I tried to run forwards to Griffin’s side but my mother’s hands wrapped around my arm, yanking me back to my place. Wordlessly, she dug her nails into my skin and we both watched as my father declared Francis the winner and called for medics. The scene blurred past me as if I weren’t a part of it. I felt my heart stutter as the medics murmured among themselves; my ears pricking up at the mention of a pulse. There was no way I could follow him. My father clapped Francis on the shoulder and pointed towards me. I began to wonder whose side he was on.
As I dressed for the ball that night that signaled the end of the Primary Trials, my mind raced with thoughts of Griffin. I feared the worst without words to contradict my thoughts. Was this the price to pay if I didn’t choose Francis? I needed to talk to Amira. Instead, my father appeared as my ladies attended to my loose waves that I refused to have wrapped up on top of my head. They hurried from the room at a distracted wave of my hand.
“Beautiful as always.” My father’s words were warm but loaded.
“Have the nurses sent word of Griffin?” I tended to my cheeks with rouge, avoiding my father’s gaze.
“He won’t be attending tonight. Francis has already asked to escort you as the frontrunner of the trials.” He replied curtly.
“He can’t be in the lead after today’s display. In the least, Henri won the same amount of rounds with more class.” I matched his tone.
“Eleri, it hasn’t escaped our notice that you have developed some connection with the Stormwhite boy-”
“His name is Griffin, and I have no more a connection with him than I do Francis. At this rate Henri is the only one I trust.” I interrupted.
“Regardless, it might be in both your interests to consider Griffin’s safety.” He stumbled over his name.
“And what is that supposed to mean?” I felt my chest tighten.
“I mean that today Griffin came very close to losing more than the match. He may benefit from withdrawing while he still has his head. I cannot control what Francis does in the ring.” His voice was low, straightforward.
“So you want me to convince him to concede, making it a two horse race?” I couldn’t believe his insinuation.
“You said yourself, you prefer Henri. Surely it wouldn’t be a difficult conversation to have?” Before I could respond, Amira burst into the room.
“Your Grace.” She greeted my father. He nodded and left abruptly.
“Dare I ask?” Her thin eyebrows raised in amusement.
“He wants me to tell Griffin that it’s unsafe to stay in the competition and that he should withdraw.” I almost laughed at her expression.
“Eleri, we’ve discussed this. You can’t make a choice until you know about Mr Stormwhite,” she winked as she said his name, “you’re connected to him. You know that.” Her face was suddenly serious.
“Connected how? We’ve barely said two words to each other.” I shrugged at his disinterest.
“I saw you moving with him during his sword fight, and don’t pretend you merely wanted to protect Henri’s credibility after their power duel. You were a beat ahead of him as he took on Francis. You’re connected.” Her words were solemn. I recalled the fight but did not recall my feelings. I just knew I didn’t want him to lose.
“So what?” I refused to meet her eyes.
“So you are going to go find him and decide whether you think he should continue risking his life to marry you.” With a flourish she dismounted my bed and flew out of the door.
I wandered the castle walls considering my options. The infirmary was at the North wing of the castle, with the servants quarters, giving me long enough to ruminate on the trials thus far. I could not discern whether I was willing to let Griffin continue to compete. Surely if I didn’t want to marry him, then I should let him leave with his life? Before I could contemplate it further, I found Griffin in the last cubicle of the infirmary. He turned towards me, shirtless and bandaged across his waist. A smirk played across his face, up to his eyes, as redness brushed my cheeks.
“I just wanted to make sure you were coming tonight.” I stuttered.
“Why wouldn’t I? Or has Lord Alexander banished me from Court?” His smirk remained.
“No of course not. I just didn’t know if you were feeling up to it.” My words were like ice cubes that refused to split apart where you needed them to.
“Am I supposed to be scared of them or something?” He buttoned his tunic, turning towards the bed where his jacket lay.
“My father thinks if you stay the course, somebody is going to get hurt. Seriously hurt.” This time I rushed over the notion, hoping he wouldn’t hear me.
“Is that a threat?” He whipped around in accusation.
“No! It’s fact. You and Francis have made it clear you’re out for blood. I just-” He held a hand up and stepped dangerously close.
“Francis is a show pony, he doesn’t have it in him to kill anybody.” His hand waved dismissively. “And, I hate to break it to you, but he’s only in it for the title. Your family have basically guaranteed him the Crown Matrimonial.” He threw his jacket on. It fell perfectly around his broad shoulders and lean arms.
“You say that as if it even concerns you. You’re only here to make a point.” I stood up a little straighter to aid my conviction.
“And what point would that be?” He leaned over me, interested or enraged, I couldn’t tell.
“That you’re a force to be reckoned with and that the Stormwhite name should be taken more seriously. Don’t panic, I know Henri is the only one who sees a person as the endgame here.” My own fury began to show as I reminisced Henri’s kindness and compassion. Without waiting for a response I stalked away from the infirmary. How could I think he was worth it? Amira was wrong, there was no connection there.
I grabbed Henri by the arm and demanded he lead me into the Hall of Ancients for the ball. The way his face lit up made me feel something I never felt around the others, I felt safe. We twirled as his hand remained at the top of my back, I couldn’t help but swoon inside at his conservative nature. We spent the entire night laughing and drinking, I forgot the rest of Court and, for the first time since my birthday, didn’t acknowledge my parents or their expectations. Connections and ‘sexiness’ as Amira had put it meant nothing. This was a man I could count on to love me for me and respect me as a person, not a trophy or a statement.
“Is it too much for me to ask you not to choose Francis? On principal, I mean.” His conviction was unmistakable but humorous all the same.
“Well that would depend on what I get in return?” I smiled, feeling my drinks swirl through my veins.
“I don’t really know what I can offer someone like you.” His eyes cast to his feet and I felt his humility.
“How about, I don’t choose Francis, and you train me to fight?” I laughed at his shocked expression. Had I really seemed that delicate a flower?
“Deal!” He beamed. I could feel a bubble forming around us, protecting me from all the players on the stage my parents had devised.
I slept soundly that night. Whether it was the drink or Henri’s kindness, I couldn’t be sure. The day’s events would be the Secondary Trials; the demonstration of power. Yet another aged show of a man’s ability to protect his Queen and country. Instead of showing their ability in battle, they would prove that their power was comparable to my own. Only the most powerful magicians could marry into the royal family. However, there was always a twist and in this case it was the myth of soulmates. Our people strongly believed that those who were meant to be were connected through power. This trial would allegedly awaken such a connection and draw me to a contestant.
It had been seven days since I first met my suitors and I felt no surer of any of them. I watched intently as Francis conjured a storm of epic proportions, capturing a bolt of lightning in a jar that glowed furiously as it was passed from his hand to mine. Thunder rumbled across the skies as onlookers became animated. Our powers had definitely connected, and the lightning in his eyes did make me weak, but I didn’t feel any different.
Henri dried out the lake and created a dragon of water that teared through the grounds. He sliced its head with his sword, turning it to ice. The tail evaporated and refilled the lake as he deposited the head at my feet. I giggled like a child being shown some illusion, but again, felt no different.
Griffin began by reviving the grass previously burned out during the duels. Whispers of him being a Terra magician resurfaced in the crowd as they had during his Primary Trial. In response, he drew a strand of magic and fired it at one of the elderly spectators. I recognised her as the duchess who had complained of my future as queen. I dodged my mother’s hands to move out of the royal box to witness the damage. My heart raced with the thrill, I felt a smirk form on my lips as I heard the crowd in uproar. I caught a glimpse of her, her grey hair now a striking auburn and her features resembling herself some thirty years prior. A sharp cackle left my throat before I could clamp my hand across my mouth. I felt the sky grow dark before my entire body glowed. Griffin had drawn the clouds over the sun, subjecting me to the spotlight of the remaining rays of sunshine. I caught his eyes, he lowered his head to hide his own expression. I moved to walk towards him but the ground shook under my feet. Out of the cracks that had appeared underfoot jumped a small wolf. I had no time to respond to the duchess’ youthful makeover as I was trampled by silver paws. Cries from my mother grew louder as she rushed to my aid. Instead of sharp teeth, I could only feel a disgusting slime lashing my cheeks.
“Alicante! Heel!” My parents voices in union silenced the crowd. The only Alicante I had known was a guard dog who had been shot defending our gates when I was a child. If Griffin’s powers were what I feared, my father was right. He was safer as far away from Court as he could get.