Silence filled the cell as we processed the conversation. The lack of light suggested it was still night outside. I wondered how long we had been talking for and how long it would take the guards to return. Nobody would be looking for me, they were all too busy with their plots and planning. We were totally alone.
“What do you mean, something in common?” I needed his true motive; this was no longer about Henri, it was personal.
“I don’t know, Henri said it. He told me something about the Secondary Trials being about a connection. I guessed that was why you didn’t say yes.” He seemed genuine, but I felt myself wondering why he was so open now. Then it dawned on me, perhaps he didn’t have a dark motive after all.
“Do you really not know?” I whispered, as if somebody might catch us.
“Know what?” His confusion pushed me onto a different angle.
“Griffin, what kind of magician are you?” I felt like I was asking a victim who their attacker was.
“I’m a natural magician, why?” He huffed. Natural magicians was a name given to base-level magicians who had less potential, and often odd abilities, to ensure they didn’t feel less worthy. Natural magicians often had diluted, mixed, or human heritage. Griffin’s magic was anything but diluted.
“Who told you that?” I inched closer to him, delicately.
“My father. I only entered this stupid circus to prove that we were just misunderstood and natural magicians’ potential is often ignored.” His youth suddenly showed; a face of innocence that did not understand the accusation. Perhaps he didn’t have a dark motive after all. Footsteps sounded above our heads, the guards were returning.
“I have to go.” I hurriedly pulled my hood up and unlocked the cell door.
“I thought you were going to save me!” Griffin’s eyes flashed angrily.
“I will. There’s still time. I’ll figure it out.” I locked the door behind me and fled up the stairs. I managed to hide in a conveniently placed corner while the guards strolled past loudly. I headed for my suite and fell asleep praying that Griffin’s ignorance was enough to preserve his head for a while longer.
The next morning, I woke to my mother knocking my door. Her lack of intrusion was enough to concern me before she even entered. I stood wearily and opened the large wooden door, catching a glimpse of my reflection and noticing how I looked as Griffin had in his cell; depleted and fed up.
“Good morning Eleri!” Her cheerful declaration came before I had any time to welcome her inside. Her hair had regained its style and her skin was warmer, flushed even.
“Good morning mother.” I yawned and reached for a robe. The heat of Summer was often hidden by its frosty mornings.
“Darling you must dress in your finest gown today and I have the seamstress working on something for tonight.” Immediately images of wedding gowns flooded my mind and I felt my breathing increase from panic.
“What’s the occasion?” I uttered unimpressed.
“Oh Eleri!” She tutted playfully. I hadn’t seen her in such a good mood than when the final candidates had been announced. “The Final Trial of course!”
“Is that some kind of joke? We buried Henri yesterday, Griffin is locked in a cell accused of his murder, and I haven’t seen Francis in days. How can you be thinking of the Final Trial?” I backed away from her as she conjured two cups of hot tea and offered me one.
“Eleri, I understand that the situation is less than desirable…” She began.
“Desirable? Mother, do you hear yourself?” My voice raised in disbelief.
“Now listen. If you are insistent on saving the Stormwhite boy and honouring your almost-fiancé, you have to co-operate.” Her voice fell to a whisper and harshly punctuated the last word as footsteps hurried away from the door. Was she helping, or investigating?
“I don’t understand.” I replied, confused.
“Your father and I are powerless to stop what will come. You, my dear, are not.”
“How? How are the two most powerful magicians in Asile powerless to stop this?” I grew angry at her avoidance.
“This family, this ruling family, was not built on solid foundations. Your grandfather was given the kingdom because he was a good man. There are people in other families that would rather they had been given the throne. It didn’t matter who you chose, so long as you could provide the Crown with strong support. Choosing Griffin could have united the Dubois and Alexanders against us.” My mother rested her hands on my arms.
“Creating a civil war.” I concluded.
“Have we not seen enough war? My family have enough to suggest that I won the Trials based on an agreement between Ferdinand d’Elysia and Richard Alexander. If that came out, we could lose everything. The commons would lose faith, the whole system could fall.”
“So why let Griffin compete at all if you needed me to choose between Henri and Francis?”
“Griffin’s power could not be ignored. I knew what it could do to you, but your father refused to be seen to be orchestrating the event, especially with what could be said about me.”
“What does Griffin’s power have to do with me?”
“We don’t have time. If you want to end this and follow your heart, you need to move quickly.”
“So you’re on my side now?” My eyes resisted the urge to roll.
“I was always on your side. I tried to tell you that it was too dangerous to get involved with Griffin.” Realisation dawned.
“You knew. You weren’t trying to stop a match you didn’t approve of. You knew there was a plot, that somehow Griffin was to be removed from the game board and, if I wasn’t careful, I would be removed with him?” My voice rose in question.
“I didn’t know anything until it was too late.” The angst in her eyes suggested she was telling the truth.
“Did father?” My voice quivered at the potential answer.
“He didn’t tell me if he did.” We both paused, she for calculation and me for breath.
“So what do we do?” I sighed.
“Griffin’s trial begins when the Sun has reached its highest point. Your father will adjudicate, Sebastien, Francis, Christian, Stefan, and Duke Dubois will sit on the Jury. The only people who know the truth will be in that room. Convince Griffin to drag it out as best he can, if he fails to co-operate or incriminate himself then the trial will stall. I will bear witness and you will have the Palace to yourself. Search rooms if you have to, the answers are in these walls.” Mother seemed invigorated by the betrayal she was about to commit.
“What am I looking for? I doubt the guilty party will have left a signed confession lying around.” I grew frustrated.
“Don’t be so superficial. This isn’t simply about a murder.”
“It’s about power.” I finished.
People flooded the Hall of Ancients from all ends of the Palace to watch the trial. My mother told them I was too distraught at the loss of Henri to attend. I didn’t see my father beforehand, or any of the jury members. I took my midnight black robe and pulled the hood over my dark hair and raced down passageways until I was at the other end of the Palace in the South-West Wing, otherwise known as the Alexanders’ apartments.
As I entered the unguarded suites my mind played over the past twenty-four hours. I had been so quick to trust Griffin, was I being foolish? My mother seemed to confirm the plot against him, against us all. The Crown was in serious danger and I was the only one left who could protect it. I tried to figure out what Sebastien had been thinking. How many potential scenarios had there been? If I married Francis then he had a secure hold on the Crown and my mother’s secret was safe, if I married Henri then the Crown was protected against the Alexanders but my mother was left at risk, and if I married Griffin there was every chance of all-out civil war. The last war to rage across Asile ended in thousands dead and a complete loss of an entire race. Humans fled the country and were exiled from a place where they had once lived in harmony with magicians of all kinds. We didn’t talk of the Dark Wars much as they were a time of great loss for many. Few magicians had wanted humans gone but they had risen against us in a time of fear. I wondered how deep Sebastien’s plot ran and if he was afraid, too.
I passed through three small reception suites and a large lounge to reach Sebastien’s quarters. He shared his master bedroom with his wife, she was often in the Capital liaising with duchesses and ladies. Their room was expansive but sparsely decorated; a large four poster bed stuck out from the back corner, a rug laid underneath that protruded from all sides. An old desk piled high with books and papers was forced under the South-facing window. The sun was bright in the sky, its light cast over the gardens and swimming lake in the grounds. I had until the sun fell behind me and the sky turned rose gold to find what I needed. I began searching his desk.
As the turquoise sky became adorned with speckles of bronze and amber, I knew that I was running out of options. His desk had revealed no such evidence; not even a code-breaker for secret correspondence. I knew he was too smart for this. Footsteps hurried in behind me and my heart leapt into my mouth. It was too late to hide, I whipped around to accost my intruder. I was greeted by a terrified young boy who quickly slapped his arms behind himself.
“Y-Your Royal Highness, do forgive the intrusion. I beg your pardon.” He quivered, I studied him and deemed him less than a teenager.
“What is your name?” I spoke sweetly as if to a child.
“Renauld, Your Royal Highness.” He shifted anxiously on his feet.
“And what do you have there, Renauld? Something for Duke and Duchess Alexander?” I extended a hand towards him, his arm muscles visibly tightening his grip behind him.
“Just a delivery.” He muttered.
“Then you must deliver it! Leave it on the desk there and they will surely see it when they return.” I smiled kindly. Renauld nodded hastily and placed the letter between two books as I pretended to be interested in a painting on the opposite wall.
“Run along now, your master won’t want you to be late.” The boy scurried away.
I feared for the boy as he had clearly committed an atrocity by his master. I doubted that he would be smart enough to pretend he had not seen me and that the letter was safely delivered. Unfortunately, I had to open it. I prayed that this was enough evidence to stop the trial.
News is yet to reach us of the Trials and the Dubois threat. I write this with great hope that it was successfully neutralised. We are ready to initiate the second phase upon your signal.
In purity, there is honour. In honour, there is strength. In strength, there is security.
The letter was vague but it was easy to read between the lines. Unfortunately, with Sebastien himself on the Jury, I would need concrete proof that the Dubois threat was Henri and the neutralisation was his murder. It was enough, I hoped, to delay the trial and give me more time. I continued to search the other apartments for earlier letters and some idea of K’s identity. I found nothing but the Duchess’ extensive collection of fabric and dresses. I could hear voices growing louder nearby and the click of heels in front of the scuttle of maids’ shoes. The Duchess had returned. I slipped out of the apartments unseen and pulled my hood over my head as I navigated the passageways back to my suite.
My mother came to my suite much later that evening, the trial had adjourned for the night and would resume at first light. I had always been too young to watch a trial, and it was only the most serious that ever came to Court to be heard. All I knew was that the first day consisted of statements from both sides and the judge would dictate how proceedings worked. Often this look much longer than necessary, today seemed to be no exception. My mother appeared in the doorway with tired eyes and a solemn mouth.
“Please tell me you found something.” She uttered as she shut the door and slumped onto the end of my bed. I sat patiently with the note in my hand.
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” I asked, uncrossing my legs and shuffling towards her.
“Sebastien isn’t on the Jury.” Her eyes flitted from wall to window and back again.
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Not when it’s because he is the prosecutor. He is arguing the case against Griffin, and he has strong claims.” Mother wrung her hands and avoided eye contact.
“Claims? Like what? Does he have evidence?” I pushed.
“He knows of Griffin’s heritage, that he is a Baron and a Saffron first. That’s enough to turn any Jury against him.” For the first time, my mother looked as if she cared for Griffin’s fate. More so, she looked fearful at the prospect of his execution.
“Yes, his parents were both denounced and took the name Stormwhite. What happened?” I recalled mine and Amira’s journey into the Archives.
“You spent too much time in the Archives.” She chastised. “They were denounced for practicing the Dark Arts, or Black Magic as the humans called it. They indulged in necromancy and mind control, even voodoo. They were powerful d’Elysian magicians that went rogue. Such power in Dark hands is incredibly dangerous. It was rumoured they started their own community of magicians and that, with more dedication and practice, the magic corrupted their souls; turning them Dark from the inside out. It is thought that a magician born Dark would be the end of all magic, and that is what Sebastien says Griffin is.” She looked horrified. I mirrored her expression, and her pain.
“What happened to Alastair and Elicia?” I whispered.
“Elicia died giving birth to Griffin, we know that for fact as it was reported by a trusted medic. Alastair was unheard of after the loss of his wife. Some say he raised Griffin in the North, others say he went insane and left Griffin to fend for himself from a young age. It is thought that the Heavens claimed Elicia’s soul as payment for creating Griffin in such a Dark manner. Nobody really knows what happened after she died.” She told the story as if it were for the first time.
“Isn’t it possible that Griffin is born of Dark magic but is actually just d’Elysian? We can’t know for sure that he is Dark just because Elicia and Alastair were corrupted. We have no proof.” I prayed that I was telling the truth.
“It doesn’t matter about proof, it’s enough to convince the Jury that Griffin is dangerous and was possibly raised to have Dark impulses. Regardless of his magic, that story alone would have you believe he has it in him to kill.” She flinched as a bird flew past the window.
“So we have to give them something to lose their faith in Sebastien.” I concluded. Mother nodded.
“It would have to be something concrete, all Sebastien has is hearsay.” She agreed.
“Like a letter?” I waved the small piece of parchment in front of her. Her eyes lit up.
“You found something!” She grinned and pulled it from my fingers. Reading it rapidly, her eyes changed colour and her mouth moved with the words. “Is this real? How did you come by it?”
“I intercepted a delivery from a servant while I was looking for something in Sebastien’s rooms.” A sly smile played on my lips.
“This might be it. You have to present this at the trial.” She handed the letter back to me.
“Why me?” I looked up at her.
“Because you’re the next Queen of Asile and it’s about time you showed them what is to come.”