Starting a novel at its ending. To be revised, eventually. Help with names appreciated.
Prologue: The Last Day
His eyes were once as bright as gold. I remember how they would flash in triumph on the tournament field, or shine with joy among his companions in the banquet hall, or glow in contentment as he walked through the castle gardens with his dear wife.
That night at supper, though, his eyes were dull and downcast. I covertly tried to catch my friend’s attention from my seat at the women’s table, but he kept his gaze fixed on a bowl of stew through the meal.
The whole room was somber. Many familiar faces were missing, and those in attendance wore varying looks of injury, exhaustion, and grief. In all the days of war I had seen in Thalassa, I’d never known the people of King Phalerum’s house to sink so low in spirits.
The meal dragged on with every conversation dwindling away to a pitiful silence. There could be no songs to raise the mood tonight. Mere days ago, my friend had brought the whole room to tears of laughter by singing a saucy ballad to tease his pregnant wife, but now he himself was mute with sorrow.
As soon as it was not an affront to leave the gathering, my friend rose and walked out of the banquet hall, passing sympathetic friends without a word. I could not see his face as he left, but from the way his shoulders bent, I could tell he had begun crying again.
I wanted to cry too, but instead I stared glumly into my own bowl. The hearty meat and vegetable stew tasted like ash and felt like a stone in my stomach. Still, I kept lifting the spoon to my mouth until the older woman beside me laid a hand on my arm.
I looked at her, and she motioned toward the king. “Curls, he beckons you.” I nodded and stood up.
Once I reached his side, King Phalerum took my hand to draw me in close. “I fear the stars have not come out tonight. The sky is dark.”
“Yes, my lord,” I said, accustomed to waiting for the rest of his vague statements.
The king held up his cup for the steward to refill before he would continue. He took a long draught of wine, and then he said, “I fear also the darkness of Cynthus’ mood tonight.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s clinically depressed,” I said, regretting the modern slang as soon as it left my mouth. King Phalerum understood my situation, but my otherworldly experience often confused him and others.
He graciously ignored the slip-up. “Go to him, Stella. Console him in this dark time.”
“But I can’t. It’s my fault that—”
The king raised his hand, and I fell silent. “—Put aside your own grief and comfort him. Else I fear we will lose Cynthus, and with him our hope for regaining the kingdom.”
I could never argue with the king. I quickly made my curtsy and hurried out to find Cynthus.
It was dark outside, but not starless. Both the head of the Serpent and the Great Boot were visible through the cloud cover. Some nights, looking up at those foreign constellations would make me homesick for the Big Dipper, but I was too busy that night to give them more than a passing glance.
The courtyard was empty and the inner halls showed no signs of passage. Where could Cynthus have disappeared to? I considered going to his chambers, but a body lay in state there. He had refused to look since her death, so I knew I would not find him there.
Just as I considered abandoning the mission and heading to my own bed, a flash of gold eyes caught my attention. “Meow!” With a twist of its long black tail, the cat jumped up from a bush onto the stone steps leading up the castle wall.
“What are you trying to tell me now? Is there someone else up there?” I asked the cat, standing at the bottom of the stairs. “You know, it isn’t safe with the invaders right outside. I don’t think they’d refrain from shooting a cat.”
Not to disgrace the proud history of felines, the cat ignored me. It sauntered up the stairs and leapt gracefully onto the parapet. Then it turned back to look at me and meowed again.
“Just for the record, I think you’re insane,” I said, taking the stairs slowly because of the long train of my dress. “And if you’re not crazy, I certainly am. I mean, look at me. I’m talking to a damn cat.”
“I do not think you’re crazy,” a voice said from the adjacent tower. At first, I mistook it for the cat until Cynthus stepped out of the doorway. He lent a hand to help me up the last step. “Not in speaking to a cat, at least.”
I could feel my face burning, but thankfully it was too dark for him to see me blush. “Cyn, I’m…”
“Graybeard sent you. Well, say what you have to say.” His words were humorless but without bile. If Cynthus had known what I really needed to tell him, he would have stayed hidden in the tower.
“I can’t, Cyn. There’s nothing I can say that would make up for your loss.” More than that, I wasn’t going to add to his grief by telling him the truth. The king had sent me to comfort him, and that was all I could do. “Nothing except I’m here for you.”
I reached for his hand, and Cynthus nearly pulled away from me. I simply held on tight until he gave in and wrapped his arms around me. “Curls, you know how precious you are to me—”
“—but I can’t be any more than that. I know that, and so does the king and the whole damn kingdom. But while I can’t replace the love of your life, I’ll certainly tell you to keep on living. You’ve still got people who care about you and love you and need you. I still…”
This would have been the perfect moment. I longed to say it, but those three little words would be a thousand promises I knew I could not keep. “I care about you.”
Cynthus merely sighed and held me closer. My tear-stained face rested on the wide expanse of his chest, and I rubbed the tense muscles of his back. His long, dark hair hung like a shield around our faces, hiding the tears that continued to fall in the dark night.
Then the damn cat hissed behind me, and I turned to yell, “Stop meddling!” As soon as I broke away, an arrow sped through the air directly where my head had been an instant before.
Immediately, Cynthus pulled me down to the floor behind the parapet as more arrows flew up from below. I listened to them striking his wooden shield for what seemed like an eternity, and he covered me until the barrage was over.
“Curls! Are you injured?” Cynthus helped me up to a crouch, one hand unconsciously feeling for the pulse at my neck. His golden eyes were wide with fear, but in the dark he didn’t notice me shaking my head at his question. “Stella, tell me you’re all right!”
“I’m fine!” I snapped back at him; then turned away from his mouth, just inches from my own. “Really, it didn’t touch me, not a scratch. Come on, let’s get down from here before—”
I stepped down the stairs, but Cynthus lingered at the top. “Stella,” he said softly, and the one word held me still. “You’re not safe here.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the cat rub up against his side and then saunter over to the doorway. Even from that angle, I could see the damn cat wink at me. Then it leapt through the entry, leaving a glowing ring in the air like a pebble tossed in a pond.
“Neither of us are,” I said, trying to ignore the hum of the new portal. “We’ve got to get inside before they launch another attack.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Cynthus said. His hand was on my shoulder now, physically preventing me from descending the stairs. “You’re not safe here in Thalassa. You need to go home.”
“This is my damn home.” I said, still reluctant to shake him off. Cynthus would listen to reason, he would never dare to simply force me into the portal. “I’m not leaving just because—”
“—I can’t lose you like I lost Nysa. I love you, Stella.”
I shut my hanging mouth before I turned to face him. “Say that again. Swear it.”
“I don’t need to,” he said, “I can do this instead.” Then his hand was at the small of my back, and his breath was on my cheek, and his lips were on mine.
He tasted like honey, like molten gold, like the first sunbeam of morning spilling over the windowsill. Even his softest kisses felt like starbursts on my starving mouth, and as our embrace deepened I felt I would overflow with the long-deferred joy.
I couldn’t stop myself, when he broke for a breath, I pressed for more and did not notice how we had taken three large steps back up the stairs. But then, with his mouth still on mine, Cynthus murmured, “I’m sorry, Stella.”
Before I had time to question why, he turned a half-step and then pushed me hard. I fell, hoping to land right on my bottom on the stone floor, but all I felt was a freezing wind as the portal swallowed me up into darkness.