Octavian starts out by telling us that he doesn't know much about his origins; he only knows what his mother told him and she never told him much.
Except then he launches into a really long story of his mother's past as a princess in the Oyo empire, in western Africa.
Here are the basics: Cassiopeia was a princess, who used to sit by her big daddy the King while he dealt with state business. She was happy, with lots of siblings, a beautiful home, and even a handsome prince as her fiancé. Then, just as she was about to marry her beloved prince, another prince asked to marry her. This prince was a total jerk about being rejected, so he took his anger out on them by waging war. He killed her fiancé and kidnapped Cassiopeia, and tried to force her to marry him, but she refused, so he exiled her to the coast. There, on the coastal kingdom of Dahomey, she was kept at the Governor's castle. The castle was beautiful, with lots of music, and she would sit listening to the music while pregnant with Octavian. In fact, that's where she thinks Octavian got his musical talent from—all that background music he heard while in the womb. Things were good, except the English came and took over the Isle of B—, where she was at. She got taken onto a ship called the Incontrovertible with Captain Julian McFergus at the helm. McFergus protected her from other men throughout the trip across the sea to America; then, once in America, she figured out that she didn't really like the more southern ports like Savannah or even New York, which is how she ended up in Boston.
Mr. Gitney saw her arrival in the papers and was so impressed with her elegance and smarts, he opened his home to her.
The only thing he asked for in exchange was that Octavian be educated according to the Gitney way (philosophy, classics, blah blah blah).
Cassiopeia was only thirteen years old then, so she couldn't say no.
And that's how their life began in the College of Lucidity.