As I rose to my feet and looked around, courtiers stared at me with mouths covered and eyes wild with fear. I caught a glimpse of my mother clutching my father’s arm as he rested a shaking palm on Alicante’s head. The beautiful hound panted loudly but remained motionless. As Griffin stepped towards me I felt a strong arm push across my chest.
“Not another inch. Get him away from the Princess at once! Can’t you see? He has dark magic! He is a threat to us all, protect the Royals!” Francis called out, drawing his sword and pulling me closer behind him.
“Guards, take him to the holding cell.” Sebastien’s voice was low and steady as he appeared in front of my parents and the crowd drew closer between us and Griffin.
“No!” I cried out. “Griffin is to be taken nowhere.”
“Eleri.” My father’s voice was a calm warning.
“Griffin is not a criminal, and you have no authority here. I do.” I stared into Sebastien’s eyes.
“We don’t even know where he is from! Who are the Stormwhites? Some Northern peasants?” Francis waved his sword flamboyantly as he spat words like a teenager.
“Enough!” My father’s voice silenced the growing rumble of the crowd and Francis’ incitements. “Stand down. Yet again we have reached an impasse and it is for the Princess to decide a victor. As no harm has been done, and I am sure Griffin is able to undo his tricks, there is no need for further discussion.”
Griffin stifled a laugh at my father’s description of his ability. He cupped his hands loosely and beckoned to Alicante who bounded towards him before evaporating into indigo smoke. The back of Griffin’s hand brushed his nose as he motioned it from left to right and the Duchess squealed as her youth and beauty vanished. My hands tingled and I felt a smugness stretch my lips into a smile.
“Griffin’s power is without competition.” I ruled. The majority of the crowd applauded politely, some abstained and some did cheer. My mother had always told me that people favour the underdog.
Rumours pervaded Court in the days that followed the Secondary Trials. Any argument against Griffin being the most powerful candidate had become insurmountable within minutes of my reunion with Alicante. The Final Trial would not be held for some days which left me time to reflect on all that had happened since the three candidates came to Court. I found myself spending more time by myself as I evaded courtiers gossiping and speculating about my future. The Primary Trials had shown me that each candidate was as capable as the other and the Secondary Trials left me confused. There was no doubt that Francis and Henri were powerful in their own right, but I found myself wanting more than Elemental magic. Whatever Griffin’s powers were, they were more interesting to say the least. I questioned my instinct to protect him and the thrill his abilities gave me. I disregarded any infatuation and spent sleepless nights fearing the Alexanders were planning to move against him in secret. Francis was a bully but he asked valid questions. Who were the Stormwhites? Where had Griffin travelled from?
“The commons have heard all about Mr Stormwhite’s showcase the other day. Some are petitioning the Capital to have him removed for public safety.” Amira’s eyes dimmed as I handed her a cup of herbal tea.
“Public safety?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
“It’s political code for ‘we don’t know what it is and we can’t control it'” Amira sighed.
“But he did nothing wrong! So what if his powers aren’t Elemental?” I felt my voice rising in frustration.
“Eleri, you know that every d’Elysian offshoot is known and revered throughout Asile. If he was one of you we would have heard about it. There are no d’Elysian’s by the name of Stormwhite. Besides, why would he hide it if he were? Your parents would have no reason to fear the Alexanders or the Dubois, they’d love him more than you could.” Amira’s eyes flicked through emotions before she froze, mouth open.
“What is it?” I took her hand as it flapped at her side.
“The Archives!” She shouted, bouncing off my bed and towards my door. “We’re going to find out just who this boy really is.” Hastily placing her cup on my desk, I chased after her.
A rusty door at the base of the North Tower led us down two flights of spiral stairs. The dark, expansive room was covered in dust. I drew energy from the cold, damp air and ignited several torches on the stone walls. Amira and I walked between desks joined together that extended the length of the basement. We scoured boxes without labels and an array of loose parchment that scattered the floor.
“Did your parents never think to hire someone to keep this stuff organised?” Amira wheezed as a cloud of dust fell out of the book she had picked up.
“Some of this is dated from before the Dark Wars. We’ll be here forever.” I sighed. “What are we even looking for?” I rifled through a box that was marked census.
“Well we want to know who Griffin is, who the Stormwhites are.” Amira’s voice was muffled by the box she had put half her torso in.
“Well this ‘census’ box has names in it from decades ago.” I tossed it to one side, bored.
“Did you say census?” Amira’s head popped up, her hair now grey with dust. She rushed towards me and recovered the box from the floor.
“Yeah, so?” I shrugged.
“El, a census is a record of everyone in the country. Their name, date of birth, birthplace, next of kin… All we need is to find the records of a Stormwhite.” Amira began littering the floor with pages from the box.
Hours passed and we found no record of any Stormwhites in Asile in the past 25 years. Neither Griffin, nor any parents or relatives, existed on record. My mind whirred with the possibilities. Was he an imposter? What did he want with the Crown? With me? I combed through our few conversations before it dawned on me.
“Amira…” I rested a hand on her arm, stopping her search.
“Eleri what is it?” Her eyes widened with concern as every move I made felt weighted.
“What do you know about the Crown Matrimonial?” The words left my mouth slowly.
“Never heard of it. Though it’s not hard to guess what it is. Why?” She shrugged.
“Because nobody has heard of it. It’s not been written in law, neither the capital nor the commons know about it. I’m the first reason we’d have for its existence.” My thoughts came out as they appeared in my mind.
“I don’t understand your point.” Amira rested her hands on my shoulders the way she did when we were younger and I was worrying over nothing.
“Griffin knew about it. After Francis wounded him and I went to the infirmary, Griffin said that my parents had guaranteed Francis the Crown Matrimonial.”
“So he’s been spying on your parents?”
“That, or he knows things only our family would know.”
“We ruled out him being a d’Elysian, there’s no reason he would hide it. Plus your parents would have recognised him.”
“Maybe not. It’s not as if we’re all family. Think about it, there are three or four families that have the same magical roots as mine. My parents can’t know them all individually. Griffin came unaccompanied, maybe they would only recognise his parents?” I speculated.
“You’re not listening to me. Why would he hide the fact that he is born of the same magic as the Princess? It would guarantee him your hand.” Amira was growing frustrated.
“Because it isn’t my hand he wants. He’s here to prove a point. His attitude, his distance, his smugness around me; he doesn’t want to win the competition.”
“What does he want then?” Amira stepped back in annoyance.
“I don’t know but we can find out as soon as we learn his real name.” I was onto him, I could feel it.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon poring over copies of the d’Elysian bloodlines. There was no Griffin or anybody with a middle or maiden name of Stormwhite. I had hit a dead end. I decided to ask the only other person in the Palace that I trusted.
“Eleri, I wasn’t expecting to see you out here.” Henri beamed at my presence. The sun was setting around us, turning the lake a burnt orange.
“Hello Henri. I am afraid I must be what my mother would describe as discourteous and avoid small talk and pleasantries in favour of getting to the point.” I smiled tightly.
“Your forwardness is refreshing,” he chuckled, “what is the point?” He raised a curious eyebrow.
“I need to know who Griffin really is. Amira and I scoured the census records and he doesn’t exist. I’m worried he isn’t here for the same thing you are.” My eyes cast to the floor as I felt my cheeks warm. Neither of us had discussed what was developing between us.
“Do you think he might try to hurt you?” His voice raised slightly.
“No!” I rushed to reassure him. “I think I amuse him too much. If you could talk to him, get to know more about him. The slightest detail might be the key. You have defended him against Francis, I’m sure he would trust you-” I halted as Henri lifted his palm.
“Consider it done. It would be my honour to serve the Crown, however I feel that this case is more a labour of the heart.” His smile sent waves through my chest.
I paced my suite for what felt like days before Henri returned with news. Amira had returned to Campanile, leaving me alone in a Palace full of secrets. I had tried to spend time with my mother and father but they spent their days arguing and their evenings in heated, whispered discussions with Sebastien Alexander. Had I known what Henri’s mission would reveal, I would have happily waited longer.
“Princess, I am sorry I have taken so long. Griffin is slow to trust and even slower to talk.” His face appeared strained.
“Nonsense, I trust you found something?” I spoke hurriedly and without formality.
“I did. Griffin knows little of his family but he insists he is a Stormwhite. The name is his father’s; an only child orphaned before Griffin was born.”
“Of course, how convenient.” I huffed.
“There is more. His mother was born to the Saffron clan. I believe they are of d’Elysian descent. Her name was Elicia, she died in childbirth.” His eyes watched his feet shuffle from side to side, awaiting my verdict on the usefulness of his information.
“So he is d’Elysian, I knew it! This is fantastic news Henri, thank you so much!” In my excitement I rushed forwards and kissed his cheek. We both stood embarrassed for far too long.
“I am glad I could be of service, Princess. Perhaps we can celebrate the discovery with dinner before the Final Trials?” My heart warmed at his proposal. I nodded vigorously and agreed to meet him the night after next.
That evening, Amira found me hunched over the d’Elysian family trees. I had much to tell her but feared that it would only create more questions. I explained all that I had learned that day, omitting the events that followed Henri’s report.
“So we need to find Elicia Saffron and go from there? Your Lord did well.” Amira smiled knowingly.
“He isn’t mine, Amira. Just help me work through these.” I thrust the stacks of dusty parchment into her arms and turned my red cheeks towards the wall.
It wasn’t long before we found her. Youngest of four, Elicia was born to Jeremiah and Charlotte Saffron.
“So she married Alastair Stormwhite. And here’s Griffin I guess.” Amira pointed to faint ink that spelled ‘G. Stormwhite’. “So he’s d’Elysian through his mother and his father was a common. That might explain his interesting powers.” She continued.
“I suppose it would. Although it is unusual for a d’Elysian to marry out of the power line, many like to concentrate the power as best they can.” I tapped the desk in thought.
“Well maybe she eloped, and that is why Griffin isn’t known to anybody. Maybe they were cast out because she married below herself?” Amira’s theories seemed fair.
“Maybe I overreacted. He might just be hiding his family’s secret. Griffin probably just wants to regain some status for his father. Maybe he feels guilty for his mother dying giving birth to him.” I pulled the pieces of parchment back into one neat pile and deposited them in a box.
“Wait. Look.” Amira hesitated over the box.
“What?” My eyes followed her fingertips to ‘A. Stormwhite’.
“The ink in the surname is darker than the initial.” Amira held it up to a torch.
“So? The scribe probably changed ink halfway through?” I began to walk towards the door.
“No, this is different. It’s the same colour, the surname was written a while after the initial.”
“How could you possibly tell that from the tiniest of lettering?” My voice rose in disbelief.
“Trust me, I spend more than my fair share of time looking at old documents. Perhaps she did marry within the power line, but they changed their name. It would explain why the scribe didn’t have it when they wrote his initial.” My head began to spin at her outlandish claims.
“What are you suggesting?” I rolled my eyes.
“That we take another look for an Alastair in these.” She tipped the box upside down, scattering parchment across the old wooden desk.
My mind raced with questions as we searched for the missing piece of the puzzle. I wondered how my evening with Henri would be, what this information would mean for Griffin and the Trials, how Francis would respond. Did Francis already know? What did my parents know about this? I hadn’t stopped to consider how I felt about Griffin; the little I knew of him anyway. His powers drew me to him, but his nature pushed me away. I had felt the pull as he fought Francis and even now the audacity of his display in the Secondary Trials brought a smile to my lips. It was minutes before I realised that I had been crossing my fingers in the hope that his motives were pure.
“El, what does denounced mean?” Amira’s words pulled me from my thoughts.
“I don’t know. The only time I’ve heard it used was when my grandma was talking about some dark magicians on the Northern border. I’m not sure what she said, but I remember her telling me that it meant the family tree was being pruned like the rose bushes outside.” She had always had a way with words.
“Well there was an Alastair Baron born a few years before Elicia and under his name it says denounced.”
“Wait, go back to Elicia. There was something next to her name.” I ruffled pages in search of the Saffron tree. Upon a second glance, the same word appeared next to Elicia’s name.
“So they were both denounced. Does that mean they were disinherited or something?” Amira asked.
“I think it means more than the family jewels, Amira. If you’re denounced from the d’Elysian line, I think it means you’re dead to them. They must have done something awful.” I gasped, my heart dropped as I feared what Griffin might want.
“Something awful like dark magic?” I flinched at Amira’s words.
“Are we really saying that? The Stormwhite name was created by two powerful magicians turned dark? And their baby boy is all grown up and fighting for a chance to marry into the ultimate d’Elysian family?” I was horrified.
“It would explain why your mother told you not to entertain him, and why your father said he had to be allowed to compete since they can’t convict him. They must know who he is.” Amira’s leaned back on the desk behind her.
The next night, Amira departed for her home in Noivo and promised to return with more knowledge of Elicia and Alastair. Her family, though not active magicians, knew many tales of dark magicians and the dangers they posed. After I waved her off I dressed for my dinner with Henri. I didn’t want to ruin our evening but I felt that I must confide in him, if only so I didn’t lose my mind. We met on the terrace above the Northern courtyard, the air was warm as the sun lowered to our left. Summer was beginning and I felt the change throughout Court.
“You look beautiful, Princess.” Henri presented me with a bouquet of glistening sapphire roses.
His evening jacket was the colour of midnight, wrapped tight around his broad shoulders. I smiled shyly as the sunset formed a golden ring around his chestnut curls; his angelic persona only enhanced by the humility in his eyes. We talked for ages as servants came in and out with courses and drinks. It felt easy to be around Henri; I was comfortable and able to be myself. Even as I regaled our findings of Griffin’s heritage and speculated the terrible possibilities they had unveiled, he sat patiently and offered sincere advice. The sun had set long before we drew our time to a close. As I stood to leave, my pale rose dress wafting gently in the breeze and the moonlight reflecting off my locket, Henri cleared his throat and walked around the table towards me.
“Princess Eleri, I hope you will forgive my boldness.” His eyes hid under a nervous frown.
“What is it Henri?” My voice lilted.
“The purpose of these Trials is simple yet the most complicated it could be. The expectation placed on you is great and unfair. But to deny how I have grown to feel for you these past weeks would be to deny us both the opportunity to end this and be happy. I have fallen in love with you, Eleri. I do not expect you to return my feelings and I would demand nothing more of you as your husband than an opportunity to earn your love. If you would do me the honour of becoming my wife, I vow to spend every moment in the pursuit of your happiness.” His words tumbled out delicately and yet weighted with such apprehension and love. I was taken aback.
“Henri.” I could not find the words to respond. I had not expected such a proposal. He was the perfect man and I had no doubt in his ability to love, respect, and empower me. He deserved a woman who could promise him the same in return.
“You are a man of many fine, admirable qualities. You truly inspire me to find the good and hope in everything that befalls me. But I cannot agree to marry you. I am so very sorry.” I paused, lifting his chin as it fell in sorrow. “I love you as a very dear friend, a confidante, and my equal. You deserve to marry a woman who is certain she is in love with you, you should not have to spend your life waiting for your love to be requited.” I continued. His brown eyes brimmed with reluctant tears.
“Do forgive me, Princess. I was much too forward and I apologise sincerely. I should bid you a good night.” Henri returned my hand to me and took a deep breath.
“Henri, please. Don’t apologise. You needn’t leave.” I begged.
“I must, Princess. As you must love another. I wish you all the happiness in the world with Griffin and I hope you will keep the locket as a memory of our friendship. Please excuse me, I will have an early start to return to the Cliffs tomorrow.” I reached for his hand one final time but he deftly evaded me. I was alone again.
As I walked solemnly towards my suite, the familiar clipping of heels bounced loudly against the walls. My mother’s hushed voice could be heard long before she reached me.
“Eleri! Did you just have dinner with Lord Dubois? One of my maids suggested that the servants had been asked to attend a private meeting on the Winter Terrace.” Her voice was excited as if she had just heard a handmaid had been found kissing a stable boy.
“Yes mother.” I sniffed as a tear fell down my cheek.
“Whatever is the matter?” She pulled me around to face her, frowning with concern.
“He proposed. I couldn’t say yes, I don’t love him.” I began to sob into her arms before she stepped back sharply.
“You rejected him?” She shouted. “You could have made the Dubois very happy and released us from this awful circus! Why must you be so selfish?”
I lifted my head to meet her enraged eyes. My body pulsed with anger and disappointment. All of the secrets and lies built up but the words would not form in my throat.
“You had better go and tell Francis that you wish to marry him right now. I will not allow this to continue a moment longer, we are all at risk with that Stormwhite boy at Court and I will die before he becomes your husband! Your father never should have allowed him to step foot in this place!” Her voice became a shriek as she grabbed my arm. Would she drag me to Francis’ chambers in the middle of the night? Would she have us marry in our nightgowns?
“What risk? You invited him to Court! How is Griffin such a threat? Is it because his mother and father are actually d’Elysian magicians that you denounced?” My mother’s eyes flashed in shock as I paused for breath. “What did Griffin ever do to deserve this? Even if his parents were dark, he did not ask for any of this! His powers are the only thing I feel connected to in this so-called circus!” My voice reached a newfound pitch as I unleashed all the anger and betrayal I had kept hidden. The torches in the corridors blew out and air gushed at my feet.
“Eleri you must calm down. Stop asking such dangerous questions, can’t you leave well enough alone? You know nothing of his heritage. And if you are truly connecting to his power then this is not something we would ever entertain. I thought we did enough to protect you the first time.” She muttered to herself as the torches reignited.
“The first time?” My voice shook in confusion.
“Go to bed at once. I expect to hear of your betrothal to Francis in the morning. This is not negotiable.”