Will. It is a complexity I have spent a lifetime exploring. As capacity. Wish, intent, purpose. Probability. Force. Bequest. Sometimes resisting its various meanings, sometimes rising above. Often becoming that which I would define. Along my way I searched. I served. I endured. Did I come closer to embracing illusion than losing myself in the great mystery I sought? I do not know for sure. How comforting, then, to finally achieve clarity. To understand in the end a meaning so pure and simple as this: Tomorrow I will die.
I could live longer if I wished. If I could bring myself to cheat Ming T’ien – the son and executioner I will not harm. I have bequeathed my baby dragon’s downfall to a spiritual heir. If she comes, he will no doubt fulfill my last request. Pass on to her a hair brooch she gave me long ago. It is as beautiful and potentially deadly as she. She will recognize it as a sign of my legacy to her – the paradox of a being who, like water, can be both soft and hard.
I never held my son’s father in much regard. Ironic he should discern in me that duality few others saw. Which I myself did not sufficiently appreciate until I mastered it through means appropriate to my status – the arts of seduction, deception, compromise. My nature and gifts played a role as well. Certainly the harmony of these elements seemed my destiny. I could not have moved so successfully in a world where women were otherwise little more than the whisper of silk vanishing behind closed doors.
I suppose I was fortunate that not being an “ordinary” girl proved uncommonly fortuitous. My comeliness forgave my inquiring mind. My pleasant disposition compensated for the hours I spent in solitude practicing the meditation my brothers were taught but never learned. Though not wealthy, my family had respect and a comfortable home on prime land. I loved sitting beside our pond. Mirroring its stillness. Contemplating its acquiescence to a light spring breeze. Opening myself to the forces of the universe – the great consciousness in which spiritual and physical are one. And I with them.
My parents let me be. I believe they accepted early on my disappearances to read and write would not be valued for the type of invisibility expected of a proper wife. Someone who would not need education for domestic skills, for the important family or public affairs restricted to men. The duller, the better. Only one class of woman would. Those who became companions to a man of high standing. A man who derived benefits from cultured feminine talents in his discourse, social gatherings and bed. And so someone such as I could still bring honor and riches to my family. At the age of 13, they sent me off for training as a future courtesan to the Lord of Ming.
Ming Tzu was not the most sensitive man, though probably no less so than most. He treated me as prized furniture. Carefully, but without thought to how I might feel beyond comfortable. He did notice my ability to see into others, to quickly grasp complex issues – “political acuteness” he called it. He encouraged my studies, brought in the masters of many subjects to ensure I shone the brightest among influential guests. He would later ask my opinions about their sincerity, the wisdom of their propositions. I was usually correct.
“I can see into the future too,” he told me a few years after my arrival. “You are blossoming into a rare flower. Your petals will make my kingdom bountiful.” I indeed bore him the son his late wife could not. He then sold me in marriage to a neighboring lord. “The boy does not need a mother. You are of greater value as my eyes and ears in the Kingdom of Lao.” That is how I came to exchange the child at my breast for an old man determined to suckle dry my youth. Whose property Ming Tzu hoped eventually to make his.
Fortunately, Lao Tzu’s infirmity strengthened my position. On the surface I appeared as most proper wives – placid, modest, obedient. But as my husband’s health failed, he relied more heavily on my talents as a courtesan. Entertaining dignitaries, preparing documents, representing him to his subjects. I gradually softened his tyrannical image, reformed his oppressive laws, replaced his simpleminded ramblings with words of substance. No one questioned my wholehearted devotion to carrying out “his” will. I ensured that the day I relegated him to a vegetative state, occasionally displaying his propped body to suggest him still master of his domain.
Unfortunately, Ming Tzu smelled threat and vulnerability in the Kingdom of Lao’s progressive ways. My husband’s army chafed under their restrictions and warned we would suffer consequences if we did not respond to Ming Tzu’s “accidental” incursions more aggressively. They reported foreign invaders eyeing our territory as well. One, a warlord named Borias, had already engaged Ming Tzu’s forces. My sources judged him a reasonable man, though they spoke less kindly of his accomplice – a “barbarian” female warrior. Borias sent word of his desire to meet privately with the Lord of Lao. I decided it wise to accept.
When my party arrived at his camp, he recovered well as I emerged from the litter in place of my husband. He seemed far less pleased when his partner rode up. I am not sure she was happy to see me, but as our eyes met, I saw a flash of curiosity. I believe she sensed more beneath my delicate deference than did Borias. As for myself, I felt as though I were my childhood pond and she the breeze stirring the stillness I had focused on perhaps too long.
“You must be Xena.”
“You’ve heard of me.”
“Oh, yes. They say you’re a dangerous woman.”
She is cocky, brash, rude, wild. Clumsy physically from a hobbling injury. Intellectually from a mind that knows little discipline. Emotionally because all she feels is what she wants. She mistakenly believes I want Borias. Watches us through a haze of opium during dinner. Does not understand my subtle seduction is simply how I do business, as she achieves similar ends more … obviously. She responds by throwing a knife near my hand. Storms out like a petulant child who has not gotten her way. Threatens me when I am alone in the guest tent. And learns that, while my power may be invisible, I too can be a dangerous woman.
She is stretched out cold on the ground when Borias finds us. Neither of them knows quite what happened. I am still the serene, unruffled lady who lets him help me up from tending my attacker. He understands why I can no longer honor the agreement we reached, but I am fairly certain we will all meet again. I have taken a memento from this encounter – an ebony pin from Xena’s hair while she lay unconscious. I left her a gift in return, whispered in her ear after she recovered.
“Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things.”
I did not expect her to heed my advice, but neither did I anticipate she would invade Ming Tzu’s home and kidnap his young son. Did I say “brash?” I understate her foolishness. Now she is the enemy of both Ming Tzu and Borias, which they naturally assume makes the three of us allies. I pretend that to be true after they rescue Ming T’ien. I come upon father and boy in the forest. She is with them. Caged, bruised, stripped to bare limbs and feet. Lips curled in a snarl, eyes piercing us all like a tiger trapped and waiting to tear apart whoever comes too close.
I discover they will hunt her for sport. I give permission to do so near Lao land, but leave to position myself where I can save her. She is exhausted from running on her crippled legs, crawling desperately away from the hounds on her trail, when she reaches my feet.
“Come with me if you wish your freedom.”
Her eyes are furtive, veering between disbelief and hope. Though she has personally experienced my powers, she no doubt questions how the slight figure before her could possibly stand between her and the terror nipping at her heels. She sees, as one of the dogs arrives and I send him whimpering off with but a look.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I have been blessed – or cursed – with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don’t know it yet, Xena, but you’re a remarkable woman, capable of greatness.”
She follows me home. Like Ming Tzu, I am mindful she is also capable of savagery. If I am to tame her at all, it will be as with any wild thing – slowly, firmly, cunningly. Satiating her basic needs, whetting her appetite for more. Respectful of her danger, yet fearless enough to be a worthy master. I feed her, groom her, train her how to live appropriately in my home. I proved I could protect her, when Ming Tzu’s hounds followed her scent to my door.
I had concealed her in the water of my tub and sat on the side as though in the process of bathing. She struggled not to drown while Ming Tzu questioned me. I am grateful he nearly caught us, as what happened next perhaps changed my life as much as it gave her another chance at one. I dunked my head and breathed air into her mouth. When I rose up, my hair whipped about me free as the wind I secretly envied. My blood thrilled in conquest. Never had I felt such sensuality in deceit, such pride in demure illusion, such satisfaction in avenging the girl my former master bought and mistakenly believed was ever his.
“My Lord, I would never hide what is yours.”
“I expected more loyalty from you, when I arranged your marriage to Lao.”
“I was a courtesan. You sold me. You expected loyalty?”
“What a strange woman, Lao Ma. Soft and hard at the same time.”
“Like water. Nothing is soft as water – yet, who can withstand the raging flood?”
I stated this risking a hint of conceit, gazing as I was at the woman beneath the calm surface, fighting her impulse to breathe – mirroring that part of myself similarly submerged. I reveled in her presence there, anticipating the moment she rose gasping in air. All that time behind my husband’s shell. Fearing the day I could no longer pretend I acted on his will, when I would have to bare my own. How to maintain the selflessness to connect with the great mysteries, yet maintain peace and stability in a world ruled by force? I had finally seen the way. Xena. Together, water soft and raging.
We began with her greatest weakness and potential strength – the capacity to conquer herself. My methodology was a lesson in the arts I had used to conquer others. I showed her the practicality of patience and meditative powers, cognizant she might not have listened otherwise. Taught her the limitations of brute force, that something as innocent as her hair brooch could serve just as well.
“This is very beautiful. It could be a very useful weapon if thrown at the right body part.”
“You could kill somebody using a hair brooch?”
“If necessary. I don’t like to kill however.”
“Everyone has their preferences. I happen to like a good kill.”
I can imagine her smirk had she seen the advocate of self-denial a victim of my own “wisdom.” Confined to this cell for my service and sacrifice. Condemned for desiring a protégé to do my bidding, a son to fall. Entrusting my transcendence to the hard part of my soul I tried to suppress. Believing my softness avenged by the dark blood I dammed. My last hope secured in a spirit I could not tame. Written across the heart of a criminal who, like my comatose husband, did not appreciate she had a heart and may not yet recognize my prophecy of greatness as her own.
“You’ve been a dead woman for a long time now, Xena. I’m offering you the chance to live.” Tomorrow it is I who die. Today I am. Still. Clear. Found and lost in a mystery of my universe, released in an unsettled conclusion. Reflecting the confluence of opposing forces otherwise drowning in themselves. Enduring on the air of a promise. My will. My way. My Warrior Princess. In my mind, finally one. Illusion? Only she who would serve me can tell. Awaiting her breath already stirs me, returning the peace I lost languishing without her.
“There are people you meet who move in and out of your life like ghosts. And after they’re gone you find that they’ve left a part of themselves with you. It’s as if in some small way that their spirit helps define who you are or what you want to bring to the world.” -- Xena, about Lao Ma, in PURITY
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