The pawn in my hand moved two spaces forward. Despite it being my first move, I held my fingers to it as I scanned the chessboard for any way the move could backfire.
Griffin exhaled loudly, resting his chin on his hand. “I hate playing with you.”
“I’m being careful,” I said defensively.
“No, you’re being—” Griffin began, but a gasp from Mother, who had just sat down at the table behind me, interrupted. Griffin and I looked up from the floor to see her staring open-mouthed at the weekly paper.
“What's the matter?” Griffin asked.
“The Prince… He’s been killed!” Mother said, her eyes scanning over the paper for more information. “There’s a whole conspiracy.”
“Prince Bayen?” I asked. Griffin and I stood up and hovered behind her, reading the paper over her shoulder.
“Yes, look, it says here, ‘In a horrendous and tragic attack in Ellsmire, His Highness Prince Bayen Royale of Arterra was shot and killed with an illegally obtained firearm. No civilians were injured, but a bodyguard was severely wounded in the attack, which was believed to have been sparked by the long-running hatred between the Acian and Alexian lines.’”
I pulled a sorrowful expression, though I didn’t, of course, know Prince Bayen personally. “That’s so sad.”
“The Acians are a plague this country may never be rid of,” Mother said. “They won’t be happy until they’ve killed every last Alexian.”
“Do you think we’re in any danger?” I asked. My mother, brother, and I were indirect descendants of Queen Alexia.
Mother shook her head, folding the newspaper. “I haven’t ever heard of them attacking someone who isn’t living in the palace. And we’re so distant, I wouldn’t worry.”
“Yeah, we’re barely even Alexian,” Griffin said.
“We’re certainly more than barely,” Mother said. “But despite the Acians’ greedy ways, the Phoenix wanted us to be the rulers of Arterra, so it will protect us.”
I didn’t respond to that, as I rarely had anything to say on the subject of the Phoenix and his all-mighty feather-wielding.
“When’s Dad coming home?” I asked, more to change the subject than because of actual curiosity.
Mother glanced at the door as though he could be standing right there, waiting to be noticed. “I don’t know, dear. I thought he’d be home by tonight, but it seems he’s waiting until the morning.”
“I wonder if he saw the assassination,” Griffin said. “He was in Ellsmire, after all. And Aunt Christine’s apartment is right by the palace.”
Mother smoothed her dress and stood. “Yes, but I pray the Phoenix kept him away from all that. Those things are so terribly ugly.”
I slept well that night, since my nightmares of him had been coming less frequently, but that was all the good that happened that morning since Dad didn’t arrive. In fact, the house was entirely devoid of all men when I woke up. The window told me that unless Ellsmire had gotten more snow than we had here in Vallis (which it likely hadn’t, since Ellsmire was more southern), it hadn’t been the weather that had kept Dad away. Mother resolved to wait until noon before checking the post office for any word from him.
“Can I help?” I asked, sitting down on the side of the counter opposite Mother as she kneaded some bread.
Mother shook her head. “I’m almost done, but thank you.”
I watched her as she picked up the dough and slapped it back down on the counter. She had a crease in her forehead that wasn’t there often.
“Are you worried about Dad?” I asked.
She looked up at me, leaving traces of flour on her face as she wiped her forehead. “Oh, I’m sure he’s fine. He must just be wanting some extra time with Christine.”
I had never met Dad’s half-sister. Griffin and Mother had met her at Dad’s father’s funeral last year, which had also been the first time Dad had met her. I’d only visited with Grandfather Voss, as I called him, once or twice, so I hadn’t attended.
“Have you seen Griffin?” I asked, having exhausted Dad’s subject.
Mother glanced at the living room behind me and dusted a bit more flour over the dough. “I saw him just a bit ago. Is he outside?”
I stood, adjusting the hemline of my shirt as I did so. “I’ll go look.”
I pulled on a coat and a pair boots before opening the door. A heavenly light from the sun bouncing around on the snow forced me to squint and shield my eyes. The air pricked against my skin, winter being made of tiny needles, and I breathed in the scent of cold as I stared down the street. Down, far down, the street curved, taking its plain houses with it into the wooded area farther north, but I didn’t have to look that far to see evidence of life. A dark figure was slumped next to the road just two houses down.
I couldn’t imagine what Griffin would be doing lying on the sidestreet several houses away, but I knew that Mother would prefer him doing that to being with Tara, our next-door neighbor. Tara Kendall was eighteen, two years older than Griffin, and had decreased his innocence more in the last two months than anyone else in all his sixteen years.
I set off on my chilly journey down the street, the sidestreet having been somewhat cleared by community service doers, but before I could pass the Kendall’s house, I found something that Mother would not prefer Griffin to be doing. The window on the right side of the Kendall’s house, facing ours, was forced open against the will of the frost, hissing and cracking in protest, and a blond figure in a dark coat jumped out of the gap the open pane left.
My head swiveled between the figure by the road and the one by the window. Unfortunately, I found that the one sitting by the window more closely resembled my brother. This, of course, begged the question of whom, then, was lying by the side of the road, and whether or not I should go to him first.
Griffin’s reprimand could wait, I opted, and headed down the sidestreet at a half-jog, approaching the dark figure warily.
The Atkins’ lawn, where the figure was lying, had nearly three feet of snow piled up on the edge of it. As I neared, I spoke somewhat uncertainly into the crisp air. “Uh, are you okay?”
This had no effect, other than to send my breath out into the air in a smoke-like puff. I hesitated, worried that he could be luring me into a trap, but as I circled around to the other side of him I found that he was young—younger than I thought a serial killer would be—and unconscious.
His hair was dark, almost black, a sharp contrast to his sheet-white skin that was beginning to tint blue. Other parts of his face were streaked with blood from fresh cuts, and it was hard to tell if snowflakes had fallen on his skin or if the blood itself was crystallizing from the cold. I stepped forward cautiously and shook him a bit, but he didn’t stir. Despite the cuts and his discolored skin, warnings from my mother about ambushes derived from situations like this echoed through my head. With a shaky hand, I pressed two fingers just below his jaw. Humans, being warm blooded, are not frequently found to have a temperature nearly matching their surroundings, and for a pause I felt that somehow he had become that which was around him—that is to say, lifeless. But after a moment I felt a weak pulse and knew I had to get him inside before he no longer had any at all.
To my complete bafflement, he wore nothing over his t-shirt but a thin jacket. Considering that it was winter, and Second Winter in Vallis had never been a time known for its warm climate, I determined that the boy was an idiot. Despite that, I took off my coat and put it around him while I tried to decide where to take him. In the end, after remembering that the Atkins were out of town, I decided that the best course of action was to take him to my house.
That was easier said than done. I tried once to lift him and upon the spectacular failure of that course of action, I immediately went to recruit Griffin’s muscle expertise.
He was still sitting in a pile of snow on Tara’s lawn, and he noticed my approach quickly, as I had to march through two feet of it to reach him, much of it falling into the cuff of my boots and freezing everything below my knees. “Griff, I need your help,” I said, ignoring his blatant disobedience of Mother’s instructions to stay away from Tara. When he turned to me, however, I thought that he was not in any state to be helping, but in more of a state to be helped out of.
His cheeks were flushed, and his expression was half bewildered and half cross. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” he muttered. “Tara cheated on me.”
“Oh,” I said, not a lick surprised but sympathetic all the same. “I’m sorry. Can you help me get that unconscious guy by the road inside?”
His expression fell to puzzlement. “Uh… sure.”
As he followed me to the boy by the street, I wondered how it felt to be broken up with. I had had one “boyfriend” in my lifetime, but the details of our breakup were unique. That was to say, we had divided for reasons that had led me to seclusion (and nightmares) since the bonfire in Third Fall, a little over two months ago. My parents told me that no one else had tried to date me because I intimidated boys with my intelligence or something. I didn’t know why they said that if everyone already knew that boys didn’t like me because I didn’t like people.
We reached the boy in a matter of seconds. Once again, Griffin seemed to be mystified by the concept of him, but without question he lifted the boy’s right arm over his shoulder and I his left. Through a series of staggered steps and some slipping, we got him up our walkway and through the door. Mother was still working on her bread, but she glanced up as we entered and her eyes widened.
“Oh dear!” she exclaimed, abandoning her baking and rushing over. “Okay, um, spread that sheet on the couch and lie him down. What happened?”
I shook my head as I unfolded the sheet she had indicated and draped it over the couch, my body slowly thawing next to the living room fire. “He was this way when I found him.”
Griffin ducked down to lay the ragdoll-esque form onto the sofa by the fireplace. Mother hurried between the kitchen and the living room, which were joined, piling the coffee table with a bowl of warm water, blankets, washcloths, and a variety of medicines.
I soaked one of the washcloths in warm water and rang it out, gently scrubbing the blood from his face. Mother sent Griffin to get Dr. Byrd from down the street, and he pulled on a jacket and hurried out into the glaring winter.
The boy looked peaceful when all the blood was washed away. His blue skin was gradually turning more of a paper color, which I supposed was improvement. I squeezed a bit of ointment from a small tube onto my finger and spread it across the cuts on his cheek. He didn’t move.
Dr. Byrd arrived before Mother could finish warming up a bowl of soup. He wasn’t a properly licensed doctor, which you could have told from his disheveled hair and hastily buttoned shirt, but Dad didn’t like us going to the doctor at the official clinic for whatever reason, and Dr. Byrd worked just as well as the one at the clinic.
“Where did you find him?” Dr. Byrd asked, looking at Griffin as he pulled something out of his medical kit.
“She did, actually,” Griffin beckoned to me. “On the Atkins’ lawn.”
Dr. Byrd nodded. “And he was unconscious when you found him?”
“Yes,” I said. “He, um, he had blood all over his face and barely had a pulse.”
Dr. Byrd didn’t respond to this. He lifted his eyelids and shined a light in them. It was hard to tell with the light shining in them, and also because they were partly rolled back in his head, but I thought his eyes were gray.
“He seems to have some head trauma,” Dr. Byrd said. “It’s difficult to determine if his lack of consciousness is the result of a concussion or just having nearly frozen. He should wake up as soon he gets some warmth back in him. Give him these if he has a headache.” I took the bottle of pills he handed me.
Mother, who had joined us following the completion of her soup, asked, “Does he live near here?”
Griffin shrugged. “I’ve never seen him at school.” It wasn’t uncommon to not know someone for lack of seeing them at school, for often only a portion of the middle class and above could afford schooling, and even then many families could only afford to school one of their children.
Dr. Byrd shook his head. “I don’t, but if he’s from more than a couple miles from here I wouldn’t.”
Mother pulled her eyes away from the sleeping boy. “Well, thank you for the help, Dr. Byrd.”
“Anytime,” he said with a smile. “Is Samuel here?”
Mother shook her head. “He’s in Ellsmire. I expect him back soon.”
“Would you have him come see me when he returns?” Dr. Byrd asked.
“You’re welcome to stay here until he gets home,” Mother said. “Come in the kitchen, I’ll warm you up a drink.” Any protests Dr. Byrd might have made would have only been said to Mother’s back as she headed into the kitchen, so he took a gander at us and followed.
Griffin vanished upstairs before Mother could be rid of the distraction Dr. Byrd brought about and think to ask where he’d been. While I tended to the rest of the boy’s cuts I noticed a bruise forming on the side of his head with blood matted around it. I cleaned it up as gently as I could and placed a warm washcloth on his forehead. Mother always said the quickest way to get warm was to cover your head and your feet. His awakening was a testament to her advice.
He didn’t wake up immediately. It took a few minutes before he stirred a bit and his eyelids blinked open slowly. The way he was laying when he woke up limited his line of sight to the ceiling, which stretched high above him, and this seemed to be confusing to him on its own. I considered calling Dr. Byrd over, but decided to let him meet the world one thing at a time.
Slowly, his eyes moved as far left as they physically could. He stared at me in a strange moment of silence, seeming oddly relaxed. Confused, yes, but more curious than panicked.
He examined me briefly, appearing to decide that I wasn’t a threat—a conclusion I had to agree with—and moved his eyes to look wherever else he could without moving his head. Once he had taken in everything he could that way he shifted his body a bit, winced, and said to me in a voice so hoarse that I had to rely mostly on lip-reading to understand the message, “Who else is here?”
I looked up at the kitchen, which glowed with the light from the kitchen fire. Mother was talking to Dr. Byrd in the kitchen, and upstairs Griffin’s bedroom door was open with a soft glow emitting from it.
“Dr. Byrd, my mother, and my brother upstairs,” I said back to him quietly. “Are you okay?”
He winced again from an unseen pain. “Dandy. Who are you?”
“Me? I’m—I’m Ava. Voss. Who are you?”
He shifted a bit, settling into the couch, and closed his eyes in a stab of pain. “Never give out that information to strangers,” he recited tensely. “So you don’t know me?”
“No, we just found you outside. No one here knows you,” I told him.
“Mm,” he said. “Me neither. Can I have some hot chocolate?”
I blinked. “Wait, you don’t know who—”
The boy held up a hand to silence me and then watched as it flopped back down on the couch on its own accord. He lifted his arm again and watched as it repeated the action. The right corner of his mouth lifted in a vague sense of amusement before he looked back at me. “Right. Hot chocolate. Can I have some?”
“I, uh… yeah. Yeah, of course. One second.”
I stood and entered the kitchen. Mother smiled. “Everything all right, Ava?”
“He’s awake,” I said. “And he wants me to make him some hot chocolate.”
Dr. Byrd looked interested while Mother looked dumbfounded. She glanced at Dr. Byrd, who didn’t seem to have advice to offer to the contrary, so she said, “Well… okay. Do it then, I suppose.”
Dr. Byrd moved to go talk to the rescued boy, but I put a halting hand on his arm. “Dr. Byrd?”
He glanced back. “Yes?”
“He says he doesn’t remember anything,” I said.
Mother raised her eyebrows. A light flicked on in Dr. Byrd’s eyes, and he turned and headed toward the boy like a housecat to a magpie while Mother followed, somewhat less predatorily. I remained in the kitchen to pump some water into the pot and then set it in the kitchen fire to boil.
Dr. Byrd sat down on the edge of the coffee table facing the boy. “Hello there. My name’s Dr. Byrd.”
“And I’m Andorra,” Mother said, next to him. “We’re glad to see you’re okay.”
I heard the soft hum of his voice responding, but I couldn’t make out words over the crackling of the fire.
“Ava says you have no memory of what caused your injuries,” Dr. Byrd said.
I reached into the cupboard for some mugs as he responded.
“No memory of anything?” Dr. Byrd asked. “You don’t know who you are?”
“Oh dear,” Mother said.
“Ava?” the boy said, his voice sounding raspy when he spoke loudly. I looked over in his direction.
“You don’t know what my name is, do you?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“That’s unfortunate. Can I be called Matthew?” he asked.
“I… sure. If you want to be.”
“That’s great. Matthew it is.”
Mother looked at me questioningly from the coffee table. I shook my head with a similar look in return and turned to get out the cocoa.
Mother returned to the kitchen as the water began to boil. Dr. Byrd remained by Self-Proclaimed Matthew to discuss his condition. “I need to go check the post office for any word from your father. Are you comfortable staying here with… Matthew?”
I nodded. “Yeah. If anything goes wrong I can just get Griffin to come beat him up.”
“Do be cautious, Ava,” she said seriously, pulling on her coat. “Oh, where was Griffin, by the way?”
I knew why she asked. She thought she knew perfectly well where Griffin had been, but hoped that she didn’t. I didn’t like lying to her, but I also wanted to be a good sister, especially since I knew it was hard for Griffin to have Tara cheat on him and then not be allowed to be sad about it.
“He… Well, I’ll tell you later. But Tara’s not a problem anymore,” I finally said.
Mother tilted her head curiously, but nodded. “Okay then. Don’t let him leave until I get back, okay? You’re in charge.” I nodded, and she left promptly thereafter.
The water was soon warm enough, and I poured it into the mugs and stirred the cocoa powder in. I had a brief mental debate over whether or not I should bring Dr. Byrd a cup as well, and in the end resolved that if it was that important to him I could come back and pour him one. I carried the two mugs over to Matthew, and met Dr. Byrd in the living room before I could reach the coffee table.
“That’s quite the boy you’ve found there,” Dr. Byrd said. “I’ve never seen anyone in a condition quite like his.”
I glanced over at Matthew and saw him unabashedly eavesdropping on our conversation. “What should we do?”
He shook his head. “Even though I’m not a licensed doctor, I like to think that I can handle general ailments as well as anyone around here, but in his case… I don’t know what to tell you, Ava, other than just to try to get the rest of him back to normal condition, and perhaps his memory will catch on.”
“What about his family? Won’t they be worried?” I said.
Dr. Byrd cast his eyes over at Matthew. “Yes I’m sure, but I’m not certain that there’s anything you can do, other than report his location to the authorities. Without his memory… His memory loss truly is an anomaly. The injuries to his head would usually lead me to believe that he’s suffering from traumatic amnesia, but never have I seen that form of amnesia take away all recollections of identity.”
“Is there anything that might help his memory come back faster?” I asked.
He shook his head helplessly. “Usually I recommend that family members reintroduce the patient to things they used to know—siblings, pets, their homes, etcetera, but in this case it’s almost impossible to tell what he would and wouldn’t have known.”
I nodded. “Okay. I guess I’ll just try to help the rest of him, then. Thanks.”
“Anytime. Tell your dad to stop by when he gets back from Ellsmire,” Dr. Byrd said, and within the minute he was gone.
I took the mugs and sat down on the edge of the coffee table across from Matthew. “Don’t sit up,” I said. “I got you a straw.”
“I don’t think I like straws,” Matthew said as I handed the mug to him and he struggled to position it in a place where he could both hold it comfortably and reach the paper straw. After a length of me silently sipping my drink, Matthew asked, “Is it amnesia that’s making me this way?”
“That’s what Dr. Byrd thinks it is.”
Matthew looked at me as he tried to drink from his kinked straw. “You sound like you disagree.”
I took another sip of my hot chocolate. “I think that amnesia is the best explanation for the symptoms you claim to have.”
Matthew raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m lying?”
He tried to drink from his straw again, which in turn made a gurgling noise. “Why would I lie about having amnesia?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you ran away from home and want a place to sleep. Maybe you’re trying to rob us.”
“You’re a deeply suspicious person,” Matthew said.
I might have objected, but his words gave me pause to consider how differently I would have reacted to this situation a year ago, before… all that. I exhaled. “Okay, how about this: you be honest with me and I’ll trust you.”
Matthew handed me his half-empty mug. “Sounds good to me.”
“All right then,” I said. “I’m trusting you about the memory thing.”
“And I’m telling the truth about the memory thing,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “So, would you like to meet my brother?”
Upon Matthew’s agreement, I retrieved Griffin from his room upstairs, telling him that Matthew was awake, and then explaining who Matthew was. When that was cleared up, he descended the stairs in curiosity while I stopped by my room to pick up something to help a budding idea along.
I had piles of books around my room because my bookshelf had caved under the weight of what used to be stacked on it. I dug through some old books from my childhood and found a book of poetry, which I decided was universal enough for my objective.
I returned downstairs to find Griffin grinning in his charming, light-of-the-sun way that the girls loved, and Matthew going on about something with a smile on his face.
“I like this guy,” Griffin said to me as I came into view. “You should rescue guys off the street more often.”
“Not everyone off the street is as hilarious as I am,” Matthew pointed out.
Griffin nodded in agreement. “That’s true. There’s this homeless guy that hangs out by the bakery and he has no sense of humor. This one time-—”
“No one cares, Griff,” I said, pushing him away from my space of the coffee table.
“No, this is hilarious. It was the middle of Second Summer, and he chased me and my friend for three blocks just ’cause we-—”
“Nobody careeees,” I sang as I pushed him towards the stairs. “And Mom said I’m in charge, because of the Tara thing.”
“You told her?” he said, as though his siblingly bond with me had taken a serious blow.
“No,” I said. “But to be fair, you are awful at sneaking out.”
Griff scowled. “Tara,” he said mutinously before marching upstairs.
“So you and my brother hit it off, eh?” I said, sitting down across from Matthew as Griffin closed his bedroom door.
“Yeah, he’s cool I guess,” Matthew said.
“’He’s cool I guess’?” I repeated. “You seemed more into your conversation than ‘he’s cool I guess.’”
Matthew shrugged. “What do you want me to say? He has nice hair?”
“No, please don’t say that,” I said. “He’s already consumed with it. Heavens forbid someone tell him he actually has cause to be.”
Matthew laughed, and though it was a pleasant sound, it was different from Griffin’s laugh. Griffin’s laugh was a joyful, boisterous sound that made you want to be part of whatever he was laughing about. Matthew’s laugh was just a simple, humble expression of amusement. “I won’t tell him, don’t worry,” Matthew said. “What’s that?”
“The Great Big Book of Poems,” I said, holding up the book so that he could see the cover. “Starting with… Rowentinn. Familiar?”
He shook his head. “Sounds like a good name for a pet mouse.”
“He’s a philosopher,” I said.
“Ah,” Matthew said. “Sounds like a good name for a philosopher.”
I smiled, opening the book. “So this is going to be weird reading poems to someone older than me, but just bear with me.”
“I’m older than you?” Matthew asked. I looked up from the book.
“Probably eighteen, about. Somewhere around there. Why?”
“Weird. I don’t feel eighteen,” he said.
“What does eighteen feel like?” I asked.
He thought on that. “Young. Reckless. I feel sort of weak and warm and cold in different places.”
“That would be called ‘being sick.’” I said. “It happens to everyone, even invincible eighteen-year-olds.”
Matthew stared at me blankly.
“All right. I’m just going to read,” I said, opening the book.
“Wait, I have a question,” Matthew said.
“What do I look like?”
I didn’t have an answer for that right away. I wasn’t even totally sure he was being serious at first, but I realized that he honestly didn’t know. I thought about the cocky remarks he had been making with Griffin and decided that seeing himself would only make them worse.
“You, um, you have pretty light skin, I guess. You’re probably half frozen still. Um… I don’t know. You’ve got dark hair and a kind of long nose. But not. I mean, it’s a-—it’s a normal length nose.”
Matthew was watching me with a slight smirk as I stumbled over describing him. “Am I nice-looking?”
I was sure I looked quite taken aback by that question. “Are you… I… I mean, you’re… I’m just going to go get a mirror.”
“No, no, wait,” Matthew said, reaching out and grabbing my wrist to stop me as I tried to stand up, an action that half-turned me back to him. “I’m sorry, sit down. I’ll stop.”
I tucked my hair behind my ear and sat back down on the coffee table. “I should let you sleep.”
Matthew shook his head. “No way. I’m not even tired. C’mon, read the story. I’m sorry I embarrassed you.”
“You didn’t embarrass me,” I said, flipping through the pages of the book back to Rowentinn.
“This ‘being honest’ thing goes both ways, you know,” Matthew said.
I laughed. “I don’t care if you trust me or not.”
Matthew shrugged. “All right then. Let’s hear this story.”
“It’s more of a poem,” I said. In actuality it was a song, but if there was anything that was more mortifying than my attempt at explaining what Matthew looked like, it would be trying to sing to him.
“’On a street in the city
Sits the man with the cup
He utters no words
Nor e’er he looks up
His memories are vivid—
Though worn be his soul—
Of the knowledge he’s claimed
As his life took its toll
Rowentinn, they called him
The world’s gift to man
He was wise beyond—’”
My reading came to the halt at the sound of the front door opening. Mother walked in with a letter in her hand that she wouldn’t look away from, not even as she fumbled to hang her coat and scarf up on the coat rack.
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
“What? Oh, hi,” she said breathlessly, a side effect of the cold. Her eyes barely left the paper.
“Good read?” Matthew joked in a way intended to get her to look up.
She looked up from the letter and looked at us with a perplexed expression. “Sorry? Oh, no. It’s… No, it’s a just a letter. I’m just… I’m going to be in my bedroom for a bit. You can get dinner for yourselves, can’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Is everything okay?”
“Mhm,” she said, heading for the staircase.
“Wait, Mom,” I called as she made her way up the stairs. She stopped and looked back. “Is that from Dad?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, nothing from him.” This time I didn’t stop her as she hurried up the stairs and disappeared into her room.
“I think I should go get Griffin,” I said, more to myself than Matthew.
“Great, I’ll come with you,” Matthew said, attempting to sit up. I pushed him back down.
“Uh, I actually don’t know if you’re allowed to get up.”
“I feel fine,” he said.
“I just don’t know what would happen. You probably need to be lying down, at least until that bruise on your head gets better,” I said.
“If I feel something burst in my head I’ll tell you,” he said.
I gave him a look. “I don’t want to have to tell your parents you died because of me.”
“If they’re my parents they’ll understand I couldn’t be stopped. I have a feeling I’m stubborn,” he said, pushing my hand off of him and sitting up.
“Odd, I have the same one,” I said.
He looked a little bit dazed as he sat up and I nearly made him lie back down again, but he said, “See, I’m fine,” and I could only roll my eyes.
Matthew looked different sitting up. It probably had something to do with the lack of a double chin. His dark hair, though still messy, suited his face shape better, and he looked more… more like a person.
“This house is larger than I imagined it,” Matthew said. I realized that until then he had only seen the small corner that he had been able to view while lying on the couch.
Matthew got to his feet shakily and collapsed back on the couch, looking frustrated.
“Okay, lie down. Honestly. You’re going to die,” I said. Reluctantly he sat back down and I patted him on the head. “Good boy. Stay.”
Matthew responded with a highly sarcastic smirk.
Griffin’s door was at the top of the stairs, just to the right. I climbed them and stopped in front of his door. I knocked twice, and the wooden door opened slightly wider from the mild force of my knocking.
“Come in,” Griffin said from the inside, and I did just that. He was lying on his bed reading. “What might I do for you on this fine—?”
“Something’s up with Mom,” I said, pausing just inside the doorway.
Griffin shrugged, not looking away from the book. “Something’s always up with Mom.”
“I’m serious, Griff. She says Dad didn’t send any letters, but she’s acting strange.”
“So she’s finally lost it,” Griffin said. “We all knew it was going to happen someday.”
Griffin finally looked up from his book. “You’re really worried?”
Griff sighed. “Fine. Let’s go talk to her.”
I followed him to Mother’s door and he knocked three times. “I’m preoccupied at the moment,” she said in a strained voice. Griffin tried the handle, but it was locked.
“Can we please come in?” I asked.
“There’s that roast from last night in the icebox,” she said. “Or oatmeal in the cupboard.”
“Are there any more brownies?” Griffin asked. I shoved his shoulder.
“We’re not here about dinner. We’re worried about you,” I said into the door.
A beat of hesitation. “I need to be left alone for a little while.”
I hesitated, wondering if I wanted to ask the question on my lips. “Is this about Dad?”
It scared me when she didn’t answer right away. It scared me even more when she opened the door.
“I suppose I can’t keep this from you. Come and sit down,” she said. Griffin and I looked at each other before filing into her room and sitting down on the floor in front of her bed. Mother sat cross-legged with her back against the bed’s footboard. There was a panic in the back of her eyes that was frightening, but not nearly as unnerving as the numbness that was beginning to weave its way in with it. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Your father…”
He’s not dead, I thought. She’d be worse off if he were dead. She’d be sobbing. He’s not dead.
“He’s been arrested.”
I didn’t ever think that I’d be happy to hear that sentence, but all that mattered to me then was that “arrested” wasn’t synonymous to “killed.”
“Then it’s been a mistake,” I said. “They’ll clear it up and he’ll be home soon, right?” It had been awhile since Dad had been home for a consecutive month—-“awhile” as in “before my teenage years”—-but I did still love him, if in a different way than most daughters love their fathers.
She shook her head, and the tears flowing down her cheeks made a lukewarm wave of liquid emotion rise up in my throat and choke me. Her voice came out higher pitched and strained. “They, um… They believe he killed the Prince.”
I didn’t totally comprehend what she was saying at first. When I did, I turned to look at Griffin. He was staring at her, looking like she’d just smacked him. Shock, incomprehension, and just confusion were frozen on his features. I looked back at Mother and asked the first question that came to mind, which also happened to be the most simple-minded one.
“W-Why would he do that?”
“He wouldn’t,” Griffin said from beside me. I looked at him, and saw that his expression had slipped into definiteness though he was still staring straight ahead. As I looked at him, he turned and looked between us. “They’re framing him.”
Mother sighed. “They think he’s a Talley.”
“That’s insane,” I said. Not only was it ridiculous to claim my dad was of the Acian bloodline (Acia Talley’s indirect bloodline which had opposed the Alexian bloodline for two centuries) but it was especially absurd to say that he was a Talley (a member of Acia’s direct bloodline which worked most violently against the crown).
“It says they’ve done a test to see if they can trace him back to the Acian line, but it hasn’t been completed yet,” Mother said. “They’ll have the results in two days, which is when the trial will be held.”
“Can we go?” Griffin asked, too quickly to be casual.
“To the trial?” Mother said.
“Oh, Griffin,” she said. “I thought I knew your father as well as anyone, but if there’s even a chance that he is of Talley blood… Well, then it won’t matter if he did it. He’ll be the one to suffer the punishment, and I couldn’t bear for you to watch that. I couldn’t bear to watch that.”
The sentence for the murder of a Royale was death, a clause that had been a necessary addition to the law because of all of the Acians targeting the Royales. It wasn’t a secret that Acians in Arterra were discriminated against; there was a law decreeing their immediate arrest (should any be found) to avoid potential crimes against the Royales. However, given their history of violence against the Royales, most felt that the Blood Act, as the law demanding their arrest was called, was justified.
Griffin shook his head. “I don’t care. I want to see him, whether he ends up being exe—”
“Don’t,” I said.
“Shut up, Ava. There’s a chance he’ll die whether you want to say the word or not,” Griffin said. Mother and I looked at him, taken aback. He looked down and let out a short breath. “Sorry.”
“I think you’re right,” Mother said after a moment’s silence. “We need to see him again, whatever happens.”
I hesitated, not sure if the answer to the question in my mind was worth the pain of asking it. “He… He’s not a Talley, though, right? He wouldn’t marry an Alexian if he was.” Dad knew full well that Mother was Alexian, a fact she was abundantly proud of. If he truly had Acian blood, there wouldn’t be any logic to him marrying a descendant of the family his line hated so bitterly.
Mother shook her head. “No. No, of course he isn’t. It’s all just part of the framing.” She smiled softly, tears in her eyes, and I realized how little faith she had in his innocence.
We spent another several minutes there, mostly in silence. It was awful of me, but my feelings for Dad’s tenuously preserved life were mixed with troubling questions of what it meant for us. If he did have Acian blood, then so did we. Would we be put in prison?
I didn’t want to voice my trepidation on the subject, so I asked another, lighter question instead. “What’s going to happen to Matthew?” I asked. “We can’t just leave him here.”
Griffin shrugged. “He can come with us.”
I gave him a look. “He can’t even stand up.”
Mother stood up and said, “You can either bring him with us or put him back where you found him, but we have to leave now if we’re going to make it to Ellsmire on time. I’ll prepare the carriage. Pack a bag.”