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 5: A Lion Fighting-Mad With Rage
If I had to point out one thing about myself that has changed the most, as I have grown older, it is that facing the morning is so much more difficult now. In days past, I could have gone on a three-day binge, drinking, whoring, and satisfying my more hedonistic nature. When I would awake, after the three days were over, I wouldn't have a thought about what I done. I would no more have thought about repercussions to my actions than I would have asked a slave to share in my wealth. Oh, the things that change, once you develop a conscience.
The sky was just entering its pre-dawn, gray stage when my eyes, feeling gritty and dry, blinked open. I was not one of those to awake incoherently, needing to shake off the last vestiges of Morpheus's spell before I could think. The moment I opened my eyes, I was alert. Whether it was something I inherited from my parent's blood or some gift the Gods blessed me with, along with my other attributes and skills, I do not know. I simply know that the moment I opened my eyes, I was assailed by guilt over my actions last night. Even more, I was damned angry, secretly plotting the ways I would make young Solan pay for his attack on Gabrielle.
The warm body I held rather tightly against me caused me to become aware of my actions of the previous evening, but the smile on Gabrielle's face, even as she slept, reminded me also of the happiness that came to me last evening. I was in love, and I loved. The thought brought a ridiculous grin to my face. I switched emotions quickly, my anger dissolving. I felt that I had been in love with Gabrielle from the very first. Well, after I figured out what love was. Her manner, heart, and beauty; the better question might have been, how could one not have fallen in love with her? Something changed last night, however. I was unsure as to whether it was Gabrielle or myself who had been transformed, but an intelligent guess said that it was, perhaps, a little of both of us.
Gabrielle stood up to, not only my physical self, but also the entity, the darkness, within me. She was willing to suffer pain, even death, so that I might not lose myself. I remember thinking in the banquet hall that Gabrielle might be the one, the one to save me from myself. Truer words were never uttered. Last night, if I had gone through with my course of action, I surely would have killed Solan. I'm not sure if I could live with the death of one more of my family hanging over me, especially a killing that I would have committed with my own hands. The young man with no regard for others had no idea how close he came to meeting Hades in person.
I know for a fact that part of the change is from within me. I had been able to tell Gabrielle I loved her, showed her, even given up much of my infamous control. I'd never had the thought that I couldn't live without someone, though. I remember looking into Gabrielle's eyes last evening, just before she made love to me. I knew right then that I would never be able to go on without her. I would have no inclination to take another breath without her love surrounding me. I was willing to do anything, give anything, in order to love her. I finally realized that true love meant giving all that you are to someone else. Letting them see the dark as well as the light that existed in your soul, accepting, and trusting that they would handle anything they saw hiding in the recesses of your battered soul. I finally understood this truth and gave all of myself to Gabrielle.
I quiet murmur pulled me from my musing and brought my attention to the woman still sleeping in my arms. I must admit, a certain warmth washed over me to watch Gabrielle sleep. When she first came to be with me, her sleep was often interrupted my nightmares, some of which never even woke her. Her cries of pain and abandonment kept me up through the night on more than one occasion. I held her through the hours of darkness, afraid to let go of the girl lest her nighttime terrors return. Now, as I looked down on the smiling face, I found myself grinning in return. The small blonde was the only person I'd ever heard laugh in their dreams. In the last fortnight or so, Gabrielle chuckled softly in her dreams. I only hoped it was a good sign. I know it certainly lightened my heart.
Try as I might, I could lie there no longer, and I didn't wish to disturb Gabrielle's rest. I slipped from the bed as gently as I could, but even then, my consort made a noise in her sleep at the loss of my body next to hers. I pushed a pillow against her and saw that familiar smile as she wrapped her arms around the cushion where my scent still lingered. I washed and dressed; a frown crossed my face when I realized what Gabrielle might think when she awoke. Would she worry, thinking that I might still have revenge on my mind in regards to young Solan? Would she be hurt after having made love to me, then finding me gone at first light?
The day brightened just as I thought of the perfect item to leave my lover in my stead. I hurried downstairs and outside the castle to my private gardens. In the garden closest to the castle, were my roses. I could see the garden from the windows of my private chambers. The roses bloomed nearly all year in this area nestled against the palace wall. I walked across the stone paved path directly to my favorite flower. It was a deep red color, the hue so concentrated as to be almost black. Its petals felt like velvet against my skin. It came up from the ground as an accident, a cross between two other blooms. Accident or not, it had a striking beauty all its own.
I was laughed at and teased quite often in my younger days for this rose garden. Well, that is until men realized what I did to people who laughed at me. No matter how cruel, and bloodthirsty a warrior I was, back then, I always had an eye for beauty. Whether it was a woman, a fine horse, or a talented artisan, I appreciated the skills that set these people apart. I pulled my dagger from my belt, preparing to cut a perfect bloom from the plant before me. I had to pause as I remembered again that first moment, the moment in time when a child of all people, first brought the beauty of the rose to me.
I moved a step off the path and sat down on a stone bench, staring at the rose bush in front of me, but in my mind, I was leagues away. I guessed that I was nearly 30 summers in age, but I couldn't remember exactly. I was always at war, on some campaign or another, and time, along with birthdays, had a way of passing without much notice. It was before I captured Athens. I had been traveling through the region of Chalcidice. After Potidaea revolted against the Athenian-controlled Delian League, its neighboring city, Olynthus became a major stronghold against an Athenian attack. They formed their own federation, known as the Chalcidic League. When forced to swear allegiance to either Athens or me, the inhabitants chose to fight. In one of my more shameful displays of temper and force, I razed Olynthus to the ground. In a final fit of anger, I got drunk, then ordered that all the city's inhabitants be sold as slaves. As I said, it was one of my more shameful moments. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of what I destroyed on that day.
We left the area, traveling through farmland on our way south to the shore. When we reached the harbors at Potidaea, I took a fleet of ships south, meeting up with my armies in Pagasae. From there, we moved on to Athens and the rest is in the history archives of the palace. It was what happened in a field, some five leagues from the coast, which brought the beauty of the rose to me.
We were taking a midday break from the heat, and as usual, I immediately moved away from the camp. The noise of the men had come to distress me, their laughter, and the gods awful smells that a camp full of dirty soldiers could hold. I enjoyed a leisurely walk and before I knew it, I had followed the stream to a quiet glade of tall green grass. I found a log and sat back, removing my armor, and enjoying the breeze. A rustle in the grass to my left brought my hand to my blade, but I smiled when I saw a tiny head poke through the high grass.
"Hullo." The child's voice said.
"Hello, right back young lady," I responded.
"Are you hiding too?" she asked. She looked to be no more than four or five summers old. Her hair was bleached nearly white from the sun, a healthy glow to her tanned skin.
"I guess so," I admitted.
"I ken ony be here and talk for a little bit. Mama sez its time for a baf."
I chuckled at her serious expression. She came and stood beside me reaching out and touching my hand. Suddenly she backed away and looked up at me.
"Why is you so sad?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but heard a woman calling something in the distance.
"Don't go away!" The youngster ordered and ran off.
When she returned a short time later, she held something behind her back.
"Dis is for you . . . so you won't be so sad no more."
She held out a flower, a rose. It was a beautiful pink bloom and I was in awe at the child's compassion. The simplicity of such a gift, such a perfect symbol of beauty, it captured me from that first moment. The young girl ran toward home I expect, but I continued to sit there until night had fallen simply looking at the rose.
I never learned her name, but one of the first things I did when I situated my home in Corinth was to send for the landscapers to build me a rose garden.
I shook my head to bring myself back to the present. The sun was not yet up, so I hurried from the garden, back through the halls of the palace to leave Gabrielle my present. I thought there might be a chance she would awaken before I had a chance to return, but I considered that unlikely. Given the choice between waking before dawn and an extra candlemark of sleep, Gabrielle would choose sleep.
I strolled through the halls of the palace, which were quite deserted at this hour. I must have presented an odd, if not ludicrous picture to anyone who may have been up at this hour. I felt that my step contained a little bounce, and was that me making those sounds? I fear I lost myself in my newfound happiness because I rounded a corner and nearly knocked Delia flat.
"God's above! I never would have thought that was you coming around the corner!" she responded. "That was you I heard, wasn't it?"
"What?" I asked.
"It was you! Xena," she lowered her voice when she used my given name. "You were whistling!"
"I was doing no such thing." I could feel the heat creeping into my cheeks. Damn! I knew it was me making those sounds. Have I ever whistled before?
"You were so, and what have you got there?" she asked.
"Nothing," I lied. I tried to maneuver the flower behind my back, but it was too late, she'd already caught a glimpse of what I was carrying. "Oh, all right," I brought it out in full view. "Are you happy now? If I catch you telling anyone about this I'll string you up with the chickens to be plucked."
Delia laughed aloud making me feel like I was ten again. "Why, Lord Conqueror, with a charming manner such as that, it's no wonder the women can't resist you."
She squeezed my arm as she walked past me, still laughing aloud. I shook my head, unable to keep the grin off my face. Delia had the ability to make me feel like a child, but I saw something in her eyes when she looked at me lately. It was something that made feel better than I had a right to. What I saw in her eyes was pride. It was an expression every child hopes to see directed at them from their parent, especially between mother and daughter. I knew there was a woman, still alive, in a small coastal town in Thrace who I would give my very life to see focus that look at me. I tossed away the notion as soon as it appeared. That would never be and there was no sense in wishing for the impossible. But then again, just a few moons ago, I thought it impossible for the Conqueror to fall in love, to have someone love her in return. It seemed as if my life was changing in so many ways, I could think on absolutely nothing as completely impossible anymore.
* * * * * * * * * *
I arranged the flower beside the pillow that Gabrielle held to her chest. I kissed her forehead and went off to my study. On the way, I met a guard who I ordered to deliver a message to Captain Atrius. I commanded the Captain to my study, where I now sat. Last night as Gabrielle and I laid together, in between our whisperings and making love, Gabrielle admitted that not only had Atrius saved her from Solan's attack, but also the fatherly soldier promised to keep it a secret until my future bride could tell me herself. She promised him she would tell me of the incident in the morning after my head had cleared a bit.
Atrius was more than just a soldier in my army. He was a warrior I respected and trusted. He was one of the few people alive whom I called friend. He was, however, a soldier in my army, and I, still his commander. I never doubted Atrius's loyalty, but warriors must ultimately remain true to one person, their superior. While I could not exactly condemn Atrius for his allegiance to Gabrielle, I needed to make my friend aware that keeping me in the dark about things was not a habit I wanted him to get into.
There really was no right or wrong answer for this scenario. I understood why Gabrielle chose to keep Solan's attack on her from me. I was drinking, and I am not altogether the sanest of women when I'm beleaguered by strong drink. Nor have I ever been thought of as logical, once caught in the grasp of my raging temper. I could envision Gabrielle realizing the self-condemnation I would put myself through had I gone ahead with my course of action last night. Thanks to Athena, that my young consort was able to keep me from carrying out the retribution that the beast inside me hungered for. Our relationship might have never endured the guilt in both our hearts over such a tragedy.
Atrius's part in all of this struck me as logical also. He surely was thinking of me, fearing reprisals by the Centaur Nation should any harm befall their emissary. I am sure both of them feared what I may have done to Solan had I learned of the event. Blood or no, I could very well have seen myself killing my son for his actions.
In the end, however, there was one undeniable fact. I was the ruler in this realm and as such, incidents were to be reported to me, and not hidden from my eyes. No matter how justified, I found myself in an awkward position. How does one get a point across, impress upon the players the need for only one to be making these decisions? Right or wrong, no matter what their reasons, no matter that I agreed completely with their resolution, there could be only one at the top, and that one was I.
A knock on the door resounded throughout the room in the quiet of the morning.
"Enter," I said.
Atrius entered the room, inclining his head slightly. "Lord Conqueror," he acknowledged my presence.
"Atrius, my friend, please sit." I beckoned him with one hand.
I noticed that he looked somewhat leery. I was absolutely certain he was wondering if Gabrielle had told me yet.
"Are you well, Conqueror?" Atrius asked in a hesitant tone.
"Well, I admit to having a bit of a head this morning, but all things considered, yes, I am well. And you?"
"Uh, yes, yes. Quite well. I think I may have indulged in a bit too much port myself," he answered. "And, Lady Gabrielle . . . is she well?" he asked uneasily.
"Still sound asleep." I smiled back at the man seated on the other side of my desk. He adjusted his body in the seat making himself more comfortable. I believe he was quite confident at this point that I didn't know yet.
"I've been thinking this morning, Atrius, actually, assessing the status of our soldiers. Who would you say is our best warrior?"
"Well, uhm . . ." He appeared confused at my change in subject. I could see him trying to switch minds to focus onto this new topic. He chuckled slightly. "Well, I would say you are, Conqueror."
I laughed a bit myself, knowing he would answer thus. "Let's just say that's a given." I answered. "Then?"
"I guess, even though I'm getting a little long in the tooth for it, that I am."
"Yes," I said, feigning distraction. "And after you?"
"Well," he considered the matter, "Lieutenant Garamon. He may be a bit young, some things he'll learn only with experience, but he's nearly as good as I am with a number of weapons."
"I've been thinking of Gabrielle's safety. Now that it's known she will be Queen, I want her to be as protected as I would be. Whether she is here inside the castle, or out in the village, I want her safe from harm."
"Aye, Lord Conqueror. I think it a superb idea. I agree. The young lady needs the best your army has to offer."
"I'm glad you concur. Can you take care of this, Atrius?"
"Of course, Lord Conqueror, I'll instruct Garamon right away in--"
"But didn't you just say that you were the best?" I quickly interjected, leaning forward in my chair.
Atrius stopped; his mouth still hung open, momentarily frozen as his brain quickly raced to keep up with our conversation. "Oh, but surely, my Lord--"
"Perhaps you don't think Gabrielle deserves the best, after all." I said evenly.
"I . . . uh . . . " He was caught and the expression in his eye admitted the truth of it. If he said yes, he was offending Gabrielle, and he knew where that road would lead him. If he said no, he was committing himself to something most soldiers only looked forward to when they where very young or very old. A true warrior, of whom Atrius was one, would never wish to waste his battlefield skills playing bodyguard.
"So, you were saying, my friend?" I could barely contain my mirth at this point. Oh yes, I had every intention of carrying this through, but unbeknownst to my unfortunate friend, I would only wish this duty on him for a fortnight or so.
A look of complete and utter resignation crossed Atrius's face. It was apparent that he noticed the sparkle in my eye and the amused look. He finally realized that I knew of his part in keeping Gabrielle's secret.
"Of course, I would be honored to serve as Lady Gabrielle's personal guard, Lord Conqueror," he said through clenched teeth.
* * * * * * * * * *
Atrius and I walked into my private chambers thinking to enjoy a hot mug of tea and discuss the particulars of creating a detachment of guards to be at the future Queen's call. As we entered the outer room, Sylla was just finishing setting up our early morning meal.
"Rather early, isn't it?" I asked her.
"The lady asked that breakfast be brought up early, Lord Conqueror.
I knew that Sylla referred to Gabrielle even before the beautiful blonde opened the bedchamber door and appeared before us. My personal maid seemed to enjoy Gabrielle's newfound position. Perhaps it gave hope to all women of her station. Perhaps she was merely happy for a friend. Whatever the reason, Sylla treated Gabrielle with the utmost respect, and Gabrielle, with her genuinely loving nature, treated Sylla with the same.
I stood back a bit, amused at the interaction that was about to take place between Gabrielle and Atrius. Gabrielle was adjusting the cuff on the sleeve of her blouse as she walked through the door. I almost laughed aloud when she stopped in the middle of the room, taking all of us in. We looked like frozen statues, Gabrielle looking at Atrius, then myself, Atrius using a mock glare on Gabrielle, myself watching the both of them and Sylla completely confused.
"Will there be anything else, Lord Conqueror?" Sylla asked.
I thanked her, and then dismissed her. She curtsied slightly and left the room, but not before she leveled a questioning gaze at Gabrielle, shrugging her shoulders in some silent communication.
"My Lord." Gabrielle said as she crossed the room, reached up on her toes, and placed a chaste kiss upon my cheek. I watched as she crossed the room to where Atrius stood.
"Captain Atrius," she said in a slow halting tone.
"She already knows, doesn't she?" he muttered.
"What?" Gabrielle whispered through clenched teeth.
I laughed loudly. "He's asking you if you told me already!"
I continued to chuckle at the expressions on their faces. I sat down at the table, pouring each of us a mug of tea from the pot that Sylla had left steeping. I pushed the jar of honey closest to Gabrielle's customary seat. She couldn't tolerate the strong drink without a small bit of the honeycomb dropped into the mug. When I again looked up, they were still staring at me open-mouthed.
"Close your mouths and sit." I said with an arched eyebrow. "We have much to talk about, the three of us."
They each sat down to the table, Gabrielle beside me and Atrius across from us. I took a sip of my tea and watched as they each did likewise.
"Gabrielle, I would like you to meet the Captain of your personal guard."
Gabrielle turned her head and looked over at me, then across the table at the grimace on Atrius's face. He looked at her with a 'why me' expression, followed by a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. It was apparent that he was not only trying to make Gabrielle feel better, but that he also would do the same all over again if need be. That is exactly the reason why I wanted this man at Gabrielle's side. It even pained me somewhat that I hadn't thought of it before necessity forced my hand.
"Oh, but Xena, I--"
I held a finger up to my lips and Gabrielle instantly fell silent. I stood up and walked to the window. Sylla had pulled back the tapestries to let in the morning sun and the cool breeze felt good on my somewhat heated skin. I stood there, hands clasped together behind my back, facing the window instead of the two that sat at the table.
"You must understand, Gabrielle, as Atrius does. There can only be one commander, one ruler, and whether by fate or fortune, that one is I. I understand the reasoning behind your actions, yours, as well as Atrius's. I've never," I nervously cleared my throat at this point. I was about to do something rare, and decided to forge on ahead before I had time to think about it. If I thought too long, or too hard, I was sure I would back down.
"I've never really had any one to care about me . . . so my reactions might not be what either of you hoped for. This is a rather new feeling for me and I'm trying to . . . well, trying to . . . understand it all. As I said, I understand the reasoning behind your actions, but a ruler must be kept aware of all things. Only one can rule."
I turned from the open window, back to them. "Do either of you care to rule this Empire?"
They both looked a little dazed, and I went from being emotionally terrified on the inside to trying to keep a straight face. Two set of eyes stared back at me as if to say, 'who are you and where have you hid Xena's body?' Their stares were a little wide, mouths hanging open just a tad. Finally, very nearly in perfect synchronization, they each shook their heads back and forth.
"Then, right or wrong, for good or ill, I will be the one to decide what happens, and when. I will choose who suffers my wrath and who escapes judgment. Are we agreed?"
They both said in unison. If I learned one thing over the years, it was that rewarding the faithful was not done strictly to ensure loyalty. The strongest and wisest rulers I had ever known were the most charitable of themselves and their emotions. I decided to go that extra step, not for myself but for the two people before me. They each had their reasons for doing what they had, and I gratefully acknowledged that their thoughts were of my welfare.
"I wish to add my thanks," I added, looking at them each in turn. "There are few people in this world whom I love, even less who care for me. I will strive to become . . . well, the kind of person that you feel you can confide in when things go awry."
I was staring at my boots by this time, quite petrified to look up and see the amusement in their eyes. The silence seemed to go on forever until Gabrielle spoke, she, always seeming to know how to assuage my fears.
"Come, finish your tea, Xena," she said as she poured some more of the steaming brew into my mug.
I straddled the bench beside her, accepting the mug, and leaning in to lightly kiss her ear. She smiled without looking at me as she began to place portions of meat, fruit, and cheese on three separate plates. I handed Atrius a plate of food and he accepted it with a customary nod of his head. He grinned just a small bit and muttered, almost as if to himself.
"Yes, you two are good for one another."
* * * * * * * * * *
We sat and discussed the events of the past few weeks as we ate our morning meal. Then we talked of the men and women who would become a part of Gabrielle's guard. Atrius already knew the soldiers he would select, telling us both what he knew of them, their strengths, and weaknesses. He approached this as if it were a battle plan, and I could hear the excitement in his voice when he talked of the details, and how many soldiers he would need. I gave him free reign, knowing that Gabrielle's security was in more than capable hands.
I pushed my plate away, feeling full for the first time that I could ever remember. I never really ate much, just picked at everything. This morning, I actually ate, talked, and laughed. It was an enjoyable sensation, sitting with friends, speaking to one another as equals and not as a ruler and her subjects. The only time I'd ever sat around talking over a meal was during a social dinner when one made trivial comments, and thought about how quickly you could leave. There were meals around the campfires with warriors, of course, but those were in the days when I was either very tolerant or too young to care what filthy pigs most of the men in my army were. Once I found how easy it was to lose one's appetite when sitting downwind from a soldier, who hadn't seen a cake of soap since the formation of the Homeric Kingdoms, I began dining alone in my tent.
"Shall we speak of Solan, then?" I asked when we hit a lull in the conversation.
"Xena, I've been thinking," Gabrielle started, looking down at her hands. "Perhaps you should just have a talk with him."
She didn't look up again, only stared down at her hands clasped loosely together. I understood, in an instant, what plagued the young woman. I moved once again to straddle the bench we sat on, and laid my hand gently on her shoulder. The action brought her eyes up to meet my own.
"Gabrielle, are you saying this because you truly think that a man who accosts young women in my palace, aside from the fact that you are the future Queen of this Empire, should be shown leniency? Or, are you saying this because of who Solan is to me, personally?"
Gabrielle bowed her head slightly. I knew she wouldn't reveal my secret in front of Atrius, but today seemed to be full of all kinds of firsts for me. Because of that, I plunged right into the icy water. I took a deep breath.
"Solan is my son, Atrius."
When I looked over at my friend he had his head lowered, seemingly engrossed in some defect in workmanship that he'd found in the table. He picked at the spot on the wood, and I could tell that he was embarrassed by the sudden intimacy we were sharing. I could tell because I felt my own ears turning as red with warmth as Atrius's were. I'm not sure whether his next words surprised me, however.
"Aye, Conqueror, I already knew that." He looked up finally and I saw what appeared to be a small smile. "It's hard to live and fight, side by side, with someone for so many seasons, and not learn at least a few of their secrets."
I could do no more than thank him in a strangled whisper, my throat tight with emotion. All these seasons, watching me at my best on the battlefield, and at my worst in debauchery, he kept my secret. I owed this man much more than I could ever repay. I could bestow upon him wealth or luxury, but to be honest, it would be an insult. I knew, as well as he, that the gift of his silence was given freely, without thought of repayment. To present him such now would lessen the offering. Atrius was a being, molded from the same clay as I. We were warriors and soldiers, always having done what we thought best at the time. If I had lived my life as honorable as he had, I would have been the most magnificent leader the world had ever known.
Clearing my throat was becoming habitual. I turned back to Gabrielle. "You told me last night that you had a plan, little one. I'd still like to hear it." I prodded.
She smiled in relief. Gods, how could she be so transparent one day, and then so full of complexity the next? This time, I instantly saw through her charade. Again, she protects me.
"Well, my original plan sought to treat Solan in a way he would understand. Forgive me, Xena, but he is arrogant and proud. The only way he will respect someone is if he cannot best them. I've known a great many young men such as Solan and they only learn their lesson--"
" At the point of a sword." Atrius and I said in unison.
"Exactly." Gabrielle agreed.
"So, is this the part where I get to knock the boy senseless?" I asked with a wry grin. I think we were all making rather light of the situation knowing that if we didn't, our tempers might get the better of us. If any of us succumbed to our anger over the situation, Solan could end up dead.
"Actually," Gabrielle began. She had that nervous expression on her face again. "I think that perhaps Atrius should do the necessary knocking."
"What?" I heard myself say.
"Xena, it wasn't as if Solan attacked me because of who I am, I think he was too drunk for that. I could have been any young woman in that hallway."
"The Lady does have a point, Conqueror," Atrius added.
"Oh she does, does she?! Gabrielle, the point is you aren't just any woman, not anymore." I said, rising from my seat.
"Xena, how will it look? Every time there's trouble, you come rushing in to take care of me"
"It will look as thought you are well cherished," I returned.
"It may look to others as if she were simply weak," Atrius said.
"Whose side are you on here?" I threw back at him.
"Forgive me, Lord Conqueror, but I wasn't aware that there were sides." Atrius answered.
Atrius's infernal patience was beginning to wear on my nerves.
"Xena, it makes sense, truly it does. To learn any kind of lesson at all, Solan needs to be bested by someone he deems as an unsuitable adversary for him, someone he sees as lower in rank and station."
"I'm afraid I'll have to take that side now, Conqueror. If you beat the boy in a challenge, well, most men would suffer defeat by your hand. There would be no shame involved. Now, if he were to be bested by a common soldier . . . a mere body guard to the Lady here, that would be another matter entirely."
All right, this was the point where I knew I was acting the part of the petulant child, but I couldn't stop myself. I was overcome by the desire, however, to remind Gabrielle that she promised me I could fight. I could find no way in my head to phrase that to avoid looking like a complete idiot. Therefore, I crossed the room and stood there, arms folded tightly across my chest, glaring at the two of them. Gabrielle caught on the quickest, and although I usually appreciate when she knows what I'm thinking, this time I was anything but grateful. I felt rather foolish and humiliated, but again, I simply couldn't stop myself. As redeemed as I was, there would always be Xena within me, brash, angry, volatile, and sometimes foolish, Xena.
Gabrielle stood and crossed the room to stand before me. Her actions shouldn't have surprised me. After all, wasn't this the same woman who faced down the beast within me just last evening? She laid a gentle hand on my forearm, tilting her head to try to make contact with my downcast eyes.
It wasn't the tone of her voice, or even the words that she said, which hurt me. No, what hurt the most, wounded my pride actually, was the fact that Gabrielle was trying her damndest not to smile. Smile! At me!
"What?" I pouted. Ah yes, the world's oldest living child.
"You're not really angry at me, are you?"
"You're acting this way because you don't get to pummel someone. True?" She was on to me.
"Maybe." I evaded the question. "Oh, all right, yes, it's true! You did promise, you know." I added as an afterthought.
"Would it help if I said that the next time this happens, you can do the pummeling?"
She smiled sweetly and some days, I think she knows exactly what that smile does to me. I found myself smiling back. "I get to knock the stuffing out of the next two." I bargained.
She laughed at me and held out her hand, attempting to look serious. "Deal," she said, and held her hand out to me.
I grasped her hand and pulled her to me, kissing her soundly. It made no difference to me that Atrius was in the room. In fact, I wore a huge grin, looking across the room at my friend. Atrius had once again found something, other than Gabrielle and I, utterly fascinating. This time it was at the bottom of his mug.
* * * * * * * * * *
Seated beside me in the Great Hall, Gabrielle and I watched as Solan strode into view. Flanked by a pair of guards, he appeared tired and hung over. He also had a nasty looking bruise around his left eye and to the side of his face. I assumed the contusion was caused by the contact from Atrius's fist. Fatigued such as he was, it was more difficult for the boy to hide his demeanor with charm. He looked up at me with a brooding, sullen expression that was like staring into a looking glass.
"Lord Conqueror," he began. "I assume the circumstances are dire for you to rouse me at this hour?"
I heard Atrius growl, then watched as he stepped forward. "It's not your place to question the Conqueror, pup!"
Solan flashed an angry glare at the older man and I saw the truth in Gabrielle's words. Yes, it would have quite an impact on the boy if he were to be vanquished by Atrius in a challenge.
"Forgive me, Lord Conqueror if I--"
"Enough," I responded coldly, cutting off the rest of Solan's statement. "I understand you had a bit of trouble in the palace last evening."
"As a matter of fact, Conqueror, I did. I was assaulted," he gingerly raised his fingers to the discolored area around his eye. "I was talking to a woman when I was hit from behind."
"The way I heard the story, you were doing more than merely talking."
"Well," his lips raised into a lascivious grin. "I do admit, she feigned unwillingness, but she would have come around. Sometimes they just don't know what they want."
"Some of them have to be convinced." I pretended to agree.
I added a mock, conspiratorial grin since he seemed to think this behavior perfectly acceptable. The world belongs to those who are strong enough to take it. The sentiment echoed in my head. Those were my words when I was Solan's age, and, at this moment, I felt burning shame knowing that my own son had acquired the very worst of my attributes.
His grin grew larger.
"And you consider this behavior acceptable?" I asked, losing my smile completely.
He paused, his expression telling me that he realized that he'd lost me as his ally. "I've never had any complaints before."
"You do now. First," I had to force myself to stay in my seat. I always went off on someone much better while pacing back and forth. " In my realm any man who accosts women, or anyone else simply because they're weaker, will suffer a swift punishment. Secondly, the woman you assaulted was the Lady Gabrielle."
I expected more, to tell you the truth. I expected a hushed silence, and then perhaps for fear to fill his countenance. Neither happened. His features appeared to tighten a bit and he tilted his head slightly.
"I had no idea," was his answer.
Now, I trust Gabrielle's judgment, especially of people, but I was thinking just then that her perception of Solan's true intent was a tad skewed. A smart man would have already been pleading his case, offering everything he had in exchange for my forgiveness. Even a coward would have been on his knees begging and whimpering for forgiveness, his life, or both. Solan surprised me.
He stood before me and said nothing. He simply acknowledged the fact that he had no idea it was Gabrielle. I saw the truth in his eyes, however. I believed at that moment that Gabrielle was wrong. This foolish, arrogant young man was calling me out, but in a most subtle manner. He was waiting to see what I would do. I had news for this boy; he had no idea what I could do.
The touch of Gabrielle's hand on my sleeve suddenly interrupted my thoughts. She leaned over to whisper in my ear, and I met her halfway.
"I was wrong, Xena. It is about you."
I looked across at her, once we had both leaned back into our chairs. She had a worried expression on her face that I did my best to dispel with a winning smile meant for her alone.
"Antillius, come forward," I commanded.
The young scribe and advisor came forward carrying his parchment and quill, the latter freshly loaded with ink. "At your command, Lord Conqueror."
"Antillius, take a letter to my old friend Kaleipus, ruler of the Centaur Nation."
"Yes, My Lord."
"Tell him that his emissary and adopted son, Solan, has admitted his guilt in assaulting my lover and future Queen of the Greek Empire. Tell him that, as a matter of honor, I have challenged the young man to meet me on the field of battle. Have you got all that?" I asked finally, waiting as the young man finished writing.
"Yes, My Lord."
"Add this, then. Tell Kaleipus that I send my heartfelt sympathy and regret at the youthful demise of his son, however he should send a new emissary upon receiving his son's body. Sign it as usual." I added with a casual wave of my hand.
I rose from my chair to glance at a number of stunned people. "You've gotten your wish, Solan. I'll give you three days to prepare, and then I expect to either receive a sincere pleading for forgiveness, or see you on the training field. Atrius," I turned to the Captain. "Please see to it that the Emissary is restricted to his rooms with the exception of the practice facilities."
"Aye, Conqueror," Atrius replied.
I could see that even Atrius was now aware of Solan's true intentions. Solan said nothing during the entire exchange. As I offered a hand to Gabrielle, and we silently left the room, I wondered why this young man, whom I had barely had any contact with through his entire life, would want to defeat me in battle me so badly. I thought he'd put all those old stories to rest. Was he in such a hurry to die?
To be continued in Chapter 6: "He Felt the Stroke of Death Upon His Heart"