Slave warrior queen, p.16
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.16

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “What more could you possibly want than for your freedom and for the freedom of your people?” she asked.

  “You!” he said.

  Ceres’s eyes turned conflicted and tears welled up in her eyes. She exhaled a breath and gazed downward, wrapping her arms around her waist as if doing so would protect her heart somehow.

  “I need to leave now. I just wanted to inform you where I went before I disappeared,” he said.

  “Don’t go. Please,” she whispered, her hands falling limp at her sides, tears rolling down her cheeks.

  “I’m sorry, Ceres. I have to.”

  Her face morphed into a dozen shades of sadness and she let out a cry.

  “If you do this, I won’t ever talk to you again,” she said, her voice shaky and not quite certain. “That’s…that’s a promise!”

  He watched her run away, and although Thanos wanted nothing more than to go after her and take her in his arms, kiss her tenderly, he found his feet immovable. He stood quiet for a moment, anger and shame washing through him.

  In order to save himself, he was about to give up all that he loved.

  CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

  Thanos rode toward General Draco, passing tent after tent, passing tens of thousands of Empire soldiers peppering the Alva Mountains, and he did nothing to hide the animosity in his eyes. The despicable general stood for everything that was wrong with the Empire. In fact, he hated the corrupt man just as much as he hated his uncle; perhaps even more. It was rumored, after all, that General Draco was the one who had killed Thanos’s parents.

  Thanos finally arrived and dismounted his horse and strode across the scorched grass toward the silver-haired general. The middle-aged man stood in front of his tent, his red cape waving in the wind, a bandage wrapped around his muscular shoulder above his armor. He had been wounded yesterday when Blackrock Square had been stormed by the rebellion, Thanos had heard. If only that arrow had pierced his black heart.

  “Come, my new lieutenant,” General Draco said.

  Thanos did not want that title; the king had forced it upon him. And now that the Empire stood between Ceres and him, driving a deep wedge that could destroy any chance he had at being with her, he detested it even more. However, he valued his and Ceres’s life, so he would honor the title until the rebellion had been squashed.

  Thanos followed the general inside the tent, where they ended standing around the massive oak strategy table in the middle of the room, a map of Delos and figurines strategically placed upon it.

  “Your uncle speaks very highly of your combat and strategy skills, Thanos. I hope you will live up to your reputation.” The general spoke in a rushed manner.

  Thanos said nothing.

  “The rebellion has grown out of hand, and we must squelch it today,” General Draco said. “The rebels attacked Fountain Square today, as we suspected they would, and at this very moment, Empire soldiers are forcing them out of the piazza, northward. The instant you leave this tent, you will lead a company of one hundred and twenty men to the north side of Fountain Square, to here.”

  The general pointed to the map.

  “You will capture or kill the leaders of the rebellion, and bring them back to camp dead or alive.”

  Thanos’s heart groaned because he knew anyone brought back alive would be tortured to death. It would be more merciful to kill them all, he thought, although he didn’t want to do that either.

  “This mission must not fail, and due to the king’s high recommendation, I requested you for this task,” the general said.

  “I understand,” Thanos said.

  “And just in case you need motivation, your uncle told me to inform you, if you do not succeed on this mission, he will have Ceres thrown into the dungeon, and she will be used as bait in the next Killings.”

  *

  With one hundred and twenty Empire soldiers and four wagons of weapons in tow, Thanos arrived about a mile north of Fountain Square, at the very street where the Empire soldiers would steer the rebels. He ordered his men to stack weapons in abandoned houses, set up traps on the streets, and carry the firepots onto the rooftops.

  Thanos climbed to the roof with two dozen Empire soldiers, while the others hid inside houses behind closed shutters to wait for the revolutionaries to pass by. He stood there, pacing, waiting, hating himself more with every minute that passed.

  Hardly five minutes passed when Thanos heard the first set of horse hooves pounding against the cobblestones. Still fraught with conflict about his mission, detesting how he was being used as a pawn in the king’s game, he lit the tip of his arrow and waited for the revolutionaries to come galloping around the corner. He could not rebel outwardly against the king, he knew; and yet he could find a way to do minimal damage to the rebels, and especially to those closest to Ceres.

  Within seconds, four men on horses dashed by, their blue ensigns waving in the wind. Before they could pass, they were shot down with arrows from other Empire soldiers, and fell wounded in the street.

  Thanos’s arrow was still in his bow. Sweat trickled down his cheek.

  Quickly, the rebels were snatched up by eight Empire soldiers and thrown into a slaver cart to be taken back to the camp for questioning.

  This isn’t right, Thanos thought. He knew he had no choice but to slaughter them.

  Or did he? Could he save these men and women they were ordered to attack?

  A group of nineteen came next, and just as they rode past Thanos, the Empire soldiers on the rooftops tilted the firepots, the hot oil drenching the revolutionaries. Their shrieks pierced Thanos’s heart, and he had to look away from the writhing bodies on the streets. Once the hot oil had cooled, all nineteen were thrown into a slaver cart to be taken back to camp.

  Just as the Empire soldiers had finished clearing the streets, hiding the evidence of the attack, another small group of riders came galloping toward them.

  “Rexus!” Thanos heard one of the men yell.

  Immediately, Thanos remembered Ceres had mentioned that name when they had spoken on the rooftop of the palace, and his gaze scanned the revolutionaries.

  A muscular blond man turned his horse around and steered it to the side of the street, waving.

  Behind the small group rode a slew of revolutionaries, but before they arrived at the attack site, Thanos killed the flame on his arrow, hopped down from the roof and into an alleyway, lying in wait for Rexus to pass by.

  Before Rexus came close enough, a mob of Empire soldiers stormed out from the houses and started slaying the revolutionaries.

  Rexus, Thanos could see, startled at the surprise attack, but quicker than eyes could follow, Rexus pulled one arrow after another from his quiver, shooting his enemies down, killing every single one he shot.

  Once his arrows had been depleted, Rexus hopped down from his horse and pulled his sword, slicing Empire soldiers down left and right with the speed and precision of a combatlord, Thanos saw.

  Thanos dashed out from the alleyway and tore after Rexus, his sword held high, pretending he was going to attack. He wanted to get to the young man before anyone else had a chance to slay him dead.

  He snuck up behind Rexus and wrapped an iron arm around his neck, and with a hand clasped around the young man’s mouth, Thanos dragged him into the dimness of the alleyway.

  But Rexus was strong, and he wrestled out of Thanos’s grasp, drawing his sword.

  Thanos held his hands out in front of him and dropped his sword to the ground.

  “I mean you no harm!” he yelled, retreating deeper into the shadows, hoping Rexus would follow.

  Rexus slashed at him with a force that had Thanos hopping backwards, frightened he had made a mistake and that this could be his last hour. Rexus lunged and spun around, whirling like a tornado after Thanos, the sword slicing through the air, making a swooshing sound.

  “Ceres told me you were her friend!” Thanos said. “I want to help you!”

  Rexus paused for a moment, staying hi
s sword.

  “This is a trap,” he said.

  “No. She was worried about you. She knew I would fight, and she mentioned her brothers. She mentioned you.”

  Rexus hesitated.

  “Stay here and you will not be killed,” Thanos said.

  “I won’t leave my men out there to die!” Rexus growled.

  Of course he wouldn’t, and Thanos should have known that. But he was doing this on the fly, with no time to plan.

  As quick as a flash, Thanos snatched an arrow from his quiver and shot Rexus’s sleeve, the arrow wedging into the wall behind Rexus, confining him.

  The distraction gave Thanos just enough time to dash behind Rexus and knock him on the head with the hilt of his sword.

  Rexus fell to the ground unconscious and Thanos exhaled a breath of relief. He might not be able to save everyone, Thanos knew, but at least he had saved one of Ceres’s friends’ lives.

  Thanos climbed back onto the rooftop and looked down toward the street. Many Empire soldiers had fallen—many more than he thought would. He saw the opportunity to save the revolutionaries, yet to make it look like he had made the best decision for his own men. No one would blame him for retreating if he judged that his men were being butchered, losing sorely.

  “Empire soldiers retreat!” he shouted. “Retreat immediately!”

  A few of the Empire soldiers looked up with questions in their eyes, but Thanos knew they would follow his orders. Empire soldiers were trained to obey no matter the command.

  The soldiers on the rooftops trickled down one after another, heading toward the wagons, and the soldiers battling the revolutionaries in the streets and inside houses retreated toward the wagons while fighting the enemy off.

  Seeing his men were safe, Thanos was just about to join them, but then a faint sound behind him caught his attention. He glanced back to see a young revolutionary, a sword in one hand, a spear in the other.

  Thanos drew his sword and took a step toward the man.

  “I have no desire to harm you,” he said.

  Screaming, the young man came at Thanos, the tip of the spear pointing straight toward Thanos’s heart.

  Thanos spun around and hacked the spear out of his opponent’s hand. The young man slashed, but missed, and before the young man could withdraw his arm, Thanos had sliced it open.

  “I do not wish to kill you!” Thanos said again, taking a cautious step back. “Walk away and you will live.”

  “Anything from an Empire soldier’s mouth is a lie!” the young man said.

  The young man cried out and his jaw clenched, and in no time he was back at Thanos, jabbing.

  “I know you are Prince Thanos!” the young man said, stabbing toward him.

  “Correct. And who are you?” Thanos asked, blocking.

  “That I will tell you once I have run my sword through you,” the young man said.

  “I must warn you, I have yet to lose a duel.”

  The young man’s eyebrows rose, no fear present in his face.

  “There must always be a first!” he yelled.

  The young man sped toward Thanos, their swords crashing then, a power struggle, blade against blade. Shoving with a roar, Thanos pushed him away, but the young man was at him again. He was powerful, Thanos noticed, rage, anger, and passion for his cause probably fueling his strength.

  The young man stabbed toward Thanos, but missed as Thanos swerved out of the way.

  Thanos didn’t want to kill him, but it would seem the young man would not stop until one of them was dead. In a split second, Thanos decided he would try to outrun him.

  However, before Thanos could remove himself from the duel, the young man drove for Thanos’s heart, but Thanos shifted so the young man tumbled forward.

  And as he did, he fell, the blade ending up buried in his own abdomen instead.

  The young man fell to the roof with a grunt, and as he drew the sword out of his stomach, he screamed.

  Thanos took a few steps toward his enemy.

  “Kill me,” the young man said, a tinge of fear in his eyes.

  Thanos gazed at the young man for a few moments, a feeling of sadness overwhelming him. He slid his sword back into its sheath and turned to walk away.

  “I am dying,” the young man grunted.

  Thanos felt overwhelmed with sadness for him. He shook his head.

  “You are,” he said, seeing how grievous the wound was, realizing nothing could be done for him.

  “I didn’t tell you my name,” the boy gasped.

  Thanos nodded, waiting.

  “Then tell me,” he said, “and I shall make sure it is known that you died an honorable death.”

  “My name,” he gasped, “is Nesos.”

  Thanos stared back in horror. Nesos. Ceres’s brother.

  And as Nesos fell down, dead, Thanos knew his life would never be the same again.

  CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

  When Thanos entered the throne room, he noticed the tension right away, the king screaming at General Draco, the dignitaries arguing in their seats, gnashing teeth, and the queen spewing obscenities to an advisor. Everyone was here, he saw, even the princes and princesses who weren’t usually at meetings such as this. And for good reason.

  On his way back, Thanos had seen the slaughter. Houses had been burned to the ground, and citizens—men, women, and children—were left butchered in the streets, stray dogs eating at their flesh, crows pecking at bodies. A few poor souls had been nailed to the trees, while others hung from nooses. But so many Empire soldiers had died, too, and the revolutionaries weren’t any kinder, torturing, desecrating bodies in vile ways and even dismembering them.

  He knew this was not a war he wanted to be a part of. Not now. Not ever.

  “The rebellion has grown beyond what anyone imagined it could, and now the few revolutionaries have become a monster, that if not slain soon, will vanquish the Empire,” General Draco said, standing in front of the king and queen.

  Once Thanos reached the bottom of the stairwell below the thrones, the room slowly grew silent.

  The king did not reply to the general, but turned his attention to Thanos.

  “I send my nephew out on one assignment,” he said. “One measly assignment, and what happens? He fails miserably, embarrassing himself and the entire royal family in less than an hour. What have you to say for yourself, Thanos?”

  Thanos pinched his lips together, in an attempt to prevent himself from telling his uncle he had failed on purpose.

  “It was not just him,” General Draco said. “Many failed. As I told you before, we must call in more soldiers from the north. If not, you will lose more battles and we will have a war on our hands.”

  Thanos was surprised that General Draco stood by him.

  “If we don’t keep losing, we won’t have to bring in more troops,” the king said.

  “Perhaps, but it doesn’t change the reality that we are bleeding more men than what the rebellion is birthing,” General Draco said.

  The king thought for a moment, running his fingers through his beard, and Thanos was glad the attention was no longer on him.

  “I hesitate to call in the troops from the north. It will be days before they arrive,” the king said.

  “With all due respect, sire, what else can we do?” General Draco asked.

  “Are there any other proposals?” the king asked, an open question to the dignitaries in the room.

  “We should poison the wells in the city,” one said. “And only supply water to the peaceable citizens.”

  “That might work, but the revolutionaries would only become angrier,” the king said. “Perhaps we can offer a deal, a sign of good will, and that will calm their rage.”

  “Open the king’s food storage vaults. Feed them,” another said.

  The king paused for a moment before nodding.

  “Perhaps,” he said. “Any other suggestions?”

  “Might I speak a word?” the queen asked, eyes cun
ningly watching Thanos.

  All gazes in the room slid toward her.

  The king gestured with a hand, allowing her to speak.

  “I propose a union between a commoner and a royal, a nuptial between the people and the Empire,” she said.

  “What did you have in mind, exactly?” the king asked.

  “A marriage between Thanos and Ceres,” she said.

  Gasps went through the throne room, expressions of horror and disbelief painting the advisors’ faces.

  Thanos was stunned by the queen’s suggestion as well. Of course he would have no qualms about marrying Ceres, but for political purposes and to be a puppet in the king and queen’s play? He didn’t like that one bit. He didn’t want them to defile the one thing that was the most precious in his life.

  “I think that is an excellent idea,” the king said. “A union between a lowly commoner and a royal. The people will love it.”

  “Thanos was promised to me!” a girl’s voice boomed through the room.

  Thanos swiveled around, and way in the back of the room stood Stephania, her body rigid, yet her eyes wounded.

  Stephania walked down the hallway toward the thrones.

  “You may not approach!” the queen yelled. “Go back to your seat and close your lips for the remainder of this meeting.”

  Stephania stopped in her tracks and looked at Thanos, her cheeks glistening with tears, he could see.

  Not until now did he feel sorry for the princess. He had never wanted to marry her, but even she was just a pawn in a game they could never escape.

  Thanos nodded at Stephania and gave her as empathetic a look as he could. Perhaps now she would back away, knowing it was not Thanos’s decision to wed someone else. Perhaps it would finally set her free.

  Stephania turned around, her feet hesitantly taking steps away from Thanos. Then she sped up and continued out the bronze doors at the end, running, her sobs vanishing as the doors closed behind her.

  “I think it will put an end to the feud. At least for now,” the king said. “Are you in agreement, Thanos?”

 
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