Standard disclaimer: None of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but instead are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.
Author's notes: This is the sequel to "Destiny I," my earlier story following an AU Gabrielle and Caesar after the death of the Dark Conqueror Xena. I had much more difficulty writing this story than "Destiny I"—that story had been incubating, in more or less complete form, since the end of the show; while I only had scraps of ideas for this story. I'm still not satisfied with it; but I don't know what else to do with it and at this point I've put as much work into it as I care to—I have other fic ideas beating down the door in my head, and I'm sick of working on this one. So I've decided to post it and get it out of the way.
As I said in my Author's Notes for Destiny I, this is not a Gabrielle/Caesar romance; I think Gabrielle has far too much of a sense of herself to fall for Caesar's manipulations. Think of this as a deconstruction of the character of Caesar, using Gabrielle as one of the agents; in fact, it's really in this fic that the deconstruction begins, and the last one was more like setup. Enjoy.
"But yesterday the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world; now lies he there,
And none so poor to do him reverence…"
-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar,
The village was a nameless one-horse town, nothing more than a wide spot in the road, but Gabrielle pulled Argo over there just the same. There was a single inn, a dingy, run-down looking building with a forge out back, and Gabrielle drew her horse to a halt in front of it, and then swung down. "Wait here," she told her companion, who remained seated atop the horse. He bore chains on his wrists and the iron collar of a slave around his neck, and it was clear to see that his lower legs were mangled and twisted, but his demeanor was not submissive in the slightest.
"Where are you going?" he asked, looking down at her with a narrowing of his dark eyes.
"I'm going in to get us rooms for the night."
He held his wrists out to her. "There's a forge," he said, and pulled his wrists apart so that the chain between them was stretched taut. "I want these off and I want them off now."
"One thing at a time," she said. "I can only deal with one thing at a time. Give me a minute." He started to say something, but she didn't bother to respond. Looping Argo's reins around a rail, she pushed into the inn.
The interior was dim and cool, with tables scattered across an open space of floor, and a bar at one end. A man slouched behind the bar, scrubbing it with an old rag; he had a square, plain sort of face, brown eyes, and untidy brown hair. He looked up as she came in.
"Hi," she told him, stepping up to the bar. "I'd like a room for two for the night, please, and lodging for one horse in the stables out back."
"Twelve dinars," he said, looking back down at the bar.
"What's for dinner?" she asked.
"Lemme check. Meg!" he shouted over his shoulder toward the kitchen.
"Yeah!?" a female voice yelled from within.
"What's on the grill for tonight?"
"You heard the missus," he told her.
"How much would that be if we chose to eat here?"
"Two more dinars apiece." He waved at the tavern behind him. "End room on the top floor is yours."
"Got it." Gabrielle counted out the change from the pouch Brutus had given her and then paused. "I also need a bit of work done at the forge out back….I have a slave, and I would like to manumit him. Do I talk to you about that, or—"
"You'll have to take it up with Marcus," he said, shrugging. "He's a free agent. Rents the space from me, and that's all we have to do with each other."
"Got it," she said again. "Thanks," she said, and stepped back out the door.
Argo was there, but her companion was nowhere to be seen as she emerged from the tavern. He had been seated on the horse's back when she entered the tavern, but when Gabrielle stepped out into the sun, she saw nothing. Oh great. Now what did that creep get up to? Gabrielle wondered, looking frantically around. Since their run-in with Brutus about a week ago, her companion had been even more difficult than usual; he had been more insistent, even less tolerant of refusal, all of his demands colored by a brittle stridency that worried her more than a little. While Gabrielle understood the reason for it, or thought she did, that didn't make it any easier to take.
She didn't have to look far to find him. A moment or two after she had stepped out, she heard a loud shout coming from the direction of the forge, and one moment later, her companion was thrown out through the door. Great, Gabrielle thought again, and rushed to his side, where he lay struggling in the mud of the street.
"What happened?" she demanded, arriving on the scene.
Her companion choked, coughing up muddy water and dirt; he was gasping in a way that suggested he had had the wind knocked out of him. It was the blacksmith who answered, standing in the door of the forge.
"Is this your slave, missy?" he asked, folding his arms and looking at her.
Her companion choked, sucked in a long, gasping breath, and threw his head back to look the man in the eyes. "I am no slave," he said coldly, his black eyes burning. "I am Julius Caesar, the emperor of Rome, and I will be treated with the respect due to my station—"
"He came into the forge and ordered me to take the chains off," the man said, snorting. "When I asked him who exactly he was to be ordering me, and if he had any money to pay for it, and what his owners might think, he goes off into this long rant about how he's the emperor of Rome and how I have to do what he says or he'll have me flogged or whatever. When I demanded he leave, he got abusive. Is he your slave, missy?"
"Yes," Gabrielle responded breathlessly. "Don't mind him—he's a little crazy sometimes—"
"You dare to—" her companion cut in.
Gabrielle turned her head and looked him straight in the eye. "Don't—say—anything!" she ordered sternly.
"Who do you think—"
"Don't—say—anything!" she commanded, even more firmly; then as a distraction, she put one arm around his waist. "Here, get up. Lean on me."
Though his face was dark with anger, her companion nevertheless leaned against her and struggled to his feet. Gabrielle slipped out from under his arm, leaving him balancing unsteadily on his own, and looked back at the impassive blacksmith. "He's my slave," she continued, and kicked her companion in the shins as he would have spoken. "He's a little crazy sometimes, like I said—actually thinks he's Julius Caesar, of all people—but he was right. I do want to manumit him, and in fact I was planning on coming here right after I arranged lodgings for us at the inn. How much to take his chains off?"
The blacksmith raised an eyebrow, looking back and forth at the two of them. "Are you sure you want to manumit him, Missy?" he asked dubiously. "He looks like he could be a real handful—"
"You don't know the half of it," Gabrielle replied with feeling. "Still, I've decided to free him. How much?"
"Well, bring him here and let me look at him."
Gabrielle slipped herself back under her companion's arm. "This insolent blacksmith should be flogged," her companion told her in a furious undertone. "Do you really expect me to stand this insubordination—"
"Shut up. Do you want the chains off or not? If you want them off, don't speak so much as another word, or I won't pay." He subsided at that, though still coldly angry, and allowed Gabrielle to help him forward.
The blacksmith stood aside as they staggered into the forge; then gripped her companion by the wrists. Her companion snatched himself free, directed a long, chilly stare at the blacksmith—Marcus, the tavernkeeper said his name was, Gabrielle recalled—and then stretched his arms out so that they rested on the anvil, as if issuing a command. The blacksmith rolled his eyes, but examined the manacles; then raised her companion's chin to look at the collar. "Two dinars for the manacles," he said at last. "I can do them easily. The collar will be more difficult; it's soldered, not locked, and I don't dare chisel it; I'll have to file. Five dinars for the collar."
Gabrielle nodded, and Marcus took up his tools. Her companion, for once, had quieted; he was looking expectantly at Marcus. The manacles were off with five well-placed blows of the chisel; as they cracked open and fell away, her companion slowly lifted his wrists and looked at them. Wide bands of scarring circled his wrists where the cuffs had been.
The next moment, Marcus gripped him by the back of the collar and bent his head down over the anvil, dropping his hammer and chisel and pulling out a long rasp. "Hold still," he informed her companion, and then set the rasp to the metal edge of the collar. Her companion gripped the sides of the anvil with his newly freed hands, and braced himself, pushing back as Marcus screeched the rasp along the metal edge of the collar. The sound of metal against metal filled the air, and Gabrielle raised her hands to cover her ears; even Marcus winced, but her companion's expression never changed. Those dark eyes seemed fixated on something else, staring into the distance as if he couldn't see his surroundings.
At long last, there was a loud snap; Marcus dropped the file, took the collar in both hands, and pulled. The heavy collar cracked as it opened, and then dropped to the ground with a thud. Underneath, his neck was scarred in the same fashion as his wrists. As Gabrielle handed the dinars over to Marcus, her companion lifted his hands to his throat, rubbing at the flesh there over and over as if in a dream.
"Thanks," Gabrielle told him.
"You're welcome, miss." Marcus bent to pick up the collar and chains from the ground. "Sure you don't want to hang onto these, miss?" he asked, frowning again at her companion. "Your companion there doesn't seem like the most stable fellow in the world, actually claiming he's Julius Caesar? You might want to—"
Gabrielle saw her companion's brows draw together and his dark eyes start flashing with anger. "No, thanks, you keep them!" she said, then grabbed her companion. "Come on," she commanded him.
"I know what he said. Come on!"
She had to almost literally drag him out of the forge; he leaned on her heavily, not supporting himself well on his crooked and twisted legs. The loss of the chains seemed to have made him a little unsteady as well; he reeled, and tugged her off balance more than once. Somehow she kept her feet. He was demanding, "Don't you drag me away from him! I am Julius Caesar! I won't permit anyone to speak to me—Let me go this instant, I'm ordering you—"
"Shut up!" Gabrielle snarled.
She hauled him across the stableyard and into the tavern, by main strength and judicious use of his unsteadiness; a shove here, a nudge there was enough to keep him more or less stumbling in the direction she wished him to go. "Up the stairs, now," she commanded him as she pushed him through the open door, oblivious to the blank stare of the tavernkeeper.
"You dare to command me?" he asked furiously. "Who do you think you are, woman?"
She shoved her face right into his, staring into his dark eyes. Speaking in a low voice, she said, "Every person in this place has already seen you hauled across the stableyard like a five-year-old. You are going up those stairs. If you choose to resist me, then I promise you the entire tavern is going to see us get into a shoving match right in the middle of the floor like a pair of common, drunken servants. I assure you, I am not above making a scene. Are you?"
That seemed to get through to him; he hesitated, looking at her, seeming to gauge her will. She looked back at him stonily. After a moment, he jerked away from her. "Leave me alone," he said sullenly, but turned back toward the stairs. He put one hand on the rail, then stopped, watching the ascent. After a moment, Gabrielle ducked underneath his arm, bracing herself and helping to lever him up. Slowly, they made their way up the steep and narrow stairs, then down the corridor and to their room at the end of the hall.
"That man should be flogged. He dares to speak to me in such a fashion? I'll remember this. You can be sure, I'll remember this someday. When I have my empire again—when I have my city again—He'll pay. They'll all pay. Brutus too. Brutus most of all. I'm the emperor of Rome. I won't stand for this."
Gabrielle watched Caesar from the corner of her eye. The room was right under the eves, with a sharply angled ceiling and a single window with old and clouded glass that let in only a little light. The beds, however, were clean and comfortable; she had dropped him on the bed closest to the door and she herself now sat on the other.
He had been ranting like this since they had gotten up, incensing himself more and more. If he could walk, Gabrielle was sure he'd be pacing furiously. Now Gabrielle said, "Rome is gone. Rome was burned to the ground. Xena destroyed it. You're not her emperor anymore."
He threw her a single, bitter glance. "Rome cannot be destroyed. I am Rome, and she is my destiny. She's my destiny. I will rule her again one day, and when I do— When I have my army again, I'll show them what happens to those who dare to challenge the emperor of Rome—"
As Gabrielle listened, she found herself becoming more and more disturbed by what she heard. There was a hard, bright glitter in Caesar's eyes that she had seen there before, and did not like at all, and as she listened to the obsessive way he kept repeating that he was the emperor of a place that no longer existed—that Xena had destroyed—she found it harder and harder to shut out a word that had first occurred to her a few days ago: madness.
She broke into his rant. "You don't have your army, and you won't again, either. We already ran into them last week, remember? Your friend Brutus—"
"He is not my friend." Caesar's tone was icy.
"All right, then, but Brutus was commanding and he said that he wouldn't follow you anymore, remember?"
"It's a minor setback. That's all it is," he insisted fervently; that brittle gleam was still in his eyes. "It's not important. It can't change my destiny. I will raise a new army, larger than before, and I will rule Rome again. I will. I will—"
"Oh, come on!" Gabrielle sighed. "It isn't going to happen!" she told him.
"What do you know?" he demanded, looking over at her sharply. "What would a woman know about destiny or the workings of fate? What would you know? My destiny was written in the stars before you were even born, foolish girl. It can't be changed. I am fated to rule her, and the world—" His eyes still held that glitter, and again they seemed to be looking past her, to something that she couldn't see.
Suddenly, it was too much for her. "Stop."
"Stop." Gabrielle got off the bed and crossed to his side of the room. "Look at me," she said, her voice full of quiet command. "Look at me."
"What do you think you're—"
"Don't say anything. Just listen." She held his eyes with her own and said the rest in a very soft, compassionate voice; she had tried a frontal assault earlier and it hadn't worked, so perhaps now was the time for a softer tack. "You are not the emperor of Rome anymore—No! just listen to what I have to say. You are not the emperor of Rome anymore. Rome is dead. Xena had it burned to the ground and massacred its inhabitants—Quiet! She massacred its citizens to the last man. Brutus is gone. Your army is gone. Even if you did have an army, well, the task of rebuilding Rome as it was in all its glory would be the work of centuries, not of a single lifetime—I'm sure you've heard the saying 'Rome wasn't built in a day?' The city of Rome is gone forever, and I have to tell you," she said gently, "this continued insistence that you're the emperor of a city that no longer exists is really starting to worry me."
She paused, waiting to see if Caesar would say anything. He didn't, just stared at her. She didn't know how much of what she was saying was getting through, but kept on gently. "I told you, I volunteered at a hospice before I went to the Athens Academy of Performing Bards. Some of the patients we treated there were—have you ever heard the word psychosis? It means a sickness of the mind, of the psyche." She eyed him to see if he took her meaning; again, his expression was frozen, and she couldn't tell. "Some of them—I don't want to hurt your feelings," she continued gently, "but I'm concerned about you and I feel that I have to say this—some of them sounded an awful lot like you sound, talking obsessively over and over again about things years past, about unrealistic fantasies that they were sure would come true…I know that—that the past five years must have been very difficult—"
He gave a bitter laugh and glanced away. "You have no idea."
"Maybe not," she allowed softly. "But they're over. Those years are over now, and they won't return. It's time for you to get on with your life, and to start adjusting to new realities. Do you understand?"
He pushed her away. "Leave me alone," he commanded.
"But do you understand?" She waited, but he didn't answer, just continued to stare at the wall. At last she stood up.
"Well, I'm going to check on Argo," she said quietly. "I just want you to think about what I've said, all right?" He didn't answer. She shrugged, and stepped out the door, closing it behind her.
How dare she?
In the shadows of the roof, on the bed farthest from the small, dim window, Caesar fumed, watching the door through which that irritating blonde—what was her name again?—had exited. She thinks to call me psychotic She's wrong. She's wrong, that's all.. I know my destiny. It had been his belief in his destiny—his ironclad faith—that had enabled him to survive, those five long years as Xena's slave. I didn't spend five years chained to the base of Xena's throne for nothing. He was fated to be the emperor of Rome. It had all but been promised to him, and now it was going to come true. The chains were off. He would rule from Rome again. His destiny couldn't lie.
But Rome was burned to the ground.
He shook his head in irritation, chasing the thought away. A minor setback, no more. I will build her again, greater than she was before. He repeated the words to himself, as he had so often during his long captivity; they had become a mantra, a talismanic phrase helping to soothe him and assure him of his eventual triumph—that the day would come when it was he who ruled, he who kept Xena crippled and bound at the foot of his own throne. That day will come, he repeated to himself, feeling calmer even as he thought it. Now that he had the chains off, it was only a matter of time. When he had his empire again, he told himself as he had so many times before throughout the last five years, when he had his empire again, the wheel of fate would turn and he would show her. He would show Xena the fate of those who thought they could conquer Caesar, who thought they could oppose his destiny….
But Xena's dead.
He tried to push the thought away, but it wouldn't go. Xena was dead, Callisto had killed her….and with her last breath she had thought not of him, but of that little bit of useless blonde fluff she had found only a few days before. That foolish, useless girl whom she had known less than a week was somehow more important to her, more significant, than he was….He couldn't take his revenge on her. He couldn't show her anything. Xena was dead.
It doesn't matter, he insisted to himself. It doesn't matter. Maybe—maybe he couldn't take his revenge on Xena, but that had never been his destiny anyway. His destiny was simply to rule the world from Rome, and Xena had only been a minor interruption….
Five years of slavery and torment were only a minor interruption?
She had only been a minor interruption, he repeated to himself, one not really worth the mentioning….Five years….No! he would rule from Rome again, he would; he had only to raise the army—
But the army won't follow you. Brutus wouldn't follow you.
"Leave me alone," he muttered, without knowing that he spoke aloud.
The words of the nameless blonde echoed back to him, words she had shouted at him a week ago or so: Would you follow a man like that? A helpless cripple who spent the last five years as Xena's—
"Shut up," he muttered again, shaking his head. She didn't know what she was talking about. It was all too clear that that annoying woman didn't know the first thing about loyalty, the kind of loyalty that existed between a commander and his men—
The kind of loyalty Brutus showed you?
Stop it! She—that girl didn't know what she was talking about. She hadn't the first clue, that was all, and when he—when he had his army again—when he captured Xena—when he made the city of Rome greater than it had been before, when he ruled the world from his seat of power—
But Xena's dead. Rome was burned to the ground. No army will follow you. Brutus betrayed you.
"No," he muttered, clutching his head in his hands. "It's a lie, it's all lies, my destiny—Rome is my destiny, and when I—"
But Rome was burned to the ground. Rome was burned. Rome was burned.
Suddenly, the memory was upon him, clutching him in its grip, too strong to be denied or swept aside. It was as if he were there again, feeling the heat, seeing the light from the fires….His legs had been freshly broken then, only a day or two before—Xena had done it herself, her face that perfect mask, revealing nothing, not even triumph as she pulled the hammer back and swung, striking twice, two tremendous explosions of pain. He hadn't pleaded with her—he'd held that much of himself—but he had screamed, and counted it no shame. He'd known it was coming, from the moment the heralds had carried the message to him—that Xena would have spared Rome if he had surrendered himself—but of course he wouldn't, why should he? Rome was his destiny. If they were doomed, then let them be doomed together. And he knew all too well what Xena held in store for him, should he surrender.
She'd had him brought out for the burning—he couldn't walk, not even Xena could make him walk, not then; he'd had to be carried—and chained him to the base of her chair. It wasn't that dragon-carved monstrosity she'd had brought with her from Ch'in; no, this was one of the the consul's chairs from the Senate house; she'd had it ripped out of the floor and carried up to the very summit of the Palatine hill, on which lofty height she was encamped. By the fifth day of the burning, when the fire reached up that high, she'd had to move her encampment to a safe distance outside what remained of the city, but on that day she had set up there in lavish style. He'd been chained to the base of her throne and lay there, shivering, sweating, groaning softly through his teeth; his legs had swollen grotesquely and in a distant, far-off way he wondered if he'd lose them. He'd lain there, drifting in and out of consciousness, while Xena lounged above him, at her ease in the stolen chair. Pompey, who had less than a week to live by then, stood at Xena's side, conversing lightly with her, and occasionally the clink of glasses drifted to him as they toasted one another with fine Falernian wine taken from his own wine cellars; it was evident to Caesar even through his haze of agony that Pompey was sharing Xena's bed. A few days later, Xena had Pompey crucified; "Oh, just because," she'd said, smiling, when Pompey screamed "Why!?" at her as the guards dragged him away. He remembered vividly staring up at Pompey's mangled corpse where it hung from the cross; even on his decayed and bird-pecked features he thought he had been able to see a look of betrayal. It had been one of the few bright spots in a very, very dark time.
But none of that had happened yet. For then, he'd only been able to lie, trembling in agony, at the base of what had been the consular chair, as Pompey and Xena feasted on grapes and venison and honeyed cakes above him. Xena had scoured her army to provide entertainment for the occasion; she had a troupe of musicians traveling with her, and had brought them up to her camp on the hill. "Play," she had commanded them. "Play a tune to mark the destruction of Rome." The gentle strains of fiddle and flute music had washed over him, twisting through his fevered, half-delirious mind like wire spun by a madman, but when the burning finally started, all his pains had—briefly—been forgotten in awe.
The blaze had truly been magnificent. Rome in her death throes had gone down in a grandeur and a splendor the likes of which the world had never seen. The flames had climbed high into the sky, painting the evening sky bright as day, brighter, throwing every detail into stark relief; each individual blade of grass stood out, perfectly outlined by its own shadow. The light was so bright Caesar had to squint against it; awestruck, the hell in his legs utterly forgotten for the moment, he had raised himself on his arms to see the inferno that raged below the summit of the Palatine hill.
Rome was burning.
Houses, temples, shops and factories were on fire, greedy flames licking at wooden structures, racing along streets, devouring the corpses piled there—the corpses of patricians, plebeians and slaves, all piled alike, equal at last in death; Xena had had all Rome's inhabitants put to the sword before she caused the city herself to be put to the torch. Warehouses down by the Tiber went with a thunderous series of rattling explosions as the wine stored in the amphorae within them reached the boiling point and the clay vessels burst. Granaries blazed, the Egyptian grain stored within them, meant for the feeding of the capiti censii, the underclasses, incinerated all at once. He could hear animals screaming even above the roar of the flames; Xena's men had tried to clear out all the horses and livestock—they were, after all, a good resource that could go towards feeding her massive army—but evidently they had not been able to get all of them. It had been a chill evening, but the heat from the blaze reached all the way up to their encampment; Pompey had summoned a slave to fan him, and Xena had cast off her heavy cloak and gold helmet. Ashes swirled up to them, borne by the updrafts; Caesar dazedly watched the drifting black specks, dancing before his eyes. "Now there's something you don't see every day," he'd heard Pompey say, softly, reverently.
"We'll see many such sights," Xena had assured him, "you and I, as we bring the world to our heel." She'd leaned down from her throne and swatted him then, across the back of the head. "How d'ya like that, slave?" she'd asked him. "You're witnessing the end of your precious destiny."
It doesn't matter, he'd told himself, feverish and shaking, half-delirious with agony, watching as his city burned while his enemies celebrated with wine and song. He held on to that thought as he lay there, concentrating on it hard enough to block the pain, block the heat from the fires, block the sight of the city in flames. It doesn't matter. This is nothing. This is temporary. My destiny can't be changed. Soon Fortuna will smile on me again, and when she does…when she does….
The blaze had continued for over a week; Pompey had not been alive to see the end of the burning. When the flames had at last, finally died out, Xena had sent her soldiers into the ashes of the city, to pull down any structure that still remained standing until not one stone remained on another. The Colosseum had survived the blaze, though it was blackened and charred, and she had her artillery pound it with boulders and ballista bolts until only jagged stumps remained of the massive arena and its underground catacombs; the Forum was torn apart stone by sooty stone, and Xena had her sculptors take the marble blocks and rework them to form an immense statue of herself; carved on the base, she instructed: Xena, the Dark Conqueror, Warrior Princess, Daughter of War, Destroyer of Nations, has this day brought an end to the Eternal City. The whole process of dismantling the surviving structures took several weeks; when that phase finally came to an end, Xena caused salt to be brought up from the Mediterranean by the wagonload, cart after cart laden high with mounds of white crystals, and had sent her armies again into the ashes, to sow what remained with tons and tons of salt, so that nothing would ever grow there again. Caesar had watched it all, chained by the neck to the base of Pompey's cross; Pompey had been placed first in the row of crosses bearing the corpses of the Roman senate leaders that lined what had once been the Appian Way. He'd watched it, slowly healing as the shattered remnants of his legs knit into twisted, crooked shapes that he knew would never be able to bear his full weight again, watched as Xena rode past him in triumph at the head of her column of soldiers, sparing him not so much as a glance—she hadn't begun summoning him to her bed yet, would not until his legs were fully healed—he'd watched, and told himself over and over again, so often that it became his litany, concentrating so hard that the physical world around him seemed to blur and disappear from before his eyes: This is not forever. Rome is not destroyed. Rome cannot be destroyed. I am Rome. My day will come, and when it does, I promise you, Xena, I will show you that no one conquers Caesar. No one. I promise you. I promise.
And now Xena was dead.
Sitting on the old and creaky bed in the darkened corner of that tiny inn room, Caesar lowered his head into his hands, as the cold blackness that he had held at bay for five years rose up to claim him. The rock-solid fortress of certainty in which he had sheltered, which he had held with dogged tenacity throughout maiming, slavery and torment, was falling at last, beneath the relentless onslaught of reality. Xena was dead. Rome was gone, burned to the ground, destroyed beyond any realistic hope of rebuilding—the irritating blonde had spoken more rightly than she knew when she said that Rome could not be rebuilt in a day or even a lifetime, and if anyone should have known that, he should have. The army he had hoped to count on was gone; Brutus had refused to lead what was left of his legions to follow Caesar. No army would follow him anyway, crippled as he was, enslaved as he had been, and he knew it, for he was a soldier too—he might have finally gotten rid of the chains, but so what? His legs weren't healed. The past was not undone. He'd spent the last five years as Xena's whore, and against that, losing the chains counted for less than nothing at all.
His hopes were gone. His destiny had been a lie. Rule from Rome? he thought with bitter, biting mirth. How was he to rule from a city that no longer existed? a city that had been so thoroughly, completely, and utterly destroyed? You have no army, that stupid woman had said to him, you have no gold, you don't even have any legs—
Vale, Caesar, Brutus had told him. You're as dead as your city.
It's not fair. It's not fair! I placed all my faith in my destiny and it was a lie. A lie. Everything I believed in—everything I counted on—was a lie. The thought filled him with a sick, despairing fury. His mind ran on, relentless: I was convinced all this time that my destiny was to rule the world, and now it turns out to be no more than this, what I have here: these crippled legs and this tiny, filthy room, and dependence on that ridiculous girl who thinks she's a bard in order to even be able to move around. These last five years were for nothing. All the suffering, all the misery, all the torment was for nothing—nothing! I will never raise my city again. I will never lead an army again. Rome was gone. Brutus was gone—
-and Xena's dead. Xena's dead. Xena's dead.
It was that last thought that did it, pierced him through the heart more effectively than any sword. Xena was dead. He would never hold her in his arms, never feel her warmth, never take his revenge on her, never hurt her or be hurt by her again. Xena—the superhuman goddess who had dominated his life for the past five years, his thoughts for more than that, the goddess who had seemed immortal, invincible—was dead, and even at the last, she had thought not of him, but of that irritating blonde whose name he couldn't remember. She had taken it all—his life, his destiny, his hope—she had taken it away from him, and she was gone, gone beyond his reach, forever.
It looks like you won after all, Xena.
That bitter thought, on top of everything else, was the last straw; it brought him to the breaking point. He covered his face with his hands, and alone in the dark corner of that tiny room, he harshly wept.
After seeing to Argo, Gabrielle stepped back into the common room of the inn below. "Hit me," she said, drawing up a stool at the bar counter. She slapped a coin on the polished wooden surface. "Hit me hard."
"What do you want?" the man asked, swiping at the bar with a greasy rag.
"Strongest thing ya got. Straight up."
The man raised an eyebrow, but poured it for her. She knocked it back, gasped, and said, "Again."
"Having some problems with your friend there?" he asked her sympathetically, pouring into the glass again; he pushed it to her with a shove, and she wrapped her hand around it.
"Oh, you would not believe," Gabrielle said, rolling her eyes.
"I saw when you came in. Why do you let him treat you that way?" he asked, looking concerned. "I can tell about people, it's an innkeeper's job, ya know. I can see just by looking that you're a nice girl, a sweet girl that just about anyone would think themselves lucky to have—You shouldn't have to put up with a jerk like that. You can do better!"
"What?" she asked, startled. "You mean you think we—" As it occurred to Gabrielle what the tavernkeeper must have thought, she burst into laughter. "No, we're not together!" she said emphatically when she could speak again. "Not at all. Believe me. Being together with him is about the worst thing I can imagine." She shuddered, and gulped the second round.
"Well, that's good," the man said with a look of relief. "Believe me, as a tavernkeeper, I've seen all kinds of people trapped in miserable relationships with people who treat them like dirt, and it's good to know you're not one of them." At her look, he grinned. "Don't worry," he reassured her, "I'm not trying to pick you up or anything; I was just concerned, is all."
"Well, I appreciate it," Gabrielle said, touched in spite of herself. "Gabrielle," she said, holding out her hand.
"Joxer," he said, taking it. "Nice to meet you." He eyed her empty cup. "Another round?"
"Make it wine this time," she said.
As he dipped her a cup of wine from the amphora beneath the countertop, Gabrielle let her eyes roam over the interior of the tavern. Above the door, her eyes came to rest on a round breastplate, a sword, and a helmet with wide edges hanging on the wall. "Are those yours?" she asked.
Joxer looked in the direction of her gaze. "Oh, those? Yeah, I guess so. Haven't taken them down in so long, I kind of forget they're there. Meg dusts them every now and again when she goes on one of her cleaning binges, but other than that, they just kinda stay up there. Don't really have much of a use for 'em these days."
"Are you a warrior?" Gabrielle asked, sipping at her cup of wine.
He hesitated, and a strange look crossed his face. "I'm sorry, was that something that I shouldn't have asked?" Gabrielle said by way of apology.
"No, it's all right, it's just that….It's kind of a long story."
"Well, I'm a bard," she volunteered, smiling. "I don't mind hearing a long story. If, that is, you want to tell it."
"Well….All right, why not. First of all," he said, looking at her seriously, "you have to understand that I come from a long line of warlords, on both sides of the family—"
"You?" Gabrielle asked, stifling a giggle, for she could not think of anyone less threatening than the sweet-faced man in front of her.
"I know, I know," he said with a self-deprecating smile. "But my father was actually a great warlord; he was known as Jax the Mighty."
"Never heard of him."
"He was quite a ways from here. Anyway, my father was a warlord, and my mother was a warlord's wife. Both of them were fairly famous on the field of battle—at least, in their area—and they raised us—me and my brothers—to expect that we would follow them one day."
"I see," Gabrielle said, sipping at her wine.
"Yes. They were dead set that at least one of their three sons was going to be a great warlord. Well, my brother Jett turned out to be a deadly assassin—"
"I think I've heard of him," Gabrielle murmured. "Jett the King of Assassins?"
"That's right," Joxer said with a rueful grimace. "And while my parents were proud of him, an assassin still isn't a warlord, you see? Same family tree but different branch, if you get my drift. So Jett was out. And Jace….Well, let's just say he wasn't cut out for the family business either," he said, rolling his eyes. At Gabrielle's inquiring look, he explained, "Last I heard, Jace was a nightclub singer."
"Yeah, I can see that would be kind of a reach."
"So that left me. Joxer, to take up the name of 'the Mighty,' to carry on the family legacy and inherit the army, the title, everything."
"That must have been quite a burden," Gabrielle murmured.
Joxer shook his head. "It was," he said, musing. "It was. I was absolutely convinced I was going to be a warlord. I was never good at fighting, I never really liked hurting people, but that didn't matter, because I was so convinced that I was destined to be a great warlord. I spent—whew! The first twenty or so years of my life—maybe even more—roaming the countryside in that armor—" he indicated above the door "—fighting wherever I could, whenever I could, totally buying into the delusion that I was the greatest warrior ever."
"And were you?" Gabrielle asked, intrigued. Joxer gave a laugh.
"No, I stunk," he said, smiling. "I was a lousy warrior. I just didn't—I guess I just didn't seem to have the reflexes for it, or something, and even if I had them, I couldn't—I never really got the killer instinct. At the time, though, I just didn't realize it. I don't know why. I guess it was because I was just so certain that I knew what my life was going to be and that I was going to be a warlord and follow in my father's footsteps, just like Dad. Although I think I must have known on some level, because somehow I never seemed to get around to fighting anyone out of my league. I spent most of my time picking on the weak and the helpless. I'd go out, spend a couple weeks robbing unarmed peasants, then bring what I got back home to show Mom and Dad."
"Did they have a problem with you beating up helpless peasants?"
"Are you kidding?" Joxer laughed. "I said they were warlords, not heroes. Picking on the weak and helpless is all in a day's work for a warlord, and highway robbery is a great way to start out—you can gain fighting skills, build up a name for yourself, make some connections—If anything, they were concerned that I didn't seem to be stretching myself enough. I can still hear Mom now: 'Peasants are all right for a start, dear, but by now you really should be moving on. Why don't you try being a mercenary for a while? Your father was a mercenary when he was younger, and he still has contacts, he can set you up with a good company—'" He broke off and gave another, softer laugh. "Yep, I can still hear Mom now," he said quietly.
"What happened to change your mind?" Gabrielle asked, intrigued by the feather-touch of sadness she had heard in his voice.
Joxer didn't answer for a long time. He paused, and his long face grew longer still, his eyes shadowed. At last, he sighed. "Well, you have to understand," he said quietly. "I was so utterly convinced that I was the greatest warrior ever. I was so convinced. I was so convinced. I probably would have gone on, done the mercenary thing, started out with a small army, and followed in my father's footsteps to take control of our territory when he died. I wouldn't have done a very good job—in fact, I would have done a downright lousy job—but I was sure that that was my path, my life, my destiny…." He broke off again, and stared down at the bar.
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked again, quietly.
He gave an edged sort of smile. "Callisto happened."
"I'm so sorry," Gabrielle said at once, and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"
"No, it's all right," he said, looking back at her. "It's all right. I'm not—it was a long, long time ago, it's just that I don't think about it very often. My father's territory was right in the path of the army controlled by Callisto the Fiery, you see—this was when she was heading east to outrace Xena to Ch'in. She'd already rolled right over our neighbors to the west, and those who escaped told my parents: Just give in. Don't try to resist her because she'll crush you. Pack up, head for the mountains, hide out. Wait till she's gone. You can't stand up to the Bright Warrior."
"Did they listen?"
"Are you kidding?" Joxer snorted, raising an eyebrow. "Dad said he hadn't worked all these years to carve out his own territory just to abandon it now, and Mom refused to even consider going; she said it would be an affront to her pride. So they stayed. Dad drew up his army, and he and Mom armed up and took the field…."
"And?" Gabrielle asked gently.
Joxer gave a long sigh. "And she slaughtered them. She rolled right over them just like our neighbors said she would. She wiped the army out to the last man. She—" He stopped for a moment, then ran his hands over his face. "Mom and Dad," he said softly, "challenged her at the same time, the two of them against her all by herself. She—she laughed. She sheathed her sword, and laughed, and took the two of them on barehanded. I'd never seen anybody fight like that before," he said quietly. "I didn't even know it was possible. She…." He stopped, shaking his head.
"After…after she killed them—I think—I don't know what I was thinking," he said, shrugging. "But I remember that I drew my sword, and charged her, shouting, 'You've taken down my mom and dad, let's see how you do against Joxer the Mighty!' I must have known even then that I didn't stand a chance, but somehow I found myself charging her."
"And what happened?"
Joxer laughed again, mirthlessly. "All I remember is that one moment I was charging her, and the next I was lying on the ground looking up at Callisto as she held my own sword to my throat. I thought I was going to die. I was—I was too scared to even move, too scared to breathe. Callisto—She's beautiful. Insane, but she's really beautiful. I don't know if you've ever seen her up close—"
"I have," Gabrielle murmured. Joxer looked at her with a new respect.
"I remember," he continued, "staring up at this beautiful woman, lying on the battlefield surrounded by the bodies of my father's soldiers, with the flames from our burning stronghold lighting the sky behind her, and she looked down at me, and she….she smiled, and she said something I'll remember as long as I live. It was, 'You're too pathetic to kill.'" He paused. "Then she lifted my sword, looked at it, and said, 'And this is a piece of junk too.' She tossed it down at me, and walked off. I was so far beneath her I wasn't even worth the trouble of killing."
"I can't even imagine what that must have felt like," Gabrielle murmured in sympathy.
"Yeah," Joxer said quietly. "It was like, that hurt worst of all, you know? Worse than losing Mom and Dad, even, because on top of that, on top of watching my parents be killed, on top of watching her slaughter the army and burn my family home to the ground, I had to live with the knowledge that I had failed them. I had failed my parents in just about every way possible. I had failed to save them, I had failed to avenge their death—I hadn't even managed to get myself killed trying!—I had failed to take up my father's mantle, I had failed to reclaim his territory, I had failed to become a great or even good warrior…I had failed to make them proud. They were dead, I couldn't have saved them, and I couldn't even avenge them because I just wasn't good enough. I—" He drew a deep breath. "I didn't even want to avenge them," he admitted. "I never wanted to see Callisto again. I was just too afraid."
"That must have been really rough," Gabrielle murmured.
"It was," Joxer said solemnly. "That whole thing—Callisto's attack on our territory-It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It still hurts to this day. But in the long run…." He paused, looking around the tavern. "In the very long run," he said quietly, "I think….I think I turned out all right.
"I mean, my parents had been pushing me so hard to be a warlord. I was so convinced that I would follow in my father's footsteps. And then Callisto comes along and shows me in the most brutal way possible that it was a total delusion, that I just didn't have what it takes. I'm not a fighter," he said quietly. "I don't like hurting or killing people. I don't have the kind of courage you need for that. I didn't even want to kill Callisto, not really, not after the first shock wore off; I can't imagine what it would be like to kill someone and I hope to the gods I never find out. It took me a long time to come to terms with that knowledge. It can be really hard to give up a delusion like that. It's much easier to retreat into fantasy and pretend that everything's all right, you know? And don't get me wrong, I still miss my parents, I do to this day. I'll never stop missing them. But….in the end…." He looked around again. "You know, killing her wouldn't have brought them back. That's something else it took me a while to figure out, but I'm glad I did, because it's true. And I think—no, I know—that I'm a lot happier here, in this tavern, with Meg, than I ever would have been as Joxer the Mighty. And in the end, well, maybe that's not such a bad thing."
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. She sipped her wine, and the two of them lapsed into a pensive silence.
"You're right," she said at last.
He looked up at her, surprised. "I'm sorry?"
"You're right. What you said about how hard it can be to give up delusions, and how easy it is to retreat into fantasy. Some people never manage it, I think." She paused. "You know what you said about how you didn't have courage?"
"Yeah." He nodded. "I'm not upset about it; it's just a weakness, that's all. Everybody has their own different weaknesses, and mine simply happens to be that I'm a coward." He shrugged, without even a trace of bitterness. "Could have been something else. Could have been drink, or gambling—"
"You're not a coward," Gabrielle said quietly. She reached out and touched his arm, drawing his attention to her. "One thing I know as a bard: There are many different kinds of courage in the world. It takes one kind of courage to draw your sword against an enraged warlord on a battlefield." She paused. "And it takes an entirely different—but no less valuable—kind of courage to look inside yourself and to see yourself and the world as they really are, rather than as you would like them to be. If anything, I think that kind of courage is rarer than the first." She looked up at Joxer, meeting his eyes. "I think you're very brave, Joxer."
"Well, thank you," he said, glancing away in something that looked like embarrassment. "I appreciate hearing that, even if it's not true."
"Oh, it is true," she assured him. She slapped a coin on the bar and stood up.
"Where are you going?" he asked her.
"Upstairs. I need to talk to my friend."
When Gabrielle first entered the room they shared, she first thought that Caesar was not there; she knew that couldn't have been the case, because he couldn't even walk, but she couldn't see him. Then her eyes came into focus and she spotted him—right where she had left him, of course, under the bed farthest from the window, tucked right underneath the sloping eaves. He was lying in the deepest shadow of the roof, and he had pulled the blanket over himself; the dark blanket made it difficult to pick him out as anything other than a shrouded shape of shadow.
"Hi, are you awake?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
"Are you awake?" she asked again, and again received no response. She crossed the room and reached out to tap him lightly on the shoulder, but as she did so, he reached out with one newly freed hand, grabbed her arm, and shoved her away. She jumped, startled.
"Leave me alone." The words were so deeply muffled she could barely understand them.
"Dinner's ready downstairs," she told him gently. "It's rabbit stew, and it smelled really good. Want some?"
He didn't answer again. Gabrielle looked at him carefully, wondering what had happened. His earlier fury seemed to have collapsed, and he now seemed sunk in despair.
"You have to eat," she told him sternly. "I know that you haven't had anything all day—"
Now he raised his head and looked at her, dark eyes darker in the deep shadow. "You don't know anything, stupid girl." His words were thick with disgust. He laid his head back down and closed his eyes.
"Do you want me to bring you a bowl?"
"I want you to leave me alone. I don't feel like dealing with your idiocy anymore."
"All right, fine," Gabrielle said, shrugging; she turned and started for the door. Behind her, the bedclothes rustled.
She stopped and looked back over her shoulder. He had raised himself on his arms in the bed. "What?" she asked.
His eyes went over her, stopping at her waist. "Your belt knife. Leave it."
"Why?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously. His brows drew together.
"Do as I say, woman. Bring it here before you go."
She looked at him for a long moment. His eyes had that far-away cast that seemed to indicate he wasn't seeing her at all. She bit her lip.
"What do you want it for?"
"Did you not hear me?" he demanded. "Bring it here, and cease with your empty chatter. Then go away. I'm tired of dealing with you."
"Not until you tell me what you want it for." At his angry look she clarified, "At least until you can tell me that I'm not going to bring it over and then find myself stabbed in the back with my own knife."
Caesar closed his eyes and muttered something through his teeth too low to hear. "You want to know? Very well, I intend to kill myself with it. Now bring it here. After that, you may go straight to Tartarus for all I care, just hand it over."
Gabrielle had suspected that that was what he intended to do—she had heard enough tales of Roman heroes to know that Romans who felt themselves dishonored would sometimes commit suicide—but hearing him state it so bluntly jolted her. She had to ask, "I beg your pardon?"
"Did you not hear me the first time?" he asked caustically. "I told you, I intend to commit suicide with your belt knife. Now hand it over, and don't make me ask you again."
"No," she said unsteadily. "Not if you intend to kill yourself with it."
"All right, then I intend to kill you, now give it here."
"I don't like that option any better either. Why do you want to kill yourself?"
He looked at her in astonished contempt. "Clearly you haven't been paying attention. Now give me your knife, woman," he demanded. At her expression he gave a short, bitter laugh. "Come now. No need for this false concern; I know you'd be only too glad to be rid of me. Bring it here, and when Hades sends me to the Elysian fields, I'll even put in a good word for you, how does that sound?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Killing yourself is not the answer."
He raised one dark brow. "The answer to what? To what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life? I'd say it's an excellent answer to that question. The only answer, in fact. Go on." He looked at her. "Go on. Tell me how much I have to live for. If you can think of anything, I'd like to hear it."
"Your chains are off," Gabrielle pointed out. "You're no longer a slave."
He gave that bitter laugh again. "And so? That doesn't change anything Are these healed?" He gestured at his legs with a sort of furious despair. "What army do I command? Is Xena back alive again? Does that raise Rome from—from—" He stopped suddenly and hung his head, the picture of despair. In spite of herself, Gabrielle was moved.
"Don't think like that," she said hesitantly. "It changes—a lot! You aren't a prisoner anymore…."
Caesar didn't answer. Gabrielle thought she saw his shoulders shaking.
"Come on. You've got to look on the bright side," she suggested, feeling faintly foolish as she did so. He still didn't respond. Hesitantly, she went to him.
"Things aren't that bad," she said gently, taking a seat next to him on the bed. "You've got the rest of your life ahead of you, and—aiihh!"
She let out a startled squawk as he suddenly reached out and clamped his hand around her wrist. "What do you think you're doing?" she cried, realizing it had been a trick.
"What does it look like?" He swung her around, trapping her against his body while his other hand groped at her waist, looking for the hilt of her belt knife. She grabbed his arm, trying to push his hand away. He's awfully strong for someone who spent the last five years as a slave, she thought inanely to herself. Her hand was trembling with the strain of holding him away from the blade, and she could feel herself slowly losing the battle. "Give it to me," she heard him say. "Giveme the knife, you stupid blonde—"
"Let me go! Let me go or—" An idea came to her. "Let me go or I start screaming," she threatened, digging her nails into his wrist.
"Go ahead and scream. There's no Callisto here to hear you," he shot back. He made a grab for the hilt, and Gabrielle shoved him away with all her strength.
"There's the—the tavernkeeper downstairs! What do you think he would think, if he came in and saw us? What do you think would happen to you?" His hand held her wrist in a grip like iron. She lunged for it, and he pulled her back easily.
"Nice try," he panted, "but I want to get killed. That's not going to work." His fingers actually brushed the pommel of her dagger; she twisted away and pushed at the same time, and managed to shove his hand back.
"Killed? Try—executed," Gabrielle gasped back. "Dragged through the streets like a common criminal! Maybe even stoned to death. Is that the way you want to die? Is that a fitting end for the emperor of Rome? Being stoned to death to provide entertainment for a crowd of laughing peasants? You liked being a slave so much that now you want to die like one? Let me go, or else you will, I swear it!"
She drew in breath to give a really good scream, but the hand around her wrist suddenly opened and he shoved her away. Gabrielle reeled a few steps, and then hastily backed up to the other side of the room, putting as much distance between him and her as she could. Her breath came in great gulps as she tried to get her wind back; she saw Caesar also was panting with exertion. Good, she thought to herself.
"You try anything like that again, and I'll cut your throat myself," she threatened.
Caesar didn't answer. After a moment or two of hard breathing, he looked up at her. The cicatrices around his neck and wrists were pale in the shadows. Gabrielle stopped, surprised by what she saw in his eyes. The arrogance was gone. The condescension was gone. The strange distance—as if he was seeing something other than the room and their surroundings—was gone also. Gabrielle realized she was seeing him as he really was, devoid of the pride, the pretension, the delusions. These are the eyes of a man who has lost everything, she realized. Everything that he has believed in, everything for which he hoped and dreamed. This is a man who has nothing left to live for and is focused solely on his death.
"Give me the knife," he said quietly.
"Give it to me." His voice was perfectly level. It took Gabrielle a moment to figure out what was so strange about it: there was no command there, no superiority; he was simply speaking to her, as one human being to another. She had never heard it from him before. "Give it to me. You know you can't really stop me," he said, still quiet. "All you can do is make it more difficult. Why bother? You have no love for me. If I were you," he admitted slowly, as if considering a new concept, "I would probably feel the same way. I've been nothing but a burden and an annoyance to you since you freed me from Xena's camp, haven't I?" He sounded as if he were realizing this for the first time. There was no remorse in his voice, just a sort of slow surprise. "And I'm sure," he continued, his brows drawing together, "I'm sure you know that I would never help you the way you've been helping me."
"Oh yeah," Gabrielle replied sourly. "I've known that all along."
"So then why should you care whether I live or die?" he asked. "Brutus was right when he said that I had no value in this world. Xena's—" He gave a bitter laugh. "Xena's crippled little whore, the laughingstock of all nations. And the world holds no value for me either anymore. Rome is gone. Xena is gone. There's nothing left that is of any interest to me. So let me go, bard," he said quietly. "I lived as a slave; let me die as an emperor, a Roman emperor. At least in the Elysian fields I might be able to find peace."
Even now, he still hasn't lost his ego, Gabrielle thought, considering the way he assumed so readily that he would be allowed into the Elysian fields. "You're wrong," she told him. "You do have value. All human life has value."
He raised an eyebrow. "You haven't seen very much of the world, have you?" he asked with a trace of scorn.
"I've seen enough to realize that every one of us is precious," she said.
"Then you've seen nothing at all. But I don't particularly want to argue philosophy with you at the moment. I want to end my life. Be so good as to oblige me."
Gabrielle sighed. "I'm not going to, and we both know it, so stop asking," she told him. He would have spoken then, but Gabrielle cut him off. "Look, maybe Rome doesn't exist anymore. But you know, you can rebuild her—"
"It can't be done," he said, shaking his head.
"Maybe—" She stopped at his contemptuous laugh.
"You never saw my city in all her glory. No, you were right the first time. To build Rome again—a city as great—is the work of many centuries, not a single lifetime." He spread his newly freed hands and looked down at the bands of scar that circled his wrists. "I was only—" His mouth twisted. "I was only fooling myself when I thought otherwise," he said bitterly.
"Well, you know, everything has to start somewhere," she tried, shrugging. "Don't the legends say that the city of Rome itself started with a single plowed furrow—and a wall low enough that it could be jumped over?"
Caesar looked up at her, and she saw a sudden, strange respect in his eyes. "Romulus and Remus," he said slowly. "How do you know that tale?"
"I'm a bard," Gabrielle said, smiling. "It's my job to know. But leave that aside right now. Look, I know that you can't build Rome back the way it was—even though I never saw the city, I—I heard stories enough of its greatness that I know it's too much to be done in one lifetime. But look at it this way," she said with as much persuasion as she could muster. "Okay, so you've lost the chance to rule the world from Rome. Okay, fine. But look here. You've gained the chance to be the founder of a city that might grow to be even greater in time. Like—Like Aeneas, who lost everything when Troy burned, but escaped to fulfill his destiny as the father of the Roman people." Caesar was staring at her, in growing surprise, and there was something else; Gabrielle could see that the strange distant look starting to creep back into his eyes. She continued in the same vein. "Maybe that was really your destiny all along, did you ever consider that? Maybe that's why the gods preserved you, as Aphrodite did Aeneas. Not to make Rome the ruler of all nations, but to found a second Rome, a city that might even grow, in time, to obliterate the memory of the first one. Think of that!"
Caesar was silent for a long, long, long time, staring at her or through her, for his dark eyes didn't seem to be seeing her at all. It worked, Gabrielle thought. It actually worked. Then he spoke.
"You're good. You're very good; much better than I would have expected," he said with a sharp smile. "You almost had me for a moment there. But in the end," he continued, "you're just not good enough, little girl." He leaned back. "You said it yourself: Build Rome with what coin? With what army? On what land?" he asked bitterly. "Xena may be gone, but Callisto the Fiery and that foolish Crusader woman are still very much alive, and now that Callisto's inherited Xena's army and territory, between the two of them they control the entire known world, save only for Ch'in. And then—" His jaw tightened. "There's these" Slowly, he pulled back the blanket to reveal his twisted, misshapen legs. "No," he said coldly. "You can't divert me with hopes for the future, girl. I have no future left to hope for. I only wish I'd seen it sooner."
"All right, then, try this," Gabrielle shot back in frustration. "Kill yourself now, and I'll see to it that you go down in history as the biggest coward that ever lived!"
It was a long shot, and she hadn't thought it would work, but his response was more than satisfactory. He looked up at her sharply. "What?!"
"You heard me," she replied stonily. "You're a coward, and if you kill yourself I'll see to it the whole world knows."
Oh, that stung, she thought to herself, seeing the thunderous expression on his face; the mix of shock and anger she saw there had completely erased his earlier despondency, and now his dark eyes shone with fury. "How do you dare—"He stopped, shook himself, and gained control. "How do you dare to call me coward to my face? I—I-" He stopped. "I refuse to defend myself to the likes of you."
"How do I call you a coward to your face? Easily. I'm a bard," she repeated with an edged smile. "I dare because it's true. You're not afraid of danger, Caesar. Whatever else you may be—and let me tell you, I can think of some pretty nasty terms—I've seen enough of you in the time we've been together to know that about you. But let me tell you something," she said. "There are many kinds of cowardice in this world, and being afraid of danger is far from the worst kind of cowardice there is. Your kind of cowardice is worse than if you'd run from every battle you ever faced."
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
"You're afraid," she said contemptuously, paying her companion back in his own coin. "You're afraid to face a world in which you're nothing. You're afraid to live as the rest of us common mortals do, knowing that your precious destiny is a lie and that in reality you were just another petty warlord—"
"—the same as every other warlord out there," she finished over top of him. "You'd rather hide in your delusions, and if you can't do that then you don't want to live. Well, I promise you: if you do commit suicide, I'll call you a coward to the entire world," she said, holding his eyes. "I'll make sure everyone knows that the emperor of Rome went to his death because he was too weak—too pathetic—to face the world as it was."
He was silent for a moment, almost visibly thinking what she had said over. "You can't do that. You're—You're only one bard. Who'd listen to you?" he asked in a tone that wanted to be contemptuous but couldn't quite manage it. It was clear she had rattled him.
"Who?" Gabrielle asked. "Try everyone. I may be only one bard, but I can cover a lot of ground, and besides, I was at the Athenian Academy for Performing Bards before Xena destroyed it. I've spoken with all the best bards of the age. If I tell them an epic that I say was based on my personal knowledge of you, they'll believe me, and they'll tell it themselves. Everyone will believe it. But I don't even have to write a full epic," she said, smiling, watching his expression go from shock to a sort of appalled fury. "I probably will compose one, but it's almost as effective to simply tell familiar stories with little variations. You know, slip in a line to the effect of, 'As cowardly as Caesar,' or to say things like, 'When Achilles held Patroclus's corpse in his arms, he wept as if he were Caesar, only for far better cause.' And then there's always the stage," she said, grinning. "How'd you like to be the title character of a farce dedicated to you? If you think you're a laughingstock now," she said, holding his eyes, "I promise you, you ain't seen nothing yet. Kill yourself and I swear to you that I will hold you up to ridicule for all the ages. Your name will be remembered for a thousand years—for two thousand—as the name of a coward and a fool. Julius Caesar will be the greatest joke the world has ever known."
"You can't do that—"
"You can't stop me," she said. "But what do you care? You'll be dead, so you won't have to deal with it. Go ahead. Kill yourself. After all, you have nothing left to live for, so you might as well die like the coward you are, isn't that right?" She drew her belt knife. "You want the knife so bad? Take it." She tossed it to him and he caught it reflexively by the hilt. "Take it and kill yourself. And while you're doing that, I'll just be downstairs composing." She reached into her belt pouch and drew forth quill and parchment. "Happy trails, coward. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a farce to write."
She had crossed the room to the door when suddenly she felt a rush of air and heard something thwack into the wall by her left ear. Turning her head, she saw her belt knife, buried in the wall almost to its hilt, still quivering with the force of impact; six inches to the right, she realized with a chill, and it would have gone into her neck. She immediately snapped around to look at Caesar. He was staring at her coldly; she could feel the anger in him from across the room. Carefully, she put her hand up to the trembling hilt; she had to rock it back and forth and yank on it a couple times to free it.
"Thanks," she said a trifle unsteadily, resheathing it.
Gabrielle saw real menace in his dark glare. She hesitated for a long moment, then nodded. She closed the door behind her as she left, leaving him alone.
Gabrielle paid the innkeeper the next morning, and went out to where Argo stood; Caesar was nearby, sitting on a flat and level stump, rubbing his scarred wrists. They hadn't said a word to each other since last night. She looked down at him, and tried to think of something to say, but came up with nothing.
"Come on," she said gently after a pause. "Let's get going."
He looked up at her. Something about the way he looked caught her attention.
"I want to go to Rome," he said quietly.
"What?" she asked. "Didn't we—" She paused. "Didn't we already go through this yesterday? Rome was—"
"I know." He grimaced slightly, but his voice was perfectly level. He met her eyes and held them. "I want to go anyway. To see."
"To see what?" Gabrielle asked, confused. "A pile of ashes?"
"Just to see. I—I—" He seemed to struggle with himself. "I need to see," he said, biting off the words. "If—If you don't want to go with me," he said, his mouth twisting as if he were tasting something bitter, "then I will go alone. But I need to see it. I have to see it, one more time."
Gabrielle drew a long breath. She crouched down before him, so that her eyes were on a level with his. "I told you I'd go with you before," she said quietly, "and I meant it. I said I think it's a bad idea, and I meant that too, but if you want to go, then we'll go. All right?" Caesar simply nodded, as if he had expected no other response. "Then let's go."
She took his arm and helped get him to his feet. Getting him on Argo was more difficult—he outweighed her by quite a bit—but after a brief struggle, she managed to help lift him up, then with some trepidation, swung up before him. His arms went around her waist, and for a moment she wondered if he were going to take the opportunity to pay her back for last night by putting his hands around her neck, but he simply held on as he had before. Besides, without me, Argo won't go, she remembered; Argo had already demonstrated that she would not carry Caesar alone. That reassured her a little. She touched her heels to the horse's side, and Argo started off.