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The Snake Charmer’s


Prequel to A Dragon’s Guide to Destiny

C.M. Barrett

Rainbow Dragon Press

Copyright (c) 2017 by C.M. Barrett


All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.


Rainbow Dragon Press

Cover design by Mnsartstudio via


My son, the Guardian of Oasis, has asked me to write a memoir.

“You’d inspire today’s youth with your heroic deeds, and they might cease their lazy and self-indulgent behavior and become worthwhile citizens.”

His request to make my private life public irritated me. I told him that if I hadn’t spent the first part of my youth in a remote Etrenzian village training to become a snake charmer and the second part as a harem slave in Tamaras, I, too, would have taken every opportunity to indulge myself.

He stormed out of my house, and I don’t blame him. I haven’t even written the memoir, and I’m already lying.

I wouldn’t have taken a single opportunity to indulge myself. My father had so thoroughly trained me in the superiority of mind over base emotions and sensations that I considered self-indulgence a criminal act. And I convinced an entire country to agree with me.

They have suffered for it, and so have I.

If I do write a memoir, it will be in the hope of undoing some of the damage I did. My Last Testament (which my son knows nothing about) will have some effect, but an honest account of at least my early life may also help by dispelling the mystique of my heroism.

Oasis can expect no lectures thinly disguised as the story of my greatness. I don’t intend to write about Zena, Heroine of the Revolution. The truth is not quite so magnificent.

“Oh, yes, it is.”

I ask D’zara what gives her the right to read over my shoulder.

“You might be writing about me in your memoir.”

“This is not my memoir, and I haven’t yet agreed to write it.”

She sighs. D’zara has a full range of sighs for my behavior, but her favorite is the exasperated, “I know you better than you know yourself,” version. In the early days, I heard it every time I doubted myself, which was so often that she regularly got a healthy dose of oxygen in her blood.

“Because you always deny that you were heroic, you need to remind yourself by writing the memoir. Besides, the people have the right to know the truth.”

“The people do not; it’s nowhere in the Constitution. I know because I wrote it.”

Once D’zara gets a conviction between her teeth, she acts like one of those little dogs so popular in Tamaras that growl and snarl if you try to take away a treasured toy.

First, she pretends to compromise. “You could insist that it not be published until after your death.”

“Or read,” I say, knowing she’ll have her hands on it before my flesh has cooled, if not sooner. However, I can prevent that. I made a binding spell for the Last Testament. It won’t be found until this country has matured enough to understand and adopt its principles, and only the person best suited to present it to the people will discover it. That may happen hundreds of years from now.

I’ll do the same with the memoir. D’zara will curse me while I’m living, and she’ll try to find it, but I never taught her the sorcerer’s methods. In the Etrenzian tradition, a parent passes such magic only to a chosen family member. I chose my granddaughter, to my son’s eternal annoyance.

D’zara, sensing my partial surrender, pushes on for full victory. “Don’t you want people to know you were more than the Founder’s wife and helpmeet?”

She never forgave me for marrying him. “After I’m dead, I won’t care what people think of me. People know who ran Oasis after Nathan’s death, and many know who really ran Oasis before he died. I’d be more interested in correcting some of the misconceptions about the slavery days.”

“Not so much lies as exaggerations,” she says. “We both know that you didn’t march out of your miserable village determined to become the heroine of your people. And you weren’t nearly the sex slave that the tabloids make you out to have been. You prove my point. The truth will help those who feel they can’t accomplish great things because they aren’t fearless and selfless like the immortal Zena. Maybe they’d appreciate knowing that you were more like them.”

Sometimes D’zara reminds me of a scorpion. Her stings are poisonous and painful. This barb has embedded itself in my tender pride. I don’t want to be known as the ultimate heroine, but I also don’t want to be remembered as Zena the Cowardly, who sometimes thought she would soil her pants with terror.

I was that Zena.

However, clever D’zara has provided me with a compelling reason for writing a memoir. If I hope for great leaders to continue the work I began, maybe they need to know that leaders can be as uncertain and fearful as any other human being.

That possibility resigns me to the knowledge that the only way for me to have any peace will be to write the damned thing. I give in.

D’zara is too wise to show her satisfaction. “Where will you begin? I think it should be the day everything changed.”

“That was the worst day of my life.”

“That’s why you should start there.”

“All right. Now go away. I want to write in peace.”

But peace does not live in these memories.

Chapter 1

The Tamarans were coming. For years they’d raided both Etrenzia and neighboring Dolocairn to feed their appetite for slaves and raw material, but now they aimed for total conquest.

Though high mountains protected Dolocairn, the Tamarans had virtually conquered them. For weeks, tribal drums had sent stories of slaughter and slavery—and a surprising degree of struggle. Those soft, fleshy people who worshipped dragons and mysterious priestesses had put up a better fight than we’d expected. In the end only the sheer numbers of the Tamaran army defeated them.

Now the army expected to defeat us, and almost everyone knew that they would. Although the gods we worshipped were as harsh and fierce as Etrenzian warriors, and we were much tougher than our neighbors, we were both fewer in number and lacking the protection their mountains had given them.

The village leaders had decided that we should hide in nearby caves. It would mean sharing those spaces with fire dragons, who threatened us less than the prospect of defeat in open battle.

Because I was a year short of eighteen, the age of adulthood when people could speak their minds, I kept my opinions to myself. Still, I thought that hiding would only delay the inevitable defeat. No one was talking about the possibility that they might find our caves. If they didn’t, we’d inevitably run out of food and haul our starving selves outside.

We’d already heard that the Tamarans had great patience for waiting out sieges (probably because they were so lazy that doing nothing had great appeal for them). They could easily rest for a few weeks, and by the time we emerged, we’d be in no condition to defend ourselves. They’d either kill us or make us slaves.

My father and a few other elders nurtured the delusion that all the Etrenzians who hid in caves would re-emerge to form a great army that would overwhelm the Tamaran army. I thought goats would fly first.

Still, I did my assigned work, hauling basket after basket of lentils, rice, and other foods into the caves. When we were finished, people began to file inside, but I couldn’t go in there without bathing.

Although desert air produces little sweat, and we are for the most part an odorless people (if you don’t count pungent spices and proximity to goats), any smell reminded me that I had a body, and I preferred to forget that. If I was going to die today, I wanted to die clean.

My mother, who was used to my peculiarities, gave me permission with reluctance. “Be quick about it, Zena. We roll back the stone soon.”

I knew they would whether or not I returned in time. Disobedient children were obliged to fend for themselves, even against vast armies.

I ran to a secluded stretch of the river, stripped, and plunged into the water, still cool from the mountain snow that fed it. The village, an oasis, never experienced drought, but like all Etrenzians, the people saved every fresh drop of rain and recycled every used drop of water. Only in the river could I stop worrying about wastefulness.

I floated, paddling a little, feeling small fish brush against my legs, and tried, as my father had taught me, to take in the hugeness of this eternal moment. I succeeded for only seconds at a time before that part of my brain attuned to danger took over.

What would I do if they captured me? A knife lay hidden in a pocket of my trousers. Etrenzian women died before they submitted to rape or imprisonment. If the Tamarans found our hiding places, many of them would also die.

Maybe my father would conjure up a miracle. Although I, like all Etrenzians, valued reason and logic I also believed in magic, knowing that when practiced by a calm mind, it worked on scientific principles.

At that moment, mine was not a calm mind. Floating in the river, I looked up at the sky. It had never appeared so huge nor the distant mountains so like the sharp teeth of a murderous grin. I was alone and unprotected in an immense world. No miracles seemed imminent. Fear washed over me with more force than the water. I needed to be with my parents right away.

I got out of the river and dressed, making sure to put on my protective amulet. When I tried to run to the cave, my feet wouldn’t move. I wondered in panic whether one of the tiny and highly poisonous river snakes had bitten me. That would be a painful way to die.

I was searching for the possible puncture when my head spun around, and I saw an enormous red dragon on the other side of the river. His equally red eyes held mine with the kind of hypnotic stare we used on the snakes when we charmed them.

In my mind, I heard my mother calling my name and saw the cave entrance sealed by a boulder. I tried to lift my feet again, but they remained frozen. I glared at the dragon, who moved his jaws in a frightening parody of a smile. For the first time, I realized how helpless those hypnotized snakes must have felt.

“Let me go!” I screamed. “The army is coming!”

Instead, he breathed out fire. Its searing fragrance must have fried my brain because my thoughts turned dark, like the smoke of our sacred sage. The tableau of my desert home faded, and I tumbled into the vortex of a sandstorm, a swirling funnel of blackness. I may have cried out.

The funnel spat me out into a place with tall towers, walls, and the odors of countless people. I knew this must be Tamtown, a place I never wanted to see, but there I was, leading countless people who waved hoes and scythes and shouted, “Freedom!”

I shuddered awake from this nightmare.

“Just let me go, please. I’ll make a deal with you. Release my feet, and if the Tamarans come into the cave, I’ll kill as many as I can. You can eat the bodies if it’s on your diet.”

The dragon made a gagging noise and then pointed a very long claw at me. My stomach burned, and I felt that if I opened my tunic, I would see a small wound there. I rubbed the spot furiously and was about to resume the argument when he turned around and moved with surprising speed across the desert. His footsteps were so loud that I thought I was still hearing them long after he’d disappeared.

I was wrong. When I turned around, I saw the advance troops of the Tamaran Army.

“Shit,” I said and gripped the handle of my knife.

I stood there, one small, young woman facing an army of thousands. The odds were far worse than in my recent dragon-inspired nightmare, but if I could kill even one of them, I wouldn’t die in shame.

I lunged forward, and they laughed at me. A tall soldier grabbed me and seized the knife.

“Nice metalwork,” he said.

Like most Etrenzians, I understood both Dolocairner and Tamaran, but I pretended that I didn’t.

“Be careful,” said another soldier, one who appeared to be in command. “It might be cursed. They’re all witches, these Tamarans. Where are the rest of your people, girl?”

I looked at him blankly, and he repeated the question in the primary Etrenzian dialect.

“I don’t know,” I said. Although my people punished dishonesty within the tribe, lying to the enemy could be no crime. “I was visiting relatives in another village. No one was here when I returned. I was afraid that you’d already come through and captured them.”

“We’ve been busy raping and pillaging elsewhere.”

I hoped they were tired of raping, but the first soldier looked at me with hot, dirty eyes. Oh, to gouge them out of his stupid face.

“Who gets her?”

The commander knocked off the other’s cap. “You’ll keep your hands off her. The Emperor goes crazy for those skinny black Etrenzians.”

“Don’t know why. I’d do her because it’s been a few days, but I prefer those Dolocairner women, all white and creamy with enough fat to keep their bones from gouging you. They should have left us a few instead of sending them all back to Tamaras.”

“Tell the Emperor,” the man in command said. “I’m sure he’ll be very eager to hear your opinions before he sends you to the dungeon. Meanwhile, this girl is going back to Tamtown with the shipment we’re picking up from K’zan.”

I vowed to escape that night.

They split off, the main body of soldiers invading the village, where they would loot and destroy. I hoped everyone was in the caves.

I was sent with the smaller party, which marched until dark. Then they put me in an empty tent without bothering to cuff or chain me and threw in a dirty goat skin that must have traveled the length of Etrenzia and been pissed on a hundred times. I wrapped myself in it and shivered in the desert chill. The body heat of hundreds of people would make it warmer in the caves—if the soldiers hadn’t found the villagers.

If they had, they could get lost in the many passageways, narrow and twisting, some leading to dead ends, and some leading to death. The Tamarans wouldn’t know where the poisonous snakes nested. I hoped that they would sink their fangs into much foreign flesh.

I wouldn’t allow myself to imagine the bodies of my father, mother, and brothers. Every Etrenzian child learned mind control at an early age, and I, the daughter of a witch and snake charmer, had learned better than most. I couldn’t waste time in self-indulgence. I would need my strength for the escape.

Despite my determination, one cold tear trailed down my cheek. I wiped it away. My family would survive, and I would see them soon.

It got very quiet during the middle of the night. I crept towards the entrance of the tent and saw no one. Probably a sentry stood on duty, but if I could get past him, I could make my way back home.

I knew where to find water and which plants were edible. I would get a sharp stick to use as a spear and cover myself with the dung of a mountain cat to prevent one from viewing me as prey. If I moved quickly, I could be halfway home by early dawn.

Slowly I moved outside, walking very low to the ground, as a hunter would. The sentry was at the other end of the camp. I dropped into a crawl, aiming for a large pile of boulders fifty yards away. My goal was very close when a pair of arms encircled me.

“You Etrenzians always try to escape. You got further than most.”

He hauled me over his shoulder, dumped me inside the tent, and tied my hands together with coarse rope. “If you try it again, I’ll kill you.”

At that moment, I didn’t see the point in being a strong, emotionless Etrenzian, so I lay on the filthy hide and wept myself to sleep.

Chapter 2

The next day, the army met troops marching out from K’zan with a contingent of male and female slaves. We were all chained together by the wrists and forced to march in the blazing desert sun. The soldiers paid us little attention, and we spoke quietly in the local dialect.

“Do you know what happened to your village?” one woman asked.

I had decided to trust no one until I knew them much better, so I repeated the story of being away. This lie also saved me from having to admit that a big red dragon had kept me from going to the caves.

That night, when the army stopped to rest, I shared a tent with some of the K’zanian women. We were unchained, but guards surrounded the tent.

“Do you know anything about what’s going to happen to us?” I asked.

“Sexual slavery for those of us who are good-looking,” D’zara, a woman of my age, said.

“I’m a virgin.“

“And we’ve lost a war. Virginity is sometimes the first casualty.”

I didn’t plan to surrender mine easily, though. The next morning, as we shuffled along the hard clay road, I reviewed my assets.

My father had trained me extensively in both magic and herbology. I had no idea of how they might prevent sexual slavery, but I knew of herbs that could induce either impotence or sexual indifference. I’d heard that Tamaras had a lush, wet climate that encouraged the growth of plants. Maybe I’d discover some useful additions to my repertoire.

More important, I had to stay strong. I had no faith in the dragon’s-breath hallucination of myself leading enraged mobs, but escape might be possible if I didn’t give in to despair, if I focused my mind to keep from become a mental slave. I would be an army of one.

That meant practicing. I decided to begin at once. I mentally closed off my awareness of unwashed bodies and the dusty road and the low-pitched muttering around me. My inward senses opened.

I seek guidance. Our people are scattered or dead. Many will enter slavery, I among them. Intelligence teaches us that we can use adversity to create victory. Show me how.

Great Intelligence wasn’t always prompt about returning messages, and I didn’t get an answer for two days.

Center your mind daily. Pay attention to everything. Be open to all opportunities. Release all emotional attachments when they arise.

To anything? Anyone?

Release all emotional attachments.

I’d like to say that this final directive gave me no trouble, but I’ve sworn to tell the truth here.

“Disgusting climate,” a Tamaran guard complained. “Dust and dirt and clay like stone. My feet are killing me. This country was hardly worth conquering.”

“And those damned Etrenzians put up too much of a fight,” another guard said.

“At least we didn’t have to climb any mountains,” the first guard said. “We lost a lot of men because of those avalanches. And dragons, those big white ones. We killed a few, but they were vicious.”

“Braver than the Etrenzian ones. We never saw them at all.”

I grew hot with rage. No, all they did was blow smoke and project deluded visions.

I tried to pull back the anger, but I found myself shooting it at the guards, some of the more doltish looking Etrenzian male slaves, and the world in general. My father would have called this a lesson to teach me that I needed to practice with more focus.

My father. My mother.

I couldn’t release my emotional attachments.

The scenery changed, tawny sands and red rocks yielding to patches of green so bright it hurt my eyes. Each day was a little cooler, each night a little warmer. Day or night, tiny insects I learned to call mosquitoes feasted on us.

And the dampness! It settled in my chest, a cloud thick with the green that even filled the air. I knew that because the stuff that I coughed out of my lungs was the ugly color of olives.

The guards let out cheers as we crossed the border. I turned around for what might be my last look at my country, but the desert had disappeared already, overtaken by the creeping green growth of Tamaras. The reality of my slavery suffocated me almost as thoroughly as the thick, poisonous air.

Now both days and nights were cold, and the captured girls huddled together in the tent for warmth. D’zara slept by my side, and one night she kissed me.

“What’s this?” It seemed unhygienic.

“Didn’t women in your village ever become lovers?”

“Not even men and women became lovers before marriage.“

“You expect me to believe that?”

I didn’t believe it myself, but I would have waited. I was a very dull girl in the departments of fun, friendship, and romance. My father discovered my gifts when I was five, and my training began immediately. I rarely got to climb the cliffs or play the games other children played. Magic was serious business.

I also didn’t engage in casual flirtations like other girls and boys. “When the time comes, I’ll find you a husband from a line of sorcerers,” my father said. “A family in Q’rash has three gifted young men. I’ll choose one.”

The word “love” went unmentioned. As for sexual urges, I learned the necessity of translating their animal energy into magical power.

I was so repressed that it was a wonder D’zara even found me attractive. The idea that I might be desirable (in all honesty, even that someone would like me) intrigued me, and her lips awoke the first hesitant impulses of a longing that I would try to ignore for decades to come.

I knew better than to give in to it. That would have wrecked my program to stay strong. One kiss had demonstrated how sex could unhinge me, and I had never needed an uncluttered mind more. It was a matter of survival.

Yet I didn’t want to alienate D’zara. If I were to survive in the unfriendly world towards which I was marching, I would need friends. Rather than explain my philosophy of life, I said that I had no interest in rolling on a dirty goatskin inside a tent where six other women also slept, with guards probably listening outside.

“You have a point,” she said. “We’ll wait.”

When we had more time, I would explain that we’d wait forever.

Two weeks after my capture, we saw the bulblike spires of Tamtown. The soldiers, except for those Etrenzians slaves who’d been conscripted into the army, raised yet another series of cheers.

I automatically drew closer to the K’Zanian women. “I hope we’ll see each other again.”

D’zara whispered into my ear. “I’ve been making friends with some of the conscripts. They’ve promised to deliver messages if they can.”

I was irritated with myself for not thinking of something useful like that. So much for Great Intelligence. The big dragon should have chosen D’zara for the thankless task of trying to save the Etrenzian nation.

Tamtown was the first city I’d ever seen. As we filed through the huge bronze gates decorated with dragon reliefs, I gasped at its immensity.

“Is K’zan like this?” I asked D’zara.

“Never. K’zan is a clean and well-designed city with wind tunnels to keep stale air from accumulating. We dispose of all waste as effectively as any villager would. My city is Etrenzian. Tamtown is pure Tamaran. Look at the garbage and shit all over the streets and sidewalks. See how filthy the people are and the stains on their precious marble facades.”

Yes, it was indescribably filthy, but I sensed in the indifference that had created it a kind of arrogance that shouted, “We are the rulers of the world. We can do anything we want.”

I was ashamed that such offal had conquered us, and I cursed the big red dragon’s smoky fantasies of triumph. Anyone who could build this huge, gross city was surely undefeatable.

People lined the streets to jeer at the Etrenzian slaves.


“Sand eaters!”

“Goat fuckers!”

This was my lowest moment so far. How far had I sunk that these dirty, stupid people could insult me without fear of retaliation?

D’zara squeezed my hand, and I glanced at her. She held her chin high, and her eyes had the sharpness of Etrenzian arrowheads.

Those prideful eyes deflated my despair. If she could remain undefeated, I could, too. I would walk with my head held high.

“And they call themselves civilized people,” I muttered.

D’zara nodded. “I’ve heard that they indulge all their senses, eating rich food, having all kinds of sex, and worshipping nothing.”

“You’re saying that they do everything to excess.”

“So I’ve heard, and so far, I’ve seen nothing to contradict this.”

Neither did I. Most of the Tamarans were overweight. The women wore heavy makeup and elaborate gowns that looked as if their cost would have fed an Etrenzian village for a week. They were a nation of soft underbellies. I was ashamed that they had defeated us.

Despair tried to undermine me many times during my years of slavery and often succeeded for days or even weeks at a time. Sometimes the effort of dragging myself back to equilibrium hardly seemed worth it, but always in the end my self-pity disgusted me enough to give me the strength to shed it. If that didn’t work, D’zara’s piercing eyes did the trick. I think she sharpened them every night.

In the town square, where palm trees swayed and marble statues of naked men and women seemed to leer at us, the slaves were divided into groups. Most of them were herded towards the palace, a huge building with columns and more naked statues. They went in, not through the front entrance, but to what looked like an underground area.

Two women from our group were part of that contingent. They grabbed my hands before being herded away, and I realized that, for all my ineptness in the area of friendship, I had somehow grown close to them. I felt as if I were losing the sisters I’d never had before.

“I’ve heard that’s where those who end up as slave laborers go,” D’zara said. “I fear for them, Zena.”

I did, too. This business of slavery had just gotten very personal. It would get worse.

Chapter 3

The remaining six Etrenzian women went to a wing of the palace, entering a large space with soft-looking furnishings, more naked statuary, and curtains that looked like silk. The thickly perfumed air made me cough.

A tall, angular woman appeared. She wore a silk gown of red, a color I had learned to dislike.

“Welcome to the harem. I am Madame Cillenc.” She gave the soldiers who’d brought us there a look of disdain. “These were the best you could find?”

“They keep them on short rations in Etrenzia,” the leader said.

“And I’m sure you did nothing to improve the situation. What about the smell?”


“They must be bathed, and this room must be fumigated.”

I studied her with care. She was haughty and superior acting, as was suitable for the representative of a conqueror. In the eyes surrounded by thick makeup I sensed hardness and cruelty and guessed that her long nails had often raked vulnerable flesh.

We’ll see about you, I thought. I would bide my time and discover the weaknesses of her own flesh and spirit and use them against her without mercy.

I was ready to kill for a bath and change of clothing. I wondered if they had delousing herbs. I followed the others into the tiled bathhouse, where Tamaran slaves waited.

Tamaran traders had often stopped at the oasis to refill their water bags and break their journeys. They were always men, and they were as roughened as Etrenzians by lives spent traveling the desert. In contrast, these female slaves were soft. When I studied their round faces and broad cheekbones, I saw how those features would with time and indulgence become over-ripe and ooze mascara and rouge.

I imagined, though, that men would find them attractive. A pleasing appearance might get you places, even if it had only gotten these women into slavery. They could have ended up dead or working in mines. A clean, tiled bathhouse represented an upgrade.

I was so eager to remove my stinking clothes that I felt little shame about exposing my body. Frankly, there wasn’t much to see.

“Do you speak Tamaran?” Ellura, the slave assigned to me, asked.

I saw no point in continuing my pretense and nodded.

“Good. Some girls don’t, and it goes badly for them. Are you naturally that thin?”

“Not quite. They barely fed us, and it was all overcooked vegetables and burnt rice. We also got considerable exercise marching here.”

She scrubbed me, looking around nervously. “Be careful about complaining. It’s better to keep your head down and not make trouble.”

I nodded. For all I knew, she was a spy. “Is it safe to ask questions?”

“It depends.”

“What’s a harem?”

“You really don’t know?”

The anger that had begun simmering at the moment of my capture flared. “I am from an Etrenzian village. I have heard what a brothel is. We did not have anything called a harem.”

“Then you were fortunate. Unlike a brothel, which is owned by an individual as a commercial enterprise, the harem is owned by the Emperor and is the storage place for sexual playthings. He, of course, gets first pick. He may give less-favored slaves to his friends or someone from whom he wants a favor.”

“Between the slaves from Dolocairn and the Etrenzians, the harem must have gotten crowded.”

She lowered her head. “Only the very best and most beautiful girls ever get chosen, and they rarely last more than a few years. After that, they’re demoted, as I was, or given to some common person like a crew boss or merchant. At the moment, the Emperor is bored with Tamaran girls, and he got rid of most of them.”

“You’re still here.”

Her eyelashes swept her cheeks. “I had the Emperor’s child, which gave me some status. My boy will grow up to become a minor administrator, perhaps in one of the conquered countries. It’s not the worst fate.”

D’zara, foreign-looking in a flowing silk dress of pale green, came over to us. With her hair braided and coiled around her head, she would have looked like an Etrenzian goddess if we’d had such creatures.

This rotting, sensual city, this perfumed bath house, the silky hot water, even the thick bath towel that now covered my body, conspired to scrape away my desert shell to reveal soft flesh that ached for the woman I’d refused in the desert. Never had desire so powerfully consumed me.

D’zara smiled, and I wanted to cover her lips with mine. The ease with which my body was prepared for surrender showed me how dangerous this environment was. I would need to practice constant vigilance. I would become stronger, not weaker.

“Your turn to be dressed,” Ellura said. “Do you like that hairstyle? I can do simple hanging braids instead.”

I was still working on the impulses of my traitorous body. Focus. Center. Be mindful. No, you don’t need a pile of hair on top of your head. “The braids sound fine.”

After arranging my hair, Ellura took me to the small chamber that would be my room. “And I can safely tell you that if you want to invite that other Etrenzian here, no one cares. What goes on between women here is of no interest to the people who run this place.”

“I don’t—“

She laughed. “You Etrenzians are famous for mind control, but you need to do some work on the hunger in your eyes.”

Chapter 4

That evening Ellura led us to a room for dining. “Tonight, you eat only with Etrenzians. Tomorrow, you meet the rest of the girls in the harem.”

I wondered if this would be the only night we got to eat traditional Etrenzian cuisine. Some people think that desert dwellers subsist on whatever can be cooked over an open fire, but in Nathansville our restaurants are very popular.

And our food is the best in the world. Don’t think goats, think spices, cumin and coriander to heat the appetite and many herbs from plants that grow only in the desert. They laugh at us and say we eat insects. Why not? They are abundant and when cooked to a crackling texture and lightly dowsed in a fiery sauce, they taste much better than the bland dishes I’ve eaten in Dolocairner restaurants.

Over the years, as much as I’ve tried to learn appreciation for Tamaran food, I’ve failed. I tell others that it’s too rich for me, but the truth is that its taste always holds the flavor of slavery.

Waiters served us decently cooked rice and lentils, along with a big salad made of vegetables I’d never seen. They tasted as green as they looked, but my senses told me that they were healthy. I had a second helping.

After dinner, Madame Cillenc came into the room and ordered us to stand in a line. She looked at each of us with care, ordering us in the rudest possible way to turn around when she was done examining our frontages.

She tapped my shoulder and then D’zara’s. “You two will remain. The rest of you follow the guard out of the room.”

Ellura had told me that harem slaves lost favor in time, but the women with whom I’d shared conversation, a tent, and a long journey seemed to have instantly lost the chance to gain favor. Would they have the same fate as the other rejected ones: field work, the mines, or worse?

In one day, I, who’d never had friends before, had lost a total of six. I wanted to grip their hands, but Madame Cillenc kept her eyes fixed on mine. I summoned all my mental abilities to maintain a neutral expression.

When we returned to the chambers, Ellura confirmed my fears. “They’ll go to another sorting station. The strongest will go to the mines. No one lasts long there. The marginally attractive women will be sent to the brothels in town. A few may be lucky enough to become domestic slaves. They live longer.”

“We never got to say good-bye to them,” D’zara said.

“I’m sorry,” Ellura said. “I couldn’t warn you in advance.”

“Will we ever see them again?” D’zara asked.

“It’s highly unlikely.”

Ellura left, and I succumbed to despair.

“At least we have each other,” D’zara said.

My vigilance seemed to dissolve when I was close to D’zara. I wanted the comfort of her hands to soften the shards of misery that stabbed me. She pulled off my gown, and the closeness of our bodies built a fire hotter than the breath of a fire dragon. I didn’t want to be the snake charmer’s daughter; I didn’t want my mind to run me; I wanted my body to win this battle.

It might have except that I realized there were many ways to become a slave. I reminded myself that if I let my body imprison me, I would lose all chance at freedom. I moved away from her.

“Why?” D’zara demanded. “I know you want me.”

Still naked, I jumped out of bed and grabbed my silk gown. “Look at this.” I shook it at her. “And this.” I pulled my braids. “On the outside, I’m unrecognizable. All I have left is the power of my mind. I can’t lose that, too.”

I crumpled on the floor, shaking.

D’zara finally understood. “You’re different,” she said slowly. “You’re strong. You don’t know how much I wish right now that you weren’t. But if you weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be attracted to you. Somewhere, some god is laughing at us, and I’d like to kick him in the balls.”

I would have kicked him, too.

She threw on her beautiful green gown. “How great are your powers? Do you think they could help to free us?”

I did not. How could a snake charmer’s daughter from a primitive village conquer a well-armed and powerful (although lazy) nation?

“D’zara I’m not going to lie to you because I’m an Etrenzian, and honesty is one of the few things I have left of who I am. My powers aren’t that strong. The most they can do is help me to escape.”

Her expression turned as fierce as that of a desert hawk. “I’ll settle for escape, but I don’t think one or two people can figure out how to do it. Can we try to find a few other people we can trust?”

Her determination gave me strength. “We can try.”

She pulled at her hair, and the lovely coils tumbled around her shoulders. “I see now that you’re right. We can’t be lovers—and you don’t know how much I hate that—but we’re going to be friends and allies.”

Great Intelligence whispered that friendship counted as an emotional attachment, but I told Great Intelligence to shut up. One day in the harem had confirmed the necessity of friends.

And allies? That was simply logical.

The next morning Ellura woke me early. “You need more bathing. Madame Cillenc said you still smelled last night.”

I made a face.

Ellura, apparently more willing to share secrets in the privacy of my room, said, “Never speak against her when others are around. She has spies everywhere. Working in the mines isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a slave. She has a dozen whips and many torture devices. If she decides she doesn’t like a slave, or if she thinks a slave is getting too much attention from the Emperor, she may do anything.”

“But I thought we’re here to win the Emperor’s attention.”

“You are, and you must succeed, but if you succeed too well, Madame Cillenc will hate you.”

I took a risk. “Why are you telling me this?”

“You do right to ask, but I’ve already said enough to get me in the worst trouble. I’m trusting you.”


“Because neither you or that other Etrenzian woman came in already looking defeated. Because I see something in your eyes. Because I’ve been here two years, my family is either dead or enslaved, and if something doesn’t change, I’m going to take my life. I’m not the only Tamaran who feels this way. You look like someone who will change things.”

“I’m not,” I said. “Don’t pin your hopes on me.”

Her eyes remained bright. “Circumstances change, and I think there’s more to you than you know.”

In truth, I thought there was far less. The night before, I’d been defiant and determined, but the walls of the harem looked thick and high this morning. Within them I saw guards beyond the counting. Mind control was looking like a pretty flimsy tool against a deranged sadist and whoever allowed her to rule the harem.

But I couldn’t give up. Like Ellura, I knew that the only alternative was death.

“Madame Cillenc has instructed me to put you in the hot room,” Ellura said. “You’ll sweat out some of your odor.”

The small room, heated by steaming rocks, wasn’t much hotter than the desert on a roasting summer day, but it was much more moist, and sweat soon poured from me. I was grateful to be alone.

Great Intelligence, how can I walk the narrow road of balance, no, tightrope suspended over a deep ravine?

By not being so dramatic. Go back to the narrow road. Close your eyes and focus on the situation. And stop threatening to kill yourself.

I wasn’t going to promise, but some of my determination returned. I had to find the corrupt and rotten places in the harem structure. Any one of them could be an escape route.

I also had to learn how to survive here and avoid being sent to the underground prison. Although I still felt unskilled in the art of making friends, I would try, both to get an overview of the situation here and to learn more about Emperor. If possible, I’d learn his weaknesses and use them to dominate him. He was the most corrupt and rotten element in this whole place; might he provide a means of escape?

If he had a sharp, wily mind, he might be difficult to befuddle with mind control. It seemed unlikely that any Tamaran could have mental focus that even nearly approached mine, but the image of Madame Cillenc floated before me. It would never do to underestimate that one. I had to learn how to handle her, too.

Thinking of the many tasks required in order to simply ensure my survival exhausted me so much that I fell asleep.

Ellura woke me up and took me to the bathing room, where she scrubbed me with oil-infused soap. After she’d dried me, she gave me a new gown. I didn’t understand why. The one from the day before had hardly been worn, and I hadn’t spilled any food on it. I decided that it must be because we were in damp Tamaras, where both water and odors existed in abundance.

This dress was a pale rose matched with rose sandals. I felt like one of those statues we’d passed in the town square. I’d never get used to these customs; nor did I intend to adjust.

Ellura took us into Madame Cillenc’s office. Like the main harem room, it had silken wall hangings, thick rugs, and furniture that seemed designed for sleep rather than attentiveness. The woman didn’t invite us to sit.

“You will have extensive training, and it will begin today. First, you will meet the other ladies of the harem. They will instruct you about the preferences of the men they serve. These preferences encompass much more than sex. Service includes making their favorite drinks and foods and listening to their problems. They are great men; your job is to serve them in every way. Do you understand?”

I bobbed my head.

She looked at me. “Are you a virgin?”

“I am.”

“We’ll check, of course. And you, D’zara?”

My friend flushed. “There was one man—“

“I’m not interested in the details. The answer is no?”

D’zara nodded.

Madame Cillenc took no more interest in the subject, but my degree of inflammation over this information told me that my hold on the limitations of friendship was fragile.

At the first opportunity, I planned to interrogate D’zara about the man to whom she’d given herself. Had she loved him? Did she mourn his loss?

I wasn’t all certain that the truth would set me free.

Chapter 5

We followed Ellura into a room near the sleeping chambers. A dozen women lounged on the usual soft couches. They looked up when we came in. My stomach began to knot. More strangers, I thought, and most of them not even of my own race.

My eyes found the three who were Etrenzian. They allowed faint smiles to crease their lips when they saw us. That helped, but for a girl who’d spent most of her time with snakes, this was a crash course in socialization.

Five of the women were Dolocairners. As with Tamarans, I had only seen Dolocairner men, traders who wore the universally rough desert patina on their skin. Unlike the soft Tamarans, they had faces as craggy as their mountainous home. The visible emotion in their glinting blue eyes had always made me uneasy.

The women’s skin was pale as cream. Though their bodies curved in ways that would surely attract men (like the lecherous Tamaran soldiers), captivity had taught them to shield emotion. I saw the flash of swords in their eyes, and that was a comforting sight.

The final four women were Tamaran. They looked slightly used, like blankets repeatedly washed. I had the sense that some of them were traveling the road to demotion or worse.

Madame Cillenc entered the room, and the tension level elevated. Everyone sat a little more straight. All faces became expressionless.

“I’m going to put you into small groups,” the Madame said. She called out names and indicated specific couches. The group reorganized, and I ended up sitting with one Etrenzian, two Dolocairners, and a Tamaran. Without D’zara close by, I again felt isolated and far too vulnerable. I would have given much to be sitting in a quiet, snake-infested cave.

The Tamaran, Menia, took charge. She asked me if I was a virgin. My irritation with that question must have shown on my face.

“Most of us came here virgin,” she said. “I’ll be blunt. It’s easier in that you’re not comparing some overweight, sweaty male to a young man you may have loved. On the other hand, it’s a rude awakening.”

The fear I’d successfully suppressed now rose in a state of complete terror. The word “slave” said it all. I would be abused, denigrated, diminished, and I would wish for my knife.

“The Emperor likes virgins,” Menia said in a tone as bored as if she were reporting the temperature. “That means, Zena, that you’ll be spared some of his associates, at least initially. Please him, and you may be spared them forever. This is a state worth achieving.”

She turned to the other women. “Please give this novice such advice about the Emperor as you can share.”

A Dolocairner spoke. “Whether it’s the Emperor or any of them, pretend, always pretend. I know that many Etrenzians believe in the Great Intelligence and in emotional detachment. I can safely say that all of us in this room have learned this out of necessity. If, for one minute, you become too aware of what you’re doing, you will suffer.”

“As a fellow Etrenzian, I give thanks for my detachment,” another woman said. “And pretending makes you a better actress. You will feign desire, feign ecstasy, feign satiation. You will convince the heaving mountain of lard on top of you that he has taken you to the very heights.”

Menia interrupted. “In time, such performances will become mandatory for you, but as a virgin, you will be expected to be shy, at least a little frightened. You look younger than you are, which will also please the Emperor. He has a fondness for young girls.”

I was surprised by her bluntness and looked around for Madame Cillenc.

Menia laughed. “She knows all this, and she expects us to tell you the truth. Our performances reflect on her. Now, on to the specifics.”

I will not record the details of what I learned. It’s enough to say that ninety percent of the women in the world would be shocked to learn what went on in the royal and noble bedrooms of Tamaras.

As the ferocious Cillenc had promised, we learned much more over the following weeks. Though the Tamaran slaves were always available to arrange our hair and put on our makeup, we were expected to be skilled in these arts. Men apparently enjoyed watching female slaves perform them.

We also learned how to seductively drape our garments for maximum arousal. Attention was given to our posture, which was no problem for an Etrenzian woman.

Perhaps almost worse than our sexual instruction was what we learned about the art of emotional servitude. We were expected to treat these men as virtual gods, acting with every gesture as if we were grateful slaves. In the end, I found that more difficult than even the most bizarre sexual practice.

After our first day of training, D’zara and I met in my chamber. I abandoned all pretenses at being rational.

“Tell me about this man who took your virginity.”

Her nostrils flared. “How dare you? He didn’t take it, nor did I give it. I disposed of it. Excessive curiosity about what men and women did together was robbing me of the ability to focus, so I chose a logical solution. I picked the first likely candidate, and we went to bed.”

I breathed normally again. “You didn’t love him?”

“Does that sound like love? I planned carefully, taking the herbs that would prevent pregnancy. I told him I was merely curious. Being a man, he didn’t care about my reasons. I suspect that, being a man, he was also relieved that I didn’t say I loved him.”

“And your curiosity was satisfied?”

“Enough to remove all desire for a repeat performance—although it now appears that I will have them and have much less control over them. There. Are you satisfied?”

I was. “What you’ve said convinces me that sex is over-rated.”

“I’ve promised not to try to convince you otherwise, but what about love?”

“That’s even more over-rated, I’m sure.”

I wished she wouldn’t look so sad.

“We Etrenzians don’t think much of love, do we?” she said. “I’ve heard haunting Dolocairner love songs, and I’m sure Tamarans have their share of fancies on the subject. We sing of respect and loyalty.”

That was exactly as it should be.

The next day, we strolled in the gardens, which staggered my desert-honed sensibilities. My spirit had learned to soar at the sight of red rocks and undulating sands. The people of my village used all water to grow vegetables and the few thriving fruit trees. The indulgence of pampering flowers that weren’t hardy enough to subsist on rainfall offended me, and their brilliant colors hurt my eyes as much as the flagrant greens of Tamaras.

Once I’d recovered from this visual assault, I reminded myself that, gaudy or not, these flowers might hold value for me. The unfamiliar plants I noted might have medicinal or murderous qualities. Maybe I could find one that would kill Cillenc.

My father had taught me how to assess the properties of a plant. You held your hand a few inches above it. A tingling sensation meant that it might have some value. Pain usually meant that it was poisonous. If the tingling persisted, you carefully placed your hand on a petal or leaf and allowed a focused mind to sense its characteristics.

It would take days to evaluate the vast numbers of new plants in these extensive gardens, but I immediately discovered one with bright red flowers that my hand told me had properties of both healing and poison. Sometimes the difference was determined by the amount taken, and healers had occasionally died or killed their patients by making an error in dosage.

A skinny Etrenzian youth was clipping and trimming a hedge. I wondered how he’d managed to escape the slave gangs, but after watching his careful work for a few minutes, I thought that he must have worked as a gardener. This possibly indicated some degree of intelligence. The evidence that he’d made a convincing case against deeper servitude suggested that he had gifts of persuasion.

These factors made him interesting. The other harem slaves had warned me to be cautious and reserved in speaking with men, so I approached him casually.

When he saw me, he turned as red as an Etrenzian can, meaning that his cheekbones glowed.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“I am Nathan.”

That wasn’t an Etrenzian name. I noted my suspicions for further examination and continued my questioning.

“And what’s the name of that flower?”

“It’s a poppy.”

“And its properties?”

“Supposedly delightful oblivion, pleasing hallucinations, a state of bliss. However, those who use it regularly develop addictions.”

I stored away this information for possible future use.

That night after dinner, the twelve girls who made up the Emperor’s harem gathered in a lounge area. I was surprised when Jadeia, one of the most beautiful of the Dolocairners, chose to sit next to me.

“I realize that it’s virtually impossible for you to consider trusting anyone here. I’ve only been living in the harem a few weeks longer than you, but that’s been long enough to know that it’s difficult to survive here without some degree of trust. Shall I tell you how I determine who is trustworthy and who is not?”

This sounded like valuable information. “Go ahead.”

“Dolocairners have something that differs from your mind gifts, a quality your people would probably scorn. It’s intuition. Call it a deep knowing, a certainty as unshakable as our mountains.

“Some people mistake their desires for intuition, and not everyone has the fully developed gift. I, however, was training to become a priestess, and learning to listen deeply was part of my training.”

I decided to be honest with her. “I, too, have had training, and although the art of snake charming may seem like nonsense to some and magic to others, it’s based on logical principles. A mind that firmly focuses on a thought can overpower one, especially an animal mind, that does not.”

She smiled at me. “Therefore, you would have trouble controlling the mind of a cat? For I find that their mental focus is absolute.”

I had never attempted such a thing, and I agreed with her assessment. “They are logical creatures.”

“Yet also intuitive. When I was a novice in the temple, I was sometimes overcome with homesickness. Whenever my despair reached a peak, a temple cat always jumped on my bed and began purring. I am sure it came to comfort me.”

I thought of the lean, haughty cats, large and small, that prowled the desert. “I don’t see them as kind.”

“Perhaps you’ll learn. Cats live in the palace, and they sometimes visit the harem. For now, though, I sense that your fine, logical mind isn’t yet ready to understand the power of intuition. We’ll have other discussions. I ask you only to listen to what my intuition tells me about the women here. Do what you wish with the information.”

I may not have trusted intuition, but I trusted Jadeia. “Go on.”

“Ellura is honest, and she longs to escape this place. All the other Tamaran women are spies for Madame Cillenc, although I believe that Menia has some ambivalence about her role. The Etrenzians are women of integrity. So are the other Dolocairners, some of whom I’ve known since childhood.”

“And D’zara and myself?”

Her blue eyes deepened. “Why else am I sitting here?”

“Not because you like me?” How wise I’d been to avoid friendship in the past. A few days ago I’d experienced seeing people dragged away into unimaginable suffering. Now I worried about rejection.

“I do like you. You carry yourself with pride and dignity. More than liking you, I trust you and also D’zara. I sense that you’re both leaders. If it can be done, you’ll take us out of here.”

“I don’t believe it can be done on a large scale, at least, not by me. If possible, I will take myself and a few others.”

“I would expect you to say that, but on the day you were captured, you had a conversation with a big fire dragon.”

I drew back. Was she a Dolocairner witch?

Jadeia laughed. “That meeting made a deep imprint on you. In Dolocairn we believe in the aura, a vapor invisible to most that surrounds all people. I see a dragon in yours, right here.”

She pointed to my solar plexus. “He placed his essence there to give you strength. In Dolocairn we believe that a dragon’s attention is a blessing. You, Zena, are blessed.”

Chapter 6

“You never told me about that dragon,” D’zara said.

“Because it meant nothing.” I had told her, expecting her to laugh at the ludicrousness of it. I didn’t like the thoughtful expression on her face.

“Maybe we’re planning too small.”

“D’zara, we don’t even have a small plan. The more I look around, the more difficult it seems. Have you noticed the height of the walls or counted the number of guards all over the place?”

“Listen to yourself. You’re saying you’ll never able to do it. I know that we aren’t people who put much value in faith. Look at it another way. Here, in this moment, you don’t know how to lead people out of here, and maybe you’re not going to do it, but what if it’s the best way to escape?”

“It isn’t. Rebellions tend to get noticed. People tend to get killed.”

The passing days hadn’t eased my awareness that I had lost my freedom, and, although I tried not to think too much about my family, they cried in my dreams. Did that mean they’d died, or were they slaves, perhaps even here in this filthy city?

A few weeks among Dolocairners and Tamarans had washed away much of my tough emotional discipline. If I hadn’t drawn the line against D’zara’s advances, I wouldn’t have been able to continue my daily mindful practice.

Yet, even with the lines firmly drawn, we’d become close in a way that often frightened me. I felt like a dried wineskin whose sinews ached when water was poured into it.

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