A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Doves & Ghosts

Halewijn waited for a moment before replying, his eyes glazing over.

“I am not unfamiliar with the practice of burying organs. And you mean the flowers protect the organs?”

“Yes,” she answered honestly. “It’s a selfish act, maybe. But when you love someone...”

Halewijn nodded, knowing the feeling all too well. He uncrossed his arms and leaned back on the countertop, not looking at her.

“Cyra... You resorted to dark magic for Gunnar. Promise me you’ll never do something so reckless again. I have seen the effects of dark spells going wrong, and it would kill me if you performed such an act that resulted in harm to anyone.” The thought that she was reckless had never truly crossed her mind, but Halewijn was not wrong. "Please." The broken noise that came from Halewijn’s throat inflamed the guilt in her heart, and she placed a hand on his for reassurance.

“I won’t use dark magic again.” She whispered, and he nodded, still unable to look at her. With that assurance, he squeezed her hand once before leaving the bathroom. Before he stepped out of the doorway, he turned around to face her.

“Meet me in the courtyard in the morning at dawn.” He didn’t wait for a reply but left her standing alone in the bathroom.

No ghosts haunted her dreams. Instead, tendrils of light cascaded into her room, and she felt around the bed lazily, only half-remembering that Halewijn had summoned her to the courtyard. When she shook off the sleep, Cyra rushed to meet the High Prince in the frosty morning light.

Hal stood in the dewy grass, facing the sun in a bright yellow and barn red long-sleeved tunic. A heavy wolf pelt hung around his shoulders, and he only turned around when Cyra placed her hand on his back. The High Prince looked down at her small figure, clad only in the dark purple gown she had fallen asleep in. He swept an arm around her shoulder and directed her attention to the sun.

“My mother once told me that a wolf named Sköll chased the sun through the sky during the day, and one named Hati chased the moon at night. I realized that even enemies pursue the sun in its infinite nature, yet it escapes. What would make me, a mere mortal, any better than the sun that I should not endure such trials?”

“You show an immense amount of wisdom, High Prince.”

“Wisdom is relative. I am wise about a few things, ignorant of many other things.”

“Even that is a wise statement,” Cyra chuckled, and the sun in Hal’s eyes gleamed.

“I brought you here to show you something.” He remembered, turning to the left to retrieve something from his pants. “You have come a long way, and I would be remiss if I did not honor you with a small token of my affection before the Yuletide.” He produced a sun brooch like the one he wore the day they went into the city, holding it out in his palm. Cyra touched the golden pin, tracing the pattern and swirls as Hal observed her.

“It’s beautiful.” The simplicity of it was not like the other gifts he had given her - previously bedecking her with jewels and fragrances.

“It was a gift from an old friend, and he made me one as well as one for my bride.”

“You didn’t give this to your first bride?”

“It didn’t have it then.” Cyra took the delicate piece in her hand and closed her fingers over it. “Wear it whenever you’d like; I will always wear my pin when we visit other courts.”

Cyra took the gift with thanks, smiling up at Halewijn. He placed a hand on the back of her head and brought her close, pressing his lips against her brow. “I will see you when they ready the horses.”

Mirabel tucked the fabric’s folds around the pin, draping the large shawl over Cyra’s shoulders with precision. The grey muslin dress beneath the cloak was identical to the Southern Court’s ice grey, but she wore a blood-red shawl on top with the pin securing the ends of it.

“Homage to your past, but acknowledgment to your future.” Mirabel had announced when she presented Cyra with the outfit. The lady-in-waiting then snaked her hair into a fishtail braid, deftly sliding a laurel hair comb into the back of her head. “You look like a fairy,” Mirabel noted, and Cyra grinned at the red-head.

“I hope Smyrna and Aethelwulf will be excited to see us.” It was a genuine possibility that Cyra’s assault could alienate her from the court.

“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you and get to know Halewijn better.”

Mirabel and Cyra linked arms and walked out to the carriages together, where Alorha and Wyndemere sat, obviously bored.

“Finally, you showed up,” Wyndmere grumbled, yanking the behemoth’s door open. Mirabel stuck her tongue out at the less inviting twin and stepped inside the carriage. Cyra made a note of where Halewijn and his steed were closer to the caravan’s front than they had been the day before.

She entered the plush cabin and sat down, smoothing her skirts out before the door shut. Her mother and Surta greeted her brightly, offering a smile before turning their attention elsewhere. Yawning, Cyra leaned back in the seat, shifting, so she was mildly comfortable, and then proceeding to nod off.

In her dreams, she was dancing among many men and women, being swept off her feet by nameless man after nameless man before she stumbled across Halewijn, who waltzed with a blonde-haired woman. A pang of something hit her- jealousy perhaps? - and she moved to wrench him away from the woman’s grasp when she felt a hand on her wrist.

The ice-cold fingers belonged to none other than Gunnar, whose pale face and gentle green gaze threw ice water on the flames of her jealousy.

“One last dance.” He promised her, and she followed his lead, swirling around the ballroom with him one last time. Emotions she refused to acknowledge in her waking life were stirred up while they waltzed about the floor - like the anger she reserved for one man only or the loneliness she endured daily.

“But now you have Halewijn,” Gunnar titled his head as they danced, her unspoken emotion perhaps spoken after all. “And he is a good, god-fearing Prince. He makes you feel less lonely, right?” The words almost felt like an accusation as he spun her out, and Halewijn took her hand to spin him into his chest. Gunnar disappeared as Halewijn took up the dance and moved counterclockwise, the room turning on itself.

“Gunnar is gone, but he sent a replacement.”

“No one can replace Gunnar.” Cyra bit out, frowning deeply.

“You won’t ever admit to loving me, will you?” Halewijn pouted, spinning her out and then back in, but his face aged considerably, changing into Omar’s scowl. “Just say you love me, and this can end.” Horror shot down her spine, but her feet wouldn’t stop moving, and her head was spinning, and she --

“This will never end. I want more.” Omar smiled, his teeth sharpened like daggers. Wake up, wake up, wake up!

“Wake up!” Someone shouted across the ballroom.

Cyra’s eyes flew open, the light flooding her vision before it readjusted. She was not in a ballroom but the carriage, safe and sound. Fear dashed down her spine when she remembered the dream and Omar’s face, turning from Halewijn into a strange, scarier version of his own.

“Cyra, the palace!” Mirabel pointed to a large black structure in the middle of an isle connected to the mainland by a bridge.

It was just as she remembered it.

The blue saltwater that served as a moat gleamed in the sunlight, and she could smell the salt from her position in the carriage. The soothing image of the large glass windows that bordered every single side of the castle made Cyra feel more relaxed than she had in ages. She used to press her face up against the glass to see if she could identify any doves flying from the windows, carrying important messages to the outposts at sea, or maybe a silhouette. The castle was sure to be bustling with life at this time of year, with each royal court invited to the Yuletide celebrations.

Despite all of this, Cyra did not press her face against the glass this time. Instead, she fiddled with the gloves in her lap and the shawl’s pin, nervously adjusting everything. Today she represented Halewijn and her court, and she would need to be the best version of herself in front of the other royals. If Mirabel noticed her nerves, she said nothing - maybe hoping she would calm herself down.

The caravan arrived at the Southern Palace within an hour, and servants rushed from the building to assist with unpacking. Aethelwulf and Smyrna emerged moments later, a vision of perfection and absolute regality. Her father opened the door to the carriage this time, allowing Surta and Bilka to exit first before the lady-in-waiting, and finally, Cyra.

“My girl!” Smyrna descended the stairs; arms held wide to envelop Cyra yet again. “Aethelwulf and I have not stopped talking about you since we heard you and your fiance would be attending.” She breathed, holding Cyra close. “We made sure that you and your groom wouldn’t be too far away from each other... and that you kept your old room.” Cyra glanced over at Halewijn, who had struck up a conversation with her father and Aethelwulf. He seemed entirely comfortable between the two older men as he made remarks about the ride and weather conditions.

“Thank you; you always know how to make me feel welcomed.”

“Oh, and the High King will not be attending this Yul. He declined our invitation after the snafu at the engagement party. However,” Smyrna paused, looking around to see who might be listening. “I took the liberty of inviting some of our other friends. I’m sure you’ll enjoy their company very much.”

“Which court are they from?” Cyra wondered.

“That’s my secret.” Smyrna smiled slyly, placing a finger to her lips. “For now, you should eat! I know that ride must’ve been draining.”

Cyra wandered up the steps to the main floor, her stomach close to bursting after she and her family were plied full of meats, sweets, and drink. On the first floor, she knew the servants would be readying different rooms for the other royals that would come and stay the twelve days at the Southern Court. Taking the steps to the coveted second floor, Cyra imagined what it would be like for her to plan the Yuletide festival, and then quickly decided that it would be too much for her sensibilities.

On the second floor, there was only one side of the hall that would host guests, and it was that same side that she would be staying. Her room had been closer to Gunnar’s than anyone else’s in the palace. That arrangement had been orchestrated by Smyrna, who enjoyed the idea of the two younger royals secretly meeting in the hallways at night. As long as nothing traumatic came of the arrangement, she would continue to enjoy the dalliances between her son and future daughter-in-law.

The ghosts of her past self and Gunnar dashed through the hallways, memories of their nightly excursions to courtyards or hedge mazes haunting the palace halls. When she reached her former residence door, Cyra hesitated. The dove-shaped doorknob felt cold to the touch as she smoothed her fingers across its silver back. Would she have nightmares in her old room? Or would the ghost of Gunnar await her there, hoping to address her again? Pushing the thoughts aside, she opened the door anyway.

The quiet in the room was unsettling. Nothing except the fire’s sound already roaring and the clock ticking above the mantle could be heard in the old space. Grey sheets covered the four-poster bed, and a black canopy hung above it. Nothing in the room was new, though. Nothing had changed since she last stayed here, either. The relics from time’s past sat unmoved in her old place, and a sense of comfort washed over her. In the closet, an old riding outfit hung, neatly hung, and cleaned before she arrived. She fingered the old clothes that belonged to Gunnar before they were hers; the leather pants and black muslin shirt remained the same, just like the day she had worn them.

Mirabel and Halewijn walked into the room, laughing and chatting about the ride, and Cyra peered around the wardrobe to watch them walk in. “Gods, I am so full. I think I’m going to spend some time sleeping.” Mirabel yawned, stretching her arms over her head.

“I think I will do the same,” Halewijn began before looking over at Cyra. “I wondered where you had gone off to.” He stepped beside her to look in the wardrobe, humming at the semi-empty space.

“It’s just a riding outfit,” Cyra explained while Mirabel took out her dresses and slippers, sliding between them to hang the items up.

“We should go for a ride after a nap. Do you know the area well?” Halewijn asked, quirking a brow at her.

Does she know the area well?" Mirabel choked, looking at Hal incredulously. “High Prince, she used to ride the length of the palace walls with Gunnar every single time she came here.” At the mention of Gunnar, his face became tight. Mirabel noticed the change in expression and backed down.

“I would like to go for a ride later,” Cyra interjected, and Halewijn nodded.

“I will come to fetch you in a few hours.” He swept out of the room, and once the door shut, Cyra turned to Mirabel.

“He knows about the garden now.”

“You told him?” Mirabel hissed, concern written all over her face.

“The guilt was eating me alive. Hal almost figured it out when I went to investigate the flowers. He trusts me, and that’s something I can’t -”

“Ladies! I brought your favorite Yul drinks!” Bilka paraded in with two mugs of steaming hot cinnamon brew, halting when she observed the two ladies pre-spat. “Should I... come back later?”

“No, mother,” Cyra whispered, taking the mugs from her and handing one to Mirabel. “Thank you for the warm cinnamon brew.”

“You’re welcome. I thought we could all talk about the wedding for a bit before you went riding with Halewijn.” Of course, her mother knew about their excursion. “Are you going to show him the spot?”

“What spot?”

“You know... the spot you and Gunnar would go to every time you went riding.” Cyra rolled her eyes at her mother’s cheekiness, wishing she had never told her about the small cave in the first place. She sat on the edge of the bed as Bilka laughed at her expression, taking a sip of the cinnamon brew before sitting it on the nightstand.

“If you ever tell him about that spot, I’ll never let you see your grandchildren.” The threat, hollow as ever, made Bilka laugh even harder, and for some reason, made Cyra laugh a little, too. She couldn’t imagine Hal’s face if he ever found out she and Gunnar used to make out in that small cave, their kisses leaving marks a blind man could decipher from a mile away. The more she thought about it, the funnier it seemed, and the more she laughed, remembering the terrible hickeys and high-necked dresses she had to wear after a stay at the Southern Court.

Those were different times.

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