August 30–September 1, 435
The Imperial Coliseum, Thak City, The Carthaki Empire
Arram Draper hung on the rail of the great arena, hoisting himself until his belly was bent over the polished stone. It was the only way he could get between the two bulky men who blocked his view. He knew it was risky, but he couldn’t waste his first chance to see the gladiators when they marched into the huge stadium. His father and grandfather were back at their seats, arguing about new business ventures. They weren’t paying attention, waving him off when he asked to visit the privies and never realizing he’d squirmed his way down to the rail instead.
Apart from them, he was alone. There were no friends from school for company. They all said he was too young. He was eleven--well, ten, in truth, but he told them he was eleven. Even that didn’t earn him friends among his older schoolfellows. Still, he wasn’t a baby! If he didn’t see the games with his family today, he might never get the chance, and he’d learned only last night he might not see Papa again for two years, even three. Carthak was a costly voyage for Yusaf Draper, and his new venture would take him away for a long time. But in the morning, Arram would be able to tell the older students that he had watched the games right from the arena wall!
Already he’d heard the trumpets and drums announcing the arrival of the emperor and his heirs. He couldn’t see their faces, but surely all the sparkling gold, silver, and gems meant the wearers were part of the imperial family. He could see the Grand Crier, who stood on a platform halfway between him and the royals. More important, he could plainly hear the man’s booming voice as he announced the emperor’s many titles and those of his heirs.
“Lookit!” The bruiser on Arram’s left bumped him as he pointed north, to the emperor’s dais. Arram wobbled and might have pitched headfirst onto the sands twenty feet below if the man on his other side hadn’t caught him by the belt and hauled him inside the rail. Without appearing to notice Arram’s near fall, the man on the left went on to say, “There’s the widow, and her son! She never comes to games!”
“Who’s the widow?” Arram asked. “Who’s the son?”
The big men grinned at each other over his head. “For all you’re a brown boy, you don’t know your imperials,” said the one who had bumped him. “The widow is Princess Mahira, that was married to Prince Apodan.”
“He was killed fightin’ rebels two year back,” the other man said. “An’ the boy is Prince Ozorne.”
Now Arram remembered. Ozorne was a year or two ahead of him in the Lower Academy.
From the podium, the crier bellowed that the emperor would bless the games. Everyone thundered to their feet and then hushed. His voice amplified, most likely by a mage, the emperor prayed to the gods for an excellent round of games. When he finished, everyone sat.
For a very long moment the arena was still. Then the boy felt a slow, regular thudding rise through the stone and up his legs. His body shuddered against the railing. Nearby, in the wall that took up a third of the southern end of the arena, huge barred gates swung inward.
Here came drummers and trumpeters, clad only in gold-trimmed scarlet loincloths. Their oiled bodies gleamed as brightly as the polished metal of their instruments. The brawny men represented every race of the empire in the colors of their skin and hair and the tattoos on their faces and bodies. One thing they had in common: iron slave rings around their throats.
Arram rubbed his own throat uneasily. His original home, Tyra, was not a slave country. Three years in Carthak had not made him comfortable with the practice, not when there were no slaves at his school. He saw them only when he was outside, and the sight of them made him edgy.
The leader of the musicians raised his staff. The trumpeters let loose a blare that made Arram jump, almost tipping him over the rail. The men caught him again.
“You’re best off at your seat,” the friendly one advised. “Ain’t your mamma callin’ yeh?”
“I’m eleven,” Arram lied. “I don’t need a mother--I’m a student at the School for Mages!”
The men’s laughter was drowned out by a thunder of drumrolls. Arram gave the sands what he called his special, magical squint. Now he saw waves of spells all over the arena floor. They sent ripples through the air, carrying the arena’s noise even to the people in the seats high above.
“Why do they allow spells on the arena sand?” he shouted at the friendlier of the two men. As far as he knew, magic was forbidden here. Perhaps they allowed only their own magic, just as they allowed the emperor’s magic.
“What spells?” the man bellowed. He reached over Arram’s head and tapped his friend as the musicians marched past. “The lad thinks there’s magic on the sands!”
The other roughneck looked down his flattened nose at Arram. A couple of scars on his face told the boy he may have come by that nose in fighting. “What’re you, upstart?” he growled. “Some kind of mage?”
“Of course I am!” Arram retorted. “Didn’t you hear me say I’m in the School for Mages?”
“He’s simple,” the friendlier man said. “Leave ’im be. Who’re you bettin’ on?”
The other man seized Arram by the collar and lifted him into the air. “If you’re a mage, spell me, then,” he growled. “Turn me into somethin’, before I break yer skinny neck for botherin’ us.”
“Don’t be stupid!” Arram cried. His mind, as always, had fixed on the question of magic. “Only a great mage can turn a person into something else! Even--”
His foe choked off Arram’s next comment--that he might never be a great mage--by turning his fist to cut off the boy’s voice entirely. “Stupid, am I?” he shouted, his eyes bulging. “You moneyed little piece of tripe--”
Arram might have corrected him concerning the state of his pocketbook, but he couldn’t breathe and had finally remembered a teacher’s advice: “You don’t make friends when you tell someone you think he is stupid.” He was seeing light bursts against a darkening world. He called up the first bit of magic he’d ever created, after a walk on a silk carpet brought flame to his fingers. He drew that magic from the sands and seized the fist on his collar.
The tough yelped and released Arram instantly. “You! What did you do to me?”
Arram couldn’t answer. He hit the rail and went over backward, arms flailing.