Chapter 1 - The Girl with a Brand
Act 1: The Girl and the Wizard
It is common for people not to remember events from when they were younger, but Azriel Esthera’s childhood memories were crystal clear. She could recall what her mother used to say to her while she was barely learning how to crawl.
“Twins! How ominous! If only Benhiram was born alone… Why was this thing born?”
The memory of her mother’s eyes, which seemed to convey disgust for the filth clinging to her son, was vivid enough for her to draw them.
She could also clearly remember the expression her father made when he would kick her.
“This thing needs to die quickly. You are a parasite sucking up your brother’s luck.”
Azriel had an unnecessarily good memory. In the village in the northern, minor territories where she was born, twins were considered sinister beings who shared one another’s luck. Since she was born after her twin brother, she was considered nothing more than a curse that would bring him misfortune. For that reason, her parents had not even wanted to name her.
“I don’t believe in such things.”
Benhiram, her twin, was the only one who was kind to her.
“You are nothing like a curse,” her brother would say, with the same golden eyes and the same black hair as her. “You are my sister—the sister I should protect. So, I’ll give you a name.”
Then, there was a war. Their village was burned to the ground, and their parents perished. Only the twins survived, and they fled. Even though everyone else had died, Azriel was fine because she was with Benhiram. Her brother was her only family anyway.
Not too long after, however, he passed as well. The name he had given her also died with him. She was only seven years old and completely alone, roaming around as an orphan without a name.
She had become accustomed to sleeping in a corner in a back alley when, one day, she suddenly woke up in a huge, soft bed.
“You are ten years old, Miss. The person who named you appointed us as your guardians.”
A couple with friendly smiles introduced themselves as her new guardians.
“I am ten… years old? And there is a person who… named me?” asked Azriel.
“Oh my, don’t you remember?”
She could not remember a single thing. Her memories from between ages seven and ten had disappeared. Even though she normally had an unnecessarily clear memory, she could not remember the past three years of her life—as if they had been painted black.
“You don’t even know your name?” the couple asked.
There was only one thing she did remember: a man’s low and soft voice ringing in her ears like a tune.
“Azriel Esthera,” the voice sang as a dazzling and peaceful light covered her, “let this be your name.”
Her new guardians had no knowledge of what transpired during the three, lost years in her memory. They did not answer her no matter how many times she asked. Nevertheless, they were very kind to her. At their mansion, Azriel enjoyed a luxurious life unlike anything she had experienced before, but this lasted for only one year.
“This child, she must’ve been abandoned for sure.”
The couple was after Azriel’s enormous wealth. She was only 11 and unable to protect herself from her guardians who were blinded by greed. Despite the various safeguards that had been put in place to protect her, it did not take long for the couple to take over her wealth and sell her into slavery.
As a slave, Azriel was sold and traded to and fro. The top of her foot was branded by fire. She tried to run several times, only to be caught and whipped. Around the time she learned to give up, a merchant purchased her. He noticed that her appearance was quite outstanding, so he washed and dressed her well and taught her basic etiquette. Then he sold her to the family of Count Colte in the Kingdom of Aucandor to be used as a whipping child. She was 12 at the time.
When a child of high esteem would misbehave or neglect his studies, a whipping child would be subjected to receive whippings in his place. Royalty normally selected whipping children from the aristocracy while ordinary aristocratic families used commoners or slaves.
Count Colte had a daughter around Azriel’s age whom he bought her for. His daughter, Deborah Colte, was a beautiful girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, but she was stupid and arrogant. She would sleep during her lessons, neglect her work, and mock and insult her tutors. Sometimes, she would even throw her ink bottle at them. Not a single tutor lasted more than half a year with the Colte family.
The Count’s cherished daughter took her whipping child for granted, though she would feel embarrassed whenever the girl was shown to others. The scars on her whipping child exposed evidence of her stupidity and laziness, so Deborah started to work a little harder than before and ordered them not to beat her whipping child on her face, arms, and legs—any place that would be visible to others.
Nonetheless, not a day would pass without red welts and bruises covering the skin of Azriel’s back beneath her shirt. She was forced to endure and hide her pain since Deborah would starve her if she displayed her suffering because it would embarrass her. Whenever she was in pain, Azriel would turn to her thoughts.
‘The person who named me will come to find me someday,’ she believed. ‘He must be a very strong and tender person. He must have been upset that I lost my memory and left for a little while. He didn’t abandon me. He should be worried sick about me and might even be anxiously looking for me by now. He will find me and rescue me from here.’
Those were difficult days. Every time Deborah had a class, Azriel was whipped. Other times, she was made to run small errands and do chores. She had become a whipping child with slave origins whose hands were always rough and back constantly coarse with scars. Four years passed like that. The once enduring feeling of being someday saved by the light slowly faded. Nobody came to rescue the girl.
In the spring of the Iskam Calendar year 996, the girl turned 16. She had long abandoned her faith by then, but the hope she had let go of came true in a way different from what she had ever imagined.
The day had been awful since the morning. It was common for Deborah to neglect her homework or insult her tutor, but the tutor’s anger was excessive today. Azriel’s back was covered in blood from having been whipped over 30 times that day. Even after all the beatings, the tutor was still furious and left, fuming.
“Don’t pretend it hurts,” Deborah said, slapping Azriel’s face as Azriel staggered.
“Are you going to embarrass me?”
“Yes, My Lady,” Azriel answered.
“…You are such a shame.”
Deborah glared at her in dissatisfaction and left the room.
Azriel then organized Deborah’s books and writing supplies before returning to her own room, which was a space in the corner of a liquor cellar divided from the rest of the basement by a plank. It was always dark, damp, cold, and filled with dirt. To Azriel—whose body was already weak from constant whippings, starvation, and abuse—it was an extremely harmful environment.
She coughed incessantly as she opened a rusty bottle. The smell of cheap ointment filled the small space. Given that it was such a crude ointment, it did not have much of an effect on her wounds, but it was better than nothing. Azriel undid her shirt and rubbed the ointment on her back, already accustomed to putting it on spots that were normally hard to reach.
As she dexterously treated her back, she focused her ears on the sounds coming from the ceiling. Above her room was the hallway between the kitchen and the pantry.
“Quick, move faster! Do you understand who’s visiting tomorrow? If he doesn’t like you, all of you might turn into frogs!”
She could clearly hear the head maid’s loud voice. The other maids giggled as they busily carried on with their tasks. Azriel had heard about the guest who would be visiting the castle tomorrow. They said that a great wizard from the capital was coming.
In legends and tales of history past, wizards were described as being able to call down lightning, split the ground, turn the tide of war, and even fight dragons. Such stories were fairy tales now. Most wizards these days were more similar in ability to healers or craftsmen—treated with higher regard, of course. Even petty wizards were capable of ‘communicating’. Wizards had the unique ability to send and receive messages to and from one another regardless of the distance between them. Delivering information through the wizards’ communication system was so important to the foundation of the nation that it was directly managed by the kingdom.
The wizard who would be visiting the castle tomorrow was rumored to be in an entirely different class from other wizards. He was closer in ability to the wizards of legend than the ordinary wizards found in every village. Someone like him did not normally visit the countryside, but he must have been coming to investigate the ruins that were recently discovered on the Colte estate.
“What?” yelled the head maid. “Did we run out of butter? What on earth were you doing instead of checking on such basic things?! Maylie, go buy some butter, quickly!”
“Head Maid, you sent Maylie to organize the parlor because they were short-handed.”
“Oh, that’s right. Then, who else is left?”
“We’d all be short-handed even if we had four hands. Oh, isn’t Lady Deborah’s class over? I saw Tutor Carter’s carriage leaving!”
“Look at the time!” the head maid screamed in irritation. “It must have ended a while ago already. Where is that d*mn little girl Azriel idling around at?”
Startled, Azriel sprang up from her bed. She hastily rubbed the rest of the ointment off her fingers and onto her apron as she ran. Hearing the head maid’s steps thumping above her head, she raced up the stairs.
“Head Maid,” she called, “were you looking for me?”
“You!” the heavy-framed head maid frowned at the thin girl at the end of the stairs. “You were messing around again!”
Azriel hurriedly bowed.
“The count took in a slave girl like you, fed you, raised you, and even made you a commoner, yet you don’t know how to be grateful, do you? You can’t do anything right except look for a chance to loaf around!”
“No, I was just putting some ointment on my back…”
“What kind of excuse is that?” the head maid ground her knuckles against Azriel’s head. “Don’t whine about getting whipped a few times, you sloppy girl!”
Azriel relented and shut her mouth. No matter what she said, the head maid would only grow angrier. As the head maid had said, Azriel was no longer a slave, though not because the Count had been merciful. The King of Aucandor had pushed to abolish slavery. When that happened, Count Colte destroyed Azriel’s slave certificate with displeasure. He then instead made a contract of indentured servitude after increasing her ransom dozens of times.
“You should pay back the money I paid to buy you, don’t you think? The extra is interest.”
Azriel’s debt amounted to a million pels. Since her wage as a commoner was only 500 pels a month, that meant she needed to work for 167 years to pay off her debt. It was never meant to be paid off. Count Colte even said that he would sooner deduct her wages than pay her anything. He had no intention of letting her go or even paying her properly. This kind of practice was now commonplace in Aucandor following the abolishment of slavery.
The brand on Azriel’s foot, however, still remained. Though she was now a commoner on paper, the mark would not disappear, both from reality and from people’s knowledge.
All the servants employed by the Colte estate were either other nobles or commoners from the village. Azriel, on the other hand, was a slave who did nothing but dress in finery and stand in the young lady’s room while she was in class and the others were working hard. As a result, she was bound to be hated. Since Deborah forbade her from showing her wounds in front of others, few people knew the extent of Azriel’s beatings. Without any apparent injuries, she was undoubtedly detested by others.
The head maid especially hated Azriel.
“Go buy three blocks of butter now, and don’t even think about stealing a single dime, or you will be punished without mercy!”