Non coerceri maximo, contineri minimo, divinum est.[Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained by the smallest, is divine.]~ quoted in Friedrich Holderlin, Hyperion
I sing the song of the sword
The blade holds the light of the sun for less than a second. In its descent, the trace of an incandescent silvery arc lingers over the head of the beautiful Empress, like the outline of a fragile shell that encases all, imprisons everyone with things random and beautiful, vivid and cruel-the blue sky shot through with fissures of cloud, the stones so old that no one remembered their origins, the sand dappled with shadow and blood.
When she was a child, someone had told her that she possessed a poetic cast of mind. She's not quite sure anymore who said this-a mother, a sister, an aunt? Perhaps it was all of them and their collective voices now blended into one strain, one note blurring into silence, one increasingly distant memory. She hoards images, finding strange comfort in silver and bronze, Empress and blood, all savored quickly behind closed eyelids until she hears the Empress's savage exhale, feels the breeze of the sword bearing down upon her, and moves.
The tip of her sword rested under the woman's chin. Runty, Xena thought.
She could not fault Cato for a lack of variety. Unlike the famous cousin who also shared his name, Cato the gladiatorial impresario was less fortunate and less wealthy but more flaccid, a leader not in political circles but merely among the gladiators who brawled and died in the Circus Maximus. From his cadre of fighters she had bid him to bring her only the finest for sparring partners, and had sneered with contempt at the sight of the short woman in the mix of a furry Gaul, a strapping Syrian, and an ebony-colored Egyptian.
Regardless, she maintained her sense of humor about it-or attempted to, at any rate. An appreciation for life's shitting little ironies was important for the leaders of men. She sometimes wondered if she should commit to paper these pointless maxims that roamed through her mind; Romans seemed to enjoy such trite nuggets passing for wisdom. "I asked for your best, Cato," she grunted warningly. "Instead, I receive your shortest."
"Begging your pardon, Empress," Cato nodded at the woman, "but she is the best."
"Cato, Cato," Xena sighed. "I think to distinguish you from your illustrious kin, we shall have to call you Cato the Comic. Or Cato the Horseshitter." She tried again to force the Amazon's gaze upward with the tip of the sword, but the small woman's eyes remained stubbornly fixed upon the ground.
"Empress," he pleaded, "do you not realize who this is?" Cato gestured dramatically at the small woman in a florid motion probably cribbed from his rhetorically gifted cousin. "This
is the most famous gladiator in Rome!"
Xena shot him an exasperated look, but Cato remained staring at her with the bug-eyed earnestness of a gargoyle. "You must
be joking. Because you know I don't go to those things." When she had first arrived in Rome many years ago, Caesar had insisted she partake of a day at the Circus Maximus. That day had been hot, tedious, brutal: Men killing men, men killing half-starved, half-dead animals. No one appreciated a good fight like Xena, but without purpose, without gain-and for the mere entertainment of a few thousand idiots-it seemed beyond foolish. These were men who, with proper training, could be soldiers, law keepers, bodyguards. Instead, their lives and their skill were wasted in trivial spectacle. If that was the best Roman culture had to offer, she had thought, perhaps she had made a mistake in becoming Caesar's wife, in allying herself with his city.
Cato's enthusiasm continued unabated: "Do you not read the writings upon the wall? The daily graffito? This is the Little One. The Little Gladiator." Again he paused for maximum effect, took a deep breath that sent his jowls undulating like jellied calf brains, and launched into a mercifully abbreviated version of his usual spiel: "An Amazon taken in captivity, who murdered her master and proved untamable, unsuitable for both domestic work and the whorehouses. It is only within the ring that she achieves her full glory by realizing her wild, barbarian Greek nature!"
Xena idly probed the inside of her cheek with her tongue, while waiting-not quite patiently-for him to recognize his huge, and possibly fatal, faux pas.
"Oh, Empress!" He cowered before her, the palms of his hands waved at her in desperate surrender as if they were pale, plump flowers facing a gardener's knife.
She stymied the urge to kick him.
"A thousand pardons," he moaned. "I beg forgiveness."
Xena may not have known what the graffiti said about gladiators, but she did know what it said about her, at least in the beginning: The Thracian Whore, The Barbarian Queen. They steal our art, our ideas, even our gods, and I'm the barbarian.
Admittedly, in the old days-at the helm of her own ship and upon seas that dictated no laws-she would have slit Cato's throat and thrown him overboard. But among all his other "civilizing" influences, Caesar had taught her the value of patience and strategy, useful tools in the machinations of revenge. For the time being, Cato's quivering and stammered apology made her happy enough; she would think of some horrible, onerous task for his true appeasement later.
"Get up," she commanded. "You sully the sand." Forsaking the sword, she grasped the Amazon's jaw roughly and forced those downcast eyes to meet her own. A heated glint of the emotion that drives the best warriors-rage, a state she only vaguely remembered anymore, but one that always indicated a duel of great promise-traversed the woman's surprisingly young face.
The contest might not be so bad after all.
She dropped the sword at the gladiator's feet. "All right, Amazon. Let's see what you have. Try to make it a little interesting, all right?"
With the very first swing of her borrowed sword, the Amazon nearly toppled the Empress with a ringing blow against her shield that made the Gaul fighter, sleepily awaiting his turn in the ring, leap into wakefulness, and Cato whimper with dread.
Xena back flipped over her diminutive opponent, who was shockingly unimpressed and ready for her renewed parries. And so, much to Cato's dismay and worry over not his Empress but his moneymaking Amazon gladiator, the sparring session gradually degraded into the bloody earnestness of a real fight. It continued as Apollo's chariot meandered through the sky, as Cato wrung his hands nervously, and as Xena grimly wondered when the gods-be-damned Amazon would make a mistake. Certain muscles in her back and shoulder had commenced an aching mockery with every painful, throbbing beat: You're not as good as you were, and you'll never be that good again.
The gladiator never did make a mistake, and perhaps she would have continued her flawless and perhaps fatal performance had not a fortuitous rock interfered-one that threw her momentarily off-balance and sent her listing to the left. Xena's roundhouse kick, almost blocked, finally sent the small warrior to her knees. And although no one would really fault her and certainly no one could punish her, she refrained from running her sword through her bothersome opponent. For one thing, Cato would have a fit and she had no desire whatsoever to witness his teeth-gnashing, womanly wailing. Instead she merely slammed the sword pommel against the back of the woman's neck, and the Amazon tumbled heavily to the ground.
The spinning pommel tickled her palm as she twirled the blade triumphantly. And yet blood spiraled down her arm from a thick graze along her bicep. "Why, you little bitch. You got me," Xena murmured admiringly to the unconscious figure sprawled face down in the sand. She took the moment to appreciate the muscular little gladiator: The backs of her legs were sculpted finer than any statuary she had ever seen and the visible parts of her tanned back and shoulders had been laced nacreous by the cruel, complementary arts of slavery and battle. No wonder she fought so hard, Xena thought. She hesitated, stared too long, and shook off the contemplative mood. Strutting toward Cato, she spread her arms mockingly wide in announcement of her hard-won, yet nearly humiliating, victory. "What do you want me to say? You were right-"
Then the earth disappeared from under her feet, the sky spun, and she landed upon the ground, breathless and trapped under the weight of the gladiator, who knelt upon her chest with the broadsword's point digging in her neck, poised for the death blow. The woman's eyes were a distinct green, Xena finally noticed, similar to the precious stones she saw in Chin many years ago-small stones rolled gracefully, reverentially, in the hand of Lao Ma. Jade.
"Gabrielle!" Cato's voice was remarkably deep, bold, commanding, and Xena felt a new, if perhaps short-lived, respect for him. "Hold!"
As if emerging from a dream, the gladiator blinked and shook her head. No sooner had the sword's point retreated from Xena's neck than zealous guards tackled the gladiator. From the humbling vantage point of being sprawled upon the ground, Xena watched the guards beat down the Amazon and drag her away in a furious haze of dust. She rubbed her throat. From all the emotions stewing within her, one thought rose to the top: Magnificent.
As humiliating as it was, as enraged as she felt, no one had truly danced this
dance with her in so long, she could no longer remember her last worthy partner. At best, Caesar was clumsy with swords and knew it; the last time she attempted sparring with him, he had merely thrown his blade upon the ground and proclaimed, "You win. I'm bored. Shall we have dinner?"
With a grunt, Cato hoisted her up from the sand and daintily commenced dusting her off. Her pride, however, remained hanging in tatters. "There has to be a better way of meeting interesting women," she muttered.
Cato's pale, squishy hand lingered too long upon her thigh. "I'm sorry, Empress?"
"Never mind. For the love of Zeus, stop touching me.
"What shall you do with her?" Cato asked, after taking a generous step backward in timid yet wise retreat. "I beg you, please: Do not kill her."
"And deny you all the profit you make off her scarred back? I wouldn't dream of it." In case the sarcasm was lost upon him, she made it perfectly clear: "I shall do with her what I want."
"There are other things you could-"
"Tread carefully, Cato. In execution, your ideas tend to run toward the pitiable."
He bit his lower lip. "You could
take her to bed."
"Are you implying that sleeping with me would be a fitting punishment?"
"Oh, oh no. On the contrary. I merely suggest you can find more, ah, merciful and er, pleasant things to do with her than the other."
Xena hummed thoughtfully. "Yes, I see your point. Or-"
Cato smiled hopefully.
"Perhaps I could execute you instead." Xena grinned. She turned and walked through the gate, back to the palace.
If she had meant for the smile to assuage, for it to blunt the barb of a cheerfully offered death threat, it possessed no such effect. But then, it never did. Cato touched his neck.
The arbiter of mercy
In the Empress's courtyard the gladiator sits, flanked by guards. The same sunlight that is merciless within the confines of the ring is pleasant here-wreathed through fig trees, bequeathing warmth at her feet. Someone in the household plucks awkwardly at a lute. Someone laughs. She stiffens at the tentative approach of a strange, small animal; in looks, it's not unlike the lions she's seen in the ring, albeit black and sleeker. Perhaps this was how the Empress meant to execute her: through means unexpectedly small and uncommonly beautiful. Expecting the worst, she surrenders rough, manacled hands to the animal. And is startled when the beast rubs against her sensually, affectionately.
She knows the Empress watches her, knows it is a matter of time. Will there be a mock trial, or will she be dispatched quickly? Either way, death will be welcomed.
In the interim Xena sulks, bathes, sulks, gruffly dismisses the healer who fusses over the cut on her arm. And sulks a bit more. She still has no idea what to do with the gladiator-seen through the portico sitting on the bench at the north end of the courtyard. Caesar would advocate a quick trial followed by an even quicker execution; no doubt word that a gladiator-no, The Most Famous Gladiator in Rome, apparently-nearly killed the Empress during a sparring match has reached the Forum. At this very moment, she was no doubt losing face throughout the city.
But Caesar is not here; his obsession with Gaul continues unabated and Rome, teeming, mistrustful Rome, is in her hands. And of all the living beings in Rome, the one she trusts most-Timon the cat, a gift from a cowering Ptolemy, tough enough to survive the stormy ride from Alexandria to Rome-has already passed judgment: From the portico she sees that he is currently in thrall to the gladiator's touch, to the gentle, callused fingertips sunk into his black fur.
When the gladiator is brought before her, she still does not quite know what to do. Even though she concedes that perhaps Timon has the right idea: To surrender is to conquer, perhaps? It seemed one of those epigrammatic statements Lao Ma always murmured, a world of susurrus meaning collapsing on itself in the span of a few simple words. In pointed contrast to the unconsciously proud bearing of her body-shoulders back, legs apart, hands clasped at her waist, with the fresh white chiton draping perfectly about her in soft, ardent worship-Gabrielle's head hangs subservient, her eyes once again intent on studying the ground beneath her feet. She expects punishment as surely as anyone, from one second to the next, expects to breathe.
Shame is a contagion, and Gabrielle's shame is palpable; Xena is ridiculously puzzled at experiencing it herself. Here is a magnificent fighter, a real warrior who should be out leading armies into glorious battle and conquering faraway lands, not gutting drunkards, has-beens, and half-lame animals for the amusements of the Roman rabble. A real warrior, Xena thinks bitterly. Like I used to be.
She drums fingers against a pile of parchment on the table before her. In Caesar's absence the city, unfortunately, does not run itself. "As one barbarian to another"-the comment from Cato still stung-"where are you from?"
The response is so low, so soft Xena almost doesn't hear it. "Potidaea."
"I've probably passed through it-it's not far from my glorious ancestral home." Xena thinks of her mother, the tavern, the odor of stale mead and food that always clung to her clothes regardless of how often she beat them against a rock. Even though she's sent her mother enough coin to have the tavern gilded in gold and precious stones, the old woman still works every day and occasionally sends Xena letters threaded with the usual quiet maternal recriminations: Maphias is married now, Xena. Did you know? Of course not. Now he would have been a good choice for you.
Marrying the Emperor of Rome was, apparently, not good enough for her mother. Absently she brushes a quill against the parchment before her-a work order for cleaning the city's aqueducts. No, she is not a warrior anymore, or even the captain of her own ship. She is what they call an administrator
. It's longer and it sounds better than being a warrior or a captain or a sailor, but it is infinitely more boring, even though Caesar had said admiringly that she was an excellent administrator, he always knew she would be, why, she had kept that rag-tag crew aboard that ship of hers so neat, so efficient, so organized-"Wait. I thought you were an Amazon."
Xena detects a hint of pride in the response, but it doesn't add up. "Look, if Cato is pimping you as an Amazon, fine, but don't try to tell me there are Amazons in Potidaea, of all places."
The gladiator's shoulders stiffen. "I left the town when I was young. I was adopted by the Amazons."
"You 'left'? You ran away?"
"There were slavers-my parents made certain my sister and I escaped."
Memory falls like a wave. This particular one always trickles in, lapping in unassumingly and pooling insignificant facts at her feet, until it frantically mounts an all-consuming wall so quickly that she cannot escape the eventual drowning crush of it all, the saturation and distortion of every thought, feeling, image. She knows she will never escape it: The battle for Amphipolis, the taste of victory that turned bitter-black in her mouth as she inhaled the ashes from her brother's funeral pyre. "Cortese."
And she sees the name has a similar effect upon Gabrielle. The gladiator meets her eyes briefly, a single word escapes her lips in a ragged breath. "Yes."
"You know he's dead now?" Xena asks, with more softness than intended.
This time, shock and surprise mix in with the barely contained fury.
"A Roman legion took out his army at Corinth." Sadly, it was not a legion she had led; it was not her sword that had sliced through his neck. "The general sent me his head. I didn't find it worthy to place on a shrine near a piss hole, let alone the Forum wall. I threw it into the streets for the dogs to gnaw upon, for the children to use in games. For all I know, they could still be bouncing Cortese's skull up and down the Appian Way." She pauses. "But you-" By the Gods, is she crying?
"-you wanted to kill him yourself, didn't you?"
"Yes." There was a world of rage and regret in that sibilant affirmation: The gladiator wishes she had been the one to kill Cortese, that she could have saved her home, her family. Perhaps she thinks if she had, she would still be in Potidaea, she would be married, she would have children, she would be a freewoman with a full life. But it was not meant to be. Xena wishes she could tell the gladiator that there is always a price, but she knows that survivors desperately need the fragile fictions of the lives they never led more than the gods they were supposed to believe in.
Far away from crowded city, the Palatine is quiet. The wind hypnotizes with its tune, moves through the trees with the same grace and confidence of skilled fingers on a lyre, and stops. Xena pushes away from the parchment-laden table and allows silence to solder a finishing touch, an indelible finality, to their tenuous connection. She cannot execute the gladiator. What, then? What do you do with a woman who was alternately wild and broken, whose rare and contradictory qualities added up to a brand of strange innocence? Using Gabrielle as another diversion within the tedious ring of her marriage seems unworthy somehow. And yet.
Long ago she tired of the exquisitely bored and boring Roman noblewomen, sneering dignitaries' wives, the unimaginative and uninspiring slaves unable to conceive of pleasure for pleasure's sake. Scarred and muscled, tanned and callused, this creature before her is far more a woman than any she's encountered since setting foot into this damned city.
"So." Xena rises from the table. "Why do you think I got you cleaned up?"
"For a trial," Gabrielle speculates quietly, tonelessly.
"Well, if you're really as famous as Cato claims-I don't need you making an ascent to godhood, minor though I'm sure it would be. I don't need all the attention. No, if I were going to have you executed, I would have had my guards kill you earlier, all without a moment's hesitation. And your head would already be dripping from a mount in the Forum."
Sensing that, for the moment, her life is safe-or perhaps she just does not care anymore for the game of appeasing the Empress-Gabrielle runs sardonic. "So I would rate higher than Cortese, at least."
Xena's laugh-soft, sputtering-indicates her surprise. "You would," she said quietly. "You're definitely a better warrior than he." Now she stands before the gladiator who, if momentarily puzzled, now understands the purpose in the Empress's touch, in the hand that brushes back damp blond bangs from her forehead and travels along the contours of her cheek.
Gabrielle's cheek is surprisingly soft, her sunburnt skin blazing against the back of Xena's knuckles. No doubt due to the slaves' efforts with the strigil, her arms, shoulders and legs glow in warm, flesh tones. This close, Xena can smell the sweet oil, almond-tinged, that they used in bathing the gladiator.
A plum-colored bruise forms a moat of pain around one of those wonderful eyes.
"It could be no worse-than other times."
Xena bites back a laugh, the retort on her lips-that is certainly the worst compliment I've ever received
-dies, and she recoils at seeing in this insulting concession what it really is: an indirect confession, and no less painful because of it. And helplessly, compulsively, she contemplates those "other times." Did she ever really doubt that Gabrielle's gutted master deserved what he got? Every unwanted attention, every humiliating fuck, every moment on her knees are scars unseen, all the more uglier and unsightly than any on her body, because Xena's brutal imagination forms them.
The Empress sighs. "I don't force anyone into my bed." She nods at the door. "Go."
Finally the gladiator looks at her, truly, and those fascinating eyes reflect a mosaic of relief, panic, and blatant suspicion.
And perhaps disappointment? Xena wonders. Oh, you rampant egotist.
"Go before I change my mind. Cato will be thrilled to have you back. And make up some lascivious tales while you're at it-tell everyone what horrible, deviant things I did to you in bed. They'll be impressed with you surviving all of it."
"Why-would I lie about that?" The gladiator pauses, her voice ringing on a note of wonder: "You have treated me well."
Xena opens the door and the rush of cool air from the hall brings a guard, his crimson cloak aswirl; an edge of the fabric twines gently around the gladiator's wrist, and Xena envies the humble cloak. Beautiful. You're beautiful.
"Why, it's good publicity, Gabrielle of Potidaea."
PART IIThe delicate balance
Thousands of rose petals? Scraps of red parchment? Poppy blossoms? Whatever they are, they are sacked in huge canvas bags, lumpen in a collective heaviness that only stirs to life whenever slaves darts by-and they do so frequently here in the staging area of the triumph, even as they create a generous berth around the Emperor and his mistress.
Together, Xena and Caesar circle a motionless gilded chariot, and Caesar is as excited as a boy. "I forgot to mention this." He's behind her, his hand resting proprietarily upon her hip, his chin upon her shoulder. She's aroused, nervous, irritated. "While you're riding, old Lycurgus will be with you-"
"One of my slaves, Xena. The one you threatened to kick."
"That could be any number of them, actually."
He laughs, and she loves the rich, indulgent tone of it. "Listen to me, you beautiful brute." He nips at her ear. "This is important. He will be behind you in the chariot, holding the laurel above head. And then he's going to say something to you that may sound strange, but-"
"I knew it-he does have a drinking problem, doesn't he?"
"No, my dear. It's an incantation. Part of the ceremony."
"You are going to kill me with all your ridiculous Roman ceremonies."
His breath and his kiss are warm and ticklish against her neck, his embrace tight but not suffocating. It was good, they were good together, but sometimes in nights too thick under the spell of silence and darkness-the strongest breeder of doubts-she wondered if it was all good enough. "No, Xena, listen. He's going to say to you: 'Remember, you are mortal. You are only a woman.'"
This bothers Xena considerably less than practicalities of the ceremony; already she is dully, oppressively aware that she is only mortal, only a woman, and to be constantly reminded of it seems an annoyance significantly less than the hindrance of speaking Latin. She squints skeptically at the chariot, and remembers dismally how Lycurgus always reeks of cheap wine. "How is he supposed to fit in this damn thing with me?"
"I trust that with your excellent reflexes-" Caesar spins her around and pulls her toward him. He admires the perfect pirouette as she resists falling into his arms; her hand splays-an elegant spider-across his cuirass in an effort to maintain her unshakable poise. With only this motion his confidence surges quietly; this was an affirmation that, despite the impulse of it all, he has made the right decision to choose her. "-it will not be a problem." He would always throw her off balance, and she would always land with impeccable grace.
The woman who will be
The grain of the kitchen table seems finer than the ridges on her hands. Today the ridges are heightened into red relief by thin lines of dried blood-cusps around her fingernails, inlets along her knuckles. She makes study of the lines, reading them slowly, carefully; her hands are a primer on death. Today's object lesson is what to do when a fellow student tries to take the one thing you've decided will never be taken from you again, even if it is also the one thing you cannot imagine anyone wanting from you ever again. So you beat him to death with a rock and your bare hands. You breathe fear into every living creature within your reach and awe into the man who owns you. The lessons limn over one another with each passing day. Why wash your hands?
And then Cato's youngest daughter, Antonia, skips into the kitchen and places Gabrielle's wrist in the gentlest manacle ever-her own soft, young hand-and tugs with insistent playfulness.
Gabrielle looks up from the lesson. Keeping her in his home with his family is a perfectly calculated risk on Cato's part: A house of women soothes the savage in all of us,
he had said. Blessed as he is, and with a daub of merciful luck, Cato is correct. For in Antonia she sees much of her own sister, Lila-so much that she believes she must be remembering Lila's qualities incorrectly, or somehow imposing them wrongly upon this sweetly bullying, spoiled girl, or just indulging in the kind of wishful thinking that blindly, happily intrudes upon the relentlessness of not only other memories, but her own reality.
Or maybe all of it.
"Come," the girl says. "Don't you want to see the woman who will be the Empress?"
Gabrielle smiles briefly, shakes her head shyly.
"Don't be silly!" Antonia pulls harder, and is not above contorting herself comically to amuse the slave, twisting like a skein of silk caught in a fierce wind, until Gabrielle relents and rises.
Yes, she is a pet-the beast adored, an Amazon gladiator-in-training, a tax break thanks to a new law passed by Caesar, better protection than a dog. She trains every day, sleeps on a pallet in the kitchen, is constantly plied with food by Cato's daughters. This morning the girls had employed her in a taste test of dates from different sellers in the city. The ones from Lydia are better, aren't they, Gabrielle?
She had agreed.
Cato and his wife, Antonia Major, are already on the balcony, waiting for a glimpse of Caesar's Greek lover. Scant days ago his triumph entered the city and this exotic woman, who rode as proudly as he did, was at his side, bedecked in armor, weapons, and colorful clothes. Since then the newsreader in the Forum reported that her Latin was acceptable, her teeth in remarkably good condition, and that Caesar had spoken before the Senate on how she was an "important new ally to Rome." Rumors had it that he had already undertaken the delicate operation of divorcing his wife, Calpurnia, who was from a respected, well-connected family.
Public opinion, of course, was divided among the loyalists and those who favored an alliance with the Greeks that a marriage with Xena would bring. Regardless, all were curious to witness Xena walk, presumably unafraid, among the people. Apparently it had been her idea to conduct a walking tour of the city, bit by bit, to familiarize herself with the streets and the people, for the plebes to see that she is no monstrous barbarian.
Noise from the crowd swirls through the air. Cato stretches his stubby neck. First, a small brace of soldiers push into the intersection. Then: "That's her." A throb of excitement ripples his voice.
She stands apart from everyone, even the soldiers, and quietly surveys the streets. She is tall, wears black and gold armor and a cape, and a sword hangs at her side. Her black hair mimics the subtle fluttering of her cape. Despite her imperious bearing, she smiles easily. She recognizes someone in the crowd and walks over to Gurges the merchant, who is there with his young son. After a brief exchange with the merchant she kneels and speaks with the boy.
"Working the crowd, very good," Cato murmurs.
Antonia Major concedes, "She is very attractive."
Cato sighs in rapturous agreement, which only makes his patient wife raise an amused eyebrow. "What? I was only thinking of poor Calpurnia! You know she won't marry again."
"Poor Calpurnia, my foot," scoffs Cato's wife. "She'll be fine. She has more money than the Senate combined."
"True enough." Cato falls silent for a while, until continuing with a sudden master plan: "Our soon-to-be Empress is a fighter, they say. She may need some bodies to practice with, bodies I can provide." As if sensing that Gabrielle is standing behind him and flexing a hand that feels achingly empty without a weapon in it-as indeed she is-he turns abruptly to address her: "But not you. I haven't gotten my money out of you yet, girl."
Antonia Major, who has clearly reached that stage in marriage where the moral shortcomings of one's spouse are more amusement at best and irritant at worse and not a vast failure of character, chuckles. "You never stop, do you?"
And he, by turns equally affectionate and oblivious, can only reply: "Never, love."
Gabrielle watches the woman who will be the Empress move along down the street and out of sight. If she had been an innkeeper's daughter in Amphipolis-as they claim of this Xena-would she now be poised to rule the world? Were she and Xena different sides of the same coin? Why even contemplate it? Mere foolishness to think such a thing, to envision her image smelt upon brass. Then she wonders if Xena is truly fond of the man she is rumored to marry, as fond of him as Cato is of his wife. Never, love. Never love.
The woman in the distance recedes from view. And Antonia, who possesses a bright future as a merchant's wife, is all business as she once again tugs at Gabrielle's arm: "Servilla and I have some pomegranates for you to try now."
PART IIIPrelude to the afternoon with Faustina
She had wanted to wear armor to her wedding.
The advisors had protested frantically; even Caesar himself had buried his face in his hands, as if his nascent empire would surely collapse at the sight of him marrying a woman in armor. In the end he was, as usual, undone by indulgence of his lover: He married his fully armored barbarian queen. And the crowd loved it. She was a mate worthy of a strong emperor, a conquering city.
That was then, in a time before he started tinkering with the calendar and brooding about his legacy, before his obsessions with the faraway lands of Britannia and Gaul. Now Xena wants to wear an appropriate yet stunning dress for a woman who will barely register her presence-let alone, desire her-in a crowd of riff-raff as she, that infuriatingly gifted and beautifully inscrutable gladiator, fights for her life in the ring. Threaded through the days that have passed since the gladiator not only defeated her publicly but privately is the niggling refrain of why. A thousand questions reduced to one ringing word that pursues her through days manic with activity and nights spent in inebriated, insomniac staring games with the cat.
Xena silently demands the attention of Faustina, her "personal attendant" as the more cultivated Romans call their housebound slaves, selected for her duties because she speaks Greek-courtesy of a now-deceased Thracian husband-accented with sardonic Roman truth. The old woman raises an approving eyebrow at the Empress's outfit, but it is not enough. "Does it look all right?" Xena demands doubtfully, runs a hand down the side of the royal, violet-colored peplos. "Good, but not over the top?"
Rotting teeth notwithstanding, Faustina smiles broadly. "You always know how beautiful you look."
"I'm not fishing for compliments, old woman. Is it appropriate?" Even after so many years, she is always unsure the moment she steps outside the villa-of how she looks, how they will react to her: amusement, disdain, or condescension? Fear? Caesar's spoiling of his prized wife has had its downsides.
"It is lovely. Perfect for the day." The attendant's gnarled fingers resume their nimble sewing, and then stop abruptly. "You are going out?"
"Yes. Which means you are too."
Faustina glances up, surprised. "Where are we going?"
"Circus Maximus. You get to carry my sword again." Xena gives her an irritated look. "Don't cut yourself this time."
Faustina is befuddled. "We're going to the Circus Maximus?" she echoes.
"That's what I said."
today is for the gladiators."
"You hate the gladiators."
"Stop dawdling and put on your best rags."
An epiphany dashes across Faustina's face, the expression not so quick as to avoid the notice of the Empress.
"What?" Xena grunts.
Quickly Faustina assumes a stony, irreproachable expression, predictably copied from a statue of Vesta, but the mystery of the bronze goddess copies poorly onto aging flesh. "Nothing."
"Faustina, you know I am fond of you, but if you don't tell me what you're thinking, I'll dangle you by the ankles out the window, whereupon you'll lose control of your bladder and your piss will follow an very unfortunate downward trajectory."
"Greek animal," Faustina mutters.
"Did you call your husband that as well, dear?"
The slave can think of worse ways to spend her old age than trading teasing insults with the most powerful woman in Rome. Of course, the Empress is accustomed to getting her way, and one wonders to what lengths-defeated, she sighs. "You want to see the gladiator. The Little Gladiator."
Xena's own personal graffiti squad-a band of mouthy urchins happily incapable of censoring themselves and delighted to tell her that a wall near the baths says she has fellated the entire Senate-has reported no scrawls linking her in any way to the Little Gladiator. The woman knows how to keep silence, Xena thinks. But Faustina? "You're more attentive than I give you credit for," she concedes. "Maybe I should
dangle you off the balcony."
"You know I always keep your secrets!" Faustina protests. "Besides, it was obvious you didn't-with her-at that time." Squirming under her mistress's oppressive, icy glare, she is helpless in blathering further: "She left your chambers quickly, and with a distinct look of confusion upon her face. Those who leave your chambers are many things, but usually baffled is not one of them. It was-most peculiar."
"We were discussing Pythagoras's theorems."
"A unique seduction technique, domina.
" Faustina gazes appreciatively at the Empress's dress. "But perhaps a more traditional approach will work."
"Shut up, old woman."
Traffic on the Appian is murder and Xena arrives late to the match. The crowd openly admires their now-beloved barbarian empress and cheer at her unexpected arrival. It's something, she thinks. The sun is merciless upon her neck, but she doesn't mind. She squints into the bright, gold ring of the circus. She sighs. Someone interprets this as a protest against the heat and holds a parasol over her. Nothing matters except the woman in the ring-unarmed and trying to outrun the net that licks at her feet and legs like corrugated flames as she makes a final desperate dive and roll toward the only weapon within easy reach and when that weapon, a spear, is in her hand and her body in an elegant torque she throws it with unerring precision toward her challenger, who collapses with the spear quivering in his chest. A black circle of blood slowly unfurls from the fatal wound. And the gladiator remains on her knees, head bowed in helpless exhaustion amid the deafening, roaring, collective siren call of bloodlust that emanates from every being in the Circus Maximus. Except Xena.
The goddess among them
If you can help it, never show weakness. Never bleed too much.
Iolaus himself had said it was worthless advice, because no one can control blood.
She rises from the sand, twisting awkwardly on her heels, and presses the back of her hand against her mouth. No weakness. How many years has Iolaus been gone now? Her mentor, her teacher, the one who said, as long as they underestimate you, you'll move as a goddess among them.
If moving as a goddess includes slow, stately limping. The sun is so hot she can hear it, thrumming against the cartilage of her ears, hissing as it cauterizes an open wound on her shoulder. Her nostrils quiver with the effort of composure, with the task of breathing. The healer lingers near the portal, holding the bowl. She focuses on the bowl, imagines a chalice held by a high priest, or pomegranates held by a beautiful woman-wait, why a woman, why would I think of a beautiful woman?
-or the freshest, clearest water, like the streams near her home. The bowl is empty. Her mouth is full.
She had a dream recently, troubling in its happiness: She walked in a forest-younger, hair longer, with a woman who resembled the Empress, a woman who had a marvelous, rich laugh, who seemed happy in her company. Why? Why a woman, why that woman?
In the sheltering cool of the portal, still pursued by a furious legion of whys, she spits a stream of weak, watery blood into the bowl.
With priest-like portentousness, the healer gazes into the bowl. "No tooth." His disappointing frown is more a dour accusation than any words. "We'd get good coin for a tooth." Ever since her debut at the Circus, he has waited patiently for the prize of a molar. Something to sell to the adoring masses, the profits split evenly between them.
Gabrielle rubs her jaw. Her misfortune was another person's talisman, a lucky charm sewn into a pouch. Loss into gain, pain into notoriety, life into dreams. Through bitter alchemy the waking world would again that night crystallize into the illusia of fragmented sleep. For the moment she closes her eyes, wishing she were already there.
No one in the ludus
really knew the woman; only a few knew her name. All that sparred with her needed only to know that she was tall, sinewy, kohl-eyed, and lethal-these facts detailed by those opponents to the ever-bored Charon on their way to the land of the dead. Still, when challenged to a match by the mysterious woman, Gabrielle knew she could not refuse without losing face.
Gabrielle did, however, fleetingly reconsider the values of cowardice when she was on her knees with the woman's arm snaked around her neck in a serpentine death grip. The tiniest contraction of her opponent's arm, the most miniscule reflex, put unbearable pressure on her windpipe. She slackened her body to slip the deadly bind but achieved no success, she tried scraping together a fistful of sand to fling in the woman's face but her fingers could only create helpless eddies and paths in the sand, miniature landscapes worthy of Rome's finest engineers. As the world dimmed a heightened awareness of being cheated flooded through her: This is not-
Before the world went black she thought of ships, strange lands, mythical creatures, gods, battles, someone always at her side. All the stories of her childhood distilled into a final death dream. But she awoke later not in some perfect Elysium but in the camp's infirmary, unable to speak, her neck swaddled in a cloth soaked in a foul-smelling liniment.
Iolaus's one good eye, bright blue with mischief, was the first thing she saw. This old gladiator, now her mentor and trainer-her lanistae
-was sitting on the edge of the cot, smiling. He dribbled cool water from a skin against her lips. "I have to thank you," he said.
She tried to speak, but could only grunt.
"Oh. Neferi said not to talk. That'll come in a few days. But you know why I give thanks, don't you?"
She was too drained to look inquisitive.
"You finally gave me a good reason to kill that bitch Alti."
Why the name reverberated within her, she did not know.
"Cato paid me good coin to watch over you. But this is favorable sign from the gods too, don't you think?" Iolaus smiled again. She had always marveled at the ease with which he did so, why the kindness he possessed had never been leached out of him through years of beatings and hardship. "They only bestow good fortune onto those favored and destined for greatness, Gabrielle. When you are the driving force behind an act for the greater good, it bodes well for you, for everyone connected with you."
The "greater good"? She had never heard of anything so ridiculously naïve in her life. This strange philosophy, this sunny optimism was distinctly at odds with role she grew into day by excruciating day: a professional murderer. She would remain fond of Iolaus until the day he died, and forever grateful for teaching her how to survive in the ring. Even though she could never conclusively decide if he himself were fortunate or foolish. She had a hard enough time discerning the truths of her own life.
The master of the horse
Marc Antony lounges with practiced grace upon a fleet of pillows and gazes with critical languor at a bowl of figs. Finally, much to the relief of the nervous attendant, he chooses one. Even then, spinning within the axis of his grip, the fruit undergoes one last mercurial examination before it is popped into his mouth.
He is rarely so discerning about women, Xena thinks. Indeed, as he had entered the villa earlier he carelessly tossed his cape over Faustina's waiting arms and gave the old woman a smoldering look that would ensure her rapturous dreams for nights on end. The Empress is the exception, of course. Their respective loyalties to Caesar keep those selfish desires in check, beautifully sublimated through sexual gossip that was-based on Antony's rather graphic descriptions of his conquests-no doubt more gratifying than the actual act itself would have been.
His salacious interrogations, briefly interrupted by slave, now continue: "What about Marcella?"
Irritated by yet another nonsense scroll from Alexandria about a delay in grain shipments, Xena looks up, scowling. "Who?"
"Oh. She makes a horrible face when she climaxes."
"At least you got her to that point."
"Yes, but she nearly broke my wrist."
"Better your wrist than my cock."
In spite of herself she laughs. The slave brings more figs. She rereads the scroll from Alexandria again, imagining vivid ways of torturing its fey, useless rulers. Antony mutters something about the wine tasting like goatherd spit as his nostrils flare. "Nothing new to report?"
"The Ptolemy are a bunch of shrieking, cowardly little bitches and if I had my way I would kill the lot of them."
"Even though they are of Greek heritage?"
"Blood is no guarantor of good character."
"Why Xena, you're quicker than Martial after he's had a flagon of wine." He gazes wistfully into his now-empty cup.
"I'm not giving you another drop to drink. Now tell me: Did you come all the way from Bithynia to rehash your old conquests with me?"
"Aren't you the least bit curious about the uprising in Bithynia?"
"Not particularly. If you hadn't been successful in defeating them, you wouldn't be here right now, magister equitum
." She uses his title mockingly: Master of the horse-Caesar's lieutenant, his right hand. His presence in the city means his power now eclipses hers. It only bothers her when she allows herself to dwell upon it.
"Your Latin becomes better and better." Antony snags a missive tucked inside his grieve-and sends it sailing into Xena's lap. The fiery eye of Caesar's broken seal stares up at her. The parchment reveals the distinctive slant, the bold thickness of her husband's hand and his usual arch tone-Stop mucking about in Bithynia, kill them all if you have to, and return to Rome. The time comes for the next move. Await my orders
The note slips through her curious fingers, and a second round of whys-a welcome distraction from her idle obsession with the gladiator-plague her anew. Along with who, what, and where.
Antony shrugs elaborately. "It's not my fault that your husband writes me more frequently than he does you."
" 'The next move'? What in Hades is he talking about?" You will rule Rome with me,
he had said the night he returned for her, as her ship had tilted with seductive precariousness. Long ago she had mastered the art of balance on the sea, but here he was again, as promised-a wandering star, bright and unknown, from which she could navigate a thrillingly new course. It was not the route to power she had ever imagined; she had been far too disillusioned and disciplined to envision anything in life coming to her with ease. But Rome, at her feet? Was she now the bigger fool for accepting rather than rejecting this troublesome bounty?
Antony rises to take his leave as Faustina scurries in with his cape. "Your guess is as good as mine. But I suspect it concerns the ever-present thorn in our sides: Egypt."
"And yet, he says nothing of it to me." Is this what you gave up your freedom for?
"You run the city," Antony replies simply. "Need you worry about conquest as well?"
"He is Caesar." The old slave settles the cape over his broad shoulders; he turns with a flourish, nearly knocking Xena over with his cape, as his knuckles graze Faustina's flaccid chin. "Faustina, my dear, if you were twenty years younger-"
"Try thirty," Xena corrects, as the attendant shoots her a mock-dirty glance.
"-ignore the Empress, my dear. Clearly she has not been serviced in a very long time. But as I was saying, if you were younger, I would indeed give you a night to remember."
Normally the old woman could parry with the best of them, but now she only gapes, helplessly silent as statuary.
This impresses Xena. "I'll be damned, Antony. You've left the crone speechless."
As Faustina totters off in a sexual haze, she admits to herself that it has been too long. How easy would it be to invite Antony to bed? What consequence could there be when it would clearly mean nothing to them? But then, that was the problem-she had no idea, really, what mattered to him. The long, low light from the torches on the wall ennobles his dark beauty, softens the sharp peaks of his eyebrows, his cheekbones. His eyes glow with nonexistent warmth, his lips ripen with the pulsing undercurrent of shadows. If only, she thinks, the entire world could be viewed in the theatre of the vulnerable dark, illuminated by torch and candlelight alone-what a beautiful deception, what a world of inconsequence.
The gladiator, however, needed no such trick of the firelight.
If Antony had sensed her moment of weakness, he allowed it to pass. Losing your touch, Antony. Or am I perhaps too valuable to you somehow?
"If I hear anything further from him, you'll know, of course. And-" He smiles, but this time the artistry of the flame cannot remove or transform the cool assurance of the predator, barely perceptible in the twitch of his mouth. "-I shall expect a similar courtesy."
She echoes both the words and the smile. "Of course."
He nods at the Caesar's note, abandoned among her other parchments. It is an admirable calculation, leaving it with her. "We must be prepared for what follows."
Antony laughs. "Do you really think I know any more than you at this point? That wouldn't be any fun at all." Dramatically elegant as usual, he ruffles his cape in farewell and she is alone with the firelight and the questions that will provide ample tinder for a restless night.
PART IVConversations with the night
The full moon over Rome provides stingy light, but enough so that the progress of the clouds in the sky can be observed by anyone remotely invested in such matters-soothsayers, astrologists, astronomers, scrupulous forum readers, and sleepless gladiators. Tonight the clouds, thin and feathered, melt slowly like ice as they traverse the swath of sky, promising blue clarity for the following day. From her perch at the kitchen window, not far from her pallet, Gabrielle gives in to the caprices of pain and stretches. Wincing at a deepening throb in her shoulder, she nestles her head against her forearms. She will not allow physical discomfort to spoil this, her moment with the night. If she could say that she loved anything-if a fit of curiosity or kindness, or a touch of conscience ever prompted anyone to ask-she would say that she loves night. It is cool, quiet, solitary. It is temporary, ideal death-not the Tartarus she fears, of eternal torture by those she has slaughtered. It is not the Circus Maximus.
Out in the comforting black, a few bobbing torches mark human activity in the city-like golden echoes of stars coalescing in an earthbound constellation. As the points of light move and, in some cases, dissolve, she imagines the formations of new firmaments, connected with bright gossamer lines drawn with unerring precision within her mind.
A floorboard creaks and the high flame of a candle leaps upon the wall-an unwelcome interruption to her conversation with night. It is Cato. His gaze briefly touches hers before he looks down-ashamed at seeing her in nothing more than a shift, or for what he was about to request, or both? "Come with me," he whispers.
As he prepares the torch for their travels, she secures her armor. It is a role she has played before: Bodyguard, enforcer. Normally her appearance alone at his side is enough to ensure that restitutions or reparations are made or debts repaid; a few occasions, unfortunately, necessitated action. The last one who had threatened her master ended up with his very own dagger in the throat. They always look surprised when they die. She does not like it. It is nothing like the ring; there, when those in imminent defeat finally accept death, it is blessed relief.
Outside, Gabrielle follows Cato through the clammy air, to the accompaniment of his labored breathing. Their torch bobs along the Palantine's dark, winding path, the rhythm only temporarily displaced when his sandaled foot makes contact with a rock. "Bubona's cunt!" he curses as he hops. Then he laughs. "I know what you're thinking."
She says nothing.
"I wouldn't last a moment in the Circus Maximus."
He is right on both counts: That was what she was thinking, and he would most certainly drop dead the moment an opponent so much as looked at him. At the pinnacle of the hill she glances back at the undulating flecks of fire. The constellation of Rome. Almost poetic, almost visionary, she would drift into this imagined constellation once again but for Cato's sharp, apprehensive gasp.
Eight men form a semi-circle in front of them. She counts two torches, five broadswords, one with a club, the largest one second on the right. She feels Cato's beseeching look on her but cannot be bothered to assuage him, for she must focus on Cicero or, more specifically, a key work of the great orator. She seizes the sputtering torch and with two broad, quick sweeps, extinguishes it. It is night-true night, her night-once again.
Cicero's De oratore
speaks of the art of memory, so essential in rhetoric. A truly gifted orator or bard must summon forth epic speeches and stories at a moment's notice.
The crunch of pebbles under a boot, a cry of outrage, the hiss of a rash, poorly aimed sword.
To begin, there are five parts to rhetoric: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, pronuntiatic.
It is the crucial fourth stage-memory-that tests the mettle of the finest orator, for invention, arrangement, and style rest upon an easily accessible storehouse of facts and persuasive details.
She jams a dagger in a throat of the first man closest to her and seizes the sword from his limp hands.
To strengthen the memory, one uses places-loci
The latter imprinted in crucial order upon the former, as symbols and letters pressed upon a wax tablet.
Dispatches the second and third would-be assassins with ease.
A good loci
is important, Cicero says, for it can be used repeatedly in different circumstances to remember new material.
Feels the movement of the fourth man bearing down on her, momentarily ducks him for the unsuspecting fifth, who finds himself impaled by gravity. A neat backward lunge with the sword takes care of the fourth.
A common student of rhetoric will find that a building or some other form of architecture will suffice as a loci.
Her sweeping leg brings down the sixth. She snaps his neck; he is dead before he can even think of playing dead. She claims his sword. The seventh manages to nick her side before she plunges the sword into him, so deeply that the night ripples with a gentle froth of blood.
For the rare student, however, unorthodox methods will do quite nicely.
With her sword at his throat, the eighth and final opponent is on his knees sobbing for mercy, divine intervention, his mother, and a final cup of wine when the sky is lit up with a torch from a balcony window in a villa that, in daytime, would be most impressive. From her position on the ground, Gabrielle sees only a hulking shadow of a man and a torch-bearing slave visible upon the outcropping of darkened marble.
Then the shadow speaks with the arch candor of those not easily impressed: "Oh, brava.
In the labyrinthine villa, so different from the modest town home of Cato, she sits in a damp, dull antechamber as her bloody hands are rinsed clean by a slave and she struggles to hear the susurrations between Cato and the villa's master taking place just beyond the open door:
Cato's reply is soft and, she thinks, melancholy: "Yes."
"Passed with flying colors."
This time Cato's response is unintelligible as the two men walk away. From a greater distance, in another room, she hears the pleading cry of the other survivor of this staged battle. Please, master. Please.
She flexes her stiff shoulder. The rest is silence.
Gabrielle's further efforts at eavesdropping are interrupted by something soft and wet pressing against the slight wound along her side. Her instincts-magnificent and true in the ring and sometimes a liability outside of it-are unstoppable and the slave's wrist is crushed within her grasp. The plop of the wet cloth falling from his hand and the ripe fear in his brown eyes brings her to her senses. She releases him and he scurries from the room. Only then does she pull up the tunic to examine the tender wound, which no longer bled. Stitches? Cauterization? It would be fine. She'd let the healer look at it in the morning.
Cato enters, wheezing nervously; this level of agita is seldom achieved unless he is in the presence of someone well above his station, like a senator. Or the Empress. Gabrielle briefly wonders if indeed the Empress is there. Then she wonders why she wants to see the Empress again, recalls with a small bit of irritation the very distracting moment during her last fight when, as she was chased across the ring she suddenly heard the Empress's name briefly chanted by the crowd-not her name, but the heavy, collective Roman tongue battering the simple lyricism of the name, Xena-and thought she is here-why?
during her bruising, bloody tumble across the hot sand.
"He wants to see you," Cato says. His eyes dart over the room, pinning particles of dust to the wall, anything to avoid her questioning gaze.
"Well?" he snaps. "Don't just stand there. Go to him. And do as he says-oh, damn it, why must you look at me like that?"
When one is someone else's property, patience becomes an enforced virtue. She hates him for forcing her to the obvious, but manages to ask the question with the right tone of deference. "Who is he?"
"He's your damned savior, that's who he is," Cato grumbles, and sighs. "If you do as you're told, you will be free. I give you my word."
The man awaiting her lounges heavily in a wide chair, and the broad stripe on his tunic answers her question: He is a senator, or a similar official of notable rank. He is ruddy and fair-haired, middle-aged and solidly fat-a different kind of fat from Cato, who possesses the jovial, rollicking curves of a lifetime of epicene pleasures and pointed disregard for the manly virtues of battles and sporting games. Better to let others fight for you, Cato always said. But this one has the look of an athlete or a soldier who has hit the inevitable wall of time, whose bulk is ready to crumble at just the right touch.
Touching. If it's touching-and more-that he wants, she decides, it shall be death he receives. And if she cannot escape after killing him, perhaps death is the freedom that Cato mentioned, perhaps it is the only freedom she shall ever have.
But how strange it is that, regardless of your reluctance, you would have given the Empress precisely what she wanted.
She crowds the thought down.
"As I said before-brava.
" When she does not reply, he laughs. "You don't talk much, Cato says. That is fine. In fact, I like that very much. Loquaciousness is typically a sign of weak character. A tool of outright manipulation. You see it in the Emperor's grandstanding speeches-how he courts the plebes. I say this to you in confidence, you realize. But if he were really so concerned about them, he wouldn't go to such great lengths to impress them, don't you think?" The man smirks. "I digress. All of this must be meaningless to you. I did not bring you here to speak of him."
He pauses dramatically, allowing silence to fill the room; an old rhetorician's trick, and useless on one who is comforted rather than unsettled by it.
"You are a Greek," he continues.
"Yes," she replies.
"Do you feel any particular allegiance to your native land?"
She hesitates. "It is not the land alone that makes me what I am-that makes me Greek."
He snorts. "You speak in vagaries like the finest politician. Perhaps I've misjudged you." Tapping the arm of the chair, he continues: "Let me put it another way: Of all your opponents in the ring, you've surely slaughtered some fellow Greeks. Have you not?"
Iolaus, I will go to Tartarus for what I did to you alone.
"Yes." She hopes a lower pitch in her voice will disguise the tremor, although when the Empress had questioned her about Cortese she could see, in the calm empathy of those blue eyes, that the trick had not worked.
There is no such glint of recognition in her current interrogator's eyes. The man known to Rome as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus smiles once again, and she does not like it. "So. I don't suppose you would mind killing one more bothersome Greek, would you?"
The reluctant assassin
In the beginning, assassination attempts against the Emperor and his consort were as much a part of daily routine as washing up in the morning. It was price she paid for being infamia
-the unfamiliar word that Caesar had crooned into her ear when they first rode into the city together, he leaning across from his horse, his hand curling along the inside of her thigh for all to see. In other words, she was both famous and powerless. She was not a citizen. She was not of Rome. He seemed to relish that forbidden role for her. It never really touched him, of course; not merely because he was the Emperor, but also because he was a man. He could not be faulted for succumbing to the charms of a beautiful barbarian. She, however, could be faulted for not being Roman.
Time and time again, however, Xena proved her worth. She could snatch poison darts a hair's breadth away from his neck, or disembowel the stealthy, wolfish mercenaries who trailed them, or toss ambitious assassins out the bedroom window after efficiently snapping their necks. For a while, her preternatural abilities proved more of an aphrodisiac to her husband than pomegranate seeds ever did. And before they knew it, the attacks dwindled in frequency-approaching a status somewhere between seldom and never-as the Empress's keen senses became legend to everyone.
Except, perhaps, to the clumsy idiot now crawling through the window of her bedchamber. She waits to see if the assassin will trip over Timon the cat-that would be amusing, and perhaps save her the trouble of killing him herself. No, the shadowy figure moves ever closer, looming over the bed and even regarding her with a thoughtful head tilt. As Xena contemplates his stupidity in hesitating, she seizes his cloak, jams a foot in his stomach, and sends him somersaulting over the bed, across the room, and crashing into an amphora and a table. Only when the distant lamp catches a glint of blonde hair and the figure groans in a distinctly feminine timber while stirring among the amphora shards, does Xena realize, with no small amount of giddy excitement, who it is.
She throws on a robe, grabs her sword, hopes her hair does not look too wild and unkempt, and cautiously pads over to where the gladiator sprawls among the ruins of the huge stupid vase that depicted Herakles wrestling with the giant Antaeus, both figures with ridiculous erections like battering rams, and an ugly, ostentatious table that she never liked anyway, a wedding gift from one of Caesar's cousins. Still, throwing the object of one's affection across the room was not exactly a prelude to romance. Perhaps for some it would be-she thinks unpleasantly of certain past lovers-but definitely not on this occasion. But why was the gladiator allowing herself to be easily caught? Why was she here?
The gladiator regards her with a kind of wide-eyed amazement before quickly averting her eyes. That's when she realizes her robe is still open. Xena clears her throat. "You may be the best fighter in Rome," she mutters as she tightens the robe, "but you make for a poor assassin."
Gabrielle winces and rubs her shoulder. "I haven't come to hurt you. I'm unarmed."
"You walk through this city, alone at night and without weapons?" Guards bang at the door, louder than Hephaestus at his forge. Xena sighs. "Now look what you did. Shall I hand you over to them? Are you up for another beating?"
"No," the gladiator responds quickly. "I-I came to speak with you."
"You have a peculiar manner of requesting an audience."
Gabrielle's eyes spark and smolder, much as they did at the height of battle. "You know I have no recourse for that. I am a slave."
Before the petty squabbling can advance-into what, neither woman really knows-the impatient guards burst through the door, led by the infamous brute formerly of the Thirteenth Legion, Titus Pullo. His single-mindedness in the realm of violence has served him well-at least it impressed Caesar, who promoted the fearsome and loyal soldier from infantryman to captain of the Empress's guard.
"Empress!" he barks. "We heard noise-" However, at the sight of the sprawling visitor at the Empress's feet, his broad, fierce face lapses into a star-stuck grin. "Oi! It's the Little Gladiator!" The two guards behind him look equally awed.
Xena rolls her eyes. Gods, not this again. This woman really is more famous than I.
"Yes, very good. Well done."
"I'll be damned. You should have seen her the other day," Pullo raves at Xena, as if they are comrades in a tavern, bonding over cheap flagons of wine. "Took off the head of a Minoan. Just like that." He grimaces in a mock death agony, baring fantastic teeth, and draws the flattened plane of his hand across his throat. "Amazing."
"Yes, and here she is, in my chamber, making an awful mess of things. Why, she destroyed that amphora you were so fond of, Pullo." The captain of the guard had been quite fascinated by the dueling penises; on the few rare occasions he had been in her chambers, he always bent down to scrutinize it at close range. Xena was certain that it gave him all sorts of new and fascinating ideas for both combat and intercourse. "What do you think of that?"
"Oh." Chastened, the reluctant yet dutiful Pullo half-heartedly points his sword at his idol. "Shall we take her, then?"
Xena smiles lasciviously. "Foreplay gone awry." She glances quickly at her pseudo-lover, taking perverse pleasure in the gladiator's stony scowl. That's what you get for stumbling in here in the middle of the night.
"Oh." Pullo grins, leans in conspiratorially toward his beloved Empress, and whispers: "Good on you, eh?"
Incremental changes-the tightening of the lips, the cool narrowing of the eyes-transform Xena's smile from sensual warmth to cruel dominance. "Get out, Pullo."
"Empress!" With his professional, deferential mien back into place, the captain bows quickly-shooting one last worshipful glance at the Little Gladiator before he and his subordinates disappear in a clanking whirlwind of armor and capes.
As the door closes, Xena once again regards the troublesome gladiator. "Get up," she growls, "and tell me why you're here."
Cautiously the gladiator arises, her gaze fixed upon the slowly twirling blade in the Empress's hand, a sword flowing with a deceptively simple rhythm. As much as she may want to believe in the inherent goodness and decency of this woman, it was quite understandable, really, that when confronted with such an unwelcome guest as a state-sanctioned murderer the Empress would assuming a fighting stance. She had already given Gabrielle the benefit of the doubt; now was the time to talk.
"I'm here," Gabrielle stammers slightly, "on my own accord, as a messenger. To bring you information."
The Empress's glare said it all: Get on with it.
"There is a conspiracy. You are the target. I am the instrument. And Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus is the perpetuator."
The Empress stops twirling the sword, but her stance remains thick with tension. Gabrielle realizes that now is the moment to leave-there is a clear path to the window, the night darkly beckons, why, she could vault over that vast bed if need be-but she stays foolishly rooted to the spot as Xena, laughing soft and rueful, utters one word: "Pompey."
PART VInterpretations and invitations
A dim corridor leading to a vast marble floor beckons Timon the cat to emerge from his hiding place, the location of which he will never divulge. With the masterful stealth of an actor who knows he will effortlessly upstage the leads, he makes a sleek entrance onto the stage of his mistress's bedroom; wisely he has waited for the departure of the oafish guards and until his mistress has stopped pacing around the room. His anticipation held in delicious check, he cuts a determined swath across the floor. His destination? The feet of his newfound friend, the gladiator. As he had hoped, a hand drops down. He fits his head into the warm, rough palm, welcoming the fingers that knew how to scratch and rub with the precise amount of tender vigor. In an interlude from the scratching, he sniffs the empty bowl at the gladiator's feet-fruit rinds and seeds, nuts, all so boring-and from across the room he disdainfully notes the sway of his mistress's long leg, the glint of her hooded eyes. She was always copying him like that; it was sad, really, but he could not fault her kind for their limitations.
Gabrielle, however, does not watch the Empress. Sometimes the only thing to do with an opponent is to pretend to ignore them, so instead she gazes down at the dregs in the fruit bowl. For an indeterminate length of time-well, since the Empress had growled "sit" at her and, as an afterthought, had plopped a bowl of fruit in her lap as a parent would give a toy to a bothersome child for distraction-she has sat silently, eating the fruit and waiting for something to happen as the Empress, deep in thought, paced languidly. Now the bowl is empty, which momentarily panics the gladiator: She wonders if she will be executed for gluttony. She has survived the Empress's temper thus far, in spite of nearly killing her in a sparring match and confessing a role in a conspiracy of murder, but perhaps this is the last straw, perhaps Xena is fonder of figs and almonds than one realizes.
Apparently tired of Gabrielle's ministrations, Timon nudges the bowl with his head, rubbing against its edge until it topples with noisy ease.
The gladiator jumps.
Xena's low, clear voice is, however, more nerve-wracking than the clattering bowl. "Are we even now?"
The Empress sits across the room from her. Not too close-in case the gladiator decides to change her mind and kill her after all-but not too far.
"Even?" Gabrielle rasps.
"I didn't kill you, you didn't kill me. We're even."
Gabrielle does not know how to answer this. What did she expect from the Empress? Eternal gratitude? Falling at her feet? Freedom? The truth was she feared freedom; she only knew how to do one thing, and that was to fight, to kill. She would prefer mere control over whom she battled, and in the very act of refusal in the conspiracy she felt a satisfying liberation, something that could sustain her for a long time. Well, at least until Pompey would kill her. Not even Cato can save her from that.
"So what's your play now, gladiator?"
"Didn't think that far ahead, did you?"
Her frown deepens. It's true: Consequences were not considered. She could run. The memories of previous attempts, written in the scars on her back, tighten their hold upon her flesh. To live the rest of her life looking over her shoulder? Perhaps execution would be better.
"It would have been easier for you to just kill me." Xena sighs. "Pompey won't be pleased with you. And he won't be pleased with your master either."
The truth settles in-almost as deeply as her scars. Had she inadvertently signed the death warrant of not only Cato, but his family as well?
"You like him, I know. He has treated you well, taken you in among his family. You've grown fond of them, all of them. But you needn't worry about any harm coming to Cato, or his family-his cousin will ensure his safety. It pays to have connections to the Optimates."
"Who?" Gabrielle risks the question, awaits sneering condescension similar to what she encountered with Pompey. Ah, poor dumb gladiator, poor unthinking hunk of meat.
Instead, Xena takes it as a legitimate question-as if Gabrielle is a visiting head of state unfamiliar with Roman politics-and answers seriously. Or at least as seriously as she can muster. "A group of old fools who favor the aristocracy, who wish to limit the power of the tribunes while extending their own rank and privilege in the Senate. Well, basically, they are the aristocracy. Pompey is their new darling-this despite the fact that he's no more an aristocrat than I am."
Gabrielle has heard it many times-that Caesar is for the people, the plebes. He has grand ideas and even grander speeches. He wants to limit slavery. To Gabrielle's mind limiting slavery is a half measure, like building half a dam, or claiming that one is half a virgin. "So Pompey's views are opposite yours," she ventures. "And Caesar's."
"Yes. Only because he thinks it suits him. He wants to reclaim the power he once possessed, and he thinks joining forces with the Optimates is the only way to do it. He was part of the triumvirate, you see, that ruled Rome back in the day: Caesar, Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Then the dynamic changed: Crassus died in battle. Caesar met me. And Pompey? He grew old and fat. He drifted. I suppose he resented sharing power with a barbarian whore, or he resented that Caesar grew more popular among the plebes. So Caesar formed an alliance with Antony, resulting in a new triumvirate." Xena smiles. "And that's your history lesson for the evening. Hope you remember it all-there will be a test during your next assassination attempt."
The Empress, Gabrielle has discovered, has a remarkable talent for catching her flatfooted-both verbally and otherwise. During their sparring session, which Gabrielle remembers with the same obsessive devotion as a maiden would her first encounter with a favored suitor, Xena had nearly knocked her over with an elegant spinning blow unlike anything she had ever encountered. She barely had time to react, to maintain her balance. The Empress's words are even more effective, because she does not know how to react. Laugh? Prepare for the executioner's blade? Run out and read every scroll on Roman history she could find?
Once again Xena's voice intrudes upon her thoughts. "You haven't answered my question."
"What shall you do now?"
Gabrielle pauses. "I don't know." Her callused hands rub together. Fight. That's all you know how to do. Well, if you are going to die so soon, why don't you ask her one of those questions you've been turning over in your mind since the day you met her?
"May I ask you something?"
"I haven't fellated the entire Senate. There isn't enough wine or gold in the world to make anyone do that, I think."
Flatfooted once again. "What?"
"Nothing. Go ahead."
"Why have you come to see me in the ring?"
"You're an interesting fighter. Once of the best I've ever encountered. As a warrior, it behooves me to study a formidable opponent." Xena clears her throat. "So don't mistake my public appearances at the ring as an indicator of a serious interest in the gladiatorial arts."
"You wrote a treatise against it, I know."
At last, the gladiator thinks, an unexpected blow: Xena is surprised. And momentarily speechless
Gabrielle offers her a smile brief and beautiful, as illuminating and galvanizing as lightning. "You think I can't read. It's all right. There's no reason for you to think otherwise."
Xena opens her mouth but somehow stops a "sorry" from coming out because she is the Empress of Rome, Caesar's wife, one of the best warriors alive, who has sailed around the known world, including Chin, been feted and worshipped by barbarians and royalty alike, and has not said "sorry" to anyone living-well, at least not sincerely-since she was twelve years old, even though she should have said it to her mother when Lyceus died and the fact that she muttered it to his broken, bloodied body while preparing him for the funeral pyre did not really count. So why she wants to say it to some mere gladiator, beautiful and maddening in her qualities of innocence and plain weariness, she does not know.
This aspect of the gladiator, who is normally primed for some kind of blow, whose shoulders are tight with dread of pain and whose eyes usually show nothing but blank determination to live through whatever nightmare the fates throw her way, is something new: She blushes, she glances at her feet and is surprised to find Timon still there, staring up at her, and she stammers further explanation: "Servilla-Cato's eldest-brings me scrolls to read sometimes. She was the one who told me that you wrote this. And so I read it."
The Empress rubs her brow. "I can think of better things to read other than a diatribe written in a child's Latin."
"It is a convincing argument. Perhaps-when I was younger, I would have agreed." Gabrielle pauses and, unbeknownst to Xena, commences chanting shut up
to herself. But the Empress thoughtfully props her chin in her hand and looks-interested, so she continues carefully: "Sometimes I wonder now if the bloodsports have their place."
"Well," Xena retorts smoothly, "it is your livelihood, so I imagine you have a different take on it. But why? Why do you think that?"
Gabrielle wonders if she should unfurl her theory. It always sounded so rational when it ran through her mind at night; it made as much sense as the imaginary constellations she pieced together. Giving voice to it, however, in front of someone who was not only the Empress but seemingly a rationalist of the highest order, was quite different. "It's a necessary evil. A catharsis for the Roman soul. Can you imagine Rome without ritual bloodletting? The empire is driven by ambition, to conquer other people, other lands, so even Rome's leisure activities are marked by pursuit of blood. The quest to dominate festers unless it's granted release."
"So in other words, you are just a very dangerous civil servant." Xena smiles, which puts the gladiator at ease for the moment. "Interesting. I think you just might understand the Romans better than I ever have."
The Empress stretches her legs, crosses them again, and in the readjustment somehow reveals a bit more flesh. Sways the left leg now instead of the right one. Her right hand, hanging off the chair's arm, twitches, and her fingertips idly rub together, itching for activity-a sword or a warm body, either would do. She smiles with indulgent, exaggerated politesse at the gladiator who, while finally learning to anticipate the unexpected turns of Xena's mind, nonetheless finds the following invitation inconceivable and completely unexpected:
"Would you like to go to an orgy?
PART VIThe querulous wife of Quintus Fabian
The gold mask, exquisitely crafted, light and thin, had been a gift; Caesar had it made for her. It was emblematic of his usual expensive, grand gestures in that it was undercut by simple, selfish motives: "If you insist on going to an orgy-I insist on your anonymity. I know you love being the focal point of attention, dear, but, ah, it doesn't look good for the Emperor's wife to be found at one of these things. Perhaps Greeks are more accommodating
of their spouses, but even orgies have a certain protocol, at least the good ones do." Another cheap shot at the Greeks, couched within yet another speech about behaving. She had masterfully resisted the urge to roll her eyes during his lecture, and afterward he had complimented her on such marvelous restraint.
Ultimately she only attended two such gatherings and found them not to her liking. She discovered that in some instances orgies found one in a predicament best described as a sexual Scylla and Charybdis: not exactly between a rock and a hard place, but a hairy ass and a slag. Or the perfect tableau composed with the requisite amount of beauty, passion, and body parts was interrupted-at very crucial moment-by anonymous, intrusive, and demanding genitalia. Perhaps her husband was correct to satiate his desires with a careful selection of slaves and the wives of visiting Persian dignitaries.
Tonight, the mask would prove beneficial; it lay over her face like a hardened skin, ready to slough off at a revelatory moment. She swaggers through the darkened streets toward the villa, discreetly lit so as not to attract unwelcome attention from the overtly curious. And despite the danger complicit in the black expanse of a night in a rough Roman quarter, she travels alone. While it had been amusing to see the initial look of surprise on the gladiator's face at her proposal, Xena immediately regretted the proposition once that shock dissipated into a frown of disgust and-what? Confusion? Hurt? Faustina would have tut-tutted serious disapproval in this tactical error of seduction. But Xena had merely thought it would come in useful to have the best fighter in Rome at her back. After sending the gladiator away-presumably back to Cato's home, and to what future, who knew?-she considered asking Pullo to escort her, but soon realized that giving such a creature of appetite ample opportunities to sample a variety of flesh meant that she would never get him out of there. And, she admits silently, it is exhilarating to be out on the streets without a wary retinue of guards.
At the door of the villa-where shadows ripen the considerable cracks on the arches and balustrade into hallmarks of impending destruction-stand two armored guards, thick in every sense and no doubt disgruntled because they were not allowed to partake in the evening's pleasures. "What's the password?" barks the shorter of the two.
Xena's kick-perfectly aimed and powerfully executed-drops him like a stone. He lay silent and unmoving. With a curious gaze at his fallen comrade, the other guard prods him with the tip of his boot. Like a snail poked by a stick, the wounded man curls tightly into a fetal position and releases a deep, howling groan. The still-standing guard eyes her apprehensively. "Right, then."
She breezes past.
Through the atrium the diaphanous light of candles dimmed by the cloying scrim of incense smoke function as breadcrumbs, markers left by decadent nymphs down a heady path to darkened rooms. In the tangled heaps of limbs she thought she recognized participants from spectacles past: Big cock, lousy lay. An ass more stunning than Aphrodite's. Smelled funny. Kept talking about his horse.
She shudders. Picking her way through bodies as she seeks the path of least lasciviousness, she realizes that she is not quite as inconspicuous as she-or Caesar-initially believed. Perhaps even at an orgy one would notice an unusually tall woman clad head to toe in leather and in a gold mask. Perhaps this was Caesar's idea all along-to make her too recognizable, so that she would drop this depravity like a hot stone. So this is why I chose you, why I married you. Because I knew you would keep me on my toes.
This mini-epiphany notwithstanding, she steers through the ruin of bodies.
The discovery of Pompey's predilections had been quite accidental: during a romantic assignation with Quintus Fabian's wife, whose name is blessedly forgotten, and yet whose penchant for enumerating her preferences for lovemaking before undertaking the act was memorably tiresome. I like to be kissed in a very linear fashion, don't be random and jumping around my body- and when I'm done a "thank you" would be nice-hey Xena, what do you think you're doing? I don't like the whole being tied up thing. Who do you think I am, Pompey?
Quintus Fabian's wife had made nervous light of it afterward, of course, but Xena had greedily filed away this fact for further consideration and future blackmail. She had no idea how useful it would be until this moment, winding down a hallway leading to several private chambers and to her unsuspecting target. The guidepost indicating Pompey's private room, however, was no mere woman: She is the most famous hetaera in Rome, known for tying the tightest and most intricate knots in the fabric's of one's choice-from the coarsest rope to the finest silk, her mastery of bondage unsurpassed in the city. Would have made a good sailor with that knowledge, Xena thinks. The whore is oiled and naked but for a sliver of leather hanging around her waist, a coiled whip dangling from her hand, and the heavy, metallic mask of a horned apparition-half human, half goat-covering her face. Ostentatious horns spiral from the forehead of the mask.
Behind her own mask Xena rolls her eyes and sneers. Horns. Trite, really trite.
She holds out a hand, silently demanding the whip.
Hand on jutting hip, the hetaera remains impassive, unimpressed, and unwilling to give up the biggest payday of her year.
Xena removes a jangling pouch from her belt and tosses it at the woman, who catches it easily.
She rolls the rattling pouch in a teasingly obscene fashion, her fingers perversely pliant around the soft fabric. The horned mask tilts in deference and the whip is yielded.
Entering the dim, candlelit chamber, Xena's stomach roils at the thought of straddling any part of Pompey's naked body. Mercifully he is trussed face down on the bed, each limb tightly lashed to a bedpost. The things I do for this lousy city. Why?
Had Xena's humors been more phlegmatic and less sanguine, the thought would have provided serious pause. Instead, she puts it aside for contemplation at a later juncture-when, she hasn't the faintest idea-and leaps astride his back with a grace similarly employed during a bull sacrifice, part of her Mithraic initiation so many years ago. Clearly expecting the skinny hetaera, Pompey grunts in surprise. "Hello, Pompey," she hisses in his ear.
He tenses, whispers her name.
"Is it more a surprise to find me alive rather than here, on top of you?"
Pompey attempts bucking her off; it proves ineffective.
"Well?" she growls, close enough to witness the incremental panic in the white of an eye.
He makes a choking, slobbering noise before the words are spat out. "That fucking gladiator."
"Ah, yes. It's all her fault, isn't it? You're in a bit of bind now because of it-and in so many senses of the phrase too. Well, Pompey, I have some advice that I think you should follow, because if you don't, you can be certain I will kill you. Listen carefully." She unravels enough of the whip to wrap around his throat. As it tightens around his neck in an intimate embrace with the struggling cords below his skin, a deep rush of pleasure fills her-unlike the Mithraic initiation, although the remembrance of that event colors this one with sweet intensity: the bull strangled into sedation, her knee against its spine, its throat slit, the shower of blood. As tempting as it is, however, she cannot kill Pompey-if only because his personal guard is now beating at the door.
"Get out of town," she growls as the chamber is breached.
There's got to be a morning after
The morning air, its swollenness hinting at rain, lay thick over everything; it is, Gabrielle speculates, one way of explaining her lethargy, her inaction. She sits placidly in the kitchen of Cato's home watching as her master, careworn and stubbled, nervously claws his rough cheek. His skin resembles crumpled gray parchment. Everyone looks older in the morning, she thinks-and rubs her own chin, seeking blind refutation. Even me?
After decorous rejection-at least she hoped it appeared decorous, although she now recalls wincing with disgust at one point-of the Empress's proposal during the course of the prior evening, she had left the latter's residence the same way she came: swiftly through the window. Moving through the dreamlike darkness, she had no idea what to do other than surrender herself to Cato's aggrieved disapproval; it was not as if she actually feared him, Pompey, or even Pompey's men. On her return to the villa she found him alone. Fearing the worst as he always did, he had wisely sent his family to the summer home at Baiae and waited for someone-either Xena's Praetorian guard or Pompey's thugs-to arrive and execute him. As good as he had had been to her-in that he never laid a hand on her in any way-this selfless act now changed the way she viewed him. He was greedy, calculating, weak, and lazy; and yet he was also courageous and devoted to his family. So, under his perfunctory protests, she sat with him, determined to see him remain alive.
Cato regards her wearily. "If Pompey's guard arrive first, they will kill you."
Gabrielle's impassive glare speaks otherwise.
"All right." He laughs mirthlessly. "You'll kill them all, but then you'll have an even bigger price on your head. And if you dare cross the Empress's men, well-there's only so much she can forgive. She'll probably send that lout Pullo. Normally he's the one who does her dirty work. So if you kill him, she'll be furious. She's awfully fond of him. A good barbarian is hard to find these days. Everyone's gone soft. For the love of Jupiter-what is a man these days when the best fighter in this gods-forsaken city is you?" He buries his head in his hands, sobbing.
Briefly she reconsiders this change of heart about Cato. She wonders why she feels sorry for him, why she remains sitting there, cradling her sword, ready to do battle for him. Pity, perhaps? Or because there is nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable to spin itself out, to slowly compose itself like the weavings of the Fates at their tapestry. She tilts the broadsword. A line of light traverses its length: Silver. Is this the line of her life in the tapestry of the fates? No,
she answers silently. It would have to be red, wouldn't it?
These ruminations end abruptly when the Empress's Favorite Lout, Pullo, kicks in the front door. He clomps through the house like a club-footed titan invading a dollhouse until he discovers his quarry, and his quarry's protector, in the kitchen. Calmly Gabrielle rises, cognizant of the sweet itch in her loose muscles, the sword a perfect extension of her hand, her arm, her shoulder, her entire body.
The soldier's joyous expression at once again encountering his idol quickly turns into professional apprehension, and he draws his gladius with one hand raised in supplication. "Now, hang on a moment."
"Oh, what does it matter?" Cato roars. "To Tartarus I go!" Like a heroine in a bad tragedy, he falls to his knees in front of Pullo and bares his neck.
"Come on," Pullo groans. "There's no sport in that."
Gabrielle finds her voice and her low murmur-"Is it sport you want?"-prompts both men to stare at her apprehensively.
"Ah-" Pullo rubs his beefy neck. "Empress!" he bellows. "In here."
She is here,
the gladiator thinks.
Wearing a dark, hooded cloak to promote anonymity, Xena emerges from the atrium and dispels that loose predator in Gabrielle, who notices, with a quiet concern that quickens within her more deeply than she cares to confess, that the Empress's perfect nose is swollen and a plum-colored crescent colorfully complements her left eye, like a kind of barbarian makeup. "Cato. You obviously understand why I'm here. You'll answer my questions in due time, won't you?"
"Yes," he whispers.
"Good. Then I might be inclined toward banishment and nothing further. As for your shitting cousin, I know he's in this deeper than you, so you might as well send him a goodbye letter. However, that being said, I require some reparation from you for this clumsy attempt on my life. For it has caused harm not only to me, but to the city as well. Because, you see, Cato, there was distraction and disruption within the Empire because I was so upset about this wide-ranging conspiracy against me that I could not concentrate on my paperwork this morning, and may the gods forbid if I don't adjust a grain tax fairly or authorize a permit for a whorehouse-for better or worse, Cato, in Caesar's stead I am Rome.
So. For the temporary yet vital loss of my overall equilibrium and not to mention for the fact that your would-be assassin broke a vase-"
"My favorite vase, too," Pullo interjects.
"-yes, that too, because of all that, Cato, I require-no, I demand-reparation." As the bombast dies away, the Empress fixes the gladiator with a look of possession. "Get your things."
Cato squawks. "But-Empress-my livelihood-"
"Ah, Cato. Need I remind you?" Xena's hands flash with shocking precision toward Cato's neck and Gabrielle realizes she is, for the first time, witnessing the legendary pinch in action. She has expected to experience said pinch herself at some point during every encounter she's ever had with the Empress, but on viewing the rigid, fish-out-of-water flopping of her now-former master and the trickle of blood from his nose, her curiosity is more than sated.
The Empress kneels so that she is eye level with Cato. "You're in no position to bargain anymore."
Who needs forever?
When Antony arrives at the Empress's residence, there is no sweet-talking of the crone Faustina, no languid charm. He ensnares a hapless slave with an angry toss of his cape and trails his royal hostess as a vengeful harpy through the atrium, the halls, the portico. It reminds Xena of youthful games played with her brothers; of course, she was the object of pursuit, always-could she be blamed for always being several steps ahead of them?
"You should have fucking killed him on the spot," Antony snarls at her back.
She stops walking-as a result, he nearly collides with her-and turns around. His beautiful face is contorted as a drama mask. "As usual, you're completely predictable."
"And you're completely foolish. Not to kill him when you had the opportunity-"
"-to kill Pompey, who has been one of Caesar's oldest, most trusted allies? It is not for us to take that liberty. And how would it have looked, had I done that? You'd give his followers more cause against us. And bring the entire city to the precipice of a civil war. You can't erase history by slitting someone's throat."
"No, but you can change history by doing so. Sometimes for the better." His furor lessened, if only slightly. "At any rate, he's gone now. This will give him time to build up his forces."
"Where? How? Who will support him?"
"Brutus is idealistic, not stupid."
"True. But I wager Pompey will try his luck in Alexandria," Antony mutters. "And don't tell me you think the Ptomelys aren't stupid enough to do that. You're the one who said all that inbreeding has made them spineless and mindless as worms."
Xena smiles. "Then perhaps it will profit us if Pompey does indeed seek sanctuary there."
Antony, however, is longer paying attention. Hands on hips, he stares out across the portico, the mask of fury falling from his face, replaced by outright amusement. "Well, well." Antony purrs. "Baby has a new toy."
Gabrielle, the "toy" in the courtyard, spars with a cloddish trio of soldiers. She is a beautiful blur of flesh and the sword. Xena wonders how many times today the gladiator has brought down that trio. And the sun barely out of the trees.
"So," Antony begins, cramming a lifetime of skepticism into one syllable, "you bring your assassin into the fold. Speaking of stupid, Xena-or is it all very clever on your part? I'm not sure."
"It's occurred to me that this is all an elaborate ruse so that she could infiltrate my household and report on my activities to the Optimates."
"Yes, that would be a brilliant move. Distract you with a pretty, deadly thing. You've always liked your wild beasts, don't you? Caesar loves to tell that story of how you wanted to wrestle the panther that belonged to that Persian prince."
That panther would have lost, Xena thinks, and then bristles at the imagined insult to her newest acquisition. "She's not just an animal, a dumb beast."
Antony raises an eyebrow. "On the contrary-I don't think she's a dumb beast at all. Look at her." Antony nods at the gladiator. "Yes, she's all muscle and speed and skill, but she's small. She's not even half the size of your Captain, Pullo. And yet in a match I would not hesitate to back her. To survive as long as she has under the circumstances, you've got to be damned smart. Even so-" He pauses, and she detects-to her enormous surprise-a trace of wistfulness in his sigh.
"No one lasts forever in the ring."
PART VIIThe retirement plan
Late afternoon in Rome: The clouds, impregnated with fading light, blight the blueness of the sky. Or so Titus Pullo thinks. Because of his size and his armor, people pave the way for him as he barrels through the city-a nice perk, he thinks, because Romans loathe sharing the street with anyone. He's seen fights started over the mere brushing of limbs between two passing bodies. Hades, I've started fights over that,
he guiltily admits. Moving quickly through the streets, he arrives at the Circus Maximus's amphitheatre much faster than anticipated. The crowd outside is composed mostly of gladiators and their retinues-owners, sponsors, hangers-on. It is not the usual idle post-game mingling; there were no games today. Tellingly, coins flow, and mostly into the pouch of Arrius, a former gladiator who now runs the barracks for the active gladiators of the Circus, and who gulps guiltily when he catches sight of Pullo glaring at him.
"Arrius," Pullo growls. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"You can't stop it now, Pullo." The grizzled and gray Arrius shakes the moneybag. "All the wagers have been placed. You'd have a riot on your hands. This is the biggest crowd I've had yet. Best let the fight go on."
Pullo exhales through his teeth. "Fuck," he hisses. He follows Arrius into the dark, pitted gloom of the gladiators' quarters, to the crowded, sweaty underground room where Arrius stages his illegal fights.
Since the "retirement" of the Little Gladiator, the new fan favorite in the arena is one Piso, a long-limbed rube from the countryside known for great feats of leaping over opponents both human and animal. The crowds had already anointed him the Lepus: the hare. Grimly Pullo decides that if here-during this unofficial pissing contest-the Lepus kills or defeats his opponent, there will be rabbit stew. For the Lepus's challenger is none other than the Little Gladiator herself, appearing not only in defiance of the Empress's directive banning these so-called "underground" fights but, presumably, all common sense as well.
The two fighters, armed with nothing but bare fists, circle each other in a ring demarcated by the dirty, vocal crowd. Judging by the smattering of blood already across Gabrielle's face, Piso's long reach made contact at some point. The thing about the Little Gladiator, though-and Pullo hadn't noticed this until the Empress had pointed it out to him-is not that she merely makes adjustments to her opponent's fighting style, but that she does so with impressive alacrity and unerring accuracy: Here the Lepus tries another long swipe at her but, with mocking precision, she pulls back a scant second before his fist would have slammed into her face. Then she incorporates a leap of her own into the fight-not showy, but quick and fast, like a jab, easily breaching the gaps in his loose defense. Spiked with the knuckle of her middle finger, her fist plunges into his throat. Fuck all.
The thrill of recognition seizes Pullo: She was attempting, in a crude fashion and compensating in brute force for what she lacked in secret knowledge, to replicate the deadly effect of the Empress's pinch.
Gagging violently, Piso clutches his throat. Now Gabrielle throws in the ostentatious move-a whirlwind pirouette around his body before dealing a fierce, double-fisted blow on the back of the neck that sends him to his knees. In dispassionate study she circles him, coolly assessing her options, looking for the quickest resolution to the match. The Lepus's contribution to the decision-making process is a groggy, inept lunge at her legs-he misses, of course, she seizes him by the hair, and slams his face against her knee.
Pullos twitches at the distinct crack of broken bone among the rabble's noise and, in an unconscious, sympathetic gesture, touches his nose as the Lepus crumples, defeated. Arrius briefly examines the downed fighter before his hand thumps against the sanded floor, declaring an end to the match. Whether the Lepus is dead or alive Pullo cannot tell, nor does he really care. An undercurrent of boos mingle with cheers as he barges through the crowd, hoping once again the uniform of the Empress's guard will do the talking. When the dazed gladiator catches sight of him she grasps his arm and together, with Arrius's assistance, they push through the crowd like a battering ram before Arrius himself unceremoniously shoves them both out into weak daylight.
Outside on the street the soldier and his semi-tarnished idol fall into step. Those many months ago Pullo had been thrilled beyond belief with his assignment from the Empress: To assist the gladiator in making the transition from a public life of routine violence to a private life of selective violence. And, of course, to keep an eye on her-a seemingly more important aspect of said assignment but one in which he has failed miserably, for he can no more keep track of Gabrielle than the Empress can keep track of her legendary vanishing cat, Timon. He cuts an angry glance as her: Absently she traces her bloodied lips with the tip of her tongue, assessing the damage. "One of these days, you're going to get me in a lot of fucking trouble," he growls.
She stops walking.
Furious, he spins around. "I'm about ready to fucking knock you out and carry you back if-"
Solemnly she extends her money pouch to him-her share of the profits from the fight.
Pullo wavers. Admittedly, he understands her instinctively: She is a fighter. She needs to fight. And, true to his nature, he forgives rather quickly. So he shrugs with mock gruffness and nods at the bag. "We'll split it. Later." This satisfies her. They continue at a brisk pace, hoping to make the palace before darkness settles in. "She's in rare form today, I can tell you that, dealing with diplomats from Chin all day, and tonight too-she's been in fancy dress the whole time and they put her hair in those damned Medusa curls-anyway, it's a recipe for a shit mood with her, so tread careful, eh?" The blood is already drying upon her face. "We'll get you cleaned up, at least. If you're lucky she won't notice."
"I'm not lucky."
Surprised more by the low, lush timbre of her voice rather than what she actually said, he looks at her with surprise. In the few months she has been at the palace she has uttered about a dozen words to him-usually "I'm sorry" or variations thereof, on the occasions when she hits, head-butts, or trips him too hard during their sparring sessions.
"And you know better than I," she continues, "that nothing escapes her notice."
Pullo laughs. "Yeah. Well, better hang onto that purse of yours then. You may need it to get out of the city."
Within the walls of the palace, they seek out the healer, an older man of great discretion and Asiatic origin, who examines the gladiator quickly and thoroughly: "Nose not broken, no loose teeth. Bit your lip, didn't you? That shoulder must hurt. I'll make a poultice for you. Let's put some salve on those knuckles-it will reduce the swelling." The healer's litany stops abruptly as the door opens. He bows, and Gabrielle, her back momentarily to the door, doesn't need to be told who has just entered, but the healer says it anyway: "Empress."
"Leave us." Xena's blue eyes flash at Pullo: You too.
As the soldier and the healer leave, Gabrielle turns and blinks at the Empress's attire: A diaphanous dress, the almost hallucinatory shimmer of the material hints teasingly at the powerful form that lies beneath it. Pullo, however, was right about the hairstyle: The black ringlets wreathing the modest gold laurel crown are more suitable for a pubescent girl and not the most powerful woman in the known world.
"Did you win?" Xena does not wait for a response. "Of course you did." She nods at the salve. "Put it on."
After the fight the gladiator had wrapped her throbbing, bloodied left hand-cut on the Lepus's teeth at some point-in a piece of linen she carried for such purposes. The cloth now unfurls clumsily from the hand, dirty, bloody swaths interlaced with swollen fingers. Her very own tapestry of the fates.
Xena watches dispassionately, makes no move to help. "For someone acquainted with the works of Cicero, you appear to have serious memory problems."
Gabrielle stiffens. As usual, the Empress catches her off-guard with words in a way no fighter can with fists or weapons.
"You've a copy of De oratore
among your meager possessions, I know."
The tips of her ears sizzle with embarrassment. Furiously she rubs the tingling ointment across her swollen, skinned knuckles.
"But you seem to forget on a regular basis that you are officially retired from the ring. You are part of my personal guard. You are still a slave. And you belong me." With a deep breath Xena banishes the escalating notes of anger in her speech and gives the gladiator a frank, critical look. "If I were to grant you freedom at this very moment, what would you do? Would you go back to it, that life?"
Gabrielle fumbles with a clean bandage. "I know nothing but that life. I can do nothing else."
Finally Xena intervenes; she takes the new bandage and expertly weaves it around the gladiator's hand. "And I know nothing other than my life and my experiences. It doesn't mean I never dream or yearn to be something or someone else. You don't know what you'd do? You could do anything. Retire to the country and train horses. Or even gladiators. Or-buy a vineyard. Live in a vineyard by the sea and drink yourself into a sweet stupor under the damned sun. It might inspire you to-I don't know, write verse." Gabrielle squints wistfully, and Xena seizes on this. Of course. It all makes sense, you beautiful little Cicero-reader, you hoarder of scrolls.
"Would you like to do that-write?"
"As a child, I wanted-to tell stories." The edge of hope in the gladiator's voice belies her deep, misery-laden frown. But what stories can I tell now, Xena? Yes, in the quiet of my mind I call you by the name given to you. Here, we are equals. But tell me, what stories would I tell? How many men I've killed, perhaps?
"But I'm not a child anymore. I am who I am, and-" She brooks no argument in this offer of submission and pulls her bandaged hand away. "-I will serve you as you wish." She cannot bear any further scrutiny from those clear, intense blue eyes, and so misses the contemplative ruefulness of Xena's final glance. Without further word, the Empress leaves the room.
Your news of P.'s treachery pains me, causes a calamity within my spirit-but it does not surprise me. He has long been disgruntled in his current capacity. If the scouts have indeed reported he has set course for Alexandria, then it is to that wretched city you must go. I want no harm to come to him. You must reestablish and strengthen our bond with the Ptolemys before he makes serious overtures to them. We cannot afford to lose this ally. Offer them anything within reason.
Or if you prefer, send Xena. Because frankly at this point I suppose either one of you would probably fuck Cleopatra first before carrying out my orders. Of course, perhaps that would do the trick-or not. I'm not sure who's really running that place anymore, her or her brother.
Indignant, Xena looks up at Antony. "I've never even met Cleopatra."
"Well, neither have I," Antony retorts, "but you know he's probably right. Keep reading."
I propose this: Fight her for it. One on one. Sword to sword. The winner chooses his or her fate: Staying in Rome or traveling to Alexandria. I feel generous this day, Antony. The campaign proceeds apace. I could be King of Britannia within weeks.
Xena reads the message again. "Fight me for it?" she echoes.
Antony hums sympathetically.
She snatches the cipher out of his hand to recheck the code, scanning the correlation of letters within the demented proposal. "Do you think he's gone mad in Britannia?"
"Oh, I suppose it's within the realm of possibility," Antony replies cheerfully. "Campaigns like that wear down the best of men. Cold, discomfort, bad food, insubordinate troops, probably not a good whorehouse in the entire bloody country. How would you feel having to fuck nothing but reluctant boys and surly shepherdesses? It's a chore, I tell you."
"This is serious," she chastises. Then gazes again at the note and pinches the bridge of her nose. "This is ridiculous."
"Yes and yes." He stretches along the divan. "Well. What do you want to do? I see no reason to duel over this. We could flip a coin."
"That is just as ludicrous."
"Oh come now, Xena. If it's a matter of pride, well-I'd be willing to let you win." Antony knows, of course, just the reaction he would provoke. "I'd love to see if your gladiator has taught you new tricks." His voice drops into silky insinuation. "For I'm certain that, in recompense, you have taught her many tricks in the battleground of the bedchamber."
And Xena is certain if that were true, she would without a doubt be in a better frame of mind-she has not been intimate with anyone in months-and she would not at this very moment be reaching for her sword and chasing him across the room.
With a hoot of laughter he draws his own sword. "Just kidding-" He hisses in surprise as her gladius clangs full force against his own. "Shit. You're serious,
aren't you?" He fights in his usual stolid, Roman style-in other words, unimaginative-as she parries, thrusts, and dances away, leading him to believe that he is on the offensive when, in fact, he is as open as a wound and grinding himself toward inevitable defeat. Indeed, he oofs
in surprise as a roundhouse kick sends him sprawling on his ass. No matter how half-hearted and insincere, the exhilaration of the fight floods her veins and she revels in its afterglow. It is not as good as sex. It never is. But,
she sighs contentedly, it will do.
"You know I let you win," he says from the floor.
"Are you that desperate for me to make the decision? Takes the pressure off you, doesn't it?"
Antony latches onto the arm she offers and hauls himself up. "You know me so well." He rolls his shoulders. "So tell me-what's your pleasure? To stay in Rome, holed up here and scribbling away laws and decrees like a common scribe? Or to leave for Alexandria?"
"You sound as if you want me to go." She raises an eyebrow.
"I'm damned tired of travel right now, Xena. Bithynia, Smyrna, Gaul-all of these places and more over the past two years." He tosses the gladius onto the divan. "Look, I could pull rank here and tell you to go. But that would benefit neither you nor me-if you aren't fully committed to doing the job in Alexandria, there's no point in you going." Antony smiles in his usual cool yet vaguely threatening fashion.
Idly she swings her sword. "Are you fully committed to doing 'the job' in Alexandria? What do you see as an acceptable solution to this?"
"You know I would have killed Pompey without hesitation. And as a result Caesar would be writing us tiresome nonsense about something else, and we would not be having this conversation-"
Xena waves a warning hand. "And I don't think we need to have that argument again. If I go-and I haven't said that I will-I won't be handling this your way. It has to be handled carefully, with negotiations, with just the right kind of vague promises that may never be kept. Full-scale war with Pompey is the next-to-last resort. And the very last resort is my dagger in his throat."
"My, my," Antony smirks again. "Your husband has made such a little politician out of you. I give him credit, Xena. When I first met you I thought you were nothing but a wild thing-perfect for fucking and fighting and nothing else. But he saw something in you that no one else did." He softens. "I wonder what that was."
"So do I." She walks to the window and gazes out upon the Palatine. From this quiet promontory it is easy to pretend that the city, with its crowded stench-filled streets, does not exist. In a way, Rome does not exist for her, nor she for it. Despite her name, her title, her marriage, the years of work, the legions she led into battle and the loyalty she bred within those soldiers, despite the laurels on her head and the flowers under her feet, she is still the ultimate outsider. She is still infamia.
She wonders if that will ever change.
The trees bend to the will of the wind, shaking out a language all their own.
Then she wonders if the gladiator will like the prospect of going to Alexandria.
Warp and weft
The snowflakes, an unfortunate if pretty reminder of the cold, sway downward to their gentle doom and scatter across Caesar's camp. Lucius Vorenus watches them grimly, still remembering the youthful amazement he felt the first time he saw snowflakes, and then, catastrophic amounts of snow-that was a different campaign, somewhere in Gaul, years ago. Not typically inclined toward examination of the past, he is struck dumb with wonder at the thought that he was once so young, so easily impressed. Yearning for anonymity and no distraction, and amid the hopes of a quick nap, he strides across the desolate camp past bright fires that spawn little warmth and tired, hungry faces that will blame anyone for their predicament: Stuck in a freezing, barren land with no food and a critically ill leader.
Said hopes are dashed when the healer, emerging from Caesar's tent, waddles toward him while wringing his hands. Vorenus is suspiciously amazed that the fat Syrian has not lost any weight during this famine and fears it's only a matter of time before the men have him skewered over an open flame. "Don't look so nervous," Vorenus grunts at him.
It is a measure of the seriousness of the situation when the healer ignores this. "He asks for you again." The Syrian's black beard contorts as he nibbles pursed, red lips. "It is not good."
"What do you mean?" Vorenus resists the urge to shake the fool.
"I mean just what I say," the healer retorts in a hysterical undertone. "He may die by nightfall."
His fist clenches. Expecting the blow, the healer winces. Instead, Vorenus stalks toward Caesar's tent.
It had started quite innocently: a flesh wound from an arrow during a skirmish with the locals that, instead of healing, became inflamed, infected, poisonous, and now, possibly fatal. Because of this injury the camp has been immobile for weeks. Several officers have abandoned the army; others were dead as the result of a hasty grab for power. Vorenus, one of the few veterans left, was anointed the de facto leader by the rank and file; save death, there is nothing he wants less.
In the tent Vorenus sits on a stool and regards Gaius Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, suddenly reduced to the pathetic sum of his choices: Dying in the middle of nowhere, with no one save a virtual stranger in attendance. But even now, Caesar's gift for speech does not abandon him. As he rants, Vorenus listens obediently, even though none of it makes much sense. He babbles about his wife, about having her crucified, about Brutus and a conspiracy-helpfully, Vorenus interrupts gently to inform him that the conspiracy he's thinking of involves Pompey, that no man is as loyal as Brutus-and about a "blonde bitch who ruins everything." He tried again, he says, one more time, to change the warp and weft of his life, to ensure his long life and his immortality. One more time, he says, this time truncating a line here and there and darkening that oh-so-troublesome bright vibrant thread-
As it descends into blatant nonsense, Vorenus comforts himself with memories of his wife, his daughters. It has been too long. Finally, he has tired of being a solider.
Caesar's monotone now careens drastically into a full-throated roar that stiffens Vorenus's spine and regains his attention: "Gods damn-" he sputters as each breath rattles in his chest. The Emperor's fingers twitch crablike along the thin blanket as if he weaves something and Vorenus smiles involuntarily at the image it evokes in his mind: His mother at her loom, content. Even in old age her knobby, crone-like fingers nimble upon the threads.
With his last breath the Emperor seals the curse: "-the fucking Fates."
PART VIThe edge of the world
After a fortnight at sea, Titus Pullo is ready for a career change: He yearns to be a sailor. He loves the pitch and sway of the ship, the scent of the sea, and the sensation of being at the edge of the world-like combat, it frightens and exhilarates. And yet the distant line of the horizon, the marriage of water and sky, becalms him like nothing else, even on the storm-cursed gray days when the elements blur heavily into molten lead and the ripples of the water and the clouds provide only terrifying hints of movement and light. The Empress feels similarly, he believes; ever since they set foot on the ship she has been positively exuberant-perhaps reliving those carefree days before she met Caesar, when her home was a ship and the republic she led a band of Cilician pirates.
he thinks. I could be a pirate!
Every day, every minute, Xena is all over the ship: Stalking the bow, taking watches, climbing masts, adjusting the riggings, conjuring elegant knots out of simple lines. Only common courtesy and respect for the captain prevent her from tossing him overboard and taking the helm herself.
In grim contrast to the Empress, however, Gabrielle is sullen, morose, and quiet, more so than usual; largely she has kept to herself in a berth below deck. When at last she makes an appearance, she wobbles across the beam to Pullo, white-knuckling the closest bit of rigging for support. He laughs at the sight of her. "I really love this. Don't you?"
She grunts at his teasing.
"Ah, go on. You've been around your kind for too long-not Greeks, but gladiators. Bunch of inarticulate
brutes you are, you lot. Yeah, I learned that word from the Empress-and she said that about you, my friend, and not me. Surprised? Scowl at me all you want, it's true." He nods at the horizon. "Do you really think there is an end to the world out there? At that point, where the sky meets the sea? It's like a seam that could be torn. But what force could tear it, you reckon? And what's beyond it? I don't know. It's pointless to go on about these things, but I can't help myself sometimes. My friend Vorenus, if he were here he'd probably tell me to shut up. At least you listen to me, eh?" It is only when he looks at her again he notices, with no small amount of dismay and apprehension, the green cast of her skin, the nervous swallowing, the rapid blinking of her eyes.
At the last moment he manages to look away. There is no need to witness the event; the sound of the morning's meal splattering against his boots is confirmation enough.
To the lighthouse
If the motion of the ship were akin to the rocking of the cradle-this conjecture offered by Pullo as he carried her, sack-like, back down to her berth, before adding, just give in to it, relax, but don't throw up on me again
-then why did she still feel so horrible? Perhaps infancy, at least in her case, was not all serenity and mother's milk.
Gripping the edge of a table provides the illusion of stability, that this incessant, unpredictable back-and-forth could be stopped by sheer force of will. Am I the only one on this cursed vessel afflicted in this way?
She cannot imagine how men do this for their livelihoods, or how the Empress could tolerate it for so long before her fateful encounter with Caesar.
Not surprisingly, the thought of the Empress's Grand Romance on the High Seas makes her retch again. She collapses on the bunk.
Hours or even seconds later there's a muffled footfall in the cabin, the feline step of someone softer and swifter than Pullo. When Gabrielle finally risks a glance upward, the Empress looms over her bunk, darkly aglow with health and irritating good humor. "You owe Pullo a new pair of boots."
Gabrielle hopes that her grunt sounds apologetic and deferential. The ship lurches again with shaky violence and she shuts her eyes tightly-not that it helps, but she has little recourse but to rely on the darkness that has always comforted her in the past. This time, however, the nausea abates with a strange swiftness; relieved, she sighs. Until she takes note of a pinching, prickling sensation traversing the length of her arm. She opens her eyes. Xena is pressing a thumb against the soft, vulnerable inside of her wrist. The pressure points. She remembers Cato convulsing, the blood trickling from his nose. What secrets, what confessions would Xena expect to coax from her? Angrily she yanks her hand away and the effort leaves her so exhausted she cannot even contemplate a lunge for the dagger under her pillow.
The Empress laughs. "Do you think I'm trying to kill you in your weakened state? That wouldn't be very fair, would it, gladiator?" With ease she recaptures Gabrielle's wrist, gently tapping the delicate weave of tendons and veins with a thumb. "Here. Helps with the nausea. Do it long enough, you may regain your appetite-if you do, don't eat too much, and keep it bland. Porridge, dried fruit, and the like. Not every pressure point is designed to kill or maim."
Breathing heavily into the pillow, Gabrielle weakly digs a thumb into her right wrist.
"You should have warned me that you get seasick." Xena sits in an ancient chair across the room that looks as if it were woven by Poseidon himself out of seaweed, driftwood, and the hollow old skeletal remains of dead mariners; it groans, crackling like tinder-or broken bones-under her weight.
Is she actually expecting conversation from me?
The gladiator coughs. "I forgot."
"Not the kind of thing one forgets."
"Perhaps not," Gabrielle rasps. "But my journey to Rome is one I'd rather forget."
"I can imagine."
This uncharacteristic bit of placation, said with the careless urbane tone of a Roman domina, fails to comfort and instead provokes. "No, you can't," Gabrielle snarls into the pillow. "Unless you've spent an entire sea voyage being raped and sodomized by a centurion, I don't think you can."
Not unlike the ship moving through the dark sea, the bitter, impromptu confession rents a quiet, choppy line through the atmosphere. There is only the gentle tumult of the aftermath within her, a silence engulfing her scars. And for Xena? Embarrassment, most likely, and a blot of pity upon her fearless new pet. Shit,
the gladiator thinks. And yet the compulsion remains, to strip every image and every detail away from the swaddling of the past-the dank cot, the smell of blood, the crush of his body-and laying bare the experience of the black numbness that shriveled every nerve and hope within her.
"No," Xena replies softly. "I don't think I can." She regains her blunt, imperious tone-the voice and timbre of a leader, of a woman who does not mince words and who, for whatever unfathomable reason, Gabrielle instinctively trusts: "Did you kill him?"
"He wasn't hard to track down. Years passed. But I am patient. He left the army. Was working for one of the gangs on the Aventine-his boss owned a taverna and was in the habit of borrowing a lot of money from Cato. One evening I was there with Cato, playing my role: the enforcer. I saw him, and-he looked right through me." She pauses. "He didn't remember me." This, still vivid in her mind, wrecks her more than the bloodied fragments of the actual rape. "I debated-what to do. With no one but myself. Perhaps he had a family who depended on him-I don't know. In the end I didn't care. I just know that I could not stop myself from the inevitable. I slit his throat, and as he died I made certain he knew who I was."
"Then it is done." Xena murmurs it without recrimination or judgment.
Bold in her weakness, Gabrielle counters, "You know that's never true."
In her wretched throne, the Empress reclines regally. "Yes," she admits with a sigh. "But sometimes it's useful to pretend otherwise."
Silence punctuates this casual confession-a natural indication of leave-taking. And yet Gabrielle realizes she does not want the Empress to leave, that perhaps this worthless digression into her shit-strewn past served a more curative effect than the pressure point. "May I"-she begins shakily-"may I ask you something?"
"Gods, you're chatty today. Do you get that way during illness? Well, because this is all so very intriguing, I'll say yes."
"How did you learn the pressure points?"
"Years ago. From a woman on my ship-a stowaway, actually. Runaway slave from Egypt. How she learned them, I've the faintest idea."
"What happened to her?"
Xena's mouth is lashed tight like rigging in a storm. "You should get some rest." The Empress rises. "Before you know it, we'll be in the city. And I'll expect you back to form there." She pauses before the cabin door. "In fact, I'm fairly certain I'll need
you back in form by then."
Of course the Empress was, as usual, infuriatingly accurate. Several mornings later, the thundering of footsteps above deck, the delicate whisking dances of the rigging, and, most conspicuously, the blessed cry of land!
-along with someone's waggish proclamation of it's about fucking time
-all inform Gabrielle that the fabled city is within their sight. She would cry tears of relief into her dirty pillow, if any would come. Instead she licks her parched lips, rises, and staggers up steps through the hold, bracing herself for the noxious assault of sea air and the leering bustle of the crew. She pushes into the strong, salt-soaked breeze toward the bridge, to the humble wheel that controls the movement of this floating world, to the weary captain Agathias, weary because royalty is the most problematic cargo of all-and finally to the Empress herself, standing next to the captain in a careful, catlike pose, triumphant even before arrival.
The shoreline is indeed visible. With terrifying weightlessness, however, the ship rises and writhes like a feather at the command of an ineffable nothing, miserably reminding Gabrielle once again she is not yet on terra firma. Her fingers dig into a beam-not that, you idiot, grab your wrist before you vomit on her fine boots.
Before she can tumble off the deck and into the sea like a discarded barrel, Xena steadies her while nodding into the distance at the brilliant white building beckoning them from the shore. "See the lighthouse?" The heel of Xena's hand resides confidently, steadily in the small of Gabrielle's back-as if it had done so on a thousand other occasions couched in a million different sets of circumstances and mood, a glittering net of constancy as reliably dazzling as the maze of stars hidden by the sun above, and it all troubles Gabrielle's weakened mind to such an extent she is oblivious to Xena's turn as tour guide. "-not actually on the mainland but the island of Pharos, it was erected by the first Ptolemy. The light is created by flame, using the reflection of mirrors-I've never seen it lit up at night. Have you, Agathias?"
The captain nods. "Aye. Very impressive," he replies in a tone that suggests otherwise.
"Oh, come on, you old coot, are you ever impressed by anything?"
"Impressed I've nearly made it here without being cast overboard, Empress."
"Your ship is a fine one, Agathias," the Empress grins, "but I had a better one years ago." Years ago, Xena thinks, when she possessed freedom and the lovely burden of chance. Nothing else. The sight of the shoreline, now tinged with melancholy, beckons less than before. As Pullo similarly imagines the ship sliding off the edge of the world, she feels the smile sliding off her face, into a void from which her equilibrium may never recover.
The normally perceptive gladiator, however, has surrendered to the vision of the lighthouse; immersed in admiration, she fails to detect the shift in mood. The wind flattens blonde bangs against her forehead, edging the fringe into her eyes. "So there it is," she whispers.
Xena merely nods while wishing that, like Gabrielle, she were seeing it for the first time, through the prism of another life.
There it is, bejeweled on the edge of foreign sands, at the edge of her world. Alexandria.
PART IXMy dinner with Ptolemy
Ceremonies, processions, exalted titles. In the hothouse of the Alexandrian palace she withers from boredom, heat, and a vague sense of both dissatisfaction and unease playing deceptively gentle rhythms upon her nerves. She sweats, but then everyone is sweating in the stifling banquet hall, despite the palm leaves splaying like green fingers and listlessly waving goodbye in the low golden light.
Even her young, diminutive host is not immune to the heat. With his wide kohl eyes and full, painted lips, Ptolemy XIII resembles not so much a ruler but one of many boy whores Xena has encountered prowling the docks of any number of port cities. In ceremonies he has stared at her, goggle-eyed, while his eunuch lackey Pothinus read litanies of official greetings, praises, reports, and other minutiae that usually prompted an alarming series of yawns on the Empress's part, quickly stifled by her elegant hand.
Now at the banquet, fortified by wine and gluttony, Ptolemy perches on silk cushions beside her. "I am so excited to finally meet you!" he breathes.
Under vigorous assault from his perfume, her stomach roils; she wonders if that second piece of lamb was a good idea. At his age, she was barefoot and wild in Amphipolis, playing games with her brothers-but, thankfully, not married to either one. She smirks, recalling the incredulous disgust on the faces of Pullo and Gabrielle when earlier she offhandedly revealed to her personal guards that the boy-king was officially married to his older sister, Cleopatra.
"It is an honor to be in Alexandria once more." Xena's head dips in acknowledgment of her host; she pretends to drink too-sweet wine while discreetly scanning the room. Ptolemy's sister-wife is nowhere to be seen. Not surprising. Intelligence reports revealed a rift between the sibling-spouses, a struggle for power that resulted in the queen fleeing the royal residence. She remains in hiding. For all anyone knew, she may not even be in the city anymore.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy simpers. In return Xena winces and hopes it passes for a tired smile. Unconsciously, her eyes seek out the gladiator. Impassive, stoic, and vigilant, Gabrielle seems more a man-strike that,
she thinks, no, she's more human, more real
-than this foolish, made-up creature. Upon his first encounter with their retinue after the disembarkation from the ship, Ptolemy had seemed equally awed of the gladiator and had, despite Gabrielle's brightly furious gaze, caressed her white-gold hair while cooing with childish glee. And while she may appear as immobile as statuary here in the banquet, the gladiator's eyes are anything but-her gaze tracks the movements of the slaves, the servers, the dancers, the billowing curtain over a window, the Alexandrian guards at the heavy, ornate door.
Ptolemy intrudes upon Xena's observation. "Everything is to your liking? Your rooms? The slaves?"
"Perfect. Thank you."
"And my gift?" Eagerly, Ptolemy sits straighter. "Did you see my gift?"
Xena blinks and recalls nothing in her new quarters that may have passed as a gift. She had half-heartedly hoped for a sex slave to satisfy that oppressively persistent itch present ever since-well, ever since meeting that bothersome gladiator-but alas, discovered no lovely creature of either gender loitering in or around the bed when she arrived. "Ah. I'm sorry. I did not."
The boy waves a hand. "No matter! No matter!" he cries. "I'm sure it's there, in your room. Look for it later, will you?" His pudgy hands, smacked together, produce a muffled clap of triumph.
"Of course," she replies smoothly. "But all gifts aside-"
"Oh no, you won't bring up serious things now, will you?"
"We have much to discuss." Pothinus the eunuch is the one with the power-this, despite his outward appearance as a toady. It's obvious to her. However, Pothinus must keep the king appeased. So must she. In the pursuit of power persuasion must encompass a wide penumbra-and this, another one of Caesar's lessons for her.
"In the morning, please." He touches her hand. "For now, I want to enjoy this moment."
"Yes. There is so much to enjoy, isn't there?" Again her gaze flickers over to Gabrielle who, if only for the smallest of moments, allows a glint of sympathy to pierce her fine, fierce mien. Or perhaps she is imagining that. At any rate, she is so caught up in analysis of this fleeting glance that she misses the incredible: Ptolemy propositioning her.
"Well?" he demands. His hand curls around hers. She observes how small the hand is in comparison before withdrawing it from his flaccid grasp.
"I'm a married woman." Invoking her marriage, of all things, to avoid intimacy with this foolish boy is a joke that all of Rome would surely enjoy, she thinks. Perhaps it will get back to the newsreader somehow. I do love to entertain my people
Ptolemy's lips quiver and she worries that he is going to burst into tears. Hey, come on, I'm not that good.
Fortunately she refrains from joking and risks touching him again, this time patting his arm in what she hoped was a maternal fashion. "There, there," she murmurs. Not that false sympathy is any better.
"No matter," the boy-king sputters bravely.
"I'm quite flattered, I assure you."
Ptolemy sniffles timidly. "Really?"
"Yes. I mean, a fine young man like yourself, finding a decrepit, married old hag like me attractive-"
"Oh, you're not a hag at all!" he cries loudly. This, bellowed during a quiet lull in the crowded, noisy room, draws glances from many interested parties and a narrowed, glittering glare from the gladiator.
Quietly pleased, Xena smiles. Nothing if not loyal.
Gabrielle has sensed all along that the so-called gift was not a good thing.
In the dim hall approaching the Empress's suite of rooms, she tamps down her anxiety. Beside her Xena yawns languidly and as dappled shadows glide along the outlines of her face, Gabrielle is reminded of Timon-the beloved beast who is back in Rome, pampered by Faustina-and his similarly regal expressions of boredom and malaise among the blathering humans. While Xena mutters "fucking nonsense" for about the sixth time since they've left the banquet, Gabrielle scrambles ahead to open the door and scour the room for assassins, scorpions, and any other threat to the Empress's well-being. To her dismay, however, Xena struts in before she's completed her task, and while she on her knees glancing under the bed.
She braces herself for some gentle bawdy comment; instead Xena only nods at the leather box upon the long, ornately gold table. "Is this what he was talking about? The gift?"
Gabrielle rises. "Yes. One of the slaves brought it earlier. While you were reviewing the guard." She circles the table warily until she's at Xena's side once again.
Arms folded, Xena scowls in contemplation of the box. "You want to bet it's an asp?"
"I only gamble on things I'm certain of." It's out of her mouth before can stop it. Gabrielle nibbles her lower lip. Too easily she reveals herself, too quickly she falls into the comfort of banter with this woman. Who owns her. From such familiarity disappointment is the only outcome she foresees; for all she knows, she could be sold to the odious boy-king tomorrow, or face an impromptu battle with beasts younger and hungrier than anything she ever encountered in Rome. She gambles foolishly on the Empress's innate goodness-and wonders when the tide will turn. Because it always does.
The Empress's laugh is low. "That's no way to live." Unarmed, she impulsively reaches for the gladiator's sword-and her fingers encounter not the hilt but the protective mantle of Gabrielle's rough knuckles and her unyielding, disapproving frown. Under different circumstances she would have savored both the physical contact and the delicious stubbornness for a longer period of time. She raises an eyebrow.
Gabrielle relents. Her hand falls away.
Xena seizes the blade with a roll of her eyes. "I'll give it back. All right?" At a careful distance, she uses the tip of the gladius to slice through the decorative twine and pry open the lid of the box. Loosened, she flips the lid and it clatters onto the table. When an asp, a scorpion, or a similarly poisonous and deadly creature fails to spring out of the open box, she steps closer, eclipsing Gabrielle's view. "Okay." And closer. "So far so good."
The muscled knot in between Gabrielle's shoulder blades loosens imperceptibly. Until Xena gasps. The noise is so startling, so feminine, so uncharacteristic of the normally unflappable Empress that Gabrielle's instincts are undermined by genuine surprise and before she can even contemplate moving toward the box, her own sword barricades the way.
"Don't." Xena's shoulders heave, as if her ragged breaths were forcibly pulled from her chest.
"It's his head."
"Who?" Gabrielle whispers. When Xena fails to respond, the gladiator angles for a view of the box and catches a glint of wheat blond hair rising just above the edge, the short, ragged tufts cropped close to the head, all of it quickly, nauseatingly familiar: Pompey.
Xena hisses. "Sonofabitch."
Before Gabrielle can ask why the Empress is defaming the dead, a breeze tickles her face. She realizes, of course, that Xena was not referring to Pompey, and that Xena-armed, enraged, and alone-is gone. Once again, the Empress has caught her flatfooted and unaware. Not to mention, she has a head start. And longer legs.
Roman soldiers are posted along the halls near their quarters like breadcrumbs leading back across the Mediterranean to their home, but it is only Pullo who dares to stop her, who just manages to snag her arm before she dashes by him. "What's wrong?"
"Did you see her?" she demands breathlessly.
"Who? The Empress? No."
"She's on the move, Pullo."
"What the fuck happened?"
Explaining would take too long, so she opts to frame it in his language. "She's in a shit mood. A really shit mood."
Pullo groans. "But what-"
"She's heading for Ptolemy. We have to find her. Now."
He nods, and beckons the other soldiers to follow. "North side. The other hallway."
Naturally, the sight of Roman soldiers running through the royal halls are enough to alarm the Egyptian guards they encounter, but the resultant skirmishes are short-lived, and one wounded guard unwillingly surrenders to the gladiator a new sword. When finally they arrive outside Ptolemy's private rooms, there are Egyptian soldiers pounding furiously upon barricaded doors so ornate and gilded that their fists are bloodied in encounters with precious jewels, elaborate bas-reliefs, and finely sculpted, inanimate flowers. One large Egyptian-who Gabrielle identifies as Ptolemy's personal guard-lies dead at the feet of his comrades, the limp, unnatural position of his head indicating a quick, clean neck break.
With mesmerizing, teasing slowness, a door opens. Apprehensive, the Egyptians stare at the ever-widening sliver of the king's room; the Romans do similarly, all the while trying to watch the Egyptians as well. When the door's creaky momentum stops, none of them are quite prepared for what they see. Cautious, they gather closer. Of all the tableaus Gabrielle envisioned-either the king slain by Xena's hand, or the Empress herself brutally slaughtered by a pack of guards-this is the most unlikely scenario of all, and yet a brilliantly staged reveal, a calculated risk only Xena would take: Sobbing hysterically but physically unharmed, the boy-king sprawls submissively at the Empress's feet.
Towering over him, Xena regards the boy with contemptuous pity. The gladiator's sword hangs loose in her grip. As Pullo barks "Stand aside!" to the stunned Egyptian guards-a few put up a fight, but mostly they yield and part noisily-she glances up and meets Gabrielle's eyes. If something has changed between them, Gabrielle is unsure of what precisely it is; paradoxically, the feeling of relief at seeing Xena alive and unharmed, which should make her feel better somehow, instead has produced an inexorable tightening within her chest. All she knows is that those blue eyes effortlessly find her-always, it seems, no matter where she is-and hold her, unwaveringly, with inscrutable expectations.
Carelessly the Empress nudges aside the weeping Ptolemy with a sandaled foot, and crosses the room. Holding the gladius by the blade, she offers it to Gabrielle hilt first. And even though Xena's gaze remains fixed upon her gladiator, she speaks loud enough for all to hear: "Find Cleopatra."
The ship, a modest galley with a crew handpicked by the Empress-all that can be spared during the current crisis-is ready to sail for the relative safety of Cyprus. The woman, Pompey's widow, stands on the dock. Among her class grief takes the form of numb rage, inexpressible and unyielding unless provoked.
Xena, of course, has always been the prefect provocateur. Although her intent in this instance is not provocation, but penitence. She knows Cornelia, the widow, holds her responsible for Pompey's demise. Xena accepts this because she herself feels similarly. It is one thing to kill a man with one's own hands; quite another to set into motion a concatenation of events that bring about an ignoble, senseless death. She walks the dock as if Cornelia is her executioner. Which she might just be. The widow's face is as a mask worn in a play-not necessarily a tragedy, but a comedy. The kind of aching, nihilistic comedy that, pondered too deeply, slices to the bone.
"The ship awaits you." Xena steels herself with a breath. "Cornelia, I-" She stops as the widow opens her mouth as if to speak. Instead, a gobbet of spits hits her face. While it isn't the first time, or even the most painful and insulting occurrence-that honor goes to her mother, who spat on her after Lyceus's funeral-Xena has always hoped that her current status in the world would prevent further such incidents. From her belt she removes a freshly sharpened dagger and offers it to Cornelia, hilt first. The widow's eyes alight in a wild, frightening way-a grim range of possibility clearly playing out in her mind. What am I doing?
Xena only hopes that if she takes the dagger she will aim badly and thrust weakly. Additionally she takes minor comfort in knowing that, despite her perfunctory pleas to the contrary, Pullo has already vowed to "kill the fucking old bitch" if Cornelia is successful in avenging her husband's death.
Xena swallows. "You have the right."
Immobile, Cornelia stares at the blade. She laughs sickeningly, which does not exactly hearten Xena, and takes the dagger. She runs a thumb along the blade, drawing blood on skin too fine and soft to handle a weapon. Then, with a limp toss, dispatches the dagger into the sea.
"If I have the right," the widow rasps her sibylline pronouncement, "then I condemn you to the worst fate possible: Live with it."
The sea wind billows the ship's sails. The Empress walks away.
At dusk, the flames of a distant fire peel away the encroaching darkness. From a parapet of the royal residence-by default, now her residence alone-Xena watches the fire. Her soldiers control the palace and the port. The rest of Alexandria, however, is disconsolate in the absence of their king and prone to troubles. Such as rioting and starting random fires. Why?
she wonders. When she brought the sniveling king to his knees-in a gesture that more or less relinquished his sovereignty over Alexandria and resulted in Ptolemy fleeing the palace-she had foolishly thought that her particular brand of order would set everything right. The grain shipments to Rome would proceed apace, which would detract attention from the sloppy execution of a consul and officer of the Empire and further defuse the political situation with the Optimates. Not that she-or anyone else in the city-would so easily forget Pompey. Yet until she could appoint a decent regent-namely, Cleopatra-there was nothing to do but rule the city with fairness and equanimity. Surely the Alexandrians would prefer a strong and just regent over a stupid and weak one.
In the open square below the palace, another skirmish breaks out between her Roman soldiers and the scattered remnants of Ptolemy's army.
She sighs. Any leader one has, no matter how weak or despotic, is preferable than a foreigner. It was what drove her out of Amphipolis-unable to bear the thought of her home controlled by a warlord, she fought back. And even though she won, she still lost everything. Ironically, she is now on the other side of it once again-the outsider, more reviled here than when she first set foot in Rome.
Standing beside her, Titus Pullo also watches the conflict below while two of the Praetorian guard loiter nervously behind him. Like the rank and file troops, the Praetorians had expected an exotic holiday in Alexandria-and not a civil war. In the square below a phalanx of Ptolemaic soldiers have renewed the flagging fight, and the Romans there are now outnumbered. "Too close for comfort, that." Pullo's hand curls possessively over the hilt of his gladius. "Should we go down?"
Xena shakes her head. "Not yet. What they possess in numbers, they lack in common sense. Ptolemy's army is a like a snake without a head."
Either disheartened or confused, Pullo frowns at the simile.
Thoughtfully Xena rubs her jaw. Something occurs to her. "Pullo."
"Where is-?" she trails off suggestively, raises an eyebrow for emphasis.
His mouth drops open.
"Lost her again, have you?"
"No," he retorts quickly, then more emphatically: "No."
"All right then, where in Zeus is-"
Pullo nods at the square. "Down there."
And there she is. Just enough evening light exists to reflect Gabrielle's blonde hair-as if the gladiator were the Pharos lighthouse in miniature-as she charges into the fray, armed with pike and gladius. Cannily she employs the pike as a staff, taking down as many men with possible with it; in a low, bold crouch she sweeps two men off their feet, sending them barreling into two more. Like a spoke in a wheel the pike glimmers in motion, smashing into heads and tripping feet before fatally lodging itself into one soldier, thus rendering it useless and abandoned. This whirlwind displays heartens the Romans, who fight harder and eventually disperse the remainder of their opponents until they are nothing but shadows swallowed into the dark breach of evening.
That Xena needs to remind herself to breathe is, she believes, not a good sign. Whether as observer or participant the excitement of a good fight is not a new sensation for her. She wants nothing more than to be down there, by the gladiator's side. Not surprising, she thinks; she always wants to be in the thick of it. A certain element, however, corrupts this pure exultation: Concern.
Pullo chortles in admiration. "If you had ten more like her, you wouldn't have to wait for troops from Pergamum."
"If I had ten more like her-" Xena breaks off abruptly to censor the remnant of her lascivious wish: I might be able to persuade one of them to sleep with me.
Instead she turns her frustration on the hapless Pullo. "Yes, that would be wonderful, but the truth of the matter is I only have one of her, and I would like to keep her intact and alive. She's far too valuable to waste on petty skirmishes with a bunch of half-assed Alexandrians that my mother could defeat with an artillery of crockery!"
During this ouburst Pullo's easy grin has slowly hardened into a professional mask.
"Go get her. Bring her back here."
"Empress!" Yet, he hesitates. "Will you be all right?"
"Go on. I'll be fine." Xena jerks her thumb toward the slab of Roman beef behind her. "I'm in good hands here with-what's your name?"
Bewildered and alarmed, the centurion blinks. "Gnaeus, Empress."
"Yeah, Gnaeus. Good old Gnaeus." She glares critically at him. "Why must you be named Gnaeus? Why must you have the same fucking praenomen
Even more alarmed, the centurion stammers helplessly, "I-"
"Never mind. Latin is a wretched tongue. All right, Gnaeus,
you're with me. And Pullo, you're with her. Go find her, keep an eye on her, since you do it so well."
Under this heaping of richly deserved scorn, Pullo retreats. For hours he scours the darkened streets before giving up in sheer exhaustion and returning to the palace to find her alone in her room, bloody and covered in soot-for after her initial battle she found two more street fights to win and a fire to quell-ravenously devouring a leg of lamb while rereading her beloved Cicero by candlelight. Despite his fiercest look, she merely blinks and chews.
His lips tremble with rage, he snarls a demand: "Well?"
"It was a busy night."
"That all you've got to fucking say?" Pullo shouts incredulously.
In payment of the trouble she's caused him, she decides to share an intimate, pressing concern, something she has not dared to speak aloud to anyone: "I'm getting a little tired of Cicero," she admits.
She first heard of the library at the banquet, just before the discovery of Ptolemy's unfortunate gift, in a scrap of conversation between a slurring satrap and his lovely female companion: "-has access to the greatest library known to man right here, and he wants to go to Pergamum to study!"
"Clearly," the woman responded, "he wants to get away from you."
At this point the remainder of the exchange was lost to Gabrielle as she heard the young king loudly refer to Xena as a hag. She had glared at the foolish boy before retreating, quietly exultant, into a fantasia about finding the city's library and even entering it-over the bodies of skewered librarians, perhaps. She knew her type-a slave, a woman, a dirty, bloody-handed foreigner-would not be granted entry. On her first day in Rome so many years ago, stumbling barefoot and chained through mud, she had passed a temple with a courtyard filled with men-young and old, fit and fat, bearded and baby-faced-all reading, exchanging, and discussing scrolls. Her attempt at discreet gawking stopped when one of the slavers slammed a staff into her back and sent her sprawling into the muck.
But the glimpse of this idyll, this Elysium so close at hand, remained indelible in her mind. When it did not torture her with the seeming injustice of a lofty world so distinctly perfect from her own, it tantalized her with proximity: All the knowledge of the known world at one's fingertips. Perhaps then she would finally understand the tired old conundrum of her life, why it had played out the way it did, and why she dreamed so vividly sometimes of a life oddly parallel to this one. And why, sometimes, the Empress featured in those dreams.
On her majesty's secret septic system
They're titans, she thinks. Or giants. They might be giants.
They guard the entrance to the magnificent library, a long temple of stone and brick, with a terracotta roof bright in the sun; on overcast days the roof is the shade of dried blood. Some seek relief from the heat in the stagnant water of a fountain cosseted by the stolid wings of the library to create an open, airy square.
First she attempts a diversion. She pays a limber beggar to cause trouble outside. The beggar rants and scares people-while stripping his rags and pissing into the fountain-so that the guards come charging outside. As the beggar engages them in a prolonged reel around the fountain, she slips into the library and, breathlessly indecisive and overwhelmed by the cool dark beauty of the sacred hall, stands gawking in abject wonder. The shadow of Serapis looms in flight across the wall, away from the gathering of candles at the altar. An elderly man in a robe appears and, at mere sight of her, shrieks, which garners the attention of yet another behemoth guard, who snares and smothers her against him like an overeager child with a kitten and laces his arm-thicker than her thigh-around her neck. Instinctively she clutches at the arm crushing her windpipe. Clearly underestimated the guard situation.
Always, this was Iolaus's advice in these situations: Be slippery, like an eel. Except that for once she allows her emotions full reign and struggles wildly, because the prize here, the library, seems greater than survival in the ring. Before he can choke her to death, however, the guard lobs her out of the building, as if she were nothing more than a ball in a game of episkyros.
She hits the ground tumbling, garnering a shroud of dust along the way, before rolling to a stop near the fountain. She lies there for a while. The beggar whom she had bribed earlier looks down at her pityingly. It has come to this, she thinks. Rubbing her neck, she sits up and stares a hole in the door that is perpetually closed to her. She is still sitting on the ground when the Empress and a handful of Praetorian guards, including Pullo, discover her.
To her credit, Xena is amused. "Should've known you'd be here." She offers an arm to Gabrielle, who latches on and hauls herself up.
"Why aren't you in the palace?" Gabrielle blurts.
"Got bored. Besides, the longer I stay barricaded like a prisoner, the more the people will think of me as weak and afraid. I need to start acting like a ruler and not a hostage."
The gladiator brushes dust off her tunic. "Pothinus is still on the loose." She gently reminds the Empress of Ptolemy's scheming eunuch. The former king himself had been discovered dead, drowned in Lake Mareotis, days ago.
"I know. But without his king, he's powerless. Still, he might seek out Cleopatra and ally himself with her. Which is why it's important we find her as soon as possible." The Empress takes a long, admiring look at the building. "Been a long time since I was here last."
"You were in the library?" Gabrielle realizes her mouth is hanging open. She closes it, only to open it once again: "I thought they didn't allow women-"
"Oh, it wasn't the library proper. There's a mithraeum underneath the building. Where I had my initiation." At the curious expressions of both Gabrielle and Pullo-who has stopped cleaning his nails with a knife and who, like many soldiers, respects the cult of Mithras beyond words-she tantalizes further: "Had to wrestle a bull naked, slit its throat, drain the blood, and then they put me in this pit and dumped the blood on me. Good times."
Pullo wonder if a declaration of love would be untoward. Wisely, he holds to silence.
Rubbing her jaw, Xena once again glances at the building. "Obviously they still have the giants guarding the place-otherwise you would have gotten in." The Empress then does something curious. As if looking for something, she paces the ground. Finally, she finds what she wants: a large stone that fits perfectly in her hand. "Pullo, get one of those overgrown idiots out here."
Pullo swaggers to the door, heaves it open, and bellows: "Oi! Fat ass! A word, please!" He is nearly bowled over as an angry giant-guard rushes outside.
It happens so quickly that Gabrielle cannot appreciate the perfect form of the throw: The set, the spin, the torque of Xena's long arm as she sends the stone through the air, striking the guard right between the eyes. Blood blossoms upon his face and he collapses, dead, with nary a sound but the thunder of his fall.
"Well!" Xena releases a satisfactory sigh. "That should send a message."
As Pullo cautiously circles the giant, looking for signs of life, Gabrielle can only gape in astonishment at the Empress.
"Giants have a weak spot," Xena explains. She taps a spot above the bridge of her nose. "Here. You hit 'em there, they're as good as dead. Guess you never faced a giant in the ring, eh? Good thing. Now listen." Xena rubs her hands excitedly. "Here's the plan. We're going to tell the librarian that you're my personal scribe, and that you require unlimited access to the library in order to research-Babylonian systems of waste disposal for a royally sanctioned citywide improvement project. Okay?" The Empress interprets Gabrielle's alarmed befuddlement as complete complicity. "Excellent. Let's go. Pullo, will you have the giant taken away?"
Pullo scrunches his nose. "Where?"
"You'll figure it out," Xena retorts. They push open the great doors and a gust of cool air welcomes them.
Gabrielle thinks of the poor, thin elderly man she encountered earlier, and apprehensively asks, "You're not going to kill the librarian too, are you?"
"Not planning on it. Somehow I suspect he'd be harder to kill than the giant."
A little light reading
She does not know where to begin. Row and rows of racks, piled with scrolls, as far as the eye can see-how are they organized? By author or subject? Why are some encased in leather or linen and others not? And why was the ancient librarian hovering so close to her, nervous and nebulous within the voluminous folds of his robe? She knows why. But the old man is not so uncomfortable that he is beyond sarcasm: "I suppose," he murmurs archly through pursed lips, and while casting another look at her muscular, scantily clad body, "you want to read Sappho."
Gabrielle pries her gaze away from the scrolls. "Who?"
The librarian's long, bony, tinder-like fingers splay melodramatically alongside his temples. "The gods guide me. You are even more primitive than I imagined."
As Gabrielle had suspected this wizened old man, whom she had encountered on her first entry into the library, was indeed the head librarian. His name is Apollonius. To his credit, he held up well during the Empress's unexpected visit-even though she had killed his favorite guard-and where he was coolly informed that he had no choice but to allow some dusty, unkempt barbarian woman to wander freely within the great, sacred library. The gladiator could tell that he did not for a moment believe the story about Babylonian septic systems; but one did not grow as old as he, let alone ascend to a position of substantial power, by being unduly, foolishly acquiescent to arbitrary rules.
Apollonius shuffles through the maze of library, a morose minotaur pursued by a curious Theseus. "I wish you would wear a robe. It's only proper."
It's hot. But she realizes he could be far less accommodating to her. "Of course. I'll wear one next time."
He grunts and stops abruptly. "Ah. Here we are." He rummages through a rack, sending scrolls bounding to the floor. Alarmed, and quietly appalled at such careless treatment, Gabrielle gathers them together and cradles them in her arms as if they comprise a parchment-bound infant.
"Personally," Apollonius says while squinting at scrolls here and there, "I think she's overrated. Erotic gymnastics. Badgering Aphrodite over the love of some cow-eyed shepherdess or whatever. But gods above, she is popular. That's why we have nearly fifty copies of everything she's written!" He swaps the bundle in Gabrielle's arms for a new bundle, presumably of the too-popular, overrated poet. "Take them-to the palace, if you like. I'm not worried about them. As I said, we have so many copies. Now." Apollonius sighs. "What's next?" His long fingers drum thoughtfully against his lips. He regards the gladiator as if she were a project-something to be fixed, not unlike the wobbly shelves that house the rhetoric scrolls.
Then all the names, untapped in Gabrielle's mind yet retained and catalogued through years of eavesdropped conversations involving Cato's intellectual cronies during dinner parties and partially read scrolls provided her by Cato's eldest daughter, all of them, like reinforcements during a battle, diligently reappear in the forefront of her consciousness. "Anaxagoras. Strabo's Histories
. Protagoras's On the Original State of Things.
Pliny the Elder, particularly his work on rhetoric-" she stops to take a breath.
Apollonius pauses. "Well," he finally admits, "perhaps you are not completely hopeless."
Making an entrance with her usual flair
In the weeks that follow Gabrielle falls into what she easily considers the happiest, most satisfying routine of her life thus far: Mornings spent in the library, afternoons divided into reading at the palace whatever scrolls Apollonius will allow her to borrow and attending the Empress as needed. Sometimes in the evening she prowls through the palace and its grounds, anticipating trouble-yearning for it, actually, because even though her mind is now stimulated well beyond its usual humble expectations, her blood still sings for fighting.
In the Empress's vast suite she sits in the perch of a window, periodically scanning for activity in the courtyard and beyond. Satisfied for the moment, she turns her attention back to Strabo's Histories. She is reading it out of order because Apollonius has misplaced the earlier volumes. No matter. She immerses herself in Strabo's journey to the Kingdom of Kush.
Until Xena bursts into the room, accompanied by the usual foul mood that has percolated during a day of nothing but listening to and resolving complaints from the citizenry. She had wanted to appear as a "regular ruler" to the Alexandrians and, unfortunately, her wish has been granted at least in part, for the common folk have no qualms about petitioning the Empress about broken viaducts, the paternity of a slave's baby, or stolen goats. In a concession to protocol she dresses in the usual finery of an Egyptian royal, including the thick, braided wig of stiff, banged black hair threaded with gold. Once the door closes, however, she wrenches the damnable wig off her head, curses the Egyptians and their rituals and their styles and the invisible, missing Cleopatra, who is the standard-bearer of said style. She tosses the wig at a slave, who fumbles the catch. The other attendants circle her like prey, scavengers to pick at a bracelet or knotted silk, devourers of every anticipated wish. "Leave," she commands.
The attendants take flight. Following suit, Gabrielle marshals together her scrolls, ready to retreat to the sanctuary of her tiny room. One scroll escapes and bounces teasingly across the floor.
Xena fixes her with a glare. "Not you."
Gabrielle sits, but doesn't dare read.
"Why is it running Alexandria is as tedious as running Rome?" she muses aloud. "Don't answer that." Xena bends and yanks a painful-looking pair of sandals from her feet. "Zeus. If anything, they are even more pathetic than Romans-more whiny, if that's possible, complaining about the most ridiculous-" Xena stops abruptly. "Damn it." She runs a hand through her sweaty, limp hair. Stands stock still. "Why-? What am I doing?"
Ignoring the rhetorical question, Gabrielle stares longingly at Strabo. When she glances up again the Empress is stripping away her ceremonial dress. What are you doing? You are taking off your clothes in front of me.
As a slave, she was more than accustomed to states of undress among everyone, male and female, in the average Roman household; she had even seen more of Cato than she would have liked. So she has no idea why seeing this particular woman fully naked is so-unnerving.
Particularly when Xena is so casual about it. "Tell me what you're reading." The Empress quickly runs a brush through her hair. While naked.
Scars. I am reading scars.
Xena has a few, nothing major, save a long one along her torso-Gabrielle can tell that the wound had been cauterized and not stitched-and some smaller ones on her right leg, the pattern suggesting several blows from a mace. Suddenly these scars are as fascinating as the scrolls at her feet. Most striking, however, is something inorganic: A thin, gold chain circling her waist. Gabrielle realizes the Empress awaits a response from her and tries to say "Strabo" but instead makes an awkward squawking noise, like a baby bird demanding food.
Xena looks intrigued, as if the gladiator is attempting to converse with her in a new language. "What?"
"Chain," Gabrielle manages to say. "The chain you're wearing. It's very-beautiful." That burning sensation across her face-was she ill again?
"It's a chastity belt."
"You're supposed to laugh. It's a joke."
"Oh." She doesn't laugh.
"If I were relying on you to be some toady or a yes-man, gladiator, I would have to execute you." Xena sighs and puts on a robe. "Come with me. I'm going to the baths."
"I've already bathed today." Displeased, Gabrielle frowns. "Do I smell?"
Xena gives her an exasperated look.
"Oh!" Quickly, the gladiator trades scroll for sword.
In the bath, the comfort of tepid water surrounds the Empress. Before entering the marbled pool, however, Xena had removed the chain-frowning as it slinked around her fist, realizing how tired she was of it, and what it represented. She is glad the taciturn gladiator has not pursued a line of questioning regarding the chain. It is indeed a "chastity belt," another one of Caesar's curious, joking gifts, given to her on their wedding night. I know you won't play the dull Roman matron. I know you won't be faithful. And I won't either. And that's exactly what I want.
This said as he had draped the chain, cool against her sweaty skin, and kissed a path down her back. She had laughed with him about it, professed relief that he was so enlightened, even though he seemed more than a little self-congratulatory about it all. It was only in the milky haze of morning that she quietly bristled at the gift, at the assumption that she was, at least to him, not worthy of that expectation of exclusivity, that struggle toward fidelity. As far as he was concerned, the only necessary fidelity she should possess was toward Rome, and apparently her existence as an aimless pirate without a home had thoroughly convinced him she was incapable of any kind of loyalty except the kind that generated power and privilege.
She ducks under the water. When she emerges, the gladiator is kneeling at the edge of the pool, expectantly nymphlike, and it creates an odd, abrupt intimacy between them. For Gabrielle is close enough that the strange, shifting colors of her eyes, like a mosaic bearing witness to the day's passing moods and light, are almost inescapable. In a bid to regain her equilibrium Xena momentarily focuses on the gladiator's sandaled foot, her muscled calf, the smattering of scars on her kneecap resembling a school of silverfish, before meeting Gabrielle's gaze again. "Yes?"
"There are two Egyptians-Pullo says they're former soldiers from Ptolemy's army-requesting an audience with you now. They come bearing a gift."
Xena laughs mirthlessly and props her head on damp forearms. "Like that worked out so well last time." The slight smile that Gabrielle offers her, she thinks, will be worth whatever the troublesome gift is.
An hour later, dressed and with her hair still irritatingly damp against her neck, Xena watches dourly as the two Egyptians stumble into her antechamber, awkwardly lugging between them a shabby rolled-up carpet. The former soldiers look no better than the rug: Their uniforms are dirty and tattered, their dusty, broken sandals slap loudly against the marble floor as they approach.
Critically Xena looks at the lumpy carpet, wonders if this time they decided to go with an asp-an army of asps: "You're kidding me, right?"
"Empress," one of soldiers begins in a low, unctuous tone. "We beg you, please, do not be fooled by the humble appearance of this gift. For what it holds is indeed priceless."
The Empress pinches the bridge of her nose. "Let me say right now-if Pompey's body is in there, I will kill you both on the spot."
Both soldiers shake their heads vigorously. Xena glances at the gladiator, who stands in that liquid, deceptively relaxed yet carefully poised fashion of hers, like a cat ready to pounce. "All right, boys. Let's see what you have."
The carpet unfurls and out falls a woman. Cleopatra, of course. The Egyptian queen's first act upon liberation from the musty old rug into the sanctuary of the royal palace is to sneeze several times. "Horrible mode of transit," she mutters to no one in particular.
Xena studies the queen: Small, even shorter than the gladiator, slender yet appealingly curvaceous, bronze skin, face dominated by large nose and thin lips-but also possessing arresting golden eyes that defiantly assess the Empress, this trespasser upon Ptolemaic lands, this guest posing as mistress of the palace. Attractive, Xena thinks, but not the magnificent creature the scribes rave about. Xena pours wine into a cup, hesitates, then pours more into another cup. "Good trick." She toasts Cleopatra. "It dates back to Dido of Carthage. They say she used it to seduce a Tyrian king. Aeneas, of course, received a more straightforward treatment-Romans are usually perplexed by elaborate mating rituals."
"And you would know, wouldn't you?" Cleopatra parries, and then pauses to ensure that her response is not interpreted hostilely. She laughs softly. "Well. I was warned you would not be easily impressed." Waving off assistance from her soldiers, she stands. "But you are no Roman, Xena of Amphipolis."
"True." Xena hands a cup of wine to the queen and with that simple gesture begins the dance, the delicious ritual marked with the familiar burn of pursuit-and yet this time the pleasure is diminished by the fact that Gabrielle bears witness to this predatory part of her in action. "Are you disappointed I'm not Caesar? Or Antony?"
Cleopatra stares into the cup. "They are legendary." Looking up at Xena, she unleashes a smile so unexpectedly dazzling that her reputation as a great beauty is now breathtakingly confirmed. "And so are you."
It's an easy compliment, all part of the game-rather, its opening ceremonies. And as competitors in any sport, the two royals are oblivious to the anxious boredom of Cleopatra's attendants, who single-mindedly focus on the possibility of getting their first real meal in weeks, and to the bemusement of Xena's gladiator, who rolls her eyes at this seemingly ridiculous display and wonders at how great and transcendent beauty actually is when it is nothing more than a machination in pursuit of power.
PART XIStay gold
The rose petals are familiar; the triumph this time, strangely hollow.
This morning in Alexandria-cool and subdued, like a sea after an exhausting storm- the winds predict a change of season. These winds, unnamed to outsiders, seem apropos for a change in ruler: For it was only yesterday that Cleopatra sat alone on the Ptolemaic throne for the first time. The orator at the coronation, one Ptahhotep, spoke of a new age, a silver age-at least until he caught the glinting, critical eye of the Empress and hastily upgraded this to a golden age.
Were Xena's own years in Rome falsely gilded as well? Years ago, her whirlwind encounter with Caesar culminated in a golden laurel upon her head, rose petals in her cleavage, a never-ending triumph, a wine-soaked debauch of a banquet, a chain around her waist, and a new beginning. Even if she began her reign as Empress with a skull-crushing hangover and blissfully ignorant about what exactly transpired with that daughter of a Dalmatian diplomat in bed with her and her new husband that morning. It's different this time. For one thing, it's not her triumph. The machinations are hers, yes, the strategies successful: Grain will go to Rome, Pompey will be remembered as a great man sacrificed in a time of crisis, and Egypt will have a beautiful new queen and significantly improved relations with the Empire.
Xena sits, facing the wide window of the bedchamber. Clouds skim the sky. Hours earlier the rumblings of a rainstorm woke her, a damp wind whipped through the room. Clutching at a robe she had staggered out of bed, grabbed a cup filled with the last of the good wine, and flopped into a padded chair to watch the storm's entertainment-threads of lightning stitching the sky, the driving rain revealed in brief moments of illumination. Mission accomplished, she had thought. Time to go. At daybreak she had drifted back into sleep briefly only to wake at clatter in the courtyard below-perhaps merchants heading to market, something dropped from a cart-and still stalled at the same strangely disheartening conclusion: Time to go.
She swirls the dregs of the wine.
Since her arrival in Alexandria months ago, however, she hasn't a word from anyone-Caesar, Antony, not even a reproach from the Senate about Pompey, and the Senate did so love to excoriate her-no missives have landed on her desk, a niggling fact that contributes heavily to her sense of unease. Although Antony, not much of a letter-writer, would only be motivated to correspondence by bad news. And Caesar? Do I really miss my husband's odd, self-centered ramblings?
The shrouded body in Xena's bed groans, stirs, and sighs.
And then there is Cleopatra. Intimate relations with the queen possessed the tenor of closing negotiations, as if the careful mutual possession of one another's body were a cultural exchange, the establishment of a satrapy upon hospitable yet foreign lands. In other words, pleasantly educational yet devoid of passion. "That was nice!" Cleopatra had exclaimed after the first time they slept together, as if they had just promenaded seaside on a beautiful day. Xena had certainly heard far worse things about her bedroom performances-you seem more aroused by yourself than by me,
someone, probably Quintus Fabian's scurrilous wife, had complained-but nice
had the dull ring of a dutiful suitor, someone she neither wanted nor wanted to be. However unrealistic the expectation, what she had wanted, what she had hoped to get from Cleopatra, was a purity of passion.
As she rises from the bed the first thing Cleopatra reaches for is not a robe, but a cup of wine abandoned the night before. Few members of royalty display such confidence in the nude, thinks Xena. But-her appreciative glance glides over the perfectly proportioned pulchritude of the Egyptian queen, the subtle planes and curves of her breasts, her belly, her thighs, the warm brown tint of her skin-how many queens and kings would have a body like that?
The new ruler of Alexandria drinks deeply from the cup. "Thought I had worn you out."
Amused, Xena purses her lips. "You think highly of yourself."
"Oh, I forgot. You are Xena the Insatiable, the Empress of the Erotic. A legion of lovers borne aloft on the strength of your reputation precedes you." The enchanting smile that so beguiled Xena the first time they met is offered on cue. "So tell me, what would wear you out? An orgy?"
"Probably a certain combination of top-notch courtesans, horny sailors, good wine-" And gladiators? Or just one in particular? The mysterious little gladiator now spends her days in thrall to the library and the cunning old librarian, Apollonius, who had petitioned to have the gladiator replace the giant guard whom Xena had so thoughtlessly killed months ago. (The late lamented behemoth was now buried under a pyramid courtesy of Pullo, who had been quite proud of his idea: "They'll never find 'im now!")
"All things you could find in Alexandria," Cleopatra offers, before staring dismally into her cup. "Except, perhaps, good wine."
"For all my, ah, limitations and disappointments, I am heartened that at the very least I amuse you."
"Forgive me." Xena says it with perfunctory haste while nodding at gray skies. "My mood matches the weather."
"No offense taken. Alexandria's winter is rougher than one imagines." Xena hears her careful nimble tread across the marble, feels her delicate fingers at play along a silky seam of Xena's robe. "Is something troubling you?"
"Omne animal post coitum triste,"
the Empress murmurs. "Do you know that saying?"
"It's all Latin to me, dear."
"'All animals are sad after sex.' I think that same sadness occurs after ceremonies, celebrations, triumphs-the inevitable comedown after scaling such great heights, don't you think? All the promises made-one wonders if they will come to fruition."
"I think you've spent too much time among the Romans." The wry retort is an unlikely yet effective prelude to Cleopatra straddling Xena's lap and lacing her arms around Xena's neck-like an albatross, the latter thinks unkindly, as dread and desire, a bitter familiar alchemy, commingle within her. "Actually, no," the queen continues, "let me amend that: I never know what you are really thinking. Or saying for that matter." Carefully Cleopatra regards her, monitoring the effect of this unusually frank admission, a dramatic departure from the politesse and rhetoric that adumbrates every single conversation they've ever had.
Then Cleopatra touches her lips-tracing for truth or demanding desire, Xena is not sure which-and Xena claims an index finger with her mouth. Her tongue touches the tip of the finger, and Cleopatra's eyes respond with simultaneous eclipses of both irises. "Is there something in particular you wish to know?" Xena growls around the finger in her mouth.
Reluctantly Cleopatra removes her finger from Xena's mouth. "Yes. A very simple question, really: Now what?"
"I have more or less achieved what I set out to do here. So there is only one thing left to do: Return to Rome." Xena presses her face against the queen's throat; her lips brush an undulating tendon.
Cleopatra hisses at the contact. "That is-all well and good for you, but for Alexandria?"
Debriefings during foreplay: for Xena, not an unusual occurrence. "There are troops coming from Pergamum. They will be under the command of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus-a good leader, a bit unimaginative, but he knows how to take orders and how to give them. A temporary measure, of course, until your base of power is fully stabilized."
"Good." The trail of smugness across Cleopatra's countenance disappears as she kisses her benefactor. "Now, will you permit me the opportunity to sadden you once more? I promise this time that the heights we achieve will be well worth the descent."
"Go on." Xena settles back into the chair, which encourages the parting of her robe. "Impress me."
The first graphic novel
In her time as a gladiator, Gabrielle has been struck with any number of blunt instruments, everything from a mace to an oar, and cut or stabbed by an impressive variety of knives and swords, but there is no weapon she fears and despises more than the whip. The whip, the stylus that inscribed the introduction to slavery on her back, provided a foretaste of a kind of pain and humiliation she had never before experienced. The particular pain of a whip was excruciating as well: A sting blossoming languidly into deeper, sharper pain, not unlike a blade buried slowly into the skin.
So when the library's latest thief, his stolen treasures slung in a saddlebag across his back, brandishes a whip that licks painfully, mockingly, around Gabrielle's wrist as she reaches for a sword, the enlightened world she has inhabited for the past several months collapses dramatically under rekindled rage. He's quick with the whip, but not quick enough to avoid her grasp. It bites into her skin again as she grabs it and reels him in for a crippling kick. She is on him then, beating him senseless with bare fists until her knuckles are flayed, until Apollonius is bellowing-his thin, quivering voice surprisingly loud and robust-for her to stop. Please. Stop.
Later, in tiny alcove that all the scholars and librarians now recognize as hers alone, she awkwardly bandages her hands-the left more damaged than the right, because she did not want to waste her dominant fist on the thief-the reeking salve retrieving the memory of the Empress neatly bandaging a similar wound for her while asking so many disturbingly lucid questions. How long ago was that? The Empress had given her special dispensation to work and dwell in library, and she has taken generous advantage of this gift; the disadvantage, however, is that she rarely sees Xena these days. The ceaseless preparations for Cleopatra's coronation and the tedious renegotiations of the satrapy meant that the Empress was never away from either Cleopatra or the palace for long.
She tightens the bandage and wonders if they are in love. She wonders if Cleopatra is capable of love; in the Egyptian queen she recognizes aspects of herself-the woman is a consummate survivor. Every action a beautiful, confidant risk. Xena, on the other hand, is inscrutable as usual. In her recent observations and interactions with the Empress, Gabrielle detected no major differences in her behavior, but admittedly Gabrielle is an expert neither on love nor Xena. All she will admit to herself, however, is that she misses that unexpected companionship, that inexplicable kindness. All the more disappointing now that it was gone. Apollonius, she thinks, will have to do. She winces. The old man was clearly displeased with her, and rightfully so. Time to make amends.
She finds him in a common room, at a table with piles of uncatalogued scrolls and bossing around Damianos, one of his assistants. "No, these go into cases. They're originals, very old and fragile yet of supreme importance-not unlike me, Damianos. And these are but pale imitations." He glares at Damianos, thus finishing the analogy. "Go purchase the cases." As the minion scurries off, the librarian turns his withered mien to Gabrielle, settling a concerned glare on her hands. "You're still bleeding."
"It will stop soon."
"You're not touching a scroll until they've healed properly. I can't have you bleeding all over everything."
"All right." For an apology, she hopes meek acquiescence will do.
The librarian sighs. "You've done the law's work for them. Beaten as badly as he was, I doubt they'll do much more to him."
Gabrielle twitches. Looking down at her bandaged hands, she sees he is right-they are bleeding again, soft bright blots of ruby red permeating the linen. "I don't like whips."
Apollonius raises an eyebrow. "Who does?" Thoughtfully the old man rolls parchment in his hands. "But had I been standing there instead of you, I may have been cut to ribbons by that whip. You are who you are. For years you've been steeped in the language of violence-I suspect by now it's your native tongue. But you are more than capable of acquiring other ways of expressing yourself. I see that potential in you." Momentarily absorbed in the shuffle of scrolls around on table, as if it were a game of sorts, he startles her when he speaks again. "Have you read Sappho yet?"
The gladiator is half-amused, half-irritated. "For someone who dislikes Sappho, you're awfully fond of promoting her work."
"Eh. Perhaps I should petition her for a fee. But in your quest to acquire language, knowledge, ideas, you must be well-rounded, and I grudgingly concede she is vastly superior to her idiotic contemporaries." A quick smile graces his thin, long face. "You need some poetry in your life. Some-passion." The expression lingers, deepening into sweetened melancholy as his gaze drifts and focuses on a point no one else can see in the territory of the past. "The battle of the bedroom can be far more rewarding than you think."
Gabrielle rubs her neck, uncomfortably reminded of her father's randy mood in springtime: slapping her mother's behind and talking incessantly of stallions going to stud. Then she smiles begrudgingly. If that, she thinks, is the worst of what she remembers about her father, then all the better. Still, she needs no life lessons from the old librarian.
Hours later, as she digs through dull Livy with freshly bandaged hands, Damianos approaches her as a maiden would a wild horse. Among Apollonius's librarians he is the most timid-which means that he piques a certain sadism within the old man, who always chooses him for tasks of a bizarre nature or anything remotely outside his needle-thin comfort zone. Which meant anything remotely connected to Gabrielle: Indeed, Damianos is terrified of her. Not so long ago, in that life distinctly connected to and dominated by the ring, she relished engendering such raw fear in anyone. Now she feels a clenching of certain muscles in her stomach that somehow produce a throb of empathy rippling through her. That she still remembers what it's like to be terrified of anything is, perhaps, remarkable. As he stands, quietly trembling, a particularly thick scroll clutched in both hands as if it were a miniature staff and he would use it in feeble defense against her, Gabrielle consciously employs a softened tone: "What is it, Damianos?"
He clears his throat several times in such a phlegmatic fashion that her empathy is rapidly weakened, and croaks in a cracked voice: "Apollonius bid me to bring you-this-scroll-Sappho." He sits the scroll on the bench-an offering at the altar of the irrational gladiator-beast- and takes a generous step backward.
"Oh." Listlessly, like a child undecided about a new toy, Gabrielle pokes it; prosaic Livy has so worn away at her she cannot for the moment even imagine reading for pleasure. She reads because she must know. She has lost too much time. She must know why her life is the way it is.
Damianos clears his throat again, and she squelches the desire to slap him. "He says it is of special interest."
He dissolves into a fit of corrosive coughing before finally managing it: "It's-illustrated."
Together they stare at the scroll-she now befuddled, he still terrified. "Well." Gabrielle picks it up. "So what?" More of a rhetorical question than anything, but it sends Damianos scurrying out of the alcove. Sighing, she places it on the bench again, ignores it for another hour until she can bear Livy no further, and then finally allows idle curiosity to take over.
Apollonius had said Sappho was a lyric poet, but Gabrielle has no idea what that means. As far as illustrations went, she expects something simply decorative, like flowers and other flora. Fauna? Maybe a sheep? A rendering of Aphrodite? All she knows is that poetry is about nature or worshipping the gods. But the scroll unfurls and the first thing she sees is a beautifully rendered and rather explicit drawing of two women locked in erotic combat, limbs so utterly entwined it is impossible to tell where one body ends and another begins. It reminds Gabrielle of a tale related to her by a drunken mariner about a mythic sea creature of many fantastic limbs that destroyed his skiff and ate his cargo of dates and spices.
And yet somehow, as the days pass and the images grow familiarly fantastic to the point where, when she finally attends to the text, she discovers in the words of the poet something more potent and amazing, something she's never know before.
This, apparently, is passion.
The eunuch and the message
The messenger, a panting statue of sweat and dirt, stands erect as Xena holds the latest communiqué from Pergamum. Her thumbnail scrapes Lepidus's seal. Now what? On the pretext of awaiting more soldiers, Lepidus has already once delayed the legions to Alexandria. A month's time spirals into the void of the past; she grows dangerously bored of playing pseudo-consort and advisor to the queen.
She is about to pry open the missive when Pullo bursts into the suite. "They've found him. Pothinus."
Xena tucks the unread message into her cuirass. "Alive?"
"Just barely." Pullo shrugs. "Has a stomach wound that's gone septic. Ping says he won't last the night."
"Then that, I suppose, is that."
Pullo does not share her jocularity. "He wants to see you. He says he has information for you."
"There's nothing he could tell me that I don't already know. Ptolemy is dead, his loyalists nonexistent."
Eyes respectfully downcast, Pullo begins to recite: "The commandments of Mithras-"
"-condemn the wrongful or unfair treatment of defeated or dying enemies. I know."
"It's not good luck to ignore the request of a dying man, Empress."
"A dying eunuch, you mean."
She cannot bear the lout's disapproval and represses a sigh. For her Mithraism had been a means to power; an intangible proof of debatable meaning, and as such meant little to her. For Pullo the career soldier, however, it is a blood bond celebrated among those who fight-and now inclusive of her. "You're right, Pullo. Let's go."
In the cool damp labyrinth of the prison, once catacombs, Xena thinks she hallucinates when the torchlight brings into view the image of the gladiator standing outside Pothinus's cell. At first glance the gladiator shifts nervously, as if anticipating a less than benevolent welcome. "Did that old crow kick you out of the library? I'll have words with him-"
The torch is high enough to accentuate Gabrielle's quick, modest smile. "It's not necessary, Empress. My exile is only temporary. Pullo sent word that Pothinus was captured and-" She shrugs.
Suspiciously Xena purses her lips. "Did you kill someone?"
"No." Restless, Gabrielle rubs her hands against the front of her tunic. "Well-"
"I see." Xena's frown is prompted not so much by this admission, but the gladiator's curiously nervous state. Like a fish flopping in the air, a very simple question cannot exist within their complex relations and within these unstable environs. Solicitousness means weakness. It is not something she can risk in front of surly guards eager to seize upon any sign of the Empress actually acting like a woman. But the grim reason for their meeting clamps down upon her as Pullo, eager to see the end of the conniving eunuch, prompts, "Empress?"
Xena nods. The door yields against a guard's shoulder and unleashes the stench of blood and sepsis. The eunuch lies on a straw pallet dyed red with his blood, his eyes brightly glazed with pain and the determination that his very last act be one of vituperative, senseless rage. "Whore," he hisses.
The Empress steps closer to the dying man; she feels Gabrielle behind her, and a flickering backward glance captures the welcome sight of that calloused hand at rest upon a sword. "Pothinus, if I had good coin for every time I've been called that, I would own the world several times over."
"Forgive me. You are a vestal virgin who deigns to visit me out of the pure kindness of your heart."
"I'm told you have information for me. Say it."
"You think I am nothing-because I served Ptolemy." He laughs harshly, coughing blood that flecks his dry lips. "Then you-what does that make you? You served Caesar. You have no power except by proxy of spreading your legs. And you are gutless-you wanted Pompey dead, you were too cowardly to kill him. So I did your dirty work for you. Did you like that? Enjoyed the gift we gave you? I killed Pompey by my own hand. I told him before he died I would hack off his fucking head and that my king would give it to you. He was afraid at that. He begged for his life."
After so many months of stagnant regret, Xena finally gives into that darker force-the one she's always managed brilliantly, the one Caesar taught her to harness for the good of the Empire, the one compelled by hate and not mercy-and with the intent to crush the last bit of life out of him, her hand seizes his throat. The corded muscles underneath his clammy skin pulse desperately in an ever-weakening current until the soft utterance of her name shockingly severs this black connection.
Gabrielle says it again: "Xena."
Her grip slackens. Pothinus gags. More blood is coughed up; a crimson constellation maps the back of her hand. The room is hot, claustrophobic, and the gladiator's fingertips graze her bracer, gently requesting her attention with a clean-looking cloth.
"It's not worth it," the gladiator says softly.
Pothinus rebounds with one last effort. "No, it's not worth it, whore. My time has ended," he wheezes. "And yours-is shorter than you think."
With a deep, steadying breath, Xena wipes away stars of blood from her hand. "You've lived your life by halves, Pothinus: Half-man, half-oracle. Tell me what you mean to tell me, so I may let you die in peace."
Surprisingly, this provides some measure of peace to the eunuch. He closes his eyes in beatific surrender. When he opens them one final time, they appear devoid of pain and almost regretful. "Caesar is dead."
It seems such a fabrication, such an astonishing lie, that she laughs. Even as the faces of Pullo, Gabrielle, and Ping, the healer, grow pale. Could it be true? Could it explain the change she feels in the air, the profound sense of disconnect? She is Rome as much as her husband is. If he is gone, what is she now? And what is Rome? "You lie."
Pothinus's breathing grows labored. "If you do not-believe me, you will be surprised when the magister equitum
arrives at your door." He smiles wretchedly. "But if you find the medlar, then you will believe me."
He dies. The slender, somber Ping searches for a pulse, a heartbeat, and shakes his head.
Xena stares intently at the corpse. All present wait for her to say something. Instead, with a flutter of her cape, she is gone, striding through the door and disappearing down the dank hallway before anyone thinks to follow.
Gabrielle moves toward the door, and then hesitates. She yearns to follow, but in acknowledging this also recognizes the capricious emotions that drive such impulses. Despite the emergence of certain feelings, she possesses no clue how to express them, nor how burdensome they might appear to a woman who's just been informed, by a dying eunuch no less, that her husband, the most powerful man in the world, is dead, and who could quite easily find both solace and counsel concerning this as of yet unsubstantiated fact in the arms of the (supposedly) most beautiful woman in the world, and not a scarred, banged-up former gladiator and slave who swoons over Sappho. And then there is the mysterious matter of-
"A fucking medlar?" Pullo says aloud.
Departures and arrivals
The messenger is new: A lithe runner who will be stuck on a boat until Rome, but who will be arrow-swift on the roads leading to Marc Antony. He stiffens nervously as the Empress hands him the note, her blue eyes more fine and piercing than the most slender of needles. "Waste no time. You sail now."
He is about to protest that it's nearly evening; then realizes he'd rather die later, in Rome, than now. His only hesitation is bowing to Cleopatra, who enters as he leaves. The queen gives the backside of the fleet-footed youth an admiring glance before the slave closes the door, and she turns her attentions to Xena, who is unfurling a cipher. "Is everything all right?"
"Fine," Xena mutters. The message from Lepidus is placed next to the cipher. Her fingers run parallel to lines of text that waver slightly while proceeding with the linear rush of a river, the thick letters are stalwart ships, Trojan horses awaiting the dispensation of meaning, and she calmly awaits the moment when it all comes together, when the message will reveal itself.
Cleopatra's lovely voice, however, intrudes: "Is it true?"
Xena looks up sharply. "Is what true?"
The Egyptian queen regards her for a moment before continuing. "About Pothinus. That he's dead."
"Yes." Xena's gaze drops back to the task at hand.
Fascinated, Cleopatra watches Xena's elegant hand move along the lines of the long missive, her eyes flicker back and forth between parchments. "Aren't you going to write down the translation?"
Xena doesn't look up again. "I don't need to."
The queen's mouth falls open. She does not consider herself a stupid woman; the librarian Apollonius, who tutored her as a child, would vouchsafe her considerable intellect. Yet at every solitary, clandestine opportunity over the past months, she has attempted cracking this cipher with great vigor and concentration and has, each time, failed miserably. Not to mention Xena's familiarly with the language of Chin-which she speaks at times with her healer-and her fondness for hieroglyphics bitterly remind the Egyptian queen that the barbarian daughter of a common innkeeper is no fool. She sighs.
Then Xena rolls up both scrolls.
"Lepidus and his troops will arrive within a fortnight."
Xena's fingers bob and weave along the rolled-up parchment, as if it were a flute and she an acolyte of Pan; her expression remains unreadable. "He's bringing a guest."
Cleopatra sucks in a breath and wonders if, at last, she will get to meet the infamous Antony. "Dare I ask?"
"Dare away, Cleopatra. It's Marcus Junius Brutus."
The empire of medlars
Lake Mareotis, the brackish southern border of the city, bustles with activity at every moment of the morning. As such it's not the place where one would seek solitude for moments of reflection, unless one is an alchemist accustomed to transforming life's apparent dross into moments of gold. The modest Ping, the Empress's healer, would be loath to attribute to himself such powers. He no longer remembers the rural village or the destitute family from which he was taken; even now memories of life in the court of Lao Tzu grow distant. He does, however, recall the shock that rattled his pampered spine when the great ruler's wife, Lao Ma, informed him he had been gifted to a visiting emissary from their western ally-some wild, surly woman named Xena, who had just become the consort of the Roman Emperor and who, to his great dismay, was healthy as a horse.
Life with the Empress, however, has not turned out to be as barren as he had anticipated. He is granted unprecedented freedom of movement, and his considerable leisure time affords him many opportunities for study and enhancement of his art, and of the strange new world he finds himself in. He is fascinated by the landlocked, purple-hued lake with its strange fish, the plants he's never seen before; every morning takes him out beyond the crowds to the deserted eastern edges, the sluggish canals, the abandoned vineyards, the wreckages of unknown ships.
One gray morning, the lake lifeless as lead, compels him to go out even further in his long, flat-bottomed boat, navigating the calm waters with a barge pole toward the tributaries that lead to the seas. It is not uncommon to discover the wreckage of skiffs and other smaller boats. And, on occasion, the unfortunate occupants of these ruined vessels. But on this gray day the wrecked skiff he encounters looks like one from a Roman warship, and not far along the shore is the body of a Roman officer, dead for some months. Even allowing for the caprices and variables of deterioration, Ping is mystified by the object that bulges in the dead man's mouth.
It takes some patience to pry the object from the mouth-Ping begs the pardon of multiple Roman gods for mutilation of the dead-which turns out to be that most curious of fruits, the medlar. A medlar will rot before it is ripe; the wrinkled exterior envelops the sweet, slushy fruit within. Turning the medlar in his hands, Ping sees that the brown, withered rind holds no fruit but a crumpled ball of parchment. As he delicately extracts the parchment from the medlar, he recognizes the half-deteriorated seal upon the missive.
As does Xena, when Ping hand over the unread note to her hours later. The seal says enough, the seal confirms what Pothinus had said. She barely needs the cipher to read the brief note from Antony, which informs her that her husband of five years and the guarantor of her power, Gaius Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, is dead.
The inevitable embrace
At night, and despite disapproving looks from the girl, she waited for him. The crew were oblivious to the small changes in their captain's behavior-such as scanning the horizon more than usual while willing herself to near stillness, hopeful that the barely perceptible vibrato of her body functioned as a divination rod to lure him back-but unlike the crew, the girl, a stowaway named M'lila, never missed a trick.
She liked the girl. Xena had wondered if the teaching of pressure points would evolve into the teaching of other things, but her mysterious stowaway, skittishly shy as a feral colt, did not speak Greek. This in contrast Julius Caesar, the man who had been her not-so-reluctant captive-who spoke Greek with the fluency of a native, sat as poised as a spoiled cat upon pillows in her cabin, enticed her with his calmness, challenged her with epigrammatic pronouncements, provoked her most blatant seduction, and who, when the ransom was paid, promised both his return and, as if it were nothing but a bauble on a string, the known world. Which was his anyway-a smug declaration he had made at one point while they were in bed, because she liked talking about things like that in bed. They could discover and dominate new worlds, new lands together, he said. He had plans. And he saw something in her, something that no one else ever had: The potential to be a great leader.
It was not the first time a man she'd spent the night with departed the next morning, trailing behind bold promises much like bastard children: you were the best, my wife will never know, I'll pay back the 25 dinars I owe you. Of all the false offerings ever extended to her, Caesar's by far was the richest in potential; either glorious power or profound disappointment lay in wait. Experience to the contrary, she rather liked the odds.
When finally he returned to claim her-both the bright calm evening and the torches hung as orange-gold stars above his long ship favorable omens-she had no idea what to expect. Once on board her ship with his guards, he circled her with wary elegance; quickly she became his prey. She panicked. Beneath her the warped boards of the ship creaked and tilted precariously, finally pitching her toward the inevitable embrace. He kissed her and she felt the familiar, reassuring stirrings of desire amid the fear. His lips touched her brow. Well? he whispered.
Her fingers dug into his arm and as she struggled to find words, the wind flattened his cape to the contours of his body and a dagger glinted in moonlight behind him. Instinctively, she pulled him closer-but the dagger, encased in a guard's fat Roman fist, was meant for neither Caesar nor her. She knew even before turning around that the guard aimed for the girl, who was attempting desperate escape-the where and how as mysterious as the circumstances that led to this night. Perhaps the former slave thought of stealing one of the rowboats and sailing away quietly, perhaps she thought she could swim until she found land or another ship hospitable to stowaways, perhaps she just wanted a better place to hide. The girl had understood many things, Xena later thought sadly, but she did not understand the sea.
The dagger flew and, amid cries from the outraged crew, found its mark.
She doesn't remember the body falling from the mizzen deck, only cradling M'lila's head in her lap as she knelt on the main deck with Caesar beside her murmuring I'm sorry, so sorry, and two pairs of eyes pooled in the blackness of night-his in robust life, hers in senseless death. Xena nearly struck him. As if expecting it, he gripped her hand preemptively and the yoke of fate tightened even as she realized, too late, that everything in the world would eventually suffer his careless hand. Except his city. In death and beyond, she would have to live with the consequences.
The night commanded the sky. She watched her ship, her old life, blur into black.
Are you ready for this, Xena? he asked.
With the gentle utterance of her name, Cleopatra brings her back to the present.
Xena sits in her chambers-in front of the window again, empty wine cup in her hand, empty head attached to her neck, empty heart rattling in her chest. The Egyptian queen sits across from her, perfectly composed with hands in lap, in a pose of professional grieving. He wasn't your husband, Xena wants to say, but can't. She cannot lay claim on any kind of genuine grief because she feels nothing except an oppressive numbness laying sluggish claim to every nerve of her body.
Cleopatra tries to meet her gaze. "What can I do for you?"
Xena thrusts the cup toward her. "You can get me some more wine."
"Perhaps you've had enough."
"Perhaps you shouldn't tell me what my limitations are."
Cleopatra stiffens, but accepts the cup and fetches the wine. In the modest exchange of the cup, their fingers fail to touch. "So what happens now?"
"I wait for everything to come crashing down on me, I suppose."
"How long do you think he's been waiting for a message?"
"Too long." Any date on Antony's terse correspondence had been obliterated by time. Ping believed that the messenger had been dead for at least three months; the marshy dampness of where he met his end preserved the body remarkably well. Xena wonders if she should toast Pothinus for his posthumous triumph. Creating a potential civil war or, at the very least, a dangerous rift between her and Antony was one way of promoting Alexandria's independence. She knew Antony very well. He would interpret any lengthy, unusual silence from her, or anyone else for that matter, as a sign of danger, a threat to the Empire. He would be building up his troops in a strategic, coastal location. To protect himself. To protect Rome.
It only made sense, really.
Notes of frustration tighten Cleopatra's voice, like silk bunched within a fist-and unfurled unwisely with every speculation. "If you really think Antony will strike against you, why waste time sitting around? Why not prepare a strategy? Why not set sail immediately for Rome?"
Is Cleopatra's naiveté deliberate? Xena wonders. "Yes, I'll roll myself up in a rug. How does that sound?" Xena is done with sharing strategies; whom can she trust now? And Rome? "I've no idea what awaits me in Rome." Despite the wine's unappealing, bitter thickness, Xena drinks deeply from the cup. "It's foolish to proceed without knowing why Brutus is here. He will have information. And I'll need Lepidus's troops for backup."
Cleopatra raises an eyebrow-the closest she's ever come to a genuine expression of outrage. "I thought those troops were meant for the protection and fortification of Alexandria."
"The game changes all the time, my dear." Dismissive, she closes her eyes, hears Cleopatra's muffled sigh, the rustle of her dress, and the clink of her jewelry-glass beads dropped and echoing in a chamber within her mind. The heavy door opens and closes. After she is gone Xena opens her eyes once again. She finishes the cup of wine, has another one. The horizon outside her window is pacific; the nothingness of white sky. With a careful, composing breath she rises. She has half a drunken mind to find Pullo and spar with him. The men, she thinks, might be heartened by the sight of her sparring. As if it were just another day. Or perhaps they would be amused or pitied by the sight of their stumbling leader, wondering why she wasn't shorn and grieving like a good Roman matron.
She opens the door and finds Gabrielle standing outside. The mere sight of the gladiator is somehow defeat enough-even sober, how would I get past that beautiful blockade?-and she slumps in the doorway. "What are you doing here?" Xena slurs.
"Pullo told me to keep guard." Gabrielle stands erect, hand tucked behind her, head tilted proudly yet with eyes cast downward-a good soldier's stance, Xena thinks, which means the gladiator was about to be serious. She'd quite had enough of people being serious over the past few days, in fact she'd quite had enough of people altogether, but she never, ever wants to discourage this woman from speaking.
Even if she's doing nothing more than piling on cliché. "I am sorry for your loss," the gladiator blurts.
Xena blinks again before realizing she's talking about your husband, you fucking fool. Is it shock, still? The strange euphoria of guilty relief, his death confirmation of the void within her? Aphrodite. Did I love him? Did I ever love him? I petition you, answer me, for my heart is as unfathomable as a labyrinth.
Solemn as a priestess, Gabrielle keeps her eyes trained on an invisible point in the distance. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Same as Cleopatra, Xena thinks. Well, not exactly. "No. Thank you." She turns back to her chambers and then, just as quickly, spins around again. "There is, however, something I can do for you."
Concerned, the gladiator moves closer. "Yes?"
One more step and you'll have my wine-sour mouth on yours. "I can give you your freedom. In fact, I should have done it the moment I acquired you from Cato. I did have papers prepared-well, months ago, actually, but never found the time to-and now, it's ridiculous of me to have waited so long-" I am drowning. Help me.
"No, it's not," Gabrielle interrupts gently. "You have been very preoccupied." She blinks while silently-and critically-examining this new skein in the weave of her existence; the Fates were no more trustworthy than the fat, flashy merchants one found at market, selling beautiful bolts of colored silk that disintegrated and unraveled at the slightest tug.
"You look shocked."
"It's a little overwhelming."
"You were free once before. It'll come back to you."
"Yes." Gabrielle's face falls into its usual fierce, stubborn expression. "I suppose I should thank you."
Xena smiles-and would laugh but for the iron grip of widowhood's protocols. Was a smile alone too much? Her eyes scan the dark hallways; there are always shadow spies who can weave a world of lies based on the smallest of truths. But what was the truth here? "I suppose your mother never told you to thank someone after you've received a gift?"
"The gift of what was rightfully mine all along?" The mischievous glint of Gabrielle's eyes threatens her deadpan reserve.
"Touché," Xena replies, acutely aware that prior attempts at cheeky insubordination by others in her presence typically resulted in said individuals receiving either prison sentences or broken extremities. "Well." Suddenly her throat is painfully tight, and the unforeseen consequence hits her squarely: It is quite possible that she will never see the gladiator again. "Now that you are free-I suppose Apollonius and the library will lay full claim upon you."
Gabrielle stiffens and frowns petulantly. "Are you saying you no longer wish me in your service?"
And Xena almost laughs again in giddy relief. "You may do as you please, of course. But what have I done to gain such devotion?"
The gladiator ignores this. "I am happy with the assignation of my duties as they currently stand, with the way things are."
But-why? Xena leans against the cool wall, too tired to pursue the question, to examine what lies under the stagnant surface of conduct and rules, hidebound behaviors. Master and servant. Ruler and slave. It's different now: A freewoman stands before the empress of nothing. But she plays on-unable, for the time being, to imagine anything else. "Then your duties shall remain as such." She pauses. "But who knows how long I shall be here, how long things will remain as they are. At any rate I won't be running back to Rome soon. And the gods know there is no reason for you to return there. You must want to stay here, so close to your library-I mean, why leave?" With a drunkard's patience-as amused witness to the unraveling of time-she waits for Gabrielle to say something, to say anything, and so remains locked on those brilliant eyes that mingle the colors of transitional seasons, perfectly positioned on the spectrum between the green promise of spring and the ancient gold of autumn.
"Yes," Gabrielle finally says. "I am so close to everything."
A brief history of romance
Narrow labyrinths lead down to the port-streets filled with merchants and buyers, fishwives, blind beggars, noncommissioned soldiers formerly of Ptolemy's ragged army, many of them, save the blind ones, eyeing the woman in armor who furiously navigates their streets, none of them offering guidance when said woman stops dead on a sudden turn into a cul-de-sac.
Stonewalled by garbage and sleeping intransigents, Gabrielle's jaw tightens. Where was that damned brothel?
Not that she sought physical release. But Titus Pullo did-and does. Every week, same day, same time, the Captain of Xena's personal guard makes his usual visit to a brothel near the docks. One time she had accompanied him, stewing in nervous embarrassment outside before eventually falling asleep propped on a stool near the entrance, woken occasionally by drunken propositions and a rooster that continued to peck at her calf. What Gabrielle desires, not surprisingly, is knowledge. More specifically, the confirmation of a rumor floating insidiously around the library: that Xena had been challenged to a fight by a disgruntled centurion, and had accepted that challenge.
This time, however, awkward discomfort about the whorehouse does not deter her. She strides in, unchallenged by a guard-and finds herself deliciously calmed by the courtyard within: colorful stonework in pale reds and blues, the saturated green of the plants and trees, the susurrations of the fountain. Here in the middle of the day, the courtyard appears deserted except for one hetaera lounging on a stone bench. Upon sight of the gladiator she arises magnificently as, in legend, Venus does from the sea. Lush and voluptuous, her thin, opaque dress leaves little to the imagination. Full breasts and hips demand Gabrielle's attention and rattle her with an unfamiliar yet very simple sensation: Lust.
In turn, the hetaera frankly assesses her. "Well, this is a surprise." She brushes dark hair away from a beautiful, impassive face. "I didn't know the Romans were conscripting women these days."
Even though being mistaken for a Roman prompts a spasm of disgust, Gabrielle forces herself to look away from the woman's dark, hypnotizing eyes-Pullo told her once that certain high-end hetaeras knew how to place spells on their clients. She must not permit herself to be susceptible to such mischief. "I'm looking for someone."
"Not me, I suppose?" The hetaera touches her, tracing a vein down her forearm to a vulnerable destination-the inside of her wrist. Too long, she thinks, it has been too long since anyone has touched her with anything approaching tenderness.
There was a boy, of course, long ago: Perdicus, good-natured and kind. She loved to run her fingers through the fine dark of his hair while they lay together in the hayloft of his family's barn and he would listen tolerantly-his lips pursed in teasing affection-as she told him of all the places in the world she wanted to see someday. Perhaps they would even see them together. There was talk of betrothal but despite her father's traditional views, he thought her too young and wanted to wait another summer or two. But that fall saw the arrival of Cortese. She never knew what happened to Perdicus.
Then there was a girl-rather, a young woman, for Ephiny was a few years older than she. On a training exercise in the woods-she and other young Amazons were being taught how to track animals, including humans-they had stopped to rest. Sitting under a tree, bare shoulders touching. Gabrielle no longer remembers the details of yet another pedantic "way of the Amazons" lecture, only one of the sentences trailing in the wake of propaganda: -and sometimes women go with women, and it's all fine.
At that, Gabrielle grew bold. Do you?
Ephiny had laughed at that; loose blond curls touched her flushed cheeks. Sometimes. The kiss that followed lingered sweetly until Ephiny broke it off at the sound-unheard by Gabrielle-of a not-too-distant breaking branch and leapt to her feet while Gabrielle discovered new admiration for her slender, strong calves. Less than a year later their respective fates encapsulated that of the entire Amazon nation: Ephiny was dead, Gabrielle a slave.
The hetaera gently clasps her wrist. "You're a cute thing, I'll give you that."
"I know you're just saying that." Half-hearted and dizzy, Gabrielle tries to pull away. Her face burns, her skin tingles. Is the spell already in the works? A chemical transmitted by touch alone? Don't look at her!
"You're also a tough sell, little one." Then the woman smiles and everything changes-there is something of the Empress in the bountiful confidence of that grin, and finally Gabrielle tires of the fight against the growing, persistent reawakening of her body. At night she sleeps longer and deeper, sinking into a voluptuary's dreams-and yet almost happy to awaken at the sun's touch upon her face. Food tastes good-and when it doesn't, she actually has the nerve to be disappointed. The parchment under her hands satisfies as much as a sword. There is pleasure to be had in the world. There is pleasure to be had in this moment. She gives in.
The hetaera leads her through the courtyard, up the stairs and down a dim hall to a quiet, candlelit room. Once the initial awkwardness passes away, all clothing discarded, all requisite jokes about Sappho made, and basic technicalities mastered, the afternoon passes in a pleasurable blur. Afterward, while the hetaera talks of a fisherman she loves Gabrielle sleepily stares at the candle wax pooling on the bedside table and takes mental notes in hopes of pleasing future partners until, with the elegant softness of a cat's footfall, her eyelids flutter to a close.
The next thing she's aware of is the cock's crow, the saturated violet-blue of the Alexandrian dawn visible from the window, and the immediate, alarming thought that today Xena will fight a centurion thug named Basileos, risking her life simply because this meat-headed moron, presumably at the prompting of brother soldiers too clever and cowardly to do so themselves, challenged her.
Gabrielle leaps out of the bed. Grateful to find herself alone, she dresses quickly. But while frantically searching for her boots, the hetaera returns.
"Thought you'd never wake up." The woman yawns with accusatory elaborateness.
"I have to go." Gabrielle grabs her cuirass.
"Sure. Just don't forget-" The hetaera rubs together a thumb and two long fingers, then extends her empty hand, palm up.
The coin of the realm. Something she does not possess. Shuttling between the palace and the library, she has had no need of it; both the librarian and the Empress have provided for every material need. "Uh-"
The sensual goddess of the day and night before, who coaxed pleasure of out a body that Gabrielle had long thought of as nothing but a weapon, is now a tired, snarling-albeit still attractive-working woman out of patience. "Oh, come on. You're cute, but you're not that cute."
"And you kiss like a dead carp."
Irritated at this lack of politeness from those in the service industries -honestly, she wonders, shouldn't they be trained in dealing with these situations?-Gabrielle scowls. "There's no need to be churlish about it."
"Listen to you with the big words. Just give me my money and get out, okay?"
"I don't have any." Gabrielle looks down at her body. "I could give you-my boots?" If I could find them. "Maybe my dagger?" She reaches for her pouch, which should, ideally, contain money but instead holds a dagger and a sliver of parchment with quotations from Aristophanes.
"I already have a dagger." A shiny, slender blade is already in the hetaera's grasp.
"Ah. Yes, I see that." And the twitch in the woman's forearm indicates she's impatient to use the weapon. "Mine is actually nicer." She takes a step toward the window. "The Empress gave it to me-the handle is inlaid pearl and she won it in a fight with a Persian satrap-"
She's judged the window ledge correctly; with one neat little vault, she's out of the room as the dagger whizzes over her head. Fortunately she lands not on a pile of garbage but solid, dusty ground and takes off running through the streets. By the time she's reached the palace her feet burn and bleed and she's fully berated herself for this monumental lapse in judgment. She is not a hedonist. She does not deserve pleasure, at least during a time when she is needed-am I needed? She wonders, careening to a halt at the edge of the assembled crowd of Roman soldiers.
Pullo and the Praetorians limn the edge of the eager circle around the centurion Basileos and the Empress. To Gabrielle's dismay, Xena is up to her usual cocky tricks: The effortlessly dazzling spin of the sword, its speed in effective contrast to her slow swagger. This element of showmanship in Xena's fighting style reminds Gabrielle too intently of the ring, of third-rate fighters using tricks to camouflage their significant weaknesses. Such shenanigans, however, are beneath a warrior of Xena's caliber. But Gabrielle knows the mindset of the masses. Gimmicks work: Xena throws in an unnecessary back flip to avoid one of Basileos's lunges and the soldiers thrum with approval. Fortunately for her own illustrious gladiatorial career, her gimmick was her size and her sex.
Arms crossed over his barrel chest, Pullo finally pries his attention away from the action and catches her eye. She limps over to him and minces no words: "Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"She didn't want me to tell you." Pullo looks at her feet. "Where are your boots?"
"Never mind. Why didn't she want me to know?"
"She thought if you knew, you'd go off and kill Basileos yourself."
Gabrielle's face telegraphs her guilt.
"Pretty fucking predictable, aren't you?" Pullo shakes his head. "If you'd killed him, it would have meant nothing. She needs to prove something to them." He nods at the crowd of soldiers watching in silence, the air pierced by ringing swords. "You know that trade ship arrived from Rome a month ago. All we've heard since then are rumors-Antony's on a fucking tear, he thinks the Empress is plotting against him, he thinks Caesar's heir is allying with her. So these boys start thinking she's weak, see, sitting around waiting for Lepidus and Brutus. Then all you need is an idiot like Basileos to open his mouth. They need to know they've got a real leader, someone worth fighting for."
"Don't they know that already?"
"You give soldiers too much credit. As if we've got minds of our own."
"What happens if Basileos wins?" Gabrielle asks softly.
"Then you and I kill him."
"That goes without saying. And then what?"
"Then, I reckon, all hell breaks loose."
At this point, however, Basileos is not looking victorious. Xena deflects another blow, and takes another spin around him. This time, for good measure, she knocks him to the ground with a good hard kick in the ass, earning some muffled guffaws from the crowd.
The humiliation of being on his knees in front of a woman is, apparently, the final indignity for Basileos. Bad enough he's had to take orders from the bitch, orders that have dragged him halfway across the known world. So as she stands idly, waiting for him to arise-and momentarily distracted by a distinctive glint of blonde hair in the helmeted crowd-he pulls a dagger and buries it deep within her left thigh.
The Empress screams and crumples, but does not fall. Her sword bears her weight; her hand trembles upon the hilt.
The tightness in Gabrielle's chest replicates itself in her arm-Pullo grips her tightly, saving her from the impulse she cannot control: "Don't."
Warily, Basileos rises, facing the bowed woman before him. He raises his sword for the deathblow, taking the time to do it properly-in one fell, impressive swoop. The prosaic has always resided as the dominant theme in his life, and now for the first and final time in his life the elusive fantastic moment will appear, but not in the manner he had wished. Xena's motions are always fluid as water, creating graceful unity out of a series of gestures, as if she has carefully choreographed and plotted everything in her mind within mere seconds. She pulls the dagger from her thigh and, with a shrill cry composed of pain, rage, and triumph, plunges it into his neck. An undulating arc of blood from his severed carotid artery glows vermillion, almost orange, under the sunlight.
Predictably, the crowd goes wild.
Xena collapses on top of the dying man, either unable or unwilling to release her grip on the dagger until every bright drop of blood saturates the sand. Within seconds she is safely ensconced by the Praetorians from the jostling of the jubilant rank and file. Of her own accord-and with some assistance from her sword-the Empress rises, only to cling against Pullo as if she were a drunken concubine. A guard hastily binds her wound. The ghastly grimace of her sweaty, pale face-a sardonic mask for the cheering soldiers-fools no one within a foot of her. "Get me out of here before I pass out," she croaks at Pullo.
"Have to carry you," he says. "There goes your dignity."
"I don't care"- Xena takes a deep, shuddering breath-"if you have to catapult me inside, just-get me to Ping." She staggers again and almost collapses but for Gabrielle, who catches her. The feverish warmth of the Empress's body permeates leather and armor.
I realized then, Gabrielle will write years later, that I wanted to be at her side forever.
It is not the moment for a passionate kiss, a melodramatic confession. And yet Gabrielle yearns to say something, is acutely aware of her mouth hanging open in yokel-like awe, of that feeling of raw naiveté similar to when, even chained and broken, she first saw Rome: The city of unchecked power and colorful splendor. What is more magnificent-the city or the woman? With Caesar's death Xena has shed her personification of Rome and to Gabrielle, is primed for greater heights. Greater cities, greater territories, greater worlds. Maybe even greater love. If she lives that long.
Tightly, Xena grips the gladiator's neck. The pale intensity of her eyes, like pearls swarming in sea blue depths, convey inscrutable, unnerving urgency.
"What is it?" Gabrielle holds her tighter. "Tell me."
As a feeble balm against the searing heat and swirling dust, Xena licks her lips. "What happened to your boots?" she manages, just before passing out.
PART XIIIThe city or the woman
As is the case with so many epiphanies, this one comes unexpectedly and unravels so many mundane mysteries that Cleopatra is more relieved than disappointed in its aftermath.
It began while Xena was in recovery. After the fight with Basileos-which Cleopatra had missed, the demands of a nap more pressing and urgent upon her delicate system than being just another witness to witless bloodsport-she had arrived in Xena's suite to a grim tableau of pale faces over the Empress's inert body and promptly fainted at the sight of not only a bloody gaping wound, but the glowing saffron tip of a rather crude-looking iron instrument that Ping the healer was about to use, with an inappropriate level of enthusiasm, in the process of cauterization.
In the days following the successful operation she played the concerned lover when possible-she did, after all, have a country to run. Even in her weakened state Xena seemed amused at her attentions and released her from any bedside obligations, which both relieved and disturbed Cleopatra. That Xena read her with cynical ease marked a unique, pliant quality of the Empress, namely, her worthiness both as a lover and an adversary. But beyond her observations of Xena-including the casually powerful way that Xena moved through the world, even a world in uproar-Cleopatra could not gain an emotional foothold.
The little gladiator who haunted the library, however, was a different story. From the outset, this typically mute brute fascinated Cleopatra, in fact, was more to her type-a little rough around the edges, a little unpredictable. Whatever rough charm Xena once possessed was now burnished into the imperious smoothness of a born leader, her bluntness disarmed by smiles and strategies.
On an afternoon when the recovering Xena first attempted walking, using Cleopatra as semi-reluctant crutch on her sojourn across her bedroom, the gladiator showed up as Xena crankily collapsed into a divan. Despite her difficulties negotiating the room, Xena could at least run through a frighteningly vulgar stream of obscenities faster than a sailor.
Cleopatra stared at the silent woman in the doorway, who in turn glowered back. "You've a visitor."
Xena gripped the edge of the divan, knuckles marble-white, ready to excoriate the hapless fool who had blundered upon her in this vulnerable state.
Until she saw who it was, and smiled. "Ah. It's you."
"Empress." Gabrielle offered a slight nod followed by a half-bow, while her eyes darted to Cleopatra. "If this is not a good time, I can return later."
"No need." Perceptibly, Xena relaxed-even while cautiously flexing her wounded leg. "I could use a diversion. Tell me what you've been doing. What have you been reading?"
"Sallust," Gabrielle said. The tips of her ears turned red.
"And how do you find Sallust?"
Gabrielle ducked her head, rubbed the back of her neck. "Boring. A new standard in moral hypocrisy."
The exchange, while unremarkable, illustrated what Cleopatra has long suspected: (1) The gladiator was capable of speech, and (2) Was greatly enamored of the Empress-as recently confirmed by Titus Pullo one afternoon after she fucked him, his lust momentarily trumping his loyalties. But it wasn't what she thought, he had assured her as he had thrashed around emphatically in bed sheets. Even as he talked he could not hold still for a moment; it made him both a problematic lover and a distressing confidant. Sure, he said, the first time he encountered the gladiator was in the Empress's bedroom and there was some odd sex-wrestling so vigorous they broke a vase, a vase he really really liked, but later Gabrielle had vehemently denied to him that any kind of sexual relationship had ever existed between them although he was fairly certain that she only said this out of loyalty, perhaps even love, to protect the Empress's reputation because it was bad enough people said Xena fucked the whole senate so she didn't need any more gossip to add to that, and Gabrielle was without a doubt an entirely honorable warrior who could behead a Minoan like nobody's fucking business-
-at which point Cleopatra, sans the modest cover of the sheets, had gently interrupted to inquire if he were not in love with the all-mighty gladiator himself.
Most men slept after coitus. Pullo babbled-irritating at first, but the end result rather a gold mine of information. Yes, the delicious barbarian was obviously in love with the Empress; had she paid more attention to the content and context of those sulky facial expressions rather than the ripe lips, gold hair, and bright eyes, she doubtless would have figured it out sooner. But what of Xena's feelings on the matter? The inscrutable, fabulous Xena?
The smile she had bestowed upon the gladiator was Cleopatra's epiphany. In the brief time of their acquaintance, Cleopatra has witnessed many of Xena's smiles, the vast majority of them variants upon coolly predatory, wryly amused, or condescending pity. Even when she climaxes there's something smug about it, Cleopatra thought. But that grin-prompted by nothing more than a catty remark about a boring, dead historian-possessed genuine warmth and affection.
As the two women discussed Sallust, Cleopatra turned away and contemplated the expanse of the Mediterranean, the surface of the harbor lacquered pearl white by the sun. She thought that this erotic entrenchment with the Empress would yield certain long-term benefits-not love, but stability. But, alas, it was easier with men; the potential to bind them with marriage and children was a distinct advantage.
Well. She sighed. Time to reconsider battle strategy. She wondered when Brutus would arrive.
The body of lies
"That's her, Philo!"
Stupidly, Gabrielle is unprepared for the punch thrown by the brothel's strong man-and as her head explodes in pain from his fist making contact with her nose, she can't help but think his name is a little on the ironic side. Seconds after hitting the ground he picks her up from behind, she elbows him in the gut, wrests free, and kicks him in the groin. He drops to the ground with a howl.
Preemptive, she draws her sword and tosses a coin purse at the startled hetaera. "I was coming to give you this."
The purse has spilled open its generous contents at the hetaera's feet: Twice what she makes in a day. "Oh."
"Yeah-'Oh.'" She licks blood off her lips and gingerly touches her nose. Broken? She can't tell.
Minutes later, with poor Philo abandoned to his painful woes and in the privacy of the same room they were in weeks ago, the hetaera mops blood off Gabrielle's face. When she's done wringing out the bloody cloth in the basin she stares at Gabrielle with such intent that the gladiator expects a kiss forthcoming. Instead, the hetaera gives her nose a firm squeeze.
With a squawk of pain, Gabrielle leaps away from her. "Shit!"
"It's definitely not broken." The woman tosses the pink water out the window.
Pain's warm recoil seeps through Gabrielle's face. "I don't recall asking your expert opinion."
"No, but I could tell you were worried. Why'd you come back here?"
"I didn't want to cheat you."
"Oh boy. The noble type," the hetaera chortles. "Where'd you get that much money?"
"Borrowed it from a friend." Pullo had given her the coins, no questions asked. "Not that it's any of your business."
"You were so cute and shy at first. Now you're all bitchy."
"I get that way when someone punches me in face."
"How was I supposed to know why you came back? You Romans are usually dumb as dirt." The woman dries her hands with a towel. "So let me guess. You got the money from that friend of yours who's always here."
"He seems nice. Well, like I told you, I've never done him, but my friend Hagne has-she says he's exhausting, he just goes on and on-"
"Thank you for sharing that." Self-conscious, Gabrielle gently rubs her nose. "You never told me your name."
"Didn't seem important at the time. It's Mira." Matter-of-fact and apparently in the mood for a chat, Mira sits on the bed next to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry you got hit. And I'm sorry I threw a dagger at you. Well, not really, but I didn't know you were actually, you know, a decent person. A noble type."
"So you say."
"I know all the types. In my line of work, you see them all. You learn how to spot them. I could write a scroll about it all, I tell you. I'd be famous and maybe I could stop fucking common smelly soldiers-no offense, for one of your lot you're pretty clean. But yeah, you're that noble type." Summoning her powers of observation, Mira scowls comically, an exaggerated soothsayer's expression. "You're probably in love with some woman and she's either married or doesn't feel that way about you, and you've found that fighting just doesn't cut it anymore, and you need to burn off that desire somehow-" She stops cold, however, when she notices the shocked look on the gladiator's face. "Oh, wow-you mean I'm right?"
Gabrielle jumps to her feet. "I must go."
"Wait." The surprisingly strong Mira snares her arm. "I'm just giving you a hard time." She gives Gabrielle a quick kiss. "Maybe you can come back sometime, when you need to scratch that itch." Gabrielle leans in-and is rebuffed with a playful shove. "But not now. I have an appointment."
By the time Gabrielle reaches the palace, she is in a mood. A shit mood, as Pullo would call it; apparently the Empress is not the only one capable of them. But she had promised Pullo-in return for the money he lent-to spar with the recovering, restless Empress, who was eager to return to form before the arrival of Brutus. Gabrielle flexes her hands. Yes, it would be good to burn off that energy, such as it was. Everyone, it seems, is on edge, waiting for Brutus-the oracle who will delineate Xena's future. War or peace, power or exile. Not that he was that important, Xena had said, but he always knew what was going on. And with Caesar's death, there were several factions coming into play.
The long portico surrounding the courtyard is flecked with late afternoon sun filtered through the trees, the perfect place for an idle queen. Cleopatra sits erect among guards, musicians, and lackeys, an impromptu court that moves at her will. Gabrielle hopes that her long march across the courtyard to the sparring grounds will go unnoticed, but she knows the queen's dark eyes are upon her.
"You." The seductive knell of Cleopatra's voice rings out across the empty space. Her court falls to silence. Gabrielle stands still. "Come here."
It is the first time the Egyptian queen has spoken to her. At events, Cleopatra's dark gaze, curious and cool, would find her; it unnerved her, it angered her-the queen should only have eyes for her lover. At Gabrielle's approach Cleopatra dismisses the group: "Leave me." Tortuous minutes pass as everyone-making poor shows of masking their curiosity-disperses slowly.
Alone with the gladiator, the queen rises. She runs her hands along the silk of her dress. And, for additional long minutes, stares Gabrielle full in the face. Gabrielle has seen Apollonius do with this scrolls, with languages he's unfamiliar with, trying to puzzle out what is before him on the parchment. The comparison to gentle Apollonius ends, however, when she slaps Gabrielle hard across the face.
The queen doesn't fool herself that she caught the gladiator unaware. Gabrielle's expression is resignation a thousand times over: the careful stitching of years' worth of cruelties perfected into a beautifully indifferent tapestry. But when Cleopatra wraps her stinging hand around the gladiator's neck and kisses Gabrielle with equal fierceness and delivers the end note to this performance-a savage bite on Gabrielle's lower lip that draws blood-the gladiator's mask falls away and instinct takes over: She is pinned against the wall, her wrists shackled painfully against hard marble, the gladiator's weight a maddening friction against her dress and her skin, and Gabrielle's beautiful, angry face so close. They breathe in collusion.
"I've been trying to get her to do this to me for months." The queen licks the fresh blood from Gabrielle's lip and tries to kiss her again, but Gabrielle pulls back. "But I don't think I inspire that kind of passion in her, do I?"
"I could teach you how to please her." Her mouth, on Gabrielle's once more, finds less resistance a second time.
Or so she thinks. When Gabrielle pulls back again and releases her, there is no mistaking the look of disgust-for herself, as well as the queen. "I don't need to be taught anything. I learned from a far better whore than you."
Shit mood thus exacerbated, Gabrielle walks away. Fury itches her bones. Along the way, she contemplates the dubious wisdom of calling the Queen of Egypt a whore. Perhaps she'll have to leave Alexandria. Well, there is a library in Pergamum. She presses the back of her hand to her burning lip. Still bleeding. She sighs. Xena will lecture her about fighting. Again.
In the dusty arena, observed by Ping and many curious soldiers, the Empress goes through her paces. Gabrielle hangs back, watching in quiet solidarity with the men. Xena runs. She executes a series of dizzying back-flips, including one over a blockade of hay bales, and finishes with a headstand on a crumbling rampart. The soldiers cheer her on, but once the acrobatics are complete they disperse quickly, unwilling to find themselves as potential sparring partners for the woman with enough balls to yank a dagger out of her own thigh.
Ping, possibly the only person in Alexandria unimpressed with the dagger stunt-"You are stupid" were his first words to Xena when she regained consciousness after the fight-watches critically as she swaggers toward him. "No limp." The slight lilt in his tone indicates, for him, incredulousness.
"You believe me now?"
The healer smiles. "Yes. Because you lie, but your body does not."
With Xena's rosy health established, both she and Ping turn their attentions to the scrappy gladiator. They frown at the swollen nose, the bloody lip. Xena raises an eyebrow. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing." Gabrielle veers away from Ping, who has closed in on her with the determination of a mother hen. "I'm fine."
"I see." Xena hums. "Well, if you're not up to this-"
Gabrielle draws her sword.
Xena laughs. "Okay, then." She unsheathes her own sword and twirls it idly.
"Am I supposed to be impressed with that?" The words are out of her mouth before she knows it. She feels the sneer contorting her face and a vise crushing her chest. Love, as the hetaera speculated? Is this love-this feeling of complete inadequacy leading to arrogant overcompensation?
Xena's amusement cools; her eyes narrow. She feints left. Gabrielle doesn't fall for it. Neither seems willing to make the first strike, as if it were somehow an indication of weakness.
With one last twirl Xena does the unexpected-she transfers the sword to her left hand. "I'll give you half a chance to take me down. Think you can handle that, or has the library made you soft?"
Gabrielle darts right, hoping to strike at an odd enough angle to put Xena at a disadvantage. A good idea, but Xena braces her sword for the strike with both hands. Gabrielle spins around in time to catch a full, straight-on blow. Now Xena has her on the defensive. With a struggling leap Gabrielle attempts to clear the stack of hay bales. The triumphant exhilaration coursing through her veins, however, is short-lived when she realizes that Xena has seized her ankle and has sent her crashing into the empire of falling hay bales.
Gabrielle's sword clatters away. In the distance, past the furious noise within her mind, she hears Pullo calling for the Empress. She crawls out from under a bale, and, with Xena's attention momentarily diverted to her captain, takes a cheap shot: a vicious roundhouse kick that sends Xena grunting in pain and sprawling into the dust. Xena's inelegant fall turns into a coiled masterpiece of a tumble-just as Iolaus taught Gabrielle at the gladiatorial school, to roll away from an opponent-and she stops, poised in a feral crouch, taut fingers brushing the earth, a murderous mechanism ready to spring at the least provocation.
Sensing this, Ping and Pullo remain immobile as statues. While Gabrielle quietly berates herself-you're no better than Basileos- and every beat of her heart crowds her chest so that she cannot breathe.
The moment passes-if only because Xena permits it. Slowly, she stands. "You were saying, Pullo?" Her blasé tone does little to counter the wary mask she presents to Gabrielle, who helplessly speculates on what lies beneath: Anger? Desire? Fear? All of the things that I feel too?
Pullo, Gabrielle observes, forces himself not to look at her. "Brutus's flotilla has been spotted. He's approaching the harbor."
"Excellent." Xena tone makes the word into the foulest curse. With a precise spin upon her heel, she is gone. Obediently, the healer and the captain trail in her wake-even though Pullo spares his friend a sympathetic look before walking away.
Gabrielle stares at her sword on the ground.
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
The dark corridor leading to the suite that holds Brutus and Lepidus seems longer than she remembers. The welcoming ceremonies and banquet are done with. Cleopatra's curiosity about Brutus has been sated, at least temporarily; the way she eyed her Roman visitor, however, led Xena to believe she would soon be replaced in the queen's bed. Which, frankly, would be a relief-and no matter, really. A paucity of pleasure is not something Cleopatra can tolerate for long, and Xena, anticipating Brutus's arrival, has been far from pleasurable over the past weeks.
Down the passageway the ever-present, ever-vigilant Pullo matches her step for step. Her armor, newly polished, gleams and provides illumination dimmer than the wan torches along the wall. She stops. "Wait." She kneels to adjust a greave.
But when she begins striding down the hall again, her bulky shadow does not follow.
Xena resists the urge to sigh or scream; sometimes dealing with Pullo merited the patience of a parent. "Is there something you wish to discuss with me?"
Confused and guilty, he blinks. "How did you-" He shakes his head. "I do. But it will result in my death."
Xena softens her tone. "You're being a little presumptuous."
"Maybe it's not a good time."
"Come. Out with it."
He removes his sword and presents it to her, hilt first.
She rolls her eyes. "Oh, for the love of-look, we're not in a play here. Just tell me."
"I had intimate relations with the queen," he blurts. "Cleopatra." As if a pack of indistinguishable queens roam the streets of the city. In lieu of the word fuck, Gabrielle had supplied him with the proper euphemistic phrasing. She also thought it a bad time to confess his misdeed, but his conscience can bear the weight of it no longer. On a larger plane he knows Xena capable of great mercy and generosity, but in personal matters she is, at least for him, harder to gauge.
To his infinite surprise and relief, Xena laughs. "Forgive me."
"I forgive you?"
"For laughing. I mean no slight against your honor." She gestures, and they resume walking. "She's not my consort. She has no love for me, nor I her. Do as you will. Who knows? You might even make her happy. Hera knows I didn't."
He frowns. "Unlikely." The queen was highly critical in the bedroom and as such, he could in no time foresee a rapid return to his favorite whorehouse on the docks. At the door, he hesitates before opening it for her. "This isn't one of your tricks, is it? Lulling me into complacency and all that? Because I'd rather you just kill me now."
Xena is amused. "No. Trust me."
Her word is good enough for him.
"I've no time for such tricks. By the end of this day, I may be dead."
Pullo's face sets grimly. "We won't let that happen."
"It's something you'll have no control over. Promise me if something does happen-you will get her out of here. Someplace safe."
"You mean the queen?"
Xena pinches her brow. "No, you fool. I mean Gabrielle. And as for you-if everything goes to shit and I'm dead, ally yourself with Lepidus. He's the most decent of the lot." With that, she claps a hand upon his shoulder.
He opens the door.
The first thing she sees is Brutus's profile, a cameo etched against the overcast sky. Not handsome in the way Antony is, Brutus possesses what her husband had called classically Roman features-the broad brow, the promontory of his nose shielding a long, mobile mouth, a good head of curly hair-that led people to trust him. He remains sitting as she enters, his dark eyes veering over her warrior queen ensemble. "Are you in mourning?"
She remembers Brutus's ill-fated alliance with Pompey years ago and how, after the disaster of Pharsalus, he had begged Caesar's forgiveness. She had never seen her husband forgive anyone so easily. I can't help it, Caesar had said. He's an idealist. A poor, simple idealist. I can't blame him for being what he is. Could she be as generous and patient with him as Caesar was? She forces a smile. "Are you?"
Brutus returns the grin. "I've missed sparring with you, Xena-verbally, at least. With a sword, well, you usually had that knocked out of my hand in the blink of an eye."
Lepidus, who stands at the window, is more deferential- he bows before her. As a career soldier, he respects armor more than a show of grieving. "Empress," he murmurs.
"Lepidus." She pauses. "At least someone still thinks I'm an Empress."
Brutus smiles sardonically. "Lepidus clings to titles, since he has none of his own." Lepidus's impassive face bears no sign of the insult; he's had enough time to adjust to Brutus's needling ways. "Low man on the Triumvirate," Brutus drawls. At Xena's sharp, disapproving glance, he laughs. "Surely you didn't think you were still part of it?"
"No." It is a strange relief. "I suppose I did not." She looks more critically at Lepidus. "So you-"
Brutus fills in the blanks: "-and Antony, and Octavian."
"Octavian?" Don't sneer, Xena cautions herself. "He's but a boy."
"And Caesar's heir apparent, since you have no children. You knew Caesar willed everything to him, surely?"
She did. He would change his will, he had said, when they had a child. But they didn't. She never told him she took precautions against that; the time never seemed right. And now, in retrospect, she realizes the time never would have been right, because they were never right.
"On the face of it, it's a well-balanced triumvirate: Octavian controls the treasury, Lepidus the army, and Antony charms them all. He whips the plebes into a furor. In lieu of your absence at Caesar's funeral, well, he was the widow." Brutus barks a laugh and sips wine. "He spoke of the glories of the Empire and the failings of the Republic. He spoke of those not present. That would be you, Xena. He covered Caesar's body with his own robes. The oratory is an art form, and he is brilliant performer." He trails into accusatory silence: Like you, like Caesar.
"Are you saying you never entertain the masses, Brutus? Take some lessons from him." She shrugs elaborately. "So he speaks against me. Given the circumstances, it's not surprising."
"Oh, not in so many words. That would be foolish. But the rumors are in full force: Under sway of the Ptolemys, you have reverted to your weak, barbarian Greek ways. You are trying to build an empire in the East to rival Rome. Antony says nothing to counter that."
"And you are here to see if it's all true."
"Partly." Brutus's gaze flickers to Lepidus, who has remained ramrod straight, impassive, and staring out the window during the entire conversation.
Finally, Lepidus speaks. "I am tired of it all."
"What he means," Brutus begins, "is that-"
Xena does not bother looking at him as she says it: "Shut up."
She thinks that a ghostly smile crosses Lepidus's face before it settles into its usual gray melancholy. "I am not a leader," he says. "I know you are all aware of that. But Antony-his power in Rome is unchecked. Our 'triumvirate' is in disarray, to put it mildly. I am here, and Octavian-" Lepidus sighs. "Octavian has fled the city. He has money and youth on his side, but he needs to build up an army first, before he can do anything. His old friend Agrippa will help him with that. In the meantime, Antony does what he pleases. He appropriated all of Pompey's property and holdings. There were protests concerning this. Naturally things got out of hand." Lepidus's face darkens. "Citizens were slaughtered in the street. Hundreds. Caesar never would have let something like that happen. But Antony? He led the troops."
Xena remembers this side of Antony; the side she always identified with most. Or so she thought.
After what he hopes is a respectful enough pause, Brutus speaks. "So you see, the time is right. Before either Antony or Octavian grow into the next Emperor. It's time for Rome to reclaim what she once was. For Rome to be a republic."
She knows, of course, this was Brutus's intent in coming to Alexandria all along. He pines for the Republic the way Orpheus yearns for Eurydice-the beloved missed ideal, hopefully resurrected by singing the same song ad infinitum. "It's not my battle, Brutus."
"I see. You're only interested in Rome if you're viewing it from a throne. Is that it? Are you ready to walk away? Don't you believe in anything?"
"I don't know what to believe anymore. But one thing I do believe is that nothing is permanent. Perhaps the great library here? At least I hope it is. Because we will all eventually be nothing but buried scribbles in dry old parchment someday." Brutus's eyes flare indignantly. Xena chuckles. "All right, then, you'll be a bigger scrawl than me. You'll be handmaiden of the new republic."
Abruptly, Brutus cuts to the heart of the matter. "We need you with us, to move against Antony. A triumvirate of our own. Your legions are valuable-and loyal to you. You have a strategist's mind. You rival Agrippa himself."
"Have you really thought this all out, Brutus? I admit it does sound like you-have everyone else do the dirty work for your ideals. But I don't want to be involved in your half-assed schemes."
Brutus slams the table. "Do you think you hold some sort of cachet with Antony? He will move against you. He thinks you're establishing an empire here. He doesn't see you as a friend, but a rival. He always did."
Was that true? The balance of affinity and animosity with Antony was always a delicate one. "Perhaps. But he would not attack me without provocation. I know him. And I will not give him any reason to do so."
"Yes. He plays at being honorable. As do you. When the truth is, you're both thugs with knives." He rises from the table and faces her-as if being nearly a hand shorter than she would intimidate. "Of course, if I show up at his base camp and tell him of the glorious empire of Alexandria, of a woman dressed for battle and not in mourning for her husband, well, he might think he had very good reason to-"
With a shove Brutus is flung back, crashing against the table. Before Xena can follow through on her seemingly excellent plan to wring his neck, Lepidus is between them and his strong hand is braced against Xena's cuirass. "Enough."
"Yes." Brutus stands and straightens his tunic. "You are still a thug after all these years. That Caesar thought he could turn you into a ruler, or even a woman, is laughable."
Lepidus's hand relaxes against her chest as he takes a more direct, yet less insulting, approach. "Xena, Antony's amassed troops at Actium. He is prepared for battle, and I don't think he gives a damn who he fights. I have no doubt he retains the utmost respect for you, but-he's different now. He's had a taste of ruling."
And you know how good that tastes, don't you? She turns away from him.
"Everything's changed now. Surely you must see that." Lepidus does not have to be an orator to know that saving the best for last is the most effective means of persuasion. "And not just for Rome. But for Greece, as well."
Greece. Her marriage had been an alliance binding so many city-states, republics, and islands to the Empire, ensuring a peace and prosperity nonexistent within living memory. Now dissolved into nothing. How fragile the balance was. She never knew it until now.
She could marry Antony. That power play worked for her before; it could work again.
She stares at her hands. No. This time, she will earn it another way-the way she was meant to do so.
When Xena decides, she does not bother facing her once and future allies. "If we do this, we do it my way. You let me meet with Antony first." She hears Brutus's sigh and Lepidus's nervous shifting, which cause the creaking of his aged boots. "Because I think this may turn into a bigger bloodbath than either one of you are capable of imagining."
A night at the library
The candle on the windowsill flickers with the whimsy of the wind. The one closer to Gabrielle, however, burns as steady as her determination to finish a scurrilous biography of the great Plato. But her tired eyes retread the same words over and over again: Kissing Agathon, I had my soul upon my lips. For it rose, poor wretch, as though to cross over.
She closes her eyes, rubs her neck. Bones crackle like tinder under her grip. Oh, but for the luxury of having a soul.
A fortnight has passed, every day bringing a new rumor from the palace: Brutus will marry Cleopatra, Brutus will marry Xena, Brutus will marry both Cleopatra and Xena, thus uniting Egypt, Rome, and Greece in an orgiastic act of peacemaking. The undercurrent of more dire-and likely true-rumors temper these frivolities: Antony's troops upon Greek soil, the likelihood of a civil war tearing the Empire apart. And Xena the wildcard in the entire affair. She would not give a damn about the whole thing-in fact, would gleefully give her life to see the Roman Empire in ashes-but for the obvious. But despite these troubling times, she maintains a self-imposed exile from the palace. After what happened when they sparred last, why would Xena wish to see her again?
The light on the wall jumps dramatically. When Gabrielle looks to the window she finds the candle not on the ledge but in the hand of the former Empress of Rome. Xena is astride the windowsill, a dark hooded cape fluttering in a damp night air, and looking quite amused at Gabrielle's shock. "What? You're not the only one who can make dramatic entrances, you know."
Gabrielle leaps up from the bed, sending the Plato scroll and a plate holding the remnants of her dinner-a pear core, a cheese rind, and a stale hunk of bread-clattering and bouncing onto the floor. Her meager possessions scattered throughout the room, she clings to the only thing she can-humiliation and embarrassment. Xena's presence makes this humble room of the library, one that she's grown to love, seem a barren hovel. "Why are you here?"
"Not going to invite me in?"
The gladiator surrenders to sarcasm. "Please do come in."
Xena swings her long leg in the room and returns the candle to its former location. Upon closer inspection Gabrielle sees translucent pearls of raindrops against Xena's cloak, and a damp sheen upon her face and the fringe of her hair. "You haven't been around lately-I don't mean to be accusatory, I don't know why you would." Xena shifts nervously. "But."
"I've come to say my farewells." Xena prowls the room, giving a strange, careful scrutiny to what she encounters: a sword, a scroll, a candle, an empty cup. "I don't know what you've heard. I've formed a military alliance with Brutus. And Lepidus."
"I've heard many things-"
Xena grins at the thought of all the outré rumors. "Surely you didn't think I'd marry any of those idiots."
Gabrielle's chest tightens. "No. I didn't think that at all."
"Good. Well. Ah. We head to Corfu tomorrow, where Antony is wintering. For negotiations."
"If you think Brutus is so awful, why the alliance?"
Entranced by the candle at the bedside, Xena's fingers playfully waver through the flame; similarly, her tone dances between anger and amusement. "Are you playing devil's advocate with me?"
"No. But, well-would an alliance with Brutus be so bad?"
"Zeus's hairy ass, you are giving me a headache. Whose side are you on?"
"Brutus wants to restore Rome's republic. And-didn't you once say you were on the side of the common people? The plebes? Wouldn't they benefit from a republic rather than an empire of one person, or even a triumvirate, ruling them? With Caesar it was only so much talk. I know that." In the wake of her bitter tone, Gabrielle pauses. "Is that-is that what it is for you? Just so many words?"
"Words means so much to you."
The candle's flame grows too hot. Xena removes her hand. "I wish it were that simple."
Gabrielle clenches a fist. The anger floods her-why must she ask? Beg, even, for the obvious? "Take me with you."
"I have Pullo. I'll be fine."
"He's not as good as me, and you know it."
Xena shakes her head. "You deserve better than trailing after me as a bodyguard."
"Don't tell me what I deserve. I kill, and I feel nothing. It's what I do. This is always what I've believed-that I deserve nothing. But you have changed this for me. You have, and you act as if it's nothing to you." Abruptly, Gabrielle stops. The thoughts that have hammered at her for months now are about to cross a threshold of no return-not unlike Plato's soul, yearning to cross the barrier of a kiss. "I look at you-I look at you and I see everything I should have been. I don't understand it. I never have. I don't mean that I should be an empress or a queen, but-I should have been free, as you are. I should have traveled and fallen in love and maybe told stories to people and lived my life the way I wanted to live it. But that didn't happen. The fates gave me this path, and it led me to you. I see my fate bound inextricably with yours."
During this impromptu speech Xena has moved closer; the contemplative look etched in shadow and gold upon her face is, the gladiator hopes, no mere trick of the candlelight. Her head is bowed as a priestess in prayer, and her fingers idly graze the knuckles of the gladiator's sword hand. "Gabrielle."
This, the first time that Xena has uttered her name, is all the encouragement Gabrielle needs. Roughly she clasps Xena's neck and kisses her hard.
The kiss is bad-awkward and crushing, dry and tight, evoking in Xena the memory of a senseless mashing by a stealthy farmboy desperate not to waste time. How she wished she could forget that dismal first time in the barn, poked from above by that ham-fisted clod and from below by the prickling hay. Then something extraordinary coalesces within her: A thrum through her veins, an itch along her skin-that desire to touch and be touched, to know every inch of not only this beautiful body before her, but also the lonely mind imprisoned and imperiled within it.
Gabrielle breaks the kiss with the same brute force she employed in its beginning.
Never before has Xena witnessed such an expression of pure panic on the gladiator's face, and conversely her mood soars. Triumph, she thinks. Could I lead a triumph through the streets and announce to the city that I have finally conquered you? I can be-I shall be-gentle in victory. She reaches to brush the bangs off Gabrielle's forehead but the gladiator is already in flight-despite Xena's frustrated growl of "Wait!"-and gone. A fleeting glimpse of a worn, dusty boot heel waves a mocking goodbye from the open doorway.
All right, then. Fine. Run away if you will. Because damned if you aren't coming with me. She touches her lips, and a new goal takes precedence over Rome, Antony, Brutus, and the rest of the world: If it's the last thing she does, she will teach that gladiator how to kiss properly.
PART XIVPrelude to another kiss
Alexandria, morning, winter. The sharp, invasive chill slices into the bone. On mornings like these, the sky sluggish with clouds, Gabrielle doesn't mind wearing the prerequisite robe of her duties. Before entering the main hall she's already downed two cups of tea to stave off the cold. But as she sits, tenderly absorbed in the task of labeling tags for the library's latest additions, the chill sneaks up on her, much as Timon the cat used to do. And much as her emotions do now when she's either not completely focused on the task at hand, or something intrudes upon her consciousness-such as stumbling upon a scroll called A Treatise on the Nature of Love among the batch of new acquisitions. Hopeful that her burning gaze can ignite this waste of parchment, she glares at it for several minutes. Nothing happens.
Alchemy scrolls are really a crock, she thinks.
Ignoring the scholars who try to capture his attention, Apollonius glides regally through the hall. Gabrielle can tell by his withering expression that someone has annoyed him. While she hopes she is not the source of it, the fact that the old man is bearing down upon her is not a good sign. Indeed, his beard twitches disapprovingly as he stops in front of her to announce: "There is a Roman lummox outside requesting an audience with you."
Gabrielle can think of only one Roman lummox who would want to speak with her.
Outside the library Titus Pullo is, as usual, cheerfully brutal, kicking aside a beggar before bestowing a broad grin upon his friend. "Get your gear packed. We're shipping out."
Unexpectedly, her heart leaps with joy until, with the ugly persistence of Medusa's head, her spectacular sense of contrary stubbornness sets in. Last night, she had impulsively kissed Xena and ran away like some virginal idiot farm girl. Which is what she used to be at one time in her life, but no matter. Upon her prompt return to face the consequences-sex or rejection-Xena was gone, and with nary a message in sight. Thus Gabrielle spent the remainder of that night not making love or even arguing with the most beautiful woman in Alexandria, but brooding alone upon the stars and, like a trout dropped on a riverbank, flip-flopping on the fates. Xena did not want her to come on the mission to Corfu; obviously she did not feel this same undertow of inevitability, hence it could not be fate. Or love. Perhaps, Gabrielle thinks, she is meant for a different path-one not dictated by the sword-and that Xena is merely a symbol, a representation of what her fate could be, and not an actual person inextricably bound with her life. Perhaps she'd read too much Sappho. Perhaps she has drunk too much tea this morning and the profound discomfort she feels is not some sort of life crisis but merely her bladder petitioning for release. Regardless, Xena beckons once again. This time she's not following. Gabrielle fixes Pullo with her most intimidating stare. "I'm not going anywhere."
The unimpressed Pullo scratches his neck and sighs. "She said you'd be pissy about it."
"You can tell her-"
Fussily, Pullo raises a single index finger, and Gabrielle is so flummoxed by the uncharacteristic gesture she refrains from telling him to tell Xena to go to hell. She's already called the Queen of Egypt a whore, so what is another insult to another self-aggrandizing, power-mad woman? He pulls a ragged bit of parchment from his greave. "Hang on. We anticipated this response from you."
Gabrielle stands with hands on hips. "'We?'"
"She said that I am to"-extravagantly Pullo clears his throat as he begins to read Xena's note-"'take this opportunity to gently but firmly remind you that while you are for all intents and purposes a freewoman, you are still a subject of the Roman Empire as a result of an oath taken in which you swore fealty to the Empress of Rome thus establishing yourself as a fully functional adjunct to the Praetorian Guard and thereby subject to the penalties and punishments associated with said post, wherein acts of treason and disobedience, including but not limited to the abandoning of one's responsibilities and duties, is punishable by death, even in foreign territories under the rule of satrapies, in this specific instance the Queen and Prefect of Egypt, neither of whom like you very much.'"
Defeated and caught flatfooted by Xena once again, the enraged Gabrielle spins on her heel and retreats back into the library, pursued by Pullo's shout: "Don't take too long!"
Unfortunately she does not float elegantly through the halls as Apollonius does; her angry stride, coupled with the reputation that will dog her the rest of her life, sends patrons recoiling in fear and scurrying out of her path. In her room she sheds the robe, kicks it away, and begins to pack. Every object tossed in the rucksack taunts with her particular history: Two daggers, including the pearl-handled one that Xena gave her, the other knife taken as a prize from one of her first kills in the ring. A comb that belonged to her sister. Scraps of blank parchment that Apollonius said she could have. The copy of Cicero's De oratore, given to her by Cato's eldest daughter. A sliver of soap. A sachet of herbs. Candle stubs. A piece of flint. A smooth piece of amethyst that Iolaus gave her-a good luck charm, he said. Not that it ever really brought him luck. Everything she possessed, and nothing she truly owned.
"You're leaving." Apollonius is in the doorway, speaking gently so as not to startle her.
"I've been ordered." She ties up the bag. "It's not by choice."
"The fates have spoken, then."
"Fuck the fates."
Apollonius's eyebrows rise at the blasphemy; never before has he heard a curse from the gladiator.
"I'm tired of being manipulated by something I don't understand."
The librarian smiles. "Do we speak of the fates or of the Empress?"
Gabrielle straps the scabbard and broadsword around her waist. "She refuses me, then she summons me as if I were still her slave-and yes, I am speaking of the Empress."
"Yet you wish to follow her."
There is no denying that. "I also want to stay here." She stares at the floor. "You have given me my life back," she whispers.
"Oh!" The quiet admission startles Apollonius. "Not me, my dear. Not me. It's the library." As she fears the intensity of her gratitude, he fears his sentimental old age, which typically manifests itself in spontaneous acts of crying. In the time she's been an adjunct and guard of the library, he's grown fond of the gladiator and her insatiable mind, her surprising gentleness. Apollonius clears his throat. "You know, there are other libraries. There will always be other libraries. You did say you wanted to see Pergamum's."
"I'm not going to Pergamum," Lethargic after her fit of pique at Xena, Gabrielle sluggishly shoulders her bag. "But Corfu."
"Oh, dear. I've never understood the Roman mania for wintering there. Well, I better give you some reading material before you leave."
"Don't be silly. You'll go mad otherwise in that dismal place. And I know you'll take good care of them. You'll be careful. You must be careful."
Gabrielle's brow furrows. She knows he's not speaking of just scrolls anymore but something possessive of a larger meaning, something of which she can only guess. But she has no time for guessing, only brief, perfunctory reassurances: "I know."
"Do you?" The old man touches the windowsill that frames the picture perfect harbor, the blue sea blighted by warships. "Time has a way of taking things from us."
There is a mountain on the island. No one told her that.
But then, no one knew. Placed at the ignorant mercies of the Roman navy and an outdated map-not her own hand-picked captain, Agathias, and his mostly Greek crew-Xena, accompanied by Brutus, Praetorians, and some legionnaires generously spared by Lepidus, finds herself not only at the wrong end of the island of Corfu, but at the base of a mountain. She stares at the obstacle. Wreathed beautifully in gossamer mists, it breathes before her, a mythic beast benevolent in slumber. Even drenched to the bone with winter rain, she can appreciate its majesty-indeed, at the moment it is the only thing she can appreciate about her situation. Because thanks to the mountain, the rain, and the severe damage to the ship courtesy of the rainstorms, they are stuck for the time being. "Roman fucking navy," she mutters.
"Empress?" Manthius, the captain of the ship, lingers nervously at her side. As does Brutus, stewing in silent fury.
Xena blinks. Despite Brutus's rallying republican efforts to the contrary-in front of the men he addresses her as Consul, her new title granted by the Senate-to many soldiers, particularly the Praetorians, she remains the Empress. Is there really an Empress without an Emperor? Or an Empire? she wonders. "Nothing." She sighs. She's no one to blame but herself. She knew the map Manthius used was dated-but not this dated. She should have trusted her own instincts, and not Brutus's stifling sense of propriety: How would it look for a woman to run the ship? he had said. For a man of ideals who spouts the radical notion of freedom for the people, he has an alarming conservative streak. But then she's always thought that idealists suffer a serious lack of imagination.
She walks away from the mountain, leaving Manthius to a verbal flaying by Brutus. A breathless, shivering scout-she can't remember his name-with dark hair plastered to his skull follows her. He and his men have returned from reconnaissance of the area.
"So we can't get past that for days." In a feeble attempt for warmth and clarity, Xena rubs her cold, wet face. "That's what you're going to tell me."
He nods. "There's a low pass-the rains have blocked the roads with mudslides. The locals inform us the main road will lead to Kassiopi."
"Provided the locals are trustworthy."
"But first the rains must stop."
"And the road must be cleared."
"And we won't even talk about the ship."
Xena finally takes pity on the scout; his dark eyes are glazed with exhaustion. "You look as if you're sinking into the ground." Which is precisely how I feel, she thinks. "Dismissed."
Mud pulls at her boots as she continues through the village of Garouna. She can still hear Brutus loudly berating Manthius-"You're more worthless than a prick on a eunuch!"-despite the increasing distance she places between herself and them. Later, she decides, she'll have a talk with Brutus about not going overboard with dressing down an officer in front of the men. Either that or punch him in the face. Lepidus was dying to get away from them both-sitting in a camp near Actium within staring distance of Antony's legions and warships was, he had claimed, infinitely preferable to playing perpetual peacemaker between her and Brutus.
A group of Praetorians stop and salute. She acknowledges them with a nod. Children and worried mothers watch from windows. Tents dot the outskirts of the village, a meager addition to the stark landscape. Somehow winter in Alexandria never really bothered her, but here-with trees stripped to nothing and the relentless, persecuting pounding of waves along the shore that heighten the sense of isolation, of life on an island at a far remove from civilization-she yearns for a city, to know that the same rain falls on a multitude, from kings to beggars, the living and the dead. Thus she is grateful for a remnant of the familiar: Titus Pullo, lumbering toward her.
"Where am I billeted?" she calls out to the captain.
Proudly, Pullo straightens. "The biggest cottage in the village. The reeve's."
"Pullo, please tell me you did not kill the reeve."
"Nah, Empress. Gave him some coins and a promise of a new boat, and he was happy to vacate for a while. He's staying with his wife's family."
"Lead the way."
Pullo leaves her at the door. Before she steps inside the image of a gloomy, rat-ridden hovel flashes in her mind-a place not unlike the dumps she lived when she was truly wild, in those days before she scraped and stole enough money to buy her ship. Back to the beginning, then? Apprehensive, she pushes open the creaky door. But the small cottage is clean, candlelit, and inviting. There is food and a decanter of wine. Her gear is unpacked. A kitchen table masquerades as a desk, complete with seals, quills, parchment. Everything is neatly arranged and infinitely more inviting than the Alexandrian palace. Even the most important part of her bedroom ensemble is standing in front of the fireplace: Gabrielle, in inscrutable soldier mode. The art of the fire polishes the gold in her hair, immolates her mud-stippled crimson cloak, and brightly traces the smooth lines of her cheeks, her neck, her lips. Despite her remarkable imitation of a statue, she's more beautiful than anything Xena's ever seen because she breathes. She's here. She's magnificently real.
Gabrielle refuses to meet her dazed, worshipping gaze-and for this Xena is momentarily glad- and breaks the spell by walking toward Xena and helping her shed her waterlogged cloak.
"Did you do all this?" Xena wonders aloud.
Gabrielle drapes the cloak over a chair near the fire. "Pullo told me to."
"Oh." An order, not a spontaneous act of devotion.
"Are you hungry?" Gabrielle asks flatly.
"Not at the moment, no."
"Would you like some wine?"
"I can get my own, thanks."
Gabrielle's jaw tightens; the yoke of domestic servitude never her strong suit. "Would you like me to arrange a bath for you?"
Xena grins. "Only if you get in with me."
The gladiator's silent fury deepens, and Xena regrets the joke-however utterly serious its intent. "What I want," she lies gently, "is for you to sit down and drink with me." Sullen, Gabrielle flops into an old chair as Xena pours wine into two cups that have seen better days-and hopefully better beverages, she thinks, wincing at the first sip. She presses a cup into Gabrielle's hand. "I'm sorry I didn't speak with you on board the ship."
Wisely, Gabrielle leaves the wine untouched. "You were very busy."
"I was," Xena admits. "Restraining myself from killing Brutus was itself a full-time task. But I should have checked on you. Were you ill during the passage?"
Gabrielle shrugs. "Not as bad this time."
"Good. You used the pressure points, then."
Despite the wine, Xena's throat is dry. Despite the tiredness settling into her bones, she wants a wild night of unprecedented pleasure. Despite the fact that she believes there's a good chance she may be dead at Antony's sword within weeks or even days, she rocks back and forth on the balls of her feet like a nervous suitor and imagines another life. She stares at the back of Gabrielle's neck-the tender red flush of the skin there more revelatory than her stony expression-and cannot help herself. "Would you care to kiss me again?"
This hits the intended nerve-badly. Gabrielle jumps from the chair as if the fire's flames were suddenly consuming her and almost kicks it over, like a defiant brawler in a tavern laying down a challenge.
Xena finds it thrilling.
"First you summon me here with your ridiculous order. Now you try to seduce me. What is it you want from me? What do you want me to be-your servant or your lover?" There is bitter determination in her voice; here she wishes to settle the matter once and for all, even as the mosaic of her eyes hints at multiple outcomes, and all of them unfavorable to her. "I don't want to be both." Her voice quavers. "I can't."
Xena tosses the dregs of the wine into the fire. The flames roar ecstatically as Gabrielle, suddenly concerned that she is in love with a pyromaniac, looks on apprehensively. The cup clatters to the floor. "The latter," she replies. "Definitely the latter."
When at last Gabrielle meets Xena's eyes, she's both surprised and surprisingly beautiful; the ferocious countenance of the warrior falls away and with aching clarity Xena finally sees her as the woman as she was meant to be, a confirmation of myriad qualities hinted at during the past year. And such a woman, she decides, deserves the finest kiss. She holds Gabrielle's face in her hands and captures those full lips in a quick kiss of gentle, teasing affection. The second one is just as quick but with a slower finish, a lingering caress of Gabrielle's plump lower lip. The third one is similar to the second, but of such a maddening duration that she feels Gabrielle's hands eagerly clasping her waist, pulling her closer, eventually sliding up and down her back. By the seventh one Gabrielle's lips are parted, freely permitting a deeper connection as her fingertips flutter at the edge of Xena's scalp, not unlike a diver testing the waters before committing to the plunge. Her fingers burrow deeper into Xena's hair and with a little coaxing-specifically, the continual massaging of her marvelous ass-and a little leap wraps her legs around Xena's waist. The heat of her cunt against Xena's belly eclipses every thought but a constant refrain: at last. Together their histories unravel every certainty and all that exists is possibility.
Xena's unfailing nautical sense of direction is useless here, but somehow she manages to maneuver them to the bed-or perhaps it is Gabrielle's steering all along that accomplishes this feat. The mutual collapse momentarily untangles them. A sense of dizzying triumph steals through her veins as she flips the gladiator onto her back, kisses her fiercely, and grasps her wrists with the intention of pinning her down.
As it happens with good intentions, however, timing is everything. Gabrielle stiffens beneath her and, with a focused, powerful effort that indicates she's done this before, sends Xena catapulting off the bed and onto the floor with a very distinct thud. Xena glares at the weathered beams of the ceiling and their sharp shadows. A year ago she ran an Empire and owned half the known world. Now she lies on a cold floor in a shack in the middle of nowhere with a backache and her head, heart, and other delicate regions collective victims of a hopeless conflagration of yearning over an exceedingly complex former slave.
More difficult than the Vestal Virgin, she thinks. Who had told Xena she wasn't a virgin, but by the time Xena discovered this to be a lie it was really truly, too late to turn back; unfortunately, a hymen was not something one could merely borrow and return, and in pristine condition no less, like a cloak or a cooking pot. Caesar had been peevish about that particular scandal, if only because the Vestals were surprisingly canny about blackmail and extracted a large sum of money from the treasury.
Breathless, Gabrielle sits on the bed, rubbing her eyes. "Sorry," she whispers.
"No." Xena props herself against the bed. "Don't apologize. I'm too much the aggressor at the wrong moment. It was too soon." She reaches for Gabrielle's hand, but the distance is too far. "So forgive me. Please."
"There's nothing to forgive. You didn't know."
"I should have surmised as much."
"No." Absently, Gabrielle touches her own wrist. "Sometimes certain memories-come of their own accord."
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
"Is it? I don't know-I don't want the past coming at me when I least expect it." The gladiator rakes her hair, leaving golden chaos that reflect the flames from across the room. "It was easier with the hetaera," she mutters aloud, more to herself than Xena.
"There was a hetaera?" Jealousy and surprise run a chariot race through Xena's mind that finishes in a dead heat.
Gabrielle bows her head. "I gave in to my lusts."
Xena finds this moment of shame unexpectedly, adorably sexy. "We all do at one time or another. I'm just surprised you had to pay for it."
It's meant as a compliment but taken by Gabrielle as another jocular shot off the bow. "Is everything a joke to you?" she snaps. "I should have known-" Angrily she rolls off the bed. "-this means more to me than it does to you."
"Gods be damned." Xena hauls herself off the floor. "Don't presume to tell me what I feel, gladiator."
"So we're back to that now, eh? I'm your gladiator, your slave. Infamia to you, as you were to Caesar. Why did you even bother to grant me my freedom?"
"Want me to take it back?"
Gabrielle bristles at the flat menace of Xena's tone. Her fingers close reflexively. Still dying for the feel of a sword in her hand. Always dying for it. No, you're not in the ring anymore. The gods in accord, you never will be again. But part of you will always be what they made of you.
Xena laughs harshly. She nods at the door. "To all of them out there, we're both infamia. Greek whores. Lucky little Greek whores. I know you don't think you're lucky, but you're alive and you're free now. And at one time you were the most famous gladiator in the ring. But right now, to this fucking Empire I've supported and served and risked my life for, I am less than infamia: I'm expendable. Why do you think Brutus agreed to let me come here to Antony? He's hoping Antony kills me. Gets me out the way." Xena shakes her head. "What do you want me to say? That I'm in love with you? And does this mean you think you're in love with me? I don't know who I am anymore. So how can you? I only know two things: From the moment I saw you, I wanted you. And that you are the only person in this world who doesn't bore the everloving shit out of me."
"Really?" Skeptical, Gabrielle sways under the weight of unexpected compliments. Then, shyly: "Even Cleopatra?"
"No sooner would we be done fucking and I would lie there, hoping for either silence or something interesting to come out of her, and she? She would be discussing what jewelry to wear for dinner. How that woman got a reputation for being a brilliant conversationalist I'll never know."
Before Xena can launch into further complaint of her erstwhile bedmate, Gabrielle moves closer and claims her hand. Her thumbnail travels existent lines within Xena's callused palm before tenderly striking into unlined territory. "I promise will ask nothing of you that you aren't willing to give. And"-Gabrielle's seriousness softens into mock solemnity-"I promise I will never speak to you of jewelry, either before, during, or after sexual activities."
"That comment suggests-"
"Yes." Unaware of its knee-buckling effect, Gabrielle continues her tingling micro-massage of Xena's palm. "Yes, I would like that."
Xena is kissing her again and reaching for a buckle on Gabrielle's cuirass when the door surrenders to the pounding of the Praetorian Gnaeus, who bursts into the cottage, and who blinks in surprise as what he sees: An abruptly broken kiss that leaves both parties breathless. "Empress. I'm sorry."
"What, Gnaeus?" Xena demands. She can tell from his miserable expression that Pullo has forced him into the role of bad-news bearer.
The centurion averts his gaze. "I'm afraid to report that Manthius has attempted to strangle Brutus."
Another example of good intentions and bad timing. "Ah, Manthius," Xena sighs. "At last you're on the right course."
PART XVA trick with a knife
Brutus's billet is not as pleasant as Xena's, thinks Gabrielle, with no small amount of spiteful pride. The fireplace spits and croaks flames as a cantankerous old man would insults and phlegm. The candlelight hints at dingy shadows that cling stubbornly to daylight. Whether it's the sad cottage or Brutus's overall demeanor, Gabrielle cannot discern, but he doesn't bother to rise when they enter; he remains sitting at a broad, worn kitchen table strewn with chaos-papers, weapons, maps, rucksacks, cups, amphoras- rubbing his throat with extravagant care. "You needn't have bothered coming. I had Manthius executed."
It isn't difficult to see when Xena is truly angry, at least not for Gabrielle: The side of Xena's jaw vibrates with the very emotion. Do others pay attention as closely as she does? For Brutus seems oblivious to the former Empress's cold fury as Xena's voice leaks casual menace: "A little hasty, don't you think? Who's going to captain your ship now? Who's going to oversee the repairs?"
"Why you, Xena, since you were so keen to take the helm before. You've convinced me of Greek superiority in all matters maritime. And if not you, Manthius's first mate seems entirely capable." Brutus's hand drops from his throat. "I had to make an example."
"You want an example? Beat him senseless, tie him up, and leave him outside in the rain for a few days. That's usually example enough. We can't afford to lose men right now."
He glares at her suspiciously. "Why are you suddenly concerned about our numbers?"
"I'm not." Xena returns the look. "I'm concerned about you wasting the lives of useful personnel."
"His use was a matter of debate. As was the map he used. Speaking of which-" Brutus grabs a rucksack and empties its contents onto the table. "-that fucking thing must be burned. It must be in here somewhere." This lack of reverence for a dead man's possessions unnerves Gabrielle; she has a newfound appreciation for Xena's homicidal tendencies toward Brutus. "Ah! Here it is." As Brutus commits the faulty map to the smoky, weak fire, Xena peruses the contents of the rucksack and the glint of a knife-one of unusual character, a long, blade possessing two slender handles-catches her eye.
"I'll be damned. Haven't seen one of these in years." Xena flicks open the latch holding the two handles together. In her hand the triumvirate of the knife twirls faster than a chariot wheel-a unifying blur of metal and flesh, weapon and woman, that leaves Brutus speechless with awestruck apprehension and Gabrielle tumbling back into the dark cells of memory.
Xena ends the performance by flipping the open knife into the air and catching it, beautifully unscathed.
"Do you want it?" Brutus asks tightly.
She shakes her head, clasps the handles together, and returns the knife to its bag. "It should be given to his kin."
Quite naturally the talk drifts to the matter of the ship versus the road: Which would require more effort to fix? Which route would be faster? If they came in by land, would it give them an element of surprise over Antony? Xena argues that it's not an ambush, but a negotiation.
Brutus snorts derisively. "And you call me an idealist."
And in Gabrielle's mind the knife remains a whirlwind, even as she listlessly trails Xena back to her cottage.
Once inside, a lit candle brings the room to life again. Xena dismisses a guard and goes about the task of reanimating the fire herself. Unable to gauge her own mood, let alone Xena's, Gabrielle remains rooted in the middle of the room, the chill of the night air clinging to her cloak. "Who-" she falters.
Concerned, Xena glances at her.
"Who taught you how to handle a knife like that?"
"Fellow I met in a tavern in Piraeus a long time ago. He had one-called it a butterfly knife. He sailed with me for a couple months until I dropped him off in Sicily."
Gabrielle interrupts, begging for confirmation of things she doesn't want to know, for the thread of the past to be plucked, for the skein of her life to unfurl: "Was his name Iolaus?"
For once, she has caught Xena flatfooted. "Yes. You knew him?"
"I killed him."
Xena is not shocked-but then, why should she be? Gabrielle thinks. The slow, stately way that Xena stands from the fireplace, brushing her dirty hands on the leggings she wore, the way she seems to focus her entire bearing on Gabrielle, is her way of saying go on.
It's all the encouragement Gabrielle requires:
"Not many know it, but my illustrious career in the ring began as a joke. As you know, I killed my master; I'd grown tired of being raped on a regular basis. His wife was well rid of him and knew it, because he left her a wealthy woman. One evening after his death, as she dined with friends, one of them joked to her that if I were such a good fighter I should become a gladiator. And so the idea took hold in her. She came to see me in prison-I was going to be executed for what I'd done, of course, but she arranged otherwise. Her idea of mercy, of a thank you, was to sell me to Cato's ludus. 'See if you can protect your precious cunt around a bunch of beasts like that, my dear'-those her parting words to me.
"I didn't end up being the ludus whore as she thought. I decided-I decided no one was going to take me like that again. The very first day, someone tried. Nearly succeeded. He beat the hell out of me. When he was done he told me that I had a reprieve-he wouldn't fuck me today, but he would tomorrow, and whenever he liked afterward. And something changed within me. As if he were some ugly oracle who'd spoke my future-a future of nothing but pain and humiliation. Before then, I valued life and peace. Before then, I thought that somehow I would be free again someday. But I realized then, at that moment, this was my life now. And it would never change unless I did something." Gabrielle stares into the flames. "So I picked up one of those wooden swords. I had the element of surprise; to this day I remember how stunned he looked, stunned that I had arisen like Lazarus, knocked him down, and sank that wooden sword into his chest. I kept stabbing him-I couldn't stop-until I was covered in his blood and the damn thing broke off in his carcass. That's when Iolaus started paying attention to me. Almost like he was courting me. He was the best teacher there-don't listen to anyone who ever tells you otherwise-and I became his prized pupil, his greatest success."
Here Gabrielle stops again; the surge of the past an unbearable repetition, a bitter necessity like the beating of her heart. "But that's the thing about the ludus. Success is its own punishment. And death is a victory."
The rules of the game
The first thing she saw upon waking was the silver butterfly. This was what they called the double-handled knife that Iolaus played with in idle moments: Before or after a match, or when he trained one of his duller students, or even those rare moments when he cadged the time to sit alone in thought-the knife would be twirling in his hand. He had never told her or anyone else exactly where he got the knife; but they all knew that before he was captured as a slave he had lived a life of adventure, traveling to faraway lands. He even claimed that he had traveled with some demigod son of Zeus.
The pain shot its poison into her blood again, and every nerve in her body became a fiery lesson in the alchemy of agony. Naked from the waist up, she was belly-down on a pallet in the healer's room, her entire back swathed in ointment and bandages. She had hoped that the whipping would kill her, had lost count on how many times the lash met her back, had been ready to greet death when-this the last thing she remembered-she slipped in her own blood and fell.
When Iolaus saw she was awake, he closed the knife and knelt closer her. He placed his cool fingertips to her forehead with the dual purpose of checking for fever and brushing away the matted bangs from her face, his voice a shaky whisper: "You're lucky to be alive."
She said nothing.
"It only proves what I've known all along. You are destined to survive. And I? I will play my part." His fingers quivered around the knife before he pocketed it. "You don't seem to realize-my fate is not in my hands. Or yours. If you die here, right now, my life will be forfeit anyway. That's the way it is. The rules of the game, Gabrielle. The student surpasses the teacher. That's the only acceptable outcome. If you continue to refuse, I will be blamed for your weaknesses. Cato's investment will be lost. And the other lanistae will make a good example of me. If you win against me, I will be still be dead-but my family-" With unprecedented tenderness he touched her cheek and it was only then-when his callused fingers dammed her tears-she realized she was crying. "-my family will have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. The crowd will have gold on me. But Cato will have his coins on you, as will I. Everything on you-the underdog." He forced a smile. "Do you see what I'm saying?"
Yes. You have bet on your own death. Prompted by the slightest breath or movement, pain played her body as an instrument. This did not stop the gasping sobs and the uncontrollable tears blurring the sight of him, so that he was nothing but soft colors mingling and dissolving like the tide over a bright shell. "I can't." Her voice was foreign to her ears, rough, inchoate.
Calmly Iolaus wiped her face with a cloth. "You can." He smiled, stroked her cheek again, and she thought of her father, of similar consolations over a bruise or a cut or a lost toy, of that sad, indulgent expression informing her that pain was transient and must be borne with good grace, because there was nothing else one could do but endure until it was sanctioned by the imprimatur of memory.
The clarity of hunger
"He didn't make it easy on me," Gabrielle says. "It was a good fight, a fair fight. He knew all my tactics because he'd taught them to me. But in the end he was tired. So tired. He dropped to his knees and I stood with a knife against his throat and I was trying to say 'forgive me,' but I couldn't, I just wanted to scream or run away or even slit my own throat but-but then through the din in the ring I heard him say 'yes.' He said 'yes.' Just that one word I took for his consent and his absolution and I did it. The first person to show me kindness in that shit world and I did that to him."
Gabrielle stops. Somehow she's moved from standing in the middle of the room to sitting in front of the fire. Sprawled elegantly on the floor beside her is Xena, propped up by a saddle and staring, melancholy, into the fire. "If," she begins gently, "you had told me before that Cato had engineered that, I would have killed him when I had the chance."
"I know. That's why I didn't tell you. Cato was easily influenced by the other lanistae, the trainers who hated Iolaus. You don't know what the competition was like there. You don't know to what lengths-" Gabrielle stops. Her palms are damp but her lips are dry; she sips cool wine that assuages her aching throat. "It's strange how evil works sometimes; it needs the least bit of traction to take hold within someone. Whereas good needs all the help it can get, doesn't it? They planted this idea in Cato's mind, that to 'graduate' the ludus my final match should be against my teacher. Cato regretted it later. It was foolish of him-Iolaus was one of the best trainers he'd ever had, and he didn't know what he had really lost until Iolaus lay dead at my feet." She sighs. "He felt guilty. It's why he took me into his home. Well, that and the nice big tax break he got," she adds derisively. "There were many times-I thought of killing him. But then I grew fond of his family. They treated me well. I couldn't take another man away from his family, no matter how good or bad he may be."
"You had no choice."
Dubious of comfort, and yet drawn to Xena's irresistible confidence, Gabrielle frowns skeptically. "Are you telling me you would have done the same thing?"
"Yes." Xena admits. "Survival isn't a pretty thing, but damned if it isn't the strongest instinct we've got. You've survived all these years because you know that Iolaus wanted you to live. Your life gives his death meaning. He sacrificed for his family, yes, but your life was an intended consequence."
Gabrielle stares at her hands. "How long-how long did you know him?"
"Oh, not long. As I said, I met him in Piraeus. There he was, this little, fast-talking man flashing that damned blade. Well, I wanted that knife, so I offered to sleep with him for it. I wasn't above bartering like that in those days." Xena chuckles at the memory. "Well, he was having none of it. He had a woman already, she had a ship of her own too."
Gabrielle cannot help but remember the name of the woman she never knew, the unknown beauty to whom she conferred the status of widowhood. "Nebula."
"Yes. She was shipwrecked in Sicily. He wanted desperately to get to her. So he challenged me to a game of darts. If I won, I got the knife. If he won, I would take him to Sicily. The wager seemed a little, ah, skewed in terms of prizes, but I was an overconfident ass then-well, I still am, I'm just better at hiding it now-so I agreed. And ended up sailing to Sicily." Xena's grin fades. "I warned him the coast down there was dangerous. It was popular among slavers." She swirls the dregs of her wine before looking at Gabrielle. "Was that where they got him?"
The gladiator shakes her head. "I don't know. He never spoke of his past much, just-her. And the children." Iolaus's death will always be a burden, but somehow releasing the tale into the air pinpricks that invisible bubble of crippling guilt and palpable self-loathing within her chest. She doesn't know quite how it happens, but soon Xena has her talking about her childhood in Potedaia, her family, her brief time with the Amazons, all the things she's never told anyone because no one ever seemed interested in knowing. She can't believe Xena is interested either, but the former Empress asks pertinent questions: Why did her father give up being a fisherman for being a farmer? How was Lila punished after the first time she ran away from home? While living with the Amazons, what weapons did she train with?
When she feels she can reveal no more she rises unsteadily; already the burden seems unexpectedly lighter and she wobbles ever so slightly. Or perhaps it is the wine she succumbed to in slaking her thirst and her raw throat. How long has it been since she's been downright garrulous like that, with anyone? Fearful of tears she stabs at her eyes with thumb and forefinger, hoping that the gesture passes as fatigue. "I should go."
Not easily fooled, Xena wraps a steadying hand around Gabrielle's elbow. "No. Stay here."
In weary response her head bumps Xena's chest, the leather cuirass warm against her forehead.
"I promise nothing will happen that you don't want to happen." Xena's laugh is soft, self-conscious. "Awkwardly said, but no less true."
In the slate-colored predawn that follows she awakens in Xena's bed, fully clothed-as is Xena, much to Gabrielle's surprising disappointment-with her head pillowed, still, upon the leather cuirass and the steady undertow of Xena's breathing beneath her. She imagines Xena's sternum as the prow of a sleek, magnificent ship. She thinks Xena would appreciate this image. From this vantage point the former Empress's legs seem impossibly long-and, to Gabrielle's amusement, terminate in boots covered in a stucco of mud. She is torn among the states of perfect safety, quiet repose, and simple desire. Each state encompasses the promise of happiness-even that risky last item, which seems a minor imperilment when couched within a life of unpredictability.
Xena's eyes flutter open as Gabrielle brushes black hair away from her face. Half-asleep she smiles uncertainly, then frowns with concern. "Gabrielle?"
Her name rolls in Xena's mouth like the finest delicacy and the clarity of hunger is at last a revelation. This is what she wants; this is what she has waited for. Initially she thinks the sibilant rush in her ears is the frantic beating of blood in her head, but it's only the rain outside; the harder it falls, the softer it sounds.
"I like the way you say my name," she says. She kisses Xena-slowly, her open mouth already full of longing and expectation-and lets it begin. Xena's hand is warm across her neck, a conductor of heat that seeps through her skin, granting permission as it courses along Gabrielle's shoulders and back, encouraging every movement, including the abandonment of cumbersome clothing. With every stitch shed and discarded into a pile on the floor and their bodies meeting in defiant intention, the tapestry of the fates is once again undone.
PART XVIThe taste of triumph
In her very first match outside the protective hell of the ludus, it took two minutes for Gabrielle to kill three men.
Of course, they had underestimated her. Their protracted, skeletal grins-jutting from underneath helmets of darkened bronze-only served to enrage her further. She took down the first one with a flying leap and a dagger in his carotid. The second one left himself wide open as the sea, allowing her gladius to plunge through him with the sleek confidence of the fastest skiff. The third one bared his neck at just the right moment and angle; what she lacked in brute strength spared him decapitation, but not death.
Through a sea of hissing catcalls and a hailstorm of rotten produce, she stomped toward the Circus Maximus's exit, profoundly irritated and confused at the crowd's reaction. She survived. She won. What the hell did they want? A pomegranate ricocheted off her armored shoulder with a thunk. Something wet and foul splattered on her boots and legs. She didn't dare risk eye contact with anyone in the crowd-it would be far too tempting to throw herself into the masses and slice open as many of these red-faced, bloated plebes as she could, these animals who thought she was an animal, and who cried for blood but were too cowardly to spill it.
Like Cato, awaiting her at the damp rictus of the arena, as frothily disapproving as the crowd. "You call that entertainment?" he spat.
A group of gladiators rushed past them for the second match. A slave boy, whose dark eyes unwillingly reminded her of Perdicus, proffered an amphora of cold water. What did not go down her throat splashed against her hot, tingling skin and seeped into her scalp. Was he alive somewhere? Her sister wasn't, nor her parents, nor Ephiny, nor-
"The match should have been longer-much longer. It's as if you lack knowledge of the finer points of battle. You can't just kill, you have to give them a show. Didn't Iolaus tell you-"
"Don't." Her arm whipped out and the gladius's tip artfully drew a wavering, gossamer-thin line of blood along his throat. "Don't you say his name to me. Ever."
They remained static as a frieze-the gladiator, the boy, and their owner-for what seemed an agonizingly long period of time. The muscles in her forearm leapt with the effort of restraint and her eyes glowed with deep, abiding hatred. Surely, thought Cato, she could not still be angry with him over Iolaus's fate? Had he not made amends for that by installing her in the safety and comfort of his home? She did not realize that idealists like Iolaus were doomed the moment they stepped into the ludus. That particular piddling idealist, however, had produced her: One of the finest fighters he had ever seen, fast, ferocious, and always five steps ahead of her opponents. Cautiously he raised a surrendering hand. "All right," he said softly, almost cooing, as if she were a skittish mare. "All right."
She lowered the blade. He pressed a handkerchief into his neck and, when he removed it, suppressed a gasp at the pale, pink smear of blood upon the field of white.
"You want a show, is that it?" she sneered roughly and stared out into the arena, watching the next match while Cato, fascinated, watched her. Gabrielle's eyes scrolled dispassionately over the fighters in the ring. Assessing strengths. Noting weaknesses.
"What?" he murmured. "Yes. A show."
"Send me back out. Now. And I'll give you what you want."
Cato hesitated. As a student her Achilles heel had been Iolaus-rather, the affection and trust he engendered within her. In the end that was why he had agreed with the scheming lanistae who proposed the final match between student and teacher: The attachment had to be broken. The only problem, he realized, was that not only was the attachment broken, she was as well-and spectacularly so. Long had Cato wished to possess a gladiator with genuine blood rage. And long had he puzzled over the maxim be careful what you wish for. But now the wish and its fulfillment coexisted in horrible symmetry. For one hour and twelve men later, select rose petals and blossoms quelled their ecstatic descent by clinging to her sweaty, bloody skin. She owned the Circus Maximus and everyone within it.
How to be in love by the morning
Before dawn a slave usually arrives, bringing food and starting the fire. The suffused light of the candle, the soft footfalls, and the cautious clatter of fire irons and dishes surround Gabrielle-all a delicate, pressing awareness of the outside world that she ignores as she feigns sleep. The chill tickles her bare shoulder. She knows the slave, Sicinius, and in the past had exchanged with him that particular look of recognition-an acknowledgment of their similar subservient stations delineated by grim, sardonic empathy.
All has changed now, at least on the rippling surface of circumstance. She is free. And she's naked under a pile of blankets and a fur, with Xena's warm arm a weighty brocade draped across her waist. She has taken the seemingly exulted place formerly occupied by a queen, an emperor, a ruler of an exotic, faraway land, and sundry other aristocratic types-seemingly exulted, she thinks, but not really. If anything, sex only heightens the inequities of status. She knows how everyone views Xena's sexual hierarchy from top to bottom: Caesar the husband, Cleopatra the lover, and she, Gabrielle, the humble bed warmer, a bit of rough trade to tide Xena over while stuck on a cold, lonely island until she marries Antony or Brutus or some other powerful personage. She feels no more a freewoman than she did at the pinnacle of infamia. Only this time, a strange contentment persists. The outside world will continue to press upon her-insinuations and ideas inhaled easily as air, quietly formative like breaths from a glass-blower-but here in this island cottage, she possesses sanctuary.
Sicinius takes his leave. She exhales-and so does Xena, who stirs into waking and presses her face between Gabrielle's shoulder blades, an absolution for the valley of scars encountered there. Xena knows her way around scars. At times Gabrielle notices her examining this written record of her body's history without an exaggerated pretense of reverence or a hint of judgment, but with the curious affection of a lover who is also a fighter. She never asks how the scars came in existence; she only caressed, only kissed. Is a bit of prescient planning on Xena's part? she wonders. That Xena knows there is a story attached to every one of those scars, and she wishes to hoard a long lifetime of those stories? Or-she thinks, as Xena gently turns her over so that they are face-to-face, breast-to-breast, hip-to-hip-is it all complete self-delusion?
Last night she half-dreamed, half-remembered her first fight in the Circus Maximus. How the crowd initially despised her, and how she went back out and took down man after man with means merciless in their methods. They loved her then. To her shame, she luxuriated in it-the delirious approval, the broken raucous chant of her name, the power settling over her with the delicate pervasiveness of the blossoms that the mercurial crowd showered upon her. And this? she wonders, as Xena pulls her closer. A different fight, a different kind of approval? Apollonius compared pleasure to battle; perhaps he was right, because now she fights for emotional survival, for her inner life. She cannot help but wonder what Xena fights for.
Their intimacies have only spanned a handful of days, not even a week, but every morning the laconic conversation is the same, as if they have been together untold months and years: "I should go," Gabrielle murmurs. Then her lips encounter Xena's and, like tepid water mixed in fine dark wine, her resoluteness, her clarity dissolves into sweet darkness.
Xena conquers with casual disregard: "Not yet," she whispers, before deepening the kiss into a perfect conspiracy of breath, movement, mouths, and tongues. She pulls the gladiator on top -a strategic feint that reveals the vulnerability of Gabrielle's surging lust, for she is now at the mercy of Xena's hand, which slips into the conduit of warmth between their bodies. But Xena, always exceptionally gentle-at times, too gentle-hesitates. "Is this all right?"
Despite all this proactive tenderness, it is more than all right: It is perfect torture. With frenzied futility her hips writhe, seeking contact with anything that would bring about immediate release from the wet ache between her legs. "Yes."
Xena kisses her neck. Skillful as a flutist, her mouth slides down Gabrielle's carotid artery. "And this?"
If indeed she is an instrument played by a sexual virtuoso, she trembles with the effort of holding the note, of proving herself worthy of being so chosen. "Yes."
The relentless kissing marches on; Xena commands foreplay as well as any legion. The trapezius muscle along Gabrielle's neck and shoulder, taut as a sail caught in a stiff wind, is the next target of Xena's mouth before gliding along her collarbone and setting ecstatic sail for the wonderful world of the breast. "What about this?" she teases, just before her mouth lays claim to Gabrielle's nipple.
Gabrielle cannot speak. Over the days and nights she has quivered with each new exploration, marveled silently at the body's capacity for prolonged pleasure; already brimming with a history of pain, she believed she could accommodate nothing else. It has not been like this before and, she realizes, it will never be like this again. She will never again experience the sacred wonder of the falling in love for the first time, nor the profane joy of its exploration. Every disappointment, every expectation she's ever had about love and desire is carelessly, happily revised with no regard for the egregious first draft. "Gods above and a thousand times yes," she says hoarsely, "do anything and everything you want with me."
Tender and swift, Xena reverses their positions and briefly regards Gabrielle as a hunter on the cusp of triumph does his proud, resistant quarry. Every smoothly muscled, softly feminine inch of her is marvelous; in every scar Xena finds the perfection of survival. Gabrielle's heels dig into the too-soft mattress and her hips rise as once more Xena's hand finds its delicate mark and begins the languid torment of stroking the gladiator toward blissful, indelible delectation. "Ah, Gabrielle. If only the world were so accommodating."
Ankhs for the memories
Most mornings find most villages bustling. Garouna, however, is not most villages. Bored soldiers sleepwalk to breakfast or to the practice yard for dolorous sparring. Sheep and goats meander, aimless and unattended, across the main road. Fishermen, uneager for the sea, loll in boats and mend nets. The overall lethargy of the place impresses upon Xena the importance of departing as soon as possible. The ship is almost repaired-a matter of days, or she has been informed by nervous sailors, who fear the same fate at their executed captain. Why does everyone think I killed Manthius? she wonders. Zeus, I think I have an image problem.
Outside the cottage, where she leaves behind a naked, sleeping gladiator, Xena finds Pullo waiting for her with sullen patience. He falls into step with her as they set out for Brutus.
"So. What is Brutus's mood this morning?" she asks Pullo, the great prognosticator.
"Somehow I was anticipating that answer."
"There's a spring in your step," Pullo notes accusingly.
"Ah." Xena pauses and moderates her long stride to something she hopes approximates the regal and commanding. "Thanks."
"Not that I begrudge you being so fucking cheerful," he amends.
It took Pullo barging into her cottage one morning-complaining once again of the mood and tenor of the camp ever since Brutus's execution of Manthius-to discover his self-described "best mate" and his Empress under a blanket in a rather vigorous bit of sexual congress. Artlessly the embarrassed Gabrielle had tumbled off the bed, taking most of the blankets with her, and so Xena had to listen to Pullo's grievances while naked and shivering. It was not the first time. Over the years Pullo had seen her naked enough times so that her body held the appealing familiarity of a roadside shrine; thus he thought little of engaging her in the most mundane conversations while she was in such a state-once, in fact, they had a rather informative exchange about how to liven up lentil soup.
Since his discovery, however, his reactions to his friend and semi-idol appeared commingled with confusion and anger. Xena suspected that he resented not being informed about the relationship in a timely manner by Gabrielle, and subsequently finding out in a farcical fashion as if he were a common slave or an unsuspecting husband. She thought it best not to interfere; Gabrielle, she knew, would resolve the matter soon enough, and hopefully it would not involve bloodshed.
"I realize," Xena begins, "that this humble village does not hold the attractions of a city like Rome or Alexandria, in other words quality whorehouses, but surely-"
"-I can get fucked, that's not the problem."
"So you are a nighttime visitor to a certain widow."
Pullo frowns. "I keep forgetting you know everything."
"Surely that takes the edge off?"
"Eh. Just seems like a lot of work to get good dumplings and half-decent wine."
"Dumplings?" She hasn't had good dumplings, really good dumplings of either the sweet or savory variety, since-well, since leaving her mother behind in Amphipolis. "It's never too much work for that, Pullo."
He smiles indulgently. "I'll bring you some, Empress."
"Good man." She dismisses him and, continuing her walk across the village, girds her loins for the continued degradation of her day: a morning of Brutus. Sour as usual, Brutus awaits her in his drafty billet, where they frown over maps, attempt not to argue with one another on how to proceed to Antony's locale, and spectacularly fail to reach any kind of accord on the matter.
"So now that the damn ship is almost repaired," Brutus begins, lips stiff with rage, "you're thinking of dragging us all on foot across the island."
"No," Xena refutes firmly. "I'm only saying it's worth considering. The weather is still unpredictable and would prove more disadvantageous should we find ourselves on the open sea. And I'm not certain it would save us any time. Look at the map again, Brutus. On foot, cutting across land and even going around that damn mountain, we'd make the trip in almost half the time. Perhaps the fates had a reason for dumping us off on the wrong side of this island."
Melodramatic, Brutus raises his hands in mock surrender. "I cannot figure you out, Xena. I never know which way your mind will turn."
"I'm truly sorry you're unable to predict my behavior. Were my husband still alive, he would tell you it's a losing game."
"Were your husband still alive," Brutus retorts sharply, "he might be a little surprised at how cuntstruck you've been lately."
Everyone knows. In the whirl of an urbane ruler's life-resplendent with retinues, entertainers, wits, diplomats, spies, slaves, knaves, couriers, soldiers, and mercenaries-lovers easily accumulate the capital of stealth through the selling and trading of rumors. In other words, one never knows who is fucking whom. A village in Corfu, however, is a different matter, and it's impossible to prevent (1) its gossip-starved occupants from noticing a gladiator stumbling out of one's humble dwelling at an ungodly hour, or (2) said denizens of the village from hearing said gladiator's noisy climaxes. All right, I'm not so quiet myself. Still. The citizens of the village had held her in familiar contempt from the start; within hours of her arrival in Garouna she knew the livestock history of a garrulous farmer named Eugenius and how his neighbor stole several chickens from him, and what the hell was she, almighty Empress or Consul or whatever she was, going to do about that? It seems that no matter where she landed in the world, she is eternally prevailed upon to solve other people's problems. Brutus's problems, however, lie in multitudes and consist most notably of character flaws. How do you solve a problem like Brutus? She can present only the simplest, most concrete solution in the most deadly of tones: "Would you like to be fiststruck, Brutus?"
Point taken, he scowls in silence.
"I assure you, Caesar would not have been surprised." Particularly since they spent part of their wedding night with the daughter of a Dalmatian dignitary. But she opts not to share this information with dour Brutus.
From behind the presumed safety of a wine cup, Brutus says, before sipping, "I didn't think she was your type."
"I wasn't aware you were an expert on what constitutes my type." Without preamble Xena changes the subject. "What is Barcus saying?"
"The roads are passable, he says. At least the initial kilometers out of the village are clear. Obviously, he cannot predict the entire route." Again, Brutus's lips form a tight line of disapproval.
Suppressing a sigh, Xena allows her sense of fair play to take the upper hand. "Something bothers you. What is it?"
"Barcus has a cousin who is an officer under Antony. I'm not sure he is entirely trustworthy. We've been here nearly a fortnight-what we know of the roads is only from what Barcus and his scouts tell us. He's had plenty of time for him to get a message to Antony's side. So I was wondering, for the sake of a, er, honest interrogation-" Brutus pauses awkwardly.
"-if you would consider doing that thing."
"I'm legendary for many things, some of them probably not legal in this area. Please be specific."
Using two fingers, Brutus mimes jabbing Xena in the neck.
"Oh, that thing."
Later, Barcus the scout is summoned to Brutus's humble abode and diligently repeats to her what he has told Brutus: The main road leading to Kassiopi is passable. A delegation could make it in no time.
As the pacing Brutus reverts to scowling mode, Xena lounges thoughtfully and taps an index finger against her lips. Barcus shifts nervously, unaware that the Empress is not really contemplating the truth and validity of what he's saying but wondering if her new lover likes dumplings.
Finally, the scout can take no more. "Empress?"
Xena sighs. Back to business. "Barcus, I'm really sorry to do this, but-" As her hands strike the scout's neck, Brutus pirouettes with fearful excitement. Barcus stiffens and falls off his chair. With another sigh, she begins the litany: "I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds to tell me-"
"It's Varian," he chokes.
"Who?" She and Brutus are an impromptu Greek-Roman chorus. Xena thinks how Gabrielle would have relished seeing her caught so unaware by this startling turn in the interrogation.
Brutus lunges at the scout. Xena raises her hand and kneels in front of Barcus. "Wait. Assassinating who?"
"You," Barcus wheezes. "Not-my idea-please oh gods-"
Xena removes the pinch and seizes Barcus by his thick, curly hair. "Who is behind this? Antony?"
"No. It's because of-Manthius. Manthius was his beloved."
"For fuck's sake." Xena stares indignantly at Brutus. "You kill him, and I keep getting blamed for it!"
"Everyone," Barcus manages breathlessly, "thinks it was your order." He pauses, reconsiders the wisdom of proceeding further, but realizes he's already in deep enough. "Everyone knows you have the real power."
Brutus's face is an inscrutable mask.
"So you weren't going to tell me?"
"I didn't think he would be successful." Barcus colors slightly and coughs. "The gladiator is with you all the time. And when she is not at your side, Pullo is. I did not take Varian seriously."
"When is this happening?"
"This morning. He was going to wait for the gladiator to leave you. I tried to convince him, I swear-"
But the gladiator had not left the cottage. At Xena's insistence she remained in bed, promptly returned to sleep, and Xena spent several long minutes marveling at how, in that vulnerable state of repose, she seemed resplendent with innocence and youth. Xena felt as if she'd debauched a maiden-a maiden with a scarred back who could probably kill her in a second and with a single blow, but a sweetly unspoiled creature nonetheless. She also felt an unprecedented level of affection and concern for someone she had slept with, a heretofore-unknown phenomenon that, had she been an average woman and not a powerful leader known to tease out and brood over the clandestine motivations of allies and enemies alike-including her own husband-she might have correctly identified as love and not some sort of troubling, distended euphoria similar to the state of being she experienced while under sway of the hashish she frequently smoked during her time in the East.
With renewed fury she reapplies the pinch to Barcus, who now realizes his life is forfeit and exchanges one last pleading look with the Empress.
"You should have told me," she says.
Xena bolts out of the door and runs the length of the village, its sparse occupants and objects motionless as a mosaic, a static landscape that means nothing. When she bursts inside her cottage she interrupts, to her astonishing relief, a surreal domestic scene: Gabrielle and Pullo sitting together at the kitchen table-the former sipping tea while the latter works his way through the remnants of her breakfast-and a large dead man, face covered, sprawled in a carpet of fresh blood.
At her dramatic entrance the startled Gabrielle stares and Pullo, still chewing, leaps to his feet.
Xena stares at the corpse.
Pullo nods at Gabrielle. "She did it," he blurts around a mouthful of barley.
"Was I supposed to let him strangle you?" Gabrielle retorts peevishly.
Like an exotic barbarian necklace, bloody furrows criss-cross Pullo's throat. And yet he can chow down as if nothing happened, Xena thinks. Did Varian really think he could strangle that bull neck? She kneels and removes the covering from the dead man's face. His eyes are closed and his waxen face-above the deep red rent along his throat-is at peace. You are with him now, aren't you? And you are happy, you are complete, and you risked everything-for him, for love. Is that what it's like, then? To love?
Is it? Her hand shakes.
Gabrielle and Pullo wait for her to be, as usual, cavalier and unflappable, supremely confident. She isn't. "He came for me." And he could have killed you. "What happened?"
"Well, I came to get her," Pullo nods at Gabrielle, "and he was here."
"But I wasn't," Gabrielle adds. "I went to the stream. To bathe."
"Bastard jumped me the second I came in. I was just about to shake him off-"
Gabrielle snorts in disbelief.
"-when the shortest gladiator in the world comes in and saves my sorry ass."
The bantering, affectionate sarcasm indicates that everything is back to normal between them. Gabrielle sighs. "Fine. The next time someone tries to garrote you I won't be as obliging."
Xena examines the body. Sinewy arms, beefy legs, dirt under the fingernails. Just another soldier. Not yet settled into rigor mortis, his right hand is nonetheless curled protectively around air. She does not know why-perhaps, she thinks, it's a good final tribute to a soldier, albeit an assassin, that he attends a funeral pyre in perfect linear repose-but carefully, methodically she unclenches the hand, straightens his fingers, and discovers, hidden within the flap of skin connecting thumb to the meat of the palm, a tattoo not even half as a large as a denarius: An ankh.
Xena's lengthy communion with a dead man's hand piques the curiosity of Pullo and Gabrielle. The former kneels, bulkily blocking the latter from doing so. "Fucking Egyptian." Pullo whistles at the sight of the miniscule tattoo. "He's one of Cleopatra's, then?"
"Don't know." Xena rests the hand on the dead man's torso. "All I know is I shouldn't have killed Barcus."
"Why did you kill Barcus?" Gabrielle asks quietly.
Startled, Xena looks up at her-and cannot bear the almost serene, contemplative expression on Gabrielle's face as their eyes meet. Rather, she cannot bear how it makes her feel, and so she feigns further interest in the ankh. "He withheld the truth from me. He knew about this-that Varian was going to try to kill me. He told me that Varian held me responsible for Manthius's death-apparently they were lovers."
"Really?" Pullo gives a dismissive laugh. "Yeah, they fucked-but I never got the impression it was anything serious. More like just passing time in this gods-forsaken place." He looks to Gabrielle for affirmation. "Wouldn't you say?"
"Yes. They didn't seem to-" Gabrielle pauses, before weakly trailing off: "-to be in love."
Xena rubs her chin. "So that may have been a cover story. Or a matter of convenience? All to disguise the fact he was here as an assassin for Cleopatra? And Barcus knew-he condoned it, or was part of it?" She sighs. "All pointless speculation at the moment."
When she dares to look at the gladiator again, Gabrielle is leaning in, close enough to scrutinize the tattoo. "This explains why he usually wore gloves," she says. "I thought he was just being careful, to avoid injury. And when he didn't he was just hiding in plain sight." She pauses. "It's clever."
And Barcus? Xena wonders. She rises and meets Pullo's eyes. "Get your neck taken care of-now. Then get rid of him." A pool of blood has congealed along the border of her boot. "And one of you-get someone to clean this up." She stalks out of the cottage without risking another glance at Gabrielle.
She finds Brutus sitting alone with a dead man of his own. With only Brutus's arched eyebrow as commentary, she kneels before Barcus, examines his right hand, and discovers the miniature ankh engraved in the same location.
When she shows it to Brutus, his mouth sours for what could easily be the hundredth time that day: "Well. Your breakup with Cleopatra obviously did not go as well as you thought."
PART XVIITea and sympathy
Xena does not like being someone's target. She is not accustomed to it, really. As Caesar's wife, everyone seemed focused on killing her husband; her role, much relished and performed with the skill and impeccable timing of a master thespian, was that of saving him at the last moment. As Caesar's widow, however, she is a tantalizing target: The symbolic last remnant of his Empire and a thrilling challenge for any assassin worth his or her salt.
It is at Brutus's instigation, however, that full body searches for incriminating, Egyptian-themed tattoos-these vague details a source of amusement to the soldiers-were instigated throughout the camp in Garouna. Initially, Xena had proposed the mere checking of hands, but Brutus insisted that every soldier be stripped bare and every inch of skin, every orifice meticulously examined with thorough impropriety by the scrupulous, long-suffering Ping, who once again privately bemoaned the day that his mistress Lao Ma gave him to a beautiful Greek warrior-queen.
"Why Brutus," Xena had archly marveled after he'd read the order to the scowling troops. "I didn't know you cared."
He offered his most withering look. "I don't. I just know that if whoever it is who's trying to kill you succeeds, I will be next." Before dramatically exiting into his cottage, he had added, snarling at the morose Ping: "And I want it done all in one day."
The day of the examinations are no joy for Gabrielle either, who is appointed Ping's guard and reluctant assistant ("pass the castor oil, please") during the lengthy procedures and who, the night prior, had undergone a meticulous inspection by the Empress herself that revealed no mysterious tattoos but the happy fact that she could climax more than once during the same act. No such pleasant outcome occurs for the parade of soldiers who enter and exit the tent, bearing for the healer's careful consideration scarred bodies prone to aches, pains, arousals, and flatulence-in other words, typical bodies. Not unlike Ping, she observes them all dispassionately, for none of them possess even a fraction of the sheer magnificence, the fine power, the startling beauty of Xena's body.
But, she realizes, she has grown rather biased in the matter.
After the last man is clothed and gone, Ping boils a handful of tea leaves in a battered copper kettle. When the healer sits a blue bowl of tea in front of Gabrielle, she sniffs suspiciously; it would be just like him to ply her with some supposedly healthful elixir that tasted of horse piss. Despite Xena's great trust of him, Ping's quiet, surreptitious interest in her health-her body-provokes a sense of unease within her. At times his remedies seem almost as horrible the ailments or wounds that precipitate treatment; a poultice he made for her aching shoulder, for example, reeked of an old man's feet. Thus several minutes of steaming consideration pass before she risks touching her lips to the bowl. But when she does the tea, the color of rainwater, delicately sweetens her tongue while the warmth emanating from the small, pretty ceramic bowl fills her hands. The simple act of enjoying tea becomes, in the moment, the most powerful reminder yet of the fact that she is no longer a slave. Doing nothing is the very definition of freedom. There is no place she needs to be, there is no task that, on the threat of death, she must perform. She is merely a soldier-beholden to the state, but less so. And along with a soldier's duties she has those quiet, unstructured moments of nothingness. Like now. She sips the tea.
But what of a lover's duty, a lover's devotion? Her fingers undulate of their own accord, reenacting memories of the night before: How Xena's hands glided along her body, almost touching but not quite, the heat of those imagined journeys inciting Gabrielle to her most passionate surrender yet.
Then the tea goes the wrong way down her throat and she coughs and hiccups violently while Ping looks on, concerned.
"You don't like the tea?" he asks, smiling politely.
Gabrielle clears her throat. "I like it very much. I'm just-preoccupied." Xena had been rather pleased last night with Gabrielle's multiorgasmic display: "I didn't know you could do that!" she had exclaimed, as if Gabrielle had shot an arrow through a pomegranate on a mule's twitching ass at twenty paces. That she has so little control over her thoughts and her body lately is unnerving and, she admits, dismaying. Her focus has always been clear, the intent of her body beveled toward the edge of survival. And now? The slow warmth of vulnerability seeps into her, as surely as the warmth from the teacup leeches into her skin. To compensate she has spent more time in the practice yards, challenging anyone with a sword and a masochistic streak. She cannot afford to lose the skills and the drive acquired from so many years in the ring.
Because if I did, what would I be then?
Ping's contented sigh intrudes upon her brooding.
She gives him a questioning glance.
"Forgive me. It is pleasant to be gazing upon a young woman's lovely face and not a hairy scrotum."
Not unlike Xena, Ping also has a wry manner that catches her unaware at time. "So I am better looking than a scrotum." Gabrielle raises the cup in a mock toast. "Thank you for the compliment."
The healer chuckles. "You are most welcome." Then he studies her in his usual intense, professional manner, and her shoulders stiffen with dread: Now what? "I mean no offense. Surely you have been complimented on your looks before."
She shrugs. "Not really." Even in her existence before slavery, she had never really thought herself beautiful. Boys always liked her sister more, Perdicus the exception to this because he was, as her father insinuated, not too bright as a result of a childhood incident where he was struck in the head with a runaway wagon wheel. Among the Amazons she fared no better, for they wooed one another with physical prowess, with derring-do: Who could climb a tree the fastest, who was the most skilled swordswoman, who could catch an arrow with the most poise. As a youth, Gabrielle only possessed poise lounging in the grass while making up epic sagas about brave warriors and only ran faster than anyone when summoned to dinner. She looks at her hands: scarred knuckles, knotty fingers, rough palms. If they could see me now. I might have a harem. Not that she has ever wanted that-particularly now; keeping up with one lover, particularly one like Xena, is challenge enough.
"Sadly, the Empress is not skilled in the art of paying verbal tribute to her companions," Ping offers by way of comfort.
"Or her healers either?"
He snorts. "Well, there's that. But upon meeting my mistress Lao Ma, Xena told her that she resembled a common garden snake."
This confirms the obvious: that Xena always likes to make an impression-even a dubious one. "I don't need compliments."
"Ah!" Ping exclaims softly.
Something about his gentle emphasis irritates her. She knows he does not believe her.
The healer and the gladiator look at one another. Ping purses his lips, but kindly leaves the unasked question hanging by a thread of silence: So what do you need?
"No more spies."
Bulbous clouds, like colorless, dismal boughs of fruit, hang low enough that they are visible through the reticule of Brutus's window. Disappointed at the results of the Ping's examinations, he tightly curls the healer's hasty report in his hands.
Xena, however, sips wine, and echoes satisfactorily. "No more spies."
"Doesn't this trouble you in the least?"
"The whole matter's troubled me from the start. For the moment I'm giving myself permission to feel relieved." She places the wine cup on the table but will not, of course, admit to him the depths of her unease. "But there's nothing more to do. What else would you suggest? Body searches, tent searches, we've even gone over the ship-we've found no further evidence, and the two people who can tell us who or why are dead."
"'Who'? 'Why'?" Incredulous, Brutus sneers. "We know who-Cleopatra. And we know why-you abandoned her like a common tart."
Did you? You did. And you didn't care. She'd been on the deck of ship, sailing away from Alexandria, when she realized she hadn't really said farewell to Cleopatra, just a cryptic comment about power the night before she had retired, alone, to her own bed. The yoke of guilt tightens and she coughs up a harsh, barking laugh. "She wasn't as mad about me as you might think. She cared more for the troops that I had initially promised her, for the protection of her regime, that were instead requisitioned for this mission."
He hums in accord. "Regardless, I hope you've learned that you should be more careful." Feeling confident of his ability to wound, he sprawls casually in his seat. "Your current bed-warmer is a lot more dangerous-you should let her down gently when you move on. Unlike Cleopatra, she could snap your neck like a twig."
A proposed ending to this affair-even an imaginary conclusion-troubles Xena more than she cares to admit. She takes a moment to compose herself by knocking back the dregs of the wine and smiling lasciviously as she rises. "My dear Brutus, that's part of the excitement."
It's only after Xena leaves that he permits himself to smile. Unbeknownst to her, he understands that excitement quite well and, in fact, has nurtured a strange affection in his breast for this intriguing creature. He never misses an opportunity to watch the gladiator every day in the practice yard.
Gabrielle knows this. While it's not uncommon for her everyday maneuvers to draw a crowd, here he stands out. In Alexandria, many curious citizens of all classes and castes came to watch the Little Gladiator go through her drills and defeat every reluctant challenger in mock battles with wooden swords. Here in Garouna, however, the meager group of onlookers usually consist of a couple fishwives, children who come and go at leisure, a goat, and Marcus Junius Brutus. Much in the way it unnerved her to feel Cleopatra's eyes upon her with such remorseless consistency, Gabrielle finds that this unwanted attention provokes her into fiercer fighting: One afternoon while sparring with Gnaeus, she sends the hapless, hulking Praetorian flying across the yard.
Guiltily, she jogs over to where Gnaeus lay sprawled in the mud. He hesitates before grabbing the arm she offers. "Don't you ever get tired of winning?" he cries.
"I'm sorry, Gnaeus." She adds, lamely, "You are getting better. You almost caught me with that parry-and-thrust-"
"Oh, stop it. Don't mollycoddle me." Clutching his lower back, he winces.
She frowns guiltily. "Perhaps you should let Ping mollycoddle you."
"Gods damn this fucking life. I should've stayed on the farm." Gnaeus wobbles away while shouting for the healer.
No other sparring partners step forward, so Gabrielle sets about tidying the area-stacking wooden swords, corralling maces, medicine balls, chains, spare bits of armor. Despite hearing Brutus's lethargic trudge through the mud, she nearly jumps at the sound of his strong voice at her shoulder: "I don't understand it."
It's the first time he's deigned to speak with her. Flicking at the splintered edge of a wooden sword with her thumbnail, she warily engages him. "Understand what?"
"I've been told you're a freewoman. A very intelligent, well-read freewoman. You could go anywhere now, even back to your homeland. Why do you remain here?" He pauses, taking careful aim at her soft spot. "Surely if Xena is truly fond of you, she would release you from your duties."
"I'd rather be at her side than not."
"Would I but find a lover-or even a wife-possessing such loyalty, I would be a happy man."
He already has a wife-doesn't he? she wonders. "I'm not as extraordinary as you think."
"Oh, but I think you are. Xena was never known for picking romantic partners from the rank and file. No plebes, no slaves. Even former slaves. Well, maybe if she were desperate. But you see, you're unique." Brutus pauses; a mere twitch of the lips alters his expression from smirking to almost apologetic-just as a shift in the placement of clouds against a blue sky can indicate impending storm or a passing threat. "I see I am making you uncomfortable." Brutus offers a half-bow of pardon.
"I saw you in the ring."
Of course you did, she wants to say. Who didn't?
"You were quite impressive. Quick and efficient, almost-elegant. Brutal elegance, that's what you have. It's very-compelling. I've grown curious about you, why you're here. But I understand now your motivations now: love and loyalty. It's not surprising. Very admirable, in fact. Now Xena-well, I've the faintest idea why she does what she does. You'll pardon me again I hope, this time for speaking frankly. But I've known her much longer than you. She's always had a mercenary mind."
It would be easy to stab him with a sword. Who would miss him? His troops would easily fall under Xena's command-she was that respected. It was all easy. Too easy. Make every kill count if you can. Make it mean something. It's about your survival and nothing else. Another one of Iolaus's many precepts, so many of them bound up like sacred scrolls within the library of her mind. She can lend them but never lose them. So she refrains from bodily injury and puts on her best mask. "Putting aside such speculation, she is here helping you. If Rome is fated to stay in the grip of tyrants under the fever of an empire, it will be through no fault of her own."
Her rallying speech prompts a smirk. "You forget too quickly that she is still considered by many the Empress-the surviving face of the Empire. In a way, she's still part of the problem, as they say. Do you really think she believes in the restoration of the Republic?"
Gabrielle hesitates. "I think she believes in an equal and fair form of government beneficial to all. In the transition of power after Ptolemy and before Cleopatra, Alexandria thrived. She enacted just laws. I witnessed no abuses of her power during that time." She pauses uneasily. Even as she says it all, she wonders if it is really true. Xena is impatient and imperious and-what else? She did not know. Thus far, Gabrielle has never seen the Empress at her worst, only glimpses of blackness-the chill of her eyes as her hand lashed around Pothinus's throat, the inhuman cry of triumph as she drove a dagger into Basileos's neck. What is she capable of? And what does it matter-do you really think you are any better?
"All hail Xena, advocate of the people's republic." Again Brutus's expression registers faints changes of emotion in an incrementally, sardonically minute scale. "And what of you?"
She blinks. "What?"
"What do you think?"
How many times in the past five years of her life has anyone, other than Xena, asked her opinion on anything? Amid the resentment the alien sensation of flattery emerges. She hesitates. "What concerns Rome-does not concern me."
"Really? Truly?" Mock incredulousness. "You have no beliefs? A woman as intelligent as you?"
Gabrielle demurs. "I wouldn't go that far. I hope that Rome can achieve an open and just society for all."
Brutus grins; the effect is jarring. "Then we are on the same side after all."
Knowing that he is convinced he has won something, she watches him walk away. By the time she is done clearing the yard, the sun bows down through the trees and she makes her way through the darkening village toward Xena's cottage.
Apollonian and Dionysian
One evening many years ago, Xena's mother had a bad day at the inn: Too many stupid customers, too many fights, too many months of monotonous hard work, and perhaps the beginning of her change of life, prompted her to uncork a very fine bottle of wine and consume most of it, unmixed. Deeply in her cups and in the presence of her bewildered children, Cyrene of Amphipolis blathered resentments at length: Her abandonment by not only her husband but also her vagabond eldest son, the vulgarities of the idiots she had to serve day in and day out, and the unnaturalness of a daughter who would rather use swords to decapitate flowers than smell them, and who also surreptitiously gawked at buxom maidens.
Lyceus, her beloved youngest, was, of course, immune from her inebriated invective. But among the more interesting-if not acutely embarrassing-morsels of information that young Xena digested that evening was Cyrene's belief in her daughter's destiny: How, the night of Xena's conception, the God of War came to her in an erotic vision and spoke-among other things-of how she would give birth to one of the greatest warriors in the world. When, nine months later, she gave birth to a daughter, she thought it all "a bunch of phooey." And when Lyceus was born, she naturally thought her golden-haired boy would be the great warrior. But Lyceus always seemed more content to daydream while tooting a pan flute and Xena soon began twirling a sword with the ease of a Persian prince. Cyrene realized she was wrong.
"So." In closing, Cyrene had slammed down her wine cup. "This destiny thing, Xena, could be really good or-not. It could be really, really really bad. Because you're so-headstrong and impatient and easily distracted by bosoms-Zeus, I hope you grow out of that, it's wrong, and you don't see Lyceus doing shit like that-"
She passed out.
Xena had shot her amused brother an outraged look. He didn't need to look at bosoms because he divided his free time from the inn with at least three different girls in at least three different haylofts.
Now, some eleven years later and while sitting in the simple comfort of her billet, Xena once again broods upon destiny. Caesar was not the first to mark her so. This unsettling mantle has plagued her enough so that she has long sought the easiest route toward quelling her ambition: Marriage. Seduction. It has worked well thus far. Hasn't it? With Caesar gone, her foothold in the Empire rested upon the delicate cradle of his bones. But despite the tributes, he will soon be forgotten. His memory will be consigned to statues and scrolls on history of the Empire. She sighs. If she had heeded her mother's warning, however ridiculous it had seemed at the time, and had proceeded through the world with more caution and less impulse, would her brother still be alive? Would she have met Caesar and married him? Would she be in this place, sipping wine, staring at the fire, and awaiting the arrival of someone who intoxicates her in so many ways, unlike any lover or companion she has ever had before?
Xena's absorption in her thoughts is so great that when the doorjamb twitches she momentarily forgets the impending arrival of the gladiator and anticipates an assassin. With a leap and a spin she sends a dagger across the room as a perfectly timed warning shot that thunks into the doorframe as the door opens and reveals Gabrielle.
The gladiator stares at the undulating dagger for a long minute, her hand at cautious rest upon her sword hilt. "Am I that late?"
Her gentle humor, couched in low, soft tones, gives Xena the chance to draw a deep, restorative breath. "No."
"Oh." Still, Gabrielle hesitates. "Shall I leave?" she offers.
"No." Xena pinches the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right."
"No, it's not all right. I'm thinking too much, and that's never good-despite what you may believe, my thoughtful little friend."
Gabrielle closes the door and leans against it. "You've a lot on your mind these days. It's unavoidable, I think."
"Yes, but-" Xena crosses the room, the loosening of her robe signaling an unmistakable intent. "I'm more a woman of action rather than thought."
Gabrielle smiles. "Dionysian rather than Apollonian."
"Precisely." She frames Gabrielle's face with her hands and her kiss lingers, a continuation of an apology, as Gabrielle's hands plunge into her robe and slide warmly over her bare hips.
"And," Gabrielle casts another look at the dagger in the frame, "you have very strange ideas of foreplay." She breathes a nervous laugh into Xena's ear.
Xena laughs too. They can laugh together: She likes this. She cannot remember laughing, ever, in front of or with her husband. She has discovered that she likes many things about Gabrielle; every day offers a pleasing new aspect. She likes that Gabrielle will patiently listen to Pullo recite a story about a certain battle at Parnassus, one that she has no doubt heard countless times before. She likes that Gabrielle will help an old woman lead a cart to market, or be dragged and bossed around by children who want the attention of the most unusual soldier they've ever seen. She likes that Gabrielle comes in from the practice yard smelling of the outdoor world, mud and blood and the sea, stirring in her a primal, long-dormant desire to surrender to someone worthy, someone formidable-and that it is also someone who is so exquisite and so gentle increases the intensity of her desire while confounding and defying each and every expectation. She doesn't flinch, freeze, or fight back when Gabrielle spins them around, pushes her against the door and kisses her hard-impatiently cresting the barrier of her soft mouth-she knows the rhythms of Xena's demands and is more than ready to meet them. Her hands and mouth are everywhere, pulling off Xena's robe with force while her own cloak falls to the floor, teasing and taking until Xena, naked and shivering against the rough cold door, surrenders and climaxes against her hand.
It happens all over again in front of the fire, on a pile of furs and blankets. Gabrielle is clearly in a mood to dominate, something that Xena understands very well, but she is also driven by the need to prove herself a lover skilled beyond her years. Regardless, Xena is happy to reap the benefits of Gabrielle's characteristic devotion to applying and expanding upon her frenetic acquisition of knowledge. In the glow of the fire, so like the sun but contained in a world of stone and soot, she catches a glimpse of herself briefly reflected in the mirror of Gabrielle's iris, etched in miniature and floating in a mosaic of colors, just another element in the composition of the gladiator's existence. Slowly, Gabrielle's mouth traverses the length and breadth of her body, deliberately teasing and sucking too long at her breasts until Xena grabs a fistful of thick blonde hair, pries Gabrielle away from her long-anticipated prize, and kisses her roughly-a urgent signal to move on. But the defiant haze in Gabrielle's eyes indicates she's going to do what she damn well pleases, and will languidly take her time in reaching that sweet point of destination residing between Xena's legs. It's a decision that keeps Xena bucking and rolling in furious anticipation until Gabrielle takes her, sucking her off gently, then dallying with playful, slow strokes that thrum and reverberate as a deep chord plucked from a lute and echoing through the amphitheater of her body. Gabrielle alternates these techniques with maddening skill, eventually settling into relentless rhythm that finally sends Xena into bliss, pulsing and cresting into great waves of release.
In the afterglow her heart hammers viciously, her thighs are sticky with the damp remnant of orgasm, and Gabrielle lies moored between her legs, her strong shoulders spanning Xena's waist. This time Xena's fingers winnow like a breath through the wild white gold of the gladiator's hair, and in her exhaustion she knows that no words can capture the delicate tenor of the fleet thoughts running through her mind.
Gabrielle, however, mistrusts the silence and gazes up at her. Once again, she slips from one persona to another, from assured fighter and passionate lover to an awkward young woman craving assurance. "Was that okay?" she asks timidly.
Xena blinks at the scarred ceiling. Why were they always asking one another these questions? she wonders. Were they both that fragile, or is it that they are both so dangerous, even at the most vulnerable of moments? She has to ruin it all with her damn solicitousness, her tenderness-and being so damn good at that. Zeus alive-is it possible that she could get even better?
But doesn't she deserve, at least, some honesty from you?
"It's better than okay," Xena quietly confesses. "It's so fucking good that I want to stay in this godsforsaken room with you on this godsforsaken island for the rest of my life."
Her admission comes too late; Gabrielle's snores lightly batter against her thigh.
Greece and gruel
Cool air from the outside world rolls against Gabrielle's bare back. It's a gentle wake-up call, a luxury she has rarely experienced in her life. The fire roars on and she spends several long minutes waking into the curling flames, watching the dance of orange, gold, black, and blue. When, finally, she rolls over, Xena-hair still loose, robe still open, beauty still excruciatingly perfect-wastes no time in straddling her waist. The only things different is that the Empress, like a beguiling server, holds aloft a plate of food perched upon elegant fingertips.
"Thought you were going to sleep forever," Xena says.
Gabrielle rests her hands on those strong, supple thighs. "Sorry."
"Stop saying that all the time. Look, are you hungry? I've got something I want you to try. Pullo just brought them by while you were sleeping-"
"Pullo?" Alarmed, Gabrielle attempts to sit up, but settles for propping herself upon her elbows. "He saw me naked again?"
"I hate to tell you this, but Pullo has probably seen more women naked than, well, me. You didn't even merit a second glance with him. Besides, he's screwing the best cook in town-that widow, what's-her-face. He brought me these wonderful dumplings and-this is really a fucking miracle of the gods in this place-some decent wine." Xena plucks a dumpling off the tray and, like a seductive Tantalus, dangles the delicacy in front of Gabrielle's mouth. "Have one."
She wonders if she's dreaming: Being fed and pampered by the most beautiful woman in the world. Her teeth pierce the soft pastry, her palate overwhelmed by spices and flavors in such subtle competition and complementation with one another she cannot identify any one ingredient.
"What do you think?"
She thinks the savory dumplings are all the more delicious for the sweet lingering aftertaste of Xena's thumb brushing her lips and tongue. "I think-I'm really beginning to enjoy Corfu. And-" On an epicurean overload, Gabrielle stumbles over words; her engorged senses burst the barriers of her nominally stoic demeanor. She cannot contain it any more.
Xena laughs encouragingly. "Yes?"
"I think, I am very happy. And, I think, I love you."
Aside from a flash of surprise, Xena's expression holds inscrutable as she murmurs one syllable: "Ah!"
Gabrielle recognizes the meaning of this utterance; it's a verbal stonewall of condescension, of feigned pleasure and astonishment. She recalls its placating affect upon the exuberant boy-king Ptolemy XIII as he showed Xena around his palace and proudly pointed out every glittering bauble, every ostentatious statue, every golden, baroque bit of décor. The Empress had ah'ed her way through every nook of that palace.
As Xena rises, Gabrielle presses the heels of both hands against her eyes to suppress the threat of tears. She has ruined everything. The first rules of being a slave remain so deeply inculcated within her that her mind runs through them again with blind obedience: Never say what you really think or feel. Even when they ask you. Even when they're nice to you. Even when they take you to bed. Was it really so bad to settle for this half-measure: affection, friendship, sex, all of it tallying up into a soupcon of love?
When her hands fall from her face, she sees that Xena stands above her, regarding her thoughtfully. "Lie on your belly," she commands. At the suspicious look on the gladiator's face, she raises an amused eyebrow. "It's not what you think." She holds a vial of liquid. "Ping mixed this up for me. It's for your back."
"Does it magically remove scars?" Gabrielle asks sarcastically. Why, why did I say I loved you?
"No, but I know those scars on your back are itchy-Ping didn't tell me. It's the way you're always rolling and twitching your shoulders. It's because the skin is dry and tight. And yes, the oil will help fade them. So stop sulking and turn over."
Gabrielle doesn't stop sulking but reluctantly turns over and, to her complete annoyance, finds herself aroused again as Xena straddles her ass. Her fingers claw into the animal fur beneath her. The cork pops off the vial, followed by the seductive susurration of skin against skin as Xena warms the oil in her hands. Despite this she is unprepared for Xena's touch, for the deep, dizzying shock of heat that seeps through old wounds that she thought were healed over and permeates her very bones. With abandon she moans and arches into this, a climax without direct stimulus.
"Damn." Even the jaded Xena is impressed. "I'll have to ask Ping what he puts in this stuff." Then she works steadily and quietly, from the muscled shoulders down to the delicious dip in the small of Gabrielle's back. Limp and sated, Gabrielle closes her eyes, seeking asylum from her raging emotions in sleep, when Xena starts talking again.
"On my fourteenth birthday my mother announced to me that she had betrothed me to a neighbor's son. It wasn't the gift I was expecting-there was a hunting knife one of the local peddlers had that I was rather keen on. But I went along with the betrothal just to shut my mother up. We were constantly fighting back then. I knew I wasn't the daughter she really wanted, and who knows, I might have actually drifted into marrying Maphias if Cortese hadn't shown up in Amphipolis a few years later."
The name Cortese briefly troubles the increasingly pacific calm of Gabrielle's mind, sinking like a stone to the bottom where, surrounded by the silt of other memories, it is ignored.
"But that happened and-everything changed." Xena pauses. "My brother died. That was my fault. I should have sent him away-he wasn't meant for fighting. I was arrogant and foolish. Thinking everything would go the way I wanted-if I worked hard enough, fought hard enough, I could protect him, the town-I could have it all, I could have everything. But against fate, it seemed all my ambitions meant nothing. So I became accustomed to feeling what I had initially felt about my betrothal-nothing. It was a way of never being disappointed." Her thumb sets an elegant, smooth course along Gabrielle's spine. "When I met Caesar, I never thought in a million years he would want to marry me. I thought that if I played my cards right, I would be his mistress, and he would grant me the satrapy of Greece. That's all I wanted. But," she gently rubs Gabrielle's neck, "when you expect gruel and someone offers you a banquet, you don't say no-no matter how ill-prepared you may be for the riches before you." Xena turns wry. "Not that I mean to compare Greece to gruel, but-" Here her voice deepens into tenderness. "-you do understand what I mean? I hope you do."
Gabrielle opens her eyes and once again alights on the fire, seemingly constant as the flame at Delphi, but knowing that even when it dies, it does not cease to exist; it is easily reignited. With patience comes perpetuity.
PART XVIIIState of motion
A good day for sailing: Not a blight upon the blue sky, the crisp breeze crosses the island in a favorable direction, and the ship is fully repaired. Yet it stands stationary, submitting itself for full inspection by Xena-who stalks across the deck, crawls through every hull and cranny, and scampers up a mast, all of it not unlike a cat laying claim to new territory through the relentless, elegant testing of limitations. The ship's new captain, Lucius, squeaks alarmingly when Xena-cape and hair fluttering like the panicked beats of his heart- leaps down from the mast.
Pullo, who has accompanied his Empress on the inspection, grunts sympathetically. "Yeah, I know. She always gives me the shits when she does that."
Xena's stride rings across the ship's solid boards. "Very good." She says it loud enough so that the crew will hearten at the news.
Flush with triumph, Lucius nods. "Thank you, Empress."
"So you'll be ready to shove off tomorrow?" It's barely a question.
"Excellent." She pauses for effect, to once again gauge the perfect, mellifluously confident pitch of her voice for the benefit of the men. "We sail at dawn."
Pullo, however, cannot help but mutter an aside for her ears only: " 'Bout fucking time."
She glares at him while addressing the beaming captain: "Make the preparations, Lucius."
Forsaking the plank, Xena jumps to the beachhead below to the accompaniment of Pullo groaning, "Oh, for fuck's sake." Frowning, he gazes down at her. The last time he attempted to mimic one of her graceful leaps he sprained an ankle.
"Take the plank, you overgrown bastard!" She starts walking. He dashes down the plank, jogging to catch up with her. When he does arrive at her side he sees her restless mind has already moved onto something else: Strategies, options, battles, bon mots. Always ten steps ahead of me and everyone else. "Do you remember those sais I have?" she asks abruptly.
A blank stare is his response.
"The weapons I brought back from Chin. Beautifully tempered by one of the most reverential and skilled smiths I've ever encountered, given to me by my mentor, and one of which you used to skewer and cook a wild pig while we were out on maneuvers near Ravenna."
"Ah!" Pullo cries. "Now I do. Quite handy, those."
Xena hums thoughtfully. "Do you think she'd like them?"
He resists the urge to roll his eyes. "She," the Little Gladiator, was always first and foremost on Xena's mind these days, more so than Brutus and Antony. It concerned Pullo, but news of the ship's readiness is a counterweight to this worry, and Xena appears more than ready to depart. Regardless, the old adage "out of sight, out of mind" spectacularly failed the test of truth in this instance; whenever the Empress was away from her lover, the absent gladiator usually found her way not only into conversation but thought as well. Pullo could tell by the softening of Xena's mouth and the faraway look in her eyes. Cuntstruck indeed. Brutus was right about that. "Innit bad form to give to the, ah, current object of your affection a gift you got from a previous, er, conquest?"
"Gods above, Pullo, you're using euphemisms. I'm impressed."
He shrugs. "The little one is a good influence in that regard," he admits reluctantly. Ever since Gabrielle had described tact as being a weapon of sorts, he had been intrigued, and strove to match her superior level in this particular skill. It kept his mind occupied during these long stretches of tedium on the island. Even though he seemed to lag behind her in any number of skills, he was nothing if not competitive.
"Yes, I see that," Xena agrees. "As for, ah-what shall we call it? Regifting?-normally it is bad form, but not in this instance."
Because she's in a good mood, Pullo risks a bit of cheek. "You mean because you're the one doing it?" She grins but, of course, explains it no further. Typical. He changes the subject back to the good news at hand. "Shall I let the word out among the men? That we're gone tomorrow?"
"Wait until I talk with Brutus." She leaves him standing in the middle of the village's desolate main road. Her departing form-the unfurled cape, the long swagger-assures him that by tomorrow they'll be on the move, and once again everything will be approximating a favored state of the career soldier: Movement. And perhaps even a little bit of battle.
Xena's first thought as she goes down is, Oh, Brutus. The second thought: How could I be so stupid? She had opened the door to Brutus's cottage without a moment's hesitation and, before she could stop the momentum of her large, stupid foot, noticed the glint of the wire stretched just ahead of the threshold. It sent her sprawling into a most undignified heap and now here she was, on the floor and with two of Brutus's favorite hulking guards pointing swords in her face.
Brutus, fully armored, stares down at her. "I guess it's true in a literal sense as well as figurative: The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
"Have you gone to all this trouble as a commentary on my weight, Brutus?" A couple weeks of inactivity-aside from sex-and dumplings have left her slightly concerned. Not that she would admit that to Brutus. "And only two thugs? I'm insulted."
Brutus smirks grimly, but his fingers tap a nervous dance along his thigh. He takes a gamble, and he's well aware of it. "Need to take you down a notch, Xena. I thought this the best way to get your head from out between your gladiator's legs and focused on more pressing concerns. I know you've enjoyed your little honeymoon, but we're losing our advantage by sitting here doing nothing." He pauses. "You are not as invulnerable as you think."
Xena winces and rubs her back. "Neither are you." She attempts to sit up, but an unwavering gladius wielded by the larger of the two dolts prevents her from doing so. "Boy, you better get that fucking sword out of my face or you'll regret it very, very quickly."
Brutus gestures at the soldier, who lowers his blade and takes an elegant backward step. "I regret that I had to resort to such cheap tactics, but-sit down." He pulls a chair toward her.
Reluctantly she sits. As if they are in negotiations-which, she realizes with a sinking feeling, they probably are-Brutus sits across from her. She keeps a wary eye on the guards, who keeps their swords at the ready. "I don't know what the hell you thought you were accomplishing with this little trick, but I've come to tell you that the ship is ready. My men and I sail tomorrow. We won't be 'sitting here doing nothing' any longer."
"So we are following your plan: I approach Antony by land, you by sea."
"You agreed to it," she replies, her tone salted with a pinch of peevishness.
Brutus frowns. "Yes, well." He drums his fingers upon the table. "I grant you are the great tactician-at least Caesar always thought so. But, Xena, don't you see why I'm upset?"
His smile is almost apologetic. Her stare is completely blank.
Earnest, he leans forward. "I have no assurances."
Of course. Pullo had taken the gladiator's lessons in tact and diplomacy very well. And she? Had she forgotten all that Caesar-and Lao Ma-had taught her? Now she sees the misstep. She should have appeased Brutus more. Humored his half-assed battle plans with perfunctory consideration, made squawks of approval during his portentous speeches about the Republic. In the end it would have made him more pliable to her leadership. Instead she had resented the yoke the fates placed about her neck: Forced into an alliance with a man she did not respect over an empire she had no place in anymore.
His nervous tapping once again manifests itself; this time his fingers drum the table. "You see, I have no idea if this little triumvirate of ours, that you formed with Lepidus and I, will remain intact the minute you're out of my sight. You haven't been exactly-encouraging in that respect. You don't believe in the Republic. So I ask myself, and now you: What do you believe in?"
Good question, she thinks derisively. But says nothing. Not that it would matter to him anyway.
"So," Brutus continues, "in my ample spare time on this island hellhole, where I have nothing to do but think-well, you can't blame me for believing that the minute you meet up with Antony again, you will take his side against Lepidus and myself. Maybe you'd even seduce him. We both know what you're capable of. And you're more a perfect match with him than you were with Caesar. Caesar reined you in. Antony wouldn't. You're a female version of him. You are both two sides of the same black, false coin."
"If you think insulting me-"
The flat of his palm slams the table, and the sudden violence of the gesture produces the desired effect of silencing her. "You need me more than you think," he hisses. "Without my men, your brilliant 'plan' to confront Antony is nothing."
It is true, of course. Xena takes a moment to compose herself, to settle into the role of diplomat. "Then tell me," she says softly, "what assurances I can give you."
His mouth softens. "I agree to proceed with our course of action under one circumstance: Your gladiator remains here with my troops."
She laughs sardonically. "You're overplaying your hand."
"I know." He smiles again, and this time she does not like it at all.
Instinctively she straightens-and one of the bully boys steps closer. "I don't know what you think you're trying to do. If it's seducing her, you haven't a chance, a clue, or a hope in hell."
"Oh, I'm quite aware of that. In fact, the entire camp is aware of that." He waves a dismissive hand. "No, Xena. When I asked before what you believe in-it wasn't entirely rhetorical. Because I know precisely what you do believe in."
Her hand cups the table's edge; a splinter painfully finds the softest part of her palm. She knows what he's going to say, and he knows that she knows.
She wonders how quickly she could kill him and the guards.
"I watched you through five years of marriage. You never blinked when he slept with someone else. Never cared. It was a topic of conversation over dinner, a battle to be dissected, where the opponent was both mocked for her inferiority to your status and praised for her good looks. And what of that Egyptian slag? Did you really think I believed that you cared for her? Why, you told me yourself, laughingly, how she seduced your right-hand man, the great Pullo. Again, you didn't care. But the mere thought of my bedding your little savage, your Little Gladiator, has you foaming at the mouth. It's your weakness. And having you sail into battle with this distraction at your side-are you willing to risk the lives of your men-?" He trails off.
Xena's mind swims with so many contradictory emotions, the crosscurrents of love and fear dashed furiously against reality, that she doesn't even flinch when Brutus reaches across the table and gently clasps her arm. His tenderness is more shocking than his violence, but the undertow of truth is too powerful for her. "Don't you see? It works for all of us. I will have my assurance of your loyalty. How impressed your Praetorians will be-they're all as hard as Spartans, aren't they?-relinquishing your beloved to focus on the negotiations with Antony and the probability of battle. And, most importantly, she will be safer here, more comfortable, fighting on land. You know that." He squeezes her arm. "Play to her strengths, Xena. And to your own."
Brutus's grip slackens. She reclaims her arm, but takes nearly a minute to find her voice. "Let me think about it."
He opens his mouth to protest, then decides not to press his advantage.
Before she leaves she delivers a quick, flawless roundhouse kick into the larger guard's groin. His sword clatters to the floor. With a glance, she dares the second guard to do something about it.
In the dark
Usually in the moment before Gabrielle climaxes, Xena can feel the tension pooling within those hard, powerful thighs as Gabrielle poises for release-a current of energy bundles into her muscles until it is transmuted by Xena's eager hands into the lightning flash of intangible bliss. Then, and only then, Gabrielle softens-her limbs slack, her breath shallow, her caress light, just before she surrenders to sleep.
This time, however, is different. After she comes her eyes close and she submits, quietly yet still awake, to Xena's clever fingers sweeping through the sweaty valley of her torso. Usually after sex, a kiss upon the cheek and good glass of wine is all Xena wants. But during this happy fortnight everything has changed; she has finally found the first person she has ever wanted to continue touching for no reason but for mere substantiation of an intangible connection. But at this moment Gabrielle's belly is tight with deeply held breaths, her muscles still rigid with-something. Xena suppresses a sigh of frustration. The day had started off so promising, with the news of-
"So the ship is ready," Gabrielle says, her voice flatter than a gangplank. Her eyes remain closed.
Damn Pullo. Of course, she thinks, the lout would think it fine to tell Gabrielle about the ship. Xena takes her first step onto the ledge. "Yes."
"Were you going to tell me?"
"Now. I was going to tell you now."
Gabrielle's eyes snap open, as bright with single-minded purpose as the day had been. "Like hell." She rolls out of the bed and Xena thinks that if she hasn't been pushed off the gangplank just yet, she's clinging to it upside down by the skin of her fingertips.
In an effort to wash up, Gabrielle furiously splashes water from the basin everywhere. Large drops wrinkle the edge of a scroll and cling to a cup.
"What do you want from me?" Xena sits up. "You're one of the first to know."
"After Pullo. And probably Brutus. Not to mention the entire crew of the ship."
It is always a misfortune to experience the anger of beautiful, naked women. Sounds like something Lao Ma would say, Xena thinks, although she wouldn't be stupid enough to earn the wrath of a beautiful woman. "Look, I'm sorry, I was going to tell you, but-"
"You thought you'd get a good fuck in first. Practical as usual." A fast dresser, Gabrielle already has her tunic on, the fabric committing worst offense possible by covering up the scarred glory of that body.
"And what's wrong with that?" Xena shouts. "I came in here and you were waiting for me, and you looked at me like-" Like you were dying of hunger, of thirst, of want and need for what I've been so stubbornly refusing you.
Cuirass in hand, apprehensively curious, Gabrielle stares at her. "Like what?"
"Like you've been waiting for me all your life," Xena confesses. "In fact, every damn time I look at you-" she stops. And yet, how do I look? Like I've been searching for you all my life without knowing?
Gabrielle pauses. "Maybe I have." The gladiator carefully places her cuirass on a chair and picks up her sword-a habit of nervous indulgence that Xena has witnessed many times. Before she puts it on or takes it off she always removes the blade from its scabbard and inspects it, as if this bronzed limb were truly a part of her body that required certification of well being both before and after battle. She will tilt the gladius just so, that the light will traverse its length and catch every nick or irregularity, revealing an inevitable, invisible history. The time it was caught in the spokes of a chariot wheel, or the times it's knocked a helmet off an opponent's head, or dragged a tired line through the sand, or the many, many times it's been sheathed in blood. Xena loves this habit. To her, it's the symbol of Gabrielle's obsessive dedication, tenacious will, and miraculous survival, myriad facets of one remarkable woman.
Not surprisingly, Gabrielle has pieced together the puzzle of silence, of what is unsaid. The gladius returns to its scabbard. "I'm not coming with you. Is that it?"
As if in a dream, a bad dream, Xena slowly dons her robe. "I've appointed you the Praetorians' liaison with Brutus's troops. I-I will have Gnaeus stay with you. He will help you."
"Sure. I'm not stupid, Xena." It's the first time, since the demise of Ptolemy's treacherous eunuch, that Gabrielle has spoken her name. "I get it. You have bigger fish to fry. Bigger warriors to seduce."
"I'm getting a little tired of everyone assuming I'm going to sleep with Antony. And seriously, 'bigger fish to fry?' What kind of provincial expression is that?"
"Sorry to be provincial, Empress." Gabrielle laces and ties her boots with such fury that Xena grows concerned for her blood circulation. "I forgot you were raised in a thriving polis."
The mention of Amphipolis-a town as meandering as the river that runs through it that was of interest to the warlord Cortese only because of its staunch fortifications and close proximity to the Aegean-rankles. Too many old wounds, too much failure-her failure to protect the city. And her brother. All of it at the knotty heart of her aching wanderlust, of the ambition that eventually led her away. "Point taken, gladiator." Xena sighs and relents. "Please. Stop this. It's not what you think." Full disclosure? she wonders. Should she tell Gabrielle that Brutus so mercilessly assessed her weaknesses and that she capitulated, she has acquiesced so easily? But she hesitates. "Being here," she whispers, "it will keep you safe." She stumbles. She falters. She's in love.
"Safe?" Gabrielle echoes, incredulous. "With Brutus?"
"I thought you liked him."
"I like his ideas. I'm not so sure about him."
"I need someone here, in his camp, that I can trust."
"Then leave Pullo behind."
"You know that's not possible. He's not-"
"-smart enough?" Gabrielle snaps. "Is that what you were going to say about him, the man you've entrusted your life to for years?"
"Enough." Xena's low, warning growl brings conversation to a halt. "You're a soldier. In my army. You follow my orders. All right?"
"Yes, Empress." Gabrielle feigns interest in a bracer. "Is there anything else?"
"No," Xena finally says. "There's nothing else."
Only after Gabrielle leaves and Xena is halfway through a bad bottle of Corfu white, does she remember that night again, the night that Gabrielle admitted her love: The hour having grown late, they had silently prepared for bed. The silvery smoke of the gutted candle crawled over them, marking them with its scent as Xena's hand gradually mapped the contours of Gabrielle's face. Be patient with me, she had said.
If I lose you, it will undo me, Gabrielle had simply replied-her heart unflinchingly honest in the sanctity of the dark. With that, she had rolled over and fell into the deep-and, to Xena's mind, cruel-sleep of the unburdened. Xena, however, had stared into the dark for hours. Undoing, she thought, usually involved two or more elements. Pulling apart the skeins of a rope, breaking down the compounds of an alloy. The heat and power of whatever existed between them left little room for speculation-only a sense of wonderful dread-on who would truly be undone.
Shadows and shades
At one end of the village is a fence demarcating the property of Pullo's prosperous widow, a woman named Ariana. Beyond the fence there are chickens, goats, other miscellaneous livestock. Sometimes Gabrielle comes to visit the animals, much to the confusion of Ariana, who has suspected wrongly that it's some odd courting ritual they do on the mainland; one evening she made a point of telling Gabrielle she was already hoping to make a husband of Pullo and had no interest in her. Gabrielle didn't have the heart to tell the widow that Pullo's plans were quite the opposite and instead only assured Ariana that she came for the solace and companionship of the animals. It was the one thing she had liked about growing up on a farm.
At dusk, most of the animals are in the barn for the evening or so motionless that the outlines of their bodies blur into the land, the troughs, the aged background of the barn. Gabrielle rests her forehead against the old, gnarled fence. A large knot in the wood possesses the mysterious, opaque depth of an owl's eye. Options, she thinks, there are always options. She could stroll into the camp right now and take out as many of Brutus's men as she could. And she could take down a whole lot of them before they would kill her, or before exhaustion would set in. But that would put the Empress into a precarious overreliance on her Praetorians. If Xena were to engage Antony on the battlefield and not the bedroom, she would need Brutus's men, she would need that element of surprise. And despite everything, she wants Xena to triumph, to live. Even if Xena wasn't hers.
Another option would be just to throw herself in the sea. Which is kind of melodramatic; she chalks this up to reading too much Sappho. But the thought of being gobbled up by the greedy Ionian Sea, to be fish food, quietly appalls. Are you so unimaginative you can only think of two ways to self-destruction? Her self-control finally quits and she releases a ragged sob, redolent of birds in flight fleeing the encroachment of winter.
The soft thuck of a boot caught in mud tells her that Pullo is at her back. The escalating humiliation she feels at being caught unaware and crying like a foolish girl is negated when she turns to him. In the thickening dusk she reads his patient face: the empathy and undiminished respect written plainly upon it.
"Come on," he says. "Have dinner with me."
Survive, Iolaus had urged her. Push aside these notions, she thinks, these ideas of love, and survive. For now. Is it enough to know that I can still love, that I am capable of it? She follows the hulking shadow of the living as the shades of the dead occupy her mind.
The sea, the sea
For Titus Pullo, history was an exciting new discovery. Despite the fact that most of the events were long past and most of the participants long dead. Because history was all a ripping good yarn: Battles and soldiers and sex-the things, he had discovered over many years, that moved the world. But he had not cared about history until stumbling upon it as a subject of interest to Gabrielle; it was a way to get her to talk, which in turned helped pass the time. After her initial hesitations, he found that she was quite good at telling these stories.
Over dinner in the mess tent, he realizes other motivations in getting her to talk about her readings: Distraction from thoughts of the Empress, and a most effective way of preventing her from challenging to a fight the nearest soldier who dared a salacious smirk or curious glance in her direction.
She's reading Xenophon, she says. He knows the story of the Ten Thousand from childhood-brave soldiers fighting for a noble cause-but not the real reasons behind it. It's a shock to his soldierly system. "So this fucker Cyrus drags all these hoplites all over fucking Persia so that he can become king, and then he's stupid enough to get killed?"
Her mouth full of lamb and barley, she confirms with a nod.
Pullo mulls it over for several minutes. "So the whole thing was pointless."
"Yes," she mutters. She tosses her now-empty bowl on the table, where it clatters with noisy obviousness like a chorus in a bad play as she snarls a very obvious subtext: "Like most battles."
Pullo casts a quick eye around the mess. One never knew when Brutus or one of his informants would be skulking about. "Careful," he murmurs.
She matches his low tone. "What can they possibly do to me?"
"Make you drink more of their bad wine, I reckon." This earns a grudging smile from the gladiator as he encourages her further: "You haven't finished your story."
"Right." She draws in a breath. "So the guide was told that he had five days to lead the army to the sea; if he failed, he would be put to death. The first day passed. Nothing. Then the second. Nothing. Every day it became harder and harder for the men to go on through the mountains. They were exhausted and hungry. The third day-again, nothing. And the fourth. If the guide was nervous, he did not betray himself. On the fifth day they reached the mountain called Theches. At the top of the mountain, a cry rose from the vanguard. From his position at the rear guard, Xenophon feared that once again they had encountered the enemy. He despaired. For the enemy was behind them as well, laying waste to every village and district encountered. It seemed half the country was in flames.
"The shouting grew louder and nearer. Xenophon realized something important was happening, and he surged through the troops. His mouth was dry with fear. As he approached the vanguard, the cry finally became clear to him: 'The sea! The sea!' And there, at the summit, he gazed down upon the Black Sea. It meant their long journey would soon be over. The Greek homeland was in sight."
By this glorious end, Gnaeus has wandered over, plopping down on the hard bench next to Pullo. "I see you're schooling Pullo," he says to Gabrielle. "Ah, good old Xenophon. Good tale, that. So." He grins at the gladiator. "I hear we two will be stuck together in this godsforsaken village for a little while longer."
As the predictable set itself into motion, Pullo stifles a groan: Gabrielle has made eye contact with a lecherous foot soldier and, with a single motion that would have made the Empress very proud at this defense of her reputation, vaults across the table and headbutts him squarely in the chest. The fists and the cutlery began flying.
A tin cup bounces off Pullo's thick head and he glares at the befuddled Gnaeus. "Now look what the fuck you've done."
The size queen
The next day on ship, Pullo finds himself thinking of Xenophon and his Anabasis. Even though it's not the sea they seek but Kassiopi, the town serving as host to Antony's winter retreat. On deck with the Empress, he even attempts a joke: "Thalassa! Thalassa!"
Xena is having none of it. When not stomping around the deck barking orders at the crew, she glowers at the rippling sea as if the Aegean directly encompasses the whole of her misery. She gives him a sour look: "Your Greek is worse than my Latin."
"Your Latin is actually pretty good," he concedes.
The compliment works in that it prevents her from further snapping at him. When they sailed at dawn this morning, the majority of Brutus's troops were lined along the way to send off their comrades and the Empress. Noticeably absent from the armored crowd was the gladiator. When pressed by Xena to reveal Gabrielle's whereabouts, Brutus affected reluctance while revealing that the gladiator's work ethic was so impressive that she had volunteered to help some slaves muck a stable. He was, he concluded with a straight face, ever so grateful to Xena for allowing this valiant soldier and role model to remain among his men.
The notoriously equinophobic Gabrielle now preferred horseshit to her. So much for love.
Pullo risks further conversation. "Do you think Antony will send a ship?"
"No. He'll make me come to him."
"Because he's a selfish prick."
"Ah." Pullo rocks on his heels and nearly falls over. Flailing, he grabs the rigging and rights himself. Balance is always tricky thing, particularly at sea. "So what's the plan?"
Surprised, Xena looks at him. He rarely thinks ahead. But then, she hasn't been very good at that herself lately. And as for a plan? "Survival. That's my plan. Because I may have to kill him, Pullo. And I don't want to because he's a friend, and he was my husband's cousin, and he's not the evil imperialist that Brutus makes him out to be."
"You just called him a prick."
"Well, you know what they say. Keep your friends close, but your pricks even closer."
Relieved at the softening of her mood, Pullo smiles at the joke. "They don't say that." He pauses. "But-"
"Go on. What?"
"What if he wants you to form an alliance with him?" As a ruler of Rome, it would be within Antony's power to grant her the one thing she's never made a secret of wanting: Greece.
Her mouth twitches. "It would be rude not to listen to what he has to say. After all, I am supposed to be negotiating."
"On behalf of Rome." Pullo possesses the temerity to remind her of it.
"Am I not part of Rome?"
"I don't know," he says. "Are you?"
Xena has always prized Pullo's bluntness, and never more so than at this moment. So she gives him the most honest answer she can summon in current state: "I am, until I say I'm not."
He contemplates this and shrugs. If it's the best she can do, it's good enough for him.
Xena skims hair away from her face, aligning her hand above her eyes as she scans the horizon. "I don't suppose it really matters one way or another what I think," she says thoughtfully. "Because I seem to be frequently wrong these days."
Pullo perks up. "Why d'ya say that?" At last, he thinks, she will admit she made a mistake in leaving Gabrielle behind.
"Because there's a quinquereme coming our way."
"Fuck." On tip toes, Pullo strains to catch a glimpse of the battle ship that, if Xena were correct, was larger than their own quadrireme. His blood rises. "That means he's got more men than us."
"True," Xena concedes, "but not significantly more. And that type of warship-it's not good for coastal maneuvers. Too big. Too heavy. We have the advantage there."
Pullo frowns. "I don't find that comforting."
"Pullo, look at it this way. This ship is like the Little Gladiator: Don't underestimate it, especially against something that is all size and brute strength." As Pullo contemplates the simile, Xena watches the ship's approach. "Ah, Antony," she sighs. "Always a size queen."
As the quinquereme looms ever closer, Xena has a strategy perfectly mapped out. A hard right toward the coast, shields up in the rear, a perfect mad dash to catch the hulking giant off guard, and more than a few flaming arrows as a parting gift. The currents and the wind favor them. But a tall, familiar figure in armor and royal colors is just visible upon the deck of the quinquereme, and that figure is jovially waving at them. Specifically, at her. For a moment Xena wonders if he's gone mad in his winter palace, or if he's drunk. Antony has always been fond of the drink, it is true, but he would never be that foolish. But is she foolish to take it as a good sign? she wonders. Her instincts, which so thrive on challenge and risk, are calling. She gazes up at the rigging, gives it a good hard tug.
"Oh, no," Pullo moans. "Empress, please. Don't."
"Don't wait too long for me. If they dare to make one bad move, give the order to run like hell for shore. Lucius knows what to do." Xena grins into her captain's panicking face. "See you soon."
And before Pullo knows it, she's in motion, climbing up the mast and swinging in ever-widening circles from the rigging. How she knows when to let go, he can't fathom, but she times it perfectly and sails across the gap between the two ships, landing with feline elegance onto Antony's deck. For the first time since the ship left Garouna, Pullo is glad that Gabrielle is not present-he's certain Xena's stunt would have prompted a conniption of epic proportions.
The Praetorians and the sailors, on the other hand, are easily impressed and wildly cheer Xena. Save for Lucius, who storms up to Pullo. "Sweet fucking Neptune! That woman is going to be the death of us all."
"Yeah," Pullo laughs. "I suppose she will."
"Then let's get out of here. I'm taking her to shore."
Pullo seizes Lucius by the throat. "We leave when I say. And guess what?"
Lucius can only grunt.
"I don't fucking say."
The happiest widow
Only a scant distance away on another ship, Marc Antony laughs heartily and shakes his head.
Xena rises slowly from the deck, not because her muscles ache from the impact-well, if she's honest, she would confess that a tendon in her thigh is vibrating like a mightily plucked lute string-but because a semi-circle of soldiers surround her with swords drawn.
"Stand down," Antony bellows. "Is that any way to treat the former Empress of Rome?"
Swords are lowered. Aside from the scraggly winter beard, Antony seems no worse for wear. The ruby centerpiece of his mouth glitters like a wound. "Xena. Lovely of you to drop by."
She exhales and smiles in relief. "Antony."
"Correct me if I am mistaken, but-" He takes one step closer. "-you seem the happiest widow I've ever laid eyes on."
PART XIXThe gift in the garden
One more time.
The elegant handle of the sai pivoted clumsily within her grasp. Her fingers clambered over the smooth blunt tip like a beetle on top of a dung heap, drunk with joy. For one rare moment, she could not physically keep up with her instincts; memory had not yet inscribed these minute motions upon the sinewy scrolls of her body. When the blade grazed the edge of her arm, just barely, it left a bloodline feathering in its wake.
Xena dropped the sai from her left hand; it narrowly missed her sandaled foot. "Shit."
She glared at the soldiers who stood guard at the entrance of the garden. Their sculpted faces were as pleasingly inscrutable as those of the terracotta soldiers-a massive, immobile army of statues-that Lao Ma had shown her weeks ago. Like blank-faced puppets abandoned by their animators, the guards crumpled into perfunctory bows as Lao Ma entered the green maze. She moved through the immaculate pathways of the garden, past orderly lilies and lilacs, and Xena's breath caught at the grace of her walk, the effortlessness of her bearing, and the gentle mischief of her smile. Perhaps the mere passing thought of the Chin ruler's wife possessed the power to summon her to the garden; it wouldn't be surprising, Xena ruefully told herself, because mind and matter moved on a different plane in this part of the world. That much she had learned during this fortuitous trip to Chin-that and I hate these damned weapons. Give me a good Greek sword any day.
"You know," Lao Ma began as she removed the awkwardly staked sai from the ground, "the sai did originate as a farming tool, so perhaps you are finally gravitating toward proper use of the weapon." A smile touched her lips.
Xena grabbed the retrieved sai from Lao Ma's hand. "Very funny." She frowned critically at the sais. "I don't wish to sound ungrateful-and I greatly appreciate this gift-but I'm afraid I may never master these."
"That's the point."
Oh for Zeus's sake, there she goes again. "Come again?"
"Approach the weapon as a whole. Remember that the hilt is as important as the blade."
Xena sighed. "I never know how to interpret these enigmatic little statements of yours."
"I know," Lao Ma replied. Xena raised an eyebrow in surprise; while self-assurance was an integral part of Lao Ma's presentation, its poorer cousin, smugness, was not. "You are impatient and unwilling to allow meaning to come to you. At the same time, you are nothing if not persistent."
Cautiously, and hence awkwardly, Xena twirled the sai in her right hand: Progress. "What else is persistence but a form of patience-patience in the long run, shall we say?"
Lao Ma appeared to seriously consider this. "Yes, one could interpret it as such. However, I've yet to see you display patience in the short run. You are much more concerned with-"
"-immediate satisfaction?" Xena grinned. As prelude to a passionate kiss she took a step toward Lao Ma, who retreated with a graceful half-step and feigned interest in some wild chrysanthemums.
"Not here," she murmured. She hoped she did not need to glance at the guards to silently state the obvious.
"Ah." While disappointed, Xena understood. Gradually, she was learning the benefits of discretion and diplomacy. Scant days ago, while calmly sipping pale tea the exact shade of the mountains under the morning sun, she realized Caesar's prescience in sending her to Chin. She twirled the sais again-this time with more success. "You're wrong about me."
The sudden remark caused Lao Ma to look up in surprise. Her spurious interest in the flowers had turned genuine, and she had momentarily lost herself in the texture of time- in overlapping petals, gradations of color, patterned veins of needlelike slenderness that carried forth robust life. In direct contrast to the hazy beauty of the chrysanthemums, Xena's eyes possessed the polarizing clarity of a cloudless day.
With her usual touch of mockery at the strangling customs and traditions of the country she was in, Xena bowed before the emperor's wife. "I can be patient when there's something worth waiting for." She walked away.
Lao Ma watched her retreat. Like the wildflowers hemmed in the ostentatious order of the garden, she felt uncertain of her role. It was not a common state. She had traversed the societal plane from common courtesan to emperor's wife-while staggeringly different, these parts she had played were also painfully, obviously similar. In both, sex and ardor were merely skills used in the appeasement of a barbarian's aberrant appetites. It was why her husband had purchased her; it was expected she would do whatever necessary to please visiting dignitaries, in this instance, the envoy from the Roman Empire. Lao Ma had anticipated a plump, polished, pliant bureaucrat and not Gaius Julius Caesar's new Greek warrior-wife, who arrived not in a carriage or on a palanquin but riding her own horse, armored and with a sword at her side, and speaking their language with brazen accuracy. It had fascinated and angered her: The freedom she thought she truly possessed was challenged by this woman. Once she could set aside that resentment as if it were an old broken toy, she found the truth: She genuinely liked this Western "barbarian," appreciated her lack of pretension, her tough mindedness, her blunt desire. In this role, as mentor and lover, she would teach Xena what she could, while accepting the gift of Xena reawakening her spirit, her body, and her mind to pleasures long sublimated in excruciating etiquette.
Her fingertips rested on the overlapping edges of a pink chrysanthemum. She wondered how long it would be before Xena would appreciate the gift. Sometimes gifts were puzzles that did not trade in the realm of immediate gratification. Or they were like stars: guiding their recipients toward the highest potential. The sais she had given Xena were unusual: Each sai possessed a different, distinct point of balance. The smith had followed her instructions well. The lack of balance, she believed, would keep a good warrior striving for improvement and prompt keener awareness during the height of battle. In turn, the good warrior could become a great warrior, and a great leader. Regardless of the goal, the sum of one's character is revealed in the effort to correct imperfection. To adapt.
She could not, of course, simply tell Xena that.
The empty room
The reeve fills the doorway of the house that neither he nor his family have occupied for weeks-and Gabrielle wonders, judging by his gobsmacked expression, if he's ever lived here. Her fingertips drag against the tabletop, unconsciously searching for dust. Realizing what a possessive and presumptuous gesture it is, she winces and clears her throat. "I trust everything is in order?" she asks.
His hearty laugh and easy smile remind her, grudgingly, of Cato's best aspects. "Are you joking?" A broad wave of his arm encompasses the whole room. "This is the cleanest it's ever been!"
She bows. "Thank you for allowing the Empress to stay at your home." Gabrielle hesitates to leave. Already the cottage is transformed for her-the fire dimmer, the chair legs more crooked, the table smaller, the large bed less inviting.
And the reeve notices. "You were, ah, comfortable here, I hope? And the Empress too-I know it's not much, but was she satisfied with the place?" He smiles apologetically.
"Yes." She forces out the syllable. What else can she say? Yes, she always enjoyed fucking me by the fire and in your bed and even once on the table-I regretted nothing but the splinters. You really should sand that table down a bit. There was that, but so much more, and now the air has changed because she is gone and our words have died without substance. What was here is gone. All of it. "She was quite pleased." And so was I. Gabrielle stares at the planks of the floor. "Thank you."
As Gabrielle leaves she passes the reeve's wife, who is less appreciative of good coin and clean house: She mutters "Roman whore" at Gabrielle's back as the gladiator leaves the only place she's known love. Gabrielle stops, turns around, and takes minute comfort in the look of terror that quickly contorts the woman's face. She walks away, ignoring both the desire to bury a dagger in the ingrate's throat and the burning itch of her eyes that signal impending tears. A deep breath helps. The reeve's passel of children will have undone all her tidying efforts within the day. It doesn't matter. She cuts across the village, catching sight of Brutus, idly overseeing preparations for the army's evacuation from Garouna. "Shouldn't you be doing something?" he calls to Gabrielle-more out of genuine curiosity rather than irritation and yet despite this, his voice still rings with petulance.
Gabrielle does not hesitate for a moment as she walks by. "No."
She ends up at Ariana's house. The widow, in mourning for her lost relationship with Pullo, is barricaded inside and hostile to visitors, particularly Roman soldiers. Gabrielle risks this for a visit with Ariana's goat, who is uncommonly docile and tender. She is scratching the goat's nose when she notices a flicker of movement from just beyond the stable yard, within the dense weave of a copse of trees lining the edge of the property. Hand on the hilt of her sword, she crouches down. The goat interprets this as permission to graze on her hair. Then the intruder cautiously reveals himself. It's Ping. She untangles herself from the hungry goat and walks toward him. "What are you doing here? I thought you left with-her."
Sometimes it is difficult even to summon Xena's presumptive former title.
The healer shakes his head. "The Empress has granted me my freedom. So I've stayed behind."
"But you're hiding. Why?"
Ping smiles archly. "Do you think Brutus would allow me to remain free?"
"No," Gabrielle admits.
"Correct. So I shall remain in hiding until he leaves. Don't worry, the generous widow Ariana feeds me as well as her goats. She likes me because I am not a Roman. I don't know what that has to do with anything, but I accept her kindness. Once the army decamps, I shall plan on how to get home."
"That's a long voyage, isn't it?"
"It's been so long I can't remember. But the risk is worth seeing my home again. I have, however, one last duty to discharge." He nods at a cloth bundle tucked under his arm. "The Empress requested that I give you something."
Gabrielle scowls skeptically at bundle. "I'm afraid to ask."
"Then don't." Ping offers it to her. "Just open it."
Together they kneel as Gabrielle unknots the cord around the cloth and unwraps it on the ground. The sais glitter upon the coarse cloth-if not consummately loved by their previous owner, were nonetheless oiled and punctiliously pampered by her, their lesson having been proved time and time again-and the faint hint of disappointment upon Gabrielle's face melts into outright disgust. "Weapons." Gabrielle sneers. "How romantic."
Ping had been present when Lao Ma gifted them upon Xena. He had rolled his eyes in disgust as the barbarian queen had groaned in robust, childlike pleasure at the sight of the weapons, and nearly laughed in spite when she accidentally skewered one of Lao Ma's favorite pillows with one sai. He has long thought that was the decisive moment that his mistress had decided to make him Xena's next gift-no breach of etiquette ever escaped Lao Ma's attention. He knows the history and purpose of the gift, and believes that the sais have finally found their rightful owner; like an oracle, they will guide her with quiet, mysterious appropriateness. Her innate curiosity takes over and she picks one up, admiring the glint and the heft of weapon with a warrior's practiced eye.
"You have no idea," he says.
She felt sorry for the tiger
Within the stifling quarterdeck of his ship, Antony makes a show of surveying his slaves. The slaves, male and female, stand in a line and, despite the nauseous sway of the ships, remain as rigid as the most disciplined of soldiers. Several break a sweat under his continued scrutiny; none are relieved when his façade breaks and he grins at Xena. "Would you like one?"
Each and every one is attractive in his or her way. One, handsome and dark, dares to catch Xena's eye. In another time, she might have been seriously tempted; now, she tamps down an ever-increasing chasm of frustration with a practiced leer. "I'm good. Thanks."
Even with his ragged beard, the sardonic twitch of his eyebrow restores Antony's former glamour. "How unlike you."
And how easily we fall into step with each other again, Antony. "You know I don't usually sleep with slaves."
"True, but, desperate times bring desperate measures. I know you. Surrounded by nothing but soldiers and slaves, you must have picked one or the other for fucking." Antony looks at her archly. "And don't tell me you're in love with the great Queen of the Nile."
While there's no point in denial, there's no advantage in confession either. "Actually, I wouldn't want to disabuse any of your slaves of the notion that you're a good lay by comparison with someone far superior. Not good for morale."
He laughs. "Same old Xena." The slightest dismissive nod sends the slaves scattering above deck and he attends to the decanter of wine himself, pouring out two cups. Poisoned? she wonders. How pedestrian, Antony. You wouldn't, would you? At least send me out with a good fight. "How does it feel to be on the other side?" he asks.
"The other side of-?"
"Courting, my dear. Nautical romance. Or was Caesar's coming to claim you upon your ship a story concocted for the plebes? He always insisted it was true. I'd no reason to disbelieve him." Antony pauses before handing her a cup and asking abruptly, "Do you miss him?"
Oh gods, not this. I miss him the way I miss my virginity: With thoughts of both fleeting fondness and liberating relief. "I think of him. And yes, when I'm on a ship I can't help but remember that time-" No wonder, Xena thinks, she experienced such a strange bout of déjà vu when she landed in a crouch on a ship she had never before boarded. How different it could have been, how foolish it all was, to trust him like that. He could have killed her and everyone on the ship. She had been warned a thousand times by nearly every member of the crew-and M'lila. But despite the urgency of her instincts at that moment, she had trusted him. And now she has once again done something so foolish: Leaping onto Antony's ship armed only with a sword and her questionable wits, in an attempt for-of all the ridiculous things in the world-peace.
"After he died, and I sent the message and I did not hear from you, I did not know what to think," Antony murmurs as he slides the cup of wine toward her.
She leaves it untouched. "What could you think but the worst? I understand."
Antony's dark gaze lingers on her, as if he's trying to cast a spell. Perhaps he is, she thinks, and looks away. "But what an opportunity: Away from Rome, unfettered by any ties to it, and in a place where you could establish an empire of your own. Establish a base of power. Challenge all comers and take what they're foolish enough to risk."
"Tempting, but never my intent."
"No?" He forces a smile.
She pauses and recalls something her mother had said long ago: Do you ever know your own mind, Xena? "No."
He drains the cup of wine in one gulp. "Try it. I brought it with me-can't abide this island swill." Almost dainty, she sips. It's a good Roman red. "The thought occurred to me," he continues, "that my message was intercepted, tampered with. I knew of Ponthius's machinations as much as you did. He had a reputation for making himself invaluable to the royal family." Antony gives her a pointed look. "Including Cleopatra."
She bristles. That Cleopatra was not the most trustworthy individual has become clearer over the past several months. Hindsight is for fools like me. "What are you implying?"
"Only that Cleopatra, as well as Ptolemy, would have benefited from you not receiving any messages from Rome either." He sits his empty cup next to hers. "Don't you think?"
"She seemed genuinely surprised when I informed her Caesar was dead."
"Oh, I'm sure she was. But she was aware of Ponthius's sway over her brother, and that the eunuch had enough power to intercept a wide variety of messages. And it wouldn't have benefited her either to have you well informed of what was happening in the world beyond Egypt. As long as you and your army remained in Alexandria, she would easily keep her power."
It makes sense. The little bitch. Too late to have her killed or even threatened. "How do you know what she was aware of? There is no way of knowing this for certain."
He laughs harshly. "You have no idea how much you sound like Caesar now. But ah, Xena, there is a way of knowing. There is." From a hutch Antony removes a small bundle of tightly bound scrolls. "Your paramour was quite the indefatigable correspondent." He smirks. "Care to read some?"
She selects one at random. The Queen of Egypt writes in a tight, neat hand; Xena recognizes the script quite easily.
She broods, anticipating the arrival of Brutus. She tells me that the armies are hers and hers alone. I beg for protection. I shall be denied. Alexandria will stand defenseless without the important alliance with Rome, and if we fall to barbarians and invaders, what of your citizenry? What of your grain? Do you really trust her now?
So while she solidified Cleopatra's base of power, made new laws, retrained the army, resumed grain shipments to Rome, dealt with the tedious masses, engaged in disappointing sex while secretly lusting after the gladiator-especially during Gabrielle's early morning drills in the courtyard, right under the bedroom window and before she set off for the library, the sweaty perfection of that body gleaming in the sun-and, in all seriousness, contemplated a rehaul of the septic system, the backstabbing bitch was courting Antony: I petition you, as a champion of justice and freedom, as a lover of culture and knowledge, to protect my city. Am I mad to imagine that we two could rule together?
Xena tosses the scroll on the table. "Well, then, Antony. Why are you here and not in Alexandria, ruling with the bitch?"
Antony laughs and sprawls as comfortably as he can in an uncomfortable-looking wing chair. "It's flattering to have so many women offering themselves to me. Cleopatra, Octavian's sister-well, Octavian, the little shit, is doing the offering on that score-" He pauses. "-and you."
Xena picks up Cleopatra's scroll again, contemplates it, and crumples it. "Despite what you think, I'm not here to proposition you or force you to marry me."
"You wouldn't have to do much forcing, dear." As always, he plays the rake quite well.
"Keep fluttering those eyelashes like that and you'll cause a typhoon." Oh, great. I'm flirting back. The tiger can't changes its stripes. Perhaps this was all for the best, Gabrielle. She recalls one of Gabrielle's more amusing anecdotes from life in the ring: How, fleeing from an opponent, she had tripped over a half-dead tiger so incensed at having his death throes interrupted that the beast spent his final-albeit misdirected- fury killing her challenger.
Xena had chuckled at the story. Gabrielle, on the other hand, gave her that melancholy smile-the one that always encompassed an uneasy resignation of the past, a cautious acceptance of the present, and an outright distrust of the future-and said, I felt sorry for the tiger.
"So why are you here, then?"
"To ensure that your aims and intentions are in alignment with the triumvirate, and to promote the ultimate restoration of the Republic-"
"Ah, Xena, our good Greek watchdog. What did Brutus promise you as reward for your service? That you would reign over your homeland? A little presumptuous, don't you think? He's not even in the fucking triumvirate, and neither are you."
In response Xena smiles, shifts, and feels the comfort of the dagger in her right boot. "The triumvirate was always a parlor game of musical chairs. It can change at any time."
"Speaking of games, tell me." Antony's mellifluous voice ensnares her with the past. "Do you miss our old games? What was she like in the bedroom, the great Queen of Egypt?"
"A great letdown. You're not missing much."
"Pity. Hope your gladiator was better." Xena wonders if shock is visible on her face; it must be, because Antony barks a triumphant laugh. "Ah, there's my confirmation. Cleopatra reported that you were sleeping with your little pet gladiator at the same time you were bedding her. I daresay she was expecting sympathy from me-which I offered, of course, but thinking all the while, 'Good for you, Xena! You never disappoint.'" Antony leans forward to snag the decanter of wine. "Now what was she like? I was quite intrigued with her myself."
Her hand tightens around the wine cup and she refrains from bashing him over the head with it. It is pointless to correct him but funny, she thinks, how quickly she vacillates from flirtation to fury. What was she like? What can I tell you? How her skin tasted after a sweet, soaking rainstorm? The arch of her back as I brush the knuckles of my hand along her spine? How sometimes her smile wasn't so sad, and how I would give the world to make certain she would smile like that every single day? No. This she would share with no one. "Rather, why don't you tell me why Octavian is trying to pawn his sister off on you? I thought you were already married and reasonably happy with-"
The mood in the cabin turns as abruptly as the tide at sea, and all from the darkening of Antony's expression. The beard heightens his fierceness, and his voice cuts across the heavy air with increasing menace. "That boy," he snarls, "that fucking boy, thinks he can dictate not only the terms of the empire to me, but also my personal life."
"How on earth can Octavian make you do anything?"
"With his legions, his ships, his money. A lot has changed since you've been away. More than you realize. And more than that idiot Brutus knows." Antony stands, sways with the rhythm of the ship, and presses his forehead against a low, rough beam.
This uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability provokes no pathos from Xena. "What do you mean?"
"I should have told you the second you set foot here, but even then-" He tries to be confidently casual with a shrug, but his tired eyes limn everything with hooded defeat, even simple confirmation: "You're caught."
The stiffening of her spine, which had begun the moment she set foot in the cabin, is a subtle, prognosticating torture. "By Octavian?"
Octavian. The silent partner of the triumvirate was now the wild card. For so long she had thought of him as nothing but a boy, and a boy possessed neither interest nor use to her in any way, shape, or form. As such her nephew-the heir apparent to the Empire-has remained a bit of a mystery to her. More than anything, he preferred spending time in libraries and gardens, anything that provided him with solitude. Xena suspected, however, that he was ambitious beyond all outward appearance; what others mistook for mere passive bookishness she correctly interpreted as the keenness of the observant, of someone with a long-term goal carefully biding his time. He possessed in legions the kind of patience that Lao Ma would have appreciated-the kind that built empires beyond imagination. Despite what Lao Ma had thought, however, she could be patient too. And so while she was patiently fixing Alexandria and patiently waiting for the right moment to claim the gladiator as her lover, Octavian's time had come-right under her nose.
PART XXAn uninvited soul
With eyes closed, Gabrielle imagined the horse that she was astride plummeting down a cliff past the eternal blue of the sea and directly into the underworld. Hades, she imagined, would personally guide her to Tartarus; perhaps there was a special section of it devoted to the never-ending torture and suffering of skilled murderers. When she dared to open her eyes, however, all she saw was the green-gray-brown blur of the ground, a glimpse of Xena's armored thigh, and the sun-dappled flank of the chestnut mare that carried them. Her stomach roiled. She closed her eyes again. The thundering, bouncing ride was like a long, boring rough fuck, not unlike so many she had endured as a slave. Just when she thought she could take no more, the horse slowed to a trot; even when the beast completely stopped, her mind and innards still galloped with nauseating abandon.
Xena gently squeezed the muscular forearm tightly lashed around her torso. "You can let go now." Reluctantly, Gabrielle did so. As gracefully as she did most everything else, Xena slid off the horse and extended a helpful arm toward the woozy gladiator-who dismounted from the beast with a surly thud and a gurgling stomach. Xena frowned in the same skeptical way Ping did whenever he suspected illness. "Uh-oh."
"I'm fine," Gabrielle grunted through clenched teeth. As a mode of transport the horse proved only marginally better than a ship on the sea. Regardless, vomiting was hardly the ideal prelude to the romantic outing Xena had proposed that morning: A ride to a nearby lake, a temporary escape from the vulgar, insensate eyes of villagers and soldiers. This alluring idea could not survive the reality of Pullo insisting on some kind of protective guard. In the end Xena had whittled the number down from the original proposed six to one-Pullo himself, who had groaned in dismay. Hardly an intrepid horseman, he knew Xena would outrun him in no time.
The unburdened horse snorted wearily and trotted down the tree-lined path to the lake. Xena pulled her into an embrace and inhaled her scent. Whatever nausea, discomfort, anguish, and resentment that had built up-not only during the ride but over these past few days since she idiotically said "I love you" to a woman who probably wouldn't give a damn about her the second they left this island-magically receded. Would Gabrielle's patience reap an everlasting reward of love, the great intangible? After all, Xena had asked her to be patient, and she was-albeit as patient as a spoiled child days before her birthday.
The former Empress and current Consul of Rome-is that right? Gabrielle wondered. Oh, I can't keep track of these things and somehow I think she can't either-sighed contentedly. "I love-"
At last, thought Gabrielle.
"-how you smell."
Gabrielle lurched into her, and clearly Xena mistook this slump of defeat for womanly surrender and continued kissing her neck. The gladiator's dour mood regurgitated itself. "I must smell like a horse," she mumbled.
"You know how I feel about horses." When Xena realized the joke did not go over, she reverted to serious sensuality. "You smell like all the elements blended together in harmony: air and water and earth and fire."
Despite the fact that this declaration did indeed make Gabrielle swoon, she disentangled herself from Xena's embrace. "It has been said of you that you're too charming."
Xena raised an eyebrow.
"Now don't tell me you're genuinely surprised to hear that."
"I am. Who has said it?" Xena unfurled a blanket over the cold dead ground and tossed a saddlebag of food on top.
"Everyone." Gabrielle followed the horse past the thickening of trees to the muddy banks of the lake, where she did not expect to see what she saw: three Praetorians on a skiff in the middle of the lake, one of them dipping a cloth into a bucket of some liquid and giving it to his comrade, who wrapped it around an arrow, while the third one held a bow and looked thoroughly nervous at the entire endeavor. Xena's boots crunched along the path behind her and the edge of Xena's cape tickled her calf playfully. Romantic escape, eh? She did not even bother to turn around as she muttered: "I should have known you had a real reason for coming out here."
"In my position, mixing business with pleasure is frequently unavoidable."
"If that's an apology, it's sorely lacking." Gabrielle hesitated; there was nothing to be gained in making herself even more miserable by stubborn pursuit of this point. She nodded at the lake. "What are those men doing?"
"Playing with Greek fire." Xena peered critically into the distance. One of the soldiers placed a torch to the arrow, which smoldered and belched black smoke before it could even be shot into the air. "Or creating a new kind of flatulence. Take your pick."
"I didn't know you know anything about that."
"Are we talking about flatulence or Greek fire?"
Gabrielle surrendered a smile. "The latter."
"Ah. Yes, well-you're not the only one who can read, my dear."
For the first time in years, Gabrielle felt abashed. "Oh. I'm sorry-"
Xena laughed. "I'm teasing."
"I never know."
"I know you never know. That makes it all the more fun." She laced an arm around Gabrielle's waist.
The escalation of banter into argument ceased with a splash; one of the Praetorians fell in the lake.
Xena sighed. "I've been trying to figure out the precise composition of Greek fire-well, for years now. It burns on the water. Zeus, what an advantage that would be. But no one knows how to make it anymore, or if they do, they're not telling. And the documentation is virtually nonexistent. Thucydides claims-as you probably know-that Greek fire was used in the Peloponnesian War, by the Boeotians during the siege of Delium. That is the only place I've ever seen it mentioned in a scroll. Nowhere else. No one has even speculated on the composition of the materials that create it." Xena's brushed a thumb thoughtfully against her own lips. "And the flamethrower itself-"
"Bless you." Xena blinked. "Wait. What? Who?"
"He was a scientist. Apollonius said he had been head of the Musaeum at Alexandria at one time. Perfected the uses of tubes, such as flamethrowers, with his work in hydraulics. I read some of his scrolls in the library." Gabrielle smiled. "You're so focused on the fire part of the Greek fire that you haven't thought about the proper equipment to implement it. Ping, of course, says that in Chin they're hundreds of years ahead of us and that he's seen real flamethrowers used in battle-"
"Ping!" Xena exclaimed. "Damn it!"
"I should have known to ask him about this-that little bastard knows everything." Xena grinned. "And you're not so bad yourself. In fact-" She cradled Gabrielle's face in both hands and kissed the gladiator senseless. "-I love-"
"-your mind. You never cease to amaze me." Xena bolted toward the horse, who whinnied apprehensively. "Stay right here. Eat the food. Drink the wine. Keep an eye on those idiots on the lake-don't let any of them drown. You can swim, can't you?" Effortlessly she mounted the horse. "I'll be back."
"Wait!" Gabrielle called.
She was gone.
Scant minutes later Pullo arrived, cursing both the elusive Xena and the tender state of his testicles. His mood brightened at the sight of food, and so he settled his aching balls onto the blanket and tucked in. "Stop looking pissy," he implored his friend around a mouth full of lamb. "Come over here and have some wine, and tell me how I can get fucking Ariana off my back."
Gabrielle sighed. She knew that staring through the trees would provide no answer to the question that lay heavily upon her: With the love of body and mind, can the soul be ignored for any length of time? Can it be truly left behind?
Finishing school for barbarians
The march to Antony's compound in Kassiopi is more a trudge through gutted, rough roads and dense forests under clouds of puffy gray portent. Silently furious at times, Gabrielle has wondered if Brutus has deliberately slowed the pace of the men. Then she realized that it is no lack of respect or duty toward Xena but, rather simply, the fact that Brutus had no real control over them; they would make their own spitefully meandering way toward the winter palace. It explains why Brutus drifts to the rear of the line-to her. She walks alone. Gentle Gnaeus has given up on her as a source of entertainment, for she is far too enamored with her new toys, the sais. She stops briefly to balance them in turn upon the palm of her hand and marvels at the strange differences between each balance point. She switches them from hand to hand, trying to hash out her preferences. She closes her eyes to discern the differences and falls prey to the gentle seduction of wind coursing through the trees.
Brutus yells at her to continue marching.
She twirls one and undergoes an epiphany: The handle can be used as weapon as well!
"Put those damned things away," Brutus grunts. "You're making me nervous."
She wonders if she should try out the handle on his jaw. No, best to save her energy for the fight ahead. She needs a good fight. Xena would probably say she needed a good something-else, but Xena is not here and even if she were, the gladiator is feeling far from obliging in that manner. Ping had told her nothing about the sais; he did not need to. Obviously Xena had obtained them during her fabled trip to Chin, the journey that capped her transformation from the ill-mannered captain of a pirate ship to the sleek, elegant Empress of Rome. Finishing school for barbarians. Of course, she cannot help but think that the sais were a gift from Xena's mentor-and lover-Lao Ma. Even Ping, polite to all but truly respectful of few, would bow his head in reverence when his previous owner's name was mentioned. Xena herself spoke of Lao Ma with a rarefied awe and genuine affection. Did you really think you would ever measure up to someone like that? That you had anything to offer beyond the basest form of companionship?
Brutus is pulling the kind of face that her mother used to make when she ate too fast. "Stop scowling."
"Forgive me, commander. I did not realize my facial expressions were subject to your approval."
"It's not my fault you were left behind like a common whore." This stings more than she cares to admit. Her face betrays the pain and he relents with an apologetic sigh: "We've gotten off on the wrong foot here. Look, I know I am no natural leader-like Xena. But as I must rise to the occasion here, so must every man among us. And you as well." Brutus pauses. "I have great respect for your abilities."
"Because I'm good at killing people?" Her lips flatten. A resurgence of her innate mouthiness is the last thing she needs right now. Mouthing off to one of Cortese's lieutenants had resulted in a punch in the face and the loss of her virginity. She doubted Brutus's ruthlessness would possess similar impact, but it never pays to underestimate a man in power who was all too ready to abuse it.
"Did Xena ever truly realize how sarcastic you are? I suppose since she kept your mouth rather busy, she must not have noticed."
"She noticed. She liked it."
Brutus's right eyebrow arches. "Perverse bitch."
Her wounded heart allows the insult to pass.
However, Brutus quickly amends: "And yet, she chooses her companions well. She is always drawn to the powerful, the unique. Oh, I know you don't think much of your own abilities, but you are an invaluable resource." He slows to a stop. Reluctantly she follows suit, while holding the intent gaze of his dark eyes. "Trust me when I say: You are needed."
With a quick, mocking bow he is off, briskly strutting toward the head of the line.
Gabrielle watches him. She is needed. But not in a way she has ever dreamed of, imagined, or even desired.
The enormity of it all has settled over Xena, much like the leaden sea has settled over the horizon that stretches out before them. Octavian is a new factor in the equation. Everything must be reconsidered, recalculated. Everything is out of balance. Weighed down by the sluggish water, the ship barely moves. She stands on the deck of Antony's ship with Antony, both of them peering toward the horizon; the sky, clouds, and sea are a monochromatic riot of gray.
"So you were coming out here to meet Octavian," she says flatly. "Not me."
"Yes. Despite what you think, you're not the most important thing in the world," Antony retorts. "But I knew you would show up here eventually. Lepidus threatened as much. And Cleopatra-"
"-had spies among my men. I know."
"Don't feel slighted. She has spies among Octavian's troops as well." He pauses. "And my own."
"I'll be damned if that woman was not prepared for every scenario possible."
Antony laughs, but it is forced-possessing the tinny, clinking artifice of a shackle around his neck. When she looks at him, she notices the weary shadows burrowed around his tired eyes, the contortions of his jaw prevalent even through the camouflage of the beard. He is the very vision of a man gazing into the grinder of defeat.
He catches her staring and with new resolve, stands straighter. "You must go. Before it's too late. You can make it to Kassiopi in no time."
"Yes," Xena retorts, "and your men there will fight me to the death and set fire to the damned town before giving an inch."
"Perhaps, perhaps not. If they see you coming into port, they may assume I'm dead and swear allegiance to you. When an army is exhausted, as are mine, they'll follow the brightest star that leads them home." He pauses. "Besides-isn't Brutus and half a legion attacking Kassiopi as we speak?" He laughs. "Gods above. I don't think I've ever seen you look guilty before."
"You know I can't leave."
"Don't be foolish."
"Antony, you know if the situation were reversed, you wouldn't leave me here-" Yet as soon as she says it, doubt scrolls across her face.
He gazes at her thoughtfully. "It's always healthy to doubt what we're most certain of, Xena. We both like a good fight, you and I. And I-" Antony pauses. "I've grown tired of doing what everyone expects of me. I served Caesar. But I will not serve that boy. As brilliant as the evil little shit may be. I tried to warn Lepidus, Brutus. Like you, they underestimated him. I don't blame you. You were not there. You were not witness to the changes in the boy. But Brutus is a fucking fool-thinking that Octavian believes in the republic. Just as he thought Caesar believed. You and I know precisely what Caesar believed in: Power. The Empire. There is nothing else. But if Octavian wants the Empire, he needs to earn it-with blood."
Silence rolls between them, punctuated by creaks from the ship and the palpable unease of the men.
Antony clears his throat. "If, against all odds, we succeed here, what do you hope to achieve? Regaining the Empire? Restoring the Republic? What do you want?"
At long last, Xena finally identifies the spark of recognition that she discovered in the gladiator so many months ago, the spark that soldered the bond between them: Like Gabrielle, she was, albeit in a very distinct and beneficial manner, a slave-not necessarily in bondage to one person but to the fates, to what she perceived as her destiny. Her grip on the rigging loosens and even as she spies movement along the gray horizon-three dots that were no doubt Octavian's ships-she maintains her unerring balance under the ship's exhilarating pitch and sway. "My freedom, Antony. I want my freedom."
Near the city walls of Kassiopi, it's a waiting game. Brutus has sent an envoy to the city gate, armed with a sword and a pretty speech requesting entry. Gabrielle knows the speech is pretty because Brutus forced her to read it during the long, miserable march. She told him that he was a master rhetorician-without adding that the phrase had been passed down onto her by Apollonius, who used it as a euphemism for "crashing bore," and that she employed it in a similar fashion.
He had been pleased. Now he frets as the troops bristle-a living, breathing copse of anger, anticipation, and fear surrounding the city wall-and narrows his eyes as the city gate opens. In that moment the response to Brutus's entreaty is patently clear to everyone: The envoy is headless and his corpse is tethered to the panicking horse.
"Shit," Brutus hisses.
Gabrielle closes her eyes and notices the change in the air. The wind whisks and the cry goes up: "Shields!" In the second before she raises her own, she sees in a fleeting glimpse the flaming arrows, slashes of vermillion cutting the sky as they fall. An arrow narrowly misses her right foot. She hates arrows almost as much as she hates whips. The army now moves as one. She draws a deep breath. Before he left on the ship with the Empress, Pullo the career soldier had only sparse advice on battle: Just keep moving. This, just before he clapped her arm in affectionate farewell. I will see you again someday. And maybe someday I'll actually succeed in kicking your ass, little one.
Despite the menace of the message from Antony's troops, the gate of the town proves little challenge to angry Praetorians and a battering ram. Like a rotten egg cracked open, the town yields fresh ruin: the choking chaos of townsfolk avoiding battle, the army scrambling for every advantage. Just keep moving. This is no choreographed dance within the ring, no an easy skirmish with half-frightened leftovers from Ptolemy's army. These are Antony's men, as fierce and loyal to him as the Praetorians are to their Empress. Here she forsakes the novelty of the sais for the muscle memory of the old trusted broadsword. The loci and images she imprints on her mind become as crowded and complex as the frieze scrolling above Athena's Parthenon-a frieze she's only ever seen reproduced in drawings from the library. Two men charge in from the right. Kill one, knock over the other one. Keep moving. On the left, two Praetorians are pitted against six of Antony's men. In seconds she evens the odds: Slit the throat of the nearest one, disarm the distracted one and impale him with his own sword, and gut another one. Watch out for the horses, let loose to create even more chaos and stampede whoever stands before them-preferably the enemy. Smoke wavers through the air. She breathes heavily into the mask of her cloak. Keep moving. It is all she can do to kill and not be killed.
The red cape of another Praetorian is in sight: A soldier in an alley, crouching over a unconscious woman. Gabrielle decides to give the soldier the benefit of the doubt. Keep moving. But she's wrong: The soldier rips open the woman's blouse.
She stops. Here in the aimlessness of this battle she is, at last, given purpose. Tripping across the thoroughfare-through bodies and discarded weapons, until the side of a wagon slams into her shoulder, nearly dislocating it-no obstacle stops her until she is there at his side, looming over the half-naked woman. After she jams the dagger through his throat she recognizes him: Otho. Who cheered for Xena when she killed Basileos in Alexandria. Who kept a respectable distance from the gladiator, always. Who was spoken fondly of by Gnaeus-right good mate, good soldier, good wife and children. Whose dead hands fall away from the task of undoing the buttons on his trousers.
The woman is limp and cold, but her pulse flutters stubbornly against Gabrielle's fingertips. The gladiator spreads her cape over the woman-and braces herself for renewed attack. Not surprisingly, her gesture has made her the target of soldiers interpreting mercy as weakness and two women as easy prey. This time she supplements attack and defense with a sais in the left hand.
"Lucia!" A civilian running at full tilt stops within inches of her blade. With frantic, pale anguish, he looks at the woman on the ground.
"Get her to safety," Gabrielle commands.
The man stares helplessly into the street. "The inn-it's too far, there's too much fighting."
"Next street over."
"Can you carry her?"
"Follow me. Stay close."
One of many hellish tests of endurance during Gabrielle's time at the ludus was the running of the gauntlet. Iolaus had taught her how to contort her body in just the right manner to avoid the worst kind of damage from punching and kicking, had counseled her carefully and correctly on who would use what weapons during the gauntlet. She survived and in a matter of weeks was completely healed. Just in time to be nearly whipped to death when she refused to fight Iolaus. In comparison to these events, sprinting across the thoroughfare seems a child's game, a bloody flurry of movement that passes in a haze of battle lust until she is out of the crowd and bolting down the nearly empty side street.
To her surprise, the man has kept up. "On the corner! At your left-go in the side!" he shouts.
Inside, the front door of inn is barricaded by an interlocking puzzle of chairs and furniture, as if some clever child had devised the defense. Oddly, the inn is dark and bereft of guests. Her boots echo on the floorboards. The man, carrying his unconscious, precious cargo follows behind.
"Close the door and put that chair against it-please," he grunts breathlessly.
Gabrielle lodges a chair underneath the door handle as the man disappears down a hallway. Once alone she leans, exhausted, against a wall. Keep moving? Her body resists only temporarily-she drags herself over to a shuttered window. Through a crack she can see the street. A squad of Antony's men rush by; whether pursuant or pursued, she cannot know. For the moment, perhaps, she is safe. She looks at her shaking hands, smeared with blood. Again she sinks against the wall. Her arm clamps over the shutter and provides a temporary resting place for her forehead as the heat of her own helpless, aching flesh painfully reminds that even after extinguishing the flame for so many, she still burns with life. This is what you are. You will never change. You will never deserve what you think you deserve.
The floorboard creaks. Hand on sword, she whirls around.
The man stands at a respectful and cautious distance, well out of her reach. A soldier at one time, she realizes. He sits a plate of bread, cheese, and olives on a table alongside a flagon of wine. "I'm greatly indebted to you," he says.
"The woman-she's your wife?" Gabrielle asks.
"Yes." Wary enough of her not to clasp an arm in greeting, he bows instead. "My name is Diokles. I run this inn."
Gabrielle's eyes flicker throughout the empty rooms. "Forgive me for saying so, but your business does not seem very good these days."
He shrugs. "I had no one but soldiers here. They all cleared out the moment your lot showed up at the gate."
"Is your wife all right?"
Diokles hesitates. "I think so. She's awake now. But-she was struck in the head." He picks up a piece of bread, puts it down again. "With that kind of injury, only time will tell." He risks a closer look at Gabrielle. "I did not know women fought in the Roman army."
"I'm an exception," Gabrielle notes, with no small amount of bitterness.
"A Greek exception." Nervously he smiles. "I recognize the accent-you sound as if you come from somewhere in Chalkidiki."
Diokles lights up in recognition of the name. "Ah!"
Apparently her enforced travels have not been enough to completely eradicate the girl she was; it is strangely comforting. "And here I thought I'd gotten rid of that accent."
"I'm from Toroni. In Sithonia. Not too far from your town. Hearing you speak reminds me of home."
"Home," she echoes. "I no longer know where that is any more."
"I understand-it's the life of the soldier, yes? But you may stay here as long as you like. It's safe here." Diokles pauses uneasily before proffering an opinion that he knows goes against every propagandistic slogan and heroic tale he's ever encountered. "In my day as a soldier, I found no glory in battle."
Gabrielle is about to respond, nor do I, when she realizes it's not quite true. At the very least, she would mislead. She finds no glory in battle, in killing, it is true; rather, she finds fighting as something essential and inculcated deeply within her, far beyond the critical contours of slavery and gladiatorial savagery, those vessels into which her life had been carelessly poured. Even as a youth, she had always fought and railed against every limitation dictated by the mere fact of her existence: Being a farmer's daughter, meant for nothing but breeding. She fought to learn how to read, she fought to tell stories. Every dream was a rebellion against the life she was fated to live.
She is so consumed by these thoughts of that previous life and its connection to her current one that she hadn't noticed Diokles slipping from the room; before she can wonder what he's up to, he returns with a towel and a washbasin filled with lukewarm water.
"Thank you," Gabrielle whispers. "You're very kind." As she immerses her hands in the water the blood loosens and dissolves from her skin in dreamlike pink whorls, as if in accord with some blessed alchemy. "I tend to agree with you. Fighting without a real purpose-especially when we are nothing but pawns in games between the powerful-nothing good comes of it." She wipes her hands on the towel. "But-"
"Duty is duty," Diokles finishes the sentiment. "I understand." He looks pleased as she sets in on the food. "For what it's worth, taking the town may be easier than you think."
"Why?" The syllable is garbled by a mouthful of bread and cheese and she berates herself for this coarseness; when it comes to tableside manners, Pullo was a bad influence.
"Marc Antony is not in the winter palace," Diokles says. "He took his best men and set out on a quinquereme. At first I thought he was escaping, but no one knows for sure. There has been a lot of talk of an attack from sea from Octavian."
"Who?" Gabrielle blurts.
For the first and last time, Diokles spares her a pitying look.
PART XXI: CONCLUSION
Available upon request
"Piss in it."
The soldier named Plancus blinks helplessly at battered pail at his feet, and then at the woman before him-the former Empress, current Consul, and mad bitch who was probably screwing Antony below deck while they were all doomed to die at Octavian's hand. They couldn't blame Antony, really, and in fact had even been joking about it earlier: Well, why not? What a way to go, with that succubus on you. But now here she was, with Antony standing behind her and smirking as if he were most certainly in on this questionable joke.
"What?" Plancus's voice quavers and rises; he knows that later he'll catch shit for it from everyone within earshot.
"Are you deaf?" Xena snaps. "Piss in the bucket. Relieve yourself."
"Sweet fucking Zeus, never before have I had a problem getting a man's cock out of his pants!"
This finally breaks the remnants of Antony's questionable reserve. He laughs heartily. "Well, your approach is rather lacking in this instance."
"Just do it," Xena snarls at the soldier.
Eyes squeezed shut, hopeful that the most basic of functions will not falter in this crucial moment, Plancus undoes his trousers and relieves himself.
Xena frowns at the steaming, smelly contents. "Eh. That should do for now."
"Are you sure?" Antony pipes up. "It's not like we have a shortage, you know."
"Oh, shut up. If you'd consented in the first place, I wouldn't be badgering your crew for piss." Carrying her inexplicable bounty at arm's length, Xena once again heads below deck. Antony exhales a long-suffering sigh, rolls his eyes, and follows
Silence drifts across the deck, as the soldiers and crew contemplate both the increasing menace of Octavian's ships that grow closer with each passing minute, and the increasing bizarreness of their leadership.
"Greeks truly are peculiar," Plancus says to no one in particular.
The left hand
Ensconced once more back in Antony's quarters, Xena stares glumly at the bucket of piss. "Ideally, it should be putrefied."
"I thought you knew what you were doing," Antony retorts. Once again his mood runs the gamut; in scant minutes he has gone from the gentle good humor of a parent indulging a petulant child to tense recrimination.
It's hardly surprising in battle situations, Xena reminds herself, this vacillation from black, absurdist humor to grim realization of lies ahead. "I know what I've been told, nothing more." Weeks ago she had badgered the most-reluctant Ping to tell her all he knew about Greek fire. After snorting derisively at her calling it Greek fire-"Lao Ma was correct, you Greeks claim credit for every invention under the sun"- Ping casually recited the ingredients and how they should be prepared. She had scrawled all this on a scrap of parchment now lost, although Xena reckoned that it might now be somewhere among Gabrielle's scant possessions, because the gladiator was notorious for hoarding any bit of parchment and/or writing utensils she encountered. This thieving trait, once found charming by Xena, now infuriated her. Relying on the corridors of her mind alone to hoard knowledge made her extremely nervous; it always seemed that the more she strove to remember something, the more she forgot it. Her memory was a ball of dust in a windstorm. Should have made Ping tell it to Gabrielle. She, an elite student of Cicero, would remember.
But she's not here, is she?
After she had secured the recipe from Ping, she had galloped triumphantly back to the lake, where she found Pullo and Gabrielle in a melancholy tableau resembling bored lovers-the food gone, the wine spilled, he fast asleep, and she gazing wistfully across the lake. Her fingers lightly brushed Gabrielle's shoulder in greeting. The sorrow of the gladiator's smile in return led Xena to the shaming realization that this woman deserved far better than what, thus far, she had been given by everyone, including herself.
Antony runs a hand through his hair. "Then this is all a waste of time. We should be strategizing."
"We have the element of surprise: My ship."
Warily he eyes her. "So you've said."
"I shadowed you. It was deliberate." Xena allows it to sink in: The closer her ship was to his, the more dangerous it would be for him to use fire as weapon without having it turned back on him with ease. She knew he would not risk it; he was far too inexperienced at naval warfare to take the slightest gambit. "And now, from Octavian's point of engagement, they cannot see my ship. It's all a matter of revealing myself at the right moment to maximize the effect."
Antony's thumb taps the hilt of his gladius. "This is awfully well planned. Even for you."
The hairs on the nape of her neck rise in a wind of apprehension. "You didn't think I'd come out here to meet you-and not prepare for the worst?"
"Oh, no. Not to meet me."
Octavian, she realizes. He thinks she is here to meet Octavian.
Antony moves faster than she remembers-unless, of course, she's out of practice, which is highly likely-his blade flashes and she leaps back, knocking over the bucket of piss. She draws her own broadsword. In such close quarters, the clanging of swords seems deafening. She wonders if the crew above can hear it. Locked together by bronze as if they are ill-fitting puzzle pieces, they stagger around the room in a clumsy dance until Antony gathers enough momentum to send Xena barreling over a table with one furious push. A candle on the table hits the floor with her. The flame smolders dangerously until she tamps it down with the palm of her hand. The gentle bite of fire distracts from the pain shooting up her lower back.
"Why are you here?" he hisses bitterly. "Was this all part of your plan? You arranged it with Octavian-to take me out."
Wincing, Xena rises. "Don't be so fucking stupid." Wrong tack. "I've had no contact with Octavian. Why would I? He's as threatened by me as he is by you."
Antony's nostrils remain furiously flaring, as if he's a steed in the heat of battle, but he makes no move toward her.
"I told you I was sent here by Lepidus and Brutus," Xena reminds him. "If a triumvirate is a body, then I'm the part that's expendable. I'm the left hand."
"Nobility is not something I usually ascribe to you, so what do you get out of this?"
"Nothing!" she shouts. "I get nothing. I want nothing."
He points the sword at her. "You want Rome."
"Even if I did-Rome doesn't want me." This splinter of realization has burrowed so far under her skin that it was easy to ignore until now, until the pain and infection of resentment finally manifested itself. "It was never mine to begin with. It will never be mine. The smartest thing to do is to walk away."
Slowly Antony lowers the sword. For the moment persuasion has prevailed. "Yes. You've always been practical, Xena. But the one thing you've always wanted above all reason is your homeland. Greece. Surely Brutus and Lepidus promised that to you as a reward. Or you thought I would. I know you."
Wearily, she shakes her head. "You don't know me anymore."
"Don't I?" Clearly surprised and piqued by this statement, Antony's brows hitch in surprise. "We understood each other from the very start, Xena. Do you remember Caesar's triumph, when he brought you to Rome as if you were the greatest trophy of all? He treated you as if gold ran through your veins. Do you remember that night, the celebration in his villa? You were surrounded by every purple robe in Rome and I could tell the wealth and the beauty of the scene dazzled you, but you were at heart unimpressed by it all. You looked as bored as I was. I was watching you because you were clearly the most interesting thing in the room. And I remember thinking, this is a woman after my own soul. And I wished you were mine, but I knew it could never be. No, I've always understood you so well, and that was enough." Through reclamation of their past he has come to see her as she is now: changed, vastly changed, from the woman who intrigued him so many years ago. It's a curious loss-the prickling of a needle that pulls the final thread of their tapestry. Antony blinks and shakes his head. He picks up the fallen candle and rolls it thoughtfully between his palms. The wick smolders. "What has changed you?"
The furor and pace of the last few weeks, the last few months, finally blindsides her: Everything she has lost, everything she has gained. And lost again, it seems. Wearily she leans against the wall. "It will sound trite."
"That can mean only one thing."
"Yes. I'm afraid so."
"Then tell me. Who, at long last, has claimed your heart?"
She laughs. Because, even to herself, it still seems as surprising as it was inevitable. "Do you remember that gladiator I purchased before I left?"
"Ah!" His smile of approval is visible in the soft darkness of the room. He fumbles for a bit of flint and parchment to revive the candle. He makes several attempts to reignite the flame, every attempt at battling darkness longer than the previous one. "How funny."
"How so, Antony?" she asks gently.
"That something so small and seemingly insignificant could change the course of so many things." The flame takes and the candle is lit and he sighs. "I knew she was dangerous."
No sooner had the battle begun, it was over.
From the crack in the shutter at Diokles' inn, Gabrielle and the innkeeper had taken turns watching the tide of the fighting shift and reverse, as mysteriously governed by the whimsy of Ares as the sea's tides are by the moon of Artemis. Similarly during this time, Diokles had informed her of how the current of power had shifted in Rome. Slowly and steadily Octavian won over the military through the canny use of his limited funds, portraying Antony as corrupt spendthrift, and his relentless touring throughout the peninsula. He appealed on the basis of being Caesar's legitimate heir, on repeated promises to maintain the Republic, and on the youthfulness that hinted at one being easily manipulated or swayed but, in reality, belied an iron-clad mind.
Surprised that the battle has ended so quickly, Gabrielle decides to leave. The door of the inn closes behind her and she's on the desolate street. Her arm is still warm from Diokles' tight, grateful clasp of farewell. The air is smoky. None of Antony's men are seen; an hour before, she and Diokles witnessed a weary line of soldiers wearing Antony's colors lurching down the street, in a direction leading out of town. Where they were going, she hadn't a clue. She imagined them going back they way she and the Praetorians had come, until they were stranded in Garouna.
Now, with both battle and day on the wane, she refocuses on the goal of getting to Antony's lair. From where she stands, the promontory of Antony's so-called white palace is visible. Ostentatiously white, gold, and blue, it juts out precariously from the rugged cliffs above the sea, as if it were a toy stashed there impulsively by the strongest of giants, Porphyrion, for dubious, childlike safekeeping. In strides as long as she can manage and with her eyes trained on the palace-as if it were a mirage that would disappear if she so much as blinked-Gabrielle begins her solitary march to the palace. She skirts the sluggish fires, the tired, nervous citizenry, the remnants of Antony's men aching for one last shot at a Praetorian; almost every soldier she passes, however, doesn't bother to engage her. The only one who does will wake up later in a pool of mud with a broken arm.
She has not gone far when the noise of a rattling cart from behind catches her attention. Male voices, loud and drunken, add to the cacophony; syllables knit themselves into words as the horse-drawn wagon pulls closer and finally sentences flow in annoying familiarity:
"Hey, it's her. Hey, Gladiator! Little Gladiator!"
"You mean Little Whore!"
"Shut it, Flavius, you fucking idiot."
The last voice, Gabrielle recognizes gratefully, is Gnaeus.
The wagon rolls to a stop at her side. From her earthbound perspective Gnaeus looms above her with regal triumph, confident as a general. He bestows a grin on her. "Going our way?"
From there, it's not a long ride to the mountain. Victory carries them along easily. Gabrielle realizes that this is the first time she's ever seen Gnaeus without his helmet; the silvery shock of hair surprises her. When he smiles at her again, she smiles back. She wonders if she will live long enough to go gray. When her smile fades, Gnaeus pats her arm paternally and tells her not to worry-the battle has been won, the "negotiations" are no doubt complete, and Xena will arrive in port soon. Even as they abandon the wagon for the march up the mountain and he grows breathless as they approach the top, Gnaeus's optimism never fades. In this aspect he reminds her of Iolaus and because of that she sends a quick prayer to any and all gods listening to keep him safe.
It's time to make the fire
On the deck of the Praetorian quadrireme, Pullo has fallen into a light sleep. Even as his fluttering eyelids resist the lure of daylight, he is gently lulled by the cradle of the sea and seduced by a vivid demi-dream of that beautiful red-headed hetaera he'd had in Alexandria. But all is violently interrupted by Lucius's braying announcement: "Oh shit, Pullo, here she comes again." He opens his eyes just as Xena hits the deck, tumbling to an elegant stop before bowling over the group of soldiers who cheer her return. After their obligatory half-bows, Pullo and Lucius stand ramrod-straight with apprehension as she approaches them.
"Empress," Lucius quavers.
"Well?" Pullo blurts.
Grimacing, Xena rolls her shoulders. "I'm thinking I may give the jumping-off-ships thing a rest for a while." The agony of expectation on Pullo's too-expressive face, however, brings her around to the matter at hand. "Crisis averted with Antony. Unfortunately we have a new crisis at hand: Octavian has three quinqueremes approaching us from the west.
Lucius swallows nervously.
In contrast, Pullo's eyes glitter dangerously. "Is it time to make the fire?"
"Yes, I do believe it's time to make the fire, and may the gods save us from my inept memory. Lucius, do you have a bucket handy? I've a favor to ask."
If no less puzzled, Lucius at least proves less modest than his counterpart on Antony's ship.
The winter palace
Marc Antony's winter palace has witnessed more peaceful and prosperous times. The main gate is charred and unhinged. The palace's modest moat is clogged with bodies, mostly soldiers of both armies, but some civilians and-Gabrielle's blood rises with rage-women and children. In comparison to the gladiatorial arena, the stench of death overwhelms. The sound of lute and drums, and triumphant shouting, falls over the scene. And yet they celebrate.
She follows Gnaeus inside the palace and past candles that stand as scented sentries, shuddering with relief. Gnaeus begins barking orders at whomever crosses his path, demanding to know where Brutus is. No one seems to know. He asks about Antony. Gone, they say-on a suicide mission to thwart Octavian. Suicide, she thinks. And will he drag Xena down on his mission?
So much for a sense of relief.
Ignored and invisible, she glides through the maze of the palace with her heart at a frantic pace, up a staircase that widens as she ascends. It is as if she senses Brutus, knows exactly where he will be: Because he fancies himself a great leader like Xena, he will isolate himself from the masses, sit alone in aloof triumph, and watch the world celebrate his great victory. As Xena did during Cleopatra's coronation; this post-victory melancholy she never quite understood-in her eyes, Xena had accomplished a good thing-but then it never occurred to her to ask Xena for an explanation. She thinks she may never get that chance now.
In a spacious room with a broad balcony overlooking the sea, Brutus is indeed alone. He stands at the edge of the balcony and stares at the vast expanse of water. Behind him is a long table cluttered with maps and scrolls and flanked by gold divans. A statue of Caesar, displaying an aged gravitas that the real man never possessed, observes benignly from a far corner.
Hearing Gabrielle's cautious tread startles Brutus out of his reverie. "You made it. Good." He looks back at the sea. "Good," he repeats absently.
Standing beside him on the balcony, Gabrielle takes in the stunning panorama. From this vast perspective Antony and Xena's ships are visible but, sadly, insignificant. Like the toy boats that Cato used to carve for his children. She knows the smaller, sleeker one that huddles amiably beside the larger ship is Xena's. The two ships, however, are not alone. Three large warships are aimed at the imposing broadside of Antony's ship, like darts suspended in midair. It couldn't be good, but Gabrielle knew so little of nautical warfare that she risks the naïve question. "Those other ships out there-are they Antony's?" she asks hoarsely.
"No. All of Antony's vessels are accounted for in the harbor." Brutus nods toward the cluster of ships. "I am certain those three ships flanking them are Octavian's." He doesn't seem surprised.
Now it all seems painfully obvious-not a trap per se, but an inevitability that Brutus was no doubt counting on. Fate. A voice in her mind sings this damnable one-note dirge. "You knew Octavian was coming. Didn't you?"
He sighs. "It only made sense." He turns away from the ships and walks back into the room.
The urge to slit his throat is strong, and she nearly whimpers with the effort of restraint. Think. You must think.
"But it is better this way," Brutus obliviously continues. "He will defeat the imperialists and silence the Optimates. It will be a fresh start for the Republic." He nibbles at his bottom lip. "And I will have no choice but to make my peace with him. Unfortunately, it may be too late for Xena, since she's out there already with Antony. They must have made an alliance at the last moment."
It's said to taunt her. She ignores it, but just barely. "Xena's not an imperialist."
For the first time since her arrival, Brutus meets her eyes-and sneers incredulously. "You cannot be so naïve. She has put a spell on you. I thought perhaps getting you away from her would help. And I suppose I didn't think it possible-you are very smart, but no one can resist certain potions. That must be what's at work here. Think about it: Do you know how many women, how many men, she's laid with? Do you think you're so special?"
"This isn't about me," Gabrielle retorts. "You made an alliance with her. You forced her into this triumvirate with yourself and Lepidus. You sought out her help. And now she requires your help."
"The triumvirate is as good as finished. It's over. Against Octavian-and Agrippa, who knows warfare at sea better than any Roman alive-she and Antony haven't a chance."
Kill him. "So much for honor, then."
"This isn't about honor. It's about survival-the survival of the Republic."
"We have enough men out there to put on a ship. It's not too late." She hears the frantic tremor of her voice.
Brutus shakes his head. "It's not worth it." With firm gentleness he grasps her arm, completely oblivious to her flinching. "Listen. Take your chance. You can be truly free now. You can do so much with your life. Why, you could return to Rome with me if you like. I can always use a scribe. You-you could become part of my household. Not as a slave, of course."
Angrily she pulls away.
"You don't understand," he pleads. "I don't want that. I want to help you."
"I don't need your help! What I need is a ship with some men who are ready to fight."
Brutus's mouth tightens. "It won't happen."
"Like hell it won't," Gabrielle snaps. "Those men out there would die for her, and you know it. All I have to do is go out there and tell them that their Empress, their Consul or whatever the fuck you're calling her now, is in danger and they will go down into the port and get on the first ship they find. They don't give a shit about you or what you want. They're here because she ordered it, because they expected her to enter into the port triumphant. So it will happen. It will happen without a single fucking word from you."
Iolaus had always said that because of her size and sex, she would hold the element of surprise in a match, that opponents would consistently underestimate her. But, he had reminded her, just because they underestimate you doesn't mean you should return the favor. Seconds after she turns toward the door she realizes this mistake with Brutus. But it's too late to rectify the initial error, because his dagger has found the gap in her armor, her vulnerable side. The blade glides in and out, severing her from her immediate purpose and inflaming the world with pain.
"I didn't want to do that," Brutus says softly. "I wanted to help you."
The backhanded apology only serves to irritate. Gabrielle staggers until she finds support against the table. Blood seeps around her fingertips. Pullo's imperative once again floats through her mind: Keep moving. But the slightest push from Brutus topples her to the ground. She juts out a leg and trips him, leveling the playing field. No longer full of pity and longing but fury and false betrayal, Brutus punches her in the face. Not as hard as the guard at the Alexandrian brothel did, but enough so that she could map out imaginary constellations should she choose to do so. He is on his knees, on the rise and looming over her, when she claims the sai stashed in her right boot and plunges it through his chest. The horror and surprise of it all is Brutus's death mask. He collapses on her, his mouth, frothing red, pours blood along the golden, armored contours of her shoulder. In death, he is closer to her than he ever was while alive.
Sliding out from under his deadweight takes a small eternity, as does standing up. The table helps. In fact, she finds she cannot leave the crutch of the table without risking another meeting with the floor. But when she hears the sound of voices near the door, she starts yelling for Gnaeus. The centurion bursts through the door, followed by half a dozen Praetorians. The dead member of the ill-fated triumvirate and Gabrielle's bloody wound battle for his befuddled attention.
"Gnaeus!" she shouts as she loses her grip on the table and just before the world goes dim, "I need a fucking ship!"
Fourth time's the charm
Xena works with Pullo in grim, attenuated efficiency. The rank assemblage of ingredients are soaked and pounded into cloth and tied tightly around a projectile. They lack the siphons and tubes suggested by Ping for maximum efficiency-that this requested bit of equipment had not made it on board caused Xena to kick the quartermaster squarely in the balls-but she hopes catapults will do the trick. When the work is completed and a line of smelly missiles await the catapult, Pullo finally dares the question he's been waiting to ask. "Is there a plan?" he asks in an undertone.
"When they are close enough for arrows and catapults, Antony is to throw his flag starboard, where we can see it. Then we move-coming out from behind his ship, and shooting like mad. Tell Lucius to stand by for the order."
As Pullo darts off, Xena keeps her eyes trained on the ship before her. She stares so long and so intently that it seems her mind is playing tricks-Antony's ship is not only swaying, but moving away from her. Indeed, this sinking realization sends one single thought sailing through her mind faster than that fat, stupid quinquereme: Sonofabitch. She knows what Antony, who is every inch the soldier, is doing-and what anyone not a soldier would call it: Suicide. He is going to ram Octavian's lead ship. He is going to go down fighting. He is going to have an honorable death. At this point, beyond his fealty to Xena, it's the only thing that matters to him. And he's going to fuck up everything. Maybe.
His final words to her now make sense, the lingering grasp of his hand upon her arm, that quick, unexpected kiss upon her cheek: No matter what happens, Xena, you will be fine. Trust me. It will all be a matter of timing.
Pullo is no sooner back at her side than she shouts out the order: "Man the catapults!"
As the cover of Antony's Trojan horse agonizingly falls away, Octavian's ships are in sight.
"Release!" Xena roars.
The first missiles of Greek fire hit the water. And release nothing more than great gray billows of smoke. It's useful camouflage, confounding the enemy. But when Octavian's arrows rain from these clouds and the men dive for cover when a shield is not at hand, Xena can only hope her plan yields some kind of result: With each batch of missiles, she had tinkered the recipe somehow in the hopes of yielding the correct formula. Given her unreliable memory, it was the best strategy she had: calculated guesswork.
The second time sputters like a half-assed fireworks display, a paltry counterpart to the ceremonial processions and celebrations she witnessed in Chin.
The third time is smoke and arrows again, and this time an arrow finds her shoulder. But she grits her teeth and gives the order for the next round.
The fourth time, however, is the charm: A curtain of flame unfurls across the water, like a colorful howl of rage from a dragon. She would revel in the triumph but for Pullo snapping off the arrow in her shoulder and pushing the remainder through flesh, muscle, and blood. The last thing she sees before passing out is Antony's ship, blocking the furthermost ship in Octavian's minifleet, in a fury of immolation.
Tea and mockery
Her memory is a lake, disrupted by ships of dreams: That first voyage to Rome and those days and nights of brutality, contrasted with that first voyage to Alexandria, the sight of the lighthouse, and Xena's hand a gentle compass resting against her skin.
Gabrielle wakes in a cradle of pain: her face hurts; her side hurts even more. Every breath is an aching effort. Her eyes focus warily on the dark wooden beams overhead. She's in a bed, eerily in motion even while lying still. If that is not clue enough, the overwhelming scent of briny water is. She turns toward the only source of light: A small portal window that reveals the unhappy marriage of a leaden sky to a brusque, choppy sea.
It figures, she thinks. Hell would be a ship. Well played, Hades.
When a wave of nausea hits her and she dry heaves over the bed, however, she starts to worry that she is actually alive. Possibly a slave again? No-she would be chained in some dank hold with rats nibbling at her wound. Instead she's in a rather decent, clean bed, and the wound in her side is stitched and bound with the tidy efficiency of a competent healer. She is too weak, and her throat too dry, to call for anyone. So she waits, drifting in and out of sleep, until the sound of the opening door wakes her.
An elderly man with a limp, carrying a steaming mug of something foul, enters. "You're awake. About time."
Weakly, Gabrielle pulls the coarse blanket over her bare torso.
The man laughs. "Come now, it's nothing I haven't seen a million times, and trust me, you aren't the envy of Aphrodite."
Petty insults and shitty tea. Yes, Gabrielle thinks, I am definitely alive.
"Now your friend, on the other hand-" he chuckles coarsely. "Hera's tits, she's quite a specimen."
Friend? She struggles to sit up, tries to get the word out of her mouth. The old healer ignores these pathetic attempts and gently pulls down the blanket for a cursory glance at the bandaged wound. "No bleeding. Good." He thrusts the tea at her. "Drink."
Desperate for any beverage, she gulps it down and, ignoring the hopeful rush of blood pounding in her ears and aching in her chest, finally manages to croak: "My-friend?"
The healer laughs archly. "Yes, that beautiful, bossy Greek bitch who says she's just a fisherman's wife but swears like a sailor and ties fancier knots than a Alexandrian whore. She's a good worker but she keeps trying to run the damn ship. Sound familiar?"
Tentative, Gabrielle smiles and sighs. The empty cup loosens in her grip. "Very much so," she replies slowly. She falls asleep again.
Ashes and light
There is something in the world called snow, Cleopatra thinks.
Xena had told her of this phenomenon, of the soft, cold white fluff that falls from the sky-like frozen rain-in colder climates, like the mountains in her native land, and like the far-off Nordic regions that the Queen of Egypt only ever read about in scrolls. Cleopatra still remembers the lovely fluttering of Xena's fingers as she mimed the soft, random fall of snow. So soft, so gentle-a single flake can dissipate in a second on the heat of one's tongue-and yet when amassed in great quantities, it can be as impenetrable and imposing as a pyramid.
On the balcony of her palace Cleopatra imagines that snow is somewhat similar to the ash floating through the air around her. Except that the fresh, swirling ash is warm and gray, almost stinging upon the skin. The scent of burning parchment grows stronger by the minute. Does snow have a smell? she wonders. It has been days since Octavian's forces had arrived, besieging the city of Alexandria and making good on their threats to lay waste to the city's most valuable asset: the library.
The fire in the library started a day ago. At one point it seemed contained and eliminated, but renewed fighting reignited it. The old librarian, Apollonius-once her tutor, who babysat her with scrolls and stories and was more a constant in her life than anyone in her family ever was-had refused to leave. She arranged to have him drugged and smuggled out of the city. She could not bear the thought of him witnessing the mass destruction of his life's work.
As for witnessing the obliteration of Alexandria-well, that is her duty. It is her city, now hers alone. Xena's alliance paved the way, although the treacherous yet useful eunuch who, at her behest, snapped the neck of her brother proved essential as well. She stands as the sole ruler of Egypt. Xena's last words to her, which lacked any form of recrimination or regret, have haunted her since: The power you wanted, the city you wanted-it's all yours now. Remember well the responsibility that comes with it or it will eat you alive.
The ashes roll aimlessly like the ghosts of locusts haunting the sky. The last occupant of her bedroom is an asp hungry for her blood, waiting for the moment when she releases him, for the moment when the Roman soldiers are banging at her door.
The next time Gabrielle awakens, Xena is sitting on the edge of her bed, as if she were a goddess easily summoned by thought alone. Her appearance, however, is distinctly ungoddesslike: She's dressed in commoner's clothes, a simple brown cloak and dusky, dull brass armor that designate allegiance to no one but herself. She looks tired and drawn-shadowy crescents lurk under her bright eyes-but she is alive and apparently uninjured.
Immediately Gabrielle attempts sitting up, winces in pain, but before she falls back onto the pillows Xena catches her in a gentle embrace. Their lips are too close and the inevitable happens too soon; even the softest kiss overwhelms Gabrielle with the memory of what she believes she does not have and will never earn. She breaks the kiss, and the resultant dueling emotions of Xena's disappointment and her own resentment leave her momentarily exhausted; the residue of these wearying feelings are a greasy overlay-a dirty window upon a clear day, a distortion of what should be proper happiness.
Xena carefully lowers her back onto the pillows. "Relax. Don't say anything." She offers Gabrielle water from a cup.
Gabrielle drains it quickly, the restorative effect of cool water always a marvel to her. Nonetheless her simple question still takes effort: "Where are we?"
"On a ship. I told you, don't speak. We can talk later. But we're safe."
The idiotic, obvious answer frustrates her. She sucks in as many breaths as possible to keep going. The mysterious healer had said Xena was "a good worker." Why was the Empress working and not running the ship? "Where," she manages around a coughing fit, "are we going?"
Now I remember why sometimes I wanted to kill you. "Where is 'home'?"
"Wherever you want it to be."
If Xena thinks her cryptic, unflappable answers are meant to sooth with their dubious charm-and obviously she believes that-then she is tragically mistaken. Impatiently, Gabrielle tries again. "What-what's happened?"
Xena pauses, considering what to tell the fragile yet increasingly enraged invalid. Uncharacteristically, she plays it safe. "Rather a lot."
With feeble fury Gabrielle attempts tossing the cup at Xena, aiming for her head but merely grazing her elbow. "Why are you still so fucking annoying?" she cries. And coughs again.
Xena manages a look of dignified, wounded affront, an expression that her late husband coached in her to marvelous effect. "Will you settle down and stop fucking swearing for a moment?"
Unwelcome tears cloud Gabrielle's eyes.
"Please. Don't. I'm sorry." Xena leans forwards and gently cups her face. The edge of her thumb catches a rivulet of sadness.
Something is different, Gabrielle realizes, something greater and more substantial than her fuzzy mind had previously allowed. The hand caressing her face feels-strangely lighter: Xena is not wearing her signet ring, the intaglio of power that marked her as the Empress, that heavy golden ring that had run a sensual course over every dip and turn of Gabrielle's body. As much as she had loathed what the ring represented, she loved the cool, solid reassurance of knowing who touched her.
"Much has happened," Xena is saying, "so much so that it's hard to present a concise account. The battle you participated in is over, but with heavy consequences on all sides. Octavian claims victory, if only because he is the only one who survived. Marc Antony's ship was destroyed and he died a hero's death. Save for Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, since exiled, the leaders of this battle perished." Xena pauses. "Even the Empress."
"Even the Empress?" The puzzled Gabrielle echoes. Perhaps it's true, perhaps I am dead, or crazy? Again she glances at Xena's bare right hand. Or else it's the greatest gift?
"I'm afraid so," Xena continues. "Turns out the damn fool couldn't properly prepare Greek fire after all. Pity. I hear she was rather a stunning beauty and a woman of superior character-"
"Well, I don't know about that," Gabrielle rasps weakly. Already, she thinks, they have fallen into that familiar pattern and while she despises the weakness of falling so quickly after so much has happened, she loves that the foundation they have-comprised of and/or based on what, she has no idea-is still present.
"Yes, she did have a dubious reputation. Regardless, I regret to inform you that the former Empress of Rome is dead. But the woman who loves you is very much alive."
"Oh." It feels anticlimactic, if only because one little stubborn fortress, one defiant section of her heart always knew it for truth. Gabrielle looks for something to throw at Xena again, but there isn't anything except her pillow, and she's loath to give it up. "So now you finally say it."
Never one for admitting errors, Xena pinches her brow and acknowledges this serious tactical mistake in courtship: "Yes. Perhaps you think it too little too late, but I've been rather busy and you were in some kind of-coma, so declarations of love seemed rather pointless. Words usually fail me unless I'm being insincere, and I've never wanted to be that way with you." Xena looks down and takes a deep breath. "But. I have surrendered all that I know for the opportunity to wake up next to you every morning. I have enough coin to get us both a place to live and enough parchment for you to write a thousand epics. I will steal scrolls for you if you like-as you know, librarians are terrified of me. We can get you a cat, maybe like Timon. You will admit they are easier to care for than children. And I will not tire of loving you because there is no one like you anywhere in this world." Xena pauses; the gods have not yet struck her down for speaking sincerely. "I know as far as proposals go, this is even less romantic than even Caesar's flat proposition to me so long ago, because I can't offer you an empire, or a world you've never known. All I have is the truth of what I say, and what I feel." Her moment as a prospective suitor at an end, Xena looks at and fiddles anxiously with the leather stay of a bracer. "Will it do?" She risks an anxious, if loving, glance at her beloved, which ensures Gabrielle's quick, decisive reaction.
"Yes." Gabrielle takes her hand. The lines mapping the palm are world enough for her. "It will do."
He calls himself Augustus now.
Pullo remembers his as a youth: gangly and thin, strange and awkward. His new role as a warrior-emperor, however, has transformed him into lean elegance. But his face still betrays the look of the ascetic, as if he would rather be performing rites at a mystery cult than ruling the Empire he has held together with calm tenacity.
A winter rain has left the bare branches of the trees outside luminous with raindrops that scatter in the wind and glitter in fierce bursts of post-storm sunlight. Pullo watches the drops fall, waits for Augustus to deliver his fate-and, indirectly, Xena's as well. For several long minutes the Emperor has said nothing, which is something that would drive a lesser man mad. And while he is not known for his patience, Titus Pullo is known for his loyalty. He will accept whatever befalls him, if only because he has no choice.
The Emperor turns from the window. "You saw her body?"
The rowboat lurched through choppy water, further and further away from the hell on sea composed of the flaming carcasses of three ships-theirs, Antony's, and one of Octavian's. The remaining two vessels-one significantly damaged-were in retreat. Pullo figured they wouldn't risk taking Kassiopi; they had no idea what forces awaited them.
He took turns rowing with Lucius. Xena, wounded, was barely conscious. Her shoulder was bandaged sloppily, and he feared that somewhere Ping was cursing him for his lack of skill in the healing arts. As Kassiopi came into sharper focus, Pullo was startled out of a moment of exhausted reverie when Xena grasped his hand with surprising strength, pressing her signet ring into his callused palm.
"I'm dead." Never before had she looked at him so intently, and for so long. "Do you understand?"
"Yes, Emperor." Pullo pauses, uncertain of offering more detail. But Augustus remains gazing at him calmly, like a child expecting more of a story. "She was mortally wounded with an arrow. Before she died she gave me the ring and instructed me to present it to the next leader of the Empire."
"Not me, specifically." Augustus says wryly.
"With all due respect, the Empress-the former Empress-was not an oracle."
"You have always spoken bluntly, Pullo. I see that has not changed." Augustus's thumb brushes against Xena's signet ring. "Why did you not try to claim her body? To give her a proper burial?"
Pullo shifts nervously and hopes that Augustus interprets this as accompaniment to the lie he unfurls: "When you're running for your life, you're not stopping, not giving much thought to the dead, but rather trying to avoid their ranks."
Augustus snorts derisively. "The gods have mercy on your craven soul, Pullo."
Relieved, Pullo dips his head, accepting the chastisement and remembering the last he saw of Xena some four months ago: In the full regalia of a centurion that they lifted off a dead man, right down to the helmet that disguised her sex and the armor that protected her wounded shoulder, striding through the port of the seaside town with only one thing on her mind: Finding the gladiator, dead or alive.
"Do you really expect me to believe that?" Augustus asks quietly.
Pullo's head snaps up, the clicking in his neck only slightly alarming in comparison to the sudden close proximity of Emperor.
Augustus's smile is chilly. "A man as loyal as you would not leave the woman you served to the depths of the merciless sea. Even if her body were cold and dead. No, Pullo, you would have dragged Xena's corpse to the shores of Kassiopi and given her a funeral that would have rivaled Caesar's in splendor and fire." He takes steps closer to Pullo, all the while still caressing the ring with his fingertips, and to Pullo's astonishment speaks even softer, in a frightful, reverential whisper: "Would you have dared defy Mithras so?" The Emperor is as tall as he, and his calm, expressionless eyes are those of a man who knows true power. "Do you want to kill me now, Pullo? Now that I've exposed your lie?"
Pullo stiffens. The moment they start talking about lies, he thinks, is the moment they start preparing the executioner's block. "Emperor, please-"
Augustus interrupts gently. "I've no wish to harm you. Rather, I applaud you. Loyalty is an invaluable characteristic. Worth more than gold-no wonder Xena kept you around. But since you returned to Rome, I assume your loyalty to the Empire trumps your temporary madness: allegiance to a Greek. You are truly a soldier of great merit and, if you're interested, I should like to retain your services. But before we begin those tedious negotiations, I'd like to clarify: I'm not interested in whether Xena lives or dies. As popular as she once was, she remains infamia: A Greek. A woman. A sexual deviant. And nothing without Caesar. No Roman would follow her now." Augustus holds up the ring. "No. I'm interested in this. And why she gave it all up." He give Pullo an expectant look.
"It's very simple," Pullo begins.
"Then please do enlighten me."
"Love?" Augustus echoes incredulously.
The Emperor laughs, and with that Pullo releases the breath he's been holding for nearly a minute, unfurling a coil of anxiety wrapped deep in his gut. "Really? Is that it?" In amusement Augustus seems young again as his nose crinkles in disbelief. "With that-that unbathed gladiator?"
Pullo nods again, while refraining from commenting that Gabrielle was probably the most hygienic gladiator he'd ever encountered; in fact, she bathed so often he feared for her health-it didn't seem normal. Didn't she know the protective properties of dirt?
Satisfied with Pullo's answer-the simplest answer is usually the true one, the Emperor believes-the relaxed Augustus sprawls on a divan and continues to admire the signet ring that glitters within his grasp. "I supposed it makes sense." He shakes his head. "Just like a woman."
Three years later
As a town elder, Eusebius was generally accorded the respect his age merited, even though Gorgos thought the old man was basically an idiot. But when the giant arrived in town and started terrorizing everyone and eating all the livestock, Eusebius had suggested, with surprising common sense, that the town pool their money to hire mercenaries to take care of the giant. He even had two excellent candidates for the job: former Roman slaves, one of them rumored to be a gladiator, who lived in one of the coastal villages and who were known to make themselves available for such tasks.
And so it was arranged that Eusebius would take the money to the mercenaries-the meeting spot a dodgy tavern just outside of Corinth-accompanied by Gorgos, widely considered the strongest and bravest man in the village. But when Eusebius led his young comrade through the tavern to a secluded back room and two strange women, Gorgos nearly throttled the old man. They were, he believed, about the waste the entire town's resources on women, probably whores, who would abscond to the city with their funds.
Before he could snatch the money pouch away from the old man and leave, spry old Eusebius sat down and engaged the women in conversation. He bought them new drinks and proceeded to spool out the long, mind-numbing story of Cliff the giant, so named because when drunk he would sometimes fall asleep up in the mountains and roll off a cliff. Unfortunately, the drunken falls had little impact on Cliff's physical well being.
Upon closer inspection, Gorgos thought the women did not seem like common-variety hetaeras. In fact, they wore armor and carried swords. The short blonde one politely interrogated Eusebius; despite her gentle demeanor she sat with the attentive, ramrod posture of a soldier and her wary, sea-colored eyes restlessly scanned the tavern for potential disturbances. The other one was even more intriguing: unusually tall for a woman and possessing the elegant coiled menace of a brooding cat, her chilly blue eyes half-lidded with boredom as Eusebius droned on about Cliff. But it wasn't until a dropped cup clanged noisily-prompting a curious, controlled tilt of her head that revealed a handsome profile, a profile seen on a coin some years ago-that Gorgos nearly jumped out of his skin.
Like all the major players at the Battle of Actium, the Empress of Rome was presumed dead. Unlike Brutus and Antony, however, her body was never found-just a signet ring produced by a loyal soldier who claimed she perished on her sinking ship. Rumors persisted that she still lived, that she roamed Greece performing good deeds for the citizenry, and that some day she might emerge once again as a leader of the nation-her nation. He thought it all a crock. Until now.
Gorgos snorted and giggled.
The woman he believed to be Xena, the former Empress of Rome, stared at him, and not in a good way. "I hope you have good reason," she muttered imperiously, "for smirking at me."
He snorted and giggled again, this time adding a derisive, barking laugh: "Ho!"
The smaller woman now looked displeased as well, and her hand strayed to the gladius at her side. "Did he just call you a whore?" she asked her companion.
"No, no," Gorgos protested. "It's not that. It's not that at all." He shook his head. "I can believe this. You're Xena, aren't you? The Empress of Rome, as I live and breathe, so do you!"
"Boy, are you drunk?" embarrassed old Eusebius asked.
"Don't you see, old man?" Excitedly Gorgos gestured at the tall woman. "She's the Empress! All the stories are true-she's not really dead!"
"Zeus's balls, Gorgos." Eusebius shook his head. "You always cause trouble, no matter where you go, making people uncomfortable. I asked them to let me take Demetrius instead, but no-"
"Damn it, you fool, are you blind? Look at her!" Gorgos's voice rose. A barmaid glanced at him.
As he thrust his hand at the woman once again, the object of his scrutiny seized his wrist, twisted it, and pinned it to the table. Tendons crunched, her thumb plunged into his veins, and his vision grew spangled. He would've passed out but for her velvety voice, issuing the most seductive threat ever: "Let me make this perfectly clear. You're quite mistaken. I'm not the Empress of Rome. I'm just a humble widow who owns a horse farm and a vineyard by the sea with my, er-"
"-cousin," the short blonde interjected.
"-yes, cousin, and I do odd jobs every now and then to get by, because sometimes the vineyard business is kind of slow-"
"-because sometimes you think you can make good wine out of brambleberries but you really can't," her companion muttered.
The stare that Gorgos found so petrifying had no effect on the short blonde, and prompted the woman who may have been the Empress of Rome to whine: "Are we going to go through this again? In front of people? It was an experiment-"
"-that went so horribly, miserably wrong it should never be repeated." This blunt assessment is undermined by her companion with a gentle, teasing smile.
The woman who is maybe perhaps most definitely Xena returned the grin-and would have happily drowned in that smile because she remembered all too well a time when this woman, her beloved, did not smile at all-until Gorgos squawked in pain. Guiltily, she released his wrist. "So we're understood, Gorgos?"
Nodding violently, he rubbed his wrist and leaned back in his chair as far as possible.
Awkward silence bullied its way into the room. Until Eusebius risked closing the deal. "Then it's settled? You'll take the job?"
The women looked at each other. Xena shrugged, Gabrielle nodded, and Eusebius shoved the money across the table.
"Great. Another fucking giant," Xena sighed.
Mercenaries for good
The tavern, situated on the city's acropolis, looks down on Corinth. The first thing Gabrielle does in the room is open wide the shutters and gaze, with quiet excitement, at the urban sprawl below them. In contrast, Xena flops fully clothed onto the bed, which releases a cloud of dust and in her mind justifies her decision not to remove her boots. Are such accommodations fitting for the former Empress of Rome? Perhaps not, but after some food and wine fill her belly and she has put the bed to proper use, she won't mind. Still, she coughs dramatically.
Gabrielle indulges her with a smile before returning her attention to the sprawl of Corinth. Rome it is not; in comparison, it's little more than a backwater. But Rome seems another lifetime, another lifeline etched in cruel carelessness along her palm. She remembers all too well those nights of witnessing the city from the window in Cato's kitchen, of knotting together torches and constellations into something grander, something better than she had ever experienced. Perhaps something like the life she has now.
Of course, she mistrusts these pacific moments; her mind begins racing, worrying that Xena is not really happy with their lot together. She looks at Xena, limp across the bed. Is she bored? Unhappy? Merely sleepy? "I'm sorry it's another giant," she says.
"Why? It's not your fault." Xena pauses. "But this time we're handling it my way."
The last giant they encountered benefited, however briefly, from Gabrielle's attempt to negotiate with him. Her appeals for "behavior modification for the greater good," however, fell on large, deaf ears. She would have been crushed to death if not for Xena's unerring toss of a spear that severed the giant's carotid.
"So no talking to the giant?"
"Only from a safe, respectable distance, and only for five minutes. No invitations to tea."
"Pine needle tea is usually very calming-"
"It tastes like piss and I'm not risking you getting crushed by some clod again." Underneath the humor is a tone that brooks no argument.
Still, she wonders if Xena is truly happy living this life. They are "mercenaries for good"-Xena's term for what they do, which assuages her wanderlust and her need of a powerful purpose. As strong as Greece was, it was like a jeweled necklace: impressive when strung together and as such invaluable, yet easily broken. Being on the other side-Rome-had revealed that to her. Greece needed protection, she had once said to Gabrielle.
They had been safely ensconced in a rather nice inn-drinking by a fire, and waiting for the right time to intercede in a rather nasty dispute between two city-states. Protection from what? Gabrielle had asked.
Xena had smiled ruefully. Protection from someone like me.
When they did not roam the countryside for things to do, people came to them, to the ramshackle vineyard where they lived: The buildings were old, the vineyard itself dubious, but they had both been so enchanted by the view of the sea that Xena threw her last solidus at the owner, who had inherited it from his dipsomaniac uncle and was eager to unload the property.
Initially the idea of being a vintner had appealed to Xena. In addition to a fine palate she had the stubbornness of the weeds that had overrun the fields. Thus far her efforts had yielded nothing drinkable; the infamous brambleberry wine, in fact, had made Gabrielle throw up. After that Xena focused all her nonmercenary activity on her second true love: Horses. Ostensibly their "official" reason for being in Corinth-not that anyone would really ask-was to purchase a fine young palomino. Not unlike an expectant mother, Xena had already given the beast a name-Argo-and had cleaned and lined a stall at home with fresh, new hay.
In between these peaceful gaps, they disposed of giants and defeated warlords, freed slaves, and negotiated resolutions-sometimes at the point of a sword-in precarious skirmishes between city-states. Much to Xena's dismay, their reputations spread. Octavian (as Xena still called him: "Augustus my ass, he will always be skinny, dull little Octavian to me") possessed a long memory and, perhaps, an even longer reach. Nearly two years ago Pullo had got word to them-in a message calibrated and concealed in the code he learned from Xena so long ago-confirming that the Emperor knew Xena lived, but seemed relatively unperturbed by this fact. That could change, they realized, at slightest perception of Xena amassing any kind of political power in Greece. Her existence, Gabrielle knew from the start, was an open, dangerous secret. Everyone knew who the "Warrior Princess" was; that many were willing to let the mystery be was an invaluable token of gratitude.
Much to Xena's paranoid annoyance, however, Gabrielle recorded their activities in her scrolls. Xena suggested that instead she write her own history: her story of being a gladiator. Even years later, it was too soon. Every day, no matter where they were, she awoke with the wolf of her past at the door-a wolf that slinked away the moment she looked, with desperate reassurance, for that dark head upon a pillow, for that long warm body next to hers. Someday, she thought, she will write it all down. Her life. When we are old, and the only adventure is getting out of bed in the morning.
Xena yawns. "I can't believe you've never been to Corinth."
"Village girls, slaves, and gladiators don't get around as much as pirates or Empresses."
"Truth to tell, you haven't missed much."
Always identifying with the underdog, Gabrielle is compelled to defend poor simple Corinth: "There is a library here."
This brings about a derisive snort from the well-traveled Xena. "It's nothing like what you're accustomed to, my dear."
Gabrielle dreams of a mission that will take them to Pergamum; Xena promises that one day they will visit the library, now the most fabled in the world since Alexandria became ash. Ever since news of the fire and Cleopatra's death reached them, she has thought of Apollonius nearly every day. Did the old man perish with his beloved scrolls? Or rather, did the enormity of what happened to the library kill him? Either way, she could not imagine him surviving the catastrophe of the loss; it wounded her as significantly as anything she had withstood as a gladiator. She hopes that, dead or alive, he hears her thoughts. Everything you taught me-I will never forget.
Uncanny as always, Xena senses the fluctuation in her mood, and encourages gently: "But you must go. Maybe tomorrow, before the play."
"We're going to a play?"
"But you hate plays."
"True, but the problem is I love you, and I know you love plays, and you've humored my reclusive nature enough recently. So I figured since we're in the big bad city, we'd see a play. It's Aristophanes, I'm afraid."
"I like Aristophanes."
"He's kind of an asshole, don't you think?"
Gabrielle laughs. "That's not very insightful criticism."
"Give me a good playwright and I'll give good insights."
"So you're not worried about being recognized?"
Xena sighs, sits up, and sheds her cloak. "Oh, I don't know why I even try-"
"So you're not going to wear that red wig?"
"You'd like that. You're such a pervert."
"Says the woman who would teach Sappho new positions." Gabrielle leans into the open window. Years ago, she thinks, she would be tongue-tied and terrified to even joke in such a fashion. But now? The warmth of the sun mixes with the slight chill in the air. It's the recipe for spring, for light kisses upon her neck that are not unexpected, for yielding to the hands that knead her hips, beckoning her to turn around.
They kiss. The sun seeps into Gabrielle's back and the languorous moment draws out, fueled by the warmth of reflected light and the day's promise unfurled before them. Until Gabrielle, finally noticing how Xena is not attired, pulls away with a squawk of protest: "Get away from the window! You're half naked!"
Indeed, Xena is topless, save for a bra. "I'll be fully naked soon." She wastes no time in undoing Gabrielle's vest. "You better catch up."
Gabrielle maneuvers them away from the window and toward the bed-Xena's goal all along; she was always the superior strategist. "I thought we could walk around," she mumbles between kissing, "explore the city-"
This time Xena halts the kissing, with a disgusted look.
"All right, I would explore the city while you drink wine and look bored." Aside from the library, there is one destination that Gabrielle is determined to seek out on her own. Alone. But she has already planned that particular errand while Xena examines horseflesh tomorrow. For now Xena has carefully stripped her, admiring the revelation of her body as if Gabrielle were her own creation. In a way, she is; formed and changed by Xena's perceptions, by love itself. Together they fall into bed effortlessly, as they've done many times before, and she pulls Xena atop her. "But perhaps we can do that-later."
"Yes. Later." The back of Xena's hand brushes along her shoulder, her breasts, her torso, teasing even lower, before returning to touch Gabrielle's face. She does not miss the ring: the signet ring, the gladiatorial ring, the rings she traced in the lonely Roman nights. She smiles into Xena's touch, into the fingers launching on a cartographer's quest to map the entirety of her body, and beginning with her lips. "Much later."
Flesh and blood
With the shawl covering her head, she could be any freewoman in the city entering the Temple of the Fates, and not the blonde-haired gladiator who was at one time more famous than the Emperor and Empress themselves. Even though her companion now eclipses her in fame, she is always cautious to avoid recognition. How fortunate, she thinks, that such a modest, simple covering so easily corrects the burden of infamia.
In the temple her fingers writhe through the candle's flame, pausing only briefly for the punishment of heat, the threat of blistering skin. The thick incense lays heavy as a winter cloak yet with the summery, cloyingly sweet scent of jasmine; the silvery smoke diaphanously drapes the angular figure of the priestess, who stands erect, half-naked, and unwavering as statuary.
The priestess, brandishing a silver cup, demands a blood sacrifice; any animal will do, she says.
I am an animal, Gabrielle replies.
The priestess considers this, and shrugs compliance.
Lips pressed together in anticipation of pain, Gabrielle takes out her knife and slices open her palm. As her blood winds its way into the chalice, she wonders what on earth she's going to say when Xena notices the wound. A fight, of course. Xena would believe a fight. The priestess gestures for her to kneel, and she does.
In the candled dusk the priestess recites prayers in a dialect so archaic Gabrielle can't understand half of it, but the incantation summons the fates and their loom. Head bowed and on her knees, Gabrielle listens as the singsong voices of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos weave multihued skeins of possibility within her life. The fates confess how the glittering and darkened threads of her life were altered; nonetheless, they will always remain forever entwined with Xena's. They tell the tale of what now has never happened: A girl who becomes a bard and a warrior rather than a slave and a gladiator. A warlord who is a broken, haunted woman, but who becomes a heroine for all time. The price of redemption, calculated too high. A lonely life half-lived. A mantle never desired. The wrong conclusion to the right story.
It answers all her questions, the questions that began the day she first met the Empress of Rome. Trembling, she binds her bleeding hand and with a million thoughts crowding her mind, begins to rise.
Wait, the priestess commands. She steps closer to Gabrielle, who remains kneeling. A knife rests on the priestess's open palm, the veins of her wrist sing in the struggle for perfect repose.
Cut the threads, Atropos says.
And all shall be as it was before, Lachesis confirms.
The priestess anticipates the unspoken question in Gabrielle's heart. Dark eyes respectfully downcast, she gently challenges the goddesses: And if she doesn't?
Clotho the weaver, who knows the bounty of the loom and every thread's rich possibility, answers: Want nothing and you will have everything.
The knife remains in the priestess's hand.
With a bow of acknowledgment to the priestess and the Fates, Gabrielle rises. The bandage has loosened itself around her hand and she tightens it, staring at the criss-cross weave against her skin. Is the loom of the fates truer than the loom of her hand-the lines of flesh and blood, the ragged gossamer of a bandage? She will never know. And, the Fates help her, neither will Xena.
She walks out of the temple and into the sun.