For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
—Sappho [trans. Anne Carson]
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, lawkeepers, 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. 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.”
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