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a prelude (...the wanting comes in waves...)

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It’s a curiosity at first. After the curtain call, before the reception. The single red rose that falls at her feet. Tossed in a soft arc from the balcony of the Imperial box. From the hands of the Empress, no less. Gabrielle is careful to retrieve the lady’s favour from the stage, in clear view of the woman who was so moved to offer it. Bends low with delicate fingers to scoop it up to join the bouquet already nestled under one arm. Gaze intent on the keen eyes that cut through the distance between them, because, she tells herself, it would be impolite to look away. Adds the bloom to the others - nonchalant now, attention elsewhere -  as if it was just another token bestowed upon her by any other appreciative fan. But even as she tucks it away, her fingers wind around the long, smooth stem and linger there, like the peculiar feeling that suddenly creeps across her chest and down her spine to settle in the dangerous spaces behind her knees. 

She thinks she hears her name, a whisper dancing on the shell of her ear, a voice most familiar though she’s sure she’s never heard it. She scans the faces in the audience, listens behind the sounds for the murmur that is so close and yet so impossibly far, but is met with generous applause and nothing else. Except that peculiar feeling again. This time pulling her attention upwards once more. To that gaze, those eyes, only this time when her own eyes sweep the balcony she finds it empty. It’s something like grief that washes over her then, as her fingers tighten of their own accord around the Empress’ rose, and she prays to Aphrodite for the crowd to give her leave. They clap on instead.

When, at last, she steps backstage after the final round of bows, someone from her troupe offers helpfully to take the flowers from her. To put them away in the cozy dressing room she’s made into her writing space during her stay in Rome - so she can go on ahead to the splashy little soiree Caesar’s people have too loudly announced is in her honour for it to be anything other than just an excuse for the city’s most vapid and ambitious hangers-on to primp and preen and be seen by the Emperor. But Gabrielle declines the stagehand’s offer, hugs the roses a little closer to her chest, hopes no one notices the protective embrace, and makes some private joke about needing a few quiet moments to herself before being thrown to the wolves. There’s a shared chuckle, and then she’s making her way through the din and disarray of actors - unencumbered by further professional obligations and hungry for Rome’s after-dark delights - planning their evening’s exploits as they go about packing up for the night.

And it isn’t a lie - her excuse for wanting to hang back a while - at least not exactly. It’s no secret among her players that she hates these types of events - the lavish parties; the vanity for vanity’s sake; but maybe most of all, the prideful, boastful, gilded arrogance of self-important men and their mistresses (never their wives) as they condescend her intelligence with feigned interest in her plays and their insipid conversation. No, she’d much prefer to while away her free nights in whatever seedy-looking tavern she stumbled upon, with its day-old stew and watered-down port, trading bawdy jokes with the locals and flirting with the busty barmaids. Until a drunken fight cleared out the place. Or the sun peaked above the horizon. Whichever came first - though, Gabrielle always, not-so-secretly, hoped for a fight.

There was something oddly nostalgic, unusually comforting about the back-alley watering holes she’d wander into, though she could never reason why. She almost never visited the same establishment twice. Hadn’t even set foot in one until she found her way to Athens. Fresh-faced and hellbent on making a name for herself with her stories. Fuelled by a dewy-eyed confidence born from leaving behind - by way of an open window in the middle of the night on the eve of her wedding - the lonely, unfulfilling life she’d endured in the small, farming village of her youth. Mostly, though, it seemed her favourite spots were dimly lit; smelled of stale ale and horseshit and someone’s stomach’s misplaced dinner; and were almost always the preferred refuge of at least one soused lout with a lecherous grin and a pair of wandering hands. But they reminded her of the strange and fantastic adventures she once dreamt of having - back when she was still a slip of a girl who looked for pictures in the stars, and wished on the falling ones for someone special to share her secrets with - so she kept finding her way back to them, watching the door between rounds, waiting.

There would be no tawdry tales to tell from the underbelly of Rome tonight - at least not from her lips. Because, as it turns out, even the most sought-after wordsmiths - yes, even those summoned to Rome at the behest of the Imperial Court - have bills to pay. And stuffy parties - no matter how dull, or overflowing with pompous pissants - sparkle with the promise of patronage, enough to pay the bills and then some, when Gabrielle plays her part well. After all, what good are her words and the lessons they teach if no one ever hears them? So, she had long ago learned to smile obligingly, and swallow the impertinence on her tongue with the sip of her wine. 

She just needs a moment to centre herself first. A few deep breaths and a head-start on the wine - just a quaff or two or three - reinforcements for the long night ahead. Nothing unusual there. Nothing except the red hot flush at the back of her neck; the bloom of curious wonder in her belly. She picks her way through the whorl of bodies and props and cloth in the theatre’s back of house, the peal of laughter, the good-natured ribbing being tossed in her direction as she passes. Her mind is leagues removed from its routine musings about the tedium in store for her this evening. She can’t seem to shake the Empress from her thoughts, and it prickles at her senses - some portent of danger? A spell to stupefy her? Indigestion from too much garum splashed on her supper? 

She sighs, and pushes the fascination from her mind as she pushes aside the heavy curtain to her makeshift workspace. But images of the Empress -  impressive and alluring in her height and bearing, draped in diaphanous gold silk and completely disarming with her patrician beauty - slip back into her thoughts as easily as she slips into the quiet of the small room. 

And, those eyes.  

The way they cut to the quick of her. She searches her memory for their exact shade, but can’t quite see beyond the shadows cast over the balcony by flickering lamplight. Remembers, only, that they reminded her of the sea under a new moon - so deep and so dangerous in their pull that even Poseidon would be powerless to help anyone caught up in the eddy of her gaze. 

And even now, nearly half an hour later, Gabrielle can still feel the Empress’ eyes on her, as surely as she can feel the Empress’ rose in her hand - pressing up against the flat of her palm - as surely as she feels the bite of imaginary thorns as they dig into her flesh. She knows the stem is bare but the sting is real, and when she looks down at her clasped hand, she still half expects to see a trickle of blood peeking out from between her fingers, stark against her fair skin. 

She sighs again, and with the shake of her head, moves with quick, purposeful strides to the water jug on her writing desk. It’s only half-full, and the roses will make it a little top-heavy, but there’s no time to look for something else, and the flowers are much too beautiful to let go to waste, so it will have to do for now. Her hands shake in time with her nervous breath as she slips the bouquet into the carafe, though she’s careful to lay the rose from the Empress aside. She’s confused by it - the power it seems to hold over her - but also by the Empress’ arresting stare; the swell of curious feelings that she just can’t escape; the fact that she should even be in Rome in the first place. A farmer’s daughter who stole away in the middle of the night to chase after stories and… love. 

She decides she needs a drink. 

So, she turns to the decanter of brandy left out by her hosts, pours a generous swig into a finely-etched glass snifter, throws it back in one quick swallow, then repeats the process for good measure. The brandy’s thick and just barely sweet, and it licks a delicious trail down her throat to warm her insides. It’s a slow and delicate burn and it reminds her of the sting she still feels against her palm from the rose that now lays on the desk in front of her. Gabrielle sets the glass down and turns her palms over to inspect them more carefully, to see if the Empress has, by some magic or dark art, left her mark upon her. But there are no scratches, no smear of bright red blood, no brand seared into the flesh there - her hands are fine. Calloused and maybe a little sweaty, but unmarred. 

“Have I gone mad?”, she asks in a breathless whisper, decanter in hand once more. 

The trickle of brandy spilling into her snifter doesn't propose an answer, but she finds the sound of it reassuring all the same. She brings the glass to her mouth, then moves to put some distance between herself and the desk, as if that might somehow break the spell; clear her thoughts. She makes it three steps before she’s back. Her resolve eclipsed by her curiosity. She trades her glass for the rose. Twirls the stem between her first two fingers and her thumb as she takes to pacing. Watches closely, the play of light from the oil lamp nearby, as it caresses the delicate folds of the flower. Runs the pads of her fingertips along the petals’ edges and is lost completely in the softness she finds there.

Her feet drift across the mosaic floor, as her thoughts drift back to the Empress. 

“Maybe they’re green? Or blue? Or black?”

Her eyes. Of course.

Their pull is irresistible. Gabrielle is helpless to it. And to the mystery of the way the Empress looked at her. The way her own heartbeat skipped in the moment. The peculiar flood of feeling that danced along her every nerve, like a static shock and a lover’s kiss all rolled into one. And then, all orderly thought abandons her. And she wonders why she’s even holding the Empress’ rose. Wonders if it had been genuine admiration or just polite courtesy that had inspired the Empress’ gesture to toss it at her feet.

Wonders if, maybe, she herself had been...

She doesn’t let herself finish that thought.

“This is ridiculous.” Another incredulous shake of the head, hands thrown up in exasperation. 

And then she’s standing in front of the makeshift vase trying to tuck the rose in amongst the others, as if it was just another token bestowed upon her by any other appreciative fan. As if she could ever lose sight of it, even surrounded by a dozen or more just like it. As if her mind hadn’t already mapped every one of its fine details into her memory. 

Her clumsy, unwilling fingers are mid-jab when she is interrupted by the scuff of sturdy leather boot soles against stone, the brush of heavy fabric being pushed aside, the gentle clink of shifting metal settling again. Her hand stills, but she waits for the polite cough from her doorway before she turns her head to acknowledge the stranger she finds standing there.

She lifts an inquisitive brow at his intrusion, a question as much as an appraisal. He is handsome, she supposes, in a rugged sort of way. Not that she cares about ruggedly handsome men. Or, men in general. Or, men who are generals, and this man is a general -  she is certain of it - the polished armour gives him away immediately; the red velvet cloak affixed to his cuirass. Even without the obvious signs of his rank Gabrielle would know it. Sandy-haired, square jawed, broad shouldered, compact - a fine son of Rome - he wears his station in his manner and his air, and he is here now on business.  She lets her brow arch a little higher.

“My apologies for the interruption,” his head bows slightly, gracious, conciliatory, “but, the Emperor asked that I might escort you to the reception.”

She keeps her gaze fixed impassively on the man in the doorway, but doesn’t speak a word in return. She had long-ago discovered that the quickest way to useful information was to keep quiet. So many people found silence uncomfortable, and in the face of it would trip over their own tongues trying to fill the void it seemed to create. She watched her escort shift in his place, swallow around a dry throat, and she smiled knowingly to herself - even Roman strongmen weren’t immune to the effects of careful, exacting scrutiny.

“That is, if you’re ready to go.” He seems caught between impatience and fluster.

She lets the corner of her mouth tug upwards, slips into the indulgent smile she’s picked out for the evening, like it was just another pretty chiton to be donned for a special occasion. But, she doesn’t turn to face him fully. Doesn’t move from what she is doing.

“How lovely,” Gabrielle says, and the cheer she injects into each syllable isn’t nearly as put upon as her smile, recalling, then, with sudden and vivid detail what - who - might await her at the party. This time the softness in her expression is genuine.

“It’s just that you’ve found me in the middle of something.” She tilts her head in the direction of her hand, still raised mid motion, rose resting between her fingers, its stem half buried within the bouquet. His eyes track briefly over her work before finding hers again, and the tension in his posture relaxes when she explains, “I’m nearly done. I only need a moment or two more, is that ok?”

Her heart has suddenly taken up a noisy hammering in her chest, and she can feel a violent blush creeping into her cheeks. She feels exposed, her hand on the Empress’ rose, thoughts of the woman’s commanding beauty circling the edges of her mind, threatening to steal the last of her concentration and betray her all the same. Not that this Roman general has a single clue what he’s witnessing. Still, she holds her breath.

“Of course,” he says, and Gabrielle feels her insides let loose. “I’ll just be outside,” and he gestures towards the curtain. “Please, take your time.”

She tries to keep the relief she feels from creeping into her voice. 

“Thank you….,” she says, letting her tone indicate there’s a request in her statement as well.

“Brutus,” he supplies, in understanding.

“Thank you, Brutus. I’m Gabrielle. I’ll be along shortly, I promise.” Her hand, still on the rose. 

He bows, gently, just below the shoulders, and with a small smile turns on his heel to disappear through the fabric door, all cold, brusque efficiency; the only sound of his exit the whisper of his velvet cloak caressing his leather lappets, the brush of the curtain falling back into place. 

She waits - a heartbeat. Then, another. Lets her breath push past her lips, slow and shaky. Her eyes drop back to the scene in front of her, fingers still engaged in trying to rearrange the roses packed into the water jug, trying to hide away the evidence of her preoccupation, the source of her growing fervour. Her brows knit together, bewildered, vexed. She has never been so unnerved by something as inconsequential as a flower. She should just toss it aside and be done with it. 

And if Gabrielle had any good sense, any resolve left she would. She would absolutely pick it up and, and… A sigh. Instead, she watches as her traitorous body spurns whatever reason remains, and her hand moves, lifts, the rose with it, to bring the bloom to her face. Oh, sweet Aphrodite, how easily she breaks! How soft she’s gone for the memory of the Empress’ gaze, so open and unguarded; the pierce of it. The petals brush against her cheeks, nose, and she smiles at the feel; lets the flower rest a spell against the curve of her upper lip, inhales the delicate perfume. It tugs her eyes closed, and she imagines the smell of rosewater on the Empress’ skin, warm under her touch, and aching. 

And it’s like a thousand-thousand tiny explosions up and down her spine, like Greek fire in her veins. Her head spins and her knees buckle and she’s grabbing at the table’s edge to keep her legs beneath her. And somewhere from the depths of her mind’s eye she sees it, a vision - of the Empress, but not the Empress - so familiar and clear, like unlocking a memory, only how could it be? Long shadows and the golden glow of firelight; long ebony hair fanned out on a pillow of furs; long, lean limbs with their long, hungry reach, searching, gripping, pulling closer and closer and harder and closer still; long, graceful arc of a strong back pushing off the ground, hips angling desperately, as fingers push deeper. Gabrielle’s mouth at the valley between her breasts, tongue tracing the same word over and over again: mine mine mine mine . And the flash of the clearest, brightest blue.

Her eyes fly open, and with them a flurry of thoughts blossom in her mind, wild and crazed. She clutches at the stem, wanton with misplaced desperation, feels it ready to give beneath her fingers, such a delicate thing. Like her sanity, surely. Her mind possessed by two insistent, competing thoughts. To tuck away this precious thing - the Empress’ favour - to keep it soft and safe and secret; for her eyes only, in the deep of night; the brush of it against her lips, and the raging, pulsing thrill of possibility in her blood. And then, all the more ludicrous, dangerous , the rush to pin it to her breast and walk into that reception - for all to see and know and whisper about - an audacious declaration, unequivocal in her intent, her offer; to see the Empress turn her way, a shrewd and feral glint in her eye.

But before she can register what’s happening - or do anything so foolish and provocative as to imperil her safety- her free hand is reaching for the latch on the writing box arranged neat and unsuspecting atop the corner of her desk; tossing aside a few extra scrolls, a quill or two, to make room. And then she’s gently placing the Empress’ rose inside and knocking back the rest of her brandy and smoothing down the front of her dress. 

She turns on her heel, and feels dizzy; wonders briefly if the drink has gone to her head so soon. But the delightful shiver of anticipation that creeps along her warm skin seems to settle and curl around her belly, and she knows unmistakably that she’s not woozy from the brandy wine.

“Utter madness,” she whispers, headed for the curtained door, thumb rubbing aimless circles against her unblemished palm, round and round and up and down, chasing away the lingering sting. She squares her shoulders, brushes an errant curl behind her ear; wishes she could brush off these lingering thoughts of the Empress just as easily, but they’ve settled deep within her, like raindrops caught within the folds of a rose. And so , Gabrielle thinks as she slips into the hall, and on to Brutus’ waiting arm, it would seem I have been marked by the Empress all the same.

They dance around each other all night. Like moths, drawn to the same bright flame, but never into the other’s path.

It sends her blood, hot and heavy, racing in gloriously drawn-out anticipation. She lets her eyes surreptitiously follow the Empress’ movements, lithe and efficient, as she drifts casually about the room. Hides her expression behind her cup, or in a swallow, or a gracious smile when the wayward thoughts she’s been entertaining slip from the quietude of her mind to play plainly across her face. Feels reckless when she lets her attention linger too long, then dizzy with the gallop of her heartbeat at the thought that the Empress might turn to meet her eye, catch her in the act of watching, and wanting. Might stare back.

But, if the Empress ever feels the scorch of Gabrielle’s fevered gaze burn across her body she never lets it show. Although Gabrielle is almost certain that the blush steadily creeping along Brutus’ neck is a likely indication that he, at least, has noticed the hungry look on her face, felt the air thrum with the steady rush of blood through her veins. Brutus, for all his typical Roman stoicism, is a surprisingly pleasant attendant, especially after his third round of port, when his tongue has loosened and he lets some of his wit slip around the edges of his emotional armour. It’s the simple things Gabrielle appreciates; that he never lets her cup go empty, that he knows everyone in the room and a laundry-list of their most colourful idiosyncrasies, that he finds a way to manoeuvre them away from a languishing audience before Gabrielle can get bored. 

Brutus steers them effortlessly around the room, from one distinguished guest to another, introducing her to all manner of Rome’s upper crust, but he doesn’t seem inclined to direct them towards the Imperial couple, which Gabrielle finds strange and maddening (for very obvious and very frustrating reasons, of course). She’s been invited to countless receptions over the years - from kings and statesmen and aristocrats and the nouveau riche who presume their wealth makes them connoisseurs of culture and the arts - and she’s always found herself warmly welcomed by her hosts. Then again , Gabrielle reminds herself, somewhere between her third and fourth cup of wine, this isn’t just any nobleman, it’s the Emperor of Rome . Clearly, the man makes his own rules, and, it would appear a polite word with the playwright he brought all the way from Greece to perform for his court lies outside his concept of hospitality. Not that she’s looking to make his acquaintance, but she is absolutely desperate to make the Empress’.

The evening seems to slip away from her in a whirl of unsuspecting delights. She usually loathes the artifice and pretension of these events, but Rome is proving uncommonly enjoyable - the wine, the food, the company. Oh, the women, adorned in their frills and their baubles, still simper and sip and sit otherwise aloof on the arms of their men, like pretty ornaments, but Gabrielle is surrounded by the city’s greatest conversationalists - senators and orators and philosophers and lawyers and a poet or two - all of whom seem eager for her ear and her voice and her thoughts. And, for the first time in a long while she finds that the smile she wears is genuine, that the laugh bubbling out from her throat starts deep in her belly. 

She hardly notices when Brutus is whisked away by the arrival of a courier, or that the crowd is starting to thin. It’s only when the wizened sophist - who had engaged her in an impromptu lesson on the differences in the Greek and Latin schools of rhetoric - begs his leave, that Gabrielle turns to find her seemingly endless supply of conversation has finally dried up, and, spying the bottom of her cup, the wine along with it.

“I thought he’d never leave.”

The voice floats down to Gabrielle from over her right shoulder, deep - like she would have assumed - though much gentler than she could have ever imagined, and tinged with an exasperated mirth that seems out of place given the stories she’s heard. Gabrielle turns into the sound and she’s there, tall and elegant and captivating, staring down at her with the ghost of a smile on her lips and the most bewitching gaze Gabrielle’s ever seen. It had cast its spell on her from across a room, but now, just an arm’s length away it is almost otherworldly.

“I was starting to lose hope that I would ever... Oh, here.”

She doesn’t finish her first thought, because she’s too busy taking Gabrielle’s empty goblet from her hands, and switching it out for a full one as a server passes by, tray aloft, and it all happens so quickly that Gabrielle isn’t even sure it’s happened at all. Except that the Empress’ long, slender fingers catch on the delicate skin just at the underside of her wrist as she’s placing the fresh cup in her hands, and Gabrielle swears she can feel the earth move and the heavens shift and her chest crack open in some long-forgotten but familiar way. She forces her gaze downwards into her wine, a desperate attempt to centre herself, but when she looks back up she is lost again in the Empress’ features, soft and open and waiting. And in that moment, Gabrielle cannot find a single thing to say. Skin aflame, she trembles.

“Are you okay?”

Of course, Gabrielle doesn’t immediately register the question. Her mind’s too busy trying to chase down the stray fantasies let loose at the Empress’ touch, and then when it finally dawns on her that the woman in front of her is waiting expectantly for an answer, her thoughts begin to race for other reasons. Is she supposed to introduce herself? Bow? By the gods, curtsy? She thinks she might have had one too many drinks to attempt a curtsy. She searches frantically within her memory - flips through every single seemingly inconsequential etiquette and decorum lesson she was ever forced to endure - for the proper protocol. Only, now she’s taking too long to answer - a fact she realizes when the Empress’ expression falls and her hand lands gently on Gabrielle’s shoulder, warm and steady. 

It’s enough to break the spell. The Empress must feel it too, because she lets her hand drop to her side and tries again.

“Are you cold?” This time, Gabrielle raises a puzzled eyebrow in response, and the Empress, with an amused curl of her lip, tilts her head to indicate the downy blond hair raised in excitement along Gabrielle’s arms, the accompanying trail of goose flesh.

“Oh,” Gabrielle says as she watches her body betray her, a little puff of air escaping her lips in a huff that is half a laugh. Tries not to blush as she turns her eyes back on the Empress; wonders if she can hear the pounding of her heart. “No, no. It’s fine. I’m fine. Really.”

She isn’t thinking then, isn’t paying attention when her hand reaches out - moving of its own accord, like it’s the most natural thing in the world for her palm to seek out the crook of the Empress’ elbow; to grasp the firm bicep beneath her fingers and squeeze reassuringly; to let her thumb stroke lazy patterns along the smooth skin she finds there. “Thank you.”

Gabrielle’s voice is sure and soft and sincere, and it’s the Empress’ turn now to look sheepish. To turn her gaze to her own drink, as the weight of Gabrielle’s hand slides away, and the brief heat it leaves behind burns its way to the tops of her ears. And then she shifts on her feet, suddenly shy, adjusts her grip on her wine goblet and greets Gabrielle with an almost-nervous smile. And Gabrielle, with the Empress of Rome looking bashful before her, feels something wicked and lovely bubble up within her, like she could spend an eternity teasing the pink into her cheeks and then chasing it away - to the other delicate parts of her body, where she’d chase it away again - with a peppering of kisses across her heated flesh. 

Gabrielle feels her own blush rush madly across her fair skin but she wears it proudly, confident now that the Empress sports a similar crimson tinge. Gaze steady, she begins, “Forgive me, Empress, but I seem to have forgotten my place. My name is Gabrielle…”, and she’s already leaning into a simple bow when a reassuring hand settles determinedly against her shoulder, ceasing her movement.

“Please, no...” the Empress’ voice catches on some unused emotion, and she stops to swallow past the nervous lump in her throat, “I want none of that cold formality here. Please, Gabrielle, I could not stand to see you bow before me, please …”

There’s something in the Empress’ tone, something in her expression that sucks the air from Gabrielle’s lungs - the delicate waver in her plea; the crease of her brow; the pained set of her mouth. There’s more to the Empress’ request than Gabrielle could ever articulate, but she understands nonetheless; knows all too well the feel of an impossible longing. It hollows out her chest and rasps at her heart and Gabrielle wants nothing more than to pull the Empress to her breast and lay her face against her neck and breathe in the scent of her skin; to whisper, “I’m here now”

She nods in quiet acquiescence instead. 

“Good.” The Empress’ hand hasn’t moved, and she squeezes Gabrielle’s shoulder with a grateful smile. “Good.” 

And Gabrielle lets her own hand reach up and cover the Empress’ in understanding. The moment lingers, and they linger in it, eyes locked, warm hands stacked on bare skin, and then the contact is lost. The Empress runs a fingertip idly around the rim of her goblet and Gabrielle watches the gentle shift of her features, her smile turning wry, her gaze turning thoughtful.

“I must admit, I was dubious when the Emperor informed me this evening’s entertainment was to be a new play from Athens.”

“Is that so?” Gabrielle hears the playfulness in her own voice, but for the sake of appearances tries to keep her expression neutral.

“Yes. Although, in my defence, the only Athenian playwrights he ever seems to engage are stodgy old men with tricky names and a penchant for philosophizing. They very rarely rouse my sensibilities.” The Empress swallows her smirk with a mouthful of wine, then shares a soft laugh with Gabrielle. 

“Tell me then, Empress, how have I fared in comparison?” Gabrielle regards her openly; lets her eyes play across the Empress’ face - across her high cheekbones, down the elegant slope of her nose, to the pillow of her soft mouth pursed in quiet delight. Wishes she could look upon the hidden features of the Empress’ mind as easily; peel back the layers of her thoughts, peel aside all the layers that hide her away, so that Gabrielle might know her, stripped bare of the artifice of her station, of their circumstances. 

“Well…”, the Empress tilts her head in feigned deliberation, “I’ve certainly never made it a point to seek out any of those doddering, old fools to discuss their work. Yet, here I am…”, and then she’s stepping closer, “I wasn’t expecting the likes of you, Gabrielle.” 

And even in her finery she smells like worn leather and clean soap and sunshine and it tickles something in the back of Gabrielle’s mind, wraps her up in the feeling of some half-remembered dream. The canter of a horse beneath her, a solid body in the circle of her arms, a strong back to press her cheek against. She blinks and the reverie falls away, disappears with the last of her discretion. 

“So, I take it, then, that I aroused something within you?” Gabrielle can’t help herself, the question comes out breathy and reckless. Her head is spinning, dizzy from the whiplash of swinging so quickly between serious and playful and genuine and then serious again. “Piqued your... sensibilities?”

“Yes.” The Empress’ voice deepens, takes on the chafe of some unnamed, unsettled feeling. “I found your play very moving." 

“That’s a relief.” And it is, Gabrielle realizes. She’s never much cared for others’ opinion of her work (or herself, for that matter), not really , not much beyond a cursory hope that it’s well received, but in this moment she thinks she’s never wanted anything more than for her words to stir the Empress’ heart, to leave her touched, so deep and profound. It feels like some long buried truth finally surfacing; a sudden, frightening dawn of understanding. She pushes the thought aside, takes a sip of wine to wash away the wildness burning its way up her throat, tries to be glib instead. “Given your reputation on the battlefield, I was worried you might be disappointed.”

“How so?” The Empress’ brow furrows in amused puzzlement, confusion tugging at the corner of her mouth, but her eyes sparkle with the same glint of mischief she sees flickering in Gabrielle’s.  

“Being that you’re a woman of action - I thought perhaps you’d find the fight scenes sorely lacking.” Another sip, a hidden smile, a thrill racing through her. “I’m told the only conflict that’s interesting to today’s audiences is the kind that involves swords.” 

And then the Empress laughs. Rich and deep and melodic. It’s only for a moment, but Gabrielle feels it reverberate in her chest, rattle around in her rib cage, before settling softly in her heart.

“You know, any other time, I would agree, but I assure you, I was much too mesmerized to be bored.”

And Gabrielle is mesmerized too, by the woman standing in front of her; by the intelligence in her stare, the elegant lines of her neck, the warmth rolling off the Empress’ skin, glowing bronze under roaring torch light. She feels the familiar stirrings deep in her belly, the slow and glorious build, the tortuous creep of desire, but there’s something new and dangerous in the pull she feels between them, and she knows that it’s not because the exquisite woman in front of her is the Empress of Rome. 

It’s hot and heavy and humid, and it hangs in all the spaces between them and their words and their unspoken thoughts. And Gabrielle is certain that if she were to reach out and trail her fingers slow and lazy through the air she would feel it, thick and sticky, clinging to her skin, and if she were then to let those fingers slip past her lips and let her tongue lick at the mystery of it, it would taste like the delicious slide of slick bodies seeking, seeking, and the breathy, contented sighs of surrender, and the comfort that can only be found in the embrace of strong arms, the steady rise and fall of a sleeping breast, the sure sound of a sated heart. She grips the stem of her wine goblet tighter, the temptation washing over her.

“I’m glad,” and Gabrielle’s smile is so genuinely earnest it pulls the Empress closer still. 

“Tell me, Gabrielle, visionary voice of Athens, what inspires you?”

Gabrielle considers the question for a moment, "it's like the words come from somewhere else. I just write them down. But you, Empress - all of Rome talks about you. The country thrives. The people adore you. They say that the army would follow you through the gates of Hades."

Gabrielle watches the Empress as her shoulders tense and her throat constricts and the line of her mouth twists into an uneasy frown that she tries to hide behind a sip of her wine. And she wonders why the nerve she’s hit upon is so raw and painful; wonders if she might be able to soothe the throb there; wonders what lies the Empress tells herself to keep up the pretense - and if they’re anything like the ones she tells herself. 

"Well, everything has its price, Gabrielle." 

Gabrielle feels the truth in those words, is nearly bankrupt herself from the fact of them. And then she watches, for the first time since their conversation has begun, as the Empress’ attention drifts towards the other side of the room. Notices the way her eyes sweep over the Emperor who is engaged obtrusively in heated discussion with Brutus. Sees the way her gaze lingers on their agitated display, and thinks, with a wash of sadness, that perhaps she’s lost the Empress to the inevitable pull of some greater obligation; is expecting the Empress to turn back to her begging her leave with an excuse on her tongue, but is relieved to find, instead, that she simply shifts her focus back to Gabrielle, face curious and obliging and keen with renewed interest. 

“Has Athens always been your home?”  

Gabrielle plays absentmindedly with the cup in her hand, shakes her head gently, “no, my family is from Chalkidiki, from a village called Poteidaia, on the...”

“... on the Pallene peninsula, yes, I know it well.” Gabrielle regards the Empress with the arch of a delicate brow, intrigued by her quick familiarity with the insignificant backwater crossroads she once called home, hopes the Empress can read the curiosity in her bemused look, is pleased that she seemingly can.

“Before I found myself in Rome, I spent some time running cargo around the Aegean,” she begins by way of explanation, the hint of a wry smile plying her red lips. “There’s a natural harbour near the isthmus there at Poteidaia. It always proved a welcome shelter from rough seas.”  

“Or irksome Roman pirate patrols, you mean?” Gabrielle’s eyes burn with impishness, and the Empress merely swallows the cheek in her own reply with another sip of her wine and a knowing grin that bleeds its way out from behind the rim of her goblet.

“It’s beautiful country there, along the coast, but worlds away from Athens - do you ever miss it?”

Gabrielle sighs, considers the question, “no, not really. In truth, I couldn’t wait to leave it behind.”

The Empress is silent for a moment, gaze narrowed on the woman before her, serious and captivated in her unhurried scrutiny, caught somewhere between disbelief and awe. 

“What was it that called you out into the great wide world, Gabrielle? Did you escape into the night to chase after some boundless love?”

Gabrielle feels her breath hitch, the unassuming thrust of the Empress’ question grazing impossibly close to a secret, tender truth.

“In a manner of speaking.” 

The Empress regards her thoughtfully, a thousand questions racing through her mind, but suddenly none so important as,"in the third act, you had your hero throw himself over the cliff with no fear of dying-- all for her.  Do you really believe that kind of love exists?"

Gabrielle doesn’t hesitate, "that's what we all dream about, isn't it?  Someone who looks so deeply into our soul that they'd find something worth dying for."

Gabrielle feels a long, exquisite shiver crest along her spine and cascade down every raw, aching nerve in her body - bite and balm just the same - and nothing has ever felt so exhilarating and inescapable as this moment and the way the Empress is looking at her, earnest and transfixed, like she might be looking straight through Gabrielle, down to the most essential and infinitesimal parts of her and then beyond even those, divining all of her mysteries. And Gabrielle is transfixed too, cannot bear to look away from the wondrous and arresting woman before her. They are lost in each other. Everything and everyone else fades away, swallowed by the shadows that dance their way along the edges of the room and across the floor to kiss the hems of their gowns. There’s something hungry and desperate and vulnerable in the Empress’ eyes, something wistful in the sweep of her shoulders, homesick in the way her hands clutch restlessly at her cup of wine. Gabrielle feels the thin, hollow echo of her loneliness, knows already the melody of her sad heart because it sings in concert with her own. 

The spell is broken a heartbeat before the Emperor makes his presence known, when the Empress, guided by some uncanny instinct or skill, senses his approach, and all Gabrielle notices is the way her vertebrae snaps into a taut, crisp column, and her throat bobs, then tightens uneasily, and her jaw clenches and locks in a cold, hard line. 

"Excuse me.  Your play was, uh… riveting.  Well-done. Thank you.” The Emperor’s tone is cool and commanding, and it slices callously through Gabrielle’s heart, like a cold wind of warning. He nods curtly in her direction, then quickly refocuses his attention on the Empress. “The army's expecting us first thing in the morning."

Gabrielle feels the current of his arrogance, the powerful surge of egotism and privilege and authority. It prickles at her senses and she thinks she hates him, hates the boil he sets off in her blood, hates the sudden and absolute transformation he invokes in the Empress. 

"Thank you, Gabrielle, for honouring Rome with your play. Good night.” And then the Empress turns to her husband, slides her hand along his waiting arm, and Gabrielle feels the hairs on her own arm jump enviously in response. 

She watches them leave, watches the warmth and the humanity evaporate off of the Empress like dew from the grass under a sweltering morning sun, sees the walls build up rapidly around her, so high and so impervious that she loses sight of the woman within. Something washes over her then. That peculiar feeling that has plagued her all evening. That has rolled over her again and again in waves of wanting. That swell of desire and desperation and awe and anticipation and recklessness and relief and urgency and understanding. She wonders if she is watching the Empress walk out of her life completely. Feels her heart buckle at the thought, only she knows it cannot be so. She knows

It cannot be so .

Gabrielle stands there, watching as the last of the Empress’ dress flutters from view, and then slips quietly through the crowd, headed for the portico on the far side of the room that will take her away from this madness and back towards the performance hall. She wonders briefly if she’s meant to wait for another escort to see her out; abandons the thought when she realizes she doesn’t actually care about any of Rome’s pointless protocol; then swipes a fresh decanter of wine from a side table as she leaves - as if to emphasize her feelings on the matter. 

It’s quiet in the passageway beyond the reception, just her and the gleaming marble, and she glides down the corridor with her prize dangling loosely from her fingertips, already lost in thought, listening to the whispers from the ether. She hears the universe speaking softly to her, picks through the overlapping voices for the one she now realizes had been calling out to her earlier, follows its rich and resonant tone backwards in her mind, like a guide rope in a blizzard, to a place where she can make out what it’s saying, and listens.

        There’s a moment when I look at you…

And all Gabrielle can see is the Empress’ piercing gaze.

        There’s a moment when I look at you…

Those eyes.

        There’s a moment when I look at you…

They are deep and dangerous like the sea. They are the clearest, brightest blue. She feels the tug and gives herself over to the pull. Even Poseidon can’t save her now. But then, Gabrielle never intended to ask for help. 

She’s nearly halfway through the bottle of pilfered wine, an hour’s worth of frustrated attempts to channel some otherworldly poetry littering the large oak desk in the corner of her rooms in the Emperor’s domus . She tosses her reed pen aside with a sigh, vexed, tiny drops of ink sprinkling wood and papyrus and fair skin with a fine black mist as the pen bounces away from her hand. She’s restless. And preoccupied. And naked, having stepped out of her dress the moment she was behind closed doors; she’d had enough of putting on airs for one night - for a whole year, really - and wanted to sit alone with herself, in her own flesh, and meditate on the beauty and wonder of the Empress.      

        There’s a moment when I look at you…

She heaves another sigh and pushes away from the desk, to her feet. The room is lit by glowing torches and she feels a heat flush across her body, encouraged by the fire and the drink and the lust in her blood. There’s a cool night breeze easing its way in off the balcony, and Gabrielle is stirred into motion by the fresh air, like a leaf caught in a swirling wind. It raises the hair on her arms, coaxes her nipples to attention, cools the sweat on the back of her neck. 

She steps over to the lectus opposite the balcony, picks up the fine cloth draped over the arm of the lounge - a gift, from the people of Rome - and wraps it delicately around her body leaving her shoulders bare, clutching the loose ends of the fabric at her breast. Deep indigo and lavender, made from the softest Egyptian linen. It glides over her skin like a gentle touch. Bare foot, she pads out onto the balcony.

The moon is high and full in the night sky, casts an ethereal glow on everything it touches. There’s cricket song and the smell of oleander on the air, and but for a light breeze everything is still. Gabrielle lays her free hand on the railing, runs it along the polished stone, enjoys the smoothness under her fingers. She can’t help her thoughts, as they drift inevitably back to the Empress, the smooth skin of her bicep where Gabrielle had gripped it earlier that evening, the softness of her own touch on Gabrielle’s shoulder. Can’t help her thoughts as they wander then, to all the other parts of the Empress that are silky and sleek and hidden and waiting for Gabrielle to uncover. With her fingertips. And her mouth. And her tongue.

She’s busy chasing that particular thought to its delicious end when her musings are interrupted by movement in the shadows on the balcony across from her. Gabrielle lifts her curious gaze and feels her heart hammer painfully against her ribs. There is the Empress, like some Elysian vision, stealing quietly from the darkness, skin pale and lustrous in the moonlight, long hair pulled into a braid slung across one shoulder, mouth parted in a soft ‘ oh ’, as if the last of her breath was slowly being pulled from her lungs through the small opening between her lips.

And the way the Empress is looking at her. Like she is some rare and precious thing, like a graceful sculpture fashioned from the most luminous marble, radiant under a blanket of stars, made to be exalted by the Empress’ eyes only. Gabrielle has never had anyone - in all of her life - regard her with such raw intensity and simmering hunger and unabashed awe. Surely , she thinks, this mustn’t be for me , but when she casts a glance over her shoulder, there’s no one else there. 

Gabrielle feels like a doe then, caught between the reverence of the Empress’ gaze and the moonlight. And like some skittish animal she spooks. Dips her head self-consciously towards the Empress in quiet acknowledgement and goodnight, and disappears quickly into her rooms. But the retreat brings no relief, only accosts her with thick and stifling air. Her head is spinning and her skin is on fire and there is a ferocious ache low in her belly, and all Gabrielle can see is the Empress’ expression. Looking at her like she was some rare and precious thing, like she was curious to uncover all the parts of her that are silky and sleek, like she had been hearing the universe whispering to her through the ether.

        There’s a moment when I look at you…

Gabrielle’s eyes squeeze shut in a silent plea, Sweet Aphrodite, what am I to do? And when they blink slowly open again she sees it on the desk beside her writing box, in a spare ink pot filled hastily with water - a single, unassuming rose. Her fingers are at the stem before she can register what she’s doing, and this time there’s no hesitation. She feels the quickening, of her pulse and her breath and the throb between her legs. She tucks the rose in her hair at the side of her ear and adjusts her linen wrap so that it’s just barely hanging off her frame, licks her lips, pulls her shoulders back and steps out into the night again. If the Empress is hungry, she will gladly be her feast.

        And no speech is left in me...