The inevitable embrace
At night, and despite disapproving looks from the girl, she waited for him. The crew were oblivious to the small changes in their captain's behavior-such as scanning the horizon more than usual while willing herself to near stillness, hopeful that the barely perceptible vibrato of her body functioned as a divination rod to lure him back-but unlike the crew, the girl, a stowaway named M'lila, never missed a trick.
She liked the girl. Xena had wondered if the teaching of pressure points would evolve into the teaching of other things, but her mysterious stowaway, skittishly shy as a feral colt, did not speak Greek. This in contrast Julius Caesar, the man who had been her not-so-reluctant captive-who spoke Greek with the fluency of a native, sat as poised as a spoiled cat upon pillows in her cabin, enticed her with his calmness, challenged her with epigrammatic pronouncements, provoked her most blatant seduction, and who, when the ransom was paid, promised both his return and, as if it were nothing but a bauble on a string, the known world. Which was his anyway-a smug declaration he had made at one point while they were in bed, because she liked talking about things like that in bed. They could discover and dominate new worlds, new lands together, he said. He had plans. And he saw something in her, something that no one else ever had: The potential to be a great leader.
It was not the first time a man she'd spent the night with departed the next morning, trailing behind bold promises much like bastard children: you were the best, my wife will never know, I'll pay back the 25 dinars I owe you. Of all the false offerings ever extended to her, Caesar's by far was the richest in potential; either glorious power or profound disappointment lay in wait. Experience to the contrary, she rather liked the odds.
When finally he returned to claim her-both the bright calm evening and the torches hung as orange-gold stars above his long ship favorable omens-she had no idea what to expect. Once on board her ship with his guards, he circled her with wary elegance; quickly she became his prey. She panicked. Beneath her the warped boards of the ship creaked and tilted precariously, finally pitching her toward the inevitable embrace. He kissed her and she felt the familiar, reassuring stirrings of desire amid the fear. His lips touched her brow. Well? He whispered.
Her fingers dug into his arm and as she struggled to find words, the wind flattened his cape to the contours of his body and a dagger glinted in moonlight behind him. Instinctively, she pulled him closer-but the dagger, encased in a guard's fat Roman fist, was meant for neither Caesar nor her. She knew even before turning around that the guard aimed for the girl, who was attempting desperate escape-the where and how as mysterious as the circumstances that led to this night. Perhaps the former slave thought of stealing one of the rowboats and sailing away quietly, perhaps she thought she could swim until she found land or another ship hospitable to stowaways, perhaps she just wanted a better place to hide. The girl had understood many things, Xena later thought sadly, but she did not understand the sea.
The dagger flew and, amid cries from the outraged crew, found its mark.
She doesn't remember the body falling from the mizzen deck, only cradling M'lila's head in her lap as she knelt on the main deck with Caesar beside her murmuring I'm sorry, so sorry, and two pairs of eyes pooled in the blackness of night-his in robust life, hers in senseless death. Xena nearly struck him. As if expecting it, he gripped her hand preemptively and the yoke of fate tightened even as she realized, too late, that everything in the world would eventually suffer his careless hand. Except his city. In death and beyond, she would have to live with the consequences.
The night commanded the sky. She watched her ship, her old life, blur into black.
Are you ready for this, Xena? he asked.
With the gentle utterance of her name, Cleopatra brings her back to the present.
Xena sits in her chambers-in front of the window again, empty wine cup in her hand, empty head attached to her neck, empty heart rattling in her chest. The Egyptian queen sits across from her, perfectly composed with hands in lap, in a pose of professional grieving. He wasn't your husband, Xena wants to say, but can't. She cannot lay claim on any kind of genuine grief because she feels nothing except an oppressive numbness laying sluggish claim to every nerve of her body.
Cleopatra tries to meet her gaze. "What can I do for you?"
Xena thrusts the cup toward her. "You can get me some more wine."
"Perhaps you've had enough."
"Perhaps you shouldn't tell me what my limitations are."
Cleopatra stiffens, but accepts the cup and fetches the wine. In the modest exchange of the cup, their fingers fail to touch. "So what happens now?"
"I wait for everything to come crashing down on me, I suppose."
"How long do you think he's been waiting for a message?"
"Too long." Any date on Antony's terse correspondence had been obliterated by time. Ping believed that the messenger had been dead for at least three months; the marshy dampness of where he met his end preserved the body remarkably well. Xena wonders if she should toast the Pothinus for his posthumous triumph. Creating a potential civil war or, at the very least, a dangerous rift between her and Antony was one way of promoting Alexandria's independence. She knew Antony very well. He would interpret any lengthy, unusual silence from her, or anyone else for that matter, as a sign of danger, a threat to the Empire. He would be building up his troops in a strategic, coastal location. To protect himself. To protect Rome.
It only made sense, really.
Notes of frustration tighten Cleopatra's voice, like silk bunched within a fist-and unfurled unwisely with every speculation. "If you really think Antony will strike against you, why waste time sitting around? Why not prepare a strategy? Why not set sail immediately for Rome?"
Is Cleopatra's naiveté deliberate? Xena wonders. "Yes, I'll roll myself up in a rug. How does that sound?" Xena is done with sharing strategies; whom can she trust now? And Rome? "I've no idea what awaits me in Rome." Despite the wine's unappealing, bitter thickness, Xena drinks deeply from the cup. "It's foolish to proceed without knowing why Brutus is here. He will have information. And I'll need Lepidus's troops for backup."
Cleopatra raises an eyebrow-the closest she's ever come to a genuine expression of outrage. "I thought those troops were meant for the protection and fortification of Alexandria."
"The game changes all the time, my dear." Dismissive, she closes her eyes, hears Cleopatra's muffled sigh, the rustle of her dress, and the clink of her jewelry-glass beads dropped and echoing in a chamber within her mind. The heavy door opens and closes. After she is gone Xena opens her eyes once again. She finishes the cup of wine, has another one. The horizon outside her window is pacific; the nothingness of white sky. With a careful, composing breath she rises. She has half a drunken mind to find Pullo and spar with him. The men, she thinks, might be heartened by the sight of her sparring. As if it were just another day. Or perhaps they would be amused or pitied by the sight of their stumbling leader, wondering why she wasn't shorn and grieving like a good Roman matron.
She opens the door and finds Gabrielle standing outside. The mere sight of the gladiator is somehow defeat enough-even sober, how would I get past that beautiful blockade?-and she slumps in the doorway. "What are you doing here?" Xena slurs.
"Pullo told me to keep guard." Gabrielle stands erect, hand tucked behind her, head tilted proudly yet with eyes cast downward-a good soldier's stance, Xena thinks, which means the gladiator was about to be serious. She'd quite had enough of people being serious over the past few days, in fact she'd quite had enough of people altogether, but she never, ever wants to discourage this woman from speaking.
Even if she's doing nothing more than piling on cliché. "I am sorry for your loss," the gladiator blurts.
Xena blinks again before realizing she's talking about your husband, you fucking fool. Is it shock, still? The strange euphoria of guilty relief, his death confirmation of the void within her? Zeus, Hera, Ares, Aphrodite. Did I love him? Did I ever love him? I petition you all, answer me, for my heart is as unfathomable as a labyrinth.
Solemn as a priestess, Gabrielle keeps her eyes trained on an invisible point in the distance. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
Same as Cleopatra, Xena thinks. Well, not exactly. "No. Thank you." She turns back to her chambers and then, just as quickly, spins around again. "There is, however, something I can do for you."
Concerned, the gladiator moves closer. "Yes?"
One more step and you'll have my wine-sour mouth on yours. "I can give you your freedom. In fact, I should have done it the moment I acquired you from Cato. I did have papers prepared-well, months ago, actually, but never found the time to-and now, it's ridiculous of me to have waited so long-" I am drowning. Help me.
"No, it's not," Gabrielle interrupts gently. "You have been very preoccupied." She blinks while silently-and critically-examining this new skein in the weave of her existence; the Fates were no more trustworthy than the fat, flashy merchants one found at market, selling beautiful bolts of colored silk that disintegrated and unraveled at the slightest tug.
"You look shocked."
"It's a little overwhelming."
"You were free once before. It'll come back to you."
"Yes." Gabrielle's face falls into its usual fierce, stubborn mask. "I suppose I should thank you."
Xena smiles-and would laugh but for the iron grip of widowhood's protocols. Was a smile alone too much? Her eyes scan the dark hallways; there are always shadow spies who can weave a world of lies based on the smallest of truths. But what was the truth here? "I suppose your mother never told you to thank someone after you've received a gift?"
"The gift of what was rightfully mine all along?" The mischievous glint of Gabrielle's eyes threatens her deadpan reserve.
"Touché," Xena replies, acutely aware that prior attempts at cheeky insubordination by others in her presence typically resulted in said individuals receiving either prison sentences or broken extremities. "Well." Suddenly her throat is painfully tight, and the unforeseen consequence hits her squarely: It is quite possible that she will never see the gladiator again. "Now that you are free-I suppose Apollonius and the library will lay full claim upon you."
Gabrielle stiffens and frowns petulantly. "Are you saying you no longer wish me in your service?"
And Xena almost laughs again in giddy relief. "You may do as your please, of course. But what have I done to gain such devotion?"
The gladiator ignores this. "I am happy with the assignation of my duties as they currently stand, with the way things are."
But-why? Xena leans against the cool wall, too tired to pursue the question, to examine what lies under the stagnant surface of conduct and rules, hidebound behaviors. Master and servant. Ruler and slave. It's different now: A freewoman stands before the empress of nothing. But she plays on-unable, for the time being, to imagine anything else. "Then your duties shall remain as such." She pauses. "But who knows how long I shall be here, how long things will remain as they are. At any rate I won't be running back to Rome soon. And the gods know there is no reason for you to return there. You must want to stay here, so close to your library-I mean, why leave?" With a drunkard's patience-as amused witness to the unraveling of time-she waits for Gabrielle to say something, to say anything, and so remains locked on those brilliant eyes that mingle the colors of transitional seasons, perfectly positioned on the spectrum between the green promise of spring and the ancient gold of autumn.
"Yes," Gabrielle finally says. "I am so close to everything."
A brief history of romance
Narrow labyrinths lead down to the port-streets filled with merchants and buyers, fishwives, blind beggars, noncommissioned soldiers formerly of Ptolemy's ragged army, many of them, save the blind ones, eyeing the woman in armor who furiously navigates their streets, none of them offering guidance when said woman stops dead on a sudden turn into a cul-de-sac.
Stonewalled by garbage and sleeping intransigents, Gabrielle's jaw tightens. Where was that damned brothel?
Not that she sought physical release. But Titus Pullo did-and does. Every week, same day, same time, the Captain of Xena's personal guard makes his usual visit to a brothel near the docks. One time she had accompanied him, stewing in nervous embarrassment outside before eventually falling asleep propped on a stool near the entrance, woken occasionally by drunken propositions and a rooster that continued to peck at her calf. What Gabrielle desires, not surprisingly, is knowledge. More specifically, the confirmation of a rumor floating insidiously around the library: that Xena had been challenged to a fight by a disgruntled centurion, and had accepted that challenge.
This time, however, awkward discomfort about the whorehouse does not deter her. She strides in, unchallenged by a guard-and finds herself deliciously calmed by the courtyard within: colorful stonework in pale reds and blues, the saturated green of the plants and trees, the susurrations of the fountain. Here in the middle of the day, the courtyard appears deserted except for one hetaera lounging on a stone bench. Upon sight of the gladiator she arises magnificently as, in legend, Venus does from the sea. Lush and voluptuous, her diaphanous dress leaves little to the imagination. Full breasts and hips demand Gabrielle's attention and rattle her with an unfamiliar yet very simple sensation: Lust.
In turn, the hetaera frankly assesses her. "Well, this is a surprise." She brushes dark hair away from a beautiful, impassive face. "I didn't know the Romans were conscripting women these days."
Even though being mistaken for a Roman prompts a sneer of disgust, Gabrielle forces herself to look away from the woman's dark, hypnotizing eyes-Pullo told her once that certain high-end hetaeras knew how to place spells on their clients. She must not permit herself to be susceptible to such mischief. "I'm looking for someone."
"Not me, I suppose?" The hetaera touches her, tracing a vein down her forearm to a vulnerable destination-the inside of her wrist. Too long, she thinks, it has been too long since anyone has touched her with anything approaching tenderness.
There was a boy, of course, long ago: Perdicus, good-natured and kind. She loved to run her fingers through the fine dark of his hair while they lay together in the hayloft of his family's barn and he would listen tolerantly-his lips pursed in teasing affection-as she told him of all the places in the world she wanted to see someday. Perhaps they would even see them together. There was talk of betrothal but despite her father's traditional views, he thought her too young and wanted to wait another summer or two. But that fall saw the arrival of Cortese. She never knew what happened to Perdicus.
Then there was a girl-rather, a young woman, for Ephiny was a few years older than she. On a training exercise in the woods-she and other young Amazons were being taught how to track animals, including humans-they had stopped to rest. Sitting under a tree, bare shoulders touching. Gabrielle no longer remembers the details of yet another pedantic "way of the Amazons" lecture, only the sentence leading up to it: -and sometimes women go with women, and it's all fine.
At that, Gabrielle grew bold. Do you?
Ephiny had laughed at that; loose blond curls touched her flushed cheeks. Sometimes. The kiss that followed lingered sweetly until Ephiny broke it off at the sound-unheard by Gabrielle-of a not-too-distant breaking branch and leapt to her feet while Gabrielle discovered new admiration for her slender, strong calves. Less than a year later their respective fates encapsulated that of the entire Amazon nation: Ephiny was dead, Gabrielle a slave.
The hetaera gently clasps her wrist. "You're a cute thing, I'll give you that."
"I know you're just saying that." Half-hearted and dizzy, Gabrielle tries to pull away. Her face burns, her skin tingles. Is the spell already in the works? A chemical transmitted by touch alone? Don't look at her!
"You're also a tough sell, little one." Then the woman smiles and everything changes-there is something of the Empress in the bountiful confidence of that grin, and finally Gabrielle tires of the fight against the growing, persistent reawakening of her body. At night she sleeps longer and deeper, sinking into a voluptuary's dreams-and yet almost happy to awaken at the sun's touch upon her face. Food tastes good-and when it doesn't, she actually has the nerve to be disappointed. The parchment under her hands satisfies as much as a sword. There is pleasure to be had in the world. There is pleasure to be had in this moment. She gives in.
The hetaera leads her through the courtyard, up the stairs and down a dim hall to a quiet, candlelit room. Once the initial awkwardness passes away, all clothing discarded, all requisite jokes about Sappho made, and basic technicalities mastered, the afternoon passes in a pleasurable blur. Afterward, while the hetaera talks of a fisherman she loves Gabrielle sleepily stares at the candle wax pooling on the bedside table and takes mental notes in hopes of pleasing future partners until, with the elegant softness of a cat's footfall, her eyelids flutter to a close.
The next thing she's aware of is the cock's crow, the saturated violet-blue of the Alexandrian dawn visible from the window, and the immediate, alarming thought that today Xena will fight a centurion thug named Basileos, risking her life simply because this meat-headed moron, presumably at the prompting of brother soldiers too clever and cowardly to do so themselves, challenged her.
Gabrielle leaps out of the bed. Grateful to find herself alone, she dresses quickly. But while frantically searching for her boots, the hetaera returns.
"Thought you'd never wake up." The woman yawns with accusing elaborateness.
"I have to go." Gabrielle grabs her cuirass.
"Sure. Just don't forget-" The hetaera rubs together a thumb and two long fingers, then extends her empty hand, palm up.
The coin of the realm. Something she does not possess. Shuttling between the palace and the library, she has had no need of it; both the librarian and the Empress have provided for every material need. "Uh-"
The sensual goddess of the day and night before, who coaxed pleasure of out a body that Gabrielle had long thought of as nothing but a weapon, is now a tired, snarling-albeit still attractive-working woman out of patience. "Oh, come on. You're cute, but you're not that cute."
"And you kiss like a dead carp."
Irritated at this lack of politeness from those in the service industries -honestly, she wonders, shouldn't they be trained in dealing with these situations?-Gabrielle scowls. "There's no need to be churlish about it."
"Listen to you with the big words. Just give me my money and get out, okay?"
"I don't have any." Gabrielle looks down at her body. "I could give you-my boots?" If I could find them. "Maybe my dagger?" She reaches for her pouch, which should, ideally, contain money but instead holds a dagger and a sliver of parchment with quotations from Aristophanes.
"I already have a dagger." A shiny, slender blade is already in the hetaera's grasp.
"Ah. Yes, I see that." And the twitch in the woman's forearm indicates she's impatient to use the weapon. "Mine is actually nicer." She takes a step toward the window. "The Empress gave it to me-the handle is inlaid pearl and she won it in a fight with a Persian satrap-"
She's judged the window ledge correctly; with one neat little vault, she's out of the room as the dagger whizzes over her head. Fortunately she lands not on a pile of garbage but solid, dusty ground and takes off running through the streets. By the time she's reached the palace her feet burn and bleed and she's fully berated herself for this monumental lapse in judgment. She is not a hedonist. She does not deserve pleasure, at least during a time when she is needed-am I needed? She wonders, careening to a halt at the edge of the assembled crowd of Roman soldiers.
Pullo and the Praetorians limn the edge of the eager circle around the centurion Basileos and the Empress. To Gabrielle's dismay, Xena is up to her usual cocky tricks: The effortlessly dazzling spin of the sword, its speed in effective contrast to her slow swagger. This element of showmanship in Xena's fighting style reminds Gabrielle too intently of the ring, of third-rate fighters using tricks to camouflage their significant weaknesses. Such shenanigans, however, are beneath a warrior of Xena's caliber. But Gabrielle knows the mindset of the masses. Gimmicks work: Xena throws in an unnecessary back flip to avoid one of Basileos's lunges and the soldiers thrum with approval. Fortunately for her own illustrious gladiatorial career, her gimmick was her size and her sex.
Arms crossed over his barrel chest, Pullo finally pries his attention away from the action and catches her eye. She limps over to him and minces no words: "Why didn't you tell me about this?"
"She didn't want me to tell you." Pullo looks at her feet. "Where are your boots?"
"Never mind. Why didn't she want me to know?"
"She thought if you knew, you'd go off and kill Basileos yourself."
Gabrielle's face telegraphs her guilt.
"Pretty fucking predictable, aren't you?" Pullo shakes his head. "If you'd killed him, it would have meant nothing. She needs to prove something to them." He nods at the crowd of soldiers watching in silence, the air pierced by ringing swords. "You know that trade ship arrived from Rome a month ago. All we've heard since then are rumors-Antony's on a fucking tear, he thinks the Empress is plotting against him, he thinks Caesar's heir is allying with her. So these boys start thinking she's weak, see, sitting around waiting for Lepidus and Brutus. Then all you need is an idiot like Basileos to open his mouth. They need to know they've got a real leader, someone worth fighting for."
"Don't they know that already?"
"You give soldiers too much credit. As if we've got minds of our own."
"What happens if Basileos wins?" Gabrielle asks softly.
"Then you and I kill him."
"That goes without saying. And then what?"
"Then, I reckon, all hell breaks loose."
At this point, however, Basileos is not looking victorious. Xena deflects another blow, and takes another spin around him. This time, for good measure, she knocks him to the ground with a good hard kick in the ass, earning some muffled guffaws from the crowd.
The humiliation of being on his knees in front of a woman is, apparently, the final indignity for Basileos. Bad enough he's had to take orders from the bitch, orders that have dragged him halfway across the known world. So as she stands idly, waiting for him to arise-and momentarily distracted by a distinctive glint of blonde hair in the helmeted crowd-he pulls a dagger and buries it deep within her left thigh.
The Empress screams and crumples, but does not fall. Her sword bears her weight; her hand trembles upon the hilt.
The tightness in Gabrielle's chest replicates itself in her arm-Pullo grips her tightly, saving her from the impulse she cannot control: "Don't."
Warily, Basileos rises, facing the bowed woman before him. He raises his sword for the deathblow, taking the time to do it properly-in one fell, impressive swoop. The prosaic has always resided as the dominant theme in his life, and now for the first and final time in his life the elusive fantastic moment will appear, but not in the manner he had wished. Xena's motions are always fluid as water, creating graceful unity out of a series of gestures, as if she has carefully choreographed and plotted everything in her mind within mere seconds. She pulls the dagger from her thigh and, with a shrill cry composed of pain, rage, and triumph, plunges it into his neck. An undulating arc of blood from his severed carotid artery glows vermillion, almost orange, under the sunlight.
And the crowd goes wild.
Xena collapses on top of the dying man, either unable or unwilling to release her grip on the dagger until every bright drop of blood saturates the sand. Within seconds she is safely ensconced by the Praetorians from the jostling of the jubilant rank and file. Of her own accord-and with some assistance from her sword-the Empress rises, only to cling against Pullo as if she were a drunken concubine. A guard hastily binds her wound. The ghastly grimace of her sweaty, pale face-a sardonic mask for the cheering soldiers-fools no one within a foot of her. "Get me out of here before I pass out," she croaks at Pullo.
"Have to carry you," he says. "There goes your dignity."
"I don't care"- Xena takes a deep, shuddering breath-"if you have to catapult me inside, just-get me to Ping." She staggers again and almost collapses but for Gabrielle, who catches her. The feverish warmth of the Empress's body permeates leather and armor.
I realized then, Gabrielle will write years later, that I wanted to be at her side forever.
It is not the moment for a passionate kiss, a melodramatic confession. And yet Gabrielle yearns to say something, is acutely aware of her mouth hanging open in yokel-like awe, of that feeling of raw naiveté similar to when, even chained and broken, she first saw Rome: The city of unchecked power and colorful splendor. What is more magnificent-the city or the woman? With Caesar's death Xena has shed her personification of Rome and to Gabrielle, is primed for greater heights. Greater cities, greater territories, greater worlds. Maybe even greater love. If she lives that long.
Tightly, Xena grips the gladiator's neck. The pale intensity of her eyes, like pearls swarming in sea blue depths, convey inscrutable, unnerving urgency.
"What is it?" Gabrielle holds her tighter. "Tell me."
As a feeble balm against the searing heat and swirling dust, Xena licks her lips. "What happened to your boots?" she manages, just before passing out.
To be continued
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