Chapter Six: Murder on the Winter Terrace

My time spent tossing and turning that night was in vain as the news that woke the Palace in the early hours of the morning would overshadow even my mother’s rage. I had barely drifted off for five minutes when a piercing scream pulled me from my sheets. I grabbed my robe and rushed after the continuous echoes of footsteps and voices at the other end of the East Wing. I followed the noise for a while, turning a number of corners and rushing down passageways before I realised I had been led back the way I had walked some six hours prior. Although from its exterior a visitor to my family home might think it has a simple design, the square structure with rounded corners and occasional extensions such as the Summer Glasshouse held something resembling a maze within its walls. I found myself in the middle of the first floor at the back of the Palace which housed three suites, overlooking the training room enveloped in woods and gardens. I entered the middle suite as I had the night before; the only way of gaining access to the Winter Terrace. Despite its name, it was more comfortable in the Summer evenings as it was protected from the heat by its position.

“Your Royal Highness, I am afraid you cannot go outside this morning. His Majesty has instructed that you be accompanied back to your suite.” A tall, dark guard with extensive shoulders bowed lowly in front of me, stretching an arm towards the door I had just passed through.

“I heard a scream. What is going on here?” I questioned.

As I looked about the room I could see Duke Dubois talking fervently with my uncle, Christian. I had not seen him since the evening of my birthday; his work entailed travelling to other Realms to liaise with, and often appease, other rulers. If he and his brother, Stefan, had returned to Court I feared the situation must be worsening.

“I am not at liberty to say, Your Royal Highness.” The guard awkwardly avoided my gaze.

“Where is my father?” I demanded.

“He isn’t here, Eleri, now go back to bed. Thank you, Aaron.” My mother dismissed the guard and took his place, towering over me. She looked exhausted in this light; dark circles under her eyes, wrinkles consuming them and making her look at least twenty years her senior. She, too, wore her robe and wrapped her arms around herself as if to remain upright.

“No. I heard a scream and I want to know what is going on.” It was only now that I realised one of my lady’s maids was holding a servant girl tightly as she bawled and shook. A guard tried to pass her tea, clearly of all his battle training he had not borne witness to a woman in distress.

“Eleri you really are testing me at the worst possible time.” My mother hissed. Before I could respond, I overheard some of my uncle Christian’s conversation with Duke Dubois.

“It was removed from him quite viciously. To commit this type of atrocity it would take a very skilled, unique magician. He would have had to know his assailant for them to get so close.” My uncle’s words were uttered reluctantly. I rounded on my mother.

“Mother! What are Uncle Christian and Duke Dubois discussing? What atrocity! Who is the victim?” I took her arms in my hands, pleading. Seeing that I would not relent, and clearly too weak to argue, my mother acquiesced.

“The Dubois boy, Henri. He was found dead on the terrace. It appears he was attacked with a very old, high level of magic.” She sighed.

I froze on the spot. Words resided at the back of my throat and refused to move any further. Henri was dead, murdered. The room slowed and my heart pounded in my ears. I didn’t notice my mother rest her arms on my shoulders and steer me from the room. I didn’t recall the journey back to my suite or lying down with the aid of my ladies. Henri was dead. He was dead, and I had been the one to leave him to his fate.

The sun was grazing the horizon when I stirred from my rest. The pillows were damp, and hair clung to my cheeks. I sat up slowly and glanced around the room. I had been left alone. My stomach growled for the tray of food that lay on the floor beside my bed, probably cold from lunch. I picked at the vegetables and spat them back out as their lukewarm, soggy texture failed to appeal. Footsteps approached and were accompanied by a sharp knock on my door. Before I could answer, my assailant let themselves in.

“Eleri, you’re awake.” My mother’s voice was wispy and unnerved. She spoke as if she had not prepared for either eventuality. Her haggard appearance suggested that while she had been able to dress for the occasion, she had yet to find a moment to breathe.

“What happened? Did I sleep all day?” I leaned back into the cushions that lined the wall between my bedposts. Mother sat at my feet, depleted of all strength.

“You have been in and out, you were very upset so you would exhaust yourself and then wake up again. The nurse gave you some sleeping medication, it looks as if it helped.” She tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear, smiling vaguely.

“Is Henri really,” I paused, choking on the words. “Dead?” I covered my mouth as if to hide their meaning. My mother’s pained expression did nothing to ease my guilt.

“The guards have been interviewing staff and guests all day. They believe they have found the attacker and are taking him into custody for questioning.” She averted my gaze, predicting my questions.

“Who is it?” I clutched her hand from her lap.

“Griffin Stormwhite.” My blood ran cold at his name.

“Impossible. He has no motive!”

“True. But he would not have known that at the time. Half the castle knew you two were meeting on the terrace and a third knew he planned to propose. The kitchen staff were betting that you would say yes. If Griffin wanted to win, Henri needed to be removed.” She spoke as if he were an old box in the way of a door.

“The same could be said for Francis.” I hissed.

“Francis does not possess the magic that could do this, Griffin has abilities that pertain to a similar level and individuality.”

“What does that even mean?”

“Griffin appears to have an affinity for raising the dead and revitalising the ageing. In other words, he has all the makings of a dark magician.” Her point was all they would need to build an airtight case. “If only you had left the terrace together.” She mused wickedly.

“Are you saying this is my fault?” I screeched, releasing her hand.

“I’m saying that you have seriously overestimated the power in that silly little tiara. Henri would have protected you, he would have protected the Crown.”

“Protected me from what?” My voice rose, and footsteps scurried from the doorway. Mother turned herself around to face them.

“Enough. Get dressed, we have a burial to attend.” The room brightened as she left.

I wore a garnet red gown to Henri’s Dimming. In the event of a magician falling, the community forsook all arguments and differences to join together. The name of the ceremony came from the old practice of dimming torches and lights that lit the homes and streets of the fallen’s village to honour their death. Red was the colour of life blood, love, and passion. Wearing its deeper tones represented lost life and everlasting love. The Duke and Duchess wore white as a symbol of their child’s purity and innocence, the custom of parents burying their child. The courtiers and Crown alike would wear dark shades but never black, as the lights were only dimmed before life continued and solace was found. Henri would eventually be buried at sea like his grandparents and their ancestors before them. The guilt that pervaded every bone and heartbeat was suffocating as I remembered the promises and plans Henri had made to me. If I had just said yes, we would have sailed the Sirens’ Sea for our honeymoon and lived a good and happy life. If I had just said yes, Griffin’s life wouldn’t be in danger too. If I had just said yes, I might have actually married for love.

The Hall of Ancients was barely noticeable. Every other torch that lined the walls was blown out and the candles in the high chandelier burned low by the direction of a southern magician. Hundreds of guests from the western provinces, family of the Dubois, courtiers and commons alike, had gathered to pay their respects. Colours were deep and intense, like the sea at night in waves of darkness and the pale reflection of the moon casts the only light. The Duke and Duchess approached me in their pearl and ivory robes after the long line of condolences ended. I glanced around for support but for the first time since my birthday, I was invisible.

“Your Royal Highness.” They uttered in chorus. As the Duchess rose to her feet, her grip on my hand tightened.

“Please accept my sincerest condolences. Your son was a fine man of incomparable compassion and sincerity.” My words faltered as the Duchess squeezed my fingers painfully.

“You are not safe, Princess. Henri was not killed for your hand, he was killed because he knew too much!” Her voice drew the attention of a few courtiers nearby.

“What do you mean?” My own fell to a whisper.

“Now Elizabeth, come. You need to rest.” The Duke whispered tightly.

“Why am I not safe?” I tried to keep hold of her hand as she was guided away.

“This isn’t about magic, dear. This is about power.” Before I could ask more, she was taken by her very apologetic husband.

In Amira’s absence I was forced to socialise with strangers. Many asked how I was feeling and whether I knew who had done it. Some even asked about the future of the Trials. I looked for my parents on several occasions but would only hear their hushed tones disappear down yet another passageway. The Alexanders were also missing, even Francis. It was unlikely that they would be anywhere other than the War Room or the private chambers where all the politicians go. I hedged my bets and slipped down a corridor in the opposite direction.

The cell was damp and smelled of hundreds of bodies with dark souls. I pulled my hood down and inserted the key into lock. The guards would pay for leaving their station but with only one prisoner there was little chance of him escaping. The sharp clang of metal inside metal caused me to flinch despite us being alone. I could hear Griffin breathing heavily. As I closed the iron gate behind me, I was able to see him for the first time in days. Since our conversation in the infirmary I had barely a chance to speak to him. We were always interrupted or sat on opposite sides. Now there was no escape. If he killed Henri, he would tell me tonight.

His eyes were the palest grey I had seen; faint and exhausted, only exaggerated by the dark circles that smudged the skin above his cheekbones. A sharp red line ran from his right cheek to his ear, someone clearly believed he was guilty. His lips were dry and pale too; what was once a vibrant portrait was now faded and under a layer of dust.

“What are you doing here, Princess?” His voice croaked and crackled, leaving only a hateful whisper for his last word.

“I brought you this.” I handed him half a loaf of fresh bread and a flask of hot tea. He ripped both from my hands like a beggar on the streets of Campanile. I glanced around his filthy cell trying to find the fire that had pushed me down into the dungeons in the first place.

“I’d offer you a seat but-“ He shrugged at his disdainful habitat. I let the sounds of desperate bites and slurps fill the silence until he came up for air.

“I am grateful, Princess, but not certain why you are showing me kindness.” His lips tinted pink, revitalised, but his eyes remained dull.

“I want to know the truth. If you killed Henri, I want to hear it from you.” Griffin’s eyes flickered.

“If? You must be the only person who isn’t convinced of my guilt.” His trademark smugness flashed across his face for less than a second.

“Don’t think this is a compliment on your character. I merely disagree with the proposed motive. There are many here who believe you truly want my hand, I know you do not.” My voice was level. I hoped he would offer on alternative.

“Then what am I here for?” He smiled dryly.

“That’s what I would like to know.” I stared at him.

“Some bread and tea won’t be enough. If you really want to know what happened to your lover, I will need a better incentive.” Our eyes met in a battle of wills.

“If you are innocent, I’ll save you.”

“And if I’m not?”

“I’ll execute you myself.” My words surprised us both but neither of us doubted my conviction.

Griffin drank the remains of his tea and chewed slowly on the bread. I studied him, his features, his demeanour. I could tell the guards had not scared him or defeated him, he was bored. The anti-magic seal on his cage made for little entertainment or escape.

“What did you see last night?” I went for the basics.

“Plenty.” He smirked. I rose from my slumped stance and turned to leave. “Wait.” He added as I reached for my keys. “I was meditating in the empty suite when you two lovebirds came out for dinner. I couldn’t meditate for all the chit-chat and laughing; and then your lover mentioned me.” He paused as I recalled my last conversation with Henri.

“He said that I’m destined to love another, to love you.” I averted my gaze.

“Fascinating stuff.” The lights in his eyes switched back on.

“What happened after we left the terrace, Griffin?” My tone was stern and impatient.

“Henri came back. I don’t think he liked how it ended. Maybe he had more to say, but you were gone.” He clutched his chest in mock distress.

“Who did he see on the terrace?” I urged.

“I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything until he cried out for help. Intrigued, I snuck around the corner but he was already lying there, alone.” Griffin looked almost regretful.

“So that’s your defence? You didn’t do it, but you didn’t see who did and you left the body to be found by a maid?” I was furious.

“My defence is that whoever examined the body lied, twice.” I blinked, awaiting more information.

“The life force wasn’t removed, I saw the body, and for some reason the time of death is much earlier than reported. Lord Dubois was suffocated; all of the air was physically drawn out of him.” Griffin appeared more engaged. I stopped to focus on one element of his story.

“The air?” I whispered.

“You tell me, Princess, what magic does the most powerful family at Court possess?

“The Alexanders aren’t the most powerful.” I huffed distractedly.

“For one reason or another, your parents are no longer in control of their Crowns. With their rivals out of the way, and me executed for murder, the Alexanders are primed to be joined to the Royals in High Matrimony.” His theories all but sped right past me.

“Then how do you know so much? You seem to have all the answers except the ones about you. How do I believe you?”

“Whether you like it or not, Henri was right. You are drawn to me. Our magic has something in common. If you can’t trust me, trust that.”

The Duchess’ words echoed in my mind this isn’t about magic, it’s about power. According to Griffin there was a greater plot underneath all of this; one orchestrated by the Alexanders. I wondered if that was why my parents had been so stressed and adamant that I marry Francis or Henri. Connected to the Dubois, they would be protected against whatever Sebastien planned, and connected to Francis I would seemingly acquiesce whatever he wanted by marrying his nephew. If I believed Griffin’s story, and I thought I did, I would need to understand the politics of the situation. Before soon, he would be on trial and I could only be certain that Sebastien would be on the Jury. I didn’t have a lot of time.

 Chapter Seven

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