Slave warrior queen, p.2
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.2

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
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  “Let’s go,” she said, “no time to waste.”

  Without waiting, Ceres climbed down the wall and hit the ground running. Keeping the fountain in sight, she made her way across the plaza, eager to reach Rexus.

  He turned and his eyes widened in delight as she neared. She rushed into him and felt his arms wrap around her waist, as he pressed a scruffy cheek against hers.

  “Ciri,” he said in his low, raspy voice.

  A shiver ran through her spine as she spun around to meet Rexus’s cobalt blue eyes. At six foot one, he was nearly a head taller than her, and blond, coarse hair framed his heart-shaped face. He smelled like soap and the outdoors. Heavens, it was good to see him again. Even though she could fend for herself in nearly any situation, his presence brought her a sense of calm.

  Ceres raised herself up onto the balls of her feet and curled willing arms around his thick neck. She had never seen him as more than a friend until she heard him speak of the revolution, and of the underground army he was a member of. “We will fight to free ourselves from the yoke of oppression,” he had said to her years ago. He had spoken with such passion about the rebellion that for a moment, she had really believed overthrowing the royals was possible.

  “How was the hunt?” she asked with a smile, knowing he had been gone for days.

  “I missed your smile.” He stroked her long, rose-gold hair back. “And your emerald eyes.”

  Ceres had missed him, too, but she didn’t dare say. She was too afraid to lose the friendship they had if anything were to happen between them.

  “Rexus,” Nesos said, catching up, Sartes at his heels, and clasping his arm.

  “Nesos,” he said, in his deep, authoritative voice. “We have little time if we are to get in,” he added, nodding to the others.

  They all hurried off, merging with the throng heading toward the Stade. Empire soldiers were everywhere, urging the crowds forward, sometimes with clubs and whips. The closer they came to the road that led to the Stade, the more the crowd thickened.

  All of a sudden, Ceres heard a clamor by one of the booths and she instinctively turned toward the sound. She saw that a generous space had opened up around a small boy, flanked by two Empire soldiers and a merchant. A few onlookers fled, while others gawked in a circle.

  Ceres rushed forward to see one of the soldiers slap an apple out of the boy’s hand as he grabbed the little one’s arm, shaking him violently.

  “Thief!” the soldier growled.

  “Mercy, please!” the boy screamed, tears streaming down his dirty, hollow cheeks. “I was…so hungry!”

  Ceres felt her heart burst from compassion, as she had felt the same hunger—and she knew the soldiers would be nothing short of cruel.

  “Let the boy go,” the heavyset merchant said calmly with the gesture of a hand, his gold ring catching the sunlight. “I can afford to give him an apple. I have hundreds of apples.” He chuckled a little, as if to make light of the situation.

  But the crowd gathered around and quieted as the soldiers turned to confront the merchant, their shiny armor rattling. Ceres’s heart dropped for the merchant—she knew that one never risked confronting the Empire.

  The soldier stepped forward menacingly toward the merchant.

  “You defend a criminal?”

  The merchant looked back and forth between the two of them, now seeming unsure. The soldier then turned and hit the boy across the face with a sickening crack that made Ceres shiver.

  The boy fell to the ground with a thump as the crowd gasped.

  Pointing at the merchant, the soldier said, “To prove your loyalty to the Empire, you will hold the boy while we flog him.”

  The merchant’s eyes turned hard, his brow sweaty. To Ceres’s surprise, he held his ground.

  “No,” he replied.

  The second soldier took two threatening steps toward the merchant and his hand moved to the hilt of his sword.

  “Do it, or you lose your head and we burn your shop down,” the soldier said.

  The merchant’s round face went limp, and Ceres could tell he was defeated.

  He slowly walked over to the boy and grabbed the boy’s arms, kneeling in front of him.

  “Please forgive me,” he said, tears brimming in his eyes.

  The boy whimpered and then started to scream as he tried to wring himself free from his grip.

  Ceres could see the child was shaking. She wanted to keep moving toward the Stade, to avoid witnessing this, but instead, her feet stood frozen in the middle of the square, eyes glued to the brutality.

  The first soldier tore the boy’s tunic open while the second soldier whirled a flogger above his head. Most onlookers cheered the soldiers on, although a few murmured and walked away with heads hung low.

  None defended the thief.

  With a greedy, almost maddening expression, the soldier thrashed the whip against the boy’s back, causing him to shriek in pain as they flogged him. Blood oozed out of the fresh lacerations. Again and again, the soldier flogged until the boy’s head was sagging backward and he no longer screamed.

  Ceres felt the strong urge to rush forward and save the boy. Yet to do so, she knew, would mean her death, and the death of all those she loved. She slumped her shoulders, feeling hopeless and defeated. Inwardly, she resolved to take revenge one day.

  She yanked Sartes toward her and covered his eyes, desperately wanting to protect him, to give him a few more years of innocence, even though there was no innocence to be had in this land. She forced herself not to act on her impulse. As a man, he needed to see these instances of cruelty, not only to adapt, but also to one day be a strong contender in the rebellion.

  The soldiers grabbed the boy out of the merchant’s hands and then tossed his lifeless body into the back of a wooden cart. The merchant pressed his hands to his face and sobbed.

  Within seconds, the cart was on its way, and the previously open space was again filled with people meandering about the square as if nothing had happened.

  Ceres felt an overwhelming sense of nausea well up inside. It was unjust. In this moment, she could pick out a half a dozen pickpockets—men and women who had perfected their art so well that not even the Empire soldiers could catch them. This poor boy’s life was now ruined because of his lack of skill. If caught, thieves, young or old, would lose their limbs or more, depending on how the judges felt that day. If he were lucky, his life would be spared and he would be sentenced to work in the gold mines for life. Ceres would rather die than have to endure being imprisoned like that.

  They continued along the street, their mood ruined, shoulder to shoulder with the others as the heat grew almost unbearable.

  A golden carriage pulled up next to them, forcing everyone out of the way, shoving people up to the houses on the sides. Jostled roughly, Ceres looked up to see three teenage girls in colorful silk dresses, pins of gold and precious jewels adorning their intricate up-dos. One of the teenagers, laughing, tossed a coin out onto the street, and a handful of commoners stooped onto hands and knees, scrambling for a piece of metal that would feed a family for an entire month.

  Ceres never stooped to pick up any handouts. She’d rather starve than take donations from the likes of those.

  She watched a young man get hold of the coin and an older man drive him to the ground and clamp a stiff hand around his neck. With the other hand, the older man forced the coin out of the young man’s hand.

  The teenage girls laughed and pointed fingers before their carriage continued to weave through the masses.

  Ceres’s insides clenched with disgust.

  “In the near future, inequality will vanish forever,” Rexus said. “I will see to it.”

  Listening to him speak, Ceres’s chest swelled. One day she would fight side by side with him and her brothers in the rebellion.

  As they neared the Stade the streets widened, and Ceres felt like she could take a breath. The air buzzed. She felt she would rupture from excitement.
br />   She walked through one of the dozens of arched entrances and looked up.

  Thousands upon thousands of commoners teemed inside the magnificent Stade. The oval structure had collapsed on the top northern side, and the majority of the red awnings were torn and provided little protection from the sweltering sun. Wild beasts growled from behind iron gates and trap doors, and she could see the combatlords standing ready behind the gates.

  Ceres gaped, taking it all in in wonder.

  Before she knew it, Ceres looked up and realized she had fallen behind Rexus and her brothers. She rushed forward to catch up, yet as soon as she did, four burly men had surrounded her. She smelled alcohol, rotting fish, and body odor as they pressed in too close, turning and gaping at her with rotted teeth and ugly smiles.

  “You’re coming with us, pretty girl,” one of them said as they all strategically moved in on her.

  Ceres heart raced. She looked ahead for the others, but they were already lost in the thickening crowd.

  She confronted the men, trying to put on her bravest face.

  “Leave me be or I will…”

  They burst into laughter.

  “What?” one mocked. “A wee girl like you take us four?”

  “We could carry you out of here kickin’ and screamin’ and not a soul would say nuttin’,” another added.

  And it was true. From the corner of her eye, Ceres watched people rush by, pretending not to notice how these men were threatening her.

  Suddenly, the leader’s face turned serious, and with one swift move, he grabbed her arms and pulled her close. She knew they could haul her away, never to be seen again, and that thought terrified her more than anything.

  Trying to ignore her pounding heart, Ceres spun around, snatching her arm out of his stronghold. The other men hooted in amusement, but when she thrust the base of her palm into the leader’s nose, snapping his head back, they went silent.

  The leader placed filthy hands over his nose and grunted.

  She didn’t relent. Knowing she had one chance, she kicked him once in the stomach, remembering her days of sparring, and he keeled over as she connected.

  Immediately, though, the other three were upon her, their strong hands grabbing her, yanking her away.

  Suddenly, they relented. Ceres looked over with relief to see Rexus appear and punch one in the face, knocking him out.

  Nesos then appeared and grabbed another and kneed him in the stomach before kicking him to the ground, leaving him in the red dirt.

  The fourth man charged toward Ceres, but just as he was about to attack, she ducked, spun, and kicked him in the rear so he went flying into a pillar headfirst.

  She stood there, breathing hard, taking it all in.

  Rexus placed a hand on Ceres’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

  Ceres’s heart was still running wild, but a feeling of pride slowly replaced her fear. She had done well.

  She nodded and Rexus wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they continued on, his full lips gliding into a smile.

  “What?” Ceres asked.

  “When I saw what was happening, I wanted to run my sword through each and every one of them. But then I saw how you defended yourself.” He shook his head and chuckled. “They didn’t expect that.”

  She felt her cheeks flush. She wanted to say she had been fearless, but the truth was, she had not been.

  “I was nervous,” she admitted.

  “Ciri, nervous? Never.” He kissed Ceres on top of the head, and they continued into the Stade.

  They found a few spots left at ground level and they took their seats, Ceres thrilled it was not too late as she put all the events of the day behind her and allowed herself to become caught up in the excitement of the cheering crowd.

  “Do you see them?”

  Ceres followed Rexus’s finger and looked up to see a dozen or so teenagers sitting in a booth, sipping wine from silver goblets. She had never seen such fine clothing, so much food on one table, so much sparkling jewelry in her entire life. Not one of them had sunken cheeks or concave bellies.

  “What are they doing?” she asked when she saw one of them collecting coins into a gold bowl.

  “Each owns a combatlord,” Rexus said, “and they place bets on who will win.”

  Ceres scoffed. This was just a game for them, she realized. Obviously, the spoiled teenagers didn’t care about the warriors or about the art of combat. They just wanted to see if their combatlord would win. To Ceres, though, this event was about honor and courage and skill.

  The royal banners were raised, trumpets blared, and as iron gates sprung open, one on each end of the Stade, combatlord after combatlord marched out of the black holes, their leather and iron armor catching the sunlight, emitting sparks of light.

  The crowd roared as the brutes marched into the arena, and Ceres rose to her feet with them, applauding. The warriors ended in an outward-facing circle, their axes, swords, spears, shields, tridents, whips, and other weapons held to the sky.

  “Hail, King Claudius,” they yelled.

  Trumpets blared again, and the golden chariot of King Claudius and Queen Athena whirled onto the arena from one of the entrances. Next, a chariot with Crown Prince Avilius, and Princess Floriana followed, and after them, an entire entourage of chariots carrying royals flooded the arena. Each chariot was towed by two snow white horses adorned with precious jewels and gold.

  When Ceres spotted Prince Thanos amongst them, she became appalled at the nineteen-year-old boy’s scowl. From time to time when she delivered swords for her father, she had seen him speak with the combatlords at the palace, and he always carried that sour expression of superiority. His physique lacked nothing when it came to the likes of a warrior—he could almost be mistaken for one—his arms bulging with muscle, his waist tight and muscular, and his legs hard as tree trunks. However, it infuriated her how he appeared to hold no respect or passion for his position.

  As the royals paraded up to their places at the podium, trumpets blared again, signaling the Killings were about to begin.

  The crowd roared as all but two combatlords vanished back into the iron gates.

  Ceres recognized one of them as Stefanus, but she couldn’t make out the other brute wearing nothing but a visored helmet and a loincloth secured by a leather belt. Perhaps he had traveled from afar to contend. His well-oiled skin was the color of fertile soil, and his hair as black as the darkest night. Through the slits in the helmet, Ceres could see the look of resolve in his eyes, and she knew in an instant that Stefanus wouldn’t live to see another hour.

  “Don’t worry,” Ceres said, glancing over at Nesos. “I’ll let you keep your sword.”

  “He’s not defeated yet,” Nesos replied with a smirk. “Stefanus would not be everyone’s favorite if he weren’t superior.”

  When Stefanus lifted his trident and shield, the crowd went silent.

  “Stefanus!” one of the wealthy male youths from the booth shouted with a raised clenched fist. “Power and bravery!”

  Stefanus nodded toward the youth as the audience roared with approval, and then he came at the foreigner with full force. The foreigner swerved out of the way in a flash, spun around, and slashed at Stefanus with his sword, missing by a mere inch.

  Ceres cringed. With reflexes like that, Stefanus wouldn’t last long.

  Hacking away at Stefanus’s shield again and again, the foreigner roared while Stefanus retreated. Stefanus, desperate, finally flung the edge of his shield into his opponent’s face, sending a spray of blood across the air as his foe fell.

  Ceres thought that was a rather nice move. Maybe Stefanus had improved in his technique since she saw him in training last.

  “Stefanus! Stefanus! Stefanus!” the spectators chanted.

  Stefanus stood at the feet of the injured warrior, but just as he was about to stab him with the trident, the foreigner lifted his legs and kicked Stefanus so he tumbled backwards, landing on his behind. Both hopped to thei
r feet as quick as cats and faced each other again.

  Their eyes locked and they began circling one another, the danger in the air palpable, Ceres thought.

  The foreigner snarled and lifted his sword high into the air as he ran toward Stefanus. Stefanus quickly veered to the side and jabbed him in the thigh. In return, the foreigner swung his sword around and sliced Stefanus’s arm.

  Both warriors grunted in pain, but it was as if the wounds drove their fury instead of slowing them. The foreigner peeled off his helmet and flung it to the ground. His black bearded chin was bloodied, his right eye swollen, but his expression made Ceres think he was done playing games with Stefanus and was going in for the kill. How quickly would he be able to slay him?

  Stefanus charged toward the foreigner, and Ceres gasped as Stefanus’s trident collided with his opponent’s sword. Eyeball to eyeball the warriors strained against each other, grunting, panting, shoving, the blood vessels in their foreheads protruding and the muscles bulging beneath their sweaty skin.

  The foreigner ducked and wringed out of the deadlock, and unexpected to Ceres, he spun around like a tornado, sliced through the air with his sword, and decapitated Stefanus.

  After a few breaths, the foreigner triumphantly lifted his arm into the air.

  For a second, the crowd went completely silent. Even Ceres. She glanced up at the teenage boy who was Stefanus’s owner. His mouth was wide open, his eyebrows knit together in fury.

  The teenage boy hurled his silver goblet into the arena and stormed out of the booth. Death is the great equalizer, Ceres thought as she suppressed a smile.

  “August!” a man in the crowd yelled. “August! August!”

  One after another the spectators joined in, until the entire stadium chanted the victor’s name. The foreigner bowed to King Claudius, and then three other warriors came running from the iron gates, replacing him.

  One fight after another ensued as the day grew long, and Ceres watched with eyes peeled. She couldn’t quite make up her mind whether she hated the Killings or loved it. On one hand, she enjoyed watching the strategy, the skill, and the bravery of the contenders; yet on the other, she despised how the warriors were nothing but pawns to the wealthy.

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