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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Thanos stormed into the throne room, clutching the scroll signed by the king – the abominable document which contained Ceres’s execution orders. His heart was thundering against his ribs as his feet pounded the white marble floor beneath them, rage churning through him from head to toe.

Thanos had always thought this room was spacious beyond reason, the arched ceilings ridiculously high, the distance from the massive bronze door to the two thrones at the end nothing but wasted space. Or tainted space. The throne room was the place where all rules were forged, and to Thanos, this was where all the inequality originated.

Advisors and dignitaries sat between red marble pillars on intricately carved wooden seats on either side of the room, twirling their golden rings, wearing their fine apparel, proudly displaying colored sashes, which ranked them according to their importance.

The sun shone in through stained-glass windows, blinding him every few steps, but that didn’t prevent him from glaring at the king who sat on his golden seat at the end of the room. Soon, Thanos stood at the bottom of the staircase below the thrones. He hurled the execution order at the feet of the king and queen, who were at the moment speaking with the minister of trade.

“I demand you recant this execution order at once!” Thanos said.

The king looked up with exhausted eyes.

“You shall wait your turn, nephew.”

“There is no time. Ceres is to be executed on the morrow!” Thanos said.

The king huffed and shooed the minister away. Once the minister had left, the king looked at Thanos.

“Ceres, my weapon-keeper, might I remind you, was thrown in prison by Lucious, and now she is being sentenced to death?” Thanos said.

“Yes, she smote a royal, and that is, by law, punishable by public execution,” the king said.

“Did you know Lucious backhanded her first? And all because she triumphed in a sword fight he demanded?”

“How does this commoner know how to wield a sword?” the queen asked. “It is against the laws of the land to do so.”

The king nodded, and the advisors mumbled in agreement.

“Her father worked as a swordsmith here at the palace,” Thanos said.

“If he taught her how to wield the sword, they should both be executed on the spot,” the queen said.

“How can you be a good swordsmith unless you know how to wield a sword?” Thanos pressed. “Being a swordsmith is not forbidden for a woman.”

“This is not about being a swordsmith, or a swordsman, Thanos. This is about a commoner assaulting a royal on royal grounds,” the king said.

The queen laid a hand over the king’s.

“If I didn’t know Thanos was promised to Stephania, I would think he was taking an interest in this girl,” she said.

“I take no interest in her other than that she is the best weapon-keeper I have had,” Thanos lied.

“Stephania said she had seen you on the palace training ground with…what was the servant girl’s name?” the queen asked.

“Ceres,” Thanos said.

“Yes, Ceres. And Stephania said you held her arm.”

“The girl doesn’t have a home, and so I offered her to stay in the southern summer cottage for the time being,” Thanos said.

“And who gave you that authority?” the queen asked.

“You know as well as I do that it used to be my parents’ cottage, and it hasn’t been used since they passed away,” Thanos said.

“Stephania is a bright young lady with dignity and integrity, and she says she doesn’t trust this strange girl. Has Ceres any credentials? Any official papers? She could be an assassin working for the rebellion for all we know,” the queen said, working herself into a tizzy.

“Now, dear, let’s not get all carried away. Do you really think the rebellion would send a female assassin?” the king said.

“Perhaps not,” the queen replied. “Or perhaps they would, thinking a gullible young prince like Thanos would fall for a feisty warrior woman who sides with him against his family.”

“No matter. The girl has her sentence, and to protect Lucious’s honor, it will be carried through,” the king said.

“You didn’t think of protecting him when you sent him to compete in the Killings!” Thanos said.

The king scooted forward to the edge of his seat and pointed at Thanos, his eyes darkened with ire.

“Boy, you live in our palace and at the mercy and generosity of the queen and me. Do you really mean to defy us yet again?” he asked.

Thanos pointed to the Empire’s banner to the right of the king.

“Freedom and justice to every citizen!” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the room. “The responsibility of the country’s leaders is to protect the freedom of the people and to rule in justice. This is not justice.”

“Stop with this nonsense,” the king said. “The decision is final, and no amount of begging or senseless reasoning from you will change that.”

“Then you must also imprison and sentence Lucious to death for what he did,” Thanos said.

“Although I would not mourn the loss of Lucious for one solitary second, I will follow the laws of this land,” the king said. “And if you interfere with my decision in any way, you will be expelled from court. Now leave so I can use my time on matters of importance.”

Fuming, Thanos turned on his heels and tore out of the throne room, his pulse in his ears.

After he had marched back outside to the practice arena, he picked up a longsword. He went at a dummy long and hard, until there was nothing left but the wooden beam holding it, and then he hacked away at that, too.

Standing with the sword in his hands, he stood frozen as he panted for a long while, and then he flung the weapon as far as he could into the palace gardens.

How could the king possibly say he was serving justice? he wondered. Justice would mean every person had the same rights, privileges, and punishments, and Thanos knew that wasn’t the case in the least.

He walked to the gazebo and slumped on a bench, his temple resting against his hands.

Ceres – what was it with her? Why did he need her the way he needed air? She had come into his life a breath of fresh air, her green eyes sparkling with wonder, her pale pink lips speaking words he knew he would never tire of, a quiet strength in her lithe body laced with vulnerability. She wasn’t like the girls at court who would babble on about mindless subjects and gossip about others only to make themselves look better. Ceres had a depth to her, and every part of her was genuine, not a speck of pretentiousness to be found. And it was as if she saw what he needed even before he knew it himself – a sixth sense perhaps?

He stood up and paced back and forth in the gazebo for several minutes, wondering what to do.

When they had stood below the Stade, awaiting the Killings, he had asked her if he could trust her with his life. She had said yes. And although her voice had faltered with the answer, he knew she would sacrifice herself to save him if it ever came to that.

If he saved her, he would be kicked out of the palace. If he left her to her fate, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.

He pulled his shoulders back and took a deep breath.

He knew what he needed to do.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Although her eyes and limbs were heavy, Ceres, despite her exhaustion, hadn’t slept a wink all night. The heavens were slowly lightening, she could see from the small barred window, and how she wished they wouldn’t. With morning came her last few moments, and in less than an hour, she knew, she would be dead.

“Are you afraid?” Apollo asked, his head resting in her lap as she stroked his blond hair.

She looked at him and thought of lying. But she couldn’t.

“Yes. Are you?” Ceres said.

He nodded, a tear in his eye.

She could feel him quivering beneath her touch, or was it her hand that was trembling so?

The pregnant woman looked at Ceres with alarm in her eyes when the faint sound of footsteps came from the hallway. The distant noise came closer and closer until Ceres could hear nothing but the drum of marching men, and before she knew it, the warden stood before the cell, unlocking it.

“Apollo, Trinity, Ceres, and Ichabod, come with me,” he said, several other Empire soldiers waiting behind him.

With hands that barely would move like she commanded them to, Ceres helped Apollo stand up. Fully erect, the boy reached only to just above her waist, Ceres noticed, and she thought it an awful shame that he would never get to grow up to be the man he might have become.

When she let go of him, his legs gave out from under him and he collapsed to the floor.

“Sorry,” Apollo said with doleful eyes.

Crouching beside the boy, tears burning at the back of her eyes, Ceres shot the warden an ugly glare and helped Apollo to his feet again. Careful not to touch the wounds on his back, she supported him as they went into the dim, torch-lit hallway, the other two prisoners following behind them.

The warden jerked Apollo to the front, a soldier on each side holding the boy’s arms so he wouldn’t collapse. Ceres, trying to calm her shuddering legs, was next, and behind her, Trinity, and the old man Ichabod. The chains rattled when the Empire soldiers shackled Ceres’s and the others’ ankles and wrists, and once the prisoners had been chained, two Empire soldiers guarded each of them, one on either side. Trinity rocked back and forth, holding her belly, and then Ceres heard that she started to sing an old lullaby – the exact one Ceres used to sing to Sartes to make him fall asleep.

Ceres could no longer hold back the tears, and at the thought of her brothers, of Rexus, it was as if her heart broke in two. Never would she see them again, never would she joke with them, break bread with them, spar with them. Those had been such happy times, she remembered, even though they had been tainted by her mother’s cruelty. But she loved them, and she wondered if they truly knew that.

 

Down the hallway Ceres walked, her feet feeling like blocks of stone as chains dragged on the floor, the beautiful tune of the pregnant woman guiding her steps. Climbing the stairs out of the dungeon, Ceres saw that it was slightly dark out, a few stars still twinkling above, refusing to give up their light in the pre-dawn heavens. An open horse-pulled wagon stood in the courtyard, and Ceres was shoved into the cart with the other prisoners, the Empire soldiers’ whips causing her to cower, causing her to hate the Empire even more.

When Apollo was unable to climb into the wagon by himself, an Empire soldier picked the boy up and flung him into the cart so he hit his head against the side of the wagon, a yelp escaping his lips as his head was thrust backwards with a cracking sound.

“How could you be so cruel?” Ceres yelled at the Empire soldier, before turning her attention to Apollo.

She scooted closer to the boy, staring helplessly at the unnatural bend in his neck, and ever so carefully, she lifted his bleeding head into her lap.

“Apollo?” she croaked, dread filling her chest when she felt how lifeless his body had suddenly become.

“I can’t see…” Apollo whispered with a hoarse voice, his eyes glazed with tears. “I…can’t…I can’t feel my legs.”

She leaned forward and kissed his forehead, and seeing he was struggling to breathe, she wanted to help him. But all she could do was to take his small, cold hand in hers.

“I’m here,” Ceres said, the words almost getting caught in her throat, tears dripping down onto his filthy, torn tunic.

“Promise to hold my hand…until I am…dead,” Apollo stammered.

Ceres, unable to speak a word, just nodded and squeezed his hand in her own, gently stroking the blond hairs off his sweaty forehead.

His eyes fluttered before they shut, and then she noticed that his chest stopped rising and falling as his face yielded to the mask of death.

She sobbed once and brought his hand to her lips before placing it carefully on his chest. Now, at least, he wouldn’t have to face decapitation, she thought. He was free.

As they rode through the crowd, she couldn’t stop looking at the poor boy, his small lips, his eyelashes, the freckles on his nose. She wanted him to know she was still thinking of him and that she wouldn’t leave him alone in the cart, at the mercy of the Empire soldiers that stole his freedom and his life. Perhaps she needed him in some small way, too, to remind her that there weren’t only cruel people in this world, and that innocence and kindness were still more beautiful than any power on earth.

The wagon bumped past a blur of hateful words and angry faces, but she kept her eyes on Apollo’s peaceful expression. Not even when a rotten tomato hit Ceres in the cheek did she tear her gaze from him.

The cart slowed to a stop in front of the wooden scaffold, and the prisoners were commanded to leave the wagon. However, Ceres refused to leave Apollo, clinging to him.

An Empire soldier, the one who had thrown him, grabbed Apollo by his legs and jerked him out of the wagon from Ceres’s arms.

“Murderer!” she cried at the top of her lungs, tears spilling out of her eyes.

The soldier tossed Apollo onto a stack of hay, and then started toward Ceres, but she scuttled into the wagon’s corner, refusing to get out.

Following after her, the Empire soldier that had just had his appalling hands on Apollo stepped into the wagon. She would not allow him to get away with murdering such an innocent boy. Seeing the other Empire soldiers were busy forcing the other prisoners up the stairs to the scaffold, she saw a chance to avenge him. She might die trying – but she was about to die anyway.

When the soldier leaned forward to haul her out of the cart, Ceres looped the shackles bound to her wrists around his neck and pulled with all her might.

On his back, the soldier croaked and kicked arms and legs, his filthy fingers tugging at the chain, his face turning red.

But Ceres refused to let the killer go, pulling harder until his face turned purple.

In what seemed like a last-ditch effort to save his life, the soldier’s hands strained toward Ceres’s neck. She blocked with her elbows, and just as she heard other Empire soldiers clamoring, scurrying toward the wagon, the man in her arms went limp.

Even after she knew he was dead, she kept the chain taut for as long as she could, until two Empire soldiers tore her out of the wagon and forced her to the bottom of the stairwell leading up to the scaffold.

One of the soldiers pulled out a dagger and pressed the tip to her back, the blade piercing her skin a little. She took a step. And then one more.

Her feet in a disoriented march, Ceres climbed the stairs after the others, the clamors of the crowd a distant tempest, and just as she arrived at the top, she was released from her chains.

Her heart hammered against her ribs, she vaguely noticed, and her throat was dry, her eyes wet. Had the crowd grown silent? she wondered, unable to tell above the roar of her trepidation.

An Empire soldier pulled her hands behind her back, tying them. She didn’t resist. There was nothing more to resist now, she knew. She might as well let death take her.

The soldier shoved her in the direction of a man wearing a white hooded cloak, holding an axe – her executioner.

She was ordered to kneel before a wooden block, but when she didn’t respond right away, the soldier pushed her to her knees, her head falling forward. With blurred vision, she looked up and out into the crowd, her entire body trembling, her stomach churning with nausea.

“Do you have any last words?” the executioner asked.

She remained frozen, trying to grasp this really was it. Her life, was it over? No. It couldn’t be. It had gone so fast, too fast, and suddenly, there was no more time.

“Well, have you something to say, girl?” the executioner pressed.

She did have something to say, but the words would not formulate in her mind.

The crowd grew silent, all eyes on her, and then the executioner blindfolded her.

On her knees, she reached forward, feeling for the block, sensing its smoothness beneath her fingertips, and resigned to her death, she leaned forward and rested her chin on the wooden edge.

Father, she thought. Sartes. Nesos.

Rexus.

Then, to her disbelief, an image of Thanos formed in her mind, and she finally realized that even though she loved Rexus, she had fallen for Thanos, too.

And just as she grasped that, she hated herself for it. She was happy he would never find out.

She swallowed the tears back, exhaled a breath, and the crowd went silent as she waited for it all to be over.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Rexus was filled with rage as he lay on a rooftop and watched thousands of citizens being held captive in Blackrock Square, surrounded by Empire soldiers who encircled the outer edge of the piazza, preventing escape. Standing before them atop a platform, General Draco was reading the king’s proclamation, and each word deepened the rage in Rexus’s heart. They were preparing to take away more firstborns, the best men the people had to offer. He tightened his grip on his sword, preparing for battle.

Yet seeing so many Empire soldiers, Rexus began to second-guess his decision to lead the revolutionaries into yet another battle they weren’t entirely prepared for. The rebellion had grown, yes, but it was still barely over a thousand men. The only way to victory today was if the citizens below joined in and helped attack the enemy.

But would they?

When General Draco finished reading, he looked up and his narrow eyes raked the crowd.

“Before we collect the firstborns – a warning. Rebellion does not come without punishment!” he yelled.

He nodded toward his lieutenant, and the lieutenant opened one of the slaver carts that stood behind the platform. Rexus squinted his eyes, wondering who could be inside.

He was stunned to see captured revolutionaries hauled out of the wagon, Empire soldiers beating them with clubs toward the podium. Rexus felt as if he were stabbed in the heart. One of the twelve groups he had dispatched had been captured.

The soldiers chained the prisoners atop the platform and gagged them, and Rexus’s ire deepened as he watched them dragging a kicking and screaming Anka up to the podium, chaining her to a pole, too, her clothes bloody, her face bruised.

Rexus narrowed his eyes, the sight of Anka up there – Ceres’s friend – causing his blood to boil with fury.

“Lead us to the hiding place of the rebellion, and I will let these people live!” General Draco shouted to the crowd, his voice booming through the square. “Say nothing, and after these traitors have been tortured and killed, I will seize twenty of you, and then twenty more, and yet another twenty, until someone speaks!”

Clamors of panic went through the crowd as frightened mothers embraced their children. Yet the piazza remained silent, no one willing to offer up information.

General Draco nodded, and twenty Empire soldiers marched up onto the platform, holding lit torches, taking their places beside the prisoners. When the general nodded again, the soldiers pressed the torches to the revolutionaries’ faces. Each man and woman screamed, the shrieks of pain burning Rexus’s ears.

The onlookers raged in disapproval, but the Empire soldiers standing amidst the crowd forced protesters into silence with clubs, spears, and whips.

Incensed, Rexus knew he could wait no longer. Ready or not, the time had come.

Rexus jumped down from the roof and mounted his horse, galloping back to where he had left his group of men.

“We attack now!” he shouted.

His men grabbed their weapons and quickly assembled, their faces hardening with fury.

Rexus dismounted and felt for the small mirror in his pocket, the same one each of the leaders of the other groups carried. He turned his mirror in the sun, catching the light, reflecting it, the sign they had made that they were ready to attack.

One after another, bright lights twinkled at him from behind houses, until he counted ten. Eleven, including his group, had made it, meaning only one hadn’t.

Rexus looked back at his group and nodded, his heart racing wild.

“For freedom!” he yelled as pulled his sword from its sheath and ran into the square, the revolutionaries following at his heels. Although his hands trembled and his throat was dry, he didn’t falter in the least. All around him the other groups of revolutionaries dashed out from behind shadows and buildings, their roars filling the square.

Rexus hacked his way through the wall of Empire soldiers, and then past three more inside the square, his eyes glancing at the platform when he wasn’t fighting. He needed to get there before it was too late, he knew, before they lost their lives.

“Fight with us and win your freedom!” he yelled to the civilians as he worked his way through the crowd.

Slowly, he noticed that the men around him started to fight the enemy with their bare hands.

Chaos erupted.

Empire soldiers took to attacking the citizens, butchering any and all who were in close proximity. Rexus redoubled his efforts, slashing down soldiers as he went. As his men swarmed the square from all sides, he looked up to see General Draco being ushered away beneath a mountain of shields. Rexus grabbed an arrow from his quiver, aimed it through a narrow gap in the shields, and released.

A moment later, General Draco cried out and fell, and was lying on the platform with an arrow in his shoulder.

The soldiers who had protected him turned toward Rexus.

“Arrest him!” a soldier yelled.

But Rexus was quick as lightning with his bow and he shot them down so swiftly, not one reached him. He dashed toward the poles, and with the help of other revolutionaries, released the prisoners from their shackles, freeing them before it was too late.

But where was Anka? he wondered, glancing around.

There was no time to search. Rexus stood at the edge of the platform and wound his bow, killing as many Empire soldiers as he had arrows.

Finally, the wall of Empire soldiers encircling the plaza broke open on the northern side, and women and children were rushed to the side streets, leaving only men left battling against their persecutors amidst the clanging of swords and groaning of men. Men fell on both sides, piling up in the streets which ran with blood.

 

Rexus hopped down from the podium, slaying soldier after soldier, fully engrossed in a battle he knew would either make or break the rebellion.

His heart broke a little more each time he saw one of his men or a civilian fall. He worked himself up into such a frenzy that he imagined he might never die at the hands of an Empire sword.

But just then, two soldiers came at him at once, one stabbing him from the side, the other pounding a hammer at him from above.

The blow to the head was sudden – dizzying – the sword in the shoulder a sharp pain that made a shriek tumble from his lips as he fell to the ground.

Momentarily, he could not see. Flailing his sword out in front of him, trying to defend himself, he felt another sharp stab in the leg.

He tried to focus his eyes, everything a blur.

An outcry made him recoil into a fetal position. The echoes of the battle surrounded him.

Now, he thought, now I die.

And with that thought, he knew Ceres would never know how much he cared.

But no sword punctured his chest. No spear was thrust into his abdomen. Instead, he heard grunts as swords collided.

When Rexus was finally able to focus his eyes again, he saw Nesos going at the two Empire soldiers, carrying a sword in one hand, a spear in the other.

Slowly, Rexus rose to his feet, the wound in his shoulder stinging, the blow to his head still making him feel dizzy, and the wound in his leg screaming. He fell over once, but stood straight back up.

Nesos buried his spear in one of the Empire soldier’s necks, and feeling his strength return, Rexus sunk his spear deeply into the enemy’s armpit.

A horn blared through the plaza, and the Empire soldiers looked up and began to evacuate toward the side streets. Mobs of citizens followed after and killed them.

The revolutionaries cheered, Nesos included. But Rexus couldn’t lift his arm and his knees felt suddenly very weak.

Nesos ran toward him, catching him in the fall, helping him onto the ground ever so gently.

As stillness settled at the piazza, Rexus lay there and looked toward the Alva Mountains, toward the cave, the castle, where he knew the bulk of his men were.

His eyes widened. His soul cried.

The castle was engulfed in a fiery inferno.

The revolution was over.

Книга из серии:
Slave, Warrior, Queen
Rogue, Prisoner, Princess
Knight, Heir, Prince
Rebel, Pawn, King
Soldier, Brother, Sorcerer
Hero, Traitor, Daughter
Ruler, Rival, Exile
Victor, Vanquished, Son
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