“Now that we don’t have to worry about anyone panicking and losing their heads, what happened?” Queen Regan ordered from her throne. Her son stood at her side; he was still rather shaken and paler than normal. Helmuth stood guard over them.
Soray stood close to Croesus, refusing to look at the body. Mihrab stood with them while Cyra sat by the body, cleaning her weapons.
An older couple, Lady Aeary and Prentiss, stood off to the side, sharing an aversion to the sight.
“Permission to speak, your Majesty?” Mihrab asked, fighting through his accent.
“As you know, my sister and I were entrusted with Princess Soray’s safety and were permitted to be present tonight in order to do so. Cyra was given permission to monitor the situation from above, as she’s the only one who could.”
Queen Regan nodded and waved her hand to tell Mihrab to continue. Cyra climbed to her feet despite the urge to lay down setting in.
Mihrab gestured to her. “My sister and I, both being gifted with magic noticed when this man cast a cloaking spell, I believe after he snuck in already partially disguised. We knew he couldn’t be there for anything but trouble. I couldn’t catch him through the crowd, but when Cyra saw him headed for the prince and princess, she acted, taking him down and ensuring their safety.”
“Is that how you would tell the story as well, Cyra?” Queen Regan stared down at her.
“Of course, your Majesty.” Cyra rose and bowed at the waist. In cases like this, it was easier to just pretend she was Soray to help her figure out what to do. “While my actions may have caused panic and fear, I was only trying to protect my princess.”
“Turn the assassin over, I want to know who tried to attack my son and my guests.”
Cyra knelt down, fearing what the Vialyans would say. She didn’t think they would hurt Soray. Doing so would incite war with Sardes, but that didn’t mean the rest of them were safe. With that in mind, Cyra turned the body over and pulled back the hood to reveal an unknown Sardesi man.
Several gasped at the sight, but not Cyra or the queen. Soray choked on a sob and reached for Mihrab.
“Do not fear, princess,” the queen said, rising from her throne. “The only threat to you here is dead. We would never accuse you of being in league with this man.”
Well, Cyra knew it wasn’t the first time a Sardesi man laid dead on their floor after an assassination attempt.
“Are there any clues on him? Any indication of identity?”
Cyra pushed away her dark thoughts and examined the man for clues. She wrinkled her nose at the death smell, but did her job. His clothes were plain and simple, but clearly of Sardesi make. Dust and dirt covered him as well. His pockets were empty and had no other weapons than the one he had already dropped.
“No information, your Majesty. All I can guess as is that he traveled alone, riding fast and hard. He traveled light as well, most likely, with only a bit of money he used up, if any, his weapon, and the clothes on his back. You would not be able to identify him in a crowded street in Sardes.” Cyra brushed her hands off, feeling gritty sand picked up from travel. She pushed down a yawn.
“Intentionally done, I’m sure,” Lady Aeary said. She rapped her cane against the ground, leaning against her husband. “He did not act alone. He’s someone’s pawn. The question that is more important than who he was, is who was he after? Prince Vitalis or Shahdokht Soray?”
“The prince of course! A Sardesi would not attack their princess, especially if they had to travel to Vialya to do it!” Helmuth spoke up. He put a hand on Vitalis shoulder.
“I’m afraid we can’t afford to think like that.” Croesus shook his head.
Soray nodded. “Unfortunately, because of Sardes’ size and long complicated history, my dynasty, especially my place as my father’s heir is not as universally loved as yours is. There are some in Sardes who would wish me dead.”
“And they would not be stupid enough to attack her in the palace again,” Croesus said. Cyra’s shoulders locked and she went rigidly still.
Vitalis gaze landed on her once more. She could almost hear him asking her, “Again?”
She lowered her gaze as Croesus continued, “They would have no chance in Sardes, and so her visit here would be the perfect opportunity for them to strike.”
“Do you have any input, royal guards? You two did see him in action.” Queen Regan once again addressed them.
“No, your Majesty.” Mihrab bowed.
“I did not let the assassin get close enough to figure out who his target was. It would have been too much of a risk to take.” Cyra knew exhaustion was seeping into her, quickly overtaking her self-control. Something in her was calling her to sleep.
“Cyra!” Mihrab hissed. It hadn’t been blatant disrespect, but it was rather close.
To everyone’s surprise, Regan chuckled, “I can respect that, and you have my gratitude for your service.”
Cyra shifted her weight, ignoring her body telling her to lay down and sleep. She bowed her head stiffly, saying, “It is my duty.”
“So, we have no identity, no certain target, and therefore no motive, is there anything we do know?” Prentiss asked.
“He had a small amount of magic, and he was sent by someone, so this is far from over,” Croesus said grimly.
“Then it is decided.” Regan spun around; her skirt swirled around her legs as she faced her son. “I will not take the risk the assassin was after you, Vitalis. You will not be going to Sardes as Vialya’s representative.”
Wait, Cyra swatted away the fog trying to lull her to sleep. Vitalis, the crown prince of Vialya, was supposed to be the delegate they had been sent to escort?
Vitalis stiffened. He drew up all of his height and approached his mother. “It’s too late to change our representative. Mother, I have to go.”
“No, you don’t. I will send Aeary and Prentiss. They are the most intelligent of us all. You will give them your notes, and it will be fine. You will stay here, safe,” the Iron Queen ordered.
Cyra couldn’t believe was happening before her eyes. Did Vitalis really have the backbone to argue with her? Apparently, much to Cyra’s surprise, the answer was yes.
“You can’t be serious!” He gestured to Aeary’s cane. “I mean no offense, but you can’t ask Aeary to make that journey. That’s not fair to her or her health. It’s also not fair of you to ask Prentiss to go without her. They have been at your side faithfully for years, haven’t they earned the right to spend their time in their home rather than in a foreign land arguing all day?”
The couple exchanged a look. Queen Regan looked at them, asking, “Well, Aeary, can your leg make the trip?”
Aeary shook her head. Prentiss said, “I’m afraid a trip to Sardes would do her more harm than it would help you.”
Queen Regan sighed, “Then I will go.”
“No!” Vitalis rushed forward. Panic filtered through his eyes. Cyra didn’t understand quite what was happening. “Our people need you here, and I need diplomatic experience. I need to build good relations with our neighboring countries. What kind of message would we be sending to everyone if he had promised I would be there, but then change it at the last second? We want the other nations to trust us. I have to go. No one else can.”
Cyra’s tired mind just couldn’t keep up. She wondered why he was so insistent on going.
Queen Regan pulled her son into a tight embrace. “As much as it’s going to kill me to do this, I suppose I can’t really stop you.”
“We will protect him, your Majesty.” Croesus assured her.
“As a gesture of good will from Sardes, in light of what happened tonight,” Soray said, taking Mihrab by the arm, “I give Prince Vitalis my best bodyguard, Mihrab for our journey. Mihrab will ensure no harm comes to the prince.”
Mihrab hid his surprise and bowed. Cyra blinked trying follow what was happening, but her mind was just too bogged down and sluggish.
More words were said and details discussed, but all that caught Cyra’s attention was when they were dismissed.
A hand took her arm, and she was led out of the throne room. Her feet fumbled underneath her.
“Cyra, what’s happening?” The sound of her own language pulled her eyes open. When had they gotten to this hallway? Had Soray and Croesus gone ahead?
“Mihrab?” Cyra blinked before her head dropped, too tired to hold it up. “I can’t… stay awake…”
A hand tapped her face, causing her to jolt up. Mihrab shook her by the shoulders. “Stay with me. Is the dreamworld—”
“Is she alright? Was she hurt earlier?”
Cyra groaned, and her legs buckled.
Vitalis. What was he doing there asking about her?
“Nothing to worry about, your highness,” Mihrab said, steadying Cyra with one hand.
‘Cyra! Come here!’
She just couldn’t resist a moment longer. She gave into sleep, letting herself fall.
“No! Cyra don’t—”
* * *
She opened her eyes and sat up. Ano was standing over her. Wait, had he just done that? She rubbed her head. “Ano? Did you—”
“Of course, I’ve been trying to contact you for hours,” Ano said.
Cyra climbed to her feet, brushing sand off of her. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Your necklace, I gave it to you so we could communicate and be connected to each other. I got a strange feeling like something was really wrong.” Ano held his hand out slightly. “I just couldn’t rest until I knew you were alright.”
Cyra shook off her disgruntled annoyance, smiling at him. She took his hand and moved into his embrace. “You don’t have to worry about me. I wasn’t the one in danger.”
“Then who was?” Ano asked, tightening his grip.
Cyra shrugged, settling her head on his shoulder. She was so glad he wasn’t much taller than her. She felt like they fit together perfectly. She said, “We don’t know. It was an assassin, someone from Sardes actually.”
“Another Sardesi? In Vialya? Who caught him?” Ano pulled away, creasing his forehead.
Cyra smirked, bumping her hip into his. “I did, of course! He was a possible threat to Soray.”
Something passed over Ano’s face before he hid it. Worry, maybe? Was he upset? It was hard to tell. Ano was always good at hiding things from her.
Ano slid his arm around her, smiling. “You do make a good shield. Shahdokht Soray is fortunate to have you. I can’t imagine anyone with ill intentions could get past you.”
Cyra wrapped her arm around his waist as they ambled over the sand. “It’s all part of the job.”
“Speaking of protecting, have you kept her safe from that vulture, Vitalis?” Ano asked casually.
Cyra rolled her eyes. “Don’t remind me. No, no matter what I’ve tried, Soray is getting close to him. And, he’s Vialya’s representative, so now, I’ll be spending the next few weeks watching that disaster happen.”
“Is Vitalis already trying to…?” Ano trailed off, looking sick at the thought.
Cyra frowned. She knew very little about him, but he had been decent to her, if not kind despite the fact she had not been in return. She certainly wouldn’t think the best of him, but she also wasn’t sure she could still think the worst of him. She couldn’t see him using Soray like that. Although, what did she really know about him? Maybe it was all an act. Maybe the kind, charming, handsome prince was just a façade. Vitalis could be hiding someone very dangerous in his head.
“No,” Cyra said, shaking her head. She didn’t know anything for sure. Vitalis, to her, was not good or bad, just a question posed. Whoever he was, it wasn’t clear to her, not yet. “No, Vitalis had not said or done anything to indicate a particular romantic interest in Soray. The most would be that they shared a dance, but that means nothing. It would have been rude if he hadn’t. I’m worried Soray is the only one who’s invested. She might get more attached during this trip.”
“Are you afraid they might end up courting or that they won’t?” Ano asked as they approached her tree.
“Both?” Cyra guessed. “I don’t believe they could ever get engaged and married. Even if they both did love each other in the future, the politics are not on their side. Prince Vitalis is the only heir to Vialya’s throne and Soray is the heir to Sardes’. If Soray marries, her husband would have to live in Sardes and either become the next shah or be her consort. I do not believe it likely her father would want to give that position to a Vialyan, especially Vitalis. And why would someone who is heir to his own throne give that up to be a consort? Especially when he can’t just pass it on to anyone else.”
Cyra shivered. Her head hurt thinking about it all. “There’s no way Vitalis could or would come to Sardes, meaning Soray would have to be removed from the line of succession. Her father would never do that either. Ever since she was born, Soray has been groomed to be the greatest leader our empire has ever seen. The shah could choose one of his other, much younger children, but…”
“You don’t want him to,” Ano finished.
Cyra nodded, running a hand over the bark of the tree. “Soray belongs in Sardes. I don’t want her to give up her throne to someone less qualified just for Vitalis, if it ever gets to that point. Her inheritance is important to her too. She couldn’t just walk away from it. It would haunt her for the rest of her life. But, if she ends up falling in love with Vitalis and walks away from him, she’d be heartbroken the rest of her life as well.”
Ano leaned against the tree, right in front of her. “Here’s what you do, keep Soray from getting attached. If Soray doesn’t fall in love, then no one gets hurt when Vitalis’ time is up.”
“I suppose I can try.” Cyra nodded, thinking there was no other option.
“Protecting her from assassins and heartbreak, you are too good.” Ano kissed the side of her head. “I just hope you don’t get hurt instead.”
Cyra smiled, enjoying the searing heat that radiated from him and his words. “I can look out for myself and Soray. I have a very good reason not to get hurt.”
“Oh?” Ano grinned. “What’s that?”
Cyra laughed as heat crept up her face. “You, of course! I know how upset you would be if I got hurt, and the last thing I want is to upset you or hurt you.”
* * *
The sun burst out from behind a few scattered clouds. Cyra winced and threw her hand up over her eyes. She enjoyed the warmth, especially after having been stuck in Vialya’s strangely cool spring for several weeks at that point. The bright sun, warmth, and mountains growing ever larger in her sight meant they were almost to the border. Sardes was only a few days away, and after that about two weeks and a half from Shiraz, the capital.
Ever since she had woken up after visiting Ano, it had been a rough trip. Mihrab had cornered her early on, asking what had happened. Cyra had just shrugged, saying she didn’t know and that her magic was strange.
Cyra wasn’t about to tell him she had seen Ano. He would be so upset, and they would fight, and honestly, it was far too much drama. Cyra wasn’t doing anything wrong, so there was no point in being chewed out about it.
Fortunately, Mihrab didn’t want to fight, at least not while any of their traveling party could come across them.
Cyra would take what she could get, and they settled back into their normal interactions.
“As happy as I am that we’ll be in Sardes soon, I think I’ll miss Vialya quite a lot. It’s a beautiful country,” Soray mused on top of her horse. Cya adjusted her grip on her own reins as she moved her horse closer to Soray.
“I’m glad you think so. I know it has very little to do with me, but I can’t help but feel a bit of pride when people compliment my home.” Vitalis smiled. He, as he had been for the entirety of their journey so far, was riding beside Soray. It was easier said than done for Cyra to put some distance between them. The man was determined to dog their heels, and Soray encouraged him!
“Cold country, more like,” Cyra muttered quietly so no one would hear her. The wind picked up, and she pulled her coat tighter.
Vitalis glanced Soray to shoot her a look. How had he heard her? Did he just always know when she said something rude? Cyra ignored him as he said, “I’m sure I’ll miss Vialya, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to experience Sardes. From what I’ve heard, it’s quite the country.”
Soray laughed, “I’ll make sure you love Sardes before you leave.”
“Your highness, if we hurry, we can make it to the foot of the mountain before nightfall,” Coresus called back to them from his position at the front.
“Of course, Croesus!” Soray called back, nudging her horse faster. Cyra happily matched the faster pace. Much to her own annoyance, Vitalis easily kept up with them, and Mihrab with him.
Cyra did get to enjoy a bit of silence as they all focused on their pace. Cyra’s hand twitched as she fought the urge to hold her necklace. She hadn’t seen Ano since the night before they had left. She didn’t really appreciate being dragged into the dreamworld, but she really couldn’t be upset with him. He just wanted to check on her.
A smile pulled on her lips as she thought of him. She resolved that the second Mihrab wasn’t paying attention, she would try to see him. It had been around two years now that she hadn’t seen him in person. Now that they were on their way to the capital for the negotiations, surely Ano’s father would be going. He was chief of the Median nomadic tribe.
There of course had been some rumors they would come before Cyra had left Shiraz, but they hadn’t confirmed who the chief was bringing with him. Cyra had been hoping Ano would tell her himself, but he hadn’t, so she’d just have to ask him when she went back to the dreamworld. He’d kept distracting her by getting her to talk about Vitalis and her problems.
Cyra knew how that sounded. She was making Ano sound like on those perfect romantic heroes in myths and stories. He wasn’t; Cyra knew that, but the more she thought about him, and how wonderful he was to her, it was harder to remember that he was just human too.
“That’s a nice necklace, beautiful really.”
Cyra’s head whipped to the side to see Vitalis had ridden up to her. Her hand dropped from her neck like the metal burned her. She took a deep breath to steady her startled heart.
Vitalis frowned as he continued speaking Sardesi, “Pardon, uh, I didn’t mean to scare, er, uh, startle you.”
He was back to stumbling over a few words and pausing constantly, but that night in the portrait gallery, they’d been arguing and he’d never stumbled over his words not once.
“You have nothing to apologize for, your highness. I have lived through worse; I assure you.” Cyra lifted her head, hardening her voice to a painful formal tone.
Vitalis steered his horse closer as they dropped to a slower pace to give their horses a break. He tried to smile. “You don’t need to be that formal with me. You can speak to me like you do Shahdokht Soray.”
“I can’t, your highness.” Cyra sat back in her saddle.
Vitalis shifted in his seat a moment before asking, “Who gave you the necklace? It must be someone, uh, special, or, ah, important to you, from the way you were holding it.”
Heat crawled up her neck. She said quietly so Mihrab wouldn’t hear, “Yes, you could say that.”
Something strange passed through Vitalis’ eyes. He quickly smiled. “That surprises me. Other than Shahdokht Soray and Mihrab, you seem very reserved.”
Cyra’s pleasure at the thought of Ano left, and she felt cold again. She glared at Vitalis. “I am.”
“My apologies,” Vitalis said. Cyra urged her horse away from him, but he followed. “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to understand you.”
Cyra gaped at him. “Why?”
Vitalis paused, and Cyra got the feeling he wasn’t saying everything. There was something buried, something dark and odd. He put on a charming look and said, “Because I want to know you, to be friends.”
Cyra sniffed. “You’re wasting your time.”
She turned her horse, returning to Soray’s side and ignored the whispered questions and pressing looks.
Ugh! Why did that man have to be so strange?
“What was that all about?” Soray whispered, reaching over and pulling her sleeve. Cyra shrugged, keeping her harsh gave on the path ahead. “Cyra?”
“It was nothing, really, shahdokht.” Cyra lifted her head and forced a smile.
Soray nodded, letting it go. Cyra was left back to her thoughts. She wished she could go back to her musings about Ano, but it was easier said than done. Now that Vitalis had caught her attention, he would not leave her mind.
What was he hiding? What was his secret? What did he have to keep from them, and why?
Cyra couldn’t help but glance at him every so often. She knew she wouldn’t find the answers in his carefully chosen words and expressions. What was she looking for in him? She couldn’t see anything, at least, not anything she could be sure of.
What did she want to see?
Cyra couldn’t even answer that as they sat around the fire of their camp. Soray sat beside her, laughing at something Vitalis had said. Mihrab himself also let out a small chuckle. Cyra frowned as the moment passed; she had completely missed what he’d said.
“So, how did you two end up as Princess Soray’s guards?” Vitalis asked. Cyra went rigid, and Mihrab’s face went blank.
Soray glanced at the two of them. She shook her head before turning to Vitalis. As she opened her mouth, Cyra lunged for her arm. Soray shook her off. “He’ll find out in Sardes anyway, besides, I trust him. No one needs to know that he knows.”
Vitalis turned to Cyra, looking as if he was about to ask if she was alright.
Soray said, “Cyra and Mihrab are my cousins. My uncle was a bastard and therefore he wasn’t part of the royal line of succession, so he became a warrior. His children, well, Cyra and Mihrab anyway, carried on his legacy by joining the royal guard. We aren’t really supposed to talk about it, but of course everyone in the palace knows, as well as all the nobility. The idea is that they can protect me better that way, if only a few people know the truth. I think my father also once said it made them less of a target, but I never really understood it. I’m grateful to have them nonetheless.”
“I see, that’s why you three are a lot closer than most royalty and their guards,” Vitalis said quietly, understanding lighting his eyes.
“Yes, my other siblings are much younger, the oldest being seven. Mihrab and…” Soray stuttered. Her expression faltered, turning distant. Cyra turned away from Vitalis. Mihrab bowed his head. Soray quickly recovered, saying, “And Cyra were like siblings to me when growing up.”
“Cyra?” Vitalis asked. She sensed he was about to ask her something he shouldn’t.
“I should patrol the camp’s border, just to be safe. I will return shortly, your highness.” Cyra hurried to her feet, bowing and walking away.
As she walked away, she heard Vitalis ask, “Is she alright?”
“There’s a lot that Cyra has never gotten over, and it’s hard when the things that remind her the most are such a prevalent part of her life,” Mihrab sighed. Cyra’s feet faltered. He wasn’t wrong, to spend every day with the two people who looked most like them…
“I didn’t mean to upset her, but it seems that’s all I can do.” Vitalis words, though whispered made it to her ears.
“Don’t take it personally,” Soray said.
Cyra straightened her shoulders and kept walking. She resisted the childish urge to yell back that he should take it personally because was getting rather talented at always knowing what to say to tick her off.
As she put them in the distance, it occurred to her that on the other side, Ano always seemed to know the right thing to say to make her feel better.
She wasn’t typically like this, and she really didn’t want to be. She actually hated how much a romantic sap she’d become. It made her feel like an idiot at times. Ano wasn’t perfect, but she really cared about him, even loved him if she was being honest with herself. She missed him dearly; Ano had somehow rooted himself in her mind and heart, tangling both of them together so well so they were inseparable.
Cyra couldn’t help how often Ano came into her mind, almost like he never really left. Ano was there so often, he’d become as much part of her dreamscape as her tree.
Cyra put her hands against the trunk of a large tree. She shut her eyes, feeling the rough bark. For a moment, she pretended she was in her dreamscape with her tree. That awful, horrible tree in her head. She cursed it with every breath she had, yet it was her constant comfort.
She was better than this.
Cyra pushed away from the tree, hissing at the scrapes on her hands.
She should have been better than what she was now. Cyra was supposed to be better than falling in love, yet there she was. How pitiful. She needed to get control of herself! She had a job to do and all her thoughts about Ano wasn’t helping her.
Ano wasn’t there with her. Soray was there, and Soray was the one who needed her focus.
Cyra would see Ano soon enough, but for now she had other problems to tackle. The first and foremost problem, Prince Vitalis.