A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Dukes & Duchesses

Day after day, new royals arrived at the Southern Court, and they slowly but surely filled up the remaining guest rooms with ease.

Part of Cyra wanted to stay in her room until Yuletide officially began, but Halewijn made it a point to get her out of her room at least twice a day. He disguised his true intentions with innocent activities, like reading in the hedge maze or watching the sunset. But everyone, including Cyra, knew that he was parading her about. Hal wanted to show her off, and for a moment, she was glad for the attention and enjoyed spending time with him. But after a few days, Cyra began to feel like the other courts looked upon her as an accessory and not a Princess, which was irritating.

On the fourth day of their stay, Cyra found that she couldn’t get out of bed. No matter how much coaxing Mirabel did or how many times she made a note of the sun’s rising, Cyra couldn’t move a single limb to get up. All she could do was stare out of the windows, looking upon the glassy moat with little interest. Instead of leaving her alone, Mirabel went to find Halewijn, who cradled a book in his hand as he entered Cyra’s room. Mirabel did not return with him; she noticed as she peeked out from beneath the covers and watched him cross over to the bed.

He wore a dark grey tunic and pant set, the long sleeves of the tunic brushing against his wrists. The silver laurel crown he wore sat neatly upon his head, and she squinted as the sun glinted off of it when he crouched before her.

“You look pale.” He mentioned, reaching up to stroke her face tenderly. Cyra blinked at his observation, not bothering to answer. “Do you feel unwell?” She shook her head, no. The truth was that she didn’t want to leave her room anymore, not for anyone or anything. Not even Halewijn. “I’ve been flaunting you around too much, haven’t I?” When she met his eyes, she saw the worry in them, so she shook her head yes. “That’s my fault. I let my pride get the better of me sometimes...” He sighed, looking down at the book. “I won’t bother you if you wish to rest. Mirabel came to me and told me you wouldn’t leave the bed, and so I thought -” Cyra knew what he thought. He thought she might be having another breakdown about Gunnar. “But if you wish to be left alone, I’ll go.” He stood, but before she knew what she was doing, her hand shot out and touched his.

“Stay.” She whispered hoarsely, and he obliged, pulling a chair from the fireplace up to the bed.

“Shall I read you something? Or would you like to rest?”

“Read to me,” Cyra replied, and he opened the book, reading some story about a king who angered the gods and was punished harshly for it. The deep bass of his voice lulled her to sleep again, and she closed her eyes.

When she awoke, Halewijn was still in the chair with his bare feet propped up on the side of the bed. The book lay in his lap, yet open with his hand pressed against the page, but the High Prince was asleep. His other hand propped up his head, and his mouth was slightly agape, soft snores emanating from his throat. Cyra observed the sleeping man for the first time and noted his expression; his entire body relaxed on the velvet chair. Impulsively, she reached out to him and tapped him on the leg. His eyes flicked open, and he looked over at her, bleary-eyed.

Cyra patted the bed twice, and he hesitated. The moment quickly passed, though, and he climbed into the bed beside her, allowing her to cover him with the heavy comforter fully. Hal reached an arm around her shoulders, letting Cyra rest her head and left arm on his chest. He sighed heavily, then placed his right hand on her left after closing his eyes.

“You’re warm.” She breathed, and he chuckled softly.

“I’m covered in things to keep me warm. You, however, are only in a linen nightgown.” Cyra blushed as he ran his hand over her waist and hummed in approval. The proximity between them added to the feeling of heat elsewhere, and she adjusted herself slightly to alleviate the pressure between her thighs. “Don’t,” Halewijn warned, his eyes still closed.

“Don’t what?”

“Move like that. With you lying next to me, I don’t know if I can control myself.” Cyra’s eyes flicked up to his face, and she noticed his clenched jaw. A moment of wickedness crossed her impulses, and she wiggled a little more. The hand on her waist tightened, and he exhaled loudly.

“You mean like this?” She whispered in his ear, moving her feet up from his ankles to his knees, running her toes along his shin bone.

“You’re testing my resolve.” He noticed, and she laughed.

“Maybe I like seeing you bothered. You’re very unemotional when it comes to expressions of negative feelings.”

“This isn’t a negative feeling, Princess.” Her left hand moved across his chest, resting on his heart, which fluttered quickly beneath her fingers.

“Ah, I see...” Cyra began, sitting up on her elbow. Her hair tickled Halewijn’s face, which made his eyes flick open again, and he squinted his eyes at her.

“You won’t like the response you get if you keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Oh?” Cyra tossed a leg over his waist, flinging her hair behind her right shoulder. “But I’m not doing anything.” She lied smoothly, and Halewijn’s hands slid up her bare legs, his warm palms squeezing her calves gently as she lowered her head.

“Do you know what you do to me?” He moaned, craning his head forward to meet her lips.

“Oh, that much is obvious,” Cyra replied as their lips met, her eyes closing slowly. Halewijn kept kissing her, though, and she gradually deepened the embrace, her body reacting in a way she had only felt with Gunnar. Halewijn flipped her over, and she smoothed her hands across his dark tan face before running her fingers through his soft brown hair. He hummed against her mouth again and pressed his body on hers. Cyra could feel the change in him; the desire and passion radiating off of him in waves.

“My god, Cyra...” Halewijn gasped, coming up for air. He held himself there for a moment, breathing in the fresh air with his eyes closed tightly. “I don’t want to do anything that might cause trouble.”

“You won’t,” Cyra assured him, but he slid away from her and off the bed anyway.

“I need to clear my head,” Hal rubbed his temples and walked out of the room, leaving her behind.

Mirabel came into the room that evening to prepare Cyra for the Yuletide feast, her arms full of red and green garments to choose from. As her lady in waiting rummaged about for the tiny bells she would weave into Cyra’s hair, she sat and thought about her encounter with Halewijn. Had she gone too far?

The lady in waiting held up a rosewood dress with a low bodice and a high waist, the gold ribbons on the edge of the bodice and skirts accenting the deep red color. “This is the one.”

When Mirabel had squeezed her mistress into the dress, the red-head began to weave tiny bells into her hair, which she placed around Cyra’s head in a braided crown. When Cyra moved her head this way and that, the exposed bells tinkled softly. Finally, Mirabel set the sun pin on her left side and then removed the red anklet from its box.

“No one will see it, only when you lift your skirts to dance.” Cyra pushed the puffy sleeves up her arm and hung the anklet around her right foot delicately. Afterward, she placed a pair of golden slippers on and examined herself in the tall mirror. Cyra felt beautiful, her eyes accented by the gold, and her skin tone by the red. Somewhere inside, she hoped Halewijn would think the same - but judging by his response to her earlier, he might ignore her.

As they made their way down the stairs to the dining hall, Mirabel chattered about the other courts’ goings-on in the palace. “The Western Court and the Northern Court are working on building a new temple half-way between them, on the border.”

“Which god will they place there?”

“They haven’t decided. It’s between Ladar and Vereus.” Cyra thought the choices were acceptable: the god of the Ostracized and the god of Light, respectively, were severely underrepresented in the mass of temples. “But the Northern Court is also trying to rebuild the keep on the Frozen Island. The architects aren’t here this Yul, but they want to have plans drafted up by the next one.” Cyra squinted as she took the last step off the staircase but did not address the Frozen Island topic. Mirabel hushed as they walked into the dining hall, once again wandering off to find her lady-in-waiting friends and discover more gossip. Cyra, however, stood in the crowd of royalty, seeking out a familiar face. She could not see Halewijn among the gathered guests, which deflated her a bit, but she did spy her mother and father towards the head of the table with Smyrna and Aethelwulf.

As Cyra made her way to the head of the table, she smiled and bobbed up and down to the various Kings and Queens and waved to the Princesses and Princes, most of whom were younger. She had just finished waving to a three-year-old when she ran smack into someone coming from the opposite direction. When she looked up, she met the man’s blue eyes and stepped back.

“My apologies, sir, I was not looking--”

“No, it was I who was in the wrong, your Highness.” The silver-haired man caught sight of the sun pin as he rose from a half-bow and met her eyes in a knowing look. The man was handsome, to say the least, with his caramel-colored skin and unusual eye and hair color. “You’re Hal’s fiance.” He breathed, eyes roaming over her appearance before he smiled. “By the gods, he was right.”

“Right about what?” She wondered, and the man shook his head.

“My apologies, Princess. I am Grand Duke Eres.” Grand Duke?

“What is a Grand Duke?” Cyra murmured as a hand slid around her waist. She shifted to watch Halewijn step next to her, his head turned to kiss her on the lips and then turned to look at Eres.

“Look at what the doves brought this year!” The two men clasped hands and hugged each other tightly, Halewijn laughing brightly. “You said you didn’t know if you could come!”

“I came, didn’t I?” Eres laughed, and Halewijn grabbed Cyra’s hand.

“Cyra, this is Grand Duke Eres. He is a good friend of mine from the beyond.” Halewijn’s head craned about, searching for something. “Where is Idria?” He wondered aloud.

“She’s speaking with your mother-in-law.” Eres thumbed over to the head of the table where Bilka stood and talked with a woman who had impossibly long blonde hair. Halewijn yanked Cyra along, and she took one last look at Eres, who winked at her as she stumbled behind her fiance.

“Wait, what is a Grand Duke?” Cyra hissed, and Halewijn tossed over his shoulder,

“He’s next in line for the Skaruskan throne; he’s going to be Emperor after his father.” The two royals stood next to her mother, finally looking at the woman head-on. Cyra almost dropped her jaw at Idria’s appearance. The blonde-haired, fair-skinned woman looked like something out of a fairytale book, with her deep hazel eyes and a smattering of freckles across her cheeks. Her face was cut from marble, it seemed, and her eyes glanced from her mother’s face to Halewijn. Her red lips split into a broad smile, and she stopped mid-conversation to toss her hands out in greeting.

“Halewijn! Oh, High Prince, it has been so long!" Cyra’s lips curled into a half-scowl for a moment, staring at the woman who dared to embrace Halewijn in such a familiar way. When her gaze tracked from Hal’s face to Cyra’s, she inhaled again, moving to take Cyra’s hands in her own. “My gods, he did not lie...” She breathed, eyes wide as they roamed over her face. Idria brought her into a hug, kissing both of her cheeks before letting go, and Cyra stood there, shocked, while Halewijn began to chat with her about Skaruskan.

All of this chatter made her confused; Beyonders were not welcome in the Oskurgan realm, nor were they revered or mingled with from afar. That was the entire reason they hid the truth about Duchaine, Mirabel, and the twin’s half-Skaruskan ancestry; it was forbidden for anyone to bear children with the Skaruskans - a people depicted as a brutal race from outside their civilized country. And Idria... her eyes snapped to the blonde woman. Who was she, and why was she acting so close to her fiance? Hal hadn’t even introduced her properly, much less told her he invited them to Yuletide.

“Idria,” Cyra began, feeling envy burn in her throat. “I’m afraid we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m-”

“Princess Cyra. I know all about you.” Idria beamed. “Halewijn writes to us often and tells us of his adven-”

“That’s enough, Idria.” Halewijn laughed, cutting her off.

“Oh, she doesn’t know?” Idria tilted her head to the side. “Halewijn writes us every full moon. He always sends something nice from his travels.”

“Oh, does he?” Halewijn clenched his jaw at Cyra’s tone. “That’s never come up in our conversations.”

“He writes so well, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write back. Here, come to my room tonight, and I will show you.” She babbled excitedly, but Halewijn whispered,

“Now, Idria --”

“And you must come and visit sometime! I will make sure to send the best ship for you. I will tell Eres when he comes that you will come to stay with us - and you will come and stay with us, right?”

“I-” Cyra was cut off by more of Idria’s babbling.

“Surely, his father will let you come - oh, and Halewijn; you must come as well! I would hate for you to be left behind. Eres would be downcast if you did not come.” Grand Duke Eres found his way through the crowd, coming to Idria’s side with a curious eye.

“Is she talking your ears off?” He asked Cyra, lifting a brow. Cyra blushed but did not answer, overwhelmed, and still unsure if she liked the woman in question. “My apologies; chalk it up to her excitement. And you,” Eres turned to Idria, who smiled up at him, about three heads shorter than he. “Can you let Cyra get a word in edgewise? I’m sure you didn’t even tell her who you were before you started talking.”

“Ah,” Idria placed a hand on her forehead. “I am so sorry. I’m Idria, as you know, Grand Duchess of Skaruska.”

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