“Careful, shahdokht!” Cyra leapt off her horse, snatching Soray’s reins. Cyra pulled Soray’s horse down before it could rear up.
“What’s wrong?” Soray asked, struggling to stay balanced. Her eyes darted around, trying to find the source of Cyra’s reaction.
“It’s a rough path, your horse was about to throw you because it’s hoof was stuck.” Cyra said, kneeling down to help the horse’s leg.
“Is everything alright back there?” Croesus yelled from the front.
“Yes! Don’t worry, sir!” Cyra called back. Cyra pushed herself back up taking the reins of both her horse and Soray’s. “Until we’re out of this narrow pass, I’ll lead, your highness.”
“Thank you,” Soray sighed stroking her horse’s neck absentmindedly.
Cyra clicked her tongue and the horses followed her. It certainly hadn’t been an easy trip through the mountains. The route they were taking was the fastest, but it was also the roughest. Large merchant caravans couldn’t use it because they didn’t fit. Their party was almost too large, almost.
What she had told Soray hadn’t been a lie, per se. Soray’s horse has been stuck, but it wasn’t just that. The pass they were in was narrow, rough, and dangerous to navigate, but Soray’s horse had been picked from the best and wasn’t normally so easily scared.
The horses they had brought were all steady, calm, and reliable. Yet, as Cyra glanced around, all the horses were tossing their heads every so often, pawing the ground, and huffing.
Why were they all so jumpy?
Cyra kept an eye out as they walked. She didn’t like this; something wasn’t right.
By the time they reached the end of the pass, Cyra had almost dismissed her feeling as just paranoia.
Cyra gently coaxed their horses down a small ledge and onto a wide clearing. She was about to climb back on when someone’s horse let out a loud bray.
Cyra turned to see Vitalis’ horse rear up, refusing to step down the ledge. His horse kicked the air; Vitalis scrambled to stay on, but was far too off balance.
Then, Cyra heard it. It was the small, simple twang of a bow string. Cyra grabbed Soray and pulled her off her horse. The height made her too much of a target.
With one arm wrapped around Soray, Cyra drew one of her long daggers.
Vitalis’s horse let out the sound of a creature desperately afraid they were dying. The arrow was lodged in its chest and more followed. The horse pitched forward, falling to the ground and sending Vitalis rolling.
Mihrab was off his horse in seconds as several cloaked figures appeared on ledges and dropped down to the clearing. More easily blocked the pass they had just come through.
“Cyra?” Soray held onto her arm.
“Come on!” Cyra grabbed the shahdokht and sprinted through the middle of the clearing as the fighting started.
Their party had a plan in the event bandits attacked. The plan was to remove the royalty from the fighting to ensure their safety until the threat was dealt with.
Cyra and Soray had almost reached the exit to the clearing when one of their attackers leapt into their path. Cyra put herself in front of Soray, drawing her other dagger, ready to defend. The man drew a sword, but his gaze went behind her. Cyra risked a glance to see Mihrab and Vitalis heading their way.
Comforted by the thought her brother was near, Cyra made the first move. She dove forward, rolling under a swing to slash into her attacker’s leg. She didn’t stop moving, pushing herself back to her feet, blocking his next strike.
“Soray, go now!” Cyra barked, forcing the man away from the royals. She couldn’t see past her opponent, too busy watching his moves, blocking them.
Her attacker spun around after landing a kick to her stomach. He lunged at Vitalis who had hesitated to run. Mihrab quickly intervened, growling, “Cyra, take them and go. I’ll make sure no gets through.”
Cyra sheathed her weapons and grabbed Vitalis, hissing, “Just what did you think you were doing?”
Vitalis sputtered as Cyra grabbed Soray with her free hand. She pulled both of them close to her, looking over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed.
“Cyra?” Soray whimpered. The continuous flow of swears in Cyra’s head slowed as she tried to figure out what to do. She had bandits or assassins or whoever, after one, if not both royalty, and neither of them did she trust to protect themselves. She needed an easily defendable space. There was only one of her, and she couldn’t risk getting attacked from behind. She needed to pick the battle ground.
They were on a mountain. What could she do with that?
Cyra slowed down, taking deep breaths. She glanced around, wait, up ahead, a cave!
“This way,” Cyra said, pulling along her charges.
Since when did running make her so tired? She had more stamina and endurance surely? When did she get so sleepy?
“What are we doing?” Vitalis asked.
“Hiding.” Cyra pushed them into the cave. She paused, taking one last look to see several of the attackers slipping past Mihrab. Cyra stumbled into the cave, forcing her eyes open. She hoped they hadn’t seen her.
“What’s wrong?” Soray whispered.
Cyra hushed her, herding them into the darkest corner. With a shake of her head and slap to her own cheek, she said, “Nothing. I’m fine. I’ll keep you safe. We just need you to stay out of sight.”
“You don’t have to protect me, you know. I’m not helpless,” Vitalis said softly.
Cyra blinked, rubbed her eyes, and glanced at him. “You don’t have a weapon on you.”
Vitalis opened his mouth, but Cyra heard voices outside the cave. She put her hand over his mouth, closing her eyes and listening.
She was also trying to stay awake.
She couldn’t make out what was being said. Thick accents, maybe? Or maybe that was a completely different language?
They sounded close, so Cyra pushed herself up, drawing her weapons. She swayed, but shook herself awake. Three figures appeared at the mouth of the cave. Vitalis started to rise as well.
The men began to close in on them, grinning. Cyra hissed, “Stay behind me!”
“I’m supposed to just watch you try to fight three men all at once?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra brandished her daggers, glaring at her opponents. “You’re supposed to let me do my job. Now, please be quiet and let me protect you two!”
The first man struck, but Cyra was ready. She easily parried his blow, knocking him back as she took a swipe at another man. Their blades gleamed, flying towards her one after the other, but she wasn’t appointed Soray’s personal bodyguard for nothing. Cyra, even in her strange magically exhausted state, could hold these halfwits at bay. Honestly, where had they come from?
They were clumsy, sloppy. They had no training, which had been clear when the first shot missed Vitalis completely. These weren’t masterminds; these were buffoons who were handed weapons and given a target.
Cyra grunted as she kicked one in the gut, pushing them back towards the mouth of the cave. When she was done fighting, she was going to have to have a talk with Ano about appropriate times to try and call her to the dreamworld because that was the only explanation for the haze surrounding her.
Her hands were shaking, and she struggled to keep her eyes open for more than a minute.
A lucky hit caught her wrist, sending one dagger clattering to the ground as a spell of exhaustion crashed into her harder than before. Everything was foggy and sluggish.
She cried out as someone slammed her into the wall. Her eyes flared, and her dagger found its place in his stomach.
Cyra shoved the man away, snarling as she blocked the next attack sent her way. Wait, where was the third man?
Cyra spun and saw Vitalis dodging blows. She kept parrying blows while watching Vitalis out of the corner of her eye. Soray had backed away, clumsily holding her own dagger as Vitalis tried to throw a punch.
His legs were knocked out from under him. His attacker laughed as he lifted his blade. Cyra slammed her own opponent into the wall, finishing him, before sprinting back.
Vitalis had one hand on his side, staring up wide eyed, as if waiting for something, judgement? Death? Not if Cyra had anything to say about it. Her own legs trembled beneath her, but she kept going. The man may infuriate her, but he was a prince, and she couldn’t let him die on her watch.
Cyra threw herself in front of his opponent, raising her arm and taking the blow meant for Vitalis. She bit her lip as sharp pain shot through her as his blade finished tearing up her forearm. Cyra cried out as she hurled herself forward, ending her opponent’s life with a fast cut to the neck.
It was over. Cyra’s legs buckled under her, unable to take her weight as her magically induced exhaustion gave way to real exhaustion and pain. She dropped to her knees, turning to Vitalis, who hadn’t moved. He gaped at her arm with pure horror etched across his face.
Wait, what was his hand on? Cyra blinked, seeing Vitalis hadn’t been holding his side, but reaching for a sword? Yes, Vitalis had a short sword hidden in his coat!
Cyra winced and cradled her arm close to her. She genuinely did not have the mental capacity or patience to begin to ask all the questions she had.
“Cyra! Oh! Here, let’s get you some help. Cyra, come on!” Soray hurried to her cousin, pulling her up by her good arm.
Cyra just leaned on her cousin, happy they were both ignoring Vitalis for once.
* * *
Vitalis’ shock and silence did not last long, certainly not long enough for Cyra. At this point, she would almost rather take another sword to her arm than have him hover over her while Mihrab calmly used a combination of magic and medical supplies to help her.
“Does it hurt?” Vitalis asked.
Cyra took a deep breath. If she didn’t, she would scream. “No more and no less than when you asked a minute ago, your highness.”
Mihrab smirked as he tied off her sling. “Do not worry, Prince Vitalis. I have been patching up my little sister for years. I have seen her take worse hits and walk them off like it was nothing. A small scratch like this is nothing to worry about.”
“Are you sure?” Vitalis asked, stepping closer and eying the sling. “I want the truth; don’t lie to make me feel better.”
“I’m fine,” Cyra groaned. Her head throbbed. She turned to Mihrab. “May I go?”
“Go on, I’ve done everything I can.” Mihrab got off his knees. He glanced at Vitalis. “Time will do the rest.”
Cyra shot to her feet, hurrying towards Croesus. Heavy footsteps followed and overly concerned eyes bore into her back. Cyra bowed to Croesus, “Sir, have we been able to find out anything useful?”
Croesus bowed his head and sighed, “No. Any that had been taken alive quickly remedied that fact with a bit of poison. I doubt they would have talked anyway.”
“But,” Cyra said as she vaguely gestured to her annoying shadow, “we know he’s the target now.”
Vitalis stepped forward, almost a completely different man than the mother hen from a few minutes before. His back was ramrod straight and his face hard. “Can we be certain of that? Shahdokht Soray could still be in danger.”
Cyra shot him an incredulous look. “Prince Vitalis, they shot an arrow at you.”
“They attacked everyone, not just me.” Vitalis glanced at the cliffs where they had descended from. Really? That’s what he was going with? Cyra couldn’t believe him.
“Well, we can’t know that for sure, but it wasn’t just Sardesi men this time,” Croesus said. He gestured to where the cave was. “The men who went after you, two were Sizian, and one might be Vialyan or one of your neighbors.”
Vitalis crossed his arms. “So, they had no information on them?”
“None, just like the other assassin.” Croesus started to walk towards the other men.
“Were they all wearing Sardesi clothing?” Vitalis asked, following.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean much. It’s all homespun clothing, no trademarks or merchants that it could be traced back to,” Croesus said.
“Thank you, I appreciate what your men have done today to protect me and the shahdokht,” Vitalis said, turning to Cyra.
“Sir, is there anything else to do?” Cyra asked, adjusting her sling.
Croesus smiled and shook his head. “No, just focus on not straining your arm. Good work today. The shah will be pleased.”
Croesus walked away, leaving Cyra along with Vitalis. She took a deep breath as hand came down on her good shoulder. She turned around, knowing she didn’t have anywhere else to go to avoid this conversation.
“Yes, Prince Vitalis?” Cyra kept her face blank and her voice polite.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” Vitalis said. Cyra eyed him. Vitalis glanced over his shoulder before pulling her off to the side. “You didn’t have to take that blow for me, you shouldn’t have, really, but you did. I’m sorry you got hurt, but thank you.”
Cyra reached for her necklace. Her head throbbed. While she wanted some answers from him, she also really didn’t want to deal with his apologies, gratitude, and hovering. “Just doing my job, your highness.”
Cyra started to leave but Vitalis caught her good arm. “You don’t have any questions for me?”
Cyra dropped her necklace. “Look, fine, yes, I don’t get it. I don’t understand why you hesitated. For some reason, you were going to wait until the last possible second to defend yourself. I don’t understand why me taking that blow is such a big deal. I don’t understand why you’re even here, or why you’re trying to deny the fact someone wants you dead.”
Cyra rubbed her head, wincing. “I don’t know you, Prince Vitalis. I know nothing of importance about you. Literally everything you have done and said raises more questions than answers. Whoever you are is a mystery to me. So yes, I have questions, but I know my place, and it is not to ask them. So, please, I have a headache, my arm does still hurt, and I have a shahdokht to look after.”
Cyra hurried away to where Soray was playing with her horse’s mane to hide the tremor in her hands. Something caused her to pause and look back. Vitalis was sating at her in a strange way. His mouth was turned in a small quirk and his eyes wrinkled. He had a strange look of wonder and pleasant confusion.
Cyra got the impression she wasn’t the only one with a few questions.
* * *
Days passed and that meant the nights passed as well. They made it off the mountain and were crossing a small expanse of desert. Each day the sun beat down in its scorching glory, and Cyra suffered through its sweet misery.
Vitalis had, surprisingly, kept a bit of distance from her and Soray. He seemed to be spending his time solely with Mihrab, practicing his Sardesi and improving his knowledge of Sardes. Every time it looked like he was about to approach Soray, Cyra would move her horse so she blocked his view. One look at the sling her arm was in kept him away.
If Cyra had known all she had to do to keep him away from Soray was to get injured, she would have let that first assassin in Vialya get a few good hits in.
Despite this unexpected success, she worried for Soray. Soray was no stranger to assassination attempts, and as a result was unfortunately used to seeing people die in front of her. Soray had recovered from the first attack rather quickly. However, ever since the second attack, Soray had been different.
“Are you alright, shahdokht?” Cyra asked quietly as they began setting up camp one night.
Soray sighed as she moved around her horse’s head to Cyra’s side. Her voice wavered as she said, “No I don’t think so.”
“Tell me,” Cyra said, reaching for her with her good arm.
Soray laid her head on Cyra’s shoulder.
“When will these assassins stop? Are they after Vitalis? If they are, are we even able to protect him?”
Cyra rubbed Soray’s shoulder, feeling her own heart sink. Was Soray already halfway in love with the man? “Is that what this is about? Soray, don’t worry. Prince Vitalis is safe with us. Nothing will happen to him in Shiraz.”
“But something almost happened to him already! Twice, and you got hurt as well.” Soray pulled back. “What if the cost of keeping him or keeping me safe is your life? Is Mihrab’s life? I can’t bear the thought.”
“Mihrab and I do it gladly, we always have. Your life is far too precious to risk, and we both would gladly lay ours down to protect it,” Cyra said, “This is not news, shahdokht. You already knew this.”
Soray wiped at her eyes. “I know. It’s just… I guess I didn’t fully realize what could happen until it almost did to you and Prince Vitalis. Promise me you’ll look out for yourself as well.”
“I understand.” Cyra nodded. “I promise nothing will happen to me.”
“Good, now,” Soray said, grinning. She reached for Cyra’s bag. “I’m going to help you because your arm is in sling and I’m the shahdokht, so you have to let me.”
That was more like her.
Cyra just laughed in response. Soray was ever a princess.
Now that was one major problem fixed. Cyra fiddled with her necklace, thinking of the next problem to tackle. Ano hadn’t appeared. She hadn’t seen him or heard anything since he tried to call her to the dreamworld during her fight.
What had he been doing? What had he needed her for? And why hadn’t he contacted her again? Was he alright?
Every night since the attack, Cyra had gone to her dreamscape, and he wasn’t there.
Of course, she couldn’t do anything about it right then as she had been given first watch. She had settled into staring at the rolling hills and trying not to worry too much about Ano.
“Bit of a thankless job, isn’t it?”
Vitalis, right. Who else would it be?
He took a seat beside her, leaning back to look at the moon. Cyra pulled her knee up to lean on it. “Being on watch?”
“All of it. You put yourself in danger every day to keep someone else safe. You saved my life, and all you got in return was being told you did a good job. That doesn’t bother you at all?” Vitalis turned to her.
Cyra narrowed her eyes. What was he after? “I don’t do it for glory. Can I help you, Prince Vitalis?”
Vitalis mouth opened but he shut it. He shook his head with a confused smile. “You really hate me, don’t you?”
Honestly? Maybe not quite hate, but close. Cyra shrugged and traced a finger through the sand.
“I’m not stupid, Cyra.” Vitalis moved closer, lowering his voice. “You hate me, so why didn’t you let that man kill me?”
“What do you want to hear, your highness?” Cyra stared back at him. She repressed a shiver as the wind wrapped around them.
“The truth.” Vitalis leaned slightly closer.
“The truth is, prince, I saved your life because that is my job. I am a royal guard, and you are royalty, even if you are foreign royalty. That is the only reason; there is nothing else.” Cyra leaned away from him.
“Thank you.” Vitalis smiled. Cyra blinked. What? He said, “I appreciate your honesty. Even if you don’t like me, you’re still willing to put your life at risk for me.”
He stood up, brushing sand off him. “However, in the coming weeks, I hope I can change your mind about me, and I’ll return your honesty with my own. I have a feeling about you, a good one. Don’t prove me wrong.”
Just what was he after?
Cyra rested her head on her hand, trying to figure it out. She passed her entire watch, thinking and not finding an answer. What was it? Why did he care about her opinion of him? And, why, after everything she’s said, would he think well of her?