Part 1| Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Index |
Gabrielle stretched and rolled over. Her arm fell on the cold ground, instead of the warm warrior. "Xena?" The bard called softly, opening her eyes, trying to adjust to the darkness. Not hearing her warrior respond, she sat up. "Xena?" She called again, looking around the empty camp.
"Staveros is gone," Xena spat out as she angrily strode back into camp, annoyance clearly etched on her face.
"Gone?" Gabrielle repeated as she yawned and rubbed her eyes. "What do you mean gone?"
"He's GONE, Gabrielle. How much clearer do you need me to make it for you?" Xena snapped.
"Well, let's see, just so I can CLEARLY understand . . . what you're saying is . . . he's not here," Gabrielle blurted sarcastically, eyeing her warrior as she got up and stretched her still sleepy body.
Choosing to ignoring the bard's response, Xena groaned with annoyance. "I can't believe I fell for the 'I'm just a poor merchant and my town is in trouble' routine," Xena blurted, pacing in the camp. "I let down my guard and . . . "
"Xena," Gabrielle called to her partner, who continued to pace. "XENA!" Gabrielle held her arm to prevent her pacing. "What is wrong with you? Maybe he's . . . stretching his legs," Gabrielle suggested, looking out at the trees.
"I've looked, he's GONE," Xena blurted, reclaiming her arm from the bard, and started to pace again.
"Maybe he left for Zemal," Gabrielle suggested, knowing that sounded unlikely when she said it. Though her concern about Staveros' absence was growing, she was still more worried about her partner's disturbing reaction.
"Gabrielle, he's working for Bayentes, he must be," Xena hissed.
"Xena, what about the assassins?"
"Bayentes sent them to help his story . . . an old warlord trick," Xena explained with a thin smile.
Gabrielle thought a moment, remembering everything Staveros said and did as Xena paced.
"But he was really sincere in his concern about Zemal," Gabrielle noted, causing the Warrior Princess to pause a moment to stare at the bard.
Too trusting, Xena thought, shaking her head then continued to pace across their camp, thinking.
"Ok, ok, even if it IS true . . . " Gabrielle offered as Xena marched towards her, then marched passed her. Gabrielle sighed with annoyance, staring at her warrior's back.
The pacing warrior turned and walked towards her again.
". . . and he IS working for Bayen. . . . " Gabrielle continued but paused as the warrior past her. ". . .tes" the bard blurted, annoyed she was once again talking to the warrior's back.
"XENA! Stop pacing!!" Gabrielle barked in frustration. Xena turned to her and sighed.
"Gabrielle, don't you SEE," Xena relayed as she went to the bard and placed her hand firmly on her shoulder. "He had one of his men come in and make himself at home in OUR camp," Xena blurted with annoyance as she glanced over to Staveros' bed roll.
"Bayentes looks for the weak link in his enemies and goes after it," Xena added looked back in Gabrielle's eyes. "I let my guard down, Gabrielle. And now Bayentes knows MY weak link . . . YOU," Xena explained and started pacing again.
Gabrielle's eyes rolled. "Weak link. Gee thanks, I've heard of ball and chain . . . " Gabrielle muttered.
"Gabrielle, this is no time for sarcasm," Xena snapped.
Gabrielle sighed and rubbed the back of her neck.
"Ok, Xena. So, Staveros probably knows a little more about 'us' than we'd like," Gabrielle relayed, seeing Xena's eyebrows furrow on one of the trips past her.
"But we haven't exactly kept our relationship a secret. So he tells Bayentes what he knows . . . People already know we love each other. That really isn't new information."
Xena looked at her bard, who sat on the log. Gabrielle was right.
"He likes playing mind games," Xena relayed wearily, sitting next to her bard. "I guess he won this battle," Xena spat with self-loathing and leaned forward, her head sinking into her hands.
"Why are you letting him get to you?" Gabrielle rubbed the warrior's back.
Xena grunted and rubbed her temples.
The bard knew there was more to Bayentes than what Xena told her. "What exactly did you do to make him want revenge, Xena?" Gabrielle asked softly, gently stroking the back of her warrior's head.
Xena stopped rubbing her temples and looked at her bard, hearing the question she hoped she wouldn't be asked.
Staveros stood in Bayentes war tent, nervously waiting for the warlord to arrive as he listened to yet another platoon march by. His eyes darted around the tent at the large display of war paraphernalia. He whimpered when he noticed the dark stains still covering the axes and swords.
Glancing to the table, he spotted a map. Leaning over to get a closer look, his stomach dropped. There were arrows on the map indicating Bayentes was still planning to march North, to Zemal . . . his home. He also noted after Zemal, the arrows turned East, to a town that was circled which was apparently his final destination. Staveros shook his head. Even he, a naive merchant, knew it was clearly quicker to skip Zemal and just go Northeast. Staveros wondered why Bayentes desired to waste time and pick on his home.
The warlord and his entourage came through the tent flap. Staveros quickly stood erect and turned towards Bayentes. Despite trying to avoid insulting the dangerous warlord, the merchant cringed, like everyone else who laid eyes on the disfigured man.
"Staveros! It's so good to see you," Bayentes relayed warmly, as if he was greeting a long lost friend.
"Good to see me? You send me off to get information and then you send assassins after me!" Staveros blurted nervously, still staring at the man's scars.
"You're still in one piece, so what's the problem?" Bayentes relayed with an amused grin that would have been ear-to-ear, if he still had them.
"I could have been killed!" Staveros blurted.
"What? With the Warrior Princess to protect you?" Bayentes smiled and laughed heartily, then in a disturbingly rapid change of mood, his face went emotionless. "You exaggerate merchant," Bayentes responded coldly with a dismissive hand. He sat at his table, looking quickly over his map before rolling it up.
"Exaggerate?!? An arrow came this close to piercing my heart!" A flustered Staveros blurted and continued to exercise poor judgment, showing an inch between his fingers.
"One still could, if you don't mind your tongue, merchant," Bayentes relayed calmly, motioning for a bowl of fruit to be brought to him. "And don't forget . . . ," he added as the servant placed the bowl next to him. "I have your wife and child," he said with satisfaction, placing a grape in his mouth.
"I. . . I'm sorry . . . my lord," Staveros blurted with forced respect. "How are they?" He asked uneasily.
"Scared I'll kill them . . . ," Bayentes relayed, motioning for a guard to pour him a drink.
". . . as they should be."
"As they should be? But you said if I helped you, you'd release my family!"
"You haven't helped me yet," the warlord noted, savoring another grape and washing it down with wine. "All I've received so far are insults and threats from the Warrior Princess."
"She is not alone," Staveros quickly blurted. "She has a . . . companion," he informed the warlord, hoping to prove helpful. Bayentes didn't seem impressed.
"They are . . . lovers," the merchant reluctantly added, still embarrassed about finding out when he was woken by their moans. He was thankful the Warrior Princess was too . . . preoccupied . . . to notice.
"Gabrielle, isn't it?" Bayentes relayed with a warm smile that gave the merchant chills. "A young bard from Poteidaia, with lovely ears . . . I am told."
Bayentes' smile faded as his hands drifted up to touch the sides of his head, where his ears once were. His gaze went blankly through the merchant as he remembered what it was like to feel something other than scar tissue . . . what it was like the day he became an enemy of the Warrior Princess. . . .
With all pride gone, hoping his worth as a soldier and friend would prove enough reason for her to spare him, he begged the dark warrior standing over him for mercy. Of anyone, HE should have known none would be given. There never was with her.
He had seen, too many times to count, the Warrior Princess dispense swift and harsh punishment . . . without one moment of hesitation, or remorse. 'You must instill fear in those who would oppose you,' she lectured him and a chosen few in her army. That philosophy didn't just apply to villagers. On occasion, she killed an incompetent or lazy soldier to send a message to the rest of her army. They could always tell the message was received by the increase in sparring practice.
He never thought he would be on the receiving end of her cold brutality. But as the Fates would have it, he, one of her trusted, was.
Bound and kneeling, he looked up to her. The tall warrior blocked the sun, whose rays escaped from behind her dark form, creating a bright halo. She was frighteningly magnificent. And she knew it.
It was a hot day with no clouds, he remembered. Not even the wind blew. It was the kind of day the army dreaded in their hot armor. Yet the heat never seemed to affect the Warrior Princess, making her men speculate with wonder. Most believed Ares made her invincible, even against nature. Today, Bayentes finally figured out why. . . .
It was because her heart was so cold.
Her haloed form stood menacingly over him for what seemed like an eternity. He couldn't take it any longer, wanting it to be over with.
"I fought as your friend and I will die as your enemy, Xena," he spoke with a fierceness that surprised himself.
The Warrior Princess grinned. In the next heartbeat, she was face to face with him with her dagger at his throat. She slowly and intimately traced the tip of her dagger up his neck, under his jaw to his chin. With slight pressure on the blade, she drew his chin up towards her as she leaned in even closer.
"What makes you think I'm going to kill you?" She asked with amusement.
Her unnerving blue eyes sought and found what they were looking for - fear. She grinned, knowing he had seen those who lived after her punishments. Death was preferred.
"If you don't kill me, I will cause you such pain and suffering you will beg ME to kill YOU," he threatened, hoping to show he would not cower like the others, hoping she would conclude his death was in her best interest.
She laughed as she put her dagger away.
Bayentes' stomach dropped.
Next thing he remembered was hearing her sword unsheathed. It whooshed through the air before his pleading screams could escape his mouth. He remembered the blade swiftly slicing through his skin, not once but twice. Before the unholyest of pain and the horrific sight of two bloody chunks of curved skin at his knees could register in his mind, two orange-tipped swords were place on his injuries causing an incredibly loud sizzling. He did not stay conscious long enough to smell the sickening odor of his searing flesh that filled the air. . . .
Staveros stood wide-eyed, fearing to speak to the entranced warlord.
Bayentes' distant gaze disappeared as he refocused on the frightened merchant. The warlord smiled warmly with thoughts of revenge as he slowly picked up his wine goblet and sipped his wine.
"You have more work to do for me, merchant. THEN, we will discuss the release of your family."
"Xena," Gabrielle called to the warrior, who bolted from her seat and out of camp after blurting out she cut off Bayentes ears and was pretty sure he was still annoyed about that.
Gabrielle sighed with frustration then took a deep breath before following after her. The bard quickly caught up to Xena standing by the familiar boulder they found themselves sitting on the night before.
"Xena," Gabrielle called out quietly and sat. "Sit down and talk to me," the bard suggested softly to the standing warrior. "Please . . . "
"I didn't want to tell you," Xena admitted, exhaling wearily. Though aching for the comfort of the bard's arms, she chose to stand. "There are so many things I don't want to tell you," the warrior added barely above a whisper.
"You . . . ," Gabrielle spoke, then paused to think her words through, knowing they were important to Xena. Especially now.
"I am not going to say it is easy to hear that you . . ." Gabrielle paused another uncomfortable moment then continued. ". . . cut off a man's ears, because it isn't," Gabrielle admitted, looking at the profile of the guilt-ridden Warrior Princess, who still stared at the forest.
"But Xena, I need to know about the past. Especially when it becomes something WE have to deal with in the present," Gabrielle argued, standing up and gently taking her warrior's hand. "And WE will deal with it," Gabrielle emphasized with a firm squeeze of her hand.
"He delayed raiding the next target so his men could rest," the warrior offered without prompting from the bard. "There was no reason the raid had to be the day I said, other than the 'Warrior Princess' said so," Xena continued. "He disobeyed my order for a lousy day of rest for his men. I didn't even think twice about punishing him, Gabrielle," Xena informed her numbly, still staring out into the forest.
"Punishment should always be swift and harsh . . . ," Xena lectured to the quiet bard.
". . . . then they'll be too afraid to go against you." Xena forced a laugh. "Well that theory didn't exactly work the way I thought it would . . . did it?"
Xena tried to take her guilty hand back from the bard's grasp, but the bard wouldn't let go. Xena's head dropped as she looked to the ground.
"I know you have done horrible things," Gabrielle said firmly to her warrior, who still couldn't look at the bard. "You've told me about some and you must know, Xena, I've asked people and heard stories," Gabrielle admitted, making Xena stiffen. The Warrior Princess knew, but that didn't make her like hearing Gabrielle admit it.
"You don't even know the half of it, Gabrielle," Xena countered guiltily.
"Maybe not," Gabrielle conceded. "But I do know one thing. I love you," Gabrielle added. "Don't you forget that," the bard warned her sternly with another squeeze of the warrior's hand.
Xena slowly faced the bard.
"How could I forget, Gabrielle?" Xena uttered softly. "You won't let me," she added, looking into eyes that reflected no animosity, fear or disgust in them. There was only unquestioning love in those green eyes, making the stoic warrior vulnerable to the tears which threatened to come. The warrior fought them back.
"OK then!" Gabrielle blurted, quickly changing the subject to ease her warrior's discomfort.
"So, what will we do about Zemal? Do you think the story about Bayentes marching North was a lie?" Gabrielle asked.
"There is only one way to find out," Xena informed her, drawing in a deep, cleansing breath.
"I guess we are going to Zemal then," Gabrielle spoke with finality.
It was only Thursday, the morning after Janice stormed out of her hotel room. But Mel couldn't wait until Friday to see the archeologist. Her stomach tightened up in knots every time she thought of how angry Janice was. Now the southerner was going to call on her, uninvited . . . something a proper southern lady would never do. But she just had to talk to Janice and was unable to get through on the phone. This was an emergency! Well, sort of, Mel considered then sighed, wondering if this visit would make Janice even more annoyed. Mel started to bite her fingernails.
"Here it is," the cabby announced as he slammed on the brakes, sending Mel lurching forward in her seat.
Adjusting her glasses as she sat up, she wondered if he had gone to the same driving school as Janice. Mel squinted as she looked out of the cab window. The narrow street seemed more like an alley, and a rather seedy one at that. With a thick blanket of grey clouds above it, the street seemed even more ominous.
"Uh," Mel blurted, turning to the burly Greek driver with an uneasy smile. "I think you have the wrong street," she relayed as politely as possible.
"No no, this is the street," he pointed to the sign. "Maybe you got the street wrong."
Perhaps Janice told her the wrong street, she considered a hopeful moment but quickly dismissed that possibility knowing Janice wouldn't make a mistake like that.
"No, this is the right street," she confirmed with a sigh, looking back at the sign then the narrow street.
"I could wait for you if you want Miss, it's not the best neighborhood as you can see," he offered.
"No thank you," the southerner answered, smiling weakly. "I'm visiting a friend here," she informed him as she handed him the fare.
"Suit yourself," he blurted, shaking his head as the tall brunette left his cab.
The cab drove off, leaving the tall, impeccably dressed woman alone in the poor Athenian neighborhood. She immediately felt the stares of curious people as they walked by. Instinctively clenching her purse tightly against her body, Mel attempted to ignore her nervousness and push on, in search of the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Passing a few dilapidated buildings, her eyes nervously darted from darkened doorway to darkened doorway. Above one doorway, Mel glanced up to find a weather-beaten sign, swinging free at one end. Tilting her head to read the sloppy lettering on the crooked, hand-painted sign, Mel could make out the hotel name, 'Rits Karlton.'
"Oh dear," Mel blurted. She had found Janice's hotel. While Mel guessed Janice thought it amusing, the southerner's her heart dropped.
At the front desk of the Rits Karlton, Mel looked around for someone to greet her. She didn't know if it was nerves or that odd charcoal smell making her stomach uneasy. Perhaps a bit of both, she considered.
After waiting a few moments with no one in sight, she dutifully tapped the bell on the front desk. Her eyebrows furrowed curiously as it made a dull thunk. She looked at the bell a moment and attempted tapping it again considering perhaps she didn't ring it right the first time. With the second dull thunk, she sighed.
"Excuse me," Mel called out, peering behind the front desk, undeterred.
"Excuse ME?" Mel called out again, then heard a crash and a cat screeching.
"God Damn!" An old woman in a floral housecoat emerged from behind a curtain. "Oh, hello," she eyed Mel curiously.
"Are you all right?" Mel asked with concern.
"Damn cats, they sometimes get in the kitchen," the woman relayed, scratching her arm and lifted up her bra strap back up on her shoulder. "Well, at least they help keep the damn rats under control," the woman muttered as she stepped towards the desk.
Mel's mouth dropped, her eyes darting to the floor.
"You're looking for Janice?" She asked the surprised southerner, who nodded.
"How did you know that?" Mel questioned, her eyes glancing between the woman and the floor.
"Well, not too many Americans come by here and you really don't look the type to be looking for a room in this neighborhood," the white-haired woman chuckled. "Come with me," the woman told her, as she emerged from behind the desk. "I'm Octavia," the old woman introduced herself.
"Pleased to meet you Octavia, I'm Melinda Pappas," Mel smiled warmly, politely offering a hand to shake.
Octavia just stared at Mel's hand, then Mel, making the southerner awkwardly pull her hand back and scratch the back of her neck. Mel cleared her throat weakly.
"So. . . you're a friend of Janice's?" Octavia asked, looking over the very tall, impeccably dressed woman critically, then smirked.
"Yes, we work together," Mel responded happily as they walked through the front door. "Uh, Octavia, where are we going?" Mel asked, looking uneasily around the seedy neighborhood as she pushed her glasses back up her nose.
"We have to go around, because of the fire damage," the woman relayed, having to squeeze past a couple of large wooden crates in the narrow alley, which proved a little difficult for the stocky woman. "I wish Janice would move these damn things," Octavia muttered.
"Fire?" Mel blurted with great concern as she followed the old woman past the crates.
Suddenly, she felt a yank on her purse strap, almost making her fall. Mel took in a sharp panicked breath causing Octavia to look back.
The old woman found the southerner's eyes wide, until Mel realized her purse was caught on a nail.
The southerner exhaled with relief then struggled to unhook her purse strap from a nail which jutted from the crate. Mel looked up to find the old woman staring blankly at her. After a soft, embarrassed laugh, Mel cleared her throat and continued her attempts to free herself from the cunning nail, laying in wait for unsuspecting passer-bys with purses. Finally successful, she exhaled, stood up straight as she adjusted her purse and pushed her glasses up.
"So . . . you were saying, there was a fire?" Mel blurted with a polite smile.
"Yeah, yesterday afternoon," Octavia relayed, eyeing the southerner. Shaking her head slightly, Octavia turned and continued their trip out back. "That drunk old fool's lucky he didn't burn the whole damn building down and himself with it," Octavia muttered with annoyance. "Smoking in bed . . . " she spat.
The southerner heard the busy sounds of hammers and saws well before she saw the flurry of activity in the back yard. When they arrived, she glanced over the half-dozen workers hopefully until she found no sign of Janice.
"She's inside, fixing the roof," Octavia quickly told Mel, noticing her disappointment. "Follow me," Octavia added with a wave.
Holding a hammer in one hand and straddling a roof beam, Janice reached down for a two-by-four that was held just out of her reach. "Ugh!" Janice uttered, grasping air and almost lost her balance. "Georg, higher!" Janice barked.
"I'm not a carpenter Dr. Covington," Georg reminded her of the painfully obvious. "I excavate artifacts good. I carpend bad."
Wiping the sweat off her forehead with her forearm, Janice sighed heavily.
"Georg, do you, or do you not, live in this building?" She asked, her eyes narrowing at the man below.
"Well, after this fire, I'm not sure," Georg relayed honestly, surveying the damage. Janice sighed with annoyance, then tried a different tack.
"Georg, do you, or do you not, want to that job in Zemal?" Janice smiled thinly.
"Here you go Dr. Covington!" Georg answered enthusiastically, plastering on a smile as he handed a board up to the archeologist.
"Thought so . . ." Janice muttered, grabbing the board and placing it on the rafters.
Pulling a nail from a pouch on her tool belt, she deftly placed it on the board and hammered it in with two easy strokes. Finishing with the board, she paused to look at the work left to fix hole in the roof. The hole was only about the size of her truck, she observed, concluding she should be able to finish patching it before dinner. Good thing, she considered as her stomach grumbled, rebelling against another missed lunch.
Ready for another board, she looked down to see Georg scratching the back of his head and looking around the room, sighing with boredom.
"Georg!" She blurted, startling him into action. With help like his, she considered she might not finish until breakfast the next morning. It was a really good thing he excavates artifacts good, she thought wearily as her stomach growled again.
Hearing the distant hammering and angry bellow of Janice's voice, Mel became more nervous as she followed the older woman.
"So, after the fire, where did everyone go?" Mel asked as she climbed the rickety fire escape, looking carefully down at her feet to make sure her heels wouldn't get caught in the metal steps. She was determined to avoid further embarrassment in front of Octavia.
"Nobody went anywhere, we made do . . . no different than usual," Octavia responded with a short chuckle, though the southerner's face still cringed.
Finally making it to the top floor, Octavia eyed the hallway window. "I'm getting too old for this . . . that old fool and his cigarette," the woman muttered as she climbed in.
Mel looked at the window then her skirt and sighed. She tossed her purse through the window, pulled her tailored skirt up over her knees and awkwardly climbed in the building after the old woman. With an unfortunate miscalculation of her center of gravity and the windowsill's slipperiness, Mel's hand slid off the sill, causing the southerner to tumble through the window and onto the floor like a most unladylike sack of bowling balls.
Mel exhaled heavily, grabbed her purse, and picked herself off the floor. Dusting her outfit off, she moaned with frustration at how the dark blotches got worse with each stroke. Glancing up, she noticed Octavia staring at her.
"I slipped," Mel explained with a weak laugh and pushed her glasses up.
Octavia nodded, then shook her head slightly as she continued towards the old man's room.
"Damn Damn Damn Damn Damn!!!" Janice blurted as rain startled to sprinkle down on the unfinished roof. A crack of lightning, quickly followed by the rumbling of thunder made her curse more.
"Ugggh . . . I'm getting WET!!" Georg whined as he stepped away from the hole in the roof.
"Georg, hand me another board!" Janice barked, knowing she didn't have much time before the skies would completely open up on them. She didn't want to think of the additional damage a downpour would inflict on this old, unprotected building.
"What about the lightning!" He added, nervously looking up through the hole.
"Just hand me a DAMN board, damn it!" Janice yelled down. When the rain increased from a sprinkle to larger drops, she looked up and groaned with frustration.
She was surprised when a board appeared by her hand, fully expecting to have to threaten Georg again. "It's about damn . . . " Janice relayed, looking down to find familiar blue eyes looking up.
". . . time," Janice finished weakly.
"You looked like you needed help," Mel offered with an awkward smile and shrug.
"Mel, you're getting your nice clothes wet . . . Georg! Get off your a. . . . " Janice bellowed.
"Just take it and hurry up, Janice," Mel interrupted firmly, surprising the archeologist. "It doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime . . . ugh oh," Mel blurted when the rain came down harder.
Janice sighed. Fine, if she wants to get soaked, let her get soaked, Janice thought as she took the board and placed it down on the beams. After she quickly nailed it, another board was ready for her. Even with her aching back, the strong possibility of getting struck by lightening, and the rain starting to soak through her shirt, Janice couldn't help but grin. After a few boards, Janice didn't even need to look down, knowing right where Mel would have the two-by-four.
The Greek man attempted a quiet retreat out of the room.
"Hold it buster. Where do you think you're going?" Octavia challenged Georg. He froze in place when he saw Octavia shake her head with disappointment. He shrugged with a sheepish smile.
"Well, as you can see, Dr. Covington and Miss Pappas make a such a great team, they don't need . . . ."
"OW!" Janice blurted when a distracted Mel jammed the board in her hand.
"Oh Janice!" Mel blurted nervously, looking between the offending board and the redheaded woman. She felt horrible as she watched the archeologist shake off the sting in her hand.
"I'll bet you've been just waiting to smack me with a two-by-four," Janice relayed with a smirk, eyeing her hand as she wiggled her fingers, then looking down to her concerned friend's face. ". . . not that I don't deserve it," Janice added seriously, then offered a sheepish smile.
Octavia and Georg looked at each other curiously then back at the two.
Incredible relief washed over Mel. "Janice, about yesterday, I never meant to . . . ."
"MEL," Janice interrupted the southerner's apology and pointed up to the sky then the hole in the roof. "The board?"
Mel closed her mouth, sighed, and handed another board up to the archeologist. When Janice took it, the rain seemed to be coming down harder. Janice groaned. She knew the damage this storm was making and she was not going to get the roof done in time to stop it.
"Damn Damn DAMN . . . I don't even have a damn tarpaulin big enough to cover this damn hole!"
"What about your tent" Mel blurted, interrupting the archeologist's temper tantrum. "Your tent, Janice!" Mel suggested, bringing a big grin to her friend's face.
"Yeah! It should be big enough," Janice responded, enthusiastically. "Georg!" Janice yelled down, making the Greek man roll his eyes.
"I'll get it . . . where is it?" Mel interrupted, making Georg smile.
Octavia looked at Georg. "Slug."
"Uh . . . room 313," Janice responded hesitantly. Another bolt of lightning cracked loudly, drawing her attention to the sky for a moment. "In the. . . " Janice continued, looking back down but Mel had already gone.
As Mel rushed through the third floor hallway, she saw the disturbing damage done to the stairwell by the fire and wondered with growing annoyance why Janice didn't say one word about it to her. Quickly arriving at the door to room 313, she paused a second, feeling a little awkward barging into her friend's room. She knew how much Janice valued her privacy. However, hearing another clap of thunder made her feelings of awkwardness moot. Janice needed the tent.
Opening the softly squeaking door, she entered and scanned the room. She wasn't surprised to find it sparsely furnished and a bit messy. Mel grinned at the unmade bed with the covers in a jumble and clothing thrown haphazardly across it. Next to the bed was a night stand cluttered with books, newspapers and on top, a revolver which made Mel cringe with displeasure.
Looking over the rest of the archeologist's room she spotted Janice's desk which was covered with papers scattered in a large pile, making Mel wonder if the archeologist had ever heard of that amazing piece of office furniture called the filing cabinet. A smile emerged on the southerner's face seeing one neat thing in the room. On the back of her desk chair, was Janice's carefully hung leather jacket.
Mel's grin faded when she noticed more evidence of the fire. A small scorched couch next to the blackened wall.
"Oh Janice," she exhaled sadly.
Another startling crack of lightening reminded the southerner of the task at hand. The tent! Spying the two doors next to each other, she reached for the one on the left and opened the door. Wrong one, she concluded after from the subtle clues of a bathtub and commode.
"That's the bathroom," Georg announced helpfully, startling her when he entered the room.
"Thank you," Mel said with a thin smile and closed the door. Turning, she gave Georg a questioning look.
"Dr. Covington said the tent was heavy," Georg explained as he followed closely behind her.
"Hmmm," Mel responded flatly as she opened the closet door to find the tent rolled up in a large bag on the bottom of the closet. Next to the tent was Janice's whip and a cardboard box filled with more paper, and a few pieces of clothing - actually on hangers. One piece caught Mel's eye, Janice's pretty green dress. Or rather, what was left of it. Pulling it towards her for a closer inspection, she found about a quarter of the skirt gone and the edges charred.
"Oh my," Mel responded.
Georg was on his toes to peek over the southerner's shoulder.
"You should have seen it catch on fire," Georg relayed with amusement. "When Dr. Covington pulled Aristotle out of his room, her skirt caught and WHOOSH! . . . I've been friends with Dr. Covington a while now and have to say, the words out of her mouth surprised even me!" He chuckled, annoying Mel at his cavalier attitude.
"Georg, she could have been hurt!" Mel blurted angrily, effortlessly picking up the tent by herself. "And I, for one, do NOT find that funny," the southerner scolded him and marched out of the room, leaving the stunned Greek to scratch his head.
Janice was surprised when the southerner climbed the ladder, with the tent.
"Jesus Christ, Mel . . . you should get Georg to . . . "
Without a word, Mel glared at Janice and plopped the tent on the roof.
"Ok, no Georg . . . ," Janice responded cautiously and as she pulled the tent away from the hole in the roof to unroll it. She glanced up at the quiet southerner, now sitting on the edge of the roof by the ladder. Janice knew she didn't like having all her clothes drenched. There was certainly no need for Mel to endure this too.
"You don't have to be out here," Janice relayed, smoothing out the tent.
"I know," Mel responded crisply, pushing up her glasses. She didn't budge.
"Oh," Janice relayed uneasily as she pulled her hammer out of her tool belt. She felt around the belt pouch for some nails. Damn. She looked up with a weak smile.
"Would you mind getting some . . . , " Janice started to ask when Mel reached in the pocket of her smudged and soaked suit, grabbed some nails, and held her hand out. "Nails . . . " Janice blurted, eyeing the southerner's extended fist and the drops of rain water that dribbled from it.
Mel raised her eyebrow.
Janice felt a bit unnerved at the silent treatment. "Thanks," Janice responded with another weak smile as she took the nails.
As Janice started to fit the tent over the hole, she looked up at Mel. "I think this will do the trick," she relayed with a hammer in her hand and a confident smile on her face.
Mel eyed the archeologist and sighed. Janice's smile faded.
"Yeah . . . well," Janice relayed, grabbed a wood board and started to carefully hammer it over the tent. After a few more moments of tacking the tent down, Janice looked up at the drenched and silent southerner.
"You know there is really no need for you to be. . . . " Janice stopped and cringed, seeing Mel silently raise her eyebrow again.
"Yeah . . . well," Janice relayed and continued attaching the makeshift roof. Finally getting to the last side, Janice looked between Mel, who sat in the way, and the ladder.
"How will you get down?" Mel asked coolly.
"Fire escape," Janice answered with an unconcerned shrug.
Mel eyed her a moment, then apparently satisfied, nodded curtly and descended the ladder.
Janice stared at the ladder a moment before attaching the final side of the tent. Finished with the makeshift roof, Janice sat on the roof, looked up to the sky and sighed.
The warrior and bard rode Argo in silence, each thinking of what might lay ahead in Zemal.
Gabrielle found comfort in Xena's arms, which held her a little more tightly than usual. The bard didn't mind. It felt safer, though she knew very well they weren't safe. Not with Bayentes out there . . . somewhere, the bard considered, her eyes sweeping over the remote and overgrown path before them.
Though missing the comfort of the bard's voice, Xena was relieved for the quiet. It made it easier for her to focus on the sounds of the forest, making it nearly impossible for Bayentes men to surprise them. Though she was pretty sure Bayentes wouldn't want to waste his resources trying to hunt her down in the dense forest.
'But what will Bayentes do?' Xena silently examined the situation.
If she were Bayentes, the warrior considered, she would send out a patrol to Zemal to assess the defenses. 'What defenses?' she sighed heavily at the problematic situation. When her army marched through towns like Zemal, she remembered being bored. No challenge. A small patrol could probably take towns like Zemal by themselves. Maybe they already have, the Warrior Princess speculated with growing apprehension.
Being uncertain of Bayentes' next step took away any comfort she might have had holding the bard close. Yet, she found no comfort in the one thing she was certain of - he would go after Gabrielle.
"Hey, you're making a permanent indentation . . . ," Gabrielle relayed softly, patting the warrior's bracered arm that wrapped tightly around her waist.
"Sorry," Xena whispered, relaxing her hold a little as they stopped at the edge of the dense forest.
Peering through the trees, they saw the town of Zemal. A few quiet moments passed as the sun set further in the sky while they observed the people coming and going from the busy town. Gabrielle took interest in the man who started to light the torches lining the street, remembering a merchant of a similar build who wouldn't sell 'her kind' anything.
"Remember when we weren't welcome here?" Gabrielle spoke softly. "I guess they are pretty lucky you don't hold a grudge," Gabrielle added with a small smile which grew when she felt the warrior nuzzle against her hair.
"Well, it looks ok to me. Just like any other town getting ready for the night," Gabrielle relayed to the warrior optimistically, patting her warrior's thigh.
Xena straightened up in the saddle and took a deep breath.
"Looks can be deceiving," Xena spoke, suspicious of all activity she observed. "Get down," Xena ordered her coldly.
"I'm going in alone," the Warrior Princess announced. "Get down."
"Like I said . . . WHAT!?!" Gabrielle relayed with annoyance, twisting in the saddle to look at the warrior.
"Gabrielle, I'm not going to argue," Xena relayed crisply.
"Good. Neither am I," Gabrielle said with a thin smile.
"Get down," Xena articulated slowly.
"No," Gabrielle also articulated slowly and turned back forward. "I'm going with you."
"Don't make me make you get down," Xena threatened.
Argo snorted uneasily.
"WHAT?!?" Gabrielle blurted.
Before the bard could take a breath and express the full measure of her displeasure, she felt the warrior grab her arm and slide her other hand under her thigh. Within a heartbeat, she gasped, experiencing the odd sensation of being lifted out of the saddle and abruptly deposited on the ground.
"I can't . . . BELIEVE . . . you just DID that!" Gabrielle sputtered up at the warrior between angry breaths, struggling to maintain her composure.
"I said get down and I meant it. I also meant what I said about going in alone," Xena relayed coldly. "It's too dangerous."
"We're in this together!" Gabrielle snapped angrily, amazed they were even having this discussion after everything they've been through.
"Not this time. . . . Gabrielle, I can't be distracted with Bayentes and his army out there," Xena attempted to reason, hoping the bard would stop arguing.
"First I'm a weak link, now a distraction, THANKS! I thought I was a little more than that to you. Apparently NOT!" Gabrielle threw her hands up towards the sky in frustration.
"Gabrielle . . . " Xena sighed heavily, concluding this wasn't going well.
The bard looked up at the warrior with narrow eyes and crossed arms, waiting.
"Gabrielle, Bayentes is too dangerous, I need to focus on one thing, not whether you might need my help or not."
"Xena . . . " Gabrielle said with amazing calm. Xena didn't know if that was good or bad.
"You're sure he's in Zemal?" The bard asked with a raised eyebrow.
"NO," Xena blurted with relief, seeing an opening to win this argument. "And that's why I should go in ALONE . . . just in case he has already occupied . . . ," the warrior explained with a tone of reason.
"And what if he hasn't?" Gabrielle interjected simply, making Xena's smile fade. "Ok, let's go over the facts shall we?" Gabrielle added, making Xena's eyes narrow.
"Gabrielle . . . "
"Xena," the bard interjected. "You know I'll follow you if I am not convinced you are right, so I'm giving you the opportunity to convince me to stay here, like you want me to," Gabrielle relayed with an innocent shrug.
Xena sighed as her eye's dropped to the ground. So much for taking charge. Ok, it was a really stupid idea to think after all this time, Gabrielle would just do as she said, the warrior admitted to herself. She knew the bard didn't respond well to orders. But all she wanted was to go in alone, check out the town, do whatever she had to do to make it safe for Gabrielle. . . .
"Can't we just arm wrestle for it?" Xena offered, looking up to see the bard roll her eyes.
"Number one, you are concerned about me," Gabrielle offered diplomatically, looking up at the stubborn warrior, who looked at her and cautiously nodded, unsure of how that would support the bard's case for going.
"Number two, we don't know where Bayentes is," the bard added, holding up a second finger.
In agreement, Xena cautiously shook her head 'no' and raised an eyebrow.
"Number three, Bayentes is smart," the bard relayed holding a third finger.
"Number four, he knows about me and would not mind getting his revenge by hurting me," Gabrielle said calmly, though not particularly thrilled with that fact.
"Number five . . . " Gabrielle started strongly but paused. "Uh . . . What if he's not in Zemal when you go in alone?" She asked curiously.
"It'll will be quick work then. Once I'm sure it's safe for you, I'll come back and get you," Xena explained.
"Assuming . . . " Gabrielle relayed with a shrug.
"Assuming what?" Xena asked testily.
"I don't bump into him while I'm safely waiting out here . . ." A thin smile crossed the bard's face. ". . . alone."
Xena looked at the bard a moment. With a heavy sigh, she extended an arm down.
"It's right there," Octavia pointed Mel to the phone on the front desk as they walked in the front door. "But if you wait a bit, I'm sure Janice will . . . "
"A taxi will be fine, thank you," Mel interjected firmly.
"Well, I'll be in the back . . . starting dinner," Octavia motioned to the curtain behind the front desk. Seeing the southerner nod as she picked up the receiver, Octavia shook her head and disappeared behind the curtain.
Finished ordering a taxi, Mel placed the receiver down and sighed, wondering why it was so difficult for the archeologist to talk to her? They were friends and friends do that, she considered. Her HOME was on fire . . . SHE was on fire for heaven's sakes, the southerner sighed heavily. And she probably didn't even let a doctor check her for injuries, Mel thought shaking her head in exasperation as she picked up her purse off the counter and turned around abruptly.
"Whoa!" The man blurted before Mel collided into him.
"Oh EXCUSE me!" Mel blurted as she awkwardly backed away from the gentleman's embrace.
"My pleasure," he responded with an easy smile, lingering his hand on the southerner's hip a little longer than she considered necessary. "I'm Richard Wright." The American introduced himself with an extended hand as he took his hat off with the other.
"Melinda Pappas." Mel smiled uneasily and pushed her glasses up before delicately shaking his hand with the tips of her fingers. "Pleased to meet you. I'm sorry for running into you like that . . . I don't know where my head is sometimes," Mel laughed weakly and uncomfortably backed up another step from the well-dressed man, suddenly aware of every wrinkle and every smudge on her outfit.
"No harm done Miss Pappas. Actually, colliding into a beautiful woman is the best thing that has happened to me today," Richard responded with a weary exhale, adjusting his tie.
"Sounds like you've had a bad day," Melinda offered, feeling sympathy for the handsome man with a sad look on his face.
"Well, things are looking up now," he smiled easily and winked at her. "Are you a guest here?" He noted she seemed to be out of place in the dumpy hotel, even with her current disheveled appearance.
"No, just visiting someone," Mel answered with a polite smile. "You?" Mel asked.
"I'm visiting someone too, an old. . . . " He laughed awkwardly. "Well, I haven't seen her in a long time. I'm surprised I was able to track her down," he informed the southerner as he looked around the front lobby.
"It's wonderful that you're looking up an old friend," Mel said with a warm smile.
He looked at her uneasily. "Wonderful," he repeated thoughtfully, then gave a short laugh. "I hope she's as positive about that as you are." He smiled thinly.
The dripping archeologist paused at the front door not sure why the southerner was annoyed or what she would say. But she felt compelled to see Mel before she left and at least offer her a ride back. Oh hell, Janice silently swore and opened the door. What's the worst thing that can happen?
Spotting the tall woman, Janice started to smile. The smile was short lived when she noticed Mel standing next to a man she never expected to see again. A man she never wanted to see again.
"Janice," he blurted nervously when she entered, braking off his small talk with the lovely southerner.
"You two are old . . . friends?" Mel asked, looking between the two, who apparently didn't hear her question. They were busy staring at each other. Richard seemed extremely uncomfortable and Janice, well . . . Mel couldn't tell.
"Why are you here?" Janice asked neutrally, despite her strong desire to deck him. He was lucky Mel was there, Janice considered, acutely aware of the southerner's presence.
"To see you . . . ," he quickly answered.
If ever Mel felt like a third wheel, now was the time. She glanced uncomfortably down at her Italian shoes. Wondering just how good an 'old friend' Richard was, she cringed, remembering her embarrassment over Dr. Maveros. It was just none of her business, she reminded herself.
". . . about a job," Richard quickly added.
The southerner looked up with surprise. A good old . . . business associate?
"A JOB," Janice laughed with surprise, though Mel knew it wasn't a happy laugh.
"Yes, Janice. I heard you got another dig . . . in Zemal," he relayed nervously.
"Word gets around fast," Janice said neutrally, her suspicious eyes narrowed.
"Yes, well . . . I need a job and . . . Janice, I'll be cook, bottle washer . . . whatever . . . " he blurted with desperation.
"You're a little overqualified for a bottle washer, don't you think, Doctor Wright?" Janice interjected skeptically.
"Janice . . . I," Richard tried to explain.
"Look . . . DICK," Janice interjected. "I'm tired, wet, and have absolutely NO desire to talk to you now. So if you want me to give you a job, you might want to try to convince me tomorrow because your chances right now are zero," Janice informed him coldly, staring him down.
Mel glanced away from Janice uncomfortably, wondering what Dr. Wright did to earn that unnerving stare.
He looked down to the hat in his hands, nodded and started to leave. He paused at the door, turning back to the southerner. "Miss Pappas," he said politely with a nod, then looked at Janice. "I'll be back tomorrow, Janice," he said softly as he placed his hat on his head.
"Oh joy," Janice said flatly.
He sighed and closed the door behind him.
Mel was not sure of what to say, noting the weariness of the day suddenly seem to catch up to the archeologist.
"Are you all . . . " Mel asked cautiously, interrupted by the sound of the taxi honking.
"I'll be fine," Janice said with a heavy sigh, seeing the cab outside through the drapes.
Mel opened her mouth to say something, but the taxi horn blew again.
"You better not keep your cab waiting," Janice relayed coldly.
As the dejected southerner nodded silently and started to leave, Janice felt like an ass, which the archeologist considered appropriate since she was acting like one.
"Mel . . . thanks for your help today," Janice offered softly, making the southerner turn at the door and smile. The small gift buoyed the archeologist's spirits.
"I'm glad I could." The tall woman answered softly.
Janice's gaze dropped from the startling blue eyes to the southerner's clothing.
"Sorry about your outfit. . . " Janice relayed sincerely, then started to chuckle. "You look like shit," she blurted with a grin, taking stock of the drenched and smudged woman.
"Why THANK you, Doctor Covington," the southerner responded with frosty politeness. "It is SO refreshing to find someone who believes there's no such thing as TOO much honesty," Mel smiled thinly and briskly left the amused archeologist.
A moment later, the grinning archeologist was at the window. As she moved the drapes slightly to the side to peek outside, Octavia emerged from the curtain behind the front desk.
"She's an interesting one," Octavia remarked with a smirk. Janice just nodded with an amused grin still on her face as she watched the taxi drive away.
"Are you going to give that son-of-a-bitch a job?" Octavia asked bluntly, making Janice turn and sigh.
"I'll deal with that tomorrow . . . ," Janice said wearily.
"Janice, how could you even stand looking at him let alone talk to that thieving . . . ," Octavia blurted angrily.
"Octavia," Janice interrupted sharply, then exhaled heavily. "Not now . . . "
In a phone booth down the road from the Rits Karlton, Richard Wright anxiously hunted for a nickel in his suit pockets. Finally successful, he picked up the receiver, dropped the coin in the slot, and dialed as quickly as he could with the painfully slow rotary dial.
Each unanswered ring made him more agitated. He moaned after the fourth ring when finally, someone answered.
"Hello?" The deep voice answered.
"It's me," Richard relayed, his eyes suspiciously darting outside the phone booth for unwelcome ears.
"I saw her," Richard relayed with some irritation.
"Did she agree?" the deep voice asked.
"Uh . . . she didn't say no," Richard admitted.
"Your plan better work . . . " the deep voice threatened.
"It will!" Richard responded testily. "I'll be in Zemal with the goods just like we planned," he added.
"Where are they now?" The deep voice asked. "The police are looking all over . . . "
"Don't you worry about that . . . they're safe," Richard snapped defensively. "Just make sure the people and the money are in Zemal, like we agreed," he added. "Or I'm taking my business elsewhere," Richard threatened and hung up.
Emerging from the taxi, Mel chose to ignore the lingering stares from many curious eyes as she made her way up what felt like the longest set of stairs she ever climbed. As Janice so eloquently informed her . . . she didn't exactly look her best, which was even more excruciatingly evident when she passed hotel guests in their evening wear.
Quickly passing the doorman as she entered the hotel, she cringed when she heard him call her name. "Good GOD, Miss Pappas!"
Placing polite smile on her face and tucking her purse neatly under her soggy arm, she turned to Christos, who rushed up to her.
"Are you all right, Miss Pappas?!?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Mel responded politely.
Christos' eyebrows furrowed at her unconvincing answer, critically assessing her from head to toe. His eyes stopped at her toes, where the small puddle of water was forming on the marble floor.
"It rained," Mel explained, then cleared her throat. "If you'll excuse me." Mel smiled weakly, turned and quickly retreated to the elevator.
Finally in her hotel room, Mel sighed with relief as she placed her damp purse on the table. Unbuttoning her weather-beaten suit coat, she walked into the bathroom and sat down on the tub edge. She turned the hot water on, twisting the brass faucet handle as far as it would go, anxious for a long hot soak. After today, she considered she deserved it.
Returning to her bedroom, she plopped on the edge of the bed. She took her shoes off and wiggled her toes with a sigh of relief. The things women have to do to look good, she smirked as she stared at an uncomfortable shoe in her hand. Well, SOME women, Mel corrected herself, getting up and placing her shoes neatly in the closet. Passing the full-length mirror, she paused, daring to take a look. A grimace formed on her face as she confronted the dreadful reflection, which would have mortified her a few months ago.
"Well Dr. Covington, it does seem you've hit the nail on the head." She spoke aloud as she took her earrings off. "But we really MUST work on your tact," she added and grinned as she pulled her ring off and placed it on the vanity. As she reached to unclasp her watch band, her eyes darted to her wrist with a gasp.
Her grandmother's watch was gone.
While Xena checked the stables for warhorses and warriors, Gabrielle hid behind a wagon, watching for suspicious activity in town. There were a few people conversing by a water troth in front of a store . . . a pair of men walking into the tavern . . . a mother chasing after her son to get him to come inside for the evening. Not exactly suspicious activity, she considered. Unless, they are all TRYING to act normal. . . . The bard's keen eyes narrowed, darting back and forth along the street, looking for seemingly normal activity. Gods, it was everywhere. . . .
"Aghhh . . . " She blurted and jumped, feeling a hand on her shoulder.
"Don't DO that!" She whispered angrily, ducking back behind the wagon and refocused on the incredibly suspicious street.
"You were SUPPOSED to be paying attention to your surroundings!" Xena scolded, with hands on hips, looking down at the bard.
"I was! Can I help it if you are so QUIET?" She turned and whispered angrily, then refocused on the incredibly suspicious people in the incredibly suspicious street.
"Gabrielle, you HAVE to watch your back. What if it wasn't me?"
"But it WAS . . . ," Gabrielle quietly countered. "And . . . you got lucky," Gabrielle added with annoyance, knowing full well there was no luck involved.
"It only takes one lucky blow to ruin your day," Xena relayed coolly with a raised eyebrow.
The bard opened her mouth to respond but instead paused a moment to stare at the tall warrior towering over her, then eyed the wagon she was crouched down next to.
"Xena," Gabrielle said coolly, looking up with a thin smile. "Is there some reason why you are lecturing me about being careful while standing UP, visible to ALL who pass by and talking so LOUDLY your family in Amphipolis can hear???" Gabrielle snapped.
"Gabrielle, you'd tell me if you were exaggerating . . . wouldn't you?" Xena asked dryly.
Gabrielle stood up with a thin smile, then glanced around, choosing to ignore her warrior. "I gather you didn't find Bayentes or his men."
"No," Xena relayed coolly. Her eyes darted to the street and narrowed. ". . . until now."
Staveros trotted into town, exhausted from his disturbing meeting with Bayentes. He looked up to the sky, praying this all would be over soon and he could just go back to being a family-man and merchant. His eyes returned to the street when he noted a dark blur pass in front of him. Before he could register what was happening, he felt two powerful hands grab his tunic and yank him off his horse.
He tumbled to the ground. Looking up, he found a dark figure towering over him. He gasped.
"Xena . . . "
"You were in such a rush, we didn't get a chance to say good-bye," she said with a glaring smile which faded. "Where is Bayentes?" The Warrior Princess asked coolly, swiftly unsheathing her sword.
"He . . . He's on his way . . . You've got to help us," Staveros blurted out, looking up at the blade pointing at him.
The scene in the street was drawing a nervous crowd. Xena threw sharp stares of warning at the people starting to line the street.
"Why should I trust you?" Xena growled as Gabrielle caught up to the two.
"He has my family," Staveros whimpered nervously.
"And why should I believe that??" Xena barked. "Gabrielle!" The warrior snapped angrily, as the bard went to Staveros and helped him up.
"Xena . . . " Gabrielle responded with a sigh, eyeing the sword then the warrior.
In his home, Staveros nervously made some tea for the women, feeling the Warrior Princess' cold eyes watch his every move.
While Xena sat at the kitchen table, glaring at Staveros, Gabrielle stood, casually looking around the small Zemalian home. From the embroidered curtains and other nick-knacks carefully displayed, Gabrielle could tell there was a strong woman's influence, though the home was unkempt at the moment.
"We were out by the river three days ago . . . having a quiet picnic," Staveros poured the tea into two mugs, struggling to not let the warrior's glaring get to him. "Sylvia, my wife, finally got me to finally take a day off from work," the man said sadly.
Xena glanced at the two mugs then the man, unmoved by his tale of woe.
Gabrielle sat quietly, next to her tense partner.
"Riders came and took us to Bayentes' camp. I was separated from my wife and child and brought to his tent. Bayentes told me I could free my family if I helped him. If I refused . . . he'd torture them and kill them in front of me," Staveros looked down at the table. "Why should I believe anything you say?" Xena asked, pushing the still-full mug away from her. She knew Bayentes was more than capable of that kind of recruitment, as was she. She also knew, Bayentes routinely used spies . . . as did she.
"For GODS sake, he has my FAMILY," Staveros snapped, then felt two sharp jabs to his neck. The teakettle dropped onto the floor, followed by the merchant.
"You know, I'm still not quite there yet . . . but I'll give you 30 more seconds to try and convince me." Xena stood over him.
"XENA!" Gabrielle blurted, knocking her mug over as she stood abruptly. "What are you doing?!?"
"Chatting with Staveros." The warrior responded casually, still eyeing the so-called merchant.
"XENA!" Gabrielle grabbed her arm. "Just look at his home, the curtains, the child's bedroom . . ." Gabrielle relayed testily. Xena yanked her arm from the bard and eyed her with annoyance.
"Gabrielle, DON'T underestimate Bayentes. I wouldn't put it past him to set ALL this up," Xena countered angrily.
"Please! I'm telling the truth . . . oh GOD's!" Staveros cried fearfully. Xena glanced at the man, sure he was holding something back.
"Xena, PLEASE!" Gabrielle pleaded.
"Gabrielle . . . " Xena tried to explain.
"You're scaring me," Gabrielle interjected forcefully, locking eyes with her warrior.
Xena froze, letting the words and fearful look sink in.
"Bayentes is capable of doing much worse than scaring you, Gabrielle," the warrior responded coolly before inflicting two more jabs to Staveros' neck.
"Is the platoon ready?" Bayentes asked with his mouth full when a young lieutenant arrived in his tent. The warlord washed down the lamb with a gulp of wine, emptying his goblet.
"Yes sir, but. . . . " The man hesitated, looking at Bayentes slice another piece of lamb, then the servants who looked at each other uneasily.
"Yes BUT?" Bayentes sat back in his chair, nibbling at the meat on his knife. "Oh, I don't like the sound of THAT," he said with a slight frown. "Are they or are they not ready?" Bayentes asked calmly.
"Yes sir, the platoon IS ready. But I just was wondering, since we have our whole army ready, why only one platoon? You've said we shouldn't underestimate Xena." Seeing the thoughtful look on Bayentes face helped eased the lieutenant's nervousness.
"So, you were curious?" Bayentes asked, getting up from his seat with an understanding smile which was interrupted with a sip of wine.
"Well, yes sir. If she is as good as you say . . . " the young man explained to the attentive warlord.
"Oh, trust me, she IS . . ." Bayentes interjected helpfully, leaning against the table and finished devouring the lamb chunk on his knife.
"So you were just questioning . . . why only one platoon, huh?" Bayentes asked, emptying his goblet. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his forearm and placed the goblet on the table behind him.
"Yes sir," the lieutenant nodded, watching the servant promptly refill the warlord's drink.
"You really want to know why?" Bayentes spoke softly, waving him closer to let him in on a secret. The lieutenant nodded and walked over to the warlord.
The young man noticed Bayentes' eyes darting conspiratorially around the tent just before a dull sensation filled his chest.
The lieutenant's jaw dropped as he looked down at the knife handle protruding from his breast. His initial shock was replaced with an odd curiosity as his fingers absently touched the knife handle. 'Why didn't it feel sharp?' he wondered as his fingers fell to his side and he collapsed to the ground. A few gurgling breaths escaped past the bloody knife as his body shuddered then became still. The gurgling stopped.
Bayentes looked down at the body thoughtfully then glanced up at his shocked servants with a smirk.
"Why, why, why," Bayentes blurted wearily. "Kids these days and their darn questions." Bayentes shook his head with a chuckle as he anchored his foot on the young man's chest and withdrew his knife.
Bayentes sighed as he sat back down at his dinner table. Eyeing the bloody knife, he shrugged and sliced another piece of lamb.
"Staveros, you were spying for Bayentes, weren't you, " Gabrielle asked as Xena sat in a chair in the corner of the room, with her arms folded across her chest and untrusting eyes glaring at him.
Staveros nodded, rubbing his throat and trying to ignore the dark presence in the corner.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"I told you, he has my family. He said if I help him, he'll return them to me," Staveros said with irritation.
"I wouldn't count on it," Xena replied coldly, drawing a glare from Gabrielle.
"You don't know that Xena," Gabrielle countered, for Staveros' sake.
Xena sighed and shook her head as Gabrielle continued with her questioning.
"What did he want?"
"He wanted to know about Xena. What she is doing, who she is with . . ." Staveros looked at her sadly then dropped his eyes to the floor.
"And you told him. . . ." Gabrielle stated softly.
"Yes. But he already knew. He said. . . ." Staveros stopped, his eyes dropped to the ground as he moaned with a grimace.
"What did he say?!" Xena bolted out of her chair, startling both Gabrielle and Staveros.
"He said . . . he heard she had lovely ears."
Mel groaned with frustration and put the receiver down. The phone at the Rits Karlton was still busy. She hoped to get Janice to start looking for her watch before it got dark. She just had to get her watch back. Picking up the receiver, she dialed again, this time for a taxi.
The cab screeched to a stop at the now familiar Athenian street, lunging Mel forward. The cabby looked at the low-rent neighborhood then at the high-class lady in the back seat. "You sure this . . . ?"
"Yes Yes, this is the right street, thank you," Mel blurted impatiently as she handed him the fare and pushed up her glasses.
Stepping out of the cab, she glanced up to the sky. Still cloudy and rainy, she sighed as she opened her umbrella, grateful she thought to bring it this time.
With quick, determined steps, she arrived at Janice's hotel. Shaking the water droplets from the collapsed umbrella before entering the front door, Mel overheard Octavia chatting on the phone. Without a pause in her conversation, the old woman waved at Mel when she appeared in the lobby.
"I don't CARE how much you hate hospital food . . . I'm not brining you any baklava or any OTHER food, you ol' fool!" Octavia snapped. "And I'm certainly NOT going to bring you any Ouzo!"
Mel could hear the faint sound of the man's voice on the other end of the phone and grinned.
"You are LUCKY to still be around to complain about the bad food and lumpy beds, ol' fool."
Mel heard the man grumble then ask when they were going to visit next.
"Janice and I will be by tomorrow morning early, Janice has to . . . " Octavia stopped at something else he said which Mel couldn't make out. "WHAT?!?" Octavia blurted then slammed the receiver down.
"What did he say?" Mel asked with concern.
"He said we shouldn't come by too early, cause HE wanted to sleep in . . . that ol' fool" Octavia shook her head.
"Is Janice here?" Mel asked glancing up at the ceiling expecting that after an exhausting day like today, she was probably sleeping. Though feeling a bit guilty she was about to interrupt Janice's well-earned break, she just had to find her watch.
"Just missed her," Octavia relayed. A look of surprise, disappointment, then worry covered the pretty southerner's face. "What's wrong?" Octavia asked.
"I lost my watch . . . My grandmother gave it to me," Mel explained, absently touching her bare wrist.
Octavia nodded in understanding. "WE'LL find it," Octavia said confidently.
"A full house, lead by a pair of lovely ladies," Janice announced with a twinkle in her eye, first laying down the queen of diamonds then hearts, followed by the other cards. . . . which happened to be kings.
Georg grinned as he entered the bar, hearing the moans from her fellow poker players. Finished with his errand for Dr. Covington, he sat on a stool, ordered a drink and eyed the sizable jackpot. His grin grew. The poor fellows at the table were learning a costly lesson he learned long ago . . . don't ever play poker with Dr. Covington.
Janice sat back in her chair and puffed on her cigar. She enjoyed the disgruntled looks from the four other players, especially from the boastful Greek soldier, who spent the past hour telling of his irritating exploits with the army and the ladies. He downed his sixth drink, and cursed when he spilled some on his ceremonial dress uniform.
"That's four hands in a row!" The cocktail waitress laughed with amusement as she set down another round of drinks in front of the players. "About time someone showed these guys how it's done. This one's on the house, honey," she squeezed the archeologist's shoulder and winked.
"Thanks sweetheart." Janice downed her whiskey and grinned with satisfaction, for the free drink and even more for the fact the attention from the waitress was annoying the army braggart.
"Four hands . . . either you are a great player or . . . " the soldier observed, leaving his accusation hanging dangerously in the smoky barroom.
Janice's grin disappeared.
"Uh, my wife is probably wondering where I am . . . " the thin man in glasses blurted, unheard by the soldier and archeologist. The thin man quickly collected the remains of his fortune, nervously glancing between the two, and left the table.
"What are you saying?" Janice asked coolly as she placed her empty glass down on the table and straightened up in her chair as she eyed the soldier.
"Well, seems to me . . . no one is THAT lucky, Dr. Covington," the soldier leered accusingly at the redhead.
"Whoa . . . look at the time," another poker player blurted, quickly glancing at the watch without reading it as he stumbled out of his chair and left the table.
"You better be careful of what you say . . . Sergeant Tomas," Janice warned him crisply, her body tensing.
"Or what?" The soldier glared at her.
"All out of money . . . been a pleasure losing to you . . . " the third man got up and nodded to Janice, who was too busy glaring at the soldier to acknowledge his departure.
"Or I'll teach you some manners," Janice informed him casually, drawing a long, slow puff on her cigar. Her eyes narrowed.
The waitress sighed and nodded to the bar tender who rolled his eyes and started to stow away some glasses below the bar. "Tough talk . . . from a woman," the soldier tried to stare her down. "How could a little thing like YOU be able to teach ME any manners." The man laughed at Janice, who smiled thinly.
Georg quickly moved behind the bar, smiling at the waitress who shook her head at his overt cowardice.
"Don't sell yourself short," Janice smirked. "I've taught manners to bigger and DUMBER jack-asses than you," Janice snarled.
"Sounds like I need to teach YOU a lesson in manners," the angry soldier clenched the table.
"Tough talk . . . from a guy in a SKIRT!" Janice blurted through her cigar, successfully provoking the Greek soldier out of his chair, which he knocked over. Janice also stood, dodging his large hands lunging at her.
With a swiftness that surprised the soldier, Janice grabbed his arm and the back of his ceremonial dress uniform and tossed his bulky frame to the ground. When he looked up from the floor stunned, Janice eyed him and took her cigar out of her mouth.
"I don't cheat," she informed him through clenched teeth. "And you owe me an apology," she relayed, puffing the last drag out of her cigar before tossing it to the floor.
"Ahhhh . . . shit," she blurted with annoyance as he scrambled to his feet and lunged at her again.
Octavia and Mel went outside the Rits Karlton to search for the watch. Mel followed the old woman and dutifully opened her umbrella, attempting to protect them both from the light rain. When they got to the crates that attacked the southerner's purse earlier that day, Mel glanced to the ground hopefully, considering this the most likely place she would find the precious heirloom.
"It could have fallen off around. . . ." Mel informed Octavia. "Ugh." Mel blurted, struggling with her umbrella which got stuck between the narrow space between the crate and building. With a sharp yank, she successfully freed it . . . and bent it completely out of shape.
"I don't see it." Octavia squinted as she inspected the ground, ignoring the southerner, which she considered best.
With a heavy sigh of defeat, Mel neatly folded up the mangled umbrella as best she could and tossed it on top of the crate.
"I don't either," Mel said sadly.
"Well, we haven't looked upstairs," Octavia offered hopefully. Mel nodded and followed the older woman.
"I know it's silly to get so upset about a watch but . . . ," Mel explained with a little embarrassment, shaking her head. "I can just imagine what Janice would say." Mel sighed and pushed her glasses up her nose.
"You'd be surprised Melinda," Octavia responded with a knowing grin. "Though she'd rather shoot herself than admit it, Janice can be very sentimental," Octavia offered with a shrug. "You know that compass her father gave her?" Octavia asked as they started to climb the fire escape stairs.
"The small burgundy one she carries around?" Mel asked curiously, then rolled her eyes at the fire escape. She knew should have worn slacks.
"Yeah. He told her if she ever got lost, it would help her find her way. When she thought she lost it," Octavia explained, pausing a moment to shake her head at the memory. "I never saw anything get Janice so upset," Octavia informed her.
"I know how she must have felt," Mel said sadly touching her bare wrist.
Janice sat on a hard jail-cell bench, holding a handkerchief over her split eyebrow to stop the bleeding.
Except for the prostitute, who was snoring soundly on the cot in their cell, she was separated from the rest of the dregs of humanity because she was a woman. This was the one occasion where she didn't mind that distinction, considering the large collection of drunken and thieving male dregs packing in the cell across from them.
Janice eyed the soldier, in his now not-so-pristine ceremonial uniform, sulking and tending to his wounds in the dark corner. He shouldn't have called her a cheat, Janice considered, eyeing the knuckles on her right fist, trying not to feel guilty about the broken nose she gave him just before the police arrived. She sighed heavily and applied more pressure to her aching eyebrow. If only she hadn't slipped on that spot on the floor, she silently moaned, looking around the familiar cell.
The jingling of the jail keeper's keys as he opened up the main door got everyone's hopeful attention, except for Janice who glanced over to the snoring prostitute, who just shifted with a snort.
"Covington," he announced, slowly walking over to her cell as he sorted through his large collection of keys. Finally selecting one, he placed it in the door. "Come with me," he ordered and twisted the key, getting a loud metallic clunk before he rolled open the heavy door.
Janice stood up, withholding a pained groan as she glanced over to the soldier. His black and blue eyes bitterly followed her every step as he continued to sulk in his cramped corner.
"Dr. Covington! Are you ok?" Georg asked with concern, as she was lead to the Sergeant's desk.
"Yeah, just great," Janice answered, pulling the handkerchief from her head and eyeing the blood on it.
"Hey Janice!" A tall patrolman blurted as he paused on his way out of the station for his rounds. "I saw that soldier's nose . . . he'll have a good time trying to explain THAT to his captain!" He chuckled, waving to her as he left.
Janice waved back unenthusiastically with the bloody handkerchief and replaced it on her brow.
"Janice, you ought to go to the hospital and get that stitched up," the sergeant at the front desk told her, handing her personal effects back to her in an envelope.
Janice grunted as she opened the envelope. Sighing with relief nothing was missing, she placed the various contents back in her pockets.
"You know, it's been a few months since you've visited us. We were beginning to worry about you . . . " the policeman smirked.
"Thanks for your concern, Victor," Janice responded dryly, feeling her head throb.
"Well, we have also been missing the bail money . . . " the policeman admitted with a shrug, finishing some paper work.
"How much money is left Georg?" Janice questioned him curiously, glancing back at the cell.
"Well, after your bail, you won enough for new tires for your truck like you wanted," Georg said happily, then eyed Janice suspiciously. "Why?"
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