In the days following the attempted execution, Court was abuzz with gossip and laughter. I had redecorated much of the Palace, lining portraits with silver and gold leaves and placing bouquets of lilies, peonies, and roses in all pastel colours throughout the Hall of Ancients. Bouquets of midnight blue roses were flown in from the forests of the Northern Realms and turned into sculptures in the throne room. My mother and I turned the ceiling in the throne room into a night sky much like in the Athenaeum. I had the initials HD inscribed on the doors into the library and commissioned Henri’s portrait to hang in the gallery I had newly designed. Although Griffin could not keep him with us for long, and many feared what his abilities meant about the Afterlife, I would honour Henri for the rest of my days. Those days were spent mainly in the Glasshouse with my ladies. I liked to spend time alone even more since the Trials ended. People pestered me about the Duke’s fate and my choice of suitor but I had no intention of divulging my plans.
“I was told I might find you here.” Griffin’s voice pulled me from my plans for the Summer Gala Ball. My ladies paused as I stood to greet him.
“Here I am.” I gestured lazily to my surroundings. My ladies watched intently.
“How is the planning?” He awkwardly glanced at the sheets of parchment scattered across the glass table. The table took up the majority of the room, pairs of my ladies stationed at each corner, task in hand.
“It’s fine.” I nodded. “Griffin, I meant to thank you for helping me arrest the Duke.” My eyes cast to the floor. “I couldn’t have done it without you.” I added. Guilt pervaded my mind, turning the apologetic monologue I had prepared into fog.
“I know, it’s almost as if you needed me.” His silver eyes danced with smug glee.
“Almost.” I shot back. His smile faded.
“Well, I should probably go pack my bags for exile.” He sighed melodramatically.
“Wait, what? What did my father do?” I rushed to close the gap between us, stopping inches from him. He laughed.
“Nothing. I just figured if the Light of the Realm doesn’t need me, who will?” He winked. Eavesdropper. My cheeks flushed.
“What need could an uneducated, sheltered, wickedly powerful Princess have for the likes of you?” I smiled.
“Hey, I never said that was you. I said that’s what I heard. At least I told you what I knew about you.” He laughed, arms raised in surrender. My smile faded as his words held sincerity.
“Griffin, I am so sorry.” I said.
“If you’re after forgiveness then it’s going to be tricky. There is probably only one thing you can give me.” He walked slowly around me, his eyes on the ceiling in mock conspiracy.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Admit you need me.” He stopped in front of me, smiling.
“What?” I tilted my head.
“You heard. Admit that you, Her Royal Highness, Princess d’Elysia, heir to the throne and light of the realm, need me.” His smile was breaking into a grin as he watched me squirm.
My mind twisted and turned over the past few weeks. I recalled my mother’s words. Arresting the Duke united a whole realm against the Crown. Without the Dubois support and Griffin’s power we were vulnerable.
“Fine, I need you. Happy?” I rolled my eyes.
“For now.” He replied.
“So, you’ll stay?” I asked. He shrugged in response.
“I can’t wait to see what you have planned for the Duke.” He said as he walked away, waving. I returned to my planning.
The Gala Ball was a week away and required a certain aesthetic. My parents had tasked me with hosting it as an apparent distraction from causing further disruption at Court. Without the Duke’s influence tainting his decisions, my father had managed to secure trade agreements between Realms that ensured both security and prosperity. My mother was working hard to soften the ruffled feathers in her homelands but very few Alexanders would hear her out. She wrote up to twenty letters a day pleading with distant relatives to side with the Crown, but nobody could see past the Duke’s arrest. She had become even harsher towards me in the recent days; refusing to speak to me unless it was about an official matter. I doubted she cared for her distant uncle, but she clearly had no faith in myself or my father’s ability to hold the throne.
“Your Royal Highness.” A tall messenger stood behind me. He bowed sharply when I rose to greet him.
“Yes?” I replied.
“Your mother, the Queen, has requested your attendance in her apartments.” His fingers tangled and twisted with each other until one almost turned blue waiting for my response.
“Thank you.” I said.
“Immediately.” He added. His cheeks flushed as my eyebrows raised. I waited, motionless, before he scurried away. The war between the Queen and I was about to draw a line down the centre of the Palace.
My mother stood at her window facing the Shadow Mountains in the distance. Her slim, elegant silhouette disguised her temperament well. I stepped inside and shut the door behind me wordlessly. She remained in position for a few minutes before turning to face me.
“I thought someone should notify you of the current state of affairs. With your father’s absence, that responsibility has fallen to me.” She sighed as she sank into a long settee at the foot of her canopy bed. She signaled for me to join her.
“Where is father?” I asked as I sat next to her.
“He is holding a summit in Campanile. He wanted to meet the other Patriarchs away from the Palace.” Her words held no emotion.
“I see.” I mirrored her neutrality, letting her lead.
“The Alexanders and the Caeli magicians of the Eastern Realms have ignored my letters. For now we are at a stalemate. If we execute the Duke, they will declare war. If they declare war, we would have to execute the Duke. Either way, we risk making him a martyr.” She said.
“What does father want to do?” I asked.
“He wants to avoid war.” She replied.
“By uniting the other three Realms against the East? Surely that would incite them further?” I asked.
“You say this as if we have other options.” Her eyes shot daggers between mine.
“I don’t understand what you want from me.” I stated.
“Unfortunately, it appears that, despite our best efforts, you have made every move to defy us. Your father is hard at work preparing for civil war, I am stuck here trying to prevent my family from taking us down, and you sit downstairs in your pretty dress drawing mask designs and flirting with Griffin Stormwhite. What I want from you is simple. I want you to finish what you started. I want you to take your place as heir to this kingdom and help your family survive.” She sighed. I dodged her snide remark about Griffin.
“You asked me to plan the ball, I thought you wanted me out of sight.” I kept my voice steady.
“Because I thought if you hosted the biggest social event of the Court season, our people might see you as less of a force and more of a princess.” She took my hands into her lap, pulling me closer to her.
“What do you mean, a force?” I asked.
“We never told you because we wanted to forget. We wanted the whole world to forget.” She said.
“Forget what? What did I do?” My voice rose with fear.
“You didn’t do anything!” Her eyes flashed with concern. “Your power. It is something the world hasn’t seen before. Celestial magicians are ancient, the powers of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars are known to us all. When your father inherited his parents’ solar and lunar gifts and I was blessed with celestial magic, we were betrothed in a bid to consecrate the purest d’Elysian magic. We thought that you would simply have our powers and be like the rest of us. We didn’t realise that nobody had done it before.” Horror and apology pushed tears from her eyes.
“Mother, I don’t understand.” I reached to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She grasped my hands tighter and continued.
“When your powers were Awakened, the sky fell and the Sun blocked out the Moon. I know you think the stories are just melodramatic, but they are true. No magician, not even the first d’Elysian’s, has held all three powers at once. You are stronger than any other magician, and with that power comes a vulnerability. I know you feel it. The pain of Henri’s death, the hatred you bear the Duke. The connection you have found with Griffin and your inability to love Francis.”
“I’m Dark.” I concluded.
“No, my dear, your father is right when he calls you the Light of the Realm.” She patted my hands with reassurance.
“Then what is it? What am I?” I asked.
“They call you Heaven-sent. The High Priestess claims that you were imbued by the Gods and Goddesses themselves to carry out their will. You are vulnerable to human emotion because your very soul isn’t human and it finds it difficult to cope inside a human body with a human heart. Many different magicians have had varying explanations but they can all only agree on one thing – your power will either destroy us or render us infallible. The people were terrified of you, so we made them forget. We cast charms and auras, wiped memories and reprinted the press. Not every magician is vulnerable to that kind of power and the rumours began again before the Trials.” Tears splashed our fingers as we huddled together.
“Is that why I am connected to Griffin, because he is d’Elysian?” I sniffed.
“We think so. We think he is what the Ancients called a Vita magician; one with power over life and death. He is rare, his parents’ darkness may well have created a whole new thread of magic. Vita magicians haven’t been known since the Gods walked with us.” She wiped tears from my eyes and replaced my hands in my lap.
“The kingdom will fear you. They might not trust you. If the Caeli magicians have their way, they will convince the people to depose us. I need you to stand with us. You are our last hope.” She sobbed.
“But if I am Heaven-sent, what do the Gods and Goddesses want me to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Her chest heaved and she sank back into her seat.
We sat in silence for the remainder of the afternoon. Servants came and went, bringing tea and messages. We ignored the rest of Court and silently prayed for answers. I anxiously awaited my father’s return.
Later that evening, I found Griffin lurking outside my door. “Meditating again?” I asked, smiling.
“Can we talk?” His face was inanimate. I gestured for him to follow me inside.
He whistled at the grandeur of my tower and sank into an armchair positioned opposite my bed. The sun was falling behind the trees, garnishing the sky with amber and rose. I removed my tiara and the outer skirt of my dress, revealing harem trousers Amira had sent me from Noivo. His eyes widened at my attire.
“Don’t tell the commons.” I winked. He shook his head but failed to smile. “What’s wrong?” I asked, sitting opposite him.
“I heard your father is holding a summit tonight.” He said.
“You manage to hear a lot.” I observed.
“Meditation. It helps.” He tapped his temple but his faint smile didn’t reach his eyes.
“Griffin.” I prompted.
“What am I?” His eyes gazed up at me and I saw a reflection of his young self.
“You’re a Vita magician; you have power over life and death. Your magic comes from d’Elysian heritage but your type of power is especially rare. It may be the result of your parents’ experiments with Dark Magic.” The words tumbled out matter-of-factly. He nodded.
“So, I’m not Dark?” He asked.
“No. I don’t think it works by inheritance.” I replied.
“And what are you?” He asked. I repeated what my mother had told me, he sat up straight in shock.
“No wonder they don’t want the two of us together.” He said.
“If I kill the Duke, it won’t be long before people view me as too dangerous and try to end my family. If I let the Duke live, he will return to the Mountains a hero and more vengeful than before.” I mused.
“That’s one way of looking at it.” Griffin looked at me with cunning.
“You have another perspective?” I asked.
“Well, I was just thinking that the Duke is only a problem if you let him become one. The same goes for Francis.” He suggested.
“I don’t think Francis is a threat. How do I stop the Duke becoming a problem?” I asked.
“Don’t let him leave. If he remains at Court then you can do as you please. A life for a life isn’t the only way to achieve justice.” He stated.
“What about Francis?” I asked.
“What about him?” He replied.
“He’s most dangerous where he can be influenced. He wouldn’t survive his family’s ambition in the Mountains and he clearly is a pawn at Court. Perhaps he deserves a new start.” I pondered the idea of sending him across the Siren’s Sea before remembering my mother’s words. I couldn’t let my emotions dictate my decisions.
“If I were you, I would reshuffle the deck. The world has its opinion of you, as it does Court and your parents. Change sparks change. If you want them to trust you, if you want them to see your true purpose, you need to let them in.” He stood without further conversation and bowed. He always had a flair for a dramatic exit.
I spent the following morning writing and sending letters across Asile and the border. I hadn’t heard from Amira since she sent her condolences about Henri. I feared that she wouldn’t be allowed to return until the situation at Court had settled; Noivo was renowned for having no time for unstable authorities. I sent messages to my parents and their advisors. I summoned the three Dukes to Court and arranged for Duke Alexander to be presented in the courtyard where he had been arrested. When the sun had reached its highest point, I held Court for the first time.
I stood on the executioner’s stage, the sun hot on my pale skin as it hung directly above us. Duke Alexander stood to my left; hunched over in ragged grey clothes with an uneven beard and large black circles under his eyes. His hands were tied in anti-magic sealed rope and a large soldier’s hand grasped his upper arm. My parents stood on our royal balcony, accompanied by the Duchesses of the Northern, Western, and Southern Realms. Their husbands stood separately below them, at the foot of the stairs that led to onto the stage. Courtiers filled the courtyard, fighting for space under parasols and air from fans. I patiently waited for my final guests as Griffin and Francis appeared to my right, unguarded.
“Lords, Ladies, and courtiers of Asile. I welcome you to Court.” I smiled down on my people. Many cheered and waved, others shuffled awkwardly and some scowled at my presence. As they quietened, I stepped to the edge of the stairs.
“Fear has goaded members of our great Court for longer than any of us remember. When we are scared, we act quickly and without thought. When we are scared, we are driven to hatred and violence. Kill or be killed becomes our mentality. Lord Henri Dubois was a man of honour, integrity, and love. He did not deserve to die. Fear drove his killer to use him as a piece on a game board. But the true object of that fear was not a man, it was not even arguably a human. It was me. I have been told that you and the people of this great world will fear me and wish me harm if they are told the truth. Many of you have heard prophecies and rumours of my power, my strength. I would like to afford you the opportunity to hear the truth from myself.” I paused as the hum of voices rose below me. Eyes snapped away from mine as I met them. Guilt and fear ravaged my crowd.
“I have been declared by the High Priestess to be Heaven-sent. I am d’Elysian, and I am designed by the Gods and Goddesses. I was imbued with power to enable me to serve them and their greater purpose. I was also anointed by them to serve you, when the time comes, as your Queen. I do not plan to deviate from either role. My power is unseen and unknown, but that does not make me a force for Dark Magic nor does it make me a threat to our great world. The only things I wish to threaten, are those who seek to bring harm to the kingdom we have built. We have fought many wars and lost many lives to fear. It will not happen again while I live.” Cheers and applause forced me to wait. The royal guard, made up of the best Caeli soldiers, smiled. The air was light and the atmosphere relaxed.
“That is why I will not be executing Duke Alexander. He has committed an abominable crime, one borne of fear and hatred, and his cause will cease today. He will not be returning to the Shadow Mountains. He will remain at Court, to work alongside me as a member of the Asilian Council. Each Realm has provided their leader to be a part of this Council. Dukes Dubois, Carazza, and Abelia will work alongside us to ensure this country serves all Realms and provinces equally. His nephew, Lord Alexander, will be part of a younger Council that will serve our wider interests. Lords and Ladies of each Realm will be nominated to serve alongside him in liaising with our neighbouring nations. We have isolated ourselves from threats and in doing so have fallen behind in progress and power.” My voice was crisp and clear over the silent crowd. They followed every syllable as I announced our future.
“Finally, a matter you have all been eager to hear of, my engagement. I will not be entering into any betrothals or marriages for the forseeable future. My allegiance is with that of my parents and our kingdom. When I ascend to the throne, I pray that my Heavenly duties will enable me to find love and prosperity and produce an heir to continue my vision. Until then, Mr Stormwhite will remain at Court as my Royal Advisor.” I concluded my announcements and motioned for the guard to remove Sebastien from the stage. The three Dukes followed his exit and my crowd stood still, awaiting my instructions. I looked to my mother who smiled down at me. She held my father’s hand as he nodded to me. Griffin stepped to my side and flicked a hand to shoo Francis back inside.
“The Summer Gala Ball is to be held a week from today. It will be a masquerade and you are to dress for a Realm you do not belong to. The best costume will win a grand prize of a stay in one of the royal chateaux in the Realm of their choice. Good luck!” I dismissed my people and turned to face Griffin. We stood alone on the platform.
“Royal Advisor, eh?” He grinned.
“They need to learn not to fear you.” I shrugged, returning his smile.
“Why? I’m just a nomad from the North with d’Elysian magic. I don’t care what they think.” His smile didn’t fade and his chest puffed out. I hesitated.
“Why do you?” He added, his smile now a confused line.
“I don’t.” I replied.
“You don’t really even need me here, it would probably look better if I was out of sight after your revelations.” He pondered the situation. I held my breath, trying to find a reason to leave.
“Unless…” He took a step back and shot his eyes up and down, taking me in fully. I felt my skin burning under the sun and bit my lip.
“Would you rather I didn’t preserve your life? It would have cost me a great deal less!” I shot at him. He grinned again.
“It would have. Interesting.” He mused.
“Stop it.” I barely prevented my voice from whining.
“Stop what?” He laughed.
“Just, stop it.” I walked past him and headed back into the Palace.
“No wait, come back!” He rushed up and stood in front of me, blocking my exit. We stood under the royal balcony yet my skin felt no cooler.
“So, does the victor of the Trials get to accompany Her Royal Highness to the Royal Summer Gala Ball?” His batted eyelashes and half-bow mocked me.
“Only if he takes it seriously.” I pouted, irritated by his amusement.
“I will if you will.” He held his palm out.
“What do you mean? It’s my ball.” I pointed out, staring at his hand.
“I mean, that I want to escort you as Griffin, your chosen victor, not your Royal Advisor and only normal person your age.” He rolled his eyes, his hand not moving. Realisation dawned. He wanted me to choose him.
“Fine. But you better dress for the occasion. I’ll have an appointment made with the tailors.” I ended the conversation there before I exploded from humiliation and the other hundred emotions coursing around me.
The week leading up to the ball was a blur of decoration and fittings and ladies squealing at the hand-me-downs I gave them. I saw Griffin on two separate occasions for a few moments, his new role had him pulled all over the city and I had been deliberately avoiding him. When the night finally arrived, I could barely believe the sight before me. The Grand South Hall had been decorated in every colour of the sunset, with flames reaching to the ceiling as firedancers paraded across the stage. The floor was lit with blues and greens of the Sirens’ Sea and aerialists floated through silks and hoops of silvers and navy. Bouquets of the brightest colours spilled over every table and diamonds encrusted everything from cutlery to uniforms to masks to candelabras. The whole of Asile was in one room. My ladies each dressed in earthy tones, pranced and fluttered like nymphs in Henri’s honour. Their masks were made of Abelian wood and each was decorated with a blue rose, my flower. I stood outside the door, my ladies in front of me giggling with excitement. The room was full of masked guests floating together, mixed and mingled as true Asilians. My escort threatened to make me late and as I turned to demand I enter alone, he appeared. He was a sight. His white hair decorated with stardust, his mask midnight blue around his silver eyes. He wore a suit that was almost black, tailored to every inch of him. I caught my breath as I noticed his hands held a small stone. No, it was a seed.
“Your Royal Highness.” He bowed with sincerity.
“Griffin.” I smiled.
He took my palm and turned it upward, placing the seed in it. He waved a hand over mine and the seed grew instantaneously. An emerald stalk gave way to a pale blue bud that flowered into a beautiful rose. Stardust speckled across each petal as they grew tips of white. I gasped.
“You look, enchanting.” His voice was softer than usual, almost calm.
“You look very handsome.” My cheeks burned as I chastised myself. He didn’t seem to notice my awkwardness.
“Shall we?” He gestured to me, wrapping my arm around his, and then to the guard who announced us.
We twirled and drank for hours as each of the elements blurred around the room. I didn’t leave his arms as we brushed past guests and collected glasses of Vera d’Elysia. I felt drunk and excited, but mostly I felt free.
“So, how did your parents take your decisions?” Griffin asked as the music slowed.
“They were impressed. They said I was very demographic.” I slurred.
“I think you mean democratic.” He laughed as he exchanged my glass for water.
“That’s what I said!” I frowned.
“Well I’m glad. So long as they don’t mind your new advisor.” He winked.
“No! They like you almost as much as me.” I smiled up at him, delirious.
“Oh well that is an honour.” His eyes were big as if he were talking to a child.
“It is!” I dismissed his patronising words. “Many a man have risked reputation and life for the heart and hand of the Princess d’Elysia!” I almost stomped my foot to emphasise the gravity of my mother’s words.
“So you admit it.” He stopped our dance, pulling me closer into him. My hand left his and found the back of his neck as he touched my face.
“Admit what?” I didn’t know if his power could defeat my drink, but I suddenly felt coolly sober.
“That I have your heart.” He replied.
“I thought you weren’t here for it. Only Henri was here for a person. For me.” I cast my eyes down to my chest, where his necklace lay.
“True. But then you saved my life. The girl I saw in that chamber wasn’t some stuck up princess who was being forced to make alliances. She was a force to be reckoned with, and she chose to use that force to save me. I said it when we first met, I didn’t want you to be like the stories.” My mouth opened at his words.
“Well she might not even be able to love.” I remembered my mother’s theory on my soul.
“Why must you answer everything by disregarding it?” His hand rested on my chin, tilting it up, forcing my eyes to meet his.
“Because things aren’t up to me. So there isn’t any point in entertaining what I want.” I admitted.
“I think you’ve proven that everything is up to you. Don’t be goaded by fear.” He smiled as my own words hit me in the face.
“It’s not up to me if I get your heart in return.” The words fell out of my mouth too quickly.
“You say that as if you didn’t already take it.” He replied.
“Oh.” Was all I could say. My heart jumped and my lips curved but I was in unfamiliar territory.
We danced the rest of the night in comfortable silence. I forgot the possibilities of war and turmoil, and I forgot my own fate. The Trials had tested us all and revealed truths we had not known we needed. I did not feel ready to be queen, and I did not feel ready to be a wife. Whether my power would destroy us or save us was incomprehensible, but I knew that when the time came for me to decide the fate of my kingdom, I would have no difficulty in finding strength and courage in those I loved.