Slave warrior queen, p.5
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.5

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  Standing with his cousins Lucious, Aria, and Varius, Thanos didn’t make the least bit of effort to engage in their petty conversation. Instead, he watched the imperial guests meander about in the palace gardens, wearing their togas and stolas, presenting fake grins and spewing false niceties. A few of his cousins were throwing food at each other as they ran across the manicured lawn and between tables stocked with food and wine. Others were reenacting their favorite scenes from the Killings, laughing at and mocking those who had lost their lives today.

  Hundreds of people, Thanos thought, and not one was honorable.

  “Next month, I will purchase three combatlords,” Lucious, the eldest, said in a boisterous tone as he patted drops of sweat from his brow with a silk handkerchief. “Stefanus wasn’t worth half of what I paid for him, and if he weren’t dead already, I would have run a sword through him myself for having fought like a girl in the first round.”

  Aria and Varius laughed, but Thanos didn’t find his comment amusing. Whether they considered the Killings a game or not, they should respect the brave and the dead.

  “Well, did you see Brennius?” Aria asked, her large blue eyes widening. “I actually considered buying him, but he gave me this conceited look when I watched him rehearse. Can you believe it?” she added, as she rolled her eyes and huffed.

  “And he stinks like a skunk,” Lucious added.

  Everyone except for Thanos laughed again.

  “None of us would have picked him,” Varius said. “Though he lasted longer than expected, his form was horrible.”

  Thanos couldn’t keep quiet another second.

  “Brennius had the best form in the entire arena,” he interjected. “Don’t talk about the art of combat as if you know anything about it.”

  The cousins grew quiet, and Aria’s eyes became large as saucers as she looked toward the ground. Varius puffed out his chest and crossed his arms, scowling. He stepped closer to Thanos as if to challenge him, and the air thickened with tension.

  “Well, never mind those self-important combatlords,” Aria said, stepping between them, defusing the situation. She waved for the boys to gather around closer, and then she whispered, “I have heard an outlandish rumor. A little bee told me the king wants to have someone of royal birth compete in the Killings.”

  They all exchanged an uncomfortable look as they fell silent.

  “Perhaps,” Lucious said. “It won’t be me, though. I’m not willing to risk my life for a stupid game.”

  Thanos knew he could beat out most combatlords, but killing another human wasn’t something he wanted to do.

  “You’re just scared of dying,” Aria said.

  “I am not,” Lucious retorted. “You take that back!”

  Thanos’s patience was spent. He walked away.

  Thanos watched his distant cousin Stephania wander about as if she were looking for someone—probably him. A few weeks back, the Queen had said he was fated to be with Stephania, but Thanos felt otherwise. Stephania was as spoiled as the rest of the cousins and he’d rather give up his name, his inheritance, and even his sword to not have to marry her. She was beautiful to behold, true—her hair golden, her skin milky white, her lips blood-red—but if he had to listen to her talk about how life was so unfair one more time, he thought he might cut his ears off.

  He scurried to the outskirts of the garden toward the rose bushes, avoiding eye contact with any of the attendees. But just as he rounded the corner, Stephania stepped in front of him, her brown eyes lighting up.

  “Good evening, Thanos,” she said with a scintillating smile that would have most of the boys here drooling after her. Everyone but Thanos.

  “Good evening to you, too,” Thanos said and skirted around her, continuing to walk.

  She lifted up her stola and trailed after him like a pesky mosquito.

  “Don’t you find it so unfair how—” she began.

  “I’m busy,” Thanos snapped in a tone harsher than he intended, causing her to gasp. He then turned toward her. “I’m sorry…I’m just tired of all these parties.”

  “Perhaps you would like to stroll the gardens with me?” Stephania said, her right eyebrow peaking as she stepped closer.

  That was the absolute last thing he wanted.

  “Listen,” he said, “I know the queen and your mother have it in their minds that we somehow belong together, but—”

  “Thanos!” he heard behind him.

  Thanos turned to see the king’s messenger.

  “The king would like you to join him in the gazebo straightaway,” he said. “And you too, my lady.”

  “Might I inquire why?” Thanos asked.

  “There is much to discuss,” the messenger said.

  Not having had regular conversations with the king in the past, Thanos wondered what that might entail.

  “Of course,” Thanos said.

  To his great dismay, a beaming Stephania hooked her arm around his, and together they followed the messenger over to the gazebo.

  When Thanos noticed several of the king’s advisors and even the crown prince already sitting on benches and chairs, he found it odd that he had been invited, too. He would hardly have anything of value to offer in their conversation, as his opinions about how the Empire was ruled differed greatly from those of everyone here. The best thing he could do, he thought to himself, was to keep his mouth shut.

  “What a lovely couple you make,” the queen said with a warm smile as they entered.

  Thanos pinched his lips shut and offered Stephania to sit down next to him.

  Once everyone had settled, the king rose to his feet and the gathering quieted down. His uncle wore a knee-length toga, but where the others were white, red, and blue, his was purple, a color reserved only for the king. Around his balding temple was a golden wreath, and his cheeks and eyes still drooped even though he was smiling.

  “The masses grow unruly,” he said, his voice grave, slow. He slowly scanned all the faces with the authority of a king. “The time is past due to remind them who is king and enact harsher rules. From this day forward, I shall double tithes on all property and food.”

  There came a surprised murmur, followed by nods of approval.

  “An excellent choice, your grace,” said one of his advisors.

  Thanos couldn’t believe his ears. Double the people’s taxes? Having mingled with commoners, he knew that the taxes required were already beyond what most commoners could afford. He had seen mothers mourn the loss of their children who died of starvation. As recently as yesterday, he had offered food to a homeless four-year-old girl whose every bone was visible beneath her skin.

  Thanos had to look away or he would surely have to speak up against this insanity.

  “And finally,” the king said, “from now on, to counterbalance the underground revolution that is fomenting, the firstborn son in every family will become a servant in the king’s army.”

  One after another, the small crowd commended the king for his wise decision.

  Finally, though, Thanos felt the king turn to him.

  “Thanos,” the king finally said. “You have remained silent. Speak!”

  Silence fell on the gazebo, as all eyes were on Thanos. He stood. He knew he had to speak up, for the emaciated girl, for the grieving mothers, for the voiceless whose lives seemed not to matter. He needed to represent them, because if he did not, no one would.

  “Harsher rules will not crush the rebellion,” he said, his heart thumping in his chest. “It will only embolden it. Instilling fear into the citizens and denying them freedom will do nothing but compel them to rise against us and join the revolution.”

  A few people laughed, while others talked amongst themselves. Stephania took his hand and tried to hush him, but he snatched it away.

  “A great king uses love, as well as fear, to rule his subordinates,” Thanos said.

  The king gave the queen an uneasy glance. He stood up, and then walked over to Thanos.

 
Thanos, you are a brave young man for speaking up,” he said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “However, was your younger brother not murdered in cold blood by these same people, those who governed themselves, as you say?”

  Thanos saw red. How dare his uncle bring up his brother’s death so flippantly? For years, Thanos had fallen asleep to his grief as he mourned the loss of his brother.

  “Those who murdered my brother didn’t have enough food for themselves,” Thanos said. “A desperate man will seek desperate measures.”

  “Do you question the king’s wisdom?” the queen asked.

  Thanos couldn’t believe no one else was speaking up against this. Did they see not see how unjust it was? Did they not realize these new laws would breathe fire into the rebellion?

  “Not for a moment will you be able to fool the people into believing you want anything other than their suffering and your profiting for yourselves,” Thanos said.

  There came a gasp of disapproval amidst the group.

  “You speak harsh words, nephew,” the king said, looking him in the eyes. “I would almost believe you mean to join the rebellion.”

  “Or perhaps he is already a part of it?” the queen said, her eyebrows rising.

  “I am not,” Thanos barked.

  The air in the gazebo grew hotter, and Thanos realized if he wasn’t careful, he might be accused of treason—a crime punishable by death without trial.

  Stephania stood up and took Thanos’s hand in hers—yet, agitated by her timing, he snapped his hand away.

  Stephania’s expression fell, and she looked down.

  “Perhaps in time you will see the weaknesses of your beliefs,” the king said to Thanos. “For now, our ruling will stand and shall be implemented immediately.”

  “Good,” the queen said with a sudden smile. “Now, let us move onto the second item on our agenda. Thanos, as a young man of nineteen, we, your imperial sovereigns, have chosen a wife for you. We have decided you and Stephania are to be wed.”

  Thanos glanced over at Stephania, whose eyes were glazed with tears, an expression of worry painting her face. He felt aghast. How could they demand this of him?

  “I cannot marry her,” Thanos whispered, a knot forming in his belly.

  Murmurs went through the crowd, and the queen shot to her feet so quickly that her chair fell backward with a crack.

  “Thanos!” she yelled, hands clenched by her sides. “How dare you defy the king? You will marry Stephania whether or not you want to.”

  Thanos looked at Stephania with saddened eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks.

  “Do you imagine you are too good for me?” she asked, her bottom lip trembling.

  He took a step toward Stephania to comfort her what little he could, but before he reached her, she ran out of the gazebo, hands covering her face as she cried.

  The king stood, clearly angered.

  “Deny her, son”, he said, his voice suddenly cold and hard, thundering through the gazebo, “and it will be the dungeon for you.”

  CHAPTER FIVE

  Ceres sprinted, weaving through city streets, until she felt her legs would no longer hold her, until her lungs burned so much they might burst, and until she knew with absolute certainty the slaver would never find her.

  Finally, she collapsed on the ground in a back alley amongst garbage and rats, arms wrapped around her legs, tears streaming down her hot cheeks. With her father away and her mother wanting to sell her, she had no one. If she remained on the streets and slept in the alleys, she would eventually die of starvation or freeze to death when winter came. Perhaps that would be best.

  For hours she sat and cried, her eyes puffy, her mind muddled with despair. Where would she go now? How would she make money to survive?

  The day had grown long when finally, she resolved to return home, sneak into the shed, take the few swords that were left, and sell them to the palace. They were expecting her today anyway. That way, she would have money for a few days at least until she could come up with a better plan.

  She would also pick up the sword her father had given her and that she had hidden beneath the floorboards in the shed. But she wouldn’t sell that, no. Not until she was staring death in the face would she give up her father’s gift.

  She jogged home, carefully watching for any familiar faces or for the slaver’s wagon as she went. When she reached the last hill, she slunk behind the row of houses and into the field, tiptoeing across the parched earth, her eyes scanning for her mother.

  A pang of guilt arose when she remembered how she had beaten her mother. She never wanted to hurt her, not even after how cruel her mother had been. Not even with her heart broken and unmendable.

  Arriving at the back of their shed, she peeked in through a crack in the wall. Seeing it was empty, she stepped inside the dim shack and gathered the swords. But just as she was about to lift the floorboard where she had hidden the sword, she heard voices coming from outside.

  When she stood up and glanced through a small hole in the wall, to her horror, she saw her mother and Sartes walking toward the shed. Her mother had a black eye and a bruise on her cheek, and now seeing her mother alive and well, it almost made Ceres smile knowing she had put it there. All the anger welled up again as she thought about how her mother wanted to sell her.

  “If I catch you sneaking any food out to Ceres, I will flog you, do you understand?” her mother snapped as she and Sartes strode by her grandmother’s tree.

  When Sartes didn’t answer, her mother slapped him across the face.

  “Do you understand, boy?” she said.

  “Yes,” Sartes said, looking down, a tear in his eye.

  “And if you ever see her, bring her home so I can give her a licking she will never forget.”

  They began walking toward the shed again, and Ceres’s heart was suddenly thumping wildly. She gripped the swords and darted toward the back door as quickly and as quietly as she could. Just as she exited, the front door swung open, and she leaned against the outer wall and listened, the wounds from the omnicat’s claws stinging her back.

  “Who goes there?” her mother said.

  Ceres held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut.

  “I know you’re there,” her mother said and waited. “Sartes, go check the back door. It’s ajar.”

  Ceres clenched the swords to her chest. She heard Sartes’s footsteps as he walked toward her, and then the door opened with a creak.

  Sartes’s eyes widened when he saw her, and he gasped.

  “Is there anyone there?” her mother asked.

  “Um… no,” Sartes said, his eyes filling with tears as they connected with Ceres’s.

  Ceres mouthed a “thank you,” and Sartes gestured with his hand for her to leave.

  She nodded, and with a heavy heart, she stole toward the field as the back door to the shed slammed shut. She would come back for her sword later.

  *

  Ceres stopped at the palace gates sweating, famished, and exhausted, swords in hand. The Empire soldiers standing guard, clearly recognizing her as the girl who delivered her father’s swords, let her pass without questioning her.

  She hurried through the cobblestone courtyard and then turned for the blacksmith’s stone cottage behind one of the four towers. She entered.

  Standing by the anvil in front of the crackling furnace, the blacksmith hammered away at a glowing blade, the leather apron protecting his clothing from the flying sparks. The concerned expression on his face made Ceres wonder what was wrong. A jovial middle-aged man full of energy, he was rarely worried.

  His bald, sweaty head greeted her before he noticed she had entered.

  “Good morrow,” he said when he saw her, nodding for her to place the swords on the worktable.

  She strode across the hot smoky room and set them down, the metal rattling against a surface of burnt, tattered wood.

  He shook his head, clearly troubled.

  “What is it?” she asked.


  He looked up, concern in his eyes.

  “Of all the days to fall ill,” he murmured.

  “Bartholomew?” she asked, seeing that the young weapon-keeper of the combatlords wasn’t here as he usually was, frantically preparing the last few weapons before sparring practice.

  The blacksmith stopped hammering and looked up with a vexed expression, his bushy eyebrows crinkling.

  He shook his head.

  “And on sparring day, of all days,” he said. “And not just any sparring day.” He stuffed the blade into the glowing coals in the furnace and wiped his dripping brow with the sleeve of his tunic. “Today, the royals will spar with the combatlords. The king has hand-picked twelve royals to train for the Killings. Three will go on to participate.”

  She understood his worry. It was his responsibility to provide the weapon-keepers, and if he didn’t, his job was on the line. Hundreds of blacksmiths would be eager to take his position.

  “The king won’t be happy if we are one weapon-keeper short,” she said.

  He leaned his hands on his thick thighs and shook his head. Just then, two Empire soldiers entered.

  “We are here to retrieve the weapons,” one said, scowling toward Ceres.

  Even though it wasn’t forbidden, she knew it was frowned upon for girls to work in weaponry—a man’s field. Yet she had grown accustomed to snide remarks and hateful glares most every time she made deliveries to the palace.

  The blacksmith stood up and walked over to three wooden buckets filled with weapons, all ready for the sparring match.

  “You will find here the remainder of the weapons the king requested for today,” the blacksmith said to the Empire soldiers.

  “And the weapon-keeper?” the Empire soldier demanded.

 
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