Slave warrior queen, p.11
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.11

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “Is that a threat?” Lucious asked, eyes seething.

  Just then a messenger arrived and handed Thanos a scroll. Thanos read it, and looking back toward Ceres, he gave her a nod before heading toward the palace.

  Had he been summoned? Ceres wondered, not too thrilled about being left without any instruction.

  An Empire soldier stepped into the center of the arena and listed in which order the royals would spar, with Lucious against Argus first.

  “Finally!” Lucious said.

  He flung the bottle of wine onto the ground, shattering it, and his weapon-keeper offered him a sword. He snatched it, and then with contrived enthusiasm, Ceres thought, he strode onto the practice arena where Argus waited.

  The Empire soldier signaled the start of the match, and the royals began to spar. Lucious’s first attack ended with his sword smashing into the ground, some onlookers snickering, others rolling their eyes. Lucious used his energy unwisely, Ceres saw, his jabs and lunges careless, with far too much effort.

  The contenders took their places again, blade against blade, but within seconds of starting over, only a few hits in, Argus had hit Lucious’s sword out of his hands and pointed his tip against Lucious’s chest.

  As soon as the Empire soldier named Argus the winner, Argus lowered his sword and jogged off the practice arena.

  “Come on, cousin. Give me one more chance!” Lucious yelled after him. “I wasn’t even trying!”

  When Lucious saw Argus wouldn’t entertain him, he turned to his own weapon-keeper.

  “Xavier, spar with me,” Lucious said.

  “S…sire?” Xavier said with a nervous stutter. “I would, my lord, but I have no skill.”

  Angered, Lucious darted over to his weapon table, picked up a dagger, and stabbed Xavier in the abdomen.

  Ceres’s hand hit her mouth, and she gasped with the others as the weapon-keeper cried and fell to the ground, arms wrapped around his waist.

  “Get the runt out of my sight!” Lucious yelled.

  Within a few seconds, Empire soldiers hoisted the moaning weapon-keeper onto a stretcher and carried him away.

  “What I don’t understand,” Lucious said, making his way over to Georgio’s table, “is how I always get stuck with incompetence. Georgio, friend, lend me your boy.”

  Georgio stepped between his weapon-keeper and Lucious.

  “Lucious, you know I hold you in high regard. But this is insanity. Go home,” Georgio said with a chuckle, resting a hand on Lucious’s shoulder.

  “Get your pretty-boy hands off me!” Lucious yelled, whacking Georgio’s arm away.

  Yelling obscenities, Lucious walked over to another weapon-keeper, demanding he spar with him, but his master refused, too.

  “Will no one fight me?” Lucious yelled, turning in a slow circle as his eyes scanned the bystanders. “Are you nothing but pitiful chicken droppings?”

  With animosity in cold eyes, he continued to scrutinize the spectators, but most turned their eyes away.

  Then he saw Ceres.

  A pit formed in her stomach as he stomped toward her, pointing.

  “You!” he yelled. “You will fight me!”

  Ceres felt she would win a match against him, yet she was reluctant to accept, fearing she might hurt him, or make him look like the incompetent warrior he was in front of his peers. And if she made him look incompetent, she suspected Lucious would make certain she lost her position at the palace.

  “I mean no disrespect, but I cannot fight you,” she said.

  “You will!” Lucious said. “In fact, I command you to spar with me.”

  She glanced at the others, some of them shaking their heads, others looking away, Stephania grinned wickedly. Could she refuse him? And what would happen if she did? Would Lucious fire her? Reason told her he probably would.

  “Then I must accept the command,” she said, thinking it might be better to accept than refuse him.

  Lucious’s face lit up.

  “But first, may I fetch my sword from the blacksmith’s chalet?” Ceres asked, thinking of her father’s sword.

  “Hurry along, little rat,” Lucious said.

  His comment exasperated her, but she would not let insulting words from a drunken coward affect her.

  Excited as a spring day to finally be able to use her sword in real one-on-one combat, Ceres ran to the blacksmith’s chalet and located her sword in the loft where she had left it. She sprinted back to the practice arena and took her spot across Lucious, who was standing ready with his own sword.

  Lucious took one look at Ceres’s sword, and his jaw dropped open.

  “Where would a rodent like you get a weapon like that?” he asked with covetous eyes.

  “My father gave it to me.”

  “Well, what a fool he must have been,” Lucious said.

  “And why is that?” Ceres asked.

  “Today I will triumph over you, and when I do, your weapon will be mine.”

  Lucious lunged at Ceres, their blades colliding. Although Lucious was rather lacking in muscularity, gangly even, he was strong. After blocking a few blows, she began to doubt whether or not she would be able to win.

  He slashed again but she resisted, and sword pressing against sword, they encircled as they stared into each other’s eyes. She could see his hatred for her in those hazel irises, and she wondered what she possibly could have done to deserve it.

  He shoved her hard so she had to move back several steps so as not to fall, and then he hacked at her from above, as she blocked from below.

  A low rumble of excitement made its way through the bystanders.

  Lunging, she slashed, but he retreated and wobbled a bit, his brow misted with sweat, his shoulders tense.

  But then Lucious’s eyes darkened, and he swung at her, rashly. She jumped over his blade, and just as she landed, she kicked him in the abdomen so he fell onto his back.

  He didn’t move for a moment, and Ceres wondered if he was unconscious. But a sudden shriek spilled out of his lips and he sat up. Leaning on his sword, he climbed to his feet while mumbling something underneath his breath.

  “You’re better than I thought, I’ll give you that,” Lucious said. “But I was going easy on you. Now I’m finished playing games, and you, little rat, must die.”

  Sweat stung Ceres’s eyes, and she raised her sword as she exhaled several forceful breaths. She could feel Stephania’s glare at the back of her head, and it made her want to triumph all the more.

  Coming at her, Lucious attacked with all his might. She pretended she would meet him head on, but then swerved last minute and kicked her legs between his, and he tumbled to the ground onto his belly.

  His sword skidded across the ground, stopping a few feet away, and then there was utter silence.

  Lucious rolled onto his back. Ceres stood above him, holding the tip of her sword at his throat, waiting for the Empire soldier to call the winner.

  But the soldier remained silent.

  She looked up, and the Empire soldier still said nothing, an impassive expression on his face.

  Glowering, Lucious climbed to a standing position and spit on the ground next to Ceres’s feet.

  “I refuse to acknowledge a girl’s victory,” he said.

  Ceres took a step forward.

  “I won fair and square,” she said.

  Lucious raised his hand and backhanded her across the cheek, the demoralizing assault causing several observers to gasp. Without even a second thought, acting only on rage and impulse, Ceres slapped him in return.

  Right as her hand hit his face, she knew it was a huge mistake; yet there was not a thing she could do to take it back. Everyone had seen it, and although she wasn’t quite certain what the punishment was for striking a royal, she knew it would be severe.

  Holding his cheek, Lucious looked at her with wide, surprised eyes and for a few moments, it was as if time had frozen.

  “Arrest her!” he yelled, pointing at her.

&
nbsp; Ceres faltered a few steps back, time passing as if in a nightmare. But her mind seemed to not want to function, and before she could even think what to do or what to say, two Empire soldiers had grabbed her arms.

  A moment later they were dragging her away, far from here, and far from the life she had almost had.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  “Rexus!”

  Rexus turned to see a frantic Nesos sprinting toward him, and his heart flooded with dread. Nesos had been dispatched on an important mission, so his being here couldn’t be good, Rexus knew.

  Nesos skidded to a halt right in front of Rexus, dust stirring the air, and rested hands on knees while he panted.

  “I just came… from northern Delos and… the Empire soldiers are everywhere… saying new laws are being enacted, they are hauling off… firstborn men, slaughtering… anyone who refuses,” Nesos said, still breathless, sweat running down his face.

  Rexus’s blood curdled. He shot to his feet and took off at a run toward the main entrance of the castle. He had to warn the others.

  “Next they will attack Delos east, then west…and finally south,” Nesos said, trailing after him.

  Rexus had an idea.

  “Take with you a few men and send every dove we have to warn our supporters,” he said. “Ask them to meet below North Square as soon as possible and with as many weapons as they can carry. We will free these firstborns so they can join the rebellion. I will gather the supporters here and ride out immediately.”

  “Right away,” Nesos said.

  It begins here, Rexus thought as he ran toward the others. Today they would make a stand and kill in the name of freedom.

  Within moments Rexus had over a hundred men and fifty women assembled in front of the cascading waterfall, ready on horses, weapons in hand. As he explained the plan to the revolutionaries, he saw fear in their eyes. A fearful warrior would not win any battles, he knew. And so he stood before them to speak.

  “I see in each of your eyes the terror of death,” Rexus said.

  “Fear you not death?” a man yelled from the crowd.

  “Yes, I do. I have no wish to die. But more than fearing death, my deepest fear is living the rest of my life on my knees,” Rexus said. “More than fearing death, I fear I will never know freedom. And these firstborn men can help us attain that.”

  “But we have children!” a woman yelled. “They will be punished for our rebellion!”

  “I have no children of my own, but I know the fear of losing someone dear. If we win, your children and your children’s children will never know oppression the way we have. And would you not rather your children follow in your example of courage than your example of fear?” he said.

  The militia grew ghostly silent, and nothing but the roar of the waterfall and the occasional neighing of a horse could be heard.

  “Do not fool yourselves into believing the Empire will give you liberty,” Rexus said.

  “I, like many here, are with you, friend,” a man shouted. “But do you think we have a real chance at winning this war?”

  “The war will not be won today,” Rexus continued. “Not tomorrow, even. But eventually, we will win. A people who demands freedom will in the end claim it.”

  Heads nodded and a few lifted weapons into the air.

  “We are few. They are many,” another man said.

  “We, the oppressed, outnumber the oppressors a hundred to one, and as soon as we have enough supporters, we will triumph!” Rexus said.

  “They will never permit us to usurp the throne,” a woman said.

  “Permit?” Rexus said. “You do not need permission from any king, queen, or royal to free yourselves from the bonds of oppression. Today, and every day from now on, give yourselves permission and fight to take back your liberty!”

  One by one, the rebels raised weapons into the air, soon the sound of their cheers overpowering the waterfall.

  The time, Rexus knew, had come.

  *

  As he rode toward Delos, followed by his men, the sound of the horses galloping in his ears, Rexus’s thoughts turned toward Ceres. She had looked so thin and vulnerable when he saw her last, and his heart had nearly burst with emotion. Like every time before, he had been such a fool—had only kissed her briefly when he wanted to take her into his arms and keep her there forever.

  From atop his horse, he saw the palace in the distance, and it haunted him to think of her alone amidst a sea of corruption, amidst the very wolves they fought against, her life endangered at every turn. He wanted to ride like the wind and save Ceres from such a place.

  Ever since he could remember, he had wanted to marry Ceres; indeed, a large part of his motivation to join the rebellion was so that their future children could live in freedom. Yet, every time he saw her, his tongue twisted into a thousand knots, and he had never been able to say those words to her. He was a fool.

  Riding to an uncertain fate, he suddenly realized that it wasn’t true what he had said to the rebels just minutes ago. His deepest fear wasn’t living the rest of his life on his knees. His deepest fear was that Ceres would have to do that, and that they might never have the chance to be together.

  *

  Rexus arrived at the North Square with his troops, heavy fog a dense curtain around him, the city of Delos breathing like a ghost town. The trip had been more gruesome than he could ever have imagined—bodies lying facedown, contorted in unnatural position, mothers holding their dead children, sobbing, houses pillaged and plundered, blood flowing down the cobblestone streets.

  And this, he knew, was just the beginning.

  The scout he had sent out reported that there were over a thousand Empire soldiers in the piazza—though it was difficult to see clearly in such weather. At the moment, the soldiers were preparing to eat, so it would be the perfect time to attack.

  Rexus glanced back at noble faces and dear friends. Not a one had proper armor like the Empire soldiers had, although most had been trained sufficiently in battle. There was no way this small army of roughly two hundred could triumph over a thousand Empire soldiers. Had he led these brave men and women into a suicide mission? he wondered.

  If the doves had arrived to their destinations, a few more men and women would be on their way, he knew, perhaps adding another hundred to the militia, but that was still not nearly enough to defeat a thousand.

  “But hundreds upon hundreds of young men—firstborns—are locked up in wagons in the center of the piazza,” the scout told Rexus.

  “Hundreds, you say?” Rexus asked, his heart growing hopeful.

  The scout nodded.

  Rexus named thirty men, himself included, whose main goal would be to break open the locks of the wagons and invite the firstborns to fight with them, increasing the rebellion’s numbers. The other men and women would fight off the Empire soldiers, distracting them from noticing their new recruits were being stolen.

  By the time Rexus had solidified the plan, more than a hundred additional revolutionaries had arrived, ready to fight with them.

  Rexus ordered Nesos, the scout, and half the militia to attack from the north, and then he waited with nervous patience until the scout returned, saying the rebels had arrived safely at the other side of North Square.

  This was a significant moment, he thought. For centuries, the oppression had been a curse over the land, a chain around hundreds of thousands of people’s necks.

  Trembling, yet resolute, Rexus raised his sword.

  “For freedom!” he yelled as he led the revolutionaries into battle.

  As they rode toward the square, horse hooves pounding against the rocks below, every rebel held breaths of dread, but also breaths of hope, Rexus could feel.

  I must be strong for them, he thought, despite the weakness that pollutes my heart.

  And so he willed his horse forward even though he feared death would take him if he didn’t stop.

  Rexus rode his horse as far as he could onto the battlefield, toward the wa
gons filled with firstborns, until the congestion of fighters prevented him from riding any further. He let out a great battle cry as he threw himself into the fray.

  Rexus raised his sword and stabbed one soldier through the heart, sliced another’s throat, and drove his sword through a third’s abdomen, the cries of wounded men all around him.

  An Empire soldier pulled Rexus from his horse and came at him with his sword, but Rexus ducked and then kicked the soldier in the knee, a sickening crack of bone.

  The next Empire soldier—a monster of a man—hit Rexus’s sword out of his hand. Weaponless, Rexus flung himself at the soldier, digging thumbs into the man’s eyes.

  The giant shrieked and socked Rexus in the stomach so he fell to the ground. Another soldier came at Rexus, and yet another.

  Soon he was surrounded, three against one.

  He saw his sword only a few feet away and scurried on hands and knees for it, but a soldier stood in his way. Rexus snatched the dagger from his boot and flung it into the soldier’s neck before grabbing his sword and hopping to his feet.

  The giant, now with a spear in his hands, sprang toward Rexus. Rexus hopped back and hacked the spear to the ground and then stepped on it, breaking it. With all his force, he kicked the brute in the abdomen. Nothing happened. Instead, Rexus stabbed his opponent in the foot, but he was punished with a fist to the side of his head, and he went crashing to the ground, his ear throbbing.

  He staggered to his feet, his surroundings spinning, and suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his arm, warm blood spilling out from the fresh wound. He cried out.

  After a moment he was able to see clearly, and he plunged his sword into the giant’s lower abdomen. The Empire soldier fell to his knees and Rexus stepped aside as the soldier fell forward onto his face.

  Shouts caught his attention, and he looked up to see the wagons crammed with the firstborn men a mere twenty feet away. He ran over to them, slashing more Empire soldiers on the way, and slashed the lock off the first door.

  “Fight with us!” he yelled as the young men streamed out. “Win your freedom!”

 
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