The crowd cheered for the princess of Mentis as she marched onto the field, and she coolly accepted the adoration with a single nod.
"She's going to pass," I jumped at the sound of a voice by my side.
A girl with the same straw blonde hair, but hers hung down to her back. She looked younger than the other one, too. Another princess of Mentis? "Miss?"
"Elaina." She glanced around and leaned in to whisper to me. "And that's my sister, Helene. She's going to pass and be named High Queen. I'm sure of it. Do you want to watch the trial from the Sky Dragon's gallery?"
"W-what?" I was caught off guard by her question. "Servants aren't allowed in there!"
She smiled, "You work in House Ars, right? I'll say you were sent to attend to my needs, and it would show very poorly on House Mentis to turn away such a gesture of diplomacy."
I stifled a smile. She was sneaky. "I would be honored," I replied.
Elaina strolled around the edge of the battle grounds, careful to maintain a casual air. I followed a few paces behind to maintain my ruse. "Are you proud of your master?" She turned abruptly, and I stumbled to keep myself from walking into her.
"High King Ciaran," she replied. "House Ars must be very proud of him. I've heard he's capable, smart, and very good looking."
"Ew." On reflex, I stuck my tongue out at the last phrase.
Elaina burst out laughing. "Many of the other competitors say they wouldn't mind pursing a romance with him, even if they aren't elevated to High Queen. But I don't see the appeal either, to be honest!"
Despite my initial reaction, I felt a bit of a sting at Elaina's words. "You don't think he's ugly, do you?"
"Of course not!" Elaina held her hands up in self-defense. "I mean no insult to your master. It's just that appearance has nothing to do with ability. To be interested in someone for their looks is entirely illogical."
I sighed. Right. House Mentis. Their best known sport was recreational debate. Logic was everything to them. I chose my next words with care. "I'm sure he is a fine looking man, but I don't think it would be right for a person in my position to look at him in such a manner." Nice. Truthful, but misleading at the same time.
Elaina accepted it the way I expected her to, and she resumed her stroll toward the Dragon's barracks. Each of the Houses of the Kingdom had their own castle to call home. In the shared territory, the Dragon's barracks acted as temporary living quarters for competitors. Princess Helene of House Mentis had defeated all her rivals in a series of increasingly difficult competitions. Today was her final trial: a display of her Dragongift. Once she passed, she'd be granted the title of High Queen and join my brother as leaders of the Seven Houses.
The Dragon's barracks had a balcony on the second floor that allowed members of royalty to watch the trial from a comfortable position. It had rather uncreatively been nicknamed the Sky Dragon's Gallery. A carving of a such a dragon loomed over the doorway – tribute to those who bore the Sky Dragongift the sun powers they wielded. A shadow under the statue shifted and I yelped. "What's wrong?" Elaina was surprised by my outcry. I pointed at the shadow just as a man dressed in black armor emerged from the darkness. Streaks of white highlighted his otherwise black hair. He appeared to have seen several decades worth of fights, and come out the winner in all of them.
"Who is that?" I whispered.
Elaina frowned. "I don't know. His armor isn't from any of the Seven Houses." The man strode behind the building calmly, not bothering to slow down for anyone else in the area. Elaina and I exchanged glances, but anything she was planning to say was cut off by a swell of cheers from the audience. "Oops! We have to hurry!" Elaina said.
I looked toward the field and saw Elaina's sister raising her sword towards the sun. The trial was about to begin.
Elaina and I raced up the stairs to get a seat in the Sky Dragon's Gallery. The guards at the entrance waved us in as soon as they saw her. We arrived in the gallery in time to see her sister mow down a series of straw dummies with her sword. The crowd clapped politely, but they all knew the first part was simply for show. The real trial was what came next.