"Child of Man"

Prologue

Peregrine Roost, Valsarra

The Fourth Day of the Month of Storms

Year 912 of the Atheri Empire

The Duke of Valsarra paced the length of his audience hall. Although his body was weary, his mind raced and would give him no peace. It had been three days since he'd returned from the Contested Territories, and he felt as though he were still waiting for another battle to begin. He could not sleep in the softness of his bed, and the rich food that he had once been accustomed to sat like lead in his stomach.

Arsenio Valsarra was a young man, blessed with his mother's graceful build and white-blonde curls. All his life, he'd been surrounded by deadly women and sometimes men who viewed him as a desirable prize. Still, he was no fool. What he lacked in wealth or power, he made up for with his wits and his indomitable will. His beauty was like gilding on piece of iron.

Arsenio stared up at the stern portrait of his father which overlooked the empty hall. The two men could not have been more different. His father was as swarthy as he was fair, and had grown fat in his old age. Although the elder Duke had been dead since the first battle at Cadiz, his son could almost hear his voice, echoing in the very room where he had spent so much of his life.

"Do not be so eager to meet the Makers, my son."

The Duke sighed. If only he had taken those words to heart!

But, like all young knights, he'd foolishly desired to prove himself. He'd spoken in favor of the war before the Emperor and all the court. Of course, that was before he'd realized what the cost of it would be. His father was dead, his brothers were dead, and he had been hungry and cold for so long that basic comforts made him feel like a stranger in his own home.

Worse still, his beloved Ilsa was feverish and delirious. She was pregnant, and she had taken a grievous wound at the gates of Al-Mamun. No one believed that she would live through the night. As much as he desired to be at Ilsa's side, Arsenio knew that if he hovered around her room like a vulture, the doctor would not be able to work.

Not for the first time, Arsenio found himself wishing that his Gift was good for something besides starting fires and compelling people to obey him. He sighed heavily and scratched his head. His scalp still covered with salt from the sea, and it made him feel as though he had lice. In fact, he rather suspected he did have lice, but the thought was repulsive to him, and so he buried it.

The young Duke sat down in his father's chair. He had torn off most of his armor and strewn it around the room, but his clothing was still wet and covered in mud. He could sit no more than a moment and then felt compelled to stand again. His spurs clacked against the stone floor as he turned on one heel and gazed out the window.

A storm was coming. It was the season for it, but more importantly, he could feel it approaching in his bones.

The door creaked behind him, and the Duke slowly turned.

"I warned you not to disturb me!" He snarled. Tense as he was, he instinctively drew back his left hand to the level of his ear. His throat burned as he nearly spoke a terrible arcane word, and he tasted sulfur. Sparks of fire singed his doeskin gloves. He cursed and quickly tore them off, but the damage was already done. It was the third pair of gloves he'd accidentally ruined since Al-Mamun.

Arsenio might have stopped wearing gloves altogether, but he knew he would have to forswear magic first. A Mage who abused his power often developed glassy-looking nails and patches of metallic scales on his neck, face, and hands. The symptoms of the sickness were widely recognized, and Arsenio knew that it had started in him already. He was still very young to be showing such corruption, which meant that he'd probably go mad long before he grew old. He grimaced as he peeled a pale blue scale from his wrist. It left behind a red mark and a little spot of blood.

"Milord Duke," the doctor bowed.

Arsenio relaxed, but only slightly. "How is she?"

"Mistress Ilsa is sleeping," the doctor replied. "To be honest, I do not think she will wake. I have done what I can."

As he spoke to the doctor, the Duke's face became an expressionless mask. He was a skilled practitioner of the Subtle Arts, and he seldom let his servants see the true depth of his emotions. To show vulnerability was dangerous. If it became known that he had a heart, someone would surely find a way to stick a dagger into it. Such behavior wasn't necessarily paranoia. Rather, it was a finely-honed survival trait learned by all Mages in their years of training. Magic was not meant for the weak. Ilsa's softness had cost her, not only her official status as a Mage of the Tower Council, but also her life.

The doctor hesitated for a long moment. "Milord, the child."

"The child?" Arsenio eyed the doctor suspiciously. "It has been born?"

"It has. But it..."

"Spit it out, man!" Arsenio ordered. "Is the child alive? Healthy?"

"It is very much alive. Although you're not the father, are you?" The doctor asked.

"I never said I was. The father is dead," Arsenio paused. "Too many good men are," he added.

"Well, I suppose that does explain it," the doctor nodded solemnly.

"What's wrong with Ilsa's child?" Arsenio asked.

"Milord, I think it is best that you see for yourself," the doctor replied.

Arsenio sighed and followed the doctor up the stairs. He paused at the door of Ilsa's room. He was afraid to go in. If he saw her lying on her deathbed, he knew that he would not be able to contain all the emotions that were welling up within him. He was about to lose the love of his life before he could even marry her. The Makers, if they existed at all, were unreasonably cruel.

Without laying eyes on the child, Arsenio vowed to all the gods and the Makers themselves that he would not abandon it, not even if it was crippled or monstrous. Ilsa had given him her love at a time when he had almost lost all hope. He owed her no less.

The Duke sighed and stepped into the room. It reeked of blood. Ilsa looked terrible. Her eyes were closed, and the pallor of death was already creeping across her face, Still, she was a beauty, even with her absurdly boyish "Tower" haircut. Arsenio took her hand. He felt a slight change in her breathing. She obviously knew he'd come to see her, but her heartbeat was sluggish. Her eyes fluttered but did not open.

Arsenio knelt on the ground. He did not move or speak a word until his beloved breathed her last. Very slowly, he stood.

"Where is the child?" Arsenio demanded.

He glanced at the midwife, and the serving girl who'd been assisting her. Neither of them were holding the child, which seemed very strange. The doctor glanced fearfully at a basket on the floor. Something moved within it.

Arsenio approached the basket and slowly moved the blankets aside. When he saw the child, his eyes grew wide. He jumped as if he'd been struck by a snake. A curse word escaped him. He did not bother to conceal his shock.

"What is to be done, milord?" The doctor asked.

Arsenio did not reply. He glanced at Ilsa's body, and then at the shelf of spellbooks in her room. For a long while, he stared down into the basket.

"Did Ilsa choose a name?" He asked.

"She did, but only a Mage could pronounce it," the doctor admitted.

"Well, that won't do. What do you think about Nathaniel? We could call him Nat, after my brother," Arsenio suggested.

"Nat!" The midwife protested. "You can't! Gods above, did you look at it?"

"I did," Arsenio replied coldly.

"And?" The doctor demanded.

Arsenio paused. "Ilsa gave birth to a healthy boy child, and he is my son. Am I understood?"

The midwife fell silent. "As you will, milord," she whispered feebily.

All eyes drifted toward the basket on the floor.