Did they really use that awful cold gray stone in everything?
“Do you see it? Oh, I never thought it would be so grand, Cyra!”
Cyra’s horse shifted underneath her. Grand? She wasn’t looking at a city. She was looking at a village! How could anyone call this a capital? Cyra tightened her grip, backing her horse up, carefully watching where they walked on the hill. She said to her companion, “Grand isn’t the word that came to mind, shahdokht.”
The girl beside Cyra widened her eyes. On her other side, a tall young man shot Cyra a harsh look. “What should have be on your mind are your manners. You know our situation. I’ve told you again and again we can’t afford to—”
“Don’t slow down back there. We want to arrive before nightfall.” A rather bulky, aging man called back at them from the front of the group. Everything about him commanded attention and obedience, and he left no room for argument.
The man on the other side of the shahdokht sighed and nudged his horse, abandoning his thought. Cyra grinned, thanking Satrap Croesus in her mind. The leader of their mission had good timing, well, good for Cyra.
The shahdokht clicked her tongue and sent her horse ahead, blowing past Cyra. Well, Croesus was the leader in name, but everyone knew that the real leader was Shahdokht Soray, eldest heir to the empire.
“Cyra, keep up!” Soray called over her shoulder. Cyra kicked her horse, hurrying to her side. “Can you believe we’re so close to it? The legendary city Elista of Vialya, it’s beautiful.”
“Shahdokht, all you can see from this distance are those dull gray buildings.” Cyra rolled her eyes. How could Soray say such things when this city was dirt in comparison to their home?
“Cyra!” the man snapped.
“Oh, you both don’t have to be so harsh. Mihrab, really no need to get upset. I’m sure that when we enter the city, Cyra will see for herself. Then Cyra won’t be able to say anything insulting. She’ll see why Elista is considered to be one of the greatest capitals of our time,” Soray laughed. She pushed her dark brown hair back, trying to keep it presentable despite all the traveling they’d done.
Cyra clicked her mouth shut at the harsh look Mihrab sent her. She knew when not to push her luck, and after knowing him her entire life, Cyra knew when to stop pushing her brother. Although, sometimes knowing when to stop didn’t mean she actually did. Cyra let Soray continue to praise a city she’d never seen before in peace.
Their group settled into a comfortable pace set to Soray’s lilting voice. Cyra stopped listening. She observed the scenery. She knew Vialya had a different climate, more trees, plants, and sprawling forests, nearly no sand. Seeing it, however, was a very different thing. At some points the trees were so numerous and large she could no longer see the sky through them. When she realized it, she almost couldn’t breathe.
Soray wouldn’t stop talking about fresh clean air, and all Cyra could think about was how thick and heavy it was. Suffocating to death almost seemed like a mercy. Really, what was the appeal of such a miserable and wretched land?
Cyra guided her horse with one hand as her other traced her necklace. She would at least have a lot to talk about to those back home. Maybe he would appreciate her criticism of Elista more than her current companions.
“—festival! I was afraid we’d miss the first part, but we’ll be just in time!” Soray’s voice caught her attention.
“Festival?” Cyra glanced at her brother.
“Do you ever listen to anyone?” Mihrab sighed, “We went over this before we left.”
“That was weeks ago,” Crya huffed, tapping her horse. She lifted her head. Fine, maybe she couldn’t always quite focus as well as she should. It was hard to pay attention to the captain when she was thinking of something, or well someone else. It just hadn’t seemed all that important to listen, not when she was just there to guard Soray. Why should she bother to remember all the political nonsense? That was Soray’s job, not hers.
“Cyra, it’s the Sunset Festival. Vialya’s had it for around twenty years now. I’ve always wanted to go, apparently it’s supposed to be a big deal. It’s a huge kingdom wide celebration.” Soray smiled as the city gates appeared in their sight.
Celebration, at this time of year? Cyra sat up straighter and her hands began to ache from how tightly she was holding her reins.
“It is fortunate and almost fitting that the renegotiation of our treaties falls soon after this festival. Signs of good will and divine favor, one might say,” Coresus said. He didn’t wait for a response as he approached Elista’s gates, signaling the Vialyan guards.
Cyra rode up to her brother. “Do they really expect us to be celebrating? They do know that in a few days is…”
Cyra didn’t even have to finish her thought. Her brother knew what she was talking about.
Mihrab sighed and reached for her shoulder, squeezing it in comfort. She leaned into it slightly. “It may not be our country’s victory to celebrate. However, regardless of our own feelings and obligations at this time of year, we cannot let it interfere.”
“I have no plans of interfering. I just hate how we’re here, and it just had to be this time of year of all times. I know that we shouldn’t mourn this long, but should we just forget it? How long? I just don’t know when to let go. Or where to start.” Cyra stared at the leather reins in her hands. Sometimes Cyra wished she just she didn’t feel anything at all.
“You are aware you have the tendency to avoid grief rather than dealing with it, right?” Mihrab said, keeping his voice low and gentle. Strict and uptight he might be, but he was good at being kind and comforting.
“Alright, maybe I’m twenty years too late or maybe even sixteen, but what do I do? How do I mourn for them? How do I just get past it?” Cyra couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She hated thinking about what happened, she just couldn’t help the anger that slowly boiled in her veins.
“I suppose I ask then, who are you really morning for? Is it for him, me, mother, or for yourself? We have a job and a duty to the shahdokht. You know she’ll notice if you aren’t yourself. Let’s just try not to ruin this for her. This is her one chance to enjoy Vialya’s Sunset Festival. We will have endless chances to mourn at home,” Mihrab said. Leather creaked and hoofs hit the ground.
Who was she mourning for? She’d never really known him, not like Mihrab had, so why did this bother her so much? Maybe Mihrab was right. Maybe this whole trip to Viayla bothered her so much because she was taking it personally. They’d never got any answers. All that they’d been given was the place where he’d died, Viayla. It just wasn’t right. Shouldn’t they at least get more explanation than that? It was their fault she never even got the chance to know him. She wasn’t mourning for the person she knew; she was mourning the opportunity she lost. She’d always blamed Viayla as a whole, and she just couldn’t separate them from it. It was their fault; that’s just the truth. She’d been thinking like that for twenty years, it would take her more than just a few minutes to change that. That was even if she believed it wasn’t, and Cyra was certain they were to blame. No one else could be held responsible.
Cyra looked up to see Mihrab joining Soray. Her hand fumbled for her necklace, forcing herself to draw on its calming presence. She hated how Mihrab was always right. She didn’t have to celebrate, but she couldn’t force Soray to be miserable with her as well. Cyra would just keep her feelings to herself. It wouldn’t end well if she started lashing out at everyone. It would be over soon enough, Cyra hoped.
Or, maybe… this was the only time Cyra had ever been to Vialya, and likely the only time she ever would be. Maybe, she could get some answers. If there was ever the chance to get the full story of her father’s death, this was it.
With another tap and click of her tongue, Cyra flanked Soray’s side as they entered dreary Elista.
* * *
“Your highness, I present to you the diplomats from Sardes, Governor Croesus and Princess Soray.”
Cyra frowned, struggling to keep up with the new language. She knew Vialyan, but practicing it with Soray and Mihrab was different than trying to keep up with native speakers. They spoke so fast with a strange spin on their words. Cyra wasn’t even that fond of their language to begin with. It was such a hassle to try and learn. Cyra just knew enough to get by. Soray was the one who had to communicate in it.
The more time she spent in Vialya, the more she disliked it. Despite Soray’s earlier predictions, their dark somber gray architecture had not endeared itself to her. Really, it had no elegance or artistry to it. Cyra was certain in that moment she could never find anything to love about the country.
Heels clicked on the stone, sending an air of unease and formality ahead. Cyra peered around her horse’s head, trying to see who approached. Everyone in the castle courtyard froze. Croesus stayed close to Soray’s side as she swallowed and gripped the skirt of her dress.
Cyra too froze when she realized who exactly they had been announced to.
The very air around them hardened. The already cold temperature dropped further, and Cyra almost longed for the burning sands of summer.
“Thank you, I am glad to see you arrive safely, Princess Soray, Governor Croesus.” Her voice, while not impolite, was sharp. Her dress swished around her, and jewels and metal glinted in the sun.
All could see why she was called The Iron Queen.
For all the faults Cyra found with Vialya, their queen was not one of them.
“Queen Regan, we are more grateful for your generosity in extending this invitation to us, especially at the time of the Sunset Festival,” Soray effortlessly switched to speaking in their language. She wasn’t the heir for nothing.
“We are happy to have you, especially during this celebration. I am sure you as well as your guards and servants are tired. All of your rooms have already been arranged, and you can rest there before the first feast tonight.” Queen Regan snapped her fingers. Cyra found her horse being led away by a stable boy. She glanced around to see everyone quickly organizing themselves accordingly.
Mihrab caught her eye and nodded towards Soray. They both quickly hurried to her side as she was led into the castle by the Queen.
Soray turned to Cyra, whispering in their tongue, “Did I do alright? Croesus insisted I handle it on my own. Just being near her is intimidating.”
Cyra smiled. “You were all grace and royal poise, a true testament to your father.”
Soray lit up before turning to answer something the queen asked. Soray spoke as if their language was her own. “Yes, these two are my personal protectors. Mihrab will stay with Coresus, and Cyra will stay with me.”
“Do not worry. I can easily have that arranged for you,” Queen Regan said. She began to tell them more about the castle, starting with its layout, but also adding in bits of history. Mihrab, Croesus, and Soray patiently listened, and Cyra couldn’t tell if they were actually interested or just polite. Cyra didn’t really listen even though she knew she should. What did she care about the battlefield the castle had been built on? She could feel the faint magical energy herself. Really, anyone who had the slightest magical ability could feel it in the air. Apparently, the Vialyans really had lost any magical ability in their people if none of them knew about it. Still, it was a little odd there was such a lingering trace in a country nearly devoid of all magic.
Then again, there were a lot of strange things about Vialya. Cyra shivered. Why was this country so cold even in spring? How did they have so many plants when it was so cold all the time? Wouldn’t the plants die?
Cyra’s mind continued to wander back home. Was it already turning into summer there? Was the sand too hot to touch at midday? Maybe she should ask—
“Here you are, Princess Soray. I’ll have another cot set up in here before you retire for the night. I hope you find everything here to your liking.” Queen Regan gestured to a door. Cyra blinked and casually looked over her shoulder. She couldn’t remember how they had gotten there.
An elbow to her side sent her stumbling after Soray, who said, “I’m sure it will be, thank you, Queen Regan. Your castle is lovely.”
The queen shook her head with a soft, if Cyra didn’t know better she would say pained, smile. “I’m pleased you think so. The festival is one of the few things that really brightens the place up, well the whole kingdom. It’s an honor to have you here for it. I’ll have a maid sent up to help you, as I see you did not bring any.”
Cyra shot her brother a look. How could he be mad at her when the queen herself clearly didn’t find much to be happy with here!
“Oh, you don’t have to send anyone. Cyra here can help me, but I genuinely appreciate the thought, and I look forward to tonight,” Soray said, ducking her head slightly.
“If you ever change your mind, my offer still stands. I will see you tonight then.” Queen Regan inclined her head before turning to leave. Soray shut the door behind her.
Cyra crossed her arms and leaned against the door. She heard the footsteps fade away on the other side. Cyra spoke in their own Sardesi, “Oh, you’re looking forward to this?”
“Cyra!” Soray laughed as she took in the large, elegant room they’d been put in. Cyra would admit the room was twice the size of her own at home, and was filled with all the nice decorations, comforts, and embellishments a princess was entitled to. Soray stepped towards the beautiful dark wooden dresser. “Of course I am. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Cyra snorted, but enjoyed hearing Soray slip into her native language.
Soray ran her hand over the dresser, glancing back at Cyra. “I know you hate this stuff, and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t make you go with me if I had a choice.”
Cyra pushed off the door, waving her hand. “Don’t upset yourself, shahdokht. It was an honor to be handpicked by your father to be your personal bodyguard and attendant. I am happy to do my duty.”
“You can’t lie to me, I’ve known you for far too long. You don’t want to be here, you want to be at home. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that new necklace you have on. I know Mihrab didn’t give it to you, and you would never think of buying it for yourself. You want to be in Sardes with your beau, I’m sure rather than listen to me make small talk all night.” Soray backed away from the dresser and sat on the large four poster bed.
Cyra leaned against the post. “I’m your bodyguard. Where you go, I go. I’ll happily spend the rest of my life listening to you make small talk because it means you’re safe from harm.”
Soray frowned, “I know you won’t tell me who he is, not right now, because you haven’t told Mihrab yet. But whoever he is, don’t you think you might want a future with him rather than me? You could have love and a family of your own, wouldn’t you rather have that than be forced to sacrifice yourself for me?”
Cyra gripped her necklace tightly. “What I want doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does, tell me that you’d be happy for things to stay the way they are. Tell me, could you really live the rest of your life like this?”
“Of course. It is what Mihrab and I were born to do, protect you. You’re my closest friend and the closest thing I have to a younger sister.” Cyra said tiredly, climbing onto the bed, started to gather Soray’s hair together.
“I’m older than you by a year!” Soray said, straightening up.
Cyra quickly began working on taking Soray’s hair down, searching for the hair pins. “Maybe, now, your luggage will be here any moment. What kind of look do you want for tonight?”
Soray sighed, letting the previous subject go. “I want to leave a good impression tonight. I want to look radiant.”
Cyra’s hands were quickly lost in Soray’s thick brown hair. With a hairpin in her mouth, she mumbled, “A lot of effort for the somber, cold Iron Queen.”
“She’s not going to be the only one there! I’m sure several nobles and other dignitaries will be there, and of course her son.” Soray listed while counting off her fingers.
Cyra frowned as she focused on a particularly complicated twist. She wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what Soray was saying. “Son?”
“Yes, her son!” Soray jolted forward, spinning around to face Cyra who still held part of Soray’s hair in her hands. “Crown Prince Vitalis! Don’t tell me you forgot about him too. You were told all about Vialya’s royal family before we left.”
“Sit still,” Cyra huffed, turning her back around. Soray rolled her eyes as Cyra said, “I didn’t forget about him. I just wasn’t paying attention.”
With another tug and a loose pin, Soray’s hair was free. Soray leapt to her feet and hurried to the dresser, fixing her hair herself. “Cyra, honestly, I say this because I love you, but that’s really something you should work on. I can’t think of any other royal guards who daydream as much as you do. Your clouded head will get you in trouble someday.”
Cyra gathered up all of Soray’s hairpins. “Then it’s a good thing I’m not the shahdokht. I’d be awful at it.”
Soray turned around and smiled, but there was an air of wistful remorse behind it. “Makes you think though. What if it was Shahpur Mihrab and Shahdokht Cyra, and I was your bodyguard? Sometimes, that actually sounds rather nice, not being royalty.”
“Sardes would be suffering a great loss and never even know it. No, there’s no sense in dwelling on it, Soray. We were born who we are, and we just have to live with it.” Cyra shook her head as she came up behind Soray. They looked in the mirror. Cyra put a hand on Soray’s shoulder. “You, Soray, are the shahdokht. Tonight, you will represent Sardes to not only the Iron Queen, but to her son and all of Vialya. If you ever start to get overwhelmed, just remember your family is right with you. Mihrab and I are here.”
“Thank you,” Soray breathed.
Cyra chose not to mention she didn’t really see the need to impress anyone in such a forsaken county, much less some prince who hadn’t even bothered to show up to greet Soray when she arrived.