The retirement plan
Late afternoon in Rome : The clouds, impregnated with fading light, blight the blueness of the sky. Or so Titus Pullo thinks. Because of his size and his armor, people pave the way for him as he barrels through the city—a nice perk, he thinks, because Romans loathe sharing the street with anyone. He's seen fights started over the mere brushing of limbs between two passing bodies. Hades, I've started fights over that, he guiltily admits. Moving quickly through the streets, he arrives at the Circus Maximus's amphitheatre much faster than anticipated. The crowd outside is composed mostly of gladiators and their retinues—owners, sponsors, hangers-on. It is not the usual idle post-game mingling; there were no games today. Tellingly, coins flow, and mostly into the pouch of Arrius, a former gladiator who now runs the barracks for the active gladiators of the Circus, and who winces guiltily when he catches sight of Pullo glaring at him.
"Arrius," Pullo growls. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"You can't stop it now, Pullo." The grizzled and gray Arrius shakes the moneybag. "All the wagers have been placed. You'd have a riot on your hands. This is the biggest crowd I've had yet. Best let the fight go on."
Pullo exhales through his teeth. "Fuck," he hisses. He follows Arrius into the dark, pitted gloom of the gladiators' quarters, to the crowded, sweaty underground room where Arrius stages his illegal fights.
Since the "retirement" of the Little Gladiator, the new fan favorite in the arena is one Piso, a long-limbed rube from the countryside known for great feats of leaping over opponents both human and animal. The crowds had already anointed him the Lepus: the hare. Grimly Pullo decides that if here—during this unofficial pissing contest—the Lepus kills or defeats his opponent, there will be rabbit stew. For the Lepus's challenger is none other than the Little Gladiator herself, appearing not only in defiance of the Empress's directive banning these so-called "underground" fights but, presumably, all common sense as well.
The two fighters, armed with nothing but bare fists, circle each other in a ring demarcated by the dirty, vocal crowd. Judging by the smattering of blood already across Gabrielle's face, Piso's long reach made contact at some point. The thing about the Little Gladiator, though—and Pullo hadn't noticed this until the Empress had pointed it out to him—is not that she merely makes adjustments to her opponent's fighting style, but that she does so with impressive alacrity and unerring accuracy: Here the Lepus tries another long swipe at her but, with mocking precision, she pulls back a scant second before his fist would have slammed into her face. Then she incorporates a leap of her own into the fight—not showy, but quick and fast, like a jab, easily breaching the gaps in his loose defense. Spiked with the knuckle of her middle finger, her fist plunges into his throat. Fuck all, Pullo thought with the thrill of recognition: She was attempting, in a crude fashion and compensating in brute force for what she lacked in secret knowledge, to replicate the deadly effect of the Empress's pinch.
Gagging violently, Piso clutches his throat. Now Gabrielle throws in the ostentatious move—a whirlwind pirouette around his body before dealing a fierce, double-fisted blow on the back of the neck that sends him to his knees. In dispassionate study she circles him, coolly assessing her options, looking for the quickest resolution to the match. The Lepus's contribution to the decision-making process is a groggy, inept lunge at her legs—he misses, of course, she seizes him by the hair, and slams his face against her knee.
Pullos twitches at the distinct crack of broken bone among the rabble's noise and, in an unconscious, sympathetic gesture, touches his nose as the Lepus crumples, defeated. Arrius briefly examines the downed fighter before his hand thumps against the sanded floor, declaring an end to the match. Whether the Lepus is dead or alive Pullo cannot tell, nor does he really care. An undercurrent of boos mingle with cheers as he barges through the crowd, hoping once again the uniform of the Empress's guard will do the talking. When the dazed gladiator catches sight of him she grasps his arm and together, with Arrius's assistance, they push through the crowd like a battering ram before Arrius himself unceremoniously shoves them both out into weak daylight.
Outside on the street the soldier and his semi-tarnished idol fall into step. Those many months ago Pullo had been thrilled beyond belief with his assignment from the Empress: To assist the gladiator in making the transition from a public life of routine violence to a private life of selective violence. And, of course, to keep an eye on her—a seemingly more important aspect of said assignment but one in which he has failed miserably, for he can no more keep track of Gabrielle than the Empress can keep track of her legendary vanishing cat, Timon. He cuts an angry glance as her: Absently she traces her bloodied lips with the tip of her tongue, assessing the damage. "One of these days, you're going to get me in a lot of fucking trouble," he snarls.
She stops walking.
Furious, he spins around. "I'm about ready to fucking knock you out and carry you back if—"
Solemnly she extends her money pouch to him—her share of the profits from the fight.
Pullo wavers. Admittedly, he understands her instinctively: She is a fighter. She needs to fight. And, true to his nature, he forgives rather quickly. So he shrugs with mock gruffness and nods at the bag. "We'll split it. Later." This satisfies her. They continue at a brisk pace, hoping to make the palace before darkness settles in. "She's in rare form today, I can tell you that, dealing with diplomats from Chin all day, and tonight too—she's been in fancy dress the whole time and they put her hair in those damned Medusa curls—anyway, it's a recipe for a shit mood with her, so tread careful, eh?" The blood is already drying upon her face. "We'll get you cleaned up, at least. If you're lucky she won't notice."
"I'm not lucky."
Surprised more by the low, lush timbre of her voice rather than what she actually said, he looks at her with surprise. In the few months she has been at the palace she has uttered about a dozen words to him—usually "I'm sorry" or variations thereof, on the occasions when she hits, head-butts, or trips him too hard during their sparring sessions.
"And you know better than I," she continues, "that nothing escapes her notice."
Pullo laughs. "Yeah. Well, better hang onto that purse of yours then. You may need it to get out of the city."
Within the walls of the palace, they seek out the healer, an older man of great discretion, who examines the gladiator quickly and thoroughly: "Nose not broken, no loose teeth. Bit your lip, didn't you? That shoulder must hurt. I'll make a poultice for you. Let's put some salve on those knuckles—it will reduce the swelling." The healer's litany stops abruptly as the door opens. He bows, and Gabrielle, her back momentarily to the door, doesn't need to be told who has just entered, but the healer says it anyway: "Empress."
"Leave us." Xena's blue eyes flash at Pullo: You too.
As the soldier and the healer leave, Gabrielle turns and blinks at the Empress's attire: A diaphanous dress, the almost hallucinatory shimmer of the material hints teasingly at the powerful form that lies beneath it. Pullo, however, was right about the hairstyle: The black ringlets wreathing the modest gold laurel crown are more suitable for a pubescent girl and not the most powerful woman in the known world.
"Did you win?" Xena does not wait for a response. "Of course you did." She nods at the salve. "Put it on."
After the fight the gladiator had wrapped her throbbing, bloodied left hand—cut on the Lepus's teeth at some point—in a piece of linen she carried for such purposes. The cloth now unfurls clumsily from the hand, dirty, bloody swaths interlaced with swollen fingers. Her very own tapestry of the fates.
Xena watches dispassionately, makes no move to help. "For someone acquainted with the works of Cicero , you appear to have serious memory problems."
Gabrielle stiffens. As usual, the Empress catches her off-guard with words in a way no fighter can with fists or weapons.
"You've a copy of De oratore among your meager possessions, I know."
The tips of her ears sizzle with embarrassment. Furiously she rubs the tingling ointment across her swollen, skinned knuckles.
"But you seem to forget on a regular basis that you are officially retired from the ring. You are part of my personal guard. You are still a slave. And you belong me." With a deep breath Xena banishes the escalating notes of anger in her speech and gives the gladiator a frank, critical look. "If I were to grant you freedom at this very moment, what would you do? Would you go back to it, that life?"
Gabrielle fumbles with a clean bandage. "I know nothing but that life. I can do nothing else."
Finally Xena intervenes; she takes the new bandage and expertly weaves it around the gladiator's hand. "And I know nothing other than my life and my experiences. It doesn't mean I never dream or yearn to be something or someone else. You don't know what you'd do? You could do anything. Retire to the country and train horses. Or even gladiators. Or—buy a vineyard. Live in a vineyard by the sea and drink yourself into a sweet stupor under the damned sun. It might inspire you to—I don't know, write verse." Gabrielle squints wistfully, and Xena seizes on this. Of course. It all makes sense, you beautiful little Cicero-reader, you hoarder of scrolls. "Would you like to do that—write?"
"As a child, I wanted—to tell stories." The edge of hope in the gladiator's voice belies her deep, misery-laden frown. But what stories can I tell now, Xena? Yes, in the quiet of my mind I call you by the name given to you. Here, we are equals. But tell me, what stories would I tell? How many men I've killed, perhaps? "But I'm not a child anymore. I am who I am, and—" She brooks no argument in this offer of submission and pulls her bandaged hand away. "—I will serve you as you wish." She cannot bear any further scrutiny from those clear, intense blue eyes, and so misses the contemplative ruefulness of Xena's final glance. Without further word, the Empress leaves the room.
Your news of P.'s treachery pains me, causes a calamity within my spirit—but it does not surprise me. He has long been disgruntled in his current capacity. If the scouts have indeed reported he has set course for Alexandria , then it is to that wretched city you must go. I want no harm to come to him. You must reestablish and strengthen our bond with the Ptolemys before he makes serious overtures to them. We cannot afford to lose this ally. Offer them anything within reason.
Or if you prefer, send Xena. Because frankly at this point I suppose either one of you would probably fuck Cleopatra first before carrying out my orders. Of course, perhaps that would do the trick—or not. I'm not sure who's really running that place anymore, her or her brother.
Indignant, Xena looks up at Antony . "I've never even met Cleopatra."
"Well, neither have I," Antony retorts, "but you know he's probably right. Keep reading."
I propose this: Fight her for it. One on one. Sword to sword. The winner chooses his or her fate: Staying in Rome or traveling to Alexandria . I feel generous this day, Antony . The campaign proceeds apace. I could be King of Britannia within weeks.
Xena reads the message again. "Fight me for it?" she echoes.
Antony hums sympathetically.
She snatches the cipher out of his hand to recheck the code, scanning the correlation of letters within the demented proposal. "Do you think he's gone mad in Britannia?"
"Oh, I suppose it's within the realm of possibility," Antony replies cheerfully. "Campaigns like that wear down the best of men. Cold, discomfort, bad food, insubordinate troops, probably not a good whorehouse in the entire bloody country. How would you feel having to fuck nothing but reluctant boys and surly shepherdesses? It's a chore, I tell you."
"This is serious, " she chastises. Then gazes again at the note and pinches the bridge of her nose. "This is ridiculous. "
"Yes and yes." He stretches along the divan. "Well. What do you want to do? I see no reason to duel over this. We could flip a coin."
"That is just as ludicrous."
"Oh come now, Xena. If it's a matter of pride, well—I'd be willing to let you win." Antony knows, of course, just the reaction he would provoke. "I'd love to see if your gladiator has taught you new tricks." His voice drops into silky insinuation. "For I'm certain that, in recompense, you have taught her many tricks in the battleground of the bedchamber."
And Xena is certain if that were true, she would without a doubt be in a better frame of mind—she has not been intimate with anyone in months—and she would not at this very moment be reaching for her sword and chasing him across the room.
With a hoot of laughter he draws his own sword. "Just kidding—" He hisses in surprise as her gladius clangs full force against his own. "Shit. You're serious, aren't you?" He fights in his usual stolid, Roman style—in other words, unimaginative—as she parries, thrusts, and dances away, leading him to believe that he is on the offensive when, in fact, he is as open as a wound and grinding himself toward inevitable defeat. Indeed, he oofs in surprise as a roundhouse kick sends him sprawling on his ass. No matter how half-hearted and insincere, the exhilaration of the fight floods her veins and she revels in its afterglow. It is not as good as sex. It never is. But, she sighs contentedly, it will do.
"You know I let you win," he says from the floor.
"Are you that desperate for me to make the decision? Takes the pressure off you, doesn't it?"
Antony latches onto the arm she offers and hauls himself up. "You know me so well." He rolls his shoulders. "So tell me—what's your pleasure? To stay in Rome , holed up here and scribbling away laws and decrees like a common scribe? Or to leave for Alexandria ?"
"You sound as if you want me to go." She raises an eyebrow.
"I'm damned tired of travel right now, Xena. Bithynia , Smyrna , Gaul —all of these places and more over the past two years." He tosses the gladius onto the divan. "Look, I could pull rank here and tell you to go. But that would benefit neither you nor me—if you aren't fully committed to doing the job in Alexandria , there's no point in you going." Antony smiles in his usual cool yet vaguely threatening fashion.
Idly she swings her sword. "Are you fully committed to doing ‘the job' in Alexandria ? What do you see as an acceptable solution to this?"
"You know I would have killed Pompey without hesitation. And as a result Caesar would be writing us tiresome nonsense about something else, and we would not be having this conversation—"
Xena waves a warning hand. "And I don't think we need to have that argument again. If I go—and I haven't said that I will—I won't be handling this your way. It has to be handled carefully, with negotiations, with just the right kind of vague promises that may never be kept. Full-scale war with Pompey is the next-to-last resort. And the very last resort is my dagger in his throat."
"My, my," Antony smirks again. "Your husband has made such a little politician out of you. I give him credit, Xena. When I first met you I thought you were nothing but a wild thing—perfect for fucking and fighting and nothing else. But he saw something in you that no one else did." He softens. "I wonder what that was."
"So do I." She walks to the window and gazes out upon the Palatine . From this quiet promontory it is easy to pretend that the city, with its crowded stench-filled streets, does not exist. In a way, Rome does not exist for her, nor she for it. Despite her name, her title, her marriage, the years of work, the legions she led into battle and the loyalty she bred within those soldiers, despite the laurels on her head and the flowers under her feet, she is still the ultimate outsider. She is still infamia. She wonders if that will ever change.
The trees bend to the will of the wind, shaking out a language all their own.
Then she wonders if the gladiator will like the prospect of going to Alexandria .
Warp and weft
The snowflakes, an unfortunate if pretty reminder of the cold, sway downward to their gentle doom and scatter across Caesar's camp. Lucius Vorenus watches them grimly, still remembering the youthful amazement he felt the first time he saw snowflakes, and then, catastrophic amounts of snow—that was a different campaign, somewhere in Gaul , years ago. Not typically inclined toward examination of the past, he is struck dumb with wonder at the thought that he was once so young, so easily impressed. Yearning for anonymity and no distraction, and amid the hopes of a quick nap, he strides across the desolate camp past bright fires that spawn little warmth and tired, hungry faces that will blame anyone for their predicament: Stuck in a freezing, barren land with no food and a critically ill leader.
Said hopes are dashed when the healer, emerging from Caesar's tent, waddles toward him while wringing his hands. Vorenus is suspiciously amazed that the fat Syrian has not lost any weight during this famine and fears it's only a matter of time before the men have him skewered over an open flame. "Don't look so nervous," Vorenus grunts at him.
It is a measure of the seriousness of the situation when the healer ignores this. "He asks for you again." The Syrian's black beard contorts as he nibbles pursed, red lips. "It is not good."
"What do you mean?" Vorenus resists the urge to shake the fool.
"I mean just what I say," the healer retorts in a hysterical undertone. "He may die by nightfall."
His fist clenches. Expecting the blow, the healer winces. Instead, Vorenus stalks toward Caesar's tent.
It had started quite innocently: a flesh wound from an arrow during a skirmish with the locals that, instead of healing, became inflamed, infected, poisonous, and now, possibly fatal. Because of this injury the camp has been immobile for weeks. Several officers have abandoned the army; others were dead as the result of a hasty grab for power. Vorenus, one of the few veterans left, was anointed the de facto leader by the rank and file; save death, there is nothing he wants less.
In the tent Vorenus sits on a stool and regards Gaius Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, suddenly reduced to the pathetic sum of his choices: Dying in the middle of nowhere, with no one save a virtual stranger in attendance. But even now, Caesar's gift for speech does not abandon him. As he rants, Vorenus listens obediently, even though none of it makes much sense. He babbles about his wife, about having her crucified, about Brutus and a conspiracy—helpfully, Vorenus interrupts gently to inform him that the conspiracy he's thinking of involves Pompey, that no man is as loyal as Brutus—and about a "blonde bitch who ruins everything." He tried again, he says, one more time, to change the warp and weft of his life, to ensure his long life and his immortality. One more time, he says, this time truncating a line here and there and darkening that oh-so-troublesome bright vibrant thread—
As it descends into blatant nonsense, Vorenus comforts himself with memories of his wife, his daughters. It has been too long. Finally, he has tired of being a solider.
Caesar's monotone now careens drastically into a full-throated roar that stiffens Vorenus's spine and regains his attention: "Gods damn—" he sputters as each breath rattles in his chest. The Emperor's fingers twitch crablike along the thin blanket as if he weaves something and Vorenus smiles involuntarily at the image it evokes in his mind: His mother at her loom, content. Even in old age her knobby, crone-like fingers nimble upon the threads.
With his last breath the Emperor seals the curse: "—the fucking Fates."
To be continued
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