Home > Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire #1)

Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire #1)
Author: Grace Draven

PART ONE

EMPIRE

CHAPTER ONE

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’ 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—many of whom had come to attend the Rites of Spring—as it squeezed its way into the city’s confines. 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.

Hot Series
» Unfinished Hero series
» Colorado Mountain series
» Chaos series
» The Young Elites series
» Billionaires and Bridesmaids series
» Just One Day series
» Sinners on Tour series
» Manwhore series
» This Man series
» One Night series
Most Popular
» Phoenix Unbound (Fallen Empire #1)
» Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating
» Royally Yours (Royally #4)
» I Bet You (The Hook Up #2)
» A Brand New Ending (Stay #2)
» Shades of Wicked (Night Rebel #1)
» Medicine Man
» Dangerous Exes (Liars, Inc. #2)