The guard slumped to the floor just as a whole shaft of arrows poured in through the window. The remaining guards drew their weapons but were struck down before they could move to cover.
Rouya could hardly stand, let alone run and dropped to the ground. She knocked the table to the side and crawled into cover as hundreds of arrows continued to mark every inch within the guard post. She held her breath, afraid that her racing heart would give her away.
After a few minutes the arrows stopped coming in but Rouya couldn’t trust herself to move just yet and listened in hope for help to arrive. Her heart went heavy thinking of what might have happened to her father. In all her childhood years he’d go out campaigning each season but she never once felt as much fear as she did now. Of course he’d win and come back, he had the support of the Battle Maidens but now that they vanished, she could only assume the worst.
Voices drew her attention outside and she risked peeking over the edge of the table. Rouya spotted a group of men leaving the palace. She couldn’t claim to know all of them, she hardly cared enough to remember every satrap or official her father employed. Whoever they were, they were far too relaxed for what was going on inside.
A shady realmwalker began opening up a portal in the courtyard when Rouya recognized the women accompanying the men. Battle Maidens. She only counted six of them. It appeared to her as if the traitors were concentrating their effort on the palace and wouldn’t have the numbers to take control of the entire planet. The portal collapsed, leaving behind a single satrap with Evelyn at his side.
Their eyes locked for a moment but rather than sending Evelyn over to attack her, he began to casually stroll to the guard post. Rouya felt her heart twist in her chest as his whistling drew nearer. She’d come to the end of the line and failed her family. Her eyes searched the room for a place to hide or flee when the shine of the blade belonging to the Captain drew her attention.
She scrambled along the floor, hoisting herself up on the blade and biting down on the pain threatening to seize control of her body. Swordplay wasn’t her strongest suit, but it was all she had to defend herself against Evelyn.
His feet came to a halt just outside the door, she tightened her grip on the hilt and readied herself. Instead of entering, he began talking in an ever increasing volume until an explosion silenced the argument. Metal scraped against metal and in-between the noise she could make out the struggle between two people.
The door burst open, and he stumbled backward inside. Rouya swung out of instinct, catching him off guard and slicing through muscles and bone.
He turned with a ferocious look on his face and charged her as she twirled the sword between her fingers and brought it down on his skull. Blood splattered onto her face with a sickly warmth as he toppled onto her.
His body still twitched.
Rouya eyed the necklace dangling from his neck. Her father’s relic —an anchita. Her knees weakened for a moment as the tears welled in her eyes. She took the Nazar and marveled at the blue glass before shifting her attention to the person he’d been fighting.
Satrap Markus Relius entered through the broken door, his face lit up as he recognized her. “Princess, you’re alive. I’m so glad to see you unharmed.”
The archer Mitra appeared at his side with her fingers on the string of her bow. She too once belonged to her father which put Rouya on alert despite Markus’ surprise. She moved back and slipped the Nazar around her neck, calling upon the power of the Maiden inside to join her. Evelyn materialized beside her in full armor and readied her glaive.
Rouya felt the connection between her and Evelyn. The magic they shared felt natural to her. “You have three seconds before you wind up with him.”
Markus sheathed his dagger and dropped to his knees. He pulled the ring from his finger and held it out to her. “I’m yours to command, Your Highness. Allow me to deal with the murderers.”
Rouya narrowed her eyes, sizing him up. He could have struck out against her at any time before she’d called upon Evelyn but he held back and had been fighting the man outside before. She decided to give him a chance and took the ring from him. “Oh, yeah? What happened and why should I trust you?”
A frown crossed Markus’ face. “Because I’m one of the few people you can still trust. Kalim and his supporters launched a coup against your father and killed him on the throne. They took my wife and drove me off but not before I managed to take away one of the anchiti.”
The truth settled in with the force of a kick to her head. Her suspicions were true. “It can’t be.”
Markus sighed, the sadness evident in the shine of his eyes. “I failed protecting my dearest friend. The only thing left for me to do is protect his children.”
Rouya fumbled with the ring in her hand, the ember stone glinted in the sun’s light. A strong force resided within, awaiting her command. Thousands of years worth of memories locked within a simple ring. “I plan on bringing them to justice. All of them, and I don’t need any failures holding me back.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Evelyn shifted forward, lowering the glaive at Markus.
Rouya tightened her hand around the ring and clenched her jaw. “Take your life here before me. If you find yourself lacking the courage, I’ll be more than capable of helping you find your end.”
Evelyn pressed the glaive against his neck, applying just enough pressure to draw blood.
Markus’ jaw fell open as he began to fumble for the dagger. His hands were unsteady as he lifted the blade, his eyes meeting hers in a desperate plea. He took a breath and pressed the tip to his larynx.
“That’s enough,” she said raising her hand and holding the relic back out to him. “The power of a true leader doesn’t come from doing everything themselves but delegating tasks to the most skilled. I’ll be relying upon you to help me exert justice.”
* * *
“There’s quite the crowd,” Cian said, peering in between the curtains to get a glimpse outside.
“I didn’t ask you for your opinion. The people came to hear me, so of course they would fill the plaza.” Kalim rolled his eyes. Alas, it fell to him to look after his younger brother and see to it he made something of his life. In a few weeks, when the whole affair settled, he could send him off to the province where he could rule over farms and the like. Real men, leaders, seized an opportunity when they saw one.
Markus proved to be a perfect opportunity when his network of informants let him know of the satrap’s displeasure with the emperor’s rule. A few shared words and promises were enough to sway him over.
People liked to believe they were destined for greatness. As long as Kalim played along, he could use the man’s beliefs against him.
“Why don’t you do something useful for a change and help me fasten the cloak,” Kalim said, admiring himself in the mirror. He kept his dark hair neatly trimmed and enjoyed breaking women’s hearts with his smile.
Cian obeyed him and helped fasten the white cloak with the hawk-styled brooch to his shoulder. He bowed and cowered back to his corner.
“Stay behind me and don’t you dare interrupt me,” Kalim said, moving to the curtain. He narrowed his eyes at his younger brother to make sure he drove the point in before stepping outside.
The sun blared down with an intensity that would keep animals away until darkness. Most people wouldn’t leave their homes at this time of day either but Kalim knew how to draw a crowd. He picked up a bowl he had prepared on the balcony and began showering the crowd with handfuls of coin. It was important to him that the people saw him give out the coin and not someone in his service.
“We served the Shah and spilled our blood in his name,” Kalim said, raising his voice. He clenched his hand in the air as if he were squeezing a fruit dry in front of the crowd. “We listened to what the so-called emperor had to offer and I tell you it was not in our interests! The only people who care about the Ruz are the Ruz themselves. Gone are the days of our servitude. We don’t intend to push anyone in front of a cart but we have all earned our place in the universe. From this day onward we serve none but ourselves and act as equal partners with our friends with whom I have forged a powerful pact.”
Attia appeared beside him and gave the crowd a curt bow for which she received ample applause. The bronze-skinned warrior glanced over her shoulder at Cian and gave him a knowing smile.
Kalim frowned but quickly drew the attention of the crowd to the skies where his silver dragon circled above them. He was still small but in a matter of months, he’d be fully grown and become a further piece on Kalim’s board. Today he ruled over Ruz, tomorrow Sumhara and the rest would be up to his imagination. He shared a smile with the crowd and waved to them.
Next time on Battle Maidens …
An Image of Death