Interpretations and invitations
A dim corridor leading to a vast marble floor beckons Timon the cat to emerge from his hiding place, the location of which he will never divulge. With the masterful stealth of an actor who knows he will effortlessly upstage the leads, he makes a sleek entrance onto the stage of his mistress's bedroom; wisely he has waited for the departure of the oafish guards and until his mistress has stopped pacing around the room. His anticipation held in delicious check, he cuts a determined swath across the floor. His destination? The feet of his newfound friend, the gladiator. As he had hoped, a hand drops down. He fits his head into the warm, rough palm, welcoming the fingers that knew how to scratch and rub with the precise amount of tender vigor. In an interlude from the scratching, he sniffs the empty bowl at the gladiator's feet—fruit rinds and seeds, nuts, boring—and from across the room he disdainfully notes the sway of his mistress's long leg, the glint of her hooded eyes. She was always copying him like that; it was sad, really, but he could not fault her kind for their limitations.
Gabrielle, however, does not watch the Empress. Sometimes the only thing to do with an opponent is to pretend to ignore them, so instead she gazes down at the dregs in the fruit bowl. For an indeterminate length of time—well, since the Empress had growled “sit” at her and, as an afterthought, had plopped a bowl of fruit in her lap as a parent would give a toy to a bothersome child for distraction—she has sat silently, eating the fruit and waiting for something to happen as the Empress, deep in thought, paced languidly. Now the bowl is empty, which momentarily panics the gladiator: She wonders if she will be executed for gluttony. She has survived the Empress's temper thus far, in spite of nearly killing her in a sparring match and confessing a role in a conspiracy of murder, but perhaps this is the last straw, perhaps Xena is fonder of figs and almonds than one realizes.
Apparently tired of Gabrielle's ministrations, Timon nudges the bowl with his head, rubbing against its edge until it topples with noisy ease.
The gladiator jumps.
Xena's low, clear voice is, however, more nerve-wracking than the clattering bowl. “Are we even now?”
The Empress sits across the room from her. Not too close—in case the gladiator decides to change her mind and kill her after all—but not too far.
“Even?” Gabrielle rasps.
“I didn't kill you, you didn't kill me. We're even.”
Gabrielle does not know how to answer this. What did she expect from the Empress? Eternal gratitude? Falling at her feet? Freedom? The truth was she feared freedom; she only knew how to do one thing, and that was to fight, to kill. She would prefer mere control over whom she battled, and in the very act of refusal in the conspiracy she felt a satisfying liberation, something that could sustain her for a long time. Well, at least until Pompey would kill her. Not even Cato can save her from that.
“So what's your play now, gladiator?”
“Didn't think that far ahead, did you?”
Her frown deepens. It's true: Consequences were not considered. She could run. The memories of previous attempts, written in the scars on her back, tighten their hold upon her flesh. To live the rest of her life looking over her shoulder? Perhaps execution would be better.
“It would have been easier for you to just kill me.” Xena sighs. “Pompey won't be pleased with you. And he won't be pleased with your master either.”
The truth settles in—almost as deeply as her scars. Had she inadvertently signed the death warrant of not only Cato, but his family as well?
“You like him, I know. He has treated you well, taken you in among his family. You've grown fond of them, all of them. But you needn't worry about any harm coming to Cato, or his family—his cousin will ensure his safety. It pays to have connections to the Optimates.”
“Who?” Gabrielle risks the question, awaits sneering condescension similar to what she encountered with Pompey. Ah, poor dumb gladiator, poor unthinking hunk of meat.
Instead, Xena takes it as a legitimate question—as if Gabrielle is a visiting head of state unfamiliar with Roman politics—and answers seriously. Or at least as seriously as she can muster. “A group of old fools who favor the aristocracy, who wish to limit the power of the tribunes while extending their own rank and privilege in the Senate. Well, basically, they are the aristocracy. Pompey is their new darling—this despite the fact that he's no more an aristocrat than I am.”
Gabrielle has heard it many times—that Caesar is for the people, the plebes. He has grand ideas and even grander speeches. He wants to limit slavery. To Gabrielle's mind limiting slavery is a half measure, like building half a dam, or claiming that one is half a virgin. “So Pompey's views are opposite yours,” she ventures. “And Caesar's.”
“Yes. Only because he thinks it suits him. He wants to reclaim the power he once possessed, and he thinks joining forces with the Optimates is the only way to do it. He was part of the triumvirate, you see, that ruled Rome back in the day: Caesar, Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Then the dynamic changed: Crassus died in battle. Caesar met me. And Pompey? He grew old and fat. He drifted. I suppose he resented sharing power with a barbarian whore, or he resented that Caesar grew more popular among the plebes. So Caesar formed an alliance with Antony, resulting in a new triumvirate.” Xena smiles. “And that's your history lesson for the evening. Hope you remember it all—there will be a test during your next assassination attempt.”
The Empress, Gabrielle has discovered, has a remarkable talent for catching her flatfooted—both verbally and otherwise. During their sparring session, which Gabrielle remembers with the same obsessive devotion as a maiden would her first encounter with a favored suitor, Xena had nearly knocked her over with an elegant spinning blow unlike anything she had ever encountered. She barely had time to react, to maintain her balance. The Empress's words are even more effective, because she does not know how to react. Laugh? Prepare for the executioner's blade? Run out and read every scroll on Roman history she could find?
Once again Xena's voice intrudes upon her thoughts. “You haven't answered my question.”
“What shall you do now?”
Gabrielle pauses. “I don't know.” Her callused hands rub together. Fight. That's all you know how to do. Well, if you are going to die so soon, why don't you ask her one of those questions you've been turning over in your mind since the day you met her? “May I ask you something?”
“I haven't fellated the entire Senate. There isn't enough wine or gold in the world to make anyone do that, I think.”
Flatfooted once again. “What?”
“Nothing. Go ahead.”
“Why have you come to see me in the ring?”
“You're an interesting fighter. Once of the best I've ever encountered. As a warrior, it behooves me to study a formidable opponent.” Xena clears her throat. “So don't mistake my public appearances at the ring as an indicator of a serious interest in the gladiatorial arts.”
“You wrote a treatise against it, I know.”
At last, the gladiator thinks, an unexpected blow: Xena is surprised. And momentarily speechless.
Gabrielle offers her a smile brief and beautiful, as illuminating and galvanizing as lightning. “You think I can't read. It's all right. There's no reason for you to think otherwise.”
Xena opens her mouth but somehow stops a “sorry” from coming out because she is the Empress of Rome, Caesar's wife, one of the best warriors alive, who has sailed around the known world, including Chin, been feted and worshipped by barbarians and royalty alike, and has not said “sorry” to anyone living—well, at least not sincerely—since she was twelve years old, even though she should have said it to her mother when Lyceus died and the fact that she muttered it to his broken, bloodied body while preparing him for the funeral pyre did not really count. So why she wants to say it to some mere gladiator, beautiful and maddening in her qualities of innocence and plain weariness, she does not know.
This aspect of the gladiator, who is normally primed for some kind of blow, whose shoulders are tight with dread of pain and whose eyes usually show nothing but blank determination to live through whatever nightmare the fates throw her way, is something new: She blushes, she glances at her feet and is surprised to find Timon still there, staring up at her, and she stammers further explanation: “Servilla—Cato's eldest—brings me scrolls to read sometimes. She was the one who told me that you wrote this. And so I read it.”
The Empress rubs her brow. “I can think of better things to read other than a diatribe written in a child's Latin.”
“It is a convincing argument. Perhaps—when I was younger, I would have agreed.” Gabrielle pauses and, unbeknownst to Xena, commences chanting shut up shut up shut up to herself. But the Empress thoughtfully props her chin in her hand and looks—interested, so she continues carefully: “Sometimes I wonder now if the bloodsports have their place.”
“Well,” Xena retorts smoothly, “it is your livelihood, so I imagine you have a different take on it. But why? Why do you think that?”
Gabrielle wonders if she should unfurl her theory. It always sounded so rational when it ran through her mind at night; it made as much sense as the imaginary constellations she pieced together. Giving voice to it, however, in front of someone who was not only the Empress but seemingly a rationalist of the highest order, was quite different. “It's a necessary evil. A catharsis for the Roman soul. Can you imagine Rome without ritual bloodletting? The empire is driven by ambition, to conquer other people, other lands, so even Rome's leisure activities are marked by pursuit of blood. The quest to dominate festers unless it's granted release.”
“So in other words, you are just a very dangerous civil servant.” Xena smiles, which puts the gladiator at ease for the moment. “Interesting. I think you just might understand the Romans better than I ever have.”
The Empress stretches her legs, crosses them again, and in the readjustment somehow reveals a bit more flesh. Sways the left leg now instead of the right one. Her right hand, hanging off the chair's arm, twitches, and her fingertips idly rub together, itching for activity—a sword or a warm body, either would do. She smiles with indulgent, exaggerated politesse at the gladiator who, while finally learning to anticipate the unexpected turns of Xena's mind, nonetheless finds the following invitation inconceivable and completely unexpected:
“Would you like to go to an orgy?”
To be continued
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