FOR RICHER OR POORER

Part Three

"Till Death Do Us Part"

 

 

Xena, still dressed as Autolycus' "Aunt Philomena," and Queen Lena sat in comfortable chairs on a balcony overlooking the beautifully laid out garden, currently in full-bloom and bursting with flowers of every shape and color, quietly talking. As they had been doing ever since breakfast.

 

Oh, there had been some shared tears, as well, as each woman recounted the loss of her son and, in doing so, in small way relived the horror of that tragedy, but also found some measure of comfort in finding a kindred spirit who had suffered the same devastation. And, through that process of grieving and consoling, they had bonded as only mothers can.

 

It didn't really matter that neither woman was completely honest with the other, for the things they did share were true and real in every meaningful sense of the words. And they both knew it.

 

And, really, that's all that mattered.

 

"You must be proud to see how lovely your daughter has become," Xena said casually, noticing that Autolycus and Damara were walking in the garden below them, arm in arm, talking softly and occasionally kissing. "She'll make a fine queen one day."

 

"Ah, my dearest Philomena, it takes much more than physical beauty to be a fine queen," Lena replied, sighing wistfully as she, too, observed the couple below. "It takes brains and courage and the will to do things that other women would shrink from. And, most importantly, the ability to put aside one's own personal pleasure for the good of the kingdom." The Queen scowled ever so slightly. "I fear my dear Damara may be lacking in that particular department."

 

"You disapprove of her choice of husband?" Xena asked nonchalantly.

 

Lena nodded. "Oh, my dear, I meant no slight to your nephew, I assure you," she said quickly, realizing to whom she was speaking. "He's a fine man, despite his former profession. It's just..."

 

"You're not sure he's the proper man for Damara, or for Arcadia's throne?" Xena finished with a wry smile. "Don't worry about offending me, your highness. I've been wondering how my shifty nephew managed to become the fiancÚ of a bona fide princess ever since I received the invitation to this wedding." She laughed a bit derisively and added, "Not to take anything away from Auto, he's a handsome rogue, no doubt about it, and smart as a whip, too. But...How can I put this delicately?" she mused, scratching her chin and discreetly keeping an eye on the Queen's reaction. "Well, he's just not the settling down type, your highness. I never in a million years thought he'd get married...to anyone! He enjoys sampling all the different varieties of milk too much to ever settle for a single cow, no matter how pretty she is."

 

Lena nodded, clearly unamused by the bovine reference in regards to her daughter, and said, "I suspected as much from the first time I laid eyes on him. A rogue through and through, I said to myself. But handsome enough to charm the very stars from the sky."

 

Xena smiled proudly. "That's my nephew, all right, your highness. Still, once he puts his mind to something, he'll finish it, including being husband and king to your lovely daughter," she said, her eyes widening when she saw that Auto and Damara had disappeared behind a large bush.

 

Before Queen Lena had seen this, Xena quickly drew her attention to a nearby sculpture and pretended to be fascinated by it.

 

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"Damara, kissing is one thing, but don't you think we should wait until after the wedding to do this?" Autolycus asked--Having a very hard time believing the words coming from his mouth!--as the Princess clawed at his shirt, trying to remove it.

 

"I'm tired of waiting! I've been waiting my whole life it seems! Do you know how many dates I'd been on before I met you?" she demanded, giving up on the shirt and turning to his pants instead.

 

"I've no idea," Auto replied, fighting to keep his trousers around his waist--And absolutely hating himself for doing so!

 

"None! Not a single one! None of the neighboring kingdoms have princes my age, and the farther ones are our enemies," she grunted, leaning in and tearing at the fabric with her teeth.

 

"What about a marriage of--Whoops! Watch those choppers, Princess. Some of that bruises easily," the thief cautioned. He decided the best, and safest, course of action would be to lie down on the grass and try to satisfy her without costing her her virtue. As much as he wanted to, as beautiful and tempting--Not to mention willing; something he always found attractive in women--as she was, he just couldn't bring himself to hurt her unnecessarily by stealing not only her heart, and the star, but her innocence as well. He was determined to leave that intact when he made his hasty exit in two days.

 

She, however, was apparently even more determined that he not.

 

As the Queen's attention was focused on another statue, Xena snatched a small rock and deftly hurled it down into the garden, where, after ricocheting off a tree trunk and a bench, it struck Autolycus in the side of the head. "Ouch!" he exclaimed, rubbing his temple and looking around for the culprit who had thrown the stone. When he spotted Xena and the Queen above him on the balcony, he quickly stood up, adjusting his clothing as he did so, and pulled the Princess to her feet.

 

"What's the matter, Autokins?" she huffed. "Don't you want-"

 

He gently turned her around so that she could see her mother and "his aunt" on the balcony, and she blushed bright red, almost shaming the roses themselves. "Hello, mother, Aunt Philomena," she called, waving to the two women.

 

"It's nearly time for the ceremony, dears," the Queen called down, returning the wave. "You'd best be getting inside and get cleaned up."

 

Autolycus and Damara nodded and hurried inside.

 

"Kids..." said Xena with a smile and a shrug.

 

A tavern in Megalopolis

 

Varina nearly fell over when she saw a dark haired woman seated in a back booth of the tavern she'd come to frequent since arriving in Megalopolis. At first, she thought it was Xena, but dressed in her leathers and battle armor, instead of the ridiculous costume she'd donned to roam the palace as that egomaniac's aunt. But then, when the woman and her strangely dressed male companion ignored her, she walked up to the bar, taking the opportunity to get a really good look at her, and realized that it wasn't Xena.

 

But she was close enough in appearance to fool most people.

 

Varina, however, was definitely not most people. She noted that this woman was a bit shorter than the Warrior Princess was, and she wore her hair far more loose and wild. And her manner suggested a serving wench or a whore more than it did a warrior. Especially the way she lustfully eyed the scrawny man in the silly armor sitting next to her.

 

He was most certainly not Xena's type.

 

Varina ordered a drink and then wandered over toward where the woman was currently scratching herself in an unseemly manner while her male companion gazed into her eyes, as if she were reciting beautiful poetry.

 

"Mind if I join you?" she asked, startling the pair.

 

The Xena lookalike grunted and placed her feet on the other chair, but the man swallowed loudly and then stammered, "N-not at all. H-have a s-seat." He got up and grabbed a nearby chair and held it for her as she sat down.

 

"Thanks. My name is Varina," she smiled, despite the low growling coming from the other woman's throat.

 

"I'm Joxer...the Mighty, and this is Meg," the man said, unable to take his eyes off the beautiful woman.

 

"His girlfriend!" Meg snarled, banging her cup down and causing Joxer to nearly jump out of his chair.

 

"Joxer the Mighty...I've heard of you," Varina said thoughtfully, ignoring the murderous looks Meg was giving her.

 

"You have?!" Joxer yelped. "I mean, of course you have. What have you heard?"

 

"Only that you're a fierce warrior who sometimes travels with Xena, the Warrior Princess," Varina replied. "Obviously you travel with other women, too."

 

"Joxy don't travel with no one but me, sister," Meg said in a guttural tone. "He's friends with Xena and Gabrielle. Just friends. Not like with me, right, Joxy?"

 

When Joxer failed to answer, due to the fact that he was sitting with his elbows resting on the table and had his chin in his hands gazing at Varina, Meg knocked his elbows out from under him and his chin banged onto the table, causing him to bite the tip of his tongue.

 

"Ow!" he yipped. "What'th the big idea, Meg?"

 

"I said we was more than friends, not like you and Xena and her little buddy are, right, Joxy?" she repeated, grabbing him by the ear.

 

"Right! Ow, that hurth," he added, rubbing at his ear when she let go.

 

"Are you also friends with Autolycus?" Varina asked conversationally, keeping her attention on Meg for the time being.

 

"Yeah, we're here for Autostinky's wedding," the woman snorted. "I can't believe anyone would marry him."

 

"Do you know Auto?" Joxer asked, not really caring but wanting her to look at him again.

 

"We've met, but I've been admiring his work for years," she replied. "I think the wedding will be quite exciting."

 

"Whatever. People in fancy clothes standing around and talking. Sounds pretty boring to me," Meg sighed, draining the last of her glass.

 

"Can I buy you both another round?" Varina offered, signaling the barkeep without waiting for a reply.

 

"You been here long?" Joxer asked.

 

"Just a few days, why?"

 

"One of the guards at the front gate said that Xena wasn't exactly popular around here," he explained. "Any idea why"

 

"Jealousy," Varina said quickly. "Arcadia is a kingdom of cowards and they resent someone like the Warrior Princess because it rubs their noses in it. I wouldn't worry if I were you. Even if they find out that Joxer the Mighty is here, too, they're too yellow to do anything about it. I know for a fact that not one person in this whiny kingdom can wield a sword with any skill. It's only their membership in the Achaean League that keeps them from being taken over by every two-bit warlord with a half decent army."

 

Joxer puffed his chest out a bit when the barkeep brought their drinks over and was gratified to see him set them down quickly and hurry back behind the bar, pausing only long enough to collect his money from Varina.

 

"Thanks," grumbled Meg, slurping her wine loudly.

 

"My pleasure. Any friends of Autolycus' are friends of mine," she smiled, getting up to leave.

 

"You're not leaving so soon, are--Ouch!" Joxer exclaimed when Meg kicked him sharply under the table.

 

"Don't be rude, Joxy. If she has to go, she has to go. And you do have to go, don't you?" Meg said carefully.

 

"I'm afraid so, yes. But I'll see you both at the wedding, unless you're planning to attend the ceremony this afternoon..."

 

"Is that the thing Autostinky wanted us to crash?" Meg asked Joxer, boxing his ears when she caught him gazing at Varina. "Is it?"

 

"Ow! Yeah, yeah, that's the thing. That hurts," Joxer scowled.

 

"Splendid. I'll see you there, then," the stranger smiled and then turned and walked off, chuckling to herself.

 

"She seemed nice," Joxer remarked.

 

Meg cuffed him on the back of the head, knocking his helmet off. "I didn't like her. Reminds me too much of Autostinky," she said, sipping at her wine. "I don't trust her. I don't trust anyone that friendly."

 

"Awww, you trust me," the would-be warrior pointed out, leaning over to kiss her.

 

"I said friendly, not stupid," she snorted, kissing him before he could pull away. "How long before we have to go to the castle?"

 

"Pretty soon," he replied sadly.

 

"No point in getting a room, then," she said, shrugging her shoulders and proceeding to remove her armor. She forced Joxer onto the table and climbed on top of him as the barkeep tried to look busy.

 

An Arcadian forest

 

The owl watched from where he was sitting in a tree, as James worked on a long straight branch he had found on the ground. The bard had shaped it and smoothed it with rough stones, muttering all the time about his lost knife, and then tying the ends and middle with some dried vines he had found. Finally finished, he looked at the completed staff in his hands.

 

"Nice job," the owl commented.

 

James glanced up the owl. "Yeah, well it gives me something to do while I wait to find out what's going on." Sighing as he got to my feet, he gave the makeshift staff a few swings. "It's been so long since I've done any staff practice, I will probably knock myself out."

 

The owl said nothing but watched as James started to go into a very basic staff practice. It was obvious to even the owl that James was a little rusty at the beginning but soon started to flow into the exercise. The owl could feel the tufted feathers that served him as eyebrows lift as James started to move faster and faster into more complex exercises until he was moving at a very rapid pace. His movements that had been choppy smoothed until it almost looked like he was involved in some graceful dance. The owl also noticed that the nervous and worried look on James' face was gone to be replaced with a calm, almost peaceful look.

 

"Humans!" the owl thought to himself. "They find the strangest ways to meditate or relax!"

 

Suddenly, there was a flash of light and the Goddess Discord appeared.

 

James stopped dead still, his staff a few scant inches from the Goddess' head. Discord, reaching out and brushed James' staff away, smirked and said, "I love a man who knows how to handle his staff well."

 

The bard's calm and peaceful look disappeared to be replaced with a scowl. Lowering the end of his staff to the ground and then leaning on it, James asked, "What do you want now, Discord?"

 

"I thought you might like an update on what is happening at the castle and this is the way I am greeted?" Discord said with a mock pout.

 

James just shook his head and moved away to sit down with his back to a tree trunk. "And why would I believe you would tell me the truth about what is happening at the castle anyway?"

 

Discord frowned for a moment and then with a smile, "I swear in Ares' name that everything I tell you next is the truth." The Goddess could tell by the way James' eyes narrowed slightly that she had his full attention and that he was hooked.

 

"Well, I guess the first thing you would be interested in knowing is that Autolycus has passed the Adoniad." Discord paused and, glancing up at the position of the sun for a moment, she then added, "They should be holding the confirmation ceremony for him as the Princess' fiancÚ real soon now." Discord allowed a slight smile as she saw James leap to his feet and start to pace back and forth. He was so worried he didn't even notice when she moved closer to him.

 

"Do you think they will give Autolycus a fair trial, or just chop his hand off as soon as they find out that the Star of Arcadia is missing?" Discord said, reaching out and brushing her hand across a bulge that was in James' vest pocket where the Star was currently resting. "Of course, they might just chop his head off, instead. I suppose it all depends on how upset the Princess is when she finds out that the only reason Autolycus was romancing her was for the stone."

 

Jerking roughly away from Discord's touch, James glared at her and asked, "Any more good news?"

 

"Well, let's see...The buffoon Joxer and the trollop Meg are sneaking into the castle to 'surprise' everyone right about now, too. Oh, and did I mention that Meg is dressed as Xena? They'll be lucky if they're not skewered before they have a chance to explain," Discord said with a laugh. "And Lord Vantys knows that you have escaped the castle and in a rage has sent the head of the royal guard, who has a blood oath to kill Inimicles on sight, here with some men to get rid of you once and for all."

 

Hearing a noise coming from some bushes on the other side of the makeshift camp, James snapped to attention with the staff raised in a defensive position.

 

"Oh, maybe that's them now?" Discord said with a smile.

 

A few seconds later a bedraggled looking Gabrielle, in full Mavis disguise, parted the bushes and stepped into camp.

 

"Oh, it's just the annoying little blonde," Discord said with mock sadness. "Wonder what Lord Vantys will do when he hears that she was captured in the camp of the notorious warlord Inimicles? Give me a shout when you're ready to ask for my help and, of course, serve Ares." With a final laugh, Discord disappeared in a flash of light.

 

"Gabrielle! You have to get out of here! Discord tells me that Lord Vantys has sent some men here to capture me. We can't risk you getting caught as well!" James said, rushing to Gabrielle's side.

 

"I know all about the soldiers!" Gabrielle said, breathing heavily. "Autolycus told me this morning that Discord had plans for you so I left to warn you and only managed to get out of the city walls a few yards ahead of the patrol. I've been running like crazy to reach you first, but they're right behind me. They haven't seen me yet, due to Xena's training, so maybe we can sneak off in the opposite direction before they know we're here."

 

James nodded his head and, motioning for the owl to land on my arm, turned to leave in the opposite direction from the one that Gabrielle had came in, but pulled to a stop as he heard noises of a large group coming from that direction. "Maybe they missed finding us and have circled around us?" he asked quietly, glancing at Gabrielle.

 

The blonde just shrugged and made to move quietly back the way she came, but she jerked to a stop as they could hear another large group coming from that direction, too.

 

"We're surrounded," James said calmly. "Climb a tree and hide, Gabrielle. They're looking for me; if you hide they might not find you."

 

Gabrielle shook her head with a stubborn look on her face.

 

"We don't have time to argue. They'll be too busy with me to look for anyone else and, if you hide, after they're done with me you can get back to the castle and warn Xena. Discord also told me that Joxer and Meg are going to be walking into the castle. Meg is dressed as Xena. She will be captured and executed," he said forcefully.

 

Gabrielle glanced at him sharply, "When they're done with you? These guards aren't here to capture you, are they? They're here to kill you!"

 

James nodded his head with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew there was no way he was going to get Gabrielle to hide now. Handing the crudely made staff to Gabrielle, he picked up a fallen tree branch and turned to face the now moving bushes. The sound of the approaching soldiers was clear.

 

Hearing the voice of someone obviously in charge, James waited with the hair on the back of his neck starting to stand up as he heard the sounds of another group coming from behind him as well.

 

Cretius burst into the small, hidden glade with his men and, spotting the accursed warlord Inimicles standing there waiting for him with a woman standing beside him, yelled out, "Prepare to die, Inimicles!"

 

Seeing the bushes on the other side of the small glade start to part, Cretius wondered if he was going to have to face Inimicles' army, even though Lord Vantys had told him that the warlord was on his own. but the old soldier was shocked when, instead of male warriors from Inimicles' army, he was faced with women warriors wearing Amazon clothing and war masks.

 

Wondering at the look on the face of the soldier who had shouted at him, James looked over his shoulder at the bushes and watched as Amazon warriors appeared. They had bows drawn and were pointing them, not at he and Gabrielle, but at Lord Vantys' soldiers. Nudging Gabrielle, he motioned with his head and she also turned to look behind them.

 

A single unarmed Amazon separated from the group and walked over toward the confused pair. As she neared them she reached up and removed her mask to reveal a mane of curly hair.

 

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle joyfully cried in surprise.

 

Ephiny looked closely at Gabrielle and then said, "What are you doing in that awful clothing and wig?" Then, glancing at James, she said, "Nice seeing you again, James. I had heard that you had made it back from the Fields again and gotten a new body. I must say that this one is nice, although not as impressive as the metal one you had before."

 

He wanted to sweep Ephiny up in a bear hug, but being acutely aware of the Amazon warriors behind her, he refrained. Gabrielle, however, had no problem at all and quickly had her in a tight hug.

 

Hearing Cretius clearing his throat, James was quickly reminded that they were not alone.

 

Turning back to face him, he saw that even with the Amazons pointing arrows at him he had moved away from his soldiers and closer to him.

 

Drawing his sword, he leveled it in James' direction and shouted, "Today you die, Inimicles!"

 

Ephiny moved away from Gabrielle and stood at his side. "This man is not the warlord Inimicles. He is a bard named James." Seeing that this statement had no effect on the soldier, she added, "And he is a friend to the Amazons. Any attack on him is going to be considered an attack on the entire Amazon Nation!"

 

Cretius finally lowered his sword. "And who are you?" he shouted at Ephiny, but with a whole lot force than he had shouted at the man he thought was Inimicles.

 

"I am regent of the Amazons and this woman," Ephiny said, pointing at Gabrielle, "is Queen of the Amazons. Now, put down your sword and step aside. We are going to the city of Arcadia for a wedding and this man," Ephiny said touching James on the arm, "is going with us, under our protection."

 

Cretius could feel his blood boiling, but he was not stupid enough to risk a fight, let alone all out war, with the Amazons, especially with there being a chance that the man before him was not really the warlord Inimicles. Nodding his head, he said, "Allow me and my men to lead you back to the city as honor guards."

 

So, with very wary Amazons walking surrounding their leaders and James, and Cretius' soldiers walking a respectful distance on either side of the Amazons, they started the journey back to Megalopolis. The bard could hear Gabrielle whispering to Ephiny explaining what was going on and to refer to her as Mavis at least for a little while longer.

 

James could also hear the owl on his shoulder say out loud, but low enough the only people to hear were him, Gabrielle and Ephiny, "Never dull when you travel with James or Gabrielle."

 

The royal castle in Megalopolis

 

Joxer and Meg had found their way to the castle and surprisingly had not been seen by anyone, had managed to work their way to the back of the imposing structure. Joxer, searching for a way in, found a rope hanging from a window and, after a few moments of thought, decided that Autolycus must have left it there for them to sneak in with.

 

"After you, Meg. I'll stay down here and guard your rear. I, um, mean guard the rear," Joxer stuttered.

 

Meg snorted and replied, "You just want me to go first so you can look up under my leather skirt." Meg smiled and caressed Joxer's cheek. "Not that you have to have me climb a rope to be able to do that."

 

"Meg!" Joxer said with a blush. "We have to get into the castle if we're going to surprise everyone."

 

"Oh, ya no fun! Oh, all right! You stay down here and guard my rear while I climb up and then you get up there as quickly as you can," Meg said as she took the rope and started to climb.

 

Joxer managed to keep looking left and right to see if anyone could see them for a few seconds but then, finally giving into temptation, glanced up. "Meg, I think Xena wears some kind of underclothing with that skirt!"

 

Meg's only response was a chuckle as she kept climbing.

 

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In the main dinning room, Xena kept glancing at the chair where Gabrielle should have been. She didn't know what Autolycus had said to her, but the Bard had disappeared after breakfast and had not been seen since. The Warrior Princess tried to capture Autolycus' attention to raise an eyebrow in question, but Auto was having problems of his own. She watched as once again a slightly red-faced Auto gave a slight jump and tried to casually move his chair away from the Princess. Xena barely managed to keep a straight face as she watched the Princess, while carrying on a totally innocent conversation with her father, move the hand closest to Auto below the surface of the table. A few seconds later Autolycus once again jerked a little and tried to move away again.

 

"He's getting more than he bargained for with that one," Xena thought to herself. She then turned her attention back to the conversation she was having with the Queen.

 

"Have you ever wondered if a decision you made was the right one? I mean what could have been different if you had only made another choice?" the Queen asked Xena.

 

"Everyday of my life," the younger woman answered truthfully. "But we can't live in the past. We have to accept that we may have made some mistakes in the past and do what we can to right them now."

 

Lord Vantys entered the room and nodded at the King and Queen. "Sorry I'm late, but there is some pressing business that I had to have dealt with." Smiling at the Princess and scowling at Autolycus, Lord Vantys took his place at the end of the table.

 

The King, breaking off his conversation with his daughter, looked over at Vantys. "I noticed that most of the personal royal guard is missing today. I hope that there is nothing wrong?"

 

"No, your majesty, they are off for some training is all," the noble answered.

 

Xena glanced sharply in Lord Vantys direction as she could feel her senses trying to warn her about something.

 

"I can guarantee that everything will go smoothly with the ceremony and that there will be no surprises today," Vantys added with a forced smile.

 

Suddenly, with a warbling war cry, Meg leaped into the doorway dressed as Xena, with Joxer closely following behind her wearing a goofy grin.

 

"Surprise, everyone!" he yelled.

 

Almost before the words had dissipated, Joxer and Meg found over a dozen sharp swords pointed at them. From her hidden vantage point in the rafters of the great hall, Varina could barely stifle a chuckle when Joxer, full of bravado, thanks to her "advice," actually pulled his sword and challenged the royal guardsmen.

 

"You're obviously unaware of who I am," he said, his eyes taking on the sleepy quality they always did when he was being smug. "I'll tell you, and then we'll see if you still want to pursue this. I am Joxer the Mighty." He puffed up his chest importantly. "You can drop your swords in surrender now." The soldiers, however, looked neither impressed nor inclined to drop their swords. "Perhaps you didn't hear me clearly," Joxer said, his bravado slipping a bit in the face of all that cold steel.

 

"I'm Joxer the Mighty," he repeated.

 

"Is that supposed to mean something," inquired the leader of the guards.

 

"I'm a fierce warrior and you're just a bunch of jealous, no talent cowards," Joxer explained, lowering his sword and walking toward the man who had spoken. "You should drop your swords and beg for mercy."

 

"COWARDS?!" shrieked the soldiers angrily.

 

They quickly disarmed the would-be warrior, only to have Meg pull the wooden chakram from her belt and brandish it in what she no doubt considered a threatening manner. "Stand back, or feel the wrath of my deadly shamrock!" she warned, whipping her head around in an attempt to keep all of the soldiers in view.

 

"Xena, as we expected," Lord Vantys smiled. "Kill them both."

 

Meg hurled her chakram at the soldiers, hitting one of them in the helmet, resulting in the would-be weapon breaking in two where it had been glued together. Both halves fell to the ground and the soldier merely shook his head and growled ominously as he stepped closer.

 

Meg desperately yanked her sword from its scabbard, only to have it batted away by another guard.

 

"Joxy?" she whimpered, clinging to the equally confused and frightened man as the soldiers closed the circle around them.

 

Before they could cut them to pieces, however, Autolycus called out, "Wait! These are friends of mine, your majesties!" He looked desperately at Xena, but she cautioned him with her eyes not to blow her cover just yet. "Won't you even grant them the courtesy of a trial?"

 

The King and Queen exchanged rather bored appearing glances and then nodded. "Fine, we'll try them and then execute them," Bastian murmured. "Take them away, Vantys."

 

"What about Autolycus, my king?" inquired the noble, glaring at the King of Thieves.

 

"What about him?" demanded Damara, circling her arm in his protectively. She failed to notice when Auto smugly stuck his tongue out at the enraged lord when she looked at her mother and father, seated at the far end of the table, and asked, "What is he talking about?"

 

"I'll explain it later, my dear," Lena said gently. "For now, take the warrior bitch and her foppish comrade and lock them in the dungeon, Vantys, so we can proceed with the ceremony."

 

Lord Vantys' face reddened considerably, almost turning black with rage, in fact, but he bowed crisply and then followed the soldiers and the confused prisoners out of the hall.

 

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"I shoulda known anything involving Autostinky would be trouble," Meg grumbled as she and Joxer were led down dank stairs to the cell recently inhabited by their friend James.

 

"Don't worry, Auto won't let anything happen to us," Joxer gulped. "I hope."

 

Meg simply scowled.

 

"So, at last you are our prisoner, Xena," Vantys sneered as the pair were chained to the slimy walls of the dungeon.

 

"I'm not Xena, you idiot," Meg growled.

 

"This was supposed to be a joke," Joxer tried to explain.

 

"Oh, it is, my friend," Vantys chuckled. "It's a very great joke indeed. And the final punch line has yet to be uttered. Enjoy your stay," he said, glancing around at the miserable accommodations. "And, perhaps you can take some small comfort in the knowledge that you won't be here for long."

 

"See? I told you we'd soon be free," Joxer said brightly.

 

"I don't think that's what he meant, Joxy," Meg sighed.

 

"No?" Joxer inquired, looking from Meg to Vantys.

 

"No," said the noble, shaking his head and drawing a finger across his throat.

 

"Oh." Joxer swallowed loudly and tried to force a smile, but only managed to pass out.

 

"I'd hoped you would have proven a greater challenge, Warrior Princess," Vantys said as he exited the room. "Pity."

 

"I told you: I'm NOT Xena!" she shouted.

 

Lord Vantys just laughed and closed the door behind him. As he made his way back up to the main floor of the castle, he decided to check on the Star of Arcadia, since it's hiding place was on the way.

 

When he reached the secret chamber, however, his eyes grew large and his teeth ground together in fury upon discovering that the huge diamond was missing

 

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"What is it, Vantys?" inquired the King when the noble burst into the Great Hall, breathless and in obvious distress.

 

"I need a private word with your majesties," he replied, attempting, without a great deal of success, to present a more dignified persona.

 

"Are the prisoners secured?" Queen Lena asked.

 

"They are, my queen," he replied with a deep bow.

 

"Then, whatever you want to discuss can wait until after the ceremony," she said dismissively. "It's already past the midday as it is."

 

"But..." began the noble. Seeing the warning in his Queen's eyes, however, he merely bowed again.

 

The King and Queen nodded and then stood up and gestured for the others to do likewise. Then, as servants scurried in and removed the table and chairs, Bastian and Lena made their way to the end of the room, where their thrones sat atop a four-tiered dais. They ascended the steps and then sat down, bidding Damara to stand at their right hand and Vantys to stand at their left. Autolycus stood at the foot of the steps and his "family" stood a respectful distance away. The other lords and ladies of the court surrounded them, also standing at a respectful distance.

 

Varina continued to watch from her hiding place in the rafters.

 

The ceremony was short and sweet and when it was completed, the King of Thieves was joined by Damara and congratulated by everyone in the hall as Vantys took the opportunity to speak in hushed tones to the royals.

 

Their faces took on grave expressions and they looked suspiciously at the official royal suitor.

 

As the others moved into the dining hall for the celebratory feast, Vantys pulled Auto aside. "You've won," he said simply.

 

"Good of you to notice," Auto grinned.

 

"You've got the gem, so why not just leave, before you hurt the Princess even more," the noble scowled.

 

Autolycus was about to disagree that he had the Star of Arcadia, but suddenly thought better of it. "Not so fast, Vanty. I'm not going anywhere without my friends and family. All of them," he stressed.

 

Vantys' scowl darkened, but he reluctantly nodded. "I'll talk to the King and Queen about that. In the meantime, do me a favor and do what you can to prepare the Princess for your coming betrayal," he said quietly.

 

"For you, not in a million eons," Auto smirked. "But for her, I'll do what I can. But you must surely appreciate that my departure is going to devastate the poor girl, regardless of how I try to prepare her."

 

"Well do I know it, you snake," growled the noble. "Just do your best and stop that insufferable preening."

 

Autolycus simply chuckled and wandered off towards the dining hall to celebrate with the others, leaving Vantys fuming alone in the room.

 

Almost.

 

From her perch in the wooden rafters of the ceiling, Varina, who had heard all, grinned and thought to herself that things had just gotten a lot easier than she thought they were going to be.

 

The Arcadian countryside

 

After reaching the main road to the city of Megalopolis, James thought they would pick up speed and reach the city quickly. Unfortunately, Cretius' men having never seen Amazon warriors up close, kept slowing down to stare at them and the Amazons, being very wary of the male soldiers, also slowed down till they were traveling at a slow walk.

 

In the end the procession ended up looking like a slow parade. With Amazon warriors on the inside, guarding their Queen and Regent with James and the owl tagging along with them, and on the outside Cretius' men trying hard to walk without tripping over their feet but at the same time watching the women warriors out of the corner of their eyes.

 

James was extremely worried about the safety of Joxer and Meg but, being acutely aware of the hostile stare he was getting from Cretius, he refrained from showing the worry on his face and slowed his steps to match everyone else.

 

"So, Queen Mavis," Ephiny said with a twinkle in her eye, "are you still traveling with..."

 

"My mother Philomena?" Gabrielle quickly added. "Yes. She's at the palace we're going to, my mother Philomena," Gabrielle emphasized once again.

 

One of the Amazon warriors closest to Ephiny reached up and pushed her Amazon mask up onto the top of her head revealing the grinning face of Solari.

 

"How is your mother Philomena?" she asked with a mischievous look on her face. "Pony is really going to be sorry she didn't get to come on this trip and talk over old times with her."

 

Gabrielle tried to keep a stern look on her face as she glanced at Solari, but she couldn't keep her lips from quirking into a smile. "Oh, I know mother is going to be sorry that Eponin could not be here, too, but she will be ever so overjoyed that some of the Amazons that we know are here."

 

Ephiny started to break into a smile, thinking about how 'overjoyed' Xena was going to be with a large mass of Amazons milling around, any one of which could let her real name slip and ruin her disguise, but Ephiny's smile disappeared instantly when she sensed Cretius moving closer to her and Gabrielle.

 

"How can you women be sure that this man," Cretius said dismissively as he waved his hand in James' direction, "is really a simple bard named James and not the warlord Inimicles fooling you by pretending to be a bard?"

 

Out of the corner of his eye, the man in question could see Ephiny and Gabrielle bristle at the way Cretius had said the word 'women'.

 

"Because I was present when James here helped defeat the warlord Inimicles!" Gabrielle said sharply.

 

"Inimicles was defeated? Is he then dead?" Cretius asked.

 

"Inimicles is now in some deep, dark hidden pit of Tartarus," Gabrielle confirmed.

 

James mentally smiled to himself. Technically, Gabrielle had not lied. Inimicles had been defeated (although James was not much help in that) and he was indeed in a hidden pit of Tartarus. The fact that the body walking next to them was really the body of Inimicles and it was just the bard's soul in charge of it now did not need to be told.

 

"How do you explain this, then?" Cretius said triumphantly as he pulled Inimicles' dagger from a pocket on his uniform--Which almost ended up with him becoming a human pincushion from assorted Amazon daggers and arrows. The only thing that had saved him was Ephiny's quick reactions. She raised her hand quickly but almost casually and made a gesture that signaled the watching Amazons to not react but to remain on guard.

 

Cretius, stewing in his anger at being so close to the warlord Inimicles, did not even notice the momentary tension in the Amazon warriors. "If this man is not Inimicles, why is he carrying his dagger?"

 

"I kept it as a curiosity." James finally spoke.

 

"A curiosity? Why would you do that?" Cretius said, moving ahead and stopping directly in front of him.

 

The whole group of soldiers and Amazons came to a dead stop to see what would happen next.

 

"Look, it's obvious from your actions that you have some personal issue with Inimicles and it is also obvious that you know what Inimicles looked like and, as you can plainly see, I look like Inimicles. As a matter of fact, we are almost identical to each other. That's why I took the dagger. It was a shock to me that there was someone out there who looked so much like me but was so different from me," James explained.

 

Cretius looked at Ephiny and then at Gabrielle, who had come up on either side of the bard. "And you are certain that this man is not Inimicles?"

 

Ephiny was the first to speak. "I watched this man risk his life to save our Queen! I know that he could not be the warlord Inimicles."

 

Gabrielle spoke next. "And I was present when Inimicles died at the battle of a village named Edom."

 

Cretius looked at the man he thought of as Inimicles. His brain and his eyes told him that it was the warlord, but his instincts told him that the man in front of him was not a killer. Studying the Bard James (Inimicles?), the old soldier finally realized what was different about him and the warlord. Inimicles' eyes were cold hard stones, but this man's eyes were open and honest. Cretius with a sigh then handed over the dagger to the man in front of him and said, "Then I must accept that Inimicles is dead and I have lost my chance for revenge on him."

 

Gabrielle's face relaxed a little and she gave Cretius a sad smile. "Comfort yourself with the knowledge that Inimicles is being punished in Tartarus for the crimes he has committed."

 

Cretius looked at Gabrielle. "I mean no offense, Mavis, but you don't look or dress like any Queen of the Amazons I have ever heard of before."

 

Ephiny quickly moved to stand next to Gabrielle. "Our Queen likes to travel with her mother, so she dresses in normal clothes and not in her Amazon costume. It's safer that way."

 

Cretius thought about it for a moment and then, nodding his head, he looked over to where his troops were standing around taking the opportunity to openly stare at the Amazon warriors. "What are you men staring at? We have Amazon royalty to escort to the castle! Get a move on!" Cretius moved off to literally kick some of his men's butts who were slow to get moving and the group once again started moving.

 

Ephiny whispered loud enough for Gabrielle, James, the owl, and Solari to hear, but no one else, "What is going on here, Gabrielle?"

 

Gabrielle glanced around for a moment and then whispered back, "We think Autolycus' marriage is just an attempt on his part to get his hands on a very rare gem. And James here says that the King and Queen are allowing it to go on because they are hoping to capture Xena when she shows up for the wedding and execute her. Then, throw in a court official by the name of Lord Vantys who is convinced that James is Inimicles and wants to see him executed, too."

 

Ephiny raised one of her eyebrows. "Anything else?"

 

James looked over at Ephiny. "She forgot the Goddess Discord, who, for reasons of her own, is stirring up trouble."

 

Ephiny looked first at Gabrielle and then at James and said, "Do either of you ever just have a boring, normal day?"

 

Gabrielle and James looked at one another and then at the same time looked at Ephiny. "You mean this isn't a normal day?" they both asked her at the same time.

 

The city gates of Megalopolis

 

At Gabrielle's orders, Solari casually and quietly made her way through the other Amazon warriors as they walked and advised them, at least for the time being, to refer to Gabrielle as Mavis and Xena as Philomena.

 

Upon reaching the city gates, Ephiny ordered all the Amazons, except for Solari, to find rooms at the local taverns.

 

"Solari will continue on with us to the castle," she curtly told Cretius.

 

Cretius dismissed his men and continued to lead the way toward the castle.

 

As they neared the entrance to the palace, Gabrielle nudged James' shoulder and whispered, "Do you think that maybe Discord was lying about Joxer and Meg being here?"

 

James whispered back, "I doubt it. She swore on Ares' name that she wasn't

lying."

 

As the door to the castle swung open, they could all see the extra, alert guards standing just inside.

 

The owl on his shoulder said just loud enough for James, Gabrielle, and Ephiny to hear, "Guess we're going to find out for sure now."

 

The royal castle in Megalopolis

 

Lord Vantys could feel himself almost tremble with the suppressed rage he felt toward Autolycus. "Can this day get any worse?" he thought to himself as he rejoined everyone in the dinning room.

 

Suddenly, the Royal Herald entered the room and banged the large staff that marked his rank upon the floor. After he had gotten everyone's attention and silence reigned in the room he announced in a loud voice: "Your Majesties, Princess, Lords and Ladies, I would like to announce the arrival of the Queen of the Amazons, the Regent of the Amazons, her Amazon guard and the Bard James." After making his speech the herald stepped aside as Ephiny and Gabrielle entered the room, followed closely by Solari and James.

 

The King, with a slightly confused look on his face, walked over to where the small group was standing. He looked first at Ephiny and then past her to where Solari was standing. "Excuse me, but which one of you is the Queen and which one is the Regent?"

 

Ephiny smiled and said, "I am the Regent of the Amazons." Nodding her head at Gabrielle, she added, "She is the Queen."

 

Autolycus looked over nervously to where Xena was standing next to Queen Lena. "Aunt Philomena? When did this happen?"

 

Xena looked quickly at Autolycus and then glanced at the curious and suspicious Queen. "Kids! He doesn't write or visit and then wonders why he doesn't know about family news," she said with a shrug.

 

Queen Lena, with a slight rise of her eyebrow, said, "Well, I would like to hear how she became Queen of the Amazons myself."

 

Before Xena could say another word Gabrielle stepped forward and began to speak. "It all started when mother decided she wanted to do a little traveling. Mostly to the taverns of different cities." Gabrielle made a drinking motion with her hand with just the slightest smirk at Xena.

 

The Warrior Princess said nothing, but she shot Gabrielle a cold look. Ephiny and Solari both bit the inside of their lips to keep from laughing.

 

"We were traveling through some woods when we came across some women warriors who were injured," Gabrielle continued. "I tried to help the worst wounded one but she died. But before dying she passed the Right of Caste to me, making me an Amazon princess."

 

Gabrielle paused for a breath and Xena quickly muttered loudly enough for everyone to hear into the opening, "The Amazons tried to teach her their ways but she is so dense--Just like her Tartarus cursed father."

 

Now it was Gabrielle's turn to glare at a slightly smirking Xena.

 

"Anyway," Gabrielle began again, "mother and I continued to travel and later we heard that the Queen of the Amazons had died, making me the new Queen."

 

"Can you picture her being Queen of anyone?" Xena said with a slight laugh. "My daughter did show a slight glimmer of intelligence, though, and made the Amazon warrior next to her the Regent on her behalf."

 

"So why didn't you tell us of this when you first arrived?" a highly suspicious Lord Vantys asked loudly.

 

"It's only an honorary title and, besides, going around the country calling yourself Queen of the Amazons is a good way to get yourself captured, or laughed at," Xena said.

 

Gabrielle frowned at Xena while Ephiny and Solari wondered how much more they could take before they burst out laughing.

 

"It is so good to see you again, Philomena," Ephiny finally said to Xena. "All the Amazons send their respects." Ephiny looked at the King standing near her, and added in a mock confidential tone, "They highly respect the amount of wine she was able to drink the last time she was in our kingdom."

 

Xena narrowed her eyes at Ephiny, promising with her look that she would get even with her for that crack later.

 

The King, with a slightly amused and dazed look, shook his head and then stepped to Gabrielle's side. "In any case, if we had known that you were Amazon royalty, we would have done something special in your honor."

 

"Oh, she's still the same lunk-head she always is, with or without a title," Xena said in her Philomena accent.

 

Lord Vantys could no longer contain himself and, rushing past the King, pushed himself rudely between Gabrielle and Ephiny and pointed his finger at James. "This does not explain what he is doing back here!"

 

Solari, standing next to James, managed to resist the sudden urge to pull out her dagger and chop off the offending finger.

 

The King looked confusedly at Gabrielle and then back at his wife Lena. "Why shouldn't he be here? He is a good friend of Autolycus and is here for his friend's wedding."

 

"He is not a simple bard named James! He is the warlord Inimicles!" Lord Vantys almost shouted into the King's face.

 

Autolycus swore that he could see some flecks of foam appearing at Lord Vantys' lips.

 

"I thought we settled this already!" the King said with a trace of irritation. "He is not the warlord Inimicles. He is a bard."

 

"How can you be so dense?" Lord Vantys, in his anger forgetting himself, snarled at the King. "I have proof he is Inimicles! He admitted it when I had him in the dungeon!"

 

Queen Lena asked the still silent James, "Is this true?"

 

"I lied and said I was Inimicles, that much is true. But only after being held in the dungeon for a day without food or water and even then only when Lord Vantys started going on about how he was going to hunt down any accomplices that I had. I was afraid that he might try to harm my friend Autolycus or his family."

 

Lord Vantys turned toward Queen Lena and started ranting. "How do we know that Autolycus is not his accomplice? This whole thing might be nothing but a plot to capture the kingdom. Perhaps with the help of the Amazons? They didn't tell us that Mavis was their Queen. Maybe they are in on it, too!"

 

Princess Damara, from where she was standing holding onto Autolycus' arm, shook her head sadly. She had grown up with Lord Vantys and was very fond of him, but it was evident that he was suffering from some kind of strain. "I wonder what could be causing him to act this way?" she whispered quietly to Autolycus.

 

"Perhaps he's not getting enough fiber in his diet?" Auto whispered back, patting her on the hand.

 

Lord Vantys, spotting the action out of the corner of his eye, turned in Autolycus' direction and started yelling, "Why do you let this sham go on? We have Xena in the dungeon and he has stolen the Star of Arcadia! Let's execute them all now."

 

Autolycus quickly but gently pushed the Princess behind him and raised his hands at the charging Vantys. "How could I have possibly stolen the Star? I was under constant observation all the time. I have been too busy taking the Adoniad tests to do anything of that sort. Besides, I've put my thieving past behind me."

 

Queen Lena raised her hand and, gesturing at some guards, had Lord Vantys restrained. "Lord Vantys! You have been under a great strain. Go to your chambers until you have calmed down and we will discuss your actions at that time."

 

As the guards ushered the still struggling Lord Vantys out, Queen Lena walked over to stand beside her husband near the bard James. "We apologize for the way you have been treated. Neither my husband nor myself believe that you are the warlord Inimicles. I hope you accept our apology and will stay for the wedding."

 

James nodded and answered, "Of course I will stay. I wouldn't miss seeing my good friend Autolycus getting married for anything. Don't be too hard on Lord Vantys. He means well and is only looking after your best interests. He just needs to make sure he has all the facts before he drugs people and drags them down to dungeons."

 

The Queen nodded and then, turning to Ephiny, said, "What a low opinion you must have of our kingdom. I deeply regret what has happened today and hope we can make it up to you. We will have rooms assigned to you and your guard. Is next door to Philomena and her daughter fine?"

 

Ephiny nodded and replied, "That would be fine, but only one room, please. Solari will stay with me."

 

The Queen allowed one eyebrow to raise slightly but just nodded. "Shall we have a new room assigned for you?" she asked, looking at Gabrielle.

 

Xena, walking up to stand beside the Queen, said, "Oh, don't make a fuss over her or she'll get a swelled head. She will continue to stay with me."

 

"Well, it has been a very full morning, hasn't it? May I suggest that we move the party into the garden and relax a little?" the Queen said with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes.

 

As everyone made for the doors leading to the garden Queen Lena pulled her husband to the side. "Order the guards to search all the rooms for the Star of Arcadia."

 

"You don't think that Autolycus would have the gem on him, then?" the King asked her.

 

"Of course not! He's too smart for that. Only an idiot would walk around with the gem on him. No, he must have hidden the gem somewhere in his room. There is no reason to upset our daughter until we have proof that Autolycus stole the gem."

 

The King nodded his head.

 

---------------------------

 

Autolycus was upset. According to Lord Vantys, someone had beaten him to stealing the Star of Arcadia, his entire reason for pursuing Princess Damara and undergoing the Adoniad. His mind quickly seized on the most likely suspect: Varina. Why else was the mysterious woman here? No doubt she had come to steal the gem herself and had only been helping him, if Discord was to be believed, to buy herself time to finish the job.

 

The King of Thieves could have kicked himself for getting so caught up in playing the gallant suitor and passing those ridiculous tests that he'd let his eye wander from the true prize. And now that cunning woman had it.

 

For the moment.

 

Deciding that the time had come to cut his losses and get his friends out of danger, he made a quick exit from his celebration on the pretext of having a headache--Which, he reasoned, was true. And she was about five and half feet tall with dark hair and a body to die for. But she wasn't all that. And certainly not worth the value of the diamond, either in dinars or in the added currency the theft would bring his sagging reputation.

 

Approaching his room, Autolycus heard the sounds of people within it. Large people wearing armor and making an awful racket as they ransacked it, looking for the Star of Arcadia, no doubt. He hid around a corner and waited until they left and then stole inside and locked the door. The first thing he had to do was locate Joxer and Meg and free them, not only getting them out of danger, but also removing a bargaining chip from the hands of Lord Vantys and the King and Queen.

 

He was about to lower himself out of his window so he could search for them, when he heard the distinct sound of a lock being picked. He turned and was more than a little startled to see Varina enter his room and, presumably after making sure that the hallway was empty, close the door again. "Fancy meeting you here," he said to the pretty sneak thief.

 

Varina nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice, but recovered quickly. "Why should it surprise you? After all, I told you that if you got the diamond, you would get me," she said with a seductive smile. "So, here I am."

 

Now Auto was really confused. If Varina didn't have the Star of Arcadia, who did? He had time enough to ponder that in the future, however, since for the present he fully intended to take advantage of the lady thief's misunderstanding.

 

And he did mean "take advantage of."

 

"Here you are, indeed," he said, nodding his approval at her choice of attire: A black leather bikini top and tight breeches that ended at mid-thigh, topped off with spike-heeled boots and a flowing cape. "Does your mother dress you? 'Cause if she does, I'd like to meet her, too."

 

She laughed, but there was something besides mirth in her dark eyes. "You charmer, you. Let me see that beautiful treasure," she said eagerly.

 

"Gladly," Auto said, starting to undo his pants.

 

"The diamond, you idiot," she sighed, forcing a smile on her face.

 

"I don't have it here," he said. "Didn't you notice that patrol of ham-fisted Huns searching all the rooms?"

 

She nodded. "So, where is it?"

 

"Like I'd tell you. It's safe. That's all you need to know. Now, come over here and let me show you the real reason I'm known as the man with the magic fingers," he said, adding a lusty growl.

 

"What about the Princess? I thought you loved her?" she inquired.

 

"Love her?! She was just a means to an end, baby. I needed her to get a free run in this pile of rocks so I could search for the diamond. Oh, sure, I had to woo Little Miss Pampered, and it wasn't all bad, but the only treasure she had that I wanted was that big beautiful rock. And, now that I've got it, it's adios, Damara, don't bother to write," he smirked. "Why do you care about that little twerp anyway?"

 

"Oh, no real reason. I just wanted to be sure you weren't playing for both of us," she smiled, glancing toward the door that she'd purposefully left ajar.

 

---------------------------

 

Princess Damara ran from the thief's room, tears of rage and betrayal streaming from her lovely eyes. She had heard enough. Lord Vantys and her parents had been right about Autolycus from the very beginning, only she'd been too stupid and caught up in his charm and appearance to realize it. Well, she realized it now, thanks to that stranger.

 

She hadn't known quite what to make of her at first when she literally dropped out of nowhere as Damara was heading back to the celebration from a bathroom break. At first, she hadn't believed her, just as she hadn't all the others who said her Auto was no good. But the woman had managed to persuade her to at least come to his room with her and see for herself.

 

And she had.

 

And now she didn't care what happened to the lecherous larcenist, so long as it was unpleasant. And she was going to tell Lord Vantys and her parents that right now.

 

---------------------------

 

Meanwhile, Varina was busy trying to learn the location of the diamond, and keep Autolycus off of her. She wasn't having much success doing either, being currently pinned against a wall with her hands held over head by those of the amorous thief. "Autolycus, there'll be plenty of time for this after we've made good our escape," she suggested while keeping her mouth out of reach of his lips as best she could. "Don't you think we should get your friends and get the heck out of Carthage while we can?"

 

"Probably," he agreed. He then took advantage of her surprise and kissed her hard and hot on the mouth. "But it's been months since I've-"

 

"Well, then, a couple of more hours won't kill you!" she said quickly, wriggling free of his grasp and backing away.

 

"It just might. Anyway, I thought you came up here to-" he began.

 

"I did. It's just that I realized what terrible danger we're in now that they know you have the Star of Arcadia," she improvised, still backing up. "And, now that I've finally found you, I don't want to lose you so soon. Whoops!" While keeping her eyes on the love-struck King of Thieves, she had failed to realize that the large bed was directly behind her.

 

"So, you do wanna play pillow tag after all!" Auto grinned and dove at her. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, Varina rolled out of the way and off the bed entirely, and scrambled to her feet before Auto could reach her.

 

"Really, Autolycus, we don't have a lot of time--Trust me," she said sternly. "Now, why don't you free whoever those people in the dungeon are while I retrieve the diamond. Then, I'll collect Xena, Gabrielle, James, and the Amazons and meet you outside of town before Vantys and the rest know what's happened. Okay?"

 

It sounded like a great plan. And Auto would dearly loved have to used it. The trouble was, he had no idea where the Star of Arcadia was, and he wasn't about to leave here without it. Not after all the trouble he'd gone through to get it.

 

"Okay, except I'll get the Star and let Xena and the rest know we're leaving while you free Meg and Joxer from the dungeon. Not that I don't trust you, doll, it's just that explaining exactly where the diamond was and the way to get past the traps I installed to insure it's safe-keeping until I was ready to leave would take far too long. I'm sure you understand," he smiled as charmingly as he could.

 

"Of course I do," she purred, cupping his chin with her hand and drawing his face close. "I'll see you outside of town with Meg and Joxer." She released his face just as his eyes closed and he leaned forward, lips puckered, and dashed over to the window. "Good luck, lover."

 

He opened his eyes just in time to see her jump out. "Varina!" he exclaimed, rushing over and looking out. To his surprise, she was floating gently to the ground by extending her arms and legs, to which her billowing cape was attached, and letting the air trapped within the garment slow her descent. "Neat trick," he mused, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

 

The King of Thieves then made his way to Lord Vantys' room, figuring the only hope he had of discovering who had snatched the diamond out from under him was to inspect the scene of the crime for clues. And to do that, he needed to know where the Star had been kept.

 

Unbeknownst to him, however, was the fact that as soon as Varina had landed, instead of rushing off to free Meg and Joxer, she had raced back up to Auto's room and followed him, smiling to herself when he headed for the noble's suite. `Very clever, Auto,' she thought, `hiding the diamond in his room. Naturally, the guards wouldn't search there.'

 

"Come to gloat some more, have you?" snarled Vantys when Auto entered his

chambers.

 

"A bit, yes," the thief smirked. "Actually, I was just wondering how you realized the Star was missing, seeing as it was my understanding that it wasn't to be removed from its hiding place until the morning of the wedding?"

 

"The merest of coincidences, as it happens," the noble sighed. "I was on my way back from locking up Xena and her silly companion when I decided to stop in and have a quick look. Imagine my surprise when I reached the secret chamber and discovered the Star of Arcadia was missing."

 

"Oh, I have," grinned Auto. Before Vantys could say another word, the thief added quickly, "Don't worry, Vanty, my friends and I will be leaving your lovely kingdom very shortly, and then you all can get back to whatever you did to keep yourselves amused before you had me to plot against."

 

"You can't leave quickly enough as far as I'm concerned," the noble grumbled. "I hope you've done as you said you would regarding the Princess."

 

"Not yet, but don't worry, I will. Not that it will do you the slightest bit of good after your outburst," he chuckled.

 

"When she discovers what a snake you are and how you used her, I think you'll find your charm will do you no good. She's a strong, witty, beautiful, intelligent woman, and it's only her inexperience with men of less than perfect virtue that caused her to fall for your superficial allure," he sneered.

 

"Keep dreaming, Vanty," Auto grinned and then dashed from the room and headed for the dungeon.

 

"I will, my friend. Believe me, I will," Lord Vantys said softly.

 

---------------------------

 

As he slowly mingled with the guests in the garden, James kept his eyes on the guards that were moving about. It was obvious that a full-blown search was being made for the Star of Arcadia and it would only be a short time before they started to search the guests. Walking around the hedges in the garden, he spotted Gabrielle and Ephiny talking quietly by themselves in one corner. "Must be filling Ephiny in fully on the situation here," he muttered to himself.

 

"There goes Autolycus," the owl suddenly whispered into his ear.

 

Glancing in the direction the owl was indicating with his head, James watched the King of Thieves make his excuses to the King and Queen about a headache and leave the garden. Casting one more quick glance around, he ducked into a lane formed by a large hedge and the wall of the castle and almost bumped into Xena.

 

"Where are you going in such a hurry?" Xena, still dressed as Philomena, asked him with a trace of suspicion in her voice.

 

Thinking quickly, he answered, "Thinking about running around behind the castle and see if I can reach Joxer and Meg in the dungeon and helping them

escape."

 

Xena frowned briefly and then said, "Too risky with the guards on alert like this. Damn Autolycus anyway! I can't figure out where he found the time to get that gem! Don't worry about Joxer and Meg, I'm going to handle it my way." Thus saying, Xena moved away from the bard toward where the Queen was last seen with a serious look on her face.

 

Looking around again, James determined, that at least for a little while, he was alone in the hedge lane. Reaching into his inner vest pocket he pulled out a cloth bag that was tightly tied close with some string. "Owl, my friend, I need for you to do me a large favor. Take this bag and fly up somewhere where nobody will find it and leave it there until I ask you to get it for me."

 

The owl looked at the bag with wide eyes and then, turning his head to look James directly in the eyes said, "I don't want to know what's in that bag, do I?"

 

"Um, nope, you don't," he said nervously looking around to make sure they were still alone.

 

"Do I want to know what you're planning on doing with what's in the bag?" the owl asked raising one feather-tufted eyebrow.

 

"Haven't figured that out yet. Would you please just hide the bag for me?" James asked, getting more and more worried by the sounds of people moving around the garden.

 

The owl said nothing more but grasped the bag with his talons and flew to the top of the hedge. Watching carefully for a few minutes to make sure no one was looking in his direction, he then flew up the wall of the castle and disappeared from my sight over the roof.

 

Breathing a sigh of relief, James turned and made his way out of the hedge lane. With all that had happened to him recently, he suddenly realized that he was dead tired and decided to head up to his room to rest for a while.

 

As he headed down the castle corridor to his room, James saw Princess Damara heading toward him. Her face was red and it looked like she couldn't make up her mind whether to cry or kill someone. `Uh oh! This can't be good!' he thought to himself as he waited for her to reach him. "Princess," he had enough time to utter before she slapped his face resoundingly. "What was that for?!" he asked as he rubbed his cheek.

 

"You're that loathsome snake's friend, that's what it's for!" she half screamed/sobbed.

 

"I take it we are talking about Autolycus?" he asked.

 

Damara hauled off and slapped the other side of James' face. "Yes! That vile, two timing, lying, filthy, thieving..." Damara screwed her face up as she tried to think of the worst name she could for Autolycus, "...MAN!" she finally spat out.

 

The Princess raised her hand to slap him again, but James reached out and caught her by the arm. "So why are you beating me up?" he asked as he held her by the arm.

 

"Because, because, you're here and he isn't!" Damara sobbed as she collapsed into his arms, crying.

 

Feeling acutely uncomfortable, he held the crying Princess and slowly started to stroke her hair. "I am so sorry, Princess. What has happened?"

 

"I heard him talking to some woman. He admitted that he never loved me. That he was only here for the Star," the Princess said between sobs.

 

The bard was at a complete loss of what to say to the Princess and was desperately racking his brains trying to think of something comforting to say when she startled him by asking, "Did you know that Autolycus was only here for the Star?"

 

"I didn't know. Not for certain, but I feared that was the case," he said as he continued to stroke her hair.

 

The Princess pushed herself away and glared at him angrily.

 

"Why didn't you say something to me, then? I thought you liked me!"

 

"I do like you, Princess! I would like to have you consider me a friend, but what was I supposed to say? `Excuse me, Princess, you do know that my good friend Auto has a past history of using people to get what he wants?' Princess, he is called the King of Thieves for a reason! He can't help himself!" James said as he started to pace a little in the corridor.

 

The Princess watched the Bard James pace for a moment and then said, "Well, this is the last time he uses a woman to try and steal something! When I tell my father and mother, they will have him executed immediately!"

 

James pulled to a sudden stop and turned to look at her. "Will that make you feel better? Will having Autolycus killed make what he did to you go away?"

 

The Princess was shaking from anger and with the effort it was taking not to cry again. "He made me feel desired and loved! Do you know what it is like to go your entire life alone and unwanted and have someone make you feel that you are someone desirable and then find out it was all nothing but a scam?"

 

"Princess, you are wanted and desired." Looking up, he saw the Princess looking at him hopefully.

 

"No, Princess, I'm not referring to me. I'm talking about Lord Vantys. Why do you think he is acting the way he has been? He has been sick watching you and Autolycus together."

 

"You're wrong. Vantys doesn't feel that way about me," Damara said, shaking her head sadly side to side.

 

James reached out and gently lifted her chin with one finger till she was looking at him. "I'm not wrong. Lord Vantys confessed to me when he had me in the dungeon. He is crazy about you and has been in love with you for a very long, long time."

 

The Princess began to remember all the times she and Vantys had laughed and played in the garden when they grew up together. She remembered the nights she and Vantys walked in the garden discussing philosophy or the latest court gossip as they grew older. And suddenly Princess Damara realized that she could not imagine a life without Vantys in it. "I, um, ah, I think I need to talk to Lord Vantys," she said with a shy blush slowly coming over her face to replace the one of anger.

 

The Princess started to run off down the corridor toward Lord Vantys' room but stopped midway and looked back to where James stood. "Thank you, James, for helping me to see what has been under my nose all the time. How can I thank you?"

 

"Don't have Autolycus executed. Have him banished from the kingdom, never to return, but don't have him killed or imprisoned."

 

The Princess frowned but did not answer.

 

"He is a cad, but I am asking you as a friend. Don't have your parents hurt him." James looked hopefully at her.

 

The Princess let out a loud sigh. "He doesn't deserve good friends like you. You know that?"

 

James, too, sighed. "Maybe not, but he's not really that bad a person. It's just that reputation of King of Thieves he has. He believes that it's all he has and he sometimes allows himself to do shameful things in the quest to maintain it."

 

The Princess nodded but kept her face neutral. "For you, I will think about it." She then turned and continued on her way to Lord Vantys room.

 

James rubbed his forehead with the heel of one hand. "I have a headache," he announced to the now empty corridor. As he reached for the handle to the door of his room he heard the sound of flapping wings and looked back to see the owl flying down the corridor.

 

"There you are," the owl hissed as it landed on his shoulder. "Ask me to do a favor and then you took off from the garden before I got back!"

 

"Oops! Sorry, my friend. I'm just so tired, I can hardly think straight," he apologized to the owl and once again reached for the handle to the door.

 

Hearing someone call out his name, however, he turned from the door once again and saw the King headed down the corridor. "It's like rush hour at Athens!" James muttered under his breath.

 

The King, coming to a stop in front of the Bard James, hesitated for a moment and then said, "Been quite a busy day today, hasn't it?" Waiting till the bard nodded his head, the King continued, "I just wanted to ask you, since you are his friend, do you think Autolycus stole the Star of Arcadia?"

 

"I don't think that he did, your highness," he said, aware of the owl watching him out of the corner of his eye. "I mean, when did he have the time to do it? He was watched and kept busy most of the time he was here, wasn't he?"

 

The King nodded his head, but then said, "Even so, he is the King of Thieves."

 

"Is it possible that someone stole it before Autolycus even came here?" James asked. "I mean, when was the last time anyone saw the gem?"

 

The King looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, it's true that no one has seen the gem in years and, when I questioned one of the guards who went below to check out the room it was stored in, he said that it looked like the door had just rotted away."

 

"Well, there you go. Anyone could have found that gem years ago and made off with it before Autolycus ever got here," James said as he leaned against the door to his room.

 

The King, noticing his tiredness, nodded his head and started to walk away, but stopped after a few steps and looked back at him. "Do you think that the real reason that Autolycus came here and started courting my daughter was for a chance to try and get the stone?"

 

"That I don't know, but it would be just like the Fates to have Auto come here to try and steal a gem that was already gone," James said wearily.

 

The King nodded once again and left.

 

Looking down at his hand resting on the door handle to his room, James said out loud, "I hope that there are no other surprises for a while. I could sleep for a week." Taking a firm grasp, he pulled the door open.

 

As the Bard James made his way into his bedroom in the castle, the owl noticed that he was weaving and barely could stand up straight.

 

`That's odd,' the owl thought to himself. `James has had a rough couple of days, that is true, but he is walking like he has not slept in weeks.' The owl barely had time to flap his wings and get off of James' shoulder before the exhausted bard fell to sprawl across the wide bed. The owl landed on the table in the room and eyed his friend James curiously. The bard was laying half on and half off the bed and was snoring loudly.

 

`That's odd. I've been traveling with James for quite a while and I've never heard him snore like that before. The poor guy must be really tired,' the owl barely had time to think before there was a bright flash of light. The startled bird blinked his large eyes several times and when he had finally adjusted to the flash, he saw that the Goddess Discord was now standing beside the bed next to the sleeping form of James.

 

"I don't know what you're planning, but you get away from him right now!" the owl barked at the leather clad Goddess.

 

Discord, not even bothering to look up from her perusal of the sleeping man, made a brief gesture and the owl suddenly felt like he had been slammed into a wall. He had barely time to shake his head before he realized that he had been thrown out the window by the Goddess' blast and was about to crash into the hard ground of the gardens outside of the castle.

 

---------------------------

 

After the owl came to, from being knocked out by his fall, he got to his feet and realized that he had landed outside the castle away from anyone who might have seen him fall. Carefully checking his wings, he quickly realized that he had injured one of them and would not be able to fly back up to James' room.

 

Ruffling his feathers angrily and then wincing with pain, he started to inventively curse Discord. When he ran out of names in Greek, he switched to Sumerian. When he had ran out of colorful Sumerian terms, he switched to Norse. After using up all the insulting Norse terms, he started hissing and shrieking in his own native owl language. Of all the names he had used, the owl terms were the most insulting and obscene.

 

"If you don't stop using language like that I am going to take some soap and wash out your beak!" the owl heard coming from behind him.

 

Spinning around so suddenly that he lost his balance and fell to the ground, he looked up and saw the Goddess Athene standing there looking down at him. She had a couple of scrolls under her arm and a frown on her face. "You want to explain to me why you left the library and what you are doing here?"

 

"No time for explanations now! That leather clad bitch Discord is up there in James' room with him right now and the poor guy is out like a light! We have to help him!" the owl said, getting to his feet and ruffling his feathers.

 

Athene looked up the castle walls till she reached the window where James' room was located. "She has erected a barrier. I can't see what she is doing up there or zap us directly there. Come on," Athene said as she picked up the injured owl and sat him on her shoulder. There was a bright flash and Athene and the owl were gone from the garden.

 

When the owl's eyes cleared once again, he found himself and Athene outside James' bedroom door. The owl resisted the overwhelming urge to throw up into Athene's cleavage. "Have I ever told you how much I hate the way you Gods travel?"

 

Athene did not bother to answer but merely started to push against an invisible barrier that was two feet in front of his door. "This is really strange. Discord should not be able to erect a barrier that I cannot overcome. She does not have this kind of power by herself. It feels almost like another God or Goddess is helping her," Athene muttered as she struggled against the barrier.

 

"Ares?" the owl asked as he watched the Goddess of Wisdom strain and push at the invisible barrier.

 

"No. It does not feel like Ares. There is a more misty, dreamlike quality to the power that is helping her."

 

Athene suddenly stopped pushing against the barrier and turned her head to look at an equally stunned owl. "Morpheus!" both Athene and the owl said at the same time.

 

---------------------------

 

The owl sat on the doorknob of a door across the hallway from James' room and alternated between watching the Goddess Athene pushing and probing the invisible barrier and looking nervously up and down the corridor to see if anyone was coming. He had been watching for almost a candlemark and as far as he could tell Athene was not getting any closer to getting into James' room.

 

Suddenly, he heard Athene give a slight shout of surprise, "The barrier is gone!"

 

The owl flew to Athene's shoulder and nervously watched as the Goddess pushed the now easily opened door and walked into James' room.

 

The owl felt his tuft feathered eyebrows climb and turned his head to look at Athene. He saw that she, too, was a little stunned. James still lay across the bed where the owl had last seen him, but now he did not have a stitch of clothes on, and had a large smile on his face and he was still completely asleep and snoring.

 

"Does James usually sleep this deep or is he a light sleeper?" Athene asked

dropping her voice slightly.

 

"No, the times I have traveled with him he usually wakes at the slightest noise. He says he had to get into the habit from the times he was a traveling bard and had to be careful because of thieves," the owl answered her as he looked nervously around the room for the Goddess Discord.

 

"He must still be in the grip of the God Morpheus," Athene said as she moved next to the bed and reached down and shook the bard's bare shoulder.

 

James quickly awoke and, finding himself facedown on the bed, rolled over and sat up. Looking over and seeing the owl sitting on Athene's shoulder, he yawned and said, "I must have really been tired. Hello, Athene."

 

The owl, looking at the sleepy eyed James, realized that he was not quite awake yet or aware that he was sitting cross legged on a bed naked in front of the Goddess of Wisdom. "Um, did you by chance do any dreaming while you were asleep?" the owl asked cautiously.

 

"It's funny you should ask about that," James answered with a smile. "I had a delightful dream that I was back in the fields with Troya." Finally waking up completely, he glanced down and saw that he did not have any clothes on. "Funny, I don't remember taking my clothes off before taking a nap." Realizing what he had just said, James jerked his head up and looked at Athene and then, doing a back flip from a sitting position Xena would have been proud of, he put the bed between the Goddess and his very embarrassed self and grabbed up the bedspread and wrapped it around himself. "What has been going on here?" he asked, his voice raising several octaves.

 

"Discord, with Morpheus' help, kept you in a dream state for a while," Athene said.

 

"Yeah, there's no telling what she did to you while you were under," the owl added helpfully.

 

Seeing the looks he was getting from both James and Athene, the owl thought to himself, "Sometimes I think I talk too much."

 

---------------------------

 

Discord, with a flash of light that was not visible to mortals, appeared in the castle barracks. She had a cruel, self-satisfied smile on her face as she thought about the plan she had set in motion against the bard James. It would not have any immediate effect, but it was a playing card that she might be able to use at a later time. "And besides, it was great fun!" she said to herself with a silent laugh. "Now, though, it's back to business!" And Discord's business was discord, the more violent and vicious, the better the cruel Goddess liked it.

 

Looking around at the unaware mortals moving about, she finally spotted the one she wanted: Cretius, captain of the royal guard.

 

Cretius had just returned from the castle and was about to settle down for a moment of rest when he suddenly shot to his feet. One of the young new recruits to the palace guard looked over curiously and wondered what was wrong with the captain when he saw Cretius' jaw move silently for a moment as though he was rehearsing something to say.

 

"Gather around, all my loyal troops!" Cretius finally yelled loudly. "It is my sad duty to inform you that the Queen and King of Arcadia have sold their people out to the Amazons and the warlord Inimicles. They are planning to sneak out of the castle tonight and leave us to the nonexistent mercies of the Amazons! We, the loyal troops of Arcadia, are to be left as play things for the Amazons!"

 

It was unfortunate that the mortals in the room could not see Discord as she worked. If they had been able to, they would have seen her holding her arm out, moving her closed hand as if she was working a hand puppet. They, if they could have seen her, would have noticed that as she moved her hand, Cretius spoke.

 

"We cannot let the good people of Arcadia pay with their lives because of the cowardice of their rulers!" Cretius continued to rant.

 

The young recruit who had first noticed Cretius' odd behavior spoke up, "what are you suggesting, Captain?"

 

"I am not suggesting! I am telling you all, we need to storm the castle tonight and rid ourselves and the good people of Arcadia from the corrupt rule of the King and Queen. We need to rid ourselves of the Amazons inside the castle and their collaborators," Cretius barked at the recruit.

 

The young recruit, with a look of horror on his face, hoarsely answered, "You mean...kill everyone inside the castle?!"

 

Cretius looked at all of the silent guardsmen who had gathered around and raised his voice to carry to the entire room. "That is exactly what we have to do tonight!"

 

All of the guards in the room thought briefly to themselves that as far as kingdoms go, Arcadia was actually quite a nice place and that the rulers were not at all corrupt. Some of them even briefly thought to themselves that they had never heard of Amazons attacking in a manner like Cretius was suggesting, but all those thoughts were washed out of their heads by the power of Discord and soon all any of them could think about were the slights and misuses of power that the King and Queen had done. It did not matter to any of them that most of the instances of abuses of power that went through their minds had never really happened. All of them quickly became mere play toys to the power of the Goddess Discord.

 

"Deal with that Xena, Autolycus, and James!" Discord thought to herself with a vicious and cruel laugh.

 

---------------------------

 

The King of Thieves made his way through the quiet hallways and headed straight for the dungeon--During his lengthy courtship of the Princess, he had had a virtually free run of the palace and had made sure he was well acquainted with where everything was located, especially the dungeons. He reasoned, based on what Lord Vantys had told him, that the Star of Arcadia had been kept in, or at least near, the cell which had formerly housed James and was now being occupied by Meg and Joxer. Or had been until very recently, he amended, since Varina had certainly rescued them by now.

 

Reaching the stone stairway, he started down it, his dark eyes alert for any sign as to the diamond's former hiding place. When he rounded a corner and spotted a small gap in the wall, he closely examined it. "Ah, what's this?" he said, carefully removing a few threads from the secret door. He tried in vain to determine their color in the darkened stairwell, but decided it was pointless and carefully placed the threads in the pouch on his belt. He then proceeded into the chamber itself and searched it thoroughly, but found nothing that might point to the identity of the true thief.

 

As he finished up his examination of the room, however, he heard the unmistakable voice of Joxer, whining about being executed, and then Meg's sharp retort to "Shut up about it already!" Puzzled that the would-be warrior and Meg haven't been freed yet, and worried that something might have happened to Varina, he exited the chamber and headed for their cell.

 

A few seconds later he had picked the lock and opened the door.

 

"Great party, Autostinky! Be sure to invite us to the one where you get executed next time," Meg growled as the King of Thieves set to work on Joxer's restraints.

 

"Thank the Gods you're here!" Joxer exclaimed, stumbling in his eagerness to get to the door once Auto had freed him from his chains. "They were gonna kill us!"

 

"He was there when the King gave the order, you idiot!" Meg sighed as Auto set to work on the manacles that bound her hands and feet to the wall. "What took you so long?"

 

"Would you prefer I leave you here?" Auto snarled as he opened the second of the four locks.

 

"Sheesh! What a grouch," Meg mumbled.

 

"What's the plan?" Joxer inquired nervously, jumping at a slight noise in the stairwell.

 

Autolycus froze as he worked on the last manacle and held a finger to his lips. A moment later, however, Varina entered the cell and frowned. "I thought you were going after the diamond?" she asked.

 

"I did. But then I noticed that Meg and Joxer were still here..." He let his voice trail off and closely watched the lady thief.

 

"I got a bit sidetracked. Come on, there's something you should definitely see," she said, motioning them to follow her.

 

Auto quickly undid the last manacle and then all three trailed after the mysterious woman.

 

She led them to the heights of the castle, out onto one of the balconies that overlooked the main courtyard. Hearing the sound of angry voices and clanking armor, they all looked fearfully down and saw Cretius and the palace guards heading toward the main entrance of the castle. They were all heavily armed and there was a menacing undercurrent to their mutterings.

 

"Oh, this can't be good," grumbled Autolycus. "Come on!" he yelled, turning from the parapets and heading back toward the stairs. "We've got to stop them from getting in!"

 

"Wouldn't it be safer to stay up here?" Joxer asked, looking down at the murderous mob headed their way and swallowing loudly.

 

Meg grabbed him by his nose and dragged him after her. "Jox, I love you, man, but you really need to grow a spine," she sighed. When they reached the stairs, she released his nose only to deliver a beautiful kick to his backside. "Now get going!" she cried as he stumbled down the stairs.

 

"Nice move," commented Varina with a sly smile as the two women followed.

 

"That's the spirit, Joxer!" Auto exclaimed as the would-be warrior careened past him on the stairs, bouncing off the walls like ball.

 

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, all four of them nearly lost their balance as they hit the highly polished marble floor at top speed. But somehow they managed to stay on their feet and even make it to the door a heartbeat ahead of Cretius and the soldiers.

 

Autolycus and Varina slammed the bar home just as the commander reached out to push open the large double doors.

 

"Whew, that was close," Auto grinned, sinking to his knees with his back against the secured door.

 

"BRING THE RAM!!!" they heard the captain bellow.

 

"Uh oh..." Meg gulped.

 

"Joxer, you go alert the rest of the castle while the girls and I try to hold this door!" the King of Thieves ordered, climbing wearily to his feet and bracing his shoulder against the door as Meg and Varina did the same.

 

"You're sure you don't need me here?" the man asked, clearly pleased by the idea of getting further away from the mob on the other side of the doors, but not wanting to appear overly so.

 

"Hurry up, Jox!" cried Meg, shooting him her version of Xena's `Look.'

 

Joxer nodded and raced off in the direction of the garden.

 

---------------------------

 

"Did you hear something?" Xena, still dressed as Philomena, asked Gabrielle sharply.

 

"Only the normal sounds of a party," the Bard, wearing her Mavis wig and a silky green dress which highlighted her emerald eyes nicely, replied. "You know, people talking, laughing, the occasional glass clinking-"

 

"HELP! We're under attack!" Joxer screamed as he ran in from the castle.

 

"-and the hysterical cries of your friends, of course," Gabrielle added without missing a beat.

 

"It's that friend of the Warrior Princess!" shouted one man.

 

"How did he get free?" shouted another.

 

"GET HIM!!!" hollered a half dozen others.

 

"There's a bunch of soldiers..." Joxer began. Then, he noticed that the crowd coming toward him looked a whole lot like other crowds he had seen...usually when he'd done something wrong. "YIKES!" He turned and ran back the way he'd come with most of the party guests hot on his heels.

 

"What's up?" Ephiny asked as she walked up to Xena and Gabrielle and all three watched with obvious curiosity as the party turned into a posse.

 

"I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that Discord has something to do with it," Xena said thoughtfully. "We'd better follow them and save Joxer so we can find out what he meant about being under attack."

 

"Knowing him, he saw a rat in the dungeon and thinks we're under siege from an army of rodents," chuckled Gabrielle.

 

"And just how did he get out of the dungeon, huh?" Xena countered.

 

"Autolycus," said the Bard, nodding with understanding.

 

"I'll gather my troops and follow you," Ephiny said, rushing off, with Solari soon joining her.

 

Just as Xena and Gabrielle were about to leave, King Bastian and Queen Lena rushed up, breathless and obviously confused and embarrassed. "I just can't understand what's gotten into people today," the King frowned. "Wasn't that the fellow who arrived with the Warrior Princess?"

 

"I believe it was, your majesty," Xena replied.

 

"What in the name of Hades is he doing out of his cell?" Bastian sputtered indignantly.

 

"If he's free, she might be free, too, dear," hissed Lena, leaving no doubt as to whom she was referring.

 

"Great Zeus, you're right! I'll send for the guards to check," he stated, looking about for a soldier. "That's odd, there don't seem to be any of our men in here."

 

"That man did say something about being attacked..." Xena said slowly. "Perhaps the soldiers have gone to repel the invaders?"

 

"Invaders?! My dear Philomena, I can assure you that no one is invading us. The only soldiers within a hundred miles are my own guards," the King promised, patting her hand to ease her fears.

 

"Of course!" Xena said softly, a light twinkling in her ice blue eyes. "Come on, Gabrielle! We've no time to lose!" she shouted, running from the garden and shedding her Philomena disguise as she did so, revealing the familiar leathers and armor beneath them.

 

"Oh, sure, you've got your fighting togs on!" the Bard complained, making the best time she could in the tight gown.

 

Queen Lena walked over and picked up the wig that the Warrior Princess had tossed away and a strange look came into her eyes.

 

"By the Gods! I believe that woman was Xena!" Bastian cried incredulously. "Imagine the nerve of her..."

 

Lena nodded and then glanced up at the window to Lord Vantys' room.

 

---------------------------

 

As Cretius and his men brought out a huge wooden pole, affixed with a ram's head made of metal, and slowly but surely battered open the doors, Varina suddenly shifted position so that she was pressed tightly against Autolycus. Then, her hands began to move over him and her fingers explored every inch of his upper body.

 

"Not now, baby," Auto hissed. "We'll have plenty of time for that later, but only if we keep this door closed until Joxer arrives with help."

 

"I can't take the chance that we'll survive this!" she replied breathily, her hands moving down his chest, her fingers searching his shirt and vest for the tell-tale bulge of the Star of Arcadia.

 

The ram slammed into the door and a crack appeared in the beam holding it shut.

 

"I've got to have you now!" she whispered, thrusting his hands down his pants. She felt around frantically, but, unable to locate the diamond, instead grabbed him firmly by his manhood and snarled, "Where is it?"

 

"Darling, I assure you that you've got everything I've got down there in your--Ow!--loving embrace," Auto winced.

 

"Jeez, maybe you two should get a room!" Meg groused when she noticed where Varina's hand was.

 

"I'm talking about the diamond, sweetheart." Varina tightened her grip and gave a little twist for good measure. "Where is it?"

 

Before Auto could answer--Other than a pained squeak--Joxer burst into the entrance hall, his arms pinwheeling frantically as he fought to maintain his balance on the slippery floor, and threw himself against the door next to Meg.

 

Varina quickly removed her hand and put her shoulder against the door.

 

"Did you bring help?" Auto demanded, glancing suspiciously at the woman next to him.

 

"Sort of..." replied the would-be warrior sheepishly.

 

At that moment the angry men following Joxer charged into the hall.

 

"It's Xena!" cried one.

 

"She's free!" added another.

 

"GET HER!!!" they all roared.

 

"I should have known better than to send you for help," Auto sighed.

 

Then, the ram struck again, splitting the beam in two, and Cretius and his soldiers poured into the hall.

 

"Oh, this just keeps getting better and better," the King of Thieves muttered, looking from one murderous mob to the other.

 

---------------------------

 

Athene was feeling something that she was not used to feeling: concern for a mortal. Oh, it wasn't that she was a heartless or cold Goddess, it was just that mortal lives were so brief compared to the Gods that by the time a God or Goddess noticed an individual mortal and started paying attention to them, and just when they started to become interesting, the mortal would die and pass on to her uncle Hades' realm.

 

But the Bard James was a different matter. He had saved her from the evil plans of the demi-Goddess Hope, the evil entity known as Barney, and even her own nephew Strife. Athene had come to know this mortal well and it was upsetting her no end watching his suffering now.

 

Athene watched as the now dressed Bard James sat on the edge of the bed in his room with his face in his hands, rocking slowly back and forth.

 

"What have I done? I betrayed my true love Troya with Discord!!" James moaned as he rocked.

 

"Tell us what you remember about the dream you were having," Athene said in a soothing voice.

 

"I was in the fields with Troya. She was so happy to see me that she jumped into my arms and one thing lead to another," James said as a blush came over his face.

 

"So Discord used Morpheus' help to trick you into cheating on Troya," the owl said. Then suddenly wishing he was somewhere else when he caught the angry look that Athene sent him and seeing the sudden pain on his friend James' face.

 

"First off," Athene said through clenched teeth, "nothing might have happened; Discord is known for pulling cruel tricks on mortals. Secondly, even if something has happened, James is not to blame. Discord used Morpheus' help to play upon James' loneliness and need for Troya," she added with a glare at her owl and then turned a sad look to where James sat on the bed. "And thirdly, James, you need to get over this belief that you are cheating on Troya every time you look at another woman. Troya would not want nor expect you to never touch another woman while you were alive. She would want you to live your life and, when you die again, she will be waiting to spend eternity with you in the Fields."

 

James finally pulled his head from his hands and looked at the Goddess of

Wisdom. "I know you're right, but I still feel dirty and used. I can't help but feel that I did something wrong."

 

"But you didn't do anything wrong. The only being here who has done something wrong is Discord!" Athene's face turned suddenly cold and hard. "And she is going to pay for it, too, I promise you!"

 

Then, with one more compassionate look at the mortal James, the beautiful Goddess disappeared in a flash of light.

 

Pulling himself together, the bard left the room and started to make his way back down to the garden where everyone else was. But, as he, with the owl on his shoulder, walked the corridors, he noticed how quiet it had become. "How long was I asleep?" he asked the owl.

 

"Only about a candlemark or so, why?"

 

"I was just wondering what happened to the celebration party. It has gotten awfully quiet," he said, pausing at a window in the corridor to look out over the city.

 

Just then, carried clearly on the wind, came the voice of a mob chanting: "Death to the King! Death to the Queen! Death to all in the castle!!"

 

"Um, that doesn't sound good," the owl said as he turned his head to look an equally stunned James.

 

Before James could say anything to the owl's observation, there came down the corridor from inside the castle the sound of people yelling: "There's that guy who was with the Warrior Princess! Get him!"

 

James started running as fast as he could toward the angry voices inside the castle and next heard someone yell, "There's Xena! Get her, too!!"

 

As the bard reached the grand stairway that lead to the ground level he also heard the sounds of someone trying to break down the main doors. Upon reaching the main floor, he ran through the reception hall and passed the doorway leading out to the garden and almost ran into Xena, who came through the garden door still ripping the remains of her Philomena disguise off.

 

"Sounds like they have started the party without us," he yelled out to her and caught a flash of a smile as she nodded her head as they both continued to run to the main doors.

 

Turning the corner, they reached the main entrance in just enough time to see Autolycus, Joxer, Meg, and a woman James had never seen before get thrown across the room as the giant doors were knocked open by a battering ram. Turning his head to ask Xena if she knew what was going on, James felt as if he had been punched in the stomach by a giant fist. Leaning against the wall past Xena's shoulder was Discord with a wicked smirk on her face.

 

"Kill them all!!" Cretius yelled with a bloodlust gleam in his eye.

 

"Hey! That's my line!" Xena yelled as she grabbed her chakram and started to raise it.

 

Grabbing Xena's arm, James jerked her hand down as she made to throw the chakram, causing her to abort her attempt. "No! You can't harm them, Xena! They're under Discord's spell. It's not their fault!"

 

"Exactly what do you suggest I do, then?" Xena growled at and then neither of them had time to talk as they were ducking swinging swords.

 

"Nice of you to join us," Autolycus said to Xena, now in her leathers and armor, and James, back into his regular clothing, as opposed to the black leather of the late, unlamented warlord whose body his soul now inhabited. He nimbly avoided the slashing blade of a soldier and, grabbing the off-balance fellow's hand, spun him around and into one of his comrades, who had been about to skewer Joxer in the back.

 

"You didn't really think we'd miss your bachelor party, did you?" James grinned, ducking a sword thrust from one of the bewitched soldiers.

 

"I'm afraid the wedding is off," Auto informed him with a wry smile, unable to conceal his joy at that thought.

 

"Exactly! Can you think of a better reason to celebrate?" the bard chuckled, spinning around and slamming his staff into the back of a soldier's head.

 

Auto laughed as he avoided a flashing blade and then sent the enraged noble sprawling with a powerful punch to his face. "I suppose not," he admitted, finally pulling his own sword and blocking a blow from one of the soldiers.

 

Meanwhile, Joxer and Meg found themselves back to back, fending off sword thrusts from soldiers and from the misguided party guests who still thought she was the Warrior Princess.

 

"Meg?" the would-be warrior stammered as his oversized sword was practically knocked from his shaking hands by the rain of blows which he frantically blocked.

 

"Yeah, Joxy?" Meg grunted, kicking a soldier hard between his legs and dropping him like a rock.

 

"If we don't make it, I just wanted you to know..." He broke off as the ferocity of the attacks against him increased and it took all of his meager skills to avoid and block them.

 

"What?" Meg demanded, shifting position so that she was now facing Joxer's attackers.

 

"That I've always considered you a real lady," he said somewhat sheepishly, continuing to fend off blows.

 

"That's real sweet, Joxy," Meg replied, punching one man, striking another with the pommel of her sword, and finally biting the wrist of a third and then kneeing him in the groin when he dropped his sword.

 

Varina, meanwhile, had fought her way over to the King of Thieves' side and, while ostensibly guarding his back, she also continued her search for the Star of Arcadia.

 

"You little wildcat, you," Auto scolded when her hand caressed his rear end, almost causing him to lose his head when his concentration on the battle at hand understandably wavered. "Just can't resist me, can you?"

 

"You know it, tiger!" she said with a forced smile, continuing to slide her hand down his thigh and simultaneously parry the thrusts of deranged soldiers with the sword in her other hand.

 

"I promise the wait will be worth it, pussycat," he returned, a shudder of absolute pleasure running the length of his spine as she worked her way up his other leg.

 

"It had better be," she mumbled under her breath, frowning at her failure to locate the diamond. She glanced down at his boots, trying to gauge whether it might be hidden in the heel or possibly stuffed down inside one, but decided against it. She looked up just in time to block a swipe and then laid out the solider with a beautiful right cross. "You did say you got the diamond before releasing your little friends, didn't you?"

 

"Did I?" Auto mused, once more able to concentrate now that her hand was no longer in contact with his body. "Oh, I, uh, did, but when I saw that the search was still being conducted, I thought it best not to carry it around so I, er, hid it again."

 

Varina ground her teeth in fury and suddenly whipped her head around, sending her long braid flying out and coiling around the throat of one of the soldiers. Then, bracing her feet, she snapped her head in the other direction, jerking the startled man clean off his feet and sending him flying, scattering the nobles and soldiers fighting near the entrance to the hall. Before the surprised men could collect themselves, she dashed out and headed for the dungeon.

 

---------------------------

 

Discord was having the time of her immortal life. She was currently seated on one of the huge chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling and thoroughly enjoying the spectacle taking place beneath her.

 

"You really are pathetic, Dis," said Athene, flashing into existence on another chandelier. The owl on her shoulder hissed at the young Goddess and flew to the chandelier's frame so he could get a better view of the battle below.

 

"What are you doing here, scroll-sitter?" the evil Goddess demanded without bothering to so much as look at her aunt.

 

"I came for my owl, but when I learned of your presence, I decided to stay and even things out," the Goddess of Wisdom replied.

 

Discord laughed at that and finally turned and fixed her dark eyes on her gray-eyed aunt. "And how do you think you're going to do that, brainiac?" she sneered.

 

"By making you release those poor men before someone gets seriously hurt," Athene replied, her soft voice taking on a hard edge.

 

"Oh?" questioned the other, folding her arms across her ample chest as she stood up. "And how are you going to make me do that? Bore me to sleep by reading from your scrolls?"

 

"I had something a bit more direct in mind," Athene said with an almost feral smile as she carefully removed her shawl, so that she was only wearing a loose-fitting, short robe.

 

"Beat it, bookworm, before you need a trip to cousin Asclepius," Discord laughed scornfully. "I've got better things to do than play 'Truth or Dare' with an old woman."

 

"You Godlings are so disrespectful, it's absolutely shocking," Athene said, shaking her head. "Besides, haven't you heard the old saying that `A little knowledge is a dangerous thing'?" Discord nodded carefully, while warming up a divine lightning strike behind her back. "Well, honey, I'm a whole lot of knowledge and the most dangerous thing you're likely to meet!" The elder Goddess moved towards her, but was caught full in the chest with the electricity Discord unleashed before she could take more than two steps.

 

The blast knocked Athene clean off her chandelier and into the wall.

 

The mortals fighting below paused as the entire castle shook when the Goddess of Wisdom responded with a lightning strike of her own, but since they couldn't see the two immortals, gave it very little thought and quickly resumed fighting.

 

Discord, however, her hair and clothing smoking from the surprisingly powerful attack, shrieked in fury and charged her aunt, snapping her head around with a right cross that wiped the smirk off her face.

 

"Take that, you dried up old spinster!" she crowed, landing a solid left and then driving the point of her knee into Athene's gut and doubling her over. She then brought both fists down in a hammer-like blow on the back of her aunt's neck and Athene fell at her niece's feet, gasping for breath.

 

"Get up, mistress!" screeched the owl frantically, hopping nervously from one foot to the other. "Get up and teach this foul little brat a real lesson!"

 

"Stay out of this, feather-head!" Discord warned, casually tossing a fireball his way and kicking Athene in the ribs so hard that she was thrown into the wall of the castle again. The elder Goddess hit hard and then slid down onto a narrow walkway that encircled the hall.

 

There, she lay groggily shaking her head as her owl screamed encouragement and Discord prepared another divine assault.

 

---------------------------

 

Down below, Xena and James were battling side by side, doing their best to hurt the bewitched men and angry nobles as little as possible. To that end, the Warrior Princess was careful to only use her sword defensively as the bard flailed with his staff, but not using near his full strength. The result being that while the men were indeed repelled, very few were removed from the fight.

 

"This isn't really working, Xena!" James called out, using his weapon to trip up a man and send him stumbling into his companions. "The longer this continues the more likely it is that someone is going to get killed."

 

"I know," Xena scowled, punching one man and kicking another while blocking two separate armed attacks with her sword. "We're going to have to stop pulling our punches and take these guys out of the fight. Especially those soldiers. They're the real danger."

 

James nodded and rammed his staff into a man's gut and then brought it up sharply, striking him on the chin and sending him flying backwards.

 

Autolycus, taking a moment to look around for some sign of Varina, overheard the conversation of his friends and knew they were right. Then, he noticed that Gabrielle had just entered the hall, minus her wig, but still wearing a tight green dress which, she had ripped up to mid-thigh to afford her more freedom of movement--He also saw that her shoes were missing. "Hold down the fort for a bit, buddy! I've got an idea," he called to James.

 

"Whatever you've got in mind, hurry up!" the bard replied, sending a man sprawling with a blow to the back of his head.

 

Autolycus nodded and then made his way over to the unarmed woman, who was nevertheless holding her own against a couple of enraged party guests. She felled the last of them with a solid punch just as he approached.

 

"Come with me," he said, grabbing her arm as he dodged a blow from an angry noble. "I need your help." His fist swung around and connected solidly with the man's face, sending him sprawling, and he and Gabrielle dashed from the Hall.

 

---------------------------

 

"Lord Vantys..." began Queen Lena upon opening the door to the nobleman's room. But her voice trailed off when she saw her daughter and Vantys pull apart suddenly...but not suddenly enough to prevent the Queen from seeing their lips touch. She fixed a reproving gaze on her daughter and a slight scowl curled her lip when she looked in turn at the startled Lord Vantys.

 

King Bastian, entering a half step behind his wife, saw only that his daughter and Vantys were together, and looking a bit guilty.

 

"You made us a promise, Vantys," the Queen said coldly. "Now it's time to keep your word and capture the Warrior Princess."

 

"But, mother, he's already done that. Surely, you remember?" Damara questioned.

 

"No, that woman was not Xena. The Warrior Princess has been walking among us for days disguised as that damnable thief's aunt!" she hissed, recalling how the woman she knew as `Philomena' had tricked her into trusting her and opening up her true feelings. "But it was all lies," she added quietly, her soft brown eyes growing cold and hard.

 

Damara and Vantys looked shocked, but King Bastian nodded. "And the woman called `Mavis' is really the warrior bard known as Gabrielle," he said, shaking his head. "And they seemed like such a nice pair..."

 

Vantys saluted crisply. "I shall arrest her at once, your majesties," he said. "Where is she so that I can summon my guard to take her prisoner?"

 

The King and Queen exchanged curious glances and then proceeded to explain what had happened after he and the Princess had left the party.

 

---------------------------

 

As Autolycus and Gabrielle raced through the empty corridors of the castle, the King of Thieves took this opportunity to examine the threads he had retrieved from the secret door more closely and was shocked to realize that they could only have come from one of the dresses Gabrielle had worn when disguised as his cousin Mavis.

 

"What are those?" asked Gabrielle, noticing the shiny threads.

 

"Oh, nothing," Auto replied, stuffing them back in his pouch. "Say, that was a pretty neat trick, rescuing James from that cell. Did you have any trouble picking the locks?"

 

The Bard smiled proudly and shook her head. "Not a bit. You'd have been impressed," she assured him.

 

"Oh, I am impressed, Gabrielle. But, tell me, did anything unusual happen during the rescue?" he asked casually.

 

"Well, other than finding a secret passage, not really," she shrugged.

 

"A secret passage, huh? I suppose this old castle is full of them," he remarked with a chuckle.

 

"I suppose so," she nodded.

 

"What was down this particular one?--Just to satisfy my curiosity," he grinned.

 

"Nothing, according to James," she answered with a shrug.

 

"So, you didn't explore it yourself?" he pressed, trying to sound as if he didn't really care. She shook her head. "Interesting...Ah, here we are," he announced as the pair entered the kitchen, startling the cooks and servants who were present.

 

"Say, just what is this plan of yours anyway?" Gabrielle inquired, looking at him suspiciously.

 

---------------------------

 

Varina paused on the secret stairs and listened. She could just barely make out the voices of Autolycus and Xena's little friend coming from the kitchen. They sounded as if they were arguing about something. Finally, she heard their voices and footsteps fading away and opened the door. "What were those people doing in here?" she demanded, grabbing a serving girl by the arm.

 

"They said they needed to borrow it!" she squealed, wincing at the painful grip of the other.

 

"Borrow what?" Varina snarled, whipping out a dagger and holding the point close to the girl's throat.

 

---------------------------

 

Things were getting desperate in the entrance hall as the soldiers and the nobles both had decided to concentrate on the strangers. To counter this, James, Xena, Joxer, and Meg had formed themselves into a circle with their backs facing each other. But even though they were no longer pulling their punches, they were still being careful not to hurt any of the combatants any more than was necessary.

 

Their opponents, however, not being worried about killing any or all of them, were out for blood. And, sooner or later, some was bound to be spilt...by someone.

 

"They just keep coming and coming!" Joxer wailed, his arm stinging from the repeated blows his sword had blocked.

 

"Don't give up, Joxer," James encouraged, felling another man with a sharp blow to his head. "If we can just hold out until Autolycus and Gabrielle-"

 

"Gah!" spat Meg, head-butting a soldier who tried to close with her. "Autostinky is the reason we're in this mess! Knowing him, he's probably miles away from here by now!"

 

"Now, Meg, you're not being fair," Xena reproached, striking a soldier and sending him flying. "Autolycus may be a cad and a thief, but he's loyal to his friends. Besides, Gabrielle's with him."

 

"Oh, then I guess our worries are over," Meg said mockingly as she punched a noble square in the nose.

 

"Still jealous?" Joxer asked, shaking his head and dodging a sword thrust, causing his comrades to shift positions to keep their backs to his. "I'm over her. And, to prove it..." He suddenly leaned over and kissed one of the dark-haired women full on the lips.

 

When he pulled away, he smiled and said, "See? Would I kiss..." Then, he noticed the startled, and slightly repulsed, look in the woman's blue eyes. "Xe-Xe-Xena?" he gulped.

 

She nodded, and, without thinking about where they were and what was happening, reared back to punch him.

 

But, James, realizing what she was about to do, stepped in front of her and held up his hand. "This really isn't the time or--Ungh!" he grunted as her fist connected solidly with his chin and dropped him like a stone.

 

"Now look what you made me do!" she exclaimed, glaring at the would-be warrior and lashing out with her right foot just in time to stop an advancing solider. "Keep him in between us until he wakes up," she ordered, positioning herself with her back to the unconscious bard while Joxer, looking more sheepish than ever, and Meg, smiling smugly at his attempted display of affection, did the same.

 

---------------------------

 

The owl, seeing that Discord was about to unleash another energy bolt at his mistress, launched himself at her and caused her attack to miss its intended target. Unfortunately, it struck the chain holding the chandelier nearest the entryway to the castle's interior...just as Lord Vantys, Princess Damara, and the King and Queen stepped into the hall. The young noble was already in the midst of the soldiers and nobles trying to get at the Warrior Princess by the time he saw the chandelier's chain give way.

 

King Bastian grabbed for his wife and daughter, to pull them to safety, but his daughter was beyond his reach.

 

"Damara!" cried Vantys, struggling to break out of the pack and save her. But he saw that he'd never be in time.

 

Then, a curious cry rose above the din of combat and a figure clad in black leather flew over his head and knocked the Princess aside just as the chandelier crashed to the ground at the very spot she had been standing.

 

"I owe you my life," the Princess said, panting with relief at her close call. Then, she saw who had saved her and gasped in astonishment. "You!"

 

Xena nodded and helped her to her feet.

 

Vantys, finally breaking out of the throng of nobles and soldiers, rushed over, but instead of arresting the Warrior Princess, took Damara into his arms and kissed her passionately. "Thank you," he said humbly, glancing at Xena.

 

"You saved my daughter," Queen Lena said slowly as she approached the wary Warrior Princess.

 

"I'm not your enemy, Queen Lena," she replied. "I know I can't make up for what happened to your son, but you must believe me that I'm not the same woman I was all those years ago."

 

"I know. I've known that for years, I suppose. But, you see, I needed someone to hate, to blame for Demas' death. And you were responsible," she reminded her. Xena said nothing. "But so was I. And so were you, my dear," she said to Bastian. "We should never have let him go to battle. He wasn't ready. And we both knew it."

 

"HEY!!!" Meg suddenly yelled as she and Joxer continued to protect James. "If you two are through exchanging recipes, we could use a little help here!"

 

The King immediately ordered a halt to the fighting, but only his guests obeyed, since the soldiers were still under Discord's influence. As the guests pulled back, Cretius, the captain of the palace guard, stepped forward and urged his men to continue fighting until all of the traitors were dead.

 

Xena and Lord Vantys moved to meet him and his remaining men while Meg and Joxer dragged James to the relative safety of the hallway.

 

"Can you use another good arm?" King Bastian asked, drawing his sword and smiling wolfishly.

 

"I'd be honored to fight alongside you, King Bastian," Xena replied.

 

"As would I, your majesty," said Vantys.

 

"Call me `Dad'," he said and then strode forward to meet his bewitched soldiers before the stunned noble could respond.

 

---------------------------

 

While all this had been going on, Discord had hurled the owl from her--Along with a good amount of her hair, which the angry bird had firmly grasped in his claws--and was about to sizzle him with an energy strike when Athene's voice rang out strong and clear, "Leave him alone. Your fight is with me."

 

"If that's the way you want it..." the Godling grinned, turning and firing at her aunt.

 

But Athene had fully recovered from the evil Goddess' earlier assault and she easily avoided the divine bolt. "Now, it seems to me I owe you an ass-kicking," Athene mused, leaping up to a chandelier.

 

"This time I'll make sure there's no fight left in you, old woman!" Discord growled, hopping from her chandelier to the one Athene was on. She swung at her aunt with a roundhouse right, but to her surprise, Athene dodged the blow and tagged her with a sharp left jab to the cheek.

 

Before Discord could get over her shock, Athene had followed that up with a right and then another left that left the Godling stunned...in both senses of the word.

 

"You really should visit my library some time, dear," Athene said, doubling her over with a solid punch to her stomach. "There are scrolls on everything from astronomy to zoology. Including several interesting ones I picked up in Chin on the art of unarmed combat." She calmly stepped back and then jumped up and kicked out with her left foot.

 

The blow caught Discord on the chin and lifted her off her feet. But before she came down, Athene's right foot lashed out and connected with her gut and sent her flying to land on another chandelier.

 

---------------------------

 

Down below, with every blow Discord suffered, some of the soldiers snapped out of their trance until only Cretius and a few of the very best fighters were left. As Xena, Vantys, and Bastian faced off against them, Autolycus and Gabrielle entered the hall rolling a large barrel. The King of Thieves looked disappointed that most of those who had been fighting were either unconscious or had stopped.

 

"What's with the barrel?" Joxer asked.

 

"I was going to use it to stop the fighting," he sighed, standing it upright and leaning against it, "but it looks like we're too late."

 

"What's in it?" Meg demanded.

 

"Olive oil," Gabrielle answered. "He was going to dump it all over the floor."

 

"Why?" Joxer scratched his head.

 

"I figured if no one could stand up, they couldn't fight either."

 

"It was a good plan, Auto," Gabrielle said, trying to cheer him up.

 

---------------------------

 

Athene jumped lightly from her chandelier to the one where Discord was climbing groggily to her feet and said, "The trouble with you young Godlings is that you already think you know everything."

 

"Shut up!!!" Discord screamed, charging at the elder Goddess.

 

But Athene caught her in the chest with an upraised knee and then spun her around with a powerful right cross. "You've got it backwards, dear," she said, walking around to face her. "It's children like you who should be seen and not heard."

 

Discord, howling with fury, threw a wild punch that Athene easily dodged. Then, while the Godling was slightly off-balance, she snapped her head back with a beautiful uppercut and then planted her left foot and kicked out with her right.

 

The younger Goddess was caught full in the belly and sent flying clean off the light fixture. Unfortunately, she missed a chandelier and instead fell all the way down to the floor of the hall, crashing ass-first into the top of the cask and landing with a squishy plop in the olive oil.

 

Autolycus jumped back as she became visible and laughed when he saw her struggling to free herself from the barrel. "I'm glad this thing came in handy, after all." He looked up and saw Athene shimmer into view, wink at him, and then say "Don't be too long" to her owl before she disappeared in a golden spray.

 

The owl hooted happily and flew down to land on Autolycus' shoulder. Then, seeing James lying on the floor with Gabrielle bent over him, wiping at his forehead with a damp cloth, he asked anxiously, "Is he all right?"

 

Auto's face took on a solemn look and he whispered something to the visibly worried bird, which then flapped its great wings and flew off.

 

Meanwhile, the moment Discord materialized, Cretius, the last of the soldiers still fighting, finally came to his senses. Horrified at what he had tried to do, he dropped to his knees before his King and apologized profusely.

 

Before the King could respond to him, however, the entire castle shook to its very foundations and an awful roar filled their ears as a bright light blinded them all. When their vision cleared, they saw Ares standing in the middle of the entry hall...and he looked even angrier than usual.

 

"What in the Tartarus is going on here!" Ares growled as he slowly turned, looking at the stunned mortals. As soon as his eyes came to rest upon Discord, still stuck in the barrel of olive oil, his scowl deepened even more. "Discord! I order you to do two simple tasks, two tasks! And you screwed them up royally! You were only to try and corrupt James into agreeing to lead my armies and to get Xena to return to my side and you failed at both of them!"

 

Discord opened her mouth to defend herself but was silenced when Ephiny and her Amazons came through the ruined front doors of the castle and skidded to a halt. The newcomers took one look at a woman dressed in black leather sitting in a barrel of oil with her knees touching her chin and then looked at what was obviously a warrior wearing black leather glaring at the woman and quickly quieted down.

 

"Well, Discord? I'm waiting to hear your pathetic excuse!" Ares roared again.

 

Discord, with a scowl of her own, struggled to get out of the barrel and in doing so, resulted in the overturning of the barrel, dumping her and the oil all over the floor. Quickly getting to her feet and then slipping in the oil and falling down again, the furious Goddess looked up from her position on the floor and yelled at Ares, "Pathetic excuse?! I will have you know that I have accomplished quite a bit here on my own!"

 

Ares crossed his arms over his chest and with an angry nod of his head said, "Do tell. Exactly what have you accomplished here?"

 

If she hadn't been so angry from losing the fight with Athene and then being humiliated in front of mortals by falling in oil, Discord would have taken caution at the look on Ares' face, but being enraged beyond all reason (and also being Discord), she rushed right into her argument. "I managed to foment a rebellion of the King's guards and have them attack the palace. I accomplished that!"

 

Ares bent over until his face was closer to the Goddess sitting on the oily floor. "Let me tell you what you have accomplished! I had a civil war scheduled to take place in the kingdom of Arcadia four summers from now. You screwed that up! I had a war between Arcadia and some of the surrounding kingdoms scheduled for five summers from now! You screwed that up! And I had a war between Arcadia and the Amazons scheduled for right after that! You screwed that up, too! You have set my plans back for the next six or seven summers in this area!! That's what you've accomplished!!!"

 

"Well, if I had known some of your plans, maybe this would not have happened," Discord barked at Ares and then leaped to her feet and promptly fell back down again.

 

Ares slowly shook his head and, putting one hand up to his forehead, he massaged his temples as though he had a headache. "I can't take you anywhere." Finally acknowledging the mortals standing round watching the two Gods fighting, he sighed. "I blame myself, you know," he said in a confidential way to the surrounding mortals. "I should never have let her and Strife play together when they were young Gods." Ares made a gesture and suddenly the oil on the floor disappeared and a dry Discord was standing next to him.

 

"Come on. Dad is waiting to talk to you about attacking Athene," he said to Discord and, with a nod to Xena, both Gods disappeared in a flash of light.

 

The mortals stood in stunned silence for a few moments until they heard a moan coming from the side passage that Joxer and Meg stood in front of. As the pair stepped to the side, everyone could see as the Bard James sat up rubbing his head. "I feel like a Trojan horse fell on me. What hit me?"

 

"Xena slugged you," Joxer helpfully supplied and then, seeing the angry look being shot at him from Xena, he quickly moved behind Meg.

 

James, looking around at all the quiet people standing around, asked, "Okay, everyone is standing around, the fighting has stopped, and you all look like you've seen a ghost. What did I miss while I was out?"

 

Queen Lena stepped forward and spoke: "It would seem that we have been visited by the God of War himself. He argued with a strange woman wearing black leather named Discord and said some very troubling and mysterious things and then left with the woman."

 

The King and Queen then began to relate all the wars that Ares had planned for Arcadia and ended with, "He said that this Discord ruined all of his plans."

 

The hall suddenly became silent as James began to chuckle quietly. "I understand completely what Ares' plans were. He must be furious with Discord." James kept laughing quietly.

 

King Bastian stepped forward to stand beside his Queen. "Well, if you understand, would you please explain to the rest of us what he meant?"

 

Getting to his feet and wincing slightly at the remaining pain, James began to explain: "Discord cannot create what is not there to begin with. She only increases someone's hostility or grievances. Your troops and the people of this kingdom feel that you have lost touch with them. Discord played on that to get your troops to attack you. If she had not, the hostility and petty annoyances that your guards have with you would have simmered until they, with the people's backing, would have started a civil war four summers from now."

 

"Impossible! Our people and guards love us. We have not lost touch with the common people!" the Queen snapped at James.

 

"Oh, really? When was the last time you or your husband walked in the city and met your people? Damara told me that the day she met Autolycus she snuck out of the castle to see the outside. That you had forbidden her to even talk with the common people. You and your husband hide in this castle and make plots of petty revenge to capture the Warrior Princess. You give your soldiers conflicting orders and do not even explain to them the reason why behind the orders. A civil war was inevitable in a few years."

 

A very shocked King and Queen turned to look at their guards and had the Bard James' words confirmed when none of them would look them in the eye.

 

The Queen, looking back at James, asked, "What about the wars Ares mentioned after the civil war?"

 

"What is Arcadia known for?" the bard asked, and then answered before the King or Queen could open their mouths: "Arcadia is well known for its gem mines. After all, that's where the Star of Arcadia came from in the first place. So, after a civil war, with everything in upheaval, what would your neighbors do?"

 

"They would attack while the military was in disarray in hopes of seizing the gem mines," came the voice of Cretius.

 

"Exactly!" James said, nodding at the old soldier. "And Arcadia, having a pretty good army, would probably win or at least hold their own against your neighbors, but you would need another trade route to sell your gems to the outside world. And what is the only other way out of this kingdom that does not take you near any of your neighbors?"

 

"Through the Amazon lands to the west," the King said thoughtfully.

 

"Right again," James said, nodding tiredly at the King. "And so, without having a prior trade agreement with the Amazons, and suddenly having armed men traveling through their lands, what would the most likely outcome be?"

 

"War," the King said, sounding tired himself.

 

"Oh, Ares had everything planned and plotted, except now Discord has ruined everything," James said with a smile.

 

"How has Discord spoiled the God of War's plans?" Queen Lena asked.

 

"Well, now that you know that you and your people have drifted apart, you can work to reverse that. And, now knowing that your neighbors are plotting to attack you at the slightest show of weakness, you can strengthen your armies and plan out other trade routes for your gems. May I suggest you start by entering into trade negotiations with the Queen and Regent of the Amazons for the right to ship your gems through their lands?"

 

The King and Queen turned and moving over, started to discuss with Ephiny and Gabrielle the idea of allowing gem shipments to pass through the Amazon lands. Everyone was watching the King and Queen, so they missed seeing or even hearing the sound of wings as Athene's owl flew into the room with a bag clutched tightly in his talons. When the owl saw James leaning on a pillar in the hallway, he let out a happy hoot and, out of reflex, opened his talons, dropping the bag.

 

Only three people saw the bag fall: James, who looked up when he heard the owl hoot; Gabrielle, who being already bored with the trade negotiations, was looking up at the ceiling; and Autolycus, as he snagged the falling bag out of the air with one hand and quickly shoved it into his tunic

 

Just as they were all about to make their way out of the entrance hall, Varina charged in, her dark eyes blazing furiously, and started to say something...when she slipped on the oil-covered floor and landed on her ass with a squishy plop. The King and Queen chuckled softly and Meg snorted derisively while Xena cracked a half-smile and Joxer's eyes glazed over as he saw her curvaceous form glistening from the liquid. Princess Damara frowned and Lord Vantys looked puzzled as Gabrielle and James glanced at each other curiously and then shrugged while Ephiny and the Amazons did their best to stifle the laughter welling up inside them.

 

"I was wondering what had happened to you," Autolycus remarked as he extended his hand to help her up.

 

With a scowl planted firmly on her luscious lips, she reluctantly accepted the arrogant thief's help. "I had some unfinished business to take care of," she replied, climbing shakily to her feet.

 

"Did you get everything sorted out?" he asked, unable to take his eyes off her as she did her best to wipe the oil from her body.

 

"Not exactly," she said.

 

"I don't believe we've met this young lady, my boy," said Bastian, stepping forward.

 

"This is Varina, your majesty, she's an old friend," Auto smiled.

 

"A pleasure, Varina," replied the King, bending and kissing her hand, despite the fact that it was covered with olive oil.

 

Vantys approached and seemed to be trying to remember something. "I'm Lord Vantys. Have we met?" he asked her.

 

"I don't think so, my lord. And I'm sure I'd remember if we had," she replied, hoping he wouldn't be able to place her as one of the women he'd hired for the first test of the Adoniad.

 

"That's just it...I do remember you," he said slowly.

 

Queen Lena and Princess Damara walked up and held out their hands. "It's nice to meet another of Auto's friends," the Queen said.

 

"I'd no idea he had so many," added Damara, the frown not quite leaving her face.

 

"Why don't we retire to our rooms and get cleaned up and then we can talk further at dinner this evening," the King said quickly. "I'll have a room prepared for you at once, Varina." He gestured to one of the guards who had recently tried to kill him and the man scurried off to locate a servant.

 

They all agreed that sounded like a great idea and made their way from the hall.

 

--------------------

 

Once in his room, Autolycus removed the bag from inside his shirt and anxiously undid the drawstring and dumped the jewel into his hand. His eyes grew very large as he gauged its weight.

 

"It's even more beautiful than you thought it would be, isn't it?"

 

He turned at the sound of the familiar voice and wasn't all that surprised to find Xena crouched in his window. "Bigger, too," he added with a sigh.

 

"You know I can't let you keep it, Autolycus," she said, climbing all the way into his room and holding out her hand.

 

He opened his mouth and was about to say something when another familiar voice stopped him: "I knew you had it!"

 

They both turned and saw Varina's upper body upside-down in the window the Warrior Princess had recently vacated. A small crossbow was cocked and loaded and aimed at Xena.

 

"Just give me the Star and nobody has to get hurt," she said, carefully lowering herself and rotating so that she was hanging right side up from the rope.

 

"Oh, somebody's gonna get hurt, all right, but it won't be either of us," Xena said with a wolfish smile as she turned to face the woman.

 

"I'm a thief, Xena, don't make me a killer," she replied as her finger tightened on the crossbow's trigger and she carefully stepped into the room.

 

"Varina, stop this now, before it goes too far," Auto said quickly, moving forward. But Xena held out her hand and kept him from getting in between her and Varina.

 

"I'm not leaving without that diamond. If I have to kill you two to get it, don't think I won't," she said, blinking as sweat from her forehead got into her eyes.

 

"You said it yourself: You're not a killer. But I am, Varina, and, as much as I might regret it, I'll do what it takes to stop you," Xena stated, her arm tensing as her fingers edged towards her chakram.

 

"Don't move another inch!" Varina exclaimed, noting the slight movement. Her face and neck were covered with sweat and she was clearly near the point of snapping...one way or another. "Now, shut up and hand over that diamond or I swear to the Gods I'll fire."

 

"No, you won't," said Xena softly, letting her arms fall to her side, exposing her chest to the deadly shaft.

 

"I will!" she countered, aiming directly at Xena's heart and holding the weapon with both hands to steady her aim.

 

"No. You would have done it long before this if you really planned to," Xena replied, shaking her head.

 

Varina stared at her, her dark eyes locking with the ice blue ones of the Warrior Princess, and she slowly nodded, lowered her arms, and dropped the crossbow.

 

Unfortunately, when the weapon hit the ground, it discharged, firing the bolt which ricocheted off the stone ceiling, then the wall, and finally the floor before it would have pierced Varina's heart had Xena's hand not shot out and snatched the projectile from the air.

 

Before Varina could do more than gulp in surprise and relief, Xena's fist shot out and tagged her on the chin, laying her out cold.

 

She snapped the crossbow bolt in two and then turned to face Autolycus. "Now, do I have to do the same thing to you, or are you gonna give me the diamond?" she asked, dropping the broken shaft.

 

Auto immediately held the bag out to her.

 

"Good boy. See you at dinner," she said with a half-smile, taking it and leaving the room.

 

As she made her way down the hall, however, she suddenly stopped and emptied the bag's contents into her hand, cursing when she saw that it was nothing but a rock. By the time she got back to Auto's room the only thing in it was Varina, still unconscious on the floor.

 

--------------------

 

Princess Damara started at an unfamiliar sound and turned to see the King of Thieves hanging from a rope outside her window.

 

"What do you want?" she demanded, turning back to her mirror and continuing to prepare for dinner.

 

"I've come to apologize for using you and being your basic heel," he said with surprising sincerity. "I'm not sure I can explain exactly why I did it, or that once I had it would make any real difference, since what I did was unforgivable. I won't lie and say that I never meant to hurt you. To be brutally honest, I never even considered you, or my friends. Only the Star."

 

"And for all your scheming and cruel manipulations, you still don't have it, do you?" she said, her soft voice growing hard, not unlike her mother's was wont to do.

 

He smiled and held out his hand.

 

"What's that?" she asked suspiciously.

 

"A wedding gift for you and Vantys," he replied.

 

She cautiously approached him and took his hand, watching him as she unfolded his fingers, revealing the enormous, flawless diamond.

 

"I don't understand. You could have left with it and no one would have known," she said slowly, taking the stone from his hand.

 

"Exactly," he grinned, stroking his mustache with a flourish. She just looked at him and raised her eyebrows. "I do have a favor to ask..."

 

"Oh? And what might that be?" she inquired.

 

As he explained what he wanted, she began to understand why he had given the diamond back.

 

--------------------

 

That evening at dinner, Xena, who had spent the afternoon hunting for Auto and was subsequently the last to arrive, was surprised to see that Autolycus actually showed up. Varina was there, too, sporting a swollen lower lip and staring daggers at the King of Thieves. Xena tried to get Auto's attention, but he seemed intent on ignoring her, instead doing his best to engage Varina in conversation. Meg, sans her Xena outfit, and Joxer sat next to each other and it was obvious from the way the would-be warrior was squirming around that Meg's hands and feet were busy beneath the table. Gabrielle and James, with Athene's owl perched on his shoulder (After the King relented and allowed the bird into the dining hall) were seated near Damara and Vantys, talking pleasantly. The King and Queen were at the head of the table, smiling and discussing something with Ephiny.

 

Gabrielle excused herself and walked up to Xena. "There you are. Is everything all right?" she asked, concern tinging her green eyes.

 

"I'm not sure," her companion confessed. "Autolycus is up to something, but I'm not sure what exactly."

 

Noting that King Bastian had risen and was gesturing for Autolycus to do the same, the Bard said, "I think we're about to find out."

 

The two women hurried to their seats and the King cleared his throat and began to speak: "As all of you are aware, my daughter and Lord Vantys are to be married in a few days. Until this afternoon, however, we were afraid they would be the first royal couple to do so without the presence of the Star of Arcadia to bless their union. But I am happy to report that is not to be the case after all," he said with a smile, glancing at Autolycus. The King of Thieves tried to look humble...and failed spectacularly. Varina's mouth dropped open as she realized what he'd done and Xena smiled and nodded, raising a single eyebrow in salute to his decision. "Our dear friend, and the former suitor to the Princess, Autolycus, returned the diamond to us and explained that his only interest was in stealing the gem, not in actually possessing it. To that end, the Star will henceforth be placed in a glass case, available for public viewing, and a plaque stating that Autolycus not only stole the diamond, but actually passed the Adoniad to provide himself with cover to perform the theft, will be posted on the case so that all will know of his feat."

 

Gabrielle and James looked at each other and shook their heads as Autolycus accepted the accolades of the rest of the dinner guests.

 

--------------------

 

"You went through all that for a plaque?!" Varina exclaimed as they all made their way back to their rooms, under an armed guard, courtesy of King Bastian and the future Prince Vantys.

 

"No, I did it for me. More specifically, for my reputation. I think it's safe to say that it is now quite secure," he added with a smirk.

 

"But you didn't steal it!" Gabrielle protested. "James did."

 

"True. But then I stole it from him. So, technically, I did steal it," he pointed out.

 

"I noticed that part was conveniently left off the plaque," James needled, winking at the owl on his shoulder.

 

"This coming from a guy who has no less than two plaques to his credit. What's the matter, buddy, jealous that I didn't have to die to get one?" Auto chuckled, elbowing the bard in the ribs.

 

"What's wrong, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, seeing her friend's face clouded with concern.

 

"I was just thinking about how different my life might have been if I'd had friends like you when I was younger. A lot of people, including Prince Demas, would still be alive," she said sadly.

 

"And all the people you've saved since reforming would be dead," the Bard countered. "It's no use playing What If, Xena. We both know the world is a better place because of you. Not to mention my own life."

 

"She's right, Xena," Autolycus chimed in. "Much as it pains me to admit this, my own life is better for having been your friend."

 

"Suck up all you want, Autolycus, it's not going to stop me from making you pay for what you put us all through," she replied.

 

The King of Thieves shrugged and said, "You can't blame me for trying."

 

"No, not for trying, but for plenty of other things," she said with a half-smile as the guards guided them through the castle.

 

The End

 

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DISCLAIMER: No War Gods, Goddesses of Discord, or Arcadian Streetwalkers were harmed in the production of this fan fic. Although a certain Warrior Princess was reminded how one can never be truly free of her past; A gold-tressed Bard was once more able to exercise her burgeoning thiefly skills; A bardly warrior learned that being the King of Thieves' friend might be more dangerous than looking like a vicious warlord; A would-be warrior and a warrior princess-wannabe got to save the day...sort of; An up and coming Queen of Thieves got to experience for herself why Autolycus is the King; and the King of Thieves did manage to salvage his reputation, but only at the cost of almost losing his friends.

 

~ Autolycus & James Davis

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