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Lady Jane Gray
Copyright Warning: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, et. al. are all the intellectual property of MCA Universal. Athena copyright Olympian Productions. Inclusion here is not intended to violate their copyrights. The story may not be copied or reproduced, in any form, without this copyright warning.
Cliff's Notes: This is a fragment of a novel; it was never posted. The Debt episodes did it all so much better that I decided to leave it unfinished.
To Missy. Through the years: supporter, critic, friend; this one's for you.
Chapter 1: Return to Athens
From the founding of the city, the main road to Athens has passed through the cemetery. Trees, aged, twisted with age, their roots tipping ancient tombstones, statues, funerary vases, jumbled together, strewn over the landscape. Here, a marble-white carved stele, showing a dying woman saying goodbye to her daughter; friends gathered about, grieving. A column, high as a man's head, surmounted by a sphinx, wings painted red; the column itself fluted with an incongruous lotus blossom. A bit further on, the statue of a man holding a sword: surely a hero's tomb, but time has weathered the face beyond recognition, and the paint is worn, showing only a hint of gold on the sword's hilt. Amongst these symbols of death, the tallest of the monuments: a bull, caught just before its charge, head lowered, twisted to the right. A symbol of virile manhood: potent, threatening.
Xena, Gabrielle, on horseback, move quickly through the cemetery, towards the double gates of the city. Playful, Gabrielle leans forward, and Athanike, magically following her thought, takes her through the gate opposite Xena. She smiles, waves, and disappears into the crowd.
In the time it takes to spot her again, cross the way, Gabrielle's been brought up short, standing before three women. Xena takes a moment to relax, contemplate her lover.
An exotic, with reddish-blonde hair and fair skin, Gabrielle's set it off with light brown riding shorts and a cream colored blouse. Style. Xena'd lost count of the number of young men -- and women -- approaching her in taverns, asking which of Gabrielle's parents was a northern barbarian. And whether she was free.
Xena liked to think that barbarian blood gave Gabrielle her feistiness, courage. Glancing over again: Gabrielle is laughing, leaning forward to talk with the women. She blocks the main road, but crowds simply flow around her. Some reach out to touch as they pass her; others stand and watch.
Something more than youth and exotic beauty sets her apart: she sits with an easy comfort, relaxed, reaching out to touch people in the crowd surrounding her, smiling easily. But her gaze is everywhere: lively, intelligent, quickly assessing place and person.
An obvious foreigner: Athenian women wealthy enough to own horses are secluded. But Gabrielle stood out even in her own home town, her self-confidence unbecoming in a woman. Somehow, she and Gabrielle had created their own world, where confidence, independence and personal power were virtues. But it isolated them. Xena knew Gabrielle felt the loss: she, who seemed incapable of stopping in a town and not making a new friend.
Glancing over again . . . Gabrielle is laying her hands on the head of a teen-aged girl. Neither of them were popular with the old aristocracy. But the democratic movement had taken irreversible hold, and amongst the common people, Gabrielle's touch was said to have magic. Some said the power to heal; some said she could see clearly in matters of the heart. Here in Athens, she was a cult heroine: a kind of oracle for young women, a place to go for advice, comfort, help. The delay irks her; she neither shared nor understood Gabrielle's desire for these intimate connections with complete strangers. Turning Argo, attracting Gabrielle's attention; she smiles, breaks off her conversation, returns to Xena.
"Sorry; it took longer than I thought."
"What now, Gabrielle?"
"Kyria Sophia wanted to know if I could get her boy into the Academy. Kyria Thanos brought her daughter to get my blessing for her marriage. And her daughter came to get mom off her back. I liked her; she's got some fire. I hope it doesn't get smothered when she's married."
Xena nods, mostly keeping her irritation covered, as they ride up the sacred way, through the inner kerameikos. The streets are lined with merchants tables, a few boards propped up, holding wares; as they get closer to the city, booths, tents offering shade. Gabrielle looks around: ahead, to the right, someone selling fruit juices. Finer quality vases, and the booths are just a front for shop and home. In a month, the festival of Athena, and already the distinctive prize vases were showing up for sale. Black, polished black, with engravings in red, they'd be used to hold olive oil, or preserves, wine: offerings to the goddess. The highest quality vases were to be purchased by the city, used as awards in the athletic competitions. Pity the merchants were commercializing what was supposed to be a religious holiday . . . .
Something catches her eye, and Gabrielle pauses: "Xena. What's that?"
"Helmets." She looks down on a row of gleaming bronze helmets, crested with crimson-hued plumes, displayed on a table at Gabrielle's side. "Looks like hopelite armor. Footsoldier." Moving easily off Argo, almost eager for an opportunity to dismount, she picks up a helmet, sets it over her own head. "Good workmanship." Her voice takes on an added resonance inside the helmet: "I like the nose-guard. Whoever did this, knows his stuff."
Gabrielle dismounts, looks up to her partner's eyes, visible through a narrow slit in the war helmet. Discomforting: Xena's face, expression hidden from her, and a good eight inches of bobbing crest added to her stature. She touches Xena's elbow, briefly, "Don't get too attached. Xena, am I mixed up, or isn't this the potter's district? You know, vases and stuff?
Xena glances around the shops fronting the road. Her eyes catch black-on-red drinking cups, bronze shields half the size of a man, with serpents, sometimes owls painted on the front; simple plates and bowls, rimmed with a light blue, spearheads, lying brightly in a row, or attached to long, polished wooden shafts. And those perfect, beautiful amphorae, for the festival.
Sensing panic in Gabrielle's voice, she quickly takes the helmet off, but it leaves a fine oil on her hands. As she looks around for a rag to wipe them, her eyes catch . . .
"Gabrielle, isn't that Elpis? There?" She points at a young woman disappearing behind the kiln of a potter's shop crossways from them, but Gabrielle doesn't catch the face . . .
"Here? She's at temple, or with Athena. Don't worry: we'll see her at home tonight." As they remount, Xena looks back again . . .
"I guess it makes sense. The potters make casts for the bronze, right?" Turning . . . "Xena?"
"Right. Good thinking." Absently. . . . "Gabrielle, about half the potters are making weapons. Who's buying?"
"A lot of the shields have owls. The city, you think?"
"Gone only eight months, and Athens is planning war? The councils need to consult us, before making decisions like that."
"I can see it coming. You're not going home with me, are you? You're going straight to the council." Silent, Xena leads them south, away from the Agora, towards the government center. Passing the new temple to Zeus defender-of-liberty, Gabrielle admires an oblong pool in the front, backed with shade trees. Very cool and inviting; a bath would be nice when she got home. But the sight of a winged Nike set in the middle of the pool jolts Gabrielle: they were indeed back in Athens, where the goddess Athena might appear anywhere, even in a temple sacred to Zeus.
Xena stops in front of the Tholon, the circular council chamber which held the sacred fire. From past experience, Gabrielle knew for the next four months, Xena would be spending most of her time right here.
"I might be in council until late. They . . . "
"I know. They need your special gift: instantly awake and assuming command. Your brilliant tactical skill. Your . . . "
"Were you this sarcastic when I met you?"
"No. You grew on me. But Xena, Elpis will be disappointed if you don't come home tonight. Make sure you're home by her bedtime." She turns to go, then looks back: "Xena! Like our favorite goddess says: Don't fail me."
It was OK because she knew I wasn't really mad, and Elpis needs a mom. Eight months on the road, we get four at home to undo Kara and Athena; those two think way too alike in ways I don't like. I wouldn't leave even Draco alone with Kara for eight months; he'd be saying, "Yes, Athena," and probably dedicate a temple to Hygeia. Xena says Elpis is sixteen . . . well in three days she will be; says she's strong enough to stand up to Kara.
I wonder if Xena even knows how much a kid she is. Once we talked story all night; she told me every Wolof story there ever was, then she started making up Xena stories. A little kid with a big crush on Xena; I wanted to tell her mine but Kara said no.
Kara is creepy. Chikara: she said to use her real name, it's supposed to mean 'strength', where she comes from. I said it meant 'snob' Elpis laughed but Xena didn't. Anyway I hope she isn't home, because I'm not in the mood for perfect. I've been on the road, I smell. I wasn't raised speaking perfect Ionic dialect and my dad was a fisherman not the ambassador to the court of Cyrus. I don't know politics and I can't play the flute. But I'm the one who got Xena.
Big mistake! My hometown, you have to go 'ftou' three times, like you're spitting, so the gods don't hear and decide you're boasting. Is having Xena really a boast? Can they get you just for being in love?
I love Athens. Xena always says, "It's noisy, overcrowded, expensive and dirty. The air is bad. What's not to like?" But it's exciting, I'm so alive here. I love all the people I get to meet, and the shopping, plays, poetry. Last year I even talked with Plato about 'virtue' and what I thought it was. He seemed all mixed up about it, though.
Funny how we have three homes: my mom, and her mom; but this one is for us, our family, like we're a real family. It isn't a mansion like back in Samothrace, when we were first married. We talked it out: a home needs to be a home. Where we come for love, and to give love; to heal, to raise a child and love her. Xena said we could do a mansion later; I'm waiting.
Overlooking the Kara Situation: "I'm her guardian when you're gone. Where do you expect me to live?" So *she* built our home. And *she* lives in it more than we do. Some things never work out the way you think. Then *she* sets in on the Pnyx hills; the snottiest place to live, right next to all her aristocrat friends. Very Kara. Now I have to make it a home again. Last year it wasn't even finished and we all slept at Thomion's.I guess she and Kourin were just friends, and now she's almost my friend too.
Maybe I shouldn't have said that about our favorite goddess? Xena never says anything but I'm sure we're not done with it. She says, 'I slept with Ephiny' but I slept with Perdicus and Athena, so it's not like we're even.
Athena said . . . . She said, when we talked, before she left the last time. You forget how much it hurts, really you forget and then it comes back: her eyes flash when she's angry and they crinkle up when she's making one of her wild crazy jokes.
And when I saw her for the last time she said: "Take care of Elpis."
Gabrielle rides slowly up the sacred way, almost to the Acropolis, then turns right, following a paved but much narrower path into the hills. The path doesn't stay straight for long, as it twists up the hill, dirt side streets leading off onto terraced slopes, where the best homes were. The oldest residential district in Athens, now neglected: in democratic Athens, mansions and old money could be dangerous. Wealthy men displayed their power by competing to fund new temples, or awards at the festivals. Last year it was free food: all the roast ox anyone could eat; the smoke of burnt flesh and fat hung over the city for a week. Men, citizens, ate, entertained in the Agora, carried on politics and business at the Agora. Home was for women, and didn't require luxuries.
Directionless but for memory, Gabrielle takes the wrong turn twice, lost in the maze of ancient streets. The main street would take two horses abreast; high whitewashed fences ensured privacy, anonymity. The road was lined with fruit trees; ripe oranges, figs already fallen on the path, generating a sweet-sickly odor. Kara had used her connections to get land; she told her friends that donating land would be like donating it to the temple of Athena. In the end she had three adjoining lots; when they'd last seen Athens, the old houses had been destroyed and the foundations laid for a large house, stables.
The guard in front of the Alkmenidae mansions re-orients her; only a few houses more . . . in the end it was unmistakable. Whitewashed walls, yes, but no other house had a chakram painted on tiles, inset beside the gates. Dismounting, her hand stops on the latch. Along the wall, in a narrow strip, thyme . . . and rosemary, grown tall as her waist. She quickly picks out mint, several varieties of basil, anise . . . and several plants she didn't recognize. Picking one leaf, she rubs it between her fingers, smells: pleasant, sharp. Someone had taken the pains to plant a complete herb garden, then let it run wild.
Gabrielle stops a moment, takes a ripe, perfect fig from a tree overhanging the wall. Unable to wait, she bites, and the subtle aroma of flowers fills her, a smell dying as the fruit is picked. Sensuality mixes with myth, and briefly the tree, branches heavy, bending over the street, seem seductive, voluptuous with fruit. Then, like the aroma of a fresh-picked fig, the vision vanishes.
Otherwise the outside offers no surprises: flat-sided, windowless and white; two storied but with a low extension that was sure to be kitchen, workrooms. The walkway seems to have been set alongside a dried streambed: sand, small pebbles, but several surprisingly large rocks. Something about the rocks, but Gabrielle has no inclination for further revelations, and simply leads her mount to the back of the house, towards water, food and shade. Touching her forehead to that of the horse, she whispers "I'll be right back" but Athanike knows.
She knocks loudly with her staff, then slowly pushes open double doors. "Kara?" but no reply; assaulted by the cool of the inside, Gabrielle pushes the doors all the way open, stops. Instead of the clear view to a central courtyard of water, light that a traditional home offered, her view was blocked, screened, literally: immediately past the entryway, giant painted parchment screens block her view. Forced to look around, she notices the floor covered in a finely woven mat, and three wooden stairs leading up to the level of the screens. At the lowest level: shoes; by their size, Elpis'; neither sandals nor boots from Kara. Gabrielle takes the hint, sits down to unlace, remove her own boots. By the end, she's ready to notice details. The screens are offset a few feet, offering an entrance; on either side, freestanding vases reach to her waist. But the glaze seems cracked, the cracks filled in with a crimson red, and the vase itself is deep black. The lips of the vase curl sensuously; useless for anything but decoration. Each vase holds a single long green-stemmed flower, ending in fleshy white petals.
Angered, she moves behind screens, in a room completely alien. Instead of heavy walls, painted bright: naturally reddish woods, framing painted screens. Almost as a nod to a traditional central courtyard, a simple reflecting pool, with deep blue tile; she hears, sees water trickling in, but the pool itself isn't full. A few very low tables, set against the wall . . . Gabrielle strides through the next level of screens, and finds her courtyard, open to the light, lying at the center of the home, columns all around supporting balconies, a stairway to the second floor. She stops, looks, kneels: the courtyard is a reproduction of the one at Samothrike, down to the fountain, flower-painted tiles, and herb garden. All that's missing . . she turns. . . is the tree: the space for the tree empty, where she and Xena had planted in Samothrace. Gabrielle sits by the fountain, taking deep breaths.
In the end, she splashes water on her face, washing away the dust of the road. Finding a spot in the shade, back to a thyme bush , she turns to contemplate the the tree that is not there. In a few minutes, almost by a trick, she'd come to accept that this was home, ambiguities and all.
There were as many sides to it as Xena's chakram; the courtyard touched her, yet she felt manipulated, though by who wasn't clear. Kara couldn't have built it without a precise description from Xena . . . and she noted again how close a duplicate of the courtyard in Samothrace it was, down to the positioning of tiles and color of flowers. Xena.
Xena had never been who or what she expected; she'd grown in openness, love . . . yet here were revelations Gabrielle was not sure she wanted. The design of the courtyard bespoke a hidden relationship between her and Kara, a mutual understanding of the symbols, the meaning of their own relationship. She felt invaded; an intimacy that after all belonged only to them, now shared.
And although the courtyard was certainly the key to the layout of the house, not everything had been unlocked. Gabrielle wanders through the upper stories, opening doors. Guest rooms, not even furnished. A bedroom in use: obviously Elpis'; she shuts the door quickly, feeling invasive. Finally, the majority of the upper story is consumed by a master bedroom: stretching over the entire south side of the house. Gabrielle enters, quickly moves out onto a balcony, overlooking the ocean. Clouds in the distance; they might get a cooling shower later in the afternoon. The city gleamed whitely, hazily, at her, under the Mediterranean sun.
Even in their bedroom, nothing is traditional. The bed, low and wide, is framed again in reddish woods: looking fresh, as though unslept. Gabrielle realizes suddenly that Athena and Kara must have shared this bed; the thought drives her to tear off sheets, covers, toss them in a pile. Looking around the room for fresh sheets: she was used to open shelves, linens, sheets stacked neatly, but nothing was open here; instead, on the wall opposite the bed, a low cabinet. She kneels in front of it: a highly polished black surface; tries running her fingers over it, but there were so many layers of rich deep paint that the surface feels completely smooth, gleamingly black. The wood grain itself was invisible, intangible, disturbing . . . yet the doors slide smoothly back, revealing familiar sheets, pillows and towels stacked, one after another.
With a sudden burst of energy, Gabrielle stands, picks up the covers on the floor and double-armed gathers them to her; taking them to the sunlit balcony, she determinedly shakes them out, leaving them hanging over the balustrade.
Voyeurism: for a house only recently finished, there were far too many spirits.
Resolved to shake off whatever hold the house had taken on her, Gabrielle goes downstairs, exploring the kitchen and storage rooms. Woodworked floors turn to stone, cool against her feet; the kitchen not very different from home. Musty and dark, though. Opening shutters: simple boards, painted bright blue with red five-petaled flowers, contrasting cheerfully with whitewashed walls. Dual ovens in one corner, looking clean and free of ashes; several large tables at just her height, a cistern holding water, bowl underneath; at the far end, an open doorway. The kitchen fits her so perfectly there seems nothing to complain about, excepting perhaps the very perfection, an echo of the courtyard.
Bringing light into the house renews her energy, and she decides to explore beyond the doorway. Pantry, of course; again rough boards built into the sides of the walls as shelves, holding row upon row of stoneware flasks. An amphora rack, a simple wooden board, laid flat, but with holes drilled in, to accept the tip of the enormous storage jars. Only one amphora actually there; she tips it towards herself, brushes dust off the stopper: wine, from . . . turning it towards the light....from Nemea; an old Corinthian vineyard. Xena's favorite, but why should that surprise her? If that's how Kara wanted to play it, fine: she looks around, finds a series of shorter, squat jars. One, with a light golden glaze, turns out to be honey; she takes it down. Searches, opens another: olive oil, with an infusion of . . . thyme. Another: lavender. She sets that one aside as well, thinking: Xena would be tired . . . and they could start tonight, making the house their home. Smiling, in mock shyness at her own thoughts, she looks down. A wooden door with iron ring attached: trap door. The idea of exploration excited her; who knew what secrets Kara might hold in a storage cellar?
Footsteps, coming closer. Hidden, she peers out . . . Elpis, wearing a rough white smock; summer length short, she notices, leaving most of her arms, legs uncovered. Her skin's much darker, now; the lightning bolt cut in her hair gone . . Elpis looks up, startled. "Gabrielle! I didn't know you were back. I. . . I have to go. . . " Turning quickly, too quickly, Elpis grabs at a bag on the table, snagging it, she runs out of the kitchen.
Gabrielle stands, framed in the doorway, looking out. Well. Nice to be back in Athens.
She returns to the pantry, this time armed with her staff and a candle . . . returns repeatedly to the incident, the hurtfulness of Elpis' actions.
Lifting the door to the cellar: a stone staircase, cut into the rock beneath her . . . the cellar looked old, probably from one of the original homes, before Kara had leveled them. Lifting the candle . . . rows of amphorae, cool to her touch. Above, clay pipes, carrying water throughout the house, then leading it back to the central Athenian conduits.
She had to remind herself, clinging to the idea, that Elpis was still only a child; she could be thoughtless, but the basic trust, and love, between them had not changed.
Large, almost spherical jars hold wheat, barley: running her fingers through it, dusty grain- powders make her sneeze. Seemed to be dry, free of insects; she carefully reseals the jar. Out of the corner of her eye: a snake. . . Gabrielle holds her breath: eying it, slowly lifting her staff . . . but the snake ignores her; glides away, pursuing ophidian interests. She breathes again, relaxes, wondering if Kara'd chosen a snake to keep the rats under control. Suddenly reminded of Tiresias, Gabrielle rests her staff on the earth.
A shelf behind the jars holds a row of cheeses, above that, three hams, suspended from the ceiling by iron hooks. They looked well crusted with green; no sign of decay. The storeroom was in perfect order, perhaps too perfect. There was food enough to last through a siege, but none of it was fresh. Well, it made sense: Kara and Elpis probably ate at the temple. But, again . . . who was the food actually for?
Everything seemed to have become more than itself, as though the texture of events had been written in some complex sacred script. She felt like an initiate at Eleusis, waiting for the priest, a hierophant who would lead her to a secret chamber, perhaps here, in the cellar.
But there was no priest: revelation deferred, she feels paranoia creeping spider-like over her, resists a sudden urge to scream, shaking her head to clear it, she breathes deeply. This wasn't the place for clear thinking; she climbs back into the light, blinks.
Well. There was always the Agora. But Xena, and for all she knew, Kara and Elpis as well, were there. Still, she could visit the laiki-agora, local farmers market, on the outskirts of town. At least it would get her out of the house.
'Yeah, Gabrielle: I won't fail you.' Leaning forward, swinging off Argo, Xena bends, takes the reins; wrapping them around a small wooden post, she gives a small grimace, whether pain or anger even Xena doesn't know, but she holds her mouth slightly open, takes her breath shallow. Looking over her shoulder: Gabrielle is already gone, and she didn't believe in looking back.
'Gods above, I hate this city;' she finds herself by ill luck standing in front of a simple marble slab, inscription inset: "This is the boundary of the Agora." Reaching down to touch it: dry, a light film of dust. And the touch sends her four years back into her past.
It was the last day she'd spent with Ephiny. The whole journey to Athens had been exposed as a lie, a cruel illusion. The arguments, tears, over: Gabrielle, unseen, a vengeful goddess, stood between them. Yet the hurt of Gabrielle's marriage to Perdicus was still vivid, like the full moon illumining their marriage chamber. Ephiny was furious, no longer even trying to talk it out with her.
Anything to get out of Ephiny's apartment; she invents a shopping trip, deciding on the spur of the moment to buy Gabrielle some trinket, some memento of Athens. Ephiny knows exactly what she's up to, but perversely insists on tagging along, possibly unwilling to allow her time alone with thoughts of Gabrielle. Midafternoon sun beats down on them both; the wind blows dust about their feet, but gives no relief from the heat . Xena stops to buy a fruit drink, and Ephiny refuses to share it. Another mistake.
They've barely reached the alley of the jewelry merchants when it starts. A boy -- twelve, perhaps, runs past: "It's Xena!" but she was used to that, stops at a stall. There, on the first try, perfect: a small stone, long as two joints of her index finger, strung on a simple leather cord, lying on a purple and gold brocade. Xena holds the stone: warm, softly brown, like Gabrielle's eyes, but with a deep crimson vein breaking through the surface, near the middle of the stone. It takes her breath away, an expression of the depth she'd found in those eyes, in her own feelings.
Ephiny turns back: a small crowd of boys, ages mixed. Keeping their distance, but whispering; an occasional giggle. She turns around, in time to hear an insistent, "No! I'll sell 'em only as a pair. You'll never find stones like that; travel the length and breadth of the wide briny sea, but you won't. They've lain buried in the earth since the time of the Titans, the gods made 'em to be commitment stones for a couple, and they won't be separated."
The jeweler now has Ephiny's full attention; she watches the transaction with a grim smile, a sense of fate. Xena glances down at her, but she's revealed far too much. And the stones lure her onwards; guilty, she fumbles at her purse, picks out a gold daric, sets it down. Ephiny gasps at the expense, as Xena picks up the stones, stuffs them in her bag, turns quickly . . . and the eldest of the boys is standing before her. "Are you really Xena? The Warrior Princess?"
Something in his tone . . and Ephiny stands next to her, staff in hand: "Boy! What do you think you're doing?" But he only ducks, runs forward . . . and a handful of dung hits Xena square on the chest. Caught by surprise, she looks around as the children scatter in all directions, hears the shouts "Xena of Miletus! It's Xena!"
Furious, Ephiny whips her hair about in anger, reaches behind and slides out a cloth, scattering the stones and silver-work. She carefully wipes Xena's chest, then looks up, "We need to get out of here. We should never have come."
But the entrance to the narrow alley is filled with adults . . holding stones, sticks, a few staffs. "It is!! Xena! Xena!" Ephiny takes a stone under her temple; Xena grabs her elbow as she staggers, turns her round, and they break into a quick run, hoping the mob won't follow. A heavy stick lands on Xena's calf; this time Ephiny grabs at her waist, rights her. But there's another mob at the far end . . . doors shut quickly down the road, merchants pulling in their wares; of course no balconies here. . . they've no choice but to run headlong into the mob, force their way through with elbows and shoulders.
But the mob is denser, larger than they'd thought. They're separated almost immediately; immersed in the sea of people, deafened by screams, beaten, kicked, Xena is forced to her knees, kicked again . . . blood in her eyes; unable to see Ephiny. Semi-conscious, kicked in the head, she falls forward, stops herself with palms in the dirt, bleeding . . . The shouts blend into a background cacophony, and as consciousness drains, the world becomes preternaturally silent. She barely feels a kick in the back as her whole mind focuses on a voice, softly, gently telling her to stand, to protect her friend. Xena pushes . . . opens her eyes, sees Ephiny's body behind a dozen legs, lying face down in the dirt, a boot just lifting . . .
It breaks the spell; she cries out, yells, and flips forward. Ephiny's assailant is thrown face against a wall; she hears a crack, and he falls. Turning, balanced, leaning forward, warily scanning the crowd . . . which has suddenly realized that this indeed is Xena, who by will alone conquered half the continent. No longer afraid of the crowd, their taunts, Xena, deadly, glances around, smiles . . . and they step back. Cowards: the pack of starved dogs that pursues only the weak. Xena, still eying them, kneels by Ephiny, feels her pulse. Responding to Xena's touch, she half-pushes herself up, and Xena takes her the remainder of the way, into her arms, holds her, "Please tell me you're alright. Please, please be alright." She gasps; kneels, stands with Xena's arm around her, and with her faces the mob.
Stand off; unless they were willing to injure citizens, however base and cowardly, they were going nowhere. Stifling hot in the narrow alley, a rotten fruit hits her knee . . .
A murmer; movement ripples through the crowd, like the flocking of birds announces a hawk . . . with her height Xena sees the crowd in back dispersing, tightens her arm around Ephiny's waist. Soon enough the hawk appears: armed and armored soldiers, escorting a short man. Black bearded, white robed with gold trim, instantly recognized throughout Athens: the archon, Themistocles. Ephiny kneels; hesitant, Xena does the same.
With the Athenian guard keeping the crowd at a distance, Themistocles speaks quietly. "So these are my warriors" and he stretches his hands down to Ephiny; she takes them, rises, and he hands her over to a guard. Xena watches as the guard, dressed in leather, white cloth and shining bronze, takes Ephiny gently in his arms; only then does she meet the archon's eyes.
"Xena, isn't that what I hear? The famed victor of Miletus?" But instead of contempt, Xena hears laughter in his voice; she gets to one knee, rises, still looking him in the eye. "Why don't you and your young friend join me in a walk? There are some very old Athenian customs that need explaining. And I'm very hot standing here." Themistocles offers her his arm . . as protection, she well knows, and together the small group returns to the entrance to the Agora. They pause, and Themistocles sets his hand on a marble stele. Leaning over with her, "Can you read it? No? It says, 'Here is the boundary of the Agora.' But what it doesn't say, my two young warriors, is this: the Agora is the heart of our city. It is our place of justice; it is where we do business, expecting honesty and fair trading. We Athenians dine here, we talk politics; our councils meet here. And here are our most sacred temples."
Themistocles was well aware that the simple question had become a full-blown rhetorical occasion, and his command of rhetoric is well up to the occasion. "In short, young women, the Agora is sacred ground. It is no place for warriors, or murderers, or the enemies of Athens. We Athenians will defend our sacred places: you two go back and tell your Persian masters, what happens to those who violate the sanctity of our city." And Themistocles bows to each, waves to the guards, and is gone.
Ephiny looks up at her, smiling, perhaps wryly, a small cut above her lip. "Xena? Sometime you have to tell me about Miletus." Xena blinks . . . puts one arm around her waist; together, they walk back towards Ephiny's apartment. Resisting a tendency to limp, Xena stops, steadies herself by placing a hand on a boundary-marker. "Eff? I have to leave tomorrow."
Ephiny bows her head: "I know;" Xena barely detects the added "my love." Taken aback, rubbing her fingers together, feeling the accumulated dust on the stone . . . she makes a decision: "So.You doin' anything tonight?"
She's brought back to reality at the entrance to the Tholon: a guard, in ceremonial red and white, polished bronze, stands, clenched fist against chest, formally saluting her. She tries to narrow her eyes, look threatening, but is caught by surprise: the guard is the same youth who'd held Ephiny. Xena wants to smile, make some sign, but he stares stiffly ahead. Oh, yeah, Athena had given her influence, a voice in the councils of the men who ruled Athens. But not acceptance; she was as out of place here as she'd be at the andron, men's dining rooms, or gymnasia.
She stops, squares her shoulders, opens the door to the council chamber.
Dark, though her eyes adjust quickly; a small gathering of men, illumined by light from squares cut in the ceiling, alternating light with deep pools of darkness. Six men, Themistocles the center of the group, glancing up at her, his face momentarily disturbed. Damn; she'd hoped to avoid this . . . seven pillars, holding the roof-support beams; near one of those, an altar to Athena and a young priestess, hooded in a gray robe, sitting nearby. No other entrances . . .
The smell of smoke, burnt meat: she locates the ceremonial fire, remnants of sacrifices. The smells consume her: men, crowded together, sweating. Bringing back . . . warrior time: some of her men had captured a young girl, brought her to their tent under cover of night. She'd had to go into the tent, discipline them, get rid of the girl.
Xena stops herself, forcibly discarding her past. Athens was like some dark, evil forest, a venomous insect under every overturned rock.
How to avoid a confrontation? She takes refuge in piety; even Themistocles would have to admit her obligations to the goddess came first. And she'd remind him of Athena's will . . . a smile returns to her lips as she gracefully kneels before the statue, bows her head in prayer. The priestess rises, kneels beside her. In reverent tones:
"Xe: good you're back. The Situation is getting complicated."
"Kara. Of course." She recognizes the priestess' voice before she can make out her face, hair, under the hooded robe. The light of coals in the sacrificial tripod outlines Kara's face: black hair, spiky, cut close; her eyes, slightly slanted and deeply gray. In the background, Xena notices Themistocles and his men fall silent. Beginning to enjoy herself, "What's the Great Man up to?"
"Being statesman-like in this hour of crisis. The great patriot." Something about her voice . . . Themistocles and two of his men have moved behind them, waiting. Kara's body flows forward, hands moving over the sacred flame; a sudden flare, and , in the dimly-lit room, a cloud of incense expands outward. Under cover of her distraction, Kara stands, moves away, while Xena moves gracelessly but quickly to her feet, facing Themistocles.
"Xena. I'm glad you're back in Athens. I'm having dinner with Miltiades tonight. Why don't you join us at the stoa of Attalos? " Without waiting for an answer, he turns away . . . pauses, as though remembering some unimportant detail. "Oh, as you're here. Take over as polemarch until I return?" And smiling wickedly, he turns, leaves with his men.
Bewildered by the politician's sudden friendliness, Xena scans the room: table with balance and weights, some chamber pots. Scrolls on another table . . . .
And Kara, incongruous here in the council chambers of men. She . . . she was actually glad to see the older woman; looked forward to catching up on politics: a shared passion, a passion safe to share. She sits, holding a shiny yellow disc between her fingers, hood thrown back, brooding. Hesitant, unsure of her commitments, Xena sits next to Kara anyway, looks over at the coin.
"Found it on the bench." Kara hefts it: "Too light for gold: silver-gold alloy. Hmmm . . . lion crouching on a tuna, what's that mean to you?" Turns the disc over, "Got it. Ionian Commonwealth. Went out of circulation after the fall of Miletus." Hands the coin to Xena.
"Darius paid my army with these."
Kara shrugs. "What could anyone hope to gain by bringing it up now? Everyone knows what you did."
"Basic strategy: threats are more powerful than actions. They want me to know they have options; throw me off balance." She tosses the coin in the air, catches it, and, placing it safely between her breasts, turns to Kara. "Why is Athens preparing for war? What is Militiades doing back here? And what does that opportunist Themistocles want with me?"
Kara, smiling, clasps one knee between interlaced fingers, leans back on the bench, balanced, opens her mouth. Stops, looks sideways at Xena. "You've slipped, since you got married, Xe: I can't believe you haven't heard."
Kara's struggle to keep their relationship unresolved, her refusal to understand, to discuss; ambiguity her way of creating meaning. Yet even if Kara was merely testing her, she needed clear boundaries.
"Kara: be careful . . . ." but Kara smiles at her. Xena stands . . .
Grinning: "Darius sent ambassadors, demanding tribute. Earth and air, Xena."
The earth beneath their feet, the air they breathed: Darius was demanding total surrender, assimilation into the Persian Empire. The weight of it, the atmosphere in the Tholon, press upon her. War, invasion, death were at hand: Themistocles' off-handed appointment of her as polemarch, commanding general of the Greek forces: perhaps an insult, perhaps an attempt to enlist a powerful ally, bridge differences.
Arriving at the table with the balance, she picks up a weight. Looks at Kara . . .
Annoyed: "Xe, those are the standard weights for Athens. Don't play with them." She hurriedly puts the weight back in place, begins pacing. Pillar after pillar: the heat, the stench . . .
Kara is talking again. "Themistocles will never submit; he wants the Persian ambassadors killed, their hands sent back to Darius. You see why he's dining with Miltiades; he's the only general who's fought the Persians, before Thrace fell."
"Besides me. I fought with them."
No response. "Your family, Kara? Where do they stand?"
Kara stops smiling, looks at her. Xena had asked her commitments: Kara now had to make a choice. Complex: she knew Kara preferred ambiguity. Xena waits on her.
"Xena, this is death to those who know it." Pausing to obtain Xena's assent, "In public, we're completely behind our democratically selected officials. Privately . . . Hippias will be sailing with the first invasion forces. He's asked for our support, to re-establish him as tyrannos."
"He must be over eighty."
"He only wants to die here. The Alkmenidae expect to take over afterwards; my family believe that under Persian rule, the aristocracy will be restored."
Xena retrieves the coin, offers it to Kara. "Sure this wasn't meant for you?"
But Kara fails to respond, and Xena withdraws the coin. She steps away:
"We're not on the same side, Kara. I'll . . . my family and I. . . will leave Hellas if the aristocracy returns." She sits back on the table holding the Athenian weights and measures; it wobbles slightly under her body. "But I'll stop you, before that happens."
"Will you stop Themistocles?"
"I won't allow him to murder Darius' ambassadors, and I won't allow him to start a war. Not without attempting peace."
Kara stands in front of her, smiling, reaching out a hand: "Allies? Against Themistocles?"
Xena pauses. Kara, a wily old octopus, tentacles everywhere, but impossible to catch hold of . . .
Kara takes her hesitation as refusal; bends her head. Looking back up, the smile fallen from her face: "Don't imagine things will be any better under Themistocles, Xe. Athenian hegemony in the Mediterranean holds very little for Macedonia. You didn't notice Athens sending troops to support Miltiades against the Persians. In fact, they sent ambassadors to renegotiate shipbuilding supplies. "
"Miltiades is a tyrant; my loyalty was to my family, not him."
"Your thinking is soft, out of touch, Xe. Gabrielle's influence." She looks up, holding Xena's eyes.
"Hegemony in the Mediterranean. Power politics, Chikara." She pronounces the syllables with a with a precise Nipponese accent, like a taunt. "Why is it I prefer Gabrielle?"
Before Kara can reply, she takes the offensive: "What does an Alkmenidaen tyranny have to offer that's any different? Your family looks on all of us as second-class Greeks."
"I've at least seen the world, Xe; you know that. Once, it even mattered to you."
"Is that what you're working for? Kara, tyrant of Athens?" Her mouth twists in disgust, " I want no part of you or your plans."
Kara, expressionless, hoods herself. "Let me make a little prophecy. For now, your position is ambivalent; fine. Very soon, you'll have no choices. Then let's see what you want to be part of." She turns her back on Xena, kneels before the sacred fire, bows her head in thought.
(and that's all she wrote)
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