The early morning light coming through the curtains woke Griffa up early the day of the ball. She stretched and looked in the bed next to her to see Ansel fast asleep. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes with her hand and then stared at Ansel. He looked so young and carefree in his sleep. Usually there were worry lines on his forehead and a constant weariness around his eyes. Lying in her bed, he looked at peace.
Griffa reached out and touched his chin, feeling his early morning stubble. She caressed his cheek softly, careful not to disturb him. She knew she should wake him and tell him to go back to his room before everyone work up, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. It seemed most already knew of their sleeping arrangements anyway. There was nothing scandalous about it. He merely came to her bed and slept over the covers. They barely even touched except for holding hands at times.
She knew she should be confused and perhaps furious. Griffa and Ansel had danced around each other for the past year. They were moments of kisses, conversations, and shared glances. She had told him how she felt. He had told her of where he stood, yet here he was in her bed.
She felt like their relationship had changed lately. It should be no surprise as their relationship changed much in the years they had known each other. She had always loved him. She knew it, but that loved and changed. It had grown. She had loved him as the boy who let her bother him. She loved him as the young man who stood by her side as she grieved her father. Now she loved him as a man she wanted to share everything with.
She knew he wasn’t perfect. She knew he had a past filled with mistakes and indiscretions, but she didn’t care. She had made her own mistakes; she had her own faults. She didn’t judge him for his past or his shortcomings. She loved him completely for who he was, all of it. She had tried to make him understand, but she knew she could never argue him into it. He would have to realize it on his own.
She wouldn’t give up. She believed he loved her even if he couldn’t admit it. Even if he never did, she would never love anyone like she loved Ansel. She didn’t know if she would be able to settle for less than him. She knew she needed to have children eventually. The position and duty of her family demanded it. If he never came around, she would have to find someone to marry. She could still find a way to be happy with friendship, her work, and a family, but she really wanted him.
Griffa spent several moments just watching Ansel sleep. She watched his chest rise up and down with his breath. She was so at peace that she felt her own eyes grow heavy. She was almost asleep when she heard Ansel whisper her name. Fearing he was having a bad dream, she moved closer to him and put her arm over him.
“I’m here, Ansel. I’m here,” Griffa said softly.
He opened his eyes slightly and smiled. He leaned forward and lightly brushed her lips with his own, and then closed his eyes again. Griffa sighed, a small smile on her lips as she shut her own eyes to rest a bit more.
The day would be a busy one. The household ate breakfast together and then set off the for the annual Summer gathering at the temple. They crowded in with everyone else in the village in the large room full of benches. Griffa sat between Max and Ansel. She whispered to Max and Issa, who was sitting next to Max, all the things that the clerics were doing during the ceremony. The ceremony lasted an hour in which they sang and prayed to the gods for a safe summer and a bountiful harvest.
They walked out of the chapel, Issa on Max’s arm while Ansel walked between Griffa and Nora who had come along. They were met close to the statue of the Gods by Desmona.
“I wanted to apologize for my behavior at the duels, Gryphon. I should not have lashed out after ours was over,” said Desmona with a straight face.
“I accept,” said Griffa though she wasn’t sure she meant it. “I hope your dress was not ruined.”
“If it was, it is no matter. I have plenty,” said Desmona waving a hand. “I hope I will see all of you at the ball tonight.” She left going to join her father and mother.
“I bet Hector put her up to that,” said Ansel. “He wants no quarrel with you Griffa.”
“And I want none with him. His daughter is a different matter. If she stays away from you, then I will let her be. If she tries to hurt you again, Ansel, then I won’t be held accountable for my actions,” proclaimed Griffa, fiercely.
“You don’t need to worry about me, Griff,” said Ansel. “I became immune to her charms long ago.”
Griffa looked up at the statue of the gods. She studied the blank face of the Sister. She reached out and touched the statue’s bare foot and closed her eyes. She felt her magic flow through her veins. She listened to the quiet song it made as her magic came to the surface and surrounded her.
Griffa opened her eyes to see Ansel and Max watching her. She took her hand off the foot of the sister and gazed up at the statue.
“I ask for a peaceful summer for us to prepare to do what needs to be done for the kingdom. I ask protection for all those I love from the false gods and their followers. I ask for guidance to know what is needed of me. I thank the gods for the many blessings they have given me. Above all, I ask for the rightful ruler of Regventus to claim the throne and usher in a time of peace.”
Ansel walked up to Griffa’s side and took her hand. He raised it to his lips and stared at her. She couldn’t quite read the intense look he was giving her. He released her hand and shook his head as if to clear it.
“Let’s head home,” Ansel whispered as he offered Griffa his arm
Max gathered Issa and Nora, and they walked home together. After lunch, Griffa and the other ladies excused themselves to get ready while Max and Ansel said they would go outside and practice.
Griffa went to her room and spent some time trying to read and think. Ansel had said he wanted to escort her to the ball. He had also said he had something to talk to her about, but he never did say what it was. Perhaps he would tell her tonight. She spent the rest of the afternoon taking a bath, dressing, and trying to charm her hair into something manageable. Her curls never did do what she wanted. Eventually Maybell came into check on her and offered to help her.
“Thank you, Maybell, I can never get this mess to do anything,” said Griffa sitting at her vanity and looking at Maybell in the mirror.
Maybell ran her fingers through Griffa’s hair and said, “Hush child, your hair is lovely, just like the rest of you. Now what shall we do.” Maybell waved her hands and worked with Griffa’s hair until it was half up in a bun with the rest of her curls running down Griffa’s back. “There, how’s that?”
“Wonderful! Thank you, Maybell! You work miracles,” said Griffa standing up. She was dressed in a lightweight dark blue gown that game off her shoulders. It fit her at her waste and then formed a skirt in ruffles down to the floor. She fastened a simple necklace with a jeweled falcon charm on her neck. “I hope this isn’t too simple for the ball.” Griffa looked at herself in the mirror.
“It’s lovely,” smiled Maybell “You don’t need a lot of finery to make you shine, Griffa.” Maybell took Griffa’s hand and led her over to the bed, sitting down with her. “I know I’m not your mother, but I have known and cared for you your whole life, and I want you to know if there is every anything you need, even if it’s just a chat, I’m here.”
Griffa leaned over and kissed Maybell’s cheek. “You mean so much to me, Maybell. I hope you know that. You don’t need to worry. I’m a grown woman.”
“I know you’re grown, but that won’t stop me from worrying.”
Griffa smiled and stood up from the bed. She and Maybell left together and walked down the stairs. Max, Issa, and Nora were standing to one side talking while Ansel waited at the bottom of the stairs looking very handsome in his usual protector’s tunic with black pants and boots. She walked down to meet him. He took her hand and led her to the door.
“Ansel, what about everyone else?” asked Griffa looking over at Max who noticed they were leaving.
“I said I was escorting you and everyone else could do what they want; I meant it,” said Ansel smiling.
“Aren’t you supposed to be keeping an eye on your king?” asked Griffa.
“Max is quite capable of defending himself for a moment. At least long enough for me to be able to get a few feet away from him.”
Griffa laughed, enjoying seeing Ansel relaxed and happy. They walked out the door and towards the village center while the others hurried to catch up.
The lawn behind the meeting hall was set up as it usually was for their festivals and parties. The back wall of the hall was open with food, drinks, and tables to sit at inside. Outside was lit by hundreds of magical candles floating around. Summer flowers and ribbons hung from trees. Music was already playing when they arrived, and Ansel led Griffa out onto the dance floor.
“Did I tell you how beautiful you look?” Ansel whispered as they danced.
“I don’t believe you did, but thank you,” answered Griffa. “I was afraid this dress would be too simple for the ball, but at least it’s comfortable.”
“It’s perfect,” said Ansel. His was gently rubbing her side with the thumb of his hand that was wrapped around her waist for the dance.
“Will you hide away tonight as usual?” asked Griffa quietly.
“No,” answered Ansel. “Unless you plan to do so. I would like to stay by your side.”
Griffa looked up at Ansel with a questioning look, but he only smiled at her. Griffa wasn’t sure what was happening, but she wasn’t going to question it. She leaned in closer to Ansel to finish their dance.
Griffa was having a wonderful time. She danced several times with Ansel, enough for people to give them looks. She danced twice with Max, and a few times with other men from the village. She chatted with Issa and Nora, and was pleased to see Nora dance several times. When he wasn’t dancing, Ansel barely left her side. He didn’t say much to her, but he was very attentive, fetching her drinks and food, asking her if she needed anything several times. Griffa didn’t know what to make of him.
Griffa had been keeping a sharp eye out for Marcus. When she would spot him, she would dance with Max or Ansel or go get a drink with Issa. She was hoping he would take a hint. Eventually she ran into Marcus’s father, Philo Quick while she was all alone as Ansel was dancing with Nora.
“Good evening, Gryphon. You look well,” said Philo giving her a small bow.
“Thank you, sir. I hope you are enjoying yourself.”
“Oh, yes, the summer festival is always a happy time. I enjoyed your duel the other day. You are quite a gifted sorceress. Your father taught you well,” said Philo taking a drink from his glass.
“Thank you again, sir. My father was very diligent with my training. Ansel was too. I am lucky to have had them both in my life.”
“Of course,” said Philo. “Have you talked to Marcus tonight? I know he was dying to speak with you.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure. We seem to keep missing one another,” replied Griffa looking around, hoping Marcus wouldn’t pop up.
“That’s a shame. Perhaps he could come by and see you tomorrow after lunch. Will you be home?” asked Philo.
Griffa thought it was strange that Philo was arranging Marcus’s calls, but perhaps he wanted to forward the Keene, Quick alliance. It would never happen, but she didn’t want to be rude. “We will be at home tomorrow if he calls. I will try not to be out working with Max during that time.”
“Good. I will let him know in case he doesn’t catch up with you tonight. Have a pleasant evening, Gryphon.” He bowed and left.
Griffa sighed deeply thinking of another awkward meeting with Marcus. Ansel and Nora came over as soon as the music stopped.
“What did Philo want?” asked Ansel.
“He wanted to know if I would be home tomorrow after lunch for Marcus to call on me. I should have thought of some excuse, but maybe I can put him off for good,” said Griffa.
“If you can’t, maybe I can,” replied Ansel. Griffa smiled at him as a man came and claimed Nora for the next dance.
“Would you like to take a walk, Griffa. Maybe get out of here for a second?” asked Ansel.
Griffa was a little surprised but was happy to get away from the crowd for a moment, not having to dodge Marcus. She took Ansel’s arm, and he led her out of the back lawn and past the temple to a pretty little grove of trees behind some shops. There were a few magical lights on poles here and the moon was bright enabling them to see one another. The stood by one of the trees.
“Griffa,” said Ansel as he got close to her, taking her hands. Griffa looked up at him. “Remember how I said I needed to talk to you the other day.”
“Yes, we never did get to have that conversation,” Griffa replied. She studied Ansel’s face. She noticed he looked nervous, and she worried at what he was going to say.
“I know, and I, well, I don’t know how to start this,” Ansel released her hands and walked away from her for a second.
“It can’t be that bad, Ansel. You’ve always been able to tell me anything. Just tell me what’s troubling you,” said Griffa walking closer to him.
Ansel turned to look at her. He reached out and stroked her cheek. Griffa felt her pulse quicken and her breathing become rapid. She hoped he wasn’t going to kiss her and run away again. She didn’t know if she could handle it.
“Griffa,” said Ansel tenderly, “I…” He was cut off by someone calling his name. It was Max. Ansel took his hand off of Griffa’s face. “Damn…”
“He’s over here, Max,” called Griffa, giving Ansel a questioning look.
Max came running up to them. “Ansel, you are needed. Hector Delis is looking for you. It seemed urgent.”.
Ansel nodded. He grabbed Griffa by the hand and walked with her back to the ball, Max following them. They found Hector easily.
“Ansel, we’ve had news,” said Hector as he met them at the edge of the party space. “There is someone who claims to have urgent information from Aurumist. They have contacted me by a message and want to meet with me outside of the East Village tomorrow at mid-day. I need you to take some protector guards with you tonight and make sure it’s safe. I will come tomorrow at the assigned time.”
Ansel nodded, “Let me go home and change, and I will gather some guards. We will leave from the gate of Abscon within the hour.” Hector thanked him.
“Griffa will you walk with me to the manor?” asked Ansel. Griffa nodded. “Max, gather Issa and Nora, and come home quickly. I want you all safe in the manor while I’m gone.” Max agreed and left to find the ladies.
Ansel hurriedly walked with Griffa to the manor. Ansel held her hand tight.
“Do you want me to come with you, Ansel? I don’t mind.”
“No, I need you to stay here and watch over the others. I should be back by early afternoon tomorrow.”
Griffa nodded, and they strode into the house. Ansel ran up to his room to change while Griffa paced in the entryway. Ansel came down the stairs just as the others were returning.
Ansel turned to Max, “Stay in the manor or on the grounds while I’m gone. I don’t think any enemies have any way to get into Abscon right now, but stay here just to be safe. If anything happens, don’t leave the house. I will be back tomorrow afternoon.”
Max nodded as Ansel put on his hat and walked out the door. Griffa followed after him.
“Ansel!” she called. He turned and waited for her to catch up. “Please be careful. Promise me you’ll be careful.”
Ansel looked at her intensely. “I promise, Griff. I’ll only be gone one night.”
Griffa smiled sadly at him and placed her hand on his cheek. Ansel kissed it and took it in his own. He looked at her intensely for one moment, before pulling her to him and kissing her. Griffa was shocked for one moment, but then she closed her eyes and threw her arms around his neck. She parted her lips and Ansel made a noise as he pulled her closer. He couldn’t seem to get her close enough. This kiss was unlike anything she had experienced. Griffa had been kissed several times by different men from around the kingdom, but none of them felt like this. It was as if the magic inside of her was ignited. She could feel Ansel’s magic swirl around her. She felt protected, powerful, and loved.
“Ansel,” whispered Griffa breathlessly as they broke apart slightly.
“Griffa, promise me you’ll stay safe. Please stay at the manor. Whatever happens, stay here,” said Ansel breathing hard, resting his forehead against hers.
“I promise,” said Griffa as Ansel kissed her again.
This kiss was just as intense as the first. Ansel brought his hands up to her face before burying his hands in her hair. Just when Griffa thought she might faint from the intensity of their kiss, Ansel pulled back and held Griffa close.
“I don’t want to leave you. It doesn’t feel right,” he whispered in her ear. He held her face in his hands gently and stroked her cheeks with his thumbs. “I have so many things to say to you.”
“But you have to go. It’s your duty. I’ll be here, Ansel, and I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Griffa quietly. She felt tears forming in her eyes.
Ansel quickly kissed her one more time. “Tomorrow, Griffa, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
With that he turned and walked swiftly towards Abscon’s entrance to meet with his guards and travel to the East Village. Griffa watched him go for a moment, not trusting her legs to work well enough to walk back inside the manor. She eventually steadied herself and walked to the front door. She closed it shut, making sure all the charms were in place. She went up the stairs to her room, wondering how she was going to sleep that night.
Griffa tossed and turned most of the night. She thought of Ansel and kept reliving their kisses in her mind. He didn’t take it back this time. He didn’t apologize or say he shouldn’t have done it. He had kissed her, more than once. He had said he had many things to say to her. Griffa was deliriously happy and worried at the same time. She prayed fervently to the gods to keep him safe. At some point in the early morning hours, she fell asleep.
The next morning seem to creep by. Griffa could barely eat breakfast. She tried to drill Max through some magical exercises, but her focus was so bad she just gave up. Everyone told her it would be alright. Ansel had been gone on meetings like this lots of times, but Griffa could not settle down.
She tried to be pleasant at lunch, but she was so distracted Max had to ask her a question five times, and she wasn’t sure she even gave a coherent answer. Issa tried to talk to her at one point after lunch in the parlor, but gave up when Griffa only stared at the fireplace. Griffa knew she was being rude, but she couldn’t help it. She was beyond distracted. She had forgotten about Marcus coming by until Jonthon showed him into the parlor. Marcus came in carrying a bouquet of bright flowers.
“Marcus,” she said jumping up. “I had almost forgotten you were coming by, please come in and join us.”
Marcus looked around at Max and Issa and said, “I was wondering if I could speak to you in private for a moment. It won’t take long. My father needs me home in twenty minutes.”
Griffa didn’t want to talk to him in private, but she wanted the meeting over with, so she agreed and led him to the little used music room. Marcus shut the door behind them as Griffa perched on the old sofa.
Marcus quickly got to his point. “Griffa, I know I’ve asked before, but I have to ask one more time. Is there any chance you could ever marry me?”
Griffa took a deep breath. She hated to cause him pain as he was an old friend of hers, but he needed to hear the truth. “No, Marcus, there isn’t. I value our friendship but that is it. I could never see us working as husband and wife.”
“And you’re sure? Can I ask why? Is there someone else?”
“It doesn’t matter if there is. I just don’t feel that way about you. You would get tired of me anyway.”
Marcus smiled sadly, “I doubt that Griffa, but if that is really how you feel, I ought to leave you alone.” He held out his bouquet of flowers. “Here take these as a symbol of friendship, then. I hope we are still friends.”
Griffa took the flowers, smiled and said, “Of course we are. I hope after a time you will visit us all again.” Griffa stood to see him out.
“I know my way; don’t trouble yourself. I need to be going. I hope whoever you end up with, deserves you.” He bowed and left the room.
“He does,” said Griffa to herself thinking of Ansel. She felt a little sad for Marcus. It seemed he really was fond of her. She was sure he would get over her soon enough.
Griffa looked at the pretty bouquet of flowers he had given her thinking she would take them to get some water when she noticed something odd about them. She saw a small red bulb pulsating in the middle. It seemed familiar to her, and she looked closer. Her blood ran cold as she remembered what it was.
It was a magical flower called last breath. It opened up before her eyes releasing its toxins into the air. Griffa jumped up and threw the bouquet into fireplace, sending a spell to blast them into flames before the toxins could spread in the house.
It was too late for her, though. She immediately started feeling the effect of the poison. She felt dizzy and sweaty. She tried to walk from the room to get help, to let someone know, but she fell to her knees. She tried crawling and calling out, but she couldn’t find her voice. Her nose started bleeding dark blood. She fell completely on her side. She gasped trying to take a deep breath, but her lungs were on fire. Her vision became very dim. She tried one more time to call out, but her yell for help came out only as a whisper. Before she blacked out her last thought was, she would never see Ansel again.