A few days ago, I was reading a book about Wu Zetian and her struggles to become the first Empress of China, and how she succeeded despite the intensely patriarchal society of China. This story then, is a kind of attempt to unravel what it must have been like for Hatsheput, Irene, Marie Theresa, and of course, Wu Zetian to have overcome all odds and receive the ultimate accolade despite of nigh-impossible odds.
After all: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
"For over ten years I have ruled as Empress. I have braved fire. I have breathed water. I have conquered wind. I have shaped earth. I have become wood. This, I have done. My name is Ruby, and my will is law."
The Scarlet Empress, First and Last Queen of the Adamas Dynasty
Darkness. Pain. Sand.
Ruby whimpered, clutching her arm. A stark terror gripped her heart. Yet she never stopped crawling, crawling under the hot desert sun.
She had to escape.
The weight of the armor was almost unbearable. Her helmet, partially caved in, obstructed her vision so she could barely see anything. The smell of her own blood assailed her senses. And the arrow in her arm dug just a little deeper into her with every movement, and she had to bite her lip to stifle her scream.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
A heavy boot slammed down on her back, jolting her arm. Ruby cried out, almost fainting.
A deep, masculine voice drawled. The owner of the voice grabbed Ruby and tossed her over, eliciting another round of stifled gasps. Ruby tried to see her attacker, tried to get a sense of her bearings, but her helmet was twisted and she could see nothing but darkness. A heavy weight pressed against her chestplate, choking her, stopping her breath.
"Even the men of the Iskantegu sound like women! No wonder they flee and die so easily."
There was a round of guffaws from all around. He reached down and tore Ruby's runesword from her belt.
"A fine weapon. Unfortunately, the wielder leaves something to be desired."
A strong tugging sensation began at her head. Ruby weakly swatted at the man pulling her helmet, but it was to no avail. Even as he pulled, even as the sandy interior ground against Ruby's bloody cheek, the mocking voice never stopped.
"A final honor, perhaps. A chance to meet the sun one last time, to see the man who was your conqueror, before I cut off your head and send it back!"
At the final word, the man finally managed to tear her helmet free, and Ruby instinctively closed her eyes against the burning sun. Her long, red locks flowed free, and for a few seconds, there was silence, silence except for the whimpers of a dying girl.
"What-what is this!?"
The masculine voice was now equal parts anger and confusion.
A rough hand grabbed Ruby's hair and ruthlessly pulled her to her knees.
"A girl? The Iskantegu sends their womenfolk to fight for them?"
There were confused mutterings all around. The voice continued, each word increasing his rage.
"Unforgivable! Unforgivable! I will purge them from the Earth for this—this insult!"
The hand gave a final yank, jerking her to her feet, and Ruby finally opened her eyes, and saw a sneering, stark white face with cold, cold eyes.
Slowly, deliberately, he grabbed the arrow in her arm and tore it out.
Ruby screamed, and blacked out.
There was darkness.
The sensation of being carried.
Water, sweet water.
A warm bed.
Her hands were sore.
A buzzing, dull taste permeated Ruby's mouth.
Still, blackness refused to recede, clinging onto her consciousness, urging her to rest, to stay still, to recover—
A bolt of realization flashed through her and she burst up, chest heaving, long hair wild.
An unfamiliar sight greeted her eyes. She was within a dark green tent, cold and uninviting, devoid of anything personal. The material was thin, and even through the canvas, she could see the sun shining from without, and the air was stifled and dusty. To her left, however, was a small table and chair, and atop the table were all sorts of random letters. To her front was a worn trunk, unopened. Ruby shivered, despite the desert heat. Her throat was parched.
Where were her things? What was going on?
She tried to step off the bed, but the clank of chains bemoaned her pathetic state. Around her hands was tied rope, fastened by chains to one of the metals rods that kept the tent fast to the ground. If she was going to leave, she wasn't going to be doing so unnoticed. As she struggled to undo the knots on her hands, a tiny sting of pain flashed from her arm and wincing, she turned towards it to see that her left arm had been bound, and treated.
And the fact she could feel the blankets and bed directly against her skin—
The fifteen year old girl gave a little yelp, blushed crimson, and even though there was no point doing so, and pulled the blankets tighter against herself. Her confusion grew.
What the hell was going on? Why was this happening?
For the moment, she abandoned her struggles, and began to relive the actions that had brought her here.
Osmaniadad was glorious.
It was the capitol of the Republic. It was the heart of the black market. It was the center of civilization and learning in the world. It also had the highest rates of illiteracy anywhere.
It was, in short, a city of contradictions and history, and Ruby Rose loved it.
The people of the Iskantegu peninsula were a tough lot. A mountainous region, low on fertile soil but high on natural resources, had created a hardy people with an eye for commerce and arts. Their runeforging was second-to-none, and for a hundred years, the fortunes of the newly unified Republic had only soared.
So when the burgeoning power of the Cesartvo Empire turned their greedy eyes upon Iskantegu, what they found was not a cowed populace, but an angered and united nation ready to fight for their culture and way of life.
That year, Ruby's father, Alastir Aelius Appius, a senator, was elected the first immigrant general of the Iskantegu armies.
Ruby, like her sister, had always been a headstrong girl.
Whereas Alastir had continually berated Ruby to, well, be more like a girl, Ruby had always rebuffed him and ran out with her sister, Yang, all over Osmaniadad. In the end, much Keisa Julia Appia's amusement, Alastir had simply given up on them both and instead let them do whatever they wanted. He finally gave in and found Yang a boxing tutor and enrolled her in the state-funded officer corps to learn with other aspiring generals. As for the quiet, but no less willful Ruby, he had pulled strings to allow her access to the Great Library of Osmaniadad, where the greatest minds of the day lived, worked, ate and slept.
And so, the two daughters of Alastir and Keisa Appius grew up and matured, until finally, when Yang was seventeen and Ruby was fifteen, Alastir was called by the Tribunal Assembly to war.
That year, Yang had finished her preliminary studies in warfare on a tactical level, and had been allowed by Alastir to accompany the jeshi soldiery into battle. When Ruby asked for the same favor, however, she had been rebuffed.
"Ruby, it is not that I doubt your ability—it is that this is but the first in a long string of battles that will soon sap the manpower of our people. We need more scholars like you, if our nation is to survive this war."
And so, she was forced to bid her father and sister farewell.
Even as they were leaving, however, Ruby had made her own plans. Literally hours after the bulk of the army had left, Ruby quietly slipped out of the Appian estate, with nothing but a senatorial seal and a runesword.
Making her way down to the water ports, she had rented space on a ship and commandeered a small group of mercenaries with the authority of the Aodhi Senate and made way for the expected camp.
She would never reach it.
Shouts rose Ruby from her reverie.
From without, everywhere there was the stamping of feet and the hoarse shouts of soldiers. Whatever was happening it was something big, and Ruby would be damned if she didn't take advantage of it.
Without any regard for stealth now, she redoubled her efforts to escape, paying no heed to the raucous clanking she was making now. Still, no matter how she pulled, the knots where too well made and there was no way out.
Desperate, Ruby bit the rope, and began to try to saw herself free. It took a minute, perhaps even two of gnawing and gnawing and gnawing and her teeth and gums and hands bled and bled and bled from her frantic bites, but finally, with a cry, she tore free, and wrapping the oversized blanket around her, she stumbled out of the tent and into chaos.
The world was on fire.
All around her, soldiers ran to and fro, holding water buckets, readying swords, and more. The camp followers, the merchants, slavers, cooks and prostitutes that followed any army ran amuck, some screeching, some calling for order, and some simply huddling in a corner and weeping.
Then she saw the reason for this madness.
Like demons from hell, a brigade of cataphractoi surged out of the flames, cutting down everyone in their path. To Ruby's utter shock, each horseman bore the symbol of Iskantegu upon his breastplates.
She was in the enemy camp, and her father's forces were burning it—and to them, she was but another nameless enemy to be butchered and cast down. As one of the horsemen turned to her, Ruby did the only thing she could, and ran.
A dark menacing voice thundered, directly at her. Ruby, panicked, tripped on the hem of her makeshift robe and fell, and could only watch helplessly as the horseman bore down on her, rearing, stopping just short of crushing her, raised up his hand, and—
A flash of gold lit up the air, as she pulled her helmet off and there was Yang, brow furrowed and worried.
Her tone was disbelieving. Ruby gaped, unable to believe her good fortune.
"Take my hand!"
Yang reached down, and just as Ruby was about to take it—
A flash of fire engulfed Yang, searing, burning—
Ruby screamed, and despite her nakedness, charged forwards to try to reach her sister. Searing hands gripped her arms hard and pulled her back, and Ruby cried out in pain as her skin burned and cooked.
The flames abruptly stopped, and Yang stood revealed, confused, disoriented, but perfectly fine, her runic armor warding against the fireball. Then, fixing her eyes on the figure behind Ruby, she narrowed her eyes and spat out a name like a curse.
The same deep, deep voice roared, and another flare of heat exploded outwards. Yang snarled, and tried to charge, but a hail of silver arrows clanged against her armor, her hair, one even slashing across her cheek. With a howl, she turned away, and her lilac eyes locked on Ruby's.
"I promise! I'll be back!"
Mad laughter echoed, and everywhere, fire roared and raged.
"Run! Run, mortal, against a Prince of Creation!"