I wiped tears from my eyes and turned to look at Griffin. He stood quietly next to my empty throne, his eyes intently on mine. He descended the stairs and stood before me, wordless.
“Thank you. I don’t know how to repay you” I whispered, stepping into his arms. As my grandfather’s image faded, the courtiers applauded their beloved late King. My parents, still stunned, gathered their friends and family and led them into the courtyard. Guards lit fireworks and musicians played on the Summer terrace as people gathered to dance. Francis stood beside me and offered his arm. We followed the crowd outside and twirled under the stars and colours. As the music changed I looked for Griffin but he was lost to dozens of curious gossips. Henri appeared at my side and I remembered our meeting.
“Princess Eleri, will you lead the way?” He smiled kindly. His broad, muscular body towered above me.
“Of course, follow me.” I took his arm and walked back inside the castle.
I played carefree and nonchalant but my mind whirred with questions of Griffin’s power and intentions. Seeing my grandfather for the first time since I was a young girl had been a beautiful, bittersweet moment. I had begged and pleaded with the Gods for the opportunity to say goodbye for months after his passing. I had been too afraid to see him as he lay sick in bed, too fearful of losing him to spend his last days at his side. A fear I had bitterly regretted ever since. Griffin and I had shared brief, distant conversations. He had no idea of my loss or pain, how had he known to bring grandfather back? Nobody in Asile had the power to talk to the dead let alone bring them back into our world. There had been theories for some time of another plane or an afterlife, but they were just myths and legends. Had he been planning to demonstrate his power, to force the Court to recognise him as more than just an outcast? There was no doubting he had power beyond anybody’s comprehension. The question was whether Asile would accept him or fear him, and whether he cared at all.
“It’s a pity she never did remarry.” I tuned in to hear Henri speaking thoughtfully. We had walked the length of the ground floor in search of the d’Elysian library. Before us was a grand entrance with two large brass handles. Guards stood either side, bowing in my presence.
“Indeed. Shall we?” I nodded, indicating the doorway. Henri gestured for me to move ahead of him and we entered the vast athenaeum. Two floors of four walls with built in shelves formed the foundation of our family’s library. The upper floor boasted myths and legends of Asile and its neighbouring countries, their geography and history, and stacks of science texts. The lower floor where we had entered was dedicated entirely to fiction, with a special corner for human stories. Each shelf was adorned with intricate gold detail that matched the sliding ladder stationed at every corner. The balcony of the upper floor overlooked an ancient rug which protected the polished wooden floor from the legs of glass enclosures for the most beloved texts. Father had told me it was to stop the characters from escaping their worlds.
“Are those yours?” Henri pointed towards the ceiling. A night sky floated above us, clear and covered in stars and galaxies I had dreamt up.
“I painted them one night when I couldn’t sleep. My grandfather found me asleep in the human corner the next morning, paintbrush in hand. He convinced my mother to charm the picture to move in sync with the sky out there.” I could make out all the constellations I had religiously learned as an eager teenager. Wistfully, I waved a hand and watched as stardust fell from the ceiling.
“You truly have no idea how special you are, do you?” Henri’s voice was soft.
“I’m a princess, I know how special that is.” I shrugged.
“That’s not the part of you that I’m talking about.” His eyes were fond but reserved. We talked for hours of our favourite stories and I learned far more about Sirens’ Sea than I could have ever imagined. He regaled my favourite bedtime story and suggested that a magician like me would probably survive the voyage. We made a pact to run away from the competition and sail the seas together.
I awoke in my bed without memory of walking to it. The sunlight dazzled me as I glanced about the room. The First Trial! I dashed out of bed and hurriedly gathered my ladies to dress me. As they fastened me into my golden corset, I looked onto the grounds and saw guards leading courtiers to the tiered seating around a dusty arena. I had opted for a gown that represented fire – the element of Summer. My golden corset flowed into a beautiful tulle skirt of reds and golds with a smokey train. My dark curls had been pulled back into a loose bun, tendrils fell around my face. My ladies, dressed to represent the other three seasons, followed me to the royal box under an awning at the front of the west tent. It was common for the remaining ladies or grooms to seek courtship with the runners up of the Trials. I wondered if they had chosen their seasons accordingly.
The first duel would be between Francis and Henri using Francis’ weapon of choice; swords. I could see their shadows moving from inside the preparation tent; from their builds alone I could differentiate between the two. I touched the locket that rested on my collar bone and felt a warmth in my stomach. I hadn’t felt it before, was this love? Or just friendship? Other than Amira, I hadn’t had any true friends. Especially not boys. She was supposed to be joining me but I feared from the lack of empty seats that she had been dragged away on business. Applause distracted me from my thoughts as the stands filled and Francis appeared in the arena. I felt something different when I saw him, like my chest had trapped the air meant for my lungs. His eyes rested on the locket before connecting with mine, eyebrow arched in challenge. As Henri strode out to meet his opponent, Francis marched forwards and plucked a pink flower that poked out from the grass at my feet.
“Princess, would you do me the honour?” He knelt before me and gestured towards my ear with the flower.
“Yes. Of course.” I stuttered. As I reached for the flower, he placed it behind my ear. Hesitantly I looked towards Henri, his back to me as he practised strokes with his broadsword.
The crowd began to whisper and my ladies giggled behind me. I had accepted Francis’ favour in front of the entire Court. I could feel Sebastien Alexander’s pride, the Dubois’ anger, and Griffin’s absence. What had I done?
Before I could establish the gravity of my actions the duel started. Henri put up a gallant fight, threatening to disarm Francis on several occasions. His weight and build had him at a disadvantage against his opponent’s nimble feet and quick strokes. Francis kept the space between them minimal, preventing Henri from using the power of his sword to knock him down. It took two hours and five rounds but Francis finally was declared the victor. They shook hands and Henri bowed courteously towards our box before departing back to their tent. Francis came forward and accepted my father’s congratulations. Sebastien clapped his nephew on the shoulder and shook the King’s hand. As I stood to return to the palace for lunch, Francis took my hand and kissed it.
“I hope my performance was to your liking, Eleri.” His eyes flashed with charm, arrogance exuding from his every move.
“Congratulations Francis. You chose well, I hope you can continue such success with other weapons.” I tried not to smile as his fingers lingered on mine. I took his arm despite the way his chest puffed out and his eyes found Henri as he returned to his parents.
Griffin appeared during lunch and I launched myself throw the crowd. I had to ask him about his gift. The duel had momentarily distracted me from the questions that flooded me. In the moment I had been delighted and devastated, feeling the loss all over again, but now my energy was focused on Griffin. If he had the power to bring the dead back to our world, what else could he do? My parents had said nothing of his power. I had felt the fear and disapproval of the other courtiers and couldn’t help questioning their nonchalance. Was I scared of him, too? The next duel would be Griffin and Henri in hand-to-hand combat, before Griffin took Francis on with his choice of magic. As I chased his white hair through the many faces that bowed towards me, I began to wonder if his choice was a safe one.
“Eleri!” Amira’s voice called from behind.
“Amira! Where were you?” I turned, losing sight of Griffin. Her almond eyes glistened with secrets.
“Sorry, I had a meeting with some generals from Noivo. I heard you took Francis’ favour before he beat Henri? Tell me everything!” She beamed.
“Actually I was trying to find Griffin, after last night…” My eyes wandered across the room as I wrung my hands tightly.
“Speaking of, I’ve heard some interesting rumours about Mr Stormwhite. We need to strategise and formulate an offensive that covers you from all angles.” She chewed her left index fingernail as she always did when deep in thought. She laughed as she read my expression of bewilderment.
“Later. I have to attend the second duel.” I rolled my eyes. We agreed to meet after Henri and Griffin’s fight to discuss my ‘battle plan’.
As the sun headed towards the Cliffs, Henri and Griffin battled hand-to-hand. Griffin put up a decent defence but could not best his opponent. Quick and sly, he did not have the strength that Henri possessed. I congratulated both suitors in my father’s absence before agreeing to take Henri’s arm as they returned to the castle. The Trials were beginning to take their toll; every move I made was observed and judged. Whoever I congratulated first, who I asked to escort me to meals, whose favour I donned or arm I took; they were all decisions that left marks. Blazing scorch marks that could burn down my reputation or disappoint my family. I needed my best friend.
“Ok, so we need to decide who’s in and who’s out. Let’s start with Henri.” We sat on my canopy bed surrounded by parchment and candlelight.
“I like him a lot. He’s smart, kind, proper – unlike some – and his family aren’t overly ambitious.” I rolled my eyes at the thought of Sebastien grabbing for the crown by proxy of Francis.
“Define like.” Her words challenged me. She didn’t care what I liked about him, and didn’t feed into my disdain for Francis. This is why she was my best friend, she knew what the point was.
“I don’t know. There’s nothing wrong with him!” I threw my hands out, confused.
“But?” Her thin, dark eyebrow reached for her pulled back hair.
“But I don’t like him. I don’t know. He doesn’t give me butterflies, not like-”
“Griffin?” I almost fell off the bed at her interruption.
“What? No. I was going to say Francis. Even when he’s being all arrogant and condescending, I can’t say no to him. He’s just so handsome, and charming…” I drifted off, imagining our many conversations.
“So Francis is our front runner? He did win the first duel, and he’s good stock.” I nodded at her.
“Ok so Henri is nice, but not sexy. Francis is smoking hot but a bit of a moron. Tell me about Mr Stormwhite.” She flicked her eyebrows up and down, sending me into fits of laughter.
“Griffin is… mysterious and dark. But he’s so rude and I’m not even sure he’s here for me. And his powers, what the hell even are they? At least I know what I’d get with Francis, and maybe I could even learn to love Henri? My parents would be happier if I went for one of them.”
“That’s it then.” Amira stood up and reached for my hand.
“What is?” I followed her to my door.
“Your decision. You can settle for Henri, learn to manage Francis, or find out the truth behind Griffin’s entry into the Trials. So we have to answer number three if we are to get anywhere.” She turned on the spot and leaned on my doorway.
“How do we do that?” I rested my hand on the door.
“Tomorrow’s duel. We have to observe Griffin in action. Maybe he will give us a sign of his intentions.”
As I dressed the next morning, I feared for the duel ahead. I knew that Francis favoured showy and dramatic magic from our childhood lessons. I sat in the royal box in a blue dress that flowed like the Sirens’ Sea. My conversation with Amira had done nothing but confuse me regarding Henri and make me feel shallow about liking Griffin and Francis. I matched my dress to Henri’s powers, hoping to divert Francis’ advances.
The battle was a spectacle, Francis taunted Griffin as he whipped up brutal winds in an attempt to blind Griffin. Griffin entertained it for a while, darting in and out of view. The ground shook beneath them and whispers rippled throughout the crowd. Word of him being a Terra magician became the latest gossip. The battle became a dance. Each took turns leading, showing their best efforts and looking beautiful in the process. It wasn’t long before Griffin tired of Francis’ flamboyant overconfidence and finished the round. Without warning, Griffin stretched his arm out, sending a bolt of energy into Francis’ chest. Francis flew back towards the crowd and landed in a heap, unconscious. Gasps and silence were replaced with applause as Griffin was crowned victor.
Before I could congratulate him, medics swarmed Francis led by Sebastien. Shouts and screams faded as Francis finally awoke and, with the help of his team, stood. My father had entered the arena to appease his courtiers and was accosted by Francis. Pale and shaken, he lost all tact.
“He tried to kill me! My heart stopped, you all saw!” He raged, flailing his arms between Griffin, the crowd, and my parents. Stopping a magician’s heart with magic was a category one offence – punishable by death. Using your magic to harm another magician outside the scope of official dueling was the worst thing you could do in the eyes of the law.
“Your Grace, we have all seen the scope of his power. Now we know just how he intends to use it – as a weapon! My nephew could have been killed.” Sebastien’s face read upset and concerned, but I could feel his manipulation from the royal box.
“How could you possibly know, or prove, that I stopped your heart? You were unconscious. If I wanted to kill you, I would have.” Griffin was bored and, apparently, insulted by the accusations.
“Your Majesty, I see those kinds of energy bolts used all the time on the Cliffs. They aren’t fatal and wouldn’t stop a heart. I promise you, whatever Griffin’s power, he would not and could not have harmed Francis fatally.” Henri’s steadiness was promising.
“Silence. These Trials are to find the most powerful, and honourable, match for my daughter. However, it will ultimately be her decision who she wishes to be with. Eleri!” My father called me from the box. My gaze flitted from the crowd to my mother as she nudged me towards the arena.
“You will decide the victor.” His words rooted me to the spot. My decision could turn the entire competition, and Court, on its head. If I supported Francis, I would secure my parents’ hold at Court and undoubtedly win his affections for good. But I would be calling Henri a liar, and potentially sending Griffin to his death.
“This trial assesses strength in combat, there is no doubting that Griffin is the winner.” I didn’t know who I was trying to protect, or if I was trying to deflect Francis, but I feared I might have just earned my father’s ire.
The Trials continued over the next two days and displayed more emotion than power. Francis took his chance to get back at Henri for defending Griffin, fighting viciously and carelessly in hand-to-hand combat. His anger was his downfall as Henri bested him quickly. Griffin and Henri put on a beautiful spectacle with a magical duel; with Griffin succeeding in a calmer manner. Henri almost drained the lake trying to catch him out, but Griffin used the roots from the gardens to prevent any further attacks. The final combat round was Francis and Griffin’s sword fight.
Metal clanged and ladies swooned as my two candidates fought callously. Griffin was better with his sword than his hands, much to Francis’ annoyance. My hands were clamped to my face as I ducked and dodged in my seat. My moves seemed to match those of Griffin as I realised I didn’t want him to lose. The fight drew on for some hours and my parents refused to intervene despite the drawing of blood on several occasions.
“They’re scratches Eleri, nobody is in any danger.” My father chastised my concern. I worried that he did not know how upset Francis truly was.
My anxiety was justified as Griffin lunged to take Francis’ feet from under him, leaving himself open in his onslaught of quick, dangerous strikes. As his left arm lifted to retain his balance with his right doing all of the work, Francis drove his sword much deeper than necessary. Griffin’s dusty white shirt turned red almost instantaneously. Francis pulled his sword back and knocked his opponent to the floor with the hilt. The crowd fell silent. Francis bowed and winked at me, mouthing “who’s the strongest now?”.