2000 Words
CHAPTER ONE Ceres ran through the back alleys of Delos, excitement coursing through her veins, knowing she could not be late. The sun was barely rising, and yet the muggy, dust-filled air was already suffocating in the ancient stone city. Legs burning, lungs aching, she nonetheless pushed herself to run faster, and faster still, hopping over one of the countless rats that crept out of the gutters and refuse in the streets. She could already hear the distant rumble, and her heart pounded with anticipation. Somewhere ahead, she knew, the Festival of the Killings was about to begin. Letting her hands drag along the stone walls as she twisted and turned down a narrow alley, Ceres glanced back to make certain her brothers were keeping up. There, she was relieved to see, were Nesos, at her heels, and Sartes, only a few feet behind. At nineteen, Nesos was just two sun cycles older than she, while Sartes, her baby brother, four sun cycles younger, was on the verge of manhood. The two of them, with their longish sandy hair and brown eyes, looked exactly like each other—and their parents—and yet nothing like her. Still, though Ceres might be a girl, they had never been able to keep pace with her. “Hurry!” Ceres yelled over her shoulder. Another rumble came, and although she had never been to the festival, she imagined it in vivid detail: the entire city, all three million citizens of Delos, crowding into the Stade on this summer solstice holiday. It would be unlike anything she had seen before, and if her brothers and she didn’t hurry, not a single seat would remain. Picking up speed, Ceres wiped a drop of sweat off her brow and smeared it onto her frayed, ivory tunic, a hand-me-down from her mother. She had never been given new clothes. According to her mother, who doted on her brothers but seemed to reserve a special hatred and envy for her, she didn’t deserve it. “Wait!” Sartes yelled, an edge of irritation in his cracking voice. Ceres smiled. “Shall I carry you, then?” she yelled back. She knew that he hated it when she teased him, yet her snide remark would motivate him to keep up. Ceres didn’t mind his tagging along; she thought it was endearing how he, at thirteen, would do anything to be considered their peer. And even though she would never admit it openly, a huge part of her needed him to need her. Sartes gave a loud grunt. “Mother will kill you when she finds out you disobeyed her again!” he yelled back. He was right. Indeed, she would—or give her a good flogging, at least. The first time her mother had beaten her, at the age of five, it was the very moment Ceres lost her innocence. Before then, the world had been fun, kind, and good. After that, nothing had ever been safe again, and all that she had to hold onto was her hope of a future where she could get away from her. She was older now, close, and yet even that dream was slowly eroding in her heart. Fortunately, Ceres knew her brothers would never tell on her. They were as loyal to her as she was to them. “Then it’s a good thing Mother will never know!” she cried back. “Father will find out, though!” Sartes snapped. She chuckled. Father already knew. They had made a deal: if she stayed up late to finish sharpening the swords due for delivery at the palace, she could go see the Killings. And so she did. Ceres reached the wall at the end of the lane and, without pausing, wedged her fingers in two cracks and began to climb. Her hands and feet moved swiftly, and up she went, a good twenty feet, until she scrambled to the top. She stood, breathing hard, and the sun greeted her with its bright rays. She shaded her eyes with a hand. She gasped. Normally, the Old City was dotted with a few citizens, a stray cat or dog here and there—yet today it was positively alive. It swarmed with people. Ceres could not even see the cobblestones beneath the sea of people pressing into Fountain Square. In the distance the ocean shimmered a vivid blue, while the towering white Stade stood as a mountain amongst twisting roads and sardine-packed two- and three-story houses. Around the outer edge of the plaza merchants had lined up booths, each eager to sell food, jewelry, or clothes. A gust of wind brushed against her face, and the smell of freshly baked goods seeped into her nostrils. What she wouldn’t give for food that would satisfy that gnawing sensation. She wrapped her arms around her belly as she felt a hunger pang. Breakfast this morning had been a few spoonfuls of soggy porridge, which had somehow managed to leave her stomach feeling hungrier than before she ate it. Given that today was her eighteenth birthday, she had hoped for at least a little extra food in her bowl—or a hug or something. But no one had mentioned a word. She doubted they even remembered. Light caught her eyes, and Ceres looked down to spot a golden carriage weaving through the crowd like a bubble through honey, slow and shiny. She frowned. In her excitement, she had failed to consider that the royalty would be at the event, too. She despised them, their haughtiness, that their animals were better fed than most of the people of Delos. Her brothers were hopeful that one day, they would triumph over the class system. But Ceres did not share their optimism: if there were to be any sort of equality in the Empire, it would have to come by way of revolution. “Do you see him?” Nesos panted as he climbed up beside her. Ceres’s heart quickened as she thought of him. Rexus. She, too, had been wondering if he was here yet, and had been scanning the crowds to no avail. She shook her head. “There.” Nesos pointed. She followed his finger toward the fountain, squinting. Suddenly she saw him, and could not suppress her burst of excitement. It was the same way she always felt when she saw him. There he was, sitting on the edge of the fountain, tightening his bow. Even from this distance, she could see his shoulder and chest muscles move beneath his tunic. Hardly a few years older than she, he had blond hair that stood out amongst heads of black and brown, and his tan skin glistened in the sun. “Wait!” cried a voice. Ceres glanced back down the wall to see Sartes, struggling with the climb. “Hurry up or we’ll leave you behind!” Nesos goaded. Of course, they wouldn’t dream of leaving their younger brother, although he did need to learn to keep up. In Delos, a moment of weakness could mean death. Nesos ran a hand through his hair, catching his breath, too, as he surveyed the crowd. “So who is your money on to win?” he asked. Ceres turned to him and laughed. “What money?” she asked. He smiled. “If you had any,” he answered. “Brennius,” she replied without pausing. His brow lifted in surprise. “Really?” he asked. “Why?” “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Just a hunch.” But she did know. She knew very well, better than her brothers, better than all the boys of her city. Ceres had a secret: she hadn’t told anyone she had, on occasion, dressed as a boy and trained at the palace. It was f*******n by royal decree for girls—punishable by death—to learn the ways of the combatlords, yet male commoners were welcome to learn in exchange for equal amounts of work in the palace’s stables, work which she did happily. She’d watched Brennius and had been impressed by the way he fought. He wasn’t the largest of the combatlords, yet his moves were calculated with precision. “No chance,” Nesos replied. “It’ll be Stefanus.” She shook her head. “Stefanus will be dead within the first ten minutes,” she said flatly. Stefanus was the obvious choice, the largest of the combatlords, and probably the strongest; yet he wasn’t as calculating as Brennius or some of the other warriors she had watched. Nesos barked a laugh. “I’ll give you my good sword if that’s the case.” She glanced at the sword attached to his waist. He had no idea how jealous she had been when he received that masterpiece of a weapon as a birthday gift from Mother three years ago. Her sword was an old leftover one her father had tossed into the recycling pile. Oh, the things she’d be able to do if she had a weapon like Nesos’s. “I’m going to hold you to it, you know,” Ceres said, smiling—although in reality, she would never take his sword from him. “I’d expect nothing less,” he smirked. She crossed her arms in front of her chest as a dark thought crossed her mind. “Mother wouldn’t allow it,” she said. “But Father would,” he said. “He’s very proud of you, you know.” Nesos’s kind comment took her off guard, and not knowing exactly how to accept it, she lowered her eyes. She loved her father dearly, and he loved her, she knew. Yet for some reason, her mother’s face appeared before her. All she ever wanted was for her mother to accept her and love her as much as her brothers. But as hard as she tried, Ceres felt she could never be enough in her eyes. Sartes grunted as he climbed the last step behind them. He was still about a head shorter than Ceres and as scrawny as a cricket, but she was convinced he’d sprout like a bamboo shoot any day now. That’s what had happened to Nesos. Now he was a muscle-bound hunk, hovering at six foot three. “And you?” Ceres turned to Sartes. “Who do you think will win?” “I’m with you. Brennius.” She smiled and ruffled his hair. He always said whatever she said. Another rumble came, the crowd thickened, and she felt the urgency. “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.
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