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Higher Wisdom - Cont'd
They left Laurion late afternoon, Agape strangely quiet. Hermione's uncle, Eurylochos, had been more helpful than she could ever have guessed: a short, thin man with heavy black eyebrows, matching an equally heavy moustache, he moved swiftly around his establishment: the Golden Oxen Tavern, complete with a painted sign, three oxen glowing like the sun. His speech a mixture of dialects from years of travel across the Mediterranean, Hermione supplying words she didn't recognize or he didn't know. Yet he was perfect: he could speak with almost anyone passing through; his would be the first tavern a foreigner would come to, or a local wanting the latest news.
With Hermione's introduction, he welcomed the pair like long-lost relatives, insisting that Hermione take them to the back of the tavern, where the family always ate, and prepare them lunch. She quickly chopped oranges, serving them with a yogurt so creamy the orange didn't even curdle it, mixed with mint and a sprinkle of brown powder that added an exotic taste, reminding her a little of Xena's scent. By the time she and Goppie were through spooning it up, praising her cooking, Hermione had brought in another dish, a village salad. Tomatoes perfectly ripened, and Gabrielle could visualize her checking them daily, to pick at just the right time; chopped basil, olives and crumbled cheese. The olives were dark black; had a meaty taste that set off the tomato and the creaminess of the cheese. After Hermione had left to help her uncle with the noon crowd, she openly watches Agape, eating quietly: the goddess seemed focused on her food. Maybe she was trying to memorize the taste of each bite; it seemed that way. Somehow she'd thought Agape would have been . . . maybe pickier, too refined for peasant food. It reminded her of their love-making; it was almost like she hadn't know about sex before that. There was something incorruptibly innocent about her . . . but.
Remembering: short, quick comes and a beautifully virginal smile, afterwards. Now it seemed like she'd corrupted her, seducing, being seduced; had made her need. She wished she'd never touched the goddess, yet, looking at her, across the table: you could take back your words, but how did you take back being lovers?
Saved from any prolonged soul-searching by Hermione and Eurylochus' return: they started with exchanging family history, then the story of his escape from certain death at the siege of Miletus, his wanderings afterward. From the young girl's face, it was a stock family story; though he spoke with great passion, she must have heard it a hundred times.
Then it was her turn; deciding it probably wasn't really necessary to mention Xena, Gabrielle gives them a condensed version of the fall of Troy, ending at Cassandra's confrontation with Odysseus in the temple of Athena. The war was so recently concluded, it was almost news to her listeners; even Agape seemed fascinated.
The afternoon was wearing on; she finally asks about travel. Hermione brings a dark liquid, syrupy-sweet, that she can barely swallow: it jolts her to full alertness. The coastal road, Eurylochos said, was the least safe: Laurion's mines needed a constant supply of slaves: most of them simply died, from the heat in the airless shafts. The roads, the farms, ships at sea: all were easy targets for slavers. His recommendation was that they stay home; only Hermione's pleading on their behalf won him over. He suggested a path straight inland, as far away from Laurion as they could manage. Finally, she set off again on the path to Xena, the path that lay through Amphipolis.
Moving inland, they head through mountains, then down to valleys and up to a mountain pass again. They wouldn't be making much progress; night was falling. Eurylochos had been right: they pass plot after plot of deserted land. On one mountain top, circles of stones, where a home, a farm and pens for sheep had been. The stones were overthrown, though you could still make out where door and window had been, a hearth. Garden plot overgrown, terraces crumbling: the stones, fallen, became once again part of the landscape. It seemed something like a natural progression, devolution the implied order of the barren hilltops, yet the infertility of the soil bothered her, on a level deeper than she was able to voice.
Agape continued silent.
"Alright, Goppie. What?"
"Hermione had a crush on you; that's why you chose her."
"You don't know that."
"Yes I do; I saw it in her eyes.You just picked her up, used her, and set her down again."
"Are you saying she didn't get what she wanted, from us?"
"I hate the way you make everything into a transaction; it's like you always live in the marketplace. It made me think of that boy in the tavern, wanting to buy your love. I hated that too, if you want to know."
"You think I liked it?"
"You . . . you didn't really care, one way or the other, did you? That he thought you were a tart."
'tart' the word made her want to laugh. She really had grown up on Olympus. But it wasn't hard to guess where this was going.
"I haven't slept with a lot of people, maybe. And maybe not always for the best reasons. But I loved them all. I'm not a tart, or anything like that. And." pausing to interrupt Agape, "before you start in on me, it's time to look for a place to stop the night."
"Why not right here?" She sweeps her hand at the bare, deserted hilltop.
"No water. Also, I heard the klephti, bandits, take places like this to hide in. Tell you what" she points downslope "down below's a valley with trees; there's got to be a stream. We'll just follow the center of the trees."
It didn't stop her. "So that story you were telling about Odysseus. You really think he's wandering around Hellas lost, because Athena is punishing him? For helping defile her temple?"
She shrugs. "For not stopping it; sure. Why not?"
"You mortals put a lot on the gods. Maybe he's wandering because he doesn't want to go home to his devoted wife. Maybe settling down in Ithaca isn't as interesting as adventuring on the sea. And meeting new women, maybe seducing them. Don't you think so?"
"Alright, Agape: that's enough."
Finding the campsite was easier than she thought it'd be. And here she'd had this image of Xena being consumed by the knowledge and concentration it took for her to be Xena: always sure of herself, never making mistakes. A lot of it now seemed common sense. She wasn't hungry enough to bother hunting, simply sets up a quick camp, gathers firewood. Agape does her part helping gather, but instead of settling down beside her, announces that she's set up wards to guard the campsite, and leaves. Maybe for Olympus.
The goddess had annoyed her all day, but still she'd wanted to talk things over, what it'd all meant; alone with her thoughts, she listens to the fire dying down, to crickets calling, ceaselessly, for mates. Wondering if that's how the gods thought about mortals, wondering if all her words, like when she told Xena 'I love you,' if they all were like chirping of crickets? Did Aphrodite really hear prayers from lovers separated by fate? Was it even worth trying?
She felt so alone, like when she left home, her second night on the road. Right that first day Xena'd bought her a bedroll, had showed her how to pick a spot, how to even out the ground. Though it'd been a hard day, she was awake and she missed Lila; she missed her friends and yes she even missed Perdicus. She cried, but soft; knowing if Xena heard she'd send her right back to Poteidaia. That made it lonelier; then she couldn't hide her tears anymore.
Xena started talking; she couldn't hear at first but then she made out 'Lyceus' and held her breath so she could get it all: "I wished I could tell him what happened to me, Gabrielle. How it all went wrong." The way she said her name held her, and she followed Xena's voice. Xena told her how Lyceus stopped in her room every night, to tell stories about Perseus, about heroes, about Athena. Sometimes they met again, on the roof; when the whole inn was quiet, they watched the stars. She followed Xena's voice, like it was something she could grasp; holding close to Xena, she didn't cry.
Every night after that Xena talked to her, before she fell asleep. When the moon was a cut in the sky, bleeding light, Xena made her move their blankets together, and asked if she knew about the stars. She taught her the names of constellations. They followed the moon as it waxed and waned; she learned to tell how far away dawn was, by looking at where the constellations were in the sky. And if she thought about anything, it was about being together, about what would happen to them next.
Sometimes Xena told her they had an early start, and they'd need sleep; sometimes Xena asked what she was thinking, asked her to share a dream. It was just after their first solstice together she woke up, had to pee but Xena's arm was over her shoulder. Lifting it, she leaves, but coming back Xena was awake, lying on her back, looking away. Gabrielle takes her arm, places it back where it'd been, like covering herself with a blanket; smiles, says 'there'. Xena knew: she leans over her, descending slowly kisses her softly, on her mouth.
She starts: eyes wide open; it had felt so real. Mother said that's how you could tell if it would happen the way you dreamed it. Closing her eyes, she thinks about Xena lying next to her; breathing slowly she tries to relax, to fall back asleep thinking of Xena but it doesn't happen. Xena was gone; she wouldn't see her again for eight more days and there was nothing, nothing she could do to make it happen faster. Curled up in her blanket, resting her face on Xena's blanket Gabrielle cries, until the stars set. She wakes alone.
Samos of Thrace: even the name was a lie; it'd had nothing to show her but heavy seas and treacherous currents. Xena brushes wet hair out of her eyes, holds it: wind so vicious that simply facing into it was a test of endurance. She turns, inspecting the coast. Rocks, just rocks.
Perfect; Gabrielle and Agape would love it here.
She wished Gabrielle had simply betrayed her. Hate, killing rage, was a specialty; she was out of practice but it was a skill she knew would be there, when she needed it. She turns back into the wind, closes her eyes. Everything Athena had promised was all a lie, and she a fool to believe it. Sitting on Agamemmnon's banquet table: the blood from his corpse had pooled on the table; now it dripped, quietly, onto the floor, found the crevices between stones, flowed, seeking the earth.
Athena, sitting beside her, contemplating the slaughter, was talking. Something long, involuted, forcing her to focus. Darius' schemes: monopoly of trade, conquest of Macedonia. and Athena's counter-plot, Ionian hegemony over all the Mediterranean. The simple-minded directness of Ares' cunning seemed far preferable to Athena's complex manipulations, centuries-long schemes.
"Now. About Gabrielle."
"I lost her; I know she's yours. But will you . . . do you think, she'll let me see her, to say goodbye?"
"Xena, are you under an illusion that I can be contained in some mortal body? That I am Agape?"
"Then who is Agape?"
"An aspect of me. You don't understand, do you? She's . . a demigod; I made her, gave her some of my self, yet she has her own will." Athena touches her, and unwilling, she looks up, to see the smile of wisdom. "It seems that part of me has fallen in love with Gabrielle."
"Will Gabrielle be a goddess now?" Instead of answering, Athena hands her the incense locket.
"What do you see?"
"A butterfly wing. How did it get inside the stone?"
"Xena: many years ago, before you were born, before your people even came to live on Ge, there was a great forest; all of Ge was forest. On a beautiful spring day, a small golden-winged butterfly landed next to a thread of sap. I don't know how it smelled, but look at the color: it must have seemed like honey. The butterfly moved, set a foot in it, tasted. It surely knew, right then, that something was wrong, but the knowing was too late. Held to the sap, it struggled; now a wing was caught.
"Sap flowed over the wing, covered it like a funeral shroud; years later, the tree died. Buried, it lay under the earth. The sap hardened, and now the butterfly and its death are locked together, eternally. Beautiful, isn't it?
"That isn't what I want for either Gabrielle or Agape, Xena. And the longer you permit their embrace, the harder it will be to free Gabrielle."
Athena takes back the locket, holds it at the edge of the table. A drop of blood falls; caught on face of the locket, it slides down the smooth amber surface, adding a reddish glaze. The goddess moves the locket, carefully, first this way, then that, until the entire surface of the gem is covered with blood.
"Here: take it, go. Remember."
The ship shudders, and she's thrown forward. Landfall . . . the sailors were using pikes to bring the boat in. Heavy current: it wasn't working. There were no docks, just a v-shape in rocks jutting from the shore.
Two of the sailors jump over, into the surf; taking rope they test their strength against the current. It wasn't enough; the ship was coming about.
She jumps in with them. Freezing water and she grabs a rope, avoids responding to the cold. Turning away from the boat, thick rawhide rope over her armor: half-bent with the load . . . a creaking sound, the ship has stopped momentarily, and she feels slack, moves forward. Straining, she gains; again, and then the current near shore takes it, brings it to dock. The sailors slap her on the back as they move in, taking the ropes tie the ship, securing it to a large rock. She steps on shore: unwelcomed, Samothrace had a new ruler.
Gangplank in place, she herself leads Argo to shore: the horse was nervous, reluctant, and had to be petted, coaxed, talked to gently: she hated sea travel almost as much as Gabrielle. As soon as the pair is safe on shore, the sailors pull up the plank, cast off, anxious to be away from the coast before nightfall.
Her own legs, thighs, her entire lower body was frozen, but instead of warming herself, Xena saddles Argo, arranges her packs, and heads off, following the coast. Warmth could come later.
Night had fallen before she found the inn, standing alone near the town square. Home of the Red Pig; sign with a heavy sow, half a dozen piglets suckling, just as the captain had said. Two storied, timbered and plastered: local architecture seemed limited to means of coping with intense cold. Pulling the door open, she's hit with a blast of heat and heavy odors that could have come from the mouth of Hades. Men-sweat, roast meat and smoke from cheap candles. Ignoring the rack holding a dozen or more cloaks, swords, she stands at the entry, pack slung over her shoulder: it was dark outside, but harder to see her way through the tavern.
Men: no-one was armed; staircase to the left, window on the right and door ahead: looked to be a kitchen, from the smoke. Large hall, lit only by candles at the tables: the patrons liked their privacy, but she'd find what she wanted here. Fireplace: tall enough for a man to stand up in, tho not her; wood probably less scarce than on the mainland. Barmaid, gaze just glancing off hers and she was looking across the room at a man: heavy, two heads shorter than herself, holding a rag.
It was like a return, always beginning like this. Stepping into the room, she moves sideways, circling around tables, eyes on rag-man. Just as he opens his mouth
"I want a room."
"New on the island. Staying for the initiations?"
Taken aback "What?"
"You're a mainlander, here for the sacred rites. Mysteries of death and rebirth."
Xena looks down at him, the man clearly amused. "Maybe just the death part. Tell me about the room."
"If it's only the death part, I'll take payment in advance. And all the rooms are open: you're past season for sacred rites."
"Fine. I'll take your best." Hands him a gold daric. "That do?"
The innkeeper turns the coin, obviously good at deciphering inscriptions in the near-dark. "Persian. Don't you have better?" Amused again, he returns the coin.
It gave her an idea; she hands him the Milesian stater. "How's that?"
"Ionian Commonwealth. You fought with the Commonwealth?"
"I did" Not a lie, and more amusing than he would ever know.
"Then it's an honor to have you in my house." Two-faced; his friendliness as quick as his contempt.
"Since it's such an honor, have dinner sent to my room, I'm hungry. And wine; send an extra jug along. I'll find the room myself." She turns, walks a pace, and looks back: 'Well?"
She's just unbuckling her sword as the barmaid knocks; holding the scabbard in one hand, chakram on the other, she motions her to set the platter of food beside her bed; the girl does so, then goes outside, returns with two small wine jugs and a kylix. She starts to mix the wine with water, but Xena takes her hand and she looks up into Xena's eyes. "Leave it. I'll drink it straight."
The look stops her; she was reminded of Gabrielle: about the same height and build; could have been a cousin. Distant cousin: her eyes were sunken, and her smile had been hardened.
"Yes?" In a questioning tone she'd perfected for ending discussions.
"That's a lot of wine for one."
That was it: she'd caught, perfectly, Gabrielle's look of disapproval. "You're right. Have one of the village girls sent up for me, later. After dinner. When she gets here I want a fire built and hot water, ready for bathing."
The girl only continues her disapproving glare; maybe she'd outraged her past her ability to respond . She lifts an eyebrow, looks at her.
"I'll do it. Later; Uncle Rhadamon wouldn't approve." She turns to go, then, with one fisted hand on her hip and the other on the doorframe, "Are you sure one will be enough?" and leaves quickly, before Xena can respond.
The drinking cup, the jugs were unadorned, simple fired pottery. She was in a mood to skip the libations to the gods; skipping even the drinking cup, she takes a long swallow of heavy red wine, directly from the jug. Anyone could have recognized her: checking her exits, searching for a fast way out, she looks out the window: awning underneath her room. Waiting to see what develops, she leaves her armor on, but picks up the serving platter. Roast young pig, served with barley: she takes one leg, loosens it and dips it in barley, tears a shred of flesh, then a mouthful.
The room was plain as the jug, unadorned, simple stucco walls and beams, single candle on a stand next to the bed. She wanted to be out under the stars. Tries the clear wine next: slight acidity verging on sweet; it went well with the piglet. She takes a larger piece, more barley. She was starting to swallow without even chewing: hungry, she was so hungry. And she'd need the maiden, too, if she was going to get through the night.
How did Gabrielle say it? 'honey-tongued virgin.' Crying that night after they left the inn. She'd spent a long time alone, talking with Athanike, then just come to the campfire and started to cry. She held her, but Gabrielle only twisted closer in her arms, like she was burrowing, muttered 'honey-tongued virgin' and fell asleep. That night after she'd met Agape, at the inn.
She takes another cup of sweet wine. The food was too heavy for her; not used to it and she felt it making her sick, but the wine would cut it. She drains the cup, quickly.
She remembered little of what happened next; either the trip had left her tired, vulnerable, or she'd forgotten how strong the northern wines were. By the time a girl showed in her room, she'd been sick once already; lying back in bed, everything spun when she closed her eyes. Staring: she fixed her eyes on the door, clutched the sword-hilt: cold, it made her focus. So the girl's image was only double when she entered, sat next to her: it was the barmaid again, her Gabrielle.
"Drink this." She helps Xena lift her head: something effervescent, with a strong herbal taste she was too confused to identify. It felt good. Then the woman began stroking her forehead, releasing the pressure. The touch of another woman, so confident: she had to be a healer, her face softer than first impression; younger too.
"Whoever you're leaving behind, he isn't worth this."
"She. She isn't worth it."
Xena feels her stomach settle and she could focus her eyes again; reaching up to stroke the young maid's face and she in turn bends over, kissing her. Gently, with the softness of a virgin, like Gabrielle always kissed.
"Istis!" The woman stands, quickly, picks up a small girl in a nightgown. "You need to be in bed, little one."
As the woman holds her child closer, she turns to Xena. "I'm sorry. I need to put her to bed, but I'll be right back."
"No. Stay with her. I don't want you with me."
The woman stares at her, hard, but leaves with her daughter; Xena gets up, bolts the door after her, and finds the second jug of wine, throws it out the window. She watches it crash, splatter in the courtyard below.
She wakes rested, cheated out of her hangover. The downstairs had been unshuttered, steady salt cool wind clearing smoke, stale vomit, spilled wine: like the inn had transformed itself, overnight. "Innkeeper!" she shouts, angered: as though she'd been given a purity she'd never wanted. "Innkeeper!"
"My name is Kleis. And you don't have to shout." The woman from the night before, appearing from behind the kitchen door. Without child.
"Doing the morning shopping with uncle, while I clean. What do you want?"
"I'm leaving." The woman showed surprise: disappointment. No, she was imagining that.
"Uncle has your money; you'll have to wait until he gets back. If it was what I did last night . . . "
"Keep the money; I'm glad to get rid of it. It wasn't you." She knew what Kleis wanted: to be told what she did was just right, was just what she needed. "I was leaving anyway: I need to see the satrap."
"Kleisthenes. You're too late by a year. He left. Left everyone behind."
"Even his mistress. And his daughter. Or am I wrong?"
"No. I saw it in you, that you'd understand things. It's why I came, last night."
"'He isn't worth it.' Was he?"
"Who rules now?"
"The big landowners."
Kleis surprises her yet again by walking closer: bold, looking straight into her eyes until they're face to face then
reaching behind her, pulling up a chair.
"Sit; I'm getting you breakfast. If you want anything more from me, you'll share my food. Then, maybe I'll tell you."
Kleis brings bread, soaked in milk with plumped raisins, nuts and honey, zig-zagged across the floating bread, all served in a bowl she'd say, if forced, was pretty: glazed, blue lines separating yellow flowers, clear as sunshine on a calm sea. Kleis refuses to talk business, instead plays with her free hand, while she eats.
"I've been on this island since I was born. People like you tell me there's a world out there. I want to know about it, warrior woman, traveler woman. I want to know everything you have to show me. Then I'll tell Istis; she'll learn from me and she'll grow up to be something more than a barmaid in a tavern on nowhere-island. I want something from you, traveler."
"And what can you give me back?"
"I'll be your friend. I can see you'll need one, where you're going."
"Bad bargain." but she can't help smiling because this was the pain she was looking for, and here it was offered free. "What do you want?"
"To see you again, tonight. Alone."
"No. Bring Istis."
"Mentor and Stepissos. Uncle says Stepissos is a loyalist: that means he helped get rid of Kleisthenes. He doesn't think the Persians have any right to be here. But he's the biggest landowner and had to pay the biggest tribute. And all he ever does is hunt: he makes me sick. His family is real nobility; they ruled before Darius took over."
Kleis lets go her hand, sits back with a satisfied smile, arms crossed under her breast. "You want to know a lot, don't you? See you twice, two nights."
The woman had no actual hold on her: she could promise anything. Naive: Gabrielle would act just like this. "Yes."
"Mentor. He's the biggest farmer. When the Persians took over, he sold to them, shipped everything he grew to them. Used to be just a small farmer, now he's the richest man on the island. Hates Stepissos, though, his family used to pick crops for the nobility. But he'd be nothing without the Persians: he's pretty nervous now, with no satrap. Uncle hates him, says he sold the island out." Kleis reaches a long, thin arm forward, takes Xena's teacup, drains it. "Anything else?"
"When's Istis' bedtime?"
She leans back, so sure of herself, piles golden hair over her head, lets it fall, fall over her face. "When the moon is all the way on top of the sky. See me tonight."
Deadline: she would make the island safe for Gabrielle and Agape, stable: they'd rule when she was gone. Subtlety was out; she'd confront Stepissos and Mentor, establish herself by force if necessary. Mentor first: heading east, she rounds the curve of the island. It was gradual, but, shielded from the currents and winds of the west, the air became warmer, the vegetation something closer to the hills around Amphipolis. The coastal road ascends, and she passes a girl, not more than twelve, wearing a simple blue cloth dress. Heavy breasted already: she'd be married soon; she led with her down the path two unwilling sheep with strings attached to their necks. Dowry-on-a-string. Making friends couldn't hurt: she tries dismounting, asking the names of each of the animals, but the girl was too stricken by shyness to do anything more than point the direction to Mentor's. Though maybe she'd never seen a warrior princess before and was simply afraid.
Still early morning: she makes the decision to take a detour, up the mountain. More a pilgrimage, really: she'd promised herself this as long as she'd been together with Gabrielle. As long as they'd known each other. Gabrielle's version of the Trojan war. She'd chosen a tale of war, deceit: Xena could have found it a strange choice, but after hearing three years work, it was clear the topic suited her. A stunning portrait of Penelope, as besieged by suitors as Troy had been by the combined Hellenic forces, yet holding out more bravely, even when there wasn't a possibility of hope; Gabrielle's Penelope a figure stronger and more appealing than any of the heroes of the war.
Her Agamemmnon too was brilliant; she hadn't expected Gabrielle to notice, let alone express, the ruthlessness, the single-minded obsession with power of the successful general. Gabrielle understood her characters; understood things no village girl her age should know.
Sweating; it was starting to get hot and she'd need a wash-up before seeing Istis. That'd take care of itself, when she found a campsite. It couldn't be on Mentor or Stepissos' estates, though: she'd likely play them one against the other. Later, then.
Further up the hill she spots an olive grove; enters shallowly, to enjoy the cool. Facing the ocean: it was true what Gabrielle had said, you could see the hills and plains of Asia, dim, misted over. Gabrielle'd set Poseidon here, in this spot, to watch the assault on Troy. So very Gabrielle, to imagine that one of the Olympian gods would simply watch a battle, without meddling, seizing control. The girl'd had so little experience with gods that she knew she couldn't have got it right but there it was, Asia, just as Gabrielle had described it.
She'd been a fool; should never have let Gabrielle be more . . . never let Gabrielle into her life. She looks around while Argo grazes the heavy grasses, the yellow and pink wildflowers underlying the ancient grove. Late pruned, heavy limbs severed, producing a black thick trunk, heavy enough to withstand fire, wind, drought. The upper branches looked silly, so light, thin, ineffectual, yet they reached to cover the sky, sheltering, bearing fruit already, so early in the season.
But maybe she was just disoriented; maybe the growing seasons were all different. She'd find out; have to find out, to collect taxes because Gabrielle needed to know. She'd have to find out everything and tell Gabrielle, and she'd have to do it just like she'd asked, their last night together: teach her everything. It would take a long time, longer than she'd spent even learning from Lao Ma and it would hurt, every minute would hurt and each passing day would remind her never to yield her heart again. They'd both learn, and then it'd be the last thing they would share.
Coming down, the hills newly terraced, not a rock out of place, each level alternating fallow, young barley, and wheat: wide swaths, uninterrupted by boundary markers, as far along the mountain as she could see. Obviously the estate of a major landowner, and a farmer who took care in cultivating, preserving land. A man who expected to profit from the estate for decades to come: Mentor. As she comes down the mountain, the land turns into a flat plain; she passes orchards, groves of almond trees. Rides through a large village with wide streets, clean houses well kept, numerous animals. Prosperous: she'd need to survey the land, get a sense of the value of the holdings, what taxes she could raise, but it wasn't in her. She wanted out, wanted to leave the villagers to their future, without interference.
In the end, she stops, asks the village children for directions to the manor house. Walled estate, with watchtowers, guard posts. A work party takes her eyes: men shifting stones, building up a wall, about her own height, terraces again, possibly for a kitchen garden, because the house was directly behind it. Heavy stone forming arches: one after another like waves, a few dozen for stables, storerooms, rooms for farm implements. In back, two storied, the manor house: a small fraction of the length of the storerooms: it must have been the original farmhouse, everything else added on later. To the right, a long low addition to the central house, roofed with bright new red tiles, also recent. Unfortified but curiously secure: fire could sweep through yet leave the house, storerooms untouched.
She stops at the work party. "I want to see Mentor. Now." The foreman stands straight; shirtless, gray-hair on flat muscled stomach, black still showing in his beard, he nods to the men as a signal to break off work. "I'll take you to him. Pinnos, would you kindly take the lady's horse to the fountain?" Looks up at her: "The heat's on for the day; she'll want water."
Xena dismounts, follows him up a flight of ten steps, long straight heavy stones, flanked and shaded at the top by apple trees. Through a narrow passage: stables, by their odor, on either side, then into the house.
Struck mainly by the simplicity: neither wall-hangings nor inlayed tiles; a simple stone floor, swept clean, and stucco walls painted bright yellow. She's taken to a small room, left there to wait on Mentor. Only the door she'd entered by as exit; she drops her saddlebag near it. Pacing, taking the measure of the room: it was cool, an unpainted white, two stools, backless, with leather covered cushions. Low table with a few scrolls, some writing implements, a scale. Spare: a room to conduct the business of the estate, simply.
The foreman returns; she turns to notice him setting down a jug and two glasses: the sight of blown glass surprises her and she almost misses it: he's wearing a shirt now, simple v-neck linen coming down below his waist, a cord for a belt but the ends tipped with silver and before she can speak
"Xena. Welcome to Samothrace." Hands her a glass of red wine. "Join me in a drink: friendship, peace between us."
She takes the glass, doesn't drink. "I'm here to reassert Darius' claim. And collect the taxes. Friendship, Mentor, isn't relevant."
He sets his glass down, delicately for a man lifting boulders a minute before. Sits, leans back against the wall and spreads his legs, looking at the floor. "Let's save time: I want order returned to this island. I can't farm; I'm harassed by raiders. I can't sell; pirates take my grain shipments. I lose more money than I ever paid in taxes. Do we have a common interest or not?" He looks up at her, smiles. Presumptuous.
"And if I want all your profits?"
"You won't. I know what really happened at Miletus."
Mentor was no simple farmer: confident, he'd gained control, backed her into a corner. She leans forward, rests her knuckles on Mentor's desk, sword bobbing in back of her: menacing.
"You think I'm here to take sides in petty quarrels?"
"It's more than that. Stepissos and his hunters . . . that's what he calls them, Xena, but they're really his private army. His family have ruled since anyone can remember, and he's declared the whole island his hunting preserve. He rules the island by fear. You have influence with Darius; everyone knows that. I want his troops stationed on the island; I'll even pay."
"You want to replace a local tyrant with a Persian one? Once they're here, they'll never leave." Curse the gods, that was stupid: why was she protecting him?
Mentor says nothing, but, taking his glass, sips at the wine. Pacing her, making her wait. "A local tyrant who's sworn by the Great Mother to have your head hang in his hall. And that of your consort."
"I've conquered empires with my sword and my bare hands. I don't need a Persian army to rule this half-drachma nowhere-island." She moves away again, acutely aware that he'd used Gabrielle to maneuver her, into offering her own protection. Unexpected again: Mentor knew too much about her. Picking up her glass, she drains it and pours another.
But Mentor stands, holding his glass, walks to the jug, stands beside her. "Very well, if you won't drink to friendship, then to alliance. Against Stepissos." His voice quiet, almost convincing.
She searches the confined room. "Alliance? I'm not that foolish. Friends . . . perhaps. Your people are remarkably easy with your friendship, Mentor."
"What do you mean?"
"A young woman asked the same of me. Name of Kleis."
"Ah, Kleis, of course. You would have met her; she's a fondness for the governors. Kleisthenes left many behind when he fled Stepissos' raiders; I suppose I should have taken her in, when he left. But she has an uncle."
"We've met. She doesn't know I'm kshahthrapavan."
"Don't underestimate her."
"You concern moves me, Mentor."
"You evaded me very nicely, a few moments ago: you're no fool, Xena. You'll find an affair with Kleis would become public quickly. You'd also find her embarrassing and very hard to get rid of." Mentor refills his own glass, then retakes his seat.
"You sound more afraid of her than Stepissos."
"Stepissos' power is entrenched; he can afford to move slowly to crush his opposition. Kleis . . . has nothing. She'll move in desperation."
She sits, across the table from him. "And you're much more cunning than I expected. Tell me why the wealthy and powerful Mentor works alongside his tenants."
"The Destroyer of Nations fights alongside her troops. Are we very different?"
"Maybe. We'll see."
"You give away nothing: you see I'm being honest. But what *are* you going to do about Stepissos?"
"You want honesty? Nothing." She stands, paces and turns suddenly, but Mentor's face is blanked. "For now. Wait for a raid, but if he's as you said, he won't openly challenge my authority until he knows he could win. A man who rules through fear needs to win every battle, or he'll be seen as weak. But I can wait too."
Mentor smiles, broadly. "We think alike, Xena. What now?"
She stands, retrieves the saddlebag. "Two things. First, I need a place to stay."
"It won't be the palace; it's been burnt, looted, vandalized."
"Then that's the second. She extracts a large leather bag, grimaces as she uses her dagger to cut through the tough sinew cinching it closed. Overturning it: coins, glittering gold, clanking, she could even smell the golden dust: dozens, hundreds of coins. Mentor picks one out. "Ionian Commonwealth. I won't ask where you got them, but I'd have them melted down, if I were you. There's an artisan in glass, Herse: you can trust her."
"I want my own coinage: head of a woman on one side, owl on the obverse. Can she do it?"
"Yes." He fingers the coin, turning it over repeatedly. "This is a great deal of money, Xena. You could do a lot of good with it. Use it to rebuild the palace: hire the best local artisans. You'd be a breath of life for the economy; it died when the Persians left. And you'd have the artisan class on your side."
"As you say: we think alike. Will you start it?"
"Yes, this afternoon."
"Do it, and do it in my name. Pay in advance, the sooner the better."
"Done. Will you stay to dine with me?" Mentor's voice slips, momentarily: the only sign of weakness she'd noted.
"No: Argo and I need a wash-up. Before I see Kleis, tonight." It would keep him guessing.
Finding a campsite was easier than she expected: returning from Mentor's, she follows a river upstream, past several peasant villages, then into a forest: a woods so deep that the farmers would have legends of the terrors living there. Perhaps she'd be another: the rider in black.
She finds shelter under an enormous oak, standing apart from the forest, entryway to a clearing. It gave her a view of the valley below; she wouldn't see Asia but it no longer mattered. Releasing Argo from the saddle, she sets up a tent, unpacks what little remained in her bags. Gabrielle had brought her back to life: she'd gotten used to the saying of it, a comfort for Gabrielle, who never tired of hearing it, like telling a bedtime story to a child. Brought her back to the entanglements, the traps of life. Here, alone at last, she could start fresh: strip away luxuries like flensing the skin from a freshly killed animal: smiling she leaves Argo to graze, follows the sound of running water.
River, of course, but there was something else, a clear subtone, deeper in the forest. She had all the time she needed: for exploring, for resting, thinking quietly. She had everything she needed, before seeing Kleis. She discovers a waterfall: falling vertically from the face of the mountain, falling from black crags shiny as her leather, tumbling thirty or more feet to crash into a pool large enough for swimming. Smallerpools surrounding it, reminding her of being in a blacksmith's shop, of splashing molten metal.
Cool: the forest waterfall looks so cool, inviting that she strips immediately, steps in. Surprised: the water was slightly warm, the waterfall fed by a hot springs probably buried deep in the mountain. She looks more carefully at the forest around her: undergrowth thick enough to hide an army, fronds, heavy vines hanging from the trees. Sweetly fragrant, and she picks out flowers, orchids blooming in luxurious oriental excess, like something she'd seen in the south of Chi'in, like nothing she should see in Thrace. But it didn't matter: even through the fall of water on rock, the heavy vegetation, the assault on her senses, she'd notice movement: the forest was devoid of breeze, too still. Too curiously quiet, no animals, no insects no birds. There was a thickness to the place, and she would be safe wrapped in it. Content, finally, to let it be, she finds a series of rocks and sits, leaning back, giving her body to the water, allowing it to flow over her. One rock a little too sharp, jabbing her in the back but there was no avoiding it, and she rests. Water flowing across her breasts, dividing into two streams, then rejoining at her navel, forming a rivulet between her legs. She felt heavy; it'd be soon now. She wanted sex: closing her eyes, moving her leg slightly, diverting the water over the roundness of her hip she places her hand between her legs, using three fingers just as Gabrielle had.
She'd be sitting there, under the tree near to the heavy root that tapped into the fast flowing stream: she'd sit quietly and watch. Using two fingers to spread herself, to press: it would take Gabrielle a few minutes to work up courage, to come to her. Meanwhile she turns her head away, coy: she could make Gabrielle come. Touches her her nipple, then squeezes, hard and it takes her, with a shudder. She wants Gabrielle to kneel beside her, can feel her, hand on her shoulder, asking in her quiet voice so determined "I want to do that for you." Gabrielle looked wide-eyed at seeing her touch herself again, she shocks her when she takes Gabrielle's hand and puts a finger at her entrance, lets her feel how wet she was. Now Gabrielle knew how much she needed her and she lets her fingers be guided, stroking her. Gabrielle had her lips pursed: focused, concentrating like when she tried to do good, to impress her, and she takes her other hand, pulls the thumb across her nipple. She shudders again and then she has to bite Gabrielle, just a small bite on her forearm; Gabrielle whimpers slightly but doesn't move her hand and then she does, coming down on her, pressing against her. "No" she says it out loud and Gabrielle knows what it means because she shows her, helps her, coming inside
A sound, and she opens her eyes, startled: she hated this. She'd become a voyeur of her own sensations, bound by her fantasies. Each time it happened she hated herself more, like she'd crippled herself and there was no way to be whole again. The water tumbles over her, it feels like boulders, crushing her with their weight, trapping her.
Wrapped in stillness, she's unable to track the time: trapped in memory, she remembers Gabrielle. "You're not alone" she said but here she was. Water rippling over her body, until the sense had been dulled by its incessant massage"Just do what you were doing." She had thought she could win her back, she'd believed Athena, that she could make her come back.
A sound: one, two bodies, moving carelessly through the underbrush. She's up, alert, grabbing sword and chakram, she leaves her clothes as bait. And is on them just as they step out of the woods, sword at
"Xena! Put that damn thing down. You're scaring Istis." Kleis, with Istis underneath, arms wrapped around her leg. But she keeps the sword up, ready. Serious.
"Don't you ever come up on me like that again."
Kleis walks right into the point of the blade; forearm under it, lifts it aside. "Who in Hades do you think you are, threatening me with my baby watching? I swear by Zeus if you don't put that down I'll walk right out of here and everyone will know you threatened her with a sword." Kleis pauses only a moment, then grabs her wrist, twists and she has no will; the sword drops, hits a boulder, adding a nick to the blade.
"You should be ashamed of yourself. You're angry at your girlfriend: hurt her, not me and Kleis."
"I'm sorry about Istis."
"Better." Kleis takes her hair, twists it in a knot and ties it back, composing herself while Istis peeks out from behind her tunic. "And your girlfriend? You gonna deal with her?"
"How did you find me?"
"Xena, I know this island. Everywhere, even Stepissos' fortress, I could tell you all about it. Look:" she takes her hand, points with her other. "See that vine over there? I used to climb up that tree, then use the vine to swing over the stream. If you let go just right, you'll fall into the deepest part of the pool. And you know what? When she's old enough, I'm going to teach Istis. I knew you'd be here, Xena."
Aware that she was naked, Kleis' eyes alternating from around her navel to her breasts she bends to pick up her cami, and Istis breaks away from Kleis, squirming around her, and crawls, headfirst, tumbling into the water. Shocked by the suddenness, Xena turns, jumps in after. Hair matted around her eyes, holding a wriggling, screaming Istis, she can barely see Kleis on shore, laughing at her.
"She's fine with the water, Xena: we've been coming here since she was born. Just try to get the tunic off, alright? Then you two can play."
She was being tested, her measure taken: Istis splashes her, hands flat on the water, not merely repeatedly, but over and over and over, screaming. She flinches the first two times, then numbed simply waits for the next one, until she thinks she can take it no longer. Kleis adds a leaf to their little pool and the incoming water makes it turn, round and round. Istis tracks it, watching several revolutions, then tries to pick it up, pushing down with her hand but it always flows out and away; after the third time Xena picks it carefully out of the water, hands it to the child, who only looks at her with big brown eyes, pink mouth open, curious.
"Xena! Let her get it, herself."
"She can't pick it up, Kleis. She'll get frustrated."
"She doesn't understand water yet. This is how she learns." Kleis reaches out, takes the leaf from Istis, sets it in the water again. Now Istis ignores the leaf, steps towards her, and falls off the edge of her shallow ledge. Wide-eyed with terror Xena just manages to catch Istis as she falls, face first into the water; then she overbalances, falls back, but lifting Istis high in the air, manages to keep her above water.
Istis loves it, giggling then splashing with her hands and feet, for good measure. Heart beating, glad her reflexes hadn't been impaired by the drinking, she sets Istis down in the shallow pool, only to watch her step over the edge, again.
Kleis ends the game after only four tries, taking the baby out of the water, toweling her off while Xena puts on her camisole and leather bustier, leaving off the sword and chakram. Her skin had gotten wrinkled like the skin on an overipe fruit, her hair felt sticky. But Istis walks over to her, swaying side to side and using her hands to balance; she stops, looks up like she was going to fall over backwards, and with tiny smile on her face she puts her hands up, straight into the air.
"That means she wants you to pick her up. You've made a friend, Xena." She does it, tiny legs dangling at her hip. "Now what?"
"Play with her." But Istis is curling her fingers around the top of bustier, pulling. "Hey!"
It attracts Kleis' attention, and a smile. "There's one kid who knows where the goodies are. I think she's hungry. Come on over here."
Kleis took her co-operation for granted: strange, because she knew her name now, and must have known why she was on Samothrace, yet she treated her with the same confident authority as at the inn. What she hated about about new mothers: somehow their babies gave them a confidence, that their child was the center of the world. Istis, hanging on with one hand and trying to grab her lower lip with the other: maybe Istis was. Under the towels, and Istis' half-dry tunic, Kleis has packed a picnic: bread, cheese wrapped in cloth, a local melon and a jug of wine. Breaking off a piece of cheese, very lightly yellowed and veined with something that looked like a green herb, she hands it to Xena "Give her that" then tears off a piece of bread, begins breaking it into Istis-sized pieces. She takes the cheese, eagerly, bites into it but while she chews the piece in her mouth she looks open-eyed and innocent into Xena's face and forgets the rest; it winds up on her breast, when Istis grabs onto the leather again. "See if she'll eat some bread" but the answer is no: Istis takes it, puts it in her mouth, but it falls out, crumbs landing near the cheese. "Well, it was worth a try. Here: she likes melon." and she seems to, taking the orange fruit and squeezing it first, dripping onto Xena, but she puts all of it in her mouth and smiles, rubbing her sticky hand on the upper part of her breast.
"She wants more cheese. Here."
Istis eats mostly cheese and melon, as she walks her around the forest's edge, showing her leafy plants, and a vine too thick to get her hand around but she tries and grabs a leaf she won't let go of. Kleis finally declares dinner over: "She won't eat like that for me" dipping a hand-towel in the water, handing it to Xena, to gently wipe Istis' mouth. Then she comes close, takes the towel, and wipes Xena's breast: a little less gently, and the towel pulls at her, popping a nipple out of the leather. Kleis pauses, then finishes cleaning her; she takes Istis and whispers "You'll do."
Night falling, she sits, backed against the oak, watching stars come out and lights appear in the village below. Bread sitting by the fire, at her right, toasting; at her left, Kleis, sitting, shoulder against hers, sharing the wine. It was raw and new and made her aware of being alive. Her feet were very warm, back just beginning to take the chill of the night. And her side, the side with Kleis, had the warmth that only touch brought to skin.
Two handed, Istis was throwing sticks into the fire: she'd watched Xena building it, and, fast learner, now she was 'building the fire' too. She'd have to be very careful with her weapons, around the child.
"Honey?" Kleis rises slightly, long hair brushing over her breast, face hardened by the shadowing of the firelight, but reminding her, even more, of Gabrielle. "Bring momee the bread. The bread, Istis." She drops the dead leaves she was holding, then looks out, uncomprehending, at both of them, before turning, half-squatting, and picking up the bread. Round brown loaf, larger than her head, she can barely hold it and walk: zig-zagging across the open space, she drops the bread only once, but on the grass, hands it, still silent, to Xena. She flops on her mommies lap, while Xena breaks off a large piece, then a smaller one. Deliciously warm for her but too hot for Istis: she throws the bread down.
"She's getting tired. Do you have a little blanket for her?"
Unable to find her blanket, by the time she's back with a fur robe, all she had, Kleis has cut cheese, made a sandwich for her. Istis moves again, climbing on top of her, using her arm- protectors to pull herself up, but it's a last-ditch effort, and she sits, suddenly, in her lap, limp like a hot water bottle. Eying her for a moment, Istis puts thumb in mouth, turns over, and falls asleep. Breathing shallow, Xena ignores the sandwich Kleis is handing her, watches Istis.
Kleis reaches over, takes the child, sets her down on the blanket. "Careful! You'll wake her."
"Stop treating her like she'll break, Xena." and moves, in front of her, lies back in her arms. "Better. Now eat your dinner."
Her feet had gotten cold and wet, from the grass; drying again in front of the fire, she felt as though the power to control events had slipped out of her hand. She ate: the bread had a smoked flavor; the cheese, half melted by the warmth surrounding it, had lost its brittle, crumbly texture and was creamy, though she couldn't make out the herb used to flavor it. The food tamed the wine, and Kleis' body pressed in against her breasts. She felt: she didn't know what she was feeling, but, aware of the softness of her own breasts, she was . . . receptive. Wanted to feel her skin stroked, wanting to be made love to.
"It'll be too late to take you back. Too dark."
"I'll sleep with you tonight."
"Not with Istis here. It isn't right."
"I wonder if she isn't really your child, and I only got her by accident. With me, she puts up a lot more fuss before going to sleep. I don't usually take women lovers, Xena."
"Usually? How often do you do this?"
"This? Give someone my trust? To hold Istis? Very rarely. Xena, I was a priestess at the temple of the Great Goddess. Sometimes, I had to heal, use sex to heal; it was what I did."
She leans her chin on Kleis' shoulder, pulls back her hair and places lips right against her ear. "And for me?"
"You're far too badly damaged, for me. I think, maybe, she could heal you. Either that, or raising Istis."
"Gabrielle is marrying someone else. And I won't have a child, without her."
"Then, Xena, I see nothing for you."
"Will you sleep with me . . . for love?"
"But I'm not in love with you."
"Oh." There seemed nothing more to say, until she noticed lights going out, in the village below, and it reminded her. "Then why are you here?"
"Because I want Istis to know you. And I think you need her. I said I'm not in love; I didn't say I don't care."
"There's only one blanket."
"It's big enough for both of us, if we sleep spoons. I'll take Istis."
Relegated to back spoon, holding Kleis, she waits 'till she feels the younger woman breathing slowly, regularly. "But I do care about you, Kleis."
"I know. Sleep now, Xena."
She wakes at dawn, face in the grass. Sitting up, quietly: sore back; this was no way to sleep. Mother and child seemed fine, still sleeping and she stops to watch: Istis had Persian-black hair, darker and finer than her own even, but her features were Kleis'. The child was breathing fast and low; she wondered what Istis could have been dreaming. Maybe about splashing in the pool.
First night she'd spent under the stars since they'd separated. In the night, in her dreams, Kleis had reached for her and she'd simply rolled away; it served no useful purpose to deny that her body had wanted Gabrielle to be lying on the robe next to her. And Gabrielle had no problems when they started sleeping next to each other; had never objected even when they woke holding each other. But then, she'd found it easy to adjust to Agape, too.
Good enough: what she wanted, she could discipline herself to stop wanting; what had been easy for Gabrielle, she could impose on her body as well. Sitting on the dewy grass, watching Istis sleep with her mother: she would come to want it.
By the time she was back from washing her mouth, cleaning herself, Istis and Kleis were up, finishing the night's leftovers, Istis holding a piece of bread in her hand, wandering in and out of the tent. Kleis reports that yes, she 'd almost cut herself on the chakram and why wasn't it sheathed like the sword; asks if Xena had any milk for the baby, and was there any hot tea; in general making it clear she was ready to go home. Fitting her own plans: she'd see Herse, get the the coinage established, today.
Disregarding Kleis' glances, she straps on her sword, links the chakram onto her belt, and leads Argo to the tent. "C'mon; if you want a ride to town, get on."
Kleis tries to place Istis in front of her, right at the saddlehorn. "That's just about the most dangerous place she could be, Kleis. Hold her on your hip, and don't let go."
"You're angry with me. Because I wouldn't sleep with you."
"Just get up;" Xena reaches her a hand, taking the unwanted burden on Argo's back, remembering Gabrielle, walking alongside while she rode.
"If you miss her so badly, go back to her, Xena. I've lived all my life just fine without you; Samothrace doesn't need you."
"Talk to Mentor about that. And Athena."
"Athena? I'm sorry, Xena, but people who call on the gods for everything they do leave me very cold. Make your own decisions. Hey!" The last as they came down the slopes of Fengari, towards town, and she led Argo into a canter. Would have been a beautiful place to take Argo this morning; she'd sit, and if she listened she'd hear Gabrielle's voice on the wind, hear her singing while she washed at the waterfall.
"Gabrielle will be here soon enough; you can meet her, if you want. I'll have her married on the old palace grounds."
"Did you tell her you love her, too?"
"I asked her to be my lover."
"Did you tell her?"
Of course she had, but thinking back she couldn't remember exactly when it'd been. She must have told her, recently. Gabrielle used to say it all the time, but somehow they'd gotten out of the habit of telling each other.
"You think that I'm stupid and ignorant; living all my life here on an island I'm just some village girl you can pick up. It's true Istis likes you, and I could get used to having you around. But I won't be second place, Xena. If Gabrielle is coming here, tell her what you feel. Because I'm not sleeping with you until you've had that talk with her. Can't this horse go any faster?"
After dropping Kleis at the tavern, she takes a long ride to Samothrike, the town attached to the palace. As Mentor promised, giving her directions to Herse: there was no easy approach. The land seemed to rear itself up, making steep, narrow paths for Argo. She'd wanted a gallop, exercise; instead, slowing the pace to accommodate the landscape, she reflects.
Stepissos couldn't possibly have reached the palace undetected; Kleisthenes must have become careless, lax in his security. Perhaps Kleis had convinced him to lower his guard: she bragged of her familiarity with Stepissos' manor house. Still it made no sense: she had everything to gain, as Kleisthenes' mistress. Jealousy, or perhaps she'd expected to leave with him, when he fled.
But it was hard to imagine anyone being comfortable around Kleis: Mentor had warned her about Kleis; for all she knew, Kleisthenes had plotted the revolt arm in arm with Stepissos, the only means he'd discovered of ridding himself of the woman.
Baseless speculation; the land levels, finally, and she could make out the palace walls. Queasy at the sight of Gabrielle's new home: she'd always wanted to live in a palace; she supposed it would make an adequate wedding present, using the blood money from the sack of Miletus, that she'd stored at Cyrene's. The gold untouched all these years: things had a way of fitting together.
The gates to the palace were -- one off its hinge, the other half burnt through, of more use as charcoal than as protection. The small town seemed cheerless,a sharp contrast to the prosperity of the people under Mentor's protection. The gold could help, to reestablish the town, to bring trade, and from the prosperity would flow the tribute. It was a strange thing: she had a quick vision. Gabrielle, riding Athanike with gleaming brown coat out the gates of a restored palace. She was dressed in white, silk under a linen overcoat, and, holding the reins with a black-gauntleted right hand, her face was set: proud, noble. Passing her by, Gabrielle turns to look and the eyes were filled with emptiness. It was beautiful, it was terrible; she knew Gabrielle was destined to rule the land, and she wanted it, wanted it for Gabrielle: it was like a lust in her.
Phantoms: she leaves the palace behind, turning down a small alley, fronted by a smithy. Herse's tiny shop was directly by it. The shop itself was almost bare: a few drinking cups, glazed a deep blue on the inside; looking in, she could see her own eye, reflected back. It was standard Imperial Persian style, and she recalled Mentor's tale, how Herse had been brought, a slave, from Persepolis. You could find wares like this in any of the markets along the Silk Road to Ch'in, but: but for the glaze. She'd seen something like it, at a banquet in Persepolis, just before setting out for Miletus. Xerxes had brought in dancing girls, had set one on her: watching the woman's oiled body move, her hips twisting as though with passion, snaking down to her, with Borias watching, she glances to Xerxes. He had just such a cup, smiling at her 'I lead you like a horse' his glance said, before he lifted the cup, drained it.
Herse must have worked for the royal household; an artisan of the first rank, and if she wanted an economic revival for Samothrike, and a prosperous country for Gabrielle, here was the place to start. She leaves the shop, through the back exit into a small square, shared with the blacksmith.
Herse, as described, was a tall African woman, hair thickly coiled in the style of her people: she was beautiful, and as she turns to look who'd come through her shop, who was seeking her out, she gives a tremendous smile, red mouth, white teeth flashing against the black of her face. A panther, hunting, black in the forest, might look just like that as it recognized its prey, in the instant before death. And there was a soul-devouring depth in Herse's face, as well.
"Xena! Come here; hold this." She points to a pair of tongs and a small stone die; Xena holds it steady as Herse pours molten gold, a tiny amount, into a circular depression worn in the green stone. "Now, lady, quick: quench it. No, turn to the side, into the water. Be quick, though."
She does, and the gold flows into a lump in the water; looking at the bottom of the tank, she sees several hundreds of similarly misshapen lumps at the bottom.
"Herse. I paid you to do this. Not for me to do it." She gets a smile in return, and, taking off her smith's gloves, Herse hits her, heavily, on the back. The woman's strength was a surprise, yet one Herse had wanted her to know.
"No matter, great one. That very one is last; now help me lift the tank inside."
"Your accent is strange." Taking up one side of the tank . . repositioning herself, shifting the weight to her legs, Xena starts backing into the shop.
"Strange? Hah! I have six languages, Xena; can trade across the sea, all Asia. Maybe I learn another, from you. Your tongue is harsh, yes, but not I think like the mainland. Teach me your tongue, Xena."
The woman was grinning wildly as they set down the tank with the golden nuggets, onto the floor of Herse's shop. She knew exactly what she was implying; under other circumstances, it would have been interesting, challenging, pleasurable, to see Herse releasing control. In any case: she understood all the subtleties of the language. Perhaps the accent was affected; she could find it useful, to put a buyer off guard.
Interesting, but a distraction: she looks, as Herse holds up a nugget, places it on an iron sheet, then takes a heavy iron hammer, and with a quick blow, flattens the piece. Irregular, egg shaped and thick, it flattens to a piece no bigger than her thumb.
"That's no good, Herse. I need something like this:" she circles her fingers, thumb and forefinger. "It's got to be big enough for a portrait."
"Hmmm. Same problem with Darius; all the money in his royal treasury, none for the people to use. Looks very pretty, but the artisans all leave. Maybe for here." Herse shrugs her shoulders. "All that gold, in a big piece, is maybe four, six month wages for a craftsman. You want your coins only for the rich, fine. But." Herse pauses, holds up a warning finger "to help the tradespeople, use a small coin. I make these, so five equals one daric. Better, Xena."
And she was right, too: it was embarrassing, to get a lecture on imperial economics from an artisan. Yet, who better? It was Herse's good, that of laborers like her, she had in mind, that she and Gabrielle had talked about.
"Fine; do it your way. Can I see the design for the coin?"
Herse nods, looks around a shelf, brings back papyrus and a coin. "Reverse side, you said owl; I take this from the tetradrachma, from Athens. Front side, you said, profile of woman. Who, Xena?"
"Make it look like . . . like Kleis." Herse looks up at her, sharply. "Hmm." Adding a snort through her nose, but producing a quick and very good profile of Kleis.
"Now, the differences. Smaller nose, and upturned. Chin . . . softer, I think. And her hair, make her hair come down the side of her face, softening it."
Herse complies, and the likeness "Smaller eyebrow ridges, her forehead doesn't slope so much."
"What her name, Xena?" And Herse's voice is very soft, matching the scratch of charcoal against papyrus.
"Gabrielle." The second time she'd had to say it, out loud.
"She should be with you, next to you. Why is Gabrielle not here?"
"She wants to marry someone else."
"Hmm. Xena, the coin has the face of the ruler. This Gabrielle . . . "
"She will be the ruler, Herse. I saw it in a vision."
"We give our trust to you, not this other woman. Where will you be, Xena? Will you leave, walk away from us?"
"I don't know."
Leaving Samothrike, walls of the palace at her back, she had choices: camp. The tavern, to pick up some wine. Mentor's; perhaps she'd dine with him after all. No more baseless speculations; she needed information. Herse seemed trustworthy; even better, Herse was precisely the woman Mentor said she would be. Links in a chain.
The years with Gabrielle demonstrated she was no judge of character; an endless cycle of forgiveness and betrayal, opening her heart, bearing the pain. Better to not feel, to simply act. She'd been careless with Kleis, Kleis who knew where her campsite was located, Kleis, whose uncle would soon tell Stepissos. The thought excited her. A midnight assassination attempt; the fight, then the desperation on the faces of the assassins. Confessions extracted then swift death; an early morning ride to Stepissos' palace, alone with Argo in the quiet of the early dawn. He'd be up, waiting for news from his men; she would simply walk into the palace, put an end to the matter days before Gabrielle even arrived. The want of it was an ache; there was much to be said for assassinations.
Neither Kleis nor Istis was at the tavern; a ride back to her camp finds it undisturbed, no sign it'd been visited. Dusk only an hour away, she decides on a quick wash, and dinner with Mentor. She couldn't very well go in armor: he'd be on his guard and, for what she needed, Mentor had to be relaxed. A dress, then: she had only one, the blue one. Gabrielle said the color went with her eyes, was always complimenting her when she wore it. Perhaps if she had worn it for her, if she'd tried harder . . . she could feel her hands at the back of her neck, touch lighter than her kisses, fastening the chain. Chain of the necklace, Cassandra's black pearl: she'd thought Gabrielle meant . . . she'd thought the pearl was a symbol, was a commitment. But the years had shown her to be no judge of character.
Entering Mentor's estates, she passes level on level of sentries: apparently she wasn't considered a threat, and she'd have to speak to Mentor about it. The simple-minded gallantry was amusing, but it was time Samothrace, and Mentor, entered the modern age: she knew any number of women, who'd fought at her side, women who'd died at her hands, who could have reduced the estate to ashes. Even Gabrielle, and an ache took her breath. She wanted to see it: Gabrielle, all grim determination, laying waste to the countryside, the estate.
It was perverse, a violation, an indication of how low she'd sunk. She needed sex, or the fullness of her cycle.
There were no work crews, the estate settling down for the night, and she couldn't spot Mentor. She does spot smoke from the manor house, smells roast meat: no, roast oxen to be accurate. Privilege of the wealthy, the roasted ox, and Mentor doubtless would be sitting down to eat with the farmhands. They'd have gotten out the wineskins; waiting for the ox to finish, they'd begin the telling of stories.
What it was like, in the old days, when she still ate with the men, in simple companionship; it was what had changed, after Caesar, Borias, Lao Ma. Her reputation, her title isolated her, and at the end she ate alone, or surrounded by fools. She would have given anything to be watching Gabrielle, slow and methodical, finishing her dinner, washing up then telling her a story.
At the manor, a groom takes Argo and she's shown, directly, to Mentor. The courtyard: open space with a large circular bricked firepit, ox being turned, slowly, on a spit. Young boys, shirtless and beardless; men Mentor's own age, his companions, and a few very old men. Painted pillars surrounding her, just as she'd imagined though not with the dogs underfoot. She enters and the voices of the room fall quiet; Mentor rises, smiling, to greet her. Surprised again, to find him clothed, tunic edged with golds but his position gave him the right to it; cape over his shoulder, matching. Bathed, anointed: she could smell the oils, freshly on him.
"My Lady Xena." He smiles, bows as though in ritual performance, offers her an arm, and leads her out, away.
They stop at a porch, overlooking . . . vineyards, to a hill, perhaps a hundred or more rows of vines, neatly snaking round the hillside. For her, a simple table, two chairs facing each other, and Mentor motions her to sit, waiting for her, no: waiting on her.
"My Lady. This is an honor; will you be staying for dinner? May I offer you wine?" Any other man would have complimented her on her appearance. Something false: it takes a moment, but she sees his face, hears the light irony.
"Mentor, if you do that again, I'm leaving." He bows, about to open his mouth
"Tonight, could we just pretend ?" She tries to think quickly, what Gabrielle might say. "That I own the land, just over that ridge, and I've come to visit, to enjoy your company?"
"Of course, my lady; as you wish. And may I say . . . " Mentor stops. "You're very beautiful tonight?"
"Thank you; I'd hoped you'd like it."
"I'll get the wine."
The cool of evening had already taken the porch, would be slowly invading the house. Settling back into the chair, relaxing: she was enjoying the quiet, was looking forward to enjoying Mentor's company.
It was so alien, the way Gabrielle had said 'holding the land' but, sitting on Mentor's porch, enjoying the sun setting over his vineyards, she was beginning to believe in it.
"And when can we expect your consort?" Mentor, returning with wine: a simple kylix, to be passed between them, but the wine was in a blown-glass container: heavy bottomed, with an unusually narrow neck, an African design, perhaps. He pours the wine, deep royal red, not mixing it with water, spills a few drops onto the brick of the porch, muttering quietly to himself.
"Zeus and all you other gods: protect us. She does beautiful work, Mentor. She could be part of an economic revival, here."
"She will be prosperous, won't she? One of my better investments." Complacent. "Did you like her, Xena?"
Perfect. "Yes, I did. But I'm not sure how far I can trust her."
"She won't steal from you, Xena: surely you know that. I don't understand your concern." Mentor, careful now, only sips at his wine. Well . . . she was over a head taller, bulkier as well. Taking a long drink from the kylix, before returning it to him: "If I'm to fight Stepissos, I need to know who'll fight with me. Where does Herse stand?"
"Fight, Xena? I don't expect you to fight Stepissos; just bring civil order to the land."
"And if it comes to a fight?"
"Then I'll be the one to suffer the blood-feud. I grew up here; the people of the island are my friends, my family: all I have. You come as an outsider; you've no commitment to the island, the people: you can just leave. Xena: there'll be no blood spilled. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll see if our food is ready."
Mentor leaves, obviously upset. Just as she'd expected, it was no personal vendetta, and he had, or seemed to have, the welfare of the island in mind. But naive; men like Stepissos were beyond him.
The birds were out amongst the vines, on one final hunt, before yielding the night to owls, ferrets and blackness.
"My Lady Xena: I took the liberty of assuming that you prefer your meat less well cooked." Mentor, with a serving platter, bread, and -- cloth napkins, embroidered with gold. Fallen back on formality; possibly regretting what he'd said.
He sits, and Xena waits, then smiles: "You're a perfect host; thank you Mentor." She takes a rib, crispy with charred fat, black facing yellow, then merging to pink-rare meat.
"Herse came by, earlier; showed me the sketches of the coins. Very appropriate, having your consort on the coin of the realm. It gives a sense of stability, that you mean to stay. It should give Stepissos pause; I doubt we'll see much of his raiders in the next few months."
Complex: Herse had, as she expected, talked with Mentor, but not told him everything. Either an agent of Stepissos, or a friend, an ally.
She bites into the meat, juices running unladylike down the sides of her mouth. Tender, delicious: she takes the kylix, drinks deeply.
Xena stops long before fullness: there were things she didn't want Mentor to learn about her. And anyway, it would have been unladylike: as it was, she got to watch him hurry, trying to finish a large portion of rib meat he'd taken. He kept fit, for a man of forty years, and she wondered where he'd leaned the discipline. He knew about Miletus . . . perhaps he'd been a soldier. She could visualize him as a mid-level officer; he'd have the trust of the generals, and his men would love him, die for him even, though he'd be right there, among them.
She was inventing reasons to trust the man, her emotions running away with her again. There was a time when she was good at assessing a man's character, seeing into his heart. Now, it seemed her own emotions clouded her judgment, and, sitting, observing Mentor in the peace of the early evening, she was honestly confused: didn't know whether she'd gained or lost.
She takes the kylix, but instead of sipping, looks over the rim of the cup, at him. "You seem to know all about me, Mentor. Am I that fascinating?"
Mentor stops eating, cleans his mouth, then dips his hands in orange-scented water, dries them carefully.
"Do you never let down your guard, Xena? Of course you are. A woman as forceful, as intelligent as yourself . . . you are a very rare thing, Xena: an accomplished, beautiful woman with integrity. Is there a man who wouldn't find you fascinating?"
She had to smile, to laugh in a way she seldom did. Mentor wouldn't be led. She stands: tries to slow herself, signalling her intention so Mentor can jump up, get her chair. She smiles at him: "Will you show me some of your estate?"
Nodding, he takes the arm she offers, leads her away from the table. The porch takes them directly to the fields, and Mentor directs them to an orchard.
"Peaches? Mentor, the climate can't be right for peaches."
"Mmmm; I've been working on these for ten years now, Xena. Some of the trees came from Persia . . well, you can see if I can make it work, they'd sell for anything I ask."
"And does it work?"
Mentor lets go of her arm, gives a quick jump, returns to ground with a handful of leaves, and a small peach. "Here; try one. Better: see if Istis would like to try it."
He stops, takes her elbow, turning her to face him, and simply looks at her, before continuing. "I understand you brought Kleis home, this morning."
"And Istis, Mentor." But it only seems to anger him.
"I'm not an old fool, Xena. You think because I'm a farmer, on a small island, and because I'm unmarried, you can make a fool of me? Istis is no chaperone for the likes of you and Kleis."
She steps back from Mentor, angered. Yet his anger was enough: as calmly, voice as flat as she could manage,
"Like I said: you seem to know a lot about me. Is it really your affair, Mentor?"
"I think it is; everything that happens here concerns me. As for you --- I know stories of a woman who saved villages, who destroyed them. I heard a story that she betrayed one lover, killed a second, beat a third senseless."
Mentor was breathing hard, now: she'd found a weakness. Face red, he comes a step closer. "Somtimes, you can see an animal, a horse; it has a streak, maybe white, in its forehead, and you can tell who sired the filly. There's a streak of destruction in you, Xena; maybe you were sired by Ares. And I want to know whether you've come to save, or to destroy? Because I've spent my life here, building this land, caring for these people, and I won't see it all destroyed to gratify your promiscuity."
Dinner, it seemed, was over.
Continued (Fourth of Six Pieces)