The city or the woman
As is the case with so many epiphanies, this one comes unexpectedly and unravels so many mundane mysteries that Cleopatra is more relieved than disappointed in its aftermath.
It began while Xena was in recovery. After the fight with Basileos-which Cleopatra had missed, the demands of a nap more pressing and urgent upon her delicate system than being just another witness to witless bloodsport-she had arrived in Xena's suite to a grim tableau of pale faces over the Empress's inert body and promptly fainted at the sight of not only a bloody gaping wound, but the glowing saffron tip of a rather crude-looking iron instrument that Ping the healer was about to use, with an inappropriate level of enthusiasm, in the process of cauterization.
In the days following the successful operation she played the concerned lover when possible-she did, after all, have a country to run. Even in her weakened state Xena seemed amused at her attentions and released her from any bedside obligations, which both relieved and disturbed Cleopatra. That Xena read her with cynical ease marked a unique, pliant quality of the Empress, namely, her worthiness both as a lover and an adversary. But beyond her observations of Xena-including the casually powerful way that Xena moved through the world, even a world in uproar-Cleopatra could not gain an emotional foothold.
The little gladiator who haunted the library, however, was a different story. From the outset, this typically mute brute fascinated Cleopatra, in fact, was more to her type-a little rough around the edges, a little unpredictable. Whatever rough charm Xena once possessed was now burnished into the imperious smoothness of a born leader, her bluntness disarmed by smiles and a strategies.
On an afternoon when the recovering Xena first attempted walking, using Cleopatra as semi-reluctant crutch on her sojourn across her bedroom, the gladiator showed up as Xena crankily collapsed into a divan. Despite her difficulties negotiating the room, Xena could at least run through a frighteningly vulgar stream of obscenities faster than a sailor.
Cleopatra stared at the silent woman in the doorway, who in turn glowered back. "You've a visitor."
Xena gripped the edge of the divan, knuckles marble-white, ready to excoriate the hapless fool who had blundered upon her in this vulnerable state.
Until she saw who it was, and smiled. "Ah. It's you."
"Empress." Gabrielle offered a slight nod followed by a half-bow, while her eyes darted to Cleopatra. "If this is not a good time, I can return later."
"No need." Perceptibly, Xena relaxed-even while cautiously flexing her wounded leg. "I could use a diversion. Tell me what you've been doing. What have you been reading?"
"Sallust," Gabrielle said. The tips of her ears turned red.
"And how do you find Sallust?"
Gabrielle ducked her head, rubbed the back of her neck. "Boring. A new standard in moral hypocrisy."
The exchange, while unremarkable, illustrated what Cleopatra has long suspected: (1) The gladiator was capable of speech, and (2) Was greatly enamored of the Empress-as recently confirmed by Titus Pullo one afternoon after she fucked him, his lust momentarily trumping his loyalties. But it wasn't what she thought, he had assured her as he had thrashed around emphatically in bed sheets. Even as he talked he could not hold still for a moment; it made him both a problematic lover and a distressing confidant. Sure, he said, the first time he encountered the gladiator was in the Empress's bedroom and there was some odd sex-wrestling so vigorous they broke a vase, a vase he really really liked, but later Gabrielle had vehemently denied to him that any kind of sexual relationship had ever existed between them although he was fairly certain that she only said this out of loyalty, perhaps even love, to protect the Empress's reputation because it was bad enough people said Xena fucked the whole senate so she didn't need any more gossip to add to that, and Gabrielle was without a doubt an entirely honorable warrior who could behead a Minoan like nobody's fucking business-
-at which point Cleopatra, sans the modest cover of the sheets, had gently interrupted to inquire if he were not in love with the all-mighty gladiator himself.
Most men slept after coitus. Pullo babbled-irritating at first, but the end result rather a gold mine of information. Yes, the delicious barbarian was obviously in love with the Empress; had she paid more attention to the content and context of those sulky facial expressions rather than the ripe lips, gold hair, and bright eyes, she doubtless would have figured it out sooner. But what of Xena's feelings on the matter? The inscrutable, fabulous Xena?
The smile she had bestowed upon the gladiator was Cleopatra's epiphany. In the brief time of their acquaintance, Cleopatra has witnessed many of Xena's smiles, the vast majority of them variants upon coolly predatory, wryly amused, or condescending pity. Even when she climaxes there's something smug about it, Cleopatra thought. But that grin-prompted by nothing more than a catty remark about a boring, dead historian-possessed genuine warmth and affection.
As the two women discussed Sallust, Cleopatra turned away and contemplated the expanse of the Mediterranean, the surface of the harbor lacquered pearl white by the sun. She thought that this erotic entrenchment with the Empress would yield certain long-term benefits-not love, but stability. But, alas, it was easier with men; the potential to bind them with marriage and children was a distinct advantage.
Well. She sighed. Time to reconsider battle strategy. She wondered when Brutus would arrive.
The body of lies
"That's her, Philo!"
Stupidly, Gabrielle is unprepared for the punch thrown by the brothel's strong man-and as her head explodes in pain from his fist making contact with her nose, she can't help but think his name is a little on the ironic side. Seconds after hitting the ground he picks her up from behind, she elbows him in the gut, wrests free, and kicks him in the groin. He drops to the ground with a howl.
Preemptive, she draws her sword and tosses a coin purse at the startled hetaera. "I was coming to give you this."
The purse has spilled open its generous contents at the hetaera's feet: Twice what she makes in a day. "Oh."
"Yeah-'Oh.'" She licks blood off her lips and gingerly touches her nose. Broken? She can't tell.
Minutes later, with poor Philo abandoned to his painful woes and in the privacy of the same room they were in weeks ago, the hetaera mops blood off Gabrielle's face. When she's done wringing out the bloody cloth in the basin she stares at Gabrielle with such intent that the gladiator expects a kiss forthcoming. Instead, the hetaera gives her nose a firm squeeze.
With a squawk of pain, Gabrielle leaps away from her. "Shit!"
"It's definitely not broken." The woman tosses the pink water out the window.
Pain's warm recoil seeps through Gabrielle's face. "I don't recall asking your expert opinion."
"No, but I could tell you were worried. Why'd you come back here?"
"I didn't want to cheat you."
"Oh boy. The noble type," the hetaera chortles. "Where'd you get that much money?"
"Borrowed it from a friend." Pullo had given her the coins, no questions asked. "Not that it's any of your business."
"You were so cute and shy at first. Now you're all bitchy."
"I get that way when someone punches me in face."
"How was I supposed to know why you came back? You Romans are usually dumb as dirt." The woman dries her hands with a towel. "So let me guess. You got the money from that friend of yours who's always here."
"He seems nice. Well, like I told you, I've never done him, but my friend Hagne has-she says he's exhausting, he just goes on and on-"
"Thank you for sharing that." Self-conscious, Gabrielle gently rubs her nose. "You never told me your name."
"Didn't seem important at the time. It's Mira." Matter-of-fact and apparently in the mood for a chat, Mira sits on the bed next to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry you got hit. And I'm sorry I threw a dagger at you. Well, not really, but I didn't know you were actually, you know, a decent person. A noble type."
"So you say."
"I know all the types. In my line of work, you see them all. You learn how to spot them. I could write a scroll about it all, I tell you. I'd be famous and maybe I could stop fucking common smelly soldiers-no offense, for one of your lot you're pretty clean. But yeah, you're that noble type." Summoning her powers of observation, Mira scowls comically, an exaggerated soothsayer's expression. "You're probably in love with some woman and she's either married or doesn't feel that way about you, and you've found that fighting just doesn't cut it anymore, and you need to burn off that desire somehow-" She stops cold, however, when she notices the shocked look on the gladiator's face. "Oh, wow-you mean I'm right?"
Gabrielle jumps to her feet. "I must go."
"Wait, wait." The surprisingly strong Mira snares her arm. "I'm just giving you a hard time." She gives Gabrielle a quick kiss. "Maybe you can come back sometime, when you need to scratch that itch." Gabrielle leans in-and is rebuffed with a playful shove. "But not now. I have an appointment."
By the time Gabrielle reaches the palace, she is in a mood. A shit mood, as Pullo would call it; apparently the Empress is not the only one capable of them. But she had promised Pullo-in return for the money he lent-to spar with the recovering, restless Empress, who was eager to return to form before the arrival of Brutus. Gabrielle flexes her hands. Yes, it would be good to burn off that energy, such as it was. Everyone, it seems, is on edge, waiting for Brutus-the oracle who will delineate Xena's future. War or peace, power or exile. Not that he was that important, Xena had said, but he always knew what was going on. And with Caesar's death, there were several factions coming into play.
The long portico surrounding the courtyard is flecked with late afternoon sun filtered through the trees, the perfect place for an idle queen. Cleopatra sits erect among guards, musicians, and lackeys, an impromptu court that moves at her will. Gabrielle hopes that her long march across the courtyard to the sparring grounds will go unnoticed, but she knows the queen's dark eyes are upon her.
"You." The seductive knell of Cleopatra's voice rings out across the empty space. Her court falls to silence. Gabrielle stands still. "Come here."
It is the first time the Egyptian queen has spoken to her. At events, Cleopatra's dark gaze, curious and cool, would find her; it unnerved her, it angered her-the queen should only have eyes for her lover. At Gabrielle's approach Cleopatra dismisses the group: "Leave me." Tortuous minutes pass as everyone-making poor shows of masking their curiosity-disperses slowly.
Alone with the gladiator, the queen rises. She runs her hands along the silk of her dress. And, for additional long minutes, stares Gabrielle full in the face. Gabrielle has seen Apollonius do with this scrolls, with languages he's unfamiliar with, trying to puzzle out what is before him on the parchment. The comparison to gentle Apollonius ends, however, when she slaps Gabrielle hard across the face.
The queen doesn't fool herself that she caught the gladiator unaware. Gabrielle's expression is resignation a thousand times over: the careful stitching of years' worth of cruelties perfected into a beautifully indifferent tapestry. But when Cleopatra wraps her stinging hand around the gladiator's neck and kisses Gabrielle with equal fierceness and delivers the end note to this performance-a savage bite on Gabrielle's lower lip that draws blood-the gladiator's mask falls away and instinct takes over: She is pinned against the wall, her wrists shackled painfully against hard marble, the gladiator's weight a maddening friction against her dress and her skin, and Gabrielle's beautiful, angry face so close. They breathe in collusion.
"I've been trying to get her to do this to me for months." The queen licks the fresh blood from Gabrielle's lip and tries to kiss her again, but Gabrielle pulls back. "But I don't think I inspire that kind of passion in her, do I?"
"I could teach you how to please her." Her mouth, on Gabrielle's once more, finds less resistance a second time.
Or so she thinks. When Gabrielle pulls back again and releases her, there is no mistaking the look of disgust-for herself, as well as the queen. "I don't need to be taught anything. I learned from a far better whore than you."
Shit mood thus exacerbated, Gabrielle walks away. Fury itches her bones. Along the way, she contemplates the dubious wisdom of calling the Queen of Egypt a whore. Perhaps she'll have to leave Alexandria. Well, there is a library in Pergamum. She presses the back of her hand to her burning lip. Still bleeding. She sighs. Xena will lecture her about fighting. Again.
In the dusty arena, observed by Ping and many curious soldiers, the Empress goes through her paces. Gabrielle hangs back, watching in quiet solidarity with the men. Xena runs. She executes a series of dizzying backflips, including one over a blockade of hay bales, and finishes with a headstand on a crumbling rampart. The soldiers cheer her on, but once the acrobatics are complete they disperse quickly, unwilling to find themselves as potential sparring partners for the woman with enough balls to yank a dagger out of her own thigh.
Ping, possibly the only person in Alexandria unimpressed with the dagger stunt-"You are stupid" were his first words to Xena when she regained consciousness after the fight- watches critically as she swaggers toward him. "No limp." The slight lilt in his tone indicates, for him, incredulousness.
"You believe me now?"
The healer smiles. "Yes. Because you lie, but your body does not."
With Xena's glowing health established, both she and Ping turn their attentions to the scrappy gladiator. They frown at the swollen nose, the bloody lip. Xena raises an eyebrow. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing." Gabrielle veers away from Ping, who has closed in on her with the determination of a mother hen. "I'm fine."
"I see." Xena hums. "Well, if you're not up to this-"
Gabrielle draws her sword.
Xena laughs. "Okay, then." She unsheathes her own sword and twirls it idly.
"Am I supposed to be impressed with that?" The words are out of her mouth before she knows it. She feels the sneer contorting her face and a vise crushing her chest. Love, as the hetaera speculated? Is this love-this feeling of complete inadequacy leading to arrogant overcompensation?
Xena's amusement cools; her eyes narrow. She feints left. Gabrielle doesn't fall for it. Neither seems willing to make the first strike, as if it were somehow an indication of weakness.
With one last twirl Xena does the unexpected-she transfers the sword to her left hand. "I'll give you half a chance to take me down. Think you can handle that, or has the library made you soft?"
Gabrielle darts right, hoping to strike at an odd enough angle to put Xena at a disadvantage. A good idea, but Xena braces her sword for the strike with both hands. Gabrielle spins around in time to catch a full, straight-on blow. Now Xena has her on the defensive. With a struggling leap Gabrielle attempts to clear the stack of hay bales. The triumphant exhilaration coursing through her veins, however, is short-lived when she realizes that Xena has seized her ankle and has sent her crashing into the empire of falling hay bales.
Gabrielle's sword clatters away. In the distance, past the furious noise within her mind, she hears Pullo calling for the Empress. She crawls out from under a bale, and, with Xena's attention momentarily diverted to her captain, takes a cheap shot: a vicious roundhouse kick that sends Xena grunting in pain and sprawling into the dust. Xena's inelegant fall turns into a coiled masterpiece of a tumble-just as Iolaus taught Gabrielle at the gladiatorial school, to roll away from an opponent-and she stops, poised in a feral crouch, taut fingers brushing the earth, a murderous mechanism ready to spring at the least provocation.
Sensing this, Ping and Pullo remain immobile as statues. While Gabrielle quietly berates herself-you're no better than Basileos- and every beat of her heart crowds her chest so that she cannot breathe.
The moment passes-if only because Xena permits it. Slowly, she stands. "You were saying, Pullo?" Her blasé tone does little to counter the wary mask she presents to Gabrielle, who helplessly speculates on what lies beneath: Anger? Desire? Fear? All of the things that I feel too?
Pullo, Gabrielle observes, forces himself not to look at her. "Brutus's flotilla has been spotted. He's almost in the harbor."
"Excellent." Xena tone makes the word into the foulest curse. With a precise spin upon her heel, she is gone. Obediently, the healer and the captain trail in her wake-even though Pullo spares his friend a pitying glance before walking away.
Gabrielle stares at her sword on the ground.
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
The dark corridor leading to the suite that holds Brutus and Lepidus seems longer than she remembers. The welcoming ceremonies and banquet are done with. Cleopatra's curiosity about Brutus has been sated, at least temporarily; the way she eyed her Roman visitor, however, led Xena to believe she would soon be replaced in the queen's bed. Which, frankly, would be a relief-and no matter, really. A paucity of pleasure is not something Cleopatra can tolerate for long, and Xena, anticipating Brutus's arrival, has been far from pleasurable over the past weeks.
Down the passageway the ever-present, ever-vigilant Pullo matches her step for step. Her armor, newly polished, gleams and provides illumination dimmer than the wan torches along the wall. She stops. "Wait." She kneels to adjust a greave.
But when she begins striding down the hall again, her bulky shadow does not follow.
Xena resists the urge to sigh or scream; sometimes dealing with Pullo merited the patience of a parent. "Is there something you wish to discuss with me?"
Confused and guilty, he blinks. "How did you-" He shakes his head. "I do. But it will result in my death."
"You're being a little presumptuous."
"Maybe it's not a good time."
"Out with it."
He removes his sword and presents it to her, hilt first.
"Oh, for the love of-look, we're not in a play here. Just tell me."
"I had intimate relations with the queen," he blurts. "Cleopatra." As if a pack of indistinguishable queens roam the streets of the city. In lieu of fuck, Gabrielle had supplied him with the proper euphemistic phrasing. She also thought it a bad time to confess his misdeed, but his conscience can bear the weight of it no longer. On a larger plane he knows Xena capable of great mercy and generosity, but in personal matters she is, at least for him, harder to gauge.
To his infinite surprise and relief, Xena laughs. "Forgive me."
"I forgive you?"
"For laughing. I mean no slight against your honor." She gestures, and they resume walking. "She's not my consort. She has no love for me, nor I her. Do as you will. Who knows? You might even make her happy. Hera knows I didn't."
He frowns. "Unlikely." The queen was highly critical in the bedroom and as such, he could in no time foresee a rapid return to his favorite whorehouse on the docks. At the door, he hesitates before opening it for her. "This isn't one of your tricks, is it? Lulling me into complacency and all that?"
Her word is good enough for him.
"I've no time for such tricks. By the end of this day, I may be dead."
Pullo's face sets grimly. "We won't let that happen."
"It's something you'll have no control over. Promise me if something does happen-you will get her out of here. Someplace safe."
"You mean the queen?"
Xena pinches her brow. "No, you fool. I mean Gabrielle. And as for you-if everything goes to shit and I'm dead, ally yourself with Lepidus. He's the most decent of the lot." With that, she claps a hand upon his shoulder.
He opens the door.
The first thing she sees is Brutus's profile, a cameo etched against the overcast sky. Not handsome in the way Antony is, Brutus possesses what her husband had called classically Roman features-the broad brow, the promontory of his nose shielding a long, mobile mouth, a good head of curly hair-that led people to trust him. He remains sitting as she enters, his dark eyes veering over her warrior queen ensemble. "Are you in mourning?"
She remembers Brutus's ill-fated alliance with Pompey years ago and how, after the disaster of Pharsalus, he had begged Caesar's forgiveness. She had never seen her husband forgive anyone so easily. I can't help it. He's an idealist. A poor, simple idealist. I can't blame him for being what he is. Could she be as generous and patient with him as Caesar was? She forces a smile. "Are you?"
Brutus returns the grin. "I've missed sparring with you, Xena-verbally, at least. With a sword, well, you usually had that knocked out of my hand in the blink of an eye."
Lepidus, who stands at the window, is more deferential- he bows before her. As a career soldier, he respects armor more than a show of grieving. "Empress," he murmurs.
"Lepidus." She pauses. "At least someone still thinks I'm an Empress."
"Lepidus clings to titles, since he has none of his own."
Lepidus's impassive face bears no sign of the insult; he's had enough time to adjust to Brutus's needling ways.
"Low man on the Triumvirate," Brutus drawls. At Xena's sharp, disapproving glance, he laughs. "Surely you didn't think you were still part of it?"
"No." It is a strange relief. "I suppose I did not." She looks more critically at Lepidus. "So you-"
Brutus fills in the blanks: "-and Antony, and Octavian."
"Octavian?" Don't sneer, Xena warns herself. "He's but a boy."
"And Caesar's heir apparent, since you have no children. You knew Caesar willed everything to him, surely?"
She did. He would change his will, he said, when they had a child. But they didn't. She never told him she took precautions against that; the time never seemed right. And now, in retrospect, she realizes the time never would have been right, because they were never right.
"On the face of it, it's a well-balanced triumvirate: Octavian controls the treasury, Lepidus the army, and Antony charms them all. He whips the plebes into a furor. In lieu of your absence at Caesar's funeral, well, he was the widow." Brutus barks a laugh and sips wine. "He spoke of the glories of the Empire and the failings of the Republic. He spoke of those not present. That would be you, Xena. He covered Caesar's body with his own robes. The oratory is an art form, and he is brilliant performer." He trails into accusatory silence: Like you, like Caesar.
"Are you saying you never entertain the masses, Brutus? Take some lessons from him." She shrugs elaborately. "So he speaks against me. Given the circumstances, it's not surprising."
"Oh, not in so many words. That would be foolish. But the rumors are in full force: Under sway of the Ptolemys, you have reverted to your weak, barbarian Greek ways. You are trying to build an empire in the East to rival Rome. Antony says nothing to counter that."
"And you are here to see if it's all true."
"Partly." Brutus's gaze flickers to Lepidus, who has remained ramrod straight, impassive, and staring out the window during the entire conversation.
Finally, Lepidus speaks. "I am tired of it all."
"What he means," Brutus begins, "is that-"
Xena does not bother looking at him as she says it: "Shut up."
Xena thinks that a ghostly smile crosses Lepidus's face before it settles into its usual gray melancholy. "I am not a leader," he says. "I know you are all aware of that. But Antony-his power in Rome is unchecked. I am here, and Octavian-" Lepidus sighs. "Octavian has fled the city. He has money and youth on his side, but he needs to build up an army first, before he can do anything. His old friend Agrippa will help him with that. In the meantime, Antony does what he pleases. He appropriated all of Pompey's property and holdings. There were protests concerning this. Naturally things got out of hand." Lepidus's face darkens. "Citizens were slaughtered in the street. Hundreds. Caesar never would have let something like that happen. But Antony? He led the troops."
Xena remembers this side of Antony; the side she always identified with most. Or so she thought.
After what he hopes is a respectful enough pause, Brutus speaks. "So you see, the time is right. Before either Antony or Octavian grow into the next Emperor. It's time for Rome to reclaim what she once was. For Rome to be a republic."
She knows, of course, this was Brutus's intent in coming to Alexandria all along. He pines for the Republic the way Orpheus yearns for Eurydice-the beloved missed ideal, hopefully resurrected by singing the same song ad infinitum. "It's not my battle, Brutus."
"I see. You're only interested in Rome if you're viewing it from a throne. Is that it? Are you ready to walk away? Don't you believe in anything?"
"I don't know what to believe anymore. But one thing I do believe is that nothing is permanent. Perhaps the great library here? At least I hope it is. Because we will all eventually be nothing but buried scribbles in dry old parchment someday." Brutus's eyes flare indignantly. Xena chuckles. "All right, then, you'll be a bigger scrawl than me. You'll be handmaiden of the new republic."
Abruptly, Brutus cuts to the heart of the matter. "We need you with us, to move against Antony. Your legions are valuable-and loyal to you. You have a strategist's mind. You rival Agrippa himself."
"Have you really thought this all out, Brutus? I admit it does sound like you-have everyone else do the dirty work for your ideals. But I don't want to be involved in your half-assed schemes."
Brutus slams the table. "Do you think you hold some sort of cachet with Antony? He will move against you. He thinks you're establishing an empire here. He doesn't see you as a friend, but a rival. He always did."
Was that true? The balance of affinity and animosity with Antony was always a delicate one. "Perhaps. But he would not attack me without provocation. I know him. And I will not give him any reason to do so."
"Yes. He plays at being honorable. As do you. When the truth is, you're both thugs with knives." He rises from the table and faces her-as if being nearly a hand shorter than she would intimidate. "Of course, if I show up at his base camp and tell him of the glorious empire of Alexandria, of a woman dressed for battle and not in mourning for her husband, well, he might think he had very good reason to-"
With a shove Brutus is flung back, crashing against the table. Before Xena can follow through on her seemingly excellent plan to wring his neck, Lepidus is between them and his strong hand is braced against Xena's cuirass. "Enough."
"Yes." Brutus stands and straightens his tunic. "You are still a thug after all these years. That Caesar thought he could turn you into a ruler, or even a woman, is laughable."
Lepidus's hand relaxes against her chest as he takes a more direct, yet less insulting, approach. "Xena, Antony's amassed troops at Actium. He is prepared for battle, and I don't think he gives a damn who he fights. I have no doubt he retains the utmost respect for you, but-he's different now. He's had a taste of ruling."
And you know how good that tastes, don't you? She turns away from him.
"Everything's changed now. Surely you must see that." Lepidus does not have to be an orator to know that saving the best for last is the most effective means of persuasion. "And not just for Rome. But for Greece, as well."
Greece. Her marriage had been an alliance binding so many city-states, republics, and islands to the Empire, ensuring a peace and prosperity nonexistent within living memory. Now dissolved into nothing. How fragile the balance was. She never knew it until now.
She could marry Antony. That power play worked for her before; it could work again.
She stares at her hands. No. This time, she will earn it another way-the way she was meant to do so.
When Xena decides, she does not bother facing her once and future allies. "If we do this, we do it my way. You let me meet with Antony first." She hears Brutus's sigh and Lepidus's nervous shifting, which cause the creaking of his aged boots. "Because I think this may turn into a bigger bloodbath than either one of you are capable of imagining."
A night at the library
The candle on the windowsill flickers with the whimsy of the wind. The one closer to Gabrielle, however, burns as steady as her determination to finish a scurrilous biography of the great Plato. But her tired eyes retread the same words over and over again: Kissing Agathon, I had my soul upon my lips. For it rose, poor wretch, as though to cross over.
She closes her eyes, rubs her neck. Bones crackle like tinder under her grip. Oh, but for the luxury of having a soul.
A fortnight has passed, every day bringing a new rumor from the palace: Brutus will marry Cleopatra, Brutus will marry Xena, Brutus will marry both Cleopatra and Xena, thus uniting Egypt, Rome, and Greece in an orgiastic act of peacemaking. The undercurrent of more dire-and likely true-rumors temper these frivolities: Antony's troops upon Greek soil, the likelihood of a civil war tearing the Empire apart. And Xena the wildcard in the entire affair. She would not give a damn about the whole thing-in fact, would gleefully give her life to see the Roman Empire in ashes-but for the obvious. But despite these troubling times, she maintains a self-imposed exile from the palace. After what happened when they sparred last, why would Xena wish to see her again?
The light on the wall jumps dramatically. When Gabrielle looks to the window she finds the candle not on the ledge but in the hand of the former Empress of Rome. Xena is astride the windowsill, a dark hooded cape fluttering in a damp night air, and looking quite amused at Gabrielle's shock. "What? You're not the only one who can make dramatic entrances, you know."
Gabrielle leaps up from the bed, sending the Plato scroll and a plate holding the remnants of her dinner-a pear core, a cheese rind, and a stale hunk of bread-clattering and bouncing onto the floor. Her meager possessions scattered throughout the room, she clings to the only thing she can-humiliation and embarrassment. Xena's presence makes this humble room of the library, one that she's grown to love, seem a barren hovel. "Why are you here?"
"Not going to invite me in?"
The gladiator surrenders to sarcasm. "Please do come in."
Xena swings her long leg in the room and returns the candle to its former location. Upon closer inspection Gabrielle sees translucent pearls of raindrops against Xena's cloak, and a damp sheen upon her face and the fringe of her hair. "You haven't been around lately-I don't mean to be accusatory, I don't know why you would." Xena shifts nervously. "But."
"I've come to say my farewells." Xena prowls the room, giving a strange, careful scrutiny to what she encounters: a sword, a scroll, a candle, an empty cup. "I don't know what you've heard. I've formed a military alliance with Brutus. And Lepidus."
"I've heard many things-"
Xena grins at the thought of all the outré rumors. "Surely you didn't think I'd marry that bastard."
Gabrielle's chest tightens. "No. I didn't think that at all."
"Good. Well. Ah. We head to Corfu tomorrow, where Antony is wintering. For negotiations."
"If you think Brutus is so awful, why the alliance?"
Entranced by the candle at the bedside, Xena's fingers playfully waver through the flame; similarly, her tone dances between anger and amusement. "Are you playing devil's advocate with me?"
"No. But, well-would an alliance with Brutus be so bad?"
"Zeus's hairy ass, you are giving me a headache. Whose side are you on?"
"Brutus wants to restore Rome's republic. And-didn't you once say you were on the side of the common people? The plebes? Wouldn't they benefit from a republic rather than an empire of one person, or even a triumvirate, ruling them? With Caesar it was only so much talk. I know that." In the wake of her bitter tone, Gabrielle pauses. "Is that-is that what it is for you? Just so many words?"
"Words means so much to you."
The candle's flame grows too hot. Xena removes her hand. "I wish it were that simple."
Gabrielle clenches a fist. The anger floods her-why must she ask? Beg, even, for the obvious? "Take me with you."
"I have Pullo. I'll be fine."
"He's not as good as me, and you know it."
Xena shakes her head. "You deserve better than trailing after me as a bodyguard."
"Don't tell me what I deserve. I kill, and I feel nothing. It's what I do. This is always what I've believed-that I deserve nothing. But you have changed this for me. You have, and you act as if it's nothing to you." Abruptly, Gabrielle stops. The thoughts that have hammered at her for months now are about to cross a threshold of no return-not unlike Agathon's soul, yearning to cross the barrier of a kiss. "I look at you-I look at you and I see everything I should have been. I don't understand it. I never have. I don't mean that I should be an empress or a queen, but-I should have been free, as you are. I should have traveled and fallen in love and maybe told stories to people and lived my life the way I wanted to live it. But that didn't happen. The fates gave me this path, and it led me to you. I see my fate bound inextricably with yours."
During this impromptu speech Xena has moved closer; the contemplative look etched in shadow and gold upon her face is, the gladiator hopes, no mere trick of the candlelight. Her head is bowed as a priestess in prayer, and her fingers idly graze the knuckles of the gladiator's sword hand. "Gabrielle."
This, the first time that Xena has uttered her name, is all the encouragement Gabrielle needs. Roughly she clasps Xena's neck and kisses her hard.
The kiss is bad-awkward and crushing, dry and tight, evoking in Xena the memory of a senseless mashing by a stealthy farmboy desperate not to waste time. How she wished she could forget that dismal first time in the barn, poked from above by that ham-fisted clod and from below by the prickling hay. Then something extraordinary coalesces within her: A thrum through her veins, an itch along her skin-that desire to touch and be touched, to know every inch of not only this beautiful body before her, but also the lonely mind imprisoned and imperiled within it.
Gabrielle breaks the kiss with the same brute force she employed in its beginning.
Never before has Xena witnessed such an expression of pure panic on the gladiator's face, and conversely her mood soars. Triumph, she thinks. Could I lead a triumph through the streets and announce to the city that I have finally conquered you? I can be-I shall be-gentle in victory. She reaches to brush the bangs off Gabrielle's forehead but the gladiator is already in flight-despite Xena's frustrated growl of "Wait!"-and gone. A fleeting glimpse of a worn, dusty boot heel waves a mocking goodbye from the open doorway.
All right, then. Fine. Run away if you will. Because damned if you aren't coming with me. She touches her lips, and a new goal takes precedence over Rome, Antony, Brutus, and the rest of the world: If it's the last thing she does, she will teach that gladiator how to kiss properly.
To be continued
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