Slave warrior queen, p.9
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.9

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  Thanos and Ceres entered the arena next, and Ceres squinted, the sun blinding her. Once her eyes had adjusted to the light, she glanced up into the audience, seeing only roughly half the seats filled.

  She gazed up at the podium and saw the king sitting up on his throne, smiling glumly. How she despised him. If what Thanos said was true, he was eviler than Ceres had imagined.

  “Remember, stay close,” Thanos said, touching her elbow.

  She nodded and then spotted the two combatlords on the other side of the arena, wearing heavy armor, each holding a sword.

  When the trumpets blared, at once, a beast sprung out from one of the trap doors in the ground. It charged toward Ceres and Thanos, its grizzled black fur glistening in the sunlight, its roar echoing against the stadium walls. The dog-like creature was unfamiliar to Ceres—large body, stalky legs—and moved at a slower pace compared to an omnicat, although she didn’t doubt it was just as strong.

  “A wolver!” someone from the crowd yelled, and then a wave of clamors moved through the audience.

  Adrenaline coursed through her, and for a moment, she didn’t know where to go. But when she saw the weapons lined up against the wall, she headed toward them and waited for Thanos’s command.

  First, Thanos called for the trident, and she flung it to him. Good choice, she thought as she watched him catch it mid-air. She wanted to jump in and help him, but she remembered the rule forbidding a weapon-keeper to intervene.

  Thanos screamed at the wolver as he jabbed the trident toward the beast, his feet moving with swiftness, his reflexes lightning quick.

  From the corner of her eye, Ceres noticed one of the combatlords making his way toward Thanos. If he were smart, the combatlord would wait to strike until after Thanos had slain the wolver or the beast might attack him, too.

  All of a sudden, the wolver charged toward Thanos, and Thanos jabbed it in the shoulder. The onlookers cheered in approval at the fight’s first attack.

  However, the wolver didn’t seem to be injured in the least, only growling louder from what Thanos had done, licking its teeth, red eyes glaring at Thanos.

  “Longsword!” Thanos yelled.

  Right as she threw it to him, he dropped the trident to the ground and caught the longsword mid-air. But then suddenly, Ceres sensed he needed protection from fire— quick—and she yelled at him and also threw him a shield. Just as he caught the shield, the wolver inhaled, and then it spewed fire from its mouth. The onlookers gasped, and Thanos ducked behind the shield, the flames blasting against the metal surface.

  Once the wolver had run out of breath, Thanos dropped his shield, picked up the trident, and hurled it at the beast’s head, piercing its eye.

  The animal violently shook its head as it snarled and growled, sending the trident flying halfway across the arena, Ceres saw.

  Without hesitating, Thanos tore toward the wolver, leapt into the air, and lifted his sword. On his way down, he stabbed the beast in the head, and it fell lifeless onto the red sand.

  But even though the audience cheered, there was no rest. The combatlord that had been lying in wait charged, his spear and sword pointed straight at Thanos.

  Thanos pulled and pulled, trying to dislodge the blade from the wolver’s skull, Ceres saw. But it wouldn’t budge. And he already had three weapons on the field; the trident on the other side of the arena, his shield too far to reach, and the blade wedged into the wolver’s skull. Ceres knew it was against the rules to throw him another one.

  She held her breath. The combatlord was close. Too close. She stepped forward.

  Still pulling on the blade, Thanos looked at Ceres, his eyes wide with fear, his face twisted in desperation.

  He was going to die.

  And there was nothing Ceres could do to prevent it.

  CHAPTER TEN

  Screaming, Thanos desperately tugged at the blade lodged in the wolver’s skull, but even as fiercely as he tried, the sword would not budge in the least. Hearing the combatlord’s footsteps approaching, he glanced back to see his enemy a mere ten feet away. His life depended on retrieving his sword, for he knew a weaponless warrior was a dead warrior.

  Fraught, he looked to Ceres, but he knew three weapons were on the field and if she threw him another one, she would be punished.

  She raised a palm toward him, and just as he heard the swooshing sound of his opponent’s blade descending, Thanos’s sword jutted into his hand as if by some mystical force.

  Shocked at what happened but with no time to linger on it, Thanos spun and rolled on the ground, the combatlord’s sword just missing him by a fraction of an inch, the crowd’s roar peaking into a frenzy before retreating into a static hum.

  Thanos was quick to hop to his feet, and just then, he heard Lucious calling for help. Seeing his opponent several feet away, Thanos afforded a quick glance and discovered Lucious stripped of a weapon, his weapon-keeper lying facedown in the red sand.

  “Throw me something! Anything!” Lucious yelled to Ceres, his voice filled with rage. “Do it now or I’ll have you skinned alive!”

  As Thanos snapped his attention back towards his foe, he vaguely registered that Ceres tossed Lucious two daggers. But his irritation was replaced with alarm when he saw the combatlord hurling a spear at him.

  Just as the spear approached, Thanos clenched a fist around it, stopping it from penetrating his heart, and then he whirled the spear around and flung it back at the combatlord, piercing his thigh exactly where he had meant to.

  “Thanos! Thanos! Thanos!” the audience shouted, fists pumping into the air.

  The combatlord fell to his feet, moaning in pain, holding his leg, the spear protruding from it.

  Recognizing his opportunity, Thanos ran behind the combatlord and hit him on the head with the hilt of his sword, knocking him unconscious.

  However, even before he could look to the king for acceptance of his victory, Lucious encircled him—and suddenly Lucious’s combatlord attacked Thanos, forcing Thanos to continue fighting.

  The scoundrel pawned his combatlord onto me, Thanos thought.

  It was as he had always suspected: Lucious had absolutely no honor.

  While he was battling a new opponent, Thanos could see Lucious sauntering over to the iron gate.

  “Let me in or I will kill you and find your family and torture them all to death!” Lucious yelled.

  Thanos heard the gate rattling as it opened, the crowed booing Lucious.

  “Thanos!” Ceres yelled, holding up two daggers.

  Of course. He was growing weary and needed lighter weapons. He nodded toward her, and she threw them to him.

  Right away, Thanos kicked the combatlord in the chest so he flew backward. But with impeccable balance, the combatlord landed on his feet and charged toward Thanos, sword in hand. The combatlord lunged forward, thrusting his sword toward Thanos, but Thanos jumped out of the way.

  As they moved around the arena, Thanos noticed that little by little, his nemesis grew exhausted, his chest heaving greatly with each breath, his movements slackening a hair. His plan was working. He didn’t want to kill the man, no, only exhaust him so he could render him unconscious like he had the first one.

  Right as Thanos approached his shield, he picked it up from the ground and flung it into the combatlord’s face. The combatlord fell to the ground lifeless, and for the first time since he could remember since entering the arena, the spectators went silent.

  Thanos panted and gazed up at the podium, awaiting the king’s decision, hoping he would not be commanded to murder his unconscious adversary.

  However, from what he knew about the blood-thirsty monarch, Thanos feared King Claudius would force him to do something he had worked hard to avoid—kill.

  The king glowered at Thanos as if he didn’t accept that the battle had ended in Thanos’s favor, the tension between the two palpable, the entire Stade void of the faintest of sounds. After arising from his seat, the king walked to the edge of the platfor
m, his hand outstretched, his thumb outstretched to the side.

  Finally, the king lifted a thumb up with a frown, and the onlookers broke into applause.

  Thanos couldn’t believe it. Ceres and he had survived. They had survived!

  He looked over at Ceres, feeling drops of sweat dripping from his hair and down his face. He nodded, and when she smiled, it was as if in that instance, the victory was complete.

  He stared at her, stunned. She had saved his life more than once, and had done it in a way he did not understand.

  And for the first time since he’d met her, he was beginning to wonder.

  Who was she?

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  A tear rolled down Ceres’s cheek as her fingers carefully skimmed the weapons laid out on tables in the practice arena. Amidst the twilight she heard laughter and music spilling out from the open palace windows, every royal inside those haughty walls celebrating today’s great victories. It made her feel more alone than ever. It made her miss her brothers, her father, her home, Rexus, dearly. It made her mourn for the mother she’d never had.

  Ceres paused and listened to the wind sighing through the trees, as she looked up and saw a few stars twinkling down on her. She inhaled the fresh air, the scent of roses and lilies filling her nostrils. The quiet was a welcome friend after the roaring crowd at the Stade. Even if she had been invited to the feast, she wouldn’t have wanted to accept, having no desire to mingle with those pompous royals who were congratulating each other for a battle Thanos and she had won.

  Thanos. Her insides coiled tightly when she thought of how he hadn’t even bothered to see her after the Killings. There was no “thank you.” No “job well done.” But she didn’t need his approval or his praise, she reminded herself. She didn’t need anyone.

  Upset with herself for allowing such ludicrous melancholy, she wiped the tears from her cheeks, picked up a spear, and walked to the center of the practice arena.

  Swinging the spear overhead, she whirled it around until a swooshing sound could be heard. She then hurled it at a training dummy, hitting it right on the center of the smallest circle. She smiled.

  Feeling much lighter, she meandered over to the table again and picked out a sword—one that reminded her of her own, its blade thin and long, its hilt bronze and gold.

  Lunging forward, she pretended to attack Lucious—the coward—her sword moving with deftness, her attention and anger on her imaginary enemy.

  Keep light afoot. She jumped. Attack and defend. She lunged. Be fluid like water, strong like a mountain. It was what her trainers at the palace had pounded into her. And it was what she had practiced for hours and months and years.

  “After today, I would have thought you’d be tucked in bed, falling fast asleep.”

  She turned with a start to find Thanos stepping out from behind a willow tree, smiling.

  Ceres lowered her sword and turned toward him, her cheeks hot with embarrassment. She saw he wore a loose linen shirt, the neck open, and dark curls framed his face. She tried to hate him in this moment.

  But somehow her heart had warmed with his presence.

  “I could say the same to you,” she said, raising an eyebrow, hoping he wouldn’t notice her racing heart.

  “I was about to—but then I heard someone practicing in the arena below my room.”

  She looked up the tower to the balcony, his door open, red curtains dancing in the wind.

  “I’m sorry I kept you up, my lord,” she said, looking back at him.

  “Thanos, please,” he said, bowing toward her, keeping eye contact.

  He smiled and took a step toward her.

  “You weren’t really keeping me up. I left the party as soon as I could to look for you, and that’s when I saw you from my balcony,” he said.

  “Why were you looking for me?” she asked, trying to ignore the nervous energy that pulsed through her.

  “I wanted to thank you for today,” he said.

  She stared at him blankly for a moment, trying to hold onto the anger for him that was quickly vanishing.

  “What brilliant skill you have,” he said. “You have been taught well.”

  She wouldn’t reveal she had been dressing up as a boy, training with the combatlords at the palace. He could report her. And he would, wouldn’t he? They might be allies in the arena, but in the real world, they were enemies.

  “My father was a bladesmith,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t pry anymore into her training.

  He nodded.

  “And where is he now?” Thanos asked.

  Ceres looked down, thoughts of her father hundreds of miles away weighing heavily on her mind.

  “He had to take work elsewhere,” she whispered.

  “I’m sad to hear, Ceres,” Thanos said, stepping even closer.

  She wished he would stay away, for when he was this close, it was hard to consider him her nemesis and to despise him so.

  “And what of your mother?” he asked, watching her closely.

  “She tried to sell me into slavery,” Ceres admitted, thinking there was no harm in telling him the truth about her mother.

  He nodded once, and squeezed his lips together.

  “I’m sorry,” he said.

  It irritated her that he apologized for that. A prince. It was partly his fault her father hadn’t been paid enough at the palace and needed to look for work elsewhere.

  “How are your wounds?” she asked, walking over to the table and placing the sword on it, hoping to steer the conversation onto safer subjects.

  “They’ll heal,” he said as he followed after her.

  Standing next to her, his arms folded, he studied her face for a moment.

  “How did you do that?” he asked.

  “What?” Ceres said.

  “Out in the arena today. First, you threw me a shield. I have never heard of a wolver, let alone that any animal could spew flames.”

  She shrugged her shoulders.

  “I had heard of wolvers from my father,” she fibbed.

  “Then, my sword…it was lodged in the wolver’s skull,” he said, his eyes squinting. “You raised your hand and the blade jutted into my hand with this force—”

  “I did no such thing!” Ceres interrupted him, backing away, afraid he was onto her.

  He glanced at her with kind eyes and cocked his head to the side.

  “Are you saying I imagined it?” he asked.

  She balked. Was he trying to trap her? She needed to choose her words carefully or she could be thrown into prison for implying he was a liar.

  “I am certain I don’t know what you are talking about,” she said.

  His eyebrows knitted together and he opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead, he stepped toward her, placed a hand on her shoulder, and let it slide down her arm.

  A delightful shiver went through Ceres, and she loathed how her body betrayed her so.

  “No matter,” he said. “Thank you, though. Your selections of weapons made all the difference.”

  “Yes, perhaps your lovely hair would have been singed off had I not offered the shield,” she said with a smirk, trying to make light of the situation.

  “You think I have lovely hair?” he asked.

  Her breathing staggered, and she couldn’t understand how she could have let such a flippant comment escape her lips.

  “No,” she said rather sharply, folding her arms in front of her chest.

  His lips twitched.

  “Well, then, I don’t think you have beautiful eyes, either,” he said.

  “Then it’s settled.”

  He nodded and Ceres walked over to a willow tree.

  “It’s getting late,” she said.

  “Perhaps I may escort you home?” he said, following her again.

  Ceres lowered her gaze and shook her head.

  “Or perhaps you need a place to stay?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

  Should she tell him the truth? If she didn’
t, she knew she would have to sleep outdoors every night.

  “Yes,” she said.

  “There is no room for you inside the castle walls, but just down that path next to the well is a vacant summer home, and you are welcome to stay there.”

  He pointed to a small cottage secluded by trees, covered in vines.

  “I would be very grateful,” she said.

  He took her arm and was about to walk her there, but then a girl emerged from the bushes. She was lovely, Ceres thought, with blonde hair and brown eyes, her skin as smooth as silk, her lips blood red. She wore a white silk dress, and when a breeze gusted against Ceres’s face, she noticed the girl smelled of roses.

  Feeling a bit awkward, Ceres pulled her arm away from Thanos’s.

  “Hello, Stephania,” Thanos said, and Ceres could detect a slight irritation in his voice.

  Stephania smiled at Thanos, but when her eyes reached Ceres, the girl frowned.

  “Whom have we here?” Stephania asked.

  “This is Ceres, my weapon-keeper,” Thanos said.

  “Where are you going with your weapon-keeper?” Stephania asked.

  “That is none of your concern,” Thanos replied.

  “I am certain King Claudius would be thrilled to know you are meeting with your female weapon-keeper late at night, escorting her to unknown destinations,” Stephania said.

  “I’m certain the king would be equally thrilled to learn you are wandering around the palace grounds late at night in your sleepwear, unescorted by your handmaidens,” Thanos snapped.

  Stephania lifted her nose up, turned on her heels, and vanished down the paved walkway and back into the palace.

  “Never mind her,” Thanos said. “She’s just upset I refused to marry her.”

  “It was her?” Ceres asked.

  He didn’t respond to her question, just jutted out his elbow, offering it to her again.

  “Perhaps she was right. Maybe this is inappropriate,” Ceres said.

  “Nonsense,” he said, and then he paused before smirking and saying, “Unless you were considering making it so?”

 
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