A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Sapphires & Stars

The noise of the engagement party below wafted up to Cyra like the sounds in a zoo. Hundreds of guests arrived in the Grand Hall, each kingdom represented by their various royalty or an ambassador in their kingdom colors. She viewed the entire room from a balcony above and peered down at the revelry with Mirabel at her side, watching the minglers with a passing interest. The lady-in-waiting didn’t look at the guests below with her but instead chose to fuss with Cyra’s gold satin ballgown. The off-shoulder dress - tailor-made for her - was lace from the top to her waist, where it decorated the top of the skirt.
Before pouring her into the gown, Mirabel pressed her ordinarily curly hair straight and then pinned her tresses into a low bun, finally placing the laurel hair comb into the top of the bun. After that, Cyra had found her way to the cylinder, still sitting on her nightstand. She finally unscrewed the top unceremoniously and dumped the contents into her hand, expecting some small, insignificant trinket.

Instead, a sizable blue sapphire ring dropped into her palm, and upon further inspection, she found pavé diamonds encircled the sapphire twice, as well as the top half of the band. The craftsmanship of the ring astonished Cyra, and when Mirabel saw it, she inhaled sharply.

“That was in the cylinder this whole time?” Her lady-in-waiting held it up to the light, watching the jewel shine as she twisted and turned it. “This must have cost at least half of his fortune.”

The jewel now rested upon her ring finger, impossible to ignore. The ring looked out of place on her usually bare fingers, and the substantial weight of the sapphire made her hand feel heavy, so she placed it at her side. Halewijn had left her this gift for a reason. She would figure it out when they met at the party below, and not a moment before. Mirabel finished her fussing behind her and walked to her side, taking the ring hand in hers one more time. The young woman examined it with more curiosity than before, while Cyra looked over the railing to the party again. Her eyes roamed the crowd, picking out heads of people she knew from the various functions she had attended before like a sharp-eyed raven. Princess Clara, Prince Avisi, Princess Odette, her mother, and father... all of her other cohorts had either sent ambassadors or had yet to arrive.

Halewijn stood in the middle of the crowd, dressed in his most delicate blue and silver garments and speaking with a man animatedly, his hands illustrating the tale he wove. A mass of silver stars decorated his outer robe, and the laurel crown he wore was also silver, catching and throwing the light as he turned. The shirt and pants he wore matched the blue color in the robe, and he seemed damn near perfect on the outside, a vision to behold. A white-haired man who stood in front of him - tanned from years in the sun - nodded in fascination, his old eyes never leaving the High Prince. Cyra could understand those feelings when looking at Halewijn; the fixation at the man who looked like he had cut cloth from the night sky to wrap himself in was all too familiar.

“Are you ready to make your entrance, Princess?” Cyra stiffened at the thought of having to make a grand entrance and attracting so much attention to herself. But this was her engagement party; she would be the main focus no matter what—her and Halewijn.

“I’m ready.” Cyra walked down the flight of stairs to the main floor, out of sight, pausing for a moment to breathe.

“Imagine everyone here is a jester...” Mirabel advised. “They’re all here to make you laugh and smile.” Cyra nodded, taking the lady’s words to heart, then let Mirabel descend into the crowd below like so many times before. The Princess took a step towards the staircase, about to place a foot on the top step, thus bringing herself into view, when a loud trumpet fanfare blasted below her. The eruption was not her usual way of entering, so she looked past the corner of the wall to see who was coming and had ordered such an entrance.

An elderly couple strode into the room, one with long, blonde hair braided down her back, and the other with short, jet-black hair, both dressed in black and white attire. “Presenting Queen Smyrna and King Aethelwulf of the Southern Court.” The gathered crowd beheld her former in-laws-to-be with reverence and adoration, their long-suffering a common theme of court gossip. All of their sons - the last being Gunnar - were wiped out by the Second Intermediate war, which made them the most respected Royal couple in the room. They would die with no heirs.
Cyra almost tripped over herself, coming down the stairs, avoiding a grand entrance as she met the two with a massive hug. The trumpeters didn’t know what to do at the sight of the stumbling Princess, so they forewent the announcement of her arrival altogether. Queen Smyrna, a frail woman with sad green eyes, clasped Cyra to her chest, taking in a shaky breath.

They had not seen each other since Gunnar’s funeral, which felt like eons ago. Cyra had hidden in the Eastern palace out of guilt and shame, and in an attempt to heal - the two royals had distanced themselves from all aspects of court life. But now they were present for her second engagement, no doubt to wish her and Halewijn well.

“My dear, you look stunning.” The Southern Queen began, pulling away to take stock of her appearance. “Much better than when we last saw each other, I see. The color is back in your cheeks, and your eyes are incredibly vibrant.” She looked from the Queen to the King, who mirrored his wife’s smile. Gunnar had his mother’s eyes and facial structure, but he also had his father’s smile, which made Cyra nostalgic for their time together. Halewijn approached the trio with trepidation, unsure of who his fiancee entertained.

“Halewijn, this is Queen Smyrna and King Aethelwulf. They’re Gunnar’s parents.” His eyes widened at the mention of the dead prince, and with haste, he bowed. He took Queen Smyrna’s hand and kissed her ring, bringing it up to his forehead before letting it go.

“I’ve heard about your son.” was all he could muster, words escaping his mind at the sight of the pair. Hal knew that they could demand that he answer for his father’s crime- and he almost expected it, but instead, King Aethelwulf lifted him from his prostration.

“Then you know he was a good man,” Aethelwulf answered, looking Halewijn in the eye. “and you know how much he loved Cyra.” Halewijn nodded in reply as Aethelwulf pulled him into a hug. Cyra watched the man mutter something into Hal’s ear, then pull away, smiling still.

“Enjoy the party, Your Highnesses. The dancing will begin shortly. Eat and drink until your hearts are full.” The High Prince took Cyra’s hand and pulled her close, suddenly noticing the ring on her finger. The delight in his eyes was unmistakable. He smiled widely, holding the ring up to the light and observing how it looked on her hand. “This ring was made for hands like yours.” He finally mentioned with a face full of joy. “This was my mother’s engagement ring. She left it for me before she died. It was hers, and now it is yours, as it will be our children’s one day.” The mention of children made Cyra’s stomach flip, but shock turned into excitement when the musicians began to play a tune she knew well.

A small crowd began to gather in a circle, and Cyra dragged Halewijn to it, linking her arms in his. The tagelharpa - played by none other than Alorha - and the drums - manned by Wyndemere - began the tune to a wunjo dance. The other musicians joined in, some singing the song of joy, others various playing instruments.

“I don’t know this dance!” He hissed, but she waved his concern away, tossing back,

“It’s easy! Just follow the steps.” The tricky steps that followed involved crossing the feet back and forth to the left, taking two steps forward, two steps back, and then crossing the feet back and forth to the right before taking the two steps forward and two steps back again. The dance would continue for the song’s duration and allowed people to drop out of the circle when they grew tired. Halewijn tried his best to follow along, his feet tripping him up more than twice, but found that Cyra’s steps were too quick for his slow learning pace. As he dropped back, Cyra looked at him in concern, but he shrugged with a smile, content to watch her dance with the others. He watched her smile become a permanent grin as the group became smaller and smaller, her joy found in outlasting the others. Some part of him wished she would smile at him like that, but he resigned himself to remember it was good for him to be patient. He would not rush her.

When the music finally stopped, everyone clapped for the dancers, themselves, the musicians, and the audience. Cyra found her way back to Halewijn’s side, panting as her heart rate slowed. Hal took her hand in his and led her to a seat at the front of the hall where two chairs sat behind a long white table, one chair blue and the other gold. Cyra took the blue one, slowly lowering herself into the cushioned seat, while Halewijn took the gold one.

“A toast!” someone yelled out from the crowd, no doubt eager to begin drinking.

“Ah, a toast,” Cyra’s mother came scrambling around the table, shoving two drinks into the pair’s hands as her father stood. “Yes, a toast to the bride and the groom. May they live their days out in peace and joy. Skål!”

The crowd echoed “skål” and tossed back their various drinks, Cyra’s turning out to be champagne, while Halewijn drank mead. The music began again, this time a tune Halewijn did know, as evidenced by the abrupt abandonment of his drink.

“May I have this dance, Princess?” He asked, holding out a hand to Cyra. Surprised, she hesitated before taking his hand in permission, and he led her to the open floor space, where others were gathering to dance again. This song was slower, noticeably more sensual and intimate. “This is a dance I learned from the West.” He explained, trying to show her the slow footwork and patterns. Cyra slowly but surely picked up the steps, sliding from their joined hands to the tops of his shoulders and then to a proper closed position. Halewijn’s hand traveled down to her waist, where he pulled her in close as they twisted hips and tapped toes on the floor.

Cyra could smell his scent, the memory of forest pines, and white musk invading her nostrils. If she wanted to, she could see the tops of people’s heads over his right shoulder as they danced, but instead, she opted to stare at the space between where his beard began and his vein pulsed. Her gaze was interrupted when he spun her out; however, his palm flattening to push her away and then pull her back in just the same. They picked up right where they left off with the dance, not missing a single beat.

Cyra then chose to focus on the silver stars on his coat, trying to look anywhere but at his eyes. She knew she would be in trouble if she did, and her blood would start singing, the air would get warmer, the space between her thighs would--

“What are you thinking about, little Princess?” He whispered huskily in her ear. It took everything in her to not look at his face, so instead, she focused harder on the stitched stars.

“I... I’m thinking about forest pines.” She lied smoothly. “Pines, white musk, and silver stars.”

“What brings those things to mind?” You, she wanted to reply. He spun her out again, bringing her back in almost immediately. She focused her gaze on her shoes on the out-spin, and on the in-spin, she focused on his chest.

“Just the memory of Yuletide.” Hal paused, thinking of words to say.

“You know I can tell when you’re lying, right?” Another spin.

“Oh?” Cyra felt a wave of warm air run against her neck and back, and sweat began to pool under her arms.

“Mmm-hmm. You’re not looking at me. You’re holding onto a secret.” He pressed closer to her, the hand against her back gripping her a little tighter. “Look at me, little Princess, and tell me I’m mistaken.” Cyra’s eyes slid up his neck and from his chin to his beard. She could look no further. ”Look me in my eyes, Cyra." They stopped dancing, Hal tilting her chin up with an index finger as he held her close with his right hand. Cyra tried to keep her eyes aimed down, but she couldn’t help her eyes wanting to see more of him... No, all of him...

When she met his eyes, she felt the thrumming in her body begin anew. Her lips parted to bring in the fresh air, and the corner of Halewijn’s mouth turned up in a smirk, his eyes searching hers.

“Your own body betrays you.” He observed quietly. Cyra couldn’t deny his words, imprisoned by his golden gaze. He opened his mouth to make another observation, but another fanfare stopped his remarks, the music, and the dancers around them. Cyra turned to see who was entering the party so late, but no new face arrived. Confusion broke out among the attendees, each looking around to catch a glimpse of the newcomer perhaps.

Finally, the announcer cleared his throat and yelled with a tremor of fear, “Presenting His Majesty, High King Omar.” Cyra’s heart, stomach, and intestines all melted into one pile of mush as the High King himself, dressed in harvest gold and barn red from his crown to his shoes, strode in. He looked no different than he had two years ago: his brown face looked stern and unused to smiling, his eyes roamed the crowd to ascertain who his next victim would be, and when they landed upon Cyra, she swore she saw his mouth twitch up ever so slightly.

No one spoke. Everyone, as a collective, bowed to the High King in unison. Everyone - that is - except the High Prince, who stood flat-footed and blank-faced. Cyra, deep in a curtsy, had not removed her ring hand from Halewijn at all, and Hal brought it high enough so that his father could catch a glimpse of the jewel once given to his murdered ex-wife. The High King then smiled - the sight so unnatural that it almost seemed as if he was baring his teeth in a challenge to his only heir.

“My son,” Omar advanced upon the younger version of himself with his arms spread wide, his coat sweeping the floor behind him. “You have grown into your title well.” The High King added after enveloping him in a hug. Halewijn clasped his free arm around his father’s back, patting it twice before letting go. Cyra could only see the brown Persian boots on the floor in front of her, a cold sweat breaking out across her entire body. The shaking feelings started again, but Halewijn gripped her fingers to cover her weakness. “And your bride!”

The clap echoed around the dead-silent room.

“Rise, daughter-in-law. It has been so long since I beheld your beauty.” Cyra slowly rose from her curtsy, her legs like jelly under her skirts. Omar’s eyes examined her from her hair to her feet, his eyes taking their time observing her figure. “I envy you, son. She grows lovelier by the year, like a delicate flower.” He purred, almost reaching up to touch her, but Halewijn wrapped an arm around her waist protectively.

“The Princess is akin to a desert bloom, I think. Even in the harshest conditions, she blossoms." At this quip, Omar stepped back, his eyes roaming the crowd again to see who had heard the obvious stab at his original comparison. When he was satisfied no one had noticed, he laughed, tossing his head back dramatically.

“I see you have taken quite a liking to this desert flower! Then let the musicians play, let the mead flow, and let your house be merry, my son! Skål!”

The music started up instantly. No one echoed the High King, and instead, they all returned to their previous conversations. Omar breezed past the couple, making his way to Cyra’s mother and father to begin a lively discussion. On his way there, the High King drifted by the South’s King and Queen, barely acknowledging the two as they openly glared at him. Cyra felt her heart skip two, three, then four beats as she gripped Halewijn’s arm with white knuckles.

“I need to get out of here,” She gasped softly, feeling her corset begin it’s constricting motion.

"No," Halewijn hissed, turning to her with eyes full of rage. “You must stay here. Any sign of relinquishing territory, and he’s won.”

“I don’t care.” She pressed. The terrors felt only two steps away... She would tumble back down into the dark pit and never return from her despair this time.

“I do,” Halewijn replied, retaking her hand and kissing her ring. “You want to beat him at his own game?” Cyra met his eyes, the answer displayed in her own. “Then we stay here and play along. The only way we lose is by giving in.”

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