On our last day of travel in the carriage, before arriving in Rome, Xena and I had a very interesting conversation.
"Xena," I started, "about Lao Ma... you said that you were in love with her."
"Uh, was she in love with you?"
"She was very kind to me, but no, I don't think so," Xena said flatly.
"Why not?" I asked. "I mean, why don't you think she was in love with you?"
"Probably because I was such an evil bitch," Xena responded, but then added, "Anyway, she frustrated me."
"What do you mean, 'frustrated'?"
"I wanted to fu... to have sex with her, all of the time, and she wouldn't let me."
"Did you ask her?"
"Yes, I asked her!" Xena exclaimed rather loudly, much to my surprise.
"Xena, I wasn't implying that you were trying to force yourself on her."
Xena looked down at the horses' reins. "I asked her," she said quietly. "I practically begged her."
"I don't get it," I said. "You're a very beautiful woman, despite your evilness then. Unless she was blind, totally repulsed by the idea or just plain stupid, I can't imagine anyone, man or woman, turning you down."
"Well, she did."
"Do you have any ideas as to why?"
"It wasn't because she was blind, repulsed or stupid, Gabrielle," Xena stated. "It was just a part of her personal philosophy."
"What?" I asked. "Not to have sex with dangerously beautiful women?"
"No," Xena responded. "She was following her 'way'."
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena explained. "According to her, the 'way' is only realized through the recognition and acceptance of nothingness. To her, gaining wisdom can only be achieved by understanding that weakness equals strength, that happiness depends on disaster, and that passivity is the greatest accomplishment."
"I'm sure that didn't make any sense to you then, Xena."
"Oh, it made plenty of sense, once I actually thought about it."
I reflected on those words for a few moments. "Xena, were you able to eventually achieve Lao Ma's 'way'?" I asked.
"Actually, yes," she answered. "After many weeks with her, I was able to control my anger, my will and my lust for her. She called her 'way' Dao, and it allowed me to appreciate her beyond her beauty, her body and even her mind. Embracing Dao, I was able to relax and let go of my hatred, my anger and my sexual desires. It was while I was in that state of emptiness that she was able to heal my crippled legs. I also acquired the chakram during that time. I didn't hold onto to her 'way' very long. My anger, hatred and desires returned in full force, but for some reason, Dao is still with me when I wield my chakram. I believe it's because I connect spiritually with the weapon in some way."
"Was she beautiful, Xena?" I asked, petrified of the answer.
"Very," she responded.
I looked down at my slightly trembling hands. Xena took one of those hands into hers. "It was a different kind of beauty, Gabrielle," she continued. "Eastern, fragile, gentle. But nothing and no one equals the beauty that I see in you."
I smiled at her as she began tenderly rubbing my thigh. "Do you regret never experiencing intimacy with Lao Ma?" I asked her.
"Early on, I tried seducing her. It didn't work. But when I resorted to begging like a pathetic child, she took pity on me a few times and allowed me to lie with her and hold her."
"Like what you and I do?"
"Not exactly," Xena replied. "I am much more at peace with myself now, and with you. Also, Lao Ma and I were fully clothed during those times. No, I would frantically fondle her and shower her with desperate kisses in the hopes that she would cave and let me strip her and have sex with her. She tolerated me for a few moments before shoving me away and ordering me to leave her royal bedchamber."
"That does sound frustrating," I quipped. "I can totally relate."
Xena grasped my hand and kissed it, realizing that I was referring to my frustrating years in her servitude. "I know, my dear," she said. "I'm sorry."
Another silence fell upon us for several moments before I turned to Xena again. "This Dao explains how you came to wield your chakram," I stated, "but it doesn't explain how Callisto is able to wield it."
Xena looked up at the bright blue sky. "Well, I don't believe that Callisto's ever been to Chin. Perhaps that will remain one of life's great mysteries."
"Or, perhaps you can simply ask her while you're fighting her in the Colloseum."
Before reaching Rome, Xena wanted to take one last side trip. After instructing the others to wait for us at a small inn just inside of the city, she and I journeyed to a tiny villa in a nearby valley. It was to the home of a man known by the locals as Lucius Petronius Coriolanus, an Etruscan winemaker and "official supplier of vintage to the Realm." However, Coriolanus was actually a Greek, one Maphias of Amphipolis, Xena's childhood friend and one of her most valuable and cunning spies.
Maphias was at the door to greet us before we could even knock. "Hello, Conqueror," he said to Xena before turning his attention to me. "And greetings, Lady Gabrielle of Poteidaia." He was tall and handsome, with dark, silky hair, deep gray eyes and strong, masculine features. Of course, I immediately wondered if he had ever been physically intimate with Xena.
If they had ever been sexually involved, Xena certainly didn't give any indication of it. She sternly gripped his arm in greeting as she gazed upon him with hardened focus. "I'm here to sample your latest vintage," she said.
"Certainly, Conqueror," he responded. "Come in."
Unlike the dwellings of most of Xena's cronies, Maphias' home was simply furnished. Nothing elaborate adorned the walls or floors. It was a small dwelling, but seemed to be plenty roomy for him and his friendly dog, Basenji.
Xena and I sat at a table as Maphias joined us with three mugs of hot cider. Basenji took an instant liking to Xena, planting his chin on her lap. It was rather cute watching the Destroyer of Nations awkwardly scratching the dog's ears. After taking two short sips of her cider, the Conqueror addressed her spy.
"I have a strong feeling that Callisto has had some association with Shaikheti," she said. "Am I right?"
"You are, Conqueror," he replied. "After Marius had Callisto released from that asylum, he concealed her at the home of his cousin, Cassius Aeneus Seneca, a carpenter and a Mithraist. It was he who introduced Callisto to Eldad of Persia, a man who eventually became Shaikheti's second-in-command."
"Did all of this occur in Castra Regina?" Xena asked, although I suspected that she already knew the answer.
"No, Majesty, " Maphias revealed. "At some point, Callisto left Marius and went east with Seneca and met this Eldad, probably in Persia."
"Did you obtain any information as to approximately how long ago that was?" Xena asked.
"I haven't been able to pinpoint when they went east, but Callisto was probably in Persia when you were there fighting Shaikheti."
Xena looked at me. "Exactly when were you in Persia, Xena?" I asked. I remembered her mentioning her campaign against Shaikheti there before, but I couldn't recall precisely when that particular battle occurred. Xena had gone on several battles during my years as her body servant. Often, I didn't know where she was, and it wasn't as if she gave me a full briefing upon her return from her various battles. Rather, what I was usually subjected to was a painful sexual experience from her.
Xena took my hand in hers. "It was the time that I was gone just before... the incident with Demi."
"Oh," I replied, reflecting on how that one particular campaign had yielded a kinder, gentler Conqueror. "I remember. You were quite nice to me that night."
Xena and I smiled shyly at each other. Maphias cleared his throat.
Xena returned her attention to her spy. "Do you know the extent of her relationship with Shaikheti?" she questioned.
"Not beyond the fact that they knew each other, Conqueror," Maphias replied. "My sources haven't been as forthcoming with that information... yet. I do believe that her relationship with Eldad was quite intense."
Xena ruminated for a few moments. "Who is your source among the gladiators?" she asked.
"A Greek guard of the gladiators, Conqueror," Maphias answered. "Theocritus is his name."
Xena downed the rest of her drink and gave Basenji a gentle pat on the head before standing. "As I require additional information, I'll be summoning you."
Maphias and I stood. "Very well, Conqueror," he said.
Xena handed Maphias a satchel filled with gold coins before we departed from his dwelling. During our ride to reunite with our friends, Xena decided to engage me in conversation.
"Gabrielle," she started, "I'm going to be honest with you about something. I don't know very much about the culture of the Mesopotamian Amazons. How much do you know about them?"
I took only a moment to reflect upon the pride that sometimes leads Xena to conceal, even to me, things about which she has little or no knowledge. "I learned quite a bit about them during my scout-guard training, Xena," I replied. "Their heritage is quite different from the rest of the Nation."
"How so?" she asked.
"For one, theirs is the only tribe in the Nation that has a patriarchal lineage," I began. "The Nation originated in Greece, but the tribes splintered during the conquests of Alexander the Great some three hundred years ago. The Amazons that allied with Alexander the Great were mostly Macedonian, like him, and they followed him to Persia and established their tribe near the Euphrates River north of Babylon."
"Hmm..." Xena considered.
"As you know," I continued, "many of the Amazons in my tribe and the other Greek tribes were born from their Amazon mothers, but numerous others came to the tribe as abandoned and unwanted infant girls. However, it is my understanding that practically all of the Mesopotamian Amazons are daughters of three patriarchal lines, the oldest being the Macedonian Ptolemy."
"Cousins of Cleopatra?" Xena asked.
"The very same family," I replied. "The other two are the Syrian Samyah and the Meccan Zemarian. All of the Mesopotamian Amazons have two names, their birth name given to them by their mothers and their sir name, the name of their patriarchal line."
"Do the men of these three families have any say in the policies or affairs of the tribe?" she asked.
"No, Xena," I replied. "Their only place of honor in the tribe is in the fact that their Amazon heiresses bear their bloodlines and sir names... oh, and they get to raise the occasional son that they sire by an Amazon."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," she said as she took my hand in hers and gave my temple a tender kiss.
Because we were without the security of Commander Palaemon and the others from our entourage, Xena the Conqueror elected to make a very covert entry into Rome. We draped ourselves with hooded cloaks immediately after leaving Maphias' vineyard, and entered the city appearing as if we were merely travelers passing through. Disguised this way, we didn't bring unwanted attention to ourselves as we approached the inn where our friends awaited our arrival. That inn immediately reminded me of the North End Tavern in Corinth. It was crowded and musty, but very festive. Our friends were fully engrossed in the ambiance of the establishment, drinking ale and singing tavern songs with the inn maidens. Amarice was sitting on the lap of a Roman soldier. But much to my shock, Escritt had a particularly attractive woman planted on her lap.
Xena was mildly amused at the spectacle. "Are you all having fun yet?" she asked our group of friends as we approached. When she removed the hood that concealed her identity, everyone promptly stood and that unfortunate woman who was sitting on Escritt had to pick herself up off the floor.
"My Liege," Palaemon chimed, "we were hoping that you would return soon."
"Spare me the ass-kissing, Palaemon," Xena warned. "It's late and we have important matters to attend."
It was nightfall when we arrived at Octavius' palace. He and his wife Livia Drusilla greeted us. I thought it rather strange that we hadn't met her during our last visit to Rome, until I was advised that she was away visiting her mother and younger sister in Florencia at the time.
After our evening meal, Octavius and Livia arranged for entertainment. We were escorted to the palace's central courtyard... the same location where Xena had originally asked to have our union ceremony in Rome... to hear the oration of the poet, Publius Ovidius Naso. As he entered, Xena smirked.
"What's so humorous?" I leaned in and whispered in question.
"Ovid's style of poetry isn't akin to Octavius' tastes," she replied. "I'm rather surprised that he would be asked to perform here."
"I've read some of his works, Xena," I said. "He's reputedly a ladies' man and seems to be quite licentious in his prose."
Xena gave me that Xena stare. "I know what you're thinking, Gabrielle," she said. "No, I never slept with him."
Unable to hide my embarrassment, I merely looked down at my clasped hands. Xena grabbed them and brought several of my fingers to her lips as Ovid began his oration.
Although I was exhausted from the day's travels, I wasn't quite ready to turn in after Ovid's recitation. I actually enjoyed his poetry more than those of the three bards that entertained us the last time we were in Rome. I found his philosophy on a meatless diet to be very fascinating.
Stepping out onto the balcony of our guest bedchamber, I stared up at the night sky. Xena joined me.
"What are you thinking, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"I was looking up at those stars and wondering how they get there every night," I replied. "Do you ever wonder, Xena?"
"Not really," she said as she put her arm around me. "But I find it very endearing that you do."
"You know what I think, Xena?" I queried.
"What, my dear?" she asked.
"I think that the gods keep those stars right there even during the day. We just don't see them because the gods cover them with the blue sky."
"What makes you think that?"
"Some mornings," I explained, "if you rise early enough, you can see the moon hiding behind the blue sky. But then it disappears completely into the blue sky, only to return at nightfall. If the moon is still there during the day, the stars must be too. "
"That's a good point, Gabrielle," Xena said.
"The gods also stir the moon and the stars around so that they are not in the same spot every night," I added.
"Tell me, what do you think is the favored color of the gods?"
"That's easy," I said. "It's blue."
"Because all of the most beautiful things in the world are blue, Xena," I said. "The sky, the seas, your eyes."
Xena kissed my forehead. "I have to respectfully disagree, my love," she said. "I believe that the favorite color of the gods is green."
"Green!" I exclaimed. "Why green, for gods' sake?"
"Green is the color of all that represents beauty and life on Earth," she explained. "The plants and vegetation that grow and nourish the earth's beasts and humans alike, the leaves on the trees that shelter us from the harsh sun, the grass that cools our feet, your eyes."
I turned to face my love. "Ovid isn't the only poet in this palace tonight, Xena the Bard." The kiss that followed sent wonderful waves through my body. Xena's lips never cease to amaze me.
Xena and I didn't make love that night. In a way, we did something even more intimate. Holding each other in a tight but loving embrace, we talked about our lives; the lessons from our past, the journeys of our present and the hopes for the future that awaits us.
That night, I had a dream of an actual event that occurred during the incredible week when Xena the Conqueror and I had first embraced.
It was the morning after the third night that I had slept in the arms of Xena the Conqueror. I was standing by one of the windows that faced the front of the palace. I was looking out at the beauty of the massive landscape that surrounded its grounds. As I daydreamed, someone approached me from behind. It was the Conqueror.
"What are you doing, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"I'm marveling at the beauty of the grounds, My Lady," I replied nervously.
The Conqueror gently grabbed my forearm. "Come with me," she said. "I want to show you something."
The Conqueror guided me to the location of the highest lookout tower on the palace. When we arrived at the tower, we had to climb a steep ladder to get up to it. The Conqueror assisted me in my ascent. Once we reached the tower, she temporarily dismissed the lookout guardsman. I nearly fainted at the sheer height of the tower. I had never been that high above the ground before.
"Look around," the Conqueror said. Once my initial fear of being so high subsided, I took in all of the beauty that surrounded me. The view from that tower was magnificent. I felt as though I was watching the vastness of Corinth from the Heavens. After looking out at the horizon for a few moments, I glanced over at the Conqueror. She too was looking out at the expanse. The breeze was causing her midnight hair to billow majestically as the sun beamed down on her sun-tanned skin and made her bright blue eyes sparkle like gems. I sighed. She was absolutely beautiful.
The Conqueror turned her head and our eyes met. She then slowly and rather shyly moved closer to me. My heart began beating faster. The Conqueror continued to move closer to me until she was directly behind me. She then lightly placed her hands on my shoulders. I wanted to hold those hands, but I was too afraid. A few moments later, the Conqueror wrapped her arms around my neck in a tender embrace. I instinctively leaned back into her and placed my hands on her arms as she held me. She pressed her cheek on my head. We were like that for the longest time. She made me feel safe, protected, and loved, although she never spoke a word to me during that time.
I immediately awakened after that dream. Looking over at my sleeping Xena, I looked up and whispered a prayer to the gods. "Tomorrow in the Colloseum, spare her, please," I simply said.
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