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Authors: Daniel Arenson

Crown of Dragonfire

BOOK: Crown of Dragonfire
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Daniel Arenson

Table of Contents


Tash lay in the palace
gardens, pleasuring the lords of the court, when the sky burned and the severed
wings fell at her feet.

"More wine, my lord?"

"Grapes, my sweetness?

"Smoke some
with me, master?"

The day had begun like
many others. All morning, Tash had been working in the gardens, moving between
the seraphim, offering all the pleasures of the empire—pleasures of fine food,
drink, and hookah . . . and the pleasures of her lips, her stroking fingers,
her warm flesh. The seraphim were tall, beautiful beings, demigods fallen from
the sky, their swan wings purest white, their halos golden, and she was but a
mere mortal, a slave . . . yet a slave who knew all the secrets of what they

A slave Tash was, but one
unlike the multitudes who toiled across the empire. Her head was not shaved;
she sported long brown hair that flowed down to her hips. Instead of manacles,
golden links surrounded her ankles and wrists. Instead of ash, perfume clung to
her soft skin. Instead of rough burlap, she wore fine silken trousers, the
fabric soft as summer sunset, and a top that revealed more than it hid. She was
a pleasure slave, chosen from the pits of despair for her beauty, her
coquettish lips, her knowing eyes, her tongue that could whisper sweet nothings
and raise flesh to heights of unbearable pleasure. In a land of pain, she used
her gifts of pleasure. Among a chained, broken people, she found her servitude
in a gilded cage.

She looked around her.
While most slaves labored in Tofet, a desert of sand and rock and whips, she
served in wealth. The garden rustled with irises and lilies and jasmines, with
fig trees, pomegranate trees, and date palms. Behind them soared the palace of
Saraph, a towering ziggurat, framed by idols of gold, topped with a great
platinum eye. Before them rose a portico of marble columns, and beyond sprawled
the city of Shayeen, a realm of temples, bathhouses, theaters—a city of
leisure and splendor for the fallen gods of lost Edinnu. The land of Tofet,
where most of the slaves toiled, lay hidden beyond the horizon.

"Tash, darling!" cried
a drunken seraph, waving an empty goblet. "More wine, my dear."

Tash giggled at the
pink-cheeked man, a young lordling from the city garrisons. He lay on a blanket
between the flower beds, his wings spread out around him. He had doffed his
breastplate, and droplets of wine ran down his bare chest. His halo was pale in
the sunlight, barely visible; it had been fading with every cup.

"Tash!" he cried to
her. "Wine!"

She swayed toward him,
deftly making her way between the other seraphim in the garden, dodging their
reaching hands. Harps played, the peonies and jasmines rustled, and marble statues
of cherubim pissed water into koi ponds. When Tash reached the drunken seraph,
she poured him more wine from her jug. As the crimson liquid flowed, he reached
out and pinched her soft flesh. She squealed as she had been taught, feigning

"There's wine spilled
on my chest!" said the lordling.

Tash stroked the seraph's
long golden hair. "Let me drink it, my lord."

She leaned down, stared
up into his eyes, and licked the wine from his chest. Across the gardens, the
other seraphim saw and hooted. The young lord pulled her head up, and he kissed
her roughly, his tongue seeking, and she kissed him back.

When I serve them
here, I do not bear a yoke across my shoulders,
she thought.
I do not
cry in agony as flaming whips tear into my skin. I do not suffer in the desert,
breaking my back under baskets of bricks. So let me service these lords and
ladies, for the day I can no longer bring pleasure . . . there will be nothing
for me but pain.

As she left the
lordling to his cup, making her way toward another seraph, Tash fingered the
iron collar around her neck. Perhaps she wore no yoke, no chains, no burlap.
But like all Vir Requis slaves, six hundred thousand of them here in this cruel
southern empire, she wore the collar.

Tash winced. The curse
of Requiem.

Ancient runes were
engraved into the collar, keeping her magic at bay—the magic of starlight.
Once, Tash knew, hundreds of years ago when the Vir Requis had lived free, they
could summon the magic of the Draco constellation. In their land of Requiem,
they could grow wings and scales, breathe fire, and take to the sky as dragons.
They had been a mighty nation, a kingdom of magic, starlight, and dragonfire.

But those days had

The cruel Ishtafel had
crushed Requiem, felled the marble halls, slaughtered a million souls, and
brought the rest here to captivity. Tash could feel the magic inside her; she
had been feeling it all her life. Yet it tingled just beyond her reach, the
collar's dark magic forever imprisoning the dragon inside her. And so she
remained a human—a young, slender woman with quick hands, a quick tongue, a
quick mind. A woman who would forever serve her masters, who would never find
her sky.

"Sweetness!" called
another seraph, a soldier with flowing blond hair and gleaming eyes, the pupils
shaped as starbursts. He patted his lap. "Come, little one. Sit! Feed me

As she made her way
toward him, Tash raised her eyes and gazed at the sky. They said that in
Requiem far in the north, the sky had been a thing of many colors—sometimes
golden, sometimes deep blue and purple, sometimes strewn with clouds in all the
colors of fire. But here in the south, in the empire of Saraph, the sky was
always a cruel pale blue, almost white, the sun large and viscious. A sky she
would never reach. The seraphim had wings of feathers, and Tash had wings
too—the leathern wings of a dragon, hidden inside her, forever bound deep
within. Wings that could never spread wide, never glide upon the wind.

I still dream of
you, Requiem,
she thought, looking up toward that sky.
I still pray to
find your sky.

She had reached the
seraph, and she had just settled down on his lap when the chanting rose from
the city and the sky burned.

"Remember Requiem!
Remember Requiem!"

Six hundred thousand
voices crying out as one.

"Requiem!" they cried. "May
our wings forever find your sky!"

Across the garden, the
seraphim froze.

Tash leaped off the
soldier's lap. Her entire body trembled.

"Remember Requiem!"
rose the chant from beyond the palace gardens. "Remember Requiem!"

The seraphim leaped to
their feet. Drunkenly, they spread their wings and soared into the sky, their
cups—and Tash—forgotten. The gardens shook as the chant kept rolling.

"Remember Requiem!"

Tash could barely

She ran, leaping across
the grass and over fallen mugs and puddles of wine. She raced up a staircase
and onto the marble wall that framed the gardens. Heart thrashing, she gazed
upon Shayeen, the City of Kings, the capital of Saraph.

Stars above . . .

Thousands of slaves—
of thousands—were marching through the city, raising candles, chanting for
Requiem. The slaves of Tofet—heads shaven, ankles hobbled, backs striped,
necks collared. They marched together, calling out for freedom, and at their
lead walked a tall slave, a woman in burlap, her head shaved.

The woman had a halo
and swan wings.

Tash narrowed her eyes.

A seraph slave?

"Meliora!" the marching
slaves cried. "Meliora the Merciful!"

Tash gasped and covered
her mouth.


Tash narrowed her eyes.
As the procession of slaves marched closer to the palace, Tash got a closer
look. She had seen the Princess of Saraph before, daughter of Queen Kalafi.
Many times, walking through the palace to a lord or lady's chamber, Tash had
paused to kneel before the princess. Gone was Meliora's long golden hair. Gone was
her muslin kalasiri dress strewn with gemstones. Gone were her cosmetics, her
jewels, her aura of youth and health. But even marching along the city
boulevard, barefoot, ankles shackled, head shaved—Meliora had the same noble
face, the same halo, the same sunburst eyes.

"Meliora the Merciful!"
cried the slaves.

Tash stood on the
garden wall, the wind billowing her harem pants, watching as her
people—myriads of Vir Requis in chains—chanted for freedom. She watched as a
leader rose among them, Princess Meliora, daughter of the queen of Saraph,
daughter of a common slave—a leader who shouted for Requiem.

Hope rises.

And Tash watched, eyes
damp, as the wrath of Saraph descended from the sky.

The firehorses galloped
across the sky, their brimstone hooves like thunder, their flaming wings
spreading wide. Behind them streamed the chariots of fire, and within them the
seraphim shone. Thousands of the deities, cast out from Edinnu, covered the

And above them all he
rose—King Ishtafel. The lord of Saraph, the blood of his slain mother still on
his lips. The destroyer of Requiem. The cruel god of light. He flew in a
chariot of fire, his wings spread wide, and from the city she ascended—Meliora,
transfigured into a dragon of silver and gold, her scales gleaming like pearls,
feathers ruffling upon her wings and tail. She blasted white flames, a dragon
of light, a savior of Requiem, and Ishtafel plunged toward her, wreathed in
fire and brimstone.

Tash watched, tears on
her cheeks, as Ishtafel drove his spear into the feathered dragon, as Meliora
lost her magic, as she fell in human form. She watched, weeping, as Ishtafel
pulled the bleeding Meliora onto the palace balcony far above the gardens, as
his sword lashed, as the blade cut through Meliora's swan wings.

Requiem fell. Hope fell.

And with hope fell the
wings—gliding, almost peaceful, their white feathers stained red. The severed
wings of a seraph, of Meliora's lost divinity. The wings glided down and landed
at Tash's feet. Above her, on the balcony, Ishtafel roared to the crowd and
Meliora screamed no more.

Tash's heart seemed to
shatter within her.

Trembling, the screams
washing across her, Tash lifted a fallen feather—a long white feather from
Meliora's wing. A piece of the savior.

As the sky burned, Tash
fled the gardens. Feather clutched to her chest, she ran into the ziggurat. She
raced along gleaming corridors, jeweled columns at her sides. She bounded down
stairways, plunging deeper and deeper underground, entering the bowels of the
city, the shadowy underworld where few seraphim ventured. Yet the screams still
echoed above—echoed in her ears, over and over. The screams of the dying, of
thousands of her people falling to the spears of the seraphim, those seraphim
Tash served.

Tears blinded her.

My people die yet I
flee into shadow. They march for freedom yet I burrow underground.

The grief, the terror,
the guilt tore at her, and her heart thrashed, and her head spun.

BOOK: Crown of Dragonfire
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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