Master Fidelius weaved his way across the kitchen flagstones nose buried in his scroll, his quill hovering like the bird of prey it had once adorned. With well practised steps he managed to avoid the whirling tempests of culinary dedication that served the Conquerors kitchen. Her kitchen staff were legendary for their fierce determination to present only the best to the table of the Destroyer of Nations.
"How goes it Cook? How does the new batch measure up?"
"Are you casting aspersions as to my drop scones, Master Fidelius?" Cook bristled like an enraged bantam focussed as always on the culinary task at hand rather than the world in general.
"Oh no, no, no," Fidelius looked mortified.
Cook held enormous sway within the palace walls. Get on the wrong side of her and a man could starve to death from lack of decent cuisine. Not from lack of food for there was plenty of plain fayre throughout the Empire. No, more lack of the sophisticated gourmandize that these kitchens and this Cook, wooed at vast expense from the service of Cyrus of Persia, were famed for.
Fidelius, faithful Retainer and Executive Magnus to Empress Xena would never, ever dare upset Cook.
"No, no, no, never Cook. Your drop scones are beyond all eloquence and belong atop of Holy Mount Olympus itself. Oh no, I was referring to the new batch of kitchen slaves you received yesterday morning?"
"Ah," Cook immediately relaxed now that her baking was not at question, "All are doing nicely...bar one."
"Yes, the intense little blond in the corner." Cook surreptitiously pointed towards a small, focussed young woman who seemed to be working away with great verve. Fidelius looked over and frowned; the little thing certainly seemed quiet and industrious.
"Who is she and what exactly is the problem?"
"I've no idea who she is. She's not on my parchment list. And let me tell you - the problem is she is useless around a kitchen, all she wants to do is sharpen knives all day."
Cook shook her list at the Master Retainer. Fidelius took the proffered parchment and proceeded to squint at it comparing it with his own duplicate.
"And I'll tell you another thing, I've never seen anyone sharpen a knife quite like her. I'm scared to handle them they're so razor sharp. Not that I'll get much of a chance, it's nearly impossible to get them back off her again. I had to practically beg for my Sashimi knife and I'm the Cook!" she sounded very flustered.
"Mmm. How bizarre. Don't worry Cook I'll get to the bottom of this."
Grimly he moved off in the direction of the young girl standing with her back to him happily smoothing a whetstone along the glinting edge of a cleaver with an extremely practised hand.
"Ahem, excuse me my dear."
His voice broke her motion but did not seem to startle her in the least as if she had been aware of his approach all along. Carefully she set down her tools and turned.
He immediately noticed she had that robust prettiness of peasant girls used to working out of doors all summer. Healthy apple blossom skin, hair that shone like summer cornfields and the board shoulders and strong arms of a lass used to carry milk pails rather than the paper fans of simpering city girls. Indeed she was a very wholesome package. A good addition to the palace staff was his initial gut impression.
"Good day Sir," she bobbed a well practised curtsy, respectfully not meeting his eyes.
"Hmm, may I have your name? You seem to have been omitted from my list."
He noted her manners too. Well brought up and educated in matters of servitude he hazarded a guess. There seemed nothing slow witted about the girl at all. Another plus.
"What list would that be Sir?"
"Huh?" he was surprised at her questioning him, but then again it seemed a very reasonable request. "Oh, mm, the Slave Directory. You don't seem to be listed and I need to know your name for the Records."
"Oh! Okay..." there was a slight silence for a moment.
"And your name is?" Fidelius gently prompted.
"Mm, I'm Gab?bee...tina?" she seemed to almost stumble over the word.
"Gabitina?" he confirmed with a soothing smile at the first day jitters.
"Yes, Gabitina." she answered firmly.
"Where do you hail from? What village or hamlet? Gabitina of...?"
"Of Pot?" green eyes grew wide as she furtively scanned the kitchen for inspiration, "...lid."
"Gabitina of Potlid? Can't say I ever heard of it." Fidelius scratched his head then scribbled these details onto the end of his list.
"Well welcome Gabitina. I hope you have a pleasant time serving here at the Imperial Palace."
"I am a slave. What choice do I have?" her voice rang out clear as a bell causing several other slaves working nearby to look across at her with open curiosity.
"Well?" Fidelius was a trifle confused, no one had ever complained before, especially on the first day,
"I suppose you can always ask for a transfer. Or save up and buy your own freedom. Or learn a valuable craft and apply for an Imperial Franchise and be your own boss. The possibilities are endless. At the end of the day Gabitina you get out what you put in."
He was relieved that he had managed to work the conversation around so he could insert his little Welcome spiel. Pleased to iron out yet another administrative blip he wheeled away and headed for the exit unaware of the hostile emerald eyes that burned into his richly robed back.
"Can I have one of those paring knives?"
A young man with an apprentice chef apron asked timidly. All the staff had become very edgy round the strange young slave girl who had only just joined them. Her cold sullenness, the shrewdly intelligent eyes that devoured each and every movement unsettled them.
Within less than a day she seemed totally aware of the kitchens very heartbeat. Timetables, routines, work schedules were all absorbed as she stood smoothing that damnable whetstone up and down, up and down.
"No," she hissed into his blanching face, "I might need them."
"Okay?.that's okay?" he found himself backing away.
Cook would have to be informed. The new girl had by now managed to collect every conceivable sharp implement in the kitchen and hone them to an even keener edge. Unfortunately she also refused to release them back to her colleagues. Not a team player that one.
To date they were making do with a rusty old penknife the kitchen porter had lent them and a bamboo skewer, but something had to be done and soon. After all there was a big banquet tomorrow night and they couldn't continue peeling potatoes with their teeth.
The Resistance is Futile.
The Resistance is Futile.
"If you don't shut up it'll hardly be that!"
Two cloaked figures stood in a shadowed alleyway looking across to the insurmountable walls of the Imperial Palace. Even in the darkest of moonless nights the place was alive with activity and torchlight.
It was the Palace that never sleeps; the nuclei of the Known World, its central nervous system. Merchants and caravans from lands near and far were always coming and going. The wide straight highways and ever open ports saw to it that Commerce never ceased, that Trade and Industry never stood still.
"I still can't believe we've commissioned the Queen of Assassins to kill Xena. I mean Debutante, did you ever imagine us out bidding the Egyptians for her?" he turned excitedly to his companion.
"Well it took all of Caesars cash to do it."
"Ack, he can afford it. She has commitment to our cause you know, Gabrielle, the Golden Wolf of Poteidia, I can feel it! She is Greek after all." His voice oozed with national pride.
"At last Ares' Viper-Bitch gets her comeuppance for the years of misery the People have had to endure! It won't be long now comrade until the Wolf strikes!." His companion sighed happily.
"Can you believe the nerve of her simply tagging on to the end of that slave line and walking straight into the best guarded palace in the world? I thought I'd pee my pantaloons right there and then."
"I know. What a professional. I wish I was a fly on the wall. I'd love to see what's happening in ther...." The crunch of gravel stilled his words, "Sssh Melonius, the Guards! We'd better disperse!"
The regular pace of the approaching perimeter guards interrupted their gloating reverie. Bundling themselves up tighter in their warm woollen cloaks they departed in separate directions after a final fist clenched hiss of Long Live the Revolution, before scuttling away to their cosy beds.
Imperial Palace: Cooks Office.
Cook beamed her best placatory smile. Gabitina glowered causing a faint glimmer of concern to creep into Cooks eye.
"Does that mean I get to serve at the Great Banquet tomorrow night?"
"Mmm, I don't really know?" she noticed the young slave's face grow even darker, "Yes! Yes I'm sure you will. It's hard to keep a young eager slave such as yourself down. Ambitious self starters are what we're looking for in slaves here in the Palace, so off with you to the Serving Quarters. Tell the Guards I sent you."
She stood to anxiously shoo the girl along.
"Great." A bright smile lifted the young woman's countenance revealing just how pretty she was when not scowling, glowering or grimacing. She seemed very pleased with the idea of serving at the Conquerors table.
A relieved sigh escaped Cook; pretty as she was she'd be glad to see the back of this odd little taciturn madam.
"Oh and Gabitina. Could we have our knives back please?"
Cook decided to chance it now while the young girl was in a happier mood. A dark grudging scowl once again clouded the petite face, eyes narrowed glittering like a feral cat.
Cooks blood ran a little cooler in her veins, Zeus, what was it about this little slavegirl that chilled her to the bone? A very unsettling child indeed. She would be glad to off load her and she couldn't think of a better place that arrogant Gallic bastards lap!
The blond brows furrowed in deep contemplation of this request then,
"Okay, I suppose so?"
A delicate hand dipped into the front of her blue chequered kitchen tunic and tugged on a hidden string. With a deafening clatter two dozen carving, boning and poultry knives plus one mezzaluna fell at her sandaled feet. Cook jumped back shocked.
Another quick dip up each sleeve produced several paring knives and two vicious looking carving forks. A flick to the back of her neckline and she slapped a formidable cheese knife curved as cruelly as any scimitar into Cooks trembling palm.
With a last big smile Gabitina departed the kitchens in search of the guard who would take her to the Maitre'D and one step closer to her intended target.
A long collective sigh of relief went up from the kitchen staff the minute the doors swung closed, then open then closed after her.
The Conquerors Anti Chamber:
The crunch of the well oiled cogs of the Empresses bureaucratic machinery thundered throughout her realm as surely as her Army's boots.
Enjoying a well earned moment of rest to eat a light lunch Xena, the Conqueror, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of the Known World, Whore Bitch of Ares (she was unaware of that little moniker) sat frowning at the potato speared on her fork. Her exquisite dark brows met over a steady, intelligent blue gaze. Her full lower lip extruded slightly, a little facial quirk she was unaware of but which, along with a dimple in her left cheek appeared when she found something perplexing or interesting.
"These little grooves Fidelius, they sort of look like teeth marks. Is it some new look for root vegetables Cook has introduced?"
"Oh most definitely My Liege. What Cook does today, the kitchens of the Known World do tomorrow."
Xena shrugged and delicately nibbled the roasted tuber with sharp white teeth, "Okay. Mmmm, tastes good no matter what it looks like."
"So," finally pushing her plate away half empty, the Conqueror was not a big eater believing firmly in moderation in everything, "tomorrow nights banquet. I take it everything is organised? Are we having the acrobats and jugglers this year at last?" she asked hopefully.
"No, I'm afraid not. They requested the Exotic dancers again. I know, I know that's the fifth year in a row but they were very firm about it."
Xena sighed. "What was it about Weavers Guild all they ever seem to want is to watch nubile young ladies run around half naked? You'd think they'd like to see a nice piece of warp and weft as worn by those Caledonian dancers with the pretty tartan kilts"
"Ahem, Majesty, they inform me they are much more interested in the gossamers and silks the 'young ladies' kindly toss at them during their traditional Eastern dancing. Which is something else they are apparently very interested in; the Art of Dance."
"Well, I do try and encourage multi-ethnicity and cross cultural experience within the Empire so I suppose I shouldn't grumble. It's a pity though I really do love the tumblers."
"Well, I did proffer hot oiled Persian wrestling as another option but they seemed very reticent when they realised it was all young men. So you are not the only one disappointed Majesty."
They sighed in unison.
"I suppose they said also no to the hand puppet guy?"
Corinth: Resistance meeting: Secret Message 1.
Corinth: Resistance meeting: Secret Message 1.
"We can't start yet there aren't enough of us." Melonius refused to be drawn. This was his extraordinary meeting and there was no way Debutante was going to just stroll in fashionably late and then take all the power away from him.
"What? Where is everyone?"
"Being fashionably late no doubt," sniped Bitter Eric.
"Well do we have enough bodies to make a quorum?"
"We haven't enough bodies to make an exit!" Bitter Eric spat disgustedly.
"Let me go check the rule book. I'm not sure about quorums?" Melonius disappeared into his private library as the meeting had been called at his house.
"Oh great another one down." Eric glowered.
The last few stragglers finally arrived and eventually the meeting got belatedly underway.
"I have exciting news!" Melonius announced waving a slice of white commoner's bread at the assembled sub committee.
"They're adding less starch?"
"What? No! This is a secret message smuggled out of the Palace kitchens!" his voice rose dramatically as did his eyebrows, "Well, what I mean is it was thrown at me from out of the Palace kitchen window."
He suffered from a terrible compulsion to be totally honest and always tell the truth. A very detrimental ailment for a Resistance secret agent.
"I had to fight a really big seagull for it!" he continued.
"Oooo?the power, the passion, the danger?"
"Shut up Eric you could at least be supportive!"
"Do you want 'the power, the passion, the danger', in the minutes?" Hesta the sub-committee scribe looking up from her scroll.
"No, of course not!"
Hesta looked very hurt, as if she might burst into tears in a moment,
"I was only asking," she sniffled into an Egyptian cotton handkerchief.
"Should we even be taking minutes at a secret society meeting?" asked Paul Mallorca the newest member. He found this written paper trail that led right to everyone's front door a little too risky,
"I mean you've listed everyone present, what the meetings about and nearly every damn word said. If this should fall into the wrong hands?"
"We've always done it this way thank you very much Paul. The Corinth Secret Resistance is known throughout the Empire for its exemplary records and archiving!" Melonius retorted snippily, damned newbie upstart swaning in here with his fancy ideas...
"But is that a good thing?" Paul pressed on.
"Look what about this message? Some of us have eyebrow waxing booked for later," barked Debutante trying to keep them on track and on schedule.
"It comes from our 'Girl on the Inside', our Queen of Assassins! The Golden Wolf of Poteidia!!" Melonius got back into his stride after the earlier rude interruption. His gaze roamed round the room locking eyes with each member for melodramatic effect.
"And?" Debutant was growing tired of this deliberate and distasteful hogging of the spotlight, "Spit it out man. We know who we hired. I haven't all night to sit around applauding your amateur dramatics! What does the message say?"
Melonius refused to be deflated though it was a formidable struggle,
"I don't know what it says," he answered equally tartly, "The message is written on the bread in olive oil. We have to toast it to the right colour in order to read it."
He was becoming a little flustered and upset. His whole announcement should have been received with much more enthusiasm, and quite frankly he was vexed.
"So the thing to do now?," Debutante leapt to his feet doing his best to take over by suggesting the bleeding obvious, "?is toast it."
Several minutes later they were all stood around looking at each other in Melonius' spacious kitchen.
"I can't believe none of us know how to make toast!" Bitter Eric complained.
"Well this is the first time I've ever even seen commoner bread," whined Paul Mallorca.
His recruitment to the Resistance was to fill his gap year from Athens University and he was very disappointed with it all so far. He had expected secret tunnels and grappling hooks and passwords in the dead of night. Not messages written on toast and the endless triplicate bureaucracy this lot seemed addicted too. At this rate when he went back to AU he would have the most boring What I Did Last Summer essay ever.
"Can't you ask your slave to toast it for us?" Debutante felt it always came down to him to sort out everything little crisis. Melonius shifted uncomfortably,
"I don't have slaves," he sermonized smugly, "I keep Domestic Appendages."
"Oh, I have Household Resource Consultants." Hesta piped up.
"Mine are all Family Structure Support Operatives."
"Can any of them make toast." Bitter Eric butted in, jealous 'cos he could only afford one Habitat Attendant cum Grounds Keeper for his small pied a terre. He begrudged the inherited wealth and superior social position of his revolutionary comrades. Privileged ponces!
Another quarter candlemark later and Melonius had raised one of his Domestic Appendages from his pallet in the root cellar and the crucial slab of bread was browning nicely on the end of a toasting fork held up to the fire.
"Not too much. Just a nice golden brown."
"A sort of tawny."
"No tawny is too dark, do it a light tan."
"Crispy caramel would be good."
"Oh shut up all of you. Look I can see letters?" the toast was snatched up.
"Ow, ow, it's hot."
"Give me. It's my message. I'm the one that fought the seagull. It says 'Ban slave. At X side. Tim to be fur..fry..fre?' I can't make that word out."
"Well for gods sake have a guess!"
''Okay, 'Ban slave. At X side. Tim to be fur, or fry?.. is no'. Oh?I wonder who's Tim?"
"It's Time you idiot. It means 'Banquet slave. At Xena's side. Time to be free is now.'"
"How can you be sure? What if she's warning us that if we ban slavery now this Tim will be furious?"
"Or friendly? As in fry??" Paul pointed out helpfully.
"Is this Tim important?" Hesta queried.
"Why's it so garbled?" Eric grumbled.
"The seagull pecked at it a little. He was very big you know."
"I mean is she even literate?"
"Of course she is! She's the Queen of Assassins and she'll pin your tongue to the wall for that remark!"
"Maybe this Tim meant us to fry the bread not toast it?"
As they all began to argue over insignificant details no one noticed the Domestic Appendage as he carefully wiped the toasting fork clean committing to memory the contents and sender of the message.
The Palace: The Guild of Weavers Banquet - Preparations.
A long time ago Xena had discovered the trades that were the more machismo outdoor types were actually a treat to entertain. Her Blacksmiths, Masons and Woodsmen behaved like gentlemen, appreciating the good wine and food placed before them with a robust appetite.
Not for them the namby pamby Dance of the Seven Veils. Oh no, they'd be far too embarrassed looking at semi-naked ladies and worry all night that the missus would find out and there'd be Hades to pay when they got home. No, like her these guys liked circus troupes with knife throwers and acrobats, and little ponies.
Truth be told Xena found the men of the Farrier, Stone Masons and Timber Guilds to be much like the soldiers in her Army, professional and hardworking. Honest, open and easily pleased they were competent and at ease with their own masculinity.
Sharing an understanding of their values she was much more at ease with these fellas. To them her tall lithe warrior's body was appreciated as a tool for its strength and vigour. Her acute mind and shrewd intelligence was accepted for its acumen and practicality. Also she told some damned good stories about weapons of war and impressive engineering feats to conquer city walls and raging rivers. All in all it was a great night out.
But gods forbid she hated the festivities for the Weavers and Tailors and worst of all the Milliners! They ate and drank to excess until they had to be prodded at the end of spears by the House Guard all the way to the vomitorium.
These 'lesser' Guilds were intimidated by her presence. The men where afraid to approach her and engage in conversation of any kind. As the evening progressed and their inhibitions lessened with drink they became even more withdrawn and finally passive aggressive.
Sending snide looks and whispering depreciatory comments to one another they sniggered into the wine their gracious host had provided with magnanimity, all the while raising their glasses in hollow toasts to their Ruler and Benefactor.
An added injury was their taste in entertainment, lewd and predictable at best. It seemed this lot just wanted to gorge as much free food and drink as possible and boast afterwards at how little respect and decorum they had shown her palace and staff. These evenings soon became depressing affairs for Xena and she tended to slip off early under some pretext and leave the revellers to themselves.
The next morning the stench of vomit and piss in the hall was so strong one could easily imagine the entire Guild of Pig Swillers had passed through. Thank gods there was no Guild for Pig Swillers, but chances were they would have cleaned up nicer than the Weavers.
Sighing at the thought of the long tedious evening before her Xena stood obediently still as Erma and Desidme her personal attendants eased silken robes over her shoulders and fussed and tweaked until the folds hung perfectly.
They loved playing with the clothes and hair of one of the most beautiful women on Demeter's' green earth. It was a constant marvel and maybe a miracle in itself how the Empress could be so assuredly elegant in the finest silks to cross Chin's borders, yet look equally as gorgeous, if not sexier in the tatty old leathers she refused to surrender up from her earlier warlord days. Xena was stupendous no matter what she wore. A robe of rats would look beautiful draped from her board shoulders.
Erma looked over and sent Desidme a conspiratorial flash of an eye. Together they slid a stealthy glance to the jewel laden dresser. Gems of every imaginable hue twinkled like raindrops on a rainbow, and nestled deep within the velvet maw of the Conquerors jewellery chest laid a beautiful headdress of shimmering pearls.
Both knew the devastating effect such aquatic beauty would have woven through the Empress's long ebony locks. Exchanging a silent look that spoke scrolls Desidme suddenly made a break for the pearls as Erma sprang on top of the Empress.
At four foot ten Erma had the distinct advantage. Being so petite the little handmaiden spent half her life on a padded oak box cum footstool that allowed her to reach the upper echelons of her Mistress. From here she now managed to wrap both short arms around the Empress's neck.
A brazen move that for many others would have resulted in instant bone crunching death only elicited an angry squawk from the Ruler of All Realms.
"Oh no you don't!" she barked ineffectually.
Xena instantly knew what the conniving pair were up too, "Leave my hair alone. I want the wind tossed look for tonight!"
But already Erma was using every ounce of her curvaceous 200lb femininity to slowly drag Xena down to sit with a strangulated plop on her little stool.
"The head dress will compliment your new robe beautifully My Liege." the sturdy little woman panted, "If you don't let us adorn your hair we'll be forced to use the kohl eyeliner!"
Xena spluttered at the heinous threat, "I don't need eyeliner! I have gorgeous long black lashes half the Empire would die for!!"
Unwilling to hurt her handmaidens, wooed at vast expense from Queen Sheba of Ethiopia, Xena felt herself comply. With a final sad sigh as she sank onto Erma's little box stool.
How many was that today? Seems that all I do these days is sigh; long and often.
Five minutes later she sat pouting as her handmaidens fluttered about her head braiding and cording ropes of luminous pearls into her midnight tresses.
Look at me?I am a poodle. I am the Poodle of the Known World.
Her misery with her life was replete.
Sitting slumped she did her best not to fidget but she hated the fussy over dressed ornamentation of state wear. It was a part of the pomp and pageantry she could well do without.
Oh for the good old days; the rustle of straw on stone flags, the thick fug of smoking torches mixed with oiled leather and hard earned sweat. And the warm, joyful lull of good conversation and deep, honest laughter.
She dearly missed the rustic camaraderie of her small but fiercely united army. The long days march rewarded with billeting out in the very countryside they were sworn to protect and serve.
The hallowed hush that after a bloody but victorious battle covered the camp like a shroud as lost brothers in arms were quietly prayed for and remembered. Gradually, as each warrior forgave him or herself for surviving when friends had not, the swell of banter and laughter rose as guilt for still being alive was assuaged. Then over the beat of drums drinking songs and laughter sailed up to the stars above, a desperate celebration for all, the living and the lost.
To think she had given all that up for her Empire, for the empty echo of marble halls; for the bustling, agitated city streets, neither to her taste or liking. Neither holding any reminiscence or affinity for the village girl of her youth. Xena the Conqueror had led her army all this way to take an Empire and somewhere along the way had marched herself into a void.
In the midst of the Banquet preparations Gabitina was introduced as a new staff member to the Maitre'D, or Master of Ceremonies, Tabelfurtu.
Another steal for the Imperial Palace, he had been courted away at great expense from the Druidic Circle of Northern Gaul and had come to thrive on the warm Mediterranean coast.
"Ou ees theezzz?" he waved an insolent finger at this newest arrival flanked by a House Guard.
"The slave Gabitina of Potlid sent up from the kitchens on Cooks orders. Master Fidelius is aware of the change in working requirements for this slave." barked the soldier.
"Pheef! If Cook axe eim to swing from ze chandeliers by eis bollox Masterre Fidelius wood be a pendulum."
As he spoke he meticulously appraised his new charge. It was not like Cook to give away a good'un so he was highly suspicious. However she was an attractive little specimen, apart from the fact her eyes were glaring at his manicured, demeaning finger where it pointed at her nose. It occurred to him she might just be feral enough to bite it off at any moment so carefully tucking his hand back up into his tunic sleeve he crossed his arms to keep all appendages away just in case. One could never be too careful with Greek peasants.
She made him uneasy, a feeling he was not totally familiar with otherwise his ignored inner alarm bells would have brought his tiny world to a screeching halt. However it was a Banqueting night and another set of hands would always be useful, plus she was definitely of presentable farming stock. Sturdy and pretty in an...outward bound... kind of way, she would do for the rowdy uncouth lot they had in tonight.
"Mmm, ve will see 'ow eu work out tonight serveen on ze little tables. Yes? Good. Go."
He turned his back on them and moved further into the hall to scream at people in general.
The Weavers Guild Banquet.
After been taken away to the Wenches Quarters Gabitina swapped her chequered kitchen tunic for the pristine white of the serving staff. Her sleeping dorm had also been changed and she found herself further along the hall in the Servants Wing.
"What was wrong with the one I was in?" she groused to the House Guard who still watched over her every move.
She hoped this wouldn't keep up for too long or she'd have to figure out a way to lose him without raising suspicion. Grumbling she followed him up the hall with her meagre possessions all wrapped up in a towel.
"The kitchen slaves want you out. And considering you don't work with them anymore they've petitioned for you to go sleep in the Servers dorm." He stated bluntly.
Bastards! And I got all their knives up to scratch too!
Gabitina was a little miffed at this but in her profession knew there was no room for hurt feelings, just bloody revenge. When she was through with the Conqueror she would simply return, burn down the kitchens and write a short story about it. Writing was her hobby, a great way to relax after a hard day's murder.
Now gathered with the other waitresses in the passageway that led from the kitchens to the Great Hall she looked around her mystified at the giggling apprehension and nervous jitters of her companions. A hullabaloo of excited masculine voices drifted up from the Banqueting Hall towards them as guests were seated by the Maitre'D and his Seating Staff.
The tension in the passage way was palpable making Gabitina more than a little cautious, she hadn't expected the waiting slaves to be so uptight. It spoke scrolls as to what she might expect out there at the hands of the Conquerors slavering guests.
Groping and debauchery, she had heard the tales of orgiastic bloodbaths the Conquerors Banquets always turned into. She was worried circumstances might force her to tip her hand before she had a chance to reach the Viper of Corinth and despatch her forthwith! Mmm, nice phrase, must keep a note of that for my short story.
"Ah ha, my leetle jewels my starree aiyed ingénues?"
Suddenly Tablefurtu appeared beside the nervous wenches. He ran a pleased eye over their starched appearance and found them all to be exceptionally well presented and a credit to him, even the new one who had this disturbing habit of scowling all the time. It had even come to his attention she muttered to herself as well. Never a good sign in a serving wench; she'd never get good tips.
"Gathuur round mezz petites for zee benediction."
Gabitina watched in confusion as they all gathered together in a tight circle, right hands covering each other in the centre. Shrugging she pushed through the little knot and joined in, uncertain as to what happened next?some sort of oath?
Tabelfurtu glared fiercely at each one,
"Okay, in zee name of Silva, Goddess of Table Service, bless zees Banquet n all ou serve on er. In zee name of Tippa, God of Generosity may zee drunken idiots out zere dig deep in zee pouches tonight. Yes? Good. Go"
And with approving squeals and giggles the girls all shouted back,
"Yes? Good. Go,"
Before breaking the circle with a flourish launching into a lot of high fiving.
Gabitina stood back confused at the little bonding ceremony until a mistimed high five slapped her right in the face.
Bleated her slapper eyes wide with alarm at the flush of ill temper that spread rapidly over Gabitina's cheeks and the undoubted murderous glint in her eye.
"I thought you were ready..."
"Line op, line op!"
Tabelfurtu's clapped command broke the tension and Gabitina found herself following the rest of the serving slaves out into the Great Hall in single file where they all lined up against a wall.
The Great Hall was absolutely splendid to behold, vaulted ceilings, marbled columns, tapestry bedecked walls. Two tiers of long oak tables and benches ran the length of the room towards a higher dais that held the Head Table and ornate chairs for the Empress and her formal guests.
The centre of the vast hall was kept clear for the entertainment. Staring at it Gabitina remembered the gory tales of the beheadings and mutilations that usually passed for entertainment for the Destroyer of Nations.
Looking around with marvelling eyes Gabitina also took in the crowd filling the benches. Not the wastrel nobility she had imagined to see tonight but ordinary and rather loutish tradesmen it seemed.
"Who are these guys?" she whispered to the slapper standing in line beside her.
"The Weavers Guild, and be careful...they're pinchers!" came the disgusted reply, "Plus they're the worst tippers out of all the Guilds. Mean, petty little men. They bar professional women weavers from their Guild you know so that they can't ask for the set market prices. And everyone knows women weavers have the best craftsmanship. Sure aren't the Furies themselves women weavers! I hate 'em,"
She indicated the lower tiers with a dismissive nod of her head, "Nasty little jerkwads."
"So why does the Empress entertain them?"
The young server looked at Gabitina as if she'd taken leave of her wits.
"'Cos they're a Guild," came an answer that didn't enlighten Gabitina at all.
Suddenly a hush fell over the Hall as all rose to stand. Gabitina felt the girl beside straighten to attention, head slightly bowed. Uncertain of what was happening Gabitina followed her example.
The scent caught her attention first, a beautiful bouquet of rose under laid with warmer, spicier essences that made her breathe deeper, hungrily drawing in and savouring the seductive aroma. She could practically taste the darkness and promise the exotic scent held.
Next the soft rustle of expensive silks whispered close by and suddenly from the corner of her eye levelled at the floor a beautiful turquoise robe embroidered with crimson and golden dragons drifted past. She raised her line of sight and was momentarily stunned by the statuesque beauty that drew level with her.
Yowser! She is Goooorgeous!!
Pearls shimmered in blue black hair under the torchlight, their lustre echoed in the white flash of her smile. Her eyes an aching heavenly blue were harmonised in the hues in the Chinese silks. The slash of her gown revealed long, tan well muscled legs the flash of which nearly caused Gabitina's buckle.
As she passed her bowed serving staff she offered the merest nod of her own, pleased at their professional presentation and the preparations of her Great Hall for this evenings guest Guild.
Moving with uncensored elegance and the liquid power of a black panther she mounted the dais. Poised and regal she looked down on all those who stood before her; for Gabitina time seemed to stand still, before she sank gracefully onto the High Chair.
At that synchronised moment Tablefurtu clapped his hands and his staff sprang into action filing back into the passageway where vast platters for hors d'oeuvres were loaded on countertops waiting to be delivered to the Banqueting tables.
"Isn't the food tasted for the Empress?" Gabitina frowned as platters were seemingly lifted willy nilly and carted out to the Hall.
"Nah," the slapper answered shouldering a huge sliver plate of crab pate,
"Hasn't been one for years. Not much point with so much of the staff nibbling on the side."
To illustrate she scooped a huge dollop of pate onto one of the little biscuits and scoffed the lot with satisfied groan.
Gabitina scowled, all around her various titbits were disappearing into greedy mouths and pockets.
Why a seasoned assassin could poison the entire palace in one mealtime alone, she inwardly grumbled.
The security was a disaster. But it did open an opportunity for her to edge closer to her objective, her beautiful, sexy objective. No way was she going to waste time out here in the back benches serving oafs?
Xena broke off her conversation with Fidelius and Master Sphinctus the current President of the Weavers Guild. They had been engaged in a boring debate about the new alchemic dyes versus natural plant ones. It was a relief when an individual platter of truffles was set before her. Cook knew they were her favourites and this was a little treat to help her through what most of the palace knew to be her least favourite evening.
Eyes asparkle she reached out long tapered fingers for a tasty treat only to have them slapped away unceremoniously.
"Wait my Liege, they may be poisoned!"
A stern voice spoke at her shoulder. Startled she turned a little to see a young slave girl dressed in the while tunic of the Serving Staff stuff a particularly large truffle into her mouth.
Green eyes widened in delight as a thousand sensations exploded upon her taste buds in a display of culinary pyrotechnics. Another truffle soon followed the first, then a third.
The Conqueror watched in dismay as this new servant's cheeks soon bulged fuller than a greedy squirrels. Turning in askance to Fidelius he merely shrugged. He recognised the industrious young girl from the previous day in the kitchen and had assumed her diligence had resulted in quick promotion to whatever use Tabelfurtu deemed necessary. And tonight it seemed to be that of Food Taster.
Hesitantly Xena reached out again towards the rapidly emptying plate.
"No! I'm not quite sure yet."
Her hand was slapped away again and this time the plate was lifted up from her questing fingers altogether.
Xena fumed, this was totally out of the ordinary. Was there a Security Red Alert no one had told her about? Where had this truffle hogging upstart popped up from?
There would be questions asked at tomorrows Start the Day with a Smile meeting?oooh yes, big questions!
Master Sphinctus, having been lucky enough to eat his own truffles unmolested Xena noted with annoyance, began another long diatribe about the price of cotton imports from Egypt, taking full advantage of the Imperial ear for a long winded whinge.
Fidelius noticed the Conquerors normally bright eyes dull to stormy blue and decided to ride to the rescue with a swift change in conversation,
"How were the truffles My Liege? They were imported all the way from Gaul."
He and Cook were particularly pleased to have located a steady source of one of the Empress's favourite treats.
"Mmm, I'm not sure; I've yet to hear if they are safe to eat."
Annoyance and sarcasm dripped from her tongue in a way truffles did not.
Turning back to her place setting she found her sliver plate lying before her empty bar a few crumbs. Very few crumbs. She jolted in shock. A quick glance to her right told her the Food Taster had slid off once her back had turned.
"She said she was just going to check on your next course My Liege, and something about syllabub for dessert?" A nearby guard offered up seeing his Imperial rulers frown.
"I thought the idea was to wait until the food arrived at my table!"
Pouting she lifted the empty plate for closer inspection,
"About this new Food Taster, Fidelius?"
"Yes, Empress?" He leaned in to hear her instruction
"Could you clear it with Tabelfurtu if she's really necessary?"
"Of course. But why, is she deficient in anyway?"
Fidelius was anxious it was not often his gut feeling about someone was wrong. And he did feel this young slave girl could be exemplary if they could find the right niche for her. He just knew she was a rising star.
"No, no, quite the contrary." Xena frowned examining her plate, angling it in the torch light, "I believe these are lick marks."
The evening wore on and as predicted the guests became even more drunk and obnoxious. The Hall rang with the inane and annoying braying of her guests and the Conqueror was hungry and more than a little fed up.
At least she'd been able to wrestle about a pound of brussel sprouts and morsel of venison from her tenacious food taster. And she had a suspicion she only got the sprouts because the other didn't like them. Her syllabub dessert had not even made it to the table. But then neither had anyone's at the Top Table she was pleased to note. She had only managed to hold onto some wine by secreting a bottle at her heels swigging from it when the Food Taster wasn't looking.
What a bleeding awful night and the make things worst the torches were being doused to alert all that the 'entertainment' was about to begin. Maybe she could sneak off soon. Once the dancers titties were out no one would notice her quiet exit.
Suddenly the Hall was plunged into darkness with a great drum roll allowing the act to take up position in the centre floor. Minutes later at Maitre'D's direction all torches simultaneously flared exploding the Hall once more into brightness.
Xena turned just in time to see the sharp tip of a cruelly sharpened paring knife descend. Alarmed her hand flew to her hidden chakram but seemingly at the last possible moment the knife point redirected and speared the last sprout on her plate. Large round green eyes smiled innocently at her as her Food Taster popped the sprout into her mouth. Frowning at the odd experience the Conqueror eased her grip on her weapon and glared at the slavegirl.
Damn that was close! Quick, taste the food taste the food!
Gabitina scolded herself and her bad luck at the lighting coming back just as she was about to strike. Grimacing at the strong taste of her most unfavored vegetable Gabitina began to slowly chew.
Xena was about to ask what was the point of testing the sprouts now when she'd just eaten a plateful when her attention was pulled to the floor. Her guests were muttering angrily and drunken voices were beginning to rise.
Where exotic ladies in silken threads where supposed to be thrusting and gyrating stood a little wooden kiosk with a small curtained stage. Even as she looked on in confusion two furry hand puppets leapt up to the opening, a panda from Chin and a small woodland ferret she noted with interest.
"Good Evening boys and girls, or should I say Ladies and Gentlemen," the Panda began in a high squeaky male voice,
"Tonight let's talk about Puppetry in Education and the use of puppets for personal expression and impact on behavioural change..."
Xena raised her eyebrows at a very pale Fidelius,
"Oh dear," her murmured. "There must have been a mix up. The Early Years Therapy group won't be very pleased with those dancers?"
They both fixed worried eyes on the happy ferret who streamlined expertly from the panda, again in a high falsetto,
"We can also discus topics such as Process versus Product, puppet promotion of literacy and of course puppetry and multiple intelligences?"
At this point it became clear there was very little multiple intelligences in the room as sprouts, bread rolls and gnawed chicken wings began to pelt off the tiny kiosk. Several extremely drunk and disgruntled weavers leapt over the tables and began to forcefully sway the little stage too and fro causing its sole occupant to cry out in alarm. The Puppet Master being totally blind to what was going on outside suddenly found the Early Years Therapy group a very hostile bunch.
Guards drew swords and advanced onto the small debacle only to find themselves also targeted with leftover food from all sides. This led to much poking and thrusting with pikes and slapping with the flattened side of blades as more and more weavers and guards became embroiled in the unruly scuffle in the centre floor.
Serving staff tried to clear tables of possible missile material as quickly as possible as the crescendo of shouts, cries and curses rose. Many a weaver found himself shaken by the scruff of the neck by burly Guards enjoying the chance to get their own back for years of escorting this lot too and from the vomitorium.
The Empress of the Known World and her faithful Retainer looked on in wide eyed horror as the banquet entered the annals as the worst ever. The little kiosk toppled and shattered with a mighty crack. Guards were happily kicking weavers all around the floor, the polished marble allowing the guild members to slide quite a ways. It seemed possible the Guards may have had side bets on who could kick a weaver the furthest. Guild brothers were now on table tops throwing anything and everything possible at the man-handling soldiers, including at one point Master Tabelfurtu.
And then in the middle of the uproar Fidelius' tenor rang out as clear and alarming as any bell?
"The Empress! The Empress, someone has tried to kill the Empress! Someone has tried to poison the Empress!"
All activity froze as every eye swung towards Xena the Conqueror, Ruler of the Known World, Destroyer of Nations etc...
...finding her seemingly okay turned to whatever it was the Empress was watching with unmistaken horror?
...her little blond Food Taster.
The slim figure was bent over gagging and heaving and shuddering clutching at her belly. Finally, as if in slow motion her mighty heaves bore fruit as the little slavegirl cum food tester with much relief and explosive effort heaved the entire contents of her gorged stomach all over the marbled floor, the High Table, and alas the Empress of Everything's lap.
Conqueror's Chambers: The Start the Day with a Smile - Meeting 1.
"?and further more My Liege, the immediate dissolution of the Guild of Weavers will allow a free and open Market for unaffiliated craftswomen to present their goods to the populace at a reasonable cost that will ensure the weavers craft will continue to flourish for the feasible future."
He finished with a little flourish himself before taking his seat at the large round table in the Conquerors Strategy Room.
Xena nodded appreciatively and looked at each her Advisors and Generals in turn,
"Any further thoughts?"
Her dark brows rose although all knew the decision had already been made. The Weavers Guild had crossed the line once too often now they were history. Several heads shook negatively.
"This was too close a call, Empress,"
Domestica, General of the House Guard proffered her agreement. A tall warrior woman from Carthage her dark skin and eyes, braided black hair and flowing cloak sang of the romantic deserts from whence she came. She carried on,
"The continual disservice of this former Guild upon your hospitality made it a breeding ground of perfidy. It is no surprise that as the Guards were being deliberately distracted poison was slipped onto your plate. Were it not for your brave Food Taster I shudder to think?"
"There, there Domestica, don't blame yourself," Xena placated, "You rounded that rabble up and dumped them in the dungeon admirably. Kudos to Master Tabelfurtu for deciding to use a Food Taster. A stroke of genius as always. How is the Maitre'D?"
She turned to Septicaemus, Head of the Palace Centre for Healing and Outpatients. The wizened grey haired old gentleman cleared his throat and double checked the scroll before him supplied by one of his younger Healers who had actually dealt with the patient.
Septicaemus wouldn't know an injured man if one fell on him out of a window, except in that instance it would probably be him. It had been ages since he had dirtied his hands with the unwashed and the ill preferring to consult by imparting his wisdom over the shoulder of the Healer who was actually doing the work.
"Hmm, in her report Healer Penicilla states that Master Tabelfurtu has bruised kidneys and a slipped disc and will be bed ridden for at least a moon."
A lot of tut tuts and shaking of heads greeted this news.
"It seemed he impacted with the puppet theatre but survived. A very lucky man if I may venture to say so," the Head Healer imparted solemnly.
"Mmm, indeed." Xena nodded sagely and turned her attention back to Fidelius, "And what of the Puppeteer, has he been duly compensated?"
"Very much so, but unfortunately his artistic spirit is as shattered as his tiny theatre. He preferred to collect his dinars and leave behind his little furry friends." Here Fidelius shook his head sadly,
"So awfully depressing. He had so much to offer those less fortunate. I find it profoundly sad we will never know his theories on Process versus Product, and once again it is our young who will suffer the most."
Another collective sigh went round the table.
So much for start the day with a smile.
The Conqueror shook away negative thoughts and came to the last but most important item on the day's agenda,
"And finally Septicaemus, how fares our little hero, the Food Taster?"
Again he pulled across a scroll and carefully read it through before answering,
"Penicilla reports she is doing very well for one so severely poisoned. She puts it down to robust peasant stock and the constitution of an ox. Apparently the young girl is already on her feet and has made several attempts to leave the Sanitarium via various doors and windows in order to return to service."
"What a little trooper!"
Xena gave a radiant smile, everybody perked up at once, her smiles had a habit of doing that.
"So? Any other business before we wrap up here?" she asked as was customary.
Molio spoke up. Head of Espionage he was a shy man and didn't like to be in the spotlight longer than was necessary,
"We have received word that Caesar had provided funding to a local cell of the Resistance to procure the services of a professional assassin."
All were incredibly interested now and with all eyes on him he began to stammer.
"W?w?w?.we d...don't know w?who they've approached. B...but we believe they have b?been wooing at vast expense down at the Assassins Guild."
"Do we have a banquet for them?"
"No Conqueror. The Assassins Guild is the name of a dockside tavern."
"Oh, good. Keep both myself and Domestica informed please, Molio. I don't like it that Caesar is behind this. Find out all you can and as quickly as possible. It feels uncomfortable so soon after the Weavers blundering assassination attempt."
Xena rose to indicate the meeting over for the day and her elective representatives moved off to begin their delegated duties.
Corinth: The Resistance and Secret Message 2.
"But we had an extraordinary meeting of the sub-committee only yesterday. What do you mean there's another one?" Debutante snapped from the hair dressing couch he was draped over.
Paul Mallorca shrugged,
"That's what he said to tell you. There has been another message from the Palace and he wishes to announce its contents at an extraordinary meeting this afternoon."
He shrugged again to underline his growing disaffection for the entire Resistance movement and its boring committee meetings.
"Well tell him it's impossible for me to attend at such short notice. These ringlets don't just hang themselves! Tell him I'll meet him for lunch at the Rusty Greave?and it's on him!"
Nodding curtly Paul Mallorca stomped out of the Curliculum Hair Emporium determined to get a free lunch too.
Noontime found only three members of the sub-committee ensconced in the back booth of the Rusty Greave, a small tavern near the Western Gate renowned for its brisket.
"That'll be three brisket two ports and a cider," Bitter Eric gave the order to the serving wench before turning his attention to Debutante and Paul Mallorca,
"So where is he? I'm fed up with all these out of the blue extraordinary meetings he keeps calling. We never should have voted him in as Chairman, its gone straight to his head. And where's Hesta? Who's gonna write the minutes, 'cos I'll tell you here and now it's not going to be me?"
"Hesta refused to come. She said the Rusty Greave wasn't a fitting place for a Lady to be seen in. In fact none of the city taverns are and as long as we seem intent on conducting Resistance business in such dens of iniquity she will have nothing to do with us and we should collect the record books from her at the first opportunity, so there!" Paul Mallorca reported the Secretary's hissy fit verbatim.
"Brilliant!" snapped Bitter Eric, "she was the best speller too. Mind you she was only in the Resistance to meet eligible bachelors. You'd think she's have a better chance at a tavern?"
They sat in silence for a moment thinking of their late secretary's less than bewitching visage. Even with a dowry the size of Iberia a man would still think twice.
A steady clump, clump, clump brought their attention back to the present. Looking up they espied their Chairman limping heavily through the throng to their table with the aid of a crutch and the encumbrance of a broken leg.
"What the Hades happened to you?" spluttered Debutante.
"I told you?the secret message. Didn't Paul tell you?"
"He did, but not that you'd broken your bloody leg!"
"I didn't know!" Paul Mallorca was indignant.
All the communications between himself and Melonius had been carried too and fro by their various Domestic Appendages and Family Support Structure Operatives. He'd hadn't actually seen Melonius until this very moment.
"What the Hades did happen to you Melonius?" he repeated Debutantes question.
Typical scene stealing popinjay! Debutante glared at his Chairman after recovering from his initial surprise.
Melonius' chest swelled as if he had returned from a battlefield as the sole heroic survivor,
"Well Brethren, it was tough, but the message had to get through. I was walking past the Palace walls, near the back gate close to the Sanitarium when a massive clay flowerpot came out of nowhere and hit me right on the noggin!" He indicated the bandages that wreathed his head.
Receiving not so much as a blink in sympathy he sighed and ploughed on in what he knew was ultimately going to be a splendid story of daring and adventure.
"Anyhoo, I was scraped up of the cobbles by the Guard and carted straight away into said Sanitarium to be treated. And would you believe it, the minute I was left alone our very own Queen of Assassins entered the room like a fleeting shadow. Seems she had manoeuvred herself in to hospital posing as a patient?"
They all shifted as the serving wench re-appeared with food and drink.
"Why? I thought she was meant to be killing the Conqueror at last night's banquet? What's she doing in the Sanitarium?" Debutante objected.
"Didn't you hear about the Banquet?" asked Bitter Eric over salting his food.
"Did no one order me any food?"
"An attempt was made on the Conqueror's life and all pandemonium broke out. The entire Guild of Weavers was killed. The price of tablecloths has gone through the roof and as for blankets?"
"Oh sweet Zeus I've just ordered a complete set of bed linens for my nieces betrothal present!" Debutante paled.
"Girl, girl, could I have another brisket and a port over here?"
"Well I hope you agreed on the price when ordering," Bitter Eric said with relish knowing Debutante probably hadn't. "Otherwise you'll be well shafted."
"Can we please get back to the subject in hand? Namely my broken leg!"
"I thought you said a flowerpot hit you? How did you break your leg?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you!" Melonius' voice was rising all the time in exasperation.
"Sssh!" his fellow conspirators warned him, with full mouths he noticed huffily. He strained his neck towards the bar to see if his food was ready yet.
"As I was saying," he continued, "the Queen of Assassins snuck into my cubicle the moment my Healer had gone for herbs. I presume she had secreted herself there posing as a victim of the Weavers failed assassination attempt. Probably biding her time until the moment's right."
"And what did she say?"
"Well nothing at first. I was so surprised at seeing her there that before she could say a word I just launched straight in and told her what a sterling job we all thought she was doing, and how at the next Committee meeting I, as Chairman was going to commend her for a round of special applause for her services to?"
"Oh for gods sake man, get on which it! What did she say?"
The serving wench appeared at Melonius' elbow with his port and plate. "She said nothing?she scowled."
Melonius reached for his mug,
"And then she broke my leg."
This was unexpected and greeted in silence. The wench fussed about with a damp cloth wiping down the table top.
"She broke your leg?" Bitter Eric spluttered.
The wench cleaned up after him.
"Yes, very cleanly in two places. Then she threw me on the floor and ran away. Then the Healer came dashing in to find out why I was screaming at the top of my lungs. It was just assumed I'd fallen off the bed so I decided it best to play along."
"Well what was the point of that? What sort of message is that?Bore me with your gibberish and I'll break your legs?" Paul Mallorca asked confused.
"A bloody good one," conceded Bitter Eric.
"I was not boring. I was merely proffering an invitation on behalf of the committee for a job well done!"
"And you were well done."
"I haven't finished yet. After they splinted my leg she returned again as I was waiting for my Domestic Appendages to come with the litter and carry me home?"
The serving wench filled the salt and pepper pots.
"Weren't you scared?"
"Well, a little, but the Healer was there too so I reckoned I would probably be alright. Anyhoo she smiled at me this time...a sweet, sweet smile like a meadow in summer, alive with birdsong and perfumed with wild flowers?" he trilled.
"Painkilling herbs?" Bitter Eric whispered to Paul whirling his finger round his temple to display how out of it he presumed Melonius to be at the time in question. Paul nodded sagely.
"And!" Debutante was losing patience the man was an utter idiot!
The serving wench re-aligned the salt and pepper.
Melonius was thoroughly fed up. Nobody hung on his every word instead they all harangued him spoiling the scan and metre of his prepared speech. This lot had no mind for artistry at all!
"?and, she asked if she could scribe on my splint for luck. How sweet is that?"
"But she put you in the splint in the first place?"
"Yes," Melonius hissed, "don't you see? Her words of tomfoolery are the message I should imagine. Except I can't twist round to read them. One of you will have to."
"Why couldn't she have just told you the message when she first saw you? Before she broke your leg? Before you started talking to her?...oh!"
"Oh what?" Melonius frowned, it hadn't occurred to him there was a simpler pain free way with no leg breaking at all.
"Nevermind all that. Quick Paul, nip under the table and read his splint."
With eager scuffling Paul's muffled words soon floated up to all those present.
The bar wench scribbled what they assumed to be their bill on her papyrus pad.
"Bleedin puppets. Nw pn. Clsr 2 X. Limp suits u."
Paul re-emerged. "What puppets? Who was bleeding?"
"Well we're all puppets to that Harpy from Hades. Probably referring to the bloodbath of those poor weavers. And Nw pn well we all know what that means. New Pain! Zeus only knows what that girl's eyes are witnessing."
"Clsr 2 X?and still she tries to get closer to that Monstrosity?and she likes my limp!"
Notes duly taken the serving wench moved off to the back bar where her scrap of parchment was handed over to a tall cloaked figure.
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - mid morning.
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - mid morning."Enter."
The Guard pushed open the huge wooden door and indicated Gabitina should precede him into the Conqueror's private office. Sullenly his charge edged forward unhappy at meeting her prey face to face and not on her own terms.
Sheesh, you'd think she'd be a little happier. Ain't everyday a slave gets hailed a hero and given a private audience with the Guv'ner.
The young soldier mentally rolled his eyes at the behaviour if this odd little slip of a girl.
"The Food Taster as requested My Liege," He barked standing to full virile attention.
"Thank you," Xena gave her dismissal without looking up from the map she was studying intently.
Gabitina stood shuffling a little in the stillness of the scroll lined chamber. From under her lowered gaze she sneaked a glimpse of the Empress while her long dark tresses swayed over the large map of Greece spread out before her.
Gods but she is gorgeous!
The little slave girls eyes devoured the long leather clad legs and billowing silk shirt. A scarlet sash around her waist made it look as if she had just stepped off the seven seas.
Wild, untameable, sexy, yum?
All these words spilled through the assassins mind rather than thoughts like?
She favours her left, has a naturally protective stance, dagger in right boot, big jewellery acts as knuckle dusters, wonder if overhead chandelier can be arranged to fall on her?
Gabitina shook her head in self disgust. What was happening to her? She was losing her edge. Had this snake of a woman charmed her, hypnotised her? Seduced her with her considerable skills?
"Gabitina isn't it." A sultry voice reached out and caressed her.
Blue eyes looked up casually and pierced her very soul. The azure flash impaling her deeper than any lance. She gasped, then blanched, then spluttered, squirming on the pointy end of pure undiluted lust,
"Y...yes, my Liege."
For her part Xena Conqueror of the Known World, Destroyer of Nations, Empress of All Educated Earth gazed into the steady meadow green stare of her heroic Food Taster and felt her heart go...
'Boom, ticky, boom ticky, ooooo?I love you?ticky,'
"Shit," she flustered over the spill, mopping up with the loose end of her scarlet sash. Her hands were trembling and she felt all dithery and befuddled, what was wrong with her?
The big pink puddle in her chest had selfishly decided not to share her new found love with The Mind. It knew The Mind would only intellectualize and poo-poo the whole thing away and The Heart adored this new warm cosy feeling and wanted to wrap itself in it forever. The Heart did however share her new found love with her best friend The Tummy who danced around leaping and fluttering with joy. The Tummy was always a very giddy and excitable organ.
Xena thought she was going to be sick. Her stomach was full of butterflies and she was struggling to keep this meeting on track. She roughly cleared her throat,
"Well Gabitina, Fidelius tells me you hail from the hamlet of Potlid but I can't find it on the map? I can find a village called Poteidia..."
"No! Not Poteidia, definitely not. That's nowhere near where I live. No, not at all...no."
Xena blinked. Gabitina blinked. Xena's eyes returned to the soggy map,
"Mmm, Potlid it is then. But I still can't find it, what province?"
"Why do you want to know?"
Once again Xena blinked at the barely veiled hostility in the question,
"Well I was going to raise it?"
"I knew it! You were going to raze it to the ground!!!"
Gabitina leapt to the defence of her imaginary home hamlet. Xena recoiled at the passion in the young slave's voice. Then she leaned back into it slightly, unsure why.
"No, no, no?.I was going the raise it...to the status of village in honour of you. That way the Council could apply for a new water well and maybe a municipal library."
"Oh! Why would you do that?"
"As a thank you for saving me from assassination by poison. I reward all my servants for service rendered but this was a remarkable achievement. And on only your second day too! Even as all my Guards were being dragged into that distracting debacle you stood firm at your post and literally saved my life!"
Xena beamed at her until the young girls thighs trembled.
If she doesn't stop turning that sun scorch of a smile on me I'm gonna jump her right here and now...and not in a good murdering way!
Gabitina decided to keep it to herself that sprouts made her sick to the toes of her sandals and that last nights heroics were no more than an upchuck at a very opportune moment.
"Well Potlid no longer exists. One fateful day the biggest Scourge of all Greece descended on the tiny hamlet and decimated it."
Gabitina took the opportunity to preach a little of the popular propaganda that was muttered in villages and taverns throughout the land.
"Ah," Xena nodded sadly, "measles."
Gabitina frowned at this but had to concede with a small shrug that measles was indeed the current biggest scourge in the Greek Empire. The last biggest scourge being the evil dictator standing before her?in tight figure hugging leather that smoothed over that high round ass like melted butter?oops!
"So how did you come to join the Palace staff, Gabitina?"
Xena struggled on with her small talk, unwilling for the little blond slave to leave her just yet.
"I was wooed at vast expense from the local slave market My Liege."
"Oh?lucky me." She answered awkwardly.
Gabitina just glowered.
"Hmm," The Empress cleared her throat and tried again, small talk being something that was not on her Many Skills list. "So?mmm?"
"Will I continue to act as your Food Taster My Liege?"
Gabitina asked trying to establish if it was worth her while stealing some Deathly Nightshade from the Sanitarium dispensary. Xena looked pleased that someone had taken charge of the small talk,
"Well, not if you don't want too. Cook has added strident new measures to the whole culinary side of Palace procedure. And I understand Fidelius has taken note of your skill set as listed in the Slave Directory and is seeking you out a more worthy position."
Yeah, on top of you!
Gabitina's libido was practically bursting out of her cotton under-pantaloons.
Knock, knock, at that moment the good Retainer himself peeked around the door before letting himself in. He beamed at seeing two such divine yet diverse specimens of Greek womanhood happily conversing before him. They were indeed the yin and yang of loveliness.
Advancing into the chamber he announced,
"My Liege, I have found the perfect and most rewarding position for Gabitina to rest, recuperate and serve you fully..."
Yeah, on top of the Empress, Bozo!!
Gabitina mentally cheered the old fool on,
Stuff the municipal library idea!
"?the Palace Library! They need an apprentice scribe. Gabitina is listed as literate. She'd be perfect!"
He was very pleased with the idea.
Gabitina's face fell and the glower quickly returned.
But I'll never see her?gods dammit talk about an elusive target!
Xena's face fell.
But I'll never see her!
'Boom ticky, boom ticky?Nooooooooooooooooo...ticky'.
"Oh!" They both spoke despondently at the same time.
"Do neither of you like the idea?"
"Yea, it'll do?" Until I came up with a better murderous scheme.
"Whatever, if it's okay with Gabitina."
Again they spoke at the same time and shuffled their feet awkwardly glowering at the floor.
Fidelius' frown deepened. He expected a little more enthusiasm that this, after all he had to actively go looking for this little opening.
"Well I'd better go find this library?"
"Sure?see ya...thanks again?"
As he watched both spoke over each other and did that awkward dance again. The slave girl started to sidle gloomily towards the door and the Empress huffily buried her blushing face in her map. Fidelius felt as if he'd burst in and interrupted something? What on earth was going on?
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - mid afternoon.
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - mid afternoon.
Fidelius finished with a low nervous bow.
"I don't understand."
Xena did indeed have a look of total misunderstanding as she regarded her Retainer with growing dismay.
"Britannica, My Liege, one of the furthest outposts of your Empire. Borders that horrible Caledonian lot?the Celts with the loud tartan trousers and swinging kilts?" He tried to be helpful.
"I know that! That's not the bit confusing me!"
Xena actually shouted, she hadn't shouted for nearly two years and it startled them both.
Fidelius was becoming distressed now, he didn't like it when the Empress shouted, didn't like it at all, and it made him well up inside
"?well a sailing galleon is the most efficient way to get ther?."
"I know that too!"
Xena, still shouting, was on her feet striding towards him,
"What I want to know is how Erma and Desidme ended up on board!!"
She flung her hands in the air in great agitation. Fidelius blinked several times before carefully answering,
"Because My Liege, you ordered it."
Now it was Xena's turn to blink,
"I! I ordered it! Me! I ordered BOTH my handmaidens to board a ship setting sail immediately to Britannica, the edge of the Known World?"
Fidelius nodded sincerely,
Ooh she was in one snippy mood today!
"Indeed you did My Liege. I have the duplicate order here."
His hand trembled as he passed over the parchment. Xena snatched it from him glowering. Holding it up to her face she closely examined it. Sure enough it was an Imperial command for her two handmaidens to pack up and go forthwith to the docks. There they were to introduce themselves to the Captain of the Mal de Mar and up-hook to Britannica to prepare for the arrival of the Empress. Shit!
She finally found something in the clever forgery to wrangle about,
"...this 'X' is not my 'X'! Anyone can see that! My 'X' has a much better flourish that this one! What were you all thinking?"
"Well, in our defence My Liege 'X' is now the preferred signature of the illiterate. It is the most overused signatory initial in the whole Empire. It's a pity you hadn't been called Wendy or something just a little more?"
"Shutup! Xena is a wonderful name."
She spluttered angrily,
"Wendy Warrior Princess! How far do you think I'd have gotten in my campaign to conquer the Known World with an appendage like that? Sometimes you can be so dense Fidelius?"
Xena tried to rein in her sharp tongue seeing her Retainer on the verge of tears.
Sighing she tried another tack,
"Look, if everyone is using 'X' as a signature 'cos they can't write their own name then we'll just have to step up the adult literacy classes." She rationalised.
"In the meantime, how could this have happened?"
She shook the forged parchment at him,
"Where did this originate from. And why would someone want to send my handmaidens all the way to the very edge of the civilisation itself?"
"I'll look into it at once Conqueror,"
He was thankful to at last be able to beat a retreat to the door.
"I want answers within the hour,"
She called after him,
"Oh and Fidelius find me a new handmaiden until the other two can be turned around."
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - within an hour.
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Inner Chamber - within an hour.
Fidelius flourished his pointer stick at the map of the Palace pinned onto the Chamber wall.
"Here, in the Empresses Inner Chamber. And here, in my own Retainers office?"
... The pointer snapped at the map again to indicate his own suite of rooms...
"Oh and here?in the Palace Library where we keep all the stationary supplies...that makes three I suppose."
He finally pointed to the west wing and the impressive Library layout.
Before him in a little row sat the Empress of the Known World, Molio her Chief of Espionage, Domestica General of the House Guard and Beleaguer, General of her Field Army who had been called in especially for this meeting.
Brinia, Admiral of the Fleet had also been summoned, not that she could do anything about the Mal de Mar as it was on a one way trip. Well she had offered to send a faster vessel after it with a message but it was decided it was easier to just replace the handmaidens than U turn a cargo ship that was already well underway. They would just have to wait and return on the next ship to leave the Londinium docks.
Fidelius turned to face his esteemed audience,
"The real question is why? Why would someone what Erma and Desidme hundreds of leagues away?" he asked sternly.
"It's not as if they contributed in anyway to your security My Liege," Domestica added, she too was concerned at this event.
"It comes so hard on the heels of the poisoning attempt and the news that Caesar has a hired assassin after me."
Xena turned in her seat towards the shrinking Molio,
"Any new information on that?"
Molio turned crimson and ducked his chin into his chest mortified as all eyes turned to him. Mumbling he responded,
"Mmm w?well we're k?keeping a local Resistance group under surveillance. One of their n...number tried to sneak into the Palace through the Sanitarium by deliberately breaking his own leg. But luckily the Healer in attendance sent him home with a herb prescription and strict instructions to rest. W...we think he must be the assassin they used Caesars funds to commission."
"By Zeus?broke his own leg in order to get close to the Empress," Beleaguer hissed,
"The man's a monster. A killing machine. Let my boys drag him in for questioning Conqueror!"
"N...not yet." Molio interjected, "We have him covered. He is more useful to us on the outside. Already we have a new lead on a local beauticians', some of them spend an inordinate amount of time there. It has to be a front for their Head Quarters."
"Splendid Molio keep at it!" Xena beamed, at last something was going right.
"Well at least we know who the assassin is now."
Beleaguer grumbled mildly placated though he was still eager to crunch some heads in his massive hands. A bad tempered bear of a man he struck terror into his troops who were much more afraid of him that any enemy.
Beleaguer was a General who led from the back of his army; he knew his men were too terrified of him to retreat. The only possible hope for survival was to push on forward as far away from him as possible; and so Xena's forces easily took all before them.
The only tiny sliver of his heart not dedicated to swift death, total destruction and long, drawn out torturous death was the pride and loyalty he held for his Conqueror. If Beleaguer had ever felt, recognised or understood love in his lifetime it would have been first for his Empress and after that for the woman who gave him life then left him wrapped in a flour sack in a plough furrow?moma.
"At first I was worried it might be Gabrielle of Poteidia..." He rumbled on.
A uniform gasp ran through the room, Gabrielle of Poteidia, the Golden Wolf, was a whispered curse among the elite who governed the modern era of New Greece.
Molio spoke so firmly the others were temporarily brought up short,
"It has been confirmed that the Queen of Assassins has accepted a contract on Cleopatra commissioned by her own Priests of Tut. The assassin in question is most likely floating on a barge down the Nile with a blow pipe as we speak."
A collective sigh greeted this welcome news. It would be a sad day indeed for Greek to turn on Greek. Greek turned on Egyptian was another matter entirely, and even though in theory Cleopatra was an ally of the Empire the inner machinations of her court was none of their business.
"So?why were your girls sent to Britannica?"
Brinia steered the conversation back on course. A stocky Moorish woman she had earned her sea legs sailing with Sinbad and seen more of the world than her Empress had ever coveted.
Full of stories and songs of the sea she could charm even the most determined land lubber onto one of her vessels to sail and stitch and scrub for her. Though most of the time she preferred to just club'em over the head and Shanghai them; quicker and just as effective.
"I think it is a lure,"
"A trick to make it look as if the Empress is about to visit Britannica and maybe other outlaying posts. To send out the false message that she is leaving Grecian shores. But again why?"
They murmured and again all eyes turned to Fidelius. He deflated before them sighing deeply knowing it was up to him to unravel the extraordinary events of the past few days.
Corinth Palace: The Conquerors Private Suite.
Damn, a sudden thought raced through her head, should I have run the bath first? How long does it take to fill one of them things? Shit I'm useless at this stuff. I should have reminded Fidelius about new staff. I'll get on it first thing tomorrow.
Walking through to her bathing annex still struggling with the knot she smirked as she remembered the good old days when a scrub down happened every other month in the huge camp cooking cauldron. It had been dragged into her tent by at least a dozen men and a fire lit under it until the metal sides if not the water reached a bearable temperature.
Chuckling to herself she recalled the stories about how the camp cook would afterwards use her bathwater to make a fish broth for the men. Juicy Lucy stew they called it?the Lucy being a moniker for Luck she understood. This would never be admitted to her face but she had skills in finding everything out.
Soldiers swore it made them more virile and lucky on the battlefield, so pandering to their suspicions she sometimes arranged to have a bath on the eve of her more important battles to give them that little bit of a boost. She believed in keeping up morale, no matter what form it took.
No more steaming cauldrons for her, she had come a long way since then. Walking barefoot into the marbled chamber with the huge sunken bath her steps faltered at the gush of hot water and the balmy steam rising to fill the room.
She blinked through the haze to find Gabitina kneeling by the rushing water as it foamed out of ornate golden dolphins. Delicately the slavegirl, now arrayed in the cerulean blue cotton shift of Xena's personal servants, added oils and rose petals to the surging depths. The fragrance bloomed in the heat and began to titillate the Conquerors nose.
"Gabitina? Why are you here?"
She questioned softly as her bad mood lifted and billowed away in the scented haze surrounding her.
"Fidelius said you needed a new body slave. And as it seems I'm allergic to the parchment in the Library he re-located me." She replied smoothly.
"Allergic to parchment?"
"Yea?who knew? Seems it makes me sneeze?and sniff...annoyingly, until the Head Librarian was about to pull his hair out. So I was re-located. Fortunately for me you needed a new body slave. How opportune."
The Conqueror just nodded hands plucking ineffectually at the knot in her sash. Inside her chest there was a...
'Boom ticky, boom ticky, Whoohoo, ticky.'
'What? What is it? What's going on? Tell me!'
"May I help you disrobe, My Liege?"
The fingers plucking at the knot doubled their anxious efforts.
I can't disrobe in front of her. It's ?it's?no, she's an innocent. I'll send her away.
Xena's conscience made anxious efforts as well.
Oh my gods her shirt is open and got me a glimpse of some of that Promised Land. Well, the hillocks at least. Come to mama little titties?mamma wants to kiss her good little girls nite nite ?
Gabitina's horny gaze focussed on her Mistress.
The feral gleam was misread as grim determination for the task ahead and made Xena feel certain it would be unfair and inappropriate to have this young innocent woman attend to such an intimate need as bathing the Empress.
"To be honest I usually undress and bathe myself. Erma just ran the bath and as you've already done that you're free to g?"
Before her sentence was even finished her pants were pooled round her ankles and her shirt lay in a crumpled heap five yards away.
Wide eyed and totally naked bar her scarlet sash, she stood in mild shock as her new handmaiden wrestled with the stubborn knot trying to release the last remaining stitch of cloth covering her body.
So attentive was she to this task Xena could hear her heavy breathing beside her. Her skin flushing under the hot wet bursts of air that flashed across her arms and shoulder. Embarrassed to be standing nude, Xena was very shy about her body; she tried to sidle over to the steps leading down in the bathing pool.
"Please never worry, I can work on the knot in the bath. The hot water will loosen the fibre...honest?off you go now. Take some time to yourself."
As she spoke she lowered her body, sash and all into the luxuriant water, a satisfied groan leaving her lips as skin and muscle immediately surrendered to its sensuous caress.
"No, seriously?thank you?" Xena's mind came back on track, "go and have an early eve?"
Before she realised what was happening Gabitina had stripped and dive bombed to join her in the water. Surfacing she latched onto the Conqueror who immediately felt the small imprints of pebbled nipples pressing into her bare back.
"Oh no, Master Fidelius was very explicit in his commands. I was to attend to you every need Empress."
Her arms cradled the Conqueror from behind and two small, very soapy hands began to stroke a lean tanned belly in tiny circles.
"Eeep?" Xena's mind snapped shut as sensation exploded inside of her. She felt hot breath on her shoulder, the caress of soft naked flesh against her back and arms, the flutter of fingers across her stomach making the muscles twitch and dance. Her knees buckled under her.
I'm going to faint?and probably drown. There's no blood getting to my head, it's all?somewhere else?Oh my gods?what a good place to keep all your blood.
"N...no, no really Gabitina, I'll wash myself. There is absolutely no need?"
She tried to pull away but the surprisingly strong arms tightened around her. Bouncing slightly in the buoyant water Gabitina began a soft massage of the Conquerors soapy back with only her breasts.
Oh?gods this is sooo sweet. I was gonna drown her but now...now?ouh yea?now can wait?I'll come up with a new plan tomorrow...yea, tomorrow...after tonight...yea...mmmm...
A deep groan rumbled from the Empresses chest and her body relaxed back into the slavegirl's caresses. Every muscle she had ever owned liquefied under the skilled seduction of her handmaiden's touch. She was as limp and pliable as a rag doll.
"Let me soap you Mistress,"
Gabitina crooned into her rosy pink ear,
"until you're screamy clean."
"Don't you mean squeaky clean?"
A lazy hand trailed down her belly and swirled in the forest of thick black curls, the unexpected intimate touch caused Xena to squeak in surprise.
"Nah," the voice whispered, "squeaky is just too easy."
The Conqueror jerked out of her lust daze and decided to struggle over to the side of the bath and away from her wriggling companion if only to draw breath and calm down. Unfortunately Gabitina had a secure grip on the red sash and the object of her ablution was going nowhere.
Whoa there pony girl. Steady while I mount up.
"I'm clean, I'm clean."
The Conqueror gasped hanging onto the tiled edge like a drowning man.
"Then let me dry you with my hair, my Liege."
"You have no hair...it's all cut short and sort of funky...I like it a lot, who does it for you? And its soaking wet!"
Xena tried desperately to keep on track but everytime she looked at the young wet nubile slave awaiting her every whim she went all weak at the knees...and other places weren't faring too well either.
"My mouths kinda dry. How about I use my tongue?"