Home > Of Blood and Fire

Of Blood and Fire
Author: Jennifer Jenkins

Chapter 1

   Natalia D’Angelo didn’t escape the guards of her work camp until her ninety-first full moon as a slave. She and her accomplice—a sass-mouth everyone called Bones—raced through the field separating the mussel farm where they lived and worked toward the gates of the city surrounding Sultan Henon Zahhak’s palace. The white sage and bleached sand of the ground reflected the moonlight, casting too much light on their journey. She kept glancing over her shoulder to make certain Bones wasn’t left behind. She’d already lost one little brother due to her own negligence; she refused to lose another.

   “Doesn’t it feel like we’re heading in the wrong direction?” Bones asked, when they stopped to rest their bare feet. “You’d think we’d run away from the palace.”

   Natalia rolled her eyes, trusting the moonlight to show Bones just how ridiculous she thought him to be. “I told you not to come, Bones. Try for your own escape.”

   He set his jaw, but a corner of his lip hitched just enough for Natalia to see the ever-present smirk on his face. His was a mouth that had earned him more than one beating but was also the only thing, along with his friendship, that had kept Natalia from being swallowed by despair. “You wouldn’t last an hour without me, Gnat.”

   The nickname came the first day Natalia had stepped off the slave ship that brought her and her parents to these nightmarish shores. Before the guards had separated her from her parents when they stepped off the boat, Natalia’s mother had cast a spell manipulating her appearance. To everyone around her, even Bones, she appeared to be just another half-starved young man in the slave camp. This was her lie. Her secret. The key to her own survival, according to her mother. But if someone were to see the binding flattening her chest or have some other reason to learn the truth of her identity, the spell would break along with the illusion that she wasn’t a young man at all.

   And so, she was a Gnat: a scrawny, worthless young man in the eyes of the sultan’s guard. A young man not strong enough to work the Pit where the majority of the men in Zahhak’s camp lived and often died.

   “Ready?” she asked, looking to her friend as she rubbed at a spot in the center of her chest.

   “As ready as a calf for the branding stick,” Bones said with yet another grin.

   Three years ago, when all of the boys from her area of the work camp were transferred to the Pit for hard labor, she and Bones had been the only “boys” not to pass the physical requirements. By eighteen, the boys she’d shared a slave tent with had all surpassed her in height and weight, and she appeared small by comparison. It had been harder and harder to conceal her identity as a woman, even with the help of the spell her mother had placed on her before they arrived.

   She remembered the physical trial as though it happened that morning . . .

   “The runt won’t last,” one guard had said to another as Natalia lay panting on the ground, her vision tilting.

   “Put him in the next wagon,” the other guard agreed.

   The boys in the children’s work camp often whispered about the wagons behind their dirt-caked hands. They were thought to be mythical chariots that carried the unfortunate to the land of death and shadow. The only people who went in wagons were the sick, the dying, or the insubordinate. In her eyes, the wagon was merely a vehicle to her own grave.

   When she and Bones had been forced up into the covered wagon after failing the physical test, she hadn’t been certain why the driver brought them to work with the old men. Looking back, it seemed as though the driver changed track at some point along the journey after traveling at least a mile in one direction, the wagon had simply turned a full circle and taken a road in another direction. When the driver was questioned, he explained orders that the “runts” were to be “worked to death with the Silvers.”

   Natalia and Bones had labored among the elderly ever since, harvesting snails and mussels in the banks of the Tamar River just south of the Sultan’s own palace, careful not to bring attention to their youth, and accepting the miracle as a gift from Dio rather than questioning it any further. They took on the role of nurse and caretaker of their little band of old men not long after arriving.

   But she couldn’t live in the shadow of the palace for seven years and not learn what happened to her parents. There was simply too much she had to make right. Too much to be ashamed of to spend her life rotting in a river farming for mussels.

   Bones reached the stone wall surrounding the palace first and clasped his hands to give her a boost up. “You’ll have to take it at a run. The wall’s higher than we expected.” Up until now, she and Bones had only seen it from a distance.

   “You sure you can handle my weight?” Natalia asked, raising a brow.

   Bones snickered. “Perhaps we ought to ditch this plan you’ve been cookin’ up since the day we first met and quit.”

   Natalia had been poised to run, but froze. Their banter had been hiding the reality of what they were doing, but now she couldn’t ignore just how perilous, even foolhardy, their undertaking was. “Bones. You know how dangerous this is, right? Your family might not even be here.”

   Bones gestured for her to get moving, but Natalia refused to move. “Bones.”

   “Your father works in stone, Gnat. We know he’s likely inside with the rest of the craftsmen slaves. Your mother will be in there, too.”

   “Yes. My family. Not yours. You know my family will claim you as their own, but a new family can’t erase the pain of losing your own.” Natalia knew that hard truth all too well.

   The truth was, Bones’ only family was his older brother whom he hadn’t seen since traveling on the ship. He could be at any of the sultan’s work camps, assuming he’d even survived this long.

   “You are my family, Gnat. Whatever we do, we do together, remember?” Natalia rubbed at the heat welling up in her chest again, refusing to let her fear cloud her vision or her resolve. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Let’s do this.” Then she ran toward Bones, placing one of her bare feet in his hands just as he launched her up the wall. She caught the stone ledge with barely more than the tips of her fingers, but years of working with her hands made for strong fingers. She adjusted her grip then swung a leg up onto the stone wall to climb the rest of the way until she lay flat, looking out over the inner courtyard to ensure the way was clear.

   The courtyard surrounding the palace sat in shadow compared to the glowing opulence of the white-stoned palace. Several rooms carried the flicker of candlelight, indicating they weren’t the only people awake at this late hour. She didn’t worry so much for the black-robed guards who worked the sultan’s slaves during the day. No, the guards would never expect a slave to run toward danger. The real threat were the priestesses who made up Zahhak’s personal enforcers.

   Natalia had never seen one of the women known in the camp as a “priestess” but she’d heard about their ability to wield black magic. She didn’t know enough to really even understand what that meant. In her mind, all magic was black, but the priestesses were feared for the pain and torment they could inflict with it, especially the High Priestess known as the Serpent. Natalia rubbed at the nagging heat in her chest again which seemed to burn more as her emotions intensified. “All clear!” she whisper-shouted as she reached down to help him.

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