Part xviii

State of motion

A good day for sailing: Not a blight upon the blue sky, the crisp breeze crosses the island in a favorable direction, and the ship is fully repaired. Yet it stands stationary, submitting itself for full inspection by Xena-who stalks across the deck, crawls through every hull and cranny, and scampers up a mast, all of it not unlike a cat laying claim to new territory through the relentless, elegant testing of limitations. The ship's centurion, Lucius, squeaks alarmingly when Xena-cape and hair fluttering like the panicked beats of his heart- leaps down from the mast.

Pullo, who has accompanied his Empress on the inspection, grunts sympathetically. "Yeah, I know. She always gives me the shits when she does that."

Xena's stride rings across the ship's solid boards. "Very good." She says it loud enough so that the crew will hearten at the news.

Flush with triumph, Lucius nods. "Thank you, Empress."

"So you'll be ready to shove off tomorrow?" It's barely a question.

"Yes, Empress."

"Excellent." She pauses for effect, to once again gauge the perfect, mellifluously confident pitch of her voice for the benefit of the men. "We sail at dawn."

Pullo, however, cannot help but mutter an aside for her ears only: " 'Bout fucking time."

She glares at him while addressing the centurion: "Make the preparations, Lucius."

Forsaking the plank, Xena jumps to the beachhead below to the accompaniment of Pullo groaning, "Oh, for fuck's sake." Frowning, he gazes down at her. The last time he attempted to mimic one of her graceful leaps he broke an ankle.

"Take the plank, you overgrown bastard!" She starts walking. He dashes down the plank, jogging to catch up with her. When he does arrive at her side he sees her restless mind has already moved onto something else: Strategies, options, battles, bon mots. Always ten steps ahead of me and everyone else. "Do you remember those sais I have?" she asks abruptly.

A blank stare is his response.

"The weapons I brought back from Chin. Beautifully tempered by one of the most reverential and skilled smiths I've ever encountered, given to me by my mentor, and one of which you used to skewer and cook a wild pig while we were out on maneuvers near Ravenna."

"Ah!" Pullo cries. "Now I do. Quite handy, those."

Xena hums thoughtfully. "Do you think she'd like them?"

He resists the urge to roll his eyes. "She," the Little Gladiator, was always first and foremost on Xena's mind these days, more so than Brutus and Antony. It concerned Pullo, but news of the ship's readiness is a counterweight to this worry, and Xena appears more than ready to depart. Regardless, the old adage "out of sight, out of mind" spectacularly failed the test of truth in this instance; whenever the Empress was away from her lover, the absent gladiator usually found her way not only into conversation but thought as well: Pullo could tell by the softening of Xena's mouth and the faraway look in her eyes. Cuntstruck indeed. Brutus was right about that. "Innit bad form to give to the, ah, current object of your affection a gift you got from a previous, er, conquest?"

"Gods above, Pullo, you're using euphemisms. I'm impressed."

He shrugs. "The little one is a good influence in that regard," he admits reluctantly. Ever since Gabrielle had described tact as being a weapon of sorts, he had been intrigued, and strove to match her superior level in this particular skill. It kept his mind occupied during these long stretches of tedium on the island. Even though he seemed to lag behind her in any number of skills, he was nothing if not competitive.

"Yes, I see that," Xena agrees. "As for, ah-what shall we call it? Regifting?-normally it is bad form, but not in this instance."

Because she's in a good mood, Pullo risks a bit of cheek. "You mean because you're the one doing it?" She grins but, of course, explains it no further. Typical. He changes the subject back to the good news at hand. "Shall I let the word out among the men? That we're gone tomorrow?"

"Wait until I talk with Brutus." She leaves him standing in the middle of the village's desolate main road. Her departing form-the unfurled cape, the long swagger-assures him that by tomorrow they'll be on the move, and once again everything will be approximating a favored state of the career soldier: Movement. And perhaps even a little bit of battle.

Black coin

Xena's first thought as she goes down is, Oh, Brutus. The second thought: How could I be so stupid? She had opened the door to Brutus's cottage without a moment's hesitation and, before she could stop the momentum of her large, stupid foot, noticed the glint of the wire stretched just ahead of the threshold. It sent her sprawling into a most undignified heap and now here she was, on the floor and with two of Brutus's favorite hulking guards pointing swords in her face.

Brutus, fully armored, stares down at her. "I guess it's true in a literal sense as well as figurative: The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

"Have you gone to all this trouble as a commentary on my weight, Brutus?" A couple weeks of inactivity-aside from sex-and dumplings have left her slightly concerned. Not that she would admit that to Brutus. "And only two thugs? I'm insulted."

Brutus smirks grimly, but his fingers tap a nervous dance along his thigh. He takes a gamble, and he's well aware of it. "Need to take you down a notch, Xena. I thought this the best way to get your head from out between your gladiator's legs and focused on more pressing concerns. I know you've enjoyed your little honeymoon, but we're losing our advantage by sitting here doing nothing." He pauses. "You are not as invulnerable as you think."

Xena winces and rubs her back. "Neither are you." She attempts to sit up, but an unwavering gladius wielded by the larger of the two dolts prevents her from doing so. "Boy, you better get that fucking sword out of my face or you'll regret it very, very quickly."

Brutus gestures at the soldier, who lowers his blade and takes an elegant backward step. "I regret that I had to resort to such cheap tactics, but-sit down." He pulls a chair toward her.

Reluctantly she sits. As if they are in negotiations-which, she realizes with a sinking feeling, they probably are-Brutus sits across from her. She keeps a wary eye on the guards, who keeps their swords at the ready. "I don't know what the hell you thought you were accomplishing with this little trick, but I've come to tell you that the ship is ready. My men and I sail tomorrow. We won't be 'sitting here doing nothing' any longer."

"So we are following your plan: I approach Antony by land, you by sea."

"You agreed to it," she replies, her tone salted with a pinch of peevishness.

Brutus frowns. "Yes, well." He drums his fingers upon the table. "I grant you are the great tactician-at least Caesar always thought so. But, Xena, don't you see why I'm upset?"

His smile is almost apologetic. Her stare is completely blank.

Earnest, he leans forward. "I have no assurances."

Of course. Pullo had taken the gladiator's lessons in tact and diplomacy very well. And she? Had she forgotten all that Caesar-and Lao Ma-had taught her? Now she sees the misstep. She should have appeased Brutus more. Humored his half-assed battle plans with perfunctory consideration, made squawks of approval during his portentous speeches about the Republic. In the end it would have made him more pliable to her leadership. Instead she had resented the yoke the fates placed about her neck: Forced into an alliance with a man she did not respect over an empire she had no place in anymore.

His nervous tapping once again manifests itself; this time his fingers drum the table. "You see, I have no idea if this little triumvirate of ours, that you formed with Lepidus and I, will remain intact the minute you're out of my sight. You haven't been exactly-encouraging in that respect. You don't believe in the Republic. So I ask myself, and now you: What do you believe in?"

Good question, she thinks derisively. But says nothing. Not that it would matter to him anyway.

"So," Brutus continues, "in my ample spare time on this island hellhole, where I have nothing to do but think-well, you can't blame me for believing that the minute you meet up with Antony again, you will take his side against Lepidus and myself. Maybe you'd even seduce him. We both know what you're capable of. And you're more a perfect match with him than you were with Caesar. Caesar reined you in. Antony wouldn't. You're a female version of him. You are both two sides of the same black, false coin."

"If you think insulting me-"

The flat of his palm slams the table, and the sudden violence of the gesture produces the desired effect of silencing her. "You need me more than you think," he hisses. "Without my men, your brilliant 'plan' to confront Antony is nothing."

It is true, of course. Xena takes a moment to compose herself, to settle into the role of diplomat. "Then tell me," she says softly, "what assurances I can give you."

His mouth softens. "I agree to proceed with our course of action under one circumstance: Your gladiator remains here with my troops."

She laughs. "You're overplaying your hand."

"I know." He smiles again, and this time she does not like it at all.

Instinctively she straightens-and one of the bully boys steps closer. "I don't know what you think you're trying to do. If it's seducing her, you haven't a chance, a clue, or a hope in hell."

"Oh, I'm quite aware of that. In fact, the entire camp is aware of that." He waves a dismissive hand. "No, Xena. When I asked before what you believe in-it wasn't entirely rhetorical. Because I know precisely what you do believe in."

Her hand cups the table's edge; a splinter painfully finds the softest part of her palm. She knows what he's going to say, and he knows that she knows.


She wonders how quickly she could kill him and the guards.

"I watched you through five years of marriage. You never blinked when he slept with someone else. Never cared. It was a topic of conversation over dinner, a battle to be dissected, where the opponent was both mocked for her inferiority to your status and praised for her good looks. And what of that Egyptian slag? Did you really think I believed that you cared for her? Why, you told me yourself, laughingly, how she seduced your right-hand man, the great Pullo. Again, you didn't care. But the mere thought of my bedding your little savage, your Little Gladiator, has you foaming at the mouth. It's your weakness. And having you sail into battle with this distraction at your side-are you willing to risk the lives of your men-?" He trails off.

Xena's mind swims with so many contradictory emotions, the crosscurrents of love and fear dashed furiously against reality, that she doesn't even flinch when Brutus reaches across the table and gently clasps her arm. His tenderness is more shocking than his violence, but the undertow of truth is too powerful for her. "Don't you see? It works for all of us. I will have my assurance of your loyalty. How impressed your Praetorians will be-they're all as hard as Spartans, aren't they?-relinquishing your beloved to focus on the negotiations with Antony and the probability of battle. And, most importantly, she will be safer here, more comfortable, fighting on land. You know that." He squeezes her arm. "Play to her strengths, Xena. And to your own."

Brutus's grip slackens. She reclaims her arm, but takes nearly a minute to find her voice. "Let me think about it."

He opens his mouth to protest, then decides not to press his advantage.

Before she leaves she delivers a quick, flawless roundhouse kick into the larger guard's groin. His sword clatters to the floor. With a glance, she dares the second guard to do something about it.

He doesn't.

In the dark

Usually in the moment before Gabrielle climaxes, Xena can feel the tension pooling within those hard, powerful thighs as Gabrielle poises for release-a current of energy bundles into her muscles until it is transmuted by Xena's eager hands into the lightning flash of intangible bliss. Then, and only then, Gabrielle softens-her limbs slack, her breath shallow, her caress light, just before she surrenders to sleep.

This time, however, is different. After she comes her eyes close and she submits, quietly yet still awake, to Xena's clever fingers sweeping through the sweaty valley of her torso. Usually after sex, a kiss upon the cheek and good glass of wine is all Xena wants. But during this happy fortnight everything has changed; she has finally found the first person she has ever wanted to continue touching for no reason but for mere substantiation of an intangible connection. But at this moment Gabrielle's belly is tight with deeply held breaths, her muscles still rigid with-something. Xena suppresses a sigh of frustration. The day had started off so promising, with the news of-

"So the ship is ready," Gabrielle says, her voice flatter than a gangplank. Her eyes remain closed.

Damn Pullo. Of course, she thinks, the lout would think it fine to tell Gabrielle about the ship. Xena takes her first step onto the ledge. "Yes."

"Were you going to tell me?"



"Now. I was going to tell you now."

Gabrielle's eyes snap open, as bright with single-minded purpose as the day had been. "Like hell." She rolls out of the bed and Xena thinks that if she hasn't been pushed off the gangplank just yet, she's clinging to it upside down by the skin of her fingertips.

In an effort to wash up, Gabrielle furiously splashes water from the basin everywhere. Large drops wrinkle the edge of a scroll and cling to a cup.

"What do you want from me?" Xena sits up. "You're one of the first to know."

"After Pullo. And probably Brutus. Not to mention the entire crew of the ship."

It is always a misfortune to experience the anger of beautiful, naked women. Sounds like something Lao Ma would say, Xena thinks, although she wouldn't be stupid enough to earn the wrath of a beautiful woman. "Look, I'm sorry, I was going to tell you, but-"

"You thought you'd get a good fuck in first. Practical as usual." A fast dresser, Gabrielle already has her tunic on, the fabric committing worst offense possible by covering up the scarred glory of that body.

"And what's wrong with that?" Xena shouts. "I came in here and you were waiting for me, and you looked at me like-" Like you were dying of hunger, of thirst, of want and need for what I've been so stubbornly refusing you.

Cuirass in hand, apprehensively curious, Gabrielle stares at her. "Like what?"

"Like you've been waiting for me all your life," Xena confesses. "In fact, every damn time I look at you-" she stops. And how do I look? Like I've been searching for you all my life without knowing?

Gabrielle pauses. "Maybe I have." The gladiator carefully places her cuirass on a chair and picks up her sword-a habit of nervous indulgence that Xena has witnessed many times. Before she puts it on or takes it off she always removes the blade from its scabbard and inspects it, as if this bronzed limb were truly a part of her body that required certification of well being both before and after battle. She will tilt the gladius just so, that the light will traverse its length and catch every nick or irregularity, revealing an inevitable, invisible history. The time it was caught in the spokes of a chariot wheel, or the times it's knocked a helmet off an opponent's head, or dragged a tired line through the sand, or the many, many times it's been sheathed in blood. Xena loves this habit. To her, it's the symbol of Gabrielle's obsessive dedication, tenacious will, and miraculous survival, myriad facets of one remarkable woman.

Not surprisingly, Gabrielle has pieced together the puzzle of silence, of what is unsaid. The gladius returns to its scabbard. "I'm not coming with you. Is that it?"

As if in a dream, a bad dream, Xena slowly dons her robe. "I've appointed you the Praetorians' liaison with Brutus's troops. I-I will have Gnaeus stay with you. He will help you."

"I understand."

"Do you?"

"Sure. I'm not stupid, Xena." It's the first time, since the demise of Ptolemy's treacherous eunuch, that Gabrielle has spoken her name. "I get it. You have bigger fish to fry. Bigger warriors to seduce."

"I'm getting a little tired of everyone assuming I'm going to sleep with Antony. And seriously, 'bigger fish to fry?' What kind of provincial expression is that?"

"Sorry to be provincial, Empress." Gabrielle laces and ties her boots with such fury that Xena grows concerned for her blood circulation. "I forgot you were raised in a thrivingpolis."

The mention of Amphipolis-a town as meandering as the river that runs through it and of interest to the warlord Cortese only because of its staunch fortifications and close proximity to the Aegean-rankles. Too many old wounds, too much failure-her failure to protect the city. And her brother. All of it at the knotty heart of her aching wanderlust, of the ambition that eventually led her away. "Point taken, gladiator." Xena sighs and relents. "Please. Stop this. It's not what you think." Full disclosure? she wonders. Should she tell Gabrielle that Brutus so mercilessly assessed her weaknesses and that she capitulated, she has acquiesced so easily? But she hesitates. "Being here," she whispers, "it will keep you safe." She stumbles, she falters. She's in love.

"Safe?" Gabrielle echoes, incredulous. "With Brutus?"

"I thought you liked him."

"I like his ideas. I'm not so sure about him."

"I need someone here, in his camp, that I can trust."

"Then leave Pullo behind."

"You know that's not possible. He's not-"

"-smart enough?" Gabrielle sneers. "Is that what you were going to say about him, the man you've entrusted your life to for years?"

"Enough." Xena's low, warning growl brings conversation to a halt. "You're a soldier. In my army. You follow my orders. All right?"

"Yes, Empress." Gabrielle feigns interest in a bracer. "Is there anything else?"

"No," Xena finally says. "There's nothing else."

Only after Gabrielle leaves and Xena is halfway through a bad bottle of Corfu white, does she remember that night again, the night that Gabrielle admitted her love: The hour having grown late, they had silently prepared for bed. The silvery smoke of the gutted candle crawled over them, marking them with its scent as Xena's hand gradually mapped the contours of Gabrielle's face. Be patient with me, she had said.

If I lose you, it will undo me, Gabrielle had simply replied-her heart unflinchingly honest in the sanctity of the dark. With that, she had rolled over and fell into the deep-and, to Xena's mind, cruel-sleep of the unburdened. Xena, however, had stared into the dark for hours. Undoing, she thought, usually involved two or more elements. Pulling apart the skeins of a rope, breaking down the compounds of an alloy. The heat and power of whatever existed between them left little room for speculation-only a sense of wonderful dread-on who would truly be undone.

Shadows and shades

At one end of the village is a fence demarcating the property of Pullo's prosperous widow, a woman named Ariana. Beyond the fence there are chickens, goats, other miscellaneous livestock. Sometimes Gabrielle comes to visit the animals, much to the confusion of Ariana, who has suspected wrongly that it's some odd courting ritual they do on the mainland; one evening she made a point of telling Gabrielle she was already hoping to make a husband of Pullo and had no interest in her. Gabrielle didn't have the heart to tell the widow that Pullo's plans were quite the opposite and instead only assured Ariana that she came for the solace and companionship of the animals. It was the one thing she had liked about growing up on a farm.

At dusk, most of the animals are in the barn for the evening or so motionless that the outlines of their bodies blur into the land, the troughs, the aged background of the barn. Gabrielle rests her forehead against the old, gnarled fence. A large knot in the wood possesses the mysterious, opaque depth of an owl's eye. Options, she thinks, there are always options. She could stroll into the camp right now and take out as many of Brutus's men as she could. And she could take down a whole lot of them before they would kill her, or before exhaustion would set in. But that would put the Empress into a precarious over-reliance on her Praetorians. If Xena were to engage Antony on the battlefield and not the bedroom, she would need Brutus's men, she would need that element of surprise. And despite everything, she wants Xena to triumph, to live. Even if Xena wasn't hers.

Another option would be just to throw herself in the sea. Which is kind of melodramatic; she chalks this up to reading too much Sappho. But the thought of being gobbled up by the greedy Ionian Sea, to be fish food, quietly appalls. Are you so unimaginative you can only think of two ways to self-destruction? Her self-control finally quits and she releases a ragged sob, redolent of birds in flight fleeing the encroachment of winter.

The soft thuck of a boot caught in mud tells her that Pullo is at her back. The escalating humiliation she feels at being caught unaware and crying like a foolish girl is negated when she turns to him. In the thickening dusk she reads his patient face: the empathy and undiminished respect written plainly upon it.

"Come on," he says. "Have dinner with me."

Survive, Iolaus had said. Push aside these notions, she thinks, these ideas of love, and survive. For now. Is it enough to know that I can still love, that I am capable of it? She follows the hulking shadow of the living as the shades of the dead occupy her mind.

The sea, the sea

For Titus Pullo, history was an exciting new discovery. Despite the fact that most of the events were long past and most of the participants long dead. Because history was all a ripping good yarn: Battles and soldiers and sex-the things, he had discovered over many years, that moved the world. But he had not cared about history until stumbling upon it as a subject of interest to Gabrielle; it was a way to get her to talk, which in turned helped pass the time. After her initial hesitations-are you sure you want to hear this?-he found that she was quite good at telling these stories.

Over dinner in the mess tent, he realizes other motivations in getting her to talk about her readings: Distraction from thoughts of the Empress, and a most effective way of preventing her from challenging to a fight the nearest soldier who dared a salacious smirk or curious glance in her direction.

She's reading Xenophon, she says. He knows the story of the Ten Thousand from childhood-brave soldiers fighting for a noble cause-but not the real reasons behind it. It's a shock to his soldierly system. "So this fucker Cyrus drags all these hoplites all over fucking Persia so that he can become king, and then he's stupid enough to get killed?"

Her mouth full of lamb and barley, she confirms with a nod.

Pullo mulls it over for several minutes. "So the whole thing was pointless."

"Yes," she mutters. She tosses her now-empty bowl on the table, where it clatters with noisy obviousness like a chorus in a bad play as she snarls a very obvious subtext: "Like most battles."

Pullo casts a quick eye around the mess. One never knew when Brutus or one of his informants would be skulking about. "Careful," he murmurs.

She matches his low tone. "What can they possibly do to me?"

"Make you drink more of their bad wine, I reckon." This earns a grudging smile. "You haven't finished your story."

"Right." She draws in a breath. "So the guide was told that he had five days to lead the army to the sea; if he failed, he would be put to death. The first day passed-nothing. Then the second. Every day it became harder and harder for the men to go on through the mountains. They were exhausted and hungry. The third day-again, nothing. And the fourth. If the guide was nervous, he did not betray himself. On the fifth day they reached the mountain called Theches. At the top of the mountain, a cry rose from the vanguard. From his position at the rear guard, Xenophon feared that once again they had encountered the enemy. He despaired. For the enemy was behind them as well, laying waste to every village and district encountered. It seemed half the country was in flames.

"The shouting grew louder and nearer. Xenophon realized something important was happening, and he surged through the troops. His mouth was dry with fear. As he approached the vanguard, the cry finally became clear to him: 'The sea! The sea!' And there, at the summit, he gazed down upon the Black Sea. It meant their long journey would soon be over. The Greek homeland was in sight."

By this glorious end, Gnaeus has wandered over, plopping down on the hard bench next to Pullo. "I see you're schooling Pullo," he says to Gabrielle. "Ah, good old Xenophon. Good tale, that. So." He grins at the gladiator. "I hear we two will be stuck together in this godsforsaken village for a little while longer."

As the predictable set itself into motion, Pullo stifles a groan: Gabrielle has made eye contact with a lecherous foot soldier and, with a single motion that would have made the Empress very proud at this defense of her reputation, vaults across the table and headbutts him squarely in the chest. The fists and the cutlery began flying.

A tin cup bounces off Pullo's thick head and he glares at the befuddled Gnaeus. "Now look what the fuck you've done."

The size queen

The next day on ship, Pullo finds himself thinking of Xenophon and his Anabasis. Even though it's not the sea they seek but Korkyra, the town serving as host to Antony's winter retreat. On deck with the Empress, he even attempts a joke: "Thalassa! Thalassa!"

Xena is having none of it. When not stomping around the deck barking orders at the crew, she glowers at the rippling sea as if the Aegean directly encompasses the whole of her misery. She gives him a sour look: "Your Greek is worse than my Latin."

"Your Latin is actually pretty good," he concedes.

The compliment works in that it prevents her from further snapping at him. When they sailed at dawn this morning, the majority of Brutus's troops were lined along the way to send off their comrades and the Empress. Noticeably absent from the armored crowd was the gladiator. When pressed by Xena to reveal Gabrielle's whereabouts, Brutus affected reluctance while revealing that the gladiator's work ethic was so impressive that she had volunteered to help some slaves muck a stable. He was, he concluded with a straight face, ever so grateful to Xena for allowing this valiant soldier and role model to remain among his men.

The notoriously equinophobic Gabrielle now preferred horseshit to her. So much for love.

Xena grips a bit of rigging for balance while peering into the distance.

Pullo risks further conversation. "Do you think Antony will send a ship?"

"No. He'll make me come to him."


"Because he's a selfish prick."

"Ah." Pullo rocks on his heels and nearly falls over. Flailing, he grabs the rigging and rights himself. Balance is always tricky thing, particularly at sea. "So what's the plan?"

Surprised, Xena looks at him. He rarely thinks ahead. But then, she hasn't been very good at that herself lately. And as for a plan? "Survival. That's my plan. Because I may have to kill him, Pullo. And I don't want to because he's a friend, and he was my husband's cousin, and he's not the evil imperialist that Brutus makes him out to be."

"But-" Pullo hesitates.

"Go on. What?"

"What if he wants you to form an alliance with him?" As a ruler of Rome, it would be within Antony's power to grant her the one thing she's never made a secret of wanting: Greece.

Her mouth twitches. "It would be rude not to listen to what he has to say. After all, I am supposed to be negotiating."

"On behalf of Rome." Pullo possesses the temerity to remind her of it.

"Am I not part of Rome?"

"I don't know," he says. "Are you?"

Xena has always prized Pullo's bluntness, and never more so than at this moment. So she gives him the most honest answer she can summon in current state: "I am, until I say I'm not."

He contemplates this and shrugs. If it's the best she can do, it's good enough for him.

Xena skims hair away from her face, aligning her hand above her eyes as she scans the horizon. "I don't suppose it really matters one way or another what I think," she says thoughtfully. "Because I seem to be frequently wrong these days."

Pullo perks up. "Why d'ya say that?" At last, he thinks, she will admit she made a mistake in leaving Gabrielle behind.

"Because there's a quinquereme coming our way."

"Fuck." On tip toes, Pullo strains to catch a glimpse of the battle ship that, if Xena were correct, was larger than their own quadrireme. His blood rises. "That means he's got more men than us."

"True," Xena concedes, "but not significantly more. And that type of warship-it's not good for coastal maneuvers. Too big. Too heavy. We have the advantage there."

Pullo frowns. "I don't find that comforting."

"Pullo, look at it this way. This ship is like the Little Gladiator: Don't underestimate it, especially against something that is all size and brute strength." As Pullo contemplates the simile, Xena watches the ship's approach. "Ah, Antony," she sighs. "Always a size queen."

As the quinquereme looms ever closer, Xena has a strategy perfectly mapped out. A hard right toward the coast, shields up in the rear, a perfect mad dash to catch the hulking giant off guard, and more than a few flaming arrows as a parting gift. But a tall, familiar figure in armor and royal colors is just visible upon the deck of the quinquereme, and that figure is jovially waving at them. Specifically, at her. For a moment Xena wonders if he's gone mad in his winter palace, or if he's drunk. Antony has always been fond of the drink, it is true, but he would never be that foolish. But is she foolish to take it as a good sign? she wonders. Her instincts, which so thrive on challenge and risk, are calling. She gazes up at the rigging, gives it a good hard tug.

"Oh, no," Pullo moans. "Empress, please. Don't."

"Don't wait too long for me. If they dare to make one bad move, give the order to run like hell for shore. Lucius knows what to do." Xena grins into her captain's panicking face. "See you soon."

And before Pullo knows it, she's in motion, climbing up the mast and swinging in ever-widening circles from the rigging. How she knows when to let go, he can't fathom, but she times it perfectly and sails across the gap between the two ships, landing with feline elegance onto Antony's deck. For the first time since the ship left Garouna, Pullo is glad that Gabrielle is not present-he's certain Xena's stunt would have prompted a conniption of epic proportions.

The Praetorians and the sailors, on the other hand, are easily impressed and wildly cheer Xena. Save for Lucius, who storms up to Pullo. "Sweet fucking Neptune! That woman is going to be the death of us all."

"Yeah," Pullo laughs. "I suppose she will."

"Then let's get out of here. I'm taking her to shore."

Pullo seizes Lucius by the throat. "We leave when I say. And guess what?"

Lucius only grunts.

"I don't fucking say."

The happiest widow

Only a scant distance away on another ship, Marc Antony laughs heartily and shakes his head.

Xena rises slowly from the deck, not because her muscles ache from the impact-well, if she's honest, she would confess that a tendon in her thigh is vibrating like a mightily plucked lute string-but because a semi-circle of soldiers surround her with swords drawn.

"Stand down," Antony bellows. "Is that any way to treat the former Empress of Rome?"

Swords are lowered. Aside from the scraggly winter beard, Antony seems no worse for wear. The ruby centerpiece of his mouth glitters like a wound. "Xena. Lovely of you to drop by."

She exhales and smiles in relief. "Antony."

"Correct me if I am mistaken, but-" He takes one step closer. "-you seem the happiest widow I've ever laid eyes on."

To be continued

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