Home > A Dragon in the Ashes (Hidden Kingdoms #1)

A Dragon in the Ashes (Hidden Kingdoms #1)
Author: Jenna Wolfhart

1

 

 

Aradia

 

 

The library was as silent as a graveyard. Just the way I liked it. I ducked into an alcove just off the main reading room, my heart slamming into my ribs as hard as a butcher’s mallet. Backing up against the nearest bookshelf, I listened for the sound of clattering footsteps.

Footsteps that belonged to Prince Cyril’s guards.

If they caught me, I was dead. No, worse than dead. They’d toss me into the dank dungeons and feed me scraps deemed not good enough for the royal family’s pet wolves. And then the prince’s mage would torture me until I no longer knew my own name.

Delightful, right?

So, I stayed hidden, my heart in my throat.

As the moments stretched on in blissful silence, the tension in my shoulders began to loosen. A sigh slipped through my parched lips. I’d been on the run for three days and thirst clawed at my stomach like a vicious monster from one of my father’s fairytales.

Ugh, my father. This was all his fault. His and Heron’s, my loathsome brother.

Emboldened by the silence, I spun on my booted feet to gaze at the alcove’s looming shelves. They stretched toward the domed glass ceiling, so high that the only way to reach the top shelves was by the platform above, accessible only from a winding staircase.

My eyes scanned the titles of the leather-bound books. The spines stared back at me, each one promising a whole new world. Pages where I could lose myself and escape from memories of the past few months, and forget about my father who had abandoned me to take the fall for his crimes.

The Dragon and the Damsel.

That one sounded appropriately escapist.

I reached up and curled my finger around the worn spine. Distant footsteps echoed through the silent library. My fingers froze like mice before a predator, and my heartbeat cantered.

Had I been wrong? Had the prince’s guards actually followed me here?

Backing away from the shelf, I whipped my head from side to side, searching for a hiding place. There was nothing here. Nothing but books. Books where I wished I could hide, living in the pages until the threat was fully gone.

Or maybe I could make myself invisible. Something like that required magic. I was only human. Not a mage, not a fae, not even a shapeshifter.

The footsteps drew closer. The pounding of them against the golden floor felt like a hammer on my skull. I had to run now. If I didn’t, they’d turn the corner and find me here backed up against a wall with nowhere to go.

I curled my trembling hands into fists and ran.

My feet trembled beneath me, but I forced them to move. After so many days spent running without any food to keep me going, my muscles felt as if they’d been put through a meat grinder. My lungs burned as if they’d been scorched by dragonfire.

I reached the end of the alcove and swung to the right, stumbling into yet another room in the library’s maze. This one had a door. I grabbed it and slammed it shut behind me, wincing when the noise no doubt echoed through the building.

But maybe they wouldn’t realize where the noise had come from. The strange thing about Crown Library—well, one of the strange things—was that it squatted in the center of a small square that took only moments to walk across. Inside, the library was a sprawling maze of interconnected rooms and hidden passageways. I’d gotten lost on more than one occasion, and I could never find the same book twice.

Magic, no doubt.

As I waited for the rush of footsteps to tumble toward the door, a flash of light caught my eye. I lifted my gaze. That was the moment I realized I had not stumbled into any old room. This was…well, I wasn’t quite sure.

Instead of housing books, some of the shelves had been stuffed with ancient curling scrolls. Others held skulls of varying shapes and sizes. Some were small with jagged teeth and curving horns. I swallowed hard. Because some of the skulls were clearly human.

The scent of fire and ash swirled through the strange room.

Slowly, I crept forward. My fingers twitched as curiosity got the better of me. One of the less desirable traits I had inherited from my father. He couldn’t keep his hands off things either, which was why I’d ended up in this mess in the first place.

A strange idea sparked in my mind. One I hated with every fiber of my being. The problem was, it might be my only hope of getting out of this with all my limbs intact.

Human skulls were probably worth something on the black market. Most disturbing things were, particularly anything that could be used to wield magic. I’d seen mages use blood and bone on more than one occasion. The darker the sacrifice, the greater the power.

Maybe I could steal these skulls and sell them, and then somehow use the money to buy my freedom and safety. I could afford passage on a boat. Perhaps I could go so far as the fae lands, see new worlds, and experience something that wasn’t this hellhole of a city.

And not getting tortured for the rest of my life would definitely be a bonus.

Quickly, I crossed the room and grabbed the skull, hands trembling. It was eerily smooth, as if someone had taken a stone to it in order to brush away the imperfections. For a moment, I stood there in the middle of the hidden library room, clutching an ancient skull to my chest. This was probably one of my worst ideas yet...and that was saying something.

The last thing I wanted to become was my father. Every time he got backed into a corner, he stole or he ran. Often both.

And here I was, repeating his actions.

But I didn’t really have another choice.

The last thing I was going to do was get myself caught. For his crimes.

Suddenly, the door burst open. The wood shattered beneath the force of the guard’s boot. Breath hitching, I stumbled back and hugged the skull to my chest. The guard stormed in, all thick muscular legs and broad chest. His armor undeniably identified him as one of the prince’s personal guards. Glinting golden breastplates stamped with the royal crest—a mountain lion screaming in rage. A matching helmet clung to his face, hiding everything but his eyes. But I’d seen him before. I recognized the way he waltzed into the room as if he were the king himself. It was the same guard who had seized my mother all those years ago.

It was Stavros. The guard who had been tracking me for days.

His golden eyes glinted as he stalked toward me. “There’s nowhere for you to run this time, Aradia Galatas. You’re wanted for crimes of high treason, and the prince demands punishment. Punishment is what he shall get.”

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