Defiance and agitation interrupted my sleep that night. Waking up was not a choice but the sunrise beckoned me from the comfort of my sheets. I combed through my memories of dancing and drinking until I found my mother’s warning. Rarely did she express an opinion that contradicted my own, and yet she was adamant that Griffin should be kept at bay. As I walked down the deserted corridors, cold stone underfoot, I contemplated seeking Griffin out and asking him to walk in the gardens with me. If my parents were to force me through this ordeal, I didn’t see why I couldn’t enjoy myself in the process. Noticing the shadows cast across me, I remembered the hour. I continued to the gardens alone.
Hidden under a pergola behind an evergreen cloak, I extracted energy from the air around me. My fingers tingled warm as the power reached my lungs. I breathed out softly towards the entrance, drawing the surrounding trees as I would the curtains in my bedroom. Satisfied with my sanctuary, I opened a thoroughly devoured copy of All the Stars in the Sky. First gifted to me at my Awakening ceremony shortly after my thirteenth birthday, the novel had consumed me and protected me from all the turmoil of adolescence. As the Princess, my Awakening was a national celebration. What would usually be a close-knit community gathering to embrace a new mage into society became a staged proclamation of the power of the throne. It was expected as the first born that I would exhibit powers yet to be seen in our world. They were not disappointed. I remembered being dressed in a silk robe the colour of midnight. I had walked to the High Altar of the Basilica at the centre of our capital city, Campanile. The Mother Priestess had read out incantations and declarations in an ancient language before blessing me. The memories were blurred but I had heard stories about that afternoon for months afterwards. I had unleashed such energy that the sun and the moon enveloped one another and the stars began to fall. I wanted to tell them a meteor shower and an eclipse were both normal celestial occurrences but even I questioned their coincidence. As I began to train for my Queendom and was intensively educated in the manifestation of my power, the love story of my oldest ancestors and their unity in d’Elysian power was the one thing I could cling to.
“Eleri! I know you are hiding out here, don’t think I can’t sense your power. Come out at once.” I woke to the familiar sound of my mother’s irritation. My sanctuary was a bubble of heat, drawing my attention to the time. I reluctantly opened the branches and stepped back into reality.
“There you are. What are you doing out here, and still in your nightdress?” Her perfectly lined eyebrow formed an intimidating arch as she assessed my appearance. Barefoot, sleepy, and wearing my oversized nightgown, I stood with my arms crossed over my chest.
“I woke early and wanted some fresh air.” I muttered. I pressed my book tightly under my chin.
“Fresh air? Do you even know what time it is?” She stepped closer to me, blocking the Sun that had risen behind her. I shook my head in response, guessing it was somewhere between 10 o’clock and midday.
“You are late for your rehearsal. Get yourself to your suite and have Claudia bathe you. Quickly!” She marched me from the depths of the palace gardens to my bedroom door in silence. I shut my door and rolled my eyes.
I spent the remainder of the morning surrounded by excitable young ladies and their handmaids. I had dismissed mine on the count of claustrophobia; they had prodded and pinned me into a gown for far too long. The daughters of many dukes and lords had been elected to present me to court to open the Trials. They would follow me into the Hall of Ancients; the greatest ballroom in our palace that featured the portraits of all my ancestors before me. Some said their power resonated from the walls after their deaths. In the Hall I would light a flame that would burn between the two thrones until I had selected a husband. Upon selection, we would light candles from the flame to bless our betrothal. Thankfully all I had to do at the opening ceremony was receive gifts from the candidates.
I escaped just as the ladies held lunch in the courtyard. I turned to slip back towards the gardens and was met with my mother towering over me, arms folded.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Her lips were a thin line.
“I finished preparations. Surely I’m free to entertain myself until this evening.” I bit my lip at my forceful tone.
“You are walking a fine line, Eleri. Perhaps you should attend the training room and get to know the candidates. You really should allow one of them to escort you this evening, perhaps seeing their preparations for the Combat Round will aid your decision.” Her tone was final but amused. I questioned whether she took pleasure in my discontent. Refusing to enter a combat round of my own, I stalked off towards the North end of the castle grounds where I would find my suitors preparing to duel for my hand. A hand I wanted to punch through the stone walls.
The stench of sweat accompanied grunts and loud stomping. I squinted in the darkness; the afternoon Sun had left much of the training room in shadow. The Combat Round was quite possibly my least favourite of the Final Trials. It featured the kinds of duels I had read in many books left behind by the old human factions. They called them fairytales, and there was often a man defending a woman’s honour. Being the most powerful magician in the country, I did not want nor need defending. The Round itself featured three days of duelling between all candidates. Each candidate would choose their specialism and prove their ability to disarm their opponent. Apparently, my grandmother had stopped the tradition from taking it to the death.
The wooden floor shone in the haphazard sunlight. It creaked under the movements of each man as they manoeuvred across thin leather mats. I wanted to admire Henri’s strength as he pinned his opponent to the floor, but I was quickly distracted by a flash of light in my eyes. A ray of sun had bounced recklessly from a spotless metal blade and dazzled me. Blinking spots of purple and white away, I analysed my assailant closely. The blade itself belonged to a short sword with a garnet coloured grip and a diamond encrusted pommel. Only somebody who had access to the mines would own one of that clarity and power. My gaze continued to the relaxed grip and up the muscular arm, noticing a large black mark on the shoulder. The outline of a triangle with an extra line across its base; the symbol of Air and the trademark of all Caeli Magicians.
“You can look closer if you like, Your Royal Highness.” I jumped, my eyes flitting to meet his. He strode towards me and bowed low, taking my hand in his. I tried to avert my gaze from his naked, gleaming torso. I failed.
“Lord Alexander.” My words were courteous. His lips on my skin made the air leave my lungs that bit quicker.
“Please. Call me Francis.” His lips suggested subtle amusement. I nodded. “Do you like what you see?” My eyes widened in his boldness. “The sword?” He added, confused.
“Of course. It is quite beautiful. Did your family mine that diamond?” I struggled to regulate the flow of oxygen, it was quite clearly avoiding my brain.
“Yes, and many others like it. The one in your tiara was a gift from my ancestor wasn’t it?” His eyes seemed genuine; his knowledge of our history sincere.
“Yes. The one in the centre of the Sun.” I looked down at my fingers, still warm from his kiss.
“Would you mind if I were so bold as to ask if I might walk with you in the gardens this evening?” His eyes were suddenly kind. I bit my lip as my heart stuttered.
“Not at all. We can walk after the ceremony.” My mind pleaded my legs to turn and walk swiftly away. I caught Henri staring, he bowed as our eyes met. “Until then, Francis.” I smiled.
The smile remained on my face as I returned to the castle halls. Perhaps I had misjudged Francis. He had been so sweet and courteous, not like our first meeting. What was the worst that could happen if I let him walk in the gardens with me? I couldn’t get that fluttering feeling out of my stomach as I replayed our conversation in my head. Mother would ask why I hadn’t asked him to escort me to the ceremony. Why hadn’t I?
“I didn’t take you for someone so easily swayed.” A familiar voice came from behind me. I turned sharply.
“Where did you come from?” I smirked at his superior tone.
“I was meditating. Honing my magic. You should try it sometime, it might give you clarity.” He stepped towards me and into the sunlight.
“You say that as if I don’t have clarity. What makes you think I’m easily swayed?” I stepped backwards. He smiled at me, leaning on the wall with his arms across his chest.
“Do you like what you see?” He mocked. I rolled my eyes and moved to walk past him.
“I thought you just came from there?” I could hear his smile.
“What do you want, Griffin?” My words were short. He pushed himself off the wall and stood inches from my eyes.
“Francis is a catch, you should go for it. I was just-” I cut him off.
“Really hoping I’d be different to the stories? Perhaps if everybody stopped asking me to be anything other than the person in front of them I’d be less of a disappointment.” I huffed.
Despite knowing every inch of the castle, its halls, and passageways, I furiously walked straight into my father’s chest. We regained our feet and stood opposite each other. He looked older in the sunlight, his once blonde beard now scattered with silver. His eyes were creased around the edges from years of laughter.
“If you are trying to escape your mother you might benefit from avoiding her chambers.” He appraised me with mild amusement.
“I don’t think it would matter. She can find me anywhere.” I murmured.
“For someone who is newly an adult and the light of the Realm, you are displaying quite the frown.” His eyes dimmed with concern. I smiled slowly at his words; he had always declared me the light of the Realm. As if I would be their salvation.
“I don’t know what you see in me. What they see in me. Mother says Griffin is a danger but you both allowed him to compete, and you say I’m being difficult.” My eyes rolled so far that when my father came back into view I wished they had got stuck.
“Watch your tone. You are deliberately not making any effort with these men. If we upset the Dubois or Alexanders it will be more than your love life that is at stake.” His hands quivered, with fear or fury I could not tell.
“I am making effort! I am allowing Francis to walk with me this evening in the gardens! And I might even request he escort me to the opening ceremony!” The words tumbled out before I could retract them. My father’s frown became a beam from ear to ear. That was that settled then.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon in my father’s suite with our favourite tea and cranberry pie. It had been my birthday tradition since I was a small child and of late I had missed his company. He had been wrapped up in politics and the threat to our trade systems as boats were repeatedly lost in Sirens’ Sea. Stories of sirens and mystical creatures roaming our coast had dominated my bedtime routine since I had learned to read. I had told my parents that I did not want to be a boring old magician, but instead I would grow up to be a beautiful siren and spend my time swimming with the creatures I read of. While the Imber magicians could control stormy weather and navigate the most difficult waters, returning to Asile was a gamble only a native would survive. My favourite story was that of a Caeli mage being thrown overboard as she tried to return from years of sailing with her father, an Imber magician. At just nine years old she had been dragged under the thrashing waves never to return. Distraught, her mother, also a Caeli magician, had ran from the port where she awaited their arrival and thrown herself into the ocean in search of her child. The leader of her family condemned all Imber magicians for not being able to save his daughter and granddaughter, banishing his son-in-law and his kind from the Shadow Mountains. It is rumoured that to this day, that is why Caeli magicians and Imber magicians bear an inexplicable hatred towards one another. As a child I had not understood the tragedy of the tale, instead knowing only jealousy for the child who spent the rest of eternity under the sea.
I recalled the story in my mind as I walked through the vast passageways to my bedroom. I had a few hours to dress for the opening ceremony. As I turned a corner towards the East wing I found Henri handing a small envelope to a servant. He saw me and dismissed the small boy, keeping hold of his letter.
“Your Royal Highness.” He held his arms behind his back, bowing slightly.
“Lord Dubois, what brings you to this side of the castle?” He blushed slightly and averted his gaze to the window.
“I was trying to be discreet. I had written a letter to Your Royal Highness to discuss our meeting in the library this evening.” He looked at me with a quiet smile.
“Please, call me Eleri. What did this letter say?” I smiled playfully. I liked him.
“The letter. Yes, the letter asked if I might meet Your Roy-, if I might meet you after the ceremony to walk to the library. Eleri.” He stumbled over my name as if it were a foreign word.
“I should have known the best you would offer is books.” I heard a snigger over my shoulder. A hand brushed my arm and took my fingers. Francis appeared to kiss my hand. Why did it tingle when he did that?
“I would love to see you this evening Henri. We could meet after the gifting?” I withdrew my hand sharply, ignoring Francis’ snide remarks.
“Of course Eleri, I will wait for you then.” Noticeably annoyed, Henri bowed swiftly and walked in the direction of his family’s suite in the South corner.
“So what do I have to do for you to let me call you by your name, Your Royal Highness?” His eyelashes fluttered just as Amira’s would when she wanted a duke to agree with her.
“Cut out the sniggering at others’ expense. I liked you more this morning.” I bit my tongue at my confession.
“You did? Then I apologise for my behaviour. I hope I can convince you that I am not the man you think I am.” His eyes dipped to his feet. Had I hurt him?
“You can escort me to the opening ceremony. Perhaps that will afford you an opportunity to display some class.” My tone was novel even to my ears. He nodded quickly.
“I would be honoured, Eleri.” I was shocked at his brazenness, even more so as he spoke quietly and humbly.
“I must get ready. I will meet you at the staircase before the flame lighting.” My name on his lips forged a smile on my own. I could not fathom the effect he had on me but when his hand took mine I felt myself lean forward. His lips brushed my cheek so slightly I questioned if I had imagined it.
Diamond encrusted stars, moons, and suns dangled from the ceiling as I danced with various dignitaries and courtiers. Sebastien Alexander took me from Francis’ arms and thanked me for granting his son the honour of escorting me. As I ascended the small steps to my throne beside my mother, I overheard a duke mentioning how she had escorted my father to his opening ceremony. The music quietened to a low hum of strings to allow for the gifting. My escort was the first to present me with his gift. His jet black hair had fallen just behind his ears, opening up his face to show his cleanshaven, defined jaw. His smile threatened to disarm me as he knelt at the foot of the steps. He laid a fresh blue rose at my feet.
“Your favourite flower, Princess. Not unlike this rose, marriage requires nurture and hard work. I, too, have my thorns and cannot promise that I will not disappoint you. I can promise, however, to give my all to earn your heart.” I was taken aback by his sincerity. Griffin poorly disguised his smirk with a cough as Francis returned to his parents in the crowd.
“This necklace was a gift from your grandfather to my grandmother after her husband died in the Dark Wars.” Henri deposited a velvet cushion next to the rose. The necklace was a golden locket. The front displayed a sun and moon combined as they were on my tiara.
“Please, Henri.” He paused with his back to me. “Would you?” I indicated to the cushion. He nodded and I stood, turning away from him. As the locket landed on my chest, I investigated the design. A single teardrop was engraved on the back.
Griffin ascended the steps empty handed. Fearing he was making an attempt to embarrass me, I dug my hands into the arms of my throne to avoid an outburst. He knelt at my feet. I glanced around for a guard or courtier to inform him of the protocol. Before I could speak, he cast a smooth black stone across the floor towards the guests. Smoke billowed from the egg-shaped onyx and gasps echoed across the hall. Guards assembled in front of the arc of guests at the other side of the room. Two appeared at my side, my father standing protectively ahead of my mother by my throne. The smoke swayed in wisps as it formed an image. Colour fused with grey to create a human figure. One I knew very well but had not seen for some time.
“Hello Eleri.” The words that left his mouth were as real as the last day I had seen him. The figure appeared to be real. It was not a shadow or an illusion, but a physical body.
“Grandfather?” The words left my mouth without my recognition. The room was swaying with the remnants of smoke floating to the ceiling. I walked slowly towards him, my hand outstretched. His hand was cold, but solid. I had expected an ethereal smoke.
“I don’t have much time darling. Your friend here is a powerful one. He woke me from my sleep so that I could wish you a happy birthday. My, what a beautiful woman you have become.” A tear fell from my eye as I saw how his beautiful smile creased his cheeks. How was this possible? I could feel the horror and disbelief surrounding me. How did Griffin bring him here?
“We can’t expect to compete for your heart when it is still broken over another. You deserve a chance to say goodbye, it is not one we are guaranteed.” Griffin’s words silenced the fearful rabble.