Ansel sat down on the sofa staring at the empty fireplace in the parlor. It was late, and most of the house was in bed. He picked up his cup and took a long swig of wine. It had been a long week. Max’s training was going well, but there was much he still needed to learn. Ansel also had daily meetings with his guards.
There hadn’t been much news from other areas of the kingdom. That should have been comforting to him, but it just made him feel uneasy. He felt like they were perpetually waiting for something to happen. They seemed to be waiting for something to move things forward. He knew they weren’t ready. and Max needed more time to prepare. They needed to gather more forces and unite the magical folk, but this calm before the storm was unnerving to him.
Now he had Max’s party to worry about. He knew it was a good thing to celebrate a birthday. He was glad something good was going to happen after months of sorrow and worry, but Ansel wasn’t at his best at parties. He did not do well making polite, idle chat. At least it was there at the manor. He knew all the places to hide away in Keene manor.
He was sure Griffa would make him socialize a little, and he would be expected to toast Max. This party hadn’t even happened yet, and it already made him tired. He took another drink from his cup when Griffa walked in the room. She was wearing a light summer night gown and was carrying a large book.
“Oh, Ansel, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I couldn’t sleep and thought I might come down here and read, but I can go into the study,” Griffa said when she spotted him.
“No, sit in here, with me. You will not bother me,” reassured Ansel.
Griffa grinned at him and sat on a chair by the sofa. She opened up her book and started reading. Ansel studied her in the dying candlelight. Her eyes were bright with interest as she read her book, and her lips moved a little as she read. Occasionally she would tuck a stray curl that would not stay put behind her ear.
Ansel shifted in his seat as he watched her. Griffa looked alluring curled up in her simple night gown reading her book. He realized he wanted to touch that curl that kept falling her in her face. He wanted to kiss those lips that moved slightly. He wanted to make her bright eyes go dark with desire.
He shook his head and closed his eyes. Had torture himself for too long thinking about Griffa this way. He could admit to himself now that he wanted her, but he knew he would not be good for her.
Ansel opened his eyes and continued to watch Griffa as she read. She was an impressive woman. She was bright, brave, and lively. His dark moods, shy manners, and cautious ways would do her no good. His life would always be one of obligation to the king. He could not love her as she deserved. He believed that was the reason he kept his heart guarded against her.
She was so far above him in every way. She was the head of the most powerful magical family in the kingdom. She could choose to lead the Ring whenever she wanted, and she was beautiful and full of life. One day he hoped someone would come along who would actually deserve her. He would watch her build a life, have children, and be happy. As much as he wanted Griffa to be well settled and happy, the idea of her finding a husband did not bring him comfort.
He must have been staring too long at her because she looked up and asked, “Ansel, is something wrong? Do you want or need something from me?”
Ansel choked a little on the wine he was drinking. If she only knew what he was thinking. What he really wanted.
“No, I was just wondering what you were reading,” said Ansel composing himself.
“Oh, it’s a silly novel, an old one,” replied Griffa looking at him. She stretched and ran a hand through her hair.
“What is it about?” asked Ansel. He wished she would sit still. Her nightgown while modest showed more of her figure in the candlelight than she probably meant to reveal.
“It’s about a poor man who falls in love with a rich woman. He wins her over in the end and they eventually figure it out. It’s a simple novel, but humorous,” said Griffa. She went back to reading her book and started to absentmindedly play with her hair.
Ansel knew he should get up and go to bed. He needed to leave, but he was spellbound. He couldn’t go away if he tried. He kept starring at Griffa as she read. She must have been too absorbed in her book to notice. He watched as her small mouth twisted into an amused smile. He took a deep breath as she played with collar of her night gown as she read.
Ansel drank his wine and kept his eyes on her. She chuckled at one point and put a bookmark on the page. She closed her book and laid it on the low table before them, but she did not leave. She pulled her knees up to her chin and stared at the empty fireplace.
“I wish I knew why I cannot sleep tonight,” she remarked. “It’s late and tomorrow is a big day, but I can’t seem to get tired.”
“Maybe some wine might help?” offered Ansel. “I could pour you some.”
Griffa nodded. Ansel got up and fetched a cup from the side table. He poured some wine into it and refilled his own cup. He handed a cup to Griffa. She accepted it and took a small sip as Ansel sat back down on the sofa.
“Are you worried about the party tomorrow, Ansel?” asked Griffa. She knew him too well.
“Worried isn’t the right world. Dreading it is probably more accurately how I feel,” groaned Ansel.
“Oh, it won’t be so bad. Just under thirty people so not a crush. You can just sit out of the way if you want after Max’s toast,” said Griffa drinking more of her wine.
“Easy for you to say. You can talk to anyone at any time.”
“Usually I say the wrong thing and offend someone. Yes, I’m great at parties,” grumbled Griffa sarcastically.
“You tell people the truth. If someone is offended it’s usually because you have called them out on something they are ashamed of,” said Ansel as he drank a large gulp of wine. “Most people find you charming and lovely.”
Griffa snorted. “Are you serious, Ansel? Charming? Lovely? I doubt anyone would call me those things.”
“I would,” said Ansel without thinking.
Griffa looked at him and sipped her wine. “I guess you find my constant arguing and bad manners charming? Is it my wild hair and dirty nails that you find lovely?” She laughed a little.
Ansel knew he was about to say too much, but the wine had loosened his tongue. “You are the most exquisite and impressive woman I have ever met. I think I compare every woman I meet with you, and they all come up lacking.”
Griffa looked at him like he had grown a second head.
“It’s true, Griff. I shouldn’t have told you that, but it’s true. I know I will never meet anyone who can compare with you,” said Ansel softly. He moved further down the sofa to be next to Griffa in her chair. What was he doing?
“Ansel,” said Griffa softly.
Ansel reached up and touched her hair. He ran two fingers down one of her curls. She put her cup down and stared at him, saying nothing.
“I like your wild hair.” He picked up her hand and kissed her fingertips. “Your dirty hands don’t bother me.”
He cupped her cheek with his hand and pulled her forward. He kissed her gently on the lips, letting his tongue flick out to taste her. Her lips were smooth and wet from the wine. He could taste the sweetness left by the drink. The air around them felt electric as her beautiful eyes flutter closed.
“Griffa,” he muttered, resting his forehead against hers.
Something in him told him to stop. If he didn’t stop, he wouldn’t be able to turn back, but he didn’t want to stop. He wanted to kiss her again and again. He wanted to scoop her up and take her upstairs to his room. She let out a gently breath, and her wine scented breath tickled his nose, waking him up.
He sat up. “Griffa, I’m sorry, I...”
“No, Ansel. Don’t do this, please. We are so close. Can’t you see I want this? Do you not?”
Ansel sighed. “It’s not that I don’t want you, Griffa. Of course, I want you. How could I not? I just can’t; I don’t deserve you. You need so much more.”
“You are so sure what I need?” Griffa huffed. “You think I can’t decide for myself what I want? Ansel, what if I told you that I want and need you?”
Ansel closed his eyes. “Griffa, you don’t understand. I’m not enough for someone like you. You are so full of life, and I’ll just drag you down.”
“So, you’re sure. You’re sure you aren’t right for me? You’ve never even given us a chance. You’ve teased me with kisses and pretty words, but when we get to the point you pull back. If you don’t want this to happen, fine Ansel, then stop bringing me here and not following through,” Griffa said angrily. She stood up and started walking out of the room.
Ansel stood up and grabbed her hand. “Please don’t leave angry. I’m sorry this is the way it is. I wish it were different, but I can’t love you as you deserve.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can’t bring you fully into my life. I am a protector to the king. My life is one of service and obligation to my king. You don’t deserve to come second to anyone. I could never make you my top priority no matter how much I would want to do it. You are also a Keen, and so much is expected of you. You are so good, Griffa, and I can’t ruin you by brining you into my life in this way.”
Griffa moved closer to him. She put her hand on his cheek, and he leaned into it. “Ansel, you would never ruin me. I know who I am, and I know what I want. I want you. I understand who you are, and I understand what it would mean to love you and be at your side. I want to love you and to be with you, but you aren’t ready.
“You need to see that real love is not about being worthy of someone. It’s about finding someone you can love and accepting them faults and all. I have plenty of faults too. I’m no deity high above everyone else. You are seeing me as something I’m not. For you to love me, to really love me, you will have to accept that I’m your equal. I’ve done many things I’m not proud of, things that keep me up at night.
“I’m not going to give up on you or on us, but I am going to give you time and space. When you are ready, you let me know.” Griffa stood on her tip toes and gave Ansel’s lips a soft kiss. Ansel took her hand on his check and kissed her palm tenderly.
“I’m going to bed, Ansel. You need to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”
Ansel let her hand go, “Good night, Griffa.”
Ansel stood in front of his mirror, adjusting his clothes. He was wearing his black tunic with his family standard stitched in silver on the front. It was a large tree with many branches and a large trunk. He wore black pants and boots. It was the uniform of the protector of the king, fitting since it was the king’s birthday celebration.
Ansel knew he had been irritable all day. He hadn’t slept much the night before. He had lay in bed thinking over Griffa’s words. He was glad Maybell had them all working on the manor all day. He worked mostly in the back yard, setting up chairs and tables with the movements of his hand. He had helped put magical candles in the trees. He helped Jonthon shape bushes and clean windows. He kept busy all day until it was time to clean himself and dress.
Now it was almost time for the party. He pulled his hair back, secured it, and nodded at himself in the mirror. It was time, and he could stall no longer. As he walked out of his door, Max was walking out of his room at the same time. Max was dressed in a dark green tunic with a Golden Sun stitched over the left upper chest, the standard of his ancient family, the line of Adalwen.
Max gave Ansel an apprehensive look. He gave Max a small smile to put him at ease. He must have been shorter with everyone than he thought.
“Good evening, Max. Are you looking forward to your celebration?” asked Ansel coming to walk besides him to the stairs.
“I think so, at least the food. I’m not sure about all the attention,” answered Max making Ansel chuckle.
When they got to the stairs, they met Griffa. Ansel felt his eyes widen at the sight of her. She was wearing a golden gown, and the neckline was lower cut than things Griffa usually wore. It had short sleeves and a tight bodice. The skit flowed out covering her shoes. There was a Falcon with its wings spread stitched into the skirt in red. Her hair was down with her curls as tamed as they could be. She was fidgeting, unsure of herself. Ansel wished he could grab her hands and tell her how beautiful she looked, but he was uncertain how to act around her after last night.
“Max, Ansel, good evening,” Griffa greeted them brightly.
“You look really nice, Griffa,” said Max with a wide smile.
“Thank you, Max, but I’m not so sure. I’ve had this dress forever; it was my mothers. It seems she was a little slimmer than me. It was altered, but I think it might still be a little tight, and I don’t usually wear something like this. I’m not sure this is right,” said Griffa as she rubbed her sides with her hands.
Max walked up to her and offered her his arm, and she took it with a smile. He winked at her and said, “It looks pretty right to me.”
Griffa swatted him playfully and laughed as they walked down the stairs. Ansel followed close behind watching her wild curls bounced against her back as she walked.
In the entry hall, Nora and Issa were waiting. Issa looked pretty in a light pink dress with a white sash and full skirt. Her hair was pulled up into a large bun. Griffa brought Max over to her and handed him off to her.
“You look very nice, Issa,” said Griffa. “Doesn’t she look lovely, Max?”
Max was gazing at Issa with pure adoration in his eyes. “Yes, but she always does.”
Griffa laughed and walked over to greet Nora. Nora wore a simple dark blue gown that went well with her dark hair and eyes.
“Good evening, Nora. You look stunning. I know this is all very different for you, but I’m so glad you are here on Max’s special night,” said Griffa taking Nora’s hand and squeezing it.
Nora smiled. “It’s definitely different here, but you’ve all been so kind. I think I’m starting to feel quite at home.”
“Good, maybe soon we can work on some lessons together. You have magical blood, Nora. If you want to learn how to use it, I would be glad to help,” added Griffa.
“I’m not sure yet, but I will think about it. Tonight, I just want to celebrate, Max. I’m so proud of him.”
“You should be. You are one of the reasons he has become such a fine young man,” said Griffa.
Gracious and lovely, thought Ansel. It was true that Griffa could be blunt. She could say the wrong things at times and offend someone, but to those she knew and cared about, Griffa was everything good and kind. Ansel felt himself pulled towards her. He didn’t know how she would behave around him. She said she would give him time and space. He didn’t know what that meant, but he hoped it didn’t mean she still wouldn’t be friendly.
Maybell, Wallis, and Jonthon joined them in the entryway. Maybell wearing a purple gown and Jonthon and Wallis both wore simple black tunics and pants. Griffa moved to a place she could see everyone.
“Guest should be coming soon, so we should line up to receive them and direct them to the back lawn for the celebrations,” said Griffa. “Max you should be first since it’s your birthday and everyone is here to see you. Issa can stand with you if she wishes. I’ll stand next to Issa to welcome our guest to the manor, and everyone else can stand with us or go enjoy the party out back.
“Remember, Maybell, everything is set up, you don’t need to fuss over anything, just enjoy yourself. You too, Jonthon and Wallis.” They nodded.
Max, Issa, and Griffa stationed themselves by the door. The rest except Ansel made their way to the back lawn. Ansel paused for a moment and then decided to stand next to Griffa to greet the guest. He told himself he needed to be there to watch over Max, which was true, but really, he just wanted to be next to Griffa.
“Are you alright, Ansel?” asked Griffa as he stood next to her.
“Yes, I’m fine, a little tired,” replied Ansel.
She gave him a sympathetic look, and it seemed as if she was about to say something when the door opened with the night’s first guest.
It may have only been thirty people attending, but Ansel felt like he spent half a week in that entry hall greeting guest as they arrived. Most were easy. They would bow before Max, nod at Issa, and thank Griffa for the invitation, but a few were more trying.
Marcus Quick and his parents spent a lot of time talking to Griffa. Ansel thought Marcus’s eyes went a little too often towards Griffa’s low neckline. They finally moved on when another group came behind. Ansel had to deal with Desmona who stayed behind when her parents moved on to the back lawn. She finally left when she realized Ansel wasn’t going to engage her in conversation.
“I think that’s everyone,” said Griffa. “Come on Max, let’s go to dinner.”
“Finally,” rejoiced Max. He escorted Issa from the room.
Griffa moved to follow, but Ansel caught her by her arm. He offered his own. She placed her hand on his arm and let him escort her to the backyard.
“You look very nice tonight, Griffa,” he said as they walked.
Griffa made a disbelieving noise, “Thank you, but this dress really is quite uncomfortable. I’m glad Max is being celebrated, but I can’t wait until this is all over and I can peel this thing off.”
Ansel grunted, but didn’t say anything more. He didn’t need to be thinking of Griffa peeling off any pieces of clothing. He escorted her to her place at the head table and took his own seat a few chairs down. He wanted to sit next to her, but that was Max’s place.
On her other side sat Hector Delis, in his place as the leader of the Ring. Ansel sat next to Max and on his left was Desmona Delis. He let out a groan he hoped wasn’t too loud. Ansel looked up and across from him was Madam Sidora, the diviner of the Ring. She was staring at him. He gave her a half smile and a nod, but she still stared.
Dinner was insufferably long. Max spent most of the evening talking to Griffa and Hector Delis, and Ansel was forced to listen to Desmona prattle on. He found himself watching Griffa most of the meal. As she ate, she talked animatedly to Hector and Max, periodically laughing at something Hector or Max would say. Ansel also noticed that Madam Sidora rarely took her eyes off of him.
The meal was finally coming to an end, and Griffa stood up.
“I am glad you could all be with us tonight to celebrate the seventeenth birthday of our king, Maxwell of the blood of Adalwen. I call upon his protector, Ansel of the line of Raya.” She sat back down, and Ansel stood up.
He picked up his glass. “I have known our king almost nine months. He is brave, kind, and hardworking, and Regventus will be in good hands under his rule. Tonight, though, I celebrate my young friend, Max. I am glad to know him and to celebrate his life here tonight. To Max.”
Ansel raised his glass and took a sip. There were cries of to our king and to Max up and down the table. After everyone had taken a drink, Ansel did not sit down. “I would also like to toast our fair hostess, Gryphon Keene. She represents her family well. We are all indebted to her for her graciousness and her hospitality.” Ansel raised his glass and looked at Griffa. “To Griffa.” Everyone toasted Griffa as her face turned bright red.
Griffa stood up and everyone followed her lead. “Thank you, everyone. Now, enjoy yourself as long as you like.”
She walked from the table and everyone moved to various areas of the lit-up lawn, many crowding around Max and Issa to talk to the king. Hector came over to Ansel.
“Fine toast, Ansel,” said Hector drinking a glass of wine. He turned to look at Max and Issa. “How serious is our king about that girl?”
Ansel raised his eyebrows, surprised by this question. “He has known her almost all his life. They are quite close, but they are young.”
“It would be an odd thing for our king to have a non-magical queen,” remarked Hector.
“It is not unheard of as several kings and queens have chosen non-magical consorts,” said Ansel. “It wouldn’t be a problem.”
“You are right, and like you said they are young. Many things could happen,” said Hector.
He made his way over to talk to Philo Quick and a man from the Ring named Gorm. He was replaced at Ansel side by his daughter, Desmona.
“I hear little Griffa has a suitor,” she said to Ansel pointing her glass towards Griffa and Marcus.
“Yes, Marcus has made his interest well known. Griffa has let him know where she stands as well,” said Ansel watching Marcus and Griffa talk.
“It would be a fine match. I hear he is even willing to take the Keene name. Renweard couldn’t have asked for more than that.”
Ansel made a noncommittal noise and drank from his glass.
“Take a walk with me, Ansel, I have something to tell you,” said Desmona grabbing his arm.
“I think anything you need to tell me, you could say here,” grumbled Ansel taking his arm away from her.
“Please, I’m serious,” insisted Desmona. She looked at Ansel intently.
Ansel took another look over at Max in a crowd of people and Griffa who was introducing Marcus to Nora.
“Fine, but quickly,” said Ansel. He walked her over into a dim space just to the right of where the party space was set up. The stood behind a large set of shrubbery. “Now, what is it?”
“I think someone in Abscon is spying for those in Aurumist,” said Desmona. She sat down on a stone bench nearby.
“Why do you say that?” asked Ansel. “Let me guess, more whispers and secrets you hear.”
“Yes, but they are getting louder. Some on the Ring are spooked. They are talking about leaving Abscon and going into hiding.”
“Do you have names? Who has been threatened?” asked Ansel looking down at her.
“I don’t think anyone in particular. The general thought is that the power in Abscon will be done away with first. So, besides the young king, the Ring would be first to be targeted.”
“I have Max under guard at all times, already. Why are you telling me this?”
“Watch who you trust, Ansel. Even those you think you know. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially you,” said Desmona. She stood up and walked closed to him. Ansel closed his eyes; he was so tired
“I know you don’t think much of me because of the past, but I’m different now, older.” Her scent surrounded him, and his head started to feel cloudy. “Back then I was stupid. I treated you like a plaything I could pick up when I wanted and throw you to the side when I was done. It was wrong.” She was very close to him now.
Ansel opened his eyes and looked into her lovely brown ones. She was so beautiful. He was so tired, so confused. He felt her lean towards him. His heart was beating fast. He could feel her sweet breath on his face.
“It will be different this time. I know what I want,” whispered Desmona.
Ansel closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it. That phrase woke him up. He thought of Griffa saying that exact same thing to him. ‘I know what I want. I want you.’ He thought of kissing Griffa’s soft lips, of the sound of her gentle sigh. He wanted so badly to taste her lips again.
“Griffa,” Ansel whispered, his eyes flying open.
“What?” asked Desmona harshly.
He suddenly grabbed Desmona by her arms to push her away.
“Marcus, why on earth are we walking over here, for? You can say nothing to me that will change my mind,” said Griffa. She stopped short as her eyes landed on Ansel and Desmona.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know this place was taken,” said Marcus with a smile.
Ansel stared at Griffa. Her face was very red.
“Excuse me, I need to go back and check on the party,” mumbled Griffa as she turned around and walked swiftly back, Marcus following in her wake.
“Damn,” said Ansel. He took his hands off of Desmona. “How dare you try to charm me. I’ve told you, we are over, not that we were ever really anything. I know you are spoiled and used to getting what you want, but this won’t happen.”
“You actually think you want that wild, ill mannered, little woman, don’t you? She will not make you happy for long, Ansel.”
“You know nothing about what makes me happy,” spat Ansel. He walked away. He was so angry. He needed to find Griffa to let her know it wasn’t what she thought.
He got back to the group and scanned the crowd, looking for Griffa, when Madam Sidora appeared by his side.
“Ansel, you have to watch out for them, both of them. They are so important,” she said with no warning.
“What, Who?” asked Ansel, startled. He looked down at Sidora.
Madam Sidora picked up his hand and looked at him, “The king and young Gryphon, especially Gryphon. I have had dark dreams, dark thoughts. I think you have too. Watch her Ansel, keep her safe. We will all need her; you need her.” she squeezed his hand and walked off.
Ansel was very uneasy. This party got worse and worse. He looked around. He spotted Max with Issa by a tree, talking. Max was holding her hand. Ansel kept looking around; he couldn’t find Griffa anywhere. He needed to see her, to talk to her. At the edge of his vision, he saw her going into the house, alone. He hurriedly followed her and caught up with her in the parlor. She was pacing by the fireplace, muttering to herself. She looked up as Ansel walked in.
“Oh, are people leaving? Do I need to come say goodbye?” she asked. She looked tired and agitated.
“No, everyone is still out on the lawn. I wanted to talk to you.” Ansel said coming closer to her. “What you saw, me and Desma, it was nothing.”
“I know, Ansel, don’t worry about it. You can talk to or do anything with anyone you like. You don’t belong to me. It’s just been a long night. I’m tired, and I can’t seem to get away from Marcus.”
Ansel took her hand and looked at her. “I need you to know that what you saw out there was nothing. I have no interest in her.”
Griffa cocked her head and nodded. “I believe you.” She smiled slightly. “Will you walk back out with me, and stay by me the rest of the party? Maybe Marcus will keep away if you give him enough stern looks.”
Ansel chuckled offering her his arm. After what Madam Sidora said, Ansel thought he might not ever let Griffa out of his sight again.