Conversations with the night
The full moon over Rome provides stingy light, but enough so that the progress of the clouds in the sky can be observed by anyone remotely invested in such matters—soothsayers, astrologists, astronomers, scrupulous forum readers, and sleepless gladiators. Tonight the clouds, thin and feathered, melt slowly like ice as they traverse the swath of sky, promising blue clarity for the following day. From her perch at the kitchen window, not far from her pallet, Gabrielle gives in to the caprices of pain and stretches. Wincing at a deepening throb in her shoulder, she nestles her head against her forearms. She will not allow physical discomfort to spoil this, her moment with the night. If she could say that she loved anything—if a fit of curiosity or kindness, or a touch of conscience ever prompted anyone to ask—she would say that she loves night. It is cool, quiet, solitary. It is temporary, ideal death—not the Tartarus she fears, of eternal torture by those she has slaughtered. It is not the Circus Maximus.
Out in the comforting black, a few bobbing torches mark human activity in the city—like golden echoes of stars coalescing in an earthbound constellation. As the points of light move and, in some cases, dissolve, she imagines the formations of new firmaments, connected with bright gossamer lines drawn with unerring precision within her mind.
A floorboard creaks and the high flame of a candle leaps upon the wall—an unwelcome interruption to her conversation with night. It is Cato. His gaze briefly touches hers before he looks down—ashamed at seeing her in nothing more than a shift, or for what he was about to request, or both? "Come with me," he whispers.
As he prepares the torch for their travels, she secures her armor. It is a role she has played before: Bodyguard, enforcer. Normally her appearance alone at his side is enough to ensure that restitutions or reparations are made or debts repaid; a few occasions, unfortunately, necessitated action. The last one who had threatened her master ended up with his very own dagger in the throat. They always look surprised when they die. She does not like it. It is nothing like the ring; there, when those in imminent defeat finally accept death, it is blessed relief.
Outside, Gabrielle follows Cato through the clammy air, to the accompaniment of his labored breathing. Their torch bobs along the Palantine's dark, winding path, the rhythm only temporarily displaced when his sandaled foot makes contact with a rock. "Bubona's cunt!" he curses as he hops. Then he laughs. "I know what you're thinking."
She says nothing.
"I wouldn't last a moment in the Circus Maximus."
He is right on both counts: That was what she was thinking, and he would most certainly drop dead the moment an opponent so much as looked at him. At the pinnacle of the hill she glances back at the undulating flecks of fire. The constellation of Rome. Almost poetic, almost visionary, she would drift into this imagined constellation once again but for Cato's sharp, apprehensive gasp.
Eight men form a semi-circle in front of them. She counts two torches, five broadswords, one with a club, the largest one second on the right. She feels Cato's beseeching look on her but cannot be bothered to assuage him, for she must focus on Cicero or, more specifically, a key work of the great orator. She seizes the sputtering torch and with two broad, quick sweeps, extinguishes it. It is night—true night, her night—once again.
Cicero's De oratore speaks of the art of memory, so essential in rhetoric. A truly gifted orator or bard must summon forth epic speeches and stories at a moment's notice.
The crunch of pebbles under a boot, a cry of outrage, the hiss of a rash, poorly aimed sword.
To begin, there are five parts to rhetoric: inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, pronuntiatic. It is the crucial fourth stage—memory—that tests the mettle of the finest orator, for invention, arrangement, and style rest upon an easily accessible storehouse of facts and persuasive details.
She jams a dagger in a throat of the first man closest to her and seizes the sword from his limp hands.
To strengthen the memory, one uses places—loci—and images—imagines: The latter imprinted in crucial order upon the former, as symbols and letters pressed upon a wax tablet.
Dispatches the second and third would-be assassins with ease.
A good loci is important, Cicero says, for it can be used repeatedly in different circumstances to remember new material.
Feels the movement of the fourth man bearing down on her, momentarily ducks him for the unsuspecting fifth, who finds himself impaled by gravity. A neat backward lunge with the sword takes care of the fourth.
A common student of rhetoric will find that a building or some other form of architecture will suffice as a loci.
Her sweeping leg brings down the sixth. She snaps his neck; he is dead before he can even think of playing dead. She claims his sword. The seventh manages to nick her side before she plunges the sword into him, so deeply that the night ripples with a gentle froth of blood.
For the rare student, however, unorthodox methods will do quite nicely.
With her sword at his throat, the eighth and final opponent is on his knees sobbing for mercy, divine intervention, his mother, and a final cup of wine when the sky is lit up with a torch from a balcony window in a villa that, in daytime, would be most impressive. From her position on the ground, Gabrielle sees only a hulking shadow of a man and a torch-bearing slave visible upon the outcropping of darkened marble.
Then the shadow speaks with the arch candor of those not easily impressed: "Oh, brava."
In the labyrinthine villa, so different from the modest town home of Cato, she sits in a damp, dull antechamber as her bloody hands are rinsed clean by a slave and she struggles to hear the susurrations between Cato and the villa's master taking place just beyond the open door:
Cato's reply is soft and, she thinks, melancholy: "Yes."
"Passed with flying colors."
This time Cato's response is unintelligible as the two men walk away. From a greater distance, in another room, she hears the pleading cry of the other survivor of this staged battle. Please, master. Please. She flexes her stiff shoulder. The rest is silence.
Gabrielle's further efforts at eavesdropping are interrupted by something soft and wet pressing against the slight wound along her side. Her instincts—magnificent and true in the ring and sometimes a liability outside of it—are unstoppable and the slave's wrist is crushed within her grasp. The plop of the wet cloth falling from his hand and the ripe fear in his brown eyes brings her to her senses. She releases him and he scurries from the room. Only then does she pull up the tunic to examine the tender wound, which no longer bled. Stitches? Cauterization? It would be fine. She'd let the healer look at it in the morning.
Cato enters, wheezing nervously; this level of agita is seldom achieved unless he is in the presence of someone well above his station, like a senator. Or the Empress. Gabrielle briefly wonders if indeed the Empress is there. Then she wonders why she wants to see the Empress again, recalls with a small bit of irritation the very distracting moment during her last fight when, as she was chased across the ring she suddenly heard the Empress's name briefly chanted by the crowd—not her name, but the heavy, collective Roman tongue battering the simple lyricism of the name, Xena—and thought she is here—why? during her bruising, bloody tumble across the hot sand.
"He wants to see you," Cato says. His eyes dart over the room, pinning particles of dust to the wall, anything to avoid her questioning gaze.
"Well?" he snaps. "Don't just stand there. Go to him. And do as he says—oh, damn it, why must you look at me like that?"
When one is someone else's property, patience becomes an enforced virtue. She hates him for forcing her to the obvious, but manages to ask the question with the right tone of deference. "Who is he?"
"He's your damned savior, that's who he is," Cato grumbles, and sighs. "If you do as you're told, you will be free. I give you my word."
The man awaiting her lounges heavily in a wide chair, and the broad stripe on his tunic answers her question: He is a senator, or a similar official of notable rank. He is ruddy and fair-haired, middle-aged and solidly fat—a different kind of fat from Cato, who possesses the jovial, rollicking curves of a lifetime of epicene pleasures and pointed disregard for the manly virtues of battles and sporting games. Better to let others fight for you, Cato always said. But this one has the look of an athlete or a soldier who has hit the inevitable wall of time, whose bulk is ready to crumble at just the right touch.
Touching. If it's touching—and more—that he wants, she decides, it shall be death he receives. And if she cannot escape after killing him, perhaps death is the freedom that Cato mentioned, perhaps it is the only freedom she shall ever have.
But how strange it is that, regardless of your reluctance, you would have given the Empress precisely what she wanted.
She crowds the thought down.
"As I said before—brava." When she does not reply, he laughs. "You don't talk much, Cato says. That is fine. In fact, I like that very much. Loquaciousness is typically a sign of weak character. A tool of outright manipulation. You see it in the Emperor's grandstanding speeches—how he courts the plebes. I say this to you in confidence, you realize. But if he were really so concerned about them, he wouldn't go to such great lengths to impress them, don't you think?" The man smirks. "I digress. All of this must be meaningless to you. I did not bring you here to speak of him."
He pauses dramatically, allowing silence to fill the room; an old rhetorician's trick, and useless on one who is comforted rather than unsettled by it.
"You are a Greek," he continues.
"Yes," she replies.
"Do you feel any particular allegiance to your native land?"
She hesitates. "It is not the land alone that makes me what I am—that makes me Greek."
He snorts. "You speak in vagaries like the finest politician. Perhaps I've misjudged you." Tapping the arm of the chair, he continues: "Let me put it another way: Of all your opponents in the ring, you've surely slaughtered some fellow Greeks. Have you not?"
Iolaus, I will go to Tartarus for what I did to you alone. "Yes." She hopes a lower pitch in her voice will disguise the tremor, although when the Empress had questioned her about Cortese she could see, in the calm empathy of those blue eyes, that the trick had not worked.
There is no such glint of recognition in her current interrogator's eyes. The man known to all of Rome as Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus smiles once again, and she does not like it. "So. I don't suppose you would mind killing one more bothersome Greek, would you?"
The reluctant assassin
In the beginning, assassination attempts against the Emperor and his consort were as much a part of daily routine as washing up in the morning. It was price she paid for being infamia—the unfamiliar word that Caesar had crooned into her ear when they first rode into the city together, he leaning across from his horse, his hand curling along the inside of her thigh for all to see. In other words, she was both famous and powerless. She was not a citizen. She was not of Rome. He seemed to relish that forbidden role for her. It never really touched him, of course; not merely because he was the Emperor, but also because he was a man. He could not be faulted for succumbing to the charms of a beautiful barbarian. She, however, could be faulted for not being Roman.
Time and time again, however, Xena proved her worth. She could snatch poison darts a hair's breadth away from his neck, or disembowel the stealthy, wolfish mercenaries who trailed them, or toss ambitious assassins out the bedroom window after efficiently snapping their necks. For a while, her preternatural abilities proved more of an aphrodisiac to her husband than pomegranate seeds ever did. And before they knew it, the attacks dwindled in frequency—approaching a status somewhere between seldom and never—as the Empress's keen senses became legend to everyone.
Except, perhaps, to the clumsy idiot now crawling through the window of her bedchamber. She waits to see if the assassin will trip over Timon the cat—that would be amusing, and perhaps save her the trouble of killing him herself. No, the shadowy figure moves ever closer, looming over the bed and even regarding her with a thoughtful head tilt. As Xena contemplates his stupidity in hesitating, she seizes his cloak, jams a foot in his stomach, and sends him somersaulting over the bed, across the room, and crashing into an amphora and a table. Only when the distant lamp catches a glint of blonde hair and the figure groans in a distinctly unmasculine timber while stirring among the amphora shards, does Xena realize, with no small amount of giddy excitement, who it is.
She throws on a robe, grabs her sword, hopes her hair does not look too wild and unkempt, and cautiously pads over to where the gladiator sprawls among the ruins of the huge stupid vase that depicted Herakles wrestling with the giant Antaeus, both figures with ridiculous erections like battering rams, and an ugly, ostentatious table that she never liked anyway, a wedding gift from one of Caesar's cousins. Still, throwing the object of one's affection across the room was not exactly a prelude to romance. Perhaps for some it would be—she thinks unpleasantly of certain past lovers—but definitely not on this occasion. But why was the gladiator allowing herself to be easily caught? Why was she here?
The gladiator glances at her with a kind of wide-eyed amazement before quickly averting her eyes. That's when she realizes her robe is still open. Xena clears her throat. "You may be the best fighter in Rome," she mutters as she tightens the robe, "but you make for a poor assassin."
Gabrielle winces and rubs her shoulder. "I haven't come to hurt you. I'm unarmed."
"You walk through this city, alone at night and without weapons?" Guards bang at the door, louder than Hephaestus at his forge. Xena sighs. "Now look what you did. Shall I hand you over to them? Are you up for another beating?"
"No," the gladiator responds quickly. "I—I came to speak with you."
"You have a peculiar manner of requesting an audience."
Gabrielle's eyes spark and smolder, much as they did at the height of battle. "You know I have no recourse for that. I am a slave."
Before the petty squabbling can advance—into what, neither woman really knows—the impatient guards burst through the door, led by the infamous brute formerly of the Thirteenth Legion, Titus Pullo. His single-mindedness in the realm of violence has served him well—at least it impressed Caesar, who promoted the fearsome and loyal soldier from infantryman to captain of the Empress's guard.
"Empress!" he barks. "We heard noise—" However, at the sight of the sprawling visitor at the Empress's feet, his broad, fierce face lapses into a star-stuck grin. "Oi! It's the Little Gladiator!" The two guards behind him look equally awed.
Xena rolls her eyes. Gods, not this again. This woman really is more famous than I. "Yes, very good. Well done."
"I'll be damned. You should have seen her the other day," Pullo raves at Xena, as if they are comrades in a tavern, bonding over cheap flagons of wine. "Took off the head of a Minoan. Just like that." He grimaces in a mock death agony, baring fantastic teeth, and draws the flattened plane of his hand across his throat. "Amazing."
"Yes, and here she is, in my chamber, making an awful mess of things. Why, she destroyed that amphora you were so fond of, Pullo." The captain of the guard had been quite fascinated by the dueling penises; on the few rare occasions he had been in her chambers, he always bent down to scrutinize it at close range. Xena was certain that it gave him all sorts of new and fascinating ideas for both combat and intercourse. "What do you think of that?"
"Oh." Chastened, the reluctant yet dutiful Pullo half-heartedly points his sword at his idol. "Shall we take her, then?"
Xena smiles lasciviously. "Foreplay gone awry." She glances quickly at her pseudo-lover, taking perverse pleasure in the gladiator's stony scowl. That's what you get for stumbling in here in the middle of the night.
"Oh." Pullo grins, leans in conspiratorially toward his beloved Empress, and whispers: "Good on you, eh?"
Incremental changes—the tightening of the lips, the cool narrowing of the eyes—transform Xena's smile from sensual warmth to cruel dominance. "Get out, Pullo."
"Empress!" With his professional, deferential mien back into place, the captain bows quickly—shooting one last worshipful glance at the Little Gladiator before he and his subordinates disappear in a clanking whirlwind of armor and capes.
As the door closes, Xena once again regards the troublesome gladiator. "Get up," she growls, "and tell me why you're here."
Cautiously the gladiator arises, her gaze fixed upon the slowly twirling blade in the Empress's hand, a sword flowing with a deceptively simple rhythm. As much as she may want to believe in the inherent goodness and decency of this woman, it was quite understandable, really, that when confronted with such an unwelcome guest as a state-sanctioned murderer the Empress would assuming a fighting stance. She had already given Gabrielle the benefit of the doubt; now was the time to talk.
"I'm here," Gabrielle stammered slightly, "on my own accord, as a messenger. To bring you information."
The Empress's glare said it all: Get on with it.
"There is a conspiracy. You are the target. I am the instrument. And Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus is the perpetuator."
The Empress stops twirling the sword, but her stance remains thick with tension. Gabrielle realizes that now is the moment to leave—there is a clear path to the window, the night darkly beckons, why, she could vault over that vast bed if need be—but she stays foolishly rooted to the spot as Xena, laughing soft and rueful, utters one word: "Pompey."
To be continued
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