The gift in the garden

One more time.

The elegant handle of the sai pivoted clumsily within her grasp. Her fingers clambered over the smooth blunt tip like a beetle on top of a dung heap, drunk with joy. For one rare moment, she could not physically keep up with her instincts; memory had not yet inscribed these minute motions upon the sinewy scrolls of her body. When the blade grazed the edge of her arm, just barely, it left a bloodline feathering in its wake.

Xena dropped the sai from her left hand; it narrowly missed her sandaled foot. "Shit."

She glared at the soldiers who stood guard at the entrance of the garden. Their sculpted faces were as pleasingly inscrutable as those of the terracotta soldiers-a massive, immobile army of statues-that Lao Ma had shown her weeks ago. Like blank-faced puppets abandoned by their animators, the guards crumpled into perfunctory bows as Lao Ma entered the green maze. She moved through the immaculate pathways of the garden, past orderly lilies and lilacs, and Xena's breath caught at the grace of her walk, the effortlessness of her bearing, and the gentle mischief of her smile. Perhaps the mere passing thought of the Chin ruler's wife possessed the power to summon her to the garden; it wouldn't be surprising, Xena ruefully told herself, because mind and matter moved on a different plane in this part of the world. That much she had learned during this fortuitous trip to Chin-that and I hate these damned weapons. Give me a good Greek sword any day.

"You know," Lao Ma began as she removed the awkwardly staked sai from the ground, "the sai did originate as a farming tool, so perhaps you are finally gravitating toward proper use of the weapon." A smile touched her lips.

Xena grabbed the retrieved sai from Lao Ma's hand. "Very funny." She frowned critically at the sais. "I don't wish to sound ungrateful-and I greatly appreciate this gift-but I'm afraid I may never master these."

"That's the point."

Oh for Zeus's sake, there she goes again. "Come again?"

"Approach the weapon as a whole. Remember that the hilt is as important as the blade."

Xena sighed. "I never know how to interpret these enigmatic little statements of yours."

"I know," Lao Ma replied. Xena raised an eyebrow in surprise; while self-assurance was an integral part of Lao Ma's presentation, its poorer cousin, smugness, was not. "You are impatient and unwilling to allow meaning to come to you. At the same time, you are nothing if not persistent."

Cautiously, and hence awkwardly, Xena twirled the sai in her right hand: Progress. "What else is persistence but a form of patience-patience in the long run, shall we say?"

Lao Ma appeared to seriously consider this. "Yes, one could interpret it as such. However, I've yet to see you display patience in the short run. You are much more concerned with-"

"-immediate satisfaction?" Xena grinned. As prelude to a passionate kiss she took a step toward Lao Ma, who retreated with a graceful half-step and feigned interest in some wild chrysanthemums.

"Not here," she murmured. She hoped she did not need to glance at the guards to silently state the obvious.

"Ah." While disappointed, Xena understood. Gradually, she was learning the benefits of discretion and diplomacy. Scant days ago, while calmly sipping pale tea the exact shade of the mountains under the morning sun, she realized Caesar's prescience in sending her to Chin. She twirled the sais again-this time with more success. "You're wrong about me."

The sudden remark caused Lao Ma to look up in surprise. Her spurious interest in the flowers had turned genuine, and she had momentarily lost herself in the texture of time- in overlapping petals, gradations of color, patterned veins of needlelike slenderness that carried forth robust life. In direct contrast to the hazy beauty of the chrysanthemums, Xena's eyes possessed the polarizing clarity of a cloudless day.

With her usual touch of mockery at the strangling customs and traditions of the country she was in, Xena bowed before the emperor's wife. "I can be patient when there's something worth waiting for." She walked away.

Lao Ma watched her retreat. Like the wildflowers hemmed in the ostentatious order of the garden, she felt uncertain of her role. It was not a common state. She had traversed the societal plane from common courtesan to emperor's wife-while staggeringly different, these parts she had played were also painfully, obviously similar. In both, sex and ardor were merely skills used in the appeasement of a barbarian's aberrant appetites. It was why her husband had purchased her; it was expected she would do whatever necessary to please visiting dignitaries, in this instance, the envoy from the Roman Empire. Lao Ma had anticipated a plump, polished, pliant bureaucrat and not Gaius Julius Caesar's new Greek warrior-wife, who arrived not in a carriage or on a palanquin but riding her own horse, armored and with a sword at her side, and speaking their language with brazen accuracy. It had fascinated and angered her: The freedom she thought she truly possessed was challenged by this woman. Once she could set aside that resentment as if it were a old broken toy, she found the truth: She genuinely liked this Western "barbarian," appreciated her lack of pretension, her tough mindedness, her blunt desire. In this role, as mentor and lover, she would teach Xena what she could, while accepting the gift of Xena reawakening her spirit, her body, and her mind to pleasures long sublimated in excruciating etiquette.

Her fingertips rested on the overlapping edges of a pink chrysanthemum. She wondered how long it would be before Xena would appreciate the gift. Sometimes gifts were puzzles that did not trade in the realm of immediate gratification. Or they were like stars: guiding their recipients toward the highest potential. The sais she had given Xena were unusual: Each sai possessed a different, distinct point of balance. The smith had followed her instructions well. The lack of balance, she believed, would keep a good warrior striving for improvement and prompt keener awareness during the height of battle. In turn, the good warrior could become a great warrior, and a great leader. Regardless of the goal, the sum of one's character is revealed in the effort to correct imperfection. To adapt.

She could not, of course, simply tell Xena that.

The empty room

The reeve fills the doorway of the house that neither he nor his family have occupied for weeks-and Gabrielle wonders, judging by his gobsmacked expression, if he's ever lived here. Her fingertips drag against the tabletop, unconsciously searching for dust. Realizing what a possessive and presumptuous gesture it is, she winces and clears her throat. "I trust everything is in order?" she asks.

His hearty laugh and easy smile remind her, grudgingly, of Cato's best aspects. "Are you joking?" A broad wave of his arm encompasses the whole room. "This is the cleanest it's ever been!"

She bows. "Thank you for allowing the Empress to stay at your home." Gabrielle hesitates to leave. Already the cottage is transformed for her-the fire dimmer, the chair legs more crooked, the table smaller, the large bed less inviting.

And the reeve notices. "You were, ah, comfortable here, I hope? And the Empress too-I know it's not much, but was she satisfied with the place?" He smiles apologetically.

"Yes." She forces out the syllable. What else can she say? Yes, she always enjoyed fucking me by the fire and in your bed and even once on the table-I regretted nothing but the splinters. You really should sand that table down a bit. There was that, but so much more, and now the air has changed because she is gone and our words have died without substance. What was here is gone. All of it. "She was quite pleased." And so was I. Gabrielle stares at the planks of the floor. "Thank you."

As Gabrielle leaves she passes the reeve's wife, who is less appreciative of good coin and clean house: She mutters "Roman whore" at Gabrielle's back as the gladiator leaves the only place she's known love. Gabrielle ignores both the desire to bury a dagger in the ingrate's throat and the burning itch of her eyes that signal impending tears. A deep breath helps. The reeve's passel of children will have undone all her tidying efforts within the day. It doesn't matter. She cuts across the village, catching sight of Brutus, idly overseeing preparations for the army's evacuation from Garouna. "Shouldn't you be doing something?" he calls to Gabrielle-more out of genuine curiosity rather than irritation and yet despite this, his voice still rings with petulance.

Gabrielle does not hesitate for a moment as she walks by. "No."

She ends up at Ariana's house. The widow, in mourning for her lost relationship with Pullo, is barricaded inside and hostile to visitors, particularly Roman soldiers. Gabrielle risks this for a visit with Ariana's goat, who is uncommonly docile and tender. She is scratching the goat's nose when she notices a flicker of movement from just beyond the stable yard, within the dense weave of a copse of trees lining the edge of the property. Hand on the hilt of her sword, she crouches down. The goat interprets this as permission to graze on her hair. Then the intruder cautiously reveals himself. It's Ping. She untangles herself from the hungry goat and walks toward him. "What are you doing here? I thought you left with-her."

Sometimes it is difficult even to summon Xena's presumptive former title.

The healer shakes his head. "The Empress has granted me my freedom. So I've stayed behind."

"But you're hiding. Why?"

Ping smiles archly. "Do you think Brutus would allow me to remain free?"

"No," Gabrielle admits.

"Correct. So I shall remain in hiding until he leaves. Don't worry, the generous widow Ariana feeds me as well as her goats. She said she liked me because I am not a Roman. I don't know what that has to do with anything, but I accept her kindness. Once the army decamps, I shall plan on how to get home."

"That's a long voyage, isn't it?"

"It's been so long I can't remember. But the risk is worth seeing my home again. I have, however, one last duty to discharge." He nods at a cloth bundle tucked under his arm. "The Empress requested that I give you something."

Gabrielle scowls skeptically at bundle. "I'm afraid to ask."

"Then don't." Ping offers it to her. "Just open it."

Together they kneel as Gabrielle unknots the cord around the cloth and unwraps it on the ground. The sais glitter upon the coarse cloth-if not consummately loved by their previous owner, were nonetheless oiled and punctiliously pampered by her, their lesson having been proved time and time again-and the faint hint of disappointment upon Gabrielle's face melts into outright disgust. "Weapons." Gabrielle sneers. "How romantic."

Ping had been present when Lao Ma gifted them upon Xena. He had rolled his eyes in disgust as the barbarian queen had groaned in robust, childlike pleasure at the sight of the weapons, and nearly laughed in spite when she accidentally skewered one of Lao Ma's favorite pillows with one sai. He has long thought that was the decisive moment that his mistress had decided to make him Xena's next gift-no breach of etiquette ever escaped Lao Ma's attention. He knows the history and purpose of the gift, and believes that the sais have finally found their rightful owner; like an oracle, they will guide her with quiet, mysterious appropriateness. Her innate curiosity takes over and she picks one up, admiring the glint and the heft of weapon with a warrior's practiced eye.

"You have no idea," he says.

She felt sorry for the tiger

Within the stifling quarterdeck of his ship, Antony makes a show of surveying his slaves. The slaves, male and female, stand in a line and, despite the nauseous sway of the ships, remain as rigid as the most disciplined of soldiers. Several break a sweat under his continued scrutiny; none are relieved when his façade breaks when he grins at Xena. "Would you like one?"

Each and every one is attractive in his or her own way. One, handsome and dark, dares to catch Xena's eye. In another time, she might have been seriously tempted; now, she tamps down an ever-increasing chasm of frustration with a practiced leer. "I'm good. Thanks."

Even with his ragged beard, the sardonic twitch of his eyebrow restores Antony's former glamour. "How unlike you."

And how easily we fall into step with each other again, Antony. "You know I don't usually sleep with slaves."

"True, but, desperate times bring desperate measures. I know you. Surrounded by nothing but soldiers and slaves, you must have picked one or the other for fucking." Antony looks at her archly. "And don't tell me you're in love with the great Queen of the Nile."

While there's no point in denial, there's no advantage in confession either. "Actually, I wouldn't want to disabuse any of your slaves of the notion that you're a good lay by comparison with someone far superior. Not good for morale."

He laughs. "Same old Xena." The slightest dismissive nod sends the slaves scattering above deck and he attends to the decanter of wine himself, pouring out two cups. Poisoned? she wonders. How pedestrian, Antony. You wouldn't, would you? At least send me out with a good fight. "How does it feel to be on the other side?" he asks.

"The other side of-?"

"Courting, my dear. Nautical romance. Or was Caesar's coming to claim you upon your ship a story concocted for the plebes? He always insisted it was true. I'd no reason to disbelieve him." Antony pauses before handing her a cup and asking abruptly, "Do you miss him?"

Oh gods, not this. I miss him the way I miss my virginity: With thoughts of both fleeting fondness and liberating relief. "I think of him. And yes, when I'm on a ship I can't help but remember that time-" No wonder, Xena thinks, she experienced such a strange bout of déjà vu when she landed in a crouch on a ship she had never before boarded. How different it could have been, how foolish it all was, to trust him like that. He could have killed her and everyone on the ship; she had been warned a thousand times by nearly every member of the crew-and M'lila. But despite the urgency of her instincts at that moment, she had trusted him. And now she has once again done something so foolish: Leaping onto Antony's ship armed only with a sword and her questionable wits, in an attempt for-of all the ridiculous things in the world-peace.

"After he died, and I sent the message and I did not hear from you, I did not know what to think," Antony murmurs as he slides the cup of wine toward her.

She leaves it untouched. "What could you think but the worst? I understand."

Antony's dark gaze lingers on her, as if he's trying to cast a spell. Perhaps he is, she thinks, and looks away. "But what an opportunity: Away from Rome, unfettered by any ties to it, and in a place where you could establish an empire of your own. Establish a base of power. Challenge all comers and take what they're foolish enough to risk."

"Tempting, but never my intent."

"No?" He forces a smile.

She pauses. Do you ever know your own mind, Xena? Something her mother had said long ago. "No."

He drains the cup of wine in one gulp. "Try it. I brought it with me-can't abide this island swill." Almost dainty, she sips. It's a good Roman red. "The thought occurred to me," he continues, "that my message was intercepted, tampered with. I knew of Ponthius's machinations as much as you did. He had a reputation for making himself invaluable to the royal family." Antony gives her a pointed look. "Including Cleopatra."

She bristles. That Cleopatra was not the most trustworthy individual has become clearer over the past several months. Hindsight is for fools like me. "What are you implying?"

"Only that Cleopatra, as well as Ptolemy, would have benefited from you not receiving any messages from Rome either." He sits his empty cup next to hers. "Don't you think?"

"She seemed genuinely surprised when I informed her Caesar was dead."

"Oh, I'm sure she was. But she was aware of Ponthius's sway over her brother, and that the eunuch had enough power to intercept a wide variety of messages. And it wouldn't have benefited her either to have you well informed of what was happening in the world beyond Egypt. As long as you and your army remained in Alexandria, she would easily keep her power."

It makes sense. The little bitch. Too late to have her killed or even threatened. "How do you know what she was aware of? There is no way of knowing this for certain."

He laughs harshly. "You have no idea how much you sound like Caesar now. But ah, Xena, there is a way of knowing. There is. From a hutch Antony removes a small bundle of tightly bound scrolls. "Your paramour was quite the indefatigable correspondent." He smirks. "Care to read some?"

She selects one at random. The Queen of Egypt writes in a tight, neat hand; Xena recognizes the script quite easily. She broods, anticipating the arrival of Brutus. She tells me that the armies are hers and hers alone. I beg for protection. I shall be denied. Alexandria will stand defenseless without the important alliance with Rome, and if we fall to barbarians and invaders, what of your citizenry? What of your grain? Do you really trust her now?

So. While she solidified Cleopatra's base of power, made new laws, retrained the army, resumed grain shipments to Rome, dealt with the tedious masses, engaged in disappointing sex while secretly lusting after the gladiator-especially during her early morning drills in the courtyard, right under the bedroom window, before she set off for the library-and, in all seriousness, contemplated a rehaul of the septic system, the backstabbing bitch was courting Antony: I petition you, as a champion of justice and freedom, as a lover of culture and knowledge, to protect my city. Am I mad to imagine that we two could rule together?

Xena tosses the scroll on the table. "Well, then, Antony. Why are you here and not in Alexandria, ruling with the bitch?"

Antony laughs and sprawls as comfortably as he can in an uncomfortable-looking wing chair. "It's flattering to have so many women offering themselves to me. Cleopatra, Octavian's sister-well, Octavian, the little shit, is doing the offering on that score-" He pauses. "-and you."

Xena picks up Cleopatra's scroll again, contemplates it, and crumples it. "Despite what you think, I'm not here to proposition you or force you to marry me."

"You wouldn't have to do much forcing, dear." As always, he plays the rake quite well.

"Keep fluttering those eyelashes like that and you'll cause a typhoon." Oh, great. I'm flirting back. The tiger can't changes its stripes. Perhaps this was all for the best, Gabrielle. She recalls one of Gabrielle's more amusing anecdotes from life in the ring: How, fleeing from an opponent, she had tripped over a half-dead tiger so incensed at having his death throes interrupted that the beast spent his final-albeit misdirected- fury killing her challenger.

Xena had chuckled at the story. Gabrielle, on the other hand, gave her that melancholy smile-the one that always encompassed an uneasy resignation of the past, a cautious acceptance of the present, and an outright distrust of the future-and said,I felt sorry for the tiger.

"So why are you here, then?"

"To ensure that your aims and intentions are in alignment with the triumvirate, and to promote the ultimate restoration of the Republic-"

"Ah, Xena, our good Greek watchdog. What did Brutus promise you as reward for your service? That you would reign over your homeland? A little presumptuous, don't you think? He's not even in the fucking triumvirate, and neither are you."

In response Xena smiles, shifts, and feels the comfort of the dagger in her right boot. "The triumvirate was always a parlor game of musical chairs. It can change at any time."

"Speaking of games, tell me." Antony's mellifluous voice ensnares her with the past. "Do you miss our old games? What was she like in the bedroom, the great Queen of Egypt?"

"A great letdown. You're not missing much."

"Pity. Hope your gladiator was better." Xena wonders if shock is visible on her face; it must be, because Antony barks a triumphant laugh. "Ah, there's my confirmation. Cleopatra reported that you were sleeping with your little pet gladiator at the same time you were bedding her. I daresay she was expecting sympathy from me-which I offered, of course, but thinking all the while, 'Good for you, Xena! You never disappoint.'" Antony leans forward to snag the decanter of wine. "Now what was she like? I was quite intrigued with her myself."

Her hand tightens around the wine cup and she refrains from bashing him over the head with it. It is pointless to correct him but funny, she thinks, how quickly she vacillates from flirtation to fury. What was she like? What can I tell you? How her skin tasted after a sweet, soaking rainstorm? The arch of her back as I brush the knuckles of my hand along her spine? How sometimes her smile wasn't so sad, and how I would give the world to make certain she would smile like that every single day? No. This she would share with no one. "Rather, why don't you tell me why Octavian is trying to pawn his sister off on you? I thought you were already married and reasonably happy with-"

The mood in the cabin turns as abruptly as the tide at sea, and all from the darkening of Antony's expression. The beard heightens his fierceness, and his voice cuts across the heavy air with increasing menace. "That boy," he snarls, "that fucking boy, thinks he can dictate not only the terms of the empire to me, but also my personal life."

"How on earth can Octavian make you do anything?"

"With his legions, his ships, his money. A lot has changed since you've been away. More than you realize. And more than that idiot Brutus knows." Antony stands, sways with the rhythm of the ship, and presses his forehead against a low, rough beam.

This uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability provokes no pathos from Xena. "What do you mean?"

"I should have told you the second you set foot here, but even then-" He tries to be confidently casual with a shrug, but his tired eyes limn everything with hooded defeat, even simple confirmation: "You're caught."

The stiffening of her spine, which had begun the moment she set foot in the cabin, is a subtle, prognosticating torture. "By Octavian?"

He nods.

Octavian. The silent partner of the triumvirate was now the wild card. For so long she had thought of him as nothing but a boy, and a boy possessed neither interest nor use to her in any way, shape, or form. As such her nephew-the heir apparent to the Empire-has remained a bit of a mystery to her. More than anything, he preferred spending time in libraries and gardens, anything that provided him with solitude. Xena suspected, however, that he was ambitious beyond all outward appearance; what others mistook for mere passive bookishness she correctly interpreted as the keenness of the observant, of someone with a long-term goal carefully biding his time. He possessed in legions the kind of patience that Lao Ma would have appreciated-the kind that built empires beyond imagination. Despite what Lao Ma had thought, however, she could be patient too. And so while she was patiently fixing Alexandria and patiently waiting for the right moment to claim the gladiator as her lover, Octavian's time had come-right under her nose.

To be continued

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