Alaethea is a Greek name meaning “truth.” Sophia and Kavik, raised on the run by parents with a big secret, are now free to seek out the truth.
Sophia kept one hand securely on her older brother’s knapsack strap as they wove through the market day crowd of Ryder’s town square.
“You hungry?” Kavik asked, dark brown eyes compassionate.
Sophia shook her head. When Kavik had first struck upon the idea of finding the capital two years earlier, he had cajoled her with the idea of warm beds and fluffy towels. The fear was obvious on her face: she hadn’t expected so many people.
Broad shoulders squared, Kavik blended in well with the capital’s populace—except for the frightened fifteen-year-old hanging onto his knapsack strap.
Sophia saw the town post and gave the strap a vigorous yank. Kavik leaned down.
“Can we look?” she whispered.
Ryder’s post was octagonal, each panel being about six feet tall. Various posters and pamphlets were nailed to the panels. Sophia drank up the news. The last town they had been through was Sucat, nearly a month earlier.
Kavik’s eye was drawn by an ornate obituary. The Chancellor’s daughter, Princess Mariana, had been poisoned two days earlier. Her funeral would be later today, after which the Chancellor and his wife would spend a period of mourning in the mountains. Kavik stared silently at the etching of the princess, captivated by her smiling eyes. He hadn’t seen anyone so beautiful since his mother had drowned four years earlier.
He looked down. Sophia had found a listing of businesses. The High Judge’s office was in Old Ryder, by Chiron Lake.
“Let’s go see it,” she said, her shoulders trembling a little.
Kavik took note of the map and began walking. As the crowds thinned, Sophia loosened her grip on the strap.
“Is that the courthouse?” she asked. A low-flung building with white marble columns around the front sat in the shadow of the mountains.
“Yeah,” Kavik said. As they got closer, he was able to inspect the structure. “It doesn’t look burnt, does it?”
Sophia shook her head. “It doesn’t look rebuilt either.” She laid a hand on the cold marble. “It must be at least a century old.” Her hand bumped the golden nameplate. “Francisco D’Aragon, High Judge of Ryder. Do you think—”
The gates of the courthouse opened, revealing a double row of royal guards. Behind them, solemn men in black robes carried the princess’s body on a litter. Sophia peeked out from behind Kavik.
“She looks like Mama,” she said, voicing his thoughts.
The princess did look like their mother. Unlike their tanned mother, however, dark bruises mottled this woman’s fair skin from her right hand to her neck.
“Have you seen anything like that before?” Kavik asked Sophia.
She tilted her head. Kavik could read well enough, but the books he bartered for Sophia were generally a little beyond his mind’s grasp. A few volumes ago, she had memorized a book of medicine. Her hazel eyes brightened.
“It’s Chiron poisoning. Someone put chinut oil on a blade or a needle and pricked her. If she was allergic, it wouldn’t have taken much.”
Kavik watched as the procession continued out. At the end of it, an aged man with a long white beard gripped another man with jet black hair by the shoulder.
“Find her murderer, Aragon,” the old man said. His raspy voice had a heartbreak in it that made even Kavik turn away.
“I will do all in my power, Lord Chancellor.”
The Chancellor took his shell-shocked wife by the arm and led her to a pair of black horses. They mounted and rode behind the procession. The man with the black hair pulled his red robes in close and turned to looked at Kavik and Sophia.
“Aren’t you going?” the man asked, dark-eyed gaze roving the disheveled pair.
“No, sir,” Kavik said, wishing he had thought to clean himself and his sister up a little more before entering the city. “We’re looking for the High Judge.”
“I am the Aragon. Have you a complaint to make in the affairs of Oberon?”
Kavik wasn’t sure how to proceed now, faced with the High Judge himself. He played with his silver medallion while he considered how to word his request.
“We would like to know if a warrant still stands,” Kavik said finally.
“A warrant for what?” Lord Aragon asked.
“Arrest and trial,” Sophia whispered. “Against our grandparents.”
Lord Aragon smiled at her. “What family are you from?”
Kavik put an arm protectively around Sophia. “We don’t know,” he said.
Lord Aragon spread his arms. “The records of Oberon for five hundred years are kept in Ryder. I must have a name.”
“Are your warrants recorded?” Sophia asked. Kavik stared at her.
“Yes, to an extent,” Lord Aragon said.
“It would have been issued twenty years ago,” Sophia said, “for arson.”
Lord Aragon folded his hands into his read robe. “The offices are closed for the funeral. Why don’t you come back in the morning? I may find something for you.”
Kavik bowed. “Thank you, sir.”
Lord Aragon nodded and indicated to the guards to close the door. A man with polished armor and far too many rings walked inside with the High Judge.
Kavik and Sophia spent the night at an inn on the edge of the city. Kavik chopped enough wood to see the little inn through the first big snow and was granted, in addition to the night in a small room, baths and dinner. When he came up to their room with two steaming bowls, Sophia was sitting on the bed, braiding her wet hair.
“Dinner?” he said, offering her a bowl.
“Which one should I wear tomorrow?” Sophia asked, taking the bowl. She had bathed while Kavik was working, and she had laid out her hair ribbons on the bed.
Kavik sat down beside her and offered a brief thanks to the Creator. He looked over Sophia’s pitiful collection of colored ribbons, which he bartered off street vendors in various cities and towns. They were all frayed or stained now.
Kavik rubbed the back of his head, found his matted curls shorn to fuzz, and returned his hand to his side. It felt strange to be clean all over. “That one’s pretty,” he said finally, indicating a wide green one.
Sophia nodded and carefully folded away the other ribbons. “What are you wearing?”
“What I have. He’s already seen us.”
As they ate, Sophia looked wistfully at her only dress, hanging by the window. It had originally been brown, but was now more patch than dress. After she had finished eating, she looked thoughtfully at Kavik and started to giggle.
“What?” he asked, putting his empty bowl on the table.
“You’re so white. Like a ghost.”
Kavik glanced at his tanned reflection. His face had been black with dust since the first mile out of Sucat.
“Oh, yeah? Could a ghost do this?” He caught Sophia and started tickling her. She shrieked with laughter and wallowed away.
Someone banged on the wall. Sophia covered her mouth to muffle her giggles. Kavik got up and picked up her bowl.
“You better get some sleep, Soph. I’ll be right back.”
When he got back from returning the bowls, Sophia was already fast asleep. But when he crawled under the covers beside her, she immediately snuggled up to him with a soft murmur of content.
In the morning, Kavik thanked the innkeeper, and the siblings left for the courthouse. Lord Aragon let them in himself.
“Good morning,” he said with a warm smile. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, sir,” they answered meekly. The smell of coffee filled the lobby, getting stronger as they followed him. In his office, coffee and mincemeat tarts awaited them.
“Thank you,” Sophia said, taking the plate Lord Aragon offered her. The tarts were steaming hot, baked to the perfect golden brown. The insides held the most savory mincemeat Kavik had ever smelled.
Lord Aragon spoke cordially while they ate. He brought up the warrants just as Sophia finished her seventh tart.
“I found four warrants for arson during the 2650’s,” he said, sitting back with his coffee. “Two of them were for a single young man. One was for an older woman, and the other for an older man.”
“Maybe it was longer,” Kavik said to Sophia, who shrugged and started to nod.
Someone knocked on the door. At Lord Aragon’s welcome, the man with the armor and rings entered.
“Children, this is Captain Cordell. He’s the captain of the Royal Guard of Ryder.”
“Good morning,” Kavik said. Sophia didn’t say anything.
Captain Cordell smiled at her. Sophia flinched when he took her hand and kissed it.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” His voice was as oily as his pointed moustache. When Sophia withdrew her hand silently, Captain Cordell turned back to Lord Aragon. “I shall be making condolences to the Chancellor. Have you need of anything before I leave?”
“By all means,” Lord Aragon said. “Tell them we are searching for the culprit.”
Kavik imagined that he saw a sneer tug the corner of the captain’s mouth. The captain bowed and left the office. Sophia was rubbing her hand.
“What’s the matter, Soph?” Kavik asked, trying to hide a smile.
“He had a sharp ring.”
“What?” Kavik asked, frowning.
Sophia showed him her hand. There was a small scratch on her pinky finger. She grimaced.
“My hand smells like chinuts.”
Lord Aragon turned sharply to her. “Like what?”
“Like Chiron nuts. Doesn’t it, Kavik?”
He shrugged and nodded. “Is that important?”
Lord Aragon reached for a folder on his desk, knocking over a small figurine in the process. As Kavik bent down to grab the figurine, Lord Aragon scanned the report.
“The physicians couldn’t figure out how she had been exposed to the nut. She knew she was allergic. She wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it. If the captain had it on his rings—”
“He killed the princess,” Kavik said when Lord Aragon fell silent.
“I didn’t say that,” Lord Aragon said. “Thank you,” he added as Kavik put the figurine back on the desk. “What is that?”
Kavik’s silver medallion had fallen from his tunic when he leaned over to pick up the figurine. “My father gave it to me when I turned thirteen, right before he died.”
Lord Aragon leaned toward him. “May I see it?”
Kavik pulled the chain over his neck and handed it to Lord Aragon. It was a shield-shaped medallion with a triangle shaped by three swords on one side and a falcon on the other. It had tarnished rather badly during their travels.
“Lord Aragon?” Sophia said. “If the princess was deathly allergic, is one of her parents allergic, too?”
“Lady Juliana—” The High Judge lost a little color in his face. “If he kisses her hand in the mountains, she’ll be dead before anyone can return to the city for the antidote. Come!”
Lord Aragon led them to the stable, where he had two horses saddled. Kavik lifted Sophia onto one of them and swung himself up behind her.
Lord Aragon was no gentle rider. His red robes flapped out behind him as his bay thundered toward the mountain path. Kavik tried to keep up, but his travels had mostly been on foot. He knew how to stay on—he didn’t know how to ride.
They caught up when Lord Aragon stopped at the edge of a clearing at the top of the first mountain. At the other end of the clearing, three black horses whickered at each other by a white and green chalet. Captain Cordell was just leaving the Chancellor and his wife. He leaned down to kiss Lady Juliana’s hand and turned to speak to the Chancellor.
“Lord Aragon!” Sophia said in alarm, for Lady Juliana’s face had lost its color. Lady Juliana grabbed the Chancellor’s arm before sinking against the wall.
The Chancellor turned back to the captain, confusion evident on his aged face. Kavik couldn’t see if the captain said anything before he drew his sword and pointed it toward the Chancellor.
Lord Aragon spurred his horse toward the chalet. At the thunder of hooves, Captain Cordell turned toward the oncoming horses. Behind him, Lady Juliana had slipped onto her side and was trembling violently. Lord Aragon slipped from his horse, drew his sword, crossed the captain’s—all in one smooth, easy motion.
“Sophia,” he said with a shocking calmness, “the antidote is in my saddlebag.”
As Sophia slipped from Kavik’s horse and ran to Lord Aragon’s, Lord Aragon leveled his sword at the captain.
“I wanted to believe it was an accident, Thomas.”
Captain Cordell’s face was darkened with fury. “I work for this—” He inserted several choice words which Kavik hoped Sophia wouldn’t remember. “—for twenty years and he gives Mariana to my brother? If I can’t have her, no man shall!”
He would have added several more comments, but Lord Aragon flicked his sword across the captain’s face. Sophia, on her knees beside Lady Juliana, flinched and looked away. She had seen noseless men before, but only Kavik had seen them taken. It was Oberon’s mark of ignominy, for traitors, robbers, and occasionally condemned murderers.
“Kill him, Francisco,” the Chancellor said, his voice trembling with anger. “Kill him now!”
Lord Aragon didn’t move. His kind eyes were clouded, narrowed. Captain Cordell, holding a cloth to his face with one hand, didn’t wait. He swung his sword up and knocked Lord Aragon’s away. Lord Aragon took a half-step back, but he returned the blow with fury.
Kavik knelt by Lady Juliana as the two men fought. “Are you okay?”
Lady Juliana nodded. “My husband—”
Kavik turned. The Chancellor had drawn his own sword and was moving toward the fight. Kavik lurched after him.
“Lord Chancellor, the Aragon will win.”
The old man tried to shake him off, but Kavik wrapped his arms around the Chancellor’s shoulders and held on. Kavik was surprised by how frail the old man was—the Chancellor didn’t put up much of a struggle.
“Kavik!” Sophia cried out.
Captain Cordell had worked his back around to them. He had his sword high above his head and was preparing to swing downward on the Chancellor. Lord Aragon was on the wrong side to stop him in time.
As the sword whistled downward, Kavik grabbed the Chancellor’s sword. He brought it up just in time to divert the captain’s sword into the ground. Lord Aragon struck Cordell forcefully across the back of the head with the flat of his blade. Cordell’s eyes rolled up in their sockets as he fell to the ground beside the Chancellor.
“Thank you, boy,” the Chancellor said to Kavik, after a long moment of breathy silence. As Kavik helped him up, the aged man asked, “What’s your name?”
“Of what family?”
Lord Aragon cut off Kavik’s answer. “Mine.”
“Sir?” Kavik said, turning to Lord Aragon in confusion.
Lord Aragon pulled out the medallion and showed it to the Chancellor. “Can you deny that this is the emblem D’Aragon?”
The Chancellor inspected the side with the three swords. “It is indeed.”
“And is not this falcon the mark of my brother Sebastian?”
“Your brother?” Sophia said. “But— You’re our uncle?”
“I believe so. He left Ryder twenty years ago to elope with the love of his life. You look much like them.”
Lady Juliana, still shaking, had reached them. “Francisco, perhaps we ought to return to the courthouse.” She had a look on her face that Kavik didn’t quite understand. He looked at Sophia and found a similar look on her face. Sophia smiled back at him, moved to his side, and squeezed his hand.
“Yes, my lady,” Lord Aragon said. He pulled ropes from his saddlebags and secured the captain.
The ride back was much longer than it had seemed coming up. Kavik and Sophia rode together in silence at the back of the procession. When Captain Cordell regained consciousness to find himself hogtied over the back of Lord Aragon’s horse, he began spouting obscenities again.
Sophia hugged Kavik tightly around the waist. “I’m glad we came, Kavik.”
“Even after all this?”
Sophia smiled against his back. “This, big brother, is only the first page.”