Once Soray’s luggage arrived, their conversation changed and carried a more lighthearted air. Soray tried on several of her elegant dresses before making her choice. Cyra was of little help because she had been laughing, telling Soray she looked lovely in all of them, and it was true.
Soray was always a vision to behold. Not all wealthy royals were blessed with beautiful features. Others outside of Sardes might not consider her so, but Soray was the epitome of classical Sardesi beauty. There was no man in the empire who did not wish his wife to resemble her even in just the slightest of ways, and there was no woman in the empire who did not wish to be like her.
Cyra spent most of her time fixing Soray’s hair. Cyra didn’t usually take on this task, especially for special occasions. Soray usually had an entire fleet of handmaidens at home who attended her, however, none of them were brave enough or strong enough to volunteer to go on the journey. Soray was also far too kind to force them too. Cyra could manage it, and she would do everything she could to do a good job. It wasn’t all that different from when they had played with each other’s hair as children.
Cyra grinned as she put on the final touch by setting Soray’s crown on her head.
After she finished her job as a replacement handmaiden, Cyra stopped paying attention to the particulars. She trailed after the shahdokht as they walked through the halls, meeting up with Croesus and Mihrab. She fiddled with her necklace and started thinking about the rest of the night. After they retired, Mihrab wouldn’t be watching her like he had been the entire trip. Soray might not notice, after all she didn’t have much talent in the ways of magic…
Mihrab cleared his throat.
Cyra jumped slightly and dropped her necklace. She forced her hand to her side. She focused her gaze on Soray who was talking happily with Croesus and a man who was probably important in Vialyan court. Had she caught his name? Cyra felt like it started with a ‘p,’ maybe.
“I present to you their highnesses, Queen Regan and Crown Prince Vitalis.”
Everyone in the room turned, bowing and curtsying to acknowledge their presence. Soray shot Cyra a panicked glance as she dipped into her curtsy. Cyra stifled a sigh as she hurried to her side.
“Thank you,” Soray mumbled as they made their way through the crowd with Croesus. Cyra merely brushed her arm against Soray’s before falling a step behind her as was proper.
“Here they are, the visiting party from Sardes,” Queen Regan said as they approached. Soray stepped forward, giving another small curtsy. “Vitalis, this is Sardes’ princess, Princess Soray, and Governor Croesus. Princess, this is my son, Prince Vitalis.”
“Princess, I offer you my deepest apologies for not being there to greet you earlier today.”
Cyra tilted her head slightly to look around Soray to see the prince. The moment she saw him her expression changed.
Cyra looked at Prince Vitalis like she looked at the sun.
That is to say, Cyra squinted angrily because she couldn’t see and was starting to get a headache from looking at him too long.
“The important thing is that you are here now,” Soray said, masking her accent. She smiled at him a little more than just politely. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“I assure you the pleasure is mine. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen of our city so far.” Prince Vitalis returned her smile. The throb in Cyra’s head worsened. She mentally rolled her eyes.
“Yes, I have. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Cyra held back a scoff.
“I’m sorry, I don’t believe I caught your name.” Prince Vitalis looked over Soray’s shoulder at Cyra. Cyra froze, seeing a small smirk on his face and his eyes lit up. He’d noticed her? No one did that. Honestly, who would ever look past Soray and at her? Maybe she hadn’t hid her derision as well as she thought she had.
Soray gestured for her to step forward. “Prince Vitalis, this is Cyra my c—”
“Bodyguard.” Cyra hurried to speak before Soray, stumbling over the foreign tongue with a thick accent. “I am, uh, Princess Soray’s personal bodyguard.”
Prince Vitalis looked her over calmly before smiling again. “I assure you I have no ill intentions towards the princess. She is quite safe here.”
Cyra was not used to nobles or royalty addressing her directly. Only Soray and the shah ever did so, but they were different. Cyra struggled to speak gracefully, “Regardless, it is my duty to stay by her side here.”
“Prince Vitalis, it is an honor to see you again.” Croesus stepped forward, bowing slightly. “You have grown a lot in these past five years.”
“Ah! Yes, I remember now.” Prince Vitalis and Croesus fell into their own conversation.
Queen Regan shook her head before saying, “He’s such a handful, always has been. Anyways, I’m sure everyone is tired of waiting on us.”
With a snap of her fingers, everyone was making their way to the tables. Cyra blinked and it was a whirlwind around her. The Iron Queen escorted herself to the table while her son pulled out Soray’s chair for her, giving her the seat of honor.
A hand touched her elbow, and Cyra looked up to see Mihrab scowling at her. Cyra put on an innocent expression as they made their way to the edge of the room close to Soray.
“We haven’t even been here a whole day and you’ve almost started a political disaster,” Mihrab spoke in their own tongue.
“You’re exaggerating. No one goes to war over some bodyguard’s facial expression.” Cyra crossed her arms, fighting the itch to fiddle with her necklace.
“Please, Cyra, no one wants an international incident. We all want a peaceful visit here before we go back to Sardes, so just don’t upset the royalty.” Mihrab pinched the bridge of his nose.
“You have my word I will not start an international incident, happy?” Cyra turned, keeping her gaze locked on Soray. She resolved to ignore her brother for the rest of the evening if he was going act more like a father. She just needed to get through this and go to bed.
Cyra repeated that mantra in her head, drowning out the dull drone of small talk coming from the table. The feast was winding down when her ear caught something. Desert was being served and Cyra overheard Prince Vitalis and Soray’s discussion. Really, gather together the most important and powerful people of Vialya and what do they discuss? The weather. Honestly, royalty and nobility utterly baffled her most of the time.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t have come a few weeks earlier. You would have been able to see the snow before it melted. We had a longer winter than normal this year. I honestly believe that is when Vialya is at its best,” Prince Vitalis said, leaning in his seat, facing Soray.
“Snow?” Soray scrunched her face in confusion. Cyra honestly had no idea what that word would translate to in Sardesi. Soray said, “I can’t say I know what you’re talking about.”
“Then you, princess, are missing out. I suppose Sardes doesn’t get snow, which is such a shame. There is nothing as wonderful as snow. You can’t say you’ve been to Vialya unless you’ve seen Vialya with snow. Really, I insist your descriptions could not do my country justice without having experienced snow,” Prince Vitalis laughed.
Cyra narrowed her eyes. The two had been hitting it off since the beginning of the night. Soray got along with everyone and liked everyone, but who was this prince? Why was he being so friendly with the shahdokht?
“Well, hopefully I will one day be able to say I have truly seen Vialya as you have,” Soray said. “Like your snow, I can safely say that all of the visiting delegates coming for the negotiations are in for quite a treat.”
Cyra wished Soray wasn’t faced away from her. She couldn’t see her face or determine whether Soray was being friendly or something more.
“Oh? What surprise is in store?” Prince Vitalis took a drink.
“The Century Storm, of course! Every hundred years, a huge storm comes barreling into our country. The eye of the storm always ends up being at the palace over the throne room and the gardens. I can’t speak from personal experience, but the best way to describe it is to call it the storm to end all storms.” Soray sighed wistfully as the last plates were cleared away.
The prince opened his mouth, but paused when the Iron Queen gave him a look. He cleared his throat and rose from his seat, commanding everyone’s attention.
What was he doing?
“Thank you all for coming tonight to start off our celebration of the Sunset Festival. We would especially like to thank Princess Soray of Sardes for making the trip.” Princce Vitalis gestured to her, bowing slightly. He then motioned for an older man at the door to come forward. He was dressed as one of their guards, but was clearly far past his prime with silver hair showing his age. “Queen Regan and I would like to express our gratitude and a gesture of good will between our nations by bestowing a few gifts.”
Soray rose from her seat to receive them. She shot a nervous glance at Cyra who only shrugged. How was she to know?
“The first of these is less of a gift, but more returning to you something that belongs to your people.” Princes Vitalis took a sheathed sword from the older man.
Cyra and Mihrab shuffled to get a better look. What was he going on about?
Prince Vitalis offered the sword to Soray, bowing. “This sword belonged to a man from Sardes who came Vialya twenty years ago in an attempt to try and stop the demons who had gained control. Unfortunately, his name was not known to us, but we hope you can put it to use. It belongs to you more than it does us.”
Cyra’s breath caught in her throat, and Mihrab’s hand slipped into hers. Was she the one crushing the bones in his hand or he hers?
Soray had stiffened, but accepted the sword. She turned it over carefully in her hands. Her small fingers ran over the hilt. Cyra mouthed the words Soray’s fingers traced. In their tongue, the words translated to “The Defender,” the swords’ name.
It had been a dark day when Sardes realized that the sword and its wielder wasn’t going to return.
“Thank you,” Soray breathed. Prince Vitalis straightened up. From the way her voice had wavered, Soray was holding back tears. Soray glanced over her shoulder, commanding, “Mihrab, come here.”
Then, Cyra was standing alone. Her head throbbed. Her brother’s face was blank, but she knew him better than anyone. From the way his fingers twitched and the weight on his feet, she knew all the conflicting emotions in him. All the old, buried hurt, all the forgotten anger was rushing through him like it was her.
Was she shaking?
Cyra dug her feet into the ground and clamped her hands against her side. She bit the inside of her cheek, forcing her face to remain neutral.
Soray cleared her throat as Mihrab dropped to his knee in front of her. “I cannot express my gratitude for this gift, Prince Vitalis. As I cannot put this weapon to good use, I hereby bestow it upon one of my strongest and most trust warriors and guardians, Mihrab. There isn’t a man in Sardes who deserves it more.”
Mihrab accepted the sword wordlessly. He kept his head lowered, but he gripped the sword as if it was his lifeline. In one simple diplomatic move, Soray finally gave Mihrab closure. Cyra couldn’t ever thank her enough for that, but she wasn’t so easily placated.
Something still wasn’t right. The story they’d all long since accepted wasn’t making sense anymore. How could it still exist?
It was then she realized someone was staring at her. Cyra blinked and met the curious gaze of the prince. At his unvoiced questions, Cyra narrowed her eyes and boldly lifted her chin ever so slightly. Royalty he might be, but Cyra did not own him of all people an explanation.
“This next gift is of a similar kind.” Prince Vitalis recovered, and Cyra refused to feel any guilt at the slight pain that flashed across his face at her disrespect. She had too much suffocating her thoughts already.
He reached and received a smaller weapon from the guard. It was just a small dagger. He offered the hilt to Soray. “This is the legendary Keturah’s dagger. I believe that says it all about this gift.”
Cyra couldn’t breathe. She needed air and space and— She wanted home. Her heart ached for a time long past of warmth and family and home.
A hand caught her arm, and Mihrab shook his head. “You need to stay.”
Cyra risked a burning glance towards Soray and that man. Her voice cracked, “Please, I can’t.”
“Fine, I will cover for you. Go before anyone sees,” Mihrab whispered.
For all the trouble she gave him, Cyra loved her brother for moments like that.
Cyra hurried to the servant’s door, keeping her steps light and her head down. Cyra opened the door and slid through it discreetly, looking back one last time.
Again she met his gaze and anger rushed through her head.
How dare he? How could he stand there all smiles and gifts ignoring that they were gotten of murder and robbery?
And above all else, these people never even bothered to learn his name.
* * *
Cyra couldn’t remember how, but she made it to Soray’s room and a small cot had already been set up in the empty corner. Cyra slammed the door shut before storming to the center of the room. She spun around, but couldn’t find anything to release her anger on. She was rational enough to know destroying what was in the room would only get her in trouble with Mihrab and possibly the Vialyan royalty.
She stifled a frustrated shriek before dropping onto her cot. Her hand went to her necklace as she laid her head back. She murmured a short incantation and magic swirled around her head, lulling her eyes shut.
There was nothing quite like dreaming, Cyra believed.
When she opened her eyes, Cyra quickly scrambled to her feet, brushing sand off of her.
“So, I see the necklace works. I was a bit worried since I haven’t seen you yet. I thought maybe you were too far away.”
“Ano!” Cyra’s face burst out into a grin she never wore while awake. She hurried over to the young Sardesi man leaning against the long tree in the middle of the desert. She kicked up sand as sprinted towards him. When she reached him, she threw her arms around him. “You’re exactly who I needed to see.”
Ano laughed, returning the hug. He pulled back, asking, “Rough day of riding?”
“No, worse,” Cyra said as she reached up and started to play with the low hanging branches. “We arrived in Elista today.”
“Really? I take it you weren’t impressed with the legendary capital?” Ano smirked.
“You know me.” Cyra shook her head. “Vialya, especially, Elista is the last place I want to be.”
“I’ve never been there myself, what’s so awful about it?” Ano grabbed hold of one of the branches and pulled himself into the tree.
Cyra laughed as she followed him up, leaning against the trunk as they climbed. “It’d be easier to tell you what’s not awful about it. I hate how cold it is, and it is spring nearly summer! You honestly don’t want to get me started. There just isn’t anything good to say. I’ve been acting like a bear every time I think about it.”
“Alright, then tell me about Soray. How is she doing on this trip?” Ano swung his leg back and forth.
“Good, she taken to the whole diplomatic ambassador thing really well.” Cyra rested her head against the trunk. She scoffed, and she just couldn’t help herself, “She’s known the prince a matter of a few hours and he’s already giving her gifts.”
Ano shot up, bending to look Cyra in the eye. Cyra jerked at the intense look in his eyes. “The Vialyan prince? Prince Vitalis?”
Cyra set her hand on his knee, steadying him. “Yes, why?”
“Look, I’ve heard some pretty suspicious things about him. I don’t mean to alarm you.” Ano relaxed slightly, putting his hand on hers. Warmth seeped through her. Ano lowered his gaze. “I’m not sure how true it is, gossip and all that. I didn’t mention it because I didn’t think he would try something since you’re only staying there a week, but if he’s giving Soray gifts so early on… I’ll spare you the details.”
“Don’t worry about ruining my opinion of him. The man dropped his conversation with the shahdokht to address me, clearly of a lower class, and once he found out I was her bodyguard, he insulted me saying that there was no need for me to even be there!” Cyra huffed, feeling her anger rise once more. “If that wasn’t enough after the feast he gave Soray a sword from some apparently nameless Sardesi!”
“Cyra,” Ano’s face dropped, turning pallid. He looked like he was going to be sick. “Don’t tell me, it was his sword?”
Hot, angry tears pricked her eyes again. “Yes! Soray recognized the inscription and gave it to Mihrab. That prince was willing to just give the sword to anyone!”
“I can’t believe it though. Your father’s sword, finally found? How did it come into their possession?” Ano gripped the so hard the bark creaked under his hands.
“I’ve wondered for years what happened, but now it all makes sense! My father was killed by one of them. If the demons killed him, then the sword would have been destroyed, lost forever. That’s what Mihrab had been so sure had happened. But, the sword survived, and how could that Vialyan king, Dainan or something defeat so many demons? Certainly not without a magic sword crafted. My father would never have parted with it, not unless he was dead. The king must have killed him and taken it.”
Cyra was shaking again. She hadn’t wanted to get into it, but it was too much to keep to herself. Who else but Ano would listen and be on her side?
Thunder crashed above them and the light dimmed. Storm clouds were rolling in, but neither paid any attention.
“Maybe it wasn’t that king, but someone, a human, a Vialyan killed him! Not a demon! I don’t care who it was, but the Vialyan royal family is responsible! They killed him, stole his sword, and covered up the whole thing!”
Cyra’s voice was hoarse from yelling. The sky opened above them. Rain poured down as thunder rolled.
Her voice cracked and faded as she painfully whispered, “They killed him, and they never even bothered to learn his name.”
“Come here, “Ano dropped to the branch she was on, opening up his arms. Cyra flung herself into his arms, burying her head in his shoulder as she shook. He stroked her hair, pulling her into him. “I can’t imagine what this is like for you. If I could help, if I knew how…”
“No,” Cyra lifted her head. “I don’t want you to worry about me. You have your own problems. You’ve done all you can just by being here with me.”
“You are too good,” Ano chuckled before his face darkened and his grip on her tightened. “It’s probably best you stay from Vitalis, and especially keep Soray away from him. Royalty he might be, but good is a completely different question. You’ve only got to be there ’till the end of the festival, so just stay away as much as possible, protect Soray from him.Then you’ll never see him again when you take their ambassador and leave.”
“Thank you,” Cyra leaned her head into the crook of his neck. The rain stopped, and the clouds disappeared. “You’re right, as always. What did I ever do to deserve this from you?”
“Believe me,” Ano muttered, stroking her hair, “it’s not about deserving it at all.”