Disclaimer: I have intended no copyright infringement in the writing of this fan fiction story that contains characters, names, title, and backstory found in the syndicated television series Xena: Warrior Princess .
This story cannot be sold or used for profit, and I have not financially profited from it in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use, and copies must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
Content: This story depicts love/sexual relationships between consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal where you live, please do not read it.
Summary: Ever wonder what really happened between Xena and Lao Ma? This short story retells the events of The Debt I and II from Lao Ma's perspective, specifically recounting her reasons for trying to heal Xena physically and spiritually.
The Legacy of Lao Ma
by Annazon Fox
"With shattered legs and crippled soul, I went east- to lose myself in vengeance- not against Caesar but the entire human race." -Xena, "The Debt"
"When there is no desire, all things are at peace." -Tao te Ching
Slowly breathing in and then out, I moved my steady fingers to the man's pressure point at that delicate spot where the neck meets the left shoulder. I massaged it briefly and watched his withered body stir on the bed. As his eyelids parted, his vacant eyes slowly came into focus on me. At this point, I always see a brief flicker of recognition in his eyes before he settles back into the coma.
I never get used to that part.
It was Borias who I met first, upon reaching their camp. As I exited my carriage, I heard him speak.
Pulling a blanket up to his neck, I cover his body. When we first married, he was quite strong. Now, his body is frail, his muscles slack with disuse.
I heard a knock at the door of the chambers.
"Enter," I said.
My assistant and policy advisor, Jiang, entered.
"Lao Ma," he greeted me with a slight bow.
Stepping away from the bed in the dimly-lit room, I met him near the door of the room.
"Have you gathered more information?" I asked.
"I have," Jiang said.
I waited for him to continue.
"The reports were accurate. An extremely violent warlord, she and her barbaric male companion are threatening the peace and stability of Chin. Borias, the man she travels with, is rumored to possess at least a modicum or honor. She, however, is said to take a cruel enjoyment in the terrorizing and murder of humans, even after they have surrendered."
"So it is true then," I said. "It is not surprising. Warriors who prefer death over dishonor would not fabricate such barbarians out of the air. Her name?"
"They call her Xena," Jiang continued. "And... " He shifted and looked away uneasily.
"And... she and Borias... they want to meet with you."
I turned my back and began pacing. I single-handedly and covertly removed my husband from power. I did this for one reason and one reason only. My hope for peace and stability in Chin.
"Lao Ma," Jiang asked after a few moments. "What shall I tell them?"
"I will go," I said. "Please send word. Tomorrow I will leave at first light. Have the carriage prepared."
"Yes, right away," he said. "And... how many bodyguards?"
I paused. It was standard for me to travel with guards, although I did not physically require them.
"Five," I said.
"Of course," Jiang agreed. "Not enough to intimidate her..."
"But enough to deter her from immediately resorting to violence against us," I said.
Jiang turned to leave, but before he did so, he turned back around.
"Of course, and if I may add. Xena and Borias, their purpose for meeting with political leaders is to turn them into pawns for their own power plays. We must be prepared for such trickery."
"Yes, Jiang. That's why I'm going to look into her soul and learn how to deal with her. Those who have grown too large must be made small."
"Borias extends the sincerest welcome to the head of the house of Lao."
He was dark with long hair and was handsome in a wild, dangerous way.
As he considered me, Xena thundered into camp on horseback. When she did, everyone in the camp stopped speaking and noted her arrival. She ignored them, passing her eyes over me and quickly surveying the men I had brought.
I gave Borias a slight bow that was intended for both of them.
"I'm Lao Ma, wife of the great Lao. Please forgive my husband for sending his insignificant wife to handle such difficult affairs of state. But he's very ill."
As I said this, Xena dismounted from her horse and made her way to Borias' side. Once there, I noticed that she, like Borias, was good-looking. She, in fact, more so. Although her face was fixed in a sneer, her skin was tan, her eyes were a deep blue, and she was quite muscular. Although my eyes were fixed on Borias, I could feel her presence out of the corner of my eyes.
Now that she was near us, my guards stiffened, preparing themselves. I had forewarned them that this woman was unpredictable.
After noting Xena's presence, Borias turned his attention back to me, responding to what I had said.
"I'm sorry to hear that. You're very welcome, of course."
I heard Borias' words, but Xena had my full attention. I knew immediately that it was she who ran this operation. She had yet to extend me a welcome or to even acknowledge my presence before her.
She would be disappointed to learn that such petty slights to the ego did not offend me. If she wanted to play childish games, however, I would treat her like a child by only addressing the grown-ups present.
"I know you're a great warrior, Borias. But I've also heard that you're a man of honor," I said.
At this, Xena snickered.
When she did, for the first time I looked directly at her and she, at me. I was appalled at her cocky rebuff of civilized concepts of honor and I think my face failed to hide that from her. Images of men, dead and propped upon stakes, flashed through my head. I saw, too, decapitated bodies. Groups of soldiers tied together and then murdered. Crimes against humanity.
Seeing her smile, I knew that it was she who had been responsible for those actions. Mostly. I saw how Borias looked at her. That dangerous combination of lust, fear, and desire for power that prevented him from being the better person he could be.
Yet, when I looked into Xena's eyes, her cockiness was replaced by something that looked much like fear. Fear of what I do not know? Of my opinion of her? Perhaps, but doubtful. Nonetheless, I felt something unfamiliar making my heart race. It was visceral excitement plus the trembling of hatred and disgust of this woman. I used my breath to calm my body before I addressed her for the first time.
"You must be Xena," I said. I gave her a slight bow.
"Oh, you've heard of me," she said. That brief moment of humanity in her was quickly replaced by her familiar cockiness.
Without a doubt she would assume my bow to be a gesture of subservience rather than respect. In all likelihood, she had already assumed me to be weak and frightened of her.
The red heat of anger beginning to cloud my vision, I struggled to make my voice as calm as possible.
"Oh yes, they say you're a dangerous woman," I said.
"Well, they're right," Xena said, proudly.
As I looked at Xena, her wild hair flew about her face and she grinned without remorse about what she was. Although I did not believe in such incarnations of evil, I half expected her skin to peel away and reveal some sort of demon within her.
Easily, so easily, I could end her hateful existence before she knew it.
Borias spoke again.
"You have nothing to fear Lao Ma. We will negotiate with honor, and with fairness. I hope we will find common ground on which to stand," he said, in a reassuring voice. He then looked at Xena, as if waiting for her confirmation.
Instead of doing so, Xena pushed past Borias and stepped toward me. Her body leaned to one side as she walked. She was supporting most of her weight on a cane. So it must be true, what the Romans had done to her.
The guards next to me tensed as Xena approached, and I held an arm out to stop them from attacking.
"Yeah well, some are better at standing on common ground than others," Xena said, while arching an eyebrow in challenge.
I lowered my eyes. My heart was racing but my face was as blank as the moon.
"I wish you swift healing for your injuries," I said.
Jiang's report was that Caesar had broken Xena's legs and attempted to crucify her. I wondered if a person could come back from that. For the sake of countless other lives, I wondered if it would have been better if she had died on that cross.
I inhaled again.
"Healing?" she spat. "Not in this lifetime." She pushed past me and limped her way to her tent.
I exhaled and looked at Borias.
Looking embarrassed, he watched her leave before turning to me and smiling.
"Please, Lao Ma. Join us for dinner."
At dinner that evening, Borias, while flirtatious, acted decently. I questioned his sincerity, as the purpose of this meeting was a proposal to build an alliance in order to defeat Ming. I was relieved, however, that he at least possessed the ability to act civil.
"Do you think your husband will heal from his illness?" he asked. Already sitting close to me, he leaned into me and poured us both more wine.
"Thank you," I nodded at the goblet. "I always hold out hope that those who are suffering will be able to heal, no matter now unlikely it appears they actually will."
Xena, who was sitting nearby in a corner of the tent, shifted. Ever since she stomped into the tent late for dinner, she had refused to engage with us.
"Interesting," Borias said.
I could see that he was intrigued by me. Many men were. Not that that got them what they wanted most from me.
Borias took a bite of his meat, and I tore off another piece of bread. I had been a vegetarian ever since I gained my freedom from being a courtesan. Once I could choose the content of my meals, I realized early on that I did not prefer the taste of meat.
"By accepting me into the house of Lao," I continued, "my husband freed me from bondage. I am indebted to him to hold out hope for his recovery."
What I left out was that in ceasing to be the property of one man, I had merely become the property of another.
"Of course," Borias said. "And if he doesn't recover, perhaps there will come a time when you would require... assistance, to maintain your power."
The bulk of my mental facilities remained aware of Xena's presence, and I gauged her reaction to this offer.
Arms crossed, still refusing to eat, her face remained fixed in a glare. She smoked her pipe in silence, stealing glances at us while pretending to ignore us. I wasn't fooled. She was brooding. Yet like a tiger, she looked ready to pounce at the slightest provocation.
"Perhaps. But I do hope there will come a time when a competent woman will be allowed to maintain her power in Chin without being united with a man," I said.
At this, Borias laughed at my affront to his offer. I laughed with him. I had guessed correctly that he appreciated irreverent women.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xena turn her head our way. She was now openly glaring at us, in the candlelight.
Subtly, I turned my head to look at her. My eyes caught hers. I again noticed the blue of her eyes. Despite their wildness, they were very beautiful. I quickly looked down. Pretending to have been looking for more food, I reached my hand out to grab another piece of bread.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the knife moving toward my hand. It was headed for my fingers. Using my will, I diverted it. It landed inches from my hand.
"That's my piece of meat you're reaching for," Xena said.
Such lack of restraint.
I looked at Borias, at the knife, and then back into Xena's blue eyes. I saw a slight furrow in her brow that was quickly replaced with rage. Before that quick transformation, I understood that while she may have known love many years ago, she no longer did. Not with Borias. Again, I felt a stirring within my heart. It was passionate and strong. Hatred would have been the obvious choice, but I felt undertones of something even more unsettling to me.
"You're wrong," I said. "I don't eat meat."
Xena swallowed and looked hurt before fixing her face into a scowl. Before she could change her mind about how angry she was, she hobbled to her feet and stomped away, leaving Borias and I alone, in the candlelight.
When I turned to Borias again, he looked mortified and angry. I had not met Xena's violence with the expected reaction of further violence. Nor had I run from the room in fear. I smiled at him to reassure him that I did not blame him.
"I have no control over what she chooses to do," he confessed.
"Perhaps there will come a time when men of honor will not require associating with those who lack self-control," I said.
Borias considered me, before speaking.
"Tell me, Lao Ma. You have probably heard things. What do they say? About me?"
I took a sip of wine.
"I will not insult you with dishonesty about this, Borias. Perhaps it is better if I do not answer your question..."
"Tell me. My reputation..."
"Is that your desires have corrupted your honor," I said.
He looked away and turned his attention to his meat. Cutting it forcefully, he did not speak.
I sat with him for several moments before I touched him gently on the shoulder and left the tent.
In the tent Borias had graciously lent to me for sleeping, I prepared for my nightly meditation. As I knelt on a pillow, I felt a sharp pain in my temple. My eyes, suddenly sensitive even to the candlelight, teared up. My vision blurred and, before me, a scene seemed to unfold, as though I was a spectator to one of Rome 's famous gladiator games. Yet, instead of an arena, behind the throbbing in my head, I saw the blurry vision of a woman on a cross. As the view came into focus, I seemed to be mere feet from her.
In front of the woman, a Roman soldier was wielding a sledgehammer. Hitching it over his shoulder, he prepared to swing it forward. Speaking in time with each pound in my temple, I heard another man's voice- from above?- yelling, "Break. Her. Legs."
I didn't hear anything after that. So as to not actually see the sledgehammer make contact with her legs, I looked up, and found myself staring into two blue, tear-stained eyes. They were eyes that I had looked into only moments before.
My body jerked and the throbbing in my head began to dull. The past faded and dissolved into the present, yet strangely I seemed to have a view of the world outside of my tent. It was as though my mind was floating outside of my body, which was down below. From above, I saw Xena stormily approaching my tent. Her anger was loud like red.
I shook my head, and the inside of the tent slowly came back into focus. Taking a deep breath, I prepared to meet the approaching, hobbling Xena.
She entered the tent.
"I don't know if you people pray to the gods, but if you don't, now'd be a great time to start," she said, wild-eyed and full of rage.
I turned my back on her and grabbed a hairbrush, feeling her rage increase.
With a futile motion, she hurled two knives at me.
I felt blinding pain behind my eyes as time seemed to slow down. Before the knives could reach my back, I reached my arm behind me and caught the knives in the hairbrush just before they entered my body. I felt the energy blend with my own. I captured it, preparing to redirect it. Stepping on one end of a burning ember and using it like a lever, I used my will to direct it toward Xena. As the heat flew past Xena, I turned and directed the two knives right back at her. Even though I wondered if Borias would even miss her, I did not send the knives close enough to hit her, but only close enough to give me some space. I wanted to process the vision I had just had.
Surprised, the crazed woman fell backwards.
"Xena," I said, "if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."
"I like where I'm heading."
"Of course you do. Rage and violence make you feel powerful," I said.
"I am powerful," she said.
"No, Xena, you're not. You desire power very much. But you do not posses it."
Her face red with spittle and tears, she stood up and began making her way toward me again. Her anger was now pulsing off of her in waves.
I caught her energy and used my will to send her shooting backwards again.
I then walked over to where her crippled body was slumped on the floor. From her hair, I removed a hairpin and flicked it at a jug of water that was above her. As water splashed in her face, I put the hairpin in my pocket.
She opened her eyes then and I saw another rare spark of humanity in them. Satisfied with that, I whispered in her ear.
"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things."
She sat against the floor, then, stunned. She had not easily defeated me like she had assumed she would. She had tried to indulge in her desire to act out her rage. She had tried to convince me, and also herself, that she was satisfied with her current path in life.
On all counts, she had failed.
Seeds planted in both Xena and Borias, it was time for me to leave them be. I was confident that Xena's lack of control and Borias' guilty conscious would be enough to sever their dangerous, powerful alliance. Once separated, they could be dealt with separately.
After informing Borias that negotiations would be inappropriate in light of Xena's attempted attack on me, Jiang prepared the carriage and we departed the camp.
"Do you think he will come after us?" Jiang asked, as we sat in the moving carriage.
"No. He is very angry and disappointed. Mostly at himself."
"Do you think...."
"No, Jiang," I said. " She will not come after us either."
He breathed a sigh of relief.
I closed my eyes, then, and tried to get some rest.
In my sleep, I dreamed of Xena. I imagined myself creeping through the woods, into her camp at night, clutching a knife. I floated to her tent, my feet not touching the ground, and came upon her sleeping body. I raised my hand above her and noticed that the knife was missing. When I looked back down at her, lifeless blue eyes were staring up at me. A hairpin was lodged in her temple.
I awoke with a start. It was not like me to have nightmares. Or strange visions of the past. Perhaps I would consult with the healer when I returned home.
The carriage had stopped. I heard voices outside. Taking a breath, I stuck my head outside and saw one of Ming's guards.
"Lao Ma," he said, noticing me, "She has taken the boy."
Interesting. That was a bold move on her part.
"Ming Tien. Xena has kidnapped him. She will kill him," the guard said.
"I have no doubt of that," I said.
"She must be stopped," the guard continued. "The House of Ming requests an alliance with the House of Lao."
Now this was an interesting proposition. Perhaps Xena would succeed, however unintentionally, in fostering peace and stability in Chin.
"What is the proposal?"
"Xena must die," the guard said.
"What does she want?" I said.
"Give it to her," I said.
"The House of Lao will supply it for the House of Ming," I said. "Just ensure that harm does not befall the boy."
"And after we get him back?" the guard asked. "What about Xena?"
"Ban her from Chin. Have your men escort her to the borders," I said. I bowed and re-entered my carriage. We continued back to the estate.
Sitting inside the carriage, Jiang looked at me.
"Your restraint, as usual, is admirable," he said.
"I am doubting my restraint," I said.
"Had it been my son and had I the power to authorize a contingent of guards to kill Xena," Jiang said, "I would have."
"I am not certain they won't..."
In fact, knowing Ming as I did, I was quite certain he would order his guards to kill her. Ming needed an heir and it would not do to let one as notorious as Xena jeopardize his son's life and live to tell the tale. With admirable restraint, I would not interfere.
Several hours later, as we approached Lao territory, my carriage stopped again. It was Ming Tzu this time, and a caravan of guards and dogs. Trailing in back was a cage on wheels holding some sort of animal. Beside Ming Tzu was the boy, my son. He was safe. I remembered the handkerchief I had made for him. I carried it with me, as a reminder. My fingers touched it in my pocket.
"Welcome Lao Ma," Ming Tzu said, upon seeing me. "I hope you don't mind us hunting so close to Lao territory. But the terrain here is perfect."
"Perfect for what?" I said.
I looked at the cage. The animal within it was scratching at its head.
"Her- the woman who succeeded in doing what a hundred diplomats could not do. Make an alliance between our kingdoms." Ming Tzu pointed at the cage.
The animal looked up at me. Blue eyes fixed on my own.
They had not killed her immediately, then. Her hair disheveled, she was filthy and they had clothed her in some sort of burlap sack. She was now a game to Ming. A prize.
I concealed my horror.
"You plan to hunt her?"
"Yes," Ming Tzu said, "We're going to enjoy this, aren't we, Ming Tien?" He ruffled the hair of the boy, who smiled.
I was appalled. Both at Ming Tzu's cruelty and at the violence he was teaching Ming Tien. Perhaps I should have ended her misery quickly, at the camp. Didn't these men understand? If Xena escaped, they will have succeeded only in making her more violent, more angry, and full of even more hatred than she already possessed.
I could not look away from her and I felt anger rising within me. I was angry at Xena and at these men, with their unskillful, foolish ways of dealing with problems. Even more, I was angry at myself. I was implicated in this as well.
Making my face blank, I spoke again.
"Well, please do not hesitate to use Lao land for your pleasure." Then, turning to Ming Tien, I said, "I brought something for you, Ming Tien. I made it myself." I handed him the handkerchief with the green dragon on it, as if that piece of cloth mattered greatly to me. As if I were more interested in what the boy thought about that trinket than I was in what they were about to do to the human being within that cage.
With hate in his eyes, the boy threw it to the ground without looking at it.
I mustered up a hurt look that I hoped was convincing, but I remained focused on Xena. I saw the cruelty in Ming Tzu and Ming Tien's eyes. In punishing Xena, Ming Tzu was becoming the very evil he was condemning, and Ming Tien was learning that.
I couldn't help myself, I spoke, betraying my disgust.
"A beaten, half-dead cripple. Doesn't sound very sporting, Ming Tzu."
"No, but it will be entertaining," he said, with a chuckle. It was the same chuckle Xena had given me earlier when bragging about her dangerous reputation.
I feigned disinterest.
"I must go," I said. "Enjoy your entertainment."
I bowed and walked back to my carriage. Before entering it, I looked at Xena one last time. In her eyes, I saw a mixture of fear and desperation.
After leaving Ming Tzu and his hunting party, I ordered my guards to return to the Lao estate on horseback without me.
"Are you sure it's safe?" my head guard asked.
"Yes, if Ming doesn't shoot her quickly, she is crippled and hurt. She cannot hurt me," I said. "I assure you, the guards of Lao have better things to do than watch me collect medicinal herbs."
Satisfied, the guards galloped off, leaving Jiang and me behind.
"Are we looking for anything in particular?" Jiang asked, once they had left.
"Yes," I said. "Ming's prey."
"Is that a newly discovered...? Oh...."
He looked at me as it registered.
"Lao Ma, I know better than to question your wisdom, but..." Jiang began.
"I cannot let Ming do this to her," I said.
"I don't understand....?"
"I can't explain it right now."
How could I? I couldn't even explain my visions or my feelings to myself yet.
Unsure, Jiang steered the carriage off the path and deeper into the forest.
From afar, I heard dogs barking. They had released her.
"Wait here for me," I said. "When she comes, stay here. I don't want to scare her off."
I began walking back toward the path.
"Are you sure she will come?" Jiang asked.
I stopped walking and closed my eyes. Steadying my breath, I felt her wild presence within this forest. In this moment, she existed as pure fear. Like a beacon, I was directing her to me. She just did not have the presence of mind to consciously realize it.
"Yes," I said and continued walking.
After crunching through the forest, I reached the path. Once there, I felt her presence more strongly. Desperate, relying only on pure survival instinct, she was approaching.
In the distance, I saw a hunched figure limping along the path with a cane. As she drew closer, I heard her loud, ragged breathing.
I did not go to her. I found myself unable to move, as I watched her form grow larger as she lumbered her way to me like an animal. Concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, she did not look up. I still had time to retreat, make my way back to my carriage, before she saw me.
My breath quickened and I remained planted on the path, briefly wondering if she would run into me.
When she reached my location on the path, she saw my feet and looked up at me.
Gone was the arrogance in her eyes. Fear had taken care of that. With her head cocked, she considered me. Then, her eyes began darting as if plotting an escape.
As I stood above her, I noticed how small she seemed. Filthy, her brows furrowed in pain and concentration. Finally, her eyes became human again as they settled on my own.
"Come with me if you wish your freedom," I said.
She looked at me, my words not seeming to register. She then hobbled to her feet, unsteady. In the distance, a dog was approaching. With each of its barks, she winced and glanced behind her.
The dog reached us, instinctively barking at its prey. Snarling, its fangs dripped with saliva and its eyes remained fixated on Xena.
Putting myself between Xena and the dog, I re-directed its own aggressive energy back toward it. Wimpering, the dog limped away from us in the direction from which it had come.
"Hurry, he'll be back on the scent soon," I said.
Her eyes cleared.
"Why are you doing this?" she demanded.
"I have been blessed- or cursed- with the ability to see into the souls of others," I began. "You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman. Capable of greatness."
What? If I said it aloud did it somehow make it true?
"Come quick," I continued. "We'll take refuge in my home."
She squinted her eyes and looked at me with suspicion. Yet, after a pause, she followed me, without a word.
I helped her to her feet and, hitching her arm around my shoulder, I let her lean on me as we made our way back to Jiang and the carriage. As we walked off the path and through the woods, little moans of pain escaped from her that she unsuccessfully tried to stifle. With the arm that was around her waist, I clutched her and bore most of her weight. Her body pressing into mine, I was almost completely carrying her. Despite her lack of appropriate clothing, a surprising heat emanated from her body.
I called out to Jiang as we approached the carriage, hidden behind the trees.
"We must hurry," I said.
Jiang saw us and hesitated.
I nodded to assure him and he ran to meet us.
He went to Xena's other side.
"It's okay," I said, encouraging him.
He gently slung her other arm around his shoulder and bore part of her weight.
Xena's body went completely limp then and her eyes rolled back into her head.
"Lao Ma..." Jiang started, worried.
"The pain," I explained.
She had been holding onto consciousness only because of the fear pumping through her veins. Feeling safe, she had let go.
Delicately, we loaded Xena into the carriage.
"Take the back way to the estate," I said, turning to Jiang. "It's a bit longer, but it's off the main trail."
Jiang nodded and took control of the carriage.
I sat in back with Xena. With a tentative hand, I smoothed a strand of tangled hair from her face, which was wet and clammy. Pushing to one shoulder the garment she was wearing, I massaged a point near collarbone to ease her pain and then another to help her remain sleeping. Her eyes moved back and forth underneath her eyelids and then became still. Her breathing calmed and a slight, healthy flush entered her face.
Sitting with her, my head's previous throbbing had become a dull, consistent ache. I would have to get this checked out.
After covering Xena with a blanket, I half-closed my eyes and began meditating. With the ache in my head, a thought continued to nag at me. As we traveled along the back, bumpy, hidden roads of Lao land, I was troubled by a growing awareness that Xena's problem wasn't that she needed to be made small. No. Too many people had already done that, effectively turning her into the wild being that she now was.
My task was to somehow help her recover her own humanity.
As I watched the steady rhythm of Xena's breath, I willed myself to believe that might actually be possible.
Upon reaching the estate, Jiang steered the carriage directly to my quarters. I did not want even my own guards to have knowledge of the cargo I was carrying. I couldn't risk them, in their fear and hatred of Xena, revealing her presence to Ming Tzu, who would eventually follow the trail to my quarters.
"She will remain with me," I told Jiang. "No one is to enter, except for you."
"Of course," Jiang said.
He helped me lift Xena's sleeping body and we carried her into my quarters.
"On the bed," I said, nodding toward my large bed.
After we gently rested Xena on top of the blankets, Jiang bowed and left the room.
Exhausted, I sat down next to Xena's sleeping body. Turning toward her, I watched her chest rise and fall with her breath. Eyebrows relaxed, she seemed to be a quite different person when her face wasn't fixed in a scowl or a cocky grin. My eyes traveled down her body. Her arms and legs were covered in small scratches that were slightly bleeding. Her feet and ankles were encrusted with dirt and blood. Crumbles of mud had gathered on the blanket at her feet.
Surprising myself, my hand reached toward her forehead. Unsure, I lightly caressed it.
My hand traveled down her cheek and rested at the pressure point at the back of her neck. I massaged it, gently bringing Xena back to consciousness.
She opened her eyes, then. Her eyes still unfocused, a faint smile formed at her mouth and she moved her head as if nuzzling deeper into my hand at her neck.
She looked at me then, and seemed to realize that it was my hand that was touching her.
Her body became very rigid, but she did not pull away. Instead, she fixed her blue eyes upon mine and looked at me with curiosity.
I looked away, then, and quickly removed my hand from her neck.
"It's going to be painful, but we must heal your wounds," I said. "In the bath."
Better to get down to business.
Wincing, she tried to sit up, but failed. Her face flushed and she looked away, angrily.
"So you actually believe it, then," she said. "What you said to me."
I wasn't entirely sure.
" You don't believe it?" I asked her.
"Would a 'remarkable woman' let herself turn into this?" she said, gesturing at her filthy, ragged, beaten body.
"That's the question that you need to answer."
I stood, then, and walked to my dresser. On it, sat jars of medicinal herbs. I grabbed two of them and carried them to the hot, steaming tub.
Xena sat up in the bed and watched me.
I twisted off the lid of the jars. Pinching a handful of goji berries, I sprinkled them into the tub. Judging by the amount of opium Xena had smoked the previous night, I gathered that she was addicted. In addition to their healing affects, the goji berries would ease her withdrawal symptoms by speeding the removal of toxins from her body.
Xena slid to the edge of the bed and inched a leg toward the ground, grimacing.
I twisted the lid off of the other jar and began stirring some of the cinnamon-ginseng elixir into the water. This would restore her energy and cleanse her wounds. I inhaled as the aroma rose up in tendrils of steam. Xena had to heal physically, before she could heal spiritually.
Xena stood now, tottering on shaky legs at the edge of the bed. As I stirred the water, I sensed that she was about to stumble. She took a step forward and wobbled. A moan of pain escaped her, despite her efforts to stifle it.
Instantly, I willed myself to her side, looping my arm around her back and steadying her.
Her hand grazed mine at her side, and she pulled it away, not knowing whether to make contact. Inhaling, she then let her hand rest on mine as she leaned into my body, accepting my assistance.
"Thanks," she said, quietly.
Carefully, I walked her to the tub. Helping lower her body, I let go of her when she sat herself at the edge. She let her legs dangle in the water, inhaling sharply as her feet were engulfed in the steam. Wincing, she began trying to remove the garment that Ming's men had put on her.
I turned away from her, preserving her modesty, and continued stirring the water. I heard her sigh and then she whispered.
I looked at her. She could not raise the garment over her head. It was stuck at her neck, her arms unable to lift it further.
I stepped forward and knelt behind her.
"Ready?" I asked, so as not to startle her with my touch.
I placed my hands at her side, just under her breasts.
She slightly shivered when my hands made contact with her skin.
Delicately, I lifted the garment over her head. I inhaled when I saw her skin. Her back, while quite muscular, was covered in brown smudges of filth and green-blue shades of bruises. I let my hand linger at her back before removing it.
From beyond the door of my chambers, I heard the faint sound of dogs barking.
Xena turned and looked at me with fear in her eyes.
My heart began pounding, and that surprised me. My fear seemed to mirror Xena's.
"Ming," I said, confirming it. "He found your trail quicker than I expected he would."
A knock rapped at the door. It was Jiang's signal.
Xena's eyes widened.
"It's okay," I said. "It's only my assistant."
I went to the door and opened it. Jiang stood in the entryway, looking flushed.
"Ming is approaching," he said. "What shall I tell him?"
I paused and looked back at Xena, who was sitting naked at the edge of the tub.
"There's no time to get her out of here," I said. I looked back at Jiang.
He met my eyes, but not before I noticed that he had also been looking at Xena.
Red crept into my cheeks.
"I...." I began.
"You do not answer to me," he said.
I knew that. And still, I wanted to explain. Explain what, I did not know. I paused, unsure of what to say.
"Stall as long as you can," I said, finally.
"As you wish." Jiang turned from the room to meet Ming and his men.
As I walked to where Xena remained sitting at the edge of the tub, she grabbed the garment from the floor and tried to rise to her feet.
I placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Get in," I said, nodding toward the tub.
"I have to get out of h-"
My hand gripped her shoulder more forcefully.
Xena slid into the tub, sighing as her body eased into the warmth.
I sat behind her, cross-legged, outside of the tub. I picked up a bowl and filled it with water. My heart pounding in my chest, I knew I had to calm myself before Ming arrived.
"This really the best time for a bath?" Xena said, some of her fire beginning to return.
"Close your eyes," I said. "And breathe."
She shook her head, but did so anyway. She had no other options.
I poured the warm water over her head, preparing her for what was to come.
Despite her anxiety, she leaned her head back, seeming to enjoy the warmth running over her.
I admired the lines of her neck, which was arched in pleasure. I knew I should look away, but I was captivated. Earlier in this long day, I would have doubted that this woman could reveal such beauty.
I heard footsteps outside the door. Already, they had arrived.
I gently placed a hand on Xena's head and, as Ming Tzu entered with his guards, I dunked her head under the water and pretended to be cleaning myself.
"Lao Ma, my hounds have followed Xena's trail here," Ming Tzu said. He barged through the doorway, not bothering to ask for permission to enter.
"They're probably just hungry," I said.
He turned to his guards.
"Search the room."
Seeing me at my bath, the guards hesitated but nonetheless entered my quarters.
I stole a glance into the tub. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw air bubbles rising to the surface, and Xena's blurry form underneath the surface.
Seconds seemed to turn to minutes as the guards canvassed my room. My heart pounding, I watched a guard peer under my bed. Another one walked past the tub and looked in my closet.
I stole another glance into the tub. The bubbles from underneath the water were becoming less frequent. I had to get these men out of here.
A different guard looked under the bed again, just to make sure.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xena's form underwater. She was now shaking her head as if in pain.
Finally, mercifully, the guards returned to Ming's side, shrugging.
"Now, if you'll respect my privacy," I said.
No more bubbles.
Ming and his guards quietly conferred and then turned to leave.
As he was leaving the room, I inhaled. Perhaps what I was about to do was unnecessary, as the men were stepping out the door. But in the panicked desperation of that moment, it seemed to be the only thing that would save her.
Bending down from my seated position, I dipped my head into the water. As I dipped my head under the warm, wet surface, Xena seemed to be waiting for me.
Instantly, I felt her mouth on my own, sucking. Inhaling. Her mouth was surprisingly soft. I lingered there, once my breath had left me, savoring what it was like to have this sort of contact with another person again.
Slowly, out of breath, I began to pull away.
Xena pulled me back to her mouth with a surprising gentleness, using one of her hands. She held me there.
I could have drawn away. What had begun as a way to keep her alive was ending a bit less innocently. I let her kiss me. I kissed her back.
And then somehow, I remembered Ming.
Breathless, yet feeling a new heat in my body, I whipped my head upward and out of the water, my hair landing at my back.
Ming Tzu heard the splashing and poked his head back into the room.
"You had better not be hiding her," he said with a sneer.
"My lord, I would never hide what is yours," I said, as innocently as I could. Above the surface of the water, my face felt a lonely coldness.
"When I arranged your marriage to Lao, I expected you to show more loyalty to me," Ming said.
I had to laugh inside. Powerful men were so clueless, stupidly believing that a former slave would remain forever grateful for so kindly selling her to some other powerful man.
He couldn't touch me now, though. Even if he tried. I wanted him to know that.
"I was a courtesan, and you sold me. You expect loyalty?"
"What a strange woman, Lao Ma. Soft and hard at the same time."
Yes. Yin and yang. Perhaps Xena and I had something in common. I thought of her kiss. What it had done to my body.
"Like water. Nothing is as soft as water, yet who can withstand the raging flood?"
Like the dullard he was, Ming looked puzzled before leaving the room in a huff.
When I heard his footsteps fade away, I dunked my hand under the water and touched Xena's cheek.
She rose from the water, gasping for breath.
I searched her eyes, I saw something new in them before she turned her face away, avoiding me. My face was red, and I felt a new awkwardness between us.
"Let me know when you're ready," I said, "to get out of the water."
Xena nodded and proceeded to bathe.
I rose and stepped out of the room, giving her privacy.
The bath seemed to reinvigorate her. When I returned to the room, I saw that she had risen from the tub and wrapped herself in the robes I had left for her. She was slowly pacing.
I carried with me a tray with a pot of herbal tea, two mugs, and a bowl of soup. I placed the tray on the table near the window and knelt on a cushion.
Unsure, Xena walked toward me.
"You must be hungry," I said.
She gave a slight shrug. but continued walking toward me. When she reached the other cushion she paused. She looked at how I was kneeling and then looked at her injured legs.
"Please," I said. "Sit how you are comfortable."
She nodded and made her way down the ground, sitting cross-legged on the cushion.
"This tea will help heal your body," I said, picking up the pot and pouring her a cup. "The soup, you can drink. It will cleanse you. Tomorrow you should have something more substantial."
My cup sat empty.
"So, what am I now?" Xena said. " Your prisoner?" Her voice was quiet, and I noticed a tremble in her hands as she brought the soup to her mouth.
It was a fair question she asked, considering her past. I knew all too well how being the property of another could break the strongest of souls.
"Of course not, Xena. You are free to leave at any time."
She picked up the tea, then, inhaling the steam. Still, she refused to look at me.
"And if you don't like the results of your Save Xena Experiment?" she asked. An edge was returning to her voice.
She began to sip the tea.
I chuckled, but inside, my heart began to race. That kiss had not been not part of this- this... whatever I was doing with her.
"Your own freedom will always be your choice. And," I said, "it is my hope that you will choose to become who you could be."
Xena finished her tea. Avoiding my eyes, she set down her mug, picked up the bowl of soup, and began slurping it again. The tremble in her hand had gotten worse. Her face looked clammy and a sweat had broken out on her forehead. The trembling continued to worsen, causing her to spill some of the soup she was drinking. She placed down her bowl, with a worried look.
"You haven't got a pipe, have you?" she asked.
She took a deep breath.
"If I could just get a pipe..." her hands began fidgeting.
"Xena, the toxins are leaving your body. You can choose to leave here, or you can choose to stay and endure the pain."
Xena inhaled deeply and brought a shaky hand to her temple, rubbing it.
"Should you stay, tonight you will feel the worst of it. But it will pass. Whatever you choose, I want you to know that you are making a choice and not blindly giving into your body's desires," I said.
I looked away from her eyes then, to give her some mental space.
After a few moments, her shaking hand reached across the table, picked up the pot of tea, and filled my cup.
I smiled and then, together, we drank our tea in silence.
The tea began to calm my body. Xena looked both weary and agitated. The effects of a warm bath and the tea would have undoubtedly prepared her for sleep. I wondered if she had too much pride to admit that she was exhausted.
"I am quite tired," I said. What I said next surprised me. "My bed is large. It will suffice for both of us." It was true. Of course, it was also true that Jiang could have brought a mat in for her to use. I tried to tell myself that that option would have roused too much suspicion among the guards.
Xena nodded and looked away.
I rose from the table.
"I will get you a night dress, for sleeping."
I walked across the room to the armoir and inspected my garments. For myself, I chose a white silk gown. Quickly, I removed my robes. As I did, I felt the chill in the air. When I slipped the gown over my head, it made my contact with my nipples, which had hardened.
I chose a red gown for Xena. When I turned, she was standing near the bed, looking at me. My heart beginning to race again, I stepped toward her.
"You must be weary," I said. My mouth felt dry.
She began untying her robe.
"I hope you will find this comfortable," I said, holding the gown.
She removed a pin from her hair and let it fall around her neck. It was still damp from earlier and retained the fragrance of the bath.
As I reached her, she let the robe fall from her body.
I swallowed and made a conscious effort not to run my eyes over her body, although my eyes wanted to feast. Only because her blue eyes were even more alluring than the idea of what was below, was I able to keep my eyes fixed above her neck.
Before I could give her the gown, she crawled into the bed naked, covering herself with the soft blankets.
I slowly exhaled, realizing that I had been holding my breath. After folding the gown and placing it on the nightstand, I placed a bowl of cold water next to it, blew out the candles in the room, and crawled into bed as well.
Lying on my back, I tried to calm my breathing. If the people of Lao knew, how appalled they would be that I was sharing a bed with this brutal barbarian warlord. Perhaps worse, I was healing her body.
Although I was very tired, I did not immediately fall asleep. I felt Xena fall in and out of consciousness with violent, shaking jerks. As I lay inches from her, I felt the heat radiating off of her. I periodically dabbed her lips and forehead with a cold, wet cloth when she let the rare moan escape. Despite her obvious pain, she endured it mostly in silence.
Hours later, her body settled down and she slipped into sleep. Eventually, so did I.
I only awoke when I felt a sudden movement, a flurry of energy, next to me. Sensing her approaching, I did not stop her.
Quickly, her body was atop mine and she had pinned my arms above my head. With the light of the moon shining in through the window, I looked into her eyes, which seemed to be unfocused and vacant. One of her knees pressed between my legs and I could feel the heat pulsing off of her. Her skin was slippery with sweat.
"Caesar, we'd make an unstoppable team," she whispered into my ear. I wasn't expecting hallucinations. Her addiction must have been stronger than I had believed it to be. I was speechless. I could have thrown her across the room, but I didn't. I was not uncomfortable beneath her.
I felt her mouth, hot, slide from my ear down to my neck. She licked it slowly, pulling away with a bite.
"This is what you want, isn't it?" she asked.
Then, her mouth was above my own, hovering inches away.
I craved feeling it again.
"I wondered if we would ever see each other again," she said.
I could have stopped her, but I didn't, convincing myself that she needed to get this out of her.
She kissed me. Hard at first, it softened, yet stayed urgent. She pulled away slowly, biting my lip hard.
I opened my eyes and saw that she was scowling.
"We were going to conquer the world together," she hissed.
Her hands on my wrists gripped harder, and her voice deepened as she commanded, "Break her legs!"
"Break her legs!" she repeated, in a quieter voice. Her eyes were glassy, with unshed tears.
From below her, I felt the pressure on my wrists increase. I didn't want to use force against her. Not while she was in this state of mind, but I began to fear that she would break my arms.
"Xena," I whispered into her ear.
On top of me, Xena's body began shaking, and she loosened her grip
"Break... her legs," she whispered, as tears streamed down her face.
"Xena," I whispered again.
She cried out in pain then, as though re-imagining the day Caesar took that hammer to her legs. Her body went limp on top of me.
I caught her and held her to me, caressing the back of her head.
She fell into a deep sleep after that. Sometime before dawn, when the last of her tremors had passed, I gently rolled her off of me, placed her on the other side of the bed, and finally managed to fall asleep myself.
Many hours after dawn, I woke before Xena. Letting her sleep, I met Jiang in the kitchen. We ate together and then proceeded to prepare Xena a breakfast of fresh fruit. As we cut and peeled strawberries, mangoes, papaya, and berries, my headache seemed to return.
"How is she doing?" Jiang asked. His words pounded in my head.
"She is incredibly damaged," I said, trying not to wince. "It was a difficult night."
He paused, his knife stopping halfway through a strawberry.
"Do you really think it's possible? For her to be healed?"
The headache sharpened and seemed to move instantly behind the orbs of my eyes. Closing my eyes, I seemed to travel to another location. Instead of seeing the fruit, I appeared to be peering down as if from the ceiling of an armory. Below me, a woman with blonde hair and green eyes was lying in a bed of straw. Her skin was pale and clammy. She was wheezing and coughing.
Next to her, I saw a larger figure hunched over the smaller, sick woman. They were holding hands.
I felt another throb in my head, and then I seemed to be inside the body of the blonde woman. I felt hot, my lungs full of liquid. I blinked, trying to focus my vision. When the figure before me came into view, I was looking into familiar, tear-stained blue eyes.
Her eyes looked to be a few years older, but in them, I saw that I was loved. I was convulsed with more coughs, trying desperately to expel the liquid that was slowly drowning me.
Frightened, Xena placed a hand on my forehead.
I had to tell her I knew her. That it was me. Yet, when I felt myself speaking, it was in a voice unlike my own.
"You've got to take me with you-- teach me everything you know. You can't leave me here in Poteidaia. I want to go with you. I've studied the stars--spoken with philosophers-- and I have the gift of prophecy. I can be very valuable to you. Take me with you. I want so much to be like you."
More tears fell from Xena's eyes. I felt the intensity of her love.
"And I want to be like you," she said.
To me. I had to tell her.
Her blue eyes suddenly turned brown. Shaking my head, I saw only white and then, Jiang's familiar face.
"Lao Ma," he said, concerned. "Are you okay?"
I looked down. I was holding a knife and a papaya. Jiang's arm was on my cutting hand, steadying me.
"You were saying something. Something about a prophecy...?"
"I...I have been having headaches," I said. The rest of the kitchen slowly came into focus.
"You are very pale," he said. "Why don't you sit. Let me finish this."
"I'm fine, Jiang. I will speak to Mei about it."
Jiang nodded, but looked skeptical.
"Jiang, it is already passing." And, it was. I was feeling better. "As we were saying..."
"I was asking... Do you really think Xena can be healed?"
"Her body has been abused, from years of battle and intoxicants. Her spirit has been broken. And yet..." I said. "She remains human. Weak, but human."
Jiang raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
"Yes, weak," I said. "She could defeat almost any human in a battle, but she has little control over her own will. Over her own desires."
"And you think she can learn?"
"Right now, she is very scared. For many years, she has been using violence to hide her fear."
Jiang considered this, and continued chopping.
"She hurts others so others cannot hurt her," I continued. "Again."
He stopped chopping the fruit and looked at me, somewhat appalled.
"So because Caesar tortured her, she isn't responsible for her atrocities?" he said, his voice rising.
"Of course she is responsible," I said, placing a hand on Jiang's arm to calm him. "We are all responsible for our own actions. No matter what others have done to us."
"Yes..." Jiang said, waiting for me to continue.
"Being loved can give a person courage," I said. "To be better."
"Love?" he said.
I was surprised I had said it too. Who was that young woman with the green eyes?
I arranged the fruit on the platter in front of me while Jiang sat looking stunned.
"She is a human being," I said, finally. "Worthy of and capable of love like any other."
A few moments passed in silence. In that young woman, perhaps lie Xena's capacity for great love.
"If I may speak freely..." Jiang said.
My heart began pounding in my chest. I looked at my wrists and saw that they were bruised with Xena's finger indentations from the previous night. Quickly, I hid my arms in my robes.
He inhaled, preparing himself for what he was about to say.
"Sometimes our own... desires can prevent us from seeing reality as it is."
I felt the heat in my cheeks.
"You doubt that she can be healed," I said.
"She is very beautiful," he said. "She has been using that to her advantage, turning people into her pawns, for a long time. That is well-known about her. I urge you... be careful."
Jiang's words stung.
He was not telling me anything I did not already know. Furthermore, it wasn't me she was destined to love. I felt sure of that now. And still, I thought of Xena on top of me last night in bed. I was beginning to realize that I wanted more from Xena than to be one of her conquests.
"If you will excuse me, Jiang," I said, making my face blank. Picking up the tray of fruit, I turned to leave.
"Our guest is going to wake hungry."
I left the kitchen. My hands shook and as I carried the tray, I wondered what exactly I thought I was doing with this woman.
xxxx To be continued xxxx
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