The light glittered off of the warrior maiden’s golden armor as the sun sunk lower across the pinkish-orange sky.
Lady Katora sat tall in the saddle of her beautiful black beast, Eliago. Her bright auburn-and-honey hair escaped hergold helmet in wisps, swirling in the afternoon breeze.
Lady Katora turned to Commander Riken to her right. “Sir, it’s almost time.”
Commander Riken nodded and lowered his visor, hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
Together, the lady knight and her princely commander gazed down from the top of the hill.
The village below was small and poor. It was full of old cottages and rickety huts. The land was barren and dry. It was home to the witch Katora and Riken were sent to apprehend.
Riken glanced sideways at his second-in-command and she smiled gruesomely.
They rode in silence down the hill into the village. People came out of their houses to watch the two newcomers.
Riken climbed off his horse to address the village folk, while Katora stayed mounted. Katora’s eyes roamed the people for weapons and the faces for any determined or hateful expressions that might threaten the life of her prince, commander, and friend. So far, all she found was curiosity and mild fear. It was the kind of fear that was derived from being intimidated by something. They knew who their visitors were and knew of their social standing.
Katora’s amber eyes fastened on a quick movement. It was a young woman with wheat-colored hair and pale skin. She was clothed in a simple blue dress. The woman looked no older than eighteen, a year younger than Katora herself. She looked harmless enough but as Riken was talking, her expression grew to one of terror and her stride became urgent, almost frantic, as she walked away from the gathered group.
Katora slid off Eliago and followed the woman. She entered a house that looked like it was about to collapse at any moment. Katora waited for a minute before ducking inside.
The woman whirled around, green eyes wide, at Katora’s sudden appearance. It was clear she had thought no one had noticed her hasty departure. Her mouth was open in a little O of surprise. She had a heart-shaped face and lush pink lips. She was strangely pretty, for common folk.
“What’s your name?” Katora asked, staring intently at the woman.
“Juliana, Milady.” Her voice was soft, almost hypnotizing.
Katora noticed a pricy-looking necklace around Juliana’s throat. Surely it was too expensive for someone of Juliana’s status to afford. “Did you steal that amulet?”
“Nay, it was my grandmother’s, Milady.”
“And how did your grandmother come into possession of such a beautiful item?”
“A merchant, Milady. The traveling kind. Wasn’t too bright, that one. He set the price much too low.”
Katora removed one of her gold-laced gloves and asked, “May I?”
With permission given, Katora reached out and touched the necklace. A jolt of energy ran through her arm. She pulled back. “Are you aware of how much power your amulet holds, Juliana?”
Juliana’s eyes were wide. Her face was much too innocent. Katora had a feeling she knew exactly how much power her necklace had, and how to wield it.
“Power, Milady?” Juliana asked, voice rising just slightly at the end.
So she was playing dumb. Fine. Two could play that game.
“Oh, yes. There is great magic in your amulet, Juliana. Great evil, too. Watch it carefully. You wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands now, would you?”
Juliana shook her head slowly, not breaking eye contact with Katora.
Katora felt slippery fingers reaching into her mind, searching. She knew Juliana was using magic to trick her, but Katora’s mental walls were too strong and too thick for this young woman to breach.
Katora smiled. She had found the witch.
Sweat formed on Juliana’s brow and her bottom lip quivered almost unperceptively. She was putting a great deal of concentration into whatever spell she was chanting in her mind. But it wouldn’t work. Katora was practically immune to magic, her shields were so strong.
“Are you quite done?” Katora asked and panic flitted across Juliana’s face. Katora replaced her golden glove and readjusted her gauntlet. “You live with your parents?”
“M-my parents are d-dead, M-Milady.” Juliana looked either about to wet herself or pass out. Or puke. Possibly all three.
“How did they die?” Katora asked.
“M-my mother died giving birth t-to m-me and my f-father was killed last winter.”
“It was pretty bitter.”
“He w-wasn’t k-killed by the c-cold, Milady.”
“What killed him then?” Katora kept asking her questions to get her to talk to get a feel for Juliana’s character, but also because she liked that Juliana was so scared she seemed to have developed a stutter. It amused Katora.
“A w-wolf, M-Milady.”
“A wolf you say?” Katora found this immensely funny and couldn’t stop the laugh that burst from her lips.
Juliana looked close to tears.
“When did you discover you had magic powers, Juliana?”
Juliana flinched. She clearly knew that witchcraft of any kind was prohibited. And since Katora worked for the king, she was obligated to report her. Juliana didn’t answer my question, but instead retorted with one of her own. “Are you here to arrest me?”
“My orders were to bring you back to court with us.”
“So you are here for me.”
“Why did you run away?”
“W-when I h-heard the Commander t-talking, I-I knew I was f-found out, Milady. Then h-he said the M w-word and I was s-sure.”
“The M word?”
“Will you run again? If you do, I’ll have to bind you. And if you fight or try to use magic, I have the pardon of the king to kill you. Self defense, you see.”
“I won’t run.”
“Will you fight me or use magic?”
Katora didn’t believe her velvety voice. It was too smooth, too mesmerizing. She reached out and clamped a hand around the younger woman’s wrist. Katora pulled Juliana to her and wrapped an arm around her waist. Since Katora was immune to magic, this level of contact would keep Juliana from being able to use hers. But just in case, Katora pressed her shields out to envelop Juliana, cocooning her in an anti-magic bubble. Her immunity was Katora’s own little brand of magic, but the king looked past it because she wasn’t hurting anyone and because he had been close with her father— her father had been King Ichen’s head advisor— and he had made her mother a promise to keep Katora safe.
Katora escorted the flighty witch back outside and to where the village folk were still gathered, listening to Riken implore them to hand over the sorceress in their midst and list the dangers to society a magic person could cause.
Riken spotted me and stopped midsentence. “What is this, Lady Katora?”
“I found the witch.”
Riken’s eyes drifted from Katora to the woman beside her. He turned back to the gathered village folk. “Thank you for your time.”
Not one of them had spoken up. Either they had been protecting the young witch or they hadn’t known, and it was impossible for Katora to believe not a single person knew— or at least suspected— Juliana’s powers.
Riken and Katora returned to their horses. Katora positioned Juliana in front of her so she could keep an eye on her. They started back up the hill toward Riken’s palace and his father’s throne room.
“How did you find her?” Riken asked.
“I saw her trying to escape the crowd. I followed.”
“Smart. Good eye,” Riken praised. “What’s her name?”
Riken frowned. “I thought witches were supposed to be old and ugly. Where’s her wart and her broom? What of her black cat?”
“Those are myths, apparently.” Katora said. “She’s quite pretty. Besides, witches have to be born like everybody else, so I suppose they were young at one point. I didn’t see any cats at her house. There was a broom, but I suspect she had it for the same reason everybody else has brooms.”
Juliana remained quiet during the ride back to the castle. She was probably either thinking we were total idiots for believing that stuff about witches, imagining what was to become of her back at court, or figured the prince would kill her for talking without permission.
Katora and Riken entered the throne room, Juliana clutching desperately to Katora’s arm. Katora was actually impressed Juliana hadn’t wet herself yet.
King Ichen sat in the bigger of the thrones, his wife Queen Rya in the smaller throne beside him.
Riken bowed and addressed his parents. “Mother, Father, we have found the witch.”
Both the king and the queen spent less than a cursory glance on Juliana, only interested in what their son was saying.
“The village was very uncooperative. No one would give me a name. It was Lady Katora here who spotted the witch as she was making a mad dash to get away.”
King Ichen stood and gave his verdict. “The witch will hang for her crimes. To the dungeons with her.”
Two guards came to take Juliana to the “special chamber” in the dungeons reserved just for magic folk. The iron and silver bars made the magic folk weak so they couldn’t use their magic, and the stone floor of the chamber was dusted with wolfsbane and mountain ash for good measure.
Juliana squeaked and tried to hold onto Katora’s arm, but she was like a twig and Katora’s arm was maybe five times the size of one of hers. Juliana was a tiny little thing. She had no meat on her bones. It looked as if she never ate, and from the glimpse of her house Katora had gotten she could fully believe that.
The tears Juliana had been doing a great job containing finally splashed out over her cheeks, cutting clean streaks through the dirt and grime on her face.
King Ichen shook his head. “Poverty is not a pretty thing. I can literally feel it stinking up my castle. She’ll hang at dawn. Best get rid of her filth sooner.”
Katora couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had never in her life heard her best friend’s father speak like this, and it was frightening. She had trouble reconciling the kind old man she knew him to be with this arrogant man who looked down at the less privileged. She had memories of Ichen bringing her sweets when she was sick or having trouble falling asleep and ordering toys and gowns be made for her.
Katora may have been guilty of being a bully herself, liking the fear she inflicted upon Juliana in her eyes and liking the thought of her being able to terrify this scrawny girl. But she had never once considered any of the village folk beneath her. Katora was no fool. She knew she was better off than most. She knew she was at a higher social class than the village folk,knew they were beneath her, but she had never blamed them for it or thought less of them for it. It wasn’t their fault they had to work for shelter and food or wore the most unappealing outfits.
Ichen’s words were harsh and his judgment unfair.
“Your Majesty, may I please be excused?” Katora directed her questions towards the sweet and soft, Queen Rya, though it was ultimately King Ichen who could grant or deny her request.
Rya looked to her kingly husband.
Ichen nodded. “Off you go, then. You did me proud today, Kat.”
Katora turned and left the throne room. She was halfway down the corridor when Riken caught up.
“You aren’t happy with my father’s decision.” Riken stated.
“His decision was fine. It was right.”
“I saw your face, Katora. When he gave his punishment.”
“It wasn’t the death sentence that I was reacting to. It was what he said after.”
“My father is a good man, Katora, and a great king—”
“If he’s such a great king, how can he treat the common folk so poorly?”
Understanding fell upon Riken’s face. “It was the filth comment that made you look like you’d just been run over by one of Father’s best horses.”
“Yes. It’s not Juliana’s fault that she’s poor or has no money for decent clothes. She probably doesn’t have a bath or a shower in her room, as we do, and it’s not for lack of want. It’s not her fault she was to work for every grain of food she earns. She probably bathes in the river and misses meals because she doesn’t have the money. I think your father is too prejudiced inhis views of the common folk.”
“I don’t suppose you think the probably couldn’t help being a witch either.” Riken said sarcastically.
“She was most likely born with it. Not something she could help,” Katora said. “She’s just a child, Riken.”
“She’s an adult, same as us. And she’s guilty of treason.”
“Not apurpose, though.”
“Don’t let Father hear you saying such things, Katora. He’ll hang you as a witch sympathizer.”
“Ichen would hardly hang me.” Katora said. “I’m like the daughter he never had.”
Riken shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. He’d probably hang me if I tried to defend the magic folk, and I’m his heir.”
“That’s a horrible thing to say!” Katora chastised her friend, though nothing Riken said was untrue.
Ichen’s quest to rid the world of magic was almost feverish in intensity and he was blind to the goodness in people if they were even accused of allegedly possessing a supernatural power or harboring a wanted magical person.
“Why?” Riken demanded. “You know I’m right.”
“Come,” Katora said. “Let us visit your father’s prisoner.”
“That’s a bad idea, Katora…”
“What could be the harm in it? It’s not like we’re going to free her. I just have a question for her.”
Riken sighed. Katora had known he’d give in. He always did when it came to her. “Fine. Five minutes.”
The special chamber in King Ichen’s dungeons was in the middle a maze. It was called “Sicily’s Labyrinth” because the first ever inhabitant had been a wood nymph named Sicily. The king at the time of Sicily’s discovery had instructed that a dungeon be made in which anyone like Sicily could not escape. The architect who built the maze and special anti-magic chamber, Forenzi Koah, had drawn only one blueprint of the maze and had given the copy to the king. Legend had it that the Special Chamber Guards had been forced to memorize it and that the king kept the blueprint hidden away somewhere so nobody could think of aiding any current occupants in escape.
Katora and Riken convinced one of the guards on duty to escort them to the chamber.
In the center of the maze was a giant, solid-looking steel box with a circle in one side and a wheel. The guard turned the wheel and the circular door grated open. Inside, the guard had to insert a key from many on his keyring into a giant padlock and open another barred door. Finally, they were inside the cell with Juliana.
Juliana stared at them, unashamedly bawling. “Kill me now and save me from the spectacle of a public hanging tomorrow,” she sobbed.
Riken shook his head and Juliana whimpered. “That would be defying my father and we’d he hanging right there with you come sunrise.”
“If I could have been born human or give away my powers, I would in a heartbeat.” Juliana whispered. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Except try to control my mind,” Katora reminded her.
“Self-preservation,” Juliana explained. “I knew witchcraft was punishable by death so I was trying to convince you I wasn’t the witch you were after.”
Katora felt awful for turning her over to Ichen. However, someone else had reported it so she was already on the king’s radar. He’d just sent Riken and Katora to collect her. If they’d lied and said they hadn’t found her and then been found out, all three of them would be put to death. Ichen wouldn’t care that Riken was his only heir and Katora was his best knight.
Katora frowned thoughtfully. “Are you scared?” It was a dumb question, because the girl was crying her eyes out and cowering in a corner.
At least she doesn’t have family that will miss her, Katora thought. “Have you ever used your magic for evil?”
Juliana shook her head violently. “Never!”
Katora looked Juliana dead in the eyes and asked, “Who was your mother?”
“Penelope Valentine, Milady.”
“Wait.” Riken shared a look with Katora. “As in, my grandfather’s witch advisor?”
“King Nix loved Penelope— we can’t let my father hang her daughter!”
It was true. King Nix had loved Penelope and they’d had an affair, which lead to Queen Opia throwing herself from Erik’s Bridge.
“Who’s your father, Juliana?”
“Are you sure?” As far as Katora knew, Penelope had had no other children.
Juliana hesitated. “W-why do you ask, Milady?”
Riken gave Katora a puzzled look.
“I think you might have royal blood in you, Juliana.”
Juliana blanched. “Not me!”
“It’s universal knowledge that your mother slept with Riken’s grandfather.”
“It’s pure suspicion. My mother would never have cheated on my father— she loved him.”
“We can’t let Father hang her if she could be a bastard princess.” Riken said.
“How old are you, Juliana?”
“Nay, you look no older’n eighteen!” Riken exclaimed.
“It’s been more than five minutes, Riken. We should head back before we’re missed.”
“But she might be my aunt,” Riken said, dumbfounded.
Katora grabbed Riken’s hand and hauled him from the chamber, letting the guard in behind us to lock it again. They followed the guard out of the maze and straight to the king’s rooms.
Ichen opened the door, reeking of excess. He held a goblet of alcohol in one hand. He smiled when he saw us. “Ah, what can I do for you two?”
Riken got straight to the point. “You can’t hang Juliana tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Ichen raised his eyebrows. “And whyever not?”
“She might be your sister.”
Ichen frowned. “I have no siblings.”
Riken explained all we’d learned in the chamber.
“You went to visit her? Are you some kind of witch sympathizer or something, son?”
“Of course not. But I don’t believe in an innocent woman being murdered.”
“She’s not innocent.”
“She may have magic, but I believe she is completely harmless. Plus she may have royal blood.”
“May.” Ichen emphasized. “You don’t know.”
“Are you willing to risk that?” Riken challenged his father. “Even the smallest possibility? There’s still a chance—”
Ichen narrowed his eyes on his son in warning. “Don’t push me, boy. Unless, of course, you want to join your little witch friend in the morning.”
Katora toyed with her shiny gold vambrace. Ichen was drunk and clearly in a foul mood. Ichen always got irrational when he was drinking. They should not be there right now. Katora placed a hand on Riken’s arm, but he was obviously not inthe mood to listen to her subtle offer of escape.
Ichen glowered down at his heir, Riken glaring mutinously up at his sire.
This will not end well, Katora thought worriedly. She thought hard of how she could quickly diffuse the situation.
Ichen swung his snapping blue eyes to her. “Do you agree with my son, Lady Katora?”
Katora shook her head maybe a little too vigorously. Ichen had always called her Kat. He only used the full length of her name when he was angry. Uh oh. We’re going to hang on the morrow.
Ichen returned his attention back to his son, who was gaping at Katora with fury and astonishment. “It would appear you’re on your own in this.”
“She’s lying!” Riken insisted. “She was there. She heard Juliana’s words!”
Oh my gods, Ri, are you trying to get us both killed? “I heard them, but I did not believe them.”
Riken gave Katora a desperate look that seemed to say help me out here, will ya? Only Katora did not want to assist inthe apparent suicide Riken was trying to commit.
Ichen gestured to some guards down the hall. They rushed to their king’s side. Ichen gestured to Riken and Katora. “Take these two witch sympathizers downstairs.”
Riken’s eyes widened and Katora wanted to curse.
We’re doomed, Katora thought wildly.
The guards escorted them to the dungeons. Riken almost tripped on the steps, but the guard dragged him along. The guards shut them in separate cells beside each other and left.
“Thanks for having my back,” Riken grumbled sarcastically.
“You just got us killed, Riken!” Katora cried in exasperation, throwing her gold gauntlets to the floor. She removed her golden armor and sun-shaded chainmail.
“What are you doing?” Riken wanted to know.
“Preparing for death. They can hardly hang me while I’m in my armor.”
“Nobody will hang us,” Riken assured Katora.
Katora huffed. “We’re to be hanged come morning, Riken. Ain’t nothin’ we can do about it now but accept it.”
“Kat, I’m going to get us out of this.”
Katora pulled her golden armor to her chest, dull now in the gloom. “We had a good run, Riken. Time for someone else to have a chance at glory.”