The querulous wife of Quintus Fabian
The gold mask, exquisitely crafted, light and thin, had been a gift; Caesar had it made for her. It was emblematic of his usual expensive, grand gestures in that it was undercut by simple, selfish motives: "If you insist on going to an orgy—I insist on your anonymity. I know you love being the focal point of attention, dear, but, ah, it doesn't look good for the Emperor's wife to be found at one of these things. Perhaps Greeks are more accommodating of their spouses, but even orgies have a certain protocol, at least the good ones do." Another cheap shot at the Greeks, couched within yet another speech about behaving. She had masterfully resisted the urge to roll her eyes during his lecture, and afterward he had complimented her on such marvelous restraint.
Ultimately she only attended two such gatherings and found them not to her liking. She discovered that in some instances orgies found one in a predicament best described as a sexual Scylla and Charybdis: not exactly between a rock and a hard place, but a hairy ass and a slag. Or the perfect tableau composed with the requisite amount of beauty, passion, and body parts was interrupted—at very crucial moment—by anonymous, intrusive, and demanding genitalia. Perhaps her husband was correct to satiate his desires with a careful selection of slaves and the wives of visiting Persian dignitaries.
Tonight, the mask would prove beneficial; it lay over her face like a hardened skin, ready to slough off at a revelatory moment. She swaggers through the darkened streets toward the villa, discreetly lit so as not to attract unwelcome attention from the overtly curious. And despite the danger complicit in the black expanse of a night in a rough Roman quarter, she travels alone. While it had been amusing to see the initial look of surprise on the gladiator's face at her proposal, Xena immediately regretted the proposition once that shock dissipated into a frown of disgust and—what? Confusion? Hurt? Faustina would have tut-tutted serious disapproval in this tactical error of seduction. But Xena had merely thought it would come in useful to have the best fighter in Rome at her back. After sending the gladiator away—presumably back to Cato's home, and to what future, who knew?—she considered asking Pullo to escort her, but soon realized that giving such a creature of appetite ample opportunities to sample a variety of flesh meant that she would never get him out of there. And, she admits silently, it is exhilarating to be out on the streets without a wary retinue of guards.
At the door of the villa—where shadows ripen the considerable cracks on the arches and balustrade into hallmarks of impending destruction—stand two armored guards, thick in every sense and no doubt disgruntled because they were not allowed to partake in the evening's pleasures. "What's the password?" barks the shorter of the two.
Xena's kick—perfectly aimed and powerfully executed—drops him like a stone. He lay silent and unmoving. With a curious gaze at his fallen comrade, the other guard prods him with the tip of his boot. Like a snail poked by a stick, the wounded man curls tightly into a fetal position and releases a deep, howling groan. The still-standing guard eyes her apprehensively. "Right, then."
She breezes past.
Through the atrium the diaphanous light of candles dimmed by the cloying scrim of incense smoke function as breadcrumbs, markers left by decadent nymphs down a heady path to darkened rooms. In the tangled heaps of limbs she thought she recognized participants from spectacles past: Big cock, lousy lay. An ass more stunning than Aphrodite's. Smelled funny. Kept talking about his horse. She shudders. Picking her way through bodies as she seeks the path of least lasciviousness, she realizes that she is not quite as inconspicuous as she—or Caesar—initially believed. Perhaps even at an orgy one would notice an unusually tall woman clad head to toe in leather and in a gold mask. Perhaps this was Caesar's idea all along—to make her too recognizable, so that she would drop this depravity like a hot stone. So this is why I chose you, why I married you. Because I knew you would keep me on my toes. This mini-epiphany notwithstanding, she steers through the ruin of bodies.
The discovery of Pompey's predilections had been quite accidental: during a romantic assignation with Quintus Fabian's wife, whose name is blessedly forgotten, and yet whose penchant for enumerating her preferences for lovemaking before undertaking the act was memorably tiresome. I like to be kissed in a very linear fashion, don't be random and jumping around my body— and when I'm done a "thank you" would be nice—hey Xena, what do you think you're doing? I don't like the whole being tied up thing. Who do you think I am, Pompey?
Quintus Fabian's wife had made nervous light of it afterward, of course, but Xena had greedily filed away this hint of a fact for further consideration and future blackmail. She had no idea how useful it would be until this moment, winding down a hallway leading to several private chambers and to her unsuspecting target. The guidepost indicating Pompey's private room, however, was no mere woman: She is the most famous hetaera in Rome, known for tying the tightest and most intricate knots in the fabric's of one's choice—from the coarsest rope to the finest silk, her mastery of bondage unsurpassed in the city. Would have made a good sailor with that knowledge, Xena thinks. The whore is oiled and naked but for a sliver of leather hanging around her waist, a coiled whip dangling from her hand, and the heavy, metallic mask of a horned apparition—half human, half goat—covering her face. Ostentatious horns spiral from the forehead of the mask.
Behind her own mask Xena sneers. Horns. Trite. Really trite. She holds out a hand, silently demanding the whip.
Hand on jutting hip, the hetaera remains impassive, unimpressed, and unwilling to give up the biggest payday of her year.
Xena removes a jangling pouch from her belt and tosses it at the woman, who catches it easily.
She rolls the rattling pouch in a teasingly obscene fashion, her fingers perversely pliant around the soft fabric. The horned mask tilts in deference and the whip is yielded.
Entering the dim, candlelit chamber, Xena's stomach roils at the thought of straddling any part of Pompey's naked body. Mercifully he is trussed face down on the bed, each limb tightly lashed to a bedpost . The things I do for this lousy city. Why? Had Xena's humors been more phlegmatic and less sanguine, the thought would have provided serious pause. Instead, she puts it aside for contemplation at a later juncture—when, she hasn't the faintest idea—and leaps astride his back with a grace similarly employed during a bull sacrifice, part of her Mithraic initiation so many years ago. Clearly expecting the skinny hetaera, Pompey grunts in surprise. "Hello, Pompey," she hisses in his ear.
He tenses, whispers her name.
"Is it more a surprise to find me alive rather than here, on top of you?"
Pompey attempts bucking her off; it proves ineffective.
"Well?" she growls, close enough to witness the incremental panic in the white of an eye.
He makes a choking, slobbering noise before the words are spat out. "That fucking gladiator."
"Ah, yes. It's all her fault, isn't it? You're in a bit of bind now because of it—and in so many senses of the phrase too. Well, Pompey, I have some advice that I think you should follow, because if you don't, you can be certain I will kill you. Listen carefully." She unravels enough of the whip to wrap around his throat. As it tightens around his neck in an intimate embrace with the struggling cords below his skin, a deep rush of pleasure fills her—unlike the Mithraic initiation, although the remembrance of that event colors this one with sweet intensity: the bull strangled into sedation, her knee against its spine, its throat slit, the shower of blood. As tempting as it is, however, she cannot kill Pompey—if only because his personal guard is now beating at the door.
"Get out of town," she growls as the chamber is breache.
There's got to be a morning after
The morning air, its swollenness hinting at rain, lay thick over everything; it is, Gabrielle speculates, one way of explaining her lethargy, her inaction. She sits placidly in the kitchen of Cato's home watching as her master, careworn and stubbled, nervously claws his rough cheek. His skin resembles crumpled gray parchment. Everyone looks older in the morning, she thinks—and rubs her own chin, seeking blind refutation. Even me?
After decorous rejection —at least she hoped it appeared decorous, although she now recalls sneering with disgust at one point—of the Empress's proposal during the course of the prior evening, she had left the latter's residence the same way she came: swiftly through the window. Moving through the dreamlike darkness, she had no idea what to do other than surrender herself to Cato's aggrieved disapproval; it was not as if she actually feared him, Pompey, or even Pompey's men. On her return to the villa she found him alone. Fearing the worst as he always did, he had wisely sent his family to the summer home at Baiae and waited for someone—either Xena's Praetorian guard or Pompey's thugs—to arrive and execute him. As good as he had had been to her—in that he never laid a hand on her in any way—this selfless act now changed the way she viewed him. He was greedy, calculating, weak, and lazy; and yet he was also courageous and devoted to his family. So, under his perfunctory protests, she sat with him, determined to see him remain alive.
Cato regards her wearily. "If Pompey's guard arrive first, they will kill you."
Gabrielle's impassive glare speaks otherwise.
"All right." He laughs mirthlessly. "You'll kill them all, but then you'll have an even bigger price on your head. And if you dare cross the Empress's men, well—there's only so much she can forgive. She'll probably send that lout Pullo. Normally he's the one who does her dirty work. So if you kill him, she'll be furious. She's awfully fond of him. A good barbarian is hard to find these days. Everyone's gone soft. For the love of Jupiter—what is a man these days when the best fighter in this gods-forsaken city is you ?" He buries his head in his hands, sobbing.
Briefly she reconsiders this change of heart about Cato. She wonders why she feels sorry for him, why she remains sitting there, cradling her sword, ready to do battle for him. Pity, perhaps? Or because there is nothing left to do but wait for the inevitable to spin itself out, to slowly compose itself like the weavings of the Fates at their tapestry. She tilts the broadsword. A line of light traverses its length: Silver. Is this the line of her life in the tapestry of the fates? No, she answers silently. It would have to be red, wouldn't it?
These ruminations end abruptly when the Empress's Favorite Lout, Pullo, kicks in the front door. He clomps through the house like a club-footed titan invading a dollhouse until he discovers his quarry, and his quarry's protector, in the kitchen. Calmly Gabrielle rises, cognizant of the sweet itch in her loose muscles, the sword a perfect extension of her hand, her arm, her shoulder, her entire body.
The soldier's joyous expression at once again encountering his idol quickly turns into professional apprehension, and he draws his gladius with one hand raised in supplication. "Now, hang on a moment."
"Oh, what does it matter?" Cato roars. "To Tartarus I go!" Like a heroine in a bad tragedy, he falls to his knees in front of Pullo and bares his neck.
"Come on," Pullo groans. "There's no sport in that."
Gabrielle finds her voice and her low murmur—"Is it sport you want?"—prompts both men to stare at her apprehensively.
"Ah—" Pullo rubs his beefy neck. "Empress!" he bellows. "In here."
She is here, the gladiator thinks.
Wearing a dark, hooded cloak to promote anonymity, Xena emerges from the atrium and dispels that loose predator in Gabrielle, who notices, with a quiet concern that quickens within her more deeply than she cares to confess, that the Empress's perfect nose is swollen and a plum-colored crescent colorfully complements her left eye, like a kind of barbarian makeup. "Cato. You obviously understand why I'm here. You'll answer my questions in due time, won't you?"
"Yes," he whispers.
"Good. Then I might be inclined toward banishment and nothing further. As for your shitting cousin, I know he's in this deeper than you, so you might as well send him a goodbye letter. However, that being said, I require some reparation from you for this clumsy attempt on my life. For it has caused harm not only to me, but to the city as well. Because, you see, Cato, there was distraction and disruption within the Empire because I was so upset about this wide-ranging conspiracy against me that I could not concentrate on my paperwork this morning, and may the gods forbid if I don't adjust a grain tax fairly or authorize a permit for a whorehouse—for better or worse, Cato, in Caesar's stead I am Rome. So. To put it plainer: for the temporary yet vital loss of my overall equilibrium and not to mention for the fact that your would-be assassin broke a vase—"
"My favorite vase, too," Pullo interjects.
"—yes, that too, because of all that, Cato, I require—no, I demand—reparation." As the bombast dies away, the Empress fixes the gladiator with a look of possession. "Get your things."
Cato squawks. "But—Empress—my livelihood—"
"Ah, Cato. Need I remind you?" Xena's hands flash with shocking precision toward Cato's neck and Gabrielle realizes she is, for the first time, witnessing the legendary pinch in action. She has expected to experience said pinch herself at some point during every encounter she's ever had with the Empress, but on viewing the rigid, fish-out-of-water flopping of her now-former master and the trickle of blood from his nose, her curiosity is more than sated.
The Empress kneels so that she is eye level with Cato. "You're in no position to bargain anymore."
Who needs forever?
When Antony arrives at the Empress's residence, there is no sweet-talking of the crone Faustina, no languid charm. He ensnares a hapless slave with an angry toss of his cape and trails his royal hostess as a vengeful harpy through the atrium, the halls, the portico. It reminds Xena of youthful games played with her brothers; of course, she was the object of pursuit, always—could she be blamed for always being several steps ahead of them?
"You should have fucking killed him on the spot," Antony snarls at her back.
She stops walking—as a result, he nearly collides with her—and turns around. His beautiful face is contorted as a drama mask. "As usual, you're completely predictable."
"And you're completely foolish. Not to kill him when you had the opportunity—"
"—to kill Pompey, who has been one of Caesar's oldest, most trusted allies? It is not for us to take that liberty. And how would it have looked, had I done that? You'd give his followers more cause against us. And bring the entire city to the precipice of a civil war. You can't erase history by slitting someone's throat."
"No, but you can change history by doing so. Sometimes for the better." He remained sneering. "At any rate, he's gone now. This will give him time to build up his forces."
"Where? How? Who will support him?"
"Brutus is idealistic, not stupid."
"True. But I wager Pompey will try his luck in Alexandria ," Antony mutters. "And don't tell me you think the Ptomelys aren't stupid enough to do that. You're the one who said all that inbreeding has made them spineless and mindless as worms."
Xena smiles. "Then perhaps it will profit us if Pompey does indeed seek sanctuary there."
Antony , however, is longer paying attention. Hands on hips, he stares out across the portico, the mask of fury falling from his face, replaced by outright amusement. "Well, well." Antony purrs. "Baby has a new toy."
Gabrielle, the "toy" in the courtyard, spars with a cloddish trio of soldiers. She is a beautiful blur of flesh and the sword. Xena wonders how many times today the gladiator has brought down that trio. And the sun barely out of the trees.
"So," Antony begins, cramming a lifetime of skepticism into one syllable, "you bring your assassin into the fold. Speaking of stupid, Xena—or is it all very clever on your part? I'm not sure."
"It's occurred to me that this is all an elaborate ruse so that she could infiltrate my household and report on my activities to the Optimates."
"Yes, that would be a brilliant move. Distract you with a pretty, deadly thing. You've always liked your wild beasts, don't you? Caesar loves to tell that story of how you wanted to wrestle the panther that belonged to that Persian prince."
That panther would have lost, Xena thinks, and then bristles at the imagined insult to her newest acquisition. "She's not just an animal, a dumb beast."
Antony raises an eyebrow. "On the contrary—I don't think she's a dumb beast at all. Look at her." Antony nods at the gladiator. "Yes, she's all muscle and speed and skill, but she's small. She's not even half the size of Pullo there. And yet in a match I would not hesitate to back her. To survive as long as she has under the circumstances, you've got to be damned smart. Even so—" He pauses, and she detects—to her enormous surprise—a trace of wistfulness in his sigh.
"No one lasts forever in the ring."
To be continued
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