tagSci-Fi & FantasyLions of Parnatha Ch. 04

Lions of Parnatha Ch. 04

byMedievna©

A big thanks to ALL the comments I've received. Some I agreed with, some I did not, but overall your comments help make me a better writer. On the subject of the perspective, I conceded and agreed to transition completely between first and third person. I also agreed that the last chapter was rather rushed, so I took quite a bit more time with this one. It's not as all inclusive as I would have liked, but with major work stuff coming up in the next two weeks, this is probably the last chance I'll get to post for a little bit.

This story is ultimately being written for my own benefit, but I've enjoyed it and want to share it with all of you who bother to read it. Whether yo like it or hate it, please feel free to comment and rate it. ;D


*

It was nearly a week before I was able to sleep through the night again. I greatly feared going to bed, knowing what awaited me: horrible nightmares full of pain and terror, and a helplessness I had never experienced before. All night I was beset by faceless menaces that would beat me into submission, clawing at my clothes and skin, and abusing my body in ways only the creative subconscious could fathom. I would wake with a start, my body shivering and my skin cold and clammy with sweat, my heart always pounding in my ears as it raced me away from the threats that plagued me in my dreams. I would cry and curse, angry and confused at what I couldn't control or fight.

My mood, as a result, was thoroughly sour, and I detached myself from everyone around me, often secluding myself in my chambers. The only other person in my household who understood, and who I trusted, was the woman I had inadvertently rescued, Vienes. I had taken her on as my handmaid, an action for which she repeatedly expressed her utmost appreciation, and I came to rely on her for comfort as I battled this new found fear and vulnerability. I had never been unable to assert and defend myself before, and I had certainly never been close to death, but in that little complex of buildings I had been a prisoner, alone and at the mercy of cruel masters. Had Gaius not arrived when he did, I would very likely be dead. It was a thought that frightened me greatly. Vienes, however, did not dwell on her experience, instead choosing to absorb this new life I had given her. Her strength helped buoy my own, even if I secretly envied it.

For his part, Gaius did his best to comfort me while not hovering over me. He knew I hated to be micromanaged, I had made that infinitely clear on more than one occasion, but the event had put even his steely nerves on high alert. He would check on my several times a day, concern and frustration radiating from his eyes.

I admit I was short with him, most of the time. Already frightened and angry by this new sense of vulnerability, his attention only reinforced the idea that I was incapable of taking care of myself, and I lashed out at him more than once. He weathered my temper and my insults with a grim stoicism, always returning to me with a hopeful smile on his face, a smile I was more than prepared to erase.

One afternoon, after a particularly nasty argument with Gaius, Vienes decided she had had enough of my attitude and self-pity. I sat fuming on the chaise in my sitting room, going over every little insulting thing the man had said and done, as Vienes slowly combed my hair.

"How long do you intend to keep doing that to him, my lady?" she asked quietly.

"Do what to him?" I mumbled, confused.

"You have done nothing but scream at him since he rescued us, and yet he insists on returning to you. I think he hopes to find some affection from you, yet you continue to refuse him and drive him away from you." She paused, considering me as she toyed with possibilities for my hair. "If you continue to drive him away," she said softly, "he may stop returning to you."

I knit my brows and looked over my shoulder at her. "What do you mean?"

"A man in his position, a powerful man, can have any woman he wants, married or not. His devotion to you is certainly a rare thing, my lady, especially given that you do not reciprocate it. Most Parnathan men would just take a mistress and be done with it."

I blinked and frowned. Gaius had always been concerned for my well being, considerate of me despite my determination to relegate him to enemy status. Were his continued attempts at affection really that out of the ordinary for a nobleman, or any man?

Vienes must have read my mind, or seen my thoughts written all over my face. "Didn't you know that?" she asked, tilting her head. "I thought you were chosen from a maiden's home."

"I was," I said softly, "but I didn't really ever think about how... I never wanted to marry. I was so concerned with keeping my freedom that I didn't pay attention to the world I would become a part of if I was ever forced into it. I just rejected all of it."

I suddenly felt extremely foolish. This world, this pristine, manicured, choreographed, deadly world in which I now existed was as completely foreign to me as a far flung land would be, and my ignorance was of my own design. I hadn't the faintest idea how to dress, how to act, how to read the intentions of others as they smiled to my face and plotted behind my back. The games played by Parnatha's elite were high stakes, and I was the ultimate rookie, with everything to lose. Internally chastising myself, I sulked on the chaise as Vienes continued to comb and arrange my hair. Was all this fighting tooth and nail for something I had obviously already lost really worth it? Was I destined to give up on precious freedom? And, more importantly, would Gaius really set me aside for something more attainable and agreeable if I did continue to fight? The thought made me nauseous.

Why should I care if he sets me aside? I screamed in my mind. I hate him! I hate that he betrayed my trust and thrust me into a role I have no desire to play! I hate that he wants me to love him!

"I never wanted any of this," I muttered sullenly.

"The gods decide our fates, not us," Vienes commented. "All we can do is make do with what we have."

"That isn't good enough for me," I said, shaking my head. "I refuse to be anything other than what I am just to play a part in some cosmic entertainment for the gods. I won't be a mild-mannered, silent wife-servant. I won't."

Vienes frowned. "I don't think my lord expects you to be. I believe he just wants you to trust and respect him, and he's obviously willing to go to great lengths to win that from you." Gathering a good portion of my hair, she twisted it and wound it into a bun at the crown of my head. "But even the most patient, loving man has his limits. If you continue to fight him on principle, those limits will be reached." She emphasised her words with the metallic click of a clip being pinned into my hair.

I resolved to remain stalwart in my defenses, nodding slightly in confirmation to myself. A small, nagging doubt had built a fortress in the back of my mind, however, and it was asking me if I still knew what it was I was fighting for.

Vienes had managed to calm my temper, however, and I didn't verbally assail Gaius anymore when he came to visit me. Not that my cold indifference was any better, but it was a start.

A few days after my conversation with my handmaid, I was given an opportunity to see just how ignorant I was of Parnathan social politics. I was absorbed in a volume of modern Parnathan philosophy by a hermit called Yagos, still dressed in my night shift and house robe and the remnants of my breakfast spread around the table before me, when I was interrupted by Gaius clearing his throat. I turned to regard him, surprised that I hadn't even heard him enter the room. He was standing a few feet from me, dressed in a very white kilt and shirt with a toga in the typical deep blue of the royal house set neatly over one shoulder. He was also holding a small box in one hand.

"I am required to attend a convergence at the forum today," he said somewhat stiffly, and I garnered that he wasn't terribly happy about it. "I will likely be there for most of the day."

"Oh." I didn't really have a response, nor did I really care. "Enjoy yourself."

"I want you to come with me, Lithana." He stepped forward a few paces, until he was but a foot from where I sat.

I blinked up at him in surprise. "You what?"

"I want you to come with me. There is a library there that I think you would enjoy, and you will be able to see more of the city." Kneeling down, Gaius ran his fingers over my forearm. His touch was hesitant, waiting for a reaction. And though I bristled at his touch, a rather large part of me wanted him to continue. "I also want you to get out of the estate," he added, his bright blue eyes watching me carefully. "A change of scenery would be good for you."

I was strongly tempted to scream at him for daring to think he knew anything about what I needed, but Vienes' warning played in the back of my mind. Instead, I held my tongue and nodded slightly. "I suppose I will need to get dressed then," I said sullenly.

Gaius nodded, presenting the small box he had brought with him. "Yes, I'm afraid your sleeping clothes would not be tolerated. I thought you might like to wear this, as well."

I opened the lid to the box and felt my eyes go wide with wonder. Nestled on a bed of silk was a wrought diagram of the solar system, all represented by precious jewels and glinting silver. It had a hinged clasp at the back, so it could be pinned in its owner's hair. I caressed it gently, marveling at the intricate detail, and saw that Gaius was smiling. It was the first genuinely simple smile I had seen from him in some time, and I felt myself smile in return.

"It is beautiful, Gaius, thank you." I considered his gift, along with what Vienes had said, and a blush crept into my cheeks. Her remarks about Gaius and his willingness to put up with my abuse in hopes of something better were true, it seemed. "Gaius I'm... I..." My words faltered and I found myself staring silently at his face.

"You what, Lithana?"

I have so much to say and I don't know how to say it! I flustered inwardly. I wanted to apologize for the war I was waging against him, to ask him if he was being honest with me, to find out if any of his affection was real, but all I could manage to say in the face of his blue eyes and kind smile was, "Later. We can talk later."

Gaius considered me a moment, then nodded and stood. "I will be waiting for you in the courtyard," he said, and then he bowed and left. He always bowed, I noted, and the flush in my cheeks deepened. Setting down my book and the box, I called for Vienes and set about finding something suitable to wear to the Grand Forum of Arthos.

The Grand Forum of Arthos was the seat of the Empire's power. All decisions, no matter how great or small, were made within its soaring domes and spires. The men and women who resided there, dignitaries, nobility, scholars, and of course the magistrates and senators, were tasked with the impossible: managing the vast expanse of the Parnathan Empire, and they did it well. For centuries this broad swath of gardens and palaces and halls had been a beacon of learned leadership and iron doctrine, an extension of the divine and absolute power wielded by the imperial family of Asteria. Legend held that Asteria, the first Emperor, the man who had united the independent Parlathian kingdoms, was a descendant of the god-king Rion, and thus his children and their children had retained the divine right to rule. It was he who had named the Empire Parnatha, the Immortal Lion. The Forum and its buildings had been built as a complex around the imperial palace, another physical declaration of its might and servitude. It stood as a reminder that even the learned men who toiled within its walls were subject to the might of the Emperor. He, like his palace, was always at the center of everything.

I marvelled at the exquisite beauty around me as Gaius and his entourage led me across the grounds. Spectacular statues carved from the purest granite and marble dotted the lawns, which were arranged and manicured into intricate designs. People hurried from building to building, some senators and some their scribes, all terribly busy with the business of the Empire. They made way for us, however, not daring to block the path of one of the legion's commanding officers, and I couldn't help but smile with a bit of pride. Gaius had never struck me as a particularly powerful man, especially in his own home, but the influence he wielded here, among the Empire's elite, managed to impress me.

Climbing the alabaster steps to the forum's Prime Hall, I felt a gasp escape my mouth. The columns that lined the entryway were the largest I had ever seen, well over three stories high, and the carved designs at their crests were inlaid with gold and fine green stones. Silk curtains and standards lined the walls and windows, each representing the districts and governings of the Empire, and stoic legionaires stood guard in pairs at every entrance, their polished ceremonial armor glowing in the sunlight.

As we crossed the shiny tile floor of the foyer, I looked up to see a spectacular mosaic of Asteria inlaid on the ceiling. His face was angular, his strong jaw set in what looked more like a scowl than anything else. His eyes, however, struck me as odd. Everything else about him was dark, from his hair to his skin, but his eyes were the brightest blue I had ever seen depicted in stone and tile. As I gazed at him, awestruck and confused, I began to wonder if in fact his man, this legend who had built these massive dedications to his power, really was in fact a demi-god. He certainly looked the part.

I was so preoccupied with staring at the ceiling that I didn't notice when Gaius stopped in front of me, and I walked straight into him, treading on his deep blue cloak. He grunted and turned to face me, one eyebrow quirked.

"I'm sorry," I said sheepishly. "The ceiling, I got distracted."

Gaius looked up at the mosaic, nodding slightly as he examined it, and then looked back at me. "Yes, I forgot this was your first trip here." A small smile flitted across his lips, the kind I had seen when I had first met him, and I felt my pulse quicken. "I've seen it so much I forget it's even there, now. But it really is impressive. All of it." Gaius gestured with one hand toward the rest of the Prime Hall, and I found my eyes wandering hungrily as I devoured the beauty before me.

"How could you?" I gasped as my eyes rested on the balconies and book cases that lined the perimeter of the hall. "I could look at all of this for a thousand years and I would still find something new."

Gaius laughed. "I admire your heart, Lithana, I really do. I wish I still possessed that kind of innocence."

I sniffed, lifting my chin imperiously. "I wouldn't mistake admiration of beauty for naivete, were I you, Gaius," I said with a playful edge. "Perhaps I just see better than you can."

Gaius lifted one hand to stroke my arm fondly, and it struck me as odd that I recognized his touch as being a fond one. "My nose is usually buried in paper. Perhaps I should look up more."

Suddenly feeling bold, I took a step forward and brought my face close to his. "Perhaps you should do a lot of things more," I said softly. I could smell leather and steel and vanilla, and I bit my lower lip as excitement coursed through me.

Gaius lofted his eyebrows and tilted his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted when an older man with very little hair dressed in a flowing white toga came into view. "Gaius Artigro!" he bellowed, his arms spread wide and his face glowing with a smile.

Gaius turned to face him, also grinning, and spread his arms in a similar manner. "Domo Camron Liperion!"

I watched in fascination as the two men embraced each other. I didn't know very much about social intricacies. My brothers and I had never stood on ceremony, and I had dutifully ignored my tutors at the maiden's home when they had tried to teach me about tradition and etiquette. Now, seeing Gaius and what must have been a friend greet each other, I found I couldn't help but watch their exchange. Gaius and the man embraced fondly, patting each other twice on the shoulder before taking a step backward, their hands around each other's forearms.

"I didn't expect you to have returned from the islands already, Liperion," Gaius was saying. "I had heard the pirates were holding siege to the Norian ports."

Domo Camron Liperion scoffed, shaking his head. "Those flea-bitten mongrels are hardly worthy of such a distinguished title as pirate, Gaius," the older man said, sounding disgusted. "Their vessels are hardly sea worthy, their seamanship is laughable, and their battle training is atrocious. I've seen a whore do better. The only reason they're able to hold their ground, so to speak, is that the imperial fleet's new captain is as fresh as a priestess' cunt during a new moon."

Gaius laughed, running a hand awkwardly through his hair as he threw a glance in my direction. I briefly assumed that I should have been offended, but I wasn't. In fact I was staring at both men with rapt attention, my eyes wide and my lips slightly parted in eagerness.

Domo Liperion cleared his throat, releasing Gaius' arms and bowing slightly to me. "Forgive me, my lady, I did not know you were there."

"Oh, it's fine," I laughed, waving away his apology. "I've said worse myself. Did you say there were pirates in the islands? Real pirates?"

Liperion stared at me in disbelief as Gaius stifled a chuckle. "Er, yes, my lady. Real pirates indeed. The kind that would happily murder you for that pretty pearl necklace you wear, and would probably eat your entrails afterward," he added with a wink.

Catching onto his game, I grinned and retaliated. "My entrails, you say? Poor form. A proper scoundrel would surely skin me alive first and then butcher me. What would they dry my flesh with? Salt from the sea?"

Domo Liperion roared with laughter and bowed deeply to me, taking my hand and kissing my knuckles. "My my, what a fiery little thing you are! Gaius, who is this delightful creature? Surely not another cousin? I thought I had finally memorized the members of your uncle's family."

Gaius shook his head, still grinning. "Sadly, no, my dear Domo. May I present my wife, the lady Lithana Vitalis Artigro."

"Your wife? Well now, Gaius, I'm offended that I didn't merit an invitation to this most auspicious of occasions."

"You were under siege in the islands, old friend, remember?"

"Yes, well, surely you could have sent a note. Wherever did you find her?"

"I'm a nymph, sir," I chimed in, giggling. "He lured me from my forested home with a song and dance."

Domo Liperion laughed again, and I couldn't help but laugh along with him. I was terribly pleased to have met someone in the forum who wasn't a stiff upper lip, and I wasn't going to pass up on the opportunity to have a little fun with it.

"A song and dance, my dear lady?" the old man asked, his eyes twinkling. "Did he perform it properly, the way our ancient ancestors might?"

"Of course, sir, he was naked as a babe the entire time. I wouldn't have given him a moment's thought had he not been putting forth maximum effort."

As Domo Liperion nearly collapsed from a fit of laughter, I looked at Gaius and saw that he was blushing deeply, despite his lopsided, awkward grin. "I fear I had better find my dear wife something else to do, Liperion, before she starts telling you truly unsavory tales about me."

Gaius took my arm, and our little group made its way through the foyer and into an adjoining room. This one was also quite large, with several levels of balconies and catwalks that criss-crossed the ceiling above me. Large windows situated just below the dome allowed the afternoon sunlight to filter down over the balconies, which were filled with row upon row of shelves, each tightly packed with books and scrolls. On the ground floor were many long tables, which were occupied by scribes and scholars, all hunched over scrolls and volumes of written work.

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