Hercules knew something was up the moment he moment he rounded the bend in the path and saw Iolaus reading a small piece of parchment. "What's happened?" he demanded. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Iolaus looked up from his parchment. "In a way. It's a message from Hector, in Attica".
"Your cousin's aide? "
"Yes... My cousin the King".
"Are they all right? King Orestes and Queen Niobe?"
Hercules didn't miss the flicker of emotion that went across Iolaus' face at the mention of Niobe.
Iolaus sighed. "Yes and no".
"OK, let's hear the 'yes' part first".
"Orestes and Niobe have devised a plan to bring peace to the kingdoms in their area."
"But that's great, Iolaus!"
Iolaus nodded. "It sounds like something Niobe mentioned to me when I was King - when I was there ... She's quite a thinker. Anyway, they're on their way to Garantus, to present the idea to King Xenon. Hector wants me to meet them there."
"Is this the same Xenon that's been causing so much trouble recently?"
Iolaus grimaced. "The same. A long list of ambitions and a very short fuse".
"A tough guy to deal with..." Hercules ruminated a moment. "I take it Hector wants you for additional backup?"
"Yeah. Hector thinks Xenon might try something".
"Sounds like Hector's doing his job. But you're not sure you should go?".
A short silence. Finally Iolaus answered slowly. "Yes. And no".
"You keep saying that! "
Iolaus snorted. "I'm working things out, OK? ... There's no question about me going. Hector's asked me for help, and I'm going to help him. That's not the problem".
There was another short silence. Hercules finally broke it. "This isn't about Niobe, is it?"
"Yeah. It is". Iolaus shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. "Herc - after I came back from Attica, I told you about everything that happened, including the fact that she and I really were starting to get ... well - feelings for each other. But it's been a while since that happened, and I've done a lot of thinking about it ...".
"And ...?" Hercules asked softly, with a sudden insight as to where this was going.
"I don't feel the same about her any more." Iolaus looked embarrassed. "Don't get me wrong, Herc! I mean, she's beautiful and intelligent and brave and all the things I said she was - but it's just that ... well, we got caught in the moment, you know? And now, how am I going to face her? What if she still feels that way towards me? What if she - "? He stopped and looked despairingly at his friend.
"Iolaus, right now she probably feels the same way you do." Hercules wasn't actually sure of that, but figured it couldn't hurt to say it.
"Iolaus, you've said that she's intelligent and quite a thinker. Well, isn't it likely that she's been thinking it over too, just like you have?"
"Well ... yeah ... I suppose...".
Hercules could see Iolaus wasn't entirely convinced, but nevertheless his friend nodded slowly.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Hercules asked suddenly.
With a squaring of his shoulders, Iolaus seemed to make up his mind. "Nah, you don't need to. I can handle it. You're probably right about Niobe, Herc. And anyway, we're adults - one way or the other we'll deal with it." He took a deep breath. "So - I'm off to meet up with Hector. Raise a cup at the festival for me, and I'll be back soon!".
King Xenon's palace in Garantus was a marvel of comfort and luxury. Bright woven hangings adorned the marble walls, and fine silken carpets from the Indies softened the sparkling tiles of the floors. Every window looked out into a courtyard glowing with blooming flowers, and the sound of fountains hung musical in the air.
Hector hated every square inch of it and fervently wished he and his royal charges were safely back in the more modest halls of Attica. The way he saw it, daggers lurked behind every tapestry; poison waited in every cup and plate, and the music of flowing waters covered the stealthy footsteps of assassins.
Fretfully he turned to Linus. "Do you think Iolaus got the message?"
Linus shrugged. "If he'd gotten it, he'd be here".
"Unless he's chosen not to help us".
Linus stifled a sigh at his commander's pessimism. "Refuse to help? No - that's not Iolaus".
Hector stiffened at a sound. With astonishing speed for an old man, he darted around the corner into the small entryway and promptly caromed off of -
"How are you?" They grasped forearms in the time-honored warriors' gesture, then Linus came forward to do the same.
"We were just talking about you, Iolaus - " began the younger man, when Hector interrupted, the joy on his face melting suddenly into a careful blank.
"The Queen wants to see you".
Iolaus swallowed hard. "She knew I was coming?"
"Yes. Her instructions were to bring you to her as soon as you arrived".
Iolaus took a deep breath and gave what he hoped was a light- hearted grin to the two soldiers. "Gotta follow the Queen's instructions, then. Lead on!"
As he followed Hector and Linus down the marble corridor, Iolaus silently told his heart to quit beating so loudly.
She was standing near the window of richly furnished room, and sunlight poured glistening over her glorious dark hair. His memory had not played him false - she was as he remembered her, and a pang of banished feeling struck him through the heart.
She had looked up, almost startled, as Hector had ushered Iolaus into the chamber and then closed the door firmly behind him, leaving the two of them alone. For several heartbeats he just stood and drank in the sight of her. She was so achingly beautiful - and she was another man's wife and Queen.
Finally he broke the strained silence. "Your Majesty?" He gave a slight bow.
"Iolaus, please - just 'Niobe'".
"Niobe....". He smiled uncertainly, and got an equally uncertain smile in return.
"You look well..." the words trailed off. She looked at him intently, as though searching for something.
"You do too."
She hesitated and squared her shoulders as though nerving herself.
Suddenly he was across the room and holding both her hands in his. "Niobe, what's wrong? Why did Hector send for me? I know what the message said, but is that the real reason? " The words tumbled out, as he struggled to read her expression. "If there's trouble, you know I'll do anything I can to help you!"
Her hands closed warmly over his for a moment. "I know." A brief smile lit her face and then vanished. "It's - it's about Orestes."
Iolaus' long-held worries burst forth. "Is he still drinking? Is your marriage - has he been - bad - to you?!!"
There could have been no greater expression of shock on her face, had he walked up and slapped her. Her mouth dropped open and her dark eyes widened.
"What? ... Oh! No!" she breathed. "Oh no!" A strangled gasp came from her. "Is that what you thought? Oh, I'm so sorry - " she stopped abruptly. "I didn't mean to mislead you. You were so kind. So heroic. So wonderful to Orestes and me... No, it isn't what you think at all. Oh, I'm so sorry!"
She motioned to a chair. "Please ... please sit down. We've got to talk".
Iolaus sank into the seat, feeling just a little like he'd been tumbled in the maelstrom.
Niobe hesitated for a moment, then seated herself beside him.
"Niobe, what is it?" Iolaus asked softly.
Once again he could see her straightening herself, as though gathering her courage. "I need you to protect Orestes. You're the only one who can".
"Protect him from what?"
"Hector has told you of our peace plan?" Iolaus nodded. Niobe continued, "While we've gotten a lot of local kings to support it, there are some who continue to oppose it secretly".
"You mean, King Xenon".
It was Niobe's turn to nod. "He's invited Orestes to go hunting stag with him tomorrow. Just the two kings, alone."
"And you're worried...?"
"Yes. Orestes is the driving force behind the peace plan. I came up with the original idea, but he's the one who's been able to persuade the other kingdoms to accept it." Something must have shown in Iolaus' face, because Niobe went on forcefully, "You're surprised? I was too, at the time. But he's made the whole thing work, and if someone were to - to remove him ..."
Iolaus nodded grimly. "Yes. The whole thing might fall apart. A great temptation for someone like Xenon, if he's feeling threatened by the prospect of your plan. Two kings, alone in the forest ... a dreadful hunting accident ... and - oh yeah, I can see it all!"
"I can't let that happen. No matter what I have to do...". She gave him an imploring look. "He doesn't want guards, Iolaus. He refuses to have Hector or Linus shadowing him. That's why I sent for you. If anyone can protect him, you can!"
"And I will." He took her hand, turned it over, and gently placed a kiss in her palm.
Their eyes met, and for one tiny moment, he felt the passion that they had once shared flare up again. But it lasted only a heartbeat, then flickered out and died away. With a wistful smile she drew her hand back and folded her fingers around the kiss he had left there. "Thank you," she whispered."I knew I could count on you...".
At last he sensed he could ask the question that had been tormenting him for so long. "Niobe - how are things with you two?"
She looked away for a moment and sighed. "I can't be anything but honest with you, can I?" Then she turned back to him and her face was impossible to read. "I don't know how to tell you this, exactly, but ...Iolaus - you remember how things were between Orestes and me, when you left Attica...?"
"Yes..." he replied warily.
"Well ... a lot has happened since then."
The last time Iolaus had seen Orestes, his cousin had been grey-faced and on the edge of death from the poison that the traitorous General Archaeus had forced on him. There was no trace of that now in the man who turned around as Iolaus entered the hall.
"You don't write! You don't send messages!"
"Iolaus!" With a broad smile and a vigorous stride, Orestes came to meet him, and drew him into a hearty embrace. "Cousin, it's good to see you!"
"Likewise", Iolaus replied, drawing back and looking him over.
"You look a lot better than the last time we met!"
A shadow crossed Orestes' face but vanished almost immediately. He nodded. "Oh yeah. A lot's happened since then. Cousin - come out into the garden and walk with me" - he motioned to the open door that looked out onto a riot of flowers growing around a shallow pool. "We've got a lot to talk about".
"Iolaus, I owe you so much!"
Iolaus grinned rather uncomfortably. "Hey, you thanked me before, remember? You don't need to do it again".
"No, cousin, you don't understand - there's a lot more ...". Orestes took off his golden circlet and rubbed his forehead. Iolaus remembered the weight of that circlet very well.
Orestes gave him a wry smile. "You realize, you took quite a chance when you saved my life and my throne. You handed a kingdom back to me, when the only thing you really knew about me was that I was a mouthy, drunken jackass!"
"No," interrupted Iolaus firmly. "no, I could see more than just that. Much more ... Hector hadn't given up on you - that was clear from the start. And if someone like Hector could believe in you, then ..." he let the the statement die away, and met Orestes' eyes almost defiantly. "And I was right, too. From everything I hear, you've done a great job being King".
Orestes looked almost startled, as though unused to praise. "It's all because of Niobe. All of it! She got me on the right track, after I was ill, and she's kept me going. She's just amazing!" He shook his head, a shy smile on his face.
"Yes, she is", agreed Iolaus with a grin. Relief welled up in him at the realization that these two royal mates actually seemed to be happy with each other. "Not a twit at all!" he added, without thinking about how undiplomatic such remark was. But Orestes gave a shamefaced nod.
"No, I was the twit!" he admitted. "I said a lot of really stupid things to you the night before my - your - our coronation. I've got to tell you ... I'm doing my best to live them down now!"
"Orestes - forget about that!" said Iolaus encouragingly. "You and Niobe are happy. You're doing great things together. That's what matters - not the past!"
"You're right. You're right. And the peace plan IS a great thing. Niobe came up with the idea - she's brilliant, she thinks about things like no one else does - and we proposed it to the neighboring kingdoms, and we've been negotiating to get them to join in on it, and it's slowly coming together. I've never worked so hard in my life - and I've never been so happy!"
"That's good, man. That's wonderful!", Iolaus answered. He felt just a little flabbergasted. The change in his cousin was incredible, but there was no way you could look at him and not believe that he was sincere.
Orestes went on. "Iolaus - I've GOT to make it work. For Niobe. And I'm the only one who can do it. The other kings won't listen to a woman. That drives her crazy, and me too. But they won't listen to her, so I'm the one that has to sell it to them, make them see the logic in the plan." He looked up and met his cousin's eyes. "And don't you see - Niobe's done so much for me. This is the one way I can repay her, just a little. To make the peace plan work - that's what I've got to do!"
There was an incandescent glow in his look - the look of a driven man, Iolaus thought. But the mention of the peace plan gave him an opening.
"Niobe's peace plan is the reason I'm here, " he said slowly. "You must realize that not every king is going to like it. Some of them may even feel it threatens them."
"Like Xenon, you mean?"
"Well, now that you mention it..."
Orestes sighed. "That's why I agreed to go hunting with him tomorrow."
"I don't follow you ... what does a hunting trip have to do with your peace plan?"
Orestes took a deep breath and blew it out. "Iolaus, like I told you - I'm living down my reputation. Xenon thinks I'm just a joke. And of course, being the man's man that he thinks he is, he is not about to listen to anything Niobe says. So this hunting trip is my chance to gain some credibility with him. He was surprised when I said yes to it, and if I can just make a good showing, then maybe - just maybe - he'll be willing to listen to me about the peace plan. This might be my only opportunity to make him see reason. I've got to make the most of it!"
Iolaus bit his lip as he mulled this over. He had to admit to himself that his cousin had a point. Still...OK, no more tiptoeing around, Iolaus told himself. Give it to him straight.
"You also realize the risk you're running?" he asked bluntly. "Orestes, Xenon could be setting you up for a very convenient - ".
"Don't YOU start..." answered Orestes wearily, running a hand through his hair in a gesture that Iolaus found startlingly familiar. "I've already heard it all from Hector ... and Linus ... AND Niobe...".
"They're right." The stark truth.
"They probably are. But it's a risk I have to take." He laughed rather bitterly. "Xenon invited me because he thought I'd refuse. I called his bluff, and accepted. That seemed to impress him. Personally, I don't give a damn if he's impressed with me or not, but for the sake of the peace plan, I'll play his game. So - he and I are hunting stag tomorrow during the eclipse." He looked up at his cousin and gave a crooked smile. "It's a king thing, Iolaus. I've got to do it".
And to that, Iolaus had no answer.
A little later, Iolaus stumbled down the hall, still taken aback by all the new and astonishing things he had just learned about his royal cousin. A bench was set in a nearby vine-covered alcove, and he decided it might be a good thing to sit down and think over what he should do next. But the marble beneath him had barely warmed when a silvery giggle rang out next to his left ear.
His heart sank. He knew that sound all too well.
"'Dite?" he called softly, looking around to see if anyone else was in sight. No one was, so he raised his voice just a bit. "Aphrodite? I know you're there!"
Another bell-like peal of laughter and the Goddess of Love burst into sight with an explosion of golden sparkles and the scent of jasmine.
As usual, the sight of the goddess in her ivory, pink and gold magnificence took Iolaus' breath away and caused his codpiece to feel rather constricted.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"You have to ask?" she inquired, tossing her tidal waves of blond hair. "I'm here to see the lovebirds. Oooh, can't you just feel it? Isn't it wonderful?!" She squealed and wriggled, and Iolaus' codpiece became another size too small.
"Aphrodite, did you do this?"
She drew herself up to her full splendid height. "Sweetcheeks! I'm insulted! That would be cheating!" Her indignation couldn't hold, however, and she relaxed into giggles again. "No, it wasn't me! They did it all by themselves! That's what makes it so special! And they didn't even LIKE each other when they started out. I'm SO proud!" She squealed and pinched his cheek. "You know, if more mortals would fall in love on their own, it would save me a lot of trouble. You wouldn't BELIEVE how hard I've been working lately! I just KNOW it's giving me frown lines. Now be honest - don't you see them? Look closely!" She presented a flawless alabaster complection for his consideration. His breath caught in his throat and his voice dried up as he squeaked, "No, I can't see any lines. None at all!"
"Awww, you are so sweet!" Another pinch of his cheek. "Anyway, whenever I'm feeling down, I just come and look in on these two and it just makes me go goose-pimply all over! They're sooooo much in love!" Another wriggle of delight from the goddess, and Iolaus wondered in passing whether he now had smoke rising from his breeches.
Aphrodite shook her finger at him. "Now listen - I know you had a thing a while ago for Niobe, but you gotta promise me you're not going to mess this up, all right? These two are special! You know what I mean?"
All Iolaus could do was nod. With a final deafening peal of laughter, the goddess disappeared, and he decided that the very next thing he needed to do was go immerse himself in the cold water of the nearby lake and stay there for a while. Aphrodite tended to have that effect on mortal males.
From where he lurked in the underbrush, Iolaus had clear sight and sound of his cousin and King Xenon. This royal hunting preserve offered a great deal of cover, he had discovered to his simultaneous relief and worry. It would be very difficult for Orestes to see that his cousin was shadowing him - that was a relief. But the same cover that hid Iolaus could just as easily hide anyone else - that was the worry.
There had never been any doubt in Iolaus' mind that he was going to be out there protecting Orestes, whether his cousin wanted it or not. Going hunting with Xenon may have been a "king thing", but having his cousin's back was an "Iolaus thing".
The two kings, dressed in dark colors, were standing together. Xenon's voice came clearly as he admired the bow and arrows Orestes was carrying.
"Very finely crafted, Orestes".
"Thank you. They were a gift from my father. No others like them" Orestes replied, and added pointedly. "Niobe is quite an archer. She's been giving me pointers, so that I may be more worthy of them in the hunt".
Whatever answer Xenon may have made to this was interrupted by a huntsman. "Your highnesses, the stag has been spotted moving this way".
"Excellent," said Xenon and looked up at the sky. "The darkening of the sun will soon be upon us. Good hunting to us all!"
They moved off into the forest and Iolaus followed them, as invisible as the wind, his own battered bow strung and ready.
The forest got darker and darker as the eclipse proceeded. everything was silent. Even the birds had stopped singing. All that could be heard was the breeze and a faint crackling of branches somewhere ahead of them.
Xenon caught Orestes' eye and smiled, motioning ahead of them. Orestes nodded. Both kings now had arrow on string, and so too, did Iolaus, though not for the stag.
A dense thicket loomed ahead of them. Iolaus grimaced to himself, since it could hide a dozen stags - or an army of assassins.
Xenon caught Orestes' eye and motioned for him to proceed around one side of the thicket, while he himself would take the other.
Iolaus was immediately suspicious - or rather, even more suspicious. Splitting up in deep cover was a dangerous thing to do. It was the first lesson that he'd learned when he was young. But there was nothing he could do except follow his cousin into the underbrush.
Orestes moved surprisingly quietly for one who was - as Iolaus knew so well - not a seasoned hunter. The light all around them was steadily failing and the greens and browns of the forest had almost faded to shades of grey. A small clearing showed dimly ahead of them. Beyond it came another outburst of crackling in the brush. Orestes heard it and stepped eagerly into the clearing as the light dimmed.
The second Orestes did that, Iolaus knew beyond a certainty that it was a huge mistake.
Iolaus himself was nothing but eyes and ears now, as he strained to see through the last of the reddish sunlight. There!
There the man stood, leather-clad and almost invisible, his bow drawn, arrow nocked - and aiming directly at his cousin's back.
No time. No time. Iolaus shouted "Orestes! Behind you!"
At the same moment Orestes whirled towards him, bow drawn and eyes widened, and screamed "Look out!"
The sun disappeared.
There was the sudden "THRUM!" of bowstrings. A blood-chilling scream from somewhere ahead of him and a trail of fire ripping along Iolaus' left arm. Sounds of broken branches receding in the distance as someone or something ran rapidly off into the forest.
The darkness was total.
Iolaus dropped his bow and plunged forward into the clearing, feeling blindly for where his cousin had last stood. His guts turned to lead as his searching hands finally encountered a body face-down on the ground. The smell of hot blood hung heavy in the air.
"Orestes?" he whispered. A faint moan answered him. "Hold on ... just hold on ... I'll take you back..."
As gently as his shaking hands could manage, Iolaus turned his cousin over and cradled him in his arms. He felt the broken shaft of an arrow protruding from Orestes' chest.
Orestes' voice was barely audible. "There was ... someone behind you.. I ... shot at ... him." With every breath came a bubbling sound that Iolaus knew from grim experience meant that his cousin had very little time left to him.
Someone behind me? thought Iolaus. How did I not know? Even as he asked himself the question, he knew the answer. He'd been so focused on his cousin's back that he'd forgotten to watch his own. Another elementary mistake, just like the one he had been sneering at Xenon for, only a short while ago. He'd screwed up bigtime, but it was Orestes who was paying the price.
Tears of shame and guilt stung Iolaus' eyes. His voice caught in his throat. "Cousin, I tried to protect you. I'm sorry. I'll get you back to the palace - "
"No..." breathed Orestes. "No use ..."
"Don't say that. Be strong".
"Iolaus... be the king again... make my plan work..."
"No. I won't need to ... You're going to do that yourself...". Iolaus sounded almost hysterical in his own ears.
He suddenly realized he could dimly discern his cousin's face. The eclipse was ending and the light was returning. He could see Orestes feebly shaking his head.
"Tell Niobe ... I'm .... sorry .... ". The breath hissed out from his lips followed by a gush of blood. Orestes went limp.
Iolaus felt for a pulse he knew he would not find.
His cousin was dead. It was Iolaus' fault. Niobe had asked him to protect her husband, and he had failed, miserably and absolutely.
He clutched Orestes' body close and sat for what seemed a long time, his head bowed and tears running down his face.
Out of the depths of his grief, a despairing idea swam upwards.
"Dite?" he whispered softly. "Aphrodite? Please! Please come! Please help!" He took a deep breath. "I'm asking for your help. I'll do anything you want, but please ..."
His voice died away. He could hear the thudding of his heartbeats in the silence.
A burst of light blinded him momentarily and when his sight cleared, the goddess herself was standing in front of him. He felt almost sick with sudden relief.
"Sweetcheeks? Are you the one making all that noise? Hephaestus and I were just getting down to - Oh!" She suddenly looked down at the scene before her.
A terrible quiet fell on the clearing.
Iolaus had never seen Aphrodite shocked before. Her blue eyes grew impossibly large and her exquisite mouth fell open. For a long time she just gazed down at Orestes' bloody body. Finally she met Iolaus' glance.
He had also never seen the tears of a goddess before, but he saw them now, glowing silver in the growing light .
"Orestes?" she whispered. "Someone shot one of my cute little lovebirds?"
Iolaus nodded dully. "I was supposed to protect him. I failed," he explained in a weary voice.
"Nooo...." whined the goddess. "That's not s'posed to happen. They fell in love on their own. They're supposed to be happy. It isn't supposed to end like this!" Her magnificent lower lip pushed out and quivered. "It isn't supposed to BE this way!" She actually stamped one delicate foot and Iolaus found himself stifling an abrupt and embarrassing urge to laugh. "Well, I'm not going to stand for this! I'm going to DO something!"
Aphrodite sniffled and drew her hand across her tear-stained face. "Curly, lay him down gently and step back." Her voice was suddenly full of determination.
"Aphrodite, what are you going to do?" asked Iolaus, torn suddenly between hope and sheer astonishment.
"Just do it. Now!"
Iolaus decided to shut up and do what he was told. Still, it was with a strange reluctance that he laid his cousin down on the blood-stained grass of the clearing and moved back.
With a flourish so graceful that only a poet could describe it, Aphrodite spread her hands over Orestes' body. Rich golden light poured from the goddess' fingers and flowed over the fallen king, surrounding him in a glittering shroud.
Aphrodite clapped her hands . "There," she said in a satisfied tone."That'll protect his body. Now let's go get his soul!".
"His soul?" Iolaus' jaw dropped. "Aphrodite, you mean - ?"
"Come on!" she said briskly, taking his arm. "You and I are going to see Hades!"
Iolaus had just time enough to take a quick breath and open his mouth to protest, but not long enough to say "Wait a minute!"
The forest around him dissolved into a snowstorm of pink and gold sparkles.
If Iolaus had had time to decide which would be the absolute worst circumstances in which to disturb the Lord of the Underworld, he could hardly have chosen anything other than the scene that greeted his eyes.
He and Aphrodite were suddenly in a large, lavishly appointed chamber carved of the blackest volcanic glass, the walls reflecting dazzling light from the torches that hung on them. They were standing at the foot of a vast ebony bedstead, heaped with glossy sables and sealskins and curtained with filmy black silks.
The bed was occupied. Its two occupants were also very occupied.
Iolaus took one look and would have promptly and courteously turned his back if Aphrodite hadn't had an inhumanly strong grip on his arm. He settled for shutting his eyes and muttering "Oops. Sorry!"
Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, didn't hesitate for a second. "HADES!!!!" she shrieked.
"What the - DO YOU MIND?????" came the voice of a very annoyed God of the Underworld.
"No, Hades, I DON'T mind, and I need to talk to you. NOW!"
"NO! I need you to do something for me!"
There was a rustle of bedclothes. Iolaus gingerly opened one eye. Hades was sitting up and the expression on his face made Iolaus slam his eyes shut again and pray to become invisible. "WOULD YOU GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE???" bellowed the god.
"No, I won't. Not til you listen to me!" Just by the sound of her voice, Iolaus could tell that Aphrodite's lower lip was out again. His heart sank. This was going very, very badly.
"Who's that with you?!" Hades demanded. Iolaus instinctively opened his eyes and met the furious gaze of the god. It was like staring straight down into the cauldron of an erupting volcano. "Oh no, not YOU again!"
Oh crap. Oh crap. Iolaus was going to end up in the lowest level of Tartarus for sure this time.
Aphrodite bridled. "He's here with ME. We need your help".
With the sound of a minor hurricane, Hades drew a deep breath, but before he could say anything, a sweet silvery voice broke into the conversation.
"Sweetheart, I'm sure Aphrodite wouldn't have disturbed us unless it was very important". A tousled brown head popped up from among the night-colored sheets. Clutching a sheet modestly to her bosom, Persephone sat up and rested her head on her husband's bare shoulder. "Why don't you hear what she has to say, and then we can get back to - to what we were doing?"
Iolaus relaxed just the tiniest bit. If there was anyone who could deal with an angry Hades, it was his adored wife. And indeed, Hades looked down at her for a moment and the thunderstorm receded from his face. But it was back in full force when he met Aphrodite's eyes. "All right," he growled. "Make it fast. What do you want?!"
"I want a soul back from your kingdom".
Not unreasonably, Hades' fiery glance went automatically to Iolaus and a pained look came over his face. "Oh no - not again! No way! Iolaus has loused up my bookkeeping for the LAST TIME, do you understand?!"
"No no no!" broke in Aphrodite. She put her hands on her hips. "It's not Iolaus, silly! He's not dead! But his cousin Orestes IS."
"The Attican king?" Hades suddenly directed a most seeing look at the blank wall of his bedroom. "Oh yeah - there he is, waiting on the shore of the Styx. Hmmm, funny... he reminds me of someone ..."
Aphrodite jumped into the middle of Hades' commentary. "That's the soul I want back."
The Lord of the Underworld shook his head. "Unh uh! Dead is dead!"
A charming pout appeared on the goddess' face. "No it's not! You yourself said, you did it for Iolaus!"
Iolaus flinched. Wrong argument,Aphrodite, he thought as loudly as he could. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
A furious bellow from Hades confirmed this conclusion. "Yeah, I let Hercules talk me into that and it was the biggest mistake of my career! No more!"
A desperate idea came into Iolaus' head, and rather than take the time to consider if it was a good one or not, he simply took a deep breath and spoke up. "You're right, Hades and I'm here to make amends. Let Orestes go back with Aphrodite. I'll take his place. Then your books will be straight - ".
"You DARE to try and bargain with ME???" Hades' face turned puce and Persephone looked a bit alarmed.
"Sweetcheeks, no!" Aphrodite broke in, waving at him to be quiet. "Let ME handle this!"
Iolaus nodded and shut up. This was not going well.
The Lord of the Underworld turned to Persephone and threw his hands in the air. "You see what happens? You SEE? I make ONE exception and now EVERYONE wants one!"
Persephone patted his hand comfortingly and murmured in sympathy, but Aphrodite was offended.
"I'm NOT 'everyone'! I'm the Goddess of Love!"
Iolaus braced himself for another outburst, but abruptly she changed her tone. "Aw, c'mon Hades ... be a sweetie," she wheedled. The temperature grew perceptibly warmer in the bedroom and the smell of jasmine filled the air.
"It's not gonna work, Aphrodite!" grumbled the god, but in a substantially calmer voice.
"Do it just for me ... And if you do, I'll ..." gracefully she moved to Hades' side and bent down to whisper in his ear.
She whispered for a long time. Hades' eyes grew very wide and Iolaus could have sworn he saw a blush spread over the god's face. "You'd do that for Persephone and me?" he asked in a strangled voice.
"For as long as you like..." Aphrodite replied cheerfully. "Think it over, Hades..." she went on, "you and Persephone with the run of my favorite summer place on Cythaera ... just the two of you on my special bed of rose petals ..." her voice trailed off suggestively.
Hades gave a quick glance at his wife and swallowed hard. Persephone smiled back at him. "It sounds very nice," she commented wistfully.
"But sweet-pea ... my bookkeeping ..." his voice died away as he looked back and forth between Aphrodite and Persephone, both of whom turned incandescent, pleading smiles on him.
Neither mortal nor hero nor god could stand up to that for long. Hades was no exception. With a cross between a sigh and a growl he grumbled "Oh, all RIGHT!"
Persephone threw her arms around him, and Aphrodite gave a squeal of delight and clapped her hands. "You are such a sweetie!"
"Humph..." muttered Hades. He started to nuzzle Persephone's hair, then stopped and glared at Aphrodite. "You got what you wanted. Now scram! I'm busy!"
The glare shifted to Iolaus. "And the next time YOU cross the Styx, that's IT. Do you understand? NO DO-OVERS!!! You stay here. Period, end of scroll!"
"Whatever you say, Hades", answered Iolaus hastily. This was no time to argue, and he had to admit to himself that Hades DID have a point. Though it occurred to him that Hercules was not going to be happy when he heard about this. Well, he'd deal with that later.
Aphrodite gave a splendid giggle and gestured. Glittering pink sparkles rained down on the two occupants of the bed, who were suddenly too wrapt in each other once again to notice.
"Thanks, Hades! Have fun...!" She looked back at Iolaus. "C'mon, sweetcheeks! Let's go get my lovebird back!"
Iolaus was never quite sure of what had happened next. Only fragments swirled in his memory later - images of being tossed in a swirling snowstorm of golden light and seeing Orestes suddenly appear before him, buffeted by the same unnatural wind of godly powers being unleashed.
The next thing he knew, he was in the forest clearing again.
Aphrodite was standing next Orestes' body, which was still shrouded in the golden glow. She raised her hands and spread them wide, and the light abruptly faded.
Iolaus fell to his knees beside his cousin, watching in tense amazement. From Orestes' bloodstained lips came a gasp, and then another. The broken arrow that protruded from his chest shimmered and abruptly disappeared. Even the stains upon his garments were fading away.
Orestes' eyes flew open and for one brief second seemed to focus on the goddess who stood over him in all her glory. She smiled at him, bent gracefully down and touched his eyelids. "Welcome back, my little king. Sleep now...". Obediently Orestes' eyes closed and he began to breathe deeply and evenly.
Iolaus met Aphrodite's gaze and they shared a triumphant grin.
"We did it!" She gave a delighted squeal and wriggle.
"No, YOU did it!" acknowledged Iolaus in simple honesty. "Aphrodite - thanks!"
"Well, I couldn't have my lovebirds messed with now, could I? Take good care of him, sweetcheeks. He's gonna live, but it will take some time for him to heal completely. Being dead'll do that. But in a few days he'll be fine! " She brushed her lips against Iolaus' cheek. "See ya!"
"Wait! Aphrodite? - ?" But there was no stopping her. She vanished in a nimbus of silver, leaving behind the strong scent of roses.
The light in the forest was still dim. He looked around him, and realized - with a lack of surprise born of long association with Hercules' divine relatives - that their trip to the Underworld had taken no time at all. Which meant that Xenon was still out hunting stag, and at least one assassin might still be out there hunting Orestes.
First thing to do was get his cousin hidden. All their efforts would be for nothing if the assassin circled back and finished the job he'd set out to do.
Thinking furiously, Iolaus half-dragged, half-carried the unconscious Orestes back into a dense thicket of fern trees, whose green and springy branches made no noise as he parted them. His cousin never stirred as Iolaus laid him down on a thick bed of dead ferns at the base of a tree. The branches covered him like living bed curtains. He would be safe and unseen, for the moment.
Faintly, off in the distance, Iolaus could hear the sound of voices and footfalls. Swiftly he stripped off his cousin's outer garments, the silk shirt and soft leather hunting vest and put them on. He fervently hoped that Xenon would not have looked too closely at what his royal guest was wearing, because there was no time to swap breeches and boots. Carefully Iolaus laid his own battered vest over Orestes, tucking it around him, and then piled more of dead ferns over him until only his face was showing.
Iolaus peeked out from between the ferns, and warily stepped out into the open. He made note of several landmarks and covered up the traces he'd left. Orestes would be safe there until he and Hector could come back later to get him.
He hastened back towards the glade. It was a simple matter to find Orestes' erstwhile assassin - he was lying very dead, seven paces into the woods on the other side of the clearing, with Iolaus' arrow sticking out of his neck.
Well, there wasn't going to be any information gotten from THIS guy, Iolaus thought to himself. He quickly jerked his arrow from the corpse's neck and rolled the body into the thickest underbrush. He'd deal with it later. If there was a later ...
Iolaus held his breath and listened. All the noises of the hunt were still distant. He had a little more time.
Swiftly he crossed the clearing to where he himself had hidden and where someone - he grimaced to himself - had managed to sneak up on HIM. With luck he could follow the tracks perhaps, and see where this guy had gone.
There was blood spoor on the ground. Damn, he thought, impressed, Orestes must have tagged him! The trail of broken branches was easy to read for a hunter used to tracking wounded prey.
The blood spatters grew thicker and more frequent. Ultimately he almost stumbled over their source.
The man - dressed in the tattered, anonymous leathers that could be the uniform for any assassin - was lying on his side amid a clump of tall ferns. Iolaus froze where he was, and watched, but the man lay still, clutching Orestes' arrow in his blood-stained fingers. Blood oozed from a wound in his belly and stained the ground. As Iolaus watched, a red bubble blew from between his lips and burst.
Not dead yet, Iolaus thought to himself. Warily he approached and bent over the wounded assassin, snatched up the man's dagger and his bow and tossed them away. The man stirred and murmured. Iolaus quickly pried Orestes' arrow from his grip.
Gently he probed the wound and saw that it was probably mortal. Well, he'd do what he could. Looking around, he spotted a clump of woundwort growing nearby. He crushed a handful of the leaves and stuffed them into the wound, holding it in place with the man's own belt.
A moan broke from the assassin's lips and his eyes flew open. They focused on Iolaus face, and a look of terror leapt into them.
"You're ... dead!"
"Yes," whispered Iolaus sternly. "You killed me. We're going to the Underworld together and I'll accuse you before Hades himself. You know what happens in the Underworld, to those who murder kings?"
Judging from his reaction, the man had a good idea. "It... wasn't me!" he gasped. "Arcarious ... he did it... I missed...".
"Why did you shoot at me?" Iolaus asked in what he hoped was a sufficiently kingly tone. "What have I ever done to you?"
The bubbles of blood had turned into a steady stream from the assassin's mouth. Iolaus raised the man's head so he would not choke.
The assassin wheezed ".. Xenon ... hired us ... ".
Iolaus nodded slowly, just wishing that there were other witnesses to this confession. Still, it was nice to have his suspicions confirmed first-hand.
"Xenon hired you, huh? Just out of curiosity - what was the price of my life? I wouldn't want it to be too cheap - I'm a king, after all!"
Feebly the assassin scrabbled with a bloody hand at a leather pouch that hung from his belt. Iolaus opened it and drew out a tiny silken bag that clinked.
"Never even ... got... to spend it." The breath blew harshly out of his lips and died away to a gurgle. His eyes glazed over. He was dead.
Iolaus sighed and closed the assassin's eyes. Then, moved by an impulse that he didn't care to think about, he shook a gold coin out of the little bag and slipped it under the man's tongue.
"At least you can pay Charon," he said softly, and rolled the man's body into a nearby thicket.
It seemed to Iolaus that he'd been hiding bodies for hours, but the sun was still just barely obscured by the eclipse. OK, time to get back to the hunt...
He stepped back into the clearing just in time to see Xenon entering it - and just in time to catch the shock that blazed across the king's face at the sight of what he took to be a live Orestes.
Oh yeah, Iolaus thought to himself, you were hoping for a corpse, weren't you, Xenon? Tough luck!
He smiled blandly at Xenon, who had recovered himself almost immediately and asked "Orestes? Are you all right?"
Iolaus answered calmly, "Of course. Just nature calling. Is something wrong?"
"I thought I heard a noise".
I'll just bet you did, you son of a bitch, thought Iolaus, but aloud he said, "Yeah, I heard something too. Did someone bag the stag yet?"
Xenon shook his head. "No, not yet".
"Well, then, let's get about it, shall we? And I'll stay with you this time, King Xenon. After all, you're the experienced hunter. I'd be a fool to go off on my own!" Another bland smile, and he motioned for Xenon to proceed him. After a long, puzzled look, Xenon moved out.
Iolaus paused long enough to scoop up Orestes' bow, then set off to follow his fellow king, and all the while tried hard not to think about what a tempting target Xenon's back was.
The gods knew, the bastard deserved it - but there are some things a hero just doesn't do.
Iolaus found the rest of the hunt to be a strain. He had to keep reminding himself that Orestes was NOT a seasoned hunter. It was a constant battle against his own instincts to let Xenon take the lead, especially when Xenon kept missing signs that Iolaus could have tracked at midnight with his eyes closed. With a great effort he managed to make it look like Xenon was the one who finally got them in position to take a clear shot at the stag, and it was an immense relief when Xenon's arrow struck home for a swift, clean kill.
Immediately upon their return to the palace, Iolaus announced loudly that he was tired from the exertions of the hunt and wished to bathe and rest before the banquet planned for that evening. This had the desired effect on Xenon - he accepted the excuse with elaborate courtesy and visible contempt, and went off with his huntsman to butcher the stag.
Iolaus didn't care. He was burning to get back to Niobe and tell her most - not all - of what had happened. He'd seen her watching from the paraphet above the gate, and he saw her go ashen when she looked down at him. It would be direst cruelty to let her go on thinking for a moment longer that Orestes was dead.
At the door to their quarters, Iolaus found Hector and Linus waiting, grim-faced, and he motioned them to follow him inside. Niobe was already within, milk-white and slumped in a chair. The eyes she raised to him were wide and full of tears.
He ran to her, knelt, and took both her hands in his. "No, it's not what you think!" he said swiftly and softly. "He's all right. There WAS an attack, and I'll tell you all about it later, but he's all right".
Niobe's eyes closed and she gripped his hands so tightly that he thought she was going to faint. "Thank you!" she whispered softly. "Oh thank you!"
Iolaus gave a terse nod. "There's no time to lose! Right now I've got him hidden in the forest and I want to bring him back here secretly, for his own safety. Niobe, you and Hector are going to have to cover for us! Tell them Orestes is bathing, tell them he's resting, tell them - anuything, whatever, but don't let anyone in here until Linus and I get back with him!"
Still white but visibly calmer now, Niobe nodded jerkily.
Iolaus turned to Linus. "All right - I want you to leave the palace openly. If you meet anyone, complain loudly that King Orestes has sent you into the forest to look for a dagger that he dropped. I'll meet you at the edge of the hunting preserve."
"How are you going to get there?" asked Linus.
Iolaus grinned. "I'm very good at getting places without being seen! It's an old hunter's trick! Go on!"
He himself headed for the window, but stopped and looked back at Niobe. "Courage, my queen!" he said softly.
For once in his life, things went as he had hoped they would. He got out the window, through the gardens and over the palace wall without attracting any attention. Everyone else in the place seemed to be either in the kitchen or the banquet hall. Once out of sight of the walls, Iolaus took off at a dead run. Linus was waiting for him at the edge of the forest. They exchanged grim smiles and Iolaus gave him the thumbs up. "C'mon!" he murmured.
They plunged into the woods, moving as quickly as they dared, keeping eyes and ears out for any of Xenon's men. They encountered no one.
Thinking it over later, Iolaus wondered if Aphrodite had been watching over them. Whatever. He'd thank her anyway, next time he saw her.
Orestes appeared still asleep, but opened his eyes slowly when Iolaus whispered "Cousin?"
"Iolaus?..." He looked up and his brows drew down in a puzzled frown. "Linus, what are you doing here? What happened?!" Orestes tried to sit up, gasped in pain and fell back weakly. He looked down at himself and back up at Iolaus. "Where are my clothes?"
Iolaus waved him to silence and looked around warily. No one seemed to be about. "Orestes, what's the last thing you remember?"
Of its own accord, Orestes' hand went to his chest. "I was ... dying. Someone shot me..." His gaze went suddenly unfocussed. "And then ... there was the most beautiful woman - Iolaus, what happened?!"
"Long story. I'll explain later. Right now we've got to get you out of here! Oh - and your clothes are right here!" He stripped off his royal cousin's silk shirt and soft leather vest, dropped them on the ground beside Orestes, and snatched up his own well-worn vest. "Put 'em on, and let's go!"
By the time that he and Linus got Orestes back to the palace, Iolaus was sure beyond certainty that Aphrodite must have been looking after them. Linus had strode up to the front gate, waving Orestes' dagger and shouting that he'd found it and now wanted the promised reward. The guards at the gates had been vastly amused and gathered around to inspect the jeweled bauble and hear Linus' loud and long-winded complaints about what a pain in the ass it had been to hunt for it in the woods.
All of which had left a large section of the palace walls temporarily unguarded and given Iolaus the time and space to get his royal cousin boosted over the wall and safely smuggled back into the royal guest quarters.
Niobe was waiting for them at the window and caught Orestes in her arms as he scrambled over the sill.
"Niobe..." he murmured weakly and wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in her fragrant hair.
"Oh gods!" she whispered and hugged him tightly to her. "I was so worried!"
Iolaus felt a momentary stab of irrational envy.
"Well, cousin..." Orestes, pale and bandaged, sat pillow-propped on the bed, with Niobe sitting crosslegged beside him, "once again, I owe you my life".
Iolaus took a well-needed slug from his wine cup and shook his head. "Nope, Orestes, I think this time we're even. You took out the guy who was behind me. I didn't even hear him, til you shouted!"
"You didn't hear him, because you were looking out for ME, Iolaus!"
"I didn't do a very good job of it!" snorted Iolaus.
"I'm still alive," Orestes said simply. "By the way - WHY am I still alive? I remember feeling the arrow go in - hurt like hell - and then I must have passed out. What happened?"
Iolaus had been dreading this question. He ran his hand through his tousled hair and answered with all the truthfulness he could project, "You were very, very lucky - the arrowpoint bounced off a rib, instead of skewering you!"
He didn't like lying, but there was no way he was going to try and tell the truth this time. For one thing, it would have taken way too long, and for another, he didn't want Orestes feeling any guiltier than he clearly already felt.
"But I saw a beautiful woman ..."
Oh crap, he'd actually seen Aphrodite. And there was no way any mortal would forget that.
"Hallucination, probably from blood loss. You're lucky - I usually see monsters". Iolaus avoided meeting anyone's eyes as he said this, and hoped fervently that Aphrodite herself wasn't around listening in at the moment. Nevertheless it seemed to satisfy Orestes. "Anyway, you'll be all right in a few days."
"Yes. Thanks to you, cousin."
Iolaus pulled out the silk bag of coins and tossed it into his cousin's lap. "There - that's the price of your life. I took it off the man you shot. By the way, aim a little higher next time. But today it worked out just fine! He wasn't quite dead, and before he died, he confirmed that Xenon had hired him and the other guy to create a hunting accident."
Orestes was very quiet for a while, fingering the silk bag. Then he said something that Iolaus could never remember hearing a king say before.
"I'm sorry. You were right and I was wrong. I owe you - and you, Hector, and you, Niobe - a huge apology."
Iolaus shook his head impatiently, but Orestes pressed on.
"You were right, Iolaus. The hunt WAS a setup. I should have listened to you." He sighed. "I won't make that mistake again."
"Glad to hear you say that!" Iolaus set down his cup with a bang, and stood up. "Because we've still got a lot to do. Xenon missed one chance to take you out today. We'd be fools to think he's not going to try it again - and we'd better be ready for him!" He grinned at Orestes. "I did a lot of thinking while hauling you back from the forest. I've got some ideas. Listen up - your majesty!"
Iolaus found in the next hour that a chastened Orestes was refreshingly amenable to reason. Iolaus was able to lay out the stark realities of their situation, and his cousin grasped them immediately and with no argument. He was even able to convince a more skeptical Hector. Being shot at, Iolaus decided, concentrates a man's mind wonderfully.
What took place was nothing less than a coucil of war. To be sure, there were no armies involved, only individuals. Or maybe, Iolaus reflected, you could call it a drama - one improvised on the spot rather than written by the bards, where the penalty for failure was not just a hearty booing from the multitudes, but certain death.
And Iolaus had to play a role he'd played before, but never expected to reprise. Nevertheless, no more than than an hour later, there he was, bathed, groomed and dressed in the silks of a king, the royal diadem of Attica heavy on his brow once more. Orestes himself had placed it there with a wry smile. "Wear it in good health, cousin!"
Niobe, jeweled and clad in scarlet silk, took his arm. He could feel the tension in her grasp, but on her face was only a queenly calm.
Orestes took her hand and pressed it to his lips. They shared a glance, and once again Iolaus felt an unworthy pang of envy.
"You're sure you're up for this?" Orestes asked tensely.
Niobe gave a tight smile. "Yes. Of course".
He smiled back. "My queen". Then he clasped arms with Iolaus. "The gods go with you, cousin".
The banqueting hall was as lavish as anything Iolaus had ever seen. Clearly here was where Xenon's treasure, ill- or honestly gotten, was on display. Xenon sprawled on an ornate carven couch, piled high with bright silken cushions. Iolaus and Niobe shared a similar couch opposite him, as the guests of honor.
Xenon had obviously gotten quite a head start on the wine before the banquet had even begun. His face was flushed and his humor acquired an ever-sharper edge to it as the evening progressed. A mean drunk, just as Iolaus had suspected. Just as well - that improved the odds that his plan would work. It would have been much harder if Xenon had been one of those "I love you, man" drunkards.
Niobe sipped delicately from the fragile glass the goblet that the servant filled for her. Iolaus, in his guise as King Orestes, shook his head as the man moved to fill his cup. "No. Bring me water, please."
Xenon heard and grinned contemptuously. "Do you disdain my wine, Orestes?"
Iolaus put a sweet smile on and answered mildly. "Not at all, King Xenon. But I made a vow to Dionysos that every drop of wine in my cup would go to him, and him alone. So I must drink water instead".
"Water!" Xenon hooted. "You know what fish do in water?!" He glared belligerently at Iolaus, daring him to take offense. Niobe laughed politely, and Iolaus just flashed another peaceful smile and said "I'm sure your royal drinking water is fish-free, King Xenon".
Xenon snorted, called for a refill for his own cup, and turned his attention back to the entertainment, which consisted of a troupe of semi-nude young women playing flutes. Now and then, Iolaus could actually hear a discernable melody.
All through the lengthy parade of courses - a very tasty parade and one that Iolaus wished he could have paid more attention to - he watched Xenon drink, watched the color in the man's face darken and heard his words begin to slur. This had to be timed just right, to find the point when Xenon's self control had weakened enough that his anger would over-ride his cunning - and Iolaus did not discount the man's cunning.
Dish after dish, pitcher after pitcher ... the feast progressed and Iolaus bided his time. Now and then Niobe would shoot him a nervous glance, and he would smile comfortingly back at her and sqeeze her hand.
He knew the time had finally arrived when Xenon loudly began to berate a server for not filling his cup sufficiently. The king grabbed the wine pitcher himself and upended it, spilling fragrant red wine over the table and the floor, and then laughed uproariously as other servants scurried to wipe up the mess.
It was now or never. Iolaus rose from where he was sitting beside a pale and silent Niobe, and strode into the center of the hall.
"Xenon, King!" his voice cut through the chatter of voices and the music of the flute-girls, just as he had intended it to. "Xenon, King of Garantus!"
The noise in the hall died away abruptly. Xenon looked up in mild annoyance from where he lounged, wine-cup in hand. "Orestes." The use of his name alone, with no title, coupled with the tone of Xenon's voice, was eloquent with contempt.
"KING Xenon - " Iolaus emphasized the title " - as your guest, I should thank you for the great hospitality you've shown me. Of course, that's the duty of every guest, as custom and the gods have decreed since the beginning of time".
Xenon did not trouble to hide a yawn. "You're very welcome", he replied dismissively and turned his attention again to his wine- cup, while the other guests began to talk among themselves again, certain that the formalities were now over.
"Hear me, King Xenon". Iolaus raised his voice a notch, and the hall fell silent. "I repeat - I thank you for your hospitality. It was an honor to go hunting with you today, a King with a King. But as we both know, Kings have other duties as well. Chief among them is the welfare of their kingdoms. It is with that in mind - " he wondered if this whole thing sounded as pompous as he thought it did - "that I urge you once again to join with us and the other kingdoms in the Peace Plan. For benefit of your land and your people! Certainly the greatest gift you can give them is peace, isn't it?" Iolaus thought to himself that this last sentence would have given Ares heartburn.
It seemed to have the same effect on Xenon. His face a mask of disdainful loathing, he drained his winecup. "Peace?" he spat. "Peace - and peace plans - are for LOSERS!"
Iolaus breathed a silent prayer of thanks to whichever god had set this last statement up. He wondered if it indeed was Ares.
"For losers, you say?" he replied clearly. "I don't agree with you. But I'll take you at your word, King Xenon."
"What's THAT supposed to mean?"
"You've made it very clear that you won't be persuaded by words. Very well. Then I'll make my case in terms that even YOU - " he emphasized the word - "can understand. I'll fight you. If you LOSE, you commit to the Peace Plan!"
For a moment Iolaus was absolutely certain that Xenon had been stricken with apoplexy. The man's eyes bulged out and his face became almost purple, as the breath hissed from between his lips. Then he took a great gulp of air and began to laugh. Tears ran down his face and he collapsed on his couch and rolled back and forth.
A scandalized murmur rose from the feasters in the hall.
Iolaus stood quietly, not reacting, just waiting. Finally Xenon gained enough control of himself to gasp out "You're really serious!"
"I've never been more serious."
"You mean to fight ME?"
"No. You might be. I'll give you time to sober up, if you like, before we fight."
Xenon was on his feet. "I'm not drunk. And I don't need time. And you're stark, staring MAD!"
Iolaus kept his voice loud but level."Let the gods decide that".
By now the only sound in the banquetting hall was the crackle and spit of the flames on the oil lamps.
Xenon seemed to finally come to the realization that his rival was absolutely serious. "The gods?" he spat. "I don't need the gods! I'LL be the one to do the deciding." He strode over to Iolaus' side of the dais and glowered down at the smaller man. "Very well, KING Orestes. I'll be happy to kill you!"
Iolaus played his part. "I said 'fight', not 'kill'!"
Xenon stepped right into the trap. "Oh no, KING Orestes. If we fight, you die. And you can't back out, now!" His smile was a wolf's grin. "Orestes, I'm going to kill you. And then - I'm going to comfort your widow!" His glance over at Niobe was full of a vicious lust that he no longer troubled to hide. She disdained to return his look, but sat motionless, with a face like stone.
Iolaus let something between anger and fear show on his face. "Lucky for me, you'll leave no widow!" That was kind of tacky, he thought briefly. He'd apologize to Niobe for it later. He turned his mind back to the situation at hand and the final throw of the dice. "But if I kill YOU, do you swear that your kingdom will join in the Peace Plan?"
There was a hysterical edge to Xenon's laughter. "If you kill me? If YOU kill ME?!" He wiped tears from his eyes. "Why, Orestes, if you kill me, you can have what you've been asking for. My kingdom will join in your Peace Plan!" He spat the last two words.
"Do you swear this?"
"Do you swear this? By the Styx?"
Xenon gasped for breath between bouts of laughter. "Oh yeah! I .. swear it ... by the Styx!!!"
Iolaus looked cooly around the hall at the stunned guests. "Heard and witnessed, by this assembly". Some of them gave half- hearted nods. "Good. Call for your weapons, Xenon".
By this point Xenon seemed to be in an ecstasy of homicidal rage. "You realize that Hades will call your death a suicide?!" he demanded.
The mention of Hades brought such a brilliant grin to Iolaus' face that Xenon stepped back uncertainly.
"Oh yes", answered Iolaus cheerfully. "I know EXACTLY what Hades will say, when he sees me!"
The courtyard of Xenon's palace was lit bright as daylight by torchbearers who lined the walls. The center of the carefully tended lawn was empty of everyone except the two armed combatants who faced each other.
"Little king..." By now Xenon had abandoned any pretence at courtesy - "let's just be clear about this. If you win, you get your peace plan, as I've sworn. If you lose - " his eyes went to Niobe, who stood, wrapped in a dark cloak, at the edge of the courtyard - "if you lose, I take your woman!"
Iolaus could not help glancing over at Niobe. Her face was stern and serene, but she turned her eyes to him and in them he saw no fear, only trust.
"I don't think my queen would have you, Xenon".
"She'll have no choice. To the victor go the spoils!"
"That IS the ancient rule, isn't it?" Iolaus grinned insolently into Xenon's face. "Almost as ancient as an oath sworn by the Styx! And certainly almost as ancient as the rule against hiring assassins to murder your guests during a stag hunt!"
He drew out the silk bag with the coins and threw it down at Xenon's feet. Xenon jumped back as though it were an asp.
Iolaus did not trouble to lower his voice. "There's your money back, Xenon! Your hired hands are still out in the forest. If you want to find them, just wait a week and take a deep breath!"
Xenon flushed and finally sputtered, "You've gone mad! And now you're going to die!"
Iolaus laughed as he raised his sword. "Shut up and fight."
Swords glittered in the torchlight.
All right, Iolaus thought to himself. He's bigger and taller than you, and damn strong. On the other hand, he's been drinking wine and you haven't. And he thinks you're a joke. Let him go on thinking that, for a while at least.
Xenon broke into his train of thought with a hearty thrust towards Iolaus' belly.
Whoops! Gotta move it here!
Iolaus jerked himself backwards, and Xenon's blade missed his navel by a hairsbreadth.
Before Xenon could recover his balance, Iolaus launched a roundhouse kick to the side of his head. Xenon went down like a sack of rocks, but to Iolaus' immense surprise, turned the motion into a sideways roll and came back up onto his feet.
Damn! Not quite as drunk as I thought he was!
Iolaus dodged a swipe and moved several steps back, as though intimidated.
A feral smile bloomed on Xenon's face. In the next moment it disappeared completely as Iolaus hurled himself forward, driving his shoulder into Xenon's gut.
Breath whooshed out of Xenon's mouth and he staggered backwards. Iolaus followed up with a feint to the head and a thrust to the thigh, but Xenon twisted awkwardly to the side at the last moment, so the tip of Iolaus' sword only scored him lightly. Still, blood began to trickle down Xenon's right leg.
It was a mistake to watch that trickle. Xenon gave a short thrust upward towards Iolaus' face. Iolaus saved his nose from destruction only by letting himself fall onto his butt, then rolling into a backwards somersault that put him on his feet again.
Iolaus was breathing hard, but Xenon was breathing harder. The wine was taking its toll.
Both fighters circled each other, crouched and looking for an opening. Xenon's right foot left a bloody footprint with every step, Iolaus noticed.
Good. Now he knew what to aim for.
Iolaus gave a thrust to Xenon's left side, which Xenon moved to block, while at the same time Iolaus' left foot snaked out in a full force kick to Xenon's right knee. Xenon bellowed an obscenity as the kick connected. He stumbled and thrust wildly at his opponent.
In the next heartbeat, many things seemed to take place at once. Xenon's blade bit into Iolaus' side and Iolaus gave a howl of honest agony. He saw Xenon smile grimly, but at the same time, through the sudden haze of pain, he also spied an opening. Gasping for breath, he summoned all his strength and two-handed, drove the tip of his sword straight through Xenon's throat.
The king of Garantus never made a sound. His eyes flew open and then rolled up in his head. He dropped his weapon and toppled like a tree at mercy of a cottar's axe, pulling Iolaus' own sword out of his grasp.
Iolaus took a deep breath and straightened up as best he could. Nausea rose in his throat and he felt blood welling out from beneath the fingers that clutched his side, but he knew he had to deliver the final speech in this dangerous and risky drama that he and his friends had so carefully orchestrated.
There was the sound of feet running towards him. He felt strong hands grasp him and help him stand upright, and he looked up into Hector's worried face. Niobe was suddenly at his other side, her slim arms catching him carefully around the waist. Iolaus gave a woozy smile. "S'okay ..." he whispered.
It hurt like crazy to breathe, and even more so to focus on the throng that now crowded into the middle of the courtyard, staring and murmuring in surprise and maybe fear.
OK, he thought. Here goes. "People of Garantus!" he called as loudly as he could. "Your king has been slain in fair combat, under the rules that he himself set. The victory goes to Orestes of Attica!"
That got the crowd's attention.
He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the sharp pain that throbbed in his side. "By ancient custom, Orestes - " he phrased it carefully - "could now claim the crown of Garantus!"
This statement was greeted by silence, but Iolaus saw several people nodding.
Now for the meat of the matter. "But Orestes will not do so! Let the people of Garantus choose Xenon's successor according to their own laws and customs!"
There was a burst of noise from the crowd and a few cheers.
Iolaus pushed himself free of the supporting hands and stood straight, swinging his sword in an arc before him. He held up a hand for silence and hoped that no one could see it was shaking.
"Yet to the victor go the spoils! That is the ancient rule!"
They were listening intently now, and their faces all held the same wary expression. Dramatically he thrust his sword into the ground before him.
"Therefore, Orestes of Attica demands what he was promised if the victory was his - and it was! By the oath of your late King Xenon, sworn by the River Styx in front of witnesses, Garantus will join with the other kingdoms in the Peace Plan of Niobe!"
Iolaus' voice echoed through the courtyard and died away. The crowd was silent, so silent that Iolaus thought he could hear his own heart beating. This was it, the final gamble. Would they agree, or would they turn on him? He held his breath.
Then it came, the first tentative clapping of hands. It was joined instantly by another, and another, until it was swamped by a thunder of applause and cheering.
Iolaus closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed hard in relief.
The sound swelled until it filled the courtyard and echoed from the stone walls of the palace.
He hoped Orestes could hear it.
Two almost identical blond men, wearing almost identical bandages wrapped round their bodies, sat at their ease in front of a crackling fire in the royal hunting lodge of Attica. One's cup held wine, and the other's, water.
Two days had passed since the duel with Xenon. The King and Queen of Attica had left the court of Garantus the next morning, staying only long enough for the chief ministers of the kingdom to sign their names to the Peace Plan. Xenon's nephew and heir was being summoned from Athens, where he was attending the Bards' Academy, to be sworn and invested. Orestes and Niobe had tactfully turned down an invitation to stay for the crowning.
Iolaus had initially insisted that he was perfectly well enough to sneak back out the way he'd sneaked in, but his attempt to swing himself over the windowsill ended with him crumpled on the floor, clutching his side and cursing sulphurously. He ended up being smuggled out of the palace in a large basket, covered by a pile of Niobe's best gowns, and accompanying the royal couple to the hunting lodge deep in the woods of Attica, where both he and Orestes could heal a bit. He got the strong impression that Niobe enjoyed having the two of them to fuss over.
The enforced rest - and both Niobe and Hector were adamant that he must rest - gave Iolaus some time to think, especially about the deal he'd made with Hades. The actual deal itself didn't bother him, he realized. He'd been facing death all his life, ever since he first picked up a sword. Examining his own feelings, he concluded that, though Hercules had yanked him back across the Styx twice before, he harbored no secret hopes that this would happen again. No, he could honestly say to himself that he was not afraid of death, and if Hades insisted on him staying in the Underworld this time - well, fair enough. But he'd do his damnedest to make that day a long time in coming!
But the more he thought about it, the less inclined he was to mention Hades' edict to Hercules. He knew exactly what his best friend's reaction would be - if he knew that next time Iolaus went to the Underworld it would be for keeps, Hercules would make it his business to keep Iolaus out of danger. And THAT would be worse than any torment in the lowest depths of Tartarus.
No, Iolaus decided, there were some things in his life that his best friend was better off not knowing about, and this was one of them.(There was also that incident in the tavern in Boetia, but that was long ago). Anyway, the whole thing was moot. He'd eventually been successful in protecting Orestes, the Peace Plan was progressing nicely, and he could tell Hercules all about that with perfect truthfulness.
Iolaus nodded vigorously at this thought, and caught Orestes watching him in puzzlement. He smiled at his royal cousin and raised his cup. "Orestes, I gotta say - this is definitely the life!"
Iolaus had to admit - certain aspects of royal life had a lot to recommend them. Like right now, when he was sprawled in a comfortable chair by a cheerful fire, his wound carefully stitched and bandaged, the smell of venison wafting in from the kitchen, and his cup full of first-rate Colchian wine.
He raised his cup in salute. "Cousin!"
Orestes returned the salute and they drank together.
"Iolaus, isn't there anything we can do to repay you?" Orestes asked, continuing a discussion that had started earlier.
Iolaus shook his head. "No need. Just keep going with this Peace Plan! It's a tremendous idea!"
"Hector tells me that there are envoys from two more kingdoms waiting to talk to me back at the capital. Now that Garantus has joined up, other kingdoms are going to be more inclined."
"Yeah." Iolaus watched the flames for amoment. "Ironic, isn't it?"
"The only way to get Garantus to join the peace plan was to fight".
"Fornication in the cause of chastity", Orestes said wryly. "The philosphers say that it shouldn't work, but sometimes it does."
Iolaus thought of the hundreds of times that he and Hercules had fought for that same purpose, and replied with a heartfelt "Oh yeah!"
"I hope I won't have to fight," Orestes said slowly, "but if I do, I will do it! I can't keep having you fight my battles for me".
"I was your champion." Iolaus stated the simple truth. "You were in no condition to do it, and I was. Besides, it's one of those king things - a king sometimes has to let other people fight for him. Your job as King, is to make sure that you pick the right things to have them fight for".
"And if I'm not sure, I'll ask Niobe. She'll know. She always does."
"Damn straight!" agreed Iolaus. "The two of you make a great team! Just keep doing what you're doing, and everything will be a great success!"
"The gods willing, " added Orestes softly.
And at least one goddess, Iolaus commented to himself, and suddenly thought he heard a faint but distinctive giggle.
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