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Three suns. Kara Juniper had always wondered why Crystol had three suns. And two moons. She had once asked one of the slaves why there were three suns and two moons while he tended the garden.
“Because light is precious, Princess Kara. It lives on in all of us, but sometimes we have to be reminded by the suns and moons that it is still there. Constant. Forever.”
The sentries had whipped him forty times for speaking to her.
He had not survived the night.
Kara hadn’t understood at the time why men were treated as lesser. They were so strong. What made them less than a woman?
She had once made the mistake of asking her mother. Her mother’s dark purple eyes had flashed, and she had refused to answer. Instead, she had sent Kara to Sophomia, on the opposite side of Crystol. There she was raised. There she was taught that once upon a time men had lorded power over women. Once they had thought them nothing.
Rage always coursed through Kara’s blood when she thought about the history of man and woman. Now she knew it was fair. Fair to retaliate by doing to them what they had done to her gender.
She looked up from her place at the balcony overlooking the garden. It glittered in the light of the suns and Kara took satisfaction from knowing that the men toiling far below couldn’t admire it. They were too busy working.
Kara turned her head slowly, the jewels in her auburn hair clinking together, “Queen Narain.” She bowed low, hands cupped in front of her.
“I’m sending you out with the sentries to patrol the city. There has been… unrest.”
Kara barely winced at her mother’s hissing tone, “Of course, Queen Narain.”
Her mother’s shimmering blue and gold robe whispered against the marble as she turned away, “And, Kara?”
“Yes?” Kara still hadn’t risen, and her knees had begun to shake beneath her.
“Stop this unrest. Understand?”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
The sentries clapped their spears against the floor and followed after her mother.
Kara stood at last, sighing slightly through her nose in relief, and turned back to the garden far below. If Kara knew her mother at all, then the sentries were already gathered, but she let herself loiter. She was the princess, after all. Nothing started until she got there.
“Get back to work!” A sentry demanded of a slave.
Kara cocked her head at the scene; a slave was wading through the fountain water, his head tipped back as water splashed his face. Bold. But stupid.
Kara itched to remove the whip from her belt, the one with metal spikes tied up in leather, and teach the boy a lesson.
But she was more interested in seeing how he responded.
“I said back to work!” The sentry barked, uncoiling her own whip.
The boy glanced back at her, a grin on his lips, “Make me.”
Kara’s lips twitched.
The sentry bared her long teeth and jumped into the water after him. His fellow slaves had stopped to watch, a light in their eyes Kara had never noticed before. “Get over here, vermin!”
The boy ducked under a curve of water, purposefully baring his back to her. It was already soaked through with blood and sweat, and Kara thought of all the marks marring his back.
Another twitch of her lips.
The slave led the sentry round and round until Kara tired of the game. Until she was sick of the way the men watching were smiling.
She snapped her fingers, and another sentry stepped forward, “Stop that and punish everyone watching.”
The sentry nodded, and Kara turned away. She was ten feet away when the screaming started.
Kara looked up, realizing she had stopped, to see a servant waiting for her to leave the balcony in order to close the doors. He was shaking.
Kara squared her shoulders, “Gather a crew together to clean that mess up once the sentries have finished.”
He nodded, his throat bobbing.
She couldn’t help grinning like a cat at him, “Make sure there are no survivors.”
Then she crossed the threshold, surprised at the slight twisting in her stomach. She had once told her teacher, an ethereal woman named Mallor, that she pitied the young boys forced to clean up her toys. She told her about the twisting feeling.
Mallor’s eyes had softened. “You are different.” She said gently, “do you know why?”
Ten-year-old Kara had shaken her head.
“Because you are not your mother.”
Kara’s face twisted in disgust as she strode down the halls of her mother’s palace. Not her’s. It would never be her’s.
She hated thinking about Mallor. Mallor the traitor. The male sympathiser. The betrayer.
“At attention!” Kara snapped, shoving open the wide double doors leading out front. The servants, the ones tasked with doing it, scuttled away from her twisted face as she snarled at the sentries waiting for her. “The queen has demanded we stop this unrest.” In front of the sentries, she removed her bronze coat to reveal the blazing purple armour underneath. “We stop this uprising before it can blow up in our faces. We will not be bested by a group of sniveling boys. If you die in a battle, if one ensues, you will be disgraced for dying at the hands of the opposite gender. Understood?” She poised her hands on her hips, feeling every bit like her mother.
“Yes, Your Highness!” The sentries' grins widened.
They hoped there was a fight.
Kara almost did, too.
“Then let’s move out,” she snapped her fingers and a young slave led a sleek black horse to her side.
She was about to mount it when the boy spoke.
“You’re going to kill them. Aren’t you?”
Kara paused, nostrils flaring. She heard leather uncoiling as a sentry nearby stepped forward. Kara raised her hand and looked down at the boy. Then she knelt.
The sentries knew not to intervene as she smiled. Sweetly.
The boy smiled back.
Carefully, she extended her hand and traced the apple of his youthful cheek. “I’m going to gut them one by one and then throw the pieces in your soup.”
The boy recoiled from her touch, face pale as he took in her armour. The whip at her side. The jewels in her hair. “Why?”
Kara stood, “Because of our history.” She was expected to slap him. Whip him. Maybe even kill him. But she knew, from the look on his small face, that he would never question her again.
He needed to spread fear, didn’t he? Because that’s how one ruled, according to her mother. By wielding fear like a blade.
“Mount!” Kara barked, sliding onto her horse with practiced ease and gripping the reigns. Her sentries followed suit.
She took her place at the head, the hairs on the back of her neck rising as she sensed her mother’s presence. Watching. A wave rolled over Kara, and she grinned.
Her mother’s approval always felt well-earned because it was hardly ever given.
“Ride!” Kara bucked her heels against the sides of the horse, and its dark eyes widened before it rushed forward.
Kara always felt free when riding. It was like her wings unfurled and she could fly high above the fluffy pink clouds. Sometimes, she envisioned spreading her arms wide and whooping into the sky.
But she was a soldier. A princess. And she had work to do.
Down through the city, they rode. Past the towering mansions that housed women of wealth and status.
And deep into the slums.
Kara’s delicate nose wrinkled as the smell of waste and refuse hit her. This was where her mother forced too-old men or too-young boys to stay until they died or the boys grew old enough to be put to work. Kara didn’t know who had mothered the young boys. Women only kept the girls.
And when the babies were born, the fathers were either killed or sent away.
It still eluded Kara as to how the babies survived without their mother’s help.
“Highness.” A sentry reached over to grab Kara’s reins to slow her down. “Her Majesty wants us to survey this area.”
Kara looked around slowly; boys watched from the shadows of buildings, their faces grimy and their clothes tattered and worn.
The nursery sector.
Kara nodded and jumped off her horse. The boys scattered almost immediately as she uncoiled her whip in preparation.
A whistle spiked through the air as the tip of her whip hit dirt, and Kara stilled. Her purple eyes met each of her sentries’, “Who did that?”
All shook their heads.
Kara looked up at the tips of the flat roofs, fingers tightening on the handle of her whip. The air buzzed with tension. Hostility. Someone thought this was their land.
Kara heard it before she saw it; an arrow slicing through wind. She turned her head, not bothering to step aside as it thunked into the ground in front of her. It was crudely made, but, as her mother had often told her, the tool does not make the user.
She grinned, “Ah. I see. We’re not welcome.” She made sure to project her voice as she pulled the arrow from the earth. “Impressive shot.”
Something else thumped the dirt behind her, and she spun along with her sentries. A lone figure faced them, a rapier in each hand.
Kara narrowed her eyes, “You have a noble’s rapier, boy.”
He cocked his head, grinning cockily. “Are you ladies lost?”
A sentry to her left shifted in rage and Kara’s own nostrils flared, “‘Ladies’?”
He took a step forward. They did not shift back.
“I can show you back to your palace, Highness,” he bowed mockingly, lips still twisted upward. “Or perhaps you’ve come for a visit? I do so enjoy your company.”
Kara tilted her chin upwards, holding her arm out to keep the sentries at bay as she strode forward. One step. Two. Three. Soon she stood chest to chest with the man, gazing up at his dark brown eyes, messy black hair, and mahogany skin.
Her eyes flashed with the image of a boy in a fountain.
“You remind me of someone,” Kara purred, grinning when he stepped back. “A boy with spirit. With messy black hair, chocolate eyes, and mahogany skin.”
A name whispered on his lips.
“Yes,” Kara tapped her chin, “I do believe Morris was his name.”
Rage flashed at her from his eyes, and she struck without needing to know he was too. Her whip slammed into his rapiers, knocking them aside with ease and sending him stumbling backwards.
She was glad to see she had cut into the royal blue of his jacket.
“You’re a monster!” The man spat, pulling a sword from off his back. Another stolen weapon.
Kara tossed her whip aside, palming daggers moments later. “And a monster has teeth,” she ground out.
Something tore into her thigh the moment she moved to attack.
Kara pressed her teeth together as blinding pain ripped her leg to pieces. An arrow, no doubt, had struck her.
Then came the attack.
Screams. Kara spun at the sound. Gasped at the image before her. Of her sentries being killed.
They let out the cries of warriors and let loose arrows, daggers, and struck with swords. Like honed weapons. Like killers.
Reflected back at her were thirteen years of Crystolian battle strategy. Of non-stop training. And Kara knew. Someone had betrayed them, betrayed her.
Before she could join her sentries in battle, a hand grabbed her wrist and spun her around. A gleaming silver sword was pressed against her chest seconds later.
Despite the pain still curling around her thigh, she raised her daggers. “I warn you, boy, I’m trained in every single battle strategy that has ever graced Crystol.”
He grinned, “So have I. And though I wish to relish in gutting you, I have explicit orders.”
Kara didn’t let her unease show. “Orders?” Her vision swam, but she kept herself aloft by sheer stubbornness. Poison dipped arrows. Clever.
“To kidnap you.”
Another arrow pierced her arm, and this time she did cry out. The man firing knew where the chinks in her armour were. He knew.
She stumbled backwards, dropping her daggers as some sort of poison tainted her blood. These fools had a plan. A devious one. A smart one.
But it wouldn't work.
She cracked her lips to laugh, “You fool!”
The man frowned.
“You think that you can sway me to your side? Use me against my mother? Against the queen? You’re a fool!” Her laugh deepened. “My mother would never come for me! And if I ever betrayed her, she would kill me. No remorse. No regrets.” Her laughter cut off abruptly as her words sunk in. “She would feel nothing as her sword pierced my flesh.”
The man’s face twisted. Not into rage. Not into disappointment that their efforts were for naught.
But in sadness. Sadness for her.
“Your own mother would kill you?”
Kara’s stomach twisted for the second time that day, “Just like your mother would throw you aside. We are not so different, boy.”
And that fact was what cut her deep. That truth.
“But despite that; I will still relish in ripping you to pieces.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he hissed, the sadness curling into heated anger once again. “But I have the upper hand here.”
Kara knew he was right. And she also knew she would rather die than betray her mother and the women before her. The women who lived under men’s thrall. Who cried tears of blood. Who fought their way to the top, knowing the injustices they were served.
“Then I will watch from the Other as my mother splits you open.”
Without an ounce of emotion on her face, Kara Juniper grabbed the man’s hands resting on the hilt of his sword.
And plunged the blade into her heart.