see chapter one for disclaimers
Tempt him not so too far; I wish, forbear:
In time we hate that which we often fear.
-Charmian from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Gabrielle grabbed a torch and lit it in the flame of a large candle kept burning for that purpose. Descending from the first sub-level to the second, she thought back to Sappho's poetry, to the scroll she'd found when Xena and she were in the library together. It seemed eons earlier and yet it had been less than a week. In that time she'd been appointed a scholar at the Great Library of Alexandria and was now off on an assignment to read several of the introductory medical scrolls kept in the sub-levels. The Priest of the Muses, a firm task-master, insisted she learn a little about everything and not just specialize in a single, narrow field to the exclusion of all others.
He was right, she mused. Reading every bard's epic poem might be more pleasurable, but having a wide-based knowledge was the key to true understanding. The priest had used the word 'enlightenment' and Gabrielle decided she liked it. It was more than just knowledge. It illuminated the spiritual.
And so she was off to become enlightened about a multitude of subjects. Xena had certainly shown her how valuable that was time and time again. If she hadn't known about rocks, their path might have crumbled. If she hadn't known about weather, they might have died of heat stroke or frozen to death. And if she hadn't known of herbs, hundreds would have died.
Xena knew so much about so many things. She had to learn them the hard way, on the road and fighting for her life. Now Gabrielle had the opportunity to glean the expertise of every man or woman whose experiences had been recorded from the safety of the most magnificent library in the world. Medical texts first. She might be more able to save lives in the future.
She bounded down to the third sub-level and retrieved an armload of scrolls, as much as she could carry and still safely handle the torch. She headed up to the first sub-level which she found much more suitable for studying than the main floor. Though there was pleasant ambient light, the main floor's reading room was more of a posturing place. Scholars itching to show up others positioned themselves and their scrolls for all to see. Gabrielle just wanted to learn.
She knew just the spot: a small cubbyhole at the end of a corridor where she could have complete peace and quiet.
Except that someone was already there.
"Oh, sorry," Gabrielle said as her torch light and footsteps intruded on the quiet, hunched reader.
The man turned around, saw her, and smiled. "Come, join me."
Philo's deep voice entranced her again. "I... uh... Thanks."
He took her torch and doused it in a bin of sand left for that purpose as she piled her scrolls on one of the tables. Dozens of candles cast the room in a charming, golden hue. The smell of burning wicks and melting wax wove into the musty aroma of aged scrolls. Gabrielle breathed deeply. It intoxicated her.
By then, Philo had returned to his seat. He sat with his elbows perched on a worktable and a grin spreading across his face. "You have it."
Gabrielle cleared her head. "I have what?"
She slapped the back of her hand across her brow checking for a fever. "What disease?"
Philo chuckled a low, glittering laugh. "The Apprentice Disease." A playful wave of his hand told her not to worry. "We all get it when we first arrive. You're utterly fascinated by trivialities such as movement of candlelight on papyrus, and you contemplate demanding the incense makers capture the unique scents of the library in slow-burning incense."
"Guilty." She laughed. "Is it terminal?"
"None of us has died of it yet." His eyes glowed in the shifting candlelight. "It usually cures itself in a few weeks."
Gabrielle studied this man, out of his robe and in tattered shirtsleeves, a Jew among Greeks and Egyptians. He sat surrounded by piles of scrolls and half-eaten loaves of flat bread. It looked as if he hadn't seen daylight in some time. "You still have the disease, don't you."
He eyed her cautiously. "Be careful, Gabrielle. Not everyone appreciates powers of perception here."
She crossed her arms and waited for better acknowledgment of her assessment, guessing that she could treat him as a friend right away.
He relented easily. "But yes, I still have the disease. Even after twelve years." He reached for an apple and offered it to Gabrielle who took it happily. "I hope I'm never fully cured of it."
The apple bit crisply and she needed her hand to wipe the juice from her chin. "If the wonder ever goes away, what are we left with?"
Philo snatched a mug from his table and took a long drink from it. He seemed to consider Gabrielle's words for a moment. Then he plunked the mug back on the table as if he'd made a decision. "Are you all moved in?"
He'd changed the subject.
"Oh yes, thanks. Xena and I are in the north dormitory. It's a lot smaller than the guest house we had but still the biggest place I've ever lived in. By far."
"The Ptolemys have been spoiling their scholars for generations. No taxes, free lodging, a hearty pension, and the world at your feet."
"I think I like being spoiled."
He narrowed his eyes slightly. "It's always best at first."
Gabrielle thought about that and believed she understood. "Because when you're in a close group you'll eventually see the bad with the good no matter how hard some try to hide it." Then she thought about the warlords she'd met singly and in numbers and imagined a parallel among the scholars at the library. "And whenever the best in the world gather together, you're bound to see egos bruised."
He smiled broadly. "Just try to avoid the administrators and you'll be fine. I can tell you have the gift of separating the philistines from the artisans."
"I haven't seen many bad eggs yet. Sure, some are insecure, but I don't think they're malevolent."
"Do you know Herophilus of Chalcedan?"
The bard shook her head.
"He's a great thinker and a fine physician." Philo leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. "He just has this one small problem."
Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "You mean he...?"
"Cuts up people who are still alive so he can find out how the body works. He uses criminals but that's hardly any excuse. And the damned fool has decided that Aristotle was wrong. Herophilus thinks the brain is the center of thinking, not the heart."
"Well, I've seen people with head injuries act pretty strangely. He might be right."
Philo snapped at her. "He's a murderer. He's blinded by his intellectual capacity for horror."
"Of course," Gabrielle said in reply. She realized she'd been blinded by the same thing for a moment. It turned her stomach. "It's awful what he does and I should have remembered that."
Philo unrolled a scroll and pretended to read it. "Watch out for the administrators. They forget what's important."
"Hey, Callimachus is a good guy."
Philo looked at her. "He has a good heart, I'll say that much for him. He doesn't always remember it. Not if Cleopatra is involved."
* * *
Xena tidied their few belongings for the third time. She paced the floor. She sighed. She was bored.
Even after a long workout, which drew more than a few spectators for whom she put on a good show, she was still bored. And it was only midday.
Since she really only knew one person well in Alexandria, not counting the people she'd met recently, she left her purple robe and falcon's crest behind and set off to pay Neleus a visit.
When she walked in she found him telling off a pair of officials. They left, but not before informing him that they'd be back and would be expecting his full cooperation.
"What was that about?"
Neleus swept his little body around and hugged her without asking permission. "Thanks," he said, letting go. "I needed that."
"Any time." Xena put her hands on his shoulders and felt the unrelenting muscles under her fingers. "Who were those guys?"
"Tax collectors. They just raised the rates. Again. And they want to collect their tariff retroactively."
"You mean they're assessing goods at the new rate that you've already sold at the old one?"
"Nice guys, aren't they." He slapped his forehead. "Damnation. I have to be at the docks now. The spice boat is in and if I don't get there first..."
"Want some company?" Xena flashed a brilliant smile.
"My most fervent desire is to arrive at the docks on the arm of the Warrior Princess." Neleus extended his arm. "Shall we?"
Xena bounced him forward with her hip, refusing to give in to his every whim. "Do you want me for company or for my reputation."
Neleus stopped walking and indignantly plopped his fists on his hips. "I want you, Xena, however you'll have me." Then he dropped his hands and laughed. "Your company is always welcome, always enjoyed. And your reputation can come in handy." He flipped open the tent's back door and stepped out into the hustle and bustle of the Agora. "I'd say this errand called for a little of both."
Xena followed him enjoying how, though Neleus was exceedingly short in stature, he carried himself with inexhaustible pride. Of course his brilliant red suit helped everyone to notice him. And while many said a cheery hello, everyone stepped aside to let him pass.
Until they got to the docks where a solid mass of angry men bellowed at the deck of an enormous merchant ship. On the deck of the three-masted giant, a group of bulky sailors grinned with rotting teeth at the unruly crowd.
Xena tapped a man at the edge of the crowd on the shoulder. "What's going on?"
He shrugged her off and raised a clenched fist at the ship. She tried another and got the same treatment. "Fine," she murmured, then grabbed Neleus. "Hold on."
The instant his feet left the comforting presence of solid wood to hurtle over the crowd held only by the rigid arm of a single woman, he let out a piercing wail. The scream or the spectacle of a pair of humans careening over the breadth of an surly mob -- or both -- brought everyone to an unexpected, hushed silence.
They landed with an audible thud at the edge of the dock. Xena released Neleus and pulled a lock of hair from his eyes. She looked over the crowd, slowly drawing her eyes past everyone standing there. "That's better." She took a long look at the men on the ship and saw one dressed in the official robe of the House of Ptolemy move toward the railing. She turned back to the crowd. "One of you will tell me what's going on."
A man in old but clean clothes took a tentative step forward. "Cleopatra has raised the taxes again and the cost of off-loading the goods on this ship has raised some ill will among us merchants."
"I see." The men on the deck above shifted to let the official through to the front. Xena asked him, "Are you in charge?"
"I'm here to see that the laws are followed." His thin voice didn't carry well.
"How much are these taxes?"
"It depends on the item. The Ptolemys aren't blind to the people's needs. Certain items are assessed at higher rates, others at lower ones."
She whispered to Neleus, "He's got the political babble down pat." Then she raised her voice and spoke to all the men around her. "Look, there are ways to protest this, but doing it here isn't going to help."
"So what do we do?" one called from the middle of them group.
"Get together as a group and discuss it. And wait to do that until everyone's temper is under control."
Neleus spoke up. "Meet at my place after dinner tonight."
A chorus of reluctant agreement washed through the assembled men. They broke up, some heading for a nearby tavern to drown their frustrations with beer. Others headed back to their market stalls. A few lined up to pay for and pick up their goods from the merchant ship.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment. She'd gotten into the middle of something already. And here I thought Gabrielle was the magnet for trouble...
"All right, my friend," she patted Neleus' shoulder. "Now what?"
"I have standing orders to fill. So I suck it in, pay through my teeth, and settle with these crooks." He started up the ramp. "Coming?"
She trotted to catch up with him, intending to stay behind him and let him do his business without getting in the way. It was hard, especially when she found out that all of the orders were taken before sailing, and that the Alexandrian merchants were obliged to pay whatever price the ruthless seafarers demanded on their return.
Neleus grumbled and moaned to himself as he went through the manifest. But when he reached the last item, he exploded. "Why you godsforsaking extortionists, you're out for every drop of blood we have. This," he cried, pointing to the papers, "is outrageous!"
Xena tried to calm him down. "Isn't everyone going to have to pay the same price? Then they'll all sell for about the same. You'll still get your business."
"I doubt it. Only a few buy spices anymore and I..." he smiled weakly, "ordered a lot of cinnamon."
Leaning over, Xena read the figures. "I thought seventeen dinars was bad in Athens. This is wholesale? Forty dinars?"
Neleus cradled his head in his hands. "I'm ruined."
The captain of the ship sat back and put his feet up on the table. He didn't care about these merchants. If one went under, another would take his place. Xena scowled at him. "Who sets these prices?"
"Depends on how we get the stuff. If it's a straight trade, I do. But some of the spices we have to buy from others, the ships that make the spice run to the islands. They're many months at sea in a dangerous part of the world. And you must know about the poisonous snakes."
"Yeah, I've heard about them." She rubbed her eyes as Neleus softly burbled nearby. "Can you tell me who you bought the cinnamon from?"
"That," clipped the captain, "is a trade secret."
And one that took Xena only half the afternoon to unearth. Teucer was behind it. One of the meanest, most ruthless, and most driven men she'd ever encountered. She'd last seen him years back when she was with Borias on their way back from Chin. She'd hoped that the next time she saw him would be to check his cold body really was dead.
If a man like Teucer was behind this then it could be stopped. But it wouldn't be easy.
Good words are better than bad strokes.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
"You'll be there, won't you?" Neleus looked at Xena expectantly. "I can't do this on my own. You're the one who can organize people."
"I'll be there," she saw him take a deep breath "but you're in charge. I'll lend you moral support."
Neleus eyed her closely. "All right," he said, finally. Then he seemed to shake off whatever he'd been considering. "Walk me home?"
"Sure. I need to get back. Gabrielle and I are having dinner with friends."
Neleus' gait was one of several small steps to Xena's fewer and longer ones. The short and fast red-garbed man made a remarkable contrast to the tall, dark woman. "You and Gabrielle must have made many friends by now."
"But all those smart people you live around. Surely you've met some kindred spirits."
"Not me." That had the possibility of being interpreted as not liking her stay in Alexandria by a man who wouldn't know to keep that to himself. "What I mean is that Gabrielle knows them better than I do. She hangs around the library all day and spends a lot of time with them."
"I see." Neleus led them through a busy intersection into a surprisingly wide residential street. "But you're having dinner with friends."
"They're not scholars." Maybe that's why I don't mind visiting them, she thought. "They're Callimachus' family, but neither Belus nor his son Janus are the scholarly type."
"By the gods!" Neleus stopped and tugged Xena into an alley. "Look at that." He pointed around the corner with his thumb.
Xena had already noticed the group of men milling about but hadn't thought much of it. "What about it?"
"That's my house. They're waiting for me. Maybe I shouldn't have offered to have the meeting here."
"You don't want to see them?"
Stubby hands rubbed together. "Not until I have to. I need some time to... I don't know, just think about it."
This seemed rather unlike the Neleus she knew but then again, if a mob had been placated only by the promise of a meeting later, she might be at least concerned about what could happen. "Come to dinner with us."
* * *
Xena juggled an armload of goods that Neleus insisted they bring and knocked on Belus' door. Janus opened it. "By the gods! Father, look at this!" The boy took a bottle of lamp oil from Xena's hand and beckoned them in.
"What the?" Belus wiped his hands on a towel he'd wrapped over his belt and placed a half-dry plate on the counter. His facial muscles tensed under the unexpected intrusion. "What's all of this?"
"I can explain," said Neleus graciously, putting a large basket down on the family table. The woven reed receptacle overflowed with crusty bread, fresh fish, dried meat, jugs of wine and olive oil, sweet-smelling fruit, and enticing pastries. "My name is Neleus." He offered his hand to Belus.
"The merchant?" Belus asked, skeptically, making no move.
"At your service."
Belus still hadn't taken Neleus' hand in greeting. "What's it for?" he asked sharply.
Gabrielle stepped up. "We invited him to come with us. I hope you don't mind."
"I don't, but..."
"And Neleus felt obliged to bring you something in return for your hospitality." She added a large bolt of heavy blue linen to the pile on the table.
Belus crossed his arms. "I don't take pity from the rich."
"Please," said Neleus. He moved toward Belus, palms open, and bowed slightly.
The difference between the men amused Xena. One was tall and proud, protective of his home and values; the other short and giving, open to helping others and fair recompense. Perhaps they're more alike that it seems, she mused. She busied herself by setting up a new lamp for them, complete with plenty of extra oil.
"I mean you no dishonor," the merchant explained. "I only wish to share my good fortune with your welcoming home. Xena and Gabrielle have told me about you and your son. I had hoped these offerings would be welcome."
"Father," cried Janus, "we need this stuff."
"Not from him. Not charity. We earn what we have."
Gabrielle snapped her fingers. "Great! So why not let Janus work for Neleus?"
Xena winked at the bard for coming up with an elegant solution. "He could work at the market next week."
"Brilliant!" Neleus clapped his hands. He looked up at the boy who stood a hand taller than the merchant. "There are valuable skills to be learned if you're willing to work hard."
Belus shuffled over to the table and looked through the basket.
"Could I, Father? I'd love to work in the market."
After sifting through the basket and feeling the promising weight of the cloth, Janus' father spoke. "This is more than one week's wages."
"Two, then," countered Neleus.
"Very well." Belus extended his hand.
Neleus crushed his fist around Belus' and rattled his whole arm. "Wonderful, wonderful! I'm so thrilled to be here and to meet you and to have your son work for me. I can't tell you how happy I am."
Xena sauntered over and coolly pulled Neleus back from a stunned Belus. "Don't worry, he's just nervous."
Neleus chuckled haltingly. "I'm expecting guests later."
Belus, still perplexed by this strange, short man, glanced at Xena and Gabrielle. The bard explained more fully, "Xena and Neleus were at the docks today and there was some trouble. The merchants are upset about new taxes. They're meeting at Neleus' place tonight to talk about what to do."
That placated Belus and soon he and Neleus were concentrating on dinner preparations.
"Janus," Gabrielle said quietly. "Xena and I brought you a present." The boy looked as startled as his father had been earlier. She reached into her pouch and held out the toy they'd bought a few days earlier. "It's a yo-yo and if you ask nicely, I'll bet Xena will show you how to use it."
"Oh," said Janus softly as he picked it up and cradled it in both hands, "I know how." He adjusted the length of the string to fit his shorter body then wound the twine carefully around the dowel, flicked his wrist sharply, and sent the yo-yo down and back up into his hand. On the second trip, he let the spinning wood touch the floor and dribble across it before recalling it. "This is a good one."
"I'm glad you like it." Gabrielle caught him as he slammed into her, giving her a hug with all his might. She looked up to see Xena's eyes twinkling.
Janus hugged Xena next and then she picked him up high over his head and had him try his yo-yo from that height. He squealed so raucously, Belus called for him to keep it down, but he reprimanded the boy with an even voice and amusement in his eyes.
* * *
For the simple meal of bread, fish, and a few vegetables, they crowded around the small table with two uneven chairs and the bench shared once again by Xena and Gabrielle, Janus squeezed in between them. Neleus recounted the afternoon's affair at the dock. His glorification of Xena drew many curt corrections from the embarrassed warrior. Gabrielle thoroughly enjoyed the scene, understanding instinctively that Xena thought her actions were nothing out of the ordinary and that Neleus truly believed she'd been a savior to him and his friends, quelling the aggressive anger that could have landed them all in jail. Xena would never learn that people saw her that way almost every day. Perhaps that's why she could keep it up this long. Not giving into the reverence meant being true to your own ideals rather than shallowly trying to repeat the action for the sake of the glory.
"So what do you think will happen?" asked Belus. He leaned an elbow on the table and cupped his chin with his palm.
"I'm not sure." Neleus reached for his beer mug and rubbed the moisture from its lip. "I think the merchants are ready to do something, I just don't know what it'll be."
"The first thing you can do is put a stop to Teucer's monopoly on the spices." Xena had already thought about this. "The tariffs are percentages so the easiest way to lower them is to have more reasonable prices on the spices to being with."
Gabrielle smiled. Xena looked at these problems from so many angles, like admiring the multitude of possibilities for an intricately cut gem to reflect light onto a dark surface. Many impasses were breached simply by asking those involved to see it from another's point of view. If the Alexandrian merchants were upset about the exorbitant taxes they were forced to pay, they might only protest to the crown, something not likely to make much headway, instead of going after the source of the outrageous prices in the first place.
"Teucer's a hard man to pin down," Neleus said. "Word is that he almost never ventures into the Mediterranean anymore. He's got a base in the Red Sea in one of those tricky areas full of reefs."
"Are you going to the Red Sea, Xena?" Janus asked, eyes wide in fascination. "I want to come, too."
Neleus slammed his palms down on the table. "I think that's a terrific idea."
"Well, I don't," said Belus forcefully.
Xena leaned toward Janus. "I'm not going anywhere but Neleus' house for a meeting after dinner. And you're due to work at Neleus' market for the next two weeks.
"Speaking of which," said Belus, stacking the dishes, "you'd probably better be on your way. It's getting late."
They said warm good-byes full of promises of future shared dinners and made their way to Neleus' house. The merchants, emotions tempered by the cooler evening breeze, gathered in the courtyard. Gabrielle laughed at herself. Before their fateful trip to Syria and the last several weeks of unbridled luxury, she'd have called Neleus' home a mansion. But compared with the Royal Quarter of Alexandria, this was just a run-of-the-mill house. How perspectives can change.
The bard leaned her back against a wall in the shadows. From there, she could look out over the thirty or forty men assembled, all sitting on wooden chairs and listening to Xena talk, without being noticed except by Xena who constantly sent smiles back into the shadows. Despite how much the warrior hadn't wanted to run this meeting, Neleus had successfully passed the burden to her from the very start. Gabrielle would have done the same, for Xena knew strategy and she knew Teucer. None of the merchants could match her experience or creativity in such predicaments.
Xena paced in front of the group, her hands on the leathers at her hips. "Okay, can one of you tell me why you've never gone after Teucer before?" She waited until one man in the middle of the men stood. "Go ahead."
The man who from the dock who'd told her Cleopatra had raised taxes spoke. "We didn't know who was behind the whole thing."
Xena rolled her eyes. "Then how come five of you told me that so long as I kept it a secret, they could say it was Teucer. And that's just 'cause I only talked to five of you. Something tells me you all knew."
A noticeable shuffling of cloth and booted feet invaded the silence that followed.
The man spoke again. "Well, we just never thought about it much."
"Thank you." She took a deep breath. "And now because you see the issue cutting close to your profit margins, you're ready to do something about it."
Gabrielle took a few steps out of the shadows. "It's a symptom, Xena. It's easy to focus on the one item that carries the highest price tag, but it doesn't mean these problems aren't happening everywhere." The men twisted in their chairs to see who spoke. "Soon, more than just luxury items will be out of reach for the average citizen of Alexandria."
"That's already the case," said Neleus. The Ptolemys tax olive oil at fifty percent. Fifty percent on the most useful item sold! The difference between two and three drachmas for a small jar of olive oil has made it a luxury for some, and when olive oil is a luxury..."
Xena interrupted him. "I understand that. I just wanted to make sure everyone here did as well."
An anonymous voice floated above the group. "So what do we do?"
"You've only got one choice." The warrior positioned herself dead center, facing the men. "You stop Teucer by forming a consortium to get the spices yourself. Take a ship to Ceylon and fill it with cinnamon and cassia. If you do it with the biggest money makers, it'll have ramifications throughout the rest of the market."
"But what about the poisonous snakes and the flying things guarding the spices?"
Xena asked the man to stand. "What's your name?"
"Well, Cephalus, those creatures aren't real. They're stories made up to keep you from doing exactly what you need to do, to make the spice run yourselves."
Cephalus scratched his head before shyly clasping his hands behind his back. "No offense, ma'am, but I'd like proof of that before I put my life on the line. Why don't you come with us and lead the way into those swamps?"
A chorus of agreement sprouted from the men.
Xena held up her hands to silence them. "Sorry, guys, I can't do that. It's your business, not mine. And I've got a good reason to stay in Alexandria." She looked at Gabrielle who had returned to the shadows.
And the bard could see the mixed emotions in Xena's eyes.
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
"Xena?" Gabrielle spoke almost in a whisper, her voice curling over their sleepy bodies.
"Yeah?" Xena still maintained an alert focus.
The bard took a breath and forced the words out of her mouth. "You can go."
The warrior froze for a moment then turned on her side to look Gabrielle in the eye. In the dim light they could see each others' faces. Gabrielle knew her eyes reflected honesty back to Xena's.
"No. It's not right. Those merchants have made the bed they sleep in. No need for me to bail them out."
"It's more than that. This warlord, Teucer, you'd like to right the wrongs he's done to them, to pay back an old debt, too." Xena hadn't told her the details of her earlier dealings with Teucer but she could safely assume they weren't pleasant. "And if the merchants can't sell their goods for a reasonable price it will affect everyone, but especially the people like Belus and Janus."
"Gabrielle," Xena replied in a deep voice. Her long fingers softly rested against the bard's cheek and she looked right into her eyes. "I don't think you understand. This isn't something that can be fixed quickly. First they have to find Teucer. It sounds like he's holed up somewhere in the Red Sea. Then they have to go all the way to Ceylon. That journey alone is forty days each way. We're talking about three months at the very minimum and more likely four."
Gabrielle sat up. This could be a long discussion and there was no sense in being tempted to fall asleep in the middle of it. She crossed her legs and rested her head in her hands, elbows on her knees. "I realize that it's a big commitment. And I wish it wasn't something that was going to take so long. But Xena, when we agreed that I'd take the post of scholar here, we also agreed that there'd be times when you'd need to do stuff that took you away from Alexandria."
"But not this long."
That was true, the bard mused. But it didn't change the conflicted way Gabrielle felt. The last thing she wanted was for Xena to go away for several months. But somehow she just knew that Xena needed to go, whether for her own good or for the greater good, and between those two it didn't matter. Still, it would be hard to convince Xena, even harder than convincing herself. "So," she asked slyly, "if this was only going to be a matter of a day or two, you'd jump right in there and help."
"And what if it was going to take a week?" Gabrielle paused while Xena joined her sitting up. "Wouldn't it be something you'd still consider."
Xena shook her head. "Three months is a lot more than a week."
"But you agree that time is the only thing holding you back."
Xena's voice took on a sharper edge. "It's enough, isn't it?" She reached for the bard's hand. "Yes, I'd love a chance to teach Teucer a lesson he should have learned long ago. I see your point about the people like Belus and Janus. And I'd like to do something for Neleus, who's done so much for us."
Gabrielle smiled. "So do it."
"Now you're trying to get rid of me?" A pleasant banter wove through Xena's question. It didn't entirely mask the tension underneath.
Gabrielle remained serious. "I'm trying to find a way for us both to do what we want to do... what we need to do. If I thought that you were going to decide not to help Neleus just because you're trying to be nice to me and let me stay at the library, I'd quit in the morning."
Xena sighed. "If you did that, I'd never forgive myself."
"It sounds like we're both a lot more worried about making the other one happy than making ourselves happy. That's a good way to make us both miserable." She squeezed the hand that held hers, the flesh and warmth that meant so much to her. "Xena, I would much rather have you stay with me, you know that, but helping them is the right thing to do." She sighed. "It feels like you need to do this."
"Do you know that? Really?" Xena leaned back and rested her head against the wall. "If I'm off helping an old friend and his cohorts, how will I know you're safe?"
"I'm not going to be out there fighting, just here in the library." Xena meant well but if Gabrielle was out of harm's way anywhere, it was here under the protection of the richest government in the world. "What can happen in a library?"
Xena shifted again. She moved closer to Gabrielle. "And what about your vision?"
"Well, I've been thinking about that," Gabrielle admitted. "I don't know what will happen. What I saw of you could happen anywhere, and I'll admit that it scares me a little to think of it coming true when you're sailing a ship on a faraway sea. I wouldn't be able to help you." Another option occurred to her. "I could come with you."
"No." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. "I'm not going to subject you to three or four months at sea. It would be utter agony for you. Either I stay or I go, but you're not leaving Alexandria."
Gabrielle thought about telling Xena that was a decision she could make by herself, thank you very much. But the thought of so many weeks at sea.... It was true; she'd go crazy or be sick all the time, or both. "Well, the nice thing is that the only way the other half of my vision will come true is if Caesar comes here, and somehow I don't think that's very likely."
Xena sat back and left one arm draped over Gabrielle's shoulders. "Last I heard he was off chasing Pompey."
"Still?" A shiver ran through her as she recalled unexpectedly having to lead inexperience troops caught by their inauspicious location. All that for the sake of a stupid rivalry between Roman leaders. "Sorry," Gabrielle muttered.
They sat quietly for a time, Gabrielle completely relaxed in Xena's embrace. "Xena, it feels right to me."
"What does?" Gabrielle felt the vibration of Xena's words as much as she heard them.
"You going after Teucer and the spices. It just feels... right. It's cinnamon, yes? It must all mean that you're supposed to do this."
Xena didn't answer her. A long time passed. Gabrielle felt herself falling asleep still sitting up in Xena's arms. She struggled to stay awake. Xena was working out how she felt about it, which meant she leaned toward going. If she'd been inclined to stay, there wouldn't have been any hesitation.
Just as sleep was overcoming the bard, Xena spoke. "It feels right to me, too. But I don't want to leave you."
"You're not leaving me," Gabrielle mumbled. "You'll be back."
* * *
"You're sure it's okay to leave Iphis alone for awhile?" Xena felt guilty about Abas coming to the docks with her.
"He's really feeling much better. Besides, I think it's hard for him to accept being cared for all of the time." Abas waved to a bunch of shirtless sailors scrubbing the deck of a well-weathered ship. "He'd like to take care of himself for a little while."
"I understand." Xena thought back to small bumps and bruises too numerous to count, and the even more threatening slices and crunches her body had endured. She hated anyone taking care of her but Gabrielle, and that was only after several incidents where she'd shooed the bard away with an angry word only to have her return later and tend the wounds anyway. Eventually, Xena came to crave that gentle touch.
Abas turned toward a seedy tavern. "In here."
Xena laughed silently. The bar had probably been the first structure put up on the spit of land leading out to Pharos Island and defining the two large harbors. To the east were the royal docks and the big merchant ships whose crews frequented the tavern. To the west were smaller boats, some fishing trawlers, and more than a few pleasure craft for the idle rich.
Xena and Abas walked into the ramshackle bar drawing several stares from its inhabitants. If the place hadn't been sturdily built to begin with, it would have collapsed decades ago out of sheer neglect. There was dirt everywhere but the tabletops, and in the corners the decades had accumulated heaps of junk too grimy to recognize. They sat at a thick wooden table. Xena kicked away the trash near her feet and pushed the used mugs to the side. "Nice place."
Abas smiled. "I know, it's wretched. For some strange reason the best captains are drawn to sleazy bars."
Xena smirked. "It must make them miss their tiny cabins and a crew to keep their decks clean."
"I always miss the sea." Abas pounded the table twice and nodded toward the barkeep. She looked at Xena. "And I actually like this bar."
When the beer arrived cold, frothy, and tasting of a sweet yeast, Xena began to feel better about the place. She drank deeply, tilting her head back to drain her mug when she heard a man approach. Slowly, she lowered the mug to the table.
The man smiled at her with yellow teeth. He flashed them at Abas. "Long time, honey."
"Turn it off and sit down," Abas ordered.
He did, to Xena's surprise.
"Zetes, I'd like you to meet Xena."
She noticed Zetes' grizzled hair, a dark mass underneath wild strands of gray refusing to be kempt. The wind and salt spray had etched deep wrinkles about his tanned face. The man had experienced years on the sea. Xena stretched her arm out toward him in greeting. Zetes clasped it. She felt tendons and muscles rippling just under his skin.
"So, the Warrior Princess visits Alexandria?" He had turned off the sickening charm, just as Abas had instructed.
"I'm here with a friend," Xena answered obliquely.
Zetes lowered his voice and smiled. "That wouldn't be the bard, would it?"
Xena felt tingles down her back. She narrowed her eyes and mentally rehearsed unsheathing her blade to slice across his thick neck. "Why?"
"By the gods, woman." He laughed and slapped his palms on the table. "Don't you know that sailors spend their lives going from tavern to tavern in every port, hearing every last bard in the business? What do you think they hear about?" He laughed again, a hearty, joyous roar. "Gabrielle and Xena this, Gabrielle and Xena that."
She looked over to see Abas chuckling. "Oh," Xena said to Zetes.
Zetes snatched a mug of beer from a passing waiter's tray. "What can I do for you?"
Abas answered. "I need a favor."
"No," interrupted Xena, "I need a favor. Specifically, I need a ship."
* * *
Xena stood on the deck of the Lepus and certainly hoped it had been named well. Stories told that Hermes honored a hare by putting it in the night sky, in the constellation Lepus, because the hare was as fleet of foot as the god was. This ship wasn't crafted by a god, but it was sturdy and well-cared for.
She walked the deck and chatted with the crew who were busy preparing the ship for their journey. Zetes had agreed to serve as captain. Although he'd tried to give Xena the title, she forced him to retain it. They were sailing on his ship with his crew and she insisted he have the ultimate authority.
Of course everyone knew that if a difficult decision was to be made, Xena's opinion would weigh in most heavily.
Neleus sported a new outfit. He'd traded his outrageous red suit for attire more suitable to the sea: dark brown leather pants, a long sleeved shirt in light cream, and a tan leather vest. But his shirt was silk and his tan vest finely tooled from blemish-free leather. They were the clothes of the rich. Cephalus, the merchant who'd spoken the night of the meeting, showed Neleus how to coil rope as a pair of Zetes' sailors and Janus amusedly looked on.
Somehow Neleus had convinced Belus that Janus should come with them. Xena was torn by not wanting the boy to be subjected to danger, and understanding viscerally the thrill of the adventure. In the end, she agreed to let him crew, not because Neleus pleaded with her but because Janus was a good kid. He was honest. She'd seen him taunted by bullies and come out of it without wanting either revenge or pity. And as she watched Janus that day, while he carefully observed how the ropes were to be tied and waited patiently for one of the crew to let him try, she believed he'd grow into a skilled sailor before their journey was done.
If they could ever leave port, that is. They needed a permit to sail. And getting a permit from the same government whose system of taxation you were trying to thwart wouldn't be easy. Abas insisted she take care of it herself. She'd told Xena that it was the least she could do since she couldn't sail with them. Iphis' condition had improved, yes, but she didn't want to risk a long journey with him away from the medical specialists in Alexandria.
A few hours before sunset, Abas arrived, permit in hand. The captain had pushed the paperwork through myriad legal offices. With the papers in place, the crew set, and the ship ready, Xena bade them farewell and left for one last night in Alexandria.
* * *
Gabrielle tugged on the leather straps of Xena's breastplate to make sure each one held securely. In the early light, the brass glowed a soft golden yellow. "These straps won't stand up well under all that salt."
They avoided looking at each other.
"I know. I've got extras packed."
Gabrielle shuffled over to a round table and closed her fingers over a small bundle. "I..." Her voice sounded raspy. She tried to swallow away her emotions. "Here." Gabrielle paced back to put the bundle into Xena's hands. "It's just some stuff to... read while you're away."
Xena examined the package. Three tiny scrolls, each bound with a thin piece of ribbon, wrapped in a lovely strip of sky blue silk. "Thanks." Her thumb aimlessly rubbed over the ribbons. "I have stuff for you." Reverently, she stowed the scrolls in her bag then retrieved something from it. She took Gabrielle's hand and placed a green yo-yo in it. "I thought maybe you wanted one."
The bard closed her fist around it. Xena never gave anything lightly. This was a lifeline to the warrior's childhood and to her playful side which only let itself out when the two of them were alone. "I love it."
Xena shifted nervously. "And..." She turned her palm up and opened her fingers cradling two wooden dice.
Gabrielle laughed and picked them up. "I can't believe you gave me two toys! This is wonderful." She juggled the dice in her hand and tossed them on the table. They settled on a pair of ones. Gabrielle caught her breath. A tear threatened to leak out even though she'd bolstered her self-control with a deep meditation that morning. She didn't want to have Xena's last look at her be that of a blubbering, crying mess.
"Try it again," Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle rolled the dice. Again, they landed on snake eyes.
Xena moved behind Gabrielle and slid her arms around the bard's waist. "A matched set. Two people made to walk side-by-side through life."
Gabrielle lifted the dice, rotating them slowly in her palm. A single round notch had been carved into every side. No matter how she rolled them, they'd always come up a pair of ones. Just like them. "Oh, Xena." She turned into her and hugged her hard, squeezing with all her might. Along with the trust they freely gave each other there was a narrow streak of panic bolting through the under girding.It was normal, Gabrielle told herself. Because not knowing how or exactly where Xena was at any given moment was more frightening than facing any, or even all of their enemies. And she was facing four months of uncertainty.
"Careful. I need those ribs." But Xena returned the hug with as much pressure.
After a long moment, they loosened their frantic holds on each other. "Okay, I know you need to go." Gabrielle picked up Xena's bag and balanced over one shoulder.
The warrior shook her head and chuckled. Xena took the pack from Gabrielle, and smiled as the bard flung one arm around her. They arrived at the docks that way, as a pair of twins attached at the waist.
After a short set of introductions on the deck of the Lepus, and a long moment of embarrassment from a gushing Captain Zetes, Gabrielle followed Xena to her cabin. By ship standards it was roomy, a cabin fit for an officer or dignitary. By land standards it was tiny. And compared with where they had been living, it wasn't fit to store sacks of flour.
Xena put her bag on the bunk. Gabrielle immediately walked into her welcoming arms. "I'm going to miss this," the bard mumbled into Xena's chest.
"I'm going to miss you, Xena." She felt Xena take a deep breath, heard it catch ever so slightly. While Gabrielle could go back to her room and bury her head in a pillow for awhile, Xena would have to face a crew who counted on her. If she sailed out of the harbor with anything less than the strong, sure poise of the Warrior Princess, it could affect their entire journey. The crew needed to know Xena was infallible.
Gabrielle grit her teeth and gave it her best effort. "We know we're doing the right thing with this. You're going to have a wonderful adventure."
Xena smiled until it lit her eyes. "Don't breathe in too much of that library dust."
"Don't let the salt eat away at your breastplate." Gabrielle kissed her softly. "I love you, you know."
"Yeah, I know." They kissed again. "Same here."
It was time. Gabrielle lightly batted Xena's arm. "I know." Without another word, they went back on deck. Gabrielle wished Neleus and Janus well and told them both to keep an eye on Xena for her.
Then the lines were untied and the crew sat ready at the oars. Gabrielle took Xena's hand briefly. She reluctantly let go, walked down the plank, and turned as her boots hit the dock to watch the Lepus leave harbor.
Neither woman moved. They stood quietly, holding the other's eyes as long as they could until the ship carried Xena away.
For shame, you generals! what do you mean?
Love, and be friends, as two such men should be;
For I have seen more years, I'm sure, than ye.
-Poet from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
A great unblinking eye floated in from the distant horizon, its flight as effortless as a soaring eagle's. As it passed over the land, everything under its shadow burst into searing, leaping flames. The burning desert lit the air a dirty gold. Still the eye came toward her.
A rustling behind her stole her focus. She swirled around. There stood Aphrodite, laughing at her. The goddess' long blonde curls danced in the breeze until they became stone, Aphrodite's body a statue, all reduced to a lifeless icon.
Another presence appeared, one she did not recognize. It was a man with yellow-gold skin and thick, dark brows. Before she could question him, he turned to molded sand and began to blow away on the wind.
She ran. Her feet took her into a doorway and down a long set of unfriendly stairs. The air grew hotter. An acrid smoke stung her eyes. She coughed from the white-hot smoke filling her lungs. Still she descended.
When she bounded down from the last stair, the air was so dense with smoke she couldn't see her way. Her feet, bare now, felt fine, soft dirt beneath them. She took a step and found a wall. Two more steps in the opposite direction brought another wall. Frantically she searched for the stairs but she had been sealed into a box.
The air cleared enough to see the outline of a figure in front of her. Moving forward, well past the walls which had trapped her, she began to recognize the form. The back of a tall, dark head. Absurdly broad shoulders and vainglorious musculature. Clad in black leather. She heard or imagined the disdainful laugh of Ares.
Fighting the urge to ask for help, she stopped. If Ares wanted to be of assistance, he'd have to offer. Would she accept?
The figure turned. She felt the condescending smile before she saw it.
And then she screamed.
For the face looking back at her, mocking her, ridiculing her, was not Ares. It was Caesar.
* * *
Gabrielle jerked awake. The sheet held her legs in a stranglehold, woven around her limbs from a night of violent tossing and turning. Without thinking, she reached out to her left for Xena but her hand found only the cold, empty side of the bed.
She groaned and carefully curled into a ball, pulling her knees into her chest in a futile attempt to fight off waves of nausea. She only just made the crawl to the bathing room before her angry stomach emptied itself. Using a towel as a makeshift pillow, she closed her eyes and drifted into a shallow sleep right there on the floor.
She woke again to the full light of day. Her head ached. A wretched tasting residue coated her tongue. She forced herself up and, balancing with one hand on the wall, she groped along it toward a jug of water back out in the bedroom. She poured a cup with a shaky hand then drank slowly, hoping it wouldn't shock her stomach into action again. Weakly, she lowered herself back onto the bed, exhausted.
Lunara came to check up on her. She was late for a meeting at the Library, so Callimachus had sent his assistant to discover the reason. After convincing the young librarian that she was already feeling better after a bout with a short stomach sickness, Gabrielle asked for some bland food. Lunara returned to deliver it and then mercifully left her in peace to recover.
That evening, Gabrielle managed to keep some bread down. She also remembered to take herbs, the mixture that Xena had always given her, and they helped to settle her stomach and let her sleep through the night.
By morning, she felt well enough to bathe and eat a small breakfast. She knew she should spend the day in bed as Xena would have demanded had she been there. And she knew that she should try to recall the vision, sort out what it meant. But there was an important meeting in the Library and Gabrielle didnt think she could miss it, not after having skipped the day before.
She pulled on her heavy purple robe, strode out into the early heat of the summer morning, and made her way to the Library, wilting under the sun. Callimachus curtly nodded to her as she entered the Library's conference room. He pointed to an empty chair near the door. A group of eleven were already in place around the large walnut table. She evened out their numbers.
Seated beneath the lone window, Callimachus cunningly reinforced his power. He could see everyone clearly in the light streaming in from outside, while those forced to look into the window wouldn't be able to see the Chief Librarian's shadowed expressions as easily. Gabrielle had observed Xena staking the same sort of position for negotiations when the parties involved weren't entirely trustworthy. It didn't bode well.
Still weak from the vision of the day before, Gabrielle found herself collapsing into the hard-backed chair, trying to keep her rebellious stomach under control. She scanned the room. She knew most of the faces but what surprised her most was who wasn't there. The Priest of the Muses had told Gabrielle about the meeting to discuss Aristotle's' scrolls and yet he wasn't among those assembled. She got a sinking feeling that she'd be pushed into mediating spats between Callimachus and the Manetho.
Gabrielle forced herself to concentrate on the meeting rather than her roiling stomach. A young man, purple-robed as they all were at the large table, had the floor. She noted the experienced eyes, the swagger of his tone. Perhaps he was older than he appeared.
"This will be an expensive venture," he said pointedly. "It will mean borrowing from the Museum's budget again."
Callimachus rolled his eyes. "No it won't, Timon. The budget isn't parceled out specifically to either Museum or Library."
"Of course it doesn't come from the King and Queen designated one way or the other," Timon countered, "but you can't expect me to let everyone at it like a pack of hungry crocodiles."
Gabrielle wondered just what position this Timon fellow held. Someone who dealt with the budget, she could easily surmise. Someone from the Museum? As high-ranking as Callimachus?
"I'm not going to waste everyone's time with this, Timon. There are far too many matters to decide concerning these scrolls to waste our energies on your petty squabble."
Timon pounded the table. "Petty squabble? How dare you intimate that finances are trivial. They're the lifeblood of this entire institution. What do you think pays for all these excursions to gather scrolls?"
Callimachus held his temper in check, remaining silent for several moments. The thin librarian ran his fingers through his long, surly hair. "You and I can handle this in private later, Timon."
Timon seemed placated. He'd won a measure of attention. "Then I'll leave you to the rest of your malarkey." He placed his palms on the polished table and pushed himself up. He moved slowly across the room, dragging everyone's eyes with him. When the door finally shut behind him leaving everyone else to get on with business, Gabrielle glanced over to Timon's spot. Two dull hand prints marred the shiny surface of the table and his chair had been twisted around. Timon had not left without a parting shot.
Callimachus leaned back and yawned. "Shall we get on with things?"
A murmur of agreement traveled around the table.
"Good. The first order is to assign a scholar to oversee all phases of the copying."
"We need someone skilled with papyrus production. The match must be perfect on scrolls of such high caliber." This came from an older man with gray-flecked hair.
Callimachus smiled thinly. "Since these are Aristotle's' scrolls, I was about to suggest I take on that responsibility myself."
Gabrielle felt a palpable sigh of relief among the scholars. If the boss took on the task, then there'd be no blame thrust on their shoulders for delays or mistakes.
"While the copying is underway, no one will be able to view the scrolls. We can't risk anything happening to the originals while we're copying because everything must be a perfect match from the papyrus to the scribe's work."
To Gabrielle, that seemed to cross the line from attention to detail to obsession. Yes, it would be important to have the Library's copy include all of Aristotle's text, but this sounded like every smudge mark had to be duplicated.
"Each of you will need to inform your areas that no one will be able to use the scrolls until I proclaim the copying complete." Callimachus shifted his gaze to land on Gabrielle.
Sweat trickled down her back under the robe. Everyone wanted to see Aristotle's work. It wasn't an every day occurrence to have such remarkable scrolls pass through the Library. Gabrielle understood Callimachus' expression to mean she would be the one to tell the priest that he'd have no access until Callimachus decided he could see them. So she got to be the bearer of bad news. Her stomach churned and she longed to curl up in Xena's arms, letting the warrior dote on her.
* * *
Gabrielle had no time for a much needed break before she was led into Manetho's office. The white-robed priest wore a scowl and he didn't bother to ask Gabrielle to be seated. He paced behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back and out of sight under the bulky, long, ascetic sleeves. "Tell me the bad news," he demanded sharply.
Gabrielle did her best to sidestep his hostility. She smiled as well as she could and sat in her usual wooden chair in front of the priest's desk. Without giving in to her superior's tone, she said, "I'd be happy to tell you about the meeting."
"Cut to the crux. I haven't the time to hear every instance of bickering among them." Manetho still strode back and forth behind his desk. He had sent only a few short glances toward Gabrielle, otherwise his eyes were glued to the floor, watching his feet shuffle in small, quick steps.
The bard softly sighed. Why do these two men have to nurture so much anger between them? Each one has so much to offer. When the priest was in a giving state of mind, he opened doors to the history of the Egyptians as no one else could. He also knew an enormous amount about medicine and pottery and in her lessons with him, he'd often let himself sidetrack into unorthodox cases and peculiar traits. This wasn't the same patient man of her first few meetings with him, one with an unquenchable love of learning. This was a politician.
Fine, she concluded. I'll do my part but on my own terms. "Callimachus will supervise the copying of Aristotle's' scrolls. I'm sorry to say that it will mean they'll be up on the third floor while the scribes work. If there is any information I can get for you..."
"Pig-headed beast," Manetho interrupted.
Gabrielle pushed forward. "When the copies are completed, I'm sure you'll find many unique avenues of study. The scrolls are quite remarkable, rich in thought and..."
Again, the priest interrupted. Now he faced her, hands crossed across his chest, feet spread in a defiant stance, his jaw dropped in an incredulous pose. "You've read them?"
Gabrielle slouched back in her chair. "Only a little." She rubbed her nose and felt the deep waves of utter exhaustion prickle with nervous energy. "I was able to read bits and pieces on the voyage here."
Tight jaw muscles worked under his cheeks. Then the priest dropped his arms to his side. "They're that good?"
An honest smile crept onto her lips. Manetho was finally beginning to relax. "They're full of fascinating insights. Their language is quite beautiful. I..." She shrugged. "Well, I'm not so sure I agree with everything Aristotle had to say."
The priest let out a hearty laugh from deep in his lungs. "Oh, Gabrielle. You are precious." She stiffened and he held up his hands. "No, I mean that in a good way." Finally coming to a stop from his manic pacing, he pulled out his heavy chair and took a seat, propping his elbows on his desk. "Not many have the nerve to say that about a wise man. Some say it out of ignorance, but I'm beginning to suspect that your views are well-founded."
Gabrielle beamed. She hadn't been paid a compliment like that by any of the scholars. And this from the Priest of the Muses himself! "I've read what I can and talked with a lot of people in my travels."
"And there is more for you to read." Manetho pushed aside some of the scrolls on his desk and pulled a scrap of papyrus from the bottom of a pile. "I'm sending you to look at several of the great Egyptian texts." He began to scrawl on the papyrus. "Some of these are on the upper floors. I haven't read them in awhile so you can refresh my memory. Others are tucked away in the lowest sublevels." He stopped writing for a moment to look at her. "They may be hard to find. You'll have to go searching through the stacks."
"I won't mind." Indeed, she loved the moments she could forget about the stressful meetings and pretentious power plays to immerse herself in the scrolls. Few scholars visited the lower levels except to occasionally retrieve a scroll for study above. The days could be whiled away completely undisturbed.
That night she slept well and contented. Tired from her physical woes and buoyed by her assignment from Manetho, she forgotabout the vision, made no notes on the fleeting images. It had always been Xena's task to drag the information out of her. Without the warrior's assistance, Gabrielle succumbed to exhaustion and procrastination.
* * *
The next morning, Gabrielle headed straight for the sublevels. She didn't want to deal with the third floor and those who might be roaming the halls up there. To forget about the personal tensions in the library and immerse herself in the scrolls was the perfect remedy for the waning effects of her vision.
Manetho had instructed her to find several scrolls, each called by peculiar names depending on where they were first written or where they had been stored over the centuries before being transferred to the Library. One set known as the Pyramid Scrolls was kept upstairs. Today, however, she went on a hunt for the Book of the Caverns and The Book of the Two Ways down in the sublevels where it was cooler and she had a good chance of spending the day alone.
Of course, the first thing that happened was that she got completely off track. She happened onto a section of papyruses which traced the history of the Ptolemy rule from the time of Alexander the Great. They were an outrageous, inbred family who had a checkered past. And present, thought the bard.
Many of the kings had nicknames, handy since they were all named Ptolemy. Cleopatra's great-grandfather Ptolemy VIII's nickname was 'Potbelly.' Most of the Ptolemys had been overweight, but Potbelly apparently took the crown in that category. Cleopatra's grandfather, Ptolemy IX, had been nicknamed Chickpea. The reason for this was not given in the scroll.
It was little better on the female side where the family chose between three names. Among Cleopatra's siblings were another Cleopatra, an Arsinoe IV and Berenice IV. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, and offspring all shared the same blood and a small set of given names.
It seemed so peculiar to Gabrielle even though she couldn't quite pinpoint what specifically bothered her. Except for some of the stories of past deeds. A son who Potbelly had conceived with his own sister, another Cleopatra, was in line to become the next ruler. Potbelly didn't care for his son; thought him a rather infantile pet of his mother. Wife Cleopatra, however, loved him dearly. Potbelly had his way. He murdered his son, dismembered him, and then served the body parts as dinner for his wife.
With that, Gabrielle decided she'd learned more about that kooky family than she'd cared to. Besides, her torch had started to flicker at the end of its fuel and she was due to retrieve another.
At the confluence of several passageways, for they twisted about in a meandering way on the lowest floors, some connecting with the level above, others descending further underground, and often five or six meeting at a single junction, Gabrielle paused to light a second torch. Once the new flame burned, she carefully snuffed out the other in the soft dirt underfoot and left it in a bin to be refitted with more fuel and used again.
Not sure where to head to next, the bard decided to do a bit of exploring. Perhaps it was nothing more than the need for the familiar: walking was at the core of her days with Xena traveling Greece and beyond. And if she took a walk around the labyrinthine lower levels, she could more easily envision a map of them in her head and she might even find the Egyptian scrolls she was supposed to be reading.
She passed too many narrow, off-shooting passages to count. They could be tackled once she had a better lay of the major paths. But she was beginning to doubt that she could even do that much. When she thought she was heading away from her starting point, she landed back at the original junction. And when she tried to get back to the junction, she discovered new nooks of scrolls, reading areas she had never been by.
As she was about to try to re-trace her steps a fourth time, she caught a glimpse of some hieroglyphics along the edge of a rolled papyrus. Rummaging through the scrolls tossed onto a low, dirty shelf, she found The Book of the Two Ways. The light from her torch would last awhile longer, but she decided to tuck the scroll under her arm and head back for the junction anyway. She could then find a quiet place to read closer to the main areas of the sub-levels where replacing torches would be much easier.
Just a few steps down the path, a faint noise came into focus. Anywhere else, it would have been nothing extraordinary. But here, deep below the Library, the sound of water dripping seemed terribly out of place. Unable to mute her curiosity, Gabrielle followed the sound. She followed the path through several sharp turns, pleased that there didn't seem to be any other large passages opening into hers. That would make the way back much easier.
Around one last tight bend, the dirt under her feet became muddy. She almost slipped in it so she slowed down and carried on, finding that the path opened into another cistern just like the one she'd been in with Janus and Xena. It comforted her. There were lifelines in this melting pot of a city. There were links and similarities and shared structures. These cisterns united everyone.
And the memory of Xena singing, riding the counterpoint of her own echoes, came back to her. She closed her eyes and remembered. What she heard in her head was so precise it seemed real. For a few moments, Xena was right next to her. For a few moments, she had all she needed.
That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
-Domitius Enobarbus from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Gabrielle stood outside of Manetho's door. The first time she'd visited him had been under such different circumstances. Callimachus had taken Xena and her to meet the priest who was cold and distant. Now she knew him much better. He had his odd moments and quirks but she'd come to respect him.
Today's session would be a test of sorts, so she took a moment to collect herself. The Priest of the Muses would ask her what she'd gleaned from the Egyptian scrolls he'd sent her to read. She wanted to do well.
Squeezing her hand into a tight fist, she knocked. At the priest's call, she entered and took her place. This is ridiculous, she told herself. Manetho is an Egyptian scholar. I'm going to look like a complete idiot to him. But if I lose his respect... She worried about Manetho and Callimachus. With the two of them quarreling, the mood of the whole library shifted off kilter. Scholars were curt with each other in every exchange. Silence pervaded the common dining room. Come on, focus. You've got to focus.
Manetho sat behind his large, cluttered desk. His straight back and stone face did nothing to calm the bard's nerves. Bypassing perfunctory chatter, he asked, "Shall we start with something simple?"
"Yes, please," she answered almost too eagerly.
The priest smiled. "Just relax and tell me about Seth and Osiris."
"Okay, okay... Seth and Osiris. Yeah, I can do this." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "There are many versions of their story. Osiris is a complicated figure. He's a victim, a sufferer. He's almost human in some ways." She looked up to see the smile still curling Manetho's lips.
She continued, "He represents cycles like birth, death, and regeneration. He's a lot like our Demeter and Persephone in that way."
"The Egyptian gods are different from the Greeks'. Always remember that, Gabrielle."
Stung by the reproach, she faltered. The priest took pity on her. "Why don't you tell me where Osiris came from?"
"Sure, I can do that." The bard rubbed her eyes. "It started with the primeval waters. They weren't like the sea because there wasn't a surface. There was no air or anything like that." She paused to see if she'd be corrected. When Manetho didn't speak, she kept going. "There was no form or even light in the primeval waters. But still, a spirit lived there."
"The original spirit." Manetho sat forward. Gabrielle could see that he enjoyed teaching this subject. "What can you tell me about the original spirit?"
"Um..." She fidgeted. "Not much, I guess."
"Right. The spirit cannot be defined. We know what it becomes but we know little of it. It is meant to be obtuse." He thought for a moment and then added, "Sometimes the spirit is shown as an eye."
Her heart suddenly pounded in her chest. An eye? The visions came rushing past her. She shunted them away, promising herself that she'd think about them later, as soon as she finished her lesson with the priest.
Fortunately, the priest didn't seem to notice her heightened anxiety. "What becomes of the spirit?"
Concentrate! "The spirit... becomes a bird.
"A falcon," said Manetho.
Xena, thought Gabrielle. And the image alone gave Gabrielle the grounding she needed. "The spirit bird becomes Ra, the pharaoh's sun god."
"From Ra come Shu, who is air, and Tefnut, who is water. And from them come Geb and Nut. Geb is the earth and Nut is the sky."
"Good. Those are the first three generations."
She felt more on a roll. "Next are the brothers Seth and Osiris, and Isis and Nephthys, two sisters."
"And so we have Osiris and Seth." Manetho smiled again. "What about them?"
"They were enemies as well as brothers. And they each had a sister-wife. Osiris was Isis' companion. Nephthys married Seth." She knew this part of the story well, having read a similar telling in each text she studied. "Osiris ruled Egypt. He taught humans about civilization and justice. It was the Golden Age when life was peaceful and prosperous for all. But Seth was jealous and he murdered his brother to take the throne."
"Something men have been doing ever since," Manetho said sadly. "Sorry to interrupt. Continue, please."
"Seth wasn't content with merely killing his brother. He cut up his body and put it in a chest." Gabrielle saw the parallels to the horrific story buried in Ptolemy history. She wondered if that Ptolemy had gotten the idea from the Egyptian story. "The chest with Osiris washed ashore where a great tree grew around it. Isis came and freed Osiris' body from the tree. Then she put him back together."
"Do you know the significance of that?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"It is much like the process of mummification which we practice now on our dead kings."
"That makes sense. I hadn't really thought of it that way."
"All of these stories have implications in our lives now." Manetho rested his chin on steepled fingers. "It is in the interpretation of these stories that we learn their true message."
"That much, I understand."
He laughed softly. "Yes, I thought you might."
She tried to keep from smiling too broadly but when the Priest of the Muses paid her compliments like that, sometimes it was too hard not to let it show on her face. She trudged on. "So after Isis gets him all back together, they conceive a son named Horus. Even though Osiris is really dead. Right? That seems impossible, or more likely that Osiris came back to life."
"That is one of the mysteries of Osiris."
A cryptic answer? I've been with Xena when she's gotten a lot of those. It usually meant she'd trod too far into another's territory and guessed right about something that wasn't supposed to be known to her. Gabrielle changed gears. "Isis worries that Seth will destroy any offspring of Osiris, so she raises her son in secret. Eventually Horus attacks Seth and takes power."
"Very good. What comes next?"
"Next? There's more?"
"Yes, though it's primarily documented in scrolls other than those I assigned to you. For now I'll say that the off-spring of Horus and Seth bring upon the Great Quarrel. But let's stay with the earlier generations. The story takes new path. What of Osiris and Horus?"
"Osiris is a mummy, a life-spirit. Without Horus, Osiris is nothing."
"You must begin with the story before you can know its meanings."
"Yes, all right." Gabrielle shifted and pulled her feet up so she sat cross-legged in the wooden chair. For short visits to her mentor, the hard chair served its purpose. This meeting, however, had already gone on longer than most and the chair had lost all semblance of comfort. "The story, first? Right. Horus needs Osiris' 'ka'."
"Good. Tell me what 'ka' is."
"It is the life-force of your ancestors. It's often seen as two embracing arms and it is passed on by an embrace. I think this notion of passing on your ka is important."
"Yes, very good. The transference is at the essence of ka. That moment shapes a life. But," asked Manetho with a lilting voice, "what is 'ka'?"
Another deep breath helped focus her energies. "It's power, vitality, fertility, loyalty.... It's all of these things in ever-changing measure, never one alone, always with another." Gabrielle chuckled internally. Gee, sounds like two people I know.
Her mentor added, "Sometimes the 'ka' can be seen as a perfect human, without the imperfections of a life on earth."
"That makes sense. But it's always in a deceased relative, so whoever has the ka to transfer has already led a life. They've already endured the positive and negative implications of life and, hopefully, come to understand them. So it's not that the ka is a perfect human, it's a human with deep understanding. Understanding imperfection would be part of the ka they pass on."
The priest sat back abruptly. "Now I must say that I'm the one who never thought of it that way before. It's not ignorant of the imperfections. It has come to understand them and in doing so, negated them."
He remained silent for a long stretch, not moving, not acknowledging that anyone else sat in the room with him. Gabrielle wasn't sure if she'd pushed him too far or if he'd liked what she'd said about ka. The lull in the conversation lasted past a point of comfort. She squirmed in her chair.
Still in a daze, without moving anything but his jaw, the priest asked, "How does Osiris learn that Horus has regained the throne and needs his ka?"
"That's a different story." She'd enjoyed that one very much. "Horus needs an envoy, a messenger who can go to the underworld, find Osiris and give him the good news. The messenger is the Divine Falcon." Xena, Gabrielle happily reminded herself.
Still distant from Gabrielle, as if he were mesmerized by his own thoughts, he asked in a monotone, "What is the journey?"
"First, the falcon must be known to the great royalty, so it is given a token. It wears the royal insignia to identify itself. Next, it goes to the house of Isis where it learns the true story of Horus' birth. It's still pretty much a secret that Horus was conceived from a mummy." And still pretty weird to me, thought Gabrielle.
Manetho began to nod slightly in agreement. At least he was listening to her.
"Then, after the House of Isis, the falcon goes to the sky where Ra, the sun god is. The falcon proves itself worthy; Ra gives it wings." Gabrielle wasn't certain that was right. It made no sense for a bird fly up to the sky and then get wings. How else did it fly there in the first place?
"Good. Go on."
She shrugged off her confusion. "At last, the falcon descends past the denizens of the dark and into the underworld."
"How does it see through the dark?"
"The falcon is the sun. It illuminates all it passes over." Again, like Xena, mused the bard.
As if intoning a school incantation, the priest said, "For the sun is the Eye. It sees past, present, and future." He blinked and shook his head. He leaned forward again, his body language showing him to be more engaged in their conversation. "And what does this mean, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle struggled to be focused. The eye, again. What does it mean? "The journey is the key." The eye in the visions is always moving....
The priest raised one brow.
Gabrielle thought it meant she needed to explain herself better. How could she do it without revealing her own mystery? The visions belonged to Xena and her. No one else should know of them. Xena had explained it so well, that others might see her as a threat, misunderstand the visions, or want the power of the visions for themselves. She needed a way to explain her reasoning without divulging her true catalyst. "What the Divine Falcon does, the experience, it's a journey like life is for the rest of us. What we take from the story is how to live your life."
She could see sweat begin to bead on his brow and bald pate. He was worried about her answers. Why? Was she so far off base?
"What of the first stage, the royal insignia?" Now a slight tremor modulated his voice.
Gabrielle went on. He wanted his questions answered, so she obliged him. She hoped it would make him less anxious. "I guess the first stage is like being given the ground rules. Some people are meant to be fishermen, others artists, other rulers. When the Divine Falcon is given the royal insignia, it means it's meant for greatness."
"But great men fail; kings fall."
"Yes, but the great men I've seen fail come back the stronger for it. And those in power are not always great."
Manetho wiped his bulky sleeve across his forehead and then over top of his shaved head. "And the second stage?"
"The House of Isis? I guess that's learning about life, learning about who you are and those around you. Sort of like going to school or growing up."
"The House of Isis is a royal house. Does that make it different?"
"People have the same weaknesses and strengths no matter if they're born into royalty or not." She felt confident of her answer. "I don't believe it makes a difference."
"There, you are wrong. Because the falcon goes to the House of Isis, it learns the truth. That is a lesson we too often forget."
Gabrielle held her tongue. She was in the presence of a man who revered his own royalty. Bursting that innocent bubble wouldn't be a smart move. Or worse, she'd be seen as a blasphemer and lose whatever respect she'd earned from him. Still, she did know better than to believe Manetho's interpretation. Without truly giving in, she replied, "I'll remember that."
It placated him enough to ask her about the next stage. She carried on. "The sky is the home of Ra." Ra, she mused, the guy like Zeus... except I'm not supposed to say that. "I'm a little confused about how the falcon only just gets its wings there."
This pleased Manetho. A challenge rose in his eyes. "Think it out, Gabrielle."
"Sure. Um... lets see. The falcon can already fly, that's a given. So the wings must not be wings, per se, but something that will make the journey possible."
The priest nodded encouragingly.
"And what you need for a journey is courage, support..." she watched Manetho's face to see if she hit on the right one, "faith, strength, wisdom..." There, she'd found it. "The falcon needs wisdom and knowledge."
"Yes! And do you see what that represents to us?"
"To me, it..."
"No, to us. What does it represent to us here in Alexandria?"
"Knowledge, here... well, it must mean the Library."
"And the Museum. Yes!" Manetho became animated. "It's one of my favorite stories because I always feel better when I put everything into perspective. The Museum and Library give us our wings."
Gabrielle agreed, but inside she wasn't entirely convinced. Xena had plenty of wisdom and knowledge and it didn't have anything to do with the Library.
"Splendid! And so you see, because of knowledge, Horus has the power to revive Osiris."
"Revive?" She cringed. Should she question him? "I mean, Osiris isn't really revived. He doesn't come back from the dead. It's just that Horus gets his ka."
"And that's the real power."
Gabrielle mulled that over. What is it with this 'ka' stuff and dead people? The dead don't have anything to give. They're... well, they're dead. Only the living can change. So, is it just that someone thinks they're suddenly given the ability to see from a second point of view? Is the power nothing more than a different way to view the world? Xena is always so good at looking at a situation from every angle without anybody's ka to show her how. She finds answers where others hadn't even thought to ask a question. Still, questions were good. She wondered just how far this notion of ka went. "Is 'ka' more than knowledge?"
"In the hands of Horus and Osiris, knowledge is infinitesimal compared with ka."
"But that's true only for Horus, right?"
Manetho's brow creased. "In what way?"
"Osiris is a victim in all this. Seth murders him to take the throne. Osiris lost his power and now he needs to be protected." At least she thought she remembered reading that.
"So Osiris is vulnerable. His ka is vulnerable and the lessons he's learned aren't as simple as some might think." She hoped this would make sense, but she wasn't even certain she'd gotten it figured out. "So when Horus receives the ka, he still has to use it carefully, guard it against half-truths and other such tainting."
Emboldened, she pressed on. "All lessons contain truth and also a way to perceive the exact opposite. What Osiris offers still needs to be judged right or wrong."
"Perhaps for some, but this is Osiris! The first king of Egypt. His messages are pure."
That's only one way of looking at it, thought Gabrielle. Even Manetho can be blinded by a single forceful interpretation when others are also valid. But she couldn't drop it entirely. "What about Seth?"
Manetho narrowed his eyes. Perhaps she wasn't to be asking questions about the enemy. Maybe he could see where she was going. If Horus had access to his father's ka, what of Osiris and Seth. They had the same father; they'd get the same ka. Why would one be great and the other evil?
Manetho broke her thoughts. "We will speak of Osiris and his purity."
"Yes, of course." It's just more to mull over later... "Osiris is passive, right?"
"In a sense, yes."
"Is passivity a weakness?"
"In a man, I'd say yes." Manetho tapped a fingernail on the desk. He wasn't happy with her new thread. "But this is of a god. Osiris is powerful, not exactly passive." He paused then suddenly quirked his head to the side. "When Xena completes her mission, she will become an Osiris."
The remark took Gabrielle aback. "What do you mean?"
"Her soul will change. She will be a hero."
Confident his remark wasn't intended as a slight, Gabrielle stated the obvious. "She already is a hero."
"To some. But when her journey is complete, she will be a hero to all Egypt. She will have strength, courage, power, glory, and redemption."
Redemption. Gabrielle could only hope that it was true. If it was Xena's fate to find redemption on this journey, then the separation would have been well worth it. Still, a jealous streak began to form. She wanted to be there for Xena. She wanted to walk side-by-side with her on that path. For now, she was stuck in a library, alone.
Therefore let our alliance be combined,
Our best friends made, our means stretch'd
And let us presently go sit in council,
How covert matters may be best disclosed,
And open perils surest answered.
-Antony from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Xena did her best not to wring their necks. For the second time in as many days, she'd had to put out a fist-slamming fire between the merchants and the crew of the Lepus. She sat now in front of four smoldering men, representatives from each faction; Callias and Tigranes of the merchants, and crewmen Antigonus and Hierax. They snarled in contrasting consorts around the widest of the galley tables, merchants at starboard, crew at port, separated by enough distance to curtail physical outbursts. Xena half reclined in an oversized wooden chair at the head, with her feet propped up on the corner of the table.
She'd told Neleus and Captain Zetes that they could wait on the deck. They'd already had their chances to get things squared away between the merchants and crew and it hadn't worked. Even through her controlled fury, she noted the relief evident on Neleus and Zetes' faces. They were pleased to turn this over to Xena.
"All right," she began as nicely as she could, "we're about to spit out of the canal and into the Red Sea. When that happens we can't have any squabbles on board. Everyone has to keep their full concentration on sailing."
"Agreed," said Hierax, a little too forcefully.
Tigranes shouted back. "That doesn't mean we have to sail." He was a stout man with a good body for hard work. But he was a stubborn, rich merchant who felt manual labor was beneath him.
"You don't have to sail," Hierax sniveled in return. "Just run the bilge!"
"Well... I never..." Tigranes fumbled in his fury.
"Shut up, both of you, before I make that a permanent condition." Xena remained comfortably seated in her chair as she menaced them. She'd notch her authority higher in small degrees, saving the bigger punches and life-threatening maneuvers for later, if necessary.
To indicate her own willingness to work seriously with them, she pulled her feet from the table and sat up straight in a conscientious pose. "Let's lay the issues out." Her eyes made a trip around the table to ensure everyone paid attention to her. "On one hand, we have a trained crew whose job it is to sail this ship."
A glimmer of disagreement threatened on the lips of the sailors. She held up one hand in warning.
"On the other hand," she continued, "we have a group of merchants who are on a mission, not a vacation."
"Now just a minute, Xena..." Callias complained. He was an older man, not nearly as fit to pull a heavy load as others who were onboard. He was also a weasel. Xena had already caught him butting in between the kitchen and the galley service, trying to trade food privileges for who knows what. Xena enjoyed shutting him up. It only took pointing one elegant finger at him and shaking it slightly. "When you toss both of those group together, you get a boat full of people with one goal." She paused. "Staying alive for a few months at sea."
Callias and Tigranes paled at that blunt reminder. The sailors wore the smug expressions of victors. Antigonus sniggered. "See, I told you she'd see it our way."
"The way I see it," Xena leaned toward the unwashed crew member, "is that everyone needs to work together." When he dropped his eyes, she resumed her original position. She also reminded herself to make him bathe when they were finished. "The key is everyone doing tasks that suit their abilities." And before they could comment on just what suited the abilities of the lazy merchants, Xena said, "That means training people properly, rotating them through a series of jobs, and everyone taking a turn at the bilge."
Crewman Hierax refused. "I will do no such thing!"
Xena smiled dangerously. Ever so gently she reached over and placed her hand on the crewman's thick arm. "Oh yes, you will." She curled her long fingers around its bulk. "We all will." The muscles in her hand clenched around Hierax's flesh and began to dig bruises in his skin. "And I'll start." She watched as Hierax swallowed with effort. She increased the pressure on his arm until he lost feeling in his fingers. "Then you'll relieve me."
Agreement exploded from his mouth, "All right!" She let go and enjoyed seeing his arm slither across the table and into his lap where he thought he could hide his need to rub feeling back into his hand.
Next she turned to the merchants. "There will be a rotation posted in the morning. You'll lend a hand as instructed or you'lllose it... the hand, I mean." She tucked her hair behind her ears and wished for a moment that Gabrielle had been around to braid it for her. But she could only indulge in those thoughts and dreams on her own time, not in the middle of a tense meeting.
The memory helped to calm her down and think more clearly. "Look, I know you merchants aren't sailors and that some of you aren't even in very good shape. We'll take that into consideration. You won't have to be climbing in the rigging by morning."
Callias the Weasel chuckled self-consciously. Perhaps he had already imagined being forced to man the brailing lines when the sails needed to be shortened in a stout wind. It wouldn't have been a pretty image.
Xena was ready to wrap up the meeting. "There are many jobs everyone can do, and if the nasty ones are shared equally, then they aren't quite so bad." She cocked her head toward Hierax. "I meant that about bilge duty." He nodded vigorously. "Good."
Antigonus suggested the captain be called in to make up a duty roster and everyone agreed to the plan. Xena would still have to watch them carefully, but for now it looked like the rough edges of the voyage were beginning to smooth with time and the wind. And a little help from the Warrior Princess.
* * *
By the time the merchants and crew returned from a night in Berenice, a port in the Red Sea just south of the canal from the Nile, they all seemed to get along better. Neleus' forceful suggestion that the merchants cheerfully buy drinks for the crew went a good measure toward healing the rift. Simply spending time together in a foreign land made them more naturally team up with each other. They united as a group, distinct from competing crews' and traders' alcohol-induced taunts.
Xena, Neleus, and Zetes had prowled around the taverns of Berenice that night for information, Janus in tow. Xena didn't have a better plan for the boy and so she opted to keep him in sight. He tacitly understood the situation. Not a peep had come out of him all night; he remained by her side and kept out of everyone's business. When they'd returned to the Lepus, Xena took him aside and let him know she'd appreciated how well he'd done. He'd beamed and risked throwing his arms around her. Under cover of darkness, Xena had returned the hug.
And now with a hungover but more familial crew getting underway, Xena and Captain Zetes retired to the captain's quarters for a discussion of their course of action.
"I don't know how much sailing you've done through the Red Sea, Xena."
"Some." She accepted a cup of wine from the captain's personal stock.
"Down south where Teucer's base is said to be, the waters are pretty treacherous." Zetes took a seat on the bed leaving the lone chair for his guest. Even the captain's cabin provided little in the way of extra space. One bunk, a small table and a chair, and one chest for belongings filled the room.
Xena lowered her frame into the chair, noting worn padding over sturdy wood. The captain didn't have a need for ostentatious amenities but kept the basics in good repair. "I know that it seems like the reefs down there shift overnight. But I have confidence in your crew."
Zetes raised his glass in a small salute. "I have a good crew, Xena, but even they can't divine the presence of underwater reefs."
"And how do you think Teucer knows where to go? He's got to have them marked."
"Perhaps, but he might also intentionally mis-mark them."
"Well that's a chance we'll have to take." Her voice settled into a low growl. "Now that he's expanded into the slave trade."
"It's just a rumor." The captain shook his head. "But it's probably right. There are plenty of kings and warlords between Rome and Chin who would pay well for a ship of exotic slaves."
"Well, that's going to stop." She said it matter-of-factly.
"And the reefs? Xena, I can't take this ship where it's going to be gutted by those underwater razors."
"If we give up now, we'll never win. Teucer will believe he's infallible and gouge the people of Alexandria even more."
Zetes eyed her closely. His jaw muscles worked in tight pulses under his cheeks. "Will you give me an out if I say it's not going to work?"
"When we're in the midst of those reefs, turning around isn't going to be easy." No sense in falsely reassuring him. The trust gained or lost here would carry through the rest of the journey.
"It's all or nothing, isn't it?"
"With the big stuff, it always is."
* * *
Gabrielle pulled herself up the stairs to the third floor. Days without meetings were so much nicer. And this meeting was another about Aristotle's scrolls. She'd thought that had been settled already.
By now she recognized almost everyone at the Library, even if they hadn't formally been introduced. In addition to the usual Purple Bunch, as Gabrielle had started calling them to herself, several other scholars were squeezed into the conference room. Hyspicles studied science, Eratosthenes was a noted geographer, and Aristarchus had the strange idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun. She'd been meaning to ask him about that because she thought it was just the sort of thing that was so outlandish, it might be true.
If there was one thing she'd learned in Alexandria, it was that people who didn't have very much to say kept to the prevailing mode of thought. If they went too far afield, they'd be riddled with questions. Those who understood well what they studied could afford to be extreme. They were prepared to answer the barrage of questions with logical, well-constructed answers. Perhaps this meeting would give her enough of a ground-breaker to ask Aristarchus about his wild theory.
She was given a seat at the table while the scholars of lesser rank were strewn along the wall, a few lucky ones in chairs but the majority relegated to standing. Though she was grateful for the good seat, she felt somehow exposed. She would have preferred to gravitate toward the lower ranks and let others have the limelight. The option was not presented to her.
Callimachus strode in late. He caused a commotion by crawling over those in the way of getting to his seat at the far end. Scholars at the table stood to push their chairs in. The standing guests squished their bodies against the wall to make way for the Chief Librarian. It was not a grand entrance.
He sat down, pulled his white hair back behind his shoulders, and sighed. "Let the discussion begin."
At once, a chaos of voices filled the room. Everyone shouted. Many of those at the wall leaned out over at the table, jockeying for attention, and pushing against the seated scholars. Callimachus just hung his head.
Gabrielle couldn't believe he'd allow such madness to continue. Xena never would have. She'd have done something show-stopping like sending her chakram around the room shaving a few hairs from the tops of everyone's heads. How handy it would have been to be able to do that.
No one else seemed to think order was needed or desired, so she calmly rose from her chair, stepped from the seat of it to the table top and then strode right out into the middle of the table. She crossed her arms and stood still.
From within the din, she could make out a few jeers sent her way, but after a few moments the noise began to lessen, just a little at first, and then as people realized their folly the shouts and insults trailed away. The scholars sat up or shuffled back to their places. They smoothed their robes and looked innocent.
Callimachus raised his head. He looked across the table then slowly lifted his eyes to meet Gabrielle's shining back at him from a body length above the table. His gaze traveled down and to the left then back to the right, taking in a room of scholars made contrite by the small woman. He smiled at her. "Thank you."
Removing any hint of frustration from her response, she said "You're welcome," turned on one heel, and walked back to her seat in as normal a gait as she could force from her legs. Once seated, her knees began to shake and at last she was grateful for the thick, heavy robes.
"Let's start again." Callimachus rested his hands on the desk. "We're here to discuss the Aristotle assignments."
Gabrielle raised her hand.
"What are Aristotle assignments?"
One titter came from the back row across from her. Everyone in the room heard both it and the quick slap which shut up the titterer. Gabrielle had gained the respect of most people in the room, and they weren't afraid to show it by hushing their rude colleagues.
Callimachus answered her. "We pick who gets first crack at the scrolls by major area. One philosopher, one physician, one poet..."
"Thank you." Gabrielle understood now. For the scholars not on the highest rung, this could make or break their careers. At the same time, it seemed so pointless. Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to study the scrolls and make of them what they wished. Unfortunately, such open vistas weren't possible in the Library. That would result in anarchy, as had just been so convincingly displayed.
"So, let's begin with the philosophers. Aristotle's works should be looked at first by a philosopher. Who shall it be?"
"I disagree!" This came from Hyspicles the scientist. "Aristotle's works are paradigmatic of more than one field. His philosophy of medicine should be studied by scientists and physicians, not mere philosophers."
"Come now," Theophrastus rebutted. "You can't make me believe that Aristotelian thinking impacts medicine more than philosophy. He is a poet as much as a scientist, and a philosopher no matter the robe he wears."
Hyspicles wasn't persuaded. "He speaks of more than mere philosophy. His treatises include examinations of logic, metaphysics, natural science, ethics, politics..."
"And the glue which holds them all together?"
"Is his brilliance, not his reliance on a single all-encompassing viewpoint. You make philosophy to be the guiding principle of life."
Theophrastus gestured limply with his hands. "And you claim for some reason that it is not?"
"I think," interjected Gabrielle, "that the beauty of Aristotle is that we can all claim him as a champion. His mind shaped rational arguments and delved so deeply into each field he tackled, he positioned himself among the great thinkers in many subjects."
The two men who had usurped the floor paused in their attacks. Gabrielle hoped her words would give them some hope of making an agreeable compromise.
Hyspicles didn't follow through on her opening for civility. "Aristotle's ethical discussion of medicine and science are at the forefront of our research. Lives are at stake. We don't need another Herophilus of Chalcedan cutting into men, particularly if his foolish goal is to prove Aristotle wrong. The heart is the center of thinking and we need Aristotle to keep it there!"
"Typical of you to point to your miserable failures as a reason for further supporting your study." Theophrastus leaned back in his chair. "Aristotle would never make the foolish mistakes of physicians and as such, his work would be of no interest to you.
"Aristotle has had more to say on the subject of medical ethics than anyone other than the great Hippocrates himself."
"Hey," Gabrielle found herself interrupting, "I know Hippocrates." Everyone's attention shifted to her. She felt the need to say something important. "In fact, Xena taught Hippocrates a lot of what he's written about medicine."
Noses turned up and away from her all across the room. Hyspicles, the only one who would look at her, sent her a most disdainful, arrogant glare. "I would never presume to credit anyone but the great Hippocrates himself with his meritorious achievements."
"On that, we agreed," Theophrastus added.
Gabrielle wanted so much to set them straight, however she held her tongue. She didn't need to prove Xena's extraordinary accomplishments to them. They already had incalculable value. Hippocrates readily admitted Xena's part when anyone asked. And besides, rationalized the bard, he is worthy of the scholar's trust. There's no real harm in it.
Callimachus filled the lull in the discussion. "Philosophers first, since that's how Aristotle aligned himself. Theophrastus, that will be you. Second in line will be the physicians and I allot their time to Hyspicles."
Gabrielle thought back to what she'd read of Aristotle on Abas' ship. He was right about one thing, "For some, bodily strength isn't as important as a healthy mind." It took a healthy mind and a keen sense of argument to put oneself in position to succeed here. And as for the hard thing being rarer than the easy, she chalked it up to the fact that Aristotle had never been to a meeting of scholars at the Great Library in Alexandria.
Here they'll be, man. Some o' their plants are
ill-rooted already: the least wind i' the world
will blow them down.
-First Servant from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Gabrielle, Callimachus, and a cadre of Egyptian workers had arrived in the marshes shortly after dawn. Here the Nile gave the sea its precious water. What was once a mighty river became tendrils and trickles, swamps and bogs at its end, spreading life-giving moisture to boundless parcels of land otherwise swallowed by a fierce desert.
The city bustle and arid heat faded away. A sweet breeze danced with the tall reeds, weaving swags of fluttering strands to twitter and sway in a subtle rhythm. The bard wished for a hill to climb so she could look out on the vast delta and get some perspective on the territory.
As they passed by streams and rivulets, she began to picture the feathery fan of outlets spreading along a wide parcel of coastline. Some of the waterways could be navigated in special boats like those the party traveled in. These looked like great trees with a trough hollowed out in them. Their disadvantages were many: they were narrow and uncomfortable, there was little room for supplies, they tipped easily making getting in and out a real chore. Their great advantage was singular but outshone all of the negative consequences: they drew very little water and could be rowed through streams that were shallow enough even for wading.
Tall reeds choked the banks of the faster moving streams. Where wider stretches of water dawdled toward the sea, horizontal-growing plants with giant, flat leaves and a few spectacular flowers crawled along the surface of the water. All around them, a cacophony of birds and chirping insects flooded the air.
They kept to the larger rivulets until they reached an area of the marshes in which the reeds stood tall and dense for miles. Narrow man-made swatches of open water, just wide enough for the thin boats to pass through, cut across the morass of reeds. The paths led the workers crisscrossing through the marshland to converge on one of several platforms built about the region to keep toiling men and equipment above the water.
The boats lined up one after another to push through one of the waterways. The great green plants swallowed them, blocking everything but a wall of greenery and a thin slice of the sky directly overhead. The path gave Gabrielle her first close look at the reeds which provided the Library its core substance: papyrus. They grew only in the still, shallow waters of the marshes. They were taller than any man in their party, and had bulbous tufts of lacy strands at the top. Some of the strands produced tiny brown flowers, oddly out of proportion to the rest of the massive plant. As the lead boat passed the reeds, the tall plants swayed in its wake, close enough for Gabrielle to reach out and touch their feathery hats.
Streaks of birds spooked from their resting places darted into the sky. The humans traveled to a primeval chorus: rustling reeds and humming insects punctuated by sudden spurts of flapping wings. All of this was in an odd counterpoint to the splash of oars and soft gurgles of the boats cutting through shallow water.
Soon they came to one of the platforms and were offered a steadying hand out of the tippy boats. They had come to supervise the production of papyrus for the copying of Aristotle's scrolls. Callimachus took his responsibilities very seriously. Everything had to be an exact match down to the very texture, thickness, and color of material the scribe's used.
Stacked about the platform were reeds in various stages of preparation. When they were brought from the field, they were in long bundles, root and all, so first, the reeds were cut into manageable sections. Next they were cut or pulled apart and the outer rind discarded, leaving strands of spongy tissue.
Gabrielle kept near Callimachus as he dug through the baskets of white, pithy strips. He selected a few samples and took them to a lattice-maker sitting under a canopy. The man began to weave the strands together into wider strips and then placed them side by side, making one sheet. Over that, he repeated the process, but set the strands perpendicular to the first. A third layer went on top again, at right angles to the layer underneath. He told Callimachus that it would be dry enough to gauge the finished color in about an hour.
To pass the time, the two of them sat under another canopy and sipped cool drinks. Gabrielle was impressed by the process she'd seen so far. "They must be able to make an enormous amount of papyrus in a day."
Callimachus nodded. "It's one of the city's most lucrative exports."
"How much does the Library use?"
"Very little of it." He tilted his head toward her. "Our scribes can only copy so quickly, you know."
A math problem started working itself out in the bard's head. She didn't have all of the information she needed to see the equation clearly yet.
One of the Egyptians approached her and bowed deeply. "Would our honored guests care to see our working?"
His Greek was stilted but since her command of Egyptian was even more elementary, she was grateful he made the attempt to speak with her in her native tongue. "Yes, I'd love to, but only if you don't bow for me again."
Callimachus waved them off. "You have a nice time. I'm going to sit in the shade."
Gabrielle trotted off after her tour guide. "Why do you have to work out here where it's so hot and humid? Why not bring the reeds back to Alexandria?"
"The papyrus must stay wet or it will not stick."
"It won't stick to what?"
He walked her over to the lattice-worker she'd seen fashion the test sheet for Callimachus. "When one piece is put on the other, it needs to be wet before it dries."
Gabrielle wasn't quite sure what he meant until she ran the process she'd observed earlier through her head again. "Oh, you mean if the reeds are allowed to dry out before they're made into papyrus scrolls, the layers wouldn't stick together?"
He smiled broadly enough for her to see a few missing teeth. "You wish to see other things?"
She happily followed him around as he pointed out the different ways the reeds were cut for baskets, clothing, and rope which were then hauled out by elephant. The base of the plant could even be mashed and cooked for a bland and stringy but suitable food.
Gabrielle began to get a handle on the scope of their manufacturing ability. This was just one platform of many in the marshes and yet it churned out more material in a day than Gabrielle could imagine selling in a market booth, even in the busy Agora.
And it reminded her of the number of books in the Library compared with the number of scribes she'd seen working. The copies would only account for a fraction of the scrolls the Library held. Now that she'd scoured the sub-levels to see how vast the holdings were, she wondered how they had acquired them all.
When she returned to sit by Callimachus, she asked, "The Library has many, many more scrolls than the scribes can copy. Where do they all come from?"
Callimachus uncharacteristically ground his jaw. When he answered, he spoke quickly. "We trade for many."
"Of course. The Ptolemys could buy up almost everything in the Mediterranean." If people were willing to sell....
Something didn't add up. And Callimachus seemed concerned about letting her know how some scrolls came to the Library. If she did anything but ask him straight out, she'd only get half an answer. She'd spent too many hours in meetings with him to know his ways of avoiding hard issues. "Where do you get all the scrolls that aren't traded for or copied?"
The old man sighed. "Is a book made more valuable when it is read?"
Great, she thought. I'm getting the run around anyway. "Yes, of course. If a book is never read, then no one learns from it."
"And is it better for a man to own a book for the edification of himself alone, or for a library to own it?"
"When you put it that way, I'd have to say a library. That way many, many people have access to it."
"Exactly." Callimachus took a sip of his drink and then settled back into his chair.
A tainted picture began to take shape for Gabrielle. "Do you steal scrolls?" She wished she hadn't asked quite so bluntly, but the words were already out.
"No. We don't steal," he replied with a cold, hard edge.
"Then..." she stopped. She knew he didn't want to tell her the truth. But this was much too important to let slide. What was the deep dark secret the library held?
The lattice-worker approached. "If it pleases the Chief Librarian, I have a sample prepared."
Callimachus rose quickly, anxious to get away from the uncomfortable conversation. Gabrielle followed in her own time, wondering just how fine a line one had to cross before something was stolen.
When she reached the worker's canopy, Callimachus had already decided that the sample wouldn't do. "It's too uneven, it's too yellow."
"Yes, yes, of course. I'll try again. We usually work in two layers, not three. But perhaps the sun will bleach this in time."
"I don't need your excuses, I need a perfect match. Nothing more, nothing less."
Gabrielle chose to remain silent. Why did the material on which Aristotle's scrolls would be copied need to be a perfect match?
As the next few attempts by the lattice-worker to match the papyrus of Aristotle's scrolls were left to dry, Callimachus sulked under the other canopy. The heat of the day sunk over them in a humid blanket. The fresh morning breeze had stilled into a hum of insects.
Gabrielle, herself, brooded for a time. No matter when she asked for an answer, the truth would remain unchanged. It didn't make a difference whether they were sweltering in a marsh, or cool and comfortable in Callimachus' office. She steeled herself and came right out with it. "How does the library obtain those other scrolls?"
The librarian's long, bony hand swatted an insect from his neck. "It's quite legal, Gabrielle, if that's what you're worried about."
"I just want to know where they come from." She forced her voice to remain even and calm.
"They're from ships wishing to dock in our ports. It's part of the fee they must pay for our services."
"It's all legal."
"It's not ethical."
Callimachus swerved toward her. "Isn't it? Are you sure? You said yourself that it is better for a library to own a book than a single man. More access, remember?"
"There is no 'but' about it. How else can one establish the greatest library in the world?" He pounded the arms of his chair. "We must have the scrolls. They shouldn't be left to an individual to hoard. We safeguard knowledge for all of mankind!"
Gabrielle reeled. He was so obsessed by acquiring knowledge that he was blind to the hideous method. "It's not right."
"Isn't it? It's for the greater good, Gabrielle. I've heard you toss that phrase around more than once to explain what you and Xena have done in your lives." Callimachus turned away and sat back into his chair. "There is no greater good more worthy and powerful than the fate of knowledge."
Was he right? She swirled the last swallows of a drink around in the glass. If she twirled it fast enough, she could make a deep impression in the surface of the water, like Charybdis, the monster whirlpool. "And Aristotle's scrolls? To many of the scholars, they contain the pinnacle of knowledge. Where do they fit into this greater good?"
Callimachus didn't answer her. She didn't need him to.
"You're making a exact copy so you can keep the originals and return the fakes, aren't you?"
"It's all for the greater good, Gabrielle."
O noble emperor, do not fight by sea;
Trust not to rotten planks: do you misdoubt
This sword and these my wounds? Let the Egyptians
And the Phoenicians go a-ducking; we
Have used to conquer, standing on the earth,
And fighting foot to foot.
-Soldier from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The makings of a sandstorm loomed to the north. Clouds like great inky cauldrons massed together and pushed the wind before them. For now, the storm was their friend, hurtling them down the Red Sea's most desolate corridor. To the north and to the south were havens, harbors for those exchanging goods and desiring a few hours on land. Here, however, somewhere in the lost space between civilizations, Xena tasted more dirt than salt on the air. And if the storm grew too powerful, their good relationship would shift, the sands would fly furiously enough to erase the sky and no one would be able to navigate them through the looming reefs.
Xena paced the deck. This would prove her most difficult test. Without Teucer, they wouldn't be able to locate the henchmen of the spice docks, and from them, the spice lords who controlled the sale of the cinnamon and cassia. She needed him alive. But first she needed to find him.
Janus called down from the crow's nest. He'd spotted a ship. Xena trotted to the bow and looked out, watching for a distinctive shape to separate from the waves. She spied it a full minute before any other of the crew on deck did. It wasn't what any of them had hoped to see.
Teucer sailed merchant ships, big hulks like theirs which offered a bulky silhouette against the sea. Coming toward them now was a sleeker form unlike any ship that sailed the Mediterranean. "That's from India," Xena said. Soon, when the ship grew closer and the men could make out the thinner mast, rectangular sail, and stubby bow, they all agreed.
The crew relaxed. Xena paced again. Something didn't feel right to her. She cupped her hands and called up to Janus. "Come down for a minute."
The boy had sprouted sea legs almost immediately upon boarding. The climb down the mast for him became a graceful display of balance and speed. He landed by her with a little hop.
"You're good at that," Xena said approvingly.
Her compliment produced a wide grin. "It's really fun. I can't believe some of the guys don't want to try it."
"They're not boys anymore. Maybe they don't have the agility you do." She tousled his already wind-blown mop of hair. "I want you to do something for me."
"Sure, you bet."
"Get a good look at that ship. Tell me if anything strikes you as... peculiar."
"What do you mean?"
Xena wondered that herself. "It's just a hunch. I'm not sure what to tell you to look for." She tried to explain better. "That's a boat from India and so everything should look a little different from this one. If you recognize something, anything -- a standard, a rigging, whatever happens to look familiar -- let me know."
Janus crossed his arms and leaned forward. His youthful eyes aged with comprehension. "You think it's Teucer."
"I don't know what I think." She shrugged.
"I understand." He leaped onto the rigging. "I'll let you know."
She watched him scamper up the mast by the inner brailing line and wished for a moment she had that joyous, fledgling energy to call on. She had seen it in Gabrielle from time to time, but over their years together it had ripened and lost some of its simplicity. She appreciated being around it again.
Once again, her thoughts turned to the approaching ship. Even though she wasn't sure it would be their target, she planned for it now, when there was time to study the shoreline, the strength of the wind, and the waters around them. Whitecaps on the tips of the waves made the true color of the water impossible to judge. That was one of her tricks for locating underwater reefs. The sunlight bounced off them and lightened the water above. She'd just have to trust their safe passage to luck.
The Indian ship had the construction to be more agile than the merchant ship. But since the wind was up and their thin mast was not as sturdy as the merchant ship's, the Indian boat brailed their sail in to one-half to keep gusts from tearing the mast from the deck. The thick-masted ship of the merchants kept its sails full. The advantage of speed belonged to Xena.
Janus cried out and waved to her. He'd spotted something. She motioned him down with a flick of her hand.
Excitement stole his breath. "I'm not sure..." he panted.
Xena steadied him with her hands on his shoulders. "Take a deep breath, Janus. We've got time."
He nodded and tried his best. "I'm not sure if this means anything but you said to look for something that looked familiar." He waited for her to nod her head. "Well, the stuff on the other boat all looks, I don't know, different, like you said. There are bright colors and carvings and stuff."
"Good. That's exactly what I meant."
"Well, most of the men on the deck..." Janus took a deep breath. "I don't know if this will help but they're wearing regular shirts and chitons. I've seen lots of people from India and they usually wear other stuff. Some of the men on the other ship are dressed like that, but most look more like us."
Xena slid her hands around the boy and hugged him. "Thanks, Janus. That was brilliant." She pulled back and held him at arms length, looking straight into his eyes. "I know this will be hard, but I want you to go below for awhile."
Anguish dipped his brow. "And miss the fight?"
"Yes, exactly. And miss the fight. I need you safe and sound because you're too valuable to us."
"But what good am I if I can't help you beat up the thieves?"
"You haven't been trained to fight. If you're up here, you'll get hurt." It pained her to see the pleading in his eyes. "Please, Janus. Go below until I say it's okay."
The boy pressed his lips together. His cheeks quivered. He stood otherwise motionless until he had to dig the palms of his hands into his eyes. So like a boy to think crying meant he wasn't a man.
"Please," Xena asked again. Then she turned him toward the hatch and watched him angrily run to it, shoot down the ladder, and escape to relative safety.
In an instant, she had him out of her mind. "All right everybody, listen up."
At once, the crew, merchants included, swarmed around her to receive instructions. Not a one of them questioned that she would lead this battle while the captain mutely stood at her side. Zetes gave her his authority by the act of listening.
Within moments, they dispersed, some to the oars, others at the sails. All of them had weapons at their feet, ready to be reclaimed when necessary. An eerie quiet swept over them. For now all they could do was wait. Xena joined the captain on the poop deck. They'd wait together.
The other ship blithely tacked up the channel, unaware that the merchant ship planned an attack against them. Xena had warned her men to keep their weapons hidden from the other ship's view. She kept them innocently sailing straight down the middle of the channel, waiting until the other captain tacked across their bow for the last time. That would be the moment to launch their offensive, when the Indian ship had drawn as close to them as she dared before veering around them.
At the decisive moment, when the command to swivel the yard around and tack the other way was given, Xena was certain of her prey. She recognized Teucer's shout as easily as her own mother's call. "We've got him," she said to the captain. "Get as close as you dare."
"Aye, Xena. We'll be on them in no time."
Xena returned to the deck and made certain the men were ready. Most were at the oars, ready to switch means of propulsion on her order. There were just enough left to lower the sails and stow them in seconds. That would leave the deck clear for fighting, though she hoped it would all take place aboard the other ship.
Frozen in place, they stood, eyes affixed on the Indian ship. They were bearing down on the smaller ship now. Xena saw the whites of Teucer's eyes at the moment he realized he was under attack. When he scanned the merchant ship to discover Xena was among them, he let out a howl and brandished his weapon at her.
Xena laughed, drew her chakram, and sent it sailing across the salty sea. It whizzed through their rigging, felling the sail, before ricocheting off the mast and returning to Xena's waiting hand. The sail fluttered to the deck, covering ropes and men and their space to maneuver.
As the other crew frantically worked to free the bulky cloth from their way, Xena ordered their own sail down and stowed. Men ready at the oars took over, and in a matter of minutes, they drew alongside the disabled ship. Xena launched herself over to the Indian deck, landing next to a vibrant, yellow carving of a predatory cat.
The enemy crew separated into two groups. Those wearing traditional Indian garb, silken fabrics loosely bunched around their ankles, huddled away from the other block of pirates and spice runners. Xena turned toward the second mass. "Stand down or die."
Teucer strode forward. Muscles bulged under his shirt and his thick arm hefted a heavy sword. "I've wanted to kill you for a long time, Xena." As he moved, she could see the scar on his chest, a present from her at their last meeting years before.
"I'm sorry I didn't finish you then." She balanced herself on the balls of her feet, ready to push off in any direction. "Now you're in the slave business, I see. Taking ships and all?"
"I'm in the business of maintaining my wealth. A buyer doesn't care how I obtain the goods so long as he thinks he's getting a bargain."
They began to circle, this pair of warriors, leaders of two anxious crews. The Lepus was just off the port side, her men ready to join their leader on the enemy deck at her signal. It wasn't ego that made her want to defeat the spicers single-handedly. It was her annoying need for Teucer to be taken alive.
He lunged at her, the tip of his sword gleaming in the sun.
She sprang from its path effortlessly. "You'll have to do better than that."
Again, they circled. Xena was aware of Teucer's growling men behind her, ready to take her on in unison. They held back only because Teucer was driven by ego and he'd told them she was his to take. Always turn a weakness into an advantage. She was outnumbered and that played into her hand. All she needed was Teucer. It was all they offered.
He came at her again. Their blades met. Metal against metal rang out over the nervous men and choppy water. Teucer drove his blade low. She danced over it and slapped him across the back with the flat of her sword. His men laughed. They were undisciplined and that could work against her. Fractious men didn't always follow orders, orders like staying out of Teucer's personal battle.
Play into his pride. "Your men don't listen to you, do they?"
He thrust his blade against hers. "What do you mean? Of course they do."
"But they laugh at you."
Teucer foolishly glanced at his men. Xena noticed he knew which ones to look to. She took advantage of his lapse in concentration and sliced through his shirt. "Nice scar."
Now he was mad. She'd made him look bad twice in front of his men. With both hands, he brought his sword above his head and propelled his whole body toward her. She took the blow, even though the weight of his body made her legs scream in protest. She deflected the blade but not his body which plowed into her shoulder. She tossed him off, looking to all as if he hadn't even twitched a hair on her head. She didn't rub her sore shoulder.
"Can't you do any better than that?" Taunting him would make him more angry.
He grunted. He swiped his blade at her with all his anger driving it. She jumped out of the way when she could, and blocked it when she had to. Teucer was a strong man. To parry a blow from him required both hands on her sword. The sting of contact sent shooting pains through her shoulder.
It triggered her own anger. But she knew how to keep it in check, to shunt its force into a boon. She slipped inside his defenses, too quick for him now. He wasn't prepared for contact at the hilt. He held the blade balanced for focus at its tip and so she easily flipped the sword from his hand.
Xena let loose a triumphant yell, bounded behind him, and thrust her sword-point to his neck. "Tell them to toss their swords to the deck."
In a choked voice, Teucer spat back, "You can't beat them all, Xena."
"I only need you."
One of the men stepped forward and threw his sword on the deck.
Teucer struggled under Xena's hold. "Dascylus! You traitor."
"I follow the one who commands this ship." Dascylus spoke directly to Xena.
"Don't do this, you idiot. She'll take the cargo for herself."
Others in Teucer's crew followed Dascylus' lead and tossed their weapons down. She whistled for backups. Crew from the Lepus swung over on ropes, dropped to the deck and began picking up the swords.
Xena kept her blade against Teucer's throat. She had to admit it felt wonderful. After so many years of tussling with him, the old desire to kill him resurfaced. She only had to think about Gabrielle, what the bard would be saying to her right now, to quell that urge. But still, she savored the sweetness of it.
With Teucer's mutinous crew under guard, Xena finally let her captive go. Tigranes, one of the crewmen who'd worked out the crew's differences with the merchants, took Teucer under his personal care. Xena winked at him.
The Indians among them seemed more nervous than ever. Were they being taken over by an even more vicious crew? Xena sheathed her sword and came toward them. "Are there more of you below?"
A soft chorus told of others held in the cargo bays. Xena reached into her bodice and pulled out her dagger. Holding the blade in her hand, she offered the hilt to a man. "Go free them."
None of them moved. She asked the man for his name. "Ashoka," he replied.
She spoke softly. "Ashoka, I am not here to keep you as slaves. Please, take this and free your friends below."
Ashoka dropped to one knee. "You are our savior."
"Get up." She detested reactions such as Ashoka's. "Please get up."
He did. As he took the dagger from her, he bowed his head. Sighing, she turned back to her crew. "Divide them up between both ships. Have Teucer brought to me on the Lepus. And find out who's in charge of the Indian crew."
Her shoulder ached. Her head hurt. She just wanted to sit in her cabin for a moment. It struck her, as she swung back to the Lepus cursing Teucer's bulk, that her reactions to fights had really changed over the past few years. They still thrilled her, got her heart pumping and her mind focused. But afterwards there was no joy. It had become a grind for her. Perhaps when she returned to Alexandria, she'd settle there for good. Maybe it was time.
* * *
The first knock shook her out of a light doze. The second got her off her back. She expected Teucer and was surprised to see Dascylus staring back at her.
"May I speak with you?"
She motioned him in.
"I hear you're headed to Ceylon, to the spice docks."
"What about it?" She sat down in the chair, forcing him to choose between standing and sitting on the bed.
He remained standing. "I can take you there."
"And why would you?"
"I'm in this for the money. I've got a family to support. Word is that you're a fair warlord."
He had no idea how it hurt to hear that. "I'm no warlord."
Dascylus shuffled his feet. "Teucer was a necessity. I have no loyalty toward him."
"It doesn't seem you have loyalty at all." He'd switched sides too quickly for comfort.
"That's not true. I'm loyal to my family."
"Loyal enough for trading in slaves?"
He flinched. "My family..." He stopped abruptly. "It wouldn't matter to you."
Once again, Xena heard Gabrielle's voice in her head reminding her that she was speaking with a human being, not an animal. "It matters to me. Tell me about your family."
"They belong to Teucer."
A rush of comprehension surged through her. "And he took your share of profits in exchange for keeping them alive." She so rarely felt unbridled hatred anymore. The ferocity of it almost overwhelmed her. "What of the rest of the crew?"
"Some, but not all, are in my situation."
"Thank you, Dascylus. Come and see me after I've had a chance to talk to Teucer."
She prowled the cabin waiting for Teucer. Dascylus had left her with a list of those who were likely to be loyal to Teucer and those who had family held by the warlord. She needed a plan to keep the two groups separate, and free the slaves in Teucer's personal keep.
By nightfall, she had Teucer working the bilge screw on the Lepus, Dascylus leading a group to Teucer's home with a note from the warlord instructing his lieutenant to release all of his slaves to Dascylus in return for the small bag of gold in the former crewman's belt, and plans to drop the crew she couldn't trust at the next port.
She'd also gained an experienced crew from the Indian ship. They were led by a young man called Candra. Their captain had been killed defending his ship and crew from Teucer, leaving his son to lead them. Candra was a quiet Buddhist from Kalinga on the eastern shores of India who had sailed with his father since childhood. He knew the sea.
Their ranks were swelled by some of the men from Teucer's crew who wanted to go home with fairly-earned pay in their pockets. Xena was glad to have them and the second ship. She promised the Indian crew that they could return to their homeland under the protection of the merchant ship. In tandem, they set off to south again.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me:
- Cleopatra from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Cleopatra sat perfectly straight. One hand lay delicately poised on a golden arm of her throne, the glittering representation of absolute authority, the other across in her lap. She appeared undisturbed by everything. Appearances deceived the unaware. Cleopatra's thoughts churned with urgency.
She'd assembled three carefully chosen advisors to whom she would reveal her plan. It was brilliant, and with tensions in the royal quarter eased of late, she now had the ability to bring her dream to fruition.
She began with the innocuous. "The people are ill at ease."
"How so?" asked Theophrastus the philosopher.
"There are many squabbles. My officers are repeatedly called to the market place, the docks, even to private homes to break up fights." She watched Manetho closely. The Priest would soon pick up on the underlying impetus. "We must offer something to soothe their frayed nerves."
Theophrastus countered exactly as she hoped he would. "But that cannot be done without knowing what drives a man to violence."
Manetho nodded. She knew he'd agree with Theophrastus on that.
"Do you know what we found last night?" Cleopatra planted the seeds so her advisors could discover them seemingly on their own, and believe they were in on the creation of her plan. Ownership of an idea is a powerful motivator. "A man was murdered for killing a cat." Again she eyed Manetho. He was the key now. "A mob of people took justice into their own hands and murdered a man for killing a cat. Can you imagine that?"
Manetho defended the action as she knew he would. "All animals are sacred to the Egyptians, my queen. If a cat was killed in the streets of Alexandria, the perpetrator required punishment. It is our way, it is our belief."
"Of course he required punishment," she said sweetly, "but murder is going too far, don't you agree?"
Manetho swallowed and smiled obliquely. "Yes, my queen. Human life is sacred as well."
Theophrastus offered an explanation. "It's hard for many of us, especially the Greeks, to understand the Egyptian ways. Their religion is a mystery, their beliefs nonsensical to the average citizen."
"The doors to our temples are open." Manetho smiled. "You are welcome to pray with us."
Timon sighed but otherwise didn't contribute to the conversation. He was the wild card in the trio but in some ways the easiest for her to manipulate.
Cleopatra suggested a direction. "Perhaps we need to bring our religious beliefs closer together. For the sake of our fair city, the most grand in all the world, we must find a way to unite our people."
"Not all the gods are so different." Manetho clasped his hands behind his back in a familiar gesture. "Gabrielle and I have talked at length about Egyptian beliefs." He smiled. "Even though I've tried to keep her from drawing comparisons, she'd shown me many valid insights. Enough to see similarities where I thought none had existed."
"How wonderful," Cleopatra said feigning delight. "Perhaps we can find a way to bridge our beliefs and thereby unite our people."
Timon finally spoke. "And just how do you plan to do that?"
Cleopatra smiled at him. "My dear Timon. You are so clever with financial matters. Take pleasure in fine skills elsewhere, for talents we have regarding understanding matters of the soul. We do not pretend to know more of monetary solutions than you do."
Rebuked, he lowered his head.
Cleopatra revealed her plan. "Let us embellish what we good we already have. The Egyptians' regard for animals is to be admired. Would it be possible to fashion a single image that contained both man and animal?"
Theophrastus spoke. "That could take some time. It requires a great deal of thought. We must avoid offending either realm."
"I believe it could be done." Manetho had bitten into to the deal.
Timon crossed his arms. "You're going to leave it to the scholars, aren't you? Those bookish scribblers who peck away in the cage of the muses." Angrily, he added, "The goal of the scholars is to overstep the limits of the world."
Though Cleopatra didn't enjoy his tirade she had expected it and now hoped it would unite Theophrastus and Manetho. "My friend, my financial minister, please have faith in them as I do. I understand your worry over matters of economics. That is precisely why I entrusted such an eminent position to you. But understand that if they can bring harmony to our people, in the long run it will save the crown from enlarging its military forces, its judiciary staff, its prisons... There is much more to save here than human welfare."
It seemed to appease Timon, at least for the moment. Cleopatra smelled victory. "Please assemble a meeting of all you think could offer us assistance. I'll speak to them personally about this matter."
* * *
Gabrielle settled into a chair in the back of the auditorium but Manetho snatched her up and dragged her to the front. "You're part of why this will work, Gabrielle. You and I know more about each others' ways than anyone else here."
"I'm not so certain of that." The bard noted the extraordinary number of purple robes around her and behind her. She felt exposed in front. The eyes of Cleopatra had a way of boring right into her. She needed Xena's strength to deal with the sly queen.
Callimachus entered, carrying himself slowly down an aisle. "Look at him," Manetho whispered. "He's making sure everyone knows he's arrived."
"I wish I had his confidence." Gabrielle sat back in her chair and tried to become smaller.
Callimachus reached the front row, then worked it, stopping to welcome each scholar personally. He smiled warmly at Gabrielle and took her hand. She felt Manetho tense at the public display of affection. Gabrielle had become a pawn between them and she hated it. She also saw no way out of it until the two of them were on better terms, and for that she needed to have access to them both, as a pawn if need be.
Cleopatra graced the stage before Callimachus had finished greeting the rest of those in the front row. He was forced to take the closest seat he could. That left Manetho and Gabrielle front and center, Callimachus off to the side.
Manetho gloated. Callimachus glared back. Gabrielle turned her attention to Cleopatra.
The queen wore vibrant red silks, a dusty red, the color of the desert at sunset or with the first drops of a thunderstorm's moisture. The white pearls, ever present about her neck, stood out against the dusky red and sun-browned skin. She merely needed to strike a pose to command the assembly's attention.
She was attended by Achillias, her brother's regent. Interesting, thought Gabrielle. So this will have political implications and she needs the support of Achillias. Gabrielle didn't like him at all. She remembered his display carving the cow at the banquet in her honor. She wondered if he'd learned his dexterity cutting on a human body. A shudder ran through her. She didn't need to think such thoughts.
"Thank you for coming." Cleopatra knew better than anyone else that if a scholar had refused her invitation, he might have lost his privileges in the Museum or Library. Scholars paid no taxes, received a large stipend, and free room and board. It was a lot to lose. No one risked it.
"I've gathered you today to ask for your wise council and assistance in ridding Alexandria of a dreadful and violent disease: prejudice." A murmur of approval clung in the air. "In Alexandria, Greeks live among Egyptians, Jews among Syrians, Romans and Africans among us all. It is time to bring everyone together in a peaceful and positive venture."
Gabrielle surprised herself. She believed in what Cleopatra was saying. She allowed a finger of optimism to coalesce. She felt the same occurring throughout the auditorium.
"We have formulated a possibility and I come to you for a way to bring its soothing amalgamation to the people. I call upon your wisdom and creativity in the name of the crown, in the name of all of Egypt."
The scholars leapt to their feet, applauding. A few called out, voicing their goodwill. Gabrielle felt herself swept along with the tide. If she could be a part of a project like that...
Cleopatra held up her hands, hushing them and sending them back to their seats. She waited to continue until the room had quieted. "I've spoken with the Priest of the Muses; Theophrastus, a philosopher of outstanding repute; and our Minister of Finance, Timon. We all agree that the road we forge will link us at our very core, bridge our very beliefs."
That pulled Gabrielle from her reverie. What was Cleopatra talking about? Beliefs can't be dictated.
"We must invent a new god, one which carries in one hand Egyptian values and in the other, the Greek way."
"What are the real gods going to say about one we make up?"
Gabrielle's question silenced the room. She felt all the eyes behind her staring into her, heating the fabric of her robe with their disgust, the robe she no longer felt she should wear. Why can't I keep my big mouth closed?
Cleopatra stepped down stage toward the bard. She was laughing. Laughing! Gabrielle wondered if her death warrant was going to come from a laughing Egyptian Queen and if everything else in her visions was as upside down as this.
"Gabrielle." Cleopatra held out in hands in mock supplication. "I am the daughter of Ra, myself. The people believe I am a goddess, and yet I'm a mortal just as you are."
Gabrielle had no choice but to contradict the queen. "The gods are real."
"Oh dear, dear, Gabrielle, how little of the world you've seen."
Gabrielle opened her mouth speak but others jumped in ahead of her. "The gods are just apparitions, ghosts." "Everything in the temples is fake." "We invented the machinery that make people believe in gods." "If this keeps good men from being murdered, then I'm all for it."
Gabrielle was at a loss. How could she explain to these people that she knew the gods were real? That she'd seen them and talked to them and been tricked by them. Helpless, she turned to Manetho but he had withered in his chair, his pallor a deathly, pale white. They'd blasphemed his gods as well.
"But," she tried to put some power behind her words though she felt she had no resources from which to draw, "for the sake of the greater good..."
Cleopatra laughed again. "What could be a greater good than ridding our fair city of violence. Just think, you could stroll the streets and not hear an angry word, see no fists flying. Instead, we might see Egyptian helping Greek to paint his house or Greek helping Jew to build his temple. Wouldn't that be the far better greater good?"
Gabrielle wanted Xena's help in this so badly, she could almost reach out across the seas to snatch her back. "People here have the strangest views of the greater good. Even Aristotle..." But her words were mere mumbles now. The meeting went on without her attention. Plans were drawn, subcommittees appointed, timetables adopted.
Gabrielle tried to see a way past their logic. There had to be a fault in it somewhere. Didn't truth outweigh the greater good? The gods were real. That was the honest truth. They wouldn't like Cleopatra messing in their business. She'd seen an angry god, she didn't want a repeat performance here in Alexandria.
But did they ever venture across the sea to Alexandria? The Egyptian gods were here. Gabrielle believed that Manetho rightly and truly believed in his own gods. It was enough for her to accept his truth on his soil. Whose soil? With Cleopatra and Ptolemy was this Egyptian land or Greek? Which gods would prevail?
Too many questions, no useful answers. Gabrielle drifted back toward her apartment. She hated having the loneliness so loud and obtrusive there. Her apartment. Their apartment.
I can't see my way out of this one. Xena, why did I ever make you go? It's months still before you're due back. I'll never make it.
She wandered around the royal gardens. Here and there fountains blocked out the noise of everything else around her. When she made her way to more open paths, she sometimes heard the scuffle of boots behind her. She kept ignoring it until they came much closer.
Suddenly, her miasma snapped. She listened intently for someone following her, someone who had, perhaps, taken exception to her words at the assembly.
* * *
The port in Aden was never a more welcome site for the sailors. They'd braved a violent though mercifully short-lived sandstorm, just nicked the top of a reef and waited anxious hours to see if they'd done serious enough damage to spring a leak in the hull, and were tired of guarding prisoners during their off-hours.
Xena decided to give any man who wished to leave free departure in Aden. Those with skills and luck would find another crew to join. The others were on their own. She'd also ordered all of Teucer's crew who'd been faithful to him off the ship. Without them to worry over, the rest of the way would be much easier. Teucer, of course, was staying put on the ship. Xena sent everyone on shore leave but herself and Teucer whom she personally kept watch over.
The Indians were among the first back. They hadn't retired to the taverns with the rest of the crew. They didn't drink. Instead, they kept Xena company on the Lepus. It made her a little uncomfortable to be surrounded by such clean sailors. She'd never known any like them.
Though Candra was their leader, he never took center stage. He always sat in the shadows and let his men speak or dance or sing. They entertained themselves that way on deck for a time. Ashoka told of their capture, of the captain's death and Teucer's ruthless tactics. Teucer had them tied so they couldn't sit. He knew that sitting for meditation was an important daily ritual for them. In the end, he hadn't understood them at all. By not resisting, only one life was lost before they were set free.
Xena wished for a moment that Teucer had been on deck to hear them instead of chained to the bilge screw, walking in endless circles to pump water which naturally seeped into the hull. "You tell a thoughtful story," she said to Ashoka when he finished. "I've a good friend whos a bard. She'd have enjoyed the way you told your story very much."
Ashoka bowed to her. She hadn't figured out how to get him to stop without hurting his feelings. He raised his head to speak to her. "A good story can be heard in many ways by many people."
Xena chuckled lightly. "I suppose you're right about that. That's the key to understanding, knowing that what you believe is true can simultaneously not be true for another."
"A wise one is among us." The light from a small fire contained in a barrel barely graced Candra's face but his presence was felt by them all.
"The one thing I know about being wise is that no one knows all the answers all the time." Xena had strong opinions about who was wise and who wasn't. Or even what wisdom was.
"You speak from experience," said Candra. His light, high speech didn't match with the darkness around him.
"Experience I have. Wisdom, I'm not so sure."
"So says the wise one."
Nanda and Kharavela, the two youngest of the Indian crew, began to sing a duet. Melodically it wove with the dancing firelight, sometimes dipping low and breathy, sometimes leaping into the high register for a strident climax. The voices didn't make counterpoint with each other, they sang as a locked pair, two notes always moving together, in clear harmonic progressions. Xena hoped their two ships would sail that way, side by side at a fixed interval, never working against the other but only for the wind they shared from the sky.
A long silence followed the song. Each heard the echoes slowly fade in his ears. It was the most precious gift they could give the singers. Applause would have broken the moment of tranquility.
Many minutes later Candra spoke. "By what route do you plan to sail?"
"I'd thought to follow the coast."
"There is another way."
Xena had heard of other ways across the vast sea to India. In the past, she'd always dismissed them as the grand talk of sailors trying to outdo the other.
Candra nodded to Ashoka. He took the task of explaining. "Great winds travel the sea. Now, in summer, they can push a boat straight to Muziris."
"I've heard of the winds." She didn't give voice to her skepticism about their ability to navigate by them.
"In Kalinga we call the winds the monsoon."
"I've been in a few of those, too." Xena noted respectful gazes from the Indians around her. Not all who ventured into one of those storms came out alive.
"In the summer, the winds are with us going home. We can sail straight from here to Muziris. It will cut our journey by many days."
"I suppose it would." Xena thought for a moment about Gabrielle. It would be worth a great deal to arrive back a few weeks early. "And what of the return?"
"When summer gives way to cooler days, the winds will change and push you back to Aden, though the return winds move more slowly."
So much for getting back early, she mused. "I won't take our crew into danger."
"There are no pirates to encounter in the vastness of the sea." Ashoka smiled at his small victory in their debate. It was a point she couldn't deny.
"Fine," Xena admitted amiably, "there's danger everywhere."
"We take the winds because we believe it is the safest way to cross." Ashoka dipped his head. "We were caught in port, not at sea."
Xena stood up and stretched. "You're good people and I'm glad you're with us for this part of our journey. I'll think about your suggestion."
Soft wishes of a pleasant rest followed her to her cabin. The Indian crew could watch her ship and their own, and see that no harm came to Teucer deep in the hold.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Gabrielle considered her options: confrontation or escape. She asked herself what Xena would do if she were being followed. Just conjuring an image of the warrior brought a soft smile to Gabrielle's lips. The bard didn't have all the physical skills Xena did but that didn't mean she couldn't figure out a way to scare off her shadow.
Gabrielle veered from her aimless wandering and headed toward a path often traveled by scholars walking between their rooms and the Museum. Out in the open with the distinct possibility of someone observing their meeting, Gabrielle would have the upper hand. She listened for the footsteps, now a little farther behind her but still mimicking her every move.
The trail intersected the main path near a large fountain. Her pursuer would have to cross the path, out in the open, in order to keep following her. She paused before continuing over the path to the edge of the fountain. Once there, again she paused, trying to assume the pose of someone deep in thought. She moseyed around to the opposite side of the fountain where thin streams of water arced through the air only to fall back into the blue-tiled pool. Unfortunately, the gurgling water masked the soft sounds of boots, so she lost the ability to listen for him. But still she knew he was there.
She planned to wait by the fountain long enough to make her shadow anxious. When she felt sufficient time had passed, she turned to continue down the less-traveled trail. Three steps and then she planted her feet, twisted around and spied Achillias crossing the path after her. "That's enough," she called out bravely. "You've been following me since I left the Library. If there's something you want to talk with me about, then go right ahead."
Achillias stood motionless. Either he was dumbfounded or doing his best to control his temper at being caught. Then his eyes darted up and down the path. He looked to see who else was around.
Gabrielle summoned the courage to start back toward him. "I don't bite. You could have just asked me to stop." Two low-ranking yellow-robed men hustled down the path. They politely mumbled a greeting as they stepped around the pair blocking their way.
"Is something the matter?" Gabrielle had the advantage and was willing to press it. "Something I can help you with?"
"No," Achillias answered slowly. "No, I was just concerned that you didn't seem to be going back to your apartment. I was worried for your safety."
She had to give him room to get away gracefully. A cornered cat is a nasty opponent. "Thank you, Achillias. That was very nice of you. I'm used to doing a great deal of walking traveling with Xena and all. It helps me sort out whatever's on my mind. I didn't mean to worry you." She manufactured a simple smile. "Forgive me."
"No, it was my fault." He stuttered. "I... I apologize. A man in my position is taught to prepare for the worst and always guard against it." He dipped his head. "Good evening to you, then."
Gabrielle felt her heart pumping all the way up to her throat. By the gods, Xena, how do you do this sort of thing and make it look so easy? She purposefully walked back to her apartment to consider her new position as an enemy to Ptolemy's regent.
* * *
The days had grown longer and hotter, the robe less comfortable and more ridiculous as a uniform for the sweating scholars. Gabrielle fidgeted in yet another meeting, hacking out the procedures they'd use for planning the new god. It seemed they only talked about how they would approach the subject rather than to concentrate on putting their plan into action.
Manetho had asked her to read the scrolls on the Pharaohs' burial grounds three times. Twice, she'd returned to her lessons with the excuse that she'd been so tied up in meetings, she hadn't had a chance to get to them. Her third session with Manetho was scheduled for that afternoon and she'd only been able to read half of one scroll before her eyes had drifted shut the night before. She'd awakened to a guttering candle, the last dim light source down in the sub-levels.
This current meeting discussed the procedure for announcing the arrival of a new set of scrolls. Gabrielle wondered if a fake would be returned in their place so the Library could yet again ward the originals for the sake of the greater good. When a scholar at the head of the table started spouting how proud he was to have borrowed the scrolls from a rival library at Pergamum, Gabrielle almost stopped listening.
But then she heard a name she knew: Demosthenes. The purple-robed man who'd brought the scrolls into Alexandria spoke with more passion and excitement than she'd heard in some time at a meeting. "These, my friends, are the scrolls we've been looking for. These," he held up three of the rolled papyruses, "are the Philippic scrolls."
Several men in the room called out a 'well done' or a 'good job' while others leered back at him in jealous contempt.
"Look at this, friends." He unrolled one of the scrolls. "This is a declaration of war. It's Demosthenes' lost speech!"
But Gabrielle knew better. "Demosthenes didn't declare war."
The triumphant scholar dropped his gleeful grin. "And just what makes you think that?"
"I was there in Athens with Demosthenes. He didn't give any speeches about declaring war. Demosthenes is a pacifist."
"Then your memory fails you. I hold the proof right here in my hands." He held the scroll up for all to see as undeniable evidence.
Gabrielle had heard that tired argument too many times. Just because it's written down doesn't make it truth. "I was there. I know what he said. What you hold in your hand is a fake."
Incensed, the man bolted from his seat. "How dare you say that the work of Demosthenes is a fake!" Everyone in the room clearly took the side with the hard evidence. Murmurs arose.
Gabrielle heard spiteful terms spat her way. She tried to clarify. "Wait, I didn't say Demosthenes was a fake."
"There, that's better." The scholar reseated himself.
He took a breath to continue with items on the agenda but Gabrielle interrupted him. "Demosthenes is a bona fide man of wisdom. But the scrolls you're holding are counterfeit. Demosthenes did not declare war. He tried to keep it from happening."
"Not say these scrolls nor the Peloponnesian citizens I've spoken with. These are his words. That I swear to you all." He began to read from the scrolls.
The speech sounded vaguely familiar to the bard and for a moment she wondered if her memory had indeed played a trick on her. No, she thought. I've heard or read those words more recently than I've seen Demosthenes. Without excusing herself, she stood and left the room.
It was down in the sublevels, that much she remembered. She squeezed her eyes shut searching for another clue in her memory. A shelf full of dusty scrolls had been her backstop when she'd read it. That helped. She recalled the precise nook she'd been in. She snagged two torches, lit one and descended to the lower levels to find that scroll.
Finding it was easier than she thought it would be. Once in the nook, she knew just where to look. She tucked a scroll in her fist and made the climb back up to the third floor of the library, armed with irrefutable evidence.
"Here," she said as she slid the scroll across the table. "I knew the words sounded familiar. Book 7 of The Philippic History by Anaximenes of Lampsacus. Read it yourself."
The cynical scholar very slowly unrolled the scroll. The dust floating away from the yellowed papyrus and the faintly musty odor supported Gabrielle's case. She couldn't have manufactured a scroll in that condition; only the passage of time could age it like that. As the scholar read silently, his brow arched. He was not pleased.
When he finished reading, he quietly placed the scroll on the table next to his new prize and announced, "We'll still make the copy as planned. We have our reputation to protect, you know. The world has already heard that we've unearthed Demosthenes' lost declaration of war and we cannot withdraw our claim without suffering negative consequences."
Gabrielle hung her head.
* * *
Four days out of Aden and the Lepus had left the last thin sight of land behind them. Much of the crew was nervous. They'd heard horrific tales of boats swallowed by the sea, of the winds deserting the waters until everyone aboard a drifting ship died of thirst or hunger. Others told tales of hideous monsters who dragged boats down to the fathomless bottom or smashed them into tinder chips with eight long arms or filled the air with an inky black liquid so dense no man could breathe.
Xena had expected the rumors to fly. All she did to quell them was to ask Ashoka to tell stories of how quickly they'd made the crossing between Aden and Muziris on the western India coast, and how they'd never encounter a marauder on the open sea. Soon enough, everyone's fears would quiet naturally. The voyage would become monotonous. Everyone would fall into a routine. Repetition would hush the wild and fantastic mind.
The choice to sail with the winds across open water hadn't been an easy one. Xena fretted through the night in port exploring all of the possible benefits and dangers. In their conversation on deck, Ashoka had brought up a potentiality that she kept returning to: there was danger along every course. No matter if she hugged the coast as all the other Mediterranean sailors had, or if she trusted the Indians from Kalinga and chose the direct route, there would be risk.
Since there was no way to guarantee fortune would stay with them, the deciding factor became one of speed and the buried though very real need for Xena to hurry. She felt as if she were a gust behind the sails, propelling everyone forward at a slightly quicker pace than they would have traveled without her. She had a reason to get back to Alexandria as soon as possible. A bard awaited.
In the evening, men gathered on deck to hear Ashoka's stories. He pleasantly agreed to entertain them. His Indian friends had heard them all many times. Telling them before a fresh audience was a rare treat.
Even Teucer came up to hear Ashoka. A black mood had settled around the warlord, made more intense by his forced labor at the bilge screw several hours a day. The screw was driven by a large wheel. To run it, a man walked in an endless circle, down in the dark, stench-laden, bowels of the ship. Xena had been fair, though, and had given him breaks enough not to overtax his legs.
Teucer sat apart from everyone until Ashoka finished his first story. Then he sauntered into the circle, making his way toward the barrel which contained their small fire. "I have stories to tell as well," he said.
A few complaints shot out from the crew who much preferred the exotic tales from Ashoka. But Xena held up her hand to hush them. Teucer would be a much better companion if he were allowed some freedom to speak.
"I can tell you of a dank swamp and a sweet smelling elixir that can bring a man fame and wealth beyond his wildest dreams." Teucer paused. No one interrupted him. He smiled darkly and launched into his yarn. "The first time I set foot in the cassia swamps, I walked in with four companions and had to find my way out alone."
A crewman handed him a mug of wine which he drank from, draining it. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth. "We left the docks at dawn, trudging through a fine rain. Each man wore a sword on his back, daggers in his boots, and a whip at his hip. For the first hour, we hacked our way through bushes and vines that grew so fast, they could wind around your arms and legs as you passed them by. We lost our first one that way. The vines held him down, forced their way into his ears and his mouth. He couldn't even scream as they ate into him."
The fire reflected taut faces and wide eyes. Teucer simply nodded at them as if he were saying that he understood their fear. "Now there were three plus me. When we got out of that jungle, I thought we were home free. I was wrong."
He kicked a stool his way, pulled it by the fire, and sat down. Teucer liked to use his hands as he talked and there by the barrel, the firelight flickered and danced with his fingers. "We stood at the edge of a swamp. Stumps of trees stuck out of the mud. Thick ropes of feathery plants grew from limb to limb. Birds cackled high in the trees. These weren't ordinary birds, mind you, but great horrid beasts with wings the span of this ship, stem to stern. Their ugly heads had four eyes so they could see every direction at once, and long beaks stuck out of their faces, beaks massive enough to swallow a dog whole. These creatures waited for trespassers as foolish as we were to try to get across the swamp. The mud and muck were so deep, that a man could sink to his chest in it and once he was stuck, the flying beasts tore at his flesh, and pecked away at him, pulling him out of the mud one tearing bite at a time until all that was left was his bones. The bare skeleton sinks into the mud never to be seen again." Teucer stretched his legs out in front of him. "The first two to step into the mud died that way. Now it was me and one other guy.
"We figured out that we'd have to use the tree stumps to help us across. We found a nice long tree limb big enough to span between the crotches of two stumps. We climbed across it, pulled it up and shoved it over to the next tree, all the way across the swamp just like that. It was slow work and hot and the air reeked with the stench of death. Above us, the grotesque beasts screamed and angrily flapped their wings. The rush of air almost blew us down into the swamp. But we made it across. We reached the cassia field.
"We'd made it. The spice was right there for the taking. It's the bark you want, and you can pull it off in great clumps. Each wad in your hand meant a year of riches. We stuffed our pockets, bags we'd brought with us. Every place we could secure a strip of bark was crammed full of it.
"When we turned to go, we discovered the worst beast of them all. A snake. This was no ordinary snake mind you, no snake the width of your finger or even your arm. This was a serpent. It was as round as the fattest man. It could swallow you whole and not even stretch its jaws. We never knew how long it was 'cause we never even saw the tail.
"I split from my companion. That way it could only get one of us at a time. The serpent reared back, lifting its huge head up ten, twenty feet into the air. A slick red tongue spit out of its mouth. Six feet it could reach and with the fork at the end, it extended out another two feet to either side. Whatever living thing it touched sizzled, smoked, and then withered to the ground.
"I ran. But not before I saw it open its jaws to reveal two long deadly fangs, more lethal than the sword of Damocles. It moved so fast I couldn't keep my eyes on it. The next thing I knew, the serpent had impaled its fangs into my companion and he was already dead. He didn't suffer like his friends who'd been pecked to death or suffocated by the vines. The poison worked instantly. I was the only one who made it out of there alive."
Teucer leaned back and crossed his arms. He trailed his gaze across everyone's horrified eyes until it rested on Xena's. She smiled.
continue on to chapter thirty one