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by Kaiser

This story contains violence and sexual innuendo. If any of this offends you, you may wish to try a different story. Nothing seriously graphic, but I'll call it PG-13 just to be safe.

THE LEGAL STUFF: If you have ever seen any of these characters in any episode of XWP or HTLJ, they don't belong to me. I'm just borrowing them from the creators, producers, writers and executives of the shows and of MCA/Universal who DO own them. I am making no profit off of this story or these characters and own only the scenario and those characters which spring from my own imagination. If anyone else wants to borrow my characters, e-mail for permission.

To my test readers, Sara and Diane: Thanks for everything.


Xena took a comfortable seat and a deep breath, staring hard at the man in front of her. "Let me make sure I'm getting this," she said coldly. "You called me out here, halfway across Greece, to play bodyguard for a discus thrower?"

King Cresophontes of Messenia frowned at her. "He's far more than just a 'discus thrower', you know," he replied dryly. "Koroibus of Andania is Messenia's national treasure. He's the greatest athlete in all of Greece, which is why I've decided to send him to the Olympian Games."

"Very impressive I'm sure," Xena replied, rolling her eyes. "But why give him a bodyguard at all? I've never heard of any contestant being attacked, the games have always been peaceful. And, assuming he really does need protection, why not just send a few dozen of your soldiers?"

The king fidgeted, deciding what he could tell her and what he could not. Xena closed her eyes and waited as patiently as she could, daydreaming about the fun she and Gabrielle had been having on their vacation. After their recent adventures in the north it had been a pleasant change to get away from the blood and killing for a while. She actually smiled as she remembered the grateful look on Gabrielle's face when they arrived in Amphipolis. The royal messenger had stumbled in with his urgent summons on the third day of their week long fishing trip.

"Well," the king muttered. "This time we have reason to believe otherwise. Rumors have been flying that the Spartans are going to try to assassinate the best competitors." Xena snorted. She had heard similar rumors but knew better than to believe them. "You know how they are. They can't stand to lose..."

"...And Koroibus is the best athlete in all Greece," she finished before he could. The warrior princess shook her head. The Olympian Games always started that sort of provincial saber-rattling. She wondered what fool had ever started calling them 'The Games of Peace'?

"We've already had one attempt, Xena." he told her. That got her attention. "A man with a crossbow fired at him while he was warming up for a race just a few weeks ago. We don't know for certain that it was a Spartan but it seems likely. The shooter escaped in the confusion. Koroibus has hired his own bodyguard to protect him until after the games."

Xena nodded. "But you want me around in case things really get out of hand." It made sense. The king couldn't send his troops to Olympia because of the strict peace laws and one bodyguard might not be enough to fend off several killers. If any of the contestants were murdered there would be war throughout the Peloponnesus, especially if Sparta really was involved. *Games of Peace indeed.*

"All right, I'll do it. Where is this Koroibus?"

"He and his guard left two days ago on the Borylus river road. They were supposed to wait in the village of Dorium for instructions. No one knows they are gone except for me." King Cresophontes gave her a map and a rough portrait sketched out on a tiny parchment. "This is Koroibus and this is the route I want you to take. It's a little round-about, but hopefully it will help you avoid any traps the Spartans have prepared."

Xena studied the map and nodded. "Good thinking. I'll go rescue your merchants from Gabrielle and we'll be on our way."

* * * * *

Xena and Gabrielle arrived in Dorium late that afternoon, hot and tired from their trip. The younger woman looked particularly wilted in the heat and Xena suggested a stop in the local tavern. At this time of the day it was probably the best place to look for their man anyway.

Two attractive women walking into a smoky tavern got the instant attention of every man in the room. The attention was, as usual, rather crude and unwelcome. Xena made her way to the bar, ignoring the whistles but always keeping one eye on her young friend. The barkeep sidled over and gave his best impression of a winning smile, his bad teeth utterly ruining the effect.

"Is the anything I can do for you ladies?" he leered, winking suggestively. Gabrielle coughed and took a step away from his breath. Xena raised one eyebrow and stared at him.

"I'm here for a man," she said with her own sly smile. "But I must have come to the wrong place for that." The barkeep's smile vanished and his fists clenched dangerously.

"She means we've come looking for a particular man," Gabrielle chimed in to calm him. "But we don't see him. His name is Koroibus."

The barkeep grunted, making Gabrielle dodge his breath again. "Don't know anyone by that name around here."

"He isn't from around here. He's a discus thrower from Andania. I'm told he's a national treasure," Xena said, rolling her eyes.

"Hey, if you're into those athletic types I used to be a wrestling champion," the barkeep whispered, flexing an impressive bicep. Xena sighed, reached out and dug her thumb into the man's meaty throat. He immediately went stiff and began making choking sounds. The big man's eyes widened in panic.

"You haven't been paying attention," Xena told him, her tone as cold and hard as her steel sword. "So shut your mouth and open your ears. I'm looking for a man named Koroibus who arrived here two days ago with another man from out of town. He's supposed to be famous, so if he's here you must know about it." She released the pressure slightly.

"I never heard of him, I swear!" the big man choked. His face was turning an ugly shade of purple. "Two strangers DID come to town but they never gave their names! Both big men. Went to the inn and said to wait for a woman named Xena." His eyes flickered. "You her?"

The warrior princess let go of her captive, allowing him to collapse onto the bar. "Which inn?" she asked. He gasped out the name of the inn and the directions and she patted him on the head. "Thanks for being so cooperative." She took Gabrielle by the hand and led her out of the tavern. The patrons, having failed to see what happened to the bartender, whistled suggestively as they left.

Gabrielle glanced at her friend and noticed the satisfied smirk on her face. "Was that really necessary?" she asked.

Xena shrugged. "Maybe not, but it's the quickest way to get the attention of a lout like that. Besides, it saved us at least a few minutes of needless chatter, and frankly I don't think I could have ignored the stench much longer. Lets go find our man and hope he's better company."


They found the inn without much trouble and went inside. There was a more relaxed attitude here but Xena still didn't let her guard down. She quickly scanned the crowd, looking for her charge. There was a man seated in a far corner that might have been him, along with a huge bear of a man. That, she presumed, was the bodyguard he had hired himself.

The warrior princess leaned over the counter and pointed him out to the innkeeper. "Is that Koroibus of Andania?" she asked.

The man glanced at him and then looked at her blankly. "Koroibus of where? Never heard of him." He shrugged and went on to a paying customer. Xena studied her sketch in confusion.

"Maybe they told the innkeeper not to mention his name." Gabrielle suggested helpfully. "You know, to throw the assassins off the trail."

"Maybe," Xena replied uncertainly. "I've seen what happens in these little villages when someone famous shows up. Even that ox he has with him couldn't keep the crowds back like this. Surely if he's the best athlete in the kingdom people this close to his home should know him." They approached the table in the corner.

The bodyguard saw them coming first and moved his hand closer to his sword, studying Xena's weapons and armor. "No closer." he grunted. The two women stopped and looked at him. He was a big man, well over six feet tall, dark haired and menacing. Xena took a more professional interest. He was wearing heavy armor and a small arsenal of weapons. There were scars on his face and bare arms so he had obviously seen his share of combat. Muscles bulged under cloth and leather. He looked incredibly strong but probably couldn't move that bulk very fast.

*Slow in the head as well as the body*, Xena thought to herself. *Everything about him screams 'protector', but the man he's with doesn't look anything like a rich trader or a nobleman. That means he MUST be Koroibus. Only an amateur would hire a bodyguard who looks so obvious and then try to pretend he's incognito.*

"My name is Xena," she told the smaller man. "King Cresophontes sent me to protect you from those assassins."

He looked back at her with surprise. He was a perfect match for her sketch, medium built and handsome with dark, curly hair. He was strong and athletic in the way that Hercules was, not slowed by any excess fat or muscle. He finally turned and joked with his guard. "At least someone recognizes me."

"Koroibus is already under my protection," the ox growled. Xena ignored him and continued her conversation with Koroibus.

"You don't seem very well-known around here," she told him. "The way your king went on about you I'd have thought the whole kingdom would be out to cheer you on."

His eyes flashed for a moment. "They may not know yet, but once I've won the games all of Greece will know who is the best." He smiled and nodded to the empty seats. "Sit down and join us. This is my bodyguard Lynceus and I, as you've guessed, am Koroibus of Andania. And you?" He gazed expectantly at the bard.

She was still busy admiring his physique. Xena elbowed her in the ribs. "Ow! What? Oh, my name's Gabrielle." She smiled at him shyly. Her companion glared at her out of the corner of her eye.

The athlete winked at her and patted the chair beside him. "Gabrielle. Why don't you two sit down and tell me what the plan is. Cresophontes said that he'd give you a map with our trail if you decided to join us." Xena nodded and sat down at his other side, forcing the grumbling Lynceus to move. At least she was able to watch the door now, and the burly guard was blocking any bowshot through the window. She sighed in exasperation. If any real assassins were out there that amateur had given them a perfect target for who knew how long.

After they went over their plans they paid for two rooms. Lynceus would stay in the room where Koroibus slept while Xena and Gabrielle took the room directly across the hall. There were no windows to crawl through, so anyone trying to get to the athlete would have to use the door, and find Xena at their back.

Xena paid careful attention to all three of her companions. She didn't trust Lynceus from the start because he didn't seem to take his job seriously. Neither did Koroibus. Men fearing for their lives usually avoided attention but the discus thrower was doing his best to attract it. It also seemed strange to her that a 'national treasure' could travel completely unrecognized, much less that only a handful of people recognized his name.

Neither did she care for the sly looks he kept giving Gabrielle, or for the dreamy way she returned them. The girl was still staring at his closed door.

"He really is an attractive man," the young bard finally said.

*Like a Greek god* "If you like that sort of thing." She glared at Gabrielle suspiciously. "You're not falling for him, are you?"

"Huh?" the girl shook herself. "What? Me? No, of course not!" She grinned at her friend. "Don't tell me you're getting jealous."

Xena returned the grin. "No, but I AM trying to keep him alive. I don't want him dying of anything unexpected."


The warrior laughed. "You need to cool off, girl. Perhaps I should ask them to draw you a cold bath." She paused. "Actually, after all that trail dust I think I'll join you."

"I thought you wanted me to cool off?"

"Maybe later."


Their trip to Olympia began early the next morning. The more time she spent in their company, the less Xena liked Koroibus and his guard. He drew too much attention on himself and seemed to take the threat of assassination as a joke. She suspected that he was going to the games more for the recognition than for anything else. Xena had worked for glory hounds like him before, and it never went well.

Lynceus was even worse. The big man disliked women to start with and Gabrielle had to prevent Xena from taking his head off more than once for his comments. He also seemed to take his job as a joke. He never traveled in the front to guard against traps, he always lurked in the background and let the women watch for danger. The fact that Lynceus was watching Xena mistrustfully didn't help. She really hadn't thought her reputation had reached this far to the south, or that the Messenians would hold it against her. Xena had fought both the Spartans and the Corinthians but had always left Messenia alone.

Xena finally ran out of patience and called the two men over. She glanced pointedly at Lynceus. "I was called in to guard Koroibus, which means we are both on the same side. What good are you doing skulking in the background? You should be watching for trouble up ahead, not watching me."

The burly swordsman sneered at her. "I don't trust you and I never will. You've made a habit over the years of turning against friends and stirring up trouble. A war between Sparta and Messenia is just what you would have wanted if you had an army waiting to mop up, and I don't believe this story about you turning good for a minute." Xena's eyes narrowed and she took a slow step toward him.

Koroibus quickly stepped between them. "Enough of this!" he snapped. "I asked for Lynceus to protect me. I didn't ask for you, Xena, but if the king wants you here then I want you here." He looked at both with distaste. "What I don't want is a couple of people following me around for a week with their swords drawn. I have enough to worry about with the competition coming up."

Xena glared at him. "Whatever possessed you to hire this oaf as a bodyguard anyway? He can't do any good the way he's going about it."

"I hired him because he's the best fighter in Messenia, and a deadly shot with a crossbow. No one would dare try to kill me when he's around."

The warrior sighed and shook her head. Idiots. "What do you think the job of a bodyguard is?" she asked. "Is it to kill your murderers or to keep you alive in the first place? Now I'm sure that Lynceus does put off the village bullies," she added contemptuously, "but can he stop an arrow fired from fifty paces? The way he lags behind, your body would be hitting the ground by the time he noticed the shot coming. You're just lucky no one decided to kill you before I arrived."

Lynceus turned red and swung at her, a clumsy backhand slap. She leaned back out of the way and casually caught his arm, laughing as his own movement twisted it painfully behind his back. Xena kicked his legs out from under him, dropping the larger man to the dust.

"He's no match for a trained fighter," she taunted. "Any assassin worth the name would either kill him or lure him off with a simple decoy. If there really is someone after you they're probably rolling on the ground laughing every time they see him." Lynceus started to get to his feet and she kicked him back down. "I'm not finished yet." she growled.

Gabrielle started to look concerned. "Xena, I think you should let him up."

Xena looked back at her angrily, then stared down at Lynceus. "If you let him get killed it will mean war," she growled. "That means a lot more than just one man dying. If you're going to do your job then do it right. Otherwise, get out of my way." She turned her glare on the stunned Koroibus. "And you. Your life is in danger, but you strut around as if the whole world should be chanting your name. Personally I don't care if you die or not, but like I said, it's more than just your life. Draw attention to yourself one more time and you'll make the rest of the trip to Olympia tied up in a sack! Got it?" The speechless athlete simply nodded, his eyes wide.

"Good. I'm going ahead to see if the way is safe. Try not to get yourselves killed before I come back." She stalked off down the road. Gabrielle hurried after her, leaving the furious bodyguard and their shocked employer behind.

"All right, what brought that on?" she finally demanded.

"That idiot," Xena snapped. "He has to know what would happen if the Spartans kill him and he just doesn't care. All he wants is the fame. The only person I ever knew who was that self-absorbed is Ares." She shook her head. "I'm sorry I upset you but I won't apologize for what I said. They deserved every bit of it."

Gabrielle nodded quietly. "I understand."

Xena sighed. "All I want is to get through this without losing anybody. They just make it so damned difficult!" She punched a tree in exasperation. Gabrielle put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"It will be fine," she said. "At least now they know what the problem is. I'm sure they'll behave themselves."


Koroibus snorted. "That was a pathetic throw," he said, quite loudly. "I could throw a javelin twice as far." Xena clenched her jaw. Letting him watch this 'friendly' competition had clearly been a mistake. Thoughts of Koroibus, tightly bound and gagged, ran pleasantly through her mind.

"Don't even start." she warned him. The tiny village of Melaenea wasn't going to provide Olympian competition anyway. His constant boasts had caused them trouble more than once when the locals overheard and decided to make him back them up. Granted, he had overcome every challenge with ease, but they didn't need the harassment.

It was too late. Xena cursed under her breath as the red-faced javelin thrower whirled to face them. "And just who are you?" he growled.

"Koroibus of Andania," the athlete replied with a grin.

The villager spat. "Never heard of you."

Koroibus reddened slightly. "I'm the best javelin thrower in all of Greece. Hand me one of your spares and I'll show you just how sloppy your throw was."

As the locals clamored for their champion to teach the newcomer some manners, Xena turned to Gabrielle. "This is the night. He wakes up tomorrow in a sack, I swear it."

"I'll help you pack," the girl replied dryly. Three days of his constant strutting and preening had dampened her initial interest and she now regarded him as almost as much of an annoyance as Xena did. Even Lynceus was becoming good company in comparison. The gigantic fighter seemed to share their opinion of Koroibus.

Xena looked around sharply, eyeing the crowd. "And where in Hades is Lynceus?" she demanded. Gabrielle thought for a moment. "He mentioned something about a suspicious man watching us from that roof," she replied, pointing. "He took his crossbow and went to investigate."

The warrior stared at the building her companion pointed at. She could see some movement inside one of the upper rooms, a figure at the window. Someone leaning against the sill. There was a sudden flash of movement and a shrill buzzing noise as an arrow was fired.

"Get down!" she shouted, hurling herself into the path of the missile. There was no time to catch it, she simply swatted it aside with her sword. It missed Koroibus by several feet but embedded itself in the thigh of one of the spectators. The wounded man fell with a howl of pain while his neighbors panicked and scattered. Xena spared it a quick glance. The crossbow bolt had one loose feather in the fletching, which had produced the buzzing sound. If not for that it would have struck without warning. The leg wound didn't look serious so she turned her attention to the assassin.

"Watch Koroibus!" she yelled to Gabrielle as she ran toward the building. There was no one at the window, the bowman had probably seen her coming and fled already. The building was made of old stone and full of cracks. Xena barely slowed as she scrambled up the wall and rolled through the window in full battle-cry, sword at the ready. As she expected, there was no one there. The door was wide open and she could hear feet pounding down the stairs. Heavy footsteps. Definitely a man, and not a small man either.

She smiled wickedly. This was what she had been waiting for, and there was nothing like a good chase to get the heart pumping. She charged through the door, barely missing a tenant who had stepped out to see what all the noise was about, and pelted down the hall at top speed. There were only two doors to the building and the front door was already blocked. Xena cut into an open room, scaring the wits out of the cleaning maid, and dove through the open window. She landed in front of the rear door two steps in front of Lynceus, and the impact sent them both sprawling. Xena rolled to her feet quickly while Lynceus struggled with his gear.

"Where is he?" the big man roared. "I almost had him!" Lynceus stumbled to his feet, drawing his sword and spilling his quiver of crossbow bolts in the same motion. Xena hadn't seen anyone else coming out of the building. As she searched for footprints her eyes happened to fall on the bolts Lynceus was picking up. They were all exactly alike, and except for the loose feather they were identical to the one fired at Koroibus.

Xena pounced on him in an instant and quickly relieved him of his weapons. "Looks like I have our assassin," she remarked. "Getting yourself a job as your victim's bodyguard was pretty smart. I'll have to give you some credit for your ingenuity." Lynceus snarled and tried to fight her off. She casually knocked him unconscious.

Gabrielle and Koroibus arrived moments later. Koroibus took one look at his bodyguard lying on the ground at Xena's feet and began trembling with rage. "That is enough!" he growled. "I've had it with your constant fighting and your jealousy. Get out of my sight!"

Xena stared back at him coldly. "Your precious 'bodyguard' fired the shot that almost killed you," she told him. "I don't know if he was working alone or as part of a group. Either way, Gabrielle and I are the only protection you have now."

"I don't need any protection you idiot!" he hissed. "There is no assassination plot."

Gabrielle and Xena both looked at him. "What are you talking about?" they demanded.

"Lynceus didn't aim that shot to kill me. He's working with me in this."


The Messenian quickly told them about the plan. Everyone knew that Koroibus was the best in every sport (of course), but no one outside of his village had ever heard his name. When the king had decided to send him to the games, Prince Aristodemus had reasoned that their prestige wouldn't last long if no one was familiar with the winner. He had come up with the plan and convinced Koroibus to go along with it. He had even paid for the services of Lynceus, one of the best crossbow men in the southern kingdoms. The big man was there to fake a few assassination attempts and get Koroibus some (well deserved) attention.

The only problem was king Cresophontes. They hadn't told him about their plan since he would have considered it dishonorable. When the king had decided to bring in an independent bodyguard they assumed it would be someone they could bribe into going along with the plan.

"But no, he had to send for YOU." Lynceus spat. "You almost ruined everything."

Gabrielle looked at them both in disgust. "You're doing all this just for the attention? The Olympian games are supposed to be about national pride and devotion to the gods, not about having your name carved on some stupid monument." Koroibus stared at her as if she'd just fallen out of the sky.

"How can anyone be that naive?" he asked, shaking his head. "The games have always been about one thing... bragging rights. Everybody wants to be remembered as the best and the kings want to be remembered for having champions, not losers. I'm certainly not going to work myself to death for the gods, they've never been anything but trouble. I'm doing this for me." He paused. "And for my kingdom, of course."

"Of course," Xena spat sarcastically. "You make me sick. I hope you realize just how dangerous your little game has been." She turned and took Gabrielle by the arm. "Let's go."

"Where are you going?" Lynceus growled. "Don't even think about telling the king."

Xena stopped and gave him a glare to freeze the blood. "Don't make threats you can't back up. Your little secret is safe with me. I wouldn't dream of breaking the old man's heart by telling him what kind of slime he's chosen to represent the honor of Messenia. But you had better race your heart out for him, because if you disappoint him I'll make you wish the Spartans HAD sent an assassin." She stalked off without another word, practically dragging Gabrielle behind her.

Koroibus watched them go. Lynceus' expression was unreadable.

* * * * *

Xena and Gabrielle wandered along the road toward Megalopolis, wanting nothing more to do with Olympia, Messenia or the insufferable Koroibus. Xena still fumed about the way they had been used and all their time and effort wasted. How many real tragedies could have been prevented during those few days she and Gabrielle had been tagging along with those two?

"I feel like a fool." Xena snarled. Argo snorted as Xena pulled rather hard on the reins and she patted the horse's neck in apology.

"How do you think I feel?" Gabrielle muttered as she walked alongside, kicking gravel off the path. "I was actually starting to LIKE the guy. My brain must have been asleep." Xena chuckled but otherwise kept her thoughts to herself.

"Maybe I should just give up on men and become a Hestian Virgin or something," the girl continued. She paused, recalling her very brief marriage to Perdicus. "Well, at least I could give up men. Any time I start to get serious they either drop dead or turn out to be scum."

Xena glanced down at her young companion affectionately. "It's a sacrifice I think you could handle. If it gets too difficult I'd be glad to help you through the rough moments." Gabrielle returned her look and couldn't help but smile.

"I'll keep the offer in mind," she replied.

Their trip to the Arcadian capitol was quiet and uneventful. On the evening of the second day they arrived and took a room at one of the better inns. Xena desperately wanted a bath and they could afford the luxury for a change. Afterwards they separated. Xena was tired and wanted to sleep, but Gabrielle had met another bard and they were still in the common room swapping stories. As she undressed and climbed into her bed she reflected idly that Koroibus and his 'guard' should have arrived in Olympia about the same time. She pushed the thought angrily out of her head. Where he was and what he was doing was no longer any concern of hers.

The warrior woman had just gotten comfortable when a knock at the door interrupted her. She scowled and quickly wrapped herself in a sheet. Fancy inns like this one had recently begun offering something called 'room service', and when they had the money Gabrielle liked to have food and other things brought up for them. Xena didn't particularly like it since they always showed up at the worst possible times, but as long as Gabrielle was happy she really didn't have the heart to complain.

"Come in," she said. the door opened to reveal a tall man with a sword, rather than a serving tray, backlit against the hallway lights.

Instinct kicked in immediately. Xena released the sheet and grabbed the swordsman by the wrist, twisting it out of his grip. He stumbled forward and she rolled with him. The warrior held her grip and dropped to the floor, planting one foot in his belly and sending him sailing overhead. He landed in the center of the bed, which collapsed under the impact. Her attacker was also gripping her arm and as he flew she found herself carried along with him. Xena landed on top of him, knocking the breath out of them both and nearly dislocating her shoulder.

Gabrielle had just finished her talk with the young bard and was coming up the stairs when she heard the crash. Grasping her staff and a torch she sprang into the room, shouting a battle cry. Her first sight was that of a broken bed and a gasping man with Xena on top of him, naked and moaning. Her jaw dropped and she began to turn an astonishing shade of red.

"Oh!... gods, I'm sorry! I didn't think you... I'll come back later... You know, after you two are..." She stopped babbling and started to back out of the room.

Xena groaned. "Help me tie him up."

Gabrielle darkened another shade. "Please Xena, you know I'm not into that kind of thing."

Xena rolled off of him, still clutching her shoulder. "It isn't what you think. Just do it, OK." She turned to get a better look at her assailant and her own jaw dropped. She had just mopped the floor with Koroibus.

Gabrielle noticed it at the same time. "Hey! When you said you were going to get him in a sack I thought you had something else in mind!"


"Have you been drinking, Gabrielle?" Xena grunted. "The idiot attacked me with a sword." She pointed at the weapon lying in the corner. The girl's eyes widened and she quickly retrieved it. Xena repaired her shoulder and quickly dressed while Gabrielle held Koroibus at sword point... he didn't know that she'd never have used it.

"All right, lets hear the excuse," She growled when she was fully clothed.

"You've got to help me!" he finally gasped. There was real terror in his eyes. Xena wasn't surprised to see it. After sneaking into her room in the middle of the night he probably expected castration at the very least.

Gabrielle responded with a laugh, though she clearly wasn't amused. "Help you with what? A few more faked assassinations? No thanks, we have other plans."

"But they aren't fakes anymore, I swear! Someone really is trying to kill me!"

Xena raised an eyebrow. "I see. Who?"

"Lynceus! It's some kind of conspiracy!"

Xena's face twisted in contempt. "I can't begin to describe how pathetic you are. You've obviously mistaken me for a fool, and I rarely let people live after making that mistake." She began to draw her sword. For a moment, Gabrielle wasn't sure if she just intended to scare him or if she was really going to use it. Koroibus was having the same problem. He looked ready to wet his pants.

"For the love of the gods, please! I'm telling the truth. I swear it!" Sweat was beading on his forehead.

"Do you even know the truth anymore?" Gabrielle asked him. Xena stared at him thoughtfully. It was strange, but something in his eyes told her he was being honest. That in itself was enough to hold her back.

"You have thirty seconds. Make it good and make it convincing."

* * * * *

Xena wasn't convinced. "Throwing his sword at you doesn't necessarily make him a paid assassin," she said. "I thought about it myself once or twice, and I was asked to keep you alive."

"He's a Spartan." Koroibus replied. The captive athlete shifted painfully in his bonds. "I found out just the other morning when I was... uh... going through his pockets." He noticed their stares and glared back. "Hey, I was an orphan, ok? I used to do it to survive and the habit stuck! Anyway, I found a note from prince Aristodemus of Messenia and it was addressed to Lynceus of Therapne. The prince paid him two pounds of gold to follow me to Olympia and kill me there in front of the crowds. Between the note and his 'slip' I figured I'd better get away while I could."

"And why, pray tell, would the future king of Messenia want to see you dead... never mind, stupid question," Gabrielle said. "Why would the future king of Messenia want to start a war with the Spartans?"

"How should I know? The note didn't go into that kind of detail, it just said what he wanted done and how much the job paid. Lynceus still had most of the money in his pouch. The letter is tucked into my belt if you want to examine it."

Xena shrugged. Not that it would do them any good, since neither of them could tell the prince's writing from anyone else's. She did remember her last meeting with Aristodemus, just a few years ago when she was ravaging Arcadia... just before her fateful encounter with Hercules. He struck her as brash and impetuous, and he had a consuming hatred for Sparta. As she recalled, he had offered her several wagons of loot if she would invade Laconia for him.

She had turned him down with a laugh. Even in the peak of her power she hadn't dared to challenge the military power of the Spartans. He had also tried to assure her that he could build sympathy for her cause in the neighboring kingdoms and provide her with supplies and troops for an extended campaign. Not that it would have changed the outcome. A few tons of silver and a reputation for heroics wasn't worth dying for, and she had told him so. His father had never been told of their meeting. He was smart enough to know what a war with Sparta would mean for Messenia.

A new thought came to mind. If a Spartan killed the Messenian athletes at the Olympian Games, all of Greece would rise against them in a holy war. With that kind of backing, the Messenian army just might stand a chance. Her eyes narrowed as she thought. It was outrageous, but it was something Aristodemus could have dreamed up.

"I might be crazy for saying this, but I believe you," she said. "Tell me about Lynceus. Was he following you, or waiting for you at Olympia?"

"I'm not sure. I ran away while he was sleeping."

"It would have been simpler if you'd just cut his throat instead," she muttered. Gabrielle squinted at her, uncertain of what she had heard. Xena caught her glance and smiled innocently.

"Well then," Gabrielle said, "since we don't know where he is the best thing to do would be to return to Messenia and stop Aristodemus before he comes up with any more bright ideas. Once the prince is out of the picture I expect that Lynceus will be more interested in spending that gold than in holding up the rest of the bargain."

Xena shook her head. "Spartan honor. One of those nasty little things Lycurgus drilled into them. Once he's taken the money he owes Aristodemus his services, even if the prince were to die... to use a VERY extreme example." she added hastily as Gabrielle snapped around to look at her.

The bard's face fell. "So we have to go to Olympia anyway?"

Xena nodded grimly. "We'll either meet Lynceus on the road or he'll find us at the games. Either way, our job is the same. We save his worthless hide from a Spartan assassin." She looked at him slyly and he smiled in return, mistaking her intentions. "From now on, consider yourself 'bait'."

He grinned widely. "You're going to help? Great! Wait... Bait?" Koroibus turned pale at her tone, and Xena's smile became positively wicked.


They trio arrived in Olympia three days later after a tiring journey on packed roads. There had been no trace of the assassin during the entire time, but they hadn't rested easily. Hundreds of people were pouring into Olympia for the games and they were painfully aware that any of them could have been Lynceus in disguise. Xena had already let him trick her once. She wasn't about to underestimate him again.

Koroibus and his constant whining hadn't improved their tempers either. Especially since Gabrielle was going to great lengths to make sure everyone knew he had arrived.

"Why does she have to do this?" he asked again, sweating nervously, eyes flickering at the slightest movement as the bard cheerfully advised another innkeeper that the 'famous' Koroibus of Andania was in town.

Xena grinned tightly, her own eyes just as alert. "What's the matter? I thought you liked the sound of your own name."

"That was before I knew someone really was trying to kill me." He shuddered. "My own bodyguard no less. That's just plain wrong! I didn't know I was risking my life every time I went to sleep."

Xena grunted at his complaints. "When you get around to being thankful for still being alive, let me know," she said. "In the meantime just try and act like nothing is wrong. If Lynceus smells a trap he won't try anything at the games, he'll wait and kill you when you think you're safe."

"I'll feel safe the day I see his corpse," Koroibus muttered.

Xena ignored him. There were more important things on her mind. Even if they caught Lynceus, she realized, prince Aristodemus could still have other people out to finish the job. Once they had gotten through the Games she and Gabrielle would have to visit Messenia again and have words with the boy. She flexed her fingers idly as she thought out her message.

The bard finally came back to them early that afternoon. Xena and her charge looked at her expectantly as she sank onto the bench and ordered a drink. Her voice was somewhat hoarse as she spoke. "I've told every innkeeper and bartender in the city that Koroibus is here," she announced. "Most of them still don't know who in Hades he is, but if anyone asks they'll tell them where to find us."

"What about rooms?"

"I've already bought a large room for us in the closest inn to the stadium. There are no windows, so that means no easy crossbow shot from the rooftops. If he wants us he'll have to come in and get us."

Xena nodded, satisfied. "Good thinking. Now the games start in two days, so I think we should all get some rest. Since we're all sharing one room we'll give Koroibus the bed. He's the one competing, so he needs to be comfortable." He started to speak and she glanced at him dangerously. "Don't even think about it, big boy. Gabrielle and I will be guarding the door and that's where we'll sleep. You just conserve your strength."

He shrugged. "It was worth a try. Well, if that's the way you feel about it, I think I'd like to get some sleep now." The trio left the tavern and made their way to the inn and their room. A shadowy figure watched them from across the street.

* * * * *

Once they were settled in, Gabrielle and Xena took their places at the door while Koroibus went to bed. Xena caught the younger girl watching him disrobe out of the corner of her eye, but didn't make any comments.

"I've been thinking," Gabrielle announced suddenly. "Why couldn't you go undercover, like you did at that beauty pageant for Salmoneus? You're pretty fast and strong, you could just stay in the running and watch out for danger from the inside."

"The Olympian games are for men only," Xena replied with a scowl. "I'm not thrilled with it, but I don't expect it to change in my lifetime." Actually the tall woman was more than a little irritated. She was a natural athlete and the gifts that Ares had given her during her dark time made her superior to most of the men who would be competing. If she were allowed in she could probably take the wreath.

Gabrielle pressed her idea. "Couldn't you just disguise yourself as a man?" Xena looked at her as if she had come from another planet. Koroibus laughed out loud.

"Convince everyone that she's a man? Now that would be a trick worthy of the gods themselves!" He was still chuckling as he curled back into his sheets. The bard looked at her friend in confusion.

Xena couldn't help but smile. "I take it you've never seen the Olympics. All of the events are performed in the nude. It wouldn't take the judges long to notice that I'm missing some... ah... athletic equipment."

"But you have so much more," Gabrielle said appreciatively. Xena raised an eyebrow and the younger girl blushed slightly. Then her eyes widened. "Wait a minute! Are you telling me that, while I'm stuck here keeping assassins from sneaking into our room, you're going to be out there watching hundreds of naked men?"

Xena grinned wickedly. "That's right. Not the best job in the world, but I'm sure I'll find some way to keep myself amused, watching all those huge, bulging--"


"--muscles." She gave Gabrielle an innocent look. "Oh, my. I hope you aren't jealous."

Gabrielle replied with a glare that would have reduced a lesser mortal to ash. "There are days when I really don't like you," she growled.

Xena grinned back at her in the most irritating way she could think of. "You'll get over it by morning. You always do."


"I don't like this." Koroibus whined. Xena and Gabrielle rolled their eyes at him. He had been whining almost continuously since they got him to Olympia. It was amazing how fast his legendary bravado had faded once he discovered that he really was in danger. Even Gabrielle couldn't help but feel contempt for him.

"There are two ways we can do this," Xena told him. "Either we try to attract him here, where we expect him, or wait for him to attack somewhere else at the time we least expect him. I for one would rather do it this way. It's easier and it doesn't involve spending the next two years being your nursemaid, which is good because I don't particularly LIKE your company."

Koroibus scowled and prepared to start an argument. Gabrielle cut him off. "Look, we agreed to keep you alive and to get you through the competition. We made that promise to your king and we're not going to break it, so just shut up and let us do our job." Even Xena was surprised by the venom in her tone. Apparently Koroibus was getting on her nerves more than she had shown.

The athlete shut up and stalked off, muttering about being the one to die if their plan failed. The two women watched him go. There hadn't been a sign of Lynceus or any other suspicious characters lately. The Spartan athletes had been fashionably late, arriving just before the pre-game sacrifices that morning. Being superstitious, these rituals were the only events at Olympia they were certain to attend. Xena sneered at the thought. They Spartans hated to lose at anything. The events they weren't certain of winning the simply didn't compete in.

A few hours later they reunited outside the temple. There was still no sign of their enemy, not that it worried them. Xena fully expected Lynceus to wait until the games had begun before striking. He was a Spartan after all, and killing someone on the sacred day before the games might have turned the gods against his countrymen. They went out to one of the numerous inns for a quick lunch. The room was crowded with men from all over Greece, coming either to watch or to participate. There were very few women there, so Xena and Gabrielle got their share of attention.

One other person was attracting their attention. A well-dressed man seated in a dark corner was studying Koroibus intently and kept referring back to a small tablet in his hand. Xena's eyes narrowed. Since no one seemed to recognize the name Koroibus, she doubted it was a fan. She pointed him out to Gabrielle and they memorized his face for reference. Just as they were finishing up he went to the bar and whispered something to the keeper, then walked out the door. A minute later Gabrielle, who had gone to pay their bill, returned with a confused look on her face. "That man who just walked out paid for our meal already, and a rather generous tip."

Koroibus smiled. "It's about time someone started appreciating me!" Xena looked at him with disgust.

"Koroibus, NOBODY appreciates you. He had a picture of your face just like I have and just like Lynceus had. Since the king never mentioned sending another bodyguard I'll assume that he's another assassin."

The athlete went pale. "Do you suppose the food--"

Gabrielle shook her head. "I didn't taste anything unusual in it, so it probably wasn't poisoned." Xena glanced at her and she blushed. "After that nutbread incident I ah... became a little more careful of other people's cooking." Xena couldn't help but smile at the memory, although helping her through the hangover afterwards hadn't been fun.

"Alright, if he is another assassin then he's probably waiting for us outside. We'll be ready for him when we step through that door." She loosened her sword and her expression darkened.

* * * * *

They didn't have long to wait. The man from the inn was waiting for them outside with his paper and a smile. "You're Koroibus of Andania, aren't you?"

Xena tensed. "Who's asking?" She didn't have that tingling in the back of her neck that signaled danger, but a good killer wasn't always obvious enough to set off the alarms.

"I'm Alikos, the olive king of Elis. Surely you've heard of me?" When Xena's frown didn't change his face fell. "Well, anyway, I just wanted to ask Koroibus if I could have his autograph." He held out a quill and the small portrait. Gabrielle studied it carefully as Koroibus reached out to take it. The color drawing was almost perfect and a fine sheen of resin protected the picture from the elements.

"Where did you get that?" she asked.

"Eh? Oh, there's another merchant selling them at the race track. I don't remember his name. Chubby little fellow with a brown beard, white hair and a big smile. He convinced me to beat the rush and buy his complete set." The olive merchant frowned. "Wait a minute, there was no rush! He tricked me!"

Xena sighed. "That would be Salmoneus."

Gabrielle looked at her. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"That I'd better watch our money until he's out of the city?" Xena asked hopefully. Salmoneus knew just how to get Gabrielle's juices flowing, at least where shopping was concerned, and some of her 'bargains' had taken weeks to recover from.

"No... I mean we should go see him. Because assassins would want to know exactly what Koroibus looks like, and if Salmoneus can describe everyone who came and bought a picture of just Koroibus--"

"--Then we know who we need to watch for!" Xena smiled. "Gabrielle, there are times when you can be a real genius!"



Xena turned, half smiling. "Hello Salmoneus. Fancy meeting you here." Her fingers tightened reflexively around her coin pouch.

He smiled broadly at them. "Where else would I be! Just look a all these people... from all over Greece, just waiting for an enterprising man like myself to sell them-- by the way, Gabrielle, are you still interested in that copy of Hesiod? I've got a sweet deal for you if you are!"

"We're not here for books," Xena said, cutting him off. "I hear you've been selling pictures of all the athletes at this years games."

"Ah, yes!" He rubbed his hands gleefully as he rummaged in his pack. "I'm calling them... sports cards! Brilliant marketing, don't you think? I can see it now... children and sports fans throughout Greece collecting the images of their favorite heroes for generations to come!" His eyes glazed slightly as he dreamed of his profits.

"Has their been much demand for Koroibus of Andania lately?" Gabrielle asked.

"Huh?" He blinked, shaking himself out of his greedy fantasies. "Who? Koroibus. Yes, actually there has. I've never heard of him myself but he must be popular with the Messenians because about five of them have asked for his card so far today." He grinned again. "Don't worry. You girls are in luck because I just happen to have one -- and ONLY one-- complete set left! It can be yours for the amazingly low price of--"

"Can you describe these people for us?" Xena asked quickly, cutting him off again before he could get Gabrielle's shopping itch started.

"Describe who?" His face fell. "You're not here to buy anything today, are you?"

"Koroibus of Andania is being hunted by assassins, and we think that the people who bought those cards from you are using them to recognize him."

"Assassins?" Salmoneus sat down in shock. "Using my cards? If that happens they'll make me stop selling them! I'll lose my investment! THEY CAN'T DO THAT TO ME!"

Gabrielle snapped her fingers, bringing him back to reality. The anguished merchants quickly described the men who had bought his cards, and since they were all dressed alike it probably wouldn't be too hard to track them down. Xena thanked him for his help and then hustled Gabrielle off before he had a chance to pitch any more of his wares.

"Just watch for men wearing red hats," the bard muttered. "How hard could that be?"

* * * * *

Gabrielle got tired of Xena's glare rather quickly. "How was I to know that every Spartan in Olympia was going to be wearing red?" she snapped.

Xena ignored her. "I wish Salmoneus still had his sketch artist around. This would be a lot easier if we had pictures to go by." She let her eyes roam over the crowd, looking for anything out of the ordinary. The idea almost made her laugh. It was the biggest festival anyone could remember. No one could keep track of all those people, never mind picking out a particular face. Only sheer luck and his distinctive voice had led them to Salmoneus.

Apparently sheer luck was with them, because a particular face just happened to be buying fruit at a stand not twenty paces away. The warrior's eyes narrowed. "There he is," she hissed, pointing at Lynceus.

Gabrielle spotted him quickly and nodded before taking off. Koroibus was still locked up in the inn, and they had agreed that Gabrielle would protect him if they found Lynceus while Xena faced the assassin. For once, the bard didn't argue with her friend. If it was a trap it was more likely designed to separate them from the Messenian than from each other.

Xena let a wicked smile creep onto her face as she approached the unsuspecting Spartan. He was alert and watching for any threat, but she had years of practice at eliminating enemy sentries and this was no different. Until her hand closed on him he didn't even know she was there.

The warrior princess caught herself enjoying the fear in his eyes as she twisted him around to meet her gaze. "Hello again, Lynceus," she purred. "Did you miss me?"


Lynceus was not enjoying his afternoon. His attempt to escape had failed miserably and Xena, Gabrielle and Salmoneus had managed to drag him off and bind him without attracting the attention of his partners. Together the three had brought him to an abandoned farm almost a mile from Olympia. Now he was watching warily as Xena and Salmoneus glared at him. She had sent Gabrielle to another building, mostly to watch Koroibus but also because she didn't want her friend to see what she was about to do.

"I'm going to ask one more time the nice way. You'd be wise to answer this time. I want to hear about the men you're working with, all five of them, and I want to know what your plan is. Tell me the truth and you walk out of here with all your body parts attached. Lie to me and you lose a few." She smiled wickedly. Salmoneus cringed.

"Sounds like a fair deal to me," he quavered.

Lynceus sneered. "Do your worst, wench. Spartans learn to ignore pain as children. By the time you rip any information out of me that Messenian pig will already be dead."

Xena shook her head sadly. "So predictable. Salmoneus, go keep Gabrielle company."

He looked uncertain. "Shouldn't I stay? In case he starts talking and you want something written down?"

"Take a walk, Sal," she told him flatly. "Keep Gabrielle company and make sure she doesn't come near this building. Neither of you will want to watch this." The merchant took one look at her cold expression, gulped and backed out the door.

Lynceus glared back at her confidently. "Are you ready to start heating up the branding irons?"

"No." She smiled at him, but the expression never reached her eyes. They remained cold and dead as a serpent's glare. "Burning is much too crude and takes too much time. I've found that the most effective torture can be done bare handed." She flexed her fingers suggestively.

"I've heard of your neck pinch, Xena. Put it on me if you wish, I have no fear of death."

"No, you wouldn't." She walked behind him, out of sight, leaving one finger trailing along his cheek. "In fact, by the time I finish you may be begging for it." Her fingers moved up his face, rubbing lightly. Lynceus frowned, confused. This wasn't painful. He actually liked it.

"I have a friend north of Greece named Woden. You've never heard of him, but he's the sort you Spartans would like. He had a really unique way of getting information out of people. Before he ever asked any questions, no matter what they said, he'd take something sharp and remove their left eye. Then he'd show it to them, just to let them know he was serious. After that, he'd move on to the nasty stuff." She chuckled softly and her probing fingers caressed his eyelid, making him flinch involuntarily.

"Lucky for you, I don't believe in leaving permanent scars. You can get the same effect if you know the right nerve points. Hit this one, for example--" She ground a knuckle into a spot between his shoulders. The assassin stiffened and shuddered. "--and you experience pleasure. Feels really good, doesn't it? On the other hand, if you stimulate this one--" She probed with a thumb beneath his cheekbone. The Spartan's tortured scream echoed in the small room. "--you feel a pain worse than childbirth. Having experienced both I can guarantee that. And if I manipulate both at the same time I can produce some rather unique sensations." The assassin began writhing in her grasp as her trained fingers probed and rubbed.

"By the way, I've paralyzed your throat so you won't be able to talk or scream. I'm going to keep this up for a minute or two." She leaned forward, putting her face in front of his own. "Just to let you know that I'm serious. My friend did save some time that way. Then I'm going to give your voice back and YOU are going to tell me everything I want to know. And if I even think that you MIGHT be lying or holding back, what you're feeling now will be a soothing caress compared to what I put you through then."

* * * * *

Xena returned to their room in less than fifteen minutes. Salmoneus heard her come in and quickly put aside the new clothing he'd been trying to sell to Gabrielle. The warrior noticed her companion's disappointed look with quiet amusement. Then again, seeing Gabrielle's face light up might be worth the twenty dinars. She'd have to speak with Salmoneus later.

"I managed to convince our old friend Lynceus to cooperate. We have enough information now to start working on a plan."

Koroibus looked uncertain. "Spartans take a lot of 'convincing'. Are you sure what he told you was the truth?"

"Absolutely," she assured him. Salmoneus gave her a look but wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Did you put the pinch on him?" Gabrielle asked. Xena glanced at her. Why was it that her friend, who claimed that life was sacred, found that procedure so fascinating?

"That wouldn't have helped. Spartans are taught not to fear death. I gave him a massage."

She got three looks for her effort. "You did what?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.

"I gave him a relaxing little rubdown and explained his alternatives to him." She shrugged and hoped that Gabrielle bought it. After all, it wasn't entirely a lie. It was definitely better than trying to explain to her friend exactly how and why she had tortured a prisoner. Avoiding a bloody war between two kingdoms was certainly worth a little pain inflicted on one man. Wasn't it?

"I suppose having Argo drag him through a patch of nettles was one of the alternatives?"

"That did come up, as a matter of fact."

"Whatever works," Salmoneus said, and went back to pitching the latest Athenian styles to Gabrielle. Successfully distracted, she let the matter drop. Xena shot Salmoneus a look of pure gratitude. She was definitely going to have to buy that dress now. Although where Gabrielle was going to wear that garish outfit while they were on the road was a mystery to her.

Koroibus was as oblivious as usual. "Do you suppose I could persuade you to give me the same treatment later?" he asked with a smile. "After all, I'm bound to get a little stiff during the competition. You wouldn't want me to disappoint the king."

Xena gritted her teeth. For the annoyance he'd been since the first day it was so tempting...

"I'll think about it," she promised him. "I'll think hard."


They worked out a plan that night while Koroibus slept, preparing for the competition the morning would bring. They had five assassins to deal with. Few of them really knew the others well, and none of them trusted the others as far as they could throw Argo. Xena and Gabrielle decided to use that to their advantage. Salmoneus made some clever use of his connections in Olympia-- after making sure that Xena would remember what she owed him-- and set everything up for them.

Just after dawn, Tyreus and Geranicus arrived at a certain warehouse on the outskirts of Olympia. The two assassins stared at each other mistrustfully while Xena and Gabrielle watched from the shadows. The warrior knew that she couldn't hope to stop them all if they split up, and if they joined forces against her she wasn't quite certain of the outcome. She smiled gleefully as the odds prepared to improve themselves.

"I got your note, Tyreus," the smaller man growled. He was thumbing his dagger. His one remaining dagger. It infuriated him that some pickpocket had dared steal his favorite while he walked here, but the crowd was already too thick to chase some ragged child..

"And I got yours," the other killer replied. "What's so important that you had to drag me out here and away from our target?"

Geranicus looked confused. He hadn't sent any note; the only letter he knew of was Tyreus' request to meet him here. Meanwhile, Xena carefully palmed the dagger she'd had stolen from the killer a few minutes ago. This part of the plan require a certain degree of careful timing.

Tyreus continued, his eyes narrowed. "Could it be that you're planning to betray us?" He laughed at his partner's shocked expression. "Oh yes, I know about your scheme with Xena. Lynceus explained it all in his note." He drew his sword.

"Don't be absurd!" Geranicus sputtered. "I'd never deal with Xena and I'd never betray Lynceus. He's like a brother to me!"

"You'd kill your own mother you swine!" Tyreus snapped.

Gabrielle gave Xena the signal that two more assassins were arriving right on schedule. Xena stood up in plain view and shouted. "He's on to us, Geranicus! Now's your chance!"

Tyreus saw her and howled. "I knew you were a traitor!" He launched himself at his former 'partner', preparing to sell his life dear before Xena intervened. As for the warrior princess herself, she settled back into the shadows with a contented smile to watch the fun.

It was a rather one-sided fight, knives not being a good weapon to challenge a swordsman with. Still, Geranicus was holding his own when Phrates and Xanthipus walked in on the fight. Since the fight was between Xena and the newcomers, neither of them noticed that it was she and not Geranicus who threw the dagger at them. They both immediately recognized the weapon as the one their partner preferred.

"You were right, Tyreus, that Messenian pig is a traitor!" Phrates drew his sword and charged while Xanthipus looked for a good shot with his crossbow. Xena watched with satisfaction as Tyreus, distracted, took a dagger to the throat and fell dead. Geranicus picked up the sword and struggled to defend himself, still babbling about his innocence. She smiled. The odds were now four against two and hopefully still falling...

The odds improved again as Aristides, who had been so carefully delayed in the alley by Salmoneus, came in and saw the fight. Gabrielle had written his letter to show that Phrates and Xanthipus were the traitors and that Tyreus and Geranicus had discovered their plot. Xanthipus fell to a well-aimed slash to the neck. Three to two...

Two to two. Geranicus was failed by his less than spectacular swordsmanship and died at the hands of Phrates. This left the two master swordsmen carefully circling each other. Xena watched intently. If they went at it without talking, this would be a lot easier. If they figured out her elaborate plot she and Gabrielle were going to have to take them both. She was confident that she could handle either of them alone, but Xena still wasn't sure if her less experienced friend could hold her own against a master warrior.

She almost didn't hear Gabrielle's scream. Xena turned in horror as the bard rolled away from the furious assault of Lynceus. The Spartan was dirty, ragged and bruised, but he was in the worst place at the worst possible time. Xena cursed herself for not rechecking his bonds before they left.

"Stop fighting you fools!" he roared. "It's all a trick! Xena and her little friend here are using us to kill each other!"

Gabrielle was fighting for her life, so the warrior princess had little choice but to enter the fray. She screamed out her battle cry and launched herself at Lynceus with a vicious kick, catching him in the ribs and blasting him back several steps. Gabrielle dodged a wild swing and made her way back to the grain bins, where she had left her staff while avoiding the assassin's blade.

From the corner of her eye, Xena saw that her friend was out of harm's way. She tried a few probing attacks against Lynceus, which he parried easily, and he gave back a few similar strokes. The warrior frowned grimly. He was more skilled than she suspected from his bumbling bodyguard act and she didn't recognize his style. That was bad. Phrates and Aristides had finally figured out that something was going on and were putting their fight on hold to aid Lynceus. That was worse. Things weren't going according to the plan anymore.

Chapter Twelve

"Spread out and take her," Lynceus growled. Xena's eyes narrowed as she tried to track the other two. Gabrielle had her staff now and was going to do her best to keep them off her back, but if they did get behind her...

It might not be such a bad thing, she thought. Gabrielle was giving Phrates a real beating with her staff but she had no time to protect her friend. Aristides was skulking in the background, trying to circle around behind her, and Lynceus was doing an impressive job of herding her with his sword since she couldn't watch everyone and still fight at full effect. With a rather perverse grin, Xena deliberately stepped between them and waited.

Aristides raised his sword. Lynceus smiled triumphantly and lunged. The last three times he'd done that she'd taken a quick step back and tried to catch him in extension. This time she would back right into his partner's waiting blade.

Except she didn't jump back. Instead she jumped straight up, doing an impressive midair splits, and Lynceus lunged right under her. Aristides choked as the blade slid between his ribs and he collapsed to the floor, dying as he fell. Xena came back down on Lynceus a moment later, trapping his sword arm between her muscular thighs.

The assassin jerked futilely. "Let go of my sword!" he snarled.

Xena smiled primly at him. "My mother says a lady doesn't open her legs for just any man," she told him sweetly. A moment later her elbow cracked across his left temple, and on the back swing her forearm hit him from the opposite side. Lynceus crumpled to the ground, senseless. Xena turned to help her friend.

It wasn't needed. Gabrielle had managed to disarm her opponent and was striking him from every angle with the effortless rhythm she had learned from the Amazons. Xena watched for a moment and shook her head. She couldn't tell if Phrates was too stupid to go down or just too stunned. Gabrielle finally tired of the pointless barrage and took his legs out from under him. He hit the ground and showed no urge to rise again.

The bard wiped a few beads of sweat from her brow and took a deep breath. "Well... it wasn't perfect, but that didn't turn out too bad."

Xena smiled and put an arm around her shoulder. "Not bad at all, Gabrielle. And I see those extra hours of practice have paid off."

Gabrielle returned her smile. "I can always count on you to keep me in shape. Now we'd better borrow some rope from Salmoneus and get these two tied up before the escape artist here comes to."

The two women went outside and found Salmoneus eyeing their hired pickpocket warily while counting out the boy's fee. He never took his eyes off the thief until he was well out of sight. Xena and Gabrielle borrowed the rope from him and were about to go back in when he stopped them.

"Xena!" he said. "You two won the fight, right? Just out of curiosity, how long did it take?"

"What?" Xena muttered, perplexed, but she shrugged and answered him. "About two minutes total. Why?"

"Oh, nothing. Just idle curiosity. So, did Gabrielle take any of them out?"

"Just one," Gabrielle told him, frowning at a chorus of groans from the crowd. Salmoneus beamed proudly. Xena raised an eyebrow and stared at him, wondering what he was up to. "Two of them are still alive if you're curious about that too," the girl continued.

Salmoneus paled visibly. "Out of six? Um... YOU didn't kill any of them, did you?"

"No," the bard answered. "Mine is still alive and well." For which I'm eternally thankful she thought.

Salmoneus turned to face the crowd with a face-splitting grin. "All right, everybody heard it, the redhead took one down and HE LIVED! I win, pay up!" He began collecting coins from scowling onlookers and so did a few other happier members of the crowd. Xena and Gabrielle gaped at him.

Gabrielle was shaking her head with disbelief. "He was betting on our fight? I can't believe him!"

"Neither can I." Xena growled. "The least he could have done was offer us a cut. We were risking our lives after all." Gabrielle gave her a look and the warrior winked to show her she was just joking. "He's just being himself, Gabrielle. Making money is what he does, even if his methods are a bit... annoying sometimes. And even I have to admit that he really did help out, so I guess he deserves to get something back out of it."

The bard thought for a moment and smiled at him. "I guess he does. Thanks for the help, Salmoneus."

"Not at all," he replied. The smile stayed frozen on his face, his eyes flitting rapidly back and forth between the two. "Does that mean I can keep your share?"

* * * * *

Lynceus and his partner were carefully tied this time, double checked by Xena's critical eyes, and hauled off to the Magistrate's jail for safekeeping. Although all of the original assassination team had been accounted for Xena still wasn't taking chances. The games were scheduled for six days and this was only the first. There was always a chance that prince Aristodemus would send backup if he found out his first group had failed.

Xena rubbed her eyes tiredly. The prince was the real problem. As long as he had a chance at the throne, he was dangerous. She suspected that his first official act as king of Messenia would be to provoke a suicidal war with Sparta. He had to go. The problem was, she couldn't just kill him. The two assassins she and Gabrielle had captured would confess, she'd make certain of that, but it would be their word against the future king. Who would believe them?

Gabrielle caressed her shoulder, giving what support she could. The bard wasn't having any better luck coming up with a plan. She knew Xena's word wouldn't carry that much weight in court; her reputation as a cunning and ruthless warlord was still too fresh in everyone's mind. Short of getting the prince himself to confess in his father's presence there was almost no chance of putting a stop to his plans. She laughed coldly. Now that would be quite a trick.

Chapter Thirteen

The first five days of the Olympian Games went smoothly enough. Koroibus won three of the footraces for Messenia while Triumphilus of Marathon won the long distance run. The Spartans, predictably, won at wrestling and boxing. Horse racing was won by an aristocrat from Athens. Xena almost gave in to her temptation on that one, knowing that Argo could have matched him for speed, but she wasn't there to compete.

On the fifth day Koroibus won four out of five events in the pentathlon, losing at wrestling to one of the Spartans. While Xena patrolled the stands to watch for assassins she noticed two new faces in the crowd. The rulers of Elis and Achaea had been joined in their private box by Cresophontes of Messenia and his son Aristodemus. Xena frowned, knowing how poorly they got along. She considered herself lucky that failing health had kept Charilaus of Sparta from the games or there would have been a fight in the stands for certain.

She approached them carefully. Cresophontes finally saw her and waved her over cheerfully. The other two kings and their families ordered their guards to come a little closer and then ignored her, a less than subtle reminder that even after three years all was not yet forgiven. Prince Aristodemus gave her a glare of pure, implacable hatred. She smiled brightly at him, just for the sake of annoyance.

"Xena, you've done a magnificent job!" Cresophontes told her. "I got your message that the assassin has been caught and I came immediately to watch our man win the laurels." The old king was beaming with pride. His son looked like he was trying not to choke.

"It was just one assassin. I expect more of them, though." Xena caught the prince's eye. "You know how it goes. Whoever is responsible will probably send at least half a dozen men. People who don't have the guts to do the job themselves usually assume that their hired killers can't work alone either." Aristodemus muttered something into his wine that his father was too excited to hear.

"I'm sure you'll be able to handle them," Cresophontes told her. "I can't wait to reward that boy for all he's done."

"And I hope he gets everything he deserves," Xena replied, still looking at the prince. "I think he was going to celebrate his victory after the final race tomorrow. Even if he loses that one he'll still be crowned. Perhaps you'd like to come down and meet him then?"

"Sounds delightful."

"Good. I'll send you and your son all the arrangements as soon as he's decided when and where to meet." Xena gave them both a respectful bow and left them. She and Gabrielle had some arrangements of their own to make.

* * * * *

Later that night, after his father was safely asleep, Aristodemus made his way to the temple. He was nervous, afraid of being seen, and took care that no one should recognize him. It might have worked better if he had spent more time training as a soldier and less time pursuing barmaids. As it was, there was a lot of movement in the shadows that he failed to notice.

Once he arrived in the temple he made his usual sacrifice and began his prayers. The young man was completely absorbed in his devotions that the visitor eventually gave up throat-clearing and settled for jabbing him in the ribs.

Aristodemus yelped and jumped to his feet. "Lord Ares!" he shouted.

"Nah. The old man's on a business trip to Thessaly, you know how it is. I'm manning the switchboard til he gets back."

Aristodemus stared at the strangely clothed madman who stood before him. "You aren't Ares." he finally sputtered.

"Duh! I already told you the boss is out of town. Call me Strife. Now what can I do ya for?"

"What I want is for someone to keep the warrior princess from interrupting my plans again," Aristodemus fumed. "Ares and I planned this assassination out to the last detail, and he assured me that he'd be there to keep things on track. And now you're telling me he's left the country?"

Strife shrugged. "Hey man, easy come easy go. Big war just came up in Thessaly... looting, pillaging, crimes against humanity... the boss decided he just couldn't miss it. That leaves you and me." The godling nudged and winked at Aristodemus. "Just between us, I think you lucked out. This little scheme of yours is a gig I can really get into."

The Messenian prince stood silently for a few moments, first trying to figure out what Strife was saying and then trying to decide if he was completely insane or just overly ambitious.

Strife yawned. "Look man, I got people on hold. I know what a pain Xena is about wrecking people's plans, but I can stir up enough trouble around here to keep her out of the way. If you want somebody whacked while she's busy that's your department." He gave the prince another twisted smile. "But if you can pull it off, I'll whip up the best damn war you'll ever see. And I can guarantee you the starring role. So, are you in or out?"

The prince puzzled that message out faster. "I'm in."

Strife gave him a big grin and an encouraging thump on the back. "Good man! Now get lost, I've got other people wanting to talk to me right now. I'll hold up my part of the deal, you worry about yours." The godling vanished in a haze of smoke and flame.

Aristodemus sighed. "I'd feel better about it if Ares himself were still in charge, but this opportunity is too important to pass up. I'll just have to made do with what I have." the prince turned and headed back toward his quarters. A dark figure stepped out of the shadows to confront him.

"Strife, if that's you again..." He looked up and gasped. "You! They told me Xena killed you!"

"They told you wrong," the newcomer growled. "I heard about your new deal with Strife. That changes things. I can still kill that arrogant fool Koroibus, but if I have to cope with that deranged godling's practical jokes while I work I expect double the pay."

Aristodemus thought about it. "Agreed. It will be worth the cost to start this war. My father and I are being called to a victory party for Koroibus tomorrow evening and I suspect that Strife will strike there. I'll arrange for you to come with us so you can murder him in the confusion."

"I'll make certain it looks like the Spartans are to blame," the assassin assured him. "You will have your war, my prince."

Aristodemus pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Actually, this may present us with an even better opportunity. I'll have to think about it, but be ready in case I decide to change your target. I might want someone other than that fool killed."

Chapter Fourteen

The last event of the Olympian games was a footrace in full military gear: armor, weapons and field pack. It wasn't a fast event, obviously, and Xena was able to jog along with the competitors where she could watch Koroibus' back up close. Not that there was much chance of an assassination attempt while he was fully armed and armored, but it was too close to the end to take the risk. She had set up an elaborate plan and was having trouble enough keeping it together without some desperate thug ruining things at the last minute.

Xena let her mind wander slightly as they ran, her eyes and hears still sweeping for any hint of danger. Prince Aristodemus had shown up this morning looking unusually happy. That was good in a way, because it meant he didn't suspect her trap. It could also mean that he had a plan of his own in the works. She'd have to keep a close eye on him until the matter was settled.

Alert as she was, Xena thought she was ready for anything. What she wasn't ready for was a brawl among the competitors.

It started as something utterly ridiculous. A soldier from Phocis was in the lead when the strap holding his sword in place broke. He stumbled slightly but kicked it aside and kept going. It landed in the path of one of the Boeotians, who stepped on it and cut his foot. It was the kind of thing that happened often during this event and usually everyone took it in stride. This time, Strife decided to make something more of it.

"You did that on purpose you Phocian pig!" The hobbling Boeotian brandished the sword. "When I get to the finish line I'll ram it back down your throat!"

The accused skidded to a halt and started marching toward the man he had taken out of the race, spear in hand. "Is that so? Well you better bring some friends and pack a lunch, because it'll be a cold day in Tartarus before a Phocian will lose to the likes of you!" The other runners finally noticed what was going on and stopped to watch the fight. Xena cursed softly. As she moved to head off the fight she shoved a few of the spectators out of the way. They took offense, and in less than a minute she found herself in the middle of an all-out brawl. Strife, invisible to the mortals, sat down to watch the fun.

The kings were outraged, the merchants were petrified, Salmoneus was trying to quickly corner the market on medical supplies, and Aristodemus was going quietly insane. Strife had promised him the best war he would ever see, but a general war between the Grecian states wasn't what he had in mind. If Koroibus killed anybody the Messenians would pay for it, and if someone other than a Spartan killed Koroibus they'd be dragged into a war with the wrong enemy.

At the moment, Xena's mental state wasn't much better. After nearly taking a spear in the back trying to rescue Koroibus she'd turned and waded into the fighting, leaving him in Gabrielle's hands. The warrior princess 'borrowed' a metal club and used it to take out the fighters as fast as she could, using leg and groin shots. Between attacks, when not busy defending herself, she loudly cursed all the gods who were represented at the games. After going through the total list she began cursing her own judgement for having taken the job and wondering if, after this fight, there would be anyplace in Greece that she was still welcome.

The fighting lasted for some time, but Xena was able to disable most of the fighters before they could kill each other. There were some fatalities among the Boeotians and the Phocians, but since they were already at war this did nothing to worsen public relations. Once the royal guard arrived to keep things under control, Xena collapsed on a flat rock and caught her breath. She was approached by several of the kings and quickly told them what she had seen.

The king of Elis looked grim. "This has the smell of the gods about it. Ares is trying to sabotage the games."

"I doubt that Ares was involved this time," Xena countered. "He's more of a strategist... this was just general carnage. His nephew Strife's style."

"So Strife must have been behind the attempts to kill Koroibus," Aristodemus said. The boy glared at her as if challenging Xena to call him out.

She responded with a cold smile. "Frankly, he isn't that bright. I'd be willing to bet he's helping the person who is responsible though. Of course, the big problem with Strife is that he can't keep his mouth shut. When he thinks he's won he starts gloating, and then he slips in the names of whoever he's working with." The prince blinked nervously. "The last time he got his uncle in trouble with the other gods. I'd like to be there to see it when he tells the world who really tried to have Koroibus murdered."

"And I'll have them executed personally," Cresophontes snarled. "Haven't the assassins you captured alive confessed yet?"

"I was able to interrogate them, but they didn't say anything that could be backed up in the courts. It would just be the word of a criminal. Before I was able to get more out of them one of the assassins escaped and the other was found dead in his cell."

The faces of the four assembled kings turned an identical shade of purple. Eurysthes of Elis was the first to find his voice. "You let one escape? There is as assassin on the loose? Guards!" The royals were immediately surrounded and escorted to safety. Xena sat down on a comfortable rock and wondered once again what she was thinking when she agreed to take on this job.

"I must have been out of my mind," she sighed.

Strife, who was still invisible, grinned from his perch on the rock beside her. When Ares told him to watch southern Greece he had expected to be bored out of his mind, but this was really starting to be fun.

Chapter Fifteen

Gabrielle was waiting for her back at the market. The bard noted Xena's tired and angry expression with concern. "I heard about the fight," she said. "That wasn't your fault, Xena."

"No, it wasn't, but that hardly matters. All that work could have gone up in smoke because Strife got bored." Xena sat down and began massaging the pain from her temples. "There are days when I really hate the gods. Not all of them, just all the ones I've met."

Gabrielle sighed, then shrugged. "Oh well. They're here, we can't tell them to go away, so we'll just have to work around them. Is everything else going smoothly?"

"Does it ever?" she grunted. "I needed Aristodemus to confess in front of the king. That would be hard enough. Then the constables let Lynceus get away. By now he'll have contacted the prince, so I have to divert my attention back to Koroibus again." Xena's fists were clenched tightly. She could barely resist the temptation to break the table into kindling.

"We'll have to keep a close watch on him tonight, and especially tomorrow at the party. Lynceus strikes me as flashy enough to try something in front of an audience."

Salmoneus appeared beside them with a jug of wine and several goblets. "Hello again, girls!" he said in an annoyingly cheerful voice. For one irrational second, Xena wanted to strangle him.

"What?" she finally grated. He ignored her harsh tone and remained as bright and happy as ever.

"I was going to offer you a drink to celebrate. It's my special vintage. I bought out the winery a few years ago... got a really great deal too." Gabrielle smiled but politely declined. Xena stood up, took the jug and a goblet from him and began pouring her own. After watching her down two cups in quick succession and start on a third Salmoneus finally closed his mouth with a click. Gabrielle was half a second slower.

"Uh... rough day?" he asked, timidly.

Xena put down the jug and took a breath. "You have no idea."

The merchant nodded sympathetically. "You look like you're feeling a little down today. I have this wonderful spring tonic I picked up in Cyprus that you could buy for..." Xena gave him an unmistakable glare. "Er... no. You like being depressed. I can accept that."

Gabrielle was giving her a look. Xena snorted, amused despite herself by his fawning. Not so many years ago that was the only thing that had let her spare his life. She'd never regretted it.

Salmoneus, quick to pick up on a customer's mood, relaxed. "Besides, Xena, it isn't so bad." He smiled. "At least you only have to worry about master Koroibus. It isn't like they're plotting to assassinate the king or something."

Xena went cold. "What?"

Gabrielle added, "The king?"

"Yeah, if someone murdered the king of Messenia and blamed it on the Spartans, then Aristodemus would inherit the throne. Plus he'd have a perfect excuse to declare war on Sparta. Think of the chaos... that... would cause..." His voice trailed off and his faced paled as he thought over what he was saying.

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "We didn't think of that!"

Xena lowered her head to the table with an audible thud. "I was hoping he wouldn't either, but the way this day is going... Damn! Why can't these things ever be simple?"

* * * * *

"Do you really think that the prince would have his own father killed?" Gabrielle asked as they rushed through the halls.

"Aristodemus would order Zeus assassinated if he thought it would put him into power," Xena responded. "Being king is all he ever cared about. That and destroying Sparta. Besides, I have a feeling that Lynceus wants this war too, and he knows the fastest way to start it." They entered a large foyer guarded by a dozen royal troops.

"Your Majesty, we need to speak with you urgently!" Xena's voice was cold and her expression dead serious. Most of the royal guards were wise enough to stay out of her way.

There was a pause and a slight rattling at the door as bolts were pulled back. King Cresophontes peered out at them suspiciously. "Xena," he grunted. "Where's Koroibus? You're supposed to be protecting him."

"He's safe," she told him. "We need to talk about--"

"Have you caught the assassin yet?"

"Not yet, your Majesty. That's what--"

"Well, keep looking. I don't want to be interrupted again until Lynceus has been found... and preferably killed." The old man started to close the door.

Gabrielle finally burst out in exasperation. "Oh, will you shut up and let us talk? We think the assassin may be after you as well."

That stopped him in his tracks. "I'm safe enough here with my guards. Thank you for the warning." Still, he waited.

Xena almost rolled her eyes. "With all due respect, your Majesty, these guards wouldn't be much of a deterrent to a real assassin. They let me right in, and they only know me by reputation. If Lynceus has inside help... and he might well have it... he could get into your chambers with ease. With all those bars on your door, your own guards wouldn't be able to get in to save you."

The king looked back at them nervously. "What do you suggest?"

Xena sighed. Finally. "We're working on a plan. Your cooperation, and that of your men, would help greatly."

The old man nodded. "All right, come into my chambers and we'll discuss it privately."

Xena and Gabrielle entered the luxurious guest quarters, making certain that Aristodemus was nowhere in sight before they spoke openly. They went over the beginning of their plan a few times with the king, instructing him to keep certain details to himself in case there were spies among his guard. Other parts were to be kept secret from his son. Aristodemus, they assured him, had his own part to play, and it was important that he concentrate only on what he needed to know.

Xena smiled icily. "Don't worry, we'll tell him everything he needs to know," she replied to the king's final question. "He's going to play his part in this whether he knows it or not."

Chapter Sixteen

Koroibus appeared at his victory celebration looking as cocky and arrogant as ever. Winning the Olympics so decisively had given him back all the confidence his near brush with death had taken away. The athlete arrived wearing his crown of laurel and a flashy purple and gold robe he'd bought, at a very good price, from Salmoneus. He brushed off most of his hangers-on, except for a trio of extraordinarily endowed young women, and sat down next to Xena and Gabrielle.

"I told you I'd win," he reminded them smugly.

"Yes, you did," Gabrielle replied warily. She found him as insufferable now as Xena did, but her companion was busy watching for trouble and had an excuse to ignore him. "Well, what are you going to do now?"

Koroibus smiled at his three new 'friends', who giggled and waved. "I think I'll grace this town with my presence for a few more weeks. It isn't every year that the locals get to meet a champion of my caliber. After that, who knows? Maybe I'll compete in the Pythian games and win them as well. That Salmoneus fellow has an idea for what he calls sports cards, and he's going to make a set for each of the great games and their winners."

"I'm sure people will be talking about them for years," Gabrielle muttered absently.

Koroibus snorted. "No, people will be talking about the victories of Minius of Athens for years. Me, they'll never forget. Not when every child in Greece has a sports card with my picture on it." He closed his eyes and smiled dreamily. "The name Koroibus will finally go down in history, as I always knew it would."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. He'd be forgotten as soon as he died. That business about everyone in Greece having his card was ridiculous. Collecting pictures of famous athletes? That wouldn't catch on in a thousand years!

Xena ignored the entire exchange as she watched the balcony for any sign of movement. Aristodemus had come in a few minutes ago, late, just as she had predicted. Most likely he'd been discussing things with Lynceus. Cresophontes was in the place she had selected for him, well away from any windows. The assassin would have to be in the same room to get a clean shot. She had the balcony doors sealed as soon as the last of the nobles were inside. Not so much to keep Lynceus out-- she expected him to already be inside-- but to keep Aristodemus from fleeing.

As Koroibus chattered at Gabrielle, Xena finally noticed the sign she was looking for. The prince made some kind of quick hand signal and there was a movement behind one of the wall hangings. Xena allowed herself a satisfied grin. She'd left the assassin only one place to hide, and from that place there was only one escape. She readied her chakram and motioned to Gabrielle, who excused herself and left. The girl whispered something to one of the guards as she stepped out of the room. Prince Aristodemus didn't notice it.

Everyone quieted down as king Cresophontes rose to make his speech. As he droned on, Xena let her eyes flicker between the prince, who was starting to get anxious, and the moving shape behind the curtains. All other eyes were fixed politely on the king. As she watched, a loaded crossbow slowly eased into view around the corner of the hanging and pointed toward the old man. She noticed the exact aim and smiled coldly. Just as she had expected.

"Cresophontes, down!" Xena leaped to her feet and hurled her chakram with expert skill. It tore through the curtain and into the man behind it a split second after he squeezed the trigger. The crowd erupted in horror as the frail old king of Messenia collapsed with an arrow sticking out of his chest. Lynceus stumbled into view with blood pouring from his arm.

"Death to the tyrant!" the assassin shouted. "For Sparta!" With that he backed out of sight and started down the hidden staircase Xena knew was hidden behind that hanging. The royal guards charged after him. Dozens of courtiers stormed the doors of the chamber, leaving the room deserted except for Xena, the prince and the king. She went to examine the body carefully, then looked up at Aristodemus with an outraged glare.

"He's dead." she choked. "Your father is dead."

Aristodemus returned her icy stare, then gave her a sly smile. "Martyred at the hands of a Spartan. Terrible thing. Now that I am king, I shall have to punish them severely."

Xena shuddered with contempt and cold rage. "Martyred at your hands, you mean. Not that you have the guts to do your own killing, but ordering someone else to do it makes you just as guilty."

Chapter Seventeen

His smile widened. "That's a very interesting theory, Xena, but you'll have to prove it. And since I now control the courts and all the royal judges, I think you'll find that rather difficult."

"I could always wring a confession out of Lynceus again. That's how we figured out that you were behind this all the time."

"You could try, I suppose... if he lives. Sadly for you, Lynceus has agreed to give his own life for the cause. If he fails to escape the guards he's prepared to swallow a fast acting poison I've supplied him with."

Xena shook her head in appreciation. "You really think you have it all figured out, don't you?"

"Oh, I do. For example, I expect that you're thinking of a way to kill me now. Too bad you lost your flying blade." He clapped twice and two guardsmen with crossbows appeared. "These men are my private soldiers-- completely loyal to me and me alone. If you hadn't figured things out I could have let you join us, but I'm afraid that now I'll have to have you killed as well."

She laughed. "Before you have your men do their thing, tell me... why did you decide to murder your own father?"

"Does it really matter?" He shrugged. "The old fool has been in the way for years. Everyone knows a war between Messenia and Sparta is unavoidable. They've been spoiling for a fight, and every year we delay gives them that much more time to build up their forces. We should have crushed them years ago."

"So you convinced them to kill your father just so you could have your excuse to fight them? That, my boy, is sick."

"You asked, remember? No, Sparta is too devious for that. Their kings refused, so I got a patriot to do it alone. His final words should have the mob howling for Spartan blood, which I will gladly give them." He chuckled evilly. "I'll bet you really wish you had that throwing thing right about now."

Xena smiled at him, then turned slightly and shouted at the door. "Gabrielle, my chakram if you please." The door opened slightly and the bloody ring was rolled in. Xena caught it effortlessly. Aristodemus sat down in shock.

"You're not bad at stirring up plots, prince, but I'm no slouch either, and I have ten years of experience on you. I set up this celebration and arranged the seating remember? That left just one place for Lynceus to shoot from and only one escape route for him to take. I had Gabrielle waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. Right now your 'patriot' is unconscious but very much alive." She smiled cheerfully. "And still able to talk."

The prince sneered. "No matter. It's the word of a foreigner and a war criminal against a king! The only people who heard me confess aren't going to tell anyone."

"You mean your paid guards? But they aren't the only ones who heard." She walked over to the king's body and idly plucked the arrow from his chest. "I've noticed an interesting thing about Lynceus... he always shoots for the heart. Every single time. But his crossbow can't shoot through steel."

The prince stared at her in confusion. Xena drummed her fingers on Cresophontes' ribs, making a loud metallic rattle. She poked a few nerve points and his limp body shuddered back to life. "Did you hear enough, your Majesty?"

"Yes I did," he wheezed. "Treacherous bastard! I have no son!"

Aristodemus went livid with fury and gestured to his guards. "KILL THEM BOTH!"

Xena's chakram throw was faster this time, and the spinning ring clanged loudly on two helmets before returning to her hand. The archers went down immediately, one falling off the balcony with a crash. One of the arrows went into the ceiling and the other was caught in Xena's free hand before any harm was done.

"Guards!" Cresophontes howled. Twenty armed men stormed into the room. "Arrest that man!" He pointed at his son, cursing them when they hesitated. Seconds later the screaming prince was hauled away.

Gabrielle was carefully checking the king for any injuries. "What will you do to him?" she asked.

"Crucifixion works really well," Xena suggested, a little too eagerly. "Trust me, I know."

Cresophontes sighed miserably and sagged into his chair. He seemed to have aged ten years in as many minutes. "No member of the royal house of Messenia has ever been executed. Though he may deserve it, I don't want to set that precedent. He'll be exiled... somewhere far away, where his plots will do no harm. If he dies in exile, so be it."

Gabrielle pursed her lips in sympathy. "I'm sorry," she said. "It must be horrible to know that your own child wants you dead."

The old man looked back at her and a tear rolled down his cheek. "I pray it's something neither of you will ever know." He waved them off. "Thank you for saving me, Xena. Now leave me, please. I have a great many things to think about. I'll thank you properly later."

* * * * *

Xena and Gabrielle remained in Olympia for five more days. News of the assassination attempt and the plot had spread quickly through the town, putting a damper on the celebrations. Even Koroibus was subdued. Eventually the women were called in for a royal audience. They entered the chamber and were greeted not only by the king of Messenia but by the crowned heads of Elis, Sparta and Arcadia as well.

Gabrielle was slightly stunned by their reception. "I thought this was going to be some kind of private meeting," she hissed to her friend.

"So did I," Xena hissed back. She was almost as nervous as the bard. The last time she'd shared a council room with four kings they'd been debating how to execute a certain Thracian warlord, and she considered herself lucky to have escaped.

Cresophontes finally spoke. He looked tired and sick, but none of that weakness sounded in his voice. "Xena of Amphipolis. You have performed a great service to the nation of Messenia, both in saving the life of her ruler and in preventing the traitor Aristodemus from claiming the throne. Other people have saved kingdoms. Few have saved four, and if that madman had become king the wars he would have started would have brought ruin to all of the Peloponnesus. For your service to all of our kingdoms, we have agreed together to honor you in a special way."

The old king Charilaus of Sparta rose and stared at the warrior princess with a grudging respect. "We have battled each other in the past, Xena. A year ago I would have laughed if someone had told me that you saved a king, but I see that you have changed. If the Butcher of Cirra can change--" he smirked slightly at Xena's cringing response, "--then so can the master of Laconia. In honor of your new, peaceful actions, I have agreed to a pact of non-aggression with Messenia. So long as they do not attack us, Sparta will never attack them."

"I have graciously accepted their offer, which came directly because of your actions," Cresophontes told her. "My brother kings also agree to honor the pact. I also have a personal offer for you. Now that I have no son to take my throne--" he shifted uncomfortably. "--the line of succession falls to my brother's son. He is but an infant, without parents, and I don't expect to see him grow to manhood. After I'm dead, he will need an advisor I can trust." He looked at Xena. "I have decided to offer the regency to you... should the need arise. The kings of Elis, Arcadia and Sparta have all accepted my choice. Will you?"

Xena stared back at him blankly, unsure of what to say. She glanced over at Gabrielle, who was gaping at her.

The bard finally snapped out of it. "I think you should say yes," she whispered. "It;'s a reward you've earned. Besides, it means that they trust you, which helps to show everyone that you've given up your past."

Xena turned back to the king. "Regent, eh?"

He nodded. "As I said, I'm an old man. My successor is a baby. I doubt I'll be alive long enough to teach him much, and I want to leave my kingdom in capable hands." He smiled faintly. "But don't worry, I'm not dead yet."

"Regent," she whispered. Xena smiled back at him and bowed. "I'll try to be worthy of the honor, your Majesty. But please, try not to die too soon. I haven't quite settled down yet."

* * * * *

Gabrielle was still shaking her head over it as they left town. "I can't believe he decided to offer you the regency," she said.

Xena shrugged. "Politicians. They make all kinds of odd promises. He'll have forgotten about it within a year, but it was still a nice gesture."

The bard looked at her thoughtfully. "Just for the sake of argument, lets say they did put you in charge. How would you handle things?"

The warrior shuddered. "Poorly. I have too much of an urge to solve problems at sword point. Half of Greece would be united against me within six months. No, its better if I just stick to what I do well."

"Saving the world one village at a time?"

She smiled. "It's a living. Besides, power tends to corrupt, and I have enough to make up for already. No need to add to the burden."

* * THE END * *

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