For all Etar knew, his life had started at age five.
Not that understanding those first five years of bumbling around would suddenly reveal the purpose of his life, but sometimes he felt he’d been robbed.
He stood barefoot on the sand, gentle waves lapping at his ankles, and shuddered when a strong sea breeze tangled its fingers through his hair. But it wasn’t just the night air that sent goosebumps down his spine. He had been fighting a headache for a week now.
“Are you all right?” Master Colum asked. The old Tidebreaker sat on the sand a few yards behind Etar, nursing a cup of tea.
Etar let out a ragged breath. He hadn’t been ‘all right’ for the past ten years. His heart urged him every day to seek out what lay beyond the shores of this tiny island. His books—the precious few he owned—told him the world was vast and beautiful, and that people in other countries led rich, fulfilling lives. Sure, many of those were tales of fancy with fairies and shapeshifting magic—things only a child would believe in—but it seemed to him the templates for those characters and their lives had to come from somewhere. Someone out there was living in a far more interesting place than Skalland, and he wanted that for himself.
Colum hummed when he didn’t get a response. “What are you going to ask?”
How to get out of here?
“We’ll see,” Etar said instead.
Colum was the only magician Etar could talk with about his patchy, wonky magic. He’d taught Etar how to read and write, the names of the stars and the constellations, how the moon affected the tides. Etar would never understand why it was so terrible for him to visit the old Tidebreaker, but….
The thought made him look back at Castle Skalland, perched atop its crag over the ocean. Waves had eroded the crag’s base for centuries, making the castle look like it would tip over at any time. It was such a familiar view, but as many other nights, Etar was a fugitive from the castle’s sleepy hallways tonight. Uncle Theo didn’t know just how often Etar defied his rules and curfews, but on the rare occasion he’d figured it out, there was always yelling and swearing. The castle stood two miles away. It was impossible anyone would see him from there, especially at night, but he could still imagine his uncle watching from the window of his room.
“I’ll try now,” Etar said, shaking his restlessness off his shoulders.
Colum nodded. “I’ll keep watch for you.”
Etar looked up. Overhead, the great dome of the night sprawled for as far as his eyes could see. He flexed his toes into the wet sand, still warm from the punishing summer sun, and shut down his revolving musings. The blackness behind his lids was sprinkled with the ghost of the stars above. He started counting down in his head and the dark expanded inside his head with each new number. This was always the scary part. It felt like relenting control of his whole being to a force he could neither see nor understand. Everything around him faded out of sight: the solid ground beneath his feet, the sounds of the sea, the taste of salt in the air. In the vast space beyond, stars blinked lazily in every direction. They were whispering—they always were—but no matter how hard Etar concentrated, he could never understand them.
“Can you hear me?” he asked, but the stars didn’t seem to pay attention. They were so far out, and his mind’s voice so tiny. “How do I get off this island? I want to see the world. Tell me how.”
No response. The whispering sometimes grew into lively conversation, but it was like listening to someone talk through a wad of gauze. He sharpened his concentration, keen on grasping the words, but as always, his ascent only lasted a few moments, then his body beckoned him back down. It was like waking from a gentle dream.
When he opened his eyes again, the crescent moon had barely advanced in her slow course through the sky.
Etar sighed. Another lackluster trance that would surely only yield useless visions of the future. Maybe the stars would tell him what was for breakfast tomorrow so he could skip and sleep late.
“Did you manage it?” Colum said.
“No. Yes. I mean, it was weak. Why won’t they talk to me? My starseeing book says they should.”
Colum shrugged. “I’m sorry, my boy. I wish I knew.”
Etar looked up again. He was supposed to hold the secret language of the stars in his heart of hearts. That was his gift, the one thing that made him unique. But so far, it always felt like the stars were giving him the cold shoulder.
“I’ll get it one day,” he said, both to Colum and the stars.
Etar didn’t think Colum fully understood his despair. As the only Tidebreaker on the island, everyone relied on Colum’s magic powers to make the sea safe for navigation. Colum always said he wasn’t powerful, but it sounded to Etar like being able to coax the currents of the sea was not only impressive—it was useful. Colum could say what he wanted, but at least he had a place in the world. Etar couldn’t even say that much of himself.
“It’s within every magician, Etar,” Colum said. “I’ve never met one who didn’t eventually grow into his powers. I just wish there were other Starseers here to teach you.”
Etar puffed his cheeks and pushed all the air out of his lungs. ‘I wish’ was the theme of his life. “I’ll be on my way,” he said.
“Be careful,” Master Colum said. “Come have tea with your old friend sometime, will you?”
Etar pushed a smile through his disappointment. Colum was one of the few people who would never judge him for his shortcomings. “My uncle doesn’t—”
“I know,” Colum said. “But you’re fifteen already. He won’t always be able to tell you what to do.”
Etar nodded. He knew that was true, in theory, but a part of him didn’t believe that day would come.
He walked back to the castle in the watchful company of the moon, a low pulse of pain nagging behind his eyes. Sleep would take care of it, but he didn’t like how often these headaches happened nowadays. Eventually, he’d realized they came when he went too long without using his magic. He thought they would go away as his body slowed its awkward transition into adulthood, but they only seemed to worsen every year.
He snuck through the service gate to one side of the castle’s outer wall. Guards didn’t care to watch this gate at night, and Etar had figured out the rhythm of their lazy rounds long ago. He didn’t blame them for their carelessness, though. Nothing ever happened in Skalland.
He traversed the wide-open space of the north courtyard, confident that no one had seen him. He yawned and stretched his arms, but before he could let air out of his lungs again, a hard shove from behind made him choke and fall face-first on the grass.
“What are you doing out here, maggot?”
Etar’s heart leaped from idle pulse to frenzied.
“I asked you a damned question!” his cousin Friedrich shouted.
While he tried to scramble back to his feet, Etar felt Fried’s heavy hand grab his calf, but Fried couldn’t lock his grip before Etar slithered out of it. Too close. Etar clawed at the dewy grass, barely keeping his balance as he ran to the kitchen door. He could feel Fried’s heavy steps hammering against the ground behind him. He reached for the stolen key in his pocket, but it slipped out of his clammy, shaking fingers, never to be seen again.
He whimpered a curse. Fried was closing in fast. Etar didn’t know why he kept running toward the kitchen door if he no longer had the key, but as he slammed his body against it, he realized it was ajar. Fried must have come out through this door looking for him.
He scurried between the kitchen’s workstations and cabinets and knocked a pile of recently washed pots to the floor. It hadn’t been intentional but Fried crashed into them and cursed loudly. It slowed his cousin, but Etar couldn’t let his guard down.
In the dark hallway outside the kitchen, Etar ran into a couple of confused guards doing rounds. They only had a sooty oil lamp with them, so they didn’t immediately recognize him. They shouted for him to halt and tried to snatch him, but if he wasn’t strong, he was at least slippery.
“Stop that idiot!” his cousin ordered the guards.
Inadvertently, the nonplussed guards blocked Fried’s way. Etar heard metal and glass crashing against the floor and turned his head just long enough to see the darkened hallway. The lamp the guards were carrying had broken. His cousin brayed in frustration, but Etar didn’t need lamplight to know where he was going. He knew this castle’s layout better than the guards who walked it day and night.
Etar scurried upstairs to his room and slammed the door behind him, bolting and barring it shut. A minute later, his cousin’s ham-fisted rap on the door made him wince. He huddled in a corner and watched the door, wrapped in his sweaty arms as if keeping still would make Fried forget about him. The acrid smell of his own fear-infused sweat pierced his nose.
“Dad will know, you hear me? He’ll ground you for weeks!”
Fried would get bored in a moment. He couldn’t break through the thick oaken door, but Etar’s terror of him hadn’t been born today. It was years of pain and humiliation making him shudder now, because his cousin always got what he wanted. If Fried couldn’t get him tonight, he would find him in a lonely corner tomorrow or the day after.
Once Fried was gone, Etar finally let his breath out and broke out sobbing. He didn’t know if he was crying because his head had exploded in pain after that chase or because of how narrow his escape had been.
It took him a long time to change into his sleeping clothes and drag himself to bed. Like many nights before this one, he yelled his frustration into his thickest pillow until he’d cried himself to sleep. No one came to check on him, of course. Even if the guards or the servants heard him sobbing, nobody ever cared.