Wyndemere gripped the reins of his horse tightly, his watchful eyes scanning the scene around him with every move the caravan made. Alorha, who rode behind him, was no doubt doing the same, but with his ears. The twins made a perfect pair: the eyes and the ears of the crown. Ekbert - who rode behind Alorha - was simply the mouth, and Bilka, the heart. But Cyra... The leader of the guard considered his youngest charge. The little Princess, with her wide blood-brown eyes, was the soul.
If Wyndemere could fall in love, it would’ve been with her. He knew that in his heart and knew Cyra had a fondness for him as well, but not as she had once felt for Gunnar and now felt for Halewijn. He smiled as he thought of the Princess, denying herself the pleasure of falling in love again. No matter how hard she tried to stay away from the High Prince, she would end up in his arms every time. That was another thing he knew in his heart. When Halewijn paraded into the city on his stag, he took one look at the man and told Alorha: “He’s here for Cyra.”
Nevermind the fact that Halewijn just so happened to be the son of the cruelest ruler they had ever personally known, Alorha said it best at the engagement ball when Omar had appeared out of thin air. “Our High Prince will kill for Cyra, whether they’re married or not. And she doesn’t even realize it.”
So as Wyndemere rode beside the High Prince, he tried to suss him out one last time.
“Halewijn, you seem to know a great deal about the gods and their progeny. Who fostered such love?”
“My mother, Tamar. She was a very spiritual woman, but it did not save her in the end. I still rely on the gods, however. They led me from my poverty and into the wealth and good name I have now.” The twins knew all about the late Queen Tamar and the tragedy that befell the High Court.
“I’m assuming you’re referring to your father removing you from his court to live elsewhere. You say your gods guided you into your success, and I believe you; Alorha and I have a similar story.”
“Oh?” The High Prince trained his golden eyes on the pair with mounting curiosity. “You two seem like you would’ve grown up with the Princess in relative comfort.” Alorha scoffed loudly, which didn’t phase either man, and Halewijn waited for some explanation, looking between the two patiently. After a long moment of silence, Alorha gave in.
“Our mother and father were... not compatible, per se. There was a lot of tension surrounding our births, and my mother ended up leaving us as wards of the church. We were not spiritual by any means, but staying under the church’s protection and the priests did us a favor. We learned how to serve, and it was our propensity to serve that landed us in the palace when we were around ten years old. We learned to fight, paid our tithes to the gods, and have dedicated ourselves as members of the Royal Guard until we desire to leave.”
“Which won’t be anytime soon,” Wyndemere interjected suddenly. The real plan was to live their lives out as Royal Guardsmen and only leave when they died. Nobody knew that their whole plan - akin to a suicide mission - held more weight over their choices than the concept of “retiring” and “comfort.” Their patron god, Widion, would only accept them into his court upon death if they died in battle, with the exception being that they served in the realm of fighting for the majority of their lives. There was no escaping that charge; they had paid the god an oath in blood upon their entry into the Eastern Court, and to go against his mandate would mean certain doom.
“The King and Queen are lucky to have such loyal members of their court.”
”We are the lucky ones,” Alorha replied, his ears perking up after he finished speaking. Halewijn did not say anything further, but Wyndemere could tell he was thinking of something to say. “I have a question,” The other twin chimed in, his lips pursed. “If the King and Queen are your godparents, why did you not come and live with them when Omar removed you from his court?” The validity of such a question resounded like a bell in Wyndemere’s head; the second twin attempted to piece together Halewijn’s story.
“That was my original plan. I had hoped I would find my way to the Eastern Court, but when I began to live independently, I found that not causing trouble was much easier for everyone involved. I didn’t want to bring them into my domestic issues, especially since they’re still on the High Council.”
“But now you have done so. What makes your current timing any better?” When Halewijn’s eyes jerked to his, Wyndemere knew whatever he would say next would not be a lie.
“Now, I know I’m not the only one that has suffered at my father’s hands.”
Three hours into the journey, and nothing eventful had occurred.
Wyndemere and Alorha spent their time feeding the horses while Halewijn made his way up the hill and the second carriage.
Cyra poked her head out of the window, eyeing him before he approached. Wyndemere tossed a look at his twin, who leaned back to catch a glimpse of the scene before straightening back up, sure he was out of earshot.
“How long until he comes to the right conclusion about us? I’m taking your bet now.” The twins always bet on how long it would take for any long-term guests to find out the truth about half of the people employed by the Eastern Court. Their last bet had gone horribly: Wyndemere was off by two weeks, Alorha, by six hours.
Alorha inhaled sharply, looking up to the sky while clicking his tongue. “I’d give him another month.”
“A whole month? That’s longer than I would give him. Especially considering Tamar and his own experience with the beyonders. He can tell when something isn’t quite normal.” Wyndemere used the crude name for the people who did not live on their continent with a twinge of venom. Beyonders came in all shapes and sizes, but what he meant by ‘beyonders’ was Skaruskans, who lived to the continent’s southwest.
Alorha grinned at his brother, baring all of his white teeth. The very sight of it would curdle the blood of a weaker man, which is another reason they enjoyed battle: it was easy to smile at your enemy when you knew you would win. “That’s why I give him another month before he says anything to either of us. He knows a Beyonder when he sees one. Hell, he’s very friendly with the Emperor and Empress-to-be. I think Halewijn likes to hide that he knows so much.”
“What about Mirabel?”
“Little ’Bel? Ah, he knows about her too. I saw it in his eyes when we were at the stables the day the thugs ambushed us.” Alorha leaned over again to watch Mirabel exit the carriage.
“If he knows so much, why isn’t he confronting anyone about it?” The usual response was for the visitor to run to Bilka and Ekbert, attempting to warn them of the creatures lurking in their court. Bilka and Ekbert would pay them off, send them far away, and never invite them back. The worst-case ended up being sent into the forest and told to run as fast as he could before Alorha or Mirabel found their mark - which was his back. They purposely misfired all of their arrows, but Mirabel did catch the skin of his ear as he zig-zagged through the brush and trees. The warning ended up working; the man never spoke a word, not even on his deathbed.
“Listen, just place a bet so I can know how much I have to spend at the tavern when we return.”
“I’ll bet you sixteen coins he says something by the end of this month.”
“That’s only two Drachanons!” Alorha shoved his brother, making him stumble a bit before Wyndemere pushed him back.
“You only need two Drachanons. Any more, and we’re facing another bar fight. This time I won’t be so open to defending you against whoever comes to fight you.” Alorha laughed loudly, catching the attention of a few other royal guards, before patting his shoulder.