Prelude to another kiss
Alexandria, morning, winter. The sharp, invasive chill slices into the bone. On mornings like these, the sky sluggish with clouds, Gabrielle doesn't mind wearing the prerequisite robe of her duties. Before entering the main hall she's already downed two cups of hot tea to stave off the cold. But as she sits, tenderly absorbed in the task of labeling tags for the library's latest additions, the chill sneaks up on her, much as Timon the cat used to do. And much as her emotions do now when she's either not completely focused on the task at hand, or something intrudes upon her consciousness—such as stumbling upon a scroll called A Treatise on the Nature of Love among the batch of new acquisitions. Hopeful that her burning gaze can ignite this waste of parchment, she glares at it for several minutes. Nothing happens.
Alchemy scrolls are really a crock, she thinks.
Ignoring the scholars who try to capture his attention, Apollonius glides regally through the hall. Gabrielle can tell by his withering expression that someone has annoyed him. While she hopes she is not the source of it, the fact that the old man is bearing down upon her is not a good sign. Indeed, his beard twitches disapprovingly as he stops in front of her to announce: “There is a Roman lummox outside requesting an audience with you.”
Gabrielle can think of only one Roman lummox who would want to speak with her.
Outside the library Titus Pullo is, as usual, cheerfully brutal, kicking aside a beggar before bestowing a broad grin upon his friend. “Get your gear packed. We're shipping out.”
Unexpectedly, her heart leaps with joy until—and with the ugly persistence of a Medusa's head—her spectacular sense of contrary stubbornness sets in. Last night, she had impulsively kissed Xena and ran away like some virginal idiot farm girl. Which is what she used to be at one time, but no matter. Upon her prompt return to face the consequences—sex or rejection—Xena was gone, and with nary a message in sight. Thus Gabrielle spent the remainder of that night not making love or even arguing with the most beautiful woman in Alexandria, but brooding alone upon the stars and, like a trout dropped on a riverbank, flip-flopping on the fates. Xena did not want her to come on the mission to Corfu; obviously she did not feel this same undertow of inevitability, hence it could not be fate. Or love. Perhaps, Gabrielle thinks, she is meant for a different path—one not dictated by the sword—and that Xena is merely a symbol, a representation of what her fate could be, and not an actual person inextricably bound with her life. Perhaps she'd read too much Sappho. Perhaps she has drunk too much tea this morning and the profound discomfort she feels is not some sort of life crisis but merely her bladder petitioning for release. Regardless, Xena beckons once again. This time she's not following. Gabrielle fixes Pullo with her most intimidating stare. “I'm not going anywhere.”
The unimpressed Pullo scratches his neck and sighs. “She said you'd be pissy about it.”
“You can tell her—”
Fussily, Pullo raises a single index finger, and Gabrielle is so flummoxed by the uncharacteristic gesture she refrains from telling him to tell Xena to go to hell. She's already called the Queen of Egypt a whore, so what is another insult to another self-aggrandizing, power-mad woman? He pulls a ragged bit of parchment from his greave. “Hang on. We anticipated this response from you.”
Gabrielle stands with hands on hips. “‘We?'”
“She said that I am to”—extravagantly Pullo clears his throat as he begins to read Xena's note—“‘take this opportunity to gently but firmly remind you that while you are for all intensive purposes a freewoman, you are still a subject of the Roman Empire as a result of an oath taken in which you swore fealty to the Empress of Rome thus establishing yourself as a fully functional adjunct to the Praetorian Guard and thereby subject to the penalties and punishments associated with said post, wherein acts of treason and disobedience, including but not limited to the abandoning of one's responsibilities and duties, is punishable by death, even in foreign territories under the rule of satrapies, in this specific instance the Queen and Prefect of Egypt, neither of whom like you very much.'”
Defeated and caught flatfooted by Xena once again, the enraged Gabrielle spins on her heel and retreats back into the library, pursued by Pullo's shout: “Don't take too long!”
Unfortunately she does not float elegantly through the halls as Apollonius does; her angry stride, coupled with the reputation that will dog her the rest of her life, sends patrons recoiling in fear and scurrying out of her path. In her room she sheds the robe, kicks it away, and begins to pack. Every object tossed in the rucksack taunts with her particular history: Two daggers, including the pearl-handled one that Xena gave her, the other knife taken as a prize from one of her first kills in the ring. A comb that belonged to her sister. Scraps of blank parchment that Apollonius said she could have. The copy of Cicero's De oratore, given to her by Cato's eldest daughter. A sliver of soap. A sachet of herbs. Candle stubs. A piece of flint. A smooth piece of amethyst that Iolaus gave her—a good luck charm, he said. Not that it ever really brought him luck. Everything she possessed, and nothing she truly owned.
“You're leaving.” Apollonius is in the doorway, speaking gently so as not to startle her.
“I've been ordered.” She ties up the bag. “It's not by choice.”
“The fates have spoken, then.”
“ Fuck the fates.”
Apollonius's eyebrows rise at the blasphemy.
“I'm tired of being manipulated by something I don't understand.”
The librarian smiles. “Do we speak of the fates or of the Empress?”
Gabrielle straps the scabbard and broadsword around her waist. “She refuses me, then she summons me as if I were still her slave—and yes, I am speaking of the Empress.”
“Yet you wish to follow her.”
There is no denying that. “I also want to stay here.” She stares at the floor. “You have given me my life back,” she whispers.
“Oh!” The quiet admission startles Apollonius. “Not me, my dear. Not me. It's the library.” As she fears the intensity of her gratitude, he fears his sentimental old age, which typically manifests itself in spontaneous acts of crying. In the time she's been an adjunct and guard of the library, he's grown fond of the gladiator and her insatiable mind, her surprising gentleness. Apollonius clears his throat. “You know, there are other libraries. There will always be other libraries. You did say you wanted to see Pergamum's.”
“I'm not going to Pergamum,” Lethargic after her fit of pique at Xena, Gabrielle sluggishly shoulders her bag. “But Corfu.”
“Oh, dear. I've never understood the Roman mania for wintering there. Well, I better give you some reading material before you leave.”
“Don't be silly. You'll go mad otherwise in that dismal place. And I know you'll take good care of them. You'll be careful. You must be careful.”
Gabrielle's brow furrows. She knows he's not speaking of just scrolls anymore but something possessive of a larger meaning, something of which she can only guess. But she has no time for guessing, only brief, perfunctory reassurances: “I know.”
“Do you?” The old man touches the windowsill that frames the picture perfect harbor, the blue sea blighted by warships. “Time has a way of taking things from us.”
There is a mountain on the island. No one told her that.
But then, no one knew. Placed at the ignorant mercies of the Roman navy and an outdated map—not her own hand-picked captain, Agathias, and his mostly Greek crew—Xena, accompanied by Brutus, Praetorians, and some legionnaires generously spared by Lepidus, finds herself not only at the wrong end of the island of Corfu, but at the base of a mountain. She stares at the obstacle. Wreathed beautifully in gossamer mists, it breathes before her, a mythic beast benevolent in slumber. Even drenched to the bone with winter rain, she can appreciate its majesty—indeed, at the moment it is the only thing she can appreciate about her situation. Because thanks to the mountain, the rain, and the severe damage to the ship courtesy of the rainstorms, they are stuck for the time being. “Roman fucking navy,” she mutters.
“Empress?” Manthius, the captain of the ship, lingers nervously at her side. As does Brutus, stewing in silent fury.
Xena blinks. Despite Brutus's rallying republican efforts to the contrary—in front of the men he addresses her as Consul, her new title granted by the Senate—to many soldiers, particularly the Praetorians, she remains the Empress. Is there really an Empress without an Emperor? Or an Empire? she wonders. “Nothing.” She sighs. She's no one to blame but herself. She knew the map Manthius used was dated—but not this dated. She should have trusted her own instincts, and not Brutus's stifling sense of propriety: How would it look for a woman to run the ship? he said. For a man of ideals who spouts the radical notion of freedom for the people, he has an alarming conservative streak. But then she's always thought that idealists suffer a serious lack of imagination.
She walks away from the mountain, leaving Manthius to a verbal flaying by Brutus. A breathless, shivering scout—she can't remember his name—with dark hair plastered to his skull follows her. He and his men have returned from reconnaissance of the area.
“So we can't get past that for days.” In a feeble attempt for warmth and clarity, Xena rubs her cold, wet face. “That's what you're going to tell me.”
He nods. “There's a low pass—the rains have blocked the roads with mudslides. The locals inform us the main road will lead to Kassiopi.”
“Provided the locals are trustworthy.”
“But first the rains must stop.”
“And the road must be cleared.”
“And we won't even talk about the ship.”
Xena finally takes pity on the scout; his dark eyes are glazed with exhaustion. “You look as if you're sinking into the ground.” Which is precisely how I feel, she thinks. “Dismissed.”
Mud pulls at her boots as she continues through the village of Garouna. She can still hear Brutus loudly berating Manthius—“You're more worthless than a prick on a eunuch!”—despite the increasing distance she places between herself and them. Later, she thinks, she'll have a talk with Brutus about not going overboard with dressing down an officer in front of the men. Either that or punch him in the face. Lepidus was dying to get away from them both—sitting in a camp near Actium within staring distance of Antony's legions and warships was, he said, infinitely preferable to playing perpetual peacemaker between her and Brutus.
A group of Praetorians stop and salute. She acknowledges them with a nod. Children and worried mothers watch from windows. Tents dot the outskirts of the village, a meager addition to the stark landscape. Somehow winter in Alexandria never really bothered her, but here—with trees stripped to nothing and the relentless, persecuting pounding of waves along the shore that heighten the sense of isolation, of life on an island at a far remove from civilization—she yearns for a city, to know that the same rain falls on a multitude, from kings to beggars, the living and the dead. Thus she is grateful for a remnant of the familiar: Titus Pullo, lumbering toward her.
“Where am I billeted?” she calls out to the captain.
Proudly, Pullo straightens. “The biggest cottage in the village. The reeve's.”
“Pullo, please tell me you did not kill the reeve.”
“Nah, Empress. Gave him some coins and a promise of a new boat, and he was happy to vacate for a while. He's staying with his wife's family.”
“Lead the way.”
Pullo leaves her at the door. Before she steps inside the image of a gloomy, rat-ridden hovel flashes in her mind—a place not unlike the dumps she lived when she was truly wild, in those days before she scraped and stole enough money to buy her ship. Back to the beginning, then? Apprehensive, she pushes open the creaky door. But the small cottage is clean, candlelit, and inviting. There is food and a decanter of wine. Her gear is unpacked. A kitchen table masquerades as a desk, complete with seals, quills, parchment. Everything is neatly arranged and infinitely more inviting than the Alexandrian palace. Even the most important part of her bedroom ensemble is standing in front of the fireplace: Gabrielle, in inscrutable soldier mode. The art of the fire polishes the gold in her hair, immolates her mud-stippled crimson cloak, and brightly traces the smooth lines of her cheeks, her neck, her lips. Despite her remarkable imitation of a statue, she's more beautiful than anything Xena's ever seen because she breathes. She's here. She's magnificently real.
Gabrielle refuses to meet her dazed, worshipping gaze—and for this Xena is momentarily glad— and breaks the spell by walking toward Xena and helping her shed her waterlogged cloak.
“Did you do all this?” Xena wonders aloud.
Gabrielle drapes the cloak over a chair near the fire. “Pullo told me to.”
“Oh.” An order, not a spontaneous act of devotion.
“Are you hungry?” Gabrielle asks flatly.
“Not at the moment, no.”
“Would you like some wine?”
“I can get my own, thanks.”
Gabrielle's jaw tightens; the yoke of domestic servitude never her strong suit. “Would you like me to arrange a bath for you?”
Xena grins. “Only if you get in with me.”
The gladiator's silent fury deepens, and Xena regrets the joke—however utterly serious its intent. “What I want,” she lies gently, “is for you to sit down and drink with me.” Sullen, Gabrielle flops into an old chair as Xena pours wine into two cups that have seen better days—and hopefully better beverages, she thinks, wincing at the first sip. She presses a cup into Gabrielle's hand. “I'm sorry I didn't speak with you on board the ship.”
Wisely, Gabrielle leaves the wine untouched. “You were very busy.”
“I was,” Xena admits. “Restraining myself from killing Brutus was itself a full-time task. But I should have checked on you. Were you ill during the passage?”
Gabrielle shrugs. “Not as bad this time.”
“You used the pressure points, then.”
Despite the wine, Xena's throat is dry. Despite the tiredness settling into her bones, she wants a wild night of unprecedented pleasure. Despite the fact that she believes there's a good chance she may be dead at Antony's sword within weeks or even days, she rocks back and forth on the balls of her feet like a nervous suitor and imagines another life. She stares at the back of Gabrielle's neck—the tender red flush of the skin there more revelatory than her stony expression—and cannot help herself. “Would you care to kiss me again?”
This hits the intended nerve—badly. Gabrielle jumps from the chair as if the fire's flames were suddenly consuming her and almost kicks it over, like a defiant brawler in a tavern laying down a challenge.
Xena finds it thrilling.
“First you summon me here with your ridiculous order. Now you try to seduce me. What is it you want from me? What do you want me to be—your servant or your lover?” There is bitter determination in her voice; here she wishes to settle the matter once and for all, even as the mosaic of her eyes hints at multiple outcomes, and all of them unfavorable to her. “I don't want to be both.” Her voice quavers. “I can't.”
Xena tosses the dregs of the wine into the fire. The flames roar ecstatically as Gabrielle, suddenly concerned that she is in love with a pyromaniac, looks on apprehensively. The cup clatters to the floor. “The latter,” she replies. “Definitely the latter.”
When at last Gabrielle meets Xena's eyes, she's both surprised and surprisingly beautiful; the ferocious countenance of the warrior falls away and with aching clarity Xena finally sees her as the woman as she was meant to be, a confirmation of myriad qualities hinted at during the past year. And such a woman, she decides, deserves the finest kiss. She holds Gabrielle's face in her hands and captures those full lips in a quick kiss of gentle, teasing affection. The second one is just as quick but with a slower finish, a lingering caress of Gabrielle's plump lower lip. The third one is similar to the second, but of such a maddening duration that she feels Gabrielle's hands eagerly clasping her waist, pulling her closer, eventually sliding up and down her back. By the seventh one Gabrielle's lips are parted, freely permitting a deeper connection as her fingertips flutter at the edge of Xena's scalp, not unlike a diver testing the waters before committing to the plunge. Her fingers burrow deeper into Xena's hair and with a little coaxing—specifically, the continual massaging of her marvelous ass—and a little leap wraps her legs around Xena's waist. The heat of her cunt against Xena's belly eclipses every thought but a constant refrain: at last. Together their histories unravel every certainty and all that exists is possibility.
Xena's unfailing nautical sense of direction is useless here, but somehow she manages to maneuver them to the bed—or perhaps it is Gabrielle's steering all along that accomplishes this feat. The mutual collapse momentarily untangles them. A sense of dizzying triumph steals through her veins as she flips the gladiator onto her back, kisses her fiercely, and grasps her wrists with the intention of pinning her down.
As it happens with good intentions, however, timing is everything. Gabrielle stiffens beneath her and, with a focused, powerful effort that indicates she's done this before, sends Xena catapulting off the bed and onto the floor with a very distinct thud. Xena glares at the weathered beams of the ceiling and their sharp shadows. A year ago she ran an Empire and owned half the known world. Now she lies on a cold floor in a shack in the middle of nowhere with a backache and her head, heart, and other delicate regions collective victims of a hopeless conflagration of yearning over an exceedingly complex former slave.
More difficult than the Vestal Virgin, she thinks. Who had told Xena she wasn't a virgin, but by the time Xena discovered this to be a lie it was really truly, too late to turn back; unfortunately, a hymen was not something one could merely borrow and return, and in pristine condition no less, like a cloak or a cooking pot. Caesar had been peevish about that particular scandal, if only because the Vestals were surprisingly canny about blackmail and extracted a large sum of money from the treasury.
Breathless, Gabrielle sits on the bed, rubbing her eyes. “Sorry,” she whispers.
“No.” Xena props herself against the bed. “Don't apologize. I'm too much the aggressor at the wrong moment. It was too soon.” She reaches for Gabrielle's hand, but the distance is too far. “So forgive me. Please.”
“There is nothing to forgive. You didn't know.”
“I should have surmised as much.”
“No.” Absently, Gabrielle touches her own wrist. “Sometimes certain memories—come of their own accord.”
“It's all right, Gabrielle.”
“Is it? I don't know—I don't want the past coming at me when I least expect it.” The gladiator rakes her hair, leaving golden chaos that reflect the flames from across the room. “It was easier with the hetaera,” she mutters aloud, more to herself than Xena.
“There was a hetaera?” Jealousy and surprise run a chariot race through Xena's mind that finishes in a dead heat.
Gabrielle bows her head. “I gave in to my lusts.”
Xena finds this moment of shame unexpectedly, adorably sexy. “We all do at one time or another. I'm just surprised you had to pay for it.”
It's meant as a compliment but taken by Gabrielle as another jocular shot off the bow. “Is everything a joke to you?” she snaps. “I should have known—” Angrily she rolls off the bed. “—this means more to me than it does to you.”
“Gods be damned.” Xena hauls herself off the floor. “Don't presume to tell me what I feel, gladiator.”
“So we're back to that now, eh? I'm your gladiator, your slave. Infamia to you, as you were to Caesar. Why did you even bother to grant me my freedom?”
“Want me to take it back?”
Gabrielle bristles at the flat menace of Xena's tone. Her fingers close reflexively. Still dying for the feel of a sword in her hand. Always dying for it. No, you're not in the ring anymore. The gods in accord, you never will be again. But part of you will always be what they made of you.
Xena laughs harshly. She nods at the door. “To all of them out there, we're both infamia . Greek whores. Lucky little Greek whores. I know you don't think you're lucky, but you're alive and you're free now. And at one time you were the most famous gladiator in the ring. But right now, to this fucking Empire I've supported and served and risked my life for, I am less than infamia : I'm expendable. Why do you think Brutus agreed to let me come here to Antony? He's hoping Antony kills me. Gets me out the way.” Xena shakes her head. “What do you want me to say? That I'm in love with you? And does this mean you think you're in love with me? I don't know who I am anymore. So how can you? I only know two things: From the moment I saw you, I wanted you. And that you are the only person in this world who doesn't bore the shit out of me.”
“Really?” Skeptical, Gabrielle sways under the weight of unexpected compliments. Then, shyly: “Even Cleopatra?”
“No sooner would we be done fucking and I would lie there, hoping for either silence or something interesting to come out of her, and she? She would be discussing what jewelry to wear for dinner. How that woman got a reputation for being a brilliant conversationalist I'll never know.”
Before Xena can launch into further complaint of her erstwhile bedmate, Gabrielle claims her hand. Her thumbnail travels existent lines within Xena's callused palm before tenderly striking into unlined territory. “I promise will ask nothing of you that you aren't willing to give. And”—Gabrielle's seriousness softens into mock solemnity—“I promise I will never speak to you of jewelry, either before, during, or after sexual activities.”
“That comment suggests—”
“Yes.” Unaware of its knee-buckling effect, Gabrielle continues her tingling micro-massage of Xena's palm. “Yes, I would like that.”
Xena is kissing her again and reaching for a buckle on Gabrielle's cuirass when the door surrenders to the pounding of the Praetorian Gnaeus, who bursts into the cottage. “Empress. I'm sorry.”
“What, Gnaeus?” Xena can tell from his miserable expression that Pullo has forced him into the role of bad-news bearer.
“I'm afraid to report that Manthius has attempted to strangle Brutus.”
Another example of good intentions, bad timing. “Ah, Manthius,” Xena sighs. “At last you're on the right course.”
To be continued
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