Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.
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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Chapter 3: To Be A Lion Both In Word And Deed
Gabrielle was nervous and it was apparent in the anxious smile she offered me from across the table. It had been ages since the long wooden banquet table or the festively decorated room it sat in had seen such an occasion. Delia outdid herself in preparing the sumptuous feast. I was rather impressed that she had arranged for more than the roasted lambs and peacocks. There was also a massive selection of grain and vegetable dishes, obviously prepared knowing that Solan, being an ambassador to the Centaur Nation, was a vegetarian. I didn't know for a fact if he was or not, but having been raised by them, I would assume it to be so. I was even able to entice Delia into joining us for dinner.
I leaned back in my chair, took another drink of port, and bestowed a smile to my lover. I watched as some of the tension left her features. Gabrielle was trying very hard for my sake to be something she wasn't accustomed to being, but no more than I was on this evening. Rather ironic, I think to myself, Xena the Conqueror attempting to be charming. I look up again to find emerald green eyes glancing my way with a sparkle of amusement. Gods, how does she know what I'm thinking? All right, I admit to myself under Gabrielle's reproachful scrutiny, perhaps not charming. Let's say civil, but even that is a major step for me.
We were a rather eclectic group, sitting around the long table that was easily sixty hands in length. I wanted Gabrielle placed closer to me, but Delia, who arranged the seating as well as the menu, said it would make my future Queen appear weak. I saw the truth in Delia's words, but that didn't mean I had to enjoy it as well. Delia was always there, however, for me as well as Gabrielle. The older woman made it clear, that like it or not, Gabrielle needed to convince the people that she was no longer a slave. It didn't matter that the young woman had been born a free citizen, kidnapped, and illegally enslaved for half of her life. The only thing that the people would see at first would be a young girl who was once the Conqueror's body slave. Delia smiled when she told me that it would be up to Gabrielle to prove them wrong. I think she smiled because somehow, I believe she and I both knew that Gabrielle could to it.
Therefore, I trusted in Delia's word that she would orchestrate the seating, at the reception in Solan's honor, to show Gabrielle in her best light. I fretted more over the young woman than I suppose was necessary, especially since Gabrielle's disarming manner, considerable intelligence, and quick wit caused those around her to become quickly enamored of her. She was quiet, as was her habit, but when she spoke it was always after having taken the time to think about her words. She smiled a great deal, and was taking my advice regarding looking people square in the eye. It helped considerably that Delia surrounded Gabrielle with those we already considered friends. Besides Delia herself, I asked the Captain of my Guard, Atrius and his betrothed, Anya. My advisors, some of who had wives, but mostly a bunch of confirmed bachelors. The rest of the guests were either political figures of the village or friends of the Court.
Antillius, the youngest advisor on my staff seemed quite taken with Gabrielle. After some time of watching him, I felt myself shift uncomfortably in my chair. A feeling passed through me, rather quickly, but it loitered long enough for me to recognize it as jealousy. In the past, I had a reputation for becoming jealous of my possessions, which included women. The jealousy often turned to rage, which usually led to violence. I was fond of Antillius, as his father was a trusted advisor before his son came to my court, but seeing the way he hung on Gabrielle's every word like a puppy dog caused a tightening in my belly. I remembered some of my more violent outbursts and the men who had died or been maimed by my hand, all because of my suspicions where my lovers were concerned. The air around me became heavy and I felt the beast within me searching for a path to freedom. I swallowed and closed my eyes for a moment, willing the past to disappear from before my mind's eye, attempting to push the monster that was my temper back down.
I had no idea how long I'd been sitting there that way before I felt the gentle touch of a hand wrap around my upper arm. I opened my eyes with a start to see Gabrielle standing beside my chair. Her smiling face and easy manner belied the look of concern radiating from her verdant gaze. She must have crossed to the serving table because she had a fresh flagon of wine in her hands.
"More wine, My Lord?" she asked.
I quickly turned my face away, unwilling for her to see the darkness I was sure my eyes would reveal. I could feel it persisting, just below the surface.
I felt soft fingers pull my chin back then I felt silky lips on my cheek, all this as Gabrielle poured more wine into the goblet, which sat on the table in front of me. It took no more than that gentle, caring action to push the beast back down, my unreasonable ire swiftly melting away. I couldn't help but smile at the sudden reaction to Gabrielle's actions. I took the flagon from her hand and slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her to me just slightly. The conversation around us never dwindled, but I could tell that the two of us were being watched.
"I was going by My Lord's seat, on my way to freshen up, when I noticed someone had been lax in filling your cup." Gabrielle explained in a clear voice so those around us would hear.
I hoped that my expression was conveying all the love and gratitude I felt at that moment for this small woman. She was no longer my body slave and yet her complete concern appeared focused on me, for me. I had a strange feeling that this woman might just save me from myself.
I smiled at her again, squeezing her hand tenderly. "It's okay. I'm all right now," I reassured her.
Gabrielle leaned down and took me completely by surprise. Expressing my devotion for my future Queen was one thing, but public displays of affection were something that I had not experienced in many seasons. Gabrielle's lips pressed softly against my own and at that moment I realized that there was a difference between the affectionate pose Gabrielle and I were now sharing and the shameful exhibitions that I took part in as a younger woman. I was surprised and instantly aroused at her boldness. The best part was that there was nothing shameful about our actions. We were two people in love, and for one of the first times in my life, I thought it acceptable for the people to see the Conqueror in such a way.
I watched with an amused grin as she pulled away from me and made her way from the banquet room. When I turned my eyes back toward the table I ran directly into Solan's angry glare. It momentarily shocked me to see the vehement stare coming from my son, but by the time I blinked my eyes, he returned his attentions to a conversation with Terillus, one of my senior advisors. I literally shook my head wondering if I hadn't imagined the entire exchange. Solan turned back toward me once more, but this time his gaze was merely impassive and somewhat glassy from the amount of alcohol he consumed. A faint sensation of trepidation ran through me as I thought about the look, which I could have possibly imagined. I wondered what could cause Solan to look at me that way, unaware as he was, as to my true identity. I discounted any subterfuge as paranoia on my part and turned to listen to the musicians, and the rather amusing anecdotes the village constable was relating.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
She graciously gives up the Quill to me as I think it is important to interject at this point in her story. It's true, I have kept my own set of journals, since almost the very first day I met Xena. I feel that if her histories are to be complete and accurate then adding these additional parchments will explain more of the events that happened at the time.
I do this to her occasionally. I go back and pull a scroll from its case, reliving as it were the experiences that have shaped our lives. When I encounter an area that I think bears more in-depth explanation, I begin my side of the story on a separate parchment. Then, Xena seals the ends of the two scrolls together with a bit of warm wax and the large ring bearing her crest.
The ring is too large and heavy for me to wear and even Xena wears it only when traveling or on official business. I remember the time she put it on my hand, thinking that her own death was near but I suppose that is a story for another time.
She interrupts me with the drumming of her fingers upon the wooden desk. I am suddenly contrite because I know she has the uncanny ability to read upside down and has been reading what I've been writing. She asks if she should simply let me finish all of her tales, telling me that the reader will not have arrived at that part in this story yet and if I talk of the ring that I shall be giving it all away. I can't help but smile; she can be such a petulant child at times; pout and all. Another impatient gesture and I know I need to continue. My beautiful Lord suffers me my impertinences, but even her control has its limitations.
These are my recollections of the events surrounding the evening of Solan's reception. I know that should I be accused of bearing false witness, my personal Guard, Commander Atrius, will swear to the truth of my testament.
I saw the darkness fill her eyes and was scarcely prepared for it. One moment she was sipping her port and reassuring me with her beautiful smile. The next moment, I looked up and just like a sudden summer storm, the light disappeared and the monster that she refers to as the beast tried to make its way past her defenses. I quickly followed the line of her sight hoping to intervene in the unfortunate soul's behalf that had unwittingly sparked Xena's ire. My breath caught when I realized that she was looking at me, but not only me; her gaze kept flickering between Antillius and me.
I know that Xena has changed much from her former self, but the fear I felt as she leveled that pained gaze in my direction reminded me of that evening when the woman known only as the Conqueror, stood before me choosing me as her own. When she closed her eyes, I understood that this would not be the last time that I would have to challenge this alternate side of her personality. I took a deep breath and moved toward the woman I loved.
* * * * * * * * * *
After splashing my face with cool water from the marble basin, I stood and examined my reflection in the looking glass. I smiled at the image looking back at me. I was happy and confident, the latter being something that I felt a little more of each day. On this night, I turned the tables on the demon that resided within my lover. I fought the beast, not with a blade, but with compassion and love. It seemed so natural to reach out to Xena in that way. She goes about pretending that she has no emotions, that she is heartless, when it couldn't be farther from the truth.
To hear her tell it, she has no heart and never has. On the contrary, I believe she feels too much. I think she feels so many things, and being incapable of expressing all these emotions, she strikes out. Her rage and her anger are very real indeed. I've been on the receiving end of the physical side of Xena's temper. It may seem odd to some, but I have always understood her inability to express this side of herself. Someday perhaps I will be able to impress upon her that there are few times when I feel I must absolutely hear her say the words. Her eyes, in her eyes I always see the truth that is written upon her heart. In those eyes, I can actually hear the words that she truly believes; yet, her voice cannot utter.
I feel better, more refreshed, if only for the fact that I was able to escape the attentions of all the eyes that had been trained on me all evening, questioning, waiting for me to make a mistake. Xena and Delia both explained that this would be the case. Xena looked uncomfortable at having to put me in such a position and on this night, I feel confident that if I asked her to give up her Empire to keep me from having to take on a Queen's life, Xena would seriously consider doing so. I chuckle silently to myself. Tomorrow, of course, I will feel differently. Tomorrow I will again be Gabrielle and the fears and insecurities that have been ingrained in me for the last ten seasons will be apart of me once again. Tonight, however, I am floating along confidently. It is a feeling much like the mood I have seen Opium produce in some of the men who owned me in the past. It was a euphoric feeling that gave them a certain amount of confidence, which in reality they didn't truly possess. My own musings were perhaps the reason why I was taken unaware while walking down the darkened corridor back to the banquet hall.
"If it isn't Lady, Gabrielle."
Solan stood there, leaning against the stone wall, I was sure so as to assist him in standing. He'd consumed a great deal of wine, but that wasn't the reason for his temperament. I stopped and stood there, arching an eyebrow in his direction. I was not about to bow my head for this boy. Even in the way he said my name, I could hear the mocking intonation. It's true that Xena leaves much to be desired in the way of social skills, but I do believe that if she had raised the boy, he would not have turned into such a spoiled brat. He was a season or two older than I was, but his manner was so much that of an ill-tempered child that I simply couldn't think of him as a young man.
He made me angry and peevish, but when I glimpsed the look in his eye, I felt fearful. Surely, he was aware that an action like this could cost him his life. I had no doubt that given Xena's possessive nature, should Solan harm me in some way, he would pay mightily for his actions. Perhaps it was what he wanted. Could he be arrogant enough, foolish enough to even consider besting Xena in a Challenge? I watched as he approached me and I realized that neither of the above applied. Solan was merely so drunk that his better judgment had left him completely.
"So, the Conqueror's whore oh, excuse me, I mean, betrothed," he grinned.
He held an arm out to the wall in order steady himself. He was close enough for me to smell the alcohol that clung to his skin and clothes. I shook off the visions from my past that the smell induced. I'd been in this position too many times before, drunken men who felt powerful by taking the one thing that a woman called her own.
Solan reached for me and I easily slapped his hands away. I thought of the approval, permission, even command that Xena gave me at one time to protect myself from another's touch. When he reached out again, one hand grabbed me tightly around one arm, his other hand roughly grasping at my breast, I slapped him hard enough to cause him to release his hold on me, backing up a step. He looked shocked for a moment, but then he grinned, and a smile like that usually meant that he was used to his women putting up a fight. That thought frightened me.
"Solan, think about what you're doing," I attempted to reason with him.
"Oh, I have thought about it," he leered. "I heard you were the best and by the sounds I heard when I passed by the Conqueror's rooms last night, I'll wager that's true."
He lunged toward me suddenly, moving so quickly that I didn't have time to defend myself. One moment he appeared barely able to stand, and then the next moment he caught me in his strong grasp, one that I had foolishly considered him too inebriated to muster. I thought at that moment, that one good scream would bring Xena. I was not that far from the banquet hall and I believe I amazed myself, considering that course of action was the first thing to pop into my brain. In the past, fear, anger, and anxiety all combined to freeze me into place and merely accept my fate as one of the weaker ones in life that the strong had their way with.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs for the sound that would never come. I felt my body pushed forward even as I felt Solan's body jerked backward. I turned quickly, fully expecting to see Xena as my savior. Feeling my sudden freedom, I instantly thought that perhaps I should restrain Xena from an action she might regret later. As much as I detested Solan, he was my lover's son. I turned just in time to see a very large fist connect with the side of Solan's head. He crumpled to the floor after the one punch to the temple and I was rather shocked to come face to face with Atrius, the Captain of Xena's troops.
"Are you all right?" he asked and I nodded my head.
Atrius touched my shoulder with a gentle hand and the action moved me. For a warrior, he was an incredibly sensitive man. The woman Atrius was to marry was Anya, my best friend. She often confided in me, telling me the stories of horror and anguish that Atrius had seen over the years, as a warrior at the Conqueror's side. Anya said that despair could change a man. She was happy that it changed hers for the better.
Now I looked up into the kind eyes of the man who acted so much as I imagined my own father or even a brother would.
"Well, Centaur boy here won't be grabbing anymore young women after the Conqueror gets through with him!" he hissed.
"You can't tell Xena!" I exclaimed.
I recognized the sound of fear in my own voice, just as I am sure Atrius did. He looked at me for a moment before speaking again.
"Has this boy put a spell on you, Gabrielle? Do you know, do you have any idea what the Conqueror will do to the both of us if she finds outs what happened here, and we don't tell her about it?"
"I intend to tell her, Atrius. I swear, but in the morning. You and I both know what she's like after an evening's worth of port in her belly. You know her temper better than I do, and I fear she may kill Solan if we tell her tonight. However, in the morning she may offer some leniency."
"If you think she's got the disposition of a harpy when she's drinking, then just wait till the morning when she's nursing an aching head," Atrius said, almost as if to himself. He turned to look at the fallen boy, crumpled in the corner, surprising me with his next question. "Gabrielle, is there any reason I should fear a tryst between you and this boy?"
"Certainly not!" I answered with as much indignation as I could muster.
"There is something, though, isn't there? Something more you're not telling me?"
I didn't want to lie to the man who had protected me from harm countless times since we'd known one another, but I refused to betray Xena's confidence by revealing the true nature of her relationship to Solan. I looked up, directly into his eyes. "Yes, there is, but please, don't ask me for the answer because I can't give it to you."
"And you would be protecting the Conqueror with this secret?"
I nodded again. Atrius looked at Solan and then back at me, and suddenly I wondered if he knew, if after all the seasons he rode with Xena, if he ever suspected.
"But, you'll tell her in the morning?" he asked, appearing unsure.
"Well, you've kept more than one secret for Anya and myself. I suppose we can keep one for you, especially if it is only 'till morning."
"Guard!" Atrius yelled out, but not so loud as to draw the attention of the soldiers standing in front of the entrance to the banquet hall.
I realized then, rather foolishly, I might add, that there were guards all about this first floor of the palace. A good shout would have brought dozens of them to my aid. I looked on as the Captain directed a young man to get someone to help him, then to deposit the unconscious Solan safely in his quarters.
"Where is your lieutenant?" Atrius growled at the second young soldier who came along to assist his comrade.
"He's uhm, he's in the foyer around the corner from the banquet hall, C-Captain," he stammered. The young man's gaze flickered between Atrius and myself and I thought it obvious he was nervous about more than the fact that the Captain of the troops was standing before him.
"Please come with me, Lady," Atrius said before turning and walking briskly in the direction the soldier indicated.
I wasn't completely aware of the storm that seemed to be brewing behind the Captain's demeanor. Although he was his usual courteous self to me, I could tell by the way he clenched his jaw that he was angry at something. Perhaps a few seasons down the road I may have had the confidence to stop and demand to know what this was about and where we were going, but it has not been too long since I led the life of a slave. I followed the older man dutifully along the dim corridor, walking rather quickly to keep up with his long strides.
We rounded a corner, just past the banquet hall, to a torch lit foyer. A group of soldiers, some kneeling down on the stone floor, were laughing, and joking. One man was preparing to toss a set of dice from the leather cup in his hand when he raised his head and glanced up at the two of us. His mouth hung open and when the others in the group turned to look in our direction, all sound and motion stopped.
"Who's in charge here?!"
"I am, Captain. Lieutenant Geras, sir."
I watched as the soldier, certainly not much older than me, straightened himself up and grasped the hilt of his own sword in salute to the older man. Atrius may have been twice the young soldier's age, but he was certainly quick. He reached out, grabbing the Lieutenant by the neck, and dragging him closer to where I stood.
"Do you know who this is?" Atrius forced the young man to look in my direction.
"Y-Yes, Captain. She's the Conqueror's "
He paused then, appearing unsure as to what to say. It struck me just then that it would be a long while, if ever, before the people here would look at me as more than the Conqueror's slave. The officer was no line soldier, however. He achieved the rank of a Lieutenant in the Conqueror's Army with skill and education. He swallowed hard a couple of times and regrouped.
"She is the Lord Conqueror's lady," he answered.
"That's right," Atrius hissed, loosening his hold on the soldier's tunic. "She is Lady Gabrielle to you. Now, my question is what is the future Queen of the Greek Empire doing in the halls without an escort?"
"I--well, I--" The young man continued to stammer looking up into Atrius' unforgiving gaze. "I saw her leave, but--I--"
Finally, the young soldier straightened himself and stood at attention. It was apparent from his expression that he saw me leave the hall, but had seen me come and go through the castle many times before. All of the soldiers knew me, who I was, and who I belonged to. I didn't feel any enmity from the young officer, only a certain lack of awareness on his part.
"It was my fault, Captain. I accept any punishment you see fit for this dereliction on my part."
I was impressed, as I am sure Atrius was. He left the Lieutenant standing there, moving in on the other men. He snatched the dice cup and tossed it away, cursing them out for leaving their posts when the Conqueror was attending a function. He impressed upon them, in the most colorful language, that a few seasons ago the Conqueror would have had them beheaded for such a thing. By the time he was through berating them, their knees were shaking as hard as their hands. They scrambled off, returning to their posts, leaving only their Lieutenant still standing at attention.
"You can escort the Lady back to the party, and if the Conqueror wants to know what kept the Lady, you be sure and tell her just what happened."
Again, the young officer swallowed down the lump that had formed in his throat. Taking a moment to fasten the topmost button on his tunic, he held out a somewhat shaky arm to me. Atrius kept pace a few strides behind us and I caught the young man's eye as it continually attempted to ascertain whether the Captain was indeed still behind us. I patted the officer's arm and smiled up at him.
"What did you say your name was?"
"Geras, my Lady."
"Geras, don't fret too much. While it's true, the Captain's bite is every bit as harsh as his bark, he rarely uses either unless called for." I hoped my smile and my words would put the young man at ease. His nervous smile told me I had achieved my goal.
Walking into the banquet hall, Geras escorted me directly to Xena's side. Blue eyes looked up questioningly as Atrius walked in behind us and took his chair beside Anya. Xena reached for me hand, but I could see the uncertainty in her gaze.
"I see someone found you," Xena commented. "I thought perhaps the party had come to be too much for you. What happened?"
The officer looked at Atrius, who glared right back at him. The Lieutenant opened his mouth to speak, but I jumped right in.
"My Lord, this is Lieutenant Geras. He was kind enough to escort me back to the hall."
Xena smiled just then and pulled me to her until I was sitting on her knee. A very uncharacteristic move for her in front of so many.
"Good man, Geras," she commended the officer. I noticed Geras made quick business about leaving the banquet hall after that.
Most of the guests were laughing and talking, paying no attention to the two of us. I suppose that was why Xena reached over and kissed me as she did.
"You were gone for some time I was worried about you," she admitted the latter with a concern that was unexpected. "But you look pretty," she noticed the fresh blouse I wore. "And you smell nice," she whispered, nuzzling my neck. It felt wonderful and I was hesitant to stop her actions, but I also knew that if she was acting this amorous in public, it meant that she'd consumed more than her share of port this evening.
"You even taste good," she whispered against the skin of my neck. "Do you taste this good everywhere?"
I laughed lightly, rather enjoying the antics of a romantic, somewhat inebriated Conqueror. For an instant, the thought of Solan flashed across my mind, and I remembered what I would have to tell Xena in the morning. Perhaps if I could entice her away to bed at a reasonable hour, she wouldn't suffer from too heavy a head in the morning.
I leaned closer until my lips gently brushed across Xena's ear. I let the tip of my tongue reach out and quickly skim the flesh, enjoying the resulting shiver the action brought about. "Absolutely everywhere," I whispered back. "And I'm anxious for you to taste every bit."
The throaty, sensuous chuckle that I was rewarded with pushed all thoughts of Solan from my mind. We had to thank each of our guests in turn, but it took no time at all for us to offer our appreciation to our friends as well as Delia. We were the first to leave the banquet, and I'm sure I heard a few teasing responses about that fact, but this time the jokes were meant to tease two lovers, not to hurt. We left and walked to our rooms. In the dimly lit corridor before our door, Xena turned to me and said the words that I believe I will cherish forever.
"You have made me very proud tonight, Gabrielle."
To be continued in Chapter : "Chapter 4: For Mercy Is A Greater Thing Than Right"