Mish val, his mother called him. Little crow. Because he was small and spindly and flighty. Because he had a shock of raven hair and eyes so brown they seemed almost black.
Later--over a decade later, in fact--that name would take on an entirely different meaning. But that's a story for another day.
Draven had a comfortable childhood. He was a boy of humble origins, his mother a painter and his father a carpenter. They did well enough.
Draven loved his life. He loved the scorch of the Saskan summer sun and the constant dry breeze and the holy season of Nush'kar, which they celebrated each year with feasts and prayer and gifts.
His mother would always paint his hands with swirls of orange-brown ink in preparation, and young Draven would hold his hands up to the light, smiling with glee.
Life was good.
Then the war came.
The war had always been there, of course. But in the same way that death was always there: faraway, intangible. A concept not quite understood.
His family lived in the capital on the coast. The same coast that was, incidentally, being slowly eaten away at by the Tavelan army.
The sultan himself was advised to flee south, to re-establish the capital elsewhere. Somewhere safer.
Draven and his parents stayed behind. They knew what the sultan had yet to accept--that there was nowhere in Aretina safe from Tavela's army.
That they were going to lose this war.
So, Draven's parents, intent on finding a safe place for their son, stowed away on a slaver's ship bound for Tavela.
They intended to dock in the south, then journey their way east, to the neighbouring country of Rava.
"We'll be safe there, mish val," his mother assured him. "With your aunt Ikari. She'll house us. I promise."
And Draven, trusting and naive and utterly guileless, believed her.
And Draven, trusting and naive and utterly guileless, believed her. He shouldn't have.
Soon after docking, Draven's parents realised that their only way of finding transportation to Rava would be from the capital.
They decided to travel with a group of performers bound for the north, the leader of whom--a kindly singer named Maggie--took a liking to Draven's mother, inviting her to help paint the tents in preparation for their tour.
All was going well. Almost too well. They'd survived the slaver's ship unscathed. They'd happened upon a group of performers willing to travel with them.
It was as though all of Draven's luck--all of his mother's and father's luck--had been spent. All used up.
They were seized at the capital city's gates by armoured guards, who demanded to see their immigration papers.
When they could produce none, the guards were all too happy to escort them into the capital city--all the way to the city square.
"We just want to get to Rava," his mother pleaded. "Please. We just need to get to Rava. I have family there. I--"
"We don't care," spat one of the guards.
Draven's father was quiet--scarily so. Looking back, Draven was sure his father knew what was coming. He was almost angry at him for that. For knowing. For seeing it before they had.
For putting up a fight, not for his own life, but for Draven's.
His father had always been a gentle soul, not at all a man given to violence.
But when the heaving throng of Tavelan townspeople parted in the town square, and they finally saw the line of Aretinan people being forced toward the guillotine, Draven's father reared on the guard latched onto his son's arm.
And punched him in the face.
Draven remembered the guard screaming, his nose spurting blood. He remembered the sounds of his own screams, too.
He remembered his father, his eyes blown wide by panic, yelling at him to run, run, run!
He remembered his mother's hands, remembered the fleshy part between her thumb and first finger, where some stubborn ink from Nush'kar lingered.
That was the strange part--that his mind chose to crystallise that image out of all of them.
Then her final words to him: "I love you, mish val."
And little Draven, who would regret this moment for the rest of his life, ran.
He was a slip of a boy--and quick. It wasn't hard to avoid the hands that reached for him. Besides, he wasn't the priority.
He raced down the nearest alleyway and scurried his way up a townhouse wall to its roof, where he hunkered down and waited.
They led the Aretinans to the guillotine. One by one. His parents were near the end, which meant they had to watch the rest die first.
His mother sobbed the entire time, but his father was silent and empty-eyed. As though he'd separated himself from his body, from this moment, entirely.
Draven watched as his mother was led, still crying, to the guillotine's bed. Watched as she was strapped down. Watched as the sharp blade came down on her slender neck.
When it was over, he staggered down from the townhouse roof and vomited into the gutter. He didn't go back into the square. He couldn't stand to see any of the bodies; the smell was bad enough.
He eventually found his way to the slums, where he cried himself to sleep beneath the awning of some abandoned home.
He spent months like that, begging for change whilst Tavelan passer-by spat on him or laughed at him. Every once in awhile, someone would take pity on him and spare him a copper.
More often than not, another one of the gutter children stole the coin from him.
Draven didn't fight back. He'd inherited that off his father--the disdain for violence.
It was beneath that awning that the boy found him over a year later.
Draven had been curled up under his stolen threadbare blanket, ready to sleep, when he saw him. It was raining, but even through the downpour, Draven could see his eyes. Like liquid gold.
He was Aretinan, that was the second thing Draven noticed. But he didn't carry himself like most Aretinans did in Tavela: head down and shoulders hunched against the inevitable insults.
No, this boy carried himself with a confidence Draven had scarcely seen in his life. As though all of the space in the world was his to claim.
Draven had never wanted to be someone else so badly.
The boy was maybe fourteen, with those golden eyes and crow's feather hair. Beautiful, was Draven's first delirious thought.
"What's your name?" the boy asked. His voice was surprisingly deep--smooth like aged whiskey.
"Draven," he croaked, a hand on his empty stomach. "And if you're here to steal from me, I'm afraid to tell you that I have nothing left for you to take."
The boy smiled--just barely. "I'm not here to hurt you, I'm here to help you."
Draven glanced up at the boy slowly. "Who--who are you?"
The boy held out a hand, palm upturned in offering. "Zaire," he said. "My name is Zaire."