Whips & Laurels
Still erect in the courtyard, the whipping post stared the gathered crowd down like an angry emperor. Cyra looked at the structure with disdain, noting the way the cuffs for the cupbearer’s wrists clicked in the soft wind.
By all accounts, it was a lovely day — but now it was marred by the only thing worse than a public beheading: a public whipping. The sun didn’t seem to care, however, and the birds still sang their endless songs in the trees surrounding the large estate. But in the silence, Cyra swore she could hear the wind speak of the sorrow at hand.
Armantha stood far off in the crowd, face blank and unmoved by the curious people who looked to her for answers. Cyra realized her blank stare was a product of what she had seen before returning to the courtyard, and Armantha resigned herself to witnessing the miscarriage of justice, just as she had been privy to the murder of her former fiance and faded into the mist without a word. There was very little she could do, and while Cyra knew it bothered the Lady to her core, Cyra also knew that Armantha wasn’t above self-preservation to maintain the higher plot at work.
Halewijn was not present. Wyndemere hadn’t heard from him since breakfast, and Alorha’s eyes shifted about when Cyra inquired about his absence, which meant he knew something he couldn’t tell. It was no matter, Cyra thought; she wouldn’t want him to be here for this anyway. Not if he didn't have to be, at least.
The sound of gravel crunching underfoot drew everyone’s attention to the back of the courtyard. Leonel was held up between two guards, barely picking up his bare feet to place them on the sharp rocks. He, too, had resigned himself to his misfortune, as evidenced by the lack of weeping or struggle. Cyra quickly whispered words of courage his way, hoping the wind might carry them to the frail boy, but Leonel did not perk up to listen; his brown eyes were empty and devoid of life.
As they led him up the creaking stairs of the hastily made platform, Leonel’s black hair swayed with his movements, creating a long curtain across his face and muscular back. The crowd caught a glimpse of his tattooed lower back as he turned to face the left side, and it curved and curlicued into an unrecognizable mass of lines, the dark blue ink coagulating on his lower spine. Some people gasped, and Wyndemere grunted at the sight of the artistry but said nothing further. The tattoos only meant one thing: Leonel was a full-blooded Skaruskan.
The guards positioned him so that he faced the shadows of the gate, ensuring that the audience would not be able to see his entire face as the lashing occurred. This was one small mercy, Cyra noted. She wouldn’t be able to endure the whole punishment if she had to watch the youth’s features contort in pain while he sat chained and helpless.
In the quiet chaos that was moving Leonel onto the raised platform and chaining him to the post, no one heard the final two members of the crowd approaching. Omar, stepping lightly on the dais, held a whip behind his back, and his attire was minimalist: a short-sleeved black shirt and black pants. Halewijn followed behind him but was dressed differently, but they both wore the crowns of the High Court, the identical laurel leaves encircling their brown heads. The High Prince also wore the same color of pants his father wore, but instead of a short-sleeved black shirt, he wore a black, robe-like item that remained untied, showing his bare chest to the crowd. The secret Alorha held back was now apparent: Halewijn would be taking part in this punishment somehow.
Cyra felt her cheeks warm up. No one had seen Halewijn like this except her, but this exposure made her head spin with confusion. She couldn’t hear the soft snickering of the women at his toned muscles, nor the hum of approval he got from Armantha as Cyra’s blood raced in her ears. Halewijn didn’t bother to scan the crowd, though, and it was that choice that frightened her a little. She was so used to him looking for her gaze… Now she considered whether she should turn away.
“As you all are aware, my cupbearer tried to poison me last night during my dinner.” A fake gasp rolled across the crowd as women and men alike whispered amongst themselves about the phony crime. “And you all know that the punishment for attempting to murder the High King is death. But, my son, who is loving and kind, came to me to beg for mercy on his behalf.”
So that’s where Halewijn had been all morning.
Omar shifted his grip on the whip, feeling the leather between his fingers before continuing. “Due to the circumstances, I could not pardon his crimes, and the minimal punishment that will be meted out is fifty lashes.” Fifty lashes. The silent crowd observed the High King as he placed the whip in Halewijn’s grasp. “My son also requested that he be the one to execute judgment, and I have acquiesced.” Cyra felt the blood drain from her face as Halewijn shook off his robe, preparing for his deed. Wyndemere gripped Cyra on her upper arm, attempting to yank her backward.
“We need to go.”
Cyra stood transfixed as Halewijn unraveled the whip, letting it fall to his feet. No. She remained there, shaking her head and wishing it would all stop but to no avail. Halewijn raised the strip of leather, bringing it back with a chiseled arm before letting it fly.
The crack of the whip echoed around the courtyard, and she flinched, feeling Wyndemere’s hand tighten almost at the same time. “Cyra,” he urged, but no one moved as the whipping continued. At the sixth strike, blood ran from Leonel’s wounds, and he vocalized his immense pain with cries of shock or labored gasps. Cyra felt like she was watching a terrible storm blow through the palace but unable to move while witnessing the carnage. The carnage was the boy on the whipping post. The terrible storm was... Halewijn.
Each blow hit fresh, un-whipped skin, tracing a pattern across the shoulders, then slowly down the spine. Every strike created a new sound from the boy’s mouth. And yet, those below him looked on in wrapt fascination and horror. Watching Halewijn execute such a punishment - and requesting to do so - frightened even the most misanthropic of those present. If the High Prince was willing to do this, what wouldn’t he do?
Halewijn’s transformation from fun-loving and amiable High Prince to ruthless and emotionless executioner seemed immediate. As Cyra watched the man she loved beat the innocent boy’s flesh without protest, a sharp feeling of dread blossomed in her chest.
“Stop,” Omar commanded, and Halewijn halted his whipping, sweat beading on his face from the exertion of the movements. Cyra had lost count of all of the lashes he delivered at around fifteen, and Leonel had lost his voice by crying out from the pain not long after. Omar slowly crept around the podium to face Leonel, crouching down to meet him face-to-face. At the crook of his finger, a guard brought him a water satchel, and Omar brought the water to his lips while overseeing the young man. Leonel didn’t respond - or couldn’t - and his red eyes were glazed over with a look of listlessness. Omar mumbled something to the youth, who began sobbing anew, but could barely croak out a response to his words.
The High Prince stood there aimlessly, observing the two in preparation to do whatever his father asked of him. This was not the same man she knew, loved, and respected; Halewijn had become a shell of himself on that dais, and it was a shell she didn’t like. The High King rose from his crouch carefully then turned back to Halewijn.
“Five more lashes.”
When the deed was done, Cyra made her exit quickly, not daring to stay behind and face the monster her future husband had become. Wyndemere followed hastily followed her into an empty solarium, where she paused to catch her breath.
Little gasps of air escaped Cyra’s lips as she tried to erase the image of Leonel’s broken body being carried off the podium, but it was to no avail. All she could see was the black-haired boy - carelessly slung onto a stretcher - being taken away from the gawking crowd, red blood covering the entirety of his back and obscuring the dark blue tattoo. Cyra wrapped her arms around her upper body, hoping that the touch would be enough to ground her amid the chairs and empty chaises.
“I should’ve known this would happen,” Wyndemere sighed, leaning against the locked doors. “Hal had been with Omar for a while after the incident.”
“Why would Halewijn agree to something like this?” Cyra murmured shakily, looking out of a large window that faced the sun. “I can’t believe he…” The words faded from her lips. The Princess knew the images from the day would haunt her dreams, but that wasn’t the worst part. She could wake up from the dream; she couldn’t wake up from reality.
The door rattled behind Wyndemere. Cyra turned around, bracing herself for Alorha, Mirabel, or even worse: Halewijn. But Armantha stood in the hallway, attempting to look past Wyndemere with her stern brown eyes.
“Is Cyra in there?”
“What do you need?” Armantha huffed loudly in response to Wyndemere's question, and Cyra was sure she would push past the guard at any moment.
“I need to speak to her. It’s a pressing matter.” Wyndemere looked back at Cyra, who didn't protest then let her in. Armantha nodded once at Wyndemere in thanks, then went to stand beside the Princess, staring out of the window. “It’s never easy witnessing something like that.”
Cyra didn’t answer, preferring to let the silence between them explain her feelings. Armantha reached out to touch her shoulder gently, still not looking at her. “I came to reassure you. I know Omar; this was just a show of his power as a reminder to the rest of the Court.”
“But why make it up? Why fabricate a lie and then create a spectacle for it?”
“Power, Cyra.” Armantha shifted uneasily, clasping her hands together. “There have been whispers of a plot to install Halewijn as High King using an old ceremony.”
“The Twelve Trials.” Armantha chuckled softly, almost as if she was laughing at the very thought.
“No, no. That’s much too time-consuming. I’m talking about the holmgang.” Cyra scrunched up her face in confusion.
“It’s before our time. Old shit from the god’s days. But effective.”
“Who is spreading this information?” Now Armantha looked at her, a smile cracking at the edges of her mouth.
“I never share my sources. Would you?” Embarrassed and slightly frustrated, Cyra looked away. “You should probably go and have a conversation with Halewijn about why he did what he did. I’m sure he’ll tell you.”
“You seem to know a lot about everything, Armantha. Are you sure you’re not working for Omar?” Cyra asked, dodging the reality that she'd have to face Halewijn eventually. Armantha grew very serious.
“When Omar dies, he can go straight to the lowest level of the underworld. I hope Dhotlo tears him apart.”
Cyra waited patiently for Halewijn to come to her chambers to explain himself. But the night passed, and he did not come to see her at all. In her anxiety to discover the truth about the matter, she stayed up all night, hoping that he would come clean and confide in her. She even considered going across the hall to confront him about it, but her legs wouldn't propel her out of her own bed to do so.
The confrontation did not come until the next morning when she found him wandering around the large hedge maze, looking lost like a runaway child. Cyra approached him from behind, hoping he wouldn’t be startled, but when she placed her fingers on an arm clasped behind his back, Halewijn jumped a little.
“It’s just me,” Cyra whispered, and he tried to face her with sad golden eyes. He was dressed in his usual attire with a blue silk tunic and matching silk pants. The golden laurel crown - cleansed of the specks of blood it gathered the day before - seemed out of place on his head now. She imagined he felt the same way about the crown; what good was it except as a symbol of oppressive power? “I waited up for you last night." Halewijn couldn’t look her in the eyes but nodded twice in acknowledgment. “Perhaps we should talk abo-”
“No.” He answered gruffly. “We don’t need to talk about it.”
“Halewijn, I refuse to believe you orchestrated that.”
“Cyra,” Halewijn began, closing his eyes. “Let it go. What’s done is done.” The answer wasn’t satisfactory, but Cyra registered the pain in his voice. “I hope you will forgive me and then let it be as it is. All you need to know for now is what I did was unconscionable, and I took no pleasure in it.”
Cyra took his right hand and placed a tender kiss against it. “I know; you are not that man I saw yesterday.” A hard look changed Halewijn’s facial features, and he parted his lips, muttering,
“No, Cyra; do not delude yourself. I still am that man. I have always been that man.”