Slave warrior queen, p.12
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.12

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  Rexus ran to the next wagon, and the next, smashing the locks open, releasing as many firstborns as were imprisoned, asking them to fight. Most picked up swords of fallen soldiers and joined in the battle.

  As the fog lightened, Rexus was saddened to see several of his men lay fallen on the cobblestones, his allies in eternity, his friends no more. But to his great joy, many more of the Empire soldiers lay lifeless, too.

  “Retreat!” Rexus cried, seeing that he had accomplished his mission.

  A horn blared through the fog, echoing in the streets, and his people fled from the battle, scattering into side alleyways, vanishing down main roads, raising hands into the air, their victory cries echoing through the streets.

  He looked into the faces of the living—now friends for life—and he could see a fire kindled within each of their eyes. It was the spirit of the revolution. And soon that flicker would turn into a fiery inferno that would destroy the entire Empire.

  Everything was about to change.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Ceres sat on the cold stone dungeon floor and watched the small boy beside her, squirming in pain, and wondered if he would live. He lay there, belly down, his pale skin white in the dimness, eyes halfway open, still recovering from a flogging in the market. He was awaiting his sentence, just like everyone else in this dungeon.

  Just like her.

  She looked around to see the cell filled with men, women, and children, some chained to the wall, others free to roam around. It was dark in here, and the smell of urine was even more prominent here than in the slaver cart, with no breeze to carry away the stench. The stone walls were slick with grime and dried blood, the ceiling looming over them like the weight of the world, barely high enough for her to stand fully erect in, and the floor was covered in smeared feces and mouse-droppings.

  Worriedly, Ceres glanced down at the boy again. He hadn’t moved from his position since she had been thrown in here yesterday, but his chest was still rising and sinking with silent breaths.

  With the sun beaming in through the small barred window, she saw that the wounds on his back were healing with the fabric of his tunic stuck to it. Ceres wanted to do something—anything—to relieve his pain, but she had already asked to help him several times and there had been no response, not even a flicker in his pale blue eyes.

  Ceres stood and tucked herself into the corner, eyes swollen from crying, mouth and throat parched from thirst. She shouldn’t have hit a royal across the face, she knew that, but when she had done it, she had only reacted.

  Would Thanos come for her? she wondered. Or were his promises just as rotten as all the other royals’?

  The pregnant woman sitting opposite her rubbed her swollen belly, moaning softly, and Ceres wondered if she had gone into labor. Perhaps the woman would have to give birth in this wretched hole. She looked down at the little boy again and her heart ached when she considered it wasn’t many years since Sartes was that size, and remembered how she used to sing lullabies to him until he fell asleep.

  She tensed up when she noticed the silhouettes of two prisoners approaching before her.

  “Who is that boy to you?” a gruff voice asked.

  Ceres looked up. One of the men had a dirty, bearded face with angry blue eyes, the other was a bald man, muscular as a combatlord, the skin below his eyes covered in swirling black tattoos. The robust one smashed his knuckles together and they cracked, and the chain around his ankle clattered as he moved.

  “No one,” she said, looking away.

  The bearded man leaned hands against the wall behind her on either side, confining her, his raunchy breath wafting into her face.

  “You’re lying,” he said. “I saw the way you looked at him.”

  “I’m not lying,” Ceres said. “But if I were, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference to you or anyone else in here. We’d still be stuck in this prison, awaiting our punishments.”

  “When we ask you a question, we expect an honest answer,” the tattooed man said, stepping forward, his chain rattling again. “Or are you too good for us?”

  Ceres knew that playing nice or trying to avoid the bullies wasn’t going to make them leave her alone.

  As quickly as she could, she ducked, and darted past the thugs so she could go to the other side of the room where their chains wouldn’t reach. But she didn’t get far.

  The tattooed man lifted his leg and the chain with it, catching Ceres’s legs, causing her to trip and fall on her face. The bearded man stepped on the boy’s back, and the little one shrieked in pain.

  Ceres tried to rise to her feet, but the tattooed man wound his chain around her neck and pulled.

  “Let the boy…go,” she croaked, barely able to speak.

  The boy’s cries pierced straight to her heart, and she tugged on the chain, trying to free herself.

  The tattooed man tugged even harder, until she couldn’t breathe.

  “You do care, don’t you? Now, because you lied, the boy will bleed to death,” the bearded man hissed.

  He gave the boy a swift kick in the back, the child’s cry filling the crammed cell, the other prisoners turning their heads away, some weeping quietly.

  Ceres felt her body come alive, a surge of power overcoming her like a storm. Without even knowing what she was doing, she found herself strengthening her grip around the chain and snapping it in two.

  The bearded man stared back at her, stunned, as if he had seen a ghost rise from the dead.

  Free from the chain, Ceres stood, took hold of the chain, and whipped the bearded man, again and again, until he cowered in the corner, begging for mercy.

  With her insides alight, she spun around and faced the tattooed man, the force within still feeding her body the strength she needed to stop the aggressors.

  “If you touch him, or me, or any of the people in here one more time, I will kill you with my bare hands, you hear?” she said, pointing at him.

  But this one growled and threw himself at her. She raised her palms, feeling the heat burning within, and without her touching him he went flying into the wall across the room with a thud and collapsed onto the ground, unconscious.

  A tense silence fell, as Ceres felt all the eyes in the room on her.

  “What force is that?” the pregnant woman asked.

  Ceres glanced over at her, then looked at the others; everyone in the cell was dumbfounded.

  The little boy sat up and winced, and Ceres kneeled by his side.

  “You need rest,” she said.

  Now that the fabric had torn from the boy’s back, she could also see puss between the blood. If his wounds weren’t cleaned, he would die of the infection, she knew.

  “How did you do that?” the boy asked.

  Everyone’s eyes were still on Ceres, wanting to know the answer to that question.

  It was an answer she wanted to know herself.

  “I…don’t know,” she said. “It just…overcame me when I saw what he was doing to you.”

  The boy paused and as he lay back down, with weary eyes, he said, “Thank you.”

  “Ceres,” came a sudden whisper in the darkness. “Ceres!”

  Ceres turned and looked through the bars of the cell and saw the form of a person wearing a hooded cape, the torches in the hallway illuminating the black material. Was it a servant boy sent by Thanos? she wondered.

  Careful not to step on fingers and toes, Ceres made her way over to the stranger. He removed the hood, and to her astonishment and joy, she saw that it was Sartes.

  “How did you find me? What are you doing here?” she asked, her hands gripping the bars, her chest brimming with joy—and trepidation.

  “The blacksmith told me you were here, and I had to see you,” he whispered, tears in his eyes. “I’ve been so worried for you.”

  She reached a hand through the bars and pressed a palm to his cheek.

  “Sweet Sartes, I am doing well.”

  “This is not well,” he said, his f
ace etched with graveness.

  “It is well enough. At least they haven’t said anything about…”

  She stopped herself from speaking the unspeakable, not wanting to worry Sartes.

  “If they kill you, Ceres, I will…I will…”

  “Shush, now. They will do no such thing.” She lowered her voice several notches before whispering, “How is the rebellion?”

  “There was a battle in northern Delos yesterday, a huge one. We won.”

  She smiled.

  “So it has begun,” she said.

  “Nesos is fighting as we speak. He was injured yesterday, but not enough to keep him in bed.”

  Ceres smiled a little.

  “Always the tough one. And Rexus?” she asked.

  “He is well, too. He misses you.”

  Hearing Sartes say that nearly brought Ceres to tears. Oh, how she missed Rexus, too.

  Sartes leaned closer, his cape covering his arm, and then she peered down when she felt a sharp, cold object against her hand—a dagger. Without a word, only the silent understanding between them, she took the dagger and stuffed it down the front of her pants and then covered it with her shirt.

  “I have to go before someone sees me,” Sartes said.

  She nodded, and reached tender arms through the bars.

  “I love you, Sartes. Remember that.”

  “I love you, too. Be well.”

  Just as he vanished down the hallway, passing him, she saw the warden approach. She huddled back in the corner next to the boy, her hand stroking his hair, and the warden unlocked the door and stepped into the prison.

  “Listen up, criminals. Here are the names of those who will be executed on the day after the morrow at sunrise: Apollo.”

  The boy let out a gasp, and Ceres felt him start to tremble beneath her hands.

  “…Trinity…” the warden continued.

  The pregnant woman cringed and swooped her arms around her swollen belly.

  “…Ceres…”

  Ceres felt a sudden sense of panic overtake her.

  “…and Ichabod.”

  A man chained to the far end of the cell buried his face in his hands and sobbed quietly.

  The warden turned on his feet and exited the cell, locking it behind him, nothing but the sound of his heavy footsteps marching away.

  And with those few words, her death loomed.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  Thanos stormed into the throne room, clutching the scroll signed by the king—the abominable document which contained Ceres’s execution orders. His heart was thundering against his ribs as his feet pounded the white marble floor beneath them, rage churning through him from head to toe.

  Thanos had always thought this room was spacious beyond reason, the arched ceilings ridiculously high, the distance from the massive bronze door to the two thrones at the end nothing but wasted space. Or tainted space. The throne room was the place where all rules were forged, and to Thanos, this was where all the inequality originated.

  Advisors and dignitaries sat between red marble pillars on intricately carved wooden seats on either side of the room, twirling their golden rings, wearing their fine apparel, proudly displaying colored sashes, which ranked them according to their importance.

  The sun shone in through stained-glass windows, blinding him every few steps, but that didn’t prevent him from glaring at the king who sat on his golden seat at the end of the room. Soon, Thanos stood at the bottom of the staircase below the thrones. He hurled the execution order at the feet of the king and queen, who were at the moment speaking with the minister of trade.

  “I demand you recant this execution order at once!” Thanos said.

  The king looked up with exhausted eyes.

  “You shall wait your turn, nephew.”

  “There is no time. Ceres is to be executed on the morrow!” Thanos said.

  The king huffed and shooed the minister away. Once the minister had left, the king looked at Thanos.

  “Ceres, my weapon-keeper, might I remind you, was thrown in prison by Lucious, and now she is being sentenced to death?” Thanos said.

  “Yes, she smote a royal, and that is, by law, punishable by public execution,” the king said.

  “Did you know Lucious backhanded her first? And all because she triumphed in a sword fight he demanded?”

  “How does this commoner know how to wield a sword?” the queen asked. “It is against the laws of the land to do so.”

  The king nodded, and the advisors mumbled in agreement.

  “Her father worked as a swordsmith here at the palace,” Thanos said.

  “If he taught her how to wield the sword, they should both be executed on the spot,” the queen said.

  “How can you be a good swordsmith unless you know how to wield a sword?” Thanos pressed. “Being a swordsmith is not forbidden for a woman.”

  “This is not about being a swordsmith, or a swordsman, Thanos. This is about a commoner assaulting a royal on royal grounds,” the king said.

  The queen laid a hand over the king’s.

  “If I didn’t know Thanos was promised to Stephania, I would think he was taking an interest in this girl,” she said.

  “I take no interest in her other than that she is the best weapon-keeper I have had,” Thanos lied.

  “Stephania said she had seen you on the palace training ground with…what was the servant girl’s name?” the queen asked.

  “Ceres,” Thanos said.

  “Yes, Ceres. And Stephania said you held her arm.”

  “The girl doesn’t have a home, and so I offered her to stay in the southern summer cottage for the time being,” Thanos said.

  “And who gave you that authority?” the queen asked.

  “You know as well as I do that it used to be my parents’ cottage, and it hasn’t been used since they passed away,” Thanos said.

  “Stephania is a bright young lady with dignity and integrity, and she says she doesn’t trust this strange girl. Has Ceres any credentials? Any official papers? She could be an assassin working for the rebellion for all we know,” the queen said, working herself into a tizzy.

  “Now, dear, let’s not get all carried away. Do you really think the rebellion would send a female assassin?” the king said.

  “Perhaps not,” the queen replied. “Or perhaps they would, thinking a gullible young prince like Thanos would fall for a feisty warrior woman who sides with him against his family.”

  “No matter. The girl has her sentence, and to protect Lucious’s honor, it will be carried through,” the king said.

  “You didn’t think of protecting him when you sent him to compete in the Killings!” Thanos said.

  The king scooted forward to the edge of his seat and pointed at Thanos, his eyes darkened with ire.

  “Boy, you live in our palace and at the mercy and generosity of the queen and me. Do you really mean to defy us yet again?” he asked.

  Thanos pointed to the Empire’s banner to the right of the king.

  “Freedom and justice to every citizen!” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the room. “The responsibility of the country’s leaders is to protect the freedom of the people and to rule in justice. This is not justice.”

  “Stop with this nonsense,” the king said. “The decision is final, and no amount of begging or senseless reasoning from you will change that.”

  “Then you must also imprison and sentence Lucious to death for what he did,” Thanos said.

  “Although I would not mourn the loss of Lucious for one solitary second, I will follow the laws of this land,” the king said. “And if you interfere with my decision in any way, you will be expelled from court. Now leave so I can use my time on matters of importance.”

  Fuming, Thanos turned on his heels and tore out of the throne room, his pulse in his ears.

  After he had marched back outside to the practice arena, he picked up a longsword. He went at a dummy long and hard, until there was nothing left but
the wooden beam holding it, and then he hacked away at that, too.

  Standing with the sword in his hands, he stood frozen as he panted for a long while, and then he flung the weapon as far as he could into the palace gardens.

  How could the king possibly say he was serving justice? he wondered. Justice would mean every person had the same rights, privileges, and punishments, and Thanos knew that wasn’t the case in the least.

  He walked to the gazebo and slumped on a bench, his temple resting against his hands.

  Ceres—what was it with her? Why did he need her the way he needed air? She had come into his life a breath of fresh air, her green eyes sparkling with wonder, her pale pink lips speaking words he knew he would never tire of, a quiet strength in her lithe body laced with vulnerability. She wasn’t like the girls at court who would babble on about mindless subjects and gossip about others only to make themselves look better. Ceres had a depth to her, and every part of her was genuine, not a speck of pretentiousness to be found. And it was as if she saw what he needed even before he knew it himself—a sixth sense perhaps?

  He stood up and paced back and forth in the gazebo for several minutes, wondering what to do.

  When they had stood below the Stade, awaiting the Killings, he had asked her if he could trust her with his life. She had said yes. And although her voice had faltered with the answer, he knew she would sacrifice herself to save him if it ever came to that.

  If he saved her, he would be kicked out of the palace. If he left her to her fate, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

  He pulled his shoulders back and took a deep breath.

  He knew what he needed to do.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  Although her eyes and limbs were heavy, Ceres, despite her exhaustion, hadn’t slept a wink all night. The heavens were slowly lightening, she could see from the small barred window, and how she wished they wouldn’t. With morning came her last few moments, and in less than an hour, she knew, she would be dead.

  “Are you afraid?” Apollo asked, his head resting in her lap as she stroked his blond hair.

 
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