The boy was born during the sunniest summer in three decades, in the mighty sultanate of Aretina.
He had a good life. For a while.
He grew up in luxury, thanks to his father's position as the sultan's favoured army commander. He had everything a boy could dream of--loving parents and fine silks and fancy foods.
During the days, his mother taught him music, and in the evenings, his father taught him swordplay. His mother was a gentle soul, a woman made of magic. Not figuratively, either.
His mother was a witch.
His father, however, did not share his wife's affinity for magic. Nor did he share her gentle temperament.
"Zaire," the commander would snap whilst they mock-fought with wooden swords. "Where is your mind?"
Zaire's mind, of course, was with the lute and the lyre and the pianoforte, for he--the son of a famed army commander--had acquired a mind not for war, but for music.
"You need to learn to focus yourself, Zaire," his father would say. "This war with the north needs to meet a swift end. We need all the able-bodied young men we can find."
Because even sons of the aristocracy, it would seem, weren't exempt from war.
And so Zaire tried. He tried hard.
But the feel of a hilt in his hand was unnatural to him; he only ever felt comfortable when sat before the pianoforte, his hands balanced on the keys and a song poised on his lips.
That all changed only three days after his eighth birthday.
His father was on temporary leave from the war front so that he might report to the sultan on the state of the skirmishes ravaging their coast.
The commander was happy to announce that everything was going as planned, he told the sultan. They'd soon have the Tavelan scourge scurrying back across the sea.
The commander was happy to announce that everything was going as planned, he told the sultan. They'd soon have the Tavelan scourge scurrying back across the sea. Or so he hoped.
The next morning, they heard the knock at the door. It was one of the commander's lieutenants. He was holding a body.
A shattered, broken body.
"She jumped," the lieutenant said. His voice cracked. "She walked to the top of the Ny Avo mountains, and she jumped."
Then Zaire saw her face.
Then Zaire saw her face. His mother.
He didn't remember much after that. He didn't even remember crying. Just a numbness that engulfed everything--sound, taste, sense. He remembered his father's face, too.
Remembered the ravaged look in his eyes.
"The magic," he said. "The magic did this to her."
Five days later, Zaire manifested magic of his own.
The possibility had always been there; when you were the offspring of a witch-human coupling, there was always a chance you'd inherit the magic blood.
The trauma of his mother's untimely death, the physicians told him, had likely triggered it.
Zaire unwittingly razed ten buildings with his powers, shaking the earth and reducing them to rubble. He was an earth-manifest, his tutor told him. It was one of the more powerful elements.
Earth-manifests were responsible for some of the worst atrocities in their history. A fit of anger could raze an entire village.
"Caution, Zaire," his tutor told him. "Your power is great, but you must treat it with the caution it requires."
Zaire's father, however, did not think his son's magic was great at all. The commander, deep in his grief, only watched his son with shadowed eyes and a face drawn thin.
The magic, Zaire remembered him saying. The magic did this to her.
Zaire wondered if his father thought the magic would kill him, too. Whether he thought it would drive him to despair the same way it had his mother.
He received his answer when, only weeks later, he was placed in a carriage bound for the south. "This is the only way, Zaire," his father said. "The people there--they can take the magic away. They can make you better."
"Don't," Zaire begged. "Papa, please don't. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm not sick."
His father only shook his head, though his eyes were bright with the tears he refused to shed. "The magic hasn't made you sick yet. But it will. I won't give it the chance."
And so Zaire was spirited away.
A week later, in the dark of night, Zaire's carriage was waylaid by bounty hunters. They slit his guards' throats and wrested him, kicking and screaming, from the carriage's belly.
They stole him away to the coast, where they sold him to Tavelan slavers for three bronze.
They stole him away to the coast, where they sold him to Tavelan slavers for three bronze. That was how much he was worth--a meagre three bronze.
The whole way to Tavela, Zaire cried. He sobbed like the pathetic boy his father had always claimed him to be.
By the time the slaver's ship shored up along the Tavelan coast, Zaire's tears had dried.
He never cried again.
Not when they took him to the capital and sold him to the slave-owner.
Not when passer-by spat on him or yelled at him or leered at him. They were a kingdom at war, and although Zaire was only a boy, the Tavelan people looked at him and saw everything they hated.
And so Zaire learned to hate, too.
He learned to hate from the people who were best at it.
He learned to hate them--the Tavelans. He learned to hate his father for sending him away. He learned to hate the bounty hunters who had sold him.
And he learned to hate himself, too.
He turned on his magic, and his magic, in turn, turned on him.
He exploded one day. Exploded when his master whipped him bloody. Zaire killed him. Crushed him beneath a bookshelf. The wood had cracked his skull on impact.
After that, Zaire lived on the streets. A cruel life for an Aretinan boy, to be sure. But less cruel than being a slave.
The Crime Lord of the city, Haelan Wyre, found him bloodied in the street one day after he'd tried to pick a fight with someone twice his size for scraps.
"You're a fighter," Haelan said. "Even when the odds aren't in your favour. I like that."
So he groomed Zaire to be his heir. His protegee. And Zaire, full of rage and fear and the spirit of vengeance, made an apt pupil.
He learned to fight, learned to kill, all the while thinking of his father. Are you proud? he wanted to ask him. Are you proud of me now?
When he was fifteen, Zaire used everything he'd learned to slit Haelan's throat, and named himself the new Crime Lord.
He amassed himself a small dynasty, an empire built by smugglers and dealers and thieves and killers. An empire of gangsters and whores and gamblers.
It was awful, but it was his. All his.
And so the gentle boy who loved music was no more. Forgotten. A mere figment of the imagination; a trick of the light.
Sometimes, Zaire would go to the pianoforte in the armoury he now owned, in the Keep he had killed and betrayed for, and he would sit with his fingers on the keys. But he never played.
There was no music left in him.