see chapter one for disclaimers
Tie up the libertine in a field of feasts,
Keep his brain fuming; Epicurean cooks
Sharpen with cloyless sauce his appetite;
That sleep and feeding may prorogue his honour
Even till a Lethe'd dulness!
-Pompey from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
They were shown down a path that curved around their house toward an expansive garden littered with several ponds, to the largest single free-standing structure either woman had ever seen.
The exterior to Cleopatra's palace was encased in pure marble. Deep veins of green and blue stretched three stories high and along the length of the building, melting down into extravagant ferns.
A wide porch announced the entrance. Heavily incensed and stocked with fanciful fountains, flower pots that Argo could pose atop, statues of clay and stone and marble of bodies and heads and beasts, vases bursting with sweet fresh flowers, the porch became a moat protecting the interior from the mundanity of mortals. The vainglorious decorators had no doubt followed Cleopatra's exacting orders.
But nothing Xena had ever seen rivaled the ostentatious and pretentious display of wealth in the banquet room. The room was enormous. She imagined it could hold a thousand, perhaps twice as many for dinner. The setting now, for a mere few hundred, was open and spacious.
The walls were again marble but for one tapestry which depicted the head waters of the Nile. The tapestry must have been two hundred feet wide, running the length of one wall, floor to ceiling, all in one piece.
The jewel-encrusted ceiling, however, revealed the deepest layers of riches. Normally there was no need for anything but wood rafters, a spot of color was nice, and for the supercilious, some scene could be painted. But jewels? Diamonds and rubies, pearls and onyx. The ceiling alone was worth more than any fortune she knew of in Greece. And there was no purpose to it but to flaunt.
They were shown to a set of couches, short-backed and soft. Various circles of them sprinkled the floor, each centered by a table piled high with fish dishes, goat dishes, and a whole roasted boar. Stacks of warm crusty bread, sweet ripe fruit, bowls of first-press olive oil, and free-flowing jugs of wine awaited the diners.
Xena watched Gabrielle reach for the wine glass as soon as she was seated. A short man in a brown robe was at her side in an instant, taking the gilded carafe from the table to fill the glass for her. He poured another glass for Xena and a third, which he left on the other side of the table.
They would be joined by another diner. Xena's fervent hopes that it wouldn't be Cleopatra were dashed almost immediately as the queen entered, oozed around the room bestowing short greetings, and then descended upon her couch, taking the wine glass up to her painted lips and drinking before acknowledging her guests.
Gabrielle joined the queen in draining her glass. Xena figured that drinking away nightmares was fine once in awhile, so she traded her full glass for the bard's empty one. If Gabrielle was to get drunk, then Xena would remain sober and alert, just in case. Besides, if Gabrielle were to get as inebriated as Xena imagined she might, it would be up to the warrior to carry her back to their house and that she preferred to do without fighting her own body's desire to curl up and sleep off the spirits.
"I hope your rooms are to your liking," Cleopatra purred in a haughty tone.
"They're amazing," quipped Gabrielle. "I love the fountain in the room with the big window that looks out over the really pretty garden."
Inwardly Xena groaned. Gabrielle had downed an undiluted glass of wine, something to which she wasn't accustomed, on an empty stomach and already had that air of babbling about her.
Xena prepared a plate for them, selecting finger food: grapes, bread, olives, and cheeses. "Eat some, please."
"Oh yes, do!" Cleopatra chimed in. "I've had the cooks working on the feast all day. Do try the boar. It's one of our specialties."
"But it's got a head and hooves." Gabrielle scrunched up her nose and looked at the whole, dead, roasted animal.
Xena popped a grape in the bard's mouth.
"It's best when roasted whole. Something about the bones and the skin and the flavors. I don't know. I've had it explained to me." Cleopatra buried a knife into the boar, split it open, sliced a hunk and slid it onto her plate.
The brown-suited man returned to refill their wine glasses. He filled Cleopatra's first, smiled at Xena's empty glass when he poured hers, and asked the bard if the wine was to her liking because Gabrielle held a half-full glass of wine.
"It's great!" she replied. She finished her second glass and held it out to the man. "May I have some more?"
"It pleases Cleopatra that you enjoy her wine." He poured the dark red elixir for Gabrielle.
Xena leaned over and whispered to the bard, "Why don't you eat some more before you drink your way into a short evening?" Then she pulled the glass from Gabrielle's hand and put it on the table just out of easy reach.
"How 'bout some of that there boar! Eating boar would be no chore!"
Cleopatra laughed at Gabrielle's silly rhyme. "You poets are all such delightful people. Take Callimachus for example..."
Xena half-listened to their exchange as she carved a large portion from the boar and made certain that Gabrielle ate a fair share between her questions and comments to Cleopatra. Xena swept her gaze over the hall. It had filled with party-goers, drinkers, dancers, and musicians. The ambient noise level had risen sufficiently to hide intimate conversations. That was more to Xena's liking.
When she heard Cleopatra mention Pothinus, she returned her attention to the conversation at hand.
"Wait," interrupted Gabrielle, "was he the guy who looked old but not old?"
Cleopatra raised one brow in question, a movement which clearly took some effort. The wine pourer had come and gone again.
Gabrielle asked again. "That guy at the docks with your brother. Who was he?"
"Yes that's him!" The queen leaned forward, very nearly falling off the couch. "Pothinus is my brother's regent."
"That sounds pretty powerful."
"He's a thorn, he's a pest, but he's great with the staff. I let him train everyone. I haven't had any problems since."
"He's funny looking."
"Whatever do you mean?" Cleopatra almost took on a defensive tone.
"I mean," Gabrielle said raising her voice, "that he looked old and he looked young."
Cleopatra answered her sharply. "Oh that. He's a eunuch, of course. All regents are."
Gabrielle blinked then held her eyes wide open. "You mean they..."
"Snip, snip," explained the queen, cryptically.
Gabrielle's hand shot up over her mouth. "Oh dear gods..." she mumbled through her fingers. "They cut off his... um..."
"Balls. It ensures they don't sleep their way to the top," Xena said, completely amused by a drunken Gabrielle discovering the politics of castration.
Gabrielle held her hands over her mouth until her shoulders started to shake. Then she bent over and began giggling which evolved into hysterical laughter. Such outbursts are contagious among the tipsy. By the time Gabrielle had righted herself, she and Cleopatra were both laughing so hard tears seeped from their eyes and they gasped for air.
Completely out of character for the bard, Gabrielle grabbed the boar's hind leg, lifted it, and laughed more. Cleopatra closed her fingers around the carving knife, stood up to get the proper angle, and sliced off the boar's genitals. Both women dissolved into shrieks of hysteria.
Xena softly commented, "It doesn't really work that way. They can't cut off everything..." But it wasn't heard by her intended audience. They were both beyond listening to a sane, sober person.
When Cleopatra began to snore, her entire body swaddling the couch, Xena decided it was time to take the bard home. Gabrielle insisted on walking, slinking and weaving her way across the banquet room floor. She stopped to giggle at people, particularly gawking at any pair she spied kissing. At last, Xena had her to the porch where she swung her up into her arms.
"A ride home," Gabrielle slurred. "I like that."
"Uh huh. I know you do." Xena couldn't help but think the bundle in her arms was cute, but telling a drunk Gabrielle she was cute gave her license to discuss cuteness and its various stages, classifications, and consequences for hours. Instead, she simply bent her head and kissed Gabrielle.
"I like that, too." Gabrielle tried to waggle her eyebrows but ended up raising and lowering her entire head. "Poo."
The gardens glowed dimly in the moonlight. Their path, a shimmering blush of silver against the dusky grass, led them to their quarters: a quiet mansion for two. Gabrielle snaked one arm around Xena and began to kiss her chest and nuzzle her lips against whatever skin she could reach. Xena decided this had turned into a nice evening after all.
Once in their palace, Xena realized she hadn't found the bedroom yet. With Gabrielle still cradled in her arms she headed toward the sitting room and toward the door on the far side of that room she'd noticed earlier. To clasp the door knob, she juggled the bard who had slowed down noticeably in her smooching and snuggling. Unfortunately, the door led to a music room choked with lyres and flutes and drums.
So Xena retraced her steps and searched the other side of the house, all to no avail. She found a dining room, a ballroom, a kitchen, two closets, and two bathing rooms.
By now, the bard snored softly against her skin which tickled a little. So much for a romantic evening, thought Xena. But she never wanted to take advantage of Gabrielle, so perhaps this was best.
She pouted anyway.
And found a green and blue spiral staircase camouflaged slightly by the gaudy mosaic seascape that Gabrielle had been so taken with earlier in the day. Up she went, ascending wide, smooth, marble steps.
The bedroom took up the entire second floor. The bed was so large, she could have lost the little bard in it. The silks hanging overhead tangled in a light breeze wafting in from a series of small windows. Xena found herself wondering what the morning light would look like streaming in through the portals.
Then she laughed at herself and lowered the bard down to sleep on satiny sheets. The moon's glow cascaded softly onto the bed, illuminating Gabrielle's face in softness, and throwing a dim light across the room. Even in the bedroom, there were intricate tapestries, vases of scented flowers, and a few fountains spilled water into their basins. The burbles covered any extraneous noise that might filter in, making the room seem even more quiet, even more conducive to a good night's sleep.
* * *
With the first foot sliding across the floor, Xena awoke. She listened carefully for a time as the figure made its way across the wide floor. He must have already been in the room, Xena guessed. Perhaps that's why the hunchback didn't greet us at the door. Either she'd been sent away or...
She heard him draw a sword and not taking care to be particularly quiet about it. He came to her side of the bed first and stood at her side patiently, as if testing to see if she were awake. Xena knew the routine. She knew how to keep her breathing slow and deep as if in contented sleep. She knew just how an assassin's mind worked.
She enjoyed foiling them.
The assassin raised his arms, holding the hilt in both hands. He wanted to be sure he struck her hard. Before he began his downward arc, Xena kicked the sword from his grip, slammed her fist in his gut, and jabbed her fingers into his neck.
"You might not know me well, so I'll tell you that I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain."
"I... I... know..." He struggled to speak through contracted muscles.
"Good. You've heard. That makes it easier. Who sent you to kill me?"
For an answer, she heard him struggle to breathe.
"I'm not bluffing. You'd know that, too, I'd imagine."
"You've got about fifteen seconds left to your worthless life. Come on, spill it, and I'll let you live."
He gasped again, fighting the pain, fighting the inevitability of death. "Po..."
The man tried to nod. Revealing the information would grant him a short reprieve, at least until Pothinus found out he'd squealed.
Xena removed the pinch and slugged him. He fell limply to the floor.
"Well, what do you think about that, Gabrielle? Some surprise, huh?"
Xena turned, expecting to find Gabrielle sitting up and waiting to scold her about leaving the pinch on dangerously long. But Gabrielle was still asleep. Too deeply asleep.
Xena patted her cheeks and tried to roust her. She lifted one of her eyelids and found a dilated pupil rolled back. Damn! she thought. How did anybody slip her something. I was with her... The wine! I didn't taste the wine.
Xena kicked herself for not thinking ahead, planning for the possibility that someone, Pothinus in particular, would want them out of the way. She remembered Cleopatra saying that he'd trained the staff. She remembered the brown-robed fellow who'd poured the wine from a single carafe and who had smiled at her when she presented him with an empty glass.
How stupid could she be.
Thinking more calmly now, Xena dragged the assassin out of the way and bound him securely with some of the silks hanging all over the place.
Next, she lit candles and checked the bard's eyes again. Whatever they'd given her had been potent; the pupils didn't react at all to the light. The drug apparently acted slowly, letting the liquor rule Gabrielle's behavior and hide its dark intent until later. When she passed out, the drug took effect and kept her deeply asleep, undisturbed by the incident with the assassin. As they'd hoped I would be caught unaware.
The bard's pulse was a bit weak and a tad fast, though Xena didn't believe she was in danger. She'd have to sleep it off and she might well have a rip-roaring headache when she finally woke up.
Xena wondered about drug they'd used. It might have been something newly discovered far south of Alexandria, in the middle of a continent she hadn't spent much time exploring. Or perhaps it was something mixed up by alchemists in the damned Library.
And then the real reason for this incident hit her. She rose from the bed, grabbed her sword, and plowed down the stairs. Cleopatra had been dosed with the same drug from the wine.
And she didn't have a warrior princess in the room on the lookout for assassins.
When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
-Calpurnia from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
By the time she got to the bottom of the stairs, Xena realized how successful the mastermind behind the assassin had been. Gabrielle was still in their bed, heavily drugged, and unable to defend against any further intruders. This was no time to leave her unguarded.
Swearing, Xena took a moment to find a suitable place to conceal Gabrielle and decided that the music room she'd stumbled onto earlier that night would do. After pulling one of the couches from the sitting area into the room of lyres and flutes, she climbed the stairs, dragged the unconscious silk-bound assassin into the upstairs bathing room and tied him to the sink, then returned to the bedroom and gently lifted the sleeping bard into her arms, taking a moment to stare at Gabrielle's pure, sweet face. She brought Gabrielle down to the first floor and laid her softly on the yellow couch.
Still not satisfied about the bard's security but running out of time, Xena locked the door from the inside and crawled out one of the windows. Her legs pushed up to full sprint within two steps of landing. She hurtled toward Cleopatra's palace.
The solitary marble mansion looked cold and distant in the light of a waning moon. No guards stopped her as she flew in; someone had either killed them or sent them away. Pothinus had the authority to dismiss them.
Xena needed to locate the bedroom. She guessed it wouldn't be on the ground floor, that that was reserved for Cleopatra's multitude of affluent and occasionally snoopy guests, so she bolted up the wide, spiral granite staircase. Down a long hallway on the second floor, richly adorned with deep red, gem-studded tapestries, three people waited near a double wooden door.
Two who stood at rigid attention were palace guards. Their uniforms proudly carried the crest of an eagle and their gleaming swords had been kept meticulously cleaned and sharpened. The third man's shaven pate loomed out of white robes. He knelt by the door, chanting and bobbing his bald head.
The guards advanced toward Xena as she raced down the hallway. Their weapons already drawn, sure of their abilities, they positioned themselves to guard their queen. The man in white robes arose slowly, turned toward her, and narrowed his dark eyes.
Xena flipped over the guards and planted her feet inches in front of the white-robed priest. "Let me past. Someone's trying to kill Cleopatra."
The priest raised a brow. "Pothinus ordered no one to disturb her. The queen performs the Night of Great Sleep."
"Well, someone wants that to be a permanent sleep." Xena jumped and kicked behind her, knocking the weapons from the advancing guards' grips. She twisted around, grabbed both of the guards, then kicked open the door to the royal bedchamber. "See what I mean?"
Pothinus loomed over Cleopatra's body, a jagged blade clutched in his fist. The priest rushed past Xena and the guards. "What are you doing?" he yelled.
Pothinus straightened slowly and smiled at Xena as if acknowledging that she had thwarted his scheme. She returned the gesture, loosened her grip on the guards and said to one of them, "Get Ptolemy."
He nodded deferentially to her and rushed out. The other guard took the dagger from Pothinus and pulled him away from Cleopatra's bed. The queen did not stir.
Xena checked Cleopatra's breathing. Like Gabrielle's it was shallow but steady. And like Gabrielle, she would likely have a headache when she finally awoke, but nothing worse than that.
The priest brought his hands to his heart. "You are The Divine Falcon."
"Nope, just Xena."
The priest bowed before her. "You are Osiris' envoy."
Great, she thought, just what I needed... some religious fanatic pinning an ancient deity's watchdog on me. "Get up. I'm no myth."
"No!" he cried. "You are the Divine Falcon. Of this I am certain."
"Come on," she said, annoyed by the priest's charge, "get up and help sort this out. I've got somewhere I need to be."
The priest did her bidding, standing and smoothing the folds in his white robe. He didn't make eye contact with her, she noticed.
Ptolemy rushed in, hair awry and gown crooked. He noted Pothinus' presence nonchalantly. He eyed Xena with skepticism. He looked truly surprised to discover Cleopatra, her dark hair in stark contrast to the white sheets, was alive.
"My liege," Pothinus proclaimed. "I have failed you."
The young Ptolemy's eyes widened and his breath became shallow.
"I have attempted to take the life of your sister-wife."
"Wha..." Ptolemy stuttered. "You what?"
Pothinus fell to a knee. "I have shamed the House of Ptolemy. I implore you to take revenge upon me now."
"I..." Ptolemy struggled to cope with the situation. His regent had apparently botched a murder and was now taking it on the chin for his king.
Xena crossed her arms and listened to the deception, the practiced ignorance surrounding her, and watched false confessions spring from a loyal servant's lips. The priest had known nothing of the plot, but Ptolemy expected Cleopatra to be dead that night.
The priest spoke up. "I saw it myself, your majesty. Pothinus was about to take the life of our queen when The Divine Falcon saved her."
"The divine?..." Ptolemy shook his head. "What are you talking about?"
"As the prophecy says, the Falcon has reached the House of Isis."
This news seemed to disturb Ptolemy. They were interrupted, however, by a cadre of Palace Guards who ran rhythmically down the hall. When the Captain of the Guards entered the room, Pothinus grabbed his dagger from the first guard and thrust it through his own heart.
As he fell, Ptolemy rushed to him, trying in some way to lessen the pain. All the young monarch got for his troubles was blood on his hands. Xena thought it fitting. She also took charge. "Get that body out of here. Send a physician up to see to your queen. And some of you come with me; I've got another assassin I think you'll want. Mine isn't dead."
Once she'd arrived back at her house, Xena sent the guards up to get the assassin. She quickly ran around the back of the house, reentered the music room from the window, and checked to see that Gabrielle was still all right. The bard hadn't moved a muscle. Her breathing was a little deeper than earlier, a sign that the drug was beginning to make its way out of her system. Xena allowed herself to feel a bit of the terror she'd held at bay and then clamped it down tight. Gabrielle would be okay.
She heard the guards clomp down the stairs with their burden and ushered them out quickly. She promised to speak with the Captain of the Guard the next morning and feigned being too tired to do more that night. They relented pleasantly and bade her goodbye her until the morning. Xena noticed that two of the guards stationed themselves at her front door. You're a little late for that, she thought.
* * *
The first thing Gabrielle noticed was that her head felt as if it had caved in. Pounding bursts of pain throbbed at her temples, down the back of her neck, behind her eyes. Her mouth was as arid as the unwatered desert. Her stomach rolled and cramped.
She didn't remember being in a fight or getting hit. She wasn't quite sure what she'd been doing or where she was but if she was experiencing a hangover, it compared with none she'd had before. They'd given her headaches. This was more like a concussion. And having eaten bad fish.
But she wasn't scared. A comforting and very familiar form had wrapped itself around her. She was safe. And so she slept.
* * *
Xena felt Gabrielle grow restless, agitated as if she were stuck in a cycle of disturbing dreams. She tucked the bard further into her embrace and willed away the demons.
The night had been a short one for the warrior princess. She had slept little and now the sun shone fully into their room. It lit the floorboards where she'd felled the intruder. It lit Gabrielle's face. The pale, sweaty skin looked more fragile under the early light.
Groggy green eyes opened and blinked at her. "Xena?"
"Shhh. Go back to sleep."
"Thirsty." Gabrielle's thin voice cracked.
Xena eased her out of their tangle of limbs. "I'll get you some water. Be right back."
Xena held Gabrielle up as she sipped cool water from a yellow glass. "More?"
"Not yet." Gabrielle rested her cheek on Xena's shoulder. "What happened?"
"Someone drugged the wine." It would suffice for now. A more complete explanation would come later.
"Cleopatra likes all that fun and beautiful stuff because pearls and gold are so easy to love."
"Say what?" Sometimes, thought Xena, Gabrielle could say the most confusing things.
"Aristotle. Callimachus and I read some of his scrolls."
"Gabrielle, you need to go back to sleep." She laid the bard back onto the pillows.
"Aristotle said that a thing which is desirable in itself is a greater good than a thing which is not desirable in itself."
Xena chuckled. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Gabrielle rolled toward Xena. "Being a good person and looking out for others like you do isn't desirable in itself but it's a whole lot better than the pretty stuff. And Cleopatra isn't a very good person on the inside."
She kissed Gabrielle lightly. "I think they put more in that drug than stuff to
make you sleep."
"Funny, Xena." Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes.
* * *
In sleep we sometimes have thoughts other than the mere phantasms immediately before our minds, thought Gabrielle as she drifted off to sleep.
A great bull snorted and stomped its heavy foot. He took a menacing step toward her. Out of his eye sprang a cobra, beguiling and deadly. The cobra wore a golden crown embellished with glistening rubies. The cobra danced and swayed in the air, attuned to an inner song she couldn't hear. From the edges of her vision, serpents crawled in. They came in pairs and each had two heads, one looking forward, the other back.
Suddenly, a ocean appeared and washed away the evil beasts in a great flood. From the sky, a lone falcon floated on invisible streams of air. Effortless and perpetual, the falcon soared.
Eagles joined it and they took up the cobra's dance, diving and twisting in the air. Talons extended from the eagles' feet. They swooped down onto the lone falcon.
One large eye rose over the horizon. It contained wisdom and truth. The eye spoke. "I have come like Horus into the holy place of the horizon of the sky. I announce Re at the gates of the horizon. The Destructive One shall not attack me. I am content in the horizon. Prepare a path for Osiris."
The eye drove all the creatures away.
But for the falcon who circled the heavens.
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o'er our heads,
Let's all cry 'Peace, freedom and liberty!'
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
The next day a still weary Gabrielle stood next to Xena and accepted Cleopatra's official recognition of their efforts. Xena had saved the Egyptian queen's life. The tall warrior looked uncomfortable wearing the long, purple robe. Gabrielle immediately took a liking to the color on Xena. It brought out exotic highlights in her black hair as a cloud-shrouded moon could pull mutating shades from the inky black ocean.
But then Cleopatra presented Gabrielle with a purple robe as well and the bard endured the same unease Xena had shown. Being on display was always hard. Xena winked at her. Shared embarrassment made it a bit easier.
"I know proclaim you honorary Kinsman to the Crown, Xena of Amphipolis." Cleopatra pinned a gold brooch to the robe over Xena's heart. A falcon's crest stood out in glittering relief against the dark robe. "And you, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, are to be honorary Kinsman to the Crown as well."
"I didn't do anything," Gabrielle protested.
"Nonsense." Cleopatra spoke so that only Gabrielle could hear her. "You drank Xena's wine for her, otherwise we might all be dead."
Gabrielle dazedly observed the Egyptian queen, a woman who could look good in any condition, pin a gold brooch on her, this one shaped into the crestof the eagle. She looked around and noted that the guests -- Callimachus in purple, Abas in green, a few other officials in green or purple, and a priest of some sort draped in white -- all wore the eagle crest. It was the official crest of the House of Ptolemy. But Xena's was a falcon...
Gabrielle felt her knees give way and a pair of strong arms steady her. "Gabrielle isn't feeling well," Xena announced in a firm tone.
"No, I'm okay." Gabrielle couldn't muster much beyond a hoarse whisper. "Just let me sit down for a second. I'll be fine."
Xena led her to a bench in the shadows of the throne room. Though the throne room was smaller than many rooms they had seen in the royal quarter thus far, it was the most outrageously ostentatious. The bench they sat on was crafted of solid silver. Deep blue silk cushions padded their backs. Around them, all of the furniture was silver but for the throne, which was opulent gold embedded with rare jewels. Pearls and diamonds outlined the monarch's throne and symbol of power. Cleopatra relaxed back into it as if it were as common as a straight-backed chair. The queen closed her eyes briefly, clearly tired from her ordeal as was the bard.
"We need to get you back to bed." Though Xena spoke softly to Gabrielle, she sounded impatient.
"No, no... that's not it." Gabrielle considered telling Xena right then and there of her dream; not a true vision that Gabrielle occasionally experienced, but one that had prophetic weavings through its bizarre landscape. She could wait a bit longer before she told her tale. "Ask me later, okay?"
Xena nodded. "But I'm going to get us out of here."
"That would be fine." Gabrielle reached over to squeeze Xena's hand. "Nice robes."
"If you don't mind looking like you've been attacked by a puppeteer's curtains." Xena smiled and returned the squeeze. "You stay here and I'll make our excuses."
"It's a deal." Gabrielle rested her head back against the silk pillows and watched Xena wend her way toward Cleopatra. Even in the bulky robe Xena's uncanny strength showed through. It was the way she walked -- restrained and graceful -- and the way she held her head, using just her eyes to scan the room. There was no needless movement, no wasted energy. It was what gave the warrior princess her majestic air, her potency, her aura of commanding authority, and was also what made her so difficult to read. But Gabrielle had learned how.
"Am I bothering you?"
Gabrielle pulled her eyes from Xena and turned to find Abas speaking to her. "What? Oh sorry. Just tired I guess."
Abas laughed, looked at Xena and then back to the bard. "I see."
"Here, sit down for a minute. How's everything?"
The captain plopped down onto the bench. In robes she looked so different than how Gabrielle remembered her at the helm of the sloop. The folds of fabric gave her false arrogance and robbed her of her natural charm.
"Iphis isn't well," Abas began. "We've been to see the physicians again
just this morning. They're not sure they can help him."
"I'm so sorry, Abas. Is there anything we can do?"
Abas patted her arm. "I wish there was, Gabrielle. I wish there was."
"Is he up for visitors? I'd like to see him."
"I'm sure he'd like that. Maybe in a couple of days he'll be more like himself and want company." Abas arose from the bench as Xena returned. "But for now I think you'd better get some rest yourself."
"That's just what we've got planned." Xena held her hand out to Gabrielle. "Come on, my friend, let's go get you a nap."
They walked back to their residence slowly, Gabrielle telling Xena that Iphis had taken a turn for the worse. The agreed to visit him when he was feeling better. In their new robes, the heat of the day sapped any desire to hurry. Once inside their house, the robes were stripped off and left to hang by the door like dangling, empty metaphors.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and headed toward the yellow sitting room. "I don't need anap."
Xena followed quietly.
"I had a strange dream."
Xena waited patiently.
"It had something to do with falcons and eagles and an eye or something. It's kind of hard to remember all the detail. I was hoping it would come back to me better."
Xena sat on one of the couches. The sitting room seemed a much calmer place after the throne room, the yellow softer than silver and gold. "When did you have this dream?"
Gabrielle had stopped at the window. She rested one hand on the wall and peered out into the gardens. "Last night... you know. I didn't think much of it because I had such weird sorts of dreams anyway and I chalked it up to whatever they'd put in the wine." She turned and looked at Xena. The flat lines of the yellow couch against the wall became the sunset. Xena, the dark bird, hovered at the horizon.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in bed being held by a very concerned warrior princess.
"Easy," Xena murmured. "Drink a little."
Gabrielle sipped cool water offered to her lips. "Thanks." Another sip cooled her throat. "Did I black out?"
Gabrielle sat up. "You must have caught me. Nothing hurts."
"That's my job," Xena said with a tilt of her head.
"What would I do without you?" Xena was sitting as well so Gabrielle leaned into her, resting her head against Xena's shoulder.
"Think you can remember any more of that dream?"
A vague stream of images came to her. "Let's see... There was a bull and a cobra and then all sorts of snakes. Next there was an ocean. A falcon flew high in the sky. That was peaceful." Gabrielle raised her eyes to Xena's. "Why did Cleopatra give you a falcon and not an eagle like the rest of us?"
"Long story. I'll take my turn next."
"Okay." She rubbed her cheek into the smooth skin of Xena's arm. "Then eagles showed up and at first I thought everything was fine. They were all flying in acrobatic circles. But the eagles ganged up on the falcon." Gabrielle grew quiet. The eagles and falcons made sense now but not the rest of it. "There was an eye. A big huge eye. And it talked about strange people I've never heard of."
"Recall any names?"
"No, not really. I might recognize them if I heard them again."
Xena rubbed the bard's back. "Then what happened?"
"That was it. The eye came and all the eagles left."
"And the falcon?"
Gabrielle reached around Xena and hugged her. "Still up there flying at the end."
"Glad to hear it." Xena related all that had happened in her rescue of Cleopatra. She told Gabrielle that the priest in the white robe had called her The Divine Falcon.
"Do you know what that means?"
Xena chuckled ruefully. "Yeah. It means that the priests in Alexandria can be as crazy as the ones back home." She gently pushed Gabrielle back down on the bed. "As much as I'd like to leave Alexandria, I think we ought to stay a few days. Make sure that Cleopatra is out of danger and," Xena leaned over to kiss the bard, "make sure you're okay."
* * *
Xena begrudgingly agreed to take Gabrielle on a walk. The curious bard insisted they go into the city. "I'm tired of all these gardens, Xena. I want to see real people."
Xena laughed and tossed her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "I know what you mean."
So they went through the royal gates and found themselves on a huge colonnaded boulevard, Canopic Way, that cut straight through the city, east to west. Even though the street was 100 feet wide, it felt crowded. The population of Alexandria gravitated toward Canopic Way as if it were their day's path, their lifeline, their guide.
All along the street small clusters of merchants set up carts to hock their wares. On one corner were incense makers; their thick swirls of scents wafted skyward from a perpetual cloud. Another set of carts sold geometric vases of green and blue glass. Others offered jars made of red clay; a few had been hollowed from mysterious gourds.
They passed linen makers, bakers, metalworkers, furniture c raftsmen, weavers, jewelers, wine merchants, and a host of traders. As Xena and Gabrielle made their way down the street, it became even more crowded with buyers and sellers alike thronging the way.
When Canopic Way opened out into the Agora they could no longer walk at their own pace. They were forced to go around haggling shoppers and jugglers and mimes, fruit sellers, butchers, fish mongers, and tanners. All around them were the sounds of fierce bartering, the delicious scents of freshly baked cakes, linens and tapestries flapping in the breeze, and squealing children running off on their own, joyous in the bustle and freedom of the marketplace.
Gabrielle fell in love with Alexandria.
They heard exotic languages, saw alluring and strange clothing. The city was a melting pot. People from the Mediterranean countries bought and sold to travelers from the south in the heart of Africa, to pilgrims from Persia and Mesopotamia, and to dealers from Arabia and even as far away as Chin.
Xena leaned over to her. "Callimachus is over there. Do you want to say hi to him?"
"Can we?" She followed Xena through the crowd to a baker's tent, embellished with the comforting aroma of baking bread.
Callimachus had just handed over a few drachmae and was juggling up three loaves of bread with a few packages already purchased and wrapped.
"Here, let me help." Gabrielle took two of the loaves from the poet.
"Hi there!" Callimachus smiled broadly. "I see you're feeling better."
"Much, thanks. Xena took good care of me."
Callimachus greeted Xena and explained that he was heading to his nephew's house for his once-a-fortnight dinner. "Perhaps you would like to join me?"
"Oh, we wouldn't want to intrude." Gabrielle did, however, want to go. Being out in the city was so much more invigorating than hanging out in the royal quarter. She gave Xena her most mournful look.
Xena understood. "We can stop in for a minute, but if we're not expected..."
"I'm bringing the food. There's plenty. Come on," Callimachus turned and spoke back over his shoulder, "it'll be great for them to meet you."
Once off Canopic Way and into the western residential quarter of the city, Alexandria took on a decidedly different flavor. Many of the houses were in disrepair, some were home to several families. Only a foot separated the exterior walls, barely enough space for the rats to roost.
No wonder everyone headed to the marketplace, thought Gabrielle. This was more disgusting than the slums of Athens, more cruel than some of the prisons she'd seen. On closer scrutiny she noticed that the people here were generally of olive skin, had long narrow heads, and dark, wavy hair. They were in a ghetto of Egyptians. The native people.
Callimachus led them into a small courtyard. Goats, chickens, and geese howled at them from small pens. They walked past a old millstone for grinding grain, wobbly on a missing leg but obviously still in daily use, and a water jug for storage half-buried in the sandy soil. The courtyard reeked from the animals and the sounds of children screaming echoed around the walls.
Callimachus strode right into an open door. "Belus! I've brought food and good company."
Gabrielle's eyes adjusted to the dark room. A tall, thin man held his hand out to her. "I'm Gabrielle."
"Hello, Gabrielle. Are you by chance that bard I've heard so much about?"
"She is, indeed," remarked Callimachus. "And this is Xena."
Belus did not offer his hand to her. Instead he held her eyes. "The pleasure is mine." His voice was open and honest.
"Come now," Callimachus said. "We've brought bread and monkfish. I hope your fire is hot. I'm hungry." The poet muttered to himself as he set up by the fireplace.
"Thank you for having us," Gabrielle said amiably. "We ran into Callimachus at the market and he invited us."
"I'm glad he did. Please, sit down." Belus led them to a hard wooden bench.
It felt much more relaxing than the overly adorned furniture Gabrielle had been sitting on. "Can we help at all?"
"I've got it," Callimachus yelled from the fire.
Xena finally spoke. "How long have you been in Alexandria?"
"All my life." Belus kicked a stool toward them and sat on it. "I haven't been out of the city but for a few times. Went back to Rome to marry, may the gods take care of Julia, and met my various relatives for the first and only time. Alexandria is my home. And Janus', too. I wonder where that boy is? I send him to trade for some lamp oil and he's gone half the day."
Gabrielle reached for a wooden sailing ship. Its sails had long since been torn off and the mast was only a stump. "Janus is your son?"
"He'll be ten the next moon."
"And a smart one, he is, Belus. I keep offering to have him schooled at the Library."
"And I keep refusing."
"Why?" asked Xena.
Belus glanced at the two women and then lowered his eyes to the floor. "He wouldn't be treated well."
"Because he's Roman?" Xena had figured it out long before Gabrielle made the connection.
Questions swirled in the bard's head. Janus would run into problems in school and yet his uncle, head of the Library, shared the same blood? Why did they have to live in squalor when Callimachus was in Cleopatra's inner circle?
With the swiftness of a bolting deer, a lanky boy rushed into the house. Three older, stockier boys stopped at the threshold, taunting him. In a breath, Xena blocked their view. "Have you got something to say?"
In unison, three muted bullies backed up. Four steps away from the door they paused, then broke into mad dashes away from the house.
Belus went to his son. "Let me see," he said softly.
A handsome blonde boy with dark brown eyes and muddy clothing stood before his father. "They took the oil." He said it as if he had said it a million times before. As if the loss would be accepted without question, without blame.
Gabrielle retrieved a basin of water and a rag. She dipped the linen into the water and began to clean Janus' dirty face. "My name is Gabrielle. You must be Janus."
The boy's eyes widened at first and then closed at the bard's gentle touch. Belus took the boy's hand but let Gabrielle finish washing his face.
The bard felt Xena come up behind her and put a hand on her back. "What happened?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle patted the boy's face dry with a clean rag. Janus smiled sadly at her then turned his attention to the tall woman who had run off the bullies. "They hate me. They all hate me."
What manner o' thing is your crocodile?
It is shaped, sir, like itself; and it is as broad
as it hath breadth: it is just so high as it is,
and moves with its own organs: it lives by that
which nourisheth it; and the elements once out of
it, it transmigrates.
-Lepidus and Mark Antony from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Xena left Gabrielle and Belus to the task of calming young Janus. She walked back to the lone, hard bench and sat down. Callimachus had returned to the fire, preparing dinner from ingredients he'd bought in the market that day.
How is it possible to look into the face of this boy and not feel sorry for him? His heritage isn't his fault. And yet he's a Roman. Xena understood the Alexandrian's hatred of Romans. It was something she shared with them in abundance.
What she couldn't yet grasp was how Callimachus had escaped the bigotry to ascend to the post of Head Librarian. Even the finest minds, scholars and poets alike, could easily be held back from a political post due to undesirable parentage.
Xena kept the questions in the back of her mind as everyone gathered around a small table to share the evening meal. Belus owned only a bare minimum of furniture. He and Callimachus each sat on uneven stools; Janus wriggled between Xena and Gabrielle, to whom he had taken quite a liking, on the bench.
But the food was good. The bread had been baked with a sprinkling of poppy seeds on top. A plain pan-fried monkfish tasted much better than the rich and exotic meals they'd been served at the palace. And mugs of yeasty beer, an Alexandrian specialty, were a welcome change from sweet Greek wine.
"What have you seen so far of Alexandria?" Belus asked.
Xena waited for Gabrielle to answer, which she did. "Not much, really. The market, today. And we walked down Canopic Way from the palace. That's all."
"Oh, there's so much for you to do." Belus refilled his beer mug from a chipped pitcher in the center of the table. "There are over a thousand temples. And the baths are wonderful. There are fifteen-hundred of those. There's the lake just south of the city with a harbor even busier than the sea's. Oh, and the Hippodrome has something going every night. It's famous for wild mimes."
"Perhaps," interrupted Callimachus, "these fine women shouldn't be subjected to the ribald nature of the mimes."
"I'm sure we wouldn't see anything that would surprise us," Xena murmured.
"My uncle is quite right, nonetheless," Belus continued, amiably, "there is so much else to see, anyway. Have you been to the zoo? You really must go."
"What's a zoo?" asked Gabrielle.
"Now it is Belus who is correct. If you've never been to one, you might as well start with the premier zoo in the world." Callimachus' face lit up as he described it. "It's a zoological garden, a place to see strange and unusual animals. Have you ever seen a giraffe? A rhinoceros? An ostrich?"
Xena smiled. Gabrielle's eyes had lit as brightly as a young girl's about to open a pile of Solstice gifts. "It sounds like something we should see," Xena agreed.
"Can I go, too?" asked an eager Janus.
Belus quickly scolded him. "You know better than to ask that."
Gabrielle, however, had other ideas. "I think you should come with us, Janus. You can show us around town, be our tour guide."
"Oh wow!" Janus closed his eyes and started to tick off places he liked to go. "There are the burial grounds and the cisterns and the lighthouse..." He looked at his father. "If you'll let us in."
Belus held up his hands and explained. "I work there. I have the night shift stoking the fire. Tonight is my night off, one each fortnight."
Xena cringed inwardly. Here was a man who had a job, a decent job in one of the city's landmarks, who got one day off every two weeks, and he could barely support himself and his son. I wonder what other inconsistencies there are in Alexandria, mused Xena.
"I'd love to tour the lighthouse." Gabrielle ruffled Janus' blonde hair. "And I think you'd make a wonderful guide for the zoo."
"Can I, father?" Janus waited, expectantly, for his father to answer.
Belus considered it for moment. "This city has its good points and its bad," he began, talking directly to his visitors. "Underneath the prosperity..." He fidgeted with a chunk of bread. "You have to understand that some of us have to be careful about where we go."
Xena spoke plainly. "Because you're Roman."
Belus nodded. "Yes, but it's far more pervasive than that."
This time, Gabrielle responded. "The Egyptians, too?" She flushed, embarrassed. "Sorry, I don't mean to sound disrespectful."
Callimachus put his elbows on the table and rested his chin in his hands. "'Tis no disrespect to speak the truth, Gabrielle."
Xena sensed that this family talked openly about the ethnic situation and that certain touchy subjects could be broached. "I've seen the hardship prejudice brings. And I know that it's usually applied in sweeping gestures by those in power. So how did you become Chief Librarian, Callimachus, if you've Roman blood in you?"
Callimachus emitted a sad laugh. "My father was Roman. His eldest daughter is Belus' mother. But I am the product of concubine and I am only half Roman. I was raised by my Greek mother." The poet shook his head. "The irony is that if my father had married my mother, whom he dearly loved, I'd be an outcast as well, for mixed marriages are unlawful."
They all fell silent for a moment.
Belus broke the silence. "Only the Greeks can walk without fear in this city. But they must be wary and not go into the depths of some of the quarters. The Jews and the Egyptians have populations high enough to establish safe neighborhoods for themselves, and their vigilance makes them dangerous for the Greeks.
"Others -- the Romans, those from far in the east or north of the Mediterranean -- there are many places we can't go. The Egyptians can't visit Greek temples; the Jews aren't allowed in Greek or Egyptian baths. None of us go to the Palace or the zoo unless accompanied by a Greek."
Callimachus summed it up. "They only thing that these people have in common is that everyone hates Romans."
"I'll see that no one bothers Janus when we take him to the zoo tomorrow." The grateful faces in the room told Xena that everyone trusted her to ensure her statement came true.
* * *
The zoo was as spectacular as had been promised. Gabrielle lingered before the wild cats whose sleek movements reminded her of Xena.
Janus loved the baboons. Xena and Gabrielle indulged him for a long while, letting him watch the baboons, all arms it seemed, jump and fly and careen about the cage. They were a little community, a microcosm of familiarity in a world of bipedal aliens. The primates preened each other, fed each other, and cared for their young as a group. Gabrielle thought it quite odd that baboons could exhibit greater civility than humans.
The giraffes lowered long, elegant necks to the grass to crop tall shoots. The nearby trees had been nibbled clean but the zookeepers tied fresh bushels of grain to the limbs so the giraffes could extend their bodies to the food, entertaining and amazing the guests.
Gabrielle tried to remember a list of all the animals they'd seen: cranky and startlingly agile rhinoceroses; the enormous elephants who, they were told, were used in the papyrus fields to haul great loads; creepy, slithery asps; and impractical ostriches whose heads were, according to rumor, usually stuck in the sand but on this day were wrapped around each other in violent, pecking quarrels.
But all of those creatures paled when compared to the royal crocodiles. These creatures had teeth as sharp as Xena's chakram, hides more impenetrable than any castle's defenses, and tempers worse than all the warlords she'd ever known rolled together.
Janus made certain they went to see the crocodiles at feeding time. The crocs captured their prey with lightning fast reflexes. They were always fed live animals and sometimes, Gabrielle heard whispered near the cage, men who had committed reprehensible crimes were tossed into the turbid water. She heard people say that no matter how fast, how well executed the men's escape attempts were, the crocodiles always won. If the beasts latched on with their iron jaws to a leg first, death came agonizingly slowly. The thick-skinned predators enjoyed playing with their screaming meals, tossing them around as a cat would juggle a ball of yarn. But if the crocs opened their gaping maws and sunk their teeth into the head or the heart of the man, death came instantly.
After that, when Janus suggested visiting the cisterns, Gabrielle numbly agreed. Nothing could be as bad as the crocodiles, she thought.
"There are lots of ways down," Janus explained as he led them back into the city. "I usually get there from the bath but since you're with me we can go through a temple. It's a much easier way in."
"Easier way in...?" Gabrielle wondered what she was getting herself into.
"Yeah, it's all under the city. There are lots of cisterns and in a dry spell, when the water is low, you can climb from one to the next. It's really great down there." Janus pranced through the streets. "There's a canal just outside the city by Lake Mareotis and the water comes from the Nile through it. From there, the water gets sent down into the cisterns."
Gabrielle glanced over at Xena who calmly scanned the street ahead and the alleys to either side. Whatever they were about to do didn't seem to worry Xena. The bard resolved not to fret over it either, except she kept picturing great crocodiles feeding in dark underground seas. Those scenes were still playing in her mind when they walked into the foyer of the Egyptian Temple to the Water God and started down an old set of steps.
At first, the steps were evenly spaced and made of sturdy wood. But after a dozen or so they turned to packed dirt, the kind that gently muffled your footfalls. A musty, ancient fragrance of years too numerous to count wafted up from the black depths, enticing them further under the city and back into history.
Each of them had a torch. Gabrielle preferred to keep hers low to the ground, to illuminate her path. In front of her, Xena held hers high, lighting the stairway and the walls beyond in a flickering golden haze. Pictures and hieroglyphics had been scrawled onto the walls.
Janus, in the lead, sometimes stopped to show them a particularly unusual set of hieroglyphics, many from when the cisterns were originally dug, not long removed from the days of the great Egyptian Pharaohs. Gabrielle wondered if Janus could read the hieroglyphics or if he was merely repeating stories he'd been told. She looked at the pictograms carefully. Some seemed to make sense to her right away but others she didn't understand. The popular form of writing, demotic, was so much easier to figure out, though her Egyptian wasn't very good anyway. She hoped to have some time to spend in the Library improving her reading skills.
When they had descended far under the city, the staircase deposited them in a huge cavern stretching above their heads and into the distance, far beyond the throw of the torch light. Water lapped at their feet and the eerie echoes of their footsteps danced through the room, fading slowly. Gabrielle considered for a moment positioning herself behind Xena so anything that might come out of the water would have to get through the warrior before it descended on her, but she fought that urge and stood by Xena's side.
"Isn't this great?" Janus yelled.
His sudden shout startled Gabrielle. But then she realized what he'd done, for his words traveled through the cavern almost endlessly, one word dissolving into the other until the words lost their form and all that was left was the light timbre of Janus' voice.
Gabrielle mustered her courage and belted out, "Hey!" The first several echoes attained a rhythm, the repetitions clearly pulsing. Soon it dimmed into one long tendril, vanishing into the cistern's abyss.
She tried it again, this time shouting Xena's name and then her own. Softly, in order to diminish the effects of the echo, Gabrielle said, "This is pretty amazing, Janus. Thank you for bringing us."
Janus followed suit in a whisper. "I love coming down here. There's all sorts of neat stuff to do. One of my friends brings his drum. That's really great."
Gabrielle was about to choose something with a sharp edge to cry into the cistern when a deep humming seemed to well up from the water. At first she thought that the cistern sang to her, offering a poignant requiem for the ancients who had dug it. But then she recognized the familiar passion, if not the precise melody.
Xena hummed. The echo in the cavern stretched on for so long that the warrior could hum a counterpoint over her own voice. Soothing, misty long tones reverberated around them. A polyphonic enchantment filled the cavern; the song engulfed them completely, wrapping them in pure, sweet harmony.
The phrases became shorter. Xena stacked them one on top of the other creating a dense and intricate texture. The walls boomed in delight, repeating the cadence over and over, raising the volume until the room pulsated with rich sound.
Then Xena hit one long note, higher than the rest, and held it until the repetitions faded into vaporous resonance. Slowly, she let her voice get softer and softer until the sound source lost its distinction from the echo.
When Xena finished and the last of the bewitching vibrations slipped away, the trio silently returned to the world above, to the noisy clanking of metalworkers, the clatter of carts and horses, the babble of merchants, and the general din of city life.
Gabrielle would forever remember that song.
Do not exceed
The prescript of this scroll: our fortune lies
Upon this jump.
-Octavius Caesar from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The next morning, Xena and Gabrielle called on Iphis to see how their friend and extraordinary cook fared. Abas, a sea captain not entirely at home the dry land of the palace grounds, scowled at him, but Iphis insisted on being at the table in the sitting room with his guests.
Since it was obvious from his gaunt appearance that he hadn't improved at all, Gabrielle shied away from asking him how he felt. "This house is really nice. Very comfortable." She looked around, agreeably, and noted the soft couches and fresh flowers.
"It's a gift from the queen," Iphis said, then coughed. A deep rattling sound lingered in his chest and he struggled to take a deep breath.
Abas quietly placed one hand on top of her husband's. "Cleopatra has provided this place for us while Iphis recuperates." Gabrielle noted the positive spin Abas put on their dire situation. "Normally, we live on the sloop even when it's in harbor."
Gabrielle wanted to continue in Abas' vein of finding the bright spot. "It must be an easier trip to see the physicians from here than from the harbor."
"They come to me!" Iphis proclaimed proudly. "They arrive in droves each morn, a master and his cadre of eager young students. I get poked and prodded by each and every one of them."
"And you complain about it to each and every one of them as well," added Abas.
"My dearest wife, if I complain at all it is to give you better fodder for your stories. You'll tell everyone I was as crotchety as can be, so I might as well live up to my undeserved reputation."
They laughed. Iphis' spirits were good even when his body threatened to fail him.
Xena had remained quiet, which Gabrielle expected. The stoic warrior wasn't much for sympathetic words. She usually let her actions define her. The bard saw that Xena studied the jars and bags piled on a table nearby. They contained various herbs, probably prescribed for Iphis. Xena would be curious about what the Alexandrian physicians gave Iphis and, thought Gabrielle, probably have some ideas of her own.
Iphis had another coughing fit. All fell silent as he tried to right his breathing. He self-consciously dropped his shoulders. "Damn cough," he muttered.
"They're giving you mullein and echinacea," Xena stated flatly.
"I can't keep up with it all." Iphis absently waved his hand toward the table full of medicinal herbs.
"Yes," Abas answered plainly. "I am supposed to add it into a basin of very hot water along with three drops of peppermint oil."
"Then I have to hold a towel about my head an inhale the stuff." Iphis leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "Don't tell anyone, but it actually smells pretty good."
As Gabrielle chuckled Xena muttered, "Good," and cast her eyes toward nothing in particular, thinking for a moment. "Horehound could help, too. I've seen it relax the coughing spasms."
"That would be welcome," commented Abas. "He complains about the people who treat him but never of how he feels." She smiled at her husband. "I know that with all the coughing you do your chest must ache terribly."
"It's not bad."
"You are a cantankerous man, Iphis." Abas kissed him on his cheek. "I love it when you lie to me like that."
* * *
Callimachus called for them at their residence later that day. Dressed in their purple robes, for the wearing of official garb was mandatory, Xena and Gabrielle set off to tour the Great Library of Alexandria with the Chief Librarian as their personal guide.
"Oh good," Callimachus cried as they rounded a corner, "I hoped that we'd catch them before they started."
Gabrielle was quite surprised to see people in costumes milling about huge, elaborate statues and sculptures on wheels, and elephants being led into position to pull them. "What's this?"
"A procession to honor Apis the Bull. One of the sacred bulls has died and now he will be assimilated by Osorapis." Callimachus stopped for a moment. "It takes a long time to sort out the Egyptian gods." He moved forward. "They're going to parade down Canopic Way. It's quite lively but much too crowded to see well unless you stake out a spot early in the day."
Xena frowned. "I think I'd rather visit a dusty old library."
Gabrielle glowered at Xena. She'd promised to behave herself today, and particularly so in front of Callimachus.
The librarian ignored Xena's remark. He took them to the long building they'd glimpsed when they first arrived in Alexandria. From the front it was even more impressive than Gabrielle had remembered it.
A three-story portico led to the entrance. Grand images in bas relief covered the columns. The story of Alexander The Great had been sculpted directly into marble. The light streaming in from the gardens made the entrance bright, cheery, and inviting.
"Before I take you to the stacks, we must pay homage to The Priest of The Muses." Callimachus beckoned them down a side hallway. "He regrets not having been officially introduced to you earlier."
Gabrielle followed the poet eagerly. Always happy to meet educated and interesting people, she thought the Priest of The Muses would be extraordinarily well read, anxious for scholars to study his books, and gracious to visitors.
The bard recognized him immediately. He'd been in the same white vestments at their Robing Ceremony. Apparently the priest mingled in political circles. She turned to gauge Xena's response and found the warrior's face feral and angry. It was then that Gabrielle put it all together: this was the priest who'd named Xena The Divine Falcon.
The priest rose from his chair and shuffled toward them. He first greeted the bard. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, the Muses welcome you."
"Hello," she answered him, clumsily. This close, Gabrielle could see the shadow of hair on his head. He must have to shave daily, she thought. What a strange custom. She could also smell a tangy spice on his skin. Perhaps he spent too much time in heavily incensed rooms.
The priest then turned toward Xena but did not speak. He gazed at her for a time. Xena returned the look with a mocking leer.
Ill at ease and uncomfortable with the awkward situation, Gabrielle cleared her throat.
The priest swiveled back toward her. "You're giving them... both... the tour, Callimachus?" He spoke to the librarian but kept his attention riveted on Gabrielle.
"As Cleopatra wishes."
The priest scurried back to his chair in quick, tiny steps, his toes never appearing outside the hem of his robe. He sat down and rearranged a pile of scrolls in short, jerky motions.
The three of them silently backed out of his office without any further interaction with the priest.
* * *
Xena had many questions about The Priest of the Muses. But she held off asking them while they toured the Library. Gabrielle deserved this moment to indulge in an ardent passion without the political shackles such questions could impose.
Callimachus took them to the Great Reading Room. The spacious round room had been edged in shelves for the storage of thousands of scrolls. In the middle, scholars in a rainbow of robes intent on reading scrolls and taking notes sprawled on couches. Etched into the marble over a grandiose doorway leading to the inner sanctum of the library was a saying: "The Place of the Cure of the Soul."
Xena watched a vibrant Gabrielle drink in everything around her: the sheer overwhelming volume of scrolls; the erudite men studying the works of older masters; the quiet, respectful silence that pervaded the room. Xena sensed Gabrielle's empathic link with these people, and the warrior felt as if she were responsible for keeping Gabrielle away from her true calling.
She thought back to conversations they'd had, to talks of Gabrielle needing something different from their nomadic lifestyle, wanting to settle down somewhere. Xena wondered if this might be the place for Gabrielle, a cure for her soul. All around the Library were people more like Gabrielle than Xena could ever be. Wise men who would value Gabrielle's work more than Xena could, who would understand it far better than some half-baked ex-warlord.
Gabrielle slid her hand into Xena's and tightly closed her fingers around the warrior's. "Isn't this amazing, Xena?"
Xena smiled. "Yes."
Gabrielle kept hold of her hand as they moved on into a confusing set of hallways. Individual nooks were set back in the walls. Each held a separate category of scrolls or works by a single author. Callimachus pointed out books on irrigation, measuring wind speed, and weaving silk. Xena felt Gabrielle's excited trembling through their connected hands.
Up the stairs to the second floor brought them to seminar rooms for small lectures and teaching. Along each hallway up there were more scrolls in nooks and several doors led to private reading rooms for the more established scholars. Inside these, scholars kept all of their scrolls nearby without re-shelving them as those on the first floor had to do each night.
Scribes were assigned small alcoves in which they dutifully copied scrolls. Callimachus explained that the Library copied every scroll brought into Alexandria, including those which arrived shipboard in the harbor. The monumental task kept a hundred scribes busy each day.
They continued up to the third floor. Callimachus pointed out the Conference Room on one end of the building. Here, the librarian explained, scholars and library officials met to discuss which books to obtain, in what order scrolls were copied and by which scribe, and who got to study what.
"You mean you can't study whatever you like?" Gabrielle asked with all the innocence of her being.
"Usually you can. But imagine what would happen if twelve people all wanted to read the same scroll? Take Aristotle's scrolls which I just catalogued. Not everyone can look at them at the same time. And in any given season only one person gets to publish an index, one person an interpretation, one person a concordance, one person a critique..."
"I guess I'd never thought of competition for knowledge. It makes sense when you talk about publishing, though." Gabrielle walked over to a large window. Since the Library was one of the tallest buildings, from the top floor Gabrielle could see the city of Alexandria and beyond that, Lake Mareotis. "It's lovely up here."
Xena remained near the door in the shadows of the imposing room. A large circassian walnut table sat in the middle of the room. The table and a dozen chairs in the same dark walnut had been polished to highlight the richly figured wood. The setting seemed more appropriate for bootlicking sycophants than for literary discussions. But Gabrielle saw it differently. Xena knew this in her heart and it was confirmed when the bard turned back toward her. Gabrielle's face glowed from the light of the alabaster city below and the endless sources of knowledge the Library had to offer.
"Come, my friends." Callimachus opened the door. "I have a few more things to show you."
He led them down another nook-laden hallway and stopped dead in his tracks, no door to another room near him, just one more in theseries of scroll alcoves. Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask him someth ing when she abruptly closed it, her eyes focused behind the librarian. "My scrolls?"
Xena smiled warmly at Callimachus who winked back at her. He'd done his job well by first flaunting the virtues of this esteemed establishment and then showing Gabrielle how her work was as much a part of it as any other poet or scholar. Xena's fierce pride for the bard welled up. Gabrielle needed to be here. The Library already recognized her value, her contributions, the beauty of her words. Xena would find a way to make it work.
Gabrielle knelt by the shelves, choosing a few scrolls to remove, unravel and read. "These scrolls..." she looked at Callimachus. "These are mine. I mean, I gave these very ones to the Academy in Athens. How did you get them?"
Callimachus crossed his arms. "We made them an offer they were unable to refuse."
Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I don't believe this..."
Xena knelt by her, took a scroll from her hand and re-rolled it. "Believe it, Gabrielle. I do." Xena reverently returned the scroll to the shelf and helped the dazed bard to her feet.
"Come to my office and I'll tell you the story." Callimachus continued down the hallway, the two women trailing behind him.
If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee 'gainst the odds.
-Soothsayer from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The Chief Librarian's office had been on the top floor in the northern corner of The Great Library since the very first librarian, Zenodotus, had staked his claim on the prime territory. A welcome cross breeze pattered through the bright room.
Gabrielle was immediately drawn to the panoramic view. From a series of oblong windows one could view a fair measure of the palace grounds, the vivid flower beds curled between the soft green of leaves and grasses, and the twin harbors divided by the spit of land leading out to Pharaoh's Island and the magnificent lighthouse cresting the city.
"How do you get anything done?" Gabrielle asked, mesmerized by the view.
The librarian rambled over to the bard. "Now you know why I prefer to work at night."
The pair stood before the windows, both lost in some sense of the aesthetic that Xena didn't share. When she looked out over lands it had generally been to plan her path to conquering them. Personal history had taken the charm out of staring at pleasant landscapes for her.
"Well," Callimachus began absently, "I was going to tell you how we obtained your scrolls, wasn't I?" He made his way to a desk, its large surface buried beneath piles of scrolls, and settled in a high-backed chair. "Just toss those aside," he said of the scrolls heaped on two couches across from him.
Xena and Gabrielle cleared space and perched on the couches.
"Let's see," he chewed his bottom lip briefly, "how did that get started?" Callimachus tapped the table with his fingers. "I sent my assistant, who should be here, by the way. I wonder where she is..." He waved his hand in the air dismissively. "Anyway, I sent her to Athens to pick up some scrolls we'd worked very hard to acquire. The negotiations proved trickier than I'd anticipated."
"Whose scrolls?" asked Gabrielle, eager to know.
"There were several involved but primarily the scrolls by a fellow at the Athens Academy named Homer."
"I know him!"
Xena smiled. She remembered that Gabrielle had been responsible for getting Homer into the Academy many years back.
"You know Homer." Callimachus grabbed a nearby quill from under loose sheets of papyrus, dipped it in an ink well camouflaged by a mound of scrolls, and jotted down a note. "Remind me to ask you some questions about him for The Tablets. I don't have much on him." The poet put the quill in a lovely, carved ivory holder. "So," he returned to the subject at hand, "the librarian at the Academy brought out your scrolls among others, just to show off, I think." He sighed melodramatically. "Nothing like the competition between libraries to get the scrolls flying."
Xena filed that remark. He might have been kidding on the surface, but underneath he willingly resonated with competition. She guessed that he wore his calm bearing like his robe, easily stripped off if his dear Library was threatened.
Callimachus continued, "My assistant immediately dispatched a courier to me requesting more funding so she could purchase additional sources for the Library." The poet smiled at Gabrielle. "She said she highly recommended yours, my young friend. She doesn't give out recommendations lightly."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"When the scrolls arrived, I read them straight away." Callimachus leaned back in his chair. In a soft, honest voice, he said, "They are extraordinary, Gabrielle. I keep them shelved up here by my office so I can read them anytime I please."
Xena's attention was pulled from Gabrielle's blushing face when she heard a set of footfalls heading down the hall toward them. A woman, tall and lanky and not unlike Callimachus in that regard, stopped at the threshold to the Chief Librarian's office. Her dark brown hair stood out in contrast to Callimachus' white, and she was garbed in a deep forest-green robe.
"Where have you been?" Callimachus asked in a clipped tone.
"Sorting out trouble below."
The poet responded only by lifting his brows in question.
"Philo. You might need to go down."
"Gabrielle, Xena, I'd like you to meet my assistant, Lunara."
Gabrielle rose from her couch and extended her hand. "Hi."
Lunara beamed. "Pleased to meet you!" She grasped the bard's hand. "I'd hoped that Callimachus would bring you by." Lunara turned to the librarian's other guest. "And you... must be Xena."
Xena didn't stand. She didn't care for the hero-worshipping gaze dripping from the assistant's face. It was one thing to vicariously enjoy colleagues fawning over Gabrielle but quite another to have a fan of her own, especially one manufactured from the exaggerated notions of greatness which Gabrielle recorded on parchment.
Lunara stared for a moment, apparently unperturbed by Xena's lack of response, before asking Callimachus if he had anything for her to do.
"Would you mind going over The Tablets with them? I think I'll pay Philo a visit."
"It would be my pleasure."
"Ladies, if you'll excuse me. Duty calls..." Callimachus bowed to Gabrielle slightly and repeated the gesture to Xena.
"Who's Philo?" asked Gabrielle as she started down the hall following Lunara.
"He's one of the scholars. He's an outsider, a Jew."
"And that makes him an outsider?"
Xena took pride in the way Gabrielle seemed to innocently ask difficult questions. Past experience told Xena that the bard knew full well how sticky certain situations were and used her skill in asking simple questions to sometimes turn the tide.
"He's an outsider here," Lunara answered, firmly. "Not much anybody can do about it."
Gabrielle shared a frustrated glance with Xena. "Why do you wear a green robe while Callimachus and we get purple?"
Lunara laughed. "You've been named an Honorary Kinsman and no one told you about the hierarchy of the robes? Purple means you've received the highest honor of Kinsman to the royal family."
"We're honorary family to Cleopatra." Gabrielle sighed. The bard found that highly ironic. "What about green?"
Lunara rounded a bend and stopped in front of a closed door. "The next category down is Physician. They wear light blue. Next are the Chief Huntsmen, that's me, in green. Then Seneschal in gray and Cup Bearer in yellow." Lunara unlatched the door. "I know, the names don't make much sense. I'm no hunter. And many more people than physicians wear the light blue. That's tradition for you."
Lunara swung the door open and invited Xena and Gabrielle into a much smaller windowless room lit by rows of candles. A young boy of about fourteen sat huddled over a scroll. "This is Hermippus, Callimachus' student."
Gabrielle held her hand out to him as she would to any other dignitary. The boy beamed and took it. The bard smiled. "I'm Gabrielle, and this is Xena."
Hermippus bolted from his chair and plastered his back against the wall, his brown eyes darting between bard and warrior. "You're... you..."
"Relax, Hermippus, they don't bite." Lunara gently pushed him back into his chair. "These need to be copied by the morn. Remember?"
"Yes, ma'am." Hermippus stole several peeks at the two visitors and began writing.
"What are you copying?" Gabrielle asked the boy.
He stopped his work to speak to her. "These are The Tablets. As the master completes each scroll, I make a copy for the scholars to use downstairs."
Xena peeked at the boy's work. Original and copy were virtually identical. That skill would be highly prized in a scribe. Maybe his ability to mimic Callimachus' hand is what had drawn him to the librarian's attention.
Hermippus pointed toward a tall set of shelves with neatly stacked scrolls. "The original stays up here."
Lunara went to the shelves and pulled out a scroll for examination. "Callimachus devised a system to catalogue every scroll we have by its author and its contents." She unrolled the papyrus and laid it on the table. "He determines what category it's in: rhetoric, law, medicine, poetry, and many, many more. Then there are sub-categories. Here," she pointed toward a column, "poetry is divided into tragedies, comedies, epics, histories, funeral dirges, wedding hymns, elegies, and so on."
Gabrielle folded her arms and took a step back, taking in the number of scrolls in the nooks. "Wow, it's so... comprehensive."
Xena laughed. "That's the first requirement for a librarian, Gabrielle. You have to be a completist."
"I'd make a terrible librarian," admitted Gabrielle.
"Perhaps," said Lunara, "but I have a hunch you'd do well in this or any other profession."
"No thank you. I'd rather write a little poetry and read other bards' works. I'm not much for analyzing and categorizing."
"You never know until you try it." Lunara gestured toward the door. "I think I should take you back. Callimachus has probably finished talking with Philo by now."
"Bye, Hermippus," Gabrielle called.
"Bye, Gabrielle." The boy's face glowed.
* * *
Callimachus hadn't returned. Lunara invited them to wait in the librarian's office, telling them he wouldn't be much longer.
"Can I ask you some questions while we wait?" Gabrielle positioned herself by the windows again.
"Of course." Lunara assured her, seating herself in one of the chairs.
"Who is that priest guy and why is he so weird?"
Xena winked at the bard. She'd wanted to have that question answered as well. Settling on a couch, she kept her eyes on Lunara to judge her body language and facial expressions. She wondered how much an assistant to the Chief Librarian would know or choose to divulge about the inner politics of a large organization.
"First, let me tell you how the hierarchy works. I'm guessing no one's told you that yet?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Not a peep from anyone."
Lunara smiled. "Ptolemy Soter, he was the first in the line of Ptolemys, started the Museum about 300 years ago. The most important wing of the Museum has always been the Library, but since its inception, there's been a power struggle between the heads of each. The Priest of the Muses is technically in charge of the whole Museum and the Chief Librarian is technically only in charge of the Library."
"Technically?" Xena asked. That needed further clarification.
"Yes... well... the Priest of the Muses controls the budget and the Chief Librarian controls the resources."
"That seems counterproductive," remarked Gabrielle.
Xena brought the reasoning to light. "Imagine how powerful a person would be if he or she held both the money and the access to knowledge. A clever person could become more powerful than the monarch."
"Yes, that's it exactly." Lunara chuckled. "It took me a few months to figure that out."
"She's good at that sort of thing," Gabrielle explained, sending a warm smile over to Xena. "So who is the priest?"
"His name is Manetho of Sebennytos, the first Egyptian to hold that position. It was one of Cleopatra's ways to run over her brother. Ptolemy distrusts Egyptians. Cleopatra wanted to curry favor with them."
Gabrielle tilted her head slightly. "You mean the priest is appointed by a monarch and not by a religious order?"
"Yes. And the Chief Librarian is appointed the same way. Monarchs control that balance of power." Lunara shifted in her chair, "Callimachus has been Chief for a long time. Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra's father, appointed him."
"But they get along, Callimachus and Cleopatra."
"Yes, Gabrielle, they do. And we're all very lucky they do because the Library had been in decline. There's a rival library at Pergamum that took a good run at us. Since Cleopatra assumed the throne, Callimachus has been able to reverse that trend."
Xena thought back to Callimachus' hints at competitiveness. That was all that was needed: a queen and a librarian who both hated being second best. "How does this Manetho of Sebennytos fit in? Has he tried to stop the Library's recent growth."
"Not at first. He came here initially to compose a major work, the first history of the Egyptian Pharaohs written in Greek. The Library was his home for many years. But he is an Egyptian and when he can take a stab at the Greeks as the Priest of the Muses, he does."
"And just exactly how do these duels take form?" Xena dug for information now. She sensed that Lunara had the complex political situation well sorted out.
Lunara sighed, hesitating for a moment. "Callimachus has restricted access to the second and third floors. Only Greeks can come up here. If an Egyptian is on the second or third floor, it's only for a meeting and they're always accompanied by a Greek."
"But Callimachus is only half Greek. Where's the reasoning in that?" Gabrielle's voice took on a sharp edge.
"He is accepted as a Greek among the Greeks."
Xena's mind began to jump ahead. "Callimachus moved scrolls that Manetho wants up to the second and third floors?"
"And Manetho gets them one at a time when Callimachus needs to bribe him for something?"
Again, Lunara nodded.
Gabrielle gestured with her hands. "But the bottom floor didn't look big enough to handle all the non-Greek scholars who must be here, or do you restrict how many can be here."
"You didn't go into the catacombs?"
The bard's voice rose. "You mean the non-Greeks have to work underground?"
"There are lots of vaults underground for the safe storage of valuable items. And there are rooms for scribes and students. And yes, the non-Greek scholars work there, too."
"At least it's cooler underground in the summer," Xena said. What a elaborate web of machinations.
* * *
Gabrielle was glad to be out in Alexandria proper again. After their frustrating tour of the Library and its bureaucratic policies, then dinner in the Commons with a group of purple-robed scholars who wanted only to wage discourse on their own work, the noisy bustle of a big city seemed more to the bard's taste.
Still, there was a seductive lure to the Library. She wanted to have a few quiet afternoons to spend with some of those scrolls. The collections on geography and mathematics and astronomy interested her, not to mention all of the amazing bards who were represented on scroll after scroll after scroll.
Gabrielle had begun to make a list of the works she'd heard about but hadn't been able to read on the good chance that the Library had a copy. Plato's Dialogues, Aristophanes' early plays, Bacchylides and Theognis' poems. She'd like to see those works of Homer that Lunara had brought from Athens when her own scrolls found their way to Alexandria. Her scrolls! That meant that either the scholars at the Library weren't all they were cracked up to be, unable to discern a rank amateur among the most sublime artists, or, maybe she wasn't quite the dilettante she thought she was.
"Hey, are you listening to me or not?"
Before Gabrielle could shake off her internal dialogues, she'd run right into Xena. "Sorry. Just thinking."
"Well think less right now. Lunara's directions are a little vague at this point."
Gabrielle grabbed the scrap of papyrus from Xena. "Oh come on. She sounded like she knew exactly how to get there. And besides, a bunch of blow-glassers..."
"Glass-blowers." Xena corrected her.
"Fine, glass-blowers can't just hide, you know. Sure, they may be down some back streets..." Gabrielle stared at the map. She had no idea how to orient herself. Straight lines intersected squiggly ones. She tried turning the papyrus. Still no good. "Here." She shoved it back toward Xena. "You got us this far, you get us the rest of the way."
Xena laughed and took the map. "I'm just a bit confused here," she said pointing to what looked distinctly like a scribble. "It looks like we're supposed to go between those buildings, but I don't know if we can."
Gabrielle leaned forward and found herself staring down a tiny fissure between two homes. "Xena, that's not much wider than a foot."
"Yup. This whole neighborhood has houses crammed together like that. Why not just use up all of the space? One foot is only big enough to get stuff stuck in there." Xena tucked the paper into her belt. "Come on, we've got to find a way around this maze."
Gabrielle wondered if she'd made the right choice. All she wanted was something nice for Iphis. When she mentioned it at dinner, the scholars all suggested various scholarly scrolls. She wanted something more special, and something Iphis was more likely to enjoy. Finally later, as Lunara walked them back to their house, the assistant librarian suggested one of Alexandria's latest treasures: a vase of polychromatic blown glass.
Gabrielle had asked, "Polychro-blow-what?" and Lunara had explained that a guild of artisans had recently sprouted using a new technique of blowing glass. "Over very hot fires they melt a secret recipe of minerals and then shape as it cools it using a hollow tube and their own breath. And they've just discovered a way to mix colors in the glass, so one piece might have a whole rainbow in it." And Gabrielle had successfully talked Xena into going to see the glassblowers to buy Iphis a pretty vase even thought Xena didn't think the old curmudgeon would have any use for a polychromatic glass vase.
They ended up having to ask directions to the glass-blowers guild even though they had gotten to within three blocks of their destination. It was well past mid-morning when they walked into the long, hot warehouse.
Gabrielle couldn't believe her eyes. There, in front of her, were rows of colorful vases and jars and tiny little animals all made of glass. The vases and jars had the shape of a pig's bladder blown up full, ready to pop for a party. And the colors reminded her of puddles after a rain where incense and oils floated above the water and mixed in soft, curvy lines of translucent blue and green.
But the animals were the most remarkable. The bard picked up a tiny horse, all sparkly and clear except for its red eyes. Blue cows and red cows and green cows stood neatly in rows behind a sea of little mice.
"These are the cutest things I've ever seen." Gabrielle picked up a glass mouse and set it in her palm.
"Are you going to get a mouse for Iphis?"
"Maybe." Gabrielle looked at Xena who'd assumed a comfortable pose against a wall. She looked prepared to wait awhile for Gabrielle to make up her mind.
"Hi there, ladies." A man wearing a long leather apron greeted them. "Can I help you?"
"Well, we're just looking right now." Gabrielle peeked at Xena and saw the warrior sigh. After their fiasco following Lunara's map, Gabrielle didn't want to try the warrior's patience no matter how relaxed she looked. "We want to buy a vase."
"All the buyin's from the market," the man explained.
"We can't buy anything here?"
"Nope. Cut a deal and now we only sell to one. He's in the market. You'll have to get yourself there to go buyin'."
"But we only want to get one vase."
"We don't sell."
"Look, our deal's only as good as we're honest to it. Get to market."
Xena kicked away from the wall. "Fine." Now Gabrielle could hear the tinges of annoyance seeping out. "Who do we see at the market?"
"Man's name is Neleus. Biggest tent in the whole Agora. Can't miss him."
Gabrielle gently placed the glass mouse back among its fellow figurines. She didn't want to face Xena knowing that from there, wherever they were in an insanely cramped quarter of Alexandria, they'd have to find the market and this Neleus guy which would only mean higher prices and...
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena said cheerfully. "Let's go see Neleus."
The bard followed her out of the warehouse, confused but pleased that Xena seemed to be amenable to their new course. "Xena? Do you know Neleus?"
"From... uh... when?"
"A while back."
"When you were a... warlord?"
"And you want to see him?"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle and led her unerringly to Canopic Way, then turned them down it and headed through the crowd toward the market.
This dream is all amiss interpreted;
It was a vision fair and fortunate
-Decius Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Xena located Neleus' tent without having to ask directions. Once she knew to look for him, she found his milieu without any trouble, for a motley crew of characters infested it, as had been the case twelve years back when she'd first met him.
The canopy protected a world of treasures: those glass figurines Gabrielle had cooed over at the warehouse; soft linens and thick rugs; fancy leather goods and tools for repair; dried goods for travel; elegant weaponry well-guarded by an armed, muscled, pair of towering twins; a corner of foodstuffs which smelled divine; and Neleus himself, an exceedingly short man wildly dressed in bright, vibrant red, who was busy locking horns with a much taller, irate man.
"Is that your friend?" Gabrielle placed her hand around Xena's forearm. It was a familiar and comforting gesture for them both.
"Aren't you going to help him? I mean, he's so... short, and that other guy's so big."
"He doesn't need any help."
Within a few moments, the larger man had thrown some drachmae on the table and picked up his package. Then he offered his hand to Neleus. Whatever the merchant had said had quelled the anger.
As the man walked out, Neleus scanned his store. His eyes met Xena's. His jaw dropped. He screamed loud enough for everyone under the tent to turn toward him, adrenaline flowing. He slapped his hands down on the table, vaulted over it, then sprinted toward her. Several feet away, he lofted himself into the air, aiming right for her chest.
Xena gripped him in a bear hug, crushed her arms around him, then tossed him up in the air and caught him, gently setting him down.
"Have I died and gone to Elysia? Is the Warrior Princess in my humble establishment, far across the waters from her homeland?" Neleus reached up for her hands and held them in tight little fists. "By the gods, it's good to see you."
"It's good to see you, too." Xena squeezed his hands and let go to wrap one arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "This is Gabrielle."
"Hi, Neleus," the rather startled bard said.
Neleus embraced Gabrielle, his head hitting her right across her breasts. While still locked around her, lips pressed against the fabric of her top, he said, "You're the storyteller."
"Ah, yes, that would be me."
Xena chuckled to see Gabrielle crunched by her little friend. "Easy, Neleus. You don't want to hurt her."
The merchant loosened his grip and stepped back, his hands moving up to clasp Gabrielle's shoulders. "Thank you," he said sincerely.
"For what?" Gabrielle asked, utterly dumfounded by this man.
"For spreading the truth. Your stories of Xena have touched this ear more than once and I've been glad of them."
"Oh that.... You're welcome. It's been my pleasure to tell them." Gabrielle sneaked a sideways glance at Xena before resting her gaze back on Neleus. "Have you heard the one..."
"Nope!" Xena clamped her hand over the bard's mouth. "We're not going to have story hour. Not now. Not here." Xena released her grip. "You came here to shop, remember?"
"Right." The bard straightened up and took a step toward Neleus who'd backed away at the first movement from Xena. She lifted a single finger. "I hope you're not above bargaining."
Neleus' entire face lit into a wide smile. "I would be honored to take you on. Please, look around. See what you like."
Xena inwardly cringed. She hadn't thought far enough ahead to realize that the haggling process would be a dramatic battle between two champions -- one buyer, one seller -- opponents who would stop at nothing to be victorious.
The two combatants took their places, Neleus back behind his table accepting shoppers' coins, and Gabrielle out among the goods, assessing their value, planning her attack. Xena trailed after the bard hoping to speed up the first part of the venture: choosing a gift for Iphis.
"Why not start at the glass stuff you liked so much?" Xena tried to steer Gabrielle toward an early decision.
"I'll get there," Gabrielle answered. She picked up a pair of carved wooden dice and rattled them around inside her fist. Tossing them onto the table, they stopped flipping to both land on 'one'.
"Snake eyes," muttered Xena.
Gabrielle smiled at her. "I think it's an omen."
Xena's face immediately broke into a equivalent grin. "And what would it portend?"
"A matched set. Two people made to walk side-by-side through life."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her along. "That's a fortune I could live with."
Xena felt the bard's hand yank out of her grasp.
"Look, Xena, little stuffed goats." They stood in front of a small table full of animal dolls, mostly cloth, but some carved from wood. Gabrielle picked up a pair of small rag dolls, cleverly sewn with precise stitching to make an accurate representation of goats.
"I don't think Iphis wants a goat doll."
"No... but maybe Janus would!"
"Now we're buying presents for everyone?" This shopping trip could get out of hand quickly.
"Only Janus and Iphis. I promise. Janus is just a boy and his father doesn't have money to buy him anything. You saw that yourself." Gabrielle put the goats down, arranging them so they looked right at each other.
She moved on. "Look at these! Tops!" Gabrielle spun a few of the wooden toys in a small area no doubt cleared for that purpose. It was always easier to sell a toy when it could be kid-tested right there on the premises. "I had one of these when I was a little girl." She spun another. It outlasted the next three she set in motion. "That's a good one. Let's get that."
Xena snatched it up. "Whatever you say. Now, how about picking something for Iphis?"
I will, I will..." Gabrielle zigzagged through a maze of tables, stopping by a table full of round, flat things with strings coming out of their sides. "What are these?"
Xena considered for a moment what showing off that particular skill might lead to. But since it was Gabrielle who had asked... "Yo-yos."
"No, I mean what are they?"
"They are called yo-yos. Really." Xena picked up a green one. It was wooden and very smooth, fitting perfectly in her hand. "You hold it like this in your palm and tie a loop around one finger."
Gabrielle mimicked Xena's actions with a dark red yo-yo.
"Right. Now, flip your wrist and throw it down like this."
Again, Gabrielle followed Xena's directions.
"Now, flick your wrist and it'll come back up." Xena's obediently returned to her hand.
Gabrielle's spun just above the floor, twisted, and died. "Hey! How did you get yours to do that?" She picked hers up and wound the string around the dowel inside. "Let me try this again." Once more, the yo-yo failed to return. "Give me yours. Mine's broken."
Xena handed her green one to Gabrielle. "Try throwing it harder and then flick your wrist sooner. It needs to be spinning a lot to come back up the string."
Gabrielle flung the toy down, held it for a moment as she listened to the zipping sound of the string around the spindle, then flicked her wrist just as Xena had done. The yo-yo dutifully climbed the string. "Wow. This is great. We have to get one of these for Janus."
"What about the top?"
"Top? Who cares about a top. It just spins around on the floor. Now this," Gabrielle selected a light blue yo-yo, "is something special." She tested the one she'd picked out, satisfied when she was able to make it return to her grasp. She held onto it and continued on to the next set of tables.
They were met by sharp tang of salted and smoked meats. Neleus stocked a huge variety of meat: goat, chicken, pig, rat, snake, hare, boar, sheep, duck, dove, goose, and even peacock. Jar after jar of pickled delights were displayed by the meats. Gabrielle picked up one containing pale pink liquid and a long, stalky vegetable. "What's this?"
Xena took the jar from her and held it up, turning it to look at it very carefully, faking close scrutiny for the bard. "Rhubarb." She didn't much like it.
"Whatever." Gabrielle picked up another jar. "These are turnips." She set it down and twisted around quickly. "Hey! That kid just stole some jerky."
"I know." Xena had seen it, of course.
"Shouldn't we tell Neleus?"
"Nope. He knows."
"He knows?" Gabrielle looked for the little man, his vibrant red outfit making him an easy mark to spot even though he was short enough to get lost in the maze of tables and goods. Neleus' eyes scanned the room, apparently taking in everything. "He doesn't care?"
"He cares. That's why he lets them do it."
"But..." Gabrielle stopped. She smiled, finally understanding. "He lets kids steal because they need the food."
"He has an understanding with the community, at least he did when I knew him and it looks like he still does. When a child is hungry they can always have food from him. Not much, mind you, and he never openly gives it away. He just let's them take what they need. More than that and he comes down hard on them."
"Did you know him when you were growing up?"
"He came through Amphipolis a time or two and I knew of him from my youth. But we got to know each other later." Xena sighed, remembering too clearly her ugly past. "When he was around, he took care of the people I hurt. He gave them food and clothing enough to survive."
Gabrielle stepped closer. "And see, you got along with good guys even back then. You were never ruthless."
Xena appreciated Gabrielle's words. It was a long battle to come to terms with her past, and thanks to the bard it was a battle in its waning stages. "Neleus never got in my way." She tried to find a way to explain the situation better. "Sometimes my men went too far. They took joy in the destruction and tried to steal every ounce of hope they could from their victims. I couldn't very well go back into those villages and help those families rebuild, not after ordering their destruction."
She felt Gabrielle's hand press over hers. The comforting motion dulled even more the unpleasant memories. "I was grateful for Neleus' role . Sometimes I hated him for it, when that was easier than hurting inside. Toward the end, I reimbursed him when I could, when no one was watching."
"He must have sensed in you exactly what I did." Gabrielle tightened her hold on Xena's hand. "It's been there all along."
"Maybe. But you're the one responsible for bringing it out and making it stick."
Neleus strode up to them and poked Xena in the hip. "Did you give up on shopping?" He waggled a finger at Gabrielle. "I hope you don't think you're getting out of here without a high-powered bargaining session."
Xena chuckled and ruffled Neleus' hair. "We were just talking about you, actually."
"Oh dear gods of Greece and Egypt alike, please tell me you didn't make up tales of my philanthropy again."
"I just might have to add one or two to my repertoire." Gabrielle laughed at Neleus' angry scowl. "You're better at denying you love the attention than Xena is, but I can see right through both of you." She faked her own indignant glare. "Now let me get back to my business!"
Xena sighed, feeling more content than she had in weeks. She watched Gabrielle theatrically flail past a row of hanging leather smocks and then disappear behind it. "You know Neleus, you've gotten yourself into quite a pickle."
His eyes twinkled. "How so?"
"She's the best haggler I've ever seen."
Neleus shook his head. "It wouldn't matter. She's already won me over."
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice, thin and shaky, called her.
Xena bolted toward the sound. She found Gabrielle hunched over a table, head down, her arms trying to hold herself up. "I've got you. It's okay." Xena supported her, taking most of her weight. She looked around to see if she could tell what had happened. Gabrielle had found the spices. "Next time you want to sniff some cinnamon, let me know first, okay?"
"I'm fine now. Just a little dizzy." Gabrielle leaned against Xena.
Neleus came near and took Gabrielle's hand. "What happened?"
"Long story," Xena answered for her.
"Bring her back here to sit down for a spell." Neleus led them behind a curtain where a small room had been set up for taking a break from work. A table nestled between a couch and three chairs. Water, wine, and some breads and pastries lay on the table.
Xena sat Gabrielle down on the couch and settled in next to her. "Here, drink some water."
Gabrielle took a few sips before putting the glass down on the table. "Sorry to scare you, Neleus."
"Indeed you did. But I get the feeling this has happened to you before."
Xena knew it was safe to tell Neleus the truth. She trusted him. "Gabrielle is a mantic."
Neleus pulled himself into a chair and blew out a long breath. "You can tell the future?"
"Only sometimes." Gabrielle rubbed her temples to ward off a budding headache. "I don't have any control over it. It just... happens out of the blue. And the messages are usually pretty cryptic."
"And cinnamon has a role to play in this?"
Xena filled him in on the details, the dream of Caesar signing Gabrielle's death warrant, of Xena dead or near death in a small room. And of her reaction to the cinnamon in Athens.
"Well, that I can understand," Neleus said. "It's the bane of my life. More expensive than anything else I carry and still people buy it."
"The Merchant in Athens said it cost a lot for him, too." Gabrielle gestured with her hands. "But here, I thought everything was cheaper. It's where all of the imports from the east come in, right? So you should get a good deal on it before it goes to Athens or Rome."
"We should, Gabrielle, but we don't. Taxes are exorbitant and the spices are, plain and simply, damned expensive. The men who go out after the spices risk life and limb, you know. Hazard pay, that's why cinnamon costs so much to begin with. Those guys have to fight poisonous snakes and trudge through deep glens chock full of the nasty serpents. And the marshes surrounding the glens are guarded by hideous flying beasts. They have to get through those before they can even think about the snakes."
Xena clucked her tongue. "Come on, Neleus. You know they're just making that up."
"No they're not! I've heard ghastly tales from men I trust, Xena. The spice lands are not to be taken lightly."
"I wonder who's at the bottom of this." Xena ran through the various riffraff who would be involved in an operation the size of the spice trade, knowing full well with that much money at stake, any story could be made true with the right persuasion.
"Xena?" Gabrielle spoke softly.
She patted Gabrielle's hand. "Sorry, just thinking." Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, I am, thanks."
The warrior arose. "Then let's finish up here and get you back for a rest."
They ended up with a blown-glass vase for Iphis and a yo-yo for Janus. Gabrielle and Neleus engaged in reverse bargaining, Neleus insisting on a price which Gabrielle thought was too low. Finally, Xena announced the settlement would be exactly halfway between the prices demanded by Gabrielle and Neleus.
While an unsuspecting Gabrielle was involved with having the items wrapped in pretty paper, Xena pocketed a yo-yo for the bard and requested a special order on another item, all of her business accomplished with Neleus by gesture alone.
* * *
Gabrielle remained firm. She stuck her fists on her hips and repeated herself. "I feel fine. I'm hungry. I'd like to have dinner in the Commons again." Then to make it easier on Xena, she relaxed her pose and added, "Please."
"All right." Xena relented. "Let's make it an early night, though. I don't want you to strain yourself."
She stepped forward and hugged the warrior. "Thanks. And I really think I'll be fine. I only got a little dizzy. I wasn't nauseous like before." Gabrielle brightened and looked up at Xena. "Maybe that means we're far away from where the bad stuff might have happened. Maybe this whole thing with Cleopatra has lead us away from my vision."
Whether on not Xena chose to believe that, Gabrielle eagerly glommed onto it. For all its weirdness, she was growing rather fond of Alexandria. If it attracted people like Neleus, then it couldn't be all bad. And Iphis really did seem better when they took the vase to him on their way back from the market. Abas had a lighter spirit, too. They all believed Iphis was on the road to recovery thanks entirely to the advanced medical practices in Alexandria. The scholars might be a bit dull but their work really made a difference.
When they arrived at the Commons, they found the communal dining room almost full. The only table with two empty seats together was on the far side, away from the banquet tables. Gabrielle noticed a distinct lack of purple robes when they walked up to the table with their trays. They were amongst a sea of green, yellow, and gray.
Xena whispered to her, "No big-shots."
Gabrielle sat down. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle and this is Xena." She glanced around and recognized one of the scholars, Callimachus' young student. "You're Hermippus, right?"
An older boy, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, chided Hermippus, "Come on, lad, cat got your tongue? Why not introduce us?" He watched poor Hermippus blush. "Well, never mind. I can take care of it. I am Antiochus of Asclan." He took Gabrielle's hand. "This is Qrius, a cartographer by trade and an idiot by nature."
"Hey, that's my reputation you're sullying." Qrius, a tall and handsome young man wearing a forest-green robe stood and pulled out a chair for Xena. "Please, allow me."
Xena smiled politely. "Thanks." Gabrielle pinched her lightly when she sat down and earned a soft slap in return.
Qrius continued the introductions. "Antiochus has no single profession to claim. He is an eclectic, as he enjoys repeating much too often, and a fine student of stoic philosophy."
Gabrielle noted Antiochus wore green as well. That meant both Qrius and Antiochus were the same rank as Lunara. Yellow, which Hermippus wore, was of a lesser rank. Of course, he was so much younger and a student, not a scholar.
"And," continued Qrius, "may I present two scholars of Judaism, Aristeas and Philo."
Gabrielle tried not to sound intrigued. Philo was the fellow Callimachus had had to have a talk with when they were visiting the Library. She hated knowing only half a story. "I'm pleased to meet all of you. Now let's see if I've got this straight. Yellow robes mean you're a Cup Bearer, right Hermippus?"
He managed to nod, though it looked more like a shiver.
"Green is for the Hunter?"
A now seated Qrius answered. "Yes. You two in purple are Kinsmen." He smiled sweetly. "You outrank us."
Xena chimed in. "Does that mean you can pass me the salt?"
Five pairs of hands scrambled for the bowl of salt. Antiochus, the stoic philosopher, won. He gently placed it in front of the warrior.
Gabrielle ignored their fawning over Xena as best she could. "That leaves gray."
Philo spoke. "Seneschal." His voice was low and melodious and Gabrielle had a sudden desire to hear him talk down in the cistern. She tried to imagine his resonant, deep tones echoing through the cavern and Xena's counterpoint floating above it, both voices dark, mysterious, and compelling. "So, you're gray. I guess that puts you in the middle."
"He's always in the middle of everything," Antiochus said.
Gabrielle listened to them alternately scold then compliment each other. It was an odd game, played for the benefit of their company, perhaps. Or maybe for the sake of climbing the ladder in the library and earning a more highly-prized color of robe. Verbal sparring took as much practice as the play of sword or staff, so she understood better why mealtimes, when they all gathered together, were open season.
The talk turned toward the activities of their visitors, and eventually to the price of luxuries such as spices. "A merchant friend told us these wild stories about snakes and flying things." Gabrielle munched on a sweet pastry as a small dessert.
"Oh yes," Qrius said. "Horrible beasts live there. I've read accounts of brave sailors tackling the infested glens. Their tales are simultaneously riveting and repulsive."
"But isn't it all a put-on?" Gabrielle asked them. "I mean, really, who'd believe giant flying creatures protecting some plants."
"But it's true." Aristeas emphatically agreed with his colleague.
Antiochus, the stoic, added, "I read the logs of one spice runner who never came back. It was finished by the hand of friend who told of a snake the size of a gorgon with three heads and fangs the length of my leg. Each head impaled its fangs into the man. Then three long, forked tongues sucked the blood right out of him."
Xena rolled her eyes. Gabrielle couldn't let it go. "That can't be true. It's ridiculous. Don't you see, somebody's making all that up so no one else will undermine their monopoly. It's all about money."
"No, Gabrielle," said Philo. That low, commanding tone instantly grabbed her attention. "I've read these scrolls, too. Once you read them, you'll know that they are true. Words with such passion cannot tell lies."
His tantalizing words almost persuaded her to believe him.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
-Domitius Enobarbus from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
At the last minute Xena decided to tag along with Gabrielle as the bard wandered about the Library. Spending the day among musty scrolls wasn't thrilling. And she wondered if Gabrielle would prefer to be alone so she'd feel more able to spend all the time as she wanted with each item. In the end, though, Xena decided she wanted to support Gabrielle by being there with her. And she vowed to try very hard not to appear anxious to move on.
Little did she know that Lunara would point them toward the Milesian Tales, a set of highly erotic scrolls. The two of them laughed over the suggested positions, deciding that some of them were physically impossible, even for someone as limber and strong as Xena. The warrior hadn't expected to be entertained during her visit. She discovered that libraries had something to offer everyone.
When Gabrielle proposed finding the Egyptian scrolls so she could get better at reading the language, Xena readily agreed; her own skills with the it were rusty. She asked a staff member for directions and led the bard down into the Library's labyrinthine catacombs.
The first level underground was quite comfortable. The air was surprisingly fresh and it was noticeably cooler down there. The ceilings were tall enough for Xena to walk without stooping. The floors had been covered in wood and a smattering of small rugs. Candles lined the walls while the scrolls were stored on interior rows of shelves so flame and flammable could be kept at a safe distance.
The underground had been divided into many small areas, dictated by the difficulty of supporting the weight of a large expanse in big rooms. In each area, scholars on comfortable couches studied among specific categories of scrolls.
They came to a long hallway with several doors leading from it. These were rooms for the lower-level scribes who spent hours copying scrolls as meticulously and accurately as possible. Lunara had explained that those who were the most skilled, Callimachus' student Hermippus among them, were given space above ground. The scribes who couldn't match hands as well or were slower or more prone to errors had to work in the catacombs.
Xena found the stairwell leading down to the second sub-floor. The steps were uneven and as they descended, the air became more musty and stale.
"Nobody comes down here much," Gabrielle remarked. She tapped her toe in the dirt floor sending up a small cloud of tiny dust particles.
"I think it's mostly storage." Xena took a pair of torches from a rack and lit them, handing one to Gabrielle. "I guess they get what they want and then go back up to read it."
Xena came upon a set of scrolls on metals for weaponry. She opened one. It contained a very specific set of directions for handling bronze and silver. Apparently the author thought that bronze made the better sword and silver the better dagger, for those who could afford it. He based his conclusions on the necessary weights for each implement, whether the strength of the metal was appropriate for the type of fighting it would be used in, and the various sizes and depths of wounds it could deliver. Before she realized it, she'd read the whole scroll.
She neatly rolled the scroll and returned it to its proper shelf then looked around for Gabrielle. Strange that she hadn't said anything since they'd been down there. For a brief moment, a streak of panic surged through her veins. Calming her nerves, she took her torch and went in search of the bard.
She found Gabrielle sitting on the dirt floor with five scrolls around her. One she held open in her hands. Tears trickled down her face. A streak of dirt on her cheek showed she'd wiped earlier tears away with dusty fingers.
Hey," Xena called softly. "Are you okay?" She sat by Gabrielle's side and rested a soft hand on the bard's shoulder.
In barely a whisper, the bard answered, "This is so beautiful."
Gabrielle handed the scroll to Xena and pointed. "Read that."
In a sure voice, Xena read aloud.
"Awed by her brightness
Stars near the beautiful moon
Cover their own shining faces
When she lights earth
With her silver brilliance
Gabrielle wrapped a hand around Xena's arm. "Sorry I get all weird when I read poetry like that. It's just... well, it's just me."
"It's okay. I understand." Xena unrolled the scroll so she could see the title. "Ah, Sappho. No wonder."
"These are fragments I've never heard before. They're all so amazing."
Xena thought back to a fireside long ago with people she could barely remember. But one was a bard, an old woman she recalled clearly who had a magical voice when she recited. A group of war-hardened men even stopped to listen quietly, never interrupting, politely asking for more.
And Xena remembered one poem in particular. The poet-crone had said it was a bit of something by Sappho. Xena scanned the scroll and found it at the very end.
"Believe me, in the future someone
Will remember us....
Because you love me,
Stand with me face to face,
And unveil the softness in your eyes...."
She rolled up the scroll and took Gabrielle in a strong hug. They both sat there for a time, quiet and undisturbed in among the scrolls of beauty and knowledge, theirs for the taking, theirs to share.
Xena knew Gabrielle had fallen in love. And Xena knew she had to find a way to give Gabrielle time here, to let her explore, to indulge, to be swept away by the elegant word.
"We can come down here whenever you like, Gabrielle. These tunnels go on for a long time."
Gabrielle nodded against Xena's chest. "I explored some but I was worried about getting lost. I was on my way back to see what you were doing when I found that scroll."
Xena's torch began to sputter. "I think we should go back upstairs." She effortlessly pulled Gabrielle up with her.
* * *
Cleopatra had come to her decision. Now she just had to find the best way to bring it to fruition. She ordered a guard to send for The Priest of the Muses.
White-robe Manetho was announced before he entered the Queen's inner chamber. The guards shut door after him, leaving the two of them alone.
"You wanted to see me?"
Cleopatra gauged his mood. His head had been shaved that morning, his robe was pressed and clean: meticulous. His eyes burned with the fire of a man sure of himself and his beliefs: confident. His hands were clasped behind his back: deferential. But the sleeves of his robe could not hide the small, nervous work of his fingers: worried.
The longer she looked at him without speaking, the more nervous he became. He drew frequent and short breaths. He shifted his weight left foot to right and back again. "Have I done something to displease you?"
"I require your advice," she finally said. "Please, sit down."
The priest breathed deeply and regularly. His opinion warranted Cleopatra's curiosity. She needed him for something. He sat back on a silk-covered couch.
The queen knew exactly how to play the priest, what to say to give him a sense of security and self-worth for as long as it took to wrangle an agreement from him. "Achillias has been appointed my brother-husband's Regent."
The priest did not comment immediately. He engaged in the game well, playing to outguess Cleopatra's plan. "Who will command the army in his stead?"
So he answers with questions, thought Cleopatra. "He has retained his former commission in addition to his new duties. If his attentions are divided he will be less apt to create excuses for war games." There, that should start a nasty rumor about Achillias.
The priest took in the information slowly and carefully. "You are concerned about Achillias' loyalties."
"He is loyal to the crown." Good, he has figured this out himself. "Still, if there were ever reason to choose between us..."
This time, the priest spoke quickly, "You can count on me, my queen."
Cleopatra let herself smile in gratitude. She played a trump. "Can you help me now?"
"Yes! I'll do anything you ask, of course."
"We must have guarantees in place to ensure my safety." She watched his eyes widen in horror. "This is only in case a dire situation sh ould arise. I do not sense that such a possibility is before us now. The episode with Pothinus was a singularity."
The priest clasped his hands together. "I would do anything for you, my queen. You are the personification of Isis."
"I need someone near me I can trust. Someone whose political allegiances cannot come under question from anyone." Let him chew on that for a bit.
"If truth be told, that will be problematic. Everyone in the Palace falls either on your side or Ptolemy's. Those loyalties are common knowledge." He paused, thinking again. "It will need to be someone from the outside. Someone who understands the situation yet hasn't been tainted by it."
Good, she thought. He's speaking honestly, talking openly of the discord between Ptolemy and me. He'll come to the same conclusion I have.
The priest sat pensively for several minutes. He drew a deep breath and finally spoke. "I cannot think of anyone, my queen. Perhaps if you gave me some time..."
"Why not Xena?"
The priest shot up from the couch. "No. A hundred times again, no. I told you that she is The Divine Falcon."
"And if she is, don't you believe that would make her even better suited to the task?"
"You don't understand." He paced, his white robes dancing on each change of direction. "The falcon must remain on her journey. She is a messenger, a traveler. If you cage her, she will die."
"Perhaps she has finished her journey and brings the message to me."
"We have no way of determining where the falcon is on her quest. It's too dangerous. What if she were only in the demon's lair now?"
Cleopatra didn't want to argue with him. "The falcon has reached the house of Isis. She is the Guardian of Isis. The other stages have been passed. Don't you know your people's own prophecies."
Manetho turned on her, trying to hold his fury at bay. "The prophecies have many shadows to read. I understand what lies in the darkness better than any other."
"Yes, I'm sure you do." She spoke more firmly. "But let's suppose the falcon has come to the House of Isis."
The priest set his jaw. He did not wish to answer her question but he could not refuse. "Then next she would reach the sky. She would become the Unique Eye."
Cleopatra lifted her hands to punctuate her speech. "And we would have the key to everything." And I would have absolute power. "We wouldn't need that Library anymore." That, she hoped, would pull him back on her side. She had many sources of information. She understood the sticky relationship between the priest and Callimachus.
"And if you're wrong?" he asked, feeling defeat begin to sap his strength.
"I am not wrong."
"How do you plan to keep her here?"
Cleopatra smiled in victory. "I know how to make her unwilling to leave."
What say you? Hence,
Horrible villain! or I'll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head:
Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine,
Smarting in lingering pickle.
- Cleopatra from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
The queen had Manetho wait outside while a guard fetched Callimachus. The poet had been her friend for a long time and she didn't want to make matters at the Library intolerable for him, but she needed the priest's blessing first in order to get it from him at all. Besides, she never questioned Callimachus' loyalties while too often the priest seemed true only to his damnable Egyptian gods. The old librarian would have to find a way to make the situation palatable. He would do that for her.
A single rap at the door announced the pair, the embattled curators of the world's knowledge. The Library may have seemed no more than a luxury to some outsiders, detractors who hadn't plumed the depths of their holdings, but Cleopatra knew its real value. When she controlled the sum of all intellectual property,she controlled everything she needed and everything she would need in the future.
A guard led the two men in then closed the door to the queen's chamber. Callimachus seemed none too happy to be there. The priest had probably plastered a smug look on his face when the poet arrived, letting Callimachus know he had the upper hand this time.
They made an interesting pair of checks and balances for Cleopatra. One young, brash, a purposefully bald pate, and in white. The other old and gentle, his long white hair erratically pushed out of his face, and in dark purple. They were so very different except that they both believed to their core in what they did: one in the gods, the other in the written word.
"Gentlemen, I won't keep you long. As a matter of necessity, I have already spoken with Manetho about this. Now I need you both in agreement."
Callimachus nodded to the queen. Manetho followed suit.
"In these dangerous times, I require that my safety be more attentively protected. Only the most competent can do that for me, particularly after the recent attempt on my life." She hoped that Manetho would believe her shift in rhetoric to emphasize her peril was meant only to sway Callimachus. "I have the opportunity to secure the allegiance of the finest warrior in the world."
Both men silently waited for their queen to continue.
"Callimachus, my friend, I have a favor to ask of you."
He didn't jump to agree before hearing it, as Manetho had done.
"I wish to enlist Xena's sword in my favor yet I know she does not plan to remain long in Alexandria. To give her reason to stay, I would like you to offer a permanent post to that bard, Gabrielle."
Callimachus smiled thinly. "Gabrielle is worthy of a post on her own laurels, my queen. There need be no political motivation."
"Even better." Cleopatra clasped her hands behind her back. "See to it that she accepts it."
"I will ask her," Callimachus said.
"My friend," Cleopatra began in a clear note of warning, "remember your station." She was reminding him that his loyalties were to her, and in doing so, made certain he would hold his tongue about their reasoning.
"Of course." Callimachus spoke honestly. Cleopatra was convinced he would do her bidding.
"Manetho will be in charge of her apprenticeship."
"What?" Callimachus asked indignantly. "Queen Cleopatra, you understand that Gabrielle and I..."
"I understand." Cleopatra gritted her teeth. Those damned scholars can be so annoyingly territorial. "I only hope that you understand what your place is, Callimachus."
The speechless poet blinked several times.
"I would be honored to fulfill your request." Manetho smiled sweetly.
"Very good. You are dismissed." She turned her back on them, striding arrogantly toward a window to look out over her dominion. Only one set of footsteps trod away across the floor. She heard the door open and close. It was not a surprise that Callimachus would linger, hoping for a more thorough explanation. "Go ahead and ask."
"Why did you give Gabrielle to the priest?"
"It is for the best." She heard Callimachus take several breaths. She turned toward him. "My friend, my dear friend," she said, softly. "My life is in danger and I know of no better protector than Xena."
He waved her off. "I asked about Gabrielle."
His insolence took her by surprise but she didn't dare let it show. She needed his approval more than he realized. "Let me explain. The Priest of the Muses believes that Xena is The Divine Falcon. As I recall, you're a bit rusty on Egyptian spiritual beliefs."
He gave her a tiny smile and bowed slightly, indicating she knew far more on the matter than he.
"The Divine Falcon comes from their most ancient stories. The Egyptians believed long ago that their High God was a falcon and its eye was the symbolic form of the Great Goddess." She took a seat on one of her soft couches and invited Callimachus to do the same. "Manetho is afraid of The Divine Falcon. The falcon is on a journey, some say, to the Underworld to tell Osiris that his son Horus has defeated Seth. Others say the falcon is Isis' protector and messenger."
"Which does Manetho believe? That the falcon will bring about the return of Osiris or that you will become the Great Goddess herself?"
Cleopatra sidestepped the question. It was no time to argue her fate with a poet. "He is concerned about what will happen if the falcon interrupts her journey. He doesn't want Xena staying here. He wants her to keep moving, to keep to her quest."
"And so you bribe him by offering Gabrielle? As if she were nothing but a trinket for religious idiots to toy with?" Callimachus paled. "This is ridiculous. Manetho has no business training Gabrielle."
"It is only for her apprenticeship and only to soothe Manetho's rattled feathers. Your friend Gabrielle will be at the Great Library for a long time to come."
Callimachus rose stiffly. "It is under protest that I accept this."
Cleopatra fought back her desire to sting Callimachus with her simmering wrath. "My friend, who better than Gabrielle to convince Manetho that Xena is not the Divine Falcon?"
Callimachus started toward the door.
"You know, I think it will be best if I offer the post to Gabrielle myself."
She heard the poet stop, pause for a moment, and then continue on his way out.
* * *
Gabrielle relaxed in the warm water, alternately floating and sitting on the marble steps watching Xena methodically work through a series of slow, measured moves. Several months back the bard had teased Xena about that set of exercises saying it looked like something a toddler could do, just waving your arms about and lifting up one leg. Xena had let a wicked gleam come to her eye before inviting the bard to join her, enjoying the teetering and swaying next to her as Gabrielle tried to maintain her balance. Xena, steady as a rock, had proved her point. It took a much more comprehensive strength and finely-tuned control to move your muscles slowly than it did to throw a punch or block a staff.
Xena folded her hands together in front of her, closed her eyes, then disappeared under the water. She arose near the floating Gabrielle, smiling. "That felt good."
"The bath feels good on its own without all the extra work."
"Right, Miss can we please have another bath today because I accidentally fell in the dirt on purpose so we'd have a good excuse."
Gabrielle didn't bother to refute it. "You love it, too."
"Maybe," Xena said before joining the bard in floating.
From her vantage point on her back, Gabrielle studied the absurdly ornamented ceiling. The palatial baths were numerous and this, one of the smaller and more private spas, was among the least ostentatious. It didn't have ridiculous gems in the ceiling, only a scene overhead laid in tiles depicting Ptolemy Soter's coronation. "I think I'm getting used to all this pretentiousness. Maybe that's a sign that we should be going."
Xena plunged her feet to the bottom and stood by Gabrielle. "Do you want to go? I thought... well, don't you like it here?"
Gabrielle rotated, planted her feet, and looked at Xena. "Actually, I was more worried about you. I didn't think you'd want to hang out this long. You know, that you only wanted to stay a day or two or something."
"I'm having a good time." Xena reached out to rub her fingertips along Gabrielle's cheek. "And I like seeing you happy."
Gabrielle caught Xena's hand in her own and brought it to her lips, pressing the fingers into a soft kiss. "That goes both ways, you know. And I can't enjoy it if you're not happy."
Xena's eyes gentled as if they reflected the dawn of the northern sky. "I'm having a good time. I'm with you, seeing old friends..."
"I like Neleus, too." The bard lay back and began to float again. "Even when he does spend the morning complaining about the price of everything and all the taxes and stuff."
"He's got to get worked up about something, he's a merchant."
"I suppose." Gabrielle flicked her finger through the water, sending a few drops in the general direction of Xena. She wasn't certain, because she'd closed her eyes to listen to how the water affected Xena's voice depending on whether her ears were above or under the water. "It was nice to get through a conversation about cinnamon without having a relapse."
"I noticed that."
"Still, Xena, you must be really bored."
"Why do you say that?"
"You're not out on some adventure."
"Every day is an adventure with you, Gabrielle."
The bard pried one eye open. "Hey!"
"I meant that in a good way, really. I'm glad you're having a good time here. Isn't that reason enough to stay for awhile?"
"I don't know, I guess I feel like I'm holding you back or something."
"You're not." Xena bent at the knees and shot three body lengths out of the water, flipping over backwards and landing in almost exactly the same spot. "See?" Suddenly her face dropped into a scowl as she twisted around toward the door.
Gabrielle heard the visitor's approach only when he was within a few steps of the door. She whispered, "Be nice, Xena."
A guard opened the door but did not enter. He kept his eyes on the far wall without lowering them to the two naked women in the bath. "Cleopatra wishes to see you."
"We're busy," Xena said.
Gabrielle poked her. "When would she like us to come?"
"At your earliest convenience." The guard cleared his throat. "I'll wait outside."
"That'll be fine," Gabrielle said before Xena had a chance to tell him it might be a very long wait.
He left them, closing the door behind him, never having let his eyes stray.
Xena had her arms crossed. "Why did you give in?"
"Xena," the bard said as she walked in long, slow, steps through the water toward the warrior, "Cleopatra has left us alone for awhile. We've taken advantage of her hospitality." She watched Xena's eyes roam the elegant bath. "So we should be civil and go see her."
"I liked it better here without Cleopatra in my face."
But Gabrielle could tell that she'd won that round. "Come on, I'll get the towels."
* * *
Xena hated the stupid purple robe. It was too hot, too cumbersome, and her leathers had been unbearable under it. She'd had to switch to wearing a simple linen chiton. And there was neither a hook for her chakram nor a means of securing her scabbard. At least she wasn't totally unarmed, for she had boot daggers and she'd sewn a sheath in the seam for her flick-knife, a longer blade than she'd normally hide in her clothing, but without her sword, the folded knife was the best substitute.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, looked perfectly comfortable in her robe. The flecks of gold in her hair sparkled in the late afternoon sun as they walked side-by-side to Cleopatra's palace.
They were shown to the throne room. This disquieted the warrior. It could only mean they were wanted for a political reason, for something which prompted clever Cleopatra to take refuge behind the crown. She leaned down to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "She's going to ask us for something. Don't say yes, at least not until you and I have had a chance to talk about it." It earned her a tight smile from the bard.
They entered the gold and silver room where their robes had been bestowed. Xena had not anticipated that Cleopatra would be the only one in the room with them. Curious, she thought. Perhaps I misjudged the situation.
"Welcome, Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Poteidaia." Cleopatra stood next to her golden throne. Her right hand rested on an arm of the throne but apparently she did not need more contact with her symbol of power.
Gabrielle strode forward, cheerfully greeting the Queen of Egypt. "Hi. We've been having a great time here at the Library and visiting the city and at the baths. Thank you for all you've done for us."
"It was all in repayment for your help long ago in Greece and most recently on my journey from Syria." Cleopatra strolled to a table in the corner to pick up two golden goblets, each tall and thin with a long, narrow stem. "Please, join me." She handed them to Xena and Gabrielle then returned to the table to fetch her own.
Xena carefully took a sniff, not forgetting the debacle with laced wine of a few days earlier. She was pleasantly surprised to catch the fragrance of blackberries and something reminiscent of wet stones after a soft rain. Cleopatra had broken out the good stuff. "What's the occasion?"
"Perhaps I am premature, but I had hoped to be celebrating." Cleopatra's painted red lips curved into a broad smile. "Gabrielle, I humbly request you accept an appointment as Scholar at the Great Library of Alexandria."
The request left the bard unable to speak and swelled Xena's heart so it almost pained her. This was the answer to everything, she was sure. Gabrielle would finally be recognized for her abilities and have reason to stay in Alexandria. They'd settle down...
"I cannot say yes," Gabrielle said, though at the very threshold of hearing.
"Sure you can." Xena placed her hand on the bard's shoulders and squeezed. "You can."
"I'd like to think about it, talk to you first."
Xena didn't want to push Gabrielle, at least not in front of Cleopatra, and after all she had just instructed the bard to say those very words. She relented, turned to the queen and said, "Thank you for your offer. Gabrielle would welcome the opportunity to consider it for a short time before presenting you with her decision."
Cleopatra's eyes pinned the warrior. The queen didn't appear angry or Xena would have instantly hardened her gaze in return. Instead, Cleopatra seemed more to be seeking Xena's persuasion in the matter. Xena allowed the queen to see how deep her pride in Gabrielle's work went, how her commitment to the bard was at the very core of her being.
Cleopatra got the message. "Please let me know what you decide at your earliest convenience."
And since you know you cannot see yourself
So well as by reflection, I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which you yet know not of.
-Cassius from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Xena slung her heavy robe over a hook just inside the thick wooden door, then took Gabrielle's and did the same. Silently, they strolled into the yellow sitting room, the cheery space doing little to alter their moods. Xena, worried that a wonderful opportunity for the bard would slip out of their grasp, seated herself one of the couches. A broody Gabrielle stopped at the window, as was her habit of late, her distant glance cast past the soft greens of the garden.
Convincing Gabrielle to take the post might be more difficult than Xena had originally thought. Not only would she have to fight through any of the bard's insecurities about being included among the intellectual elite, she'd have to be cagey in her attempts to dissuade any doubt about her own wants and desires. For at the core of it, Gabrielle was right; the warrior didn't want to be cooped up in a crowded foreign city. But all of her reluctance to settle in Alexandria slithered away to nothingness in the face of how dearly she wanted to see Gabrielle take the post as scholar.
Your dreams are handed to you only once, Xena believed. Hers had been offered and accepted several years back in a clearing outside Poteidaia at a time she'd thought her best course was to end her life, and instead found a reason for living it so extraordinary she'd never have imagined it. Now if only she could return the favor.
"Gabrielle?" She pitched her voice in a softhearted request for conversation.
Several breaths passed before the bard answered. "You can't do this, Xena. I know what you're doing and you can't... I can't let you do it."
Xena arose and went to the window to stand by Gabrielle. The golden light slanting in from the setting sun set the bard's eyes sparkling, and her skin glowed with a richness that told Xena the bard belonged in Alexandria. To convince her, every word she'd use would need to be gentle. "What am I doing? What is it that you think I shouldn't do?"
"You can't give up everything."
"What am I giving up?"
Gabrielle shifted and trained her eyes on Xena. "You'd die here. I know you would. We need to be on the road, out there fighting and making a difference."
"Good, well at least we've got that straight." She smiled and laughed softly at the bard's confused look. Xena answered her unspoken question. "I meant that at least we both understand that wherever we end up, it'll be together."
Gabrielle leaned in and wrapped her arms around Xena. "We've got that straight."
Xena hugged her in return and then loosened her hold so she could look in Gabrielle's eyes as she spoke. "There is only one thing in this world that I would never give up and that's you."
Xena hitched up one eyebrow. "Well, I could send for her."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I miss her, too." Then the light dimmed from her eyes. "But this is all ridiculous, Xena. Argo would never be happy in the city. You wouldn't have anywhere to ride her except out in the desert." Slowly, she shook her head. "This isn't right. I'm perfectly happy writing about our adventures. I don't need to be in a library. I don't need to be a scholar."
"You said yourself not that long ago that you wanted to take a break and get away from the fighting. This seems perfect."
"No. It's not perfect for you, so it's not perfect for me." Gabrielle thrust her fists on her hips. "You're not going to change my mind on this."
Xena thought for a moment. A defensive Gabrielle was not someone with whom she cared to argue. "Okay, let's see what kind of a compromise we can work out."
The bard was not persuaded. "How you can compromise when I know you're doing this for me and for no other reason?"
"Because," she said as she cupped Gabrielle's face in her hand, "when you're happy, I'm happy. So there's a bit of a selfish streak in there, too." She tossed in a irrefutable point. "You've said the same about me."
"And it is true." Gabrielle dropped her hands from her hips.
"Good. Now I'd like to find a way for you to stay here and show these self-important book worms a thing or two. And," she added quickly before she could be interrupted, "I'll find plenty to do to keep me busy."
Gabrielle tried to keep from smiling, somewhat unsuccessfully. "Now, let's just say that I take the post for a month or two."
Xena pinned her with a daring glare.
"Or longer," she conceded. "Just what are you going to do?"
Finally, Xena was able to relax. The tide had turned in her favor. "Gabrielle, how long do you think it will take before someone comes asking for help."
"Okay. I'll give you that one. But," using Xena's tactic of speaking quickly, she held the warrior silent, "you promise me that if an adventure comes up, you'll jump on it, even if it means leaving Alexandria for awhile. Especially if it does. Please, Xena. I can't stand the thought of holding you here. I know how much your journey means to you."
It was a compromise she could live with. If something required her to be away for a time, they could discuss it. But it would be from a very different point of view: Gabrielle would already be a scholar, already ensconced in Alexandrian life and culture, and Xena knew the bard would be loathe it leave it. Yes, this compromise would do nicely.
* * *
Cleopatra asked to meet her brother in his quarters. She didn't want him to think the matter they needed to take care of required being territorial. Mundane issues of state were usually discussed in his environs.
Dressing down to wear everyday silks and fewer layers of coloring on her cheeks would also help to make Ptolemy think the day's meeting merely routine. She shooed the guard away from the door and let herself in. Unfortunately, Ptolemy wasn't alone. He had a visitor: Achillias, his new regent.
"Good day, gentlemen." Lowering her head, she greeted her brother deferentially.
The lanky Ptolemy popped out of his chair. "Cleopatra. You weren't expected until... uh..."
"Until now, dear brother. Have I come at an inconvenient time? I could return later." Her eyes bored into Achillias lest he think her pleasantries hid an agenda.
Achillias responded as expected. "Our business can wait. Please, go ahead."
His new post had given him leave to be more brash. It was clear he intended to stay and even keep his stooge by his side. Very well. If this is his game, it's an easy one to win. "I won't be but a moment. Callimachus has requested another appointment for a scholar. He's assured me she will prove worthy. I'd like to assign her to The Priest of the Muses." There, that should assure they don't read this only as a favor to Callimachus. They might question that just to rankle me. Cleopatra held the official scroll out to Ptolemy for his signature.
Achillias spoke for Ptolemy. "The king will sign your decree if you would kindly do the same on this." He reached for a similar scroll. "We feel it appropriate to increase the tariff on imported luxury items. Our merchants deserve no less."
Cleopatra exchanged scrolls with the regent. The levy on a few already costly goods would increase only a few percentage points. It was a trivial matter. She smiled, laid the scroll on a table and signed her name to it. "No problem."
* * *
Gabrielle was initially adamant. "I will not be the subject of a banquet."
"What if it was only a party?"
"Right, Xena. I know what that means around here. Over-the-top, wasteful, boisterous..."
"Great food, good friends, dancing..."
"Well," Xena said honestly, "I'll do my best but no guarantees on that one."
Gabrielle sighed. She was already exhausted from spending the day with Manetho, learning the cataloging system. Or rather, the lack of a system. Callimachus was still entrenched in his tablets, as he had been for decades. Until those were completed, no single means of organization covered all of the holdings.
New scrolls had been arriving for years only to be shunted to a series of storage rooms awaiting the initiation of the new system. But that was unsatisfactory for everyone. The scholars all wanted a look at what was new. That led to a room being opened for viewing new acquisitions. But they ran out of space too soon and some scholars wanted to compare the new scrolls with earlier treatises and copies and their own annotations and soon, the new scrolls seeped in with the old. No one really knew all the treasures the library hid within it's astounding number of nooks and crannies and sub-floors.
Gabrielle's head ached. "I don't feel much like a party tonight, Xena."
"I know you don't. Sorry. I tried to get Cleopatra to relent but she wouldn't hear of it." The warrior shrugged. "I figured the next best thing was to try to get you to want to go."
"I appreciate the effort. I don't think it's going to work." Gabrielle felt Xena lift the heavy robe off followed by her shift. Then she was taken up into a pair of welcoming arms and carried to the ludicrously large bathing room where a tub of sweetly-scented warm water waited for her. "Maybe it'll work," she murmured as she was lowered into the tub and ever so softly bathed.
* * *
Feeling more like having a celebration, Gabrielle followed Xena to Cleopatra's palace. Her apprehension still lingered; she would have preferred the banquet not be in her honor, for the truth was that she still felt like an imposter among all those scholars, and she wondered how she'd managed to make everyone think she was deserving of holding the same post as the brilliant people around her.
But after the lovely bath, she felt better. And when they dressed, Gabrielle obligingly wearing her purple robe, Xena defiantly put on her leathers. She said she wasn't going to be told what to wear to a banquet in Gabrielle's honor and that she'd only feel properly attired in her leathers. With her sword and chakram on. She'd simply dare anyone to make her take them off.
And it had all served to shift Gabrielle's equilibrium back toward center. She could deal with everything else. Tonight she just wanted to make Xena, a leathered warrior with eyes that held the whole sky in them, happy.
They were shown to a long table in front of the room. Couches had been pushed up near the table so the guest of honor could recline and eat just as everyone else would do. On the wall behind them hung the lone tapestry in this marble room. The headwaters of the Nile started on the right side and flowed across the tapestry in bold blues among the desert tans and grays. Just behind Xena's couch, the stream exploded into a giant fan before mixing with the salty Mediterranean, off to the left of them.
Gabrielle just shook off the absurdity of it and took her place to the right of the queen's couch, empty at the moment, with Xena just to the bard's other side. To the queen's left, Callimachus and the Priest of the Muses had already taken their seats.
Next to a spectacular arrangement of fresh flowers, a decanter of wine waited for her. She reached for it, then stopped, recalling her previous encounter with the potable in this very room. Xena plucked it from the table, poured a bit into her own glass and smelled it. Then she carefully tasted it, smiled, and poured the wine into Gabrielle's glass.
"Thanks." Gabrielle took one sip. "I don't want to get drunk tonight."
And that was all she'd have to worry about that. Xena would watch her intake, stopping her the moment she teetered toward the line.
The food would be another matter. In the middle of the room a bronze donkey provided the display piece for the first course. A saddle bag had been tossed across its rump. The pockets burst with olives both green and black, salted, spiced, and heavily laced with garlic.
To either side of the donkey were two enormous silver trays with the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy engraved into their sides. Small bridges had been constructed of pastry from the trays to the donkey, and on the bridges were honey-dipped dormice sprinkled with poppy seeds.
A simulated grill made of silver bars over dark plums and pomegranate kernels held a dizzying array of sausages. They smelled particularly good to Gabrielle who suddenly realized she was quite hungry, having not eaten much that day. She regretted arriving a early, for the time to serve appetizers had not yet arrived.
The banquet may have been a fete in honor of Gabrielle, but it would be another for whom everyone waited. With a cadre of six young guards by her side, Cleopatra entered. She swept into the room like honey; slowly, sweetly, and leaving her essence to cling to everyone she passed.
She had dressed in gold. A thick gold chain linked about her waist marking her hips, softly hidden by golden silks. She wore a headdress at least two feet high, all of gold. A gold necklace splashed down her neckline. At its apex hung a large pearl, her trademark. And dangling from her ears were strands of pearls as long as her fingers.
After making the rounds of the guests, Cleopatra swooped into the middle of the room and placed one hand on the bronze donkey's head. "Welcome to you all." The room instantly turned silent. "Tonight we come together to celebrate. A new Scholar sits among us. She has come to Alexandria to take nourishment of spirit from her colleagues, to bring the wealth of her experience to us, and to study the marvels of the Great Library." Cleopatra swung around to face the head table. "I give you Gabrielle!"
A round of applause broke out but was short lived. When the servants came onto the floor prepared to initiate the feasting, the guests turned their concentration to gastronomic rather than intellectual delights.
"That was short," remarked Xena, under her breath.
"And I'm glad for it." Gabrielle patted Xena's thigh under the table. "Let's get real. These people are here for the food."
Just then a servant deposited a sampling of each dish onto solid gold plates and handed them to Xena and Gabrielle. As they leaned on their left arms, they used their right hands to pinch small bites of food. No one ate sitting up in Cleopatra's Palace. That was for commonplace folk. The elite reclined as they ate. Gabrielle felt quite uncomfortable doing as the upper crust Alexandrians did.
Cleopatra arrived at her seat and barked at the wine steward to fill her cup. Her aperitif arrived not in a beautiful glass receptacle but in one of glittering gold. She raised it to no one in particular, then took a long draft. Still holding the goblet aloft, she smiled and said, "Those Egyptians know how to make a fine wine."
"So the wine is local?" Gabrielle surprised herself by making small talk with the Queen of Egypt.
"The grapes are grown in the marshes of the headwaters. The winemakers are up the Nile in Memphis." Cleopatra answered as if she had spouted the sentences to an endless parade of foreign dignitaries. "Oh good, the entertainment!"
The bronze donkey had been cleared leaving an open space for the entertainer. Everyone in the room had positioned themself to watch. Apparently they knew what to expect, for each of them had set their plates aside, some even tossing them onto the floor.
Gabrielle saw several she knew among the guests. Lunara and Hermippus sat together. At another table she spied Qrius, Aristeas, Antiochus, and Philo, all scholars with whom she and Xena had shared an evening meal. They held their bodies with well-rehearsed boredom but had their eyes trained on the performance space nonetheless.
And into that space came a blue... something. A man, quite thoroughly naked, who had been painted a rich blue absolutely everywhere. A band of reeds perched on his head, and as his foot touched the precise middle of the floor, he knelt onto all fours, revealing a ludicrous fish tail attached to his behind.
Amidst a chorus of hoots and hollers, the blue fish-man proceeded to crawl upon his knees mimicking the erratic swimming of an oceanic creature. His arms fanned out like fins. His mouth mocked the strange gulpings of aquatic creatures. He was wholly absurd. And everyone loved him, especially Cleopatra who kept talking about it even as the next course arrived, served from a circular tray marked with each of the signs of the zodiac.
On closer inspection, Gabrielle noted that each of the foods bore some relationship to a zodiac sign. At Taurus, the chef had piled slices of beef; at Gemini, he'd placed pairs of testicles and kidneys; Libra was perhaps the most elaborate with two scales, one topped with a sweetened torte, the other with a savory one.
But this was only a matter of presentation, for the serving team lifted the tray away to reveal the true main course: rabbits with wings attached to their backs, making them each look like a tiny Pegasus.
And there was more. Two muscular men hefted a palette on which lay a sow. One of the chefs appeared toting a long knife. He pressed it to the beast's belly and drew it down the length of its stomach. The guests shrieked when a dozen thrushes flew out from the beast.
Quickly, the men carted that pig away as a whole roasted hog was brought in by four more bulky servants. When the chef cut into this beast, its belly spilled forth a splendid mixture of sausages.
But then twelve men straining against the weight arrived carrying an entire boiled cow. None other than Achillias himself, general and regent, followed it in. He was dressed as Ajax, wearing a glittering silver helmet and carrying a sword thrust toward the sky. As if he were mad, he lit into the cow, expertly slicing it into serving pieces while he violently slashed back and forth, skewering the pieces with his blade to deliver them to waiting serving trays.
The crowd roared their approval. His prowess with a sword had been displayed for all. He soaked in the attention, bowing several times, and refusing to leave the floor until each guest had leapt to his feet, screaming and applauding.
In the ruckus that followed, everyone repositioning themselves on their couches and talking about the marvelous event put on by Achillias, Gabrielle leaned over toward Xena. "Have I mentioned yet that I don't like him?"
Xena smiled briefly. "No, you haven't." She took a plate of meats -- beef, pork, and sausages -- from a servant. "Not that I wouldn't have known."
continue on to chapter twenty one