The chamber walls croaked with the uproar from the gallery. Feet stomped and loud voices shouted liar and crook. Whispers uttered conspiracy theories and guards closed in on myself and Griffin. Sebastien was red with outrage, he shouted and pointed, urging my father to see Griffin in the image he had painted.
“Order.” My father’s baritone soothed the rabble. Guards stood protectively behind me.
“Do you wish to cross-examine the witness, Duke Alexander?” He asked.
“No, Your Grace.” He replied.
“Your Royal Highness, do you have further evidence to present?” My father asked.
“No, Your Grace.” I replied, hiding a smile.
“Then we shall take recess and resume in the morning.” He concluded.
“Wait, what? You said we were completing the trial tonight!” I called out.
My father stood. Without word, he exited the chamber. The two guards grabbed Griffin and dragged him back to the dungeon. Furious, I whipped around to face Sebastien. His grin showed all of his teeth.
“I do hope your client can survive another night in the dungeon.” He smiled. Refusing to entertain him, I strode out of the room and headed to my mother’s chambers.
She sat at her desk facing the eastern grounds. Mother’s chambers had been positioned so as to ensure she always felt close to home. I often found that ironic since she had spent less than her first year in the Shadow Mountains before being sent to the Court nursery. Her father had aided my grandfather in ending the Dark Wars. Ferdinand had been a great leader; merciful but fierce. Ever since, the Alexander’s bore a claim to the throne. They demanded that Ferdinand had merely been Richard Alexander’s puppet, an attractive face to win over the people to ideas that weren’t his own. My mother was betrothed to my father as an offer of unity and peace. Many saw it for what it rightfully is, a consolation prize.
“Mother.” I greeted her from the doorway. She turned around in her seat and beckoned me to enter.
“Shut the door behind you.” Her voice was straightforward, like it had been when I had first encountered Griffin.
“Did you know that father was planning on suspending court?” I asked.
“No. Having heard of your display, I can see why he would want to.” She said. As she stood to meet me, her gown twinkled in the lantern light. Night black with silver lining, her figure blurred into the darkness of her chambers.
“So he can decide if it is worth it to let Griffin live.” I concluded.
“Eleri, this is not any old trial. This is the Final Trial.” She hissed.
“I know what it is, mother.” Irritation laced my words.
“I don’t think you do. By representing Griffin against Francis’ uncle you have demonstrated allegiance. The whole of Court is expecting you to be betrothed should Griffin survive.” Her tone was flat.
“I don’t care about allegiances and marriages, mother! I care about an innocent man being sent to his death by the murderer himself! Dr Rhodia is evidently the man who sent the letter to Sebastien detailing the plot.” My voice rose with conviction.
“Eleri when will you stop being so naive? I want to see Griffin live, I really do. But I did not intend for you to become his counsel, his saviour! Your father has suspended the trial in an attempt to look impartial. Even if you reveal such a conspiracy, you risk beginning the civil war we are trying to prevent. The Alexanders will not take it lightly if you win this case, and reject their prodigy.” She sighed.
“If I reveal the conspiracy, Sebastien will be found guilty of category one murder, he won’t be a threat to anybody.” I stated.
“And then what do you think will happen? What do you think our loyal Caeli soldiers on the Mountains will do in response? He is the leader of the Eastern Realms, Eleri, his death would be considered an act of war.” She paced between her desk and the south-eastern balcony.
“His death would be an act of justice.” I shot back.
“If you think this Court is built on justice and fairness, you are not going to survive as queen.” Her harsh words landed at my throat. I swallowed with difficulty.
“What should I do?” I whispered, terrified.
“Free Griffin. If you can save his life without condemning another, we might just keep the Alexanders on our side.” She replied.
“Doesn’t Duke Dubois deserve the truth about Henri?” I bit back tears.
“Eleanor. You have a choice. It is not one I can make for you, but it is one that may well define the rest of your life and its longevity. You can have Sebastien executed for Henri’s murder, whipping up the Eastern Realms into outrage and treason, and hope that Griffin’s power and the Dubois support is enough to stamp it out. Or, you can free Griffin without implicating Sebastien any further and perhaps by showing Francis favour you might still hold his support.” She shrugged with exhaustion and summoned her ladies to help her to bed.
“Yes mother.” I exited without returning her cold stare.
That night, I paced the perimeter of my tower, dizzying myself with choices and plots. I doubted Sebastien would kill Griffin tonight, he wanted a spectacle to demonstrate his power. I was sure my father did wish to remain impartial and had not chosen to give Sebastien more time to build his case. I flopped onto my bed without ideas or decision. It was hopeless, I would never win. There was no favourable outcome.
As the clock chimed three in the morning, I recalled the Duchess’ words. It’s not about magic, it is about power. I racked my brain before realising that she was wrong. When it came to the solution, it was absolutely about magic. We knew that Sebastien’s magic was the murder weapon. We knew that Griffin had untold potential in his magic, but that it was derived of pure d’Elysian blood. Sebastien had held back on outing Griffin’s true heritage and I could not work out why. Then I remembered the letter. The letter I thought was written from Dr Rhodia to Sebastien held a final passage about purity. I had thought they wished to maintain purity of class, that they did not want a common marrying into the throne on account of power. I was wrong, they didn’t care about class. They wanted to maintain purity of magic. Francis is purely Caeli, but Griffin is pure d’Elysian. Dark or not, he would be the better fit to achieve their goals. Sebastien had not accounted for a candidate with d’Elysian magic, and now he had to carefully dispose of him without alerting his co-conspirators.
I woke to voices calling my name and harsh light forcing itself across my face. Hands pulled back sheets and water ran into my bath, I blinked furiously and sat up straight. It felt like a normal morning in the Palace. Another gown was laid out at the foot of my bed, draped across a chaise. This time it was a pale blush coated in gold leaf. Sleeveless and shapeless, it had a low neckline and no back. I wrinkled my nose at it, tempted to charm it into something more tasteful. Blush was the colour of fertility, of youth and unity. I could hear my mother’s voice in my mind; stop championing a dead man and start fighting for those of us who still live.
I spent my bath turning options over in my mind. I had one goal and many factors stood in my way. By the time the bubbles popped and melted away, my decision was made. My hair was braided and wrapped into a bun with loose tendrils falling past my ears. Henri’s locket remained at my chest, I held it in both hands and pressed it to my lips.
The sun had returned to its highest point as the trial resumed. I stood next to Griffin facing my father, both men wore the same tired expression. I suspected Sebastien had paid a visit to the King’s Chamber as I had my mother’s. I prayed this was the last time he would hold any power over the Crown.
“Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen of the Jury. We resume today the trial of Griffin Stormwhite by the Crown. He pleads not guilty to the charge of Category One Murder – the taking of a life by use of magic. Please be seated.” My father’s voice echoed. Shuffles sounded around the chamber as our spectators and jurors took their seats.
“The tragic death of one of our own has fallen in the midst of a time of rejuvenation. Her Majesty the Queen and I, had eagerly anticipated welcoming a son-in-law to our family. The Final Trial would have been a battle and a unification of two powerful souls. Instead, it is to be replaced with a trial of far graver potential. Should the jury find Mr Stormwhite guilty, there will be only one candidate remaining. If he is found to be innocent, it will be for Her Royal Highness to choose a victor.” My father continued.
“The prosecution shall begin proceedings. Duke Alexander.” My father gestured to him.
“Thank you, Your Grace. I would like to call Her Royal Highness the Princess d’Elysia to the stand.” The room fell silent. My head shot up, eyes searching for my father. It was unheard of, he couldn’t ask me to testify, surely?
“Very well. Your Royal Highness.” My father nodded towards me, not making eye contact. A guard appeared at my side and indicated for me to step forward. I straightened my spine and threw my head back. My veins pumped molten blood as I fought against my humiliation. I was met by my father’s High Priest.
“Do you swear on the celestial powers the Heavens bestowed upon you, and the d’Elysian Gods and Goddesses who watch over us and guide us, to speak candidly and without omission?” His voice croaked as he recited the oath. I was bound by my powers and my Crown to tell the truth. This was not symbolic, a spell washed over me and magic settled in my mouth. A tasteless liquid forced its way under my tongue and down my throat. There was no way out except to tell the whole truth.
“I do.” I replied. My father motioned to Sebastien.
“Your Royal Highness, were you close with the victim?” He crooned.
“Yes.” I replied. He stifled a laugh.
“Your client, Mr Stormwhite says he saw you dining with the victim on the night of his death, is this true?” He asked.
“Yes.” I replied, the word forced itself from my lips.
“What did you talk about?” He asked.
“The weather, life on The Cliffs, nothing of particular interest.” I replied, biting my tongue.
“Did you talk about Mr Stormwhite?” He pushed.
“Yes. Henri thought I had a connection to his power.” I added.
“Do you know what he meant by that?” He asked.
“Yes.” I tasted blood on my tongue but couldn’t fight the ancient magic. “We had discovered that Griffin and I share the same magic.” My hand rose to cover my mouth. I feigned a cough.
“You mean to say Mr Stormwhite is of d’Elysian blood? How was this not known to us until now?” His eyes glinted as he stepped away from his trap momentarily, to capture his audience.
“Because his parents were denounced and he was orphaned.” I risked a glance at Griffin. He was horrified and furious.
“You mean to say, his parents were Dark Magicians?” His false horror turned my nails into my skin as the desire to execute him myself rose in my stomach.
“Yes.” I replied.
“When did you learn of this?” He continued his charade, ready to close the trap.
“The evening of the Secondary Trials.” The gallery gasped in unison.
“The very night before Henri was killed. Did Henri know of this revelation?” Metal clanged in my mind as imaginary cell bars fell down around me. I was done.
“Yes. I had asked him to speak with Griffin to learn of his true identity. Henri learned that his mother was Elicia Saffron. This led me to the truth. I told Henri the rest over dinner.” And with that, my cell was locked.
“So you knew that Griffin possessed d’Elysian magic. You knew he was born of denounced, Dark Magicians. You even had Henri help you to investigate him and told him your findings! But you didn’t tell anybody else. And then, within moments of your secret rendezvous, he was killed. How tragic.” He concluded. “No further questions, Your Grace. Permission to close?”
“Granted. Move to closing statements.” My father did not sound affected. Sebastien paused to wink at me before turning to the jury. I was returned to my bench, Griffin hung off the edge, putting as much space between us as possible.
“Her Royal Highness has been an astute, vicious competitor in this chamber. I would like to take a leaf from her book and offer an alternative perpetrator. As I am here for justice, not power.” He waved a hand dramatically in my direction before continuing.
“We know that d’Elysian magic is powerful, unpredictable, and as ancient as the Gods themselves. It is entirely possible that Mr Stormwhite murdered his competitor in cold blood after realising he had been conspiring with the Princess. However, it is also possible that she, whipped up in emotional turmoil caused by a love triangle, lost control. Perhaps Henri’s love was no match for Griffin’s power and Her Royal Highness didn’t know what to do. Or perhaps the two are in it together? We have all heard the prophecy of our dear future queen. Our destruction or our saviour? How very disconcerting. Perhaps we should ask ourselves why our Princess lied? Why did she keep Griffin’s secrets? Why did she leave Henri alone on the Terrace that night, and how else would she have known to walk through that particular suite in which her co-conspirator resided? I trust you, the jury, to decide on the truth.” Sebastien seated himself as muted applause sounded from spots at the back of the gallery.
It was my turn. My final chance. I knew what Sebastien was doing, and I had one last trick to expose him and save Griffin.
“Gentlemen of the Jury, you have seen evidence that the defendant possesses great magic of a superior, ancient bloodline. He is borne of the Baron and Saffron lines, once two great houses. For those of our great people who fantasise about purity of magic, that it provides one with a certain honour and strength which can keep us safe and secure, the unification of our two lines would be perfection.” I caught Francis’ eye before he glanced away sharply. I turned to Sebastien, his mouth a thin line. Got you.
“However, such perfection might be worth keeping secret if, for example, you had another power combination in mind. I have shown you the clear signs that Lord Dubois was not murdered in the brutal way the defendant is accused of. I have shown you clear evidence of allegiance between the coroner and your prosecutor. I ask you this, who has the power to draw the oxygen from a person to the point of their demise? I ask, who would lose the most if I were joined with Griffin Stormwhite in magical and High Matrimony? And I ask you this, who would be left standing should you find the defendant guilty. Whose power at Court, power some regard as more righteous than that of our King, would be reinforced and possibly expanded with the removal of the defendant and my marriage to the only remaining worthy candidate? The truth, indeed, is at your feet.” I concluded. I crossed my fingers and prayed that I had said enough. My fingers didn’t untangle until I was summoned back into the chamber four hours later.
“Do you have a unanimous verdict?” My father asked Duke Dubois.
“We do, Your Grace.” He replied.
“How do you find the defendant?” My father asked. My hands shook and my heart thrust against my ribs.
“Guilty, Your Grace.”
I lurched in front of Griffin. I screamed and shouted, pleading with my father. Guards removed me and chained his hands, dragging him from the room. I hurled myself at Sebastien, nobody dared challenge me or risk my father’s wrath by touching his daughter. Blood streamed down my hands as I struck Sebastien multiple times. The room quaked with my emotion and the outside world turned midnight black. Destruction? I was about to bring Hell back to the surface.
The execution was scheduled for nightfall. I had three hours until another man was sent to his death for daring to compete for my hand. Despite Griffin’s disinterest in me and our limited time together, he was innocent. He did not deserve to die. Tears of frustration stained my cheeks as a nursemaid gently wrapped my bruised knuckles in white bandages. I winced as she tied the knot.
“Apologies, Your Highness.” She flinched with open palms.
“I’m sorry.” I apologised. Her fear dug into my chest. This is what I had done. This is what my Court thought was coming, my ‘new era’.
“Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but I thought you were incredibly brave. Standing up to the Duke like that took real strength. Men have stomped all over us for too long, it’s about time a woman showed them what true power looked like.” She smiled sheepishly.
“Thank you. If only it had been enough.” I sighed,
“It was the beginning, Your Highness. It’s not over until you say it is. This is your Court, not his.” She stood up and dusted down her apron. She was right.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Helena, Your Highness.” She replied.
“Well, Helena, would you mind doing me a favour?” I smiled. I had three hours to end this properly.
I stood between my mother and father on the balcony that overlooked the east courtyard. Francis and Sebastien stood to my father’s side. I avoided Francis’ hand and gaze as he attempted to plead with me. Below us stood the crowd of spectators that had gathered in the gallery. Some held fruit and rocks, poised to disgrace Griffin once more. They fell silent as he was led out by the guards. The executioner, dressed in black with a blood red hood covering his face, pushed a stool under the rope noose. The High Priest waited to give him his last rites. I watched in silence. I prayed and hoped and chastised myself for being so naive. Griffin stepped to the noose.
“Any final words?” The executioner called, inciting jeers and hisses from the crowd.
“Yes. Your Royal Highness, I’d like to ask for my gift back.” He shouted up to me. The glaze had lifted from his eyes and he even appeared to smile. My parents stared at me, mouths twisted in fury. I threw a smooth onyx stone down to the courtyard. Griffin caught it. In one swift motion he jumped down from the stool and cast the stone across the stage.
“Guards! Stop him at once!” Sebastien shouted. Guards moved in on Griffin.
“Guards you will halt.” I spoke. They froze. “They are my guards, not yours.” I added, eyeing Sebastien. My mother stifled a laugh and my father coughed. The light of the realm was shining tonight.
Smoke filled the air around the executioner and crowd. Slowly, it morphed into a human figure, chestnut curls and a strong jaw, as wide as he was tall. My heart sank and leapt, breaking and healing in a cycle of pain and joy I struggled to control. Henri.
The crowd was a swarm of screams and gasps, some applauded and some fainted. I couldn’t take my eyes from Henri. He smiled his humble smile and a tear fell onto my cheek.
“Don’t cry, Eleri.” His voice was as kind as ever.
“I’m so sorry.” I whimpered.
“Good to see you old friend.” Griffin’s voice reverberated around the courtyard. “You have caused quite the stir and we need you to resolve it.” He was enchanting, the whole Court swayed to his lilted notes.
“I hate to be so crass, but would you mind pointing out your killer?” He danced around the stage as a performer would before his final trick. Henri hesitated before pointing in my direction. I flinched before I realised where his eyes fell.
“It was the Duke.” He said. His voice was filled with melancholy, he wasn’t even angry at the very end.
“Nonsense! This is an illusion! A party trick to save himself! We can’t possibly believe him!” Sebastien cried out. Courtiers mumbled in agreement and my parents added, “how do we know for sure?”
“Henri, tell us something I would not know. Something, perhaps, that only a special someone might have told you.” Griffin wore a smug smile. They both looked to me.
“Tell them my favourite bedtime story as a girl.” I called. Only my parents knew the answer, them and Henri.
“The First Sirens. The story of the Caeli mother and daughter taken by the sea.” He replied, warmth in his voice. My parents mouths fell open.
“Guards!” I shouted. “Arrest Duke Alexander immediately. Take him to the dungeons. Release Mr Stormwhite.” Nobody hesitated. This was my Court, not his.