Iolaus reeled away from the square, half blinded by unshed tears, his stomach lurching at the horror he had seen. Gabrielle! By the gods, couldn't it have been someone other than Gabrielle?
He remembered holding her in his arms after Prometheus had been freed, the soft touch of her lips, the sweet innocence and trust in her eyes. He leaned heavily against the wall of an inn, breathing deeply to regain his composure.
The tortured woman in the square hadn't been *his* Gabrielle. There had been a hardness about her features that spoke of dark knowledge the Gabrielle of his world had never gained. This Gabrielle had learned to hate, and somehow, he knew, her struggle against the Conqueror had taught her to kill. Still, she had been magnificent in her defiance, unspeakably brave in facing death. He took a deep, shuddering breath. Yet another death to be avenged. There were so many now.
He had to think, had to find someplace quiet, where the air didn't stink of death and corruption, where he could sit and plan his next move. Was there such a place in this terribly distorted Corinth? He remembered a small temple to Artemis, surrounded by green lawns, shaded by ancient trees. If only he could find the way.
He pushed off the wall and nearly collided with a tall, beefy man in the worn, drab tunic of a laborer. "Sorry," he mumbled, moving off again, head down. He didn't want anyone to remember his face. A strong hand clasped his arm, stopping him in his tracks. He swung around, fist doubled. And then he saw the man's face. Beneath the dirt and stubble, behind the bleary eyes and drink-swollen flesh, was someone he knew.
"Iphicles?" he blurted.
The other's face blanched with fear. "It can't be... You're dead! By the gods! Has she even brought the ghosts out?"
"Iphicles! I'm not a ghost. I'm not dead."
The man loosened his grip on his arm and backed up a step. He was trembling, Iolaus saw, genuinely frightened. But he swallowed his fear and said, "Maybe they were wrong." He looked about to see if any of the Conqueror's soldiers were near. "Follow me."
And then he was off at a brisk walk, disappearing into the twisted alleyways of the slums of Corinth. Iolaus followed close behind, his hunter's senses remembering their path as they wove through the labyrinth of narrow lanes. They ducked into a narrow space between a tavern and a tanner's shop, pushing aside a false thicket of weeds. Just far enough back from the street to be hidden from casual view was a heavy wooden door.
Iphicles knocked twice, paused, and knocked three times more. The door swung open on silent leather hinges and they stepped into the gloom.
The dark room beyond the door was lit only with a few candles. At first, Iolaus could see nothing but the tiny flickering flames, but as his eyes became accustomed to the deep shadows, he saw that a handful of people sat huddled around a rough plank table. Every eye in the room was locked on his face, their expressions ranging from shock to suspicion.
"Iphicles, you drunken fool, what have you brought us now?" The voice came from a figure standing in a doorway at the back of the room, silhouetted against the flames of a hearth. As she limped to the table, Iolaus saw that the speaker was a small woman with a dirt-smudged face and wary brown eyes. Most of her teeth were missing, and her face was rough and pock-marked, deep lines mapping the hardships of her life, and barely showing a hint of beauty lost. He knew she had been beautiful. There was strength in that ravaged face, and it was still a face he would have known anywhere. Ania. Unbidden tears stung at his eyes. She saw his reaction, and her eyes narrowed dangerously.
"Gabrielle?" she asked Iphicles, barely taking her eyes off Iolaus.
"They broke her legs," the big man said sullenly. "She'll be dead in an hour."
Ania nodded, her face neutral. "Not a merciful death, but at least a quick one." She turned back to Iolaus. "Who are you? And don't bother telling me you're Orestes, though you look enough like him to be his twin."
‘My name wouldn't mean anything to you," he lied to the woman who had been his beloved wife in his own world. "I've never been here before. It's my first time in Corinth."
Ania smiled grimly. "You're not much of a liar," she commented. "Come with me. Theron, Palias, go to the square. Wait until you can claim Gabrielle's body. She deserves better than that bitch's mass burial pit. We'll bury them together."
The two men left quickly. It was clear that Ania was queen in this wretched little back street kingdom. "Come," she said again, leading him into the room she'd come out of.
This chamber was smaller than the first, a fire in the hearth providing both heat and light. Incense and aromatic oils perfumed the air, but couldn't completely overpower the coppery taint of blood. Three narrow cots lined the left-hand wall, each bearing a shrouded body.
"They died yesterday, defending Gabrielle from the Conqueror's men. Xena's leaving for Persia tonight. We'll take them to Thebes for proper burial then."
"Thebes?" Iolaus echoed.
"It's where they were from," Ania explained, her eyes never leaving his face. "Gabrielle was born someplace way up north. Potedeia, I think. But she'd lived in Thebes for the last ten years. We came here because we thought we could organize a resistance," she said with a bitter laugh. "It didn't happen. Iphicles and I are the only ones left now. The others are just hangers-on. They're not committed to the cause. They're just less afraid of us than they are of the Conqueror. And Iphicles has been drinking himself to death since his wife was executed last year."
She sat heavily at the foot of one of the cots, grimacing with pain.
Iolaus knelt by her side. "You're hurt."
Ania shook her head sadly. "A long time ago. I was crucified, too, but... someone cut me down before I could suffocate. He was a good man. He wasn't a healer. He did the best he could. But my legs never healed very well..."
Iolaus reached out to her automatically. She was old before her time, worn out, pitiful to look at, but she was Ania. His Ania. And she had suffered all these years because he hadn't stopped Callisto. His heart lurched when she took his hand and brought it up to her tear-streaked cheek.
"I loved him. I always loved him. But I could never tell him. He might have felt sorry enough for me to marry me, and I couldn't do that to him. I stayed on with him... kept house for him. Part of me wanted to make him love me. He... he did ask me to marry him once, but I couldn't. When he looked at me, I could always see the pity in his eyes. I was pretty once. But they knocked my teeth out, and they raped me, and they crippled me... and he deserved better than that. I was actually glad when Gabrielle came... when they married."
"Shhhh," Iolaus soothed her, stroking her lank hair. "You don't need to tell me this."
The defiance was back in her eyes when she looked back at him. "Yes. I do." She let him help her up. She took his hand and led him to the head of the cot she'd been sitting on. With a trembling hand, she opened the dead man's shroud. Iolaus knew what he was going to see, but the sight of the pale, death-sharpened features still tore a gasp from his throat. The face was his own.
Ania traced the crescent-shaped scar on the dead man's forehead with gentle fingers and lovingly stroked his cheek before she covered his face again and looked up at Iolaus.
"You see? I knew who you were before I asked. But... you're not *my* Iolaus. You're more like what he was meant to be, what he might have been. Why are you here?"
"I'm here to make sure none of this ever happens," he told her. "And I will. I promise you. I'll stop Callisto, and Xena will never become the Conqueror. And you won't be beaten, and you won't be raped, and you won't be crippled."
She kissed him then, a soft, chaste, sisterly kiss. "I believe you. There's a back door. Here. Go now. You have a lot to do if you're going to stop the Conqueror."
He stood at the door for a moment, wanting desperately to tell her again that everything would be all right. But that wasn't true either. If he succeeded, he condemned her to a terrible death by childbed fever. If he failed, he condemned her to live out her life in a squalid slum, surrounded by strangers. Either way, it felt like betrayal.
"Ania..." he said softly.
"You know my name. I never told you."
"Sure you did. Before I go... I just... You had it wrong. He did love you. With all his heart. But it was him who didn't deserve you."
He turned away, then, and stepped out into yet another alley. He felt her eyes on his back, but he didn't dare stop, didn't dare look back. Because if he looked back, he might go back. And he couldn't save her. No matter what he did, he couldn't save her. But he *could* set the world back on the right path. One way or another, he would seize his world back from the evil that had gripped it. No matter what the cost.
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