Shiraz was nothing like the dark gray Elista. Shiraz was beautiful tans, yellows, and white limestone. The city was filled with elegant designs, marble sculptures, and elaborate architecture. Cyra drank in the sight of her home while Soray happily chatted away to Vitalis about the city.
The poor man didn’t seem to know how to handle the sprawling, winding city. Shiraz was easily three times the size of Elista. Vitalis probably hadn’t seen something so large in his entire life. He wouldn’t be able to navigate the city even if he lived there the rest of his life. Cyra herself still had to be careful. Taking a wrong turn down the wrong street could mean she never left.
Shiraz was beautiful on the surface, but just like any city, there was a side that no one discussed while in polite company.
Cyra stayed far away from it, and she made sure Soray never got near it.
“I see why you love it so much.”
Cyra blinked to see Vitalis riding up to her side again.
She narrowed her eyes. “There is no city like it. I have a rather fierce loyalty to it. Nowhere else can compare.”
Their horses’ hoofs clapped against the smooth roads. Vitalis laughed, “I understand. So, I take it you know the city better than almost anyone?”
“I suppose.” Cyra eyes Vitalis. Where was this going?
“Look! There’s the gate!” Soray quickly took his attention. From that moment on, Vitalis was swept away by Soray, unable to say any more to Cyra. Cyra wasn’t sure if she wanted to know what he was leading up to. It felt important, but something about him unnerved her.
The gates swung open. Servants and the nobility alike hurried out to greet them. Soray’s handmaidens surrounded her while Vitalis was accosted by the nobles and dignitaries trying to make a good impression.
Cyra caught a glimpse of the shah as he greeted his daughter and the prince. As she climbed off her horse, a stable boy took the reins from her. Mihrab caught up to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. She leaned in slightly. Because of their own obligations, neither had really been able to talk with each other.
“Are we… alright?” Cyra asked. Mihrab quickly pulled her into a hug.
“Of course we are. I’m sorry for being so hard on you while we were in Vialya.” Mihrab stepped back.
“No, I get it,” Cyra muttered. Dreamwalking was a serious matter. It wasn’t all alone time with Ano, and as she’d seen in Vitalis’ mind there was a lot that could go wrong. If she hadn’t been able to break out of that memory… The mind could be a very dangerous place. “You were just trying to look out for me, like always. I know I don’t always agree, and I can be rather awful about it, but I appreciate it.”
“Sometimes I think it might be easier if you weren’t a royal guard as well,” Mihrab spoke softly. Cyra knew exactly what he meant.
“Maybe, but that’s just not what happened. I know your priority is to keep Soray and me safe, but you have to trust me. I’m not a child.” Cyra rubbed her neck leaning in. She lowered her voice as she said, “And you know even then she made the right choice. If it’s me or Soray, we choose Soray. That’s just how it is.”
“But you’re my sister, and I’m not going to lose anyone else from our family. At least, we don’t have to worry about it for now. Since we’re back, they’ll likely change the guard rotation, take you off Soray’s protection for a little while,” Mihrab said as they headed into the palace.
“Is that what we’re doing first?” Cyra asked as they walked towards the guards’ quarters.
“Yes, we’re supposed to report in first thing. I doubt they’ll keep us long.” Mihrab gave a polite nod to the servant who opened the door to an office for them.
“Good, it’s been a ridiculously long trip.” Cyra stretched her arms up, enjoying her now free and completely healed arm.
“It’s felt pretty long for us here as well.”
The siblings looked up to see the captain of the guard waiting for them at her desk. Mihrab and Cyra lined up, squared their shoulders, and bowed. “Yes, Captain Artunis.”
“You know the drill, give me the short version.” The tall woman waved her hand dismissively. Cyra and Mihrab rose, exchanging a glance. Neither wanted to be the bearer of bad news. Had no one sent a message ahead? No, Cyra remembered hearing that Croesus sent a message the night of the first assassination attempt. Why hadn’t Captain Artunis received it?
Mihrab cleared his throat. Cyra gave him a quick nod. He said, “We thought you knew, but there’s been two failed assassination attempts.”
Artunis shot up, knocking her chair over. “What?”
“Unfortunately, it’s true, the first happened on our last night in Vialya and the second as we crossed the mountains.” Mihrab kept his voice cold and professional.
Artunis rubbed her forehead. “Alright, what happened?”
“One attacked used a bit of magic to try and sneak through the crowd of a ball Vialya held. Cyra caught him and eliminated him before he could do anything. He had no information, just that he was a man from Sardes.” Mihrab’s face tightened. “The second was an ambush, men from a variety of places, no information either. No magic this time. Cyra was the one who personally defended our shahdokht and the Prince Vitalis.”
Captain Artunis looked her over. Cyra kept her face forward and empty. “You’ve done well then. I see, its troubling Shahdokht Soray’s enemies have followed her so far. I’ll have to take another look at my security plan for the next few months.”
“Captain Artunis,” Cyra spoke up. The captain’s hard eyes landed on her. Cyra stiffened, but kept her gaze locked ahead. She didn’t understand why Vitalis was so keen on denying it, but she didn’t care. Someone wanted him dead, and if they succeeded on Sardes’ soil, it would be a disaster. That was why she was speaking up, not for any other reason. “The assassins were not after the shahdokht. They were after Prince Vitalis, captain.”
Artunis frowned. “You are certain?”
Vitalis’ guilt washed over her again. He’d been so positive Soray wouldn’t be hurt if he let himself be taken down. He’d been so horrified when he saw her get hurt. He didn’t just think it was his fault; he knew it like he knew his own name. Vitalis had known it beyond a shadow of a doubt those assassins were after him, and he used the chance to test if she would save his life.
Cyra’s face hardened as she nodded. “I saw it myself, captain. They had no interest in the shahdokht. Prince Vitalis was their target.”
“Thank you for this information, Cyra. I’ll have to give this matter some thought.” Artunis dropped into her chair. She started pulling papers towards her. “For now, though, to be safe, Mihrab, starting tomorrow, you’ll be the shahdokht’s personal guard. For your good work, Cyra, don’t worry about anything for right now. I’ll let you know in the morning where you’ll be next. I’ll likely have you on a rotating detail, but I need to figure out something for Prince Vitalis now, so that will change a few things.”
“As you wish, captain.” Mihrab bowed.
Cyra followed. “Thank you, captain.”
The pair left, stepping into the polished hallway. Paintings and carvings decorated the walls, weaving together Sardes’ long and proud history across the whole palace.
“Well, what are you going to do tonight?” Mihrab asked as they headed towards their rooms.
Cyra shrugged. “Rest, maybe, visit the garden, why?”
“I’m just going to say that you shouldn’t stay there too long.” Mihrab sent her a stern look.
Cyra pushed her hair back. “I assume you aren’t coming with me, when was the last time you ever went to the garden?”
“I don’t know how you do it. I always feel like I’m choking there. You spend far too much time there. It’s not healthy.” Mihrab shook his head.
“And pretending like it doesn’t exist and never happened is the healthy way to deal with it?” Cyra shot him a look.
“Like your morbid fascination is any better? No, even if I was inclined to ever visit the garden, I won’t tonight. I’m certain the shah will be holding a feast and celebration for Soray’s return. There’s more nobles and royalty in this palace than there’s been in years. They’re looking for any chance to indulge themselves.”
“And you want to be there just in case,” Cyra sighed. How typical of him. “Well, I won’t be the one to stop you. It’s one night you have to deal with them that I don’t.”
“You know, you’ll most likely end up guarding some of them, maybe even the Vialyan prince. You’ll be much happier if you just decide to try and get along.” Mihrab gave her a pointed look and patted her shoulder, patronizingly.
Cyra swatted him away, rolling her eyes.
* * *
Well, at least the shah knew how to throw a party. Cyra could see a large crowd pairing up to dance. Faint strains of music filtered through the air. Cyra had sprawled herself across the branches of her tree, taking breaths to keep her head clear. She propped her head up on one hand. She was in the only tree in the palace gardens; the same tree that stood in the center of her dreamscape. Being in the tree was almost second nature to her; she belonged there.
But did she want to be there? Cyra loved Soray like the grown sister she never had the pleasure of knowing. Cyra would lay her life down for her, but…
Dancing couples flitted by the window Cyra could just barely see from her positon.
What would she do about Ano? She hadn’t known, hadn’t ever expected him to burst into her life.
Cyra would spend the rest of her life serving Soray. It wouldn’t be a bad life, but Cyra was beginning to wonder if she would do it happily. Now that Cyra had been given a glimpse of what a life with Ano would be like in their stolen, strangely domestic moments, she couldn’t imagine giving that up for anyone.
But, she couldn’t marry him. He was nobility, practically royalty in his own right. He was far, far above her station. His tribe would expect him to marry better than some guard, especially one of the shah’s dogs, as many people so kindly referred to her and Mihrab as such.
Really, Cyra knew this already. Cyra was a rational person. She had been fully aware there was no happy end when she agreed to pursue the relationship. If she’d been using her head, she never would have agreed. Cyra wasn’t romantic, not until Ano changed everything.
Ano had just seen her in the shadows. He singled her out, and Cyra had never met anyone who noticed her like he had.
Really, who would talk to Cyra when Soray was around?
Cyra couldn’t hold ill feelings about it. It wasn’t Soray’s fault, and when it came down to it, Soray always chose Cyra.
It was just amazing to have someone see her past Soray. After that, things had just spiraled, and before Cyra could guard herself, Ano and snaked his way into her heart.
Cyra reached up, tugging at the arm band around her bicep. She pulled it off and held it in her hand. All the royal guards wore one, but Cyra and Mihrab’s were a little different. Theirs bore the shah’s personal crest as well. It let everyone know she was faintly related to the crown, almost branding her as the shah’s property. It was a formality. It was just the little gift the shah could give in honor of their family’s sacrifice for the true royalty.
There were days were it felt like less of an honor and more of a brand. It chained her to Soray’s side, reminding her it was her family’s duty to die so royalty may live.
Did she really want that to be her fate? Did she have a choice?
Cyra wondered for a moment, but then the realization hit her. If Ano asked, Cyra would throw it all away. If he told her they could be together for the rest of their lives, Cyra would gladly do anything, sacrifice anything, to be with him.
Soray was right.
If Cyra was in that position, heir to an empire, she would let it burn if it meant she could be with Ano.
Cyra caught a glimpse of Soray dancing. She was gone before Cyra got a look at her partner, but Cyra assumed it was Vitalis. She wouldn’t get in their way anymore. If Soray could find the kind of love Cyra had, then she deserved it. Soray deserved that happiness in her life more than most.
“I didn’t exactly take you for a tree climber, Cyra.”
Cyra shot up, hitting her head on a branch. Her control of her magic wavered and a her heart was smothered by a dark wave before she pushed it away. She wobbled on her seat, gaping at the man approaching her tree from the door leading back inside.
“Prince Vitalis?” Cyra rubbed her head. He’d just been dancing with Soray two seconds ago! Or, wait, had that been someone else?
“Every single time you act surprised,” Vitalis laughed. “Shouldn’t you be used to this by now?”
“What are you doing here?” Cyra asked as he slowed down, coming to a stop in front of the tree. He stepped back to look up at her.
“Looking for you, zvezda moya.” Vitalis took a step towards the tree.
“Don’t!” Cyra leapt down, stumbling as she threw herself out of the tree. She crashed through the branches as Vitalis stood dangerously close to the tree, close to touching it. Her feet hit the ground and she grabbed Vitalis hand, pulling it away. “Don’t touch the tree!”
“What? But you were just climbing it!” Vitalis said, looking back at it as Cyra pulled him away.
“Yes, because it’s already done its damage to me! Touching the Ruins’ Tree is a bad idea. If you touch it, it’s only a matter of time!” Cyra huffed, only stopping when Vitalis was a safe distance away.
“I’ve already paid the price. That tree can’t do me any more harm. You, however, would likely pay with your life.” Cyra kept her grip tight, so he could not move.
Cyra rolled her eyes. Apparently his Sardesi books had left this out. “The Ruins’ Tree was the only living thing left at the old palace after the Banishment War. It was uprooted and moved here to be some kind of arrogant symbol of victory or recovery, but they should have left it alone. The men who moved it, after it was planted again, none of them lived longer than a year after. And their families? Their wives and kids? All dead in the next two. That tree is cursed. Old shahs have tried to have it destroyed, but it never worked. There’s no blade sharp enough to cut it down, not when that thing is filled with demonic magic. Anyone who tried to destroy it mysteriously died within a week of their attempt. If you touch it, you’re cursed as well.”
“Most people believe that’s just superstition. All those people were recorded of dying from natural causes. It’s just a tree.” Vitalis shook his head.
“What do you know?” Cyra spat at him. “Is that what your books told you? Books written by those who have never seen this tree in person? Books by people who don’t have magic? Very few people ever come to this garden, and if they do they have the good sense to say away from that tree!”
He stared at her, studying her expression and posture.
“What happened to you?” Vitalis asked in a whisper.
“If I tell you, will you promise not to touch that tree?” Cyra’s grip on his arm tightened.
He didn’t even wince. “Yes.”
“I touched the tree because I was young and stupid and my mother’s back was turned. I could feel the dark magic around that tree, like some kind of suffocating, toxic fire. Not everyone is born with the good sense to stay away from what they know will hurt them. I was consumed by curiosity because I had never felt anything like it before. I was warned not to touch it, but I didn’t listen. The next day, the first assassination attempt on Soray’s life happened. Soray and I watched two people die, and several more died inside the palace. I’ve paid the price for touching the Ruins’ Tree. That’s why touching it doesn’t affect me. I’m safe from it, but you are not.” Cyra let go of Vitalis. She turned away so he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
“And you’re positive that wasn’t a coincidence? Just because you touched the tree doesn’t mean those deaths were your fault, that’s on the assassins.” Vitalis stepped towards her. “Just because it happened, doesn’t make you responsible.”
“You don’t know magic! You’re a Vialyan; what would you know of Sardes’ secrets?” Cyra shook her head, spitting out her words.
“Believe me, Cyra, I know quite a bit about Sardes’ secrets.” Vitalis took her arm, turning her back around to face him. He lowered his voice. He spoke softly, but there was something strange in his eyes. “There’s something I want to talk to you about. You have a lot of questions you’d like me to answer; I’m sure. If you’ll hear me out, I’ll answer your questions.”
Cyra jerked her arm out of his hand and began backing away. “Who are you, really?”
Vitalis took a step closer. Cyra narrowed her eyes. His gaze lowered and right when he was about to say something, a familiar voice shouted, “Cyra!”
Cyra looked around Vitalis, and what she saw made her forget about the Vialyan completely. She ducked around him and sprinted towards the voice. How long had it been since she had actually heard his voice in person? Cyra believed she could recognize it without even bothering to look.
Seconds later, Cyra laughed into his arms, pulling herself close to him. She buried her head in his neck, taking in the fact she could finally hold him again. “Ano!”
His arms slid around her waist, and he chuckled into her hair. Cyra griped the back of his shirt.
Cyra was content to stay like that the rest of her life, but someone cleared their throat behind her.
Cyra reluctantly loosened her grip and Ano let go of her completely. Heat flooded her face, and she stepped away, turning to see Vitalis frowning at them. His voice was cold. “I see you two know each other.”
With a deep breath, Cyra gestured to Ano, trying to compose herself. “Prince Vitalis, this is Anoshiruvan, heir to the Median tribe of Sardes. He’s a close childhood friend of Soray’s. I, uh, apologize for any uh, perceived misconduct. It’s been a while since I saw him, and I forgot myself.”
Cyra turned to Ano. “Ano, this is—”
“Oh, I know who this is. The great Prince Vitalis of Vialya. What an honor.” Ano smirked, taking a few steps forward. Cyra followed, sticking by his side. Her gaze kept flickering between them. She was a little worried, knowing how much Ano disliked Vitalis. Ano’s face was carefully sculpted into the perfect expression of dignified civility hiding intense dislike.
Vitalis didn’t seem to be fooled. “I’m glad to make your acquaintance. I’m sure we will be seeing a lot of each other if you’re to attend the trade negotiations and spend some time with your dear friends Shahdokht Soray and Cyra.”
Vitalis stopped in front of Ano, looking down at him as he was the tallest of them all. Ano peered at him for a moment, studying Vitalis’ gaze and analyzing his body language before smiling slyly. An arm slithered around her waist, pulling her to Ano’s side. “I can’t imagine I’ll be seeing you that much. I tend to stay rather occupied while I’m here.”
Vitalis stiffened when Cyra relaxed in Ano’s arms. Vitalis said, “I believe I will actually. The shahdokht and I have become good friends, and I consider Mihrab and Cyra to be as well. I will most certainly be around.”
Ano chuckled. Cyra frowned. What was he laughing about? What was happening between Ano and Vitalis? His grip on her painfully tightened, and Cyra covered up her wince. Ano said, “Not for too long though.”
“I have plenty of time in Sardes before negotiations are over. I’m not worried.” Vitalis clasped his hands behind his back. “I should go, there is a party going on. I don’t want to be missed.”
Vitalis bowed slightly, catching Cyra’s gaze. He seemed as though he was trying to tell her something, but Cyra had no idea what it was. His face fell for a moment before he turned and headed back to the palace.
His footsteps faded away, and Cyra wrapped her arms around Ano. Both of his hands found her waist, and his breath brushed her ear. “Would you like to dance?”
Cyra slid her chin onto his shoulder. She sighed as she held his shoulders. “Yes.”
It wasn’t really dancing for Cyra did not have the instruction or talent for such, but there was movement and music. It was enough. They began moving to the faint echoes of music from the palace. Over Ano’s shoulder, she could see Vitalis pause at the door and look back. She couldn’t quite make out his expression. She lifted her head slightly.
Ano spun her around, so she faced away from Vitalis. One hand ran up her spine, and she shivered, smiling. Ano’s head pulled back, looking past her for a moment before leaning down and sweeping her into a kiss. Cyra pulled him into her as his nails dug into her skin; she wanted to make sure there was no space between them. Their lips moved, and her hands crawled up and down his back. Heat shot through her, and everything began to glaze over. She was practically melting from Ano’s heat; every touch felt like midday in the desert sun during the height of summer.
Cyra was panting for breath when he pulled back, but he was smirking and still completely composed.
Wait, wasn’t there something important she’d meant to talk to him about?
Oh well. Cyra rested her head on Ano’s chest as he rubbed her shoulders. She would have time to remember it later.