"Gods," Xena thought ruefully. "If I'd known how much work was involved in running an empire, I'd have conquered a much smaller part of it." Placing the finished scroll on the right-hand stack, she looked at the slightly smaller pile on the left, then sighed. Rubbed her temples, she tried to fight off the throbbing that was the result of 3 candlemarks of petitions, reports, and other bureaucratic nonsense that came with being the Conqueror.
Suddenly she froze at the sound of footsteps in the corridor. Xena listened for an instant, then sighed again. As she heard the door to the outer room open, she called, "Come in, Palaemon."
Footsteps hesitated, an audible exhalation, then the door to her inner chambers opened.
"One day, Milord, I will convince you to teach me how you do that." Xena's lips twitched tiredly at the sheepish look on the scarred face of her captain.
"Perhaps. After I teach you to walk without sounding like a centaur in rut." She smirked, then sobered. "What did you find out?" Tensing at the regretful look on the man's face.
"I checked the tomb first, as you ordered. It was…as reported, Milord. Rebel slogans were inked on the walls, the sarcophagus was destroyed, and…the body was missing." Palaemon winced at the bleak look that appeared for instant before the Conqueror's face hardened into its normal, stoic expression.
"And the rest?" At the captain's hesitation, she barked, "Now, Captain."
Palaemon took a deep breath, then continued, "After I left the tomb, I stopped in the woods for a moment to change out of my uniform. I guessed I might get more answers as a traveler than as a soldier.
"I went to the inn, ordered a meal, and listened to the conversations for a bit. I started making a show of drinking…by the way, that trick with the waterskin you taught me really paid off…and chatted up the young woman serving for a couple of candlemarks. Eventually I was able to find that, while there was no proof, everyone assumed that the resistance was responsible for the incident at the tomb. When I asked about the resistance, she insisted that no one really knew who the leader was in this chapter, but since the Conqueror's brother turned up missing about the same time that the tomb was destroyed, they figure he must be the leader, hiding out."
Palaemon paused for a moment, studying his hands. Finally, he looked up and said, "Milord, I'm afraid the reports appear to be true. It seems that they are very careful in protecting the identities of the resistance members, but everything seems to point to Toris." Watching the granite face of his liege, his shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry, Xena. I wish I could have brought you better news."
Xena's jaw clenched as the headache returned with a vengeance. Betrayed. And by my own brother. Gods… She felt the dark rage she tried to keep under control begin to bend the bars of its cage. For a moment she felt the hurt swell around her, then the rage freed itself.
"Get Darphus in here. We'll use his…talents…to nip this little problem in the bud. Oh, and Palaemon," she stopped the man as he started for the door, "When you capture my brother, bring him directly to me. Unharmed, if possible." There was no warmth in the grim smile. "I will teach him and his followers how betrayal is rewarded in my realm. Slowly."
Palaemon kept his gaze steady on his ruler's face. "As you command, Milord." He quickly moved through the door, closing it behind him.
Xena waited until she heard the outer door open and close, and the footsteps began to fade. Then she sat at her desk, rested her head on her hands and let the tears fall.