Chapter 1 - "Child of Magic"
Peregrine Roost, Valsarra
The Fifteenth Day of the Month of Frost
Year 926 of the Atheri Empire
Nat fitted an arrow to his bow. The doe he was stalking had come to drink at the river. She didn't seem to smell him, and he was thankful for that. Although his aim was good, he liked to get as close as possible to his prey. If he was going to kill an animal, it seemed best to do so quickly.
The boy admired the graceful curve of the doe's neck and the soft honey-brown color of her coat. She was an elegant creature, and she picked her way through the forest with scarcely a sound. The picture she painted standing on that snowy bank made Nat sorry to kill her, but his stomach grumbled. The winter had been harsh, and even the castle's food stores were running low. Although he had not witnessed such misery himself, Nat had heard that some of the peasants south of the White Road were actually starving. Whatever game he could bring in would be surely appreciated. He was only thirteen, so no one expected much than a few squirrels or rabbits. A good-sized doe would provide meat for weeks.
The doe paused. She saw Nat. Although his wool cloak was the same drab color as the brush, his sharp blue eyes made him visible where he hid.
"Have you come for my life?"
Nat froze. He'd heard a woman's voice in his mind, and he realized that it was the doe speaking to him.
A strange feeling coursed through his body, followed by dizziness. It was as if he'd just walked up to a warm fire after hours out in the cold. His vision blurred, and Nat nearly dropped his bow. His first fear was that he might accidentally lose the arrow and kill the doe that he'd just heard speak. He gripped the nock tightly between his two fingers as he stumbled forward.
The doe should have bounded away, but she did not move. She only stared at him.
Nat returned his arrow back into his quiver. "Are you talking to me?" He whispered fearfully. It seemed mad to speak to the animal he'd been about to shoot. There was no response. Instead of speaking, Nat focused his thoughts.
"Are you the doe?"
The doe's ears pricked, and she stepped forward. "What are you?"
"A man," Nat nodded. "Well, a boy anyway. May I come closer? I won't hurt you."
All thoughts of hunting were purged from his mind. Nat slowly approached the doe, holding out his hand as if he were approaching a dog or a horse. The doe sniffed him. His blonde hair was pulled back in a tight braid, and he laughed as the she nibbled on the hood of his cloak like a goat.
"You smell strange, child of man," the doe said.
"I had a bath a few days ago," Nat replied. He pictured a washtub and soap, but then realized that those images would not mean anything to a creature of the forest. Instead, he sent the idea of a magpie poking about on the edge of a pond, wetting and ruffling its feathers.
The doe took a step away from him, suddenly fearful. A confusing flurry of images poured into his mind. First it was the bird he had shown her, then a fire-lizard, a mountain cat... and last, a man.
"What are you trying to tell me?" Nat wondered. All he could gather from what he had seen was that everything the doe envisioned was the same, somehow.
"That which is one, and then another," she replied.
"I don't know what that means," he admitted.
"You are no child of man. You are a child of magic," the doe finished. She seemed to bow, or at very least, she lowered her head.
"A child of magic?" Nat echoed.
He realized with no small amount of discomfort that he would no longer be able to hunt for his supper, but at the same time there was something liberating about being able to approach the doe and run his fingers through her velvety coat. When he touched her, he could see that she was filled with a strange white light. He looked up and saw birds flitting through the trees. They were glowing white as well. Above them, something iridescent danced in the sky, and Nat gasped as he realized that it was a wind elemental.
"Is this Sight?" He asked.
"Sight?" The doe echoed. She was confused again.
Nat paused. He could not explain what that word meant. His father had always told him that talent for magic was an unmistakable thing, and that Mages saw the world in ways that no ordinary man could comprehend. They possessed a sixth sense, as distinct as smell, touch, or hearing. It was most often called "Sight" with a capital "S", and it always manifested at the same time as their Gift.
A Mage's strongest innate talent usually Awakened between the ages of ten and fifteen. Nat had recently turned fourteen himself, and his lack of Gift had made him very nervous. His father was a Mage, and his mother had been a Mage as well. Still, sometimes the Gift skipped a generation, and there was nothing that frightened Nat more than the thought of never being able to wield magic.
His cousin Adrien was already studying at the Tower, and although he had always loathed schooling, Nat was anxious to join him there. The city of Giorsus was ancient and enormous, built by the dragons thousands of years before man. It was said that the Tower itself was like a mountain made of stone and filled with so many labyrinthine corridors that could take centuries to explore. Nat had been to the Midsummer Faire in Tresil, but his father adamantly refused to take him anywhere else.
Sometimes Nat wondered if his father was embarrassed by him. He was a strong boy, if a bit small for his age, and not especially clever. Still, he wasn't a dunderhead either. He was in most respects perfectly average, and that did not seem like something he should be ashamed of.
The doe jumped suddenly, and Nat took a step back.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he said.
The doe did not respond. She only stared, wild-eyed at something in the brush not far arrow skimmed over Nat's head, and he gasped as it sunk into the tree behind him. He nearly slid into the frozen river as the doe fled.
As he scrambled to his feet, two peasant boys came running. Nat recognized them immediately as the sons of the local miller, although he didn't know their names. Their clothes were threadbare, and they both looked thin and tired. If they hadn't almost killed him, Nat might have felt pity for the two.
"Are you injured?" The first boy asked. "I'm so sorry! We didn't see you! We didn't see you at all!"
"I'm fine," Nat sighed. He rose to his feet, and both of the boys bowed as they realized who he was.
"Master Nathaniel? Were... were you invisible just now?" The second boy whispered fearfully.
"I don't know," Nat admitted. "I might have been." He was usually able to get very close to his prey, which was a thing he'd attributed to his hunting prowess, but maybe there was more to it than that.
"Well, you can't work magic on accident," the first boy protested.
"What would you know about magic, peasant?" Nat demanded. Normally, he didn't lord his status over others, but it seemed ridiculous that a child with eyes as brown as mud would say something like that to the son of two powerful Mages.
"How did you get so close to that doe?"
"Magic," Nat replied. He picked up his bow and turned to walk away. When he was sure that the peasant boys had gone on their way, he sat down on a rock and stared at his hands. His veins were flickering with blue light, as if something contained within them was struggling to burst free. His Gift had Awakened. It burned in him, and filled him with a sense of rightness that he had never known before. For the first time in his life, Nat understood why Mages thought they were superior to everyone else. His father had summed it up perfectly. The whole world did look different.
Nat raced home as fast as his legs would carry him. He felt certain that his father would forgive him for not bringing back any meat. He knew now that he was Gifted, and that was much more important. Every lord in Athera, from the least-important Baron to the Emperor himself was a master of magic. The more powerful and rare a man's Gift was, the more renowned he would become.
When he reached the porter's gate of the castle, Nat froze. A spark of fear seized his heart. What if his Gift was not as special as he believed it was? What if speaking to animals was unimportant, something any village witch could do? Perhaps his father would not send him to the Tower at all?
Nat hesitated. That fearful prospect made it seem best to not tell anyone. There were many books in the castle library, most of which had belonged to his mother. He could read through them at his leisure and find out what a good Gift was. Any magic could be learned with enough practice. If it was better to be an illusionist like his cousin Adrien, he could surely teach himself a worthy skill.
Nat hung up his snowy cloak in the kitchen and kicked off his boots. The cold of the stone seeped through his thin socks, but he didn't mind it. Even in the winter, it was difficult for him to keep many layers of clothing on. He had always liked the feeling of the sun and wind on his bare skin. It made him feel as if he was connected to something he couldn't express.
Focusing his Sight, he realized that the air itself was filled with tiny, almost imperceptible threads of blue light. It was arcane energy... ather, as Mages called it. Nat noticed that the ather did not pass through his thick winter shirt, but his skin soaked it up like a sponge. Despite the chill in the air, he pulled his shirt off. The flicker of blue in his veins became steadier as he drank up the latent power in the air. It felt refreshing, like a cool drink of water after a long run.
No one spoke a word to him as he drifted up the stairs to the library. Some of the servants and the guardsmen gave him strange looks, which was perhaps unsurprising considering that he was wandering around half-naked, but they all knew it wasn't their place to meddle in his upbringing.
More importantly, Nat got the impression that more than a few of his father's retainers, particularly his cook and his doctor, were actually afraid of him. Not that he cared. He had little interest in the affairs of the castle kitchen, and he was almost never sick. It did seem very odd that two adults would go out of their way to avoid a fourteen year-old boy, but then again, he was heir to Peregrine Roost and possibly all of Valsarra.
That last part, of course, was dependent on the quality of his Gift. Magic was the lifeblood of the Empire. The Duke had to be a powerful Mage, but House Valsarra had many sons to choose from. Although Nat was the most direct heir, his cousin Adrien was also a likely candidate. It seemed likely that the two of them would one day fight a duel to determine who would inherit. While Nat couldn't imagine actually harming his cousin, he likely the idea of a daring swordfight, or better still, a terrible arcane battle like the ones his father had fought back in the war.
Nat took dozens of books down from their shelves and began paging through them. He was a slow reader, and anything without pictures or fancy illuminations bored him. Still, becoming a Mage meant that he would have to suffer through eight more years of "education". After a few hours of muddling through texts that meant nothing to him, he decided that he'd had enough. He still burned with the desire to use magic... but surely there was an easier way to learn it?
Nat studied the stub of a candle sitting on the table in front of him. It was bright enough in the library that he didn't need to light it, but a mad thought occurred to him. When his father wanted something to burn, he didn't sing or recite any long-winded incantations. The Duke usually invoked like a Ilskaan sorcerer, simply by focusing and speaking a single powerful word.
That word was one Nat already knew. He closed the book in front of him and pushed it out of the way. "Akhai," he whispered.
Nothing happened. He focused. Using his Sight, Nat could see the faintest flickers of blue trapped inside of the candle wax, like memories of lost heat and light. The candle wasn't complete without its flame. It was made for fire. Without fire, it served no purpose at all.
He needed to make it right.
"Akhai," Nat repeated.
The candle flared to life. The flame he had created was blue-white, nothing like his father's usual invocation. His father's magic looked like normal fire. Nat watched the candle carefully. He slowly reached out and put his finger into the flame. It did not burn. Rather, the fire seemed to flow into him, and before he realized what he was doing, he'd lifted the flame from the candle's wick and was holding it in the palm of his hand.
His stomach grumbled. Nat was still hungry, but not only for bread and meat. The magic he'd been toying with made him feel famished. He needed ather more than he needed food.
Nat held the flame close to his lips. For some reason he wanted to eat it, but he wasn't sure what would happen if he did. The sound of the library door opening startled him. He closed his fist tightly around the flame and hid it under the table. It still burned, although no air was reaching it.
"Father?" Nat blinked in surprise. "What are you doing up here?"
Duke Arsenio eyed his son suspiciously. "I should ask you the same question," he replied, observing the piles of books, Nat's discarded shirt, and the melted candle on the table in front of the boy. "Look at this mess!"
Nat sighed. He did not expect that he could conceal what he had just learned. The flame in his hand still burned, and he wasn't sure what to do with it. "I'm studying magic," he admitted.
The Duke frowned. "Nathaniel, you can't learn magic if you don't have the Gift."
"But I have it," Nat protested. "I got it today."
Duke Arsenio was silent for a long while. "Are you sure?" He asked.
"Am I sure?" Nat rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm sure! I'm not stupid!"
"Do not speak to me with that tone of voice!" The Duke scolded.
"Father, honestly! It's... it's everywhere!" He gestured to the candle on the table, the empty air, and then at himself. When he focused his Sight, he realized that he could see blue ather flowing in his father's body. Like the animals in the forest, the castle servants who were not Gifted glowed white. "And if you use your Sight on me, you'll know I'm not lying."
"Hm. So you think you're a Mage already, do you?" The Duke smiled slightly. "How did it happen?"
He seemed relaxed, but there was something in his eyes that suggested he wasn't as comfortable as he pretended to be.
"I'm not sure," Nat admitted. "I saw a doe in the woods. I was about to shoot her, but then I heard her speak to me. She let me touch her."
"You touched her, eh? Well, the cook tells me you didn't bring home any meat," the Duke snorted.
"Father, I couldn't! I couldn't kill someone I had a conversation with!" Nat protested.
"Someone? I thought you said it was a doe you spoke to? An animal?"
"Why are you making this difficult? I should think you'd be proud of me!" Nat sighed. "I'll be a Mage now. Isn't that what you want?"
"Of course. But it's best to be certain, my son. Your first Gift is... important. When people learn what it is, they will assume things about you. Suffice to say, the Gift you are describing is not a common one."
"Is it a bad Gift?" Nat asked fearfully. "It doesn't feel like a bad Gift."
"There's no such thing as a "bad" Gift, Nat," Duke Arsenio sighed. "But there are Subtle Arts, and there are savage ones."
"Like your fire-starting?" Nat paused. He had heard his father called a "savage" and a "sorcerer" more than once before. Mages did not commonly start fires as the Duke did. That kind of magic was the preserve of the Ilskaans, who lived in the far south. They were perpetually trying to destroy the Empire, and numerous wars had to be fought to subdue them.
The Duke nodded. "The Tower is very good at teaching illusion, and the art of bending hearts and wills. It excels at enchantment. Other magics are chiefly the preserve of the Ilskaans. Summoning. Shapechanging. The invocation of the elements. Before the war, I knew nothing of sorcery. I spent six years at the Tower, and yet I still lived in fear of my strongest Gift."
"I'm not afraid of sorcery," Nat said. "I'm not afraid of anything."
"That is what worries me," the Duke sighed.
"Why?" Nathaniel demanded.
The Duke glared at him, and he realized that he was being impertinent again.
"Father, would it be better if I had a different Gift?" Nat asked.
"It's not so simple," Duke Arsenio replied. "There's more to learning magic than what comes most naturally to you. You'll need to learn how to channel ather. How to focus your will. Just because you've Awakened doesn't mean you can do anything you want."
Nat sighed. He reached out and set the tiny flame he held back on the candle's wick. It burned as if he'd never moved it at all, and remained blue.
Duke Arsenio stared at his son. "Impossible," he said.
"I'm sorry, father," Nat bit his lip. Judging by his father's reaction, he had just done something very bad. He decided not to mention that the miller's boys had been unable to see him at the river.
"You have nothing to apologize for," the Duke replied. "But you should... keep this to yourself. At least for now. Can you do that for me?"
"And clean up this room," Duke Arsenio added. "Your mother would be mortified if she could see what you've done with her books. If you're going to read them, please, at least treat them with some respect!"
"I will," Nat nodded.
The Duke disappeared down the hall. Nat picked up his mother's books as he'd been instructed to. He hadn't considered what his mother might think of him rifling through her library. He put everything back with care, feeling guilty about how he'd tossed it all around earlier.
When he finished, Nat decided that it was time for him to eat. Although the cook did not like him sneaking food between meals, he was sure that he'd already missed dinner. There would be something saved for him in the kitchen, probably the same thin chicken broth with bits of barley that everyone in the castle was eating. Although his father might have demanded better meals, he considered a display of solidarity to be more important when food was so scarce.
Nathaniel followed his nose. He removed the lid from the pot on the hearth and was about to scoop himself a bowl of thick porridge when he heard a familiar voice coming from the pantry.
It was his father's doctor, and with him was the cook. Nat put his ear to the wall and listened in on their conversation.
"I saw the master stop you in the hall. Where has he gone?" The cook hissed.
"He didn't say. To the Tower, I imagine," the doctor replied. "It's worse than we feared, Molly. He's broken the binding."
"Already?" The cook gasped. "But it was supposed to last this time!"
"I fear that no binding will. The master is too stubborn for his own good. He refuses to admit that he needs the aid of the Tower Council."
"Emry, you know they'll never support him in this! He'll be ousted just as the mistress was! Some magics are forbidden for a reason," the cook paused. "Do you think they knew about her?"
"Oh, I very much doubt that," the doctor replied.
"So what should we do?" The cook asked.
"Until the master returns?" The doctor paused. "There's nothing we can do. We pray. And we keep a very close eye on Nat."