Cirthe Strar had always found comfort in the palace grounds as a young child, with tales of brave knights and soldiers protecting the boundaries echoing in her mind everytime she sneaked into the training arena to watch the said fighters in action. One could clearly wtiness the buzz of exhiliration that went through her when Adras Ashforge, Commander of the Royal Knights, offered her a chance to be one of them when she was of age.
Why was it, then, that even with the sun slowly creeping up the horizon now, Cirthe felt a ball of unease settling in her stomach every time her gaze swept around her, catching on the looming buildings and the armed figures of the guards and knights passing through her vision. There were a number of questions swarming her mind ever since the first arrow sunk into the tree behind Veran a few hours ago.
“So you mean to tell me,” Adras said, his arms crossed across his chest and face grim, “the Crown Prince was attacked, within palace boundaries and no one has any knowledge on how this happened nor were there any perpetrators caught.”
An emergency meeting was called by Adras as soon as he was informed of the incident that took place. Veran was told to head to a secure room in the palace, with several guards escorting him while Cirthe was ordered to stay back and recall the details in the meeting in Adras’ office.
“The only information we have so far is that the attack was pre-planned,” Cirthe spoke up when it seemed like no one else would. “I’m almost certain that whoever it was, they had been watching the Crown Prince for a while, a few days at least.”
Adras frowned, his expression serious as he turned to Cirthe.
“And we know this because, as you mentioned, they didn’t attack Veran while he was outside the palace grounds with you but waited till he was inside the boundary.”
Cirthe nodded in affirmation.
“I also believe that although they might have harmed the Prince when they shot the arrows at him, they weren’t aiming to kill him,” she told him, her hands clenching into fists at the thought of Veran dying or coming anywhere near close.
“How come you didn’t notice anything suspicious until someone shot those arrows?” Edmund Fergo said. He mockingly raised a brow at the sharp look she sent his way. “Surely you remember the rising tensions that exist due to the rumor of the threats against Veran.”
“That’s Crown Prince to you, Knight Fergo,” Cirthe snapped before tuning him out altogether and responding to Adras instead, “I followed the Prince precisely because I was aware of said rumors, however baseless they might or might not be. I couldn’t very well drag him back because we all know he would not take kindly to that. So I did the next best thing and followed him to the market and back. It also gave me a chance to gauge how far spread those rumors were while scouring for any suspicious activity.”
“Very well,” Adras pinched the bridge of his nose briefly before standing up straight and turning to the rest in the room. “Tonight it became clear that the rumors weren’t baseless. While we do not have much information regarding this matter, I expect everyone in this room to be aware of their priority, that is, the safety of the Crown Prince. The ceremony isn’t too far away now but I have a feeling those who wish to harm His Highness won’t stay quiet anymore. Anything suspicious or out of sorts needs to be reported immediately, either to me or to Knight Strar.”
“I didn’t realize Strar had been appointed back to her post beside the Crown Prince,” One of the knights spoke. Cirthe looked at him flatly and realized he was one of the lackeys of Edmund. Figured.
“She’s not. But she was the one who protected him tonight,” Adras replied, glancing around to shut down any other snarky remarks. “She did what was supposed to be the duty of the Amon Knights. You would do good to remember that we’re meant to be a united front for the sake of the Prince. I won’t tolerate snide comments against a capable member of the squad, not when there are better, more important things to worry about.”
Cirthe was glad the two guards from Amon who had been appointed to Veran as her replacement weren’t in the room. She didn’t know how they would have reacted to the doubt against their skills but she didn’t want to create any more tension between the two nations if it could be helped.
“If that’s clear to all, we’ll---”
The dismissal of the meeting was interrupted by the door being pushed open with enough force to wrattle the tiny portrait of a familiar looking woman placed on Adras’ office desk. Cirthe looked up from the now fallen over photo frame over to the doorway where Veran stood with a scowl on his lean face. She noticed the two Amon guards meant to keep him safe and sound in a secure room were hovering behind him, shooting nervous glances at each other.
“Your Highness,” Adras sighed, nodding at the guards to stand by the doorway, “you should not be wandering around like this. This is a serious matter.”
“Exactly. This is a serious matter seeing as my life is in grave danger. So do tell me why was I only informed about this whole mess after being attacked? Am I meant to still act okay with the fact that I’m being kept in the dark despite what happened? And no, I was not wandering around. I had those two knights with me and I came through paths that were enclosed and had the minimum number of windows or open spaces. I’m oblivious to things but not completely stupid.”
Cirthe understood why the others in the room looked surprised and caught off guard at Veran’s outburst. They had always seen him as the soft Prince, mischievous but soft-spoken and always seen with a playful grin on his lips. The Prince who stood before them had a stony expression on his face, hands clenched at his sides, words spoken with enough snap to them to make the others fidget in his presence. It was unfamiliar to Cirthe as well, to see him so on the verge of violent anger but it wasn’t surprising. She always knew his anger was rare but very intense. She wondered if some part of his annoyance was because of their argument before the attack.
“It would would be better to explain everything to him, Commander,” she hoped her words would help Veran calm down a little. “The more aware he is, the better it would be for him seeing as he can’t always be isolated with the ceremony coming up soon. There will be banquets and gatherings and he will need to socialize.”
Adras nodded before he moved back to settle in his chair, picking up the fallen photo but placing it in the desk drawer instead of back to its place. Cirthe wondered if the woman she vaguely caught sight of in the photo had anything to do with his action.
Although the chair across his uncle was empty, Veran walked over to where Cirthe stood and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed across his chest.
“There had been rumors since a while ago that there had been some suspicious planning against the Crown Prince. Though it isn’t clear what their aim could be, it’s safe to assume that you’re being targeted because of your title and what your future holds for you. It could mean that they aim to kill you or dethrone you in some other way,” Adras didn’t sugarcoat his words and Cirthe felt it was a necessary thing to do, to make everyone aware of how grave the danger could be. “The rumors started initially from a nearby town where the local guards reported hearing from some merchants that there were some illicit weapons trade happening, though there were no records of such transactions happening when we looked into it. Then there were talks of unrest among the town folks that was apparently borne out of some rumor regarding the reliability of the Crown Prince. They can’t exactly be blamed seeing as your father hasn’t been the most upfront about your position as the Crown Prince and why you would be fit for the throne.”
“That is what the ceremony is for, is it not?” Veran asked, frowning. Cirthe could tell by the slight slump of his shoulder that he was too caught up on the thought of the people he is meant to rule doubting him and his abilities. She almost reached out to take his hand, clasping her own behind her back before she could.
“It is to inform the people who is going to be ruling the nation in the future officially. It would not be explaining to them why it had to be you,” Cirthe spoke up, if only to distract herself from wanting to smooth out the furrow between his brows. “As you know, the choosing of the Crown Prince is not done merely on the priviledge of birth right. Not in our nation, at least. The rulers before your father had been men of high standing, yes, but they had also proved their worth to the people by waging wars against other nations and winning.”
“But their means had been more than savage, plundering and massacring wherever they went with no second thought given to those innocent lives they ruined in their reign of victory.” Veran protested, “My father is one of them, no doubt. But I aim to change that. I’d rather earn the trust of the people through better ways, something that wouldn’t take a thousand lives in order to show off their victory to a few hundreds.”
Cirthe could tell her own expression was unguarded as she watched Veran speak with such passion and she was again reminded of her faith in his ability to be a good King, better even than those before him. His beliefs and views were vastly different than the others, unconventional and even seemingly tame to some. But she knew that is what set him apart so well, his actions were truly selfless and always in favor of the less priviledged individuals.
“And you will,” Adras assured him, “That is why your safety is of utmost importance, not merely so you can safely be officiated as the next King but also so you can get the chance to prove your worth to your people.”
Veran sighed, rubbing his temples. Cirthe could tell he was on the verge of getting a headache, something that could possibly have to do partly with the fall they took to avoid the attack earlier. Although she had made sure to land them on the thick grass, there was a chance he could have bumped his head slightly against the ground from the impact. Cirthe made a mental note to send the royal physician to his room later just in case.
“And since Your Highness can’t be expected to stay cooped up within the palace walls all the time, not with the ceremony so close, it would be necessary on your end to be alert at all times and never to go anywhere alone,” she shot the two tall men outside a pointed look.
“Alright. I’ll be heading to my chambers now. I do hope I won’t be kept in the dark about this matter any further.”
Cirthe looked away at the sharp look thrown her way but started after him as he headed out of the room. She felt like she had to see him reach his secured room with her own eyes, if only to soothe her own rattled nerves.
She vaguely heard Adras dismissing the others as she followed Veran out of the office, the two Amon knights falling in step with her behind the Prince. She nodded to herself in satisfaction as she watched the two men keeping a sharp eye on everything around them as they walked. At least they got the message of warning regarding their increased duties.
Once they reached the Prince’s chambers, the knights went ahead and looked through the large room, nodding to Cirthe as they emerged signaling that all was safe and secure. She gestured them to stand guard outside while she followed Veran inside and swept a quick look through the room herself just in case.
She was startled slightly, not realizing how quiet everything around them was until Veran spoke up. She wondered if the silence was a result of the attack that had happened earlier. Even the staff seemed unusally somber and quiet. She couldn’t exactly blame them either.
Veran was closer to her than she had thought, she realized, and focused back on him and followed his gaze to her hair. Her hand went up to touch the end unconsciously.
“It’s longer,” he said, voice softer in comparison to how heated he seemed just a few moments ago. He stepped forward, closing the little distance between them in a few strides. His hand touched her own where she fiddled with her hair, the strands appearing lighter than their usual dark brown in the early dawn.
“Yeah.” She replied, vaguely wondering to herself why her own voice had gone quiet and soft. “Yes, it has. The ladies in waiting, they recently took to fretting over my appearance ever since they learned I was no longer appointed by your side. They’re funny, really. And so very skilled. I had no idea so much could be done with one’s hair. They convinced me to grow it out for a bit.”
“You’ve made friends.”
Cirthe looked up, her gaze falling to the lips pulled in a small smile and flittering up to the eyes, now warm and light when they were stormy and dark back in Adras’ office. She found herself smiling back unknowingly.
“They’re nice to me. Much like you are. I’ve learned quite a lot from them actually.”
She stopped herself before she could blurt out what she had talked about with the ladies. She had an inkling that what she was told and taught was told in secret, not to be discussed with just anyone, specially not men.
“I would have to thank them, then,” Veran said, fiddling with something in his pants pocket. “They deserve my thanks for providing me with the opportunity to buy something for you that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”
Cirthe tilted her head in confusion, eyes going to the small metallic object that he held in his hand between them.
She didn’t realize there was any more distance to cover between their bodies until she found herself pressed impossibly close to Veran as he stepped forward, his arms going around her head to the back.
“I bought it at the night market earlier.”
If she thought his voice was soft earlier, it was impossibly low now as it brushed past her ears in a husky whisper. Cirthe found herself holding her body very still, too aware of his fingers carding through her hair and gathering it loosely.
“I noticed your hair earlier but never got the chance to bring it up. I figured you wouldn’t accept anything too extravagant so I bought this hair tie sneakily. I was going to give it to you after we got back to the palace.”
When he was done with whatever he did to her hair, he stepped back as if to admire his handiwork and smiled, pleased with whatever he saw.
His reaction made Cirthe lift up a hand to her hair, noticing idly that it was a surprisingly smoothly done ponytail. Her fingers touched the cold trinket that was attached on top of the hair tie, its surface smooth with tiny engravings here and there.
“Thank you,” she replied, lips lifting into a soft smile. She was used to Veran constantly bugging her to accept the lavish gifts he wanted to give to her but she felt so caught off guard by the knowledge that he observed so much about her, though she shouldn’t be knowing how long they’ve been beside each other.
“This way you don’t have to cut your hair when you’re back by my side to protect me,” The grin slid off his face, replaced by a frown. Cirthe wondered if he was thinking back to the attack. “I’m really sorry about before. It was a foolish thing to do, sneaking out alone like that. Things could have turned out very differently if you hadn’t followed me back then. You could have gotten hurt or worse trying to save me.”
There was a pinched look on his face as he went quiet, hands fumbling between rubbing his eyes and running through his hair.
“It could have taken a horrible turn, yes. But it didn’t. You’re safe, Veran. We both are. And it will stay that way, I’ll make sure of that.”
She stepped towards him to pull his hand away from his eyes that looked red and misty, too much like tears than anything else. Her thumbs ran gently under them but she didn’t point it out to him. Her next words were even softer than her touch on his face.
“You also don’t need to worry yourself about some baseless rumors doubting your abilities as a leader. I know you and I know what you’re capable of. You just focus on what you need to do and I’ll make sure you’re always safe enough to do all that and more, even if I have to risk my life.”
Cirthe blinked at the strangled laugh that came out of his mouth, lips twisted into a lopsided smile as he clasped her hands in his own.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”