Enough was enough. Cyra was done with being ignored by Ano and confused by Vitalis. She was going to get some answers one way or another.
Cyra laid down after she’d been relieved of her watch. She checked to make sure Mihrab was asleep. She gripped her necklace, whispering the incantation.
Cyra leapt to her feet, spinning to see her tree beside her. She looked around, but Ano wasn’t there. She called out anyway, frustration tore into her voice, “Ano? Are you here?”
A little girl’s voice broke across the air. It couldn’t help but waver like the girl was flickering between being beside Cyra or being on the other side of the desert. The branches above Cyra’s head rustled and a young child around seven was face to face with Cyra. “Are you going to play tonight? Or will you keep ignoring me?”
Cyra took a shuddering breath, smiling tightly. “Yes, I’ll stay a little while. What do you want to do, Mandana?”
“Race to the top!” the young girl, Mandana, laughed. “Ready? Go!”
Mandana quickly shot up, grabbing the branches. Cyra groaned as she tucked her still sore arm against her side, using her good arm to pull herself up. Mandana was a blur ahead. Cyra clumsily but quickly forced her way up the tree.
When she heard a young girl crowing her victory, Cyra sighed but kept going. She huffed as she joined Mandana at the top. Mandada cheered, “Finally! I finally won! Ha!”
“You won because you got a head start.” Cyra couldn’t help the childish edge to her voice. Mandana just brought that out in her.
“You’re bigger! You’ve got longer arms and legs.” Mandana crossed her arms. “You’re a grown up.”
Cyra shivered, sitting in the sturdiest crook she could find. “Yes, yes I am.”
Cyra stared at Mandana. Mandana dropped to the branch beside Cyra. She sent Cyra a superior look. “You know, that was a bad decision on your part. If you hadn’t grown up we could play together equally, then I wouldn’t have to cheat.”
“Everyone grows up, Mandana. It’s not as simple as pretending we don’t have to. I had to grow up, everyone does.” Cyra bowed her head. Well, everyone grows up eventually, everyone except for Mandana.
There was a flicker, a strike in Cyra’s chest, and Mandana was gone. Mandana could never stay if someone else entered the dreamscape.
There was only one person who ever entered her dreamscape.
“Ano? Is that you?”
“Yes! I’m down here!” Ano peered up through the branches. She quickly scrambled down the tree.
Cyra leapt down from the last branch, stumbling into his arms. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you!”
“I’m sorry, things got a little busy on my end, and I couldn’t come,” Ano said. Cyra felt him tighten his grip. “I’ve been worried sick. The necklace, it told me you were in trouble, and then you didn’t come when I called—”
“I’m not a dog to come the second you call! Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t come! I was in the middle of stopping an assassination!” Cyra lifted her head. Her eyes flared as she tried to step out of his grip, but he didn’t let her.
“Assassination?” Ano blinked, eyes widening. “Someone attacked Soray?”
Cyra shrugged. “I would say someone’s out for Vitalis. He’s the one they seemed to be targeting, but they were just thugs, not real assassins.”
“Really?” Ano’s grip on her shoulders tightened painfully. Cyra hissed and shook herself out of his grip. “Wait, your arm?”
Ano took her forearm in his hands, cradling it carefully. Heat rushed to her cheeks. He made it so hard to be mad at him when he started being so sweet. “It’s nothing really. I just got a cut when I was defending Prince Vitalis. I’ll be perfectly recovered by the time we’re home.”
“You took a blow for that guy?” Ano gaped at her.
“Only because his life was at stake! Don’t worry, I’m still going to put as much distance between him and Soray as possible.” Cyra took his hand in hers.
“Promise me this…” Ano pulled her closer, resting his forehead against hers.
Cyra smiled, leaning into him. “Anything.”
“Promise me that you’ll never risk your life for his. I can’t bear the thought of losing you,” Ano whispered.
Cyra set her chin on his shoulder. “I won’t, I promise. I’m not going to die for him. There are very few people I would do that for, and he’s not one of them.”
“Good,” Ano said, leaning his head against hers. “I can’t imagine what I would do without you.”
“I’m not sure what I’d do either,” Cyra said, gripping him tightly, afraid he would flicker away just like Mandana.
“I can’t wait to see you again, unfortunately, I have to go now.” Ano let go, stepping away. “There’s still a lot going on with my father and the tribe.”
“Will you be at the negotiations?” Cyra asked, stepping towards him.
Ano smiled slyly and winked at her. “When I see you again, I’ll have a great surprise for you!”
“It better be good,” Cyra laughed, “I’m not easily impressed!”
With a smirk and a wave, he was gone. Cyra took a deep breath and eyes the door slowly building itself out of sand.
She promised Mihrab she wouldn’t go dreamwalking while they were in Vialya…she never promised anything about Sardes. Cyra trudged through the sand and towards the door.
She may have gotten answers from Ano, if their conversation could even be called that. Vitalis, however, was a different story. Something wasn’t right with him. The way he had focused in on her, the odd things he said, and most of all the way he’d hesitated during the fight… something wasn’t right there.
She really shouldn’t, but who would ever know?
Vitalis wasn’t telling her anything, and Cyra wasn’t entirely sure she could trust what he did tell her. She didn’t know enough. There was only one way Cyra could determine for herself what was really going on with Vitalis.
If he was going to pursue Soray, well, that would be there. Cyra would know how best to protect Soray from him, or if she even had to at all.
She had no other option, and with that justification in mind and the slight nagging feeling she still shoulder, she pushed the door open.
Cyra leapt through the door, diving into the swirling empty ocean, twisting and resembling the night sky. She threw her arms back and rather than walking, she let herself tumble through it. As she fell, bright glowing doors, nearly stars themselves, flew by her. They were the doors to others’ minds. She would recognize Soray’s and Mihrab’s doors with her eyes closed. She never really went in them, but they were just familiar, comforting.
Cyra came to a stop at a dimmer door. It looked nothing like any of the other doors around her. It was definitely Vialyan architecture, like the doors in Elista’s castle.
There was only one thing Cyra knew about Vitalis, only one thing for sure. The man was down to his core Vialyan in every way.
Cyra pulled the door open and stepped inside. Now, just what went on in Vitalis head?
Cyra glanced around to find herself in that library again. Queen Regan was relaxing in an arm chair, holding a young boy. She was speaking to him softly in their own language. “—spent a lot of time here, before. Dainan not as much. Mari liked it here too, I think, even though the poor girl never did get to read. Now, what story do you what to hear tonight solnyshko?”
“You know, I have this dream a lot, or memory, and this is the first time you’ve made an appearance, zvezda moya.”
Cyra turned to see Vitalis approaching her shoulder. She frowned. “You called me that before. What does it mean?”
“Nothing,” Vitalis laughed, “so, what are you doing here?”
“You love her very much, don’t you?” Cyra asked, nodding towards the queen. Maybe she was starting in the wrong place. Maybe the key to figuring out what Vitalis wanted with her and Soray would be found in who he was as person. What made him Vitalis?
“Of course I do. We may have our differences at times, but she’s my mother. I can’t exactly afford to be picky about my family when she’s the only one left.” Vitalis bowed his head.
“And she loves you a lot as well, true?” Cyra asked.
“It’s the same for her, I’m the only family she has left after what happened, so yes. She’s afraid of losing me, and while she often lets that rule her more than she should, I can’t really be too upset about it. Not when I’m afraid of loss as well, you are too, I’m sure.” Vitalis shrugged, leaning against the wall. Cyra glared at him. Even in his head he wanted to turn this on her. She learned a little about him, but she shouldn’t spend too long in his head. She should hurry.
“Where is it?” Cyra asked. She reached her hand out, using it to distort the memory.
“Where’s what?” Vitalis grinned, bumping his shoulder into hers.
“Where are your secrets? The real you? Whatever you’ve been hiding, why can’t I see it?” Cyra poked and prodded, but none of his secrets came to her.
“All in good time,” Vitalis said. He stepped closer to her. The walls around his mind seemed to strength, Cyra saw the door she entered from coming closer. “I’m not so weak as to let just anyone know all my secrets, zvezda. But, tell me, do you think I’m a bad man?”
Cyra stared at him. His younger self laughed happily at the story his mother was telling him. She closed her eyes and let herself be enveloped by his mind. It was surprisingly cool, not at all like the bright sun Vitalis seemed to be.
Not lies… it was not true nefarious deception, just a lot of exemptions. There was so much he wasn’t saying. But… it wasn’t all dark. Some of it, yes, darker than anything she’d felt before. Something he wasn’t saying was very dark indeed, but not the man himself.
She pushed again, breaking through the walls. Her momentum sent her stumbling onto the cave floor where Vitalis was struggling against his attacker.
Her head was slammed into the wall and Vitalis’ thoughts were given a voice.
Cyra! Is she—
His thought was cut off as he ducked under his attackers swing. His eyes flickered back to where she was.
Alright, it’s now or never, I suppose. Soray won’t get hurt; they have no reason to. Please, please prove me right, zvezda moya.
Prove him right? About what? Cyra glanced at him. Wait, she could see it in him, now that she could focus. He knew how to fight; he purposefully threw a bad punch and let himself get knocked down.
Vitalis stayed down. His hand was gripping the hilt of his sword. Cyra watched herself rush across the cave to him.
She’s actually coming!
Vitalis sounded ecstatic. Cyra kept her eyes glued to his face, watching it at the exact moment he saw her take the blow to her arm.
What? No! That wasn’t—Cyra!
He was screaming. Cyra winced, holding her ears. His panic overwhelmed her, drowning out any comprehensible words. Only a few scattered things made it through.
Cyra’s chest burned. She couldn’t breathe.
She wasn’t supposed to—Saved me.
Her ears were ringing.
Cyra wasn’t supposed to get hurt!
Her head was pounding. The words hit her and drowned her in their rhythmic, funeral drumbeat.
My fault—for me. My fault. My fault. My fault—
Utter horror washed over her. Guilt clawed at her throat. Vitalis, this was what he felt at the time? Still felt?
What have I done?
Cyra forced her way out of the memory, unable to take the intense, burning horror drowning her. It was too much, the self-loathing, the terror, it was overwhelming, strangling. How could someone feel this intensely and live?
She crashed to her knees, about to scream to try and drown out his voice when someone carefully pulled her hands away from her ears. There was no sound, no harsh panicked voice. Vitalis’ calm, concerned face filled her vision.
She shivered as cold seeped into her. The ground was wet. Cyra gulped in air. “What—? Where—”
“Don’t mind the snow,” Vitalis said, pulling her up to her feet. “Now, what did you find?”
Cyra pushed him away, hurrying to the door, wincing at the harsh, blinding white surrounding her. She needed space away from him. She needed to breathe, the think! Cyra pushed the door open and paused, looking back. He stood, staring at her in the strange white snow.
She took a deep breath and said, “No, I don’t think you’re a bad man.”
* * *
Vitalis didn’t remember; at least Cyra could take comfort in that part of the disaster. People without magic couldn’t remember, not unless Cyra let them. She so rarely let people remember she was privy to their darkest secrets. The morning after, Cyra masked her exhaustion and buried her emotions. She couldn’t act any differently, especially considering the way Vitalis was eyeing her. He looked disoriented and confused, like he knew she was the key to some lock he just didn’t know about.
Mihrab had asked him what was wrong, and all Vitalis said was just he had a bad headache.
Cyra was more than happy to keep him in the dark. She needed some time to process what she learned in his head.
He continued to maintain a little distance, but Soray had recovered and was happily resuming her friendship with the prince. Although, Cyra was certain Soray didn’t want to stay friends for long. Cyra held back a huff every time Soray played with her hair. She always did that when she wanted a boy to notice her. While she loved Soray like a sister, some things she did drove her up the wall.
Cyra watched Vitalis, but she couldn’t tell if he knew or not. Well, him knowing about Soray’s intentions was one thing, but his intentions were another. Did he feel the same way?
There was no way she was about to stay in his mind after he nearly suffocated her with his memory, but Cyra wished she had gotten a better picture on his intentions with Soray. If he was interested in Soray, did he hide it or should she have seen it?
Was that why Vitalis focused on her? Did he want her approval or her help? That was possible, and it made a bit of sense. Cyra was the one person closest to Soray. If someone wanted to get close to Soray, they would have to go through Cyra.
Soray laughed at something Vitalis said. He beamed in response. Cyra pursed her lips.
Was he flirting? Or was he just being friendly? How would she know? How would Soray know?
She watched them a moment longer. Was there hidden meaning behind every little thing he said? Did Vitalis smile at everyone like he smiled at Soray? Did he look at Soray like Soray hoped he was?
No, Cyra decided after a moment. He was friendly, but he wasn’t insinuating anything more. Vitalis couldn’t be pursuing Soray. Or, maybe he was just being extremely subtle about it. Cyra hoped he had no intentions towards her cousin.
Now, she had one larger mystery she couldn’t puzzle out. She’d put it out of her mind for a few days, but it was too pressing to avoid any longer, not they day before they reached the capital.
Vitalis was testing her that day. It was a test. He’d wanted to see if she would save his life. But, he hadn’t planned on her getting hurt. That was odd. Surely, the possibility would have occurred to him that if she was protecting him she might get hurt. Why had he taken it so personally?
Why test her? What did her saving him prove?
Cyra couldn’t get it. It just proved that she did her job. She just wasn’t going to let him die, but that didn’t make her any different from the other guards. Why did Vitalis think it proved something grand about her character? What was the Vialyan prince looking for when he saw her? Whatever it was, Cyra didn’t think he would be finding it. Whatever Vitalis thought he saw in her the day she saved his life, Cyra knew it wasn’t there.
“How many members of the shah’s court will be present during negotiations? I’ve heard his court can be rather large,” Vitalis said. The last few days had been dedicated to helping Vitalis brush up on his mastery of Sardesi and his knowledge of cultural customs and important information.
Mihrab answered most of his questions, but Soray liked to chime in as well. Vitalis seemed to have an endless supply of questions. Cyra wondered where they all came from.
“Probably not too many, really only his closest advisors, some of the governors and lords will sit in on particular meetings that pertain to their interests,” Soray said. She smiled at Vitalis. “I might even sit in on a few myself, but with my father tied up in those most of time, I’ll be taking over a few of his day to day responsibilities.”
“Are you nervous about it?” Vitalis asked as he moved his horse closer.
“Some, but I’m excited for the opportunity. I know a lot about theory and how to be a good ruler, but I need experience to know how to put it into practice.” Soray adjusted her grip on her reins.
“The shah must be proud to have such an heir,” Vitalis said with a kind smile.
“I would hope so, but I’m not his only heir.” Soray smiled shyly. Cyra resisted the urge to scoff. Soray was about as subtle as the sun in the desert.
They continued discussing Sardes and the court for a while until Vitalis and Mihrab dropped back so they could focus on his Sardesi. He was nearly fluent, but there were still a few grammatical errors and obscure vocabulary to work out.
Soray motioned Cyra closer and they pulled ahead and out of earshot. Soray grinned at Cyra, asking, “Well, what do you think?”
Cyra knew exactly what she meant, but she wasn’t about to admit it. “What do I think about what?”
Soray laughed prettily before glancing over her shoulder. Vitalis and Mihrab were absorbed in their conversation. Soray leaned closer. “About Prince Vitalis and I of course!”
“That.” Cyra clenched her hands. There was no way this worked out nicely. Vitalis wasn’t the villain she’d been expecting from Ano’s description, but the politics didn’t work even if he was the best man that ever lived. “Have you thought about what would happen if the two of you progressed towards marriage?”
Soray ducked her head. “Of course I have.”
“And you could just give up Sardes like that? Be happy going from an empress to just a queen consort with virtually no power?” Cyra tried to be gentle, but she needed Soray to understand. This wasn’t as simple as her liking a man and pursuing him. They were both heirs to nations, not second sons or daughters. Nations were looking to them as their future leaders. That was not a duty to take lightly.
There was also still all the mystery around the man in question. A bad man he was not, but that didn’t mean he was a good man either. Cyra didn’t know enough; she had too many questions. After what happened last time, she wasn’t too keen on searching again. Getting stuck in that memory… that had never happened before. What if she hadn’t gotten out?
However, Cyra was beginning to think she would have to.
“I suppose I didn’t think of it like that,” Soray sighed. She cast another wistful glance behind her. “I’d hate to lose Sardes. I mean I’m a ruler, or I’m supposed to be. Still, for Vitalis, or for love in general, I would give it up. Wouldn’t you?”
“Love, Soray?” Cyra jolted, twisting in her seat.
“Theoretically,” Soray hurried to say, “I’m not saying I love him, but I think I could, and I think he could love me in return.”
“Has he said anything about it?” Cyra fisted her horse’s mane in her hands.
Soray fidgeted. “No, not yet, but is it bad that I really hope he does?”
“Soray,” Cyra sighed. She pushed her own hair back so she could look at her cousin directly. “Don’t get too attached. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“But what if I can’t help myself?” Soray whispered. “Wouldn’t you take the risk, for love?”
Cyra looked down to see herself holding her necklace. Would she give up her home for Ano? Well, honestly, she hadn’t thought about it. Cyra’s life had already been decided for her. As long as Soray lived, Cyra was supposed to be protecting her. Ano would become chief of his tribe after his father. Would she give up protecting Soray to be with Ano? Would Ano ask her to?
“I couldn’t say, Soray.” Cyra dropped her necklace.
“I guess it’s hard to know unless you’re actually in love.” Soray picked at her reins.
Cyra didn’t respond. Maybe she needed to talk to Ano. If he asked her… would she say yes?
Well, at least she knew Soray would say yes, now the next step was making sure Vitalis never asked.
Cyra glanced behind her and accidentally locked her gaze with his. He smiled at her, giving her a confused but pleasant look.
Just what did the Vialyan want with her?