thought it she felt like the walls were compressing in on either side of her.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle conveniently articulated her feelings for her.
“Mm.” Xena slowed her pace, as she came around the final curve. The stairwell ended in a small cove, and there were two doors a right angles to each other. One seemed to go right under the tower, the other.. Xena pictured the structure of the stronghold. The other would go under the banquet hall.
She turned and got the candle from Gabrielle, holding it close to the nearer door, then looking at the leather strap hinges. She then checked the door going to the banquet hall and grunted. “This way.”
Gabrielle looked at the hinges herself, seeing nothing more than some hairline cracks in the surface. She watched Xena put her hand out, then she stopped for no apparent reason and took a step back. “What’s wrong?”
Xena knelt and examined the door latch, extending her head forward a little and inhaling. Her eyes shifted to one side, and she half closed them, going completely still.
Behind her, Gabrielle and Lastay watched in fascination.
Then Xena exhaled and stood, backing away from the door. “I am the target, Lastay.” She said, quietly. “That latch has a pin on it. If I’d opened the door it’d have stuck me.” The queen’s eyes narrowed. “There’s poison on it. I can smell it.”
“More poison!” Gabrielle inhaled. “Xena, what the heck’s going on here? Where’s this all coming from?”
“But.. Mistress, how would anyone know you would be here? You said yourself you have never been in this passage.” The Duke protested.
“Let’s just say I’ve got a feeling.” Xena said, after a long silence. “Let’s go back upstairs. Whoever did this is long gone anyway.” She indicated them forward. “I need to figure out what’s going on here before more people start dropping dead. “
“Ugh.” Gabrielle said again. “I thought things were going too good.”
“You ain’t kidding muskrat.”
Xena stood in the window opening, her arms crossed over her chest as she watched the icy rain come down outside. Behind her, she could hear Gabrielle working near the fireplace in their quarters, the soft clank of a wooden stirrer against an iron pot sounding oddly loud in the room.
“Are we going to go back down that tunnel, Xena?” Gabrielle asked. “I wonder how many more of them there are.”
“Too many, probably.” Xena said, still watching the rain. “I’m betting I could go chasing down those damn things until spring and not find what I’m looking for.”
“What are you looking for?” Gabrielle came over with a bowl, and offered it to her.
Xena took it, turning and sitting down on the window sill and almost immediately regretting it since the stone was cold enough to immediately chill her ass. She stood back up and bumped Gabrielle back towards the fireplace. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.” She admitted, as she sat down on one of the two backless padded benches on either side of the fire. “I think someone wanted me to go chasing down that hallway today though.”
Gabrielle took her own bowl and sat down across from the queen. “Someone who’s trying to hurt you?”
Xena nodded, spooning up a bit of stewed duck and putting it into her mouth. “Someone who knows me well enough to know I’d head down that thing by myself and not send my army down in front of me.”
“We were with you.”
Xena looked at her drolly.
“Well, we were.” Gabrielle said. “But… why not send the army down there now, Xena? Have them go down and like lock up those tunnels. I don’t like the idea of them maybe being under here” She looked around the room. “That whole thing was creepy.”
“Uhng.” Xena poked in her bowl.
“I think the Duke was freaked out.” Gabrielle dunked a bit of bread into her stew and bit the end off of it. “I heard him telling his guys to bring up some wood and seal that door up in his bedroom.”
“I’m sure it originally was there so they could escape from rampaging slaves.” Xena remarked. “The door I mean. Bet that door I stopped at goes under the banquet hall, then meets up with the big tunnel I knew about leading to the stables.”
“Were they all scared of that before?” Gabrielle asked.
“Bregos got ours to nearly overthrow the damn castle, so sure.” Xena said. “Remember?”
Gabrielle did remember. “But.. I never heard about those tunnels.” She said. “When I first came here. I would have figured people would have known about them to get out.”
“You didn’t spend that long downstairs.” The queen stated. “Anyway, no. This after noon we’re gonna go to the show and pretend nothing’s wrong.”
“The last thing I need is for everyone here to lose their minds.” Xena said. “So you and I will be enjoying our new friends in the circus and then hosting a big dinner tonight.”
Gabrielle studied her bowl. “Are you worried about that?” She looked up at the queen. “Something could happen to the food.”
Xena licked her lips. “Yeah, I thought of that.” She said. “I’m going to gamble on the fact that whoever this is has an exact target. They’re not looking to poison an entire banquet hall just to croak me.”
“I could stay in the kitchen and watch.”
“No.” The queens’ response was immediate and sharp. “You stick by me.”
“I mean it.” The pale blue eyes fixed on her “If they went after Lastay to hurt me, what do you think something happening to you would do?”
Gabrielle got caught with her spoon halfway to her lips. She set it back down in the bowl as she watched the shifting expressions on Xena’s face. There was a haunting fear there that surprised her, and she was at a loss to know what to say.
Xena’s eyes dropped. “Anyway. “ She said. “You stick by me. Hear?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle put her bowl down. “Its not like I don’t like doing that anyway. Staying near you, I mean.” To illustrate the fact she got up and went over to Xena’s bench, claiming a corner of it and sitting back down next to the queen, pressing up against her. “See?”
The queen smiled briefly.
Gabrielle went back to her lunch. “In that case you know, Xena, I’m going to make sure that we both have the same stuff.” She ate a carrot. “Because I want whatever happens to you, to happen to me too.”
Xena stopped chewing. She turned her head and looked at her bedmate, a bit of scallion sticking out of her mouth. Hastily she sucked it in and swallowed it. “What?”
“What what?” Gabrielle kept her eyes on her duck.
“What in the Hades was that supposed to mean?” Xena asked. “Did you really mean to say you’d eat poison codfish and die an agonizing death right alongside me? Cause that’s sure what it sounded like.”
Gabrielle blinked mildly at her. “Yes.” She watched the queen stare at her. “Xena.” She put a hand on her friend’s arm. “C’mon. You’re everything to me. You know that. “ She studied the queen’s expression. “I love you. What do you think life would be for me without you?”
Xena scowled. “A lot less dangerous and scary.”
The queen dropped her head, then tilted it back up, looking at Gabrielle from between her disheveled bangs in an oddly adolescent way. “Sorry muskrat. I’m not used to people declaring eternal devotion to me and actually meaning it. Takes some getting used to.”
“I really mean it.”
The blue eyes softened and gentled. “I know you do.” Xena sighed. “I don’t want anything happening to either of us, Gabrielle. I want to live a long, hedonistic life with you.” She shifted a little. “I never had to worry about that before.”
Gabrielle merely leaned against her, resting her head on Xena’s shoulder.
“I always figured one of these days one of those damn nobles would get me.” Xena said. “Before you showed up I think I was getting to the point of not caring if they did.”
The quiet words worked a small kind of magic on her heart. “I know how that feels.” Gabrielle said, after a pause. “The sevenday before the slavers took us I over heard my father telling my mother he’d given me in marriage to a neighbor of ours.” She watched the flames in the fireplace. “He was a big man, drunk most of the time, who used to beat his kids and his animals. His wife had died a few moons back having a child… the midwife said he strangled her when he found out it was a girl, not a boy.”
Xena remained quiet, her head cocked slightly in a listening attitude.
“I felt like that, you know, Xena?” Gabrielle murmured. “I thought about what that would be like.. and how I wished and wished something would happen to change my life and then…”
“And then a couple days later it did.”
“I wondered if the gods heard me.” Her bedmate nodded. “And the raiders were their way of answering me.. like they were saying ‘that’s what you get for asking for things you don’t deserve.”
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments. “And then I met you.”
Xena exhaled. “And then you met me.” She repeated. “That should have sealed that idea for ya.” She let her head rest against her consorts. “Were you really going to sit there and let that bastard marry you?”
Gabrielle sat there and thought about that. On the surface of it she’d started to say that she hadn’t a choice in it, but something made her wonder, knowing herself now a little better, whether that was really true or not.
She remembered being angry. She remembered telling Lila she’d rather be dead than married to him.
But would she have done anything about it?
“I didn’t want to.” She finally said. “I just don’t know what I would have done that wouldn’t have made my life worse.” She looked at her hands, curled around the bowl. “I didn’t think I had any choices, really.”
Xena put her bowl down and put her arm around Gabrielle. “Those bastards did you a favor.” She remarked. “Did me a favor. “ She added. “Still glad I killed em.” She pondered a while. “I think you’d have ended up offing the swine.”
“Mm.” The queen nodded. “You’re a fighter, Gabrielle. It’s in ya, or else you’d never have survived meeting me.”
And that, Gabrielle knew, was true if nothing else was. A meek lamb would never have lived through the crucible that was the love they’d built between them. Would never have survived the trials they’d been through in the relatively short time they’d been together.
Would never have ripped the cheek out of a Persian princess, or stood on a burning platform fighting to save a friend.
Courage was such a funny thing. “I’m glad.” Gabrielle sighed. “I think we’re both pretty good at fighting. So we’ll get through this whole scary thing and find the guy who’s doing it, right?”
“One way or another, we will.” Xena gave her a hug. “Got more of that duck? At least I can eat my fill of that and not worry about keeling over.”
Gabrielle got up to fill their bowls, glad they had a few candlemarks together before the show and intent on making the most of them.
Xena studied the two gowns in the casement, evaluating the stiff, silk fabric. “I want a watch on Lastay’s quarters.” She said, to the patiently waiting Brendan standing behind her. “But don’t’ make it obvious. Put the men in his colors.”
“Aye.” Brendan agreed. “Walled up that entrance, he did. We went over the tower like, t’see if we could find more, but nothing.”
“Do me a favor? While we’re at the show do the same in here.” Xena said. “I’ve looked, but it never hurts to have two sets of eyes.”
“Aye.” Her captain said.
“I’ve got the muskrat putting her chainmail on.” Xena turned, putting her hand son her hips. She was already in her house armor, waiting to slip the ornate robes over it. “One less chance to take.”
Brendan thumped his chest, a faint slithering clink sounding beneath his hawkshead tabard. “Got mine on, as to the rest of the men, mistress. Those darts were aimed pretty good though.”
“Mm.” Xena had to agree. Between head and hands, they had enough exposed for someone with that kind of skill to get them. “After the show tonight, when the castle quiets down, I want every man we’ve got doing a sweep front to back of this place. Dungeons, cellars, the whole thing.”
Brendan nodded in emphatic agreement. “We keep it quiet now.”
“Yes.” The queen said. “Let them relax. Think we’re not looking.”
“Xena, can you help me tie this?” Gabrielle came in, her body covered in her armor. She came over and let Xena straighten the links across her shoulders. “Hi Brendan.”
“Your grace.” Brendan inclined his head. “Mistress, I can see the bit about letting them stew, but … by the gods. If whoever it is hits again… “
“I know.” Xena settled the metal across her bedmate’s skin, pulling the back of the collar up and tucking it around her neck. “But I figure they’re stashed away right now and if we go after them, people are gonna get croaked anyway.”
“Mmph.” Brendan grunted. “Basterd.”
“Or bastards.” The queen pondered making her beloved muskrat wear a leather hood and gauntlets to the show. Would she be forgiven for that?
Gabrielle reached up and touched the queen’s armor, admiring the supple hide and the fit, which was snug enough to show off Xena’s body without being overly obvious about it.
“You like my old rags, muskrat?” Xena asked, with a smile.
“I do.” Her consort nodded. “I think you look really good in this.”
The queen’s smile broadened. She turned and snagged the smaller of the two gowns from the cabinet and draped it over Gabrielle’s shoulders, pulling it around her. “Well, unfortunately these sexy duds have to be covered in frills tonight.
“Buh.” Gabrielle fluffed the arms out. “Glad it’s cold outside.”
“Me too.” Xena agreed. She turned to find Brendan watching her, an indescribable expression on his face. “What?”
“Mistress?” He started.
“What was that puss for? Am I growing a horn?” The queen tapped her forehead. She lifted her own overlay up and swung it around her body.
“No mistress.” Brendan said. “Any other orders? I’m goin out to gather the men and give em the word. Most of the scouts, eh, they’re already roaming with their ears out.”
Xena finished tying the front of her robe. She glanced in the mirror to check the effect, watching the fabric drape over her leathers with less than natural curves. “Nah. Let’s just meet up after the party ends,” She glanced at her captain. “Round up some of the grooms, and the cooks. They know more nooks and crannies than you will.”
Xena cocked an eyebrow at him and pointed at the door, waiting for him to leave before she returned her attention to her reflection.
Well, wouldn’t be the first time she wore armor to the dinner table. She had, in fact, for the first two years after she’d begun her reign, never been seen without her arms and armor, until the worst of the rebellions were quelled and she felt comfortable walking across the dining room knowing there was only a decent chance of getting a knife in her back rather than an absolute one.
And if it got hot in the hall, she could take the damn gown off. Xena smiled, cheered up at the thought. “You ready to dance with me tonight?” She asked Gabrielle, who had seated herself on the dressing trunk and was pulling on her soft, indoor slippers.
Gabrielle glanced up at her, with a brief grin. “Well, I’ll try.” She said. “I’m still pretty bad at it.”
Xena went over and sat down next to her, bracing her hands on the bench behind her and extending her legs out across the floor. “I’m ticked off, muskrat.”
Gabrielle finished putting her shoes on and leaned her hands on the benches surface. “Why?” She asked. “I mean… I guess because of the killings, right?” She looked at her companion’s profile, which was somber.
“Not really.” Xena answered. “Oh, I’m not happy about that, but I’m ticked off for a lot more selfish reason.” She studied her bare feet.
Gabrielle waited. She’d learned enough about Xena by now that she knew there were times when prompting wasn’t needed from her. Just letting Xena find the words and find the time to speak was enough.
“Anyway.” The queen shook her head after a minute of silence. “I think I just need a drink.” She remained sitting there though, as the wind rattled against the windows.
Gabrielle got up and fetched the queen’s slippers, lined and padded indoor shoes that she loosened the laces of before she knelt at Xena’s feet and put them on. “You have such pretty feet.” She commented, rubbing one of the her powerful ankles.
“You really think so?” Xena mused.
“I do.” Her consort confirmed. “They have such a pretty shape.” She touched the arched instep. “And you have cute toes.”
“Maybe I should get them to paint my toenails pink.”
Gabrielle looked sharply up at her, eyed widening.
The blond woman made a face.
Xena chuckled wryly. “C’mon, my friend.” She got up and offered Gabrielle a hand to her feet. “Let’s go get as much enjoyment as we can out of this show. I have a feeling it’ll be our last fun for a while.”
They walked together to the door, detouring only to let Xena pick up her sword in it’s sheath. The queen settled the blade against her shoulder, and kicked the door open, heading for the noise of the hall.
The dancing hall was stuffed full. Gabrielle was very glad she was with Xena, content to tag along behind the queen’s tall form as she swept through the hastily opened path in front of her towards the prominently mounted high back chairs that had been put there for them to sit in.
She got her fingers tangled in the belt Xena was wearing, feeling the faint pressure against the back of her knuckles as the queen took a breath and pulled the fabric tight. She rubbed her thumb against the surface, aware of the resistance of the leather armor under the silk.
She was glad of it. Glad of her own armor under the pretty fabric. She knew Xena could fight like crazy, but to her mind, when you had creepy people around shooting little darts, the more stuff between that and your skin the better.
“Hang on, muskrat.” Xena continued plowing through the crowd.
There were benches built on the stepped platforms where all of the nobles were seated, a veritable cornucopia of rich fall colored silk and gilt. Below that, all the visitors and merchants were in standing stalls, and among them were servants passing trays of ale and bread around.
Opposite them was the show area, with it’s wooden framework for the acrobats and the cleared space underneath filled with straw and sand for the horses and other animals that were part of the circus.
The walls of the dancing hall rose around them, and the tall, vaulted ceiling echoed back voices and the sounds of the performers getting ready, soft clacks and booms, and the whisper of hands dusting themselves off.
The performers themselves had retired to several of the chambers just inside the door of the hall, where in it’s other life nobles would be leaving cloaks and weapons before surrendering themselves to a night of dancing and where the formal musicians would have stayed, ready to provide the music for them.
The high, narrow windows were open despite the weather, bringing in a draft of cold, wet air that stirred the straw and brushed away the worst of the smells, drawing even the rich pungent smoke of the oil lamps up and out into the courtyard.
Despite the storm, spirits seemed high. It wasn’t often this kind of entertainment came to Xena’s stronghold, and certainly even rarer that the queen would allow the taking over of the grandest hall in the realm for a performance.
Ale and wine were flowing, there were buskers and musicians wandering through the crowd strumming sitars and blowing on pipes, and the result was cheerful cacophony and an air of expectation.
Gabrielle almost felt like she could forget the troubles they were having, as she and Xena climbed up to the royal platform and approached their seats.
Lastay and his wife were there, seated in regular sized chairs to one side of Xena’s throne. They were smiling, but Gabrielle noticed how they watched the crowd carefully, and that Lastay had two men at arms standing just behind them.
They brightened as Xena arrived and slung her sword over the back of her chair, settling into it and leaning her elbows on the arms. Gabrielle took the next seat over, and then Brendan arrived, coming to stand quietly behind the queen’s right shoulder.
“Mistress.” Lastay greeted her.
“Your majesty, your grace.” His wife stood, and curtsied, then resumed her seat.
Xena eyed her, then glanced at Gabrielle. “Did we..”
“Yes.” Gabrielle smiled, correctly interpreting the question. She got up and knelt, taking a package out from under her chair and straightening. “Here you go.” She offered it to the queen, who merely hiked a dark eyebrow at her.
Gabrielle pulled the package back to her then she turned and went over to where Lastay and his wife were sitting. “Xena and I.” She looked back at the queen who was studying ceiling in apparent fascination. “Thought we would get you a little gift for your new baby.” She offered the neatly wrapped packet.
“Oh!” The woman took the package. “Thank you your grace!” She looked at the queen. “Thank you your Majesty!”
Xena rolled her head to one side and gave her a wry grin.
Lastay’s expression relaxed, and he patted the wrapping. “Open it, my dear. I am sure it must be wonderful.”
Gabrielle knew, having been in the castle for some time now, and having not quite been born yesterday, that even if the packet had held a folded moldy goatskin that hadn’t been cured that both her lover’s heir and his wife would declaim it wonderful.
It’s just how that worked. But as the duke’s wife opened the gift and unfolded it, she could see by the shifts in both expressions and the soft indrawn breath of hers, that in fact, it was something they actually liked.
‘We had them put your arms on it.” Gabrielle said, with a touch of diffidence. “I thought the colors were pretty.”
Xena was craning her neck to look at it, the queen’s own brows edging up.
‘Tis beautiful.” Lastay said, touching the soft fabric. “I’m sure our son will thrive, wrapped in it” He gave Gabrielle a genuine smile. “My great thanks, your grace.” He left just enough pause in to show that he knew who the gift really came from before he turned and ducked his head in Xena’s direction. “Your majesty.”
Xena was resting her chin on her hand, watching them. “She knows how to pick em, huh?” She acknowledged the obvious.
“And so do you, your Majesty.” Lastay inclined his head gracefully.
Xena’s face twisted into a rakish grin. She shifted in her chair and turned to regard the crowd again, her eyes raking over it and then the motion stilling as she caught sight of Philtop entering with his retinue.
They seemed in high spirits as well, which seemed a little strange to her. She hadn’t thought her terms to Philtop were something he’d celebrate. She watched the prince lead his people to a narrow bench and stood as they arranged themselves, regarding the hall with a bemused expression.
Xena studied his profile. It had gotten a little squarer, and harder over the years, not the pretty boy she remembered but a man grown into his full maturity.
He was still compellingly good looking. Xena spent a moment wondering why in the Hades he hadn’t married anyone. Surely there hadn’t been any lack of willing women.
She certainly didn’t flatter herself thinking he’d pined for her more than a candlemark – at least more than a candlemark after he’d been able to piss without screaming given what she’d done to him. Certainly he liked women, since he’d come after her with clear intent.
“Mistress.” Brendan came around the chair. “Just got the signal. Men’r ready.”
“Good.” Xena turned her attention back to the cleared space ahead of her. “Let’s get this show on the road.” She said. “Tell them to get going.”
“Aye.” Brendan slipped behind Gabrielle and trotted down the platform, heading for the back chambers.
“Would you like some wine?” Gabrielle had returned to her seat and climbed into it, settling the folds of her gown around her knees. “I think they have some of that one you like over there.”
Xena caught sight of Philtop making his way across the hall towards her and she sighed. “Yeah, get me a damn pitcher. It’s gonna be one of those nights I think.”
There was no need for her consort to move, the wine master had made his way over to the royal platform and was climbing up onto it, carrying three wineskins strapped across his body like a moving tavern.
He reached them and bowed. “Your Majesty, I am at your service on this festival day. What can I provide to you? I have three of my best vintages here.” He stood aside as an alert server came up and placed a silver tray down with two of Xena’s crystal goblets on them.
They were pretty. Silver rimmed with bases stained with a rare and rich purple and Xena’s hawkshead chiseled into the glass to complete the work they had been given to her as a gift just after she’d returned from defeating the Persians from the port city she’d ended up saving.
Gorgeous. “Surprise me.” Xena indicated the glasses. “How’s business?”
“oh, Majesty.” The vintner expertly poured a rich red wine into the cups, the color of blood and even a little of the consistency of it as he swirled the cup and offered it to her. “Business is very well indeed. Many casks of this year’s pressings are already purchased, and taken.
“You’re saving some for me for the winter, right?” Xena took a sip of the wine, her eyes widening a little as it’s faintly spicy, rich taste filled her mouth. “That’s good.”
“The best is always saved for you, Majesty.” He smiled. “This will get better as it ages over the winter, shall I have some sent for you for your table?”
Xena extended the glass over and held it as Gabrielle took a sip. “Like that, muskrat?”
Gabrielle licked her lips, blinking a little. “Wow.”
“That’d be yes.” Xena returned her attention to the vintner. “And pour a cup for my adorable friend here.”
He bowed and complied, filling the other goblet up and then moving on to serve Lastay and his lady. Xena took another swallow of the wine, and wished she could just take the whole skin of it. She felt like making it a night of indulgence, enjoying all the fruits of everyone else’s labors but she knew she wasn’t going to end the night in a drunken stumble to her rooms.
She had things to take care of. Xena glanced at Gabrielle, who was drinking the wine with visible delight. And anyway, Gabrielle probably wouldn’t like her much, drunk. She wasn’t fun. She was mean, and rowdy unlike her consort who got silly and amorous when she was tipsy.
Last time, in fact, Gabrielle had written a poem to Xena’s navel when she’d had a cup too many.
That had been a unique experience. Xena swirled her wine and sipped it, content to keep her consumption low.
“Ah. Into every life a little horse crap must fall.” Xena turned her head to see Philtop at the bottom of the platform, being prevented from coming any further by her guard. “Now what?”
He looked at the guards, than at her, lifting both hands slightly.
“Let him up.” The queen sighed.
Philtop climbed up to her level and approached. He was wearing a thick, lined cloak and had changed into a snug black velvet tunic with equally snug leggings and leather boots with the tops folded over.
He was wearing a sword, and a dagger at his belt. Xena didn’t feel threatened, but she was glad she had her own blade at her back because the fact was, you just never knew. “What’s your problem?” She asked. “Don’t like your seats?”
Gabrielle leaned on the chair arm closest to her, but remained quiet.
“The’yre fine.” Philtop said. “I told my vassals of your offer, and they are satisfied with it.”
Xena was surprised. “Really.”
“I guess they heard your gally sluts ate all right.” Philtop shrugged. “In any case, the only question they had was..”
Just then, a loud noise made them both look up, turning to the show floor to see a huge copper colored horse come exploding out of the holding area in the back, and plunge across the floor kicking it’s legs out viciously.
Xena didn’t even stop to think. In a heartbeat she was up and out of her seat and vaulting over the stalls to land on the straw, powering past the scrambling merchants who were bolting away from the space as the animal struck out wildly.
She was faster than the grooms, faster than the circus people who came flying out of their staging room, fast enough that she was able to get to the horse before the horse reached the crowd and leap up to grab his headstall, hanging on with both hands as she pulled his head down with her body weight.
She was jerked around like a rag doll. The horse was huge, bigger even than her stallion Tiger and he was out of his mind with anger as he bared his teeth and tried to bite her.
She bashed her head into his nose. “Cut that out ya bastard!” She yelled over his scream, hanging on as he reared and took her with him, his hooves missing her legs by a cat’s whisker. “Everybody stay the Hades back! That means you, Gabrielle!”
She lifted her legs up and got them around his neck, hanging on under his head as he landed on all four hooves and hopped, unable to buck again since her weight was pulling his head down.
Spittle flew and spattered her face, but Xena grimly hung on, releasing her legs and landing back on the straw. “Easy.” She commanded, in a low, firm voice.
The horse shied back, but she hung on, and was swung through the air again.
“She’s out of her mind.” Philtop started to head down to the straw, only to find himself hauled to a stop from behind. “Hey!” He twisted around, to see the Xena’s little blond right behind him, grabbing his cloak. “Stop that!”
Gabrielle dug in her heels. “Don’t go down there.” She warned, yanking him back wards with all her strength. “You’ll just get in the way.” She added. “She knows horses.”
“Let me go you..” Philtop reached for his sword, only to find three in his face, as Brendan and the guard grabbed him. “Okay.” He dropped his hand to his side. “Sorry. Didn’t know you all felt so strongly about the little scut.”
Unlike Xena, Brendan didn’t hold back. He slapped Philtop across the face with his sword and then cocked his fist to strike him. “Pig.”
Philtop grabbed his face. “You dare hit me.”
Brendan stared him down. “Think that silver toke means aught to me? Ye’re all worthless frills fer my eyes. Only one hand owns me and it’s surely isn’t yours.”
‘Listen” Gabrielle stepped forward. “I don’t’ know what your problem is, but you’d better leave. You’re going to piss Xena off.”
Philtop glared at her. “I’m not afraid of her.”
“Then you really are dumb.” Gabrielle responded mildly. “Or you just don’t care if you get hurt or dead.”
“Do you?” Philtop asked her, addressing her directly.
“Care if I get hurt or killed?” Gabrielle repeated. “Not if it’s in her service.”
Whatever Phlitop had expected, apparently it wasn’t that. He looked uncertainly at the pale green eyes in the rounded face of Xena’s little dog and suddenly realized he’d misjudged her.
Xena caught sight of something going on up on her platform, but she had her hands full and one quick glance showed Gabrielle standing to one side, unharmed so she returned her attention to the horse. “Now.” She looked him in the eye. “Wanna be dinner?”
The horse snorted, then his nostrils flared out as he sucked in her scent.
The circus people had reached them by now. The first one to arrive held his hands up. “Are you all right, m’lady?”
Xena turned her horse spittle covered face towards him and gave him a wry look. “Peachy. You?” She turned back and released one hand off the horses headstall, patting him on the cheek instead. “Easy now, big boy. Don’t’ make me get rough with you. Ya won’t like it.”
Behind her, she heard a sharp sound, then a rattle. She fought the desire to turn around again. “What happened to this horse?” She asked sharply.
“Don’t’ know.” The circus handler had just come up, breathing hard. “Was just getting his harness ready and the next thing I knew he was going crazy.”
Xena turned the horses head, walking around in a circle so she could see what was going on behind her. Philtop was gone, she could see his cloak disappearing as he headed towards the rest of his group. Brendan was standing in front of her throne, and Gabrielle was standing next to him.
The rattling had been Philtop going down the stairs, apparently.
“I’ve got him, m’lady.” The circus man came forward, extending his hand towards the horse. “Many thanks.. your quick action saved many a bruise I’m thinking.”
Xena pretended she didn’t hear the siblent whisper behind him revealing her identity. She scratched the horse on the nose and stroked his neck, flicking her eyes over his body to see if he’d been hurt. He was in good condition, but she saw suddenly a bit of blood against the bright hair.
She handed the headstall off to the circus man and moved down the horses side. He had a huge body and a very broad back but at the point of his left rear hip was a long, wicked slice half hidden in thick hair. “He’s cut.”
The circus man hurried around to look. “Cut? What? He doesn’t even have his har.. by the gods, look at that!”
Xena studied the wound. “Dagger.” She said. “With a blood channel.” She looked around. “Someone did that on purpose.”
The horse stamped it’s hind foot, sending a tiny spray of blood flying. Xena turned, and scanned the crowd, finding three of her men nearby, hands on weapons. She jerked her chin at them, and they came forward. “Search the stock area.” She said. “Someone knifed that animal. People could have died.”
“I’ll check.” The man carefully turned the horse. “Hey, maybe it was an accident. Some of our riggers have blades like that. C”mon boy.”
A page came forward, offering Xena a towel. She took it, standing in the middle of the show area, feeling suddenly as though time had been turned back to the day she’d taken the castle.
When everyone in the room was an enemy.