“You can’t make me love somebody!” My voice bounced loudly off the stone walls as I strode down the dark corridor. The morning sun was yet to appear over the pine trees that skirted the Eastern edge of the castle grounds, leaving the wing shrouded in their shadows.
“I am not making you love them! I am telling you to marry them! They are completely separate things!” His voice followed me to my bedroom door. The centuries old structure shook as our doors slammed at the same time.
Tears of frustration threatened to pour down my cheeks as I threw myself onto my bed. I had roughly sixty seconds before my mother arrived to broker the peace treaty. I scanned the circular suite for escape routes as if I had never been there before. Seeing the main arched window as my only solution, I rushed towards it and stood on the ledge, peering down onto the workers below me.
Their voices carried up the stone walls and reverberated around the grounds. I could hear shouts and loud conversations in between mallets striking pegs. I watched from above as they hurried between white curtains and across the freshly cut lawn. The multi-coloured diamonds that filled my arched window gave a beautiful hue to the cool summer’s morning below.
“Eleri! Come down from there before your father sees you!” My mother’s voice echoed around my bedroom. I kept my back to her, watching as the tents swayed in the breeze.
“Or what? He’ll marry me to a stranger? Oh wait…” Sarcasm dripped from my words. I had brightened in mood in my solace, now she was ruining it.
“You should thank the Heavens that you at least have options, there are plenty of girls out there who marry the only man their father chooses. Why must you be so selfish?” Agitation lined her words.
“Selfish? For wanting to marry for love? For wanting to marry on my own terms? I am willing to accept the responsibilities of the Crown, but surely the man I must marry and have children with should be a man I can love. Did you love father before you were engaged?” I whipped my entire body around to face her, my voice growing louder with each question.
“I loved him before we were married, yes.” Mother refused to meet my gaze.
“That’s not what I asked. Did he send you here to reason with me? To pitch your favourite candidate? We all know you’ll be rooting for the Alexanders.” I growled.
“Watch your tongue Eleri. The Alexanders have been loyal to our family for generations. Your grandfather-” I cut her off in frustration.
“Your father was grandad Ferdinand’s right-hand man, I know. Why not just marry me to Francis, then? We all know he and the Dubois boy have been on the cards since we were born.” I brushed past her and stalked over to the other window, facing the north-west grounds. My room was a large circle at the centre of the Eastern turret; I often made jokes about being a princess locked in a tower.
“Three young, handsome men have risked reputation and life to be chosen for these Trials, for a chance at your hand in marriage. Surely one of them can win your heart, too.” Her voice softened with her change of tack.
“You say that as if I wish to be fought over. What if I don’t love either of them?” My voice was barely a whisper, the fear tightening across my throat.
“Darling, power attracts power. Your magic is a gift from the Heavens and your child will inherit all of it along with that of your husband. Only one of those boys could have been gifted with powers worthy of that. Your heart is going to tell you which one.” She held a hand up to stop my retort concerning the necessity of the Trials if that were the truth. Satisfied that I would acquiesce her and attend the feast that night, she floated out of the room.
There was no avoiding the feast, I was the guest of honour. It would be my first introduction to the three contenders. It also happened to be my eighteenth birthday, and I would spend it meeting the only three individuals my grandfather’s trials and my father’s judgment deemed worthy of my love. I rolled my eyes to myself in the mirror that hung next to my window. Unlike my mother, my eyes were a pale blue. I had her raven hair and pale white skin. Looking down at my ghostly colour reminded me of my best friend Amira. A few years older than me, she was like a big sister. She came from Noivo; a country that sat on the other side of the Shadow Mountains at our Eastern border. Noivo and Asile shared a good relationship since the Dark War. The magicians’ rebellion on human factions had forced countries to form unlikely alliances. Where Asile was structured and proud of its traditions, Noivo was forward-thinking and fluid. Amira was the ambassador for Noivo now. She worked in the centre of Campanile, just outside the castle walls, negotiating treaties and trade agreements with the representatives of the commons. Her skin, like many people of Noivo, was a beautiful olive colour. In the summer I would envy her dark glow that made her the centre of the boys’ attention. I liked to blame my comparative paleness for my lack of admirers, refusing to acknowledge that she had a natural charisma and intelligence that surpassed my awkward shyness. I had written to invite her to attend my birthday celebrations but feared she would be too wrapped up in politics to tear herself away from the capital.
A fleet of handmaids poked, prodded and pulled at me until I transformed from a fed-up teenager in tunic and trousers to a d’Elysian princess. My short raven waves danced delicately above my shoulders, providing the perfect cushion for a silver tiara. An upside-down crescent moon held the sun, as other stars sat symmetrically across the band. The sun and moon were encrusted with diamonds mined from the Shadow Mountains centuries ago. Legend was that the first d’Elysian magician mined them himself and crafted it for his true love. She was the only other magician with magic like his. I wondered how I would manage to love somebody who didn’t understand what it was to command all the elements and draw strength from the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars. Would they manage to love me?
I departed my suite in the East wing and walked slowly through passages and corridors to the top of the grand staircase. As I took in the view below, my handmaids hurriedly fixed my tiara once more and prepared to hold my gown as I descended. I tried to refrain from rolling my eyes as I smiled at my parents. Between them stood an old, cunning man by the name of Sebastien Alexander. Patriarch of the Alexander clan, he was my mother’s father and a distant uncle to Francis Alexander who wished to compete for my hand. I wondered if Francis’ father and uncle were here to cement the family’s presence at court.
“Princess Eleanor Celeste D’Elysia!” I supressed a groan at the old man’s announcement. Nobody called me Eleanor.
I resisted the urge to turn and storm off back to my suite. I stepped carefully down the carpeted stairs, focusing my gaze on the people below me. The opaque sleeves hung delicately from my wrists, stretching up my arms to meet a midnight blue bodice that hugged my figure. Diamonds adorned my stomach and two crescent moons sat back to back across my chest. My gown flowed outwards, transforming from midnight blue to sky, to white at my feet. There was no doubt, in its creation it forged a symbol of my power and my legacy. I felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny of so many courtiers. Out of the corner of my eye, a tall woman with chestnut eyes winked at me. Amira! There was hope for this circus yet. Before I could greet my best friend, I was accosted by my father. Sebastien Alexander stood eagerly at his side.
“Your Royal Highness! I would like you to meet my cousin’s nephew, Francis. He is the most powerful Caeli Magician in our whole family.” The Duke stood to the side and a tall man stepped towards me. His black hair swept across his head, cut short below his ears. His eyes were almost black and his skin was as pale as mine. My head reached chest-level but at a distance I could meet his gaze. He knelt to the floor, his knee just grazing the stone.
“Your Royal Highness.” His words were soft but certain. I held my hands lightly at my waist. He took my right hand and kissed it softly. I barely felt it, but his eyes made me almost forget to breathe. “You are more beautiful than the reports suggest. Our children would be unrivalled in both power and aesthetic.” He returned to standing and flashed me what I could only assume was his designated smile for impressing women.
“Lord Alexander. You have changed somewhat since we were children.” I smiled tightly, it was the politest thing I could deliver. His arrogance pervaded the space between us.
“As have you.” He winked.
I looked in desperation at my mother who stood behind me. She nodded and quickly stepped forward. Gently guiding with her hands, she led the two men away. My father followed closely behind. I searched the room for Amira. I spotted her liaising with a group of lords. I played an imaginary dialogue in my head that made me giggle to myself. A cough from behind me drew my attention.
“Your Royal Highness.” Another young man stood before me. This one was as wide as he was tall, but muscular with a defined jaw. He had a mop of brunette curls and a nervous smile that was endearing. I extended my hand in greeting.
“I’m Henri, Lord Dubois. It’s an honour to meet you. I wonder if you might be inclined to show me the d’Elysian library during my stay? I have heard great things of your collection.” His nerves threatened to clamp his mouth shut, but I admired his intelligence. He remained standing as he kissed my hand, I was grateful for the propriety.
“Lord Dubois, welcome to Palace d’Elysia. Perhaps we could meet after tomorrow’s opening ceremony. If you will excuse me, I must greet an old friend.” I saw Amira beckoning me from the far end of the hall.
I waded through cliques and crowds of courtiers as I made my way delicately towards Amira. Many dukes and duchesses wished me well, their children expressing their admiration. I nodded, smiling politely, wondering what they knew of me. Communication in Asile was slow and often twisted. As I approached the back of the room, where Amira stood entertaining Duke Dubois, I overheard three women whispering heatedly.
“She can’t be trusted to rule the Kingdom. They glossed over it when she was born but we all know what they said about this one. If her husband doesn’t keep her in check, we’re all doomed!” I positioned myself behind her and watched the others scurrying to courtesy.
“I think you’ll find that as the most powerful magician Asile has ever seen, a mere man is not going to be keeping me in check.” I cast my eyes coldly over each woman before continuing on my journey. Exhilarated in the moment, I prayed to the Heavens that my mother would not hear of it.
“So where’s contestant number three?” Amira’s almond shaped eyes flashed with amusement. The custom in Noivo was ladies’ choice.
“Who knows? What I want to know is what you’ve been up to for the last six months.” We chatted as if we had seen each other only the week before last. Her laugh rang from wall to wall as drinks were poured and people began to dance.
Light in spirits, I accepted a dance with Francis and then with Henri. Francis was flamboyant, incredibly talented, and much too talkative. Henri was proper and quiet, I felt safe in his arms. I managed to drown out the gossip and politics by my third glass of Vera d’Elysia; a centuries old wine reserved for special occasions. As the night played out, I spotted a shadow slipping behind a curtain and into the Glasshouse. A childhood favourite of mine, the Glasshouse resided in the South quarter of the castle. It extended from the back of the ballroom and was a quaint, if a little overgrown, room full of plants and seating perfect for the Summer weather. Spring was drawing to a close and so the servants would be in the process of dusting it off ready for entertaining in the warm evenings. A little drunk and more curious than usual, I made my pursuit.
His back was to me. Tall with blonde hair, it shone almost white under the moon’s gaze. I watched him silently.
“I’m not stealing anything.” His voice was low. He seemed bored, or amused. He turned around with his hands next to his hips, palms up. I expected him to be shocked, to bow, or to apologise. He smirked.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” His words were nonchalant, as if I were a stranger. It took me a while to notice he was pointing to my head. I followed his fingers and eyes with my own. The platinum was cold to touch.
“Not really? They make it so you can’t really feel it.” His eyes glinted at my response as he cast them to the floor. I couldn’t place his accent but I knew he didn’t come from the capital like the other guests.
“Figured it out yet? I was really hoping you wouldn’t be like they said.” He fell back onto an old chaise longue, crossing his legs and placing his hands behind his head.
“And what did they say?” I stood awkwardly in my place.
“That you were sheltered, uneducated, but wickedly powerful.” He picked dust from his trousers and flicked it to the floor. He wasn’t dressed like the other guests, either.
“So why risk reputation and life to be here? If I’m so sheltered and uneducated.” My voice lilted as I found my stance. His eyes caught mine.
“Like I said, I was really hoping you’d be different to the stories.” His smile seemed genuine. I couldn’t fathom whether he was impressed or entertained. Perhaps both.
Before I could ask my third candidate his name, I heard my mother’s shoes clipping the floor behind me. A cool breeze rushed my back as the doors opened.
“Eleri. It is time for dinner. You can’t neglect your guests any longer. Both of you are required to attend.” Her voice was strained, almost fearful. Her dark eyes locked on mine and did not suggest room for negotiation. I hadn’t seen her so rigid before. I followed her out of the Glasshouse and back to our seats at the top table. As we gazed upon the court, she held my arm tightly and hissed in my ear.
“What were you doing?” The words were straightforward, neither curious or irritated.
“We were just talking. Is that-?” I spoke carefully but she still cut me off.
“His name is Griffin Stormwhite. Stay away from him.” Again, she was unanimated and stationary in her words.
“Isn’t he the third candidate? I thought you would be pleased-” I met her eyes with confusion.
“Pleased? That boy is the epitome of why those princesses you so love to read about ended up locked in towers. You do not entertain him.” I would have scoffed had she not been glaring at me. I nodded, one question left on my lips.
“If I can’t entertain him, why is he here?” I watched her lips curl in discomfort.
“According to your father, if we don’t have the evidence to convict him and we have proof that he is possibly the most powerful magician outside of the royal family, we can’t reject him.” She released my wrist, revealing red impressions along my skin.