The edge of the world
After a fortnight at sea, Titus Pullo is ready for a career change: He yearns to be a sailor. He loves the pitch and sway of the ship, the scent of the sea, and the sensation of being at the edge of the world-like combat, it frightens and exhilarates. And yet the distant line of the horizon, the marriage of water and sky, becalms him like nothing else, even on the storm-cursed gray days when the elements blur heavily into molten lead and the ripples of the water and the clouds provide only terrifying hints of movement and light. The Empress feels similarly, he believes; ever since they set foot on the ship she has been positively exuberant-perhaps reliving those carefree days before she met Caesar, when her home was a ship and the republic she led a band of Cilician pirates.
Pirates! he thinks. I could be a pirate!
Every day, every minute, Xena is all over the ship: Stalking the bow, taking watches, climbing masts, adjusting the riggings, conjuring elegant knots out of simple lines. Only common courtesy and respect for the captain prevent her from tossing him overboard and taking the helm herself.
In grim contrast to the Empress, however, Gabrielle is sullen, morose, and quiet, more so than usual; largely she has kept to herself in a berth below deck. When at last she makes an appearance, she wobbles across the beam to Pullo, white-knuckling the closest bit of rigging for support. He laughs at the sight of her. "I really love this. Don't you?"
She grunts at his teasing.
"Ah, go on. You've been around your kind for too long-not Greeks, but gladiators. Bunch of inarticulate brutes you are, you lot. Yeah, I learned that word from the Empress-and she said that about you, my friend, and not me. Surprised? Scowl at me all you want, it's true." He nods at the horizon. "Do you really think there is an end to the world out there? At that point, where the sky meets the sea? It's like a seam that could be torn. But what force could tear it, you reckon? And what's beyond it? I don't know. It's pointless to go on about these things, but I can't help myself sometimes. My friend Vorenus, if he were here he'd probably tell me to shut up. At least you listen to me, eh?" It is only when he looks at her again he notices, with no small amount of dismay and apprehension, the green cast of her skin, the nervous swallowing, the rapid blinking of her eyes.
At the last moment he manages to look away. There is no need to witness the event; the sound of the morning's meal splattering against his boots is confirmation enough.
To the lighthouse
If the motion of the ship were akin to the rocking of the cradle-this conjecture offered by Pullo as he carried her, sack-like, back down to her berth, before adding, just give in to it, relax, but don't throw up on me again-then why did she still feel so horrible? Perhaps infancy, at least in her case, was not all serenity and mother's milk.
Gripping the edge of a table provides the illusion of stability, that this incessant, unpredictable back-and-forth could be stopped by sheer force of will. Am I the only one on this cursed vessel afflicted in this way? She cannot imagine how men do this for their livelihoods, or how the Empress could tolerate it for so long before her fateful encounter with Caesar.
Not surprisingly, the thought of the Empress's Grand Romance on the High Seas makes her retch again. She collapses on the bunk.
Hours or even seconds later there's a muffled footfall in the cabin, the feline step of someone softer and swifter than Pullo. When Gabrielle finally risks a glance upward, the Empress looms over her bunk, darkly aglow with health and irritating good humor. "You owe Pullo a new pair of boots."
Gabrielle hopes that her grunt sounds apologetic and deferential. The ship lurches again with shaky violence and she shuts her eyes tightly-not that it helps, but she has little recourse but to rely on the darkness that has always comforted her in the past. This time, however, the nausea abates with a strange swiftness; relieved, she sighs. Until she takes note of a pinching, prickling sensation traversing the length of her arm. She opens her eyes. Xena is pressing a thumb against the soft, vulnerable inside of her wrist. Pressure points. She remembers Cato convulsing, the blood trickling from his nose. What secrets, what confessions would Xena expect to coax from her? Angrily she yanks her hand away and the effort leaves her so exhausted she cannot even contemplate a lunge for the dagger under her pillow.
The Empress laughs. "Do you think I'm trying to kill you in your weakened state? That wouldn't be very fair, would it, gladiator?" She recaptures Gabrielle's wrist, gently tapping the delicate weave of tendons and veins with a thumb. "Here. Helps with the nausea. Do it long enough, you may regain your appetite-if you do, don't eat too much, and keep it bland. Porridge, dried fruit, and the like. Not every pressure point is designed to kill or maim."
Breathing heavily into the pillow, Gabrielle weakly digs a thumb into her right wrist.
"You should have warned me that you get seasick." Xena sits in an ancient chair across the room that looks as if it were woven by Poseidon himself out of seaweed, driftwood, and the hollow old skeletal remains of dead mariners; it groans, crackling like tinder-or broken bones-under her weight.
Is she actually expecting conversation from me? The gladiator coughs. "I forgot."
"Not the kind of thing one forgets."
"Perhaps not," Gabrielle rasps. "But my journey to Rome is one I'd rather forget."
"I can imagine."
This uncharacteristic bit of placation, said with the careless urbane tone of a Roman domina, fails to comfort and instead provokes. "No, you can't," Gabrielle snarls into the pillow. "Unless you've spent an entire sea voyage being raped and sodomized by a centurion, I don't think you can."
Not unlike the ship moving through the dark sea, the bitter, impromptu confession rents a quiet, choppy line through the atmosphere. There is only the gentle tumult of the aftermath within her, a silence engulfing her scars. And for Xena? Embarrassment, most likely, and a blot of pity upon her fearless new pet. Shit, the gladiator thinks. And yet the compulsion remains, to strip every image and every detail away from the swaddling of the past-the dank cot, the smell of blood, the crush of his body-and laying bare the experience of the black numbness that shriveled every nerve and hope within her.
"No," Xena replies softly. "I don't think I can." She regains her blunt, imperious tone-the voice and timbre of a leader, of a woman who does not mince words and who, for whatever unfathomable reason, Gabrielle instinctively trusts: "Did you kill him?"
"He wasn't hard to track down. Years passed. But I am patient. He left the army. Was working for one of the gangs on the Aventine-his boss owned a taverna and was in the habit of borrowing a lot of money from Cato. One evening I was there with Cato, playing my role: the enforcer. I saw him, and-he looked right through me." She pauses. "He didn't remember me." This, still vivid in her mind, wrecks her more than the bloodied fragments of the actual rape. "I debated-what to do. With no one but myself. Perhaps he had a family who depended on him-I don't know. In the end I didn't care. I just know that I could not stop myself from the inevitable. I slit his throat, and as he died I made certain he knew who I was."
"Then it is done." Xena murmurs it without recrimination or judgment.
Bold in her weakness, Gabrielle counters, "You know that's never true."
In her wretched throne, the Empress reclines regally. "Yes," she admits with a sigh. "But sometimes it's useful to pretend otherwise."
Silence punctuates this casual confession-a natural indication of leave-taking. And yet Gabrielle realizes she does not want the Empress to leave, that perhaps this worthless digression into her shit-strewn past served a more curative effect than the pressure point. "May I"-she begins shakily-"may I ask you something?"
"Gods, you're chatty today. Do you get that way during illness? Ah. Well, because this is all so very intriguing, I'll say yes."
"How did you learn the pressure points?"
"Years ago. From a woman on my ship-a stowaway, actually. Runaway slave from Egypt. How she learned them, I've the faintest idea."
"What happened to her?" Gabrielle glances up again, and Xena's mouth is lashed tight like rigging in a storm.
"You should get some rest." The Empress rises. "Before you know it, we'll be in the city. And I'll expect you back to form there." She pauses before the cabin door. "In fact, I'm fairly certain I'll need you back in form by then."
Of course the Empress was, as usual, infuriatingly accurate. Several mornings later, the thundering of footsteps above deck, the delicate whisking dances of the rigging, and, most conspicuously, the blessed cry of land! -along with someone's waggish proclamation of it's about fucking time-all inform Gabrielle that the fabled city is within their sight. She would cry tears of relief into her dirty pillow, if any would come. Instead she licks her parched lips, rises, and staggers up steps through the hold, bracing herself for the noxious assault of sea air and the leering bustle of the crew. She pushes into the strong, salt-soaked breeze toward the bridge, to the humble wheel that controls the movement of this floating world, to the weary captain Agathias, weary because royalty is the most problematic cargo of all-and finally to the Empress herself, standing next to the captain in a careful, catlike pose, triumphant even before arrival.
The shoreline is indeed visible. With terrifying weightlessness, however, the ship rises and writhes like a feather at the command of an ineffable nothing, miserably reminding Gabrielle once again she is not yet on terra firma. Her fingers dig into a beam-not that, you idiot, grab your wrist before you vomit on her fine boots.
Before she can tumble off the deck and into the sea like a discarded barrel, Xena steadies her while nodding into the distance at the brilliant white building beckoning them from the shore. "See the lighthouse?" The heel of Xena's hand resides confidently, steadily in the small of Gabrielle's back-as if it had done so on a thousand other occasions couched in a million different sets of circumstances and mood, a glittering net of constancy as reliably dazzling as the maze of stars hidden by the sun above, and it all troubles Gabrielle's weakened mind to such an extent she is oblivious to Xena's turn as tour guide. "-not actually on the mainland but the island of Pharos, it was erected by the first Ptolemy. The light is created by flame, using the reflection of mirrors-I've never seen it lit up at night. Have you, Agathias?"
The captain nods. "Aye. Very impressive," he replies in a tone that suggests otherwise.
"Oh, come on, you old coot, are you ever impressed by anything?"
"Impressed I've nearly made it here without being cast overboard, Empress."
"Your ship is a fine one, Agathias," the Empress grins, "but I had a better one years ago." Years ago, Xena thinks, when she possessed freedom and the lovely burden of chance. Nothing else. The sight of the shoreline, now tinged with melancholy, beckons less than before. As Pullo similarly imagines the ship sliding off the edge of the world, she feels the smile sliding off her face, into a void from which her equilibrium may never recover.
The normally perceptive gladiator, however, has surrendered to the vision of the lighthouse; immersed in admiration, she fails to detect the shift in mood. The wind flattens blonde bangs against her forehead, edging the fringe into her eyes. "So there it is," she whispers.
Xena merely nods while wishing that, like Gabrielle, she were seeing it for the first time, through the prism of another life.
There it is, bejeweled on the edge of foreign sands, at the edge of her world. Alexandria.
To be continued
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