Cyra’s head stayed down so no one could identify her. Her hair hid her face from view. She slunk against the wall, and she was dressed in dark simple clothing. Vitalis was nowhere around. Only a few people were in the halls.
Vitalis had agreed with her plan. They didn’t want anyone to connect her or the prince with that they were doing. It had surprised her how quickly and easily she was able to work with Vitalis once she got past all the intrigue. It had only taken a few days for the two of them to run through all of Vitalis’ notes and come up with a plan to proceed.
A hand snatched her arm and pulled her into an alcove. Arms encircled her waist, and a head landed on her shoulder.
“Ano? What are you doing?” Cyra whispered as she tried to pull away. She had a job to do. Whatever this was needed would have to wait.
“I’ve barely seen you these last few days. Vitalis has been keeping you attached to his hip. This is the first time I’ve seen you alone,” Ano said, running a hand down her arm.
“Ano, I can’t stay. The prince is waiting on me.” Cyra grabbed his hands and pried them off her. She hurried out of the alcove. Cyra threw him a wistful glance. “I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. This is just really important.”
Ano sent her a hurt look. Cyra sighed. She quickly kissed his cheek, saying, “I will make it up to you. I love you.”
He pressed a small box into her hands. She glanced down. A pastry?
Ano said, “It’s your favorite, right?”
Cyra beamed. “You’re too kind.”
She quickly and carefully put the box in her bag, hoping it wouldn’t get crushed. With a wave, she hurried away, knowing she had to make up the time she just lost.
Cyra entered the servants hallway, making sure no one was there in case they saw her. She found the room she was looking for and pressed her ear against the door. Silence was all that greeted her.
Good, Vitalis was still distracting their target. Cyra had been surprised when he had told her who he wanted to investigate. He was no one of any particular note. He was just one of the lower lords who rules a small section of land near the desert. Lord Belum was no one anyone at the negotiations would care about. However, Vitalis had his reasons, and Cyra accepted them.
Cyra opened the door and stepped into the room. She wasted no time looking around. If there was anything to find, it would be in his papers. She wasn’t sure how long she had, maybe an hour at the most. It all depended on how good Vitalis was at keeping Belum occupied.
Cyra began carefully examining Lord Belum’s records. It was all seemingly mundane, just boring financial accounts. Simple things like taxes, crops and their profits, merchant agreements, the minute.
She pulled out a blank sheet and copied down a few statements. Vitalis told her to be thorough. She noted the amount in taxes he reported to the shah and things like that. She paused when she saw a mention of Ano’s tribe coming to the area, participating in trade with Lord Belum. She jotted it down sure it was nothing as she included the names of the other trade caravans and merchants. It was just for the sake of being thorough.
She moved onto another financial report, putting away the merchant record exactly where she found it. She glanced over the next report, finding nothing of note. She was about to put it back when the numbers clicked. The numbers on this sheet didn’t add up to what he had reported to the shah.
Cyra copied down the document precisely. The faint sound of footsteps hit her ears. She finished writing the last numbers. She blew on the ink to dry it before she put eh notes in her bag. She put the original files back, taking a moment to ensure the desk looked exactly as she found it.
Vitalis voice was muffled by the walls and door.
It was time to go. She sprinted towards the servants’ door and dashed through it, hearing the main door begin to creak. She carefully clicked the door shut, believing he hadn’t been able to see it.
She didn’t stay to find out. She silently rushed through the hallway, keeping a hand on her bag. She returned to the main halls, fingering the edge of the papers she had.
Her heartbeat rung in her ears. Maybe Vitalis really was onto something. Maybe it was nothing. Still, there was a chance Vitalis was right about Lord Belum. How had he figured it out? The prince seemed to be continually surprising her, especially in terms of his intelligence.
She no longer wondered why the shah contacted him of all people.
Cyra met up with him in the hallway outside of his room. Vitalis kept his composure, only nodding to acknowledge her presence.
Cyra bowed in return, shifting her bag. A smile flickered on his face as she unlocked his door. Cyra stepped inside after him. He locked the door and quickly checked the room to ensure they were alone.
Cyra had also learned he was paranoid about everything that didn’t involve his physical safety.
Vitalis turned to her, asking, “What did you find?”
Cyra reached into her bag and handed him the files she copied. “Nothing revolutionary, just some numbers that don’t make sense. Take a look for yourself, prince.”
Vitalis set the files on his desk and took a seat. Cyra stood at his shoulder, watching him work through her notes. He picked up his own ink, making notes in his native language. Cyra frowned when he took noticed of the names of the merchant, including Ano’s tribe.
“Is Lord Belum’s land a frequent stop for the Median tribe?” Vitalis looked up at her.
Cyra nodded. “Lord’s Belum’s land is next to the desert. The Median tribe likes to travel through the desert at times as a shortcut. They often stop for supplies in Lord Belum’s lands.”
“I see,” Vitalis said, drumming his fingers. “And is it annual? Do they always visit Lord Belum in the winter?”
Cyra peered at her notes, hovering over Vitalis to do so. “No, it’s not typically annual or in the winter. Their route probably changed to accommodate the trip to Shiraz.”
“That would be the assumption. You’re certainly…” Vitalis hummed, pausing to clear his throat, “close to Anoshiruvan. Has he mentioned anything eventful about the visit?”
Cyra narrowed her eyes. “No, he has not. It was uneventful, just a normal stop. Why are you focusing on him? You don’t think—”
“No, no,” Vitalis sighed, moving onto the numbers. “Just forget it. It was an unfounded suspicion.”
Cyra relaxed, satisfied. Whatever thought Vitalis had that convinced him to ask was brushed away. If Vitalis had good reasoning and evidence, surely he would have argued his case, but he couldn’t possibly have anything. They had only begun looking for evidence that day! Cyra feared Vitalis’ dislike of Ano was the cause. Vitalis needed to be careful; he couldn’t just accuse anyone he didn’t like of being involved with a cult. As a foreigner in the shah’s court, he would have to have hard proof for the shah before he could accuse one of Sardes’ own. A false accusation could lead to war for his country.
“These numbers can’t right. There’s far too much coin missing for this to a bookkeeping error.” Vitalis pulled out his own paper, scratching a few figures into it. “What did he do with it? There’s nearly thousands missing. That’s quite a figure for him. It’s possible he’s kept it for his own profit, what do you think?”
“Lord Belum? I would doubt it. He’s got no spine. I’ve watched him simper and grovel before the shah my entire life. His family has a history of not being fond of our dynasty.” Cyra leaned back, crossing her arms. “I don’t know if this was put in any of your history books on Sardes, but after the Banishment War and our dynasty rose to power several of the noble families were displaced. The families who had the most control and power like Belum’s became insignificant because they were a threat to our power.”
Cyra rubbed her neck, thinking about how to best explain the delicate political climate that had been building for hundreds of years. “Resentment grows and festers. The Belums never regained their status, and a large part of that was because of their close relationship to the old dynasty. Lord Belum resents the shah, but is too afraid of losing his meagre standing to lie about something like that, not for his own profit. He would only do it if there was someone else who, somehow, was holding more sway over him. Someone with more power over him that can intimidate him.”
“Or promising him something,” Vitalis said, leaning his head back to look at her.
“What do you mean?” Cyra bent over the arm of his chair, looking him in the eye. “Are you implying Lord Belum is funding the cult because they made a promise to reward him?”
“You implied it first.” Vitalis raised an eyebrow and smirked. “I’m afraid we can’t know until we figure out exactly where these funds went.”
“You mean he didn’t politely ask if you wanted in on the deal during your chat?” Cyra asked with a small smile.
“No, poor man seemed quite uncomfortable with me,” Vitalis laughed. He paused, and his tone turned serious. “I believe you’re going to have to live up to the expectations the shah gave me. I think it’s time you demonstrate this particular type of magic you have. The shah described it as the kind that allows you to know a man’s darkest secrets.”
“You might not like what I can do.” Cyra warned him, stepping back.
Cyra took a deep breath. It was best to be honest with him. “Because I’ve used it on you.”
Vitalis face fell; he pushed his chair back. As he crossed his arms, his eyes hardened. He clenched his fists, and Cyra could almost feel the anger rolling off him. “Explain.”
“For someone without magic, perhaps a demonstration would be better.” Cyra straightened her shoulders. He could be angry with her all he liked. She couldn’t blame him. She had gone into his mind without his permission; she would not forgive herself in his place. “Are you feeling tired yet, sire?”
Vitalis stood up, shaking his head. It seemed some of his anger was disappearing into confusion. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“It has to do with everything, will you lay down or not?” Cyra crossed her arms.
Vitalis threw his hands up and laid on his bed. “Well now, I’m having some flashbacks to another time you never hovered over me while I was half asleep.”
Cyra rolled her eyes. “The library, I remember. Now shut your eyes and sleep. Just trust me, this will make a lot more sense in a few moments.”
“I trust you,” Vitalis whispered. He shut his eyes.
After a few minutes of silence, Vitalis’ breathing deepened. Cyra knelt at the bedside, pausing to examine his face.
This man was given the task of being singlehandedly responsible to dismantle an empire wide, demonic cult of a nation he does not have any obligation to.
Cyra hadn’t realized it until she saw how his face had softened and relaxed. He was only twenty one years old. The prince and heir to a sovereign nation, a close confidante to the shah of an empire, was younger than her.
Cyra had been sneaking around, stealing moments with Ano as young lovers, and Vitalis was his country’s only delegate sent to fight for his country’s interests among a pack of wolves.
And he trusted her with his life.
She was the last person worthy of it.
She took his hand and whispered the incantation. Her head slumped against the side of the bed. She surprised herself with the last thought that she desperately wanted to be worthy of it.
* * *
Cyra could tell a lot about a person from the way their dreamscape looked before they took control of it.
Cold, stone castle wall stretched until it the point where it was wielded into a tree. From that point, a dark forest sprawled across the ground off into the distance. Tree roots slid across the ground until the roots gnarled and twisted into metal, and cold cell bars carved through the ground.
Cold wind rustled the trees and their leaves. Dark clouds covered the sky, but a few small sunbeams found their way through the branches every so often.
Vitalis was sitting in the midst of the bars. Cyra took a seat next to him. He smiled when he saw her. “You know, this feels really familiar. Where are we?”
“We are in your mind, Prince Vitalis.” Cyra said. She gestured around her. “Well, we are in what I call a dreamscape. Everyone has one, but without a magic user such as myself, no one can be conscious of it. Right now, because this is the first time you are consciously aware of being here, it is this chaotic half-formed idea of your unspoken personality.”
“So, just being here means you can read me like a book?” Vitalis frowned, leaning forward on his hand.
“From the day I met you, I haven’t been able to read you, Prince Vitalis.” Cyra shook her head, pulling her knees up. “All this tells me is that you are a deeply complex man. You love your home, and it is a large part of you. Vialya is in your blood. Would I be wrong to call you a cold man?”
“Cold?” Vitalis turned so he face her. “Maybe in some ways. There are times when I must be cold and serious especially here among all these men trying to take advantage of me. But, I wouldn’t say that I am a cold man altogether, especially not when it comes to matters of my heart.”
“Yes, your family. That last night in Elista, your mother was awfully worried about you. Well, the others were concerned too, but they aren’t your family,” Cyra said.
“They’re all my family,” Vitalis said. The stretch of ground in front of them shimmered. The scene turned to show the throne room from the night of the assassination. The Sardesi faded into the background, as Vitalis’ focused on Queen Regan, Helmuth, and the scholars.
Vitalis pointed to them. “Did you know all of them helped destroy the demons twenty years ago? They all used to crowd together in my uncle’s cell, the four of them, and Dainan and Mari, and me as a child. They would spend hours thinking and researching and discussing, trying to free Mari. They all are, or some were, my family. Even after it was over, they never left my mother’s side, helping her fix Vialya, helping her raise me.”
Vitalis sent her a curious look. “Are you not also affectionate with your family?”
Cyra frowned. “This is not about me. Ask all the questions you want, but not about my personal life.”
Vitalis raised his hands in a submissive gesture. “As you wish. So I take it to mean this is what you can do with your magic, go into other people’s minds?”
“Only their dreamscape, and only when they are asleep. I can’t read your mind or anything, but I can get a feel for it. But, for the sake of honesty and transparency, I have done this before to you.” Cyra watched for his reaction.
He frowned, furrowing his brow. “I don’t remember it.”
“You won’t. I spoke to you directly and you showed me a memory. You do not recall it because I did not allow you to.” Cyra kept her voice steady, gripping her knees tightly.
“I’m not sure how I should feel about that. What did I show you? Why would you come into my head?” Vitalis asked. The throne room vanished.
“I could not figure you out. I believed you were hiding something, and I was right, I just did not know what it was until recently. I feared Soray was about to grow attached to a dangerous man, a bad man. Your mind showed me the exact memory that would dispel my fears, yet it raised more questions,” Cyra said, shifting slightly.
“The moment you tested me to see if I would save your life.” Cyra held his gaze. “You were horrified, devastated. You wanted me to save your life, yet my injury left you blaming yourself, cursing yourself, almost. It was quite a powerful moment.”
“What does that tell you about me?” Vitalis whispered as a strange light flickered in his eyes.
“It tells me that you’re a good man. So, I must apologize for invading your mind. To be able to do so, is a rare magical gift, and I’m afraid I use it too lightly at times. You will remember this when you wake up, and if you are uncomfortable, I will never enter your mind again. If this breaks your trust in me, I understand and will swear to keep your secrets regardless. I could even talk to Mihrab for you and—”
“Cyra, stop,” Vitalis cut her off. “While I admit the idea of you being in my head without my permission or knowledge makes me uncomfortable, I can’t be too upset with you. You were trying to look out for your cousin. And, it showed you the good in me. Can you honestly say you would have heard me out if hadn’t seen what you did?”
“I would not have listened to you,” Cyra said, bowing her head.
“See? He nudged her with a smile. “I can’t be upset about that, especially when I’m about to ask you to do the same to another man.
Cyra blinked, confused. “I don’t understand you, Prince Vitalis. I don’t believe I ever will.”
“I have faith in you. I hope you will understand me one day,” Vitalis said softly.
Cyra didn’t respond.
They sat together silently, enjoying the peace for a moment. Cyra’s head bobbed as she began feeling the strain of using her magic to hold them both there. “Ready to wake up?”
Vitalis nodded. She spoke the incantation, and they left his mind.
Cyra opened her eyes as Vitalis asked, “And how does this factor into everything?”
Vitalis held up their intertwined hands. Cyra jerked her hand out of his and leapt to her feet. His grin faded. Cyra said coldly, “It is easier to bring someone without magic into their dreamscape by maintaining physical contact with someone who has magic.”
Vitalis climbed to his feet, running a hand through his hair. He hardened his gaze and said, “Good, I imagine your little lover wouldn’t be happy to find you sitting at my bedside.”
“His name is Anoshiruvan. He’s not my ‘lover,’ and even if he was it’s not your business. He’s an important man and should have your respect for his title alone,” Cyra snapped. She started to walk towards the desk when her legs buckled and she wobbled as dizziness tore through her head.
A hand quickly caught her and helped her to a chair. “Cyra, are you alright? What’s wrong?”
Cyra blinked away the black dots in her vision. Vitalis was kneeling in front of her. Cyra sat up, rubbing her head. “Going to the dreamworld takes magic energy, the longer I stay the more it takes, and it doubles if I have to support you as well. I’ll be fine in a moment, it just hit me all at once.”
Vitalis stood up, stepping out of sight for a moment. Cyra took several deep breaths to calm her erratic heartbeat. A glass was placed into her hand, and she saw it was water before she hurriedly drank it.
“So, I guess such a rare, powerful magic does have a cost,” Vitalis said, hovering over her shoulder. “Can I ask you something?”
Cyra shrugged, letting him take the empty glass from her hands. “I suppose you would just ask anyway if I said no.”
“You say he’s not your lover, Ano, so who is he to you?” Vitalis asked quietly.
“I don’t know that I can answer that,” Cyra whispered.
“I think you can.” Vitalis gaze fell to her wrists where her bracelets sat. “I assure you most men do not give women expensive bracelets unless they mean quite a lot to him.”
Cyra ran her fingers over the cool metal. “We’re not in some kind of torrid affair if that’s what you’re trying to imply. I love him, and he loves me.”
As she said that, she couldn’t but doubt it. The other day, she had told him she loved him, but he hadn’t really said it back. Cyra pushed the thought away. She was being ridiculous. Of course Ano loved her! He didn’t have to say it.
She took a deep breath and continued, “No one else knows, not yet. That’s all there is to it, you just happened to be there when I was reunited with him. I haven’t seen him for two years.”
“I see,” Vitalis paced. “You understand that I have to regard him as I would anyone else. Except for you, everyone is still a potential suspect.”
Cyra’s heart shuddered, and she forced her indignation away. “I understand, but I can promise you, you won’t find anything. I’ve known him since birth. I know him better than anyone else in the world.”
“For your sake, I hope that’s true.”