Ceremonies, processions, exalted titles. In the hothouse of the Alexandrian palace she withers from boredom, heat, and a vague sense of both dissatisfaction and unease playing deceptively gentle rhythms upon her nerves. She sweats, but then everyone is sweating in the stifling banquet hall, despite the palm leaves splaying like green fingers and listlessly waving goodbye in the low golden light.
Even her young, diminutive host is not immune to the heat. With his wide kohl eyes and full, painted lips, Ptolemy XIII resembles not so much a ruler but one of many boy whores Xena has encountered prowling the docks of any number of port cities. In ceremonies he has stared at her, goggle-eyed, while his eunuch lackey Pothinus read litanies of official greetings, praises, reports, and other minutiae that usually prompted an alarming series of yawns on the Empress's part, quickly stifled by her elegant hand.
Now at the banquet, fortified by wine and gluttony, Ptolemy perches himself on silk cushions beside her. “I am so excited to finally meet you!” he breathes.
Under vigorous assault from his perfume, her stomach roils; she wonders if that second piece of lamb was a good idea. At his age, she was barefoot and wild in Amphipolis, playing games with her brothers—but, thankfully, not married to either one. She smirks, recalling the incredulous disgust on the faces of Pullo and Gabrielle when earlier she offhandedly revealed to her personal guards that the boy-king was officially married to his older sister, Cleopatra.
“It is an honor to be in Alexandria once more.” Xena's head dips in acknowledgment of her host; she pretends to drink too-sweet wine while discreetly scanning the room. Ptolemy's sister-wife is nowhere to be seen. Not surprising. Intelligence reports revealed a rift between the sibling-spouses, a struggle for power that resulted in the queen fleeing the royal residence. She remains in hiding. For all anyone knew, she may not even be in the city anymore.
Meanwhile, Ptolemy simpers. In return Xena winces and hopes it passes for a tired smile. Unconsciously, her eyes seek out the gladiator. Impassive, stoic, and vigilant, Gabrielle seems more a man—strike that, she thinks, no, she's more human, more real—than this foolish, made-up creature. Upon his first encounter with their retinue after the disembarkation from the ship, Ptolemy had seemed equally awed of the gladiator and had, despite Gabrielle's brightly furious gaze, caressed her white-gold hair while cooing with childish glee. And while she may appear as immobile as statuary here in the banquet, the gladiator's eyes are anything but—her gaze tracks the movements of the slaves, the servers, the dancers, the billowing curtain over a window, the Alexandrian guards at the heavy, ornate door.
Ptolemy intrudes upon Xena's observation. “Everything is to your liking? Your rooms? The slaves?”
“Perfect. Thank you.”
“And my gift?” Eagerly, Ptolemy sits straighter. “Did you see my gift?”
Xena blinks and recalls nothing in her new quarters that may have passed as a gift. She had half-heartedly hoped for a sex slave to satisfy that oppressively persistent itch present ever since—well, ever since meeting that bothersome gladiator—but alas, discovered no lovely creature of either gender loitering in or around the bed when she arrived. “Ah. I'm sorry. I did not.”
The boy waves a hand. “No matter! No matter!” he cries. “I'm sure it's there, in your room. Look for it later, will you?” His pudgy hands, smacked together, produce a muffled clap of triumph.
“Of course,” she replies smoothly. “But all gifts aside—“
“Oh no, you won't bring up serious things now, will you?”
“We have much to discuss.” Pothinus the eunuch is the one with the power—this, despite his outward appearance as a toady. It's obvious to her. However, Pothinus must keep the king appeased. So must she. In the pursuit of power persuasion must encompass a wide penumbra—and this, another one of Caesar's lessons for her.
“In the morning, please.” He touches her hand. “For now, I want to enjoy this moment.”
“Yes. There is so much to enjoy, isn't there?” Again her gaze flickers over to Gabrielle who, if only for the smallest of moments, allows a glint of sympathy to pierce her fine, fierce mien. Or perhaps she is imagining that. At any rate, she is so caught up in analysis of this fleeting glance that she misses the incredible: Ptolemy propositioning her.
“Well?” he demands. His hand curls around hers. She observes how small the hand is in comparison before withdrawing it from his flaccid grasp.
“I'm a married woman.” Invoking her marriage, of all things, to avoid intimacy with this foolish boy is a joke that all of Rome would surely enjoy, she thinks. Perhaps it will get back to the news reader somehow. I do love to entertain my people.
Ptolemy's lips quiver and she worries that he is going to burst into tears. Hey, come on, I'm not that good. Fortunately she refrains from joking and risks touching him again, this time patting his arm in what she hoped was a maternal fashion. “There, there,” she murmurs. Not that false sympathy is any better.
“No matter,” the boy-king sputters bravely.
“I'm quite flattered, I assure you.”
Ptolemy sniffles timidly. “Really?”
“Yes. I mean, a fine young man like yourself, finding a decrepit, married old hag like me attractive—“
“Oh, you're not a hag at all!” he cries loudly. This, bellowed during a quiet lull in the crowded, noisy room, draws glances from many interested parties and a narrowed, glittering glare from the gladiator.
Quietly pleased, Xena smiles. Nothing if not loyal.
Gabrielle has sensed all along that the so-called gift was not a good thing.
In the dim hall approaching the Empress's suite of rooms, she tamps down her anxiety. Beside her Xena yawns languidly and as dappled shadows glide along the outlines of her face, Gabrielle is reminded of Timon—the beloved beast who is back in Rome , pampered by Faustina—and his similarly regal expressions of boredom and malaise among the blathering humans. While Xena mutters “fucking nonsense” for about the sixth time since they've left the banquet, Gabrielle scrambles ahead to open the door and scour the room for assassins, scorpions, and any other threat to the Empress's well-being. To her dismay, however, Xena struts in before she's completed her task, and while she on her knees glancing under the bed.
She braces herself for some gentle bawdy comment; instead Xena only nods at the leather box upon the long, ornately gold table. “Is this what he was talking about? The gift?”
Gabrielle rises. “Yes. One of the slaves brought it earlier. While you were reviewing the guard.” She circles the table warily until she's at Xena's side once again.
Arms folded, Xena scowls in contemplation of the box. “You want to bet it's an asp?”
“I only gamble on things I'm certain of.” It's out of her mouth before can stop it. Gabrielle nibbles her lower lip. Too easily she reveals herself, too quickly she falls into the comfort of banter with this woman. Who owns her. From such familiarity disappointment is the only outcome she foresees; for all she knows, she could be sold to the odious boy-king tomorrow, or face an impromptu battle with beasts younger and hungrier than anything she ever encountered in Rome . She gambles foolishly on the Empress's innate goodness—and wonders when the tide will turn. Because it always does.
The Empress's laugh is low. “That's no way to live.” Unarmed, she impulsively reaches for the gladiator's sword—and her fingers encounter not the hilt but the protective mantle of Gabrielle's rough knuckles and her unyielding, disapproving frown. Under different circumstances she would have savored both the physical contact and the delicious stubbornness for a longer period of time. She raises an eyebrow.
Gabrielle relents. Her hand falls away.
Xena seizes the blade with a roll of her eyes. “I'll give it back. All right?” At a careful distance, she uses the tip of the gladius to slice through the decorative twine and pry open the lid of the box. Loosened, she flips the lid and it clatters onto the table. When an asp, a scorpion, or a similarly poisonous and deadly creature fails to spring out of the open box, she steps closer, eclipsing Gabrielle's view. “Okay.” And closer. “So far so good.”
The muscled knot in between Gabrielle's shoulder blades loosens imperceptibly. Until Xena gasps. The noise is so startling, so feminine, so uncharacteristic of the normally unflappable Empress that Gabrielle's instincts are undermined by genuine surprise and before she can even contemplate moving toward the box, her own sword barricades the way.
“Don't.” Xena's shoulders heave, as if her ragged breaths were forcibly pulled from her chest.
“It's his head.”
“Who?” Gabrielle whispers. When Xena fails to respond, the gladiator angles for a view of the box and catches a glint of wheat blond hair rising just above the edge, the short, ragged tufts cropped close to the head, all of it quickly, nauseatingly familiar. Pompey.
Xena hisses. “Sonofabitch.”
Before Gabrielle can ask why the Empress is defaming the dead, a breeze tickles her face. She realizes, of course, that Xena was not referring to Pompey, and that Xena—armed, enraged, and alone—is gone. Once again, the Empress has caught her flatfooted and unaware. Not to mention, she has a head start. And longer legs.
Roman soldiers are posted along the halls near their quarters like breadcrumbs leading back across the Mediterranean , to their home, but it is only Pullo who dares to stop her, who just manages to snag her arm before she dashes by him. “What's wrong?”
“Did you see her?” she demands breathlessly.
“Who? The Empress? No.”
“She's on the move, Pullo.”
“What the fuck happened?”
Explaining would take too long, so she opts to frame it in his language. “She's in a shit mood. A really shit mood.”
Pullo groans. “But what—“
“She's heading for Ptolemy. We have to find her. Now.”
He nods, and beckons the other soldiers to follow. “North side. The other hallway.”
Naturally, the sight of Roman soldiers running through the royal halls are enough to alarm the Egyptian guards they encounter, but the resultant skirmishes are short-lived, and one wounded guard unwillingly surrenders to the gladiator a new sword. When finally they arrive outside Ptolemy's private rooms, there are Egyptian soldiers pounding furiously upon barricaded doors so ornate and gilded that their fists are bloodied in encounters with precious jewels, elaborate bas-reliefs, and finely sculpted, inanimate flowers. One large Egyptian—who Gabrielle identifies as Ptolemy's personal guard—lies dead at the feet of his comrades, the limp, unnatural position of his head indicating a quick, clean neck break.
With mesmerizing, teasing slowness, a door opens. Apprehensive, the Egyptians stare at the ever-widening sliver of the king's room; the Romans do similarly, all the while trying to watch the Egyptians as well. When the door's creaky momentum stops, none of them are quite prepared for what they see. Cautious, they gather closer. Of all the tableaus Gabrielle envisioned—either the king slain by Xena's hand, or the Empress herself brutally slaughtered by a pack of guards—this is the most unlikely scenario of all, and yet a brilliantly staged reveal, a calculated risk only Xena would take: Sobbing hysterically but physically unharmed, the boy-king sprawls submissively at the Empress's feet.
Towering over him, Xena regards the boy with contemptuous pity. The gladiator's sword hangs loose in her grip. As Pullo barks “Stand aside!” to the stunned Egyptian guards—a few put up a fight, but mostly they yield and part noisily—she glances up and meets Gabrielle's eyes. If something has changed between them, Gabrielle is unsure of what precisely it is; paradoxically, the feeling of relief at seeing Xena alive and unharmed, which should make her feel better somehow, instead has produced an inexorable tightening within her chest. All she knows is that those blue eyes effortlessly find her—always, it seems, no matter where she is—and hold her, unwaveringly, with inscrutable expectations.
Carelessly the Empress nudges aside the weeping Ptolemy with a sandaled foot, and crosses the room. Holding the gladius by the blade, she offers it to Gabrielle hilt first. And even though Xena's gaze remains fixed upon her gladiator, she speaks loud enough for all to hear: “Find Cleopatra.”
To be continued
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