Non coerceri maximo, contineri minimo, divinum est.
[Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained by the smallest, is divine.]
~quoted in Friedrich Holderlin, Hyperion
Prelude to the afternoon with Faustina
She had wanted to wear armor to her wedding.
The advisors had protested frantically; even Caesar himself had buried his face in his hands, as if his nascent empire would surely collapse at the sight of him marrying a woman in armor. In the end he was, as usual, undone by indulgence of his lover: He married his fully armored barbarian queen. And the crowd loved it. She was a mate worthy of a strong emperor, a conquering city.
That was then, in a time before he started tinkering with the calendar and obsessing about his legacy, before his obsession with Britannia. Now Xena wants to wear an appropriate yet stunning dress for a woman who will barely register her presence—let alone, desire her—in a crowd of riff-raff as she, that infuriatingly gifted and beautifully inscrutable gladiator, fights for her life in the ring. Threaded through the days that have passed since she was not only defeated publicly but privately by the gladiator is the niggling refrain of why. A thousand questions reduced to one ringing word that pursues her through days manic with activity and nights spent in inebriated, insomniac staring games with the cat.
Xena silently demands the attention of Faustina, her “personal attendant” as the more cultivated Romans call their housebound slaves, selected for her duties because she speaks Greek—courtesy of a now-deceased Thracian husband—accented with sardonic Roman truth. The old woman raises an approving eyebrow at the Empress’s outfit, but it is not enough. “Does it look all right?” Xena demands doubtfully, runs a hand down the side of the royal, violet-colored peplos. “Good, but not over the top?”
Rotting teeth notwithstanding, Faustina smiles broadly. “You always know how beautiful you look.”
“I’m not fishing for compliments, old woman. Is it appropriate?” Even after so many years, she is always unsure the moment she steps outside the villa—of how she looks, how they will react to her: amusement, disdain, or condescension? Fear? Caesar’s spoiling of his prized wife has had its downsides.
“It is lovely. Perfect for the day.” The attendant’s gnarled fingers resume their nimble sewing, and then stop abruptly. “You are going out?”
“Yes. Which means you are too.”
Faustina glances up, surprised. “Where are we going?”
“Circus Maximus. You get to carry my sword again.” Xena gives her an irritated look. “Don’t cut yourself this time.”
Faustina is befuddled. “We’re going to the Circus Maximus?” she echoes.
“That’s what I said.”
“Domina, today is for the gladiators.”
“You hate the gladiators.”
“Stop dawdling and put on your best rags.”
An epiphany dashes across Faustina’s face, the expression not so quick as to avoid the notice of the Empress.
“What?” Xena grunts.
Quickly Faustina assumes a stony, irreproachable expression, predictably copied from a statue of Vesta, but the mystery of the bronze goddess copies poorly onto aging flesh. “Nothing.”
“Faustina, you know I am fond of you, but if you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll dangle you by the ankles out the window, whereupon you’ll lose control of your bladder and your piss will follow an very unfortunate downward trajectory.”
“Greek animal,” Faustina mutters.
“Did you call your husband that as well, dear?”
The slave can think of worse ways to spend her old age than trading teasing insults with the most powerful woman in Rome. Of course, the Empress is accustomed to getting her way, and one wonders to what lengths—defeated, she sighs. “You want to see the gladiator. The Little Gladiator.”
Xena’s own personal graffiti squad—a band of mouthy urchins happily incapable of censoring themselves and delighted to tell her that a wall near the baths says she has fellated the entire Senate—has reported no scrawls linking her in any way to the Little Gladiator. The woman knows how to keep silence, Xena thinks. But Faustina? “You’re more attentive than I give you credit for,” she concedes. “Maybe I should dangle you off the balcony.”
“You know I always keep your secrets!” Faustina protests. “Besides, it was obvious you didn’t—with her—at that time.” Squirming under her mistress’s oppressive, icy glare, she is helpless in blathering further: “She left your chambers quickly, and with a distinct look of confusion upon her face. Those who leave your chambers are many things, but usually baffled is not one of them. It was—most peculiar.”
“We were discussing Pythagoras’s theorems.”
“A unique seduction technique, domina.” Faustina gazes appreciatively at the Empress’s dress. “But perhaps a more traditional approach will work.”
“Shut up, old woman.”
Traffic on the Appian is murder and Xena arrives late to the match. The crowd openly admires their now-beloved barbarian empress and cheer at her unexpected arrival. It’s something, she thinks. The sun is merciless upon her neck, but she doesn’t mind. She squints into the bright, gold ring of the circus. She sighs. Someone interprets this as a protest against the heat and holds a parasol over her. Nothing matters except the woman in the ring—unarmed and trying to outrun the net that licks at her feet and legs like corrugated flames as she makes a final desperate dive and roll toward the only weapon within easy reach and when that weapon, a spear, is in her hand and her body in an elegant torque she throws it with unerring precision toward her challenger, who collapses with the spear quivering in his chest. A black circle of blood slowly unfurls from the fatal wound. And the gladiator remains on her knees, head bowed in helpless exhaustion amid the deafening, roaring, collective siren call of bloodlust that emanates from every being in the Circus Maximus. Except Xena.
The goddess among them
If you can help it, never show weakness. Never bleed too much.
Iolaus himself had said it was worthless advice, because no one can control blood.
She rises from the sand, twisting awkwardly on her heels, and presses the back of her hand against her mouth. No weakness. How many years has Iolaus been gone now? Her mentor, her teacher, the one who said, as long as they underestimate you, you’ll move as a goddess among them.
If moving as a goddess includes slow, stately limping. The sun is so hot she can hear it, thrumming against the cartilage of her ears, hissing as it cauterizes an open wound on her shoulder. Her nostrils quiver with the effort of composure, with the task of breathing. The healer lingers near the portal, holding the bowl. She focuses on the bowl, imagines a chalice held by a high priest, or pomegranates held by a beautiful woman—wait, why a woman, why would I think of a beautiful woman?—or the freshest, clearest water, like the streams near her home. The bowl is empty. Her mouth is full.
She had a dream recently, troubling in its happiness: She walked in a forest—younger, hair longer, with a woman who resembled the Empress, a woman who had a marvelous, rich laugh, who seemed happy in her company. Why? Why a woman, why that woman?
In the sheltering cool of the portal, still pursued by a furious legion of whys, she spits a stream of weak, watery blood into the bowl.
With priest-like portentousness, the healer gazes into the bowl. “No tooth.” His disappointing frown is more a dour accusation than any words. “We’d get good coin for a tooth.” Ever since her debut at the Circus, he has waited patiently for the prize of a molar. Something to sell to the adoring masses, the profits split evenly between them.
Gabrielle rubs her jaw. Her misfortune was another person’s talisman, a lucky charm sewn into a pouch. Loss into gain, pain into notoriety, life into dreams. Through bitter alchemy the waking world would again that night crystallize into the illusia of fragmented sleep. For the moment she closes her eyes, wishing she were already there.
No one in the training camp really knew the woman; only a few knew her name. All that sparred with her needed only to know that she was tall, sinewy, kohl-eyed, and lethal—these facts detailed by those opponents to the ever-bored Charon on their way to the land of the dead. Still, when challenged to a match by the mysterious woman, Gabrielle knew she could not refuse without losing face.
Gabrielle did, however, fleetingly reconsider the values of cowardice when she was on her knees with the woman’s arm snaked around her neck in a serpentine death grip. The tiniest contraction of her opponent’s arm, the most miniscule reflex, put unbearable pressure on her windpipe. She slackened her body to slip the deadly bind but achieved no success, she tried scraping together a fistful of sand to fling in the woman’s face but her fingers could only create helpless eddies and paths in the sand, miniature landscapes worthy of Rome’s finest engineers. As the world dimmed a heightened awareness of being cheated flooded through her. This is not—
Before the world went black she thought of ships, strange lands, mythical creatures, gods, battles, someone always at her side. All the stories of her childhood distilled into a final death dream. But she awoke later not in some perfect Elysium but in the camp’s infirmary, unable to speak, her neck swaddled in a cloth soaked in a foul-smelling liniment.
Iolaus’s one good eye, bright blue with mischief, was the first thing she saw. The old gladiator was sitting on the edge of the cot, smiling. He dribbled cool water from a skin against her lips. “I have to thank you,” he said.
She tried to speak, but could only grunt.
“Oh. Neferi said not to talk. That’ll come in a few days. But you know why I give thanks, don’t you?”
She was too drained to look inquisitive.
“You finally gave me a good reason to kill that bitch Alti.”
Alti. Why the name reverberated within her, she did not know.
“Cato paid me good coin to watch over you. But this is favorable sign from the gods too, don’t you think?” Iolaus smiled again. She had always marveled at the ease with which he did so, why the kindness he possessed had never been leached out of him through years of beatings and hardship. “They only bestow good fortune onto those favored and destined for greatness, Gabrielle. When you are the driving force behind an act for the greater good, it bodes well for you, for everyone connected with you.”
The “greater good”? She had never heard of anything so ridiculously naïve in her life. This strange philosophy, this sunny optimism was distinctly at odds with role she grew into day by excruciating day: a professional murder. She would remain fond of Iolaus until the day he died, and forever grateful for teaching her how to survive in the ring. Even though she could never conclusively decide if he himself were fortunate or foolish. She had a hard enough time discerning the truths of her own life.
The master of the horse
Marc Antony lounges with practiced grace upon a fleet of pillows and gazes with critical languor at a bowl of figs. Finally, much to the relief of the nervous attendant, he chooses one. Even then, spinning within the axis of his grip, the fruit undergoes one last mercurial examination before it is popped into his mouth.
He is rarely so discerning about women, Xena thinks. Indeed, as he had entered the villa earlier he carelessly tossed his cape over Flavia’s waiting arms and gave the old woman a smoldering look that would ensure her rapturous dreams for nights on end. The Empress is the exception, of course. Their respective loyalties to Caesar keep those selfish desires in check, beautifully sublimated through sexual gossip that was—based on Antony’s rather graphic descriptions of his conquests—no doubt more gratifying than the actual act itself would have been.
His salacious interrogations, briefly interrupted by slave, now continue: “What about Marcella?”
Irritated by yet another nonsense scroll from Alexandria about a delay in grain shipments, Xena looks up, scowling. “Who?”
“Oh. She makes a horrible face when she climaxes.”
“At least you got her to that point.”
“Yes, but she nearly broke my wrist.”
“Better your wrist than my cock.”
In spite of herself she laughs. The slave brings more figs. She rereads the scroll from Alexandria again, imagining vivid ways of torturing its fey, useless rulers. Antony mutters something about the wine tasting like goatherd spit as his nostrils flare. “Nothing new to report?”
“The Ptolemy are a bunch of shrieking, cowardly little bitches and if I had my way I would kill the lot of them.”
“Even though they are of Greek heritage?”
“Blood is no guarantor of good character.”
“Why Xena, you’re quicker than Martial after he’s had a flagon of wine.” He gazes wistfully into his now-empty cup.
“I’m not giving you another drop to drink. Now tell me: Did you come all the way from Bithynia to rehash your old conquests with me?”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious about the uprising in Bithynia?”
“Not particularly. If you hadn’t been successful in defeating them, you wouldn’t be here right now, magister equitum.” She uses his title mockingly: Master of the horse—Caesar’s lieutenant, his right hand. His presence in the city means his power now eclipses hers. It only bothers her when she allows herself to dwell upon it.
“Your Latin becomes better and better.” Antony snags a missive tucked inside his grieve—and sends it sailing into Xena’s lap. The vermillion eye of Caesar’s broken seal stares up at her. The parchment reveals the distinctive slant, the bold thickness of her husband’s hand and his usual arch tone—Stop mucking about in Bithynia, kill them all if you have to, and return to Rome. The time comes for the next move. Await my orders.
The note slips through her curious fingers, and a second round of whys—a welcome distraction from her idle obsession with the gladiator—plague her anew. Along with who, what, and where.
Antony shrugs elaborately. “It’s not my fault that your husband writes me more frequently than he does you.”
“’The next move’? What in Hades is he talking about?” You will rule Rome with me, he had said the night he returned for her, as her ship had tilted with seductive precariousness. Long ago she had mastered the art of balance on the sea, but here he was again, as promised—a wandering star, bright and unknown, from which she could navigate a thrillingly new course. It was not the route to power she had ever imagined; she had been far too disillusioned and disciplined to envision anything in life coming to her with ease. But Rome, at her feet? Was she now the bigger fool for accepting rather than rejecting this troublesome bounty?
Antony rises to take his leave as Faustina scurries in with his cape. “Your guess is as good as mine. But I suspect it concerns the ever-present thorn in our sides: Egypt.”
“And yet, he says nothing of it to me.” Is this what you gave up your freedom for?
“You run the city,” Antony replies simply. “Need you worry about conquest as well?”
“He is Caesar.” The old slave settles the cape over his broad shoulders; he turns with a flourish, nearly knocking Xena over with his cape, as his knuckles graze Faustina’s flaccid chin. “Faustina, my dear, if you were twenty years younger—“
“Try thirty,” Xena corrects, as the attendant shoots her a mock-dirty glance.
“—ignore the Empress, my dear. Clearly she has not been serviced in a very long time. But as I was saying, if you were younger, I would indeed give you a night to remember.”
While normally she could parry with the best of them, the old woman only gapes, helplessly silent as statuary.
This impresses Xena. “I’ll be damned, Antony. You’ve left the crone speechless.”
As Faustina totters off in a sexual haze, she admits to herself that it has been too long. How easy would it be to invite Antony to bed? What consequence could there be when it would clearly mean nothing to them? But then, that was the problem—she had no idea, really, what mattered to him. The long, low light from the torches on the wall ennobles his dark beauty, softens the sharp peaks of his eyebrows, his cheekbones. His eyes glow with nonexistent warmth, his lips ripen with the pulsing undercurrent of shadows. If only, she thinks, the entire world could be viewed in the theatre of the vulnerable dark, illuminated by torch and candlelight alone—what a beautiful deception, what a world of inconsequence.
The gladiator, however, needed no such trick of the firelight.
If Antony had sensed her moment of weakness, he allowed it to pass. Losing your touch, Antony. Or am I perhaps too valuable to you somehow? “If I hear anything further from him, you’ll know, of course. And—” He smiles, but this time the artistry of the flame cannot remove or transform the cool assurance of the predator, barely perceptible in the twitch of his mouth. “—I shall expect a similar courtesy.”
She echoes both the words and the smile. “Of course.”
He nods at the Caesar’s note, abandoned among her other parchments. It is an admirable calculation, leaving it with her. “We must be prepared for what follows.”
Antony laughs. “Do you really think I know any more than you at this point? That wouldn’t be any fun at all.” Dramatically elegant as usual, he ruffles his cape in farewell and she is alone with the firelight and the questions that will provide ample tinder for a restless night.
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