There was a feast going on in the royal palace in Theotokou. A loud, raucous feast, more suited to a dockside tavern than to a king's dining hall. Pastry crumbs and gnawed bones littered the sea-green mosaic floor. The embroidered linen table cloths were so liberally stained with wine and grease and assorted sauces that it was hard to tell their original color. A pair of oversized black hounds, the king's favored pets, were busily engaged in tearing the green brocade curtains to shreds.
Ares leaned back in his chair, cradled his wineglass in his cupped hands, and tried to convince himself that he was having a good time. The feast was in his honor, after all. He gulped down the remains of his wine -- really *good* wine, some of the best he'd had this century -- and lifted his glass. A servant immediately appeared to refill it.
"A toast!" A voice boomed, rising above the shouting and the laughter. Leander, the recently-crowned King of Theotokou, climbed up to stand on his chair. He was swaying a bit, having proposed half a dozen toasts already this evening. "To victory! And to the great god who will grant it to us!" He turned toward the head of the table, and raised his glass in salute. "To Ares!"
"To Ares!" A ragged chorus of drunken voices took up the name, turning it into a chant, accompanied by clatter of glasses and knife handles against the table top. "Ares! Ares! Ares!"
Yes, Ares decided as he lifted one hand to acknowledge the shouts. He was enjoying himself. Definitely. No doubt about that.
He was extremely pleased with himself for having found Leander. The man was brave, charismatic, vicious on the battlefield, loyal to his god, and dumb as a post. He'd started out as just another warlord, hacking and slashing his way across northern Greece. But a combination of courage, brutality, and just plain luck brought him a surprisingly impressive string of victories, which in turn brought him to Ares' attention. Before long, the god and the warlord had struck a deal. Ares would choose the campaigns and plan strategy and tactics. Leander would carry out orders, and lead his men to more victories. And the cities of Greece would fall, one after another, like dominoes. Theotokou was just the beginning.
This was exactly what Ares had been searching for, exactly what he needed. The God of War was currently in an uncertain position on Olympus. He had the official gratitude of his fellow gods, but official gratitude wasn't worth much when pitted against distrust and resentment, not to mention plain old embarrassment at being proven wrong. It wouldn't be long before they got tired of being grateful, and started thinking of all the ways that a weakened God of War could be turned to their advantage. And weakened he was, much as it galled him to admit it. The victory over Dahak had come at a high price.
The scars on Ares' face itched. The patch over his right eye suddenly felt like sandpaper against his skin. He kept his hands on the table, refusing to do anything as undignified as to scratch. The voices roaring his name lost their power to please as he realized that half of them were coming from a side of the room that he couldn't see without turning his head. He resisted an impulse to fire a lightning bolt in that direction.
Leander climbed down from his chair, obviously pleased with the success of his toast, and shouted for more wine. A serving-girl sauntered over with a pitcher, hips swaying, plump breasts threatening to fall out of a ridiculously low-cut bodice. The palace was full of such "maids," all hired since Leander's coronation. This one, with her henna-dyed hair and rouged cheeks, seemed likely to get lucky tonight. Leander hooked one arm about her waist and nuzzled her cleavage, oblivious to the fact that she was pouring more wine onto the table than in his glass. One of the best vintages in Greece was dripping from the tablecloth into his lap, and the idiot didn't even notice.
Ares knew it was irrational to be irritated by the display. He'd *wanted* an idiot, after all. Someone who would fight on command and follow orders and consider the spoils of battle to be sufficient reward for his efforts. And if he then chose to spend some of those spoils on dinar-a-dozen whores, well, that would just make Ares' life easier. Because there was one other reason he'd chosen Leander, besides the mortal's big courage and small brain.
The man had a remarkably pretty wife.
She wasn't at the feast. She was seldom seen outside of her rooms. Queen Ianthe of Theotokou. The legitimate queen, daughter of old King Onetor, whose head Leander had nailed to the city gate to announce his conquest. Leander had married her to bolster his position as the new ruler, or so he said. Ares thought it was stupid. Possession was nine-tenths of the law, after all, and if you planted your ass on the throne and proved you could defend it, it didn't matter who you were married to. But Leander seemed to like the idea of having a real queen for a trophy wife, so Ares left him to it. And the girl certainly made a *nice* trophy. Creamy skin and pale blue eyes, honey-colored hair and small hands… Ares usually didn't go for that petite, doll-like type, but every now and then he was willing to make an exception.
"My Lord Ares?"
The voice, coming from somewhere on Ares' right, caught him completely by surprise. He reacted on pure instinct, striking out in the direction of the sound. A moment later, the timid tone and deferential words of the speaker penetrated, but by then it was too late. The servant boy had gone flying in one direction, and the platter of roast venison in another.
Ares felt the blood rush to his face, embarrassment compounded by anger. He looked around quickly, but no one seemed to have noticed his gaffe. Everyone was too drunk, and too distracted. The men seated nearest to Ares had noticed the cowering, fallen boy, but they apparently assumed -- or wisely pretended to assume -- that he had tripped. Ares glowered at them, and they all suddenly became fascinated with the contents of their plates.
Ares' patience with the proceedings abruptly ran out. They were all fools, these mortals, and just because he was willing to use them didn't mean he had to spend his evenings in their company. He took one last gulp of wine, carelessly tossed the glass aside, and vanished from the room in a flare of blue light.
Alone in his throne room in the Halls of War, he summoned a couple of drones to spar with -- suits of armor animated by spirits of fallen soldiers whose friends or families failed to make the appropriate sacrifices to Hades. Not exactly a worthy fighting challenge for the God of War, but useful exercise and a good way to vent his temper. He'd spent many hours during the last couple of months hacking them to bits.
He was back to his usual fighting form now, or at least close enough to appear that way to any observer less expert than himself. He'd learned to adjust for his flattened depth perception and his narrowed field of vision. He was the God of War, and Greece was awash with war at the moment. Athena would tell him -- had told him, repeatedly -- to stop sulking and rejoin the family.
Athena was a snotty, interfering bitch.
He swung his sword in a high, vicious arc, beheading both drones with one stroke. They stood there for a moment, swaying comically from side to side, then collapsed into two piles of leather and metal. One polished breastplate bounced across the floor to land with a clatter at Ares' feet. He looked down at it, and his own distorted reflection glared back. Tousled black hair and a neatly trimmed beard. White scars contrasting sharply against bronze skin. A black patch where the right eye should've been. Ares gave an angry growl, and waved his hand over the breastplate. A dark green patina spread over the metal surface, blotting out the reflection. It didn't help.
He didn't have to look like that, not to everyone. He was a god. He could cloak himself in illusion, present a flawless appearance to the world. The other gods would see right through it, of course, but mortals would never know. It wouldn't be that much different from disguising himself as a woman's husband in order to enter her bed, and he was planning to do *that* the very next night. There was no reason not to go among mortals wearing his old, perfect face.
He never did it. Couldn't really say why. The God of War was not given over to introspection. The idea bothered him, so he didn't do it. End of discussion.
With a low, frustrated curse, Ares reformed the two drones at his feet and threw himself headlong into another attack.
* * * * * * * * * *
"If you don't help us, then Iolkos will fall." King Agapenor spoke with the flat, empty tones of a man resigned to his fate. But his eyes, set deep in a lined, hollow-cheeked face, held a cautious spark of hope. Xena shifted from foot to foot, avoiding the king's gaze. She hated when people looked at her like that.
"You have an army," she said.
Next to her, Gabrielle stirred but didn't actually say anything. Xena didn't look her way. She knew what Gabrielle wanted to do. But Gabrielle had no experience with situations like these. Xena rather hoped to keep it that way.
Agapenor was shaking his head. He was an old man, past his seventieth
summer, with silver hair and a frail build. From what Xena had heard of
him, he had never been a warrior-king, not even in his youth. He'd never
needed to be. Iolkos had been at peace for three generations. Unfortunately,
times were changing.
Xena suspected he was right. She'd been hearing about Leander lately. Not exactly a great general, by all indications, but with a great deal of fighting experience, and his men were disciplined and loyal. A proper army, like that of Athens or Corinth, would eat him for breakfast, but here in this normally peaceful region, he was a genuine threat.
Xena looked down at the small casket Agapenor had placed on the table in front of her. It was filled to overflowing with jewels -- rubies by the handful, a diamond the size of an egg, hammered gold bracelets studded with emeralds, long strands of perfectly matched pearls. He had offered it to her, as payment for her aid. In advance.
"I'll consider your request." She snapped the lid shut, and pushed the casket back toward Agapenor. "And you can keep your jewelry. Come on, Gabrielle."
"I've had reports from my spies in Theotokou," Agapenor spoke quickly, with the air of a man playing a final card. "They say Leander has struck a deal with Ares. They were seen feasting together in the palace."
"Figures," Gabrielle muttered.
Xena kept her expression neutral. "I'll consider your request," she repeated. "And give you an answer tomorrow. Good day, Your Majesty."
They walked out of the palace into the main street, and began the quarter-mile walk toward the inn where they'd taken a room. Xena looked around as she walked, thinking about blockades and defenses. It didn't look too promising. Iolkos was built with an eye for beauty and comfort, not defense. There were wide, straight streets and airy squares, beautiful to stroll in but useless if you were trying to lay an ambush. Most of the buildings were timber, and Xena could see no sign of adequate fire-fighting preparations. A dozen flaming arrows fired over the walls could throw the entire city into chaos. The people who bustled in the streets and milled in the marketplaces looked well-fed and cheerful and as unprepared for battle as any population Xena had ever seen.
*I could take this place with a hundred men, given some decent intelligence and a few days to prepare.*
Gabrielle, of course, wasn't thinking along those lines at all.
"What's wrong, Xena?"
"What makes you think anything's wrong?"
"Why are you being so hesitant? These people need our help. I can't believe you're even *thinking* about refusing them!"
"It's not a matter of refusing them, Gabrielle. I'm not sure I *can* help them."
Gabrielle rolled here eyes. "Oh, come on--"
"They want me to make Leander go away quickly. That's not going to happen. If he's planning to head south and conquer wider territory -- and he must be planning it, especially if Ares is behind him -- then he needs the wealth of Iolkos to keep his troops paid and supplied. He won't just give up and leave after one try, or two, or ten. He'll keep coming for as long as it takes, until either Iolkos falls or his army is destroyed."
"Especially if Ares is behind him."
"Exactly." Xena really, really hoped that Agapenor's intelligence was wrong, but she couldn't quite bring herself to believe it. This was exactly the sort of situation that Ares liked best. A promising young warlord poised to move on to the next level of conquest. A rich but vulnerable territory. The possibilities were endless. She knew Ares was keeping busy -- there had been small skirmishes breaking out all over Greece for months -- but this was the first sign that he was actually working toward a goal, rather than just fooling around.
She knew why he was doing it, of course. His power had to be depleted after the battle with Dahak. He was trying to rebuild. She understood. But that didn't mean she was going to allow it.
*Damn. I hate long sieges.* Food shortages and water rations. Endless boredom, punctuated by bursts of violence. A slow, tedious, nerve-wracking waiting game that nearly always ended in bloodshed. Agapenor thought he was going to solve all his problems by getting Xena to lead his army for him. But his problems were only beginning.
"So what are we going to do?" Gabrielle persisted.
Xena sighed. There was only one possible answer to that, really, no matter how much she might dislike the odds.
"We will stay and help them, of course. However long it takes."
"Ooookay." Gabrielle looked slightly confused. "Why didn't you just say so to the king, then? Why all this stuff about thinking it over, and giving him an answer tomorrow?"
"Because if I told him yes right there and then, he would want me to get started drilling with the troops right away. We've been travelling for a week. I want a hot bath, and a nice, leisurely dinner, and a good night's sleep."
"Hello?" Gabrielle was staring at her as if she'd just sprouted horns and a tail. "Xena, why are you talking like me all of a sudden? You *never* want any of those things. Useless indulgences, you say. They'll make you soft, you say. Nothing like a dip in a cool stream and a camp-out under the stars, you sa--"
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Xena stifled a laugh. She had said all those things to Gabrielle, sometimes seriously and sometimes in jest, at one time or another. Trust the bard to remember it all, and to quote it back at an opportune moment. "But this may be our last chance in months. If this siege drags on into the winter, even I might start wishing for a useless indulgence. But the opportunity won't be there then."
Gabrielle's easy smile faded a bit. "You really think it could last that long?"
"It could." Xena looked at Gabrielle's troubled face, and wondered if she stood a snowball's chance in Tartarus of keeping her partner out of this mess. She was planning to tell Agapenor the next morning to start evacuating non-combatants from the city. Maybe she could send Gabrielle with them, make up some pretext about protecting the civilians, get her safely south before the fighting started…
"Oh, no, you don't!" Gabrielle's indignant voice startled Xena out of her reverie. "Don't even think about it, Xena, I'm telling you, wipe that look off your face right now!"
Xena blinked at her. "What look?"
"That 'gosh, how will I ever protect poor little Gabrielle from all the world's unpleasantness?' look. It's way too late for that, so don't even bother trying. I'm not going anywhere."
"I wasn't going to suggest it," Xena protested weakly. Gabrielle kept glaring.
"Good. As long as you keep not suggesting it. Now come on, let's get back to the inn. If what you say is true, I'll be wanting a hot bath myself."
Brother and sister exchanged cool, neutral nods in the doorway before Apollo stepped aside to let Athena enter.
"This is an unexpected visit, sister. Not that it isn't always a pleasure to see you, of course. What brings you to my humble abode?"
Athena rolled her eyes. *Humble, indeed…* Apollo's solarium was generally considered to be one of the most beautiful places on Olympus, and justifiably so. It was an immense circular chamber with a domed glass roof, always flooded by golden sunlight. The floor was gold-veined marble, the walls pale sandstone. There was a little grotto in the back, with an artificial waterfall and a pair of laurel trees shading the entrance. Aside from that, the decoration was remarkably simple. Whatever flaws Apollo might have, gaucheness wasn't one of them.
"We need to talk," Athena told him. Apollo gave a courtly little bow and offered her his arm.
"Do we? Then we shall talk. Have a seat."
He waved one hand carelessly, and a low couch appeared in the center of the room, with a table next to it. Another wave produced a pitcher of wine and two glasses. Athena sat down next to her brother and let him fill her glass, but did not drink right away.
"I'm concerned about Ares," she said.
Apollo maintained his relaxed posture and lazy smile, but she was sure she saw his eyes flicker.
"Ares is a big boy, Athena. He can take care of himself."
"He didn't come to the last family gathering. Or the one before that, or the one before. Didn't bother to send an excuse either."
Apollo shrugged, and took a slow sip of his wine. "So he's got no manners. We knew that. If you're going to start worrying about it now…"
"It's not a joke, Apollo. Father *ordered* him to come the last time, and Ares just ignored him. It's as if he's pushing on purpose, trying to see how far Father's gratitude will go."
"Maybe he is. Leave him to it. It's none of our business."
"I say it is. We owe him, Apollo."
"We do?" Apollo's voice took on an aggrieved tone. "Frankly, I don't see how I owe him anything. All right, so I gave him a hard time at dinner that night. I've been giving him a hard time for centuries, he's always dealt before. How was I supposed to know he was going to go off and fight Dahak all by himself? It's not my fault, you know."
There were times, Athena thought wryly, when she really wanted to smack Apollo. "I'm not trying to apportion blame here. I'm trying to help Ares."
"No offense, sister, but at a guess I would say Ares wants your help about as much as he wants world peace."
"You're probably right," Athena admitted. She had tried to speak to Ares several times since he resumed his duties as God of War. But he was bitter and angry, and utterly determined to interpret every word and gesture in the worst possible light. There was no talking to him.
*Maybe I should've tried harder.* That thought had been nagging at her for weeks now. Ares had expressed, in extremely rude terms, a desire to be left alone. So she'd left him alone, and so had everybody else, and it hadn't improved his temper one bit. If anything, it had made him surlier. It had to stop, and soon, before he angered Zeus beyond the limits of gratitude. Athena had lived through enough family feuds over the centuries, she really didn't need to ever see another one.
"I know he doesn't want my help. That's why I came to you instead of him."
"There you go trying to drag me into it again. What can you *possibly* expect me to do?"
"I was hoping…" Athena hesitated, knowing she was about to broach a sensitive subject, "that maybe you could try to heal him again."
"Oh, not *that* again!" Apollo slammed his glass down on the table, and rose jerkily to his feet. "How many times do I have to tell you, Athena, I've done everything I can! What, you think I was holding back just so I could impress you now?"
"No," Athena sighed. She knew Apollo well enough to know that he considered his lack of success in treating Ares' injuries to be a severe personal failure. Apollo might not care much for Ares, but he took his function as the God of Medicine very seriously. "I'm sorry. It's just that I really am worried, and this was the only thing I could think of."
"Well, think of something else," Apollo muttered irritably.
Since no brilliant ideas immediately sprang to mind, Athena sat in silence. Apollo continued to stand, staring straight ahead and looking uncharacteristically moody. When he finally spoke, his voice was so soft, Athena barely heard him.
"I wish Asclepius was still alive… His healing gift was greater than mine, despite his mortal blood. Or maybe because of it. You never can tell with mortals, can you?"
Athena had no reply to that. Apollo's half-mortal son had been the greatest healer of his age, possibly the greatest ever, and it was that gift that had brought about his downfall. He had created a healing elixir so potent, it actually brought the dead back to life.
Hades had complained, of course. Said it was messing up his paperwork. Normally that wouldn't have mattered much -- Hades was always complaining about something or other, and his paperwork was always a mess. But this time the Fates backed him up. Mortals were living past the cutting of their threads, tangling the skein, throwing off the whole intricate balance of their spinning. Something had to be done. Asclepius had to be stopped.
Apollo spoke to him. Zeus spoke to him. Asclepius would not listen. He was a brilliant physician, but not a very wise man. It was a healer's duty to help all comers to the best of his ability, he said. And if his ability extended to raising the dead than he would continue to do it, for anyone who asked.
In the end, Zeus put a stop to it because Apollo wouldn't. The King of the Gods had cast down one lightning bolt after another onto the roof of Asclepius' hospice near Delphi, incinerating the building along with everything inside. Asclepius himself, his apprentices, the patients, and their waiting families, and every last dose of the potion.
It was one of the few times Athena had ever felt sorry for Apollo. He had been close to his son, closer than most gods ever bothered to get to their children.
Mortal were worshipping Asclepius as a god now. It drove Zeus crazy, but made little difference to the dead man himself.
"I wish he was here too," Athena said softly. "Or, failing that, that we at least had the secret of his damn potion. If it could resurrect a mortal then it could probably heal a god, don't you think?"
"I don't kn--" Apollo began, then broke off and turned on his heels to face her, a look of shocked realization on his face. "Damn!" He clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace. "I'm an idiot."
Athena raised one hand to her mouth to cover a smile. "I've been saying that for years, brother. What's prompting you to finally admit it?"
"I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner!" Apollo paced back and forth in front of the couch, gesticulating wildly. "It should've been the first thing I--"
"Apollo," Athena interrupted sharply. "You're making me dizzy. Hold still and explain, will you?"
Apollo stopped, and made a visible effort to collect himself.
"There was a survivor," he said.
It took Athena a moment to comprehend what he was talking about. "From Asclepius' temple, you mean? But how--"
"One of the apprentices -- Polybius -- was out visiting a patient. He returned while the attack was happening, saw what was going on, and ran off. And-- " Apollo paused dramatically. It was one of his more annoying habits, and Athena was in no mood to put up with it now.
"Spit it out, Apollo."
"He had a small vial of the potion with him. It was meant for the patient, but the man had died before Polybius got there, and the family didn't want him brought back. Said that if the gods had decreed his death than who were they to argue." Apollo sniffed irritably. "Why Asclepius couldn't get that concept through his thick head, I'll never--"
"Never mind that! Are you saying this apprentice got away with a dose of the potion? And Father didn't notice?"
"I…" Apollo flushed and dropped his eyes, looking suddenly nervous. "I put a concealment spell on him as he ran."
"I see," Athena said thoughtfully. "That was… risky."
Apollo's blush deepened. "He was a talented healer, all right? And an even more talented harp player. It would've been a waste to let him die."
"I didn't say you were wrong. Do you know where the man is now?"
"No. I was afraid if I paid attention to him, Zeus might notice. So I left him alone. But he shouldn't be too hard to track down. And he knew the recipe for Asclepius' potion, I'm sure of it. He was one of the senior apprentices."
"If you go to him now--"
"Zeus will find out, I know. But perhaps he'll be willing to overlook it now, for Ares' sake. And he listens to you -- if you back me up, we can convince him together."
Under other circumstances, Athena might not have been so sure of that. Zeus did not generally brook disobedience from his children. But he'd been giving a lot of leeway to Ares lately, and it was possible that he would be equally willing to give some leeway *for* Ares. Athena nodded, and rose from the couch.
"You're right. Let's talk to him."
Ares did not knock before entering Ianthe's bedroom. Husbands didn't need to knock, after all. He had masked himself with the illusion of Leander's blond, square-jawed visage and stocky build. And, much as it pained him, Leander's clothes. For all his royal pretensions and conquering ways, the man was a jumped-up peasant with peasant tastes, tending toward costly garishness. Ares had gritted his teeth, fastened a sky-blue cloak over a gold-embroidered scarlet tunic, and reminded himself that the clothes would come off soon enough.
Leander himself had gone off to inspect his army, which was massing just outside the city walls in preparation for the march to Iolkos. He had originally planned to go in the morning, but Ares convinced him that a surprise inspection at night would prove more informative. Ares also convinced him that he should leave the palace in secret, to make sure that word of his intentions didn't precede him somehow. So Leander went off, full of zeal, without as much as a backward glance for his lady wife. Now Ares was going to make sure the Queen of Theotokou did not get lonely.
Ianthe was seated at her dressing table while an elderly maid brushed her hair. She wore a robe of rose-colored silk over a white linen shift. The covers on the bed were turned down, the windows shuttered. A single candle burned in front of the oval mirror on the table. Clearly, the queen was getting ready for bed. *Perfect timing.*
Both women were visibly startled at his entrance. The maid backed away, bowing. Ianthe rose to her feet and gave him a low, formal curtsy, sinking and rising with the smooth grace of a dancer.
"My lord husband. What brings you here at this late hour?"
She looked even better up close, all soft curves and long, flowing hair. She was younger than he'd thought at first, eighteen at most, more likely sixteen. In his own shape, the top of her head would've just come up to his collarbone. In Leander's form, it was about level with his nose. Either way, the height differential allowed him a perfect view down the neckline of her shift, particularly when she curtsied. And a perfect view it was, too… it took a severe effort of will for Ares to meet her eyes.
"I'm riding out to inspect the troops tomorrow," he told her. "And then it's off to Iolkos. I wanted to say a… *proper* goodbye to you before I go." He made no attempt to keep the desire from his voice or his gaze. He probably couldn't have if he tried -- he'd never been any good at concealing this sort of thing. And the past several months of his life had been taken up first by convalescence, then by the painstaking process of resuming his life. Ares was in no mood for a subtle seduction. Which, given that he was pretending to be Leander, was probably just as well.
He dismissed the maid with an impatient wave of his hand. Ianthe didn't say a word, just stood there and stared at him with wide, startled eyes. Ares put his hands on her waist and drew her close, pressing their bodies together.
"It could be a long siege," he whispered. "I might be gone for months. Why don't you give me something to remember you by?" He rubbed his cheek against her hair. It felt like silk and smelled like lemon peel. For the thousandth time, Ares wondered what Leander saw in his painted whores.
Ianthe remained silent and still in his arms, making no move to either welcome him or push him away. When Ares stroked one hand down her back, she tensed. He pulled back a bit, put his other hand under her chin, and tilted her face up toward his.
"Who are you?"
Now it was Ares' turn to look startled.
"What kind of question is that? How many months have we been married?"
"You're not Leander." Ianthe brushed her fingers across his cheek, a hesitant touch, as if she expected his features to dissolve at the contact. "You must be a god, to assume his shape like this." A trace of anger showed in her face. The expression made for an odd combination with her delicate features. "The servants say Leander is working for Ares, that he never would've taken Theotokou without the Wargod's help. Is that who you are? Why are you doing this?"
Ares considered denying it, then decided it would only waste valuable time. He wasn't particularly discomfited by her recognition. She wasn't the first woman to see through the illusion, though most of them didn't catch on until they were actually in bed. He was, however, curious. He thought he'd done a fair approximation of Leander's manner, and it was vaguely insulting to be caught out so quickly. "How did you know?"
"You're actually touching me." Ianthe's mouth twisted into a small, bitter smile. "Leander hasn't laid a finger on me since our wedding night. He said…" She turned away and looked down, hiding her face behind a fall of hair. "He said he wasn't going to waste his time training a skinny virgin when there were real women around."
Ares' opinion of his chosen warlord plummeted to new lows. He'd assumed all along that Leander ignored his wife most of the time. It hadn't occurred to him that it was actually all of the time. He bit back a whole string of curses. This was going to screw up everything. He had walked into the room expecting to find a woman who, after six months of marriage, would at least know what she was doing. For a moment, he considered just giving up and leaving. There were plenty of other women in Theotokou. Trouble was, he had spent the past several weeks anticipating *this* particular woman. It would be… thoroughly unsatisfying to go looking for last-minute substitutes now.
Ares gripped Ianthe's shoulders and shook her, not especially roughly, but enough to make her look at him again. "Your husband," he snarled, "is not only stupid, he's blind, too."
Ianthe looked as if she was about to say more, but Ares was done talking. He slid his hand down her back to the base of her spine, drew her close again, and bent his head down to kiss her.
She tried to turn aside, but he held her still with one hand on the back of her head. His tongue teased at her lips until they parted, then slipped between them. His hand slid around from her back to her stomach, then upward to cup one small breast. Ianthe made a soft, surprised sound and gripped his arms just above the elbows. Ares wasn't sure if she was trying to push him away or pull him closer. He suspected she didn't know either.
He let the kiss linger, soft and slow, no overwhelming show of force to scare her off. He was looking for voluntary surrender here, not a crushing defeat. Ianthe responded to the gentleness, just as he knew she would, relaxing into his embrace with a soft sigh. But when he finally pulled his mouth away from hers and began to kiss his way down her throat, she tensed again.
"No." She was definitely pushing now. "Don't, it's not--"
"Not what?" He pulled the robe off her shoulders and let it fall to the floor, brushed his lips against the smooth white skin it revealed. "Not good? You don't like it? How about this?"
Whatever answer she intended to make was lost in a breathless gasp as his mouth moved lower. At the same time, though, her struggles became more urgent, almost frantic. After a few seconds of this, Ares swallowed a frustrated growl and allowed himself to be pushed back. The last thing he wanted to deal with right now was mortal hysterics.
Ianthe held on to his shoulders as if she was afraid of falling, which she probably was. Her face was flushed, her mouth slightly swollen from the kiss. Ares wanted to rip her shift off and take her right there on the floor. Instead he rose to his feet again, brushed a few stray locks of hair back from her face, then traced the line of her jaw with his thumb.
"What do you want?" he whispered.
"I--" she began, then stopped. Ares saw a dozen conflicting expressions flicker across her face as she searched for an answer. It seemed to take forever.
"I want to see you," she said finally. "What you're really like. I can't do this with you looking like *him.*"
It wasn't an unexpected request, really, but it still gave Ares pause. For a moment, the notion of masking his scars with an illusion seemed more attractive than ever. But, as always, resentment displaced temptation. The girl wanted to see him? Fine, she would see him. Let her deal. He backed her up into the narrow space between the dressing table and the bed, braced his hands against the wall at either side of her head, and let the illusion of Leander's appearance drop.
Ianthe gasped as he suddenly towered over her, but the reaction seemed more surprise than fear. Ares scrutinized her expression carefully, as her gaze lingered on his face. He searched for signs of pity, revulsion, embarrassment -- any of the usual reactions. But all he saw was the surprise slowly changing to fascination as she stood there looking at him. Ares watched as her gaze took in his face and build, the black leathers, the massive sword at his side.
She started to raise one hand to his face. He caught her wrist and pulled, making her fall forward so that she had to grip his vest for support.
"At your service," he whispered, his lips almost brushing her ear.
He made his own clothes vanish with a thought, but took the time to remove hers, kneeling down to grasp the hem of her shift, letting his hands brush along the entire length of her body as he lifted the garment over her head and tossed it aside. Ianthe shivered. Ares smiled.
"Cold?" He rubbed his hands against her arms. "I'll warm you up." He slid one arm behind her back and one behind her knees, lifted her clear off her feet, and lowered her onto the bed.
He wasn't sure, based on her earlier words, whether or not she was actually still a virgin. She wasn't, as it turned out, but he quickly began to wish she had been. Whatever Leander had done to her on their wedding night, she hadn't liked it. In fact, it must have frightened her quite badly, judging by the way she trembled when Ares lay down next to her and pulled her into his arms. *Great. Just fucking great.* This seduction was starting to require way more patience and effort than he'd planned to expend, but he'd gone too far to stop it now. He could just take her, of course -- she was obviously expecting it anyway. But he liked his enemies to cower in fear, not his lovers.
So he held her for what seemed like forever, until she stopped shaking and relaxed against him. Then he kissed her again, and told her that he wouldn't do anything she didn't like, and kissed her some more. Eventually the idea started to sink in and she began, hesitantly, to respond. He pulled her on top of him, whispered more promises, kissed her throat and her breasts… He could tell the exact moment hesitation gave way to need, when she nuzzled his shoulder and tried, for the first time, to touch him the way he was touching her.
Ares gave a distinctly un-warlike groan as he reached down to guide her hand to where he wanted it to go. A lot of effort expended, to be sure. But it was all going to be worth it, he could just tell.
* * * * * * * * * *
When Ianthe was a child, plagued by the certainty of monsters in the closet, she sometimes threw tantrums at bedtime, refusing to be left alone in the dark. Her father never had much tolerance for such things, but her mother would stay with her sometimes. They would spend the night cuddled in Ianthe's bed -- much too small for an adult to sleep comfortably, but her mother never complained -- and wake up together in the morning. But her mother died when she was five, and since then Ianthe had always woken alone.
So why did it suddenly bother her now?
She lay curled up on her side in the big four-poster bed, staring at the empty pillow next to her. She could see the indentation in the middle, and a couple of coal-black hairs clinging to the white pillowcase. The only indications that the night before hadn't been a dream, that someone had actually been there.
*Not someone. A god. The God of War.* Just thinking it made her curl up tighter, as if trying to turn herself back into that small child waking up safe in her mother's arms. What had she done? He was the reason Theotokou was conquered territory, the reason she was wed to her father's killer. She should've spit in his face. Should've died before she let him touch her. But her own memories made a mockery of that thought.
Even in Leander's form he'd had an unmistakable presence. All the light in the room seemed to focus on him when he walked in. She'd suspected right away that he wasn't her husband, even before his words and actions confirmed it. And when he dropped the pretense and appeared as himself, it was as if a storm had burst in the room. She couldn't have told him no any more than she could tell the wind not to blow or the sky not to rain.
She'd expected him to be violent. He wasn't, but she knew the whole time that violence was only a breath away. It crackled in the air around him. When he stood close, she thought she could feel the sparks jumping from his skin to hers. And when he touched her…
Ianthe felt her face go hot as she remembered where his mouth and hands had gone. Magda, her maid, had explained love-making to her before the wedding, but she'd never said anything about *that*. Ianthe was beginning to wonder if Magda really knew anything about it at all. Neither Leander nor Ares had acted the way she'd been led to expect.
Leander had simply torn the wedding dress off her and tossed her on the bed, pinning her with his weight when she tried to crawl under the covers. The only words he'd spoken directly to her were, "Shut up, bitch." She had tried to shut up, she really had, but it hurt, it hurt far more than Magda said it would, and she had screamed and cried and bled all over the fine silk sheets the servants had brought out for the wedding bed. Leander had been thoroughly disgusted. He'd dressed again as soon as he was done and stormed out, muttering his complaint about skinny virgins.
She hadn't seen him since. He turned a wing of the palace into his army headquarters, took a suite of rooms for himself, and gave every sign of completely forgetting that he had a wife. Ianthe, left to her own devices for the first time in her sixteen years, wavered between relief at being rid of him and abject humiliation. For as long as she could remember, it had been impressed on her that her one duty in life was to make an advantageous match for Theotokou. Her father had explained, over and over, that since Fortune had not favored him with a son, his only hope for a proper heir came from Ianthe's marriage prospects. She had been trained from early childhood to be the perfect royal wife. For the glory of Theotokou.
And now she was wed to a warlord who was grinding Theotokou into the dirt, and who had discarded her after one night like so much defective merchandise.
She'd settled into a pale shadow of her former life, drifting through the days in a an endless series of small tasks designed only to kill time. Reading in the library. Walking in the increasingly neglected gardens. Needlework. Most of the servants left, either to jockey for positions on the new king's staff, or to seek work in the city. Only Magda had stayed.
Ianthe considered leaving herself. She doubted anyone would stop her just walking out the front door, but even if they did, there were other ways out, tunnels and passages only the royal family knew. But she couldn't imagine where she would go. She knew from Magda, whose nephew was a carpenter in the city, that even skilled workers and once-prosperous merchants were falling on hard times as Leander continued raising taxes and commandeering supplies for his army. So what was *she* going to do? She'd been taught to dance all the latest court dances, to hold her silverware properly, to walk in floor-length skirts without tripping, to embroider her initials on a linen handkerchief. She had never been taught anything *useful*. There was only one path open to unprotected women with no skills in a city overrun with soldiers, and Leander's reaction had conclusively proven that she was no good at *that* either. So she stayed, resigned to being a piece of forgotten furniture in her own palace for the rest of her life.
Until the God of War walked into her room.
Ianthe climbed out of bed, picked her robe up from the floor, and stood clutching it to her chest as she faced herself in the mirror. A thin, pale face looked back at her, surrounded by a wispy cloud of hair that couldn't seem to decide if it wanted to be blond or brown. There were dark smudges under her eyes, and a dark-red mark on one shoulder that felt tender when she touched it. Ianthe brushed her fingers back and forth across the mark, and shivered. She remembered Ares biting down on that spot, his arms tightening around her till she could barely breathe. He had moaned deep in his throat and shuddered all over, before collapsing in a boneless sprawl on top of her. When he finally lifted his head, his skin had glistened with sweat in the candlelight, and the look on his face had been unfocused and soft.
Why did he want her? There had been no time to ponder that question before, but she couldn't get it out of her head now. He could've had anybody. Any woman in Theotokou, in Greece, in the whole world, probably. Why her? Was he angry with Leander, or trying to make him jealous for some reason? But Leander wouldn't care... Ianthe sighed and shook her head. What did it matter? He'd had what he wanted, and now he was gone. Who was she, anyway, to ask why a god did anything?
She put the robe on, sat down, and tugged at the bell-pull over the dressing table. A few moments later, Magda came rushing in, breathless and concerned.
"My Lady!" She gripped Ianthe's shoulders and held her at arm's length, looking her over with frightened eyes. "Are you all right? Did he--"
"I'm fine, Magda," Ianthe said tiredly. She had forgotten that, as far as the maid knew, Ianthe had just spent the night with Leander. Magda had seen her the morning after the wedding, lying bruised and battered on bloody sheets. She'd nursed her through the days that followed the same way she had nursed her through childhood illnesses. Of course she would be protective now. But Ianthe was in no mood to be fussed over, or to make explanations.
"I'm fine," she repeated a little more forcefully, and pushed Magda's hands away. "I'm just… hungry." She hadn't thought about it until she said it, but now she realized it was true. The thought struck her as funny for some reason, and she had to press one hand against her mouth to keep down the giggles. "Do you think you could fetch something from the kitchen?"
"Of course, My Lady." The fear on Magda's face was slowly changing to puzzlement. "But are you sure you're--"
"And see if you can find someone to carry water. I would like a bath."
"I'll see what I can do. But--"
"And *don't* try to carry the buckets yourself, please. You'll only put your back out again."
Magda looked thoroughly befuddled now, but she had been with Ianthe long enough to recognize when questions were pointless. She bowed and left the room, lingering just long enough to throw a final, questioning glance over her shoulder before she shut the door.
Alone again, Ianthe found that she didn't really want to laugh after all. She wanted to crawl back into bed and stay there all day, but that would only give Magda more things to worry about. Besides, it was childish to cower in bed like a frightened toddler. She had spent the night with a god, and now he was gone, and she had to get through today just like she did through every other day.
The prospect had never seemed quite so bleak before.
Gabrielle dipped a long-handled ladle into a water barrel, drained it in one gulp, followed it with another one, then poured the third over her head. It was well water, ice-cold, but after the day's exertions the cold actually felt good. And it was nice to get at least some of the grime out of her hair and face.
She had spent the day drilling groups of volunteers in fire-fighting techniques. After a week, she thought they were beginning to get the hang of it. They'd organized bucket brigades, practiced digging ditches and building firewalls at speed, piled sacks of loose dirt to throw on the flames in places where a well was not easily accessible. Gabrielle now felt reasonably sure that Iolkos wasn't going to burned down by the in the first hour of the coming war. But *damn*, it was tiring work…
Now she sat with her back propped up against the armory wall, and watched Xena drill the troops. She had them arranged in a phalanx six men deep across the training yard, everyone in full armor, carrying spears and short swords and large round shields. The shields were called "hoplons," according to Xena, and Gabrielle dutifully wrote it down in a scroll, though she wasn't really sure why shields needed names.
"Keep close!" Xena was barking orders in what Gabrielle always thought of as her Warlord Voice. "Remember, the left edge of your shield is covering the man next to you. Break formation, and you're leaving a comrade unprotected. That's better. All right now, advance!"
There was a shuffle of boots on cobblestones accompanied by the rattle of greaves and breastplates, as the phalanx moved forward. The front line lifted their spears and stabbed the air, fighting off an imaginary enemy. The men in back simply marched, weapons at the ready.
When they were half-way across the courtyard, Xena ran out in front of them, and tapped one of the men in the front line on the shoulder. The soldier promptly dropped to the ground. The man behind him stepped into the gap, and the phalanx moved on, the marching soldiers stepping over or around the fallen man as they advanced.
Xena tapped more men at random, and they fell, and the others kept moving. A few men tripped, a few were slow to move into the gaps, but overall they maintained formation until a single line of hoplites reached the opposite end of the yard and stopped. It was an amazing improvement from their first day of training, when practically everybody fell over everybody else. Amazing, and a little frightening, to see how much Xena could accomplish in just a few days.
It was, as Xena explained to Gabrielle in private, an old-fashioned fighting style, but well-suited to the situation here because it could be taught to inexperienced troops in a short time. It required almost no skill, just discipline and nerve. And the sloping ground outside the city walls would give the Iolkosian men an advantage, allowing them to attack downhill. Xena had a hope -- a small hope, but it had to be tried -- that if Iolkos could score a decisive victory in the first clash, Leander might get discouraged and go in search of easier prey rather than dig in for a siege.
Gabrielle pushed a few strands of wet hair back from her face, and settled down to watch her partner work. Xena's eyes held that familiar, tightly focused look she always had when preparing for battle, a look that grew even more intense when she had troops to command. She marched the hoplites back into formation, went over the just-completed exercise in minute detail, discussing everything that every man did right and wrong at every point, then had them do it again. And again. And again. By the fifth time, they went through it without a hitch. Xena rewarded them with a few quick words of praise and a proud grin, and the men basked in her approval as if they'd been waiting for it all their lives. Gabrielle shook her head. *This*, more than any fighting ability, was Xena's true gift. She'd known these men a little over a week, and already most of them would jump off the battlements if she asked.
Xena divided the phalanx into pairs and started them on single-combat practice. She caught Gabrielle's eye from across the yard, waved, and walked over to join her.
"So how's the fire brigade getting on?"
"Pretty good." Gabrielle smiled. "Though not nearly as impressive as what you've accomplished here. You should take my place for a day -- those water buckets will be flying up to the rooftops all by themselves."
"You're doing just fine without me, Gabrielle." Xena laughed, but her eyes were tired. She took the ladle from Gabrielle and drank deeply, then sat down on the ground next to the younger woman. "And your volunteers, at least, are likely to all survive the first battle."
"Hey, don't you start that again!" Gabrielle punched Xena lightly in the arm, then squeezed her shoulder to show she didn't mean anything by it. "They have a better chance of surviving now than they did before you came. You can't save everybody, Xena. All you can do is minimize the damage."
"I know." Even as she spoke, Xena's gaze darted around the courtyard, tracking the movements of every man, noting strengths and weaknesses. "It's just that… none of these boys really know what they're getting into. They're so *young*, Gabrielle."
"Gee, thanks." Gabrielle gave her a sly smile. "Considering that most of them are older than me. Should I get my dolly and go play in the nursery?"
Xena's laugh was more genuine this time. "I can't say anything right today, can I?"
"Nope. Might as well shut up."
"I think I--" Xena's reply cut off abruptly, for no visible reason. She rose to her feet in one smooth motion, the focused look back in her eyes, and glanced warily from side to side.
"Xena?" Gabrielle said cautiously, wondering if she should be reaching for a weapon. She didn't have her staff, but there were some spears within reach. She hated it when Xena looked that way, it could mean anything. Usually it was an indication that someone was trying to sneak up. And sometimes it meant--
"Ares," Xena hissed. "I know you're here. What is it *now*?"
He appeared in the archway of the armory entrance, slouched against the door with one hand on the hilt of his sword. It was the darkest part of the courtyard this time of day, and Gabrielle was sure he hadn't chosen the spot by accident. She watched him with curiosity, and a great many other conflicting emotions she couldn't entirely sort out. The last time she'd seen him, he was lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of Athena's library. He'd brought Dahak there, for Athena to kill. The effort had nearly cost him his life. Now, squinting through the shadows, Gabrielle could see what it *had* cost him, and had to work hard to keep her face expressionless. Xena had warned her about this. It was a dangerous thing, feeling sorry for an enemy. Ares wouldn't want her pity, anyway. And the fact that he was here now meant they had bigger things to worry about.
"What do you want?" Xena demanded.
Ares shrugged. "Nothing. Just dropping in to watch you work. It's an inspiring sight, you know. Most of the men are half in love with you already."
Gabrielle bit her lip. It was kind of unnerving, to have him echoing her thoughts like that. She really hoped Xena wouldn't turn to look at her just then.
Xena's attention, fortunately, was focused entirely on Ares. "Is that what this is about, Ares? Getting me to lead an army again? You think this is going to--"
"Oh, get *over* yourself, Xena!" Ares' arrogant smirk, Gabrielle noted, looked exactly the same as usual. If anything, it was more annoying. "Believe it or not, I hadn't given you a thought when I began planning this little operation, and I'd just as soon continue not giving you a thought until it's over. So if you think this is having a bad effect on your fragile little morals, feel free to go make yourself useful somewhere else."
"And hand over the whole of northern Greece to you and Leander? I don't think so."
"There wouldn't *be* a northern Greece today if it wasn't for me!" Ares snapped. "Or southern Greece, or anyplace else for that matter. Not that I'm expecting *thanks* or anything, but you could at least stay out of my hair for a bit."
"Sorry, Ares." Xena did not sound in the least bit sorry. She folded her arms across her chest in a deliberate imitation of his usual stance, and matched him glare for glare. "It ain't happening. If you want to take Iolkos, you'll have to deal with me."
Ares gave an overdramatic sigh, but Gabrielle thought he looked secretly pleased. "That's the trouble with mortals these days," he grumbled. "No respect. Very well, Xena. You want a fight? You'll get one. See you in a couple of days."
And he was gone, just as suddenly as he'd appeared. Xena just stood there for a bit, staring at the spot where he'd been, then turned around and kicked the water barrel with nearly enough strength to topple it.
"Damn! Damndamndamndamndamn… and it was such a *good* battle plan, too."
"What do you me--" Gabrielle began, then broke off as the implication of Ares' presence in the yard finally sank in. "Oh. I get it. He's seen what you're doing, and now he's going to go tell Leander, isn't he?"
"Exactly." Xena's face was grim. "So much for our hope for a quick victory."
"Can you change the plan?"
"No. It's what he wants me to do. There's no time to teach the men
new tactics now, and if I try, they'll just lose confidence in what I've
already told them. No, he timed it perfectly, damn him. Oh well." Xena
turned to give Gabrielle a not-entirely-convincing cocky grin. "We're only
taking an army of half-trained amateurs against a seasoned mercenary force
backed by the God of War. We needed *something* to make things more interesting,
* * * * * * * * * *
"What do you mean you can't find him?" It took all of Athena's self-control to keep her voice from rising in an indignant wail. The Goddess of Wisdom and Civilization did *not* wail.
But sometimes she really wanted to.
Apollo spread his arms helplessly. "I mean, I can't find him. And trust me, I've looked a *lot*."
The missing man in question was Polybius, Asclepius' last surviving apprentice. As Athena predicted, Zeus had not been terribly pleased to hear of the man's existence, but he limited his response to an occasional annoyed scowl at Apollo. And he did give them permission to seek the man out and ask him to either hand over his vial of Asclepius' potion, or to create a new dose. That was two days ago, and now here was Apollo, talking nonsense.
"How could you not find him? He's a healer!"
"I know that!" The look of deep consternation on Apollo's face would've been comical if the situation wasn't so serious. "He's a musician, too. I should be able to spot him with a moment's thought. But I tried and tried, and he's *not there*."
"He has to be *somewhere*. I mean-- he's still alive, isn't he?"
Apollo nodded. "I had Hades go over the files three times."
"Well, then, what--" Athena paused, frowning. Polybius had lost all his friends and his life's work, all in the space of a few fiery minutes. Mortals had broken over far less. "Have you spoken to Ate?"
"Yes. She says she doesn't have him. At least I *think* that's what she says. You know how she gets." Apollo shuddered and rubbed his arms. Athena couldn't blame him. No one spoke to the Goddess of Madness if they could help it.
"We'll have to ask Father, then." As king of all the gods, Zeus had dominion over every Greek mortal, regardless of what deity they might've pledged their lives to. If Polybius was alive, Zeus would be able to find him.
"Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated than that." Apollo fidgeted in his seat, carefully avoiding Athena's eyes. "Remember that concealment spell I put on Polybius, to keep him hidden when Zeus destroyed the hospice?"
Athena's heart sank. "Don't tell me…"
"I see." About a hundred comments sprang to Athena's mind, none of them useful. "Well. You've certainly done your best to make things difficult. Are there any other minor details I should know, or this the extent of your idiocy?"
"Now, wait a minute!" Apollo drew himself up with an indignant frown. "There's no need to be insulting. I was trying to save the man's life. How was I supposed to know I was going to need his help over a decade later to get baby brother out of a sulk?"
Athena just glared at him until he slumped and looked away again.
"That's it," he muttered.
"I'm glad to hear it. Come along now."
Apollo looked puzzled, but stood up when Athena did. "Where are we going?"
"To get expert help."
* * * * * * * * * *
Iolaus was getting really bored with the inside of his house. It was a perfectly nice house, if one didn't mind a little dust and the occasional cobweb in the corner, but there was a limit as to how much time a man could reasonably be expected to spend staring at the walls and ceiling. Iolaus had passed that limit weeks ago.
First there was the broken ankle, courtesy of Dahak. That took almost two months to heal. Two months flat on his back, with his leg propped up on a pillow, and the village healer making tut-tut noises at him, and Hercules fussing like a mother hen. By the time he could walk again, Iolaus was ready to gnaw at the walls. It was a great relief to finally be able to finally start travelling again, and he'd spent several highly satisfying months expending his pent-up energy on assorted monsters, warlords, and random thugs.
And then he and Herc had spend a very cold, very wet night helping evacuate a small village from a flash flood. Hercules, with his demigod constitution, shrugged off the entire experience as soon as he was dry again. Iolaus got the flu.
Which left him right back where he started, staring at the walls and ceiling, and sneezing his head off into the bargain. And Hercules had been called away to rescue yet another village from some disaster or other, which meant he wasn't even around to fuss.
Iolaus groaned as he took another swig of the cough syrup the healer had left for him the day before. It smelled vile and tasted worse, but it did help a bit. Of course it did nothing for his pounding head or his aching bones or his dripping nose…
He was so preoccupied with his own misery, he almost didn't notice the shimmer of light at the foot of his bed. When he did notice it, he nearly dismissed it as merely an interesting new symptom. But the last time he checked, flu symptoms did not include divine visitations. And that was definitely Apollo and Athena standing by the bed now, looking at him with those annoyingly smug expressions that gods always seemed to have when they popped in out of thin air.
Iolaus glared at them. He was in no mood for gods.
"What do you two want?"
Apollo seemed about to speak, but Athena beat him to it.
"Hello, Iolaus. You don't look so good."
"I don't feel so good." Iolaus snatched a crumpled handkerchief from the bedside table, and sneezed. "So why don't you go away and leave me to my misery?"
"Because," Apollo said with exaggerated patience, "we need you to do something for us."
"Excuse me?" Apollo circled around the bed to loom threateningly over Iolaus' head. "What did you say?"
"You heard me. No. I know how this goes. You're gonna ask me to do something that seems really easy and simple, in exchange for some great reward. Except it's not going to be simple, and the reward will have a catch, and I'm going to end up in a heap of trouble with nothing to show for it. Forget it. I'm sick. Go bother Hercules if you want something done."
"Hercules isn't the right man for this job," Athena said. "You are. And don't you at least want to hear what we want before you say no?"
"Not really," Iolaus grumbled, but he was beginning to feel curious. Not one, but *two* gods popping into his bedroom to ask a favor? A job he was better suited for than Herc? This was new.
"I think," Apollo said coldly, "you're getting a little confused here. We're the gods, see? And you're the mortal. That means we tell you what to do, and you do it. Get the idea?"
Iolaus gave a loud whoop of laughter that turned into a cough half-way through. "Yeah. Keep dreaming, pal."
Apollo's handsome face twisted into a decidedly unattractive scowl. "Listen, *mortal*, how would you like to have this flu till you're ninety?"
"Apollo." Athena's voice was as soft and even as ever, but something in her eyes made Iolaus want to duck. "Shut up." She sat down on the edge of the bed, ignoring her Apollo's outraged stare. "Don't mind my idiot brother, Iolaus. No one is telling you what to do. We're *asking*, as a personal favor. Right, Apollo?"
Apollo seemed about to argue, but Athena pinned him with that unnerving, steady gaze of hers until he finally shrugged and muttered, "Right."
*Oh, great. She had to put it like that…* Iolaus fought down a sigh. He had no interest in doing favors for Apollo, but he actually kind of liked Athena. And curiosity was beginning to get the upper hand over his common sense. Common sense, in desperation, latched on to the last excuse it had to offer.
"I'd love to help you out, Athena, I really would, but I'm not exactly at my best right now." He sniffed loudly to illustrate his point. "See?"
"Oh, that's nothing." Athena dismissed all his suffering with a single graceful shrug. "Apollo will take care of it. Think of it as getting your reward in advance. Right, Apollo?"
"Yeah, yeah…" Apollo rolled his eyes, and waved one hand in the air over Iolaus' head.
The change was so sudden, Iolaus actually yelped in surprise, much to his embarrassment. His head stopped pounding. His joints stopped aching. The scratchiness in his throat disappeared without a trace. He could actually *feel* his temperature dropping. Iolaus shook himself all over, and for the first time in their brief acquaintance, looked at Apollo with a touch of respect.
"Wow. That's a good trick."
"Glad you liked it," Apollo drawled. "Just remember it can be reversed."
"Enough, Apollo." Athena gave her brother a brief, irritated glance before turning back to Iolaus. "So will you help us?"
"What do you need?"
"You're supposed to be good at tracking things down. We need you to find someone for us…"
"The thing you have to remember," Ares said, "is that hoplite troops are only useful as long as they keep formation. Break it, and the battle's yours."
"No problem," Leander said confidently.
Ares frowned at him. "If you're thinking of just charging down the middle and scattering them, you can forget it. It won't happen, not with Xena leading the men. They'll be primed for a direct charge, and they all know what they have to do. Brute force won't break them."
"What will then?" Leander was looking at Ares with the earnest expression of a student philosopher waiting to receive the wisdom of the ages. In the past, Ares had found it mildly flattering, but today, for some reason, it only served to annoy him.
They were sitting in Leander's tent in the center of the army's camp, two days' ride away from Iolkos. Spread on the ground before them was a map of the surrounding countryside, held down at the corners with a hooded lantern, a dagger, and a pair of Leander's spare boots. Ares made himself concentrate on the map rather than on his irritation with Leander. Picking up a piece of charcoal, he drew a rough circle around the area just south of Iolkos.
"She'll probably intercept your march here. It's flat, open ground, and the slope will favor the hoplites should they attempt a charge. You're pretty much stuck with this location, so you might as well make the best of it. Send your cavalry ahead of the rest of your troops, have them outflank the hoplites on the left and attack." Ares paused to see if Leander would ask any questions, but the warlord only nodded. Ares decided to explain anyway, on the off-chance that the information would stick. "They'll be weaker on the left side, because the men tend to edge to the right as they march, to get better cover from their neighbors' shields. It's instinct. Takes years to break the habit, and Xena's only had a week. So if you time it right, you can trap their entire left flank between your cavalry and infantry. I think even *you* can handle it from there."
"Leave it to me, my Lord Ares." Leander grinned. "I'll crush them into the dirt!"
"See that you do," Ares growled.
There was a commotion outside, shrieks and curses accompanied by a great deal of whistling and raucous laughter. When it didn't cease after about a minute, Leander got up and lifted the tent flap to see what was going on. Ares stayed where he was. He could see well enough past Leander's shoulder, and he didn't particularly care anyway.
Two women were rolling on the ground outside the tent, tearing at each other's hair and scratching at each other's faces with painted fingernails. Broken plates and spilled food littered the ground around them. Several dozen of Leander's soldiers watched, shouting lewd comments and occasional bits of advice. Ares thought he saw some of them flashing money and laying bets.
Leander stepped outside, and soldiers quickly scattered. The women, too caught up to notice, went right on fighting until Leander waded in to separate them.
"What's going on here?" he demanded.
"It's her fault, M'Lord!" The taller of the two women, a freckled redhead in a torn yellow dress pointed an accusing finger at her shorter, blonder opponent. "I was just 'bout to bring your supper in when she gave me a shove, made me spill it all over, she did, look at the mess--"
"Bitch!" the blonde spat. She had obviously been on the losing end of the wrestling match, and was sporting an impressive black eye and several bleeding scratches on one cheek. "It was my turn to bring it in! Always shoving your ugly face in where it ain't wanted--"
"Yeah, like I'd let you get your poxy hands on the king's food! You'd poison him just by breathing on it!"
"Why, you little--"
"Ladies, please!" Leander pulled both women to their feet. He actually looked pleased with the display, Ares noted in disgust. "There's plenty of me to go around. How about we skip dinner and go straight to dessert? Provided--" He looked over his shoulder at Ares. "Is there anything else, My Lord?"
"Shit, no," Ares muttered, and flashed out of the tent.
He reappeared on his throne in the Halls of War, more out of habit than from any desire to be there. Since he was there anyway, he took the time to check on the various battles currently going on throughout Greece, but none of them engaged his interest, and he dismissed the images with an impatient snap of his fingers. Leander's was the only really important campaign at the moment, the others were minor distractions. And Ares was beginning to wonder if he hadn't made a… well, not a *mistake*, but perhaps a misjudgment, in choosing Leander. Loyalty was all very well, but a little competence was desirable on occasion. And the man was so damned *annoying.* Ares hadn't really noticed it before, but now that he had, it was going to be hard to ignore.
Thinking of Leander led, not too surprisingly, to thinking of Ianthe. He'd thought he was done with her, after that one night. The itch had been scratched, curiosity was satisfied, there was really no reason to come back. But whenever Ares let his thoughts wander, somehow they wandered back to her.
He should've left when she recognized him, he realized that now. He'd gone looking for an anonymous encounter, and allowed it to get personal in a moment of weakness. He'd let himself be swayed by the girl's beauty, by her obvious loneliness, by the way she'd responded to every caress as if it was an earth-shaking revelation… Ares shook his head with an angry growl. This was getting ridiculous. He knew what he needed. He would go Athens, or Cyprus, or Crete, and bed the first attractive mortal he laid eyes on. Or maybe the first three. Give himself a fresh set of memories to replace the image of Ianthe's face, the smooth warmth of her skin beneath his hands, the sound of her--
Ares rose to his feet, restlessness abruptly changing to focused determination. What he *really* needed was to have the girl again and get her out of his system. She was nothing special, really, he just needed to go and remind himself of that. Yes. Just thinking about it made him feel better. Ares focused his thoughts, and transported himself to Theotokou.
He kept himself invisible to mortal eyes when he arrived. Masquarading as Leander was no longer a possibility, so he wanted to make sure Ianthe was alone before he made his presence known. She was. She was in the small drawing room adjacent to her bedroom, curled up in an oversized armchair by the window. There was a half-finished bit of embroidery in her lap, and several spools of colored thread on a table by her side, but she wasn't actually embroidering. She was gazing out the window with a distant, unfocused expression. Whatever she was seeing, Ares suspected it had nothing to do with the twilight sky or the overgrown flowerbeds outside.
Still invisible, Ares stood on the other side of the table to watch her. She was wearing a gown of pale gold silk, with bits of darker trim on the sleeves and collar. Her hair was gathered into a coil at the nape of her neck, fixed into place with a single long pin tipped with an amber bead. Another, larger piece of amber hung from a gold chain around her throat. It rose and fell with every breath she took, catching the fading sunlight from the window.
A gust of wind stirred the curtains and swirled around the room, bringing the scent of wildflowers with it. Ianthe shivered a bit, put the embroidery aside, and went to close the shutters. The shadows in the room deepened. Ianthe slid the latch into place and stood still for a few moments, resting her forehead against the glass, then turned away and went to light the candles.
Apparently the room was still too cool for her, because once the last candle was lit she went to kneel in front of the fireplace. As Ares stood and watched, she pushed her sleeves up to her elbows, built up the fire and lit it, closed the grate and returned to her chair.
Something about the scene struck Ares as odd, and it took him a couple of moments to figure out what it was. No servants. The Queen of Theotokou had no business performing these chores for herself. There should've been at least a couple of people waiting unobtrusively nearby, ready to anticipate every request. At the very least, she should've been able to ring or shout for somebody.
But there was no one there. Not in the drawing room, not in the adjoining rooms, not in the hallways. Ianthe was, as far as he could tell, alone in this part of the palace. Ares watched her thread a needle with a strand of blue yarn, and felt a rising surge of anger. How long had she been living like this? And how could she be so alone and yet so calm? Any reasonable person would've been clawing at the walls by now…
Ianthe shifted slightly in the chair, leaning back into a more comfortable position. The amber pendant at her breast winked in the candlelight. Ares stopped worrying about absent servants and dragged his mind back to the reason he was here in the first place.
He braced his hands on the table and leaned forward until his lips were almost touching her ear.
"Ianthe," he breathed.
Ianthe jerked her head up sharply. Her fingers tightened around the edge of the embroidery hoop.
Ares waited. She turned her head from side to side, peering into every corner of the room, then gave an annoyed little head-shake and settled down again.
"Ianthe…" Ares repeated, a little louder this time, and brushed the back on his hand lightly across her cheek.
She jumped to her feet. "Ares?"
"Yes?" He stood directly in front of her, less than an arm's length away, and let himself become visible. "You called?"
"What? No!" Ianthe took a nervous step back. "I was only--" She broke off, looked away for a moment to collect herself, then faced him again. "You were already here," she said accusingly.
"Was I?" Ares grinned. "Maybe I was just on your mind."
Ianthe's face turned bright pink. She seemed about to blurt out a denial, then stopped herself.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "You have to leave."
"I *have* to?" Ares put a slightly threatening edge into his voice as moved closer to her. He wasn't really angry, but a mortal had no business telling him what he had to do. "I think you'd better rephrase that."
She licked her lips nervously, but continued to hold his gaze. "I'm asking you to leave. Please."
"Already?" Ares sighed theatrically. "But I just got here." He took another step forward. Ianthe took a matching step back, and bumped against the chair. She swayed, off-balance, and Ares automatically reached out to steady her.
She jabbed the embroidery needle into his hand.
Ares jerked his hand back, more in surprise than in pain. Ianthe grabbed the edge of the table and regained her balance. For several endless seconds, the two of them just stood there and stared at each other. Ares watched the color drain from Ianthe's face as she realized what she'd just done. She looked up at him, and for a moment Ares thought she was going to apologize. But she just pressed her lips together and thrust out her chin in with a defiant expression, as if daring him to strike her down. He probably should, Ares thought. For a little slip of a girl, living at others' sufferance in a conquered land, she wasn't showing nearly enough respect. But she looked so determined standing there, eyes flashing, trying to hold the God of War off with a needle. He hadn't expected courage from her. A sheltered child who'd never even touched a weapon, let alone wielded one -- she should've been groveling at his feet right about now. But she wasn't, and Ares found that he was more pleased than angry.
He looked down at his hand. The tiny puncture at the base of his thumb was already healed, but he allowed a small drop of blood to form on the skin anyway. Then he grinned, lifted the hand to his mouth, and licked the drop off, never taking his eyes off Ianthe's face. She looked back with mesmerized eyes, and licked her lips in an unconscious imitation of his action. Ares' grin grew wider.
"Nice move," he said. "But if I meant you harm, do you really think that would stop me?"
When she didn't answer, he did something he'd wanted to do since the moment he entered the room -- reached out and plucked the amber-tipped pin from her hair. The coil promptly unwound, spilling over her shoulders and down her back. Ares stroked it once before drawing his hand back.
"You have better weapons at your disposal." He twirled the pin in his fingers. It was solid silver, almost as long as his hand, and surprisingly well-balanced for a decorative trinket. "This, for instance, could do some decent damage. The hand is a stupid target, of course, you'll never incapacitate an attacker that way. Go for the face or the groin. That'll stop just about anyone."
He held the pin out to her, and she took it carefully by the tip, not letting her fingers brush against his..
"Why do you bother to tell me this? There's nothing I can do that would stop *you*, is there?"
The weary resignation in her voice took him aback. "Does it matter? I told you the last time, I won't make you do anything you don't want. Did you think I was lying?"
"No." She lowered her eyes, and for the first time he sensed a trace of fear in her. "But… you can make me want things I shouldn't."
So that was it. Belated scruples. Ares nearly laughed with relief. He'd seen this a million times before. He knew what to say.
"Shouldn't? Why not? Leander's out there fucking every whore in northern Greece, with never a thought to you. You have as much right to take your pleasure as he does."
"Leander has nothing to do with it," Ianthe said sharply. "I mean-- I know it's wrong to cheat on him, but I don't care." She glared at him again. "I never asked to marry him."
Ares shrugged. "Fine. What's the problem, then?"
Ianthe didn't reply for a long time. Ares was beginning to wonder if she even knew the answer, when she finally spoke.
"You helped Leander take Theotokou. Chose him as your champion."
"So I did. What of it? I'm the God of War."
"And I'm the Queen of Theotokou. I know that doesn't mean anything anymore, but I can't just let go of it. My father is dead. My people are starving in their homes because the harvest's gone to feed Leander's army and last year's stores are running out. I talk to my maid and she talks to the people in the city, I know what's going on. Most of the young men have gone with the army, not because they want to fight but because they want to eat. Some of the whores Leander's been sleeping with were decent women once, before they got desperate." Ianthe's voice grew louder, more emphatic with every sentence, until she was almost shouting. "You made this happen. You are the enemy of everything that's supposed to be important to me. I should hate you!"
"But you don't," Ares said softly.
All the fight seemed to go out of Ianthe at once. Her shoulders sagged. She let the crumpled embroidery drop to the floor, collapsed into the armchair, and hid her face in her hands.
"No," she whispered. "I don't."
Ares stood looking down at her, caught between conflicting responses. He knew -- well, he was reasonably sure, anyway -- that if he took her in his arms now and told her to stop all this worrying and come to bed, she wouldn't fight him. He wanted to do it, wanted it with a painful, dizzying intensity. *Would* have done it, if she had based her resistance on the usual, tired reasons. He had no patience for belated modesty, for after-the-fact guilt about adultery. But this… this was a point of honor, even if she didn't know enough to phrase is as such. It deserved an answer.
"Ianthe." He knelt down, and pulled her hands away from her face. "It's not as simple as you make it sound. I helped Leander, yes. But he was on his way to attack Theotokou already. *I* didn't make him do it. All I did was make the war end sooner. If I hadn't helped him, he might still be camped outside the city walls right now. You've never lived through a protracted siege, have you, Ianthe? You think your people are hungry now? They don't know real hunger, and neither do you. And you won't know, ever, because I made sure that there would *be* no siege."
"You could've made sure there was no war," she said bitterly. "Or you could've helped us, rather than him."
"But I'm helping you now, don't you see? Leander is king now, for good or ill, and when I help him, I'm helping Theotokou. The sooner he takes Iolkos, the sooner the war will be over. And that's what you want, isn't it? For the war to be over? For the army to disband, the men to come home, the hardship to end?" He leaned forward and put his hands on her shoulders. "I don't force men to go to war, Ianthe. They do it of their own free will. All I can do is affect the outcome, according to what I think is best. Do you understand?"
For a hastily improvised speech, he thought it was pretty damn good. He hadn't lied, only omitted certain information and presented the rest in the appropriate light. And he was fairly certain that Ianthe wanted to be convinced. So he stayed on his knees, and held her, and waited.
"I'm not sure," she said finally. "I… I don't know about these things…"
"Then trust me. I'm the God of War, and I do know." Ares rose to his feet, pulling her up with him. "I wouldn't do anything to hurt you or yours. You know that, don't you?"
"No, I don't," she said desperately. "I don't know anything. I can't think when you're so close--"
"Then don't think." And he kissed her.
She went absolutely still for a moment, then circled her arms around his neck. And Ares was hit with a sudden, unaccountable rush of relief that made him giddy. She didn't hate him. She still wanted him. A small, nagging voice inside his head wanted to know why her opinion should hold such importance, but she was kissing him back now, and twining her fingers in his hair, and it was oh-so-easy to ignore uncomfortable questions. Ares held her tightly against him, and transported them both to her bedroom.
It wasn't until much later, when she was asleep with her head on his shoulder and the covers tangled between her legs, that he remembered that the whole purpose of the visit had been to prove that he didn't really want her. The thought seemed vaguely amusing now, and Ares chuckled sleepily as he ran one hand down Ianthe's back. Why had he let it worry him in the first place, he wondered. He wanted her. He had her.
"Xena!" Gabrielle pushed open the hospital door and stood blinking at the sudden shift from bright sunlight to torchlit shadows. The hospital -- a grain merchant's warehouse in its previous incarnation -- was distressingly crowded. Almost every pallet was occupied. Volunteers -- mostly women and older children who hadn't yet been evacuated -- bustled in the aisles, fetching medicines and bandages for the healers and water for the wounded.
"Xena!" Gabrielle shouted again as she made her way further into the building. She could barely hear herself above the din. There were so many voices: wounded men groaning in pain, medics calling out orders, survivors weeping over corpses. On one blood-stained pallet, two men struggled to hold down a third while a grim-faced surgeon amputated his shattered arm. The man was screaming, a high-pitched, uninterrupted wail that made Gabrielle want to clap her hands over her ears and rush back outside. She gritted her teeth and moved on.
"Xena, where are you?"
"Over here, Gabrielle!"
*Oh, thank the gods!* Gabrielle's knees felt weak with relief as she turned in the direction Xena's voice had come from. "Here you are! I've been looking all over, they told me you were hurt--"
"It's nothing." Xena sat on a pallet with her back propped up against the wall. She smiled at Gabrielle's concern, and stretched out one leg to show off a bandaged shin. "Just a scratch, see?"
Her voice was light, but Gabrielle could see the tension in her posture, the pain lines etched around her mouth. Still, it obviously wasn't a serious injury, and Xena hated being fussed over, so Gabrielle smiled and squeezed her shoulder before sitting down next to her.
"How did the battle go? No one I spoke to seems to know if we won or not."
"Well, we stopped Leander's advance, inflicted pretty heavy losses on his troops. It'll be a few days before they march again, which will give Agapenor time to finish the evacuation. I suppose you could call it a victory." Xena sounded more resigned than victorious. "But we weren't able to turn them back for good. So it'll be a siege after all."
"But you never really expected otherwise, did you?"
"No. Hoped, yes, but not expected." Xena gazed around the hospital with a grim expression, and Gabrielle could tell she was mentally tallying the casualties. "I'll need to speak to Agapenor later, get a report on food and medicine supplies."
"Then we settle in and wait. See what Leander does -- or rather, what Ares has him do."
"I've been wondering about that." Now that she knew Xena was safe, Gabrielle found all her other worries bubbling back to the surface. "You keep talking about a long siege, maybe the whole winter, but Ares could end it all in a day, couldn't he? I mean, he can just snap his fingers and make the city walls fall over, right?"
"He could, yes. But he won't. For him, this war is about power, not territory. As God of War, he gains power from mortal battles. But they must, in fact, be *mortal* battles. It does him no good if he has to do the fighting himself."
"Of course." Gabrielle gave herself a mental slap upside the head. "I should've thought of that." That was one of the side effects of hanging out with Xena -- one started thinking of the God of War as more of a personal annoyance than a cosmic force. "Okay, so he'll stay out of the fight. That's good for us, right?"
"Well, it'll certainly help. But he'll only stay out of it physically. He'll still give orders, I expect. Which is more than enough bother as far as I'm concerned."
"Do you think we can win?"
"We can." Xena shrugged. "Whether we *will* is another question entirely." She braced one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and pushed herself to her feet. "Help me out of here, will you? I'm not really hurt, and we're taking up valuable cot space."
* * * * * * * * * *
Ares was angry. No, not just angry. Furious. Livid. It was taking all of his rapidly-deteriorating self-control to keep from blasting Leander into a small pile of ashes where he stood. He settled for making the torches around the tent flare into sudden, unnatural brightness and shower sparks all over the floor.
"What in Tartarus did you think you were doing?!" he thundered.
Leander went a couple of shades paler, but held his ground.
"I followed your orders, Lord. Cavalry on the left flank, just as you said. Xena must've been expecting it -- she had her men set stakes into the ground, so that the horses couldn’t get through."
"Of course she was expecting it! I told you she would, didn't I? And I also told you what to do about it, didn't I?"
"I did as you said, My Lord. I sent men ahead of the cavalry to remove the stakes. But Xena's troops cut them down before they could finish the job."
"That's because you left them unprotected, you moron!" A torch in the back of the tent exploded with a loud crack, setting the bedroll below it on fire. Ares put out the flames with a flick of his hand, took a deep breath, reined in his temper. "Why didn't you use your archers to give them cover?"
Leander stood there and blinked. To Ares' critical eye, he looked like a dog that had dragged a dead rat into the kitchen and couldn't figure out why it was being kicked instead of praised.
"You gave no orders about the archers, Lord. I put them on the right flank, where the ground was higher. It was a good thing I did, too -- they covered our retreat at the end."
"If you had them in the right place to begin with, you wouldn't have *had* to retreat!" Ares growled. This was ridiculous. Of course he'd given no orders about the archers. Why would he have bothered to leave specific instructions about something that *obvious*? What kind of idiot would fail to-- Ares looked at Leander's blankly handsome face, and answered his own question with an inward sigh. *That* kind of idiot, obviously.
The idiot was complaining now, clearly unaware of how close he was to being fried to cinders. "…Might not have happened if you'd been present at the battle my lord. The men were expecting you, they count on your support. It's good for morale. And you could've told me about the archers then--"
"I was busy!" Ares snapped. "I'm your *god*, not your nursemaid! And yours wasn't the only battle going on in Greece at the time, you know?"
That was perfectly true. There were over a dozen battles raging throughout Greece at the same time Leander was leading the first attack on Iolkos. But Ares hadn't been at any of them. He'd been in Theotokou, with Ianthe. He'd been spending a great deal of time with Ianthe lately. More than he should, perhaps. She was a distraction, at a time when he badly needed focus. But she was also a pleasant diversion, and he needed that too, didn't he? Besides, he knew from past experience that boredom would set in soon enough, and the distraction would fade along with the attraction. In the meantime, though… Ianthe was enthusiastic, lovely to look at, and flatteringly besotted with him. She did not badger him with endless demands or complaints. And she could listen to a description of a battle and ask the right questions and draw the right conclusions from the answers, which was more than her husband ever managed.
Leander was still talking, but Ares was no longer listening. Thinking of Ianthe reminded him of where he really wanted to be right now, and it wasn't in a smelly tent in the middle of nowhere listening to some fool mortal's pathetic excuses for failure.
With an impatient shake of his head and a blue shimmer of air, Ares transported himself out of the tent and back to Theotokou.
Iolaus leaned against the wall to catch his breath, and wiped his bloody nose with the back of his forearm. *How do I get myself into these things?*
Two of the four thugs who'd tried to corner him in this alley were beginning to stir. The other two were still down, but probably not for long. Iolaus decided it was time to leave. The fight had been rather fun, after all those days of enforced idleness, but he really wasn't up for another round.
It was inevitable, of course. He'd spent nearly two weeks tramping from village to village, searching for a tall, brown-haired man with hazel eyes and a beard. Not too surprisingly, the local gang's tall, brown-haired, hazel-eyed, bearded leader took an exception to this. From there it was a natural progression to a bloody nose and four semi-conscious thugs in an alley. Iolaus sniffed irritably, and ambled back toward the market square. There were still a few people he hadn't spoken to. Not that it would do any good.
*I can't believe I let them talk me into it.* Athena had been so flattering, going on about his hunting and tracking skills. And Apollo had been so insufferably snotty, standing there smirking at him as if to say that whatever his sister might say, *he* knew that Iolaus didn't have the brains to track a mad bull through a pottery shop. Which left Iolaus in the odd position of feeling flattered and defensive at the same time, and not thinking as straight as he should've been. Before he knew it, he'd committed to searching the countryside around Delphi for a man whose description matched half the male population of Greece, who hadn't been seen for over a decade, and who clearly didn't want to be found.
Iolaus had actually met Polybius once, along with Asclepius, almost fifteen years ago. He and Herc had taken on a gang of slavers on the road south of Delphi, and Iolaus made the mistake of blocking a mace with his bare arm. That had been one of those fights Herc had to finish by himself. Afterwards the demigod had dragged him, lecturing all the way, to Asclepius' hospice.
Iolaus' memories of that day were not exactly clear. He'd been half-delirious with pain, weak from blood loss, and terrified that he might lose his arm. But he remembered Asclepius -- a thin, awkward, intense man with Apollo's golden coloring but none of the Sun God's inhuman good looks or supercilious manners -- and Polybius, who'd been a junior apprentice at the time. It had been Polybius who set Iolaus' arm while Asclepius prepared a salve. And an injury that should've put him out of action for several months had healed in a little over a week.
Three years later, he and Hercules had received word that the hospice had been destroyed by Zeus, with no survivors. Hercules had had some particularly choice words to say about fathers that day.
And now, suddenly, gods were popping out of thin air to tell him that Polybius was alive and had to be found. Iolaus had been a bit suspicious at first, but both Apollo and Athena had sworn by the River Styx that they meant the missing healer no harm. Apollo had raised his eyes to the ceiling and sighed theatrically as he spoke, but Iolaus knew that the oath was binding.
He'd started the search by visiting Polybius' wife, then his parents, then all the other friends and relatives he could track down, but they all believed the man dead. At least, they claimed to believe it, and Iolaus was inclined to believe them. It occurred to him then that Polybius may have avoided everyone he knew for fear of getting them caught up in Zeus' vengeance. So he widened his search to include the inns and waystations around Delphi, in case Polybius had stopped at one during his flight. He didn't expect that to prove useful, and sure enough, it didn't. Sure, everyone remembered the day Asclepius' hospice was destroyed. A couple of people even remembered -- or thought they remembered -- seeing Polybius on the road going west later that evening. But that tenuous trail petered out within five miles of the hospice, and Iolaus was left floundering, asking random questions of random people. Even his usually unshakable optimism was beginning to waver. He wasn't going to find the man, it was just plain impossible. Maybe it was time to admit defeat, tell Apollo to shove it, and go look up Herc again.
A puff of garlic and spice-scented breeze tickled his nose, and his stomach responded with an enthusiastic growl, reminding him that it had been several long and busy hours since lunch. Iolaus followed the scent across the marketplace, and soon found himself in front of a tiny stall where a gray-haired woman with the look and manner of a farmwife was selling little deep-fried pockets of meat-stuffed pastry right out of the pot.
Iolaus bought five, and leaned against the side of the stall to eat them. Since he was there anyway, he figured he might as well pass the time usefully. So he gave the woman his best smile, and paused long enough between bites to repeat his usual questions.
"No," the woman said quickly, shaking her head in a nervous little motion. "Haven't seen anyone who looks like that. Sorry."
"Not ever?" Iolaus prompted in a neutral voice.
The headshake became more emphatic. "Never."
Iolaus turned his face away under the pretext of licking pastry flakes from his fingers. He wanted to laugh, and jump up and down, and pump his fist in the air, and it took a great deal of effort to keep his excitement hidden. There were at least a dozen men in the immediate vicinity answering the description he'd given, and the woman was claiming she'd never seen *anyone* who looked like that? It was the first outright lie Iolaus had gotten in response to his questions, and he was determined to follow it up.
He popped the last pastry into his mouth, nodded politely to the woman, and left the marketplace by way of the main street. Once he was out of sight, he circled around to the back entrance of a blacksmith's shop he had noticed earlier, and went inside.
The front door of the shop was propped open, giving him a good view of most of the market, including the pastry stall where he'd just dined. At the same time, the interior was dim enough that no one was likely to spot him from the outside unless they were specifically looking. Iolaus kept an eye on the stall while pretending to examine a display of swords and daggers on the back wall.
He was not in the least bit surprised to see the woman hurry over to the next stall, where a couple of teenage boys were selling painted pottery. After a few minutes of what looked like vigorous haggling, a number of pastries exchanged hands, the younger boy moved over to watch the other stall, and the woman bustled out of the marketplace, darting nervous glances from side to side as she went.
Iolaus followed, keeping a discreet distance. It was easy at first -- the streets were crowded, and there were plenty of convenient doorways and alleys for times when he needed to duck out of sight. Before long though, they left the town by way of a narrow, little-used road, and the process became more complicated. Fortunately, the trees on either side of the road grew fairly thick, and the sun was low in the sky. Iolaus took a route parallel to the road, moving swiftly across the uneven ground, avoiding sharp rocks and low-hanging branches without even thinking about it. Now that he had a lead, and the action was actually starting to resemble a proper hunt, he was beginning to feel confident again. He would find Polybius, and Athena and Apollo would owe him big-time, and to top it all off he'd have a great story to impress Herc with afterwards.
About two miles outside the village, the woman left the road to follow to follow a new path that forked off at a right angle to it. It was a surprisingly well-tended path for such a remote location, evenly paved with well-fitted cobblestones, and edged with neatly trimmed grass. The undergrowth was very thick here, and Iolaus found that he had to slow his movements, or risk being heard. He decided that it was safe to slow down -- all he had to do was follow the path to its end, and he would almost certainly end up in the right place.
Sure enough, just a few minutes later both the path and the woods came to an abrupt stop. Iolaus found himself crouching behind the shrubbery at the edge of a wide, grassy field. At the center of the field was a low stone building with a domed roof, obviously a temple of some sort. It was surrounded by a small, fenced-in vegetable garden. The woman who'd led Iolaus here stood at the garden gate, talking to a blue-robed priestess. Iolaus found that if he concentrated hard enough, he could just make out their voices.
"…Never seen him before in my life," the woman was saying. She was clearly agitated, gesturing vigorously as she spoke and fidgeting from foot to foot. "Don't know why he was asking all them questions, but I figured it couldn't be good, right? Thought I'd come and warn you, in case he shows up here -- not that I told him anything, mind you, nothing about you or anything else, but you know how other people talk, and someone might've seen."
"It's all right, Kynthia" The priestess' voice was calmer, softer. Iolaus had to strain to hear it. "You did well, just as you have before. Go home now, and think no more about it."
Kynthia bowed, clearly relieved to have the matter out of her hands, then knelt before the priestess.
"A blessing before I go, Lady?"
The priestess smiled as she rested one hand lightly on Kynthia's bowed head. "May your memories of happiness shine bright and true forever, while memories of sorrow fade to dust."
The older woman rose to her feet, mumbling her thanks, and left the garden. Iolaus considered following her back, but quickly gave up the idea. He wasn't going to learn any more from her, that was obvious enough. No, any further information would have to be found in the temple. Iolaus frowned. Athena and Apollo hadn't mentioned anything about other deities being involved. If this other god was trying to keep Polybius hidden, there would almost certainly be trouble. Iolaus really didn't fancy getting caught in the middle of yet another divine quarrel. He'd had enough of that during that whole mess with the golden apples.
"You can come out now." The priestess' voice made him jump. "I know you're there."
*Wonderful.* Iolaus sighed and stood up. So much for the subtle approach. *At least she sounds friendly.* He walked toward the temple, trying to look harmless and innocent.
"Uhm… Hi." He stopped just outside the garden gate, smiling. "I bet you're wondering why I'm here, huh?" *Oooh, brilliant opening, Iolaus, impress her with your eloquence.* "I really don't want any trouble."
"That's good," the priestess said calmly. "Neither do I. Neither does Kynthia. Neither does the man you're looking for. What do you want with him?"
"Nothing harmful. Just to talk to him for a bit. Is he here?"
"I'm afraid not." She sounded genuinely regretful. "I'm sorry you've come all this way for nothing, but I can't help you. If Kynthia had thought it through, she could've told you the truth back in the marketplace and saved you the trouble."
*Oh, well.* Iolaus hadn't really expected it to be that easy, he just felt he had to ask. Besides, there was still a possibility of learning something useful before he had to return to the grind. "Do you know where he might've gone, then? I know it was a long time ago, but if you can give me anything, even a direction to move in, I'd be extremely--"
"I'm sorry." The priestess shook her head. "But there's nothing I can say that would help you. Do you see whose temple this is?"
She gestured behind her, toward the temple door, and Iolaus looked up to see the design carved in low relief above the lintel. It showed two hands tilting a shallow bowl, allowing a stream of water to pour out. The symbol, combined with the blessing he'd just witnessed, gave Iolaus the answer. His heart sank.
"Exactly." The priestess nodded. "The man called Polybius -- for he's the one you're looking for, is he not? -- came to us twelve years ago, brought by Kynthia and her husband. He was frightened, grieving, unable to deal with the loss of his friends and the destruction of his life. He meditated in our sanctuary for three days, before deciding to give his memories to the goddess and leave here with a clean slate. So you see, a direction won't do you any good. The man you're searching for no longer exists."
Ianthe hunched her shoulders and wrapped her shawl more snugly about her shoulders as she hurried down the dimly lit hallway that connected the eastern and northern wings of the palace. The shawl wasn't so much to keep the cold out -- though the corridors certainly got drafty enough to warrant it -- as to keep her chest and shoulders completely covered. The east wing housed Leander's headquarters, and while most of the men were gone now, a small force remained behind to keep Theotokou in order. Every now and then, Ianthe would pass some of them on her way to the library, and it seemed that even her dowdiest gowns weren't quite dowdy enough. They never touched her -- she was Leander's property, after all -- but they leered and whistled and yelled out comments that she didn't always understand, but that always made her feel as if she'd been groped all over by dirty, sweaty hands.
She would've liked to avoid this part of the palace altogether, but it *was* the shortest way to the library. The next best route took nearly twice as long. So she wrapped herself up, and hunched her shoulders, and did her best to be silent and invisible as she walked.
Ares teased her sometimes about all the reading she did, especially the historical epics with their chronicles of ancient battles.
"What do all those poets know about war?" he scoffed. "They weren't even there, most of them. If you really want to know how it all happened, ask me and I'll tell you."
So she had asked, and he had told her. His descriptions tended to be purely technical -- strategy and tactics, battle formations and supply lines, none of the personal details the poets liked to put in. No one had ever discussed such things with Ianthe before, and she often wondered why Ares bothered. There had to be scores of other people he could talk to, people who would understand him the first time around and ask no ignorant questions. And the art of war seemed like a strange thing to discuss in bed with a lover. Then again, for him it probably wasn't…
Lost in these thoughts, Ianthe didn't fully register the sound of approaching footsteps until she turned a corner, and nearly collided with a man headed in the other direction. Ianthe sidestepped just in time, giving him more than enough room to pass, but he still managed to bump against her, brushing his arm across her breasts.
"Whoops! Sorry, honey!" The man swayed on his feet, and gave a loud hiccup. "Did I muss up your dress? Here lemme fix it…" He moved in closer, and patted at the front of her dress, trying to smooth away imaginary wrinkles.
"It's all right," Ianthe tried to move away, but she was pinned between him and the wall, with no room to move. "No really, I'm fine, you don't have to…" She could smell the wine on his breath, mingling with the stink of sour sweat and not-too-clean leather. Leander had smelled like that when he-- Bile rose in Ianthe's throat, and her stomach twisted. She made another vain effort to twist away. "I'm fine, really, *please* let me pass…"
He tugged at her bodice, and she tried to slap his hand away. It was a mistake; his eyes narrowed, and the lopsided grin on his face turned into an angry scowl.
"No need to get huffy, little girl." He caught her wrist and jerked her forward, so that she stumbled against him. "I'm just trying to be nice." He looked down to where the ends of her shawl were tucked inside her collar. "Whatcha hidin' under there, anyway?"
Before Ianthe could stop him, he grabbed a handful of cloth and pulled. The shawl came loose and fluttered to the floor before she could retrieve it. The soldier gave a pleased chuckle and tried to shove one hand down her bodice.
Ianthe pulled the pin from her hair and stabbed him in the groin.
It worked amazingly well, far better than she expected. The man let go of her wrist and dropped to the floor, both hands clapped protectively over his crotch. His face turned bright red, and his eyes opened so wide that a white ring showed around each iris. He kept making little gurgling noises deep in his throat, as if he really wanted to scream but couldn't. Ianthe stood frozen for a moment, staring down at him, then dropped the hairpin and broke into a run.
She didn't stop until she was back in her bedroom, with the door safely bolted behind her. She pushed a chair up against it -- a useless gesture, if she could move it, anyone could -- and collapsed on the bed. She was shaking all over, and her breath came in painful, convulsive gulps. She buried her face into a pillow and sobbed for a couple of minutes, but it wasn't enough, the turmoil inside her required a greater release than tears.
Ianthe sat up, snatched a jar from the dressing table, and pitched it across the room, where it shattered against the door jamb. Shards of pottery and chunks of rouge paste rained on the floor.
"It's *my* palace!" she shrieked at the empty room. She was the Queen of Theotokou; the God of War's lover; why did she have to skulk around in hallways, hiding from men who didn't belong there in the first place? "My goddamn palace!"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she froze, shocked by her own outburst and the language she'd just used, terrified that some passing servant might've heard her out in the hall. She could almost hear her father's voice: "Shut up, girl, you sound like a fishwife!" If any of her childhood tutors had still been around, they would've washed her mouth out with soap.
Ianthe closed her eyes and held perfectly still, forcing the anger down, down, down to the small corner at the back of her mind where it usually lived. As it receded, the more familiar emotions of fear and shame came creeping back. What had she been thinking, going to that part of the palace? She knew perfectly well the place was crawling with soldiers, knew the way they acted. She should've taken the long way around and stayed out of their sight… Had that man recognized her, did he know where her rooms were? Would he be waiting for her the next time she came out?
The thought wouldn't leave her alone. Ianthe stood and tiptoed over to the door to press her ear against it, half-expecting to hear a man's heavy breathing on the other side. Nothing. But would she hear him, or was the door too thick?
She stood there for a long time, frozen with indecision. In the end, anything seemed better than not knowing. Ianthe pushed the chair out of the way, and flung the door open.
There was no one there, of course. Just an empty hallway, dim and silent as usual. Ianthe slammed the door shut again and sat down on the floor with her back against it. She was still sitting there, hugging her knees to her chest, when Ares appeared in the room.
She didn't even notice he was there until her peripheral vision registered the presence of two black boots in front of her. Then she gave a startled little jump, and looked up to see him looming over her, glowering.
"What's the matter?" he demanded.
Ianthe's first instinct was to say "Nothing," but she quickly abandoned the thought. The out-of-place chair, the broken jar, her own tear-streaked and disheveled state -- all these things clearly ruled out any possibility of a convincing denial. But to tell him… she couldn't. Even thinking about what had happened brought it all rushing back with sickening clarity. The thought of putting the memory into words was more than she could deal with.
"I-- I don't feel well," she stammered. "Do you think… do you think maybe you could… leave me alone tonight?" She had never asked it of him before. Would he listen? She didn't think she could stand being touched just then, not even by him.
Ares just stood there, glaring down at her, saying nothing. Ianthe cringed.
"It's my m-moon time," she told him desperately. "My stomach hurts." That, at least, was true.
Ares squatted next to her, lifted her left arm up to the light, and pushed her sleeve back. For the first time, Ianthe noticed the ring of bruises circling her wrist where the soldier had grabbed it.
Red sparks danced in Ares' eyes. "Who was it? What did he do?"
And the whole story spilled out of her in a great rush of breathless, half-coherent words. Ares listened in perfect stillness, neither word nor gesture betraying his reaction.
"Who was it?" He repeated when Ianthe finished.
"I don't know." Ianthe sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand, feeling like a child. "I've never seen him before. I don't think he knew who I was…"
Ianthe tried, but the only details she could remember clearly were his smell, and the size of his hands. When she tried to visualize his face, she saw Leander instead. The harder she tried, the harder it became to distinguish the two memories, and she grew more and more agitated until Ares took her face in his hands and forced her to meet his eyes.
"Shush," he said, and then he just *looked* at her, with a steady, unblinking gaze, and she had an uncanny feeling that he was drawing her memories out through her eyes. "Ah. All right, I know who it is. I'll take care of it." He stood up.
Ianthe stayed where she was. She wasn't entirely certain she *could* stand at the moment. "What are you going to do?"
"Kill him, of course. Unless you already have."
"Me?! But I couldn't have--"
"You could if you hit the artery. Was there a lot of blood?"
The room seemed to tilt. Ianthe pressed both hands flat against the floor to keep it steady. The idea that she might've killed that soldier made her feel exhilarated and ill at the same time. "I'm not sure…"
"Then you missed it. You would've noticed. Never mind, I said I'd take care of it."
"Wait!" Ianthe reached up and grabbed his arm before he could disappear. "Don't go away!"
He frowned at her. "A minute ago you said to leave you alone."
"I know. I'm sorry. It's just that--" Ianthe stopped and shook her head. "Never mind. I'm sorry. It's not fair to ask you, I'll get Magda to stay with me, she…" she trailed off, no longer sure of what she wanted to say.
Ares' frown deepened. He looked as if he was about to say something, then caught himself. Ianthe found that she was holding her breath, waiting to see what he would do.
He sat down on the floor next to her, wrapped one arm around her shoulders, and pulled her to him. She tensed, but he did nothing else, and after a while she relaxed enough to rest her head against his chest. She waited for him to move or speak, but he sat perfectly still, one hand resting lightly on the back of her head. Ianthe closed her eyes and let herself drift, too grateful for the stillness to question it. She expected him to grow restless before long, but he was still there, in the same position, when she fell asleep.
* * * * * * * * * *
When she woke it was dark. A half-moon gleamed in the unshuttered window, and a faint breeze stirred the curtains. Ianthe lifted her head, blinking sleepily, trying to recall why the view of the room from this particular angle seemed wrong, somehow. Then she remembered -- she had fallen asleep on the floor, fully dressed, curled up against Ares' side. Now she was in bed, wearing a nightgown -- not one of the ones that Ares liked, either, but a thick cotton one, high-necked and long-sleeved, that she hadn't worn since the previous winter because the weather hadn't been cool enough.
She rolled over onto her back, and bumped up against a dark, solid bulk that silently shifted over a bit to give her room.
"I'm sorry, were you asleep?"
"Gods don't need to sleep," he muttered, which wasn't really an answer. The moonlight was bright enough for her to see that he still wore his trousers and vest, but not his boots and gauntlets. Ianthe trailed her hand down the length of his arm until her fingers rested in his cupped palm.
"Have you been here the whole time?" If he had, and he hadn't been asleep, he must've been bored to distraction. She knew him well enough by now to know that he was not one to keep himself amused with quiet contemplation. "And what time *is* it, anyway?"
"Just past midnight. And no, I left once. He's dead."
"Oh." Ianthe had been trying not to think about that. "Which one of us killed him?"
"I did." Ares sounded very pleased with himself. "They'll be cleaning up the mess for a while."
Ianthe tried, not very successfully, to keep from imagining what sort of mess the God of War might leave. The darkness seemed suddenly heavy and oppressive.
"I need some light," she whispered.
The two candles on the dressing table lit of their own accord. Ares propped himself up on one elbow to glare at her.
"What's wrong now?"
There was no way to explain it so that he would understand. She wasn't really sorry that man was dead, she knew she wouldn't have felt safe as long as he was in the palace. But the casual way Ares had spoken of brutal murder made her feel cold. *What did you expect? He's the God of War.*
He was still waiting for an answer, and Ianthe searched for a distraction.
"Nothing. I just wanted to be able to see you, that's all." And it was true, seeing him did make it better… or at least made it harder to think of other things.
He tensed under her scrutiny, and turned his head so that she could only see his face in profile from the left side. All their weeks together, and she still wasn't sure if he did that consciously. On impulse, she cupped one hand under his chin and tried to turn his face back toward her.
It was like trying to move a mountain. She gave up after a few seconds, but didn't move her hand away.
"What happened to you?"
"I did something stupid," he said in a flat voice, and shook her hand off with an impatient motion.
Ianthe bit back an apology. She'd overstepped a limit, obviously. Best to step back and pretend she never went there.
"I want to thank you," she told him. "For staying with me."
"It was nothing." Ares scowled. Ianthe had the feeling that he would've preferred it if she had thanked him for killing her attacker. He sat up abruptly, and swung his legs off the bed. "I have to go now."
And just like that, before she could say another word, he was gone.
Ares stood in the middle of an empty field outside Patras, and glared at his surroundings with a thunderous expression. This was intolerable. Where were the armies? Where was the blood, the carnage, the broken bodies thrashing in the mud? Where was his *war*, dammit?
The last time he'd checked this area, over a month ago, there had been three warlords marching on Patras from three different directions, drawn by rumors of civil unrest and military weakness caused by the queen's illness and the lack of clear succession. Ares had spent months planting those rumors, stifling real news, orchestrating a carefully planned sequence of events that was supposed to culminate in a glorious bloodbath that would leave Patras in smoking ruins. Instead he got this sickeningly bucolic view. Nothing but grass and wildflowers, not an army camp in sight. Extending his senses toward the city, he could hear the sounds of celebration inside. A thoroughly happy and non-violent celebration. Disgusting.
It was his own damn fault, of course. He hadn't been paying attention. Not to Patras, not to Leander's campaign, not to any number of conflicts that were going on right now. At least he hoped they were still going on. For all he knew, the Greek city-states might've all banded together and declared universal peace while he was wasting his time in Theotokou.
It was time to stop thinking with his crotch. Athena was always accusing him of doing that, and usually he laughed in her face, but maybe this time she was right. Ianthe was a dangerous distraction. He'd lost his focus since he met her, neglected his duties, forgotten where his priorities lay. Their last encounter had been especially… disturbing. Try as he might, Ares could not entirely justify his actions to himself.
Why had he gone back to Ianthe's room after killing the man who dared to touch her? He knew she was asleep, he had no intention of waking her, there was nothing to be gained from returning unless one considered a night's worth of painful frustration to be a gain. And yet he returned, and stayed, all from some vague, irrational determination that she shouldn't have to wake up alone in the dark. It was stupid, sentimental impulse, and Ares could not afford sentiment in his line of work.
Enough. He would stop this nonsense and get back to business. Take a few weeks to check up on all the assorted little wars he'd set in motion over the past few months, make sure everything was going smoothly, fan any flames that might be dying down. A good battle or two would restore his equilibrium, it had always worked before… Ares nodded to himself, feeling suddenly resolved and satisfied. Yes, that was exactly what he would do.
For a moment, he considered popping over to Theotokou just long enough to tell Ianthe that he'd be gone a while, but he quickly discarded the thought. He owed the girl no explanations. She would still be there when -- if -- he came back.
With a grin of anticipation of all the fun he was about to have, Ares transported himself back to the Halls of War.
* * * * * * * * * *
Days passed, and Ares did not appear. Ianthe was going mad with fear and loneliness and a thousand nagging doubts. Had she driven him away, with her girlish hysterics and intrusive questions? Had he simply tired of her and left? She'd always thought he would, sooner or later, but now that it had happened she didn't know what to do with herself. Her table was littered with half-read scrolls that failed to hold her interest. Her needlework turned into a frayed, wrinkled mess of picked-out stitches and knotted threads. She spent hours restlessly pacing around her rooms, jumping at the slightest sound, hating herself for acting this way but unable to stop.
In her distraction, she almost didn't notice when Magda didn't bring in her breakfast one morning. It was nearly noon before the hunger pangs grew strong enough to claim her attention, and to make her wonder where her usually reliable maid might've gotten herself to. Just as she had made up her mind to go searching, Magda did appear, empty-handed and in tears.
"Magda! What happened?" Ianthe pushed a chair forward, and Magda fell into it limply. Ianthe knelt down to grasp the older woman's trembling hands. "Tell me what's wrong, how can I help?"
"I'm sorry, My Lady." Magda freed one hand to rub at her red, swollen eyes. "I didn't mean to arrive in such a state. It's just that…" She swallowed a sob. "They killed him, My Lady! Cut him down in the street like he was an animal, all for a few bits of food…"
"Killed who, Magda?"
"Mikon. My sister's boy." Magda pulled a handkerchief from her skirt pocket, and dabbed at her face. "He was robbed on his way home. He tried to fight them -- he shouldn't have fought, boys are such fools, what was he thinking… the neighbors brought him home, there was blood all over, we tried to get a healer, but it was too late, stupid boy, what was he thinking, fighting them…" She dissolved into tears again.
Ianthe perched on the arm of the chair and held Magda in a tight hug while she cried. She felt cold and sick, and quite incapable of crying herself. *This can't go on.* Theotokou was becoming a city of soldiers and whores and desperate men killing each other for scraps. And what was she doing while her city collapsed? Sulking in her room because the God of War didn't want to sleep with her any more.
And yet, what else could she do? Go up on the palace roof and shout at everyone to behave themselves? Ride out to battle brandishing a hairpin? She had no more power in Theotokou than Magda did. She couldn't even walk through her own palace in safety. She certainly couldn't stop a war, or dislodge an occupying army.
*Then find somebody who can.* The thought was not entirely new, but for the first time Ianthe really took the time to consider it seriously. There were people in Greece who made it their business to oppose men like Leander. Hercules was the obvious one, of course, but she had no idea where to find him, or how to even begin to look.
But she did know where Xena was…
Technically, of course, Xena was working for the enemy, supporting Iolkos in the war against Theotokou. Ares had grumbled about it at some length one night, after Leander lost a battle to her. But when it came right down to it, wasn't the real enemy Leander? Xena wanted him stopped. Ianthe wanted him stopped. If she could--
*This is mad. You'll get yourself killed.* But she couldn't work up any fear over the idea. What was the alternative anyway -- continue as she was, pining away alone in her rooms, crying for unrequited love?
*Ares…* Ianthe closed her eyes and bowed her head for a moment, surrendering for a moment to the cold emptiness he'd left her to when he stopped coming. If she went against him, if she moved to stop this war, he would never forgive her. Even if he refrained from killing her for the betrayal -- and she couldn't imagine why he would -- she'd never see him again.
It didn't matter of course, or at least it shouldn't. Her people were dying, and she had an obligation to stop it. It was time to stop thinking like a lovesick girl and start thinking like a queen.
She tried to tell herself it wouldn't be so bad. She knew how to live alone, she'd done it for most of her life. Even before her father's death, when it sometimes seemed as if she never had a private moment, it was only an illusion of human contact. There had been tutors and attendants, courtiers with their studied compliments and servants with their bowed heads and silent obedience. She couldn't recall their faces now, couldn't recall ever having an actual conversation with anyone except Magda -- until Ares came along. So now he'd be gone, and everything would go back to the way it was before. She could do it. It wouldn't be so bad.
"Magda." Ianthe pulled back a little and gripped Magda's shoulders firmly, willing the maid to calm down. "Magda, I'm sorry, I know you're upset, but listen to me, all right?"
She spoke in her firmest voice, the one she'd used to order the servants about back in the days when her father was alive and the servants actually listened. Magda reacted the way she always had, sitting up straight and pulling herself together, though she never quite stopped sniffling.
"Yes, My Lady?"
"Does your sister's husband still work in the stables?"
Magda nodded, looking puzzled by the sudden change of subject. "Yes, My Lady."
"Do you think…" For a moment, Ianthe hesitated. This was the one step where she'd be putting another person in danger. After that, she could fail and bring no consequences on anyone but herself, but this...
Well, she had to risk it, or give up the entire undertaking. And in the end it would be up to the man himself.
"Do you think he could get away with a horse, get out of the city with it? I can draw you a map, show you the spot to go to."
The puzzled frown on Magda's face grew more pronounced. "A horse? Why do you need a horse, My Lady? Where would you go?"
Ianthe took a deep breath, knowing that she had to say it to make it truly real.
* * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle was fidgeting. Xena could see her growing more and more restless as the days wore on. It wasn't surprising, really. The bard's energetic temperament was ill-suited to the prolonged inactivity of a siege. She put the fire brigades through their paces until the volunteers could do the drills in their sleep, instituted a daily storytelling session at the hospital that drew not only the patients and the medics but also every child that still remained in the city, and tried unsuccessfully to attach herself to the catapult construction crew.
In desperation, Xena sent her off to the palace library, where the librarian put her to work cataloguing genealogical scrolls. Gabrielle grumbled a bit about doing "busy-work" when there was a war on, but quickly became fascinated with the twisting branches of the royal family tree.
"Hey Xena, did you know King Agapenor is supposed to be a great-great-grandson of Poseidon on his father's mother's mother's side? It's too bad Poseidon hates us, we might've gotten him to help out. Drop a tidal wave on Leander's army or something."
"We're landlocked," Xena pointed out mildly.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "You take all the fun out of speculating."
They were having a late breakfast in their room, a plain but reasonably comfortable chamber set aside for them in the officers' section of the barracks. Agapenor had offered them a luxurious guest suite in the palace, but Xena turned him down. In her experience, it was a bad idea for the general to live the high life while the rest of the army huddled on pallets in drafty common quarters. Gabrielle, whose standards of reasonable comfort different from Xena's, looked occasionally wistful but did not complain. As long as there was a flat surface to lay out her scrolls on, she was happy enough.
She was sitting at the desk now, eating an apple and poring over one of the library scrolls with an expression of bemused fascination.
"It says here that Queen Hermione was out gathering flowers on a river bank, and Poseidon appeared as a white horse with golden hooves and carried her off." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Ew. I hope he stopped being a horse before they… you know…"
"You never can tell with gods." Xena shrugged. "I have it on good authority from Leda that Zeus stayed a swan the whole time."
Gabrielle made a little choking noise and put down the apple. "Ugh! Thank you for *that* mental image."
A knock on the door interrupted them before Xena could bring up Europa.
"Come in," she called.
A young sentry snapped to attention in the doorway.
"Sorry to interrupt, ma'am. There's a rider at the Eastern gate, a young woman. She claims to be the Queen of Theotokou, and she's asking to see you and the king."
"Does she now?" Xena did her best not to look surprised. "Has she got anything to back up that claim?"
"She has a ring with the royal seal on it." An uncertain expression crossed the boy's face. "At least I think it's the royal seal. I've never seen one before. It's very big, and gold…"
"All right." Xena stood and beckoned to Gabrielle. "Let's go meet this queen."
It was almost a half-hour walk to the Eastern gate, and by the time they got there, word had apparently spread. The small courtyard in front of the guardhouse was filled with soldiers, and Xena was certain that only a small percentage of them had any real business being there. A few of the more conscientious souls looked guilty and melted away when she and Gabrielle arrived, but the rest continued milling about.
The center of attention was a small, bedraggled, exhausted-looking girl who sat huddled on top of an overturned crate against the guardhouse wall. Someone had draped a cloak over her shoulders and fetched her a mug that must've held something hot judging by the careful way she held it, but she was still shivering all over. Her hair was so dirty Xena couldn't be sure of its color, and her plain cotton dress was obviously made for a larger person.
None of this precluded her being Ianthe. It was two days' hard ride from Theotokou to Iolkos if one took the direct route, and she would've had to circle wide around to avoid coming within sight of Leander's army. That meant at least four days' travel, and it had rained yesterday and the day before… Xena looked around for the girl's horse, and saw two men currying it on the other side of the yard.
The girl took a small, cautious sip from her mug, coughed, and looked up again. Her eyes widened.
"Are you Xena?" she breathed in a hopeful, desperate voice, looking as if her life depended on the answer.
"I am." Xena stood directly in front of her, leaning forward slightly, feet braced shoulder-width apart. It was an intentionally intimidating stance, and she felt like a bully using it on this shivering child, but she had no way of knowing if the girl was who she said she was, or a plant sent by Leander and Ares. She could even be both, though reports from Agapenor's spies in Theotokou suggested no love lost between Leander and his wife. In any case, Xena could not afford to take chances. The quickest way to end a siege was by treachery from the inside, after all.
So she fought down her reluctance and continued looming. "And you, I understand, claim to be Queen Ianthe."
"I *am* Queen Ianthe." The girl raised one hand, and Xena saw the gleam of a heavy gold ring, incongruous against the dirt. She had to lean close and squint to make out the design -- two crowned lions facing each other, which was indeed the royal crest of Iolkos. The ring, like the dress, was far too big for the wearer; she had it on her thumb, and it still looked loose.
"It looks real enough," Xena admitted. "But how do I know you didn't steal it?"
"I didn't!" The girl clenched her fist around the ring, as if afraid that Xena would take it away from her. "Look, why don't you bring me to King Agapenor? He'll know me."
Xena hesitated. It was theoretically possible that the girl was an assassin, but her gut instinct said no. Finally she nodded and stepped back.
"All right, let's go."
"Xena." Gabrielle put a gentle hand on her arm. "Don't make her walk."
Xena looked down. Gabrielle had a point. The girl's face was bone-white under the dirt, and her eyes weren't quite tracking. Whoever she was, she was exhausted to breaking point. And what the heck, even potential assassins deserved a little rest now and then. Xena shrugged and sent two men off to fetch a litter.
King Agapenor was in the middle of his own breakfast when they arrived. He looked a bit startled at being interrupted by a small parade in mid-meal, but rose courteously to greet them.
"Good morning, Xena. What brings--" He broke off, noticing the girl for the first time. "Hello… and who might this be?"
She climbed off the litter, shook off the supporting hand of the men who had carried her, and greeted the king with a deep, regal curtsy that was only a little spoiled by a wobble on her way back up.
"Hello, Your Majesty. Don't you remember me? You made a state visit for my father's birthday two years ago. We sat together at the banquet. I wore a pink dress, and you said I looked like a sunrise."
Agapenor blinked, recognition slowly replacing confusion on his lined face. "Ianthe? By the gods, girl, what are you doing here?"
Ianthe gave a soft little gasp of relief, and fainted.
The next couple of hours were rather hectic. A physician was summoned. Smelling salts were fetched. Servants scurried back and forth bringing bearing food, wine, and hot water for a bath. Gabrielle went off in search of suitable clothes, returning eventually with a frilly, old-fashioned yellow gown that Agapenor identified as something his late sister had worn as a child.
"It was all I could find in the right size," Gabrielle said defensively. "She's so tiny, you know?"
Eventually the fussing subsided, and Xena was finally able to ask the question that she'd been dying to ask since the moment she saw that look of recognition in Agapenor's eyes.
"Why did you come here, Your Majesty?"
Ianthe lowered her head for a moment and clasped her hands in her lap, as if trying to marshal her strength before speaking. Sitting in Agapenor's chair with her feet tucked under her, wearing that ridiculous dress, she looked more like a child playing dress-up than like a queen. But when she did speak, neither her face nor her voice held any trace of childishness.
"I know you didn't want this war," she said, addressing Agapenor rather than Xena. "I don't want it either. I want to offer you a peace treaty."
"Does Leander know about this?" Xena asked sharply.
Ianthe looked at her as if she was insane. "No, of course not. Leander *wants* the war."
"What good is a treaty then? It's just a piece of parchment unless you have a way to enforce it."
"I know. I've thought it out." Ianthe's hands clenched and unclenched in her lap as she spoke. The seal ring flashed in the light with every movement. She stared at it intently as she spoke. "I know a secret way into the city -- a tunnel, going straight to the palace. I can take you there, you and your men. Leander didn't leave that many men in Theotokou, just a small garrison to keep everyone in line. You can catch them by surprise and retake the city. Without supplies from Theotokou, Leander's army starve and you'll be able to beat them, right?" She looked up at Xena with hope-filled eyes. "Isn't that how it works?"
"More or less," Xena said thoughtfully. "It would take a long time, though, and I wouldn't put it past Leander to try a last-ditch attack and get a lot of people killed once he realized what was happening. Still, it's a good plan." She grinned. "Just needs a few refinements, that's all…"
Some former ruler of Theotokou must've been a right paranoid bastard, Xena thought as she and Gabrielle followed Ianthe through the tunnel. A passage this wide and this long must've required several years of work and a tremendous amount of money, especially if the digging had to be kept secret. It was wide enough for three people to walk side by side, and the ceiling was reinforced at regular intervals with comfortingly sturdy support beams. The entrance was almost a quarter of a mile north of the city walls, hidden in a building that looked like a burned-out farm at first glance, but showed no signs of human habitation at closer inspection. And the exit, according to Ianthe, would put them right in the middle of the currently unoccupied master bedroom.
She'd taken a hundred soldiers with her, all hand-picked men who had distinguished themselves in the earlier battle. She could hear them behind her now: the rattling of swords against armor, the shuffle of feet, the occasional quickly-shushed whisper. The tunnel seemed to catch and concentrate the echoes, so that even the softest sounds carried far further than they should have. Xena hoped they were far enough underground that the noise would not be heard on the streets. She could see Gabrielle looking up toward the ceiling from time to time, obviously wondering the same thing.
"We're almost there," Ianthe whispered.
Xena gave Gabrielle her best reassuring smile, and quickened her pace.
The tunnel ended in a staircase, which ended with a heavy trap door. Ianthe went to open it, but Xena took her arm and gently drew her out of the way.
"I think I'd better go first."
She drew her sword before pushing the door open and poking her head into the room above; if Ianthe was going to lead them into an ambush, this would be the place to do it. But no attackers jumped out of the shadows, and the uncertain light of her torch illuminated only furniture and draperies.
"It's clear," Xena hissed, and quickly climbed out of the opening to give Gabrielle and Ianthe room to enter. The soldiers followed, and the room quickly grew hot and crowded and much more noisy than Xena liked.
"Everyone hold still," she hissed, and went to check the exits.
There were three doors in the bedroom. One led to a water closet, one to a study, one to an unlit, deserted corridor. Xena raised her torch high and looked long and hard in each direction, but there were no signs of alarm. The palace was asleep. There would be guards at the doors, no doubt, but they would be watching for attacks from the outside, not from behind them. Xena stepped out into the corridor, beckoning for the others to follow.
Ianthe moved to the front of the procession again, leading them toward the back of the building. When they came within sight of the courtyard door she stopped, pressed a warning finger to her lips, and mouthed the words "two guards". Xena nodded and crept forward, Gabrielle moving silently at her side.
She opened the door with one hard shove, putting all her strength behind it, felt it slam into something soft, accompanied by a grunt and a thud. Xena stepped into the courtyard, moved to one side to give Gabrielle room, and pulled the door back a bit. A stunned-looking guard staggered into view, one hand clutched against his bloody nose. His eyes were still open, so Xena slammed her sword hilt into his face. He dropped like a rock. Xena turned, and saw Gabrielle standing over the unconscious body of the other guard, staff still at the ready in case he moved. He didn't. Xena flashed her a quick thumbs-up, and leaned through the doorway to call for the others.
They had to take out five more guards on their way to the barracks, but after that it was easy. The garrison men outnumbered them, but most of them had been awakened from a sound sleep, and quite a few were drunk. It took less than an hour to subdue them and secure the courtyard. Then it was a matter of sitting around waiting for the night patrols to come back. Those proved more difficult to overpower, since the men were armed and awake when they came in. Fortunately, they arrived in smaller groups, spaced a couple of hours apart.
By dawn, the last patrol had been captured, the palace dungeons were crowded to capacity and then some, and Theotokou was no longer occupied territory. Xena stood in the middle of the courtyard and aimed her best intimidating sneer at the garrison commander, a barrel-chested giant of a man with a shaven head and a sullen expression. It had taken three men to chain him up and get him into the yard.
"What's your name?" Xena demanded.
The man's only response was to hawk loudly and spit at her feet.
"It's Korax," Ianthe told her.
Korax turned his head and fixed Ianthe with a glowering stare from under his one eyebrow.
"You'll get yours," he growled. "Traitorous bitch."
Ianthe met his eyes with perfect calm. "I owe no loyalty to you," she said, "nor to Leander."
Xena stepped forward before Korax could say anything else, and jabbed her fingers into the base of his neck. It felt like hitting a rock, and for a moment Xena was actually afraid it wouldn't work on him, but then he made a strangled noise and collapsed to his knees.
"Listen up, Korax," Xena told him sweetly. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, assuming you have one, so you'd better talk fast. What's the schedule for supply runs to Leander's camp?"
* * * * * * * * * *
Iolaus was feeling pretty proud of himself. He had seriously considered giving up after his visit to Mnemosyne's temple the week before. Learning that Polybius had given his memories to the goddess had been a severe blow. But he had persevered, leaving the temple by the same path Polybius had taken, trudging from farmstead to farmstead, showing far more patience than he would've thought himself capable of.
*And Herc says I get distracted too easily. Hah! That'll show him.*
Quite a few people had remembered the vacant-eyed man accosting them in the street, begging them to tell them who he was and what land he was in. Even those who couldn't recall what he looked like remembered the questions, and the man's childlike confusion. Most had taken him for a beggar and either brushed him off or given him money. But one olive farmer in need of an extra help at harvest time had taken him home and given him a few days' work in exchange for room and board.
"He seemed like a harmless enough fellow," the farmer had said in response to Iolaus' questions. "And healthy enough to work, even if he *was* a bit touched in the head. Didn't seem right to leave him to starve in the street."
Polybius had stayed at the olive farm until the end of harvest, then moved on. Before he left, the farmer had given him a set of his old clothes and a new name: Demeas. Armed with this knowledge, Iolaus had resumed the search with fresh confidence. And now here he was, at the gate of a pleasant-looking apple orchard, and the owner was saying "Demeas? Sure, he's out laying the fertilizer right now. Just follow that track and you'll find him."
Iolaus' heart was beating fast as he followed the indicated path, kicking aside fallen apples and clumps of dirt. He'd done it. Against all odds, he had found Polybius. Let Apollo put *that* in his pipe and smoke it.
He could see him up ahead now -- a tall man in loose trousers and sleeveless shirt, shoveling compost from a wheelbarrow, spreading it carefully over the tree roots. He stopped when Iolaus approached, smiled, and used the back of his hand to brush the hair away from his face.
"Can I help you?"
It was him, all right. The face was older, more weathered and deeply tanned, but the features were familiar enough. There was no trace of recognition in the hazel eyes, however, no trace of the personality Iolaus remembered. Iolaus' heart sank. He had known what to expect of course, but hadn't quite absorbed the knowledge fully. Some small part of him had expected that the sight of a familiar face would strike a chord.
"Hello, Demeas. I'm Iolaus. Do you… do you know who I am?"
"Sure," Demeas said cheerfully, and Iolaus had a moment of hope before the other man continued, "you travel with Hercules. I've heard stories. It's an honor to meet you." He started to hold out his hand, then pulled back, laughing self-consciously. "Oops, better not. My hands are filthy."
His palms were broad and callused, stained with dirt and sweat. One finger on the left hand was crooked, as if it had been broken and not set properly. Iolaus remembered those same hands, clean and smooth, setting his arm so gently it almost seemed rude to scream.
Under different circumstances, Iolaus would've been thrilled to be recognized by reputation alone, or to be greeted with anything other than, "I thought you'd be taller." But this time it only served to depress him. The priestess had been right. Polybius no longer existed. In his place was this cheerful, friendly man with a shy smile and compost under his fingernails. He'd worked in the orchard for over a decade, according to the owner. He was, she told Iolaus, hard-working and quiet and "good to the trees."
"I'm sorry," Iolaus mumbled. "I've made a mistake. I thought you were someone else."
He nearly ran back to the gate, avoiding the temptation to look back at the stranger behind him. His sense of accomplishment had evaporated, and all he wanted was to leave this mess behind him. He would go to Athena's temple and make his report to her, and leave her and Apollo to sort it out. And then he would go track down Hercules, and find a nice big monster to fight, and never do a favor for a god ever again.
* * * * * * * * * *
"He gave up his memory?!" Apollo wailed. "What in Tartarus was he thinking?"
"Oh, I don't know!" Iolaus snapped. "Maybe he was thinking that the gods had messed up his life so thoroughly that he didn't want to remember it anymore. Can't say I blame him."
"If you two can't behave yourself in my temple," Athena said irritably. "I'm going to throw you both out."
They stopped and glared at her. She glared back, unimpressed. She was in no mood to deal with Apollo's tantrums or Iolaus' outrage.
"What Polybius was thinking is irrelevant. He's done it, we can't undo it, it's over." All those weeks wasted, and what had they accomplished? Nothing. Not only was Ares no better off, but now Apollo was probably going to mope for the rest of the century, too.
"I'll talk to Mnemosyne," Apollo was saying now. "Make her bring him back. She must not have known who he was, she never would've presumed to take away one of mine--"
"Oh, please!" Athena snorted. "Of course she knew who he was, she would've read his memories as soon as he walked into the temple. And you know perfectly well no one can bring him back now." Mortals who sacrificed their memories to Mnemosyne were gone forever, free to restart life with a clean slate. Their sins and accomplishments were wiped from Hades' records, the Fates started a new thread for them. There was no going back from that.
"Even if someone could," Iolaus put in, "I don't think you should. I'm sorry Polybius is gone, but he wanted it that way. He's got a new life now, and he's happy enough with it. You've done him enough damage. Leave him alone."
Apollo stared at the mortal through angry, slitted eyes. "I don't remember asking you for an opinion."
"Yeah, well you got it anyway. Free of charge, don't bother to thank me."
Apollo looked as if he was seriously considering blowing Iolaus' head off, and Athena quickly stepped between them. Iolaus had done quite well for a mortal, after all, and really didn't deserve to have his head blown off. Besides, Hercules would almost certainly object. And, more to the point…
"Enough of that, both of you. Iolaus, it wouldn't hurt you to show a bit of respect once in a while, just for practice, in case you ever meet a god you actually like. And Apollo, Iolaus is right. Polybius -- Demeas -- has made his fate, he has to live it now. We have no right to interfere. And we don't even need to. Stop and think a moment. What happened to the vial?"
"What vial?" Iolaus demanded.
Athena ignored him and kept looking Apollo, who looked as if he had no idea what she was talking about. Typical. He was so busy sulking over losing Polybius, he had forgotten why they started this whole endless wild-goose chase in the first place.
"You said he had a vial of the potion with him when he ran. What do you think happened to it?"
"What vial?" Iolaus repeated.
A glimmer of understanding finally began to show in Apollo's eyes. "He would've had it with him when he came to Mnemosyne's temple. And when he agreed to give up memories and start a new existence--"
"He would've left all traces of his previous existence behind. That's the rule."
"So he would've left all his material possessions at the temple--"
"Including the vial." Athena reached out and grabbed Apollo's hand. "So let's go get it."
As they floated away into the aether, Athena thought she could hear Iolaus' exasperated voice shouting, "What vial, dammit?"
* * * * * * * * * *
"Are you sure this will work?" Ianthe asked anxiously.
Gabrielle smiled and squeezed her hand. "Everything will be fine. You'll see."
"If they get suspicious--"
"What's there to be suspicious of? Leander's expecting a food shipment, right? Well, here it is."
Gabrielle leaned back comfortably against a sack of flour -- one of several dozen such sacks that filled the canvas-covered wagon she and Ianthe were riding in. Other wagons in the procession carried more flour, casks of olive oil, crates of salted olives, wooden cages full of confused sheep and pigs blissfully ignorant of their rapidly approaching fate, and barrels of wine.
It was the wine that was going to win the war for them. Xena had spiked it with some mysterious herbal mixture she'd spent half a day preparing, supposedly a recipe she had learned in Ch'in. A few drops of the stuff, she said, would put a man into a sleep so deep, that no amount of noise could wake him. With any luck, most of Leander's army would be unconscious before the night was over.
"What if they don't drink it?" Ianthe persisted.
"They will." Gabrielle said with all the confidence she could muster. From what she herself had seen in her travels, wine drew soldiers the way honey drew flies, but she supposed it was remotely possible that Leander had amassed an army of teetotalers. If they did-- well, then they would just have to think of something else, that's all. "Try to relax, Ianthe. Xena knows what she's doing."
Ianthe gave her a grateful little smile, leaned back and closed her eyes. For a few minutes she neither moved nor spoke, and Gabrielle thought she might've fallen asleep. Then she shifted position slightly, and spoke without opening her eyes.
"Gabrielle, what's Xena like?"
The eternal question. Gabrielle wished she had a dinar for every time someone had asked her that. She sighed softly, and tried to think which one of a million possible answers Ianthe needed to hear.
"Competent," she said finally. "I mean, everyone knows she can fight, but most people just don't think about everything else she can do. She can sing, dance, light a campfire in two minutes flat, shoe a horse, repair a torn boot, sail a ship, cure a headache… it's kind of intimidating, actually." She grinned and shook her head. "She says she can't cook, but I sometimes think she just doesn't like to. And I do like to, so it works out well enough… but the point is, when she has a plan, it generally works, so don't worry too much, okay?"
"I heard she used to work for Ares." Ianthe's voice was soft and distant. "I heard they were lovers once."
"She did work for him, but that was a long time ago. And I don't think the lovers thing is true. I mean, she never said, but I'm pretty sure…" Gabrielle could feel herself blushing. "I wouldn't bring it up in her hearing, if I were you. It's kind of a sore point."
"*I'm* not competent," Ianthe muttered. "I can hardly do anything."
"I think you've done a great deal," Gabrielle told her. "It took a lot of courage to ride out alone the way you did. None of this would be happening now if it wasn't for you."
A man's voice shouted a greeting somewhere ahead of them. Another man answered. The wagon came to a jerky stop.
"I think we're here," Gabrielle whispered. "Put on your cloak, Ianthe, and move toward the back. We don't want anyone to spot you."
The flap of canvas at the back of the wagon was suddenly pulled aside. Torchlight flickered in the opening. An armored man climbed in, and Gabrielle reached for her staff before she recognized him as one of theirs. He flashed them a cheerful salute, mouthed "they're falling for it" with exaggerated lip movements, and started tossing flour sacks to a second man waiting outside.
It took over an hour to unload all the wagons. Despite her assurances to Ianthe, Gabrielle found that she was nervous. It would've probably been better if she had something to do other than sit there, but she didn't, so her mind was free to wander, and to come up with ever-more inventive scenarios of things that could go wrong.
To distract herself, she used her eating knife to cut a small hole in the canvas, and peeked through it to watch the proceedings. She could see men unloading the wine barrels, rolling them across the ground toward the tents.
"All right!" someone shouted, laughing. "Maybe we'll get some decent booze for a change!"
"Don't bet on it," someone else grumbled.
"Hey!" another voice shouted. "Get some of these barrels over here, will you? I've got some *very* thirsty women in my tent!"
Apparently this passed for cleverness, because a great many people laughed raucously. Next to Gabrielle, Ianthe shivered and hugged her knees.
"That's Leander," she whispered.
Curious, Gabrielle looked in the direction of the voice and spotted a blond, broad-shouldered man standing at the entrance of the largest tent. He was too far away for her to make out his features, all she could see was bright-colored clothing and the glint of torchlight on armor.
"He looks like a jerk," she whispered back.
She didn't truly relax until the first barrel was opened and the wine started making the rounds. Xena's men walked weaving through the crowd, waving their mugs around, proclaiming increasingly-obscene and loud toasts, encouraging everyone to drink up. Xena herself kept in the background. She wore a long, hooded cloak that shaded her face and disguised her build. To Gabrielle, her presence was still obvious, even in a large crowd and in uncertain light, but no one else seemed to notice.
The sounds of the camp washed over her -- shouts and laughter, friendly and not-so-friendly swearing as men jostled for a place next to the fire or another serving of wine. As the time wore on, the nature of the noise slowly began to change. Gabrielle was on the alert for it, so she actually spotted the cries of alarm before Leander's men did.
"Here goes," she muttered, picked up her staff, and climbed out of the wagon.
All around the camp, men were collapsing to the ground, groaning. Some were flinging their mugs away and reaching for weapons; others, not so quick-witted, were gaping in confusion. It looked as if maybe a third of men were affected, but Gabrielle knew that this would include Leander and most of the officers.
"Now!" Xena pushed back her hood and drew her sword. The man next to her produced a bow and arrow from beneath his cloak. He held the arrow in the flame of a nearby campfire, then stepped back and fired it into the air. It streaked across the black sky like a tiny comet, a signal for the lookouts who would be watching from the walls of Iolkos. Agapenor's army would be marching out even now, ready to attack the weakened enemy. Meanwhile, of course, two-thirds of Leander's army were still conscious and gathering to fight. Gabrielle saw two men rushing towards her, swords raised, and readied herself to meet the attack.
Ares returned to the Halls of War feeling pretty damn good about himself. He had reinforced half-a-dozen flagging conflicts all over Greece and started three new ones, including a lovely civil insurrection in Corinth that would likely keep Hercules busy for at least the rest of the year. He had stood ankle-deep in blood on the battlefield, and felt the aether crackle with power as men died screaming his name. And he hadn't thought of Ianthe at all the entire time. Well, not much, anyway.
Now that the small stuff was taken care of, it was time to get back to the really important business -- the siege of Iolkos. Hopefully Leander hadn't screwed up too badly in his absence… Ares concentrated for a moment, letting his vision home in on Leander's current location--
--and found himself looking at a dungeon cell. "What in Tartarus…" He blinked a few times, but the image did not change. There was Leander, restlessly pacing behind iron bars, surrounded by half a dozen of his lieutenants. A quick inspection showed more familiar faces filling the surrounding cells.
Ares swore under his breath. He had expressly ordered Leander to do nothing but hold his ground in the god's absence. How the fuck did the idiot manage to blow the entire campaign in such a short time?
*Xena, of course.* He should've known better than to turn his back on her for any length of time. Should've known better than to leave Leander unsupervised. Unfortunately, he'd had no choice. Even a god couldn't be in more than one place at a time.
Well, maybe he could still salvage something from the mess… With a moment's thought, Ares transported himself to Iolkos.
He appeared in the middle of Leander's cell and stood with his arms folded across his chest, glaring. The warlord jumped back and looked apprehensive, as well he should have. He snapped to attention, and the other men in the cell followed suit.
"My Lord Are--" Leander began, but Ares was in no mood to listen.
"Save it, mortal. I don't want your excuses. I take my eye off you for a couple of weeks, and *this* is how I find you? I should leave you here to rot. Or, better yet, leave your mutilated corpse here to rot." Ares grinned at the thought, and Leander went a shade paler and backed away a step.
"My Lord, we were betrayed! That goddamn bitch--"
Ares gripped Leander's neck with one hand and lifted him a couple of feet off the floor. "Which part of 'I don't want your excuses' didn't you understand?" he demanded, and tightened his grip. Leander's face turned a satisfying shade of red. The veins in his temples bulged, and his eyes looked as if they might pop right out of his skull. Ares allowed himself to stand and enjoy the view for a few seconds before releasing his hold. Leander collapsed onto his hands and knees, retching and gasping for breath.
"Fortunately for you," Ares growled, "I've invested too much in this war to stop now. So I'm going to give you one more chance. Blow it, and your successor will have to bury your remains in a bucket."
"Hey!" A new voice called out. A uniformed guard approached the cell, sword drawn, and peered through the bars.. "What's going on here?"
He waved his hand, and the padlock on the cell door fell to the floor in pieces. Another quick gesture created a pile of weapons out of thin air. Leander and his men quickly armed themselves, and burst out into the corridor just in time to meet the dungeon guards, who had come running, alerted by the noise.
It was a short fight, hardly worthy of the name. There were only a dozen or so guards, and over a hundred prisoners once Ares unlocked the other cells. Within minutes, all the guards were dead. Leander saluted his god with a bloody sword, and flashed a wide grin.
"What now, My Lord?"
*What do you think, you idiot?* "Secure the palace, of course. Find the king. Take him alive if you can, he'll make a useful hostage."
"You heard him!" Leander shouted. "Take the palace! For the glory of Ares!"
"For the glory of Ares!" The shouts echoed throughout the dungeon as Leander led his men toward the exit.
"Damn right," Ares muttered, and followed.
He stayed out of the slaughter, expending only a minimal amount of power to mask the noise of the fighting so that the attackers never lost the element of surprise. Part of him was tempted to not do even that, and make a proper battle out of it, but he resisted the impulse. This was too good a chance to waste. Later, when the city was secured and Leander's army reassembled, there would be time to plan proper battles.
*With a different commander, perhaps.*
They were close to the center of the palace now, fighting their way down a wide central hallway. The resistance was getting more numerous and better organized, but still no match for a hundred hardened mercenaries with the God of War on their side. Blood slicked the floor and spattered the walls, filling the air with a thick, coppery smell. Ares closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The aether churned like the sea in a storm, the waves swelling with every death.
The hallway came to an end at an elaborately carved set of double doors, guarded by four men in elaborate uniforms, armed with equally elaborate ceremonial halberds. Toys, not weapons. It took the mercenaries all of two seconds to cut them down, and to fling the doors open.
"For the glory of Ares!" Leander shouted again, and led the way into the room on the other side.
It was a council chamber, Ares saw as soon as he came in. There was a long oak table draped in purple silk, silver-gilt candle holders on the walls, and several chairs, all occupied. Ares immediately recognized King Agapenor, Xena, Gabrielle, a gaggle of unimportant officials and advisors, and--
For a few moments, Ares actually froze in stunned surprise. Not for long. Only a few seconds. Just long enough for Leander to snatch a crossbow from the hands of the man next to him and to fire it. Just long enough for Ianthe to collapse into Gabrielle's arms, a feathered bolt in her throat.
* * * * * * * * * *
It had taken several days to work out the terms of the peace treaty, and Gabrielle had spent most of the time in Ianthe's company. She and Xena had acted as the queen's advisors, since it very clearly became clear that she needed all the advice she could get. Ianthe had been taught to look and act like a queen, but not to be one -- she had no training in law, or politics, or diplomacy. Gabrielle wished that King Onetor was still alive, just so she could smack him a good one upside the head. What *had* the man been thinking, educating his one and only heir to be a decoration?
Fortunately, Ianthe made quick progress. She read every legal scroll Gabrielle managed to dig up in Agapenor's library, paid careful attention to Xena's explanations, asked probing questions and grasped the answers the first time around. By the time the negotiations began to wind down, she was doing most of the work herself.
And it was finally happening. Here in this stuffy, overdecorated room, they were going to end the war for good and seal a new alliance between Iolkos and Theotokou. Agapenor had already signed his name on the treaty, and Ianthe was reaching for the quill. Gabrielle gave her an encouraging smile. Ianthe looked perfectly serene and graceful, but she had to be nervous, anyone would be. Gabrielle could feel her own heart pounding with anticipation. So silly, to get worked up over two people signing a sheet of parchment, but it *was* a historic occasion after all. She watched carefully as Ianthe signed, memorizing every movement and gesture, already mentally composing the phrases for the chronicle she knew she would write.
And then the door burst open, and everything fell apart. Suddenly the room was filled with armed men, Xena was vaulting over the table with a sword in her hand, and Ianthe was falling, the quill still clutched in her hand.
"Ianthe!" Gabrielle caught her as she fell and lowered her to the floor. She could see the crossbow bolt protruding just above her collarbones, the blood soaking into the collar of her dress. No hope, not with a wound like that. "Oh, gods, no… Ianthe…"
"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice cut through the haze of shock and grief that threatened to paralyze her. "Get the king out of here!"
Agapenor was still in his chair, looking as frozen and horrified as Gabrielle felt. He neither helped nor resisted as Gabrielle grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. She led him toward the smaller door on the other side of the room, screaming for the guards as she went. She could hear shouting behind her, and the metallic clashing of blades. She wanted to stay, to join the fight, to watch Xena's back in this hopelessly uneven battle, but she understood the importance of getting the king to safety, so she went.
Luckily she didn't have to go far before the guards began to arrive, summoned by her shouts. Gabrielle handed Agapenor off to two of them, then ran after the others back toward the council chamber.
The battle there was already in full swing. Several dead mercenaries lay dead or wounded on the floor. Xena was fighting four men at once, which was fairly even odds, so Gabrielle wasn't too concerned about it. Most of Agapenor's advisors were cowering under the table or running for the exit, but a few had drawn weapons of their own and joined the fight. Gabrielle's staff still lay on the floor where she'd dropped it to catch Ianthe. She snatched it up again, just in time to block a sword blow, and began to fight her way over to Xena's side.
For a while, it looked as if the room might be overrun by the sheer number of mercenaries -- no matter how many they struck down, more seemed to be there to take their place. Fortunately, they could only come in through the doors four at a time, and Xena was there to meet them. Few men got past her, and those who did immediately found themselves facing Gabrielle and the guards.
Gabrielle stood with her back against the table, and forced herself to think of nothing except the fight, nothing except the feel of the staff in her hands and the moves she needed to execute. Block, pivot, strike, block, duck… never mind Ianthe's body lying just a few feet away… block, strike… dead at sixteen, dead for nothing if they didn't stop Leander now, here in this room, before more people died… jump, turn, strike… Her arms were beginning to ache and her lungs burned. The staff felt like lead in her hands. Stopping was not an option, so she kept moving. Block, strike…
A man rushed at her, sword arcing toward her neck. She swept the blade aside, then reversed her swing and slammed the end of the staff under his chin. He fell over backwards, and stayed down. Gabrielle immediately crouched into a defensive position again, and waited for the next opponent.
None came. Some of the mercenaries were still alive, but they were falling back, retreating through the double door into the hallway, with the guards in pursuit. Gabrielle wanted to follow, but exhaustion was catching up with her now that there was no immediate danger to keep it at bay. She had to lean on her staff to keep her legs from buckling. So she stood there and took deep breaths until her heart stopped pounding, and it was only then that she realized that no one in the room was left standing except herself and Xena.
And the God of War, standing still as a statue in front of the window.
"Ares." Xena's voice could've caused a cold snap in Tartarus. "I should've known. You just don't know when to quit, do you?"
The god didn't even look at her. He walked over to the table and looked down at the sheet of parchment that lay spread across it, amazingly untouched during the fight.
"She was going to sign a peace treaty." Gabrielle couldn't tell from his voice if this was a statement or a question.
"She *had* signed it, Ares. You're too late." Gabrielle circled around the table to kneel at Ianthe's side. "Your war is over. You got her killed for nothing."
She waited for some snide reply, a declaration about the irrelevancy of mortal lives, maybe a lewd remark or two directed at Xena. But Ares just stood there, gripping the edge of the table with both hands. His face showed no expression at all, but his knuckles were white. Suddenly he straightened up, took a step back, and flung one hand out as if throwing something. The ball of flame hit the table, smoked and sizzled for a moment, then flickered out, leaving only a black scorched spot where the treaty used to be.
Xena's face twisted with contempt, mirroring Gabrielle's reaction. "Give it up, Ares. Do you really think that will make a difference?"
Ares turned toward her, that flat, frozen look never leaving his face. "No," he said. "I don't think it will make any difference at all."
And then he was gone.
"Bastard." Gabrielle rose shakily to his feet and looked around. There were at least fifty bodies on the floor, most of them Leander's men or palace guards, though a couple of Agapenor's advisors had also been struck down. Gabrielle walked around the room in an unsteady circle, examining the faces to see if one of them was Leander. She found him near the door, lying face up in a congealing pool of blood. He'd been completely gutted, sliced open from neck to groin with a single cut that had flesh and bone with equal ease. Gabrielle clapped one hand over her nose and mouth and staggered back.
"Wow," she muttered when she was reasonably sure she wasn't going to throw up. "You sure killed him a lot."
"Wasn't me." Xena shrugged. "Must've been one of the guards." She reached over and squeezed Gabrielle's arm reassuringly. "Come on. Let's make sure we get the rest of them."
* * * * * * * * * *
Alone in the Halls of War, Ares finally gave full vent to his rage.
"Bitch!" He grabbed a bronze shield from a stand and hurled it across the room. It gouged a deep mark in the opposite wall and bounced back six feet before clattering to the floor. Ares threw the stand after it. "Lying, traitorous little--"
He stalked around the room, smashing anything that got in his way, firing an occasional bolt of red heat at the walls. How *dare* she? How *dare* that little whore run behind his back like that after everything they'd--
She'd probably planned it from the start. Putting on that "poor, defenseless little me" routine, looking so pure and fragile, laughing her head off when he wasn't around. And now she had the unmitigated gall to be dead, and he was left with nothing, not even revenge, she was dead and he couldn't even tell her--
He was on his knees in the middle of the room, with no clear memory of how he got there. There was a pillar directly in front of him, and it took every last shred of his self-control to keep from smashing it to bits. He wanted to tear down the walls, to bring the entire fortress crashing down around him, but would good would it do? The war would still be over, and she would still be dead.
*It doesn't have to be like that,* a little voice whispered in the back of his head. *A pinch of ambrosia, that's all it would take. You could have her back.* But that was ridiculous, of course. The power of ambrosia was the power of Olympus, every other god would know at once if he used it to bring a mortal back to life. He might as well paint a big sign in the sky over Theotokou: "You want something from Ares? Grab this girl." He'd never have a secure moment for as long as she lived.
And why the fuck was he even considering it, anyway? He was *glad* she was dead! His one regret was that he didn't get to do it himself. The little bitch had betrayed him, and he would walk into Tartarus and let Dahak's black shade claw his other eye out before he shed a tear for her.
Ares got to his feet and looked around for something else to throw. Before he could spot anything suitable, a faint shimmer just at the edge of his peripheral vision alerted him to the imminent arrival of another god in his domain. He turned just in time to see Athena step out of the aether.
Apollo had refused to come.
"You know he doesn't want to see me," he said irritably when Athena tried to insist. "He probably doesn't even want to be reminded I exist. And frankly, I don't want to see him either. You're the one who gets along with him, you go. Don't even mention me. He's likely to throw that vial back in your face if you do."
Athena had to admit that he had a point. Besides, she really didn't feel like arguing. The whole thing had taken far too much time already. So she took the vial and went to see Ares alone.
She could see as soon as she arrived that something was badly wrong. The room was a mess -- overturned furniture, torn wall-hangings, the floor littered with shapeless lumps of fused metal that must've started out life as weapons and trophies. An iron brazier lay on its side in a puddle of burning oil, fortunately out of reach of anything flammable.
Ares stood glaring at her with an expression that plainly said "just give me an excuse." As a rule, Athena was not especially intimidated by her baby brother, but now she found herself falling back a step.
"Uhm… hello, Ares. Did I come at a bad time?"
"I'm redecorating," he snapped. "What do you want?"
Definitely not in a good mood. Athena considered leaving, but that would be embarrassing. Besides, maybe what she had to say would snap him out of it.
"I have something for you. A gift." She held out the vial.
Ares peered at it suspiciously. "What is it?"
"Asclepius' potion. We found one last dose." Athena was pleased to find that both her voice and her hand were perfectly steady. "I don't actually know if it will work on a god, but I figure it's worth trying, right?" She watched him carefully. "Right?"
Ares took the vial from her and stood staring at it for a long time, his head lowered so that she couldn't see his face. She could see the tension in his posture, though, the rigid, unnatural stillness that worried her more than a violent reaction would have.
"Ares?" she said tentatively.
He closed his fist around the vial, and for a moment she was afraid he would crush it, but then he shook his head and relaxed his grip.
"Oh, that's brilliant. Absolutely perfect." He looked up, and Athena saw that he was smiling. She didn't like that smile one bit.
"Next time you see the Fates," he said, "tell them I appreciate the joke." And he vanished into the aether before she could ask him to share the punchline.
*Well, that was bizarre.* Athena considered following him, then decided she'd better not. He probably wanted to be alone when he tried the potion, and she was pretty sure she understood why. Whether or not it worked, he'd probably find it difficult to control his reaction. And Ares didn't like to be observed at vulnerable moments, especially by family.
Very well, then. She would leave him alone and come back to check on him later.
* * * * * * * * * *
Gabrielle stood in the royal burial chapel and looked down at Ianthe's body, laid out in stiff repose on the flower-draped altar. Outside, the funeral pyre had been built and the people of Theotokou were gathering to pay their last respects to their queen. Soon the bearers would come to take her away. Xena would sing the funeral dirge, the fire would be lit, and Ianthe's soul would be free to travel to the Elysian Fields. Then Agapenor would announce Ianthe's successor, as specified by the treaty, and it would all be over.
Ianthe's face was carefully made up now, her hair pinned into place, her hands folded across her chest. She had been dressed in a high-necked gown that hid her torn throat from view. She still looked like a corpse. Gabrielle had never understood people who made pious faces at funerals and claimed that the dead person looked "peaceful" or "asleep." She had seen a great many dead people in her life, and none of them had every looked anything other than dead.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle whispered. "We should've taken better care of you." She'd ended the war for them, and they couldn't even keep her alive.
The door opened to admit a stout, elderly woman in mourning dress. Gabrielle recognized Magda, Ianthe's former nurse and maid. She remembered her weeping inconsolably when the body was brought home, lying prostrate on the floor, wailing that her baby was dead. She looked calm enough now, though there was no mistaking the loss in her eyes.
She moved to stand at the other side of the altar, directly across from Gabrielle, and stroked one hand lightly against Ianthe's cheek.
"She looks… peaceful," she murmured.
Gabrielle bit her tongue.
Magda looked up to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "Could you--" She looked down again, hesitating. "Could you give us a few moments alone here? Please?"
"Sure." Gabrielle gave what she hoped was a reassuring smile, and stepped away from the altar. On impulse, she reached out to give Magda a hug before she left, but the woman drew back, obviously uncomfortable with the gesture, so Gabrielle merely patted her arm and walked out.
Her first thought was to go outside and join the rest of the funeral crowd, but then it occurred to her that Magda might not want to be alone when she left the chapel, so she sat down on the floor just outside the door and waited. And waited. And waited.
"Magda?" No answer. "Magda, are you all right in there?" Silence. Gabrielle stood and, after a moment's hesitation, pushed the door open.
The chapel was empty, except for the body on the altar.
For a moment, all Gabrielle could do was stand there and stare. She knew there were no other doors in the room, and the only window was too high and narrow to climb through, even if there had been any reason for Magda to do so, which there wasn't. Yet she was gone.
Gabrielle stepped inside, looking around at the bare walls and floor, trying and failing to imagine where a grieving old woman might've concealed herself. As she got closer to the altar, she became aware of a new smell in the air, a faint, sweet scent she at first mistook for the altar flowers. But no, it was warmer than the flowers, spicier, changing with every inhalation, as if all of her favorite smells had come together to make a single perfect one. Gabrielle circled the chapel, looking for the source of it, and finally spotted a glimmer of glass on the floor. She knelt to examine it, and the smell got stronger, making her dizzy. She shook off the feeling and reached out to pluck a small glass vial from a crack between two flagstones.
It was empty, but the glass felt warm against her fingers, as if it had contained something hot just moments before. Gabrielle held it carefully in cupped hands as she rose. She looked around again, no longer expecting to find anyone, but figuring it would do no harm to ask.
"Hello? Is anyone here?"
Ianthe shuddered, and opened her eyes.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Well, it's not ambrosia," Xena muttered, turning the vial thoughtfully in her hands.
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. The smell is all wrong."
Ianthe said nothing. She sat very still in her chair, looking down at her hands, not meeting anyone's eyes. Half a dozen physicians had examined her, and pronounced her perfectly healthy. The city's priests were all falling over each other trying to claim credit for the "miracle." Xena heartily disliked them all, but she couldn't very well deny that the gods *had* been at work here.
"Ianthe." She knelt next to the girl's chair, trying to look gentle and non-threatening. "Do you know anything at all about this?"
Ianthe shook her head, still refusing to look up.
"Are you sure? Only a god could've brought you back like this, and they generally don't bother unless they have a whole lot of incentive. There must be *something* you can tell me."
Ianthe finally lifted her head. She looked pale and tired and stubborn as a mule.
"I can't imagine any reason why any god would want me back from the dead," she said firmly.
And that was her final word on the subject.
* * * * * * * * * *
Athena waited a full day before going to see Ares again. She found him in the same place where she'd seen him last. The mess had been cleared away, leaving the chamber mostly empty. In the middle of the bare floor, Ares was sparring with three of his armored drones at once. He must've been at it for a long time, because he was breathing hard and sweating, and it took a great deal of prolonged fighting to get him to show this much strain.
As she watched, he ducked under an oncoming sword, came back with a swing of his own that neatly cleaved his opponent in two, continued the motion into a roundhouse kick that sent the second attacker smashing into the wall, and stabbed the third right through the helmet visor before he even had his feet planted again. All one move, lasting less than two seconds. Terpsichore would've been green with envy.
He turned toward her, kicking scattered bits of armor out of the way, and she saw his face clearly for the first time. Her heart sank.
"Hello again, Athena." He acknowledged her with a nod, then leaned against the wall and pretended to check his sword blade for nicks. His face was flushed from the exercise, making the scars look more vivid than usual. "What do you want now?"
"I just wanted to see how you were," she said softly. "Have you… have you used the potion?"
"I used it."
*Damn.* "It didn't work, then."
"It doesn't matter."
"I *said* it doesn't matter."
It did, though, she could see that. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea, maybe she shouldn't have gotten his hopes up, maybe…
"Is there anything else, Athena?"
"No," she sighed, and resisted the impulse to again say how sorry she was. Ares had never had any patience for useless apologies.
"Good. Then do me a big favor and go away. Far away. Now." Ares snapped his fingers, and the broken pieces of armor on the floor began to reassemble themselves again.
He needed time to himself, Athena reasoned as she stepped back into the aether. Time to calm down. She would talk to him later, make him see that it really *didn't* matter, tell him how Zeus had reversed his own decree for his sake, how Apollo had tried to help. That was the important stuff, really, if he could just get it through his thick head.
Oh, well. He would come around.