Slave warrior queen, p.6
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.6

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  Just as the blacksmith opened his mouth to speak, Ceres had an idea.

  “It is me,” she said, excitement rising in her chest. “I am the stand-in today and until Bartholomew returns.”

  The Empire soldiers looked at her for a moment, startled.

  Ceres pinched her lips together and took a step forward.

  “I have been working with my father and with the palace my entire life, crafting swords, shields, and all manner of weapons,” she said.

  She didn’t know where her courage came from, but she stood tall and stared the soldiers in the eye.

  “Ceres…” the blacksmith said, giving her a look of pity.

  “Try me,” she said, strengthening her resolve, wanting them to test her abilities. “There isn’t anyone who can take Bartholomew’s place but me. And if you lack a weapon-keeper today, wouldn’t that make the king rather upset?”

  She wasn’t certain, but she figured the Empire soldiers and the blacksmith would do almost anything to keep the king happy. Especially today.

  The Empire soldiers looked at the blacksmith, and the blacksmith back at them. The blacksmith thought for a moment. And then another. Finally, he nodded. He laid a plethora of weapons onto the table, after which he gestured to her to proceed.

  “Show us, then, Ceres,” the blacksmith said, a twinkle in his eye. “Knowing your father, he probably taught you everything you are not supposed to know.”

  “And more,” Ceres said, smiling inside.

  She went over each weapon, explaining in great detail their uses and advantages, how one might be better in certain types of battles than others.

  When she was finished, the Empire soldiers looked to the blacksmith.

  “I suppose it is better to have a girl weapon-keeper than no weapon-keeper,” the blacksmith said. “Let us go and speak to the king. Perhaps he will allow it, seeing there is no other.”

  Ceres was so excited she almost threw her arms around the blacksmith as he winked at her. The soldiers still seemed reluctant, but with no other apparent option, they agreed to take her along.

  She followed the Empire soldiers out the back door and entered the palace training ground. Ceres was used to the sound of swords colliding, of the combatlords grunting as they sparred, and of the smell of sweat mixed with leather and metal filling the air. But what was quite unique was seeing the royals practicing in the center of the yard, wearing their fancy polished armor, looking as if they needed a lesson—or a hundred—in swordsmanship. Ceres didn’t feel they belonged here. No, it disgusted her to see them on the training ground, all the underlords, counts, and dignitaries watching as they ate from mounds of food and drank from golden goblets. They should go back to their lavish parties, she thought. Not feign courage and honor.

  One of the royals, though, stood out from the rest: Thanos. Watching him spar, she noticed how he moved with speed, grace, and agility. To her surprise, he appeared almost as skilled as Brennius; and he wore no armor like the other royals. His hair was different from his royal peers’, too; not neat and pulled back into a low ponytail, but curly, unruly dark hair flying about his face with each move.

  Ceres frowned. Perhaps he knew a thing or two about combat, but he was the haughtiest of the royals, always glowering at something or someone, never seeming to want to be a part of anything.

  The guards led her to the throne, and when the blacksmith presented Ceres to the king as a stand-in weapon-keeper, the king paused, and then chuckled a bit as he glanced at his advisors on either side. Ceres didn’t like how he looked at her as if she were an annoyance to be rid of. But in an instant, the king’s expression changed, and his face lit up as if he just had the most brilliant idea.

  “Not having anyone else, I see that this must be as you say,” the king said to the blacksmith. “Ceres, you shall assist Prince Thanos.”

  The king said it in a way that made Ceres think it was a punishment or a means to shame Prince Thanos, but she didn’t care. Even though she wasn’t particularly happy to be Thanos’s weapon-keeper, she had been assigned, and now she could show her skills in the royal court. It was more than any girl could ever expect.

  She bowed toward the king and glanced at the blacksmith as she passed him. The blacksmith nodded, an almost prideful expression on his face, and then he walked back to the chalet.

  The Empire soldier escorted Ceres over to Thanos, who stood by a table, and when Thanos glanced at Ceres, his scowl intensified.

  “Very well,” he muttered, staring at his uncle across the yard as if daggers were shooting from his eyes. The king gave Thanos a devious smirk, affirming to Ceres that her assignment to Thanos was indeed some form of a punishment.

  Thanos stepped in front of Ceres, and she noticed how the neck of his shirt was open, revealing small amounts of curly, dark hair on his muscular chest. Her breath hitched. He looked at her, and when their eyes met, she found his gaze intense—irises darker than the blackest soot. Yet, he didn’t intimidate her. In fact, his bottomless eyes drew her to him, making it impossible to look away.

  Once he broke eye contact, Ceres was able to take a breath and think clearly; she again resolved to show him she knew what she was doing.

  “I suppose I should trust you if the blacksmith speaks so highly of you,” Thanos said as she laid out the weapons one by one onto the wooden table.

  Even though she was a girl, and even though Thanos was undoubtedly smart enough to figure out that what his uncle had done was more of a cruel joke than anything, it surprised her that he gave her the benefit of the doubt.

  “I will do my best, sire,” she said, placing a sword onto the wood.

  He glanced at her, his smoldering eyes studying her too intimately for her to feel comfortable.

  “There is no need for such formalities here. Thanos will do,” he said.

  Again, she was surprised by his casual approach. Had she read him wrong? Was he not the arrogant, self-righteous, ungrateful young man she assumed he was?

  Once she had laid out all the weapons, an Empire soldier reviewed the rules of combat. First, they watched a few of the combatlords spar, and then it was the royals’ turn. The Empire soldier called upon Lucious, a blond, muscular, but somewhat lanky young man, who stepped up to a combatlord. Thanos leaned over.

  “I doubt Lucious will last very long,” he whispered.

  “Why do you say that?” Ceres asked, wondering why he would say something like that to her—a stranger—about a fellow royal.

  “You’ll see.”

  The right side of Thanos’s lips rose, and Ceres liked how he spoke to her as if she were an equal.

  Even before the fighting began, Ceres knew Thanos was right. Lucious’s feet were too close together, his grip weak around the hilt, and his eyes too unfocused. It would be an embarrassment, to say the least, to watch him lose rather quickly to such a warrior he was facing.

  With the first collision of swords, Ceres looked up and kept her gaze on the cloudy sky instead, keeping them there as she heard grunts and blades clashing. The fighting continued on for a while, and Ceres wondered if perhaps she had judged Lucious too harshly. At least Lucious was holding on, if nothing else.

  But when Lucious started to scream a few minutes into the fight, and the onlookers murmured and gasped, she couldn’t help but bring her eyes back onto the fighters again. Lucious was lying on the ground, holding the blade of his sword with one hand, the hilt with the other, struggling to keep the combatlord’s sword away from his face. Blood ran down his arm, and he squealed, begging for the round to end.

  “Enough!” the king said, and the combatlord retreated.

  Lucious’s weapon-keeper ran over to him and offered him a hand, but Lucious smacked it away.

  “I can get up myself!” he yelled between gritted teeth, panting and spewing obscenities.

  Lucious held his injured hand with the other and rolled onto his stomach before rising to his feet.

  “I said I didn’t want to do this!” he yel
led toward the king. “And now look what happened! You have made me a fool!”

  He stormed across the yard and vanished through the arching doorway into the palace. Most of the dignitaries had quieted, but some of them laughed

  “Always such drama with Lucious,” Thanos said, rolling his eyes.

  “Next up is Thanos and Oedifus,” an Empire soldier announced.

  “Are you ready?” Thanos asked Ceres.

  “Yes. Are you?” she replied.

  He paused and gave her a sideways glance before saying, “Always. Let me start with the trident and shield.”

  She handed him the shield, and after he had secured it onto his arm, she gave him the trident. Her pulse rose as she watched him walk into the center of the practice arena, hoping he would win, but bracing herself in the very likely event he would lose. One did not just simply triumph over a combatlord, and especially not with as little training as Ceres assumed these royals had.

  The combatlord was around Thanos’s height, but his muscles were fuller, almost monstrously so, Ceres observed. His arms were covered in scars, his face disfigured from past wounds unevenly healed, and he grunted at Thanos even before the match had begun.

  With Thanos’s very first strike, Ceres could tell he was a marvelous warrior, and as the battle continued, as hard as he tried, the combatlord couldn’t get to him. Thanos was so quick to swerve, and quick like a rattlesnake to attack, but he also possessed the strength of an omnicat. Not only did he seem to read his opponent’s mind, his feet moved with the ease of a trained dancer.

  The entire match, Thanos was one step ahead of the combatlord, causing the onlookers to cheer with excitement. Ceres judged the trident a great choice for him, but from the way he moved, she believed a longsword would be the weapon granting him victory.

  With the next move, the combatlord crouched and whipped one leg across the sand in a circular motion, wiping Thanos’s feet from under him, causing him to fall onto his back. He hopped up to his feet again, but his trident had fallen several feet away.

  Faster than she could even think, Ceres picked up the longsword and yelled, “Thanos!”

  He glanced at her and she threw the sword to him. Catching it mid-air, Thanos didn’t miss a beat and went after the combatlord with full force. Sparks flew as metal collided with metal, and watching Thanos’s face and neck muscles strain, Ceres clenched her fists as she held her breath.

  Retreating, the combatlord snarled and panted, saliva gushing from his mouth, but Thanos did not withdraw. Instead, he hit the combatlord’s sword out of his hand and shoved him to the ground so Thanos ended up standing above him with his blade pointed at his challenger’s neck.

  With eyes wide open and her heart galloping in her chest, Ceres cheered with the rest of the crowd.

  Thanos looked up at the king, his face a stone, and the king squinted his eyes as he leaned over and whispered something to the advisor on his right. With the nod of his uncle, Thanos lowered his sword and stepped out of the training area.

  He walked toward her, a new look of admiration and wonder in his eyes. He studied her in silence for several seconds, breathing hard. Finally, he spoke.

  “How did you know which weapon to give me?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.

  “The way you moved,” she said. “It seemed a longsword would suit you.”

  Still panting, he watched her closely as he nodded.

  Then he strode across the training ground and headed into the palace. For a moment, Ceres wasn’t certain what to make of his strange behavior and his lack of further instructions. Should she stay? Should she leave? She decided to wait until she was released.

  A few minutes later, and into the next round, a handler approached her.

  “For you, my lady,” he said, holding out a pouch. “An advance from Prince Thanos. If you accept, you have been hired as the prince’s new weapon-keeper. He requests you return tomorrow an hour after dawn at this very spot.”

  Ceres held out her hand and after she had received the pouch, she opened it, seeing five pieces of gold. At first, overwrought with joy, she couldn’t speak, but when the handler asked her again if she would accept, she said yes.

  “You are at liberty to leave, my lady,” he said, and then he swiveled around and walked back into the palace.

  “Thank you,” she said, realizing she was speaking to no one. She glanced up toward the east tower and saw Thanos standing on the balcony watching her. He nodded to her and smiled before heading inside.

  With a light heart, she ran from the palace and headed home to pick up her sword. She also planned to secretly give the money to her brothers without their mother finding out, and to bid them a final farewell.

  Finally, she was wanted.

  Finally, she had a home.

  CHAPTER SIX

  Ceres carefully peered in through the half-opened shutters, her mouth dry, eyes peeled for her mother. She had run home as nightfall descended on Delos, the clear skies above turning pink and lavender. Her eagerness to present the gold to her brothers had fueled each step. Aching with hunger, she had considered using one of the gold coins to purchase food, but was afraid to bump into her mother at the market.

  With ears pinned for sounds or voices, she glanced further into the dim house. Not a soul was in sight. Where could Nesos and Sartes be? Usually, they were home at this time while Mother was away. Perhaps if she retrieved her sword first, her brothers would return by then.

  Careful not to make a sound, she slunk around to the rear of the house, past her grandmother’s tree and toward the shed. The door creaked when she opened it, and once inside the stuffy shack, she headed straight toward the corner. Kneeling down beside the floorboard, she lifted it up and fished out her sword. She breathed with relief to see it was still there.

  For a moment Ceres sat and admired its beauty, the mixed metals, the shiny, thin, unblemished blade, the golden hilt adorned with serpents. The craftsmanship was after the manner of the northerners, her father had said. She would carry this sword with honor, always remembering the great love her father had for her.

  She slid it into its sheath, secured it around her waist with a scabbard, and headed outside.

  Seeing no one was there, she made her way to the front of the house again, and this time went in through the front door. The house was shadowy, the hearth unlit, and mounds of fruits, vegetables, meats, and baked goods decked the table, all no doubt bought with the gold gained by selling her life. Their savory aroma filled the room. She strode over to the food, picked up a loaf of bread, and devoured a few bites. Her stomach had churned for days.

  Knowing she hadn’t much time, Ceres hurried over to Nesos’s bench-bed and placed the sack of gold beneath his pillow. He’d find it when he turned in for the night, and she didn’t doubt he’d keep it a secret from Mother. She blinked, trying to fight back the tears while wondering if she’d ever see her dear brothers again. Her heart squeezed as she thought about Rexus. Would he forget about her?

  Suddenly she jumped as the front door flung open, startling her. To her horror, in stepped Lord Blaku.

  He grinned an awful, victorious grin.

  “If it isn’t the runaway,” he said, his upper lip curled back, revealing yellowing teeth, the stench of sweat saturating the room.

  Taking a few steps back, Ceres realized she needed to get away—quick. Thinking she’d be able to escape through the window in her parents’ bedroom, she dropped the loaf of bread and darted toward the back door.

  But just as she reached the doorway, her mother stepped into it, Ceres colliding with her.

  Briefly, Ceres noted that her mother wore a new dress made of the finest silk, and that she smelled like floral perfume.

  “Did you really think you could beat me bloody and blue, steal my money, and get away with it?” her mother asked in a hateful tone as she grabbed Ceres’s hair, pulling it so hard Ceres let out a cry.

  Steal her money? But then it all made
sense. Of course her mother wouldn’t be collaborating with the slaver if she knew he had taken back the gold he’d paid for Ceres. However, he probably told her mother Ceres took the gold and ran off with it. Her mother was, after all, unconscious when he snatched the pouch of fifty-five pieces.

  Before Ceres could explain, her mother slapped her across the face and shoved her so she fell to the floor. She then kicked Ceres in the stomach with her new pointy shoes.

  Ceres couldn’t breathe. Yet she forced herself to her feet, preparing to lunge for her mother—when the slaver grabbed her from behind in a deadlock. He squeezed her so hard she was certain the wounds on her back reopened.

  She kicked and screamed, wriggled and scratched, trying to wrestle her way out of the fat old man’s iron grip. But it was to no avail. He carried her through the room, and toward the front door.

  “Wait!” her mother yelled.

  She walked over to them and wrapped covetous fingers around Ceres’s sword.

  “What is this?” she asked, her eyes angered.

  Still not giving up the fight, Ceres kicked her mother in the shin as hard as she could muster with the slaver squeezing the life out of her.

  Her mother’s face turned red, and she socked Ceres in the abdomen with such force Ceres thought she might vomit up the little food she had managed to swallow.

  “That is my sword,” her mother said.

  Ceres knew her mother would recognize how valuable the sword was, and that there was no way she would let the slaver take it with him.

  “I paid for the girl, and whatever is on her person, I own that now,” Lord Blaku sneered.

  “The sword was not on her person when I sold her to you,” her mother retorted, her fingers fumbling to undo the scabbard around Ceres’s waist.

  Lord Blaku growled and threw Ceres against the kitchen table so her head hit the corner, a sharp pain spreading across her temple. Lying on the floor, dizzy from the blow, Ceres heard her mother scream and furniture being thrown across the room. She opened her eyes and sat up and saw the slaver standing over her mother, slamming a chair against her mother’s head.

 
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