I could tell that all of us were surprised by the empress and her entourage. After Pacorus spoke the rest of the group kneeled too. I wondered what Sultana was doing there, and for a moment, I allowed myself to think that maybe she was there because of me, the same way Baal was always there for Montu.
“What is going on here?” she asked. I haven’t heard her in a long time, but I was sure it was her voice. It was a strong, beautiful commanding voice, just like her.
“Your Majesty,” it was Pacorus who answered. “This is only a test for some of our soldiers. We weren’t informed that you were going to be here.”
“It’s ok. We didn’t plan to be here, and we don’t want to interrupt your test,” that was definitely Shahzadi. “We’ll be in this place just a couple of minutes.”
I couldn’t see anyone from my position, with my head bowed low, and I wasn’t sure it was just my imagination, but I felt as if they were staring at me. I heard a racket, a familiar noise, followed by steps.
“I see you arrived before us,” said another familiar voice, one that I couldn’t immediately identify, “I hope I didn’t make you wait for long.”
“Don’t you talk to me like that witch,” Sultana was definitely mad. I was surprised that she was expressing her anger publicly. “You dare to change the date of the reunion of the Heads of Family to precisely this moment. What’s your game this time?”
“My dear empress, I hope you’re not mad at me. I just wanted to be present for this little test. I had the most interesting vision, and I am acting in consequence.”
“You brought us here on purpose Cerridwen?” Kamose was angry too, but doing a better job at hiding it. “What are you scheming now?”
“Why don’t we settle down and take a minute to relax?” Thanks to the name I could finally identify the voice. It was the voice of the seer who had helped me to get out of the Burrow just two years before.
“I don’t have time to waste, and you certainly don’t get to decide how I spend my time.” Sultana’s voice was calmer, but colder now. “We have a job to do.”
“My dear empress, I know this is going to interest you. I know how much you despise nepotism, and this whole test was planned just because of Baal’s insistence on having his son promoted and Morrigan’s and Cervo’s inability to find a way to deny him of his wish.” I knew it to be true, but to hear Cerridwen say it out loud was strange.
“It’s that true?” Sultana asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it were,” I was surprised to hear Lugat talking. “Two years ago, he tried to make his son a sergeant and Morrigan talked to us. We decided to recommend him as a corporal, he wasn’t prepared for more at the time.
“Baal, this is a serious accusation, are you using your position to give your son an unfair advantage?”
“My Empress, I think they are all overreacting,” for the first time I could hear Baal nervous, and I felt like laughing. I couldn’t see him, but I imagined the arrogant and pretentious Baal acting like a meek soldier. “Of course I suggested the promotion for my son, but because I think he deserves it. I wouldn’t ask for something he doesn’t deserve.”
“Cerridwen, you know I don’t like this kind of situations, especially if neither Pacorus nor Morrigan were able to resolve this on their own, but that doesn’t justify you bringing me here. The selection of a sergeant is hardly something an empress should worry about.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Your Majesty, but I think that we have found a way to resolve this satisfactorily, this tournament is going to help us select the sergeant objectively,” said Pacorus before Cerridwen could explain her reasoning to Sultana.
“Cerridwen, how good is this plan of objectivity going to work?” Sultana asked.
“Well, my dear empress, the plan has a 60% chance of success, there are five possible outcomes, and only in three of them the right person wins.”
“And how do you know who the right person is?” Baal didn’t sound so meek while talking to Cerridwen, obviously he didn’t respect her. “How is that you get to decide who should win and I don’t?”
“We should proceed with the test instead of stand here discussing about it.” Cerridwen ignored Baal, but she sounded affected by his words, angry even. “I wouldn’t like to waste more of the empress time, so we should hurry up.”
“If you agree we could modify the setting,” said Pacorus, “we were planning on one on one fights until we had our winner, but maybe a free for all will be faster.”
“Perfect, carry on, I want this over with as soon as possible” with that the discussion was finished.
“Montu, Kaiserin, Antu, Serv,” called Morrigan, “I want you to select a weapon each.”
“The idea was to hold a tournament like competition, starting with two one on one fights and then a final match with the two winners to choose the best among you,” Cervo explained, “but instead you are going to fight until just one of you is standing. The fight will start when I blow my whistle and will finish once three of you are unable to continue fighting.”
We moved to the center of the arena, from there I could see the generals and Sultana, they were talking. None of them was looking at us. Sultana had her back to me. I felt awful because of Sultana’s lack of interest, I wished she would look at me, like Baal was looking at Montu, reassuring him, trusting in his ability to win.
“Ready?” Cervo asked as he lifted his whistle. I could feel the change in the air. The others were tensing, preparing to attack. “Good luck, may the best win.”
Just before I heard the whistle, Cerridwen looked at me, our eyes locked, and I felt uneasy. As soon as the battle started, I felt Montu’s pressure, I knew it was hard to fight under his pressure, so I jumped back before he could lock me into my place, and it was just in time, as I moved I saw Montu’s sword and Serv’s mace strike the ground where I was standing just a second before. The buzz warned me of another attack, and I tried to move, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid a cut on my arm from Antu’s chakram.
I saw Montu attacking Serv and hoped they would entertain each other for a while, I turned in time to see the chakram spin in the air and head back towards me. Antu’s vitrokinesis allowed her to control the chakram as if it was part of her body. I prepared to fend the attack. I knew Antu was coming for me, using a double attack. I had to defend myself from Antu and her chakram as if I was fighting two people.
I held my spear with both hands, ready to stop the chakram as I tried to read Antu’s movements. Something in her face alerted me, and I moved as Serv’s mace hit the floor where I was standing just a second before, leaving a small crater on the floor. Before I could move again Montu’s pressure took hold of me leaving me defenseless.
“Three against one?” Serv and Montu were standing on one side, Antu on the other. “This is supposed to be all against all.”
“If you can’t handle this, you can always give up,” said Antu with the chakram back in her hand. Serv was lifting his mace, preparing for another attack.
“I didn’t expect you to stoop so low,” it was really unfair. Montu’s pressure had me on my knees, powerless to move, unable to stop whatever attack Serv and Antu threw my way. “I didn’t expect you to be afraid of me,” I added, looking straight at Montu, expecting my words to make him angry.
“I’m afraid of no one,” he retorted as his pressure increased throwing me even lower, “I can defeat all of you by myself.”
“Calm down Montu, let’s take care of Kaiserin first, and then we can fight each other.” Antu was preparing to throw her chakram, but I knew that Montu wasn’t going to respond well to the vague order and counting on his anger I decided to act.
I took my spear with my mind and threw it towards Montu with all my force while he was distracted shouting at Antu. He was surprised by the attack, and his pressure disappeared, just in time for me to avoid, yet again, Serv’s mace. It struck the ground with force, and I knew that if he hit me, he would shatter my bones. I had to use Serv’s strength for my own advantage, as he was preparing to attack me again, I used my mind to divert his attack, and instead of striking me, he hit Antu’s chakram, shattering it.
“Enough,” said Cervo as he lifted Serv. “Serv is now out of the battle.”
Cervo hadn’t left the area when Antu attacked me, I was using all of my strength to fight Montu’s pressure and was unable to stop Antu. She hit my face and then my stomach, and I fell to the ground where she kicked my head, making me dizzy. As I tried to clear my vision, I heard Antu groan and felt Montu’s pressure lifting, he was now attacking Antu.
“What are you doing? She’s not finished yet,” there were anger and despair in Antu’s words.
“Don’t worry about it, I will deal with her, but thanks for doing the heavy work.”
Montu raised his sword over his head and was preparing to strike Antu. It looked like he was overdoing it. I found my spear, and using my telekinesis, I hit Montu on the back of his knees. He swore and fell. Antu took the opportunity to push his sword away, and then she kicked him. I stood up and approached them, as soon as I was inside her reach Antu turned to me and attacked me. I dodged her as I kicked her leg, she fell, and before she could react, I hit her throat closing her windpipe. She stood there, fighting to get air into her lungs.
By then Montu was standing again, I tried to hit him, but he caught my fist with his hand and pulled me to him, striking me in the stomach with his knee. I fell to the ground. Montu went to recover his sword. I was back under his pressure and couldn’t move. I saw Cervo reaching for Antu, our eyes crossed, but he didn’t say anything. I saw Montu walking back to me; sword raised over him. He let it fall over me, but I used my mind to block him and the sword struck the ground beside me, nailing itself in the ground. Montu tried to free the sword, and as he was starting to free it, I used my mind to push him. The extra force released the sword, but made Montu fell back and lose concentration, making his pressure disappear. I retrieved the spear with my mind and standing behind Montu, I used the spear to choke him. He grabbed the spear and tried to ease the pressure on his throat, but I used all of my strength to fight him. I could feel him weaken as the air failed to reach his lungs, I knew it was just a matter of seconds for him to pass out. It was almost done. I could feel it, but then the spear exploded in my hands. I could feel the splinters buried in my skin while Montu escaped. I was still trying to understand what had happened when Montu hit me. I tried to put some distance. My hands were hurt, and I was confused, doing my best to dodge his attacks.
I felt Montu’s pressure again, and felt slow and awkward. I was decided not to fall. I did my best to stay standing, but his pressure was too much for me. I thought I was going to lose and thought of how my life was going to change if Montu won, and I felt despair. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed Montu with my mind and lifted him.
“What the hell are you doing?” He asked furiously. “Let me down.”
“As you wish.” I cut my power off, and he fell. I had managed to lift him a few yards, and it was a long fall. He tried to turn in the air to be in a better position as he landed, but he still fell hard, and I heard the crack as his ankle was broken. I grabbed Montu’s sword and walked to him. He was on the floor trying to work around his broken ankle. I held the sword just an inch from his chin. “Surrender Montu, let’s get this over with.” There was no way he could escape, and he knew it. With his broken ankle, he couldn’t move away from me, and if the used his pressure the sword would pierce his neck.
“I will never surrender to you.” He was trying to escape, even if he knew it was pointless he was still trying. He moved back, and I moved forward, with his sword in my hand, closer to him. “I’m a superior being. I come from a superior lineage to yours. I refuse to lose to you.”
“This is over,” said Cervo as he approached us.
“No!” Montu refused to acknowledge his defeat. “I won’t accept this. I can lose to trash like her.”
“It’s ok Kaiserin. It’s over,” Cervo took the sword and gave me his hand, but as soon as the sword was out of his face Montu managed to stand up and put his pressure back on me, with a greater force than before.
“No, this isn’t over until I say so.” I could see that Montu was struggling to stay up, he was bleeding and exposed bone showed through his pants, “this is a matter of breeding. I descend from Zeus. You are nothing. I’m the son of a captain; you are the daughter of some good-for-nothing trash…
He wasn’t finished, but I wasn’t able to hear anything else. His voice died in his throat as a shot hit him. I didn’t hear the shot, but I saw the blood burst from his chest. He looked at me with disbelief, and he fell on the floor. In an instant, Baal was kneeling beside his son. A pool of blood was extending around him, some from his chest wound, some from his ankle.
“Your son is the one to blame for this,” said Cerridwen, “he insulted the wrong people.”
“What are you talking about?” Baal glowered at Cerridwen with hate, but also confusion.
“I think the one responsible for this is no one else but you. You who filled the kid with all that bullshit.” Kamose and Pacorus had approached us while Baal talked to Cerridwen. “You taught him to look down on other people, prejudice him.” Kamose looked at me, and there was none of the coldness that had been with him on other occasions, there was something different in his eyes as he looked at me. “It’s ironic that at the end he was right, it was the strongest lineage the one that won,” he added as he stared at me.
“I never told Montu who my parents were,” in part because after all he had said, I wasn’t even sure who they really were.
Silence stretched around us. I could feel all the eyes on me.
“I thought that Kaiserin was an orphan,” Morrigan was the first to break the silence, “there was no registry of her parents, no information on her besides her rank and the Family she belonged to. She was delivered to me by someone not even related to her.”
“Why are we wasting our time with this?” Baal stood up. He was holding Montu on his arms. Montu moaned and groaned in pain. “All I want is the one responsible for this, I want an explanation.”
“Don’t you get it? I was the one who attacked him,” said Sultana at last. She was still standing with Shahzadi and Lugat, away from the group gathered around Montu and Baal.
“Your highness?” Baal looked more than confused now; he looked surprised, hurt. All the anger left him. “But why?”
“Did you expect me to do nothing while your son insulted me?” Sultana’s voice was heavy, a threat under it. Montu’s attitude had angered her, and because she was already mad because of Cerridwen’s actions, she had lashed out to Montu.
“Your highness?” Baal was even more confused now.
“All makes sense now.” Cervo looked at me and smiled. “If only we knew about this before, we would have acted differently.”
“No! No, no, no.” Baal had finally understood what the other had already deciphered. “It’s impossible. You have no children,” he told Sultana.
“I won’t discuss my offspring with someone like you,” Sultana looked around. “I don’t have to explain myself to anyone, if I decided not to say anything about Kaiserin being my daughter is my problem and my decision, and I warn you. This knowledge cannot leave this place; it has to remain a secret.” Sultana walked, or glided towards us. “Baal, if I were you, I would take that spoiled brat to the nearest infirmary as fast as I could before he dies of blood loss.
“I thought you weren’t a practitioner of nepotism, and now you attack my son just to ensure your daughter’s victory?” Everyone, included Baal knew how dangerous it was to talk like that to the empress. I think he regretted it as soon as he spoke.
“She would have won much faster, and on her own, if you hadn’t interfered.” Cerridwen said with a coldness that I haven’t heard of her before. “Do you take us for fools? Do you think we didn’t notice how you broke that spear to free your son? Do you believe that I don’t know how those splinters would have pierced her heart if it wasn’t for us being here? Do you think that I don’t know that you would have killed her to ensure your son’s victory?”
“I…” Baal was nervous. He was looking around, searching for a way out.
“Don’t even try to defend yourself,” Kamose’s voice was just as cold as Cerridwen’s, his attitude was menacing, “attacking an heiress is never a good idea, and don’t try to deny Cerridwen’s words. You cannot lie to me. You can’t hide from me, not even in your own mind.”
“Enough!” Sultana’s voice didn’t ask for obedience; it demanded it. Everyone turned to her, waiting for her command “Baal, take your son. We will deal with you later,” then she looked at each of her generals. “Shahzadi, Lugat, Kamose, Cerridwen; we still have work to do. It is time to go. And you,” she added looking at Morrigan and Cervo in turn, “carry on with your business.”
Almost everyone started to move even before Sultana stopped talking, Cerridwen walked to me.
“I knew you were going to win,” she told me with a knowing smile, “you have a great future ahead of you. This is only the start.”
I wasn’t sure if I should thank her, or complain about her ‘help’, when I saw her fly away from me and hit the wall on the other side of the arena.
“Stay away from my daughter you damn witch,” Sultana was talking to Cerridwen, but was walking towards me, “she doesn’t need your traps and intrigues, and I forbid you to approach her again.” What she did then surprise me more than anything else. She stopped in front of me and smiled. I was surprised to notice that I wasn’t looking up to her anymore, we were now the same height. She took my face in her hands and kissed me on the forehead. “You are a great warrior,” she whispered to me, “you did an excellent job today, don’t let anyone tell you that this wasn’t your victory, you did this by yourself. You are a winner.”
I didn’t know what to say, I just stood there looking at her as she turned away from me and walked to the exit. Pacorus, Morrigan and Cervo were looking at me, but I was busy looking at the generals. Sultana reached the door where Cerridwen, and the others were waiting for her.
“It wasn’t a request Cerridwen; it was an order, stay away from her.” Sultana was talking to Cerridwen, but somehow her voice carried to me, just as Cerridwen’s answer did.
“I respect your wish to protect your heiress, but you will have to accept that she is mine as much as she is yours.”
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