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IT WASN’T A long tale or even a particularly exciting one. Arien knew he was little different from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other children born in Neystan and Callisun each year. There were a lot of slaves in the Empire and few were ever discouraged from breeding. Not that being a slave in the Empire was always a bad thing. Some slaves held a great deal of power, in fact some of the most powerful positions could only be held by slaves. Some were rich, famous even and lived far better lives than those born free.
Or so he had been told.
Most were not so lucky. Arien’s mother hadn’t been born a slave. She’d been a war prize taken during one of Neystan’s many expansion campaigns. Since her life before being sold was of no account, and her language too uncivilised to be spoken, they’d named her Zari, the desert word for sun, since her skin and eyes shimmered like sunlight on the desert, and even her long brown hair held hints of sunshine. She was beautiful and she had magic.
Under Neystani law all slave children were taken away on their fifth birthday to be taught their place or be sold on, but there were a few exceptions. Because Zari was a mage there was a high chance her son would be too, so he was left with her for another five years. In this time it was up to Zari to teach him how to control and contain his magic.
Except she did it rather too well. Her boy’s magic was pushed down so tightly no searcher ever found so much as a spark inside of him. Disappointed that he hadn’t gained another sand-crafter to protect his compound, Zari’s master decided to send the child to market.
For thirteen years, since she’d been barely older than her son was now, Zari had been good. She’d done her master’s bidding and crafted the storms to keep the compound safe. She’d never tried to escape, since her home and family no longer existed, but when her master tried to sell her child something inside her snapped.
She killed him and fled with her son, walking out into a storm from which she never intended to return.
Except her boy’s magic wasn’t of sand or storm. It went deeper into the earth and she couldn’t craft the winds with him – he was too grounded. Refusing to let him go, she was forced to flee by more conventional means.
But it was too late. They caught Zari and executed her in front of her son as a warning: be obedient or pay the price.
Her last words to her boy had been, “Keep it hidden. No one must know.”
And so he hid it. All the way across the deserts and scrublands. Through the grasses and forests. Over mountains, down rivers, he kept it to himself. Not even in the slave markets of Callisun did he reveal himself.
Until one day, as he was being marched to the sale block, he passed a stall full of exotic creatures from distant lands. It specialised in the magically potent animals found in the Rythen mountains between Wrystan and Firthen. There, hidden amongst them all, scrawny, mangy and half-starved, a pine marten kit looked into the eyes of a young mage and a bond was formed that was too strong to hide. They fought to reach each other and once together no one could separate them.
The secret was out, his price was raised and his true torment began. There was no way he could hide it now, not when they forced the magic from him. Then the Hunger came and he did little to stop it at first. They tried to tame him with force and threats, but he endured until he finally found a way to escape. The way he chose was hard and long, but he knew that if he could reach the mage school in Royas Bay he would be safe. Firthen wasn’t far enough, but Wrystan was. He’d heard people whisper about it with awe and wonder. It was a strong place where people were free and powerful. They could protect him.
But he was found again and force-fed mages to keep the Hunger quiet. Until one day they went too far, and with the help of grief-stricken witch, an explosive young battle mage and a healer-in-training, the boy emerged from the torment of his past. Except now his magic was a hungry, hungry thing that couldn’t be trusted. So he kept it hidden, hoping no one would know.
“Only they do know,” Arien said flatly, staring at the rumbling sea. He’d never seen a beach made entirely from pebbles before. They clattered and hissed as the water slithered between them like snakes from the desert of his childhood. “They know and are smart enough not to trust me. How can they? I don’t even trust myself.”
“What does your name mean?” Mara asked, as if his self-pity had never been spoken.
He stared at her through watery eyes, unaware that he’d been crying, and wiped his nose on his sleeve with a sniff. “Azar, son of Zari, son of the sun.”
“And the ien?”
For the first time in what felt like forever, Arien smiled. Magic uncurled inside him, filling the holes, smoothing over the scars and aches. “Irien, free.”
“So Arien means?”
Rowan crawled into his lap for a cuddle and Arien laughed; it was soft, barely a breath, but a laugh nonetheless. “Son of freedom.”
“Then live up to your name, Arien,” Mara commanded him, her voice gruff. “The free never have to hide. Your magic is strong, strong enough to protect you. Let the whole world know about it.”
Clutching Rowan tight, Arien turned his attention inwards and saw his magic for the first time. It was silver and it was beautiful. A living, breathing river that streamed between him and the world, more powerful than any Hunger. More potent than any chain. Yet these were shackles he never wanted to break.
Taking a breath of magic and pine marten musk, Arien opened his eyes. It grew on him slowly, gradually, and settled inside him with a feeling of utter rightness. After all this time and struggle he felt it. He felt free.
He looked at Mara, unable to voice his gratitude for what she’d done.
Her smile was understanding and she jumped to her feet, brushing off the back of her trousers. “Up you get, young’un,” she ordered, whistling for her horse and sending her mage-beast to round up Arien’s stray mount. “We’ve places to go and people to see.”
When he was slow to follow, not wanting to go back to the disappointment of the city, she raised her eyebrows. “Magic theory is about to start and you’ve missed enough lessons already. Sparrow and the Rampant Roscoe are saving you a place. Shift or you’ll miss it.”
“Sparrow?” Arien asked blankly, too buffeted by his revelations to take it all in. He was certain, however, that he didn’t know anyone by that name. “Who’s Sparrow?”
Boosting him onto his snorting horse, Mara leapt into her own saddle and laughed. “Race you back to Royas Bay. If you win, I’ll tell you.”
Digging his heels into his horse’s sides, Arien shoved Rowan down the front of his tunic and shot off along the road to the city. “Deal,” he shouted and bent forward over his horse’s neck, determined to win.
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