A row of archers lined up on the far side of the field and waited for their cue. Helene sheathed her sword and the crowd fell silent. The archers nocked their arrows, took aim, and let the arrows fly. Helene's eyes lit up a brilliant yellow as she summoned her Sky Dragongift. The air around her shimmered with heat and her form appeared to twist and dance, even as she stood unmoving in the center of the field. The first arrow raced toward her head, aimed precisely at a spot between her eyes. It burst into flame and fell to the ground in a pile of ashes without even touching her. All around Helene, arrows lit up in flame and disintegrated into ash. She remained as still as ever. The final arrow dissolved into ash, and Helene exhaled slowly. With a flourish, she unsheathed her sword. As she did, the straw dummies that littered the field caught fire. She thrust her sword skyward, and the flames on the field roared to life and stretched skyward with her. The crowd let out an exuberant cheer at the spectacle.
Elaina sighed. "She's such a show off." The words were critical, but it was obvious that Elaina admired her sister.
"She's incredible," I said. I found myself equally in awe of Helene's Dragongift. "The arrows were already a feat, but to light so many fires simultaneously and control their strength is truly special."
"The Sky Dragon's blessing you prayed over her must have worked." Elaina smiled at me. I arched an eyebrow. The princess was young, but not young enough to still believe in dragons as any more than folklore. It took me a moment to realize she was saying it for my benefit. Those of us who lived in the Houses knew that dragons were merely symbolic of the powers we had been born with, but the less educated took the stories literally. The princess thought I was a servant, and must have assumed I believed. It was a surprising gesture of empathy from a House known to look down on such frivolity. Something in my expression must have seemed off. Elaina frowned. "You don't believe?" she asked.
"Should I? They sound made up to me." I retorted. Even disguised as a servant, I didn't want her to think me a simpleton.
Elaina tilted her head, as if examining me. "The famed diplomacy of House Ars does not extend to its workers, I see.”
"The famed logic of House Mentis couldn't possibly leave room for giant monsters that no one has ever seen," I retorted.
Elaina burst out laughing. "The wisest of us know that there is much in the world that remains unseen." She shrugged. "For example, none of us know what exists outside the kingdom."
"The Dark Beyond means death to anyone who steps outside the borders," I countered. "Nothing survives out there."
"That we're aware of," Elaina shot back. "But if the Sky Dragons can siphon the sun and the Ocean Dragons can breathe water into ice, surely they can survive the Dark Beyond."
She had a point, but I didn't want to concede. "Well, if they're so powerful, why do they live out there? Why not just take over the Kingdom?"
Elaina hesitated for a moment. I felt a small moment of victory, but it was immediately crushed when I saw a triumphant smile creep across her face. "You're thinking from a human standpoint. Clearly dragons prefer the fire and ice of the Dark Beyond. We don't have enough resources in the Kingdom for them to live comfortably."
I groaned. "Fine, you win. Dragons are real."
She stifled a giggle, "I doubt it."
"What?" My jaw dropped. "Just a second ago, you were arguing that they exist."
Elaina nodded, "And you provided me with a lovely debate. I appreciate the exercise." I felt a flush of embarrassment creep into my face. Typical Mentis.
"Princess Elaina," a strong voice rung out from below the gallery. I looked over the railing to see Ciaran. Of course he knew her name.
"High King Ciaran!" Elaina smiled and waved.
"Not quite yet," he replied, bowing his head modestly. "Your sister's trial was impressive. Has she returned? I'd like to extend my congratulations to her."
"She's probably retired to her room by now," Elaina said. "I can pass the message along."
Ciaran smiled and offered a slight bow. "It would be an insult to you to treat you as a messenger, Princess." My brother had managed to both compliment Elaina and demand a face-to-face meeting with Helene in the same breath. All while being perfectly polite.
"Come up here, then," Elaina replied. "I'll go see if she's ready to entertain a guest."
"I appreciate it," Ciaran ascended the staircase and sat beside me. We both avoided eye contact.
I waited for Elaina to leave before speaking. "I'm sorry."
"No, I should be the one apologizing," he murmured.
"What?" I was almost too stunned to speak. Almost.
"I'm sorry. I know this has been hard on you, Cally." He reached down and began to twist the ring on his finger. "I've been trying to be good, but the truth is, I'm scared. Princess Helene has shown her worth, but the Seven Houses chose me without a trial. I haven't proven that I'm enough."
"Of course you're enough." I laughed bitterly. "Besides, it's not like they had a lot of options."
Ciaran sighed and his perfect posture sagged. "Please don't say that. I know this ruins your chance of ever joining the High Court."
"That's the last thing I want," I folded my arms across my chest. "You know that." I sighed and allowed myself to look Ciaran in the face. "I just… I'm going to miss you. You'll be in the High Court, and I'll have to take on all your duties once you're gone. What if we're too busy to see each other?"
"Oh, Cally," Ciaran dropped all pretense and wrapped his arms around me in a warm hug. "I would never let that happen. We'll find a way," he promised. "We-"
"High King!" Elaina burst into the gallery. If she saw me pull away from Ciaran's embrace, she didn't mention it, but the look of distress in her eyes made me think the scene hadn't even registered in her mind.
"Princess!" Ciaran immediately returned to his royal self. "What's wrong?"
"My sister-" Elaina sobbed, trying not to choke on her words. "She's been murdered."