Slave warrior queen, p.10
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.10

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “Of course not,” Ceres said, bothered, her cheeks flushing hot.

  When she looped an arm through his to prove her point, she became irritated with herself for liking it, and immediately, she strengthened her resolve to not let the charming prince anywhere near her heart.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Standing atop a hill overlooking Cumorla, the capital of Haylon, a remote isle in the Mazeronian Sea, Commander Akila’s heart soared with joy as he watched the statue of King Claudius come tumbling down. He inhaled the air, and the sweet sensation of justice filled him, as smoke from the king’s castle rose into the azure heaven above the city.

  Justice, Akila thought. Justice was finally being served today. Every last royal relative of the king had been locked inside that abominable seven-spired structure, and now it had burned down.

  Wind pushed at his armor as he beheld the thousands of men on the hillside, their red banners flapping for the revolution’s cause. Before twilight, he would lead them into a battle that would free them, finally, from centuries of oppression. His chest swelled with pride.

  The people of Haylon had suffered long enough under the rule of tyrannical kings. They had paid unreasonable taxes, sent their best warriors to Delos, and bowed their heads to the ten thousand Empire soldiers that plagued the streets day and night. His entire life, Akila had watched women and daughters raped, children flogged and arrested. The young were forced to work long days in the king’s fields, returning with welts and dejected eyes. He knew it was long past since they needed to take back their freedom, to take back their lives.

  A messenger approached.

  “Western Cumorla has been secured, sir,” he said.

  “The Empire soldiers?” Akila asked.

  “Fleeing to the east.”

  “How many civilian lives lost?”

  “Three hundred, thus far.”

  Akila clenched his fists. It was less than expected, but each life lost was a weight on his conscience, another son or daughter dead, a mother, brother, sister, father butchered while defending this land’s freedom.

  He dismissed the messenger and signaled to his lieutenant to alert the final wave of militias. They would trap the invaders on the western entrance and treat them with the same courtesy with which they had treated his people. Not much would be left of them after that, and that brought great joy to Akila’s heart.

  Akila kicked his horse forward, leading the lieutenant and his men into battle. He rode down the hill and in through the northern city gates, past balconied passageways, closed inns, and padlocked work shacks. He passed families huddled in corners, children lying facedown on the stone streets, and horses on the run without riders. The militias followed Akila without the city walls, hiding behind trenches to await the thousands of Empire soldiers that would soon flee through the gates and try to escape toward the harbor.

  Not a one must escape, Akila had told his men this morning as he had ordered hundreds of men to stand guard at the docks. For even one escapee meant word would get back to Delos—and then the king would send tens of thousands of Empire soldiers to Haylon.

  Minutes passed, and minutes more, until they had been lying in wait for nearly an hour, as twilight descended.

  Then, suddenly, the first Empire soldier rode out on a horse, holding the Empire ensign, Akila saw.

  “Long live King Claudius!” the soldier yelled.

  Three flaming arrows hit him in the chest.

  He fell off his horse, into the canal below the bridge.

  Three more Empire soldiers followed, all felled, too, as they rode through the gates.

  Soldier after soldier then trickled out of the city gates, and a brutal battle ensued.

  Akila led the way with a fierce battle cry as night fell. All around him men were losing their lives to the cause of freedom, a freedom they would never see, but that perhaps their children would.

  Akila gathered his most ruthless warriors to ride with him into the city, and he looked side to side to see them now, their horses thundering in his ears. He led the group of three hundred through the southern entrance, and then as they rode split them into four groups of fifty, each to search for Empire soldiers in different directions.

  With torches and swords, Akila led his men down winding streets, stopping at every house, searching—hunting high and low, not a single enemy to be found. Almost at the end of their search, they happened upon a stable behind the high priest’s mansion, and Akila thought it looked like an excellent hiding place for Empire soldiers.

  As he was about to command his men to search the stable, the high priest stepped out from his house.

  “Have you seen any Empire soldiers this way?” Akila asked, descending his horse.

  “No,” the priest said, his hands clasped as if in reverence in front of his body.

  But there was something unsettling in the priest’s eyes that made Akila think he was lying.

  “Search the stable,” Akila told his soldiers, and they immediately headed toward and entered the building.

  There was a sudden uproar, and when Akila turned toward the commotion, the priest took off running down the street. Akila ran after him, but when he arrived at the street, he saw the priest galloping on a horse in the direction of the southern entrance.

  Akila whistled, and once his horse was by his side, he hopped onto it and rode after the escapee. Through the city gates the priest went, with Akila on his heels, but Akila couldn’t quite catch up to him.

  Riding eastward, Akila whipped his horse onward relentlessly, his eyes on the escapee. He passed palm trees and hopped fences, rode through grassy fields and sand dunes. Following the priest down a steep sloping hill, it was then he saw a makeshift dock, hidden below a dome of trees. None of his men had been ordered to watch this dock because no one knew it was there.

  To his dread, he saw the priest push away in a small sailboat, the wind catching the red sail immediately.

  Almost there, Akila wondered if his horse would make the leap from the landing pier and into the boat, the distance increasing by the second. The horse’s muscles tensed beneath him, but Akila drove it forward.

  The horse leapt from the dock and into the vessel, skidding as it landed on the slippery wooden deck, throwing Akila off in the fall.

  Slightly dazed from the rough landing, Akila rose to his feet and drew his sword.

  The priest charged immediately, his sword held high, and he lunged and stabbed with the ferocity of a man who knew his life was at stake.

  Akila dashed forward and slashed his blade toward the traitor, slicing him in the face. The man growled, dropped his sword, and whipped out a dagger, flinging it at Akila. But Akila saw it coming and blocked the dagger with his blade.

  The priest spun and hurled a basket at Akila, then a wooden crate. Akila hit them away. Next, the priest grabbed a net and tossed it so Akila’s sword hand became wrapped in it, and then he pulled on the net, causing Akila to stumble forward.

  Coming at him, the priest picked up his sword and aimed it at Akila’s chest, but Akila wore heavy armor and the man’s sword slid off the metal like butter, causing the priest to stumble forward.

  Taking advantage, Akila shook the net from off his arm and stabbed the priest.

  He collapsed to the deck, dead.

  Akila pulled his blade out of the priest’s limp body and cleaned it on the net before sliding it back in its sheath.

  Not wasting a second, he looked to the city walls, and seeing the black sky was turning navy blue, he realized he needed to return to his men, and quick. He sailed the boat back to the dock, set the boat on fire, and rode with all he had toward the eastern entrance.

  Just as he arrived, pink graced the sky. Victory was called, and a new banner was placed atop the outer walls of Cumorla.

  As bells of freedom tolled through the capital, Akila rode through the city’s streets with his militia, men, women, and children cheering them on.

  He looked toward the north and thought
of his family members in Delos, still in bondage, and he knew in his heart that freedom was coming for them, too.

  For here, for the first time in history, he stood on the first free land in the Empire.

  The revolution had begun.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Ceres felt a pang of fear as she realized someone was following her. She quickened her pace on the rocky white pathway, lit by the morning sun, winding her way amidst green lawns and endless rows of flowers, her mind still reeling from her encounter the night before with Thanos. She paused and looked over her shoulder, listening for the footsteps she knew she had just heard.

  Yet there was no one in sight.

  Ceres froze and listened. She didn’t have time for annoying games. She needed to get to the palace training ground with the weapons in the barrow before practice started, or Thanos would be weaponless.

  Who could it be?

  Overheated, she glanced up into the sky as a drop of sweat rolled down her forehead. The sun was a hot glowing disk already, and just like the gardens, she was withering. The muscles in her arms and shoulders started to burn, but she couldn’t afford to rest. She was late as it was.

  Pushing the heavy handcart, she picked up her pace, and when the footsteps came again, and she spun and saw no one, her irritation increased.

  Finally, as she neared the gazebo, the footsteps grew louder, and when she glanced over her shoulder again, this time she spotted Stephania, wearing a red silk dress, a golden wreath in her golden hair.

  Of course. The snooping princess.

  “Hello, weapon girl,” Stephania said, a slight frown on her face.

  Ceres bowed her head and turned back around, eager to get away. But before Ceres could escape, Stephania stepped in front of her, blocking the narrow path.

  “How does a girl become something as lowly as a weapon-keeper, I wonder?” Stephania asked, her hand hitting her hips.

  “Thanos hired me,” Ceres replied. “Now if you would so kindly—”

  “You will address me as your highness!” Stephania snapped.

  Ceres startled and she wanted to give the spoiled girl a piece of her mind, but instead, she kept her head down, reminding herself she wasn’t here to protect her honor, only to fight for the revolution.

  “Yes, your highness,” she said.

  “It is important you know your place, would you not agree?” Stephania said.

  She walked a slow circle around Ceres, eyes probing, hands clasped behind her back, and fancy shoes clicking against the bricks as she strode.

  “Since the day you arrived, I have been watching you. I will always be watching you. Do you hear?” Stephania said.

  Ceres pinched her lips together so she wouldn’t be tempted to say something disrespectful in return, although it was becoming increasingly difficult to remain silent.

  “I see the way you look at Prince Thanos, but you would be foolish to think he would consider you anything but—”

  “I can assure you—” Ceres started.

  Stephania stepped so close to Ceres’s face that their noses were an inch away, and then she whispered through gritted teeth, “Don’t interrupt your superior when she is speaking!”

  Ceres squeezed fingers around the cart’s handles, her forearms now burning.

  “Prince Thanos may have hired you, but as his future wife, it is my responsibility to ensure his associations are trustworthy,” Stephania said.

  Now Ceres couldn’t hold back anymore.

  “Thanos told me he wasn’t going to marry you,” she said.

  Stephania flinched.

  “Thanos is a smart man, but he is no good judge of character. He probably failed to learn what transgressions there might be in your past before he hired you.”

  Did Stephania know about how she killed the slaver and his guards? Ceres wondered, now considering she could lose her position at the palace and be punished for it if it came out.

  “There are no transgressions in my past,” Ceres said sternly.

  Stephania laughed.

  “Oh, come now. Everyone has done something in the past they are ashamed of,” she said.

  Stephania picked up a sword from the handcart and poked Ceres’s leg with it. Oh, how Ceres wanted to give the rotten princess a lesson in swordsmanship, revealing how inept her clean, dainty, little monarch hands were. But she remained immovable.

  “And believe me,” Stephania said as she raised the blade to Ceres’s face, a hair away. “If there is so much as a sliver of a transgression in your past, I will find out, and then I will have you thrown out of the palace, headfirst.”

  Stephania tossed the sword onto the ground next to Ceres’s feet, the blade clattering as it landed.

  “Thanos is mine, do you hear?” Stephania said. “He has been promised to me by the king and queen and if you get in the way of our marriage, I will personally slit your throat while you are sleeping in my future summer home.”

  Stephania shoved Ceres with her shoulder as she walked by, heading toward the palace training grounds.

  *

  The second Ceres arrived at the practice arena, she could sense that something was wrong. It wasn’t that Stephania was glowering at her from beneath the willow trees, although their conversation was still swimming through Ceres’s mind, irritating her to no end. It wasn’t that it seemed the day would turn into the hottest one of the year, or that Thanos wasn’t here yet, practicing.

  As she rolled the handcart toward their weapon table, her eyes followed Lucious in the middle of the practice arena. He was clutching a bottle of wine in one hand, a sword in the other, and his new weapon-keeper knelt before him with a worried expression, while balancing an apple on his head. The weapon-keeper had several small cuts on his face, and one on his neck, Ceres saw.

  “Stay…very…still,” Lucious said, closing his eyes while pointing the tip of his sword toward the weapon-keeper’s head.

  The other royal warriors and their weapon-keepers stood watching, rolling their eyes, arms folded across chests.

  Stepping closer, Ceres could see that Lucious’s face and arms were bruised, one eye swollen and red. She couldn’t remember him becoming injured yesterday at the Killings. Had something happened after the event?

  She walked over to the table and started laying weapons out in preparation for when Thanos would arrive. Swords, daggers, a trident, a flogger.

  From the corner of her eye, she saw Lucious stagger, causing the other royal warriors and a few weapon-keepers to laugh.

  Lucious touched the tip of his sword to the weapon-keeper’s nose, and the weapon-keeper winced with closed eyes as a drop of blood made its way into his mouth.

  “Don’t move a muscle or you could lose your head,” Lucious said. “And you would have no one to blame but yourself.”

  This was insane, Ceres thought. Couldn’t someone do something? She glanced at the others, but no one said a word or seemed to have any intent on helping Lucious’s victim.

  Next, Lucious raised his sword, but before he swung, the weapon-keeper whimpered and the apple fell from his head and onto the ground, bouncing on impact, rolling a few feet away.

  “I told you to remain still!” Lucious snapped.

  “I…I’m sorry,” the weapon-keeper said, cowering backward, fright in his eyes.

  “Get out of my sight, you useless piece of dung!” Lucious yelled.

  The young man rose from his knees and scurried over to Lucious’s weapon table. Just then, Thanos arrived.

  “Good morrow,” he said to Ceres, not having witnessed what just happened. “I trust you slept well?”

  “Yes, thank you,” Ceres said, now all of a sudden feeling much lighter from his presence.

  She continued to place weapons on the table, but when he remained quiet, she looked over at him. To her surprise, she found that he was studying her face with eyes that seemed to want possess her, and when she raised an eyebrow at him, his lips tilted upward into a hint of a smile.

 
; She felt her cheeks warm.

  Without a word between them, he began helping her organize the weapons.

  That’s odd that he would help me, Ceres thought. He’s a prince. Perhaps he was trying to show appreciation in return for how she had helped him at the Killings? He didn’t have to do that, Ceres knew, though she did know one thing. When he showed kindness like this, it was becoming more and more difficult to reconcile the caring man before her with the arrogant man she had always thought he was.

  Ceres glanced over to Stephania, and the princess’s eyes were spewing hatred toward her. Surely, it couldn’t be that Stephania was jealous of her? Thanos wouldn’t take interest in a commoner, would he?

  Ceres shook her head and laughed a bit, throwing the ridiculous thought out of her mind.

  “What is it?” Thanos asked, smiling.

  “Nothing,” Ceres said. “So, what happened to Lucious anyway?”

  “You mean the bruises?”

  “Yes.”

  “The king had him beaten for how spinelessly he acted yesterday,” Thanos said.

  Even though she, too, thought Lucious a spineless imbecile, Ceres couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. She had herself been bruised and battered countless times, and it wasn’t something she wished upon anyone.

  All of a sudden, Lucious yelled at his weapon-keeper, and just as she glanced up, she saw Lucious punching the young man in the stomach.

  “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” Ceres asked.

  Immediately, Thanos strode over to Lucious, stopping a few feet away.

  “What are you trying to prove?” Thanos asked.

  Lucious scoffed.

  “Nothing.”

  Thanos took a threatening step toward Lucious.

  “Why would I have anything to prove to anyone? I mean, look at you, anything is better than having a ratty, thin girl as a weapon-keeper,” Lucious said with a scornful laugh.

  “I suggest you treat your weapon-keeper with respect, and if you don’t, I’m sure the king would see nothing wrong in leaving you to fend for yourself out in the arena,” Thanos said.

 
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