Thankfully, Soray and Cyra saw nothing of Prince Vitalis their second day in Elista. Soray happily spent the day exploring the castle and the town with Croesus. Cyra and Mihrab stuck to their sides, but the only vaguely interesting part of it was Soray’s chatter about the feast. Soray and Coresus also discussed other important subjects, but Cyra didn’t pay attention. She divide her focus between playing with her necklace, wondering what Ano was doing, avoiding any attempt of Soray’s to draw her into a conversation about the previous night, and keeping an eye out just in case Prince Vitalis made an appearance.
By the time the sun was beginning to set, Soray had worn herself out, and Cyra was worse off. Because she visited her dreamscape, she hadn’t gotten as much restful sleep and her magic had to recover from it as well. It didn’t matter how much Cyra practiced, her energy and her magic were always drained by it.
Cyra wasn’t always as good at hiding somethings as she thought she was, not with family.
“Are you alright?” Soray frowned, looking up at Cyra’s reflection.
Cyra stifled a yawn as she continued pinning Soray’s hair. “Yes, I’m fine. What makes you ask?”
“You look exhausted, and after last night, at the feast—” Soray fidgeted in her seat as she couldn’t turn to face Cyra.
“I really don’t want to talk about that.” Cyra cut her off as she slid a jeweled pin into place.
“You don’t have to!” Soray said, “I was just going to say since you’re tired and last night wasn’t easy for you, you should stay here tonight and rest.”
Cyra took a moment to think about it.
Soray continued to try and convince her, saying, “I know you feel like you have to stay by my side all the time to keep me safe, and I appreciate that. But, you do it despite what it costs you. You and Mihrab constantly prioritize me, and I feel like there’s so little I do for you. So, I want you to rest tonight. It’ll just be another feast. I’m in no danger here, and I’ll still have Mihrab if I was.”
Cyra didn’t like how that last part sounded. Now just where had she heard something like that before? She narrowed her eyes as she slid the last pin in place. “This wouldn’t be brought on by a certain prince, would it?”
“What? No, Cyra, you’re my cousin. I care about you like a sister. I’m not trying to get rid of you.” Soray turned around. “I’m trying to give you the night off!”
Cyra sighed. She really wanted to accept Soray’s offer. The last thing she needed was to deal with Prince Vitalis, but she also knew that if he was going to be near Soray, she wanted to be there to keep an eye on him. What did want more, to avoid the prince at all costs or make sure Soray was safe?
Cyra opened her mouth to refuse, but another yawn interrupted her. Her eyes fluttered. Soray gave her as stern a look as she could muster. Cyra sighed. “Fine, you win. I’ll stay, but I’m walking with you there at least, that will make me feel better.”
“If you insist.” Soray smiled as she slid on her tiara. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Then let’s go, shahdokht.” Cyra opened the door and gestured to the hallway. Croesus and Mihrab were already outside the door, waiting for them.
Once she stepped outside, Soray immediately took control of the conversation. She left no room for Mihrab to talk to Cyra. For once, Cyra happily indulged Soray’s talk of the merchants in town and their various goods.
Cyra couldn’t really care any less about the goods Viaylan produced and the ones they imported, but if it kept Mihrab from confronting her about last night, she was all for it.
“—I’ll ask Prince Vitalis or Queen Regan. I’m not looking for any sort official discussion, but hearing their opinions would insightful.” Soray slowed to a stop in front of the dining hall doors.
The doors were opened for her, and Soray smiled at Cyra before she entered with Croesus. Cyra quickly turned and started to leave before Mihrab could stop her.
Of course, this was her brother, so Mihrab did follow her.
“Mihrab, come back,” Soray hissed.
“I’ll be right there, shahdokht,” Mihrab said. His hand landed on her shoulder, stopping her. “I just want a quick word.”
“Cyra?” Soray asked, hovering in the doorway.
“Go ahead,” Cyra sighed. Mihrab clearly wasn’t about to let this go.
Soray disappeared into the dining hall. Cyra leaned against the rough stone wall.
“You went dreamwalking last night, didn’t you?” Mihrab asked, crossing his arms.
Cyra rolled her eyes. “Yes, if you must know, I did. I went to my own dreamscape, and no one else’s.”
“Why would you do that? Your dreamscape is just desert sand from what you’ve told me.” Mihrab frowned.
“I wanted to be alone, and I needed a place to think, to sort myself out. Is that a problem?” Cyra snapped.
“No,” Mihrab said. His voice dropped as he said, “I’m just asking you not to for the rest of this trip.”
Cyra recoiled from him. “You’re asking me not to use my magic?”
“Please, hear me out,” Mihrab sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but we’re in a country where very few people have magic, and probably none the kind you have. They probably don’t even know about it. You have to admit, Cyra, it’s a very invasive magic, and no one here could defend themselves against it.”
Cyra pushed his hand off her. “You wouldn’t be saying this if you trust me. I would never go into someone’s mind without a good reason!”
“And just what is a good enough reason? I understand if the shah orders it, but he hasn’t this time. Just stay away from the dreamworld. It exhausts you, drains you, and if someone were to find out about it, it would be a diplomatic disaster. They would think we were enemies, spies. Who knows what they’d do to Soray in that instance?” Mihrab’s voice was low and cold. He was dead serious, and Cyra’s anger rose again.
Cyra shoved Mihrab away from her. “Don’t you have the shahdokht to watch? You’re wasting your time on me. I was chosen by the shah just like you. If the ruler of the empire trusts me to handle myself and my magic, so should you.”
Cyra spun on her foot, ready to storm away.
“That necklace you’ve been wearing. I can feel magic in it. I don’t remember seeing it before this trip.” Mihrab called after her. “Who gave it to you?”
“I don’t have to answer you.” Cyra spat, knowing it was childish, but too tried to care. She paused, waiting until she heard him walk away and the doors shut behind him. Cyra felt her heartbeat steady and her face cool as she leaned against the wall. She shut her eyes, trying to regulate her breathing.
Footsteps slowly approached her. Cyra pushed off the wall. Her face twisted, ready to start fighting again if Mihrab was going to push it. She was halfway through her first word when she realized the man in front of her wasn’t her brother.
Cyra was face to face with Prince Vitalis.
The curses left her lips before she could stop them. All she could do was stare blankly at him. His mouth moved, but she couldn’t understand him. Her mind was in too much shock to try and translate his language.
He frowned, but tried again, this time, much to Cyra’s surprise, in her language. He asked, “Are you alright?”
“What?” Cyra shook her head. “Why are you here?”
“I was coming to, uh, dinner, but I heard, um, arguing?” Prince Vitalis furrowed his brow in concentration. “I think that’s the word. I stopped; didn’t want to interrupt. After, I saw you standing here, and, um, you seemed really upset.”
His speech was slow and stilted. He fought through an accent, pausing often to find the right word. It was rather a poor attempt at her language, but still, it was an attempt.
“How much of the fight did you hear?” Cyra asked, clenching her fists.
“Not much, um, I heard your voice, but not understandable. Words I’m not familiar with.” Prince Vitalis continued to painfully struggle through each sentence, butchering grammar and sentence syntax. “Maybe, um, about necklace?”
Cyra held back her sigh. If he had heard about her magic, it could have become the disaster Mihrab was getting so worked up about. Cyra didn’t know what she would do if the Vialyan prince tried to question her about her little ability to enter people’s heads. It wouldn’t end well… maybe Mihrab had a point.
“Why did you approach me? And why speak in my language?” Cyra blinked away the lingering water in her eyes.
“You, um, seemed like you needed someone. And, um, you didn’t respond, when I spoke in, uh, my language. I thought, um, the only way to talk was yours,” Prince Vitalis said.
Cyra rubbed her temples. “But, you’re a prince. No, forget it.”
Stay away from Vitalis.
“You have a feast to attend to, your highness. You’d best stop wasting your time on me.” Cyra bowed in a cold dismissal.
Cyra walked past him, ready for genuine rest.
Still in Sardesi, Prince Vitalis haltingly said, mispronouncing a word, “I don’t consider this a waste.”
Cyra knew it was extremely rude and disrespectful of her to have dismissed herself and to ignore him. However, Cyra just couldn’t force herself to care. Her mind was too clouded.
She wasn’t even going to begin trying to understand Prince Vitalis and his motivation for speaking to her.
* * *
On both the third and fourth days of their visit, Cyra and Soray didn’t see the prince during the day which disappointed Soray, but she didn’t let it interfere with her mood too much. Soray wholeheartedly threw herself into the celebrations, enjoying every moment. Soray had been trying to find out the story behind the Sunset Festival, but no one really wanted to talk about it.
Soray was spending one afternoon in the castle courtyard watching the first preparations for the huge ball held at the end of the festival. While the ball was by invitation only and in the castle, the townspeople set up their stalls, pulled together their own musicians and had their own dance.
When she heard, Soray insisted she wanted to see the preparations since she wouldn’t be able to go. Cyra had just smiled, willing to go anywhere with the shahdokht as long as it got her out of the castle. At that declaration, one of the women of the court, Lady Aeary, said she would love to accompany them.
Soray was happy to have her along, and Aeary had said her husband was coddling her far too much. Some fresh air would do them both some good.
Soray asked, “Have you ever been to the townspeople’s celebration or just the queen’s, Lady Aeary?”
Aeary paused, leaning on her cane. Several servants passed by, carrying various boxes across the stone courtyard. “I have been once, quite a few years ago.”
“Why did you go?” Soray asked.
“It wasn’t my choice actually. Prince Vitalis snuck out to go to it. He was still so young, and Queen Regan was still so protective of him. She is still, but she got away with smothering him a lot more when he was a child than when he’s an adult,” Lady Aeary laughed. They walked past the courtyard gates and made their way to main market square of town.
Cyra glanced over her shoulder, half fearing he might appear just from his name being spoken.
“Queen Regan? I mean this in the kindest, most respectful way, but she doesn’t exactly seem like a warm motherly person,” Soray said.
Aeary’s cane tapped the ground and she smiled. “I understand, she has fully entered her title of the Iron Queen. After everything that happened, she had to be if she wanted to pull this kingdom back from the brink. She was determined to have both her kingdom and her son, and she’d rather die than anything happen to him. This led to Vitalis feeling rather jailed. He couldn’t really breathe without having someone watch him like a hawk. So on the last night of the festival, he snuck out. His bodyguard, Helmuth, realized, and I set out to find him before Queen Regan realized and panicked.”
Aeary lifted her cane and used it to tap her leg. “I understood in a sort of way what it was like to find oneself confined. I found him here, playing with some of the children. That’s the only time either of us have ever been to the city’s celebration rather than the castle’s.”
“How is it different?” Soray asked, always interested in learning. “What do they do that you don’t?”
“Well, I suppose the mood is different. The townspeople are a lot happier, excited. They are celebrating the victory.” Lady Aeary watched a young couple laughing together as they put up decorations. Cyra saw the same scene and a pang of longing coursed through her. Home was so far away.
“Are you not celebrating your country’s victory over the demons?” Soray frowned.
“Some of us tend to see it less a celebration and more of an occasion to remember our history, not just the good parts. Some people lost a lot twenty years ago. I’m afraid out kingdom has forgotten they lost two great monarchs that day as well. Queen Regan has almost done too good a job of saving them.” Lady Aeary said as they headed back to the castle.
Soray couldn’t get any more details out of her. Cyra was also confused. She was no great student, and she certainly knew very little about Vialya and their history, but from what Soray had figured out and shared, King Dainan and the demons were the main casualties. What other monarch had they lost?
* * *
It was the fifth evening, and the feasts had been moved to a larger room set up so that there was room for performers. Soray, like she had been every night, was seated next to Prince Vitalis.
Soray had decided enough was enough and she was just going to ask directly and get some answers. Cyra, loathe as she was to get them from Vitalis, couldn’t deny she had some questions she would like some answers for.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much opportunity for them to talk. Cyra chose to stick a little closer than usual, ensuring she could hear Soray and Vitalis when they did speak, and Mihrab couldn’t talk to her without risking someone hearing.
Multiple songs were sung and poem recited. Stories were told and dances performed. About halfway through the night, Cyra gave up on intensely watching every move Vitalis made, and watched the performances. The longer the night went on, the more Cyra got the impression each piece was crafted specifically for the Sunset Festival. Everything was hinting towards and dancing around the events from twenty years ago.
A time to remember indeed.
When the last performer bowed, everyone clapped, and Queen Regan thanked them all for coming and dismissed them.
Soray took the opportunity to lean over and whisper in perfect Vialyan, “Prince Vitalis, might I be so bold as to ask that you escort me and Cyra back to the guest wing? I’d hate to get lost.”
Prince Vtialis glanced behind him at Cyra. He inclined his head, asking her a silent question. Wait, was he asking for permission? Why would he bother? Cyra gave him a slight nod.
“I’m more than happy to assist you,” Prince Vitalis whispered in response.
Soray flashed Cyra a grin as everyone rose, ready to leave for the evening.
“What was that about?”
Cyra stiffened at her native language. She refused to look over her shoulder. She hurried to catch up to Soray, ignoring her brother.
She heard him huff and mutter, “This is just getting ridiculous and childish.”
He was right; she was being childish, but she didn’t care. She had more important matters to deal with.
She slid into step behind Soray and the prince. They stepped into the hall, and Soray accepted the arm Vitalis offered her.
Once everyone had dispersed, they were left quietly walking through the stone halls. His eyes flickered to Cyra and he smiled softly. “Now, why do I get the feeling that this isn’t about making sure you don’t get lost?”
“I just have a few questions about the Sunset Festival, that’s all,” Soray said. She fluttered her eyes innocently.
Prince Vitalis eyed her. “Alright then, what do you want to know?”
“Well, what happened, exactly? With those demons all those years ago? Were you there? Are you old enough?” Soray didn’t paused for breath, rushing through it all. “It seems my lessons were lacking, as I don’t recall who the second monarch was that died. There’s so much I don’t understand.”
Vitalis chuckled, “Slow down. All I can tell you is what I’ve been told. Yes, I was there when everything happened, but I wasn’t old enough to remember it.”
Cyra moved to the shahdokht’s side after struggling to hear him clearly. At her presence, Vitalis straightened up, loosening his grip on Soray.
Soray leaned in, asking, “So, what do you know?”
“Here’s what I know,” Vitalis sighed. His eyes clouded, and his shoulders dropped as if under a weight. “My uncle, King Dainan, had only been on the throne for around a year when Elista was attacked by demons. They forced a surrender, and well, placed a puppet on the throne, Queen Mari. It was a dark time, many people died when the demons took over.”
He looked like he was about to say something, but thought better of it. He moved onto to say, “The demons however didn’t expect Queen Mari to have more life in her than they gave. She went to my uncle for help. They also got my mother and I out of the dungeons. Mari also enlisted the two smartest people in the land, my mother’s advisors, Lady Aery and her husband Sir Prentiss, as well as one of the guards.”
“Why would she do that?” Cyra asked, unable to wrap her head around it.
“I don’t know, maybe because she was more than the demons who abused her. She had her own mind and people she loved.” Vitalis shot Cyra a meaningful look. “Those demons hurt her just as much if not more than they hurt everyone else.”
Cyra dropped her gaze to the floor. How could the host be separate from the demons?
“I’m sure you know the story from there, King Dainan and Queen Mari took a stand against the demons, killing them, but sacrificing themselves in the process. So, yes, we lost two great monarchs. I’m not sure what Sardes believes, but here in Vialyan Mari was just as much of a Queen as my mother is,” Vitalis said.
“What was she like?” Soray asked.
“I’m afraid any more is not my story to tell. My mother is the only one who could possibly do it justice.” Vitalis led them down a new hallway.
“But, despite the fact she was the demon’s host, you still consider her a monarch?” Soray asked as they slowed, approaching her room.
“Very much so,” Vitalis said, “The one thing my mother makes sure no one forgets is that without Mari’s courage, strength, and above all else her actions, our kingdom would have never survived. We all owe her a debt that I fear I cannot repay.”
“Thank you for helping me understand.” Soray beamed. “It’s good to know your people have been doing everything you can to uphold her name and protect her legacy. When I return to Sardes, I shall ensure our kingdom tells the correct version of events.”
“My pleasure and thanks, princess,” Vitalis said with a bow. Soray curtsied and went into her room.
Cyra hesitated before following. She stared at the prince for a moment. He gave her a tight smile. Something was off…
Cyra ducked into Soray’s room.
‘A debt that I fear I cannot repay’
That was an odd thing to say. How… mysterious.