A Queen for All Seasons
“It’s Harvest.” Xena said, her hands cupped around the mug of tea. “Every merchant and toady for leagues around is in this stronghold.”
“So, it’s not to look for strangers then.” Lakmas mused. “Would do you no service.”
“No.” The queen agreed. “I think the timing’s tied to that.”
The Persians nodded. The room was much more crowded now, as many of the soldiers she’d captured as could fit in the space were there, and those that couldn’t were peeking in the door at them.
“The bastard seems to be sneaking around in these tunnels.” Xena pointed at a sheet of well worn parchment, which had new coal streak lines drawn on it. “The ones that go around your quarters here.”
“Bitras?” Lakmas said. “Tell what you saw.”
“More heard, my brother.” The man called Bitras shifted a little in his seat self consciously as Xena’s eyes turned on him. “I was shaving by the trough near the back wall there.” He pointed to the back of the big chamber. “And I heard what I thought were cats, or rats, scratching.”
Xena cocked her head slightly. “We have both here.” She conceded. “One of the damn things sleeps under my bed.” She paused. “Our bed.” She corrected herself, with a smile.
The Persians all looked a bit embarrassed.
“So I put down my blade and went to find the creatures.” Bitras bravely soldiered on. “I looked all around, in the stores, and under the fireplace mantel but not a one could I find, only these.” He held up his hand and turned it over, releasing a small cloud of brown, light object onto the table. “As you know, your majesty, we have no trees here in the barracks.”
Xena reached out and took one of the leaves, bringing it up to her eyes and studying it. It was curled and dead, with faint veins in it and it smelled of smoke. The type of leaf, though, was strange to her eyes.
And that, in fact was very strange. She looked up at Bitras. “ Seen this kind before?”
The Persian shook his head. “Twas why it seemed so strange to me, noble one.” He said. “We have been out and about in the courtyard these months, and thought we knew the trees about. These are none of them, nor from our homeland neither.”
“No, they aren’t.” Xena experimentally crushed one, and brought it to her nose cautiously. It faintly smelled of spice. “Now where have I smelled that before.”
Gabrielle got up and leaned close, sniffing it. She sat back down, a faint frown on her face.
“Remind you of anything, muskrat?”
“It does.” Gabrielle said. “But I can’t think of…oh.” She stopped. “I remember now. Every cold season we used to get a merchant in my village, who brought candles. When we burned them, it smelled like that.”
“Candles.” Xena repeated thoughtfully. “But only in the cold season?”
Gabrielle nodded. “In the summer, they scented them with flowers. But there aren’t any flowers in the winter, so they used whatever that was.” She pointed at the leaves. “To make it smell nice. Becausee otherwise the wax smells sort of rank sometimes.”
Xena smelled the leaves again. “So maybe you’d put this in… “
“A clothes press, your majesty?” Lakmas suggested. “To freshen it. My mother did, upon a time, but with scents more familiar to me from home.”
“Or bedding.” Bitras added. “I put pine needles in my furs as we were passing through the woods.”
All the other Persians looked at him.
“I love the smell of pine.” Gabrielle ventured. “We had pine trees all around our village, and in the winter, the snow looked so pretty on them.”
Xena looked at her, then at the Persians. “You all done trading homebody advice?” She asked. “I better not find any pine needles in my sheets, Gabrielle.”
“Oh no.” Gabrielle reassured her. “That would be really poky.”
“Show me where you found these.” Xena got up. “Anyone else hear anything? See anything? Shadows? People you don’t know wandering around? Assassins in cloaks and masks?”
They all looked a little chagrined that no one else seemed to have. “May we search this level for you, majesty?” Lakmas offered, hopefully. “We do know some of the tunnels, though we have not ventured far as we know you hold our honor as bond.”
Xena studied him. “You can.” She said. “But go in groups, and be careful. Last thing I want is some jackass gunning for me sticking any of you.” She said. “He’s into poison, and hitting people from behind.”
“Proof he’s no Persian.” Lakmas said, then frowned. “Sholeh was a aberration among us, you must realize. None of us approved of her use of it in battle. It was the mark of a coward.”
“No, but she had to learn that from someone.” Xena said, in a quiet tone. “She wasn’t smart enough to think it up on her own. So maybe you Persians aren’t poisoners, but I wouldn’t bet my ass there aren’t others who might be.”
Lakmas frowned. “Not soldiers.” He said. “We fight our enemies honorably. With a sword or mace, or fists, or teeth. Not by a prick in the behind.”
Xena snorted, and then covered her mouth hastily, turning and gesturing the Persian solider forward. “C’mon.” She muttered. “Gabrielle? Let’s go. Lakmas, get your search parties out and make sure they watch out for pricks.”
The Persians looked a little puzzled, and so did Gabrielle, but she joined Xena at the door and they followed Bitras down the narrow, dark corridor to where he’d found the leaves. “Xena?”
“Are you okay? You sounded weird just then.”
“Tell you later.” Xena scrubbed her face and let the silent chuckles wind down. “I crack myself up sometimes.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle was happy to tag along in silence. She’d learned over the months that sometimes, not always, but sometimes it was better not to know what Xena thought was hilariously funny. Especially when it wasn’t very obvious because sometimes it meant you had a hole in your leggings or something stuck to your back you didn’t know about.
“It was here, noble one.” The Persian stopped, and pointed.
They were in a cul de sac in the underground passages where three of them came together, in a square space that had well trodden rushes across it save in the back corner that had no hallway near it.
That, was in shadows. Xena blinked to focus her eyes and cautiously approached the back wall, sweeping the ground intently. The area near the corner was free of rushes, just bare stone that was dark and dull. She pulled a torch from the wall and stepped closer. “That what’s left?” She pointed.
“Yes.” Bitras said. “I took a handful, but you see – there is quite a lot there.”
The queen knelt carefully and studied the scattering of leaves. Even from where she was she could smell them, there was enough to have stuffed a small bag.
She considered that. “Look around for a piece of cloth.” She told them. “A couple of squares sewed together.”
Bitras obligingly started down one of the corridors and Gabrielle began searching the corners of the space Xena was in.
“What kind of cloth?” Gabrielle asked. “Would it be like a.. oh!”
Xena spun at the exclamation, coming to her feet and drawing her sword as she lunged across the small space and landed in front of her consort. “What?”
Gabrielle eyed her, and put a cautious hand on the queen’s hip. “Um.” She pointed at a crumpled ball in the rushes, half buried. “Is that what you’re looking for?” She watched the tension in Xena’s body relax, the muscles in her neck dropping as she let her sword down and half turned to look at her.
“Don’t do that.” Xena told her. “I’m gonna end up smacking myself in the head at this rate.” She walked over and nudged the fabric with the tip of her sword, opening it up and spreading it out over the floor.
“What is it?”
Xena picked up the item on her sword and lifted it up into the light from the torch. “I think, my little muskratty friend, that this was someone ‘s pillow.”
“A pillow?” Gabrielle blinked at it. “Really?”
“Xena.” Brendan’s voice echoed softly.
“Here.” The queen felt herself tense, hearing the tension in her captain’s voice. “Brendan?”
A dark figure resolved into the old soldier, as he moved into the torchlight and came to face Xena. There was blood on his surcoat, and dusting his hands, and his face bore a set of tense creases “Found him, Xena.” He said “You’d better come.”
Gabrielle inhaled sharply.
“Needs your hands.” Brendan clarified. “He was gutted pretty bad.”
Xena sheathed her sword with a powerful, angry motion and pointed back the way he came. She followed at his heels, and Gabrielle followed at hers.
“Keep looking.” Xena told the Persians as they passed through the barracks and headed for the steps up to the courtyard. “I’ll be back.”
They half ran up the steps and across the inner courtyard. The doors to the main keep were open, spilling torchlight out and they bolted up into it, Brendan leading the way to the right and into the big banqueting hall.
Inside was chaos. Servants were milling around, and soldiers were pouring in from all sides, the big room half cleared from dinner with empty trays and cups scattered around. The draft from the open door fluttered the candles in their big overhead cradles and the torches on the wall and the noise inside dulled, then sharpened as Xena’s tall figure was recognized.
“She’s come. Look right!”
“Best move over, give her room.”
Xena ignored it all, plowing through the crowd and passing Brendan as she spotted a knot of people around the high table she would have been sitting at. Her guts clenched and she dodged past two of the soldiers, taking a step and leaping up onto the table rather than taking the long way around. “Move!”
Thus warned, the crowd scattered as she jumped down and then went to one knee besides the crumpled, blood soaked figure behind the table.
Poor bastard. Xena could see the faint, labored breathing as she pulled aside a thick pad of linen someone had pressed against him and revealed a cut nearly from armpit to navel spilling blood everywhere.
As she touched him, his eyes flickered open as though sensing her presence, and she looked him in the eye.
Gabrielle appeared on the other side of his body, and took his hand in hers, giving Xena a quick, anxious glance. “I sent two of the soldiers for your case.”
Xena put the linen pad back down “Hold that there, Gabrielle.” She said, in quiet voice. “Press, but not hard.”
She waited for her consort to comply, then she turned her attention to the glazed, watching eyes and her mind briefly flashed back to her past, and the battlefield, and the many many times she’d knelt like this and seen that look.
She put a hand on his cheek, feeling the chill against her fingertips. “Thanks for the pretty.” She said. “What happened here?” She could hear running boots behind her, but kept her eyes on his. With all the soldiers around her and Gabrielle kneeling there she figured someone would warn her if she was in danger of getting a spear in the back.
“Was talking to.. “He closed his eyes. “Cook about breakfast. They were moving tables, then something hit me.”
“Here, in the hall?”
“Right in the middle of everyone?” Gabrielle sounded as shocked as Xena felt. “Sheeps!”
“Majesty.” One of her troops arrived, breathless, and knelt carefully at her side, the leather bag she kept her healing supplies in resting in his hands.
Xena was aware in her peripheral senses, that she was being watched. She looked quickly around, seeing servants and soldiers, and guests who had come in hearing the chaos standing in groups wide eyed as they observed the drama going on around the high table.
Philtop was there, she suddenly realized. Standing near one wall, arms crossed on his well built chest, eyes on her.
‘Xena.” Stanislaus whispered.
She turned back to him. “Hang in there.” She said. “I’m going to make you wish you were dead in a minute, I promise.” She opened the kit in the soldiers hands and pulled out clenser, rags, gut and a bone needle, along with a packet of ground herbs.
He stared intently at her. “Honor to be in your service.” He managed to get out, then his eyes shifted to Gabrielle. “Sorry I misjudged you, Gabrielle.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle smiled at him. “But it’s okay. It all worked out.” She edged slightly to one side to give the soldier more room. “I know this will too. Xena’s an amazing healer, you know.”
Xena made a mental note to properly thank her beloved consort for the additional pressure on her, as she lifted the linen pad off and wet the clothes from her kit with the cleanser. The blood flow had slowed, to her relief, and she cleaned off the long, ugly wound with liberal amounts of the mixture.
It was a very bad wound. Xena knew there was a good chance that even if she sewed it up, he’d probably die of infection anyway. Most did. Even she’d sickened, when the arrow had pierced her body and she was more resistant than many.
Was it possible someone had knifed him right in the middle of the hall? Xena resisted the urge to look atound. Was the knifer there, watching her?
She sensed motion to her right and saw Brendan move to stand between her and whatever it was. “Did you see who hit you?” She asked, watching him faintly shake his head. “No stranger around you? C’mon Stanilaus. You know everyone who belongs here.”
Again, he shook his head. “Pain.” He muttered. “Then I was pushed down.”
Xena flushed the wound out again and then quickly threaded the bone needle with a good length of gut. She squeezed the cut closed up near his heart and bent over it, carefully stitching the gap closed.
“So, Xena. It seems you can’t even keep your own servants safe much less us.”
Xena kept her focus. She could hear the faint rattle in Stanislaus’s breathing and she moved a little faster, pressing her fingers into the gap to try and stop the flow of blood.
“Xena.” Her patient whispered.
“Mm?” The queen grunted. “Busy.”
“Xena!” Philtop called her name. “You going to admit you’re not in control here? There’s a klller loose! He’s laughing at you!”
“What a jerk.” Gabrielle growled, making the queen’s lips twitch a little.
“Ignore him.” Xena shifted a little. “Barac, bring that light closer so I can see what the Hades I’m doing.”
The soldier did.
“Xena!” Philtop bellowed. “You owe these people an answer!”
“Mistress. He undermines you.” Stanislaus ground out, between clenched teeth. “Attend him.”
“Sorry” Xena continued her work, finding a big vein nicked. She quickly tied it off and continued sewing. “I don’t turn away from helping a soldier just to answer an asshole no matter if the whole damn realm depended on it.”
“If you can’t control things, I will.” Philtop called out. “Men, to me!”
Xena made a quick half hitch, then she looked up at the soldier. “Watch my back, willya?”
“Majesty.” The soldier handed the torch to Gabrielle then stood, pulling his sword from his belt and letting out a yell of his own as the room burst into motion around them.
Gabrielle stood with her legs braced, holding the torch up to give Xena light to work by as she watched the pushing and shoving going on around them. Men were yelling, and Philtop had gathered a bunch of his guys around them and he was shouting at people to stand up and be counted.
Why? She wondered. The last thing she’d think anyone would want was to be counted a part of an insurrection with Xena there to witness it. “Xena, he’s coming this way.”
“Busy.” Xena had her head bent over Stanislaus’ still form. “I need to get this closed or he’s going to bleed to death Gabrielle. If that stupid bastard comes too close throw rocks at him.”
“Or pull my sword out and gut him, whatever makes you happy” The queen replied. “I can’t take my hands off him right now.” She glanced up at her consort. “Stick that torch in the holder there. “
Gabrielle obeyed, then turned and watched Philtop and his crowd shove closer, trying to push aside the few soldiers from Xena’s troops that were surrounding them. They weren’t fighting, really, no weapons were drawn but she could feel the threat in them.
Posturing, mostly. She edged to one side, getting between Xena and the oncoming crowd. She had her sling, and she pulled it out from her belt with one hand.
“Xena!” Philtop yelled. “Explain to these people, YOUR people, why you let killers loose in this place and aren’t protecting them!”
“Xena’s busy.” Gabrielle answered him. “She’s saving someone’s life.”
The crowd did turn, hearing her voice.
“So are you just stupid?” Gabrielle asked. “Or are you blind? Anyone can see there’s a man here who’s injured.” She indicated Stanislaus. “So why don’t you just clear out of here and let her work?”
She was up on the raised platform that Xena’s table inhabited in the hall, and that put her high enough so that everyone could see her. She put her hands on her hips and watched the crowd move around, unsure of what was really going on.
“Guards have died, servants have died… your royal heir almost died. Everyone knows it.” Philtop said. “What are you doing about it, Xena? We’re all trapped here.”
Xena’s soldiers gathered into a wall, between her and the rest of the room. There were only a dozen of them, but they drew their weapons and glared at Philtop.
“I told you she’s busy.” Gabrielle tapped one of the men on the shoulder. “Go get Brendan, and the house guard.” She said. “We need this room cleared.”
“Your grace.” The man touched his breast, and took off towards the door. He had a sword in his hand, and the people between him and the entrance quickly scattered out of the way.
Philtop’s eyes narrowed as he watched her, and the soldiers reaction. The other nobles in the hall, started edging away from him and he noticed that too. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it again.
“Look.” Gabrielle addressed the now uneasily milling crowd. “We know people have gotten hurt. Xena has the army searching for the person or people responsible for that. No one wants anyone else to be harmed but it’s a big place and there are a lot o f strangers here.” At this, she looked pointedly at Philtop.
“Do you accuse me?” He asked, in the sudden silence.
“Well.’ Gabrielle watched him. “The attacks did start as soon as you got here.” She remarked. “So you know, if I were you, I might not want to run around yelling about what Xena’s doing about it because she might figure it is you, and you probably won’t like what she’ll do if she does.”
Philtop stared at her. “People have died.” He said. “And I..”
Gabrielle cut him off. “People die here all the time.” She said. “I’ve seen them. Right here in this room, as a matter of fact.” She gestured around. “So it’s probably a good idea for everyone to clear out, and go get some rest. “
Philtop looked at the surrounding nobles, who were starting to drift towards the door. “You run, at the words of a peasant?”
“Sure they do.” Gabrielle said. “None of them are dumb. They understand how things work here.”
Philtop took a step towards her, leaping up onto the platform. Gabrielle reached behind her and put her hand on the hilt of Xena’s sword.
“Keep going , muskrat. Almost done here.” Xena’s voice sounded more than amused.
“Do you understand how things work here?” Gabrielle gamely went on, addressing Philtop. “I don’t think you do.”
Philtop walked forward, and as he did, Gabrielle drew the long, heavy sword out of Xena’s scabbard, grateful that all her pushing bales around in Xena’s practice chamber let her lift it and bring it around in front of her without dropping it or stabbing herself in the foot.
So there she was, sling in one hand, sword in the other. It felt very strange. But Gabrielle gripped them firmly and kept her eyes on Philtop, who had stopped when she’d pointed the blade at him. “Don’t do something stupid. “ She said. “I won’t let you hurt her but if you try to, I bet you end up regretting it.”
Philtop looked around. The other nobles were just watching him now, with noncommittal expressions. Xena’s soldiers were all grouped on the floor in front of Gabrielle and their mistress, and his own troops were back where he left them.
He had little doubt he could easily defeat the short, young woman between him and the kneeling figure of the queen but he also knew one further step towards her would probably bring Xena up on her feet to protect her little scruffy peasant.
And he didn’t want to square off against Xena. He had a lot of confidence in his own martial skills but he’d felt the strength in her body in their earlier tussle, and realized the one time marauder hadn’t lost much of her ability to fight in the intervening years.
He could see her leather covered body just behind Gabrielle, her bare arms burnished copper in the torchlight as she crouched over her stupid lackey and her well shaped shoulders exposed with no softness evident.
Sexy as ever, damn her.
His moment had passed. Damn the little runt. He glared at Gabrielle’s rounded, common face. That one pointed question, spoken in that stupid little voice had made everyone stop, and take a step back, and he’d lost his momentum.
He lifted both hands. “I’m not here to harm anyone.” He changed his tactics. “I’m trying to get your queen to realize she’s going to lose it all if she doesn’t wake up.”
“I don’t think she’s sleeping.” Gabrielle responded. “But I think you’re going to lose something if you don’t stop messing with her.” She paused, aware of all the eyes and ears focused on her. “If there’s anything left, I mean.”
Xena’s soldiers started laughing, as Philtop turned a dark shade of red. Then the door was suddenly full of Brendan and a dozen guard, and the people inside started filing out as soon as the soldiers cleared the way, some chuckling and giving Gabrielle a look as they left.
“Yer Grace.” Brendan joined them on the platform, his sword out as he came to her side. “Problem here?” He looked at Philtop. “You’er bound to make trouble, eh? Strange for a beggar.”
Xena finished her last stitch, and regarded her handiwork. Stanislaus’ eyes were now closed, and he had a long bloody line up his side. “Brendan.” Xena said. “Forget that fool. Get me four men, with a pallet, and take him to his quarters. I want them to stay with him.”
‘Aye, mistress.” Brendan stepped back a step, but kept his eyes on Philtop. “You four. Alic, get a stretcher, yah? Quick now.”
Wiping her hands off, Xena stood up, feeling the blood rush back into her legs after her prolonged crouch. She turned and regarded Philtop over the head of her adorably bristling and surprisingly sword wielding bedmate. “What’s wrong with you?” She asked bluntly. “You stay out in the cold too long? “
“You’er not listening to your people, Xena.” Philtop said. “I don’t want to see you lose that throne of yours.”
“What people, the pointy hats?” Xena indicated the last of them, trailing out the door.
“The backbone of your realm, yeah.” Philtop said. “Your tax base.”
“I never did listen to them.” The queen moved out of the way as the soldiers came back with a stretcher. “Be careful with him.” She told them. “He’s got more to tell me. I think he saw the bastard.”
“Aye.” Brendan nodded. “We’ll take care of him, mistress.” He spared a dour look for Philtop. “Be back to clean up the place after.”
Xena opened her hand and extended it, and Gabrielle gladly put the hilt of her sword into it. “Thanks, muskrat. Glad you had my back.” She resheathed the sword, then she draped her arm over Gabirelle’s shoulders and returned her attention to Philtop. “Do yourself a favor. Soon as the weather breaks, get out of here before I kill you.” She said, in a conversational tone. “Because I’m going to , and I’ve got good reason. You don’t get a free pass to walk in here and stir up trouble.”
“Xena, I want to help you.” He ignored the warning and walked closer, now that the blade was covered. “I’m not being an ass for no reason. These people want someone they can trust to lead them.” He as now close enough for her to touch, and he’d lowered his voice, as the room emptied leaving them alone up on the platform.
“I don’t care.” Xena said. “That’s what you don’t get. You want me to give a damn about what these people think about me, about what I do, and who I sleep with. I don’t. “ She gave him a mild look. “I’ll be queen here for as long as I want to, then me and the muskrat’ll go off and be pirates.”
“Oo.” Gabrielle looked up at her profile. “That sounds fun.” She muttered under her breath.
Philtop stared at her. “You’ve lost your mind.”
“No, I found it.” The queen told him. “Somewhere between all the assassination attempts and the drink and the killing for pleasure I realized all that matters to me in the long run is living the minute. There is no future for me. Just now. And right now, I want you out of my sight or I’m going to spit you like a dog for trying to turn people against me.”
“if you don’t want this realm, give it to someone who does.” He said, point blank. “Im’ tired of grubbing for worms in the Westlands. Let me take this place. I’ll make something of it.”
“No.” Xena said. “It’s mine. You had a chance, way back when. Now I know better.”
“Don’t you want more than this, Xena?” Philtop asked. “There’s a lot of land out there for the taking. I could help you.”
Xena chuckled. “I have what I want.” She glanced down at the soberly watching Gabrielle. “Get lost, Philtop.” She lifted her eyes back to his face. “And you better hope you really aren’t the one behind the attacks. Because I’ll cut bits of you off your body over the length of a moon and pin them to my front door if you are.”
“You don’t really think I’m involved in that, do you, Xena?”
“Why not?” Gabrielle answered “You’re sleezy and all you’ve done here is insult us while you beg for scraps from our kitchen. Why not you?”
Phlitop gave her a dour glare. “Too bad whoever it is missed you.” He said. “It would amuse me to see you.. lpluf.”
Xena had him by the throat. She hadn’t even removed her other arm from around Gabrielle, merely dragged her consort with her as she took a long step forward and fastened her powerful fingers on Philtop’s voicebox.
“I warned you.” Xena said.
He reached up and grabbed her arm, yanking at it to little or no avail. Then he swung on her, but the queen released her hold on Gabrielle and grabbed his arm, leaning forward and cocking one knee. “You really want to go this round with me again?”
He stopped moving. The eyes meeting his were simple blue ice, colder than the weather outside, and there wasn’t even a flash of the sultry attraction he remembered from the old days. He felt his breathing shorten as her fingers tensed and slowly he relaxed his arm, opening his hand in surrender.
He remembered, now, that strength. He remembered seducing her in her chambers, and bedding her, sure of his prowess, sure that he’d ensnared her in wanting him only to have those hands fasten on his hips and move him up and aside as though he’d been a child.
He hadn’t realized in time that he’d taken her on her terms. He’d convinced himself that Xena would submit to him as so many women had before, and taken her rightful place at his side on the throne.
Very wrong. Almost a fatal mistake. But he could so clearly see his future taking over the realm that it was almost impossible to resist pushing at her and collecting adherents here who had never quite accepted their wild chieftain.
Didn’t she really still want what he had? There was no way she could be satisfied with that little runt, not with the appetites he remembered.
Xena’s fingers tightened sharply on his throat, and he felt something move that shouldn’t have. Then she released him, and released his arm, and stepped back, getting between him and the little peasant. “Escort him to his quarters.” She directed the guard. “Make sure he stays in them until the weather clears.”
“Majesty.” The guard captain touched his chest, then he advanced on Philtop.
Philtop rubbed his throat and started to speak, but stopped when Xena held a hand up and shook her head. Gathering his shredded dignity around him, he walked off the platform and motioned his guard to follow, as he headed for the door with Xena’s men ranging around him.
Gabrielle waited until he’d disappeared, then she turned and faced Xena. “I really don’t like that guy.”
“No, really?” Xena rested her hands on her consort’s shoulders. “You did good, Gabrielle. You handled that just right. Well done.”
“I really liked when you accused him of being the killer. Nice.” The queen went on. “Exactly the right thing to stop his little mediocre rebellion right in it’s tracks.” She leaned down and touched her head to Gabrielle’s. “Love ya.”
Gabrielle exhaled, moving closer and putting her arms around Xena’s body. They were almost alone now in the hall, and the sounds around them were settling. “I wanted to kick him.” She admitted. “Xena he got me so mad. He was trying to hurt you.”
“He got me mad too, because he was making fun of you.” The queen agreed. “I really should just kill him. But he’s an actual prince, and he’s got a lot of support in the area. I don’t really care what they think about me, but if people know I kill men just because they annoy me it’s hard to make deals with them.”
“if’ he’s got so much support.” Gabirelle was enjoying the closeness. “How come he’s here begging from you?”
“Ah.” Xena turned her around and draped her arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “Let’s go back to our love nest and I’ll fill ya in on that.”
“I thought we were going to go look for the bad guy?”
“We are.” Xena said. “We’re just going to do it in a little different way.” She guided Gabirelle out of the room and they crossed from the banquet hall over to their chambers.
“Xena.” Brendan caught up to them. “We’ve got him resting. Justin is with im.” He looked harried, and upset. “Damned thing. How in the Hades did they do that middle of the hall? Middle of all the cleaning up?”
“Good question.” Xena said. “We’ve got two options, Brendan. Either whoever this is – or they are – are part of our staff in the stronghold..”
“Mm.” The queen assented. “Or they’re a guest that was in that hall. There’s no way someone stabbed Stanislaus, then walked out of there with no one seeing them.”
Brendan shook his head. “We’ll find im.”
“Probably not.” Xena said. “We havent’ so far, and if he’s hiding in plain site, what’s to look for? So we’ve got to change our tactics.” She walked along with them, mounting the steps to their rooms. There was a guard there, and she gestured to him to open the door. “C’mon in a minute.”
Brendan followed them. They entered the outer chambers, and Xena paused, slowly sweeping the area with her senses. After a minute, she turned. “Put a guard on Stanislaus. People you trust.”
“Keep searching the cellars. Make a lot of noise. Make it sound like the whole damn army is down there, and bring those hunting dogs in too.”
“Mistress.” Brendan started to smile a bit. “And you?”
“Me?” Xena rested a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “I’m going to bed.” She grinned briefly. “After all, I’m a hedonist who could give a crap about this place, remember?”
Gabrielle gave her a bewildered look. “Huh?”
“Go with it, Gabrielle.” The queen told her. “Get moving, Brendan. I’m gonna take a bath, and get naked with the muskrat here. Maybe have a bottle or two of grog.”
“Will do, Mistress.” Brendan touched his chest. “I’ll be sure to let the boys know you’re not to be interrupted.”
“You do that.” Xena clapped him on the shoulder. Then she steered Gabrielle towards the inner chamber. “C’mon, you sexy thing you. Time for us to party.”
“Sh. Just go.” The queen uttered, in a very soft voice. “Follow my lead.”
Gabrielle turned and walked backwards, reaching out to undo the catches on the queen’s armor. “Whatever you say.”
The queen smiled at her.
“I’ll start the bubbles.”
“One of the few times we moved down here that I wish we’d stayed up in that damn tower.” Xena got up from the stone floor, and dusted her hands off. “At least I knew every inch of that place.”
Gabrielle was sitting on the big bed, her legs pulled up crossed under her, watching. “I’d like to help you if I knew what we were looking for.”
“I’d tell you if I knew what we were looking for.” The queen was now going along the wall, tapping gently with her knuckles on it, her ear cocked to listen. “But the plan is, the men stir up enough crap downstairs that it filters up here, and whoever this asshole is he decides to cut his losses and just go for me.”
“But what if he finds you?” Gabrielle said, in a worried tone.
“Then I’ll catch him and kill him extremely slowly.” Xena responded. “First cut all his fingers and toes off, then maybe skin him, then maybe if I’m bored and he’s lucky cut his head off.”
“What’s the matter, muskrat?” Xena glanced over at the bed. “Don’t trust me to keep us safe?” She chuckled a little at the expression on her consorts face. “I want this over with. It’s pissing me off.”
Gabrielle agreed with that. It was pissing her off too. She wanted to enjoy the harvest festival and look forward to the coming cold season and the sneaky guy hurting and killing people was ruining that not only for her, but for everyone else.
It was just a little uncomfortable for her to know Xena was deliberately going to leave the outer door unfastened, and tell the guard to go get a meal and wait to see if someone was going to try and kill them.
“By the way.” Xena finally was satisfied there were no hidden panels or planted asps in her quarters. She came back over and sat down on the bed next to Gabrielle. “You asked me about Philtop and his supporters.”
“Ugh. That guy.” Gabrielle got up and went over to the fireplace, where she had a pot of mulled wine warming. She poured herself and the queen a cup and brought them back over to the bed. They were both in their shifts, Xena had a light fur lined cape thrown over her broad shoulders and they had soft boots on their feet against the chill of the stone floor.
“Mm yes.” Xena scooted back and relaxed against the big padded headboard, extending her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. “Well, thing is his lands are the furthest out in that direction. He’s on the border.”
“Good.” Gabrielle sipped the mulled wine.
Xena chuckled. “So we have a signed agreement with him that he protects the edge of the realm.” She said. “It was done way back in the day before I showed up here, and we held him to it.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle murmured. “So you kind of have to help him?”
“The people in that area, the smaller cots and towns, they contract with him for protection because he’s a lot closer to them than we are. So yeah, he’s got a lot of local support, and I wouldn’t like them all to change sides.” Xena explained. “But they can’t help him right now cause they’re in the same crappy situation as he is.”
Xena chuckled again. “He really got your goat, huh?” She studied her lover’s adorable face. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, Gabrielle. “ She said. “This realm might be rid of me one day but you never will be.”
Gabrielle smiled, her nose wrinkling up as she produced a somewhat wry expression. “Same for me.” She said. “I wasn’t really worried about that, Xena. I’m just mad because he was trying to cause trouble for you on purpose.”
“He was trying to stir up a situation where I’d have to work out a partnership with him, bring him here as my consort to replace you.” Xena clarified. “I was mad too. “
“Oh yes, my friend. It’s scummy. But totally expected from him. He has a very simplistic view of the world, Gabrielle. He thinks he’s irresistible, and that all a woman wants is to be pleasured by him.” She swirled her wine in her cup and took a swallow of it. “He can’t even imagine us.”
Gabrielle wriggled a little closer. “So we’re just going to hang out and wait for the bad guys?” She changed the subject. “You really think they’ll try to sneak in here and do something to you? They won’t be scared?”
The queen stifled a yawn. “If they think I’m both half drunk and focused on being ravished by you, they might chance it. “
“That’s why you had the vintner deliver those four bottles of wine?”
Xena gave her a sexy smile, and raised her mug. “Far as anyone knows, we’re having our own harvest festival in here together.” She patted the bed by her side. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle gladly scooted over and settled next to her, leaning against the queen’s side and exhaling in contentment. “Is Stanislaus going to be okay? “
For a moment, Xena didn’t answer. Then she sighed. “Maybe.”
The queen didn’t sound very sure. Gabrielle felt sort of bad about that. Stanislaus hadn’t ever been one of her favorite people but he also hadn’t been one of the bad guys either. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I’m really not happy about that.” Her companion admitted. “What pisses me off is this bastard only hits people who can’t hit back. There’s nothing brave or noble about shiving servants doing their job or people making love. “
Gabrielle nodded somberly.
“Not something I’d do.” Xena said. “Even if it served my goals. It offends me. It offends my… “ She paused, and frowned.
“It offends your sense of honor.” Gabrielle finished quietly.
“Something like that.”
“So why are they doing it?” Her consort asked. “Is it… could they be working with that guy?” She looked at Xena. “It sort of seems like the whole thing is to mess you up with people. Like he’s trying to do.”
Xena leaned back and propped her elbow up on the arm she had laying across her stomach, sipping slowly at the mulled wine in her cup. “Huh.” She finally said, after a few silent minutes. “We were joshing about that, but you know….”
The victims. Unwary visitors, men who thought they were safe in their own stable, servant in lieu of a man and woman making love in their bed, and finally, her major domo, doing his job in the banquet hall.
What was it supposed to mean to her? Was it supposed to say, see, Xena? You can’t protect anything or anyone, you’re a fraud? And yet, the queen knew that wasn’t the case if nothing else her recent history had proven she was personally capable of pretty much anything.
Or, as Gabrielle suggested, was it meant to sow discontent and fear amongst all the people who had traveled here for the festival, in celebration of, and hopes of gaining her protection?
She thought about the attacks. Working up from a stranger’s men, to her own, to her heir…. Yes, taking Stanislaus and Lastay from her would serve Philtop’s aims, wouldn’t it? He would, she was sure, offer one of his own people to help them through the festival to take Stanislaus’ place, and it was obvious who he thought should be her heir.
Ruthless and bold, she had to admit. Worthy, maybe, of the position he was driving for, because after all, Xena too was ruthless and bold and in all truth, the realm probably wouldn’t have objected to her naming him such.
The realm wouldn’t have, no. Xena smiled briefly. But she would certainly object and as for forcing Gabrielle to suffer the asshole’s presence….
Forget it. Not even a poke in her horse’s ass. Without question just based on what he’d said to her beloved.. Xena stopped and re-sounded that word in her head a few times, then pinched the bridge of her nose.
Anyway. She almost hoped he’d try something else because then, having been provoked past her patience, she would happily gut the stupid bastard. She’d show enough tolerance in public to his antics that even the most jaded of his followers would have to admit he’d pushed his luck too far.
Maybe tomorrow, after she caught the moron who was skipping about shooting people, she’d have Philtop for breakfast out in the courtyard and have her men stick bits of him around the stronghold walls. Cold as it was, it would even seem a little decorative.
“Okay.” She put her cup down and got up. “Time to waste some good wine.” She went over and selected one of the bottles, breaking the wax seal and opening it. Walking randomly around the room she spilled a bit of it as she walked, until the room held the distinct scent of fermented fruit at it’s edges.
It wasn’t unpleasant. She could remember, if she tried, having her quarters up in the tower smell like that a time or two when she’d retreat up there and lose herself in a few bottles or skins. She went back and put the rest of the wine into the mulling pot, leaving it just close enough to the fire to keep it warm and add it’s smell to the room.
Then she retrieved her sword and brought it back over to the bed with her, wedging the sheath between the frame and the mattress so the hilt was right about at the level with the top. Then she went around the room, snuffing the candles out with her fingers before she collected a couple daggers and ended up right back at the bed.
It was now dark, just the glow from the fire providing any light in the room. The windows were shut tight and had their heavy drapes drawn to keep the winter cold out and now that the candles were doused Xena felt her other senses heightening to take up the slack.
She settled into the bed and tucked the daggers into the headboard’s corners. It would have been safer, of course, for her to wear her armor and leathers to bed but there was something about being dressed pretty much in her underwear waiting for an assassin that perked Xena’s sometimes very black sense of humor.
She’d left the robes, and in fact, the leathers and boots in the outer chamber, scattered around with Gabrielle’s as though the two of them had experienced a frenzy of mutual, half drunken undressing when they’d gotten back to their quarters.
Sometimes they did, after all, and the servants certainly knew and spoke of it. She was counting on that, because she was getting a sense that this killer, whoever he was, had ears in the places he needed them to in order to find out what was going on.
But not too close, as his miss with Lastay showed. He knew the duke liked to have an afternoon snog with his wife, but hadn’t gotten the news that Lastay had changed his plans, had gone looking for Xena instead and his servants had taken the chance to hop in the sack with each other.
Close but not intimate. Aware, and yet, having expectations that were not one hundred percent accurate, as the traps in the corridor had shown. If anyone except for Xena had come down that hallway they’d have been gutted so her presence in the hunt hadn’t been circulated.
Maybe it would have been Brendan. Maybe he’d been the target, that time.
Xena slid under the covers and put her head on the pillow, as she felt Gabrielle slide closer, not wrapping herself around the queen but reaching out to hold hands with her in the gathering body warmth between the two of them.
In the dim light, she could see Gabrielle’s profile, half turned to face her, the faintest hint of firelight on her pale eyelashes. Xena exhaled. She’d announced, as clear as a bell in that room tonight exactly what was important to her.
Would they take the bait?
Would they think she was lying?
Could anyone really believe the most important thing in her life was this scruffy ex slave tucked into her bed? Really? Her? Xena the Merciless?
Hah. Xena wriggled into a more comfortable position to wait out the night, as she felt Gabrielle lift their joined hands up clear of the covers and plant a kiss on her knuckles. She turned her head slightly to look at her consort, who was looking right back at her. “Hey.”
“Could we really go be pirates?” Gabrielle asked “And if we did, could you show me how to sail a boat?”
Xena smiled at her. “You really want to do that?”
“I’d love to see new places. Like that volcano.” Gabrielle responded. “That was so amazing.”
“And give up all this plush luxury?” The queen asked, indicating the bed with her free hand. “You don’t get this on boats. You spend your time chasing and killing people and eating a lot of fish.”
“That captains cabin wasn’t so bad.” Her consort reminded her. “And I like fish.”
Hm. “You never know, muskrat.” Xena mused. “King of Persia could send a couple thousand men over here to squash us.”
“That wouldn’t squash you.” Gabrielle said. “Xena you already beat a Persian army.”
The queen chuckled wryly. “Yeah, I’m running out of things to do for you to make stories about here huh? Be easier on ya if we were pirates.” She admitted. “And that cabin wasn’t really too bad. Need a longer bed though whoever that guy was he was shorter than I am.”
Gabrielle kissed her knuckles again and settled down on her side, closing her eyes and exhaling. “That would be so cool.”
Would it? Xena studied the canopy over the bed. Hm. Wouldn’t it be fun to be responsible for just herself and Gabrielle and boat’s crew? Sailing around and fighting when they wanted, plundering what they could, seeing new things every day?
Of course, she’d have to give up her horse. The queen frowned. And a ship could get very small very fast when you wanted to get some good sparring in.
After a moment, she put the thought aside and concentrated on her task at hand. Here in her chambers she was in the middle of the stronghold, and she could hear activity around her outside the walls.
Slowly she let the sounds filter through her consciousness, ignoring the further out ones of the watch on the walks, the thumps and bangs of the servants clearing the halls, a brief burst of music and laughter.
She felt her breathing slow and her body still.
Now she filtered out the closer sounds she knew. The soft tread of the inside guard. The shifts of the men on duty in the central hall and the soft sounds of their spears rasping against the stone floor. The sound of the now thickly falling snow outside, thumping against the leaded windows on the other side of the drapes.
She narrowed her focus to the rooms she was in. The soft pop of the logs in the fireplace. Gabrielle’s gentle breathing next to her.
Faint creaks overhead, as the roof took the weight of the falling snow.
A very soft rasping sound of the cat she knew was under the bed cleaning it’s fur.
She took in a deep breath of the air, opening her mouth a little to taste it. She could smell the wine, the fire, the cat, Gabrielle, herself, the fur rugs on the floor in their mustiness.
C’mon, you bastard. Xena urged the assassin. Come in here so I can smell you, and taste you on the air. Walk across the stones in your bare feet, completely silent to everyone but me. Break the flow of the air in the room so I can feel you.
Fire your darts at me. I’ll stop them. Xena closed her eyes, enhancing her other senses. Fire your arrows at me I’ll catch them. You know it. Come close. You know the only way to be sure is to walk over here, see me lying in the bed. Watch me breathe.
You don’t dare come in to fight me. You don’t dare face me eye to eye.
Xena let the quiet of the room beat against her ears. She let her body relax completely, muscles slack in the drunken oblivion she was supposed to be in.
Her breathing slowed, and she sharpened her focus, listening for that first pressure of skin against stone, of a hand against the door outside, for the stir in the air or the smell of human flesh.
She felt her skin prickle.
Come get me.
It felt like the night lasted for ever. Xena had run through pretty much every single mental trick in her book to stay awake and sensed the coming of dawn before she finally.. finally! Heard a faint sound in the outer chamber.
Exhaling a little in relief, she refocused her hearing and caught the sound of the door to the outside hallway opening, the hinges issuing just the faintest of squeaks.
About damn time. She listened as the hinge squeaked again, then she clearly heard the very soft scuff of bare feet against the marble tile.
Moron, for letting it wait for so long. By this time if she had been soused, she’d have slept most of it off already and it was coming close enough to morning for her to be waking up.
She heard a few more soft footfalls, then they halted. She figured they were standing on the other side of the inner door, listening for any motion inside the bedroom.
Now, with the fire almost out, there was no sound for them to hear. Xena reached up and removed one of her daggers from it’s sheath in the headboard and wrapped her fingers around the hilt, gently moving her arm out from under the covers to give her a clear shot.
She listened hard for the pressure against the door, and the push that would open it, her eyes fixed on the doorframe, waiting to see the wood panel move inward. Though it was very dark inside her quarters, Xena could see the door clearly, something she suspected her attacker might not share or expect.
She heard a faint sound of motion, flesh against stone. Then her ears caught the sound of an inhale.
Didn’t sound right.
Xena slipped soundlessly out of bed, standing up and drawing her sword from it’s sheath. She stepped around the bed and headed for the entrance, the sword in one hand and her dagger in the other.
Stopping inside the door she paused to listen. For a long moment she stayed absolutely still, wondering if her assassin was standing on the other side, in exactly the same attitude. The idea put a brief, wry grin on her face, but after another moment it faded, and she gently put the edge of the dagger against the latch and worked it.
It slid down silently, and she stepped back and out of the way as she eased the door open. Unlike the outer one, there was no sound at all from the hinges.
Xena let the air puff in against her face and she breathed it in, her body stiffening as she caught the scent of blood on it. She snaked around the edge of the door and surged into the room, her senses flaring.
She could feel her skin prickle, all her defenses coming up as she waited for an expected attack. Her back stiffened and she swept her sword up, bringing it crosswise to her body as her eyes searched every corner.
There was nothing alive in the room. Xena knew it absolutely. “Gabrielle!” She let out a shout. “Hey! Muskrat!”
“Here!” Gabrielle’s sleep husky voice answered. “Are you okay?”
“Bring a damn candle in here.” Xena ordered, her searching eyes finding a rolled, lumped form near the big desk to one side of the room. “Hurry!”
A moment later, light flared behind her and Gabrielle was at her side, still blinking sleep from her eyes. “Wh… what’s going on?”
“Hold it forward.” Xena said. “I’ve got sharp things in both hands.”
Gabrielle stepped cautiously around her and held the candle higher, bringing a measure of visibility to the nearly pitch black room. “Oh.” She yelped in surprise. “There’s someone on the floor!”
“Keep by me.” Xena stalked forward, with Gabrielle close by her hip. They walked across the floor and stopped by the lump, and stood there, looking down. “Ah.” The queen softly exclaimed, reaching out with one bare foot to roll the body over and expose it to the candle light.
“Oh my gosh.” Gabrielle whispered. “Xena.”
“Yeah.” Xena murmured. “Sure as Hades wasn’t expecting this.” She studied the glassy eyed, staring face, robbed of all it’s attractiveness. “You bastard, Philtop. What were you doing here?”
“Oh yes.” The queen exhaled. “Can’t you smell the blood?”
There was a moment’s silence, then Gabrielle let out a small surprised breath. “Yes I can.”
“Light the rest of the candles in here.” Xena said. “Don’t touch him.”
“Don’t worry I sure won’t.” Gabrielle tiptoed carefully around the big room and lit the candles on the mantel, the desk, and in the wall sconces. In a moment, a deep golden glow illuminated everything.
Xena walked around the slumped body on the floor and examined the rest of the space, turning cautiously, her blades shimmering in the flickering candle light.
The rest of the room didn’t give up a clue to her, so she went back to Philtop’s body. She put her dagger down on the table and dropped into a crouch, inspecting him intently. He was wearing a black tunic and leggings and black boots, with a half cloak thrown over his shoulders that also had a hood.
“Well.” The queen said. “I seriously doubt he was here to dance with me.”
Gabrielle returned to her side. “You want some tea?” She asked. “I think I kinda need some. My whole body’s shaking.”
“I’d love some tea.” Xena glanced up at her. “Wake you up too fast?”
Gabrielle had her arms wrapped around her, and she was avoiding looking at Philtop’s body. “I couldn’t go to sleep for along time, then I finally did and then I heard you yelling for me. My head hurts.”
“Go make some tea.” Xena patted her leg. “I’m gonna have to look him over and you probably don’t want to see that anyway.”
Her consort didn’t even give a token protest. She retreated back into the bedroom, and in a moment Xena could hear the sound of the fire being built up, and the rattle of a water pot.
She listened for a bit, then she returned her attention to the dead body. Aside from the odd dress, Philtop was also wearing gauntlets, thin leather gloves that extended up his arms halfway to his elbows.
His throat had been slit. Xena put the tip of her sword against his chin and pushed his head up, observing the cut with professional approval. It went right from ear to ear, and had sliced through his adams apple as well as his jugular vein.
The marble floor was covered in blood, producing the copper tint that had warned her in side the bedroom but giving nothing to her in terms of who or why. Just a neatly done job by a practiced hand – and yet…
Xena leaned a little closer, examining the slice. Now that did tell her something. Whoever had cut Philtop’s throat had been his height or taller. Xena stood up, stretching the kinks out of her knees from crouching.
Philtop had been her height. Xena let her blade rest on her shoulder. They had both been unusual that way, he’d been one of the few people she could look right in the eye – that had added to his attraction for her.
But not many people in the realm measured up to her inches.
She studied the body on the floor, searching inside her to see what emotion it drew out. After a brief pause, she shrugged, a physical manifestation of her ambivalance. She wouldn’t miss Philtop. He’d been nothing but a pain in her ass.
She circled the body, observing the hands splayed out as though thrown out in warning. The fingers were empty, though he was wearing his sword strapped to his back and she could see at least one dagger at his waist, and one tucked into the top of his boot.
Pretty much the same as she’d have if she had chose to dress like a thug and sneak into someone’s rooms at night, matter of fact. She lowered the tip of her sword and sliced through his tunic, flicking the fabric aside and exposing his chest.
Then she had to stifle a laugh.
Gabrielle came in with two cups. “What’s so funny?” She spared a glance at the body, as she put Xena’s cup down on the desk. ‘What’s that he’s wearing?”
“That, my delicious little bed warmer, is a corset.” Xena said. “Never seen one on a guy before.” She said. “it’s meant to squeeze your body into shape if it isn’t that way naturally.”
Gabrielle stared at it, then she looked up at Xena in deep puzzlement.
Xena flipped the fabric back into place. “I don’t wanna know.” She picked up her cup and sipped the tea. “So, muskrat, tell me. Didja kill him?”
Gabrielle touched her own chest in reflex. “Me?”
Xena looked around. “No one’s in this room.” She said. “ No one left, I’d have heard them.” She added. “I heard someone come in, come to the door, stop, and then gasp.” She looked at her bedmate. “I didn’t hear whoever it was disappear.” She pointed around the room. “They’re not here. There’s no other exit, here or in our bedroom.”
Gabrielle frowned at her. “Xena I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Didja want to?”
Xena watched with interest, as those green eyes slowly lifted and met hers.
In the candlelight, Gabirelle’s eyes were almost ochre but their clear depths were evident regardless. “No.” She said. “But I’m not sorry he’s dead.” She replied honestly. “I didn’t like him at all.” She paused, watching Xena’s face. “Did you really think I did?”
Xena chuckled. “I know you didn’t.” She said. “You were in bed right next to me when I heard him get offed.” She said. “You’re little, and quiet footed, my love, but you had your paws wrapped around my arm before I got up.”
“Oh.” Her consort smiled.
“And besides.” The queen exhaled. “Whoever did it had my height.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle’s tone changed.
“Yeah.” Xena leaned back against the big desk, sipping her tea. “Feel better?” She observed her lover nodding. “Good.” She walked around the desk and sat down at it. “ What the Hades should I do about this, Gabrielle? I’m stumped.” She put her sword down on the surface.
Xena leaned her forearms on the desk. “I thought I could draw this guy in here. Now… I’m not sure what happened here. “ She pointed at Philtop. “What was he after?”
“Um.” Gabrielle came around to the other side of the queen and leaned on the table, the body now out of her line of sight. “I think maybe he was after you.”
The queen gave her a droll look. “At night? Trying to sneak into our bedroom?” She said. “Look at him. He’s dressed like… like…”
“An assassin?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena stared at the body. “He wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try and kill me.” She said, slowly, turning her head to look at her consort. “But he might have been stupid enough to try and kill you.”
Even in the candle light she could see Gabrielle’s face go pale. “Maybe putting that story around about me being drunk wasn’t so smart.” Xena said. “Because I know he wouldn’t have tried getting within an arms length of you if I wasn’t.”
Gabrielle sat down on the stool near the desk.
“Maybe he figured he’d sneak in there, and off you right in the bed next to me.” Xena’s voice went on, a distant, cold note entering it. “So I’d wake up from my drunken stupor and find you dead.” She tensed her fingers around the edge of the desk. “Probably wanted me to think I’d done it.”
An explosive crack suddenly sounded, making Gabrielle surge to her feet in alarm.
Xena looked down at the wooden surface now broken off in her hands. “He owes whoever did it a big thank you.” She said in a very quiet voice. “Maybe I do too.”
Gabrielle gently put a hand on her shoulder.
Xena let the wood chunk drop on the table, and reached up to cover her hand with her own. “You know something?”
Her consort leaned against her back, and kissed her along the top of her spine. “I know I love you.”
The queen’s eyes closed.
“I know I don’t understand what’s going on, really or why this person’s trying to hurt you.” Gabrielle went on, resting her cheek against Xena’s shoulder blade. “But I have all the faith in my heart that you’ll find out who it is, and make them stop.”
Xena managed a slight smile. “What I was going to say.” She rubbed her thumb over Gabrielle’s knuckles. “Is that my old friend Philtop there could have done us all a very, very big favor while he was busy getting croaked in my outchamber.”
Gabrielle came around and knelt at her side, letting her cheek rest against Xena’s shoulder. “Really?”
“Mm.” Xena tapped her thumb on the table. “It all comes down to this – why was he killed, Gabrielle?” She mused. “The jerk who offed him had to have a reason. Was it just that he found him in here while he was doing his own thing, or did he kill him thinking it would bother me, or did he kill him because Philtop found HIM in here and was going to expose him?”
“Huh.” Gabrielle grunted softly.
“Or did the guy kill him because he was trying to make it look like I killed him, thinking that would mess with all the politics?” The queen mused. “If that’s the case, boy did he have his queens crossed.”
“Maybe it was a mix.” Gabrielle suggested. “Maybe Philtop was coming in here to mess.. I guess, to hurt me.” She said, pausing briefly. “Boy that makes me mad.”
Xena rolled her head to one side and regarded her adorable bedmate drolly.
“Anyway.” Her consort went on. “And maybe this other guy followed him in here, and he killed him, to make you look bad.”
Xena nodded a little. “Keep going.”
“So now he’s probably going to make those guys who came with Philtop run in here and see him, and make them think you did that to mess them all up.”
“Hmm…..” Xena rumbled. “Except that he was obviously sneaking into my bedroom dressed like a thief so my killing him would be expected.”
“Maybe the bad guy didn’t really see what he was wearing?”
“If he followed him, he did.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle frowned. “This isn’t making a good story, Xena.”
“No, it isn’t, is it.” The queen stood up. “Well, I can’t just sit here and watch maggots grow on him. Gotta make a move in some direction or other. “ She put her fingers between her teeth and let out a very loud, long whistle. “Get me a robe, muskrat. I make a better bloodthirstly lunatic when I’m not yelling in my underwear.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle was glad enough to duck back into the bedroom as she heard boots starting to pound outside, heading for the door. “I’ll get your booties too.”
Xena walked over to the body and leaned over, taking her dagger off the table and inserting it into the gaping wound on the dead man’s neck, darkening the blade with blood and standing back up as the outer door swung open and the guard, lead by Brendan, rushed in.
“Hello, boys.” Xena leaned back against the desk, twirling the blade as they all skidded to a halt. “Looks like I found a rat in my chambers. Tch tch tch.” She turned as Gabrielle appeared from the other room with a thick, fur lined gown in her hands. “Thanks, muskrat.”
“Xena.” Brendan was staring the body. “By the gods!”
“No.” The queen shrugged into her gown and tied it snugly around her waist. “By the queen.” She held up the blade. “Go get his entire damn retinue and drag their slimy, hoary asses in here right now. “ She glanced down as Gabrielle knelt, and started slipping her indoor boots on. “Thank you, my love.”
Gabrielle looked up in faint surprise, then smiled and went back to her task.
“Go.” Brendan ordered three of the guard that were with him. “You lot, outside and guard the door. No one gets in until they get back.”
The men rushed out, and Brendan turned to face Xena. “He went for you then? Xena, by all that’s holy I never expected it.”
“Me either.” The queen cheerfully agreed with him. “But he did, and he paid for it.” She glanced down at the body. “You all find anything last night?”
Brendan nodded. “We did.’ He said. “I was just waiting for light to come get you.”
Xena cocked her head. “And?”
“Where the bugger was hiding out. Found his cache.” Brendan looked pleased. “Damndest place for it, but you’ll see for y’self.” He looked down at Philtop’s body. “Bastard was looking to do a dirty deed and blame it on what we’re chasing.”
“Probably.” Xena agreed. “Actually I figured he was going for Gabrielle.”
Brendan looked up and then at Gabrielle. He returned his gaze to Xena’s face. “Xena.” He exhaled. “Could he have been that base a coward?”
The queen shrugged. “More an opportunist.” She examined the blood soaked blade. “Get the archivist here. I’m going to recind the agreement with the Westlands”
“Ah.” Brendan nodded.
“In fact, I’m going to annex them.” Xena decided. “They just lost their autonomy. I’ll take that crown of his and give it to someone more worthy like the damn cat under my bed.”
Brendan smiled grimly. He turned as the sound of a crowd seeped in the door, loud footsteps and angry voices erupting. “Ah, here they come the bastards.”
Xena crossed her arms over her chest, her dagger clasped firmly in one hand, and her sword resting on her shoulder. “Open the door.” She smiled. “Lets get this party started.”