Slave warrior queen, p.18
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.18

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  “Stop!”

  Yells came from behind her, but she would not stop. She would see Rexus, and as soon as she would be given a chance to explain, he would understand that she loved him, and she would know she loved him too. More than Thanos. More than anyone.

  “Rexus!” she yelled, slipping on the slimy rocks.

  She reached the end of the narrowing, and when she stepped into the larger space, hundreds of eyes were on her, menacing expressions causing her to want to shrink.

  “Seize her!” someone yelled.

  “I need to speak with Rexus!” she yelled.

  A mob of men gathered around her, grabbing her arms. One took her sword and it vanished into the crowd of men and women.

  “Rexus!” she yelled.

  The mob opened up, and Rexus was standing there before her, his blond hair gleaming in the light of the torches. He looked so forlorn, Ceres thought.

  “Rexus,” she said, tears in her eyes.

  She wrestled free from her captors and threw herself against his firm chest, embracing him so tightly, he grunted.

  After a few moments, she noticed his arms were still by his side, limp, not embracing her in return. She pulled back a little and looked up into his gorgeous face. It was as hard and cold as ice.

  “I didn’t send you on a mission to marry Prince Thanos. I sent you to gain the royals’ trust,” he said, his eyes burning with hatred.

  “I refused to marry Prince Thanos, but the queen pushed it through anyway!” Ceres said.

  “What made the prince think he could marry you in the first place? Were you encouraging him?”

  The crowd went silent, waiting for her answer.

  “Can we please go somewhere quiet to talk,” Ceres asked.

  “No. I want everyone to witness this.”

  “Rexus, you know me. You have known me for years! Why are you doing this?” she asked.

  “There must have been some reason he thought he should ask you.”

  “What? Rexus, I denied him!” Ceres yelled.

  “Of all the people to betray me, I never thought you would.”

  “But I—” Ceres started.

  “One of the princesses at the palace sought me out and told me she had seen you and Thanos in the library gardens, kissing,” Rexus said.

  “Stephania?” Ceres asked.

  Rexus’s eyes flared just a tad, then softened, and she hoped maybe he would finally listen.

  “So it is not true?” he asked, a look of slight relief on his face.

  “Stephania was supposed to marry Thanos, but when the king and queen saw their opportunity to create peace in the Empire, they broke off their engagement and—”

  “First, answer my question. Did you kiss him?” he pressed.

  She couldn’t lie to him, but she could explain. Or at least try to.

  “Yes. But—”

  “And was it of your own free will and choice?” he continued.

  She couldn’t respond to that. She just couldn’t, for so many reasons.

  Rexus nodded, knowingly, his nostrils flaring, his expression hard again.

  “So how can I then believe that you declined his proposal of marriage? Maybe you have even been sent as a spy here?” he said.

  “No!”

  “Get her out of here. And let it be known to every revolutionary that Ceres is banned from joining the rebellion forever!” Rexus said.

  He swiveled around, but then stopped and glanced back at Ceres one more time, his expression disturbed.

  “And I thought you should know. Nesos endured to the end. He gave his life for the rebellion while his sister was off flirting with the enemy.”

  She collapsed to the ground, her grief crushing her heart so thoroughly, she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t see, her eyes overflowing with tears.

  As the revolutionaries dragged her out of the cave, she called her brother’s name again and again. Everything she had was now lost to her.

  CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

  “May I have a word?” Thanos asked Cosmas in the library, his hands shaking like leaves caught in a storm.

  Cosmas looked up from reading a scroll, his expression worried, but loving.

  “Of course.”

  They walked together out into the palace gardens and sat on a bench in front of the marble fountain, beneath a cloudy sky.

  “What can I help you with, son?” Cosmas asked.

  Thanos huffed.

  “The king and queen commanded Ceres and I to be wed to restore the peace in the land,” he said.

  “So I heard.”

  “She rejected me.”

  “Ah, that, too, I heard.”

  Thanos took a deep cleansing breath.

  “I have fallen in love with Ceres, but she believes I only proposed because I was commanded to.”

  Cosmas nodded, paused, and brought a hand to his chin.

  “Have you spoken to her, opened your heart and let her know how you feel?” Cosmas asked.”

  “I told her some things, but I didn’t tell her I loved her,” Thanos relied.

  “Heavens, why not?”

  She had been so angry with him, he remembered, but that hadn’t been why he had held back.

  “When I was on my mission, I fought with her brother and he fell onto his sword and died. I told Ceres what happened, but she was so furious with me, it was as if she believed I had killed him.”

  Cosmas nodded, pondering.

  “You told her the truth, and she will be devastated and angry and hurt for a time. If you had remained silent, and she found out, she would never have forgiven you. You did the right thing.”

  “But she hates me now, even though I tried to save her brother,” Thanos said.

  “I have known you your entire life, Thanos. You are a good man.”

  Thanos moaned.

  “How am I a good man when I am ready to run away and leave everything behind?”

  “Running away might offer you a new start, but soon the ghosts of the past will come to haunt you,” Cosmas said. “You must talk to her, and then she can decide.”

  “She will not speak to me.” Then Thanos had a thought. “Will you try and talk some sense into her?” he pleaded.

  Cosmas bushy eyebrows grew heavy and he huffed.

  “Very well, but only if you promise me you will tell her you love her.”

  Thanos nodded. “I promise.”

  *

  Ceres ran back through the palace, dashing up the stairs three at a time. She tore past Empire soldiers who tried to arrest her, and darted toward Thanos’s chamber, her feet moving so fast they barely touched the marble floors. Thanos was the only one who could help her at this point, she knew, and if he refused, she would drag him back to Harbor Cave bound and gagged if needed. Thanos needed to tell Rexus that she indeed had declined his proposal, and to allow her a chance to join the revolutionaries.

  When she stormed into Thanos’s room, she was sorely disappointed to find it empty.

  She sprinted toward the palace gardens, looked in the royal practice arena, and even checked the blacksmith’s chalet. But he was nowhere. It was as if Thanos had vanished into thin air.

  The library, of course! she thought.

  As she shot back through the gardens, she saw the queen standing on the veranda, eyes like a hawk, a hint of a conniving smile on her lips. And then four Empire soldiers rushed out from behind bushes and trees, arresting Ceres, their grips around her arms so tight it was painful.

  “Thanos!” she screamed, thrashing legs. “Thanos!”

  But he did not come.

  The Empire soldiers dragged her upstairs to the queen’s chamber, and threw her onto the shiny marble floor at the queen’s feet. Two stood in front of the door, blocking it, while the other two marched past the stone statue of a couple embracing, and out onto the balcony, through the open doors.

  “Come with me,” the queen said to Ceres.

  The queen walked out through the flowing purple curtain
s onto the veranda, overlooking the ocean. Shaken, but still angered, Ceres climbed to her feet and followed after.

  “I still don’t know how you managed to get out of your room,” the queen said, her steely eyes gazing into the distance, a golden wine goblet in her hand. “At first, I thought you found a way to climb out the window and down the side of the tower, but there would be no way to do that and not fall to your death.”

  Ceres pinched her lips, not willing to offer up that Anka had freed her.

  “So someone in the palace must have opened the door for you, and when I find out who that person is, I will personally skin them alive,” the queen said, her voice flat but strict.

  “It’s not that difficult to unlock the door from the inside,” Ceres said, hoping the queen would believe she did it on her own.

  The queen glanced at Ceres, squinting.

  “I doubt that is what you did,” she said.

  The queen turned away and peered across the ocean.

  “When I was your age, I thought I could do whatever I wanted, too. Youth has a way of making one naïve and irrational,” she said.

  “I am neither of those things,” Ceres said.

  The queen took a sip of wine.

  “Of course, you are, my dear. Your returning to the palace proves it. You should have stayed far away, Ceres. Here, we have your entire life planned out, and it will not be to your liking.”

  “I won’t marry Thanos, if that’s what you mean,” Ceres said.

  “You will, and as the new princess, it will be your responsibility to produce babies. Lots and lots of babies. You will never be seen. You will never be heard. Your children will not know you, for the instant they are out of your womb, they will be ripped from your arms to be raised by a nanny, far, far away.”

  “I won’t marry Thanos.”

  “You have no choice, Ceres. You will wed him and once you have produced enough children, you will be killed off and replaced by another girl, a woman of royal blood, someone deserving of the title princess.”

  “Thanos would never let that happen. He’s not like the rest of you barbarians.”

  The queen chuckled.

  “Do you really think he cares for you?” she said, tsking. “Oh my. You are even more naïve than I thought.”

  Ceres’s shoulders grew tighter with the queen’s words. Had he only pretended to hate his family and the royals to gain her sympathy? Had he shown affection to try and make her fall for him when in truth, he didn’t care for her at all? No, she didn’t believe it. His touch and his kiss had been too real.

  “Thanos told me a secret, and I must say, he is even more of a barbarian than the rest of us,” the queen said.

  “I doubt that,” Ceres said, her guard up.

  “I suppose he didn’t tell you he was the one who sought out and killed your brother, Nesos?” the queen said, a glib smile on her lips.

  With all her might, Ceres tried to keep her face free from expressing the pang of grief she felt on the inside, tried to force her eyes not to fill with tears. But she could not hold it all inside and fell onto hands and knees as racking sobs tumbled from her lips.

  “Why…why are you doing this to me?” Ceres asked, her voice cracking. “How can you hate me so much when you don’t even know me?”

  The queen walked toward Ceres, stepping on Ceres’s filthy dress.

  “I don’t need to know you to realize that you are a very useful pawn to the Empire,” she said.

  “I will never be your or anyone else’s pawn,” Ceres seethed.

  The queen ignored her comment.

  “Because of this marriage, peace will prevail through the land, allowing the Empire to maintain power. And when you have fulfilled your purpose, make no mistake, you will be discarded.”

  The queen nodded toward the Empire soldiers behind her, and they grabbed Ceres’s arms and pulled her to her feet.

  “Take her back to her room,” the queen said. “And make sure both her wrists and ankles are shackled this time.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

  Thanos always felt better after talking to Cosmas, and as he eagerly walked toward Ceres’s chamber, he knew with every fiber of his being that the right thing was to open up to her, even if it meant she would not have him.

  He marched through the palace gardens, and just as he came around the gazebo, he saw the king approaching with his advisors. His uncle must surely be the most evil man to roam the earth, Thanos thought, a cruel murderer who would go to any length to maintain his power over his subjects.

  Thanos veered from the path, taking a different route, hoping the king hadn’t seen him.

  “Good day, Thanos,” the king yelled, waving for him to come.

  Thanos’s skin crawled, but he approached his uncle as the advisors continued on down the path.

  “Walk with me,” the king said.

  He strolled down the pathway beside his uncle and toward the royal practice ground, the scent of the flowers so sweet, it was nauseating. Or was it his uncle’s presence that made him feel that way?

  “I heard the proposal did not go as expected,” the king said, hands clasped behind his back.

  Of all the people in the world, the king was the absolute last person Thanos wanted to have this conversation with. But here he was, trapped, and with no choice other than to answer his uncle’s prying questions.

  “Not exactly,” Thanos said.

  The king was silent for a moment, perhaps waiting for Thanos to say something.

  “I can see you care for this girl,” the king finally said. “And it might surprise you to know that our stories are rather similar.”

  That did surprise Thanos, and his curiosity was piqued.

  “When I first met Athena, she could hardly stand to be in the same room as me,” the king said with a chuckle. “It was a blind marriage, one my parents had arranged in order to expand the Empire’s borders. I had heard rumors of Athena’s beauty and I could hardly wait to meet her, but when we met, Athena refused to acknowledge my existence in the least.”

  “Why?” Thanos asked, having never heard this story before.

  “You see, she had fallen in love with someone else.”

  It was an interesting story, Thanos thought, but he failed to see how their situations were similar.

  “We married, and after the first year, we became best friends, and passionate lovers,” the king continued with a proud expression on his face.

  “Why are you telling me this?”

  The king paused, placing a fat hand on Thanos’s shoulder.

  “I realize our situations are not exactly the same, but I know you, Thanos. You will probably refuse to marry Ceres if she is not in agreement. And because she loves someone else, you will do everything in your power to not force her to marry you.”

  Thanos squinted.

  “Why would you think she loves someone else?” he asked.

  “We had Ceres followed when she snuck out of the palace to go visit Rexus, one of the leaders of the rebellion, and Ceres’s lover,” the king said.

  If his uncle’s words were true, it would indeed be another blow to Thanos’s pride, but could he trust what his uncle was saying? Never.

  “Rexus is her childhood friend, nothing more,” Thanos said.

  “I do not tell you this to be cruel. I tell you this so you will know the truth and not be deceived. I might be harsh on you, but I am always truthful,” the king said.

  Thanos slapped the king’s hand away from his shoulder and took a step back.

  “You lie,” he snarled.

  “When Ceres returned to the palace, she admitted everything to the queen. Ask Ceres yourself if you don’t trust my word or the queen’s,” the king said.

  Thanos shook his head in disbelief, but if the king were lying, why would he suggest Thanos ask Ceres in person?

  He glanced up at the tower. Had he been blind? Did Ceres not return his affection? All the signs pointed to it: her snide comments, the way she
maintained her distance from him, her refusal to marry him. Perhaps he had been mistaken, and now he paid the consequences: humiliation and rejection.

  A surge of anger filled his chest, and he felt heat spread through his cheeks.

  “In truth, Stephania is a much better match for you, Thanos. Ah, she might be a bit spoiled and full of herself, but motherhood will remedy all that.”

  “I don’t love her,” Thanos said through clenched teeth.

  “I will allow you to make this decision yourself, Thanos. But know this: if you marry Ceres, it will ensure peace in the Empire and thousands of lives will be spared. If you do not, many will die on either side.”

  “If I agree to wed Ceres, the rebellion might die down for some time, but I can assure you they will rise again. I don’t doubt you know that,” Thanos said.

  “Temporary or not, it would give us time to bring in additional forces from the north.”

  Thanos thought for a moment, but he knew he couldn’t—wouldn’t—marry someone who didn’t love him in return.

  “Think on it for a while,” the king said. “In the meantime, General Draco has requested you lead a legion of men to quell the rebellion in Haylon.”

  At any other time, Thanos would have rejected the command without a second thought. His uncle was indeed shrewd as a serpent, he knew, offering him this opportunity now that Thanos was heartbroken. And he hated that he had been played yet again.

  “When would I leave?” Thanos asked.

  “Now. The ships stand ready in the harbor and the Empire soldiers are awaiting their new leader.”

  Thanos felt a wave of rage.

  “I do not accept the position,” he said.

  The king smiled.

  “You have no choice.”

  Thanos scowled.

  “Then give me a chance, at least, to see Ceres before I go,” he said, desperate to see her one last time, to explain to her that he might never return.

  But the king merely shook his head.

  “I am afraid that is impossible,” he said.

  And with those words, he walked away.

  Thanos wanted to run to Ceres, but before he could move, a dozen soldiers surrounded him. He knew it would be no use. They would, upon the King’s command, escort him to the ship, away from all of this, and to a battle that may mean his death.

 
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