INFAMIA, Part II
The delicate balance
Thousands of rose petals? Scraps of red parchment? Poppy blossoms? Whatever they are, they are sacked in huge canvas bags, lumpen in a collective heaviness that only stirs to life whenever slaves darts by—and they do so frequently here in the staging area of the triumph, even as they create a generous berth around the Emperor and his mistress.
Together, Xena and Caesar circle a motionless gilded chariot, and Caesar is as excited as a boy. "I forgot to mention this." He's behind her, his hand resting proprietarily upon her hip, his chin upon her shoulder. She's aroused, nervous, irritated. "While you're riding, old Lycurgus will be with you—"
"One of my slaves, Xena. The one you threatened to kick."
"That could be any number of them, actually."
He laughs, and she loves the rich, indulgent tone of it. "Listen to me, you beautiful brute." He nips at her ear. "This is important. He will be behind you in the chariot, holding the laurel above head. And then he's going to say something to you that may sound strange, but—"
"I knew it—he does have a drinking problem, doesn't he?"
"No, my dear. It's an incantation. Part of the ceremony."
"You are going to kill me with all your ridiculous Roman ceremonies."
His breath and his kiss are warm and ticklish against her neck, his embrace tight but not suffocating. It was good, they were good together, but sometimes in nights too thick under the spell of silence and darkness—the strongest breeder of doubts—she wondered if it was all good enough. "No, Xena, listen. He's going to say to you: 'Remember, you are mortal. You are only a woman.'"
This bothers Xena considerably less than practicalities of the ceremony; already she is dully, oppressively aware that she is only mortal, only a woman, and to be constantly reminded of it seems an annoyance significantly less than the hindrance of speaking Latin. She squints skeptically at the chariot, and remembers dismally how Lycurgus always reeks of cheap wine. "How is he supposed to fit in this damn thing with me?"
"I trust that with your excellent reflexes—" Caesar spins her around and pulls her toward him. He admires the perfect pirouette as she resists falling into his arms; her hand splays—an elegant spider—across his cuirass in an effort to maintain her unshakable poise. With only this motion his confidence surged quietly; this was an affirmation that, despite the impulse of it all, he had made the right decision to choose her. "—it will not be a problem." He would always throw her off balance, and she would always land with impeccable grace.
The woman who will be
The grain of the kitchen table seems finer than the ridges on her hands. Today the ridges are heightened into vermillion relief by thin lines of dried blood—cusps around her fingernails, inlets along her knuckles. She makes study of the lines, reading them slowly, carefully; her hands are a primer on death. Today's object lesson is what to do when a fellow student tries to take the one thing you've decided will never be taken from you again, even if it is also the one thing you cannot imagine anyone wanting from you ever again. So you beat him to death with a rock and your bare hands. You breathe fear into every living creature within your reach and awe into the man who owns you. The lessons limn over one another with each passing day. Why wash your hands?
And then Cato's youngest daughter, Adriana, skips into the kitchen and places Gabrielle's wrist in the gentlest manacle ever—her own soft, young hand—and tugs with insistent playfulness.
Gabrielle looks up from the lesson. Keeping her in his home with his family is a perfectly calculated risk on Cato's part: A house of women soothes the savage in all of us, he had said. Blessed as he is, and with a daub of merciful luck, Cato is correct. For in Adriana she sees much of her own sister, Lila—so much that she believes she must be remembering Lila's qualities incorrectly, or somehow imposing them wrongly upon this sweetly bullying, spoiled girl, or just indulging in the kind of wishful thinking that blindly, happily intrudes upon the relentlessness of not only other memories, but her own reality.
Or maybe all of it.
"Come," the girl says. "Don't you want to see the woman who will be the Empress?"
Gabrielle smiles briefly, shakes her head shyly.
"Don't be silly!" Adriana pulls harder, and is not above contorting herself comically to amuse the slave, twisting like a skein of silk caught in a fierce wind, until Gabrielle relents and rises.
Yes, she is a pet—the beast adored, an Amazon gladiator-in-training, a tax break thanks to a new law passed by Caesar, better protection than a dog. She trains every day, sleeps on a pallet in the kitchen, is constantly plied with food by Cato's daughters. This morning the girls had employed her in a taste test of dates from different sellers in the city. The ones from Lydia are better, aren't they, Gabrielle?
She had agreed.
Cato and his wife, Adriana Major, are already on the balcony, waiting for a glimpse of Caesar's Greek lover. Scant days ago his triumph entered the city and this exotic woman, who rode as proudly as he did, was at his side, bedecked in armor, weapons, and colorful clothes. Since then the news reader in the Forum reported that her Latin was acceptable, her teeth in remarkably good condition, and that Caesar had spoken before the Senate on how she was an "important new ally to Rome." Rumors had it that he had already undertaken the delicate operation of divorcing his wife, Calpurnia, who was from a respected, well-connected family.
Public opinion, of course, was divided among the loyalists and those who favored an alliance with the Greeks that a marriage with Xena would bring. Regardless, all were curious to witness Xena walk, presumably unafraid. among the people. Apparently it had been her idea to conduct a walking tour of the city, bit by bit, to familiarize herself with the streets and the people, for the plebes to see that she is no monstrous barbarian.
Noise from the crowd swirls through the air. Cato stretches his stubby neck. First, a small brace of soldiers push into the intersection. Then: "That's her." A throb of excitement ripples his voice.
She stands apart from everyone, even the soldiers, and quietly surveys the streets. She is tall, wears black and gold armor and a cape, and a sword hangs at her side. Her black hair mimics the subtle fluttering of her cape. Despite her imperious bearing, she smiles easily. She recognizes someone in the crowd and walks over to Gurges the merchant, who is there with his young son. After a brief exchange with the merchant she kneels and speaks with the boy.
"Working the crowd, very good," Cato murmurs.
Adriana Major concedes, "She is very attractive,"
Cato sighs in rapturous agreement, which only makes his patient wife raise an amused eyebrow. "What? I was only thinking of poor Calpurnia! You know she won't marry again."
"Poor Calpurnia, my foot," scoffs Cato's wife. "She'll be fine. She has more money than the Senate combined."
"True enough." Cato falls silent for a while, until continuing with a sudden master plan: "Our soon-to-be Empress is a fighter, they say. She may need some bodies to practice with bodies I can provide." As if sensing that Gabrielle is standing behind him and flexing a hand that feels achingly empty without a weapon in it—as indeed she is—he turns abruptly to address her: "But not you. I haven't gotten my money out of you yet, girl."
Adriana Major, who has clearly reached that stage in marriage where the moral shortcomings of one's spouse are more amusement at best and irritant at worse and not a vast failure of character, chuckles. "You never stop, do you?"
And he, by turns equally affectionate and oblivious, can only reply: "Never, love."
Gabrielle watches the woman who will be the Empress move along down the street and out of sight. If she had been an innkeeper's daughter in Amphipolis—as they claim of this Xena—would she now be poised to rule the world? Were she and Xena different sides of the same coin? Why even contemplate it? Mere foolishness to think such a thing, to envision her image smelt upon brass. Then she wonders if Xena is truly fond of the man she is rumored to marry, as fond of him as Cato is of his wife. Never, love. Never love.
The woman in the distance recedes from view. And Adriana, who possesses a bright future as a merchant's wife, is all business as she once again tugs at Gabrielle's arm: "Servia and I have some pomegranates for you to try now."
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