A trick with a knife
Brutus's billet is not as pleasant as Xena's, thinks Gabrielle, with no small amount of spiteful pride. The fireplace spits and croaks flames as a cantankerous old man would insults and phlegm. The candlelight hints at dingy shadows that cling stubbornly to daylight. Whether it's the sad cottage or Brutus's overall demeanor, Gabrielle cannot discern, but he doesn't bother to rise when they enter; he remains sitting at a broad, worn kitchen table strewn with chaos—papers, weapons, maps, rucksacks, cups, amphoras— rubbing his throat with extravagant care. “You needn't have bothered coming. I had Manthius executed.”
It isn't difficult to see when Xena is truly angry, at least not for Gabrielle: The side of Xena's jaw vibrates with the very emotion. Do others pay attention as closely as she does? For Brutus seems oblivious to the former Empress's cold fury as Xena's voice leaks casual menace: “A little hasty, don't you think? Who's going to captain your ship now? Who's going to oversee the repairs?”
“Why you, Xena, since you were so keen to take the helm before. You've convinced me of Greek superiority in all matters maritime. And if not you, Manthius's first mate seems entirely capable.” Brutus's hand drops from his throat. “I had to make an example.”
“You want an example? Beat him senseless, tie him up, and leave him outside in the rain for a few days. That's usually example enough. We can't afford to lose men right now.”
He glares at her suspiciously. “Why are you suddenly concerned about our numbers?”
“I'm not.” Xena returns the look. “I'm concerned about you wasting the lives of useful personnel.”
“His use was a matter of debate. As was the map he used. Speaking of which—” Brutus grabs a rucksack and empties its contents onto the table. “—that fucking thing must be burned. It must be in here somewhere.” This lack of reverence for a dead man's possessions unnerves Gabrielle; she has a newfound appreciation for Xena's homicidal tendencies toward Brutus. “Ah! Here it is.” As Brutus commits the faulty map to the smoky, weak fire, Xena peruses the contents of the rucksack and the glint of a knife—one of unusual character, a long, blade possessing two slender handles—catches her eye.
“I'll be damned. Haven't seen one of these in years.” Xena flicks open the latch holding the two handles together. In her hand the triumvirate of the knife twirls faster than a chariot wheel—a unifying blur of metal and flesh, weapon and woman, that leaves Brutus speechless with awestruck apprehension and Gabrielle tumbling back into the dark cells of memory.
Xena ends the performance by flipping the open knife into the air and catching it, beautifully unscathed.
“Do you want it?” Brutus asks tightly.
She shakes her head, clasps the handles together, and returns the knife to its bag. “It should be given to his kin.”
Quite naturally the talk drifts to the matter of the ship versus the road: Which would require more effort to fix? Which route would be faster? If they came in by land, would it give them an element of surprise over Antony ? Xena argues that it's not an ambush, but a negotiation.
Brutus snorts derisively. “And you call me an idealist.”
And in Gabrielle's mind the knife remains a whirlwind, even as she listlessly trails Xena back to her cottage.
Once inside, a lit candle brings the room to life again. Xena dismisses a guard and goes about the task of reanimating the fire herself. Unable to gauge her own mood, let alone Xena's, Gabrielle remains rooted in the middle of the room, the chill of the night air clinging to her cloak. “Who—” she falters.
Concerned, Xena glances at her.
“Who taught you how to handle a knife like that?”
“Fellow I met in a tavern in Piraeus a long time ago. He had one—called it a butterfly knife. He sailed with me for a couple months until I dropped him off in Sicily .”
Gabrielle interrupts, begging for confirmation of things she doesn't want to know, for the thread of the past to be plucked, for the skein of her life to unfurl: “Was his name Iolaus?”
For once, she has caught Xena flatfooted. “Yes. You knew him?”
“I killed him.”
Xena is not shocked— but then, why should she be? Gabrielle thinks. The slow, stately way that Xena stands from the fireplace, brushing her dirty hands on the leggings she wore, the way she seems to focus her entire bearing on Gabrielle, is her way of saying go on.
It's all the encouragement Gabrielle requires:
“Not many know it, but my illustrious career in the ring began as a joke. As you know, I killed my master; I'd grown tired of being raped on a regular basis. His wife was well rid of him and knew it, because he left her a wealthy woman. One evening after his death, as she dined with friends, one of them joked to her that if I were such a good fighter I should become a gladiator. And so the idea took hold in her. She came to see me in prison—I was going to be executed for what I'd done, of course, but she arranged otherwise. Her idea of mercy, of a thank you, was to sell me to Cato's ludus. ‘See if you can protect your precious cunt around a bunch of beasts like that, my dear'—those her parting words to me.
“I didn't end up being the ludus whore as she thought. I decided—I decided no one was going to take me like that again. The very first day, someone tried. Nearly succeeded. He beat the hell out of me. When he was done he told me that I had a reprieve—he wouldn't fuck me today, but he would tomorrow, and whenever he liked afterward. And something changed within me. As if he were some ugly oracle who'd spoke my future—a future of nothing but pain and humiliation. Before then, I valued life and peace. Before then, I thought that somehow I would be free again someday. But I realized then, at that moment, this was my life now. And it would never change unless I did something.” Gabrielle stares into the flames. “So I picked up one of those wooden swords. I had the element of surprise; to this day I remember how stunned he looked, stunned that I had arisen like Lazarus, knocked him down, and sank that wooden sword into his chest. I kept stabbing him—I couldn't stop—until I was covered in his blood and the damn thing broke off in his carcass. That's when Iolaus started paying attention to me. Almost like he was courting me. He was the best teacher there—don't listen to anyone who ever tells you otherwise—and I became his prized pupil, his greatest success.”
Here Gabrielle stops again; the surge of the past an unbearable repetition, a bitter necessity like the beating of her heart. “But that's the thing about the ludus. Success is its own punishment. And death is a victory.”
The rules of the game
The first thing she saw upon waking was the silver butterfly. This was what they called the double-handled knife that Iolaus played with in idle moments; before or after a match, or when he trained one of his duller students, or even those rare moments when he cadged the time to sit alone in thought—the knife would be twirling in his hand. He had never told her or anyone else exactly where he got the knife; but they all knew that before he was captured as a slave he had lived a life of adventure, traveling to faraway lands. He even claimed that he had traveled with some demigod son of Zeus.
The pain shot its poison into her blood again, and every nerve in her body became a fiery lesson in the alchemy of agony. Naked from the waist up, she was belly-down on a pallet in the healer's room, her entire back swathed in ointment and bandages. She had hoped that the whipping would kill her, had lost count on how many times the lash met her back, had been ready to greet death when—this the last thing she remembered—she slipped in her own blood and fell.
When Iolaus saw she was awake, he closed the knife and knelt closer her. He touched cool fingertips to her forehead with the dual purpose of checking for fever and brushing away the matted bangs from her face, his voice a shaky whisper: “You're lucky to be alive.”
She said nothing.
“It only proves what I've known all along. You are destined to survive. And I? I will play my part.” His fingers quivered around the knife before he pocketed it. “You don't seem to realize—my fate is not in my hands. Or yours. If you die here, right now, my life will be forfeit anyway. That's the way it is. The rules of the game, Gabrielle. The student surpasses the teacher. That's the only acceptable outcome. If you continue to refuse, I will be blamed for your weaknesses. Cato's investment will be lost. And the other lanistae will make a good example of me. If you win against me, I will be still be dead—but my family—” With unprecedented tenderness he touched her cheek and it was only then—when his callused fingers dammed her tears—she realized she was crying. “—my family will have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. The crowd will have gold on me. But Cato will have his coins on you, as will I. Everything on you—the underdog.” He forced a smile. “Do you see what I'm saying?”
Yes. You have bet on your own death. Prompted by the slightest breath or movement, pain played her body as an instrument. This did not stop the gasping sobs and the uncontrollable tears blurring the sight of him, so that he was nothing but soft colors mingling and dissolving like the tide over a bright shell. “I can't.” Her voice was foreign to her ears, rough, inchoate.
Calmly Iolaus wiped her face with a cloth. “You can.” He smiled, stroked her cheek again, and she thought of her father, of similar consolations over a bruise or a cut or a lost toy, of that sad, indulgent expression informing her that pain was transient and must be borne with good grace, because there was nothing else one could do but endure until it was sanctioned by the imprimatur of memory.
The clarity of hunger
“He didn't make it easy on me,” Gabrielle says. “It was a good fight, a fair fight. He knew all my tactics because he'd taught them to me. But in the end he was tired. So tired. He dropped to his knees and I stood with a knife against his throat and I was trying to say ‘forgive me,' but I couldn't, I just wanted to scream or run away or even slit my own throat but—but then through the din in the ring I heard him say ‘yes.' He said ‘yes.' Just that one word I took for his consent and his absolution and I did it. The first person to show me kindness in that shit world and I did that to him.”
Gabrielle stops. Somehow she's moved from standing in the middle of the room to sitting in front of the fire. Sprawled elegantly on the floor beside her is Xena, propped up by a saddle and staring, melancholy, into the fire. “If,” she begins gently, “you had told me before that Cato had engineered that, I would have killed him when I had the chance.”
“I know. That's why I didn't tell you. Cato was easily influenced by the other lanistae, the trainers who hated Iolaus. You don't know what the competition was like there. You don't know to what lengths—” Gabrielle stops. Her palms are damp but her lips are dry; she sips cool wine that assuages her aching throat. “It's strange how evil works sometimes; it needs the least bit of traction to take hold within someone. Whereas good needs all the help it can get, doesn't it? They planted this idea in Cato's mind, that to ‘graduate' the ludus my final match should be against my teacher. Cato regretted it later. It was foolish of him—Iolaus was one of the best trainers he'd ever had, and he didn't know what he had really lost until Iolaus lay dead at my feet.” She sighs. “He felt guilty. It's why he took me into his home. Well, that and the nice big tax break he got,” she adds derisively. “There were many times—I thought of killing him. But then I grew fond of his family. They treated me well. I couldn't take another man away from his family, no matter how good or bad he may be.”
“You had no choice.”
Dubious of comfort, and yet drawn to Xena's irresistible confidence, Gabrielle frowns skeptically. “You would have done the same thing?”
“Yes.” Xena admits. “Survival isn't a pretty thing, but damned if it isn't the strongest instinct we've got. You've survived all these years because you know that Iolaus wanted you to live. Your life gives his death meaning. He sacrificed for his family, yes, but your life was an intended consequence.”
Gabrielle stares at her hands. “How long—how long did you know him?”
“Oh, not long. As I said, I met him in Piraeus . There he was, this little, fast-talking man flashing that damned blade. Well, I wanted that knife, so I offered to sleep with him for it. I wasn't above bartering like that in those days.” Xena chuckles at the memory. “Well, he was having none of it. He had a woman already, she had a ship of her own too.”
Gabrielle cannot help but remember the name of the woman she never knew, the unknown beauty to whom she conferred the status of widowhood. “Nebula.”
“Yes. She was shipwrecked in Sicily . He wanted desperately to get to her. So he challenged me to a game of darts. If I won, I got the knife. If he won, I would take him to Sicily . The wager seemed a little, ah, skewed in terms of prizes, but I was an overconfident ass then—well, I still am, I'm just better at hiding it now—so I agreed. And ended up sailing to Sicily .” Xena's grin fades. “I warned him the coast down there was dangerous. It was popular among slavers.” She swirls the dregs of her wine before looking at Gabrielle. “Was that where they got him?”
The gladiator shakes her head. “I don't know. He never spoke of his past much, just—her. And the children.” Iolaus's death will always be a burden, but somehow releasing the tale into the air pinpricks that invisible bubble of crippling guilt and palpable self-loathing within her chest. She doesn't know quite how it happens, but soon Xena has her talking about her childhood in Potedaia, her family, her brief time with the Amazons, all the things she's never told anyone because no one ever seemed interested in knowing. She can't believe Xena is interested either, but the former Empress asks pertinent questions: Why did her father give up being a fisherman for being a farmer? How was Lila punished after the first time she ran away from home? While living with the Amazons, what weapons did she train with?
When she feels she can reveal no more she rises unsteadily; already the burden seems unexpectedly lighter and she wobbles ever so slightly. Or perhaps it is the wine she succumbed to in slaking her thirst and her raw throat. How long has it been since she's been downright garrulous like that, with anyone? Fearful of tears she stabs at her eyes with thumb and forefinger, hoping that the gesture passes as fatigue. “I should go.”
Not easily fooled, Xena wraps a steadying hand around Gabrielle's elbow. “No. Stay here.”
In fatigued response her head bumps Xena's chest, the leather cuirass warm against her forehead.
“I promise nothing will happen that you don't want to happen.” Xena's laugh is soft, self-conscious. “Awkwardly said, but no less true.”
In the slate-colored predawn that follows she awakens in Xena's bed, fully clothed—as is Xena, much to Gabrielle's surprising disappointment—with her head pillowed, still, upon the leather cuirass and the steady undertow of Xena's breathing beneath her. She imagines Xena's sternum as the prow of a sleek, magnificent ship. She thinks Xena would appreciate this image. From this vantage point the former Empress's legs seem impossibly long—and, to Gabrielle's amusement, terminate in boots covered in a stucco of mud. She is torn among the states of perfect safety, quiet repose, and simple desire. Each state encompasses the promise of happiness—even that risky last item, which seems a minor imperilment when couched within a life of unpredictability.
Xena's eyes flutter open as Gabrielle brushes black hair away from her face. Half-asleep she smiles uncertainly, then frowns with concern. “Gabrielle?”
Her name rolls in Xena's mouth like the finest delicacy and the clarity of hunger is at last a revelation. This is what she wants; this is what she has waited for. Initially she thinks the sibilant rush in her ears is the frantic beating of blood in her head, but it's only the rain outside; the harder it falls, the softer it sounds.
“I like the way you say my name,” she says. She kisses Xena—slowly, her open mouth already full of longing and expectation—and lets it begin. Xena's hand is warm across her neck, a conduit of heat that seeps through her skin, granting permission as it glides along Gabrielle's shoulders and back, encouraging every movement, including the abandonment of cumbersome clothing. With every stitch shed and discarded into a pile on the floor and their bodies meeting in defiant intention, the tapestry of the fates is once again undone.
To be continued
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