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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Chapter 7: Fettered In Prison And Without Relief.Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
"Xena?" I called out her name, quite concerned by this time. The way the corners of her mouth appeared, upturned as if smiling in her sleep, took some of the worry from me.
"Xena?" I called out again, sitting on the bed beside her prone figure.
Her smile turned into a frown and she pulled a pillow over, covering her face.
"Xena, it's rather late in the morning for such an early riser, are you ill?"
I saw the pillow shake back and forth and I smiled. This was the Xena that I knew. She could be child-like and innocent with a very playful dimension to her personality. I fear, however, that there are those who would think me quite ill in the head if I told them so.
"Are you going to get out of bed?"
"Don't wanna!" came her muffled reply. She tossed the pillow aside, and grasped my hands, pulling me toward her. "Come back to bed, love. I think I need more practice with this snuggling thing."
I slipped my hands from her grip and laughed aloud at her ploy. "I think when it comes to snuggling, you're quite an adept student. I don't believe further tutelage is necessary. Besides, I am bathed and dressed for the day."
"Mmm, and you look quite beautiful too," she answered in that charming way she has about her. She leaned up on one elbow and smiled, flashing me a glimpse of those Prussian blue bedroom eyes she can put on so easily. "That dress is very pretty on you . . . I bet it would look even better off of you." She finished as she made a quick move to reach out for me once again.
I moved to the end of the bed, and cajoled her from there. She tossed the sheet aside and grinned. Moving to her hands and knees, she crawled, panther-like, toward me. I could feel the heated flush rise to my cheeks as it did whenever I saw her body like this. Gods, she is so incredibly beautiful. I can't even believe that she is mine. I had to physically shake my head to break the spell that she apparently used to control me. I jumped up and waggled a playful finger in her direction.
"Oh, no, don't you dare."
That adorable pout that she swears she doesn't have pulls at her mouth. I couldn't take it. If I didn't do something quick, I swear that I was going to burst into laughter at any moment.
"Remember, my love, Conquerors who laze about in bed all day don't get their dessert after dinner."
Her grin returned. Those blue eyes sparkled as she quickly grasped the double meaning of my statement. "Oh, all right, I'll be good."
I heard her say those words as I poured her a mug of tea from the pot that Sylla had recently brought. When I spun around again to face her, my breath very nearly stopped. Stretched out on her side along the length of the bed, she held her head in the palm of her hand. She was stunning, lying there wearing nothing but an amused smile.
"What?" she asked, the picture of innocence.
"I--I just . . . "
"Hhmm?" she ran long fingers through her sleep tousled hair.
"I can't think straight when you lie there like that." I blurted out.
Her throaty laughter affected me almost as much as the sight of her nude figure. She reached over and pulled the sheet around her, sitting up and accepting the tea I offered.
"It's simply good to know that I can affect you in that way," she said with a smile.
She brushed her hand against mine as she took the mug from my grasp, and I paused.
"More than you know, my love, more than you know." I answered her, raising that same hand to lightly touch her cheek.
"So, you saw that even Conquerors like to occasionally sleep in," she began. "Where is your day taking you in such a hurry, little one?"
"I'm going to check on Solan, to see if he needs anything," I answered.
I stood there, thinking about my answer for a moment. Xena was an incredibly complex woman, but at the same time, she seemed to suffer certain insecurities. I knew that I was, and always would be, one of her greatest areas of concern. I sat back down beside her on the bed. I wasn't sure how to begin, how to tell her of the thoughts I had rolling around in my brain. Frankly, I wasn't altogether certain about what I was doing myself. I only know that this course of action felt as though it was the right thing to do.
"I'm uncertain how to explain this to you. It seems that Solan's wounds go much deeper than a simple beating and some broken bones. I'm honestly undecided that this is even the right thing to do," I said, brushing my bangs away from my eyes in a frustrated gesture. "I just have this feeling, Xena, this feeling that Solan is asking for help with the things he does, and the way he acts. I think he needs people around him right now who won't be shocked or offended by his behavior. I'm sure he was raised in an honorable fashion, but it seems as if people have turned a blind eye to his ways because of who he is. From all that I've read that's not the way the centaurs expect their leaders to act. It's not right, Xena. He is a young man who may inherit the Centaur Nation someday. Even if he were recognized as the son of the Conqueror, it still wouldn't be right. I think we have a duty to him," I added, my head bowed, not raising my eyes to her. "I'm not sure why...it just feels as though we do," I finished.
I waited then. I could hear her breathing. We sat so close I could feel the heat coming from her body, and with my eyes closed like this, I swear I could hear the cadence of her heart. I heard a deep sigh and I knew the storm was coming. She would fight against displaying any anger at me, for she loved me, but I envisioned her temper getting the best of her in this instance.
"You are magnificent, do you know that?" I heard her voice finally say.
My head snapped up and I saw her eyes narrow, their hue turning that deep blue as they do when she is trying to hold back her emotions. She once told me that I am an enigma to her, and on this day, at this very moment, she is that for me. She looks small and vulnerable sitting on our bed, only a sheet casually draped about her. One or two slightly gray hairs at her temple are the only indication of her age. I'm sure I am opened-mouthed because I suddenly find her smiling shyly at me.
"You expected me to shout, didn't you?"
"Well, I . . . I guess I did expect a rather different reaction," I answered.
She chuckled softly at my response. "Well, I suppose I still have a few unpredictable moments left in me then. Gabrielle, I know my pride doesn't let me show it very often, but I trust in your feelings and your insight. You have gifts that can't be easily explained, but that doesn't mean we should discount them. I have seen too much in my lifetime not to believe in the unbelievable."
She placed her mug of tea upon the low-lying table beside the bed, and then moved to face me fully.
"Much as every instinct in me tells me to patch that boy up and get him as far from our lives as possible, I'm willing to defer to the feeling that you have. To tell the truth, somewhere deep down, I want to be able to be able to help him, Gabrielle. I want to be able to help him like I wished someone would have helped me at his age."
She hung her head for a moment and I knew she was back there once more. Her life was so full of regrets and personal shame that if she were a weaker woman; she might never have stepped back into the light. I imagined that she was replaying the times when she had not been there for her son. Perhaps she even reminisced on the times when she wished her own mother had been in her life when she was Solan's age.
"He has so much anger, so much hate and blackness fills his heart. I see myself in him and I fear for him, Gabrielle. He doesn't have the one thing that I have, the one thing that could lead him away from all that darkness."
"What, Xena? What is it he doesn't have?"
"He doesn't have you," she stated simply.
I was speechless. I honestly hadn't realized the esteem Xena placed upon me, how much credit she gave me in a battle that she'd begun seasons before she met me. I felt that Xena the Conqueror, the Destroyer of Nations had died long before I came to be here. For some reason, however, Xena's thoughts of redemption for herself revolved around me. I knew the truth, but if her love for me gave her one added stone's weight of will against the beast that hid within her, then I would gladly accept the responsibility.
"He has both of us," I answered.
"I want you to know that you don't have to go, Gabrielle--"
I stopped her with a gentle hand. "He is in no position to physically hurt me, Xena, and he can't wound me with his words. I've come through too much, my love, to let a spoiled, selfish young man take away my dignity. I've held on to that one last thing through everything. I may have lost a great deal of respect and self esteem along the way, but the only thing I was ever able to keep with me, no matter what my circumstances, was some tatter of dignity. I won't let Solan take that away."
Xena looked at me as if I had just told her I was a man. She shook off the stunned expression and smiled broadly. "You constantly amaze me, little one, for you have left me nearly speechless. Who are you, and what have you done with that tiny blonde who used to cower at my feet?"
"Do you want her back?" I asked.
"Absolutely not! I love the woman you've become, Gabrielle, very much. So, you'll take your guard with you?"
"Yes, love. How could I possible hide from Atrius? He is taking his duties quite seriously, I might add. He's been outside our doors since sun up."
Xena chuckled and I knew it amused her to tease the Captain in such a fashion. I will never understand warriors and their sense of humor. She told me of her plans to release the Captain after a fortnight as my personal guard. Until then, she seemed content to watch as Atrius proved his allegiance to the Conqueror by succumbing to her will.
"Perhaps it would be best if we met with him separately, at least at first. That way he can't play us against each other, and I won't black his other eye for disrespecting you. Tell me, little one, when shall I see you again today, eh? Now that you are the lady of the castle, have you no time for me?" she asked with a smile.
I noticed she let the sheet covering her slip from her shoulders; her bedroom eyes back in place. Two can play at this game of torturous seduction, my Conqueror.
I may not see you until the evening meal, but I promise to give my full attention to you then." I smiled back at her, standing up and smoothing my skirt.
"Ah, this evening is so far away. Do I get nothing to cling to until then?" She leaned back on both hands allowing the sheet to fall the rest of the way.
I believe I surprised her with the speed of my actions. I pressed one hand against her chest, pushing her to lie flat against the bed, her long legs dangling over the edge. I leaned over her, hovering just above her skin. My index finger tenderly played with the hardening skin surrounding her nipple, my tongue teasing her lips. I kissed her, gently at first, then roughly. My tongue entered her mouth, and she sucked firmly, finally allowing me this little dominance over her. Oh, she had no idea what I would demand of her later. I was in a strange mood today.
I moved my kisses along her jaw, then upwards, using my tongue to tease her ear. Using my finger and thumb, I massaged her nipple, hearing her breathing pick up. Without warning, I pinched the hardened nub of flesh sharply, delighting in the strangled moan that escaped her lips.
"Listen to my words, my love." I whispered in her ear. "Let these sensations be your companions today as you think constantly on the attentions I plan to pay you this evening. I promise you three things, my Conqueror. Tonight, you will do my bidding," I squeezed the flesh at my fingers again, listening to her sharp intake of breath. "Tonight, you will belong to me," I tugged as I pinched he nipple and I was met with a ragged groan. "And, Tonight, Xena . . . you will scream my name."
I kissed her hard on the mouth, kneading each of her breasts in my hands. I was nearly undone myself by the whimpers of pleasure that vibrated against my lips. I abruptly pulled away, leaning down for one quick peck to her cheek, and then I quickly left our rooms.
I'm sure Atrius was curious as to the smile on my face. It grew even broader when I heard Xena's voice from inside our bedchamber.
"Oh, Gods!" She let out in a groan of frustration.
* * * * * * * * * *
Atrius seemed surprised at my destination, but he answered with his customary grace.
"As you wish, Lady."
Kuros was just leaving and I noticed the healer was soaking wet. He had an exasperated expression on his face, and he rolled his eyes at my non-verbal question at his appearance.
"He is feeling stronger today. He kicked the bowl of water at me that I was using to clean his head laceration."
We talked for a bit and Kuros admitted he was unsuccessful in his bid to provide Solan either medicine or food. He told me that the young man was in a frightful humor, and refused to listen to reason. His broken jaw pained him, and he wouldn't allow anyone near him. He couldn't open his mouth enough to get the food, or the medicine inside.
We talked for some time, as I listened intently to the healer's diagnosis and proposed treatment of Solan. We walked back to Kuros's cottage, a small place still inside the walls of the palace, but far enough from the castle to afford the healer some privacy. I noted the look of astonishment on his face as I continued to ask questions and discuss Solan's injuries. My limited knowledge regarding the healing arts came from what Yu Pan had taught me, and I was always interested in learning more. Once I gathered all the information that I believed would be of use to me in assisting Solan, I thanked Kuros for his time.
"We must go to the village and do some shopping, Atrius. Would that be all right?" I said and I wasn't surprised to see him wince at the mere idea.
"Whatever you wish, Lady."
I laughed at his pained expression. "Please, Atrius. You look as though I'm torturing you. Oh, wait. I have no dinars. Perhaps I should ask Delia." At the last moment, I remembered that I had no money, thinking I might have to ask Xena how to handle this sort of situation.
"I believe, Gabrielle, that you will find your credit is good at the shops in the village."
"Oh," I answered, feeling a little foolish. "Okay, shall we then?" I laughed. Atrius reminded me of Xena in so many ways. I felt comfortable with him, and not at all embarrassed, even when caught in an awkward spot.
"As you wish, Lady."
I noticed he smiled that time, though.
* * * * * * * * * *
I knocked before entering the room, but I wasn't surprised when there was no reply. The room was a mess, the bedclothes in the same state. Solan's penetrating gaze followed me as I walked into the room, followed by Atrius. I deposited my sack of supplies on a table, attempting to shrug off the feeling of unease. It was an odd sensation, someone glaring at me with hatred burning bright in eyes that were the mirror images of my lover's.
"I see you brought a bodyguard with you this time." Solan mumbled between tightly clenched teeth. He winced in pain at the effort.
Atrius took a step toward the young man's bed, but I stilled him with my hand. "Atrius, please wait outside."
He looked at me as if considering that an unwise request.
"I promise I'll call out if I need help." I reassured him.
He shot a venomous look in Solan's direction and walked from the room, closing it gently behind him. Gods, no wonder Xena likes him, the man has the forbearance of a Hestian Priestess.
I mostly ignored Solan for the first candlemark I was there. I threw open the heavy curtains covering the main section of open windows. Even though the air was chill, the room needed the freshness. I asked Atrius to send for Sylla, and she and I tidied the room in short order. I asked her to fetch a clean pitcher of water and a bowl of slightly warm broth, and then I went about unpacking my supplies.
I could see that every breath, every slight movement caused Solan pain, but it was his own refusal to take Kuros's medication that caused the continued ache. I laid out the items that I brought with me, sitting at the table and mixing the powders Kuros provided me with, along with a mix for a poultice of my own making. I stirred the painkillers and sleeping herb in a swallow or two of spring water, and then brought the wooden bowl to sit beside Solan's bed. In my free hand, I held an expensive flute, which I purchased in the village.
"You're going to serenade me to death?" Solan hissed between gritted teeth.
His jaw and cheeks were so swollen that I did feel for him, quite against my will, actually. I took the lightweight flute in one hand and raised it in the air, bringing it down sharply upon the back of a chair. The ivory cracked nicely on the outside, and I repeated the action until the fracture ran the length of the instrument.
"Do you have a dagger?" I asked, searching the room with my eyes.
He did no more than scowl at me. "Gods, Solan, if I meant to kill you I'd simply poison you, not slit your throat," I growled.
"There." He indicated the large dresser with his eyes.
I had to stand on my toes, but I felt the dagger's hilt and used it to pry the cracked veneer of ivory from the inner piece to the flute. Forgive me Terpsichore, I thought in regards to the destruction of the instrument. I finally succeeded in freeing the inner reed, as thin and hollow as any pond-growing reed. Indeed, it was most probably gathered from some pond or lake when still pliable and green. Dried and smoothed, it became the inner workings for one of the more costly types of musical flutes made in Greece.
I carefully eyed the chamber of the thin reed and smiled in triumph. Solan still glared. I sighed deeply.
"Didn't you ever play make believe when you were a child?" I asked his uncomprehending gaze. "We used to hide under the water from our friends, breathing through the reed that stuck out above the water's surface."
I saw the light of comprehension dawn, but he wasn't about to give in so easily.
"I've mixed together a pain killer for you, Solan. It will make it much easier to bear your injuries and allow you to rest."
"I can't drink. Hurts too much," he mumbled.
"That's what the reed is for." I picked up the bowl and swirled the liquid around, demonstrating to him how to put the straw into the liquid. "You suck on this end, and you won't have to open your mouth hardly at all."
"Hurts!" He hissed again.
"Good Gods, are you an infant or a man. Of course it will hurt a little, but someone your size ought to be able to endure a little pain." I spoke to him sharply, hoping to humiliate him into complying. It worked.
I held the reed up to his lips and he carefully covered the tip with his mouth. I could see tears come to his eyes at the strain the sucking motion put on his jaw muscle, but he was as close to civil as I'd seen him yet. I realized that he was probably dying of thirst. I poured clear water into a mug and held it up before him.
"Yes," he whispered.
It was painful, but his thirst won out and he emptied the mug, drinking through the hollow reed. He drank half of another and settled back against the feather pillows stacked around him. Each of his bandaged and splinted arms rested on a cushion beside him, but his bed was a mess. I was determined to take care of that once the herbs put him to sleep. He tried to suck back a yawn, but he opened his mouth a bit, so I knew the medicine was beginning to work.
I cleaned around the room, preparing my supplies for my next bit of work, yet Solan and I exchanged no more conversation. I felt the weight of his stare as his eyes constantly followed my movements. On one glance from out of the corner of my eye, he appeared sullen and very angry. A few heartbeats later, his expression was one of sadness, even longing. He said not a word, however.
I placed the saturated poultice and binding cloths beside him on the bed. "I have something to help your broken ribs. It will bind them up, and hurt like Hades putting it on, but I can't do it when you're asleep. I need to make sure it's tight, but not so that you can't breathe."
He grunted something unintelligible, and his expression seemed to indicate it was agreement. I knew he couldn't strike me. Not that he wouldn't, simply that with both arms splinted, and as adverse as he was to suffering, I didn't think he'd willingly endure the pain involved.
He looked on as I pulled the sheet back. I soon discovered he wore nothing underneath the sheet, probably because he wouldn't let anyone get close enough to even put a clean nightshirt on him. I folded the sheet back to his waist and frowned at the sight of his injuries. The entire left side of his torso was a mass of angry looking bruises. Bluish-purple coloring mottled his skin, raised red areas indicating the worst of the damage.
"I'm going to place the poultice over the area, then use these cloth strip to bind your chest up. It will be more difficult to breathe, but the pain, and swelling will lessen considerable by morning. With the binding cloths you should find it easier to move about."
He simply stared and I wondered if brooding and speechlessness was passed down in the blood. He drew in some sharp breaths as I worked, but the painkiller was working its magic, for he was sound asleep as I tied off the last cloth. I hadn't the heart to wait until he woke again to do it.
I sent for Sylla once more and the two of us were able to change the bedding while Solan was asleep. Due to the medicine, he never woke during the process. Kuros came, also, and was able to do a more thorough examination on Solan. He complimented me on the ingenious reed and the way I bound Solan's ribs. We sat and relaxed as the young man slept, enjoying the much-needed repast of fruit and cheese that Delia sent to the room.
I explained the poultice that I used, one, which Yu Pan taught me to apply, and Kuros was amazed when I told him of its curative properties. We spoke of healing, and medicines. He enjoyed literature, both of us having a fondness for the farcical works of Aristophanes.
I believe that Kuros looked upon me differently after the candlemarks we spent together. When he left Solan's room, the healer bowed a little deeper. I must say that it pleased me greatly that I had been able to converse intelligently with a man of such acumen.
Not long after Kuros left, I asked one of the young boys from the kitchen to start a fire to combat the damp chill. I lit the candles and the lamps, and pulled the tapestries back over the windows. Just as I took a sip of warm tea, which Delia so graciously delivered to me, I heard Solan stir. He moaned when he moved around the bed and I quickly mixed another dose of the painkiller.
"Drink some more of this," I commanded him, and he did as I bid, a sleepy expression still on his face. "You can have this four times during the day, but no more than that. It will make you drowsy, but the best thing for your body right now is rest."
"Water?" He phrased it as a request from behind his tightly held jaw, and that rather surprised me.
He used the reed to drink another mug of water and thankfully one of Kuros's young apprentices showed up. I left the room momentarily while the young man helped a somewhat humiliated Solan to use the chamber pot. I asked the young man to see that there was a male attendant to see to Solan's needs at all times. He nodded and promised to speak to Kuros and the house staff immediately.
I gave Solan another drink of water. "It's important that you drink a great deal of water, even if you do find it embarrassing to relieve yourself with that." I indicated the pot and its lid beside the bed. "The medicine will make your thirst even worst and you can become ill if you don't have enough fluid."
He drank again and nodded his head, indicating he was finished. When I finally heard his voice again, I nearly jumped, it surprised me so.
"Where . . . where did you learn the reed?" he asked in a halting manner, his teeth clenched together.
I stoked the fire and added another blanket to his bed as I spoke. "It was a healer in Persia where I spent my youth."
"As a slave?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered. "I contracted an illness when I was very young. They seemed very familiar with it. My cheeks and jaw became so swollen that it was excruciating to open my mouth, and chewing was simply out of the question. I had quite a fever and it was necessary for me to drink a great deal of liquids. The healer came up with the idea.
Many seasons later when one of the youngsters in the household I served in contracted the same illness, I thought of the reed. I discovered that artisans place a hollow reed inside the flutes they make of bone or ivory. They air dry the reeds and sand them down until they're smooth."
"You know . . . this isn't going to work," he suddenly muttered.
"Being nice to me. What do you . . ." he swallowed carefully. " . . . Hope to get from it?"
"Does that have to be the only reason I'm here? If I want something from you?"
"Then why?" he asked.
I paused then. How was I supposed to answer? "I honestly don't know."
"It won't make me like you," he stated simply.
"Be that as it may, you are in this house, and you have become a sort of responsibility. Until you are healed enough to travel on your own, or until your father comes for you, you shall see me everyday, like it or not. Between you and I, Solan, I am one of the few people willing to be nice to you, so I wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."
I moved the pitcher of water to his bed table and mixed another dose of painkiller, leaving it on the table for later.
"Even a dog knows better than . . . to keep coming back . . . to the hand that beats them."
"Why is it you hate me so, Solan?" I asked without warning.
"I have my reasons," he muttered sullenly, turning his face away.
"Perhaps you don't think a former slave good enough to be the wife of the Conqueror," I boldly added.
He turned wounded eyes upon me then and whispered in a tight voice. "You don't know what she's really like. She'll hurt you . . . then leave you. She'll leave you on . . . on your own, Gabrielle."
It was the first time I remembered Solan ever using my name. His statement was certainly odd, but by the time I'd processed his vocalizations, he was fast asleep. I left the room with a strange sense that perhaps it wasn't simply Solan's anger at Xena that drove his behavior. I wondered if perhaps I had unwittingly become a player in this sad tragedy.
To be continued in Chapter 8: "After The Battle On The Field Of Rout"