Gabrielle hurried to keep up with Xena as she led her through numerous paths and staircases until they finally reached the healer's room. Xena gave a quick rap at the door and entered.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed as she stepped in were the numerous piles of books which littered the man's quarters in organised chaos, along with scrolls, jars of what appeared to be organs floating in coloured water, vials of colourful liquid, and various other oddments decorated the shelves behind a man hunched over an open book on his desk. When he lifted his gaze to look at his guests, his eyes moved to settle on her. They welcomed her warmly, a smile visible in his watery blue eyes.
She didn't know what she had been expecting, but the man she met was not what she had thought. Though Dorian appeared old and wizened in his features there was a youth to him.
His eyebrows twitched, eyes flicking to Xena and back again. "Your Highness? May I be of service?"
Xena gave an easy smile. "Dorian, it's okay. She knows."
Alarm quickly appeared in Dorian's gaze. "What?"
"We both found out about what Tobias had done at the same time."
Dorian rose slowly. His eyes regarded Gabrielle suspiciously. "You are...?"
" Gabrielle. Xena's...friend." Unsure of what Xena had let the man know, Gabrielle assumed it was safer to omit the truth of their relationship.
Dorian took in the short blonde before him. Gabrielle tried not to squirm as his sage old eye seemed to linger on her. "Have we met before, child?"
"I don't think so."
Dorian nodded slowly but he didn't look convinced. "What brings you both here?"
Xena leaned against his desk. "Gabrielle is my best friend. Before I brought her here I needed to make sure that you could be trusted. She was there when we rescued Tobias, and when he poisoned me. She knows everything I do." Xena turned to look at Gabrielle but her words were meant for Dorian. "You can tell her anything. She can be trusted."
Dorian looked between them both. "There's something more, isn't there?" Before either of them could reply, he chuckled. "I've been around long enough to recognise love when I see it."
Gabrielle blushed. "A bit of a romantic?"
Dorian brushed his beard. "Before I saw magic happen in front of my very eyes, love was the only magic I truly believed existed."
"That's a yes," Xena answered Gabrielle's question with a smirk.
Dorian regarded Gabrielle closely. "Wait a moment. I think I do recognise you. You're one of the servants. You're the one who told everyone you saved the Prince." Gabrielle saw the moment of realisation dawn in his eyes. "Ah, it makes sense now why you seemed to appear from nowhere."
"You know all the servants?"
"Xena, I am an old man but I have a good memory. I have delivered and watched the servants grow in this castle. I would not forget a face. Especially one as kind looking as yours," he added to Gabrielle. He walked around the length of his desk, extending his arm. "Very good to meet you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle clasped his arm. "Good to meet you too, Dorian."
Dorian put his hands on his hips and looked between them. "Mind my manners, but what are you doing here? Have you found anything about Tobias's whereabouts or who intends to kill him?"
Xena crossed her arms. "Not yet. I haven't heard anything that might point to anyone in particular, but I have my doubts."
Dorian sighed, appearing tired of the conversation already. "Xena, Leon is a good man," he grumbled.
"I know you may think so, Dorian, but I still don't know him," Xena said gently, leaning her hands on his desk. "I have to treat everyone as a suspect until I can rule them out."
Gabrielle saw the troubled look grow in the old man's eyes.
Though her face and body were different, but there was no mistaking the look of resignation on Xena's face. It was clear Dorian respected Leon, but if Xena had reason to doubt him, she would explore the lead until she reached the truth. But, Xena was being careful to pick her words. Gabrielle knew the last thing she wanted to do was insult him. Dorian was the only link they had – the only one who knew about their predicament and seemed honourable enough to trust with their secret.
She reached out and gently squeezed his arm. Dorian looked up at her, his pale, watery eyes focusing. "Don't worry. If whoever is behind all this is still around, Xena will find them."
Dorian sighed. "I don't doubt that. I just don't want the wrong man being blamed. I've known Leon a lot of years, before he became the captain."
"You knew him as a gladiator?" Xena asked.
"I did." Dorian turned to look out the window. "That man was stripped of everything: his family, his life...his freedom. When he was bought by Marcus and given his freedom, we thought he would leave, but he has stayed through the worst of our years and built our army to withstand a hundred battles. Despite what life has handed him, he is still the kindest soul I have ever met and given back more that he has taken." Dorian steepled his fingers as he thought. "He taught my daughter how to fight."
Xena's eyes widened. "He did?"
"Yes. She wanted to protect her people, so he handed her a sword and taught her how to fight. She may have passed on to the Elysian Fields, but I cannot hold him responsible for her death. He saw what she was, what she wished to be, and he made it a reality when no other would give her the chance. He made her happy and brought her honour, and for that I am grateful."
Dorian turned to them both. He saw the look in Xena's eyes and sighed. "Look, you know where I stand, but I am not a fool. If you can find anything that may cause you to suspect him, I will help you. Whoever is behind this plot to remove the prince must be stopped."
"Thank you, Dorian." Xena straightened. She made a face, as though something didn't quite make sense. "Dorian, is Leon in charge of security?"
Dorian frowned, most likely wondering where she was going with the question. He answered carefully. "Yes, why?"
"No reason. I was just curious. When we first met Tobias, he was convinced his uncle Daedalus was head of security. He was adamant that he was the reason Lyncestis still stood because he was, or is, the King's Marshall."
Dorian sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers. "Daedalus is a brave man, and an intelligent one at that. It was true that at one point he held the position of security, but at Markus's request, Daedalus began to run the trade between Lyncestis and other cities. With it in his capable hands, the city has regained some of the riches it once had before we were last attacked. With Daedalus handling trade and keeping our carriages safe, Leon took on the role of head of security, whilst also being the leader of the king's first battalion."
Xena nodded, "Alright. I wonder why he was confused about that."
"I don't know. Before he left, Daedalus and Tobias were close. Days before Tobias disappeared from the castle, Daedalus went away on a trade run and in that time Tobias became quiet and reclusive, asking me about potions and uses." Dorian sat forward suddenly, remembering. "Come to think about it, he almost seemed desperate to know. I thought he was just showing an avid curiosity for it finally. I am such a witless idiot."
Gabrielle squeezed his shoulder. "No you're not. You couldn't have known what he was thinking."
"Gabrielle's right. Blaming yourself now won't help him."
Dorian nodded. Rubbing his temples, the healer waved his other hand distractedly. "Whom else did you think of?"
Gabrielle recognised the name. She had heard Layla mention it once or twice when working in the kitchens. "That's Layla's friend."
Xena turned to her. "You've seen him?"
"No, but Layla talks about him sometimes. He's one of Alexa's guards."
"He and his brother Remus protect Alexa together. They are good men. They all grew up together." Dorian frowned again. "Why do you suspect Theon?"
Gabrielle could feel that Dorian was becoming protective, and she knew Xena felt it too. The warrior carried the gentleness Gabrielle had seen her use when speaking to innocents, or children. It was amazing. She could almost imagine Xena's face softening, even through the guise of Tobias's rugged face.
"He seems to dislike Tobias. Or at least he seems to have an axe to grind with him. Is there any bad blood between them?"
Dorian thought for a moment. "Hmm, there have been minor quarrels between them, but they were never cause for concern. It was mostly bravado, outdoing each other on the field. Swordsmanship isn't exactly Tobias's strong suit but he seemed to almost equal Theon, which always bothered the boy to a degree."
"Beating him can't have helped," Xena muttered to herself, but Gabrielle caught it.
"Aside from trying to beat each other to a pulp – as friends," Gabrielle said when Dorian attempted to argue, "Is there anything else we should know? Anyone that may have given you cause to suspect?"
Dorian stroked his beard. He was silent for a while as he thought. "Honestly, Xena, I cannot think of anyone. I know all in the castle and I cannot think of any that would bear such ill will against him. Sure, he's a pain in my backside, as any pig headed man with too much power and money is, but he isn't such a bad man that it should drive anyone to hurt him."
Gabrielle could see the conversation was beginning to upset the healer. She came around the desk so he could look at her. Clasping the man's soft, wrinkled hands in hers, Gabrielle tried to comfort him. "Tobias may not be a bad man, but evil has no reason for what it does and who it hurts. All it knows is that if it wants someone or something gone, it will do what it takes. That is why we will help however we can, whenever we can. With Xena on your side, you'll find Tobias will be back at your side, annoying you and getting in the way again. It'll be like he never left."
That made the healer laugh. "You're a good woman, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle smiled gently. She felt it when Xena sidled up next to her to rest her hand on her shoulder. It was almost second nature to lean into Xena's body; her own body wanted...no, needed to feel her. Only, when she felt the flat, hard chest of the prince, instead of the warm curves of the warrior's feminine body, she stopped herself.
Dorian looked between the two of them. "I can sense there is something wrong."
Xena shook her head. "It's nothing."
As Xena moved to return to the front of the desk, Gabrielle reached out and caught her hand. The feel of Xena's hand against hers was newly calloused from the hours she had put in training up the prince's body to withstand the vigorous training Leon was putting the men through. As Xena squeezed her fingers, Gabrielle felt that squeeze deep in her chest.
She turned to Dorian, feeling desperation beginning to leak into her. "Xena...Xena mentioned that you're trying to find an antidote for what happened to her?"
Dorian nodded. "It's true. I have been working on one. However, I have not yet come close to replicating the potion that may have transformed her. Xena, I need your eye or at least your nose for a moment."
Confused, Xena gave a quick nod and they followed the old healer through his quarters. He looked around quickly before moving a stack of books from one of his shelves. He reached through the shelf and pulled at something. Gabrielle heard a loud clack and what had once been a stone wall, disappeared inwardly, revealing a passage.
"Hand me that torch, would you?"
Xena stretched over to grab a lit torch and handed it to Dorian. "Are there more hidden passages in the castle?"
They followed Dorian as he wandered through the opening. Gabrielle held on to Xena's hand tightly as darkness swallowed them, the only light coming from the torch carried by the man before them. As the stone staircase began to curve, moving downward in a spiral, Gabrielle found it hard to get her bearings; each step felt miles away from her foot, and Dorian's trailing robe made it hard to walk without tripping.
"I only know of this one and one other which King Markas uses. He had them built in case of another attack by the Persians. He didn't want to be caught unaware. This staircase leads to an exit which eventually joins the sewer tunnels that lead out of the city."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the thought of having to trudge through sewage.
Dorian read her mind. "Don't worry. Before it gets to that, I have a special room which I requested for my private studies. It is clear of any smell, and big enough to work in."
They walked in silence for a short while until they finally reached a heavy looking door. Dorian pulled out a key and unlocked it. "Please, come in."
As they all trailed inside, Gabrielle kept hold of Xena's hand in the dark.
Dorian moved around the room, lighting torches sitting in the wall as he went. Eventually, the room lit until it was almost as illuminated as his healer's quarters, except, it looked nothing like a healer's room. The curved walls were covered with equally curved bookcases and shelves, each one over flowing with aged books, loose scrolls, extinguished lamps, and oddly patterned hinged boxes.
At the centre of the room, bottles, beakers, and flasks containing still liquid sat upon a heavy oak table, adjoined through glass tubes which extended almost the full length of the table. Tongs, pipettes, and a mortar and pestle accompanied the equipment, spread busily across the surface, as though Dorian had stopped mid flow during an experiment.
One particular flask sat atop a circular frame above a dormant burner; a dark red liquid sat, fermented, at the bottom of it, and a spread of different herbs around it.
"What's all this?" Xena commented, looking around the room with an expression Gabrielle recognised as both wonder and confusion.
Dorian looked around the room proudly. "This is my lab. This is where I experiment with potions and alchemy."
He set his torch aside and approached the table. He grabbed a small cylindrical cut of glass and looked through it at the red liquid within the flask. "This here is the closest I've come to identifying the elements of the potion. I know that the base is my coagulation potion. It was what was missing the day he disappeared. I usually keep a stash of it, in case of emergency, since I already use it to help patients with injuries. But when you came to me and I found out about your predicament, I went looking here and found that it was all either gone or smashed."
"Tobias knew about your lab room," Xena said. It wasn't a question.
"Yes," Dorian answered. "I taught him here. He never seemed to keen about it, so when he expressed some interest in it I thought I was finally getting through to him – showing him the benefits of the art. I didn't realise he was just feigning interest so he could use it to run away."
Gabrielle saw the downcast look on the man's face. "I'm sure he didn't use it for that purpose. Perhaps he knew someone was after him and used it as a way to protect himself?"
"But why wouldn't he tell me?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. She couldn't think of any reason Tobias wouldn't have told the Healer his plans.
Xena stepped forward. "As much as I hate the position he has put me in, maybe Gabrielle is right. Maybe he made a shape shifting potion and, knowing he was in danger, hid until he found someone he thought was strong enough to figure this out?"
Dorian stroked his beard. "Perhaps, but I still think he should have told me. I've known that boy since he was a baby. I would do anything to make sure he was safe."
"Maybe that is why he didn't tell you," Xena said. She patted the old man's shoulder. "You're a good man and Tobias knows that. He probably thought leaving you ignorant would save you, especially if there is someone within the castle who is out for his blood."
Dorian nodded. "I know you're probably right, but it just makes me feel helpless."
"Trust me; I understand what that feels like."
Dorian looked to the warrior. He seemed pensive for a long time. "We'll get you out of this." He glanced to Gabrielle, offering a friendly smile. "Both of you. I promise."
Dorian retrieved a long silver spoon from the table and scraped some of the red crust from the bottom of the flask, and lifted it to his nose. He sniffed gently, being careful not to inhale it.
"Tell me, if you can remember, does this smell anything like what Tobias gave you?"
Xena reached out and smelled. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "No. That smells too sharp. What Tobias made smelled really strong the next day, but was nonexistent the night before; otherwise I wouldn't have drunk it. I remember it burning my nostrils."
Dorian narrowed his eyes as he thought. "Burning? Hmm, leave it with me. I'll find what it is eventually."
"You think you'll have an antidote soon?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"Girl, give me a week or two and I should have something to help your friend's predicament."
After weeks of not knowing if there was ever going to be an end to this nightmare, finally having some good news felt like a victory.
Elated, Gabrielle threw her arms around Dorian's body and hugged him tightly. "Thank you so much, Dorian!"
When Gabrielle stepped back the healer's face was flushed, and he spluttered his words, flask in one hand and spoon in the other. Eventually he regained his composure and tilted his head at her, "You're very welcome, young lady."
Hours had passed since their trip to Dorian's alchemy room.
For the first time in what felt like forever, Xena was starting to feel positive about the situation. Sure, they hadn't found who was trying to hurt Tobias – no one had even tried to attack the prince, or even sneak into his room to get him. She had heard nothing about any kind of plot against him, and Gabrielle reported hearing nothing from the servants about any gossip or talk that would incriminate anyone. It seemed as though the Prince was safe.
Now the only thing that set Xena on edge was the impending wedding ball.
Feeling a pinch at her shoulder, Xena winced.
"Gods, I am so sorry," the tailor apologised.
Xena refrained from grinning at the nervous woman. "It's alright. How are the glass eyes working for you?"
The woman lifted the wire trimmed glass contraption Dorian had made for her, and perched them atop her head. "They are working well. Thank you very much, your highness. It was very kind of you to ask the healer to make them for me. I can see a lot better."
"Good. So," Xena said, turning towards the full length mirror. "What do you think?"
The woman stepped back from her place and tilted her head, looking Xena up and down. She almost looked as if she was about to cry. "You look so handsome, your highness. Very dashing."
Xena smiled, imagining Gabrielle's face. After her jokes from the tailor's first try, she was intrigued to know what the bard would think of her improved garb. "You think she will like it?"
The tailor joined her side, looking into the mirror along with her. "Princess Nysa will love it."
Coldness settled like lead in her stomach.
"Good, I'm glad," she said, feeling everything but.
The tailor, oblivious to Xena sudden drop in mood, smiled and put the glass eyes on again. She scribbled something down on a scroll and then nodded to herself. "Wonderful. You can keep that, your highness. You don't need to see me now until the day of the wedding. Is there anything else you require of me?"
Xena shook her head. "No, thank you."
"Alright. Then I will leave you in peace. No more stabbing you with my needles," she said, chuckling on her way out.
Xena nodded her thanks to the tailor. Once she was gone, Xena looked at herself in the mirror. Red and gold stared back at her, swathing her from shoulder to boot in the king's colours. The tailor had done a good job, but that didn't make her feel any better about the whole thing. There was a week left before the princess was due to arrive.
Frustrated, Xena clenched her fist and slammed it into the table next to the mirror.
The rocking sound it made reminded her and Gabrielle's position on it hours before. She closed her eyes, reliving the bard's rasping words, the feel of her in her arms, clutching at her.
Gods, what am I going to do?
Outside, the sun was slowly disappearing behind the city walls, casting a blazing orange glow over the whole city, setting it alight in beautiful hues.
Stripping the wedding tunic from her body, Xena dressed in Tobias's usual clothes and left the room. She needed to get outside. Maybe fresh air would clear her mind. She wondered if it was too late to wander close to the kitchens. If there was no one about, maybe she would catch Gabrielle.
With hope in her steps, Xena made her way down to the courtyard and crossed under the arches close to the kitchens. It opened to a side garden Xena had never really paid much attention to. While she waited to see if Gabrielle would exit the kitchens, she took a stroll through the garden, sitting on a stone bench facing the arched opening she knew led out, silently wondering what life would be like it Dorian couldn't find an antidote to fight Tobias's potion.
Xena imagined herself living out the rest of her life as a man and immediately detested the concept. She missed her body: her curves, her hair, her skin. Everything. In her own body, Xena felt powerful. A force to be reckoned with. Despite training Tobias's body to keep up with her skills, she still felt weak.
"You look troubled," a soft voice said.
Xena looked up. Through a small shrub, she noticed a small, dark skinned woman sitting on her heels, tending to the flowers at the other side. Dressed in the usual servant attire, a cowl covering her head, Xena could only see her face and eyes. When the woman offered a friendly smile, it lit up her face, illuminating her blue eyes in a fascinating contrast against her dark skin.
"I'm alright," Xena replied.
"Your voice says so, but your eyes say otherwise."
Xena arched an eyebrow at the woman. "I...just have a lot on my mind."
"The wedding?" the woman guessed. "You don't want to get married perhaps?"
The woman rose from her position, placing a couple of flowers in her basket, and straightening out the wrinkles in her dress.
"It's not that. Whatever happens..." Xena said carefully, not wanting to give King Markus's servants any gossip fodder to twist. She thought of something to say.
As she was about to answer she heard laughter rising from the stone arch. Her hear skipped when she heard Gabrielle's unmistakable giggle, and stood. When at last she saw her bard appear, joined by some of the other kitchen workers, she caught her gaze and smiled softly.
"I just hope I'm good enough for her," she said absently, forgetting about the servant.