Max faced Ansel, concentrating on his next move. He held in his hand a large staff. It was made from a thick branch, sealed and stained dark. On the top there was a carved sun which held a clear stone. Griffa had given it to him for his birthday. She had told him her staff helped her focus her magic when she needed to do more advance spells. She said it helped control her magic when hers was unsettled.
“Plus, it’s good for smacking people in duels, when all else fails,” Griffa had said with a laugh.
Max liked the feel of his new staff. It was solid and smooth. He could feel his magic running up and down the wood pulsating under his hand. It helped him control the magic inside of him by letting some of it free without projecting a spell or curse.
Ansel moved slightly to his left and threw his hand out. Max raised his staff, blocking the spell Ansel had thrown. Max made a full turn and pointed his staff at Ansel. Ansel moved to the side; his hair blown back by the force of the spell.
“Good, Max. Now see if you can block me and knock me down,” directed Ansel.
Ansel raised his hand again and made a sweeping motion. Max moved his staff from left to right, feeling Ansel spell hit the block he put up. Max hit his staff into the ground and the ground around Ansel started to shake. Ansel tried to keep his balance, but Max pointed his staff again at Ansel. Ansel was swept off his feet, landing on his back. Max walked over to make sure he was alright. By the time he got there Ansel was standing up, wiping his face with his hands.
“That was good, Max. Good use of a combination of spells. It seems Griffa was right about you using a staff. I never really got the feel for one, but she swears by hers. That one seems to suit you well,” said Ansel.
Max smiled and looked behind Ansel. Griffa was giving Issa an archery lesson on the other side of the back lawn. She was leaning on Issa’s back, positioning her hands on the bow and helping her hold the arrow. He could see Griffa’s lips move in Issa’s ear instructing her.
“That’s enough for right now, Max. You want to see how the ladies are doing?” asked Ansel, watching Max look at Issa and Griffa.
Max nodded and smiled.
As they walked towards the ladies, Issa, with Griffa’s help, let go of the arrow and hit the target that was 15 feet away. Griffa stood up straight and clapped.
“Very good, Issa,” encouraged Griffa. “Now let’s try it again. Griffa grabbed another arrow and then paused when she saw Max and Ansel walk up.
“Look, Issa we have company,” said Griffa alerting Issa of their presence. Issa turned and smiled brightly at Max. Max smiled back.
“How is the lesson going?” asked Max.
“Oh, very well. Griffa is a very good teacher. I’m just starting, but I already hit the target with her help,” replied Issa happily.
“We are about to try again if you will excuse us,” said Griffa. She walked over to Issa and helped her position the arrow on the bow string. Griffa put her hand on Issa’s hip correcting it a little. Max watched closely.
“Relax, Issa. Now I’m going to help you bring back the bow string. Keep a strong grip on the bow. I’m going to let go of your hand, and then you let go of the string when you are ready.”
Max kept staring as Griffa put her hand on Issa’s and helped her bring the string back. Griffa let go of Issa’s hand, but kept close at her side. Issa waited for a moment and then let go. She hit the very edge of the target.
“Good, Issa,” said Griffa. “You should keep trying.”
Ansel coughed and nudged Max. “You seem to be very interested in these lessons, Max. Perhaps you would like to try to learn?”
“Sure, if Griffa doesn’t mind,” said Max smiling at Griffa and laying his staff on the ground.
Griffa turned to say something when Ansel interrupted, “Oh, no, Griffa already has her student. I can show you how to use a bow.”
Max felt a little disappointment, but agreed. Ansel grabbed another bow that was laying on the other side of Griffa and Issa. Max spent the next hour trying to concentrate on what Ansel was telling him while Griffa worked with Issa. When they were ready to return to the house, he had managed to hit the target only once. Issa on the other hand was having much better success. They gathered their supplies and walked towards the manor together.
“I think I like archery,” remarked Issa. “It was fun, wasn’t it, Max?”
“I guess. I think you had a better teacher than me,” grumbled Max looking at Ansel.
“I think Griffa had a more attentive student,” Ansel retorted.
They all chuckled and continued their walk to the back door. Once they got in the house, the gathered in the parlor. Nora set out some cold drinks and joined them as they rested and talked.
“Are you going to participate in the duels this summer, Ansel?” asked Griffa sitting down on the sofa next to him.
“I suppose I should. I guess the Ring is going forward with the summer festival this year,” said Ansel. He took a cup that Nora offered him and thanked her.
“Thank you, Nora,” said Griffa, taking a cup from Nora. “Why shouldn’t they? We’ve heard no news, and Abscon couldn’t be more secure. With the way things are, we might as well enjoy what we can while we can.”
“What about you, Griffa. Are you joining the duels this year?” asked Ansel.
“Of course. Though, I hope I get to duel somebody besides that Harper boy. He is nice, but he couldn’t duel a child. A challenge would be nice.”
Max’s curiosity was sparked. “What are these duels?” asked Max.
“The summer festival is coming up. It’s a week of feast, parties, and a mid-summer ball. There is also a day of dueling set up behind the Ring of Nine’s meeting hall. If you submit your name, it is thrown in a basket. They draw names to see who is dueling whom. It’s a lot of fun,” explained Griffa.
“Can I submit my name?” asked Max. “I know I’m not as good as you or Ansel yet, but I feel like I have gotten better.”
“Of course, you can,” said Griffa smiling at Max. “You have learned a lot these past few months. I think you will have a strong showing whoever you are up against.”
Ansel agreed, “I’m sure the people will enjoy watching the king duel. We will work hard the next two weeks to make sure you are fully prepared.”
“I’ll send our names in this evening,” said Griffa.
They made idle chit-chat while enjoying their cold drinks.
“I better get in the kitchen and help Maybell,” said Nora as she started collecting empty cups.
“Nora, you don’t have to do any of this,” said Griffa. “We can take our own cups to the kitchen. There’s no need for you to help with supper every night.”
Max nodded his head in agreement. He wanted Nora to be happy. He tried to remember to make sure and talk to her more about Danin in the future. She enjoyed talking of her late husband.
“I like keeping busy,” replied Nora. “I enjoy helping to take care of all of you. I think I would like to talk about some lessons when you have time, Griffa.”
“Of course, Nora. We will find time soon. Now if you will excuse me, I would like to rest and freshen up a bit before supper.” Griffa rose up off the sofa using Ansel shoulder for a boost.
“That sounds like a good idea,” agreed Issa. She hopped up out of her seat. “I’ll see you in a bit Max.” She followed Griffa out of the room.
Max looked over at Ansel. He had been very quiet the past few days. He was never very talkative, but he could be funny and entertaining at times. Lately besides training and some short answers, Ansel hadn’t said much.
“Are you alright, Ansel?” asked Max.
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” answered Ansel casually
“You’ve just been very quiet lately, and I don’t mean in your usual way. You seem withdrawn.”
Ansel’s head shot up and he peered at Max. “I didn’t realize I was acting withdrawn. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“So, you’ve heard news then from Aurumist? Is there something I should know?”
“No,” said Ansel. “Everything remains quiet. That makes me nervous, but I am thinking of other things. Don’t worry, Max. It has nothing to do with you. In fact, I am pleased with your progress. You won’t need me teaching you things much longer.”
Max noticed that Ansel was good at changing the subject when he didn’t want to talk about something.
“I’m glad you are pleased with my progress, but Ansel, if you want to talk about something else, I can listen. I know I’m young, but I can’t at least sympathize. Danin always said that the best thing Nora did for him was listen even if she didn’t understand what was going on.”
“Are you comparing us to a married couple, Max?” asked Ansel with a smile. Max opened his mouth to say that’s not what he meant when Ansel interrupted him, “No, no I understand, Max. I appreciate it.”
“I suppose as your king I could command you to tell me what’s wrong,” smirked Max.
“Don’t push it,” said Ansel. “I may be your protector, but that won’t stop me from giving you a well-deserved smack on the head. Come on, let’s play chess. I think I can beat you this time.”
Max decided not to push further and spent the rest of the afternoon thoroughly beating Ansel in a game of chess.
After supper, Max went to the conservatory to spend time with Issa. They had made it a habit lately. Sometimes they just sat and there and talked. Sometimes she would read to him, or they would read separate books. There was always a least a few kisses. Max looked forward to these evenings and his time alone with her. It was good to just be with her. He found Issa sitting in her favorite chair by the large glass wall. She was looking out into the dark night with a certain look on her face that Max knew meant that she was thinking and worried.
He sat down next to her and took her hand. “What’s wrong? I know that look on your face.”
Issa smiled at him and squeezed his hand. “I’m worried about a couple of people I care about, and there is nothing I can do for either of them at the moment. It bothers me.”
“Who? I hope it’s not me.”
“I always worry about you and what’s to come, but no, tonight I’m thinking of my father and Griffa.”
This surprised Max. He hadn’t heard her say anything about her father lately. They had exchanged several letters back and forth where Issa told him the truth about Max. Her father was of course worried about her, but he became convinced she was in a safe place. He was happy to let her be, especially since Nora was with her. Max was also surprised at her being worried about Griffa. Max hadn’t noticed Griffa acting any different.
“Did you receive a letter from your father?” asked Max.
“No, not in a while, and that is what concerns me. He wrote so often and now nothing. I hope something has not happened to him. I feel bad leaving him all alone.”
“I know, Issa. I took you away from him, and I’m sorry. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably busy working on his house or off traveling for work. Give him a few weeks and if you don’t hear from him, we can ask Griffa and Ansel to look into it.”
Issa nodded. “I’m sure everything is alright. He has been traveling to the West Village a lot lately. I just worry.” She put her head on Max’s shoulder with a sigh.
“What about Griffa? Why were you thinking of her?” Max said to her quietly.
“She just seems off lately. She usually comes to my room before bed and we chat, but lately she comes less and less. When she does come, she’s distant and seems sad. During the day she seems fine, but there is definitely something bothering her. She won’t tell me though.”
“I think something is bothering Ansel, too,” admitte Max. “Maybe they fought again. They do that a lot.”
“Maybe,” said Issa.
“Griffa will be alright, Issa.”
“She’s had so much loss in her life. I don’t know if I could keep going if I lost my father or you,” said Issa. She turned her head up to look at Max.
“You won’t lose me, Issa.” He gave her a quick, soft kiss, and she sighed.
“Max, what do you think will happen if you actually become King of Regventus?” asked Issa.
“I’m not sure. It probably won’t be a for a few years, and I’m sure Ansel, Griffa, and the Ring will help me figure it out.”
“What about you and me? I know it’s a ways off, but what do you think will happen with us? Will I go back to Clarton, stay here, or go to Aurumist?”
“You will be with me,” said Max. “Issa, I know we are young, and I know a lot could happen. You could change your mind about us or meet someone else, but when I close my eyes and see myself as king, you are always right beside me as my queen.”
“Max,” said Issa lovingly. “I never want to leave your side. I don’t plan on changing my mind or meeting anyone else.”
She got up and cuddled into Max’s lap. He pulled her close and kissed her. Max had kissed her many times recently, but he never got tired of it. He felt something warm in his stomach spread throughout his body as they deepened their kiss. His hands wondered over her body as they kissed again and again.
Griffa walked into the conservatory. She like to come in there sometimes to be alone. She heard voices as soon as she entered the room. It was Max and Issa.
So, this is where they disappear to, she thought.
She didn’t want to interrupt them. She quickly and quietly grabbed a book she had left close by the entrance. As she was leaving, she heard them talking and saw Issa crawl into Max’s lap. When Max kissed Issa, Griffa promptly left the room and went to the study.
She flopped down in her favorite chair with her book. She was happy for Max and Issa. Their certainty in their love for each other was heartwarming. She hoped Max’s vision would come true, and he would rule with Issa as his queen.
She was happy for them, but it also made her feel lonely. She wished she was as certain as them in her own future with the one she loved. She knew what she wanted, whom she wanted, but she didn’t know if Ansel would every truly chose to be with her. She felt tears form in her eyes, and she quickly wiped them away.
“You are being silly, Griffa,” she whispered to herself. “You are strong. Whatever happens, you will be okay. You are a Keene.” Griffa laughed at herself. She sounded so much like her father. Her father had always said things like that to her when she was upset.
Griffa looked over at her father’s desk. She put her book down and went to sit in her father’s old chair behind the desk. She remembered crawling up into his lap in that chair as he wrote a letter or read a book. He would talk to her about what he was doing and why he was doing it. He taught her so many things. He taught her how to manage the manor, how to brew potions, how to correspond with the Ring, and how to defend herself. Unfortunately, he never showed her how to mend a broken heart.
She picked up the portrait of her parents. They looked so happy. Griffa thought her father probably never taught her how to mend a broken heart because his had been broken when Griffa’s mother died, and he never figured out how to do it himself.
Griffa felt the tears come to her eyes and this time she did not try to stop their flow.