Book nerds, today we present a fantasy that hits at the heart of everything we love and hold dear: THE LAST NAMSARA by Kristen Ciccarelli. It’s all about the power of stories… and forbidden romances, dragons, and epic, against-all-odds face-offs, but we’ll get to those that later. For now, stories.
Asha is a badass dragon hunter. She’s also the daughter of the king and the fiancée of an evil commandant. Stories are forbidden in Asha’s kingdom, but she’s been secretly using them to lure dragons out of hiding and hunt them. In order to avoid marrying a man she totally despises, she has to hunt down and kill the one dragon who’s managed to beat her in the past. But the forgotten legends that Asha’s been using to lure the dragons might reveal more truth about her situation than she realizes. And a forbidden romance raises the stakes on her impossible mission.
Dragons? Romance? Adventure? We know you’re hooked already, but we have even more from you! First, check out this amazing behind-the-scenes look at what inspired THE LAST NAMSARA from author Kristen Ciccarelli. Warning: It will definitely inspire you, but it also may make you tear up.
NEVER BOX AWAY WHO YOU ARE 😭😭😭
Now that you are properly prepared, keep reading for a sneak peek at THE LAST NAMSARA!
Asha lured the dragon with a story.
It was an ancient story, older than the mountains at her back, and Asha had to dredge it up from where it lay deep and dormant inside her.
She hated to do it. Telling such stories was forbidden, dangerous, even deadly. But after stalking this dragon through the rocky lowlands for ten days now, her hunting slaves were out of food. She had a choice: return to the city dragonless or break her father’s ban on the ancient tales.
Asha never returned without a kill and she wasn’t about to now. She was the Iskari, after all, and there were quotas to fill.
So she told the story.
While her hunters thought she was sharpening her axe.
The dragon came, slithering out of the red-gold silt like the treacherous thing it was. Sand cascaded down its body, shimmering like water and revealing dull gray scales the color of mountain rock.
Three times the size of a horse, it loomed over Asha, thrashing a forked tail while its slitted gaze fixed on the girl who’d summoned it. The girl who’d tricked it here with a story.
Asha whistled for her hunting slaves to get behind their shields, then waved off her archers. This dragon had spent the night burrowed beneath the cold desert sand. With the sun only just rising, its body temperature wasn’t warm enough for it to fly.
It was stranded. And a stranded dragon fought fierce.
Asha’s left hand tightened on an oblong shield while her right hand reached for the throwing axe at her hip. The rough esparto grass rattled around her knees as the dragon circled, waiting for her to let down her guard.
That was its first mistake. Asha never let down her guard.
Its second was to blast her with flame.
Asha hadn’t been afraid of fire since the First Dragon himself left her with a vicious scar running down the right side of her body. A sheath of fireproof armor covered her now from head to toe, made from the hides of all the dragons she’d killed. The tanned leather buckled tight against her skin and her favorite helmet—one with black horns mimicking a dragon’s head—protected her from dragonfire.
She kept her shield raised until the blaze ceased.
The dragon’s breath was now spent. Asha threw down her shield. She had a hundred heartbeats before the acid in its lungs replenished, allowing it to breathe fire again. She needed to kill it before that happened.
Asha drew her axe. Its curved iron edge caught the early morning sunlight. Beneath her scarred fingers, the wooden handle was worn smooth. A comfortable fit against her palm.
The dragon hissed.
Asha narrowed her eyes. Time to end you.
Before it could advance, she aimed and threw—straight at its beating heart. Her axe sank into flesh and the dragon screamed. It struggled and thrashed as its lifeblood spilled onto the sand. Gnashing its teeth, it fixed its raging eyes on her.
Someone stepped up beside Asha, breaking her focus. She looked to find her cousin, Safire, thrusting the butt of a pointed halberd into the sand. Safire stared at the thrashing, screaming dragon. Her dark hair was sheared to her chin, showing off the bold slant of her cheekbones and the shadow of a bruise on her jaw.
“I told you to stay behind the shields,” Asha growled. “Where’s your helmet?”
“I couldn’t see a thing in that helmet. I left it with the hunting slaves.” Safire wore tanned leather hunting gear, made hastily by Asha, and her hands were protected by Asha’s fireproof gloves. There hadn’t been time to make a second pair.
The bloody dragon dragged itself across the sand, intent on Asha. Its scales scraped. Its breath wheezed.
Asha reached for the halberd. How much time had passed since its last breath of fire? She’d lost track.
“Get back, Saf. Behind the shields.”
Safire didn’t move. Only stared at the dying dragon, mesmerized, as its beating heart slowed.
Thud . . . thud.
The scraping sound stopped.
Rearing back its head, the dragon screamed in hate at the Iskari. Just before its heart stopped beating, flames rushed out of its throat.
Asha stepped in front of her cousin.
Asha’s ungloved hand was still outstretched. Exposed. Fire engulfed her fingers and palm, searing the skin. She bit down on her scream as pain lanced through her.
When the fire stopped and the dragon collapsed, dead, Asha turned to find Safire on her knees, safe and sound in the sand. Shielded from the flames.
Asha let out a shaky breath.
Safire stared at her cousin’s hand. “Asha. You’re burned.”
Asha pushed off her helmet and lifted her palm to her face. The charred skin bubbled. The pain blazed, bright and hot.
Panic sliced through her. It had been eight years since she’d been burned by a dragon.
Asha scanned her hunting slaves, all of whom were lowering their shields. They wore no armor, only iron—iron in their arrows and halberds and spears, iron in the collars around their necks. Their eyes fixed on the dragon. They hadn’t seen the Iskari get burned.
Good. The fewer witnesses, the better.
“Dragonfire is toxic, Asha. You need to treat that.”
Asha nodded. Except she hadn’t brought supplies for a burn treatment. She’d never needed them before.
To keep up appearances, she moved for her pack. From behind her, Safire said very softly, “I thought they didn’t breathe fire anymore.”
They don’t breathe fire without stories, she thought.
Safire got to her feet and dusted off her leather armor. Her eyes dutifully avoided Asha’s as she asked, “Why would they start breathing fire now?”
Asha suddenly wished she’d left her cousin behind.
But if she’d left Safire behind, there wouldn’t just be remnants of a bruise on her jaw. There would be far worse.
Two days before Asha had set out on this hunt, she found Safire cornered by soldats in her own room. How they’d gotten in without a key, she could only guess.
As soon as Asha entered, they panicked, scattering in the presence of the Iskari. But what about next time? Asha would be hunting for days, and her brother, Dax, was still in the scrublands, negotiating peace with Jarek, the commandant. There was no one to keep a watchful eye out for their skral-blooded cousin while Asha hunted. So she’d brought Safire with her. Because if there was anything worse than coming home empty-handed, it was coming home to Safire in the sickroom again.
Asha’s silence didn’t dissuade her cousin in the least.
“Remember the days when you would set out at dawn and bring a dragon down before dinner? Whatever happened to those days?”
The searing pain of her blistering skin made Asha dizzy. She fought to keep her mind clear.
“Maybe things were too easy back then,” she said, whistling at her hunting slaves, signaling them to start the dismemberment. “Maybe I prefer a challenge.”
The truth was, dragon numbers had been dwindling for years and it was getting harder to bring their heads back to her father. It was why she’d turned to telling the old stories in secret—to lure them to her. The old stories drew dragons the way jewels drew men. No dragon could resist one told aloud.
But the stories didn’t just lure dragons. They made them stronger.
Hence, the fire.
It went like this: where the old stories were spoken aloud, there were dragons; and where there were dragons, there was destruction and betrayal and burning. Especially burning. Asha knew this better than anyone. The proof was right there on her face.
Sighing, Safire gave up.
“Go treat that burn,” she said, leaving her halberd upright in the sand as she started toward the hulking form. While the slaves advanced on the dragon, Safire walked a complete circle around the body, scanning it. The dragon’s dusty gray scales were perfect for blending into the mountain, and its horns and spines were flawless ivory, none of them broken or cracked.
In Safire’s absence, Asha tried to flex her burned fingers. The sharp pain made her bite down hard. It made the lowlands around her blur into a smudged landscape of red sand, pale yellow grass, and a gray speckle of rock. They were on the seam here. Not quite in the flat desert to the immediate west, nor in the dark and craggy mountains to the immediate east.
“It’s a beauty!” Safire called back.
Asha strained to focus on her cousin, who was starting to blur along with everything else. She tried to shake her vision clear. When that didn’t work, she reached for Safire’s halberd to steady herself.
“Your father will be so pleased.” Her cousin’s voice sounded thick and muffled.
If my father only knew the truth, thought Asha, bitterly.
She willed the landscape to stop spinning around her. She clutched the halberd harder, concentrating on her cousin.
Safire navigated through the slaves, their knives glinting. Asha heard her grab the handle of the embedded axe. She heard Safire use the heel of her boot to brace herself against the dragon’s scaly hide. Asha even heard her pull the weapon out while blood glugged onto the sand, thick and sticky.
But she couldn’t see her. Not any longer.
The whole world had gone fuzzy and white.
“Asha . . . ? Are you all right?”
Asha pressed her forehead to the flat steel of the halberd. The fingers of her unburned hand curled like claws around the iron shaft as she fought the dizziness.
I should have more time than this.
Hurried footsteps kissed the sand.
“Asha, what’s wrong?”
The ground dipped. Asha felt herself tilt. Without thinking, she reached for her skral-blooded cousin. The one who, under the law, wasn’t allowed to touch her.
Safire sucked in a breath and stepped back, out of reach, widening the gap between them. Asha struggled to regain her balance. When she couldn’t, she sank onto the sand.
Even when Safire’s gaze slid to the hunting slaves—even when Asha knew it was their judgment Safire feared and not her—it stung. It always stung.
But slaves talked. Her cousin knew this better than anyone. Gossiping slaves had betrayed Safire’s parents. And right now, they were surrounded by slaves. Slaves who knew Safire wasn’t allowed to touch Asha, wasn’t even allowed to look Asha in the eye. Not with skral blood running through her veins.
“Asha . . .”
All at once, the world settled back into place. Asha blinked. There was the sand beneath her knees. There was the horizon in the distance, a red-gold smear against a turquoise sky. And there was the slain dragon before her: clear and gray and dead.
Safire crouched down before her. Too close.
“Don’t,” Asha said more sharply than she meant to. “I’m fine.”
Rising, she bit down on the scorching pain in her hand. It didn’t make sense for the toxins to set in so fast. She was dehydrated—that’s all. She just needed water.
“You shouldn’t even be out here,” Safire called from behind her, voice laced with worry. “Your binding is seven days away. You should be preparing yourself for it, not running from it.”
Asha’s footsteps faltered. Despite her scorching hand and the steadily rising sun, a chill swept through her.
“I’m not running from anything,” she shot back, staring straight ahead at the mantle of green in the distance. The Rift. It was Asha’s one freedom.
Silence fell over them, interrupted only by the sounds of slaves sharpening their skinning knives. Slowly, Safire came to stand behind her.
“I hear dragon hearts are in fashion these days.” Asha could hear the careful smile in her voice. “For betrothal gifts especially.”
Asha wrinkled her nose at the thought. She crouched down next to her hunting pack, made of the tough leather of dragon hide. Reaching inside, she drew out her water skin while Safire stood over her.
“The red moon wanes in seven days, Asha. Have you even thought about your betrothal gift?”
Asha rose to growl a warning at her cousin and the world spun again. She kept it in place by the sheer force of her will.
Of course she’d thought about it. Every time Asha looked up into the face of that horrible moon—always a little thinner than the day before—she thought about all of it: the gift and the wedding and the young man she would soon call husband.
The word hardened like a stone inside her. It brought everything into sharp focus.
“Come on,” said Safire, smiling a little, her eyes cast toward the hilltops. “The gory, bleeding heart of a dragon? It’s the perfect gift for a man without a heart of his own.”
Asha shook her head. But Safire’s smile was contagious. “Why do you have to be so disgusting?”
Just then, over Safire’s shoulder, a cloud of red-gold sand billowed in the distance, coming from the direction of the city.
Asha’s first thought was dust storm and she was about to give a frantic order, but rocky lowlands surrounded them here, not the open desert. Asha squinted into the distance and saw two horses making their way toward her hunting party. One was riderless; the other carried a man cloaked in a mantle, the rough wool dusted red with sand kicked up by his horse. A gold collar encircled his neck, winking in the sunlight and marking him as one of the palace slaves.
As he galloped closer, Asha thrust her burned hand behind her back.
When the sand settled, she found the elderly slave reining in his mare. Sweat soaked his graying hair. He squinted in the pulsing sunlight.
“Iskari,” he said, out of breath from riding so hard. He fastened his gaze on the tossing mane of his horse, obediently avoiding Asha’s eyes. “Your father wishes to see you.”
Behind her back, Asha gripped her wrist. “He has perfect timing. I’ll deliver this dragon’s head to him tonight.”
The slave shook his head, his gaze still boring into his horse. “You’re to return to the palace immediately.”
Asha frowned. The dragon king never interrupted her hunts.
She looked to the riderless mare. It was Oleander, her own horse. Her russet coat glistened with sweat, and a smudge of red sand covered the white star on her forehead. In the presence of her rider, Oleander bobbed her head nervously.
“I can help finish up here,” said Safire. Asha turned to her. Safire didn’t dare look up into her face. Not under a royal slave’s watchful gaze. “I’ll meet you back at home.” Safire undid the leather ties on her borrowed hunting gloves. “You never should have given me these.” She slid them off and handed them over. “Go.”
Ignoring the scream of her raw and blistering skin, Asha pulled on the gloves so her father’s slave wouldn’t see her burned hand. Turning from Safire, she took Oleander’s reins and swung herself up into the saddle. Oleander whinnied and fidgeted beneath her, then sped off at a gallop when Asha’s heels gave her the slightest prod.
“I’ll save the heart for you!” Safire called as Asha raced back toward the city, kicking up swirls of red sand. “In case you change your mind!”
In the beginning…
The Old One was lonely. So he made for himself two companions. He formed the first out of sky and spirit and named him Namsara. Namsara was a golden child. When he laughed, stars shone out of his eyes. When he danced, wars ceased. When he sang, ailments were healed. His very presence was a needle sewing the world together.
The Old One formed the second out of blood and moonlight. He named her Iskari. Iskari was a sorrowful child. Where Namsara brought laughter and love, Iskari brought destruction and death. When Iskari walked, people cowered in their homes. When she spoke, people wept. When she hunted, she never missed her mark.
Pained by her nature, Iskari came before the Old One, asking him to remake her. She hated her essence; she wished to be more like Namsara. When the Old One refused, she asked him why. Why did her brother get to create things while she destroyed them?
“The world needs balance,” the Old One said.
Furious, Iskari left the sovereign god and went hunting. She hunted for days. Days turned to weeks. As her fury grew, her bloodlust became insatiable. She killed mercilessly and without feeling and all the while, her hate swelled within her. She hated her brother for being happy and beloved. She hated the Old One for making it so.
So the next time she went hunting, Iskari set her traps for the Old One himself.
This was a terrible mistake.
The Old One struck Iskari down, leaving a scar as long and wide as the Rift mountain range. For attempting to take his life, he stripped her of her immortality, ripping it off her like a silk garment. So that she could atone for her crime, he cursed her name and sent her to wander the desert alone, haunted by stinging winds and howling sandstorms. To wither beneath the parching sun. To freeze beneath the icy cloak of night.
But neither the heat nor the cold killed her.
An unbearable loneliness did.
Namsara searched the desert for Iskari. The sky changed seven times before he found her body in the sand, her skin blistered by the sun, her eyes eaten by carrion crows.
At the sight of his sister, dead, Namsara fell to his knees and he wept.
Normally after a kill, Asha bathed. Scrubbing the blood, sand, and sweat from her body was a ritual that helped her transition from the wild, rugged world beyond the palace walls to a life that tied itself around her ribs and squeezed like a too-tight sash.
Today, though, Asha skipped the bath. Despite her father’s summons, she slipped right past her guards and headed for the sickroom, where the medicines were kept. It was a whitewashed room smelling of lime. Sunlight spilled through the open terrace, alighting the flower pattern mosaicked into the floor, then painting the shelves of terra-cotta jars in yellows and golds.
She’d woken in this room eight years ago, after Kozu, the First Dragon, burned her. Asha remembered it clearly: lying on a sickbed, her body wrapped in bandages, that awful feeling pressing down on her chest, heavy as a boulder, telling her she’d done something horribly wrong.
Shaking the memory loose, Asha stepped through the archway. She unbuckled her armor and gloves, shedding them piece by piece, then laid her axe on top of the pile.
One of the dangers of dragonfire—besides melting your skin to the bone—was that it was toxic. The smallest burn would kill you from the inside out if treated poorly or too late. A severe burn, like the one Asha suffered eight years ago, needed to be treated immediately and, even then, the victim’s chances of survival were slim.
Asha had a recipe to draw the toxins out, but the treatment required the burn to be covered for two days. She didn’t have that kind of time. Her father had summoned her. News of her return had probably reached him already. She had a hundred-hundred heartbeats, not days.
Asha opened cupboards and pulled down pots full of dried barks and roots, looking for one ingredient in particular. In her haste, she reached with her burned hand, and the moment she grabbed the smooth terra-cotta jar, pain seared through her and she let go.
The jar shattered across the floor in a burst of red shards and linen bandages.
Asha cursed, kneeling to pick up the mess one-handed. Her mind was so hazy with pain, she didn’t notice when someone dropped to his knees beside her, his fingers picking up shards alongside hers.
“I’ll get this, Iskari.”
The voice made her jump. She glanced up to a silver collar, then a tangle of hair.
Asha watched his hands sweep up her mess. She knew those freckled hands. They were the same hands that brought out Jarek’s platters at dinner. The same hands that served her steaming mint tea in Jarek’s glass cups.
Asha tensed. If her betrothed’s slave was in the palace, so was her betrothed. Jarek must have returned from the scrublands, where he’d been sent to keep an eye on Dax’s negotiations.
Is that the reason for my father’s summons?
The slave’s fingers went suddenly still. When Asha looked up, she caught him staring at her burn.
“Iskari . . .” His brow furrowed. “You need to treat that.”
Her annoyance flared like a freshly fed fire. Obviously she needed to treat it. She’d be treating it now if she hadn’t been so careless.
But just as important as treating her burn was securing this slave’s silence. Jarek often used his slaves to spy on his enemies. The moment Asha dismissed this one, he might go running to his master and tell him everything.
And once Jarek knew, so would her father.
The moment her father heard of it, he’d know she’d been telling the old stories. He would know she was the same corrupted girl she’d always been.
“Tell anyone about this, skral, and the last thing you’ll see is my face staring down at you from the top of the pit.”
His mouth flattened into a hard line and his gaze lowered to the tile work at their feet, where elegant namsaras—rare desert flowers that could heal any ailment—repeated themselves in an elaborate pattern across the floor.
“Forgive me, Iskari,” he said, his fingers sweeping up terra-cotta shards. “But I’m not supposed to take commands from you. My master’s orders.”
Her fingers itched for her axe—which was on the floor against the wall, with the rest of her armor.
She could threaten him, but that might make him retaliate by spilling her secrets. A bribe would work better.
“And if I give you something for your silence?”
His fingers paused, hovering over the pile of shards.
“What would you want?”
The corner of his mouth curved ever so slightly. It made the hair on her arms rise.
“I don’t have all day,” she said, suddenly uneasy.
“No,” he said, the smile sliding away as he stared at her raw, blistering skin. “You don’t.” Her body was starting to shake from the infection. “Let me think on it while you treat that burn.”
Asha left him there. In truth, the shaking worried her. So while he finished cleaning up her mess, she returned to the shelves and found the ingredient she needed: dragon bone ash.
Alone, it was just as deadly as dragonfire, only it poisoned in a different way. Instead of infecting the body, dragon bone leached it of nutrients. Asha had never seen someone killed this way, but there was an old story about a dragon queen who wanted to teach her enemies a lesson. Inviting them to the palace as honored guests, she put a pinch of dragon bone ash in their dinners every night and on the last morning of their stay, they were all found dead in their beds, their bodies hollowed out. As if the life had been scooped out of them.
Despite its dangers, in exactly the right amount, with the correct combination of herbs, dragon bone was the one thing that could draw the dragonfire toxins out—precisely because of its leaching qualities. Asha popped off the cork lid and measured out the amount.
The mark of a good slave was to see what was needed before it was asked for, and Jarek only purchased the best of anything. So as Asha gathered her ingredients, crushing and boiling them down to a thick paste, Jarek’s slave tore strips of linen for fresh bandaging.
“Where is he?” she asked as she stirred, trying to hasten the cooling process. She didn’t need to say Jarek’s name. His slave knew who she meant.
“Asleep in his wine goblet.” He suddenly stopped ripping linen to stare at her hands. “I think it’s cool enough, Iskari.”
Asha looked where he looked. Her hands shook hard. She dropped the spoon and lifted them to her face, watching them tremble.
“I should have more time than this. . . .”
The slave took the pot from her, perfectly calm. “Sit,” he said, motioning with his chin to the tabletop. As if he were in charge now and she had to do what he said.
Asha didn’t like him telling her what to do. But she liked the violent trembling even less. She hoisted herself up onto the table one-handed while he scooped a spoonful of blackish paste and blew softly until it stopped steaming. She held her burned hand still against her thigh while he used the spoon to spread the grainy paste across the raw surface of her blistered palm and fingers.
Asha hissed through her teeth at the sting. More than once, he stopped, concerned by the sounds she made. She nodded for him to go on. Despite the horrible smell—like burned bones—she could feel the ash at work: a cool sensation sinking in, spreading outward, battling the scorching pain.
“Better?” He kept his gaze lowered as he blew on the next spoonful.
He coated the burn twice more, then reached for the first linen strip.
When he went to wrap it, though, they both hesitated. Asha pulled away while he hovered, frozen, leaning over her. The off-white linen hung like a canopy between his hands while the same thought ran through both their minds: in order to wrap the burn, he needed to touch her.
A slave who touched a draksor without his master’s permission could be sentenced to three nights in the dungeons without food. If the offense were more severe—touching a draksor of high rank, such as Asha—he would be lashed as well. And in the very rare case of intimate touch, such as a love affair between a slave and a draksor, the slave would be sent to the pit to die.
Without Jarek to give permission, his slave wouldn’t—couldn’t—touch her.
Asha moved to take the linen to try to bandage her hand herself, but he pulled away, out of reach. She watched, speechless, as he returned to wrap her hand—slowly and carefully, his nimble hands cleverly avoiding contact.
Asha looked up into a long, narrow face full of freckles. Freckles as numerous as stars in the night sky. He stood so close, she could feel the heat of him. So close, she could smell the salt on his skin.
If he sensed her looking, he didn’t show it. Silence filled the space between them as he wrapped the linen around and around her salved palm.
Asha studied his hands. Large palms. Long fingers. Calluses on his fingertips.
A strange place for calluses on a house slave.
“How did it happen?” he asked as he worked.
She could feel him almost look up into her face, then stop himself. He reached for the next strip—a smaller one—and started on her fingers.
I told an old story.
Asha wondered how much a skral would know about the link between the old stories and dragonfire.
She didn’t say the answer aloud. No one could know the truth: after all these years of trying to right her wrongs, Asha was still as corrupt as ever. If you opened her up and looked inside, you’d find a core that matched her scarred exterior. Hideous and horrible.
I told a story about Iskari and Namsara.
Iskari was the goddess from which Asha derived her title. These days, Iskari meant life taker.
Namsara’s meaning had also changed over time. It was both the name of the healing flower on the floors of this room as well as a title. A title given to someone who fought for a noble cause—for his kingdom or his beliefs. The word namsara conjured up the image of a hero.
“I killed a dragon,” Asha told the slave in the end, “and it burned me as it died.”
He tucked in the ends of her bandage, listening. To get a better grip, his fingers slid around her wrist, as if he’d completely forgotten who she was.
At his touch, Asha sucked in a breath. The moment she did, he realized his breach and went very still.
A command hovered on the tip of Asha’s tongue. But before it lashed out at him, he said, very softly, “How does that feel?”
As if he cared more about her burn than his own life.
As if he weren’t afraid of her at all.
The command died in Asha’s mouth. She looked to his fingers wrapped around her wrist. Not trembling or hesitant, but warm and sure and strong.
Wasn’t he afraid?
When she didn’t respond, he did something even worse. He raised his eyes to hers.
A startling heat surged through her as their gazes met. His eyes were as piercing as freshly sharpened steel. He should have looked away. Instead, that steely gaze moved from her eyes—black, like her mother’s—to her puckered scar, trailing down her face and neck until it disappeared beneath the collar of her shirt.
People always looked. Asha was used to it. Children liked to point and stare, but most eyes darted away in fear the moment they settled on her scar. This slave, though, took his time looking. His gaze was curious and attentive, as if Asha were a tapestry and he didn’t want to miss a single thread of detail.
Asha knew what he saw. She saw it every time she looked in a mirror. Mottled skin, pocked and discolored. It started at the top of her forehead, moving down her right cheek. It cut off the end of her eyebrow and took a chunk out of her hairline. It stretched over her ear, which never recovered its original shape and was now a deformed collection of bumps. The scar took up one-third of her face, half her neck, and continued down the right side of her body.
Safire once asked Asha if she hated the sight of it. But she didn’t. She’d been burned by the fiercest of all dragons and lived. Who else could say that?
Asha wore her scar like a crown.
The slave’s gaze moved lower. As if imagining the rest of the scar beneath her clothes. As if imagining the rest of Asha beneath her clothes.
It snapped something inside of her. Asha sharpened her voice like a knife.
“Keep looking, skral, and soon you’ll have no eyes left to look with.”
His mouth tipped up at the side. Like she’d issued a challenge and he’d accepted.
It made her think of last year’s revolt, when a group of slaves took control of the furrow, keeping draksor hostages and killing any soldats who came near. It was Jarek who infiltrated the slave quarters and ended the revolt, personally putting to death each of the slaves responsible.
This skral is just as dangerous as the rest of them.
Asha suddenly wanted her axe again. She pushed herself off the table, putting space between them.
“I’ve decided on payment,” he said from behind her.
Her footsteps slowed. She turned to face him. He’d folded the extra linen and was now scraping the remaining salve from the bottom of the pot.
As if he hadn’t just broken the law.
“In exchange for my silence”—the wooden spoon clanged against the terra-cotta as he scraped—“I want one dance.”
Asha stared at him.
First, daring to look her in the eye, and now, demanding to dance with her?
Was he mad?
She was the Iskari. The Iskari didn’t dance. And even if she did, she would never dance with a skral. It was absurd. Unthinkable.
“One dance,” he repeated, then looked up. Those eyes sliced into hers. Again, the shock of it flared through her. “In a place and time of my choosing.”
Asha’s hand went to her hip—but her axe was still on the floor on top of her armor. “Choose something else.”
He shook his head, watching her hand. “I don’t want something else.”
She stared him down. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
He stared right back. “A fool can be sure of anything; that doesn’t make her right.”
Anger blazed bright and hot within her.
Did he just call her a fool?
In three strides, Asha grabbed her axe, closed the distance between them, and pressed its sharp, glittering edge to his throat. She would slice the voice right out of him if she had to.
The pot in his hand crashed to the floor. The line of his jaw went tight and hard, but he didn’t look away. The air sizzled and sparked between them. He might have been half a head taller than she was, but Asha was used to taking down bigger prey.
“Don’t test me, skral,” she said, pressing harder.
He lowered his gaze.
Finally. She should have started with that.
Using the butt of the axe handle, Asha shoved his left shoulder, sending him stumbling. He hit the shelves full of jars, which rattled precariously.
“You’ll keep this a secret,” she said, “because not even Jarek can protect you if you don’t.”
He kept his eyes lowered as he steadied himself, saying nothing.
Turning on her heel, she left him there. Asha had better things to do than drag this slave before Jarek and list his offenses. She needed to find her silk gloves, hide her bandaged hand, and pretend everything was fine while she spoke with her father—who was still waiting for her.
She would deal with Jarek’s slave later.
Dawn of a Hunter
Once there was a girl who was drawn to wicked things.
Things like forbidden, ancient stories.
It didn’t matter that the old stories killed her mother. It didn’t matter that they’d killed many more before her. The girl let the old stories in. She let them eat away at her heart and turn her wicked.
Her wickedness drew dragons. The same dragons that burned her ancestors’ homes and slaughtered their families. Poisonous, fire-breathing dragons.
The girl didn’t care.
Under the cloak of night, she crept over rooftops and snaked through abandoned streets. She sneaked out of the city and into the Rift, where she told the dragons story after story aloud.
She told so many stories, she woke the deadliest dragon of all: one as dark as a moonless night. One as old as time itself.
Kozu, the First Dragon.
Kozu wanted the girl for himself. Wanted to hoard the deadly power spilling from her lips. Wanted her to tell stories for him and him alone. Forever.
Kozu made her realize what she had become.
It scared her. So she stopped telling the old stories.
But it wasn’t so easy. Kozu cornered her. He lashed his tail and hissed a warning. He made it clear if she refused him, it would not go well for her.
She trembled and cried, but stood firm. She kept her mouth clamped shut.
But no one defied the First Dragon.
Kozu flew into a rage; and when the girl tried to flee, he burned her in a deadly blaze.
But that wasn’t enough.
He took out the rest of his rage on her home.
Kozu poured his wrath down on its lime-washed walls and filigreed towers. He breathed his poisonous fire as her people screamed and wept, listening to their loved ones trapped within their burning homes.
It was the son of the commandant who found the wicked girl, left for dead in the Rift. The boy carried her burned body all the way back to the palace sickroom while his father saved the city.
His father rallied the army and drove off the First Dragon. He ordered the slaves to put out the fires and repair the damage. The commandant saved the city, but he failed to save his wife. At the sound of her dying screams, he rushed into their burning home—and did not come out.
The girl, however, survived.
She woke in a strange room and a strange bed and she couldn’t remember what happened. In the beginning, her father hid the truth. How do you tell a girl of ten she’s responsible for the deaths of thousands?
Instead, he never left her side. He sat with her through the pain-filled nights. He sent for burn experts to restore her to full health. When they said she would never recover her mobility, he found better experts. And, very slowly, he filled in the gaps of her memory.
When the girl made her public apology and her people spat at her feet, her father stood by her side. While she promised to redeem herself and they hissed the name of a cursed god, her father took their curses and turned them into a title.
The old heroes were called Namsara after a beloved god, he said. So she would be called Iskari, after a deadly one.
The throne room, with its double arcades, soldat-lined walls, and precise mosaic work, was built to draw attention to one place: the dragon king’s throne. But whenever Asha stepped through the giant archway, it was the sacred flame that commanded her attention first. A pedestal of polished onyx stood halfway between the main entrance and the gilded throne. Upon it sat a shallow iron bowl, and in that bowl burned a white and whispering flame.
When Asha was a child, the sacred flame was taken from the Old One’s caves and brought here, to keep the throne room alight. It struck such awe in Asha then.
Now the flame seemed to watch Asha as much as she once watched it.
A colorless flame burning on nothing but air? It was unnatural. She wished her father would send it back to the caves. But it was his trophy, a sign of what he’d overcome.
“I’m sorry I interrupted your hunt, my dear.”
Her father’s voice echoed across the room, snapping up her attention. Asha scanned the gleaming white walls, broken up by tapestries bearing the portraits of dragon kings and queens of old.
“You didn’t interrupt. I killed it just before your message arrived.”
Dressed now in silk gloves that came to her elbows and an indigo kaftan that swished when she walked, Asha made her way across the room while the eyes in the tapestries watched her. Her steps padded softly on the sea of blue and green tiles as sunlight slid through the skylight in the copper-domed roof, lighting up specks of dust floating in the air.
The man waiting for her looked every bit a king: embroidered over the right shoulder of his robe was the royal crest—a dragon with a saber through its heart—and from his neck hung a citrine medallion. Gold slippers with elaborate white stitching hid his feet.
It was this man she woke to in the sickroom almost eight years ago. The sight of him now brought on a memory.
Kozu’s red-hot flames engulfing her. The awful smell of burning hair and flesh. The barbed screams snagging in her throat.
It was the only part Asha remembered: burning. Everything else was lost to her.
“That was your longest hunt yet,” he said. Asha stopped before the gilded steps of his throne. “I was beginning to worry.”
She looked to the floor. The shame of it made her throat prickle. Like she’d swallowed a handful of cactus spines.
Her father had too many things to worry about without Asha adding to them: war brewing with the scrublanders, the ever-present threat of another slave revolt, tension with the temple, and—though her father never spoke of it with Asha—the growing power of his commandant.
Asha’s bandaged hand throbbed beneath the silk glove, screaming of the crime she’d committed that very morning. As if it wanted to betray her. She held it against her side, hoping her father wouldn’t ask about the gloves.
“Don’t worry about me, Father. I always find my prey.”
The dragon king smiled at her. Behind him, an ornate mosaic was etched into the golden throne, a pattern of shapes within shapes and lines crossing back over lines. Just like the city’s labyrinthine streets or the palace’s maze of hallways and secret passageways.
“Tonight I want you to publicly present your kill. In honor of our guests.”
She looked up. “Guests?”
Her father’s smile broke. “You haven’t heard the news?”
Asha shook her head no.
“Your brother returned with a delegation of scrublanders.”
Asha’s mouth went dry. The scrublanders dwelled across the sand sea and refused to acknowledge the authority of the king. They didn’t agree with killing dragons almost as much as they didn’t agree with keeping slaves. It was why her father had had such trouble handling them in the past—that, and the fact that they kept trying to assassinate him.
“They’ve agreed to a truce,” her father explained. “They’re here to negotiate the terms of a peace treaty.”
Peace with scrublanders? Impossible.
Asha stepped closer to the throne, her voice tight. “They’re inside the palace walls?” How could Dax bring their oldest enemies into their home?
No one had expected Dax to succeed in the scrublands. If Asha were honest, no one expected Dax to survive in the scrublands.
“It’s too dangerous, Father.”
The dragon king leaned forward in his throne, looking down at her with warm eyes. His nose was long and thin and his beard neatly trimmed.
“Don’t worry, my dear.” His eyes traced the scar marring her face. “One look at you and they will never cross me again.”
Asha frowned. If they didn’t fear the chopping block—which was the punishment for attempted regicide—why would they fear the Iskari?
“But that isn’t why I summoned you.”
The dragon king rose from his throne and descended the seven steps to the floor. Knotting his hands behind his back, her father made a slow tour of the tapestries up the left side of the room. Asha followed him, ignoring the soldats standing guard in between each one, their eyes hidden by crested morions and their burnished breastplates gleaming in the dusty sunlight.
“I want to talk about Jarek.”
Asha’s chin jerked upward.
When the people of Firgaard lost lives and homes and loved ones in the wake of Kozu’s fire, they called for the death of the wicked girl responsible. The king, unable to put his own daughter to death, offered her a chance at redemption instead. He promised her hand in marriage to Jarek—the boy who saved her. The boy who’d lost both his parents in the fire that was her fault.
Their union, he said, would be the last act of Asha’s redemption. When they came of age, Jarek would bind himself to Asha and in doing so, prove his forgiveness. Jarek, who lost the most because of Asha, would show all of Firgaard they could forgive her too.
Furthermore, in exchange for Jarek’s heroism, the king groomed him to take over his father’s role as commandant.
It was an act of faith and gratitude.
In the years since, that heroic boy had grown into a powerful young man. At twenty-one, Jarek now held the army in his fist. His soldats were completely loyal. Too loyal, thought Asha. Once he married her, Jarek would be in very close proximity to the throne. A throne that would be very easy to take by force. It worried Asha.
“He mustn’t know about this conversation. Do you understand?”
Asha, who was lost in her thoughts, looked up to find them standing before a tapestry of her grandmother—the dragon queen who conquered and enslaved their fiercest enemy, the skral. The artist chose deep reds and maroons for the background and luminescent silvers and dark blues for her hair. The dragon queen’s eyes seemed to peer out at her granddaughter with deep disapproval. As if they could see straight into Asha’s heart, beholding all the secrets hidden there.
Asha held her injured hand closer to her body.
“You mustn’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you.”
Tearing her gaze away from the old queen, she looked to her father. His warm eyes were on hers.
A secret? Her every allegiance was to her father. She owed her life to him twice over. “Of course, Father.”
“A dragon was spotted in the Rift while you hunted,” he said. “One that hasn’t been seen in eight years. A black dragon with a scar through one eye.”
Lightning flickered up Asha’s legs. She nearly reached for the wall, in case they gave out on her.
It couldn’t be. The First Dragon hadn’t been seen since the day he attacked the city.
Her father nodded. “This is an opportunity, Asha. One we must seize.” He smiled a slow, bright smile. “I want you to bring me Kozu’s head.”
Asha suddenly smelled burning flesh. Felt her throat choking on screams.
That was eight years ago, she thought, trying to fight off the memory. Eight years ago I was a child. I’m not anymore.
Seeing the war waging inside her, the dragon king raised his hand, as if to touch her—something he never did. But a look flashed in his eyes. The same look that flashed in everyone else’s eyes, all of the time, whenever they looked at her.
Her father didn’t like to show it, because he loved her. Because he didn’t want to hurt her. But sometimes it slipped through the cracks.
The dragon king feared his own daughter.
A heartbeat later, the look was gone. Her father’s hand fell back down to his side, resting on the gilt pommel of his ceremonial saber.
“If you can hunt down the First Dragon, the religious zealots will no longer have a reason to challenge my authority. The scrublanders will be forced to concede that the old ways are no longer. All will submit to my rule. But, most of all, Asha, your marriage to Jarek will no longer be necessary.” He looked back to the tapestry on the wall. To the image of his mother. “This will be your redemption.”
Asha swallowed, letting those words sink in.
The raconteurs—sacred storytellers from days gone by—warned of the death of Kozu. Kozu, they said, was the wellspring of stories. As such, he was the Old One’s living link to his people.
If Kozu were ever killed, all the old stories would be struck from mind or tongue or scroll—as if they’d never existed. The Old One would be forgotten and the link between him and his people broken. But so long as Kozu lived, the stories did too, and the yoke keeping Asha’s people shackled to the Old One remained.
Even the most godless of hunters wouldn’t dare hunt Kozu down. Her father knew this. It was why he was asking her. Asha had more reason than anyone to kill the First Dragon.
It would be the ultimate apology. A way to set things right.
“Did you hear me, Asha? If you bring me Kozu’s head, there will no longer be a reason to marry Jarek.”
Drawn out of her thoughts, she looked up into her father’s face to find him smiling down on her.
“Tell me what you’re thinking, Asha. Will you do it?”
Of course she would do it. The only question was: Could she do it before the red moon waned?
About The Last Namsara
In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.
These are the legends that Asha, daughter of the king of Firgaard, has grown up learning in hushed whispers, drawn to the forbidden figures of the past. But it isn’t until she becomes the fiercest, most feared dragon slayer in the land that she takes on the role of the next Iskari—a lonely destiny that leaves her feeling more like a weapon than a girl.
Asha conquers each dragon and brings its head to the king, but no kill can free her from the shackles that await at home: her betrothal to the cruel commandant, a man who holds the truth about her nature in his palm.
When she’s offered the chance to gain her freedom in exchange for the life of the most powerful dragon in Firgaard, she finds that there may be more truth to the ancient stories than she ever could have expected. With the help of a secret friend—a slave boy from her betrothed’s household—Asha must shed the layers of her Iskari bondage and open her heart to love, light, and a truth that has been kept from her.
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