The House of Lao sec 1

1. I don’t own the characters, I just love writing about them.
2. Things in this story you might want to know about in advance include: mentions of nonconsensual sex in a character’s past, a little angst, a little violence, and beautifully detailed descriptions of women making love.

: Did you ever wonder what might have happened if Xena had conquered herself all those years ago in Chin and become Lao Ma’s Warrior Princess? The story takes place in that reality and occurs (not nine, not eleven but) ten years later.
Thanks: To the kind folks of the Bardic Circle for feedback. To Sam Reifler for his translations of the I Ching.

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The House Of Lao

copyright May 2001
by Xena’s Little Bitch
(aka Julia Nol Goldman)

We’re drunk, playing the game with the tiles. I don’t even remember what it’s called, but I know I’ll win. I always win. It’s nice to have some certainties in life. We lounge on big square pillows on the floor, looking out onto a huge balcony. I stare out into the night sky, at the gauzy red and yellow curtains as they shift voluptuously in the light wind. It’s dark and cloudy and I’m getting bored. Inside it is less dark; orange and warm. The pillows I lie on have tiny mirrors sewn into them. The ceiling of the room is high, the furnishings low and few. Simple and elegant. It feels as if I am as much within the room as I am floating outside in the night.

“Borias, go!” I blurt out.

“What?” I’ve obviously startled him.

“It’s your turn. We could just stop playing...”

“No, no,” he says distractedly, looking blankly at his tiles.

I roll my eyes and light the hooka, inhaling deeply; the smoke makes my eyes water and I pass it to Lao Ma who accepts it with a little smile. I’ve never seen a person handle themselves while intoxicated like she does. I know she’s had as much as I have and yet she seems almost as sober as she did at breakfast. And she looks beautiful, her long black hair flowing loose around her, the slight flush to her cheeks the only sign of her inebriation. I lie back on the pillows and stare at the clouds as they move lazily around the night sky. A gong sounds loudly and I pull my attention back inside. We all exchange glances. I don’t know what they’re thinking but I’m bored. I feel like dancing, maybe. Some dancing would be nice. While changing positions I “accidentally” knock over the low table the game is resting on with my foot.

“Oops,” I say, giving Lao Ma what I hope is my most charmingly mischievous smile. She pretends to frown at me. “I win.”

“Xena wins again,” says Borias, poking me in the ribs and finishing off his glass of wine. He pours another, and I hand him mine to refill.

Two soldiers enter the room, holding between them a young woman so stunning I sit up straight and cannot help but stare directly at her, my wine and my boredom immediately forgotten.

“She was found stowed away on one of your trade ships returning from Rome,” one of the soldiers explains to Lao Ma, “She bears Roman markings.”

This woman stands a head shorter than I do, her hair is short and blonde and dirty. She’s dressed in soiled gray rags; one wrapped around her torso, covering her breasts, the other fashioned into something that is almost a skirt. Though her condition breaks my heart, I can’t help noticing that her muscles are incredible, that they gleam like copper in the dim light. She is beautiful, and she radiates strength and anger. I watch the muscles in her arms straining not to break free of the soldiers hands. She could do it easily, but she chooses not to.

“Let her go and leave us,” says Lao Ma, and the soldiers obey. The glorious woman stands there, staring at the floor. “Come, sit with us,” says Lao Ma gently. The girl does not move. I can see her breasts rise and fall quickly with her breathing and her fists clench convulsively at her sides.

I haven’t stopped staring at her since she entered the room. Finally she looks up at me and meets my gaze. Everything is liquid, suddenly, from my insides to the very air around me. Her light-colored eyes reflect the flames from the tall candlesticks that stand near her, and I... I’ve met a lot of people, but not one has ever made me feel this way when I first saw them. Not even Lao Ma, and believe me, my first sight of her was like a punch in the gut. This is just scary.

“No one is going to hurt you. You are free now. I am Lao Ma, please, tell me your name,” says Lao Ma in her most enticing tone. Still the woman does not respond, and she looks back to the floor. “Do you understand me?”

It takes a few moments but the warrior nods her head slightly.

“Can you speak?” Lao Ma asks. The beautiful woman does not respond. I feel Lao Ma’s eyes on me. I look at her, feeling silly about staring at the girl. There’s something about her so fierce and so gentle that I want to be devoured by it. In fact the process has already begun, and I can see that Lao Ma knows it.

“Little one,” I hear her saying to the girl, “I think you need a friend right now. I present to you Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin. You may stay with her and she will be your guardian until you figure out where you want to go and what you want to do.”

“In other words,” says Borias gently, “You got on the right boat.”

The girl looks up at him and he smiles his warm, beautiful smile. Her expression is still dark.

“Now, it is late. Let us all retire for the evening.” And thus we are dismissed by the Empress of Chin.

I can hear the sound of the callouses on the girl’s feet as they brush the polished wood floors behind me on the way back to my chambers. This is not the first time Lao Ma has assigned a lost soul to my care, but the first time that the soul touched my own so quickly; the feeling is so intense it seems impossible. Somehow that makes it easier to deal with; how do you think about the unthinkable? You don’t. Everything we pass is swathed in red fabric trimmed with gold. Huge gongs adorn the walls, delicate vases stand on small pedestals, all the details are carvings of dragons and monkey heads. I’ve gotten used to it. It is so beautiful and elaborate, not at all like Greece, the naked wood and plain furniture I knew back then.

We enter my chambers and stand in the main room. Large windows across from the door, heavy green curtains, a huge desk by the window. A fireplace on the right, a low couch in front of it, the door to my bed chamber. The bathing chamber is to the left, and I know there’s a hot bath waiting.

“Woman without a name,” I say to get her attention. “The bathing room is that way; please enjoy yourself and take your time.”

She looks at me. I look at her. I don’t want to think about the last time she bathed; probably not since Rome.

“I know you understand me. Why don’t you go in there and bathe? Just go.”

She looks at the floor.

“You’re not a slave anymore,” I say. “There is no slavery in Chin. I promise. We run the place in case you didn’t guess. Lao Ma makes the rules and Borias and I enforce them, so I promise, you’re safe. Don’t you want to take a bath?”

No response. I walk over and stand next to her. “This is how it’s done,” I explain, turning to face the bathing room, then slowly walking into it. She follows me.

The chamber is simple and square. A large, round, paper lantern hangs in each corner, a low couch leans against each wall. There’s a fireplace to heat water, and shelves and shelves of bottles and jars of stuff I almost never use.

“Are you from Greece?” I ask her, watching as she looks around the room. She nods, a guarded expression on her face. I walk to a shelf and choose incense and soaps and lotions scented with herbs and flowers native to my homeland. Perhaps they will remind her of her life before, of freedom. They might make her sad, but I’ll take any reaction.

“Am I going to have to get into the bath before you will?” I ask, staring at the large, square, tiled tub that commandeers the center of the room. Steam rises out of it. There are spies in the palace who just wait to figure out when we are coming back to our rooms so the water is always hot. Something a tavern keeper’s daughter can appreciate.

“If you don’t take off your clothes, Blondie, I will come over there and take them off for you and pick you up and put you in the tub.”

The small, muscular woman looks at me as I bend and light the incense from the fire, sizing me up, wondering; could she beat me?

“Did you fight in the Coliseum?” I ask.

She nods. Since I’ve never lost a fight while able-bodied, I figure I could beat her, but maybe only just.

“Did you escape?”

No answer.

“Get in the bath.” Nothing. “Fine.” I will do what I must to avoid getting Roman dirt in my bed. I take off my black silk pants and my black silk shirt and lay them gently on a couch like Lao Ma taught me so long ago--she said I treated my clothes angrily, like everything else. She had laughed and I had frowned. I frowned all the time back then.

I get in the tub, easing myself into the hot water until it just covers my breasts. I don’t watch as the gladiator pulls off her rags and gets in as well and sits across from me. I take a bar of soap and hand one to her. I begin washing myself and see her sniffing the soap with her eyes closed.

“I was born in Greece, in Amphipolis,” I say, “The smell of coriander always reminds me of home.”

We sit in the tub, smelling the soap and washing ourselves. She has a lot of tattoos. Though Caesar’s marks cover her body, she is still amazingly beautiful. I can think his name without getting angry. That took years. I still feel the hate, and the pain of his betrayal, but I can keep it from controlling me now, even though I have a new reason to hate him. On her arm it says “Minerva.”

“Is that what they called you, ‘Minerva’?”

No response.

“Should I call you that?”

No response.

“When was the last time someone told you you were beautiful?”

She blushes and then looks almost angrily down at the water. And there she is, the little Greek girl inside the hardened warrior. Flattery can be a very effective way of gaining information.

“Well, you are. Don’t worry, I’m not making a pass at you. Not that I wouldn’t want to... under different circumstances.”

I am impressed that I am drunk and in this hot bath naked with this gorgeous woman whose soul reaches out to kiss mine, and I am not making a pass. Guess I really have conquered myself after all. She washes her body almost tentatively; I imagine she is so used to having terrible wounds and bruises that she is surprised when she doesn’t flinch at her own touch. Her muscles are amazing, so large and yet she’s so well-proportioned for her height. Her skin is smooth and brown from the sun, except for all the tattoos and the scars. Part of her is very conscious of my presence, aware that I could prove myself to be unsafe at any time. We bathe in silence for a while. Earning her trust is going to be a challenge.

We get out of the tub and change into long silk nightshirts. I manage to keep my eyes off her as she dresses. I point out that there’s food on the table by the window but she doesn’t even look. She follows me into my bed chamber, a small room that is mostly a huge bed. There’s a window on one side, and the soft, dark material that gathers in the middle of the ceiling hangs down the walls to create curtains that surround the bed.

“Impressive, isn’t it?”

She looks from the bed to me and back again, and then to the floor; the blank look returns her face.

“Listen, girl,” I say quietly, walking towards my bed, “I’m Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin; I don’t take women against their will. If you insult me like that again, well... I don’t know you well enough yet to know how to threaten you appropriately, so consider yourself threatened. Just get into the bed and go to sleep and maybe tomorrow you’ll start trusting me.”

She gets into the bed. I smile with satisfaction as I blow out the candles. Though I am unused to another person sleeping near me, I enter Morpheus’ realm easily and remain there happily for a few hours. Soon enough I am pulled from my deep slumber by movement in the bed next to me. I remember that the girl is here, and her jerks and twitches tell me she’s having a nightmare. I can hear her try to call out, a raspy, wordless whisper. I know exactly the kind of nightmare she is having. The kind where you’re already terrified and then you scream and scream and yet you can’t make a sound: total panic. I have to wake her up and I do the first thing that comes into my mind. I take the ceramic mug from the table by the bed and throw it as hard as I can into the corner of the room by the door. I feign sleep as the warrior shoots up into a sitting position, having no idea even that it was a sound that woke her, only that she is awake and no longer in the terrible dream place. I listen as she tries to calm her breathing, and eventually it pushes me back into sleep.

I wake up the next morning, hung over and aching. I open my eyes to see the blonde gladiator standing by the window, gazing out at the great wall of Chin in the distance. Her short hair is combed back and she looks wonderful in the red silk night shirt. She is completely still, her breathing is silent. I want to come up behind her and put my arms around her, but I’ve got to be strategic. She is far too unfamiliar with physical comfort, mistrustful of tenderness. She reminds me of myself, the day Lao Ma brought me home and washed my hair. It took all the strength I had to stay in the water and submit to her gentle touch. The gladiator is not in hiding here, nor is she lame as I was; she could easily leave before I manage to reach her. I have to treat her as I would a cat I wanted to tame; I have to get her curious, entertain her, make her want to stay.

She turns away from the window and looks right at me staring at her. I smile and say good morning, tell her I’m glad she’s still here. I gesture to the wardrobe and tell her she can wear anything she wants. She doesn’t move. I put on gray-blue silk pants with a matching top. The girl watches me dress and then looks through the clothing until she finds something that’s a little smaller and almost the same color and style.

“You wanna blend in, huh?” I smile at her, “Don’t worry. It’s just Lao Ma and Borias. You met them last night. They’re both really very nice.” As we walk towards the dining hall I am amazed with myself. Assuring someone that Borias is a nice guy. Gods how times change! I remember the time he... well, he never killed women and children anyway.

Today Borias is hung over. He sits at the huge golden table in our private dining room, his back to the window, staring vacantly at his food with bloodshot eyes. Lao Ma of course looks lovely and fresh, her hair perfect, sitting up straight and tall in her chair. I look at her and she smiles at me. The gladiator and I sit next to each other, looking out the huge window at the beautiful sunny morning. The blue sky looks as if it goes on forever, and maybe it does. The table is long and covered with dishes and platters. I take my little charge’s plate and fill it with things I think are delicious, hoping she’ll like some of them.

I decide to start my day with the hair of the dog that bit me. I mean, why not? I have nothing planned, no warrior-princessing to fence me in. I pour a large goblet of red wine for myself, and some for the gladiator as well.

“Good morning,” Lao Ma says to the girl. She doesn’t look up from her plate. Then to me, “Has she spoken to you?”

“No,” I said matter of factly, as if it didn’t really matter either way, “But I figure she will at some point.”

“Perhaps we should call her Gentle Dragon?” Lao Ma asks, looking pointedly at her.

“She looks like more of an Angry Dragon to me,” says Borias warmly, smiling at the girl.

“What if she’s not a dragon?” I ask.

“She’s a dragon,” says Lao Ma, “Wait and see.”

The gladiator’s face is red from the gentle teasing. Slowly she raises her hand and points at a tattoo of a tiger on her lower arm.

“Tiger?” I ask. “What kind of tiger?” I can feel Lao Ma and Borias staring at me, at the intensity with which I stare at the girl. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t respond. “Then it’s Tiger. For now.”

“What are you going to do with your day off, Xena?” Lao Ma asks. She never needs a day off. She’s happy to be responsible all the time.

“I figured I’d show Tiger around.”

“Show off, you mean,” mutters Borias. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Tiger’s eating and I don’t want to disrupt that by punching Borias. So I just smile. Lao Ma shakes her head at me.

After breakfast, the girl and I walk over to the stables. She allows me to pull her up behind me onto the back of the glorious black stallion I call Desire, and we slowly ride away from the palace, through endless green fields.

“I’m going to show you around the place, give you a taste of what it’s like here, see if you have an affinity for it,” I say, turning my head as far around as I can and speaking loudly into the wind, “But you could go anywhere in the world. Have you been anywhere interesting?”

“Only in my dreams,” she says into my ear. Her voice is deep and full of emotion; worth waiting for.

“I know just what you mean,” I say to her, enjoying the way her hands feel on my stomach. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lead a very interesting life, but that’s still not the same as having the things you dream about.” Why in Hades did I say that? What a stupid, stupid thing to say. “What’s your name?” I ask, hoping to cover it up.

“What do you dream about?” she asks. Her lips accidentally touch my ear and I feel her pull back quickly, lighting shooting through my body.

“I’ll tell you that when you tell me your name.”

“I haven’t told anyone my name since I became a slave,” she says.

“And I’ve never told anybody what I dream about,” I counter.

As we ride on, I slow the horse and point things out to her. Not that the beautiful countryside of Chin needs any explaining. The fresh air and sunlight seem to agree with her, and her face becomes almost animated as we explore Lao Ma’s grounds.

We stand at the top of a mountain from which we can see as much of Chin as can be seen from any one spot. I explain to her that all of this is Lao Ma’s. It’s endless and beautiful.

“At first I didn’t understand, I just thought it was land and that controlling land gave you power. Lao Ma taught me how the land itself holds power.” I pause and chuckle, “I thought I knew everything about power, how to get it, how to keep it, the best things to do with it once you had it. I was such a fool. I did terrible things, before Lao Ma...”

My companion looks up at me for a moment, then back out at the view. I wonder when she was last outside of Rome, what her favorite color is, what her skin would feel like under my hands. Her blonde hair glows in the sunlight. I can tell she is savoring her new feelings of freedom; from slavery, and perhaps from herself as well.

“I’m really free?” she whispers.

“Really. You got away. This part is the bonus.” I smile at her and she looks up at me.

“Thank you, Xena,” she says gravely.

“No problem,” I say, suddenly feeling emotional and changing the subject, “Look at those clouds. There’s a storm coming.”

We ride quickly across the fields towards the palace. As the sky changes color with the wind and the clouds, so does the plant life. Everything glows and sparkles and I can feel the excitement in the small body behind me. Probably she has not seen a storm in years.

“You like it, don’t you,” I call behind me into the wind.

“I love the weather,” she says into my ear, “it makes me feel alive.”

We dismount at the stables and hand the horse off. The sky is dark green with the storm, but it is not yet raining. We walk together in silence, soon coming to my favorite of Lao Ma’s sixty-four decorative gardens that represent the hexagrams of the I Ching. Each has a stone at the entrance with an inscription, and I read this one to Gabrielle.

“This hexagram is called Kway, Breakthrough. The marsh above heaven. The superior man rains benefits on those below him and does not let his gifts go unused.”

She looks at me curiously.

“That’s from The Book of Changes. Self-augury. Its main purpose is to advise in battle, but it applies anywhere. One aspires to live as the superior man does.”

Lightening cracks in the sky, followed closely by thunder. I watch the girl marvel at the unusual stone sculptures, the small topiary cats, the waterfalls. So delicately does she run her fingers along the tops of the bushes that I wonder how she could possibly have turned off her gentleness to fight in the arena.

“This is marvelous,” she whispers, “You’re so lucky, living here.”

“There are all kinds of jobs in the palace, and those who work in the palace generally live here as well. I’m sure we could find something for you that suits your skills. But I want to make clear, you can choose. You’re free. To go anywhere, do anything. We’ll help you get set up wherever you want.”

Suddenly there is a clap of thunder and the rain explodes from the sky. I figure it’s a little bit of everything, but the gladiator smiles. At the rain, the marble benches, her freedom, me. I smile back and we hold each other’s stare for longer than necessary. I think she’s started trusting me. And more than that. Or is it just me? I tear my eyes away.

“We only got to be outside when we were fighting, or practicing,” she says, staring into the pool at the bottom of one of the little waterfalls. The raindrops cause the surface of the water to be constantly disturbed. “And when we were inside, there were no windows. At least, a storm you can hear. You can’t hear a sunny day.”

“No, you can’t,” I agree, feeling immeasurably sad for her. The fingers of her right hand caress the leaves of a bush, and she stares down at the pebbles on the path below us.

“Six years of my life. You don’t get years back,” she says bitterly.

“I know. There are quite a few years I myself would like to have to redo, but I’ve mostly come to terms with it.”

“Yeah?” She turns and looks up at me almost hopefully.

“It takes a lot of work but, yeah, I promise you’ll feel alive again, like the present makes the past bearable. I’ll help you. If you want.” My heart pounds against my ribcage and I know, damn the gods I know, what this feeling is. I’ve never felt it before but there’s really no other explanation. Lightning cracks overhead, a little closer than I’d like.

“Really?” she asks, looking intently into my eyes, her bangs plastered to her forehead by the rain.

“On my honor,” I say, because I have honor now and the way she looks at me when I say it makes my chest expand with happiness. Oh, the things I would like to be for this woman.

She slowly puts out her right hand, and I take it in my own. It feels calloused yet soft, and it fits into mine perfectly. I sense that my body has given itself away somehow, whether by sound or sudden movement I can’t tell, but I feel exposed. She continues to hold my stare.

“Gabrielle,” she says.

“Gabrielle,” I say, the name is like honey, and I’m smiling so wide it hurts. “Perfect. Very pleased to meet you.”

Thunder rumbles, leaves rustle in the wind, water splashes loudly.

“It’s your turn,” she says, with something close to a smile.

I give her an innocent look.

“Your dreams,” she prompts, still holding my hand. No hand has ever felt like hers.

“Can you give me a little time? It’s a more complicated answer.”



We enjoy the storm until we are drenched, then walk slowly back to the palace. In my chambers, we dry off in front of the fire, not looking at each other as we change into long, soft, silver under dresses. Outside it is still green-gray and stormy, but in my rooms everything is licked gently by the warm orange of numerous, well-contained flames.

“What would you like to do?” I ask.

“I like that question,” says Gabrielle shyly, “can we just stay here?”

“Sounds great, let me just get some things.” I leave the room and speak to someone in the hall, asking for food and wine to be sent up. When I return, she is sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace, looking for all the world like someone’s little girl. “Mine!” a part of me calls out; no one could resist the urge to take care of something so beautiful. Even at my worst, part of me would have cried out to a girl like this one; something Borias and I have always had in common. Yet these feelings are different, not mixed in with a thousand other more negative emotions. Borias has always been better than I am about... caring for people. I always mess everything up.

I sit on the other end of the couch. The food arrives and I pour us each a goblet of wine. I watch her lips as she drinks. They are so pretty.

“From the time I was little,” I say, “I wanted to be a warrior. I had brothers and grew up like one of them, yet at the same time I always felt different.”

Gabrielle smiles as she takes a sip of her wine, looking into the fire. “I was a happy little kid. I told stories and taught smaller children how to play different games... I wanted to be a bard,” she says huskily, and suddenly she’s sobbing. I put my hand out towards her and she sinks down to the floor away from me, knocking her wine onto the carpet and her dress.

“Gabrielle,” I say softly. She continues sobbing, trying to catch her breath, as she slowly crawls along the floor away from me. My heart wrenches and I have to follow her.

“Leave me alone,” she whispers savagely, kicking back at me and moving more swiftly towards the door.

“No,” I say, and I throw myself on top of her. She scrambles and flips me over quickly, straddling my torso and holding my wrists crossed over my head. She stares at the floor and tries to regain control of her breathing, but she can’t. She continues to sob as she speaks.

“I wanted to be a bard... my parents didn’t want me to... I wanted to grow up, and fall in love...” her voice cracks and catches, and she stops to regain control. Tears pour down her face. “I wanted to tell stories. Make people happy.” On the last word, she looks into my eyes. She takes my breath away. My urge to help her is even stronger than my urge to hurt the people who caused her this pain. But if they were here, I’d kill them. Easy. No questions asked.

“I know,” I say softly, trying not to move, “You didn’t deserve what happened to you, Gabrielle, and you can never get back what you lost. But you can still have everything you dream of. You can still be all the things you wanted to be.”

“Tell me what you dream of,” Gabrielle says quietly, her breathing calmer, tears still flowing. She grips my wrists harder and stares down at me.

“From the time I was very young, I felt like I was different. I’ve always wished for someone who loved me completely, without judgment. Someone who thought I was the best thing in the world, who made me feel like I wasn’t alone.” There, I said it. My terrible truth brings a change into her eyes.

“You don’t already have that?” she asks softly, her tears finally stopped.

“You mean with Lao Ma or Borias? There have been times when I have been very...intimate with each of them, but it was never like what I dream of. And that’s all in the past anyway, I mean, with them, like that...”

“Xena, you make me want to tell you things I’ve never told anyone before.”

“Tell me. I want to hear.”

She crawls off of me, letting my wrists go, and then she sits on her heels, wraps her arms around her knees, and bends over until her forehead rests on the floor next to my ear. I am not going to get angry and swear vengeance. I am going to listen and try to comfort her.

“Once upon a time there was a girl named Gabrielle,” she whispers, “and she was innocent and smart and funny. One day the slavers came and they took her. She fought back hard but they eventually knocked her unconscious and chained her up, took her far away from home. Because she was pretty and they were evil, they raped her. She fought back, hard. So hard she hurt them, so hard that even when she was chained up it always took at least four of them, and all four came away with injuries. Eventually they realized her spirit would not be broken and that she might be better suited to a different kind of slavery...” She pauses.

“So they sold her to fight in the arena,” I whisper, sliding my hand slowly along the floor towards her, hoping that eventually she will take it again.

“Yes. She learned all kinds of different fighting techniques, from nets and tridents to bare-handed. She learned how to fight wild animals, and groups of ten men at once with only a dagger. And she learned to kill. She learned to forget that the men she fought were men even as their blood flowed down her almost naked body as she held them against her, slitting their throats, one after another. There was the training, the fight, the kill, and the staring at the gray wall of her cell. There were no friends, only potential opponents; she learned the hard way that there was no other option. Sometimes she ate. Sometimes she thought about things, or told herself stories, or imagined a better future, but the longer she was there, the less energy she had for fantasy and hope. For six years, this was how she lived, and as time passed she felt the girl who wanted to be a bard disappearing more and more. The fight was all there was, and the fight felt good.”

“It was the closest she came to feeling alive,” I whisper. Oh how familiar is the feeling of the satisfaction of a fight when you have nothing but the kill to nourish you. Like the tribes who eat the hearts of their enemies, you pull their life force into your self-hatred and then you’re pulsating with power. I know that feeling all too well.

“Yes. She was beaten and she was branded. She was tortured for the entertainment of the guards. She tried to escape many times, and the torture was more terrible each time, and always, always worse because she fought it. But she still fought it. There was her anger and there were her opponents to take it out on. There were months at a time when she didn’t speak to anyone. She stopped thinking about her parents, about her home, her sister...” her voice breaks on the last word, and the tears begin to flow again. She takes a moment to compose herself and I sense she sees my hand, palm up, near her head. She takes it, and I hold hers tightly. “Because the girl was fierce and beautiful, she became a popular attraction at the arena. They called her the Amazon Warrior, and one day she was being transported from Rome to Alexandria for a royal exhibition. When the Romans went off guard duty on the dock they did not tell the Egyptians how to properly contain her. And of course, them being slavers, the girl being a slave, they attempted to rape her, and she killed them all. She found a boat with unfamiliar lettering on the side that was leaving Rome at that very moment, and she stowed away. Foreign soldiers found her, but they didn’t try to hurt her. They contained her, but they fed her, and they brought her to the most beautiful palace.” Her fingers tighten their hold on my hand and I press back. “It was peaceful, and the people seemed kind, so the girl knew it couldn’t be real.”

Gabrielle’s tears begin again. I move as slowly as I can until I am sitting up next to her, still holding her hand.

“Hey, don’t worry. All this is real. You’re safe now. All that other stuff is over.”

“I never told anyone any of those things before,” she whispers, “I know I did the best I could but still I feel ashamed.”

“I know. I’m honored you told me. I’ll help you see there’s no shame.”

“I don’t want to burden you with my pain, Xena. I just couldn’t hold it all in anymore.”

“Gabrielle, it is an honor that you trust me with it. I will do everything I can never to betray your trust in me.”

Her emotions have exhausted her and she gets into my bed and falls asleep quickly. I tuck her in and stare at her a while before going to visit Lao Ma. Gabrielle amazes me. I have to remember to ask Lao Ma; I’m sure she has the perfect word to describe something that is both so gentle and so strong. Some kind of reed, I imagine, that bends without breaking.

I knock on the door to Lao Ma’s chambers and she bids me enter. Her receiving room is large and sparsely furnished. The walls hold beautiful paintings, black on white, bold brush-stroked scenes of the countryside of Chin. It’s all her work, and in fact she is painting as I approach her from behind. Somehow she has convinced a small group of cats to sleep in a pile in front of her canvas, and she paints them quickly, almost never looking at her work.

“Good afternoon, Xena,” she intones deliberately as I arrive at her side.

“Hey. Nice.”

“Thank you. How is your little charge this stormy afternoon?” she asks, smiling, continuing to paint.

“As well as can be expected,” I say, blushing, “She’s going to be fine. She’s very strong.”

“I know. I sensed that when I met her, just as I knew it about you. Destined for greatness.” She turns and grins at me. I move forward and kiss her cheek, squeezing her shoulder in a delicate embrace.

“There are no words to thank you for what you did,” I say quietly for the millionth time.

“As I always say, Xena, it was you. Look at the little dragon--who is saving her?”

“She is,” I say, finally seeing it, “I’m just holding her hand.”

“And the candle, just ahead, down the dark hallway,” she says, “Have some wine.”

I pour us each a glass and pace the floor beside her as she paints.

“Caesar is a lucky man,” I say, “Because of you.”

“He did not personally set the whip to her back, you know.”

“Still, he is lucky.”

“You are the one who is lucky, Xena, you and the girl.”

“Gabrielle,” I say, knowing I have put way too much emotion into it. Lao Ma turns and looks at me, her face almost bursting with her smile.

“You’re already in love!” she laughs. “Caesar is no threat to Chin. I promise, if ever he were, his life is yours. I could only hope that by then you wouldn’t want it.”

“I don’t want it,” I whisper, “And I wouldn’t say that I’m, you know, in love...”

“What would you say?”

“That, well... you know, I...” I pause again, “That it’s possible that I might be in love.”


“She’s done nothing but fight for six years. It’s a terrible story.”

“And she has such a gentle soul. It must have been exceedingly difficult for her.”

“Yes,” I say, “It isn’t fair that she had to live the life she has. Part of me can’t help but wonder why it had to be that way.”

“I think there is no reason, Xena. Things just happen as they do sometimes. Like when a whole village of people dies because one person fell asleep with their blanket too close to the fire. Cause and effect. The slavers came to Gabrielle’s village. That’s why all the bad things happened. There’s no better reason, and even if there were, you still couldn’t hold it in your hand, you couldn’t use it to take away her pain.”

“You’re always right,” I complain, “Don’t you ever get tired of it?”

“Never,” she says, smiling.

One of the cats wakes up for a moment, and yawns. It looks at us curiously and goes back to sleep.

“I hope you will both join us for dinner.”

“Anything is possible,” I say, smiling at her as she continues to paint the sleeping cats.

In my chambers I find Gabrielle still asleep in my bed. Like everyone does, she looks more peaceful while she sleeps, so I pretend she is having nice dreams. I know her dreams are anything but. When you’ve spent days killing people, pleasant dreams are almost impossible to come by. So I watch her for a few minutes, allowing myself the luxury of feeling that everything is right now that she is here. What I feel conflicts with my lack of belief in fate; there is no “supposed to be,” yet here is Gabrielle. I decide that for the moment she needs sleep more than food, so I leave her be.

I am late for dinner and Borias lets me know this by pulling my chair out from under me while pretending to be courteous.

“How much have you had to drink?” I ask him.

“Just the right amount, I think” he says, drinking.

I watch the sun set. Purples and pinks tonight.

“How is Gabrielle?” asks Lao Ma.

“‘Gabrielle’,” drawls Borias knowingly.

“She’s sleeping. She’s been through a lot. Tell us about your day; what were the highlights?”

Servants hover silently about. Birds chirp in the distance at the dying of the light.

“I resolved minor land disputes in the morning and painted in the afternoon,” replies Lao Ma, “I suppose the painting was the highlight. Yours?”

“I rode around with Gabrielle, enjoying the storm together. She painted cats,” I explained to Borias, “You?”

“As you know, I listened to reports of all the things that are broken or missing. That took all day, as you might imagine, so I can’t say that there were any highlights. Do you think our stowaway is going to stay, Xena? I would bet that there are all kinds of things she could do around the palace...” He grins at me.

“I want her to stay,” I say, “But I don’t know what she’ll do.” I look down at my chopsticks and sigh quietly. I feel sad suddenly; if she doesn’t stay, and why would she stay, I will feel bereft.

“I hope she will join us for breakfast tomorrow. I look forward to hearing her voice,” says Lao Ma.

I pour us all more wine. Suddenly I feel relaxed, like everything is okay. Is it some power Lao Ma has to do that to me? I still don’t know, after all these years, the extent of her abilities. If she can stare down a hunting dog when he’s standing right in front of his quarry, what can she do to a mere human? As we finish dinner, Borias suggests a game of darts. And of course I am never one to pass that up, so moments later the servants have cleared away the meal, set up the dart board, served more wine and brought out the hash. Sometimes I think that ruling Chin is not so bad an occupation.

The darts have been laid out on the table halfway across the room from the board. Lao Ma and I sit leisurely on a couch, while Borias stands next to us, a dart in his hand. He’s wearing black leather pants and a black leather vest, his long, dark hair braided away from his face. He’s already drunk enough to think that he could win.

“Please, Borias, take the first shot,” says Lao Ma, gesturing with her head. Borias lifts his hand slowly and takes aim, and I find myself staring at the tattoo on his upper arm. I have always wanted to get a tattoo but have never been able to figure out what. Lucky for me, else I might by now have “Kill ‘em all” emblazoned on my breast. Borias’ shot hits just left of the bull’s eye and he sits down next to me on the couch, lighting the hash pipe and inhaling deeply. I watch Lao Ma’s red feathered dart rise up into the air above the table as if lifted by an unseen hand, finally pausing to float directly across the room from the dart board. Suddenly it shoots forward, and lands in the middle of the bull’s eye. I remember when she showed me she could break a bottle with her mind, how I asked her to teach me. Little did I know it would take years to learn, like everything else.

“I’m gonna go for directly between your darts,” I say to them, taking a swig of wine. I close my eyes to gather as much concentration as I can at this hour and heave my dart into the air. I open my eyes and hurl it across the room with my mind; it is an almost physical act. It lands two hands below the board.

“Whoops,” I say, “Guess my concentration is off. Could I do it the other way?”

“If you want to give up so easily, of course you can,” says Lao Ma.

“Why do we put up with her?” I ask Borias.

“Don’t ask me,” he laughs.

“It’s your turn,” I tell him, wrestling with myself. Do I want to do it right or do I want to win? I want both, dammit!

Borias throws another decent shot. Lao Ma blindfolds herself with a red silk scarf; still her dart hits the bulls eye. She is much easier to compete with in games that take a combination of skill, strategy and luck. I concentrate on my dart and lift it from the table, asking the universe ever so politely if it could just shove it into the middle of the dart board. Push! And there it is, almost touching Lao Ma’s.

“It’s always better when one doesn’t give up,” she says, exhaling hash smoke towards my face in a long thin line. I roll my eyes at her and gesture for Borias to take his third turn. He gets up and takes another dart from the table. He has never wanted to try to learn to move things with his mind, though he was always closer to living her other lessons than I. And I suppose on some levels he still is. He and Lao Ma have much in common, their patience being the first thing that sets me apart from them.

Borias takes his shot. It hits just to the right of Lao Ma’s, in the bullseye.

“Very nice,” she says. Borias and I watch as her third dart rises into the air. Lao Ma smiles and makes it do a little dance for our entertainment. I laugh.

“What’s the meaning of life again?” I ask to distract her from her throw.

“To find peace within yourself and to share it with the world,” she says, as her dart flies across the room; there’s not much space left in the bullseye now. My shot better be good or I’ve lost this round. I concentrate on lifting the dart into the air and take careful aim, which is honestly hard to do from the angle at which I am sitting. Just as I’ve gathered the energy and begin to push, Borias calls out “Caesar!’ and my dart hits the wall halfway across the room from the dart board.

“You bastard!” I don’t like losing the first round of anything. Or any round, to be honest.

“Xena, it’s not like you didn’t just try to do the same thing to Lao Ma,” he says, laughing.

“But that’s different,” I say, knowing I have no excuse.

We play for another hour or so, talking about little things, teasing each other, then I announce I need to get back to my room.

“And don’t even start,” I say to Borias. He closes his mouth.

Gabrielle is awake, sitting back in bed, when I return to my chambers. The black curtains serve only to accentuate her beauty. She reminds me of a little princess from a story book, and yet of a prince at the same time. It’s hard to explain, how she can look so sexy in such a strong way and such a gentle way, like she is both the rescuer and the one needing to be rescued.

“Hey,” I say, “Did you get any sleep?”

“A little,” she says quietly, “I’m sorry about before.”

“Please,” I say, waving it off.

“I really...appreciate it.”

“It’s what I’m here for.”

“Trusting you terrifies me, Xena. It’s been so long since I even tried.”

“Didn’t you fight lions barehanded?”

“Actually, I got to use weapons on the lions,” she says, smiling shyly at me, “it was the Elijians I had to fight barehanded.”

“Lao Ma missed you at dinner. I told her you needed your rest.”

“She must think I’m so impolite.”

“No! Gabrielle, Lao Ma is the wisest woman I’ve ever met in my life. You wanna know what she said about you?”


“She said she knew when she met you that you were a strong person, and that you have a gentle soul.”

Gabrielle blushes and looks pleased. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. I told her I agreed with her.”

“Thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to hear that. But I really was rude. I could have responded to her. I don’t know why I didn’t.”

“Hey, when I first met her she tried to ally with me and I tried to kill her.”


“Get in the bath and I’ll tell you a story before bed,” I say, wondering who in Hades I’ve become.

We bathe and I tell her the story of myself and Borias, the life we lived before we met Lao Ma. “I saw him for the first time in a tavern. I was drunk, I’d been fighting with someone and I was upset. I looked across the room and there he was, like a dangerous prince from a foreign land, and I thought, if I were a man, that’s who I’d be.” I pause for dramatic effect and to reach over the side of the tub for our glasses. I pass Gabrielle hers and continue my story. “I found out who he was, a warlord with an army, as well as a wife and a child who traveled with him. He was powerfully charismatic. I knew there were things I could learn from him, so I took him.”

“You took him?”

“I took him away from his army, his child, his wife. It was easy. I was good at things like that.”

“You must have been a very different person then, Xena.”

“In some ways.”

“What happened to Borias’ child?”

“Eventually he found him again, and the wife. The wife doesn’t like him very much and won’t accept his help, but he visits a few times a year anyway, to keep in touch with the kid. But you’ve distracted me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No problem. So Borias and I set out together. We were a terrible pair. I was full of anger and self-hate, I blamed everyone but myself for everything, and I took out my frustrations wherever I felt like it. My behavior made me hate myself more, then I’d do worse things, feel worse about myself, on and on... I hated Borias in the moments I thought he might actually care for me, though those were few and far between. We were bad people and we did bad things. We wanted more, we wanted to win, we wanted our lusts and our desires satisfied, and we were strong enough and ruthless enough to get what we wanted. It was the kind of lifestyle that went nowhere, but that was just where I deserved to go, so it was the perfect trip. Our goal was ultimate power, world domination, and we ended up out here with a pretty large army. We were good leaders, and good fighters, and we always won, so people followed us. When I was on horseback, no one in the world could beat me, but when I was not, well, Borias had more power than I would have liked.”

“Why when you were on horseback?” She drinks and leans back in the hot water, watching me. Tonight the story seems even farther in the past than usual. Ten years is a long time.

“Because my legs were broken. A long time ago I trusted the wrong man, Julius Caesar, before he was Emperor, and I ended up on a cross with broken legs. Suffice it to say I got here from there but the first part of the journey was a bitch.”

“You don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, no. I never want to talk about it. Just thinking about it now I can feel the anger. I still hate that man for his betrayal, but I don’t let it consume me any more. I try to remind myself that it’s because he hurt me, and that my feelings of pain don’t have to lead me to violence. Controlling that is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“I can imagine,” says Gabrielle, suddenly sounding a little tipsy. “It’s interesting how we both did such terrible things. It makes me feel as if we are alike in some way.”

“Not in that way,” I say almost angrily, “You did horrible things because you had to, I did them because I loved it.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“We were both trapped. Now we are free,” she says.

I look at her and wonder to myself, “Really free?” Am I? One can never be free of one’s self.

I realize as I prepare to get into bed that I should have offered Gabrielle her own room by now. I have no real excuse not to; she’s probably not going to run, or if she does, I know she’s okay to take care of herself. Being with her gives me pleasure, and I am no longer interested in denying my true self pleasure. Again I am awakened in the middle of the night by Gabrielle’s deepest fears. My eyes grow accustomed to the dark and I reach out to touch her shoulder. Her sleeping self responds by smashing her fist into my face. My screamed curses wake her up. She’s confused and disoriented.

“You were having a nightmare. I tried to wake you up. I think you may have broken my nose.” I can feel the sticky blood flowing down my face and neck. “It’s okay. I mean, you didn’t mean to.”

She sits silently next to me in the dark, shaking. I guess I should have broken another mug.

“I’m gonna light a candle, Gabrielle, so I can clean myself up. Shield your eyes.”

In the candle light I can see a few tears rolling down her face. I want to reach out and wipe them away.

“Hey. What is it?”

“All I know how to do is hurt people,” she whispers, “Make people bleed. You’re covered in blood because of me.”

“Then come help me wash it off.”

I get up and walk into the bathing chamber, sitting near the still-burning fire. I pour hot water into a bucket, and hand her a towel. She takes it from me and tentatively begins to wipe the still-wet blood from my skin.

“I don’t think my nose is broken,” I say hopefully. I don’t know if anyone has washed my face since I was a small child. Gabrielle’s soft touch is so nice. I try not to catch her eye; it feels too intense. Watching her face from under my eyelashes, it seems like it was the right thing to do, to have her wash off the blood. Perhaps what she needs is a sense of control.

“Do you ever think about having children?” she asks suddenly. Maybe she thought about her mother cleaning her face, too.

“No. I’ve been pregnant once or twice, but I’ve always taken the appropriate measures. You?”

“Never been pregnant but,” she pauses, and so softly says, “having children is one of the dreams I gave up.”

“I can’t help you with that directly, but...” I say, watching her blush, “I could help figure something out.”

She finishes cleaning me off and we go back to sleep, more tired even than we had been before.

I wake up the next morning lying on my side. In our sleep we moved closer together and I can feel Gabrielle’s back lightly pressing against my own. Hard for me to believe as it is, there really are women who don’t enjoy making love with other women, and there’s no reason to believe Gabrielle might not be one of them. Nevertheless my body reacts to her; I close my eyes and luxuriate in the feeling of desire. I imagine that she turns around and suddenly we--I pull myself out of bed before my fantasies take over my poor taxed brain. My face hurts, though in the mirror the slight bruising is barely noticeable.

At breakfast Gabrielle introduces herself to Borias and Lao Ma, and attempts to apologize for her behavior.

“Gabrielle, you have nothing to apologize for,” Lao Ma answers gently, “You are an honored guest, and you have been through great trials. You deserve as much room as you need.”

“Thank you, Empress.”

“Please call her ‘Lao Ma’ or we shall all be ill,” says Borias, “Plus, you’re Xena’s friend now, and any friend of Xena’s...”

“Shut up,” I say, “Behave. She’s an honored guest, remember?”

Gabrielle is smiling. It’s going to be a great day.

Gabrielle and I have decided to work out, so we change into appropriate attire, my idea of which is loose blue pants and a matching sleeveless shirt. Hers is just this side of total indecency in brown leather. How will I ever concentrate on my drills? The sun is out and we walk along to my favorite work out spot, one of the simpler hexagram gardens. This one is called Kheih, or Release, and I read the inscription to Gabrielle.

“The thunder rolls. Releasing a cloud burst. The superior man stays on friendly ground. He forgives errors and deals gently with those who wrong him.’”

“I think I’m starting to like the superior man,” says Gabrielle, smiling.

“He lives within us all, you know,” I say, half jokingly.

“Most of us anyway,” she amends. I can’t completely disagree.

The ground is flat and there’s room to spread out. So we practice by ourselves for a while, doing exercises and fighting the air, each lost in our own world. I find that I have worked up a sweat by the time she shyly suggests that we spar. Part of me is afraid of fighting with her, and part of me desires it, to be on the receiving end of whatever kind of passion this woman is willing to share with me.

Xena, Warrior Princess of Chin, twirls her sword three times over before advancing on her beautiful opponent. Gabrielle is immediate and fierce in her attack, and suddenly I am moving backwards, blocking strike after strike. I have to pay attention; she is better, even, than I had imagined. I change tactics, pushing her back, putting the battle onto equal ground. I can sense the location of the white-washed walls around us, the vines, the trees, where the benches and sculptures are, and decide to use them to my advantage to make the fight more interesting and less likely to cause serious damage to either of us. She follows me, a smile on her face, enjoying the pursuit, as I retreat around a statue of Lao Ma’s late husband, the Emperor Lao Tzu. Gabrielle backs me into a wall and our swords clash, I block strike after strike and finally turn to run up the wall and jump backwards over her head. She spins and thrusts her sword out at me just as I land, engaging me again easily. Now I am on the offensive, and I lose myself in the attack. Our swords clash, vibrations echoing down my arm, and our feet shift quickly on the sandy path beneath us. Our swords meet again and I push forward until the hilts are touching, and suddenly we are face to face, looking into each others eyes. We are both breathing hard, all our senses heightened. She grabs my right wrist and spins me around, pushing me back until I come up against the wall. Gabrielle slowly pushes her body against mine, trapping our sword arms between our chests so that our swords rise from between us and point skyward right next to my head. I can feel her hot breath against my neck and it excites me. She is so strong, and I can feel the lust coming off her body in waves. She slides her thigh between my own and touches my neck with her mouth, trapping me against the wall with my own desire. She moves her pelvis against mine, and my body responds, pressing back when she presses forward. Her lips suck my neck; I have never felt this exposed before, as if everything I am shows in the taste of my skin. I groan as I copy her rhythm, not thinking, just following the pleasure, and for a moment I give myself over to it. I caress the hot skin of her back with my free hand, moaning as she bites me. Gabrielle pushes even harder against me and finally the one part of my brain that is not consumed by lust surfaces and forces me to whisper, “Gabrielle, we have to stop.”

She pulls away from me and drops her sword. “I’m sorry,” she says to the ground.

“It’s fine,” I say, trying to breathe, “I mean, if later, when we’re not in the middle of a battle, if you want to...”

She looks at the ground near my feet. “I don’t deserve any of this kindness.”

“Oh please spare me!” I say, almost angrily. “I’m sorry. I’m just confused. I mean, not confused. I don’t know.”

“I never did anything like that before. I didn’t mean... Let’s talk about it later?”

“Good idea.”

We spend the rest of the afternoon riding in silence, patrolling sections of fencing for damage. I gave Gabrielle her own horse, and she follows just behind me, soaking in everything around us, watching everything I do. She has clear handwriting and has been taking notes for me of the repairs that are needed on the fences. If she can fight and write, who knows what other skills lurk in between. I think of earlier in the afternoon, the way her body pressed into mine with such purpose. It makes me shiver just imagining it. No one has ever made me feel like that, like they could be, for those few moments, everything in the world. I hope what she did was at least a little bit about me. People call it battle lust, but I don’t believe in that. I believe that sometimes our emotions are tied into our bodies very intensely and in those moments you never know what’s going to happen. Rage, murder, birth, love, sex. We’re animals just like the rest of them; lots of animals walk on two feet. My mother used to say that. I haven’t seen her in a thousand years. Would she be proud of me yet?

I planned it so we’d be on the best hill to watch the sun set from at just the right time. We dismount and sit on the ground, overlooking infinite grassy fields, hills and trees and rocks, and all the way at the other end of the earth, is the sunset. Tonight there is a lot of orange in it. We sit quietly, passing a wine skin back and forth. As the last of the sun slips out of view, she says,

“I don’t know what came over me earlier. I’ve never touched anyone before the way I touched you today. It was, just there suddenly. I apologize for doing something so ill considered and ill mannered.”

She’s staring out into where the sun was and she passes the near-empty wine skin back to me.

I don’t know how to feel. What to say to this girl that won’t be the wrong thing. There are always a million wrong things to say, and I’ve said most of them at one time or another.

“Gabrielle, it’s okay. Sometimes our bodies react in strange ways. It was an intense moment, you responded in an intense way.” I pause and say more quietly, “And you might have noticed, it wasn’t like I tried to stop you immediately.”

She turns and looks at me, a big smile on her face, “Oh yeah, I didn’t really think about that.” She’s remembering my hand caressing her hip and her back, the sound of my moans. She blushes. I blush in response.

“Let’s go to dinner,” I suggest, “If we leave now we’ll be just in time.”

“Late again,” drawls Borias as we enter the dining room, both slightly out of breath.

In my most threatening voice I say, “Better late than never,” and I give him the evil look. He smiles.

“Gabrielle, you look lovely tonight,” he tells her, pulling out her chair for her and looking pointedly at me when he doesn't pull it out from under her. He sits back down across from Lao Ma. Gabrielle blushes. We eat dinner, and it is as usual more than delicious. The servants refill our glasses far too frequently for me to maintain any coherence, and suddenly I focus my eyes and find I’ve been staring at Gabrielle’s hands. Borias is saying,

“After Xena killed Ming Tsu, Ming Tien declared war on the House of Lao. Though Lao Ma had thrown our beaten bodies out onto the street only days before, we felt compelled to fight for her, and so we did. We toppled the House of Ming in a matter of weeks, and eventually earned her trust again. We still do not know what happened to Ming Tien.”

I can’t help but glance at Lao Ma; she looks sad and wistful, as she always does when the topic of any of her children comes up. She has two daughters as well, who she gave away when they were very young, in order to protect them. She can protect them now, so always, always, there are men out on the trail looking for all her children.

Continued - Part 2

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