Disclaimer: See Part 1
The rose petals are familiar; the triumph this time, strangely hollow.
This morning in Alexandria—cool and subdued, like a sea after an exhausting storm— the winds predict a change of season. These winds, unnamed to outsiders, seem apropos for a change in ruler: For it was only yesterday that Cleopatra sat alone on the Ptolemaic throne for the first time. The orator at the coronation, one Ptahhotep, spoke of a new age, a silver age—at least until he caught the glinting, critical eye of the Empress and hastily upgraded this to a golden age.
Were Xena's own years in Rome falsely gilded as well? Years ago, her whirlwind encounter with Caesar culminated in a golden laurel upon her head, rose petals in her cleavage, a never-ending triumph, a wine-soaked debauch of a banquet, a chain around her waist, and a new beginning. Even if she began her reign as Empress with a skull-crushing hangover and blissfully ignorant about what exactly transpired with the naked female slave in bed with her and her new husband that morning. It's different this time. For one thing, it's not her triumph. The machinations are hers, yes, the strategies successful: Grain will go to Rome, Pompey will be remembered as a great man sacrificed in a time of crisis, and Egypt will have a beautiful new queen and significantly improved relations with the Empire.
Xena sits, facing the wide window of the bedchamber. Clouds skim the sky. Hours earlier the rumblings of a rainstorm woke her, a damp wind whipped through the room. Clutching at a robe she had staggered out of bed, grabbed a cup filled with the last of the good wine, and flopped into a padded chair to watch the storm's entertainment—threads of lightning stitching the sky, the driving rain revealed in brief moments of illumination. Mission accomplished. Time to go. At daybreak she had drifted back into sleep briefly only to wake at clatter in the courtyard below—perhaps merchants heading to market, something dropped from a cart—and still stalled at the same strangely disheartening conclusion: Time to go.
She swirls the dregs of the wine.
Since her arrival in Alexandria months ago, however, she hasn't a word from anyone—Caesar, Antony, not even a reproach from the Senate about Pompey, and the Senate did so love to excoriate her—no missives have landed on her desk, a niggling fact that contributes heavily to her sense of unease. Although Antony, not much of a letter-writer, would only be motivated to correspondence by bad news. And Caesar? Do I really miss my husband's odd, self-centered ramblings?
The shrouded body in Xena's bed groans, stirs, and sighs.
And then there is Cleopatra. Intimate relations with the queen possessed the tenor of closing negotiations, as if the careful mutual possession of one another's body were a cultural exchange, the establishment of a satrapy upon hospitable yet foreign lands. In other words, pleasantly educational yet devoid of passion. “That was nice!” Cleopatra had exclaimed after the first time they slept together, as if they had just promenaded seaside on a beautiful day. Xena had certainly heard far worse things about her bedroom performances—you seem more aroused by yourself than by me, someone, probably Quintus Fabian's scurrilous wife, had complained—but nice had the dull ring of a dutiful suitor, someone she neither wanted nor wanted to be. However unrealistic the expectation, what she had wanted, what she had hoped to get from Cleopatra, was a purity of passion.
As she rises from the bed the first thing Cleopatra reaches for is not a robe, but a cup of wine abandoned the night before. Few members of royalty display such confidence in the nude, thinks Xena. But —her appreciative glance glides over the perfectly proportioned pulchritude of the Egyptian queen, the subtle planes and curves of her breasts, her belly, her thighs, the warm brown tint of her skin— how many queens and kings would have a body like that?
The new ruler of Alexandria drinks deeply from the cup. “Thought I had worn you out.”
Amused, Xena purses her lips. “You think highly of yourself.”
“Oh, I forgot. You are Xena the Insatiable, the Empress of the Erotic. A legion of lovers borne aloft on the strength of your reputation precedes you.” The enchanting smile that so beguiled Xena the first time they met is offered on cue. “So tell me, what would wear you out? An orgy?”
“Probably a certain combination of top-notch courtesans, horny sailors, good wine—” And gladiators? Or just one in particular? The mysterious little gladiator now spends her days in thrall to the library and the cunning old librarian, Apollonius, who had petitioned to have the gladiator replace the giant guard whom Xena had so thoughtlessly killed months ago. (The late lamented behemoth was now buried under a pyramid courtesy of Pullo, who had been quite proud of his idea: “They'll never find ’im now!”)
“All things you could find in Alexandria,” Cleopatra offers, before staring dismally into her cup. “Except, perhaps, good wine.”
“For all my, ah, limitations and disappointments, I am heartened that at the very least I amuse you.”
“Forgive me.” Xena says it with perfunctory haste while nodding at gray skies. “My mood matches the weather.”
“No offense taken. Alexandria's winter is rougher than one imagines.” Xena hears her careful nimble tread across the marble, feels her delicate fingers at play along a silky seam of Xena's robe. “Is something troubling you?”
“ Omne animal post coitum triste,” the Empress murmurs. “Do you know that saying?”
“It's all Latin to me, dear.”
“‘All animals are sad after sex.’ I think that same sadness occurs after ceremonies, celebrations, triumphs—the inevitable comedown after scaling such great heights, don't you think? All the promises made—one wonders if they will come to fruition.”
“I think you've spent too much time among the Romans.” The wry retort is an unlikely yet effective prelude to Cleopatra straddling Xena's lap and lacing her arms around Xena's neck—like an albatross, the latter thinks unkindly, as dread and desire, a bitter familiar alchemy, commingle within her. “Actually, no,” the queen continues, “let me amend that: I never know what you are really thinking. Or saying for that matter.” Carefully Cleopatra regards her, monitoring the effect of this unusually frank admission, a dramatic departure from the politesse and rhetoric that adumbrates every single conversation they've ever had.
Then Cleopatra touches her lips—tracing for truth or demanding desire, Xena is not sure which—and Xena claims an index finger with her mouth. Her tongue touches the tip of the finger, and Cleopatra's eyes respond with simultaneous eclipses of both irises. “Is there something in particular you wish to know?” Xena growls around the finger in her mouth.
Reluctantly Cleopatra removes her finger from Xena's mouth. “Yes. A very simple question, really: Now what?”
“I have more or less achieved what I set out to do here. So there is only one thing left to do: Return to Rome.” Xena presses her face against the queen's throat; her lips brush an undulating tendon.
Cleopatra hisses at the contact. “That is—all well and good for you, but for Alexandria?”
Debriefings during foreplay: for Xena, not an unusual occurrence. “There are troops coming from Pergamum. They will be under the command of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus—a good leader, a bit unimaginative, but he knows how to take orders and how to give them. A temporary measure, of course, until your base of power is fully stabilized.”
“Good.” The trail of smugness across Cleopatra's countenance disappears as she kisses her benefactor. “Now, will you permit me the opportunity to sadden you once more? I promise this time that the heights we achieve will be well worth the descent.”
“Go on.” Xena settles back into the chair, which encourages the parting of her robe. “Impress me.”
The first graphic novel
In her time as a gladiator, Gabrielle has been struck with any number of blunt instruments, everything from a mace to an oar, and cut or stabbed by an impressive variety of knives and swords, but there is no weapon she fears and despises more than the whip. The whip, the stylus that inscribed the introduction to slavery on her back, provided a foretaste of a kind of pain and humiliation she had never before experienced. The particular pain of a whip was excruciating as well: A sting blossoming languidly into deeper, sharper pain, not unlike a blade buried slowly into the skin.
So when the library's latest thief, his stolen treasures slung in a saddlebag across his back, brandishes a whip that licks painfully, mockingly, around Gabrielle's wrist as she reaches for a sword, the enlightened world she has inhabited for the past several months collapses dramatically under rekindled rage. He's quick with the whip, but not quick enough to avoid her grasp. It bites into her skin again as she grabs it and reels him in for a crippling kick. She is on him then, beating him senseless with bare fists until her knuckles are flayed, until Apollonius is bellowing—his thin, quivering voice surprisingly loud and robust—for her to stop. Please. Stop.
Later, in tiny alcove that all the scholars and librarians now recognize as hers alone, she awkwardly bandages her hands—the left more damaged than the right, because she did not want to waste her dominant fist on the thief—the reeking salve retrieving the memory of the Empress neatly bandaging a similar wound for her while asking so many disturbingly lucid questions. How long ago was that? The Empress had given her special dispensation to work and dwell in library, and she has taken generous advantage of this gift; the disadvantage, however, is that she rarely sees Xena these days. The ceaseless preparations for Cleopatra's coronation and the tedious renegotiations of the satrapy meant that the Empress was never away from either Cleopatra or the palace for long.
She tightens the bandage and wonders if they are in love. She wonders if Cleopatra is capable of love; in the Egyptian queen she recognizes aspects of herself—the woman is a consummate survivor. Every action a beautiful, confidant risk. Xena, on the other hand, is inscrutable as usual. In her recent observations and interactions with the Empress, Gabrielle detected no major differences in her behavior, but admittedly Gabrielle is an expert neither on love nor Xena. All she will admit to herself, however, is that she misses that unexpected companionship, that inexplicable kindness. All the more disappointing now that it was gone. Apollonius, she thinks, will have to do. She winces. The old man was clearly displeased with her, and rightfully so. Time to make amends.
She finds him in a common room, at a table with piles of uncatalogued scrolls and bossing around Damianos, one of his assistants. “No, these go into cases. They're originals, very old and fragile yet of supreme importance—not unlike me, Damianos. And these are but pale imitations.” He glares at Damianos, thus finishing the analogy. “Go purchase the cases.” As the minion scurries off, the librarian turns his withered mien to Gabrielle, settling his glare on her hands. “You're still bleeding.”
“It will stop soon.”
“You're not touching a scroll until they've healed properly. I can't have you bleeding all over everything.”
“All right.” For an apology, she hopes meek acquiescence will do.
The librarian sighs. “You've done the law's work for them. Beaten as badly as he was, I doubt they'll do much more to him.”
Gabrielle twitches. Looking down at her bandaged hands, she sees he is right—they are bleeding again, soft bright blots of ruby red permeating the linen. “I don't like whips.”
Apollonius raises an eyebrow. “Who does?” Thoughtfully the old man rolls parchment in his hands. “But had I been standing there instead of you, I may have been cut to ribbons by that whip. You are who you are. For years you've been steeped in the language of violence—I suspect by now it's your native tongue. But you are more than capable of acquiring other ways of expressing yourself. I see that potential in you.” Momentarily absorbed in the shuffle of scrolls around on table, as if it were a game of sorts, he startles her when he speaks again. “Have you read Sappho yet?”
The gladiator is half-amused, half-irritated. “For someone who dislikes Sappho, you're awfully fond of promoting her work.”
“Eh. Perhaps I should petition her for a fee. But in your quest to acquire language, knowledge, ideas, you must be well-rounded, and I grudgingly concede she is vastly superior to her idiotic contemporaries.” A quick smile graces his thin, long face. “You need some poetry in your life. Some—passion.” The expression lingers, deepening into sweetened melancholy as his gaze drifts and focuses on a point no one else can see in the territory of the past. “The battle of the bedroom can be far more rewarding than you think.”
Dear Gods. Gabrielle rubs her neck, uncomfortably reminded of her father's randy mood in springtime: slapping her mother's behind and talking incessantly of stallions going to stud. Then she smiles begrudgingly. If that, she thinks, is the worst of what she remembers about her father, then all the better. Still, she needs no life lessons from the old librarian.
Hours later, as she digs through dull Livy with freshly bandaged hands, Damianos approaches her as a maiden would a wild horse. Among Apollonius's librarians he is the most timid—which means that he piques a certain sadism within the old man, who always chooses him for tasks of a bizarre nature or anything remotely outside his needle-thin comfort zone. Which meant anything remotely connected to Gabrielle: Indeed, Damianos is terrified of her. Not so long ago, in that life distinctly connected to and dominated by the ring, she relished engendering such raw fear in anyone. Now she feels a clenching of certain muscles in her stomach that somehow produce a throb of empathy rippling through her. That she still remembers what it's like to be terrified of anything is, perhaps, remarkable. As he stands, quietly trembling, a particularly thick scroll clutched in both hands as if it were a miniature staff and he would use it in feeble defense against her, Gabrielle consciously employs a softened tone: “What is it, Damianos?”
He clears his throat several times in such a phlegmatic fashion that her empathy is rapidly weakened, and croaks in a cracked voice: “Apollonius bid me to bring you—this—scroll—Sappho.” He sits the scroll on the bench—an offering at the altar of the irrational gladiator-beast— and takes a generous step backward.
“Oh.” Listlessly, like a child undecided about a new toy, Gabrielle pokes it; prosaic Livy has so worn away at her she cannot for the moment even imagine reading for pleasure. She reads because she must know. She has lost too much time. She must know why her life is the way it is.
Damianos clears his throat again, and she squelches the desire to slap him. “He says it is of special interest.”
He dissolves into a fit of corrosive coughing before finally managing it: “It's—illustrated.”
Together they stare at the scroll—she now befuddled, he still terrified. “Well.” Gabrielle picks it up. “So what?” More of a rhetorical question than anything, but it sends Damianos scurrying out of the alcove. Sighing, she places it on the bench again, ignores it for another hour until she can bear Livy no further, and then finally allows idle curiosity to take over.
Apollonius had said Sappho was a lyric poet, but Gabrielle has no idea what that means. As far as illustrations went, she expects something simply decorative, like flowers and other flora. Fauna? Maybe a sheep? A rendering of Aphrodite? All she knows is that poetry is about nature or worshipping the gods. But the scroll unfurls and the first thing she sees is a beautifully rendered and rather explicit drawing of two women locked in erotic combat, limbs so utterly entwined it is impossible to tell where one body ends and another begins. It reminds Gabrielle of a tale related to her by a drunken mariner about a mythic sea creature of many fantastic limbs that destroyed his skiff and ate his cargo of dates and spices.
And yet somehow, as the days pass and the images grow familiarly fantastic to the point where, when she finally attends to the text, she discovers in the words of the poet something more potent and amazing, something she's never know before.
This, apparently, is passion.
The eunuch and the message
The messenger, a panting statue of sweat and dirt, stands erect as Xena holds the latest communiqué from Pergamum. Her thumbnail scrapes Lepidus's seal. Now what? On the pretext of awaiting more soldiers, Lepidus has already once delayed the legions to Alexandria. A month's time spirals into the void of the past; she grows dangerously bored of playing pseudo-consort and advisor to the queen.
She is about to pry open the missive when Pullo bursts into the suite. “They've found him. Ponthius.”
Xena tucks the unread message into her cuirass. “Alive?”
“Just barely.” Pullo shrugs. “Has a stomach wound that's gone septic. Ping says he won't last the night.”
“Then that, I suppose, is that.”
Pullo does not share her jocularity. “He wants to see you. He says he has information for you.”
“There's nothing he could tell me that I don't already know. Ptolemy is dead, his loyalists nonexistent.”
Eyes respectfully downcast, Pullo begins to recite: “The commandments of Mithras—“
“—condemn the wrongful or unfair treatment of defeated or dying enemies. I know.”
“It's not good luck to ignore the request of a dying man, Empress.”
“A dying eunuch, you mean.”
Pullo shuffles his feet.
Xena represses a sigh. For her Mithraism had been a means to power; an intangible proof of debatable meaning, and as such meant little to her. For Pullo the career soldier, however, it is a blood bond celebrated among those who fight—and now inclusive of her. “You're right, Pullo. Let's go.”
In the cool damp labyrinth of the prison, once catacombs, Xena thinks she hallucinates when the torchlight brings into view the image of the gladiator standing outside Ponthius's cell. At first glance the gladiator shifts nervously, as if anticipating a less than benevolent welcome. “Did that old crow kick you out of the library? I'll have words with him—“
The torch is high enough to accentuate Gabrielle's quick, modest smile. “It's not necessary, Empress. My exile is only temporary. Pullo sent word that Ponthius was captured and—” She shrugs.
Suspiciously Xena purses her lips. “Did you kill someone?”
“No.” Restless, Gabrielle rubs her hands against the front of her tunic. “Well—“
“I see.” Xena's frown is prompted not so much by this admission, but the gladiator's curiously nervous state. Like a fish flopping in the air, a very simple question—that of what's wrong? —cannot exist within their complex relations and within these unstable environs. Solicitousness means weakness. It is not something she can risk in front of surly guards eager to seize upon any sign of the Empress actually acting like a woman. But the grim reason for their meeting clamps down upon her as Pullo, eager to see the end of the conniving eunuch, prompts, “Empress?”
Xena nods. The door yields against a guard's shoulder and unleashes the stench of blood and sepsis. The eunuch lies on a straw pallet dyed red with his blood, his eyes brightly glazed with pain and the determination that his very last act be one of vituperative, senseless rage. “Whore,” he hisses.
The Empress steps closer to the dying man; she feels Gabrielle behind her, and a flickering backward glance captures the welcome sight of that calloused hand at rest upon a sword. “Ponthius, if I had good coin for every time I've been called that, I would own the world several times over.”
“Forgive me. You are a vestal virgin who deigns to visit me out of the pure kindness of your heart.”
“I'm told you have information for me. Say it.”
“You think I am nothing—because I served Ptolemy.” He laughs harshly, coughing blood that flecks his dry lips. “Then you—what does that make you? You served Caesar. You have no power except by proxy of spreading your legs. And you are gutless—you wanted Pompey dead, you were too cowardly to kill him. So I did your dirty work for you. Did you like that? Enjoyed the gift we gave you? I killed Pompey by my own hand. I told him before he died I would hack off his fucking head and that my king would give it to you. He was afraid at that. He begged for his life. ”
After so many months of stagnant regret, Xena finally gives into that darker force—the one she's always managed brilliantly, the one Caesar taught her to harness for the good of the Empire, the one compelled by hate and not mercy—and with the intent to crush the last bit of life out of him, her hand seizes his throat. The corded muscles underneath his clammy skin pulse desperately in an ever-weakening current until the soft utterance of her name shockingly severs this black connection.
Gabrielle says it again. “Xena.”
Her grip slackens. Ponthius gags. More blood is coughed up; a crimson constellation maps the back of her hand. The room is hot, claustrophobic, and the gladiator's fingertips graze her bracer, gently requesting her attention with a clean-looking cloth.
“It's not worth it,” the gladiator says softly.
Ponthius rebounds with one last effort. “No, it's not worth it, whore. My time has ended,” he wheezes. “And yours—is shorter than you think.”
With a deep, steadying breath, Xena wipes away stars of blood from her hand. “You've lived your life by halves, Ponthius: Half-man, half-oracle. Tell me what you mean to tell me, so I may let you die in peace.”
Surprisingly, this provides some measure of peace to the eunuch. He closes his eyes in beatific surrender. When he opens them one final time, they appear devoid of pain and almost regretful. “Caesar is dead.”
It seems such a fabrication, such an astonishing lie, that she laughs. Even as the faces of Pullo, Gabrielle, and Ping, the healer, grow pale. Could it be true? Could it explain the change she feels in the air, the profound sense of disconnect? She is Rome as much as her husband is. If he is gone, what is she now? And what is Rome? “You lie.”
Ponthius's breathing grows labored. “If you do not—believe me, you will be surprised when the magister equitum arrives at your door.” He smiles wretchedly. “But if you find the medlar, then you will believe me.”
He dies. The slender, somber Ping searches for a pulse, a heartbeat, and shakes his head.
Xena stares intently at the corpse. All present wait for her to say something. Instead, with a flutter of her cape, she is gone, striding through the door and disappearing down the dank hallway before anyone thinks to follow.
Gabrielle moves toward the door, and then hesitates. She yearns to follow, but in acknowledging this also recognizes the capricious emotions that drive such impulses. Despite the emergence of certain feelings, she possesses no clue how to express them, nor how burdensome they might appear to a woman who's just been informed, by a dying eunuch no less, that her husband, the most powerful man in the world, is dead, and who could quite easily find both solace and counsel concerning this as of yet unsubstantiated fact in the arms of the (supposedly) most beautiful woman in the world, and not a scarred, banged-up former gladiator and slave who swoons over Sappho. And then there is the mysterious matter of—
Pullo says it: “A fucking medlar?”
Departures and arrivals
The messenger is new: A lithe runner who will be stuck on a boat until Rome, but who will be arrow-swift on the roads leading to Marc Antony. He stiffens nervously as the Empress hands him the note, her blue eyes more fine and piercing than the most slender of needles. “Waste no time. You sail now.”
He is about to protest that it's nearly evening; then realizes he'd rather die later, in Rome, than now. His only hesitation is bowing to Cleopatra, who enters as he leaves. The queen gives the backside of the fleet-footed youth an admiring glance before the slave closes the door, and she turns her attentions to Xena, who is unfurling a cipher. “Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” Xena mutters. The message from Lepidus is placed next to the cipher. Her fingers run parallel to lines of text that waver slightly while proceeding with the linear rush of a river, the thick letters are stalwart ships, Trojan horses awaiting the dispensation of meaning, and she calmly awaits the moment when it all comes together, when the message will reveal itself.
Cleopatra's lovely voice, however, intrudes: “Is it true?”
Xena looks up sharply. “Is what true?”
The Egyptian queen regards her for a moment before continuing. “About Ponthius. That he's dead.”
“Yes.” Xena's gaze drops back to the task at hand.
Fascinated, Cleopatra watches Xena's elegant hand move along the lines of the long missive, her eyes flicker back and forth between parchments. “Aren't you going to write down the translation?”
Xena doesn't look up again. “I don't need to.”
The queen's mouth falls open. She does not consider herself a stupid woman; the librarian Apollonius, who tutored her as a child, would vouchsafe her considerable intellect. Yet at every solitary, clandestine opportunity over the past months, she has attempted cracking this cipher with great vigor and concentration and has, each time, failed miserably. Not to mention Xena's familiarly with the language of Chin—which she speaks at times with her healer—and her fondness for hieroglyphics bitterly remind the Egyptian queen that the barbarian daughter of a common innkeeper is no fool. She sighs.
Then Xena rolls up both scrolls.
“Lepidus and his troops will arrive within a fortnight.”
Xena's fingers bob and weave along the rolled-up parchment, as if it were a flute and she an acolyte of Pan; her expression remains unreadable. “He's bringing a guest.”
Cleopatra sucks in a breath and wonders if, at last, she will get to meet the infamous Antony. “Dare I ask?”
“Dare away, Cleopatra. It's Marcus Junius Brutus.”
The empire of medlars
Lake Mareotis, the brackish southern border of the city, bustles with activity at every moment of the morning. As such it's not the place where one would seek solitude for moments of reflection, unless one is an alchemist accustomed to transforming life's apparent dross into moments of gold. The modest Ping, the Empress's healer, would be loath to attribute to himself such powers. He no longer remembers the rural village or the destitute family from which he was taken; even now memories of life in the court of Lao Tzu grow distant. He does, however, recall the shock that rattled his pampered spine when the great ruler's wife, Lao Ma, informed him he had been gifted to a visiting emissary from their western ally—some wild, surly woman named Xena, who had just become the consort of the Roman Emperor and who, to his great dismay, was healthy as a horse.
Life with the Empress, however, has not turned out to be as barren as he had anticipated. He is granted unprecedented freedom of movement, and his considerable leisure time affords him many opportunities for study and enhancement of his art, and of the strange new world he finds himself in. He is fascinated by the landlocked, purple-hued lake with its strange fish, the plants he's never seen before; every morning takes him out beyond the crowds to the deserted eastern edges, the sluggish canals, the abandoned vineyards, the wreckages of unknown ships.
One gray morning, the lake lifeless as lead, compels him to go out even further in his long, flat-bottomed boat, navigating the calm waters with a barge pole toward the tributaries that lead to the seas. It is not uncommon to discover the wreckage of skiffs and other smaller boats. And, on occasion, the unfortunate occupants of these ruined vessels. But on this gray day the wrecked skiff he encounters looks like one from a Roman warship, and not far along the shore is the body of a Roman officer, dead for some months. Even allowing for the caprices and variables of deterioration, Ping is mystified by the object that bulges in the dead man's mouth.
It takes some patience to pry the object from the mouth—Ping begs the pardon of multiple Roman gods for mutilation of the dead—which turns out to be that most curious of fruits, the medlar. A medlar will rot before it is ripe; the wrinkled exterior envelops the sweet, slushy fruit within. Turning the medlar in his hands, Ping sees that the brown, withered rind holds no fruit but a crumpled ball of parchment. As he delicately extracts the parchment from the medlar, he recognizes the half-deteriorated seal upon the missive.
As does Xena, when Ping hand over the unread note to her hours later. The seal says enough, the seal confirms what Ponthius had said. She barely needs the cipher to read the brief note from Antony, which informs her that her husband of five years and the guarantor of her power, Gaius Julius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, is dead.
To be continued
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