FOR RICHER OR POORER
Autolycus entered the main dining hall and found it empty, save for Princess Damara, who was just finishing her breakfast. "Where is everyone? Or is cook serving that awful gruel again?" he asked, kissing her on the cheek and then sitting down next to her.
"Cook is serving his famous breakfast gruel," she conceded with a grin as a servant brought Auto a big, steaming bowl of the stuff, "but Vantys was here, nursing a terrible cold, until a few minutes ago, and James was, too, until he went to fetch your aunt and cousin. We were having the most lovely conversation and I was telling him all about Arcadia's traditions and how I was looking forward to wearing the Star of Arcadia at our wedding when he suddenly excused himself to get your relatives."
Auto's face turned an unhealthy shade of green, but Damara attributed it to the gruel, rather than to what she had told him.
"Are you all right, dear Autokins?" she asked, suddenly concerned. "You don't look very well at all."
"I, uh, I'll be fine, my little sausage," he said quickly. "I just remembered that I need to--" He started to rise but stopped short when Xena's voice rang through the hall.
"You need to what, Auto?" she demanded, smiling broadly as she swept into the hall, followed by Gabrielle and James.
"Slit my throat," he mumbled quietly, sinking back into his chair.
"What was that, dear-heart?" the Princess asked.
"Er, get my coat," he replied. "It's a bit chilly."
"Nonsense," said Xena, putting her arm around his shoulders and squeezing them painfully together, "it's a gorgeous day! The sun is shining and birds are singing and love is in the air. Isn't it, dear nephew?" She released his shoulders and grabbed his cheeks.
"Right you are, Auntie Philomena," he said with as much of a smile as he could manage in his pain.
"Besides, I thought you and I could spend the day together, seeing the sights of the city, while Mavis and Princess Damara get better acquainted," she continued, ruffling his hair. "Doesn't that sound peachy?" Her eyes were flashing angrily and Auto swallowed hard as he nodded in reluctant agreement. "Excellent. We'll leave after breakfast. What's on the menu, Princess?"
"Please, we're practically family; call me Damara," she said pleasantly. "As for the menu, cook has prepared his special breakfast gruel. Autokins doesn't seem to care for it, nor did James, but I find it delightful!"
Xena and Gabrielle wrinkled their noses discreetly when servants set down steaming bowls of grayish muck in front of them.
"It smells delicious," Gabrielle said unenthusiastically.
"Dig in, cousin," said Auto with a smirk.
"You've still got a lot left in your bowl, cousin," she pointed out.
The King of Thieves frowned. "Great Zeus! A harpy!" he exclaimed, pointing at the opposite end of the room. When everyone turned to look, he quickly dumped his gruel into Gabrielle's bowl.
"I don't see anything unusual," Xena said suspiciously.
"Just a trick of the light," Auto shrugged, pretending to scrape his bowl clean. "You were right, my little celery stalk, the gruel was delicious. My compliments to the cook."
"Hey!" Gabrielle exclaimed, noticing her bowl was now overflowing with gray, lumpy gruel.
"You're a growing girl, cousin," Auto grinned. "Eat up."
Gabrielle scowled and dipped her spoon into the unappetizing mixture, watching in horrified fascination as it dripped off and fell back into the bowl with a sickening plop. Then, she happened to glance over to where the owl was gleefully devouring his special breakfast of roasted quail and quail eggs and licked her lips hungrily.
Noticing her gaze, the owl hissed threateningly and shielded his plate with his body and wings.
The Bard sighed and began to eat the gruel. But when her eyes lit up with surprise and she began to shovel it into her mouth as fast as she could, Xena rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, no need to worry about Mavis not eating."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, gruel dribbling down her chin. "It's good. Really, really good."
"I told you so," laughed Damara.
"I'm not very hungry this morning," Xena said, pushing her own bowl disgustedly away. "Why don't you and I take that little walk now, Auto?"
"Are you sure you don't want anything to eat, Aunt Philomena?" Autolycus said desperately. "I'm sure the cook wouldn't mind whipping up whatever your heart desires."
"I'm just not in the mood for food, dear," she replied, rising and placing a hand on his shoulder. "Now, how about that walk?" She dug her nails deep into his shoulder.
"Sounds good to me," Auto squeaked. "I'll see you later, my love." He kissed Damara on the cheek.
"Good luck," James said with a reproving smile.
"I'll settle with you later," Auto hissed as he and Xena walked by the bard.
"I'm sure James and Mavis will be excellent company until you return," Damara said brightly.
"I'm sure they will," Auto nodded, right before Xena yanked him out of the hall by his ear. "Ow!"
"Are you gonna finish that?" Gabrielle asked James, pointing to his bowl of gruel.
As soon as Xena and Auto were out of sight of the castle's guards she cuffed him soundly across the back of the head. "Are you crazy?!" she demanded. "Arcadians aren't exactly renown for their charity, especially in regards to thieves. Death is considered a light sentence. And I don't even want to go into the penalty for what you're doing to the Princess. Let's just say it involves forced gender alteration and leave it at that, okay?"
Auto grimaced. "I know all about Arcadia's laws and punishments," he said, rubbing the back of his head. "That's one of the reasons I chose this kingdom for my triumphant return."
"What are you talking about?" she inquired. "Return to what?"
"To the undisputed King of Thieves, of course," Auto replied as the pair strolled casually through the market.
"You are the King of Thieves, Autolycus," she stated. "Everyone's forgotten all about that business with Tarsus and what he did to your reputation."
"Have they?" the thief asked, arching an eyebrow thoughtfully. "What have I done to restore my reputation since then? Precious little! I've been so busy goody-goodying with you, James, and Gabrielle that I haven't stolen anything for ages. And, I hardly think I need to point out that you foiled the only theft I have attempted. Let's face it, Xena, my credibility is sinking faster than Ares' popularity at a love-in! The King of Thieves is quickly becoming a has-been, an over-the-hill pickpocket with delusions of grandeur, a would-be grand larcenist with a wannabe-ego that's too big for his talents. I'm a legend in my own mind, Xena."
"So, what else is new?" she snickered.
"I'm being serious here, Xena," Auto said defensively.
"So am I. And, have you given any thought to what effect this will have on Princess Damara?" Xena said suddenly. "That poor kid is going to be crushed when you run off with the jewel and leave her at the altar. Doesn't that matter to you?"
"Of course it does. I'm not heartless. You know that. But, believe me, if there were some other way to restore my reputation, one that didn't involve hurting anyone, I'd do it in a heartbeat," he said earnestly. "But there isn't. This is the big one, Xena. This is a career maker. When I pull this off, my immortality will be assured."
"It probably would. There's just one little problem," Xena said.
"Oh? And what might that be?" he questioned.
"I'm going to make sure this wedding never happens, Autolycus," she informed him, her blue eyes glinting with determination.
"You do what you have to, Xena, and I'll do whatever I have to," he replied, his own brown eyes shining with equal resolve.
After several tense moments the smell of fresh pastries wafted over the pair and they licked their lips hungrily.
"Shall we?" Auto suggested, indicating the baker's stall.
"Are you treating?" Xena asked with a smile.
"Of course," the King of Thieves replied with a smirk and a twirl of his mustache. "It's the least I can do for my long-suffering aunt." He held out his arm and Xena took it and they made their way over to the booth, knowing that nothing had really been resolved.
After spending the morning talking to the Princess and hearing the story of how she and Autolycus had met, James took his leave of her and left Gabrielle to keep her company. Returning to his room down the empty corridors of the castle, the owl started whispering into his ear: "So, the Princess was wandering around the city square when a wagon of wine barrels started rolling toward her at great speed. At the very last second, before she was about to be crushed, Auto swings out on his line and snatches her away to safety? Want to bet that old Auto staged the whole thing to get close to her?" The owl snorted.
"Probably!" James growled, his irritation at Autolycus for taking advantage of the Princess' kind nature was starting to flare into a full roaring flame.
Opening the door, he entered his room and slammed it shut behind him. The owl, sensing the growing anger radiating off of the gentle bard James, decided that he needed some time to himself. "I think I will fly outside of the kingdom and see if I can see any of the Xenites from the XenaVerse Complex arriving yet."
James made a waving motion for the owl to leave but then called out to him, "Be careful flying around the city! One of the guards might decide to take a pot shot at you and you could end up on the dinning room table, and not as a guest!"
The owl bobbed his head once to show that he had heard and then flew out the window.
Sitting down in a chair, James placed his head in his hands and wondered what to do with all the anger that was coursing through him.
Hearing the door to his room jerk open, he looked up in time to see Autolycus enter and slam the door behind him.
"I just wanted to thank my `good buddy' for telling Xena all about the Star of Arcadia. You realize that this will put a serious crimp in my plans, don't you?" he demanded in an irritated voice.
"Oh, please, Autolycus! Did you really think that you could keep the Star a secret with Xena here? Let me tell you something: Xena knew about the Star before I could even tell her. She found out about it from an old serving woman in the palace," he growled as he leapt to his feet and started to pace back and forth.
The King of Thieves was taken aback by the obvious anger in his voice and
watched his friend pace for a few moments in silence.
`Gabrielle paces like that when she's mad, too. Wonder if it's a bard thing?' Autolycus thought to himself.
"You know what your problem is, Autolycus?" James asked, finally coming to a halt in front of him.
Seeing James' jaw clenching and unclenching, Auto just shook his head. "You plan all these great thefts and carry them out but you never spend a moment thinking about what happens after you leave with your loot," he barked at him.
"Look, if you're that worried about the Princess, why don't you marry her after I leave with the gem?" Autolycus said as he took a half step back and raised his hands in front of him.
James opened his mouth and shut it a few times before he regained enough control to speak clearly. "Auto," James said, speaking slowly and carefully, as though he was talking to a child, "I told everyone here that I was to be your best man at the wedding. I showed up before anyone else that was invited to the wedding and I told them that I was one of your best friends. When you disappear right before the wedding with the Star of Arcadia with you, everyone is going to assume that I was your accomplice in this crime! I will be lucky to get out of this city with my life!"
Autolycus took another half step back and shrugged with a slightly nervous look on his face. "Okay, so maybe my plan needs a little refining."
"Refining?!" James cried as he started to pace back and forth again. "Do you even realize that you have invited all of your friends from the XenaVerse Complex to come here for your supposed wedding?"
"Well, of course! I want them to see me regain my title of 'King of Thieves'. What's wrong with that?" Autolycus said with a look of confusion.
The bard stopped pacing and started to rub his eyes, realizing that he was starting to get a headache. "Autolycus!" He paused with a sigh. "Picture this with me, will you? The Princess is standing at the altar. I'm standing up there, too, as your best man. The audience is filled with your friends. Suddenly, the King or Queen realizes that the Princess no longer has the Star of Arcadia with her. A search goes out to find the 'King of Thieves' and, when no one finds him, they realize that he must have been the one to steal the gem."
Autolycus allows a slight smile to cross his face as he imagines everyone talking about how the King of Thieves made another perfect theft.
"And I and all your friends suddenly find ourselves trapped in a hostile city, surrounded by the royal guards that are being commanded by an enraged King!" he practically yelled into Auto's face.
Autolycus finally let a seriously worried look cross his face. "Okay, I'll admit that I didn't consider that part in my plan, but Xena will be there. She'll help everyone get to safety. Besides, maybe no one else from the complex will show up for the wedding?"
"Right. No one at the XenaVerse Complex likes a big party or would care to see the King of Thieves get tied down in marriage," James answered sarcastically.
Autolycus shook his head. "Yeah, you're right. They'll all be there. Hey, wait a minute! You said that you were going to be standing up at the altar as my best man. Does that mean you're not going to tell the King about my plans to steal the gem?"
"Auto, right now I am madder at you than I have ever been at anyone in my life, but I still consider you a friend and I would not 'rat' you out to the King," he replied, still rubbing his eyes.
Hearing Autolycus give a sigh of relief, he added, "That, and Xena says she has a plan to stop you without anyone getting hurt."
Feeling a strong urge to get out and get some fresh air, James started for the door, but stopped as he passed the thief. "You know who I am the maddest at right now?" Autolycus just shook his head. "I am maddest at myself, because I know how much the title 'King of Thieves' means to you and, even though I know that if you succeed in your plans to steal the gem, it will mean the Princess will be hurt emotionally and maybe our friends from the complex physically, half of me still hopes that you succeed," he replied.
"What does the other half hope?" Autolycus asked.
"That Xena carries out her threat to kick your sorry butt all over Greece!" he said and then left the room.
Autolycus let out a long sigh as James left the room and wondered if maybe this one time he had bit off more than he could chew. "Nah! Everything will work out fine!" he said out loud and, turning, saw his reflection in the mirror on the wall. "What are you looking at?" he asked the mirror irritably.
Lord Vantys was finally in a good mood. He rechecked the plans for the first trial of the Adoniad and was confident that Autolycus could not remain true to the Princess after what he had set up. Tonight Autolycus would be slipped a cup of wine that had a sleeping potion in it. The King would announce that the Adoniad would start in the morning. As soon as Autolycus went to bed and the potion had taken effect, he would be moved into a small secret room in the castle. When he awoke in the morning he would find himself surrounded by beautiful women who were being paid to seduce him at all costs and the finest wines the kingdom had to offer. For 24 hours he would be held in that small room and at the end of the trial the women would be asked if Autolycus had remained true to the Princess. If even one of them said no, then Autolycus would be declared unfit to marry the Princess and be thrown out on his ear. `Even if he, by small miracle passes this test, he will never pass the other tests,' Lord Vantys thought gleefully to himself.
As he was walking down the hallway toward an intersection, the noble stopped when he heard a door slam shut loudly. Peeking around the corner, he watched as the Bard James came striding down the hallway. Lord Vantys admitted to himself that the only reason he did not like the bard was because he was a friend of Autolycus and that, other than that, the bard was a nice enough fellow. But the person stomping angrily down the hall did not act like the bard Vantys had came to know in such a short time. There was a scowl on his face and his stride was angry and determined, while his usual gait was more relaxed. Once again Lord Vantys wondered if this might not be the Warlord Inimicles. Watching James moving toward the intersection where he was hiding, Vantys' eye was caught by something sticking out of one of James' boots. It looked like the handle of a dagger and, as Vantys watched, it slid slowly out of James' boot and appeared to hover a moment in the air before it slowly and lightly fell to the ground.
James did not even notice that he had lost it and kept walking.
Lord Vantys pulled back into his hallway a little and watched as the bard passed by the opening without even looking his way. Stepping out after he was gone, he quickly went over to the dagger and picked it up.
Examining it, Lord Vantys' eyes went wide and he raced out of the castle.
Standing a few feet away, invisible and inaudible to mortals, the Goddess Discord stood laughing. "Mortals are so easy to manipulate! Crank up a few emotions here, pull out a dagger and leave it there, and they do just what you want them to." Discord laughed again and then disappeared in a flash of light.
Lord Vantys reached the soldiers' training grounds and, after a few moments scanning the soldiers there, he found the one he was looking for: An old battle worn warrior, leaning on a wall directing some young soldiers in their sword drills. Walking up, Lord Vantys waited for the warrior to acknowledge his presence.
Cretius came from a family of warriors. At an early age he dedicated his life to war and to the God of War and had served many armies and even more kingdoms and one thing he had learned in all that time: He disliked court dandies like Lord Vantys with a passion. Cretius waited a few moments, letting Lord Vantys stew in his own juices, before glancing at him sharply and growling, "What?"
"I believe that before you came to serve King Bastian, you once served on the city guard to a town was attacked by the Warlord Inimicles?" Lord Vantys asked.
Cretius returned his attention to the young men and their sword drills. "Yeah, so what?"
"Did you see this Warlord? Did he have a personal flag or symbol of some kind?" Vantys asked, stepping into Cretius' field of view.
"Yeah, he had a personal flag. All Warlords do. It's the way that an army knows where to regroup around their leader in a battle," Cretius said, looking over Vantys' head.
"Oh, really? I always thought it was just a vanity on their part," Vantys remarked.
Cretius rolled his eyes at the noble's ignorance. "Is there some reason for these questions?" Cretius asked as he finally looked down at Vantys.
"Did Inimicles' symbol look like this?" Vantys asked as he pulled James' dagger from his clothing and showed it to Cretius.
Cretius grabbed the dagger so quickly that Lord Vantys was slightly cut by the razor sharp edge of the blade.
"Where did you get this?" Cretius asked Lord Vantys in a dangerous growl.
"There is a visitor to the castle who was carrying it. He matches the description of the Warlord Inimicles, but he managed to convince the King that he is just a lowly bard. Is that symbol on the handle Inimicles'?"
Cretius examined the symbol of the snake choking Ares' symbol closely for a moment. "Yes. That is Inimicles' symbol. I will take care of it. I have a grudge to settle with Inimicles!"
"No!" Vantys commanded and put his hand on Cretius' arm.
The old soldier looked down at the hand and Vantys quickly removed it. "Why not?!"
"Inimicles is friends with a certain thief. The King is hoping that the thief will lead a certain other Warlord into a trap. If you kill Inimicles, the thief may make a run for it before we can get our hands on this other warlord," Vantys explained.
Cretius shook his head angrily. "Court intrigues and strategies." He spat. "Just give me a good clean battlefield any day."
"I will capture Inimicles quietly by slipping a sleeping potion into his wine and have him moved to the dungeon. With any luck, Autolycus will think that his Warlord friend got fed up and left on his own. And, he will continue with the wedding plans and the other warlord will show up for the binding ceremony. We will capture her and then, instead of a wedding, we can hold a double execution of warlords and throw Autolycus into prison for being their accomplice! It's perfect!" Lord Vantys said more to himself than Cretius. "Today is becoming a perfect day!" he said as he walked away.
Still invisible and inaudible to mortals, Discord stood a few feet away. "You're right, foolish mortal. Today is becoming a perfect day. James will be thrown into the dungeon. Xena will find out about it and have to break her cover to rescue him. She will be thrown into the dungeon, too, and then all I have to do is endanger her annoying little blonde friend and tell Xena and James and they will pledge loyalty to Ares to save her. Ares gets his precious Xena back, and James as Inimicles. Plus, Autolycus' greatest triumph becomes his greatest humiliation and I get revenge on him for his part in turning me into a chicken!" Discord let out a little giggle and disappeared in a flash of light.
Cretius looked at the dagger that Lord Vantys in his excitement had left with him, remembering all the good friends that had died that day when Inimicles attacked that city. Slowly he started to stroke his jaw as he considered what plans he might have for the Warlord.
The King of Thieves, after leaving James' room, stalked through the halls of the castle, hoping he could find a quiet place to sit down, have a strong drink and a good hard think about what he was going to do about the latest development in his `perfect' plan. It had all seemed so simple when he conceived it: Win the Princess' love, propose, steal the famous Star of Arcadia, make his escape and thereby regain his title as the undisputed King of Thieves. Having all his friends from the XenaVerse Complex there to witness his triumph was just icing on the cake.
At least, that's how he'd intended it.
Now, if James was right, it might turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life.
He realized that the easiest way out of this whole mess was to simply fail the Adoniad. No wedding, no Star, no theft, no one gets hurt. Unfortunately, his enormous ego couldn't get his mind to accept that solution. His reputation was in bad enough shape as it was, he reasoned, if it got out that he'd failed the Adoniad he feared no one would ever take him seriously.
So, despite the risks to his friends, he was determined to go ahead with what he was already thinking of as "the crime of the century."
"Is anything the matter, my love?" The charming voice of the Princess interrupted his pondering and he looked up to see her standing in front of him and smiling sweetly. And James' words came back to haunt him: If you succeed, you'll hurt the Princess emotionally.
"Nothing at all, my beautiful olive blossom," he replied, leaning to kiss her cheek. "Just thinking about the Adoniad and hoping I'll prove worthy to be your husband."
"Darling Auto, you have already proven yourself worthy to be my husband," she playfully scolded. "The Adoniad is simply to determine if you are worthy to be King of Arcadia."
"Aren't they the same thing?" Auto inquired, confused, and slightly alarmed that maybe he hadn't done his research for this job as thoroughly as he should have.
"Not necessarily," Damara answered, looping her arm in his and continuing down the hallway at his side. "If you fail the Adoniad, we could still elope."
"Elope?!" Auto squeaked.
"Then, one day, perhaps one of our children might eventually become the ruler of this land," she continued.
"Children?!" Auto yipped.
"Naturally. I want a big family. Growing up an only child was terribly lonely for me and I don't want any of my children to have to go through what I did," she stated. "Of course, I did have an older brother, Demas, but he was killed during the Battle of Corinth when I was quite young and I barely remember him."
Autolycus suddenly ceased his nightmarish visions of domestic life and stopped and looked into the Princess' eyes. "Did you say the Battle of Corinth?" he asked, fearing the pieces were falling into place and that the picture they were creating was definitely not one to his liking.
She nodded. "Were you there?"
"No, but a friend of mine was," he said thoughtfully.
"Was he killed, too?"
"I think part of her was," he replied.
"She lost a son in the battle?"
"You could say that. Look, Princess, I need to go see my aunt. We had a bit of a fight this morning and I need to set things straight," he said. "Besides, I thought you were spending the day with my cousin Mavis..."
"She had an errand to run, something about a gift for her mother, but she should be back at any time. So don't worry about me."
"Why would he worry about you?" Gabrielle, in full Mavis gear, asked, walking up.
"Oh, Mavis, there you are. You see, Autokins, I'll be fine. You run and make up with your aunt," Damara said, favoring him with a gentle smile.
"I'm, er, afraid I just came from Mum's room and she seems to have come down with a terrible case of the, um, Scythian flu. Nasty stuff. But she should be better in a day or two. In the meantime, though, she's asked very specifically not to be disturbed, since it's highly contagious at this stage," the Bard said quickly.
"Oh, the poor dear. Should I have the cook fix her something special?" Damara asked.
"No, that won't be...on second thought, if you could have him prepare lamb with a sour cream sauce I know she'd appreciate it," the Bard replied, drool beginning to form at the corners of her mouth. "It's her favorite."
"Certainly. I'm sure the cook will be happy to do that for her," the Princess nodded. "Is there anything else we can do for her?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "She just needs rest and time to fight this bug."
Autolycus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, you two have a lovely time together," he said, kissing Damara on the cheek. "I'm off to continue my studies about your marvelous homeland."
"A king should be familiar with his country's history," Damara smiled. "We'll see you at dinner this evening." Auto nodded and the Princess and Gabrielle walked off
Autolycus, after not even receiving so much as a reply when he had knocked on the door, and being hesitant to pick the lock for fear that someone would see the royal suitor breaking into a room, lowered himself from the ramparts of the castle to the room which Xena and Gabrielle were using and carefully opened the shuttered window. "Xena?" he called softly, peering inside but finding the room empty, as he had expected to. "Now, where can she have got off to?"
King Bastian stood up and the talking around the large table quickly ceased. He turned to Autolycus and said, "Tomorrow morning, at long last, you will begin the Adoniad, my boy. But let me assure you that this series of tests is much more than a way to prove your physical fitness to one day be the king of this fair land. No, sir, it will test your mettle as a man, too. For only someone who is pure and noble enough to conquer the Adoniad is worthy to marry my sweet Damara," he said, gazing lovingly at his blushing daughter. "So, I toast you, Autolycus, in the hope that you prove up to the true challenge of the Adoniad: the merit of your soul."
Feeling slightly guilty, and avoiding looking at either James or Damara, the King of Thieves likewise raised his glass and drank along with the King and the rest of the diners.
But, as he should have known, his friend wasn't about to let him off that easily. James rose and said, "King Bastian, with your permission, I would like to propose a toast of my own." The King nodded and James looked straight into Auto's brown eyes, causing the thief to squirm a bit. "To Autolycus: my friend and one of the best people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. I know that you will not disappoint us and that the good man you truly are will rise to this occasion and do the right, and honorable thing." So saying, he tilted his head back and drained his goblet as Auto and the others did the same.
Lord Vantys smiled to himself as one of his private guards, dressed as a steward, refilled the glass of the suitor and the bard with some of his specially prepared wine while serving girls filled those of the other guests.
Autolycus suddenly stood up himself, albeit a bit shakily, and raised his glass to the King. "With your kind permission, majesty." Bastian nodded and Auto continued, "I'd like to propose a toast to James, a friend for many years, whose loyalty and discretion I value as much as his wit and charm. Don't blow it now," he added quietly before taking a drink and sitting back down.
James took a drink and then began to stand up, but the Princess, whom he was seated next to, pulled him back down with the admonishment, "Only one toast per guest, James. Besides, I'd like to propose a toast to my future husband. Autolycus, my love, I know in my heart that you will emerge victorious from the Adoniad and that we will one day, far in the future, the Gods willing," she added, looking at her parents and smiling, "wisely rule Arcadia, side by side. But I want you to know that even if the unthinkable should happen, and you fail the Adoniad, I will still love you and our hearts and souls will always be one." As she tilted her head and drank deeply from her goblet, James managed to catch Auto's eye and he saw the cocky thief's mask slip a bit before the charismatic smile returned and he gaily saluted Damara and the King and Queen before drinking.
Autolycus stood up, or rather, he tried to stand up, but owing to the amount of wine he'd consumed over the course of the dinner and the toasts and the hours of talking afterwards, he found it a bit difficult to do so on his own. James would have helped his friend had he himself not found it equally difficult to maintain his feet. As it was, both men ended up tumbling from their chairs and landing face-first on the floor of the drawing room, to which the young people had retired after dinner to talk and drink.
"Need some help, gentlemen?" Lord Vantys offered, stepping from the shadows in the corner of the room.
"Why, Vanty, how predictable of you to be lurking nearby," Auto slurred, trying to once more struggle to his feet, without success.
"Now, Autokins, Vantys is just watching out for me, as is his job, in case the wine had gone to your head and you attempted to ravage me...or something," she sighed wistfully. The nobleman bowed. "Pity you weren't really needed."
Vantys scowled ever so slightly.
Meanwhile, Auto and James, using each other as braces, attempted to stand up, mashing each other's faces and banging heads before collapsing back onto the floor. Both men groaned and Damara and Gabrielle couldn't help but laugh.
"Shall I, my Princess?" Vantys offered, gesturing to several of his guards who were standing near the door.
"I suppose you had, or they might never make it to their rooms," she smiled.
Lord Vantys stifled an evil grin and nodded to the soldiers. "I trust you two will be able to make it up to your rooms without assistance," he said as the guards picked the barely conscious pair up off the ground.
Gabrielle looked over the handsome noble admiringly. "I might need a little help," she said quickly, looking at the Princess and giggling softly.
Vantys halted in mid-step and the Princess discreetly held a hand over her mouth as he slowly turned around. "Would you like me to leave one of my men, my lady?"
"I thought you might do me yourself," Gabrielle replied.
"My lady?" Vantys inquired as the Princess pressed her hand tightly over her mouth.
"The honor of escorting me to my room," the Bard added. Vantys sighed. "Or your room," she said under her breath.
The Princess suddenly burst out laughing and Gabrielle did the same and Vantys rolled his eyes. "I'm afraid I have other duties to attend to, my lady, but I'll gladly leave a guard to-"
"Oh, don't bother, Vantys. I'll see that Mavis gets to her room all right," Damara said in between gasps of giggles.
"As you wish, my Princess. Good night ladies." He bowed deeply and then turned on his heel and exited the room.
"Pity he's such a sourpuss," Gabrielle sighed, taking another long drink from her goblet.
The Princess cocked her head and then said slowly, "I suppose so."
Autolycus slowly, painfully opened his eyes and then blinked in confusion. "I must still be dreaming," he mumbled when he saw ten beautiful women standing over him. He closed his eyes again.
"No dream, Autolycus," Lord Vantys' voice announced. "Welcome to the first trial of the Adoniad: Fidelity. I'll be back in a day to let you out, but in the meantime: Don't do anything I wouldn't do." The noble's mocking laughter faded as the window in the heavy oak door slammed shut.
Auto sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. "Fidelity?" he gulped as his gaze wandered longingly over the women.
Slowly escaping the realm of Morpheus, James' first thought was `Why is my bed so hard and cold this morning?'
Cracking one eye open and then quickly closing it, he thought to himself, `And when did they put a jail cell door on the ceiling of my bedroom?'
Carefully turning his head to the right, he opened both eyes and then turned to look to the left. Closing his eyes again, he thought fuzzily to himself, `Well, that explains the jail cell door and the cold hard bed. I'm chained to a dungeon wall and standing up.' He let his head sag back down onto his chest and started to drift back into sleep.
Jerking his head back so hard that it hit the wall behind him, James slammed his eyes open and squeaked, "Chained to a wall?!?!?!"
Taking slow deep breaths to try and curb a rising sense of panic, he took in his surroundings. The bard was chained with his hands above him to the wall of a very small cell. `Almost more of a stone closet than a jail cell,' he thought to himself. `Or a very large coffin,' his mind added morbidly.
Forcing down that thought, he mentally tried to figure out just how large the cell was and why he was in a cell to start with.
The room appeared to be about 8 feet by 8 feet square. Very cold, very damp. `And smells like quite a few things have died in here,' his imagination again helpfully added.
Looking out of the door, he could see a torch burning on the distant wall of a rough stone passage that ran past his cell; far too far away to provide any heat and not a whole lot of light.
Closing his eyes, he tried to remember the dinner from the night (?) before and what he could have done to get thrown into a cell. He had drunk quite a bit of wine. `Did I spill the story about Autolycus and his intended theft? Is he somewhere down here with me, awaiting punishment?' he wondered.
With his eyes still closed, James stretched his hearing to its utmost and heard not a single sign of life. Relaxing slightly with the thought that whatever it was that he had done had not gotten Auto into trouble, too, he opened his eyes and found himself staring slightly down at the Goddess Discord.
"Holy Tartarus!!" he yelped. Regaining his composure, he added in a calmer voice, "Will you stop popping in and scaring me like that?"
Discord smiled and moved closer until she was almost pressing herself against his body. "I usually like my men to be kneeling on the ground before me, but this could have possibilities, too." She gave a soft laugh as she ran her hands down his sides.
Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves again, James asked, "Will you please stop doing that and tell me why I'm in a dungeon cell?"
Stepping back till she was leaning on the cell door, Discord smirked and replied, "Lord Vantys had you thrown in here. For some unknown reason he thinks that you are the warlord Inimicles."
"What about everyone else? Are they all right?" the bard asked nervously.
"Funny you should ask that," Discord said with a laugh. "Autolycus is facing his first challenge of the Adoniad. Xena is there in disguise to try and make him fail the test. So they're both in total seclusion and don't know what has happened to poor Gabrielle."
"What has happened to Gabrielle?" he shouted with worry.
"Why, Lord Vantys has decided that she is a assassin sent to kill the King and Queen. He has her in a cell far from here, torturing her to death to get her to confess. I doubt she will survive until Xena can find out and rescue her," Discord lied through her even white teeth.
Straining against his chains to get free to find and rescue Gabrielle, James shouted at Discord, "You've got to help her!"
Discord seemed to ponder this for a minute. "Now, why would I want to do that? I suppose you could rescue the annoying blond. Oh that's right! You're all chained up at the moment. Pity."
Sweating with worry in the cold of the jail cell, he sighed. "All right, Discord. What do you want from me?"
The Goddess slinked her way back across the small cell until she was close enough to run her sharp nails across his chest through the opening of his shirt. The smirk on her face gone to be replaced by a predatory grin. "Give your word of honor and swear an oath in Ares' name. Agree to become the warlord Inimicles and lead armies in Ares' name and I will help you rescue Gabrielle."
James opened his mouth to agree--Anything to save Gabrielle--but then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You first."
"What?" Discord asked in confusion.
"You swear an oath on Ares' name that Gabrielle is really in danger and needs my help and I will consider your proposal," he said defiantly.
Discord was a Goddess. She feared very little, but Ares' wrath was one thing she did fear and she knew he took oaths in his name very seriously. Even if her lie got Ares what he wanted, she knew he would be angered that she gave a false oath in his name.
"I guess you don't care as much about Gabrielle as you thought you did," Discord said with mock sadness and disappeared in a flash of light.
"She wouldn't swear an oath in Ares' name that Gabrielle was in danger!" James kept repeating, trying to convince himself that Gabrielle was still safe and sound.
Gabrielle was not feeling too good this morning, either. First, she awoke at dawn. Something she absolutely never did. And second, she awoke alone, without Xena nearby or knowing where she was. And last, but not least, she awoke with a slight hangover from all the wine she had drunk the night before.
"Ugh!" was her only comment as she stumbled over from the bed to the table across the room and sat down and looked into the mirror. "It tastes and feels like I cleaned a centaur stable with my tongue!" she said to her reflection. "What did I do last night?" she again asked her image.
Thinking, she remembered bits and pieces of the night's events. Even through the hangover, she smiled when she remembered watching Auto squirm under James's thinly veiled toast and how both James and Auto had trouble getting up from the table. Her slight smile vanished as she remembered that she had made a slight pass at Lord Vantys. "Thank the Gods that he didn't pick up on it! I am never drinking that much wine again!" she sternly lectured her reflection.
Gabrielle pulled her sleeping shift off, which she barely remembered putting on last night before falling into bed, and pulled a bowl of water over to her and using a towel started to wash.
Athena's owl, flying through the open window, landed on the headboard of the bed and silently watched Gabrielle. Humans were not what he would call attractive most of the time. Their eyes were too small and they didn't even have feathers, but even he had to admit that Gabrielle was good looking. The owl let out a long wolf whistle at the semi-nude Gabrielle and was shocked when, before he could even blink, Gabrielle had leaped from her seat at the mirror, reached under the bed and pulled her Amazon staff out and had the end of the staff just a few inches away from his beak.
The owl looked at the end of the staff and then followed it up until he was looking at Gabrielle. "Great reflexes there! Among other things!" he added.
Gabrielle, realizing that she was still topless, scowled at the owl and, dropping the staff on the bed, reached over and pulled her sleeping shift back on.
"Any particular reason why you're here? Or are you just a peeping owl?" she growled at the owl.
The owl gave a hooting laugh for a second and then became serious. "Have you seen James? He didn't show up last night in his room. I waited all night for him to bring me something to eat and he never showed up! I had to go hungry all night long!" the owl groused.
Gabrielle frowned and started to answer him when she heard a knock on the door. Reaching over, she quickly threw the pillows under the covers and arranged them to look like someone was sleeping under the bedspread. Making a motion for the owl to hide, she watched as he hopped behind the headboard of the bed. Grabbing her wig and shoving it on her head, and one quick glance at the mirror to make sure she was decently covered, she opened the door slightly.
Lord Vantys, standing in the hall and looking slightly over Gabrielle's head at the bed, smiled and asked, "How are you and your mother today?"
"Oh, I'm fine! But mother is still too sick to get out of bed today!" Gabrielle said as she tried to move discreetly to block Vantys view of the bed.
Lord Vantys called out loudly, "I hope that you will be better soon and that you don't miss the wedding."
Gabrielle was just about to tell Lord Vantys that her mother was probably still asleep when Philomena's voice called out from the direction of the bed: "Don't worry about me. (cough, cough) I wouldn't miss my little Auto's wedding for anything. Mavis! Don't be addlebrained, girl! Close that door, you're letting in a draft!"
Gabrielle smiled sweetly at Lord Vantys and promptly shut the door in his face. "I'll be down for breakfast in a moment." she yelled through the door to him.
The Bard listened at the door and, after a moment, heard Lord Vantys move off. Walking over to the bed, she saw the owl fly up from behind the headboard and land on it with a self-pleased look on his face. "That was a pretty good imitation of Xena's Philomena," she said with a smile.
"Yeah, I'm a bird of many talents!" the owl said, preening his feathers.
Gabrielle frowned and started to gather up her clothes. "I have to get dressed."
"Don't let me stop you," the owl said with a quirk of his beak.
"Get out! Go back to James' room and I'll meet you there on the way to breakfast and take you down to the dinning room."
"What do you think happened to James?" the owl asked being reminded that his friend had not been seen since last night.
"I don't know. I seem to remember that Lord Vantys had some guards help him to his room last night. You're sure that no one showed up last night?" Gabrielle asked, starting to pace back and forth.
"Positive! Why would James need any help to get back to his room?" the owl asked.
"He had too much to drink and couldn't stand up on his own," Gabrielle said with a slight smile.
Instead of being amused the owl seemed to get even more worried. "I've seen James almost drink himself completely unconscious at Amazon parties and he has always managed to get himself back to his own room on his own."
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to look worried as she tried to remember just how much wine James had drank last night. "Go on and go back to James' room. I'll meet you in a moment," she finally told the owl.
With one last nervous ruffle of his feathers the owl nodded and flew out of the window.
As Autolycus looked up at the women hovering over him, his attention was suddenly caught by a very familiar pair of dazzling, but angry, blue eyes. "You?" he gasped.
"What's the matter, Auto?" Xena said quickly, elbowing past several other women. "Aren't you happy to see your old friend Cherish?"
"On the contrary, I'm delighted," the King of Thieves replied, stroking his mustache with a flourish.
"Hey! Don't settle for sloppy seconds when you could have this, darling," one of the professionals cautioned, thrusting her ample breasts into his face.
"Who're you calling sloppy seconds, sister?" Xena growled, glaring at the other woman.
"You, you cheap floozy!" she cried, charging Xena with her long nails bared. "If anyone is going to get that bonus, it ought to be a local, right, girls?"
Several other women nodded and advanced on Xena.
"No room for strangers here, love," said a redhead with green eyes.
"We'll see about that, cookie," the Warrior Princess grinned, rubbing her fist into the palm of her hand.
As Xena and the majority of the whores closed on one another, the remainders concentrated on Auto.
"Wouldn't you rather have me anyway, sweet-cheeks?" one of them asked, batting her long eyelashes and bouncing up and down provocatively.
"Back of the line, Doris!" snarled another woman, grabbing a handful of Doris' long dark hair and yanking on it painfully as she stepped ahead of her. "I'm going to get that bonus." She sat on Auto's lap and smiled as the thief's eyes were drawn like magnets to her bosom. "Aren't I, stud?"
"B-b-bonus?" Auto questioned, squirming.
"Yeah, bonus, you bonehead!"
Autolycus looked up and saw a woman with long brown hair, twisted into a ponytail that hung past the middle of her back, dark eyes and a face and figure that seemed to have been sculpted by the Gods themselves. She was wearing a dark blue silken blouse and black leather breeches and had a golden chain looped around her slender neck.
He immediately stood up, dumping the prostitute on his lap onto the ground. "Hey!" she exclaimed.
"Is for horses," Varina said, kicking her sharply in the gut. "Why don't you go get some."
"Now, what's this about a bonus?" Auto asked, never taking his eyes off the brunette.
"Lord Vantys has promised 500 dinars to the woman who causes you to lose this trial, you moron," she hissed. "Remember? The Adoniad? The Princess? The wedding? The Star of Arcadia? Is any of this ringing any bells?"
"Oh, I hear bells all right. Every time you speak," he replied, gazing longingly into her dark eyes.
Varina ground her teeth in frustration and said softly, "No. That isn't going to happen. You need to focus on the job, you idiot. Focus on the Star of Arcadia."
"How do you know that's what I'm after?" he suddenly demanded.
"I'm sort of a fan of yours," she shrugged. "I figured it out."
"Exactly," nodded Xena, approaching the whispering pair and leaving the others to fight amongst themselves. "And if she figured it out, don't you think Lord Vantys and the others will, too? If they haven't already."
"I don't think that's likely," Varina said quickly. "If they even suspected your intentions weren't sincere, you'd have been locked up, or worse, long before this. Right?"
"She does have a point," Auto conceded.
Xena gazed thoughtfully at the stranger. "Just who are you?"
"The name's Varina...Xena," she added after a moment. "And I'm going to see to it that this wedding happens."
"You don't strike me as the Cupid-type. What's your interest in this?" Xena inquired.
"Let's just say I want Autolycus here to get what he deserves," she answered, smiling impishly.
"So do I," Xena stated.
"Ladies, I'm touched that you're both so concerned about my well-being," he said, sliding his arms around both their waists. "Maybe when this is over we can--"
Suddenly, Doris, who had apparently won the catfight with her rivals, jumped up off the pile of groaning women and raced towards Autolycus. "I won, baby! It's me and you and 500 dinars!"
Xena casually held up her fist and Doris ran smack into it and fell to her back, out cold.
"Nice," commented Varina.
"I have many skills," Xena replied.
The other woman nodded appreciatively. "So, what are we going to do about Autolycus?" she asked.
"This wedding is not going to happen, Varina. If he doesn't fail this test, I'll see to it that he fails one of the other two," Xena informed her. "It'll be a lot better for you, Autolycus, if you fail this one."
"How am I supposed to do that--Even if I wanted to?" he added, seeing Varina's eyes darken angrily. He gestured to the room full of unconscious, or nearly so, women.
"They'll wake up soon enough," Xena assured him.
"Look, even if they do, if I'm going to blow the score of a lifetime, it would have to be for something better than a two-dinar hooker," Auto said, eyeing both women suggestively.
"All right. You know you've wanted me for years, Autolycus," Xena said resignedly. "Well, here's your chance. Your one and only chance."
"Oh, no, you don't!" Varina exclaimed. "I'll make you a deal: Get the Star of Arcadia and I'm all yours."
"Fulfill my fantasy with you and lose my reputation, or enjoy your ample charms and regain my status as undisputed King of Thieves," Auto mused, looking from one woman to the other. "Turn around, both of you. Slowly."
Xena gritted her teeth but complied with the humiliating order. As did Varina, although she clearly was no happier than the Warrior Princess about having to do so.
"Tough call," Auto grinned, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "But, and no pun intended, I'm going to have to go with Varina's offer, Xena."
"Bad choice, Autolycus," she said with quiet menace. "You not only don't get me, but you won't get the Star or Varina either. I'm surprised you'd pass on a sure thing for such a long shot."
"I like to live on the edge, Xena. You know that," he grinned, turning to Varina. "How about some sugar to sweeten this deal, baby?"
She smiled and leaned in close and then suddenly kneed him hard in the crotch. "Just keep your mind on the job, Autolycus," she hissed as he dropped to his knees, clutching his groin.
"Nice," commented Xena.
"I've got more than a few skills myself," she shrugged.
Waking up after slipping into unconscious again, James wondered just how long he had been stuck in this damp, dark dungeon. After Discord had disappeared, he spent a long time worrying that Gabrielle was in deep peril and that he had blown his chance to save her by refusing Discord.
Then he spent a long time trying to convince himself that Gabrielle was perfectly safe and this was all just a plot by Discord to get him to serve Ares.
After that he just spent time worrying that he was destined to be left alone in the dungeon to just starve to death.
Hearing a noise coming from the passageway outside the cell, James looked up and watched as Lord Vantys made his way through the cell door.
"Good evening, Inimicles," the nobleman said with a large smile.
"I am not the warlord Inimicles. How many times do I have to say that?" James spat at Vantys.
"Oh, just cut it out! I found your dagger! I know you're the warlord Inimicles!" Lord Vantys let his smile slip a little as he snarled at the chained man. "The only questions I have are: Do you have your army waiting somewhere to attack the kingdom? Is Autolycus your accomplice? And is Xena working with you, too?"
James debated on whether to deny yet again that he was Inimicles or to lie and say that he was, but try and clear his friends. With his friends in danger and the fact that he knew that no matter what he said Lord Vantys would not believe that he wasn't Inimicles, he replied, "Autolycus doesn't know that I'm Inimicles and he is completely innocent. I met him once when I was injured and he didn't know that I was a warlord. He helped me and I liked having a friend who did not fear me so I told him that I was but a simple bard. I do not have my army nearby. When I received a scroll from Auto telling me he was going to get married, I left my army camping in the north and made my way here to see my friend get married."
Lord Vantys stroked his chin as he tried to decide whether he believed the story or not. "I could see where it might be nice to have a friend who did not fear or despise you. All right! I accept that Autolycus does not know who you really are. What about Xena? Do you know her?"
"Never met her, or I would have already destroyed her!" James lied through his teeth.
"Well, it won't matter one way or another. Sooner or later, we will catch Xena, and then we'll have a double execution. And we'll hold them on the day that Autolycus was supposed to get married." Lord Vantys almost giggled to himself. "That will show the Princess that I am someone to be taken seriously," he added in a low breath.
"What do you mean when Autolycus was supposed to be married?" James asked.
"Your dupe friend is taking the first test of the Adoniad right now. I imagine by this time he has all ready failed it ten or eleven times," Lord Vantys said with a laugh.
The noble started to leave the cell when he heard the warlord Inimicles ask in desperation. "Are Autolycus' aunt and cousin all right?"
Lord Vantys paused and then turned to look at Inimicles suspiciously. "I just tell you that you are to be executed and you take it calmly, but then worry about people you just met a few days ago? Why do you care if that fool's aunt and cousin are all right?"
"I've faced death many times. It no longer holds any terror for me, but, as I told you before, Autolycus is my only friend, so I'm concerned that his aunt and cousin are safe."
Lord Vantys continued to study the person he thought of as the warlord Inimicles and then just shrugged his shoulders. "Philomena has a bad case of Scythian flu but Mavis is doing well. She's taking care of her, and, oh, yes," his face twisted into a scowl, "your owl. I was all set to have that dusty foul creature turned into an entree, but she insisted that she would be happy to look after it until your 'return'. I haven't told anyone yet that I have captured, on my own I might add, the fearsome warlord Inimicles. I will save it as a surprise for your good friend Autolycus."
Lord Vantys once again turned to leave but stopped when he heard Inimicles yell out, "If I am to be executed at a later date, it might be good form to have some food sent down here. After all, it will be a bit of a let down if you come here to get me to execute me and find me dead of starvation."
The Arcadian noble snorted, but then said, "I'll have my personal guards bring you something to eat later." He then made his exit. One that he hoped would be dramatic, but was somewhat spoiled as he caught his cloak in the jail cell door when it shut behind him.
Lord Vantys opened the door of the testing area the next morning and was surprised to see the bruised condition of most of the women. But when Autolycus limped from the room, he felt sure he'd failed the test.
"So, the wedding is off, eh?" he smirked.
"Not on your pathetic, subservient life," Auto replied. "Just ask the ladies if I behaved myself or not."
"Is this true??!" Vantys sputtered.
All of the women nodded.
"He wouldn't even touch us," Doris complained, gingerly rubbing her black eye.
"Well, someone obviously touched you, and none too gently, either," the noble pointed out.
"Just a little scuffle between business associates," one of the others shrugged. "Your boy didn't lay a hand on us, in any way."
Lord Vantys glared at Autolycus and then snarled at his men, "Pay these useless whores what I promised them and get them out of my sight. And you, Autolycus, will have ample time to rest before the next test begins."
"Gosh, thanks, Vantys, but I'm pretty well rested right now," he grinned. "What say we just get this farce over with?"
"As you wish," Lord Vantys smiled. "But you're going to regret not taking advantage of my generosity."
"Sure I will. You just be sure to let Damara know I passed this one, okay?" Auto chided.
Lord Vantys scowled and nodded as he led the thief to the site of the next trial.
The owl watched as Gabrielle once again leapt to her feet and started to pace back and forth in her room.
"Okay, let's go over what we know again and see if we can figure out what happened to James," Gabrielle said as she came to a stop and looked at the owl who was sitting in the middle of the bed.
The owl let out a long sigh. "We've been doing this all morning!"
"Well, we'll do it all day long if we have to! There must be something that we missed!" Gabrielle snapped at the owl.
"Okay, okay!" the owl said, ruffling his feathers slightly. "You say that James and Autolycus got drunk last night. Lord Vantys had some guards help them to their rooms?" Gabrielle nodded her head. "Then this morning I tell you that James had not returned to his room and was missing. We go down to breakfast and find a grinning, overly happy Lord Vantys there." The owl paused for a breath.
"And he tells me that James came to him early in the morning and told him that he was going to wander around the city and gather some more stories. And that none of us should worry if he was gone for a few days, that he would be back for the wedding," Gabrielle added with a frown.
"Yeah, he wasn't happy at all when he saw me on your shoulder and you pointed out that James wouldn't go anywhere without me," the owl said as he ruffled his feathers more as he remembered the conversation.
Gabrielle started pacing again. "I then pointed out that James, if he were to go wandering and did not want to take you with him, would not leave without appointing someone to serve to watch over you until he returned." She stopped and, looking at the owl, idly reached up and massaged her left shoulder.
The owl hopped a few steps on the bed closer to Gabrielle and said, "I once again want to apologize for tightening my talons on your shoulder, Gabrielle..."
The Bard removed her hand from her shoulder and waved it in a forgiving manner at the owl. "Don't apologize. I understand. My blood was boiling, too, when he said, 'The best way that owl could be served is plucked, cleaned and with a light wine sauce.'"
Gabrielle carefully sat down on the bed next to the owl and started to lightly stroke his ruffled feathers. "That smirk on his face was erased quickly when the Princess told him that was a horrid thing to say, wasn't it?"
The owl could feel himself start to calm down under Gabrielle's gentle petting. "Where could James be, Gabrielle? I searched the skies of the city all day long and you talked to everyone in the castle. No one has seen him. Even the King and Queen seemed surprised to hear that he left the castle."
"Funny the only person to have talked to James and see him leave was Lord Vantys," Gabrielle said with a growl in her voice.
"You don't trust him either?" the owl asked, turning his head to look up at Gabrielle.
"Well, we know he lied about the guards taking James back to his room last night! You were in the room and you saw no one!" Gabrielle said as she leapt to her feet and started to pace again.
"So, what do we do now?" the owl asked her.
"Well, I know what Xena would do. She would walk up to Lord Vantys and put the pinch on him and tell him that she had just cut the flow of blood off to his brain and that he had 30 seconds to tell her where James was or he would be dead." Gabrielle smiled thinking about Xena.
"So, again I ask, what do we do?" the owl repeated stressing the we part.
"I just don't know! If I seem to doubt Lord Vantys' word about James too much, he might get suspicious and it could really wreck Xena's plans. I guess that we wait and keep looking for James quietly, and, if we don't find him, ask Xena what to do when she comes back," Gabrielle said as she flopped down on the bed again.
As Autolycus and Lord Vantys made their way through the hallways of the castle, the King of Thieves asked, "So, just what is the next test?"
"One you're even more likely to fail than the last," sneered the noble. "Intelligence."
"It might surprise you to learn that one does not become the King of Thieves by being stupid," Auto pointed out. "While any idiot can pick up a sword or club and rob somebody, it takes a great deal of planning and cunning to steal, especially from the troves of warlords and kings. What I do, er, did, was an art form, Vantys. And the people I stole from were secretly pleased to have been accorded the honor of having their possessions deemed valuable enough to warrant the attentions of the King of Thieves himself."
"Is that why they placed such huge bounties on your head?" Vantys cracked.
"It's all part of the game," Autolycus replied airily. "I steal; they put a reward out for my capture-"
"Death," corrected Lord Vantys.
"Whatever. And then my fame goes up, increasing their own fame in the process," the thief finished. "I've actually been sent inventories of the treasuries of some little backwater towns in the hope that I will come and
steal from them for that very reason."
Lord Vantys' eyes narrowed. "If you enjoyed being the King of Thieves so much, why give it up now? Granted, your exploits have been of a decidedly unlarcenous nature the past couple of years--Ever since you met Hercules and Xena, right?--but it seems to me that someone with your ego, er, obvious skills would want to go out at the top of his game," he said, watching the thief carefully. "Rather than as an over-the-hill has-been."
Autolycus bit down on his tongue for a moment, to focus his mind and to keep from saying something he'd later regret. "I fell in love, my friend," he finally replied. "And, when Cupid's arrows strike, no one can resist their power, not even the King of Thieves." Lord Vantys looked unconvinced, so Auto added, "Besides, I'm simply trading up: My crown as King of Thieves for the crown of Arcadia. I still know a good deal when I see it, my friend."
Lord Vantys bit back his anger at the thought of this preening cock as the king of his beloved Arcadia, and the husband of his even more beloved Damara, and opened the door to a room, gesturing the thief inside. "Here we are, the site of your next test," he grinned.
Autolycus cautiously entered the room and saw that it contained only a table, a chair, and an enormous pillar that seemed to be made of papyrus lying on the table. Then, he suddenly, and with horror, realized that the `pillar' was actually a scroll! The biggest he'd ever seen.
"You can't be serious!" he exclaimed. "This thing'll take days!"
"Some in the past have taken as long as a week," Vantys snickered. He handed him a quill and an inkbottle. "Good luck." Then, as he and his guards closed the door and locked it, they all burst into laughter.
And, again, Auto swore to himself that he would yet have the last laugh in this whole business. Then he looked back at the scroll and added silently: I hope.
He carefully unrolled as much of the scroll as would fit on the table and read the opening lines:
This is a test of your intelligence. Please read the instructions carefully and do exactly as they say. Any deviance whatsoever will result in your failing of this exercise. Following the instructions are 1,000 questions on everything from history to musical theory and philosophy, the subjects with which a king should be familiar if he is to rule fairly and wisely. The amount of time you take to complete the test will have no bearing on its passage or failure. Only the contents of the test itself will be used to assess your outcome.
"A thousand questions??!" Autolycus yelped. "I'm doomed." But only because his ego wouldn't let him give up without trying his best, he continued to read:
INSTRUCTIONS: First, sign your name below in the space provided. Then, read the entire test through from beginning to end before answering any of the questions in order to familiarize yourself with the material contained herein. Then, answer the questions to the best of your ability. No credit will be given for partial answers and in order to pass you must receive a perfect scoe.
"This is even worse than the last one," the thief groused as he scrawled his signature in the space provided.
Question 1. Gregor and Paris leave their kingdoms at the same time, traveling in opposite directions, heading toward one another. Their kingdoms are exactly four hundred miles apart and there are no geographical impediments between them. Paris is on his trusty steed, traveling at an average speed of 20 miles per hour, while Gregor is on foot, with an average speed of 5 miles per hour.
How far from each kingdom will they be when they mee?
"Story problems...I hate story problems!" Auto sighed and continued to read.
Question 48. Who was the Greek general who won the naval battle of Salamis and how many Greek vessels achieved that victory over 1200 Persian ships?
Question 271. Describe an octave in mathematical ter.
Question 569. A man is going through the desert on his way to visit some relatives. Before leaving, he stops at a tavern and gets some supplies for his long journey, including plenty of water to insure he survives the trek across the burning wastes. However, unbeknownst to him, two of his deadliest enemies are present and both decide to kill him. The first secretly poisons his water supply. But the second, not knowing that the water is poisoned, pours it out and replaces it with vinegar. The man enters the desert and subsequently dies of thirst.
Who is responsible for his death?
Question 815. Name the Athenian statesman who first codified and published Athenian law, thereby limiting the power of the Eupatridae, and the later legislator who reformed that code, granting citizenship to the lower classes.
Question 993. Croesus, Medea, and Narcissus each have a number of apples. The total number of apples is 12. Croesus has twice as many apples as Medea and Narcissus has half as many as Croesus.
How many apples does each have?
As the end of the scroll finally became visible--At least Auto thought it was the end of the scroll, but he couldn't be absolutely sure since his eyes were so sore and tired from reading the epic exam--the King of Thieves read the final question with a growing sense of dread. Oh, sure, he'd recognized a lot of the material and felt sure he could reasonably answer most of the questions, but not all. He knew that some of the questions had either downright puzzled him or had simply concerned things of which he had no knowledge. He was tempted to say the test was brutally unfair, but then again, he supposed that was the reason for the Adoniad in the first place: To weed out undesirables.
And, while he hated to think of himself in that manner, he did have to admit that when all was said and done he wasn't fit to be king of Arcadia and that the Adoniad had served the purpose for which it had been designed.
Then, he reread the last question, to make sure he was seeing things correctly:
Question 1,000. One of the most important things a king must do is to pay attention and not act without thinking. If you have done as instructed, there should be no marks on this exam other than your signature at the beginning. Having read all the questions, it is easy to understand your obvious frustration at not having been able to answer them all. Such is as it should be. A king must know his limitations and recognize that there are things which he simply does not know. That is why every good king relies on advisors to help him rule fairly and compassionately. It is hoped that this experience will have taught you a measure of humility, regardless of the outcome.
Please turn the test over to those who administered it to you.
Still not quite believing his tired eyes, Auto read it again and then got up and banged on the door. "I'm done, Vantys!" he called out. "And I've got some bad news for you: I passed!"
A few minutes later the door opened and Lord Vantys walked in, scowling.
"What's all this nonsense about you having finished and proclaiming that you've passed?" he demanded. "Even assuming that you've answered all the questions, how could you possibly know that?"
"I guess you haven't read the test yourself, have you, Vantys?" Autolycus grinned. "Well, just feast your eyes on the last question and show me to the rest area. I need to take a nap before I start the next, and final, test."
Lord Vantys read over the final question and his mouth dropped as he realized what the authors had done. While he had to applaud their brilliance, he also cursed them for perhaps being too smart for their own good and allowing an obvious charlatan like Autolycus to pass the test without actually demonstrating the intelligence he felt was required in order to be king.
"I can't see you simply following orders like that," the noble sighed. "Why didn't you answer any of the easy ones before getting to the end?"
"Like I told you: A thief has to be cunning. He has to think things out carefully before taking any action. Just like a king," Auto added with a smirk. "Now, where can I lie down?"
"This way," Vantys grumbled, leading him down the hall with the sneaking suspicion that there was more to this than met the eye.
Autolycus followed, his hand wrapped tightly around the bottle of ink with which the frustrated noble had supplied him, and smiled smugly at the knowledge that it had contained just enough ink for his signature, but no more, and that no one had responded when he'd asked for another bottle.
As Gabrielle entered the dinning room she scanned it quickly, hoping to see the bard James, but she was disappointed. All she saw was a grinning Autolycus, a scowling Lord Vantys, and a beaming Princess Damara.
"Mavis! Have you heard? Autolycus has passed two of the three tests of the Adoniad!! One more and we can finalize our marriage!!" Princess Damara squealed in delight.
Autolycus looked up with a smug expression on his face, but quickly lost it when he saw the worried look on Gabrielle's face and noted that the owl was sitting on her shoulder.
"Um, Mavis? What are you doing with James' owl?" Autolycus asked.
Before Gabrielle could answer, Lord Vantys said quickly, "The bard James has decided to see some more of our kingdom and he seems to have forgotten his bird. Don't worry, he told me personally that he would be back in time for the wedding. If there is going to be one," he finished under his breath.
Autolycus was just about to suggest that it might be a good idea if he went out and looked for his friend, but before he could open his mouth, Lord Vantys called out to the servants to start serving dinner.
"The King and Queen send their regrets that they could not join us for dinner but hope that you will all enjoy this celebration feast in Autolycus' honor for getting through two of the three tests of the Adoniad."
Princess Damara beamed proudly at Autolycus and reached over and gave his hand a quick squeeze.
Autolycus, who had his back to where the servants were bringing out the food, wondered at the sudden widening of Gabrielle's eyes and, looking over his shoulder, saw servants after servants carrying heaping platters of food into the room. At Lord Vantys direction the servants placed the majority of the platters in front of the King of Thieves. Plates of lamb, deer, and roasted boar were sat in front of him and, just when Autolycus thought they could get no more on the table, the servants brought in dishes of desserts with rich honey dripping off of them. Finally, as if in an after thought, one last servant brought in a bowl that was filled simply with apples and sat it on the far edge of the table away from
With his eyes slightly bulging at the amount of food, Auto looked suspiciously at Lord Vantys. "While I am honored by this great feast, why so much food?"
"Why, after all the restraint you showed with the first test and the high intelligence you showed with the second test, the King and I thought you deserved a reward," Lord Vantys said with an insincere smile.
Autolycus speared a large chunk of roasted boar and placed it on his plate. "Speaking of the tests, when do I take the third and last one?"
"Why this next test is so easy, I thought you could take it right after we finish eating tonight," Lord Vantys said with a real smile.
Auto, who had the piece of boar meat raised half way to his mouth, paused as he remembered that the next test was to be of physical strength and dexterity. "Well, if I'm to take the next test right after dinner, maybe I shouldn't eat such heavy and rich food right before it," he said, raising one eyebrow at Lord Vantys.
"But you wouldn't want to pass out from hunger or weakness in the midst of the test, would you?" Lord Vantys suggested eagerly.
Gabrielle, who had been silently watching the mental mind games going on between Auto and Lord Vantys, wondered why when Vantys mentioned hunger
his eyes suddenly widened.
"I just remembered that there is something I need to take care of," Lord Vantys said as he stood up from the table. "Please enjoy the meal, Autolycus, ladies." Lord Vantys bowed at Gabrielle and the Princess and then left the room.
Gabrielle, suddenly deciding that she had to know where Vantys was going in such a hurry, quickly rose from the table herself. "I need to take mother some food," she said, grabbing a plate from the table and piling it high with meats and snagging a few apples as she walked by the end of the table.
As she made her way out of the same door that Lord Vantys had made his exit a few moments ago, the Bard saw him standing at the end of the corridor, talking to one of his personal guards. She could hear Vantys tell the guard to keep an eye on Autolycus and not let him leave the dining room until he returned. Pausing at one of the windows, as though she was enjoying the view for a moment, Gabrielle waited until the guard passed her in the corridor and then, looking reluctantly at the plate full of food she was carrying, took two apples off the top of it and threw the rest out the window. The owl whimpered at the lost of the meats but said nothing.
Gabrielle, quietly following Lord Vantys, watched as he stopped by the kitchen. She saw him first go over to where the morning gruel was still sitting in a large pot by the fire where he pulled the large spoon out of the pot and grimace at the large slab of gray muck that came out with it. He looked at it thoughtfully for a moment before shaking his head and dropping it back into the pot. He then went over to where the boar was still roasting on a spit on the fire. Slicing off a piece, Lord Vantys then wrapped it carefully in a kitchen cloth and, grabbing some bread, he left the kitchen by the opposite door from where Gabrielle was covertly watching him.
The disguised Bard waited a moment for Lord Vantys to get a few feet ahead of her and then started to follow him again. Shadowing the noble, she followed him as he made his way further and further into the lower regions of the castle. Finally, they reached a small storage room at the very bottom of the castle.
Watching from the shadows, Gabrielle saw as Lord Vantys pulled on a torch holder and a secret door opened in the wall. Waiting till the last moment before the door closed, she sprinted across the room and slipped through it. She found herself in a rough-hewn corridor with a few pitiful torches flickering with light. Lord Vantys was already a few yards ahead of where she crouched quietly in the darkness and moving in a determined fashion that showed he knew where he was going.
Plink, plink, growl, plink, plink, plink, growl.
James listened to the music made by the dripping water and his own stomach growling.
Hearing a new noise in the corridor outside of my cell, he looked up and watched as Lord Vantys opened the door and entered, carrying a cloth bag in one hand and what looked like in the gloom of the cell, bread in the other.
"I finally decided that you were not going to bring me any food and that you were just going to let me starve to death down here," James said, his voice raspy from being in the damp cell for a full day.
Lord Vantys started to make a retort but then softened the look on his face. "Sorry. There's been a lot going on today. I forgot about you for a while, but whatever else you may think of me, I'm not cruel. I have some food for you here."
Jingling the chains that held his hands high above his head, James asked, "Are you going to feed me or undo the chains so I can eat?"
Lord Vantys studied the situation for a moment and then, passing the bread to his other hand, snapped his fingers. "I have an idea!" He then sat the bag on the ground and carefully laid the bread on top of it and then left the cell.
"Not cruel he says!" James moaned as the smell of the roasted boar reached him.
Gabrielle, on hearing James' voice coming from the cell that Lord Vantys had entered, started to rush forward only to skid to a stop as the noble quickly entered the corridor once again. Pushing herself against the side of the corridor, the Bard wondered what she could say to Lord Vantys if he was to turn and spot her. Then, she smothered a squeak as the wall she was leaning on suddenly gave way and slid back into a side corridor, dumping her into a secret passageway.
Lord Vantys paused for a moment in the corridor as he could have sworn he heard a noise. Turning and looking back the way he had come, he saw nothing and, after listening for a moment shrugged his shoulders. He made his way a little further up the passage and found the chair he remembered sitting at the end of the corridor. Picking it up he brought it back to Inimicles' cell.
Reentering the cell, he brought the chair over and, watching Inimicles carefully, sat it down next to him against the wall.
"What am I suppose to do with the chair?" James asked curiously.
"Climb up on the chair and it will give you enough slack in the chains so you can feed yourself. This way I don't have to risk you escaping by unlocking the chains," Lord Vantys said with a smile.
James felt like snapping at him that he had been standing up for a whole day and he didn't even know if his legs would support his weight, but since he was the one with the food, he carefully climbed up on the chair and stood on it without saying a word.
He was surprised that Lord Vantys was correct, it did give enough slack in the chains for him to feed himself. Vantys gave him the bag of food and bread and quickly moved back out of the way. After a whole day without food, it did not take James long to devour everything he'd been given.
"How is Autolycus doing in the Adoniad?" he asked as he finished the boar.
Lord Vantys scowled and replied, "He's passed the first two tests, but he won't pass the last one!"
"What do you have against Autolycus?" James asked as he stepped down from the chair.
"What do you mean what do I have against him?! He's a common thief! He's not good enough for Damara!" Lord Vantys shouted.
"You mean Princess Damara, don't you?" James asked, watching him closely.
Lord Vantys pulled the chair from the wall and, placing it as far away from James as he could in the small cell, he sank down on to it and put his head in his hands. "Do you know what it's like to be attracted to someone who barely knows that you're alive?" Lord Vantys muttered through his fingers.
"Yes, actually, I do. I was, and am, crazy about one woman, but she only thinks of me as a friend. And, I've been on the other side of it, too. I found out that a woman I did not even notice very much was absolutely crazy about me," he answered quietly.
"What happened to the woman who was crazy about you?" Lord Vantys asked, looking up from his hands.
"I finally found out about her feelings and I fell completely in love with her. She has passed on to the other side now and waits for me there," James said even more quietly.
"And the one you are crazy about now?" Lord Vantys asked, feeling as if he might have something in common with the notorious warlord Inimicles.
James sadly smiled and replied, "Nothing will ever come from that, I know. And I would never try anything for fear that I would lose her friendship which means the world to me."
Lord Vantys nodded his head but then said, "Maybe you should have risked it. After all, in a few days you're going to be executed for your crimes." Rising from the chair, he left the cell and locked it behind him. "I promise you that I will not forget to bring you food again. I will see you tomorrow morning."
Gabrielle after falling into the secret passage and having the door swing shut again, found herself completely in utter darkness. Carefully reaching out and feeling around, she found where the owl had fallen from her shoulder and, picking him up, she brought him close to her mouth and whispered, "Are you all right?"
The owl whispered back, "Yeah I'm okay. Tell me one thing if you can, though: Why is it every time I hang out with you or James I end up in a damp cell underground?"
Gabrielle gave a quiet chuckle and placed the owl back on her shoulder. Feeling around, she found the secret door had a very common place handle on this side. Easing it open a crack, she watched as Lord Vantys made his way past her without noticing the door and left through the passage. Waiting a few moments more to make sure that Lord Vantys was truly gone, she then opened the door and made her way to the cell she had seen Vantys enter.
Plink, plink, plink.
James listened to the sound of water dripping and wondered if Xena or Gabrielle were looking for him yet.
Hearing a soft noise just outside the cell door he looked up to see a worried Gabrielle peering at him in the gloom.
"What are you doing down here?" he asked.
"Going to get you out of here," Gabrielle replied with a smile that lit up the dark like a hundred candles.
Working with a small lock-pick that Autolycus once gave her, and with advice from the owl, she quickly had the cell door open. Using the chair that Vantys had left behind, Gabrielle just as quickly had James' cuffs open. "I think you have been hanging around Autolycus too long," he said, commenting on her speed at opening the locks.
Gabrielle's smile quickly turned to a look of worry as he slumped down to the floor of jail cell.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yeah, just give me a moment. My leg muscles are tired from standing up all day and my arms feel like they are about to fall off," he rasped at her.
"We need to get you out of here now," Gabrielle said as she helped him to his feet and had him lean on her.
As they started down the corridor, he asked Gabrielle how she kept Lord Vantys from seeing her in such a narrow corridor.
Gabrielle paused and pointed to the wall. "I fell through a secret door right there."
Straightening up, James stumbled over to one of the torches in the wall and brought it over to the place where she pointed. He pushed on the wall and watched as it silently opened up.
"Stay here, Gabrielle. I'm going to see where this leads," he said as he moved to enter the passage.
"Are you out of your mind?!" Gabrielle hissed. "We need to get you out of this damp hole!"
"Just stay here and keep an eye open for anyone and I will just check this out real quick," James said as he stumbled down the secret passage.
Gabrielle stood silently fuming for a moment and then said in a low voice, "You know, sometimes you're just as stubborn as Xena!"
Moving down the passageway with the torch, James found a small door at the end of the corridor. The wooden door at one time had had massive locks on it but the constant damp of the passage had eaten through the door until it was just a sodden mass that collapsed as soon as he touched it. Stepping over the rotted door, he thrust the torch into the room and was instantly blinded by a bright, pure light. Holding the torch slightly behind him and shielding his eyes with his other hand, he was finally able to make out the room. It was square in nature and in the corners he could make out a few moldy bags that had rotted away to reveal that they held gold coins, but it was the object in the center of the room that took his breath away.
There was a stone pillar that was waist high and sitting on the pillar on a mildewed red velvet pillow was a diamond the size of his two fists put together. He had found the secret vault that contained the Star of Arcadia!
James started to laugh out loud when he realized that Autolycus was putting himself through the tortures of the tests of the Adoniad and all he had to have done was get himself thrown into a dungeon. Reaching out, he picked up the Star and, after thinking for a moment, quickly slipped it into his pocket. After all, he rationalized, how could Auto steal the diamond if it had already been stolen? I'll slip it back after Xena trips Auto up in the last test and no one need realize that it was ever gone.
He quickly made his way back to Gabrielle, who looked at him curiously as he swung the secret door open again. "Did you find anything?" she asked.
"Nothing of interest," he said with a smile.
Gabrielle continued to watch James out of the corner of her eye as they made their way back into the castle.
"We'll have to get you out of the city and into the woods around here. As soon as Lord Vantys realizes you're gone, he'll tear the castle apart looking for you!" Gabrielle thought out loud as they dodged and snuck through the castle back to her room.
The owl, who had remained sitting on Gabrielle's shoulder, whispered into her ear, "I think we better wait until late at night to sneak him out. Look at him, Gabrielle, he's almost passed out on his feet. He needs at least a few hours rest or he'll never make it to the gate, let alone the forest."
Gabrielle looked over to where James lay slumped against the wall as she quickly opened her room door and helped him inside. "Agreed. You stay here with him while I go back to the dinning room and see what's going on with Autolycus and Vantys."
Gabrielle started to open the door and leave when she heard the owl loudly clear his throat.
"What?" she asked, turning to look at the owl.
"Don't you think they might ask some questions if you showed up looking like that?" the owl said as he gestured at the mirror on the wall with one wing.
Gabrielle glanced at the mirror and saw that she was covered in dust and, in places where she had fallen in the damp secret passage, mud.
"Ares' beard!" Gabrielle muttered as she glanced down at herself. "I'll have to change my clothes, and come up with a good excuse why I did. I could tell them that 'Mom' threw up on me. That will keep anyone from coming in here at the same time," she said thoughtfully.
Starting to change her clothes, she stopped and turned to tell James to look the other way and found him sound asleep on the floor beside the bed. Shaking her head, she started to remove her clothes again and then, stopping, looked up to see the owl watching her. "Go next door into James' room until I finish getting dressed!" she snapped at him.
The owl chuckled and flew out the window.
The Adoniad--Test Three
Autolycus was still nibbling at his food, ignoring his stomach's demands to gorge himself on the fabulous spread, when Gabrielle entered the dining hall. "What's with the different outfit, Mavis?" he inquired suspiciously, noting that she was now wearing a two piece made of green silk and pink cloth. "Your other clothes were fine."
"Not after mother threw up on them," she replied, sitting down and accepting a plate from one of the omnipresent servants. "But I think she's over the worst of it. She should be back on her feet by morning, she says." The Bard glanced at Auto and saw that this had only deepened his suspicions because he knew good and well that Xena wasn't really sick and that Gabrielle had probably not even seen her.
"I hope so, otherwise she'll miss all the excitement when my darling Autolycutie is named officially as my fiancé," Damara said, smiling broadly across the table at her intended.
The King of Thieves blushed. "Autolycutie...That's a new one," he observed.
"I've got lots more," the Princess assured him with a sly grin.
"Oh, I'll just bet you do, Dam...mariffic," he stammered.
Lord Vantys, stifling a grimace none too well, suddenly stood up and announced, "Let's get on with the third and final test. Autolycus, if you'll follow me. Princess, Mavis, we shall return shortly."
"Good luck, Autodorable!" Damara called, blowing him kisses.
Gabrielle laughed and added, "Good luck, dear cousin Autolycus."
"Thank you, Dam...marvelous! You, too, Mavis," he added as the pair of men exited the hall.
"It won't be long now," the Princess said excitedly to Gabrielle.
"No, it won't," she replied noncommittally as she piled food on her plate
Autolycus and Lord Vantys walked through the silent halls of the castle, next to each other, but also miles apart. Neither paid any attention to the tapestries or statues; Vantys because he had grown so used to them, and the thief because they were of very little material value.
"Just how long have you been in love with the Princess?" Auto suddenly asked, breaking the stillness.
"Don't be absurd. She's my princess, the daughter of my king, and it is my privilege and my honor to serve her for that reason," the noble replied. "What gave you the ridiculous notion I was in love with her?"
"Oh, I don't know...maybe the way you crack your knuckles every time she smiles at me; or how your eyes get that glazed over look when you see her with me; or it might have been the fact that you're doing your best to see that I fail the Adoniad. Take your pick," Auto offered with a smirk.
"Maybe I just hate you," Vantys shot back. "Or I hate the idea of you marrying the Princess. Not because I love her myself, just because I think it would be a terrible thing for my kingdom to have you as king."
"Could be..." Auto conceded. "Except for the longing looks I've seen you direct at Damara when you thought no one else was watching. You've got it bad, Vanty. Admit it."
"To you? Never."
Before Autolycus could continue the discussion, they arrived at a long hall with poles sticking from the wall at irregular intervals about ten feet off the floor. The King of Thieves noticed that the poles glistened unusually in the flickering light of the torches and that they weren't actually fastened to the wall, but were instead sticking out of holes.
He was about to ask his guide to explain the test when King Bastian approached them, smiling, but with a touch of sadness, too. "All ready for the final test, my boy?" he asked a bit too eagerly.
"Evening, your majesty. I'm ready," Auto answered.
"Excellent. This one has been designed especially with your legendary skills in mind," Bastian explained.
"You should be," Lord Vantys nodded. "It wasn't easy to come up with a challenge worthy of the King of Thieves."
"Former King of Thieves," Autolycus corrected.
"Of course," the noble said, bowing his head slightly.
"So, what's the test?" the thief asked, still puzzling over the suspicious poles.
"Simply put: For you to cross the entire length of this hall without touching the floor," said the King cheerfully.
"And the catch...?" Auto pressed.
"Not only have the poles been covered with a particularly slippery oil, but with this control panel," the monarch indicated a curious wooden box set against the wall that had numerous levers sticking out of it, "Vantys and I can cause a pole to drop out from under you at random. It's really quite ingenious. You see, the poles are attached to ropes and the ropes are attached to weights which are raised and lowered by these levers."
"Again, I'm flattered that you went to all this trouble for little ol' me," Autolycus said, but Vantys was pleased to note this his smirk had slipped a bit.
"It was our pleasure," the noble said with a wolfish grin.
"I'll bet," Auto mumbled. "Well, I'll see you on the other side."
"You just might," Vantys chuckled as the man who would be king climbed up to the small platform at this end of the room.
"Whenever you're ready, my boy," the King called as he and Vantys positioned themselves near the box.
Autolycus took a deep breath and then launched himself off the platform and looped both hands around the nearest pole. The slick surface of the pole afforded no grip, but the nimble thief used his forward momentum to swing up and around and then over to the next one.
"Now, my king, the fun begins," grinned Vantys pulling a lever that caused the pole Auto was reaching for to suddenly drop away.
But then, just as suddenly, it snapped back up into place and Auto used it to spring to the next.
"What in Tartarus??! The cursed rope must have broke," Vantys growled, pulling another lever.
Within the narrow chamber that housed the ropes and weights, Varina breathed a sigh of relief as she strained to pull the triggered rope taut enough for Auto to use it.
"What do you think you're doing?" Xena demanded, dropping down from the platform which held the weights.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" the other grunted as the rope nearly jerked her off her feet when Auto grabbed the pole to which it was attached.
"Cheating," Xena replied. "Autolycus is going to fail this test, Varina. He has to, or a lot of people are going to get hurt."
"Oh, gee, that changes everything," she said mockingly. She let go of the rope and pulled a coin from her pouch and flipped it to the Warrior Princess. "Here's a dinar. Hire a pigeon and write someone who gives a satyr's hinder. I've got work to do." She bounded over and grabbed the rope of the next pole as the weight fell to the floor.
"If that's the way you want it..." Xena jumped up and kicked out, catching Varina just below the chin. But the other woman not only maintained her grip on the rope, but actually used the momentum of the kick to bounce her back and connect with a double kick of her own to Xena's gut.
"I can play rough, too, doll," she grinned, stepping forward and delivering a stunning forearm to the side of Xena's head and then grabbing the next rope before the weight even hit the floor.
"So I see," the Warrior Princess nodded, standing up and wiping a trickle of blood from her lips.
"What in Hades' name is wrong with these damn poles?!" Vantys snarled, pulling yet another lever and watching in dismay as it dropped momentarily before snapping back into place.
"I guess we should have tested the mechanism," the King sighed. "Still, it does seem that Autolycus isn't exactly having an easy time of it."
Both men watched as the thief grabbed a pole only to have it drop away and then bounce back up, catching him on the chin and tossing him backwards, only to land astride another pole which in turn bounced him forward, over the first and onto a second, which popped up and slammed him squarely between the legs before propelling him forward again.
"True, your majesty, but he should never have gotten as far as he has. Perhaps he needs a bit more to distract him..." the noble said, pulling a lever on the side of the box.
Suddenly, the floor dropped away beneath the practically helpless thief, revealing a pit filled with sharpened spikes.
"What's the meaning of this, Vantys?" the King sputtered.
"Forgive me, your highness, but I had this little feature added without your knowledge, just in case," he replied smoothly, continuing to pull levers on the top of the box.
"We don't want him dead!" Bastian retorted. "Not yet, not until Xena arrives!"
"The invitations have already been sent, my king," Vantys pointed out as Auto continued to bounce back and forth above the deadly trap, only his amazing reflexes and the women fighting in the other room saved him from plummeting to his death. "Xena and the other guests will arrive any day now, and, when they do, we will imprison the Warrior Princess and inform the others of Autolycus' untimely demise."
King Bastian frowned and then nodded and proceeded to pull the levers on his side of the control panel.
Xena picked herself up off the floor, gingerly rubbing her shoulder where the other woman had kicked her and sent her flying to the far end of the chamber. "I can see I'll have to do a bit of cheating of my own," she grinned, pulling her chakram from her belt. She hurled the razor sharp disc and it sailed the length of the room, bounced off the far wall and then shot back to the hand of the Warrior Princess, severing all the ropes in the process and causing Varina to dive and dodge as the sacks filled with sand which served as the weights crashed around her.
"Are you insane?!" she yelped, springing up and grabbing a rope, using herself as a weight. "They're going to know something is wrong now!"
"So long as Autolycus fails the test, they won't care," Xena stated, snapping her chakram back into place. "So, quit wasting your time and..." She paused and suddenly peered out of the crack which ran the length of the room and had no doubt allowed the workmen who constructed this chamber to easily communicate with their fellows out in the main hall and gasped when she saw that the floor had disappeared.
She jumped over Varina and grabbed the next rope, pulling it taut and bracing herself as best she could.
"Now what are you up to?" Varina demanded, jerking as Auto struck her pole.
"Just shut up and grab the next rope!" Xena gasped as the rope jumped in her hands. "Vantys and the King have turned this into a matter of life and death. And, if anyone is gonna kill Autolycus for all the trouble he's caused with this caper, it's gonna be me!"
Autolycus was worried when the floor dropped beneath him. But he was absolutely horrified when all of the poles dropped away while he was in mid-air. Amazingly, however, a pole snapped up just in time for him to grab it. Then, the one in front of that did the same. And the one in front of that. Oh, sure, it was still tricky going and it certainly took all of his skill not to lose his grip. But he wasn't really relying on the poles for anything other than the merest touch to further him along, so it didn't matter too much that they were greased. Now, if he'd needed to use them to catch his breath by hanging for a few seconds between jumps, that would have been a real problem.
As Varina jumped to grab the next rope, she suddenly tripped on one of the sandbags and went sprawling face first to the floor. Realizing that Auto would try to nevertheless jump to the next pole, which wouldn't be waiting for him, Xena quickly jumped up and down, causing the pole attached to her rope to bounce crazily just as Auto reached it, forcing the thief to wrap his arms and legs around the pole and hold on for dear life.
Varina quickly gained her feet and lunged for the next rope. "Sorry," she mumbled.
Xena just grunted and braced herself, watching through the crack as Auto began to slide off her pole. But at the last second, just after Varina's pole snapped up, he flipped around and hurled himself at it, lightly catching it and then sailing to the next, and final, pole as Xena leaped over Varina and pulled that rope taut.
Autolycus sprang from the last pole to the platform at the far end of the room and breathed a sigh of immense relief.
Xena released her rope and turned to get some answers from Varina, but the other woman had vanished. "We're not finished, my friend," she promised the empty room. "Not by a long shot."
"Congratulations, my boy!" the King said, rushing across the hall over the floor which Vantys had restored by a pull of another lever. "You've passed the Adoniad and the wedding to my daughter will take place in three days. How do you feel?"
"I think I'm going to be sick," Auto gasped, collapsing as he reached the floor.
"That's hardly the response I expected," Bastian remarked to Vantys as several of the palace guards ran up and hauled Autolycus away.
Gabrielle finally found herself in a situation she thought she would never see. She was in a grand dinning room, surrounded by some of the best food she had ever seen and she had very little appetite.
As she picked at the food on her plate she mentally tried to drown out Princess Damara's continual gushing over how great a husband Autolycus was going to make.
"Autokins is going to be so handsome as he stands beside me at the wedding!" Princess Damara continued. "I will be standing there wearing my mother's wedding dress and the Star of Arcadia and we will have to have the royal tailor make something as equally impressive and appropriate for Auto to wear."
`How about a hangman's noose?' Gabrielle thought sourly.
"You know, Princess, no matter how impressive my cousin's skills are, there is a chance that he won't pass this last test," the Bard ventured to say as the Princess stopped talking for a moment to take a drink of wine.
Princess Damara sat the goblet of wine down and looked earnestly at Gabrielle.
"Oh, no. Don't you see? No matter how hard the test, Autokins is bound to succeed! True love will carry him over any obstacles in his way!"
Gabrielle quickly put down the honey rich dessert she was about to bite into and settled for taking a quick gulp of wine to cover her mounting depression on how heartbroken the Princess was going to be when Autolycus failed the test. `But,' she thought, `it's been almost a full candle mark since Autolycus and Lord Vantys had left for the test.'
While Gabrielle had no idea what the test might entail, she was sure that with Xena stacking the deck against the King of Thieves he should have failed it by now.
`Uh, oh,' Gabrielle thought as she saw a nervous servant enter the room and
take his place at the Princess's side.
"Princess Damara? Your father wished for me to notify you..."
`Here it comes!' Gabrielle thought.
"...that Autolycus has passed all the tests of the Adoniad and will be officially recognized tomorrow as your fiancé. Your father also wanted me to tell you that the trial has exhausted Autolycus and asks that you do not try and see him tonight so that he may get plenty of rest," the servant finished.
Gabrielle was certain that her jaw hit the table when she heard the news. `What happened to Xena and the great plan? Where was Xena anyway? Maybe something had happened to her?' The thoughts whirled through her mind.
Quickly recovering from the shock, she plastered a smile on her face for the benefit of Damara and managed to say in a fairly normal voice, "That's great news, Princess. You and my dear cousin Autolycus can now get married."
Princess Damara smiled a brilliant smile at Gabrielle and said, "See, I told you. True love would carry him across any obstacles to be by my side."
Gabrielle, feeling a sudden wave of nausea, dropped her fork and quickly excused herself on the grounds that she needed to check on her mother again and left the room.
Princess Damara looked at the servant who was still standing beside her chair. "Isn't it sweet how thrilled Mavis is for me and Auto? She can't wait to get back and tell her mother the good news!"
As Gabrielle marched back to her room, her thoughts were chasing one another around in her head. `Where is Xena? What happened to the plan? Ha, I don't even know what the great plan was. All Xena told me was that she was going to have Autolycus fail the tests so no one was going to be hurt. Did something come up to make Xena change her mind about the plan?'
The blonde pulled to a stop and, turning started to head toward Autolycus' room. "If Autolycus is only after that stupid gem and is going to crush that poor woman's soul to get it, I'm going to beat him to a pulp with my staff!" she muttered.
Gabrielle pulled to a stop again as she realized that she did not have her staff with her. Turning around, she started for her room again. "I'll get my staff and then go to Autolycus' room. If anyone sees me, I will simply tell them that I just wish to 'congratulate' my cousin on his success."
She paused in the hallway and leaned her forehead on the cool stone wall. `Calm down, Gabrielle,' she thought to herself. `What would Xena do under these conditions? She would identify what is most important at this moment and deal with that first. Okay there are still several more days before the wedding, so Autolycus and the Princess can wait. Xena can take care of herself and I have no idea where she could be so it would not make sense to look for her, yet! I need to get James out of the castle before Lord Vantys finds out he is missing and starts to search for him.'
Having finally made up her mind on a course of action, Gabrielle started for her room once again.
Reaching her room and quietly opening the door, Gabrielle suffered a moment of panic when she noticed that she could not see James anywhere. Seeing the owl asleep on the headboard, of the bed she walked over and roughly shook the bird awake.
The owl snorted and then blinked his large eyes for a second. "Calm down, girly! You are a bundle of nerves this night!" the owl squeaked at her. "He rolled under the bed to get some sleep. He figured that if anyone peeked into the room to see how Philomena was doing, they wouldn't think to look under the bed."
Gabrielle, dropping to her knees and looking under the bed, gave a sigh of relief as she saw the bard James sleeping peacefully on his back. She noticed with respect that James had one hand on her staff and was ready to defend himself if he needed to. "James," she called out and watched as his eyes sprang open and he tightened his hold on the staff. "It's time we got you out of the castle," she finished.
"Right," James said as he slid out from under the bed. "What time is it?"
"Close to middle of the night, I would think," Gabrielle replied.
"What's been happening?" he asked idly as he brushed off his clothing.
Deciding that if she told James about Autolycus and his success at the final test, he would probably insist that he stay behind to find out what happened to Xena and her plan, she just said, "I haven't heard anything yet. We need to get you out of here before Lord Vantys starts to look for you. Having you escape right out from under his nose, he would probably kill you on sight."
James nodded and started to make for the door.
"Where are you going?! There might be someone in the hall and see you!" Gabrielle pointed out nervously.
"I'm going to get my things from next door. And, don't worry, Lord Vantys is the only one who thinks that I'm Inimicles. Anyone else sees me, they'll just think that the Bard James is back from his exploration of the kingdom," he answered her, peeking out the door. "While I'm gone, may I suggest that you change your clothes?"
"What's wrong with my clothes?" Gabrielle said looking down at herself.
Looking over, James let out a sigh of appreciation. "Nothing is wrong with them. You look as breathtakingly beautiful as usual, but if someone sees a woman helping me from the castle it would be better if they saw an unknown Amazon woman, rather than Auto's cousin Mavis."
Gabrielle started to nod her head at his logic, but stopped when she realized that he had just told her that she was beautiful. She started to say something but James took that moment to slip out the door. Looking over at the owl, she gestured with her head at the window. "You go over to James' room, too, while I change."
The owl hooted a few times and then flew out the window.
Gabrielle had just finished putting the pillows under the covers on the bed to simulate the sleeping forms of herself and Philomena when James reentered her room. Having changed back into the traveling clothes of her BGSB and her leather skirt, and having washed all the makeup gunk of Mavis off of her face, she felt more like her old self than she had for days.
Looking over at James, she was slightly startled to see him wearing a totally black outfit of leather. Black leather pants with a black leather vest. Once again she was reminded of how he slightly resembled the God of War, Ares. The only thing that ruined the image was the owl sitting on his shoulder. "What are you trying to do? Scare me to death? If Lord Vantys saw you dressed like that, there would be no doubt in his mind that you are the warlord Inimicles!"
"He has no doubts now," James grinned. "Besides, these clothes being black will make it easier to sneak out of the city," he said as he straightened the black leather vest with one hand.
Gabrielle, glancing down at James other hand, saw him holding a very familiar looking grappling hook and rope. "Where did you get Autolycus' grappling hook?"
James smiled at her and said, "I decided that hook of Autolycus' was so handy, I went and found the blacksmith he uses to make them and had one made for me, too." Nodding at the window, he said, "Shall we?"
Gabrielle was very surprised at how easy it was to sneak out of the city. As soon as they made it out of the castle they just walked through the streets until they reached the gates. As James had predicted, no one knew Gabrielle with her regular Amazon appearance and no one in the city had much contact with the castle so no one recognized James either. As they reached the city gates, Gabrielle began plotting in her mind elaborate schemes for getting out and was shocked when James just walked up to the guard at the gate.
"Halt! Who goes there?" the guard shouted as he leapt to his feet (from where he and his fellow guard had been playing dice).
"The Bard James and an Amazon warrior," James replied calmly.
Gabrielle once again felt her jaw fall open.
"State your business!" the guard told James while peering at Gabrielle in the dim light in open fascination. While the kingdom of Arcadia was fairly friendly disposed toward the Amazons, it was very rare to see one there.
"I have been summoned to perform for Amazon royalty in a few days, so I'm starting out tonight," James replied, giving his best bored look.
"In the middle of the night?" The guard asked suspiciously
"It took the Amazon warrior a few days to find me so I am pressed for time to make the appointment with the Amazon royalty in time. I will have to travel night and day to make it as it is now. Would you want to annoy an Amazon royal by being late?"
The guard who (like everyone else) had heard stories of what Amazons did to those who displeased them, shuddered and then shook his head. Glancing once again at the Amazon standing beside the man, he wondered at her small stature but then, noticing by the torch light her strong arms and firm abs, decided that she could, in a fight between him and his fellow guard, probably hold her own. The guard allowed a quick thought of what else she could probably do with him and his fellow guard, but wisely kept those thoughts off his face. He had heard Amazons did not have much of a sense of humor about men thinking those thoughts about them.
Nodding at his fellow guard he called out, "Open the gate and allow them to leave."
As Gabrielle walked out of the gate with James, she couldn't resist looking back and saw the guard that had talked to them, well, really talked with James, looking at her. As soon as the guard realized that the Amazon was looking back at him he quickly averted his eyes and shut the gate.
She heard James quietly chuckling. "What?" she asked curiously.
"That guard is probably either going to be bragging to all his friends about being checked out by an Amazon or be worried that you are going to sneak back into the city and cut his throat for staring at your butt."
Gabrielle could feel her face flush in a blush and replied, "He was not staring at my butt. He'd just never seen an Amazon before and was curious."
Gabrielle could hear the owl on James' shoulder chuckling and whispering to him, "Yeah, right!"
To change the subject, she said, "Well, that was a lot easier than I thought it would be."
"Yeah, that was easy. The hard part is going to be you sneaking back into the city without being seen," James said quietly.
Gabrielle gave a little start. "I hadn't thought about that," she admitted.
After walking through the countryside, the trio reached the forest, and, after a bit of searching, found a good camping spot for James. Once she had made sure he had everything he needed, Gabrielle tried to convince the bard to go back to the XenaVerse Complex, but James had point blank refused to leave until he knew that Gabrielle, Xena, and Autolycus were safe, too. She was slightly suspicious when he said that he also had some unfinished business to take care of in the city after Autolycus failed the last test of the Adoniad.
"You're sure you'll be all right out here?" she asked as she and the owl prepared to return to Megalopolis.
"I love camping. I'll be fine," he assured her. "You just be careful sneaking back into the city and the castle."
"I will," she promised, stepping close and hugging him. "See you in a few days at most."
He hugged her back and nodded. "And you keep out of trouble, too," he told the owl.
The bird just chuckled and settled himself on the Bard's shoulder as she turned to go.
Gabrielle was surprised and made a mental note to tell James when she saw him again that it was even easier to sneak back in than it was to get out. All she did was wait until there was a change of guard and then using, his own trick, simply knocked on the gate and told the new guards that she was an Amazon scout sent to find a bard named James in the city. They let her in without any problems, not wanting to anger the Amazon Nation.
"That was a snap," she grinned as the owl, who had flown over the wall, landed on her shoulder.
"We're not back to your room yet," the bird reminded her.
Gabrielle shrugged and headed for the castle.
Xena spent several candle marks looking for Autolycus' mysterious female accomplice before admitting that the woman had made a clean escape. Then, having nothing else to do, she decided to return to she and Gabrielle's room and let her companion know what was going on (And also get some sleep; Xena would never admit it to anyone but she was more tired than she could ever remember being. Keeping Autolycus alive through the last test had really been physically exhausting).
Sneaking through the castle hallways, she made it to the room without being seen and made her way in the darkness to the bed. Xena quickly determined that Gabrielle was not in it, finding only some extra pillows piled underneath the covers. Lighting a candle, Xena checked the room for signs of violence and relaxed when she realized that Gabrielle's Amazon traveling clothes were missing. `Gabrielle must have had some reason to sneak into the city for something. But she better have a good explanation for me when she gets back!' Xena thought to herself.
Leaving the candle burning for Gabrielle for when she got back, Xena removed her clothing and slipped into a sleeping shift. Pushing the extra pillows out of the way, she slid under the blankets and fell into a deep sleep.
Gabrielle, making her way along the castle walls in the very early morning gloom, was pleased to see that the rope that they had used to climb down from her room was still in place.
"See? No problem," she told the owl on her shoulder. "Now, why don't you go to James' room and get some sleep and I'll see you for breakfast later."
The bird fluffed his feathers indignantly. "Be sure you don't forget me. I'm already feeling peckish," he remarked as he flew up toward the bard's room.
Gabrielle just laughed softly and shook her head as she climbed up the rope and onto the window ledge.
Entering her room, she didn't notice that there was now a candle burning low; she was so tired the only thoughts she had were to get out of her clothes and get some sleep before morning and wondering what could have happened to Xena. Removing her clothes, she sat down on the bed and allowed her fears about what might have happened to the Warrior Princess to roar to the front of her mind. "Tartarus!" Gabrielle finally cried out loud. "Why can't she let me know what is going on!" She punched in frustration at one of the pillows under the covers on the bed.
Xena shot out from under the blankets, rubbing her butt where Gabrielle had punched it, and quickly took a defensive posture on the other side of the bed. Blinking in the dim light of the room, a very surprised and startled Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other.
"Where have you been??" they both asked each other at the same time.
Autolycus' eyes snapped open and the darkness of his room confirmed that it was not yet dawn. But he noticed that his chambers also contained darkness of a decidedly different nature, an almost palpable evil. He carefully reached for the small dagger he wore in his belt, which was currently hanging on the bedpost with the rest of his clothing. To his dismay, it wasn't there.
"Not looking for this, are you?" asked a familiar, mocking voice.
"Discord," the thief sighed as the Goddess caused the candle on the table next to his bed to flare into life. "I was hoping you'd gone."
"Fat chance," the black-clad woman laughed, casually flipping the blade at Auto. It struck the bedpost inches from his head. "I've been watching and enjoying the show. Oh, congratulations on passing the Adoniad."
"Thanks," the King of Thieves gulped, reaching up and pulling the knife free.
"Of course, I should probably really be thanking Varina, and Xena, too, for that matter," she said nonchalantly.
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
"Oh, let's face it, stud, if it hadn't been for Varina, you'd have done Xena without a second thought to the Star of Arcadia. And, if she hadn't switched inkbottles on Lord Vantys and then distracted the guard outside your room, you never would have passed the second test, either. And," the cruel Goddess continued with eager malice, "it took both of them working together to make sure you survived the last one. You really are past your prime, Autolycus."
"Past my prime, am I?" the man shot back, his brown eyes blazing and his upper lip curled fiercely. "We'll see who's past his prime when I walk out of here with the Star of Arcadia in three days!"
"And what about your friends?" Discord giggled. "Are you really prepared to leave them to King Bastian's tender mercies? You saw how he planned to deal with you, what do you think he'll do to your guests?"
"What do you expect me to do? Marry Damara?" he yelped.
"Frankly, I don't care what you do," the Goddess chuckled. "No matter what you decide, you've doomed either your reputation or your friends. I just wanted to remind you of that."
"I very much doubt that," the man said quietly.
"Okay, you're right, I've also got some unfinished business with James," she conceded. She then glanced over and saw that the sun was just coming up over the horizon, bathing the room in a pinkish glow. "Speaking of which, I need to go. You have a nice day, now, Autokins."
Her cackling lingered for a few moments after her form had disappeared from view, leaving the weary thief more worried than he cared to admit.
Arriving in the great hall for breakfast, Autolycus immediately noticed the conspicuous absence of his friend and the Goddess' words came back to haunt him. Spotting Xena and Gabrielle, both in full costume as his aunt and cousin, he made his way over to them. Xena was chatting amiably with Queen Lena and practically ignored him--Except for a quick peck on the cheek and a rushed "Good morning, sunshine"--but Gabrielle was piling food on a plate and humming softly to herself.
"Good morning, cousin," she smiled. "And congratulations."
"Whatever. Have you seen James?" he asked brusquely.
"Don't worry, he's fine," she assured him, licking some syrup from her fingers.
"You're positive?" he pressed.
"I just saw him last night. He's hiding out in the woods until we leave since Lord Vantys is convinced that he's really Inimicles," she explained.
"Last night?!" Auto yelped. Noticing everyone was staring at him, he shrugged and playfully hit Gabrielle on the arm. "My cousin. Heh. She's quite the little kidder." The others went back to eating and talking quietly and Autolycus hissed, "I spoke to Discord this morning and she said she had some unfinished business with James!"
"Maybe I should go and make sure he's all right..." the Bard suggested.
"You think?" Auto said mockingly.
"I'll slip out after breakfast and be back before the ceremony at noon," she whispered, ignoring his jibe.
"There you are, Autolykissiepooh!" Damara's musical voice echoed throughout the hall, causing the thief's face to turn bright red.
"Good morning to you, Damar...awesome," he replied, lightly elbowing a giggling Gabrielle in the ribs as the Princess approached.
"I'm so proud of you," Damara smiled, kissing him full on the lips and with such heat that it took Auto completely by surprise.
"Darling, there are others here," he reminded her, when she finally released him.
"So? We're officially engaged now, my dearest Autokins. Will any here tell me I cannot kiss my future husband?" she challenged, looking about the room. The King seemed uncomfortable, and so did Lord Vantys. Queen Lena scowled slightly, but then shrugged and resumed talking to Xena. "You see. Public displays of affection are no longer forbidden between us."
Autolycus smiled, fingering his mustache. "In that case, let's try that kiss again, Princess," he said, pulling her to him and kissing her like she'd never been kissed before.
"Autolycus, a word, if you please," Lord Vantys said after the kiss had gone on for over a minute. "Now, sir."
The King of Thieves reluctantly broke off the kiss and, as he walked towards the obviously irate noble, said offhandedly to Gabrielle, "Catch her."
"What?" questioned the Bard. "Catch who?" At that moment, however, Princess Damara swooned and Gabrielle dropped her plate and barely caught her before she hit the ground.
"What is it, Vanty?" Auto sighed, pulling a chair around and straddling it in an obviously impatient gesture.
"The name is Vantys, Lord Vantys, as you well know," he said through tightly clenched teeth.
"Yeah, so? Is that what you had to talk to me about?" Auto demanded, making as if to rise.
"No. I wanted to inform you that this entire wedding has been nothing more than an elaborate charade to trap your friend Xena, the Warrior Princess. There was never the remotest possibility that you would be allowed to marry the Princess," he hissed.
"I've known that for quite a while now," Auto nodded casually. "But, why are you telling me this? And, more importantly, why now?"
"You knew?!" Vantys sputtered. Auto again nodded. He fought to control his rage and answered, "Because if you break it off with the Princess and leave this kingdom forever, today, this minute, I give you my word and I swear on Zeus' sacred lightning bolts that no one will stop you or harm you, or any of your friends." He stressed the word `any' in such a way as to leave exactly whom he meant in no doubt. "What do you say?"
Auto studied him for a moment and then shook his head. "I say you're pathetic, Vanty. You know you can't compete with me for the Princess' affections, so you come up with this scheme to get rid of me. No doubt planning to be there to `comfort' her once I've dumped her. I've got news for you, buddy boy, even with me gone, even if I hurt her, she'll never be interested in a spineless piece of dryad dung like you," he scoffed.
"But you don't love her!" snarled Vantys, careful to keep his voice low and a smile on his face. "You're only after the Star of Arcadia, and you bloody well know it!" Then, a strange glint shone in the noble's dark eyes. "What if I give it to you?"
"What?" Auto questioned.
"The Star of Arcadia. If I give it to you will you go away? Right now, this very day?" he asked desperately.
Autolycus chuckled. "Oh, Vanty, you just don't get it, do you? Merely possessing the star isn't the point. It's the boldness and the seeming impossibility of the theft that lured me here in the first place," he explained, standing up and placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "So, thanks, but no thanks."
"You'll never get the star, Autolycus," he said, slapping the hand away. "I swear it."
"That's just what I'm counting on," the thief grinned.
Cretius, drill instructor and captain of the royal guard of Arcadia, was not a happy man. First, the court dandy Vantys had told him that the hated Warlord Inimicles was in the palace but, because of some court intrigues, that Cretius could not get his revenge on the Warlord and now he had to deal with orders from the castle to stay in a heightened state of security. As Cretius had tried to explain to Lord Vantys, it was not a good idea to keep your troops at a high level of security for too long a length of time. With the troops keyed up for too long a time with nothing happening it tended to actually make them more lax than they normally would have been.
"But orders are orders," thought Cretius as he made his rounds around the city walls. While dawn had only broken a few candlemarks ago, much of the city was already moving about. Farmers leaving the city to tend to their fields and merchants entering the city to sell their wares.
Reaching the main gate of the city, he saw that the guards assigned to watch the gate were paying little attention to the people entering and leaving and were actually playing dice against the wall while the gates stood wide open unattended.
"What do you think you're doing?!" Cretius roared as he reached the guards. "You were given orders to watch the gates at all times for the arrival of the Warrior Princess, Xena!" Cretius yelled into the unlucky man's face he had picked up by his shirt.
"Oh, come on, Cretius," one of the other guards said. "It's not like the Warrior Princess is just going to stroll through the gates into our arms!"
It was really a shame that none of them had been paying attention to the gates in question or they would have seen a tall, menacing looking woman with black hair and blue eyes enter the city. The woman was wearing black leather and had a large sword on her back. She paused at the city gates and watched the oblivious guards arguing for a moment and then, making a waving motion to someone outside the city walls to hurry up, she strolled on into the city and was soon quickly lost in the early morning crowds.
Cretius finished berating the guards—And had mentally made a note to remember their names for some demeaning duties later for punishment—And turned away from them to face the gates in time to see a man wearing a motley collection of armor trip and fall on his face just inside the gates. A ludicrously large helmet fell off the man's head and rolled over to bounce lightly against Cretius' armored boot.
The old soldier shook his head and, bending over, picked up the silly looking helmet, and then, walking over to the fallen man, helped him to his feet and handed him his helmet back.
"Careful there, young man. Here is your, um, helmet back. What are you doing in the city of Megalopolis?"
Joxer took the helmet from Cretius without looking at him and said, "Who wants to know?" Then, glancing at the obvious fighting man, he quickly added, "I mean, I would like to know who to thank for helping me to my feet."
"I am Cretius, Commander of the Royal Guard. And who might you be?" Cretius answered him.
"I am Joxer. Joxer the Mighty! No doubt you have heard of me?" Joxer boasted as he puffed his chest out.
"No, can't say that I have," Cretius said, already dismissing the man from his thoughts as he planned the punishment for the lax guards.
As Cretius started to move off Joxer reached out and grabbed his arm. "Can you tell me the way to the castle?"
Cretius looked at the offending hand on his arm and then pointed at the large castle sitting on a hill in the center of the city. "It's not exactly hard to find. What business do you have at the castle?" Cretius asked, not really interested.
"We are to meet my good friends, Xena and Gabrielle, at the castle. We're going there for the wedding of our friend, Autolycus!" Joxer boasted, wondering if he should have emphasized a little harder how good friends he was with Xena.
Cretius glanced sharply at the man and then dismissed the thought that such a buffoon could be friends with a warrior like Xena. "It makes me no difference, but I would not be telling stories like that at the castle. Xena is not well liked in this city," Cretius said roughly and then walked off.
Joxer looked after the guard for a moment and then rushed into the crowds. Reaching the nearest tavern, he quickly stuck his head into the doorway and looked around. Spotting who he was looking for, he quickly made his way to the back of the tavern where the dark haired warrior woman was sitting with her leg propped lazily up on the table.
"Meg, I think something is not quite right here! Have you noticed anything odd about the people here?"
Meg, who had been drinking some wine and watching the early morning breakfast crowd, looked over at Joxer. "Will ya just sit down and relax, Joxy? The people here are fine. They served me right off and then moved away so I could enjoy my wine in peace."
Joxer, looking around the tavern, watched as people watching Meg warily slowly got up from the chairs and quietly made their way out of the tavern. Within a matter of moments he and Meg were the only people left in the tavern.
"I think you wearing Xena's costume was a big mistake," Joxer said with a nervous look.
"Ya didn't think so last night? Did ya, Joxy?" Meg said with a snort and then a lewd wink.
Joxer blushed and looked around to see if anyone had heard but they were alone.
"Are you sure Autolycus asked you to wear Xena's costume for the wedding?" Joxer asked sitting down on the bench next to Meg.
"Joxy, I told you. I first got a message by pigeon express thingy that gave both of us this invite thing for the swanky wedding and then a messenger showed up with another scroll from Autostinky asking me to wear this costume as a joke for the wedding," Meg said and then took another slurp of her wine.
"What did this messenger look like?" Joxer asked as he picked up a full mug of wine from another table and took a sip.
"Aw, she was a short thing wearing black leather and had a mouth full of white teeth. Kind of cute." Meg paused for a moment with a thoughtful look. "Ya know, she would have fitted in real well with the rest of the girls at the tavern. I should have offered her a job. Have to pay better than being a messenger. She would have worked real well with the tie-me-up-and-whip-me crowds."
Joxer looked thoughtful for a moment and then shrugged. "What else did the scroll say?"
"It said that Autostinky wants us to sneak into the castle and surprise everyone inside. Says it will be a great joke."
Joxer shook his head a little and then just said, "Well, if that's what Auto wants, I guess he knows what's best."
Lord Vantys was fuming alone in his room. He would pace to one side of the large richly decorated room and then pace back to the other side. Not only had Autolycus admit that he was only interested in the Star of Arcadia but he as much dared Vantys to do something about it.
Vantys paused for a moment as though there was something he was supposed to be doing but had forgotten it. Concentrating for a moment, he remembered that he was supposed to take some food to the Warlord Inimicles in the dungeon. "Let him starve to death! That will show Autolycus!" But after a moment, Lord Vantys shook his head and decided he would get some food and feed Inimicles. After all, the look on Autolycus' face when he presented the warlord for execution at the wedding would be worth it.
Opening the door to his chamber rooms he almost plowed into an old servant woman that was standing outside his door. "Get out of my way, old woman!" he growled.
"Beg pardon, Lord Vantys," the old woman said, lowering her head. "So many people up and about this morning. First the Bard James and now you..."
Lord Vantys started to brush his way past the woman but then stopped in his tracks. "What did you say?!"
"I saw the Bard James come in late last night and go to his room and then leave again with a lovely young woman," the servant said with a mischievous smile.
"What did this woman look like?" Lord Vantys said, grabbing the old woman by the arms and shaking her slightly.
The woman did not even flinch but continued to smile. "She had beautiful red gold hair and was dressed in Amazon clothing. They left the city and headed out into the forest, I think."
Lord Vantys let out a loud curse and raced to check the dungeon. As soon as he was out of sight, the old woman disappeared in a flash of light and was replaced by the laughing Goddess Discord.
"Deal with that, Xena!" Discord laughed and then, suddenly stopping, she frowned. "Tartarus! I gave that mortal idiot the description of Gabrielle as she normally looks, not the way she's disguised! Oh, well, the centaur dung is going to hit the wall anyway when he finds James again. Crank up Vantys' emotions a touch more and he'll have James killed on sight! That is, if James doesn't agree to serve Ares." Discord gave another smile and then vanished again in a flash of light.