see chapter one for disclaimers
Caesar shall forth: the things that threaten'd me
Ne'er look'd but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.
-Caesar from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
For the next several weeks, Gabrielle's routine settled into weary repetition of psychological games. She listened to impudent men who were sure their way was the only way, she fashioned compromises where no previous bridge existed, and slowly she sculpted a new god for the city of Alexandria. And she did so fighting it all the way.
Cleopatra outsmarted her in the most vexatiously wicked manner possible regarding the new god. The queen appointed Gabrielle to chair the entire project and gave her three equal-ranked advisors: Manetho to represent Egyptian interests, Theophrastus the Greeks', and Timon the financial balance. None of these men liked one another to begin with, they all had wildly different opinions about the whole idea of a new god, and over time they became living nightmares for Gabrielle to coax and coddle through the process.
Summer wore on into the dog days as the Egyptians called those sweltering times when Sirius--the dog star--and the sun rose concurrently. With the ridiculous robes intensifying the heat, the long hours, and the responsibility of running a project with which she took serious issue, Gabrielle functioned purely by rote. She was exhausted and unable to do more than keep her advisors and their own sets of followers from erupting into feuding factions.
Gabrielle left the small but functional third-floor office assigned to her for the duration of the project to try to relax before a late meeting with Timon. It irked her that he wanted to meet in the evening to discuss the latest budget figures. But the evening hours were more comfortable in the Library, with the hope of a breeze coming in over the Mediterranean to take the edge off the stifling temperatures.
Lost in thought, she nearly slammed into Callimachus who was just arriving for a good night's work. "Oh, sorry," she stammered. "I wasn't watching where I was going."
"No problem." Under one arm he carried several scrolls. With the other, he reached out to her and patted her shoulder. "You look terrible."
She took a breath and leaned against the wall of the corridor. "I'm tired and I have a meeting pretty soon with Timon."
Callimachus winked at her. "Being a chief isn't as much fun as being a soldier, is it? Come on, let's go sit in my office for a spell. You can tell me how matters are progressing." Gently, he pulled her with him as he traipsed down the hall to his office. "I hear you're working with Apis the bull."
Gabrielle bypassed the couches in favor of standing at the window. Because Callimachus' office overlooked the harbor it had the best ventilation from the breeze off the Mediterranean. The coolest spot in the whole Library, at least of those locations above ground, was right at the Chief Librarian's office window.
Callimachus set his scrolls down and shuffled through several pieces of parchment on his desk. "I have to tell you, Gabrielle, I'm very glad I'm not involved in this mess like you are."
"I wish I could find a way to sabotage the whole thing."
"Come now." Callimachus came over to the window. "It's not that bad. You've made good progress I hear."
"That's not what I meant." She turned to look at him. "This business of inventing a god... it's really horrible." Understanding eyes looked back at her. "You must have to do things you don't want to a lot, huh?"
"More often than I'd ever dreamed," the old man answered. "I try to make the best of it and so should you. Besides, you're just stretching the meaning of Apis the Bull, right?"
Gabrielle chuckled ruefully "I'd be hard pressed to call it a mere stretch. The Apis bull has always had a single purpose: to be the sacred animal of the Egyptian god Ptah. Now we take this local cult of Apis and tell everybody that the animal is not just his sacred animal but the actual reincarnation of Ptah himself." She smiled thinly. "That way we appease us Greeks who need our gods to be in human form."
Callimachus still sounded optimistic. "It sounds workable."
"Workable?" Gabrielle clenched her fists. "We aren't supposed to invent gods." She was tired of needing to remind people of that fact.
"Look at it this way, Gabrielle. Your job is to satisfy Cleopatra. You don't have any stake in this god, you don't need to sacrifice anything to it or worship it or even think about it when your part is over." He waited for her to nod in agreement. "What are you going to call this new god?"
"Serapis. It comes from Apis and Osiris, at least when you're tired enough to mispronounce Osiris and Apis and then finally Osir... Osirapis a lot." She stumbled over the last name. "Still can't say it. Serapis rolls off the tongue better."
The librarian laughed. "I like it. Serapis. It's got a much better ring to it than Osirapis." He repeated the new name a few times.
"Callimachus," she said firmly. "This is wrong. Don't you see that?"
He waved off her concern. "Think of it as a political bump in the road."
"No, it's much more important than that. It goes a lot deeper than politics or scholarship or anything else we've been playing around here." She paused for a moment to try to say it as clearly as she could. "When people believe in gods, it's because it comes from inside them. I mean, I've always believed in Aphrodite and Artemis and all of my gods. And I've had the chance to meet a lot of them, too."
"So I've heard."
"Yet, I believed in them before I met them. But here's the crux: Xena knows them, too, but she doesn't believe in them, if you know what I mean. They aren't gods to her, they're immature immortals you have to deal with in the worst of times. That's because when Xena asks herself what she believes in, the gods just aren't a part of what's true for her."
Callimachus quirked a brow. "I'm confused. Xena doesn't believe they're gods but she has empirical proof that they are?"
"Yes. Well, no. I mean, they're just different for her than for me. It doesn't make them any more or less real, it's our own personal relationships with them that count."
Callimachus strolled back toward his desk. "I've often asked myself how I felt about the gods. It's strange living in a land that's so different from your home. I've always doubted the existence of the Egyptian gods." He turned and started sauntering back toward Gabrielle. "But I do see your point about how the crucial test is a personal one. I measure the gods by my own inner truth."
Finally, someone saw the point. "And nothing else should matter."
He closed his eyes briefly in thought before speaking again. "I was going to try to convince you that you shouldn't fret so over this assignment from the queen."
"But it goes against everything that's important to me, that should be important to all of us. I can't tell anyone who or what to believe in."
"Maybe..." Callimachus stopped in mid-sentence and pointed out the window. "What's all that about?"
Sailing into the harbor was a magnificent ship. The polished brass glowed in the late, sharply angled sun. The sails were brailed with leather in the shape of a crest. The standards flying from the bow all bore the same crest, one Gabrielle knew all too well. "Pompey..."
"The Roman?" Callimachus squinted. "That surely looks like a Roman ship." He turned to Gabrielle. "How do you know that's Pompey's ship?"
"I..." She cleared her throat. "That's a long story. Suffice it to say, Xena and I have had a few run-ins with Pompey, and Caesar, too." She gazed at the ship. It felt as if it were the only one in the harbor. Certainly it was the only one that mattered. "This is bad, Callimachus. Pompey doesn't much like me. Both he and Caesar would love to see me... dead, actually."
Callimachus gaped at her, horrified. "Dead? You've made some impressive enemies, Gabrielle."
"Yes, I suppose I have." Though they no longer impressed her.
They turned to watch the ship sail in, both busy with their thoughts. Gabrielle imagined she heard a noise outside Callimachus' door. She dismissed it, convinced that she was overreacting and over tired. And, as she gauged the sun's distance from the horizon, she realized she was now late for her meeting with Timon.
Later that evening, after a short session with an impatient Timon who'd waited for her in the hallway by her office, Gabrielle learned that Pompey was dead. At first, she regarded it as good news. She didn't need to hide from him, and that would have been virtually impossible given her new position with Cleopatra. But then, when she heard the details of what had happened, a deeper sense of dread pervaded her bones.
Pompey had indeed sailed into the harbor. His ship had anchored in the deeper waters of the harbor. Pompey boarded a rowboat for the last leg of his journey toward the dock. He stood tall and proud in the bow, his best officers at the oars, gliding the heavily ornamented skiff toward land. Bedecked in fine armor, Pompey's breast glinted from the late sun's red rays as a statue of pure gold might appear awash in the sunset. Triumphantly, Pompey had arrived.
Regent to Ptolemy and Commander of the Army, Achillias took the responsibility and the glory of greeting the Roman dignitary for himself. He met Pompey halfway between dock and ship, rowboat to rowboat. After Achillias delivered a short, pompous speech dictated to him by the king, Achillias drew his gleaming sword and severed the Roman general's head from his golden body. Witnesses claimed they could hear Pompey's wife, who'd watched from the deck of the Roman ship, screaming well into the night.
Gabrielle crawled into her bed that night shivering despite the balmy temperature. Achillias had taken Pompey's head. Alexandria had interfered in Roman politics. For the first time since she'd arrived in Alexandria, Gabrielle felt fear overwhelm her.
* * *
The direct route across the Indian Ocean had indeed saved them many days. After a stop in the port of Muziris on the southwestern coast of India, the two crews and two ships had sailed on to Ceylon, excited and optimistic about finally settling the problems with the spice run or a putting to rest the sour encounter with the former slaver Teucer.
Neleus had taken to figuring costs for a number of scenarios, all of which would bring fame and profit to the successful merchants. If the whole group of merchants purchased a ship together, they could make one trip to the spice islands each year with the monsoonal winds, a realistic course everyone accepted now that they'd made the crossing themselves. At other times, the merchants could lease their ship for profitable runs closer to home. Neleus figured the cost of hiring a full-time crew versus hiring on a job-by-job basis. He figured a range of final selling prices and how they might affect profits: too high a price would mean risking not selling all the spice they had, too low a price would be plain foolish after all the trouble they'd gone to.
Even Xena was cajoled into a good mood. Getting to Ceylon meant they were halfway home. From here on out, she was going back to Alexandria rather than away from it. With a smile on her lips, she strolled out on deck one morning just in time to hear Janus call down from his perch high atop the mast.
"I see land!"
A great cheer greeted him as he climbed down. They'd meet the coast around midday, then slide south along it to the harbor. They'd arrive at their destination well before nightfall. The crew busied themselves cleaning the ship, storing everything not in use, and re-checking the holds where the spices would be stored for the journey home. Everyone walked with a lighter step in happy anticipation of meeting their goal.
The closer they got to the harbor, the more Xena grew serious and watchful. None of them knew what reception awaited them. None knew for certain that the spice lords would agree to sell to them. Tricky waters lay ahead, less predictable than the Indian Ocean or Red Sea.
She called a few of the crew together: Antigonus, Hierax, and Tigranes, and Captain Zetes as well. She wished she could speak with either Candra or Ashoka but they were both on the other ship. She'd send a message to them wrapped around the shaft of an arrow when the meeting adjourned.
The Captain arrived last. "One final round of instructions, Xena?" He'd combed his hair and beard, and donned clean pants for their arrival.
"Just some reminders." She looked at the four men in front of her. Even though she tended toward a reclusive lifestyle, she'd come to know them rather well during their voyage. Hierax, who'd been so opposed to bringing the merchants into the crew's rotation, had bonded with Tigranes. Because of it, Tigranes had developed into one of the most skilled crewmen at brailing the sails up in a stout wind. Antigonus had bathed somewhat regularly and had taken his turns at the bilge pump without a single complaint, a record no other had maintained. Zetes had proven himself a careful captain, one who minimized risks. Xena liked that in a leader. And his men were as loyal to their captain as any crew had ever been. No foul words about Zetes had been spoken within Xena's earshot.
"We need to stay alert. We need to remember that anything can happen." Xena smiled at them. "We're all very glad to have made it this far, but this is one of the hinges on our journey. I want all of us to stay sharp."
"We'll spread the word." None of the men dismissed her concerns. They'd come to trust her.
"Thanks. Now let's go see about sailing into harbor."
She followed them up on deck, pausing for a moment when the breeze brought the scent of trees and homes and machinery to her. Land smelled good, even foreign places with odd combinations of the spicy and sweet. Once on deck and among the men, Xena ignored her senses but for those focused on the harbor.
The harbor was not particularly well protected from the sea. The docks were laid out in a haphazard fashion with spits of beaches between them. Xena noted a wide assortment of ships anchored in the harbor or tied to the docks. But one drew her attention immediately. She watched as they drew closer, close enough to see the men on its deck. The men walking the nearby docks. The way the sun reflected from their helmets, their armor...
It was one of those rare moments when Xena almost panicked. Instead, she became a rock, hardened and impenetrable. "Turn this ship around!"
The crew looked at her wide-eyed. They wondered if she'd suddenly gone crazy. But Zetes stepped up. "You heard her. Do it," he barked at the men.
The Indian ship had been following them in. As soon as the Lepus' masts and sails were adjusted to make the turn, the Indian crew matched them. The ships paralleled each other to the north again.
"Find a cove. We'll get in as close as we can. Then I'm going ashore."
Zetes asked in a hushed voice, "What's going on?"
"Romans," Xena answered. "Caesar is here."
Shamest thou to show thy dangerous brow by night,
When evils are most free? O, then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability:
For if thou path, thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
A racing mind doesn't think well, Xena reminded herself. It didn't help matters. What does this all mean? Caesar is here? How does that fit into Gabrielle's vision? Is Gabrielle supposed to be here?
She paid a quick visit to Teucer who was locked in the crew quarters. Xena pushed the door open so hard, it bounced back from the wall and would have slammed shut again had she not held up her hand and caught it.
"How long has Caesar been here?"
"Who?" Though they still kept him chained, the lead had slack enough to allow Teucer the freedom to get about the whole cabin.
"Caesar. You know, the Roman guy, likes to kill people."
A puzzled Teucer stared back at her. "The Romans are in Ceylon?"
"Yup and I want to know how long they've been here. Why didn't you mention that little fact to me?"
"I didn't know."
Xena took a step toward him holding back the urge to rear back and wallop him. "I'm tired of your lies, Teucer. Poisonous snakes and flying mumbo-jumbo is one thing, but not mentioning the fact that Caesar was here is reason enough to kill you right now."
"I swear!" Teucer held his palms up and shuffled backwards. "I didn't know. There weren't any Romans around the last time I was here."
As he spoke, Xena advanced on him. One more step and she'd have him pressed against the wall.
"If I find out that you're in cahoots with Caesar, I won't just kill you, I'll let you experience drawn-out, agonizing pain as I pull the guts out of your stomach with my bare hands. Slowly. One blood-dripping piece at a time."
Ashen faced and his voice quavering he repeated, "I didn't know."
Damn him. He wasn't lying.
She had too many questions and no answers. On deck again, she paced while the crew hurried to find a suitable cove. As soon as they were anchored, Xena started untying the skiff.
Zetes stopped her. "You aren't going alone."
"Yes I am." She looked him in the eye. "You have no idea what you're up against."
"And neither do you."
"Yes I do." She freed one of the lines holding the skiff and thrust it at Zetes. "Secure this."
He held the rope loosely in his hands. "Xena, don't be a fool. You may think you know the Romans but you sure as Tartarus don't know the locals."
"I'll introduce myself," she said snidely.
The captain put his hand on her forearm. "Take someone who does, please."
"Who? You?" She shook off his hold.
"No." He quirked his head toward the Indian ship. "One of them."
Xena took a breath. He was right. "I don't want to endanger anyone else."
Zetes ignored her. He lifted his hands high above his head and clasped them together in a predetermined signal. That meant to send someone over. The Indians were well ahead of him. They lowered their skiff to the water within seconds of receiving the sign.
Xena wouldn't need the Lepus' rowboat if another was ready and waiting for her. She took the rope back from Zetes and retied it. Deep down she knew she could use the help, but she desperately wished she could talk them out of sending anyone with her. Ashoka rowed over. He was a good choice.
Silently, she slipped over the side and settled into the rowboat with the Indian. "You don't have to come."
"We saw you were going ashore. It is not safe for you to go there alone." Ashoka rowed them in. His strokes were powerful and smooth.
"Do you know much about the Romans?"
"As much as you know about the spice lords."
Xena stared at the shore. A thin sandy beach was lined with stubby trees and a thick undergrowth. It was as good a place as any to land anonymously. She didn't know where to go from there, if a village was nearby or if they'd have to make their way back to the harbor. "Thanks for coming along, Ashoka."
With the skiff hidden in the bushes and nightfall threatening, Ashoka led Xena through the jungle. It wasn't as dense as she'd suspected from the way it looked at the shore. Plants clustered and at the edge of a swath of jungle or forest, growing toward light. Once the pair was under the canopy of trees whose leaves blocked out a lot of the sun, the undergrowth was more sparse and it was much easier to travel on foot.
They walked as long as they could before darkness hid their way. Not long after midnight, the moon rose. Xena had them press on. They came to a village near the harbor a little after daybreak. All of the huts opened to one main dirt road. The building materials had been scavenged from the country around them. No hut was larger than another.
Simplicity had a way of welcoming strangers.
Ashoka motioned her behind a set of bushes where they could talk quietly and not be seen or overheard. "I have friends here. They may not know anything about your Romans, but I'll see what they can tell me."
He began to rise from a crouch. Xena caught him. "I'm going with you."
"No, Xena. They'll trust me if I'm alone." He smiled at her. "I thank you for trying to protect me. Here, I am in no danger. I will ask some questions, wait for the answers, and come back."
Xena didn't enjoy marking time while others did the snooping. "If you see one Roman, anyone in a uniform..."
"I'll say hello to my friends and ask about the weather." He laughed. "I'm not a fool. I don't want to tangle with the Romans without you to back me up."
She watched as he entered the village, greeted almost everyone he saw, and was answered with familiar gestures. At least he'd told the truth about knowing the people of the village. He spoke with two men, both small but strong, with skin darkened by a lifetime under a harsh sun. Ashoka followed them into one of the shacks. Now Xena would have to wait.
She listened to the sounds of a peaceful life, the hard-working thwacks and clangs of machetes in a field, the scrapes of washboards and straw brooms. Children filtered in and out of the street, their running feet kicking up clouds of dust to accompany gleeful squeals of play.
The sun grew warm and still Ashoka remained inside. Xena stretched her limbs. It was important to keep from stiffening up in case she needed to pounce from the bush. It was an old routine, balancing focus and boredom, stillness and preparation.
Her thoughts kept turning to Gabrielle, the bard's vision, and what it meant to have met Caesar here in Ceylon. It bothered her that it didn't jive with Gabrielle's prophecy. They'd never run into inconsistencies like that. Sure, the images were seldom concretely translated into actual events, but this twist seemed to negate what Gabrielle had seen. Gabrielle was to have had the run-in with Caesar. If her vision rang true, he would sign her death warrant with no mention of the warrior princess. Even though Xena preferred to be the one to tussle with Caesar, it made her edgy and uncomfortable. Something wasn't quite right.
Around midday Ashoka and his friends exited the building. Ashoka seemed relaxed, pleased to be with his friends. Their banter was light, body language genial. That was a good sign.
Ashoka waved at the villagers and started back toward Xena. He walked slowly, seemingly out for a simple stroll. It gladdened Xena to see Ashoka pulling off his assignment with such ease. He even walked past her hiding place without turning off the path in case anyone's eyes followed him. Xena shadowed him through the undergrowth.
He kept up his meandering pace until Xena decided they were a safe distance from the village and caught up with him. She quietly glided in beside him. "Good job. What did you learn?"
"Little, perhaps." He held out his hand, suggesting with a gesture that they find a spot to sit and talk it over. Out of the sun and away from the path, Ashoka told her what he'd heard."No one goes near the harbor now. They're afraid. No one has seen a spice lord in weeks. The soldiers will kill anyone who comes without spices to trade."
"Somehow that's not surprising. I wouldn't call the Romans a social lot."
"Yes, but because of that, my friends don't know much about them. I tried to get a name, anything out of them. They had nothing to share."
"So much for poisonous snakes." Xena picked up a nearby twig and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. "The Romans are worse than the monsters Teucer tried to scare everyone off with."
"If you wish to know more of the Roman plans..."
"Yup," she said, standing and brushing off a few leaves, "we're off to the docks."
* * *
Cleopatra called another full meeting. She wanted this project finished, the temples to her new god opened immediately. Gabrielle slumped in her front-row chair. This god was about to come barreling out of the shoot. There was nothing she could do to stop it.
The room had a uneasy air to it, though. Word about Pompey's murder traveled quickly. There wasn't a man or woman in the room who hadn't heard the story of Achillias' brazen deed. Hushed voices had been discussing when Gabrielle had walked in.
Now, Cleopatra stood on stage listening to reports from the engineers. The temple was not quite ready. The gears and gadgets needed to be tested to be certain the new worshippers got the full effect. This aspect -- of fooling the people with gimmickry, fire, steam, noises, lights, whatever the engineers could devise to dupe an innocent into believing they'd come in contact with the force of a god -- this represented the most heinous crime of all the atrocities they committed. It sickened her to be attached to it.
"How much time do you require?" Cleopatra asked a purple-robed engineer when he'd finished the last report.
"A week, perhaps five more days."
"We open at dawn tomorrow." The engineers mumbled harshly among themselves. None dared counter her command.
"What about Pompey?" The room instantly became silent. Gabrielle glanced down the room to Theophrastus. He'd been bold enough to bring it up.
Cleopatra's bland expression hid whatever concerns she might have. "Pompey is nothing this body need consider."
Theophrastus stood to press his point. "But what will Rome have to say about it?"
"Roman politics lie far across a wide sea. Their tendrils do not reach as far as Alexandria." She focused her attention away from the thorny questioner, cutting him off. There were questions she did not want asked. "Tell me, Gabrielle, how do you chart the spread of Serapis?"
The bard swallowed air down her dry throat. "The future is difficult to see."
"Such wise words from one so young." Cleopatra toyed with her.
Gabrielle had to answer the queen with something strong but non-aggressive. "What wisdom I have is only that I am aware there is much I don't know. I cannot tell you what will happen tomorrow."
Cleopatra laughed. But it was a kind laugh, one which gave Gabrielle some measure of respect. "Well said. You do not know the course of events." In a louder voice, she took in the whole room. "None of us knows the future but me. I will tell you this: Serapis will fill the hearts of Alexandrians with kindness, with awe. The cult of Serapis will grow. It will overtake Memphis, Athens, and even Rome. This god is the answer men have sought for generations. And it will be my doing, my offspring."
The queen raised her hands to the crowd. Soft waves of sky blue and jade silk trailed from her arms. "We will introduce Serapis on the morn. Let this day be forever remembered as mine. Tomorrow we will ride the crest of Serapis."
An appropriate cheer rang out. Gabrielle forced hers. She had to join in. Too many would notice her sitting mute in the front row. When the crowd moved toward the doors, she did her best to push through. Still, she was among the last out of the room. She kept her head down and wove through clumps of excited scholars talking about the success of the project. Her project. At least Cleopatra was taking the mantle of success as her own and not publicly putting it on Gabrielle's shoulders. How funny to be glad for someone stealing the credit.
"Gabrielle?" Callimachus called to her in a loud whisper.
She veered off toward him. "You were at the meeting?"
"I've been thinking," he said as he took her arm and walked her away from the mingling crowd. "Let's go somewhere we can talk."
"We can go to my office..."
"No. Not where anyone can hear or see us."
She focused on his eyes. They looked about furtively. They hid something.
In a soft whisper, he commanded, "Follow me."
Gabrielle did, though she was quite confused when he walked into the Library. He headed, however, down the stairs into the sub-levels. They each took a torch and a spare. For all anyone knew, they were off to look for some lost manuscript.
Callimachus took her down a corridor she knew well, one which had offices for low-ranking scribes and non-Greek scholars. He opened one of the doors and pulled her in. It was nothing more than a closet, really. A few bookshelves on one wall, a pile of broken torches and burned down candles on another. Silently, Callimachus handed his torch to her.
He stepped up to the corner bookshelf, positioned his shoulder against it, and pushed. At first, the heavy shelf resisted the move. Callimachus grunted, the bookshelf jumped an inch, then it seemed to catch in a rail and slid smoothly to one side.
Gabrielle shined the torch in the opening. A tunnel, much more narrow than the rest of the passages in the sublevel, led down. She couldn't see past a turn a few feet ahead. Callimachus beckoned her in. He pulled the shelf closed behind them.
Here they were cut off from the rest of the Library. The librarian still didn't speak. He took his torch from the bard and started down the tunnel. They came to a short set of stairs that had been dug into the soil. The air was stale. Little ventilation reached this isolated section.
Callimachus led her on for several minutes. The air grew more moist. Gabrielle wasn't surprised to pass one of the underground water cisterns. A few more bends in the tunnel brought them to a larger room. In it were a few essentials: a table, three chairs, a few odds and ends from a kitchen, some scrolls and candles.
"Only the Chief Librarians have known of this place. The information has been passed down from one to the next." Callimachus set his torch in a holder. "It was dug out centuries ago."
Gabrielle put her torch out. One torch provided enough light for conversation. "It seems like a pretty good place to hide."
"Exactly. But I haven't used it for anything more than an occasional refuge from upstairs' noise and politics. I have no idea how long its been since someone actually concealed themselves here."
Gabrielle pulled a chair up to the table and sat in it, grateful to be off her feet and off public display. Still, the tension she'd felt since the meeting hadn't dissipated. "So, can you tell me what's on your mind now?"
"Yes, yes of course." He lowered his lanky body into a chair on the opposite side of the table. "It's about this new god."
"So I gathered. Why all the secrecy?"
Callimachus scooted up and leaned across the table. "You know, you're right, Gabrielle. The more I thought about what you said, about how no one should be telling anyone else what to believe, about mortals interfering in immortal realms, the more I realized you were right."
"I was beginning to wonder if anyone would see it that way."
"Well, I do. And the thing that bothers me now is that it took me so long to figure it out."
She reached across and gently patted his hand. "After you've spent a lifetime learning, you of all people should know that none of us knows everything, and no one learns everything."
He agreed. "How strange to live in a library and yet be so unaware of the world."
That hit upon something Gabrielle had been thinking about for some time. These scholars were all very sharp people, well educated, curious. But there was something missing. They had plenty of spunk, more than enough desire to excel--especially at the expense of another--but what wasn't around in any great quantity was a passion for life. They lived vicariously through the scrolls they read. The extent of their emotional interactions took place in bickering feeding frenzies for knowledge. But mention what might have happened out there in the world and you're discounted immediately. Except by dear Callimachus. "So what do we do?"
His eyes sparked. "I have a plan."
Four little words. For weeks, nothing had sounded so good to her. "You can count on me."
"After all this reading and writing, thinking and talking, it's time to take action."
"Right," the bard agreed.
"And we go for the throat. Now pussyfooting about this situation. It's too important, too big."
She liked what she heard. She felt a satisfying focus congeal, a path opening to her. She missed the direction Xena gave her in life. This was the closest she'd experienced to it since the warrior had left. "Tell me, what are your plans."
"Good place to start."
Callimachus rubbed his hands together. "We go to the temple..."
"And then what?"
"We have at it."
The gave her pause. "Just what do you mean by that?"
"You know. Smash the statues, strip the gears, wreak havoc."
"Wait a minute. You don't really think we could get away with trashing the temple, do you? I don't think that's a very good idea."
"It's perfect. Look, Gabrielle, all we have to do is wait until there's a crowd of people there being amazed by all of the fake goings on, getting sucked into a new religious cult. We show them the fallacy of the situation, smash a few things, and leave. The people will spread the word."
"And our identities. This is not a good idea. It's too dangerous."
"It's an adventure, Gabrielle. What do you and Xena do all the time? What did Ulysses do? Or Perseus? You take matters into your own hands and fix terrible wrongs."
"But we're not Xena. Neither are we Ulysses nor Perseus."
"Oh come on, Gabrielle, where's your spirit? That bravery I've heard so much about? Everything will be fine. This is what we're meant to do. It's just like all those stories I've read."
Gabrielle cringed. Was it like those stories? Or were the tales as false a portrayal of real life as what the Scholars soaked in from other scrolls? Her head spun. "I don't know..."
"Sure you do. Tonight, the temple will be crawling with engineers. But tomorrow night, that's our chance. We'll hit 'em when there's still doubt about the god, skepticism about this Serapis fellow. It'll be perfect."
But it is doubtful yet,
Whether Caesar will come forth today, or no.
-Cassius from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
The Ceylonese city had grown around the harbor. Those who wished to acquire a share in the lucrative trading began at the outer rim, living in rat-infested squalor. If they were lucky, they slowly worked their way into the city, closer to the harbor where the spice lords' luxurious compounds had been built. If taken into an inner conclave, they would be surrounded by every amenity imaginable. A very few rose high enough to rule a compound and feel foreign money weight their palm. Most were discovered sporting a knife in their ribs. This town allowed each person one mistake.
From the safety of the bushes, well back from the edge of the city, the stench of decay and decadence mingled in a dangerous balance. It saddened Xena to see a culture ripped apart by greed. She wondered whose fault it was. The locals who built such a striated society, or her own people who were willing to part with absurd sums of money for a substance that merely appealed to their senses?
Their options were few. Ashoka might have been able to wander about unnoticed, or at least unmolested, but Xena would stand out like a creamy pearl on volcanic rock.
They waited until the cover of night aided their concealment. Ashoka strolled down the alleys, stepping over foul puddles, while Xena crept along in the deepest shadows. She'd told Ashoka that she needed a Roman officer and a private space in which to ask a few questions. When Ashoka had agreed Xena had seen the skepticism in his eyes.
Two men approached Ashoka. Xena smelled them long before she saw them in the dim firelight escaping the shacks. They blocked Ashoka's way. The taller one circled Ashoka. The shorter stood with his arms crossed, his weight shifted over one hip.
"What's this?" asked Shorty. "A new one to break in?"
Ashoka bowed slightly. "Begging your pardon, no. Just a sailor on his way back to his ship."
The tall one stopped behind Ashoka. The Indian was now sandwiched between them. "What can you give us?"
"Give you? I have nothing to give you. I am on my way..."
"So you said." The short one crept forward. It would be impossible for Ashoka
to run from them. "But I'm sure you must have something. A trinket? A bit of jewelry?
Perhaps a bag of the lovely spice?"
The tall on spoke. "Make it easy for yourself. Give up whatever you're carrying and we'll let you go."
"Please," Ashoka said. "I don't have anything of value."
Both men moved toward him. The tall one put his hand on Ashoka's shoulder. An instant later, the hand remained but it had been detached from the arm. Ashoka heard a whizzing noise zoom past his ear, a clink, another whiz, and the short one had fallen to the ground. He turned to see Xena catch her chakram and return it to the hook on her waist. "Thanks."
They continued through the streets. As they neared the center of the city, the shacks changed to well-built structures, the streets grew wider and straighter. A few blocks ahead, Xena saw a thick wall rising up around a rambling home. A spice lord's compound. It would do nicely.
Since few were brazen enough to enter a compound uninvited, breaking in was relatively easy. Ashoka explained that the culture still taught honor. Though many were murdered in back alleys for betraying trust, few took risks so openly. Xena wondered if that was any better than being forthright about your ambitions. For the moment, it served them well, and soon they were ambling down a garish hallway inside the compound of a spice lord.
Some guards stopped them, of course, but Ashoka introduced himself and his ship. They knew the reference and let him continue. Xena, they eyed carefully. But since they'd never encountered anything like her, they did not know to fear her.
Ashoka had never been in that particular compound. Still, he knew his way around. Most of the compounds were organized in a similar fashion. Small meeting rooms and bedrooms in the back for privacy; public spaces, dining halls, and rooms to display accrued riches near the front door.
Party murmurs drifted to them. They kept toward the back, closer to their emergency exit, staked out on the way in. Ashoka found a number of empty rooms, some of which looked like they could soon be occupied by a late-retiring guest. A few Roman helmets and gauntlets had been hastily tossed on beds or tables before their owners had descended to the dining hall. Other rooms had a musty smell. They were rarely visited. One of them would do nicely.
Now all they needed was a Roman officer, someone with information to spare. It would be an easy matter to snag a drunken man heading to bed alone. Unfortunately, that wouldn't be likely. Soon, the resonant thuds of boots signaled a foreigner. The Ceylonese wore thin sandals.
Xena and Ashoka secreted themselves in one of the musty rooms. Xena put her ear to the door. She shook her head as Ashoka started forward. "He's got someone with him," she whispered.
"This could take all night!" Ashoka wrung his hands.
He'd done so well up until now keeping his head and his wits about him. Xena put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. We're almost done."
Ashoka smiled meekly. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed.
It wasn't a long wait before more boot thuds came down the hall. This time, the footfalls were punctuated by muffled screams and the rustling of clothes. Xena smiled and signaled Ashoka to wait there. He didn't budge as she opened the door.
A Roman officer had a young woman tucked under his thick arm and his hand clamped over her mouth. She kicked him and slapped at him with feather-light fists. He weaved as he walked, struggling to hold her and keep himself upright until he reached his room. Xena slipped up behind him, jabbed her fingers into his shoulder, applying pressure in just the right spot to force him to drop the girl. Xena reached around him, clasped a hand around his mouth, and held on as he flailed against her.
By then, Ashoka had emerged. He said something to the girl and held a finger to his lips. She seemed to understand that she was to keep quiet. She bowed to Xena twice before fleeing down the hall.
Xena wasn't sure how much longer she could hold the Roman. Moving swiftly, she punched pressure points in his neck. He melted to the floor.
Xena grabbed one arm. "Give me a hand with him."
Jaw agape, Ashoka kicked into gear, and took the officer's other arm. Together, they pulled him into the unoccupied room.
The Roman fought weakly. He couldn't breathe well. Xena didn't have much time to question him before she'd have to release the pressure points or let him die. She kneeled on his chest. "You've got about thirty seconds to live unless you tell me where Caesar is."
"Not... here," he managed to say.
"Which compound? On a ship in the harbor?"
Ashoka stood to the side nervously weaving and clenching his hands. Xena had never mentioned the pressure points to him. No doubt he thought he was in the presence of a monster. Or a god.
Time grew short. The Roman would die soon. "Come on, tell me where Caesar is."
"Gone as in he left?" It was not the answer she'd expected. It was the answer she most dreaded. "Where did he go?"
"Back... spices... pay for war with..." The man's skin paled, sweat beaded on his upper lip.
"Who's he at war with? Is it still Pompey?"
The Roman nodded as best he could with the muscles in his neck knotted into bumpy cords.
"Caesar took over the spice run to pay for his war with Pompey." The scene began to clarify. Absently, she released the Roman's pressure points. He gasped loudly for air.
"What does this mean?" asked Ashoka. He stood several paces back from Xena.
"It means Gabrielle was right all along. It means that Caesar intends to take all the profits from the spices and that next he's..." She bolted up and grabbed Ashoka. "Come on, we've got to get out of here."
* * *
Gabrielle was beside herself. Callimachus had left for the new Serapis Temple without her. Or rather, despite her. She'd spent the remainder of the previous night well on into morning explaining to the librarian why the plan wouldn't do anything but get them both in a heap of trouble. It reminded her of some of her own naive escapades from younger days. With patience, the warrior princess had taught the bright-eyed girl from Poteidaia when to take chances and when to wait for a better option. This craziness at the temple was a needless risk.
Callimachus had had his heart set on it, however, and had matched every reason not to engage in such foolishness by calling on a reference from some story or poem or hers he'd read, countering every argument with an instance of success against similar odds. She'd left defeated for the time being, but with every intention of talking some sense into him after they'd both slept, or at the very least, tying him down so he couldn't get to the temple. She'd decided she'd go to those lengths, if need be.
But he'd outsmarted her. He'd sent her a note that afternoon, instructing her to meet him at his office in the Library just after sunset. Gabrielle had arrived early only to find he'd already gone into town ahead of her. She took off her heavy robe, a major hindrance if she needed to run, and left it in her office. Then she set out onto the streets of Alexandria, through crowds of people enjoying the cooler evening breezes, to hunt down Callimachus before he did something stupid enough to get himself killed.
The Serapis Temple stood on a rocky outcropping in the Rhakotis quarter of Alexandria where many of the fishermen's families lived, close to the harbor where they were able to watch for returning ships bringing loved ones and their wages home. Gabrielle hadn't been out to see the temple but she recognized everything from the endless reports she'd endured. One hundred steps led to the main enclosure. The exterior walls were set back from massive columns. Inscribed in each column were the new stories of Serapis. He now replaced Osiris as Isis' beloved husband. Cleopatra, who made it clear to everyone that she believed she truly was Isis, insisted on the change in spouse. In fact, Harpocrates was their new son, shoving Horus off the map.
She remembered how Manetho had reacted to those changes. After he'd calmed from his tantrum, he'd retreated into a sullen, cantankerous silence. He kept attending meetings, listening to the scholars discuss symbolism, cultural overlaps and differences, and yet he never spoke. When they needed his approval, his muteness forced them to ignore their procedures. If they'd waited for him to certify their plans, nothing would have been accomplished. Gabrielle had held out as long as she could, using Manetho as her fire wall. The scholars eventually railroaded right past her defenses.
The scholars had rewritten history and religion. The physical evidence was before her now. Some columns told of Serapis the healer, lifted directly from tales of Aesclepius. Serapis became The Master Of All Things, as if he were Zeus himself. And she knew that throughout the temple were signs from the Underworld. Serapis had close connections with Hades, too. Nothing like packing a wallop into your first godly creation. Sadly, there were crowds of people milling about, swallowing it whole.
Now she tried to recall the reports in greater detail. Where had they put the doors to lead her behind the scenes? She sailed past the porticoes, the covered walkways welcoming the worshippers inside. Once in the courtyard, she headed toward the back of the square temple. She hardly noticed the newly erected statue of Serapis at the door of his temple. He stood twelve feet tall, sculpted from wood and stone. For days they bickered over the number of corkscrew curls to hang from his forehead. Two wouldn't look proper on Serapis' broad head. Three was associated with the Furies--Alecto, Megara and Tisophone; as well as the Fates--Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Four was already steeped in cultural import: the four winds--Boreas, Zephyrus, Notus, and Eurus; the four elements--earth, air, fire, and water, and to make Serapis acceptable to the Egyptians they had to stay away from matters associated with Aristotle who'd gone into great detail about the elements and how one could be made to turn into another. The number Five had associations with the underworld rivers--Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus, and Lethe, but that, they finally decided, would fit with Serapis, who had other connections with Hades. Five corkscrew curls dangled from Serapis' brow, all in beautifully carved stone.
Gabrielle rounded the temple, unable to locate the door. They must have adopted the change one of the engineers had suggested, to make the only visible entrance open to the worshippers and any other way in from one of the underground galleries. She threaded her way through the throng and into the first of the temple's rooms.
Even though she knew the trick, it was still impressive. A statue of Serapis seated on a throne, his right hand resting on Cerberus, the three-headed dog and guardian of the Underworld, his left holding a scepter, floated. It had literally risen from the floor. Worshippers cowered or fell to their knees. Gabrielle eyed the paneled ceiling where the engineers had installed a large sliding plate of magnetic stone. The statue they'd fashioned from iron so when the magnetic stone was put in place over it, the iron tried to climb toward the magnet, lifting the Serapis from the floor. Or so the engineers had explained to her. It was remarkably convincing.
She shook the awe from her head. Callimachus was here somewhere and about to do something quite noble and utterly stupid. She had to find him and stop him.
The priests entered from behind the dais. Their robes bore one of Serapis' new symbols, the modius, or what looked like an upside down vase. The modius, adorned with leaves, represented prosperity.
Gabrielle's attention wasn't on the priests, but on the path they'd taken. They had come in through a door. Gabrielle squeezed through the ever-growing crowd, trusted blind luck and a room full of distractions to keep the eyes of the priests away from her, and entered the backstage of one of the most complicated theaters ever constructed. There were plenty of props to hide behind: wine barrels, ladders, heaps of curtains still to be hung. Gabrielle noted wryly that there was a lot of work yet to be done.
Before she got much farther, she heard a violent crash, some screams followed by yells. Cursing, she turned toward the noise and ran.
Callimachus held an axe high over his head. Around him were shattered pieces of mirror, gearboxes, and splintered sticks of wood. He'd demolished a machine meant to shine a bright light on the lips of Serapis, a handy trick to make a gullible worshipper believe the words they heard came directly from the god's mouth, even if they knew deep down that a voice couldn't emanate from a lifeless statue.
Gabrielle ran to the poet to wrench the axe from his hands. He held on with a source of strength she'd never seen in him before, as if he were driven like a mad man on his quest. "Let go."
Neither Callimachus nor the axe budged. Using her body as leverage, she pulled so hard they both fell over. The pair landed on long lengths of wood protruding from pile of rubble. The weight of them turned the sticks of lumber into a powerful catapult which hurled debris overhead to violently impact the wall. Gabrielle watched in horror as their privacy crumbled. A gaping whole opened to the sanctuary where a startled mob of people stared at them in horror.
O, let us have him, for his silver hairs
Will purchase us a good opinion
And buy men's voices to commend our deeds.
- Metellus Cimber from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Gabrielle's fingers still clutched the axe. To everyone looking on, she appeared to be as much to blame for the debacle as Callimachus, the purple-robed scholar who lay on top of her. Guards ran in. Though the onlookers tried to scamper out of the way, the sheer density of the crowd slowed the guards.
"Come on," Gabrielle yelled. She rolled out from under him, gripped the librarian's robe at the shoulder and pulled them both to their feet. "Follow me."
His eyes had glazed over. His feet tripped among the loose boards and Gabrielle had to catch him several times.
She cursed herself for not memorizing the tunnel and gallery system below the temple. It had seemed such an inconsequential detail, just the leftovers from the last cult to claim the temple for their own, and something which kept her tied to a meeting late one afternoon. Now she had to find a way down and hope she picked the gallery with the staircase leading out. One set of stairs went to the cisterns from which there would be no escape, the other eventually climbed back to street level. Even if she picked the right route, she had no idea where they'd be let out in the city. For all she knew, it was in the middle of military headquarters.
At each junction, she took the direction that coursed away from the sanctuary. There was so much noise and commotion about, she couldn't tell where the sounds came from. She had no idea how close their pursuers were, only that they were after them.
At last she came to a long set of stairs angling down into the ground beneath the city. "Callimachus." She stopped briefly to get his attention. He was winded and breathing too heavily. "You have to focus. If you trip on these stairs, I don't think I can catch you."
He nodded his head. At least she'd reached some part of him. The poor guy was in shock. He'd never had a real adventure before and certainly never been caught in the midst of an illegal activity. Gabrielle had the experience needed to keep her head. She'd replay the absurdities and mistakes later.
His robe was too cumbersome; it would impede their progress. She tore it off him, leaving him in a simple chiton. Grateful for all the trips into the Library's sub-levels, she remembered to look for torches, found a supply, thrust one into Callimachus' hand and took another, lighting it in the candle flame at the head of the stairs.
They ran more quickly now, fleeing down the steps at breakneck speed. It seemed the light of her torch barely reached the step when her foot landed on it, pushed off, and careened down to the next.
Echoes reached them. She tried to tell how far back the voices were. Xena had taught her to listen for two things: the clarity of the initial sound and how deep the voices were. The further away you were, the less you heard the lower tones. And only when you were close did you hear the clear pops and clicks of the lips, teeth, and tongue in speech.
But like the cistern where Xena had so long ago sung a duet with her own echo, these tunnels intensified echoes, threw them about in strange, unpredictable ways. Even her own footsteps echoed back to her, made her think for an instant that she ran toward herself.
Their path flattened. They'd reached one of the large underground galleries where who-knew-what took place in rituals and ceremonies. At one end of the hall, a giant black basalt statue of the Apis Bull towered over comical shadows tossed from her torch. Was this the right gallery?
Callimachus stopped. He bent over and caught his hands on his knees, dropping his torch.
She pleaded with him. "We can't stop yet. Please, we need to keep going."
"You go ahead." He hadn't bothered to look up at her.
"No way. I came here to get you out of this mess and that's what I intend to do." She desperately hoped her optimism would hold. She needed it as much as Callimachus did.
A barked command reached her ears. The guards neared the gallery. "Come." She couldn't take the time to pick up the extra torch before clasping Callimachus' hand and dragging him along with her.
They darted behind the massive Apis Bull statue as much for cover as anything else. The continuation of the tunnel stretched before them. A jolt of energy flowed through her with their good fortune. "We can do this."
They ran. Going up the stairs took a great deal from her legs. She hoped the old librarian could make it. She didn't want to leave him and yet she was unarmed except for her torch. It could be used as a staff but that would mean risking their light source. It would be a difficult choice if she were forced to make it.
Her senses told her they must be nearing street level. A pale, flickering light fell on the stairs ahead. They were close. They passed into fresh air. "We're almost there."
She didn't know where they were. Another temple of some sort, though much smaller and blessedly empty. A quick glance around at the drawings and mosaics of fish decorated the walls told her this space belonged to the fishermen. A towering statue of Poseidon occupied the center of the room. Perhaps they were near the docks.
She bolted out of the doorway with one hand still clinging to Callimachus and the other wrapped around the torch. A ring of guards stood at the ready, their swords drawn in a tight arc around the door. They'd known exactly where to cut off the fleeing suspects.
Gabrielle snapped the still-lit torch into both hands, holding it horizontally in front of her. Callimachus stumbled before he stopped but Gabrielle couldn't help him now. Without giving the guards time to consider her a real threat, she whipped the flaming tip into the middle of the circle, pushing three unprepared men back a step. A second pass at their knees knocked them down. She reached back for Callimachus and shoved the fiery stub into an advancing guard.
She rushed into the spectators who'd gathered to see what the guards were up to. The people begrudgingly gave way. Gabrielle ran hard. Callimachus somehow kept up.
She felt the wooden slats of the dock underfoot. They might be able to find a hiding place in among the warehouses storing cargo and seedy taverns along the spit of land leading to the lighthouse. The lighthouse! Belus would hide them there. Maybe the guards would search the docks long enough to give up on them. It was their best and only chance.
The lighthouse attendant answering the door recognized Callimachus. He called for Belus then showed them to a small sitting room on the ground floor and in an outer building rimming the lighthouse proper. Gabrielle helped Callimachus onto a couch. He looked terrible. He gasped to catch his breath. The wind had blown his hair into a mat of wild straw.
"It's okay. We're safe now." She smoothed the old man's hair from his face. His gaze traveled past her off into the unfocused distance. "Callimachus?"
Slowly, he turned toward her. "I did it."
"It's over now."
A smile grew on his lips. "I mean, I really did it." A light crept back into his eyes and the wrinkles faded back into his forehead. "I finally did something that mattered."
"Don't talk nonsense." Gabrielle sat by him on the couch and took his trembling hand in hers. "Belus will be here in a minute."
He turned toward her. "No, that's not it at all. After all this time... I actually made a difference. I did something my gut told me to do and this city will be a better place for it."
Belus ran in. "What's going on? Temple guards are at the door demanding I turn you over to them."
Callimachus stood up. He teetered over to his nephew. "It's okay. I've done what mattered. I can die in peace."
Horrified, Belus grabbed him. "What are you talking about?"
Gabrielle explained. "We wrecked the temple and exposed Serapis as a giant
Callimachus patted Belus' shoulder. "That's right. We gave the people the real truth this time. A truth that really mattered."
"Belus," the bard asked sternly. "Is there a place you can hide him?"
The gravity of the situation sank in. "Yes, of course. Both of you, follow me. No one knows the lighthouse as well as I do. There are places the guards won't know to look."
Gabrielle made sure she kept Callimachus in front of her. Belus led them through a courtyard and up a bank of short steps. Gabrielle looked up. From where she stood at the door, the lighthouse looked tall enough to reach the clouds.
They climbed stairs. First up one flight, then doubling back and up another flight, zigzagging up. After six or seven flights, Gabrielle had lost count, they reached the end of the stairs.
Belus let them rest a moment. "This is the top of the first column, the wide one. Now it narrows down and we have to switch to an inner staircase."
Callimachus had lost whatever energy he'd scrounged from deep inside himself down on the ground floor. He sagged against the bard. "Belus," Gabrielle said, "I'm not sure he can go much farther."
Nephew looked upon uncle with eyes of devotion. "Quite right. This floor will have to do."
The interior wasn't built for looks. Its only purpose was to provide a base for the stupendous height needed to project the light far out to sea. Wood piles took up most of the floor space, fuel for the fire at the base of the top level. From there, mirrors reflected the light of the flames out to sea.
Gabrielle couldn't find any good places to hide. A thunderous clomping of military boots started to rise up the stairwell. "We have to keep going."
Belus pushed them up the interior stairs. "I'll hold them off."
"No," Gabrielle cried. "You're coming with us."
"Go!" Belus gave her a good shove.
The bard was torn between saving Callimachus and helping Belus. There was no way to win. She dropped her head, started up the stairs, and pulled Callimachus up behind her, urging him on.
They didn't see Belus die. Only the noise of a brief scuffle and a muted scream reached them on the stairs.
Callimachus faltered. His knees gave way. Gabrielle reached for him. He pulled her down and she lost her balance. She felt the world turn upside down, felt the impact of the stairs on one shoulder, wondered where her limbs ended and Callimachus' began.
She knew when they'd finished falling when she felt the flat floor under her. She knew she'd been caught when she felt the cold steel of a blade against her throat.
"Get them up," the lead guard ordered.
Gabrielle grabbed her head when they jerked her up. She was a bit dizzy. She felt some measure of relief that nothing hurt much.
She forced her eyes to focus. Two guards held Callimachus between them. His head lolled backwards.
"This one's dead."
The lead guard inspected Callimachus' body. "Neck broke." He flipped his wrist at the guards as if to instruct them to drop dead man. They did. "At least we have one live one. I can have the pleasure of skewering her."
"I don't think so."
Gabrielle looked past the clump of guards. Others came up the stairs. At the head of the line strode the regent. She was almost relieved to see him. "Achillias, this was all a terrible mistake."
He ignored her words. He walked calmly to Callimachus' body and kicked it. He seemed satisfied that the old man was dead. He strode toward the bard, took her chin in one of his hands. "I'd really like to take advantage of this situation."
It was the look in his eye more than what he'd said that scared her. She knew that ambition in a man like Achillias could drive him to terrible deeds.
"But I have a better idea." He wrenched her face to one side, then the other, inspecting his prey. "I'll turn you over to the most powerful person in Alexandria. You will bring me glory, little one. I know you and your history. I know your enemies and your friends." He smiled darkly. "Your friends are dead or they've abandoned you. That just leaves your enemies."
He dropped his grip. Gabrielle flexed her jaw. She knew better than to goad a man hungry for power.
Achillias clasped his hands behind his back. "Bring her."
The guards obliged. It confused Gabrielle when they began climbing up the stairs.
* * *
Xena paced the Lepus' deck. Some of what she heard was good news, some bad. None of it really mattered. The only goal on her mind was getting back to Alexandria as soon as possible. If Caesar had secured the spice run on this end, he'd have to do the same on the other to maximize his profits. She knew how his mind worked, what his strategies were. Caesar battled with well-armed troops, open supply lines, backups, spare parts. All of it required large sums of money. And if he was still fighting Pompey, the funding wouldn't come directly from Rome. No one wanted to support what amounted to a civil war, even if it was fought on foreign soil.
So here was Candra dedicating his ship and his men to her. Zetes' loyalties were to her as well. But both men balked at leaving now.
"You've trusted my knowledge of the winds thus far." Candra never raised his voice in argument. It therefore became much more powerful. "Please trust me now. The winds have not yet changed."
"Listen to him, Xena. He knows these waters better than any of us." Zetes believed the Indian captain's warnings.
"Time is our enemy." She held firm. "We cannot wait."
"Then we sail against the wind." Candra explained further. "You will sentence the crew to tacking non-stop."
"I can sail this ship."
Zetes threw up his hands. "Without help? Without sleep? For weeks on end?"
She answered truthfully. "If need be."
Xena smiled. "You don't know me very well."
Candra smiled as well. "I believe I have come to know you well enough to realize that you do not take the needless risk. I feel this plan is unwise. I wish you could understand that."
He was a good man. Xena did understand. It was Candra and Zetes who didn't. But how could she explain the irrepressible need she felt in her gut. Gabrielle understood what it meant for Xena to feel a direction rather than to reason it out. These men did not. "No one should feel obligated to come with me. Please be certain everyone understands this. We have two ships at our disposal. One can wait for the change in the wind. I'm leaving in the morning."
Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he:
We are two lions litter'd in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible:
And Caesar shall go forth.
-Caesar from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
The guards hustled Gabrielle up flight after flight of stairs. Indeed the lighthouse did stretch to the clouds. They passed the roaring fire. Flames jumped and reeled from it. At a distance, this light guided the sailor home. Near to it, the smoke blinded and stung the eyes, the intense heat smothered the soul. Some sources of power seemed malevolent when she faced them head on. Still they climbed.
At last, they came to the very top, the cupola. Huge mirrors lined the landward side of the lighthouse, another hung at an angle overhead directing the light from the flames below to the bank of mirrors and then out to sea. Toward the water, huge slats opened to the wind. Dawn broke on the horizon. The lighthouse's chore was complete for the day.
Achillias strode out onto a balcony. He grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her along. She followed without a struggle. Her only choices were to try to get through the guards and down all those flights of stairs safely--an impossibility, jump--an inconceivability, or acquiesce. She had trouble looking out from that height, much less down. She kept her eyes on Achillias.
"I have many friends." The regent spoke to the bard but gazed out to sea. "Some tell me interesting stories."
"I don't doubt that. You're a high-ranking man." A certain calm had arisen in her. She found words to say to him with relative ease.
"Did you know that Timon and I have known each other since childhood?"
"No, he never mentioned that." Why does he want to talk about Timon? What could he have told Achillias?
"Funny, you've spent a great deal of time together recently. You didn't get to know him?" He didn't wait for her answer. "You really should have, Gabrielle. Timon is a loyal friend. He understands me very well, knows exactly what I need."
Now Achillias turned his triumphant eyes onto Gabrielle. "He overheard a most interesting conversation between you and Callimachus."
She pushed away the grief. There would be time for it later. "Callimachus and I had several fascinating conversations. He was a brilliant man." She swallowed hard. "He was a fine man."
Achillias began to smile. "Timon told me that you had some very... what was the word he used?" The regent's brows raised in tandem. "Impressive. That was it. That you had some very impressive enemies."
Gabrielle remembered that conversation well. She had talked with Callimachus just before she was to meet with Timon. Oh gods.
"It's just my lucky day." He reached out and twisted his fingers into her hair, thrusting her into the railing. "Look, Gabrielle. Look who has come to visit us."
She knew who it was. The standards on the resplendent ship confirmed it. Even from this height she could see the golden armor shimmering in the morning sun, the red robes fluttering behind him.
Caesar had arrived.
* * *
Cleopatra hurried to make herself presentable. Why did Caesar have to get here at this ungodly hour? Two powerful Romans, three days apart. At least she'd said her piece about killing Pompey. Stupid idiot Achillias. Didn't he realize that Caesar might have wanted that honor himself? She'd let Caesar take the regent's head if he wanted it. And that would teach her inane little brother a thing or two about meddling above his station.
Impatiently, she yanked servants' hands from fixing her hair, arranging her silks and pearl necklaces. "It will have to do. I mustn't be late." Why am I so nervous? She added one last touch: a pearl brooch pinned over her heart.
She marched down the hall with purpose, glad the bulk and sway of silks hid her trembling knees. She'd met Caesar once before as a young girl. Her father, Ptolemy Auletes, had taken her along on a diplomatic tour. They'd stopped in Rome. Caesar had been introduced.
Of course he was much younger then. He'd be, what? fifty by now. He'd only been an up-and-coming senator. Now he led the entire Roman empire.
And even then, he'd aroused the curious animal in her. The animal had never been fully tamed. It had retained its feral qualities, qualities she used to her advantage now.
She shed her nervousness like an old skin. The last time he'd seen her, she was but a trifle, a little girl at her father's side. Now she was Queen of Egypt and ruler of the wealthiest empire in all the lands.
She wondered why, after all these years, Caesar had at last come to Alexandria. She had but one answer: he wanted something from her.
That game she could play.
Caesar had been brought to Ptolemy's estate. He wished to speak with the king and the king with him, so her staff told her. Not to be left out, Cleopatra and her entourage paraded past the tended and fragrant gardens and fresh, clean ponds. If she needed to come to Caesar, so be it.
Cleopatra blithely strode into Ptolemy's crowded foyer. Her mere presence demanded a way be cleared for her through those hoping to meet the Roman. She heard a fine baritone effortlessly sail in from the throne room. The resonant timbre carried well without the harsh edge of an intentional projection. It pleased the queen to hear honest leadership, the type that was innate rather than studied. She wondered, not for the first time, what an alliance might bring.
She wet her painted lips and strode in. She neither paused nor acknowledged the greetings of her kinsmen. Her eyes riveted to Caesar's. All else fell from view.
He rose. He'd been sitting on Ptolemy's throne. How brazenly exciting. Ptolemy rushed to her, babbling about money and loan repayments and old debts from Auletes. The boy faded away into nothingness.
She did not bow to him nor he to her. Caesar extended his hand. She took it. His flesh was warm, his hand soft. But she could feel the potency in his touch. Power sizzled between them.
"You've... grown," Caesar said.
They stood together, hand-in-hand, oblivious to the people pressing near.
"I hope you will remain our guest long enough for us to become better friends."
"Knowledge of you is my highest priority."
* * *
When they'd finally heard from all who needed to be introduced, Cleopatra invited Caesar to her home. "Perhaps you would to consent to stay the evening."
"The evening becomes a lifetime. I would like you to show me your... Alexandrian specialties." Caesar offered his arm to the queen.
She gently laid her fingertips on his skin. Touching him. "Our fruit grows sweet."
"I long to taste it."
They reached Cleopatra's palace, ascended the steps in synchronization, passed over the porch with its enormous flower pots and marble columns, and into her private fortress.
"What would please Caesar? A splendid meal? Entertainment?" Cleopatra led him into her small, private receiving room. "I am at your service."
"You are most kind." Caesar stepped back from her. He did not disguise the wandering of his eyes. "You wear pearls well, my dear. They suit you. Round, creamy, treasures to be discovered in deep, dark waters."
Cleopatra poured two glasses of her finest wine. The golden goblet accentuated the liquid's deep red. "Take but a small taste at first. Let it glide across your tongue. Feel its vintage."
Caesar obliged. He tipped the glass to his lips. Did she hear him moan? His eyes closed as he concentrated on the sweetness in his mouth.
"The wine reveals much about the land." Cleopatra took the goblet from him and set it down.
Caesar slipped his hands through the silks. "It is dry, like your climate. It is rich, like your kingdom." His fingers were as feathers brushing her skin. "It is best enjoyed by those who are used to luxury, for only they can appreciate all of its virtues." He brushed his lips over her neck. "Its flavor is complex."
She pushed her fingers through his hair, pulled his face toward her. She pressed her mouth to his, opened for him, let him discover all she was.
* * *
Gabrielle had been forced to spend the day in cramped quarters in the lighthouse. They'd kept her only a few feet from the fire. Though it wasn't constantly fed during the day, it still let off an oppressing heat. After a night of no sleep, of a terrorized run through Alexandria, after losing Callimachus while she tumbled with him down the stairs.... Had he somehow protected her, taken the brunt of the fall himself? Or was it pure luck that she survived with bumps and bruises while the great poet's neck had been snapped?
The heat wilted her. Her guards weren't any happier: they'd had to endure the same conditions as she. Then, late in the day, word had come that they were to take her to Achillias' offices. She dreaded it more than the thought of a night by the roaring flames.
Achillias wore his general's garb, not the robe of a regent. He'd donned armor and sword, polished boots, helmet. When Gabrielle arrived, he stood to greet her. "Thank you for coming."
Gabrielle eyed the two bulky guards on either side of her, each with a massive fist clamped on one of her arms. "No problem."
"I've arranged for a meeting with Caesar."
And so my vision comes to pass.
He strode toward her. "Aren't you going to beg for mercy?"
The time to be polite had passed. Gabrielle knew she wasn't going to be able to talk her way out of this mess. "I wasn't aware that you knew what compassion was?"
He slapped her. It stung a little. "You have quite a mouth for being a bit of a thing. Did you give some lip to Caesar?"
She smiled. "No. I defeated his army."
Achillias roared. "Oh my, you have a sense of humor."
"If he were an honest man, you could ask him for the truth."
"It's too bad you're one of Cleopatra's pets. I think I'd like you." He let his eyes drift down her body. "Yes, I think I'd like you very much."
Gabrielle changed the direction of the conversation. "So that's what this is
about? You think I'm on Cleopatra's good side?"
"She talks of you quite a bit. You and that Xena witch."
Gabrielle instantly felt more secure at the mention of Xena's name.
Achillias continued, "Cleopatra parades you around like a prized trophy."
"Just as you are doing now." The grip on her arms tightened slightly. The guards were loyal to their commander.
Again, Achillias laughed. "You need a man to teach you respect. Women shouldn't say the things you do."
"The truth isn't the property of any one person, any religion, and country." She did her best to blow an errant hair out of her eye. "And if you think that Caesar is going to solve any of your problems, you've guessed wrong. He's only interested in one thing and that's himself."
The regent shrugged in a poorly veiled attempt to appear nonchalant. "One good military man thinks like another. I'll give him someone he wants. He'll reward me." He cocked his head forward. "Bring her."
The guards didn't have to work. Gabrielle went to meet Caesar under her own power.
* * *
"What do you mean 'he's indisposed'? I have a meeting scheduled with him." Achillias lost his patience too quickly. The Roman officials were uninterested in the regent's plight.
"Caesar is not to be disturbed. He is in preparations for another meeting." This man had been introduced as Caesar's secretary after Achillias had put up a huge fuss at the guards.
Achillias slammed his fist down on the table. They were at loggerheads with Caesar's secretary and personal guards in the entryway to one of the massive guesthouses similar to the one in which Xena and Gabrielle were first housed upon their arrival in Alexandria. But this one was even larger, a sprawling estate built for a visiting Head of State and the requisite crowd that accompanied him.
Caesar's men flooded the building. No one was allowed past the entryway without prior authorization from Caesar himself. The Roman guards were not about to let Achillias and his little group in.
"You don't understand," Achillias pleaded. "This woman is an enemy to your Caesar. She is among those he most wants to destroy."
The guards looked down at Gabrielle. The secretary chuckled. "You can't expect Caesar to take care of your... local problems." He waved them off.
"No, wait." Achillias took a deep breath. "Do yourself a favor. Sentence her to death."
"For what? Did she fail to make your bed properly? Did she salt your wine?"
Gabrielle called on every ounce of restraint she had. She'd do much better not saying anything. Achillias was digging his own hole just fine without her assistance.
The tendons stood out on Achillias' neck. His temper had snapped. "You imbecile! She defeated Caesar's army!"
The secretary hung his head. The stoic guards barely suppressed snickers. Gabrielle kept a straight face.
"Fine," Achillias said heatedly. "You are losing out on a critical venture. I brought her here because I know that Caesar," he jabbed his forefinger into the table to punctuate the last three words, "wants her dead."
The secretary folded his hands. "Only Caesar can make such a pronouncement."
"Fine, then I'll do it myself." Achillias whipped around on his heels and stomped out. His guards followed with the bard in tow.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Achillias rhythmically thumped his heels into the gravel walkway as they marched away from Caesar's new residence. "Fine," the regent muttered, "I'll just have to try again later." He craned his neck around. Gabrielle walked behind him, pulled along by two burly guards. "I'll put you in the farthest reaches of the dungeon. You can rot there for all I care."
He focused again on his course ahead, leaving Gabrielle to wonder how she could ever get out of this predicament.
When they neared a main junction, Achillias pulled up abruptly. He swung around. "On the other hand, I could take you someplace... private." Slowly he walked around her and the guards. His mouth tickled her ear. "Should I kill you first? Or..."
The clatter of a group scurrying over tiny pebbles distracted them. Gabrielle lifted her head. This was her chance.
Cleopatra and her entourage approached. "Gabrielle! Achillias! What a lovely evening it is." Silks spun in the air behind her. "Did you notice how the light dances on the fountains?"
The bard detected a noticeable difference in the queen: light feet, cheery countenance, buoyant smile. She looked like a little girl in love for the first time.
Achillias behaved to the contrary. Gruff and curt, he greeted her with a grumble.
Quite oblivious to the scenario in front of her-- Gabrielle shackled by two uniformed men, the regent leading his prize catch--Cleopatra tore Gabrielle from the men's grasp. "Oh my dear, you simply must meet Caesar."
"She already knows him," Achillias said.
Oh gods... She's fallen for Caesar.
Cleopatra's sing-song words knew none of the danger. "You two have met before? Splendid. Come and say hello before you go off on your duties. He's such a divine man. I've never met anyone quite like him."
Gabrielle felt Cleopatra's thin hand encircle her arm. It unhinged the bard to be touched by the Queen of Egypt. Still, was this a way out? Or would following Cleopatra be an even worse choice? She certainly couldn't explain that the man Cleopatra was goo-goo eyed over was one of the most heinous monsters ever to live and who, by the way, would love nothing more than to skewer the bard with his gleaming sword. "Well, I..." She looked to Achillias. What would he do? She could tell he was trying to think on his feet.
"My queen, we were taking this scholar in for questioning. She was a party to the incident at the temple."
"Poor Callimachus." For an instant, Cleopatra appeared reflective. "He must have snapped. What a shame. And you, Gabrielle, you must grieve for him as I do." But her concern was forced. It had no depth behind it.
"My queen, she was his accomplice." Achillias shifted his weight from foot to foot.
"Oh goodness, that can't be! We owe Gabrielle our thanks and admiration for the temple and for Serapis. Besides, no permanent damage was done. Everything is moving along so well with Serapis. The crowds are abundant. The episode at the temple roused the people's curiosity even further. It is said that one must wait upwards of three hours in a queue to enter. We have ensured peace in Alexandria." Cleopatra pursed her lips. "Caesar should hear about our new god. Our triumph will please him. Come, Gabrielle. I want you beside me."
Achillias started to protest, but he stopped, clamping his lips together. He eyed Gabrielle directly. "Yes, my queen. I believe she should be taken to Caesar."
Cleopatra chuckled in light, delicate sparkles. "Oh, marvelous. Come along, then. We're off to see Caesar!"
Gabrielle felt her chest squeeze. Achillias sneered. He'd lost his bid to profit directly from her death, but he'd assured it would happen and that he'd had a hand in it.
A wave took her up. The flood of nameless people who scurried around Cleopatra started forward and Gabrielle had no choice but to flow at their speed and in the direction they chose. To her right, Cleopatra babbled. She talked with both hands flailing through the air. Her sentences chopped to fragments; her thoughts jumbled and zigzagged, jumping from the simple beauty of a curiously trimmed bush to the magnificent splendor of Caesar's gleaming breastplate.
Gabrielle tried to extricate herself from this fatal journey. "Perhaps you should visit him alone."
"We will have our time, don't let that concern you." Puppy love reduced the once sharply astute queen to an empty-headed village girl. "He loves his baths. Did you know he bathes every day, sometimes more than once?"
"No, he and I haven't talked about that sort of thing." Caesar's compound lay around the next bend. She'd been able to escape Caesar's detection in his own territory once, it wasn't likely to happen again. "There are pressing matters that I must attend to."
"This won't take but a minute and I do so want to show you off to Caesar." Cleopatra reached for her hand and pulled her up the stairs to Caesar's compound. "Come now."
But they were stopped at the door. Caesar's secretary stood under the jamb. He looked bigger than before. "I'm sorry that I must be the one to inform you, Queen Cleopatra." His eyes strayed to the side and encompassed Gabrielle. Only the faintest hint of curiosity brushed his features. He swept his gaze up to the queen. "It seems your people have revolted."
A thunder of boots brought Cleopatra's own troops to her. A mid-ranking officer corroborated the secretary's claim. "'Tis true, my queen. The royal quarter is surrounded." He spoke in a spill of phrases, his breath short from running. "There's no way out. It's an angry mob. The people demand..."
The secretary interrupted. "Your people want Caesar's head." He crossed his arms. "It seems Pompey's wasn't enough for their ferocious appetites."
Cleopatra deflated. "No, there must be some mistake."
"Caesar is making an attempt to remove himself from this... unfortunate situation." The secretary smirked. "We have hope he will succeed but your guards do not share our optimism."
"The people?..." Cleopatra's eyes closed. "But Serapis..."
Gabrielle's knees shook slightly. Another reprieve? Or another knot in the noose? What was this revolt about? Was it really about Caesar? She could see this, understand it from the way that Janus and Belus had been treated. Fine, decent people who had the audacity to come from seeds of Roman blood.
If the palace grounds were surrounded, she wouldn't be able to get out. She was stuck here. And perhaps Caesar was trapped as well. For how long could she evade him?
* * *
She went to the apartment. She knew she couldn't stay there but she wanted to gather her belongings, and most importantly, whatever she had that reminded her of Xena, before she disappeared from view.
News traveled swiftly now among those behind the royal walls. Caesar hadn't escaped Alexandria. He was imprisoned here just as she was. She could not risk crossing his path a third time. She had to go into hiding.
And once Cleopatra fell out of her lust-haze, she'd see more clearly the bard's responsibilities in recent events; the defacement of the temple, the human ruins at the lighthouse... Callimachus, Belus...
Achillias would know she lived and had gone into hiding. He had all the makings of man obsessed, someone whose life could become the hunt for a lonely bard from Greece. She needed to flee from him as much as from Caesar himself.
There was no one to trust. Callimachus, dead. Xena, half a world and too many months away. Manetho? Who knew how he truly felt about anything. He trusted his own gods and little else. She had faith that he liked her, enjoyed her company and intellectual challenges. The testing of such a friendship should never be undertaken when failure brings death.
She'd have to endure this alone.
Efficiently, she packed her belongings, took what she could a various necessities like soap and a blanket to sleep on. What would she do about food? Midnight forays to private pantries? There was some fruit about, a handful of traveling rations peeked out from the bottom seam of her bag.
She didn't have time to solve that problem. She sensed the need to hurry, to be gone from view as quickly as possible. She packed a towel with the soap, a mug, knife, and spoon slid between folds of the linen, the fruit on top of her writing tools. She slipped her heavy robe on, camouflage in the drone of hierarchy, and threw the rolled-up blanket around her neck. She began to sweat before she moved.
One more item, bulky and unnecessary, but at the moment her most treasured possession, Xena's purple robe, she folded neatly and laid on top of her bag. She hugged her belongings to her chest.
Out the door, the cover of darkness helped. Frantic people passed her. No one could guess what the morning would bring. She melted into the crowd of uncertainty and headed for the Library.
The institution had gone from a faraway castle in a childhood dream, to a plausible but distant future location to visit, to an eventuality beyond her control, to the glorious realization of dreams, to ugly truth spread across the heart of the dreamer, to a hideout.
The Library became just another building in which to seek impenetrable cover.
Through the grand entryway, the fashionable reading room, the stacks of beautiful scrolls on display, to the steps she ran. No one studied on this disturbing night. No eyes marked her path.
She fled down to the sublevels and took as many torches as she could carry. Down the hallway of underground offices to the supply room door, the sliding bookshelf. Perspiration angled down her back, her arms, her legs. Hair matted and glued to her forehead. Still she ran.
The cistern stood unchanged by surface events. Its black pools of water, silent and yet always mumbling, churning, lapping, warning. This cold liquid was all that connected the city, royalty to people, the water supported them all, crept underneath them from pool to pool.
She continued. The room was as she remembered it. A table, three chairs, little else. She dropped her bag on the hard wooden surface of the table and secured the torch in its holder.
She shucked her robe.
She shivered when the cool air hit her sleek, wet body. Moist skin retained no heat. She rubbed her hands over her shoulders, biceps, and down to her elbows.
Her eyes wandered to the candles lying dusty on a shelf. So few and she'd need a good supply of light sources. She'd have to go out for more supplies. Food, torches, candles. Reading material would be welcome. She took an empty bag and a torch.
She gathered what she could from the sublevels. In the supply room she found a cache of candles and torches and extra flints. She hazarded a trip upstairs and into the dining room. She filled her bag with whatever she could find that would keep and not require cooking. Hard bread, jerky, a decanter of olive oil, dried fruit.
With a heavy heart she descended back into her self-imposed prison. All she could do was wait. She'd have plenty of time to devise a way to hear news or to get word to Xena.
And that was months away. Gabrielle counted carefully. Three or four months total and it had been just six weeks. Even if Xena returned in record time, that would be another six or seven weeks away. Six or seven weeks in a dungeon alone. Every trip for food would be a risk to her life.
She returned to her room, organized her meager larder, made a lumpy bed for herself in a corner, and piled her scrolls on the table. Mentally, she calculated how long her candles and torches would burn. What she'd need to do to stretch that to six, eight, ten weeks.
Clutching Xena's robe, the falcon pressed to her cheek, she curled up on her already dirty blanket, blew out the candle, and in absolute darkness tried to sleep.
Why, now, blow wind, swell billow and swim bark!
The storm is up, and all is on the hazard.
Cassius from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Startled by a quickly vanishing dream, Gabrielle awoke. The seconds it took her to remember where she was rattled her, set her heart to pounding. Inky blackness engulfed her. Her hand patted the soft dirt near her. Farther than she remembered placing it from her she found the flint and a candle. Soon a dim light gave her some consolation. She lived.
She needed to catalog her supplies and that meant giving the room a thorough search. Methodically she worked around the perimeter. Two discarded quills. Whose were they? One of the earlier Chief Librarian's? What words had taken shape from their ink?
A few pieces of splintered wood had been shoved in a corner. Perhaps there had once been a fourth chair. She imagined a cabal holding secretive meetings, discussing the overthrow of the government or ways to undermine the Library's hierarchy. Those she might have willingly taken part in. Was it purely irony that relegated her to live as a rat beneath the veritable sum of knowledge? Or was it a cruel trick played on her by the Egyptian gods for twisting their sacred icons into political panaceas?
Using a sharp stick of wood she hollowed out holes in the wall just above her sight line. Two sturdier pieces, perhaps parts of the lost chair's legs, she poked deep into the wall until only a few inches protruded. She hung the robes on them, two purple weeping willows. Hers she doubted she would wear again. Xena's she needed to touch each time she passed.
An old pot nestled in a bed of pottery shards. She dug further. She found nothing else in useful condition. Bringing the mug and utensils from her apartment was a lifesaver. She took the pot to the table and turned it over her tiny cache of food, providing it a caged protection. Rats lived down there. She'd seen evidence of their droppings. They'd find her soon enough.
Next, she laid out all of the candles and torches on the one straight shelf of a broken bookcase. She counted them, calculated how long they'd burn and factored in Xena's timeline. She'd have to reconcile herself to hours spent in utter darkness every day. Unless she were doing chores the valuable light would be wasted. Nothing hurt as much as that lonely fact.
The towel draped over one shoulder, she went to the cistern's edge. She wasn't sure if it was because it reminded her so sharply of Xena or if it was the vast, cold water lapping hungrily at her toes, but she hurried back to her hideout as quickly as she could after a spit bath, dirt rubbed in as much as off by the damp towel. She shivered, closed her eyes, and imagined feeling buoyant in warm, welcoming water. The scent of lavender or violets. Company.
She stopped when the image became painful.
* * *
Candra knew the ocean well. Xena reminded herself that she should to listen to him next time he gave her advice instead of letting her insatiable need to get back to Gabrielle drive everyone to the brink of death.
Both ships sailed back toward the Red Sea. The Lepus with Xena and Zetes and his crew would continue on, returning the way they came through the Coptic Canal to the Nile and then down river and into the series of canals dug by slave labor to bring ships safely home to Alexandria. The Indians would look for new contracts with importers in Aden or Adulis or some other port near the mouth of the Red Sea. The spice run was out for all of them, Indian sailor, Alexandrian merchant, or even experienced pirate if any of Teucer's men slipped back into their former profession, until the Romans were ousted from Ceylon.
Yes, he was a fine captain, she mused. Candra treated his men as brothers, particularly Ashoka. When Xena and Ashoka had returned from their land excursion in Ceylon, Candra took him aside, told him he'd done well and that he was proud of the young man. The shine in Ashoka's eyes warmed Xena to her bones. It reminded her of a young Gabrielle whom Xena too rarely complimented. But when she had, the bard had sheepishly grinned, soaking in Xena's pride on a wick that went straight to her heart.
Candra had told his men they could go home but every last one of them chose to stay, to make this journey west with Xena. He'd even reminded them of the perils of timing; that they were beginning the crossing too early. But they trusted him. She should have as well.
Two days earlier, Candra had warned Xena of an impending late-season storm. The waves had increased from a heavy chop to unnervingly large swells. The Lepus, mighty ship though she was, could no longer cut through the mounds of water. They traveled up and down the slopes of the waves as the rising wind stung their faces with salty foam and chapping water. The sails had been lowered and stowed. Everything had been battened down or moved below. The crew left nothing unsecured.
Now turbid clouds clogged the horizon, muted the light, whipped the wind. Soon the crew would need tie lines to venture out on deck. Crashing walls of water cascaded over the bow. They'd take the feet right out from under a man, swallowing anyone not held by a thick rope.
It was her fault they were out in this. She could have waited until the winds had changed, the summer mingled toward fall. Candra had requested it. Xena denied him. And now, days from land, they were at the mercy of a frothing sea. The rain would start soon.
As the sun set, the pellets of rain began to sting the deck, jumping in anxious puddles, running in streams back to the sea. The ships were invisible to each other through looming darkness, walls of gray rain, and the valleys of waves. The danger of ramming one another in the throes of the storm meant they'd be out of communication either by shouting or by messages delivered via bow and arrow. They'd agreed to move farther apart though neither wanted to be separated by too great a distance.
Xena heard the towering waves, deep rumbles, gargling and barbaric. Louder and louder they bellowed until the din drowned out every thought but staying alive. The waves scooped them up from the stern, behind them, pushing them forward faster and faster to sled down the face of each wave.
The building power of the waves was taking them to the brink of disaster. The surface of the water, blown by the howling wind, hurtled them down the slope of the waves at speeds they couldn't long endure. When they hit bottom, water hammered the bow. The force of impact bent wood, wrenched bolts from sockets.
Xena pulled her body through the wind to the poop deck where Zetes as ever-vigilant captain used his whole body to try to keep the ship on course. The ship had to meet each wave head on. A glancing blow would roll them to their deaths. Curtains of water assaulted her as she muscled her way up the ladder. She staggered toward the helm. They nodded a greeting to each other.
Xena cupped her hand and yelled into Zetes' ear, "We've got to slow down."
Again, a nod of the head answered her. She looked at the captain's hands, white around the wheel. He needed a break.
"We can drag the anchors." Rain soaked her tongue and teeth as she yelled. She sent a silent thanks to Abas for that bit of information.
He quirked his head in question.
"Tie the anchors to lines, tow them behind us to slow us down."
That got a smile. His eyes might have opened brightly but for the need to squint into the numbing spray.
Xena patted his shoulder and vowed to get back to Zetes as soon as she could to give him a rest. Ship captains didn't want to hand responsibility for the ship over to anyone else; they crucified themselves at sea in order to save their crew. Hands affixed to the wheel, body washed away. Xena, however, could force him below. She would do that as soon as she got the ship slowed down.
The deck tilted at an acute angle. Xena spread her feet apart, bent at the knees, and lowered her center of gravity. She needed all of the strength of her legs to hold her steady while she tied double the necessary knots in ropes holding the anchors. Then she added a second, redundant rope to each anchor. If they lost them, they lost hope.
One by one she fastened the lines and tossed the anchors overboard. Cresting waves drenched and re-drenched her. Salt embedded like oysters in the corners of her eyes. Five anchors out, she sensed the change in speed. It wasn't much but it might be enough to keep them from exploding into bits of floating timber and bone. She reached for the sixth anchor when a deep crack froze her. Even through the fury of the waves and wind she could hear the other ship, her mast snapping, crashing into the deck.
She took the rope meant for the last anchor and knotted it around her waist. Without a shred of doubt, she plunged into the water and swam.
* * *
Gabrielle turned and tossed, not falling asleep. It was too quiet, too dark, too lonely. Sensations kept tempting her: hot food, an almond-crusted fowl, lightly seasoned vegetables, bread warm from the oven, the spray of fresh fruit on her tongue. Voices. Any voice other than her own. Daylight. Moonlight.
And a warm bath. A bath in which she could float, listen to soft gurgles underwater. Soap. Clean, fresh soap lathered on her skin. A thick, soft towel wrapped around her body.
Fine. I give up. She got up from her makeshift bed, lit a torch, grabbed her grimy towel, and started up the tunnels. What am I doing? Am I crazy? What if I get caught?
She thought about what else she might be able to accomplish on this foray, that is if it really was the middle of the night. Her body told her it was the wee hours but without the sun to readjust to every day, she wasn't certain how accurate her sense of time was.
If all was quiet, perhaps she could find some food. Or rather, steal it. What had she been reduced to? Sneaking out for a bath, pilfering food, living like a nocturnal mole.
When she reached the concealing bookshelf, she stopped and held her breath for a very long time, listening. If anyone were in the supply room, they would have made some noise by then. Slowly, she pushed the shelf aside. She took a quick look around the supply room for what remained of the candles and torches she hadn't taken on her way in. She stashed them just behind the bookshelf in the tunnel to her hideout. If forced to make a quick escape back inside, at least she'd have gained something from this gamble.
With her towel in her bag and her bag slung over one shoulder, she pressed her ear to the supply room door. Slowly, she cracked it open. It was pitch black and quiet. On tiptoe, she slid out into the corridor. A burst of speed took her to the end of the hall. Another, up a flight of stairs.
She tasted her heartbeat. Her body pulsed to its rhythm. At the doorway to the main floor she paused for a long time, listening for the squeak of a floorboard, the rustling of a scroll.
Avoiding the large reading room, she headed toward the back of the library. There was a small kitchen where late dinners were taken by scholars who'd missed the regular meal. She ducked into it.
No dishes were stacked on sink, no crumbs on the floor. It looked liked it hadn't been used in a few days. Weird. I wonder where everyone is. A distant clank made her dive for cover. It could have been anything... or anyone.
Great, she thought. First I'm scared because nobody's around and then I'm scared because someone might be. Get a grip. Her knees creaked as she stood. She'd have walked straight out of the kitchen if her stomach hadn't reminded her to look for food. She found a few tidbits, welcomed a small wheel of cheese, and tossed in some hard rolls.
Now for a bath. She and Xena had frequented one close to the Library. It was, however, a popular spot. The choice became between close proximity to her hideout and the likelihood of running into someone. She decided that she couldn't control the fates but she could control how far she'd have to run to get back to the Library.
And besides, it would be so nice to go someplace she'd been with Xena.
She left only one torch burning rather than lighting the bank of them around the pool. She dipped her toe in. Still warm from an earlier bath. Luck was with her. The bath was hers alone.
She sank into it. The water lapped at her body. Gently, as she twisted and floated, the grit and grime of the sublevels fell away. She spied a dish of soap flakes. Gleefully she rubbed them into her hair and over her skin. Clean. She finally felt clean.
But her nervousness grew. She could so easily be caught. And naked at that, she thought. She dunked her whole body under the surface one last time and kicked over to the side.
His laugh petrified her: wood to rock. A higher pitched giggle compelled her into action. She jumped out of the pool, grabbed her towel and bag, and frantically looked for another way out. Voices echoed from the outer room.
On the far side of the room by the door she saw her only hope. A chest for towels. She flipped open the lid and climbed in, burrowing under the linen as she closed herself inside. Once again she was in total darkness. But this time, she had company. Caesar and Cleopatra had come for a bath.
* * *
Xena's strokes sliced through the water. It took extra time to lift her head completely to breathe, but rain and wind-swept spray didn't allow her to roll her chin back and gulp air.
She didn't slow when she neared the boat. The Indian ship rocked wildly in the high seas. When the swell threatened to slam her against the hull, she latched on with both hands and pulled herself up.
The deck was awash with the sea. The brunt of the mast had ploughed right through the poop deck. Water rushed up from the hold. There wasn't much time.
She found Nanda and Kharavela first. They were pinned under a thick chunk of mast. The entire length of Nanda's body had been crushed. Only his limbs stuck out. Kharavela had almost escaped. The mast lay across his throat. His face white, he'd felt the loss of blood from his brain before he'd died.
It was Ashoka's voice. She held her hand to shield the water as she looked for him. He ran toward her. The boat lurched. He fell to the deck.
She burst forward and grabbed his pants to keep him from sluicing over the side with the wave. "I've got you!"
He reached back for her hand. "Xena!"
"Come on, we're getting out of here." She pulled him to her body and dove overboard. When they hit the sea, he flailed and kicked. "Don't fight me!"
"I..." he coughed. She felt his arms grab for her waist and clamp down. His eyes met hers, his wide as a cat's.
"Don't tell me you can't swim."
He did his best to smile though his jaw rattled in terror.
"Here," she reached under his chin to hold his head up. "Just relax and let me do the work."
She tired before she got back to the Lepus. Fortunately, men were at the rail, hands reached for Ashoka, brought him up to the relative safety of the deck. They reached for Xena. She waved them off, heard Janus' voice complaining. "More to get," she yelled up to them.
She knew they were telling her she was crazy, knew they desperately wanted her to give up and get aboard the Lepus. But there were men out there still alive and she had a chance of saving them. She turned back toward the other ship.
Xena felt the splash more than she heard it. Someone else was in the water with her. It was no time to scold anyone for being as foolish as she. She put her head down and let her long arms and strong legs take her back to the sinking ship.
It took two tries to catch the boat and pull herself up. She looked back for her shadow, latched onto an upraised hand, and heaved. "Teucer? What are you doing?"
He narrowed his eye. "Just shut up."
Xena didn't push it. If he didn't want to admit to her that he sought redemption, she wasn't going to force him. Together, they sloshed over the deck. Anyone up there and injured would have been swept into the water. The bow dipped under each wave.
They went astern to get a few more seconds before they'd be forced to swim for their lives. Teucer lumbered to the wheel. "Here!" His command came to her as a howl.
She stumbled over a section of the mast, crawling the last few yards.
"Help me lift this." Teucer had his hands under an enormous beam. It had fallen onto Candra's legs. The Indian captain was conscious and watching them but he didn't say anything.
Xena pulled herself up and stood next to Teucer. Together they strained against the weight. "It's too heavy," Xena said. She looked around for something that would give them leverage and help them pull the captain free.
A rumble of thunder? Xena looked up. She hadn't seen any lighting. No, this was a wall of water, higher than any wave she'd seen before. Her mind noted facts even under these circumstances: not a tidal wave, it's too deep here to push one this high; it's just the storm, just another wave like before only bigger. She was still calmly running over her options when it crashed into the deck and cleaved the boat in half. She compared the feeling of being tossed into the air with using the strength of her own body to catapult over a band of marauders, and decided they were nothing alike.
I dreamt to-night that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unlucky charge my fantasy:
I have no will to wander forth of doors,
Yet something leads me forth.
-Cinna the Poet from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Deep inside the crate, Gabrielle worked to control her breathing. Each time she inhaled, it sounded to her like a temple full of mourners sighing in unison. She tried breathing into one of the towels but it made her light-headed.
Not ten feet from her the heads of state of Egypt and Rome bathed together. They splashed. They laughed. They spoke of inconsequential matters and then for a time it grew very quiet, the silence disturbed only with the occasional sound of slithering movements in the water.
Gabrielle learned two significant pieces of news from them. First, a large faction from the military had sided with the people and now composed the backbone of the resistance force. They were well-armed and vigilant. No one could get in or out of the royal quarter.
Second, work in the Library and Museum was subject to curfew. No one was allowed to work past nightfall. It was Caesar who apparently suggested the change. Gabrielle wondered if it wasn't just a ploy to gain power in Alexandria. Now that he was stuck here, he wouldn't want to stand second in line behind anyone, not even the queen whom he courted in the pool.
Gabrielle wasn't particularly concerned about the siege of the royal quarter. Xena wouldn't have any trouble getting past it. Of that the bard was certain. All she had to do was remain out of sight in the sublevel--and she had already convinced herself that this adventure out of her hideout was not to be repeated--then she'd be safe until Xena arrived, however many weeks away that was.
The issue of when scholars could work in the Library and Museum was something quite different. It showed that Caesar believed knowledge had great value. Not a surprise, for he was an educated and well-read man. Caesar wanted the all-encompassing power that knowledge brought all for himself. He didn't want it in the hands of Ptolemy or Cleopatra. While he wooed the queen he also worked to undermine her authority.
That could make an already tense situation explosive. If the people had laid siege around the royal quarter to express their contempt for Rome, and specifically for Caesar, then any attempt on Caesar's part to usurp power would only drive the people into a more frenzied state.
Matters could get completely out of hand before Xena arrived. Gabrielle wasn't sure she'd be able to do anything to save herself without help. But there was no one she could trust in Alexandria.
* * *
Gabrielle waited what felt like several hours after Caesar and Cleopatra left before letting herself out of the crate and creeping back to the sublevels. She had at least come back with a few more torches and candles and a good bit of food. But she'd escaped detection by a slim margin; she had no desire to be in that situation again.
Just before she stepped over the threshold into the Library, she looked up and gave herself a moment to stare at the stars. She bid them a silent farewell.
Down in her lair, Gabrielle pulled the bookshelf across the front of the tunnel and shut herself in. It would a long while before she venture out again. She promised herself that she'd only leave if she needed to scavenge for food. She picked up the candles and torches, carried them back to her room, and put them on the shelf. She pulled what food she'd gotten from her bag. The small wheel of cheese was a treasure. The inventory of her cache was sparse but perhaps enough for two weeks if she was very careful.
Knowing she faced weeks of tedious boredom, she extinguished the torch and curled up on her blanket.
* * *
Voices, faint, from a distance. They spoke about her, to her. Ice formed on their breaths, cracked, and fell into a gaping maw below.
Her body's rhythms felt out of sync. They ebbed and flowed with shivers that emanated from deep within her chest. She craved warmth. A singular warmth. The reassuring pressure of one hand and a remembered voice.
But she was alone.
* * *
Neleus paced the deck. The fury of the storm had died down enough for them to turn their attention to looking for survivors, if there were any. Zetes ordered his crew to raise one small sail so they'd have a bit of maneuverability without taxing the hull in the still raucous sea. He'd stationed his men all around the railing on the lookout for anyone in the water. Janus climbed the mast for a better view.
Neleus didn't hold out much hope. The gray sky and gray sea made it hard to spot anything in the water. And the waves were sill high enough to hinder the search. And so he paced, wringing his hands as he went from bow to stern, port to starboard.
"Something to port," Janus called down from his lookout.
Zetes gently urged the Lepus over. The height of the waves precluded a sharp turn; there was still risk of rolling the ship if a larger swell met them square against their side.
Neleus forced his way to the railing. "Where is it? Where?"
No one answered. Each man frantically cast his eyes across the waves, hoping, yearning for a friend to be found. Minutes passed. The deep waters relinquished nothing.
Hierax shouted, "There!" The sailor pointed at an object bobbing in the water some distance away. But his arm dropped as if a heavy weight pulled it down. "Just a piece of wood."
Neleus felt his chest sink. They'd never find anyone. And he knew that he'd have to be the one to break the news to Gabrielle. He dreaded inducing her grief more than having to endure a lifetime of his own.
Several more minutes passed. The rain began again; this time lighter, not the deluge that had persisted hour after hour and had precluded searching for their companions. But it made the sky and the sea turn the same, dull, lifeless gray and sucked the hope from everyone.
Neleus dragged himself to the poop deck. With each rung of the ladder he climbed, responsibility pierced farther into his heart. Zetes didn't look toward him when he approached. "We're not going to find them."
The captain stared into the gray sky. "Not like this, no."
"Then I guess..."
Zetes cut him off. "We're turning back. We must have passed them."
Neleus clasped the captain's shoulder. "It's risky?"
"Everything's a risk. Sometimes it's worth it." Zetes shouted his orders to a crew relieved to have direction. They made ready with the sails while Zetes counted waves. He'd time their turn to coincide with the smallest swell in each series.
As they circled back, the boat rolled. Neleus feared the captain had erred. To the merchant, it seemed as though the starboard edge of the ship would meet the water and they'd all be sucked down into the sea. But Zetes had read the waters well; they were on their way toward the Indian ship.
Janus spotted more debris from high atop the mast. They found barrels, flotsam from the galley, wood that had been splintered by the crashing mast. The Lepus' crew saw destruction float by them. Thick, sturdy planks of wood had exploded into lifeless chunks. No one could survive that kind of disaster.
Neleus considered their options. They could remain for days hunting through the debris. Or they could follow through on Xena's wishand warn the Alexandrians about Caesar. Neleus planned to find Gabrielle, tell her about Xena, and then get her out of Alexandria, away from Caesar. He wasn't sure why Caesar was such a threat to the bard or how, for that matter, she could be a threat to anyone. It made no difference. He would assume responsibility for Gabrielle's safety. He'd ask her why it was necessary later.
With heavy feet, he plodded toward the poop deck. He was certain the captain would agree that it was time to move on. Xena had been worried about their speed all along. She wouldn't want them to linger and dawdle on a lost cause.
In the back of his mind, he heard again the call that debris had been spotted. Neleus squeezed his eyes closed. How could he turn his back on Xena? No, they'd have to find her. He spun around away from the poop deck. They would find her.
He was at the railing the instant the flotsam was identified as a body. An arm curled over a crate. Neleus was certain. Men were diving in, splashing toward the crate, his own arms extended over the side, pulling them back in.
Neleus pushed the bulky sailors aside and dropped to his knees by her side. "Xena?" He put his hand to her forehead. She was much too cold. "Come on," he ordered, "take her below where we can get her warmed up."
Neleus followed the sailors carrying Xena down into her cabin. "Be careful!" They bumped shoulders and hips trying to get her through the doorway. "Put her on the bed. No! Wait. We have to get those wet clothes off."
Once Xena was out of her salty, cold, and soaked clothes, Neleus told the men to lay her on the bed and wrap her in blankets. "We need to get her warm."
Janus slipped in between the sailors. "I'll get some water hot. We can try wrapping her in warm towels."
Neleus smiled. "Thanks, that will be great. Now, everyone else, out. This cabin's too small for all of you." He heard them leave. His attention now was on Xena, unconscious, her skin chilled, her face wan. How long had she been in the sea? Through an entire night? How much water had found its way into her lungs? Could she survive that?
* * *
Gabrielle bolted up from a deep sleep. What had she heard? A light crunching of feet in the dirt? Her only hope was to find a weapon in the pitch black and wait for whomever... or whatever approached.
She got up on her knees and cast her hand about for something suitable to wield. Damn! Why hadn't I prepared for this?
At last, she saw a torch lying on the ground near her... saw... Her eyes looked across the room toward a man holding a flickering light.
"Gabrielle?" a deep voice whispered.
The man walked closer. She recognized him. "Philo?"
"Yes. What are you doing here?" He gave her his hand and helped her up. "Are you all right?"
"Startled... but fine." So others know of this place. Or had he been sent to look for me? "Why are you here?"
"I..." he paused. His eyes danced around the room. He looked everywhere but at the bard.
There was nowhere to go if troops were following him in. But why? Nothing to lose by speaking truthfully. "I've been hiding down here after that fiasco at the temple."
Philo's shoulders dropped. "I heard about that. I was sorry to learn about Callimachus." Finally, he looked at her. "He was a friend of yours."
"I was trying to talk him out of his foolish plan."
"I'm sorry you didn't."
Silence fell over them. Neither knew what to say next. Gabrielle beckoned Philo to a chair. When she took his torch to set it in a wall sconce she noticed he had a few scrolls tucked under his arm.
Philo put the scrolls on the table, pinched a tuft of dust between his fingers and rolled it around. "I didn't know anyone else knew about this place."
Gabrielle sat across from him. "Callimachus brought me here once... to talk."
"I come here to read. Sometimes." Philo poked at his scrolls. "There's that whole room of banned scrolls. Lots of the Jewish scholars' works en d up there. It's easier to read them here, you know."
Gabrielle was confused. "What room?"
"The one..." He glanced up. "You don't know about it?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Come on, I'll show you." He stood up, took one step, then stopped in his tracks. "I brought someone else with me. If you're hiding down here..."
Gabrielle threw up her hands. "You know I'm here. Your friend will know where this room is. I guess it really doesn't matter anymore." Great, she mused, so much for a secret hiding place.
The bard followed Philo as far as the cistern. He smiled at her. "This is the fun part." A deep, friendly laugh made her feel better.
With his left hand braced against the wall, he swung out over the water, and then seemed to vanish. Gabrielle leaned out and looked to her left. Philo stood at the entrance to another tunnel which shared a wall with the one she was in. Both tunnels led to the cistern and were only a few inches apart though without peering around to look, you'd never see one from the other.
"Here, take my hand." Philo helped her across.
As Gabrielle passed over the dark water, she shivered slightly. An omen or a memory? She didn't know.
"Come, I'll introduce you to Spurina. He's quite a character."
The tunnel led directly to a large room filled with shelf after shelf of dusty scrolls. They'd been tossed around haphazardly. If they weren't to be read, there was no need to organize them.
Gabrielle immediately felt at home, sensed that underlying excitement at what the mounds of scrolls might offer her. "Wow."
An older man, not unlike Callimachus with his long, white, unruly hair, crouched in front of a pile of scrolls. He bounced up when he saw Philo. This man was quite small, shorter than Gabrielle by a few inches. His face had tracks of wrinkles through it. They all combined into a genuine smile when he noticed Gabrielle. "Hello there." His voice, though shaken with age, was a luscious tenor.
"Gabrielle, may I introduce Spurina of Rome." Philo placed his hand on the bard's back and gently urged her forward. "Spurina, please meet Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
A Roman? Gods, what have I gotten myself into? "Hi," she said as pleasantly as she could.
Spurina's eyes widened. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia? The bard?"
She blushed. She couldn't help it. It takes a long time for recognition to feel commonplace.
Spurina grabbed her hand and shook it furiously. "I knew I was to meet someone here. But I didn't know it would be you!"
"Meet someone here?"
Philo explained. "He fancies himself an augur."
The old man let go of Gabrielle's hand. "I knew I would meet someone of import in Alexandria, but there's no need to spend time on details. For various reasons I didn't think I'd be meeting the Greek bard who travels with Xena."
Gabrielle reeled at all of this new and strange information. Another mantic? A Roman who knows me and knows where I am?
Philo patted her on the back. "Come, let's go back to that hideout of yours and tell tales for awhile. There's no comfortable place to sit over here."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Sure, why not?" I might as well see what I can get out of this Roman augur. Knowledge is power, right?
She's a most triumphant lady, if report be square to her.
-Mecaenas from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The three of them sat around Gabrielle's table and shared a bit of food that Philo had brought down with him. "They're pretty strict about portions now. It's hard to go from a fattened calf to a beggar in a day." But Philo laughed as he spoke.
Gabrielle hadn't indulged regular meals. She tried not to eat too quickly. The taste of meat made it a banquet. And fresh bread. Perhaps it was worth losing her secrecy.
Spurina apparently preferred to talk. He ate sparingly, pushing his uneaten portion toward Gabrielle. "This'll do you a world of good more than it will do me. I'm still full from breakfast. Beggar indeed," he muttered to Philo. "Are you so used to living as a king that an honest meal offends?"
Philo chuckled. "You'd feel the same if you were forced to change your habits."
"Indeed I have been so forced," Spurina remarked. "And that's what led me here."
A full-bellied Gabrielle was content to listen to them. It had been so long since she'd engaged in a pleasant conversation. "Tell me why you're here, Spurina."
The old man glanced from side to side. He leaned forward and pressed his palms to the table. "I'm here to see to the downfall of Caesar."
Gabrielle stared, unblinking.
"I've been told," Spurina continued, "that a set of scrolls can be found in the Library. Scrolls that will keep Caesar from claiming the ultimate power in Rome."
Gabrielle looked to Philo. He wore a non-committal face. She asked Spurina, "What are these scrolls?"
"The Sibylline Books."
That name froze Gabrielle. The Sibylline Books were at the heart of her mantic abilities, or at least they were the subject of an adventure she and Xena had had when Gabrielle had experienced her first major vision. What did this all mean?
Spurina kept talking about the scrolls. Gabrielle lent one ear to the conversation as he was opining the history of the books. "Tarquinius Superbus refused to pay such an outlandish price. But the sibyl was true to her word. She burned six of the nine books, one at a time, until the king couldn't stand it any longer. He agreed to buy the three remaining books at the original asking price." Spurina sighed. "I was hoping to find them here in the Library but no such luck."
"Yet," interjected Philo. "You still have a lot to look through."
"Always the optimist, Philo." The old man glanced at Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, I've been chatting away and paying no attention to you. No wonder you look so bored."
"Bored? Hardly." Gabrielle forced a smile. She wasn't bored but distracted by the need to piece all of this together. She thought she'd keep her own prophecies to herself until she'd learned more about Spurina. "I know the Sibylline Books."
"Really?" Spurina's face lit with curiosity. "Where are they?"
"Sorry, I don't know where they are." The bard explained. "I didn't actually see the scrolls. But Xena did. And at any rate, we were a long way from Alexandria when that happened. We were in Persia looking for the books. Xena found them and hid them from some men who would have used them improperly."
"Interesting..." Philo stroked his chin. "Perhaps in the intervening time they were brought here." The scholar leaned back in his chair and hooked his hands behind his head. "The gods know a lot of scrolls pass in and out of this library."
Gabrielle shrugged "What are you hoping to find in them, Spurina?"
"Now that's a long story." He set his elbows on the table and propped up his head in his hands. "I had a dream several months back. There were many strange aspects of the dream that I still don't understand. But the images I most vividly recall were a scroll and a bird. In my dream I read the scroll. It said 'Whosoever disposes the ruler in Egypt will meet the early hands of fate.' Yes, that was it exactly."
Spurina paused for a moment. "My omens don't normally come in dreams for me. They're usually part of a lengthy ritual."
Gabrielle wanted to ask him about the ritual but didn't want to take him too far off track. Just the idea that she was with a Roman and an augur and someone who was hunting for the Sibylline Books to find a way to defeat Caesar was too much to take in all at once. She wanted to concentrate on what he had to say about his dream.
The old man continued. "I told many of my friends about it. No one knew anything about the scrolls. None had any good advice for me. Finally, I spoke with a man from Persia who had heard of them." He slapped the table. "Now that makes sense! He was from Persia; you were af ter the books in Persia."
"See, Spurina, I told you that youd find your answers in places you least expected." Philo chuckled.
Spurina laughed and grinned. "And right you were, my friend." He cast his eyes toward the bard. "The Persian told me I could find the information I needed in the Library of Alexandria."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It sounds like you already have the information you need. Isn't it enough to know that line from your dream about whoever gets rid of the ruler of Egypt will die young?"
"Yes and no." Spurina closed his eyes, steepled his fingers and rested them across his lips. Gabrielle wondered if he were having another vision until she remembered he'd mentioned they came from elaborate rituals. The augur suddenly opened his eyes and pinned them on Gabrielle. His gaze held her immobile. The intensity of it almost frightened her.
Several moments passed as he looked deep within her. Then he slowly took a breath, lowered his hands and relaxed his gaze. "I am puzzled about the bird."
Philo waved off his concern. "I'll bet it means nothing. You know that if Caesar overthrows the Ptolemys, it'll cost him his life."
Gabrielle's own visions were less literal than Philo's pronouncement. "Perhaps not. Spurina, repeat the prophecy again, word for word."
"Whosoever disposes the ruler in Egypt will meet the early hands of fate."
"Right. So we don't really know what 'dispose' means. Does it mean a coup? Will someone have to unseat the ruler, kill them, or just worm their way in and start making demands?"
The two men listened attentively to Gabrielle.
"And what is meant by 'the ruler'? Is that really Ptolemy and Cleopatra? Is it one or both of them? Or..." she lowered her voice, "is it less obvious? What if the prophecy had to do with the gods? Cleopatra just had us invent Serapis. If he becomes as significant as Cleopatra wants him to be, he might unseat Isis and even Ra in the minds of the people."
Spurina's lips began to curl into a smile. "You're a wise woman, Gabrielle."
"I don't know about that. It's just that being around Xena all the time, well, some of her has rubbed off on me, I guess."
"Don't sell yourself short." Philo reached over and patted her hand.
"You must be the bird," Spurina said to the bard.
"The bird in my vision. It must be you."
Gabrielle held up her hands. "No, I'm not. But I think I know who is. Manetho, the Priest of the Muses, said that Xena was the Divine Falcon."
Philo suddenly paled and leaned back in his chair.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle hurriedly laid her palm on his forehead for a moment.
"Yes..." Philo blinked a few times. "It's just that..."
Spurina curtly asked, "What? It's just what? Come on, speak up."
"Gods..." Philo briskly rubbed his hands over his face. "Look, it didn't really mean anything to me at the time with all this other stuff going on. But, Manetho said he'd been wrong. He said that you were the Divine Falcon, Gabrielle."
"Me?" Gabrielle's head swam. "No, he's wrong. Xena is the Divine Falcon. I'm sure of it."
"What is the Divine Falcon?" asked Spurina.
Gabrielle answered though her mind was only half on forming the words of the sentences.
The other half desperately turned over the possibility that Manetho's new idea was true.
What would that mean in relationship to her own mantic puzzle? "The Egyptians believe
that the Divine Falcon is the envoy of Osiris, that it has the unique eye."
"Ah," said Spurina, "it is the one who sees the truth."
Philo corrected him. "It is the one who speaks the truth." He shifted in his chair and smiled at the bard. "You see, Gabrielle, what you've been telling everyone about Serapis, how wrong it is to create a god for the sake of politics, that's the real truth."
Gabrielle thought that was just common sense. "Anyone in her right mind would know that. The scholars here were blinded by Cleopatra's power. Deep down, they knew what I said was right."
"I don't think so," Philo countered softly. "What good is truth if you don't speak it? The power of the Divine Falcon is that it journeyed far to bring the gods a message. It spoke the truth just as you did."
"I learned that from Xena." Gabrielle still couldn't believe she was the one. It had to be Xena.
* * *
Neleus sent Janus for another batch of dry towels. "And see if the blankets are dry as well."
"I'll be right back." The boy slipped out of the small, cold cabin.
Neleus dabbed Xena's brow with a folded piece of linen. "Come on, Warrior Princess. Fight this off."
Once dried and warmed, Xena had developed a raging fever. She cycled through chills and sweats and at the moment her temperature was on the upswing. Consciousness eluded her but for the prattle of feverish nonsense.
The merchant heard all too clearly the one word that Xena had repeated over and over: Gabrielle. "Xena, Gabrielle is going to have my hide if you don't get better. Don't make me have to tell her that..."
He swallowed hard. "Remember how much Gabrielle needs you, Xena. Let that be your path."
She grew restless. Her fever spiked. And on her lips was the name of the one she needed.
* * *
Several weeks went by. They were less difficult than Gabrielle had predicted earlier. Philo and Spurina frequently visited her and they kept her in fair supply of food and company.
And she knew about the other room. Boredom, her most malicious enemy, was defeated by the proximity of reading material. She spent many hours among the dusty scrolls abandoned or exiled to the dusty depths of the Library.
She wandered about the stacks, amused at the tiny dent she'd made in all of the scrolls. What she'd read had been diverse and fascinating. Some texts told of remarkable uprisings, others were beautiful love songs. How sad it was to think someone of a small mind or insecure political position had relegated them to oblivion down here.
She moseyed down a short row of scrolls and found a shelf with forty books all sporting the same title. "The Bookshelf of History," it read. She unfurled the first one.
This was the "magnum opus" of Diodorus, a name she hadn't run across before. It claimed to be the whole history of the known world. This ought to be good, she mused. She pulled a squat stool over and began to read through Diodorus' scrolls.
So engrossed she was in the scrolls, she didn't hear Spurina say hello. He moved until he was only inches away. "Gabrielle?"
She leapt from the stool. What? Oh, it's you." She felt her heart beating hard against her ribs. "Sorry. I guess I was just concentrating too hard."
The old man chuckled. "I do it all the time. Don't worry about it. But now, look here, it's time you took a break and had something to eat." He curled his fingers around her elbow. "Come, join me."
The words she'd read swirled about her head. "Ah, sure." She shook the stories from her thoughts. "Actually, it sounds like a good idea."
She allowed herself to be led back to her hideout. Spurina dug thick slices of bread from his pack. "And I have a treat today." He set a small jar of golden honey on the table.
"Oh that looks great, Spurina. Thank you." She spread some of the sticky honey on a piece of bread and handed it to Spurina before preparing some for herself.
"I was reading the strangest set of scrolls." Gabrielle swallowed and took a sip of water. "Some man claimed to have written the whole history of the world but he was mostly wrong."
"Really? How so?"
"Well," began the bard, "first he talked about Troy and got most of it backward. Helen wasn't killed. And the hollow horse really was the turning point. He had both of those facts wrong. And then, he claimed to have traveled all around the Mediterranean and to Chin as well. He said Chin had no mountains, which is absurd!"
"How do you know all this?"
"I've been there myself." Gabrielle reached for another slice of bread, now aware of how hungry she was and how much time she must have spent absorbed in those scrolls. "Xena and I were in Troy, and my husband," she stopped and looked directly at Spurina. "He's dead now. Died the day after we were married."
"I'm very sorry."
It was old water under the bridge now. "Anyway, Perdicus escorted Helen out of Troy after the war. I watched them leave."
"And I assume you've been to Chin?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Lots of mountains. Really spectacular ones with craggy ridges and in the higher elevations, snow deep into summer."
Spurina smiled crookedly. "So what you're saying is..."
"Diodorus?" Spurina asked, surprised. "You don't mean the Diodorus who wrote the Bookshelf of History?"
"The very one."
"But..." Spurina clamped his lips together and shook his head. "Gabrielle, I know you're a wise person and I have a lot of respect for you, but you've got to understand that Diodorus is one of the most respected men in the known world."
"He faked it," Gabrielle said flatly.
"But his books.... Everyone who studies history reads them. You must be mistaken."
Gabrielle came face to face with the power of the written word. It carried more weight than experience. "No, I'm not mistaken. I was there."
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.
-Cinna from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
The days began to pass more slowly. Gabrielle wearied of reading words she couldn't trust. The incident with Diodorus' history had rattled her confidence, shaken it as a dog shakes a treasured bone. The bone eventually erodes away or is forgotten, buried, left to rot in solitude.
And here she was, deep beneath the Library, buried in its past, its discards, its dust. Was this what it was like to be a scholar? To ingest the dead words of scholars whose imaginations only rarely intersected real events? Who may have made leaps of logic that broke the tether to truth?
She longed for the sun to warm her shoulders and reality to fill her eyes. To drink in a landscape all at once, letting the wash of fresh grass, clean streams, and horse sweat fill her. True experiences came next to Xena's side, not under a pile of scrolls meant to feed culture bit by bit to those who couldn't see it for themselves.
Gabrielle the scholar turned out to be just like Serapis the god. A fake, invented for convenience and politics and a subtle hint of desire. She was no more a real scholar than Serapis an immortal. Cleopatra had formed them both, molded them from political fodder into objects of art which suited her fancy. They became the conquered.
Gabrielle felt the empowering desire to flee. But she had to stay put, to wait for Xena's return. Xena could find her; she couldn't go after Xena. Patience, she told herself. I've learned more than I ever dreamed possible here. Not about medicine, philosophy, rhetoric, geometry, or astronomy, but about me.
* * *
Cleopatra strode determinedly down the garish hall toward her bedchamber. She dismissed the guards with an impatient wave and flung open the inlaid door. Caesar lay stretched across her bed fully clothed, his cape of rank separating his majestic body from her silk sheets.
"Do you know what my churlish little brother has been doing?" Cleopatra paused long enough for Caesar to take a breath to answer but she didn't give him the satisfaction of speaking. "Inciting the people. He's churning them into a frenzy."
"I know, dear." Caesar spoke softly, soothingly. It was his dangerous voice.
"Is he completely insane? Doesn't he understand that we can't hide in here forever, and if the citizens of Alexandria get riled enough they might actually be able to break through our defenses? They'll kill us all."
"He follows the will of Achillias."
"Not anymore." Cleopatra flung herself onto the bed. She buried her head in Caesar's neck; reached her hands around his strapping body and held onto him. Caesar, leader of the Romans and seemingly the only man in Alexandria with any sense left. "Achillias defected this morning," she said. "He's out leading the people now."
Caesar sat bolt upright. Cleopatra clung to him to keep from being tossed off the bed. An idle spark in her mind recorded the strength it had taken to do that and she planned to explore those muscles more fully the next chance she had.
"This is grim news." He spoke distractedly as if his mind were already forming counter-plans.
She rolled off of him and settled on the bed. She lay on her side with her head perched on one cupped palm, his liquid eyes trained only on him. "That's why I came to tell you the moment I heard." She slid her hand up over the big muscle of his thigh. "Achillias is telling everyone we're..." Dare she say it? "...in love." She pressed her soft lips to the inviting flesh of his wrist.
"I must go."
"What?" Her hands grabbed for him as he rose from the bed. "Where? You can't go anywhere. We're prisoners here in our own homes!"
"I can get to my fleet." In ermine-lined boots, Caesar trod softly toward the door.
"Wait." A heartbeat passed. She saw him slow his movements. "Please," she added.
He turned on one heel to face her.
"Thank you." She got to her feet but felt she couldn't go to him. Caesar the military commander, set jaw and careful eyes, stood across from her, not Caesar the lover. "What should we do?"
Slowly a smiled spread revealing two rows of perfect, white teeth. "My lady," he began again in that velvet voice, "we shall slay the armies which hope to smite us."
"But..." A crack of clarity broke through. These were her people! And now they were going to slaughter them? But if they didn't, the citizens of Alexandria would tie up Caesar by his toes until he bloated and stank and the flies came to feast.
"Rome, as always, will prevail." He extended his hand, the gesture kept restrained as if to say that she was welcome to join him but he had no interest in any regrets she brought with her.
She wanted to resist. A scolding voice from deep within her cried of betrayal and the evil deeds of Rome. Knowing that her decision was wrong for so many, she made it anyway, driven by her libido and lust for a power so magnificent it muted even the enticing glow of her pearls.
The steps she mustered were small. They took but a fraction of a minute. But when she slid her hand into his, the link of destiny, she felt time unhinge, felt it rushing by and also frozen silent. This decision, she now understood, would be one that followed her through history. Was it the dull metal of punition or the pulsing victory of love and honor?
Far distant from her private chambers, the walls were breached. The air around them compressed, carried the tension of fresh blood to the pair, fulcrums of their vast respective empires. Caesar squeezed her hand then dropped it. She felt the finality of the loss.
"I must command my troops." Caesar left her without another word.
She hated him for leaving, loved him for his needs. The open window beckoned her. From her lookout she saw the fire begin at the docks. The warehouses of supplies exploded in balls of heat. The smell of charred beams and seared flesh drifted into the private chambers of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
Did she follow her heart and pray for Caesar? Or did she side with the generations of Ptolemys who'd ruled her fair city and lands beyond since Alexander the Great entrusted them with the safety of the people?
I have seen tempests, when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
The ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam,
To be exalted with the threatening clouds:
But never till to-night, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.
-Casca from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
A leather-clad and troubled warrior had been watching the distant wisps of smoke for several minutes. This was the moment she'd been waiting for, drawn from shadowed days in phantasm-laden, fevered dreams to be standing on the bow anxiously watching the lighthouse grow as they approached. But the smoke....
She reached for the rigging, intent on climbing for a better view. The deep bruise, purple and yellow, which ran down her side from underarm to mid-thigh groaned in protest. She remembered the wave tossing her into the mast. Or had the mast rammed her? No matter. She'd held onto consciousness a fraction longer, enough to pull herself from the frothing sea onto the driftwood in the flotsam.
"Xena, what in Tartarus do you think you're doing?" Neleus' angry voice stopped her. He'd mothered her throughout her recovery, something she was ultimately grateful for, but which, on the whole, had driven her nuts. Gabrielle didn't hover like that. Or if she did, she always read Xena's slight hesitation, the one that implied she needed a little space, and gave way with a smile. Even screaming at Neleus to leave her in peace and quiet didn't always work.
Still, he'd acted purely out of the goodness of his heart. And she was alive because of him. He deserved an explanation. She pointed to the west, toward their destination. "See that smoke?"
"Clouds, I think." He was dressed in his old bright red merchant's suit, ready for the long-awaited homecoming. His optimistic countenance matched the rest of the crew's. They were all eager to get home.
Xena corrected him. "It's smoke. Clouds that thin usually cover the whole sky. That's too isolated." She moved to stand by him and pointed with her long arm outstretched. "Follow it to its point of origin."
Neleus stood on his tiptoes to lay his cheek on Xena's arm, eyes looking precisely where she indicated. "On land or at sea?"
Neleus fell back on his heels. "You're joking."
"No, I'm not." She made a quick list of things that needed to be done. "Spread the word. We may have to go in fighting. I'm going up for a better look." She dared him to suggest that such a job be left to another more agile than she. He kept his tongue. He understood this was no time to try to tell Xena what to do.
She pulled her body up the rigging slowly, using the climb to stretch fully. She tested her muscles, learning how far they could extend after so long a time in bed. Her range of movement was constricted, but not significantly. Once again, she'd healed quickly.
At the crow's nest, she held her hand against the sky and squinted toward Alexandria. Smoke rose from where she knew the port to be. She spotted the sparkles and flashes of sunlight on metal, these out to sea. A fleet.
Her belly knew inherently that the ships were Caesar's. A battle was underway, severe enough for the telltale signs to reach them at sea, and the bard was there somewhere in the midst of it. Well, Gabrielle, she mused, you were right about my half of the vision in one respect, but I pulled through. You'd better get through yours, too.
Her fears confirmed, she lowered herself down to the deck and assembled the crew. "It's not going to be much of a homecoming. A fleet of ships is between us and home. I think they're Caesar's."
She looked into each pair of eyes expectantly on hers. They believed in her. She'd gotten them through a typhoon, saved half a ship of men, and returned from the dead. "If anyone wants to get off here, just say the word. I won't force anyone to come with us."
No one moved. They would stay by her side, go down the with ship, if need be.
"Thank you," she said sincerely. "Now prepare yourselves. We may fight ship-to-ship or man-to-man;I can't begin to guess. We'll need all the maneuverability we can get."
Men quickly and quietly dispersed. Zetes had to give few orders. With so many months under their belt, this crew worked on instinct. Even the merchants had become sailors, Janus among them the most facile. The boy had grown a few inches. His brown body had filled out on the voyage. Fewer Alexandrian bullies would bother him now.
With the ship prepared for battle, and the harbor looming, Xena joined Zetes on the poop deck. "Hey there," said the captain.
Xena scanned the horizon. Seventeen ships, all bearing the banner of Rome and carrying a full complement of armed troops, bore down on Alexandria. Only a handful of Egyptian counterparts were there to meet them. "It doesn't look good. They're outnumbered."
"So are we."
Xena nodded. She understood this all too well. Tension skittered down her muscles, narrowed her focus, heightened her aural and visual perception. In another place and time, she might have longed for the fight, dreamed of standing victorious over legions of mortified prisoners. Now she only had one goal: to find Gabrielle.
One of the Roman ships broke off its course into the harbor and turned toward them. The Lepus was about to enter the fray and she was only at the outer reef. Xena heard Zetes chuckling. She turned toward him.
"I know a few things about these waters." Zetes smiled. "They won't be a problem for us. See there, she's heading right for an unmarked reef. Smaller ships don't draw much, so it's not a problem for most. But for a warship...."
Indeed, as Xena watched, the Roman ship struck the reef, listed heavily, and was sinking as they sailed past at a safe distance. "Isn't it foolish not to mark the reef?"
"Yes and no," said Zetes. "The Egyptian fleet knows about those spots, attackers don't. We captains share such information among ourselves. Word leaks, but I reckon the Romans were too cocky to go fishing for information from lowly ship captains."
"I'd hardly call you lowly." Xena patted him on the shoulder. "One down, sixteen to go." As they neared the harbor, the scene became more clear. The whole of the docks was aflame. Many Alexandrian boats weren't able to get out to sea before being engulfed in flames. Those who were, ran headlong into the Roman fleet. It was a slaughter.
But for all the destruction before their eyes, what Xena focused on was the eastern harbor: the royal quarter. The fire licked back into it, how far she couldn't tell because the smoke rose in dense walls at its leading edge. That was where Xena needed to go. Right through the flames.
Zetes' face paled. Everyone aboard could see the destruction wrought by the Romans. Even if the Lepus could make the harbor, there was no dock to tie her up to. "We should turn back," said Zetes.
Xena couldn't argue against it. "I understand." She clasped his hand tightly. "I need to go find someone."
"Are you sure that's wise?"
Xena smiled resolutely. "Wisdom doesn't have anything to do with it."
The captain leaned in a pressed a kiss to her cheek. "All the best to you."
She lowered herself down the ladder feeling the twinge of regret that came naturally with leaving good friends. Once on the deck, she headed straight for the skiff, only to find Neleus and Janus waiting for her.
"We're coming with you," Neleus said.
"I don't think so." She pushed them aside.
"Xena, please." Janus' eyes pleaded with her.
She put her hand on the boy's shoulder. "It's too dangerous."
Neleus slapped her arm. "What? And it's safe if we stay on this ship? Are you crazy?"
She sighed. "It's more safe on the Lepus than where I'm going."
Neleus stepped right in front of her. "Xena of Amphipolis, there is no place in the world more safe than being with you. Now, Janus and I are coming with you to help you find Gabrielle and that's all there is to it." He planted his fists on his hips in defiance.
"Xena," said Janus, "we want to help. And I... I need to see if my father is all right."
Xena relented. "Okay. But you have to promise to do exactly what I tell you to do. No delays, no side trips."
"I promise," said Neleus. He held one rope and Janus the other as they lowered the skiff to the water. "Don't you worry about us, Xena. We'll do whatever you want and no one will whine about it or ask any questions or anything else."
After helping Janus and Neleus down into the skiff, Xena jumped in. "Don't make me regret this."
* * *
"Gabrielle?" cried Spurina. "Gabrielle, are you down here?"
The bard woke from a little nap, a spell of boredom from reading too much Diodorus. "Yup." She rubbed her eyes. They stung for some reason. "Right here."
Spurina tore around the corner of the bookcase. "Get up. We've got to get out of here."
"Huh?" She placed the scrolls on a shelf and got to her feet, wiping some of the dust from her skirt.
"The whole place is on fire." Spurina grabbed her hand and jerked her along. Where his strength came from, Gabrielle had no idea.
"What do you mean the whole place is on fire? The sub-levels? The Library?"
Spurina stopped, planted his feet and turned toward her. He put his hands on her shoulders. "No. The whole city is burning."
Gabrielle blinked and recognized the sting in her eyes as irritation from smoke. She distinguished the regular musty smell of the books from the tang of smoke in the air. They had to get out of there. "Let's go." Her hand clamped around his as she took the lead.
Just a few steps up the path, Gabrielle realized they wouldn't get out that way. She could feel the heat bearing down on them. Coughing, she turned them back.
"It's no use," Spurina told her. "There's no way up through the sub-levels now."
Gabrielle recalled Xena's advice about fires. "Smoke rises. We'll have more time to figure out what to do if we get as far down the tunnels as we can." They headed back to though the stacks, to the edge of the cisterns.
Spurina grabbed a torch from the wall and held it out over the cistern. "Where's all the water?"
The sloped walls of the cisterns fell away into darkness. The bard picked up a nearby scroll and tossed it out into the cistern. Several breaths passed before it splashed into water below them. "Well, there's some water left, but not much." Her heart sank. "Some one set this fire and then made sure there's no water to put it out."
"Caesar," spat Spurina.
Was this her death warrant? She got an uncomfortable tingle, the kind when a connection between two important points is first made. Caesar was behind this. "Come on, we'll have to try to get out this way. Let me get my stuff." She swung around the corner and into her living space. The yo-yo and dice, gifts from Xena, were already in her bag, along with her staff. She grabbed the bag, stuffed her scrolls in, and went back for Spurina. "Where's Philo?"
Spurina dropped his shoulders. "He decided to try to save the scrolls."
Gabrielle nodded. It was the only way she could acknowledge Philo's probable fate without allowing her own optimism evaporate. "Come on."
She held a torch in one hand and used the other to balance herself as she half-crawled, half-slid down the face of the cistern. Her hands and legs were soon covered in muck. This underground network had seemed creepy enough when she was safely at its shore. Crawling down into it with the possibility of running into who knew what, over slimy walls that echoed her every step was enough to keep her from moving on. But for one factor that only she carried: Xena would never forgive her if she didn't get out of this alive. And she desperately wanted to be with Xena. It was the only motivation necessary for the journey. "You okay back there?"
"So far," Spurina answered.
"I just hit the water." She waited for the old man to catch up.
He slid in and sat by her. "Now what?"
Gabrielle shone the torch over the water. In the shadows she couldn't distinguish between water and slime, they both reflected the light. She leaned forward and tracked her fingers through the water. "It'll be a little cold, but we have to go through." She gathered whatever courage she could muster. "Just follow me."
With her bag's straps wrapped tightly around her wrist and that arm extended above the water to keep the torch from going out, she stepped gingerly into the water. She wished she'd know how deep it was. The only way to find out now was to keep going, taking small steps to keep from slipping.
When she was in up to her knees, the bottom began to slope up again. "We're almost there, Spurina."
He sloshed behind her. "I want you to know that I'm not enjoying myself."
Neither was she. "We're going to get out of this alive, Spurina, so you can tell me about it later."
He snorted. The snide retort bounced around the walls.
When they were out of the water, she reached for the old man's hand. "Now we head back up."
"And do it again, no doubt."
She had no idea how many cisterns they would have to traverse before they came to a way out. And even then, the path might lead them back into the flames. "We're safe; so far this plan works." She squeezed his hand.
"Sorry." He sighed. "Just nerves talking."
"That," she said, "I understand." The torch held high revealed only an empty blackness ahead of them. They continued on through three more cisterns, one with enough water left in it to get all of their clothes wet.
At the top of that last cistern, Gabrielle spotted stairs. "Hey look, Spurina. That may just be our way out of here." Several cisterns converged on this location, ideal for maintenance and also for them to try for the surface.
Eagerly, she started toward the rickety, wooden staircase. Out from under it, sprang three forms. She fended off one with her torch, but another kicked her in the stomach and grabbed the torch away from her. She doubled over, and held her arms across her belly, trying to get her breath back, gulping air. Once she could breathe more normally, she straightened up and looked directly into the eyes of Achillias.
"Well, what do you know," Achillias said. His voice was pitched higher, his words dipped and rose with... fear? Or was it madness? "I've caught my little prize again."
"We're just trying to get up to the streets." Gabrielle tried to sound unconcerned and matter-of-fact.
"There are no streets left to climb up to." He cackled and Gabrielle heard the hysteria in his voice. "Caesar ordered the fire and I've made sure no one can do anything about it."
"You drained the cisterns?" She couldn't believe that he'd destroy the city of Alexandria. No sane person would do that.
"And Caesar will reward me for it." Achillias' hand suddenly shot out and grabbed Gabrielle by the upper arm. "You will assure me a very high ranking in his corps."
She struggled, kicking his legs, and using her free arm to slap him.
"Cut that out, you bitch!" Achillias wrapped both arms around her and pulled her in so she couldn't get any leverage. "I really would like to give you to Caesar but if you don't behave yourself, I'll kill you and your friend right now."
Gabrielle stilled. Spurina deserved a chance to escape.
"Good girl." Achillias turned his head toward one of the other cisterns as group of soldiers jogged up and over the lip.
"All drained, sir," one reported.
"Very good." He eased Gabrielle out of his strangle-hold. "Now let's take her to Caesar. I'll enjoy watching him wring the life from her."
"What about the old guy?" one of the guards asked.
"Get rid of him."
"No!" Gabrielle wrenched herself free from Achillias' loose grasp, grabbed a torch and held it like a staff to beat off the guards holding Spurina. "Run," she yelled to him, but he couldn't get away. A dagger flew from one of the soldiers and buried itself deeply in the old man's back.
Gabrielle turned on the group. She whacked through several guards, but ultimately there were too many. Once the torch was stripped from her hands, she was easily subdued.
But Achillias was not. He screamed at her, his face red from rage. "Why did you do that? Do you want me to kill you? You must want me to kill you." Slowly, his shaking hand reached to his vest. He pulled out a vicious dagger. Torchlight gleamed against rubies set in its hilt. Achillias cocked his arm and started toward Gabrielle, held firmly in the grasp of two guards. "Why are you making me kill you?"
The greater cantle of the world is lost
With very ignorance; we have kiss'd away
Kingdoms and provinces.
-Scarus from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The lump in Gabrielle's throat refused to be swallowed back. Achillias' eyes glinted madly in the torchlight. She could see no way out of this. A last thought went out to Xena. Know that I love you and will be listening for you.
She imagined Xena's smile, her magically blue eyes, the zing of her chakram as it ricocheted from wall to wall along an impossible flight-path, the reflected sound building into a texture of dense frenzied noise, a cackle of singing metal.
Achillias fell forward. Not a muscle moved to brake his fall. His cocked arm slammed into the ground at the same moment his face did. The weapon sunk to its hilt in the soft dirt. Gabrielle broke into a grin as she saw the chakram embedded in her would-be assassin's back.
Stomping on the feet of her guards distracted the pair for the instant it took Xena to incapacitate them and the other soldiers. The bard turned and launched herself into Xena's arms. She wrapped herself around Xena and held on tightly, feeling Xena do the same in return. The warrior's leather creaked under the strain. Gabrielle's body smashed against Xena's breastplate. And it all felt wonderful.
Xena's low voice tickled her ear. "You okay?"
Gabrielle could only manage a nod. Anything else would have let the tears burst forth. She knew it was no time for such indulgences. To regain better control of her emotions she lessened her grip, still leaving her arms hooked around Xena, and took a few deep breaths. Everything's going to be okay, she told herself.
Convinced she could do it without crying, she looked up. Xena's face shone brilliantly in the flickering light. Truly, she was her beacon of hope. Gabrielle cleared a burr from her throat and choked out, "How are you?"
"Fine." Xena smiled. "Now."
"You're wet." Gabrielle laughed. "You must have found a cistern full of water."
"Nope," Xena replied. "They're all drained. We had to swim in because the docks are on fire."
"We?" Gabrielle peered behind Xena. Neleus and Janus stood with their gazes uncomfortably trained on the dirt at their feet. "Thanks for bringing her along."
The two men looked up and laughed. They stepped forward and each in turn hugged the bard, Neleus first, and then Belus' son. Gabrielle held onto the boy. "Janus...."
Janus simply said, "He's dead, isn't he."
What extraordinary control from a child. But then again, as Gabrielle looked into his eyes she saw a new maturity. His adventures with Xena had deeply changed him. The grief was not denied, merely set aside to endure in his own time. "Yes," she answered plainly. She could tell that he needed to hear the honest truth from her without couching it in euphemisms. "He was killed in the lighthouse by Achillias' men who were after me."
Janus glanced over at Achillias' dead form. His lips whitened as he pressed them together. It was the only outward display of emotion Gabrielle could see.
Xena retrieved her chakram then gently patted the boy's shoulder. "We need to go."
Janus pushed aside whatever anger he felt. "Lead the way."
"We'll have to take the cisterns to the lake. It won't be safe to go up into the city before then." One of Xena's hands laced with Gabrielle's, her other held a torch.
Gabrielle leaned into her. " Have I mentioned yet that I'm very glad to see you?"
A corner of Xena's mouth curled up. "Me, too." She shifted the torch lower to scrutinize the bard. "You look tired. Thinner, too."
"Long story." Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at Xena. "You look a little haggard yourself."
Xena shrugged and trained her eyes forward, lifting the torch high to cast its light farther ahead. "So we each owe the other a story."
Gabrielle was about to ask Xena to start in on hers when the warrior's muscles tensed. They stopped, everyone implicitly understanding to be absolutely silent. Soon, they could all hear what Xena had heard first. The thuds and cracks of fighting echoed faintly off the cistern's walls. Gabrielle wondered how anyone could possibly figure out from which direction the scuffle emanated.
Somehow, either Xena knew or she made a good guess. She vaulted up the slope of the cistern with Gabrielle, Neleus, and Janus trailing behind, then down into another and a third beyond that. When the bard crested the top of the last one, she saw a group of soldiers engaging a band of citizens, apparently with the same idea as her: escaping the fire via the caverns beneath the city. Xena was already in the middle of them, turning the tide from the Roman's favor.
Gabrielle took her staff from her pack, assembled it, and began whacking men in Roman attire. She went for the knees, felling them in pain but without inflicting fatal injuries. The soldiers wouldn't be able to run after them, so their group could escape.
Janus had jumped on the back of a soldier and was beating him rather ineffectively on the chest. Gabrielle shifted her weight, brought the staff across the front of the soldier's knee and on the follow-through, hit another Roman in the stomach. Janus rolled off the downed soldier then tossed a handful of dirt in his face.
By the time Gabrielle had made certain Janus was okay, Xena had crippled the remainder of the Roman troops. It never ceased to amaze her how quickly Xena could do that. The bard scanned the people to see if any were injured and needed her help. "Abas?"
Cleopatra's captain bent over someone. Gabrielle hurried over in time to hear Iphis' frustrated voice, "Will you please let me get back on my damned feet."
Gabrielle threw one arm around Abas and extended the other to Iphis.
He smiled and took it. "See, someone here has some sense." He got up. "Hi, Gabrielle."
"It's great to see you. Say, you look pretty good."
"That's through no deed of his own." Abas scowled at her husband. "I tried to keep him down, but no, he wouldn't listen to me."
"It's a good thing." Xena sauntered over to greet Iphis and Abas. "If you'd stayed put, you'd never have survived."
"See," Iphis said. His retort wasn't a reprimand but a tease. He winked at Xena. "It's good to see you two as well. Funny place to meet, though."
"I'd like it better," remarked Abas, "if it weren't chock full of Romans."
"Good point." Xena called to the whole group. "Stay with me and we'll all get out of here. Don't get too far behind. If you need to stop, let me know."
A mumble of agreement came from the Alexandrians. Gabrielle and Xena kept at the head of the assembly. Xena somehow knew where to go. Iphis and Abas followed right behind them along with the half dozen others the Romans had been attacking. Neleus and Janus took the rear.
Gabrielle crooked her neck around. "So, Iphis, I see you're feeling better."
"The medical experts here do wonders, you know." Iphis clapped her on the shoulder. "I haven't felt this good in ages. Alexandria has a way of rejuvenating the soul."
"Just take it slow," reminded his wife. "There's no sense in undoing all the good."
Gabrielle considered the irony of Iphis' remark. She'd never found what he had tapped into in Alexandria. And she had tried so hard to find it. What's good for some, isn't for others, shemused.
Even with Xena nearby, the slimy gloom of the cisterns began to bother Gabrielle again. They marched through three more of the drained pools, slipping and sliding their way south toward the lake--and hopefully their freedom--accompanied by low echoes, shimmering reflections, and gurgling water.
With all the slogging and splashing, Gabrielle didn't notice the different sound. But Xena did and she immediately flung around, just as one from the new party began to scream. Xena tossed the torch to Gabrielle who caught it and followed Xena toward the screams as quickly as she could. The bard slipped and skidded on her behind to the edge of the water only to see a tumult of wrestling. She held the torch up and shrank back in horror. All she could see was the tail of a massive crocodile and Xena's dark brown leathers flailing in the dank water.
A hand pulled her away from the water and helped her up. It was Abas. "It must have escaped from the zoo. The gods be with us. It'll kill her for sure."
Gabrielle nodded numbly; her eyes affixed on the thrashing bodies. Xena and the crocodile heaved up from the water. Xena's hands were wrapped around the giant beast's jaws. Its dangerous teeth showed through her fingers. The warrior's legs clamped down on the scaly body. The croc fought by whipping its length back and forth then flinging itself down into the water, which was too shallow to fully absorb the blow. Gabrielle felt the cistern rumble underfoot.
The group gathered a few feet back from the water's edge, watching in dismay. A hand punched out of the dark water. Gabrielle latched onto it and heaved. It was the man the croc had first caught. He limped out, trailing a shredded pant leg.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked.
"I think so," the man said. He stared at his pants, reached down, and held them out, revealing a jagged edge that had been ripped by the crocodile's powerful jaws.
Gabrielle handed him off to people nearby and turned her attention back to the frightening scene playing out in the muck and slime. If she could only find a way to help.
"Get my whip," Xena yelled. She'd emerged from the water again, still clutching the dangerous jaws and couldn't risk letting go with one hand to grab the whip from its clasp at her waist.
Gabrielle dropped her bag, jumped into the fray, and immediately lost her footing. The croc's tail swept across the bottom and took her feet out from under her. She landed on the two grappling fighters, unsure which way was up or if she was about to be held under the water by the wrestling pair. Desperately, the bard lunged for something to grab onto as they tumbled. Something tore into the back of her hand. Fighting the instinct to pull back, she kept searching for a handhold. Finally, she wrapped her fingers around the armor protecting Xena's back.
Now, with a sense of where she was, she lay against Xena's back groped for the whip. The croc almost flung her off. She clutched Xena's thighs with her own. Suddenly she was upside down again with water rushing into her mouth. Gabrielle had expected to be crushed under the weight of the crocodile but suddenly her face was in the air. Xena must have righted them. The bard coughed stale water from her lungs.
At last, she reached the whip and pulled it from its clasp. "Now what?"
"Get it around the mouth." Xena inched her hands away from the tip of the snoot so Gabrielle would have a place to start wrapping the whip.
The bard stretched up over Xena's body and she extended her arm. The croc flailed wildly. Gabrielle lost her grip and was thrown up onto the slope of the cistern. Without another thought, she got up and leapt onto Xena's back.
Holding onto Xena's body with her legs, Gabrielle began to wrap the whip around the croc's jaws getting in two clean passes while being tossed around.
"Give it to me," Xena instructed. Gabrielle let go of the whip and dipped out of the way. The croc was mad, now. It sensed the shift in advantage and did all it could to dislodge its attackers. Somehow, Gabrielle managed to stay attached to Xena while the warrior secured the whip around the beast's jaws.
But the animal wasn't finished. It heaved its body against the cistern's walls. A blow from the tail alone could kill a man and it intended to do just that to Xena and Gabrielle.
Xena wasn't finished, either. She maneuvered her body over Gabrielle's to protect the bard. Then she drew her boot dagger, reached around the beast's head and plunged it into its throat. Gabrielle heard the flesh tear, scales part, and blood splatter from the writhing, dying crocodile.
They rolled with the animal. Gabrielle once again lost her sense of direction as they tumbled. After what seemed like an eternity, they stopped. Everything stilled around them and it was only with the silence that Gabrielle noticed how loud the fight had been. Xena began to move off Gabrielle but the croc kicked its tail once more. They both hung on until the last flails dimmed to twitching reflexes.
Gabrielle felt herself pulled off of the scaly back. She sat down, shaking, dazed, and numb to the whole ordeal.
Xena ran her hands down her arms and legs. "Did he get you?" Xena's voice quivered.
"I... I don't think so." Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, then pulled hers back in pain. "Ouch."
Neleus came over and held a torch. Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers and turned it over in the light. "Looks like he clawed you." Janus handed the warrior a water bottle and cloth. Gently, she cleaned the hand and pressed the cloth on the cut. After a moment, she pulled the linen back and inspected the tear. "Not too bad."
"What about you?" Gabrielle asked. Her heart was beginning to slow and she could think more clearly.
"Not a scratch." Xena wrapped a strip of cloth around Gabrielle's hand. "That'll do until we get out of here." She helped the bard to her feet.
Gabrielle noted the stares. Some of the people with them had no idea who Xena was. They couldn't believe what they'd just witnessed: Xena wrestling one of the royal crocodiles and winning. Gabrielle shook her head. She can still amaze me, too. It put a smile on her face. She leaned down and retrieved her bag. "I'm ready."
* * *
Xena tucked her fright away. The thought of Gabrielle near that crocodile.... What was I thinking of when I told her to get the whip? She trudged on a few more steps. I guess it means I trust her to save my butt. She slid her arm around Gabrielle's back. "Thanks."
"You're thanking me?" The bard's green eyes still held some innocence. Xena hoped she'd never lose it completely. It was too much a part of her.
"For jumping in there with a manic crocodile."
"Oh," Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "Well, I was scared for you."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Xena gave herself a mental scolding for risking the bard's life, even if it was to save her own.
The group continued on, climbing down and up slippery slopes. Soon, their general pace slowed. Xena called a halt when they hit a flat, dry plot of dirt. "Let's rest here." Wearily, they all collapsed to the ground and shared what meager provisions they had brought.
Xena found a nice, dark, out-of-the-way spot and sat down, resting her back against a wall. She was exhausted, though loathe to admit it. It had been a long day making their way into the harbor, then the absurd swim through burning ships at the docks and Neleus nearly drowning from the weight of his wet velvet suit. He'd refused to take it off. If Janus hadn't pointed out the way down into the cisterns, they may never have made it. By her reckoning, it was getting onto the wee hours of the morning, a time reasonable people were fast asleep.
Just after she closed her eyes, she felt familiar hands rubbing her shoulders. "Be careful. The cut you've got might open up again."
Gabrielle switched to a one-handed massage. "Do you always think of everything?"
Xena heard how tired Gabrielle was. "Only when it involves you. Come here. Sit with me."
Gabrielle complied and relaxed into Xena's embrace. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," answered Xena.
"Did your part of the vision come true?"
She thought for a moment. There's never a need to be anything but truthful with Gabrielle. "Yes."
"For me, too, I think."
"Did we cheat fate again?" Xena pitched her words lightly though the sentiment was dark.
"I'd say that was a 'yes'." Gabrielle snuggled in, burrowing into the warmth of their closeness. "I can't believe you're here. Hey," she said with more energy, "you're really early. How'd you get back so soon?"
"We found a new direct route. And I..." Xena paused. "Caesar's men had taken over the spice docks. I knew he'd be heading here."
"Thanks. I really needed you."
"Likewise," said Xena.
After a pause, Gabrielle said, "He's got a thing going with Cleopatra."
Xena swallowed a laugh. That's perfect. "They're meant for each other."
"I wonder how long it will last now that Caesar has torched her city."
"When power and politics are involved, people often act without much sense." Xena knew that all too well. She'd succumbed on more than one occasion; she'd even fallen for Caesar's political ploys. "Why don't you try to get some sleep."
On cue, Gabrielle yawned. "What about you?"
"There are too many Romans around." Even if there were others to take a watch, she wouldn't have slept. Not when Caesar was at the helm. Not when they were so close to getting out of this. Not when she could spend the night holding Gabrielle.
* * *
At dawn, the rag-tag assembly climbed up from the last cistern near the shores of Lake Mareotis. Xena emerged first to ensure their way would be clear. To the east, the last tinges of blue in the sky melted into the soft oranges of sunrise. The regularity and peacefulness of the new day stood in stark contrast to the ruins of the city.
Gabrielle joined her. Together they stared at the smoldering remains of Alexandria. Over half of the royal quarter was destroyed. Huge areas of the city shared the same fate. The smell of charred wood and flesh filled the air.
Behind them, they heard gasps and cries as people first beheld the monumental destruction wrought by the fire. It's Caesar's doing, Xena reminded herself.
Neleus stumbled past them. Janus caught up with him and lent a hand to steady him. The whole group began to wend their way back into the city, stopping to help where they could. The Romans had left, it seemed. At least Xena and Gabrielle didn't run into any.
A scorched figure in a sooty white robe swayed down one of the streets. He teetered too far to one side and lost his balance. Xena bounded forward and caught him. He looked familiar.
Gabrielle reached Xena's side and pulled the man's face toward her. "Manetho?"
The Priest of the Muses blinked into the growing sunlight. "The falcon lives?"
Xena huffed out a short breath. She wondered if that stupid prophecy would ever let her go. But then the priest placed his hands on Gabrielle's face.
"The Divine Falcon," he whispered to the bard.
Xena's brow creased. "You mean... you're the Divine Falcon?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "It was news to me, too."
"It was my fault," Manetho said. "I should have known. I should have..."
"Nothing was your fault." Gabrielle helped Xena to take him into the shade of brick building which had survived the fire better than the wooden shacks. The inside of it was gutted but the frame stood. She dug into her pack and offered him some water.
The priest drank deeply. He pushed the bottle back to the bard. "You were the only one to see. You saw it from the very start. Serapis was our downfall."
Xena decided to ask Gabrielle what this all meant later. It seemed a bit unreal. And it apparently made Gabrielle quite uncomfortable to hear this talk. "Just relax. We'll find someone who can take care of you."
"No." Manetho's blank eyes fixed on Gabrielle. "It's gone. All gone."
"What?" asked Gabrielle. "The Library?"
Manetho nodded. "Nothing... but ashes." He opened his palm to reveal one soot-covered pearl he'd apparently saved.
Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "Such a loss. And all because of petty politics."
Xena set her jaw. "Wherever Caesar goes, terrible waste follows."
* * *
As they worked their through the city, they heard amazing tales, and bits and slips of news. Gabrielle cringed with each new story. Huge changes were in store for Alexandria. Ptolemy had drowned in the Nile. His troops and Cleopatra's united to pursue the Romans. Caesar fled from the city by diving into the harbor and swimming for one of his ships. His troops all returned to their ships as well. All that was left of Caesar in Alexandria was his cape, which washed up on the shore, and his legacy of devastation.
"He'll be back," Xena said.
Gabrielle knew that would be the case. "He never gives up. You know, Caesar has done nothing but make enemies in his life. From what I know about politics now, I can't see that he can keep his power much longer. Too many people want him dead."
"I suppose youre right," Xena said pensively. They walked on, now trailing Janus and Neleus. The men led them back towards the sea.
"One of the people I met here had heard that the Sibylline Books predicted Caesar's death, too." Gabrielle came to a stop and risked saying what she felt in her gut. "Xena, that means that you don't have to kill him. His blood won't have to be on your hands."
Xena turned to her. "Is this a good thing?"
Gabrielle took those strong hands in hers. "Yes. I know that there's still a part of you that wants to kill him. And I even understand what that might feel like. But I don't think it would be right for you to do it. You'll end up better for it in the end if you don't."
They stood for a moment, hand in hand. A breeze carried ashes and soot, dirt and death to them. All around were the results of aggression made insane by lustful, greedy power. Gabrielle knew they could walk away from it now. They could wash away the grime and be whole again. But only if they kept walking. Revenge at this level of ruin and havoc was reserved for the lunatics and madmen.
"Okay." Xena said. She started walking again. "I'll trust that he's set his own trap."
Gabrielle ambled alongside her. She sensed there was something more Xena wanted to say. Sometimes the best way to get her to open up was to leave silence for her to fill.
Several minutes later, just before they reached the remains of the docks, Xena stopped. "I'll give up going after him."
Gabrielle stood by Xena and waited. It was hard to muster the patience to do it but she knew it was the only way.
"I think I've finally figured out something."
Gabrielle smiled. "What?"
"You know that person you've always wanted me to be?"
The bard nodded almost imperceptibly.
"I finally realized that that's who I really want to be, too."
Gabrielle kept her silence.
"It's not a matter of forsaking my path or giving up fighting or settling down somewhere, though. It's more like a way of thinking."
She waited still.
"Or, maybe it's more like a way of feeling. If Caesar ran down this road intent on killing someone, I'd run my sword through him and feel good about it. But going after him, hunting him... that's different."
Once again holding back tears, Gabrielle said her piece. "I've figured out a few things, too. First, the Greek gods aren't too bad on the whole. In their wacky unpredictability, they're... predictable. At least I feel like I know them and a few know me." She sniffed back her emotions. "And I know that I can never run away from killing. At least not without giving up who I am."
Xena wiped away a tear that had gotten past Gabrielle's defenses.
"What I've learned is that truth comes from the inside. You can't read it in anybody's scroll. And what's written can't possibly re-create the real experience. When you live something you have a sense of it that you can call on all at once. It sort of condenses down to an essence you can make sense of. Too often, scholars forget that part and just write about what happened in a long list of events. That often bends the truth, even when it seems completely logical." She placed her hand on the warrior's chest. "You tell the truth, Xena. You live by it. And when you work for the greater good, no selfish bits creep in."
Xena hugged her. She folded herself into those arms. Nothing else mattered. No purple robes, no first discoveries, no quest for lore. Gabrielle's life had honest purpose with Xena.
Xena lifted her head and looked directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "When you have faith in me, I need nothing else. I think Manetho was right. You are the Divine Falcon, the unique eye. You have a way of seeing right through things. And that way of seeing is what makes you a great bard. I don't think the scholars had the ability or took the time to notice all that was going on around them. That's the difference between them and you."
* * *
The Roman fleet, troops secured, had set sail back to their homeland. In the aftermath of the flames at sea, the Lepus took a circuitous path to avoid floating hulks. The ship drew close to shore and then sent a skiff in for Neleus, Janus, Xena, and Gabrielle. While climbing aboard, Neleus announced he was off to Athens to set up a new shop with his new young apprentice, Janus. He had great hope for the future.
Xena and Gabrielle were just glad to be on their way back to Greece. This adventure lasted longer than either of them had anticipated. In the end, they came through it relatively unscathed and a bit wiser for the experience.
Once settled on deck, Zetes ordered the crew to take them out to sea. Xena and Gabrielle stood in the bow. Neither wanted to watch the lighthouse recede into the horizon. The Alexandria they wanted to remember was a thriving city of bright, white buildings and prosperous people. That city was a part of the past now. The rubble of generations to come would eventually bury the ashes. Most of the people would be forgotten. The Library would never be the same.
Only the forgotten stories recorded on scrolls safely tucked into libraries and private collections outside of Alexandria would live on. The irony wasn't lost on the bard. She reasoned that she'd uncovered another difference between people. She was destined to scrawl her stories onto parchment, deeds she witnessed or was a party to. She wasn't one to read other's words for the vicarious experience. She had the real thing.
"Before you came back, I was ready to give up being a bard."
Xena gave her a concerned and questioning look.
"I read so much that fell flat. I was convinced that scrolls could never reveal as much wisdom as real experiences."
"Yours do. Don't be swayed by a pack of scholars who hide in a libraries. They can't begin to approach what you do."
Xena supported her in so many ways. She let that unquestioning confidence seep in. Her self-assuredness needed bolstering after her enervating stay in the Library. "Thanks."
The wind whipped her hair, cleansed her spirits. She felt normalcy would return just over the horizon, along the path they were headed down together.
"I guess," Gabrielle said, "that what you read has a way of affecting everything."
"Just like the people you spend time with."
Gabrielle curled her hand into Xena's. "Must be why I keep you around."
The Cage of the Muses was outlined and begun about halfway through season four. Events portrayed in the second half of that season and later have not been incorporated into this story.
This is a lengthy tale. It based on historical evidence: both twisted and not so twisted. Where I could leave an event unchanged, I did. Often, of course, I've had to modify the event to allow Xena and Gabrielle to be the heroes. (Okay, so sometimes its pretty darn extreme.)
I've also taken the liberty of including people and events outside of the narrow timeline of the story (the summer of 48 BCE). For some reason, this thing grew into a convoluted mystery / adventure story in which aspects of page one influence the end, and hopefully everything important in between has a good reason for being there.
As you read this, you might wonder why I included things which couldn't possibly have been around at the time of Cleopatra. I've tried very hard to stick with some measure of historical reality. Glass blowing was invented during the Ptolemaic dynasty, yo-yos were common childhood toys, several scrolls mention the zoo and its crocodiles, the Archemedian screw was adapted as a bilge pump on ships, and the gadgetry described late in the story was culled from historical documents specific to the place in question. (How's that for not giving anything away?) The layout of the city both above and below ground is based on archaeological evidence.
Many of the characters in this story are named after real Alexandrians. My research on Alexandria for this story has only enchanted me further. It was a truly remarkable place. If you have the opportunity to read about it, please do. The PBS show Nova broadcast a documentary on retrieving artifacts from the bay in Alexandria. I watched it while I was in the midst of writing this. To see pieces of the lighthouse, columns, and sphinxes brought to the surface was truly inspiring.
The poem in chapter four is a part of the "real" Callimachus poem, "Lock of Berenice". The poems in chapter eighteen are from Sappho's fragments.
Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece (New York: Facts on File, 1997)
Alan K. Bowman, Egypt After the Pharaohs 332 BC - 642 AD (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986)
Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton: NY 1971)
Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners (Princeton: NY 1991)
Luciana Canfora, The Vanished Library (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987)
Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1959)
Peter Clayton and Martin Price, editors, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1988)
E.M. Forster, Alexandria: a history and a guide (Garden City: Doubleday Books, 1961)
Irene Frank and David Brownstone, editors, Around Africa and Asia by Sea (New York: Facts on File, 1990)
Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1992)
Michael Grant, Cleopatra (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1995)
Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and social conflict (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997)
Mary Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra: history, politics, representation (London: Routledge 1993)
Fik Meijer, A History of Seafaring in the Classical World (London: Croom and Helen, 1989)
J. Innes Miller, The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon 1969)
Gareth Steen, editor, Alexandria: The Site and the History (NY: New York University Press, 1993)
Julie Ward, ed., Feminism and Ancient Philosophy (NY: Routledge 1996)
I'd love to hear your comments. Email: email@example.com