Slave warrior queen, p.19
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.19

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

  Sitting on a chair by the window in her chamber, her wrists and ankles chained, Ceres finally gave up trying to escape. For hours, she had strained to get out of these shackles, to summon the supernatural strength that sometimes granted her extreme power, but she was left with nothing but bruised flesh and bloodied skin.

  Unsettled, trying to hold onto the dwindling sliver of sanity she had left, she gazed out the window at the serene capital. However, seeing how peace had descended over the war-torn city was of little help for nothing but deceit had brought this peace, she knew. How many more lies were out there floating around, keeping the infrastructure of the Empire from crashing down?

  Ceres heard keys clatter outside the door, and when the door opened, to her surprise, in walked Cosmas.

  He froze in the doorway, gasping when he saw her, a look of horror on his wrinkled face.

  “Ceres, what happened to you?” he asked, immediately making his way over to her.

  “The queen felt the need to confine me to my chamber,” she said.

  Cosmas examined the shackles, and when he saw her blood, he walked over to the water vessel, dipped a washcloth in it, and returned to her side.

  “What a despicable thing to do to a sweet dear,” he said, dabbing the washcloth on her sores. “Did she say why?”

  Ceres bit down, the washcloth stinging as he cleaned her wounds.

  “I refused to marry Thanos and then I left the castle,” she said.

  Cosmas paused, his expression saddened.

  “Yes, he came to me, distraught, heartbroken,” he said.

  She blinked, trying to keep her tears at bay.

  “I never wanted to hurt Thanos,” she said. “But I refuse to have the Empire use us for their own gain.”

  Cosmas nodded, his brows knitting together.

  “The queen said that I will only be used to breed babies and then I will be killed once I am no longer of use,” Ceres said.

  “I hope you know Thanos would never allow that,” Cosmas said, continuing to clean her wounds.

  “I didn’t think he would. But now I don’t know anymore.”

  Cosmas looked at her, his crinkly eyes a question.

  “The queen said Thanos sought my brother out to kill him,” Ceres said, a lump forming in her throat.

  Cosmas gently placed a hand on her head, stroking her hair.

  “My deepest condolences for your loss,” he said. “Thanos told me what happened, and he was extremely distraught. He didn’t know until after he had slain the young man that he was your brother. And he did all in his power not to slay him, even though Nesos tried to kill Thanos. Your brother fell on his own sword. A tragic misunderstanding, I am afraid. I am sure that if Nesos had known then he would not have tried to kill Thanos. But for Thanos’s part, there was nothing more he could have possibly done. Nesos tried with all his heart to kill him. It was only his love for you that allowed Thanos to not fight back against a man who wanted his life.”

  So it wasn’t as the queen said, Ceres noted with relief. The news made the loss slightly less horrific, although she still felt as if her heart might burst from sadness at any moment. But now she wondered, how many more of the queen’s words were spiked with lies?

  Cosmas looked Ceres in the eyes with such sincerity that she found herself holding her breath.

  “Thanos loves you, Ceres. He needs a good, upright woman in his life to fight for him, with him, and to be on his side. Don’t let the king and queen meddle in your relationship. Don’t let them destroy what beauty is between you.”

  “Beauty? What beauty? He hasn’t even had the decency to visit me,” she said, a bitter taste in her mouth.

  “He was sent on a mission to Haylon. The isle overthrew the Empire, and he was sent to get it back.”

  “What?” she asked in horror.

  “Don’t believe Thanos did it because he supports anything the Empire stands for,” Cosmas said. “He most certainly does not.”

  He stepped closer and lowered his voice, and Ceres could sense he was going to say something dangerous, the air around them becoming tense.

  “I overheard something,” Cosmas said. “Thanos was told lies about you, and that is why he left for Haylon, despairing. It seems someone is trying to dispatch him and wants him dead. But I am not certain who or why.”

  “Who could possibly want Thanos dead?” she asked, worried.

  “I know not. But whisper a word of this to anyone, and all of our lives will be in danger.”

  He took a step back, the atmosphere in the room returning to normal.

  “There must be some way to get you out of the shackles. If only I had a key,” he said, glancing around. “I’d sneak you out of here and bring you to my wife. You could stay with us in our home.”

  “You would do that for me?” she asked, realizing he’d be risking his life.

  Cosmas smiled softly, his eyes brimming with tenderness.

  “Thanos is like a son to me, and he loves you. I would do anything for him, and now you, too.”

  That brought tears to her eyes, Ceres having felt so alone and abandoned.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “I will be your faithful friend forever,” Cosmas said. “You don’t belong here, Ceres. Thanos cares for you, but the rest of the lot are rotten and vile, and you are too innocent and good to play their games.”

  Then she had a thought.

  “If I write a letter to Thanos, is there any way you could deliver it for me?” she asked.

  “Of course. I have a few friends, and I believe they could get it to Thanos rather quickly.”

  She pulled out parchment and started to write. She told him about everything, from what the queen had said, to why she had rejected his marriage proposal. She even told him that she did care for Rexus, but that she was confused because she loved them both. She told him about how she knew that the king and queen were pitting them against each other, but she had no way to prove it. She told him she had learned that he had killed her brother, but knew he hadn’t intended it, and that she was trying to forgive him.

  And finally, she asked him to return so she could hold him, keep him close, and she asked for his forgiveness for having been so cold.

  She rolled the letter up and handed it to Cosmas.

  “I will make sure this gets to Thanos, and I will protect it with my life if I have to,” he said.

  He embraced her, and then he left, locking the door behind him.

  As Ceres listened to his footsteps vanish down the stairs, she couldn’t help but wonder if she had been wrong about everything. If Thanos would get her letter. If he would be killed.

  And if she would ever see Thanos again.

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  Ceres felt like her heart might leap out of her chest when she saw her father standing in the doorway of her chamber. He was dressed in fine clothing and his face was no longer pallid like it used to be, his cheeks rosy, his lips tilting upward. And those eyes… How wonderful it was to see his kind, loving eyes again, the eyes she trusted and immediately soothed her frazzled nerves.

  She rose to her feet to run over to him, but the shackles restrained her.

  His gaze fell upon the chains, and his expression turned worried. He strode across the chamber and reached arms around her.

  She squeezed him tightly, nestling her face in his chest, the warmth of his body, the tenderness of his embrace, bringing tears of joy to her eyes.

  “I missed you so,” she whispered.

  “I love you,” he said.

  For one blissful moment, they held each other, and all was beautiful and Ceres felt safe and loved.

  But then she felt her father shrinking in her arms, vanishing little by little, his body imploding into nothingness, and it was as if she was herself dying with his departure.

  “No,” she whimpered as she grasped at him, trying to make it so he wouldn’t disappear.

  “Father!” she cried, closi
ng her eyes, but then he was gone.

  Sunlight warmed her face and she opened her eyes to find herself standing in the arena at the Stade, seven combatlords moving in on her, the crowd chanting for her blood to be spilt. Her hands and wrists were no longer shackled, but she had no weapons to defend herself with. Petrified, she searched her surroundings for a way to escape, but seeing the combatlords encircling her, there was no way out. Weaponless, she was incapable of fighting back, and when the combatlords charged toward her, she fell to her knees, shrieking, pressing the palms of her hands to her eyes.

  Ceres woke up with a scream beneath the window, her body sweating, tears in her eyes, the stone floor cold and hard beneath her. The chains clattered when she buried her face in her hands, and she let out a piercing cry into the night.

  What a horrid nightmare, she thought. But what did it mean? Was it an omen of what was to come? She hugged her chest, feeling so empty, so defenseless, so raw.

  She startled when the door creaked open, and for a second, when she saw a male figure standing in the darkened doorway, in her half-awakened state she thought Thanos had returned.

  “Thanos?” she whispered, excitement growing in her bosom.

  “Is that what he does at night, visits you?” the man said.

  The hairs on the back of Ceres’s neck rose when she recognized the voice as Lucious’s, and immediately she knew she was in danger, unable to escape, her wrists and ankles shackled.

  “I hadn’t seen you in a while and was worried about you,” Lucious said.

  “I doubt that.”

  He stepped closer, and his face appeared in the moonlight.

  “Leave or I will scream,” Ceres said, her breathing shallow.

  “And who will come and save you? Not Thanos. Not the king of queen. Not Empire soldiers.”

  She rose to her feet and picked up a golden goblet from the table, throwing it at him, but he veered quickly, and the cup flew out the open door and tumbled down the steps.

  Lucious slammed the door shut and lunged toward Ceres, pushing her wrists into the wall behind her, rubbing his body against hers, his breath reeking of alcohol.

  She screamed and kicked him in the shin, but he clasped a hand over her mouth and pressed his knees between her legs so she couldn’t move them. With hasty fingers, he pulled her skirt up, and for a moment, he released her mouth and crushed her lips with his.

  Bile rose in her throat, and Ceres opened her mouth, biting him as hard as she could. He pulled back and hit her across the face, fist closed, his golden ring cutting Ceres across the cheek.

  She forced herself to ignore the pain and screamed as loudly as she could, but he stuffed fabric down her throat, gagging her. His hands fumbled at her skirt again, and he pressed against her with forceful hips, a wild look in his eyes, the feral gleam of a savage.

  “You have given me so much trouble that you owe me a little pleasure,” he hissed.

  Muffled sounds escaped her lips as she fought against him with all her might, but he was too strong and she was shackled.

  Suddenly, he fell to the floor behind her, lifeless. She glanced over her shoulder and was flooded with relief to see Anka standing there with a silver candleholder.

  “Anka,” Ceres croaked, her knees trembling so she could barely stand.

  Anka ran over to Ceres and hurriedly inserted a key into the cuffs around Ceres’s ankles and wrists, freeing her.

  Hands shaking uncontrollably, Ceres pulled the fabric out of her parched mouth. Anka grabbed Ceres’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes.

  “Soldiers are coming. Run!” Anka said.

  “You have to come with me this time,” Ceres said.

  “No, I need to stay.”

  Anka spun around in a flash, dashed out the door, and disappeared down the dark stairwell, her rushed footsteps gradually vanishing.

  Quickly, Ceres gathered her senses, forcing herself to move even though all she felt like doing was curling up into a ball in the corner and crying. On her way out the door, she gave Lucious a swift kick in the abdomen. She had despised him before, but now her hatred would burn every time she would see him. She would remember this moment, oh, how she would remember.

  With sweaty hands, she stole down the stairwell, but just as reached the bottom, a slew of Empire soldiers approached her from the right, their swords drawn.

  She looked to the left, but just as many Empire soldiers were storming toward her from that direction.

  Then she heard footsteps behind her, but before she could turn around, she felt a hard object hit the back of her head, and everything went black.

  CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

  Stephania sat way in the back in the throne room and brought the fan to her lips, hiding a yawn, this dreary council of old birdbrained men and women so uninspiring she thought she might pass out from boredom. For hours, they had discussed—in that same mind-numbing monotonous tone—how the council was losing money, how the court was poorly managed, and how the rebellion, if it were to continue, would cost the Empire greatly. And as if these dignitaries couldn’t grasp it, it had already been brought up three times that the rebellion had already drained half the king’s gold.

  Still, after hours of futile rambling, dozens of preposterous ideas being tossed around, they came up with no solutions. None. Stephania had sat through too many of these, and more and more, listening to these simpleminded mumbling nitwits, it just proved to her again that they were all brainless monkeys, pretending to know what they were talking about and what they were doing.

  “Are there any more matters to discuss?” the king said from his throne at the front of the room.

  Not a soul breathed a word, thank heavens, Stephania thought, dying to get out of this stuffy room, her bottom sore from having sat so long on this unpadded chair. Ever since the announcement that Thanos would wed Ceres, she had been demoted to sit in the back row by the exit door, next to the least important dignitary in the entire Empire, her seat the farthest from the king than anyone’s.

  I will climb my way back up into the king’s graces, she resolved. Soon.

  Just when she judged the meeting over, Cosmas, sitting at the front, rose and asked to stand before the king.

  Stephania rolled her eyes. Would this day never end? She knew he was the old, senile, hard-of-hearing geriatric who cared about Thanos—a little too much, Stephania thought—but what on earth would he have to say that would warrant a single second in a council meeting such as this? All the old man did day in and day out was read scrolls in the library, stare at the stars, and talk of things that didn’t really matter—not to the Empire at least.

  Stephania noticed that the other dignitaries also seemed as disinterested in the old fart as her, their eyes glazing over with boredom.

  Eying the floral pattern on her green silk dress, she listened with one ear, fanning herself as the ancient scholar held up a scroll toward the king.

  “I was asked to deliver this letter to Thanos,” Cosmas said. “It is from Ceres.”

  Stephania’s ears perked right up. Perhaps the old scholar wasn’t as much of a fool as she had thought. He had certainly misled me, Stephania thought, because she presumed the elder was more loyal to Thanos than even the king or the Empire. But perhaps she had been wrong in her assumption.

  With a giddy heart, she repressed a smile. Now that commoner, Ceres, would be put to death and Stephania would marry Thanos, making everything right again. What fortune. What luck! Perhaps the gods were smiling down on her after all.

  Stephania watched as the king read the letter in silence, his eyebrows sinking deeper and deeper over his fat face. When he had finished, he looked up.

  “Did you read this?” the king asked Cosmas.

  Cosmas stepped forward.

  “Yes, and that was when I knew it needed to be brought to your attention,” he said. “The girl is a lying conniving thief, a revolutionary in our very midst.”

  Gasps went through the chamber, and disorder erupte
d.

  “Silence! Silence!” the king said.

  “She must not marry Prince Thanos!” one advisor shouted.

  “Hang the girl for treason!” another said.

  The room exploded into commotion, some yelling for the king to imprison the imposter, others demanding she be put to death immediately.

  “Silence!” the king yelled again, and the room settled down into a low hum of whispers. “We cannot just kill her. The revolutionaries will start rioting in the streets again and we are not ready to take upon all of them.”

  “But we must do something,” an advisor said. “You do not mean to let a conspirator remain in our midst, leaking information to the revolutionary headquarters?”

  A brilliant idea popped into Stephania’s mind, and she gasped. A few heads turned toward her, and she smiled, knowing this idea would be her big chance to gain favor again. She just had to speak up.

  “May I make a suggestion, Your Excellences?” she said loud and clear, rising to her feet.

  The king’s and queen’s eyes darted to her.

  “Please, it will also help to generate money for the Empire,” she said, sensing their hesitation.

  “Very well, speak,” the king said. “But make it quick.”

  Stephania stepped onto the floor and walked toward the front of the room, her heels clicking against the marble floor, hundreds of eyes following her every step. She repressed a grin, bathing in the attention, elated that she had such a wonderful idea to present, when the supposed most powerful and intelligent men and women of the Empire had thought of no such thing. She knew that once she had shared with the king her idea, he would love it. And perhaps the king and queen would even give her more authority from now on—authority over Ceres.

  Arriving at the bottom of the steps below the thrones, Stephania curtsied deeply before the king and queen.

  “So far your excellences have done a wonderful job in using Ceres to promote and strengthen the Empire. And I see an opportunity to do it again,” Stephania said.

 
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