Slave warrior queen, p.14
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.14

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “Come,” he said, taking her hand, pulling her with him toward the palace.

  “Wait,” she said. “Why…how…?”

  She noticed her hands were still shaking, and she couldn’t believe she wasn’t yet dead.

  He dragged her into the main entrance, her knees so wobbly she could barely keep up, confusion and anger and surprise reeling through her at once.

  “We must speak to the king and queen this instant before the Empire soldiers hunt us down,” Thanos said.

  Ceres stiffened and snatched her hand from his, the thought of seeing the king and queen petrifying.

  “No! Why?” she asked. “They ordered my execution.”

  Thanos pulled her behind a pillar in the vestibule, gently shoving her against the cold marble, looking into her eyes.

  “I meant what I said at the Stade,” he said.

  She narrowed her eyes.

  “You can trust me with your life.”

  When he leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers, she became breathless.

  “And…I need you,” he said.

  Thanos lifted his hand and looked at Ceres’s mouth while tracing her lips with his fingertips, his touch as light as a feather.

  She shivered in delight, his scent all around her, his face an inch away, but the war between her head and her heart caused her to stiffen. She should not, no, she would not delight in his touch, she forbade her body. He was still the enemy, and for as long as she lived, he needed to remain that.

  Reaching behind her head, he pressed his cheek to hers, the tenderness causing Ceres to let out a faint sigh. She felt his hand wrap around his waist, their bodies pressed against each other, warm, tender.

  “But you must tell no one,” he said, pulling away. “Come. We need to see the king and queen. I have a plan.”

  Against her will, she let him lead her into the colossal vestibule, and they ran past massive marble pillars that reached all the way to the high ceiling. Ceres had never seen the likes of such architecture; it seemed the palace was a building made by the gods. Silk curtains, shiny chandeliers, marble statues, and golden vases adorned the interior. Having just been in the dungeon, having lived in extreme poverty her entire life, it was as if she had been transported into another world.

  Arriving at the second floor, he led her to an enormous bronze door and opened it. They stepped into a huge rectangular room, and at the end of red marble pillars, and rows of seats filled with finely dressed men and women, were two thrones. There sat the king and queen.

  Holding Ceres’s hand, Thanos walked toward the thrones.

  The king rose, his face red, blood vessels protruding from his forehead.

  “What have you done?” he bellowed.

  The queen placed a hand on the king’s, but the king only returned her gesture with a threatening glare.

  “If you promise to spare Ceres’s life, I will agree to marry Stephania,” he announced.

  Ceres glanced at Thanos sideways, wondering what he was doing, confused about his earlier advance.

  “Do you think you run this kingdom, boy?” the king said, and then turned to the Empire soldiers. “Arrest them!”

  “You will not arrest me!” Thanos yelled, taking a bold step forward as he pointed at the king.

  But the Empire soldiers did not heed Thanos.

  The king waved his hand and with that, Ceres and Thanos were grabbed again, and this time, both were hauled off to the dungeon.

  *

  Ceres stood by the bars, peering out into the dungeon hallway, her disbelief slowly being replaced with hopelessness. It hadn’t even been an hour, and here she was again in this rotting hole, awaiting her fate. At least now they had the cell to themselves, no thugs to fear, but other than that, she knew her circumstances were bleak. Extremely bleak.

  She thought of the others she had been brought to the scaffolding with, wondering if their sentence had been completed, if they were now one of thousands of casualties at the hands of the cruel Empire.

  And then there was Apollo… Tears filled her eyes and she whisked one away as it fell.

  She glanced over at Thanos sitting on the filthy floor, his dignity stripped with one word from the nasty king.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, leaning his head backward onto the dungeon wall. “I didn’t think my uncle would throw us in prison.”

  “You couldn’t have known,” Ceres said.

  “I should have.”

  There was a long pause, for what was there to say? Ceres wondered. Examining the events that had led them here wouldn’t change their circumstances.

  Thanos stood up and paced back and forth a few times.

  “I misjudged the queen’s desire to have me marry Stephania,” he said.

  He kicked the wall several times and rattled the cage so hard Ceres thought he might break the bars.

  “Don’t blame yourself for others’ cruelty,” she said once he had calmed down, their eyes connecting in the dimness.

  “I should have never stopped that horse.”

  She held his eyes, his stare intense, the memory of his fingertips on her mouth and of his body pressed against hers still resonating through her.

  She heard footsteps coming down the passageway, and when she turned, she saw numerous Empire soldiers throw a young lady and several men into the cell next to them.

  She gasped.

  “Anka?” she said as she peered through the iron bars, recognizing her.

  Anka clamped bloodied hands around the bars, her body covered in burn marks, her lovely black locks gone, shorn in uneven lengths.

  “Ceres?” she said, her eyes popping.

  The Empire soldiers opened the door to Ceres’s cell and pulled Thanos and Ceres out, dragging them down the hallway.

  “What happened? Are my brothers well? Is Rexus?” Ceres yelled back at Anka, desperate to know the answers.

  “There was a battle…” Anka started.

  But they turned the corner, and Ceres could no longer hear Anka’s voice over the thrashing of the Empire soldiers’ heavy boots. It crushed her.

  “I demand you tell me where you are taking us,” Thanos said.

  The soldiers remained silent and pushed them forward, and Ceres’s heart was racing the way it did when she was on her way to her execution.

  Down the hallway they were shoved, and once they arrived at the staircase, the Empire soldiers stopped.

  “Go,” one said.

  Perplexed, Ceres looked to Thanos. He took her hand, and together they started to climb the stairs.

  What would await them at the top? Ceres wondered, finding it impossible to believe or hope she truly was free to go. Was there a wagon standing there to take them to the scaffolding? Were a dozen Empire soldiers standing in wait, ready to shoot them down with flaming arrows?

  Thanos squeezed her hand, his face appearing much calmer than the raging anxiety she felt inside, and she wondered how he could be calm at such a moment as this.

  Arriving at the top of the steps, Ceres saw the queen standing in front of them, her hands clasped in front of her body.

  The queen glanced down at Ceres’s and Thanos’s joined hands and frowned.

  “I spoke some sense into the king and he agreed to set you free so long as you solemnly swear to wed Stephania,” she said.

  “I swear it,” Thanos said, tightening his grip around Ceres’s hand.

  “And with that, I expect you two to cease any and all contact other than when you are training for the Killings,” the queen said, her eyes narrowing into slivers.

  “Understood,” Thanos said with a nod.

  The queen stepped forward and locked cold eyes on Ceres.

  “As for you, little girl,” she said, “I have plans for you, and you might think you are glad to keep your life, but soon you will regret that you weren’t beheaded on that scaffolding today.”

  The queen turned on her heels and marched away, Ceres now realizing it was quite possibly even deadlier
inside the castle walls than out.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  Ceres arrived extra early the next morning at the palace training grounds, her mind still reeling from the events of the night before, from how close she had come to death. And most of all, from thoughts of Thanos. She owed him her life. And yet she did not know if she loved or hated him. And knowing Rexus was out there, waiting for her, she hated feeling this way about anyone else.

  Anxious to take her mind off of all this and resume training with Thanos, Ceres focused on her work. With great care, she laid out the weapons she thought he might use in today’s practice, and then she filled the drinking bucket with fresh water.

  She was focusing when suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Lucious walking straight toward her, his eyes filled with loathing, his muscles rigid with aggression. She tensed. Not a single other person was in sight, and now she wished she had not been so early.

  And then, when she saw her sword in Lucious’s hand, her heart started to race.

  She knew she couldn’t fight him—he might have her arrested and thrown in prison again. But she couldn’t not defend herself either, knowing he would have no qualms about killing her.

  Then a thought popped into her mind. Had the queen set this up?

  Alarmed, she glanced around to see if anyone else might be on their way, but she heard no voices and saw no one in the distance.

  Approaching, Lucious scowled and took a threatening step in her direction, his hand squeezing the hilt, the blood vessels in his forehead protruding.

  “Place the sword on the table!” Ceres heard a deep voice growl behind her.

  She swiveled around and saw a stranger. He was dressed in the manner of the southern isles, his longer than usual tunic similar to those she had seen from those parts. His skin was golden, his shoulder-length black hair kept in a ponytail, and his posture was an erect board.

  With dark, slanted eyes, he glared at Lucious with such intensity, Ceres was convinced the stranger could kill with his eyes alone.

  Lucious pinched his lips together and laid her sword onto the weapon table.

  “Now leave,” the man said.

  Lucious gave him a disapproving look, but did as the stranger said and stomped off with a huff.

  “I take it you are Ceres?” the man asked.

  She hesitated to answer, wondering if this man could be trusted. Perhaps he was an assassin sent to kill her by the queen, the queen’s words bouncing around inside of her skull.

  “Who are you?” she asked.

  “You may call me Master Isel,” the man said. “I am your new fighting master.”

  At first, she thought she had misheard him, especially when she considered the queen’s last comment to her. But the way Isel looked at her, with respect and dignity in his eyes, she almost dared to believe what he had said was true.

  “From now on, for three hours a day, I will train you to become a combatlord,” he said. “I will instruct you like a man, so no man can ever touch you or triumph over you. Do you accept?”

  Now she believed it was true, but why? And it surprised her that he even asked that question. Was not accepting an option? She knew even if it were, she would be a fool to decline.

  “What is the purpose of this training?” she asked.

  “Thanos sent me to you. A gift to make you strong. To give you what you so craved: a chance to learn to fight. To truly fight.”

  A shrill of joy erupted in her chest, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe.

  “Do you accept, or do I need to tell him that you so respectfully declined?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye.

  “I accept. I accept,” she said.

  “Well then. If you are ready, let us begin.”

  She nodded and turned toward her sword to pick it up.

  “No!” Isel said.

  Startled, Ceres swiveled around.

  “First, you must learn how to die.”

  Puzzled, Ceres squinted her eyes.

  “Stand in the center of the practice arena,” he said, pointing his sword toward it.

  Ceres followed his instructions, and once she had taken her place, he walked a slow circle around her.

  “Royal combatlords are expected to behave a certain way,” he said. “When you represent the king, the Empire, a standard of excellence is required of you.”

  She nodded.

  “There are specific death rituals, and you are expected to die bravely, with no trace of fear, offering yourself to cold-blooded murder.”

  “I understand,” she said.

  He faced her, his hands clasped behind his back.

  “I see a lot of fear in your eyes,” he said. “Your first lesson is to eradicate any traces of vulnerability, of gentleness, and most importantly, of fear from your countenance.”

  He stepped closer.

  “Your mind is on other things, in other places. When you are with me, no one and no thing else exists anywhere!” he yelled with passion in his voice.

  “Yes, Master Isel.”

  “To be a contender, as a girl, you must work twice as hard, three times as hard as the men, and if they sense any weakness in you, they will use it against you.”

  She nodded, knowing he spoke the truth.

  “Your second lesson starts right away, and it is a lesson in strength. You are skinny. You need more muscle,” he said. “Come.”

  She followed Isel down to the ocean side and he stopped at the jutting cliffs.

  For the first two hours, he had her lift heavy boulders, throw heavy rocks, and climb the steep cliff.

  Just when her body begged for her to be done, for the last hour, he compelled her to performed sequences of sprints and push-ups across the sand.

  By the end of Ceres’s lesson, her clothes were completely drenched with sweat and her muscles trembled from fatigue, and she could scarcely manage to walk back up to the palace where the other warriors were sparring.

  At the top, Master Isel handed her a wooden cup.

  “You will drink this every day,” he said. “It is a tonic of ashes—good for strong bones.”

  She gulped the foul-tasting drink down, her arms so exhausted she could barely bring the cup to her lips.

  “Tomorrow, I will meet you here at dawn to continue your strength training and more,” he said.

  Master Isel nodded toward a hefty blonde handmaiden, and the happy girl approached.

  “Until tomorrow, Ceres,” he said, walking away into the gardens.

  “Please follow me, my lady,” the handmaiden said and started toward the palace.

  Ceres didn’t think she could walk another step, but somehow, when she told her legs to move, she managed to follow.

  The handmaiden led her into the palace, up four sets of stairs, and toward the western tower. Up at the very top of a spiraling staircase, they walked into a room. The bed sheets were made of silk, the drapes of fine linen, and a bed as wide as it was long stood against the northern wall.

  Four dresses were laid out on the bed, two made of the finest silk, and two of soft linen. In front of the fireplace, on top of a white fur rug, stood a tub filed with steaming water, iris petals floating on the surface.

  “Master Isel had this food ordered especially for you, my lady,” the handmaiden said.

  Her stomach growled when she saw a table covered in meats, fruits, vegetables, barley, beans, and breads. She walked over to it and devoured several mouthfuls of food, washing it down with wine from a golden goblet.

  “May I help you undress for the bath, my lady?” the handmaiden asked after Ceres had finished eating.

  Ceres felt a sudden rush of shyness come over her. Have someone undress her?

  “I…” she balked.

  But before she could decline, the handmaiden was tugging the shirt out of Ceres’s pants, and once she was fully undressed, the handmaiden helped Ceres into the tub, the hot water enveloping her, soothing every sore muscle.

  The girl proceeded to wash Ceres’s
skin with a sponge, and next, she worked on Ceres’s hair, detangling it with a sweet-smelling honeysuckle conditioner, turning Ceres’s hair as smooth as silk.

  She climbed out of the tub, and the handmaiden dried her off, after which she rubbed oil into Ceres’s skin. Then the girl applied makeup to Ceres’s face.

  “Your dress, my lady,” the handmaiden said, holding up the coral-colored one.

  First, she helped Ceres into a white tunic that reached her ankles and covered her shoulders, and then she dressed her in the coral dress, securing it with a golden brooch above each shoulder.

  Studying the material, Ceres saw that the fabric was embroidered with golden thread, the pattern reminding her of lilies of the valley.

  Finally, the handmaiden braided Ceres’s hair into a partial up-do, and on her head, she placed a thin golden headband in the shape of a wreath.

  “You are lovely, if I might say so, my lady,” the handmaiden said with a smile as she stood back, admiring Ceres.

  There was a subtle knock at the door, and the handmaiden answered it.

  Ceres looked at herself in the mirror, hardly recognizing herself, her lips stained red, her face dusted with chalk, her eyes darkened with eye makeup. Although she was grateful for the food and the warm bath, she loathed how she looked like the princesses, the very ones she had her entire life hated.

  Then she had an idea and turned toward the messenger at the door.

  “Will you please tell Thanos I wish to have Anka, the girl who is in prison, for my handmaiden?” Ceres asked.

  The messenger bowed.

  “I will relay the message,” he said.

  The handmaiden closed the door and walked over to where Ceres stood.

  “An invitation for you, my lady,” she said with a bow.

  Ceres picked the note off the silver platter and unrolled it.

  Ceres,

  If it pleases you, I would love the honor of your company this afternoon. It would be my greatest joy if you would meet me at the library.

  Sincerely,

  Thanos

  Ceres sat down on the bed and tried to ignore the excitement that hummed through her at the thought of seeing Thanos again—just the two of them—at the library, of all places. She loved to study, and had frequently snuck away from home to read scrolls at the library just twenty minutes from her parents’ house.

 
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