I wasn’t surprised when the order to go to the arena came. I was expecting it for weeks by then. I was surprised by the number of candidates present when I arrived there. I saw a couple of familiar faces, none of them was friendly, I knew them from the heirs meetings, they were part of Caracalla’s entourage. Luckily he wasn’t there. Another known face, was standing by the door, at first I didn’t recognize him, but I did recognize a captain insignia on his chest.
Just a few minutes after I arrived there Sultana and Shahzadi entered the arena, immediately everyone present got on their knees, I tried to steal a glance at my mother, but she was outside my field of vision.
“Greetings Boreas” I could hear my mother talking, I supposed she was addressing the captain.
“Your Majesty” the man answered with deference.
“Attention!” ordered Shahzadi, “stand up and get on formation.
We didn’t waste any time, we got on our feet and ran into position. I could see my mother talking to the captain while Shahzadi walked up and down the line, making sure everyone was where she wanted us. Once she was satisfied with how we were positioned she went back to Sultana.
“Everyone is ready,” she informed.
“You are here today because you were chosen as the strongest and most promising warriors of your sectors. I need a new Special Forces unit, and eight of you will have the honor of being part of it.” Sultana’s voice wasn’t raised; it was modulated, just high enough so we all could hear her words. “I will personally select those of you who are better prepared to face the kind of challenges this unit will face, but the final decision of who will be part of the unit will be Captain Boreas.”
My mother walked to the start of the line.
“Lieutenant Saur from the Amon family, 22 years old” presented Shahzadi. “From sector four in the south. Her main power is ferrokinesis applied to the use of weapons.
Sultana was in front of the lieutenant, she looked at her and then to the documents on Shahzadi’s hands. “No, she’s not what we are looking for” informed Sultana.
“Thank you lieutenant, you can go, your services won’t be required,” said Shahzadi as she examined a new paper and started introducing someone else.
The same procedure was repeated with each one, Shahzadi had presented one third of the soldiers in line, and only two of them had met Sultana’s expectations.
“Lieutenant Kozlak from the Vlad family, 20 years old, member of sector 14 in the north” was reciting Shahzadi but she was rudely interrupted by my mother.
“I don’t know what Lobishomen and you were thinking, but this is not acceptable.”
“We didn’t decide this, Kozlak is really the best, his superiors have only good things to say about him, and they chose him to represent them” Shahzadi was angry.
“You know what is at risk and he is not what we are looking for” my mother moved to the next person in line. “Next Shahzadi.”
“Are you really sure about his?” Shahzadi asked, there was an edge in her voice.
“Next” my mother repeated.
“If this is what you want” I didn’t understand why she was so angry, “Kozlak, you can go.”
But Kozlak didn’t leave the arena, he stood by the door along with a few other rejected, waiting to see those who did meet my mother’s cut.
“Officer Agum from the Regal family, 19 years old” once again Shahzadi didn’t have a chance to finish the presentation.
“Please Shahzadi, do you really think this kid could be part of the new unit?”
I risked a glance at Agum, he was shaking, it was obvious that the empress was intimidating him, not that I could blame him, she was the most powerful women in the Empire. But he wasn’t giving a good impression.
“I guess not,” Shahzadi once again shuffled her papers, “you’re dismissed” she hadn’t even finished her words when Agum ran out of the arena, getting away from the humiliating scene.
Finally, they reached my spot on the line. My mother stood in front of me, seeing through me, as if I was nothing.
“Officer Kaiserin from the Maxima family, 15 years old” my mother didn’t wait for Shahzadi to finish, she moved to the next person.
“No, next” as I heard my mother dismissing me, I felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water on me, she was ignoring me.
“I’m sorry Kaiserin,” was all Shahzadi told me.
I started to walk again, but my feet stopped responding after a few steps, I haven’t made even half of the walk to the exit of the arena. But it was all so unfair, I had worked for this, I had made a great effort and my mother dismissed me without even giving me an opportunity to prove my worth. Besides, I was off duty until the next day, I had nothing to do.
“What’s wrong Kaiserin” asked my mother when she noticed I wasn’t leaving.
“Can I ask you a question?” I knew I shouldn’t speak up, I knew I should just obey and leave, but I couldn’t.
“Of course, my child,” some of the people present knew who I was, those who didn’t start to figure it out, and they were surprised. “Ask what you want.”
“Why do you think I don’t belong in here?” I could feel everyone’s eyes on me.
“Let’s talk about this later, maybe at dinner,” she just turned her back on me and ignored me again.
“It is an easy question, why can’t you answer it now?” I knew I shouldn’t have say that as soon as I said it, but my temper was getting the best of me, I wasn’t filtering my words, I was just saying what came to my mind. My mother’s face as she turned to me told me all I needed to know, I had crossed a line and I was in trouble.
“You are the youngest in this room,” she told me, “and one of the lowest ranked” she was visible restraining herself, taking deep breaths trying to control herself. I asked for the best of the best, those who represented each sector, instead they send the heirs, those with the best lineages. Do you really think you are here because you deserve it?” she didn’t give me time to answer, she went on. “You are here because some fool thought that it would please me if they chose my daughter as representative of this sector.”
“Is that the reason I’m here?” I felt awful because my mother thought that way about me, awful and angry at her poor opinion of me. “I really thought that I was here because I incapacitated any other possible candidate.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Shahzadi.
“I’m saying that if it wasn’t for me there would be no one here to represent my sector” I was answering Shahzadi, but my eyes were on my mother. “I made sure that no one could question my presence here by sending all my opponents to the infirmary.”
“And why would you do something like that?” I could see disbelieve in my mother’s face, she wasn’t buying my words.
“Because I want to be here, I want this opportunity.”
“Well, too bad, I already made my decision,” she was staring at me as if she was trying to kill me with her eyes. I had seen many cower away at that, but I was too angry to care. “You think you are especial but you are not, you haven’t proved anything yet. Now get out of my sight before I run out of patience.”
“No!” I surprised myself by defying my mother.
As an answer I saw her lifting her arm and making a gesture with her hand, as if trying to get rid of an annoying insect. I felt the air moving, I knew a wall of air was heading my way. Once I asked my mother how she could manipulate something she couldn’t see, she had told me that she had a connection with the air and that thanks to that she could manipulate it without seeing it. After that I had spent months trying to figure out how that worked out. Knowing what I was facing I prepared myself and constructed my own air barrier. I could never manage anything as powerful as my mother’s wall, but I didn’t need to stop it, I just needed to dodge it.
I concentrated, I lifted my hands and used my mind to construct a pillar of air directly in front of me. When my mother’s air wall crashed against my pillar it was cut in two and passed by my side leaving me still standing and unscathed. I heard a thump at my back and knew that if the wall had hit me it would have sent me out of the arena.
Shahzadi was facing me and watched everything, she was wide eyed, clearly surprised by both my actions and my power. My mother didn’t watch what happened, she had turned her back on me again, sure that her power would throw me out, but Shahzadi’s face told her that something had happened so she turned to face me once again.
“I think you are underestimating me, mother,” around us the sound of muttering was raising, I knew they were talking about me, the silly little girl stupid enough to face the empress. But especially I knew they were just as surprised as my mother by the fact that I was still standing.
“How dare you?” my mother’s face was changing, rage was morphing her expression. “I gave you a direct order and you disobey me?”
“I’m not on duty right now, mother. Your orders are optional right now, you told me that yourself last year” a voice in my mind was telling me to stop, talking like that to her was suicide.
I saw a whirlpool of air forming in the space between my mother and me, small fragments of rocks and dust were being drawn to the whirlpool. It started to move towards me. I knew that if it caught me, I wouldn’t be unable to escape. I tried another thing I had been practicing, as the whirlpool approached me and I started to feel the draw of the air, I gathered and then expelled a great amount of psychic energy, as a result the flow of the wind inside the whirlpool was disrupted and it vanished.
“Why are you insisting on this? You have no idea what you’re trying to get into” I could hear her patience with me had run out.
“I know exactly what I’m asking for” I dared to talk back to her, not concerned with the consequences. “I know the risks, but I’m not afraid to die, I have defeated death before and I know I’m capable of doing it again” my voice was raising and I couldn’t control it. “If you could only trust me, I you could believe in me half as Cerridwen does we wouldn’t have any problems.”
I hadn’t expected her reaction to my words, without notice I felt trapped in between several strong wind currents. Fragments of rocks trapped in the air were causing dozens of cuts in the exposed part of my skin. After a few seconds my clothes started to suffer too exposing more skin to the attack. I was desperately trying to generate a shield around me to protect me, but I was caught on my mother’s power and couldn’t focus enough to fight back.
“Stop!” I thought I heard Shahzadi shouting, but the sound of the wind was muffling her words, she sounded far, far away. “Stop Sultana! You are going to kill her if you don’t stop!”
I felt the anger inside me subduing, I couldn’t focus on my disappointment anymore. Then the air started to slow down. My mind regained focus and I noticed just how fragile was my situation. Shahzadi was talking to her sister, I couldn’t hear her, but I knew they were discussing.
“I was only trying to keep you safe” my mother finally told me. “I don’t think that you are prepared to risk your life in battle.”
“Hoshi, the lava river, the wall, Montu and Baal” I listed. “Mother, I had been surviving all my life.”
“What I’m looking for is someone capable of surviving great challenges,” said my mother to everyone in the arena. “A difficult task is coming our way and I don’t know exactly what is going to be, but I know it will be difficult and many will lose their lives. Right now I’m giving you a choice, if you are afraid of dying you can leave now, without consequences, I won’t force any of you to this destiny, but if you are brave enough or stupid enough to face this challenge then take a step further.”
For a moment it looked like no one would take that step, then one by one the line started to move forward. Even Kozlak, and a few of the rejected, moved back to the line. When everyone was in place my mother threw an air wall to them. Some of them flew away, some were thrown back a few steps, but managed to stay in place. None of them could stay in place like I did.
“Those of you that could stay on their feet, congratulations, you just signed your death sentences. Boreas, they are yours, you deal with them,” she closed the distance between us. “If you had been on duty I would have considered your behavior as treason, but since you were not, this is going to be treated just as a tantrum, but even that can’t go unpunished. Kaiserin, because of your behavior I will demote you to corporal” she got even closer to me, “I hope you enjoy your victory. Shahzadi, you can stop using your power now” after that my mother moved to the entrance to the Burrows and the seers chambers, where Cerridwen was.
“Congratulations to those who made it this far” Boreas broke the silence that had followed Sultana’s departure. Those of you who didn’t make it leave immediately” just thirteen of fourteen people remained plus me.
Boreas walked closer to me. Once everything calmed down and I wasn’t running on adrenaline I felt scared, tired and in pain. My body felt on fire, hundreds of small cuts covered my body.
“The first time I saw you we were in this same place,” he told me, “it was five years ago if I’m not mistaken” right then I remembered who he was. He was one of the warriors that had been training with my mother the day I got off the Burrow. “If I remember correctly you got here after fighting with one of your superiors. Now you did the same. Can I trust you to obey me? Will you be a problem for me if I keep you?”
“I’m sorry if my attitude had given you a bad impression” I tried to act with as much respect and deference as I could, “but I promise I will be an exemplary soldier.”
“Perfect. I want you to kneel” ordered Boreas.
My body protested, but I could not disobey my new squad leader, especially not after his words and my rank demotion. Despite the protest of my body I did what he asked. I felt the cuts on my body opening and blood erupting from the deeper ones. I supported myself with my hands when I started falling on my face.
“I have fought Sultana enough times to know that you can’t get unscathed from a fight with her” after he told me that he addressed once again the whole group. “Attention! You can get the info on your new quarters by the door. You have the rest of the day free to do whatever you want, you can sleep wherever you want tonight, but tomorrow morning, without exception,” he added looking at me, “at seven sharp, you will be in your quarters to start your training. By the end of the week I will decide who stays and who goes. Now go and enjoy your last day of freedom.
I heard steps getting away, but I didn’t see them, I could only see the blood spreading on the floor. I felt the sticky blood on most of my body, I wonder how I would get out of there, I couldn’t move. Not a minute had passed and I was already weakened by blood loss.
“You need help” Kozlak didn’t ask, it was a fact. I knew he was my cousin, Shahzadi’s and Lobishomen son, but I had only met him once, we haven’t even had the opportunity to talk.
“I can’t move” I confirmed.
“I know, but if you stay there you will bleed to death” Kozlak bend over me and took me into his arms, “we better get you to the infirmary. You need to be ok by tomorrow or all this will be a waste.”
“Thanks, but I will get blood on your uniform.”
“Don’t worry little one, I should be thanking you, if it wasn’t for your little stunt I would be out of this unit,” he smiled at me, “but if you are worried for my uniform I can think of something for you to pay me back.”
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