Starting from the beginning, or what she thought was the beginning, Cyra studied the portraits of the Vialyan monarchs. She would do anything that would take her mind off her father. The first was of a tan woman, hardened by tragedy and war. Everyone knew of Keturah. She had been the end of her line, and her clear distinctive features separated her from all the other portraits of the next dynasty. Her olive tan skin gave way to rulers whose skin became increasingly ruddy and then to paler whites and creams. Different eye colors filtered through the monarchs, but every monarch after Keturah bore similarities to the one before, light brown hair being a common trait among them.
That is, every monarch was clearly of the same Vialyan royal bloodline except for the one before Queen Regan.
Cyra walked up to it, unable to keep her face from twisting at the sight.
This woman was no Vialyan. How did a Sizian woman end up in their royal line and in their portrait hall?
“So, you’ve caught me.” An increasingly familiar voice startled Cyra. Prince Vitalis walked towards her, speaking again in her native tongue. This time, however, he spoke with a little less of an accent and a few less mistakes. “Or would it be more, uh, appropriate to say I’ve caught you?”
Cyra set a hand to her racing heart, muttering a curse under her breath, calling him something not quite as flattering as he would probably like.
“Pardon?” Prince Vitalis asked as he came up to her shoulder. Cyra didn’t respond, eyeing him to see how well he fit into the portraits. With her golden brown skin and classical features, Cyra was every bit the desert Sardesi. In a similar way. Prince Vitalis was in every aspect of appearance a Vialyan monarch. He had the light brown hair of the last man’s portrait and steel blue eyes of his mother. If she looked at him from the wrong side in dim light, she could see herself mistaking him for the man in the portrait in front of the Sizian, however, there was a slight difference in his jaw, and unique aspects hidden in his face, that weren’t in the other portraits. Also, upon more consideration, he certainly did not have the same bulky muscular build his ancestors occasionally favored. Despite that, Vitalis clearly carried Vialyan royal blood.
Prince Vitalis smiled at her. He said quietly, “You’re staring at me.”
Cyra blinked, stepping back. Vitalis shook his head with a chuckle. “I look quite a lot like my uncle, and very little like my poor father. I don’t blame you for staring.”
Cyra glanced up at Queen Regan’s portrait, and there was no other man. Queen Mari, Cyra assumed was the Sizian, was before her and none after her. The crown had passed directly to Regan.
“My father, was never, uh, shah is your word, yes? Well the Vialyan is king, and he’s not up here. Monarchs only, which is why I’m not up here either, yet, supposedly,” Vitalis said. He pointed back to Mari. “But, she is. So, I’m sure you’ve figured out she’s not Vialyan at all in her blood. Did you know she had magic?”
“And the, uh,” Cyra said, wincing at the painful red marks disfiguring her, “tattoos?”
Vitalis shrugged. “My mother never told me. There’s a lot I don’t know. She was, um, careful with what she told me. She likes to say there are some parts of the story the world doesn’t, ah, need to know.”
“What if it’s because not everything that happened makes the people we love look like heroes?” Cyra asked, spitting out the words. Her mind went back to her father. It was a valid question. Who had been right? Both the demon queen and her father had died so there was no victor’s story. Was this Mari really all her kingdom thought her to be? Did she deserve Vialya’s praise? How would anyone know? Did her father deserve Sardes’ praise?
Cyra blanched as she realized what her words implied. Had she really just said that? Degraded Vialya’s heroes to their prince’s face? Mihrab was right to be so hard on her. She was a political disaster. Why had she said that? What had come over her? She wasn’t usually so stupid; she had better self-control than that!
She had meant it, and that was the worst part.
Maybe the prince would be merciful and make her death quick so Soray and the shah wouldn’t find out. That way they couldn’t tell her to her face how much she had failed them. How upset would Mihrab be when he heard what she’d just done? That would be worth than death.
“Please, look at me.”
Cyra hesitantly forced an eye open. Wait, he wasn’t angry?
“Now, please tell me what’s really the matter? What aren’t you saying with your words? Why do you hate Vialya, hate me, so much?”
Cyra stiffened. She couldn’t tell him. Her father was a subject she never even broached with Soray; Mihrab and Ano were the only ones she trusted with that information. Ano… Vitalis wasn’t good man; Ano had been so certain of it. Or well, he had been certain of those rumors, but Cyra trusted Ano with her life. He had never let her down.
Cyra didn’t want to tell Vitalis. She wanted Ano. She wanted home. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. She was in a cold country, in a cold castle, haunted by the dead, and all she had was a poor substitute for a friend.
“My father,” Cyra said, voice cracking. What was she doing? She should stop. “My father was known across the lands as the shah’s champion. He was the best demon slayer there was. When he heard demons had overrun your country, stolen the throne, he believed he was the only one who had the experience with demons needed to save your country.”
Vitalis stepped back and realization dawned on his face. “The nameless man from Sardes who came to kill Mari, was your father?”
“Yes!” Cyra couldn’t help herself now that she had started. What was compelling her to say this? “Please, tell me who killed him.”
Vitalis drew a deep breath and gestured at the man’s portrait in front of Mari’s. It was the man Vitalis closely resembled. “Your father used powerful, um, magic and attacked Mari when she was alone, when the demons weren’t with her. He was about to kill her when King Dainan broke out of his cell and in turn killed your father when he realized that if he didn’t your father would kill Mari.”
Cyra gaped at him before staring up at the face of her father’s murderer. “This Mari, she was the host, you said. Why would this King Dainan save her? He should have let my father kill her, why would he protect the host of the demons? The woman who stole his crown?”
“King Dainan loved her! It’s as simple as that. He wasn’t going to let her die, not when she was innocent. I said it before, and I’ll say it till I die, Mari was not her demons! Dainan loved Mari far too much to let her die like that.” Vitalis face tightened in a way she’d never seen before.
“And look where it got him! Did they not end up dead themselves?” Cyra pointed at the portraits, narrowing her eyes.
“That’s not what love is about! I can only hope and pray that I might love someone as much as they loved each other. For that love to be returned would be more than I could ever dare to dream of! Their deaths were out of their control. I’m sure all my uncle cared about was trying to protect Mari, and I know he died trying to free her.” Vitalis’ anger and desperate tone faded as he turned to look at Dainan’s portrait. His voice softened. “I’m sorry you lost your father because of what happened in my country.”
Cyra threw her hands up, shaking her head. “What does it matter to you?”
Vitalis looked up, eyes steeled. “You know you aren’t the only one who lost their family. Your father’s killer isn’t the only one they’ve got hanging up here.”
“What?” Cyra froze.
Vitalis nodded towards Mari. “Or, well, more accurately the face of my father’s killer, the one he saw before he died. When the demons took the city, they were controlling Mari, and using her, they, uh, well they took my father’s life in a gruesome way.”
“And yet you still defend her?” Cyra whispered, gazing at Mari in awe.
“I owe her my life,” Vitalis’ said. His eyes flared again. “She got me and my mother out of the dungeons. There’s no way I would have made it out of there alive if we’d been left there longer than a month; I was an infant. It’s a miracle I didn’t fall ill and die there before Mari came for us. My mother has told me every day she woke up fearing to find a fever, and she hated how relieved she was to find that I shivered from the cold. I only stand before you now because of the woman in that painting.”
Cyra sighed, leaning into the wall and burying her head in her hands. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. Had she really gotten into a full blown fight with the crown prince of the country she was a guest of? What an idiot she was! And somehow it hadn’t ended with her execution!
“I’m sorry,” Cyra mumbled. It was half meant. She was sorry she got into this fight, but she couldn’t be sorry for all that she had said, not when she still believe it to be true. She didn’t look up. “It’s a good thing I am for Sardes tomorrow. You must be sick of me.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” A hand landed on her shoulder softly. “I can’t blame you for how you feel about your father. You have little reason to think well of me, my mother, Mari, or my uncle at this point. The death of your father is a hard wrong, but I would like to try and right it as best as we can.”
Cyra didn’t have any words. Her head was too full for any of her thoughts to escape. She was reeling from all that had just been said. Her feet took her to the door, and she mumbled, “I need to go, the shahdokht is probably waiting on me.”
“Will I see you tonight, at the ball?” Vitalis, after having impressively held his own during their argument, was back to stumbling over his Sardesi. He had almost been speaking it like it was his own language. No, she really couldn’t go down this line of thought. What would he gain by pretending to be bad at the language?
Cyra shook her head. “You will not see me, but I will see you.”
* * *
Well, she might as well get as comfortable as she could for the night. Cyra settled into her position, tucking her arms against her side. It was a little cramped, but that was to be expected when she was hiding in a chandelier. Her position had been Croesus’ request to her after he had found out about the ball. He had of course cleared it with Vialya’s security, who had loved the idea of having someone watching from above. The Vialyans assured Croesus that the chandelier was strong enough to hold someone; it was just a matter of finding someone who would fit and could get up there anyway. This way, if there was trouble Cyra would be the first to see, and be in the best positon to stop it.
Of course, while the Vialyan guards knew she was up there, she wasn’t sure if the royalty did either. At the very least, the majority of the crowd below didn’t, and Cyra was in no mood to be seen by them. She had wrapped herself up in a dark cloak and cast a few spells on herself to make her less noticeable just in case someone got the urge to look up. Cyra wasn’t really worried about there being any trouble; it was rather unlikely with all the security at the front of the castle. She was more concerned about losing the feeling in her legs.
Although, it was a nice view. The throne room has been turned into an elegant ballroom for the night. Everyone had dressed to impress. It was the biggest ball of the year, after all.
Everything was all bright dresses and decorated clothes, glittering lights, and elegant dances. Cyra was grateful to be hidden away in the dark rather than standing in the crowd she didn’t belong in.
The night began to blur together. Cyra had situated herself right before the people entered. Queen Regan sat on her throne and gave a long speech Cyra didn’t pay attention to it, well, not until the end that is.
“Now, I ask that we continue to honor their memory. We continue to take a stand against evil. No matter what the cost, what we have to sacrifice, our own lives included, we will never let the demons get a foothold in our home again. Remember what Queen Mari and King Dainan died fighting for, they died fighting for you, for Vialya, so that no one else will suffer under a demon’s reign. Please enjoy this night for their sake!”
Cheers and applause exploded across the room. Cyra watched as Prince Vitalis greeted his mother with a hug before walking with her to talk to their guests. One of his first stops was to talk to Soray who was indeed the most beautiful woman in the room. They smiled and laughed.
Cyra was not pleased with it. Cyra wanted Soray to be happy yes, but what she was doing with Vitalis would only end with her getting hurt.
Music started to play and the people hurried into pairs to dance. After offering Lady Aeary, who refused on account of her leg, an older gentleman approached Soray. Cyra had seen the man talk with Soray before. Wasn’t his name Prentiss?
Prince Vitalis had taken the center of the floor with his mother. He stood right below Cyra. She shrunk further into herself, hating how the chandelier shook slightly at her every breath.
Prince Vitalis’ eyes flickered up before landing back on his mother. What? Why did he look up? He cleared his throat and said, “It really was a great speech mother.”
“I’ve been giving that speech for twenty years, what made you start to listen now?” Regan chuckled.
“Let’s just say something someone said raised a few questions.” Vitalis’ head bowed slightly. “Can you tell me more about Mari?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I guess, oh, I don’t know,” Vitalis sighed. He lifted his arm and his mother twirled under it. “I want to be able to continue her legacy and protect her name. I want everyone to know she was a hero, shouldn’t everyone see her the way we do?”
Cyra could feel his gaze despite the face his eyes were squarely on his mother’s face.
“Others think she was no better than the demons, just a mindless figurehead. But she wasn’t, was she? I just wish I could convince them.”
The Iron Queen sighed and her years carrying the burden of a nation shoved. “Unfortunately, they aren’t wrong. Mari was, at first, a mindless figurehead. How could she be anything else? It was what the Seven molded into her since she was a baby. That was out of her control, but what is the truly important what makes her worthy of her title as queen, is that what the Seven tried to make her didn’t stop her. Despite their power, she saw the pain they brought and decided that despite the fact she loved them, despite the fact she would most likely die, she couldn’t let them continue. She was willing to stand up to them for people she didn’t know, for people who she had only known a fraction of time, for you, for the future.”
Cyra adjusted again, straining her ears to hear clearly.
“Mari was a hero because instead of laying down and accepting evil like she had been taught, she learned how to stand on her own feet and fight for good, and she reached that point herself. I could see that determination in her every time she smiled and played with you. She wanted you to have a future outside of that cell.”
“She what?” Vitalis asked, nearly missing a step in his shock.
Regan frowned. “Did I never tell you? You were an absolute terror to that poor girl. You always pulled her hair, and she never complained”
“No, I had no idea. I don’t really remember her.” Vitalis voice softened.
“Well, she loved you, as did Dainan.” Regan placed her hand against her son’s cheek, he had long since passed her in height. “My son, they would both be so proud of you, as am I. Mari would be thrilled to know all that you’ve done to save others from the fate she suffered.”
The dance ended, and Cyra was grateful he didn’t look up. She didn’t want to see his expression. Had he known she was there? She didn’t want to see his expression. Had he known she was there? That conversation was far too coincidental, but how had he known?
Just who was Prince Vitalis?
Why was he so obsessed with a dead woman’s approval? A debt he owed her? Saving his life, he had mentioned, but there had to be more to this.
People continued to dance as Cyra contemplated her mystery.
Maybe, pressure from his mother and pressure to live up to his heroes? But what did they expect him to do? They couldn’t just send out the only heir to the Vialyan throne to hunt demons. Those jobs were reserved for the illegitimate sons, at least in her father’s experience.
What did Vialya’s Crown Prince think he was going to do holed up in Elista’s castle?
It’s not as if a demon was going to walk up to him and start a fight. And, Vitalis would be a lot stupider then she thought he was if he started picking fights with demons.
Although, Cyra noticed Prince Vitalis leading a familiar figure back onto the floor. He seemed to be wanting to pick a fight with her from the way he was dancing. What gentleman held a lady that closely if he wasn’t related to her? Honestly, why did Soray have to look so pleased?
The music swelled, and Cyra felt an odd beat of magic. It was faintly familiar, yet sent her skin crawling. It wasn’t Mihrab’s or any of the other guards they had brought with them; it was too strong. Only she and Mihrab were that capable. It was no Vialyan either; if anyone important to Vialyan court had magic, she and Mihrab would have been informed.
Cyra leapt out of her hiding place, perching on the edge of the chandelier. She drew her two long, curved daggers and narrowed her eyes, trying to focus on where the magic had come from. It had been a small spell, meant to silence someone’s steps and make them hard to notice. It was the same spell Cyra had cast on herself before she had hidden in the chandelier.
And from the look she exchanged with her brother, the spell wouldn’t work on him.
Mihrab made his way through the crowd slowly and deliberately. Cyra continued to look over the crowd.
Wait, on a second look, she saw who Mihrab was following, a man in cloak. He was headed towards the dancing couples.
“Halt!” Mihrab shouted, forcing his way through others. The man jumped, sprinting forward. Mihrab yelled up at her, “Stop him!”
Cyra quickly figured out the direction he was going. The man had stepped onto the dance floor, drawing what was most certainly not a Vialyan blade..
Cyra jumped off the chandelier. The couples began running and screaming. Cyra kept her target in her sight.
The man never saw her coming. Cyra’s knees crashed into his back. They both hit the ground in a painful tangle of limbs. Cyra kept him pinned as she reared back up and drove her daggers into his back, putting a swift end to the assassination attempt.
Cyra pulled her daggers back and rose to her feet, turning to face the assassin’s targets.
She hadn’t thought it was possible for Vialyans to turn even paler than they already were, but Vitalis was almost transparent.
“‘Oh, she’s quite safe here, Cyra,’” Cyra muttered as she glared at the body. “‘You don’t need to stay by her side, Cyra. She’s safe with me!’ Ugh.”
“Cyra!” Soray broke out of Vitalis’ protective hold and threw her arms around Cyra.
“You’re safe, shahdokht,” Cyra whispered, putting her daggers away, and patting Soray comfortingly. “Do not fret. I am here to keep you safe. Mihrab and I will always keep you safe.”
“What happened here?” The Iron Queen strode into the center of the room. Cyra saw no sign of the woman who had been dancing with her son. This was no mother.
Prince Vitalis could only shrug helplessly, still gaping at Cyra. Mihrab hurried to Cyra’s side as Croesus also stumbled onto the scene.
The Iron Queen froze when she saw the body. Her eyes glazed over, and her hands shook. Her head snapped up as she barked, “The ball is over! Everyone to your rooms! Only my private council and the Sardesi party shall stay. Triple the security for the rest of the night!”
Cyra’s heart began to pound. The man had died face down, but from the make of his clothes, Cyra was almost certain she knew where the assassin hailed from.
Whatever Queen Regan was about to do about this situation, Cyra did not believe it looked good for any of the Sardesi.