“A luck potion?” Maren moaned from the alchemy room of the palace. “That’s the best you’ve got?”
I also held up a crystal ball and a sprig of lily of the valley. Their little white bells jingled silently.
“The more important point is,” I said, “it’s not the only thing I’ve got.”
“For fuck’s sake, Eliza,” Maren cursed. “You’re going to use flowers against evil spirits? That doesn’t sound even remotely helpful.”
I shrugged proudly. “We’ll see about that.”
I wasn’t sure where the pride came from, though. Divination had never been one of my stronger suits.
Gage plucked a daisy from a potted plant in the back. “What’s this for?”
“It’s also a sort of prophesy and prediction,” I said with a wave of heat to the cheeks. “It’s generally used to tell whether or not someone loves you.”
His eyebrow quirked. “Really? How does it work?”
I took the flower from his fingers, and slowly pulled at a thin, white petal. “He loves me,” I said, gazing into his beautiful blue eyes. Then I plucked another. “He loves me not. You go the whole way around the flower until, on the last petal, you find your answer.”
He grinned and took the flower back. “Sounds kinda silly to me.”
“In a way, it is. But not all of these methods are quite so childish. Crystal balls are a much stronger force of magic, even though they’re often quite fickle with what they reveal. That’s where I’m hoping the luck potion will come in handy.”
“What are you expecting to see?” he asked, grabbing a fillet of fish from a plate.
We’d eaten most of our lunch on the way back to the palace, but apparently the dragon was still hungry.
I shook my head, amused. “I don’t know.”
Then I placed the ball in the center of a mosaic tabletop shining with beautiful gemstones. The stones each helped with divination as well as clarity of thought.
Carefully plucking a bell from the branch, I crushed a lily of the valley flower into glittering dust.
“Lily of the valley flower, give me divination power.”
Guiding the wispy tendrils of magic into the crystal ball, I stirred the object to life. Before I lost the chance, I quickly swallowed the luck potion and stared intently into the glass.
Images immediately appeared. Chaotic snippets that I could hardly even process before they flashed to new ones. Places, faces, objects, colors, and emotions. I needed to steer the thing in a more definite direction.
I crumbled a flower and used the magic to ask a question.
“Flower sitting in my hand, tell me what Nerissa’s planned.”
But the ball fogged up into a mysterious gray cloud, hiding all images from my sight. Apparently that was a question even the ball didn’t know the answer to. Perhaps Nerissa had already used some protection spell against her plans?
I crumbled a whole handful of lily bells and tried again.
“Flowers lying in these piles, will Nerissa win the Trials?”
The mist in the ball cleared, revealing bits and pieces of images once more. Nerissa’s face, smiling. Catfish, shaking and alone. Me, sprinting through the capital streets, ultraviolet light painting the city in an otherworldly glow. Gage, bleeding from a stab wound to his side. Deep music pulsing through the air and vibrating up my feet. A massive beast roaring with salivating fangs. Children locked in a cage, crying to get out. Nerissa laughing, red curls shining in the moonlight. Me clutching a pearly shield in one hand and a crystal-blue daggerin the other. The dominant sensation overwhelming me was fear… followed quickly by sorrow, anger, and desperation.
I blinked and realized my heart was racing and I was crying. I shook my head to clear the visions, but they’d been practically burned into my mind. Whatever happened in these trials would be awful. And worse, Nerissa appeared to be winning.
Gage put his face in front of mine, blocking my line of sight to the ball.
“You okay, Eliza?” he asked, brows furrowed as he studied me.
I swallowed hard and wiped my tears. I tried to laugh, but it sounded more like a sob. “God, I almost wish I hadn’t taken the luck potion. I might’ve actually done better without seeing those things….”
“What did you see?” Maren asked, replacing Gage’s face in front of me.
I shook my head, trying to vocalize the emotional assault. “Catfish was in danger. Gage was in danger. And I was running through the city, but it didn’t look like the city. It was dark, almost purplish, and everything glowed with a strange vibrancy I’ve never seen. And there was a terrifying beast, and kidnapped children, and shields and daggers….”
I knew I sounded like a crazy person. But one thing above all else had become crystal clear: I had to do whatever it took to beat Nerissa and win the Queen Trials.
“So, like,” Elijah said from across the room, “does she win?”
“I didn’t see for sure,” I said, voice accidentally revealing my doubts, “but it seems like she might. I absolutely cannot let that happen.”
The three of them nodded, apparently sharing my opinion. A necromancer with ultimate power was a recipe for disaster.
“So what will you do?” Gage asked me, concern swirling in his eyes as he crossed his muscular arms. “How do you change the fate you saw in the crystal ball?”
I stood and put the ball back on the shelf.
“I’m going to have to train harder.”
Gage cocked his head. “How much time to you have?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve heard of the trials being as short as a week in between, but also as long as a few months.”
The entire ordeal was largely up to the ancient witch in charge. Whenever she felt it was time, then damn it, it was time. We had to be prepared always. I just didn’t know what all that entailed.
I always figured I’d be in friendly competition with my younger sisters, just for shits and giggles. Everyone knew Nerissa was the more talented witch in the family and that she would likely win the whole ordeal. Now I was seriously regretting the fact that I hadn’t taken my practice sessions more seriously. I mean, come on, using magic to fix a broken mirror? That sure as hell wasn’t going to help me deal with any of the shit I saw in those visions.
“Well,” Gage said, as he began to pace around the small alchemy room, “where are your weak spots? What is your sister better at than you?”
I scoffed. “Everything.”
He glanced at Maren, who unfortunately nodded. “She’s better than all of us at everything.”
Gage pursed his lips and nodded also, seemingly deep in thought.
“I can’t do magic,” he said after a time. “But I can help you increase your strength, speed, and stamina. I can teach you how to use a dagger, too, or throw a punch.”
I nodded. “Okay, sounds good. When do we start?”
He shrugged. “You said you could have as short as a week, right? May as well start right now.”
I bit my lip, wishing he had the same exercise in mind as I did, but knowing full well that he didn’t. “What do you suggest we do first?”
Fuck my life. Was he serious? I hated running.
Suddenly my brain flashed to the image of future-me sprinting through the capital streets in a panic. Apparently running was something I needed to master.
I sighed and glanced down at my breezy cotton gown and delicate sandals. “I suppose I need to put something more appropriate on, huh?”
Gage smiled wide, and dimples tucked into his cheeks. If the man got any sexier I might seriously go insane.
“Running shoes and something other than a dress might help, yes.”
Oh, I can ditch the dress, no probs, dragon boy. But how would you handle it if I did?
Next thing I knew, I was back outside in my workout gear: a turquoise sports bra coupled with multishaded leggings, and white sneakers.
When I strolled around the corner and into the gardens, Gage let out a low whistle that sparked a fire of hope in my chest. If he was physically attracted to me, then maybe this situation wasn’t such a lost cause after all? The emotional attraction could come later.
He was seated on a stone bench between two tall fountains that poured cascading water into a pool of swimming koi and water lilies. Elbows on his knees, hands draped in between, he looked perfect against the fluid backdrop. The silver-white shorts he wore contrasted stunningly with his tanned skin and jagged dark hair.
The palace was usually well stocked with spare clothing in case any guests ever needed them. But we were doubly prepared this year since we knew we’d be hosting the trials.
“I’m ready for our run, Mr. Smith,” I said.
My voice came out a little huskier than I intended, but the reaction it produced from him was worth the slip. His nostrils flared and his blue eyes sharpened in on my lips. I’d swear he was thinking about kissing me. I licked my lips in case he needed a little more incentive. Quickly, his eyes darted up to mine and he snapped out of it. He hopped to his feet and distractedly began stretching out his quads.
I smirked, but followed suit, making a cute little show of bending down and touching my toes.
And that’s when I saw Laken rushing through the gardens in a red silk dress.
I righted myself and immediately my thoughts darted to her new prince, Nathan. Had he hurt her? He didn’t seem like the type, but so help me God, I’d crush him if he had.
“Eliza,” she panted as she finally reached us. “I’ve been looking all over for you! The ancient witch has spoken.”
Dread flooded my stomach like a tidal wave.
She took a deep breath and shook her head.
“The Second Trial starts tomorrow.”