His eyes darted over the desk table, following his own hand movements as they indiscreetly rummaged through the stacks of papers and books. The back of his head throbbed a dull ache as he sifted over the piles of documents. Spells smelling like cigar smoke were covered in recipes of potions and strange, vile mixtures, topped by yet more files and folders of sort. Groaning in agitation, he swiped his hand over the table, scattering the papers against the floor. Widening eyes instantly realized his error and he perked up, standing to a stiff, concentrated pose.
In the next room, he could hear the continuing drunken slur of a man succumbed with alcohol.
“Someday we’re gonna…
Bang, bang, bang!
We’ll win, I swear we will win
This fighting game!
Tomorrow I’m gonna…
Bang, bang, bang!
And I will survive this life, I will!
But you won’t do the same…”
Gulping after his hesitation, the boy looked down on the papers, ignoring them for the time being. Running one hand through his thick hair, he let his eyes roam rapidly through the room, pausing a moment at the single lit candle in the corner of the cleared counter. Nibbling on his lower lip, he hunched over the desk again, whisking the top-drawer open. More papers.
The first stack held only awards and invitations from the Royal Guard, most signed by King Filkor himself, some even by his deceased wife. Rolling his eyes, he dropped them onto the chair before lurching his hand into the back of the drawer. There he found envelopes and more invitations in yet another neat stack of papers. In agitation he yanked them from the back of the cupboard, holding them against his chest with one hand while the fingers of his other worked quickly past each one, reading the headings hand-written in ink.
Freezing, he pulled back to a document he had skipped, pulling it from the stack. His heartbeat quickened as the rest of the papers dropped forgotten onto the chair. Leaning down he held the paper in the light of the candle, reading the first paragraph before skipping to the bottom of the page.
Hereby on the order of the Royal Family and his Highness, King Filkor III of Taber, we present all rights of guardianship of the orphan boy “Destan” to the high-honored and appreciated sorcerer Jadanno of Taber. An indenture of ten years will be served in the study and practice of sorcery where the boy will be learned in the ways of white magic by his present master.
King Filkor III
His lips dried as he read over the words, the headache thundering louder against his temples. Closing his eyes momentarily, he folded it twice before stuffing it carefully into the front of his tunic.
Jumping to his guard, Destan whirled around, his hands clasping together in front of his shirt. Immediately he could hear footsteps ringing throughout the small cottage house, the slurred song of moments ago disappeared without trace. His fists clenched together as he backed up slightly, feeling the corner of the desk against his side. Looking back at the mishap of papers he shook his head, letting his arms fall to his sides. Closing the drawer, he scurried over to the far wall, pulling open the first cupboard he could reach. On the shelf sat dozens of chemicals in short glass jars. Shaky fingers grasped the first one on the lower shelf—this of a violet color and closed with an unimportant looking wooden cork.
“Hey there, boy!” The familiar words rung together by the drawled tone of voice as the squeak-hinged door clattered noisily open. Forcing his nerves to calm, Destan turned around with the bottle held tightly in his fingertips. Hazy, yet vibrant brown eyes turned over the room before rising to the young adolescent in the shadows. “What you doing back here other than making a mess?”
Raising his head high, Destan forced his face emotionless. “I was looking for your medicine, Master.”
An eyebrow peeked. “I don’t take medicine.”
“I thought maybe you should.”
Furrowing his large eyebrows together, Jadanno clenched his right fist into a ball. “You quiet, I don’t need your smart remarks! Now, put that back where ya found it and get out of here before I have to make ya! And tomorrow, boy, you’ll have this here room spotless!”
Pivoting, Jadanno grabbed hold of the door panel to steady himself before marching down the hall where he had come from. Destan exhaled a long breath, turning to place the bottle on the shelf once more. He closed the cupboard silently before leaving the sullen room, forgetting about the single burning candle alone on the desk.
His short legs carried him into the living room, a much brighter place by the loose gas lights above, but no more pleasant to be in. A cloud of smoke hung over the balding head of the sorcerer, already strewn out upon the large chair in the corner. His pipe rested in one hand while his other palm dawdled carelessly over the small table littered in bottles. “What’s your poison, boy?”
“Nonsense. You lived here for how many years now yet you still don’t like this much. Here, try this one here.” Destan gasped, reaching up to grasp the leather-clad bottle as it sailed for his head. The old man laughed, closing his eyes merrily as the boy lowered the bottle affirmatively to his stomach. He kept his eyes locked on the drunk, sliding closer to the wall of books to his back. Keeping his eyes lowered, he leaned back against the shelving, uncorking the bottle as the man began to sing once again.
Lifting it to his lips, he tilted the bottle upward, feeling the warm liquid rinse over his tongue. He flinched, tightening his eyelids, before lowering his head to feel the drink immediately flow back into the large canister. Destan knew the taste would follow him throughout the night. Opening his eyes, he saw that Jadanno was watching him, his eyes dark with disapproval. They held each other’s stare silently for a minute, before the elder turned to look at his pipe, lifting it to his lips to inhale a quick breath of smoke before releasing it into a ring and watching it dissipate into the warm air.
“Stupid boy,” he mumbled quietly, the auburn gaze settled onto the high ceiling.
Destan gulped, nervously setting the bottle on the shelf behind him, always keeping his eyes glued to the man lounging comfortably in his chair. Jadanno was not truly old, he reflected, perhaps not much more than his mid-thirties. But the quick temper and drinking habits created dark circles in his eyes and wrinkles his face that should not have existed. An obviously stressful life had taken away much of the hair on top of his head and the little light that shone in his dark eyes constantly spoke of anger.
“Why were you really in the study?”
“I was searching for something to give you.”
“There’s enough of that in you as we speak,” he danced around the questions, bringing up the strong alcohol boiling in his master’s blood. Jadanno watched him carefully in a state of corrupt anger, before a loud, bellowing chuckle rose from his throat.
“So there is, so there is!” he joked, slapping his belly. He was not really a large man, but over the years the rum had evidently stuck to his stomach. Refusing to move, Destan waited for him to calm down. It did not take long and soon the fiery eyes were glaring at him again. Slowly, Jadanno sat forward, hunching over his legs, one hand placed against his knee. “You want to kill me, boy?”
A small grin tilted the corners of Destan’s lips almost instantaneously. “I would have done so long before, Master.”
“Ha, you couldn’t if you tried. Far too weak.”
“I’ll be stronger than you one day.”
“Doubt that! Foolishness. You try to flatter yourself.” Jadanno let his pipe drop onto a small tray on the table before pulling himself to his feet. Narrowing his eyes he managed in sauntering over to the young teenager who held his gaze emotionlessly. One sweaty palm grasped onto his chin, craning his head high. “You’re worthless. Never will you master sorcery, and you know that. You don’t have it inside of you.”
“You’re wrong,” came the hissing yet subtle reply. “I’ve already showed potential, Master. That’s why you fear me.”
Suddenly Jadanno was shaking, a deep scarlet rising to his cheeks. “Insignificant!” he cried, backhanding the boy across the face and hurling him to the ground. Destan gritted his teeth, landing with a thud against the carpeted floor. He lay there with one eye open, not daring to move as Jadanno thundered to his side. “Never will you speak to me in that voice again, understand? Why do I put up with such disrespect? I should have thrown you into the streets when your parents died instead of sacrificing my life to help the young child in need!” He hovered over Destan, one fist clenched tightly at his chest. Loud breaths strung through the air turning into wheezing gasps for air. His voice growing suddenly calm, he took a step back, looking down upon the scrunched up face of the teenage boy. “You want to be free, boy? You want to kill me and have your own life? Your power could never surpass my own, you know that. Now you listen here.” Pulling up his pant legs, Jadanno kneeled down to the boy, sitting back on his ankles. “I own you. To this world you are nothing but a slave child, a lonely apprentice. You belong to me, boy.” His bony fingers reached forward, grabbing violently onto Destan’s jaw. “Never forget that.”
Jadanno stood, stepped leisurely over the motionless body, and reached for his pipe before lighting it with prestige. Squinting his eyes together, Destan listened to his own breath as it stilled. He could hear the old man tumbling into his chair and the thickening scent of smoke began to fill his lungs. With white knuckles, he stood, pushing back hateful tears as he turned to his master, legs shoulder width apart. Jadanno stared at him amused, a benign smile over thin lips.
“You’re wrong, master,” he hissed, lowering his head to feel the dark bangs brush against his brow. “The world looks at me as a slave child because a piece of paper states that I am just that. But no more! I will never belong to you!” The rising tones in his voice shook the walls, maturity screaming in his breath.
“What are you talking about?”
“The orphan paper, or indenture paper more like. I’ll find them, and I will burn them to ashes, mark my words.”
Caterpillar eyebrows began to furrow together. Slowly, Jadanno leaned forward in his chair, removing the pipe from his lips in a slow, tranquil dance from fingers to tray, contrasting the trembling body of the young boy before him. “Paper?” A growl emerged from his throat as once again he pushed himself on large bulky legs. “Where is it, boy? Give it to me now if you know what’s good for you.” He seemed strangely sober, his eyes no longer dancing with joyful rum. The transition scared Destan momentarily. Clasping his hand unconsciously in front of his chest, he stumbled a few steps back as Jadanno’s attention slid down to his clenched palm.
“I… I don’t have it…” he stuttered, too slowly. With a growling challenge, Jadanno dodged forward, his right hand coming over his shoulder to swing at Destan’s face. He screeched, ducking in time to miss. A few books clattered noisily to the floor.
Gasping, Destan took no time to look up at the man already preparing his fist for another throw. In one startled lunge, he ran toward the door, flinging it open as he skidded into the evening air. The sun was to his back, kissing the treetops of the large forest he had memorized over the years. Jadanno’s steps were behind him.
With enflamed cheeks, he dashed across the weed-filled yard, pushing past a metal iron gate into the ferns and fallen tree trunks. Though his legs were small, he knew that he was nimble in the muscles, and the ounce of sorcery he believed he could feel at his fingertips helped him to fly through the trees. But with every step, Jadanno came an inch closer. Soon his breath was burning harshly in his lungs, the smell of autumn no longer pleasing to his nostrils.
Branches and thorns grasped at his limbs as he ran past, following the invisible trail he had treaded so many times. He knew perfectly well where he was going unconsciously, and somewhere knew it would not help his escape, but it was too late to choose another path.
Turn—around this oak. It has scratches and markings. Over the termite-infested trunks half burnt from an experiment of years before. There’s a stream around here—one hundred more yards. It leads down to the bay. The bay.
The second he jumped over the small brook he knew he should have turned there. He could escape easily from the bay, out toward the ocean, then come back in at mainland. He could make it to the kingdom, the city. But it was too late. No time to stall…
Grunting, he leaped over the ditch he had once carved as a hideout. Nerves tensed in his spine, water gradually slipping into his tear ducts. Dead end.
He forced his legs to stop and stumbled at the sudden impact, collapsing to his hands and knees on the edge of the cliff. Over a mile down he could see the subtle waves glinting in the orange hues of a dying twilight. Straight down from this cliff of an impossible height to scale from he watched the mirror image of the sun in the bay. With a choked sob, he let the energy leave his arms, sinking so that is face brushed the prickly grass and wildflowers below him.
With shaky fingertips, he managed to reach inside his shirt and seek out the single, unharmed folded piece of paper. He took it out to stare at silently as his gaze began to cry. “You don’t own me,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “I’ll never belong to you!” One hand yanked a handful of grass unconsciously from the soil while the other turned the paper up to the sun, staring at its black outline. A furious yell resounded within his stomach and instantly, a glowing auburn fire gripped his palm, springing up between his fingers. The paper crackled against the heat, heat like a gentle stream to his senses. But his heart beat too furiously for him to recall the relaxing sensation of magic as he let the flames simmer in his blood. His yell reached higher, like a caged beast at night, hungry. The paper continued to crinkle between his palm and fingers, but slowly Destan came to the realization that no ashes seeped forth from his skin. Gradually, he let the fire burn down to a spark before extinguishing into the air. Hesitating, he opened his fist.
The paper was still neatly folded, a pure white material with black ink just beginning to run across the veins of the template. Blinking, Destan unfolded it in curiosity as well as agitation. His breath was quiet compared to the screams of moments ago as he watched the ink pooling together, curling, spinning a web. Words came into play, names of mountains, lakes, valleys splaying over the glittering black ink. Desperately trying to wet his dry throat, Destan let his stare travel up to the gold sun, leaving the melted image of a perfect map and the large black crescent moon in the upper left corner.
The footsteps behind him were gruff, slowing once they left the forest shortly behind. Gasping, Destan folded the paper again, scrunching it in his hold.
Two hands grabbed him at once, one turning him over while the other locked onto his shirt collar, raising him to his feet. He didn’t know whether to feel fear or anger or amusement as Jadanno’s cold nose touched his own. His eyes held a black fire, like embers of charcoal, and his breath carried the scent of alcohol.
“Where’s the paper?!” he hissed between his teeth.
Unconsciously, Destan’s hand tensed over the map. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Where is it?” he yelled loudly. Jadanno’s free hand now grasped around his throat, squeezing against the veins in his neck. Destan gasped, instantly choking, his eyes bulging. “Give it to me!”
He flinched, one eye closing with pain as he struggled to intake breath. “I… don’t…” The hand not holding the paper lifted weakly to Jadanno’s arm, grasping onto the soft material covering the large bones. “Please…” he whimpered, slamming his eyes shut. The palm over his neck only clamped down tighter.
“If you know what’s good for you, boy…” the sorcerer threatened, his veins pulsing against his sweat-covered forehead.
“Jadanno… Master…” Destan’s voice sounded weak and far away. Two tears pushed their way from between his eyelashes, but he ignored them, ignored the burning in his lungs, concentrating only on his hand wrapped around his captor’s forearm. “Let me… go!”
The explosion tore at Jadanno’ skin, singing his clothes, hair, eyebrows. With a fierce growl he released his grip as the child’s entire body burst into flames. He stumbled backwards, pushing out to rid himself of the firework he had held. His surprise was followed by a screech.
Destan continued to scream, his burning hands reaching out for anything to grasp onto with his support gone. Too late.
Sickening thuds burned in the old man’s ears as a limp, probably already dead, body pounded again and again down the walls of the cliff, before disappearing with a loud splash of salt water. His lips were dry and shaky as a breeze chilled the drops of sweat beading against his hairline. The trees behind him whispered disappointment.
The boy was gone. And with him, the only link to the ultimate treasure. Thick eyebrows furrowed together as he sighed in agitation against the screaming of the waves, so many miles below.
*Marissa Meyer is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Lunar Chronicles, which began with CINDER, the tale of a teenage cyborg destined to save the world. Marissa got her start writing fanfiction for the popular magic-girl anime Sailor Moon, and she thinks it’s kind of amazing that there is now fanfic based on her own books. She loves working in her pajamas, eating cookies, and telling people the little-known gory versions of Grimm’s fairy tales. Preferably all at the same time. She lives in Tacoma with her husband and three cats.