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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
I opened my eyes and slammed them shut immediately. "Gods!" I groaned aloud.
Rarely had my body felt so completely lacking in physical vitality as it did at this moment. I was alone in the large bed with the sun filtering through the open-air windows. By the amount of light in the room, I judged it midmorning. Gods, I was clearly getting old.
I raised my head, searching the room for Gabrielle. I rolled myself off the bed, but had to reach out and steady my shaking knees as I stood. My legs felt like so much warm liquid, and not the sturdy bones meant to hold my body upright. I stumbled to the pitcher of water on the table, and drank right from the carafe. Water spilled along the sides of my mouth, thin rivulets running down the front of my body. I felt as if I'd been pummeled on the field of battle and not made love to all night.
I stumbled into the bathing room, intent on dunking my head in cool water, but someone had beaten me to the use of the large tub. I halted my progress, leaning heavily on the wooden doorframe for support. The sight before me was certainly enough to cause the weakest of lovers to fall to their knees.
Gabrielle lay reclining in the tub, her head lying back against the copper rim. Her eyes were closed, and I smiled, knowing that she often dozed off in the warm water. Her golden hair was piled high atop her head, and she looked so pleasantly relaxed that I hated to disturb her. After all, last night she earned every bit of sleep she was catching up on now.
"I'm not sleeping," her voice spoke, although her eyes remained closed. When she opened them and focused in on me, I was touched at the concern visible there.
"You look as though you're as weak as a day old colt," she commented.
"Well, this newborn colt feels like an old warhorse this morning. A very old warhorse," I added.
She smiled and laughed softly, holding her hand out to me. "Come in here and let the warm water relax you."
I didn't have to be asked twice. I sunk into the tub behind Gabrielle and immediately pulled her back against me, just to feel the softness of her skin. She relaxed and settled against my chest easily. There was a long pause while I sorted out my thoughts. One question lingered in my mind after such an incredible night's pleasure. Up to this point in my life, I thought that I'd experienced everything sexual, at least those proclivities I was interested in trying. Gabrielle's expertise, however, caused me to feel like a babe in the woods. I'm sure it was simply my more jealous nature, but I wanted to know where, or from whom, Gabrielle acquired her considerable skills. We hadn't spoken of it before. We never actually discussed much of Gabrielle's life spent as a slave. I had always thought she would rather not be reminded of the time when she had no choices in her life. Now, however, I wondered if her silence persisted because she was afraid of how it would affect me.
I reached in and kissed her ear, tightening my hold around her waist. Her hand came to rest on mine, and she idly stroked the skin there with her fingers.
"Last night was," I paused realizing I didn't have words to effectively express it. "Well, I don't know what it was, but it was damn wonderful," I said with a chuckle.
"Did you enjoy it then?" she asked. Her voice held the slightest bit of apprehension.
"I think the word enjoy is completely inadequate to express how magnificent it was. I admit; I wasn't sure I could do it, but it was because of you, little one. You know that don't you? I've never given anyone control over me like that, never given anyone that kind of faith. I felt completely safe, Gabrielle. For the first time, in as long as I can remember, I trusted someone else to take care of me. It felt very right being protected by you."
I felt her hand squeeze mine, and her voice sounded thick with emotion. "Thank you, Xena. For all that you give to me."
"I'm only afraid my skills will look ordinary in comparison."
She turned her head toward me then, and I was able to see the love shining from her emerald eyes. "You need have no fear, my love," she settled back against me. "Your skills are more than enough," she finished.
"You want to know how I know such things, don't you, Xena?" she asked.
Gods! Is she truly a Goddess, to know what I'm thinking all the time?
"No," I lied.
"It's all right, love. You've made me feel safe enough not to fear thinking of the past. It's a gift more precious than all the wealth in your Empire, Xena. You've taken away my shame. Now, I can say that this happened to me, but I had no choice. I did what I had to do to stay alive."
"And I'm so glad you did, my little one."
I meant it too. Had I ever wished that I had met Gabrielle under different, more ordinary circumstances? Of course, I will not lie, even to myself. If the choices were to have Gabrielle as the woman I found her, or never to have met her at all, then I would choose what I have right now. I would choose this way time and time again. There is nothing more precious in this life than love, and I curse my heart for realizing the fact so late in my life. At the same time, I bless Athena. She was the one who kept that small part of me safe, just waiting for the day when Gabrielle would walk into my life.
"Do you want to know?" she asked me again.
"Yes," I answered truthfully this time.
"The summer I turned twelve, I knew I would have to leave Persia. I was more than a body slave; I was Greek. Female foreigners are only allowed to serve as house slaves and laborers after their first bleed. It was a part of their culture, and so I was prepared to be brought back to my homeland, to be placed on the auction block."
I listened to her explanation, already knowing the rather bizarre ideas and customs the Persians had regarding their sexual inclinations. They used children to pleasure them, but they treated them like royalty. The children were schooled alongside the nobleman's children, sometimes being treated better than a man's own child. I had always found the practice completely distasteful, even in my Warlord years when I was known to bed just about anyone to get what I wanted.
"I was surprised when I was given as a gift to a visiting Warlord from the Far East. He lived in Chin, and came up from a place they called the wild reaches. He was very wealthy, but he seemed to accept me much as you did the first time. He acted as though he really didn't want me, but it was a matter of protocol that he take me.
It was a full season before we found our way to his homeland. It seemed as though he was traveling through the lands, meeting with allies. He appeared to be raising funds for a war he was waging with a man some said was his brother, I never knew for certain. I was surprised, though, at the size of his palace. I would never have taken him for a man of wealth.
I found my time there very odd because I was a body slave to the master of the house, but he was rarely there. I was treated quite well since he had no wives. I was allowed to learn the language, and read, but they never let me write. I was told some time later that they always feared spies, and so they could never take a chance that messages might leave the palace.
One day an army swept through the palace and all the women were rounded up and brought before a new Warlord. It seems my master lost his war and this was to be our new master. He was very methodical about the way he met with each of us, inventorying his new property. It was apparent he would have no need of me either. I finally learned from one of the female cooks that to these men, honor was everything. Women had no say in their world, but they were treated better than many of the lands I had been in. This new master had one wife, and I was told it would be dishonorable for me to be in the palace. I just assumed that meant he would sell me to someone new, but he told one of his officers to take me to the Mi Tou province.
I had no idea where I was going, or why I was to be taken to this new land, but I did as I was told, and followed along. When we drew near the base of a steep mountain range, the officer indicated a spot high up. It was a castle carved from the very rocks. It took us another fortnight to reach it. When we arrived, I was given a warm bath, hot tea, and a meal. I was led to a large room where the officer that brought me there was still standing. They had offered him nothing to eat or drink, but he looked most uncomfortable, and in a hurry to be on his way.
A very elegant woman came into the room and he bowed deeply. I had learned much of the language and I was able to understand the few words he spoke before he left the castle.A gift from your brother…
I thought I was to be a body slave to this woman, or perhaps her husband or son, but that was not to be. She introduced herself as the Madame Li Tzo, and she said that she was the last in a long line knowledgeable in the secret ways of women. She told me I was to be an initiate, and that some day a person of great wealth would travel across the immense distance that separated Mi Tou from the rest of the world, just to purchase me for the talents I would learn there.
And so, I became initiated into the ways of the chinzho."
"The Order of the Rose," I whispered. They were the first words I'd spoken since Gabrielle began her account. As always, she was mesmerizing when she spoke, as if she were telling a tale, and not relating the events of her life.
Gabrielle turned slowly to look into my face. "You know of the place?"
"I lived in Chin for quite a while, but I always thought Mi Tou was imaginary, something soldiers made up to keep their spirits up on cold nights," I replied. "I'm rather amazed that it's real, and that you served there."
"I didn't serve there. I was taught there. It was the only time during my servitude that I was treated as the owner and not the slave."
"It was never on any map. I truly thought it was a fantasy." I murmured to myself. "So, this is where you learned those pressure points?"
"Yes, and much more. I lived and learned for three seasons with Madame Li. We were expected to learn every waking moment, with no time for ourselves. The first rule is that you exist for another's pleasure, not your own. It was more than what to do in bed. It was every aspect of life. We were trained to be intelligent and well informed, well read, and well rounded; the perfect companions in the bed chamber or at the dinner table.
She was right. A man of considerable wealth did travel across the known world to purchase me from Madame Li. She honored me with the symbol of her lineage before I left the castle."
Gabrielle lifted herself from against my chest, leaning forward slightly. Pushing aside the stray strands of hair that fell across her neck, she parted the locks at the base of her skull. I looked at the spot she indicated, and there, weaving its way upward onto her skull, hidden by her golden hair, was the tattoo of one perfect rose.
"Gods! Didn't it hurt?" I questioned, examining the coloring. Some warrior, right? To tell the truth, I've had my limbs nearly hacked from my body, I had both legs crushed by Caesar's men while hanging from one of his crosses, but the thought of being jabbed at with the needle-like quills filled with ink, terrified even me. Yes, I know . . . not very Conqueror-like.
"The marking didn't hurt nearly as bad as waiting for my hair to grow back," she smiled.
"That's how you came back to Greece?"
"Yes," she sighed. She turned back around and leaned against me once more. "At least I was able to return to my homeland, and I did meet Yu Pan, that should be worth something. The same nobleman who bought me purchased him. Yu Pan's entire family was killed when Barbarians from the wild reaches destroyed his village in the Ming Te province. I will always remember Madame Li. She treated me very nice," Gabrielle finished.
"And the wealthy man who brought you back to Greece?"
After a moment's silence, Gabrielle took a deep breath and said, "He was not so nice."
I could feel the way her body tensed against me, and I knew that not all her memories were ones she wanted to relive, or recollect.
"Hey, the water is getting cold, do you want to have something to eat?"
Gabrielle nodded her head, and we left the bathing room. I only hoped that little by little, Gabrielle could find a way to cleanse her mind of all the painful memories harbored there. Then I wished for some tolerance on my part. Knowing my future bride possessed the skills of Aphrodite in the bedroom was joyous and disconcerting at the same time. I knew, after all, I would be the one to reap the benefits of such a situation, but there was one niggling image that kept after me . . . those who benefited from her talents before me.
* * * * * * * * * *
I was just preparing to strap my sword around my hip, when that image popped into my head again. I know I had been unusually quiet during the midday meal we shared, and I tried to talk myself out of my self-imposed moodiness. I was afraid that Gabrielle would think twice about opening up her emotions to me, especially if I acted so juvenile afterwards.
"Does it bother you, Xena? That I was trained as chinzho?" Gabrielle asked.
"Should it?" I replied.
"No." She slowly nodded her head.
I was jealous, that much was apparent. Stupidly, insanely jealous about the fact that anyone had ever touched Gabrielle in the same way as I. I felt foolish for feeling such ridiculous emotions, but all the same, I felt them. I began to wonder how inadequate I might be, compared to the others Gabrielle bedded. Now I know how she felt when she heard about Ares and I. I suppose I should have kept my mouth closed, but like every other time in my life, I went ahead and neglected to listen to that small voice of reason.
"I was just wondering," I nervously fingered the buckle of my sword belt, preparing to fasten it. "Did everyone become this enamored of your considerable skills, or am I the only one to feel this way?" I wasn't trying to make her feel bad, I was just curious how big of an ass I was in comparison to the others.
Gabrielle crossed the room to stand before me, and I fully expected her to slap me across the face for that remark. It came out nothing as I intended it. Instead, she replaced my fumbling fingers with her own as she fastened the buckle on my belt.
When she looked up into my eyes she was smiling. It was that beguiling smile, the one that says she knows a Hades of a lot more than she's telling. Equal parts seductiveness and mystery, that smile never failed to work on me. I felt my stomach turn over slightly at the pleasure I knew could be hidden behind that smile.
"Some more, some less," she answered. "Now, do you want to know how I felt?"
"Yes," I replied as honestly as I could.
"Before you touched me, Xena, I couldn't feel. It was like walking around in a protective shell. I used to wonder what other women felt when their lovers touched them, but for me it was always the same. Eventually, I thanked the Gods that they made me that way. I never thought that I would ever see a day when I would be able to feel so much as I do when I'm with you. I couldn't feel pleasure, and I couldn't love. The first time you touched me, it terrified me. I never knew anything could feel so perfect, Xena."
She tightened my sword belt in place and stood on her toes to place a kiss on my jaw, the one that was very nearly touching the floor right about now.
"In a strange way, my love, you have been my first lover, and I don't think I shall ever have a need for another. Do you?" She asked this last with a mischievous twinkle in her green eyes.
I growled as I swept her into my arms, followed by a fierce kiss, leaving no room for misunderstanding in my answer. "Not if I have anything to say about it."
"Careful, my Conqueror," she broke away from the kiss, and straightened her blouse. "Another kiss like that and I'll never let you leave this room." She smiled.
"Mmmm, don't tempt me," I replied, kissing her neck.
She laughed; that wonderful lilting sound she makes when she is well and truly happy. It causes my own happiness, knowing my petty jealousy hasn't hurt her in any way.
"You are unquenchable, my dear Conqueror," she laughed.
"Didn't I tell you my nickname was insatiable?" I teased.
"That's not what you said when we first met."
"Yes . . . well . . . I was a different woman then," I quipped.
She looked at me in a most serious way, and I realized just what I'd said. Suddenly, she smiled, and the entire room seemed to light up from the brilliance of that smile.
"So you were, my love. So you were." She said, cupping my cheek with one hand.
Suddenly embarrassed at the attention being directed at me, I cleared my throat and took a step backward. "Uh, yes, well . . . what does your day hold?"
"I'm going to see how Solan is first."
"Ares Balls!" I cried out.
"What?" Gabrielle asked in alarm.
I just realized that I never had my intended conversation with Gabrielle about Solan. Actually, he had been the furthest thing from my mind up until now.
"I forgot to tell you about my conversation with Solan. He knows. He confronted me with the fact that I was his mother."
"By the Gods, Xena, what did you say?"
"What could I say? I admitted it in a roundabout sort of way."
"I can't believe you forgot to tell me this," she said.
"Well, when I got here last evening you were wearing nothing but your robe, and well, I became rather preoccupied after that." I teased her with a leering expression. Her smile told me I was forgiven.
I related the events of last evening's meeting with Solan, especially the parts where I thought he was being uncommonly considerate.
"What do you make of it?" Gabrielle pondered, asking the question aloud. "Do you think this is why he came, was hurting you part of his plan?"
"I'm not sure what to make of it, love. It took me so by surprise. Someone obviously filled his head with a number of false notions, not the least of which was my killing his father. I know Kaleipus would never have stood for that, so my guess is that I have more than a few centaurs that wish me ill."
"How did he . . . seem, knowing that his suspicions were correct?"
"It was strange, Gabrielle. I know of no better way to put it. On one hand, I received the impression that he might be pleased to finally know the truth. On the other hand, he looked rather as if I'd just beaten him up all over again. He acted downright civil when I left, though. I suppose that was the oddest part of all."
"Well," she looked up at me, preparing to leave to begin her day. "It proves to be a rather interesting beginning, doesn't it? I suppose I'll just make my way to Solan's rooms, and see what that son of yours has in store for me today."
She kissed me and smiled before she left the room. I loved this woman more than life itself. Although I was experiencing some rather new matriarchal feelings after my confrontation with Solan, I silently swore to myself that if the young man hurt her . . . in any way . . . I would systematically break every bone in his body.
* * * * * * * * * *
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
"Don't you ever give up? Leave me alone."
Solan was his typical self, and I had a difficult time seeing the young man that Xena described to me just a short time ago. This was his response the moment I walked through the door. As always, I attempted to ignore his more obnoxious behavior.
"Good day to you too," I answered.
"So, where've you been?" He said sullenly. "Yesterday you said you'd be here in the morning."
I turned from the table where I'd been mixing up a new bowl of pain medication. I stared at him, and noticed that the swelling around his jaw looked even worse today, but apparently his fever had abated. When I brought the bowl over to his bedside, I sat it on the low table there, and stood back from the bed, my arms folded across my chest.
"First you tell me to go, then you want to know why I wasn't here earlier. Which shall it be?" I asked.
He looked genuinely surprised at my gentle rebuke, but I thought I saw a hint of kindness cross his features. "Well," he muttered, "might as well stay now that you’re here."
It took all the restraint I had not to smile. Gods, like mother like son! His behavior reminded me so much of Xena's own mannerisms, too proud to reveal that they might actually have feelings.
"Have you had anything for the pain this morning?" I asked. I noticed the bowl had been emptied and cleaned, waiting on the table in the main room for me.
He nodded his head in the affirmative. "I took the last of it early this morning."
"How did you manage it?"
"That girl who brings food. She held it up for me, and then gave me some broth. She took off as if the hounds of Hades were after her, though. Guess she was too afraid to be in here with me. I'm going batty with no one to talk to but myself all day. No one wants to stick around for more than a few heartbeats."
As he spoke, I could hear a small boy inside, too proud and arrogant to ask for help. It must have taken a huge effort to rely on a kitchen maid to assist him. I also noticed that he clenched his teeth together more, due probably to the pain when he opened his mouth. I didn't know how to tell him that it would most likely be a fortnight before he would be able to chew even soft foods.
"Well, first things first. It's past midday and I'll send for some food, I'll see if I can come up with something besides soup. Here, take a drink of this." I told him, holding the bowl and the straw up to his lips.
As he was taking his medicine, and then the mug of water I held up, I answered his previous complaint. "You know, people might come to visit you, for more than simply errands, if you treated them kindly."
I wiped his mouth with a clean cloth, and returned the items in my hand to the table. I wondered if he would respond to me defensively or not.
"I wasn't mean to that girl from this morning!"
"Solan, there is a great deal of difference between treating someone unkindly, and treating them with respect. My point is, did you command her to help you, or did you ask her if she would?"
"She's a servant, it's her job. You don't thank people for what they're supposed to do," he replied.
I give him credit. Even though his rational was askew, he was explaining himself in a rather civil manner.
"There is nothing that any human responds better to than kindness. Whether they serve you willingly, are indentured, or even in forced servitude, they are people, not animals. Solan, if you hold one hand out with a bit of honeyed water in the palm, and in your other hand you cup a bit of dirty water. Into which hand do you think the butterfly will light?"
He looked at me as if he'd never heard anyone tell him anything remotely similar.
"You were a slave. Did people treat you good?"
"Sometimes they did, yes. Sometimes they treated me as if I were no better than the dogs that lay at their feet. I never forgot the people who treated me decently."
"I thought they always treated their whores good."
I just looked at him for a moment, wondering what his intentions where with a remark like that. I swore to myself that if I saw an attempt to hurt me with words, I would walk out of the room immediately. I saw the truth in his eyes, like his mother they expressed more than his words. I realized that this was the way he spoke. He didn't think about hurting anyone's feelings with his words. He never thought about anyone else at all.
I turned from the bed toward the partially draped window. I parted the tapestry, pulling it back to the hook that would hold it open. I took a deep breath, realizing that my next words might set the tone for any type of relationship I was to have with Solan.
I shook away any lingering shame from his words. Was I not to be the Queen of the Greek Empire? I no longer needed to hide within Gabrielle, frightened, and ashamed. Xena has given me permission, even commanded that I stand up for myself. That admonition of hers is as true now that I am a free woman, as when I was her slave. I spun back around and I wondered if I looked different to Solan. I certainly felt different. I felt . . . strong.
"I served as a personal attendant, or what you would call a body slave, not a whore. There is a difference. I had no choice in what I did, or I didn't do. Wait, I take that back. I did have one choice, to serve or die. Perhaps it was cowardice, I'm not certain, but I chose to live.
Whores on the other hand, do have a choice. They are paid for what they do, and quite handsomely, from what I understand. They can belong to you for a candlemark or the night, but they always have the luxury of leaving you and going on their way. They may even refuse you altogether."
I walked across the room as I spoke, slowly and with a quiet authority. Gods, I'd been watching Xena too much. This is exactly what she did as she spoke, pacing the room, her hands clasped behind her back.
"Oh, I've heard some of them say they have no choice but to hire their bodies out, that they have no other way to put food on their tables." I moved closer to Solan's bed, keeping my eyes trained on his. "When you are thrown into a dark cell, and given no food or water for days on end, simply for raising your eyes from the floor, that is having no choice. That is the difference between a slave and a whore."
I don't know if he was being compassionate, or if he was afraid of me at that moment, but it seemed as if the power of speech had left him.
"Oh," he muttered quietly.
He looked away from me, and I felt a thrill go through my whole being. I stood up for myself, and I won. For the first time I really understood Xena's words when she told me that people would not always show me respect, but that it was up to me as to whether I would respect myself or not.
I sat down at the large table and scribbled some words on a piece of parchment. "Torava?" I called out.
The young woman that immediately entered the room was one of my new personal guards. Torava was not quite as tall as Xena, but she made an impressive figure all the same. Lean, with broad shoulders, and muscled arms, she stood to attention when she realized that I was not in harm's way.
"Torava, I know you're not here to run errands for me, but would you please find one of the attendants out in the hall and have him bring this to Delia in the kitchens? I'm sure she'll be there at this time of the day. Tell him to ask Delia if she can comply with my request, and then have one of the young girls bring it up."
"Yes, Lady Gabrielle, right away."
Torava was all business, and appeared a little nonplussed by the smile I offered. Gods! Were all warriors the same?
By the time the tray arrived, Solan was in a better humor after the pain medication took the edge off his soreness. He was polite to me when I asked him about his home, and where he'd grown up. Well, polite may be giving him too much credit. Let's simply say that he wasn't overtly rude. He was making an attempt to be civil, for that much I was grateful. I didn't expect him to change his colors this quickly, but then again he was in a corner. He was rather a captive here in the palace, being too injured to travel, or to even do for himself. He was forced to depend on me. I seemed to be the only one with the time or the inclination to visit with him. He was probably desperate for company, and even I would do.
I brought the tray of food to him, adjusting things so I could sit on the side of the bed. Delia had prepared everything just as I asked.
"Are you ready to give something other than broth a try?" I asked.
He looked down at the tray, and I should have foreseen what was to come. "Baby food? You want me to eat food all mashed up like you give a baby?!"
"They mash up food for babies because they can't chew, and unfortunately that seems to be the case with you. Fine," I pulled away and started to rise, "if you don't want this then I'll get some broth--"
I looked at him, knowing what his decision would be. Well, I knew what mine would be anyway.
"It's gotta be better than lukewarm soup."
I rearranged the napkin across his chest once more and offered him a spoonful of the mango, which Delia had mashed into a smooth consistency. Just before he opened his mouth a small way to take a bite, he looked at me rather sheepishly.
I wasn't sure what the expression meant, but I think I mistook it for reticence to eat from my hand. "Sweet Athena! I'm only trying to feed you, not kill you!"
"Yea, well how am I supposed to know that?" He shot back.
I laughed at how ridiculously paranoid we were both being. "Because, Solan, if I'd wanted you that way, you'd already be dead." I said it in an overly sweet voice, but his eyes widened a bit all the same.
"Just don't tell anybody I'm eating baby food, okay?"
His concern over his machismo was genuine, and so I hadn't the heart to laugh at him again. "I promise," I replied.
He took the food and swallowed slowly, then his head fell back against the pillow and he made a sound of absolute pleasure. It was the closest I'd come yet to seeing a pleasant and sincere smile on his face.
"Gods, that tastes good." He had to practically screw up his face to say it, but he took his eyes away from mine and hurriedly muttered, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," I replied. I didn't want to tease him or make a great deal of fuss over the simple courtesy he was extending me. I simply hoped that if I treated his good progress matter of factly, it might become second nature to him.
"Kuros says that your body will heal in no time at all. The worst is the first fortnight until all the swelling goes down. Actually, it's the swelling underneath your skin, which causes most of your pain. The medicine will help with that." I tried to make some pleasant conversation to keep his agreeable mood up.
"He says I might not be able to hold a sword again." It seemed to pain him to say it.
"I have every confidence that you will, Solan," I answered quickly. "I have a friend that I have asked to travel from Northern Greece. His name is Yu Pan and he is a healer of considerable skills."
He swallowed his food and looked down at the hand, wrapped in bandages and splinted with willow branches. It was so swollen it was hardly recognizable as a hand.
"I'm not sure it will ever be the same."
I expected his tone to be harsh or bitter, but what I heard was something different. His expression, as he examined his once whole hand, seemed partly that of regret over having fought in the first place. I thought I also caught a glimpse of awe; perhaps wonder at the strength that could have crushed the bones in his hand like mere blades of grass.
"Can he fix crushed bones?"
"He can if you believe he can," I answered him.
"So, all I have to do is think about getting better and I will, eh?" he asked. I noted the hint of sarcasm.
"It's an ancient healing art, practiced by too few these days. Although, in the lands to the far east, they think us uncivilized for our healing techniques. I've seen the healing arts performed in many different lands, Solan, and not all of the ways that are different from our own are to be ridiculed. They're merely different."
What lands?" He seemed suddenly interested in what I had to say.
"That you've visited. What lands?"
"Oh," I smiled at his eagerness to listen now. "Well, I lived in Persia when I was a child. I spent a number of years in Chin, Egypt, and Gaul."
"You've been to Gaul? Are the hills as green as they say? In Egypt, do the kings really have monuments that reach to the heavens? Did you ever see the black powder they use in Chin?"
He appeared to be as excited as a child would be, and I realized that in many ways, he was a child. I'm sure his adopted father tried to raise him right, and I was positive it had little to do with the fact that they were centaurs, or even male. I've known some men who were more capable of nurturing children than some mothers. I believe it was because they were a race of warriors. The warriors of the world keep us safe, and our lands protected, but most of them are not equipped with the abilities to be nurturers and caregivers to youngsters. I laughed, not in making fun, but at his sheer enthusiasm.
"It's just . . . well, I've never been away from Greece." He seemed embarrassed at the admission.
"I probably would have always stayed here myself if I hadn't been captured by slavers. To answer your question, though, yes, the grass is as green in Gaul as they say. The hills roll along endlessly, bitter cold in the winter season, though. They actually cut up chunks of grass and earth, dry them, and burn them later for heat.
Egypt was beautiful. The Nile River would flood in the spring, leaving all the silt and soil on the banks as the water receded. By the time the season came for planting, the land along the river was full of all the nutrients the flooding left behind. The kings there are called Pharaohs, and yes, some of the monuments they created in honor of their dead truly reach high into the sky. I never saw so many slaves in all my life. Their stone monuments are, quite literally, cemented together with the blood from tens of thousands of slaves who become trapped underneath the limestone as it's set it in place.
I did indeed see the black powder in Chin. I never saw it used in battle, but on many occasions, I saw it used for entertainment. They called it yānhǔo, or smoke and fire. I never learned how they wrapped them together, but it seemed a particularly dangerous, yet artistic craft. They mixed the black powder and wrapped it tightly in parchment, allowing room for a fuse. Then, they would tie the rolled parchments to a bamboo stick and stick it in the ground. When they lit the fuse, the package would shoot off into the sky, exploding into a burst of color. During the day, they only used yānhǔo that made loud noises, but at night, the display was spectacular. When they would explode, it looked as if you shot an arrow into the sky, and when the arrow hit a star, a million tiny sparkles would fall to the ground."
I realized I was reminiscing inside my head, but when I came to my present surroundings again, Solan was listening intently to my every word.
"Well, anyway, I'm sure you will travel to all the places you desire."
"You think this friend of yours can really heal my hand?"
"As I said before, I know he can, but you have to believe he can," I answered.
"How does he do it? Is it just a trick?" He asked, still somewhat skeptical.
"I suppose it depends on what you consider a trick to be. It isn't a joke, or a deception. He heals through a person's Qi [pronounced ch'i]. We all have an energy inside of us, but most of us don't recognize that inner energy. As humans, we all have four parts to our self. We are comprised of mind, body, thought, and ch'i."
"Aren't thoughts the same as your mind?" He asked a serious question, and I admit that it surprised me.
"The mind exists for everyone, but our thoughts live inside our mind. Just as this mug holds water," I pointed to the cup on the table. "The cup is your mind and the water represents your thoughts. To be whole all four parts of our self must be well. If your mind is bothered by something, then healing your body alone won't make you healthy."
"And you think this works?"
"I know it does. All I ask is that you give Yu Pan a chance," I answered.
"Sure, what've I got to lose? I won't be dancing anytime soon, so my social calendar's pretty open."
I laughed at his dry humor. Yes, like mother like son, indeed. "What would you like to do now? Would you like to sleep for a bit?"
"Gods, no! I feel like I'm sleeping my life away. My mo--the Conqueror says you can play King's Men."
I caught the slip he made, and I was convinced he was about to use the words, my mother. My eyebrow arched as I thought about why Xena would tell him that.
"Yes, I do play."
"Well, then, let's get a board in here," he said, much too enthusiastically. "The Conqueror says you're pretty good."
"Oh, she did, did she?" I had the uncanny feeling that Xena thought Solan might play the game in exactly the same manner as his mother. I had to smile, for it was true. Warriors all played the game the same way.
"Very well," I answered. I went into the other room and rummaged through the standing cabinet. I returned carrying a lightweight board and wooden box of pieces back to his bedside.
"I want to warn you right off, I'm pretty good at this game. I just don't want to hurt your feelings too bad," he smirked.
"I'll try to keep up," I replied, setting the pieces in place. I was planning the ways in which I would make my lover pay for this.
* * * * * * * * * *
I spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with the local ruling officers of the village. It was a busy, yet tedious day. What with the few candlemarks of sleep I gathered last night, I nearly fell asleep once or twice. I heard that Gabrielle had spent the entire afternoon with Solan. It was a testament to either Solan's ability to behave decently, or simply Gabrielle's superb forbearance.
I knocked on Solan's door before entering, but when I opened the door, what met my eyes did not make me happy. Solan lay in bed with a scowl on his face and simply glared at me as I entered. Gabrielle knelt beside the bed picking up pieces of a King's Men game board, which looked as though they'd been tossed about.
"What have we here?" I asked, mustering up as innocent an expression as I knew how. If looks could kill, or even maim, I'd be writhing in agony on the floor with the daggers Gabrielle was shooting at me.
We both looked up at Solan at the same time, and I couldn't help but see the guilt written across his features.
"She cheats!" He blurted out.
I knew I shouldn't have, but I just had to. I laughed. In fact, I laughed so hard I had to lean against the doorframe just to keep myself upright. Gabrielle smiled and continued picking up the game pieces, shaking her head back and forth. Solan just kept glaring at me, but still I laughed. Mostly I laughed because for the very first time, I was seeing myself, as Gabrielle must occasionally view me . . . as a spoiled, pouting, petulant child.
Oh, Gods, I thought as I wiped the tears from my eyes. Some days it's good to be the Conqueror.
To be continued in Chapter 10: "He Had Reflected, Having Time to Pause"