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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Chapter 10: He Had Reflected, Having Time to Pause
"Mmmm, this feels so nice." Gabrielle murmured.
The day was beautiful. I'm sure Persephone was having one last fling before leaving Demeter, and heading down to the realm of Hades, her husband. The air was warm, and the sky was sunny. Gabrielle and I decided that the Empire would have to exist without us for at least half the day. Delia packed us a basket, and I had Tenorio saddled for the two of us. Well, that wasn't counting the half dozen Royal guards who strategically placed themselves around us. They were discreet, but it could still be disconcerting, never allowed to be alone.
"I'm glad you think so, love." I leaned back against a well-placed tree, content to hold Gabrielle in my embrace.
It had been a fortnight since Solan's injuries and Gabrielle's days were filled with overseeing the young man's recovery. His broken bones mended, his bruises faded, and as unbelievable as it was, his manner improved, albeit it only slightly. Make no mistake; frankly, he treated the servants in the castle better than he did either Gabrielle or me. It wasn't that he treated either one of us terribly. He regarded us with a certain civility, a tolerance. He accepted our help and companionship, but it was as if he held himself back. There were times when he and I spent time discussing points of philosophy, or war stratagems, when I would find myself genuinely enjoying his company. He could be intelligent and amusing, as well as dark and brooding. Nevertheless, it was with Gabrielle that he seemed to share the most intimate talks, while at the same time keeping a carefully placed chasm between them.
I would watch them walking in the rose garden below the window of my private study. Actually, Gabrielle walked; Solan limped behind with a crutch Kuros fashioned for him. The young man refused any assistance from Gabrielle, and she quickly learned to allow him his way in such obstinate behavior. I would catch glimpses of the young man, watching from the window above him. There were instances when I would discover him looking at Gabrielle, when she was unaware of the fact, and he would look as though he were about to cry. On other occasions, he would gaze upon the small blonde with, what could only be described as, rage.
Some of the revelations I shared with Gabrielle, but a few I kept to myself. I couldn't explain Solan's behavior, and that bothered me. I'd spent many seasons as a student of human nature, yet still I couldn't ascertain the motives behind his actions. There had to be more, though. Perhaps it was simply the paranoia, which I passed down to my son, but I was unable to believe that there wasn't more to Solan than met the eye. I was quite convinced, as a matter of fact, that whether the boy knew it or not, there were deeper emotions ruling his thoughts.
"If I get any more comfortable, I won't want to ever leave this spot," Gabrielle said.
"And that would be a bad thing, how?" I returned.
She laughed at my teasing. Gods, how wonderful to hear. When I listen to the sound of Gabrielle's laughter, I wonder why I denied myself this simple pleasure for all these seasons.
"Why don't we go to the temple together, Xena?" she asked me.
I knew that Gabrielle made a visit to Athena's temple each and every day. While I prayed, every candlemark some days, I hadn't been inside the temple since its dedication many seasons before. Quite frankly, I was halfway afraid that the walls would come crashing down on me should I cross the threshold. Of course, this was Gabrielle asking me, and the Gods know, she asked me for precious few things.
"All right," I answered. "Shall we walk or shall we ride?" I asked, rising and helping her to her feet.
She glanced high up at Tenorio's back, then back at me. She brushed the grass from her skirt. Although I was slowly teaching Gabrielle to ride, and she was becoming quite good, her concern over heights, still made her preferred mode of transportation her own feet.
"Walk," she said decisively, holding out her hand to me.
It wasn't far, and in half a candlemark, we were at the entrance to Athena's temple. Gabrielle had gathered an armful of flowers on our walk, and she moved to the altar. She placed her offering on the brightly polished obsidian. Many Gods would have been offended at such an offering, but Gabrielle brought such a gift every day. Now, I happened to know that Athena had a penchant for fresh cut flowers, but few were the mortals who knew of the Goddesses weakness. I often wondered how Gabrielle discovered the fact, but I never asked her. It simply seemed rather personal.
Gabrielle turned to me, as if waiting to see what I would do next. It suddenly felt rather close within the small temple, and I inconspicuously looked around me, nervously debating the solidity of the structure. I decided to simply take the Minotaur by the horns, and stepped forward. Hearing neither the creaking of the walls, nor the cracking of the ceiling, I presumed it safe enough to continue. I reached for the leather pouch tied to my belt. Tugging it free, I tossed the full bag of talants onto the stone slab. Gabrielle stood there beside me, looking up at a marble statue, carved in an amazing likeness of Athena.
"Has she ever come to you, little one?" I asked.
"No," she answered, turning toward me with a wistful smile. "Some day she will."
I returned the smile, simply enjoying Gabrielle's complete faith in her God of choice. Gabrielle stared at me and as the moments passed, I began to realize that something more was expected of me. She motioned toward the altar with her eyes, and it finally came to me.
"Ohhh! You want to . . . uhm . . . be alone to . . . say a few . . ." I trailed off in embarrassment. "I'll just be over here." I said as I backed into the foyer.
I turned the corner, but not before I saw Gabrielle sit down on the steps that lead up to the altar. When I turned away, to afford her some privacy, I nearly ran down the Goddess herself.
"Hera's tits! Do you have to pop in like that? Couldn't you be a little more gradual about it?" I exclaimed.
"Xena! I'm surprised you still recognize me." She said in that patient tone of voice she always had.
I felt properly rebuked, so offered up one of my more charming smiles. "You don't exactly have a very forgettable face," I answered, but I'm afraid my eyes strayed slightly lower than her face.
"Xena, are you flirting with me? Have you already forgotten who you came her with your little one?"
At my pet name for Gabrielle, I was suddenly flustered and embarrassed. "Uh, no . . . no," I protested, backing up.
She chuckled in that same soft voice. "You've changed, Xena."
"I hope you consider that a good thing," I answered.
"You tell me," she parried.
I grinned and thought of Gabrielle, knowing full well the Goddess could, and would, read my mind. "Yes," I answered. "Yes, I think it's a very good thing. I must have the favor of Olympus, Athena, to have found one such as her."
"My dear friend, you mortals forget so quickly. Xena, did you really think your life was your own once you asked me for my patronage?"
I could feel my features tightening slightly. "I accept the inclusion of you in my life, Athena. I willingly went to you, and asked for your benefaction, it's true. For some reason, however, the Olympian Gods have felt free to interfere in my life since the day I was born. I don't know why, and at my age, I don't think I want to know. Realize this, however. I won't allow anyone, mortal or God, to harm Gabrielle."
"Easy, now, my friend. Xena, I once promised you that I would make you the greatest ruler the world has ever known. In doing so, I put measures in place, manipulating not only the happenstances in your own life, but in many of the lives that surrounded you. The people you lived with, even those who have grown to love you, as unlovable as you always thought yourself."
I listened to her words, at first touched by the measure of concern this Goddess seemed to have had for my own welfare. Her final sentence, however, caused my anger to flare.
"You?" I asked. "You had Gabrielle's fate in your hands also?"
"I did," she answered more slowly, almost painfully.
"Then, it was you who allowed her life to take the turn it did?" I accused from between clenched teeth. I could feel my fury rising.
"Your anger is justified, Xena, but misplaced. I have done everything in my power to protect that girl. Her entire life, up to this point, has been a mystery, even to me. Each and every time I sought to put her life back on the path the fates foretold for her, a force would come along to undo all that I had done. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, I've been playing catch up with her for most of her life. Someone, or some thing, always seemed to be one step ahead of me."
"Another God?" I asked, incredulous at Athena's tale so far.
"I don't see how. Things aren't as wild on Olympus as they were in the days of your youth, Xena. My siblings are more content to watch humans than to interfere."
"She deserved better than the fate she was dealt." I pointed out.
"I agree. Gabrielle is more than even she knows. At one time, we all fought to be her patron. Apollo sought to teach her his healing arts, Hades, the art of discernment. Ares wanted to teach her the art of war--"
"Gabrielle . . . a warrior?" I asked in amazement.
"You know Ares . . . he thinks he sees his next warrior queen in every mortal female alive. He only got worse once you left him."
"How pathetic," I said.
"Like I said," she replied with a wry smile, "you know Ares."
"And so you won?"
"Believe it or not, the girl chose me," Athena responded. "Although Artemis made some sort of deal with our father in regards to Gabrielle. I've never found out what they discussed, but Artemis assured me that it would never interfere with the path I envisioned for the girl. There were quite a few discussions and cries of foul over that one, I assure you. It was finally decided that Gabrielle's decision over her patron be her own, but those on Olympus who thought so highly of the girl's future, chose to bestow a few gifts upon her at birth."
"Ahh." The Goddess's direction suddenly became clear. "So, Gabrielle's abilities are not all learned. Her unusual talents in the healing arts . . . her compassion . . . wisdom?"
"All natural aptitudes. It's a rare event when the Gods choose one mortal to bestow so many talents. You of all people should know that, Xena."
"I long suspected that my skills were perhaps more than inherited traits," I answered. "But, where did her gift from Ares disappear to? The girl certainly isn't much of a fighter."
Athena graced me with a mysterious smile. "As I said, there is more to Gabrielle than even she knows. I'd like to try to make sure the girl's fate remains as prophesied from here on in. She is, after all, one of my more faithful."
"Yet, Gabrielle says you've never shown yourself to her."
"It's not like the old days, Xena. Mortals may pray to us, and depend upon us, but they get more than a little nervous when their deities start popping up in their bedrooms."
"It never kept any of you out of my bedroom." I answered with a good deal of sarcasm.
"It's amazing, really," she continued on, almost as if she hadn't heard me. She cocked her head to the right as if she were straining to hear something. "Do you know, that after all the girl has been through, all the indignities her tender soul has suffered, not a day goes by when she doesn't pray to me? Although, these days, you fill up many of her requests."
Athena graced me with that knowing smile that always made me feel uncomfortable.
"So, are you ready to be a parent again, Conqueror?" Her smile grew larger.
I could feel the warm blush as it spread across my face. I knew what Gabrielle prayed for each day. "I'm not sure I'll ever be ready, but she is."
"And how fares your first attempt at parenthood?"
I understood that she meant Solan. "Let's just say it's slow going," I answered. "We're making progress, though." I didn't know what more to add, realizing the Goddess could see my thoughts.
"I must go, Gabrielle is finished," she suddenly said, turning away. Then, as an afterthought she spun back to face me.
"Keep your son close to you, Xena. There will come a time when he will be all that stands between you, and a lifetime of heartache."
Then she was gone.
"Damn, you think these Gods could get any more cryptic?" I asked myself.
"Xena, who are you talking to?" Gabrielle's voice sounded near my ear.
"Uhm . . . Athena?"
"You mean to tell me that I'm in there praying to the Goddess and she's out here, talking to you?"
"Well . . . if it helps any, she looked very distracted," I answered sheepishly. "I think she was mostly listening to you."
Gabrielle laughed aloud. "I guess that counts for something." She said, slipping an arm around my waist. "But, from here on in, I think maybe I should come to the temple alone."
We both enjoyed the easy laughter, and left the temple as we had arrived, hand in hand. I departed the sanctuary, however, with a niggling sensation of unease. I had a feeling that I would lose more than a few moments of sleep during the coming nights, ruminating over Athena's mysterious message regarding Solan.
* * * * * * * * * *
We rode into the palace courtyard, Gabrielle seated sidesaddle in front of me. She said she felt safer there than behind me, and riding along with Gabrielle's head on my chest, who was I to complain. The moment we dismounted, and I handed the reigns off to a stable hand, Gabrielle made the young man stop. She removed a small apple from the food basket we brought with us, and held it out to me.
I smiled and quickly drew my dagger, slicing the fruit into a few sizable chunks. She held out both her hands, and I deposited the pieces in her palms. She held both outstretched hands just under the stallion's head. He caught the scent of his favorite treat, and I watched as Gabrielle smiled when Tenorio's muzzle tickled her palms.
She was careful to keep her thumbs tucked tightly against her hand. Even I had gotten a stray finger caught between the animal's teeth when he couldn't discern where the treat ended, and my fingers started. As always, the girl astounded me. As much as she would prefer not to ride upon the huge beast's back, it was the distance from the ground that she feared, and not the animal himself. There seemed a bond between the two of them, one every bit as special as the one that existed between myself, and the warhorse.
An extremely colorful wagon was pulled off to one side near the main entrance to the castle. It was an open wagon, but upon the side facing us, someone had painted a beautiful red and gold dragon. It ran the entire length of the vehicle. As soon as Gabrielle saw it, her eyes opened wide in surprise, and she rushed forward.
"Yu Pan!" she exclaimed.
Now, for some reason, after hearing all of Gabrielle's stories of the extraordinary healer, I expected . . . well, I'm not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn't the tiny old man that stood beside the wagon. He was thin and frail looking, barely as tall as Gabrielle herself was. His features appeared kindly, yet thoughtful, I can express my first impression no better than that. His hair was shoulder length, and was as white as the long, thin mustache, which blended into the beard that grew only from the end of his slender chin. Dressed in blue and gray silk, Yu Pan wore the traditional dress of his own people, a ch'ang-p'ao, or a long robe.
Gabrielle hugged the old man. He looked at her with twinkling eyes and a smile on his face. He seemed genuinely surprised at the young woman who stood before him. I could only wonder what Gabrielle was like when the old man had last seen her.
"Nihao, Gabrielle, haojiu bu jian." He said with a calm smile and a slight bow.
Gabrielle straightened herself, inclining her head at the old man. "Huanyíng, liángyou." She answered with her own greeting to an old friend.
"You remember well, nuér," Yu Pan responded proudly. I was surprised at the term of affection, daughter.
I hung back, allowing Gabrielle her time with the man whom she credited with saving her sanity when she came back to Greece as a slave. She didn't give me any particulars, but then again, she didn't have to. I had owned slaves, and I was among the cruelest of masters. My imagination came up with numerous scenarios regarding Gabrielle's mistreatment by the man who purchased her from the Order of the Rose. Finally, Gabrielle turned to find me, holding out her hand in my direction.
"My Lord, this is an old friend of whom I spoke. Yu Pan, may I introduce the Lord Conqueror."
Gabrielle introduced the two of us as befitting each of our stations in life. The young woman was as diplomatic as any of my advisors could have been. I decided to take the initiative, not wishing to embarrass or disappoint Gabrielle.
"Huanyíng, Yu Pan," I welcomed the old man in the native tongue of many of the provinces of Chin. He acted neither surprised, nor impressed with my knowledge. However, with a deep bow, both of his hands tucked deep within the large sleeves of his long robe, he greeted me with only one word.
"Tong zhi zhe," he said almost reverently.
It had been many, many seasons since I'd heard that title. It wasn't exactly my name, but in a way, it meant, ruler of the world. It was the closest thing the Chin's could find to my title, and there was a period in my life when I was known as nothing else. I lived in Chin, protected the people from the vicious feudal Warlords that set themselves up in a province, and then proceeded to bleed its inhabitants dry. Of course, I left the country before my reputation was sullied too badly. There were still a few out there who remembered the days when Jíbài swept through many of the provinces of Chin.
"Shall we?" I asked, indicating the entrance with a sweeping gesture of my hand.
Gabrielle smiled at me, and took the arm I offered her as we walked along. She appeared in high spirits and extremely proud, two things relatively new for the young woman. If having this old friend of hers nearby caused her so much happiness, then I knew that I would do anything to see that he stay as long as possible. Feeling Gabrielle's infectious joy, it was almost possible to forget the true nature of the old man's visit. I admit, even though I could take little credit for it, I was pleased at the sidelong glimpses that Yu Pan stole in Gabrielle's direction. I understood the old healer's quandary. He was probably thinking that this confidant and beautiful woman bore little resemblance to the fearful, timid slave he once knew. Athena's words stole through my brain.
There is more to her than you know
* * * * * * * * * *
"Are the rooms satisfactory?" I asked Gabrielle as soon as she walked into the outer chamber of our private rooms.
"He seems very pleased," Gabrielle answered.
I had been sitting in my study reviewing the plans for the local games and chariot races. Every season, just after the harvest, but before it grew colder, all of Corinth celebrated. It was never my intention to compete with the Olympic games. It began as a local celebration, eventually growing into the sort of event that literally stopped the entire city. Because I was the founder of the festival, the games involved were more of the type that highlighted a warrior's prowess. Competitions ranged from spear throwing to skill on horseback.
The three days of celebration culminated at the massive open-air stadium, where the chariot races took center stage. Single steed, as well as six-mount team races proved wildly popular. What always interested me were the women who either raced themselves, or hired men to race for them. At one time, women weren't even allowed to watch the games in Athens. Those days are officially over, but traditions die hard with some of the men of Greece. Women do enter, and win, some of the physical competitions, but it has always been the chariots where women were always accepted, even in old Athens. The only requirement was that the woman had to own the horse. She could either ride herself, or hire someone to ride. Either way, she kept the winning prize.
My fellow Corinthians had an excellent reputation for good horseflesh. While not as skilled as the men of Thessaly in breeding the best animals, we still prized a fast, strong mount. Therefore, the races quickly became the highlight of the three-day celebration.
The budget for the festival became larger with each passing season, but it wasn't as if the Empire couldn't afford it. My private coffers alone held many times over the amount of talants it would take to pay for the event. I detested going over budgets such as this, so when Gabrielle entered the room, I was glad for the excuse to end my tedious activity.
I pushed myself away from the desk, and Gabrielle sat in my lap, leaning her head back against my shoulder. It was easily apparent that she was quite happy at seeing her old friend. I was simply glad that it caused her such joy.
"He says that I'm much changed," Gabrielle reflected.
"And so you are," I answered. "He did mean for the better, I hope."
"Yes." She chuckled. "He said that I have become the woman I was meant to be. He was also quite impressed with you, my Conqueror." She finished by brashly placing her arms around my neck.
"I can't possibly imagine why. We only spoke for a matter of heartbeats."
"He said you impressed him with the way you treated me," she responded.
"I like that," I mused aloud.
"Hhmmm?" Gabrielle questioned.
"The fact that it's apparent that I adore you." I lightly kissed her lips, which spread into a smile. "It's the one weakness that I don't mind disclosing, little one; my love for you."
"Xena, you're becoming a romantic. You do realize that, don't you?" she responded.
"You're going to ruin my reputation with talk like that." I grinned at her.
"That is the point, my love."
Gabrielle returned my earlier kiss, and gave me a glimpse into one of her many ulterior motives within our relationship. I never would have thought that she had it in her mind to change people's perceptions of me, and the woman I had been. The knowledge both flattered and frightened me. I wasn't sure how to answer her.
"You're in for an uphill battle then," I commented.
"I think I'm up for the challenge." She answered in a confident tone. It was the manner in which she spoke, that caused me to believe in her. It was a trust I'd put in very few individuals during my lifetime.
"Gabrielle," I cupped her cheek within my hand. "If anyone in the known world could possibly make people forget the woman I was, I have every confidence that it would be you."
The moment of silence that existed between the two of us just then spoke more than all the conversation in the world. Our eyes never broke contact, and I don't think I could have turned from her if I had wanted to. The connection that bonded us together at that moment was so tangible, I felt as if I could have reached out and touched it. I find it odd the things a person chooses to remember of certain life altering incidents. I will never forget the green of Gabrielle's eyes, or the tiny flecks of gold sprinkled within that emerald color. I remember, with startling clarity, the light lavender color of her blouse, the smoky smell of the fire, and the sound of the late afternoon birds singing in the trees outside our window. I think that I will remember the space of those heartbeats for all my life.
We came together and shared a single kiss. Suddenly embarrassed at the depth of emotion I was expressing, I tried to speak, to cover what we both knew could not be hidden between us. I stammered a few times, finally giving up. Gabrielle smiled before allowing me to envelop her in my embrace. Hers was a knowing smile, as she always knew my heart better than even I did.
"Gabrielle, why don't you go take the evening meal with Yu Pan. I'm sure you two have much to catch up on, and you don't need my ears there to hinder the conversation. Hhmm?" I suggested. "Eat your dinner, and spend a pleasant evening in talk."
"But, Xena, what will you do? I don't want--"
"I'll get along just fine, little one. I owe Solan some time. I want you and your friend to enjoy yourselves. All right?"
"Thank you, Xena. I love you," she responded.
"And I love you, as well. Off with you, now."
* * * * * * * * * *
"How fares the conquering business?" Solan asked me.
"Deadly dull of late." I answered,
We were playing a round of King's Men, both of us realizing that competing against one another was safer than playing against Gabrielle. Neither Solan, nor myself were willing to admit that the young woman's skill at the game was superior to our own. It was a silent agreement of sorts, of which my future bride was more than happy to accommodate.
"I heard this famous healer of hers arrived." Solan mentioned with a note of sarcasm in his voice. I noted that more often than not, Solan either could not, or would not, mention Gabrielle by name.
"His name is Yu Pan," I responded. I moved one of my archer pieces diagonally across the playing board. "I would ask you a favor in regards to this man, Solan."
I waited, appearing to concentrate on the game board. My expression was as stony and impassive as always. Inside, however, I agonized over the words. I was not yet in the habit of asking for help, leastways from the young man who seemed to fight me at every turn.
"And, the favor would be?" He asked cautiously. It seemed as if the playing field was rather even at this point. Solan was as unused to someone requesting his assistance as I was in asking for it.
"Whether you believe in Yu Pan's ways or not, I ask that you treat this man with the respect that his years, and his wisdom dictate. His reputation as a healer is considerable, but more important to me; he is a cherished friend of Gabrielle's."
I saw his eyes narrow slightly. "Is he any good?"
"Well," I began, breathing a sigh of relief. "To hear Gabrielle tell the tale, he can perform miracles."
"That doesn't say much. I mean, she does tend to look at life in a rather optimistic sort of way," he answered with a smirk.
I grinned in reply. I was prepared for a less humorous reply. Solan's comment regarding Gabrielle's nature didn't have the scathing quality that I expected. It actually had a ring of fondness attached to it.
"In all honesty, I don't know the man, or his abilities. I do know that Kuros considers him a healer of some significant skill. Kuros has been with me quite some time, and I trust in his judgment."
"Do you believe in this kind of healing, this . . . magic?" He asked seriously.
"I do indeed."
I wondered how much to divulge. To what extent should I open myself up to the boy? I didn't yet feel that complete trust existed between the two of us, but, at this point, could revealing my past hurt me? One thought came to me as I ruminated over the questions inside of my head. How would Gabrielle handle this predicament? I decided that open honesty would be a novel change, and so I told Solan of the first time I traveled to the land of Chin.
I spoke first of Caesar's attempt to crucify me, leaving me crippled and full of hate. Then I spoke to him of his father, Borias. He listened eagerly to the tale of my alliance in Chin with Borias, and of our attempts to raise money in order to return to Greece, in hopes of fulfilling the prophecy that the witch, Alti, gave me. I spoke of kidnapping the boy, Ming Tien, and then finally, I told him of the woman, Lao Ma.
"She was able to heal you because you loved her?" He asked skeptically.
"She was able to heal me because I believed that she could," I answered.
"That's what she said. That if I believed, it would happen."
Solan's words, and his tone of skepticism, belied the fact that I could hear the faintest hint of some underlying emotion. In other words, I believe what I was hearing was a desire to believe. Against everything he knew to be practical and true, Solan wanted to believe this healing could happen.
"And so it shall," I responded.
Our eyes locked briefly, but Solan suddenly pulled his eyes from mine, shaking his head back and forth. "It can't be that easy."
"Easy? Is that what you think? Solan, to place absolute faith and trust in another human being is the hardest thing in the world. If you can allow your heart this chance, it will leave its mark on you. You will forever be changed, and you'll never look at life the same way again."
He rose from the chair with some difficulty, but I knew better than to assist him. I watched as he looked out the window. His bruises had slowly been fading, yet his limbs remained splinted. It would be a very long time yet before his body would return to normal. I looked on the young man and whispered the only words that I could under such circumstances.
"I'm sorry, Solan."
To be continued in Chapter 11: I Long Have Known Myself What Love Can DoReturn to The Bard's Corner