A Tale of Crowns and Stars

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Moves & Players

Stop!”

Cyra jolted awake at the outburst, looking around her room frantically for the source. Another sharp cry made her ease out of her bed, and she snatched her robe from a bedpost before flinging open her door to the hallway.

“Who’s there?” Nothing but air greeted her as she tied the robe around her waist with a few quick snatches. Her call went unanswered. Maybe she had imagined it all… As Cyra turned to go back into her room, the door to Halewijn’s chambers swung open, producing a sweaty and frightened High Prince. “Halewijn!” She rushed to him, searching his golden eyes with care before examining the rest of him.

“I had a nightmare that…” Halewijn cut himself off as he panted heavily - like he had been running for miles - and then brought Cyra to his chest, holding her close. “But it’s okay… You’re okay.” Cyra could hear the stuttering of his heart underneath his soaked nightshirt and timidly wrapped her arms around him in return. “You’re okay,” Halewijn repeated, exhaling deeply.

“I feel like I should be telling you that; you were the one shouting in your dreams.”

“I’m sorry to have startled you.” Halewijn breathed, leaning back to look at her face. Cyra gave him a small smile then dropped her hands from his back.

“If you’re going to be okay…then I’ll go back to sleep. We probably shouldn’t stand out here for much longer.”

“Would you care to keep me company and sleep in here? Just for tonight.” Cyra blinked, considering her options. So much had passed between them without the ability for them to reconcile. Perhaps this was what she needed: a private moment to air out their concerns. Cyra nodded twice, and without words, Halewijn took her hand and swiftly pulled her into his room, letting her close the door.

In the dim moonlight, Cyra could make out the features of the room, but it was all forgotten as soon as Halewijn placed a hand against the closed door and leaned in to capture her lips in a kiss. She almost forgot her entire purpose for accepting his request as Halewijn kissed her again, taking his other hand and cupping her chin.

“Wait, Halewijn—” Cyra breathed against his lips, trying not to lose herself in the moment. Hal pushed back a little, and she could feel his eyes roaming over her face in the darkness. “We need to talk.”

If the room had been any darker, she wouldn’t have been able to make out the shift in Halewijn’s stance - his spine straightening and chin tilting up ever so slightly.

“Let me light a fire.” He mumbled, letting his hand slip down the door as he turned away. Cyra padded over to a chair in front of the hearth, tucking her left leg underneath her as Halewijn struck a match and tossed it in, lighting the entire log. The flames slowly stretched up to the top of the hearth, and it was then that he stepped back to let the flames warm the room.

“What’s on your mind, my love?” Halewijn took the seat across from her, settling into the warm suede with a sigh.

“We need to talk about…” Where to start? “About the ride I took.” The crease in Hal’s brow deepened, but he stayed silent as she launched into her tale. “I was attacked. I don’t know who my assailant was. But I didn’t get out on my own.” Halewijn leaned forward, his golden eyes full of curiosity, urging her to say more. “Armantha helped me. She saved me from the person who attacked me and assisted me in making it back here.” The look on Halewijn’s face was nothing short of confused and astonished, but he waited a moment to speak despite his facial expression.

“How did she find you out there? Had she been following you?”

“She said she had been watching my attacker for a little while before he rode off.” Cyra looked down at her hands, tracing the lines on her palms.

“She saved you, but how do we know this wasn’t staged?”

“I don’t know,” Cyra wrapped her arms around herself to fend off the chill that raced down her spine. “I don’t know if I trust her at all. But she saved my life; I wouldn’t be here without her.”

“I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion,” Halewijn grunted, shifting his head onto a propped up fist. “My father might be using her to get close to you, Cyra.”

“That’s what I thought, too. I still think it just a little bit…” But Armantha told you about the plot. “She mentioned this thing… the holmgang. Apparently, you might have supporters that want you to usurp the throne.” Halewijn eyed Cyra carefully, looking down to her exposed foot briefly before flicking his gaze back up to her eyes.

“Armantha mentioned the holmgang?”

“Yes,” At her admission of the facts, Halewijn stood up, inhaling deeply before running a hand over his face. “She said that she wouldn’t reveal her sources for this information and to ask you why you did what you did.”

“That’s none of her business. And if you go and share any of our conversations, we could be in a world of trouble, Cyra. I don’t trust Armantha. Just because she saved you and claims to have insight about the things happening in the palace doesn’t mean she’s trustworthy.”

“I know that. But also,” Cyra hated the way her voice shook when she thought about what Halewijn had done the day before. “I need to know why you agreed to do what you did.” Halewijn groaned, looking away from her quickly.

“I thought we discussed that this topic was off the table until later.”

“If we don’t talk about it, Halewijn, there might not be a ‘later.’ I know you wouldn’t have done that voluntarily. What - or who - forced your hand?” The lapse in communication made Cyra uneasy, but she pressed on anyway. “I think I already know who told you that you had a choice. But what were your options?”

“To you, choosing the lesser of the two evils is a way to absolve yourself from guilt, right? Is that what you think?” Halewijn growled. Cyra gripped the chair arm with her fingers, turning to see his face clearly in the shadows of the night.

“I think that having to choose at all would bring on guilt, no matter what you picked.” Halewijn exhaled deeply, then turned back to Cyra.

“It was between a whipping or a sacrifice.”

“Like sacrificing an animal to the gods?”

“No, a blood sacrifice. Omar threatened that he would…” He stopped, halting on his words before beginning again. “He said he would make sure you were the one on the altar if I chose that instead,” Cyra observed Halewijn’s face, feeling unmoved by the admission. “I was sure you’d be more upset with me; tell me I should have chosen differently.”

“I would’ve done the same thing,” Cyra whispered, slowly rising from the suede chair. She pressed her hands to his chest, feeling the pulse of his heart again, then slid them up to his face. “You’re such a brave man for doing all of that for me.”

“I really did it for myself,” Halewijn replied, leaning down, so his forehead touched hers. “I can’t lose you.”

“You won’t,” Cyra murmured. “and I won’t lose you.”


“You talk as if you’ve already won the chess match against me.”

Armantha, staring into the golden eyes of her captor, slid away from him with ease and pulled her robe back around herself tightly.

“Now, now, Omar. No need to get frisky this early in the evening…” She laughed, but inside, she felt as dirty as her riding boots. Omar reached out to touch her arm again, desiring to pull her onto his bed, but Armantha deftly dodged it. “I have to go back to my chambers now, High King. I bid you goodnight.” The man was silent as Armantha weaved her way through the chairs and settees before clutching the dagger door handles in her palms.

“I would prefer that you stayed with me tonight,” The High King muttered, shifting on the bed. “But I understand you’re Leon’s little plaything, not mine.” Armantha’s heart raced at the sound of the Northern King’s name. One word from Omar, and she’d be—

“Leon doesn’t like to loan out his women.” Armantha tossed over her shoulder, giving Omar a smirk. “But even if he did, I’m sure he wouldn’t let you have me.” She didn’t hear Omar’s deep chuckle, nor did she hear the footman close the doors behind her as she left. A shiver of disgust rolled down her spine at the thought of Omar touching her ever again. When she was finally rid of him - either by the holmgang or some other form of removal - she would petition Cyra to give her a title so she could live in peace.

Peace.

The thought of Halewijn as High King eased most of Armantha’s concerns. Lasting peace with the Beyonders, lasting peace among the Courts; all of that seemed like a distant dream, though. Cynicism crept into Armantha’s mind, and she considered what fates would befall them if Omar ever discovered the mounting plots to assassinate him and usurp the throne. Perhaps the whip would be welcome mercy...

“Armantha,” The light, feminine voice behind her undoubtedly belonged to Mirabel - the lady-in-waiting who sought to have Lord Baylar’s attention. Armantha turned around to face the fiery-headed woman, trying to suppress an eye roll.

“How can I help you?” She spoke dryly, looking the tanned woman in the eyes.

The lady-in-waiting hesitated, her cheeks turning a light shade of pink. “I… I wanted to know if it was true.”

“If what was true?”

“That you saved Cy-” At the word "saved", Armantha grabbed Mirabel by the upper arm, making the woman yelp out in fear.

“Who told you that information?”

“I… just…”

If it was one of those two half-Beyonder-looking twins, Armantha reasoned, they might be more dangerous and nosey than they seem.

“One of the guards told the maids that one of your arrows was found where the dead person lay.” The red-head sputtered, perhaps hoping this admission would make Armantha loosen her grip.

“Don’t you ever,” Armantha dug her nails into the woman’s skin with every hissed word. “ever repeat what you just said to anyone. You’ll get us all killed, stupid girl.” Armantha snatched her hand away and left Mirabel standing in the hallway, tenderly rubbing her arm.

When she got to her room, Armantha made sure to lock the doors behind her. One wrong move and the whole plan could come undone, and she couldn't have a nosey maid be the downfall of her freedom.

A flutter of movement drew her attention to the balcony just past her unmade bed, and Armantha cautiously padded towards the glass doors, clutching the edges of her robe tightly. As Armantha neared the moonlit space, she could see a white raven flitting back and forth between the gaps in the railings jovially. The tension left her body in a long sigh, and she opened the door casually, waving the bird in.

“Sorry to keep you waiting; I just got back. Come on in.” The bird didn’t hesitate at the invitation, hopping into the room with excitement. When Armantha closed the doors and turned back around, the white bird had transformed into a short young woman with chin-length black hair. “Branwen, it’s not yet the full moon. What are you doing here?” The dark-skinned woman turned around, smiling with an open mouth and flashing her ocean blue eyes.

“I came to make sure things were going alright. You know Dhotlo likes to keep abreast of all of the things going on in the realm of the living.” Branwen took a seat on an ottoman, crossing her legs underneath her spotless white gown.

“If he’s so curious, why doesn’t he come up here and talk to me himself? It’s been seven months since we’ve spoken.” The question hung between them for a moment as Branwen shrugged.

“He’s occupied right now. But you know he’s making good on his end of the blood oath.” The scar on the sole of Armantha’s foot thrummed as if to agree with Branwen. “What’s taking you so long?”

“Killing a High King isn’t as easy as slipping him poison in his wine, Branwen.”

“Not the best way to dispose of someone, but at least I think what you plan to do now is effective,” The little woman mentioned, removing a stray thread from her dress.

“I’ve convinced two out of the five courts that the holmgang is inevitable. They’ll reject any request for the Twelve Trials - which we all know will be rigged in Omar’s favor - but the only thing I need to do now is soften Omar up enough so that he’s in no shape to survive any form of combat.”

“So, have him indulge in food, drink, and sex over an extended period?” Branwen wondered, brows furrowing.

“Oh, my plan is even better than that.” Armantha turned to her mirror, running her hands through her hair triumphantly and smiling devilishly. “There will be a wedding the day before, so all of those things will happen at once.”

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