The Fire Empire
First Day of the Red Moon Festival.
The streets of the Capital were crowded with people from all over the country, as they all gathered towards the Palace to celebrate. For the Fire Empire, the Red Moon Festival was one of the biggest celebrations of the year, the one that was held to show off their power and wealth to the neighboring kingdoms. Every rich person in the Country waited for that day to show off their wealth and those who weren’t as prosperous found tactics to pretend to be.
Warriors in shiny armors, Officials in pretty carriages, Women covered in jewelry and even children in their best attires. If one had any assets, he was to expose it or hide in shame, for power was everything in the Fire Empire.
In the middle of the crowd, were those no one noticed, those no one cared about, following their masters, eyes stuck on the grounds.
Lines of slaves, following the caravans of their master in a pitiful silence. Walking like shadows, only heard by the clatter their chains and shackles made with every step.
However, a young woman among them didn’t have her eyes down. Hers were fixated on the blinding gold of the palace’s roof.
The Palace, heaven’s place to rest on earth. People of the Capital may be rich, powerful, but no matter what, the one standing above them all was the Dragon Emperor.
Sovereign to all, the Emperor was almighty, a living deity among mortals. With unrivaled power, he governed the country with an iron hand. No matter what, his words were law. The Dragon Emperor never wanted anything, for everything in the country was his. He was loved, feared and worshiped by his people.
And on this Red Moon Festival, the holy gates of the Imperial Palace would open to the worthy. Red envelopes had been sent 10 days prior, and people would kill to see the Palace Envoy deliver it at their door.
The slave girl had seen her master thrive and pray for this letter to arrive on his doorstep. He was an old minister, but even his seat at the court could not guarantee this red letter would come. He was so stressed out he had been even worse to his entourage than he usually was. To his concubines, his servants, even his slaves.
She even had a fresh scar on her back attesting to that. She could still feel the burn of the whip...
But the letter had come, and on the First Day of the Red Moon Festival, the old man was headed to the palace in an expensive-looking carriage, with seven of his favorite concubines sharing other carriages with servants, and about thirty slaves walking behind them.
The young maiden didn’t care for all the festivities outside. They walked past nice smelling food stalls that painfully awoke empty stomachs. Hers was just as empty, but she did not care. She was used to it. She ignored the shops, the foods, the common people admiring their procession, and walked along.
As usual, the minister was welcomed to the palace, casually discussed with his peers about the coming events of the Festival, and showed off his young and beautiful concubines. For commoners, who could not enter the Palace, the Festival took place in celebrations in rich people's houses, or street shows and fairs. But for the chosen ones, many great events and shows were to be displayed in the Palace’s Grand Arena. The large plaza, built like a Colosseum, was big enough to sit a few thousand people. A tenth of it was isolated, a special box facing south and more richly decorated to welcome the Dragon Emperor and his attendants.
The slave girl had only heard about it. In the large Arena, heavenly dances, champion races, warrior fights, display of mythical and bizarre creatures, elite performers… Anything that could not be witnessed by common mortals was to be displayed for the Emperor and the most honorable guests of the Palace during the seven days of the Festival. But she didn’t care at all.
During the three first days, she followed her master, attending one of the concubines at usual. She didn’t witness any of the shows, staying in the chambers to clean or wait for orders. She didn’t talk to others.
But on the fourth day, the minister’s concubine suddenly sent her to be locked in a cold cage along with other slaves. They were simply told they had been taken from their masters to be given as offerings for the Emperor. The young woman stayed there for three more days, with no idea what was coming next.
On the morning of the seventh day, every guest was holding their breath.
The last day of the Festival was the only day where, along with the Emperor, all of the Six Dragon Princes had to be present. For anyone attending, this was a once in a year opportunity to witness the whole imperial family together, as none of the Princes lived in the Palace.
No one could tell which one of these young men would succeed the Dragon Emperor. He had favorites, but no official heir for now. From the firstborn to the youngest, each Prince could one day get to rule the Empire.
Choosing which one to support and please was the hardest question.
But, even more importantly, the Seventh Day was the only day where the guests could see all of the Imperial Dragons. The sacred beasts, feared by all, the most important symbol of the power of the Fire Empire.
Though the Golden Dragon of the Fire Emperor could be seen occasionally in the Palace, every guest was waiting for the astonishing sight of all the Imperial Dragons gathered in one place.
And as they started arriving one by one in the Grand Arena, each Prince was accompanied by a Dragon. Three of them came from the sky, flying their steads, but the others directly entered the Arena by walking, their Dragons behind them. The sight of the enormous scaled beasts frightened most of the assistance, yet they could not bear to take their eyes off it. Each beast was at least eight times the size of a man, up to twelve or thirteen times for the largest of them. Two of the Dragons were brought in cages, and the others were only chained or muzzled. For each, three to ten servants came to guard them. Only one Dragon was let completely free and unattended, with only a chain collar around his neck, though he followed is master closely like an obedient dog. Leaving them in the Arena, the Princes took one after another their seats, all aligned on a broad platform beneath the Emperor’s Throne.
As the crowd chatted about the six beautiful creatures displayed in the Arena, some of the Emperor’s sons started talking as well. The fifth Prince was bragging about how he had pleaded to their father to have a minister’s concubine the previous day, and the Emperor had let him behead the old man for him to have them all.
“How many did you get in the end, Brother?” Asked the second Prince with a sneer
“Thirty. But I don’t need that many… I will only take the most beautiful of them!”
“How generous of you…” Muttered the fourth Prince, looking bored
“How about you leave some beauties for our Third and Sixth Brothers?” Said the second Prince. “They have yet to take any woman in.”
“Not all of us need that much company, Brother.” Grumbled the youngest Prince
They all waited to hear their Third Brother’s reaction, but only a long silence came. He was the one who had come mounting the unrestrained Dragon. But the enormous beast obediently stood still and the Prince’s obsidian eyes were set on the Arena, ignoring his siblings completely. So, they stopped chatting and followed his gaze.
A hundred feet beneath them, a young man was introducing the upcoming show, first of the day: an offering to the Imperial Dragons. Behind him, a large group of people was waiting, surrounded by armed men. Whips would cut the flesh every time a cry was heard, so the crowd remained silent.
They were all condemned to death.
Criminals, war prisoners or slaves, each of them was to die that day. Some of the slaves present formerly belonged to that old Minister. As their master had died, the people of the palace had just decided to get rid of them along with other slaves that had been offered as tributes for that very day.
Among them was a young slave with emerald-green eyes. She had just turned seventeen this winter, but definitely had the traits and charms of a woman. She was like a jewel among charcoal, beautiful despite the dust and dirt on her. She had very pale skin and was so thin you could see some of her bones drawn underneath. Her long disheveled hair fell on her shoulder to her hips like a waterfall. Her face was beautiful, in a diamond shape with a small nose and thin cheeks. Because of the cold, her lips had taken a light pink shade, and she was shivering. Also, she had an injury on her temple, with ecchymosis and a cut covered by dry blood, where one of the guards had hit her earlier, while they were pushing them into the Arena.
She was called Cassandra.