'Xena's Hard Times'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— Xena perambulates through Athens, meeting people who only want to meet her for her famous connections.
Note:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics, or whoever, own all copyrights to everything related to 'Xena: Warrior Princess' and I have no rights to them.
Athens, on a clear bright sunny Summer morning; the Acropolis rising majestically in the distance, its white temples scintillating in the sunshine, the giant 30 foot high statue of Athena Promachus standing proud over all. Dominating the whole area the Parthenon, rising supreme, its spectacular multi-coloured frieze encircling it under the roof-line and behind the column tops; while some distance further north the high pointed crest of Lycabettus hill, beyond the Agora, formed a wooded backdrop. As usual the environs about the several temples atop the Acropolis were packed with citizens who had come to pray, meet important priests or senators, or simply to enjoy the fresh cool breezes present there 500 feet above the surrounding city streets.
Having just exited the Propylaea, the temple-like entrance to the whole crest of the flat-topped hill, one of those many peripatetic observers was instantly recognisable; to anyone with any sense, at least. Xena of Amphipolis, mighty Warrior Princess, equally honoured and reviled across the known world and beyond for her many adventures and expert capability with every edged weapon known to man or woman. This, of course, providing her with that most important,—or disastrous, whichever way you tended to look at it,—of all possible attributes in Society—a reputation; in her case not one, generally speaking, for the better, all things considered.
Her physical appearance and stance, also, not commonly tending to invite the passing stranger to attempt a friendly greeting or introduction. Her hair was slightly more than shoulder length, dark as midnight, while its thick tresses were flung from side to side with every toss of her head depending on her fleeting mood, with imperious disregard for everyone around. Her face was straight-jawed with strong, features beautiful when at rest, but more generally showing a mean, cold harshness again exactly measured to repel simple off-the-cuff acquaintance. Her deep blue eyes tended to search for a person's soul, whoever looked her in the eye; a tendency which also repelled mere passer's-by from striking up a conversation. Her physique, as was only to be expected from someone who had followed the warrior life passionately during her whole career, was honed to perfection. Her shoulders and arms showed musculature most pankration athletes envied, whilst her magnificent chest and breasts imperiled the eye of all observers—imperiled, because any forward or openly lascivious drooling over these features by an unwary stranger, of either sex, usually ended in the end of said spectators; at least, in the short term, if they were lucky.
Xena's chosen attire, for what it was worth, only tended to highlight her physical stature; a black leather tight-waisted corset, embellished with decorative bronze doo-dahs of no known purpose, covering her body; while a short skirt of loose single leather flaps, overlapping each other like a clinker-built ship, failed completely to do anything in the way of concealing her long muscular legs. Legs which seemed made of the finest whitest Pentelic marble; their rippling muscles of calf and thigh providing a spectacular view to those interested, as of poetry in motion; though, again, such spectators usually kept a safe distance whilst doing so.
Finished-off with knee-high leather boots, deadly weapons in their own right, thus stood the mightiest female warrior of the times; scared of nothing and no-one, be they God or mortal, capable of great feats of physical endurance, and slave to none—Xena, Warrior Princess.
Of course, this isn't exactly true; there was one person, and one person alone in the world, whom, if she delved right down and admitted such to herself, she was scared off—a small, almost little, frail blonde girl. This unusual Dryad was of petite size, hardly coming to the Princess's shoulder; blonde hair now cut short to her neck, square features, with the prettiest pointed chin imaginable; straight gaze, daring you to action, and sea-green eyes of captivating intensity. Her short stocky frame muscled like an Olympic athlete; the same clearly seen because of the girl's lack of clothing.
By which is meant what little she wore tended more to simply exaggerate the bareness of her body than otherwise. A short halter-top, its cups barely able to accomplish their task of enfolding their cargo, breasts of magnificent size and form—this wholly apparent from the scarcity of said piece of clothing in fulfilling its contractual purpose in life—much to the delight and enthusiasm of many who noted this wonderful display as they passed by. Her arms, chest and spectacularly muscled midriff were completely bare; a short, and I mean short, skirt of brown linen cloth, serving to wrap around her waist—for, relatively speaking, it failed entirely to do anything else. Her wonderfully muscled legs, white as a snowfield in the high mountains, were bare from below the knee to almost her waist-line; finishing with short red-leather boots covering her feet; these enhanced by the addition of a three-bladed sai tied to the outside of each—a statement of her intent, and capability, strangers were wise to take note of, if they wanted to continue living, that is. Such was the apple of Xena's eye—Gabrielle of Potidaea, Queen of the Northern Amazons; and someone to be reckoned with, if you wanted to continue living without bruises; or, indeed, at all.
And so, on this bright fine unassuming morning, Xena's tribulations began—
The space before the Parthenon was given over to a wide grass-covered lawn, scattered with small flowering bushes. Here and there a few marble benches allowed the weary visitor to sit and relax. As Xena passed one such the sole occupier turned, glanced at her, then rose to his feet with a welcoming gesture.
"Well met, Xena." He spoke with a deep growl, though not abrasive, obviously happy to have met the famous warrior; meanwhile throwing a fold of the rich woolen toga he wore over a wide bare shoulder. "We find each other at an apposite moment; clearly the Gods look down on me today."
More'n they're doin' fer me, Xena thought to herself; having climbed the hill only to have something to occupy her during the morning hours she,—being at a standstill otherwise, her better half being off on errands of her own—would rather have been left alone to study the passing throng through the filter of her usual morose state of mind; but, having been ruthlessly well-versed in the art of social intercourse by said Amazon maid, she sighed and faced her interlocutor bravely, if without the welcoming smile Gabrielle would have required if she had been present—which, the Warrior Princess gloomily noted internally for the umpteenth time that morning, she wasn't.
"Adrianus, greetings. Going about your business amongst the Halls of Power, I see?" She having been acquainted with Adrianus of Ephesus for some time, in his senatorial aspect. "What interests you today?"
"Oh, this and that." He showing all the wariness of the long-term politician, which he was. "In fact, the yearly grumbling in the Senate over the Navy's trireme costs is presently giving an unusually energetic nature to the debates these days."
"I can guess." Xena sneering slightly, do what she could to conceal her natural reaction—she not thinking much of Athenian triremes in general. "Dam' waste of tens of thousands of drachmas; much better put to improving the citizens' living conditions. Look at the awful street-planning, fer a start; and as to fair wages, well, I asks yer?"
The Senator nodded quietly at this diatribe, not turning a hair the while, he being well used to the warrior's temperament and beliefs.
"Excellent proposals, ma'am." He nodded with a wise authority, which he had no idea only riled the lady further. "I must put them before the next sitting of the Naval Council; but one should not look for quick decisions on the subjects, of course. Two, or maybe three, years, perhaps."
"Ha, or not at all, if truth be told, eh?" Xena, cynical as ever; easily outdoing Diogenes himself in this field. "So, ya got anythin' interestin' t'bend my ears over; or can I get along with my aimless meandering, or what?"
Before answering Adrianus glanced all round, measuring the number and closeness of those walking past in all directions. Then he turned to gesture to the bench he had just abandoned.
"Would you like to rest for a moment here, while I, er, put a question or two?"
Xena gazed into the fathomless eyes of the old politician, which gave absolutely nothing away; raised an eyebrow in a manner she had long perfected whilst considering any situation; then shrugged and sat beside the Senator.
"What's up, laddie?" She not allowing for a single breath that she had any interest in whatever he had to communicate, be it what it may. "Let it rip."
Adrianus, old soldier that he was, let an appreciable amount of silence gently descend on he and his companion, like snow falling on cedars; then, with a shrug, pulled himself together and got down to the nitty-gritty.
"What is it, Xena, since Athens declared peace with the Chalcidean and Northern Amazon nations? Two years, now?"
"Two years," Xena was well up for this topic. "and it wasn't Athens that declared peace; it was the Amazons, mostly because of the superb political sense an' capability shown by my partner, Queen Gabrielle of the Chalcidean and Northern Amazon nations. Jest, y'know, t'keep things straight."
The Senator retreated to the realm of silence for a while, staring at his sandaled feet, letting this reattribution of the facts as the Senate saw them infiltrate his mind; then he rallied, like the old soldier he was.
"Ah, Queen Gabrielle?—yes, very relevant, that." He tried his best to appear wrapped in political mystery. "Interesting you should bring her name up; there's something I want to discuss with you about, ah-er, her. Nothing personal, you understand; just, uum, related to, er, things in general, you might say."
"Which, I take it, means the common good of the Senate, and the Athenian hoi-polloi as a whole?" The Princess being an old hand at Athenian double-dealing. "What? What about the woman I love most in all the world, and for whom I'd kill any asshole who threatened her, no matter his rank?"
"No, no." Adrianus hastily retreated in good order; probably thanking his lucky stars for his grounding in military affairs. "A wholly, er, political situation, you understand. Put simply we wish to extend our talks with her Majesty; on the subject of our great nations', Athens and the Amazons, working more closely together in certain areas, in the future. That's all."
By this time, sitting on the marble bench in the sunshine, Xena was becoming slightly overheated, and not because of the sun's warmth. She, however, took time out to reflect on the Senator's words; meanwhile idly glancing around at the passing throng; the majority of whom, catching her fixed cold angry stare, diverged at a rate of knots in other directions, probably bewailing the impulse that had brought them there in the first place.
"If you want to talk about the Amazons, you'll have to talk with Gabrielle herself." The Princess eyed the Senator coldly. "I'm not an Amazon, and don't have any authority to discuss their affairs."
"Just so, just so; we realise that, of course,—."
Xena frowned darkly.
"—what we thought was, if you broke the waters around the subject, as it were. In her private ear, so to say." Adrianus showing all the guile to be expected of one in his profession. "It is the Senatorial thinking that, rather than just spring certain, aah, ideas on Queen Gabrielle unexpectedly, out of the blue, you might, er, soften, aah—."
"Great Artemis." Xena had reached the far border of her patience and now, throwing caution to the four winds, showed her disapproval. "What in Tartarus is it? What d'ye want of her, fer all the Gods' sakes? Out with it."
Perceiving that he was now on delicate, not to say dangerous, ground, Adrianus buckled under the pressure and explained matters.
"We're,—the Senate, that is,—having some trouble with one of the islands in the Cyclades." Having once broken the ice, or been made to do so, the Senator found telling the facts unexpectedly easier than he had imagined. "A small island, but strategically and socially important; at present being ruled by an upstart minor proto-politician with ideas of independence. We thought Queen Gabrielle might, reasonably, allow some of her Amazon forces to join the Athenian Army and Navy in an, er, invasion; only to put down disorder and dissension and that kind of thing, y'see."
Faced with this outright example of the Senate's inward-facing self-righteousness Xena sat back, grinning widely; though what Adrianus saw, from his far-too-close viewpoint, was an unrestrained snarl as of a tiger preparing to do itself proud.
"Well, I'm glad ya came t'me, after all." Xena shook her head, dark locks flowing in the cool breeze. "It ain't the sort'a thing Gabrielle'd usually allow her Amazons t'be involved in, not by a long way. I can see why y'didn't want t'see her face to face; she'd probably have stuck someone with one, or both, of her sais. She's good with a sai, y'know; have I ever told ya any stories of what she's capable of, thataway? Once, up in Macedonia, I recall's,—"
"—er, so you will bring the subject up, the next time you see your, er, companion?" Adrianus sounding anxious and relieved at the same time. "I'm sure, if you, er, refer to the topic diplomatically, Her Majesty will come round to our way of thinking; that is, uum, we hope."
"Keep hoping, Adrianus, keep hoping. Got'ta go, see ya around." Xena rose quickly, brushing her short leather skirt to get the dust from the bench off. "Yeah, I'll tell Gabrielle what ya said; but don't expect any good news in the near future. Maybe, in fact, ya might wan'na think about taking a long holiday in your country villa; where is it? Britannia, to be really safe, if ya ask's me. G'bye."
The Pan-Athenaic Way, that wide more or less straight concourse which cut through most of the heart of Athens, had its advantages; of which the most important was that you could actually get from where you were to where you wanted to be pretty easily; which is more than was generally possible in the narrow winding hotch-potch of lanes, broken-backed streets and meandering roads which made up the rest of what was laughingly called the city's infra-structure. The only trouble, from an irate and generally anti-social Warrior Princess's point of view, being the likelihood of meeting people there you didn't want to, but had no choice.
This loud call, riding roughshod over the general clamour of the passing crowds of idle citizens, brought Xena to a skidding halt, all senses snapping to war-mode in an instant. A quick all-encompassing glance, and her sharp ears, pinpointed the source over to her left hand from whence emerged from the passers-by someone else she could have done without meeting.
"Liaus, greetings." Though what she felt internally was, Get lost, creep. Liaus of Argos being a recently arrived member of the rich oligarchy, though not a Senator. "What can I do for you this morning?"
Standing barely shoulder height to the tall woman, he being slightly shorter than Gabrielle in this instance, Liaus was rotund of body and comfortably expansive of face. His hair was receding; his beard non-existent, cheeks smooth and glistening with either sweat or oils or both; and a settled manner of expression which was at once smarmy and completely repulsive. His toga was of the finest material, with a wide border of green and yellow silk-embroidered flowers, while his face was heavily made-up, his thick lips coated in red unguent. His eyelashes, also, were clearly blackened with some form of dye; the whole scenario making him look like a wooden stringed puppet come horrendously to life. His voice, as if it knew it had to keep its end up, sounded light and falsetto, grinding on Xena's ears. But none of this mattered; what was most repulsive about the man was his open, unregarding love of himself and of his personal tastes and desires; which he in no way tried to disguise or apologize for, clearly under the impression that his social standing and great wealth isolated him from all, merely commonplace, Laws.
"Such a nice morning, don't you think." Having come up with the lady he now walked by her side with a curious rolling motion like a sailor. "A mite slower, if you please, not all are great athletes like yourself,—thank you. Ah, is it not fine to walk along this excellent thoroughfare, looking at all the wonderful forms of humanity on view? Such delightful instances of perfect manhood, of all shapes, physiques, and, er, ages, don't you think? Oh, of course, you are famously otherwise inclined; well everyone to their own, eh?"
Xena, along with Gabrielle, had been introduced to Liaus some months earlier; she well knew of his position, his wealth, his power in high places, and his tastes in the exclusively male domain, especially of the preferred ages of those he most strongly favoured and lusted after. There was nothing she liked, or wished to even accept, about these, his tastes or appetites; but his political power and wealth gave him almost infinite freedom from the ordinary Laws of the City and State: so he was free to go about his life, doing what he pleased with whom he pleased, without the slightest fear of opposition—this latter grating on both her own and Gabrielle's finer feelings; but what could they do, yet still escape being tried for cold murder?
"Got something on your mind?" Xena showing all her famous social skill in conversation. "Spit it out, I got places t'be."
No whit irritated Liaus contented himself with walking even slower, obviously simply to annoy the lady; a dangerous game, if only he had all his wits about him to realise such.
"The role of the oligarch, in this City, is a grave and responsible one, dear lady." Liaus loving the sound of his own voice. "One has to juggle all the aspects of Politics, social inter-action with those who matter, bending those who require such to the Rule of Law, and also using one's strengths, and indeed wealth, in the most effective manner. So many things to do; so many people to acknowledge and pander to, as needed. So many possibilities to keep in mind when one wishes to achieve, er, certain purposes; especially with family members, and particularly fathers. Oh dear, oh dear, the rings and hoops I have sometimes had to jump through—and the expences involved in smoothing the stormy waters—in that area, all my life—Hi-ho."
By this time they were well along the crowded Pan-Athenaic Way, pedestrians bumping their shoulders on all sides, Xena anxiously seeking a turning or reason for dropping the unctuous toad like a hot brick.
"Ya ain't yet said what y'wanted t'say t'me." She trying to instil in her voice all the repugnance she deeply felt at being in the man's company. "Better be quick, I'm headin' off in a coupl'a breaths."
Brought to the crux so impatiently Liaus, not realising he was as close to death as he would ever be until the great event actually arrived for him, stopped and grasped Xena's forearm; halting them amid the crowd, who had to navigate around this obstruction, not without arresting and impressive cursing in doing so.
"Yes, you must have most important undertakings attending your appearance, I have no doubt." This spoken in a tone which made it obvious he thought exactly the opposite. "No matter, I have an evening symposium planned for three weeks hence, to the which I have invited many respected and powerful members of the higher wealthier ranks, Senators, and several of those men who matter; who are, so to speak, something in the City. There will be few women, apart from the usual hetaera or other, er, companions, if you understand me. Gentlemen will be perfectly free to bring their, ahem, male companions, of all ages, of course, as is only to be expected. In this arena of all that is most important in Athens I would respectfully ask that you, and your companion Gabrielle, attend as my honoured guests; also. Senator Adrianus will be there, attending on important matters which may well involve yourself and paramour. So may I tell my House-Steward you will both be in attendance on the night? I have provided some absolutely beautiful, young, servants to attend the wishes of those present; perhaps I might provide some other hetaera, youthful of course; indeed, of similar age to those most beautiful young, er, male servants who will be providing, er, service to my guests? Oh, and have I mentioned the dancers from Epidaurus? So beautiful, so young, so athletic, so manly, if you take my meaning; so well-oiled and all nude, of course—such a fine artistic sight thereby, don't you always think? Do, do say yes?"
In her career the Warrior Princess had been in many quandaries, most physical, some political, some simply silly; but this presented one of the worst of the breed, what was she to do? The man before her, as a man, left everything to ask; he was a moral reptile of the worst water, protected only by wealth and political hangers-on. His sexual inclinations were of the lowest, most perverted, tastes; while his personal character was disgusting to all with any moral worth at all. Yet, his very standing, however worthlessly gained, had some meaning, in that those surrounding him might be worth addressing, apropos their secret and inner minds and intentions in the mixed up scene that was the present Athenian political and military landscape. Would it be worth enduring the ghastly, even horrific, excesses of the almost Roman orgy the proposed symposium would probably end in? And what would Gabrielle think of the offer? Sh-t, to do or not to do; she felt, in her present position, that someone would pretty certainly, sometime in the far future, write a pretty good tragedy around this concept: in which case she, Xena, could accord with the main character's perplexity and state of mind only too well.
"Yeah, alright, we'll be there." The words cost Xena a great deal of her small remaining cargo of self-respect, her lips twisting in something very far indeed from a smile. "Now look, I got'ta go, right?"
"You are most kind, most kind, indeed." Liaus nodded happily, smiling broadly in the most unctuous manner the Warrior Princess had seen in a long while, before turning to leave. "Have no fears, I shall provide even more beautiful, even younger and prettier, youths for the appreciation of my guests, and you and Gabrielle, than I had intended. One must do one's best for one's friends, mustn't one. Goodbye till three weeks the day after tomorrow, then; give Gabrielle my most loving regards; perhaps she may even be persuaded to give one of her splendid Amazon dance exhibitions? We will all be mature citizens there, and her clothing or, indeed, lack of such, will only enhance what will be, in any case I'm sure, a most entertaining performance. Do persuade her, do. Goodbye."
And he disappeared amongst the surrounding crowd, with his rolling gait somewhat akin to an octopus slithering across the sand.
Xena felt sick.
As the Princess strode on, wondering why the air about her seemed less clean than previously, the Pan-Athenaic Way broadened out into the wide open space which was the Agora, surrounded on all sides by magnificent buildings. This area, mostly unsurfaced, was a general meeting area for the citizens in the heart of the capital, where they could talk, stroll around the many stalls and canvas tents selling various wares, or visit the many public buildings enfolding the wide square on all sides; not least the famous Stoa of Attalos.
Just as the Warrior of Warriors was eyeing her surroundings, and wondering if there might be a worthwhile arms and weapons stall somewhere close by likely to be of interest, her morning's tranquility, now rapidly approaching its nadir, sank even lower. From out of the vasty throng, a group of four or five—oh, alright, if you insist-six—young women blocked her forward path, all grinning widely; always a bad sign, Xena had long come to realise.
"It's her, I told you so, Amara."
"It is, it's Xena. She's really here."
"Eirene, do get out of my way. Lady, is it true?"
"Did you truly cut off that man's, er, man, Xena; that warlord a month ago, in Silestria? Bet that was fun."
"Are you an' Gabrielle really lovers? Oh, that's so romantic."
Beset on all sides, many passing citizens smiling broadly as they strolled by, Xena felt she now knew what the Troyans felt like when the Greeks arrived to lay siege.
"What in Tartarus—"
But the mob of enthusiastic women only became more excited as the centre of their interest actually spoke in their presence, just to them and no-one else.
"Xena! Xena! What a warrior; What a Warrior!"
This chant, in high tenor, rang clear in the late morning air, making a substantial number of the encircling crowd stop to take further notice; Xena began to sweat with embarrassment but, of course, it was too late for that.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Amara, emboldened by excitement shouted this, anxious to know the whereabouts of her favourite Amazon.
"Yeah, where's Gabs?" Eirene, more bold than her girlfriends, stuck her chin right in the Warrior's face as she too fished for knowledge of the Great Blonde One. "We wan'na see Gabs. We want Gabrielle."
"Hey, Xena?" Dione here, encouraged by her companions, came to the real brass tacks of their combined assault on the Princess. "Here's a long blank parchment; can ya get Gabs t'sign it for us? For us all. We love Gabrielle, don't we, gals?"
The crescendo of noise triggered by this call set fair to deafen everyone within forty paces, Xena actually paling in something not far off fear itself—what in Hades' name were these bloody women doin'? Were they mad, or what? An' why this maniacal necessity t'reach out to Gabrielle? What did the Blonde Beauty have that she, Xena, didn't, eh?
"Oh, Gods," She thought, backing-up swiftly before this raging horde of seeming Dryads. "Please lem'me get out'ta this."
Then safety beckoned in the form, unbelievably, of a man. But not any man, but a large, bulky, strongly-muscled example of the sex. A man, indeed, with a clear knowledge of his capabilities, and the enthusiasm and true grit to carry them out in trying circumstances—and he also had a long thick luxurious dark beard; which always, you'll agree, counts for a great deal.
"Here, Xena, this way; I got your back."
Turning to glance over her shoulder, one hand already reaching over her shoulder for the comforting grip of her sword, Xena saw the man, his kind smile barely visible through the undergrowth, and the main entrance of the Stoa of Attalos a few paces behind him.
"Go in the Stoa." The man nodded his head in that direction. "I'm the house-guard, t'keep undesirables out. You think these here young ladies is desirable, at the moment?"
All the Princess could do was shake her head, hoping not to seem too much like the wimp she felt.
"OK, go for it, I'll hold 'em off, never fear. Go."
Two strides later Xena had entered the shade of the Stoa's interior and left the scene of her imminent defeat behind. The sigh she finally let out was one of the most pleased and delighted sighs of its kind she had ever experienced.
"Gods, nearly torn t'pieces, an' all over Gabrielle." The Warrior P. was not amused, as she penetrated deeper into the wide corridor of the shopping centre; just to be safe, y'understand. "Gods, she's got a lot'ta answerin' t'do, when I get's back t'her, an' no bloody mistake."
"Oh, f-ckin sh-t, is there no bloody escape?" Xena shook in her boots. "Is one o'these bloody women in the crowd bloody Nemesis, or what?"
Cassandra of Eropus had been idly walking around the ground floor of the great shopping-hall, looking at the fine leather goods on offer; she being into leather in a big way, for all sorts of reasons; when she was faced with the sudden appearance, slightly disheveled it's true and actually looking scared, of her favourite Woman Warrior With an Attitude—Cassandra liking women with attitudes, if you get my meaning.
"So nice to see you, dear Xena; what of your day?"
What indeed, Xena felt like replying, going to the dogs since sunrise, an' not lookin' t'get any better in the mean-time, beggin' yer presence. What she actually said was—
"Gods, Cassandra, why're women so bloody crazy over, I don't know, celebrities? Am I a celebrity? Is Gabrielle a celebrity? Gods, I do so hope not."
Having a kindly, but also highly intelligent, head on her shoulders; and hearing the wild cries still coming from out in the Agora as the Man with the Beard continued his great work as self-proclaimed saviour, Cassandra put two and two together, and pretty nearly got it to come out evenly.
"Ha, a bad day, eh?" She nodded sympathetically. "Come with me, there's a stall at the far end of the corridor where we can buy a beaker of white wine. You look as if a couple of such will do you good. This way."
Not a long while later Xena, standing by the stall getting on the outside of her third small beaker of wine, things began to settle down and reclaim their position of relative sanity.
"Gods, I needed this, thanks, Casandra."
"You're welcome." Cassandra smiled gently, she having a soft spot for the Princess, Xena's tight black leather corset already beginning to have the effect on her that it always did. "Hrrr, Gabrielle keeping well, urrh, Xena?"
But, even on her third bust of wine, the Warrior couldn't stand it any longer.
"Gods in Tartarus, why's it always Gabrielle?" She had, indeed finally lost it. "Dam' Gabs here, bloody Gabs there, f-ck me, if it ain't only Gabs an' no-one else need apply, on the other side. What the Tartarus is it, with Gabrielle? Has she got a spell or incantation that makes every bloody person in the world of the female sex only see her an' no-one else? Tell me, Cassandra, jest tell me—can I have another beaker o'wine, by the way, please? It's helpin'."
"Anything you ask, dear, anything you ask." Cassandra placing another few obols in the hand of the proprietress of the stall; the while trying not to drool too obviously over having the Princess all to herself, if even for such a short time. "Yes, I can see how trailing along at the skirts of such a beauteous example as Gorgeous Gabrielle will have its drawbacks; but one must endure with resilience, take my word for it, darling, er, friend. Accept what is offered and just be glad of small comforts, eh? Umm, you doing anything by yourself, say a week from today, as it happens? Only asking, you understand. Gabrielle would be more than welcome, too, if she wanted to engage in a sort of a, er, three-way, umm, party; if you understand my meaning. Does Gabrielle like leather clothes as much as you? As it happens, I have some items, er, that would fit the darling petite dear just perfectly—"
Xena, under unendurable strain, took the only course available.
"Can I have a fifth beaker o'wine? This stuff doesn't seem very strong. Thanks."
Xena,—having bid farewell to Cassandra with a parting promise that she and The Blonde Un-named One would indeed attend Cassandra's private party a week hence, made sure the horde of Dryads in the Agora had gone on their ways, thanked the Man with the Dark Beard handsomely and at great length, and circulated a large section of the north-west of Athens, letting the afternoon air clear her slightly befuddled wits after six beakers of white wine,—felt strong enough to attend to the most important item of her day's work.
The narrow, mostly winding, lanes and alleys of Athens—the city never having had the benefit of any kind of town-planning, if you didn't count the Pan-Athenaic Way—were a treasure trove for those on a mission; and the black-haired Warrior Princess, giant of form as well as character and strength of will, knew what she wanted; at least what she had been meticulously tasked with earlier that morning, before the blonde—let's be truthful, often slightly annoying—Amazon disappeared on her own secretive purposes—; ie, seeking out old scrolls and parchments, and the more the merrier. The content, the White-Haired Amazon Warrior Queen had told her lacklustre Black-Haired mere Warrior Woman Princess partner, didn't matter all that much—notes on travel, descriptions of towns and villages, those strange tales where the writers had seemingly ordinary people doing things that couldn't have happened in real life; Histories, of course; and the Philosophers, particularly Aristotle and his followers—she not being much of a fan of the Platonic school; would all be grist to the insatiable Amazon Queen's appetite for reading matter at all costs. But foremost on her wish list, standing in blazing glory at the head of her fervent literary needs, stood Poetry. And when it came to poems; well, as she carefully instructed her warrior messenger, there was only one Bard in town—Sappho.
So now, having traversed a multitude of mean streets, mean lanes; mean alleyways; and mean roads, she had finally come across, mostly by sheer accident, the particular shop the Queen of All She Surveyed had told Xena of; 'Aegon's Old Scrolls, Papyrus, Parchments, and Palimpsests': hidden, of course, up a dark mean alley just south of Lycabettus, presenting only a battered door to the world outside its premises. Inside, as the Princess had soon discovered, showing no improvement on the shop's shabby exterior.
Her low growl bringing no immediate response the mighty Warrior stepped further into the dim shadows which seemed to haunt the interior, trying not to cough as the dusty atmosphere caught the back of her throat; or retch at the curiously sweet aroma of piles of ancient parchments well past their supposed sell-by dates.
"Hey, anybody here?" The Princess growing impatient, as ever. "Ya don't want me t'pay fer what I takes out this here door, that's OK with me, jest sayin'."
There followed what could only be described as a slight fluctuation in the darkness to one side of the tight little room and, almost miraculously, Xena found herself facing the cicerone of the emporium. In height he came to about the Princess's waist; his bedraggled and dirty pseudo-toga seemed as old, if not more so, than the majority of his stock; in age he appeared to be approximately nearing two-hundred years; in handsomeness he left everything to ask; in the account of head-hair he was lacking entirely, showing a skull like an Egyptian mummy; and his thin weak voice was dry and croaking, the reason not far to seek.
"Yerrss?" Wha'd'yer wan'?"
Thinking this asinine query was some form of ancient joke, beloved of the old man in his youth, Xena stood eyeing him with little of the milk of human kindness in her dark blue orbs; then, on realising he was asking, from his point of view, a bona fide question, she merely stood amazed.
"What is it yer after?" The man stood by an old table, no doubt contemplating whether, once ensconced on the wooden chair beside it he had any likely chance of dragging his antique frame back out of it. "Come along, woman, I ain't got all day. Things ter do; places ter go; important people t'meet. Come along, now."
At this moment the laws pertaining to the act of murder within the precincts of Athens sprang appositely into her mind. Was one within one's rights to stomp on this sort of misbegotten moron without mercy? Could one take out such a social pariah without let or hindrance? Would there be much blood, considering his personal state? Would anybody really mind, at all? Did it matter? What in Tartarus was stopping her from impaling the buffoon right now? Was she losing her touch? What,—dammit, why'd she have t'think of this right now?,—what would the Great Blonde Amazon Queen think, if she did? Oh, dammit.
"I'm lookin' fer Aristotle."
"Har, good luck ter yer. He's bin dead these last four hundred year."
In any normal circumstance exhibition of this sort of attitude, by a robber, deadbeat, thief or warlord, would have brought immediate death, or at the least, horrible injury via whatever weapon Xena had closest to hand; but, taking it all in all, what was to be done?
"Listen, y'ape, you've got one more chance t'act with all due willing servility, or I shall very likely lose my temper. Do ya want me t'lose my temper?" She quietly slid, as if through mere force of habit, a long-bladed dagger up and down in its waist-sheath a couple of times, thereby giving the old man time to clearly see just how long the weapon's blade actually was. "Your call, Master Aegon."
There was a short pause, while Aegon considered whether the length of his life up to this point had been sufficient, or whether he couldn't yet squeeze more out of his remaining years. Finally, he came to a decision on this important, even timely, question.
"Hmmph, Aristotle, Aristotle." He didn't look around his dirty stock, but rubbed his scraggly chin. "Down that passageway ter yer left. His parchments in the boxes on the wall at the far end; a few papyrus o'his on the tables thereabouts; an' a lot'ta his scrolls in the boxes along the right side; meb'be not all complete, in state or number, yer unnerstands. En'jy yersel."
Armed with the leather satchel provided by Gabrielle, in an act of kindness, the great Warrior, now reduced to the level of a mere shopping servant, following the proprietor's directions, rummaged through the dusty shelves and alcoves of the dirty Old-Scroll Shop, sighing gently, hoping for the best—a bit like, she thought morosely, fishing one of those obviously too-shallow empty streams the Dark Warrior always had such a craving for.
"Hades, what a lot'ta dust." The scrabbling seeker paused to hold her nose as a series of soft sneezes hit her. "Oh Gods, what a life, an' all for Poetry, am I mad. Hades, what am I sayin', 'course I am. Dam' Bards."
She shook her head to clear it, thanked various Gods Gabrielle hadn't heard her latest remark, then went to work.
Two large empty clepsydras later.
"Right, what've I found so far?"
She dumped another partially-torn and heavily discoloured scroll on top of a growing pile she'd laid on a nearby table—a table she had brought into use by simply sweeping the odds and ends piled thereon onto the already dusty and dirty floor; 'Needs must', being her personal motto in such circumstances, and dam' the shop-keeper.
"Let's see, what's this?" The grumbling warrior wriggled her shoulders, to slide her sword-sheath into a more comfortable position on her back then leaned over, peering closely at her find. "Parchment, all of three hand's-lengths remaining of something originally much longer. Ah, Catullus; suppose I better bring it along—the White-Haired One'd never forgive me if I passed on ol' dirty Catullus. What's this one? Hum, Horace; think I'll give him the go-by, he's ten-an-obol these days—over-rated too, I'm sure. Fancy Gabs doesn't think much o'him, anyway. Next, Gods, this scroll's nearly fallin' t'pieces; Oh, Propertius—does anyone read him anymore? Does Gabrielle? Nah, back t'the shelf for you. An' what have we here? Almost a complete scroll; fine writing, nicely composed on the sheet; so, what's it about? Ah, Seneca's Musings; I like him, I'll take this; Gabs can jest suffer in silence—though I knows perfectly well she dam' well won't."
The Princess reader-in-waiting took a moment to glare hideously at a passing customer, almost certainly a rare species here, apparently as dusty as the wares on the shelves, then got back to the matter in hand; dumping a couple of unwanted scrolls and parchments on the floor by her feet, then piling a growing choice of others on the table, before finally pausing to catalogue her finds.
"What's next?" Xena stood, scratching her chin with a now dirty finger. "What was it Gabs told me under no conditions t'return without, or it'd be a dam' cold bed I'd be lying in all by myself fer the next month—apart from dam' Aristotle? Oh Artemis, Juvenal, of course. Gods, she likes these dam' scrolls so much I can't throw away hardly anythin' she's liable t'take the least interest in. Hallo, what's this?,—Xenophon on 'The Hoplite and Cavalry'—Gods, I'm takin' this, whether the little Amazon throttles me or not. Great Aphrodite, is there nothin' else lurkin' in a dark corner for me, here?"
Xena shook her head, and picked up another of the dusty, torn fragments from a wooden wall-box filled with what appeared to be an extraordinary amount of dry fluffy dust. "Tibullus, Gods, he's so old hat these days, surely She-Who-Matters won't want him? An' what's thi—Pliny,—the Elder, I think? Should I—should I not? Oh dam' it, I'll take it; what harm can it do?"
The pile of accepted scrolls steadily mounted, as the heap of unwanted scrolls spread themselves further over the dirty floor. It didn't matter if a chosen scroll or parchment was torn, dirty with age and use, missing various parts of a multi-scroll group, or so badly damaged that only a fool would spend the tiniest coin on it—they were all, or what little remained of most of them,—as the petite Queen, with intense determination, had taken pains to inform her loved Princess-partner,—grist to the blonde Amazon's insatiable thirst for literary sustenance, so what could the harassed Princess do but haul them all together in the one net?
"Right, what's round this corner?" Xena, always being one to take any chances going whatever the danger, edged along the narrow passage in the rearmost depths of the shop, where the shelves and rows of alcoves set in the wall were packed to bursting point with the literary debris of the past five hundred years. "What've we got on this rickety shelf? Gods, Poetry—at dam' last. Couldn't the Blonde One've told me they were here t'start with? Nah, that'd've been too easy fer her; She's probably still sniggerin' at her little joke, wherever in Tartarus she's hidden herself fer the mornin'. Dam',—Dam',—Dam'. Ooh Gods,—aachooo. Dam' dust. Right, what the dam's this? Oh yes, Simonides, and in a papyrus at least two hundred years old—I can tell by the scribe's style. Wonder it's lasted this long; must have it, I suppose; the Lady'll jest be disappointed as all get-out, otherwise, I bet,—even though about half's missing."
She placed the fragment carefully on the other finds she intended to buy, then returned to the fray, much empowered. And in the very next scroll-box on the wall, under a sheen of undisturbed dirt possibly a hundred years old, she found the literary equivalent, at least to her, of the Golden Fleece itself.
"What a dirty scroll, what's left of it." She peered at the torn battered and dark remnant. "Looks like someone threw it in a barrel of red wine two hundred years ago. What does the title say?—'Anabasis', by Xenophon. Whoopee, I'll have this, Gabs can say what she likes. What else is here? What's this? Looks almost new, and in perfect condition—that doesn't happen often. Oh, Great Artemis. Sappho, her Delian Lyrics, a complete set. Oh Glorious Artemis, Yippee.—if nothin' else, this'll keep the blonde Harp—, er, Amazon Queen happy fer months; thank Artemis I found it."
Back at the front of the shop, where dusty old Aegon still sat at his rickety table, cicerone of all he surveyed, Xena dumped her loot before him and fiddled in her satchel, searching for her money-pouch.
"This lot." Waving a hand at the decrepit parchment remnants on the table in front of him. "How much? An' don't try'n bilk me; I doesn't like bein' bilked."
The old man, perhaps more compos mentis than the Princess had imagined, flicked the dirty pile with an even dirtier digit; hummed, then hawed; then spoke in a crackling falsetto.
"Sixteen drachmas, ma'am."
Xena swayed in her knee-length leather boots, astonished at the man's insolence; she'd warned him, and he'd done it, anyway?
"How's about we discuss the matter, fer a while, eh?" Xena going into pure Warrior mode, eyes sparkling like deep drowning-pools. "As you an' I both know, this lot's worth all of three hemitartemorions, on a good day,—which isn't today; but seein' yer so old an' decrepit—probably in mind as well as body—I'll be kind an' give ya, oh, two drachmas."
"Fourteen." Aegon obviously braver, or a sight stupider, than he looked.
"Three, and four obols."
"Four drachma, an' that's my f-ckin' limit, ya leech. D'ya want t'die, horrible, t'day; or what?"
In answer the dusty cicerone of the establishment held out a thin claw-like hand; eyeing his customer, meanwhile, with all the friendliness of a hungry vulture.
"Good, good; knew we could come t'a final decision, like intelligent citizens. Here."
And the Princess walked back out into the street triumphant, with her ill-gotten gains packed away safely in the satchel hanging from her left shoulder on its long leather strap, a wide grin shining over all she surveyed as she walked away—the same being a bit of a shock for those nervous passers-by who caught her eye and suffered this frightening assault.
The Inn, in a quiet side-street near Lycabettus, seemed like a haven of tranquility when Xena hove up at its entrance in the late afternoon; but life, as it had all day long, only made the tired foot-weary Princess beweep her outcast state even further when the Mistress of the establishment met her in the wide public-room.
"So nice to see you, mistress Xena." The Inn-keeper all smiles. "Gabrielle's gone."
Xena stood transfixed, hardly able to take in the meaning of the woman's words.
"Yes, she told me to tell you, the which I'm doing so now, that, having waited over two full clepsydras past the agreed time when you ought'ta have returned from such a simple shopping trip—her own words, mark you, ma'am,—Gabrielle, three full clepsydra's ago now, packed her bags to return to your last camping-site out in the country, like as you'd both agreed t'do, before." The Inn-keeper nodding her head, in full command now of her message. "She, Gabrielle, telling me to tell you clearly, the whi—"
"Yeah, yeah, do get on with it. Sorry, what did she say?"
"—that, not having her money-pouch, having given you same fer purposes which she did not apprise me into," The lady of the Inn showing some contrariness at her customer's attitude. "she informed me to inform you, ma'am, that she, Gabrielle, left the payin' o'the reckoning in your hands—the which I'm perfectly happy to conclude at your convenience, ma'am. Gabrielle took all your own goods an' chattels on her second pack-horse, she was most insistent I make sure to tell you; the room's already re-let, by the by. Twelve drachma an' four obols, if you please."
"Sh-t an' bloody b-gg-ry."
"Twelve drachma? Did Gabrielle have a banquet here, one evening, I wasn't invited to, or what?"
"Twelve drachma, and four obols, ma'am, if you please."
"And mistress Gabrielle thanked me, fulsome, for good and fine service the whiles she an' you had been under my roof." The lady stuck her chin in the air, no whit baulked by the Warrior Woman's expression. "The which I fear, doesn't extend to your own manners. Thank'ye, ma'am; Brosius, reckonin' paid in full, put that axe back in the outhouse an' attend t'the customers, thank'ee. Goodbye, ma'am. Hopes t'see ye here again. What a fine Lady mistress Gabrielle is,—a fine Lady."
Out in the street once more, lighter by twelve drachma and four obols, and heavier by a strongly-worded telling-off, Xena glanced all round, but succour came there none.
"Gods, dammit it all t'Tartarus."
"Gabs, where are ya? Gab?"
The reply came, after a moment, from behind a thick stand of undergrowth and tall bushes some distance off.
"What? I was just—er, you know,—what'd you want?"
"Would ya kindly come back t'the campfire; I got'ta question fer ya."
The bushes rustled, then parted and the young blonde Amazon entered the small glade where they had decided to spend the night, in the wild mountains to the East of Athens.
"Wot-is-it, then? I wan'na eat my supper before those toasted trout go cold, y'know. I need my sustenance."
"An' I need an explanation." The tall dark warrior sat cross-legged by the fire, shuffling over a trifle to let her paramour sit on the small tree-trunk that did service as a seat. "I was just goin' through this saddle-bag, lookin' fer some spoons an' things, when what did I find instead?"
"So, what did you—oh, that's the partner of the satchel I gave you t'hold the few scrolls I wanted you to buy for me in Athens, t'day."
"Well? An' what about the saddle-bag? Oh, that saddle-bag? Well, er,—it's only where I put the few scrolls I already have, dear; what's wrong with that?"
Gabrielle's tone was off-hand and reeked of innocence, but obviously didn't fool her interlocutor for an instant.
"Hmm, define few, if ya can? How many hundreds, in round figures, would that be? As a mere fraction of the whole, as it were?" The Princess's tone was scathing. "No, I know ya can't; instead, ya seem t'have stock-piled maybe, what, the whole contents of four city-Libraries altogether?"
"Oh, come on, Xena, don't exaggerate." The blonde criminal took the classic way out by trying to mount her own attack. "A few old scrolls, an' whatnot. You know I've had 'em for ages. What's the problem?"
"The problem is, baby," Xena's voice was cool. "we'll need'ta buy another two well-equipped baggage-ponies at the next village, making four in all; otherwise we'll never be able t'keep all the things we really need, over an' above yer budding mobile Library,—that's what."
"An' go without Poetry, an' Histories, an' the works of the great Philosophers?" Gabrielle now went for the aggrieved look, hoping for the best. "You'd rather wend your way through Life without a Poet t'your name, eh? Where's the good o'that, lover?"
"When it comes to a choice between reading the works of Appolonius or Theocritus, from dirty old ripped scrolls, while we starve t'death in the wild; or, contrariwise, sit round the campfire with all we need in the way o'sustenance fer our bellies—well, I know which my choice's gon'na be, babe."
Xena was unimpressed, knowing full-well when an important decision had to be made, for the good of the majority.
"Huh, ain't an answer." The Dark One took up her famed intractable stance, a light sneer twitching at the corner of her ruby lip. "So, it's one or the other."
"One or the other of what, lady?" Gabrielle regarded her mostly-revered partner suspiciously, knowing the depths to which the woman could descend in order to win an argument.
"We keep a selection of this here junk—a small selection, mind you—an' throw the rest away." Xena spoke more firmly, barely yet imagining she was getting the upper hand. "Or it'll have t'be my fish stew for the next month—there not bein' any room, else, for us t'transport huntin' weapons or food stocks. So, it's quite easy—Aristotle an' Sophocles; or fish-stew fer breakfast, lunch, an' dinner. You make the decision, Gabs."
It was a terrible trial; but the Amazon Queen, driven to extremities by hard necessity and an uncompromising Warrior Princess,—who was perhaps getting her own back a little bit for a long hard day,—buckled down to sifting the dross from the wheat of her existing stock and the new material supplied from her partner's busy buying spree amongst the dusty back-alleys of the capital. In the end, after much pleading and cursing, all falling on deaf ears, she had made her choice.
"Is that any better, then, Princess?"
The Amazon shot sparks of green fire from her lowering brows, but her antagonist as always was impervious—especially as this was one of the few occasions the tall dark one had gotten the better of her revered blonde companion, and had every intention of relishing it to the full; this being, in the Princess's mind, something like satisfactory retribution for a long g-dd-m day.
"Oh, suppose I can let ya off with that; but there's still far too many left for my taste." A Princessey lip curled slightly. "Don't forget though, the first villa, palace, trading post, or hovel we come to in the morning, the residue gets dumped—whether the inmates want 'em or not. Got that, ducky?"
Gabrielle muttered something unintelligible, but clearly nastily Amazonian, as she finished packing her chosen scrolls back into the saddle-bag from whence they had earlier been unceremoniously thrown by someone with no literary taste whatever.
"What was that, dear?"
"Nuthin', nuthin', go to sleep, Princess. An' I only hope you have nightmares about bein' drowned in a roaring sea o'ink an' abandoned scrolls, or something."
The next morning dawned bright, blue of sky, and cheery of atmosphere; so presenting the exact opposite of at least one of the women struggling out of their blankets round the campfire. Xena was in fine mettle, bright, sharp, and ready for anything the day could throw at her; Gabrielle, on the other hand, was morose, gloomy, and stroppy to the nth degree; as Euclid might have said, but would probably have had more sense.
"What a delightful day." Xena, as they rode on their way along the tree-lined lane, grinning broadly, full of beans. "Why, don't it remind ya, in fact, o'that poem of Simonides, how does it go agin? Oh yeah, 'To—"
"Xena, love o'my life?"
But behind her expressionless mask Xena was laughing like a donkey.