A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Gods & A Limp

A barely perceptible limp.

That was Cyra’s new accessory. If anyone stared hard enough, they could see the little half-step she had to take to prevent the wound in her leg from getting any worse. The stitches in her thigh were the only things that reminded her of her limp when she awoke. In her dreams, she ran - with lightning speed - towards the endless dark she knew Gunnar’s specter hid in. But the darkness was unyielding, fleeing from her pursuit.

“No riding, no running, no dancing, no skipping, no rolling around in your bed, and absolutely no venturing out into the woods." The list of no’s seemed to grow as the day of the engagement party drew near. Halewijn assisted her when he could -which only brought them closer- and he forgot all about his task to see if there was any other way to stop Omar from seeking to destroy the both of them. The thought of another body to bury only sickened Cyra, even though his death would be more than deserved. Wyndemere had not broken the captured man, just as Halewijn had predicted. However, he had not killed him. Instead, he left the man to think about his offer of a pardon while his wounds were still fresh. The leader of the royal guard wouldn’t let him live for much longer, though.

Today, she sat among the trees and the wind, reading a book and listening to Alorha softly play a tagelharpa. Mirabel opted to dance around in the grass, performing for some unseen courtiers, and most certainly not Alorha or Cyra. Earlier this morning, Halewijn earned his first headache of the season - courtesy of her mother - and upon falling ill, he sent word to Cyra, apologizing for his absence. Cyra sent back her good wishes, mentioning she would be stopping by to check on him. She checked the sky before looking back down at her book. It indeed hadn’t struck noon yet, which is when she promised herself she would venture into his chamber to check on his condition.

A part of her knew she would be walking into the room with hopes that he had recovered and would be attending dinner with her, but the other part of her knew she could very well leave his chambers having found him in no better condition than when he went in. This very thought propelled her to her feet as she closed her book, steadying herself on her left leg. Alorha looked up from his tagelharpa, and Mirabel stopped dancing, throwing a pout in his direction, but then rushed to Cyra’s side as she made her way back to the palace.

“No, no. Stay here. I will be fine on my own.” She shook off the lady-in-waiting and royal guard, limping ever so slightly on her way to the steps of the main foyer. The Princess looked up the Grand Staircase, sighing as she gripped the railing and ascended, taking each step with care. The wood beneath her feet did not give way, and the only sound came from her slipper on the maroon carpet. Grunting, she pulled herself up to another step. The pain in her leg became a dull ache, increasing from the slight discomfort it was before.

By the time she ascended half of the staircase, she could feel the sweat on her brow. Looking forward, she saw the stairs extend up, up, up, and her labored breath hitched. Who was she kidding? A staircase would best her today. Who would she be against Omar if a limp caused her to yield to a flight of stairs?

As she slumped against the gold railing, she gazed at the glass chandelier above her head. The massive crystal thing - a gift from High King Duchaine to her great grandmother - towered above her, almost as if it were daring to crush the tiny Princess below. It shone brightly in the sunlight streaming in from the main windows, throwing little rainbows around the foyer. Cyra closed her eyes, exhaling as her body melted into the staircase.

“Get up, Cyra.” The gentle voice sent shockwaves through her body, and she jolted up, looking around her to find the person who had spoken. But no one was there with her. Adrenaline coursed through her as she considered the idea that her exhaustion caused a hallucination, but it didn’t matter in the end. She stood up and began to move again, finding her leg not as much of a hindrance as before. Once she reached the top of the stairs, she found her way through the maze of hallways to Halewijn’s room. She held her fist up to knock on the door but hesitated, thinking about what she would say. Would she ask how he was feeling? Maybe just sit next to him and hope he would have the strength to talk for a little while?

She still hadn’t formulated a plan when she knocked, half-expecting Halewijn to turn her away. However, stirring sounds from the other side made her open the door and step in, peering around the edges of the door. Halewijn lay in bed, his broad, brown chest bare, the rest of him covered by the golden fleece sheets. He held a large book in his hands, frowning as he flipped the page and then halting as he noticed Cyra’s head peeking into his room.

The candles in the room were not lit, and the windows were closed with the curtains drawn. “Come in, Princess.” He spoke softly, almost whispering his command. Cyra entered, ignoring the glass elephant that begged her for her touch and sweeping over to Hal’s station in the bed. He shut the book after marking his place and patted the space next to him. “Sit next to me so I can see you better.” Lifting her knee as an anchor, Cyra hoisted herself onto the tall structure and scooted close to Halewijn. He smelled like white musk and sage, two scents she knew and enjoyed. It took every nerve in her body to not lean into him, pressing her nose into the space between his neck and his shoulders. When Halewijn reached up and tucked a strand of her hair behind her ears, her blood began to sing. And when he placed his hand on hers, she felt the warmth travel down her spine. She suppressed a shudder, inhaling deeply. “You came to see me... Your face is a welcome sight.” Halewijn breathed, his sweet mint breath fanning across her face.

“Was I not supposed to come and see my sick fiance?” Halewijn couldn’t offer a laugh, but his lips pulled up at the edges.

“Forgive me, Cyra. My head is thrumming endlessly. It seems your mother has set off a switch with her endless talk of plans and the future of the kingdom.”

“I am sorry for her chatter. I’ve lived with her my whole life, but I cannot imagine walking into it as an adult and experiencing it for the first time. I would lose my head.” Halewijn half-smiled again, this time showing his perfect, white teeth, and squeezed her thigh with his strong fingers.

“It’s not your fault. Here,” Hal slid the book in his lap toward Cyra. “Look at this.” She lifted the heavy brown book onto her lap and looked at the cover. Her fingers traveled over the golden runes and image of Rhadros, King of the Gods, on the surface. The titanic god, brother to Usasis, brandished a sizable double-edged sword above his head in preparation to slay the Ash Wolf. This book had not come from the library; she would’ve remembered such an ornate image.

“What is this book for?”

“It’s the book my mother, Tamar, would read from before I would go to sleep. Bedtime stories about the gods were more entertaining than court gossip.”

“How... how did she die?” Halewijn’s face darkened, but he knew he could trust her with his innermost experiences. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, allowing her to scoot closer to him. She rested in the half-embrace, his warmth seeping through the layers of her dress.

“I mentioned before that I was ten when she died. They said she’d gotten too close to the wall edge surrounding the palace and had been knocked over by a strong wind. Lies, of course, perpetuated by my own father. My late uncle confirmed later that Omar had orchestrated her murder, despite nothing to gain from it. I do believe she discovered one of his many dark secrets that he kept hidden, but her body had been disposed of before I could even say my last goodbyes. He then commanded that I leave the High Court, sending me away to be ‘tutored.’ In reality, he was kicking me out without cutting me out of his lineage. It was a wrong move on his part. I think he hoped I would die on my own.”

“How did you survive and come back into your wealth?”

“The gods and my own good name preserved me. I started off as a slave for a lord in the Western Court, slowly working my way up to his advisor by the time I was fourteen. By then, I had earned a large sum of money and set off to travel independently. I thought that I might marry into a kingdom and regain my status that way. Or I might wait until my father died and ascended to the throne. But, after my incident with...” Her name would not fall from his lips. This nameless woman, that bitch who had trapped him in the forest for years, would remain anonymous. “After the forest problem, I came to realize that wealth and status meant less to me than I originally imagined. In reality, the less I look for material things, the more I find them. All I really want now is to live a life in service to the gods and in peace with someone who loves me.”

“If that is your desire, why are you here? As it stands, there is nothing to gain from marrying me but trouble.” Omar tapped the book with his index finger, reminding her of his oath to the gods.

“I was sent here by the very gods I worship and pay tithe to. I had not planned on attending the party the night we met and merely intended to send a nice gift in place of my presence. But my patron god, Shekmir, directed me to go. He said the first woman I encountered in the garden would be my bride and that my father committed a crime against her. Honestly, I thought it was all horseshit until you wandered past, barefoot.” Halewijn exhaled, remembering that night with fondness. “You looked like my mother at first glance, and it scared the hell out of me.” His mustache turned up at the edges, his smile accompanied by a sideways glance at her. “You commanded the moon to shine around you, and I had never seen that before... except with Tamar.” The glitter in his eyes returned, his smile still present. Cyra’s cheeks warmed at the compliment, aware that he had compared her to the woman he loved the most.

The High Prince lifted her left hand and placed it on his heart, allowing her to feel his heartbeat beneath his chest. The steady drumming of the organ beneath her fingers reminded her of another heart she once felt, but this one was different. The light in Halewijn’s eyes, the gentle touch of his fingers against her arm, the goosebumps they left behind... Everything in her body ached for his gaze, his hands, his lips. She couldn’t ignore the sound her own heart made when he held her or when he touched her. Cyra angled her head up to look at the handsome man, who caught her gaze and tipped his head down, looking at her warmly.

“Halewijn...” A question formulated in her mind as she stared at the loving High Prince, the man who wanted to make sure she was cared for and protected. “What will happen when we see your father?” His brows furrowed for a moment, but he smoothed the expression off his face instantly.

“Let me worry about my father, Princess. I will make sure no harm comes to you while we are with him during Yul.” Something in his tone made her believe he meant it, so she relaxed, releasing muscles she didn’t realize were tense. ”You just think about our engagement party.” He tapped her nose with the pad of his index finger, making her smile before pulling her into a deep kiss. The kiss didn’t distract her from the thought that she could very well lose Halewijn to his father’s schemes, making Omar a winner. Again.

At that moment, she realized what she had to do, the double-edged sword flashing in her mind.

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