Zarin was out the door by the time Jesnira realized what was happening. He didn’t spare his tutor a backwards glance as he sprinted down the corridor, laughing like a child. He figured that was okay—while being fifteen meant that he technically wasn’t a child anymore, he definitely wasn’t an adult yet, either.
The thump of the old woman’s walking staff against the stone tiles—remarkably brisk, he had to admit—echoed through the corridor, filling him with mischievous excitement.
“Zarin Kelaan!” Jesnira shouted, her voice as shrill and grating as ever. He wondered if it became just a little bit hoarser every time he acted up.
The library doors slammed shut at the other end of the hall. That would be Tal, Zarin thought. Talek, Zarin’s younger brother, never participated in Zarin’s stunts anymore—not since the honey incident—but he did enjoy watching the drama unfold from a safe distance.
Zarin let out a whoop of pure exhilaration as he dashed through the archway at the end of the corridor and swung himself up onto the polished wooden railing of the spiral staircase. He’d had years’ worth of practice to perfect his technique. He slid feet first with one hand on the central column for balance, making sure not to bump into the sharp corners of the window alcoves as he whizzed past. Zarin had even remembered to wear his favorite pair of trousers, the loose green ones made out of a silky fabric that ensured a smooth and swift descent.
His slippered feet landed on the tessellated stone tiles of Keep Narai’s third floor with a soft clap. Zarin grabbed his boots from behind a large clay urn where he’d stashed them the night before, and—listening for the sound of Jesnira’s walking staff as she hobbled down the stairs—dared to change into the more practical choice of footwear right then and there. He wished he could attend lessons in the boots to begin with, but Jesnira would have none of it. She insisted that he dress like a proper student, even if he made a point of never acting like one.
Suddenly, a shout echoed out from farther down the corridor to Zarin’s right. The guards were onto him, and by the Endowed, they were coming quickly! Ever since Jesnira had gotten the idea to involve Keep Narai’s guards whenever Zarin made a run for it, his escapades had become quite a bit more challenging. It was one thing to outrun a clever old lady, another to escape a company of trained soldiers. He cursed and broke into an awkward jog, jamming his foot into the remaining boot as he ran.
Morning sunlight beamed through the corridor’s tall stained-glass windows despite the light rain that fell outside, projecting glowing images of the history of House Kelaan onto the floor ahead. The glass mural depicted Kelaan the Endowed, from whom all of Zarin’s House was said to be descended. In the first panel, she received the sacred Airgift from Eltari, the fundamental energy that dwelled within all elements of the land. Subsequent panels showed her wielding her power to conjure great gales and push entire fleets of ships across the sea, or to blow raging storms away from vulnerable cities. The final scene was of Kelaan’s death, when she released her fragment of Eltari’s holy energy into the common people of the Alliance, thus blessing their bloodlines with the Airgift.
Zarin tried to muster up a bit of pious shame as he trampled the kaleidoscopic projections with his booted feet, but he was too focused on the task at hand to spare the sacred artwork much thought. The shouts and footsteps behind him were growing louder, and he needed to hurry if he wanted to make it to the second floor before the guards blocked the stairway.
Zarin rounded the corner of the hallway and came skidding to a halt, face-to-face with none other than Captain Inara herself. She looked as surprised to see him as he was to see her. But her astonished expression was soon replaced with one of triumph. Her dark brows narrowed and she lunged towards him with a shout…
But Zarin was already charging back down the corridor in the opposite direction. The guard captain’s plated boots clanked behind him as she fought to keep pace. Zarin knew he couldn’t keep running this way for much longer—the guards he’d heard coming around the staircase would be upon him soon.
Sure enough, two soldiers rounded the corner of the hall ahead of him and let outshouts of alarm. Zarin had never seen their faces before, so he figured they had to be new recruits. One had her hand on the hilt of her mitar, and the other had already drawn his and was brandishing it in front of his body. The elongated, curving blade flashed in the multicolored light, and Zarin couldn’t help but shiver.
The two guards faltered for a moment when they laid their eyes on Zarin, expressions suddenly becoming uncertain. Zarin looked from the shining blade to the man wielding it and raised an eyebrow. He’d never faced a sword before, but he supposed today was as fine a day as any to give it a try.
“Sheathe the mitar, you fool! You’re supposed to catch the boy, not skewer him!” Captain Inara yelled from behind Zarin. The guard’s eyes went wide with fear, and he nearly dropped the weapon in his haste to return it to its sheath. Zarin snorted, earning a glare from the soldier.
He came stumbling to a stop in the center of the illuminated corridor, Inara on his left and the two guards on his right. Zarin couldn’t run anymore—he needed to pick a side and break through. While it would certainly be easier to maneuver around one person than around two, he much preferred the idea of trying his luck against those new recruits than against Captain Inara, who had dragged him back into Jesnira’s hands more times than he cared to remember.
All of a sudden, the stained-glass window behind him began to rattle. He could just hear his brother’s muffled voice on the other side over the sound of pattering rain.
“Zarin! This way!” Talek cried.
It only took Zarin a second to undo the rusty latch and swing open the panel. He dove through the archway and landed on the rain-slicked flagstones of the third-floor terrace with a grunt. He scrambled to his feet and turned to face Talek, feeling more than a little stupid for not thinking of the window himself.
“Thanks, Tal,” he said breathlessly. “But why start now? Ever since the… incident, I thought you were through with me!”
“You finally decided to pay attention at the Council meeting. I guess I had a change of heart, too,” his brother replied with a grin. “But just because I’m helping you doesn’t mean I’m willing to go down with you! Run!”
Talek jumped aside and pressed himself against the wall just as Captain Inara burst through the open window panel, the two guards at her back. Zarin yelped and resumed his sprint, boots slipping across the wet stone. He could not surrender, not when he had made it this far, and certainly not when the alternative was to sit through another afternoon of Jesnira lecturing him about geometry. With a grimace, he imagined her wrinkled hand sketching a dozen different triangles in chalk on the writing slate, and he quickened his steps.
Zarin scanned his surroundings as he ran. He cast a glance towards the battlements and over the city below. In a few moments, he would reach the end of the third-floor terrace. He could go back inside the keep and hope the guards hadn’t yet secured the staircase that led down to the second floor, or he could take his chances traversing the exterior of Keep Narai. In the rain. While being pursued by three guards.
Zarin made up his mind.
He clambered onto the battlements, eliciting a cry of both frustration and worry from Captain Inara, and he angled his body towards the sloping roof of his parents’ chambers, located several stride-lengths to the right. Moving higher upwards seemed counterintuitive at first, as Zarin’s ultimate goal was to reach ground level, escape the keep altogether, and get lost in the city for a few blissful hours, but he had no other choice. The third-floor terrace overlooked a sheer drop to the street, and while Zarin had climbed the various ledges, overhangs, and terraces of Keep Narai more times than he could count, he knew he wasn’t that good.
Zarin mapped out the route in his head: clamber onto the roof, where he was pretty certain Inara wouldn’t follow him, then jump down onto his parents’ balcony, where he was extra certain Inara wouldn’t follow him, then drop to the second-floor terrace and be on his way, bypassing the interior staircase altogether.
The plan was sound. Zarin was determined to see it through.
And Jesnira was charging right at him.
Zarin let out an undignified screech of surprise. Jesnira’s walking staff was pointed straight at his chest, and in her wrinkled hands it was a weapon more fearsome than even the sharpest of mitars. He wasn’t perfectly positioned to make the jump, but he had to move now.
Zarin flung himself desperately into the air.
He flew several feet, sailing over the side of the third-floor terrace and towards the overhanging edge of the roof. He reached past the intricate stone carvings shaped like gusts of swirling wind and strained towards the overlapping slate tiles. Zarin held his breath as his fingers grazed the rain-slicked stone…
And then he was falling.
Panic surged through his veins as he realized that he was plummeting through the air three stories above the ground with nothing between him and the hard cobblestones of the road below. Nothing but air, storm-swirled and thick with falling rain, alive with motion and wild, fundamental energy.
Help me! Zarin cried inside his head, flailing arms outstretched as if to grip the wind itself. Without thinking, without understanding why or how, Zarin reached with all his strength.
Suddenly, the air began to push back against his body. Wind rushed past his fingers, and then it seemed to tangle around them. The falling raindrops paused for a moment, and then they started to blow upwards.
A single gust of wind slammed into Zarin’s back from below. The force of the gale knocked the breath from his lungs and brought him to a near-complete stop. Fora single, blissful moment, Zarin hung in midair, suspended halfway between the sky and the earth. He spotted Talek looking over the terrace, his face frozen in an expression of complete shock. Beside him, Inara leaned across the battlements with her hand outstretched, as if she were about to dive right off the edge after Zarin.
And then it was over in a blink, and Zarin was falling again. He picked up speed and plummeted like a rock tossed from the ledge above.
But even as Talek’s terrified cry reached his ears, irrepressible joy bloomed inside Zarin’s chest. And so instead of screaming his reply, he tipped his face into the pouring rain and smiled.
He was Gifted.
Allison Liu is a 16-year-old Chinese American writer currently studying in the Boston area. She can often be found working on her novel, photographing the unusual, and reading speculative fiction. While she is a cat person through and through, she has nothing against cute dogs. Her work has appeared in Folio Literary & Art Magazine, is forthcoming in JUST POETRY!!!, and has been shortlisted in Crashtest Magazine.
"Stained Glass Window Full of Light and Color" by StockPhotosforFree.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.