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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Princess Timara cried out. The young Amazon looked down at her chest, to the growing crimson stain spreading across her pale-colored leathers. An arrow protruded from a spot just above her right breast. It's odd the things one thinks about in such situations. I remember thinking that from the position of the arrow, at least the wound would not be fatal. My only words had been to shout, "Weapon!"
That cry, in the middle of a Royal Banquet, was nearly enough to rouse the entire Empire's army. In an instant, less than the flicker of an eye, really, Atrius and the Royal Guard sprang into a posture of defense. As the entire incident took only moments, I was already moving to protect Gabrielle. Before I was halfway there, another arrow struck the young princess in the center of her chest. It all happened so quickly, not even her Amazon Guard had yet reached the young woman.
The force of the arrow strike flung her down across the table. Two more arrows in rapid succession embedded themselves deep into the wood of the table. It was with horror that I watched Gabrielle's next action. I was much too far away, especially with not knowing in which direction the attack was coming. Gabrielle quickly reached out and grabbed the young girl's body, pulling her to the ground. The sniper's arrows never stopped. They followed the two women all the way to the ground. Gabrielle threw her own slight figure across the fallen princess, and all I could do was watch as another arrow pierced the side of Gabrielle's body.
Torava, Gabrielle's personal guard deflected two more arrows with the metal of her blade, just as they would have surely found their mark in Gabrielle's back. Then as suddenly as the attack began, it ended. I could see the fire of torches as my men entered the copse of trees near the palace wall. Either the culprits had been caught or they had left as silently as they appeared.
My only concern was selfish. It was for the small blonde who risked her life for this Amazon stranger. Melosa and I knelt beside the two figures, fear etched deeply into the older Amazon's face.
"Gabrielle?!" I cried out to her unmoving figure. She stirred, but didn't completely lift herself up.
"Son of a Bacchae!" Torava hissed under her breath.
I followed the guard's line of sight to the arrow that appeared embedded in Gabrielle's side. I'm sure the soldier was cursing herself right now over her inability to stop all of the arrows.
Again, Gabrielle's body moved. "I'm all right, but the arrow has me pinned to the floor."
I reached in, running my hand along the shaft of the arrow. It had pierced Gabrielle's dress, and the vest she wore, but Athena was surely making up for the young woman's previous lack of protection. It had lightly grazed her skin, enough to draw an extremely thin line of blood, but nothing more. It was sunk deeply into the terrace floor, trapping Gabrielle's body along with it.
I ripped the arrow from the floor and pulled Gabrielle into my arms. I examined the arrow as I held her trembling figure against me. I recognized the markings along its shaft, and when I looked up again, Melosa's eyes met mine. There was a rage mixed with pain there that I hoped to never feel within myself. Her eyes dropped to the arrow in my hand, but she said nothing.
Melosa took her daughter into her own strong arms. The young princess was pale but still breathing. Kuros, who was attending the banquet, was there kneeling down along with us. He quickly examined the girl, but the girl's fate was obvious to even the untrained eye. A steady trickle of blood made its way from her mouth and nose, and her breaths were short and uneven. My best guess was that the first arrow pierced her lung, and the second, her heart. Kuros looked up at Melosa and the slight shake of his head told the Queen all she needed to know.
"I could try to remove the arrows if you desire," Kuros said quietly. "To make her more comfortable."
Melosa seemed to be thinking about it for a moment, but Timara raised her hand, as if waving the thought away.
"No, mother, it doesn't hurt." She coughed and more blood came from her mouth. "It doesn't really hurt at all," she finished.
Gabrielle moved from my embrace toward the young princess and used her own dress to wipe away the blood on the girl's face. Timara smiled weakly and grasped Gabrielle's hand within her own.
"Thank you," the Amazon said. "You risked your own life just for me. You are truly everything the people have said you were. I want you to have my right of caste."
"Timara, think about what you're doing." Melosa responded immediately.
"Mother, she did what only another Amazon would do. She did what only a sister would do."
Melosa looked up at Gabrielle, then over at me. My mind was reeling at the political implications this moment had, and I'm sure Melosa had the same thoughts in her own head. She was holding her dying daughter, but she was also a powerful Queen. I'm sure there wasn't a notion about this whole thing that had passed through my mind, that hadn't already occurred to her. She looked back down at Timara and tenderly stroked her face, nodding her head to concede to her daughter's wish.
"Will you take my right of caste, Gabrielle?" Timara practically whispered the words.
"I--I--" Gabrielle looked between Melosa and I.
"Handing her right of caste down to you entitles you to Timara's birthright, and all she possesses as an Amazon. You will take her place in the eyes of our people." Melosa explained without emotion.
"It's up to you, Gabrielle to accept or decline," I answered when her eyes met mine. Even I knew that this could change things, but to what extent, I had no way of knowing. "Simply know that it can't change things between us, and it is a great honor."
I watched as Timara squeezed Gabrielle's hand as a wave of pain must have come over her, and the small blonde looked on in anguish at the dying girl.
"I'm so sorry, Timara. I'm sorry I wasn't quicker." Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. "Yes, I will accept your right of caste."
Timara smiled and squeezed Gabrielle's hand once more. "Don't worry, mother, it hardly hurts at all." The young girl assured Melosa. I'd never seen the Queen cry before, but even I had tears in my eyes at the young girl's strength.
"Ssh, rest now." Melosa whispered, stroking her daughter's face. "Look for your Aunt Terreis when you reach the Land. She'll take care of you."
With those last words, Melosa commended her daughter's soul to the Amazon land of the dead. It was with a great deal of pain that we watched the young princess take her last breath, and die in her mother's arms.
Once the young princess was dead, Melosa became the Queen once more. She snapped up the arrow from the ground, and jumped to her feet. We all saw the telltale feathers and markings. It was a Centaur arrow, and I hoped to Athena that war was not going to begin within my own palace. Three of my Royal Guard stepped back, surrounding a confused Gabrielle.
Melosa tossed the broken arrow toward Kaleipus.
"This was not the work of a Centaur! We don't murder innocents." Kaleipus defended.
"You've done it before!" Melosa hissed back.
"Be reasonable, Melosa," the Centaur explained. "Why would we choose now, surrounded by a hundred Amazons, and in the midst of the Conqueror's army? Think about it. It doesn't make sense."
"Unless that's exactly what you want us to think! You killed my sister, and now, the despicable cowards that you are, killed my only child." Melosa took a step closer, her anger and grief outweighing her better judgment. "We should have wiped you out ages ago! I'll see that the roads to Amazonia run red with Centaur blood!"
"Don't push me, Amazon." Kaleipus was beginning to lose his sense of humor.
These are just the kinds of situations why no one is allowed to carry a weapon to a Royal Banquet. Different peoples, different beliefs, and old wounds that never healed. I was the only one carrying a weapon, besides my soldiers, but that offered me little comfort. Amazons and Centaurs turned loose upon one another, it wouldn't matter if they were armed or not.
"No one starts anything in my palace!"
I'd let them both vent, but I didn't want this escalating beyond what I could control. It was preposterous, the idea that Kaleipus would set up an attack when he was hopelessly outnumbered. The Centaur markings on the arrows looked incriminating, but even Melosa should be able to see that it was too easy. I realized just then that her grief was blinding her. Would I be any different, if it was Gabrielle lying on the floor of the terrace?
"Kaleipus keep your number camped on the East Ridge. They are not to leave Corinth, and under no circumstances are they to engage the Amazons. Melosa, take your daughter and return to your camp. You and your people will have your privacy while you mourn for Timara. You may take her ashes to Amazonia, but not until we straighten this out. Know this," I looked from the Centaur to the Amazon Queen. "I will get to the bottom of this, and I'll have no one declare war in my Empire."
Melosa stared all of us down, but it was Ephiny who cajoled her Queen into returning to their encampment. Melosa turned to Gabrielle, flanked as the small blonde was by her personal guard.
"Princess," Melosa bowed her head. Whether Gabrielle knew it or not, Melosa's actions where very important. She was officially recognizing Gabrielle as having taken Timara's right of caste. Without that official notice, anyone of Royal blood could challenge Timara's dying request.
"I'm so sorry," Gabrielle said softly.
Melosa knelt beside her daughter and looked up at me. "Hear me, Conqueror," she began. "If I find that the Centaurs are guilty of this crime against me and my Nation, it will be war."
In a show of strength that surprised me, Melosa lifted her daughter into her arms.
"Melosa," I responded. "Go and be with your people. Our hearts grieve just the same for your loss."
"Just the same, Conqueror?" She took one step toward me and I could see Atrius coiled beside me, watching the heartbroken woman with a wary eye. "You hold your only child, as they die in your arms, then you tell me if it feels the same."
"Come, My Queen." Ephiny quickly intervened before I had the chance to say more.
The warrior instructed two other women to take Timara's body from the Queen's arms. They led their Queen and slain princess from the palace. Ephiny lingered, walking out last. I saw something in her eyes, something that told me that perhaps she didn't subscribe to Melosa's philosophy about the Centaurs. Then again, perhaps it was only my imagination.
"Help her to try and see reason," I offered to Ephiny.
"I'll do what I can, Lord Conqueror." Ephiny returned just before she walked from the palace.
* * * * * * * * * *
"We searched the entire palace grounds, Lord Conqueror, this is all we were able to find." The Lieutenant placed two quivers, a longbow, and a crossbow upon the table before me. "They were under the trees, the olive grove directly in the line of site of the outdoor portico. I have 3 squads of men searching the woods outside the palace walls for any signs of the snipers."
"Good work, Berio." Atrius answered for me, dismissing the officer.
It felt like candlemarks had gone by, when in reality, only moments had past. My soldiers were nothing, if not efficient. They already had the evidence in their possession.
"You know as well as I that a Centaur didn't commit this crime." Kaleipus's voice was the first to refute the physical evidence.
"I only know what I see before me, and it certainly doesn't look good," I answered.
"A Centaur would never be so obvious as to leave all his weapons there, in plain sight!" Kaleipus raged. "It's obvious they were planted to make it look like one of us did it. Open your eyes, Xena."
"I do have my eyes open, my friend. Yes, it is quite obviously a ruse, but by whom? I agree that it looks as though the items were planted there to cast suspicion your way, but on the other hand, if it were me, I might think it a perfect plan. If I were to leave such obvious clues, everyone would think they had been planted, and I would be getting away with, quite literally, murder."
I turned toward my Captain. "Atrius, see that Gabrielle is taken to our rooms and guards placed inside, as well as outside."
Gabrielle's small cry was fairly muffled by the ring of soldiers already taking her welfare quite seriously. Suddenly every eye in the room turned, first, to me, then to Gabrielle. I'm sure it had been many, many seasons since anyone had said no to me in this palace, if anyone ever had. All eyes focused on me. Seeing me do nothing about the young woman's seeming insolence, all heads then turned and concentrated on Gabrielle. She appeared suddenly nervous. The expression on her face told me she just realized what she'd said to me in front of my soldiers, and our guests.
"I--I--mean…" she pushed one of the young soldiers aside to come stand before me. "My Lord, I. . . I don't want to be apart from you." Gabrielle said in a low voice.
I smiled then. I'm not sure why, but Gabrielle's concern had a way of touching me in such a fashion.
"Gabrielle," I touched her cheek. I drew her to me, not caring whether I received stares, or if my soldiers thought less of me. I took her face in both my hands, looking into her eyes. "Gabrielle, what I need to do, I can do better if I don't have to worry for you. Please, do as I say, just this once, eh?"
She wore an expression of sad resignation, but nodded her head all the same.
"You promise to take care, Conqueror." She whispered to me. My smile grew larger at the remark that was part admonition, part taunt.
"I promise, little one," I answered, kissing her on the forehead. "No one will best me today."
* * * * * * * * * *
"You know that Kaleipus, or any Centaur for that matter, couldn't have assassinated that girl in cold blood like that." Solan defended his adopted family.
"I only know what I see, Solan. I want to examine the area where these were found for myself. Then, and only then, will I make a judgment."
"Then I'm going with," my son answered.
"Aye, I'll go as well," Kaleipus answered.
"Look--" I started, before hearing the husky voice behind me.
"Well, I suppose it's only fair that the Amazon's interests be represented as well, then." Ephiny hopped over the low patio wall to join us.
She hadn't been there the whole time, I would have heard her if she had. Besides, she now wore an Amazon short blade on her hip, so I knew she'd gone back to her tent first. I briefly wondered at my sanity, going out into the forest with a couple of very irate, sworn enemies, but once again, Ephiny seemed almost hospitable toward the Centaur who now stood beside her. She lost points with me, though when she turned to Gabrielle.
"Princess." She acknowledged. The Amazon practically spat the word in Gabrielle's direction.
"Keep some civility about you Amazon," I growled, "and remember who it is you're speaking to."
She seemed to come to her senses, and the expression on her face changed, softening a bit. "Your Highness." She added in a more even tone.
"Please, Ephiny, won't you call me Gabrielle?"
That seemed to throw the Amazon off her stride a bit. She opened her mouth to speak, then, appearing nonplussed, changed her mind, and held her tongue. I wanted to laugh aloud, and I would have, had the situation been less severe. Gabrielle had a way of taming the beast in many a hard heart; I'd seen it happen repeatedly. Could one Amazon warrior possibly hold up under the onslaught from my small consort? We would see.
I kissed Gabrielle once more and watched as the six soldiers who escorted her to our private rooms swallowed her from my sight. I had to have words with Atrius, however, when he realized just what I had planned.
"Lord Conqueror, it seems risky and foolish to go into the woods without a squad of men to watch your back." Atrius chided.
"That, my dear Captain, is why I have you," I answered glibly. "Atrius, I understand your reservations, but a whole troop of soldiers tramping around out there, we'll be lucky if they haven't already destroyed some important bits of evidence. It's important that we go this alone."
"Aye, Conqueror." Atrius answered, and then glanced around at the faces in our small party. I could see he didn't hold much trust in our unholy group.
"Let's go, then." I spoke up, and made my way down the palace steps.
* * * * * * * * * *
I had been sitting in the dark for quite some time. In fact, it was nearly dawn. It was my favorite chair, in front of my favorite window, at my favorite time of the day. The view looked down into the rose garden, and out across the rooftops in the village that lay just within the palace gates. I was feeling a bit lonely, and I suppose I could have simply gone in and awakened Gabrielle, but I was so tired, and just then, it seemed like such an effort.
We had found more than I thought we would last night. In a way, more than I wanted us to find. My soldiers had done a better job than I earlier gave them credit for. They had cordoned off the area they suspected the snipers had shot from. Beyond searching the area, however, there was little more they could do. What few clues we did find, did not serve our Centaur friends well. The weapons we already had, of course.
The grove of olive trees was set atop the bit of land that sloped upward. The trees stopped at the palace wall, but continued on the other side. The area was thick and overgrown, yet had recently been trampled. Technically speaking, a man on horseback might have made the sparse tracks we found. I knew better than that, though. We were having a dry spell, common during the end of the growing season. The soil under our feet was hard as stone. For the hoof print we saw to have been that visible, the horse would have had to have been a massive beast. No, it was surely a Centaur's print, scuffed into the dirt. I remember the look on Ephiny's face, at Kaleipus's dry comment, as the Amazon knelt down to examine the marks.
"It doesn't much look good for us, does it, Amazon?"
"No, it certainly doesn't."
The Amazon's expression struck me as considerably odd. Ephiny bore none of the animosity with which her sisters enjoyed expressing toward the Centaurs. She almost looked as if it pained her as much as Kaleipus. I wondered what Ephiny knew that caused her to act so differently toward the Centaurs than the rest of her people.
I had the worst feeling that this whole situation wasn't going to end well. Melosa was already acting like a gourd full of black powder about to blow. Timara's body would be put to the flames this evening, and then Melosa's mourning period would end. At that time, the Queen would be free to exact her revenge. Once Ephiny told her Queen of the evidence we found, I knew it would take no time at all before Melosa started a war. Could I blame her? Would I react any differently? Grief takes its toll on the psyche, and Melosa had been through more than her fair share of loss throughout the seasons.
I thought of Gabrielle and the inequity of the situation. We were to be married in a matter of days. It wasn't fair the day that should be the happiest of her life be marred by this tragedy, not only the death of young Timara, but a war, and on our own doorstep.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the cool outside air that blew in from the window. As often happens when I think of Gabrielle, I can hear her voice inside of my heart, calling to me. Only this time, when I opened my eyes, she was there, softly calling my name.
"Xena?" She whispered again.
I smiled up at her and she settled herself upon my lap, my arms immediately wrapping around her slight figure. I wasn't completely certain who was comforting whom, but I do know it felt rather good.
"I could hear your deep thoughts all the way into the bedroom, my love." Gabrielle laid her head on my shoulder, touching her lips lightly to the exposed skin on my neck. "It didn't go well, did it?"
I shook my head and explained the events of the evening to her.
"All that seems a bit too easy, doesn't it? I mean, if one of Kaleipus's men did it, even on orders, he wouldn't be foolish enough to leave so many clues that could be traced back to him. Would he?" Gabrielle asked.
"You see that, little one, along with me, the Centaurs, and even Ephiny. Melosa just lost her only child. Somehow, I don't think she's going to be in the mood to listen to reason."
"But, Timara wasn't her only child," Gabrielle added.
"What do you mean? Where did you hear that?"
"Two of the Amazons came back to see me after you left this evening--"
"Xena, it's all right. Torava and Sentius were both guarding me. As a matter of fact, I could barely see past them they had such a human wall around me."
I chuckled at the vision in my head, but still it worried me. "It's just that those Amazons--"
"Could have been assassins, I know, Xena. I'm not a fool, my love, I tried to take precautions."
"Forgive me, little one. I'm only thinking of you." I smiled at my own embarrassment, and my constant underestimation of this woman before me. "Sometimes I forget that you're a competent woman, and not a young girl who needs my constant protection."
"You are forgiven," she smiled sweetly. "But only because I love you so much."
"So, what did these Amazons want?"
"They came with instructions from a woman named Langris. They said she was the High Priestess in the Amazonian Temple of Artemis. Doesn't that sound odd, Xena? That a Priestess would travel with a delegation of Amazons, so far from home?"
"Odd is exactly the word I would use." What kind of Amazon delegation travels with their Queen, princess, and Artemis's Priestess in one band? It didn't seem smart, especially for Melosa. "What kind of instructions did she give you?" I asked.
"About my part in accepting Timara's right of caste.
Some of the things they said, Xena, do you know these women expect me to live
with them in the Amazon Territory?"
"Sorry to override them, but that won't be happening any time soon," I added.
"Good," Gabrielle smiled at me. "I was a little worried there for a moment. They told me some very interesting traditions about accepting the right of caste. Basically, I'm an Amazon. From the moment Timara died, I inherited everything that she possessed, and all that her blood entitled her to."
"That does sound about right. I'm sorry, love, but there wasn't enough time to explain it to you. Gabrielle, you've been given a great honor. These women don't give up their right of caste to anyone but sister Amazons. For someone of Royal blood to do so, well, it's practically unheard of. I believe Timara saw what I've always seen in you."
Gabrielle blushed and lowered her head in that endearing way she had. I couldn't help but smile.
"That's the only reason I accepted, Xena. That young woman lost her life-- no, someone took her life from her. She had so much to look forward to, so many things she had planned. She told me so much about the life she wanted for herself and her people. She told me that she had a girlfriend back in the Amazon village. I guess I just thought that to decline her gift would not only be an insult, but it would negate the dreams she had. It was as though if I keep going, Timara's spirit can still experience some of the future. Does that make any sense at all?" Gabrielle asked, brushing the hair from her face.
Gods, could Athena have been any kinder to me? To bring a woman like this into my life was more than I deserved. "Yes, love, it makes perfect sense. Even though you won't be living there, it's still a big responsibility you're taking on. Are you sure you're ready for it?"
"I think so. Will it disturb you, Xena? Do anything that might embarrass you as ruler of the Empire?" Gabrielle asked; her brow furrowed in concern.
"I can always find problems with a situation if I think about it long enough, but there's certainly nothing that would embarrass me. It will probably be a feather in my cap," I grinned in her direction. "I can just hear the tavern bards now, detailing the stormy relationship between the Conqueror and her Amazon bride." I laughed aloud, and Gabrielle seemed unable to keep from laughing right along with me.
"Gabrielle," I began seriously. "If it's your wish to see this through, then I'll be behind you in your decision."
"Even if it conflicts with your wishes and desires?" she asked me in earnest.
"Even then. Because I love you, and because your wishes are my hopes. It's as simple as that, little one. Now tell me about this other daughter of Melosa's."
"Who? Oh, yes. Well, they said she was Melosa's daughter, but not her blood child. I couldn't seem to find out any more without appearing nosy. Do you know what it means?"
I thought about the statement for a moment. It wasn't unusual for Royalty to adopt a protégé, especially when they had no heir. What I couldn't understand was why Melosa would adopt an heir when she already had one. Unless the Queen had performed the adoption before Timara was born.
"Did the women say anything about how old this daughter was?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact, they said she was at least twice as old as Timara was. Funny thing about that, Xena…" Gabrielle hesitated.
"Funny in what way?"
"Well, the two women didn't seem to care much for this other daughter. Supposedly, she was expected to be there when we first greeted the delegation. They hinted around that Mother and daughter had words, and the daughter stalked off. It didn't seem like anything out of the ordinary to the two Amazons who spoke to me."
I wondered at Gabrielle's amazing abilities. I remember trying to interrogate captured Amazons. We starved them, tortured them, and deprived them of everything but the most meager necessities of life to get them to talk. I never had a one even give me the time of day. Gabrielle on the other hand . . .
"Gabrielle, how long were those women here?"
"I'm not certain, perhaps a candlemark? Is it important?" Gabrielle asked.
I could do no more than smile. "No, little one, it's not important. I was just thinking about something that happened a long time ago." I finally allowed myself a chuckle.
"So," I began again. "I don't suppose you got one of your new sisters to give you this elusive daughter's name, did you?" I asked, continuing to grin.
"Well, Conqueror," Gabrielle teased. "It just so happens that I did. I remembered it, especially since I'd never heard a name like it used before.
Her name is Velasca."
To Be Continued in...Chapter 16: Beseiged And Taken, Fair Courageous Queen