Stags and Jewels
It was then that Mirabel emerged from the party, her curly red hair frizzy and dress ruffled from feverish dancing.
“Princess?” She cried breathlessly. “Princess?!” She held onto the “e” that time, taking her pitch up before it landed back down in a lower pitch. Mirabel had Cyra’s discarded shoes in her right hand, dangling by the laces. When she spotted the shoeless royals, she stopped and huffed a sigh of relief, stopping in her tracks. “I have searched for you everywhere! It has been an hour, as promised. Are you...” Mirabel trailed off as she caught the visage of Hal, barely lit by the torches behind her, but his image fully present in the moonlight. Cyra looked over to Hal, who glanced at Mirabel with a blank expression on his face, one of unrecognition. Suddenly, Mirabel shook her head and bowed low. “High King, I had no idea you were here with us. Your presence is--” Hal stood quickly, hands up to stop her.
“No, no. I’m not Omar!” He looked over to Cyra briefly to mouth “See?” before turning back to Mirabel. “I’m not Omar,” he repeated when she didn’t rise. Mirabel looked up at Cyra slowly, her fear unmasked but slowly fading away. The silence between the three felt thick and unsettling until Mirabel cleared her throat, remembering her reason for coming out to the garden.
“Are you ready to leave, Princess?” Cyra and Hal made eye contact, pausing in the midnight air to take stock of their conversation. He had said...
“I think about it all the time.”
Cyra rose, not sure what to make of the conversation, but ready to be back home. She stood next to Hal, their hands nearly brushing as she walked past him.
“Yes. I am ready.”
“Let me walk you to your carriage.” Hal offered, slipping his shoes back on. Mirabel was already making her way back to the party, leaving them behind to chat in private. They walked in silence until they reached the party again, whereupon Hal extended his arm for her to take. Cyra obliged, still barefoot.
It appeared that Hal had not really made his rounds through the party, as everyone who saw them began whispering amongst themselves. Is that Omar? What was the High King doing with the Eastern Court in tow? Where were they going? Cyra made no move to address any rumors or ease any fears. For once, they were talking about the mystery surrounding her, and not pitying her for something they could not control.
The two ascended the stairs, not bothering to say goodnight or goodbye to the hostess or host. As they neared the end of the carpet - where Mirabel waited with her shoes - Cyra loosed her grip on Hal’s arm. Placing her slippers back on, she took one last long look at Hal, whose smile reached his eyes yet again. He helped her into the carriage behind Mirabel, before hanging onto the opened carriage door.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness.” Cyra smiled back at him, feeling her cheeks warm up. She thanked the gods that her skin was a deep cider color that didn’t betray her flushed cheeks and replied softly,
“The pleasure is all mine, Lord Hal.” Hal winked at her and stepped back, closing the door before the carriage lurched forward.
”Lord Hal...” Mirabel whispered beside her, searching her mind for any sliver of information that could identify him further. “Such a handsome face with impeccable manners.” She noted, resting her chin on her propped up fist. “He must not be around Omar that much.” Cyra flinched at the observation but kept quiet.
No, he wasn’t like Omar in any way. His words were kind and his nature inquisitive, not accusatory or investigative. Mirabel glanced away from the window to Cyra’s face, which was drawn and pensive. “Would you ever consider taking his hand in marriage? I’m sure it would be better than--” Mirabel cut herself off, aware she was treading on thin ice with her comments. “I’m sure you might find some happiness with him.” She finally murmured, proceeding to look out of the carriage window at the passing darkness.
Cyra sat in the window of her bedroom, looking out into the expansive gardens below while fiddling with the ends of her curly hair.
The engagement party replayed itself in the back of her mind as she dressed that morning, choosing a simple Prussian blue gown with embroidered lotus flowers dancing up the right side and sleeves. It had been two weeks, but not a single piece of gossip had floated her way about the mystery Lord Hal seemed to be. Perhaps he had simply been a figment of her imagination... But when she discussed it with Mirabel - who held out hope that he would send some form of correspondence - she knew she hadn’t been dreaming or hallucinating.
So, why was he so hard to pin down?
The door to her chambers opened with haste, a hallmark of either Mirabel or her mother, Surta, entering the room. No one else dared to forget to knock. Surta - who was her mother’s own lady-in-waiting - burst through, her black and silver hair pinned behind her ears and scooped into a bun. The woman swiftly bowed, her tan skin glowing in the sunlight, before sputtering.
“Your mother and father have received news of a visitor coming to the palace within the hour.”
“Unannounced from the border?” Cyra stood, dropping her hands by her sides. No one came through the borders without her parents knowing of it.
“It appears so. The visitor has been in the East for quite some time. This is his first time to visit the palace, however.” Cyra didn’t know how to respond to this news. She followed the woman to the throne room with haste, however, where her mother and father sat. They whispered amongst themselves, Queen Bilka’s long brown hair cascading around her face and shielding her words from perception. Her father, King Ekbert, sat with his weathered, brown face turned to the door, as if the stranger would waltz through it at any moment.
“There’s a visitor?” Cyra started, approaching her parents quickly. Her mother turned her soft chestnut eyes towards her, brows raised.
“Yes. The visitor is coming forthwith; Wyndemere says he made it through the outer city with little difficulty.” The mention of the Royal Guard’s white-haired leader eased her concern, but not by a lot. If he had breezed through the outer city, he was less than half an hour away.
“Has he stopped to announce who he is?” Cyra inquired further, fiddling with her fingernails.
“No.” Her father spoke softly, still looking to the door behind her. Who was this man, and why had he come with no announcement? At that moment, Wyndemere pushed through the back chamber door, flanked by his twin brother, Alorha. The two white-haired men strode in confidently, covered head to toe in all black from their boots to their doublets. The twins bowed before the family, eyes cast low. Her mother clicked her tongue thrice and waved her hand, dismissing them from their prostrations, eager to hear their discovery.
Alorha spoke first, his voice deep as he trained his black eyes on the Queen and King. “We have heard he is coming with gifts, Your Majesties. He rides a stag into the kingdom.”
“A stag...” Her father mused, perhaps coming to some sort of conclusion but not voicing it aloud.
“He does not travel light, either. I witnessed firsthand the guards, the trunks, the carts. He is either bringing his entire wealth with him or bringing a large sum of gifts to give your court.” Wyndemere added, seemingly uncomfortable with the idea of the number of gifts possibly arriving. The breath hitched in all of the royal’s throats. What did this man want? Bringing patronage and unannounced, at that?
They didn’t have to wait long for their answer.
Cyra rushed to take her place behind the thrones as the commotion in the hallways grew louder. The din reached an apex as the doors to the throne room opened, and the golden glow of the sun flooded in.
The Princess stood stock still as a host of guards walked in, armed lightly as if to say “This is a peaceful visit.” The guards, dressed in white and gold, were almost identical down to the details on their high-knee boots, little gold leaves dancing along the tops of the shafts. At each of their sides, jeweled sabers hung from a strap attached to their hips, and they wore the same neutral expression on their faces. She counted ten of them, five in two pin-straight lines. Each pair took the time to bow before drifting off to the far right side, lining up against the windows neatly.
The next group to come before the royals were two sets of young men, each holding a chest. One by one, the men opened each trunk and then turned it to the family to observe. Raw, uncut gems. Fine silks and fabrics. Another chest held rare spices. The final chest... the last chest contained large round cylinders, all capped at both ends with jeweled onion domes. Cyra frowned. The mystery of the cylinders overshadowed the glamour of the other gifts, but that quickly faded into the back of her mind as the famed visitor swept into the throne room, dressed head to toe in gold and white.
“Presenting His Highness, High Prince Halewijn.” The guards straightened up, the young men bowed, and the other gathered court members followed their example. Only Cyra, Bilka, and Ekbert remained unmoving. When the stranger came into the light, her knees began to shake under her dress. Lord Hal strode into the room, his warm amber head held high and golden eyes bright. Her mother and father inhaled together as they were taken by the visage of Halewijn, just as Cyra had been two weeks before.
“Prince Halewijn, it is such a pleasure to have you here in our court. Why did you not forewarn us of your arrival?” King Ekbert mused aloud, confused and yet, amused.
“I did not want you all to go to the trouble of putting a feast or a ball together. I simply want to be able to see my godparents again.” At this, Bilka smiled widely. Godparents?!
Cyra looked from her parents to examine Halewijn again, the High Prince shining like a star in the middle of the night sky. Did this man command the sun that it should shine around him in such a way? He caught her eyes as soon as she finished the thought and smiled sweetly at her.
“Your Highness.” He bowed low, sweeping his hand from the crown of the head to the tops of his feet and then to his waist, where he held himself for a moment before straightening back up. Cyra stiffened at the sight of him performing one of the most intimate bows she knew of: a Lover’s Embrace. It didn’t escape her mother or father’s notice either, drawing their eyes from the High Prince’s performance to the Princess’s reddened face. Halewijn met her eyes again, winking this time. Cyra swallowed hard, past the lump in her throat that prevented her from speaking and addressing the man.
Suddenly, the truth hit her. “High Prince” had never been a designation for a lowly Lord. The gifts and the mystery behind the visitor overshadowed the title originally, but now that the truth - plainly displayed like a natural jewel in the sunlight - was out in the open, embarrassment crept into her expression. The man who stood before her reigned, not as a simple lord of lands, but as High King Omar’s son.
“Halewijn, my dear, what have you come for?” Bilka wondered, resting her tiny index finger on a golden brown temple.
The bow of a Lover’s Embrace.
The sound of her own heartbeat flooded her ears as he spoke, but she didn’t need to hear his words to understand what he wanted.
“Godmother, Godfather... I have come not only to visit your lands but...” He paused, now looking to Cyra with an intensity she had never seen in anyone’s eyes, save one person. “I also came to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”