vivian darkbloom (viviandarkbloom at hotmail dot com)
The taste of triumph
In her very first match outside the protective hell of the ludus, it took two minutes for Gabrielle to kill three men.
Of course, they had underestimated her. Their protracted, skeletal grins-jutting from underneath bronzed, darkened helmets-only served to enrage her further. She took down the first one with a flying leap and a dagger in his carotid. The second one left himself wide open as the sea, allowing her gladius to plunge through him with the sleek confidence of the fastest skiff. The third one bared his neck at just the right moment and angle; what she lacked in brute strength spared him decapitation, but not death.
Through a sea of hissing catcalls and a hailstorm of rotten produce, she stomped toward the Circus Maximus's exit, profoundly irritated and confused at the crowd's reaction. She survived. She won. What the hell did they want? A pomegranate ricocheted off her armored shoulder with a thunk. Something wet and foul splattered on her boots and legs. She didn't dare risk eye contact with anyone in the crowd-it would be far too tempting to throw herself into the masses and slice open as many of these red-faced, bloated plebes as she could, these animals who thought she was an animal, and who cried for blood but were too cowardly to spill it.
Like Cato. Who awaited her at the damp rictus of the arena, and who was as frothily disapproving as the crowd. "You call that entertainment?" he spat.
A group of gladiators rushed past them for the second match. A slave boy, whose dark eyes unwillingly reminded her of Perdicus, proffered an amphora of cold water. What did not go down her throat splashed against her hot, tingling skin and seeped into her scalp. Was he alive somewhere? Her sister wasn't, nor her parents, nor Ephiny, nor-
"The match should have been longer-much longer. It's as if you lack knowledge of the finer points of battle. You can't just kill, you have to give them a show. Didn't Iolaus tell you-"
"Don't." Her arm whipped out and the gladius's tip artfully drew a wavering, gossamer-thin line of blood along his throat. "Don't you say his name to me. Ever."
They remained static as a frieze-the gladiator, the boy, and their owner-for what seemed an agonizingly long period of time. The muscles in her forearm leapt with the effort of restraint and her eyes glowed with deep, abiding hatred. Surely, thought Cato, she could not still be angry with him over Iolaus's fate? Had he not made amends for that by installing her in the safety and comfort of his home? She did not realize that idealists like Iolaus were doomed the moment they stepped into the ludus. That particular piddling idealist, however, had produced her-one of the finest fighters he had ever seen: Fast, ferocious, and always five steps ahead of her opponents. Cautiously he raised a surrendering hand. "All right," he said softly, almost cooing, as if she were a skittish mare. "All right."
She lowered the blade. He pressed a handkerchief into his neck and, when he removed it, suppressed a gasp at the pale, pink smear of blood upon the field of white.
"You want a show, is that it?" she sneered roughly and stared out into the arena, watching the next match while Cato, fascinated, watched her. Gabrielle's eyes scrolled dispassionately over the fighters in the ring. Assessing strengths. Noting weaknesses.
"What?" he murmured. "Yes. A show."
"Send me back out. Now. And I'll give you what you want."
Cato hesitated. As a student her Achilles heel had been Iolaus-rather, the affection and trust he engendered within her. In the end that was why he had agreed with the scheming lanistae who proposed the final match between student and teacher: The attachment had to be broken. The only problem, he realized, was that not only was the attachment broken, she was as well-and spectacularly so. Long had Cato wished to possess a gladiator with genuine blood rage, and long had he puzzled over the maxim be careful what you wish for. But now the wish and its fulfillment coexisted in horrible symmetry. For one hour and twelve men later, select rose petals and blossoms quelled their ecstatic descent by clinging to her sweaty, bloody skin. She owned the Circus Maximus and everyone within it.
How to be in love by the morning
Before dawn a slave usually arrives, bringing food and starting the fire. The suffused light of the candle, the soft footfalls, and the cautious clatter of fire irons and dishes surround Gabrielle-all a delicate, pressing awareness of the outside world that she ignores as she feigns sleep. The chill tickles her bare shoulder. She knows the slave, Sicinius, and in the past had exchanged with him that particular look of recognition-an acknowledgment of their similar subservient stations delineated by grim, sardonic empathy.
All has changed now, at least on the rippling surface of circumstance. She is free. And she's naked under a pile of blankets and a fur, with Xena's warm arm a weighty brocade draped across her waist. She has taken the seemingly exulted place formerly occupied by a queen, an emperor, a ruler of an exotic, faraway land, and sundry other aristocratic types-seemingly exulted, she thinks, but not really. If anything, sex only heightens the inequities of status. She knows how everyone views Xena's sexual hierarchy from top to bottom: Caesar the husband, Cleopatra the lover, and she, Gabrielle, the humble bed warmer, a bit of rough trade to tide Xena over while stuck on a cold, lonely island until she marries Antony or Brutus or some other powerful personage. She feels no more a freewoman than she did at the pinnacle of infamia. Only this time, a strange contentment persists. The outside world will continue to press upon her-insinuations and ideas inhaled easily as air, quietly formative like breaths from a glass-blower-but here in this island cottage, she possesses sanctuary.
Sicinius takes his leave. She exhales-and so does Xena, who stirs into waking and presses her face between Gabrielle's shoulder blades, an absolution for the valley of scars encountered there. Xena knows her way around scars. At times Gabrielle notices her examining this written record of her body's history without an exaggerated pretense of reverence or a hint of judgment, but with the curious affection of a lover who is also a fighter. She never asks how the scars came in existence; she only caressed, only kissed. Is a bit of prescient planning on Xena's part? she wonders. That Xena knows there is a story attached to every one of those scars, and she wishes to hoard a long lifetime of those stories? Or-she thinks, as Xena gently turns her over so that they are face-to-face, breast-to-breast, hip-to-hip-is it all complete self-delusion?
Last night she half-dreamed, half-remembered her first fight in the Circus Maximus. How the crowd initially despised her, and how she went back out and took down man after man with means merciless in their methods. They loved her then. To her shame, she luxuriated in it-the delirious approval, the broken raucous chant of her name, the power settling over her with the delicate pervasiveness of the blossoms that the mercurial crowd showered upon her. And this? she wonders, as Xena pulls her closer. A different fight, a different kind of approval? Apollonius compared pleasure to battle; perhaps he was right, because now she fights for emotional survival, for her inner life. She cannot help but wonder what Xena fights for.
Their intimacies have only spanned a handful of days, not even a week, but every morning the laconic conversation is the same, as if they have been together untold months and years: "I should go," Gabrielle murmurs. Then her lips encounter Xena's and, like tepid water mixed in fine dark wine, her resoluteness, her clarity dissolves into sweet darkness.
Xena conquers with casual disregard: "Not yet," she whispers, before deepening the kiss into a perfect conspiracy of breath, movement, mouths, and tongues. She pulls the gladiator on top -a strategic feint that reveals the vulnerability of Gabrielle's surging lust, for she is now at the mercy of Xena's hand, which slips into the conduit of warmth between their bodies. But Xena, always exceptionally gentle-at times, too gentle-hesitates. "Is this all right?"
Despite all this proactive tenderness, it is more than all right: It is perfect torture. With frenzied futility her hips writhe, seeking contact with anything that would bring about immediate release from the wet ache between her legs. "Yes."
Xena kisses her neck. Skillful as a flutist, her mouth slides down Gabrielle's carotid artery as skillfully as flutist. "And this?"
If indeed she is an instrument played by a sexual virtuoso, she trembles with the effort of holding the note, of proving herself worthy of being so chosen. "Yes."
The relentless kissing marches on; Xena commands foreplay as well as any legion. The trapezius muscle along Gabrielle's neck and shoulder, taut as a sail caught in a stiff wind, is the next target of Xena's mouth before gliding along her collarbone and setting ecstatic sail for the wonderful world of the breast. "What about this?" she teases, just before her mouth lays claim to Gabrielle's nipple.
Gabrielle cannot speak. Over the days and nights she has quivered with each new exploration, marveled silently at the body's capacity for prolonged pleasure; already brimming with a history of pain, she believed she could accommodate nothing else. It has not been like this before and, she realizes, it will never be like this again. She will never again experience the sacred wonder of the falling in love for the first time. Every disappointment, every expectation she's ever had about love and desire is carelessly, happily revised with no regard for the egregious first draft. "Gods above and a thousand times yes," she says hoarsely, "do anything and everything you want with me."
Tender and swift, Xena reverses their positions and briefly regards Gabrielle as a hunter on the cusp of triumph does his proud, resistant quarry. Every smoothly muscled, softly feminine inch of her is marvelous; in every scar Xena finds the perfection of survival. Gabrielle's heels dig into the too-soft mattress and her hips rise as once more Xena's hand finds its delicate mark and begins the languid torment of stroking the gladiator toward blissful, indelible delectation. "Ah, Gabrielle. If only the world were so accommodating."
Ankhs for the memories
Most mornings find most villages bustling. Garouna, however, is not most villages. Bored soldiers sleepwalk to breakfast or to the practice yard for dolorous sparring. Sheep and goats meander, aimless and unattended, across the main road. Fishermen, uneager for the sea, loll in boats and mend nets. The overall lethargy of the place impresses upon Xena the importance of departing as soon as possible. The ship is almost repaired-a matter of days, or she has been informed by nervous sailors, who fear the same fate at their executed captain. Why does everyone think I killed Manthius? she wonders. Zeus, I think I have an image problem.
Outside the cottage, where she leaves behind a naked, sleeping gladiator, Xena finds Pullo waiting for her with sullen patience. He falls into step with her as they set out for Brutus.
"So. What is Brutus's mood this morning?" she asks Pullo, the great prognosticator.
"Somehow I was anticipating that answer."
"There's a spring in your step," Pullo notes accusingly.
"Ah." Xena pauses and moderates her long stride to something she hopes approximates the regal and commanding. "Thanks."
"Not that I begrudge you being so fucking cheerful," he amends.
It took Pullo barging into her cottage one morning-complaining once again of the mood and tenor of the camp ever since Brutus's execution of Manthius-to discover his self-described "best mate" and his Empress under a blanket in a rather vigorous bit of sexual congress. Artlessly the embarrassed Gabrielle had tumbled off the bed, taking most of the blankets with her, and so Xena had to listen to Pullo's grievances while naked and shivering. It was not the first time. Over the years Pullo had seen her naked enough times so that her body held the appealing familiarity of a roadside shrine; thus he thought little of engaging her in the most mundane conversations while she was in such a state-once, in fact, they had a rather informative exchange about how to liven up lentil soup.
Since his discovery, however, his reactions to his friend and semi-idol appeared commingled with confusion and anger. Xena suspected that he resented not being informed about the relationship in a timely manner by Gabrielle, and subsequently finding out in a farcical fashion as if he were a common slave or an unsuspecting husband. She thought it best not to interfere; Gabrielle, she knew, would resolve the matter soon enough, and hopefully it would not involve bloodshed.
"I realize," Xena begins, "that this humble village does not hold the attractions of a city like Rome or Alexandria, in other words quality whorehouses, but surely-"
"-I can get fucked, that's not the problem."
"So you are a nighttime visitor to a certain widow."
Pullo frowns. "I keep forgetting you know everything."
"Surely that takes the edge off?"
"Eh. Just seems like a lot of work to get good dumplings and half-decent wine."
"Dumplings?" She hasn't had good dumplings, really good dumplings of either the sweet or savory variety, since-well, since leaving her mother behind in Amphipolis. "It's never too much work for that, Pullo."
He smiles indulgently. "I'll bring you some, Empress."
"Good man." She dismisses him and, continuing her walk across the village, girds her loins for the continued degradation of her day: a morning of Brutus. Sour as usual, Brutus awaits her in his drafty billet, where they frown over maps, attempt not to argue with one another on how to proceed to Antony's locale, and spectacularly fail to reach any kind of accord on the matter.
"So now that the damn ship is almost repaired," Brutus begins, lips stiff with rage, "you're thinking of dragging us all on foot across the island."
"No," Xena refutes firmly. "I'm only saying it's worth considering. The weather is still unpredictable and would prove more disadvantageous should we find ourselves on the open sea. And I'm not certain it would save us any time. Look at the map again, Brutus. On foot, cutting across land and even going around that damn mountain, we'd make the trip in almost half the time. Perhaps the fates had a reason for dumping us off on the wrong side of this island."
Melodramatic, Brutus raises his hands in mock surrender. "I cannot figure you out, Xena. I never know which way your mind will turn."
"I'm truly sorry you're unable to predict my behavior. Were my husband still alive, he would tell you it's a losing game."
"Were your husband still alive," Brutus retorts sharply, "he might be a little surprised at how cuntstruck you've been lately."
Everyone knows. In the whirl of an urbane ruler's life-resplendent with retinues, entertainers, wits, diplomats, spies, slaves, knaves, couriers, soldiers, and mercenaries-lovers easily accumulate the capital of stealth through the selling and trading of rumors. In other words, one never knows who is fucking whom. A village in Corfu, however, is a different matter, and it's impossible to prevent (1) its gossip-starved occupants from noticing a gladiator stumbling out of one's humble dwelling at an ungodly hour, or (2) said denizens of the village from hearing said gladiator's noisy climaxes. All right, I'm not so quiet myself. Still. The citizens of the village had held her in familiar contempt from the start; within hours of her arrival in Garouna she knew the livestock history of a garrulous farmer named Eugenius and how his neighbor stole several chickens from him, and what the hell was she, almighty Empress or Consul or whatever she was, going to do about that? It seems that no matter where she landed in the world, she is eternally prevailed upon to solve other people's problems. Brutus's problems, however, lie in multitudes and consist most notably of character flaws. How do you solve a problem like Brutus? She can present only the simplest, most concrete solution in the most deadly of tones: "Would you like to be fiststruck, Brutus?"
Point taken, he scowls in silence.
"I assure you, Caesar would not have been surprised." Particularly since they spent part of their wedding night with the daughter of a Dalmatian dignitary. But she opts not to share this information with dour Brutus.
From behind the presumed safety of a wine cup, Brutus says, before sipping, "I didn't think she was your type."
"I wasn't aware you were an expert on what constitutes my type." Without preamble Xena changes the subject. "What is Barcus saying?"
"The roads are passable, he says. At least the initial kilometers out of the village are clear. Obviously, he cannot predict the entire route." Again, Brutus's lips form a tight line of disapproval.
Suppressing a sigh, Xena allows her sense of fair play to take the upper hand. "Something bothers you. What is it?"
"Barcus has a cousin who is an officer under Antony. I'm not sure he is entirely trustworthy. We've been here nearly a fortnight-what we know of the roads is only from what Barcus and his scouts tell us. He's had plenty of time for him to get a message to Antony's side. So I was wondering, for the sake of a, er, honest interrogation-" Brutus pauses awkwardly.
"-if you would consider doing that thing."
"I'm legendary for many things, some of them probably not legal in this area. Please be specific."
Using two fingers, Brutus mimes jabbing Xena in the neck.
"Oh, that thing."
Later, Barcus the scout is summoned to Brutus's humble abode and diligently repeats to her what he has told Brutus: The main road leading to Kassiopi is passable. A delegation could make it in no time.
As the pacing Brutus reverts to scowling mode, Xena lounges thoughtfully and taps an index finger against her lips. Barcus shifts nervously, unaware that the Empress is not really contemplating the truth and validity of what he's saying but wondering if her new lover likes dumplings.
Finally, the scout can take no more. "Empress?"
Xena sighs. Back to business. "Barcus, I'm really sorry to do this, but-" As her hands strike the scout's neck, Brutus pirouettes with fearful excitement. Barcus stiffens and falls off his chair. With another sigh, she begins the litany: "I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have 30 seconds to tell me-"
"It's Varian," he chokes.
"Who?" She and Brutus are an impromptu Greek-Roman chorus. Xena thinks how Gabrielle would have relished seeing her caught so unaware by this startling turn in the interrogation.
Brutus lunges at the scout. Xena raises her hand and kneels in front of Barcus. "Wait. Assassinating who?"
"You," Barcus wheezes. "Not-my idea-please oh gods-"
Xena removes the pinch and seizes Barcus by his thick, curly hair. "Who is behind this? Antony?"
"No. It's because of-Manthius. Manthius was his beloved."
"For fuck's sake." Xena stares indignantly at Brutus. "You kill him, and I keep getting blamed for it!"
"Everyone," Barcus manages breathlessly, "thinks it was your order." He pauses, reconsiders the wisdom of proceeding further, but realizes he's already in deep enough. "Everyone knows you have the real power."
Brutus's face is an inscrutable mask.
"So you weren't going to tell me?"
"I didn't think he would be successful." Barcus colors slightly and coughs. "The gladiator is with you all the time. And when she is not at your side, Pullo is. I did not take Varian seriously."
"When is this happening?"
"This morning. He was going to wait for the gladiator to leave you. I tried to convince him, I swear-"
But the gladiator had not left the cottage. At Xena's insistence she remained in bed, promptly returned to sleep, and Xena spent several long minutes marveling at how, in that vulnerable state of repose, she seemed resplendent with innocence and youth. Xena felt as if she'd debauched a maiden-a maiden with a scarred back who could probably kill her in a second and with a single blow, but sweetly unspoiled creature nonetheless. She also felt an unprecedented level of affection and concern for someone she had slept with, a heretofore-unknown phenomenon that, had she been an average woman and not a powerful leader known to tease out and brood over the clandestine motivations of allies and enemies alike-including her own husband-she might have correctly identified as love and not some sort of troubling, distended euphoria similar to the state of being she experienced while under sway of the hashish she frequently smoked during her time in the East.
With renewed fury she reapplies the pinch to Barcus, who now realizes his life is forfeit and exchanges one last pleading look with the Empress.
"You should have told me," she says.
Xena bolts out of the door and runs the length of the village, its sparse occupants and objects motionless as a mosaic, a static landscape that means nothing. When she bursts inside her cottage she interrupts, to her astonishing relief, a surreal domestic scene: Gabrielle and Pullo sitting together at the kitchen table-the former sipping tea while the latter works his way through the remnants of her breakfast-and a large dead man, face covered, sprawled in a carpet of fresh blood.
At her dramatic entrance the startled Gabrielle stares and Pullo, still chewing, leaps to his feet.
Xena stares at the corpse.
Pullo nods at Gabrielle. "She did it," he blurts around a mouthful of barley.
"Was I supposed to let him strangle you?" Gabrielle retorts peevishly.
Like an exotic barbarian necklace, bloody furrows criss-cross Pullo's throat. Did Varian really think he could strangle that bull neck? She kneels and removes the covering from the dead man's face. His eyes are closed and his waxen face-above the deep red rent along his throat-is at peace. You are with him now, aren't you? And you are happy, you are complete, and you risked everything-for him, for love. Is that what it's like, then? To love?
Is it? Her hand shakes.
Gabrielle and Pullo wait for her to be, as usual, cavalier and unflappable, supremely confident. She isn't. "He came for me." And he could have killed you. "What happened?"
"Well, I came to get her," Pullo nods at Gabrielle, "and he was here."
"But I wasn't," Gabrielle adds. "I went to the stream. To bathe."
"Bastard jumped me the second I came in. I was just about to shake him off-"
Gabrielle snorts in disbelief.
"-when the shortest gladiator in the world comes in and saves my sorry ass."
The bantering, affectionate sarcasm indicates that everything is back to normal between them. Gabrielle sighs. "Fine. The next time someone tries to garrote you I won't be as obliging."
Xena examines the body. Sinewy arms, beefy legs, dirt under the fingernails. Just another soldier. Not yet settled into rigor mortis, his right hand is nonetheless curled protectively around air. She does not know why-perhaps, she thinks, it's a good final tribute to a soldier, albeit an assassin, that he attends a funeral pyre in perfect linear repose-but carefully, methodically she unclenches the hand, straightens his fingers, and discovers, hidden within the flap of skin connecting thumb to the meat of the palm, a tattoo not even half as a large as a denarius: An ankh.
Xena's lengthy communion with a dead man's hand piques the curiosity of Pullo and Gabrielle. The former kneels, bulkily blocking the latter from doing so. "Fucking Egyptian." Pullo whistles at the sight of the miniscule tattoo. "He's one of Cleopatra's, then?"
"Don't know." Xena rests the hand on the dead man's torso. "All I know is I shouldn't have killed Barcus."
"Why did you kill Barcus?" Gabrielle asks quietly.
Startled, Xena looks up at her-and cannot bear the almost serene, contemplative expression on Gabrielle's face as their eyes meet. Rather, she cannot bear how it makes her feel, and so she feigns further interest in the ankh. "He withheld the truth from me. He knew about this-that Varian was going to try to kill me. He told me that Varian held me responsible for Manthius's death-apparently they were lovers."
"Really?" Pullo gives a dismissive laugh. "Yeah, they fucked-but I never got the impression it was anything serious. More like just passing time in this gods-forsaken place." He looks to Gabrielle for affirmation. "Wouldn't you say?"
"Yes. They didn't seem to-to be in love." Noisily Gabrielle clears her throat.
Xena rubs her chin. "So that may have been a cover story. Or a matter of convenience? All to disguise the fact he was here as an assassin for Cleopatra? And Barcus knew-he condoned it, or was part of it?" She sighs. "All pointless speculation at the moment."
When she dares to look at the gladiator again, Gabrielle is leaning in, close enough to scrutinize the tattoo. "This explains why he usually wore gloves," she says. "I thought he was just being careful, to avoid injury. And when he didn't he was just hiding in plain sight." She pauses. "It's clever."
And Barcus? Xena wonders. She rises and meets Pullo's eyes. "Get your neck taken care of-now. Then get rid of him." A pool of blood has congealed along the border of her boot. "And one of you-get someone to clean this up." She stalks out of the cottage without risking another glance at Gabrielle.
She finds Brutus sitting alone with a dead man of his own. With only Brutus's arched eyebrow as commentary, she kneels before Barcus, examines his right hand, and discovers the miniature ankh engraved in the same location.
When she shows it to Brutus, his mouth sours for what could easily be the hundredth time that day: "Well. Your breakup with Cleopatra obviously did not go as well as you thought."
To be continued
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