Aless had spent so much time with Seph and his family that she had practically become part of his family. Sera had completely forgotten that she had ever been worried about Aless. She even made a new dress for her as a gift. Aless felt like nothing could ever go wrong here, but always reminded herself that Krystel was still out there. She was happy, but kept her looming cloud above her head. Seph had even forgotten the original reason why she had come to Tredon.
Every now and again Aless would go and visit Sofea in the city, helping with her shop. Right before she left, Sofea would always ask her the same question: "Who are you running away from, Aless?"
Aless gave her the same answer each time: "I'm afraid I can't tell you that. I'm sorry."
Aless believed that Sofea already knew the answer; she was only asking to hear it from Aless. But Aless knew that Krystel had wanted to stay secret, so her secret would end with Aless. She was still hurt that Krystel had kept it from her, but understood why. All of Aritia had believed the Black Rose Witch to be gone; she was nothing more than a legend now. If Krystel wanted to come out about being the Witch, she would have done it when she discovered that Alessandra had left, or long before.
Aless was walking back from the Seer's shop when she noticed it. The city had been decorated. There were ribbons tied around each post and banners hanging between them. Everything look much brighter and everyone seemed more cheerful. There were more children out playing in the streets, and all the shop prices went down. She hurried back home, looking for Seph, and found him washing clothes behind the house.
"Seph, what's going on?" she asked, a bit breathless. "The city, it's different."
"Oh, right," Seph said, "you were sheltered." He winked at her. Aless rolled her eyes. "Everyone is getting ready for the Trade."
"The Trade?" she sat down on the grass, warm from the sunshine.
"Every four years, Celemore holds the Trade," he explained. "It is basically this large gathering of people all throughout Aritia. Everyone brings goods from their city or a service they can do and we trade them around for a week in Celemore."
Aless nodded, starting to understand. "But why is the city so decorated?"
"Tredon is one of three cities that lead to Celemore. The other two are Rygard and Halifeld. Every other city south of us has to go through one of these cities to reach Celemore. All the cities east of Halifeld go up through Rygard, and all the ones west come through Tredon. Halifeld itself splits in half: the east half to Rygard and west half to us here in Tredon."
"I thought Halifeld had a road to Celemore."
Seph nodded. "It does, but that road is for emergencies. Nearly every city has a direct road to Halifeld, but only the three of us have one directly to Celemore. Halifeld's has specific guidelines to it to keep peace; you have to go through Tredon or Rygard to get to Celemore for other issues."
"If Halifeld is so important, why isn't it the capital?" Aless questioned. Seph shrugged.
"They built Celemore first or something. I am not sure. Anyway, Tredon is more decorated than usual because at least half the land will be passing by here within the next two weeks or so."
"Sounds exciting," Aless commented. "Have you ever gone on this Trade?"
Seph nodded. "Only once before. I was thirteen, and the only thing I had to offer was my brute strength. People needed that a lot though, so I got some pretty cool things. When I am finished here, I can show some of them to you."
Aless thought about what she might be able to trade. "What kinds of things do people trade?"
"Oh, all sorts of things," Seph said. "Their strength, like me. Some people make jewelry, others can make really good clothes. Lots of performers come up too, and they stop and perform in each city they pass through. Tredon gets to see of professional stuff. But it really just depends on your skill set. The Seers all gather together as well, meeting with each other about problems in their cities or towns and they discuss the best way to take care of them. Then when they are done they give free advice. Many people have said that it is helpful to get more than one Seer's opinion on something."
"Sofea will be going up?" Aless asked. Sofea could barely walk on her own, and she was going to go up and be a part of this huge gathering?
"She gets someone to help her each year. It might be you this time," Seph smiled.
Aless had run out of questions to ask. She now thought about what she and Sofea had talked about her first night. "We are called Seers because of our magick. We have the ability to see the colors of souls." She held back a shudder. Having her oddly colored soul seen by all the Seers in the land did not sound very appealing. Still, if Sofea asked her, she would go. Aless was too nice to say no.
Aless helped Seph hang the clothes up to dry, then heard the call from Sera that supper was ready. Each supper had been the same as her first, except for Sofea. The boys fought, Seph ate quickly, his parents parented. Aless had gotten used to the routine. After supper she and Seph cleared away the dishes and went outside to wash them.
"Still thinking about the Trade?" Seph asked her. Aless blinked, pulled back into reality. She smiled timidly.
"Yes," she admitted. "I'm trying to think of something I could trade that would be useful to someone else."
"Hmm," Seph thought. "You could trade a poem for a deep discussion."
Aless laughed. "Are there people that do that?"
Seph shrugged. "There might be. People trade all kinds of things. For example, you could offer to clean someone's home in exchange for staying there."
"Now why does that sound familiar?" Aless teased, glancing at Seph.
Seph feigned ignorance. "I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Really?" Aless giggled. She cupped her hands, filling them with water, then quickly threw it at Seph. She hit the front of his shirt.
"Hey!" Seph looked down at his wet front while Aless laughed. He scooped some water into his hand and threw it at her. His hands were much larger than hers, and managed to get more water onto her than was on him. She squealed, and ran to the other side of the water basin. Aless splashed more water towards him. Seph dodged most of it, and splashed her back. Aless didn't move as fast and caught it all on her back.
The two ran around laughing, throwing and splashing water at each other. Finally Seph grabbed the basin and dumped what was left onto Aless, soaking her. They were both shivering, but Aless had never felt happier. She poked his chest.
"Your mother is going to kill us," she said, still laughing.
"I do not doubt it."
"Seph! Aless!" Seph's father called. He opened the back door. "What are you two doing?" He was stunned when he saw the two, Aless wet from head to toe, and Seph halfway there, holding the empty basin.
Seph spoke first. "Nothing."
His father shook his head. "You two will be getting more water tomorrow, before your mother finds out, understand?"
"Yes, sir," they said together, still smiling.
"Children these days," he mumbled as he went back inside. Seph and Aless looked at each other and started laughing again. They dried off the remaining dishes, then went back inside. Aless tried her hardest not to drip water through the cottage. Seph went into his room and grabbed a dry shirt, then went across the hall and handed it to Aless.
"To help you dry off," he said. "Since it is my fault you are so wet." Aless took it and wrapped it around her hair, squeezing as much water as she could out of it.
"Did you have to be so thorough?" she asked him, a smile on her face.
"If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right," he teased. "Clearly the only way to win this was to get you as wet as possible."
Aless rolled her eyes. "You are quite literally the definition of impossible," she stated. She handed him his damp shirt back.
He nodded, walking out and into his room. "Perhaps," he said, "but you know you love it." He gave her one smile, and then closed the door.
Aless stood there in stunned silence. Love? Was that what this was between them? She had felt something since that day they met, but it couldn't have been love. She remembered loving Krystel, but look where that had gotten her. Maybe this is a different kind of love, she thought. Aless just looked at his closed door. Did she really love Seph? She shook her head. It had only been a couple months since they had met. He couldn't have fallen in love with her that fast, and she couldn't have either. It was just too much too soon.
Aless thought over her life here and she undressed and changed. Seph and his family were really the only people she had gotten to know, including Sofea. Everyone else was still a stranger. And Seph had other friends, she had heard them that first day, but he had almost never left her side. Was he being nice? Or did he actually enjoy her company that much. Aless like being alone or with a few other people, yet Seph was always there when she looked back. It was like they had become shadows, each one following the other. But surely that wasn't love.
Aless shook her head. She was clearly reading too much into this. Seph had only said it to tease her, that was all. That was all he had ever done. She opened her window and carefully hung her wet clothes outside, hooking them to the window ledge. There was a cold night wind blowing. She rubbed her hands together, then rubbed them up and down her arms, trying to warm up a bit. She went to her closet and found her black cloak, remembering why she had brought it.
"You're supposed to be hiding me from Krystel," she told it. "So either she stopped looking, or she's on her way here. Either way, you'll do for an extra blanket tonight." She swung it around and fastened it around her neck, like she had done the first time, then wrapped it around her body. The think fabric was warm against her cold skin. She climbed beneath the covers. She was very tired, though she suspected the cold had something to do with that. "Good night," she said to the ceiling. Then she rolled over and fell asleep.
* * *
The coming days were filled with excitement for Aless. She spent more time in the city, waiting and watching for all the people to come. Sofea could feel her excitement four shops away. "This must be very exciting for you, dear," she said.
Aless nodded. "Walking through Tredon the first time with Seph was overwhelming, but now we're about to get at least three times that many people! It will be the largest group I've ever seen."
"Based on your background, being in a room with two people would give you that," Sofea commented. Aless rolled her eyes.
"I'm excited because everyone passing through here will have some sort of gift to share with everyone. I want to see it all! There's even talk of a traveling performers group coming."
"Ah, yes, Halifeld's Storytelling. I have seen them many times," Sofea reminisced. "Each teller has magick, and they use that to help them tell their stories in such beautiful ways. My favorite is the one about the lost princess."
"How many stories do they have?" Aless asked.
"There is never an official number. They trade out storytellers each year, and tell different tales. I have only heard the lost princess one once, which means it is a fairly new tale."
Aless sat down in front of Sofea. "What's it about?"
Sofea laughed. "Oh, darling, you will have to go find them and ask. I could never tell it as masterfully as they did." Aless was too excited to be upset. She ran back to the window, watching another family pass by. "You should hurry home, dear," Sofea told her. "Burn all your energy out."
Aless turned to look at the Seer. "Are you sure? I can stay here and help––"
"You have done more than take care of me. I think I can survive one night on my own." She smiled sweetly. "Go. Enjoy the sights."
Aless smiled widely. "Oh, thank you!" She ran and hugged the old woman, then ran back to the door.
"One more thing, however," Sofea called out. Aless had already opened the door, but waited right inside. "Who are you running away from, Aless?"
A small part of Aless's spirit dropped. Thinking of Krystel did not match her current mood. Still, she and Sofea had their routine. She sighed. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that. I'm sorry." Sofea nodded once, letting Aless go on her way.
Aless looked around and the bright colors, forgetting all about Krystel. She ran around, trying to take it all in. People were looking at her like she was acting childish, which she was. This was her first–ever Trade, and all she wanted from it was the first processions passing through Tredon on to Celemore. It was all most children wanted.
She ran home to talk to Seph about her excitement. He was enjoying it more than the rest of the family was. Sera had her hands full trying to keep Malenda and her brothers calm, when they were in the same mindset as Aless. Seph had gotten tired of their excitement years ago, but Aless's was fresh. Most people their age remained calm when the Trade came around, but Aless was just like a child.
Aless found him behind the house, just finishing hanging up clothes to dry. "Halifeld's Storytelling," she said breathlessly, "that's the name of the performing group that's coming right?"
Seph laughed. "Yes, that is them."
"Can we go see them? Have you ever seen them before? What's your favorite story they've told?"
Seph held his hands up, a smile on his face. "Whoa there, Aless. Careful. Someone might accuse you of not being excited enough," he teased. Aless rolled her eyes.
"Just tell me!" She grabbed his hand and pulled him down, forcing him to sit on the ground in front of her. She sat up straight and looked at him attentively.
Seph laughed. "Yes, we can see them when they come to perform. Yes, I have seen them before. And I do not know what my favorite story is." Aless opened her mouth to protest, but Seph kept talking. "They have so many that it is nearly impossible for me to choose. My brothers, on the other hand, do have a favorite: the story of the Witch."
Aless froze. "There's a story for that?" Seph nodded.
"It is the full legend of the Black Rose Witch. How and where and why she was created, all the way through to her last appearance, though there is a lot of speculation on when that was."
I last saw her a few months ago, Aless thought.
"Then, at the end––this is the part my brothers love––the storyteller tells of how to destroy her." Aless stared at Seph in shock. He mistook it for fear. "Do not worry, she does not exist. Not anymore anyway. It is all myth and legend now; that is why so many eat that story up. It is one of their most popular ones."
Aless forced a smile. "Right, of course. Of course she's not real." But she knew better. Seph would never believe her, but Aless knew. She was absolutely real. And she might still be looking for me.
Seph stood up, and offered his hand to her. Aless took it, hoping he wouldn't notice how badly she was shaking. If he did, he didn't say anything. "Anyway," he started talking as they walked into the cottage, "Mother's favorite is the story of the lost princess."
"Oh, Sofea mentioned that one earlier," Aless recalled. "She said it was her favorite as well, but she wouldn't tell me what it was about."
"She wouldn't tell you what what was about?" Sera asked. She was making bread in the kitchen, and overheard part of their conversation.
"The story of the lost princess, as told by Halifeld's Storytellers," Seph answered.
Sera smiled. "It is a great tale, and whoever tells it does a masterful job."
"What's it about?" Aless asked, hoping to get more information from Sera than Sofea.
"Many years ago," Sera started, kneading the dough as she spoke, "someone stole a princess away from her family. She was just an infant when it happened. She knew nothing of her real family or true identity. Her captor raised her as their own, until one day she escaped. She ran away, and met a boy. This boy led her back to the castle, not knowing that she was the lost princess. They ran into the prince, her older brother, who thought that she looked a little like him. When he asked her about her life, she explained that she had lived with her father her whole life. They let her go, and she took the boy back to her captor. They got married, and she lived happily ever after."
Aless's eyes were wide. "But she was so close to getting her real family back! To getting back the life she should have had!"
Sera smiled. "That is why she is called the lost princess. She is never found."
"Well, that's just... sad." Aless couldn't think of a better word. She looked down.
"That one is not my favorite," Seph added. "I agree with you. I mean, even though she lives happily ever after, it is sad that she never discovers the truth."
Aless thought about the story long throughout the night. For whatever reason, she felt strongly about it. She could never pinpoint exactly what it was. She opened her journal, determined to write about it. Her pages opened to the poem she had written and read to Seph about her old life. She read through it, remembering Krystel again.
Aless gasped. "That's why!" she said out loud. Something in Aless's mind had told her that Krystel was not her parent, and she had never known who her true parents were. She hated the story because she felt like she was in the story. She looked in the mirror over the desk.
"I'm not a princess," she said quietly. "There's no way. Besides, I have magick. None of the Royal Family has ever had magick. And it’s been nothing but sons since King Johnathan ruled. There's no way I'm a princess."