Jina stood at the end of the balcony. A breeze swept her long, chocolate-colored hair across her shoulders and tugged at her gown. She clutched the ends of her sleeves and gazed up into the night sky as her eyes brimmed with tears. The stars above blurred together and melted away as she drew in a shaky breath.
“Is anyone out there?” she whispered into the night. “Is there anyone who can help me? I don’t know what to do.”
Jina swiped an arm across her eyes and fiddled with the wet spots on her sleeves. “I’ve made a mistake, but I had no choice.” She cast her gaze upwards again, and the stars seemed to shine a little brighter.
“I thought I was doing what was right for my people, and who dares refuse a king?” Jina’s chuckle turned into a sob. “But now...” Her voice trailed off as her thin frame began to shake. She leaned forward, gripping the balustrade. “I need help,” she begged. “If anyone can hear me, please.”
Suddenly, a great whoosh severed the silence of the night, and Jina watched a single strand of light, like a shooting star, streak into the garden below. What on earth was that? She held her breath and peered at the solitary spark illuminating the trees.
The light stirred and began moving toward her. Jina inhaled sharply and dropped to the floor. Heartbeat echoing in her ears, she peeked over the edge of the balustrade.
As the glow emerged from the forest, Jina gasped and rose to her feet.
In the garden stood a man clad in white. Though he shone still, he was too far away for Jina to see him clearly. He looked up to the balcony as he dusted leaves from his hair.
“I apologize!” he called up. “I seem to have misjudged the distance.”
Jina gulped. “Are you all right?”
“Quite, thank you!” He swiped his hands down his legs, pulling sticks from his clothing. “I’ve made a mess of your garden, however.”
Jina leaned over the balustrade. “Where on earth did you come from?”
“I didn’t.” The man grinned pleasantly.
“Just a moment.”
Jina watched in wonder as the bright figure vaulted himself off the ground and soared into the sky, blending into the stars as the lonely queen gazed up in amazement. The man descended to the balcony and landed lightly on the banister, causing Jina to stumble backwards in fear.
Still balancing, he thrust his hands forward. “Please, don’t be frightened! I have no wish to harm you; in fact, I’m here for the opposite reason,” he laughed nervously.
Jina’s eyes swept over the individual before her. He was a young man, very tall and quite slender. His white hair swept upwards into a quiff and blended almost perfectly into his pale skin. He wore a white evening shirt with the collar open and the sleeves rolled up beneath a vest of the same color, matching his trousers and boots.
His eyes were different, however; they shone a deep, rich gold that penetrated Jina’s soul and warmed her from the inside out. His pallid brow furrowed with concern.
She carefully stepped forward, curiosity overcoming her apprehension. “How’d you do that?”
Jina shook her head incredulously. “Never mind. Who are you?”
“Ah, pardon me.” The man lighted off the balustrade and clasped his hands behind his back. “My name is Liam, and I believe you called.”
“Called? Oh, you must mean the king… er, my husband. He’s already set guards at my door…”
Liam smiled and bowed his head slightly. “Apologies, my lady, but I’ve come to answer your call.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” Jina chuckled nervously.
“In fact,” Liam mused, “I believe your exact words were, ‘Is there anyone who can help me?’” He spoke slowly, his golden eyes making contact with her own. “’I don’t know what to do.’”
Jina’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.
“You asked me where on earth I’d come from,” Liam resumed softly, “but I haven’t. You prayed to the stars, and they answered.”
Jina finally found her voice. “You’re… from the stars?”
“I know it sounds fantastic…”
“Well, I did just watch you fall from the sky.”
Liam’s cheeks flushed a golden shade. “That’s true.”
“Of course, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe you.” Jina gathered the ends of her sleeves in her hands. “So… you’re a star?”
“More or less.” Liam’s small smile returned.
“And you’re here to help me?”
“Do you need it?”
Jina nodded silently.
Liam stretched his arm out with a flourish and bowed deeply. “Then I am at your service, my lady. What do you require?”
Jina’s gaze flitted to the door at the entrance of her quarters. “I… I’m not quite sure.”
Liam stepped forward and extended his hand to the queen, his starry eyes twinkling kindly. “Then come with me.”
Jina hesitated for only a moment. She reached out and took his hand, and the floor swayed beneath her feet and fell away. She yelped in surprise and latched onto Liam’s lapel, who nonchalantly grasped her upper arm with his free hand. “It’s all right. I’ve got you.” He laughed good-naturedly. “Open your eyes, my lady.”
Jina carefully pried her eyes open, and her breath caught in her throat. Her slippered feet dangled in the air as they hovered above the balcony, rising steadily toward the roof of the castle. Afraid to loosen her grip on Liam’s vest, she gulped and asked, “Where are you taking me?”
Liam shrugged, and his eyes twinkled playfully. “Here’s fine.”
The pair descended onto the roof of the castle tower where Jina’s suite was located. Liam eased her down before prying her fingers from his vest. “You’re safe. You won’t fall.”
“Are you sure?” Her fingers involuntarily clung to the shingles beneath her.
Liam nimbly crouched next to her and raised his eyebrows knowingly. “Do you really think I’ll let you? Look around.”
Jina hesitantly lifted her eyes to the horizon and lost them among the stars. The vast expanse of space seemed to dwarf her. The stars grew brighter, as if to impress the little queen with their display. The longer she stared into the velvet night, the more colors she saw, the more vivid each star became, and the wider her companion grinned.
“Do you realize where you are?” he prompted. “Your tower is the highest point in the entire kingdom, but you’d never know it sitting in your room.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Jina responded breathlessly, momentarily taking her eyes from the sky and meeting his gaze. The star lifted his eyebrows and smiled kindly.
“My lady, whatever are you doing in that tower?”
Jina fiddled with the ends of her sleeves. “My name is Jina, since I haven’t told you yet,” she inserted teasingly. However, her smile melted away as she continued. “And two months ago, I became queen.”
Liam nodded slowly. “Congratulations?” he grimaced.
“Ordinarily, yes,” Jina responded sadly. “But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.” She balled up her sleeves in her fists. “The king decided he wanted a wife, so he traveled throughout the kingdom in search of one. He settled on me.
“I thought I was doing my people a favor. I thought that maybe having a queen could somehow transform him from the – the tyrant that he is.” A tear escaped down her cheek. “But nothing changed, and now I see this awful despot every day. He is angry, vengeful, and cruel. The people are starving. They’re afraid to even leave their homes because the soldiers terrorize the streets. Kylian – my husband – closed off all the borders: no trade, no traveling. He hoards his wealth and abuses his power, and I can’t do anything about it.” A sob caught in her throat, cutting off the flow of words spilling from her heart.
Liam shifted his position and settled down to the right of the lonely queen. His glowing presence warmed her as he drew near, providing an oddly comforting atmosphere. “Is that everything?”
“Yes,” Jina lied.
She knew Liam wasn’t fooled, but he carried on. “So, what do you think needs to be done about King Kylian, my lady?”
“I don’t even know what can be done. He’s the king; there’s no one on earth who can touch him.”
“Hmm.” Liam stared inexpressively off into the distance before continuing.
“Give me your hand.” He reached over with his right arm. Confused, Jina slowly placed her right hand into his.
In one swift motion, Liam brought his left hand up and swiped her sleeve back, exposing her forearm. Jina gasped in a mixture of surprise and pain.
Liam’s eyes lingered on the series of bruises stamped into her flesh, and an expression flashed across his face that Jina hadn’t seen before. Without moving his head or releasing her hand, his eyes flicked up to meet hers.
She swallowed and tried to retract her hand, but his firm grip held fast.
“My lady,” Liam started, his old smile returning to his lips, “you are a queen. You don’t deserve this.”
“I am only a queen because of him,” Jina spat out as her eyes welled up.
“No, darling. You were a queen before you ever married him.” Liam pulled down her sleeve but kept her hand in his.
Jina’s lower lip began to tremble. “I don’t want to go back.”
“You shouldn’t,” he stated sternly.
Without warning, a great bang rang out in the suite below, startling the pair into silence.
“Where is she!?” a voice boomed. “Find her!”
Jina’s eyes widened with horror. “It’s Kylian,” she breathed. A muscle in Liam’s jaw twitched.
Making up her mind, Jina began to slide down the roof.
“What are you doing?”
“I have to go back,” she whispered. “He’ll be angry!”
“He doesn’t need you for that.” Liam’s eyebrows edged up again. “What’ll happen if you do? More of this?” He held up the hand still in his grasp.
Jina didn’t respond. She simply met his golden gaze as tears poured down her cheeks.
Liam glided down the shingles to her side. “What do you want to do? Because you’re not going back. I won’t allow it.”
The queen paused and drew in a shaky breath. “I want to run away,” she whispered almost imperceptibly.
Liam released her hand and cradled her face, wiping her tears away with his thumbs. “Where to, my lady?”
“I don’t know. What do you suggest?”
He stood and gestured to the sable canopy above them. “The universe is yours, Jina. Where do you want to start?”
“You – you can take me to the stars?” Jina’s eyes widened as she slowly rose to her feet.
“And more, my lady,” Liam declared.
“But… I’m a person,” Jina faltered. “I don’t belong up there.”
“Oh, the sky can always hold another star.”
Jina’s breath and words caught in her throat. She followed Liam’s gaze to his home and watched a star shoot across the sky. No worries, no Kylian, no kingdom…
“I can’t,” Jina choked out through a sob.
Liam grasped her shoulders. “Why not?”
“The people,” Jina responded. “I can’t leave them. It wouldn’t be fair for me to run when they can’t. You couldn’t possibly bring all of us.”
“It would be rather ambitious of me.” Liam smiled sadly at the little queen.
Jina wiped her eyes with the ends of her sleeves. “I can’t, Liam. I have to go back.”
“No, you don’t. I’ll take you down to the village; you can live among your people.”
“He’ll just find me and drag me back, or do something else equally horrible. I don’t see another way, Liam.”
Briefly, Jina thought she saw the glint of a golden tear in the star’s eye.
“All right, my lady.” Liam pulled her close and lighted off the roof, descending gently to the balcony. He set her down and hopped upon the balustrade.
Jina gazed up at the pallid figure. His natural glow illuminated the night and, for a moment, the world didn’t seem quite so dark.
“Thank you, Liam. For everything.” She clutched his hand in hers.
“I only wish I could do more, my lady.” He lifted her hand to his lips, kissed it softly, and let go. Jina stepped back as the star vaulted off the balcony into the sky. She stared after him, a solitary tear traveling down her cheek.
Without warning, the door slammed open, startling Jina from her reverie. Kylian stormed in and advanced towards his wife, making no effort to mask his rage.
“There you are, miserable wretch!” Jina instinctively backed into the banister.
“Where did you go!?” he fumed. “Into the village? To incite rebellion?” Kylian grabbed her arm. “Speak to me!”
Jina recoiled but couldn’t twist her arm from his grip. His nails pressed into her flesh and her eyes welled up with tears. Nevertheless, she clenched her jaw and met his gaze. “I should never have returned to you,” she hissed through her teeth.
Kylian raised his arm, and Jina prepared for the blow.
But it never came.
Jina cautiously opened her eyes. Kylian’s hand remained outstretched, held into place by a long, pale arm as a familiar warmth rolled over her.
Liam landed on the balcony in front of Jina, never breaking eye contact with the king. Smoke swirled out from under his hand, and Kylian cried out in pain.
“Do not touch her again.” Liam released his hold and the king clutched his wounded arm. He swung clumsily at the star and Liam seized his arm again, burning him once more. “However, you can touch me again if you like.”
Kylian stumbled backwards, and Jina grabbed Liam’s arm. “You came back.”
“Did you really think I’d leave you with him?” The familiar twinkle returned to Liam’s eyes.
“Guards!” Kylian screamed. Liam pushed Jina behind him as a dozen soldiers poured into the room and faced the intruder.
“I wouldn’t,” Liam warned, swiping his hair back from his face.
“Attack the sorcerer!”
“Not a sorcerer, but okay,” Liam mumbled as the soldiers unsheathed their swords. Jina shrunk to the floor and watched as Liam blocked each blow with his bare arms and grasped two blades in his hands, liquefying them in seconds.
A soldier rushed forward, swinging his weapon wildly, but the blade passed through Liam’s midsection as if he were made of light. Taking advantage of the soldier’s surprise, Liam snatched the sword and tossed it into the garden below.
“I don’t want to hurt any of you,” Liam cautioned.
Two of the men near the doorway prepared their bows. Liam turned and knelt as the arrows pierced his back and exited through his chest. He reached forward and seized the arrows from midair, inches from Jina’s face.
Jina, petrified, looked up at Liam, whose golden eyes widened. “Hmm,” he grunted before whipping around and hurling the arrows into the wall.
The soldiers stepped back apprehensively. “What are you doing? Attack!” Kylian roared.
The men hesitantly raised their remaining weapons, and Liam stood before his queen.
Jina thrust herself in front of Liam, and the soldiers froze. Kylian charged forward, and Jina sensed Liam stiffen behind her.
“Foolish woman!” the king hissed. “I should kill you for this!”
“Then do it!” Jina shot back. Shock flashed across Kylian’s face. “You are a miserly, cruel tyrant, and I will never cease to fight you!”
“You?” Kylian laughed derisively. “I have an army. What do you have? A… glowing wizard?”
“Not a wizard,” Liam muttered.
Jina raised her chin. “Do you really think the people will back you?” The queen stepped forward defiantly, forcing Kylian back. “I refuse to live in your castle. I will dwell among my people, and we will rebel.”
“Miserable creature!” Kylian fumed and raised his arm again. With a sigh of annoyance, Liam dashed forward and seized him.
“With your permission, my lady, I would like to be rid of this creature.” Kylian vainly struggled against his captor.
At Jina’s nod, Liam’s golden eyes glittered and he rocketed into the sky with the king.
Jina watched the shimmering trail dissipate, and a massive weight lifted off her shoulders. The soldiers rushed forward and gaped at the sky, eyes wide and mouths open.
“If you don’t shape up, you’re next,” Jina warned.
A flash of lightning split the night, and Liam shot down to the balcony once more and glared at the soldiers. “Sorry that took so long, my lady.”
“What did you do with him?”
“A few centuries watching over mankind should educate him. Also,” Liam pulled his arm out from behind his back, “I believe this is yours.”
Kylian’s crown hung from Liam’s pale fingers. With a gleam in his eye, he reached up and situated the crown upon its new owner’s head.
“Are you loyal to the crown?” Liam turned to the soldiers, who nodded nervously. “Then bow to your queen.”
The soldiers wasted no time. Jina dismissed them and walked Liam to the end of the balcony. “I don’t know anything about leading a nation.”
“Well, I think you know more than the previous ruler.” Liam’s familiar grin spread over his face as he stepped onto the balustrade.
Jina grabbed his hand. “Must you go? What if I need help?”
“You don’t anymore.” Liam crouched nimbly to face the queen. “If you do, I’ll return.” He gently stroked Jina’s cheek. “I still owe you a trip to the stars, remember?”
Liam stood and released her hand.
“My lady.” He gave the queen a final nod and fell backwards off the balcony. Jina rushed to the balustrade as Liam soared past her and into the night sky.
As she watched her faithful knight disappear, her eyes welled up once more. The stars above blurred together and melted into the velvet canvas.
Except for one.