The Golden Tower
Cyra sat alone in the guest room, holding her knees to her chest. Halewijn had not spoken to her since storming out that afternoon, and Wyndemere claimed he was “much too busy” to visit with her. Mirabel sat in the corner of the room, composing a letter to the Lord she wooed during her time at Yul, but other than her lady-in-waiting, it seemed no one wanted to be bothered with her.
“And rightfully so.” She thought to herself, staring at the golden dagger on her nightstand. Why hadn’t the blade done its magic and protected her when she needed it most? What prevented it from keeping her safe in her hour of need? Cyra scowled when she thought of Armantha stumbling upon her predicament and unleashing the arrow that killed the assailant. But then again… if Armantha hadn’t been nosey enough to stalk after her hooded assaulter, what would’ve happened? She could’ve ended up dead, or worse.
Mirabel stood from the writing desk and slid the letter into an envelope.
“That Lord is lucky to have such a dedicated writer.” Cyra teased, and Mirabel looked over her shoulder with a wide smile.
“I know. Lord Baylar told me in our last letter that he wants me to meet his wife. Isn’t that incredible?” Cyra frowned briefly, then a wave of understanding smoothed out over her face.
“I think that’s great. So… you’ll be the third in the little group?”
“Well, that’s if I like the wi-” The door to Cyra’s room opened, and Mirabel dropped the letter onto the desk, staring at the person who entered. “What do you want?”
Armantha strode sultrily into the room, wearing a black gown and holding a fur blanket under her right arm. She looked at her lady-in-waiting with amusement, red lips lifting up in a half-smile, before turning to Cyra without a word.
“I came to see how you were getting along. I heard that you and the High Prince got into it.”
“If you’re wondering if our secret is still safe, then yes, Armantha. I haven’t told Halewijn a thing about what happened.” Cyra huffed, pulling the sleeves of her robe down to her wrists to fight off the sudden chill that came over her.
“Not my main concern, but alright. Fair enough.” Armantha spared another glance at Mirabel, this time letting her eyes rove over the lady-in-waiting’s figure before chuckling. “I’m off to go to the theatre with Omar; maybe I’ll glean some information about the inner workings of the High Council while there. Do make sure you put your leg in a raised position while you sleep.” Cyra rolled her eyes at the woman, who turned about. “Oh, and Mirabel, was it?” The red-head curiously looked up at the luxurious auburn-haired female. “Lady Baylar doesn’t really approve of the extramarital affairs her husband carries on with other women. But I’m sure if you had the composition of a man around your age, she’d be less inclined to protest.” Mirabel turned to Cyra with an open mouth and wide eyes, shocked at the level of insight and callousness Armantha showed.
“Armantha!” Cyra called after her, but the woman shrugged and swept out of the room, laughing devilishly.
A damp cave, a flicker of light.
Emptiness and hollow sounds echoed around Cyra as she scrambled up to a seated position. A drumbeat began, not too far off.
“A sacrifice!” A voice called into the cave, and the noise echoed in her ears, rattling her eardrums. Shackles appeared on her wrists without warning. It didn’t take long for her to figure out that she was the sacrifice; she was the live offering to the gods. Cold hands grabbed her shoulders, her ankles and dragged her out of the cave. A feeling of regret haunted her, settling into her belly with a thickness. There was no going back now.
The rushing sounds of a river caught her attention, but the loudness of it wasn’t quite right… When Cyra looked to her left and to her right, she floated on the water, bound to the river’s flow with watery chains. No amount of struggle would free her.
She was falling. Falling down the long river and into the sky somehow. Water droplets smashed into her face, and she watched the water fall around her and into the depths of —
Cyra jolted awake, sweat covering her face and neck. It took her a few minutes to catch her breath and realize she had seen what Eres spoke of the day they went riding in the forest.
The dream did not hamper Cyra’s ability to sleep for the rest of the night, but the final moments… the falling, the rush of wind, the dropping into the dark abyss? Those stayed with her even as she traveled down the stairs for breakfast.
Cyra had forgotten to eat dinner in her haste to sleep, and it did a number on her stomach when she awoke. However, the silence of the dining hall caught her off guard as she expected some sign of life in the early hours of the morning. Mirabel eagerly followed her mistress as she swept into the kitchen, and Cyra placed her uninjured hand on the cook’s shoulder.
The tall man turned around slowly, his wrinkled brown skin and sad blue eyes belying a tale she didn’t want to know. But Cyra asked anyway.
“Where is everyone?”
“Have you not heard, Princess?” The croaking sound that came out of the man’s mouth startled Cyra, but she continued.
“No, I just came from upstai-”
“The king found that the cupbearer has tried to slip him poison. He is being lashed in an hour.”
“Lashed?” The mention of the common punishment did not sit well with Cyra. No doubt Wyndemere would attend with open eyes and ears, but the idea of someone being lashed was still not easy for Cyra to swallow.
“You have an hour to gather your wits about you, Princess.” The head cook finally whispered and ambled away out of Cyra’s grasp.
Cyra found Wyndemere carving into a small branch with a small knife stolen from the kitchen, near the whipping post erected in the central courtyard. When she approached him, he sullenly looked at her, then returned his gaze back to the branch. “A lashing?” Cyra started off, attempting to mend the bridge with a familiar topic, hoping Wyndemere might respond if it had nothing to do with the day before.
“Unfortunately so…” Another chip of wood went flying across the space between them.
“Were you all there when he found out?” The question hung between them precariously until Wyndemere exhaled.
“Of course not, Cyra. No one was there when Omar alleged this happened.” Confusion danced across her face as she thought deeply about the situation at hand.
“Where is the boy now?” Wyndemere pointed over to the Golden Tower with the branch, not daring to make eye contact with her.
“Hurry. You have less than an hour to figure it out.” Wyndemere echoed the head cook ominously. Cyra gathered her courage and ambled off to the Tower, Wyndemere’s eyes following her the entire way.
“I demand entry,” Cyra stated, planting both feet firmly into the ground. The guard in front of her chuckled, the sound dismissive and unfriendly.
“Only those who have permission from the High King can enter, Princess.”
“I’ve come to interrogate the boy.” Cyra feigned concern for the High King for a moment, but the guard could not be fooled.
“Lady Armantha has already taken that task upon herself.” The guard nodded just over her shoulder. Cyra already knew who would be coming down the hill; it was just a matter of time before she heard the sultry voice calling her name.
“Well, if it isn’t Princess Cyra. Have you come to interrogate the cupbearer with me?” Armantha appeared beside Cyra wearing a short, black blouse and black pants, covered with golden brown knee-high boots: an outfit fit for an interrogator going into a dungeon.
“I have.” Armantha looked her over, examining her state of dress before shrugging.
“You just heard the news, I assume. Your outfit doesn’t seem appropriate for-”
“I really could care less about my dress; the kingdom is at stake here.” The double meaning didn’t catch Armantha off guard as she had hoped, and the woman shrugged again, making a face.
“Whatever you say, Princess.” The act was convincing, Cyra noted, and they were escorted into the Tower with little protest. Once inside, Armantha began the ascent to the top of the Tower. The smell of damp earth and iron made Cyra gag as she followed her up the metal spiral staircase to a door guarded by two bulky men, and the steepness of the stairs set her on edge.
“The boy has been Omar’s cupbearer for a long time. I would anticipate that he has a story that isn’t too unfamiliar.” The ominous tone in Armantha’s voice sent shivers down Cyra’s spine. Maybe it was the smells, the sound of dripping water, or the thought that just above her, a young boy sat alone, terrified, but Cyra felt her stomach lurch again. Armantha approached the guards with a smile, touching her hip flirtatiously.
“I think you are holding someone we would like to see behind those doors.” A guard looked Armantha over with hungry green eyes before swinging open the metal door to a long hallway full of cells. “Thank you.” Armantha let her hips sway salaciously as she sauntered past the guards, but not daring to touch them. Cyra followed timidly, averting her eyes from the massive men who were no doubt eyeing her as well.
Inside the hallway, there were rows of cells, but none were filled with a prisoner. The general smell of the hallway was not pleasant, but if Cyra had to pinpoint it down to a specific odor, it reeked of rotting wood and death. Armantha wasted no time examining the cells; her prize was kept on the other side of the door at the end of the hall. Armantha yanked open the metal door, revealing an even smaller space that held only one cell with a small standing area for those who wished to visit. The bars, peeling and rusted, blocked Cyra from reaching out to the youth shackled behind them, his ink-black tresses covering his face. Sobs echoed in the small cell, and the boy’s shoulders shook tumultuously even though his arms were held up by chains, which left him kneeling - his lower half bare, save a rag for a loincloth - on the cold, stone floor. When he heard the women enter, the tan boy looked up, eagerly launching into his pleas.
“I swear, I didn’t poison the High King’s drink! I’m innocent; you have to belie-”
Armantha shut the door behind Cyra, locked it, then turned back to the youth. “What’s your name?” She asked, ignoring his previous words.
“Leonel, how long have you been the High King’s cupbearer?”
“Since I was twelve years old.” Armantha hummed, nodding as she paced around the small space with her hands on her hips.
“Have you ever… angered the High King before this?” Armantha came to a stop, her boots scuffing the ground as she turned her head to look at the boy.
“No, Lady Armantha, I would neve-”
“Have you refused any of his advances recently?” Cyra swore she could hear Leonel swallow hard before he shakily exhaled, most likely trying to find the words to articulate what he had experienced.
“My Lady… I can’t say.”
“Cut the shit, Leonel. Do you want to live or not?” Armantha gripped the bars, pressing her face close to them so the cupbearer could see her stern face clearly. “I’m going to ask you again: did Omar make any advances towards you recently, or did he not? I know you just turned seventeen.” Seventeen? Cyra paled, slowly coming to terms with the situation at hand. He’s only one year younger than Mirabel…
“Lady Armantha…” Leonel’s voice broke, and he began to cry again, the chains rattling with his weeping. “It was awful!” He gasped between sobs. “I told him ‘no’ so many times! I ran away from him, and now—” The cupbearer began to wail, his dark brown eyes filing up with never-ending tears. Cyra glanced over at Armantha, who tightly clenched her jaw.
“I’m so sick of this,” Cyra moaned, rubbing her temples.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there’s a lot of fucking smoke around here.” Armantha mumbled, unlocking the door and storming out.