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“Piss in it.”
The soldier named Plancus blinks helplessly at battered pail at his feet, and then at the woman before him—the former Empress, current Consul, and mad bitch who was probably screwing Antony below deck while they were all doomed to die at Octavian's hand. They couldn't blame Antony , really, and in fact had even been joking about it earlier : Well, why not? What a way to go, with that succubus on you. But now here she was, with Antony standing behind her and smirking as if he were most certainly in on this questionable joke.
“What?” Plancus's voice quavers and rises; he knows that later he'll catch shit for it from everyone within earshot.
“Are you deaf?” Xena snaps. “Piss in the bucket. Relieve yourself.”
“Sweet fucking Zeus, never before have I had a problem getting a man's cock out of his pants!”
This finally breaks the remnants of Antony 's questionable reserve. He laughs heartily. “Well, your approach is rather lacking in this instance.”
“ Just do it ,” Xena snarls.
Eyes squeezed shut, hopeful that the most basic of functions will not falter in this crucial moment, Plancus undoes his trousers and relieves himself.
Xena frowns at the steaming, smelly contents. “Eh. That should do for now.”
“Are you sure?” Antony pipes up. “It's not like we have a shortage, you know.”
“Oh, shut up. If you'd consented in the first place, I wouldn't be badgering your crew for piss.” Carrying her inexplicable bounty at arm's length, Xena once again heads below deck. Antony exhales a long-suffering sigh, rolls his eyes, and follows
Silence drifts across the deck, as the soldiers and crew contemplate both the increasing menace of Octavian's ships that grow closer with each passing minute, and the increasing bizarreness of their leadership.
“Greeks truly are peculiar,” Plancus says to no one in particular.
The left hand
Ensconced once more back in Antony 's quarters, Xena stares glumly at the bucket of piss. “Ideally, it should be putrefied.”
“I thought you knew what you were doing,” Antony retorts. Once again his mood runs the gamut; in scant minutes he has gone from the gentle good humor of a parent indulging a petulant child to tense recrimination.
It's hardly surprising in battle situations, Xena reminds herself, this vacillation from black, absurdist humor to grim realization of lies ahead. “I know what I've been told, nothing more.” Weeks ago she had badgered the most-reluctant Ping to tell her all he knew about Greek fire. After snorting derisively at her calling it Greek fire —“Lao Ma was correct, you Greeks claim credit for every invention under the sun”— Ping casually recited the ingredients and how they should be prepared. She had scrawled all this on a scrap of parchment now lost, although Xena reckoned that it might now be somewhere among Gabrielle's scant possessions, because the gladiator was notorious for hoarding any bit of parchment and/or writing utensils she encountered. This thieving trait, once found charming by Xena, now infuriated her. Relying on the corridors of her mind alone to hoard knowledge made her extremely nervous; it always seemed that the more she strove to remember something, the more she forgot it. Her memory was a ball of dust in a windstorm. Should have made Ping tell it to Gabrielle. She, an elite student of Cicero , would remember.
But she's not here, is she?
After she had secured the recipe from Ping , she had galloped triumphantly back to the lake, where she found Pullo and Gabrielle in a melancholy tableau resembling bored lovers—the food gone, the wine spilled, he fast asleep, and she gazing wistfully across the lake. Her fingers lightly brushed Gabrielle's shoulder in greeting. The sorrow of the gladiator's smile in return led Xena to the shaming realization that this woman deserved far better than what, thus far, she had been given by everyone, including herself.
Antony runs a hand through his hair. “Then this is all a waste of time. We should be strategizing.”
“We have the element of surprise: My ship.”
Warily he eyes her. “So you've said.”
“I shadowed you. It was deliberate.” Xena allows it to sink in: The closer her ship was to his, the more dangerous it would be for him to use fire as weapon without having it turned back on him with ease. She knew he would not risk it; he was far too inexperienced at naval warfare to take the slightest gambit. “And now, from Octavian's point of engagement, they cannot see my ship. It's all a matter of revealing myself at the right moment to maximize the effect.”
Antony 's thumb taps the hilt of his gladius. “This is awfully well planned. Even for you.”
The hairs on the nape of her neck rise in a wind of apprehension. “You didn't think I'd come out here to meet you—and not prepare for the worst?”
“Oh, no. Not to meet me .”
Octavian, she realizes. He thinks she is here to meet Octavian.
Antony moves faster than she remembers—unless, of course, she's out of practice, which is highly likely—his blade flashes and she leaps back, knocking over the bucket of piss. She draws her own broadsword. In such close quarters, the clanging of swords seems deafening. She wonders if the crew above can hear it. Locked together by bronze as if they are ill-fitting puzzle pieces, they stagger around the room in a clumsy dance until Antony gathers enough momentum to send Xena barreling over a table with one furious push. A candle on the table hits the floor with her. The flame smolders dangerously until she tamps it down with the palm of her hand. The gentle bite of fire distracts from the pain shooting up her lower back.
“Why are you here?” he hisses bitterly. “Was this all part of your plan? You arranged it with Octavian—to take me out.”
Wincing, Xena rises. “Don't be so fucking stupid.” Wrong tack. “I've had no contact with Octavian. Why would I? He's as threatened by me as he is by you.”
Antony 's nostrils remain furiously flaring, as if he's a steed in the heat of battle, but he makes no move toward her.
“I told you I was sent here by Lepidus and Brutus,” Xena reminds him. “If a triumvirate is a body, then I'm the part that's expendable. I'm the left hand.”
“Really. Nobility is not something I usually ascribe to you, so what do you get out of this?”
“Nothing!” she shouts. “I get nothing. I want nothing.”
He points the sword at her. “You want Rome .”
“Even if I did— Rome doesn't want me.” This splinter of realization has burrowed so far under her skin that it was easy to ignore until now, until the pain and infection of resentment finally manifested itself. “It was never mine to begin with. It will never be mine. The smartest thing to do is to walk away.”
Slowly Antony lowers the sword. For the moment persuasion has prevailed. “Yes. You've always been practical, Xena. But the one thing you've always wanted above all reason is your homeland. Greece . Surely Brutus and Lepidus promised that to you as a reward. Or you thought I would. I know you.”
Wearily, she shakes her head. “You don't know me anymore.”
“Don't I?” Clearly surprised and piqued by this statement, Antony 's brows hitch in surprise. “We understood each other from the very start, Xena. Do you remember Caesar's triumph, when he brought you to Rome as if you were the greatest trophy of all? He treated you as if gold ran through your veins. Do you remember that night, the celebration in his villa? You were surrounded by every purple robe in Rome and I could tell the wealth and the beauty of the scene dazzled you, but you were at heart unimpressed by it all. You looked as bored as I was. I was watching you because you were clearly the most interesting thing in the room. And I remember thinking, this is a woman after my own soul. And I wished you were mine, but I knew it could never be. No, I've always understood you so well, and that was enough.” Through reclamation of their past he has come to see her as she is now: changed, vastly changed, from the woman who intrigued him so many years ago. It's a curious loss—the prickling of a needle that pulls the final thread of their tapestry. Antony blinks and shakes his head. He picks up the fallen candle and rolls it thoughtfully between his palms. The wick smolders. “What has changed you?”
The furor and pace of the last few weeks, the last few months, finally blindsides her: Everything she has lost, everything she has gained. And lost again, it seems. Wearily she leans against the wall. “It will sound trite.”
“That can mean only one thing.”
“Yes. I'm afraid so.”
“Then tell me. Who, at long last, has claimed your heart?”
She laughs. Because, even to herself, it still seems as surprising as it was inevitable. “Do you remember that gladiator I purchased before I left?”
“Ah!” His smile of approval is visible in the soft darkness of the room. He fumbles for a bit of flint and parchment to revive the candle. He makes several attempts to reignite the flame, every attempt at battling darkness longer than the previous one. “How funny.”
“How so, Antony ?” she asks gently.
“That something so small and seemingly insignificant could change the course of so many things.” The flame takes and the candle is lit and he sighs. “I knew she was dangerous.”
No sooner had the battle begun, it was over.
From the crack in the shutter at Diokles' inn, Gabrielle and the innkeeper had taken turns watching the tide of the fighting shift and reverse, as mysteriously governed by the whimsy of Ares as the sea's tides are by the moon of Artemis. Similarly during this time, Diokles had informed her of how the current of power had shifted in Rome . Slowly and steadily Octavian won over the military through the canny use of his limited funds, portraying Antony as corrupt spendthrift, and his relentless touring throughout the peninsula. He appealed on the basis of being Caesar's legitimate heir, on repeated promises to maintain the Republic, and on the youthfulness that hinted at one being easily manipulated or swayed but, in reality, belied an iron-clad mind.
Surprised that the battle has ended so quickly, Gabrielle decides to leave. The door of the inn closes behind her and she's on the desolate street. Her arm is still warm from Diokles' tight, grateful clasp of farewell. The air is smoky. None of Antony's men are seen; an hour before, she and Diokles witnessed a weary line of soldiers wearing Antony's colors lurching down the street, in a direction leading out of town. Where they were going, she hadn't a clue. She imagined them going back they way she and the Praetorians had come, until they were stranded in Garouna.
Now, with both battle and day on the wane, she refocuses on the goal of getting to Antony 's lair. From where she stands, the promontory of Antony 's so-called white palace is visible. Ostentatiously white, gold, and blue, it juts out precariously from the rugged cliffs above the sea, as if it were a toy stashed there impulsively by the strongest of giants, Porphyrion , for dubious, childlike safekeeping. In strides as long as she can manage and with her eyes trained on the palace—as if it were a mirage that would disappear if she so much as blinked—Gabrielle begins her solitary march to the palace. She skirts the sluggish fires, the tired, nervous citizenry, the remnants of Antony 's men aching for one last shot at a Praetorian; almost every soldier she passes, however, doesn't bother to engage her. The only one who does will wake up later in a pool of mud with a broken arm.
She has not gone far when the noise of a rattling cart from behind catches her attention. Male voices, loud and drunken, add to the cacophony; syllables knit themselves into words as the horse-drawn wagon pulls closer and finally sentences flow in annoying familiarity:
“Hey, it's her. Hey, Gladiator! Little Gladiator!”
“You mean Little Whore!”
“Shut it, Flavius, you fucking idiot.”
The last voice, Gabrielle recognizes gratefully, is Gnaeus.
The wagon rolls to a stop at her side. From her earthbound perspective Gnaeus looms above her with regal triumph, confident as a general. He bestows a grin on her. “Going our way?”
From there, it's not a long ride to the mountain. Victory carries them along easily. Gabrielle realizes that this is the first time she's ever seen Gnaeus without his helmet; the silvery shock of hair surprises her. When he smiles at her again, she smiles back. She wonders if she will live long enough to go gray. When her smile fades, Gnaeus pats her arm paternally and tells her not to worry—the battle has been won, the “negotiations” are no doubt complete, and Xena will arrive in port soon. Even as they abandon the wagon for the march up the mountain and he grows breathless as they approach the top, Gnaeus's optimism never fades. In this aspect he reminds her of Iolaus and because of that she sends a quick prayer to any and all gods listening to keep him safe.
It's time to make the fire
On the deck of the Praetorian quadrireme, Pullo has fallen into a light sleep. Even as his fluttering eyelids resist the lure of daylight, he is gently lulled by the cradle of the sea and seduced by a vivid demi-dream of that beautiful red-headed hetaera he'd had in Alexandria . But all is violently interrupted by Lucius's braying announcement: “Oh shit, Pullo, here she comes again.” He opens his eyes just as Xena hits the deck, tumbling to an elegant stop before bowling over the group of soldiers who cheer her return. After their obligatory half-bows, Pullo and Lucius stand ramrod-straight with apprehension as she approaches them.
“Empress,” Lucius quavers.
“Well?” Pullo blurts.
Grimacing, Xena rolls her shoulders. “I'm thinking I may give the jumping-off-ships thing a rest for a while.” The agony of expectation on Pullo's too-expressive face, however, brings her around to the matter at hand. “Crisis averted with Antony . Unfortunately we have a new crisis at hand: Octavian has three quinqueremes approaching us from the west .
Lucius swallows nervously.
In contrast, Pullo's eyes glitter dangerously. “Is it time to make the fire?”
“Yes, I do believe it's time to make the fire, and may the gods save us from my inept memory. Lucius, do you have a bucket handy? I've a favor to ask.”
If no less puzzled, Lucius at least proves less modest than his counterpart on Antony 's ship.
The winter palace
Marc Antony's winter palace has witnessed more peaceful and prosperous times. The main gate is charred and unhinged. The palace's modest moat is clogged with bodies, mostly soldiers of both armies, but some civilians and—Gabrielle's blood rises with rage—women and children. In comparison to the gladiatorial arena, the stench of death overwhelms. The sound of lute and drums, and triumphant shouting, falls over the scene. And yet they celebrate .
She follows Gnaeus inside the palace and past candles that stand as scented sentries, shuddering with relief. Gnaeus begins barking orders at whomever crosses his path, demanding to know where Brutus is. No one seems to know. He asks about Antony . Gone, they say—on a suicide mission to thwart Octavian. Suicide, she thinks. And will he drag Xena down on his mission?
So much for a sense of relief.
Ignored and invisible, she glides through the maze of the palace with her heart at a frantic pace, up a staircase that widens as she ascends. It is as if she senses Brutus, knows exactly where he will be: Because he fancies himself a great leader like Xena, he will isolate himself from the masses, sit alone in aloof triumph, and watch the world celebrate his great victory. As Xena did during Cleopatra's coronation; this post-victory melancholy she never quite understood—in her eyes, Xena had accomplished a good thing—but then it never occurred to her to ask Xena for an explanation. She thinks she may never get that chance now.
In a spacious room with a broad balcony overlooking the sea, Brutus is indeed alone. He stands at the edge of the balcony and stares at the vast expanse of water. Behind him is a long table cluttered with maps and scrolls and flanked by gold divans. A statue of Caesar, displaying an aged gravitas that the real man never possessed, observes benignly from a far corner.
Hearing Gabrielle's cautious tread startles Brutus out of his reverie. “You made it. Good.” He looks back at the sea. “Good,” he repeats absently.
Standing beside him on the balcony, Gabrielle takes in the stunning panorama. From this vast perspective Antony and Xena's ships are visible but, sadly, insignificant. Like the toy boats that Cato used to carve for his children. She knows the smaller, sleeker one that huddles amiably beside the larger ship is Xena's. The two ships, however, are not alone. Three ships are aimed at the imposing broadside of Antony 's ship, like darts suspended in midair. It couldn't be good, but Gabrielle knew so little of nautical warfare that she risks the naïve question. “Those other ships out there—are they Antony 's?” she asks hoarsely.
“No. All of Antony 's vessels are accounted for in the harbor.” Brutus nods toward the cluster of ships. “I am certain those three ships flanking them are Octavian's.” He doesn't seem surprised.
Now it all seems painfully obvious—not a trap per se, but an inevitability that Brutus was no doubt counting on. Fate, a voice in her mind sings this damnable one-note dirge. “You knew Octavian was coming. Didn't you?”
He sighs. “It only made sense.” He turns away from the ships and walks back into the room.
The urge to slit his throat is strong, and she nearly whimpers with the effort of restraint. Think. You must think.
“But it is better this way,” Brutus, obliviously continues. “He will defeat the imperialists and silence the Optimates. It will be a fresh start for the Republic.” He nibbles at his bottom lip. “And I will have no choice but to make my peace with him. Unfortunately, it may be too late for Xena, since she's out there already with Antony . They must have made an alliance at the last moment.”
It's said to taunt her. She ignores it, but just barely. “Xena's not an imperialist.”
For the first time since her arrival, Brutus meets her eyes—and sneers incredulously. “You cannot be so naïve. She has put a spell on you. I thought perhaps getting you away from her would help. And I suppose I didn't think it possible—you are very smart, but no one can resist certain potions. That must be what's at work here. Think about it: Do you know how many women, how many men, she's laid with? Do you think you're so special?”
“This isn't about me,” Gabrielle retorts. “ You made an alliance with her. You forced her into this triumvirate. You sought out her help. And now she requires your help.”
“The triumvirate is as good as finished. It's over. Against Octavian—and Agrippa, who knows warfare at sea better than any Roman alive—she and Antony haven't a chance.”
Kill him. “So much for honor, then.”
“This isn't about honor. It's about survival—the survival of the Republic.”
“We have enough men out there to put on a ship. It's not too late.” She hears the frantic tremor of her voice.
Brutus shakes his head. “It's not worth it.” With firm gentleness he grasps her arm, completely oblivious to her flinching. “Listen. Take your chance. You can be truly free now. You can do so much with your life. Why, you could return to Rome with me if you like. I can always use a scribe. You—you could become part of my household. Not as a slave, of course.”
Angrily she pulls away.
“You don't understand,” he pleads. “I don't want that. I want to help you.”
“I don't need your help! What I need is a ship with some men who are ready to fight.”
Brutus's mouth tightens. “It won't happen.”
“Like hell it won't,” Gabrielle snaps. “Those men out there would die for her, and you know it. All I have to do is go out there and tell them that their Empress, their Consul or whatever the fuck you're calling her now, is in danger and they will go down into the port and get on the first ship they find. They don't give a shit about you or what you want. They're here because she ordered it, because they expected her to enter into the port triumphant. So it will happen. It will happen without a single fucking word from you.”
Iolaus had always said that because of her size and sex, she would hold the element of surprise in a match, that opponents would consistently underestimate her. But, he had reminded her, just because they underestimate you doesn't mean you should return the favor. Seconds after she turns toward the door she realizes this mistake with Brutus. But it's too late to rectify the initial error, because his dagger has found the gap in her armor, her vulnerable side. The blade glides in and out, severing her from her immediate purpose and inflaming the world with pain.
“I didn't want to do that,” Brutus says softly. “I wanted to help you.”
The backhanded apology only serves to irritate. Gabrielle staggers until she finds support against the table. Blood seeps around her fingertips. Pullo's imperative once again floats through her mind: Keep moving . But the slightest push from Brutus topples her to the ground. She juts out a leg and trips him, leveling the playing field. No longer full of pity and longing but fury and false betrayal, Brutus punches her in the face. Not as hard as the guard at the Alexandrian brothel did, but enough so that she could map out imaginary constellations should she choose to do so. He is on his knees, on the rise and looming over her, when she claims the sai stashed in her right boot and plunges it through his chest. The horror and surprise of it all is Brutus's death mask. He collapses on her, his mouth, frothing red, pours blood along the golden, armored contours of her shoulder. In death, he is closer to her than he ever was while alive.
Sliding out from under his deadweight takes a small eternity, as does standing up. The table helps. In fact, she finds she cannot leave the crutch of the table without risking another meeting with the floor. But when she hears the sound of voices near the door, she starts yelling for Gnaeus. The old centurion bursts through the door, followed by half a dozen Praetorians. The dead member of the triumvirate and Gabrielle's bloody wound battle for his befuddled attention.
“Gnaeus!” she shouts as she loses her grip on the table and just before the world goes dim, “I need a fucking ship!”
Fourth time's the charm
Xena works with Pullo in grim, attenuated efficiency. The rank assemblage of ingredients are soaked and pounded into cloth and tied tightly around a projectile. They lack the siphons and tubes suggested by Ping for maximum efficiency—that this requested bit of equipment had not made it on board caused Xena to kick the quartermaster squarely in the balls—but she hopes catapults will do the trick. When the work is completed and a line of smelly missiles await the catapult, Pullo finally dares the question he's been waiting to ask. “Is there a plan?” he asks in an undertone.
“When they are close enough for arrows and catapults, Antony is to throw his flag starboard, where we can see it. Then we move—coming out from behind his ship, and shooting like mad. Tell Lucius to stand by for the order.”
As Pullo darts off, Xena keeps her eyes trained on the ship before her. She stares so long and so intently that it seems her mind is playing tricks— Antony 's ship is not only swaying, but moving away from her. Indeed, this sinking realization sends one single thought sailing through her mind faster than that fat, stupid quinquereme: Sonofabitch. She knows what Antony , who is every inch the soldier, is doing—and what anyone not a soldier would call it: Suicide. He is going to ram Octavian's lead ship. He is going to go down fighting. He is going to have an honorable death. At this point, beyond his fealty to Xena, it's the only thing that matters to him. And he's going to fuck up everything. Maybe.
His final words to her now make sense, the lingering grasp of his hand upon her arm, that quick, unexpected kiss upon her cheek: No matter what happens, Xena, you will be fine. Trust me. It will all be a matter of timing.
Pullo is no sooner back at her side than she shouts out the order: “Man the catapults!”
As the cover of Antony 's Trojan horse agonizingly falls away, Octavian's ships are in sight.
“Release!” Xena roars.
The first missiles of Greek fire hit the water. And release nothing more than great gray billows of smoke. It's useful camouflage, confounding the enemy. But when Octavian's arrows rain from these clouds and the men dive for cover when a shield is not at hand, Xena can only hope her plan yields some kind of result: With each batch of missiles, she had tinkered the recipe somehow in the hopes of yielding the correct formula. Given her unreliable memory, it was the best strategy she had: calculated guesswork.
The second time sputters like a half-assed fireworks display, a paltry counterpart to the ceremonial processions and celebrations she witnessed in Chin.
The third time is smoke and arrows again, and this time an arrow finds her shoulder. But she grits her teeth and gives the order for the next round.
The fourth time, however, is the charm: A curtain of flame unfurls across the water, like a colorful howl of rage from a dragon. She would revel in the triumph but for Pullo snapping off the arrow in her shoulder and pushing the remainder through flesh, muscle, and blood. The last thing she sees before passing out is Antony 's ship, blocking the furthermost ship in Octavian's minifleet, in a fury of immolation.
Tea and mockery
Her memory is a lake, disrupted by ships of dreams: That first voyage to Rome and those days and nights of brutality, contrasted with that first voyage to Alexandria , the sight of the lighthouse, and Xena's hand a gentle compass resting against her skin.
Gabrielle wakes in a cradle of pain: her face hurts; her side hurts even more. Every breath is an aching effort. Her eyes focus warily on the dark wooden beams overhead. She's in a bed, eerily in motion even while lying still. If that is not clue enough, the overwhelming scent of briny water is. She turns toward the only source of light: A small portal window that reveals the unhappy marriage of a leaden sky to a brusque, choppy sea.
It figures, she thinks. Hell would be a ship. Well played, Hades.
When a wave of nausea hits her and she dry heaves over the bed, however, she starts to worry that she is actually alive. Possibly a slave again? No—she would be chained in some dank hold with rats nibbling at her wound. Instead she's in a rather decent, clean bed, and the wound in her side is stitched and bound with the tidy efficiency of a competent healer. She is too weak, and her throat too dry, to call for anyone. So she waits, drifting in and out of sleep, until the sound of the opening door wakes her.
An elderly man with a limp, carrying a steaming mug of something foul, enters. “You're awake. About time.”
Weakly, Gabrielle pulls the coarse blanket over her bare torso.
The man laughs. “Come now, it's nothing I haven't seen a million times, and trust me, you aren't the envy of Aphrodite.”
Petty insults and shitty tea. Yes, Gabrielle thinks, I am definitely alive.
“Now your friend, on the other hand—“ he chuckles coarsely. “Hera's tits, she's quite a specimen.”
Friend? She struggles to sit up, tries to get the word out of her mouth. The old healer ignores these pathetic attempts and gently pulls down the blanket for a cursory glance at the bandaged wound. “No bleeding. Good.” He thrusts the tea at her. “Drink.”
Desperate for any beverage, she gulps it down and, ignoring the hopeful rush of blood pounding in her ears and aching in her chest, finally manages to croak: “My—friend?”
The healer laughs archly. “Yes, that beautiful, bossy Greek bitch who says she's just a fisherman's wife but swears like a sailor and ties fancier knots than a Alexandrian whore. She's a good worker but she keeps trying to run the damn ship. Sound familiar?”
Tentative, Gabrielle smiles and sighs. The empty cup loosens in her grip. “Very much so,” she replies slowly. She falls asleep again.
Ashes and light
There is something in the world called snow , Cleopatra thinks.
Xena had told her of this phenomenon, of the soft, cold white fluff that falls from the sky—like frozen rain—in colder climates, like the mountains in her native land, and like the far-off Nordic regions that the Queen of Egypt only ever read about in scrolls. Cleopatra still remembers the lovely fluttering of Xena's fingers as she mimed the soft, random fall of snow. So soft, so gentle—a single flake can dissipate in a second on the heat of one's tongue—and yet when amassed in great quantities, it can be as impenetrable and imposing as a pyramid.
On the balcony of her palace Cleopatra imagines that snow is somewhat similar to the ash floating through the air around her. Except that the fresh, swirling ash is warm and gray, almost stinging upon the skin. The scent of burning parchment grows stronger by the minute. Does snow have a smell? she wonders. It has been days since Octavian's forces had arrived, besieging the city of Alexandria and making good on their threats to lay waste to the city's most valuable asset: the library.
The fire in the library started a day ago. At one point it seemed contained and eliminated, but renewed fighting reignited it. The old librarian, Apollonius—once her tutor, who babysat her with scrolls and stories and was more a constant in her life than anyone in her family ever was—had refused to leave. She arranged to have him drugged and smuggled out of the city. She could not bear the thought of him witnessing the mass destruction of his life's work.
As for witnessing the obliteration of Alexandria —well, that is her duty. It is her city, now hers alone. Xena's alliance paved the way, although the treacherous yet useful eunuch who, at her behest, snapped the neck of her brother proved essential as well. She stands as the sole ruler of Egypt . Xena's last words to her, which lacked any form of recrimination or regret, have haunted her since: The power you wanted, the city you wanted—it's all yours now. Remember well the responsibility that comes with it or it will eat you alive.
The ashes roll aimlessly like the ghosts of locusts haunting the sky. The last occupant of her bedroom is an asp hungry for her blood, waiting for the moment when she releases him, for the moment when the Roman soldiers are banging at her door.
The next time Gabrielle awakens, Xena is sitting on the edge of her bed, as if she were a goddess easily summoned by thought alone. Her appearance, however, is distinctly ungoddesslike: She's dressed in commoner's clothes, a simple brown cloak and dusky, dull brass armor that designate allegiance to no one but herself. She looks tired and drawn—shadowy crescents lurk under her bright eyes—but she is alive and apparently uninjured.
Immediately Gabrielle attempts sitting up, winces in pain, but before she falls back onto the pillows Xena catches her in a gentle embrace. Their lips are too close and the inevitable happens too soon; even the softest kiss overwhelms Gabrielle with the memory of what she believes she does not have and will never earn. She breaks the kiss, and the resultant dueling emotions of Xena's disappointment and her own resentment leave her momentarily exhausted; the residue of these wearying feelings are a greasy overlay—a dirty window upon a clear day, a distortion of what should be proper happiness.
Xena carefully lowers her back onto the pillows. “Relax. Don't say anything.” She offers Gabrielle water from a cup.
Gabrielle drains it quickly; the restorative effect of cool water always a marvel to her. Nonetheless her simple question still takes effort: “Where are we?”
“On a ship. I told you, don't speak. We can talk later. But we're safe.”
The idiotic, obvious answer frustrates her. She sucks in as many breaths as possible to keep going. The mysterious healer had said Xena was “a good worker.” Why was the Empress working and not running the ship? “Where—“ she coughs, “—are we going?”
Now I remember why sometimes I wanted to kill you. “Where is ‘home'?”
“Wherever you want it to be.”
If Xena thinks her cryptic, unflappable answers are meant to sooth with their dubious charm—and obviously she believes that—then she is tragically mistaken. Impatiently, Gabrielle tries again. “What—what's happened?”
Xena pauses, considering what to tell the fragile yet increasingly enraged invalid. Uncharacteristically, she plays it safe. “Rather a lot.”
With feeble fury Gabrielle tosses the cup at Xena, aiming for her head but merely grazing her elbow. “Why are you still so fucking annoying?” she cries.
Xena manages a look of dignified, wounded affront, an expression that her late husband coached in her to marvelous effect. “Will you settle down and stop fucking swearing for a moment?”
Unwelcome tears cloud Gabrielle's eyes.
“Please. Don't. I'm sorry.” Xena leans forwards and gently cups her face. The edge of her thumb catches a rivulet of sadness.
Something is different, Gabrielle realizes, something greater and more substantial than her fuzzy mind had previously allowed. The hand caressing her face feels—strangely lighter: Xena is not wearing her signet ring, the intaglio of power that marked her as the Empress, that heavy golden ring that had run a sensual course over every dip and turn of Gabrielle's body. As much as she had loathed what the ring represented, she loved the cool, solid reassurance of knowing who touched her.
“I'm sorry. Much has happened,” Xena is saying, “so much so that it's hard to present a concise account. The battle you participated in is over, but with heavy consequences on all sides. Octavian claims victory, if only because he is the only one who survived. Marc Antony's ship was destroyed and he died a hero's death. Save for Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, exiled in the remaining members of the so-called triumvirate died in battle.” Xena pauses. “Even the Empress.”
“Even the Empress?” The puzzled Gabrielle echoes. Perhaps it's true, perhaps I am dead, or crazy? Again she glances at Xena's bare right hand. Or else it's the greatest gift ever?
“I'm afraid so,” Xena continues. “Turns out the damn fool couldn't properly prepare Greek fire after all. Pity. I hear she was rather a stunning beauty and a woman of superior character—“
“Well, I don't know about that,” Gabrielle rasps weakly. Already, she thinks, they have fallen into that familiar pattern and while she despises the weakness of falling so quickly after so much has happened, she loves that the foundation they have—comprised of and/or based on what, she has no idea—is still present.
“Yes, she did have a dubious reputation. Regardless—I regret to inform you that the former Empress of Rome is dead. But the woman who loves you is very much alive.”
“Oh.” It feels anticlimactic, if only because one little stubborn fortress, one defiant section of her heart always knew it for truth. Gabrielle looks for something to throw at Xena again, but there isn't anything except her pillow, and she's loath to give it up. “So now you finally say it.”
Never one for admitting errors, Xena pinches her brow and acknowledges this serious tactical mistake in courtship: “Yes. Perhaps you think it too little too late, but I've been rather busy and you were in some kind of—coma, so declarations of love seemed rather pointless. Words usually fail me unless—I'm being insincere, and I've never wanted to be that way with you.” Xena looks down and takes a deep breath. “But. I have surrendered all that I know for the opportunity to wake up next to you every morning. I have enough coin to get us both a place to live and enough parchment for you to write a thousand epics. I will steal scrolls for you if you like—as you know, librarians are terrified of me. We can get you a cat, maybe like Timon. You will admit they are easier to care for than children. And I will not tire of loving you because there is no one like you anywhere in this world.” Xena pauses; the gods have not yet struck her down for speaking sincerely. “I know as far as proposals go, this is even less romantic than even Caesar's flat proposition to me so long ago, because I can't offer you an empire, or a world you've never known. All I have is the truth of what I say, and what I feel.” Her moment as a prospective suitor at an end, Xena fiddles anxiously with the leather stay of a bracer. “Will it do?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle takes her hand. The lines mapping the palm are world enough for her. “It will do.”
He calls himself Augustus now.
Pullo remembers his as a youth: gangly and thin, strange and awkward. His new role as a warrior-emperor, however, has transformed him into lean elegance. But his face still betrays the look of the ascetic, as if he would rather be performing rites at a mystery cult than ruling the Empire he has held together with calm tenacity.
A winter rain has left the bare branches of the trees outside luminous with raindrops that scatter in the wind and glitter in fierce bursts of post-storm sunlight. Pullo watches the drops fall, waits for Augustus to deliver his fate—and, indirectly, Xena's as well. For several long minutes the Emperor has said nothing, which is something that would drive a lesser man mad. And while he is not known for his patience, Titus Pullo is known for his loyalty. He will accept whatever befalls him, if only because he has no choice.
The Emperor turns from the window. “You saw her body?”
The rowboat lurched through choppy water, further and further away from the hell on sea composed of the flaming carcasses of three ships—theirs, Antony's, and one of Octavian's. The remaining two vessels—one significantly damaged—were in retreat. Pullo figured they wouldn't risk taking Kassiopi; they had no idea what forces awaited them.
He took turns rowing with Lucius. Xena, wounded, was barely conscious. Her shoulder was bandaged sloppily, and he feared that somewhere Ping was cursing him for his lack of skill in the healing arts. As Kassiopi came into sharper focus, Pullo was startled out of a moment of exhausted reverie when Xena grasped his hand with surprising strength, pressing her signet ring into his callused palm.
“I'm dead.” Never before had she looked at him so intently, and for so long. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, Emperor.” Pullo pauses, uncertain of offering more detail. But Augustus remains gazing at him calmly, like a child expecting more of a story. “She was mortally wounded with an arrow. Before she died she gave me the ring and instructed me to present it to the next leader of the Empire.”
“Not me, specifically.” Augustus says wryly.
“With all due respect, the Empress—the former Empress—was not an oracle.”
“You have always spoken bluntly, Pullo. I see that has not changed.” Augustus's thumb brushes against Xena's signet ring. “Why did you not try to claim her body? To give her a proper burial?”
Pullo shifts nervously and hopes that Augustus interprets this as accompaniment to the lie he unfurls: “When you're running for your life, you're not stopping, not giving much thought to the dead, but rather trying to avoid their ranks.”
Augustus snorts derisively. “The gods have mercy on your craven soul, Pullo.”
Relieved, Pullo dips his head, accepting the chastisement and remembering the last he saw of Xena some four months ago: In the full regalia of a centurion that they lifted off a dead man, right down to the helmet that disguised her sex and the armor that protected her wounded shoulder, striding through the port of the seaside town with only one thing on her mind: Finding the gladiator, dead or alive.
“Do you really expect me to believe that?” Augustus asks quietly.
Pullo's head snaps up, the clicking in his neck only slightly alarming in comparison to the sudden close proximity of Emperor.
Augustus's smile is chilly. “A man as loyal as you would not leave the woman you served to the depths of the merciless sea. Even if her body were cold and dead. No, Pullo, you would have dragged Xena's corpse to the shores of Kassiopi and given her a funeral that would have rivaled Caesar's in splendor and fire.” He takes steps closer to Pullo, all the while still caressing the ring with his fingertips, and to Pullo's astonishment speaks even softer, in a frightful, reverential whisper: “Would you have dared defy Mithras so?” The Emperor is as tall as he, and his calm, expressionless eyes are those of a man who knows true power. “Do you want to kill me now, Pullo? Now that I've exposed your lie?”
Pullo stiffens. The moment they start talking about lies, he thinks, is the moment they start preparing the executioner's block. “Emperor, please—”
Augustus interrupts gently. “I've no wish to harm you. Rather, I applaud you. Loyalty is an invaluable characteristic. Worth more than gold—no wonder Xena kept you around. But since you returned to Rome , I assume your loyalty to the Empire trumps your temporary madness: allegiance to a Greek. You are truly a soldier of great merit and, if you're interested, I should like to retain your services. But before we begin those tedious negotiations, I'd like to clarify: I'm not interested in whether Xena lives or dies. As popular as she once was, she remains infamia: A Greek. A woman. A sexual deviant. And nothing without Caesar. No Roman would follow her now.” Augustus holds up the ring. “No. I'm interested in this. And why she gave it all up.” He give Pullo an expectant look.
“It's very simple,” Pullo begins.
“Then please do enlighten me.”
“Love?” Augustus echoes incredulously.
The Emperor laughs, and with that Pullo releases the breath he's been holding for nearly a minute, unfurling a coil of anxiety wrapped deep in his gut. “Really? Is that it?” In amusement Augustus seems young again as his nose crinkles in disbelief. “With that—that unbathed gladiator ?”
Pullo nods again, while refraining from commenting that Gabrielle was probably the most hygienic gladiator he'd ever encountered; in fact, she bathed so often he feared for her health—it didn't seem normal. Didn't she know the protective properties of dirt?
Satisfied with Pullo's answer—the simplest answer is usually the true one, the Emperor believes—the relaxed Augustus sprawls on a divan and continues to admire the signet ring that glitters within his grasp. “I supposed it makes sense.” He shakes his head. “Just like a woman.”
Three years later
As a town elder, Eusebius was generally accorded the respect his age merited, even though Gorgos thought the old man was basically an idiot. But when the giant arrived in town and started terrorizing everyone and eating all the livestock, Eusebius had suggested, with surprising common sense, that the town pool their money to hire mercenaries to take care of the giant. He even had two excellent candidates for the job: former Roman slaves, one of them rumored to be a gladiator, who lived in one of the coastal villages and who were known to make themselves available for such tasks.
And so it was arranged that Eusebius would take the money to the mercenaries—the meeting spot a dodgy tavern just outside of Corinth —accompanied by Gorgos, widely considered the strongest and bravest man in the village. But when Eusebius led his young comrade through the tavern to a secluded back room and two strange women, Gorgos nearly throttled the old man. They were, he believed, about the waste the entire town's resources on women, probably whores, who would abscond to the city with their funds.
Before he could snatch the money pouch away from the old man and leave, spry old Eusebius sat down and engaged the women in conversation. He bought them new drinks and proceeded to spool out the long, mind-numbing story of Cliff the giant, so named because when drunk he would sometimes fall asleep up in the mountains and roll off a cliff. Unfortunately, the drunken falls had little impact on Cliff's physical well being.
Upon closer inspection, Gorgos thought the women did not seem like common-variety hetaeras. In fact, they wore armor and carried swords. The short blonde one politely interrogated Eusebius; despite her gentle demeanor she sat with the attentive, ramrod posture of a soldier and her wary, sea-colored eyes restlessly scanned the tavern for potential disturbances. The other one was even more intriguing: unusually tall for a woman and possessing the elegant coiled menace of a brooding cat; her chilly blue eyes were half-lidded with boredom as Eusebius droned on about Cliff. But it wasn't until a dropped cup clanged noisily—prompting a curious, controlled tilt of her head that revealed a handsome profile, a profile seen on a coin some years ago—that Gorgos nearly jumped out of his skin.
Like all the major players at the Battle of Actium, the Empress of Rome was presumed dead. Unlike the Brutus and Antony , however, her body was never found—just a signet ring produced by a loyal soldier who claimed she perished on her sinking ship. Rumors persisted that she still lived, that she roamed Greece performing good deeds for the citizenry, and that some day she might emerge once again as a leader of the nation—her nation. He thought it all a crock. Until now.
Gorgos snorted and giggled.
The woman he believed to be Xena, the former Empress of Rome, stared at him, and not in a good way. “I hope you have good reason,” she muttered imperiously, “for smirking at me.”
He snorted and giggled again, this time adding a derisive, barking laugh: “Ho!”
The smaller woman now looked displeased as well, and her hand strayed to the gladius at her side. “Did he just call you a whore?” she asked her companion.
“No, no,” Gorgos protested. “It's not that. It's not that at all.” He shook his head. “I can believe this. You're Xena, aren't you? The Empress of Rome, as I live and breathe, so do you!”
“Boy, are you drunk?” embarrassed old Eusebius asked.
“Don't you see, old man?” Excitedly Gorgos gestured at the tall woman. “She's the Empress! All the stories are true—she's not really dead!”
“Zeus's balls, Gorgos.” Eusebius shook his head. “You always cause trouble, no matter where you go, making people uncomfortable. I asked them to let me take Demetrius instead, but no—“
“Damn it, you fool, are you blind? Look at her!” Gorgos's voice rose. A barmaid glanced at him.
As he thrust his hand at the woman once again, the object of his scrutiny seized his wrist, twisted it, and pinned it to the table. Tendons crunched, her thumb plunged into his veins, and his vision grew spangled. He would've passed out but for her velvety voice, issuing the most seductive threat ever: “Let me make this perfectly clear. You're quite mistaken. I'm not the Empress of Rome. I'm just a humble widow who owns a horse farm and a vineyard by the sea with my, er—”
“—cousin,” the short blonde interjected.
“—yes, cousin, and I do odd jobs every now and then to get by, because sometimes the vineyard business is kind of slow—”
“—because sometimes you think you can make good wine out of brambleberries but you really can't,” her companion muttered.
The stare that Gorgos found so petrifying had no effect on the short blonde, and prompted the woman who may have been the Empress of Rome to whine: “Are we going to go through this again? In front of people? It was an experiment—“
“—that went so horribly, miserably wrong it should never be repeated.” This blunt assessment is undermined by her companion with a gentle, teasing smile.
The woman who is maybe perhaps most definitely Xena returned the grin—and would have happily drowned in that smile because she remembered all too well a time when this woman, her beloved, did not smile at all—until Gorgos squawked in pain. Guiltily, she released his wrist. “So we're understood, Gorgos?”
Nodding violently, he rubbed his wrist and leaned back in his chair as far as possible.
Awkward silence bullied its way into the room. Until Eusebius risked closing the deal. “Then it's settled? You'll take the job?”
The women looked at each other. Xena shrugged, Gabrielle nodded, and Eusebius shoved the money across the table.
“Great. Another fucking giant,” Xena sighed.
Mercenaries for good
The tavern, situated on the city's acropolis, looks down on Corinth . The first thing Gabrielle does in the room is open wide the shutters and gaze, with quiet excitement, at the urban sprawl below them. In contrast, Xena flops fully clothed onto the bed, which releases a cloud of dust and in her mind justifies her decision not to remove her boots. Are such accommodations fitting for the former Empress of Rome? Perhaps not, but after some food and wine fill her belly and she has put the bed to proper use, she won't mind. Still, she coughs dramatically.
Gabrielle indulges her with a smile before returning her attention to the sprawl of Corinth . Rome it is not; in comparison, it's little more than a backwater. But Rome seems another lifetime, another lifeline etched in cruel carelessness along her palm. She remembers all too well those nights of witnessing the city from the window in Cato's kitchen, of knotting together torches and constellations into something grander, something better than she had ever experienced. Perhaps something like the life she has now.
Of course, she mistrusts these pacific moments; her mind begins racing, worrying that Xena is not really happy with their lot together. She looks at Xena, limp across the bed. Is she bored? Unhappy? Merely sleepy? “I'm sorry it's another giant,” she says.
“Why? It's not your fault.” Xena pauses. “But this time we're handling it my way.”
The last giant they encountered benefited, however briefly, from Gabrielle's attempt to negotiate with him. Her appeals for “behavior modification for the greater good,” however, fell on large, deaf ears. She would have been crushed to death if not for Xena's unerring toss of a spear that severed the giant's carotid.
“So no talking to the giant?”
“Only from a safe, respectable distance, and only for five minutes. No invitations to tea.”
“Pine needle tea is usually very calming—“
“It tastes like piss and I'm not risking you getting crushed by some clod again.” Underneath the humor is a tone that brooks no argument.
Still, she wonders if Xena is truly happy living this life. They are “mercenaries for good”—Xena's term for what they do, which assuaged her wanderlust and her need of a powerful purpose. As strong as Greece was, it was like a jeweled necklace: impressive when strung together and as such invaluable, yet easily broken. Being on the other side— Rome —had revealed that to her. Greece needed protection, she had once said to Gabrielle.
They had been safely ensconced in a rather nice inn—drinking by a fire, and waiting for the right time to intercede in a rather nasty dispute between two city-states. Protection from what? Gabrielle had asked.
Xena had smiled grimly. Protection from someone like me.
When they did not roam the countryside for things to do, people came to them, to the ramshackle vineyard where they lived: The buildings were old, the vineyard itself dubious, but they had both been so enchanted by the view of the sea that Xena threw her last solidus at the owner, who had inherited it from his dipsomaniac uncle and was eager to unload the property.
Initially the idea of being a vintner had appealed to Xena. In addition to a fine palate she had the stubbornness of the weeds that had overrun the fields. Thus far her efforts had yielded nothing drinkable; the infamous brambleberry wine, in fact, had made Gabrielle throw up. After that Xena focused all her nonmercenary activity on her second true love: Horses. Ostensibly their “official” reason for being in Corinth —not that anyone would really ask—was to purchase a fine young palomino. Not unlike an expectant mother, Xena had already given the beast a name—Argo—and had cleaned and lined a stall at home with fresh, new hay.
In between these peaceful gaps, they disposed of giants and defeated warlords, freed slaves, and negotiated resolutions—sometimes at the point of a sword—in precarious skirmishes between city-states. Much to Xena's dismay, their reputations spread. Octavian (as Xena still called him: “Augustus my ass, he will always be skinny, dull little Octavian to me”) possessed a long memory and, perhaps, an even longer reach. Nearly two years ago Pullo had got word to them—in a message calibrated and concealed in the code he learned from Xena so long ago—confirming that the Emperor knew Xena lived, but seemed relatively unperturbed by this fact. That could change, they realized, at slightest perception of Xena amassing any kind of political power in Greece . Her existence, Gabrielle knew from the start, was an open, dangerous secret. Everyone knew who the “Warrior Princess” was; that many were willing to let the mystery be was an invaluable token of gratitude.
Much to Xena's paranoid annoyance, however, Gabrielle recorded their activities in her scrolls. Xena suggested that instead she write her own history: the stories of being a gladiator. Even years later, it was too soon. Every day, no matter where they were, she awoke with the wolf of her past at the door. Someday, she thought, she will write it all down. Her life. When we are old, and the only adventure is getting out of bed in the morning.
Xena yawns. “I can't believe you've never been to Corinth .”
“Village girls, slaves, and gladiators don't get around as much as pirates or Empresses.”
“Truth to tell, you haven't missed much.”
Always identifying with the underdog, Gabrielle is compelled to defend poor simple Corinth : “There is a library here.”
This brings about a derisive snort from the well-traveled Xena. “It's nothing like what you're accustomed to, my dear.”
Gabrielle dreams of a mission that will take them to Pergamum ; Xena promises that one day they will visit the library, now the most fabled in the world since Alexandria became ash. Ever since news of the fire and Cleopatra's death reached them, she has thought of Apollonius nearly every day. Did the old man perish with his beloved scrolls? Or rather, did the enormity of what happened to the library kill him? Either way, she could not imagine him surviving the catastrophe of the loss; it wounded her as significantly as anything she had withstood as a gladiator. She hopes that, dead or alive, he hears her thoughts.
Uncanny as always, Xena senses the fluctuation in her mood, and encourages gently: “But you must go. Maybe tomorrow, before the play.”
“We're going to a play?”
“But you hate plays.”
“True, but the problem is I love you, and I know you love plays, and you've humored my reclusive nature enough recently. So I figured since we're in the big bad city, we'd see a play. It's Aristophanes, I'm afraid.”
“I like Aristophanes.”
“He's kind of an asshole, don't you think?”
Gabrielle laughs. “That's not very insightful criticism.”
“Give me a good playwright and I'll give good insights.”
“So you're not worried about being recognized?”
Xena sighs, sits up, and sheds her cloak. “Oh, I don't know why I even try—“
“So you're not going to wear that red wig?”
“You'd like that. You're such a pervert.”
“Says the woman who would teach Sappho new positions.” Gabrielle leans into the open window. Years ago, she thinks, she would be tongue-tied and terrified to even joke in such a fashion. But now? The warmth of the sun mixes with the slight chill in the air. It's the recipe for spring, for light kisses upon her neck that are not unexpected, for yielding to the hands that knead her hips, beckoning her to turn around.
They kiss. The sun seeps into Gabrielle's back and the languorous moment draws out, fueled by the warmth of reflected light and the day's promise unfurled before them. Until Gabrielle, finally noticing how Xena is not attired, pulls away with a squawk of protest: “Get away from the window! You're half naked!”
Indeed, Xena is topless, save for a bra. “I'll be fully naked soon.” She wastes no time in undoing Gabrielle's vest. “You better catch up.”
Gabrielle maneuvers them away from the window and toward the bed—Xena's goal all along; she was always the superior strategist . “I thought we could walk around,” she mumbles between kissing, “explore the city—”
This time Xena halts the kissing, with a disgusted look.
“All right, I would explore the city while you drink wine and look bored.” Aside from the library, there is one destination that Gabrielle is determined to seek out on her own. Alone. But she has already planned that particular errand while Xena examines horseflesh tomorrow. For now Xena has carefully stripped her, admiring the revelation of her body as if Gabrielle were her own creation. In a way, she is; formed and changed by Xena's perceptions, by love itself. Together they fall into bed effortlessly, as they've done many times before, and she pulls Xena atop her. “But perhaps we can do that—later.”
“Yes. Later.” The back of Xena's hand brushes along her shoulder, her breasts, her torso, teasing even lower, before returning to touch Gabrielle's face. She does not miss the ring: the signet ring, the gladiatorial ring, the rings she traced in the lonely Roman nights. She smiles into Xena's touch, into the fingers that tenderly trace her lips. “Much later.”
Flesh and blood
With the shawl covering her head, she could be any freewoman in the city entering the Temple of the Fates, and not the blonde-haired gladiator who was at one time more famous than the Emperor and Empress themselves. Even though her companion now eclipses her in fame, she is always cautious to avoid recognition. How fortunate, she thinks, that such a modest, simple covering so easily corrects the burden of infamia.
In the temple her fingers writhe through the candle's flame, pausing only briefly for the punishment of heat, the threat of blistering skin. The thick incense lays heavy as a winter cloak yet with the summery, cloyingly sweet scent of jasmine; the silvery smoke diaphanously drapes the angular figure of the priestess, who stands erect, half-naked, and unwavering as statuary.
The priestess, brandishing a silver cup, demands a blood sacrifice; any animal will do, she says.
I am an animal, Gabrielle replies.
The priestess considers this, and shrugs compliance.
Lips pressed together in anticipation of pain, Gabrielle takes out her knife and slices open her palm. As her blood winds its way into the chalice, she wonders what on earth she's going to say when Xena notices the wound. A fight, of course. Xena would believe a fight. The priestess gestures for her to kneel, and she does.
In the candled dusk the priestess recites prayers in a dialect so archaic Gabrielle can't understand half of it, but the incantation summons the fates and their loom. Head bowed and on her knees, Gabrielle listens as the singsong voices of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos weave multihued skeins of possibility within her life. The fates confess how the glittering and darkened threads of her life were altered; nonetheless, they will always remain forever entwined with Xena's. They tell the tale of what now has never happened: A girl who becomes a bard and a warrior rather than a slave and a gladiator. A warlord who is a broken, haunted woman, but who becomes a heroine for all time. The price of redemption, calculated too high. A lonely life half-lived. A mantle never desired. The wrong conclusion to the right story.
It answers all her questions, the questions that began the day she first met the Empress of Rome. Trembling, she binds her bleeding hand and with a million thoughts crowding her mind, begins to rise.
“Wait,” the priestess commands. She steps closer to Gabrielle, who remains kneeling. A knife rests on the priestess's open palm, the veins of her wrist sing in the struggle for perfect repose.
Cut the threads, Atropos says.
And all shall be as it was before , Lachesis confirms.
The priestess anticipates the unspoken question in Gabrielle's heart. Dark eyes respectfully downcast, she gently challenges the goddesses: And if she doesn't?
Clotho the weaver, who knows the bounty of the loom and every thread's rich possibility, answers: Want nothing and you will have everything.
The knife remains in the priestess's hand.
With a bow of acknowledgment to the priestess and the Fates, Gabrielle rises. The bandage has loosened itself around her hand and she tightens it, staring at the criss-cross weave against her skin. Is the loom of the fates truer than the loom of her hand—the lines of flesh and blood, the ragged gossamer of a bandage? She will never know. And, the Fates help her, neither will Xena.
She walks out of the temple and into the sun.
Returnto the Academy