Two weeks ago, I had objected to being forced to marry a man I did not love. I was now about to face a court to defend an innocent stranger against the heir of the most powerful family at Court, all because I had refused to give myself the chance to marry for love. All because I had refused Henri the chance at a happy life.
Henri had been dead a mere two days and Court was thriving as if he had never existed. His family had departed while I was roaming the palace looking for clues and damning evidence against the Alexanders. I still wore deep red, I was still in mourning. Despite my outrage, mother insisted on deeming this the Final Trial. Instead of each suitor standing against me in a bid to challenge and complement my power, I was now stood deciding which of the remaining two should live. Two young men who bore the greatest of burdens; their family’s honour. Could I blame Francis? Or was he a pawn in a much greater game? I had questioned myself all night, replaying my mother’s orders. I’m the future Queen of Asile, and it’s about time I showed them what is to come. I still had to decide how I would rule. I had naively thought that I had more time, my parents being fit and healthy and relatively young parents.
The callousness of Court drove me back down to the depths of the dungeons. The guards had left their post early again, no doubt to escape the pungent stench of sweat and fear. I slipped into Griffin’s cell and found him much like before; irritable and hopeless. His grey eyes remained glazed over with boredom.
“Two visits, aren’t I the lucky one.” His sarcasm lacked edge.
“I brought you leftovers.” I tossed him the leg of honey-glazed duck I had wrapped in cloth. His eyes widened slowly as he unravelled it.
I stood in silence as he devoured it. He sat in the corner, arms resting on his knees, head leaning against the cold bricks.
“I’m guessing you haven’t figured out how to break me out then.” He tossed the clean bone to the side, wiping honey from his mouth.
“I’ve been asked to take a different approach. I’ll be testifying tonight.” I said. It was the first time he had looked me in the eye since his arrest.
“You’re going to testify against me?” His voice cracked.
“No. I’m going to ensure you are found innocent.”
“So you think I’m innocent?” He smirked.
“I have a few things to ask you first. But no, I don’t think you killed Henri.” I walked out of the cell and picked up the guards’ stools. “It’s about time you told me who you are.” I added, motioning to the stool I set out between us. I sat down and waited for him to join me.
“What do you want to know? We don’t have long before the guards return.” He glanced over my shoulder.
“They won’t be returning.” I winked. My mother had promised to keep the guards occupied until I reappeared.
“We don’t have time so I can’t afford to be gentle.” I continued. “Griffin, what happened to your father?” I struggled to meet his gaze. He looked unaffected.
“Left when I was three. Never saw him again.” He shrugged.
“So who raised you?” I asked.
“Nobody. But I lived with some women who gave me food and were nice to me if I kept pouring them more wine. Think they were his sisters, or cousins. Hard to tell.” He added.
“That sounds awful.” My fingers lifted from my lap as I contemplated reaching for him. “I’m sorry.” I added, withdrawing my hand.
“Don’t be. He’s not important to me, and he shouldn’t be to you. He’s not exactly going to get me off is he?”
“You said he told you that you’re a natural magician. When did he say that?” I found it hard to believe a three year old would understand it.
“He wrote me on my thirteenth birthday, said I should have been demonstrating abilities and that other people wouldn’t understand them. He called them natural abilities. He told me not to show them off and to avoid contact with the local mages and magicians.” His eyes avoided mine. “Little did he know that I’d already got myself kicked out for turning one of my aunts grey and the other blamed her illness on me. I didn’t have friends.” He huffed. “I only got the letter because the deliverer knew me personally. He’d give me a couple rounds for a loaf of bread, y’know.”
I frowned at his nonchalance. Abandoned by his father, abused by his aunts, on the streets at thirteen. I couldn’t imagine a life much worse.
“Where did you grow up, Griffin?” My voice was hushed.
“North-west tip of Abelia, on the border. I’m bored of this interview.” He rose to his feet and kicked the stool away lightly. He had grown up on the outskirts of the Northern Realms.
“How did you know what had caused Henri’s death?” I choked on the words.
“It was obvious, the signs were all there. Don’t they teach you that in the Royal Classroom?” He rolled his eyes. I remembered his definition of me on that first night as ‘uneducated’ and suppressed a laugh at his own apparent lack of knowledge.
“There’s no such thing. And no, only the most highly trained Terra magicians who specialise in medicine can tell you that. Did you learn from one of them?” My voice rose with deception.
“Oh yeah, homeless runts like me were always chatting to the docs and healers.” He rolled his eyes again as his sarcasm regained its bite. Despite being the home of healing and medicine, the North was not know for sharing its knowledge amongst the commons of any realm or province. “I don’t understand how any of this is relevant to my trial.” He huffed again.
“Tell me the signs.” I said.
“Why? His body is somewhere in the middle of the Sirens’ Sea by now.” He looked puzzled.
“Tell me the signs.” I repeated.
“Purple and red bruising, particularly around the eyes and scalp. Since it’s unlike the more mundane asphyxiations, he was also subject to rigour mortis around the face very quickly. Magic messes with biology. Signs can also include self-inflicted scratching around the neck and bruising around the lungs from anoxia.” He sighed. “Why is this relevant?”
“Do you know what a victim looks like post mortem if their life force has been taken from them?” I asked.
“No. I’ve never seen it done.” He seemed relieved. I didn’t ask how he knew what magical asphyxiation looked like.
“Well I’m willing to bet it’s nothing like you just described. I’ll see you tonight, in court.” I rushed to my feet with renewed confidence. Slamming the cell gate behind me I whispered, “sorry” as I turned the key. I returned the my stool to its place and rushed to the Archives. Tonight would be a show to remember.
I spent an hour perusing files and securing evidence before returning to my room. My ladies barely hid repulsed expressions as I realised I still wore fragrance de dungeon. They hurried to dress me in an outfit my mother had prepared. My raven curls were drawn back in a high bun, I looked like a Court dancer. My tiara sat neatly above the braid that framed my forehead. My dress was modern. I recognised it from a meeting with mother’s Court Inspirations; ladies and gentlemen responsible for maintaining fashion by her whim. She had shot it down when I begged to wear it for the first night of the Trials, calling it too modern and against tradition. Perhaps she was ready to see what I could do with the Crown. Despite our bickering and differences, I felt a tightness in my stomach imploring me not to let her down.
I entered the gigantic chamber alone. My bare arms felt the chill of the evening breeze. Eyes locked on me from every angle. I saw eyebrows raise and hands shield whispers. I wore deep red, in honour of Henri. Two panels of pleated fabric clung parallel from shoulder to waist, meeting just above my navel. Hugging my hips, the pleated skirt curved and then dropped to the floor in a straight line. My back was bare save for a slim panel that began at the base of my spine and joined a golden braid at my neck, connecting to the two panels at the front. It reminded me of the togas worn by imperial leaders of the humans in ancient times. I think they had called them Greeks or Romans. My skin was completely covered, save for my back and my arms, and a sliver of my torso, but I knew that this would shock Court. Henri’s locket hung at my neck. I stared each courtier in the eye and smiled gracefully. Welcome to the new era, I added, silently.
The chamber was an ancient structure, remnant of its previous owner. Many a human had been tried in this room, many sentenced to death. The time before the Dark Wars was a harrowing time, one I feared might haunt us long after my reign ended. Mahogany panels lined the walls, linking seamlessly with benches behind balconies. To my left were four rows of tiered seating that faced the judge, my father. The seats were full and many queued outside hoping to hear or replace someone if they left. Between the seats and my father were two benches, separated by an aisle six feet wide. Griffin sat furthest from me, nearest the remaining benches filled with jurors. He was side on, facing toward my father, alone. His hands were wrapped in rope tainted with an anti-magic seal, his grey clothes tattered. Sebastien sat at the other bench facing my father. He had another man with him, I assumed one of mother’s cousins. They looked me up and down with a twisted smile. Whether they were impressed or shocked I couldn’t tell.
I joined Griffin at his bench, the whole room lowered to the floor at my presence. My father nodded towards me dismissively. I gathered mother had not filled him in on my plans. She was not in the chamber, she wanted me to be the only queen present.
“Be seated.” My father spoke to the spectators and jurors. Shuffles sounded as they took their places.
“Mr Stormwhite, you have been joined by Her Royal Highness, the Princess d’Elysia, to form your counsel. Do you consent to this appointment?” He asked.
“I do, Your Grace.” Griffin replied.
“Very well. Ladies and Gentleman of the Court, the Jury, and Asile, welcome. Today we will be completing the trial of Griffin Stormwhite by the Crown. He stands accused of Category One Murder – taking a life by use of magic. The defendant pleads not guilty.” His voice echoed throughout the chamber. I glanced at the jury, each member seemingly terrified by my father.
“We have heard pleas and opening statements from the prosecution. The defendant has appointed his own counsel who will now begin proceedings. Your Royal Highness.” He gestured to me, a glint in his eye. I told myself it was pride in a bid to slow the quivering of my knees and hands. My heart thumped near my throat. I couldn’t back out now.
“Thank you, Your Grace. I would like to call my client to the stand.” I urged each word out with feigned confidence. The room began to gasp and whisper. Griffin looked at me, entertained. He shrugged and made his way to the small enclosure next to my father.
“Order.” My father stated.
“Mr Stormwhite,” I began, “in your own words could you please recount your whereabouts and any events you witnessed in the evening of Lord Dubois’ death?” I leaned on the desk to prevent obvious shaking.
“That night I was in one of the empty suites which open out onto the Winter Terrace. I was trying to meditate but was interrupted.” He paused.
“What interrupted you?” I asked.
“Well, it was you, Your Royal Highness, and Lord Dubois.” The spectators began to snicker and gossip.
“Order!” My father called. “Continue.” He directed.
“You were having dinner, and then he left. I saw you leave shortly after.”
“Yes I recall, thank you. What happened after I left?” I asked.
“Lord Dubois returned, looking for you. By this point I was bored so I started to leave. But then I heard an argument, well two voices being loud.” He said.
“Did you recognise the voices? Did you see anybody?” I pressed.
“I recognised Lord Dubois, but not the second. It was a man, definitely, but other than that I couldn’t say. I didn’t see anybody, I was in the dark.” He said.
“Objection! This information neither helps nor hinders his case! The jury are growing bored.” Sebastien intervened, earning himself laughter and applause from the spectators. He stood in the aisle, arms raised. Francis sat smugly in between my uncles, Christian and Stefan. Duke Dubois did indeed look bored.
“I was building my case.” I stated.
“Then build to a point, Your Royal Highness.” My father retorted. Sebastien returned to his seat with a satisfied snort.
“Mr Stormwhite, did you hear the argument stop?” I asked.
“Yes. When it went quiet I tried to exit through the Terrace.” He responded.
“Did you notice anything unusual en route?” I asked.
“Well I saw the body.” He stated. Gasps echoed throughout the room.
“Describe it to me.” I commanded. The room fell silent with morbid curiosity.
“Lord Dubois was lying on his side. White as snow. Except his eyes, he had purple splotches behind them and up by his hair. His face was frozen.” I dug my nails in to my palms to prevent tears trickling down my face.
“What did, or do, you think happened?” I asked.
“I think he had all the oxygen drawn out of him.” He replied. The spectators became animated once more.
“Objection! Speculation, Your Grace! He isn’t a medic. The real medics announced the cause of death after a thorough investigation!” Sebastien leapt to his feet once more.
“Order!” My father bellowed. “Your Royal Highness, unless you have concrete evidence I suggest you wrap things up.” His stern tone of disapproval thinly veiled his disappointment.
“No further questions, Your Grace.” I resumed my seat.
“Duke Alexander, do you wish to cross-examine the defendant?” My father turned to Sebastien.
“I have two questions, Your Grace.” He replied.
“Very well.” My father indicated toward Griffin. I held my breath.
“Mr Stormwhite, were there any witnesses to your activities on the Winter Terrace that night?” He asked.
“None that I saw, no.” Griffin remained firm.
“No witnesses, very good. Now my second question, did you see the Princess leave the Terrace?” He asked. My heart jumped for my throat as I lurched to my feet. I couldn’t object.
“Yes.” Griffin replied.
“Which way did she go?” He asked.
“She came through the suite I was in. I saw her exit onto the main landing.” He stated.
“Was it not too dark to see her? You previously stated that you saw nobody due to the lack of light.” He twisted Griffin’s words in a horseshoe.
“No, I saw the train of her dress and her tiara, she wears things that catch even minimal light. I also heard her heeled shoes.” Griffin added. I smiled.
“But she didn’t see you?” Sebastien pushed.
“Not that she let on.” He responded.
“So the two individuals with power with unknown potential were together, metres from the deceased. Nobody can attest to your statement and nobody witnessed anybody else entering or leaving the Terrace at this time.” Sebastien mused.
“What’s your question?” Griffin reacted. I anticipated my father’s ire but Sebastien was quick to retaliate.
“Oh there isn’t one. No further questions Your Grace.” He returned to his seat and Griffin was returned to me. I stood.
“Your Grace, I would like to call a witness to the stand. Dr Rhodia, the royal coroner.” I said.
“Very well. Guards bring in Dr Rhodia.” My father beckoned to the door I had appeared through. Dr Rhodia walked down the aisle in a green tunic suit. He bore a tattoo on the back of each hand. On his left, an upside down triangle with a line through it, the symbol of the Terra magician, and on the right our national medical symbol of the tree of life. Born and raised in the Northern Realms, Dr Rhodia was almost as pale as I was with short auburn hair. His face creased at every point, he was the eldest medic in the land. He creaked and groaned, taking the stand with the aid of a guard.
“Dr Rhodia, have you seen a victim of asphyxia before?” I asked.
“Yes.” He replied.
“Could you please describe the identifying features of asphyxia, post mortem?” I asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to offend Your Royal Highness’ sensitive sensibilities.” He flinched at my request.
“Please, Dr Rhodia. You offend me more by suggesting such a thing. Answer my question.” I ordered.
“Very well.” He began, glancing furtively from jury to prosecutor. “To the naked eye, one notices purple and red splotches, like a rash, particularly around the eyes and scalp. It can also be found on the chest area. Further internal investigation would be necessary to confirm it as many deaths can present this way.” He fidgeted in his chair.
“Could you give an example of another death which may present in such a way?” I asked.
“Well, any form of asphyxiation like drowning. Or more rarely, if a victim has had their life force removed.” He added. I glanced to Sebastien in time to see the hint of a satisfied smile.
“So they could easily be mistaken?” I asked.
“Potentially, yes. But not by an experienced professional.” He replied.
“Such as your wise self, I’m sure.” I smiled. I turned to the jury. “Gentlemen of the jury, I would like to present you with Exhibit A.” I handed a roll of parchment encased in glass to Duke Dubois at the end of the bench.
“Exhibit A is an article from a medical journal published last year. It details the unfortunate events of a young woman being suffocated by her husband, a powerful Caeli magician. In particular, I draw your attention to the passage quoting the coroner. He describes the body much like Dr Rhodia, and indeed Mr Stormwhite. It reads:
The eyes were frozen open in terror. Rigour mortis had acted quickly. Purple and red areas around the eye sockets, scalp, and chest cavity signal classic consequences of anoxia – complete lack of oxygen in the blood supply.
Sounds awful.” I concluded. “Now if we might address Exhibit B. This is an article published some 40 years ago, by none other than the esteemed Dr Rhodia!” I marched around the chamber providing judge, jury and prosecution with the evidence.
“Written in the same medical journal, clearly one revered for knowledge and prestige, Dr Rhodia describes the death of a travelling merchant. Accosted in the dead of night, this man was attached by a band of Dark Magicians. They ripped the life force from him and left him to be found by his teenage daughter. The article again details the body post mortem:
Lifeless, but untouched. The body could be mistaken for a deep slumber. No bruising or burns, no magical residue, there is no cause of death but lack of life itself. Internally, the blood supply is uncontaminated and the organs have not begun to decompose. It is as if the body is still capable of maintaining life, there is just none present. It is mystifying.
Mystifying indeed.” I concluded.
The court room hesitated for a few seconds before murmurs and whimpers filtered towards me. I looked to my father; he sat with raised eyebrows. He was impressed. Sebastien was on his feet, glaring at Dr Rhodia.
“One further question, if I may Your Grace.” I walked towards Dr Rhodia. My father nodded.
“Dr Rhodia, you weren’t always a coroner were you?” I asked.
“No, Your Royal Highness.” He stuttered.
“Is it true, Dr Rhodia, that you are qualified in the delivery of newborn mages? And the care of their mothers before, during, and after childbirth?” I asked.
“I am, yes, I have worked with many cases in the past.” He clutched the edge of his seat until his knuckles whitened.
“Is it true, that one of those cases was for Duke and Duchess Alexander? That you have cared for their family personally, since the birth of Lord Alexander?” I asked.
“Yes, Your Royal Highness. That is true.” He avoided my gaze.
“And your name, Dr Rhodia. What is your first name?” I asked.
“K-Kenneth, Your Royal Highness.” He stumbled.
“No further questions Your Grace.” I strode back to my seat. Griffin eyed me with awe and ecstasy. Welcome to the new era, I mouthed.