Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire's capital--her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village's tithe has been the same woman. Gilene's sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.
But this year is different.
Azarion, the Empire's most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion--and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. Unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.
To protect her family and village, she will abandon everything to return to the Empire--and burn once more.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Grace Draven
For Gilene, spring was the season neither of rain nor of planting, but of suffering.
She waited beside her mother, sister, and brothers as the caravan of shackled women plodded down Beroe’s market street toward the town square. The slavers of the Empire guided the line, shoving their cargo forward with harsh commands and the occasional warning crack of a whip.
She had already exchanged farewells with her mother and siblings. Each had embraced her, dry-eyed and grim-faced. This wasn’t their first parting, and for good or ill, it wouldn’t be their last.
Her eldest brother, Nylan, squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll be waiting for you in the usual spot,” he said in low tones meant for only her to hear. Gilene nodded, reaching up to pat his hand.
Her eyebrows arched when her mother sidled a little closer, her fingertips brushing Gilene’s sleeve in a hesitant caress. “Come back to us when it’s over.”
Gilene kept her reply behind her teeth. It was never over. Not for her. Despite her mother’s half-hearted gesture of comfort, she wouldn’t defend her daughter. Gilene would endure this every year until her age and her scars crippled her so badly, she could no longer wield her magic well enough to fool the Empire, and her burden became another’s. Her resentment served to blunt her fear. She gave a quick nod before turning her back on her family and striding toward the line of captives.
People hemmed either side of the dusty road. Their gazes, as she walked past them, were fearful, hopeful. Ashamed. A few villagers, however, wore expressions of warning instead of pity on their faces.
Yes, come back to us, they seemed to say. Or else.
Their stares shifted briefly past her shoulder to where her family huddled together to watch her leave.
Not all shackles were fashioned of iron.
Some of the villagers reached out to touch her, their fingers drifting across her sleeves or skirts like dead leaves. Gilene shrugged them off and made her way to the motley group at the end of the path.
One of the slavers snarled an impatient “Get in line!” and shoved her to the end of the queue. A few of the women stared at her empty-eyed; others wept and wiped their noses on the backs of dirty hands, their chains rattling as they raised their arms.
Another slaver approached her, a pair of manacles dangling from his fingers. He gave her a black-toothed smile as he snapped them around her wrists and tethered her to the woman next to her.
“Pretty jewelry,” he said and shook the shackles to show there was no breaking them.
The vision of the slaver enrobed in flames and shrieking in agony almost made her smile, but she kept her expression blank and dropped her shoulders in a defeated sag. She had learned years earlier that a broken captive didn’t incite the whip as often as a rebellious one did.
Beroe was the last stop on the slavers’ annual route to retrieve the living tithe the Krael Empire imposed on its subjects for the annual celebration known as the Rites of Spring. Gilene was the last tithe to join the others before they set off for the capital of Kraelag. She settled into the lurching rhythm of the chained line, dreading the four-day march ahead of her and its final destination even more.
Except for the chain rattle of shuffling feet and the bark of orders from a slaver, all stayed silent, fearful of the stinging flick of the whip.
Their journey was as miserable as it had been the previous year and the year before that: relentless marching under a spring sun that beat down on them with the promise of a brutal summer, nights spent huddled together for warmth as the remnants of winter rolled in with the twilight and whittled through clothing and skin like a knife.
The night before they reached the capital, Gilene curled into the back of her chain mate, a prostitute named Pell, and closed her eyes to the lullaby of chattering teeth and the soft sobs of her fellow prisoners. Her feet throbbed, but she dared not remove her sandals for fear of peeling away layers of skin from the many blisters.
She smelled the city’s reek long before she saw it. When the great walled capital of the Krael Empire came into view, some of the women cried out their relief at the sight. The slavers laughed, yanking on the chains hard enough to make some of their captives stumble and fall. Gilene helped a fallen Pell to her feet before the man fondest of bestowing the whip’s kiss strode toward them. Her fingers burned hot, earning a startled look from the prostitute before Gilene let go and stepped away as far as her chain length allowed. She forced down her fury before the tiny sparks bouncing between her knuckles grew to flames.
Patience, she silently admonished herself.
The slavers herded the women onto a wide, paved road that led to the colossal main gates. The space around them disappeared as they were hemmed in by a milling throng of people, carts, and animals. The noise was deafening, and the combined smells of sewage and unwashed bodies made her eyes water. She lifted her hands to cover her nose, the clink of her chains lost in the cacophony of shouting people, bleating livestock, and creaking wagon wheels as the masses heaved and rocked toward the gates.
Guards perched at their watches high in the two towers flanking either side of the gates, idly watching the crowd as it squeezed its way into the city’s confines—many who had come to attend the Rites of Spring. They casually dropped garbage and other offal on people as they passed beneath them, their raucous laughter carried on the fetid breeze.
A guard leaned out of a tower and shouted down to the crowd. “Any pretty flowers this year, Dolsh?”
The slaver closest to Gilene yelled back. “Does it matter? One roasted hen looks much like another.”
Laughter followed his reply, along with faint weeping. Gilene growled under her breath. A roasted cockerel looked like any other as well. She wanted to burn them all, every last one of them, but she was only one woman with limited power, a power she’d drain to the dregs just so she could survive this madness and keep her compatriots from suffering.
They were whipped, shoved, and cuffed through the narrow closes that branched off the main road like strands on a debris-littered spiderweb. At the web’s center, a man-made hill rose, its top crested with the emperor’s palace. Temples, manors, and bathhouses marched up its sides, and at its base, the arena crouched. A circular, roofless amphitheater whose sole purpose was to entertain Kraelag’s citizens with blood sport and brutality, it was known as the Pit, and to it the slavers herded their charges.
They reached the Pit’s outer walls and an entrance closed off by a barred gate manned by more guards. The sunlight faded as the procession descended several flights of slippery steps, through passages dimly lit by torchlight. The walls narrowed, forcing everyone into a single line. All snaked through the labyrinthine maze until they reached a low-ceilinged chamber in the city’s catacombs.
Gilene inhaled a stuttered breath as she crossed the threshold, knowing what awaited them in the chamber. Fresh from the Pit, covered in gore and reeking of sweat and butchery, the gladiators of the Empire lounged at the chamber’s opposite end and eyed the newcomers.
They didn’t approach, but the weight of their leers pressed down on her as she and the other women huddled together. She pretended not to see them. These were the men who had survived the day’s games, and their reward would be the sacrificial victims known as the Flowers of Spring. As one of those unfortunate blooms, Gilene would whore for her village tonight and burn for it tomorrow.
The girl on the other side of Pell shuddered and chanted a desperate prayer in a foreign tongue. Gilene leaned past her chain mate and grabbed a stretch of links attached to the praying girl’s manacle, giving it a quick jerk. The girl gasped, prayer forgotten as she stared wide-eyed first at Pell, then at Gilene.
“Shhh,” Gilene instructed her in a soft voice. “Be still. Be silent. Some lust for beauty, others for fear. Don’t show them yours.”
The other woman nodded, her lips moving in a now-soundless chant. Gilene gave her a brief smile of approval. She could offer little else, at least for tonight.
Pell leaned down to whisper in Gilene’s ear. “Her prayers are in vain. She’s too pretty, even under all the dirt. She should pray the one who chooses her will be gentle.” Her words were blunt rather than merciless.
Gilene sighed. “Gentleness has little meaning when one is unwilling.” She stared at Pell, wondering at the woman’s practical calm. Gilene had made this horrific trip four times before this one. She knew what to expect. The only unknown was how terrible each year would be compared to the one before it. “What will you pray for, Pell?”
The slattern’s calculating smile deepened the lines around her mouth and those fanning the corners of her kohl-lined eyes. “I haven’t prayed in years, girl. Wouldn’t know how to go about it even if I tried. I’ll be happy to get one of those fine stallions with the blood washed off him and enough skill between the blankets to make it worth spreading my legs for free.”
Gilene admired Pell’s bravado. The woman knew what awaited her with the dawn yet still held on to a cynical wit.
Pell made to say more but stopped when a short, muscled bull of a man strode into the chamber. Dressed in mismatched armor and carrying both whip and dagger, he was a formidable sight. Blue markings decorated his skin, sleeving his bare arms. The marks curled over his shoulders and crept up a thick neck to cap his bald head. Some of the women in line cowered away from him, and he grinned.
Hanimus, gladiatorial master trainer, still presided over this event each year with relish. Like Pell, Gilene didn’t pray, but if she did, she’d beseech the gods for Hanimus’s death. He represented all that was rotten about the Empire.
He walked the long row of women, pausing at times to lift the chin of one with his whip handle or fondle the breast of another. His fighters called out encouragement and vulgar suggestions for what they wanted to do to their chosen prizes.
“They sent us a good crop this year, lads,” he proclaimed. “Too bad you only have them for a night.” Groans and ribald laughter filled the room, drowning out the softer weeping.
“We’ll all grow old before we can choose,” one impatient fighter protested.
The trainer’s eyes narrowed, and he spun to glare at the men. They snapped to attention. “You’ll wait your turn,” he warned. “Azarion is still fighting. If he lives, he’ll have first choice as Prime.”
As if on cue, the boisterous cheers of the arena’s crowd vibrated against the stone walls of the catacombs, sending dust raining down on everyone’s heads. The death bell pealed a sonorous song—tribute to the victor, a dirge to the slain.
“Lot of good it’ll do him,” someone muttered. “Herself will summon him like always. She rides that cock every chance she gets.” A chorus of ayes answered him.
Hanimus shrugged. “He still has first pick.”
Gilene bowed her head to hide her anger. Most of the women in chains had been separated from husbands and children, parents and siblings. Brought to Kraelag for the sole purpose of dying, they shouldn’t have to suffer this final degradation.
A part of her recognized they were alike in some ways—the condemned women of the villages and the enslaved gladiators of the arena. They had once been beloved sons and brothers, maybe husbands and fathers. Now they were all fodder for indifferent gods and the entertainment of the Empire, their deaths more valuable than their lives to those who ruled. Still, she couldn’t find it within her to pity these men who would subjugate them.
An expectant silence descended on the group as the crowd’s triumphant chant swelled to a thunderous bellow.
“Azarion! Azarion! Azarion!”
Hanimus smacked his whip handle against his thigh and grinned. “Ha! I knew he’d take the fight. The Margrave of Southland owes me a goodly sum now.”
The march of feet soon sounded on the steps leading down to the catacombs—the last victorious gladiator and his entourage of guards. Gilene watched the doorway from the corner of her eye, her stomach knotting itself in dread of seeing the man who would come through the entrance.
Like the other gladiators already here, he’d be dressed in blood-spattered armor. Unlike the others, he’d suck the air out of the room with his presence. She remembered Azarion from her previous annual treks to the capital. Worse, Azarion seemed to remember her.
Boot heels scraped across the dirt, and the Gladius Prime made his appearance. He bent to avoid hitting the lintel and entered the chamber. Stifled gasps from the women and bows from the men greeted him—this slave who commanded the deference reserved for kings.
He’d changed little since she’d seen him the previous year. A tall, solidly built man with wide shoulders and long, muscled arms, he exuded a presence that diminished the men around him. He was disarmed now, but she had no doubt he could kill as easily with his bare hands as he did with the weapons he carried into the arena.
His dark hair was shorter than she remembered, resting on his shoulders in sweat-dampened tendrils. She refused to look at him directly, choosing instead to watch him from the corner of her eye. She’d met his gaze before and regretted it.
He was handsome, with the high cheekbones and light eyes characteristic of the nomadic clans who roamed the Stara Dragana. The cold expression he leveled on the room’s occupants turned his green eyes flinty. Gilene hunched her shoulders and tucked herself as far back from the line as her chains allowed.
One of the gladiators broke the expectant silence. “Was it a good fight, Azarion?”
Azarion glanced at him before returning his attention to the women. “Aye. Damiano fought well and died honorably.”
Gilene shuddered. She’d forgotten his voice. Low and gruff, it carried to all corners, challenging, as if he dared anyone to make light of his victory or the death of the man he’d fought.
Hanimus tapped him on the arm. “We’ve been waiting for you. Best make your choice quick before Herself calls for you.”
Azarion slowly moved down the line, and Gilene’s heart joined her stomach in trying to squeeze itself into a corner of her rib cage. He paused before each woman, staring at her with a prolonged gaze. Beside Gilene, chains clanked as Pell patted down the snarled mess of her hair and adopted a pose to show off her attributes.
Gilene clenched her hands in her skirts, trying not to panic. Surely, he couldn’t recognize her. She’d returned to the capital time and again with a different face. Her skills with illusion were as refined as they were with fire. The slavers never knew they brought the same woman from Beroe to Kraelag year after year. No slave fighter from the Stara Dragana should have the talent to see past her veil of enchantment.
Fear coated her tongue at a memory from the previous year. Azarion’s green gaze had locked on her and narrowed. Neither lustful nor leering, he’d stared at her for several moments as if seeing not a freckled redhead with wild, frizzy hair, but her true self: a plain, dark-eyed brunette.
“Do not know me,” she muttered under her breath. It wasn’t a prayer. She’d ceased believing in gods long ago. Still, she chanted the plea silently. Her heart slammed against her breastbone when he halted in front of her.
Do not know me.
This year she was round-faced and cross-eyed, with lank brown hair and sunburned skin. She’d bound her breasts and wore layers of sweltering wool to mask her shape.
Do not know me.
The prayer that was not a prayer pounded in her head, and she swallowed a whimper when he lifted her chin with one finger. Her gaze slid past his face to a dent on the pauldron protecting his shoulder.
“Look at me.” His deep voice, so quiet, carried the resonant command of a general.
She refused to take her eyes off the dent.
“Look at me,” he repeated in the same tone. His fingers curled around her jaw and pressed. She dragged her gaze to his, the drumming of her heartbeat making her chest hurt. He leaned closer, gripping her chin even harder to keep her still, eyes blazing in triumph.
“I know you,” he whispered.