The next morning, Cyra proudly slid her bracelets on her wrists and clasped her arm band around her bicep. She didn’t intend on taking her new jewelry off if she could help it. Not even Mihrab had ever given her jewelry, for Ano to do it… it meant a lot to her.
This morning, however, Cyra waited further down the guest quarters, outside of Vitalis’ room. She had no idea when he would be out, so she spent the time remembering her day with Ano.
They’d spent more time in the cavern just enjoying the silence, the magic, and the company. Although, it wasn’t long until Cyra didn’t quite feel right. Her stomach turned, and Ano quickly helped her out of the well and back home. Cyra had no idea what had been wrong with her. Once she woke up in the morning, she felt fine. It was all rather odd. All she could think was maybe something she ate, but that couldn’t be possible as Ano had brought everything and eaten all the same things.
Cyra had just written it off as an odd occurrence when Vitalis stepped out into the hallway. Upon seeing her, his face brightened. He inclined his head, saying, “I’m glad to see you here.”
“I said I would be your bodyguard, so here I am, sire.” Cyra bowed, keeping her voice cool and formal. If she didn’t want anyone finding out about Ano, even worse would be people thinking she was friendly with the Vialyan prince.
Vitalis chuckled and shook his head. They began walking towards the council rooms. He lowered his voice and said, “I’m afraid we’ve got a boring day ahead. We’ll be in the negotiations all day, so our long awaited talk won’t be until later.”
Cyra stiffened. Was she really so transparent to him? “I’m afraid I do not know to what you’re referring to, sire. I am your bodyguard, your servant. We can have nothing to discuss other than your safety.”
Vitalis leaned in slightly to make sure she was the only one who could hear him. “I know you’re not as brainless as you let others think. You’ve noticed how I’ve been trying to have a private conversation with you since you saved my life. You have questions for me; you admitted as such. You’ve noticed how a few things just aren’t quite adding up where I am concerned.”
Cyra remained silent. Vitalis moved even closer, his arm brushing hers. “Now that you’re rather stuck with me, we will be having that discussion. And, for what it’s worth, I’m very happy you agreed to be my bodyguard. I have every confidence in you and your abilities.”
They reached the doors, and Cyra still gave no response. Her mind was far too occupied with his words for her to give a response.
He stepped away from her, putting space back between them. Vitalis watched the door open. Cyra just barely caught what he muttered in his own tongue, “And into the lions’ den we go, zvezda moya.”
Cyra stayed a step behind him, but could still see his face as he cleared any every emotion on his face. Cyra realized she had seen this before as he stepped into the room. His steps echoed around the room as the diplomats looked up from their papers. He held his head high, and Cyra noticed he was easily the youngest man in the room. His eyes were cold, and his face hardened.
Iron ran in his blood.
Cyra fell into step behind him, adopting his countenance. She was no noble or royal, but she knew the court. For whatever reason, Vitalis had come to Sardes alone, choosing not to bring any advisors or his own guards. Some would consider this to be the highest compliment to Sardes, trusting them to protect him from threats both in and outside the council room walls. Others might see it as a sign of weakness that Vialya couldn’t afford to send anyone other than their inexperienced, untested heir. Still, a few might think it a display of arrogance for him to protect himself and represent his country’s interests alone. All options considered, Vitalis would find few friends there.
However, Sardes was not taking his situation lightly, as evidenced by her presence. Cyra kept a step behind him, but was clearly aligned with him. Her own expression was much tougher and fiercer. Her presence didn’t just protect him from assassins. Her presence gave him the official backing of Sardes. Quite a few of the other lords and diplomats would recognize her as the shah’s dog, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out what the special engraving on her armband meant. Cyra stabilized Vitalis’ position among all the others. Trying to mess with him now meant indirectly going against Sardes, an offense no country could afford to commit at the moment.
Vitalis took his seat, and Cyra stood behind his chair, surveying the room.
Yet… something didn’t make sense. Vitalis had been adamantly refusing a bodyguard. He didn’t want one period, but any Sardesi guard would have provided him a similar advantage, maybe not one as strong, but still a close alliance. Why didn’t he want it?
He had accepted it and was taking advantage of it. However, if he had gotten his way, he would be alone and friendless.
Cyra’s narrowed eyes told everyone around this man was under her protection. If any of them were involved with whatever those assassination attempts had been about, they certainly knew how she was no opponent to be trifled with.
Several others trickled into the room, one of which was Ano. Her breath hitched, and at the sound, Vitalis’ hand twitched. He lifted his head, and he stiffened.
Ano inclined his heard toward them before taking his own seat beside his father. Vitalis merely drummed his fingers on the table in response. Cyra kept her mind on her task. As much as wanted to stare at Ano, she knew today was no time to daydream.
Every breath she took and every move she made would be a reflection of Vitalis’ standing with Sardes. She steeled herself for the long day ahead.
* * *
The sun had set, and the meeting adjourned. Cyra had remained stoic and strong throughout it all, but on the inside she had been rather confused and bored. Almost nothing had been accomplished. The entire day had been spent listening to the Sizian delegate review their expired treaties and the ones still standing. It would really take months for anything to be accomplished.
It had, however, been important for Vitalis. Her presence changed the way people looked at him and spoke to him. Cyra couldn’t help but be a little pleased she had been the cause.
Once the meetings were over, Vitalis had left without pausing to engage in any of the pretense of small talk. They were the first out of the room, and Cyra barely had a chance to shoot Ano an apologetic glance before hurrying after the prince.
She stayed close to him again. She whispered, “Are you alright, sire?”
Vitalis slowed his pace and rolled his shoulders back. He turned his head towards her. “Yes, just anxious to talk to you alone.”
Cyra just nodded. He would glance back at her every so often as if expecting her to say something. Cyra only kept her eyes ahead.
When they reached his room, he looked to see if they were alone in the hallway. Then, he pushed the door open, grabbed her hand, and pulled her inside.
Cyra’s mind spun for a moment as Vitalis shut and locked the door. He spent the next few moments looking in every possible hiding place, but no secret enemies appeared.
Vitalis got back to his feet after checking under the desk. He caught his breath and turned back to her. “Sorry about that. I can’t afford for anyone else to hear this.”
Couldn’t afford to hear what? Cyra recalled what she had seen and felt in his mind that night. He was hiding something, and it had been something important, something dark. Was this it?
Wait, Vitalis was about to tell her something he wasn’t going to tell anyone else. He couldn’t risk having anyone hear it, but he was going to tell her? Really? Answer questions, sure, Cyra could accept that, but tell her, honestly someone who was not much better than a stranger, his darkest secret?
Something must be very wrong.
Cyra rubbed her forehead. “What is happening?”
“I promise that I will tell you everything, answer every question with complete honesty and sincerity. I will keep no more secrets from you, but I have to ask you something first.” Vitalis led her away from the door and offered her a seat in front of the desk. Cyra took it, and Vitalis pulled up another chair to sit across from her. He held her gaze, and Cyra wondered at the stranger before her. “Before I can tell you anything, I need you to promise, to swear on your life that what I tell you stays between us. You can’t tell anyone else, not your brother, not the shahdokht, and certainly not Anoshiruvan or anyone else at court.”
Cyra took a deep breath. Vitalis took her hand and held it loosely. Cyra narrowed her eyes at him, studying him. Vitalis, who was he? What would she be committing to if she heard him out?
He wasn’t a bad man; Cyra was certain. She defended him to Ano. But had she been right to do so? Was he a good man? How could she know?
Cyra looked in his eyes. He was… was he begging? Yes, he was pleading with her.
Her heart twisted in her chest. The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop to think. She said, “I swear on my life to keep your confidence.”
Vitalis’ face lit up so bright that Cyra nearly winced like she would looking at the sun.
“Thank you.” He smiled and shook his head. “I’ve been imaging this conversation for a while, but now that you’re here I’m afraid I don’t know where to begin.”
“Tell me what I have to do with this,” Cyra said, leaning forward. “Why is it me you have chosen to confide in?”
“You saved my life,” Vitalis instantly replied.
Cyra quirked an eyebrow. “You mean I passed your test.”
Vitalis nodded, pulling her hand closer and turning her arm so he could see the faint scar left from the blow. “I did mean to test you, but I don’t know how you figured it out. Those assassins were after me, and I needed to know if I could rely on you to protect me even if you didn’t like me. I never meant for you to get hurt, just for you to try and help me. I’m so sorry.”
“It is forgiven, and know that I consider it my duty to have done it, and I would do it again.” Cyra pulled her hand away so he wouldn’t have to look at it. “Tell me, why test me? You had to know regardless of whether or not I like or dislike you, I would not let you die. Any royal guard would have done the same. Sacrificing our lives to protect you is considered an honor.”
“A royal guard would save me, yes, but someone who is in league with a demonic cult, would not,” Vitalis said softly.
What? She must not have heard that right, but Cyra knew she had.
Cyra stiffened. “You thought I was involved with some sort of cult?”
Vitalis shook his head. His face grew serious, and the air in the room changed. “No, well, yes, sorry, let me explain myself. I’m not here just for the negotiations. I was asked to personally come and investigate a cult that has recently and slowly been appearing in Sardes. A cult that is believed to be centered on the demons in the Underneath, or even demons who have hosts on the Surface. In the recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in people of the lower classes going missing, possibly even being kidnapped or drawn into this cult. There have also been several deaths that were covered up from the public that could be pointing to this cult as well. I was asked to come because I could be impartial in my investigation. I had to, and still have to consider that anyone could be involved in this cult. I could not afford to rule out anyone, including Shahdokht Soray, Mihrab, or yourself immediately.”
Cyra sat back, slowly working through this groundbreaking revelation. A demonic cult? In Sardes? Surely this wasn’t possible. Cyra sputtered, “Who asked you to come? You’re a foreign prince!”
“The shah himself, actually.” Vitalis leaned his arms on his knees, propping his head up, “He sent word a while ago that he has been struggling to find and destroy a dangerous cult that he fears is gaining traction across the empire. He fears a demon may actually be at the heart of the operation, and his followers even here in the palace. The shah believes the cult may be using the negotiations as an opportunity to further grow their roots into the capital.”
“The shah reached out to you?” Cyra held her head. “About a secret cult? Who else knows about this?”
“As far as I know, the shah has been keeping this between himself and only the advisers he trusts with his life, including me and you, only five or six people know at most. Here, I have the letter from the shah with his seal on it. I have had this for the past six months and it has not left my side.” Vitalis took a letter out from his coat, carefully unfolding it and passing it to her.
Cyra took it and checked the shah’s seal. After a moment of careful inspection, Cyra was certain it was real. It was the exact same symbol that branded her arm. It was close to impossible to fake, and Cyra would be able to spot a fake if she saw one. As she began reading, she had no doubts the letter was legitimate. It confirmed what Vitalis had said. The shah had written, asking for his assistance, hoping his country’s history with demons, and Vitalis’ own rising reputation would be able to help provide him with answers.
With a deep breath, she passed the letter back. “Alright, so you’ve come here with a secret purpose of exposing the leader, possibly an actual demon, which by the way, sounds ridiculous, of a cult? You tested me to prove that I wasn’t aligned with this cult, who I assume are the ones sending assassins after you? This actually answers a few of my questions like why you were so weird back in Vialya, not just talking to me, but arguing with your mother about how you had to go. Also, your whole denial about the assassins and bodyguard argument makes sense. But I’m sorry, I still don’t understand, what do I have to do with all of this?”
“I trust you.”
The words sent a pleasant warm hum to her heart. It was nice to hear those words even if it wasn’t coming from Ano.
“I need someone who can help me. The shah and I decided it would be best to keep our distance and not appear to be too close for his protection and Soray’s. However, if I am to track down this cult, I need someone with knowledge of Sardes, knowledge that only comes by having grown up here. Magic is yet another quality I lack. Going up against a demonic cult is reckless, to do it without magic is suicide. Thus, my requirements were born.” Vitalis gestured to her.
Cyra blinked and was about to interrupt when he said, “You, zvezda, know Sardes, have magic, have the shah’s approval, and have my trust. I need your help.”
“You want me to help you? That’s what you’ve been trying to ask me all this time? That night in the garden?” Cyra frowned. Her, of all people? Really?
“Yes, but we were interrupted. You’re a hard woman to get a moment alone with.” Vitalis smirked.
“Why not Mihrab? You spent far more time with him that you did me.” Cyra rose to her feet.
“He’s not the one who ran to my defense, taking that blow for me. If may not mean anything to you, but it means everything to me.” Vitalis rose to his feet as well. “You did that, and you don’t even like me. What more would you do for the people you do care about? What more could I ask for in a bodyguard?”
“Alright,” Cyra said, pacing. She pushed her hair back, breathing deeply. “What happens if, if, I agree?”
“I share with you everything I know and have figured out. You tell me about your magic. Then, we make a plan. We’ll figure out who here at court is part of this cult, and someone must be, this cult could never have grown like it has without someone of political power supporting it.” Vitalis gently caught her shoulder, stopping her, “So, what’s your answer?”
“Answer one question first,” Cyra said, turning to stare into his eyes. “What are your intentions towards Soray?”
Vitalis stared at her blankly. “Soray? My intentions? What intentions?”
Was he really so obtuse? Cyra rubbed her head and spelled it out for him.“Soray’s fond of you. Do you admire her? Have any intentions of pursuing her?”
Comprehension flashed through his face. Vitalis shook his head. “No, no, the thought didn’t occur to me. Shahdokht Soray is lovely, but I only admire her as a friend. I assure you that I’m not here to try and seek a marriage alliance with her.”
While Cyra was relieved Soray wouldn’t have to make the decision between Vitalis and Sardes, her heart sank for Soray. Cyra certainly didn’t want this news to hurt her either. “Please, then, if you have no intentions of anything more than friendship, be careful. Don’t get her hopes up.”
“You have my word. The last thing I want if for anyone, Soray included, to be hurt because of me.” Vitalis took a step closer.
“Now, will you tell me your answer?”
Cyra looked up at him. The intensity in his eyes sent shivers down her spine. She nodded. “I will help you.”
She was making the right choice, wasn’t she?
Vitalis beamed brighter than the desert sun. He offered her his hand. Cyra hesitantly took it. They shook hands, and her fate was sealed.
Cyra got the same dark, suffocating feeling from this that she always got when she touched the Ruins’ Tree. Someone was going to end up hurt, or worse, dead before all was said and done.
But, she trusted him. It was insanity, everything he had just told her, but she believed him. This was important. Worse would happen to everyone in Sardes if this cult kept rising in power. This was something they had to do.