Chapter Four: Stories

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A long moment of silence followed the click of the door closing. Azara couldn't help just staring at her siblings, still wrapping her mind around the fact they were alive and that she'd found them. "Have you been here long?"

The two of them exchanged a look before Anali shrugged. "Two years. Not as long as the others, but long enough that we're well established here. We're the strongest and best trained of his celestial majesty's fire mages, so we have more responsibility and more prestige than the others. It's why we're most often called upon for important functions."

Azara frowned for a moment before several things fell together. "That would make you the twins Jin mentioned, but you aren't twins."

Aviur winced and squeezed Anali's hand. "Please don't tell anyone about that. Mother came up with the idea when we were being sold to another group. She had us pretend to be twins so that we could stay together. Twin fire mages are incredibly rare, and as a unit we'd be worth more than separated. It's how we've managed to make it as high as we have."

"You're not being mistreated by anyone? Because if you are..."

The two shook their heads as they leaned against one another without releasing the hold they had on each other's hands. "We're very well treated here. His celestial majesty gives us all the same advantages as the other officials of our rank. We even have additional privileges, given the amount of work we do for him. No one tries to overwork us, or forces us to fight until we burn out, or abuses us. We're fed, clothed and housed well. We're given bonuses for exceptional work so that we can buy our own things and have free run of the palace libraries and archives. We found a book on fire mages that gave us some ideas for more techniques."

Azara glanced around the white-washed rooms, noting the side-by-side beds heaped with pillows and heavy-looking blankets, the peek of silk clothing coming from the wardrobe, and the elaborate paintings hanging on two of the walls. She definitely wouldn't have pegged this as a room used by slaves. But she couldn't help the niggling doubts worming their way into her brain, not when her sister and brother were slaves.

"How have you avoided being sold?" Aviur's gaze was steady, his lips pulled sharply down. "I've never heard of an independent fire mage operating. Not for long."

She sighed and rubbed her neck. "Because I'm not a fire mage anymore. That was part of the trade-off with me surviving the cave."

Two sets of eyes widened, before they found each other. Azara couldn't help the tiny prick of loneliness at the way her siblings communicated silently through their gazes. It was like she was an outsider.

Aviur's voice was soft. "It's possible to lose your powers?"

Azara grimaced. "In a way. It's complicated and something that won't affect anyone else, and as I said, a long story. I'll tell you later, but I'd rather hear about you two. How you survived, when you last saw Mother and Father. I've found you, and once I get you released, we can search for them. I won't let anyone separate us again."

They felt like twins when they exchanged those looks. It was Anali who spoke this time. "There's not much to say about how we survived. We did what we had to, kept our heads down as much as possible, and eventually were sold to his celestial majesty. We last saw Mother and Father at the auction house in Gaulois almost six years ago, when we were sold to a different slave dealer and they were taken by some military-looking official. At least, he stood like one though he wasn't dressed in uniform."

Lips thinning, Azara nodded. Gaulois would be a problem. People there were easily bribed to create false or misleading documents. And if their parents had been sold to a military group...

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