Whirlpools & Portraits
The soft lapping sounds of running water drew Cyra’s attention as the carriage slowed to a standstill. Before she could step out and into the grass to stretch her legs, she glanced out of the window and watched Halewijn take massive strides up the hill.
“Wait for him to come to get you,” Bilka advised, her grin sly and all-too-telling. With impatience, she waited for Halewijn to make his appearance, fidgeting with the gloves in her lap. Not a moment later, he opened the door, smiling as he exhaled little puffs of air.
“Are you ready for a short stroll, Princess?” It took all Cyra had not to huff in exasperation as she exited the cramped behemoth, gently holding onto Hal’s hand as he led her down the short step and into the grass.
“How has your ride been?” She inquired, looking back at the twins who were shoving each other playfully before returning her eyes to him.
“The twins are very curious. They’ve asked quite a few personal questions.”
“That’s not unheard of. At least you’re not at their mercy on the rack.” Cyra retorted, tilting her head to the side for a moment.
“This sure feels like an interrogation,” Halewijn laughed, rubbing the back of his neck with a gloved hand and then asking, “What about your ride? Did I stir up any gossip when I left you this morning?” So he knew.
“You always do, and it’s always the good kind.” The Princess teased, and the High Prince squeezed her hand.
“I could say the same about you, you know.”
“I wouldn’t believe you.” Cyra stepped over a pile of dead leaves as they walked along the forest, straying only a little ways away from the other travelers.
“And why is that?” Halewijn inquired, his brows furrowing. “Do you not think you are worthy of people talking about you when you are not present?”
“It’s well known all they talk about is either Gunnar or you when it comes to any mention of my name.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of tha--” Halewijn began, but Cyra stopped him with a hand.
“Either way, it doesn’t matter.” She quipped. “I just want the people I know and trust to stand up for me when the time comes.” Halewijn stopped walking but didn’t let go of her hand, cocking his head at her.
“Do you trust me?” Cyra blinked at him, taking in his features. His face was grave, the ordinarily jovial smile beneath his brown mustache gone. Hal’s golden eyes scanned her from head to toe before they snapped back up to her face, still deadly serious.
“Of course I do... What reason would I have not to trust you?” The dagger grew hot against her thigh at the half-lie. Why was she hiding so much from him at a time like this? Wasn’t she supposed to be transparent with the man she schemed to kill for?
“You tell me.” Cyra knew it was impossible, but the dagger felt like it hummed against her leg - trying to call attention to itself as it sang out its presence between them. If you tell him about me, you’ll feel less guilty. She crossed her left leg in front of it as if to silence its low, graven voice in her mind.
“I do trust you, Hal.” At the sound of his nickname, he relaxed his tensed shoulders and pulled her closer to him. “Do you trust me?” She breathed, looking up at him with wide eyes.
“I trust you. There’s no question about it.” He replied before their lips met. Cyra felt the guilt eating her alive: the garden, the dagger, Gunnar - all of it swirled inside of her like an endless whirlpool of secrets as Halewijn pressed himself against her and made her head spin.
When they departed from each other, Cyra returned to the empty carriage, her stomach churning. Why couldn’t she tell him the truth?
“You know why." Her guilt and the dagger chimed in unison, but for very different reasons. One spoke from the aspect of protecting him, the other from the part of her desire to remain faithful to the one who came before Hal. The absurdity of the situation came crashing down upon her: Halewijn competed with a dead man for her loyalty. A dead man.
She could see the scowl crawl across his face when he found out; the absolute disgust he would have for her if he ever discovered what lay in the garden or what she hid from him on her thigh. He wouldn’t want her anymore - but that wouldn’t be the worst part of the situation.
The worst part would be that she could have avoided it all if she had driven him away like she originally planned to. She could have avoided this mess, avoided Omar, and avoided developing feelings for Halewijn all in one.
But now... now it was too late.
Much, much too late.
They would stop at a small keep halfway between the Eastern Keep and the Southern Court for the night. Seven hours of journeying made Cyra weary, the endless rocking of the carriage preventing any good sleep. As evening drew it’s pink and orange blanket across the sky, she thought of the keep they would be resting in and the comfort of familiarity.
Years ago, she would make frequent stops at the castle, pausing for a moment in her journey to see Gunnar and his family. Her nights would be filled with endless fidgeting and restlessness as she thought of seeing Gunnar, and that all-too-familiar feeling of lovesickness would set in the closer they drew to his estate.
However, this trip would be bittersweet. Everyone knew it would take all of Cyra’s courage to find rest there, but Cyra worried most about seeing his specter in her dreams again, his pale green eyes lurking around every corner of the abode. She told no one of the vision she had while unconscious. The last thing she wanted right now was a rehashing of old arguments and fears she would be incapable of completely letting Gunnar go. No one needed to know about her other guilt and her shame.
The caravan pulled up at the keep within the hour, and Cyra looked up at the sizable home. It was not as big as the palace in the Eastern Court, but it was enough to hold a few guests and their servants for an extended period if need be. The Princess disembarked from the carriage with ease and without Halewijn, as he helped Alorha and Wyndemere unpack the luggage. Mirabel followed her inside of the castle, and Cyra paused when they stepped into the foyer.
At the top of the staircase, a large portrait of the Southern Court hung, ten pairs of eyes looking down at the people below. Cyra had forgotten all about this relic she used to cherish, the way she’d gaze upon Gunnar’s face with pride and know that she, too, would be part of that portrait someday. But those feelings were gone now, replaced by a hollowness she couldn’t describe.
Her eyes roamed over the five people in the image: Aethelwulf - his jet black hair braided and pushed behind his ears - stood in an outfit made of the Southern Court colors: ice gray and deep sea green. At his waist, he held a saber, who’s name was “GodFearer.” She could hear Gunnar’s voice in her head, chanting the phrase over and over as he imagined the familial sword at his waist when he inherited it. Smyrna sat to his left, legs crossed while sitting on a white couch - her bone-white hair almost blending in with it. The artist painted her green eyes with almost pristine accuracy; Cyra was afraid they would move at any moment every time she looked at the painting. She smiled brightly, her gown made of dark sea green and curled hair cascading around her pale face. Her eldest son Markus stood behind her, his emotionless face and white hair almost in perfect contrast to his mother’s expression. But Cyra knew Markus and the youngest brother, Phillipe were sweethearts at their cores. Phillipe was a smaller replica of Markus, but it was Gunnar - who was the middle child - who stood out. Inheriting his father’s black hair and his mother’s vivid green eyes, he sat between his father and mother; chin tucked slightly. Gunnar folded his arm behind the couch, his right hand the only visible part of it. He dressed in all black, which made his tan skin seem even tanner in the painting. Out of the three brothers, he was the only one that dared to deviate from the protocol. This attitude branded him as the heir of the Southern Court crown after Phillipe perished in a fire during the war, and his eldest brother died protecting the coast from the beyonders that next year.
It was also that attitude that sent him to his death.
Someone cleared their throat behind Cyra, and she realized she was standing in the way of Wyndemere and Halewijn carrying a chest inside. When Halewijn caught a glimpse of the painting, he frowned before his brows smoothed out into a knowing expression. He remembered Smyrna and Aethelwulf, but the sight of the three brothers was new. Cyra watched as he looked over the three men, all within the age necessary to pursue her - at least, while they were alive. Would he discover which one was Gunnar?
Before either of them could find out, Mirabel pulled Cyra up the stairs and past the portrait, the eyes following them down a long hall of doors. The room that used to be hers was still hers; she realized as she opened the door to her former frequent residence. The lamps, bedspread, candles, everything was as she left it the last time she stayed here, all of it kept in perfect condition by the servants who lived here full time.
The emotions the room held were still there, as well. When Cyra looked at the deep sea green bed sheets, she remembered imagining herself tangled up in them with Gunnar. The years she spent dreaming about their life as royals in the Southern Court came back to her in a rush, and a throbbing feeling began in her heart - like the feeling of a fresh scar.
A sob escaped her lips as Mirabel ushered in the twins with Cyra’s things, and she turned away from the three to go into the bathroom. After shutting the door, she faced the wall as she cried silently, covering her mouth with her hands to prevent herself from making too much noise. The sounds of luggage muffled the sounds of her crying, thankfully, and Cyra hoped the three would vacate so she could weep in private.
“Princess, we’re going to find something to eat. Do you need anything?”
“No.” Cyra managed to steady herself enough to sound okay, and they all left, shutting the main door behind them with a click. It was only then that she let her tears flow freely, and her sobs go unmuffled. Never getting close to hysterics, Cyra toed the line between loud moans and wails as she gasped for air. She sobbed so hard that she didn’t hear the door reopen, nor the quickening footsteps approaching the bathroom.
A knock at the bathroom door shocked her into stillness, and she paused. “Cyra?” She could hear Hal’s gentle voice from the other side, his tone worried.
“I’m fine, Hal.” She muttered, but he carried on anyway.
“You left your gloves in the carriage.” He stated as he opened the door, the pair in his hands. Upon seeing her tear-streaked face, he set down the gloves and moved to wrap her into an embrace, sighing as her head touched his shoulder. “There must be so many memories here,” Hal murmured, his voice humming against her ear. He rubbed her back with affection, letting her stay in his embrace as long as she liked.
When she finally pulled away, Cyra wiped her eyes and then leaned back on the counter, looking down at her boots. “I don’t want to lie to you,” She started, her mouth attempting to forgo the confession, but her brain rebelling. “Are you ready to know what’s in the garden?” The racing of her heart almost drowned out the sound of Halewijn’s hum of approval. Again, she breathed in deeply, then launched into her tale.