While the shah knew how to entertain, he also knew how to get straight to business. The day after the celebration, the negotiations started.
Cyra reported to Artunis first thing in the morning and was assigned a boring day at the palace perimeter. She barely see anyone all day, much less anything noteworthy. Sardes was heating up as summer started, and Cyra could feel it all day. Cyra thought it might have been a reward for her work, letting her have an uneventful first day back, but Cyra would prefer to have a rough day than to be stuck in one spot all day.
It wasn’t until she had reported back to Artunis that anything happened.
She knocked on the door, wanting this to be quick as her head was pounding from the heat. She thought she heard muffled voices arguing inside, but if Artunis wanted her to come back later, she would tell her.
“Who is it?” Artunis called out from behind the door.
“Cyra, captain,” she called back, rubbing her neck.
There were a few more muffled phrases.
Cyra pushed the door open and absentmindedly stepped into the room before she froze completely.
“Cyra, thank goodness you’re here.”
Yes, Cyra was there because reporting back to Artunis for her next assignment was her job. Why was Vitalis there? Why was he everywhere?
Vitalis took her arm, pulling her toward towards Artunis. He said, “Tell Captain Artunis we don’t know who those assassins were after. I don’t need any extra security following me around all day!”
Cyra stiffened. Vitalis stopped and glanced at her, asking her another silent question. Cyra kept her eyes ahead and on Captain Artunis. “I told the captain those men were after you. It was the truth, sire.”
His hand fell away from her arm. “Why would you say that?”
“I am not in the habit of lying to my superiors or jeopardizing their safety.” Cyra balled her hands at her side. She turned slightly to look at him. “Prince Vitalis, you must see that you need protection from this. They have come after you twice now.”
“Now will you let me put together a few bodyguards for you?” Captain Artunis gave Cyra an approving nod.
“What?” Vitalis spun away from Cyra. “No! I will not have a group following me around, painting a larger target on my back! I refuse to have any more protection than the other delegates!”
“Other delegates brought their own bodyguards. You brought no one. I am afraid I can’t budge on this point. You need at least one bodyguard with you during the day.” Artunis leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.
“Yes?” Cyra glanced at Vitalis. He mirrored Artunis, puffing out his chest and crossing his arms.
“I’m sorry?” Artunis blinked.
“If you’re going to insist, then I insist as well. I insist the only bodyguard I will stand for is Cyra.” Vitalis turned back to her. His gaze pierced through her, rooting her. “She’s saved my life twice, took a blow for me. If I have to have someone, I want her.”
He wanted her? As his personal bodyguard?
“I can’t just do that,” Artunis argued. “There’s too many complications, chief of all being she’s been the shahdokht’s bodyguard for years, only ever leaving her side occasionally. Shahdokht Soray will be expecting her back within a few days.”
Cyra be his bodyguard? He had to be joking. She was the last person he should want around him!
“Then it’s no one.” He sounded so certain, so serious.
What was happening right before her eyes?
Vitalis caught her eye and held her gaze. Say yes, he was pleading. Say yes, please.
The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could even think about it. “I’ll do it.”
Too many questions. She’d always been too curious for anyone’s good. Just look at what it did with the Ruins’ Tree.
“Fine, I’ll find some way to make it work, but it won’t be for a day or two. I’ve already given out tomorrow’s assignments. Cyra will be protecting Anoshiruvan tomorrow at his father’s request.” Artunis rubbed her head, picking up her papers.
Ano? Why hadn’t he said anything the day before? Cyra’s heart leapt at the thought. Her mind began whirling, and she forgot about Vitalis until his voice crashed through her thoughts.
“Thank you,” he said. His face however was anything but grateful. His eyes darkened. Had Ano really left such a bad impression?
Well, Cyra supposed Ano hadn’t done a great job hiding his dislike of the Vialyan.
Vitalis left without another word. Cyra wondered what she just got herself into.
* * *
Cyra woke up with a grin already on her face. She was going to spend the entire day with Ano; she couldn’t ask for more. It had been such a struggle for so long to meet with him in her dreamscape and to arrange moments to be together when he was at the palace. For the last few years, Cyra had treasured every second like a drop of water in the summer desert. Cyra depended on them to survive, but she lived in the horrid uncertainty of how torturously long it would be until she could drink again.
Cyra fiddled with her hair more than usual before giving up on her curls and pulling all of it back out of her face. She wished she had the aptitude and talent to make her appearance better for Ano, but at least Cyra knew he wasn’t expecting her to be a beauty like Soray.
Once she had finished, she hurried to the guests’ quarters to wait for Ano, bowing and nodding to those she passed who were her superiors. Most of them gave her polite acknowledgement either because they saw her armband signifying her as the shah’s dog or they genuinely appreciated the service the royal guards did. Others ignored her, possibly for the same reason, she was the shah’s dog, and not everyone hid their derision for her. Being ignored was preferable. Cyra didn’t want too many people taking notice of her especially when she was going to be with Ano.
If people began suspecting something more than childhood friendship… well, Vitalis already knew. She’d forgotten herself, her place, the other night. She knew he’d seen them, but hoped he left before Ano kissed her. He might just think they were close friends if she was lucky.
If he had already guessed, Cyra would have to make sure he didn’t say anything. Cyra cursed herself and how her emotions ran away with her. With so many there at the palace, she’d have to be careful.
If word got to the shah or Ano’s father, it wouldn’t be pretty. Oh, or if Mihrab heard about it… he’d kill her.
Cyra leaned against the wall outside Ano’s door. Well, she was going to have ample opportunity to ask Vitalis to keep quiet starting the next day. She might finally get a few answers. And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. She could also use the chance to gauge his affections for Soray. What she would do with that, she didn’t know. She was still torn over the fact she wanted Soray to experience the same kind of happiness and love she herself had found, but still feared the consequences of Soray falling into such a politically messy match.
The door opened, and Anoshiruvan stepped out, smoothing his clothes down. He adjusted the strap on his bag. He spotted her and said, “Ah, my hero for the day.”
Cyra couldn’t help the grin on her face. “And just what am I saving you from?”
“Those boring meetings,” Ano said as they began walking. He led the way as she stuck close to his side.
“It’s been one day.” Cyra smiled and rolled her eyes. “You’re bored already?”
“Yes, honestly all they did was review the old treaties. I’m sure today they’ll be doing more of that.” Ano never paused or hesitated in his steps. He knew the palace almost as well as Soray did did. He knew where he was going, and Cyra was happy to follow. “I won’t be missing anything so don’t worry about me. We’re running an errand for my father anyway, so we are on official business.”
“So that’s why you need me, they weren’t about to let you out of the palace without a guard.” Cyra teased him as they headed towards the entrance to the palace.
“They wouldn’t listen when I told them I knew the city. They said something about precautions. I insisted that you would go with me then. No one else.”
Huh, hadn’t Vitalis said the same thing?
“So, I should be flattered?” Cyra asked as the palace doors were opened for them.
“Of course,” Ano said, stepping closer as the doors closed. They picked up their pace and Cyra enjoyed being able to brush her arm against his. “You know you’re my favorite. If I had to take anyone, I’d always take you.”
Cyra ducked her head. “Where are we going? What’s the errand?”
His arm snaked around her as they entered the crowd of the city. His head bent down, and he kept his voice quiet. “It’s not anything interesting, just giving someone a message. After we do this, we’ll have the rest of the day to ourselves. Doesn’t that sound more fun than your normal duties?”
“Maybe, but what do you want to do? It’s been a few years for you.” Cyra leaned into him, still keeping an eye on their surroundings.
“Don’t even worry about it. I know exactly where we’re going,” Ano said, easily navigating the busy, bustling streets. His hands slid to her waist. “Don’t you trust me?”
“With my life,” Cyra responded without a thought.
It wasn’t long until they found themselves leaving the bright, clean main roads and slipping through the dirtier, dangerous streets. Ano insisted they were just short cuts. Cyra accepted it, but her hands were never far from her daggers. She also slid her arm band off, tucking it away. Too many people could see the insignia and place her a more important than just a palace guard.
If the people at the palace didn’t like her, Cyra was certain there were many in the slums who wouldn’t hesitate to go after the shah’s dog.
She let Ano hold her like he was the one who would protect her, but Cyra only let him do so because it put her in the best position to protect him. The closer she was to him, the easier it would be to step in front and take the attack. Cyra feared someone might recognize him as the Median heir.
She trusted Ano, but why were they going this way? Cyra hadn’t known Ano was familiar with the darker streets. That was odd. Nothing good ever happened on these streets. What business did Ano’s father have there?
They finally stopped in front of the battered door to a decrepit building hidden in the corner of a street. Cyra frowned and whispered, “I trust you, but what are doing here?”
“Don’t worry, it’s just my father’s friend who has fallen on some bad luck.” Ano knocked on the door. “I’ve known him a long time, he’s not any kind of trouble. It’s just a quick meeting and we’ll be out of here soon, I promise.”
“Alright, if you’re sure you’re safe.” Cyra glanced over her shoulder. It had taken them the better part of the day to even get there.
The door creaked open and they were hurried inside by an older Sizian man. The man shut the door behind them. Cyra was forced to almost stand on top of Ano’s feet in the criminally cramped entry way. There was barely enough room for the three of them to stand before the staircase.
She resisted the urge to cover her nose and stare rudely at the horrible disgusting walls. Cyra was less worried about being attacked by anyone and more worried about the roof caving in and killing them all.
“Welcome, Lord Anoshiruvan. He’s already waiting for you.” The Sizian man gestured toward the stairs. Cyra wrapped one arm around herself. Something didn’t feel right. Her stomach turned.
“Come on, Cyra.”
And just like that, Ano’s voice pushed away her feeling. He pulled her up the stairs. He rapped on the door at the top, saying, “It’s me.”
“Enter,” a dark, gravelly voice said.
Ano pressed a quick kiss to her lips. “He’s not fond of strangers, so I have to go alone. Just stay right here. I’ll just be inside, perfectly safe.”
Cyra frowned, running her hands across his shoulders. “I will, but I don’t like this, Ano. Something feels off about this place.”
“I know him, don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” Ano dashed into the room. He was so fast, Cyra didn’t even get a glimpse of who was inside.
Cyra sighed and crossed her arms. She kept her eyes on the stairs to make sure no one surprised her, but her ears were straining to catch any noise from the room. Despite her effort, all she could pick up was a fair murmur and no words.
Cyra played with her necklace and leaned against the wall. She tilted her head, pressing her ear to the door. Every other word hit her ears.
“—failure! Complete failure—”
Wait, was that Ano?
“—tried—did everything—prepared—” That was another man. What were they talking about? Had this man failed some sort of task Ano’s father set?
“Excuses! I—stand for it—out of time.”
Out of time for what? Did it have to be finished before the negotiations?
“—handle it. We’ll do better—get the—out of the—no chance.”
Cyra couldn’t understand what they were talking about. She strained her ears further, focusing in on Ano’s voice.
“Good. The details are in there, and I’m going to make sure you don’t screw this up again. We’ve all got too much at stake here. If these… negotiations don’t go our way, you will be paying for it.”
Cyra pulled away from the door, schooling her surprise into neutrality. She’d never heard Ano so angry before. This was about more than checking on a family friend that was certain. Cyra assumed that this friend was supposed to have done something before the negotiations that was critical to Ano’s tribe and how they would be affected by the new agreements.
Why hadn’t he told her what was going on? Did he not trust her?
Cyra moved away from the door when she heard them shuffle around. She forced her face to relax out of worry. She didn’t want to imagine Ano’s reaction if he found out she’d been eavesdropping.
The door opened, and Ano quickly slammed it after him. His hands were balled and just slightly shaking. His shoulders were tensed. Cyra shivered at the boiling rage he was hiding under his expression.
“Did it go poorly?” Cyra whispered as they hurried down the steps. Ano stomped so hard each step shook dangerously below them.
Ano flew out the front door without a word to the servant. Cyra gave the man a short, polite nod before rushing after him into the streets. Ano’s hand snatched her arm, pulling her to him. “It went as well as I expected. It doesn’t matter.”
Ano’s shoulders relaxed as Cyra slid her arm around him and fit herself to his side. She enjoy the warmth shooting up her side from his touch. Ano smiled, leaning his head down to say, “Now, I know just the place to spend the rest of our day.”
“Is it a surprise?” Cyra grinned.
“One of many,” Ano chuckled.
They found their way back to the main streets, and Cyra could breathe easier. It also meant she had to take a few steps away from Ano in case someone noticed them. Cyra accepted it with the knowledge they were safer at least.
They stopped by the busiest section of the city, the market place square. Cyra only ever went there with Soray, but she was content to let Ano lead. They made a quick stop where Ano bought a few items and had them wrapped up before Cyra could see. When she’d asked, he just shook his head, telling her it was a surprise and not to worry.
Just how many times was he going to say that?
After Ano had gathered everything, he grabbed Cyra’s hand. Cyra caught his eye, and Ano looked years younger. Any traces of the weight and anger from earlier were gone. His eyes sparkled and his teeth flashed. He started running, pulling her along.
Cyra’s breath was taken away by the thought of how carefree and youthful he was acting. Cyra beamed. It was almost like they were seventeen again, when they had first started this. Cyra had known Ano her whole life, but it wasn’t until she turned seventeen that she and Ano really became anything.
It wasn’t long before Cyra figured out where he was taking her, and when she did, she began running even faster. They ducked through the city until they reached the fringes of it. It was an old dried up part of town where the desert sand was slowly creeping in. Very few people bothered staying there for long. Not even the Median or criminals came there. Everyone had forgotten about it.
It was such a small section anyway. If someone wasn’t paying attention they could walk through it in seconds and never notice.
For as long as she had known about it, Cyra considered it her favorite section of town.
As they stumbled to a stop, Cyra leaned against the dried well, huffing and heaving to catch her breath.
Ano wheezed with laughter, bending over. “I don’t remember the last time I’d done something like that.”
“Me either.” Cyra pushed herself off the well.
“Well, we’re not there yet. You alright to do a little climbing?” Ano nudged her.
“Oh, don’t you try to make it sound like that.” Cyra smirked. “I found this place first and showed it to you. I’m always ready to climb.”
Without waiting, Cyra vaulted over the wall and into the well. It took only a few seconds and few perfectly utilized handholds, and she was at the bottom. She yelled up, “Don’t take all day now!”
“I’m coming, remember I’m the one carrying stuff,” Ano said.
Cyra watched him carefully climb over and slowly make his way down. Cyra wondered if would have been easier to carry him down herself. How heavy was he? She could probably do it.
When he finally joined her, they quickly uncovered the entrance to a network of tunnels. Ano dug through his bag, pulling out and lighting an oil lamp. He gestured and said, “Bodyguards first.”
Cyra snorted and rolled her eyes as she ducked down into the tunnels. She was careful to avoid bumping into the tunnels walls. There were quite a few spots where the walls were weak, and any pressure could cause the tunnel to cave in.
They walked in a comfortable silence. They’d made the trips so many times, they had run out of things to say. Cyra had shown him this years ago after he had begun pursuing her. She remember that day so well. It was the first time Ano, or anyone, in her entire life, had sought her out first and wanted her attention rather than Soray’s. When they were kids, Ano had hardly spared her a second glance, but he wasn’t exactly keen to be forced to spend time with girls rather than other boys, as Soray had no interest in any of the things Ano did. Cyra had always stayed in the background. Cyra hadn’t even thought Ano knew she existed until he suddenly turned all of his attention to her when they were older.
The day Cyra showed him the well was also the day Ano confided in her that he had magic as well.
While magic was common, accepted, even encouraged at times, it was still best not to advertise such a fact. Having magic gave warriors and nobility alike an edge. Most Sardesi only shared their gifts with those they trust and are close to in order to keep the element of surprise on their side if they were attacked. Sometimes, circumstances like emergencies caused them to reveal it more than they would like, for example when Mihrab revealed they both had magic to the Vialyans. It was necessary, but if Mihrab and Cyra could have avoided the Vialyan nobility knowing about their abilities, they would have.
Ano telling her that was a huge sign of trust, and in return, Cyra shared her magic with him. She also knew there was a place she had to show him.
After winding their way through the complicated mess, Cyra stepped out into a large cavern where a small stream trickled through the stone. A calming, welcoming air of magic enveloped her. This place had the strangest sense of magic she’d ever felt in her entire life. Cyra had never been able to find out what the cavern really was of why it existed. Cyra had just found it and kept it to herself and Ano.
Anyone who had magic would revel in it. Cyra just couldn’t really explain it to someone who didn’t have magic. The cavern just felt like home.
Sharing it with Ano had been sharing part of her she’d never shared before. The cavern was their spot when Ano was in Shiraz, and her dreamscape was their spot when he wasn’t.
They settled down in the middle of the cavern. Ano laid out a blanket and set the lamp by their side. They sat across from each other, and Ano put his bag between them. Cyra tucked her legs underneath her, and pushed her hair back.
“Now, are you going to show me what’s in the bag?” Cyra leaned forward.
Ano leaned forward as well and began pulling out two cups and a bottle of wine. He also pulled out several rarer fruits and pastries. She spotted her favorite among the bunch, with only one of it. It always surprised Cyra he remembered her favorite.
As he casually put together everything, heat rushed to her face. No one had ever done something like this for her. He was almost too perfect. “A romantic picnic? This isn’t what I expected from you. It’s a good surprise though.”
“Does that mean you don’t think of me as romantic? I am appalled by the insinuation,” Ano laughed. He poured the wine and said, “I’ll just have to prove you wrong about me.”
Cyra took a sip, smiling. “You already have.”
Their conversation dissolved into small talk, catching up with each other. Ano told her several stories about where his tribe had traveled recently. He mentioned all his favorite things about each place, talking about the local nobility and how they had treated his tribe. Apparently a Lord Bellum who sounded vaguely familiar was extremely accommodating, possibly even more so than the shah during the negotiations. In his lifetime, Ano had seen nearly all of the empire. Cyra couldn’t help the building desire to see it all with him. He also talked about his father who had recently been giving Ano more responsibility in the tribe.
Cyra assumed that was why he’d been acting a little odd that day. Stress could change people. The negotiations must be hard on him. He had a tribe to look after. What happened with the treaties and trade deals could deeply affect him and his people.
“Well, I’ve told all. Really, I have. The life of a nomad is only so interesting,” Ano said finishing his glass. He set it down and leaned on his hand. “What about you? Tell me, is that foreigner still after Soray or did you succeed?”
Cyra sat up straighter. The wine in her mouth turned bitter and sour. She supposed it was better to do this now rather than surprise Ano the next day. She set her glass aside. She carefully said, “I don’t know, actually. Also, upon reflection, I don’t think I should interfere.”
“What?” Ano jolted forward. His eyes darkened. “But you were so against it, against him. A relationship between them would be an unmitigated disaster!”
“I came to the realization the other day.” Cyra lowered her eyes to her hands. It was time she said it to Ano. They’d been together for years, surely she could say this. “I cannot tell if Prince Vitalis is interested in her, but I know Soray is quickly coming to admire him. I realized that I want her to find the same kind of love…the same kind of love I have.”
Cyra snuck a glance up to see his reaction. His face was unreadable. Her heartbeat raced and she quickly continued. “If she can find that with Prince Vitalis, I couldn’t possibly stand in their way. Prince Vitalis, he is not so very awful. I do not think he would purposefully hurt Soray or have bad intentions towards her. I don’t think he’s a bad man like you’ve heard in your rumors.”
“And what exactly brought this on?” Ano’s voice was cold. “What did he want with you last night in the garden?”
Cyra frowned. Was Ano not going to say it back? “I don’t know. He said something about looking for me, but not why. He wasn’t there long before you showed up and took all my attention.”
“Why would a prince leave a ball nearly in his honor to talk to you? It can’t have been good. His family has done some awful things, Cyra.” Ano took her head.
Cyra rubbed her thumb across the back of his hand. She couldn’t help but feel slightly insulted, but forced herself to look past it. Ano certainly couldn’t have meant it to sound so rude. He was just worried. He should believe her when she explained her firsthand experience with Vitalis. “You didn’t see how upset he was when I took that blow. He was annoyingly worried about me and ridiculously grateful. If you got to know him a little, you would see, he’s not, well, I wouldn’t call him harmless, but he’s certainly not here to hurt Soray. I actually think he and Soray would be happy together.”
“I’m afraid I’ll be a little bit too busy with these negotiations to be making friends with the Vialyan.” Ano pulled his hand out from hers.
Cyra wrapped her arms around herself. Her heart dropped. “Will you have time for me?”
Ano blinked and hurriedly said, “Of course I will.”
He opened his arms and Cyra threw herself into his embrace. She wrapped her arms around his waist as he pulled her close. She muttered into his shoulder. “I don’t want to fight over him, but there is one more thing I should tell you.”
Ano’s head pulled back. “What is it?”
Cyra tightened her grip. “Because of these assassination attempts, Captain Artunis has appointed me to be Prince Vitalis’ bodyguard.”
Ano’s grip painfully tightened. His nails sharply pierced her arms as he moved her so he was staring into her eyes. “Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me nothing will happen. Promise you won’t put his life above your own.”
“I promise,” Cyra whispered, sealing it with a short kiss. “I love you too much for him to come between us. Please, trust me.”
Ano sighed. He leaned back, pulling out one last item from his bag. He pressed it into her hands. “I got you something, a present.”
Cyra adjusted so she was more comfortably sitting his lap as she opened the box. Inside it sat two simple yet elegant metal bracelets. Heat flushed her face as she took them out. She just wasn’t used to being given gifts and a lot of affection.
With a brilliant grin, Cyra slid them on and kissed him again. His arms snaked across her waist, pulling her close as they deepened the kiss. Her hands wound their way through his hair. Any other thoughts in her head were gone. Anoshiruvan was all that mattered.
When she reluctantly pulled away, catching her breath, Cyra knew more than ever that this was it. Ano was all she wanted. If he ever offered her a chance to be with him, no matter what it meant for her, she would take it with no hesitation.
She rested her head on his chest, enjoying the heat rolling off him. The magic in the cavern swelled around them. Cyra wanted every day to be like this. She just wanted him.